Words from God, Lessons for Man

This past week, I was visiting the United Kingdom (still United, thank goodness), to attend a conference at Cambridge University.

While there, I also took a trip north to York University to do some historical study.

While there, I stayed in the old walled city of York.  One evening, I attended an Evensong choir service at the magnificent York minster Cathedral.  There, dwarfed beneath the tallest tower and the widest nave of any medieval church in Europe, I listened to two very apt readings from scripture.

The first was from the book of Job, in which Job wails about the misery he is experiencing without reason.  Job tells us that God brings misery to the just and terrible losses to good men and women, because He can do so.  The second was from the gospels, detailing the crucifixion of Christ and his suffering — again the suffering of a good man who had done nothing to deserve such a fate.

So the world is full of suffering, even among good people, and God will do nothing to prevent it.  A horrible, depressing pair of readings, really.  And with the four horseman of the apocalypse loose in the world – Ebola (pestilence) in Africa, war in the Middle East, famine (from drought) again in the Sahel, and death visible as never before (live on YouTube–beheadings!) – they seemed all too apt.

Yet the message of these texts really is that it is up to us to deal with the terrible turns of fate that inevitably arise, and try to make something out of the challenge and suffering that redeems them.  Whether you believe that Christ actually came back, or that Job’s life really had a happy ending (some scholars believe that was tacked on like a change in editing in a Hollywood movie), what is clear is that we have to continue to make our own efforts to bring closer a world where suffering by good people will be rare or not occur.

In that context, President Obama’s speech today at the UN was extraordinary.  He did not shy away from calling to account all those who contribute to suffering by good people — whether a faceless virus that the US will try to fight, or radical clerics encouraging people to hate and kill, or states that invade their neighbors.  He didn’t sell the task short:  He took on the big historical issue, pointing out that only resolving Sunni-Shi’a conflicts, even if that takes a decade, is the only way to “stop the madness” of continued cycles of violence.

At the same time, Obama didn’t exaggerate the ability, role, or purity of the US.  He pointed to our own racial conflicts, and rightly said the only thing that separates us is that we have transparent media, laws that work, and hold leaders accountable in ways that allow us to gradually move closer to our ideals.

This is potentially a turning point for the Middle East and North Africa. If the various religious conflicts in the region can be diminished, it could be comparable to the ending of the Wars of Religion in Europe in the 17th century — which by the way kicked off the Enlightenment, scientific advance, religious pluralism and eventually the birth of the United States.  So this is a big, big goal, worth all the time and effort it will take to pursue.

Obama ended his speech by saying that peace begins close to home, in people’s neighborhoods, schools, and work.  This morning, driving to my Metro stop in suburban Virginia, I passed a school bus picking up children.  There was a tall blond mother waving to her daughter; alongside her were women in headscarves and robes waving to their sons and daughters — all of them wanted only one thing at that moment: for their children to have a good day.   America is a place where most children can go to school, and most of the time hope for a good day, regardless of their religion (to be sure, and sadly, for different racial and ethnic groups we can’t say that so often).  That should be the goal — a world where in all regions all mothers can send their children off to school, believing they will be safe, get a good education, and be able to plan for a better future.  When we get there, we should also have a lot less needless suffering by good people.


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More on who can or will fight ISIS

I weighed in this week on the need to have a truly broad coalition to fight ISIS in Politico.

The problem ahead is to build that coalition – and it won’t be quick or easy.

If we are going to war — and it seems we are, and I think we should — then building the right coalition is a major strategic prerequisite.  It may take time to win over recalcitrant countries, or convince them to see this is in their own interests.

And you can expect both Saudi Arabia and Iran to refuse to work on the same side of anything, and for everyone to accuse everyone else publicly of terrible things.

But in private, the danger should concentrate the minds of leaders in the middle East.  ISIS has now grown into an army of tens of thousands of fighters controlling millions of people.  This is a worse nightmare of regimes seeking to avoid Islamic extremist terrorists — including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran — than they could have imagined just six months ago.

So take some time President Obama, and work on convincing nations in the region to join against the common threat.  Racing to do something — bombing, arming Syrian forces — before you have in place a coalition to support what you do may risk defeat.  And that WOULD be worse than doing nothing at all




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Three cheers (almost) for Obama vs. ISIS

President Obama’s speech touched on all the right and necessary notes — as good a speech as he has given.

Obama clearly separated the terrorists behind ISIS from both the Muslim faith and the broader Muslim populations that it has attacked.  He laid out the threat and provided a plausible and multi-pronged strategy to defeat it.   Each prong of that strategy — Increased air attacks; a broad coalition with the local countries; starving ISIS of finances; and political solutions for Syria and Iraq — is sound and necessary.

But some things were definitely missing:  Who is our coalition partner for fighting in Syria?  Russia and Iran support Assad.  Turkey is conflicted because of its Kurdish problem — the non-radical opposition in Syria has a large Kurdish component that Turkey is reluctant to build up; will anyone else send troops into Syria to support the Syrian Free Army?   The SFA has shown it cannot compete with ISIS — giving it more weapons is just an indirect way of giving more weapons to ISIS (in the last week ISIS has been using US-built weapons that were earlier given to the SFA).  I think it will take NATO special forces to reinforce the SFA to make them effective.

And will we rely on Assad’s restraint to allow us to fly missions against ISIS within Syria?  Or will we degrade Assad’s air defenses?   Assad has every reason to stop the US, because he has been using ISIS to displace the moderate opposition.  Sooner or later we will have to deal with the Assad regime, and Obama’s mention of a “political solution” for Syria is distressingly vague.

One last thought; I sure hope we get a DIFFERENT campaign than we had in Yemen and Somalia.  Those countries are still total wrecks, half-overrun by terrorists and rebels after years of air attacks.  The attack against ISIS needs to be more successful than our campaigns against the Houthis or al-Shabab; otherwise we will be fighting an endless war with little progress.  In those countries the problem is precisely that we have not had reliable allies on the ground (except when Ethiopia fought  with us in Somalia, and that did bring a major success).  So we need to find or create them in Iraq and Syria, and fast.

But the good news is that the US has committed itself to fight ISIS, and has the reasonable beginnings of a strategy to pursue.  That is a lot for one night.

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The world spins on….

There is good news today on several fronts.  The Arab League, meeting in Cairo, has stated its intention to stop aid to extremists and cooperate in efforts to fight the Islamic State (ISIS).

Also this week, the European Central Bank borrowed a page from the Fed’s playbook, starting the mass buying of securities to fight deflation in the Eurozone.

Obama is set to announce a comprehensive strategy on ISIS — much better than “no strategy,” we hope.

And in the Ukraine, Russia’s President Putin and Ukraine’s President Poroshenko announced a cease-fire and potential peace agreement.

But at the end of the day, these kinds of good news are of the type “The roof is leaking, but the repairman says he is on the way…”    We don’t really know what the repairman will show up with, or if his efforts will do the job, or at what price.

In the Middle east, we are far from knowing whether Arab states will actively join the West in a coalition against ISIS, or what they will contribute.  Especially  critical is their following through on efforts to stop their private citizens from funding ISIS and other extremists; without starving the radicals of funds they will continue to fight on.

It also is not clear how deep the rot is in the Eurozone.  It was depressing that BOTH Italy and Germany had negative economic growth in the most recent quarter, and that France remains flat.  With the largest economies slowing or in reverse, how can the smaller ones hope to recover?  Draghi’s new playbook is an admission that the old one failed to do the job of reviving Europe’s economy.  A sick Europe doesn’t look particularly frightening to Putin or ISIS.

And for both ISIS and the Ukraine, we are a long way from saying the threat of violence and instability is over.  The war against ISIS is just beginning; and the evolution of Ukraine as a newly democratic state has just started.

So let’s hope the repairs on the world’s problems go well; right now we are waiting to see any hopeful results — and worried about the bill!

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Obama and the world

If President Obama wished to give substance to his belief that the U.S. is no longer the world’s sole superpower, or a superpower of any kind, he has certainly done so this week.  By admitting that has no strategy for responding to the Islamic State’s actions in Syria, including seizing a border post abutting Israel on the Golan Heights and capturing UN observers; and showing no prompt response to Russia’s confirmed movement of Russian heavy weapons and soldiers into Ukraine, he has shown the world that the U.S. is no longer planning to act as a global guarantor of international peace or as first responder to international threats.

So what will the U.S. do?   Evidently, very little.  No response to militias marauding in Libya; no response to the Islamic State’s expansion; no response to Russia’s now open invasion of Ukraine to sustain puppet states within Ukraine’s borders.

It may well be that the U.S. cannot respond to these threats alone.  A pact between NATO and the Gulf cooperation council is necessary to respond to the Islamic State; all of NATO and other European states are needed to deal with the war in Ukraine; and at least Egypt and Turkey and Algeria are needed to limit the depredations of Libya’s militias.

Yet Obama is not even acting to rally his potential allies to deal with these threats.  U.K. PM David Cameron is doing more to highlight the threat from the Islamic State, even if Britain can do little or nothing by itself to halt the Islamic State’s advance.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the western world and its allies are in a moment of grave weakness.  In Japan, Abenomics is starting to crack.  In Europe, the economy remains weak, with Italy back in recession and growth everywhere – except in Britain — stalling out.  Brazil, the world’s sixth largest economy and a major democracy, has slipped into recession.  Even in the U.S., despite a strong second quarter, economic growth for the first half of 2014 remains well under 2% at an annual rate, much less than hoped for.  Against this backdrop, enemies of the Western-led international order should feel emboldened to pursue their own interests, without much regard for a western response.

So we see beheadings in the Middle East, encirclements in Ukraine, chaos in Yemen and Libya, a hard anti-democratic crackdown in Egypt, the collapse of democracy in Thailand, and a host of other problems, with western nations apparently lacking any will or ability to stop them.

What will come next?  Either the U.S. — still the leader of the free world — starts to marshal its allies and assets to fight these threats, or they will grow worse and worse.   Truly severe sanctions, military countermeasures, and diplomatic successes are necessary to reverse the current trends of lawlessness and depredation.  Without that response, the U.S. will not be “safe” behind its oceans and money.  It will simply be another floundering late empire, destined to be cut off all around its edges by weaker barbarians, before collapsing at its center.  Time is not on Obama’s side.


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What is ISIS?

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has emerged as the most terrifying and brutal of extreme jihadist groups (and that is against tough competition, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia).

Why have such extreme Islamist groups emerged in so many places in recent years?

Odd as this may sound, it is not because of the appeal of extreme Islam itself.  A study of fighters in Syria by Mironova, Mrie, and Whitt found that most fighters join ISIS and similar groups because (1) they want vengeance against the Assad regime and (2) they found from experience that the Islamist groups take the best care of their fighters — caring for the wounded, supporting them in battle.   In situations of social breakdown — which are generally NOT caused by the Islamist groups themselves, but by problems of finances, elite divisions, and popular unrest due to oppressive or arbitrary actions by the state – extremists tend to have major advantages.

This has always been the case throughout the history of revolutions: moderates are usually outflanked and outmaneuvered and out-recruited by radicals; so much so that the triumph of radicals over moderates is a staple of academic work on the trajectory of revolutions, from Crane Brinton to my own.

Why does this occur?  In situations of major social breakdown, involving violence, disorder, and the collapse of established institutions, moderates — whose main qualification was usually experience in, and command of, those now-collapsed institutions — simply do not have the resources to establish order, nor do they have the drive and discipline to start from scratch.  Instead, they often are equally concerned about how to protect what remains of their position and wealth, and are distrustful of others competing for power.

Radicals, by contrast, start fresh.  They draw on the inspiration of their ideological cause, but that is not what matters to others.  What matters is that radicals are usually willing to make sacrifices, to embrace all supporters, and to build a new community to pursue their goals.  They are the most zealous in pursuit of what people want and need in times of collapse:  local order, discipline, a supportive community, and success in attacking perceived enemies.

Radicals thus add organizational power and discipline to their ideological message.  It is the former, not the latter, that draws in followers.  Yet the ideological message cannot be neglected; as I argued in my work on revolutions, once radicals are in power, that message shapes their post-revolutionary policies.  Extremists in seeking power are often extremists in power, which makes them so dangerous.  Moreover, those who initially join radical movements for discipline and community support are often indoctrinated and become convinced supporters of the radical cause.

ISIS is not just a terrorist or jihadist group; it is a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow governments to create a new regime that it views as more socially just (the Islamic caliphate) than the secular dictators it is fighting.  It is interwoven with several other conflicts that it did not produce but that have given it the opportunity to thrive: that between Sunnis and others Iraqis for control of Iraq, a conflict that goes back to Saddam Hussein and was heightened by the US invasion and the civil war it unleashed; that between Sunnis and other Syrians for control of Syria, a conflict that goes back to the founding of the Assad dynasty and beyond; and that between Sunnis and Shias for control of the Middle East, a struggle that goes back over one thousand years but has recently been inflamed by struggles among Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates for domination in the region.  ISIS feeds off of all of these conflicts, and offers its followers a way to be powerful and secure amidst chaos.

This analysis indicates a three-fold approach to dealing with ISIS.  First, military reprisals to blunt its success and undermine the feeling of invincibility it has given to its converts.  These can only come from forces at least as well-organized and disciplined.  However, at present the only such force in the region is the Kurdish peshmerga; but this is a militia without heavy arms or air power and which has no ability to project power beyond the borders of its own enclave in northern Iraq.  Thus external forces — the U.S., or NATO — must play a major role.

Second, the civil institutions that provide a power-base for moderate political organizations and their leaders must be rebuilt and given credibility.  In Syria, this cannot happen until the Assad regime falls; in Iraq this cannot happen until a post-Maliki government establishes its credibility and effectiveness.  And as long as the main support of the Iraqi government is Iran, with its policy of seeking a strongly Shia dominated and anti-Sunni regime in Iraq, no Iraqi government will gain credibility with the Sunnis of Iraq who support ISIS.  Given that the Assad regime looks unlikely to topple given its support by Russia and Iran, and that Iran is unlikely to give up its goals to shape a friendly regime next door in Iraq, the prospects for the second step remain poor. This raises a huge strategic question for the U.S. — even if military intervention stops ISIS for now, how can the second phase of putting effective moderate regimes in power that will win supporters away from ISIS be accomplished?

Third, the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East is fueling every sort of violent group:  Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, and others.  At some point, the global community will have to lean on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to cease their proxy wars and come to an agreement similar to that of 1648 in Europe, which ended the Thirty Years War that capped over a century of religious conflicts: every country can control its religious policy within its own borders, but agrees to stop meddling in religious conflicts in other countries and to respect other countries’ full sovereignty.  This may be a distant goal (it took nearly a century in Europe) but is vital if the region is ever to know stable peace.

In sum, America’s hasty retreat from Iraq left much unfinished business, which has now arisen in the form of the radical ISIS threat.  To contain that threat will require both a coordinated military response, and the sustained effort to create credible and legitimate government institutions that the U.S. abandoned too soon.  It may also require stronger efforts (air strikes similar to those aimed at ISIS) to undermine the Assad regime; as long as Assad remains in power radical jihadis will continue to seek vengeance for the acts he has already committed.  Once the radical threat has been defeated, then efforts can advance on moderating broader Sunni-Shia conflicts in the region and developing a general framework for peace (which would include Israel and Palestine).

This sounds costly and time-consuming.  It is; much as it took an international coalition to bring Napoleon to his Waterloo it will take an international coalition and sustained effort to bring down radical Islamist movements in the Middle East.  Yet the lesson of history is that without this effort, we will see the rise of an increasingly powerful radical jihadist revolutionary state spreading across the entire Middle East.  That is the present choice that our past choices have left us.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

To get away from the depressing news of the day, from Ukraine to Gaza, I went to see a fantasy movie with my family:  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Except it did not turn out to be a fantasy.  Rather, it was a remarkably accurate parable on the causes of current global conflicts!

In the movie, a synthetic virus escapes its test lab (a standard science-fiction premise), killing most humans but endowing apes with human-level intelligence.  The apes — many of whom escaped from labs where they had been subjects of animal testing — move to the forests of northern California, while a few hundred surviving humans nestle in San Francisco.

At first, both groups simply want to live in peace in their separate areas.  But then the humans need to enter the ape domain to restart an abandoned hydro-electric dam.  They bring guns and in a moment of misunderstanding and fear one ape is shot and wounded.  This threatens to escalate; the apes make a show of force to the humans and urge them to stay out of ape territory.   However, a courageous individual human persuades the ape leader to grant a few humans a couple of days at the dam to start work.  The small group of humans is good-hearted; they want no trouble and even help provide antibiotics to the ape leader’s mate.

Yet the humans back in SF are fearful and so start arming themselves in case the lead party in not successful and the apes return.  A scouting party of apes sees them accumulating weapons, and judges the humans to be too dangerous to be left alone.  One of the scouts — an ape who had been tortured as a lab test animal and nurses a bitter mistrust and hatred of humans — wants a war to deal with the human threat once and for all.  His desire for war is so strong that he steals a gun and uses it to shoot the ape leader from a hidden position; he then pretends to “find” the gun, claims that humans shot their leader, and rouses the apes to war.

I won’t give away what happens next.  Suffice to say that we find out that there are good-hearted humans, good-hearted apes, and spiteful humans blinded by fear and rage, and spiteful apes blinded by fear and rage.  Sadly, the forces of fear and rage carry the day.

No doubt the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, would like to just live in peace.   Yet on each side, there are leaders who nurse old grievances and seek to mobilize supporters by fanning their fears — Israelis are occupiers, Palestinians are terrorists, Ukrainians are fascists, Russians are imperial tyrants.   As one of the apes sums up their situation: those willing to stand up for peace are few and shunted aside, the rest follow the leader to war out of fear.

Fear and anger then fuel real acts of war: Palestinians shoot rockets at Israeli civilians,  Israel attacks Palestinian rocket launchers to halt the attacks.  But the rocket launchers have been placed near civilian homes and schools, so civilians die by the thousands, fueling hatred and support for more war (like the ape who shoots his own leader with a human weapon to create a pretext to war, Hamas invites casualties on its own civilians to win world sympathy for its cause).

The movie certainly has this right — it is impossible for a small number of well-meaning and peace-seeking individuals, even in positions of leadership, to create peace when others are working even harder to foment hatreds, create pretexts and causes for conflicts, and want to have a war because they believe they can conquer their enemies or use violence to advance their own security.

Is there any way out in the real world?  Academic research on wars suggest there are only two paths to lasting peace: a clear victory by one side, or a “hurting stalemate” in which both sides suffer so much from ongoing conflict that they consent to international mediation.

Israel/Palestine is not in either situation.  Israel cannot gain a clear victory over Hamas as long as its leaders have safe refuge in other countries, and the international community supports Palestinians’ claims.  But neither can the Palestinians hope to win against Israel.  As to a “hurting stalemate” in which both sides suffer severely, that is not happening either; Israel is fairly secure behind its walls, its occupation of Palestine, and its “Iron Dome” missile shield.   However anxious and insecure Israel may be (and legitimately so, with millions of Arabs and several states openly committed to its destruction and having experienced decades of repeated terrorist attacks), most of the suffering is on the Palestinian side.

So the current situation endures:  Israel seeks to control Palestine out of fears of attacks, while Palestine periodically attacks hoping to win sympathy from the world and pressure for Israel to loosen its grip.   Neither side, at present, has any real incentive to change course, nor any practical alternative.  So the current situation of indefinite anxiety and insecurity punctuated by periodic short and destructive open conflicts goes on, as it has gone on for many decades.

The only way to change this situation would be for outside powers to purge Palestine of terrorists and ensure Israel’s security in return for guarantees that Israel reduce its military occupation of Palestine.  This would be somewhat like the agreement that ended World War II in the Pacific, with America promising to underwrite Japan’s security in return for Japan adopting a pacifist constitution.  Given, however, that Islamic jihadists are on the march in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and northwest and northeast Africa, with the world being unable to stop them, the chances for external dismantling of Palestinian terrorist leadership and security provision for the region are nil; that leaves Israel no choice but to manage its own security and for the current tragedy to continue.

In Ukraine, Russia would like to see a “hurting stalemate.”  Russia has shown it is willing — in its fortitude regarding sanctions — to endure pain in return for trying to cause sufficient pain in Ukraine for the regime in Kiev to have to accept a deal that would entrench Russian influence and relative autonomy in eastern Ukraine.    Ukraine, however, is pressing for victory, encircling separatist forces in Donetsk and shelling their positions.   What we do not know is how far Ukraine is willing to go to pursue a complete victory, nor how far Russia is willing to go to prevent that.

One hopes that international mediators can persuade both Ukrainian and Russian leaders that the costs of an open conflict would be so high that a face-saving settlement is preferable to the risks of continuing the military pursuit of their goals.  I fear, however, that we will see further rounds of escalation of both economic sanctions and military actions before a settlement is reached.

Go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  It may not provide an escape from the real world — but it makes it very plain why war is such a recurrent situation, and so difficult to escape, for all humans.



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