Streetwise Professor

November 11, 2013

The Weakest Horse

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 9:54 pm

It gets better and better. And by better and better I mean worse and worse. And by “it”, I mean the rubbing of the American nose in the manure pile in the Middle East. The Saudis flip out on us.  Then Bibi flips out on us.  (Quite an accomplishment to get the Saudis and Israelis on the same page.)

And now the Egyptians host a Russian naval vessel for the first time since 1992. Moreover, the Egyptians, who can’t even afford a pot to pee in (as my grandfather used to say), are looking to buy $4 billion in arms from Putin.  Obviously the Egyptians are sending a message to Obama.

Yeah.  That hurried Kerry visit to Cairo sure worked magic, eh?

The US has always been the object of hatred in the Middle East, but the president who orated in Cairo promising to enhance American prestige in the region has made our nation even more widely hated, not that I would have thought that possible.  In Egypt-the location of his allegedly transformational Cairo speech-Obama has turned the amazing trick of making the US hated by Islamists, secularists, and militarists.  It’s the only thing all Egyptians agree on.  That’s our Obama.  Bringing people together.

What’s worse, he’s made the US an object of ridicule and derision.

Machiavelli famously asked whether it was better for a prince to be loved than feared.  He concluded that it would be best to be both, but that since that was unlikely, it was better to be feared than loved.

The Middle East is as Machiavellian a place as exists today.  Obama’s Quixotic foreign policy-faithfully represented by his Sancho Panza, aka John Kerry-has resulted in the worst of all outcomes in such a place: to be hated and not just not feared, but to be actually ridiculed and despised as an unreliable ally and craven and cowardly enemy.

Obama reveled in killing Osama.  But he has given life to one of Osama’s most notable observations: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”

Everybody in the Middle East-and the Russians too-see the US as a weak horse.  Hell, not even a horse. A donkey-or an ass-is more like it.

This cannot end well.

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  1. Quite. Despite all the derision people heaped on Dubya, and the volume of hatred directed towards him, people knew he wasn’t to be fucked with, and adapted their policies accordingly. By that measure alone he fulfilled a large part of his job description. Obama, by contrast, comes across as the asshole rich kid in school who so desperately wants to to be liked by everyone, but has nothing to offer but smarm and ass licking. And everyone is adapting their policies accordingly. I’ve long said that history will treat Dubya kindly, and I think his successor is doing much to help with that.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 12, 2013 @ 4:07 am

  2. Baer writes a lot of people thought Mao’s China would never be a key trade partner for the United States decades ago, or that we would work with China in stopping the Soviet Union. And we all remember the results of blind confrontations with Chinese Communism in Korea and Vietnam. This way of reconciling with Iran is a way of learning from our mistakes, and making the best decision possible with the least possible violence. We would counter Russia and China’s growing power with an Iranian alliance. For example, if Russia threatened to shut off western Europe’s natural gas, Iran would be there to make up the shortfalls in the gulf. If any gulf Arab nations dissolved into civil war such as Iraq’s case went, Iran would step in and keep the peace. This solution works politically, militarily, and economically.

    The next few years will be interesting. I hope Obama’s foreign policy team is considering these options; with these solutions, we could make a very profitable Middle Eastern relationship for decades to come.

    Comment by Andes Dahl — November 12, 2013 @ 10:25 am

  3. When we voted in the One, we were told that we were getting an intellectual, a Professor, a real smarty-pants. What is most ironic is that Obama’s behavior is actually that of the quintessential(in the sense of being a stereo type) American Midwestern Boob (actually a pretty rare creature, from my experience). He has no understanding that the Mid East may work under different rules than appear in the Chablis and Brie world of the “bien pensant” American Left. He tries to negotiate with Putin (as caught on an open mike) like an inept Alderman. He seems not to understand that what are “political” issues for him are existential issues for many of the players and people of the Middle East: the stakes are much higher and the price of losing much greater.

    What is worse is that he doesn’t know he doesn’t know. and or seems incapable of admitting he doesn’t know.

    I had a friend whose father was a Lt. General in the US Army. A relative of mine had been (eventually) a very senior officer in the Hellenic Navy between 1905 to 1940, including the first and second Balkan Wars, WWI, the Greco Turkish War, the coups and counter coups of 1923, 1925, 1930, etc., the Greco Italian war and the defeat by Germany, refused to be evacuated to Cairo after the defeat, etc. etc. etc.. He laughed when I said my relative’s position was political – his own father’s had been larger, more important and just as political. I then asked him how many Ministers had been shot, did he ever have to be part of a negotiations to prevent others (in one case Prince Andrew of Greece) from being executed, how many times had his family had to run and or arm themselves because their political enemies were going to kill them, and so forth.

    The point was that domestic US Politics is sort of like the NBA – the winners get glory and bucks a plenty, the losers less so but few die, while Levantine Politics was like a Mayan ball game: far fewer spectators, but the losers were eaten. This is true for the people of the middle east now..

    Kerry may be an idiot, but the bag he is carrying has been made by Obama, who shows NO understanding of what he is doing. The hatred he has earned is due to the uncertainty he has generated. These are life and death issues in a place where a miscalculation can and will lead to disaster for millions of people.

    GWB was derided, but in the retrospect of many in the region he was not a fool. Obama is a child playing with blasting caps, surrounded by murderous players in the region who themselves can and have made many mistakes. Our weakness makes these people even more dangerous. No wonder we are hated now even more.

    Comment by Sotos — November 12, 2013 @ 11:57 am

  4. Andes, What Baer doesn’t say in that tiny little snippet of a video is that it would require a massive amount of HUMINT and agents in Iran to know for certain what they’re doing after any deal is made (we haven’t had any there in decades). He discusses this at length in his books and has said that the US is just no longer willing to do this. The CIA has been destroyed by political correctness, partisanship and the theory that all intel can be gathered electronically. It can’t.

    Baer also just might dislike Saudis more than he dislikes Iran but overall, he has a ‘keep your enemies close mentality’. He believes contacts should be maintained with all enemies as it’s the only true way to gather intel. And he’s right.

    I suppose we could rely on Israel to give us the info needed on Iran but since we’ve cut them out of this process, that’s not likely.

    So the approach, as it stands, is ludicrous and Kerry and Obama are nuts.

    Comment by L2 — November 12, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

  5. @Sotos-as a Professor, and someone who as been accused of being an intellectual and a smart-ass, I can’t think of anything worse to hold an executive position. I say that in all seriousness. The problem is that many intellectual smart asses think that they are eminently qualified to lord over everyone. That’s one defect that I can credibly claim I don’t suffer from. Hell, I don’t even want to be department chair. I laughed out loud when a search committee from a rather prestigious business school called to ask if I was interested in being considered for the deanship.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 12, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

  6. When we voted in the One, we were told that we were getting an intellectual, a Professor, a real smarty-pants.

    And someone who would put an end to partisan politics and unite the nation!! Anyone remember that?

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 12, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

  7. @Sotos. In the US, the losers become lobbyists, not casualties. They don’t fall far, though it eats at them to feed further down the trough than winners. Hayek wrote in Road to Serfdom about why the worst always end up on top. In politics, that’s pretty much the way it is.

    I agree totally that Kerry is just Obama’s caddy. I criticized Diehl for leaving Obama out of the story: talk about Hamlet without a prince. The Obama admin infamous for running foreign policy out of the WH, and marginalizing the State Department. This is an Obama clusterf*ck, 100 pct.

    Obama is a danger primarily because he believes he is a world-straddling genius. His narcissism makes Clinton’s pale by comparison. A frightening thought, especially since Clinton was/is actually rather intelligent. We have a narcissistic dolt who believes he is a genius and titan as president. And he is a dolt. Talk about pedestrian intellects. What a nightmare.

    @Tim. What nobody mentioned was that the “nation” that would be united is Egypt, which is united in hatred of the US 😛 if nothing else. But you are spot on. The irony is that Mr. Uniter has been extremely divisive. But this was totally predictable.

    @L2-the problem of outsourcing humint (e.g., “rely[ing] on Israel”) is that you are totally vulnerable to manipulation. Smart leaders have multiple intelligence sources that they can use to keep each other honest. Baer is right that we have blinded ourselves by shutting down humint.

    You are totally correct that Kerry and Obama are nuts. Totally nuts.

    @Anders-re Baer. He is high variance. He is right regarding humint, but his bigger visions (e.g., making Iran an ally) tend to be a rather dreamy and unrealistic. Yes, if the world was like a game of Risk, Iran and the US and Iran and Israel would be allies. Indeed, under the Shah, that’s the way it was. But ideology and religion matter, and in the case of Iran, that trumps board game realpolitik.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 12, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  8. Obama can’t think strategically, and his entire foreign policy is predicated on short term domestic considerations. In terms of the Middle East in particular, Obama follows the line that serving America’s strategic interests is not important, what is important to avoid potential short term mistakes that might hurt him domestically. So he does nothing except speak platitudes and does what the conventional wisdom of the New York Times commentariat says to do.

    This has insulated him quite well in terms of domestic politics from what is the most spectacular collapse of American foreign policy since the fall of Saigon. Foreign affairs and military experts everywhere are aghast, but most of the people in America and the editorials are oblivious.

    I have to hand it to the President; he is far more teflon than Reagan ever was. Failure after failure has marked his administration; and his actual policies are the exact opposite of what many of the people who voted for him want; but he gets away with it. History won’t be so kind, although it will likely be at least sixty years until it judges him accurately.

    Comment by Chris — November 12, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

  9. @Anders: you’re as dreamy (nuts really isn’t a term of art here, is it?) as Baer is. To use your Iraq example, Iran stepped in and instead of keeping the peace, created a civil war. In Syria, Iran arguably created a civil war by backing Assad over the years. And, in Lebanon, Iran was largely working thru Assad to create a 15-year real live, no joking civil war disguised as chaos.

    Spare us the cheap thinking.

    Comment by The Pilot — November 13, 2013 @ 1:12 am

  10. At the end of the day the issues come down to a couple of simple things: what is it that we (whatever that “we” may represent) want in Middle East and how can it be done.

    The most imminent threat in Middle East over the last 20 years or so has been the rise of Arab nationalism – and that on the background of its humiliating (for Arabs) caricaturization by Hollywood.

    Ethnicity is not a cherished category in Islam. People of the Islamic world identify themselves by their religious affiliation rather than ethnicity. But this seems to have become the paradigm of the past.

    However, the history of Iran provides an interesting exception to this formal mantra.

    With the exception of Iran, parts of Lebanon, parts of Syria and some segments of Qatar (if my memory doesn’t betray me about the latter) the rest of the Islamic world stretching from the Mediterranean Sea and Africa to parts of China and Indonesia are of Sunni brand.

    Iran was converted into Islam in the aftermath of her conquest by Arab Caliphates. While not anywhere close to being knowledgeable on the history of this conquest and transformations I find it being a remarkable story that Iranian’s have distanced themselves from the Sunni brand and hedged themselves from what I would argue a complete lose of sovereignty by, for the alck of a better expression, inventing the Shia branch. While on the surface such things seem to be of a sectarian character, having studied some of its analogies in the Christian world I think they have a strong cultural-political-economic current.

    Such sectarianism remain just like that – a sectarianism – if there is no over-encompassing cultural, political and economic clash of strategic interests and differences.

    Prior to the Arab conquest Zoroastrian Iranian has been one of the pillars of world civilization rivaling with that of the Byzantine. The Arab conquest of Iran (and the larger region) is attributable to the period and aftermath of Arab renaissance.

    The emergency of the Iranian brand of Islam in a way is a cultural triangulation of the clash of civilizations of the region. And if anyone things that these cultural categories are not at the center of the Middle Eastern nations’ identity and thus political and economic paradigms, he doesn’t really understand this region.

    So, my insinuation is that the Middle Eastern conflict is now (as it has always been) a conflict of three major cultural/civilizational orientations – Arabic, Iranian and Byzantine (clearly the West being the manifestation of the Byzantine civilization).

    This triangulation had a couple of historic states of equilibrium. The pre-WWI state of equilibrium was a manifestation of the Mongol conquest of almost the entire continent with its gradual transformation into an Ottoman dominance. As a result the entire region turned to be under Sunni control.

    Barely out of this dominance Iran was yet again dominated and almost dismantled as a result of the WWI and WWII – this time by the carriers of the Byzantine civilization. Interestingly, the Byzantine civilization as an actor in Iran was not homogeneous and the preservation of Iran as we know if is solely an outcome of the conflict between the carriers of the First and Second and the Third Rome (aka Russia).

    Over the last thirty years Iran has emerged as a country more sovereign than it has ever been in more than a thousand years. But what is the landscape of her sovereignty?

    It is the stronger than ever Arab nationalism and a weaker than ever Byzantine civilization (her weakness being observed in both wings of the Byzantine civilization) on the background of the emerging Mongolian power (clearly Mongolian not in the sense of culture but geopolitically – see China).

    So, I would say there is a classic game going on in here (in the sense of the Theory of Games).

    The solution of this game can be searched along the lines of antagonistic games or the cooperative games. To do so, one has to first decide what the objective of this game is from each player’s perspective along with what the dynamic of the underlying state variable is which itself is affected by the behavior of the players of the game. And then, what the constraints are.

    The Byzantine civilization is no more a dominant player and is severely constrained by the scarcity of resources and plunged by an internal conflict.

    The Arab nationalism has quite aggressive aspirations with transcending Sunni boundaries.

    I see the Iranian nationalism is a typical manifestation of a passive-aggressive strategy.

    So, where is the solution of this problem?

    Not being prepared to offer a solution to this complex problem I can offer one observation: this game requires introduction of a new variable which is largely overlooked or is kept under the vest by some wings of the Byzantine civilization (Germans, for example). That is the Kurdish variable. In a way this variable is the hidden center of gravity of all. There is a significant and compactly residing sovereignty aspiring Kurdish population in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran and bordering with all. This is one issue that all of the listed states are unified about – none of them wants it.

    Kurds are Sunni but an ethnic kin of Iranians. They hate all of them – Arabs, Turks and Iranians. All of them hate Kurds. Culturally while very backward people, as a protective for their culture measure they are more inclined to cooperate with the Western wing of the Byzantines. Politically, being largely lead by Marxist socio-political paradigms and having the memory of corresponding support they are receptive towards the Third Rome.

    My above proposal is not from the safest. Perhaps it is fraught by a regional war (and maybe more than regional). But it certainly is a key to a new state of equilibrium in a new cooperative-antagonistic game if this variable can be cotrolled.

    Comment by MJ — November 13, 2013 @ 3:07 am

  11. Interesting stuff as always, MJ.

    I’ve nothing to add except that the Iranian girl working in my office in Melbourne is the best looking on the floor by a mile. Is that relevant?

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 13, 2013 @ 3:34 am

  12. @Tim Actually, I have also noticed that they are great looking and when left to their own divices, quite liberated. And by the way, they hate their own men 😉

    Comment by MJ — November 13, 2013 @ 5:47 am

  13. Relatedly, why Argentinian women so hot, and why are Argentinian men scruffy, bedraggled greasers? What a waste.

    Comment by Green as Grass — November 13, 2013 @ 7:48 am

  14. And by the way, they hate their own men

    Sadly, this one’s married to a doctor. 🙁

    Relatedly, why Argentinian women so hot, and why are Argentinian men scruffy, bedraggled greasers? What a waste.

    A lot of visitors to Russia ask the same question. I don’t know about Argentina, but I found the answer insofar as Russia is concerned after a year or two living there: the ratty, shifty Russian look complete with Christmas jumper and pointy shoes is actually what Russian women like. The assumption that western men, looks wise, compare favourably against Russian men makes the false assumption that Russian women go for the same looks as western women, and they don’t. Most Russian women, understandably, prefer their own kind.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 13, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

  15. All Things Possible
    The first U.S.-Iranian discussions would obviously be on the immediate issue — the nuclear program and sanctions. There are many technical issues involved there, the most important of which is that both sides must show that they don’t need a settlement. No one negotiating anything will simply accept the first offer, not when they expect the negotiations to move on to more serious issues. Walking away from the table for 10 days gives both sides some credibility.
    The real negotiations will come after the nuclear and sanctions issues are addressed. They will pertain to U.S.-Iranian relations more broadly. Each side will use the other to its advantage. The Iranians will use the United States to repair its economy, and the Americans will use the Iranians to create a balance of power with Sunni states. This will create indirect benefits for both sides. Iran’s financial woes will be an opportunity for American companies to invest. The Americans’ need for a balance of power will give Iran weight against its own enemies, even after the collapse of its strategy.
    The region will of course look different but not dramatically so. The balance of power idea does not mean a rupture with Saudi Arabia or Israel. The balance of power only works if the United States maintains strong relationships on all sides. The Saudis and Israelis will not like American rebalancing. Their choices in the matter are limited, but they can take comfort from the fact that a strictly pro-Iranian policy is impossible for the United States. The American strategy with China in the 1970s was to try to become the power that balanced the Soviet Union and China. After meeting with the Chinese, Henry Kissinger went to Moscow. Thus, in terms of bilateral relationships, U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Israeli relations can stay the same. But it now creates another relationship and option for the United States. In the end, Iran is still a secondary power and the United States is the primary power. Iran will take advantage of the relationship, and the United States will manage it.
    It is hard to imagine this evolution, considering what the United States and Iran have said about each other for the past 34 years. But relations among nations are not about sentiment; they are about interest. If Roosevelt could ally with Stalin, and Nixon with Mao, then it is clear that all things are possible in U.S. foreign policy. For their part, the Persians have endured for millennia, espousing many ideologies but doing what was necessary to survive and prosper. All of this may well fall apart, but there is a compelling logic to believe that it will not, and it will not be as modest a negotiation as it appears now.

    Read more: The U.S.-Iran Talks: Ideology and Necessity | Stratfor

    Comment by Anders Dahl — November 14, 2013 @ 5:02 am

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