18 September 2011

The Problems With Neo-con Perspective

A friend of mine and a reader of this blog sent me a link to David Warren's latest column entitled "the Man Who Could Trigger a World War."

Warren claims that the Turkish PM Erdogan is a dangerous antisemite who is very keen on creating a casus belli with Israel to start a world war.

This is in stark contrast to what I have been saying on this humble soapbox.

To me, Erdogan's real or perceived antisemitism is besides the point. What I am interested in is looking a large number of variables (beyond statements) and trying to understand the meaning and direction of the large scale changes that are taking place in the Middle East.

In that vein, I claimed that the so-called Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt was actually a military coup d'etat. And given the beholden nature of their armies to the US, for a coup d'etat to be possible the US had to be in on it. Which means (without sounding like a functionalist) these acts had to fit a larger purpose. I also suggested that Israel was a reluctant actor for some of it (i.e the Arab Spring and regime change in Egypt) and a willing participant for other aspects of this grand design (i.e. the kabuki theater with Turkey).

Obviously, one of us is dead wrong.

Normally, the intellectual gap that separates me from neo-cons is such that I would not comment on their arguments. Nothing I could say would be intelligible to them and nothing they could say would be meaningful to me. But looking more closely to that gap might be interesting for my tiny readership.

The neo-con understanding of the world is a basic and permanent us-vs-them framework with simple ideological filters.

The first one is the importance of political discourse and messages of strength and toughness conveyed to your friends and foes.  Their most often used phrase is "sending a message" and because of that they often advocate extreme military measures and a shoot-first-talk-later approach.

Secondly, they firmly believe in American exceptionalism. As you know, American exceptionalism is the ideological filter that enables you to condemn Act X when done by another country but hail the same Act X as legitimate and good when performed by the US. The filter's indispensable ingredient is the assumption that your side is inherently pure and well-intentioned. And as such it is an integral part of all your explanations.

With such a simple framework this is how you make sense of these recent events:

1) The Importance of Political Rhetoric and the Need to Send a Message in a Missile

Or the syndrome known as
"Ahmadinejad, Erdogan, Chavez said this, therefore we should act forcefully and send a message"

I personally never liked the Iranian President. He is highly conservative, he thinks of women as secondary beings and he is belligerent (come to think of it that is a pretty accurate description of all conservatives everywhere). And he shoots off his mouth a lot, as in the infamous "wiping Israel off the map" speech.

Regardless of the translation controversy, how should we react to such a statement?

Should we bomb Iran to Stone Age to send a message to them and to others?

Or should we assess this by analyzing (a) Ahmadinejad's ability to carry out this threat, (b) Iran's capability to pursue this and (c) whether pursuing this would be desirable for Iran's ruling elite?

Neo-cons generally suggest (and have been doing so in this instance) that we shoot first and worry about the consequences later.

I offer we look at these causal elements instead of the rhetoric of a man.

We know for instance that the Iranian Presidency is too weak for Ahmadinejad to do anything about it, even if he was dead serious (remember how his reformist predecessor Khatami quickly became irrelevant?). The President is not the Supreme Leader: he reports to the Supreme Leader. We also know that it is not in the interest of the Iranian Islamic regime and the ruling elite to start a regional war. Finally, we know that Iran does not have the capacity to fight and win such a war.

We evaluate what Ahmadinejad has to say in that light and shrug off his bellicose rhetoric.

But that never stopped legions of neo-con writers advocating a swift and brutal attack on Iran.

If we go by the same logic, how should we react about Avigdor Lieberman who flushed his toilet during a radio interview (while talking about Hamas)? Think about it: If we had Palestinian neo-cons who subsequently wrote that it was obvious from this act that Israel sees Palestinians as excrement and wants to get rid of them and therefore the world needs to intervene to stop a likely genocide, how would we respond to them?

The way the neo-cons suggest we deal with Ahmadinejad or the way I outlined above?

The same principle goes for Erdogan. He is a conservative like Ahmadinejad and Lieberman. He is probably an antisemite. But if you say that Erdogan is looking for a casus belli because he announced that the Turkish navy will now accompany all ships to Gaza, you need to be able to explain why (a) the killing of nine Turkish civilians in international waters did not provide that casus belli, (b) why after Mavi Marmara, Turkish government prevented several humanitarian aid ships from sailing to Gaza and (c) why he waited for more than a year to escalate his rhetoric.

The reason why I initially thought the Mavi Marmara incident was part of a kabuki theater was simple: if the same thing happened in the Aegean sea and Greek commandos killed nine Turkish civilians, Turkey would have been at war with Greece the following day.

Ask anyone who knows Turkey and they will confirm this claim.

Clearly, if he wanted to escalate this, he could have done so for months. Instead, you can see that the flare up coincided with the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it is done carefully (like not allowing other ships to sail to Gaza or not passing to Gaza from Egypt during his recent visit) and with impeccable timing (like expelling the ambassador when Egypt flip flopped to make Turkey look like a firm regional power).

Moreover, while Erdogan shoots off his mouth (and gets neo-cons hyperventilating), his government accepted a US missile shield and detection system that will work in tandem with a similar facility in Israel:
“This is probably the biggest strategic decision between the United States and Turkey in the past 15 or 20 years,” one senior administration official said Thursday at a White House briefing meant to call attention to the developments.
Sure, Turkish media quoted anonymous government sources claiming they asked the data gathered not be shared with Israel but, as the New York Times article reported, no such restrictions exist in reality. It was for domestic consumption (another illustration of the fallacy of solely relying on statements)

How can one explain the installation of a missile system against Iran at this point in time? Especially since that system will generate data that will be shared with Israel. Remember the official Turkish policy of "zero problems with neighbors"? Suddenly, it is threatening Syria and Iran at the same time. And doing so in collaboration with the US and Israel.

There is one last variable that supports my hypothesis that Turkey is acting in line with US wishes. While Turkey clearly relishes the regional superpower role given to it, it is also aware that it cannot stray too far away from the playbook.  The massive influx of foreign capital that creates the illusion of a major economic miracle would stop dead in its tracks if the US hinted its displeasure with Turkey. This is not a cheap conspiracy theory on my part. It happened before and when in 2000, $70 billion capital exited within a few months (from a much smaller Turkish economy) the country collapsed spectacularly.

When you look at all the variables you realize that heated rhetoric cannot explain much. You need a causal framework that explains all the variables at the same time.

Unfortunately, within post-modernity we are no longer required to have such causality. We can simply say "but he said this" and that is good enough.

2) America the pure

Or the syndrome known as
The US is a beacon of hope and freedom and it supported the Arab Spring because of these ideals

I am not going to remind anyone that the beacon of freedom had supported these Middle Eastern dictators (and many more around the world) for decades. But, I will simply note that, if you believe that the Arab Spring was a spontaneous revolution that caught everyone (and especially the US) unprepared, you will have to explain why the man known as Mubarak's poodle in Egypt who was and still is Washington's point man there, did not lift a finger to stop the revolution.

If you remember, Tantawi's troops protected the protesters and let Mubarak go down in flame. If he was doing this against American wishes and under democratic pressure from protesters, how come he is abiding by those wishes now and doing everything to keep the Cold Peace in place and ignoring fresh protests from Tahrir Square?

The only way you can claim that the US was caught unprepared in Egypt (the famous excuse used for the fall of the Shah of Iran) is by taking the statements of politicians as the only relevant information. As the same exact playbook was used in Tunisia a couple of months prior to that (and the American-controlled Tunisian army did not lift a finger either to save Ben Ali) it is unthinkable that the US government was uninformed and surprised.

Which implies that the US wanted a regime change in Egypt and even if they were not instigating it, at the very least, they want to let it happen by asking the army to stay on the sidelines. Once you realize that, you ask yourself why would the US, a staunch Israeli ally, do such a thing? Since it is obvious that the US would not want to jeopardize Israel's security and the future of the Camp David agreements, the American move to get rid of Mubarak must have an explanation.

Hence my hypothesis that explains all the contradictory elements in the narrative. But of you start with a helpless but pure America axiom, you will see all of this as a chaotic tale full of sound and fury with a bumbling superpower in the middle, vacillating from side to side.

And this is a crucial point. These days, no explanations are provided for any news. Only statements as facts. Everyday the Eurozone crisis is presented as if it happened yesterday with no explanation other then, markets are signalling this, Merkel said that and Lagarde offered this.

The most contrarian aspect of my posts seems to be my effort to explain events with multiple variables and to do so without relying on statements and speeches.

I may be wrong but at least I try.

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