Saturday, December 28, 2013

Governments and peoples

The Middle East suffers from an enormous problem: many nations lack any consensus on how they should be governed.  Shi'ia and Sunni factions contend for power in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and elsewhere.  In Egypt, the military-backed government has just declared the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt's only genuine free election in its entire history, a terrorist organization.  Meanwhile, various states enjoying relative stability, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, are intervening in civil wars elsewhere.  All this reminds me very much of early modern Europe, which I investigated pretty thoroughly back in the 1980s, and it isn't encouraging.  But in the last two days, the Obama Administration has added a new element to the mix.

Sunni extremists, including Al Queda elements, are getting more powerful in much of Iraq, and their bombings are taking an increasingly heavy toll on the majority Shi'ite population.  The Obama Administration wisely decided to get the United States out of Iraq a couple of years ago, and I do not think that a continuing American presence would have helped.  Now, however, the US has decided to come to the aid  What disturbs me deeply is the manner in which we have decided to do so.

A little historical background is in order.  During the 45 years of the Cold War, both sides assumed that conventional war similar to the campaigns of the Second World War might occur at any moment.  They spent billions preparing for it, developed sophisticated weapons, and, crucially, encouraged their regional allies to acquire such weapons as well.  Billions of dollars worth of jet aircraft, tanks, artillery and much more went from the US, the Soviets and other nations to India and Pakistan, Egypt and Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam, and elsewhere.  Occassionally this weaponry was used in local wars.

For the time being--and nothing lasts forever--the age of conventional warfare seems to over.  The conflicts that rule the front pages are waged by insurgents of one kind or another against governments or occupiers, and terrorism has become the weapon of choice.  Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist have also made extensive use of rockets.   From time to time, Israel in Lebanon and Gaza and the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq have tried to deal with such groups with conventional forces.  They generally score temporary successes, but with the exception of the Israelis in the West Bank, no one has been willing to prolong such an occupation indefinitely.  As a result, they have turned to other strategies.

The most common counter-insurgent strategy pursued by the most advanced nations originated in Israel: the use of aerial surveillance and air to ground missiles to kill individual militants.  I don't believe I ever blogged about the excellent Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, which consists of lengthy interviews with retired heads of Mossad, but they described the development of this stragegy and the problems of applying them.  They generally agreed, moreover, that it did not provide any long-term solution to political problems.  And in one particularly chilling moment, one of them mentioned the Israelis had taught Americans these techniques after 9/11.  "I know," he said, "because I saw them."

Drone strikes have now of course become the centerpiece of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  They kill individual militants.  They often kill innocent civilians as well, and from time to time they are based upon faulty intelligence or analysis and kill nothing but innocent civilians.  As in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no evidence that they reduce the supply of militants in the long run. Because they are aimed at militant leadership, they probably make it much harder eventually to negotiate peace.  There is no evidence, in my opinion, that the contribute to building a more peaceful world.

Now it seems that the Cold War precedent is about to be revived in the age of terror.  The United States' response to the resurgent Al Queda and Sunni revolt in Iraq is to supply the Shi'ite government of Nouri Al-Maliki with drones and hellfire missiles.  The Iraqi government will be able to turn them on their own people.  In an atmosphere of long-term religious war, I find it very difficult to believe that they will use better intelligence or more discrimination than the US has, or that this tactic will contribute to peace in Iraq.  And where will this lead?  Will Russia soon be providing similar technology to the Assad regime in Syria? 

Researching my forthcoming book, I found that the leadership of the US government in 1940-1 believed deeply that civilized norms of behavior had to be preserved in international law.  Americans throughout the twentieth century had shared that view, differing only on the degree to which the United States should try to compel observance of the norms in which it believed.  That is why Roosevelt and his Administration designed the UN and other international institutions during the war.  The richest and most domestically peaceful nations still have a responsibility, I think, to try to spread the rule of law.  That is why I think the United States should be leading an international initiative to try to stop a long-term religious war in the Middle East.  It is also why I believe that the United States should not be promoting the use of drones against domestic terrorists as a solution to anyone's domestic political problems. Yet I have not seen one word of protest against the new policy.


tructor man said...

Was it Joe Biden who proposed a few years ago that Iraq be divided into 3 nations: 1 each for Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunnis? It appears he was prescient.
I agree the US, UK etc should take the high road as you suggest, and promote peace and civilized behavior.
Drones are bad policy, and soon they'll be flying over US neighborhoods, billed as "Amazon or FedEx delivery systems" -- that paves the way for NSA drones...

xjsd said...

Has there ever been a period in world history when religion has not been a significant force/factor in world and regional conflict conflict?

ed boyle said...

virtual surveillance by internet or telephone and buggng is one thing. Then there is the police surveillance of dangerous individuals. Satellite espionage is another level. We have millions of video cameras in public places. Except for the NSA none of this is systematic.

Drones could close a gap in the physical surveillance and quick reaction time of security forces to crimes and, in the case of civil wars and similar, to terrorism. Helicopter surveillance is too expensive and obvious to the observed similar to police patrols whereas electronic surveillance of all sorts can be avoided by using drones. Satellites are too high to get details and respond. Drones can observe real time controlled by real people and attack immediately. They can be made cheaply and deployed flexibly in very large numbers. Unlike video cameras or policemen or helicopters they could peek in windows at upper stories surreptitiously and then fly away. Usually you need a spy on the opposite rooftop with special equipment to get that sort of information. Hi-tech small drones could keep an eye on the whole population flexibly and kill as needed or just record conversations to be used in court or interrogations or capture compromising photos to blackmail important people in industry, media, and politics. One could imagine a drone arriving at a robbery scene and demanding that the man drop his weapon And shooting him if he does not comply. Cops´ time and lives could be saved. Poor no-go neighbourhoods could be patrolled safely and crime reduced significantly , reviving commercial and social life, as happened in New York under Giuliani.

We've all seen enough spy films and futuristic stuff like Minority Report to know where this is all going but to see it really mess up our lives is quite another thing. Thank you for bringing this topic up. I was not aware that the US govt. was encouraging the Al Maliki govt. to up the ante against its own opposition by sing drones. Military solutions will generally not be real solutions. Politics wins the day in the end. Suppression creates resistance and a spiral of violence will only increase especially where foreign powers like Saudis or Iran support the opposing sides. Presumably a civil war with new borders in the whole area will ensue as in Ex-Yugoslavia.

Iran is trying to get Shia areas in Saudi Arabia to rebel. This is where the oil is of course in the areas contiguous to southern Iraq and Iran, all Shia areas.

Who is the USA trying to help in the end? Saudis are sunni and help the Al Quaeda by supporting mosques and extreme religious instruction globally. Saudi regime digs its own grave by creating a global religious right wing to be used against its own corrupt despotic royal family as an ideological weapon stronger than any military weapon ever was.
If this is USA partner than they are stupid. If the USA is supporting shia Iraq, this is only long arm of Iran and they, due to the CIA coup in 1953 have a grudge to settle against the USA. Controlling the flow of oil would do fine to destroy the West and their Sunni enemies.

Altogether it seems with increaing technology, opposing ideology and power struggles over oil and land and peoples nobody will win in the end, as in European 30 years relgious wars. Whoever survives,if anyone, will perhaps claim atheism and curse oil.

Perhaps for real change to happen Iran and Saudi Arabia wold have to look like most of Syria does now with millions dead in the cities and teh cities redcued to rbble with all leadership dead and nobody ruling anything anymore but spinter grops creating chaos everywhere until starvation and disease set in. Perhasp as ideology is a native illness to humans and incurable the last man standing will still claim some belief and it will start all over again.