Some Thoughts on American Foreign Policy Sent to a Friend

I’m in agreement with what you wrote about immigration and Cuba…..  though that is probably no surprise.  Sixty years of the same policy has done little to free Cubans, what could trying a new approach hurt?

And as for immigration, as you know, the Senate passed a bill months ago that the House refused to take up.  I laugh at the Republican “concerns” about security as that Senate bill has an abundance of security measures as judged by the likes of John McCain.   If the concern with security is so important to them, doesn’t letting our present level of insecurity go on and on from year to year make any sense?

In terms of the Mid-East and Ukraine, I don’t think Obama has done a great job, but I think these problems are uniquely complex, new to our time……especially the burgeoning chaos in the Mid-East.  That mess is a result of decades of strong men violently keeping a lid on seething undercurrents and now the lid has been lifted, first by our toppling Saddam and then the so-called Arab spring, which I welcomed at the time, not really thinking through the likely aftermath.

The dilemma seems to be that toppling a strong man in the Mid-East usually leads to a situation even worse.  So, take your pick, suppression or chaos (with the kicker being that suppression doesn’t always work as the Shah of Iran, whom we supported, learned decades ago.)

Here is something I’d like your reaction to.   It strikes me that American foreign policy has long been a stew composed of 1) wanting international stability that suits capitalism, 2) spreading democratic values and 3)  acting humanely.   That’s fine when the values don’t conflict, but they usually do and when push comes to shove it is stability concerns that usually win out, which is why we have supported dictators in the Mid East for the past 100 years, including Saddam Hussein prior to his Kuwait venture.

But the other two values often muck up the realpolitik nature of the policy, such as when GW Bush envisioned setting up a democratic state in Iraq and when Obama’s humanitarianism  compelled him to stop Gaddafi from crossing Libya to exterminate thousands of rebels.

I was all for the Libya intervention, but I did not imagine how little we would help solidify that country afterwards.  Understandably we had become tired of trying and failing to rebuild countries, and neither party showed interest in doing much to develop a secure aftermath.

While Obama can be blamed for not doing more, what have the Republicans done to help?   Conduct hearing after hearing right to the present day in search of ways in which Hillary was at fault regarding Benghazi?  No matter that the country has dissolved into civil war in the mean time.  Most important is to besmirch Hillary right up through 2016.

At this point, with ISIS becoming the scourge of the entire region (now including Libya), we clearly most value strong men who rally to the anti-ISIS cause such as President Sisi of Egypt, who seems more repressive than Mubarak but is tolerated because he is showing commitment to fight ISIS, not to mention applying pressure on Hamas, which Israel welcomes.

It must be nice being a Vladimir Putin with such a clear cut agenda of regaining Russian greatness uninhibited by humanitarian or democratic values, free to conduct foreign policy like a complete thug.

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What Does ISIS Really Want?

Way too big of a question for this little blog, so I am going to defer to Graeme Wood, a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, to provide most of the answer.  He has the cover story in the most recent edition, and he was interviewed on NPR two days ago.  The interview is about 11 minutes and I suggest listening to that and then if really interested  move on to the article, which is hard to digest in one sitting.

Wood makes the case that we misunderstand ISIS when we act as if the phenomenon was a perversion of Islam, as President Obama often does, without admitting it as one of many legitimate interpretations in the Muslim world.   They are living out a medieval religious version which envisions an end of days scenario with armies of west and east living out some kind of apocalypse.  It is a crazy vision to us, but enthralling to some Muslims.  Something they want to be a part of, a glorious Muslim passion play fated to happen.

To me the main question is how does understanding what ISIS wants affect our strategy towards them.  One point struck me in reading the piece and that was how important controlling land is to validating their status.    Al Queda has largely been an underground operation.  Controlling much land has not been their aim.

But the purpose of having a Caliphate is to be able to enforce the pure practice of Sharia law.   For ISIS to survive it must control the land it has and gain more to prosper.  Otherwise questions arise as to its nature as a true Caliphate.   So far so good for them, but a successful strategy of slowly pushing them back should weaken the attraction they have to prospective followers.  Who wants to die for a false Caliphate?

The temptation for those in the U. S. who want to crush ISIS at a much faster pace, is to make for a worse situation if thousands of our troops are going to spearhead the attack, justifying ISIS propaganda that we want to destroy Islam, and providing a spur to even more recruits from the Muslim world.

While it may not be a satisfying conclusion, Wood believes:   “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it appears the best of bad military options.”

Wood argues it is in the nature of ISIS’ uncompromisingly brutal ideology to hamstring itself over time.  For them, their interpretation of Islam is the only valid interpretation and those not holding it are apostates, which means almost the entire world.  While ISIS attracts a flow of Muslim fanatics and/or psychopaths to its cause, it makes more enemies by the day as well, most recently stiffening the nerve of the Jordanian king after burning to death that Jordanian pilot.  And then prompting the Egyptian president to call for Muslims to band together to fight ISIS after 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded in Libya.

Of course, in both cases air power was used to wreak revenge on ISIS and what is most needed are more ground troops to retake lost land.  Only in Iraq are there many engaged, and that is because much of their land had been overrun by ISIS, but since ISIS wants to control the entire region so as to purify or kill fellow Muslims, eventually the alliance against them should come together out of self-preservation.

BUT IT WILL REMAIN A SLOW PROCESS BECAUSE WHILE MORE AND MORE MUSLIMS COME TO FEAR AND HATE ISIS, THERE ARE SO MANY HISTORICAL POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS FISSURES BETWEEN THEM – BEGINNING WITH THE SUNNI VS. SHIA SPLIT – THAT WORKING TOGETHER WILL REMAIN AN ONGOING DIFFICULTY.

It is the most complicated U. S. military involvement that I can imagine with no precedents that I can think of, so while I believe there is a need for more American troops on the ground in special forces capacities, we must continuously balance our involvement with that of regional powers, so that this will evolve as more of a Muslim vs. Muslim battle, rather than one easily portrayed by ISIS as yet another Christian Crusade.