Thursday, October 16, 2014

Unbounded volatility

Feeling mystified by current Middle Eastern events and the latest iteration of U.S interventions in Iraq and in Syria? Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn, long time reporter for The Independent, has taken an early crack at explaining in The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the new Sunni Uprising.

This is a quickie book, meant to answer an immediate hunger for some idea of how a potent bunch of terrorist fanatics called (sometimes) ISIS could have suddenly overrun much of two countries. Based on Cockburn's own reporting, the result is somewhat Iraq-centric. It has probably been somewhat more possible to report from Baghdad than Damascus of late. But he's got a fairly coherent theory that is presented in this small book.

Cockburn locates the essential background to current events in two factors. First, the generations-long promotion of an intolerant variant of Islam by oil-rich Saudi Arabia. When you've got almost infinite cash to pass around, you can construct an awful lot of mosques and schools that teach your brand of religion; the Saudis have been at that project since 1945. And little as the U.S. likes the result, we've seldom said "boo" against it.

Cockburn's second background condition has been the Western world's war on Arab nationalism, in particular on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. After feeding Iraqi persistence in its long war against Iran in the 1980s and then smashing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Western-backed U.N. sanctions throughout the 1990s pretty much destroyed what remained of a functioning Iraqi state. The consequence, continuing and intensifying through the US invasion and occupation of the 2000s, has been to put all the functions of a government -- handing out bureaucratic jobs, law enforcement and criminal justice, even the military -- up for sale from whoever had grabbed the power of appointment to whoever would pay. Iraq became one of the most corrupt societies in the world. No wonder the Iraqi army of some 400,000 men put up almost no resistance to a couple of thousand ISIS fighters on the move in northern Iraq this summer. The officers sold the troops their positions, then pocketed half their salaries, and most of any money for supplies.

Soldiers were sent to the front with only four clips of ammunition for the AK-47s; they went hungry because their commanders had embezzled the money to be spent on food; in oil-rich Iraq, fuel for army vehicles was in short supply; some battalions were down to a quarter of their established strength.

According to Cockburn, the West frequently, and sometimes willfully, misinterpreted the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Worse, Arab insurgents themselves were poorly equipped to lead their own societies.

In March 2011, mass arrests and torture effortlessly crushed the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. Innovations in technology may have changed the odds marginally in favor of the opposition, but not enough to prevent counter-revolution, as the military coup in Egypt on July 3, 2013 underscored.The initial success of street demonstrations led to over-confidence and excessive reliance on spontaneous action; the need for leadership, organization, unity, and policies that amounted to more than a vague humanitarian agenda all went by the wayside. ... Many members of the intelligentsia in Libya and Syria seemed to live and think within the echo chamber of the internet. Few expressed practical ideas about the way forward.

... The Arab Spring revolts were a strange mixture of revolution, counterrevolution, and foreign intervention. The international media often became highly confused about what was going on. The revolutionaries of 2011 had many failings but they were highly skilled at influencing and manipulating press coverage. ... Good reporters still took immense risks, and sometimes paid with their lives, trying to explain that there was more to what was happening than [an] oversimplified picture, But the worst media coverage, particularly in the first two years of the revolts, was very bad indeed. ... Predictably, such news was so biased and unreliable that the real course of events turned out to be full of unexpected developments and nasty surprises. This is likely to continue.

Cockburn concludes that the U.S., the West, and Middle Eastern peoples are in for a long, ugly, and likely bloody passage. He's not the sort of reporter who prognosticates, but what he sees is unstable and frightening.

The region has always been treacherous ground for foreign intervention, but many of the reasons for Western failure to read the situation in the Middle East are recent and self inflicted. The US response to the attacks of 9/11 in 2001 targeted the wrong countries when Afghanistan and Iraq were identified as the hostile states whose governments needed to be overthrown. Meanwhile, the two countries most involved in supporting al-Qa'ida and favoring the ideology behind the attacks, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were largely ignored and given a free pass. Both were long-standing US allies and remained so despite 9/11. ...

It was not governments alone that got it wrong. So too did the reformers and revolutionaries who regarded the "Arab Spring" of 2011 as a death blow to the old authoritarian regimes across the region....Unexpectedness is in the nature of revolutionary change. I have always believed that if I can spot a revolution coming, so can the head of the Mukhabarat security police. He will do everything possible to prevent it happening.

...The political, social, and economic roots of the upsurges of 2011 are very complex. ... Protestors, skilled in propaganda if nothing else, saw the advantage of presenting the uprisings as unthreatening, "velvet" revolutions with English-speaking, well-educated bloggers and tweeters prominently in the vanguard. ...Opposition demands were all about personal freedom: social and economic inequalities were rarely declared to be issues, even when they were driving popular rage against the status quo. ... Economic liberalization, lauded in foreign capitals, was rapidly concentrating wealth in the hands of a politically well-connected few. Even members of the [Syrian] Mukhabarat, the secret police, were trying to survive on $200 a month...

What is the glue that [was] supposed to hold these new post-revolutionary states together? Nationalism isn't much in favor in the West, where it is seen as a mask for racism or militarism, supposedly outmoded in an era of globalization and humanitarian intervention. ... But without nationalism -- even where the unity of the nation is something of a historic fiction -- states lack an ideology that enables them to compete as a focus of loyalty with religious sects or ethnic groups.

... The deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria may now have gone too far to re-create genuinely unitary states. Iraq is breaking up...

Time will tell how far the redrawing of maps will go -- and which forces get to decide whatever new boundaries come to be.

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