Haider al-Abadi, Iran’s lateral transfer

While his name is always accompanied with the statement that Haider al-Abadi is a member of the same political coalition (State of Law) as Nouri al-Maliki, it is curiously understated or omitted that he is actually a member of the same party, Dawa. From the point of view of the Iranians, this makes Abadi a lateral transfer.

Maliki was the first prime minister to succeed the “provisional government.” Whether he was a chosen Iranian proxy, or an accidental compromise, is open to question. On the one hand, the C.I.A. interviewed four candidates, with the intent of screening out Iranian influence. Opposing  the C.I.A.’s diligence  was the bond of a religion identical between Iran and Iraq’s Shiites, and political actors who have had extensive periods of residence in both countries, with personal associations of a lifetime.

This kind of setup fosters double agents, not flipped over lunch-cum-blackmail, but cultivated over many years.  So, with all due respect to the C.I.A., I don’t think they could have accurately understood the situation and penetrated the relationships. The Shi’ite bond between Iraq and Iran will always be a hall of mirrors to us. And so the idea that the U.S. successfully engineered the rejection of the supposed Iranian favorite, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in favor of Maliki, is questionable. Quoting from the Wikipedia article,

United States Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said that "[Maliki's] reputation is as someone who is independent of Iran." Khalilzad also maintained that Iran "pressured everyone for Jaafari to stay".[7] More recently, however, it has been claimed that al-Maliki was the preferred candidate of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, and that it was Soleimani who brokered the deal between senior Shiite and Kurdish leaders that lead to his election as Prime Minister.

As Meredith Wilson  observed in “The Music Man”, you gotta know the territory.

Since Maliki’s successor is also drawn from Dawa, the open-source hunch is that there is something special about the party. Statements are made that that Dawa receives financial support from Iran. Although past support seems likely from Dawa’s history, which intertwines with the Iranian Revolution, I can’t find a a reasonable citation for the present.

One significant point of conflict exists between Iraq’s Dawa and Iran’s Qom religious establishment, and it is rather severe. To the Western mind, this might discredit all thoughts of Dawa as an instrument of Iranian subversion. More on this later.

Implosion in Baghdad

Maliki has deployed “special forces” within Baghdad.

But there are no Iraqi “special forces”, only forces special by virtue of bought loyalty. And there are no discretionary forces; these forces were pulled from where they are actually needed, on the perimeter of Baghdad, to be deployed, to no military purpose, in the center.

Our side is probably busy outlining to the various factions, with aerial photography and other visual aids, where ISIS is now, and where it will be tomorrow. Since the details are not available via open sources, what simplification can be made to produce a prediction?

Maliki has gone insane. He’s “gone bananas”, he’s “off his rocker”, he’s nuts. As a general rule, but with the notable exception of Hitler-in-the-bunker, loyalty to the insane is very easily undermined. And unlike Hitler, there are a lot of termites chewing away.

Regime change is in the offing.


Air power in Iraq, an instrument of Popper’s “incremental change” ?

Karl Popper, one of my personal heroes, probably never envisioned the indignity of implementing his doctrine of “incremental change” in the form of aerial bombing. But in Iraq, we face the aftermath of one of the most unsuccessful social experiments in all of history, fashioned by the “neoconservatives” of the second Bush administration.

The  depredations of ISIS could be viewed as the endpoint of a world’s tolerance, about which Popper said,

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. – In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.[40][41][42][43]

In the words, “defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant”, is there perhaps an obligation to employ the weapon at hand, which in this case is air power?

This is an invitation to discussion. Whose voice will be the first on this forum? Man up, make a comment!

Iran’s strategy of partition

In a previous post, I was going to tease out the threads of Iran’s polyphonic Iraq policy, but it has become all too obvious. It now appears that the suggestion of joint Iran/U.S. involvement was a suggestion of the Rouhani “elected government”, which the hardliners of the theocracy are busy cutting off at the knees.

We now read that Maliki’s reluctance to resign is not simply out of concern for his personal safety. The commentary of Sayyid Mahmoud Shahroudi suggests it is actually a projection of Iran’s theocratic voice, Quoting Al-Monitor, “Najaf thus opted for dealing positively with the change by building an inclusive civil state in Iraq that does not only take into consideration the Shiite majority. On the other hand, Qom only saw in Iraq an American threat to Iran’s interests on the one hand and the Shiite majority on the other.”

From Qom’s point of view, what is missing in Iraq is “velayat-e faqih”, the so-called “Mandate of the Jurist”. It was Khomeini’s innovation to interpret velayat-e faqih as  theocratic government. Practically, this can be accomplished only in the portion of   Iraq  which has a Shi’ite majority. To the Iranians, it would be a disaster if Maliki were replaced by a unifying figure.

In “Important Iraq Question“, and “Khameni’s Centrifuges; Breaking the Dollar“, I asked whether Iran really wants Iraq to fall apart. The reporting of Al-Monitor suggests that the part of Iran that really counts, the Qom establishment, really wants this to happen. And like no other religious establishment, the Qom clerics really mix it up in economic affairs.

With Iraq’s southern oil wealth under their thumb, the mullahs may anticipate really tilting the tables of the world’s oil market. Whatever influence the U.S. may have pales compared to that of Iran, which entangles Iraq’s political scene like an inoperable brain tumor. In times like this, one wishes, not for diplomacy, but for miracles.



Iraq and the Old Swiss Confederacy

Models of voluntary political agglomeration of hostile, religious and ethincally distinct polities are rare, perhaps singular.  I can think of only one case in which all of the antipathies existed at once — Switzerland. The cantons that now compose that rock of stability were divided between two religions, Protestantism and Catholicism, and four languages, French, German, Italian, and Romansh, a form of Latin. The divisions still exist, but now as culture, not politics.

The melding occurred, roughly, between 1291 and 1848, during which the usual meddling of external conquerors, Popes, and an endless procession of opportunistic princelings sought to turn things to their short term advantages. As for why it happened, there are several ways to look at it. One could attribute it to the blessing of a higher power, or to the natural superiority of the Swiss, which also enables them to make the best cheese.

Or, one could identify some organic element of the situation, which might save some breath at the bully pulpit in trying to lecture the Iraqis into the same wise choice. The organic element appears to be the terrain of Switzerland, which presented severe difficulties in transporting goods to market.

With a similar problem of geography in the Appalachian region of the U.S., farmers turned their grain into whiskey, called “moonshine”.  The terrain of the Appalachians has the highest average grade in the U.S., with practically no level place to put two feet. There was no way to get grain to market!  Until well into the 20th century, there were no roads to speak of. As late as the 70’s, Appalachians were still happily blasting the tops off mountains to make a little more flat land.

But having converted the bulky grain into a compact, transportable product of high value, the distillers had another obstacle: the evil revenuers of the U.S. government,  with whom they fought a skirmishing battle that began in 1791, and continued at economically significant levels till about 1940.  The effort to bring moonshine to market, involving whole communities,  brought about spontaneous political, and political-criminal, organization. Apparently, bringing goods to market fosters a whole mindset related to “common carrier” problems, like how to get from Point A to Point Z without getting killed, and the goods intact.

The above is hopefully an adequate substitute for the more difficult research problem of how Swiss cheese was transported over the Alps in the Middle Ages.  How communities isolated in the Alps could cooperate in getting their cheese to markets elsewhere in Europe is similar, although it is harder to get drunk on cheese. Unfortunately for this argument, absinthe originated in Switzerland late in the 18th century, too late to explain most of the history of the Swiss Confederacy.

So the organic element that propelled political unification in Switzerlandz is identified: any hostile canton on the way to market could interdict the cheese. Unification secured transportation, which could be understood, even by narrow minded individuals, as leading to their own good as well as the common good.

In trying to secure the Swiss Confederacy as a model of hope for Iraq, there is a problem. Instead of the blessing of cheese, we have the curse of oil. Oil is not the hand crafted product, the labor of love that comes from the weedy patch out back. It comes from holes in the ground that are located as accidents of geography rather than products of virtue. This is why the rather shallow Beverly Hillbillies get to live it up, while the rest of us have to make it on the Protestant Ethic.

In Iraq, some people have oil, which means they get big screen TVs, and air conditioning to temper the merciless heat of Baghdad and Basra in the summer. The Kurds get that, and cool mountain breezes to boot.  The Sunnis get sand. And even though Southern Iraq, Shi’ite country, has oil, they want the Kurds’ portion as well. Or so the Kurds think; the Shi’ites make noises about Iraq the nation, though curiously, the Sunnis are left dry.

So, as I read in the NY Times that even Maliki’s party, “State of Law”, wants him out, my enthusiasm for Iraq the Nation is checked. Why nations, in the modern Westphalian sense, exist at all is still the subject of debate. Steven Weber thinks it has something to do with maps. Perhaps the essentials are an organic combination of geography with  a government that can tax and provide services, around which elements can evolve to cultural compatibility. History abounds with examples of cultural assimilation. But so far, there have been no obvious successes in the direct evolution of nomadic or pastoral cultures suddenly confronted with vast mineral wealth.

Notably absent from the news coverage of Iraq is any evidence of love-like sentiments connecting the different ethic groups (think “Ecstasy”), or sentiments other than, “how am I/or my family going to get out of this alive?” Organic? Not!

Putin’s Next Move; Winter in the West

The coming winter will be pivotal in the world order, perhaps leading to a renewed division of the world between east and west. If Putin uses natural gas as a weapon,  Europe will, after a few very difficult years, replace Russia by the U.S.  The immense infrastructure of a natural gas liquefaction plant (LNG) is already under construction in New Orleans.

This would, truly, be equivalent to a “new world order”, with North America and Western Europe in one camp, once again. Russia would suffer the fate of the male spider after mating, the conglomerate with China forming an immense inland power. India might finally align with the West. Oceania would cower in fear. Perhaps Putin is not as intelligent as we would hope.

A shark cannot swim in reverse. Putin also seems incapable of this maneuver. Different opinions have been expressed as to why. Some Russian commentators attribute it to Putin’s personality, while I see it rather as a consequence of the power structure he has ascended (“Putin, rodeo bull rider.”) The actual cause does affect the estimate of his degree of working intelligence. If he can’t back up because of a personality flaw, then estimates of his actions must substantially consider options which we, as external observers, consider self-defeating. If he can’t back up because of political constraints, then we may more anticipate elements of surprise and creativity.

Although not decided between the two, consideration is given here to the second possibility. Realizing that the world order he could usher in is not conducive to the survival of Russia, he looks for a creative way to swim in reverse. So here is an open source intelligence solution to a prediction problem. It is not based on secret cables, confidences, or spies, or mind reading, but is an independent creative exercise that could approximate Putin’s thinking:

  • Donetsk is about 40 miles from the Russian border.
  • The Russians have moved small units and rocket batteries with the range to hit Donetsk to the border.
  • As the Ukrainian Army attempts to encircle Donetsk, the huge rates of fire of these weapons is used to establish a salient that includes part of Donetsk. The situation is  unfavorable to the Ukrainians, with high casualties and inadequate logistics.
  • The salient becomes a semi permanent part of the situation.
  • Putin keeps the gas flowing and everybody warm, except, of course, for the Ukrainians.

The salient would have several uses. It would provide the rebels with a feeling of accomplishment. The gradual reduction of the salient in return for the lifting of sanctions would provide time to reprogram the tiny brains of the rebels into thinking they have done something for Russia. It might also become a permanent feature, a “Berlin Corridor.” Those rebels who resist reprogramming could be properly disposed of.

Were the U.S. to provide the Ukraine with targeting information on Russian tactical weapon emplacements, the cost to Russia of maintaining the salient might reach an impractical level.  Here, it can only be noted that, in the history of U.S. Presidents, there has never been a President who was tops at both domestic and foreign affairs.




El Sisi, the next Ataturk

Let us start in the usual trivial manner, toying with the neoteric facts of the moment. Whether Hamas ordered the kidnapping and murder of  three Israeli teens has been curiously clouded by BBC reporter Jon Donnison, He alleges that Mickey Rosenfeld, head of Israel’s national police, told him that the West Bank cell responsible for the crimes does not receive direct orders from Hamas.

In an unguarded moment, Rosenfeld may have extrapolated from what he knows to what he doesn’t. In the absence of a solved crime, the statement, if made at all, is based on intelligence, and possibly extrapolation. Intelligence is seldom equivalent to fact, and extrapolation distances it further.

From the moment to the hour…

With the explosion of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the kick of the murders, Hamas saw what it hasn’t seen in a long time: motion, and fluidity, like the soil liquefaction that accompanies an earthquake. The Hamas leadership apparently realize that their 10,000 rockets and miles of tunnels are, at best a blasting cap. But even with liquefaction, there have to be some explosives lying around, in the form of a mobilizable pan-Arab proclivity toward violence.

Unfortunately for Hamas, this is absent. News organizations are reporting the “deafening silence” of Arab nations with respect to the Israeli incursion, and even more-than tacit support.  The  origins of of this attitude might be expected to be opaque, but this time, they are quite traceable, possibly to their origins.  In January  Egypt articulated the intent to destroy Hamas (Reuters).

Now the open source intelligence hound picks up another scent. El-Sisi intends to modernize Egypt. The parallels with Ataturk are striking.  He asks, rhetorically, (NY Times) “You want to be a first-class nation?” he asked of Egyptians, in a leaked recording of an off-the-record conversation with a journalist-confidant. “Will you bear it if I make you walk on your own feet? When I wake you up at 5 in the morning every day? Will you bear cutting back on food, cutting back on air-conditioners?”…“People think I’m a soft man,” he added. “Sisi is torture and suffering.”

El-Sisi is talking the talk and walking (or bicycling) the walk. Like Ataturk, he is taking on the religious establishment, with the military watching his back. The rest of the Arab World finds little alternative. When you’re caught between the ISIS, Iran and Al-Sisi, who do you choose?

Proceeding from the hour to the day…

Modernity is the word of the day. Egypt resumes leadership of the Arab World. Hamas, aware of the tick of the clock, gambles. But one wonders: Do they see the mortality of their cause, or must they perish with it?




Jon Donnison


Jon Donnison

Vladimir Putin, Child of History

One day, as a consequence of  inevitable demographics, China will own all of Siberia.  The most populous, most dynamic nation shares a 2,607 mile border with one of the most sclerotic. Russia’s shrinking population continues to be decimated by multi-drug resistant TB, AIDS, and alcoholism. The male life expectancy is only 64 years, and Russia has more drug addicts than any other country. The Vanity Fair article pulls it all together with horrific details. Only 30% of babies are born healthy, the rest likely victims of maternal alcoholism and drug abuse.

All this signifies a deeply unhappy people, so unhappy that, paradoxically, they don’t realize how miserable they really are. Putin’s “success” is an increase of the birth rate marginally above the replacement level.  But since the desire to procreate is so weak, and so challenged by the sense of physical and emotional privation, the sanctions now announced will eventually have a lethal effect on Russia. What remains of the middle class knows it, and is jumping ship.

Prior to the ascent of modern sociology, the only cure for national malaise was a stiff dose of some kind of nationalistic psychology: lebensraum (living room), manifest destiny, racial purity, cultural superiority , and what they call in Southeast Asia, “communalism”, the proclaimed right of an ethnic group to a hunk of territory and the right to be their own instruments of torture and corruption.

In the multicultural West, we are continually surprised that anyone would think this way, but even in Japan, mothers instinctively gather their children at the approach of a foreigner. Racial superiority is such an attractive notion that, during the period of Japan’s Asian colonialism, it was promulgated as an instrument of political control, this Japanese export readily absorbed by the Korean psyche. The most mild form of the infection is ethnic chauvinism, with the dark companion of xenophobia. The sense of “us” versus “other”, rooted in evolutionary sociobiology,   is such an effective instrument of manipulation  that practically no politician outside the West can resist the seductions.

The West has partially succeeded in elevating principles above ourselves. But as abstractions, principles require what child psychologist Jean Piaget called “the age of formal operations.” In preceding mental ages, the dominant thought processes are more instinctive, with the young mind in the process of uptake of what  Vilfredo Pareto termed persistences and derivations, the mental furnishings of childhood that underpin all but the most sophisticated  adult mind.

To Putin’s credit, many of his attempts to doctor his very sick patient are based on modern  sociological  and behavioral notions. The ban on public profanity, and restrictions on media containing pornography, violence, and profanity seem puzzling when we forget that the patient is in the ER. If you were defibrillating a patient, would you offer him a smoke?

So the modern Putin is at his wit’s end. For a thousand years prior, Russians were born into dark, cold  poverty, fought life’s struggles to eat and stay warm, multiplied their descendants, and descended with the Sign of the Cross into the black chernozem soil. Yet now, when with central heat,  flush toilets, and easy food, things should be better, Russians are failing to continue.

Perhaps all of us oscillate between modern and primitive, between scientific mindset and what gathers at the opposite pole: sensual and spiritual. What ails Russia? Is it too cold? Too dark? Too vast? In what chalice does the Russian spirit reside?  Gathering steam with the analogies, the body of the individual has been called the chalice of the spirit. But is the Russian corpus a complete, functioning body? Or is it crippled by exclusions? Does it need fields of waving grain? Ports of warm water, facing into the sun?

These are the thoughts of any leader of any country when the picture darkens. By the solitary light of the weak lamp, when the window’s view is the blackness of night,   in the trenches of 1918, or in the wake of a bond default,  these thoughts grow, acquiring a kind of poetry that makes them seem beautiful, even when they are not, and contain the germs of great cruelty.  In most harmless form, the “Volk” sing national anthems, such as “America, the Beautiful.” In the most harmful, genocide. In the intermediate, the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 becomes a tolerable cost of a “greater goal.”

This is one element of the mental childhood of Vladimir Putin, something hardly exclusive to him. His study of great world leaders reveals other mental childhoods, lauded by historians into  mistaken greatness. Conquerors are parasites.  But Putin’s own childhood stems from the tragic history of Russia, which became penultimately tragic in World War II. He was born in the post-war years, young enough to learn fresh from his elders of the genocide that came from within and without. To Putin, “Teutonic hoards” is not simply a quaint expression. As a student of history, he doubtless knows that the roots of Naziism start not with Hitler, not with Nietzsche or Strauss, but with the Teutonic Knights, whose genocidal proclivities date to circa 1200 A.D. One has only to dig a little to discover that “convert by the sword” actually meant genocide.

After World War II, the fear of a resurgent Germany was shared by the victors. The Western response was the Morgenthau Plan. The Russian response was creation of the satellite states behind the Iron Curtain. With the advent of the Cold War, the Morgenthau Plan, recognized as an invitation to Communist takeover, was replaced, for Western Europe, by a plan of redevelopment, the Marshall Plan,and the gradual political rehabilitation of West Germany. But the pain inflicted on the Russians had been too great for a similar gesture. It can only be appreciated in the context of their numbness to the self-inflicted horrors instigated by Joseph Stalin. It is little noted that Stalin didn’t kill anybody. He simply told others to.

So, from his early childhood, Putin inherited the terrible emotional scars of his elders. As a young man, in Piaget’s “formal age”,  in the employ of the KGB, his acquisitions continued on a more sophisticated plane. In those days, a primary responsibility of the KGB was the defense of the satellite states against subversion by the West. East Germany, especially, was the bar to the ghosts of the past,  the Teutonic Knights. After all, eight hundred years of history does not vanish in an eye blink.

It is hard to believe that Putin is still fighting that war, but it compellingly explains why, in violation of all the rules and instincts of balance-of-power politics, he seems blind to the indefensible 2607 mile border with China. By all tenets, he should seek alignment with countries that do not share land borders.

There is precedent for this in the mating habits of spiders, in which the male is almost inevitably eaten by the female after mating, as a good source of protein. But as Putin’s nervous system is larger than that of a spider, a more complex explanation seems required. Russian history provides one prior example: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact, signed in 1939. Twenty-two months later, Germany invaded Russia in a surprise attack, with disastrous consequences. In the West, this “Pact” is used as a classroom example of misplaced trust granted by one dictator to another. It is frequently generalized to, “Dictators trust other dictators.”

Perhaps they do. We really can’t know how someone like Putin, to whom democratic institutions are a foreign novelty, regards the Western democracies. The chaos,  self-negation, contradictions, and inefficiencies hide (we hope) a remarkable capacity for self-regeneration. But it seems that a mixture of contempt for Western values,  perceived to include hedonism and low tolerance for economic dislocation, have fueled a Molotovian mindset.

The strategy of gnawing away at Ukraine via a low intensity conflict might have worked, but all small conflicts are tinder for greater ones. In history yet to be written, MH-17 will be noted as the end of the “Peace Dividend.” And why? Because Vladimir Putin, Child of History, is fighting the wrong war. The most brilliant minds cannot ensure, by diplomacy, coercion, or otherwise, that the Teutonic Knights will not some time in the future spring back to life. But in his obsession with their ghost, and with the “spiritual sickness” of Russia, Putin has been nudging dogs that should be left to sleep.

Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.