Monday, April 11, 2016

"The New Arab Cold War", by Gregory Gause, Head of International Affairs Department and Professor

It was nice of Professor Gause to drop by and give his talk in person.  The lecture was on the Middle East focussing on the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf, with references to adjoining areas.  I was hoping to get some insight into how the elites think.  Part of me was impressed with his knowledge, and I left pleased that my hopes were largely fulfilled.

The title of the talk is related to an earlier book, The Arab Cold War: Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, which is out-of-print and costly to come by.  He cited this as mandatory reading for his students, and also recommended The Struggle for Syria: A study in Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958.  I guess the cost is cheap by modern textbook standards, so maybe I will try to buy some used copies.  Unfortunately the library doesn't have them.

The theme centers around strong governments vs weak governments, with the observation that most of the anarchy and civil war is associated with weak governments.  He also emphasizes that the nature of the little civil wars isn't simply the Sunni-Shia split, but in places like the former Libya it is Sunni on Sunni splits with territorialism, tribalism, language and cultural divides being triggers as one travels around the Middle East and adjacent regions.  So far much of this is nicely documented in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but most people didn't read this, so it is good to reiterate these things.  Another aspect to the conflicts, however, is the monarchist Sunnis (Saudi Arabia, etc.) vs the Democratic-ish Sunnis (Muslim Brotherhood), which adds an additional ideological dimension to the bloodletting.  We can now see that blowing away the government in Iraq and Libya were both foolish moves.  So Professor Gause is critical of both Obama and Bush on this point.

The deduction that weak governments enable chaos which creates problems that overflow borders is not particularly remarkable, but what is more interesting is where we go from here.  If weak government are bad, then strong governments are clearly the answer to the chaos, but the US has no track record in building strong governments.  Some might cite post WWII Japan and Germany, but in these cases most of the governments were actually left intact.  In Iraq, we banned the governing party, and thus eliminated the entire state bureaucracy, along with disbanding the military and restructuring everything.  Not quite sure what we did in Libya.  But it isn't particularly novel to assert that Arabs are only peaceful when disciplined by a powerful and brutal government.

A corollary to this is that since strong governments are good, we must cozy up to the strong government.  Thus, Prof. Gause thinks that the agreement that Obama made with Iran is a positive development.  He notes that Obama has never articulated his doctrine, but thinks it is one to prefer the strongest player while trying to contain the chaos of weaker players like Syria with a minimalist touch.  At this point my eyes are rolling, since this new Obama doctrine would be the exact opposite of the Carter doctrine and an affront to everything that leftists hold dear in their so-called human rights.  Are we really cozying up to Iran because they are powerful, brutal, able to maintain influence via the ruthless, competent to discipline their citizens and efficient in quelling uprisings?  Wasn't it for half those crimes that Carter threw the Shah of Iran and his family to the wolves?  Or is there some other doctrine at play?


Max Coutinho said...

Hi Looney,

You seem to have had a very interesting lecture. However, I must question the conclusion that "blowing Iraq was a foolish move" because it was not the removal of Saddam that was a foolish move, it was "building nation" that was a foolish move (but the academia is having a hard time admitting this fact). Libya was a huge mistake indeed, especially when Gaddafi was rehabilitating himself and complying to international demands: so what was that all about?

There is another doctrine at play here...


Looney said...

Hello Max,

Professor Gause would divide our actions into two: One was overthrowing the regime in Iraq. The other was the following dismantling of the entire state apparatus, with the idea that we could reconstruct it. It was the latter that he objects to.

The cynical conservative notes that the world traditionally follows a principle of "love your friends, hate your enemies". Jesus modified this to be "love your friends, love your enemies", although we would be quite cautious as we go about doing the latter. The leftist modifies this further to "hate your friends, love your enemies", with no contingency plans. Thus, we would claim this is the real doctrine at play, which is why Obama and Carter are really being consistent to the same principles.

Max Coutinho said...


Thank you for clarifying it for me: yes, nation building (or even rebuilding) is a huge mistake. It doesn't work outside the paper.

All right, I would take issue with taking "love your enemies" literally but if I'd interpret it as "respect your enemies" then I'd say the formula is perfect. As for the "hate your friends, love your enemies" paradigm: the Left is pitiful. But what is more pitiful is that President Obama wasted a perfect opportunity to be one of the greatest presidents in western history. Carter...who is that? :)


Rummuser said...

The entire area is full of contradictions and there are as many opinions about their condition as there are experts and journalists who have specialised in the area. One fact that one cannot run away from however is that when there was / is a strong government by and large, there is peace. It is in the absence of strong governments that the ISIS has developed and has caused more problems for the world than anything ever before did.

Looney said...

@Rummuser, that I agree with. It does seem to me that there is a downside to strong governments when they start pursuing nukes and fund terrorist groups elsewhere, as the Iranians have done. Similarly the Saudi government has been funding mosques throughout Europe and the US which promote Islam in its purest form, which is also its most violent form. But Egypt, on the other hand, has been rather benign.

Max Coutinho said...

Rummy and Looney,

ISIS was organised by former Saddam men. It grew under their orientation based on old Iraqi connections with Al-Qaeda. Now, it is debatable whom is to blame for this situation and I think it's too easy to just put the blame on the US alone; but we can't deny that strong governments have a better hold of things.

Iran's pursuit of nukes and sponsoring terror is a reaction to past actions: everything was done wrongly from inception and I'd like to know how to sort the whole mess out.
Is Egypt a strong state?

Looney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Looney said...

@Max, Prof. Gause made the comment that every time the president asks the US State Department about the middle east and what should be done, the answer that comes back is "It's complicated"!

As for reactions to past actions, I will note that Islam has no concept of forgiveness, but only of grievance and revenge, with the occasional merciful act where a victor withholds his full fury. Prof. Gause didn't utter the "I" word (Islam), but I have to wonder what he would have said in a private gathering.