Review of Three Books on the Islamic State


Review: “What Was That All About?” Flawed Methodologies in Explaining the Origins of ISIS (2003–2013)

Reviewed Works: The Master Plan by Brian H. Fishman; ISIS: A History by Fawaz A. Gerges; The Way of the Strangers by Graeme Wood
Review by: Nibras Kazimi
Bustan: The Middle East Book Review
Vol. 8, No. 2 (2017), pp. 151-170
DOI: 10.5325/bustan.8.2.0151
Page Count: 20

Arriving at Singularity

The Middle East has changed; it faces a period of abiding unpredictability

“The one thing the Americans had to get right was not to conflate the defeat of the jihadists with the defeat of Sunnis in the public mind.”

civil war 33

[N. Kazimi, Civil War 3, 2014, 36” x 48”]

I wrote that line a year ago. It was premised on what the jihadists had been projecting about themselves: that they were protectors of Sunnis, namely in Iraq and Syria, and more generally, that they were the redeemers of Sunnidom. That the jihadist enterprise would bring back a sense of dignity and purpose to the heirs of a once great civilization, since brought low by the connivance of turncoats with malignant foreign agendas. It is a compelling argument, replete with floridly-argued reasoning and symbolism. It also stands on firm footing, for it plays up existing narratives of victimhood and conspiracy. The jihadists suggested a shortcut through historical progression with the promise of reversing it. Inspired by the past, they offered a blueprint for what the future would look like, while audaciously making the case that peoples once great deserved to be great again. They were visionaries making great sacrifices on behalf of Muslims everywhere, facing down colossal odds, and lifted up by divine grace. Theirs was a revolution with a strategy as grand as the stakes: the resurrection of the caliphate. In 2014, they came close to their goal. Many enemies mobilized against them. But any setbacks were temporary and explained away as the Divine testing the purity and resolve of His devotees. The ultimate victory would arrive in phases as Sunnis came back, in bigger and bigger numbers, to what the jihadists were offering. There was no other way. The danger to Sunnidom was existential. Either Sunnis would muster the civilizational wherewithal to take control of their destinies, or their progeny would be subjugated by their oppressors—the armies of Christendom, the Jews, local potentates, the Shias, etc.

The grand narrative underwriting the grand strategy of the jihadists went unmatched by the coalition of local and international forces confronting the Islamic State.

That one thing—convincing the larger body of Middle Eastern Sunnis that the collapse of the jihadist ‘caliphate’ is not a measure of their own collective ineffectualness—has been botched. The bungling began during the Obama years, but the beginning of the Trump presidency held the promise that a good enough, and a fast enough, remedy could be attempted in the final stretch of the current phase of the jihadist challenge, epitomized by the ability of the Islamic State to control a major Middle Eastern city for the last three years. That promise, though, has been squandered. You would have missed it had you blinked. It was lost when Trump’s inaugural overseas trip instead of offering a sense of purpose to Sunni populations resulted in some meek measures concerning terror financing and the establishment of a propaganda center.

Optics matter. Timing matters. The narratives we weave, matter. By every metric, if the aim was to convey a sense of Sunni empowerment, then very little was achieved over the last few weeks. We can find no solace in believing that it is still early in the administration’s term; that better policies shall be arrived at with time and experience. There were already ten years on the clock, and the opportunity, showing up as unexpectedly as Trump’s election, will prove fleeting. There are no do-overs. Those living through the events that portend tragedies seldom understand that what they are witnessing amounts to a last chance. I don’t know what the ramifications will be; the broken Sunni communities in Iraq are too exhausted and are consequently unlikely to host more turmoil. I’m not sure the same can be said about Syria, and certainly there’s ample dry powder strewn about elsewhere in the region—as one observer put it to me recently—for mischief to catch fire. The little math we can do demonstrates that it has become exceedingly difficult to plot out what comes next. Accepting this realization should compel us to think anew about the region.

Or we can cross our fingers and hope that the vision on offer by the jihadists had few takers because it was fundamentally implausible in the eyes of their target audience. Maybe regular Sunnis are not that worked up about their place in the world. Maybe sectarianism is not that potent of a motivator. Maybe most people just want to get on with their lives. After all, if the jihadist message was so compelling, how come the larger region did not catch fire? Why didn’t the millions who ended up under jihadist rule fight to the last man, woman and child in defense of ‘their’ caliphate?

I do not have plausible answers to these questions. I just know that the jihadists are rational strategists. I could see how the message they crafted for the Middle East was resonant and powerful. The jihadist vision was left for dead a few times before, but came back. Each time bigger. So why didn’t it tip the scales into permanence this time? Maybe it was too bold, too quick, too shocking. But what if the next time around the conditions are different, and while the jihadist message remains unchanged, the receptivity of their audiences and their willingness to act changes? Have the forces arrayed against the jihadists a grand strategy of their own that matches the magnitude of jihadist ambition? Absolutely not. I envy those who can live with such odds, who can insouciantly shrug at such uncertainty.

With the liberation of Mosul a few days ago it is time to take stock of where things stand: the opportunities missed, the defects in methodology, the lay of the land. We can expect a widening bifurcation between two camps engaged in a debate about the region’s future. One is likely to call the challenge posed by jihadism largely over. The opposing camp will argue that it is far from over. I count myself in the latter. The impasse forming between the temptation to over-celebrate and the temptation to over-agonize will devolve into ecumenical squabbling, with a dose of ad hominem sniping. Lost in the din is the lamentable fact that we have arrived at this point bereft of a good-enough plan, and we are proceeding forth without much of one, never mind a strategy. It will be difficult to rise above the noise, to reflect, and to accurately understand what we are seeing. Harder still is quantifying what ‘far from over’ may actually entail. I am here to argue that it is too late for ‘good-enough plans’ that can keep uncertainty manageable. Even if by some miracle a grand strategy is adopted by world and regional powers, I see little use for it. The unprecedented levels of uncertainty before us will prove too unwieldy. The die is cast. The approaches responsible for getting us to this point must be identified clearly. Their redundancies within the debate should be settled. It is amazing what a few weeks can portend on the timelines of history. Such a portentous stretch of time had just passed us by. And even if I fail at describing what the implications of that are, I sense, in my gut, that they are terrifying. If there is to be a way to fix this, then it must be civilizational in scope and ambition. Middle Easterners need to fundamentally re-engineer their societies, economies and cultures. America can help to guide the process, and to tip the scales when necessary. Anything short of that is too uncertain of an outcome from this point on. The two camps of the debate must answer for just how much uncertainty they are willing to live with.

Trump’s style, had it been coupled with an actual strategy, could have garnered significant dividends. It could have made up for lost time, and previously wasted opportunities. The signs were very promising in the days leading up to his meeting with President Erdogan on May 16, a meeting that was to be followed by the trip to Saudi Arabia. I believed that the ducks had lined up: Trump would get the Turks and the Saudis, the pretenders to regional Sunni leadership nowadays, to do the heavy lifting in Syria through direct military intervention against the Islamic State. To my mind, better the Turks and Saudis, as well as the Jordanians, Emiratis, and Egyptians in tow, being directly embroiled in the Syrian war—a war already regionalized and internationalized by the Iranians and the Russians—than continuing an open-ended, leverage-obsessed war by proxy, as Syria had been witnessing for the last six years. If the collective balls of these regional powers are on the line, so to speak, with their own soldiers, legitimacy and national prestige at stake, then they would be far more interested in a quick, reasonable settlement to the conflict. Such a widening or rather a focusing of a high-stakes geostrategic competition would also serve to quickly disabuse the Iranians and the Asads of the notion that this war could end with an unambiguous victory for their side.

Having the Turks and Saudis delivering the coup de grace to the Islamic State places a Sunni face among the vanquishers of the jihadists. It was not the most elegant or the grandest of strategies, but at least it is one. It also had a good-enough chance of accomplishing its goals. There are no other candidates—such as local Arab Sunnis in Syria who are not merely a paler shade of jihadist, like the ones the U.S. had been trying to vet and stand-up for years—that may be readied to play that role within the time frame remaining for mopping up the Euphrates Valley of the last overt remnants of the Islamic State’s control, certainly not now with the Iranians and their proxies making a dash for it. The strategy had the added benefit of not overly-deploying U.S. troops into that warzone, leaving them exposed as ready targets to whoever wants to make a geopolitical point.

The hegemon that is an America led by Donald Trump need not be popular overseas in order to be transformative in foreign policy. Regular Middle Easterners may not like Trump, but they are intrigued by his story, as much of the world is, and they are paying attention. My conversations around the region may not be generally indicative, but they do indicate possibility. When discussing Trump, I picked up on an impression that many of my Iraqi interlocutors, for example, understand Trump as a naghal (‘bastard’)—not to be mean that he was born out of wedlock, but rather that he is a brawler, and a devious hustler. In their minds, Trump would become the alpha among a pack of brawling, devious hustlers trying to control the region, and that he would come out swinging on his first debut. He may be a polarizing figure, but with polarization comes clarity, and what the region needs most is a measure of clarity, for a convincing dénouement to regain control of a narrative that had gone way off script. If only he would leverage that persona as part of a plan. If only the crafters of policy around him could lay out a plot befitting such a protagonist. Sadly, they lacked the depth to take measure of the arena and the audience within in, to understand the man taking the stage, to understand his moment, and to match him with an epochal role enacted to the tune of a symphonic score. The Trump show was rushed to stage without an overture for a would-be doctrine. A grand strategy had not been prepared.

Trump took his showmanship and exuberance to the Middle East and one could sense the palpable intensity of a starting thrust; there were optimistic expectations that an energized America would re-assert its primacy after Obama had let it lapse. This was to be a grand spectacle, months in the making. It aimed big. I anticipated it weeks before it was announced. Back in March, I asked: “Can [Trump] succeed in reshuffling the deck and dealing out a new hand?” I watched the lead-up. I was excited. I, like many, truly believed that this was the moment at which we could rein in the darker trajectories of the region. Dozens of Muslim leaders were to gather. Hushed talk of an ‘Islamic NATO’ taking the fight to the jihadists gained currency. But then, in the last ten day stretch before Trump was to travel, anxiety and reservation seeped in among policy planners, and an ambitious plan for Syria was scaled back drastically. We were then left with the worst possible outcome: the American-led camp losing its nerve, while the Iranians and the Russians were watching.

The Riyadh summit yielded some communiques concerning terror financing and a photo-op with a glowing orb. Plans to bring together an Islamic fighting force were spoken of, but it wouldn’t be operational for at least another year. A later dividend manifested itself as a rebuke of Qatar. These are slim pickings. One does not take the greatest global show (the Trump show) on the road, lining up all these opening acts for it, with the Saudis spending lavishly on choreography, and then ending up with these under-achievements, falling short of the ambition to resolve the Syrian civil war, and to provide the kind of feel-good optics showcasing the mobilization of Sunni powers in a significant manner to destroy a rogue Sunni caliphate.

This wasn’t merely an opportunity missed: after all, how many times will Trump get to make a grand entrance into the region? The curtains have fallen. The time for roping in a few ‘credible’ Sunni faces, even if it was for the benefit of the cameras and only to propagate a narrative of significant Sunni enrolment against the caliphate, was already running out. Trump claims to be flexible when it comes to foreign policy, and he may yet order erratic course corrections if realities don’t match the expectations projected by his advisors. But will there be time for that? I don’t see it. It is my sense that time, energy and opportunity were squandered, and such profligacy is irreversible. If all those gathered leaders in Riyadh—a unique setting by any measure—did not have the wherewithal to think quickly and boldly on Syria at this time, given what we know about the trends that are shaping up as this phase comes to a close, namely that this phase may end with the bitter after taste of continuing Sunni resentment at their lot in the world, then that in and of itself is an indicator that all other aspects and attempted fixes will get fumbled. Worse still, in Sunni eyes, this phase may end with the Iranians howling and snickering as they claim victory. This story began with the Iranians watching the Trump presidency with trepidation. One could hear them shaking in their boots from a distance at the political gossip mills of Baghdad and Najaf, which provide listening posts into the deepest labyrinths of the Iranian power structure. Two months ago, the Iranians were at a loss to explain what Trump represented, assuming the worst for their prospects in the shadow of his tenure. The Iranians must now be amused by how things panned out. Therein lies another strategic slip-up: the larger plan for the Middle East—an important facet of which would be to rollback what is seen as Iranian expansionism—can only succeed if the Iranians are terrified of a U.S. president. The bluff was exposed.

History, as written by the jihadists, will likely record that the caliphate, in its second incarnation (the first being the Islamic State in Iraq circa 2006-2010), was defeated by Kurds, Shias and Alawites, under the guidance of ‘Crusading’ Western powers, as well as a Russian state seeking to resurrect the glory of Orthodox Christianity. Sure, there are other things happening in the Middle East besides sectarian and ethnic tensions, but even those who remind us of that (constantly) must admit that the jihadists managed to go a long way by firing up the fuel that such tensions provide. The jihadists will make the case that Sunnis, and especially Sunni regimes, watched the battle transpire from the sidelines, a further exhibition of their vacuity and irrelevance. It has become exceedingly difficult to foresee what such a bitter after-taste, for many young Sunnis in the region, will lead to. Even worse, the larger war, involving Syrians opposed to dictatorship, may dawdle into what would be perceived (and heralded by some) as a victory for Bashar al-Asad. How is that going to sit with audiences near and far across the region? It will probably be absorbed in the same manner as the statement made by CENTCOM spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon on June 24, that “if [the Asad coalition] want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then that would be welcomed.” To many it meant the end of the opportunity whereby someone other than Asad, such as the Turks and the Saudis, would assume control over the territories freed from the jihadists, so that eventually a balance is arrived at, and all the players must concede something through negotiation, beginning with Asad conceding his power. These words uttered by Dillon are likely to provide kindling for the next fires in the region.

The same can be said about the White House statement on Syria’s potential use of chemical weapons again, warning of dire consequences: if future use would warrant a strongly-worded response, wouldn’t past use warrant an equal measure of punishment? What purpose does the warning have if many will interpret it, correctly, to mean “Don’t make us look bad and ineffective, or else we won’t let you proceed to Deir Azzor”? Again, optics matter. Timing matters. The narratives we weave, matter. But excuses will be made by policy makers (or rather, policy excusers) as to why the hand was played in this manner. Ultimately, these near misses will be spun by talking heads as a good thing, as if no much more could be accomplished given how the cards were dealt. We will be told that meandering into a stalemate, or even the prospect of places like Deir Azzour reverting back under Asad’s rule, aren’t so bad as outcomes, considering. The news cycle may move on. The cameras and media tents will be packed away. Foreign policy op-eds will play up another geostrategic challenge. Few will lament why a super power failed at adopting and following a grand strategy for the region. Who has the time for such a level of reflection when one flare-up follows another?

A year ago, I described my worries as such:

“This is what I worry about: I worry that some young Sunnis around the region, fed as they have been on sectarian and revolutionary narratives, may sense remorse, a few years down the line, when they see that the caliphate has been defeated while they stood back, idle and helpless. Some young Shias and Kurds may understand the victory to be their own, one that they must keep safe by beating down on Sunnis. Numbers wise, this sentiment may end up representing the minority view on either side. The question becomes, how big of a minority will it be, and can it gather the critical mass to do something about it, especially if they fan out into ideological spaces not filled by alternatives? Small, determined groups of people holding the minority view have successfully altered the course of history many times in the past. If there isn’t a big idea to hold them over, to give meaning to the victory, something that speaks to their better angels, then a wider turn towards radicalization among this Middle Eastern generation may ensue. Those cross currents of meta-narratives may carry them over towards revolution, time and time again. Left without an idea to anchor them, an idea such as madaniyya or whatever they may want to call it, they will lift up, with larger numbers, more caliphal ventures, more revanchist schemes.” [‘Managing the Fire Pit’, June 23, 2016]

A similar moment to wrest control of the narrative from the jihadists was missed in 2008, when the chance to defeat a ‘caliphate’ presented itself. Back then, the challenge was to name it as such and to defeat it as an idea, an idea ensconced within the ‘Islamic State in Iraq’. But strategic planners in Washington and elsewhere were content with describing it as a victory delivered against a terrorist organization. That was a mistake. The error is compounded because there is still a reluctance to understand that it was a mistake. I sincerely believe that had we ‘sold’ that victory as one levelled against an idea, then the jihadists would not have made a comeback in 2013-2014. Some other entity may have ridden the wave of Sunni resentment, since that anger sprang from other reasons. But it ended up with the Zarqawists taking the lead because they could offer a clear-eyed blueprint for the future, which sustained their fighters during the hard years of 2009-2013, and seemed enchanting to the broken Sunni populations they claimed to liberate. The neo-caliphate arrived at Mosul’s doorstep, untarnished by doubts, unblemished with the splatter of past defeat. Defeating the caliphate now does not have the same effect; the jihadists have already demonstrated viability. They will make the case that what was missing from their formula was wider Sunni participation. We do not have a counter to that message.

Not learning from past errors is bad enough, but we have now entered a whole new phase where the past matters less and less, and the future forebodes too much uncertainty. We have arrived at singularity. The Islamic State, in this last stretch of its second phase, which bad as it was, has not been taken as seriously as a contest warranting world-wide civilizational mobilization, is that singularity. The jihadists are proceeding along a grand strategy of their own, while their adversaries, even though they had three years to prepare, failed to arrive at one. Both the corresponding quantities of jihadist resolve, and our collective irresoluteness in confronting it, have fused together, in these past few weeks, to create an immensely terrifying and gigantic world historical event: unprecedented levels of uncertainty.

A singularity in this sense is both the culmination of all the maladies of the Middle East, and an autonomous creation. Now that it has come into being, it projects an intensity, a dense mass, with a gravitational pull of its own. The singularity posed by the Islamic State and the woefully inadequate global response is no longer a function of previously discernable trends of the Middle East, it rather shapes the destiny of everything within its gravitational field. Consequently, it is no longer useful to dwell upon the evolutionary stages that led to the Islamic State. Whether its contributing factors or ‘root causes’ such as a lack of good governance, sectarianism, millenarianism, economic woes, youth glut or ecological transformations, or even the normalization of ‘starter’ ideologies like the politicized Islam of the Muslim Brethren—all this does not really matter anymore since the monster has already come into being, and it can self-replicate. What usefulness is there in pointing a finger at Qasim Suleimani’s lust for war? Something should have been done about it twelve years ago, or even six years ago. Remove him from the picture now and the singularity will stand irrespective. Even bringing the Islamic State to the brink of defeat in Iraq and pummeling its remaining territories in Syria is no longer a guarantor that the monster has been slain.

The jihadist singularity has created a black hole of uncertainty. Understanding singularities is extremely difficult. A singularity cannot be modeled along logical, reductionist contours or game-play algorithms. Actuarial ‘science’ does us no good because much of the old data is now immaterial if not suspect. Any understanding of the phenomenon would necessarily lean into the intuitive, limbic senses—a gut feeling. Informed as it must by experientialist wisdom to tease out dissonant patterns within chaotic systems, it is akin to the neck tingle a grizzled soldier feels when walking into an ambush, before the bullets begin flying. The skill set necessary for comprehending its immensity cannot be trained or imparted through institutional learning. The jihadists have been in a state of constant war for decades. They can be both logical and instinctive in formulating strategies. This gives them an important advantage. The jihadists may have an intuitive and non-linear appreciation for why they would embark on a course of action that would seem illogical or foolish to us. For example, why did Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi imagine that he could ignite jihad in Iraq? Couldn’t he understand that the demographics of a Shia-Kurdish majority made that endeavor implausible? Did he not witness the futility of confronting America’s full military might in Afghanistan? We can retroactively judge that he saw opportunity where many did not. And as the uncertainty expands we can judge that the enemy is far ahead in understanding its utility. Chaos and anarchy are their comfort zones. I don’t know whether the jihadists succeed in constructing another caliphate, but in demonstrating that it was somewhat doable in this phase, by showcasing a ‘proof of concept’ of actual governance, by raising their caliphal banner across vital territories, and that they only failed (or so they will claim) because not enough Muslims answered the caliph’s call, and trying to do this over and over again as one expects them to, then the tremendous beast they have summoned would have succeeded in widening the margin of unpredictability, one that is so overpowering as to resemble a singularity amassing into a black hole. The region is in the grip of this powerful force; what bits and pieces survive the journey through this black hole is anybody’s guess. The novelty of the Trump spectacle came in like an asteroid with its own gravitational pull, not as potent as that of the jihadists’ but still strong enough to disrupt emerging dynamics had it set bold actions in motion, had it seemed as if it were working within a plan. However, it passed across Middle Eastern skies without much to show for it.

What is so unique about this situation is that the unpredictability before us is greater than any confluence of ‘great events’ witnessed by the Middle East since the late eighteenth century. Sure, one tends to over-emphasize the uniqueness of one’s experiences. Also true: it is difficult to ascertain how past periods of uncertainty felt, since from our vantage point on the timescale we cannot un-see what came next. But in recalling the events of the last quarter of millennium: the Ottoman realm contracting; Persia recovering sovereignty; the Wahhabi revolution; the intrusion, and in some cases the welcoming of Western modernity, by commerce, invasion, or intellectual pollination, in a few instances resulting in the bloodletting against, and among, Levantine minorities in the mid-nineteenth century, in other instances inspiring the massacres of janissaries and Mamelukes; the First World War playing out across the map bringing about the end of the Ottomans and the birthing of a dozen or so new ‘nations’ while destroying the Armenians; the Balfour Declaration; the blossoming of cosmopolitanism; Turkish disengagement from the region while turning westwards; a second world war, and the birth of Israel occasioning a Palestinian Nakba; the surge of anti-colonialism, nationalism and re-setting the ‘old’ order by way of military coups; France and Britain receding; America and the Soviet Union ascendant; proxy wars through the PLO and the Lebanese Civil War; the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War; the Kuwait War, and dual containment; the crap shoot since the September 11, 2001 attacks veering into the Iraq War; the Zarqawi exception; the Iranian, Arab and Turkish Springs; the return of Turkey; the return of Russia, and bringing us up to the fall of Mosul—I am hard pressed to imagine at what point during the last two hundred and fifty years did the future look so undiscernible as it does today?  It’s a big claim, I know, saying that the last two centuries led up to, and into, the Islamic State of the Zarqawists. But negating this claim depends on what comes next. And there’s the rub: who knows?

The margin of unpredictability in the Middle East is too wide to warrant the complacent, short-fix policies prescribed by Western and regional planners. In retrospect, we can see that they were deluded into thinking that there was no need for an overarching narrative or strategy based on the assumption that the situation, though dire, was manageable. The first thing policy makers, especially Western ones, needed to discard, and they should have done this years ago, is the idea that this unpredictability is somehow containable: when there’s so much of it then such a call simply cannot be made. Besides, it seems that the aftershocks emanating from the region, whether felt through acts of terror or refugee flows, are having important political and economic ramifications elsewhere in the world, putting the lie to the illusion of containment. The other delusion they needed to discard is the notion that something else, other than the Islamic State, will emerge. Again, this is to misread what we have witnessed: the perfection of the monster. Its clay has been kneaded from the amassing dust of one ruined testament after another, a pestilential wind of disillusionment and fury breathed into the malevolent spirit animating the vessel. No other entity comes close to embodying the civilizational psychosis and the perverse intellectual dotage accumulated over centuries in that part of the world. The third delusion is that this is all somehow basic, that the enterprise of the Islamic State is no more than an aimless, Hobbesian thrill ride for nihilistic, maladjusted thugs. Obama professorially opined a few years ago that the fracas of the Middle East was mere tribalism run amok. He was mistaken. The Islamic State represents an imperial vision harnessing the energies of tribalism, much in the same way the early Muslims did, or so the jihadists believe. This is no case of Tutsis versus Hutus, or the prospect of a few Serbian or Bosnian villages changing hands; Zarqawi coldly calculated that igniting sectarian warfare would bring him closer to statehood. As that vision collapses in places like Mosul, it would be understandably tempting to ridicule and dismiss the whole experience as one giant act of foolishness on the part of the jihadists. It would be possible to do so had our optics, our timing and our narrative been as good as that of the jihadists. But they are not. One should remember that the Zarqawists managed to do all this within the span of fourteen years; at times having to relaunch from a hard stop. Greek tragedies would be a suitable complement to history books when considering cases as these: complacency when the odds are so uncertain is the ultimate folly.

But complacency abounds. The Trump visit exhibits a lack of seriousness by both international and regional players as to what all of us face. They seem to be dealing with an unfortunate incident in a string of many. They certainly are not planning contingencies that are existential in nature. Those tasked with fixing the problem believe that all it takes is a little rubbing alcohol and bandages. They presumed that they could stitch together and patch up these aggregating wounds. There is a reason for that. It is called Realism. The Realist methodology for managing the Middle East has been in play for decades, and a reckoning of its many failures is upon us. Realism serves to hide the immensity of the stress on the system, which is why it seems that the foreign policy establishment is so blasé about the stakes of arriving at singularity, and the black hole forming. It explains why rather than focus on the festering wound of Syria, the conversation is consumed by the sideshow of Saudi Arabia’s tiff with Qatar.

The hullabaloo over Qatar reveals a parochial frivolity. It is sophistic and provincial. What does Qatar matter if the task at hand is to go big and bold in Syria? If Qatar marks an all-consuming crisis for the Gulf states, then I don’t know whether their mental and psychological circuitry can even handle a challenge as complex as that posed by Iran, never mind an existential challenge such as the next phase of jihadism. For some inexplicable reason some of those engaged in the stand-off still think that shutting down Aljazeera might cripple the monster. A decade and a half ago this would have been a reasonable undertaking, or at least weighing on the Qataris to tone down their station’s toxic sectarian and anti-American innuendo, but even then as a mere half-measure. Now, it is simply frivolous and revealing—revealing, to me at least, that these folks are unserious. Part of the problem is a closely-held assumption in Washington that its regional allies and international partners know what they are doing, that existential challenges would stir matching gumption to meet these threats head-on. This is mirrored by an equally erroneous notion assumed by those allies and partners that the Americans know what they are doing too. Another mistake is to project onto the Iranians and the other enemies of this American alliance the idea that they are proceeding by rational thinking. A further error is to assume that jihadists are irrational. All these flawed assumptions leave us with a scene of bumbling actors, tripping over each other on the world stage.

The cherry atop the silly cake was Trump’s tweet that his visit and the jostling of Qatar that ensued marks “the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism.” How did his campaign talk of establishing safe zones in Syria get replaced with the goal of putting the kibosh on Qatar’s misbehavior? How did the words “Don’t forget, without us, the Gulf states won’t exist,” turn into America taking sides in an intra-GCC kerfuffle? “They’ve got nothing but money,” so he would make them pay for the safe zones, Trump promised. Then he forgot to ask. Trump did ask for 350 billion in arms purchases over ten years, but he forgot to verify whether the Saudis were good for it. The U.S. Corps of Engineers is deploying two dozen contracting officers to Iraq so that they can dole out money for rebuilding Anbar Province, money that the Saudis are supposed to pony up too. Except no one has firmly gotten them to sign onto it. Then there’s Syria. As one friend put it flippantly, “It will take a trillion dollars to bring Syria’s economy and infrastructure back to the piece of shit it was before all this happened.” Again, Saudi money is supposed to be a panacea to all that’s needed, except, like most magic tonics, it is unrealistic. Or did we forget why the Saudis feel compelled nowadays to reform their system? Their ‘traditional’ system of authority was premised on buying their way out of any gravitational pull luring them into the unknown. They need to phase out that tendency because they can’t afford the price tags anymore. Still, it is odd that a U.S. administration focused on putting an end “to the horror of terrorism” would prioritize the allocation of Saudi funds towards job creation in Pittsburg rather than in Aleppo. Instead the game plan seems to be one of using Saudi money to make U.S. bombs that can be dropped on places like Aleppo.

Peak frivolity was reached, in my eyes, when a Saudi newspaper columnist tweeted that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt should build a military base in Salwa, on the Qatari-Saudi border to confront the Turkish base in Qatar (Muhammad Aal al-Sheikh, June 23). There is a fire raging in Syria, and this Saudi intellectual wants to marshal a coalition of militaries against Qatar. Certainly, this is not a man who sees what I see: that the Islamic State does have a fighting chance at overthrowing the House of Saud. I realize that very few people would make this assessment, hence Aal al-Sheikh should not be faulted. However, when we talk about unpredictability in the Middle East, we are talking to a large extent about the relative stability of the House of Saud.

A few weeks ago, we were waiting for the Saudis to take the lead. From this point on, we need to consider what things will look like, inside Saudi Arabia, with the House of Saud no longer in the lead. Which is a difficult conversation to have, since Saudi cash looms large, whether in the Arabic language media, or within the grand strategy discourse in Western capitals, distorting clarity and encouraging a minuet of policy dissembling. And yes, I am aware that the imminent demise of the Saudis has been breathlessly and erroneously foretold for decades, yet they are still there. I am also aware that the House of Saud is one of the world’s oldest enduring bloodlines still in authority. But things do change, and they do so suddenly. Who is to say that this time around, predicting big changes in Saudi isn’t accurate, given that so much unpredictability abounds?

There are two competing jihadist models for revolutionary change in Saudi Arabia: the Islamic State envisions an underclass insurgency clearing a path for the caliphate’s soldiery, while al-Qaeda seems to be working towards a coup from within elite Saudi circles. Note the deference by which the latter’s Hamza bin Laden speaks of Saudi religious networks that remained unmoved by the call to jihad. It would not be unreasonable to propose that a strategic-minded, and relatively flexible Al-Qaeda would be able to live with a member of the House of Saud continuing in the role of a figurehead sultan of Nejd and the Peninsula as part of its bid to control the country. Both jihadist organizations, however, must be mindful of the failed insurgency of 2003-07 in Saudi Arabia, as well as the dearth of jihadist activity within the kingdom in recent years despite the repeated pleas to Saudi youth from various jihadist luminaries imploring them to rise up against the royals, and then rebuking them for failing to do so. Yet the Zarqawists and their competing ideological cousins the Bin Ladenists persist in constructing and prioritizing the use of narratives that seem specifically directed towards sparking revolution within Saudi Arabia. Either they know something we don’t know, or can’t gauge, or they are being delusional and wasting valuable reserves of effort and time. Jihadists don’t strike me as particularly delusional. Some of the delusions they held previously—such as thinking they could wage jihad in Iraq and gain a city the size of Mosul—were, to the surprise of many, realized. They can intuit opportunity in ways we cannot. It is more apt to describe them as adventurers and gamblers, and they continue to like their odds in Saudi. Irrespective of whether their luck will turn or not, having two competing models for revolution put in play by determined and resourceful actors is too much stress on Saudi Arabia’s system as it is. Jihadists understand that taking Saudi Arabia means that their cause crosses the Rubicon into permanence and inoculates them against defeat. They may believe that their chances are uniquely auspicious in Saudi Arabia since they are basically unsuspending the revolution of Sunni revivalism and triumphalism that brought the House of Saud to power in the first place. The time may come, soon enough, when such revolutionary brushwood would catch fire and assuage the torpor of Sunni impotence, shaking off the remorse some across the region may have over not supporting the caliphate in its previous phases.

There are other stress points at play. A couple of observers have noted to me that they see a discernable trend in Saudi Arabia: the emergence of a Saudi nation. In their telling, Saudi Arabia, in the past, was a state underwritten by alliances forged among prominent bloodlines—a family concern. Now there seem to be a noticeable number of young Saudis who believe they have a stake in the Saudi enterprise. This is not necessarily a good thing for the House of Saud, even though such empowered Saudi ‘nationalists’ may provide the kind of crutch the royals need to move beyond the traditionalist forces they had leaned on for decades. This, however, is new territory, and neither the firmness of the crutch, nor the ground to be traversed are sure things. It could very well turn out that young, Western-educated Saudis—impressive by any standard, not just Saudi ones—can constitute the critical mass necessary to carry through reform, leading to a viable and functioning nation-state dynamic. This is what Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is going for, but that would make him a gambling man too, just like the jihadists. Either he knows something we don’t, or we can add this gambit of his to the instability column. The problem is, Bin Salman proving unlucky would go a long way towards securing the fortunes of one of the two jihadist models.

Poor Bin Salman! He is now expected, both by Western planners and by his own people, to transform Saudi Arabia, confront Iran, and reform Islam. He’s partly at fault, for believing that he can pull it off. It truly is a magnificent gamble for one so untested (not counting Yemen over the last two and half years, or more recently Qatar). Washington is placing a hefty bet on him. But why would seasoned policy makers expect a reasonable margin of return? Is it because the young prince can recite his country’s 2013 GDP numbers? Are expectations of Saudi leadership so low that such ‘feats’ would command admiration from American strategists? Nevertheless, they need to ask themselves: would someone with such incredible burdens to bear go off and pick a fight with Qatar at this time? Is it really the right timing to jump the succession queue? Is it wise to put Bin Nayif under house arrest? I am sure someone will make the case that Bin Salman needed to get his cousin and those naysaying Qataris out of the way so that he can embark on his grand vision to lead Sunnidom, eventually taking the fight to Syria. It would be a reasonable argument to make, had we no sense that time is of the essence.

kushner raheel sharif

Here is why I am unsold on Bin Salman’s prospects: we have been told that an ‘Islamic NATO’, an army of 34,000 soldiers, drawn from 39 Muslim majority countries, and led by Pakistan’s former chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif, has been tasked with combating terrorism in all its forms. Sharif was pictured in Riyadh sharing the same table with Bin Salman and Jared Kushner at one of the feasts, signifying how pivotal he was to the whole effort. But the force would only be operational by the spring of 2018. Is this what they intended for Syria? Who are they kidding? Do they think that Deir Azzour would just be left for them to take as their accolade in a year’s time? Haven’t the Saudis, and bin Salman specifically, been laying the foundations for this Islamic alliance, mounting large scale joint exercises towards that goal, for a year and a half now? Yet we are told they won’t be ready for another year?

How often will Saudi Arabia talk big and fall short before enduring a backlash? If Saudi sees itself as the bulwark of Sunnidom, then its disappointing performance will be the measure of Sunnidom’s weaknesses. It serves to focus blame and recrimination. That is exactly the rhetorical trap that the Islamic State wants to ensnare the Saudis in, and then, once it becomes established that Sunnidom is weak because the Saudis are feckless, the jihadists will ask young Sunnis across the realm, “So what are you going to do about it?” This is not new. This sort of bellicose ‘just-you-wait-and-see’ Saudi act of huffing and puffing was on display over a decade ago in an Op-Ed authored by Nawaf Obaid: ‘Stepping into Iraq’, Washington Post, November 29, 2006. Obaid was making the case that Saudi Arabia “the de-facto leader of the world’s Sunni community” would wade into Iraq if the Americans lose their nerve. He writes that if the U.S. plans to hurriedly leave Iraq, then “one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.” The Saudis would arm Sunni militias officered by ex-Ba’athists, while artificially collapsing the price of oil to deny Iran funds. Obaid reveals that domestic pressure to do something, by associations such as tribal confederations, which extend across the Iraqi-Saudi borders, are intense, adding cryptically, “[t]hey are supported by a new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions who are eager to see the kingdom play a more muscular role in the region.” He concludes his essay by foretelling how the Saudis would eventually respond to the challenges of Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and to a lesser extent, Lebanon:

 “In this case, remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia’s credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran’s militarist actions in the region. To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks — it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.”

The threatening tone was too much for the Bush administration. Obaid had to resign from his post as advisor to Prince Turki al-Faisal, then serving as the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington. This Op-Ed was also cited as one of the reasons that al-Faisal resigned from his posting a few months later too. Remembering this incident begs the question: if the Saudis had such sentiments germinating over a decade ago in their internal discourse, one that was made even more compelling during the Obama years and the ‘spilling of Sunni blood’ in Syria, then how is it that they are sorely unprepared for the moment of action when it came within reach, right at the point of Trump’s arrival in Riyadh? If Bin Salman really does believe that there’s no talking sense with the Iranians because they are enraptured by the expectation of the Mahdi’s imminent arrival, as he maintained during a TV interview in early May, then how does he justify the leadenness of his dawdling pace? Does he not understand that Trump can arrive in Riyadh on his first foreign presidential trip only once? Do the Saudis think they can replicate the spectacle of hosting fifty-plus Muslim sovereigns to meet the American president on an annual basis? This was the shot, and they did not take it.

In that same TV interview, Bin Salman’s ‘reading’ of Iran culminates with a threat that Riyadh will pre-empt Iranian bad behavior by taking the war to Iran’s own soil. Talk about a sense of grandeur! Again, one has to wonder whether this threat, made so publicly, was warranted or wise because, in the complex math of the region, that threat was upended not by the Iranians, but rather by the Islamic State, whose alleged operatives managed to pull off two symbolic acts of war against the Iranian parliament, as well as Khomeini’s shrine on June 7. In a way, the jihadist message there was not only directed against Iran (or al-Qaeda HQ, which the IS accuses of being soft on Iran), but rather a rebuke to Bin Salman too: “we can deliver on threats, in ways you wouldn’t dare to.” His cousin, Prince Turki, the former ambassador, was mostly recently seen in Paris attending (and one would assume financing) an Iranian opposition conference lorded over by the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). That the Saudi leadership deems this thoroughly-discredited organization to be a threat to Tehran, one that they think they can wield against it, also speaks to the weak performance of Saudi gameplay. Anyone disputing that should ride down the stretch of asphalt linking Qasr Shirin to Kermanshah, marked at various points with the mangled tanks and vehicles that the MEK had used on their failed foray into Iran (Operation ‘Eternal Light’) towards the end of the Iraq-Iran War. The Iranian regime leaves these vestiges in place to remind their people that the MEK was supported by Saddam Hussein against their own nation. And it works. That the Saudis do not understand that about their geostrategic rival is not reassuring. So let me posit the question again: does the prospect of Bin Salman wrestling with the combined challenges of jihadists on the one hand, and Iran on the other, resemble the challenges faced by Saudi Arabia in the decades since its founding as a modern state? Is this business as usual, no different from those times when the Saudi royals faced down the Ikhwan, Nasser, Juhaiman al-‘Uteibi, Khomeini, the internal Sahwa outcry over hosting coalition forces for the Kuwait campaign, Bin Laden’s call for their overthrow and most recently economic distress? Or are the present stresses on the Saudi system unprecedented in nature and the young team tasked with managing them is too much of an unknown quantity?

I question whether policy makers in Washington can judge Bin Salman’s prospects with the requisite clarity, namely because the atmospherics of the American capital have changed. Somewhere along the line, the hallowed majesty of America’s awesome power and wealth was clouded when the rituals and hierarchies of diplomacy were debased: the specter of foreign emissaries standing humbly, hat in hand, at the threshold of the Oval Office was replaced with the all-too casual camaraderie of a hobnobbing internationalized elite that put foreigners and Americans on an equal footing. Admission and rank was no longer earned by the relative strength of nations and societies, but could be purchased. Money usually reaches into power; that is the way of the world. But a line is drawn, in the halls of a great power, when that money is foreign. It should be especially suspect when wealth is artificial, when it does not reflect national merit and accomplishment but rather an accident of geography as Gulf oil wealth is, notwithstanding that there is little else shared in terms of values and beliefs. These changes could have started with the two-decade long tenure of Prince Bandar bin Sultan in the role of Saudi ambassador, chummy as he was with the Bush family, as some argue, or later with the lavish soirees thrown by the Kuwaiti and Yemeni ambassadors in the early 2000s, or the concurring influx of Gulf monies into the think tank industry and academia during that time. But as the Obaid episode showed, back then there was still a sense of dignity in the George W. Bush administration that would not tolerate such a tone from the Saudis, quickly putting them in their place by pushing out the ambassador. Contrast that to the situation these days, to the breezy familiarity by which the Emirati ambassador corresponds with Washington’s foreign policy doyens, as evidenced by hacked e-mails. Something isn’t right with this picture. It seems the problem has gotten worse, which could explain why the GCC-Qatar rift has taken on a larger proportion in Washington than it should have. However amiable the ambassador is personally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he represents a supplicating country trying to remain in the good graces of a mega-power. Cheeky banter along the lines of “close the base” in return for an Emirati-owned hotel not hosting a conference should be understood against the backdrop that Middle Easterners, generally speaking, are mindful of such hierarchies, and that this sort of familiarity is strategically contemptuous. It distorts the true size of the Emirates, or Saudi Arabia for that matter, when lined up with the awesome power of America. And when the distortion works, it is reflected back to Bin Salman or the Emirati ambassador as an outsized reverence and appreciation, serving to foster a delusion of a greatness of one’s own, after all, “if the United States thinks we merit such respect, then we must be good for it.” One does not do the UAE any favors by calling them ‘Little Sparta,’ for what happens when they go into battle only to find that their dory spears were made of rubber?

Does this mean that the lack of clarity, and the ensuing misreading of regional dynamics, has become a congenital defect of the Middle Eastern conversation in Washington? How then is one supposed to explain that key elements of the conversation are failing to match the signals of change emanating from the region? A long standing Realist argument, made in the United States since the 1950s, has held that Saudi Arabia’s stability rests on the pillars of tradition, going so far as to fetishize such traditions (note the relish by which the American delegation partook in the sword dance). The tradition argument brushed away some of the less savory aspects of Saudi rule, meaning to say “but that is how they like it over there.” Yet Saudi Arabia is no longer following tradition, for isn’t that the whole point of Bin Salman’s Vision 2030? Shouldn’t we understand this endeavor as a signal that the Saudi royals themselves sense that this time is different and more troubling than their previous challenges, warranting fundamental changes to the traditional order? Maybe what is needed is a corollary change as to how Washington discusses the kingdom. But we know that is unlikely.

Last year I wrote:

“We should all truly wish that Prince Muhammad bin Salman knows what he is doing with his radical plans to overhaul Saudi Arabia. Let’s hope that radical change ushered in by that young prince there does not whet the appetite of the radicals within his peer group.”

It does not bode well if Syria was to be the target for resolute action, yet Bin Salman missed and instead hit Qatar, as well as his cousin. Another Realist argument has it that stability shall derive when young authoritarians enact reforms through steady economic and social liberalization. That kind of makes sense. Except they had used this prediction previously when lauding Jamal Mubarak, Saif al-Qadafi, and Bashar al-Asad.

As with Bin Salman, so too did Washington misread that other pretender to the leadership of Sunnidom: Recep Tayyib Erdogan. And as a result the opportunity to simultaneously engage and defuse Erdogan’s ambitions was fumbled. Everything was good to go. Everything had lined up. Erdogan had been fuming and threatening—before and after the referendum on expanding presidential powers held on April 16—that his armed forces will embark on big campaigns in Syria. Erdogan’s bluster had set up the perfect scene for the perfect ‘ask’ during his meeting with Trump. It was scheduled a month after the referendum so that Erdogan could get his house in order to fulfill an earlier pledge to get the armed services of Turkey ready to intervene directly against the jihadists in Raqqa. All Trump had to do during their face-to-face was to say “go ahead and do it by the end of June, and we will support you, but you need to follow our advice on how to deal with the Kurds, and to follow our lead towards whatever eventual settlement all parties arrive at.” I believe Erdogan would have acquiesced. He had been uncharacteristically sober and mellow in response to the leaks pre-empting his visit. Those leaks, made to several U.S. media outlets, suggested that the US would work with the YPG to capture Raqqa in variance to Turkish wishes, and the reasons cited seemed purposely put out there to embarrass Erdogan and Turkey. The leaks were designed to get Erdogan to overreact and pout. Yet he didn’t. Erdogan did not take the bait, and said publicly that he will wait to see how things stand when he meets the president, and that he may actually sway him towards a policy that better places Turkey within America’s strategic calculus. Erdogan thought he would find a sympathetic figure in Trump, one he could negotiate with, man to man. He may even have been heartened when Trump was one of the few world leaders calling to congratulate him on squeaking out a ‘Yes’ victory during the referendum, assigning him extended powers and tenure.

Trump should have seen the opportunity for what it was: a longtime US ally petitioning to do the heavy lifting that America was loath to do, in return for better bilateral relations. And in the process the personal touch of an American president could have gone a long way towards ameliorating the impulses of a regional authoritarian. There were lots of easy wins for the taking. But Trump was distracted during his meeting by the implications of the Comey memo. Trump has his excuse. But what about the other seasoned hands in the room? Why couldn’t they see the opportunity that had shaped quite nicely for the U.S.? It could have been turned into a twofer a few days later when the congregants in Riyadh would have been expected to submit an equivalent tribute to that of the Turks, in return for American benevolence and attention. Again, there seems to be an issue with clarity or rather lack thereof, but it isn’t a Trump failing.

All Trump had to do was exercise his style and reinforce the narrative associated with his extraordinary rise, that here is a U.S. president who is willing to break with the past, willing to be confrontational, willing to re-engage with the Middle East, and most critically, willing to go for decisive, unequivocal victories against whoever may challenge America’s primacy. The remaining arrangements, the nuts-and-bolts of the agenda, should have been the purview of those who understood what an opening such a style, and such a narrative, would create in the Middle Eastern impasse.

Those by Trump’s side cannot claim a blind spot: all the signs were there a few months ago. There seemed to be momentum. Especially after the missile strike at the Syrian airbase in Sha’yrat. Trump had brilliantly (accidentally?) framed the narrative as one of “beautiful babies” being murdered for no reason, gaining the high ground. Two days later even Muqtada al-Sadr, emboldened by what seemed like the winds turning against Qasim Suleimani’s strategy, chimed in with the suggestion that Asad should resign. Things seemed to be moving within the context of a grand plan. The second order effects of that quick, brash order to retaliate against the chemical strike of Khan Sheikhoon, should have been pushed further, by Trump’s aides, to encourage the Turks and Saudis for an ambitious outlay of power projection, one that both had earlier pledged to, along a schedule that suited America’s vision. They would fight the jihadists in Syria, change the balance of forces on the ground, and by demonstrating the resolve to act boldly, they would create an opening whereby a negotiated compromise would lead to Asad’s ouster. Why didn’t these steps proceed along a logical progression towards a coherent strategy?

I think it has much to do with confusion among planners about who should be in the lead: America or its regional allies? The Realist inclination is that the allies should storm the beaches after being launched from American-driven transports. I tend to agree with that in the case of Syria. The opportunity for doing that was within reach, except no one actually put together an invasion plan. America, already looking for a way to wind down its responsibilities, had overestimated the capability of its regional partners to carry the load, to disastrous effect.

Current dynamics tell us interesting things about power projection. One can adorn a soldiery with the shiniest of trappings and the deadliest of weapons. A state may have the means to sustain logistics lines for extended periods of time. But what use is that if a nation cannot craft a narrative that may compel fighting-age men to die for it? Whither power-projection if not many youths draw-up their bodies from the trenches and run up to take that yonder hill? Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen have already been fighting for six years. The IRGC has already demonstrated power projection by shuttling its own men, as well as pan-regional Shias, to fight when commanded; to take a hill that may hold no discernable value to the individual soldier, but one that the high-ups have deemed important enough to battle for as part of a wider, complex geopolitical war. They constructed a sectarian narrative that has spurred their men on, fleshing it out with mythologies of martyrdom that harken back to their revolutionary and ‘just war’ ethos of the Iraq-Iran War. The jihadists have also demonstrated their ability to muster a narrative, that when coupled with looted arms and greased by contraband means of financing, can go a long way. So much so that dozens of their fighters are signing up for suicide missions every month. With all their adornments and gadgetry, with foreign advisors managing their deployments and logistics, can the same be said about the Saudis and the Emiratis when it comes to this critical element of power projection that they, in contrast to the Iranians, or even the jihadists, have yet to demonstrate? Sadly, one narrative that may induce young Saudis to sacrifice may sound like another round of sectarian score-settling such as that of the Islamic State’s.

The Saudis and Emiratis were Johnny-come-latelys to the Yemen war, which arguably began with the first round of the Houthi insurgency in 2004. It shouldn’t have been that difficult for the Saudis and Emiratis to pushback against the Houthis and General Salih’s men in 2015, given that the forces they were facing had been at war for a long time, and lacked air cover. The Yemen War is rightly called a quagmire. Naturally, there should be lessons learned. Yemen should have served as a primer for how the United States should navigate the challenges it would likely face when steering a Sunni coalition campaign in Syria. But it is difficult to have that conversation with all the cheerleading going on, as if showing a modicum of grit in Yemen is the be-all and end-all of the geostrategic tasks expected from America’s allies in the region. For example, there is a consistent theme of analysts lauding the performance of Emirati soldiers on that front, reflecting a starting point of exceedingly low expectations. The measure of power projection cannot be limited to propping up an administration in Aden, or establishing a network of bases and ports in the Horn of Africa and the northwestern expanse of the Indian Ocean. Keeping sea lanes free from Somali pirates is mercantile housekeeping, not power projection. The irony, of course, is that the Emiratis, the latter-day incarnation of most of the Trucial States, came into being after the British had tamed, with fire and gold, the pirates calling what is now the United Arab Emirates home, some two hundred years ago. But that is not what made Britain a power. That was an afterthought in its imperial exertion. The Emiratis should be mindful of such formulas, lest hubris goes to their heads, but can they be blamed when some call them Little Sparta, or when the decorated warriors of past and present global powers obsequiously offer their services? The Emiratis are entering a confrontation with, or at least are making noises against, a power that rises from a land, Persia, whose fighters crossed the known world 2,500 years ago to arrive at the actual Sparta. They can’t afford to have blinkers on.

Inverse to the Emirates-Iran case, Saudi Arabia is eighty times the size of Qatar by population. In terms of theoretical power projection, it should easily swat the Qataris away. But the Saudis seem frenzied and frazzled by this crisis that they have picked with their diminutive neighbor. The Qatari royals can only equal their Saudi rivals in terms of their ability to spend money. Is that all that it takes to get the Saudis worried? To rival them? What does it say about their own confidence in their ability to project power?

Thus, this is where American policy makers arranging Trump’s visit made their biggest mistake: they assumed that the Saudis and others can think big and lead boldly. They just can’t. The task of articulating a grand strategy, from which all narratives emanate, is America’s alone.

American guidance and backing is the determining factor when it comes to power projection by actors such the Saudis and the Emiratis. They needed to be told what to do. This most basic of formulas should have awakened Trump’s aides that it is up to them to set the parameters and timelines by which the Saudis and Emiratis, and even the Turks to some extent, should demonstrate usefulness as allies to the United States, not the other way around. This was their chance to articulate a grand strategy and the roles assigned to allies within it. Because, as we have seen, opportunities, once so promising, can be squandered. America needed the help of Sunni allies to construct a narrative of victory against the jihadists; it needs Sunni faces, convincingly stained with war paint and caked with mud and cordite, to stand by it at the ‘Mission Accomplished’ ceremony. Not as tokens, but as partners, such is the narrative that must be stood up. The situation, as the jihadists are rapidly losing territory, does not merit either dithering or delay. That the regional Sunnis did not understand that they needed to hustle and act quickly is no excuse for Washington’s strategists to recriminate against them and point fingers. It was up to the Trump team to envision the timeline and the deliverables, of which the president’s visit was to be but one station.

Regrettably, the meager outcomes of the visit revealed many cards to Iran, too many for comfort. There was no apex to the crescendo. It was merely a spectacle, a show that ultimately belied a muddled policy, devoid of a grand vision. As if one bought a new dress and new shoes, did one’s hair and nails, put on make-up, took a selfie and hashtagged it ‘#GoingToTheBigBall’, and then never went to the ball. When does one think an opportunity of similar magnitude can ever arise to psych out the Iranians again? This round, which could have been the critical and final one, goes to the Iranians by default. Which is a shame, because I believe that had the Riyadh summit culminated in a clear vision for what happens to the remaining rump of Islamic State territory in Syria, then an order would have come down to Qasim Suleimaini from the upper echelons of Iran’s national security ‘brain’ to cease and desist from any plan that may result in a direct confrontation with the militaries of Turkey, Saudi and others, backed as they would be with American guidance and logistics. Things turned out differently. Suleimani won, almost effortlessly.

Around April 18 or 19, right after the Turkish referendum, Suleimani and his enablers decided to hurriedly seal access points from the north and the south to the patches of the Euphrates Valley still under IS control. They aimed to do that by extending the Syrian regime’s writ towards the Iraqi border, while simultaneously extending the reach of PMUs from the Iraqi side to match and interface with the Syrian forces. I believe this was decided upon because the Iranians were reading the tea leaves, and like me, thought that there was indeed a grand regional strategy for a Syrian endgame, one which they needed to counter, carefully and incrementally, in order to earn more bargaining chips. I also believe that the Iranians, watching Erdogan’s visit and the Riyadh summit, concluded, as I did, that there is no grand vision being worked towards, and that instead of positioning themselves for bartering and compromises, they can go for all-out victory. The April plan was modified to include Suleimani’s own vision for a preferred end-game. They may think victory is within their reach. The much hackneyed interpretation of Suleimani’s alleged tactical quest for a land route from Iran to Hezbollah is analytical hooey, as I have maintained elsewhere, probably originating with Suleimani’s own disinformation as to his aims. However, if doing so drives home the message that he has won in regional and Western eyes, and the opportunity presents itself so liberally, why wouldn’t he go for it? A vindicated Suleimani will be emboldened to expand his brand of militant adventurism. His seniors in Tehran will sign off on them since events seem to have validated his approach. Will it manifest itself in Baghdad, Manama or Qatif? We can also add this to the uncertainty column.

The Russians too were ready to sign off on an aggressive counter campaign right after their analysts had poured over the Trump-Erdogan meeting to conclude that America does not have a workable plan. Coming a day after the meeting, the Russians signaled on May 17 their intent to empower the Syria regime to break the siege of Deir Azzour and establish sovereignty on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The Trump visit succeeded in energizing the Iranians and Russians to go for the kill in Syria. Again, lest we forget, that was the exact opposite of what was desired or required.

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There’s a popular Arabic proverb whose provenance begins as 9th century analytical quip: “…after the ruining of Basra.” It suggests that victory declared is sometimes no victory at all. The Zanj rebellion against the Abbasids, described by chroniclers as a slave revolt, but more likely a confluence of many dispossessed souls finding refuge from authority in the dense reed thickets of Iraq’s marshes, was a small affair at first. The expeditionary force sent to tame it was distracted by another minor rebellion breaking out in Iran, and was consequently rerouted away from the marshes into the Zagros highlands. The runaway slaves, wayward gypsies, and brigands of all castes, gathered more recruits to their anti-establishmentarian cause during this time, enough to sack and destroy Basra, then one of the empire’s most prosperous cities, with such comprehensiveness that the place never recovered until the twentieth century. The chroniclers speak of tens of thousands massacred, women taken as concubines, irrigation channels forever disrupted. When the caliph’s army finally came back from its Iranian diversion, and successfully stamped out the Zanj, there was little euphoria in Baghdad for what was lost on the winding road to victory was a prize as splendid and precious as Basra. Historians of that period still differ as to the magnitude and consequences of the Zanj Rebellion on the Abbasid Empire, with counted as an uncontested global power only a few decades earlier. I tend to agree that losing a city like Basra due to ineptitude and complacency foretells the fall of empires. As such the Zanj Rebellion was a singularity, and there is more than one likeness it shares with the Islamic State today.

The battlefield strategy, as previewed by Secretary Mattis to Congress and to be revealed fully in mid-July, is being described as annihilation of the jihadists, a more ambitious undertaking than the previous policy of containment and degradation. Yet conditions will never be as opportune as those of 2007-2009, when a convergence of factors contributed to the last time the jihadists were thoroughly defeated in Iraq. Back then, the United States was willing to field up to 150,000 troops, and it had a wider margin of flexibility in choosing local allies, such as Sunni Arab tribesmen, despite the apprehensions of the Iraqi government. The public relations campaign hailed a cult of warrior-scholars, awarding them the honors of orchestrating the victorious ‘Surge’ campaign and launching dozens of careers. At the same time it masked a critical component of the victory which was the fratricidal bloodletting between the Zarqawists and other tenacious Salafist organizations that categorically refused to kowtow to the newly formed Islamic State of Iraq, probably on the grounds that they saw it for what it was, a proto-caliphate, too audacious of an ideological endeavor. None of these factors are obtainable now, so why assume that this time around annihilation is possible? Why even suggest such terminology when the jihadist countermove becomes as simple as showing signs of life through acts of mayhem here and there? Furthermore, a policy premised on the myths of the Surge as a roadmap towards securing the peace may prove frustrating and disappointing. Conditions on the ground are not fungible across Iraq and Syria, and even within Iraq they have changed dramatically since 2008. The problem is compounded when the lessons of 2008 may need reevaluation in policy circles, which hasn’t happened so far. Furthermore, if the policy is to look a lot like the Surge, then is there time for it to gel together in order to make a difference in the critically important sector of Deir Azzour?

Unfortunately, there are more hard questions that have not been answered fully in the intervening three years since the jihadists made their dramatic comeback. Let me suggest that they went unanswered because the hard intellectual work of crafting a grand strategy was never attempted.

It was never a given that the Islamic State would be the primary beneficiary of Sunni Arab resentment towards Maliki’s practices and rhetoric. Why did they succeed? Where were the Ba’athists and other Salafists? Where were the tribal remnants of the Awakening? Surely ISIS could not have picked them all off? Where was the Jaish al-Asha’ir (the Tribal Army), or the Military Council of Fallouja, or even the Jaish al-‘Izzeh wel Karameh (Army of Rectitude and Dignity), names that were bandied about three years ago? Where were those news reports concerning a rivalry between Al-Qaeda operatives and ISIS fighters in places like Fallouja and Mosul coming from? Running through the slew of the many tales—some intriguing, some outlandish—as to why Mosul fell, many of which have not been explored by analysts, one cannot be faulted for finding that the one provided by the Islamic State on its first anniversary stands as the most credible: it was unexpected, and Mosul fell not to a jihadist offensive, but by a shove. All it took was 400-500 fighters, augmented by another 300 when it seemed that Mosul was indeed in the process of falling. Why is it still unclear what transpired after much has been written about this seismic event over the course of three years?

ISIS was in the public eye before that. The world had already been reminded of its menace when it took over Fallouja a full six months ahead of Mosul. By April 2014, there were already dozens of American military officers (deployed as US embassy ‘liaises’ to Iraqi bases nearer to the front) coordinating fixed-wing aircraft and drone strikes against ISIS convoys and encampments in the desert. So it wasn’t as if the jihadists were not under any pressure, casually roaming around. The problems of the Iraqi military—corruption, ‘ghost soldiers’, abuses of local populations—were recognized at the time, as were the political flash-points stemming mainly from Maliki’s heavy-handedness. Hence, the jihadist danger, and the weakness of the Iraqi military were reasonably evident before Mosul. Yet these signals did not warrant the requisite seriousness by regional and international actors, specifically by the Obama administration. What is galling is that even after Mosul fell, echoes of that lack of seriousness carried over: look at how Iraq has gone about its ten month campaign to recapture Mosul.

Three years after Mosul, we must contend with this fact: in the last few weeks of the Mosul battle, in the last stretch encompassing the Old City and a few northern districts, Iraqi intelligence reports estimated a residual jihadist force of 300 fighters. They also estimated that there were 175,000 civilians still trapped on the other side of the line, under persistent and imminent threat of death as their homes provided the backdrop to a ferocious urban battle. These numbers suggest that for every single jihadist, there are an estimated 100 fighting-age men among the civilian population. Somehow, the anti-IS forces were unable to compel these civilians to mount an insurrection. The fear of retribution by the jihadists is a powerful barrier to overcome, but how does this fear measure against the fact that death came knocking anyway with mortars landing on their roofs? There are also one hundred Iraqi soldiers in theater to every jihadist at this stage. This can’t stand. These numbers speak of an unsustainable situation. Ten months of a campaign netted around 2000 jihadist dead or captured in the environs of Mosul, and another 1300 dead or captured within the city itself. This is too much mayhem, too steep a price that a few thousand jihadists could bring about. What happens when a future jihadist army arrives with 50,000 fighters? What numbers, both in terms of soldiers and materiel, would be required to push them back? How are we supposed to answer these questions when the conversation is rife with poor analysis, lazily reaching for generic explanations, even when something important happens? Like the too-easy turnaround on Fallouja a year ago, which probably switched hands due to a deal with the jihadists, who evacuated it rather than fight. Few have asked why this happened, even though it struck me as consequential event at the time. The list of critical, unanswered questions grows, and it haunts us as we try to imagine what comes next.

Mosul was supposed to be the big moment in turning the page on the jihadist venture. Three years ago Mosul fell to a mood, auspicious for the jihadists, troubling for the rest of us. We won it back by exhausting it, rather than by incentive. If one counts the fifteen most important, strategic and symbolic metropolises of the Middle East, Mosul would be on the same list as Istanbul, Cairo and Isfahan. When the jihadists gained it, it was an epochal moment; they showed the seriousness of their vision by plucking so grand a prize. Here we are, retaking it, and what do we have to show for it? What is the vision proffered to the people of Mosul as to what life and governance will look like after the Islamic State? Remember optics, timing and messaging? Who was thinking along those lines with the requisite clarity and seriousness?

Certainly not the Iraqi government, the body foremost responsible for handling that task. I was one of the hopeful ones, believing that an event as solemn as losing Mosul would enervate Baghdad’s political process, that the political and strategic conversation in Baghdad, arguably the freest and most creative in the region, would be a resource, an ideas laboratory. I knew it was a long shot, but surely pressure would be applied to the political class to come up with something, especially since it is in the interest of the international coalition arrayed against the jihadists. Or so I mistakenly thought. Alas, we have an executive in Baghdad who could tolerably navigate, say, the realm of challenges facing a country the size of Kuwait, but is wholly inadequate when matched against what Iraq is facing. Case in point: the Mosul campaign began when Iraqi politics made sure that the cabinet would be missing a Minister of Defense and a Minister of Finance. In addition, the ousted Minister of Defense was an officer from Mosul who was just gathering national recognition and popularity as an anti-corruption enforcer. Talk about optics, missed and inflicted. So why was the international anti-jihadist coalition unable to coax a vision and a narrative out of Iraqi politicos commensurate with an inimitable event such as the liberation of Mosul?

It may be unfair to single out Bret McGurk, but his case is telling, for, in whatever telling of the tale, he was perceived to be Maliki’s enabler during the effort to unseat the latter in the early summer of 2012. Two years later as Mosul was falling partly due to Maliki’s miscalculations and sectarian chauvinism, who thought it would be wise to promote McGurk to serve as Gen. John Allen’s deputy? Was it ever considered by the Obama administration how confusing and infuriating such an appointment would be for the Iraqi politicians who tried to enact a no-confidence vote against Maliki? And when McGurk was promoted yet again as Allen’s replacement, were those considerations revisited? Again, this points to a certain lack of seriousness, a complacency that carried over from before Mosul into the response to Mosul. McGurk is still at his job, and his big show scheduled for mid-July is a conference for a united Sunni leadership to be held in Baghdad, brokered in part by the Saudis and the Turks. That’s really great, except we needed it two years ago.

In this case, the better-late-than-never approach is not much of a consolation, nor is it even useful, because singularities create their unique sense of space and time. History was reset, nay erased, by the willful destruction of antiquities. There was more to it than symbolism and shock. It went beyond the destruction of idolatrous Buddhas somehow intertwined with Shia Hazara identity of the Bamian Valley. It was a manifestation of singularity. It was meant to convey the idea that Islamic State is more of an immediate reality to the destiny of the Middle East than the Nergal Gate of Mosul, or even the iconic minaret whose epithet the city was known by for centuries. The jihadists get to rewrite the history of Assyria, even the period of medieval Islam, in ways that cannot be undone. They do this because monuments speak to the confidence of nations. When a structure lasts for centuries, when the name of its erector carries through the fog of memory, this stands as an inspiration for young men and women to strive for great things, to escape the clutch of mortality. It stands in reserve, as capital, cajoling nations towards greatness. The jihadists smashed that confidence, ensuring that only their ideas would convey a sense of rebirth and rejuvenation. Sure, replicas of the lost antiquities can be commissioned, but they will serve as a reminder of the impermanence of the past when the transformative jihadist storm came calling. Now match this contest of vision and will against what McGurk is trying to achieve with his belated conference.

In tallying up the ways the handling of Iraq was botched since Mosul fell by both Iraqis and Americans, consider too the curveball of the Kurdish referendum on independence, to be held on September 25. The Kurdish leaders who showed up to the meeting to set the date had no idea that this time it would indeed result in it. A referendum had been on the agenda, but it had also been on the agenda of previous meetings. Most of them had been briefed that the Barzanis did not get much buy-in for the idea from Washington, most recently during Masroor Barzani’s visit. In fact, they got an indifferent shrug, and a half-hearted ‘no’. The Kurds may have interpreted that as a good enough of a signal, that getting the ball rolling on independence would create a new reality, one the Americans may end up embracing after having first rejected it. Their interpretation misses a realization that the haggardness they encountered had more to do with a systemic reordering of American international priorities, a process at once erratic and rife with contradictions and quick reversals, premised upon divining the whims and biases of a president who is trying to figure it out for himself. There are grand oeuvres humming in his head, but the motifs within them have yet to be marshaled into a movement. The Kurds may think that they can ride one such motif towards independence while the memory of their usefulness in beating back the jihadists is still fresh. They may also sense that this moment of singularity and this level of unpredictability, this moment of strategic incoherence, may lead to a Kurdish state.

Many arguments can be made as to why this is the last thing the Middle East needs. I would suggest that one of the more salient of these is that talk of Kurdish independence is coming just as the people of Mosul emerge from the jihadist darkness. Not only did we fail to give them an optimistic vision for the future, but the first thing they will see, as they stand blinking in the light, is the prospect that, once the Kurds are gone, they would become even a smaller minority relative to Shias within what remains of Iraq. In fact, soon after the Kurds leave, one can imagine Iraqi politics being consumed with Shia chauvinist talking points that there is no longer a reason to carry Mosul and Ramadi since the very idea of Iraq is dead, and that those Sunni populations there should go their own way as the Kurds did. Such talking points will garner votes. This could be Maliki’s comeback. Then there is the prospect of Kurdish independence just as the Kurds (and really, that is how the SDF is perceived) are entering Raqqa. Again, the optics of what the future holds for the Arab Sunnis of Iraq and Syria are not ‘encouraging’, which is the exact opposite of what is desired as we prepare to declare victory over the caliphate.

All the happy talk now in circulation in Washington about how Arab tribesmen in Raqqa province are acclimating to subjection by the PYD-YPG, the dominating political-military vehicle of Syria’s Kurds, seems to be an exercise in the willful evasion of all-too visible incongruities. The YPG is not simply an expression of national Kurdish aspirations, ameliorating away from full-blown independence for Syria’s Kurds towards the compromise of a federalist autonomy. The hard-as-nails revolutionaries of the PKK, the parent organization acting through the YPG, seek to build a ‘new society’. Their revolution is as audacious and ambitious as that of the jihadists. The happy-talkers are attempting to frame the challenge for America’s role within the confines of ‘nation-building’ in dusty towns such as Tabaqa—a steep ask as it is with this administration. I would have thought that the YPG trying to undo societal traditions among Kurds, Turks and Arabs would be a more serious and pressing challenge, something that should have made the Americans think twice about their alliance of convenience—what they describe as ‘temporary’—with this group. Does anyone think that the grizzled cadres of the PKK, upon hearing that the U.S. may abandon them at one point down the road, would respond with yielding acquiescence? If anything, America’s utilitarianism confirms all that they believe to be true of capitalistic powers. The PKK folks are using this phase in preparation for what comes next: more revolution. They can’t help themselves, after all, they are revolutionaries. The jihadists figured this dynamic out early on, and chose to situate the Islamic State as the YPG’s foil. The jihadists would be the shield of Kurdish, Turkish and Arab traditionalism. That is one reason why they went all out in Kobani. They wanted a monopoly in confronting the PKK’s vision for societal engineering. The long-term consequences of these tensions are difficult to judge, but they certainly do not speak of an expected normalization of the revolutionary norms the YPG is imposing on Raqqa’s Arabs, or even on traditionalist elements of Kurdish society for that matter, however much McGurk would like it to be so. Like Mosul, Raqqa is to fall to exhaustion, not vision.

While the Kurds are in a hurry, believing that it is the time to grab as much as they can from the bales of historic possibility, the Israelis are behaving as if they have all the time in the world, thinking the frenzy around is yet one more instance of a region in distress, in a moment of redefinition. They may think that such creative rearrangements can actually be good for Israel. Wouldn’t an independent Kurdistan be more likely to be part of a regional Israeli-led axis than keeping the states of Iraq and Syria intact? All the Israelis have to do for the time being is to tamp down Trump’s enthusiasm, for he seems itching to apply his #LetsMakePeace! hashtag (first deployed on May 11, the day he met both Russia’s Lavrov and FM of Ukraine’s Klinkin) as soon as possible to the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Israelis have been served well by the ‘Palestinians started it first’ hedge in deflecting previous U.S. attempts at peace making. The Israelis are reflexively doing so again. But are they mistaken in assuming that the basics of the region are unchangeable, and the fires aglow over the horizon can eventually bring good tidings of an Israel-friendly archipelago of freshly minted breakaway states?  Israel’s ambassador in Washington tried to ward off a giggling fit when Trump, while making small talk with the Israeli president, volunteered how nice it was to arrive in Israel after having been in the Middle East. The universal gasp of fact-checkers was almost audible as they reached for their smart phones to quickly set the record straight on Twitter. Yet for decades the Israelis have smugly projected that their country isn’t really in the Middle East, since geography is a far lesser determinant of reality than mindset. And Israel’s mindset is definitely un-Middle Eastern, or so they tell themselves. Technological advances have protected Israel from that geographical reality for a while, but technology has the habit of being cyclical, and evening out in stretches. At first it is an advantage, but it then democratizes, and others catch up. Development grinds down until the next wave of technological leaps arrives, making Israel quite vulnerable during that period of technological purgatory. That doesn’t seem to be the case now. But will it becomes evident over a decade’s time? Can the Israelis actually speak with such assuredness what with so much unpredictability ahead? ‘Ha-kol b’seder, habibi.’ What one gets instead is that the Israelis are telling the rest of the world to relax, that there is no particular urgency to millions of upturned lives a few dozen miles out from the Golan Heights, while casually imagining the great break-up of the Fertile Crescent, and the many friends Israel will have among those atomizing tribes, if only the IRGC can be tethered down.

A part of the Israeli national security body had been imagining just that prospect since the 1970s, even working towards it in places like Lebanon. It hasn’t earned Israel much security. A case can be made that it gave them Hezbollah. This sort of thinking strikes me as particularly lazy and indulgent. Somehow the Jews, of all people, who have seen a number of singularities during their 5,000-plus year story, have forgotten how events work up towards tragedies. How is it that they cannot see that potent ideas, such as resurrecting the caliphate, can reset historical progression in the same way Zionism did?

I am reminded of a situation from my pre-pubescent childhood, living the intense life of a budding stamp collector. The Stamp Club in Amman would meet every Friday, occupying a post office on its day off in the Lweibdeh neighborhood. This was a serious gathering, not child’s play. The average age was 60-something, and all the luminaries of the Jordanian stamp collecting scene were there, together with a smattering of Iraqis and sometimes a Lebanese or a Syrian, bartering, selling, buying and trading in an atmosphere of obsessive, quiet determination. I remember myself having a constant film of nervous perspiration on my body, as I avidly covet a block of eight with a running overprint error here, or a first day cover with the signature of King Hussein on it there. The atmosphere provided good training for a life in business, for most transactions involved thinking along the lines of a long game. I am not sure why, but in that environment, and even at that age, I registered who was a Christian, who was a Circassian, and that other fellow was a Palestinian, and over there sits the son of the head of the Ba’ath Party. I was even mindful of his tribal affiliation. That old guy in the corner used to be an officer in the Mukhabarat, and so on and on. Such categorizations, that is, ‘reading the room’ was probably another tool that I may have instinctively found useful in the long game to dominate a market; such identities were useful as they provided vulnerabilities. For example, expressing fascination with a stamp designed for the state of Armenia in the early part of the twentieth century (but never used), it being the pride and joy of an Armenian member, because such admiration may get him to sell a mint set of Faysal the First to me that he would otherwise not part with. Stamp fever, like many obsessions, can make one do unscrupulous things.

I assume there had to be a palpable tension in the room for the spectrum of diversity to register with me in the first place. Although I don’t recollect how I would come to know certain pieces of information, but it could have happened when someone would have leaned over to me to malign, in a whispered voice, so-and-so, the such-and-such, who had cheated him on a trade, or stolen something, or had been responsible for whatever hurt was festering at the time within the chest of my interlocutor. Yet it was a manageable tension, even genteel. Until it wasn’t.

I don’t know what particular trade set off Ahmed, a middle-aged East Bank Muslim Jordanian lawyer, against Francis, the West Bank Christian octogenarian. It could have been percolating for years. Trading with Francis (in this case, pronounced Frensees), was an exasperating ordeal, for he played the long game well. He was a character, an institution unto himself within the little world of the Stamp Club. Almost everyone, myself included, had ongoing, years-long negotiations running with him for particular trades. But the muffled babble of the club was punctured one Friday when Ahmed, while shouting and frothing at Francis over some stamp-related vexation, threatened that every Christian church in Jordan would be burnt down. Francis looked down, frightened. All the members of the club had looked up. None said a word. I felt that I should have done so, but why speak up when all are silent. Ahmed kept shouting some other things that I can’t recollect, while another member softly guided him outside to cool off. Ahmed’s threat hung over the club, and something changed. Francis was wounded, and that changed the dynamic of how to deal with him. The fact that he was Christian emboldened a certain predatory bearing within the Muslims during later trades. His cowering in response was heartbreaking. Francis was no longer Francis.

Will it take a mundane dispute such as two farmers arguing over irrigation rights, or a messy divorce, to set off a ‘burn every church’ moment in Raqqa a year or two from now, for example? Given the tensions that relying on the YPG entail, this eventuality should be an easy call to make, one that could have been averted had there been a grander strategy at play, one that does not carelessly add to the piles of dry gunpowder already lying about. If that moment comes, will we casually mutter to no one in particular, “…after the ruining of Mosul”?

Mosul was not merely an important Middle Eastern city. It and its environs boasted one of the most diverse populations remaining in the region, teaming with Syriac, Chaldean, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Twelver Turkomans, Shabaks, Yezidis and a variety of Sufi orders, clans and tribes. When the jihadists took control of the destinies of these communities, many ascribed the ensuing brutality to primordial, nihilistic tendencies among low-class jihadist thugs hungering after wealth and sex. There was more going on. The manner by which the Islamic State treated the minorities revealed fundamental methodologies in its strategy. It should have informed us as to the scope of jihadist determination.

“It seemed forever, until it wasn’t.” When change comes, everything can change, including the past. How well can the past be known if one has misunderstood the importance of the events that one has lived through? Clearly, what those events seemingly portended was missed, otherwise how would one be so surprised when change came? Not everyone misses the ‘signs’ but such Cassandras are often relegated to the fringe.  As such, the diversity of the Stamp Club was a positive, endearing aspect, until it wasn’t. The parts of the Middle East that survived the upheavals of the last few years look stable. Until they aren’t.

There was something visceral, and ancient, about the wail that Nadia Murad let out as she walked towards her ruined home, in the village of Kojo which had been liberated by the Popular Mobilization Units a few days earlier. Murad, a Yezidi woman, had been a slave under the Islamic State. She survived and went on to tell the world of the tragedy that had befallen her people. But even for her, returning to her former home seemed to be the moment when she fully realized what had happened. Watching a video of the scene, one may be bothered by the intrusiveness of the cameramen, swarming as they were around Murad while she ambled over the debris of a collapsed roof, leaning down to pick up the torn pieces of a photograph. Another woman, presumably her sister, was pounding a closet with her hands, seemingly imploring a piece of furniture to bear witness to a previous life, now lost. The most accurate numbers have it that 6,417 Yezidis such as Murad fell under the sway of the jihadists. Some escaped. Some were ‘purchased’ and ‘manumitted’ (many bought and freed by the sheikhs of the Shammar tribe). Some were liberated. Many were killed, or died while escaping their tormenters, their remains found and accounted for. There are still 3,027 missing. I remember, during one of the election rounds, it became clear to me that Iraq boasted far more Yezidis than previously thought. Suddenly, one could project a population of upwards of 300,000 rather than 90,000—the pre-2003 estimate. It was an uplifting thought, that the Yezidis, after all that happened to them, were still around, and were a formidable electoral bloc that could sway the politics of Mosul province, including the destinies of their neighbors, many of whom were former tormentors.

Many Yezidi women let out wails such as Nadia’s over the centuries, there just weren’t any cameras around to capture them. But this time feels different. I was standing barefoot on the rain dabbed cobblestones of the Lalish shrine, on a morning last December, trying to bring my freezing toes as close as reasonably possible to the log burning in the shrine’s inner courtyard. While huddled by the side of the guide who was to show me the inside of the place, I registered a flash of fear on the faces of the young Yezidi men and women, trying to warm themselves too, when the guide told them that I was a Muslim. He must have seen it too, since I could make out in my rudimentary Kurdish that he added that I am just a nominal Muslim, and there’s nothing to be worried about. Earlier, a minibus had arrived packed with a number of families. The guide made inquiries, looked at the driver with a little hesitation, then turned to me to say, “this is a mix of Yezidis, Muslims and Christians, who are all friends, coming to visit the shrine,” as if to say to me, and to reassure himself that everything, after the nightmare his people had gone through, will be fine. These flashes of fear and hesitation, followed by artificial reassurances speak to something that had broken inside them. I was watching it on display at their holiest of holies, on their own turf. A turf they have safeguarded for centuries, losing it at times when their enemies grew too many, but always rebuilding it anew. Later, when his guard was a little down, and when he felt the trust growing between us, the hurt and anxiety, simmering just behind the façade of “everything will be back to normal once again,” bubbled up. Over the next few centuries Yezidism is likelier to survive in Hamburg than in Sheikhan, the nearest town to the shrine, he told me. The prospect of minorities mass migrating to the West after a spate of pogroms and upheavals is nothing new, but at one point, their populations cannot be self-sustaining in their original home, and a story centuries in the making comes to a close in its native land.

lalish courtyard

The inner courtyard at Lalish

Recently, I was re-reading Gertrude Bell’s, The Desert and the Sown, an account of her early twentieth century travels in Ottoman lands that today would be parts of Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. I was struck by one scene, as Bell was traveling from Homs to Crac des Chevaliers, by tagging along with an armed escort transporting two Ismaili deserters to a prison further up the journey. Poked about his faith by one of the travelers, the Ismaili asked whether Bell had heard of the Agha Khan. She responded that not only had she heard of him, but had met him too. The prisoner grasped her stirrup, imploring her to affirm his fervor for a man he deemed of divine guidance, “Is he not a great king?” Bell’s retelling of the incident reminded me of a similar scene I had experienced myself a decade ago, in Salamiyeh, an Ismaili bastion of lore, repopulated by Ismailis banished from their mountain keeps further west along the Mediterranean highlands in the last couple of centuries.  I was chatting with an acquaintance, a sixty-something leftist secular intellectual, who had been born into an Ismaili family. He owned a small store in the town, selling and renting books, stationary and operating a copy machine. Joining us was an Ismaili schoolteacher who works in the districts further east whose demographics are changing as more Sunni Arab Bedouins settle the lands. We were discussing the sectarian tensions that these changes were stirring (this was years before the civil war) and what the regime was doing to confront the rise of Sunni religiosity in the surrounding area, including proselytization efforts aimed at converting Ismailis. It turned out that the regime wasn’t doing much, seeing that it found my friend the leftist intellectual to be a far greater threat than the Salafists (he would periodically be hauled into prison during the years I knew him). At one point a weathered old man, who looked as if he were well into his nineties, entered the tiny store, and motioned that he seeks to duplicate some photographs he was carrying. They were photos of the current Agha Khan. The old man had wrapped them in cloth, which he unfolded with the deference reserved for a holy relic. The intellectual obliged the old man and treated the pictures with equal respect. But then a puzzled look descended upon the old man’s face as he saw that the copier was not reproducing the colors of the photographs. He was just staring at the copies, not saying a thing, trying not to betray his anguish as to why the copies didn’t come out as the originals. The store owner realized what just happened and tenderly explained to him that this machine can’t do what he wants it to do, and that he must go to the town photographer to take pictures of the photos and then develop them. I cannot envision a similar moment—this sincere veneration for the Agha Khan—reoccurring anywhere in the Middle East a hundred years from now. In fact, it would be surprising to think that this scene, one that I had witnessed, and Bell had witnessed too, and had gone on for centuries prior, would be replicated in Salamiyeh in thirty years. The trend lines suggest fewer Ismailis, more Salafis.

A few decades ago Ismaili officers in the Syrian Army had the gall to try to mount a coup. Generally speaking, minorities throughout most of the twentieth century felt as if they were rooted in these lands and that their relevance was not measured by their numbers, but rather by their resilience and tenacity. Having survived drastic odds, they still made it to a century of hitherto unimaginable opportunity to reinvent identities and to recapture a purpose. They were infused with much confidence during those heady days. I think of what they were feeling, and what is happening now, and I am chillingly reminded of a line from the movie Schindler’s List (1993): “But this storm is different. This is not the Romans. This storm is the SS.” This storm, this singularity, is the ‘IS’.

Last month Arabic media and Washington’s think tanks revisited the fifty year anniversary of the Six Day War, alternatively called the June War. Much has been said ever since that event of an ‘awakening’, a sobering among Arabs, having had so much of their nationalistic bravado defeated by ‘wretched’ Jews. What strikes me is that many of them were Jews who had thought earlier in their childhoods that they were about to embark on exciting, confident new lives and hopeful paths as citizens of Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Baghdadis, Aleppines and Alexandrines turned Israeli, fighting other Baghdadis, Aleppines and Alexandrines. All this happened within a generation. The Jewish neighbor, classmate, or business partner had turned into the dangerous Jew, one who necessitated maximalist eradication. It was this earlier perception of a minority that the jihadists expanded to other minorities. Their ‘final solution’ was to be different from previous ways of subjugating minorities in the Middle East. As bad as it got sometimes, even Ibn Taymiyya, the thirteenth century Islamic scholar from whom Salafists and jihadists draw inspiration, drew the line at the wholesale extermination of Twelver Shias, Christians and Jews. He was writing at a time when Islamdom was besieged by Mongols and Crusaders, so he was no ‘softie’ enthused by diversity. But he narrowed the path towards Islamic regeneration to merely wiping out Alawites and the Druze and issuing a reprieve to the laypersons of other sects and religions. The Zarqawists went further. In order to resurrect empire, even the laypeople of minorities shall be brought to heel or be annihilated, in the same way the artifacts and monuments of past glories were levelled. There can only be room for a unitary vision, and they wanted to demonstrate that they would go to every length to attain it.

In February 2015, twenty one Coptic Christians were murdered by the Islamic State on a beach in Libya. The jihadists said it was “revenge for Kamillia”. This was a continuation of a campaign that began in Baghdad, on October 31, 2010, when Islamic State of Iraq fighters were commanded to take Christian hostages at the ‘Our Lady of Salvation’ church upon the orders of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They were to exchange these hostages for “Kamillia and Wafa”. The standoff between the jihadists and the Iraqi security forces ended in tragedy when the latter stormed the church, which resulted in dozens of fatalities. Kamillia Shehata and Wafa Constantine were two Coptic Christian women in Egypt who had converted to Islam at varying instances, or so the story goes. According to a widely believed narratives in Egypt and across the Middle East, they were abducted back by the Coptic Church, tortured and forced to renounce their conversion. Gossip had it than one of them was killed because she refused to do so. The jihadists were using this story to demonstrate that they will not allow any slight, however small, to stand, especially coming from a Middle Eastern minority, even after many years had passed. This was in keeping with their claim to be the defenders of Muslim, specifically Sunni, honor.

The jihadist approach to the Copts was a rehash of their response to the murder of Du’a Khalil Aswad in April 2007. Du’a had eloped from her Yezidi town near Mosul with a Muslim lover, and converted. She was brought back by her kin and horrifyingly stoned to death. Footage of the crime found its way to the internet. By August of that year, over one thousand Yezidis were murdered in retribution by jihadists and other Salafists. Even back then the jihadists understood the utility of picking upon a ‘dangerous’ minority, one whose very presence poses an existential threat to Sunnism, or so the jihadists could claim, and then applying maximalist eradication as a counter to such as threat. Whereas the jihadists could make an easy case that present day Shias and Alawites are an existential threat to Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, it would be a stretch to say the same about Yezidis or even Egyptian Copts—most recently in February, they warned the Copts of the town of ‘Arish in northern Sinai to leave or else. But that disconnect does not matter to the jihadists. They seek to ignite whatever fuel they can find, even the anger that Ahmad, the stamp collecting engineer, harbored against Francis. If Ahmad has a grandson who shares his opinions on church burnings, that boy is already primed and is a few steps away from turning jihadist. Getting him there is what jihadists are seeking to do. Such is the scope of their ambition.

“Boo-hoo-hoo. So what if the Middle East went through many tribulations? Haven’t other locales around the world gotten it just as bad? Sadder tales can be told of India’s partition. The mystery and innocence of folk reverence is eroding across the modernizing, hyper-connected world; the Ismailis were going to change regardless of creeping Salafism. Why would a middle class family in Connecticut care if the region empties of its Jews and Yezidis? How does that pay the mortgage? Why would a perennially troubled part of the world get more attention than China, or Latin America, or Russia, places that can actually interfere with how prosperous middle class America gets? As long as the oil and shipping lines are secure, and Israel is telling us to take it easy, what’s the big fuss anyway? Keep the terrorists over there, and let them burn themselves out.”

These are compelling points for Western audiences fatigued by the Middle East. Trump expressed something along these lines during the campaign. Essentially, he had cribbed them from Obama’s ‘doctrine’, which in turn was channeling what Realists have long said about the region.

The Realists look at the driving ban on Saudi women, shrug and utter, “culture.” They stretched the argument to explain away why jihadists had brought back sex slavery into the twenty first century. This did not warrant mobilizing societal and civilizational outrage as the abolitionist movements of the nineteenth century had done, the Realists reasoned. This can be handled by an air campaign; ‘release the drones’. The Realists looked at what the jihadists were doing and told themselves that they can’t do much about tribal war spoils, even if that involved women and girls. Obama was thinking along those terms. He misunderstood that slavery in this case was being applied strategically. The jihadists were normalizing the dormant precepts of a world religion, because if empire was to be resurrected, Muslims needed to shed any queasiness that global liberalism may have introduced into their scruples as to what is acceptable. The ‘End of History’ comes to mean something very different. It is the inverse of the success of the liberal world order. Describing the goals of the European Union as an attempt “to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics, establishing a transnational rule of law” in a post-historical world now apply equally as well to caliphal pretensions of the Islamic State, though not its record of victories—yet.

The jihadists were playing a higher minded game than the Realists. Their ambitions mandated it. The Realist tolerance for dysfunction in the Middle East, treating it as a cultural handicap, explains the lack of seriousness and clarity manifested by Western policy circles. It lulls them into thinking that they can leave the likes of Bin Salman to keep a lid on things, even though it should be patently clear that the leadership required to bring order back to the region can only come from Washington.

It is a curious cycle how the failures of foreign policy Realism looped back and paved the way for Trump. The Realists assured the American public that all was well, that the September 11 attacks were something of a fluke, and that save for a few neoconservative blunders that followed, everything will be brought back into place. Yet somehow, the fire was not contained, the failures could not be papered over, and a population that the elite thought was not paying attention decided to send Donald Trump to the White House. How elegant of a comeuppance!

Trump broke away from his primary rivals in the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings. Trump’s incendiary remarks struck a chord with a part of the electorate. Especially since it was in such stark contrast to Obama’s detached stance on the event. It was that segment of the voting market that turned him into an anti-establishmentarian candidate who could potentially make it all the way. What was a relatively minor terrorist event inspired by events in the Middle East, ended upturning many ‘givens’ in a structured and stable society as that of America’s. Sure, the system must have broken down along the way to allow it to be vulnerable to such outside triggers. But however way it came about, jihadism became one of the litmus tests for the credibility of the elite, whose foreign policy ‘deep state’ bureaucracy is policed by the ‘Praetorian Guards’ of Realism.

I am always struck by how few people realize that the Trump presidency became realizable only after San Bernardino, when he was willing to speak in terms too stark for his Republican primary competitors to match.  There were no Russian hackers then. No Wikileaks dumps. Trump broke away ahead of the pack because a Muslim couple had been inspired by the visions of a native of Samarra, compelling them to shoot at their co-workers. One of the key duties the establishment was delegated to do, to keep America safe, had been fumbled. Then downplayed. Enter the master pugilist, Donald Trump, with his incendiary catch phrases and tweets. The Realist establishment had misjudged whether the wayward sparks of the faraway fires of the Middle East would pose an existential threat to their own ‘credibility’. Trump was the vehicle of a reckoning.

The breakdown of rational predictability undergirds the demise of trust in institutions. Getting the Middle East that wrong took its toll. Elites may think that the ‘deplorables’ in Hicksville don’t follow world events that closely, but they do so when a loved one is deployed in Baquba. And a soldier that served there will keep following events, wondering whether his service, whether his country’s costly power projection, had left a mark on the trajectory of history. The Middle East is not an abstract set of dueling IR game theories for them. The Middle East is a measure by which they discern whether the elite knows what it is doing. Guess what happens when the news cycles keeps running with bombings in Baquba?

If for no other reason, this is why seriousness and clarity were in order, as a means of self-preservation of America’s own Old Order. But how did Realism fumble things so badly? How did its high priests allow the Middle East to become an outsized threat to the international liberal order that they have worked assiduously to build, with all the wealth and security that it afforded them? How is it that in the year 2017 elites are worried that their own liberal bastions deep into Western territory, are under siege by a reawakening of Western illiberalism? The answer partly resides in the illiberalism inherent within Realism.

Liberalism assumes itself to be a valid construct for all of humanity. However, when its applicability for some is questioned, it should be questioned for all. The Realists made the case that liberalism is inapplicable to Middle Easterners, Eurasians or the Chinese, for example. In doing so, they ceded some of the idea’s totality and indirectly undermined its comprehensive applicability to the West. There was something intrinsically misaligned between particular cultures and liberalism—‘Islamic Exceptionalism’, for instance—or so the Realists argued. Yet if liberalism were to be culturally-specific rather than species-specific, then a regressive case can be made (and is now being made) that argues for the exceptionalism of Hungarian culture, or American culture, or Poland’s.

When Middle Eastern liberals called in for reinforcements as they stormed the barricades of the region’s decrepit Old Order during the various Iranian, Arab and Turkish Springs, Western liberalism hesitated, prevaricated, and ultimately decided to stand down. Many Western liberals and Realists retroactively made the case that the venture was doomed from the beginning. Other Realists would have argued that tinkering with the Old Order—starting with the Iraq War—had awakened sleeping ‘unknowable’ demons. Yet, they have never answered for why that Old Order gave us the attacks of September 11, 2001, way before the Iraq War.

President Bush, a liberal Idealist (arguably), could not muster the civilizational leverage to give liberalism a fighting chance in Iraq. Backtracking on that goal began early as the first signs of pushback both internally and externally. It manifested itself in an indigenous and jihadist insurgency that was enabled by regional powers and second-guessing what to do about it back in Washington. Liberalism lacked the tenacity required to wade through a knife fight, or maybe it faltered because it didn’t believe too deeply in the global writ of its mission. President Obama, a Realist (arguably), decided not to do much in Syria, early on, because of Iraq. ‘Assume control of the situation and replace the disorder with what?’ He must have thought. Certainly not liberalism. Certainly not ‘over there’.

This is lazy thinking. I am sure it can be called other things, but its starting point is intellectual indolence. The cultural incompatibility argument neglects some salient facts, such as that liberalism—and its half-sister, cosmopolitanism—had a head start among some Middle Easterners when parts of the West still had slavery and Jews were routinely pogrom-ed. Boris Johnson’s paternal great-grandfather was an Ottoman liberal (…it’s Boris bin Stanley bin Osman Kemal ‘Johnny’ bin Ali Kemal Bey for all you genealogically-curious folks). Middle Eastern liberalism and its proponents were not thwarted back then by ‘Islamic Exceptionalism’. What killed them off were the local variations of newly imported Western illiberalism in the mid-twentieth century. Islamism later moved in to fill voids vacated when those illiberal ideas lost their luster. Fast forward to our current era we find that both half-hearted liberalism and hardheaded Realism failed to ‘fix’ either Iraq or Syria. The results of that failure—resurgent jihadism and population displacement—now froth at the shores of the West. How fitting it is that the Brexit proponents and Trump have drawn some (much?) of their appeal from a populist fear in America and Europe of that creeping foam.

Liberalism is all or nothing. It is either suitable for all mankind, or it should be questioned, as the Western illiberals do, nowadays. Traditional Western leftism, so averse to the idea of power projection in the pursuit of resources and at the expense of weaker peoples, has been subsumed under the rubric Realism by the ‘New Left’, which subcontracted its foreign policy to the Realists. Instead of caring too much for the meek, they have enthusiastically adopted the credo of caring too little if vital interests are not at stake. To temper the moral contradiction inherent within the marriage of Leftism and Realism, the New Left promotes largely symbolic gestures of compassion such as taking in refugees. However, if Realism looks away from global war zones in which the West has no stake, war zones continuing to export refugees in large numbers, the taught balance becomes untenable. It reaches such a proportion that it stirs a nativism within Western cultures rejecting the advent of wave upon wave of refugees. The ideological inbreeding amongst Realist and ‘members only’ liberal clans gave expression to this recessive illiberal gene. Realism is at its core a manifestation of anti-intellectualism, which explains why its utilitarian promiscuity can carry over to become the foreign policy of the ‘New Right’, aligning seamlessly with the latter’s notion of cultural superiority.

Assigning blame for 9/11 or the failure of the Arab Spring or the emergence of Trump on the Realists is unlikely to be met with consensus any time soon. But can we at least agree that Realism, as applied to the Middle East, was and is not a reliable pathway to a grand strategy? The challenges posed by that region tell us that Realism is a not a school of thought; it is a school of management. It is mechanical, tactical, reactive. It cannot articulate strategy because it merely follows and readjusts to events. As such, there is no accountability. If all one is predicting is varying levels of messiness, and all one gets (or begets) is messiness, then who’s to blame? Therefore it suits careerists within bureaucracies well: there is no risk involved in attempting to prescribe bold, fundamental recommendations for the prevention of instability, and when, consequently, instability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, looping back into itself, the average bureaucrat can claim clairvoyance.

The decisions taken by the crafters of America’s policy towards the region in the year spanning December 2010 (the first rumblings of the Arab Spring) and December 2011 (the departure of the last U.S. troops from Iraq) were disastrous. Yet how can these decisions be held to account if the overall Realist line, that messiness was inevitable because there is no way of fixing things, can be brandished unchallenged? Another fallback defense of Realism has it that it is far more jadedly appreciative of the human condition, that it has shed the Pollyannaish delusions of better outcomes as man is essentially beast to man, and all that matters is competition. This Hobbesian outlook sits awkwardly with that other ware that Realism attempts to peddle, globalism, and the promise of cooperation and positive interconnectedness it brings to a liberal world order. Save for a few irredeemable zones on the global map, other nations can prosper together through trade and avert negative competition through diplomacy and dialogue. But it becomes difficult to sell Western societies land deeds to this Potemkin village if vehicles continue to mow down pedestrians on the waterfront in Nice or on Westminster Bridge. The last rhetorical stand of American Realism is that it had always counselled isolationism, that America assures safety from global mayhem by virtue of its distant shores and the lack of aggressive competitors within its hemisphere. But retreating away from distant fires no longer ensures peace. While Realists throw their hands up when confronted with the darker aspects of human nature, the jihadists seek to harness these characteristics towards a plan of action. And when jihadist ambition seeps across frontiers and borders, then the whole edifice of stability shudders. Such is the scale of Realist failure.

Shaming and naming the architects of Realism is futile at this stage. But let us deny them the conceit of branding the act of deflecting and delaying resolution as a doctrine resulting from thought, erudition and reflection. They do not deserve the accolades of intellectualism. A half-measure followed by another does not amount to intellectual coherence. One would expect a little more self-awareness from the self-described devotees of Thucydides who disproportionately populate the upper echelons of America’s national security apparatus. If their notion of ‘grand strategy’ is arrived at by ignoring data that doesn’t fit it, ascribing incongruences to the ambiguity of cultural ‘otherness’, and by retreating from adversity, then it should be called by something other than strategy.

What happens in the region is not a side show annoyingly intruding upon the highly meditative task of what to do about China or Russia, as the Realists would like to think. The high priests of Realism have become a burden on the debate. They are a drag on power projection, for they have failed to construct a narrative warranting trust in institutions, and the sacrifices necessary to safeguard order. Their very presence incites popular hostility towards an elite that tried to tell voters “move along, there’s nothing to see here” when events emanating from Middle East loomed large on the world stage in 2001, 2011 and 2014. They have failed to provide answers. They have failed to fix things. They have failed at grand strategy, the prerogative and responsibility of great powers. The region, the threats of jihadism, have become kitchen table issues for American and European families. The mayhem is not carried to them only by the nightly news, they can hear it outside their doors. It is of little value to tell them that they are more likely to die from a bolt of lightning. They can tell the difference between a random act of god and an act of a failing body politic. And the show is about to become more arresting. Or not. We just don’t know. And why don’t we know? Because Realism is lazy, unserious, befuddled.

*                             *                             *

The crafters of policy in places like Washington, London, Riyadh, Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara had three years to come up with a grand strategy. If we presume that a general sense of Sunni alienation was one of the causes of jihadism, there is no discernable strategy to address it. As such, we are far away from what can be qualified as a jihadist defeat. But why should we assign such importance to Sunni resentment in the first place, some may ask? After all, they brought it on themselves. If the image of the smoldering ruins of their once storied cities, such as Aleppo and Mosul, is not enough to rouse them to action and sobriety, then that is their problem, their failing, their lot. If the Saudis are indeed facing an existential situation of regional imbalances, and yet they cannot find it within themselves to forcefully move into an arena such as Syria, then what can others do to save them? Better to wait it out, to let the upheaval—if that is indeed what is in the offing—take its course.

Isn’t unfair to indict the wider body of Realism by its failures in the Middle East when the place is so unyielding, so irrational for a grand strategy to take hold, as Realists argue? They say that strategy is an illusion when confronted with the levels of randomness and complexity that the region presents. The Realists add that it is near-impossible to articulate coherence or communicate a narrative because the cultures over there are too hostile to take the West at its word. The peoples of the region are cognitively predisposed to misread any grand strategy as one that is out to get them, so why even try? Furthermore, messaging cannot move in tandem with actions because the terrain can surprise planners with unexpected friction given how much uncertainty abounds, thus undermining one’s best-laid plans. They are being clever by half. They conveniently neglect to address the ‘knowables’ in the situation: that in the last three years we should have been mindful of optics when it came to Sunnis, for example. And that realization should have been prioritized so as to induce the necessity of a strategy because the last time it went unaddressed it gave us the Islamic State circa 2014. When pushed into a corner, the Realists will point at the finger at liberal internationalists (on the Left) and neoconservatives (on the Right), claiming that Realism cannot do much because the mess that those other schools of policy have wrought. Thus, the Realists are the victims in all of this, cleaning up after others. Again, this is a convenient fallacy. The last smudgy fingerprints of liberal internationalism still evident on the lands of the former Ottoman Empire and Persia can be spotted in Bosnia, and on Bill Clinton’s Arab-Israeli peace process. The neoconservatives had their hands on the throttle for a few months in the lead-up to the Iraq War, but their irrelevance began with Paul Bremer’s appointment as the Coalition Provisional Authority’s head two months after it. The Realists have been effectively in charge of America’s Middle East policy for decades and seem to be so in the new Trump administration. One need to look no further than the career and influence of Brent Scowcroft, the Realist princeling who inherited Kissinger’s crown in the post-Cold War era. “I love that guy” gushed Obama. The current National Security Advisor went seeking his counsel and wisdom when first given the nod for the job. Obama’s critical decision to refrain from tipping the scales in Syria early on its uprising, when the promise of a positive transition from Asad rule was possible, and before conditions soured to the point whereby jihadism could take root, was purely Scowcroftian in its reasoning. Its knee-jerk aversion to thinking creatively and boldly also informs the restraint that ended up hobbling the potential of Trump’s visit.

Realists justify their method of managing the region because of its inherent uncertainty. But at one point, the uncertainty assumes a proportion so immense that both exponentially expands and coalesces into a singularity because of that method. They refuse to acknowledge that their formula had led us here. We have meandered into this mess because we lacked a grander strategy that incorporates the exercise of warfare with a vision for an enduring peace. Realists forget that the images of destruction in Aleppo and Mosul look very much like the leveling of Najaf and Karbala following Saddam Hussein’s response to the 1991 Shia Uprising, which came about to a large degree because the rebels believed that America had a grand strategy following the tyrant’s invasion of Kuwait. They took America’s president at his word when he said that the world would support their cause. George H.W. Bush chose not to follow through. That too was a Scowcroftian decision; he was the national security advisor then. That bitter memory compels the forces that Suleimani can muster today, a quarter of a century after the calamity. The Shias have not forgotten. They still act upon that memory to the detriment of stability in the region. It explains to a degree the irrationality of their rejection of America’s words when it came back as their liberator. So why assume that the present images of urban collapse will be passed over and forgotten by the region’s Sunnis? Supposing that the situation will henceforth remain static is an unreasonable bet, especially if we proceed as we seem to be without a plan. Saudi Arabia is the gem of the Realists: in their eyes, the kingdom is a safe harbor for the twin objectives of safeguarding energy flows and preventing the coalescence of regional mobilization against Israel. As long as it stands, the validity of their ‘plan’ stands too. This too is an unreasonable bet as we have seen. Is the possibility that the jihadists would inherit Mecca together with all the hardware the West is selling to the Saudis really that remote? The Realists poo-pooed several projections in the recent past that at first seemed remote but were later realized. What are the implications of carelessly taking them at their word now? Is theirs’s a good enough playbook in managing a global liberal order?

The Middle East has been a primary geopolitical concern for the last two centuries. There were interests at stake meriting such a standing. Even if we suppose that such interests have grown less relevant, whether due to technological leaps or the devaluation of once-important motivators such as the right to unimpeded Christian worship in Jerusalem, for example, the Middle East is demonstrating, by being an incubator for radicalism, that it can disrupt Realist prescriptions for other parts of the globe. Thus, failing to stabilize it is a measure of a failing management model. A deeper analysis should be asking whether failure here is an indicator of a failing elsewhere. For example, did the Realists see Russia’s projection of power into Crimea, and then into Syria, coming?

Will we be describing the past in terms of a lesser and larger caliphate? I don’t know, and it doesn’t count as easy-to-dismiss Cassandra-ism—the rhetorical tool that Realists employ to disparage dissent—if no certainty of doom and gloom can be proclaimed. I am not harping on about a darker dystopia to come. I am suggesting that we are at strategic inflection point where unpredictability on a grand scale should prove humbling. It should tether our aspirations, and we should recognize how problematic that is in looping around into a cycle of perpetual instability and radicalization.

The conversation should not loiter in place, yammering endlessly about a confluence of factors or a gathering storm. This is no longer about a ‘changing’ Middle East: the region has already changed. It is irreversible. It is not containable. Look at the Turks. Just a decade ago they may have looked around the region and muttered that, despite their challenges, “At least, we’re not Arabs. We are not like them.”  (…sort of like the elite’s contempt towards ‘deplorables’) A decade ago they were a democratic-leaning, rapidly industrializing country that was exorcising its old ghosts and getting ready for European Union ascension. Look at them now. Others, such as Israel or nations further out west, should beware like-minded hubris. No structure, however durable, can withstand heat of such intensity emanating from nearby fires.

We can comfort ourselves by repeating the mantra that the appeal of such forms of radicalism are limited to the tiniest of minority opinions, but in reality, there is just no way of knowing. The usefulness of rational predictability is proving to be of limited value. Instead of wishful thinking, minds should be put together to plot out contingencies, allocation of resources, potential short-term and long-term alliances (even with entities that haven’t been created yet), and the medium by which as-yet-to-be-announced adversaries would emerge and proliferate. Irrationality has demonstrated itself to be a powerful player in Middle Eastern news cycles and should be accorded the attention it deserves. Otherwise, the whole conversation, as it stands in the public domain, as it sidesteps controversy, and as it serves the purposes of ‘I-told-you-so’ fig leafing, especially by former Obama administration hands, is ultimately an exercise in futility, one of limited and all too meager returns. After all, Obama’s Realists are still trying to convince us that their Iran deal was a savvy one, but coming as it did at the peak of the jihadist challenge in 2015, it ended up demonstrating America’s acquiescence to Shia power and acknowledgement of Sunni irrelevance, as much of the Middle East saw it. That wasn’t helpful, and the Realists will never admit it.

The probability of extreme, uncontainable turbulence is too high, and it does not warrant a toleration of the generic, click-all-the-boxes ‘memos’ pervading the conversation about the Middle East, especially in Washington. America’s foreign policy elite gets to set the emphasis and the priorities. The rest of the world, including both allies and adversaries, take their respective cues from their own interpretations of the conversation unfolding in Washington. America is not merely a participant in the conversation, with its president donning translation headphones and nodding along while the kings, emirs and sheikhs gathered in Riyadh prattle on about what they think should be done. America should be the host and arbiter of the conversation should this conversation need to go big and bold, because local and regional actors in the Middle East are simply not up to the task.

But what can be done, what would a conversation accomplish, when this elite’s perspicuity is in decline, when its very sagacity, after so many failings, is questioned? What use is a conversation when the window for action has closed? I maintain that the elite’s failure to understand the Islamic State in terms as stark as that of a singularity, and what comes next is as frightening as a black hole, is a measure of its small-thinking obsoleteness. Its failure to comprehend that the Trump visit constituted a last chance is further evidence of that. And if it is obsolete, why have a conversation at all? Suppose that stark recommendations for how deep the fix needs to go are suggested. In the present atmosphere, especially on tabooed topics such as Saudi Arabia, such insights would be relegated to the fringes, inoculated as it is by the distorting influence of largesse doled out to the very same gate-keeping Realist elite.  Would this situation change if there is another shock to the system, such as another major country in the Middle East succumbing to chaos, or a large attack in a Western city? And whether at that time there will be the resourcefulness and dexterity required to try out unconventional approaches? One has to stop here and ask how is it that a mighty and vibrant power can find itself in such a situation? How is one supposed to process John McCain’s diagnosis that Putin is more dangerous than the jihadists? Sure, Russian aspirations on the world stage should concern the Senator, but is Putin really a singularity on par, or even more frightening than the Islamic State? And this is coming from someone who knows the issues and has followed the region closely.

Almost a hundred years have passed since the beginning of the age of oil. There’s a nice symmetry to all of this: a century since Sykes-Picot; a century since the British entered Baghdad; half a century since the 1967 War—the Arabs, in as much as there is such a shared sense of destiny, had fifty years to fix things since that debacle. They didn’t. These numbers mark distances, spanning the memories of generations. Mosul was liberated on the third anniversary of its occupation by the Islamic State. The British ruled Iraq by direct mandate for three years too. Iraqis to this day use the English words ‘bottle’ and ‘glass’ to describe these particular vessels of fluids, even though there are perfectly adequate Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words for them in circulation prior to the advent of the British. Three years left a hundred year mark. It stands to reason that the memory of the caliphate, attempted, will linger. The videos of the Islamic State will live on online. Jihadist videos from fourteen years ago can still be tracked down. Young people will keep figuring out ways to re-watch them, despite the best efforts to erase the digital content. How will they process those images? Will they mutter to themselves “never again” meaning that they will never again tolerate the horrors inflicted by the jihadists on communities such as the Yezidis, or will “never again” mean that they won’t allow another ‘revolutionary’ opportunity to pass without signing on?

By succumbing to one of the least bad and least uncertain options, relying on the Turks and Saudis to engage the fight directly on the Syrian battlefield, even though both are deeply flawed actors, we were hoping to buy some time, to earn some lag, following Trump’s foray into the fire pit. Maybe that would have bought us a decade of relative clarity, waiting as we must for an emergent and hopefully benevolent force to address the deeper fissures of the region. Had the Trump visit been consummated in a grander plan, then would that have perchance collapsed the incipient black hole, for a while at least? It wasn’t to be. We are in that space when we can sense that another shoe should be dropping, yet we have little idea what it may look like or sound like or even entail. We have misjudged the meaning and magnitude of past events, eroding our confidence in reading what we see unfolding before us now. Policy palliatives seeking to firm up the remaining pillars of order in the region must contend with the gravitational pull of the singularity. We may differ on the measure of their sturdiness. I sense that they are too wobbly as it is, and I wouldn’t build upon them.

Against the backdrop of this uncertainty we should build a policy Ark, one that would carry all the bits and pieces that may prove to be useful on the other side of the black hole, when we will need to build anew. It is akin to a salvage operation. To salvage all the ideas that we know are useful but whose time has yet to come because the policy atmosphere lacks the seriousness and clarity to nurture and empower them. We may not know what the future will look like, but we—those of us who care, who get upset when tragedy befalls a woman such as Nadia Murad, for example—should identify the tools necessary for a systemic reconstruction of cultures, persons and landscapes. This approach requires a new way of thinking about the region; deeper, bolder and more creative. It would entail, for example, tactical and timely revisions of Islam, done in a smart way and in tandem with how the jihadists deploy the religion to their ends. We need to gather vestiges and memorials from the age of cosmopolitanism, not to indulge in nostalgia, but as proof that it was once doable in Middle Eastern lands, with Middle Eastern letters and spoken in Middle Eastern tongues. Another ‘salvageable’ piece would be the ideas of locally-defined federalism and confederalism as a means to manage the various ill-fitting pieces. New ideological ‘brands’ such as madaniyya may carry over. How this all works together later is for a later cast of rebuilders to figure out.

But it all starts with a clear realization that the Middle East has changed in fundamental, irreversible ways, with the Islamic State being the singularity that shows how deep those changes go. In a sense, we would be confronting uncertainty by thinking like the jihadists do. They took what they needed from Islamic civilization to build their vessel and stitch together its pitch-black sails, to launch it when the gale winds of resentment turned optimal. What does it matter to them if we pedantically argue that they had misunderstood the Quran or the historical function of the caliphate? All that concerns them is whether their version of Islam makes it through the black hole that their grand strategy had created. We know so little about what follows, not even knowing how long it will last. The few of us who think this way, Americans, Middle Easterners and others around the world, who are concerned by this singularity, who exist on the fringes of the conversation, or feel unable to speak out too loudly within the temples of foreign policy, dominated as they are by the high priests of Realism, should begin a discreet conversation away from the dominating convocation. We should build that Ark. Its contents may yet prove crucial in constructing a grand strategy when the time comes.


Will it be Trump’s policy for the Middle East, or Hillary’s?


U.S. policy towards the Middle East yet again faces a crisis of presidential engagement, or rather the lack of it. Put differently, what Obama began may become a hallmark of Trump’s approach—heading away from the region. Or at best, Hillary’s-presidency-that-wasn’t may manifest itself over there: Obama’s plus some vitamins and supplements. No grand gestures, no grand vision, and no grand deal. Just more of the plodding, Realist ‘same-same’ incrementalism that marked the previous eight years, albeit with a bit of tweaking. Many in Washington may applaud that, but then again, their reaction connects back to a series of miscalculations, miscalculations that very few seem interested in re-visiting.

A consensus view in DC seems to be forming: keep Trump away from the Middle East. The task of pre-empting and thwarting any uniquely Trumpian approach seems to have been delegated to a pentumvirate of “five good men”, as Thomas Friedman put it last week. They must act quickly, for there is indeed a policy taking shape in the Oval Office. (An interesting facet of the new Washington is that we now need to distinguish between an ‘Oval Office’ and a ‘White House’.)

Will Trump eventually manage to bring his panache, showmanship and exuberance to Middle Eastern policy? Can he succeed in reshuffling the deck and dealing out a new hand? The window on that opportunity is closing shut, rapidly. The pentumvirate needs to convince him that that real estate of the globe is too cumbersome, and not prestigious enough, for the Trump brand, before others in his Oval Office get the ball rolling in the other direction.

What would a Trumpian policy for the Middle East look like?

One essential element would be a manifestation of Trump’s ‘ahead of schedule, under budget’ signature credo. Yet the man is not a mere rug merchant camped out in the bazaar, eager to for a quick turnaround. The other essential element of his unique style is that it has got to be ‘yuuge’; he enjoys constructing something ornate, flashy and enduring, then slapping his name on it in large block letters. Trump would go for a policy that brings about a peace that lasts a generation or two for the Middle East. It also helps if he manages to fix what is perceived by many in Washington and around the world as his predecessor’s greatest failing.

So here’s what I imagine is being considered in the Oval Office: in a few months, Trump will unveil his first grand foreign policy initiative, centering it on the Middle East, and specifically on Syria. In other circumstances, it may have been centered on bringing peace and reconciliation to eastern Ukraine, but given the ‘reds-under-the-bed’ anxiety pervading Washington, the Oval Office will move down the list and arrive at the second tough international challenge: disentangling the Syrian knot.

The ultimate goal of such a policy is to rearrange realities on the ground in such a way that would make a resolution of the Syrian crisis more likely. It must involve a containment or rollback of Iran’s influence there, a buy-out of Russia’s investment in the conflict, and bringing in regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to fill up the territories vacated by a retreating Islamic State. Saudi and Gulf money is supposed to pour in to rebuild what much of the civil war had destroyed. These monies will also matter when paying off Russia, and standing-up the governments of Jordan and Lebanon (and maybe even Egypt). There may be two riders to the deal: neutralizing Iraq (or even attempting to pry it away from Iran’s orbit), as well as—and here’s where it gets quite ambitious—laying the groundwork for an Arab-Israeli peace accord, with Gulf money propping up Palestinians for an interim period, and diplomatic representation by Arab states in Jerusalem, alongside a brand new U.S. embassy. The idea seems to be that the dividends of peace should precede a two-state or one state solution, consequently making it easier to decide on what course to take after the rewards of peace are realized and made tangible for ordinary Arabs and Israelis.

That’s all quite the tall order, but it fits what would constitute a mega-deal that Trump would want to adopt.

The mechanics, or rather the groundwork, for such a deal may already be in the works, so is the effort to derail them. Here’s how individual actors would factor in the deal, as well as the ways they may be leveraged by those in Washington who do not want the deal to go through:

Turks (and Kurds): Erdogan may have promised Trump that the Turkish armed forces would do the heavy lifting in Northern Syria against the Islamic State, with the Turks taking the fight to Raqqa. Tukey’s role on that front would entail 20,000 Turkish troops, alongside 5,000 Arab and Turkmen paramilitaries, to be mobilized and amassed by early May. There is serious pushback in some administration circles against this role, much of it emerging out of late Obama era plans for Raqqa. For the time being, it seems that there is a gentlemanly stand-off: no U.S. decisions would be made for Raqqa until after the April 16 referendum in Turkey. The pro-Turk faction in the Oval Office (and the vice presidency) may argue that an Erdogan win would make it very difficult to ignore him, or worse, to upset him. According to their calculus, Erdogan is a much better fit as the face of the ‘pan-regional Sunni ally’—as far as imagery and symbolism go—than General Sisi, who has his own cheerleaders in the administration. But the latter’s argument seems to be on the wane when the choice stands between Sisi and Erdogan.

Those who oppose a role for Turkey in Raqqa are making several counter arguments: it would antagonize the Kurds; it would empower Erdogan to go even further authoritarian; the Turkish military is not up to snuff for such an operation; and it wastes time to such an extent that Raqqa may end up falling to the Syrian regime before the Turks even get ready. However, that last argument seems to have been nullified by the recent rebel offensive in Hama and Damascus, which incidentally (…or not) serves to distract the Syrian regime from the Raqqa front.

The case for the relative weakness of the Turkish military is premised on its lack of talent after a decade-long succession of purges directed at its officer corps, most recently during last summer’s coup attempt, and by citing the bumbling nature of the Turkish attempt to seize al-Bab. They also make the case that the Turkish public is not ready for hundreds, if not thousands, of casualties resulting from a military adventure deep into Syria.

Erdogan may have his own reasons as to why he needs to do this. First, fulfilling his promise would purchase continuing relevance in the eyes of Trump. Second, getting the insular, cultish, and paranoid officer corps to follow his orders for a big campaign would be the final stage in his years-long drive to wield his authority over them. And when it comes to casualties, Erdogan may think that the Turkish public’s tolerance for such bloodletting has increased after the hundreds of casualties that fell during the coup attempt, and the IS and PKK terrorism assaults preceding and following it.

But where does all this leave America’s de-facto alliance with Syria’s Kurds? Erdogan, along with a sizable proportion of the Turkish public, does not distinguish between the PKK and Rojava. There is credible evidence to warrant this view. It is not that irrational for him to demand that the U.S. pick a side: either Turkey, or Turkey’s enemy, the PKK. There’s political value in such posturing. Erdogan has turned up the temperature on identity politics for almost two years now, and he can see tangible results. There’s very little convincing him otherwise as to the utility of such an approach.

If the Turks were to move on Raqqa, they would either have to clash with the Syrian regime en route, or alternately they would clash with the PKK. As things stand now, they would definitely choose to clash with the latter. And they may choose to do so by heading to Raqqa through Tell Abyadh, rather than through al-Bab (via Minbij), just to make this point. Should the Kurds fight back, then the Turks would hold the Americans responsible. The Kurds may have sensed such subtle shifts happening, and that may explain why they have been less subtle than usual in exploring avenues of cooperation with the Russians and the Assad regime, as a hedge against America’s forthcoming pro-Turkey tilt.

But at the end of the day, even with all the romanticizing of the YPG in the Western press, with their warrior Amazons and all, and with the incredible strides they have made against the Islamic State, and even with the fig-leaf of working with non-Kurdish Syrians as part of the SDF, the Kurds have far less geostrategic clout than Turkey. Even Russia would choose Turkey over the Kurds. There are those who are sympathetic to the Kurds within the Oval Office—reportedly even the president himself—but such sympathy won’t manifest itself in political dividends for Rojava. The Barzanis in Arbil would likely cash out on this goodwill down the road, with Erdogan looking on approvingly as their emerging patron. (Whatever happens to the ‘other’ Kurds of the KRG is marginal to this plan.)

But then again, things are moving rapidly around Raqqa these days, with acquiescence of the Pentagon and America’s European allies. There may also be some within the Turkish military who would be quite content if they ended up arriving late to the party. That gentlemanly agreement to wait until after the Turkish referendum may be rendered obsolete if the Kurds are nudged into early action based on some opportunity or provocation provided by the Islamic State.

The Saudis (and Emiratis, Jordanians, and Egyptians): Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman came to Washington armed with a power-point slide show and a comprehensive and ambitious regional plan, meaning to capture Trump’s attention. He succeeded. So much so that three top Oval Office functionaries escorted him to the Pentagon, seemingly with the message that the president wants the prince’s plan enacted. It also helps that Saudi Arabia is pledging to plow tens of billions of dollars into America’s economy, and that Saudi lobbying largesse—always impressive—may have tripled and may have even quadrupled over the last few weeks throughout the labyrinths of DC.


(US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman speak to the media in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM)

The contours of the plan have been kept (mostly) under wraps. That secrecy could be more of a function of intra-Saudi rivalry and friction than anything that has to do with Washingtonian dynamics. Bin Salman needs Trump to sign off on his vision before he can turn around to his royal cousins and face them with a fait accompli: Saudi Arabia has made promises, and these promises must be kept if its unique relationship with America is to be maintained. Bin Salman may cite Trump’s phone call with his father back in late January as the starting point when the American president asked for Saudi Arabia’s help in creating safe zones in Syria, and that the Saudis had to rise to the occasion.

I’d imagine that the gist of the plan is to contain and rollback Iran. Such a rollback would entail having the Saudis taking on an activist and direct role in Syria. There is to be a safe-zone tens of mile deep into Syrian territory hugging the Syrian-Jordanian border. There won’t be enough time to prop-up a significantly adept local Syrian fighting force, hence the actual fighting against Islamic State pockets and policing of the safe zone would be handled by Saudi, Jordanian, Emirati and possibly Egyptian forces. The Egyptians are still negotiating their fees, while the Jordanians got an aid package yesterday from the Saudis that includes renovating the Aqaba-Amman highway.

Instead of heading north to battle the Syrian regime, this safe zone would serve as the base for a foray into the Syrian side of the Euphrates Valley, setting up the battle for the town of Deir Azzour (which, along with its hinterland extending to Albu Kamal and al-Qa’im in Iraq, is actually larger, and more strategically significant, than Raqqa) as the final knockout blow levelled against the Islamic State.

The Saudis would be very comforted if the Turks were to be situated nearby in Raqqa at that point. Much has been made of Saudi-Turkish tensions, over such contentious issues such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the Saudis know that Erdogan is not a Muslim Brother. He may have sympathized with Egyptians Islamists at some point, but his brand of Islamism came out from a very different tradition. Furthermore, the Saudis have been using an Iraqi-born Meccan cleric, with whom Erdogan and his family have deep spiritual ties, as their conduit into the latter’s good graces. Such direct, personal relationships are further augmented by another critical one through a retired Turkish military adviser, with long-standing relations with the Saudis, who had been appointed by Erdogan to his inner circle since the coup.

I understand recent diplomatic overtures by Saudi Arabia towards Iraq to be all about what the Saudis want from Baghdad as it relates to this plan, even though the Saudis have not be explicit with the Iraqis about what they are embarking on. The Saudis want the Iraqi government to bar Qasim Soleimani from crossing the Iraq-Syria border and getting to Deir Azzour first, thus linking up with the Syrian regime pocket still surviving there, surrounded by the Islamic State. The Saudis, though, seem to have indicated to Iraq that they are willing to spend a lot of money rebuilding Anbar, Mosul and other war ravaged Arab Sunni territories in Iraq that have been liberated from the Islamic State.

With the Turks in Raqqa, and the Saudis in Deir Azzour, and the Iranians held back, better concessions can be drawn out from the Assad regime, consequently leading to a settlement of the Syrian conflict, or so the thinking goes. The Emiratis and Jordanians are already going around Washington seeding the soil with the notion that an accommodation with the Assad regime is the only realistic endpoint of this conflict. The Emiratis have taken on this role because the Saudis haven’t left much for them to do, and even though the Emiratis may voice their doubts about Bin Salman’s plans to their friends in the administration, they also know that they don’t have the strategic wherewithal to be a substitute for the Saudis as regional players; remember Qatar? The Jordanians for their part want Bashar al-Assad to know that they are not coming after him, so that he doesn’t come after them. Besides, there’s little the Jordanians can do other than go along with what the Americans and the Saudis want. The Egyptians once thought that Trump would champion them back into a pan-regional role, only to find out that with Trump you need to give before you can take, and Gen. Sisi has little to give. So, they’ll just go along with the ride on this all-expense-paid Saudi adventure.

There are some potential glitches. First, the Iranians may not sit back and let this unfold. Second, the Saudis are up to their necks in Yemen, and cannot be assured that their forces would perform well in an equally complicated battlefield like that in southern and eastern Syria. Third, many of Bin Salman’s cousins find it foolish to engage in another cross-border military adventure; in fact, many think of him as a fool to begin with, according to press reports here and there. Fourth, for all this to work, there needs to be lots of Saudi and Gulf money lubricating the wheels, and it stands to reason that the price tag—rebuilding Syria, rebuilding Sunni Iraq, paying off Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Russia, and paying for U.S. military cover—may be so hefty, that even the Saudis wouldn’t be able to afford it. These are, for the most part, the same arguments that led the Obama administration to turn down Saudi Arabia’s offer of intervention in Syria made a year ago.

That said, a military luminary as significant as General Petraeus has personally vouched that the Saudi military can now take on military tasks in Syria, having learned many painful lessons from its sojourn into Yemen. Besides, one need not be up to the standards of the U.S. military to still fight and win wars; by that measure, even the British wouldn’t pass muster. Moreover, the vestiges of the Islamic State in southern Syria and in the Euphrates Valley are a much softer target nowadays after the jihadists had been savaged by fighting against the Iraqi military and the YPG/SDF. And if the Oval Office has taken a shine to Bin Salman, there’s very little his cousins can do to position themselves as a counterweight to him within the familial hierarchy. As for how Saudi is supposed to finance this war, well, a few hundred billion over five years would still go further than what any other international or regional actor is willing to pay.

But why would the Saudis do something so out of character as intervening militarily in Syria? Because they have to. Saudi youths watched Aleppo being retaken by the Syrian regime, and are now watching Mosul being liberated. After decades of sectarian messaging, those youths understand those events as victories for Alawites and Shi’as with Iran looming over them, while the Sunni powers of the region, namely their own country, waits out the massive conflagration from the sidelines. The Bin Salman clique of the royal family may feel compelled to project power and vigor outwards, if only to sell Saudi youth on the notion that their rule is still relevant. They need to reclaim the mantle of Sunnidom, especially with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda out there making the case, each in their own way, that the House of Saud are ‘has-beens’.

The Iranians (and some Iraqis): From the listening post of Baghdad, one gets the sense that the Iranian national security establishment, in all its factions, is terrified of Trump. They see in him the prospect of the first U.S. president, since the advent of the Islamic Revolution, who is unwilling to play the usual game of conflict through proxies and cut-outs that’s been going on for decades, and would consequently take America’s F-16s directly to the skies over Tehran if the latter misbehaves. They don’t believe he intends to bring about regime change, or even to use ground troops: Trump’s war with Iran would be a fortnight of fireworks taking out hundreds of strategic Iranian military and civilian assets, effectively hobbling the country, should one of their provocations, however slight, test his patience. But they also know that he isn’t ready to give such an order, and that he needs time (probably 18 months) and money to double America’s naval and airpower capacity in the Persian Gulf for the light show to kick off in earnest.

But the Iranians can hit back by lighting fires across the region, can’t they? The deterrent value of Iranian sleeper cells in the Gulf or Gaza, or Hezbollah raining down katyushas on Israeli settlements, is not what it used to be. For this is the other part of the equation: they don’t think that Trump cares that much if the Saudis, Israelis, or the Bahrainis for that matter, get bruised. The Iranians could do most of their damage in Iraq, yet by the Iranian calculus, Trump may just let them get away with burning down Baghdad. Doing their worst is not that intimidating for Trump, or so they’ve concluded.

And here’s the rub: the larger plan for the Middle East can only succeed if the Iranians are that scared of a U.S. president. If Trump gets disengaged from the region, same way as Obama did, Bin Salman’s plan, Erdogan’s foray into Raqqa, and much else would be doomed to strategic futility and unknown consequences, for there is very little holding back Iran’s potential for mischief.

Oddly enough, many heavy-hitters in Tehran (for example,  the likes of Velayati and Shamkhani) seem to be sighing in relief that Trump is willing to bash them, for it puts to rest their own internal misgivings about Suleimani’s plan to fight Sunnis across the region to a standstill, a fight that has cost Iran much more than it had gained over the last six years. Furthermore, they can see that there isn’t much more they can do with the landscape: even if Qasim Suleimani pushes through to Deir Azzour, even if they get their acolytes to win big in Iraq’s forthcoming elections, even if they can scrounge together enough cash to keep the Syrian lira afloat, they have effectively arrived at a strategic dead-end. How useful is the Middle East for them if the Americans refuse to come out and play? Not much. It’s too expensive, and too difficult to manage. At least with the Trump plan, there may be a distant, grand deal in the offing if they can offer Trump a sweet enough of a lure, say, by dispensing with Suleimani, for example.

They point to Iraq, their prized jewel after all that toing and froing, as an example of the elastic limit of Iran’s projection of power. As influential as Iran can get, there’s no superseding Najaf’s influence. And as much money as Iran can pour into the country (and they don’t have that much to begin with), whatever sums they can deliver would be paltry by the standards of Iraqi politicians hell-bent on fleecing their own country’s multi-billion dollar budgets. It is also looks like the situation in Baghdad won’t remain static for long, with overt diplomacy blossoming with Riyadh and Ankara, and another, more portentous yet for now hidden channel taking shape between the Saudi royal court and Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

The Russians: well, this is an easy one, for that meme about Russian imperial ambitions in the Middle East never rang true. Here’s a book that can clarify much for you: Russia and the Syrian Conflict; Moscow’s Domestic, Regional and Strategic Interests, by Nikolay Kozhanov (2016). The ‘tell’ was always that input from Russia’s old hands on the Middle East was not taken seriously by the Kremlin, where a small circle of national security types around Putin concocted policy. How much more military expenditure does Russia want to invest in Syria? Where’s the great strategic and economic prize of emerging as the top international player in that conflict? There’s no significant value in being Iran’s principal ally either. Syria was empty space that Putin slipped into, with a mind to exit once lured away by a West willing to strike a deal to normalize his seizure of Crimea. Russia still sees itself more as a European and Asian power, than a Eurasian one per se. And if the Saudis come knocking too with sacks of money, and the Turks come all embraces and smiles, then that’s not such a bad deal for Moscow after all.

I realize that many may scoff at this idea. Sure, the Russians are also putting out feelers and sniffing around for a role in Yemen, Egypt and even Libya. But can anyone with a straight face tell me that Russia wants to take ownership for those places? The memories of the Soviet Union days can’t be that far behind, and Russians may not remember their past strategic forays into such places as a happy, feel-good memory, or that they got much to show for it.

What could go wrong?

Well, this is the Middle East we’re talking about, so lots could go wrong. And there are many shades of ‘wrong’. It is morally wrong to let hundreds of the financiers, enablers and security dons of the Syrian regime go unpunished for what they unleashed on the Syrian people. It is wrong to allow the Iranian ruling elite go unpunished for their disastrous policies in wreaking havoc across the region. As despicable as the PKK is, it is wrong to deny Rojava the opportunity to outgrow its original organization should it be embraced by the West. It is wrong to allow Erdogan to project his authoritarianism and ambition across Turkey and beyond. It is wrong to allow the Saudis and other Gulf states to remold the region in their image, since what they stand for has bred much of the cancerous rot that sparked region-wide instability. There’s plenty more that is wrong by that calculation, but a decade or more of Realist quick fixes by Washington’s doyens have wrought the stinking reality that we now face.

In this reality, and with so few options for doing right by the many victims of these lands, the worst possible outcome would be to tamper down Trump’s enthusiasm for the Middle East. For it is far better having presidential prestige propping up U.S. policy, and the unique Trumpian flair for going big, especially is such respects as deterring Iran, than reverting to the Obama-era mode of short fixes and ‘too-late’ incrementalism. Who’s going to make the call on smacking down Tehran if that’s what’s it going to take? The Secretary of Defense? Senator McCain? Who, when it comes to that, can pick up the phone and tell Erdogan to cool it? With the Trump presidency consumed by bureaucratic insurrection in the face of an ambitious home policy, leaving little bandwidth for creative foreign policy making, especially in the Middle East, then continuing headaches in the region can be blamed on Obama’s miscalculations, allowing them to fester with no resolution, and with little backlash or interest from Trump’s constituency. Who would want that outcome if they claim to care about the region?

The best course of action going forward is to have the president engaged with the nitty-gritty. Sure, there may be mistakes and problems, but presidential engagement is a better assurance of trying to address those mishaps than a situation where Trump moves on to some other global challenge, leaving a squabbling bureaucracy to sort things out by committee. If the Oval Office shuts off its view of the Middle East, then we could conceivably be talking about a decade of continuing stalemate, with constant positioning by regional actors to acquire leverage, leverage that will never be good enough to bring them to the table. All the while, such a stalemate only enhances the conditions through which a political creature such as the Islamic State can survive and expand out, even to places such as Saudi Arabia.

The Turks may get into a shooting war with the Kurds. The Saudis may find that the Islamic State is no easy foe in the Syrian Desert. Both the Turks and Saudis may get cold feet once the waters are tested. Russia may think there’s more to squeeze, and the Iranians can irrationally trigger Trump into hitting them directly. All these are understandable concerns. But trying to win back Raqqa and Deir Azzour through locally trained Kurds and Arabs, with arms and mentoring provided by U.S. troops, as Obama and Hillary Clinton had envisioned, does not really bring us to an endgame once the smoke clears and the Syrian regime still stands, and while the Iranians have more Western targets to pick off. Besides, who’s going to pay for it all? It certainly won’t be the U.S. taxpayer, especially not with Trump making decisions. So, here’s a bit of advice for all those in DC who are wary of this new president and his Oval Office boosters: let Trump have a go of it. After all, there’s nothing left to break in the china shop to begin with.

One More Thing

However, if there is one addition I would make to a potential Trumpian plan for the Middle East, it would be this: consider a larger role for Iraq. The Saudis and Turks may not like it, but adding a third component to the mix is a good future deterrent should misunderstandings occur down the road. The Iraqis may not be polished enough for prime time when it comes to doing the rounds in DC as the Saudis have done, but their Special Forces (and Peshmerga) are certainly the most battle-hardened and most proven match against the Islamic State. In fact, the Saudis and Turks may have a far easier time fighting the jihadists because the latter have been principally depleted and bloodied in their fight with the Iraqi military. Hence, Iraq’s role in bringing about the defeat of the Islamic State should be acknowledged by giving the Iraqis one of the principal commands of the Syrian front. Syria’s Kurds should be acknowledged as well, but whereas the Turks can block their deserved glories, Iraq is a sovereign state towards which Turkish protestations can’t extend. So why not have the legitimate forces of the Iraqi state cross the border into Syria to do battle with IS in Deir Azzour instead of the Saudis? U.S. provided Iraqi F-16s are bombing targets in Syria with the approval of the Syrian regime. Won’t it be easier to sort out the regime’s pocket in Deir Azzour if it’s the Iraqis who show up there eventually? According to the cumbersome legalese of the United Nations, Russia can intervene in Syria because it was asked to do so by the Syrian government. The same legalistic courtesy can be extended to Iraq, whereas the Saudis and Turks can only intervene under the international rubric of fighting terrorism. The Iraqi forces should be composed of special forces, Peshmerga and Sunni tribal recruits from Anbar Province, who are culturally attuned to the familiar tribal society across the Syrian-Iraqi border. With the Iraqi state taking on this task, Suleimani will have little moral ground to stand on when arguing that his PMUs should continue the fight up the Euphrates since that is where the car bombs going off in Baghdad are coming from.

I hope this idea gets incorporated into the next slideshow at the Oval Office.


The ‘Donald the Selfish’ Speech

I wrote this speech back in early September. No one solicited me for it. I just went ahead and did it. It was a fascinating election, and I was eager to digest it in my own way. I toyed with the idea of aggressively getting it to Trump’s inner circle, but I eventually held back. First, I was, as one friend put it, too “chicken shit”, to take sides. That’s true. I needed to atone for my mischievous, contrarian past and get back into the good graces of DC’s foreign policy establishment. Hey, I needed to pay the rent. The second reason had to do with what two friends had told me. My best friend said that I would never forgive myself should I help Trump get elected, and then things went bad. Another friend, a very wise and seasoned man, who’s known Trump for thirty years, told me that the candidate was “a very dangerous man, who may be very bad for America’s internal situation.” Yes, the divisiveness worried me, and I ended up remaining neutral. I liked Hillary. Always have. Even the bad stuff said about her, the corruption and all that, didn’t faze me; I respect those sorts of survival skill sets in a politician. But the DC establishment, and specifically the part I’m most familiar with, the segment with all the FP types, is really quite ‘off’. There are plenty of smart people within it, knowledgeable people, but their group instincts are faulty. Even after Trump nosedived in the polls, my instinct told me that he has a higher chance of winning than what many were saying. Two months ahead of the election, I began to watch every rally of his. My gut was telling me that this guy has something, and it is being missed by the immediate media reactions to that same events that I was watching with my own eyes. I also went back to almost everything he had said in politics, even to the early 1980s. There were threads of consistency there. He had been thinking about this for a very long time.


N. Kazimi, Civil War 3, 2014, 30’x30′

This, from his interview with Larry King in 1999, struck me as very telling:

TRUMP: I’m a registered Republican. I’m a pretty conservative guy. I’m somewhat liberal on social issues, especially health care, et cetera, but I’d be leaving another party, and I’ve been close to that party.

KING: Why would you leave the Republican Party?

TRUMP: I think that nobody is really hitting it right. The Democrats are too far left. I mean, Bill Bradley, this is seriously left; he’s trying to come a little more center, but he’s seriously left. The Republicans are too far right. And I don’t think anybody’s hitting the cord, not the cord that I want hear, and not the cord that other people want to hear, and I’ve seen it.

Plus, I think there’s a great lack of spirit in this country. You know, what happened over the last four years is disgusting, and I just think there’s a tremendous lack of spirit, and I think the spirit has to be brought back.

A week before the elections, I was telling friends that he’ll even end-up winning Michigan and Pennsylvania. Of course, I was saying it casually, lest they deem me crazy.

So here goes: I didn’t help him get elected. He won. And I want to share the speech in an honest manner, as it was written in September, without any after-the-fact edits—it certainly needed to be shorter. It’s an exercise in projection, and it is what it is. But that’s what elections are in many cases: projecting onto a candidate what you’d hope they would say or do. I did try to use it to muck around with 4chan and, to test how that information ecosystem would respond, and whether it can be manipulated. It’s not as easy as it would seem, and we really need to figure out how it works because that is now the future of information and dissemination.

One thing I would like to point out is that I got the whole Philly cheesesteak gimmick right: Trump only had a hoagie at Geno’s! (that would have been my preference too.)

Before getting to the speech, here’s my Twitter thread from yesterday, which serves to put the speech into context:

  1. Reading @JeffreyGoldberg ‘s interview with H. Kissinger, a few days after the Trump win, is surreal, end-of-an-era stuff. Here’s a thread with many moving parts.
  2. It happens every time in history, the priestly/clerical class assumes it can co-opt, moderate and transform the victorious horde.
  3. If the Mongols are at the gates, chances are it’s already too late. The old way of doing things is done.
  4. The FP community assuming that there’s a second act, after Obama’s ‘Blob’, and after the Trump’s ‘cratering’ of DC, is foolish and tragic.
  5. As with every upheaval, the feudal classes are the first to convert. The old priestly class continues to administer to a dwindling flock.
  6. The feudal lords can see as plainly as anyone that the old gods have no kick.
  7. Money/subsidies for think tanks, academia, and even straight-laced journalism will peter out.
  8. The fact that the expert class put in a last hurrah, a final charge of the light brigade, and consequently failed, underscores its obsolescence to the old lords.
  9. Brushing over this reality only blurs the path ahead towards discovering what replaces the ancien regime.
  10. Don’t take my tone to be one of gleeful iconoclasm; I’m actually somber. Disagree as I may with the Kissingers, I still admired their ability to reign.
  11. I don’t know what replaces it, but clearly we need to start looking.
  12. I don’t like mob rule or demagoguery, but that’s the new terrain.
  13. Information and influence will work very differently. How? Still unclear.
  14. I’ve been working with others on some thoughts, and beta testing. Interestingly, unorthodox CVE approaches may yield short-term, functional applicability.
  15. But trolling, mis/disinformation, are the hallmarks of what’s to come. Consequently, it will shift from politics/intel to commercial applicability. Are big ‘brands’ ready? Doesn’t seem so.
  16. If judged by CVE, my sense of the Googles and Facebooks is that they are not well adapted to the prospect of their monster cyborgs escaping the lab.
  17. Other critical element: Trump-ism isn’t going to fail, and discredit itself. It comes at an opportune moment. Be prepared for long-haul.
  18. Trump is incidentally, and accidently, a symbiotic fit for a massive leap in manufacturing technology.
  19. You can be one of two people: you either believe new manufacturing is going to be as transformative as the internet, or
  20. You may think it’s significant, but not that significant.
  21. Count me among the former. Watch where @peterthiel and @mcuban put their money.
  22. Trump’s trifecta of neo-isolationism (incl. tech protectionism), reconfiguring trade, and strident anti-immigration, will weave seamlessly with this new opportunity for America.
  23. This leap, I think, ensures generations of wealth-creation for Americans, and primarily for Americans.
  24. It will come quicker than you think: it’ll be happening in his first term.
  25. It will also mean that 30 years of a globalist crescendo will come to a discordant coda. Severe instability in the economies most wedded to globalism: eg. China.
  26. A rust belt extending from South Asia extending across Pacific to Latin America.
  27. Europe bet on globalism too, with a big wager on immigration. There we may actually see fascism emerge, as opposed to whatever category we end up describing Trumpism with.
  28. America, huddled away safely with its new tech, with 3D printing ‘garage factories’ in small town Pennsylvania, will deem Trump an accidental visionary.
  29. That new found ‘base’ of his will solidify as the outer world turns more unstable.
  30. Eventually, America would reassert some measure of power projection, as need for overseas middle class markets that buy its new products starts making more ‘common’ sense.
  31. Russia may temper its imperial pretensions, seeing how America doesn’t want to come out to play, and Europe and Far East looking ‘iffy’.
  32. Eurasia, largely untouched by transformations of globalism, may look very inviting to it.
  33. Dugin is a fool, and is probably seen as such by Kremlin presidential inner circle, but that narrative would find validation.
  34. Russia can become the civilizational lodestar of Eurasia; big implications for current power dynamic of the Middle East. Makes sense too as stand-alone trading market.
  35. Russia is about to climb out of that demographic hole; few teenagers in urban centers, but gaggles of ‘blonde’ toddlers.
  36. Russia is also organically synthesizing a new Islam with Sunni Muslim emigres from Central Asia, Caucuses. Still playing civilizational defense, but eventually an exportable ‘brand’.
  37. All this leaves remaining vestiges of old order in ME very vulnerable.
  38. Acutely so, as both IS and Al-Qaeda brands of jihadism will make big, bold final play for Saudi Arabia. A ‘hail Mary’ pass for their ventures.
  39. Assumption that there isn’t much smoke to that fire, as it stands now, is a dangerous blind spot. Remember, who saw Arab Spring coming in this way?
  40. To sum up, Trump phenom will ergo catalyze many ongoing percolations: demise of priestly class, de-globalization, and regionalization a la ‘Eurasia’. Brace for impact. END





The ‘Donald the Selfish’ Speech

September 17, 2016


Have you tried tweeting with a rotary phone, folks? Remember those, rotary phones? Remember when we had almost no clue how the internet was going to change our lives? How we communicate, how we shop, how we search, how we get entertained? It’s astounding to think that the internet revolution only got going twenty years ago. Think about it, only twenty years ago. Wow. Well, the world is about to undergo another huge transformation, and just like the internet, it’s all starting in America. It is a revolution, an upheaval, a disruption, in manufacturing. Huge. Massive. Everything is going to change. Everything from how we make things, where we make them, how we ship goods; trade is going to change, and even national security will change with it. But what’s different this time, is that we need to keep it in America. We need to get selfish about American innovation and prosperity. Selfish about American growth and wealth.

My opponent tells you she has experience. She does. She’s been doing politics for fifty years. I’ve been in business for fifty years. But what use is fifty years of experience if the next fifty years are going to be completely different? No one has the right amount of experience for what’s coming, because it is all so new. There’s no resume or expertise for what’s about to happen. It’s like saying that I am familiar with how a telegram machine works. Remember telegram machines? But how does working a telegram machine prepare anyone for maintaining an email server? It’s just different. Very different.

Have you heard about this 3D printing? We just began hearing about it a few years ago, and now it seems there are leaps and bounds happening in the technology. It’s happening here, right here in America. You know why? It’s called American innovation. But what does it mean? How is it going to change how we trade? How we make things? And how we sell products?

They, the experts from thirty years ago, used to tell us that it makes more sense to close a factory in Michigan, and open another one in Shanghai. I don’t know if they were Shanghai-ing us, but that’s what many businesses and corporations did. Labor was cheaper over there in China. Very little regulation. No rules and regulations about how much black smoke pollutes the skies. Very few safety precautions. And it all made us, at least us rich people, much, much richer.

Hey. I’m a businessman. I’m supposed to be selfish. And then when I make billions and billions I start giving a little out to charity to make myself feel good and so that they clap for me in high society saloons and ballrooms. That’s the shtick that I was supposed to stick to. That’s the role the establishment had assigned to people like me.

But business teaches you something important: how to spot trends, and opportunities, and to act quickly, and selfishly, in taking advantage of them. And I see this massive, huge trend coming, a revolution in manufacturing, and I tell myself: “Donald, what are you gonna do? Make another couple of billion off of this trend? Then smile for the cameras and click champagne glasses at a gala for some charity or another? Maybe GQ will write yet another profile on you?”

Or is there something more that can be done with this. Is there something you can do for America? Instead of being Selfish for Donald, why not be Selfish for America? Ha?

So let me share this hot tip with you America—the kind of tip-off that Wall Street honchos keep to themselves: 3D printing means we don’t have to make things in China anymore. It will be cheaper making stuff—you name it, parts, whole cars, anything you can imagine—right here, and very soon, we will be saying, “right now”.

A 3D printer may soon make something—faster, better, smarter—that, in the old days, needed seven different parts, one from China, one from Mexico, one from Germany, and the rest from God knows where. To make all those parts, raw materials, commodities, had to be shipped from God knows where else, to China, to Mexico, to Vietnam, to Turkey, so that cheap labor can build it and ship it back. Ships and cargo planes would run all around the world carrying commodities and parts. Oil would go from the Middle East to fuel these factories all over the world. That’s what they called Globalization, and they, those experts, told us, it was the greatest thing in the world, and that this was the future, global interdependence, where we would all become citizens of the world, would hug all the different nations of the world, and sing Kumbaya, and there will be no more war, no more ancient hatreds, because we are working side by side in this utopia.

Sounds like a nice dream. Believe me, I wish it could be doable. But here is another thing that real business teaches you that you don’t learn in Harvard or a think tank or doing community work: in business, everyone is trying to get ahead, everyone’s selfish. And this holds true when you talk about trade negotiations: the Chinese may smile and sing along to songs about friendship among nations, but they are taking you for a ride. They are getting what they want, because if they don’t, then the Communist Party leadership will show them what’s what back in Beijing.

It’s a tough world out there. And it’s not enough to play at being tough. You can’t fake tough. You can’t fake being a little ‘hood’. All that swagger, all that posturing, that doesn’t count. A real tough guy would take one look at you and know that you’re not really tough. That’s why Putin doesn’t seem to respect Obama. Just look at Putin’s behavior over eight years. Believe me, a guy like Putin can smell weakness and insecurity, and folks, for the last eight years, we wreak reek of it. The Chinese are also tough. And that’s why they don’t seem to take us seriously anymore. But all that is going to change. Believe me. America is tough. Look at our sports. What the world calls football, and what we call soccer, is basically a pillow fight when compared to American Football. America is competitive and tough. Our scientists and investors and innovators are tough people: they take big gambles, big risks to find that new frontier. They leap into the unknown and find new ground, just like Christopher Columbus, just like Manifest Destiny, when our explorers and settlers went West. This is American know-how, it’s pioneering and tough. It takes heart, it takes courage. [Digression: And American toughness is not a macho guy thing. I wish my mom was still around; now she was a tough one, a Scottish Highlander choosing America. But have you met Ivanka? She’s tough. A baleboste, that’s Yiddish for a homemaker who’s got it together, by the way, and an executive at the helm of our family business. A Highlander mom and a daughter who observes the Shabbes—only in America. Only in this great, awesome America]. It takes vision, and passion. This is how we build things, or used to. American Built, used to mean American Tough. And that is coming back, folks.

But let’s be honest. The old jobs aren’t coming back. 3D printing and robotics and new technological leaps in agriculture are going to fundamentally change the workforce. And not just here, but across the world. A factory with robots doing all the suing sewing of clothes and garments would make sweatshops in Thailand obsolete. It’s just cheaper to have robots do this than kids. Corporations, selfish corporations, will shutter up those factories. We will be talking, in 30 years time, of a Rust Belt across South East Asia and China. Artificial Intelligence may shut down the customer-service call centers in New Delhi and Bombay. Big changes are coming our way. So what are we going to do about it? Even if we renegotiate the hell out of TPP and come out with a good deal, would it matter much if the fundamentals of manufacturing and trade are about to change in a big way?

I want to make sure that we have Americans building and servicing those robots. I want Americans building those 3D printers. I want American trucks and American trains carrying those parts between American cities, cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland. I want American shipyards and docks choke-full of American-made goods, in places like Baltimore, that are ready for exportation to any market that appreciates them, and that appreciates them for being cheaper, and better made by American ingenuity and toughness. And I want it all powered by American fuel and energy that we produce right here in our country. And new technology helps us to make all this greener, all the better for our environment.

I don’t want to give our know-how to China. I don’t want them ripping off all our hard work and innovation. I don’t want to get them a blueprint, or a road map, for a short-cut. They want to have what we have? Then they should start by having a free society with free capital that nurtures the mavericks, that gives them that loan to try a crazy new idea that may just change the world. That is the America bequeathed to us by our ancestors, a great legacy of freedom, toughness, and innovation that, if used wisely, if harnessed with street smarts, will always beat the competition, will always generate wealth, will always bring us out on top.

The American mechanic is a hundred times better positioned to adapt to this new world of manufacturing. We just need to tweak the skill set a bit, but what the American worker bring to the game, the most important thing ever, is the work ethic, the drive, the passion, to make something of him or herself, to earn for our loved ones. To give them a fair shake at the next round, when a new generation goes up to bat on the playing fields of innovation and competition. Government should be focused like a laser on how to buff up our mechanics and workers on these new skills. We need to cut every red tape, throw out every dumb regulation, say ‘sayonara’ to every old playbook, just like we threw out the rotary phone and the telegram machine. If even I figured out to use Twitter, then we can all learn some new skills.

No folks, the old jobs are not coming back, but new ones are. And we have to fight for them like we have never fought for anything before. We have to keep them here, and it makes basic economic sense to keep them here. The experts, who have known one thing for forty years, are wrong about this. The era of globalization is shutting down not because we are closed-minded. The era of globalization is coming to an end because of all the breakthroughs in technology and manufacturing. We need to act quick. Throw out the old playbook. We can’t be tethered down by globalized trade deals of the past. The opportunity is right there for the taking. Let’s not hesitate. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that our competitors have our best interests at heart. Let’s go for it, America. It’s ours for the taking. Donald the Selfish? No, Donald the Selfish American. Let them boo me in Brussels. Let them jeer at me in Stockholm. Let the Chinese plutocrats fume from their ears. I don’t care. You know what’s music to my ears? American assembly lines coming back to life. Bye, bye globalization. Hello Americanism. When we say ‘America First!’ we are just acknowledging what is coming, folks. But we have to be smart, once we are in the lead again, once we are great again, we need to stay there.

And this brings me to immigration. Guess what’s going to happen when the cheap labor jobs of Asia and Latin America disappear while globalization recedes and reverses? There will be tens of millions of people clamoring to get into the United States, to follow the jobs that migrate back here, and to jostle their way to the new ones that the new manufacturing industry creates. Are we supposed to stand by and say, “Meh, it’s only fair. They lost their jobs so we have to open the flood gates and let them in?” Forget about the crime and the terrorism that might also come through, but how does it make economic sense not to get a handle on this situation? This is not a new problem. The experts had thirty years to come up with a viable solution. They didn’t fix it. Should we turn to the same experts for advice just as the problem gets worse when more and more foreigners want to get here as quickly and as easily as they can without standing in line like the rest of the legal immigrants? We need immigration, but just like everything else in this rapidly changing world, we need to be smart about it.

First, we need a simple, straightforward way to stop the problem from getting worse. That’s the wall I’ve been talking about. Once we have stopped the problem from growing, we need to get smart about reversing it. We need to be a teensy-bit selfish folks, because if we’re not, then we’re just being suckers. And it’s fine being a sucker if only you have to pay the cost. Unbridled illegal immigration makes us all pay that cost, a cost that will be deferred to future generations, even the future generations of those who came here illegally. Being a little selfish today is far more merciful than the harsher decisions future generations may be faced with. Let’s do the smart thing now, even if it’s unpopular. The media tells Hispanics that I am against them. That’s “insano”! Okay so I don’t speak Spanish like Tim Kaine does, but I do speak common sense, which is sentido común in Spanish. Common sense, sentido comun, see how similar that is? So here’s some sentido comun: which jobs do you think illegal immigrants are going to compete for? They will be competing for the same jobs that legal immigrants, who are getting started on their American life, will be trying to get. Is that fair? Is that good for Hispanics, who are overly represented in the kind of jobs that immigrants start out with? I can understand you want to get your brother or sister over here somehow, but how does that make sense when you don’t have a job to support your son or daughter who are already here?

When we talk about immigration from Latin America it is not, as my opponent would like to make it, and everything else, a racial argument. The assimilation of Latinos into our society is a cultural shift. And folks, I for one, think it is a beautiful thing to behold. This is a beautiful addition to our American tapestry. These are good people, who love their church, who love their saints, who love their families. They work hard, very hard. They bring spice and rhythm to America. Their food, their weddings, their music, their parades, their poetry, their literature. It’s gorgeous. And it makes sense for it to come here; we are so close geographically. And it can give us so much. Canada gives us maple syrup, and Celine Dion, but not much more. Latin America gives us tacos, salsa rhythms, great art, great movies, great novels, and great telenovelas. I’m not sure I should admit to liking telenovelas, but it’s great entertainment. I like the stories. The families. The drama. The passion. I catch an episode from time to time on TV, and I don’t even know the plot or the name of the series, but I just take in the passion. We are the richer for it, when it meshes organically with American culture. But not when it tries to supersede it.

America is the greatest human experiment. But it works and develops and moves forward when immigrants bring the best of their culture, and when they come here to escape the worst of their culture. Most Latino immigrants want New Mexico, the state, not old Mexico. They are escaping old Mexico. And Mexico is a beautiful country, with so much promise, so why would anyone want to leave it? Because there are problems, problems with how its corrupt politicians run things over there, problems with those murderous drug cartels, problems with race and the privilege of a few families with the right pedigrees, while America holds the promise of a new life, where you can bring the best of your culture, and escape the problems of the old country. That has been the basic premise of immigration since our founding, but somewhere along the way we veered away from it. When we think of immigration, we need to be thinking about this cultural shift, how we incorporate and adopt, all of us, the best of the potluck dinner of our ever-rejuvenating America.

Think of the food: we got pizza and lasagna from the Italians, we got gyros from the Greeks, we got pita bread from the Lebanese, Iranian kabobs, Chinese take-out and Thai curries, Ethiopian stews, Polish kielbasa, Indian and Pakistani food that sets your head on fire, Peruvian chicken, French deserts and Austrian torts; when America gathers over a table, we throw the most kick-ass picnic the world has even seen. You don’t have to pretend to like everything, but isn’t it wonderful to have all these options to choose from? Try out the options, what do you have to lose, and then stick with what you like. Kids, being kids, would probably throw a tantrum, seeing as they would prefer a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. When they grow up they will appreciate choices. It would be so boring if we limited our options to boiled potatoes and haggis, sauerkraut and schnitzel. Mom’s cooking is great, but won’t it be wonderful if all our moms, with recipes from grandmas who came from all over the world, got together and laid out one awesome, mouth-watering spread? Hey, and dads should be doing some cooking too, maybe they can take care of the grill, flip some burgers, or Trump steaks, and chop up some salads. Rinse the Tupperware later. It would be so boring if we all sat at separate tables, eating one kind of dish, listening to the same song over and over again. Come on over, bring your best, the best of your heritage, the best of your grandma’s recipes, put it on the table, choose the catchiest tune from your playlist, and let’s get together. But multi-culturalism will get a bad name if you huddle behind imaginary, ghetto walls, if you close yourself off. If you shun assimilation. If you recreate the old world in the new, with all its problems, with all its closed-mindedness and tribalism. American culture can take in everyone, but it needs to remain American so that it can keep taking in everyone. The way immigration has been handled, has not be wise, has not been smart, and has not been visionary. It is putting too much strain, too quickly, and it is causing resentment. We need to rethink our approach, so that Latino culture is seen for what it is, a beautiful addition, rather than how some think of it today, the bad with the good.

I’m from New York City, born and raised. New Yorkers are loud, brash, and sometimes they rub others the wrong way. We don’t mean it, it’s just our culture, it’s who we are. It is a great city. I love New York, so bite me. That’s sums up so much, doesn’t it? Feeling so much love while at the same time doing a “so whatcha gonna do about it” kind of thing. Hey, it’s what makes us unique, just like every part of this great country has that one special extra thing that makes it what it is, and I have been so privileged to experience all that uniqueness on this campaign, it’s gorgeous. New York City is a great city that took our nation’s tragedy 15 years ago, and showed the world that New York City is full of great people. Kind people. People who stand up for one another, who stand up next to each other in hard times. Where’s Rudy? There he is. He saw it. I saw it. New York City is the most diverse place on earth. Nothing like it. It is also the most prosperous place on earth. Somehow it works out. There is a deep wisdom in there if you go looking for it: that diversity, when done right, when done wisely, when acknowledged but not fetishized, can contribute to generating wealth and advancement. But when it isn’t managed well, then something goes terribly wrong. New York City took in everyone, but kept its identity. It kept its edge, its uniqueness. You can come from anywhere, and just feel the energy, and after 15 minutes of walking its streets, the energy turns you into a New Yorker. It’s a wonderful feeling. That magic is what we need when absorbing all these new cultures, and changing just a little in the process. But it’s magical in that even when we take all this in, we still recognize who we are. The same New York, just with a little more oomph, pizazz and color. That’s how it is supposed to work. I don’t think my opponent gets that about NYC; I think she just moved there, not for the energy, but because that’s where the big donors are. If you don’t understand the magic, you won’t understand how to manage these cultural shifts, in a smart way.

Take, for example, the controversy in France now, which is a country under siege by Islamism, over this who issue of the burkini. Do you know what I am talking about? A burkini is a full body covering that some observant Muslim women wear at French beaches. On the one hand, it could be an issue of choice. A woman should have the right to wear whatever she chooses. But on the other hand, you have this whole culture of honor, that a woman must be punished if she dresses in a certain way that her male relatives don’t like. Does she really have a choice then if she wears a burkini just so that she follows what her father or brothers or cousins tell her she must wear on the beach? Families have the right to raise their children in the manner that they like. They have the right to teach them about their culture and religion, and hope those children follow them. But where does one draw the line? When is freedom supposed to be just that, freedom? When is a kid supposed to learn that in a place like France, or even in the United States, that she has the freedom to break away from tradition if she chooses to do so, without being shamed, without bringing dishonor to her family? Which is more important? Family honor, by basically dictating male hegemony to women, or freedom? Our culture is about choice and freedom, for all, for men and woman. Any culture that has a problem with that needs to rethink itself, or reform itself. You want to be here? Fine, here are the ground rules. And that’s where France is having such a big problem. Immigrants are not respecting the ground rules. They may be physically there, on a French beach, but their mind is still back in the old country. Does that make sense? Is that feasible in the long term? Why invite these tensions, that increase the unhappiness of everyone involved, to our shores? I don’t think it is smart. I don’t think it will work out smoothly. You will have unhappy people, who don’t adjust well, and they may lash out against freedom and choice. Lashing out by taking a machine gun to a LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, or driving a truck through a crowd of families in southern France. These are the horrible outcomes of not managing immigration, and the assimilation of cultures, well. We need to fix it, wisely, rationally, humanely. But here is a preview of the Trump presidency: Aint’s no burkini on the Statue of Liberty, ain’t going to happen, not on my watch.

Can we talk a bit about race, folks? Because the experts in the media, and our culture ‘experts’ and critics, are obsessed by it, and to them, all this, all that this campaign is about, is a hidden conspiracy, what they call a dog whistle for white power. That would be just dumb, if it wasn’t so nefarious and self-serving for the establishment. Establishments don’t like change. They don’t like disruption. They are fine with how things stand. And they only allow you to rise through their hierarchy if you play by the rules they set. But change is coming, change in manufacturing and trade, change in how we judge expertise, change because we want answers for why things got so royally messed up by the royals of Martha’s Vineyard. And they are freaked out by it. So what do they do? They distract us by institutionalizing a national obsession with race and identity politics, the Politically Correct era as they call it. They want to keep it in place because it keeps the establishment in place. No, no more, and that’s why they are freaked out by me.

Here’s another thing that business teaches you: if you are going to be obsessed by race, then you are losing out on opportunity. Racism is dumb. It’s boring. It doesn’t make sense in business. Same goes for sexism. Because at the heart of every business opportunity is the talent that makes it happen. I’m not talking about Ivy League resumes and well-bred pedigrees. I am talking about raw talent, things like street smarts, talent that adapts and develops when given the opportunity to take advantage of an opportunity. Donald Trump doesn’t say something ridiculous like “I don’t see skin color”, but if skin color or your gender or your sexual orientation defines you then that bores me. It simply bores me.

The pundits, the professional pollsters, the politicians, they want to pigeon-hole you: they talk about the “African American voter bloc”, soccer-moms, whites with college degrees, people who live in the exurbs and the suburbs. What is this nonsense? They are reducing us to clichés, to mere statistics. They think we can’t think or feel for ourselves. They see us as herds—brown cows, white sheep, a gaggle of geese. It is your birthright as an American to be an individual. I want to meet the real you. I want you to shine through. The only color that really matters to me is the color of your passion, your aura, the fire in your belly, your drive to succeed. Show me your truest colors. Show me that you can reach out higher than everyone else. I don’t care if that hand is white, black or brown. A calloused hand or one with beautifully painted nails. That’s the hand that I will pull up. I’m not going to hold your hand and talk about your feelings. That’s not who I am. I’m not your nanny, your butler or your shrink. The establishment media is obsessed with big hands and small hands. I’m interested in hands that build things. Helping hands that pull others up. As president, my job is to hand you a wrench, a diploma, a soldering gun, if you’ve earned it. If you show me that you really, really want it. Show me the passion, show me why you want this, for yourself, for your loves ones, heck, even if your loved one is a cat. (There are these cat videos on the internet where they show my picture to a cat, and it freaks out. So funny, so cute. I think it’s my hair or something). Show me you want to earn, along with US citizenship, or a valid green card, or an employment visa, and I’m there for you. Cheering you along, believing in you, and doing my darndest to get the tools you need in hand to make it.

Some people say—oh, the pundits hate it when I say “some people say,” because I don’t play by their Duchess of Queensbury rules—so, here goes “some people say” that when I eat KFC then I am sending out a subtle racial message, another dog whistle. Isn’t this crazy? I mean, I just like KFC. It’s just fried chicken, folks, not a manifesto. What should a politician do, huh, alternate between KFC and Popeye’s? Maybe mix in some Korean fried chicken too? I’ve tried the other options, and I still like KFC. What’s with all this dumb PC pandering? You know what politicians do when they go pandering for votes in Philly? So there are two iconic cheesesteak places in Philadelphia; Pat’s and Geno’s. So politicians go there to show that they are normal people, but unlike normal people, they eat half a hoagie from Geno and half a hoagie from Pat’s, so that they don’t hurt the feelings of the fans of this one or that. Isn’t this crazy? Just pick a damn sandwich and eat it, already. Donald Trump loves KFC, so sue me!

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, or, maybe when we talk about the presidency, it isn’t. Remember cigars? Let’s not go there!

No, no. All kidding aside. I want to say something about the Clintons, and I know you all will start booing me. Wait for it. Wait for it: I secretly admire Bill and Hillary Clinton. I know, I know. Just hear me out. Sure, we have this big bout going on, me saying things, she’s saying things, and it’s all just like the wrestling, like the WWF, and here is something else the expert class get wrong: they look down at wrestling and its fans, but what they don’t understand is that at the end of a hard day’s work, and annoying bosses, like me, and screaming kids, folks just want to sit back and enjoy a good story, some good entertainment, and I’ve been trying to keep it entertaining for you, folks, haven’t I? And the smarty-pant jabronis in the media keep taking the bait! Every time, every time. It’s so funny, so funny.

But here’s what I like about Bill and Hillary. Their tenacity. Both of them shoveled so much—excuse my language, crap—to get ahead. They paid their dues. Coming with the odds against them, they made it, and they made it big. I like that in people, only problem is, the trenches they fought in are really, really dirty. Politics, and what big money from billionaires—hey, I know this world—have really made it dirty. And you can’t get ahead without getting a little crooked. Sure, you keep telling yourself, “only this one time”, that you’ll compromise your principles, so that in the end, you get to exercise your principles. But what happens in a crooked and rigged system, this establishment we all keep fuming about, is that you lose bits and pieces of your soul, and you don’t realize it. You keep telling yourself, you are the same idealist, the same person who started out, but the rot is just too deep. It’s a tragic story, if you think about it. Before you know it, you don’t think twice about donating all your charity to the Clinton Foundation, and using the foundation for doling out political patronage. Bad form, Bill and Hillary, bad form. It’s as if I ask for a tax cut because I took cash out of my right pocket and put it into my left pocket, and then used that cash to buy an ice cream for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Not good, not good. But that’s what politics as it is being practiced today does to you, and those doing it for fifty years, well, that’s what happens to them. Now, let me be clear, not all politicians are crooked. Some manage somehow to keep their souls intact.

Look at Bernie Sanders, a true believer. Believe me, I truly admire this guy. I disagree with much of what he stands for, after all, I am no socialist, but both me and him agree on something like the TPP. He’s an honorable dude, a revolutionary. You can just watch him speak and get that feeling—and here’s a thing about the media, they tried to paint him as ‘angry’ which is how they try to paint me and the crowds like you that come out to these rallies, and they’re so wrong, so wrong. Bernie wasn’t angry. I’m not speaking from anger. You are not coming from anger. We are passionate people. We care. We care deeply and passionately. This electric energy we’re all feeling, this is not anger or wrath or hatred; this is passion, a passion for justice, a passion for America. The snobs think that, being pro-America, is passé, old-fashioned, retro, and that we should all be citizens of the world now. “Globalized citizens”, sounds like an army of robots and drones to me. No. No. No. My heart still beats to an American drum. Passion. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about—I wish I was running against him, against Bernie, to be honest. I wish I had the chance to debate him. Two passionate people going at it, fighting the good fight.

And I’ve met others who are also good people that somehow managed to stay clean even though the establishment never liked them, or tried to break them. Mike Pence, my running mate, is a stand-up guy. A family man, a man of vision, a politician who stands by his ideals. We may disagree a bit here and there, but it’s so nice disagreeing with honorable people, people who really believe in ideas and values. But sadly, the establishment machine finally broke Bernie’s back. Sad, so sad. Hillary shoveled so much, so much, but that back breaking shoveling did something to the metal in her spine. The crooked establishment had her doing all sorts of contortions so that she would fit in. It’s sad. So sad. I’m not saying she’s not tough. She’s surely one tough lady, maybe one of the toughest. Tough but bent. Crooked Hillary. But you’ve got to admire that they made hundreds of million of dollars, just for giving speeches. They didn’t build anything. They didn’t make anything. They just talked and talked, and ran out the meter. It’s such a devious trick. You don’t have to respect it, but you can still admire it as a gimmick. And you know, in 2008, when she started losing the primaries, I felt so bad for her. She paid her dues, and it was her moment, that was supposed to be her time, eight years ago, but the media and the establishment thought otherwise, they saw this handsome, stylish guy, and they decided to turn on Hillary. They savaged her, I mean they savaged her, just so that their guy gets through. Remember how condescending it was, “You’re likeable enough Hillary.” Not fair, not fair.

You know who I don’t admire: Barack Obama. And no, it’s not about race. The doors just magically opened up to him. They rolled out the red carpet. He arrived just at the right moment, and people, the media especially, projected all sorts of dreams and aspirations onto him. He had the look, the costume, and the media provided the story and the script. Heck they even gave him a Nobel Peace Prize before he did anything! Nothing, absolutely, nothing. Give me a break! Nelson Mandela was locked up for 27 years in a prison cell, a prison cell, for 27 years, before he got his Nobel Peace Prize. What was it, Obama spent 27 days, days, in the Oval Office before he got nominated for it? Oh, please! It came too easy for him. Too easy. Not fair, not fair. People started imagining him to be the Redeemer, the Messiah, who will fix everything, everything. At long last, America is getting Mr. Smarty-Pants as president. And you know what really makes me uncomfortable, he played along to these hopes. He fanned them. He didn’t temper down expectations. He played, cynically, the role the media assigned to him. He didn’t respect Hillary’s hard work, the dues she paid while shoveling through the dirt of politics. At least pay her some respect from one politician to another. No. He just glided right by, as if walking on water. And I have to say, our folks on the right took the bait too, and they turned him, and the presidency, into this world altering, reality altering moment, as if the gates of Hell were opening. Let’s tamp it down folks, after all, Obama has also been a big disappointment, as an Anti-Christ. You know what I’m saying? He’s just a guy running for office. One guy isn’t going to change the human condition. One guy isn’t going to do miracles, if you need to pledge allegiance to such a guy, well you had one some 2000 years ago in Jerusalem.

The stars aligned for one black guy, and the media told us the stars will shine on all black people. I understand their pride in having Obama there in the White House, believe me I do, but things aren’t great for black people out there. Electing Obama twice did not take away all the hurt, the pain, and the disadvantages that black people face. We have to be sympathetic. Sympathetic. And we have to help them, but not as black people, we will help them because they are our fellow Americans. Why work hard, why dream big, why should you exert yourself if the system is rigged? And it is. They know it. We need to change that. The best deal for black people is that they get treated right, and equally, as everyone else. That’s the deal that I can get them. A real deal, not photo-ops and pretty words. Treated by the government equally, fairly. To do that, we must really make opportunity available for every American. Not by PC pandering. Not by over-promising. Not by institutionalizing an obsession with race and identity.

Let’s bring back the presidency from the heavens down to the nitty gritty earth. Let’s not try to reset history every four years. It’s too much. Too much to expect. Let’s set a reasonable goal that we can achieve, and let’s be realistic. Sure, it would be great for us to make history, again, by electing Hillary, as America’s first robot president. Malfunction, short-circuit, malfunction! But let’s put the joking aside. It happens that being realistic now, with this really accessible goal that is within reach, being realistic now, and electing a realistic president who can take realistic steps to fully take advantage of the opportunity.

It’s easy for the expert class to be cosmopolitan and pretend that they don’t see skin color. It’s easy when all of them went to the same top schools, benefitted from the same rigged system, wear the same high end clothes and summer in Martha’s Vineyard. Folks, I know this world, and I know this rigged system. I figured out how to hack into it. I had better preparation than most. I know that. I appreciate that. But now once I’m on top, I don’t feel so good about it. It’s basically unfair. My children and grandchildren are going to do well in this rigged, closed establishment. They got a head start just like I did. But do I really want them to be the kind of people who belong this establishment, to this exclusive club, who would protect their exalted status at all cost, employing all sorts of tricks and media manipulation to keep it going? And does it really have to stay that way? I mean, there’s a technological revolution coming, and if we, as a country, as a nation, play it smart, and play it quick, then we can carry up so many, believe me, so many, of the hands that reach out. The opportunity is there. My life as a businessman prepared me for this very opportunity. That’s what my campaign, my vision, is all about. Sorry I ain’t got no pretty words for you. Sorry I don’t have any soaring sermons to read off a teleprompter that would make you feel good, for a couple of hours, but keep you poor and struggling for a lifetime when matched up against a rigged system. Sorry the establishment doesn’t like me or sing my praises, which creates an echo chamber, a herd mentality that stampedes to the polls. It’s not going to be easy to vote me. You’re going to have to break away with all that you’ve been told about what a proper politician is supposed to be. You are going to have to imagine what the next fifty years of America are going to look like. You are going to have to think about what a technological revolution in manufacturing is going to do trade and globalization, or rather, to de-globalization.

The establishment has been telling us that running for the presidency should be like winning a spelling bee contest. There is an assigned check-list of degrees achieved, jobs held, contacts made, interest groups to pander to, and bits of your soul gradually mortgaged off in order to qualify for president. I don’t know the name of the capital city of Burkina Faso off of the top of my head. So, sue me. But here is what I can do for you: I can maximize America’s advantage during this exciting time of innovation and change. I see the trends, and I know what to do about them. And believe me, being able to spell complicated words, and citing obscure world capitals, is no preparation for the task at hand.

Which brings me to national security. The establishment has run national security the same way for the last sixty years. Sometimes it worked out well for us, and sometimes it didn’t. But does the old way of doing things really help to manage American strength and prosperity as the world undergoes profound and systematic changes? If de-globalization is the way of the future, then should we keep the same matrix of alliances and arrangements that made sense during the era of globalization? Why should the regular American have to pay to maintain the territorial integrity of some far away country when that really doesn’t add value to his or her bottom line? The high priests of the foreign policy establishment chime in to say we need to keep doing things as they are because of American values. What they don’t tell us is that if we do things differently then many of those establishment gurus may be out of a job. Now listen, I’m not out to embarrass and punish the DC establishment. But I think it is high time to ask them some tough questions. Let’s take the example of the Middle East, which is now giving Western civilization a massive headache, and yes, emerging as a serious, existential threat. I want to know why the experts got all the following things basically wrong, why they failed to see them coming over the span of almost forty years: the failure to predict the Iranian Revolution; the failure to anticipate what Khomeini is planning; the failure to predict resurgent Islamism; the failure to arrive at a practical peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the failure to foresee Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait; the failure to understand with the consequences of leaving him in power; the failure to predict the insurgency in Iraq; the failure to anticipate the Arab Spring; the failure to anticipate the far reach of Islamic jihadism into Syria, and beyond.

Don’t they owe us some answers? Instead of admitting their mistakes, and owning up to them, they are busy writing letters and Op-Eds saying that I am unprepared and unfit to be president. Are you kidding me? Are these the same people who have made such a mess of things? And folks, it seems that the mediocrity and dysfunction of the DC elite is a bipartisan affair. Thank God they have finally found some common ground: being in the wrong, and being anti-Trump. I guess I am a uniter after all.

But I’m not going to go all Genghis Khan on them and unleash my Mongols on their ivory citadels. I am going to treat them with a lot of respect, more respect than what President Obama had to say about them. Remember when he said he feels contempt and disdain for the foreign policy establishment? Remember when Obama’s Mini-Me, Ben Rhodes, called them ‘The Blob’ and included Hillary Clinton as one of the top figures of The Blob? It’s amazing isn’t it folks? One day the White House calls her a member of ‘The Blob’, on the record, and then at the convention Obama and Hillary are standing there as if they are the best of friends. What people would do for power! I’m not going to do any of that. I am going to respectfully sit down with them and ask: “Tell me why you got it wrong.” And if I sense that all they’ve got is ‘BS’—believe me, in business, you really have to spot BS in order to succeed—then I will respectfully say: “You’re fired.”

I will then go looking for all the mavericks, all the dissenters, all those who expressed the minority opinion. All those who were ejected from the ranks of the establishment because they warned that the high priests were reading world events and world trends wrong, and I would hire them back. They will be vindicated, and they will be given the opportunity to get things right for a change.

And I need the mavericks on my team. We all need them in Washington. Because they will be the ones who will pick up on the implications of De-Globalization faster than anyone else, and they are the ones who can figure out how to make Americanism come out on top.

They are the ones to whom I will direct questions like: What does it mean for our Middle East policy if we are energy sufficient? If maritime trade routes shift? What does our Navy need to be at its best in this scenario? What does our Airforce need? Our Army and Marines?

See, once we get American prosperity up and running again, we need to make very sure that no rogue actors try to come here to disrupt what we have going. We need to make sure that no one dares to steal our innovations. The world that competes with us, or seeks to harm us, should know this about a President Trump: you touch a hair on our heads, even if its funny hair like mine, and I take an arm. And our armed forces will be always at the ready, and never over-extended with dumb wars and defunct alliances, to take that arm when given the order. We are not coming over there to do nation-building and hand-holding and gather around in sing-alongs; if you can’t take care of whatever extremist crazies spring up among you—believe me—we will smack them down, and we won’t look back.

Our responsibility as Americans is to keep making our America better. We will keep making America fairer, stronger, smarter and safer. If the rest of the world wants to be inspired by our example, then that’s great. They can learn from American values and try to make their own countries and societies fairer, stronger, smarter and safer. America is the greatest human experiment in governance and managing diversity and hopes and aspirations. Ever. The greatest ever. But its fruits belongs to the American stakeholder, who works hard to make it better and better, and greater and greater. We have to tend our orchard, because it’s ours. Because this is how we will feed our children and grandchildren. We are under no compunction to share these fruits with the rest of the world, especially since we have Americans right here in America who still feel that they haven’t gotten their fair share. We can’t afford to fix up the rest of the world when it really doesn’t help us to fix up our own country. I wish we could afford it, I wish it was all about “it takes a village”, but the real world isn’t really like that. We will do our best to make America really awesome, and we wish the rest of the planet all the success as they do the same for their own backyards.

And that’s why we say: Making America, America, America, America, Great Again!

And that’s my promise to you: I’ll be selfish, but selfish for America.

Globalization vs. Regionalization

T.X. Hammes, of the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University, just did something spectacular: he has provided us with an intellectual ‘algorithm’ for understanding multiple global trends; the ‘Donald Trump’ phenomenon, Brexit, the slowdown of energy markets, China’s production woes and its perceived ‘regional’ belligerence, the gradual irrelevance of the Western foreign policy elite, and the future of jihadism.

In an article titled ‘The End of Globalization?’ (War on the Rocks blog, August 2, 2016), itself derived from a long paper published by NDU (‘Will Technological Convergence Reverse Globalization?’ July 2016), Hammes’ revelatory thesis suggests that manufacturing is about to undertake a technological leap, one that will leave ‘rust belts’ across China, among other places.

A review of the author’s biography suggests a long track record of mischievous free thinking. I, for one, find his latest argument compelling, and convincing. It suddenly tied together many trends that I had been looking at, especially as they relate to the Middle East. If it turns out that he is right in describing this harbinger of massive change—a disruption of global trade patterns half a century in the making—then we need to think through its implications for specific locales such as Eurasia, of which the Middle East is a component.

end of globalization pic

But before we do that, I would just like to say that Donald Trump is, maybe unwittingly, the truest validation of Hammes’ line of thinking. Irrespective of what one thinks of the candidate, somethings he said over the past year must have resonated with voters. Trump’s brand of rethinking global trade and military alliances, protectionism, isolationism, and nativism, actually complements the patterns that Hammes is describing, and does so positively for the American stakeholder—voters may sense these patterns without fully understanding them (…so too with a candidate). And it may be his best defense against the charge of being less prepared for office than his challenger, Hillary Clinton. After all, how prepared can one be if one’s expertise is based on old norms that are breaking apart? I don’t know how Trump arrived at his message, but he may argue that his background in business has prepared him to spot big changes as they begin, and to adapt quickly to them for gain and leverage.

This suggests that the message espoused by Trump is only the beginning of a wider trend. It also suggests that a status quo candidate like Clinton—touting her true and tested steady hand at the helm—may not have much success in keeping the status quo afloat. The foreign policy establishment, whose consensus usually leans to the status quo, may diminish further as their policy prescriptions continue to falter in the face of a fast changing global reality, and a public that is less convinced that it should pay for such policies.

That American conversation, reflected in the worldviews of Trump and Clinton, will have a tremendous impact on the Middle East. In fact, it is likely to entrench what President Obama began, yet for a different set of motivations: disentangling the United States from the future of the region because the region is on fire.

The Middle East in the Era of De-Globalization

Last month, I described the multiple trends currently at play in the region, and why they contributed to Obama’s decision to back away from the ‘fire pit.’ I was hoping for a new conversation among the foreign policy elite as to what American retrenchment may mean in the medium to long terms, and what can be done within the confines of a contracted bandwidth of attention that a new administration may have for the Middle East as a whole.

Now, let’s imagine that Hammes is right, and ask ourselves, ‘What will the Middle East look like in thirty years?’

Globalization would have come and gone, with the Middle East, generally speaking, only contributing very little to world trade: primarily energy commodities, and maritime accessibility.

Hammes suggests that both energy and shipping are going to change drastically. For twenty years, commodity markets have been trying to figure out how to replenish China so that its workers can make stuff. Let’s imagine that Chinese, and more broadly South East Asian and South Asian, manufacturing and services output, per its current numbers, halves. What happens then? Does this mean they need half the amount of oil they currently use? Half the ships that set out to sail through the Suez Canal?

This is simplistic, I know. But whatever the numbers and dynamics turn out to be, then de-globalization would mean more scarcity in the Middle East, just at a time when huge numbers would be joining the work force. A work force that for the most part did not accrue the skill sets of globalization, and is consequently even less prepared for a transition to a new global trade paradigm. As Trump would say: ‘Not good’.

Middle Eastern strategists should also consider the fact that the story of an ‘emerging’ China is only forty years old. Two hundred years previous to that, China’s story was one cycle after another of hair-raising disorder, and much human suffering and loss. India’s success story, too, is very recent, and history tells us that its past challenges may still have the potential to hobble it. Therefore, the Middle East cannot afford to look East for creative, post-globalist ‘solutions’.

Actually, less ‘globalist’ penetration in Eurasia may turn out to be a good thing, compared to what China and India may experience after the old order they were so heavily invested in withers away.

The Middle East can’t look West either, though, not with the United States receding behind 3-D printer-built walls, and a Europe increasingly wary of its close proximity to the ‘fire pit’ and adopting many of the inclinations of an isolationist America.

So, what can the Middle East make, what can it contribute, to a world economy that is no longer ‘worldly’? How will it divert its current crop of youth, and the bigger one to follow, to constructive, ‘stable’ pursuits?

I have so many scenarios running through my mind now (thank you, Hammes, for scaring me even more) but I will keep it brief.

The Middle East needs to append itself to a market that is less likely to break down as an after-effect of globalization, and one that can actually be integrated geographically and culturally. Let’s call it ‘regionalization’, and let’s curtail its bounds to Eurasia; being the land mass that incorporates the Middle East, Central Asia, the less ‘European’ parts of Eastern Europe, and Russia. For a variety of reasons, that few in the region will be much happy about, Russia will probably act as the hegemon.

I don’t know whether Russia wants to play this role. But the yearning for empire may come on the cheap in this case: there’s just a void to fill, and not many options left for those left behind after the reversal or even demise of globalization.

Sure, some ‘globalizing’ trade functions will persist even in the worst-case scenario: Israel and probably a few city-states, across Eurasia and in the Persian Gulf and Anatolia especially, may form a globalized archipelago in the ocean of data, providing refuge for programmers escaping the fire pit who may still be of use to software and technical development. But the rest of the land mass has very few options. Western technology may turn nativist too, with copyright access to it curtailed. So one should not expect a flowering of home-grown technological ‘relevance’. The best that can be hoped for is that tomatoes grown in Anatolia, using what may become increasingly defunct agricultural methods, would be available for sale in St. Petersburg.

Then again, technological breakthroughs could empower and enable the types of revolutionaries that thrive during troubled and changing times: jihadists could print out a future aerial drone prototype that takes down an F-16. What will we do then? How much can Russia do?

Russia may try to manage its new Eurasian sphere of influence by cobbling together an alliance of minorities. Or, it could push for a rapprochement with Sunni Islam that inoculates it from its own ‘troubling’ demographics (think migrant Tajiks, and native Tatars and Daghestanis). I don’t know how Iran would take to take. Either way, the bill could be too high for a worn-out Russia, and it too may turn nativist and closed.

But if Russia chooses to engage and ‘expand’, maybe some weird, hybrid Islamic-Russian Orthodox culture will emerge from this interplay. Unfortunately, autocratic models of rule may resonate.

And since so much fossil fuel energy is produced in Eurasia, maybe a new ‘OPEC’-like body will arise to coordinate internal competition.

Or maybe Syria and Iraq would confederate to protect themselves from other ‘toughs’ in the neighborhood, and figure out a way to protect pluralistic, somewhat free political models that would necessary emerge to manage a tense communal peace after years of strife. [Yeah, I hear you cynics out there with your “dream on” repartees!]

There is so much to consider. But the elite of the region need to think through what’s coming if Hammes is onto something. Or, alternatively, they can hop onto the last boats towards Canadian nationality before the barriers harden.

Alas, this sort of a conversation is difficult to imagine in Washington. There is even a reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of the changes that Obama had begun with regard to America’s relationship to the Middle East (see my aforementioned essay, ‘Managing the Fire Pit’). The DC foreign policy establishment is understandably beholden to the ‘old gods’. To think that they will be replaced soon by a new set of idols, rapidly churned out by 3D printers, is too jarring of a thought if all one has done for decades is to look at the world from a particular, cushioned perch.

I’m neither a pessimist or an optimist when it comes to futurism. I believe that human irrationality will always play a big role in disrupting best-laid plans, or mucking up the best-designed means of production. [For example, are jihadists simply going to let a self-segregating West ‘be’ without trying to prove something by hitting at it?]. But what Hammes is talking about makes a lot of sense, and whereas consumer spending habits can be marvelously irrational, manufacturing and investment are less so. Adaptive businessmen will look at their numbers and their options to propel the trends that Hammes describes. We saw what the internet did over the last 15 years. Leaps in manufacturing make plenty of sense, and so do their foreseeable implications.

That said, I better start learning Russian. Da?

The Origins of the PMUs

The head of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Ameri, revealed a known secret a few days ago: the formation of the Popular Mobilization Units (aka al-hashd al-sha’abi, or sometimes ‘the Shia militias’) began several months ahead of Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s momentous fatwa on June 13, 2014 following the fall of Mosul. Ameri ‘corrected’ the record during a meeting between senior PMU leaders and Maliki on June 28. Here is what Ameri said:

Why is this important?

It’s important for two reasons:

-The weaknesses of the Iraqi Army were known to the Iraqi leadership months ahead of the debacle at Mosul. No tangible steps were taken to structurally address such concerns. The decision taken at the time was to build out new auxiliary forces, hence the PMUs. We have the minutes of the April 7, 2014 National Alliance (Shia bloc) meeting during which Maliki reveals all this (see below). I received the minutes of the meeting a few days afterwards. I proceeded to look into what it revealed at the time. The anecdotal evidence that I could gather then was that the idea was first proposed and acted upon by General Qasim Suleimani.

-The weaknesses of the Iraqi Army were known to the Obama administration. By April 2014, there were already + 40 US military officers embedded at various ISF command centers as ‘liaisons’ attached to the US Embassy in Baghdad. When President Obama announced his intention to send more US advisors to Iraq in August 2014, he carefully couched his words so as to suggest that the effort was a continuation of an existing program that was already underway. To my knowledge, I haven’t seen a press report that explored the experiences of that program prior to Mosul, and whether those officers on the ground anticipated the impending collapse.

Four more things:

-By mid-April, Qasim Suleimani’s efforts to create a new auxiliary force was already entering the ‘branding’ phase. Initially, the proto-PMUs were supposed to be called saraya al-difa’a al-sha’abi (‘Popular Defense Brigades’). This was supposed to be their logo (…familiar to that of Lebanese Hezbollah’s):

saraya aldifaa

-There may be some evidence that the US government had an early relationship with at least one PMU that was close to Suleimani, an organization that was cultivated and propped-up by his adjunct Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. That PMU is Jund al-Imam. See below for notes on this organization and the possible coordination it had with US forces. The Wall Street Journal once described it (during the Tikrit operation) as “US-backed”.

-In the April 7, 2014 meeting, Maliki claims that the Americans “lied” about their armament commitments. I have seen a letter addressed to Maliki, dated April 15, 2014, from the overseer of the US weapons delivery program to Iraq. It seems to be a direct response to Maliki’s claim. It began with “We have provided you with all that you have asked for.” Again, the significance of this letter is in the clarity that was available to the US administration as to the actual conditions on the ground at the time. Very little has been written about the discussions that were occurring in DC about the situation in Iraq then. President Obama had made the jayvee analogy to David Remnick a few months earlier. It is unclear whether he amended his impression based on the escalating situation in Iraq and what US advisors on the ground were reporting back to Washington. Drone strikes were being conducted from airbases in Jordan. Clearly, there was far more direct engagement and its consequent ability to judge the potential for a wider conflict than what the administration had suggested up to this date.

-The sequence of events with Ameri praising Maliki and giving him credit for the formation of the PMUs, while Suleimani is photographed having iftar at Maliki’s home two days later, are not occurring in a vacuum. This is coming at a time when Maliki’s chances for a political comeback, in whatever form, look far better today than they did three months ago.


Translated highlights from the April 7, 2014 minutes. The meeting was primarily concerned with the actions taken by ISIS in Fallouja, such as flooding the surrounding countryside. Maliki says:

“There is a real and clear security danger that threatens the country and I have told you more than a year ago that the situation is dangerous.”

“There is a Sunni Arab-Turkish axis and a sectarian alignment against us in the Shia-Iranian axis.”

“Syria is the barrier; if it breaks then the water will [flood] us.”

“I have spoken to the Iranians and the Lebanese about this matter and they are better than us since they are strategic and they went down to the field in Syria publically and if it hadn’t been for their position, and ours, then there would not have been a Syria today.”

“Unfortunately we neglected Bahrain and were distracted by partial details among ourselves when we ought to have formed a regional Shia council to face the aggression being [waged] against us by others.”

“I have spoken to the Americans in all candor and told them to stop this Sunni Arab-Turkish axis or else there will be an Iranian-Shia axis confronting it but regrettably they couldn’t.”

“Our army cannot be counted on since it is a combination of Sunnis and Shias and Kurds. Some Sunnis are unconvinced, while some Shias are there for the salary, and it is an army that has not waged such battles before and its armaments are basic compared to that of [ISIS]…”

“We have sought these days to rely on ‘Sons of Iraq’ groups [composed] of the mujaheddin and we have formed 20 groups in the environs of Baghdad so far and we are continuing to do so in Hilla and Balad and Dujail by forming such groups because they are better than the army and can fight guerrilla wars and we shall form also in Karbala.”

Arabic text of minutes:

الرسالة خاصة :
اجتماع التحالف 7 /4 /2014
بحضور جميع قوى التحالف الوطني
الموضوع / الاوضاع الامنية
تحدث رئيس الوزراء في بدية الاجتماع واشار لما يلي :
1- هناك خطر امني حقيقي وواضح يهدد البلد وقد ابلغتكم قبل اكثر من سنه ان القضية خطيرة .
2- هناك محور سني عربي تركي واصطفاف طائفي واضح ضدنا نحن المحور الشيعي الايراني
3- سوريا هي الحاجز اذا انكسر سوف يصل الماء الينا .
4- تحدثت مع الايرانيين واللبنانيين حول الامر وهم افضل منا باعتبارهم استراتيجيين نزلوا الى الميدان في سوريا بشكل علني ولولا موقفهم وموقفنا لما كان هناك سوريا اليوم
4- للاسف تركنا البحرين وانشغلنا بتفاصيل جزئية فيما بيننا وكان من المفترض ان نشكل مجلس شيعي اقليمي لمواجهة العدوان علينا من قبل الاخرين
5- تحدثت مع الامريكان بكل صراحة وقلت اوقفوا هذا المحور السني العربي التركي والا سوف يكون قباله المحور الشيعي الايراني ولكنهم للاسف لم يستطيعوا
6-اراد السنه في الانبار ان يوسعوا من حركتهم بذريعة الاعتصامات وتفاعل معهم البعض ولكننا منعناهم من ان يصلوا الى بغداد وفرقناهم في الانبار وحصل الذي حصل ونحن اليوم نواجه داعش بكل امكاناتها وتسليحها المتطور .
ومجددا اليوم احذر واقول ان القضية لم تنتهي والمعركة طويلة وسوف تطول اكثر
7- نعمل على تحصين بغداد وديالى ولكن اقول ان الوضع مقلق لان اطراف بغداد عادت حواضن للارهاببين منها ينطلقون
8- الامريكان لم يفوا بوعودهم بخصوص التسليح والروس كذلك عتاد الدبابات الذي اشتريناه من امريكا تبين مداه 600 متر فقط وكان المفروض ان يكون اكثر من 10 كم
9- جيشنا لا يمكن الاعتماد عليه كونه خليط من السنه والشيعة والاكراد قسم السنه غير مقتنع وقسم من الشيعة جاي من اجل الراتب وهو جيش لم يخوض هكذا معارك من قبل وتسليحه بسيط مقارنة بتسليح داعش وحتى الطيران الذي لدينا امكاناته بسيطة ولا يستطيع ان يضرب الا من ارتفاع 1000 متر لعدم توفر الاجهزة وداعش لديهم صواريخ ضد الطائرات
10- توجهنا في هذه الايام للاعتماد على مجاميع ابناء العراق من المجاهدين وشكلنا 20 مجموعة في اطراف بغداد الى الان ونحن مستمرون في الحلة وبلد والدجيل بتشكيل مثل هذه المجاميع لانها افضل من الجيش تجيد حرب العصابات وسوف نشكل ايضا في كربلاء .
11- تقارير الضباط لا يمكن الاعتماد عليها لانهم يكذبون وليس لدينا خزين من الضباط هذا واقعنا الذي نتعامل معه .
12- قيام داعش مؤخرا بقطع مياه الفرات

من خلال سدة الفلوجة امامنا عدة خيارات اما ان ندخل للفلوجة وهذا فيه تداعيات كبيرة او نفتح سد حديثة مما سيؤدي الى غرق الفلوجة واجبار الارهابيين على فتح السدة او نقوم بضرب السدة بصواريخ وقد جربنا ضربها باربع صواريخ ولكنها لم تؤثر فيها ونحن نفكر بضرب السدة الترابية في الفلوجة ولكن ليس لدينا السلاح المناسب لذلك .
13- قمة النجاح الذي حققناه في الانبار والفلوجة اننا اوقفنا التداعي في الجيش .
المناقشات :
حصل بعض الاستفسارات والاسئلة عن اوضاع مناطق بغداد وحماية الجسور ومخازن العتاد واقتراحات بشراء سلاح من دول اخرى وتحدث امير الكناني عن ضرورة الحسم في العمليات لان الاطالة سوف تستنزف الدولة وامكاناتها
وتحدث ابوجهاد في قضية سدة الفلوجة واكد على خيار ضرب السدة الترابية اولا واطلاق تحذيرات من اننا مضطرون لذلك لالقاء الحجة واستنفاذ العذر من دون اللجوء الان للخيارين الاخرين وان القضية ليست فوتيه لان الفرات فيه مياه كافية الان
السيد الجعفري اكد ان رئيس الوزراء ابلغه سابقا ان العمليات امدها متوسط وتحتاج الى اسابيع ولكن الظاهر ان الامر تطور بحيث يحتاج الى مدة طويلة كما يقول رئيس الوزراء
دكتور خضير اكد على حماية الجسور ومخازن الاعتدة
علق رئيس الوزراء على عملية الحسم قائلا ليس لدينا قدرة على الحسم لنقص السلاح واوضاع الجيش ولا نريد خسران السنة الذين معنا كما ان استخدام القوى المفرطة غير صحيح ولو كنا نستطيع على الحسم لما انتظرنا .
انتهى الاجتماع بالتعامل بالخيار الذي اكد عليه ممثل المجلس الاعلى والتاكيد على ضرورة حماية العاصمة بغداد وباصدار بيان اكد على دعم القوى الامنية في حربها ضد الارهاب وادانه العمل الجبان للارهابيين بقطع المياه والتاكيد على اللحمة الوطنية .



-Headed by Ahmad Jasim Sabir al-Asadi (AKA Abu Ja’afar al-Asadi, b. 1971, Australian citizen). Official spokesman of the PMUs.

-Org first established by Mehdi Abdul-Mehdi al-Khalisi (AKA Abu Zainab al-Khalisi) in Iran in the early 1980s.

-Al-Khalisi was one of the founding members of Badr Corps; he is credited by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis with the idea of the creation of Badr. Al-Muhandis headed Badr in the mid-1980s until shortly before 2003. The US military arrested al-Khalisi in 2003 and released him in 2005. He died shortly afterwards; his lieutenants claim that the Americans injected him with cancer. They also assert that cadres of Jund al-Imam were targeted for assassination by the Americans.

-Al-Asadi becomes general secretary of Jund al-Imam in 2009.

-In May 2015, al-Asadi was in the United States, ostensibly attending an event to raise money for the PMUs in Michigan organized by the US-Iraqi Youth Institute. I believe he was also in Washington for talks. No evidence.

-Jund al-Imam was tasked and bankrolled by Maliki to mobilize a militia in early 2014, ahead of Mosul and Sistani’s fatwa. Al-Asadi had asserted that in a TV interview that was aired a year ago.

-Al-Asadi was a candidate for parliament on Maliki’s slate in 2010 and 2014. When Abadi was picked as PM, he took over the latter’s parliamentary seat. Abadi insisted that al-Asadi become spokesman of the PMUs.

-Jund al-Imam claims that they have thousands of fighters that constitute the 6th and 15th brigades of the PMUs. They take credit for destroying Saddam’s tomb in Auja, Tikrit, as well as securing the Speicher Air Base, which they have renamed Abu Zainab al-Khalisi Air Base. One credible source claims that they are responsible for burning down Albu Ajeel village to the east of Tikrit.

-There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Jund al-Imam receives special attention and support from Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

-At the time of the Tikrit operation, the WSJ described Jund al-Imam as “US-backed”. See here and here.

-A member of Jund al-Imam (Kadhim al-Battat) attended the INC’s NYC meeting in Oct 1999, and then testified before the US Congress. Another, Kareem Mahoud al-Muhammadawi (‘Abu Hatem’), was a member of the Governing Council under Bremer. I don’t know what is the nature of al-Battat’s and al-Muhammadawi’s relationship to the organization now.

The following link from my Arabic blog has some pictures of al-Asadi in the US, as well as pictures taken alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Managing the Fire Pit

Towards a new American approach to the Middle East after the Obama years

An open letter to my fellow interpreters of the Middle East in America, but also an essay in honor of three personal mentors: Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami and Ahmad Chalabi

The rise of the Islamic State deepened Obama’s conviction that the Middle East could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come. –Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘The Obama Doctrine’, The Atlantic, April 2016

“Yeah, I admit very much to that reality,” [Rhodes] says. “There’s a numbing element to Syria in particular. But I will tell you this,” he continues. “I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we’re there—nearly a decade in Iraq.” Iraq is his one-word answer to any and all criticism. –David Samuels, ‘The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru’, The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016

Even after the extremists are defeated in Iraq and Syria, the problem will persist. “We’ll be in a perpetual state of suppression for a long time,” [Clapper] warned. –David Ignatius, ‘‘The U.S. can’t fix it’: James Clapper on America’s role in the Middle East’, The Washington Post, May 10, 2016

I wonder how many stopped reading after seeing the names Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi above? I wonder, too, how many will continue reading out of sheer antipathy towards the trio, to mine this essay for new ‘evidence’ of a misguided and discredited legacy? And that, right there, is a troubling symptom of the long-standing Manichean conversation in America about what to do in the Middle East.

For those who have been part of the conversation long enough, one’s opinion of the three generally defines where one stands in the conversation. The pitch of the debate rose prior to the 2003 Iraq War and petered off beyond it as Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi were deemed mistaken by the consensus view. Each had respectively played the role of the interpreter, the true believer and the activist to varying degrees. It also got ugly and ad hominem, with agenda inferred, and malice suggested, from all sides unto all sides. They became lightning rods; their supporters also pushed back with similar tactics. I contributed to the acrimony, and I did my share of inferring and suggesting. I am not sure that what I now feel is remorse. Heated intellectual debates, ones that may go on to shape the destiny of millions, understandably unleash a sense of urgency and self-righteousness. But we are now at a point in the conversation where the tone must change or else the debate becomes largely irrelevant.

lewis ajami chalabi photo

Clockwise: Bernard Lewis (Getty), Fouad Ajami (Hoover Institution), Ahmad Chalabi (Getty)

This essay is not an apologia. This essay does not seek to rehabilitate the reputations of the three men. I do not seek controversy. I do not seek to goad the ‘other side’. This is not about settling scores or tallying the score, even though a journey through the near past may sound like it. This is a call for a ceasefire between all sides, for a parley at the sidelines, in the Middle East debate. The essay is, too, a pilgrimage through the stations of the debate that I had personally experienced. I have been around the block a number of times to know by now that catharsis by heartfelt candor marks an optimist’s folly. It may even be presumptuous to suggest a ceasefire, given my modest station in the hierarchy of the debate. Nevertheless, I deem this proposed parley and revision necessary given how much the terrain, both in Washington and in the Middle East, has changed. And since I don’t see others making the case, here goes.

I cite these three men for one reason, and that is because America’s new line of thinking about the Middle East is premised on ‘lessons learnt’ from its experiences with Iraq. President Obama boasts that he has learned them well. I think we need to revisit these lessons before drawing absolutist conclusions. Because the conclusions that Obama arrived at, that Iraq and some other parts of the region are irredeemable, and that America must diminish its role there, diminishes us all—all of us who have been part of this debate.

Why did we enjoin the debate in the first place? Because many of us care, for a variety reasons and motivations. Because many of us hope that America can wield its power and influence better, over there. That should be the lowest common denominator undergirding our cease-fire.

It doesn’t matter how we got into the debate, whether we were born into it, or called to it. All of us, whether we be traditionalists or iconoclasts, ‘martyrs’ or excommunicates, the ascendant or the defeated—we’re all stuck. Obama can presume to disentangle America from the region, but those who, for whatever reason, have staked our names to the American project in the Middle East cannot. Obama et al also expressed contempt for us, disdain for our internecine wrangling. To them, we were wrong on the fundamentals: that is, the Middle East can be fixed; that America can do much of the fixing; and that it is worth a superpower’s time and effort. We were outdated and defunct, pedantically arguing whether it should remain ‘fixed’, or get fixed, when the routes and means of trade had changed, the world changing with it. Five centuries ago, technology expanded the horizons of maritime commerce, and the Middle East suddenly seemed smaller to all those who had coveted it. The Suez Canal, and the fuel needed for ships, redeemed the value of the region for a while, but nowadays high-def digital technology, beaming out of Seoul and Bangalore, has left the region we care about a mere blur on the spectrum of human exuberance. Those who were always against the American project in the Middle East, who fought it, must be feeling very smug.

Obama’s conclusion is analytically clever. Consequently, we need to determine, as honestly as we can, whether it is strategically wise. It could very well be so. This is an unprecedented challenge for our craft, and all our various visions. We must reflect on our methods of interpretation, question our closely held beliefs, adapt, and synthesize new answers as to why the region should matter more than other places, why it requires more of America’s bandwidth, and what would constitute verifiable and deliverable benchmarks of success—if those benchmarks and answers are actually out there and realizable.

To do so, we must divorce ourselves from the natural habits of sentimentality and self-preservation, hard as it may be. If our once-exalted guild has been eclipsed by the forces of technology, opportunity and hope, then we must own up to it. If we are indeed the Middle East contingent of the ‘The Blob’ as Ben Rhodes labelled the wider foreign policy crowd, then maybe we deserve to putrefy into a pool of tepid irrelevance. Irrelevance won’t come overnight, but the inelegant descent into it has begun. Reporters, commodities analysts, spies, congressional aides and defense contractors will keep calling, but less so the West Wing. The conversation will turn static and generic, normalizing and justifying dysfunction and disorder, transfixed with the notion that that place over there and its people are ‘exceptionally’ ill-omened and troubled, and that we have to make our peace with a Middle East perpetually at strife. Ideas about how the region could possibly rejoin a happier human story will likely be met with polite and patronizing nods. There will be little interest in follow-up. Yet some of us will chafe at that. This won’t be enough. Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi did not resign themselves to ‘how things are’; they cared too much. They argued that there is more to see and do there during a preceding era of resignation, and they bore the polemical scars for it.

The danger is that in our twilight we would become even more sectarian, brandishing mutually assured takfir, and hence more redundant, much like those two remaining Jews in Kabul that some reporter found in 2001, the caretakers of two empty synagogues, who wouldn’t talk to each other. As such, dismissing the Lewis-Ajami-Chalabi triumvirate as birds of a feather, as carrier pigeons of neo-conservatism, is too restrictive of a pigeonhole, and it is ultimately unfair. So too is castigating their intellectual opponents as cold-hearted, predatory Realists. The Manichean clash of ‘isms’ in Washington needs to be tempered with nuance and a dose of sympathy. Our descent into irrelevance should engender mutual empathy. We can begin by revisiting the polarizing legacy of these three men.

Obama seems to believe that it will take the passing of a generation to burn through their furies and mythologies. He believes that the rest of the world can watch the bonfire from a safe distance, and still prosper. Much of that distancing is irreversible. With the current nature of the debate, a new administration, whatever its ideological inclinations, may find it very difficult to argue for walking back towards the inferno. A lot can happen from here on out until the next summer that justifies the distancing before the incoming administration is up and running with new plans.

When we argue, somewhat shrilly, that the inferno will follow the rest of the world to whatever safe distance it deems itself to be—whether it be the sparks of terrorism or a humanitarian crisis that would waft towards them, or a billow of smoke that suffocates trade, and blinds reason and liberalism—then we are implicitly confirming Obama’s despairing thesis about what lies ahead. We need to come up with another pitch. A new pitch for new wares. We have to sell hope, if there’s hope for the taking.

Those men that I count as my former mentors had high hopes for a new Middle Eastern generation, the same generation that the Obama administration seems to have given up on. Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi had hopes for them too, and so does Qasim Suleimani. The choices those 20-somethings make over the next decade or so will shape the region for generations to come. Is there hope that one of their choices will break them out from the cycle of despair and degeneration? Does America have a role in shaping such a choice?

What’s in a generation?

So what were the last five years in the Middle East all about? Was it a mere commotion, the likes of which we have seen many times before, or was it the opening act of an upheaval? Are the tens of millions of 20-somethings we are talking about living through revolutionary times that extend into the near future, or have they already transitioned into a post-revolutionary era? The Arab Spring (and that of Beirut’s and Iran’s, earlier, and Turkey’s Gezi Park later), the sectarian bloodletting, the dramatic return of the caliphate—was that the extent of it? Has the fury exhausted itself? Is revolution a spent force? If it has, then that’s good news. It means that the next American administration can leverage many tools—cultural, economic, educational, diplomatic, etc.—short of military intervention, to smooth out the hangover of ‘The Great Sobering’ that the current crop of 20-somethings are going through. Things can largely go back to where they were, and Obama’s steady approach, from afar, would be thoroughly vindicated, earlier than even he himself had predicted, and a sense of calm and realistic purpose will descend upon this generation. A “cold peace” as Obama put it, in the wake of a cold shower of lowered expectations. Maybe an independent Kurdistan is in the offing that can finally stand itself up after the forces that had long denied the Kurds their independence have been exhausted and depleted? And that may be it.

Or maybe there is more to come. Maybe the commotion of the last five years resembles the 1905 Revolution in Russia, and upheaval is just around the corner?  A lot is riding on this commotion-upheaval determination, and it is not just Washington that needs to plan contingencies for either scenario: determined actors in Tehran, Ankara, Riyadh, Damascus, Moscow, Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and even in Raqqa and Mosul, have a lot riding on it too.

Should we even be talking about a ‘Middle Eastern generation’? There is no such monolith. After all, how much do young Turks, Israelis, and Saudis have in common, for example? For that matter, there is wide disparity, and varying stages of prosperity and angst even within the states of Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Each locale throughout the region has its own set of conflict triggers and communal glue. Take the Beirut Spring (2005) that drove out the Syrian Army, for example. It had all the elements to spark a region-wide wave of protest and hope. Yet it didn’t. The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979) sent governments in Iraq and the Persian Gulf scrambling in fear of a spillover. However, the 2009 protests in Tehran did not inspire the same across the region. There are many good arguments to be made that would compel us to not think of the Middle East as a ‘whole’ but rather a sum of many parts. However, we must be mindful of the cross currents that seem to motivate many young people across their respective locales. How important was Tunisia in the popular mind of young Aleppines? I wouldn’t think very much. But an act of self-immolation by a Tunisian street vendor moved something across wide expanses, sparking protest across Northern Syria and elsewhere. The ensuing war in Syria also drew thousands of Tunisians to the fight. Thousands of Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese and even Afghans faced off against them. Saudi policemen patrol the streets of Manama, while Saudi fighter pilots bomb Sana’a and Saudi suicide bombers prowl for targets at Iraqi markets. In 2009, at Davos, a Turkish Prime Minister could excite many youths, back in his country (as well as among Muslim Brotherhood affiliates across the region), by exchanging heated words with the President of Israel over the situation in Gaza.

Maybe we should be talking about three broad categories of generations in the Middle East. One of which is anchored in its locale, and in its local issues. Another, transnational, willing to pick up and leave to fight for non-local causes in distant lands. The third is a generation that lives astride the fault lines of standing and emerging conflicts; their locale is the epicenter of a transnational reckoning with history and geography.

I worry mostly about that transnational generation. I worry about their shifting numbers. I worry about their unabated zeal, or their spiraling dejection. They are whom we speak of when we talk about a ‘Middle Eastern generation’ that co-inspires or co-conspires across borders. Their trajectory may ride upon a ‘big idea’ that brings real constitutional reform and good governance back to their locales, or their trajectory can head towards a messy, physical reconstitution of the region in the service of other ‘big ideas’ like the caliphate, or Vilayet el-Faqih, or Greater Kurdistan, or whatever comes over the horizon. Together with the youths who were born into conflict zones, they could provide the critical mass that takes much of the region to chaos and uncertainty. Again, there are determined actors on the scene who may want to see that happen, they are actively and cleverly pursuing such goals.

Obama seems to believe the trend is running in favor of this revolutionary generation. If he’s mistaken, then he would be effectively turning his back on the other two categories of generations. If he’s right, then he has arrived at the same conclusion drawn by the extremists, but whereas he is hands-off, they are hands-on.

The numbers of Islamic State jihadists in Sinai today is puny compared to the numbers of young Egyptian men and women who had congregated in Tahrir Square five years ago, or even the ones who showed up in Rabi’a Square a couple of years later. Yet there is an inverse equation here. When the public spaces where the ‘locally-minded’ revolutionary generations had gathered begin to contract, then the spaces that the ‘transnational’ revolutionaries claim for their cause may expand. We can reclaim those territories through warfare, but the distempered zeal of revolution will break out elsewhere.

It all boils down to who gets to read the vectors that drive this new generation best. I would agree with Obama. My gut tells me that there’s more revolution to come, for the fundamentals and the issues facing this ‘Middle Eastern generation’ have not changed. Only their choices have, and not for the better.

The dynamics of how members of this generation understands what is happening around them, and therefore choices at hand, do not bode well. Large sections of the populations that make up the Middle East are ill-equipped with the tools of critical thinking that are necessary to sift through and digest the cacophony of information and events that they are being exposed to. They are not unique in this respect, but there are long-existing and new factors that contribute to the disproportionality of the problem when compared to other population groupings around the world. Unprepared by educational systems that rely on memorization and that do not encourage critical thought, and pressurized by an onslaught of media (satellite and internet), the news consumer of the Middle East is experiencing a crisis of cognition; rendering him or her vulnerable to the clear-cut, redemptive narratives emerging from the caliphate and from Iran’s retro-revolutionaries. After successive ideological failures, and the failure of the Arab Spring to live up to its promise in the public imagination, these societies have become unmoored. The comfort and hope engendered by the succinct narratives and the clarity of purpose advanced by the jihadists and the likes of General Qasim Suleimani—in the face of what are being propagated as existential challenges—will draw larger and larger numbers of recruits to their causes . These numbers are expected to further expand the overlapping spheres of chaos and disorder in the region, while the forces of the status quo, the regimes of the Middle East, are unable to construct an effective counter-narrative, or alternate, convincing choices. As such, the conditions for a ‘Great Sobering’ are not yet there.

Many elements contributed to the despair and disillusionment of these populations: the bankrupted ideology of pan-Arabism, the failure of the popular uprisings, and the relapse of democratic reform. Other elements have made them angry, such as the perception that the ruling elites are corrupted and are working in collusion with the West and Israel, and that the West is at war with Islam, while undermining it through conspiracy. Wealth disparities have made them desperate. Within the span of a mere decade and a half, they have witnessed the attacks of September 11, 2001, American troops toppling Saddam’s statue, Shia and Iranian ascendance, Kurdish resurgence, choreographed beheadings, and several conflagrations with Israel.  They have seen footage of more regimes being overthrown, ancient cities such Baghdad and Aleppo turning into war zones, minorities taken into slavery, moderate Islamists turning to autocracy or being ejected from power through military coups, and Turkey reasserting itself. At this moment, they have to wrap their minds around the return of the caliphate, the return of Russia, and the spectacle of the Saudis bombing Yemen to pieces. Such is the scope of sensory overload that the Middle Eastern news consumer must grapple with. So when a radical idea emerges to explain to this consumer why all these things are happening in simple and easy terms, and proposes a revolutionary remedy that he or she has already been primed for, given his or her familiarity with a certain version of history, then we are facing a potential recruit for extremism.

One particular ‘type’ of would-be recruit is especially worrying: young, talented, probably well-educated Middle Eastern men and women who may be inclined to participate in a grand state venture, such as the caliphate, or an expansion of Vilayet-el-Faqih. These are the would-be leaders of their generation and the next; if they choose revolution then revolution will make a comeback, time and time again. Should they be drawn to revolution, then such angry young men with Master’s degrees would constitute the middle management of revolutionary ventures, and would be a reasonably resilient source—a pipeline of talent—for replenishing the ranks of the top leadership should it be depleted by targeting. As such, this talented individual wants to be part of creating a new order—a grand, and in some respects, imperial vision for the future—rather than merely and nihilistically tearing down the old order as had been the hallmark of earlier generations of jihadists such as Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, for example. A new venture needs an infrastructure of talent, a scaffolding to prop-it up. In any institution or corporate body, talent is always the limiting factor. The question is how vulnerable is this talent when we have bands of ideological poachers hunting about for them?

When the propagandists of the Islamic State heralded the ‘Return of the Gold Dinar’ in a slick tutorial video last August, they were not merely providing a pretense at statehood by minting their own currency; they were suggesting the possibility of a global economic revolution. They claimed that the economic might of America stands on the perceived strength of the dollar, prodded as it is by the connivance of Muslim petrodollar states in selling the region’s most valuable commodity, oil, through that currency. The Islamic State was going to boldly shake the foundations of the dollar by shifting trade into gold and silver coins. For it to work, they must tear down the Persian Gulf regimes that are currently allied with the United States. Not only were they going to bring on a new era to the Middle East, but their revolution will change the world. Not many of their rank and file would get the intricacies of this audacious plan, yet the kind of talent they seek to recruit may. After all, what globally-aware angry young man or woman wouldn’t want to be part of a grand plan that remakes the world?

Whither Mariam and Rami?

Let us imagine and fictionalize two models that may represent the ‘talent’ of this generation: the moderate advocate, and the would-be jihadist. One represents our best hope for pushing back against the darker revolutionary ideas sweeping the region. The other may become a midlevel manager in the jihadist enterprise.

The Moderate Advocate: Mariam is in her mid-twenties. She lives in Kuwait, working in an insurance company as a statistician. She is single. Her parents were leftists in the 1970s who were employed by the state’s oil industry. She is an observant Muslim, but she is disgusted by what the jihadists are doing. She is an internet ‘star’ among young Kuwaitis. Her Facebook posts garner 150-300 likes, usually. Her musings are retweeted dozens of times on Twitter. She writes about local Kuwaiti issues: corruption, elections, and the rights of women, unemployment, and so on. Once in a while she will express her revulsion at a particular terrorist attempt, such as the jihadist attack on Kuwaiti Shia worshippers. She found an opportunity here to question the lack of accountability when it comes to anti-Shia narratives that predominate in the media and in the curricula. She will also question why some private Kuwaiti citizens are donating funds to extremist groups fighting in Syria. Mariam would like to write more about jihadist extremism, and to delve deeper into foundations of the extremist narrative. She wants to ask, ‘is this really what Islam is about?’ But she is impeded in doing so. She has no training in Islamic theology, historiography or jurisprudence. The jihadists may shrug at her disgust, and counter that they are merely following what the first generation of Muslims did 1,400 years ago. The jihadists may argue their attack on the Shia house of worship is warranted because it follows a particular historical precedent that the early Muslims had set. Mariam cannot deny that the text being referenced by the jihadists exists, and she cannot reject it lest she be deemed a heretic by conservative elements of society. She usually tunes-out the government’s messaging, even that emanating from clerics in the employ of the state, who are trotted out to counter extremism; she doesn’t trust them because she can’t trust the wider system. She senses that the pace of positive change in Kuwait is too slow for some of her audience. The system is rigged, the change cosmetic. By counseling a slower pace, by pointing out that ‘change’ coming too quickly may singe her country as it did in countries nearby, some commenters may accuse her of being an enabler of the corruption that she criticizes. She may feel helpless, for she cannot provide a meta-narrative as succinct and as compelling, even as revolutionary, as that of the extremists. Mariam does not have a ‘big idea’ to preach to her flock. She may opt for exile in London, or Dubai.

The Would-Be Jihadist: Rami is in his late twenties. He is a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian descent, from a respected family. He currently resides in Beirut. Growing up in Amman, Rami attended an elite school. He was a bright student, but he kept to himself. However, he exhibited leadership qualities among the youth of his neighborhood, where he was viewed by his peers as tough and chivalrous. Rami studied IT in the United Kingdom. His English is impeccable. He also speaks some French. While living and working in Lebanon, he began turning to religion, experimenting with different strands of Sufi mysticism. But it also made him more of a recluse. For the past decade and a half, Rami has had to absorb immense changes and events happening around him in the Middle East. He already bears the ancestral anger at having been dispossessed by the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is angry at the corrupt regimes and oligarchies that control states and economies. His own IT business may have suffered because he was unwilling to pay out a bribe to a local official towards securing a contract. Rami was heartened by the Beirut Spring, but was then disillusioned by the factional politics that followed. Similarly, his hopes were raised by the Arab Spring, before they were dashed by the messy consequences.

A new, younger cleric had begun delivering sermons at Rami’s local mosque. The cleric is a Salafist, and a jihadist sympathizer, if not an active recruiter, but Rami doesn’t know for sure. Rami keeps his distance because he doesn’t want to get scrutinized by the watchful eyes of the security services, but once in a while he overhears the discussions taking place in a corner of the mosque, and is intrigued by the arguments made by the sheikh, and how he correlates historical incidents from early Islam with contemporary events. The sheikh has noticed Rami listening in, and asked one of his acolytes about him. The Sheikh is told that Rami is a harmless and disciplined Muslim, who is unlikely to be an informant for the security services. He is also told that Rami commands respect in the neighborhood with his quiet and imposing demeanor, and that he is an IT whiz. The sheikh thinks to himself that the jihad would need IT specialists, and that Rami’s age, temperament, and background would make him an ideal candidate for a mid-level position in the Islamic State. Who knows, one day Rami may be promoted within the ranks and become one of the state’s leaders. The Sheikh begins to amplify his messaging, saying that if Muslims wanted to regain their dignity on the world stage, and redeem their greatness, they must fight for it, and they must follow the example of the early Muslims in how they built their state, one that brought great empires crashing before it.

The sheikh is implying that the jihadists are building such a state in nearby Iraq and Syria, and that their newly established ‘caliphate’ is not simply a tool for angrily lashing out at the world, but is in fact the beginning of a new world empire. Those who join it now are getting in on the ground floor of a grand imperial project. To seal the deal with Rami, the sheikh begins citing the story of a heroic early convert to Islam, who was a chivalrous recluse too, but went on to become one of the faith’s greatest generals. He may even link this historical figure to a decision taken by the early Muslim conquerors that the jihadists cite today to justify one of their recent acts, which may have been condemned by the mainstream media. Rami had heard about this Muslim hero before, in school or in a TV miniseries about Islam. He hadn’t known that this hero had been responsible for the same act that the jihadists are citing. Rami is further intrigued; he is getting closer and closer to a snap decision to talk to the sheikh about going to Syria and joining the fight.

What can we do for Mariam? How can we intervene with Rami? If Rami decides not to join the jihad simply because its cost to him is prohibitive, that it may land him in jail or have him killed in a drone strike, then he will still be around when a better opportunity for jihad presents itself. If Mariam is not empowered by a ‘big idea’ then her appeal will diminish as more of her digital flock turn inwardly to despair and disillusionment. She herself may despair, and decide that it is all for naught. What it also means is that more of those young men and women that she could have influenced would turn into another crop of Ramis.

The urgency to understand these extremist narratives, why they are flourishing in the current cognitive atmosphere, and where they are likely to go and take root, are especially compelling now, since their endgame visions may lead to threatening and disrupting critical energy and maritime routes that serve the global economy. Given the current atmospherics, these disruptions may not be as far off as many observers of the region would have us believe. The very nature of these redemptive, revolutionary ideas is fast burning, and fast acting. The inferno may catch us by surprise. Thus, one needs to look at why these ideas are attractive to so many people, and why the extremist narrative aligns with how these people think. Long-term observers and interpreters of the region are failing to imagine the damage that ideas can engender in desperate and traumatized societies. It is the difference between understanding the chain of events as a mere commotion, the likes of which have often been seen in the Middle East over the last few decades as many of these observers are saying, or as an upheaval that may even redraw borders and topple long-standing political orders.

Bernard Lewis, the master trend spotter

It is not easy to spot new trends, much less so to be able to extrapolate their future trajectories. From 2005 to 2010, I wrote a series of papers and monographs about what is now retroactively called by many scholars as ‘the Zarqawi exception’. They dwelt on the revolutionary changes that Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi had introduced to jihadism as he launched his audacious and bold undertaking to confront the United States and Shi’ism in Iraq. I began with a look at how Zarqawi understood the world around him, and how he interpreted the shocking event of bringing down the Saddam Hussein regime; I came to the conclusion that Zarqawi was a new phenomenon that we had not seen in the previous generation of jihadists, most notably, the founders of Al-Qaeda. Consequently, I tackled the genesis of Zarqawi’s line of thinking among his ideological forerunners (the 1979 Mecca uprising), and how his unique and original approach led him towards exploiting anti-Shi’ism as a fast burning fuel to further jihadist expansion. Then I mapped out how this way of thinking would be geared towards preparations for announcing a caliphate and, beyond Zarqawi’s demise, how his ideological heirs would eventually take the fight to Syria. The ‘Zarqawi exception’, and the trends he unleashed, was dismissed by the majority of Middle Eastern watchers at the time, and the nascent subfield of jihadist studies had a difficulty in absorbing it. Ten years on, as the Zarqawists have come back from the near death of their vision to occupy a large swath of territory straddling both Iraq and Syria, these ideas are now part of the scholarly mainstream in the West and in the Middle East.

In doing so, I was inspired by the example of Bernard Lewis. Lewis even graciously took the time to edit my paper on the proto-caliphate. He turned to me at one point and asked, “Are you absolutely sure that this is what it is?” I was. I imagine he was trying to spare me the pain of coming out too early ahead of the consensus view, risking my reputation and career on a hunch. Vindication may never come, and even if it did, it may not feel like it. But I felt compelled to put the message out, for maybe someone out there would take heed. I was following in Lewis’ footsteps, for he saw the Islamist challenge way ahead of the consensus view, back in the late 1970s.

Lewis turned 100 on May 31. It was an occasion to celebrate his life’s work, and influence. His disciples, former students for the most part, wrote much to vindicate the man who had inspired them. Their general tone was one of defiance against those who questioned Lewis over the years. Yet I was somewhat saddened. Why would Bernard Lewis need vindication? Why was the tone of the conversation about him still so biting and acrimonious? Lewis is a scholar’s scholar. The languages he had mastered, the laborious groundbreaking research that he had undertaken, the erudition he had accumulated, the gorgeous words he used to communicate what he had learned, all this was surely testament to what should be his status as a scholarly giant.

Lewis’ detractors skip all that, or make a perfunctory note of it, for in their eyes he committed the sin of leveraging his knowledge towards a revolutionary shift in policy. He left the confines of academia and took his warnings of what was coming to the larger public. His pre-existing academic stature afforded an outlet for his predictions in leading publications. He even proselytized the powerful to do something about it. What I can’t understand about this reaction is that if one cares enough about a place to study it, despite the difficulties inherent in that field, then how is one supposed to mitigate how he feels about how it may turn out, especially if it seems that it is heading towards calamity? Lewis turned alarmist because the situation in the Middle East was alarming. He wasn’t serving some hidden, Zionist agenda as some of his critics insinuated by highlighting his Jewish ‘outsider’ roots. He was an unapologetic Zionist, but one can be one and still author fair, objective scholarship about the rest of the Middle East, as Lewis’ career demonstrates. Alternatively, some even suggested that his being originally British (he came to the US in 1974) connoted a yearning for imperial hegemony, hoping that his adopted country would take on that role as the British receded from the Middle East in the seventies.  Inferring some nefarious motivation in Lewis was ultimately useless, for it turned out that he was right, and he was right because he was uniquely situated to pick up on the signals. I wonder how many young scholars drew different lessons from Lewis’ story, that it was not wise to come out so early ahead of the consensus, that a hunch is no cause for vocal, Quixotic alarmism, however erudite, however premised on good research.

Their silence, or silencing, impoverishes our conversation. It is hard to spot new trends as it is, let’s not make it harder by snickering at a minority, dissenting view. In fact, we need to be asking ourselves: how can we replicate the next generation of scholars in the mold of Lewis? I once asked Lewis why he thought he became so good at spotting trends. He replied that his experiences as a military intelligence officer stationed in the Middle East during World War II, bolstered by the rigorous, classical academic training that preceded it, constituted his own formative experiences. War puts erudition to the test. Information has to be prioritized and adapted. The study of indigenous basket-weaving techniques in a village near Hamah might be interesting, but how does it serve the war effort? War can visit this village and eradicate it. Scholars may feel squeamish about their craft being weaponized, but they should be mindful that an inferno in the Middle East may forever destroy all the things they found so fascinating about the region to begin with. Lewis was both a historian and an analyst, and he felt compelled to warn of what was coming. He knew that the failure to pre-empt it would mash up the cultural idiosyncrasies of the Middle East into an orthodox, generic pulp.

The difficulty of spotting trends has been compounded by the role of the internet’s echo chambers in amplifying extremism and calls for revolution. The sheer amount of information out there is staggering and understandably overwhelming for Middle East watchers, who are accustomed to research processes involving official communiques, intelligence and newspaper clippings, and sociological and anthropological studies. Man-on-the-street ‘color’, formerly the purview of journalists (back when there was an extensive network of foreign bureaus) and expatriates, rounded out that picture for the watchers. However, they have not been trained to follow the chatter on internet chat rooms, for example. One of Zarqawi’s earliest enabling factors was his ability to use the internet as a tool to propagate his message without having to rely on state media—an advantage not available to earlier generations of terrorists or jihadists. As such, understanding how extremism uses social media, and how it is used by the extremists to form public opinion, is of vital importance. A subset of Middle Eastern studies has emerged, calling itself jihadist studies, to address these shortfalls of traditional research.

The study of jihadism has improved significantly over the last two years, as Zarqawi’s heirs found their second wind in Syria’s civil war, which enabled them to re-expand into Iraq with incredible success. However, it still seems that Western observers are reactive in their analysis, and are falling short of the predictive component. It could be that their ability to warn of what is coming is impeded by the wider atmospherics of the conversation about the Middle East, one that does not look kindly upon alarmist contrarianism. We can extrapolate what jihadist objectives may be by understanding how they think. This may also allow us to steal a march on any new narratives and visions they may seek to deploy, as the terrain of the battlefield changes. Understanding the steps, martial and ideological, that they seek to take is critical towards understanding their end goal, for the actions of the jihadists follow the narratives they have constructed for themselves and for their audiences.

The nascent field of jihadism, though, is experiencing growing pains. The field is overwhelmed because it is attempting to define its scope in the midst of an unprecedented inundation in data arising from what the jihadists say, write and do. The young scholars of jihadism are doing a stellar job in translating, tabulating and explaining the granularity of the jihadist message and its actions. This is a sea change from the period of 2004 until 2011 when Western policy and academic circles seemed disinterested in understanding the nature of the jihad, its origins and its goals. It is not an easy task. It is not helped by the media pressure placed on those young scholars to give snap judgments on attention-grabbing and surprising events. The inherent risk is that instead of studying the news cycle, they would be forced to follow it. They also risk getting lost in too much granularity, relishing erudition at the expense of the grander, big-picture predictions. At times, they seem infected by the tone of the general conversation, turning sectarian and breaking into self-congratulatory cliques. Trolling and the general ‘snarkiness’ pervading the internet, where this discipline was born, don’t help either. Jihadist studies provides one of our best hopes in understanding what comes next. We should do what we can to protect it from the pitfalls of the past.

Fouad Ajami, the great orator

This week marks the second anniversary of Ajami’s passing, leaving a wide gap in our debate. The late Ajami was an orator’s orator. Ajami rendered erudition into poetry. His soaring prose, crafted in English, an adopted language for this native Arabic speaker, could make sense of that region to any American audience. Had he been a mere pretentious poseur, he would have found that the lamentations of cynicism and despair would lend themselves even more poetical. Yet he chose the difficult medium of speaking and writing about hope in the Middle East. Those among the literati, who were in a rush to write-off places like Iraq as wastelands forever lost, were offended by his optimism. It got venal, and ugly.

George Packer, an Iraq War recanter, insinuated in the New Yorker (August 2008) that Ajami was merely a tribal poet. Ajami was born a Shia, and his motivations must be Shia triumphalism rather that his own intellectual journey, Packer suggested.

With Ajami, something else is at work. Of Lebanese Shiite origin, he has a deep knowledge of Middle Eastern politics…This isn’t a case of the normal heartlessness of abstract thought. The [Wall Street] Journal piece, along with his recent work in The New Republic, make it clear that Ajami has taken sides in Iraq, and that his pleasure comes from his sense that his side is winning…But Ajami is already declaring victory, because it turns out that he has a different idea altogether: Shiite Arab power.

Ajami was happy that then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had trounced his fellow Shia Sadrists during the spring 2008 battles in Basra and Baghdad. Ajami, among many, believed that Maliki had turned a corner away from blind Shia sectarianism towards building upon an Iraqi national identity and a state for all Iraqis. In doing so, Maliki seems to be breaking away from the Iranian embrace. Ajami was all for it. This hardly seems like closing ranks along myopic tribal lines.

In fact, several months earlier, Ajami had written favorably to the Editor about one of my columns that argued that we would be in for a new Iranian strategy, one that would play up sectarianism to match that of the jihadists, launching itself in Ajami’s former hometown of Beirut (he had arrived in the United States in 1963). Ajami was worried by this new trend, and he wanted to draw attention to it:

Nibras Kazimi’s column, “Iran’s Shifting Strategy” (New York Sun, May 12, 2008), is one of the most insightful readings of the Middle Eastern landscape to appear anywhere in a very long time. Its analysis is as subtle and shrewd as the ways of the region. The linkage he makes between Iraq’s success and Lebanon’s troubles is nothing short of brilliant. The Sun, and Nibras Kazimi, are to be commended for cutting through so much of what has been said about these matters of late. An essay that should be required reading by all those who want to understand, let alone comment on, the contest between order and mayhem in Arab and Islamic lands.

Had Ajami been a mere Shia triumphalist then he would have wished to sweep such embarrassing inter-Shia machinations—the topic of my column—under the rug. If he were a mere Shia triumphalist then he would not have become one of the leading and most eloquent advocates for helping the Syrian people (Sunni Arabs for the most part) to overthrow the Asad regime (pseudo-Shia Alawite, for the most part) when the Arab Spring came calling in the Levant. Actual Shia triumphalists rallied to Asad’s side, unanimously branding the likes of Ajami traitors to their kind. One of them, it turned out, was Maliki, who had disappointed Ajami, and others, when in later years he carried the banner of Shia triumphalism further than anyone could have predicted in 2008.

Ajami, dying of cancer, would still rouse himself to go on the air, to tell the world that the horror of sectarianism, as practiced by Bashar al-Asad in tandem with the jihadists, was going to set the Middle East on fire. Despite his best efforts, few took notice of the trend that Ajami was trying to alert them to. It still remains under-scrutinized by trend-watchers, even though it has had immense impact across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. I subsequently called it ‘Shia chauvinism’. We need to ask ourselves whether dismissing Ajami has led to a wider dismissal of what he was trying to draw attention to, and what the long-term consequences of that disregard are.

Shias have responded to the jihadist ideological challenge by crafting a counter-narrative of their own that is no less revolutionary. In April 2012, I wrote an essay, in Arabic, titled ‘Modern Shia Chauvinism: Origins, Features, Goals’. It was my assessment then that Maliki’s popularity in his second term stemmed from what was at first an ad-hoc, and then a systematic, campaign to reorient Shia political identity. I addressed the historical precedents, the modern triggers, the symbolism, and the implications such a reorientation would have on policy and Iraq’s trajectory. This political vehicle is still viable as a propellant for ambitious politicians—with or without Maliki—and it will continue to influence Iraqi politics. Shortly before the 2014 elections, one hardline Maliki supporter demanded, on TV, the empirical equivalency of seven Sunni lives for every seven Shia lives. The electoral commission did not exclude her from running; she went on to win over 90,000 votes in Babil Province. The political end-game of the chauvinists is a Shia driven partition of Iraq. Since Maliki’s second term in office, this phenomenon has increased in scope, and in the clarity of its messaging and stated goals, pushing Shias towards extremism across the Middle East. The trend may have begun in an ad-hoc manner, but since its inception it has been developed and formalized as a new political creed by the likes of Iranian general Qassim Suleimani. It is no longer limited to Iraq, and has expanded into Syria and Lebanon, and may even find traction in places such as Yemen and the Shia communities of the Persian Gulf, notably in the oil rich territory of eastern Saudi Arabia.

Another troubling trend, which is essentially a spiritual corollary to Shia chauvinism, is the return of messianic, ritualistic extremism as a threat to the mainstream of Shi’ism. The moderating scholars of Najaf, such as Sistani, represent the mainstream and they have been consistently counseling their followers against Shia chauvinism. But they have been surprised by how much their authority has eroded; they now understand the mechanisms by which the extremists are achieving that.

The realization of the threatening nature of this new trend and its portents only began emerging through hushed references from Najaf over the last year. Messianic extremism has deep historical antecedents in Shi’ism, and for the last five centuries, what later became known as traditional Shi’ism with its current leadership in Najaf, has been striving to eradicate it, achieving mixed results. However, the contemporary prevailing notion that Shi’ism is under attack from Sunni Islam, has generated a popular desire for salvation and redemption through excessive ritualism, and a revisiting of messianic ‘visions’ and accounts about the End of Days. This desire has interpreted current events in Iraq and Syria in the popular mind according to a timeline that leads to the emergence of the Occulted Imam, the Mahdi. It has been seized upon by forces anathema to Najaf, who find within it a convenient way to undermine traditionalism, and to promote Shia chauvinism as a political vehicle. These forces run the gamut from the supporters of Khomeini’s Vilayet el-Faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent) to mystical orders of Shi’ism that had experienced persecution and abuse at the hands of orthodoxy. It may also be a vehicle by which retro-revolutionaries such as General Suleimani would cleanse and reinvigorate a revolution that they feel has lost its vitality. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was an early forerunner of this trend, before it really took hold as it is doing now.

This extremist Shia reaction to jihadism, through Shia chauvinism and the undermining of traditional religious authority, is actually feeding into the jihadist narrative. It empowers it, and, as the jihadists go a step further in their anti-Shia campaign, they in turn empower Shia chauvinism. Maliki’s harsh policies towards Sunnis, and Assad’s response to the Syrian uprising, breathed life back into the jihadist cause. The expansion of ISIS, and then the caliphate, allowed Qasim Suleimani to expand the scope of his hardline strategy. These actions and events have generated new and competing narratives that address root causes of the conflict—from the perspective of each protagonist camp—and propose maximalist solutions. Both are colored by eschatology and the promise of divine empowerment and redemption. Much of these narratives and visions are playing out furiously and cyclically on social media, reflected, for example, in the large numbers of Iraqi Shias who cast their votes for Maliki, or the thousands of European-born Muslims flocking to the caliphate, while moderate and reasonable voices stagger behind, hobbled by the atmospherics of cognitive confusion.

That is what I think is happening. My lament is that Ajami could have said it way better, provided that people would have listened to him. His loss, too, impoverishes our conversation. People like George Packer stopped listening because they deemed that Ajami was wrong on Iraq. Not only that, but they suspect that he could have misled them intentionally. After all, wasn’t he a pal of Chalabi’s, that other Shia ‘triumphalist’?

Ahmed Chalabi, the dangerous instigator

Policy circles in Washington had to revisit the lessons of Iraq back in November due to the passing of the man who they hold responsible for poking the status quo in the eye: Ahmad Chalabi. The at times mean-spirited, at times gauche, tone of the conversation about him, even after death, has not matured, and the flawed misunderstanding of what he had unleashed was left to stand for the most part. The prospect of Chalabi’s vindication, within this storm of vilification, is distant.

Writing in the Washington Post a few days after Chalabi’s death, veteran columnist David Ignatius had this to say:

Among the remarkable facts about Ahmed Chalabi was that after turning Iraq and the United States upside down and unleashing all the gods and devils of war, he died of natural causes in Baghdad this week.

Few people have changed the course of the past few decades more, through the force of personality, than did Chalabi. Historians will argue the causes and consequences of the Iraq war, but my own guess is that if it hadn’t been for Chalabi, Saddam Hussein or one of his odious sons or henchmen would be ruling Iraq today.

Philosophers have debated for centuries what truly drives history. Is it great men and women and their world-historical ideas, as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel contended? Or is there a deeper force embedded in technology and economics (the “means of production,” as Karl Marx had it) that determines the story? Does God, however named, have a plan?

Chalabi’s life led Ignatius to believe that it was individuals who made the difference, “There was nothing inevitable about the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the catastrophic consequences that have flowed from the decision. Like most big things in life, this happened at the margins.”

Chalabi may have worked in the margins, but the cause and effect of the Iraq War happened right at the center of the stage when the status quo of the Middle East buckled on September 11, 2001.

The myth that the Iraq War was Chalabi’s doing had a long run-up. Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post also wrote: “Few figures have been more loved and loathed in Washington than Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi expatriate who charmed American politicians and built the case for the war in Iraq.” Two negative-leaning English-language biographies were authored about him while he was still alive, with grand titles such as The Man Who Led America to War, and Arrows of the Night: Ahmad Chalabi’s Long Journey to Victory in Iraq. [Side note: Rhode’s boast about engineering an echo chamber for the Iran deal may sound familiar since Chalabi was accused of creating that model fifteen years ahead of him. Of course, it is much easier to pull off if one carries the title of ‘Deputy National Security Adviser’.]

I have fond memories of Chalabi as a one-time boss and mentor. Others who interacted with him do not. One leading Washington policy analyst wrote about his experience as a young Central Intelligence Agency officer meeting Chalabi for the first time; he felt he needed to take a shower afterwards. A former ambassador, now at a DC think tank, recalls what his colleagues at the State Department had to say about Chalabi, even before the Iraq War, that the Iraqi opposition leader “was as bad if not worse than Saddam.” BuzzFeed would carry a headline ‘Ahmad Chalabi, The Man Who Gave Us ISIS’ to announce his death. That’s a bit of a stretch, but it demonstrates the tone of the conversation about him. I know of several people in DC who wanted to eulogize him but did not do so because they felt intimidated by the atmospherics.

But it wasn’t Chalabi “who gave us ISIS” and he wasn’t even the man responsible for lighting the spark of the Iraq War, or at least that is how he and those around him understood it at the time. It was Muhammad Atta, the lead conspirator of 911. Prior to that terrible Tuesday, I had started to lose hope that anything would ever change for the Iraq.

After the Iraq Liberation Act was passed in 1998, which mandated regime change into US law, a reluctant Clinton administration successfully drew the Iraqi opposition into a mundane bureaucratic battle in the execution of the law. It was a battle of redundant training and office supply receipts. The battle extended into the first year of the Bush administration too. This is my first-hand experience: Chalabi introduced me at one point to a sympathizer at the Pentagon, and told him that I had recently completed a month-long course in ‘Newspaper Editing’ at the military facility in Ft. Meade, MD. The Pentagon official asked me what I thought about it, and I replied, “It’s didn’t bring us any closer to overthrowing Saddam.” George W. Bush was in power, regime change was on the Republican Party’s election platform, but nothing had changed. Institutional bias towards maintaining the status quo was still winning.

Throughout 1999-2001, I would ask Chalabi: “What is all this for? Why are here in Washington fighting the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department when we should be fighting Saddam?”

He would answer: “We are railroad engineers. We are laying the tracks for a new American policy in the Middle East. America travels on another route right now, but that will change. The status quo is unsustainable. Something will give. We have to be ready for that.”

This is how I imagine what happened subsequently: On September 11, 2001, Mohammad Atta flipped a switch. America’s engine diverted to the track that Chalabi had laid down. Saddam, being Saddam, obstinately tied himself down to the rails further down the track, challenging America to come at him. Hundreds of people, with varying motivations, stood alongside the tracks and tried to signal to that engine to pull the brakes. Had anyone else other than George W. Bush been driving that engine, it is probable that the train would have come to a screeching halt. I even think that a Cheney would have stopped short. But not only did Bush not pull on the brakes, he pulled the train whistle just as he ran over Saddam.

I went to bed on September 10 thinking that Chalabi was to be on American Airlines flight 77 the following morning, the one that hit the Pentagon. When I saw the flight number on the ticker scroll on TV, my heart sank. I spent half an hour trying to get to anyone. Cell phone networks were overloaded, and calls weren’t going through. Chalabi eventually answered, he was sitting in Santa Monica, following the news. He had made the last flight out to Los Angeles the night before after I had bid him goodbye, telling him “there’s no way you’ll catch your flight, but there is flight so and so tomorrow morning that you should book.”

Chalabi was right. The status quo did eventually buckle. On the following September 19, 2001, he was back at the Pentagon, showing the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee his new railway map. He took an MIT-trained nuclear scientist with him, who had defected from Saddam’s nuclear program. The implication was clear: America could no longer live with a status quo in which a rogue actor with possible access to WMD technology may find common cause with an enemy such as Al-Qaeda. It is undeniable in my mind that Chalabi was a Hegelian agent of change, a radical ion, as Ignatius had argued. But he was only successful because change was coming, as he predicted. His radicalism catalyzed a chemical reaction that was already percolating. The status quo was falling apart.

Chalabi’s vision for what should come next was not Shia triumphalism. He had articulated his expectations and plans for an Arab and Islamic renaissance. He was no dummy or wide-eyed optimist. If anything, he was a brilliant strategist and conversationalist, who would draw from history, art, music, and even recipe books to make his case that the promise for such a revival was there, hidden among the minutiae and granularity of a Middle East boiling over, but it would take a whole new approach to thinking about the region—by fostering democratic institutions—to unleash it. That is why the likes of Lewis and Ajami were drawn to him. Chalabi did not understand the triumph of the Shias to come about by subjugating Sunnis; their prize, after a long history of agony, would be first class citizenship under vibrant, dynamic democracies. He hoped that the Iranians would turn out to be the pragmatists he thought them to be and would actually help the process along. Chalabi’s failure to bring it about should not be confused with his intent, retroactively discerning malice by judging the ensuing results. Nor should his authorship of these ideas stigmatize them. Hoping for too much shouldn’t be a cause for vilification.

Many of the lessons learnt from Iraq have been lost in recriminations about Chalabi’s legacy. The fog had worked to the advantage of the status quo, masking its inability to answer for 911. The fog also blurred the opportunity when the status quo argument was undermined once again by the Arab Spring. Similarly, the West’s understanding of the challenge posed by the jihadist Islamic State has been clouded. If anything, the ‘folly’ of hoping for too much should be on par with the folly of expecting, or foreseeing, too little.

Would things have turned out differently had the Obama administration embraced the Arab Spring early on, instead of prevaricating? Let’s not be too hard on President Obama. The democracy agenda had already withered under President Bush’s second administration. The prospect of the Iraq ‘quagmire’ had defanged it. I attended a conference for global dissidents in 2007 that was convened in Prague by Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky. President Bush was the keynote speaker. He said all the right thing but his audience was ill at ease, for they could sense that his words no longer carried a punch. By alphabetic order, my seat was next to that of Russian dissident Gary Kasparov. I asked him, moments before Mr. Bush took the podium, whether he expected the president to address the belligerent threat made against the West by Putin just days ahead of the conference. Mr. Kasparov responded, “If not now, then when?” In the event, Mr. Bush made an oblique comment about the slide backwards in the anti-democratic direction that the world has been witnessing in Russia. Mr. Kasparov’s first reaction as the audience rose to give Bush its last applause: “I’m appalled. He said nothing.”

At the Prague conference, many dissidents would come up to me, as a former Iraqi dissident, and ask, sheepishly and sympathetically, about how things are going in Iraq — more in the way of holding my hand than serious inquiry. “It’s very unfortunate how things went,” they were saying, by demeanor.

Writing off Iraq as irredeemable has turned into a decade-long tradition by now. But if there is room to consider the argument that the malaise of the Middle East led to the Iraq War and not the other way around, as Chalabi’s successful bid for policy realignment showed, then isn’t it time to revisit the ‘irredeemableness’ of Iraq as sacred dogma in the conversation? What if something was missed as many rushed to a conclusion about that country? If Obama and Rhodes can premise their distancing from the region on lessons learned from Iraq, then their conclusions should be scrutinized since the implications do not concern Iraq solely, but the wider troubles of the Middle East too. Can rational, sober lessons be drawn while the gusts of acrimony and venality still drive the conversation as evidenced by what was said and written at the time of Chalabi’s death just a few months ago?

Why would a troubled nation like Iraq matter?

Because in the dichotomy of order and disorder, Mesopotamia has always mattered. That dichotomy seems especially relevant in today’s Fertile Crescent. The inhabitants of the land that was to become Iraq thought very hard about why disorder breaks out, and how order can be restored. Their conversations enriched human thought for millennia. A more recent conversation that they have been having holds much promise too.

The story of civilization there begins as an engineering problem. The topography and climate of Mesopotamia conspire to make large-scale agriculture a difficult prospect. The Euphrates and the Tigris rivers do not flood with the regularity of the Nile. Tilling the land, and staving off the salination of the soil, requires the digging of canals; large public works beyond the capacity of a stand-alone village. A state had to come into being, to plan and execute such infrastructure. There had to be buy-in from disparate clans and bloodlines into a supra-project, one that needed a bureaucracy (writing) and engineering (mathematics). The first cities of the world came to be in the service of agriculture. Bigger cities comprised of scribes, scientists, and rulers developed bigger appetites, cascading into larger and larger projects. Civilization needed order. It needed a stable status quo. It all began in Iraq.

But there was a geographical problem. Order was emerging while those who did not wish to buy-in into it found refuge not far from it. They were ‘free spirits’ who chafed at the thought of rulers giving them orders. These self-segregating groups could turn to the marshes, deserts and mountains of Mesopotamia, much as similar groups did in Southeast Asia per the pioneering theory set forth by James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed (2009). Whenever they sensed that the order was buckling, they swooped in for bounty and mayhem. A cyclic saga of order and disorder began.

Thinkers who had to grapple with the precarious state of order and disorder would gather in the date groves around the towns away from the prying eyes of the rulers, to ponder the question of “What does it all mean?” They came up with many parables and explanations that still resonate throughout the souls and minds of mankind, ranging from the fatalistic tale of godly capriciousness and human resignation that is Gilgamesh’s (which sounds a lot like that of Realism), to the stark and unambiguous tenets of Manicheism (see the Star Wars franchise). Abraham left those date groves looking for answers further afield in the Near East, whereas his descendants, forcibly returned to Babylon, developed the Jewish yearning for redemption. The Battle of Karbala lent Shi’ism a faith of protest against unjust authority. The wisdom and sciences of Greece were rediscovered and retransmitted to the modern era through ‘Abbasid Baghdad. The land served to incubate ruminations on Gnosticism, alchemy was tinkered with, and the febrile urgency of Islamic thought and mysticism was unleashed. Thinkers grappled with the idea of original sin, not far from where they imagined Eden to lie, at the confluence of the two great rivers. They found the allegory of chaos in Noah’s flood, and set its events in their land.

Mesopotamia had tried to answer many of the big questions on behalf of mankind, a process that ended, in the popular imagination, when the Mongol horde arrived out of the east in the thirteenth century, sacking Baghdad and burning its libraries. Interestingly, the invasion coincided with (or resulted in) the disruption of the intricate canal systems. They have not recovered since. Saddam, Zarqawi and others likened the Iraq War to a second Mongol invasion. If historians are still arguing as to why Baghdad fell in the thirteenth century, is there really any hope for clarity in the understanding the dynamics of twenty-first century Iraq?

aleppo minaret

A minaret in Aleppo

My own lessons learned in Iraq informed me that Syria was next.

It is no accident that it all broke down in Iraq and Syria. If Iraq is the incubator of revolutionary ideas and systems of government then Syria is the drawer where all the leftover screws and bolts are kept after assembling and disassembling regional empires. The topography of the Levant is littered with the bits of shrapnel left in the wake of revolutionary outbursts. The Alawite creed was born in the date groves of southern Iraq, it survives nestled up in the mountains of the Syrian coast. One lost cause after another populated one discreet valley from the next; the Druze, the Ismailis, bits and pieces of Christianity. A crowded landscape of determined survivalists overwhelms the observer with color and variety. This sort of diversity would look so charming and life affirming should we forget how it came to be.

There is another way to look at the Iraq-Syria problem.

We can draw two conceptual lines across the Middle East, two parallel axes. The first axis begins in the Balkans and ends in Baluchistan, running through Anatolia, Kurdistan and Persia, and drawing the Caucasus into its orbit. People forget that the Caucasus are part of the Middle Eastern story; Georgian slave-soldiers ruled Iraq for seventy years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Circassians, their ancestors displaced by Russia, are overrepresented in the security bodies of Turkey and Jordan. Armenians look west and yearn for glories and countless generations lost; the bleached bones of their kin strewn in the Syrian desert. I would maintain that Russia is in Syria today because Russia is back in the Crimea—the rulers of Moscow have long coveted this axis too. Within this axis, Anatolia and the Persian plateau had sustained ambitious dynasties playing at empire, pushing out along the course of the axis and on either side of it. They have also sustained markets eager to trade in all directions.

Another similar war-trade axis runs from North Africa and Egypt-Sudan through Arabia and far across the sea into the Indian subcontinent. Once in a while, a fevered idea grips a point along this axis, and it takes its revolution far and wide, as Islam did, as well as the many schismatics that faith had spawned. Sometimes weird cross-pollinations occurred between the two axes, as when a Balkan dynasty assumed control of Egypt and went a long way towards creating a modern national state there. This dynasty was twice tasked with snuffing out the Wahhabi rebellion in faraway Nejd. Later rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia duked it out in Yemen in the 1960s.

Sandwiched in between these two lines is Iraq and Syria, and there’s the rub. Not only are these two places fully capable of tearing themselves apart by inimitable habit and historical trajectory, they are also contest zones for the two aforementioned axes. When the two centrifugal sets of forces—from within and from beyond—gather, an epic mess is to be expected. That, to a large extent, is what happened. Iraq needed to come up with new ideas to reconstitute itself after the 2003 war. There was internal pushback. But the two axes around it also had their designs. Added into this potent brew, or emerging from within it, new revolutionary ideas—democracy, jihadism, Shia chauvinism—bubbled through. Syria was splattered, and almost inevitably followed suit.

In light of this pattern, is it not strange that Obama, even though he considers himself to be cognizant of all that history, would counsel the two axes to simply “share” that space?

I travelled around Syria during 2006-2008 to beat two inevitable deadlines. One was that I was sure that I would get barred from entry into the country at some point, and another had to do with what I expected was coming. I was busily proselytizing the idea that ‘a storm is coming’ to whoever would listen—security dons, dissidents, journalists, bookshop keepers, what have you. I would also argue that Syria needed to democratize fast for it to survive the storm. In a place like Bashar al-Asad’s Syria, that sort of talk was bound to get me in trouble. Trouble caught up with me as I crossed the border from Kilis in August 2008—the same border point preferred by subsequent waves of jihadists—only to find a ‘detain’ warrant waiting for me when the passport officer entered my name into the database. An auspicious set of circumstances, and some bluffing, got me released after a number of hours. However happy I was to be free, I was also saddened by the fact that my larger project, to soak up as much granularity from Syria before the storm scatters it away, had come to an end. I can visualize many of the locales mentioned in the annals of the Syrian civil war because I had been fortunate enough to see those places. To watch the Druze of Qalb Lozeh heading to communal prayers for the dead, or to light a candle in the Sednaya shrine, or to sip tea with Shia converts in a village near Aleppo—that was an itinerary that I can no longer repeat, even if my name is removed from the regime’s watch-lists, or the regime itself is removed. Much of this tapestry has been destroyed, parts of it for good.

Forehead to windowpane, I would look on with prying awe as the Aleppo-Latakia train slowly ambled through a valley refracted in mist. Why do those clutches of villages not have any mosques? Why do the houses look different? Why do the faces I glimpse here and there look different? What’s up with their costumes? I would tell myself, “There’s a secret here, and I want to come back to tease it out.” I marked the location of the valley on a map with that apprehension that travelers know too well: “What if I never have the time or the means to come back?” One would hope that another travelogue would have covered it well. One would hope to pass on the tip to a colleague who can go there and check it out. But the bushfire of identity wars had radiated through this particular valley a few years back, probably burning through its seemingly unique identity. I now wonder what’s left of the secret.

This was the Middle East that I cared for. This was the Middle East that fascinated me as a historian. I knew it was in danger. I felt compelled to sound the alarm. Ajami would have me fill in for him to teach his Masters class at the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University. On a couple of occasions I would speak to the students there about the darkness that was about to descend upon Syria. Ajami encouraged me to author a monograph about it, which was consequently published as Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy by the Hoover Institution (2010). In later years it was described as “incredibly prescient” after the horrors of the Syrian civil war came to be. Again, there is no value in vindication. What drew me to the story, what made me care, was going up in flames. I would like to imagine that many of those who were unconvinced by my argument back when it seemed far-fetched would likewise be pained by what followed. Let us commiserate together, to move beyond the acrimony, towards a new American approach to the Middle East.

Whither ‘The Blob’?

I must admit that I felt a bit of schadenfreude when I read what Obama et al had to say about the foreign policy community, the legion of experts, academics, spies, diplomats, business interests, lobbyists, and journalists, who interpret the rest of the world to America’s leaders and its general public. Specifically, someone at the White House described think tanks with a Middle East focus as “Arab occupied territory” within the center of Washington, in reference to the “free riders” such as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries that fund them. These places housed much of the priestly class that had led the inquisition into the ‘crimes’ of Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi, whose ‘sin’ it was to get Iraq wrong. They deemed themselves the overseers of accreditation; only they could exercise the prerogative of deeming so and so credible, or discredited. Their black list of excommunicates, following the Iraq War, was meticulous and long. [Another side note: it can be argued that the spigot of Persian Gulf monies flowing to such think tanks, as part of a comprehensive approach to influence DC, really got going after Chalabi demonstrated how effective such an approach is in commanding the attention of U.S. policy-makers.]

But if we’re tallying up the hits and misses, then many of the doyens of the foreign policy establishment got much wrong too: the failure to anticipate the Iranian Revolution; the failure to foresee what Khomeini would do with that revolution; the failure to ascertain the challenge posed by resurgent Islamism; the failure to arrive at a workable peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the failure to anticipate Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait; the failure to reckon with the consequences of leaving him in power beyond it; the failure to anticipate the Arab Spring; the failure to anticipate the far reach of jihadism into Syria and beyond—and those are just the biggies. But who’s counting, right?

For this class, Obama was supposed to be the high priest presiding over an establishment that finally gets it right. What with his international upbringing, his keen attunement to the Islamic heritage, his supremely analytical mind, the establishment would finally get a president who didn’t need to climb a steep learning curve. Little did they expect that he would use the shorthand term of ‘The Blob’ to dismiss them.  He deemed them dangerously incestuous, intellectually lethargic, compromised, and short on new ideas. Obama judged them discredited. Obama had other plans: retrenchment, disengagement, disentanglement. He may not call it that, but that is what it seems to be to many in Washington and in the Middle East. The Middle East simply didn’t warrant Obama’s, or America’s, attention, or at least to the extent that the establishment wished it would. He had emancipated himself from the “Washington playbook”—the manuscript itself may have gone up in flames.

His signature legacy for the region was the Iran deal. It didn’t help much when he essentially described this deal as America’s parting gift to the region’s warring factions; that it was a dose of reality that would compel them to live with Iran’s primacy, and to “share” the turf. Notwithstanding what we think about the mechanics of the deal, I think many of us can agree that its timing was off, adversely confirming the optics of America shedding its long-standing alliances with the Saudis and Israelis, for example. Even more problematic is the timing of the president’s “premature unburdening”—as one friend described it—to The Atlantic as to his motivations for doing what he did.

In light of the Obama years and the doctrine exercised throughout them, my schadenfreude is a pyrrhic one. All our clans lose. All our banners are besmirched. It will be difficult to shed ‘The Blob’ appellation; blood has been drawn from our cheeks, the prestige and esteem of the priestly class has been questioned. We have tripped, and our exalted scepter had rolled off into a gutter. We lie, face down in a murky puddle, and should we look up, there would be many “more grinning faces than helping hands.” We can pretend it never happened, but the crowds outside the temple will long remember what transpired over the last eight years. We have all been diminished, all of us from all sides of our ecumenical convocation. What’s the value in any of us being right if we can’t be influential, if we can’t do much to help the region we care about?

As interpreters, or the class of dragomans as Lewis framed it, we know interpretation goes both ways, for we also have to explain Washington to interlocutors, friends and acquaintances in the Middle East. And it is so hard to explain America’s disinterest to them. Many would infer conspiracy—that all-powerful America is up to something. Probably more of the “creative chaos” theory that they had heard about. Or is it revenge for September 11, 2001 by purposely setting the region on fire? To think that America is washing its hands of their destinies is too scary a thought even for those who bristled at its heavy-handed interventions of the past. They know that an absent America is just as dark of a prospect as a present America making a mess of things. The anti-American forces, those who put sentiment to action, and have been pushing for an American withdrawal for decades, are doing a victory lap. America had mitigated and stunted their revolutionary prospects—socialist, Islamist, nationalistic, now jihadist. They justified their means, and their legitimacy, by decrying America’s reliance on a retrograde and morally indefensible status quo. America could not even be trusted when it began speaking about democracy and liberalism as its new motive for reshaping the region. Nowadays, America showed its hand by cutting and leaving, lacking the stamina and belief in itself that the forces hostile to it had long underscored. We stand there in the middle, unable to advise, flailing at explaining. Not only do we have to be mindful of reorienting America’s interests and consequently its general interest, we are saddled too with responsibility of articulating a hopeful vision for what America will do for the many millions awaiting its yearned-for benevolence and wisdom. They want to believe in it despite its lackluster track record, or what they had been told. After all, what’s the alternative?

Dragomans were not content with merely interpreting words and cultures; they set out to shape international relations. I contend that our craft is heavy on analysis, short on strategy. Analysis is reactive, its scope is to interpret and manage uncertainty, while strategy seeks to pre-empt uncertainty. Washington’s policy knife-fights have engendered an atmosphere of extreme caution for those understandably seeking career advancement. After all, what’s the point of being right if one can’t pay off a mortgage? I would cite a book called The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture (2010) by the pseudonymous Ishmael Jones to demonstrate the contours of the current atmosphere and what it does to policy making and implementing those policies. Attempts at institutional reform have been made, but the real problem lies within how the debate has been managed. There is too much prevaricating, too much of the ‘on the one hand, then on the other hand’ hedge. There is too much dramatic eye rolling and raspy gasping when presented with ‘dangerous’ knowledge and alarming projections, for boldness blots a resume. Which is odd to my mind since the paradigm of American diplomacy at the country’s founding—when the Founding Fathers such as Franklin, Adams and Jefferson served as ambassadors during the revolutionary war—serves as an exceedingly bold example of hoping for too much, and going ‘big’. The establishment (‘The Blob’) must regenerate itself by leaving more room for those who can leverage analysis into strategy, and do so boldly and confidently, as Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi did. The impulse to vilify new and original thinking of the ‘risky’ variety should be tempered and discouraged.

Conflagration, slow burn, or dying embers?

If we look really hard for a silver lining, then one incoming presidential candidate may understand the power of prestige, given his commercial branding ventures, and may want to project US power again in the region to ward-off upstarts and competitors. I’ve heard from several otherwise thoughtful men and women in the Middle East say that they prefer candidate Trump because “he seems crazy enough to scare off the bad actors in the neighborhood.” Trump may even make the case that a portion of America’s wealth is premised on how that prestige overpowers competitors in world markets, and losing that share may adversely affect the future prospects of an American lower middle class that he claims to worry about. The other candidate brings deep knowledge of the situation and a chip on her shoulder: she may want to reenact the policy battles she had lost to the president she served under, especially the ones that stepped back from taking a more activist role in places like Syria. Clinton and her staffers may keep the Iran deal in place after taking ownership for it, but rather than a parting gift it would be stepping stone of hers (see the CNAS recommendations that may inform for what a ‘Clinton Doctrine’ may shape up to be). Candidate Clinton may even see herself as a card-carrying member of ‘The Blob’, given that Rhodes included her in that category, and would consequently seek to redress the contempt levelled at her own, to rehabilitate her legacy and theirs.

Yet I can’t but sense that much of the ground that America has ceded by its studied ‘departure’ will not be reclaimed easily. It may take a ‘crazy’ flexing of moxie to recalibrate perceptions, the appetite for which isn’t there, neither within the establishment nor among the general public.

Perceptions may solidify over the next year or so, and get acted upon. Would the Turks and Saudis, for example, wait around long enough for that silver lining to manifest itself while their people watch Kurdistan taking shape or Iran walking off with the spoils of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon? Unlikely. And why should they? Where’s the payoff in patience? They feel that they had been patient while waiting for Obama to do something, only to be surprised when he boldly and confidently confided to The Atlantic that he never had the intention to.

And if the Kurds part ways from Iraq, by tabling a referendum on independence to be held this year, then why would Shia chauvinists want to stay in the remaining parts of Iraq with Sunnis in their midst? They—probably with Maliki at their helm as he plots a political comeback—would argue for a further partition of the country, leaving the Sunnis to their own devices.

Obama’s intent solidified in conjunction with his solidifying views on Iraq. Which is sad really, since by looking away from Iraq, he missed out on spotting a number of opportunities. For whatever disappointments and trepidations that Iraq may prompt when the subject is raised, Iraq is the only place in the Middle East that can still claim to have a robust conversation. Oil is not Iraq’s key point of relevance; its political process is.

Did Obama draw the correct lessons from Iraq and apply them while still having to manage Iraq during the past eight years, however reluctantly? The results suggest that he did not. One of Obama’s policies seems to have been one of expressing steadfast support for Maliki, even when the latter began adopting Shia chauvinism as his narrative and guiding policy during his second term. The political process in Iraq reacted and tried to address the polarization that Maliki had introduced into the Iraqi conversation. It was partly for this reason that a number of politicians began maneuvering to unseat the prime minister through parliamentary and constitutional procedures in the summer of 2012. The Iranians would have none of it, but so too the Americans. An opportunity had presented itself, but what clinched the outcome in Maliki’s favor was the perception that the Americans also did not want to see him changed. So not only was a trend misinterpreted—Shia chauvinism, which led consequently to the resurgence of Sunni jihadism—but the opportunity to stem it before it could lead to disaster was not acted upon.

What were Obama’s take aways from his experience with Maliki? Again, the evidence suggests that the president and his staff did not factor in the importance of politics throughout their evolving plan to do something about the Islamic State. Belatedly, they signed on to the consensus that Maliki should not enjoy a third term in office after having lost a third of the country on his watch. Yet what followed did not build upon that realization. The one thing that the Americans had to get right was not to conflate the defeat of the jihadists with the defeat of the Sunnis in the public mind. To do so, there was plenty of politicking to do. There were many opportunities to make it seem less so of a Shia triumphalist and revanchist campaign. Or a Kurdish hegemonic one for that matter. It is my view that many of those opportunities were missed. What we are left with is the current toxic sectarian and ethnic narratives swarming around an otherwise successful military campaign to take Fallouja in Iraq and Manbij in Syria, for example. Much of this toxicity could have been mitigated and contained through politics and media, even if it were cosmetic in essence. But they weren’t. So one needs to ask, what will the long-term consequences be?

It is not as if the Obama administration did not have the time, bandwidth or influence necessary to plan and execute better. A major Middle Eastern city, Mosul, had fallen in the hands of an enemy, whose malevolence and the need to address it should have been an easy sell to Western societies. I appreciate the reasons that prevented the administration from taking a more activist approach—sending tens of thousands of troops to war—and its preference for incrementalism, a policy that was actually put into effect before Mosul fell (imbedding ‘advisors’, providing drone strikes, while accelerating the delivery of armaments to the Iraqi military, all began months before Mosul). But once a decision for a cautious and measured approach was taken, then the long term consequences of leaving the enemy in control of said major metropolis for two years should have been considered, and provisioned for. Providing a convincing and compelling political answer to ‘What would life after the Islamic State look like?’ should have been a priority as important as making it clear that living with the Islamic State would bear prohibitive costs to the populations living under them. That answer still eludes us. It eludes largely because the possibilities of a political life in Baghdad were not thoroughly explored. The Obama administration may throw its hands up in resignation to suggest that America has very little leverage remaining in the country. But it is simply not true. I know it not to be true because every Iraqi politician I speak to asks me, with bated breath, “What do the Americans think?” I’m expected to give an answer being a dragoman between the two worlds. What should I say? That “America thinks that the importance you assign to its opinion is misplaced”? America can still do a lot with the prevailing perceptions of its power. It has chosen not to for the most part, at least when it comes to shaping Iraqi politics, or harnessing its fluidity.

And what should the Saudis do when the proto-jihadists in their midst watch Aljazeera and Al-Arabiya spin the Fallouja operations as yet further examples of Sunni or Arab impotence? Wouldn’t a Saudi version of Rami assign some of that blame and impotence to his own rulers? Do we think that the Saudi royals can live with that? What are the long-term consequences of that perception solidifying?

Or why, for that matter, would Arabs in northern Syria ‘normalize’ the prospect of being liberated by ethnic Kurds, even if that liberation bore the fig leaf of Arab participation? There’s a 1000-page tome, written in Arabic and published in 2013, by Syrian historian Muhammad Jamal al-Barot under the cumbersome title of A Contemporary History of the Syrian Jazeerah: Challenges of Urban Transition for Nomadic Communities that can help us answer that question. Those Arabs are unlikely to normalize Kurdish hegemony, for there is preceding three hundred year saga of warlords, clans and ideologies asserting themselves in that space, a saga recalled and amplified with every dispute over local water rights, or a lamb gone missing. Using Kurds to take Manbij is militarily convenient, but with the politics going unaddressed, politics that can only thrive when space for a conversation is available, then the victory won’t hold, or turn ‘normal’ for quite a while. The indefensible alternative of keeping Manbij under the Islamic State was not the only other option; there was time and leverage to manufacture options ahead of it. The lessons of al-Barot’s book went unlearned too.

The Baghdad Playbook

One of the earliest narratives that solidified about Iraq concerned de-Ba’athification, mainly that it was a mistake, a mistake approaching the magnitude of ‘original sin’. That it was employed as sectarian revenge against Sunnis and in effect precipitated the insurgency and made it inevitable. Contesting this narrative would be tantamount to tinkering with an established dogma of the Iraq debate in Washington. Interestingly, I was fortunate to be part of an Iraqi debate about it that unfolded on Facebook. See, some leading Ba’athists had formed the impression that de-Ba’athification was my idea. It wasn’t, but given my hardline on Ba’athists, one that I expressed publicly and widely on all sorts of media platforms, and my role in establishing the Higher National Commission for De-Ba’athfication, as well as my association with Chalabi at the time, then one can understand why that impression may have come to be.

It all began when Dhafir al-Ani, a vocal Arab Sunni politician (now spokesman of the main Sunni bloc in parliament), who is perceived to be an apologist for Ba’athism, responded to a Facebook post that I had written on the ninth anniversary of the Iraq War falling on April 9, 2012. I, naturally, still celebrated Iraq’s ‘liberation’, and I wrote thanking the Americans for bringing it about. Ani was indignant, asking: “would a family whose daughter was raped by American soldiers be thankful too?” He then challenged me to a debate, and I agreed to it, conditioned as it is on him debating me as an academic (which he was, previously at the Political Science faculty of Baghdad University) and not a point-scoring politician. What followed was a debate which lasted for eight days; with hundreds of posts and comments exchanged between the two of us on my Facebook wall, and many other participants chiming in. Early on, we settled on a title for our talk: ‘A Dialogue Whose Time Has Not Lapsed: The New Iraq; Original Sin, or the Hour of Creation?’ Naturally, too, Ani began with citing the ‘fact’ that de-Ba’athification was purposely designed to punish Sunnis. I’ll spare you my retort, not that I thought it convinced him otherwise, but what was exciting at that moment was the fact that we could still have a conversation about it at all. An anti-Ba’athist and a pseudo-Ba’athist (or crypto-, or neo-, opinions about Ani vary) were discussing de-Ba’athification in a candid, open, non-vindictive manner, within a decade of the event. We didn’t stop there, we went back in time to the Saddam years, and then visited the sectarian bloodletting of 2004-8, and then brought things back to the reign of then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. We discovered, much to our mutual amazement, that there was room for both of us to reject Shia chauvinism.

Ani and I met in person a couple of months later. We had figured out that a family that we were both friends with was having a wake for one of their dead in the Mansour district of Baghdad. We agreed to meet there, pay our respects, and then head to the nearby book show at the Baghdad Fairground. We walked around, talking and browsing. I got him a gift: the autobiography of Hashemi Rafsanjani, translated into Arabic. This was one little way I could tell him that his read of Iranian politics should be more nuanced. A mutual friend, making the rounds with us, spotted Muqtada al-Sadr’s nephew, thought to be his uncle’s political heir apparent, and decided to introduce both me and Ani to him. Accompanying the nephew was an important Sadrist strategist, who immediately volunteered, once the niceties had been exchanged, “It seems we now have a ceasefire with you, Nibras.” He was alluding to another societal and political sector, the Sadrists, some of whom deemed me a fiery opponent. Most recently to this chance encounter, the acrimony between us concerned my stance on wanting US troops to stay, even suggesting that Iraq should join NATO in some capacity, while singling out the Sadrists, committed as they were to rejecting any American presence, as dangerously misguided. I don’t know whether this fellow had followed my debate with Ani, or had read some other of my writings, but at that moment, there was common ground between us on an anti-Maliki platform. A ceasefire was indeed in effect. But that’s the magic of politics and the possibilities and opportunities that present themselves when there’s room for a conversation.

For Kanan Makiya, original sin came to pass when, a few days after the Americans liberated Najaf, the followers of Sadr murdered Majid al-Khoei. The sin pervaded Iraqi politics as Shia politicians decided not to hold one of their own, Sadr, accountable for a crime committed against another of their own. Makiya made his case very recently in the form of a novel, The Rope. The case is both correct and compelling. Yet what is amazing is not that Makiya wrote this book, but that its Arabic language version is selling briskly in al-Mutannabi, Baghdad’s ‘street of books’. Dozens of favorable reviews have been written about it in Iraqi newspapers and on Facebook. A conversation about Makiya’s premise has folded in within the larger conversation about Iraq’s recent past and prospects.  The very paradigm of a ‘street of books’, where religious polemics jostle alongside the Arabic translations of Richard Dawkins, is in itself a marvel, especially given the traumas collectively experienced by the multitudes of young and old, men and women, who throng the street on Fridays. Conversations abound at the margins, in cafés and impromptu gatherings.

One conversation thread came up with the idea, or rather the brand, of madaniyya. An indigenous term that connotes civicism and cosmopolitanism. One whose definition is still being hashed out in the Iraqi conversation. It is used by Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s crew during Friday sermons, as well as by the Iraqi version of Mariam. Arguably, it ignited last summer’s protests, or at least framed their demands. Even Sadr has latched onto those protest in recent months, aligning himself to some degree with its more vocal ‘liberal secular’ proponents, one of whom is second in command, so to speak, in the Iraqi Communist Party. Mesopotamia is still coming up with some good ideas, applicable not only to Iraq but maybe even to Northern Syria, maybe further beyond. It is happening because the Iraqi conversation about Iraq is ongoing and dynamic. Encoded within the Iraqi constitution, passed in 2005, is one of the best formulas that can address that country’s issues and the Middle East at large: federalism. It is unique in that regard, a conceptual leap forwards. The question is, is Washington missing out on a phenomenon such as madaniyya and the promise of functional federalism because its own Iraq conversation has grown rigid and stagnant? Does that imply its inability to learn new lessons from Iraq that may help Iraq, and points north, south, east and west across the Middle East?

In the same vein, are enough people in Washington taking the Beirut Madinati movement seriously? Or are the ‘lessons learned from Lebanon’, arrived at in the 1980s, too dogmatically entrenched to be questioned and reconsidered?  There too, a Lebanese conversation is beginning to find its space. A conversation that began over garbage collection. What chance would such a conversation have in that most superficially cosmopolitan, yet deeply tribal of a society, the pessimists may argue? We are eventually going to find out. Yet the very least we can do, all of us, is keep it in mind. Dismissing the phenomenon, this early on, seems to be unfair, and hasty.

[Here’s a thought: I’m sure that the Iraqi madaniyya movement, as well as that of Beirut Madinati, would greatly appreciate a cascade of leaks concerning the bank accounts and wire transfers of Iraqi and Lebanese politicians. It is the dollar that is being fleeced and dyed in the back alleys of Middle Eastern finance, not the gold dinar of the Islamic State. Having the legal tender of the United States mishandled in such a manner should prompt America to take action. I’m sure the US Treasury has a fair idea of where to look for that kind of information, and the wherewithal to get it.]

Managing the Fire Pit

My assertion that Iraq is the only place where a real, no-holds-barred conversation is still occurring may be a tall order for some to accept. I welcome arguments that may contest it. But I look around the region, whether towards Iran, or Turkey, or Egypt, or the Persian Gulf, and I see very little of it. The many Springs that came and went in Beirut, Tehran, Cairo, and Istanbul were about trying to start a conversation. But in the current static landscape, it may seem that the conversation hangs in mid-sentence, on mute. A decade after its own Spring, only Beirut seems to be bucking the trend, again.  Israel is a democracy, but surely a democracy without a conversation about the fires surrounding it cannot be thought of as normal. In fact, the Obama Doctrine as it relates to the Middle East seems eerily copied from that of Netanyahu’s: stand back, let it burn out, pivot to India and China, and prosper in the meantime.

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N. Kazimi, Civil War 1, 2014, 36” x 48”

If the best that can be hoped is a new Middle Eastern generation led by young lieutenants, princes and religious adepts who can keep Rami in prison, or somehow keep him distracted by the flashy wares on display in an entrepôt along the lines of Dubai, then that seems to be an unreasonable gamble. This line of thinking is betting on a slow-burn within the fire pit, eventually petering out into embers and ash. We should all truly wish that Prince Muhammad bin Salman knows what he is doing with his radical plans to overhaul Saudi Arabia. Let’s hope that radical change ushered in by that young prince there does not whet the appetite of the radicals within his peer group. They, such as Rami, may have other ideas as to what constitutes radical change. And it is no surprise that jihadist extremists, as well as Shia chauvinists, have big plans for Saudi Arabia: it is there where they can make their ventures ‘permanent’, for there are many prizes for the taking in the Arabian Peninsula should their revolutions conflagrate beyond the confines of the fire pit. The decisions that a young Saudi Rami may take over the next decade there shall set the course of history in the region we care so much about. The problem is, we don’t know too much about him. There’s a fantastic book out there with the nifty title Joyriding in Riyadh (2014). It takes an anthropological approach to the study of urban alienation among Saudi youth. I can’t believe that the author, Pascal Menoret, got funding for his research and its write-up, for it is a decisively personal account, at points verging on stream of consciousness. I applaud the thesis supervisors and publishers of Cambridge University Press who let this through the academic cordons; it is bold, it is risky, and it is supremely illuminating. I can’t speak for Lewis, Ajami or Chalabi, but I think they may have enjoyed it. What it tells us though, is that we should be very worried about Bin Salman’s prospects, however deftly his plan his executed.

Having to click through a snazzy and well-designed website explaining what the Saudi 2030 Vision is supposed to be, drawn up as it was by slick international consultants and thorough economists, seems to be a far easier prospect that having to sift through the raucous, rambunctious noise of Iraq’s madaniyya, or trying to follow the digressions of Lebanese intellectuals. I don’t begrudge Bin Salman getting much choreographed face-time with the movers and shakers of ‘The Blob’; actually I would say better him than some other vestiges of the Middle Eastern status quo. What I do lament is that there is very little sounding out being given to Mariam, whether she is of the Kuwaiti, Lebanese, Iraqi or Iranian variety. There is no infrastructure that reliably tracks her trajectory, or judges its viability.

This is what I worry about: I worry that some young Sunnis around the region, fed as they have been on sectarian and revolutionary narratives, may sense remorse, a few years down the line, when they see that the caliphate has been defeated while they stood back, idle and helpless. Some young Shias and Kurds may understand the victory to be their own, one that they must keep safe by beating down on Sunnis. Numbers wise, this sentiment may end up representing the minority view on either side. The question becomes, how big of a minority will it be, and can it gather the critical mass to do something about it, especially if they fan out into ideological spaces not filled by alternatives? Small, determined groups of people holding the minority view have successfully altered the course of history many times in the past. If there isn’t a big idea to hold them over, to give meaning to the victory, something that speaks to their better angels, then a wider turn towards radicalization among this Middle Eastern generation may ensue. Those cross currents of meta-narratives may carry them over towards revolution, time and time again. Left without an idea to anchor them, an idea such as madaniyya or whatever they may want to call it, they will lift up, with larger numbers, more caliphal ventures, more revanchist schemes.

[I also worry about the sustainability of a “perpetual state of suppression” as Clapper put it. I think he is suggesting that air superiority—satellite imagery, drones, F-16s, etc.—will continue to be the most handy tool in America’s as it puts a lid on the security challenges presented by the jihadists. But as technology ‘democratizes’ and spreads, how can we be assured that a talented young Rami wouldn’t figure out a way to counter it over the next decade or so? The technology is there; the Russians have it, for example. We should not assume that this situation of technological disparity will remain static.]

My last column for the now-deceased New York Sun ended with this paragraph:

Going back to Afghanistan is an abhorred historical regression, and certainly the pride of the Zarqawists, the most radical and once most successful of the jihadists, will not allow them to hide away in some cave in Waziristan after they had attempted a project as historically grand as the new caliphate in Baghdad. They will come back bigger, deadlier and far more audacious, as is their style, the next time around. Mr. Obama and his European hosts need to update what they think they know about the enemy before the enemy catches its breath.

I wrote that in the summer of 2008, as candidate Obama was touring Europe during an election season that would later win him the presidency. Back then, I was sure that the jihadist insurgency in Iraq was dying out. I was also sure that it would make a comeback if ‘victory’ was mishandled. I credit my past apprenticeship under the guidance of my mentors with the ability to spot this trend. I confess that I felt a numbness, a hollowness when the comeback happened, when I saw so much of the mysteries and idiosyncrasies of Mosul—ancient Assyrian temples, Sufi shrines, the manuscripts of early Christianity hidden away in cliff-hanging monasteries, Yezidis performing their rituals—adventures that I had never had the chance to explore, erased. How frivolous was I to care about such things, when basic human decency was being systematically assaulted?

Yet I refuse to wallow in despair. I refuse to care less.

Again, should we warn time and time again that the region may conflate into a wider inferno, then all we do is to implicitly confirm the talking points that the Middle East is hopeless, that America should give that fire a wide berth. Our self-immolating counter-recriminations will devolve into irrelevance, confirming our ‘Blob’-ness.

There must be another way. Those of us who know the Middle East, who care about it and its people, know that there’s hope for the region, and by extension hope and redemption for ourselves too. We may have met many Ramis, but we are also finding many Mariams out there.

For their sake, and for ours, let us extend the ceasefire. There will much room for snarky repartees later, should that element of the debate be missed. But we may find them witty then, rather than biting and venomous. Another crypto-Ba’athist Iraqi politician, Saleh al-Mutlag, finds much joy in addressing me as ‘comrade’, in the Ba’athist sense—needling my sensibilities—but whereas many years ago I would have been offended, nowadays I can needle him back by using comrade in the Communist sense. All it took to make that transition was a conversation.

If the two of us can have such conversations, then why is it so difficult to imagine a sober reflection over the legacies of Lewis, Ajami and Chalabi in Washington without breaking ranks into angry tribes? It just seems doctrinaire and pedantic. Let our hyper-sensitivity towards that legacy, as detractors and supporters, jolt us into realizing how sour the conversation has turned. Let what Obama told The Atlantic, and what Rhodes added to it in the New York Times Magazine, with Clapper chiming in to Ignatius, alert us as what that sourness has wrought.

Beyond that, we can begin asking the sorts of questions, and finding the lowest common denominator, as to how to enable Mariam to become a leader of her generation, and what America could reasonably do for her, given its distancing, given its unwillingness to do much. The very least we can do is to talk about her.


Weaponizing History

Religious extremists in the Middle East, both Sunni and Shia, wield historical precedence to inform and legitimize their actions and strategies. It is one of the most powerful tools in their polemical arsenal, one that can successfully mobilize young men to action and, when necessary, explain away their temporary setbacks. This propaganda works because it stands on a firm, pre-existing foundation of how history is remembered by those they seek to recruit. Yet Islamic history provides an opportunity for pushback against extremism. Surprisingly, even with an abundance of tools at our disposal, the extremist version of history goes largely unchallenged.

A decade ago, I was zipping around the mountains of the Syrian coast pretending to look at castles. Castles big and small, some well preserved, others crumbling, once Crusader, then Assassin, at other times Arab. Castles that have changed many hands over the course of time, and some of which have found new strategic value in the current Syrian civil war. But what I was really doing was stealing a visit here and there to the Alawite shrines that dot the high ground across the mountain range. I was motivated by sheer curiosity. There was a five hundred year gap in the story of the Alawites, a secretive and schismatic Shia sect, who went on to capture absolute power in the 1970s. Five hundred years that somehow went missing from the historical record. The saints and holy men who led their communities during those five centuries are still venerated at those idyllic shrines, lit with candles, incense and prayers—where strangers to the sect, such as myself, are suspect and unwelcome. I just wanted to map out who was buried where and when, hoping to gain some insight into that historical gap. At one point, while driving through a pine forest up to the castle of Abu Qubeis, I spotted a bush laden with caper berries by the side of the road. An opportunity for pickling, I thought. I hadn’t noticed the old man across the sparsely-travelled road, sitting among the trees by a mountain stream. He was the proprietor of an outdoor coffee shop, blessed with gorgeous views and shade, albeit with no customers (at the time) and a few chairs strewn about. He beckoned me over, curious as to what this stranger was doing on that quiet afternoon. A conversation that began with pickling techniques veered somewhat rapidly into how much that old man hated Sunnis.

Having conversations about history, politics, sectarian identity and, really anything, to do with current events can lead to many security complications for a curious wanderer in Asad-ruled Syria. I was hesitant but the old fellow wanted to get a lot off his chest. I also felt somewhat safe since he seemed to believe that President Hafez al-Asad, who had died seven years prior to our encounter, was still alive and well. This old man would be an unlikely informant for the secret police, I thought. His most memorable line was “those who hated your grandfather are unlikely to be kind to you. I am an Alawite and I spit on anyone who has the slightest problem with that.” His gripe with the Sunnis extended from what he had seen during their uprising in the early 1980s, when “they killed the flower of the Alawite community” to hundreds of years back when they hounded his ancestors out of the cities and plains of Syria into their mountain redoubts. He also drew a line from the past into the future: “If they come at us again, President Hafez will smash them again. And in the worst case scenario, if we lose the rest of Syria, then we will fight them on this mountain, and go our separate ways, as we did before.” This was said to me in the summer of 2007. The stirrings of the Syrian civil war were still five years away. The old man was short on short-term memory, but history gave him the long view into the past, and into the future. A view that was at once cautionary about what to expect, and instructive as to what should be done.

The use of history in constructing the narratives of identity, of common origins, of a shared experience, and of a soon-to-be fulfilled purpose is not new or unique. Sects, religions, ethnicities, tribes, political ideologies, and other corporate bodies borrow heavily from history to frame their trajectories, to propagate, and to undergird their authenticity. In this sense, history confers legitimacy and infers destiny. There are many examples to cite from the twentieth century as various ideologies and regimes in the Middle East constructed new identities for themselves. Arab nationalism borrowed from the might and vitality of the Arab conquests of the region in the 7th century to highlight the redeeming possibilities of an Arab awakening after a centuries long slumber at the margins of empire. The Turks remembered their own distinct story, departing from Central Asia and swarming over vast territories and leaving newfound empires in their wake, even breaking into Europe and reigning supreme over large tracts of that continent. The Shah of Iran resurrected the pomp and splendor of ancient Persia to lend regality and majesty to his reign. In the same vein, what is Zionism if not an archival land deed, remembered, dusted-off, and yearned for as one laments what was lost? In Iraq, Saddam Hussein not only rode the heady visions of Arab glory but specifically called the Iran-Iraq War the ‘Second Qadisiyya’ in reference to the first battle of its name where the Arabs delivered a mortal blow to the Sassanid Persians and evicted them from the land of Mesopotamia (636 AD). Saddam went back further into the annals of that land to refashion himself as a latter-day avatar of King Nebuchadnezzar’s, he of Biblical fame, ruling from the land of Babylon and projecting expansionist designs, while breaking the spirit of the Jews in the process. Much like Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam rebuilt the ruined city of Babylon—committing archeological and cultural desecration by doing so—and inserted his name into the brickwork, laid thousands of years ago, by Jewish captives taken into slavery.

History not only enables those who cite it to define themselves, but to define their enemies as well. They can connect the dots between historical episodes to extrapolate conspiracy: the ‘enemy’ has always been the enemy because that is who he is. That was how that old Alawite man understood the enmity of Sunnis. Saddam was demonstrating that the Arab-Persian rivalry was as old as time, and that the Jews, empowered as they are in the modern era by the rebirth of Israel, have always been a nuisance; one that previous (and present) kings of Mesopotamia were destined to deal with.

Yet the extremists of the Middle East today, both Sunni and Shia, are employing history differently, in a way that is not only reactive and descriptive, but rather prescriptive. They use it in a way that is both specific and strategic to instruct policy. That history is “readily intelligible to both educated and uneducated Muslims,” as Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian who boasts the distinction of being the first to articulate the challenge of radical Islamism for the West, put it in his book The Crisis of Islam (2003). “It offers a set of themes, slogans, and symbols that are profoundly familiar and therefore effective in mobilizing support and in formulating both a critique of what is wrong and a program for putting it right,” he adds. Remembering the past is not a tool of mere inspiration or for marking enemies when utilized by the extremists, the past is their blueprint for resetting history back to a time they could take pride in.

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Islamic State fighters parade in Mosul

It is analytically useful to understand the Islamic State as it understands itself. As far as they are concerned, their story did not begin with the proclamation of the resurrected caliphate in September June 2014, nor its predecessor the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Theirs is a ten-year venture that began during October 2006, when they put the world on notice with their announcement of the Islamic State of Iraq. The jihadists, back then, understood the implications, and the hazards of what they were about to do. They knew that it would focus the hostility not only of their apparent enemies, such as the United States and the Shia, but also that of their ideological cousins, the other jihadist groups orbiting the Salafist constellation. The jihadists of the nascent Islamic State anticipated the refrain of rejection and hesitation: this is too bold, too grand, too soon. Their ideological cousins would immediately recognize that this is indeed the caliphate, attempted. An attempt fraught with ideological peril and uncertainty, even though it is the end-goal of many Salafists. It would sow dissent and acrimony at a time when all groups should be singularly focused on the goal of waging jihad against the West and the internal enemies lurking within Islamic lands. But the ‘trailblazers’ of the new caliphate had ready and—as far as they are concerned—convincing answers, for they were standing firmly on historical precedent, harking back to the time of early Islam. As such, they were not trailblazers at all, but were simply rediscovering a trail first embarked upon by Muhammed, the prophet, the actual trailblazer of the faith.

The Islamic State published a book in January 2007 titled ‘Informing the People About the Birth of the State of Islam.’ They sought to preempt the debate about timing and method. Their polemical coup de grâce was to cite the state-building venture of Muhammad at Medina. Muhammed did not wait around for the conditions to turn optimal in Mecca. His calling compelled him to strike out boldly, against incredible odds. He left his native city and found refuge among the Medinan ‘youths’ who had pledged themselves to his prophecy. His was a precarious venture, at once tenuous, and due for a number of setbacks. Muhammad did not reign supreme as he began to wield authority and manage the day-to-day affairs of his flock. He had to contend with a mixed city that boasted, for example, confident, armed and well-positioned Jewish tribes, that were not about to part with their faith for his. He had to wage war against his Meccan detractors, or consequently suffer their counter-attacks. Yet even in the bleakest of times, the jihadists remind us, Muhammad foresaw that what he was setting out to build in Medina would subjugate the mighty and nearby empires of Byzantium and Persia. These visions did not strike the true believers around him as loony, even during the darkest of times, so why would the detractors of the Islamic State in the twenty first century counsel against going too big, too soon? The territory they believed to be controlling in 2006 in Iraq was magnitudes larger than Muhammed’s tiny toehold. Conditions then did not deter him, they why should they do so nowadays? In fact, they argued, there were many similarities between what he faced and what was happening in Iraq. If only the jihadists would follow his example, and enact his steps by going back to the basics, then the jihad would recapture the path back towards redemption and righting what went wrong.

The motif of going back to the basics has a rich tradition in Islamic dogma, and thus the method and argumentation of the modern jihadists would not strike their ideological cousins, or the audience at large, as contrived. The medieval Syrian jurist, Ibn Taymiyya, writing at a time of Muslim decline following the Mongol invasions and the sacking of Baghdad, also argued for revisiting the early days of Islam to recapture the vitality of the faith. He inspired many later movements, most notably, in the eighteenth century, the Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula, who put his theories into practice to much martial success over successive attempts spanning three centuries. The vast majority of today’s Salafists draw inspiration from Ibn Taymiyya and the creeds he launched. The very meaning of the Arabic word ‘salaf’ connotes that community of early Islam, when it was pure, pristine and powerful, or so they believe. It also helps that Wahhabism eventually became the credo of modern, deep-pocketed Saudi Arabia. ‘Going back to the basics’ is a well-funded and widely propagated idea. The jihadists of the Islamic State were merely stretching it further.

And further they did. Resurrecting a caliphate implies the necessity of picking a caliph, which is no easy thing. Theoretically, at least, he (and of course he would have to be a ‘he’) would be both the spiritual and temporal leader of the world’s billion or so Sunni Muslims. That alone would seem daunting. It does not help that historical precedence on this topic is itself problematic. The Salafists, and many more Sunnis, believe that only the first four successors to Muhammad, the caliphs, can be counted as ‘righteously guided’. Yet history tells us that the process of picking those four turned out to be politically acrimonious. Three of the four met their demise through murder or assassination. The fluidity and messiness of the politics over the course of those three crucial decades many centuries ago later solidified into sectarian antipathy, giving us modern-day Shi’ism and Sunnism. That, however, did not deter medieval theorists or modern jihadists from formulating a mechanism to pick a caliph based on the four test cases that followed Muhammad’s death. The historical record is elastic by its very nature, and polemicists can stretch it out to fit current circumstances, rendering history books into recipe books. Not all the ingredients may be available, but the recipe can still be followed, albeit with some tweaking and minor substitutions, to arrive at a formula that works. Such was the formula the Islamic State leveraged as it announced its proto-caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the predecessor to ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ten years ago. Problem solved. Any questions? Kindly refer to early Islamic history, the jihadists would say.

They would say that because it works as a winning argument with their target audience: the Sunni populations of the Middle East that are to be incorporated into their caliphate in the first phase of its rebirth. By citing historical precedent to legitimize their actions, the jihadists enjoy standing on firm foundations. For the remembered and popularized past, such as Muhammad’s story in Medina, is present and mentally available for most of this audience, received as it were through curricula, the Friday sermon, and mass media.

The founding father of the particular strain of jihadism that gave us the Islamic State did not have to try very hard to stoke the fires of sectarianism in Iraq, for example. When the world watched Iraqis cheering on American soldiers pulling down Saddam’s statue off its pedestal in downtown Baghdad, Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi saw opportunity. He would frame his war as a fight against the Shias, who were now acting as the enablers of the Americans, a foreign non-Muslim army that had just occupied a gloried Sunni and caliphal capital, one that was specifically established to manage the sprawling Islamic empire. Zarqawi would employ sectarianism as the fast burning fuel necessary for mobilizing support for an even more ambitious enterprise, resurrecting the Islamic State. He was aided in doing so by a hate-speech campaign against the Shia that had primed his target audience to receive what he was about to advocate: the “total annihilation” of the Shia. Sectarian hate speech has been around for centuries, but it was mass propagated two decades prior to the Iraq War on the occasion of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, led by the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini in 1979. Those threatened by Khomeini’s revolutionary appeal, such as Saddam Hussein or the Saudis, felt compelled at the time to inoculate their populations against faith-inspired revolution by suggesting that Shi’ism itself was a grand conspiracy against Islam. Lots of money was marshalled by Iran’s enemies to saturate the airwaves, fill out library shelves, and lend wide currency to Shia perfidy. The result was that in many parts of the Sunni Arab Middle East, one would find many nodding heads, in 2003, when reminded that Shi’ism was ‘invented’ by a devious Jew-turned-Muslim called Ibn Saba in the early days following Muhammad’s death. European anti-Semitism (once re-propagated during the heyday of Arab Nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s) fused with the Islamic historical record to brand the Shias as the ‘internal Jews’. In the late nineties, one could find a book—an Arabic language forgery based thematically on an earlier Russian forgery—with the curious title of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Qum’, on display in Amman and Cairo, purporting to be the secret plans of the Shia to take-over the region, a plan hatched in the religious seminaries of the Iranian city of Qum.

Consequently, Zarqawi could turn to Islamic history and find a poster boy for Shia treachery that would neatly fit the scenes of 2003. Actually, he would riff off a data point that Saddam had highlighted in his first letter following his ouster: For, prior to the last time Baghdad was dramatically sacked by a great power, the Mongols, in 1258, the day-to-day affairs of the once mighty Sunni Abbasid empire had been left in the hands of a Shia, the Grand Vizier Ibn al-Alqami. That was quite progressive of the Abbasids to put a minority candidate in charge, but that is not what Saddam and Zarqawi would like remembered from that episode. Their case was that Ibn al-Alqami conspired to weaken the defenses of the empire and to hand over Baghdad on a silver platter to the heathen enemy, much like the Shia of Iraq were doing nowadays, whom Zarqawi termed “the grandchildren of Ibn al-Alqami.” It is a neat and succinct narrative that organically grows out of a pre-existing anti-Shia narrative. Zarqawi leveraged the drama of history to explain the present, and it enabled him to suggest a solution, a final solution. There can be no moving forwards towards resurrecting the Islamic State until the Shia are dealt with, once and for all. Cue: civil war.

Yet pedantically citing historical instances as a propaganda tool is not enough. For it to truly resonate it must be dramatized. The drama of current events must match the drama of history. The actors of today must mimic and project the greatness of those individuals they cite from the early Islamic community. One literary minded jihadist authored a play depicting a late night conversation between the last Abbasid caliph and Ibn al-Alqami before the Mongol invasion. The ‘ghost of history’ lurks about, cast as the third protagonist on the scene. The drama seems to suggest that if only a jihadist of Zarqawi’s cut had been present, then he could have warned the caliph of what was coming, and could have exposed Ibn al-Alqami’s plot. The jihadists dramatically recall the parts of history they would like remembered, while simultaneously erasing, to much fanfare, the parts they would like forgotten. Maybe that explains their fixation with leveling the monuments of ancient Assyria and Palmyra, and capturing it all on YouTube. The glories and very presence of pre-Islamic civilizations crowds out their absolutist messaging, and even in this they can cite precedence: Did Muhammad not personally destroy the pagan idols of Mecca upon his victory? There can be only one version of history, theirs.

The jihadist proto-caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, relished playing the role of caliph. He had a flair for spectacle, showcasing his craft over the course of many audio speeches. In March 2007 Abu Omar went ahead and announced that he is annulling the ‘Pact of Omar’—a purported document codifying the discriminatory rules against Christians enacted by its namesake, the second caliph of Islam, one of the ‘Righteously Guided’ ones, in the 7th century. Consider the audacity that a wannabe caliph in the twenty first century can determine that a 1,400 year-old pact no longer applies, since the modern-day Christians have broken the rules, and that it time for the Christians to renegotiate the pact with him, the legal guardian of the Islamic faith. When brandishing such confidence and gall, when claiming to be on par with a ‘proper’ caliph from lore, can a layperson listening to the speech be truly faulted for being swayed by such a display of certitude?

In projecting historical drama, the jihadists know their audience. Actually, it is not that difficult to figure out what they are working with, and how they are purposely manipulating it. I know it by my own example: when I leaf through stodgy, scholarly books on early Islam, I catch myself visualizing what I am reading as scenes from a particular movie, The Message (1976). My mental image of what the buildings looked like, the colors, how people dressed, the background noises, and even the haircuts that early Muslims sported derive from it. Growing up in the Middle East, I must have seen this movie some twenty times, for the simple fact that it would reliably get aired at every Islamic occasion dotting the calendar, whether it be Eid, or Ramadhan, or Muhammad’s birthday. It was an epic and compelling production: a Syrian director, Libyan money, two separate versions in Arabic and in English, with the later starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas. The score was exhilarating—its composer Maurice Jarre was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Star Wars that year. The grand tales of early Islam that we had to read in schoolbooks came vividly alive on the screen. Eyes would widen as the warrior hero Hamza, Muhammad’s uncle, stole every scene. The movie had a big impact across Muslim lands and beyond: it was cited as one of the grievances behind the first act of Islamic terror in Washington DC, when a Nation of Islam off-shoot occupied three buildings in the capital in 1977, leaving two dead. They deemed the movie sacrilegious and were incensed that it was due to premiere on U.S. soil. Salafists were never enthusiastic about it, sensing that it portrayed early Islam in a manner that was sympathetic to the Shia version of history. They also have other issues to nitpick; one Salafist told me years ago that depicting the early Muslims as the movie did in all white garb is illogical since they would not have self-identified by their dress color, for example. Chillingly, the Syrian director was killed in November 2005 from injuries sustained after a suicide bomber, dispatched by Zarqawi’s organization, had detonated his explosive vest in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Amman.

anthony quinn the message

Anthony Quinn as Hamza, The Message

The movie, although controversial, was eminently influential in how dramatized history reached great numbers of Muslims in countries such as Iraq and Syria. The jihadists don’t seem to have any qualms of using that imagery to their advantage, despite the nitpicking of their ideological cousins. In fact, they seem to borrow heavily from it. Take the flag of the Islamic State, for example. It is so omnipresent now that even the 2016 Eurovision Contest had to make it officially clear that it is banned along with such as flags as those of the Basques Country and Northern Cyprus. The jihadists claim that this is the banner of Muhammad, under which the conquering armies of Islam brought the high and mighty empires of their day to their knees. It certainly looks authentic, with its archaic font and old-timey seal. It looks as if it would be something that the art department of The Message would have come up with as background ‘color’. Consider the jihadist victory parade into Mosul. Their convoys of trucks and tanks were preceded by a number of warriors on horseback. Their dress, and their manner of riding, evokes scenes from the aforementioned movie, as Muhammad returned to Mecca, a conqueror. Or let us take that sole televised speech of the current caliph, Abu Bakr, on the occasion of proclamation of the caliphate. There is something about the way he slowly ascends the pulpit in the main mosque of Mosul, how he turns to face the worshippers, how he speaks, what he is wearing (save for the watch), his stern yet contemplative mannerisms—it all seems very familiar. It seem so because modern media in the Middle East, whether through movies or television series, have depicted early Islam as such. Clearly, the jihadists have latched on to a pre-existing stage-set to amplify their messaging.

is swordsman

A still image from the Islamic State’s video, The Return of the Gold Dinar (August 2015)

In another speech by that first, audacious caliph, delivered on the occasion of President Barack Obama being elected president in November 2008, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi addresses “the new rulers of the White House” by using the same words and tone that Muhammad had used in letters allegedly dispatched by the prophet to the emperors of Byzantium and Persia. Again, the jihadists seem to be purposely evoking memorable scenes from The Message when these letters were read out at the imperial courts of the Middle East that a new religion, Islam, has emerged in Arabia. The movie ends by portraying Islam’s resounding victory over paganism at the moment when Muhammad brings down the statuesque idols within the Kaaba. The jihadists knew exactly what they were doing as they filmed themselves smashing and hacking away at the statues of prior civilizations down the corridors of the Museum of Mosul.

In recent years, some Shias have developed an extremist credo of their own, one that also borrows from history to enact present policy, chiefly that of revenge and secession as statecraft. This credo is driving events towards conflagration across the region in tandem with the jihadist agenda. It is important to understand the cyclical nature of extremism today in the Middle East: one cannot focus solely on the challenge posed by the policies and propaganda of the jihadists of the Islamic State, for Sunni and Shia extremists feed into each other. It is a toxic loop, which perpetually rationalizes why they need to go to extremes. The Shias may blame Zarqawi for “starting it” but had it not been for Shia heavy handedness against the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, then Zarqawi’s heirs may not have found an opportunity to stage a comeback.

Shi’ism, at heart, is a movement of restitution. Throughout the ages the Shias have justified their cause by citing what they perceive to be Sunni persecution of Muhammed’s dynasty, one whose claim to power was usurped, principally by the first three caliphs. They can cite one incident after another, stretching back 1,400 years, of how the prophet’s family had been wronged. The seminal event occurred in Karbala, on the day of Ashura, in 680 AD. Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, was massacred along with most of his family. The battle is re-enacted every year among Shia communities, in all its gore and drama, so much so that those portraying the bad guys may get assaulted and chased down through the streets by incensed mobs. History is ever-present, or as one Shia thinker coined it, “Every land is Karbala, every day is Ashura.” The fabric of time collapses and folds unto itself as the past is intensely remembered while the future draws nearer with the eschatological expectation of the savior, the Mahdi, descended as he is from Hussein’s loin, who shall right all wrongs. But should his arrival be delayed, Shi’ism can rapidly mobilize for the purpose of revanchism, striking back at the wrong-doers. We are witnessing such as an outbreak now, one that some Shia strategists in Tehran would like to see reshaping the Middle East. I have termed it ‘Shia chauvinism’ whose endgame would be to partition off Shia majority cantons around the Middle East, because Shias cannot go on living with Sunnis in unitary countries. There was too much bad blood, too much history, between the two sects.

The phenomenon of Shia chauvinism did not crystalize in my mind until I saw a photograph on the internet in 2012. The picture depicted a religious procession of Shia Iraqis, either in Iraq or somewhere in Iran, brandishing a banner. The banner had the visage of then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki under the caption: “Support the Mukhtar of our age.” The Mukhtar being referred to is a historical character who led a revanchist campaign against those who had participated in the Karbala massacre. He defeated some in battle, executed others, and arranged for the assassination of more. As avengers go, al-Mukhtar was a superstar in populist Shia lore, and the banner was suggesting that Maliki is his rightful successor as the Shia avenger against the Sunnis in our day. But just in case some had missed the connotation, the banner also depicted the Iranian actor who had portrayed the character of al-Mukhtar in a big production TV series first released in 2010 over the course of forty episodes. The Farsi language series was epic and very well made, dubbed eventually in Arabic, Urdu and other languages and shown across the Shia world. Someone was purposely reminding Shias of this historical precedent, and Maliki’s supporters, carrying that banner, were drawing a link between their man and a historical hero.


Banner proclaiming Maliki as the ‘Mukhtar of our age’

When I first saw that picture I thought that they had gone too far. That this picture would surely damn Maliki’s new line in mainstream Shia public opinion, one that could not possibly advocate wide revenge or strong-arm tactics against Sunnis. I was wrong. A large segment of Iraqi Shias thirsted for revenge following the excesses of Zarqawi and his heirs, even after the Sunni insurgency was soundly defeated in 2008-9. They wanted Sunnis humiliated. A year afterwards, Maliki’s political machine was commissioning songs that play up the ‘Mukhtar of our age’ appellation. The slogan was successfully put to use in the 2014 election cycle, the outcome of which gave Maliki a plurality of the vote. But it also gave us the ISIS comeback in Falluja in January 2014 (before the vote), and the fall of Mosul (after the vote). Shia chauvinism had also mobilized Shias from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and even Afghanistan to rally behind the pseudo-Shia Alawite regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria to face off against the Syrian Sunnis challenging him. Sectarianism breathed new life in the jihadist cause there, riding a desire for Sunni restitution and revenge in Damascus. Seen through the prism of history, it all made sense to the target audiences: war was inevitable; the enemies of the past were standing in the way of the future.

By enveloping themselves in the cloak of history, the extremists from both sides can radiate an aura of certainty. This certitude will make it very difficult to convince them of the need for reconciliation, both with the past and with the present. It also means that it will be very difficult to convince them that they are losing, or have lost. By citing precedent and conspiracy, they can explain away setbacks. They can tell themselves that they got the recipe wrong somewhere, and all they need to do it to go back to the basics to try and try again until it gets going. The stench of past glories, the musky manuscripts that speak of ancestral feats, the decay of once-glorious cities, excite their senses. It is excessively hard to let go of the legacy of greatness. Its loss gnaws at them. It haunts them. They will keep trying. As far as the jihadists are concerned, they were left for dead in 2009. They were thought to be a spent force, its remnants living out a precarious existence in the deserts of Iraq. Then they came back. They made no excuses for the doctrinal overreach of declaring the Islamic State in 2006 that had turned so many other jihadist and Salafist groups against them. They felt they were right all along, and that their temporary setbacks mirrored ones that Muhammad had experienced himself. Not only did they make no excuses, but this time around they called a spade a spade: “Yes, world, this is the caliphate resurrected” they proclaimed. Their righteousness and certainty was foretold by precedence. History is their refuge, their sanctuary. They stand on firm ground. And if that terrain goes unchallenged, they will keep coming back. But it is not all doom and gloom: It just so happens that challenging them on the received facts of history is easier than what many may imagine.

Back in January, some three hundred moderate Muslim scholars gathered in Morocco to reaffirm the ‘Charter of Medina’. They did so to counter the excesses of the Islamic State against minorities such as the Christians and Yezidis who had the misfortune of falling under the new caliphate. The Charter of Medina was a constitution enacted by Muhammad to manage relations with non-Muslims like those Jewish tribes that lived in close proximity to his flock. The moderates called their reaffirmation ‘The Marrakesh Declaration’ after the city in which they met. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington who attended the meeting said, somewhat grandly, “This declaration can change the whole face of Islam.” He walked it back a bit to add, “Not change it, but bring it back to where it was.”

But there is a problem with “where it was” for that was the springboard, the solid ground, used by the extremists to leap forwards into their ambitious doctrinal ventures. Not only that, but the moderates must contend with the extremists on a terrain that is advantageous to the latter. The moderates must argue that history should be interpreted in a new way, to reflect the spirit of the times then and now. Meanwhile, the extremists don’t need to prevaricate or qualify: their read-out of the text is literal. They do as it says. Why would the moderates need to second-guess the prophet or the early caliphs? Why not simply follow the historical precedent to the letter? After all, it worked back then, and going back to the basics might work again. They can refer to the same Charter of Medina to say that Muhammad’s venture eventually outgrew it, finding excuses to deport some Jewish tribes from the town, and to annihilate others. The jihadists earn points for being succinct and straightforward. After all, they have had centuries to figure out all the polemical angles and history is their impregnable bastion. The simplest literal read of history is a winning argument too.

What if there is a way by which we do not have to take the Charter of Medina at face value? There is no original, extant copy of the Charter of Medina under a glass display case in a well-guarded museum somewhere. We cannot even be sure if it was a written document at Muhammad’s time, or whether it was a verbal agreement as was the custom then. What we think we know about the Charter was jotted down, ink on parchment, 150 to 200 years after the event. That is the period when comprehensive chronicles of early Islam were written down, relying for the most part on oral transmission. One of those chroniclers, laboring six generations after the first community of Muslims had passed, may have seen an earlier, written charter somewhere, but again, we cannot know for sure. Our hearts should go out to that chronicler: difficult as it is to recall what one did last Tuesday, it is surely a heavy burden to recall the events on a Tuesday two hundred years ago. But that is precisely why the history of early Islam is enveloped in the fog of doubt. One need not worry though, because for the last two hundred years, Western scholars (whose discipline was dubbed ‘Orientalism’) took on the task of studying how that history was chronicled. They worked laboriously, with difficult languages, to figure out all the analytical angles. They have engaged in furious debates and disagreements, as scholars do, and they have made their respective cases in thousands of books, papers and symposia. Their work continues, with fascinating and insightful research coming out in print in recent years. At points, they were enjoined by Middle Eastern scholars who used those same methodologies that had been developed in the academies of the West—historiography, critical literary analysis, philology, archeology, exegesis, codicology, etc.—to delve into the fog. But such native efforts were sporadic, hesitant and ultimately minimalist compared to the corpus of work being done by German, Italian, British, Dutch, French, Russian, American, and the odd Czech and Hungarian Orientalists—and for good reason. The academies of the Middle East, as well as the general public discourse on history, were generally not amenable to raising doubt. Some of the most risqué works, written in Arabic, had to be published posthumously. Some authors were forced into exile or imprisonment. Some other authors were killed. Their counterparts in the West, on the other hand, could work freely, for the most part.

In his book Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1991), University of California, Santa Barbara professor R. Stephen Humphreys presents a case study in which he marshals the arguments made by various Orientalists over the course of a century regarding the Charter of Medina. Some took it to be authentic, making a rational case for why they would think so. Others argued that it could not have been a unitary document or agreement, suggesting that it was amalgamated into one from a variety of separate agreements. Still others dwelt on the wording, and some of the terms used, and they could not reconcile this document to what they would deem to be plausible wording and terminology during seventh century Central Arabia. After a century’s worth of study, what scholars are left with is intellectual angst: “We will never know for certain.” That is the expected lament of historians that have to deal with events that far back without any extant or contemporary evidence; they have to resign themselves to living with doubt. Now, consider the angst of the historian versus the certitude of the Islamic extremist when revisiting history. Surely that fog of doubt should have a place in the conversation when history is used so deliberately and, at times, horrifically to justify extremism.

Consider another document, that of the aforementioned ‘Pact of Omar’ that the proto-caliph of the Islamic State had so dramatically annulled in 2007. Yet again there is no extant copy of this pact, and all that we know about it was written many decades after it was allegedly drawn up. However, in this case, most scholars have come around to the view that it is not authentic, and that it could not have been a seventh century document that can be attributed to the original Omar. Not only that, but we have a short book written in Arabic by an Egyptian historian, published in the mid-nineties in Cairo, who conclusively determines that the pact is a forgery. The historian revisited the studies that the Orientalists had conducted into the authenticity of the pact, and expanded upon their efforts by employing indigenous Muslim methodologies of exegesis that qualify the reliability of oral reports about early Islam by studying the chain of transmission. Muslim theologians, polemists, and chroniclers had uncovered thousands of falsified reports over the span of centuries by employing these methods. By bringing both Western and Muslim disciplines together, the Egyptian historian stood on solid ground when crying foul. Shouldn’t his book have been part of the conversation about the historicity of the pact when Abu Omar so confidently annulled it? Abu Omar may have looked foolish then, or in the very least he would undermine his own certitude when having to explain why he believed the ‘original’ pact to be authentic; the ground he stood on would not seem as firm.

We can also demonstrate that the flag of the Islamic State is also a forgery. They don’t have an original version that we can verify through carbon dating. Theirs is an imagined banner that they have attributed to Muhammad’s armies. Even the seal of the prophet at the center of the flag, which they seem to have derived from a letter of his bearing it, is likely to be a forgery, since the letter itself is widely believed to be a forgery.

The fog of doubt permeates much of the historical record. If properly harnessed, it can cast a shadow on much of the extremist narrative. The character of Ibn Saba, the Jew who invented Shi’ism, may well have been a fabrication. A strong case has been made suggesting that medieval polemists concocted him out of thin air and inserted him into the historical record. We can demonstrate this because some Orientalists conducted serious and in-depth academic forensics about him and about the fabricators. What about the letters that Muhammad had sent to the emperors of the Middle East that Abu Omar had mimicked in wording and in tone?  Those letters too are not extant, and it is perplexing that we have no contemporary reports by non-Muslims at those imperial courts that remarked upon the fact that a new religion had announced itself so dramatically. The character of al-Mukhtar that Maliki’s followers had championed is a problematic figure for Shi’ism, should we actually revisit what Shia sources say about the topic. The sole male survivor from the battle of Karbala, Hussein’s son who would become the fourth Imam of Shi’ism, did not express much gratitude for what the avenger had wrought on Hussein’s murderers. He considered al-Mukhtar to be a liar and braggart, pushing his own agenda for power.  Again, shouldn’t these impressions of al-Mukhtar have been part of the conversation when Shia chauvinists resurrected his legacy and rehabilitated his image as part of a strategy to redraw the lines in the region?

A war rages in the Middle East. A physical war premised on a war of ideas and revolution. Ambitious actors are adeptly launching large-scale plans for statecraft, ones that are imperial in scope. They understand the value of propaganda in war. They have leveraged the historical record as a centripetal force that mobilizes youths across the region, and as precedent for how to build out their ventures and grandiose visions. They exude supreme certainty in that they are walking in the right path back to redemption and greatness, once lost but now within reach—or so they believe, truly believe. They are aided in doing so because their target audiences have been primed to receive this propaganda, one that pushes all the right buttons. Yet whereas extremist Sunnis and Shias have successfully weaponized history, those of us—Middle Easterners of all denominations, as well as many other nations around the globe—who feel threatened by their ambitions can resort to weaponizing historiography. The history of Islam is long overdue for a public conversation among Muslims as to what role it should play in their present and future. Regular people in Muslim lands should have access to the various opinions, even those emanating from Western scholars, about their own history, even though it may raise doubts concerning the authenticity of the historical narrative. A faith grappling with the challenges of modernity must be willing to live with a healthy dose of doubt. But that is a medium to long-term process that needed to start yesterday. We need to deploy doubt in a systematic and relentless manner right now to jam up the polemical weaponry of the extremists. Doubt, angst and cognitive noise should rain down like arrows into the bastions of ideological certainty upon which the extremists stand defiant.

Orientalism carries a stigma among left-leaning Western academies, where it is widely believed to have served Western imperialism. Orientalism is rejected by like-minded leftists in the Middle East for the same reasons. Columbia University’s Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, the late author of the supremely influential book Orientalism (1978)—which almost single handedly managed to turn its title word into an academic pejorative—boasts the distinction of being the sole intellectual luminary from around the world to have two portraits, not one, hanging on the walls of the Writers’ Café in old Basra, where crusty old Marxists gather for tea and conversation.  Conservative and religiously-minded Muslims, on the other hand, believe that the field of Orientalism is part of a Western effort to undermine their faith. One can find 200 Arabic books on the internet available for full download that attack the Orientalists. Many are parked on websites amply funded by conservative Arab regimes. Yet even so, the scholarly methodology of applying critical analysis to the historical record is ‘agenda neutral’, and it is desperately needed in light of the extremist use of this record. Two hundred years’ worth of scholastic legacy is parked on bookshelves in Western libraries. Little of it is available online. Much less of it has been translated into the languages spoken in the Middle East. If the internet is supposed to be the great equalizer of content, then why is there such a disparity when it comes to a sober and systematic conversation about early Islam? Why is this the case at a time when many young Muslims are watching what extremism has wrought and asking themselves “is this really our religion”? The extremist affirmation that it is indeed “our history, refer to page X, paragraph Y in such and such book” goes unchallenged. Many of those young Muslims have not been trained to take on the task of revisiting the historical record themselves. There is no funding from the local powers-that-be for it. However, they need not start from scratch. Parts of the Orientalist methodology and its output can be made available for them, online and in their languages, and should. Whichever way the subsequent conversation goes is left to them. But a conversation needs to begin somewhere, and on solid scholastic ground. Should it be somewhat controversial may actually be helpful. That controversy could provide the drama that matches the theatrics of the extremists.

I wish I could back to that mountainside café, but this time armed with a particular book. The cantankerous proprietor may still be around, or he may have succumbed to old age, leaving his grandson in charge—probably a scion of his grandfather’s rage. I would wonder whether this young man had seen much fighting in the civil war, raging downhill in the valley, or had heard many war stories from brothers and cousins dragooned into that existential fight. I would wonder how many young Iraqi, Iranian, Lebanese, and Afghan Shias had enjoyed a respite from the fighting while sipping coffee under the shade, rifles at their feet, across the road from that caper berry bush that had drawn me to this spot in the first place. They had ostensibly come to Syria over the last five years to protect Shia shrines from being desecrated at the hands of extremist Sunnis, to keep the bones of their saints safe from exhumation. That is what the young men had been told. What they were really doing there was to prop up Asad’s regime, for that is what extremist Shia strategists in far-away Tehran had ordained. I would arrive with a book called The Shrines of ‘Alids in Medieval Syria by Stephanie Mulder (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). Ideally, someone would have gotten the copyright to translate it into Arabic, so I would be carrying a version of it in that language. The book is mostly concerned with architecture, but there is a valuable subtext in there: most of the Shia shrines studied in the book were erected and subsidized by powerful Sunni patrons back in medieval times. Those Sunnis venerated the shrines as much as modern Shias do, even though some modern Sunni extremists are keen on blowing them up. I would conveniently forget the book there, leaving it on one of the chairs. The old man, his grandson, or even those transient fighters from the Shia internationale may rifle through its pages, driven by sheer curiosity, for this is a book written by a Westerner about their beloved shrines. One or two of them may pick up on the subtext to infer that not all Sunnis are so bad, after all. Or maybe that is too much to hope for after all they had been told, and after all that they had seen. Yet with the din of battle thudding in the background, it seems it would be worth a try.

This essay is drawn from remarks delivered by the author at the Westminster Institute in McLean, Va., on June 1, 2016.

Remarks on how jihadists weaponize history

A lecture I gave on June 1st at the Westminster Institute in McLean, Va., on how religious extremists in the Middle East, both Sunni and Shia, have succeeded in weaponizing memory. They wield historical precedence to inform and legitimize their actions and strategies. I also discuss what can be done to undermine their legitimacy by de-weaponizing precedence.

It’s long, but there’s a bit in there where the audio doesn’t match the video and you can watch me gesticulating furiously and funnily.