Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Isn't This Man Asst. Secretary of State for Middle Eastern Affairs?

Go read Andrew Bacevich's definitive essay on the non-moron Plan for Afghanistan.

Remined me again; why the hell are we still hearing from Kagans and Rickses and all those other idiots?

The man spells it out in two pages and makes total sense. If Obama's people can't see - and we won't make them see - that Bacevich's ideas are the only sensible way to proceed in the Paimirs, then we deserve everything we will get.


  1. I don't agree with the emphasis that he places on religion in this essay, but I agree with most of his speeches and essays.

    I linked to a speech of him in August. That speech and the Q&A was much better than the new article:

    I usually agree with Fred Kaplan, Andrew Bacevich and with Gen. Krulak in regard to Afghanistan. Oh - and with Ron Paul.

    They're all fringe people in the U.S. as far as I know.

  2. I couldn't disagree more. The critical difference between the "West" and the Middle East is that in the West the churches lost the Wars of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Religion, much as it is so prominent in debate, has a relatively minor role in U.S. domestic policy and less in foreign policy. The NATO bloc, even less.

    Israel is going to have to confront its religious minority soon and decide if it is a secular Western nation or another Middle Eastern sectarian state. The handful of non-Islamic Arab/Muslim states were led by the Baath, which we conveniently made to look useless and helpless by knocking off Saddam. Turkey is a particular outlier.

    I would agree with Bacevich that the MAIN difference between the Middle East and the West is religious; specifically, about the place of religion in public life. Legally, the West has made the public square free to all faiths (and none), regardless of the usual bullshit Christian theocrats and their attempts to run the place like it was a "christian nation". Islam, OTOH, is exactly reversed - it's public religion that is the law, and the natural tendency of humans to want to escape the dead hand of theocracy that has to fight against the weight of the law, too.

  3. I think there's a misunderstanding. The moral of a society may superficially look like religious moral, but it isn't necessarily one.

    The main difference is that they've got a very different set of rules to control the same problems. The Taleban rules are mostly Pashtu cultural rules, for example.

    Here's an example, the famous Burqa.
    In the West we allow women to be sexy because we address the conflict potential with a complex sanction system that involves policemen, forensic experts, counselors, doctors, judges, lawyers and wardens.
    We chose not to restrict the freedom of women in order to control a problem that's really not being caused by women by by men who are exposed to unrestricted women.
    Many societies cannot sustain such elaborate state services. That's why so many economically feeble countries failed in their adoption of the Western state model. We can occupy 98% of our families with other businesses than agriculture (due to the latter's productivity). Most societies can only do so with 20% of their families.
    They CANNOT sustain our model on their own.

    The Burqa represents a different, much more simple and much cheaper approach. Blame the women, restrict them - and you don't need a complex and very expensive state apparatus to handle conflicts. That works even without a single full-time state official in the whole country.

    It's quite similar with cruel punishments. it's much cheaper to cut off a hand than to keep someone in jail for years.

    Or blood money.

    There's a reason why the old religions preach primitive justice systems - except those which were born in civilizations (as Christianity in the Roman Empire).
    I bet that a prophet today wouldn't preach genesis in seven days, cut off hands for theft, stoning for adultery - but could you imagine that the semi-nomads 3,000 years ago would have understood police, neutral justice and forensics or evolution?
    What came first, religion or society?

    The difference between 'us' and 'them' is first and foremost cultural. Sure, religious authorities are pushing for that kind of society, but keep in mind that most authorities are religious (or at least old men) in 'those' countries anyway.

    - - - - -

    There's also another reason why I doubt the importance of religion in those countries: The rational power politics at all levels. Much if not most that happens can be explained without religion.

  4. But Sven, we play power politics here, too, without trying to blame it on God or Allah or whoever. The difference is that here you have to gin up some sort of phoney terrorist scare or an anthrax attack or an assault on "family values". In Saudi Arabia or Sudan you simply call it "following the dictates of the Koran" and nobody can question you.

    Certainly a lot of the sort of things we Westerners find appalling - burqas and hand-removal and honor killings - are cultural rather than truly "religious". The Koran says nothing directly about shaving or turbans or veils or harems; all those 10th century ideas are traditions, cultural items. But the BASIS of those cultural differences are the acceptance of religion. Try and telling your boss you have to stop working 5 times a day to pray - he'll dock your pay in a heartbeat, or at the very least you'll have to file a discrimination claim to get him to let you do it. In Cairo or Tehran or Peshawar it's the other way around - you'd have to be very careful to explain why you DIDN'T stop to pray when the muezzin sounds off.

    So call it cultural or call it religion - the point Bacevich is trying to make is that the central idea of COIN is this "clear-hold-build" notion. But what if the thing you're trying to build is completely unacceptable - whether its for cultural or religious reasons - to the people you're dealing with. You're building on sand. Your best bet is to back off and to "compete" in your own place, in your own way. If the local tribes don't want to play, fine. But at the very least you've stopped trying to argue with them about their culture/religion. It's like arguing with a drunk - you're just going to get pissed off and it irritates the drunk.

  5. The "build" is more about hardware (roads, dams, schools, wells, irrigation canals, mobile phone masts, power lines, power stations than about institutions.

    The normal people seem to resist the "hold" more than the "build" (especially the corrupt/criminal "holding" activities of the Afghan National Police).
    I'm no expert on AFG, though. My focus is on major conventional warfare, I despise all those overseas adventures of choice.

  6. I'm going to agree with FDChief in two significant areas here. First, I share his admiration for Andy Bacevich and would sure like to see him in a position where he could influence the debate more.

    I'm also going to agree with the Chief about the religious aspect. The US born-again outfits like to play this "my God's bigger than yours" game, but, although they unfortunately have a great deal of sway in one political party, they haven't yet gotten to the point where they've poisoned the nation. The Catholics had their run centuries ago, but they've been essentially defanged. Islam unfortunately runs things in a large swath of the world. And unfortunately, Islam as interpreted by many millions of its adherents is hostile to anyone who doesn't bow down before Mohammed.

    Yes, I agree with Bacevich. From the perspective of those who wish us in the West harm, this is a holy war. All the more reason, IMO, why religion must at all costs be kept out of the public sphere. And all the more reason why we're fooling ourselves with our politically correct insistence that everybody's just the same, tra-la-la-la. Sorry, religious folks, but there's little evidence that Islam or for that matter any organized religion is doing much for mankind these days.

    BTW, I wanted to share something with all of you, something that is going to color the debate over Afghanistan and will, IMO, be the 800-lb gorilla lurking in the hallways of power. What I'm linking to suggests that our very bright, well-spoken and glib president has, in the old military vernacular, "allowed his alligator mouth to overload his hummingbird asshole." In short, I think Mr. Obama has been flapping his gums too much and he's just about ready to see the chickens come home to roost. Boy, do I wish he'd left the health care stuff alone and tried a little focus on the military messes he inherited from the previous big talker in the White House. I truly think Obama thought he was going to be able to bullshit his way through this foreign and military stuff, that his charisma and all of the other crap would get him by. He's an updated version of gloryboy Bush who looked into Putin's soul and learned the truth, if, that is, Mr. Bush is actually capable of learning anything. Obama is now going to go through a very steep learning curve. It really is a shame that Americans and the other citizens of the free world have to go through this shit caused by lazy and ill-prepared politicians who think they can just wing it.

  7. Here's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about: "Egypt's Anger Over Vriginity Faking" ( Some Egyptian prof is shrieking about a Chinese gadget designed to fake out a husband on his wedding night. OK, yeah, so?

    So the article says "members of the Egyptian parliment have called for import of the item".

    Sure, a couple of pols aren't the full meal deal, but can you imagine this happening in Europe or the U.S.? For one, there's no need - that's cultural. For the other, no way a politician outside a genuine right wingnut would even SUGGEST this in public.

    THAT's theocracy, and that's why the entire notion of trying to redesign Middle Eastern and Asian and tribal societies on lines of the Western, secular and modernistic invaders is utterly insane.

    As far as Obama goes, well, damn, Publius, we knew all this, right? I don't know about you but I voted for the man not because I bought into all that silly "Change" crap, but because I couldn't stomach four more years of Bush. I did hope that Obama's people were dedicated enough and smart enough to outwit the M-I-C Complex and the other malefactors - the Beltway punditry, the career weasels, the lobbyists, the other Usual Suspects - and regain some semblance of Constitutional law.

    But it seems that the system is too far gone to save.

    We're just fucked.

  8. FDChief, are you from the country that fines TV stations for showing a nipple for seconds? Isn't that mainstream?

    Well, I would have little difficulty to find equivalent idiocy if I type "Michelle Bachmann" in google. There's a difficulty between religion running a few members of parliament and religion running policy, though.

    Btw, the Arab women use chicken hearts just in case anyway. Not all women bleed 'enough' during their first time even if they were virgins.

  9. I can't believe we're actually disagreeing about this: are you seriously saying that religion doesn't make up a significant part of both daily social life and political life in many Muslim countries?

    While I don't pretend that the West - and the U.S. in particular - doesn't have more than its share of religious idiots trying to run both government and society (mostly, fortunately, ineffectively), are you honestly arguing a societal and political equivalence between the place of religion in many Islamic states and non-state actors and its place in the typical Western polity?

    Because it we're that far apart on this - which seems to me a no-brainer - there's no chance we will ever agree on ANYthing...

  10. "FDChief, are you from the country that fines TV stations for showing a nipple for seconds? Isn't that mainstream?"

    C'mon over to my house and let's watch 24 stright hours of "mainstream" HBO or Showtime.



    And I won't even get started on "Spike"...

    Nope, arguing for religiousity in America by arguing the FCC rules is like arguing temperance by arguing a dry county in Carolina. We have our rules, our sodomy laws and our religious freak shows. And millions of Americans break them, publicly, openly, all the time. And the "religious police", the mutawwiin? Why didn't they arrest them?

    Ummm, gee, I guess we just never got around to organizing those, did we?

    I'm all for trying to argue that black is white, but when you seriously try to make the case that political life in Islamic societies - where the religion itself spells out the duty of the observant believer to act out his or her beliefs in their public as well as private lives - is not heavily influenced by religion?

    Not gonna fly.

    And let me say for the record - I'm a firm believer in everyone's right to run their own life. If the good people of Iran or Saudi or Syria want to run theirs by the Koran or their interpretation or cultural version of it, fine.

    But to make foreign policy as if fighting a rural, tribal civil war in such a land can be managed in the same way it was in Kenya or Malaya? That's nuts. The religion adds an entire level of complexity, and if we ignore it we're fooling ourselves and in doing so make disastrously bad foreign policy.

  11. The nipples thing is very comparable to the fake blood thing if you look at it as a possible symptom of culture, not religion.
    That's the point.

    The relevance of religion for everyday life in Muslim countries is usually exaggerated. Many (likely most) Muslims don't even pray five times a day. They spend on average a few minutes per day for spiritual reasons, their diet restriction usually fit fine to the local environment, many violate the fasting rules and last but not least it's difficult to separate culture and religion. Many Muslims even misunderstand cultural norms for religious norms (like the mutilation of and the head cloths).

    The average discussion between foreign officers and local leaders in Afghanistan isn't about religious topics.
    Political issues are rarely about religion either - but we only learn about them if they're about religion or outrageous in some way.

    Even the Taleban as a political force aren't only about religion; they're about moral, and that moral is about Pashtu tribe customs that were additionally legitimized by their interpretation of the Qu'ran.

    The powerful men in Afghanistan are not religious leaders, but community elders and rich people. A negotiation usually involves the elders, you cannot settle a dispute over a road by negotiating with a clergy.

    The whole "Islam" thing has been badly exaggerated for eight years. Religion is the easiest way of defining "us" and "them", and such a definition is necessary for the political mobilization for wars.

    We were conditioned by propaganda to see the conflict through the religion lens when it's really about resentment and power.

    Some right wingers even deflected the perception of resentment by claiming they hate us for what we are instead of for what we do.
    That was a necessary move to keep the freedom to go on doing stupid things that incite resentment.

  12. To all;
    First; I'm praying for Chiefs immortal soul:)
    As for religion- this months Army Echoes for retirees has a little blurb by Casey indicating that the spiritual is a new part of our training for troops. Casey said-The CSF program is- social,family, emotional, spiritual and physical. Issue3 ,vol53,sep-dec 2009. This info is provided b/c I know Publius will check it out! BTW, it busts my butt to see the Army C/S wearing a EIB. What a warrior.

    And yesterday I read a gun magazine article on SERE training and it again emphasized that belief in a religeous morality is a SERE virtue. This means that us non-believers are sere-ously screwed. We just won't make it if captured-that was the implied point. This is a reflection of the official POI and mindset.

    The religous thing is just masked more efficiently in our little PWOT, which is a christian endeavor that replaces the White Mans Burden philosophy. The sad fact is that our military and society are faith based. No bullshit.!
    To SVEN- I can't for the love of my immortal soul understand why a little tit or ass is so offensive as to be banned on TV. We show death and violence and are ok with that . How is this not a violation of the 1st amendment?

  13. I find this discussion over belief systems interesting.

    FD Chief believes in everyone's right to run their own life. Presumably, he also believes in constitutional law. I am unsure how many people in power in the USA share his belief systems.

    In the middle east, we have people who have a incompatible belief system (how ever you define it, but clearly not extending to the belief where you allow other people to run their own lives).

    Now comes the conundrum: Since your belief's are axiomatic by definition, the other guy has to be wrong when there is an incompatibility.

    Now, since the other guy is wrong, when the two belief systems clash, clearly he should simply correct his beliefs to match yours.

    If he doesn't do so willingly, then....

    Hmm, I think I've seen this movie before.

  14. about SERE and faith:

    I saw a statistic that said that married men are more enduring in captivity and in apparently hopeless situations.

  15. Jesus (if you'll excuse the expression) H. Roosevelt Christ, I'm just not going to catch a break here, am I?

    OK, I'll give this one more try, and if it doesn't work, I'll admit I'm licked.

    I am an agnostic, have been most of my life. I never went to services in the Army, and am cheerfully unchurched as is my entire family. My only encounters with religion are the occasional individual, goofy God channels deep in the cable and discussions like this one. My kid is on record as saying "God is boring" (of course, he has also been quoted as saying "Jesus is magical and makes you dead and then not dead", but I think he'd been talking with the pastor's little kid at daycare then...). I've never changed or done anything I can remember over the past 30 years to accomodate or avoid a religious stricture, from clothing to diet to behavior.

    I deployed to the Sinai in 1984. During that 6-month time I was unable to drink (due to Egyptian law) and was cautioned about wearing shorts. I had to curtail my work schedule to accomodate the Egyptian soldiers we were with because some were fasting for Ramadan. Their meals were designed to meet strict halal requirements. They were fairly tense because recently their President had been assassinated by a political party based on (to most of them) unacceptably strict interpretation of their religion. I could not find a pork sausage, a Playboy, or a beer at the local stop-n-rob.

    And this was Egypt - considered decadently Western by the standards of, say, Saudi Arabia.

    So no, people didn't drop everything and pray 5 times a day, wear burqas or blow stuff up for Allah. But there were deel "cultural" patterns in the society - the patterns you're describing - and they had been deeply affected by Islam. The whole "virgin blood" thing is Muslim AND tribal, in the same way that a bride's virgin blood is important in the rural parts of Sicily for both Catholic AND clan reasons.

    The main point here was to support Bacevich's admonition that to ignore Islam in making policy in Afghanistan would be as unhelpful as to ignore Shinto or Buddhism in making policy in Japan or ignoring Catholicism in making policy in Sicily. Does it rule the land? No, of course not. But it is infused through much of the culture, can be used for good or ill, and is a factor to consider before planting 40,000 foreign troops there for months or years...

    Again; the main difference I see is that in the West, de jure, all the faiths are equally powerless over those not of their faith. In many Islamic-heritage nations, Islam is, at least notionally, privleged above other faiths.

    I know that this is the starting point for the wingnut "Islamic Jihad" nonsense, but acknowledging the fundamental relationship isn't the same as endorsing their weird perversion of it...

  16. "... was cautioned about wearing shorts. ... Their meals were designed to meet strict halal requirements."

    The Germans went to Northern Africa in 1941 unprepared. They kept a normal diet and many wore shorts.

    The results: Soldiers (including Rommel) fell sick after about a year or two because the diet was too fatty (think about the fat content of pork).

    Many also got skin cancer or other skin diseases because shorts are simply a poor idea under the intense Libyan or Egyptian sun.

    The Egyptian's lives are restricted, but they don't restrict themselves for no reason.
    Egypt and other Muslim countries are very different from Europe, but religion is just one of many reasons for this situation.

  17. I believe both Chief and Sven have valid points and are arguing the same thing.

    Who was the old-time philosophe' who claimed that culture and religion were two trains on the same track, carrying the same passengers, and bound for the same station???

  18. Sorry Chief,

    I was not talking about Religion so much as I was talking about belief systems. (i.e. the things you *believe* are right and wrong).

    A modern westerner can be as narrow minded as a Victorian school marm and not even recognize it.

    Take for example arranged marriages. My Indian friends consider it natural to have a trusted agent find a life partner for them. How else could you get any quality assurance? For me, however, the idea seems bizarre, in that who else could know better than me, who a life partner should be?

    Judging by divorce rates (which are not a really good measure) the arranged marriage method would probably be deemed superior.

  19. Ael: I think as a Westerner, my narrow-mindedness is that I trust my judgment and presume that others will trust it as well. Arranging my marriage presumes that I am incapable of making a rational choice, or, rather, that my father, mother, uncle, rabbi or custodian is better suited than I am.

    So, yes, we in the West ARE narrow-minded in the sense that to us, the idea of an arranged marriage - divorce statistics aside - seems to start from a human fallacy, the notion that someone else knows better than I what's good for me.

    But I'm not arguing the "what" of right and wrong so much as the "how". And my point is that the West makes something of a fetish of personal choice - hence the widespread objection to stuff ranging from arranged marriage to honor killings and clitoridectomy. They seem to us an offense against the person's right to choose their own moral path. But to a member of another culture, those things seem not just right but imperative. Those things - and there a many other, more humane issues; I chose those three just because Westerners typically find them repugnant (as do many members of the cultures that still perform them, I should add...) because of the lens we see life through.

    Islam has instilled certain attitudes in societies where it is a powerful force, just as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism have. And Islam, being relatively newer and somewhat less splintered than Christianity and more "activist" than Buddhism and Hinduism (tho the BJP and other Hindu activists seem determined to change this) seems to have a disproportionately large influence on the cultures it inhabits. It also did not have an anti-clerical "Enlightenment" (or a home-grown Industrial Revolution) of the sort the West has been thrashing with since the 18th Century, with the associated changes in social and political thinking about religion.

    So an occupier in Michigan could probably act without really worrying about religion or local culture; Michigan has much the same "culture" and attitude towards religion as the rest of the U.S.; pretty relaxed. But Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan? Not so much. These societies are much less amenable to the idea of "nation-building" is the building takes the nation in a less traditional, less tribal, less religious direction.

    That's all Bacevich is saying. And all I'm saying...

  20. Most Westerners are not trusted to decide on their own marriage before age 18.

    Those 'other' societies have a much lower life expectancy than us and accelerate things accordingly; less education, earlier marriage.
    Many (maybe most) marriages happen at an age at which we don't trust the people to do the right decision about marriage either.

    That's a very wide-spread reaction of societies to low life expectancy and poor health care.

    Forced marriages stop to be an issue if life expectancy and health care have been fine for two to three generations (or if the society has been shattered by migration into cities).

  21. I normally rave on about Bacevich, but I found this one to be a bit too complacent.

    Far from the clear distinction he makes, the US has been increasingly influenced by the notion of divine support of US policy for some time. During the Cold War it was increasingly a case of God's support for our side against the godless communists. (Back during the late Cold War I was involved among many other things in an unclassified program known as "Cold Prints" if that rings any bells).

    The separation between Church and State was used too often during this time as an argument limited to opposing public support of Catholic schools . . .

    Far too often imo the American far right and the Al Qaidists come out on pretty much the same side in issues concerning "faith" and government policy, so the conflict could be perhaps more clearly seen as a war between extremist/essentialist views where faith wins over logic and rational thought every time, which would do much to explain the nature of this "long war". . . Consider our environmental policy or lack thereof as an example of an irrational faith in "our view" getting us through in spite of what our lying eyes tell us every day . . .

    I do agree with his contention that much of the crisis in the Islamic world concerns how to come to terms with modernity, but then William Pfaff has been arguing this for years. Their religion doesn't sell out to consumerism, and ours (as in Western religions) pretty much have. If Christians were true to the Gospels they would have far more in common with devout Muslims than they would with Madison Avenue and all its promises.

    All this shows us that our "fundamentalism" is not very consistent, nor is it truthful to our traditional ideals, whereas the Muslims who oppose us are consistent and true to theirs. This while our political leadership (wearing cheap pirate costumes) are told by stern-faced Chinese Communist Party functionaries (in pin-striped suits) that we really need to clean up our act and get back to traditional rational capitalism and give up on all the self-defeating scamming . . . nobody's buying it any more.

    In an aside to Publius, I found what Gore Vidal had to say about Obama as close to what you had mentioned before this interview was posted . . .

  22. Sven:

    The Indian friends that I know, typically started looking for a wife when in their late 20s. They were not looking for a 16 year old bride, either.


    Yes, I understand (and agree) with your point.
    My point was that the conflict is between differing belief systems. And that because we live and breathe our "belief system" it is hard for us to understand what is happening because the other guy is so obviously *wrong*!

  23. Sven: Child marriage? Pshaw. Stick to the point.

    seydlitz: "All this shows us that our "fundamentalism" is not very consistent, nor is it truthful to our traditional ideals, whereas the Muslims who oppose us are consistent and true to theirs."

    Or perhaps it shows that for all our talk about In God We Trust and the yammering of the fundies actual policy in the U.S. is decided on a fairly secular basis of the usual greed, spite, lust, delusion and vanity, while in societies that tend to respect their religious faith a little more tend to use it a little more when weighing decisions?

    And Bill Pfaff or no, someone seems to need to talk some sense into the people who seem to think that if you do enough killing and a little burning you can change tribesmen whose intellectual outlook is very different into a 21st Century American. In Bacevich's article can help do this, then I'm all for it.

    Frankly, given the recent to-do about the "revolt of the generals", I'm a little skeptical.

  24. FDChief-

    OK, greed is obviously a big part of it - but greed is eternal, has always been a part of commerce . . . But I would say that the current "rational capitalist" wrapping too says a lot, in that it has been reduced to only wrapping, whereas before it had real substance. Hard to link what one sees in terms of US "policy" today with how Bacevich describes it in his piece . . . I would describe it as more an attempt at propaganda. Perhaps he has switched tracks, is now attempting to tell people what they want to hear rather than what he actually thinks is going on. Wait for his next piece to see if this has become a trend . . .

    Rather concerning the current US situation, imo, the fundamentalist threat is internal, not external. Those Al Qaida boys are primarily a Saudi internal political question that operates outside the kingdom by virtue of their economic and spiritial influence . . .

    I never could understand how, if we are at "war" with the "islamofascists", that Saudi is on "our side" instead of being the first target of choice . . . but that's just me.