June 26, 2014

The Will to be a Force for Good

I read an article today in the online version of Britain's The Daily Mail (a tabloid paper, to be sure, but one that still does some interesting reporting on global events, accompanied by some pretty decent graphics) about the spread of "Islamic fundamentalism" across many parts of the world.  I think much of the problem addressed is somewhat akin to the drug cartel problem spanning Latin America. No single criminal or radical, violent Islamist group is able to overthrow a government or present a meaningful threat to the U.S. on its own. But the aggregate effect of their collective actions, unchecked by weak or complicit governments and in some cases actually facilitated by corrupt governments, leads to the breakdown of law, the undermining of otherwise viable economic systems, displacement of populations, drying up of investment, decay of infrastructure, and sapping of the will and hope of impacted populations. This can lead, in turn, to sanctuaries wherein hardened groups recruit, train, gain experience, plan, and from which dispatch their poison to other areas, sometimes even to the United States.

In much of the world, it really is the case that a ‘strongest tribe’ is needed to impose and sustain some type of 'order' such that societies function. Sometimes that 'order' is ruthless and repressive and the societies 'function' in a way that enables survival but not much else. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has served as the ‘strongest tribe’ in multiple ways: economically, ideologically, diplomatically…all underwritten by a strong military posture and a national political will animated by the importance of remaining engaged in the world in ways that stood against repressive, authoritarian regimes. The 'order' it has sought to promote and sustain has never had the goal of completely eliminating every bad actor in the world or imposing our system on others by force as tyrannical regimes have sought to do in so many places in the world. Rather, the goal has been be to maintain an order in which rule of law, trade, integrity of sovereign borders, and intolerance of repressive regimes (especially those that seek to nurture and export violent extremism and criminality) are valued and central elements.

The U.S. is the only power able to manage and sustain such an order, not by imposing it but through the myriad activities that combine to sustain such – a nudge here, an economic agreement there, the encouragement of positive interactions, facilitation in dispute resolution, helping to address small problems so they don’t become large, and, when occasion demands, sometimes a military strike when it’s the only or best option given the problem to be addressed.

It’s exhausting, it costs us, it’s never ending…but as much as the world benefits from it we gain even more.

That’s the point missed by this Administration and it's the point Americans need to once again recognize, appreciate, and support.

To further illustrate the point, check out the Fragile States Index (also found here), compiled by The Fund for Peace and published by Foreign Policy. Look at the rankings, note the countries that score high and low, consider their context. Then scroll down a bit to the section entitled Postcards from Hell and click the photo which will take you to a photo essay of "life and death in the world's 50 worst places."

Imagine a world without a U.S. willing to promote, underwrite, and sustain a global order that has brought greater prosperity, more opportunity, and brighter hope to more people around the world than any other country in any other period of history.

June 21, 2014

1001 Arabian Nightmares

As literature and legend has it, the ancient Persian king Shahryar was betrayed by his new wife. Upon learning of her infidelity the King had her executed. Having also seen his brother similarly dishonored, he becomes convinced that no woman can be trusted and so begins to marry young virgins only to have them killed the following day before they too can betray him. His chief advisor, the vizier, is charged with finding him new virgins to marry and scours the kingdom for them but eventually no more can be found. Alas, only his daughter, Scheherazade, is left and at her own urging he sends her to the the King. On their wedding night, and knowing her fate, she tells the King a magnificent story but does not finish it by morning. The King, wanting to know how the story ends, spares her life so that she can finished the tale the next night. When evening comes, Scheherazade finishes the first story but quickly begins another, likewise leaving it incomplete when the new day dawns. She continues with the trick for a thousand more nights, the King continuing to spare her life so that he can learn the end of one story only to be drawn into the next. Eventually, he awards her a full pardon and makes her his queen. 

I couldn't help but think about this tale while following all the news of the latest crisis in the Middle East, this time the rapidly evolving conflict in Iraq. It seems that there is always some war breaking out in these ancient lands. No sooner does one stop than another begins. Since the discovery of oil in the region just after the beginning of the 20th Century and certainly from the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, the West has been drawn in like Shahryar to the never ending series of 'stories'--desiring the see one end, presuming that some final condition will at last be at hand, only to discover that another one opens that can't help but hold its attention. But there's another way to look at the issue: there is always another story and one cannot presume that the current story will be the last. 

Given this latest spasm of violence in Iraq--coming on the heels of the chaos in Syria and the squandering of America's tremendous investment of blood and treasure by people who seem only to want to remain mired in the 8th Century--one could reasonably conclude that any further involvement by the U.S. would simply be more wasted effort. It certainly is the case that we cannot solve the problems of the Middle East. But like the stories told by Scheherazade, tales unfolding within tales, the larger story in which this current tale is unfolding...ultra-violent jihadis, corrupt and inept rulers, scheming neighboring powers...centers on the strategic interests of our own country. What interests of America's are at stake, threatened by the mayhem of warring factions who refuse to reconcile their differences?

Here is one nightmare scenario to consider:
  • Left unchecked, the assault by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, aka ISIS) serves as a catalyst for the partition of Iraq into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish zones
    • Iran's support of the Maliki government and its willingness to invest military resources in the battle against ISIL and other Sunni militants enables it to dominate the Shia north
    • Saudi Arabia, rising to aid the disaffected and abused Sunnis of Iraq, similarly dominates the Sunni south
    • The Kurds establish their own autonomous zone in north Iraq, fomenting an increase in separatist activity among their Kurdish brethren in Turkey and western Iran
  • Iraq ceases to serve as a buffer state, effectively creating a shared border between Iran and Saudi Arabia but one not so clearly defined that it precludes proxy battles between the two powers
  • The chaos in Iraq effectively merges with that of Syria, embroiling an ever larger region in conflict and worsening the flow of refugees into the surrounding states of Turkey and Jordan
  • To further burnish their credentials, both sides (Shia and Sunni) start funneling increasing support to militant Islamists of their respective sides who not only export their violence to other theaters (most likely Europe) but also increase attacks against Israel
  • Beset by increasing attacks against its monarchy and unable to cope with the flood of refugees and militant groups, Jordan falls
  • Iran announces (or is finally revealed to have) a nascent nuclear capability akin to North Korea's but more destabilizing given Iran's missile inventory and more ready access to advanced technologies from Europe and Russia
  • In response, Saudi Arabia makes it known that it will also acquire a nuclear capability (most likely purchased from Pakistan) to offset Iran's -- the two in continual competition for dominance within Islam
  • Israel is now surrounded by a more militant Hezbollah (now supported by a nuclear power) to the north, a chaotic if not fully Islamist Jordan to the East, an Egypt still in disarray to the south, better armed and motivated Palestinians to the West, and the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran
  • The next chapter of Arab/Islamist-Israeli wars opens with a rising tide of militant attacks in cities across Israel and increasingly accurate rocket fire from Lebanon, Gaza, portions of Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula
  • Faced with this existential threat, Israel uses its nuclear arsenal
The consequences of such a scenario on the economic and security interests of the US would be devastating. Energy prices would skyrocket. The European economy would be rocked with ripples spreading outward to the US and Asian markets. Like-minded militants across the northern and trans-Sahel portions of Africa would be motivated to increase their activity. Terrorism would likely reach the shores of America once again. 

Like Scheherazade's stories, we can't know the end until we get there, but not knowing the end also means we can't presume that the crisis in Iraq won't impact us here at home. I think that at the very least there is not only merit but a compelling case for doing what we can to shape the outcome. Will our continued involvement cost us more that we've already paid? Quite probably. But doing nothing won't insulate us from the consequences, and will likely cost us even more in the end.

June 14, 2014

America's Options: Combatting ISIS in Iraq

Well, things are certainly a mess in the Middle East. As bad as Syria continues to be, I think Iraq is even worse especially when one considers the long-term strategic implications. A fractured Iraq that results in separate Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish autonomous areas (if not new countries) will have profound implications for the larger framework of relations and competitions involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the Gulf States, and Israel (as always). If ISIS success results in the fall of the Iraqi government and the establishment of an ISIS-controlled zone within Iraq, other extremist Islamist elements will see it as validation of the brutal measures employed by these jihadis. 

We've seen that the chaos of Syria serves as an incubator for extremism--the most violent groups rising to dominate the battlefield which enhances their prestige, draws others to their cause, and provides the experience they use in other pursuits, the ISIS push into Iraq being a prime example. Emboldened by the perceived favor of Allah, in their minds a clear reward for their hyper-zealous commitment to the most extreme interpretation of the Koran, ruthless imposition of sharia law, and merciless eradication of their enemies (reports from the battle zone tell of streets being lined with the decapitated heads of Iraqi Army and police personnel), such groups will be ever more firmly convicted of their goal to create and expand their dream of a regional, perhaps global, Caliphate -- exporting their brand of rule-by-terror along the way.

Is the immediate problem of one group seizing control of a few towns in some distant land our problem to solve? No. But we do have larger interests that would be threatened by an even more radicalized, violent, and unstable Middle East: increased energy prices; the export of experienced terrorists to Europe, Africa, Latin America, and perhaps even the U.S.; emboldened terror groups in other regions adopting the ISIS model; increased tensions between Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) as they compete for dominant influence within Islam; a more energetic push by Iran for a nuclear weapons capability (especially if U.S. reluctance to assist Iraq enables Iran to fill that role (as they are doing now) and thereby gain advantage in related discussions) which would lead to further nuclear proliferation in the greater Middle East...the list goes on. It's not the short game we should be concerned about. It's the larger regional and global condition that would be affected that should draw our interest since we are the chief benefactor of the existing global order -- access to markets for our goods, access to reasonably priced energy to keep our economy going, influence in regional issues that favor (or harm) our economic and security interests, and the overarching interest in promoting rule-of-law and economic stability that serve the interests of all people.

Unfortunately, the current Administration doesn't see this and will make every effort to avoid entangling itself in yet another messy, distant, hard-to-deal-with problem. The consequence, of course, will be even more 'messier' and 'harder to deal with' problems that will move from 'distant' to our own shores.

Thursday morning I was asked to pen a short piece for The National Interest on military options available to the U.S. relevant to the rapidly unfolding crisis in Iraq. We met the late afternoon deadline and they posted it last evening (Friday).

America's Options: Combating ISIS in Iraq

Just what options might be available to Obama if he is forced to act to salvage what can be saved of the elected government—and the hard-won gains that cost America so dearly over a decade?

Dakota Wood
June 13, 2014

Riven by religious extremism and brutal sectarian competition, Iraq is descending again into the madness of civil war. The Maliki government has made a mess of things since taking office, estranging large segments of the Iraqi population along the way. The U.S. contributed to the mess via its hasty withdrawal two years ago, electing to end its security mission based on the Obama Administration’s desired timeline instead of as a response to achieving specific security objectives in Iraq.

Continued military involvement in Iraq would have entailed bitter costs in terms of manpower, treasure and casualties. But it also would have the benefit of giving the U.S. more influence over the behavior of the Iraqi government. A continuing military presence would have enabled the U.S. to intervene where necessary to manage tensions among competing Iraqi elements, mitigate the influence of Iran, assist the government in quelling unrest at its earliest stages, develop high-fidelity intelligence that supported all the preceding items, and maintain options useful in future situations which, inevitably, develop over time.

In short, being there helped to keep a lid on things, and when problems did develop, let us address them more quickly and effectively. With all U.S. forces gone, however, the President has very few options available. And, as the current crisis continues to unfold, the few remaining options are almost uniformly bad.