Force Of Law

In the early 1960s, there was an interesting experiment on obedience to authority that measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience.  It was known as the Milgram experiment, and was conducted in concert with the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann to determine whether his defense, and that of many of his German compatriots, could be considered legitimate; that they were all just following orders.

In the experiment, participants were asked to administer progressively stronger electric shocks to a “learner” in a separate room at the behest of an authority figure when the learner answered questions incorrectly.  Even after the learner was screaming in pain, complaining of a heart condition, and begging for the experiment to stop, participants were urged to complete the experiment by the authority figure.  The learner was an actor and there were no real electric shocks, but the participant was unaware of this.

The conclusions of the experiment were astounding.  Milgram wrote, ” The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study.  Stark authority was pitted against the participants’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the participants’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.  Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.  Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Fast forward to today.  A seemingly ordinary man wakes in the morning, puts on a badge, and arms himself as if headed for war.  He then forcibly enters another man’s home, shoots the family dog, destroys property, injures or kills the inhabitants, traumatizes children, and then goes home to his own family for a hot supper and a good night’s sleep.

Or how about the government bureaucrat who threatens to take away a man’s livelihood and his ability to provide for his family because that person did not fill out some binder full of useless paperwork, obtain the proper license, or pay the proper fees.  Perhaps he compels a business owner to provide a service to another citizen that is contrary to that business owner’s religious beliefs.

What of the tax man who exacts his pound of flesh every year and reserves the right to hang you upside-down and shake the change from your pockets if he does not believe you have paid your “fair share?” Worse yet, what if he does it depending on your political persuasion?

How are these seemingly normal people able to compel fellow citizens to act contrary to their religious beliefs, commit acts of aggravated assault, destroy private property, and extort money from their fellow Americans and not feel the slightest remorse for their actions?  Force of law.

Why do these laws, these simple words on paper, hold such sway?  By putting on that badge or donning that halo of misbegotten righteousness, an ordinary person is transformed from fellow citizen into an overseer with a false sense of superiority.  After all, they represent “government” and are acting on behalf of it.  And since government is the “will of the people,” that person believes they have the authority to do whatever they just did, no matter how heinous, in its name.  They also have the ability to absolve themselves of any personal responsibility for the negative ramifications thereof.

And there’s the rub.  Authority of government stems from legislation and that legislation itself allows for this exemption from morality.  It essentially institutionalizes the steamrolling of the individual by the collective.  The law becomes a validation of force, providing the enforcer with the veneer of legitimacy to do any and all manner of violence and coercion in its name; in essence, to do bad things that good people wouldn’t normally do.  And it matters not what the law is, only that it is the law.  After all, they are just doing their jobs; they are just following orders.

So what does it mean?  What lesson should we glean from these insights?  First off, the law should be a shield, not a sword.  Our Founders designed a Constitution (the shortest in use today) that’s elegant simplicity was the root of its genius.  The rules therein are few and basic and set the conditions for a government that can protect its citizens from force and fraud and to enforce contracts—and that’s pretty much it.  The Founders understood the nature of man (that he lusts for power and will blindly pledge fealty to authority to get a bit for himself) and they also understood the nature of power (that it corrupts absolutely).  Additionally, history has shown that combining these two natural phenomena had led to more bloodshed than any other cause and would continue to do so if left unchecked.

Is it becoming clear now why the Constitution was designed to make it very difficult to enshrine things into law?  President Calvin Coolidge said it was better to kill bad bills than to pass good ones, and the above is exactly why.  Because the more laws, the less justice.

Unfortunately, our Constitution has gradually been lost to the people, and as legal scholar Michael Stokes Paulsen states, “rendered unintelligible by the high priests (to be read as lawyers and judges) using language that corrupts the plain-spoken words of a document intended to be accessible to all, and to belong to all, by adding a veneer of pseudo-sophisticated legalese.  This serves to distance the people from their Constitution by rendering it inaccessible to common understanding.  Thus corrupted, the words of the Constitution, our fundamental charter of rights and of government, have become the exclusive province of an elite cabal of high priests.”

Most laws today criminalize many actions that don’t involve any harm to other people or property, but rather are offenses against “the state.”  As the statutes pile up, it becomes harder to keep track of what exactly is illegal and to ensure those enforcing this byzantine legal code are doing it properly.  This leads to arbitrary enforcement, abuse of power, alienation of the governed, contempt for, and finally, violence toward, the state.

Laws should be few and well thought out, and our system is designed for just that purpose.  This means we should be wary of those politicians clamoring to “get something done.”  Greet with skepticism Congressmen who insist they must hurry up and pass a bill so they can know what’s in it.  Push back against Senators who change the rules because Republicans are being obstructionist and standing in the way of progress.  And certainly, call out a President that states that if Congress won’t act, he will.  Because what begins as government doing things FOR you becomes government doing things TO you.

A Policy Prescription For Dealing With The Islamic State

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt outlines a somewhat controversial policy of strategic disengagement from the Middle East, arguing that every time we meddle in the region, we tend to make it worse.  For the most part, I happen to agree.  I’ve often summed up our predicament there and potential course of action as “damned if we do, damned if we don’t, so we might as well not, because that costs America the least.”  This also seemed like a good time to follow up on my June piece on the situation in “Syraq” in light of developments over the past couple of months.

As the President works on his golf game, the permanent speculation machine here in Washington has been in overdrive, with flapping heads of all flavors outlining how awful ISIS is and just how many bombs we should be dropping.  Should we use airstrikes on IS targets encroaching into Kurdish territory or just airstrikes to prevent genocide?  Are airstrikes in Syria ok now because there’s really no border with Iraq anymore?  Do the hundreds of Americans sent back to Iraq in recent weeks really count against our “no boots on the ground” policy and are we at risk of mission creep?

On top of this, the White House has labeled the murder of reporter James Foley “terrorism,” which I’m worried sets a dangerous precedent.  If every heinous act on Earth has the potential to be codified as such, that wide berth allows the US to justify military intervention pretty much anywhere.  How can his brutal murder be quickly and definitively classified as terrorism, but the murder of an American ambassador and assault on the consulate in Benghazi Libya remain ambiguous for so long?  We’ve heard this song before and it’s time to shoot these trial balloons down once and for all.

A recent statement by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Dempsey made mention that he believed it was possible to contain ISIS, although not in perpetuity.  I believe a strategy of containment may be the answer.  I can hear the neo-conservatives howling now, claiming such a policy is foolhardy, naive, unworkable, cowardly, etc.  But mostly they won’t like it because it will result in fewer of those neat black and white videos of trucks getting hit by missiles that we like to watch so much.

I reread George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” which outlined the strategy of containment of communism that was USG policy for over 40 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and noticed some parallels to the waging of jihad and the formation of this Islamic State.  Kennan states:

“As long as remnants of capitalism were officially recognized as existing in Russia, it was possible to place on them, as an internal element, part of the blame for the maintenance of a dictatorial form of society. But as these remnants were liquidated, little by little, this justification fell away, and when it was indicated officially that they had been finally destroyed, it disappeared altogether. And this fact created one of the most basic of the compulsions which came to act upon the Soviet regime: since capitalism no longer existed in Russia and since it could not be admitted that there could be serious or widespread opposition to the Kremlin springing spontaneously from the liberated masses under its authority (or be an effective scapegoat for the failures of communism), it became necessary to justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad.”

In short, the reasoning the communist leaders used to explain why communism wasn’t working was because there were still internal pockets of capitalism preventing the communist utopia from emerging.  Once those internal pockets were gone, capitalism abroad became the bogeyman on which to blame the failures of collectivist policies.  Kennan states further that Russia was “an impotent nation capable of exporting its enthusiasms and of radiating the strange charm of its primitive political vitality, but unable to back up those articles of export by the real evidences of material power and prosperity.”

Bottom line, Kennan (along with Soviet leaders) realized that the theory of communism was more attractive than the practice, so in order to survive, communism had to continuously expand.  By hindering that expansion through containment, the Soviets were forced to implement the policies they espoused, the result proved unworkable, and the USSR ultimately collapsed.  Kennan noted that “Soviet power bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.”

I would posit that the same applies to this purported caliphate and the Islamic utopia it promises.  The idea of revolutionary jihad is appealing to young angst-riddled men with no prospects and no future in either their traditional Muslim homelands or as transplants in the Western world.  Islam was born out the miserable existence that most people in 7th century Arabia had to endure and its message was a welcome respite from the cruelty and injustice that was rampant during that time.

But much like communism, an Islamic state is wholly unworkable in practice mainly because no agreement exists on which form of Islam is the “right” one.  To use a Western aphorism, campaigning (as in waging a military campaign) is very different from governing.  The idea of expanding this caliphate through the glory of jihad is much more appealing to a young militant than say, the proper administration of services under a functioning civil society.  I doubt many of the militants that have traveled to Syria or Iraq have any idea how to ensure drinking water stays clean and flowing or how to make sure garbage doesn’t pile up on the streets.  In fact, we know conclusively that they would fail terribly at these basic tasks.

Look no further than the Anbar Awakening in 2006-7 when the Sunni population rose up against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in response to increasingly brutal tactics by the extremists.  General Petraeus’ surge, while helpful in the stabilization effort, was not nearly as important as the Sunni tribes coming together to reclaim their own future.  More recently, observe the cornucopia of incompetence that was the hallmark of the Muslim Brotherhood’s short reign in Egypt.  It seems the best argument against governance by militant Islamists is letting them try it for a while to show their prospective constituency (and the rest of the world) just how inept they are at it.

We’ve already seen signs of these militants alienating the local population, declaring cigarettes “haram,” or forbidden, and burning them all in the town square.  Anyone who’s been to the region immediately recognizes the prevalence of smoking and it’s place in the daily life of many Arabs.  Granted, this is one anecdote, but a telling one that suggests giving ISIS enough rope to hang themselves with may just be the best option in this scenario.  The solution to this mess ultimately lies with the Syrians and the Iraqis and the rest of the Arabs, not us.  To quote Lawrence of Arabia, “Better to let them do it imperfectly than do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their war, and your time is short.”


From a geostrategic perspective, the West could declare that if ISIS wants its own state or caliphate, it’s territorial limitations are these.  First, have Turkey (a NATO member) reinforce the Kurdistan Regional Government and secure its traditional borders with the rest of Iraq.  Erdogan has plenty of political capital after his recent election to the presidency, he could use this opportunity to address the Kurdish question once and for all.  This would obviously be the first step in getting to an independent Kurdistan, which current USG policy does not support.

Second, delist the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization.  Its enmity with Turkey that got it on that list in the first place has subsided greatly.  Delisting them would allow the West to have fighters it could support in place to hold the line against any IS encroachments after Turkey withdraws.  The alternative to this approach is unfolding now, with US forces again doing all the heavy lifting and drawing the ire of the radical Islamists.  Should attacks by IS forces occur on the Turks while they are supporting the Kurds, Turkey could invoke article 5 of the NATO charter stating that an attack on one is an attack on all.

To the southwest, do not encroach on Jordan.  Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, is designated a Major Non-Nato Ally, and has provided invaluable support to the US and her interests for many years now.  While far from perfect, the Hashemite Kingdom has met its numerous regional challenges with grit and determination and truly values its burgeoning relationship with the West.  If US interests are threatened there, it will respond to defend them.

As for Saudi Arabia to the south, they have the capability to defend themselves and now is their chance to practice.  The Kingdom, by virtue of government policy and/or turning a blind eye to the actions of its citizens, has had a hand in funding the teaching of fundamentalist Wahhabism and supporting these jihadists in Syria, so it seems only fair that it deals with the consequences of those actions now that they have come to their doorstep.

That leaves all of Syria and Iraq minus Kurdistan as a potential Islamic State.  By allowing that pot to keep simmering, Assad (and by virtue of association, Iran and Russia) must continue to bleed resources.  If they have to spend their blood and treasure to assist him in maintaining power in Syria, it is an outcome that few US strategists will lament.  In Iraq, as the Sunni horde marches on the Shi’a south, Iran will have to intervene (it already has advisors in Baghdad) to prevent annihilation of their coreligionists on its western flank, another resource drain they can ill afford.  Additionally, if the government in Baghdad can’t control the territory of Iraq, one must wonder why they are in charge in the first place.

It is also convenient to have all these jihadists pouring into one location.  America is proficient at state-on-state warfare, where as counterinsurgency is not her strong suit.  In Afghanistan, it took 3 weeks to oust the Taliban decisively and convincingly, but the Afghans were flummoxed as to why we were still mired down after a decade.  The answer is because when we fight our way, concentrated force on concentrated force, we win.  When we face an insurgency, our tools are no longer as useful.

It might be to our military and strategic benefit to have these jihadists congeal into a state, complete with logistics chains, training centers, command posts, communications nodes, distribution centers, administrative hubs, and other conveniently concentrated military targets to make it easier (not to mention more cost effective) to stomp them into oblivion should they pose a real and serious threat to the US homeland.

Perhaps America need not be the tip of the spear this go around.  Perhaps we approach this as the conductor of an orchestra—directing the music, but not stepping into the pit with the band.  At the end of the day, you can’t defeat an ideology with a bomb, you have to defeat it by either pointing out the fallibility of that ideology and/or offering a better alternative.

Response to Billionaire Nick Hanauer: If the pitchforks are coming, they shouldn’t be for you

In response to Mr. Hanauer’s recent piece on wealth inequality, “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats,” I have to admit I did enjoy his historical references and his acknowledgment that a rapidly widening wealth gap can be a dangerous strain on the fabric of our society.  However, I had to point out a few glaring errors in his assessment.

First, he highlights the growing inequality gap, but doesn’t really delve deeply into why it’s getting worse and jumps right into the vaunted “we must do something” liberal siren song.  Did it ever occur to Mr. Hanauer that much of the rapid growth in the Gini coefficient has actually occurred under the current President?  Could it be that liberal policies and over-regulation contrived in the name of “helping” the middle class inadvertently create barriers to folks that can’t afford to have a tax attorney or compliance department on staff, and thus hinder their ability to succeed?  Too often, “doing something to help” is less about those that need it and more about the ego of those providing it.  The pitchforks should be for our self-serving politicians who, by either ignorance or willful malignance, have, through piles of misguided legislation, created a crony capitalist system that stacks the odds in favor of entrenched interests at the expense of small businesses.

This self-hating capitalist then proceeds to flagellate himself and his fellow successful people, as if becoming uber rich is some sort of sin.  I guess he’s just “checking his privilege.”  He cites Henry Ford, which is a great point.  However, he neglects to mention that Ford chose to pay his workers higher wages of his own volition; he was not compelled to do so by the government.  I have since sent Mr. Hanauer a copy of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, he should read it.

Mr. Hanauer then cites his idea of “middle-out” economics as an alternative to “the old misconception that an economy is a perfectly efficient mechanistic system.” Isn’t this the central tenet of Keynes, that a country’s economy is a well-oiled machine that can be actively “tweaked” for optimal performance?  It isn’t.  To quote George Will in one of his recent articles, our country “is the spontaneous order of 316 million people making billions of daily decisions, cooperatively contracting together, moving the country in gloriously unplanned directions.”  I also agree with Hanauer that a thriving middle class is the source of American prosperity, but he then subverts his own argument by suggesting government is the proper entity to engineer such prosperity.

Then comes the plunge right off the deep end as Mr. Hanauer starts touting the beneficence of the $15 minimum wage in Seattle.  Where do I begin?  The minimum wage is nothing more than a government imposed subsidy on the purchasing power of workers, and if you spend any time thinking deeply about economics, you’d know that when you subsidize anything, you invariably raise the price of it.  What that means is that since minimum wage workers now have more money to spend, the market will adjust to squeeze more of it out of them, and you’ll see rising prices, i.e., inflation.  It may seem like $15 minimum wage isn’t a risky policy, but that’s only as long as folks think its “cool” to plunk down $8 for a cup of coffee.

Further, if the McDonald’s fry cook produces only $5 of value per hour, but you are required to pay him triple that, the fruit of his labor must now increase in price accordingly for the employer to continue to make a profit.   Is that employer going to keep that employee, or maybe find a cheaper way to get the burgers off the griddle?  What would you do?  The question that Mr. Hanauer and all liberals always fail to answer is if these policies are such a good idea, then why do they have to be mandatory?  Bottom line, the miracle that has been the tech boom on the west coast didn’t really occur because of government intervention, it happened in spite of it.  So his assertion that his city “kick’s every other city’s ass” is only temporary, especially now that it’s applying a fix to something that he just denoted by virtue of inherent awesomeness wasn’t broken to begin with.

Mr. Hanauer vilifies Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, but neglects to mention the millions of jobs provided and the millions of folks lifted out of poverty by these businesses.  He asserts that people will absolutely not do the “right” thing, but that’s subjective.  What’s “right” or “fair” differs from person to person.  He actually makes a great proposal that I would take him up on, though.  If Wal-Mart paid its 1 million lowest-paid employees an extra $10,000 a year in exchange for the government cancelling all food stamps, Medicaid and rent assistance, I’m pretty sure every taxpayer would take that deal in a heartbeat.  Most would even throw $10 to Wal-Mart to help cover the cost.  Long term, that’s a win for the American balance sheets.

The biggest fallacy of Mr. Hanauer’s argument, though, reveals his amateurish understanding of economics.  He states that he socks his money away in savings, where it doesn’t do the country much good.  However, that is his choice, he shouldn’t be penalized for it (like most savers that see their savings sneakily devalued through low interest rates and inflation), and HELLO!!—SAVINGS ARE MERELY DEFERRED SPENDING!!

Mr. Hanauer does redeem himself slightly when he mentions that we need to reduce demand for government and that the solutions to most problems lie at the state and municipal levels.  But he loses his way once again when he suggests that capitalism should be well managed because left unchecked, it tends toward wealth concentration and societal collapse.  That’s crony capitalism, not truly free market capitalism.

He closes by questioning trickle-down, fact-based economics with some self-deprecation, asking rhetorically if he is such a superior person to belong at the center of the moral and economic universe.  The answer is no, of course, but he is proposing just such dominion of one person over another when he is asking that someone compel me, through government action, to pay more than I think I should for the labor of my employees.  I don’t know about you, but it seems this son of a pillow salesman is continuing his family’s profession—by peddling fluff.

Avoid stepping in a big pile of Shi’ite

Over the past weeks, the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has staged a lightning offensive across northern Iraq that has caught the White House and the Shi’ite Maliki regime in Baghdad flat-footed.  ISIS’ aim is to establish an Islamic Caliphate that stretches across both Syria and Iraq.  Militants are within striking distance of the capital, have captured US-provided equipment which they are now shipping to Syria to reinforce allies there, and Iraqi government forces have melted away in the face of the advance.  Calls to provide further military aid to the Iraqi Armed forces seem misplaced, unless we can ship them some much needed backbones.

In Syria, as the civil war rages on, calls for the US and Europeans to begin providing lethal assistance to the rebels there in order to topple Assad have grown louder, but advances by associated entities in Iraq complicate efforts.  We find ourselves in an uncomfortable and ironic predicament, needing the assistance of Iran to support the government in Baghdad and strike ISIS while helping rebels on the same side as ISIS in Syria.  In the dictionary under “morass,” it says, “see this.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge in determining what the US should do at this point has been a lack of a strategy that can achieve a realistic end-state beneficial to US national interests.  Sure, we’ve heard the fluff (respect the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and provide for a stable, secure, and prosperous Iraq, yada yada yada), but there’s no meat in that shawarma.

Here are some thoughts on what should be done.  By no means perfect, but more than I’ve seen proposed thus far.

Announce a hefty bounty on Assad and the members of his inner circle 

By offering a reward and/or asylum to those providing information leading to top regime officials being brought to justice, essentially “flipping” middle management, we could get Assad and his cronies looking over their shoulders and turning on each other, potentially forcing errors that would hasten their exit, capture or demise.  Make this about them, not the bureaucratic structure or people of Syria.  This could help ameliorate fears that all of Syria’s military and government is in our crosshairs and avoid the chaos that ensued after the “de-Baathification” of post-invasion Iraq, where we cut down too far into the existing government structure, disenfranchised  mid-level technocrats and military officers, and sowed the seeds of the insurgency.

However, Russia must be on board.  By agreeing to leave the Syrian government apparatus intact, perhaps Russia could be convinced to cooperate (or at least not interfere) with this plan.  Russia’s loyalty to Assad is largely based on national interest; if that interest could continue be served without him, logic dictates that they have no reason to continue to support him personally.  We may have to accept that we lose this round of geopolitical chess (Iran and Russia keep their proxy, Shi’ites remain in Saudi’s backfield) and focus on simply ending the bloodshed and reducing the strain on our allies neighboring Syria.  Having Russia and Iran lose a client state is a “nice to have” from a US national security perspective, but our window to actively bring that about may be closed.

There is no guarantee this would work, as the “middle management” is quite tied to the survival of the regime.  But it is a low-cost, low risk course of action that could have a high payoff.  It is certainly better than dropping some ordnance in the sandbox, crossing your fingers, and hoping that star-spangled awesome emerges.

Arm and aid the Kurds

Rather than waste time and resources trying to determine which of the fractious rebel factions currently fighting Assad are “jihadi lite,” why not anticipate the likely next struggle in Syria should Assad survive while we have the time to do so and Assad is busy with the imminent threat?  I’m not a fan of rebels who grow their beards long to grab aid from the Saudis and Qataris, then shave them to appear moderate and snag gear from the West.  I’m from New Jersey, I know when I’m being played.  This perverse situation where the US is aiding Sunni rebels in Syria against Assad, but is ready to strike associated rebels currently threatening Maliki in Iraq will likely result in every party in the conflict finding common bonds in their hatred of the US.

Further, this conjoined conflict is creating an opening for a regional shift, i.e., the emergence of an independent Kurdistan encompassing territory of present day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Iran.  With the government in Baghdad unable to assert its authority in the Kurdish north of that country (and now on the defensive given ISIS advance), with Assad unable to assert his authority in the northeast of Syria, and with Turkish Kurds leaving SE Turkey for Northern Iraq under a peace deal with the Turkish government last year, the conditions are ripe for Kurds to start exercising their right of self-determination.

The Kurds, currently solidifying their position in northern Iraq and hedging their bets in the conflict there, will have more leverage in negotiating with the Maliki government, should it survive.  Should it not, the Kurds need to be sufficiently capable to defend themselves (and US national interests) from ISIS.

They have largely been spared regional violence, have ample resource reserves, gradually improving ties with Turkey, and good cooperation with the US during the Iraq invasion and reconstruction.  Bottom line, if an independent Kurdistan did eventually emerge, which is looking increasingly likely, we could work with them and they could potentially be a valuable ally in the new Middle East.

Create buffer zone in southeastern Syria

Refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria are putting severe economic strain on its neighbors and if the status quo continues unabated, conflict could spread to Jordan and Lebanon.  Creating a safe zone within Syrian territory will help relieve the strain.  The zone should be far enough away from the bulk of the fighting and the care, feeding, and protection of the refugees should be undertaken by the Saudis, as they are the primary sponsors of the rebels and primary drivers behind the push to oust Assad.  If they wish to continue to support their current course of action, perhaps they should bear the costs of the second and third-order effects of what they are doing.  After all, the justification for the numerous arms sales to our regional partners includes the US desire for allies to share more of the burden of maintaining regional stability and security; now is their opportunity.

Shape the narrative

For any of this to work, the West must be able to frame the international discussion in terms of putting the fate of a future Syria in the hands of its own people, supporting the only group in Syria that isn’t an outright adversary, preserving what pockets of stability there are in Syria and Iraq, and lessening the burden on our neighboring allies.  Not very confident that this current crop in the West Wing is up to it, are you?

At the end of the day, one of two outcomes are evident in Syria; either Assad remains and simmering violence continues over the long term, or Assad leaves and Syria slowly begins to rebuild itself.   If Assad remains, it is unlikely that a peaceful solution to the conflict will be found anytime soon.  Assad and his inner circle remain the focus of rebel rage.  As long as he’s in charge, they will have common cause to continue fighting.

Since there are no “good guys” in this scenario, strategic thinking stands to reason that if both sides bleed slowly, they are less of a threat to Israel, and more distantly, us.  However, the continued regional instability resulting from this slow bleed is unsustainable and is directly responsible for ISIS gains in Iraq.

Conversely, an Assad departure should be able to convince some of the more moderate rebels to come to the negotiating table and work toward a political solution that ends the war.  In a Syria working toward peace, those that continue to fight would be more identifiable as extremists/terrorists and therefore prime candidates for an “attitude adjustment.”

In Iraq, it seems “Diamond” Joe Biden was right (I can’t believe I just typed that).  In 2009, he openly questioned the political boundaries of Iraq and whether they were tenable over the long term.  Understanding history, we see that these borders were deliberately created by the British and French Empires after WWI so as to keep the inhabitants of the region focused on local squabbles and thus, less prepared to deal with foreign exploitation.

We must also be cognizant of what can realistically be accomplished via US action.  We are attempting to insert ourselves into a religion-based conflict that has raged for over a thousand years.  It is asinine to think that “democracy in a box” can change hundreds of years of animosity and tribal conflict in 10 years.  Sometimes, folks just have to duke it out.

I do not have all the answers, but believe framing the question properly is essential to understanding the situation.  Should the US intervene again in the region (and accept all the second and third-order effects of intervention) to preserve this century-old vestige of British imperialism?  Or should it accept that the imposition of the traditional Westphalian state structure (google it) on this tribal-based society has been a failure, wait to see whether the region reverts back to its pre-WWI status, ensure our regional allies that have more or less accepted the Westphalian model are assisted and supported in the interim, and strategically shift our alliances to new regional actors?  Perhaps it is helpful to quote Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, who, in the wake of WWI, built his country into a modern, successful state.  He famously opined, “Look westward, and leave the lands of the former Ottoman empire to their backwardness and blood feuds.”

Why Russia is eating our lunch in Ukraine

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen what looks to be a dangerous re-ignition of the Cold War.  In one corner, we have the crafty and shirtless Russian Premier (I mean President) Putin who, in response to the overthrow of his minion in Kiev, seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine with blinding speed and without firing a shot.  In the other corner, we have a feckless and dithering EU and an American President that seems to have been caught on his heels and is utterly out of his depth when it comes to strategy.

Rather than jump on the armchair general bandwagon and shout from the sidelines what should be done here, I wanted to point out why I think it is happening.  Not from a geopolitical perspective, mind you, but from a philosophical one.  Think back to the original cold war, the battle of ideologies between capitalism and communism.  Why did the Communists lose?  It helps to think of it as a game of poker.  The Soviets had very good players; some would argue better than ours, given that they were able to stay in the game as long as they did.  But communism, with its emphasis on control, coercion, and the primacy of the collective, was invariably a terrible hand.  After all, if it was such a good idea, then why did it have to be forced on people?  Conversely, capitalism represents free enterprise, liberty, and the primacy of the individual.  We had the better hand, i.e., the superior ideology and, more importantly, the moral authority that came with it.  We had a full house, and, while the Russians had a great poker face, all they could ever muster was a busted flush.

Fast forward to today.  One of the reasons we’re losing the battle of international public opinion with the Russians is because we have weakened our own hand by lurching away from our Constitutional principles espousing limited government, a laissez-faire economy, and rejection of foreign adventurism.  We’ve tarnished our credibility and are now subject to catcalls of “hypocrisy!” by our adversaries.  It’s not a coincidence that the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) that this administration used as justification for intervention in Libya and wanted to use in Syria is the same doctrine that Putin used in Georgia in 2008 and is using in Ukraine now.  By embracing a doctrine that could be twisted and lawyered so much as to justify intervention pretty much anywhere at any time for any reason, we condone that behavior by other nations.

Observe the massive increase in the size of government and dependence on welfare programs over the past 5 years here in America.  More Americans are receiving some sort of government assistance now than ever before.  Further, as laws and regulations pile higher with each passing Congress (they need to “do something,” remember?), actual innovation and productivity give way to what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs,” which are reminiscent of the make-work jobs of the Soviet era.  Inventors and scientists and innovators are supplanted by bureaucrats, actuaries, and middle management.  Such an environment breeds lethargy and deadens the spirit.  This is an unprecedented move toward the very ideology of collectivism and centralized government control that we thought we vanquished 25 years ago.

Bottom line, the more we drift leftward toward a statist Euro-socialist model, the more we degrade our economic might, the idea of American exceptionalism, and the moral authority that comes with being the torch-bearer for the free world.  Once that is gone, we become “just another country.”  And that torch?  It sits atop the Statue of Liberty.  It’s time we remember why it was sent to us.