Five Years Ago Today Mohammed Bouazizi Lit a Fire in Tunisia


Five years ago today Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia as a protest against injustice. The specific injustice was being repeatedly hassled by Tunisian law enforcement and other officials over his vegetable cart. Bouazizi’s actions are credited as being the straw that broke the camel’s back in Tunisia, touching off the beginnings of a popular uprising against the Tunisian government. As similar events began to occur in other states across the Middle East and the Maghreb, western (specifically American) media lumped all of these together and declared an Arab Spring. The media did this because doing any real, in depth reporting to try to understand the different grievances and movements and causes in different parts of the Middle East would have required actually expending resources like money and time and it would have also been hard. Also, no one ever paid advertising dollars for nuance, which is why all of Morning Joe glazed over a couple of days ago when an Assad cousin explained that 50% of Syrians are from minority religious sects and that when you include Sunni support for the current government, over a bare majority of Syrians are NOT actually supporting the various rebels and the rebellion. Who could’ve known?

As a result, however, the common (official?) perception is that the Arab Spring was a series of related events throughout the Middle East that has largely ground to a halt, stalled, been rolled back, or been defeated. None of this is true. While there are some similarities; specifically large numbers of disenfranchised and/or disillusioned citizens and subjects in many of the countries lumped together as the Arab Spring rising up, pushing back, or rebelling against the political, economic, religious, and social status quo, there are also many differences. It makes little sense to argue that an act of protest rooted in a very local and localized form of authoritarian pettiness in Tunisia was the driver for the Syrian Civil War or the Egyptian revolution and counter-revolution.**

Regardless of the sound and fury that today’s faux birthday for a faux Arab Spring will bring it is important to remember Mohamed Bouazizi. There are some important reasons for this. One is that it is possible for the actions of one person, even a desperate, unconsolable individual who feels that he/she is at the end of their rope, can inspire others to attempt to and sometimes achieve positive change. Mohamed Bouazizi is an example of such. A second reason is that whether he knew it or not or his self immolation was intended or such, Mohamed Bouazizi provided the world with a real demonstration of what the Islamic understanding of martyrdom (shahadat) is. Jami’at al Tirmidhi, The Reliance of the Traveler, as well as other scholars actually define shahadat as one sacrificing their own life to point injustice out to others***. This is important as Bouazizi’s self sacrifice born of frustration provides a very real and very recent example of what shahadat is as opposed to what al Qaeda or the Islamic State says it is: sacrificing one’s life to kill unbelievers and apostates to cause terror and spread fear and panic. Finally, Mohamed Bouazizi’s actions also demonstrate to us that one person can, in fact, become something bigger than just a person. This last lesson, related to the first, is an important one that we all too often forget or ignore at our own peril.

* Arab Spring image was found here.

** If you really feel the need to subject yourself to it, you can click over to here and watch a presentation I made in January 2012 on the Arab Spring as part of the US Army War College’s Great Decisions Lecture Series. The presentation was given at the Army Heritage and Educational Center (AHEC). In it I fully go through why I don’t think there’s an Arab Spring. Also, the one comment is really funny. I have no doubt that the recommended speaker would have given a great talk. Of course he wasn’t assigned to/working at the US Army War College and this series always features US Army War College personnel. So…

*** Somebody posted my entire article online here, I don’t know who, I really don’t care as I’ve had three actual academic presses rip me off to publish it as a chapter reprint in other people’s edited volumes. The last one actually contacted me, which was nice, for permission. When I said no they did it anyway. And before someone chimes in – I have shared copyright with The Journal of Church and State, so it can’t actually be republished this way without my approval. Not that that does me any good. And while I’m glad each republication gets it more attention, I do like to be paid for my work! Though I was really flattered when, at one time, it was posted on a site devoted to explaining Islamic religious and jurisprudential concepts that was run by actual Muslims.

Lurching from Administration to Administration and Event to Event: The Lack of an Overarching US Policy Narrative

This morning Betty C put up a post about Senator Paul’s asking good foreign policy questions at last night’s debate. At the time it went up I was already thinking about this. As I’ve written several times in posts and in comments: the US does have specific, articulated policies for what is currently going on in the Levant. These include: 1) Reduce the Islamic State’s (IS) ability to expand its physical/territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq through a strategy of attrition via coalition air strikes; 2) Removal of Bashar Assad from power and the replacement of his government with something that is more acceptable to and representative of the Syrian population; 3) Support for the Government of Iraq, but seeking to make that government more representative and inclusive of the non-Shi’a majority in order to maintain the political integrity of Iraq (i. e. Iraq with its current boundaries and borders and composed of its current ethnic and sectarian elements). There are additional US policies in the region, such as pursuing a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation; and support for various allies and partners – such as supporting the Hashemite Monarchy in Jordan.

While each of these policies may be feasible, acceptable, and suitable in isolation, several of them seem to be in conflict. Specifically the reduction of the Islamic State while pursuing the end of the Assad government. Parts of the other policies may also be in conflict, and when they are not, the strategic components to achieve them mays still be. This presents the US with a serious conundrum: how to achieve our objectives and secure our interests, as well safeguard those of our allies and partners with competing policy objectives. Moreover, we are, as always, caught in a trap of our own making: espousing a set of national ideals and values that are not necessarily honored in the breach as we attempt to respond to ongoing and/or emerging crises.

What the US is facing, and what no candidate is discussing, is that the US is lacking an overarching and integrated strategic narrative of what its policies in the Middle East are seeking to achieve and how best to achieve them. This is not a new problem. The US has lurched from one set of outcomes to another as administrations have changed. Moreover, because of domestic politics, the way our news media works (or doesn’t work), and because of think tank and special interest access, these outcomes are always far narrower and more constrained than they should be. Our policy and strategy towards dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, perhaps, the most artificially constrained because of these dynamics and it clearly shows in our inability to actually make progress in dealing with the problem set.*

This lack of a strategic narrative not only leaves the US hostage to current events, but it also often requires that we ignore the national ideals and values that we promote to the rest of the world. The Bush 43 Administration had its Freedom Agenda, which didn’t really work out, despite being couched within the language of our national ideals of liberty and self government. The Obama Administration currently has an overarching policy of not getting drawn further in (sometimes articulated as “don’t do stupid shit”) while trying to manage and mitigate several problem sets in the Middle East. What the US really needs, or, perhaps, US civilian and military leadership really needs to do, is to articulate what it thinks a stable, functional, and responsive to its population/citizenry Middle East looks like. Once that is done it then becomes possible to discuss the actual strategies – the ways and means – to achieve those potential ends.

But, and its a sizable one, this has to be a holistic approach. Rather than a policy for IS and one for Syria/Assad and another for Iran or what to do with Turkey as a NATO ally or how to move the Egyptians back towards democracy and representative government. Instead the narrative has to look at the whole region and from there be linked to an overarching global policy narrative. Moreover, it needs to look at it in terms of our national ideals and values. While it would be naive to think, let alone say, that we always promote the ideals of self determination, self government, representative government, and liberty, in our foreign policy**, or live up to them, they should be front and center in developing the strategy narrative, as well as the specific policies and strategies to achieve our objectives. One of bin Laden’s most pointed and effective arguments to Muslims was that the US says one thing and does the opposite. The Islamic State is also making this argument. And all to often it has unfortunately been true.

We were perfectly happy with Mubarak or Saddam Hussein until we weren’t. This is the “Our Bastard” problem. These guys, and several others – in Yemen, the Shah, Ghadafi for a bit, and many others – were all our bastards. We decided we needed them and their absolutist approach to government in order to first hold back the threat of Communism and then the threat of a variety of Islamic extremist movements than we needed to actually promote liberty, self determination, and representative government. The way out of this policy and strategy trap is to articulate a strategic narrative that explains not only our objectives, but that the best way to stabilize the region is to do the long, hard, slow work of partnering with the people of the region so that they can develop more representative and stable forms of government that make sense within their context. To be successful we cannot simply impose our way of doing things because it won’t work in an Iraqi or Syrian or Yemeni or Egyptian context. But we can work to ensure that contextually acceptable equivalents are given the time, space, and support necessary to develop.

While this will be a prolonged, generational effort it is a far better investment than a prolonged, generational effort of repeated deployments of American military forces to fight over and over again in the same places. While the us of military power may sometimes be needed, it can no longer be our first/best/only policy option. It was often said in Iraq that we were fighting the war one year at a time and every year was a new year one. In order to escape this one year at a time trap in our dealings in the Middle East we have to develop an overarching strategic narrative that is comprehensive and in line with the ideals and vales that we espouse and rooted within the local contexts that we are engaged with. This would truly be feasible, acceptable, and suitable. We can either spend our resources wisely doing the long, slow, hard work of listening and communicating to establish understanding and rapport with our allies and partners in the Middle East to or we can spend them as we have been: recklessly spilling blood and treasure far from home with little to show for it.

* While its outside the scope of this post, the official US policy in regards to the Israelis and the Palestinians is to negotiate a two state solution. The official Israeli position articulated in 2014 and repeated during PM Netanyahu’s reelection campaign earlier this year, that had first emerged unofficially over several years on the Israeli right, is that there will only be a one state solution: Israel. What the Israelis haven’t worked out, or at leas the Israelis that are running things in the current right of center/right wing coalition government, is how to achieve this and over what time frame.

** And this would also be unfortunately true for our domestic affairs as well.

And Now a Few Words from the Treaty of Tripoli Ratified in 1797: The US is not a Christian Nation Edition


On June 7, 1797 President Adams received a unanimous ratification of the Treaty of Tripoli from the US Senate. This is significant for two reasons. The first is that this was the 5th United States Congress and had a significant number of founders and framers serving in it. So these were the men responsible for getting  the US going: revolution, first and second founding**.

The second has to do with Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli, which states:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

That first clause is a real doozy! It puts paid to the revisionist and inaccurate lie that the US was founded to be an explicitly Christian nation. Had that actually been the case, this language would not have survived to ratification as many of the men involved in America’s founding were voting on the treaty’s ratification.

* Image of the Treaty of Tripoli was found here.

** By first and second founding I’m referring to the form of government of the US as founded under the Articles of Confederation (first founding) and then the very different form of government of the US as founded under the Constitution (second founding).

Levantine Chicken: Russia, Turkey, and NATO

As I’m sure everyone, including those buried at airports trying to get home or somewhere for Thanksgiving now know, Russian and Turkish pilots played chicken yesterday and the Russian’s lost. After several previous Russian aerial incursions, and repeated warnings to clear Turkish airspace, the Turks decided to lay down a marker. And if the Turks were not members of NATO and Russia wasn’t the owner of the two largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons on the planet, this would be a problem, but it would not necessarily be a crisis. In this case, however, Turkey’s NATO membership and Putin’s revanchism have created a potentially more dangerous situation.

Perhaps the biggest immediate concern is that Erdogan, in pursuit of his attempts to be the regional hegemon, decides to make this a NATO issue by invoking Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. Article 5 is the portion of the treaty that deals with collective defense. In short an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all of them (the link is to NATO’s site and provides a complete description and explanation). There was an emergency NATO meeting earlier today, but my professional guesstimate is that most of the other NATO members are trying to talk sense to the Turkish representatives. There are several reasons for this, not least among them is that Turkey, specifically Erdogan and his government, have been unreliable in regards to the Syrian Civil War. Moreover, Erdogan has engaged in a number of concerning actions domestically. What appeared to start out as necessary constitutional reforms, done in the right way through the Turkish political system, quickly turned into something much more worrisome: that Erdogan is slowly seeking to try in Turkey what Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood tried to do quickly in Egypt.* Turkey has been a historically important and supportive ally of the US. Under Erdogan, however, they seem to have become less so.**

Putin, and what Putin will do, is also of concern. One of the hallmarks of Putinism (h/t: Stiftung Leo Strauss***), which is itself rooted in Dugin’s philosophy/ideology (h/t: Stiftung Leo Strauss), is revanchism. Putin’s understanding of the world, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, is that the United States, as well as NATO controlled by the US and EU, has taken advantage of Russia. From Putin’s point of view a weak/weakened Russia emerged from the chaos surrounding the end of Gorbachev’s premiership and was exploited by the US and the EU. NATO expansion into Russia’s historic sphere of influence and near abroad is simply further evidence of how the US and EU abused their power at Russia’s expense. Now that Russia has grown more economically powerful, largely because of the outsize profits realized in the petroleum markets beginning in 2008, Putin has the ability to do something about this perceived abuse.  The war with Georgia in 2008 was one foray. Seizing Crimea and supporting Russian ethnic/Russian linguistic separatists in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 was another. And having Russian jets flirt with incursions into US and other NATO members airspace is just another example of Putin trying to make his point: Russia is strong again, with a strong leader, and will not simply be pushed around. And this is all before we get into the potential links between Putin and Russian organized crime***.

The real problem we are facing though is that neither Erdogan on his own, nor Putin really have the ability to make this a bigger issue. Erdogan can’t take Turkey into an actual fight against Russia. Putin’s limited assets in the Levant, as well as Turkey’s NATO membership and that pesky Article 5, potentially constrain his actions. Or we should hope they constrain his actions, while recognizing that hope is not a strategy. So what happens? As was the case with Russia’s taking of the Ukraine, I do not think there is anyone in the Obama Administration, or in the EU leadership, that would risk an interstate war with Russia over this. The reason, again, is that if that escalates we’re talking about war between the two largest nuclear powers. I would expect that cooler heads will prevail in the NATO meetings. Moreover, I estimate that when President Hollande goes to Moscow, which is on his list of stops after he leaves the US to line up international support against ISIS, that he will attempt to draw the Russians into whatever it is he is actually proposing to/discussing with his other allies. As I’ve written here before: states do not have friends, they have interests. In Syria, Russia’s interests in defeating ISIS overlap with ours and that of our EU and NATO partners, though perhaps not Erdogan’s.

I ultimately expect that cooler heads will prevail here. Finally, this is another real world example of why we do NOT want to create a no fly zone over Syria and a great argument for creating a multi-national deconfliction cell to prevent these types of things from happening again. The key to managing and mitigating the Syrian Civil War and the sectarian conflict that it reenflamed in Iraq, is containment. Deconfliction of operations is an appropriate step towards effective containment as it prevents events from spiraling out of control into related, tangential crises that have all too much chance of getting out of hand.

* Full disclosure to mark my belief’s to market: When Erdogan began his reforms I was one of the folks who believed he was making necessary constitutional adjustments and doing so in the correct manner through the existing and approved political system. Had he stopped there, not only would I and other informed observers been correct, but it would have been to Turkey’s benefit. However, he did not stop there and began to reposition Turkey against both Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony and his party and their politics domestically in a more authoritarian manner.

** Fuller disclosure: I supervised a Turkish armor officer in 2010-2011 and last year wrote a letter of recommendation for him for graduate school. He is an excellent officer, what we in the US would call and officer and a gentleman, and a credit to both the Turkish military and to the Profession of Arms.

*** I highly recommend The Stiftung Leo Strauss for analysis on Russia and Putin, as well as other issues both foreign and domestic.

**** I highly recommend Dawisha’s book, I’m about a 1/3 of the way through.

Booo! ISIS and the Use of Terrorism as Psychological Operations


In the discussion of ISIS and its actions we need to clearly get a handle on what it is that ISIS is hoping to accomplish with the attacks in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad and the Russian airplane bombing. What they are doing is using terrorism, and even more so the responses to terrorism, to provide them with ways and means that they do NOT themselves have to achieve their ends. We need to recognize and accept that for ISIS terrorism is Psychological Operations (PSYOPs).

PSYOPs are defined as: “Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives. Also called PSYOP.” Calls for closing mosques or special identification for Muslims or religious tests for refugees, let alone simply not accepting any, are all the result of ISIS being able to influence emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of the US government, American organizations and groups, and US citizens. Threats of reprisal and actual attacks on Muslims as reprisals, or those perceived to be Muslim, even more so.

President Hollande’s response was not only morally correct, but also demonstrated how not to fall into ISIS’s PSYOPs trap:

“Life should resume fully,” Hollande told a gathering of the country’s mayors, who gave him a standing ovation. “What would France be without its museums, without its terraces, its concerts, its sports competitions?

“France should remain as it is. Our duty is to carry on our lives.”

In the same spirit, he added, “30,000 refugees will be welcomed over the next two years. Our country has the duty to respect this commitment,” explaining that they will undergo vigorous security checks.

Hollande noted that “some people say the tragic events of the last few days have sown doubts in their minds,” but called it a “humanitarian duty” to help those people … but one that will go hand in hand with “our duty to protect our people.”

“We have to reinforce our borders while remaining true to our values,” he said.

So far American news media, far too many politicians at all levels of US government, and far too many Americans have decided to provide ISIS the ways and means to achieve their ends. Ways and means that they do NOT actually have. We went down this rabbit hole after 9-11 into a land of demagoguery; fear; and paranoia. It got us two unsuccessful wars without declaring war, a mess of an economy, and no real good solutions for, or resolutions of, how to deal with the extremist, violent strain within Islam that is at war with Islam and the rest of the world. The question that has not been fully answered, though we are seeing hints and teasers of what the answer might be, is have we learned anything over the past fourteen years?
* Image found here.