Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and Sunni monarchies.

The second element shared by both revolutionary Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood is a model of political Islam that uniquely combined popular sovereignty and Islamic values in the paradoxical phrase, “Islamic Republic.” This hybrid theory departed from the long-seated Sunni model of functional differentiation between the political and the religious in Islamic history and has invited fierce opposition from both clerical establishment and the throne. In Saudi Arabia, Islam and the state are two separate entities that have come together only on the basis of the exigencies of practical politics. Hence, Saudi Arabia supports a minimalist, literal reading of Sharia law in which what matters are symbolic private laws and issues of personal piety including the hijab, abstinence from alcohol, marriage and divorce, and so on. According to this pattern of interaction between mosque and state, Islamic authorities don’t intervene in the larger political issues of foreign policy and macroeconomics, which goes against the version of Islam both Iran and the Brotherhood advocate.

Much more of interest in this short read.

You can read more here.

The Iran Puzzle

Excellent editorial by the NYT on what role Iran plays in American Middle Eastern “strategy.”

Trump administration officials worry that the Iranians, aided by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, will seek control of enough territory in two adjacent countries, Syria and Iraq, so as to establish a land bridge from Tehran all the way to Lebanon. There they could resupply their Hezbollah allies, thus enlarging their regional influence.

I tend not to think that an emergence of a “Persian Crescent” is as big of a deal as other tend to make it be. Either way, without any conceviable strategy towards Iran in operation, the U.S. should cooperate with Tehran on overlapping interests (i.e. stability in Iraq, defeating ISIS, and frankly, keeping Assad in power) while the contrasting interests appear to be on the backplate (nuclear spread, Iranian meddling in Yemen (at least I haven’t heard of any Iranian meddling in the conflict as of lately) and state sponsored terrorism directed at Israel).

 

AP reports UAE tortured while America interrogated in Yemen

Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaida militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme — including the “grill,” in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire, an Associated Press investigation has found.

 

Senior American defense officials acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses. Interrogating detainees who have been abused could violate international law, which prohibits complicity in torture.

As if America’s image in the Middle East needs any more damage.

And this is for a war that has zero importance for America strategy. The best thing for America to do is try to diplomatically resolve the dispute claiming humanitarian motivations.

You can read more here.

Post includes vivid pictures worth scrolling through.

Fear and Saudi Reform

Walter Russell Mead writes

So what is behind the new Saudi activism? Fear. It’s an emotion that comes naturally to an oil-rich kingdom with a relatively small population in a neighborhood full of predatory rivals. For years fear made the Saudis cautious, since they felt they could take shelter behind a strong and confident America. Now they aren’t so sure.

There is more here.

The Middle East will have the most interesting politics of any region in the near future. The piece doesn’t even mention the Arab Spring.

America is treating Iran “disgracefully”

The language is over the top but Ryan Cooper as a good point when he writes

Whatever Iran has done, when it comes to arming and supporting morally odious nations and factions in the Middle East, the United States simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on. And now we have elected President Donald Trump — our very own Ahmadinejad, except more inept. Worse still, many of the economic benefits for Iran predicted by the nuclear deal have failed to materialize, in part due to business worries that American hardliners will clamp down again.

 

Remarkably, the Iranian public did not respond to these developments by electing their own conservative hardliner in the May elections this year. On the contrary, they returned Rouhani to office again — and by a larger margin than his first term. It’s a triumph of willful optimism.

I think May 19, 2017 should be a viewed by Trump administration as a confidence building measure. Rouhani is a moderate. I’m aware that term isn’t all the meaningful when compared to the ranting clerics of Iran, but this election was a choice between a moderate path towards reconciliation or rigid ideogloy. Plus, he does have an Instagram. The Iranian populace is largely moderate and are becoming less thrilled with the ruling clerical regime. year by year. The governing grip of the religious body just seems to get weaker and weaker with each generation and the United States should be start preparing the groundwork for when the distribution of political power favors the moderate masses and not the religious nuts currently in charge.

What is behind the Arab-Qatar divorce?

Hugh Eakin has a very informative piece at the New York Review of Books.

He writes

In fact, the battle for Libya is only one of several Arab uprisings this year in which Qatar has played a provocative part. In Tunisia and Egypt, no Internet and broadcast medium did more to spread the cause of popular protest than Al Jazeera, Qatar’s government-backed satellite television news network. In early April, the Qatari prime minister publicly called for the resignation of embattled Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh—a statement that departed from the more conciliatory position of other Gulf nations and led Saleh to charge that Qatar “has conspired against Yemen.”

But on Iran

Indeed, Qatar appears to have a decidedly different approach toward popular revolt in its own neighborhood. When Iranian security forces were condemned internationally for attacking protesters after the disputed 2009 election, the Qatari prime minister asserted that it was an “internal matter” and that “we must respect the right of each state to solve its own problems.” In March, as Bahrain began its violent repression of protesters in Manama’s Pearl Square, Qatar supported the controversial military intervention led by Saudi Arabia to prop up the regime.2

Perhaps terrorism, despite Trump’s tweets, are not the real issue but just a convienent scapegoat?

You can read the rest here.

Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

 

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

 

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

 

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

 

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

 

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

 

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

 

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

 

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.

 

Brian Clark is a foreign policy researcher living in Beijing, China. He blogs about international politics at www.managinghistory.com

Paul Pillar on America in the Middle East

National Interest has a wonderful article penned by Paul Pillar titled “How Donald Trump Should Transform America’s Middle East Policy.”

He states the quite obvious that

An immense share of the blood and treasure the United States has lost overseas in the past couple of decades has been in the Middle East, an expenditure that has not brought proportionate benefits.

You can rattle off the failures easily, from the Iraq invasion to the dithering in Syria. Obama’s Pivot to Asia, which was based on an interpretation of America being over-involved in the Middle East, was a good start in addressing our poorly formulated regional policy. Yet, a significant chunk of his foreign policy legacy will be defined by his inability to disentangle America from Middle Eastern politics. This includes Libya, Yemen, Syria, ISIL, Iran, the Arab Awakening, Peace Process, etc..

What is to be done? The US still has interests in the Middle East, but they should be better defined and more limited. Moving forward, his recommendations include

…the initial principle that the new administration should observe in making policy toward the region is the Hippocratic one of first doing no harm. A second principle is to keep costs and risks commensurate with prospective gains to U.S. interests. A third is to recognize that not all problems, even heart-rending ones, are solvable, and that if they are, the United States is not always best suited to solve them. Often the interests and objectives of other players in the region are better engaged, and this sometimes means taking advantage of the balancing of conflicting interests.

Highly recommended that you read the entire thing (quickly as it will soon be gated).

 

Our new Secretary of Defense will be James Mattis

It is official. President Elect Trump has confirmed that former General James Mattis will be his Secretary of Defense.

As a libertarian, I’m pretty skeptical of stocking any administration with so many former generals. I prefer civilian control of the government and some of these picks, like Mattis, are not very far removed from their military service.

Who knows what Trump is up to. He campaigned on disparaging our military leadership so I’m not sure what to make of all these reports of him courting so much former brass. But Mattis isn undoubtably a hawk.

See his suggested “blue print” for America.

He claims that the instability of the world is a consequence “…of 20 years of the United States operating unguided by strategy.” He also adds “The international system as we know it — and as we created it — is under assault from the forces of entropy that fill vacuums and corrode order when the United States is not actively engaged.”

Nothing can be further from the truth. The American strategy of the past 20 years has been some version of “engagement and expansion” which was the Clinton Doctrine of actively engaging the world and expanding democracy and markets. All three post cold war presidents had some version of this.

Mattis notes that a lack of American strategy has resulted in world where “Russia invades Ukraine, shaking the post-World War II European order. China chips away at others’ sovereignty in Asia.” I have no idea what he is talking about. In the far east we have the pivot. In eastern Europe NATO has grown, not shrunk. The recent revanchism of China and Russia are not desirable but the west has done something similar by invading Somalia (91), the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan and engaging in military operations in Yemen, Somalia (2016), Pakistan, and Syria, among others.

As well, the west proudly chips away at others sovereignty with the defense of Responsibility to Protect and such institutions such as the ICC.

All of this western preoccupation with the internal politics of other countries represents a direct threat such illiberal regimes survival. I’m not defending these systems, and I certainly think that they are inferior to what we in the west offer, but exerting pressure on these regimes to liberalize results in a less stable world and a less secure America. If all this instability is the cost of making an omelet, where is the omelet?

I disagree with most of the next Secretary of Defense policy stances. He wants to tear up the Iran deal and bomb ISIS, among other hawkish policies. But the more I read about his personal narrative, the more impressed I become. The “warrior monk” apparently owns 6,000 books and doesn’t deploy without them. Despite his erudition, he still connects with his troops at a personal level. Yet, he will do more damage to American security if he continues to frame China and Russia as a threat to the American “way of life”. Instead, the biggest threat to American democracy was just elected.

 

Iran and Saudi Arabia cooperate to raise oil prices

It’s being reported that Iran and Saudi Arabia are coordinating their behavior in the oil market in order to raise state revenues. As reported in the NYT, Iran and Saudi Arabia

overcame their differences on Wednesday, with OPEC deciding to cut production next year by about 4.5 percent, or 1.2 million barrels a day. It will be the first cut in eight years.

Any cooperation between these two is amazing given their history.

The article notes quite a few potential hangups regarding their agreement, but the market has already reacted.

With the prospect of less pumping, oil prices, which began rising earlier in the day in anticipation of the deal, were up more than 8 percent, to nearly $50 a barrel.

From making the United States complicit in war crimes in Yemen to exporting fundamentalism, Saudi Arabia is not our friend.

What makes Saudi and Iran cooperation in OPEC even most ironic? The fact that Saudi Arabia has been one of the most vocal critics of the American lead Iran deal. Read a late 2013 oped written by Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain. He is critical of American Iranian detente as he writes

And yet rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them. The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.

This year’s talks with Iran may dilute the West’s determination to deal with both governments. What price is “peace” though, when it is made with such regimes?

If Iran is such a treat to peace, why does Saudi Arabia work with the Shiite regime to raise Iranian oil revenue? Because states do not have “friends” but interests. It is in Saudi Arabia’s interest to outsource their security costs to the United States. But it is also in the United States interest to not be so dumb that we fall for it.