Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

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!

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Originally published in The Valley News

By Haviland Smith
More than two years have passed since a Tunisian man immolated himself and launched what became known as the Arab Spring.  While the changes set in motion by the various uprisings in the Arab world remain works in progress, it might still be revealing to examine the role played by U.S. involvement and foreign policy in shaping events.
It is difficult to convincingly dispute that the Arab Spring was not a direct result of the Bush administration’s catalytic invasion of Iraq. While that war destabilized the region and opened the door to change, it came nowhere close to fulfilling the neoconservative goal that was one of the motives for that invasion: establishing democracy in Iraq, which would then spread to other countries in the Arab world and create a far more friendly environment for Israel. As attractive an idea as it was, it essentially ignored everything that history has taught us about the Middle East and Islam: The belief that democracy will flourish in that region remains little more than an illusion.
But while it is highly unlikely that liberal democracy as practiced in the west will find a home in the Islamic world, it is certainly possible that, under the right conditions, our ideal of democracy ultimately could mitigate some of the more egregious excesses that Westerners tend to see in fundamentalist interpretations and applications of Islam.
Our major problem in the Middle East is that we are absolute captives of our own pre-9/11 foreign policy. During that period, we supported virtually every repressive regime in Islam. Our preoccupation with maintaining stability even led us to covertly interfere with and intervene in countries — Iran, for example — where liberalization looked to be taking hold.
In the process of implementing our policies, we stationed American troops on some of the holiest ground in Islam in direct contravention of Islamic practice, belief and law. In fact, some of our troops remain stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Additionally, in the eyes of most Muslims, we were trouble-making meddlers in the Palestine issue, blindly supporting Israel in every respect, even when it meant we were violating international law. In the process, we have left unsolved a regionally critical problem that has now festered for over 60 years.
Finally, we invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq in what was viewed by Muslims as a continuation of the Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries. In doing so, we began to turn Muslim populations against us in favor of those elements in Islam that we have often found most objectionable.
When the Arab Spring finally arrived, the ill-will we had sown in the region relegated us to the sidelines, with no meaningful role to play. Worse, our support of repressive governments in the Middle East had been a major contributor to the fact that very few groups in the Islamic world had viable experience with governance. Despite their own protestations to the contrary, none were in any way democratic, and none were prepared or equipped to govern democratically.
Groups in the Arab world that do have governing experience include a few non-democratic monarchies, some powerful military establishments and a number of fundamentalist Islamic organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, hardly what we said we were looking for to govern in the region. In fact, through our previous foreign policy of supporting despotic regimes, we had left the area virtually bereft of the potential for any kind of democratic or enlightened rule.
Since 9/11, our combat troops, our network of jails, our “enhanced interrogation” techniques, our drone program and our clear contempt for Arabs as mirrored in our foreign policy have all worked to our disadvantage because they have turned even Arabs who once admired us into our sworn enemies.
Rather than witnessing the establishment of democracy in the Middle East, we are more likely to see the region remain under the sway of the sectarian, royal and military governments with which Arab countries are familiar.
It should be obvious to policymakers at this point that the U.S. would be best off withdrawing combat troops as soon as possible and suspending all other military activities in the region, with the possible exception of special-forces operations and the deployment of intelligence assets in counterterrorism operations. We should focus our efforts on staying involved culturally, diplomatically and economically.
Ten years after the invasion of Iraq and after spending trillions of dollars and setting off a conflict that costs tens of thousands of deaths and casualties, there remains little hope of replacing yesterday’s despots with anything other than today’s. That can’t have been good policy.

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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.


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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.


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This article originally appeared in The Rutland Herald and The Barre Times-Argus. It is the second in a series that began with “Middle East: Cauldron of Conflict” which was published in these papers on December 13, 2012.  The series will consider the Arab Spring, the transfer of democracy to the region and the realities as they evolve in the countries involved.

Voting on the new Egyptian constitution, which was written almost entirely by the Muslim Brotherhood, shows the Brotherhood won. However, with internal dissent evident in the low overall voter turnout of 32.9 percent, and street protests mounting, it is time to take a closer look at the likely ramifications of that divisive win. To do that, it is critical that we understand more about Egypt’s history, what the Muslim Brotherhood is and what it stands for.

Although Egypt has some of the issues of tribe, sect and nation that affect stability in the “countries” of the Middle East created over the past 150 years by Western imperial powers, what is happening there right now has its own very distinctive Egyptian markings.

Since its beginnings before 3000 B.C., Egypt has not avoided repressive rule. The last native Egyptian dynasty fell to the Persians in the fourth century B.C.. Since then Egypt has been ruled by Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. Arabs have ruled only since the seventh century A.D.

Thus, Egypt has not escaped the one reality that dominates the evolving political scene in the Middle East. Since the seventh century A.D., the Egyptian people have no direct, personal experience with democracy, only with the realities of repression, Islam and Sharia law and military dictatorship.

In 2011, the Egyptian people overthrew the military dictatorship that had been in place since 1952, most recently under General Hosni Mubarak. Since 1952, Egypt has no native experience with governance except through military repression. What makes Egypt different from the many other Arab countries that suffered under military dictatorship is that, since 1928, Egypt has had the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood was founded as an Islamist religious, political and social organization. What has made it unique in the Muslim Middle East is that, despite numerous, often brutal, governmental crackdowns, it has functioned as a disciplined political opposition to Egyptian regimes in power. The point is that it has been involved in governance for over 80 years.

That means that when Mubarak was overthrown, the only two organizations with any kind of practical political experience were the Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. It seemed inevitable that one or the other would grab the reins.

Tahrir Square in 2011 was populated by people of widely differing motivation ranging from the rigid Islamist views of fundamentalist Salafists to the rather fuzzy democratic views of the many secular Egyptians who had had some indirect brush with democracy. Unfortunately, the secular forces are untidy, uncoordinated and disunited. The closest they have come to unification, organization and any hope for power has come with the National Salvation Front headed by Muhammad el-Baradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

And while el-Baradei was getting his act together, the Brotherhood was in full swing. Through their new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, it ran in and won the elections of November 2011. Muhammad Morsi, a leading figure in the Brotherhood and chairman of the Brotherhood’s party, ultimately was declared winner of the election and president of Egypt.

Since then, Morsi has acted decisively to consolidate his position. He has, at least for the moment, emasculated whatever hopes the Egyptian military may have had for power. He took over the Constitutional Assembly that wrote Egypt’s future constitution, causing the resignation from that body of virtually all those Egyptians who might have disagreed with the Brotherhood’s position.

Finally, he unsuccessfully tried to arrogate to himself all the powers previously vested in Egypt’s judicial system, effectively neutralizing any possibility that the courts would rule the assembly or its constitution to be illegal. Hardly a democratic process!

The Muslim Brotherhood’s credo was and is, “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

Its principles include the introduction of Sharia law as “the basis for controlling the affairs of state and society”; and to work to unify “Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states, and liberate them from foreign imperialism.” If this represents the true beliefs of President Morsi, then under his rule Egypt would appear to be heading in the direction of sectarian Islamism of an intensity as yet undetermined.

So, the issue is: Will Eqypt be ruled by an ideologically true Muslim Brotherhood, or has Mr. Morsi, only recently a significant player in the Brotherhood, really been able to effect democratic changes as he claims to have done in an organization that for 84 years has been traditionally hostile to the most basic tenets of democracy?

Whatever evolves, Egypt will remain internally divided and difficult to govern until the political needs of all its citizens are more fully considered.

AP FILE PHOTO Thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to attend the funeral of activist Gaber Salah, who was killed in clashes with security forces in November.

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This article originally appeared in The Rutland Herald and The Barre Times-Argus.  It is the lead article of a series that will consider the Arab Spring, the transfer of democracy to the region and the realities as they evolve in the countries involved.

For many Americans, the Middle East is a bewildering and confusing place.   Absent a better understanding of the complicated realities in the Middle East, this situation is likely to continue, since the ultimate outcomes of the Arab Spring are and will remain cloudy for a very long time.

In the 19th and 20th Centuries, when the European colonial powers carved out most of the “countries” that exist in the Middle East today, they divided the entire region to suit their own convenience and for their own profit.  In the process of doing so, they set in concrete the realities that now cause most if not all of the friction, anger and bloodshed that is part of life in today’s Middle East.  There are few countries there that are internally content.

Taking Iraq as an example, and recognizing that it is simply symptomatic of conditions that exist almost everywhere else in the region, we find the following very real sources of domestic conflict in that country of roughly 31 million souls:

Nationalism: Iraq is comprised of 75%-80% Arabs, 15%-20% Kurds, and 5% Turkmen, Assyrian, or “others”.  In this context, it is important to realize that with a total population of about 30 million spread throughout the Middle East, Kurds comprise the largest national group in the world without a country of their own.

Sectarianism: 97% Muslim, Iraq is comprised of 60-65% Shia Muslims and 32-37% Sunni Muslims, with a smattering of “others”.  Again, it is important to understand that although they are the majority and now in charge in Iraq, the Shia before the 2003 US invasion were often brutally ruled by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Iron fist.

Tribalism:  Tribes have long played a critical role in Iraq. The Albu Nasir tribal group, of which Saddam’s “Tikrit” tribe was a member, is one of many tribal groups that played extremely important roles in pre-Arab Spring Iraq and will continue to do so in the future as individual tribal groupings within Albu Nasir contest for power and influence.  In addition to Albu Nasr, there are at least 150 tribes in existence in Iraq, each advocating for the wellbeing of its members.

But those realities aside, who are we to say that our  democracy should override what we think of as the shortcomings of the Koran in which they so devoutly believe?

All of the countries in the Middle East are affected to one degree or another by these three realities of Tribe, Sect and Nation.  These have led both foreign and native governors of the inherently fractious Middle East to maintain order by repressing those conflicts with iron-fisted rule.  During the post World War II period, American policy, dictated largely by our perceived demands of the Cold War, has been to support those repressive regimes, opting for stability in favor of the rights of the governed.

In this respect, one has to wonder why a succession of American administrations has insisted that we are there, “bringing Democracy to the Middle East”.  What could conceivably be more laughable?  Of course the real reason for such pronouncements by Democrats and Republicans alike is that they are trying to reassure an ill-informed American public that the fruits of our American Exceptionalism – Democracy – will somehow make the world right again.

Where it is possible in the very long run, at least many decades from now, that some or all of these countries may somehow evolve into democratic rule, it seems unlikely.  With millions of people who are totally unfamiliar with Democracy and possess few if any of the necessary preconditions for the establishment of Democracy (pluralism, the general right to vote, fair elections, the rule of law, guaranteed human tights for all, separation of powers, freedom of speech, press and religion, good governance and the absence of corruption), it seems highly unlikely that democracy will find fertile ground there.

Instead, we might hope for self-determination; that the people get to select the kind of governance they want.  We will not see democracy flourish.  We will see halting and imperfect steps taken by some good people who seek power for their people and some bad people who seek it for themselves or their causes.  It is likely to be painful and often violent and perhaps brutal, but it will be their own.

Given our recent activities and policies, we have little credibility in the Middle East.  We cannot hope successfully to impose any sort of system on them.

We can only hope to polish up our own rather tarnished “Shining City” to the point where others might want to emulate it.

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Originally published in Sic Semper Tyrannis


The Central Intelligence Agency was born out of American experiences in the Second World War and our anxiety over Soviet intentions and activities in the post war period.


Having had no formal intelligence organization prior to World War Two, the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was put together under the Joint Chiefs of Staff to meet the needs of the war itself.  That meant that the origins of the American intelligence were paramilitary.  The OSS was there, in effect, to fight the war from a paramilitary perspective.  OSS parachuted into occupied Europe and contacted indigenous partisan groups there.  They blew up bridges and dams and other important pieces of European infrastructure.  They were, quite simply, heroes running the unconventional part of our war against the Axis powers.


We came out of that hot war into the Cold War.  Many of the people who had run OSS during the hot war were tapped for leadership roles in the new CIA.  And that was what we got, a management structure whose primary experience was in paramilitary, hot war operations.  And we were facing the entirely new requirement that we produce intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of our enemies in a peaceful environment, a task that was essentially alien to a majority of our managers.


The CIA headed into the Cold War largely unprepared to run the kinds of operations that would be required of it.  The Cold War was an intelligence war of subtleties.  No more hand grenades or parachute drops.  No more paramilitary operations.  No more hot war.  Just the difficult and demanding job of recruiting spies in the Soviet empire and running them in place in hostile environments characterized by pervasive 24/7 surveillance.  We did this with no experienced leadership.  We felt our way, had our share of failures, but ultimately got to the point where we could recruit the kinds of assets we needed and then run them in place in their homelands.


The Cold War ended.  A decade later, we were suddenly post-9/11.  And where did that put us?   Right back in a paramilitary environment without the guidance and experience of all those Second World War OSS veterans who actually knew how to run the needed operations!


So, the twenty-first century edition of the CIA rushed back headlong into paramilitary operations.  Having cut our teeth in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, we now found ourselves back in a kind of role reversal.


According to press reports, that has now morphed into the lead role in the drone business.  CIA, the organization that had to work its tail off to get out of the paramilitary business, is now back in that business in spades.  The real question here is not the alleged validity of the drone program.  It is to question the appropriateness of having it vested in the CIA.


This is not the first time this discussion has emerged.  In the early years of the CIA, two completely separate organizations within the Agency ran intelligence operations.  OSO conducted intelligence collection operations, where OPC was responsible for what remained of the OSS’s psychological and paramilitary operations.  The ultimate decision was that they would be combined with the result that an uneasy relationship existed between them throughout the Cold War.


Those who conducted intelligence collection operations always felt there was a real incompatibility in being lodged in the same organization with those who ran our propaganda and paramilitary operations.


Since its inception, the CIA has been charged with producing intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of its enemies.  To have propaganda operations, and, even more, paramilitary operations, woven into the same organization is not good thinking, however “convenient” it may be.  At best the relationship is uneasy, at worst it is competitive and self-destructive.


An excellent example of this is Pakistan today where, given the realities of Pakistan’s perpetual and dangerous rivalry with a nuclear India, the organization that allegedly flies the hated drones hamstrings itself when it is the same one that is responsible for securing the covert cooperation of important people who are our best hope for learning what’s really going on in that important, nuclear country.


If the US Government must have a paramilitary drone capability, then it should be lodged somewhere in the military establishment or in an organization completely separate from our CIA and its human collection operations.  To put it anywhere in the CIA is risky, foolhardy and ultimately counterproductive, serving neither our covert human collection nor our paramilitary operations.




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