Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment: The risks of Strategic Incoherence

There is today a real upping of geostrategic risk. Whether we are looking at Ukraine’s civil war; the possible ramifications of yesterday’s downed Malaysian airliner; or the US decision to ‘punish’ Putin for not getting the Dunblass militants to surrender to Poroshenko; or too, if we are looking at the phenomenon of the rise of ISIS and the de-facto dismemberment of Iraq; or if we look at the handling of the Iran negotiations, structured around the sheer artificiality of the notion of ‘breakout capacity’ as its defining metric; or if we look at Washington’s $500 million extra to ‘moderate’ armed “moderate” insurgents in Syria; or if we look to Israel’s military offensive against Palestinians — we can see that any one of these crises has the ability explosively to change the face of Middle East (and global) politics.  All of these crises interpenetrate with each other.  They pose systemic risk.  And all of these crises seem too, to have a commonality in exposing a dysfunctionality in American politics that seems to preclude serious attempts at a strategic understanding of these events, and their inter-related risks. The question is why is such systemic risk being met with such systematic torpidity?

ISIS’s thrust across Iraq’s Sunni heartland, (as colleagues in Washington tell us) initially sparked animated debate in Washington about the potential for cooperation with Iran – in order to deal with its potentially devastating impact on the region’s stability.  It even prompted some hope (mainly among White House and State Department officials) that such cooperation could help ease negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear activities. (These early expectations prompted the addition of Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to the U.S. delegation for the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran that resumed in Vienna on 16 June – not just to boost U.S. negotiating capacity on the nuclear issue, but also to present the Iranians with an authoritative U.S. interlocutor with whom they could start discussing Iraq).

Washington’s enhanced receptivity to prospective coordination with Tehran over Iraq however proved short-lived.   

The consensus in U.S. policy circles that finally emerged from this debate was that the ISIS ‘victories’ essentially were more a function of Maliki’s sectarian style of governance than anything more substantive (i.e. they were simply something of a Sunni revolt). This conclusion in turn, led to growing support in the Obama administration for making whatever the United States might do in Iraq — whether in coordination with Iran or not — conditional on Maliki’s departure.  Against this backdrop, major players in the Obama administration were never able to come to agreement over whether, or how, to engage Iran over Iraq. 

Whilst both the White House and the State Department then had been initially open to coordinating with Tehran – on the other side of the intra-administration debate, the Defense Department consistently opposed coordinating with Iran in Iraq, largely because of concern that such cooperation could increase Tehran’s already substantial influence there. This concern was reinforced by pressure from the pro-Israel and pro-Saudi lobbies in Washington not to let the Obama administration’s interest in engaging Tehran over Iraq in any way “weaken” the U.S. posture in the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Also Tehran’s approach to dealing with the situation in Iraq was – from the outset – quite different from that of Washington:  Iran did not want to see the crisis treated simply as an opening to undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (who had just won the most seats in parliamentary elections).  Iranian leaders warned that to have a beneficial effect, any U.S. response to the Iraqi crisis must, above all, strengthen the Iraqi government’s capacity to fight jihadi militants.  More specifically, President Rouhani said that Washington would need to address its own contribution to jihadi extremism in the region – e.g. U.S. backing for armed Syrian jihadists – and to confront Saudi Arabia and other regional allies over their support for takfiri jihadists.

Iran strongly prefers (and still hopes) to avoid overt military involvement in Iraq, and views U.S. military intervention – even stand-off airstrikes, let alone on-the-ground troop deployments – as inherently counterproductive. Consequently, Tehran was not interested in cooperating militarily with Washington vis-à-vis Iraq, but was willing to address strategic issues jointly. 

So, in the end, it proved politically easier for the administration simply to back away from the initial interest of the White House and State Department in exploring possibilities for U.S-Iranian cooperation over Iraq.  Moreover, deeply ingrained resistance in Washington to accommodating Iranian regional interests reasserted itself – which further constricted the political space for exploring possibilities for cooperating with Tehran (as our US colleagues confirmed).

In sum, the US Administration – in face of a more serious threat from radical Sunni extremism than that which emerged in the 1980s from the Afghan war – is benignly content to allow the implications to “be allowed to take care of themselves.  Perhaps more pertinent, is that this assessment (that radical jihadism essentially is all Assad and Maliki’s fault) does serve to divert attention away from any responsibility for the emergence of ISIS stemming from America’s tacit reliance on Saudi Arabia’s use of such forces – including ISIS – to achieve their (Saudi Arabia’s) own sectarian and geopolitical ends. It also presupposes a degree of confidence in Gulf assurances that ISIS will be ‘taken care of’ – once their particular role has been played out – which is almost certainly fantastical thinking.

The point here is that in the choppy waters of Washington politics – and with strong cross-currents running – it was simply ‘easier’ not to think through the meaning of the strategic risks associated with this new firing-up of radical Sunni Islam (thirty years after the first such firing-up has left us with decades of the ‘War on Terror’).

In Palestine, we see something akin: Israel has used the pretext that it was searching for three young settlers taken hostage, and ‘presumed’ to be still alive (but whom the Israeli government knew to be dead, and to have been killed by Palestinians who were not Hamas), to degrade Hamas institutionally in the West Bank, as well as in Gaza – with Prime Minister Netanyahu saying (in Hebrew) “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan” – Or, in other words, ‘no two-state solution’ and effectively no end to the occupation.

Netanyahu used the murders to nurse Israeli popular anger at Hamas (whom the PM said repeatedly was responsible – when it was not).  Mirror passions were then ignited amongst Palestinians in wake of the revenge immolation alive of a sixteen-year-old Palestinian boy. Netanyahu’s aim in this political deceit was to use the crisis firstly, to hobble Hamas in the West Bank; and secondly, to try to re-impose the status quo in Gaza (the return of the PA to governing Gaza). The December 2012 ceasefire agreement, brokered with Hamas, which Israel claims Hamas to have breached with retaliatory rocket fire – in fact provided for some alleviations on the longstanding encirclement and siege of the Gazan people — alleviations were never enacted by Israel

Netanyahu now wishes to re-impose the unalleviated siege (i.e. the earlier status quo) under the guise of a ceasefire agreement, whereas Hamas seeks to break it definitively. It plans to do this by following the tactics used by Hizbullah in Lebanon in the 2006 war:  Hizbullah’s leadership was buried deep underground; it allowed the initial aerial carpet bombing to roll over their (largely) unaffected military forces – and Hizbullah fighters managed to keep on firing rockets into Israel.  The purpose of the rockets was never intended to inflict a military defeat on Israel, but was intended to force IDF ‘boots on the ground’ in South Lebanon (ideal guerrilla country), where the IDF could be made to experience pain.  Ultimately the only answer to rockets whose operators can ‘fire and flee’ in less than 60 seconds – well before Israeli forces can lock onto the firing point – can only be ‘boots on the ground’.

It remains to be seen whether Hamas’ tactics will work (Gaza is mainly flat and largely sand – unlike south Lebanon – which puts Hamas at a distinct disadvantage).  But clearly the Hamas military wing, who are the ones calling the shots, do not want a ceasefire at this time – especially “a fraudulent ceasefire”.  “My Israeli source”, commentator Richard Silverstein, writes, “who was consulted as part of the negotiations, tells me that this was not, in reality, an Egyptian proposal.  It was, in fact, an Israeli proposal presented in the guise of an Egyptian proposal.  Israel wrote the ceasefire protocol.  One side prepared the ceasefire, and essentially presented it to itself and accepted it.  The other side wasn’t consulted”. Tony Blair, the Quartet Envoy, similarly facilitated the ‘ceasefire’.

Hamas wants to force Netanyahu into a ground incursion (and seems now to have succeeded in this).  And Netanyahu and President Sisi hope to use any ‘ceasefire’ agreement to return Gaza to the status quo ante – and to stage the replacement of Hamas as the source of governance and authority with the Palestinian Authority (in other words, to stage a ‘soft coup’ in Gaza as in 2007).

But the point of all this is precisely its pointlessness. Israeli security officials openly say that ‘mowing the grass (i.e. killing Gazans in sufficient numbers to deter aggression – until the next round of conflict) is pointless. It is strictly tactical and short-term, and achieves nothing strategic. Israel just has to continue ‘mowing the grass’.

The Palestinian issue (though demoted in regional attention over recent years), nonetheless is both neuralgic and iconic for most Muslims.  It still remains the fulcrum around which regional differences may be buried.  It can and does have the ability to de-stabilise politics (Arab leaders still fear its prominent featuring on news broadcasts) – albeit not to the extent they did in earlier decades.  It is plain that the situation in Gaza is critically unstable and cannot continue indefinitely; the two-state project has been dead for some years (Martin Indyk recently confirmed its demise), yet Europeans and Americans seem paralysed in their decision-making: they simply find it easier – given the strong political cross-currents  – to broadly let events take care of themselves.

Perhaps the only area where there is clear US policy is on Ukraine, where the neo-con element within the US Administration has been haranguing Europeans to enact tougher sanctions on Russia (though Washington has not – as EU politicians are beginning to complain – explained to them why the penalties in question are required; or why they make strategic sense i.e. in possibly damaging EU businesses more than Russian ones).

The effect of this particular activism however has been no less dysfunctional as in cases where the Administration has opted for passivity (or succumbed to internal paralysis). The Administration efforts to undermine Angela Merkal’s efforts to work with Putin towards a diplomatic solution of the Ukraine crisis (by urging Poroshenko to undertake yet more military action), its arm-twisting on sanctions and its brushing aside of German concerns about US spying have put a key alliance (that with Germany) in real jeopardy.  It has split the EU too: with Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg and Slovenia favouring conciliation with Russia, a further ‘camp’ which inclines to the German line, and a much smaller block of opponents of Russia (Poland and the three Baltic countries in particular), who take the American line.

Here too we find a paradox: The prevalent western meme is that is that while western diplomatic sanctions against Russia have been treated with derision, the one thing that will severely cripple the Russian economy is America’s unilateral sanction of a capital market embargo, which has been imposed on certain Russian businesses: Russian companies are facing $115 billion of debt repayment due over the next 12 months, and no Russian Eurobond issue has been successfully priced since Crimea. But as Bloomberg reports, the expectation that Russia’s major corporations will be crippled may prove to be fanciful:

“Russian companies, facing $115 billion of debt due over the next 12 months, will have the funds even as bond markets shut because of the Ukraine crisis, according to Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings.  Firms will have about $100 billion in cash and earnings at their disposal during the next 18 months, Moody’s said in an analysis of 47 businesses.  Almost all 55 companies examined by Fitch are “well placed” to withstand a closed refinancing market for the rest of 2014, it said in a note on 16 April.  Banks have more than $20 billion in foreign currency to lend as the tensions prompted customers to convert their rouble savings”, ZAO Raiffeisenbank said.

“The amount of cash on balances of Russian companies, committed credit lines from banks and the operating cash flows they will get is sufficient for the companies to comfortably service their liabilities,” Denis Perevezentsev, an analyst at Moody’s in Moscow, said by phone”.

It is hard not to conclude that the US escalation against Russia (and against Putin personally) has more to do with domestic political tactics – and lacks any deeper desire to try to understand the strategic risks inherent in allowing incoherence to dominate across a range of very volatile situations.  Just to be clear, this is not to suggest that America or Europe should act more.  They should not.  But if it is thought ‘easier’ to let events take care of themselves, with little further understanding required – they should not then be surprised at being surprised by events.  The lacunae is deeper understanding. It is this omission that defines the quality of geo-political risk that we face now.

And what accounts for it? Why is it that so many highly dangerous issues – the repeat firing-up of radical Sunni Islam, the proxy war in Ukraine, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the approaching deadline on the Iran negotiations and the repression in Gaza – are being met by strategic incoherence?  It is not that senior officials ‘do not get it’.  Many of them do: yet they seem sealed in an intellectual and political retort that renders them unable to take decisions, or to challenge worn out policy shibboleths.  

We have written before of the ‘void’ that has opened up in western politics (see here) which has arisen from the disengagement and disenchantment of ‘the people’ with party politics – and how, concomitantly, centrist politicians have, from about the 1980s onwards, been deliberately withdrawing from politics (indeed even disdaining their own parties) – and posturing as though they have somehow levitated ‘above ideology’, ‘above ethics'; and who exult in having somehow ‘de-politicised’ political decision-making through becoming more technocratic and reliant on ‘expert advice’ from bankers, businessmen and technicians, who have ‘expertise’, rather than on their cabinet or party.  This allowed Tony Blair, for example, to say that in fact he was not really in politics at all.

The consequence has been a void in politics. Electors could jog along with their effective disempowerment so long as it did not hurt them personally; but with the advent of ‘austerity’ this tolerance has dropped. People feel they are unfairly paying the price for the financial system’s failings. Claudio Gallo has detected the root to this shift towards de-politicization in the emergence of neo-liberalism out of its roots in European liberalism – though the latter, he emphasises, remains distinct from the former.  (His analysis neglects however the influence of Trotskyism in neo-liberalism, particularly in America). Others have well documentedhow the neo-liberal zeitgeist was adopted by European ‘centre parties’ such as the Labour Party, who simply and pragmatically concluded that the ideology of Wall Street or the City of London could not be challenged – and that to succeed politically (i.e. be elected}, financial neo-liberalism had to be assimilated. This was the core to the New Labour ‘revolution’. Gallo argues that liberalism, from its outset, has inclined to present itself as being ‘beyond the moral’.  He notes that, even before publishing The Wealth of Nations (published 1776), Adam Smith was coping with the study of moral sentiments; and that the economic action in Adam Smith, is “escaping morality without adversing [sic] it.”

Neoliberalism like New Labour, and Clinton’s Democrats, precisely presented itself under the ideology of neutrality: the ideology of the end of ideology. Not a political system among others, historically and socially determined, but a natural immemorial fact. The auto-regulating market becomes ideologically a kind of universal category that was present in human history from the beginning.

The point here is that in neoliberal society there is no one who really manages political power. The economy regulates itself (through individuals maximizing their material self interest, which in aggregate, coalesce to maximize the welfare of society as a whole).  Neo-liberals always seek to let these unseen market forces work unimpeded, so that they may yield the ‘market verdict’.  What we seem to be witnessing are the same ‘technocratic’ principles applied to foreign policy. In foreign policy, the dynamics of power are seen to yield their own rational ‘market verdict’ as power plays are “allowed to take care of themselves”.  The international ‘market’ of power plays, by extension, should be allowed to act out relatively unimpeded too.  Government is organised by rational technicians who simply allow the market to function effectively and adapt to its verdict.  In this way, politicians can say that they  stand ‘above ideology’ and above ethics. This is obviously an ideological façade.  And maintaining this façade, making people believe that it is ‘reality’, has been a major influence in shaping contemporary media and culture.

Does this provide at least a partial answer to the accumulation of so much western strategic incoherence over the last decade?  Of course, the ‘void’ that has opened up - as both the governed and governors detach from politics –  and the attempts to manage the void, as a new populism on both the Left and Right pushes into the vacant space – undoubtedly accounts too for some of the paralysis in foreign policy decision-making too.  Dangerous times.



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