The quagmire deepens

The quagmire of Iraq is merging into the larger morass of the Middle East, the morass growing deeper weekly with the military successes and sensationalized brutality of the Islamic State.

President Obama has taken to describing IS as a ‘cancer’, ordering airstrikes whose objectives are morphing from the humanitarian, i.e. facilitating the escape of persecuted  minorities, to the ostensibly moral, i.e. defeating the ‘cancer’ itself.

Editorials, blogs, and bloviating ‘experts’ made up and mic’ed for TV are ominously warning of the threat to the West. Apparently, jihadists recruited from Europe may go home again and cause trouble there.

The President is wading in deeper, not because he has a plan to fix Iraq, or Syria, or Gaza, or anything else, but because he’s being driven by politics into doing something. Airstrikes are ‘something’; we know how to do it; so we’ll do that. Maybe we’ll be able to kill enough IS fighters that the thing will disintegrate, and we can resume our withdrawal from the region.

Maybe. But the Middle East will not change, because the cancer that eats at that part of the world is not the Islamic State, or even jihadism. It is a cancer that was first planted and cultivated nearly 100 years ago by France and Britain after the First World War, when they carved up the old Ottoman Empire to suit themselves and their thirst for oil.

The cancer is political weakness.

Like many parts of the world, the Middle East is a stew of ethnicities and religions. There is nothing wrong with that. Even disparate peoples who must live together usually learn to get along. They develop commercial and social relationships. They intermarry. But they are also tinder for ambitious political adventurers who are good at striking sparks and fanning flames. (See The Politics of Tinder.) Political power is what keeps the adventurers down and the flames dowsed. Sarajevo, for instance, was once a cosmopolitan European city where Serbs, Croats, and Muslims lived in peace and raised families together. It even hosted the Winter Olympics.

Then the Soviet Union disintegrated, the adventurers came out of the woodwork, and Sarajevo became synonymous with “ethnic cleansing”.

So it is in the Middle East. Autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt understand this all too well, and do whatever it takes to keep the adventurers down, whether it means buying off radical religious leaders or jailing and killing political opponents.

But the fragmentation and weakness of the Middle East go hand in hand with the machinations of Western politicians and security services, who dispense with humanitarian and democratic niceties in pursuit of short term ‘realpolitik’. Like selling anti-air and anti-armor weapons to the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s. Like cultivating Saddam Hussein as a covert client when the Islamic Republic used its weapons to invade Iraq as far as Basra. Like acquiescing to Saddam’s plan to cross the border into Kuwait, because he was such a good covert friend (see April Glaspie).

The only way to grow a civil society is for a government to become strong enough to defeat the anarchists, and to become reliant on tax revenue for its continued existence – not oil or Western aid. This is how the virtuous circle is started and maintained, where a government thrives because its people do, and its people thrive because their government ensures civil order. This was appreciated as long ago as William the Conqueror.

Apparently not so today. It is inconceivable that Western democracies are capable of either helping to bring this about in the Middle East, or even refraining from undermining it, were it to begin on its own. Ultimately the cancer of political weakness persists because we in the West want it to – for many reasons, open and covert, not the least of which is competition for oil.

The US military may well defeat the Islamic State, but the morass of humanitarian, political, and economic issues and conflicts will only deepen, principally because the web of Western interests is a Gordian Knot that no one is willing to cut.

We will instead moralize. Throw political darts. Attend conferences. Announce cooperation and reconstruction. Throw money at our ‘friends’. Kill a few people. Moralize some more.

As we have done for a hundred years.

 

Don’t be naive, right?

The government in Beijing has quietly removed a number of Apple devices from its approved purchasing list, including iPads and MacBooks. Some sort of trade sanction? Nope. They believe iOS has been hacked by the NSA.

They have good reason to believe it. We’ve all heard about the PRISM program, about something called Dropout Jeep, and about Shotgiant.

Shotgiant began as a program to hack into Huawei servers and steal information. But it didn’t end there. It morphed into a program to insert backdoors into Huawei communications products:

Rather than stop at simply collecting more information than it could process, however, a NSA special-operations unit bored into the company’s technical data, eventually compromising servers holding source code for the firmware that runs the routers and switches Huawei builds for large corporations and telecommunications companies.

The goal was to build secret backdoors or security flaws into the source code, which Huawei would then build into its own products and distribute to a customer base so large that Huawei boasts that its products connect a third of the world’s population.

EETimes Asia

More of the ‘good fight’, right? They do it to us, so we do it to them.

Maybe. What strikes me is that it’s a long, long way from the hoary notion that a fully interconnected and integrated world will be a peaceful one, because no one wants to upset the shared prosperity. This may in fact be the long term goal of many a statesman, such as those behind the Euro project. But it isn’t the goal of the security services of Russia, China, or the US. Their goal is much simpler: Beat the other guys.

The security services of at least two of these nations are arguably beyond control of their respective civilian governments. I’m not so sure about China. Beijing might possibly be in control, or the PLA may enjoy even more autonomy than it appears.

The UK’s GCHQ seems to be an adjunct of the NSA. This leaves the rest of Europe, which years ago became a battleground in US-Russia tensions.

To me the underlying reality traces back to the ‘military-industrial complex’, made so notorious by President Eisenhower in his farewell address. It’s really a National Security Complex (NatSecCom?), shifting with the latest designated adversary, that uses secrecy and fear to build careers and acquire power. China has one. Russia has one. And so do we.

Russia may implode. And then there will be two, plus possibly another failed state to add to the list of casualties of the war that never ended.

 

Meanwhile, the Islamic State

After days of diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry has apparently brokered a 72-hour temporary ceasefire in Gaza. This is considered a hard-won victory.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State captured a major Syrian gas field, despite Syrian reinforcements (their announcement here; beware graphic pictures); overran a Syrian Army base near the city of Raqqa, which they now control; and collected recruits defecting from other anti-Assad rebel groups.

Baghdad is almost under siege, even with US advisors and armed drones operating. The Islamic State is consolidating its hold over Mosul, a city of two million.

Kurdistan is pressing the US for arms to help it hold the Islamic State at bay. Washington is loathe to arm the region directly, not only because it would further undercut Baghdad’s already minimal authority, but because it might empower Kurdistan to declare its independence.

Washington is crippled by domestic politics and its inability to deal rationally with militants. Everybody’s a terrorist, and we don’t deal with terrorists. In the meantime, the entire region has devolved into post-Soviet Afghanistan writ large. There, we were able to wash our hands and forget it, until 9/11 brought it back. Not here.

What’s left is covert war, maybe along the lines of the CIA war in Pakistan, but on a much larger scale and with special forces involved, in support of an incompetent sham of a government.

Sounds a little too much like Vietnam, doesn’t it?

 

 

Just when we think we’ve got him where we want him

Is it just me, or is this turning out to be an exciting week?

The US and EU are launching draconian sanctions against Russian banks and energy companies, and against a number of Russian leaders personally. The intent is clearly to tighten an economic and political noose until Russian President Putin either backs down and abandons Ukrainian separatists (and, presumably, Crimea), or is forced from office – although just who could unwind the Russian foray without himself being overthrown in a coup is a big question.

Washington and Brussels would seem to have Mr. Putin where they want him, boxed in and caught right in their sights.

But hold the phone. The Independent claims a scoop, that German Chancellor Merkel is negotiating a deal with Putin to give everyone a way to back down. Major terms:

  • Russia keeps Crimea, but compensates Kiev for lost rent at Sevastopol
  • Russia withdraws support for Ukrainian rebels
  • Eastern Ukraine is granted more self-government
  • Kiev agrees not to join NATO
  • Moscow agrees not to interfere with Kiev’s EU trade relations
  • Gazprom enters a new long-term supply contract for Ukraine

At the very least, if the negotiations are real and become public, the sanctions will undoubtedly be eased, despite gnashing of teeth of western hardliners.

If that happens, Mr. Putin will surely have earned a black belt in political judo.

And Chancellor Merkel’s stature as stateswoman will overshadow, for a time, that of any other western leader.

Plan B

Probably to no one’s surprise, a US Magistrate has ordered the seizure of 1 million barrels of Kurdish oil parked 60 miles outside the Port of Galveston. US Marshalls will seize the tanker should it enter the US territorial limit, which it would now be foolish to do.

What is Plan B for the not-quite independent republic of Kurdistan? Well, they have sold oil to Israel in the past. But now that Baghdad has seen what lawyers are capable of, if the Kurds attempt to repeat this trick, it will undoubtedly land in an Israeli court. Baghdad claims the oil is stolen property. As much as the Israeli government might like to thumb its nose at the US, it doesn’t seem likely their courts could find a way to allow the importation of stolen goods.

Unless Kurdistan were to declare independence. They would need at least one major state to recognize it. And it could only be a state with poor relations with the West.

One comes to mind. But could the Kremlin make any hay out of the breakup of Iraq? Possibly. If Mr. Putin suddenly became the peacemaker in Iraq and Syria.

Something to think about.

 

Kurdistan Showdown

The United Kalavrvta has been cleared by the Coast Guard to begin offloading 1 million barrels of Kurdish oil in Galveston. As it threatened to do, Iraq has filed suit asking US Marshalls to seize the oil.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Kurdistan took one step closer to independence while Baghdad was reeling from ISIS victories on the battlefield, by signing a separate export agreement with Turkey, a NATO member, despite Baghdad’s assertion of sovereignty over all of Iraq.

It seems likely Baghdad will prevail in court. If so, and the oil is seized, the regional government of Kurdistan, now desperately short of cash, will have its back against the wall. You have to wonder what their Plan B is.