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?