Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’


We’d like to help, really we would, but…

In Diplomacy on July 9, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Recent candid comments by the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States first reported by the Washington Times have shown that the problem of a nuclear-armed Iran is very much on the minds of other nations in the region, backpedaling and official “clarifying” statements to the contrary notwithstanding. The ambassador’s statement was not formal, which explains its unusual clarity and directness. Simply put, he indicated that a military strike might be necessary in order to halt Iranian nuclear development. In no uncertain terms that he recognized that there would be blowback in the form of economic, social and political pressure, but that all of these short-term issues were less dangerous than the long-term threat posed by a nuclear Iran, calling it the result of a “cost-benefit analysis.”

The problem here is not support for a strike from Persian Gulf nations; it is quite likely that, behind closed doors, there are few leaders in the region who would be even remotely troubled by a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The calculus is the same: Which is more dangerous in the long-term – a strike against Iran, or a nuclear-armed Iran? No country in the Gulf region wants to see Iran take such an enormous step toward becoming a hegemonic power, and they are likely to accept that there is little that can stop them short of a military strike or sanctions so onerous that they would probably provoke an Iranian military response.

The real difficulty is that there are very few countries capable of conducting such a strike, no matter how necessary it is deemed. The United States and Israel would have the best chances, as each has a modern air force in the region capable of conducting a complex attack under difficult conditions. The Russians might be able to pull it off but have virtually no motivation to do so, and the British, French and Germans have the technology but not the numbers, regional presence or political will. The firestorm created by an Israeli strike would be tremendous, and would very likely cause Israel to face a major increase in terrorist activity from Iran’s Hamas and Hezbollah proxies in Gaza and Lebanon respectively. The simple fact is that, should the U.N. Security Council resolve tomorrow to destroy Iran’s nuclear program by force, everyone at the table would turn to the U.S. Ambassador.

Thus the U.S. seems once again to be the first, last and only resort. Most of the leaders in the Persian Gulf probably secretly hope the U.S. will simply do the deed and get it over with. This is their ideal set of circumstances: Iran’s power is diminished, the regional balance is restored, and the U.S. gets blamed for everything, allowing them the flexibility to manage popular discontent in their own countries. One hopes that American policy-makers are cognizant of how this scenario would play out; their reluctance to act more directly suggests that they are.

Yet American reticence and the inability of virtually every other interested country to carry out their own attack means that the Iranian program is able to continue. Increasingly strict financial sanctions against Iran and companies that deal with it will no doubt complicate Iranian planning, but as long as the world petroleum market provides an outlet for Iranian oil, resources to continue will be available. American efforts to build support in the U.N. are doomed to limited success, as the Russians and particularly the Chinese have too much to gain by staying on Iran’s good side; attempts to build a formal regional coalition to oppose Iran seem to be non-existent. Time is on the side of the Iranians, and the longer the crisis builds without strong direct opposition, the greater the chance that Iran will be able to successfully construct a weapon before the U.S. can move to stop it.

That leaves the Israelis, who are truly the wild card in this situation. There is little doubt that Israel regards a nuclear-armed Iran as nothing short of a mortal threat. How far are the Israelis willing to let Iran progress before they determine that they can wait no longer? One suspects that the Mossad is funneling support to the Iranian opposition movement, the Kurds, and any other group that might create trouble for the Iranian government, but suggesting that this alone could forestall the nuclear program smacks of desperation and wishful thinking of the first order. If Israel strikes, it will do so because it is doing the same exact calculations that led to the conclusions mentioned by the U.A.E. ambassador; the only difference being that Israel, unlike every other country in the region, can actually do something about threat posed by Iran.



Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Gaza Blockade

In Politics on June 17, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Israel has announced that they will loosen the blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza, allowing in more civilian goods via land checkpoints, while the naval blockade will remain in force. Although the updated list of allowed items includes a range of household items, the real change is that Israel will now allow the delivery of construction materials such as cement and steel, which had previously been prohibited as dual-use commodities that could be utilized for the construction of fortifications as well as more mundane civilian projects. The caveat that these items will only be allowed in “for civilian projects that are under international supervision” is rather weak, as the power of the international entities in Gaza to prevent Hamas from appropriating such supplies for its own purposes is virtually nil.

The obvious reason for this shift is an attempt to limit the long-term international consequences of the “Freedom Flotilla” debacle last month. By very publicly opening Gaza to increased goods traffic, Israel is trying to assure the international community that it is merely providing for its own security, not imposing a sort of collective punishment on the 1.4 million people living in the Gaza Strip. It is unlikely that such an approach will work broadly; only Israel’s staunchest allies will accept this action as sufficient cause to let their public outrage slip quietly away and move as quickly as possible toward forgetting the whole incident. For everyone else, Israel’s blockade will still be characterized as inhumane and arbitrary, with public pressure for continued isolation of the Jewish state remaining firm. This, in turn, will only serve to confirm Israel’s sense of isolation, which will compel its government to maintain strong security measures.

The more interesting question raised here regards the blockade itself; precisely what is its objective? Historically, blockades have been employed for a variety of purposes, in peace and war, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. The Israel effort represents what is in practice a very limited peace-time, or pacific, blockade, with the declared intention of preventing military supplies from reaching Hamas. The problem, of course, is that the inclusion of dual-use items like construction materials means that many Gazans are inadvertently caught in the effects of the blockade, and the overall economic effect severely limits Gaza’s already extremely limited potential.

What is not entirely clear is what Israel expects to achieve by maintaining the blockade. Past peacetime economic warfare efforts have been effective, to an extent, only when they have imposed sufficiently severe economic harm to compel a rival to resolve a situation expeditiously, and even these efforts take a significant amount of time to have any hope of success, though this is far from assured; the Israeli blockade of Gaza certainly does not fit this classification in any case, and time is on the side of Hamas. In its current form (both before and after the recent modifications), it is clearly a political compromise between doing nothing and allowing Hamas to become better-armed than it already is and perhaps forcing yet another politically costly military incursion, and imposing far greater restrictions in the hope of causing the Hamas administration to collapse under the weight of its inability to cope with public demands before Israel succumbs to what would obviously be greatly increased international pressure. Both of these represent high-risk approaches; the current implementation of the blockade is lower-risk, but also has little chance of accomplishing anything beyond maintaining what is a rather unfavorable status quo. Israel’s strategic position is very poor, as are its options for changing it, so it is limited to rearranging the furniture while Hamas waits for the boat to sink.


Ottoman Redux

In Diplomacy on June 11, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Recent events suggest that Turkey’s government has determined that the country’s future lies not with Europe, but in the Middle East. This is a major change in strategic direction, one which marks a return to the nation’s traditional orientation after an interlude of almost a century begun by the Western-leaning Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922. When one considers how much the political geography surrounding Turkey has changed in those years, and the conditions it currently faces, this change is perhaps less the result of obvious popular pressures than it is a tacit acknowledgment that the nation now has more to gain from a return to a traditional eastward policy focus.

Consider the situation facing Turkey at the time of the formation of the modern republic: after over a century as the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire had been slowly shedding the territory accumulated in the wake of its explosive 15th and 16th Century growth. Pressured from all sides, the Ottomans had surrendered control of Egypt to the British, Libya to the Italians, and much of the Balkans to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and numerous smaller claimants. It was very much an empire in the final throes of its decline; the disastrous experience of the First World War simply hastened its demise. The end of the war brought further turmoil, as Turkey itself was invaded by nations seeking to expand their reach into the eastern Mediterranean at her expense, most notably Greece. It was not until 1922, and not without significant foreign intervention, that Turkey proper was once again under its own control.

Yet the war also fundamentally altered the strategic situation in which Turkey found itself. Prior to the war, the Ottoman government was unable to focus on any one strategic direction, as it was pressed on all sides: the Russian Czar was her traditional rival to the north, always pushing toward the vital straits; to the east and south, the needs of empire demanded constant attention as the Sultan tried to maintain control of his crumbling domains; to the west, small states motivated to conquest by the rising tide of nationalism in Europe only added to the threat posed by the powerful empires that pressed incessantly against Ottoman borders.

While defeat in the war caused the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the new state that rose from its ashes found itself the beneficiary of circumstances that facilitated a new, far more focused political direction. Gone were many of the traditional concerns that plagued sultan after sultan: the empire, much of which was both indefensible and unprofitable, had been forcibly taken by the war’s victors; the Middle East was divided up by the British and the French, while the Balkan territories of both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were cobbled together into a new state – Yugoslavia. Russia was convulsed by revolution and civil war beginning in 1917, with the Bolsheviks only consolidating power fully in 1922, and even then commanding a backward and broken state that would take decades to regain its influence beyond its own borders. In other words, Turkey was free to choose her political and strategic orientation for the first time since the Ottomans conquered the unconquerable city of Constantinople in 1453.

Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the new state looked west. It was perfectly logical in light of the circumstances: Who had won the war? The British, and the French, and the Americans. Which powers were able to control their own vast empires in ways the Ottomans could only have dreamed about, and to project their influence anywhere they chose? The empires that had at their hearts great industrial strength. Even before the war, the Turks had looked enviously west – they brought in first French and later German military advisors, and purchased rifles and artillery from the Germans and battleships from the British – but saddled with the baggage of empire, they were forced to look from afar. With this crushing weight removed decisively, the new Turkish state would be able to reform itself using the most successful of the Great Powers as her models.

The problem inherent in this conception was simple: even as the Turks sought to embrace the West, the West looked askance at the upstart Turks, thinking it virtually impossible that a nation born of an empire that could be argued to have had decline as its single most defining characteristic was now going to become a modern state. Further, regardless of Ataturk’s secularizing efforts, Turkey remained a Muslim nation, and in a world still dominated by self-consciously Christian powers, Turkey would always be too exotic, too foreign, and too archaic to be considered a part of the modern world by those who defined it.

This conception of Turkey is little changed today. Turkish efforts to join the European Union have been stalled for years as Europe tries to reconcile its public pronouncements on the value of diversity with the idea of including a state that is, perhaps, a bit “too diverse” for European tastes. Recent controversies over the wearing of Islamic headscarves (France) and the building of minarets (Switzerland) further illustrate that Europe’s willingness to accept Muslim influences into its ostensibly open society is still far from absolute (politically correct protestations notwithstanding).

After banging its collective head into the proverbial wall presented by European intransigence, it should come as no surprise that the Turks have begun to have second thoughts about whether they should be putting all their efforts into joining the West while continuing to turn their backs on the other regions surrounding them. The recent change in Turkish policy focus is not simply based on frustration, however; it is in fact a clear acknowledgement of something the Europeans themselves are not quite ready to accept: the dominance of Europe and the West is ebbing, and Turkey has more strategic options of economic and political alignment than ever before. The end of the Cold War and the relative decline of naval power as the primary measure of national power has reduced the Russian threat to the Straits while opening up the Turkic states of Central Asia to Turkish influence and significantly reducing the need for a Western alliance. The decline in direct Western influence in the Middle East offers Turkey a chance to once again become a dominant force in the region. Even the rise of distant regional powers like China, India, and Brazil creates possibilities for strategic maneuver that would have been utterly unthinkable when the republic was born.

Combined with useful side-effect of reducing domestic Islamist tensions, Turkish leaders have determined that opposing the West may be a more lucrative path that continuing to stand around waiting for it to finally open the gate. Recent events have shown that the Turkish government is becoming more vocal in its attempts to extend its influence in the region. While diminished, Turkey geographic position is still strategically vital with respect to the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. While it is not at all likely that Turkey will be able to challenge for regional hegemony (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are each too strong and willing to resist such a move), its influence will probably continue to increase, while the influence of the West on it will decline. The Ottoman Empire was for at least the last 150 years of its existence reduced to being a small fish in the big pond of the Great Powers; the 20th Century forced the new Turkish state to continue on in this relationship with the West. Now, however, Turkey is recalling fondly that it was once a big fish in a smaller, regional pond, a situation to which – for the first time in several hundred years – it is now poised to return.


New Sanctions on Iran. Again.

In Economics on June 9, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , , , ,

With yet another round of U.S.-backed sanctions adopted by the U.N., the fiction that something meaningful is being done to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions continues. The loud protestations of Iranian president Ahmadinejad further enhance the illusion that these sanctions might actually have an effect. Despite the outward appearance of action, it is not the United Nations nor the United States that is determining the pace and course of events; it is the Iranians who hold the strategic initiative and are able to manipulate the situation to their best advantage. The Iranians have learned a lot about how to effectively oppose the United States by evaluating the experiences of those that have done so before. There are four vital concepts they have learned from history, and, in combination with a clear set of strategic objectives, they are applying these to good effect in the current situation. The West, by contrast, has not developed the sort of sophisticated appreciation of the strategic situation in the Persian Gulf that is necessary to effectively counter Iran’s efforts to dominate the region, nor does it appear to have considered how the Iranian leadership might view the lessons of recent history.

First, Iran’s government understands that the biggest ally they have when dealing with a hostile Western government is time; simply hold out for a few years and the people will lose interest, or grow tired of the effort, or the leaders will change. Even if the new leadership appears overtly hostile, the shift buys time for opponents to maneuver, and public hostility serves to reinforce the raison d’etre of the regime. North Vietnam played this game with the U.S. and the French and won. If the new Western leadership offers an olive branch, the opportunities to gain expand, as the typical form of such an offer involves financial or material support in exchange for promises to desist from certain behaviors. Of course, no mechanism actually capable of enforcing these promises can be included, but this is easily avoided by insisting that trust must be demonstrated by both parties. North Korea has managed to manipulate several American administrations this way, accepting aid while breaking the unenforceable agreements made in exchange for it. Each new U.N. secretary general and U.S. president seems to believe that they can make the North Koreans comply; it has not happened yet, for the simple reason that the leaders of the North are far better off in their current circumstances.

This raises a second important point that Western leaders (and the U.N. leadership in included in this, as the organization is fundamentally Western in its objectives) have failed to understand, but of which the Iranians are very much cognizant: peace is not an end in and of itself. The West does not appear grasp that the sort of settlement they propose would badly weaken the Iranian government; after all, why would the Iranian people support an oppressive regime unless it was the only thing keeping their enemies at bay? Totalitarian governments learned long ago that external enemies are vital to maintaining their hold on power (see George Kennan’s “Sources of Soviet Conduct” for a highly cogent discussion of this). More disturbingly, it is possible that some Western leaders actually do realize that their proposals would undermine the Iranian leadership, but somehow think that the Iranians will accept them anyway. Given that the U.S., the rest of the major Western democracies, and the U.N. are collectively the least Machiavellian political entities in the world, it is entirely possible that such delusion exists at the highest levels. This sort of misapprehension suggests that utopian optimism, expressed in the assumption that all the world seeks free markets, openness and democracy, is still the predominant characteristic in Western strategy. The Iranians would likely reject this assertion.

More recent history has demonstrated to Iran a third simple truth: nations without nuclear weapons may be attacked with relative impunity; those with nuclear weapons can survive indefinitely. This is an oversimplification of the strategic value of limited nuclear capability, but the positive example of North Korea is once again in the forefront, along with the counterpoints starkly provided by Iraq and Afghanistan (both of which of course border Iran). Here Iran has gone to great lengths to avoid the enforcement of non-proliferation as applied to Iraq and Syria in 1981 and 2007 respectively by the Israeli Air Force, burying its facilities in hardened underground complexes and dispersing them widely. The result is a more survivable program, one which is likely to be more survivable than any military weapons it might produce (surreptitiously-delivered weapons are another matter). The value of these weapons is strictly as a deterrent, but this raises obvious questions about first-use, particularly against countries like Israel or the United States, both of which have large nuclear arsenals. In the end, the deterrent value of nuclear weapons to Iran is likely to be considerably less than its leaders think – nonetheless, any factor that complicates the strategic calculations of its opponents is viewed positively, and nuclear capability certainly accomplishes that goal.

Finally, there is the question of sanctions themselves. The current Iranian regime has been subject to international sanctions of various sorts virtually since its inception in 1979. The fact that the government not only still exists, but has in fact consolidated its hold on power in the intervening years suggests that the sanctions have not achieved their purposes, whatever they might be. The watered-down nature of sanctions regimes developed as the result of a collective process certainly does not help to create real pressure. The fact remains, however, that there have always been countries willing to trade with Iran despite the sanctions, and the unwillingness of those applying the sanctions to unilaterally enforce them (when this is even possible) has been one of the few consistent elements in the Western effort.

The problems underlying Western sanctions efforts are easy to explain: the sanctions applied against Iran (and most other nations that have been subjected to similar treatment) have often been without specific purpose, and even when they have had a direction (as in the case of nuclear technology), they have been too weak to actually compel changes in behavior and have not been effectively enforced. Here again Western understanding is at odds with the strategic realities of history. Sanctions have historically worked (i.e., forced a change in behavior on the part of the country subject to them) only when they have caused consequences so damaging that to continue to exist under them was even more distasteful than complying with the wishes of those who implemented them. There are very few examples of sanctions working in that fashion; the fall of South Africa’s apartheid regime (which, it should be noted, had and voluntarily gave up indigenously-produced nuclear weapons) might be one of the best recent examples, and certainly the one that offers hope to proponents of sanctions as a peaceful means to alter an undesirable situation.

History offers another, considerably less desirable example, however: it was in large part the effectiveness of American sanctions against Japan in 1940-1 that led that government to conclude that it had to act decisively to protect its national interest or surrender to the will of its opponent. It is the potential of a similar outcome in the Middle East that strikes fear in the hearts of Western leaders; ironically, it is knowledge of this fear that the Iranians have used so successfully to avoid becoming the target of more direct action. Franklin Roosevelt’s government recognized that Japan had to be stopped before it became a regional hegemon in East Asia, too entrenched and too powerful to stop without enormous cost, if it could be stopped at all. The current governments of the West do not seem to appreciate that the rise of Iran to similar hegemonic status in the Persian Gulf would be every bit as dangerous to their strategic interests, if not moreso.


What a long, strange trip it’s been…

In Politics on June 3, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

The kabuki dance of the Freedom Flotilla and the Israeli government has played out largely as expected, with Israel taking the hard line that the pro-Palestinian activists behind the attempted breach of the blockade of Gaza counted on. In fact, the killing of nine of the activists following a confrontation aboard the Mavi Marmara ferry gave the activists greater results that they could have hoped for; only sinking the ship would have done more to diplomatically isolate the Israelis.

One must question the events that occurred aboard the ferry as the Israelis boarded it. The video thus far released is inconclusive as to how and when escalation began and who was initially responsible, but it is clear that it was not a one-sided affair. Activists were directly engaged in close fighting with Israeli commandos until such time as the latter gained control of the situation. Pro-Palestinian claims that the Israelis began firing from helicopters before they landed on the ship are difficult to accept inasmuch as such action was not duplicated on the other ships in the flotilla, all of which were boarded peacefully. If we thus operate on the premise that the confrontation began after the boarding operation began, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that the activists were responsible for its outbreak once we consider the nature of the goals of both sides. Knowing that any outcome which would draw international attention would serve their opponents’ aims, the Israelis would have wanted to resolve the situation in as low-key a manner as possible; initiating combat makes little sense, especially in such an ambiguous set of circumstances where it would be difficult to prove necessity. For the activists, however, efforts to provoke a violent Israeli response are completely consistent with their intended purpose. Outnumbered commandos rappelling from helicopters and set upon from all sides would have had very few options: defend themselves or surrender. Withdrawal was not an option, due to the nature of the insertion, nor was passive defense. Once attacked by a multitude of activists, even if armed only with improvised weapons like clubs and chairs, the commandos were placed in a situation that made the use of deadly force a very likely outcome.

Reports that the Israelis did not expect such resistance suggest that planning for this operation failed to consider the dominance of strategic versus tactical success in assessing results. Suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding, the Israelis appear to have attempted to use minimal tactical force (small patrol craft, helicopters, commandos) rather than a full-scale effort employing major naval units in direct boarding operations. This makes a degree of sense if one assumes there will be no violence; if the activists had remained entirely peaceful before the full array of Israeli naval might, Israel would have given the impression of enormous overkill. Given that it already has a reputation of military heavy-handedness, this is something its government would seek to avoid. However, this sort of best-case tactical assumption takes little account of the strategic goals of the activists.

Rather than offer them an opportunity to exploit the situation further, Israel would have been far better served by taking the initiative away from the activists by bringing to bear so much potential force in the boarding operation that any sort of active resistance would have been both suicidal and easily halted. Consider the possibilities offered in such an alternative scenario: boarding from ships, the Israelis would have employed larger numbers of troops more quickly and with better options, including less than deadly force support from naval vessels (water cannon, tear gas, stun grenades) and the possibility of egress if the situation became uncontrollable. Had the activists attempted the only possible effective counter to such an operation – ramming – the Israelis would be able to point to this act of aggression as reasonable justification for their subsequent actions.

In situations where force may be expected to come into play, it is almost never a good idea to prepare only the minimum considered necessary, particularly in circumstances where failure might result in consequences far beyond the immediate tactical situation. This is not to say that such force should necessarily be employed, but the possibility of doing so is critically important if the widest array of options for controlling the situation is to be maintained. For as often as Israel has been criticized for using excessive force, in this case the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. The odyssey of the Freedom Flotilla demonstrated that Israel still has not developed a clear understanding of the strategic consequences of tactical operations.