Monday, September 1, 2014

The Pottery Barn Analogy underlies Mideast problems

In this mid term election process there are knee-jerk "experts" ready to pounce on any statement they can stretch to prove a point.  They are appalled by "no strategy," but really have little constructive to help make better decisions.  Political posturing needs to be minimized, hopefully not using the Bush methods to silence dissenters. 

Colin Powell is said to have given an analogy to George Bush when informed the administration had decided an invasion of Iraq was imminent.  As I understood it when you pick up a piece of pottery in a store and drop it you own it.  Americans despite all their access to modern technology really had a very poor understanding of Iraq.  Even so there was no real excuse to invade as there was no connection to 9-11 or proof of weapons of mass destruction.  If they thought about it, Saddam Hussein had more to fear from Al Qaeda than Americans.  Yes the rhetoric coming from Iraq was belligerent and all evidence points that Saddam was not very nice.  The White House dismissed the UN inspectors and put their reliance on suspect sources and their own (political) guts.

Instead of overwhelming the Iraquis, the administration brushed off suggestions of General Shenseki and failed to contain all the factions.  They then showed their priorities very quickly doing what they could to protect oil interests, but ignoring almost everything else.  As in any major civil disturbance there are criminal elements ready to take advantage, they let citizens fend for themselves.  They decided that since the Baath party had been in control all members should be prohibited from government.  They did not take into account that many members only joined for career survival reasons and that many of these people had vital knowledge and skills to offer a new governance.  As is true in situations where a minority controls the majority there would be vengeance seekers and resentment from those losing power.

Where there had been no Al Qaeda there was now a vacuum filled by jihadists from abroad, but who were able to recruit fighters from amongst dissatisfied members of the minority Sunnis, many of whom had military experience.  In Iraq there were other minorities that played significant roles, mainly the Kurds, but also Turkmen, Christians and others.  The Kurds have used the situation to leverage for more power and seemed to be most aligned to American interests.  Part of their motive is gain their own separate state.  This commendable aspiration is a big concern to neighboring powers such as Turkey, Iran and Syria who feel threatened by it.

The Arab Spring caught a lot of us off guard, but some were quick to credit George Bush with helping to get it going.  It has played out differently in the countries involved, but with some obvious benefits for democracy, but also with some outstanding concerns.  Where it has caused the most confusion seems to be Syria where a civil war has erupted.  Assad is another dictator abusing his country.  He seemed up against the wall, but has fought back and in the process unleashed elements nobody seems to be able to control.

The outcome of most concern seems to be ISIS which consists mainly of the most extreme fanatics who are able to use brutal tactics to conquer territory.  Their brutality is frightening, but there is also a level of sophistication that might be more frightening.  To be effective they had to have access to large amounts of financial support.  At this point they are self financing through kidnappings for ransom and oil.  They have started to "tax"some of their conquered people.

It is possible their brutality will create enemies for them.  I recall that the long ago English Civil War was started by those who frowned upon an arrogant monarchy.  The Puritans that took over, not only executed a monarch but restricted activities such as card playing and dancing that eventually the people rebelled against.  That seems to be happening in Syria and Iraq, but there are still those who think they use these brutal warriors for their own purposes.  Sunnis feeling displaced want power back, religious conservatives want to see religious laws guide government.  Assad, like many dictators likes to use the presence of a terrible alternative to justify his own power.

ISIS has successfully conquered territory in two national states and trying to provide a government bureaucracy to control it all.  They have tapped into a lot of resentment and brutalized their opponents.  It seems they cannot be defeated without an international effort.  The Americans of which Obama is a good example realized a major part of the problem was the Iraqui government controlled by Shiite factions created dissatisfaction amongst other factions weakening everyone.  They have taken steps to correct that situation while trying to respect sovereignity.

The big question seems to be can the Americans bomb ISIS in Syria without seeming to support Assad?  Can they avoid more "boots on the ground"?  Can they get more military support from countries that have a vested interest in the outcome and can that include Muslim nations?  A pretty delicate situation requiring care and attention to details.

A further complication is presented by Russia.  Their agenda apparently includes restoring at least part of their empire starting in Ukraine.  They have been allies of Syria and have tried to ameliorate  some of Syria's excesses, for example regarding chemical weapons.  They could possibly play a similar role, but they have other priorities.  Russians having become a major energy exporter are asserting what they feel is their imperial right to enlargen their sphere of influence while most of their former empire is increasing ties with EU and NATO. It is not reasonable to expect co-operation.

There are no good solutions and it must be acknowledged there are a wide variety of views on how best to handle the situation.  A little bit of honesty should be appreciated as there is "no strategy" that will not cause harm to relatively innocent participants.  A politically obstructive Congress" is a big part of the problem and should voters let themselves be influenced by political posturing with the November election the situation could become even more difficult.

The decisions made by the previous administration will impact the world for at least a generation.  We have opportunities to change direction in a more helpful way, but politics is making the difficult choices more difficult.

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