Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fighting the New Cold War and the Old One

No, the new Cold War is not a reference to chilly relations between Putin's Russia and the U.S., although some have warned of a new cold war on that front. The new Cold War I have in mind is the one to which Seymour Hersh refers in a scary article in the current New Yorker. Hersh explains that the saber-rattling at Iran is part of a larger Bush administration policy to side with the Sunnis against an emerging "Shiite crescent" in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon in a Middle Eastern cold war. Working behind the scenes with the Saudis, Hersh's sources say, the administration has been seeking to counter the spread of Iranian influence. The article is scary because it notes that many of the foot soldiers in the confrontation with the Shiites are al Qaeda or members of similar groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and that these people hate Americans (whom they regard as crusading infidels) even more than they hate Shiites (whom they regard as apostates). With friends like these . . . .

From a certain, reality-based, perspective, the new Bush policy is reckless bordering on insane. Even while we're battling a mostly Sunni insurgency in Iraq, and after having eliminated the most effective bulwark against Iran (Saddam Hussein), we're confronting Iran in a broader war between Sunnis and Shiites. Under these circumstances, one only hopes that this confrontation remains a cold war, rather than becoming a very hot one. (Obviously, the part in Iraq is already boiling, and the piece in Lebanon is at least simmering.)

But from another perspective, there's a certain logic to the current policy. Recall that according to Richard Clarke, in the immediate wake of 9/11 Rumsfeld wanted to go after Iraq because it had more targets than Afghanistan. (In an interview with Jim Lehrer Rumsfeld denied making this comment or says he was joking if he did or that Dick Clarke must not like him or something.) Of course, that's insane. As Clarke notes, it would be like attacking Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor. Yet if your whole approach to military strategy is rooted in the cold war (the old one, that is) then you'll see nation-states as the main threat. That's why the Bush administration came into power and immediately shifted national security attention from al Qaeda to Iraq. That's why the administration has so botched the reconstruction jobs in Afghanistan and Iraq---because they see aggressive states as posing the real threat, underestimating the danger of stateless terrorists operating out of failed states. And that's why now, even as Iraq is in chaos, the focus has shifted to the most menacing nation-state threat (assuming the North Koreans remain bought out): Iran.

Or not. Perhaps psy-ops agents within the Pentagon deliberately sold Hersh a bill of goods so as to spook the Iranians, and thus improve the American bargaining position in the "neighbors conference" that the U.S. has just agreed to join. That would at least suggest a non-insane rationality behind the current policy.

17 comments:

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

I agree that you don't cure insanity with a heavy dose of more insanity. But on another level, we shouldn't be surprised really. Our history clearly proves that we've already bought into this cycle (if only Joseph Heller could write a modern-day Catch 22).

We consider Saudi Arabia and Pakistan strong "allies", even though those countries were the biggest funders of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. And of course, we all know that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are tied at the hip.

Our leaders have shown that they simply don't understand -- or what's worse, that they don't even feel the NEED to understand -- the deep rifts in that part of the world. Recall that Condi basically called the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Iran allies during the 2000 campaign. With even a rudimentary understanding of the Shia / Sunni split, one would have known that Iran was on the OTHER side of that -- trying to counter the Saudi / Pakistan effort to install the Taliban.

Another troubling notion floating around is that it's somehow a surprise that Iran is the big winner of our efforts in Iraq. We should have realized that we were guaranteeing that outcome -- and it should have been part of the cost-benefit analysis of going in to begin with. The administration ignored the basic Sunni / Shia split, and instead tried to tell us that there is enough difference between Persians and Arabs to keep the Iranians at bay.

History defeats that premise. Though Iraqis Shias are mostly Arabs, they largely saw "Arab nationalism" as a Sunni endeavor, and were therefore very suspicious of it . Bottom line: we should have known that the Shia brotherhood with Iran would win out, especially given how many Iraqi Shias went into exile within Iran during Saddam's reign.

For a very good (and not too long) read on the subject, I recommend:

The Shia Revival, by Vali Nasr.

http://www.amazon.com/Shia-Revival-Conflicts-within-Future/dp/0393329682/sr=8-1/qid=1172674809/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/103-0117362-2345471?ie=UTF8&s=books

It tilts pro-Shia, but is very helpful as a foundation for understanding the basics.

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"It need hardly be said that the subtlest practitioners of doublethink are those that invented double think and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating. In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion: the more intelligent, the less sane.

One clear illustration of this is the fact that war hysteria increases in intensity as one rises in the social scale. Those whose attitude toward the war is most nearly rational are the subject peoples of the disuputed territories. To these people, the war is a continuous calamity which sweeps to and fro over their bodies like a tidal wave. Which side is winning is a matter of complete indifference to them. They are aware that a change of overlordship means simply that they will be doing the same work as before for new masters who will treat in the same manner as the old ones.

The slightly more favored workers, whom we call the proles, are only intermittently conscious of the war. When it is necessary, they can be prodded into frenzies of fear and hatred, but when left to themselves they are capable of forgetting for long periods that war is happening.

It is in the ranks of the party, that the true war enthusiasm is found. World conquest is believed in most firmly by those who know it to be impossible.

This peculiar linking together of opposites - knowledge with ingnorance, cynicism with fanaticism - is one of the chief distinguishing marks of Oceanic society. The official ideology abounds with contradictions even when there is no practical reason for them."

- George Orwell, 1984

egarber said...

After reading the piece, I see that Vali Nasr is quoted a few times.

In a true frame for how that part of the world works, here's the kicker (from the piece):

"We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we can,” the former senior intelligence official said. The problem was that such money “always gets in more pockets than you think it will,” he said. “In this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don’t have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don’t like. It’s a very high-risk venture.”

On the "voucher" comment, we don't even have that ability with lawyers :)

Derek said...

Interesting that the Bush administration has pushed so hard for the paradigm shifting "war on terror," as opposed to the old "war on other nations" model. In the end I guess the "war on terror" isn't much different from the "war on communism." Same basic enemy (nation-states), different justification.

Nathan said...

I think that you might have given too legitimate an excuse to the Bush Administration's failure to effectively administer reconstruction in Iraq. While they may still have an old Cold War mentality that fears nation-states more than stateless terrorists, I don't know how plausible it is to blame that mentality for such an utter reconstruction failure--I think that administrative incompetence surely has a large role to play as well. I worry that it might give too much credit to the Bush administration to find some purpose behind their failure. Perhaps the administration would have more firmly grasped the importance of reconstruction had they not remained in an old-Cold War mentality, but I doubt that a greater sense of importance would have actually resulted in significantly better reconstruction policy--I have seen no strong evidence that this administration has the requisite competence to carry out such a Herculean task, even had they been entirely cognizant of its significance.

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