Archive for the ‘foreign policy’ Category

Originally published in The Rutland Herald and in the Barre Times Argus

Since November 4, 1979, when a group of Iranian students took over the American Embassy in Tehran and held its American employees captive for 444 days, America and Iran have been at total odds.

During those 34 years America and Iran have become increasingly mutually hostile.  A succession of American Presidents has instituted crippling sanctions against Iran. The Ayatollahs have responded in every way possible to make our lives increasingly unpleasant by supporting terrorism in the Middle East.  In short, both sides have done just about everything possible to maintain and even increase that level of hostility.

If you toss into the mix the important remaining countries in the Middle East, the situation becomes even more complicated.

Iran has been one of the dominant powers in the region for literally thousands of years.  With that dominance has come a sense of importance.  The Iranians believe they should be real players in their part of the world.

Iran is the largest Shia country in the Middle East.  As such, they are allied with other Shia elements in the almost 14 centuries old blood feud going on with Islam’s Sunnis. There are large Shia minorities in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, Yemen, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

The result is that there has been almost perpetual friction and occasional war between Shia and Sunni.

If you translate these realities into today’s world of P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France plus Germany) negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, you will see immediately that there are a number of countries in Iran’s neighborhood who not only would not like to see Iran with the bomb, but would really like to see the country and it’s inhabitants obliterated simply because they are Shia.

Important Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia see Iran as a direct competitor for hegemony in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East.  Seeing a nuclear Iran as far too powerful a competitor, they would like to have someone (read the USA and/or even Israel) bomb the Iranian nuclear capability into oblivion.

So, the biggest wild cards threatening a successful outcome to these negotiations are the Sunni components in the Middle East and the Israelis who over the past three and a half decades have been constantly threatened by Iran.

In fact, Israel’s Likud Party, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, has pulled out all the negative stops on the ongoing negotiations, telling the world, particularly the US, that the interim deal they have reached is a bad deal, with the clear implication that any negotiated deal at all would be equally bad.  In pursuing this policy they have pushed every pro-Israeli button they could reach, not only here, but also in all the P5+1 countries.

So far, it hasn’t worked as can be seen in the interim agreement just now announced.  Nevertheless, they have not given up.  It is understood that if America or the P5+1 place additional sanctions on Iran, as some American congressmen wish to do, that simple fact will abrogate any agreement.  So, there is still room for Israel to manoeuver to kill this agreement.

Remember, Iran is desperate to end the sanctions.

There is one critical fact must be kept in mind.  If the opponents of this impending peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear problem are successful and Iran proceeds to develop a bomb, then the only alternative policy for the P5+1 is to militarily attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Will the difficult nature of the target require boots on the ground?

First, it has not been proven that Iran even has a nuclear bomb program at this time.  Many western analysts, including many of our own, have agreed on that. In addition, the Ayatollah has issued a fatwa (prohibition) against it.

Second, there is absolutely no guarantee that Iran’s nuclear facilities can be destroyed.  They are largely bunkered far under ground giving them high-level protection.  In addition, their heavy water reactor in Arak, which will produce plutonium useable in atomic weapons, will soon be un-bombable as it’s destruction would widely spread lethal radioactivity.

There is no such thing as a perfect agreement, but this one looks pretty favorable for the US.  The Iranian program will be stopped at a point of our choosing. All of the concessions we have made can be unilaterally reinstated if we feel the Iranians are not keeping their end of the bargain.  Further negotiations will continue with the aim of negotiating away any Iranian ability to create nuclear weapons.

A final thought:  The Iranians are anything but stupid.  The bomb is only valuable if it is not used.  They know that if they were to create and use a bomb, their country would be wiped off the map.


Read Full Post »

Originally appeared in The Rutland Herald

It’s hard to believe that anyone save the most rabid republicans, could have watched the goings on in the White House over the past few weeks and not be horribly disappointed in what has been revealed.


In less than a month, we have been informed that President Obama was unaware of the fact that the NSA was listening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, as well as the phones of thousands and thousands of other friends and allies, or that the Affordable Care Act’s internet roll-out in early October was facing crippling problems and that more related problems would be revealed almost daily thereafter.


Something is gravely wrong here.  Either the President/White House is lying, or it is not in control of the Executive Branch of our government.  Either way, the situation is unacceptable.


The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is President Obama’s most important legislative initiative.  It may well prove to be the foundation of his presidential legacy.  Given those facts plus the energy and attention he has paid to Obamacare and its implementation, the premise that he was not aware of the problems well in advance is simply unacceptable.  If he was aware, then his action in going ahead with the roll-out before it could be a guaranteed success was incomprehensible and inexcusable.


Of course, the other possibility is that the President’s staff did not keep him informed on the incipient problems.  If that’s true, then heads should roll, but none have.  How could a President sit idly by and not be intimately involved in his most important legislative initiative?


The third possibility is that the President simply does not have control over either the White House or the Executive Branch.  That could only be explained by the White House’s lack of experience in Washington.  For a President to be successful in this country he and his staff have to be on top of everything of any importance that’s going on in the government, particularly any issues that are directly threatening to the President himself.


Which brings us to Mr. Snowden, the former NSA contractor, and his revelations about American electronic intercepts.  First, for those readers who see him as some sort of admirable or heroic whistle blower, it seems more likely that his efforts will prove to be highly traitorous.   Only time will give us a definitive answer, but there is every likelihood that what he has done will prove to be one of the most devastating reverses ever suffered by our intelligence community.  In the process of telling our enemies precisely what we do, he will aid them immeasurably in helping them defeat our efforts to protect ourselves.


The first question one must ask is how an employee of a private US firm which contracted to the NSA got such incredibly broad access to extremely sensitive information.  At a minimum, existing clearance and access procedures need to be carefully examined by our security experts.


The root issue here is not when the President got to know about NSA’s programs, the issue is whether or not he was ever informed at all.  If he was informed, say about Chancellor Merkel, then he most certainly should have put a halt not only to that effort, but to all other efforts targeting the leadership of our important foreign allies.  When it comes to risk vs. gain, there would seem to be little argument in this and other similar cases in support of gain.  Only a President could make that kind of judgment.


The other possibility, however remote, is that his staff was aware of these NSA programs and chose not to inform him.  If that proves to be the case, then the responsibility still lies at the foot of the President. The first question any incoming President has to ask the leaders of his intelligence community is whether or not they are doing anything at all that, if made public, could seriously damage our security or our standing in the world.  At that point, risk vs. gain kicks in and any president is left with the choice of whether or not to continue the program.


In one month, we have seen two such programs, one that has damaged the President and the other our standing in the world.  As the President himself has said, quoting Harry Truman, “The buck stops here”.  And it really does.  And in doing so, it has made the President and the White House look like amateurs.

Read Full Post »

Originally published in the Valley News

President Obama tells us he is in the process of deciding what measures, if any, the United States will take against Syria. This decision is based on a number of as yet unproven assumptions that are now being investigated by the UN.


Nevertheless, we are told that the Obama Administration will not necessarily wait for the results of the ongoing UN technical inspection of the site in question or for the formal agreement of our allies on a future course of punitive action, but that it feels free to act unilaterally whenever it pleases, with or without Great Britain.


We are told unequivocally that the Assad regime used the gas.  But what if it was the rebels?  The result of the gassing is likely to be American military action.  Who in Syria benefits from that?  Certainly not the Assad regime which, consensus says, already is winning the civil war.  Only the rebels could benefit and then only in direct proportion to the severity of our action.


In the meantime, just to further set the scene, the British have moved warplanes to Cyprus.  The US has four destroyers standing off the Syrian coast.  On the other side of the ledger, the Russians are moving warships to the Mediterranean basin.  Hezbollah has stated its readiness to become involved in any future military action against us.  Iran fully supports Hezbollah.


Our president proposes to “punish” the Syrians for the use of chemical weapons, not to weaken or destroy the Syrian military establishment.  He and his spokespeople have said a number of times that the purpose of what we finally do, whatever that may turn out to be, will not be regime change.


It all sounds sort of like trying to spank a lion.


We have spanked lions in the past, never to our ultimate benefit.  We have seen Pan Am 103 and the bombing of the Berlin nightclub as poignant examples of our inability to foresee or prevent retaliation against us for the kind of activity we are now contemplating for Syria.  And given the realities of geography, all we represent in the Middle East is a target rich environment.  With our diplomatic, business and educational assets spread out all over the region, they have more targets than any angry adversary could possibly need or want.


Obama, stuck with his ill-conceived Syrian red line, has nothing but bad options.  Option number one seems to be a slap on the wrist – something to persuade the Syrians never to use chemical weapons again.  What conceivable good will that do us, or more importantly, those Syrian rebels who do not support Assad?  What they want is American action that will destroy the Syrian regime’s ability to beat them.  A Syria-wide no-fly zone would be to their liking, or pervasive missile attacks on Syria’s military hardware.  Further, there is no reason to think that anything as minimal as this would bother Assad in any way.  Obviously, the deaths of this own people is of little concern.  The only thing that matters to him and his followers is the perpetuation of their own power which will not be threatened by such a slap.


Option number two is to undertake military action that is so destructive that the rebels will be able to defeat the Assad government.  What does that accomplish for us when we have little to no idea of what will follow Assad in power.  Will Al Qaida be in the mix?  Will today’s rebels turn on the Alawites in retaliation for Assad’s ongoing bloodbath.  Will that cause us to consider what we can do to save those same Alawites?


And, worst case scenario, will our action against Syria, whatever it proves to be, result in broader, more intense regional conflict?


Finally, it can be argued seriously that Syria and what goes on there is of no national strategic interest to us.  Those who call it a humanitarian duty to intervene fail to explain why we have not done so when thousands have been killed in their own African countries.   Given recent oil developments in the Western Hemisphere, there is no rational argument for national interest there, but then there never has been simply because oil is a fungible commodity that people who produce it will inevitably sell it to those who consume it.  Finally our decade long involvement in military activity in the region has ended whatever vestiges of influence we have left after decades of bashing the Arabs.


An American dog may well get mauled in this fight!


Read Full Post »

Originally published in Rural Ruminations

Current events in Egypt represent a perfect example of contemporary Middle East reality.  Irrespective of these dynamics in Egypt, the practical question for us Americans is whether or not the White House and the Congress are able to understand those realities and create viable foreign policy for the region.  This is extremely important because, with both minor and major differences, events in Egypt are likely to repeat throughout the Middle East in the post Arab Spring era.

The root issue here is that there is virtually no practical experience in the Middle East with the conduct of democracy.  Our media currently rant and rave about the fact that Egypt’s President Morsi is “the first democratically elected President of Egypt”, implying that that designation is somehow vitally important.

And so he is the first.

The problem for Morsi and Eqypt is that “democratic elections” have little if anything to do with the ultimate pursuit of democracy in any given country.  For democratic elections to result in democratic practices, any given country has to already have the critical underpinnings of democracy which are: the active, unfettered participation of the people, as citizens in political and civic life; national and regional tolerance of pluralism; free and fair elections; the general and equal right to vote (one person, one vote); the rule of law – unbiased courts; a guarantee of basic human rights to every individual person vis a vis the state and its authorities as well as any social groups (especially religious institutions) and other persons; separation of powers: Executive, Legislative and Judicial; freedom of speech, opinion, press and religion; and, finally, good governance (focus on public interest and absence of corruption).

When those critical preconditions do not exist, there is no reason to expect a successful transition to liberal democracy.  How many such preconditions do you think exist in the Middle East?

In post-Mubarak Egypt there are only two entities that have any experience with leadership and governance – the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Neither of those organizations represents anything “democratic”.  Further, today’s events indicate that there are vast numbers of Egyptians who support neither. They are the good folks on Tahrir Square.  The only thing they support is the fact that without the ongoing intervention of the military, they would have no hope of deposing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.  A poll on July 3 indicated that 83% of Egyptians approved of the intervention of their military in the domestic affairs of their country!

Despite that, they know that they do not like governance by the Egyptian military – they tossed them out when the military assumed power after the downfall of Mubarak.  And they are perhaps even more nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood who seem to them not to have sufficiently taken into account their (democratic/secular?) goals in the process of governing Egypt for the past year.

The problem is that there is no cohesion within this “Tahrir” group.  What do they stand for?  Who are their leaders?  Do they agree on anything?  Just what do they want for the future of Egypt, of the Middle East and Islam?

And the fact is that we have no answer to those questions.  If Egypt is to move forward toward Democracy, they will have to find a way to democratic, secular coalitions that spring from the “Tahrir” movement.  So far, there has been no indication of cohesion other than that they oppose the only two groups that represent the theoretical ability to govern that country – the Brotherhood and the military.

And that’s not good enough.  Successful democratic governance cannot successfully rely on opposition to familiar former repressive governments.  It has to have positive motivation from its own ideals.  Without that, any so-called democratic movement is bound to fail.

So, where does that leave us?  You could say we are up a creek without a paddle. The fact is that there is almost nothing we can do to alter the dynamics of politics in Egypt and most of the rest of the Middle East. What will happen there will happen there.  There will almost certainly be a longish period of instability, but there will be little we can do to alter that.

Given our precarious economic situation and our discontent with our own foreign military interventions, it seems unlikely that we will successfully change anything.

Perhaps the best thing for us is to sit back and see where the Egyptians decide to go.  Ultimately, there will be self-determination.  It won’t be pretty, but there won’t be much we can do to change things.


Read Full Post »

Originally published in The Valley News



On the heels of al-Qaida’s 9-11 attacks on the U.S., neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration believed that the establishment and spread of liberal democracy in the Middle East would counterbalance the alarming anti-American hostility of jihadists’ radical Islam. Not only would America become safe once again, they thought, but Israel’s security would be measurably strengthened.


When we invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq, it was clearly with the intention of creating democracies in those states, with the expectation that  democracy would flourish and spread throughout the Islamic Middle East. Unfortunately, the neoconservatives implemented this policy without having the foggiest notion of whether or not it would work.


It didn’t.  And to be completely honest, there were no real reasons to think that it would or should have worked. No, the neocons simply had it all wrong. Given a real choice, the people in the Islamic world will always choose the Koran, and that is no model for liberal democracy.


The Middle East is and always has been one vast array of uneasy, hostile, competing groups. In the past, that hostility has been kept pretty well under control by a long succession of powerful and repressive regimes that simply told the hostile parties that violence wouldn’t be tolerated. Thus the inherent tension and probability for violence among competing ethnic and sectarian groups was successfully suppressed for centuries by both native and occupying governments.


In addition, foreign conquerors, particularly Western colonialists, remade much of the region in their own image, creating new “nations” wherever they went. Unfortunately, they did so with absolutely no consideration of the existing ethnic and sectarian realities.


So, we ended up with “countries” such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Sudan, where the ethnic and sectarian rivalries and hostilities acquired permanence by their groupings within the boundaries of the new “states.”


While the divisions exist to some extent everywhere in the Middle East, Iraq is a glorious example of the ineptitude of the Westerners who created it in 1920. It contains Arabs hostile to Kurds and Sunnis hostile to Shiites. All of the groups have external supporters: The Sunnis have Saudi Arabia, the Shia have Iran, the Kurds have their brethren in Turkey, Syria and Iran, and the Iraqi Arabs have the Arab world.


In terms of its own stability, Iraq did perfectly well as long as it was governed by an authoritarian  government. The inherent ethnic and sectarian hostilities that have existed for centuries, if not millennia, were kept in check by the armed power of a succession of central governments.


In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq for all the questionable reasons cited above. The net effect of that invasion was that the U.S. military replaced Saddam Hussein and his Baath government as the coercive force that kept internal hostilities under control. Except, of course, for the fact that we did not really understand the nuances of those relationships and didn’t do very well at that new job. When we announced our intention to withdraw from Iraq and then ceased hostilities there in 2011, Iraq was left for the first time in a long time with no referee. And sectarian violence has steadily increased since.


The same is true in much of the Middle East. The absence of those old undemocratic, repressive referees tamping down ages-old hostilities has led inexorably to increased ethnic and sectarian hostility. Across the Arab world from Mauritania to Oman, populations are challenging their existing repressive leadership, except that the goal of those people is not the establishment of democracy. It is self-determination, and in Islam that ranges from relatively benign Islamic governance to radical fundamentalism. Who knows, for example, what will happen in Syria, where what originally appeared to be a civil war against the Assad regime is looking more and more like a Shia-Sunni regional conflict with the involvement of Iran, Lebanon and Hezbollah.


In our naive belief that we could bring democracy to the Middle East, we set in motion a process that has no clear outcome — save for the eventuality of Islamic governance. Only time will tell whether that governance will be benign or repressive. Until then, we will most certainly see rising ethnic and sectarian conflict across the region, simply because the referees who once maintained a relative stability are now gone. Will the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Shia rulers of Iraq be able to avoid the oncoming hostilities? For that matter will there be stability anywhere in the region or are we heading for broader regional conflict?


We certainly have ripped the lid off Pandora’s box!

Read Full Post »


Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

When the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, Americans were given sequential reasons for that decision.  We were told that Iraq was full of Al Qaida terrorists, even though no such terrorist could conceivably have survived under Saddam Hussein.  We were told that Iraq was full of WMD.  There was poison gas and nuclear weapons.  None of this proved to be true.

What was never explicitly said at the time was that we were invading Iraq in order to turn it into a democracy.  That democracy would then be the model for the rest of Islam.  The flourishing of democracy in Islam would make the Middle East a safer place for Israel.  And that was the key reason behind the invasion – increasing Israel’s security.

This was not the first time that Americans had thought of the democratization of Islam.  Many knowledgeable US government experts on the region had seen it as worth consideration. However, in the end, based on the realities as they existed in Islam, that idea had been rejected.  Parenthetically, it is of minor historical interest to note that even when the idea was popular, Iraq was the last country in Islam thought by our experts to be susceptible to such democratization.

The lack of suitability of so many Islamic Middle East countries for democratization is part of the DNA of the region.  The issues that surround regional nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism are, at least for the foreseeable future, so great as to make democratization, at best, problematical.

Nevertheless, we did commit American troops to bringing down Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  In doing so, we precipitated a number of inevitabilities.  Saddam was not beloved by his people. When we removed him and his supporters, we created a situation in which our troops, the “foreign invaders”, became the surrogates for Saddam’s repressive troops.  American troops maintained the order.  Where we thought we were involved in a liberation, we soon found ourselves in an insurgency against our presence.

The same became true as we lingered on in Afghanistan.  Afghanis, who never loved the Taliban, retreated into their tribal mode and turned against us in an insurgency.  All of a sudden, in both Iraq         and Afghanistan, we were fighting insurgencies rather than hunting terrorists, primarily because we were the foreigners.  When an indigenous population has to choose between it’s own “bad guys” and foreign “bad guys”, even though they may not actively support their own, chances are they will not help the foreigners at all. A successful  counterinsurgency requires at least local passivity, and preferably some cooperation.

According to American counterinsurgency doctrine, in order to successfully deal with an insurgency, the counterinsurgents  (the USA) must commit 25 combat soldiers for every 1000 people in the local population.  That would have required around 850,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and an equal number in Iraq, an impossible commitment for us to seriously consider.

Most countries that have dealt with terrorism believe for the reasons outlined above that terrorists should never be confronted militarily, but rather should be dealt with as a criminal matter using police, intelligence and special forces.

The decision to use the term “War on Terror” was a major mistake as it misdirected most of our counterterrorism activities.

The first thing we need to do in the Middle East is decide precisely why we are there.  What is there in our national interest that should be driving our policies?    We are not in the process of installing democracy in that region.  The absolute best we can logically hope for is stability through self-determination.   Beyond that, it is reasonable to hope for a moderate Islam.  Only a tiny fraction of Muslims are fundamentalists.  With real self-determination, it is reasonable to hope that Muslims will elect moderates.  And that should be our goal – the election of moderate Muslim regimes.

After a dozen years of military activity, America has little credibility in the region.  Some of that credibility can be restored with the removal of our uniformed troops and the cessation of hostilities.  The simple absence of drone activity would be a tremendous help.

With our troops gone and our military activities ended, we will regain the opportunity to use all the other available foreign policy tools:  diplomacy, propaganda, covert action, police, liaison with indigenous organizations and economic activity.

We might even get back to the greater level of respect and admiration we enjoyed last century.


Read Full Post »

Originally published in Rural Ruminations

Iran appears outwardly to be a relatively stable Middle East country.  The Ayatollahs, backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, look to be firmly in charge.  The only thing that would appear to challenge that notion of stability are the protests that took place after the 2009-2010 election.

What does the future hold for Iran.  Is it a candidate for democratization or moderation?  For a number of reasons, Iran is worthy of examination in the wake of the Arab Spring

First, despite external appearances, Iran has an extraordinarily pro-western population.  Remember, they are Indo-Europeans, not Arabs.  They have long admired western culture and commerce.  The average Persians on the street have comparatively paltry beefs with America, primarily because, unlike other Middle East countries, they have not seen American troops or weapons on Iranian soil this decade.  They are legitimately angry that in 1953 we engineered the covert overthrow of the only elected government they have ever had and because today’s international sanctions, seen appropriately as American sponsored, severely hurt the man on the street, not the leadership.

On the positive side and whether we like it or not, our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq plus our increased military involvement across the region (Libya and Syria) have greatly benefitted Iran.

Iran sees the Taliban as an enemy, so all our Afghan counterinsurgency operations are of potential benefit to them. However, most important, our ouster of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq has removed Iran’s most powerful and hostile regional enemy and replaced his regime with a pro-Iranian Shia government.

At 636,000 square miles, Iran is the 18th largest country in the world.  It has a population of 75,000,000 of whom two thirds are Persian and two thirds are under thirty-five.  Iran’s rate of literacy is over seventy-five percent and sixty-seven percent of university students are women.  Iran produces one quarter of the world’s oil and is repository for two thirds of the world’s crude oil reserves.  They have all the tickets to be a major player in their region.

In terms of the ongoing impediments to political moderation, Iran is in pretty good shape.  Over ninety percent of Iranians are Shia, while less than ten percent are Sunni.  In terms of nationalities, two thirds are Persian with the largest minority found in Azerbaijanis at sixteen percent.  As Aryans (non-Arabs), tribes play a far lesser role than they do in most of the rest of the Middle East.  Thus, the pressures and divisive problems created by Nationalism, Sectarianism and Tribalism are greatly reduced.

In any examination of discussion of Iran it is extremely important to know some Iranian/Persian history.  Settlements in Iran date to 7,000 BC.  The first Persian kingdom existed in the third century BC and around 500 BC, the Persian Empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River.  It was the greatest empire of its time and made major contributions to Art and Science.

This kind of history affects peoples’ attitudes.  Iranians have a real sense of who they are.  They are educated, thoughtful, smart, clever and nationalistic and have a very good understanding of how the world works.

Why would the Iranians want to develop nuclear weapons, if, in fact, that is what they are doing?  Largely because ownership of the bomb would be a virtual guarantee that they would not be attacked by any conceivable enemy.  Iranians want the bomb simply because having it, as opposed to using it, is power incarnate.

Additionally, they almost certainly believe that the bomb will bring them the respect they feel is due them as a power in the region. In that context they have everything else they need to gain that respect and influence.

Iran was a player in the Cold War and understands how the West dealt with the Soviet threat. The Iranians understand MAD. They know that if they were to acquire the bomb, any use they might make of it — say, against Israel or some other American friend in the region — would result in the obliteration of their country.

In short, like all today’s members of the nuclear club, they know that the bomb is useful only as a threat. It is essentially useless as a weapon because its use leads inevitably to self-annihilation.

All of that aside, the best reason America has to forget an attack on Iran and undertake a dialog with them is that only an attack by America, with or without Israel, can unite the population behind the regime.  Absent that, they will always represent festering potential trouble for the Ayatollahs.


Read Full Post »

Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, a course of action was started that has left the United States virtually without influence today in that important “country”.

The probable intention of the Bush administration, heavily influenced as it was by the neoconservatives who populated it, was to create an Arab democracy which could be emulated by other Arab nations. That would create and encourage a democracy-dominated environment that would make the region safer for Israel.

What the Bush Administration either was too ill-informed to know, or refused to acknowledge was that Iraq was the absolute least likely candidate in the Middle East for the installation of democracy.  Sad to say, Iraq contains in superabundance, all those elements that make democracy problematic:  Nationalism, Sectarianism and Tribalism.

Iraq, a “country” of 31 million people, is composed of around 75% Arab, 20% Kurd and 5% Assyrian, Turkoman and others.  It is important to note that Iraq’s better than half million Kurds are a part of an overall Kurdish regional population of 30 million, giving them a non-Arab support base outside Iraq.   They are “not alone”.  Their geographic location next to large Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria and Iran is important as it gives them regional national allies and a sense of belonging not shared by other national minorities in the region.

Iraq remains a strongly tribal state.  When law and order break down, as it has in Iraq today, and populations increasingly fear for their safety and well-being, people tend to return to their most basic social units, the groups from which they stem and with which they feel safe.

Of the roughly 150 tribes in Iraq, two dozen dominate.  Most of the tribes and their subordinate clans and families are grouped into tribal federations.  Even though tribalism generally has been discouraged since the Baath Party came to power in 1968, it was often encouraged during the war with Iran in the belief that it helped hold the Iraqi people together against a common enemy.

The greatest problem that today’s Iraq has to face is Sectarianism.  Muslims comprise about 97% of Iraq’s population.  Those Muslims are roughly 65% Shia and 35% Sunni.  The remaining 3% of the population contains a smattering of “Christians and others”.  Repressive foreign and native rule over the past 14 centuries has been the only thing that has prevented the Shia and Sunnis from killing each other.  Absent that coercion, as we see today, the killing is almost incessant.

The Baath Party, a Sunni organization, ruled Iraq from its coup in 1968 until the 2003 American invasion.  It is interesting to note that during that entire period, many Sunnis really believed that they represented a majority of the Iraqi people.  Such Iraqi Sunnis have been amazed to hear and often unwilling to believe that the real majority is the Shia population, clinging to the premise that they are the rightful rulers of Iraq.

Iraq is rich in oil.  There are oilfields in Shia southeastern Iraq and in Kurdish northeastern Iraq, leaving the Sunnis with mostly desert.  Oil ownership is one of the major issues involved in today’s negotiations between the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds.  When you think of Iraq, its ongoing sectarian violence and its prospects for the future, remember that the Sunnis who once had all the power and all the resources, now have a large patch of sand.  Unsurprisingly, they are said to be running death squads against the Shia with sharply increasing regularity.

Iraq is now trying to negotiate its way into stability.  Unfortunately, the Shia under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are playing real hardball.  It is clear that after decades of political, economic and physical mistreatment by the Sunnis, they have little interest in compromise or fairness.  Add to that the meddling of Shia Iran in Iraqi affairs at the expense of Sunnis and Kurds and prospects become more bleak.

And while the realities of Sectarian conflicts persist, Iraq bubbles along with periodic acts of sectarian and nationalist violence and terrorism while apparently trying to create conditions that will permit Iraq to remain on the scene as a cohesive “country”.

Unfortunately, this goal seems unlikely at best.  The Kurdish-Arab differences are bad enough, but when added to the Sunni-Shia rivalry and their propensity toward violence, the only logical, peaceful end in sight is the division of Iraq into its component parts.

We could very well see Kurdish, Shia and Sunni “countries” evolve out of today’s Iraq.  However, with the possible exception of the Kurds, there is nothing in Iraqi history or culture that could lead a rational observer to hope for democracy there.  Moderate Islam is about the best we can hope for, a new dictatorship, the worst.

Read Full Post »

Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus


Bahrain is comprised of a group of islands located near the Western shore of the Persian Gulf. Given its physical location and local political reality, Bahrain has been ruled primarily by successive Persian empires since well before the birth of Christ.

What makes Bahrain different from all of its Persian Gulf neighbors is the fact that it is home to US Naval Forces Central Command and the US Fifth Fleet at Naval Support Activity Bahrain (NSA Bahrain).   Initially begun as a modest support activity to the smallish US Naval presence in the Gulf when the British left Bahrain in 1971, it is currently undergoing over a half billion dollar expansion which will double its current 62 acres and seriously upgrade its security and its ability to support Fifth Fleet Gulf operations.

The Fifth Fleet normally consists of around 20 ships, with about 1,000 people ashore and 15,000 afloat.  It usually contains a Carrier Battle Group, an Amphibious Ready Group, combat aircraft, and other support units and ships.

NSA Bahrain is designed to play a major support role in all naval operational activities in the Gulf, particularly in tactical air support of ground operations in Syria, Iran or elsewhere, should America decide to become militarily further involved in the Middle East.

Bahrain became independent of England in 1971.  Geographically situated as it is, 120 miles due south of Shia Iran, there is small wonder that Sectarian issues exist because the Muslim share which is about 82% of the population, is comprised of 70% Shia and 30% Sunni.

Nationally, they are even more diverse.  In an overall population 1.2 million, Bahrainis are in the minority at 46%, with 54% non-native, primarily Sunnis.  Of those non-natives, “other Arabs” comprise 5.4%, Africans 1.6%, Asians 45.6%, Americans 0.4%, and Europeans 1.0%.  From these facts, it is clear that the labor demands of the nation far exceed the available workers.

The Al Khalifa royal family has ruled Bahrain since the late 18th century.  Virtually all important government jobs are held by members of that royal Sunni family, specifically and importantly including all the security and police organs.  It is widely charged in Bahrain that many if not most of those forces are non-native mercenaries.

Significant civil protests begin in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, with Bahrainis calling for greater political freedom and fairer treatment of the majority Shia population by the minority Sunni government. The government reacted swiftly, repressively and brutally to what were essentially peaceful demonstration.  Security forces killed and wounded indiscriminately during these early protest marches, demonstrations and funerals, and arrested thousands of Bahrainis.

These early protests cooled a bit when an investigative body, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, sanctioned by the government, confirmed the Bahraini government’s use of systematic torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse on detainees, as well as other human rights violations.

Since that time, Bahrain has been in a state of sustained civil resistance and disobedience, most recently over the death of a protestor, and more protests are expected for the imminent second anniversary of the 2011 uprising. This has left the country in a state of turmoil for over two years despite the beginning of talks between Shia and Sunnis designed to find a way out of the various demands being made against the Bahrain government.

Bahrain has all the ingredients that foster insecurity in the Middle East.  Most important among those is the fact that Bahrain is ruled by a minority Sunni Government under the nose of Shia Iran.  The potential for Iran to make mischief is almost limitless in Bahrain, particularly given the presence there of the US Fifth Fleet.

Further, where tribalism does exist, it is almost overridden by the large numbers of foreigners who live and work for the relatively high wages available in Bahrain.  Those foreigners represent an additional wild card in the event of greater turmoil in Bahrain.

Most important, Bahrain is the home away from home for the US Fifth Fleet which does all its bunkering and support work at NSA Bahrain.  The Fifth Fleet would carry a critical load in any further hostilities in the region. Because any such hostilities are likely to be based on sectarian issues, the fact that half the Bahrain population is Shia, politically discontent and religiously aligned with and friendly to Iran, could create enormous security problems for the Fifth Fleet.


Read Full Post »

First Published in the Barre Times-Argus and the Rutland Herald

Lebanon is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on the face of the earth with evidence of human activity going back over 7,000 years.

Probably because of its topography, which features wild 10,000 foot mountains, Lebanon has a large supply of defensible sites for towns and villages.  In the Fourth Century, Christianity began to spread in the region. Roman persecution of it saw the movement of those Maronite Christians into the Lebanese mountains where they survived first the Romans and then the Muslims and thrive to this day.

Lebanon’s population of about 4 million is divided at about 95% Arab and 4% Armenian, although it should be noted that many of Lebanon’s Christians prefer not to be classified as “Arabs,” but rather to be called “Phoenicians”.

Religiously very diverse, the Lebanese are 60% Muslims (30% Shia, 24% Sunni and 5% Druze) and 40% Christians (21% Maronite, 8% Greek Orthodox and 7% Greek Catholic).

Lebanese populations often live in religious communities, which are not unlike some of the tribal societies that one finds in other Arab countries.  More often referred to as clans or families, these groups often have their own armed gangs that pursue clan interests.  It is said that having once totaled over 80 such tribes, the number is now down to between 30 and 35.

In addition, Lebanon is home to roughly a half million Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel with half of them living in refugee camps plus a quarter million Syrian refugees from the ongoing Syrian fighting, all of which is potentially destabilizing.

Syrian and Lebanese histories have been so intertwined over the centuries that many Syrians have considered Lebanon to properly be a part of greater Syria.  This has led to a pattern of active Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs, including the effective occupation of that country from 1976 until 2005.

Most important, Lebanon is also home to Hezbollah, a Shia Islamic political party and militant group that has waged almost continuous war against Israel since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  Hezbollah was inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and has consistently called for the destruction of the state of Israel.  It is supported militarily by Iran and politically by Syria. The trio of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has sought to deter or contain Israeli attacks while challenging U.S.-Israeli hegemony in Lebanon.

On short notice, Hezbollah can mobilize hundreds of thousands of demonstrators supporting its various causes and is said to be able to field fighting forces of 10,000 men.  It has enough seats in the Lebanese Government to give it veto power over government operations.  It runs its own social and medical services, TV and radio stations for its Shia adherents.  In short, Hezbollah is a government within a government.

Lebanon is by its very nature at the mercy of its environment.  Its demographics and geographic location make it about as involuntarily vulnerable to events in the Arab world as could possibly be.  The lion’s share of that vulnerability results from its close proximity of Israel and the presence in Lebanon of Hezbollah.

As the primary enemy of most of the Arab world, Israel is continuously targeted by one Arab group or another.  It started with the Palestine Liberation Organization and continues today with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Lebanon has the great misfortune to be sandwiched in between Israel and Syria.  As both Syria and Lebanon have significant Shia populations and because Hezbollah is supported by the Shia government in Syria as well as by Shia Iran, Lebanon is the focus for Arab paramilitary ground activity against Israel. In the case of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War, consensus says there was no real winner, not a bad result for a ragtag militant group against a powerful military nation.

In addition to the hundreds of rockets it regularly rains down on Israel, it is reported that Hezbollah has at least 100 ground-to-ground rockets that can reach Tel Aviv.  Syria has one of the largest stores of chemical weapons in the Middle East.  It is also now being reported that Syria, should the Assad regime be forced out of power, might be persuaded to give some of that Chemical WMD to Hezbollah to be mounted on those rockets, an act totally unacceptable to Israel.

The mere possibility that that even might happen underlines the fact that the Middle East, in this case Lebanon with all its national, tribal and sectarian instabilities, is on the edge of chaos virtually all the time, chaos that could easily engulf the entire region.


Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »