Streetwise Professor

October 6, 2016

We Are Not Saudi Arabia’s Mercenaries

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:57 pm

The Middle East has become the Mother of All FUBARs. Yet there are many in the United States, on both sides of the partisan divide, advocating deeper American involvement.

The focus is on Syria. Yes, the war there is horrific. Yes, the Syrians and Russians have dramatically ratcheted up the intensity of their brutal air campaign in Aleppo, even during an alleged cease fire. But what could the US accomplish by getting more deeply involved? Perpetuating a stalemate?

Or let’s say that somehow magically the US is able to support the toppling of Assad without sparking a war with Russia. What would be the outcome? It would be the victory of Sunni jihadis who would inevitably wreak a vengeance on Alawis, Shias, and Christians that would rival if not exceed anything Assad has done. Further, Sunni jihadis are America’s enemies, and have killed far more Americans than the Assads ever did, even when they were neck deep in supporting terrorism. Indeed, the worst that Assad has done to the US in the past decades is support the rat line that supplied Al Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS’ predecessor). After an Assad defeat, Syria would become a base for anti-American jihadis.

Which helps us how, exactly?

Many of those advocating deeper American involvement in Syria point to the fact that Putin is winning there. So what? To think that a Putin victory axiomatically spells an American defeat are engaged in precisely the type of zero sum thinking that leads Putin to exaggerate Syria’s importance. The more we fret about his “winning” in Syria, the more we feed his ambitions there and elsewhere in the region, and convince him that he’s on the right track.

Speaking of Russia, John Kerry has expressed outrage that Russia deceived him, and ramped up its military operations in Aleppo immediately after he thought they had agreed to a cease fire. Have we ever had such a credulous oaf in such a high position? Kerry needs to acquaint himself with The Farmer and the Viper (or the Frog and the Scorpion). The entire idea of a deal between Russia and the US is farcical, as long as the US insists that Assad must go. Russia is all in for Assad, and will not go for any deal that threatens him. The US claims it will not go for any deal that strengthens him. These positions are utterly incompatible.

Truth be told, it is the Saudis and the Qataris and others in the GCC who have a strong interest in Syria. They view it as a front in their Muslim Civil War with Shia Iran and express grave fear of a Shia Crescent running from Iran through Iraq to the Mediterranean. They exert tremendous influence in DC. Those who fall for their line, and parrot their line, are not acting in American interests.

The Saudis’ attempts to influence US policy are not limited to Syria. They are bogged down in a war in Yemen that is also a front in their conflict with Iran, and are importuning the United States to support them in that conflict as well.

The US has even less of an interest in Yemen than it does in Syria.

In fact, the US has very little interest in the Muslim Civil War, other than that neither side win. Militarily, neither the Iranians or the GCC have the ability to conquer the other, so we have zero reason to get in the middle. If they want to fritter away treasure and lives in peripheral conflicts, so be it.

We are not Saudi Arabia’s mercenaries. Let them fight their own battles.

It is highly unlikely we could achieve a good military outcome in either Syria or Yemen.  The latter has a lot in common with Afghanistan, the former with Iraq and Libya, and look how swimmingly THOSE are going. And even if we could create some simulacrum of peace, at what would be a heavy price in lives and money, how would the US gain? I am not seeing it.

These are sideshows. We should be more focused on peer competitors like China and Russia. After 15 years of grinding conflict and budgetary stringency, the US urgently needs to recapitalize its military. In these circumstances, risking a confrontation with Russia to fight Saudi Arabia’s battles is beyond insane. To hell with them and the camel they rode in on.

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  1. Why seriously bother with Russia? It’s a second rate power with a fourth rate state. Besides containing at the periphery, what exactly is gained by significant involvement with, for example, Ukraine? It’s a fundamentally corrupt country that will need decades of investment to be remotely functional. Collapse should be prevented but why get sucked in? What do we have at stake?

    As for China, containment is not viable. China has ~4X the population. Even if growth falls drastically, in the next ~20 years China will be at least as rich, on aggregate (not per capita). The idea that the US is going to run the show in their back yard forever is a joke. China is going to be a major player and the sooner we stop trying to pretend otherwise, the better.

    Support our allies – Japan, SK, Taiwan, Western Europe (maybe) – not ones that send citizens flying into office buildings. Support reasonable democracies – there aren’t many, it looks good, and doesn’t cost much to throw something their way. Back up our word, but don’t be stupid about throwing it around (i.e. no red lines that we won’t defend). Otherwise? There’s generally no good outcomes. Syria is the latest in a long line. Getting sucked into pointless international conflicts that have no potential benefit and limitless cost is a suckers game. I see some coalescing around that view, although Obama has been making mistakes around the edges (i.e. what the hell exactly is the “pivot to Asia”?). Trump is certainly there.

    Also, you’ll going to be missing Obama/Kerry foreign policy once Clinton takes the reins.

    Comment by FTR — October 6, 2016 @ 9:27 pm

  2. So you don’t mind a Russian military base in Cuba, do you?

    Comment by LL — October 7, 2016 @ 4:48 am

  3. “So you don’t mind a Russian military base in Cuba, do you?” Fair question. What would it alter, apart from American levels of hysteria?

    Comment by dearieme — October 7, 2016 @ 6:19 am

  4. Three quarters of the problems of the Middle East – hell, the world – would disappear if they would just let someone win these bloody (in both senses) conflicts. Unless the US and its NATO allies are intent on going all in, Assad, with full Russian backing, is going to win. Let the bugger win now and maybe I will be able to avoid the caterwauling all over the UK press, TV and social media about Aleppo. Same with Israel-Palestine: every time it looks like curtains for the Palestinians, the ‘world community’ steps in to stop the Israelis and leaves the Palestinians with just enough to carry on being a pain in the arse.

    As for the Saudi’s they can f..k right off!

    Comment by Recusant — October 7, 2016 @ 7:08 am

  5. Hillary has great foreign policy credentials.

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter — October 7, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

  6. @Jeff-Policy credentials are foreign to her.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 7, 2016 @ 2:40 pm

  7. +++ What would it alter, apart from American levels of hysteria? +++

    You don’t believe in retribution for Communists, right? They should get away without punishment, correct?

    A Russian base in Cuba would make this harder to do.

    Comment by LL — October 7, 2016 @ 3:07 pm

  8. “You don’t believe in retribution for Communists, right? They should get away without punishment, correct?” What are you on about?

    Comment by dearieme — October 7, 2016 @ 3:30 pm

  9. You are aware of the fact that Russia did fail the democratic reform and is being ruled by the clan of the unreformed KGB people, are you? Who also happen to be a bunch of thugs and thieves, but that is a secondary consideration.

    You probably are also aware that these people are bent on breaking the existing world order and Pax Americana simply because they want to be absolutely free of any restaraint and control?

    Are aware of the war hysteria in the Russian media these days? With the refrain “it is all going to happen anyway soon, let’s strike’em first”?

    I am afraid you have to effing idea that there is no such thing as a choice to sit in “fortress America” anymore. We can blame Obama, Clinton and Kerry for letting the situation to deteriorate that badly, but the fact is, the next President will have to deal with it no matter what.

    Now, do you prefer a world living by American rules and mores – or the one where the Communists of various shapes, the followers of the ideology of thievery, call the shots?

    Comment by LL — October 8, 2016 @ 6:26 am

  10. Oh, it’s all so outdated, the eighties are calling, ignore it and it will go away. Or something.

    Comment by Ivan — October 8, 2016 @ 7:00 am

  11. It’s a regional / religious conflict which is really none of our business. I am outraged that the French government, based on the “Line in the Sand” of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a century ago) still thinks it has strategic interest in Syria.

    Comment by bloke in france — October 8, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

  12. @LL-I am not advocating hunkering down in Fortress America. One of the principles of war is economy of force. This means that one does not fritter away scarce resources on peripheral theaters. Syria is clearly peripheral to American interests. The fact that Putin apparently believes it is central to Russia’s interests does not compel the US to confront him there. Further, that such a dung pile is central to Russian interests speaks volumes.

    The United States should pick its battles more wisely than it has in the past years (going on decades) and recapitalize its military so that it is capable of winning those battles, or even better, deterring potential adversaries from thinking about even fighting them.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 8, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

  13. Ivan — October 8, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    I hope your parody of Obama debating Romney in 2012 is intentional 🙂

    Comment by LL — October 10, 2016 @ 11:29 am

  14. I am amazed that with limitless money, effectively, and the best weapons that the USA and Europe can provide, the Saudis haven’t made more progress…

    Comment by Hiberno Frog — October 11, 2016 @ 2:44 am

  15. @Hiberno Frog. I’m not. There is a story, which I think is apocryphal, but which gets at an important reality. In the story, when asked for the secret of his military success, Moshe Dyan replied: “Fighting Arabs.” Arab regular armies have long been wretched an ineffectual.

    This phenomenon was written about during the 1990s. The short view is, apropos John Keegan, militaries reflect culture, and enduring cultural traits in Arab societies are inimical to conventional military effectiveness.

    Keegan argued that Arabs were consummate raiders whose culture was ill-adapted to the Western face-to-face, high intensity, fight-to-the-finish style of warfare (which Victor Davis Hanson traced to the Greek hoplites).

    With respect to Saudi Arabia and Yemen specifically, the Saudis (and the Egyptians who did the bulk of the fighting) carried out a disastrous war in Yemen in the 1960s. The Saudis/Egyptians even used chemical warfare. Given culture and history, I’m not surprised that an Arab conventional army, no matter how lavishly armed, is failing in a battle with Arab guerrillas.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 11, 2016 @ 11:02 am

  16. Keegan argued that Arabs were consummate raiders whose culture was ill-adapted to the Western face-to-face, high intensity, fight-to-the-finish style of warfare

    I think a lot of it also has to do with modern warfare depending so much on the rapid dissemination of information. When this is applied to cultures where information equals power and is jealously guarded they perform badly, especially when up against an enemy whose culture is built on one of shared information and trust.

    Comment by Tim Newman — October 12, 2016 @ 12:35 am

  17. @Tim-The problem is overdetermined. The failure to share information is one of the factors that the article and book I linked to emphasize. Low trust culture has many effects. It leads to a refusal to delegate and over-centralization–which is particularly corrosive when information does not flow. The intense stratification of Arab society (which is has a two-way cause-effect relationship with low trust) means that officers treat their men like beasts of burden, and the men respond mulishly. Everyone is paranoid, which makes it impossible to cooperate effectively–especially across services. Theirs is also a shame culture, which makes attempts to hold people personally accountable virtually impossible, because that is tantamount to a grave personal insult. Then there is tribalism. And sectarianism (e.g., in Iraq a Sunni officer corps and Shia-dominated enlisted ranks).

    Oh, it’s a right fine clusterf*ck.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 12, 2016 @ 7:56 am

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