He Who Hesitates: A Hegemon in Autumn

Hamlet now resides in the White House, say observers with humor. In the Oval Office, he walks in slow circles, a hand propping his chin, reciting: “To act or not to act, that is the question..” To act or not to act—in Syria, in Ukraine, in the South China Sea.

In Syria, the US has not helped the moderate rebels enough, allowing the jihadists to dominate the opposition side of the civil war, preparing the stage for the irruption of the Islamic State (IS). In Ukraine, the US imposed sanctions that Russia brushed aside as it swallowed Crimea. In the South China Sea, in salami slices, China is changing the status quo while the US proclaims its neutrality on overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile Barack Obama walks around in the Oval Office reciting, “To act or not to act..”

The metaphor is amusing and attractive. It reduces the complexity of geopolitics into the quandary of a character whose foible is to think too much and to act too little too late. The metaphor is therefore misleading.

It’s not that Obama is indecisive or doesn’t know what to do. I think he has a clear view of how thin is the range of his options. And he’s aware that every option can lead to unforeseen consequences.

Nor is it the case that the powers of the US have been so utterly degraded that it has ceased to be a hegemon.

Its economy may have been weakened by decades of reckless consumerism and by the global economic crisis of 2008. Its finances may have been strained by imperial overreach, as Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, waged expensive wars.

The US may therefore be a hegemon in the autumn of its decline, but still a hegemon. It’s still the biggest boy in the park.

If you are that biggest boy, you’re not called on to fight every boy near your size who challenges you—if you can get a bunch of smaller boys to do your fighting for you. You can cheer them, pay them, buy them lunch, but don’t throw any punches yourself. Save your strength for the time when you really have no choice but to do your own fighting.

This is precisely what the US is doing in Iraq-Syria and in Ukraine. This is what it is trying to do in the Asia-Pacific, which is what the “rebalancing” is all about.

This is a Cold War strategy that may work today because the situation is much like what it was in the depths of the Cold War. The difference is that at the latter part of the Cold War, China was on the US side, against the Soviet Union. Today China has grown bigger and stronger and it’s on the Russian side, against the US.

Moreover, China has persuaded some of the small boys not to be on the US side.

No fighting has broken out in the waters of East Asia, but it could be ignited by an incident in the course of China’s bold assertions of its territorial and sovereignty rights. We’ve been lucky—so far.

It’s in Syria that Obama may be lulled into forgetting the limits to power—specifically the power of the US presidency. He may overdo the air strikes against the Islamic state. He may in the end put boots on the ground. If he does all that, then the strategy unravels. And the next US president will have his job cut out for him: clean up the bloody mess.

There’s a popular saying, “He who hesitates is lost.” The humorist James Thurber once wrote a funny fable with this moral: “He who hesitates is sometimes saved.”

I go with Thurber.


By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

To Fight Terror, Go for the Roots

When US President Obama admitted that he had no strategy yet on the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the neocons and the war freaks of American politics mercilessly lampooned him as a wimp.

One-time Republican presidential aspirant Ron Paul took a contrarian view and said, “Good!” Good that unlike his critics, Obama doesn’t believe in solving every problem by bombing it to smithereens and putting troops on the ground. Good that Obama doesn’t believe in printing dollars to pay for another war of choice.

Ron Paul spoke too soon. Last week Obama announced a strategy apparently designed to make him look like a bullet-chewing macho. He has a strategy after all. And it entails bombing the problem but not putting boots on the ground. OK, maybe a few—to advise allies on how to fight terrorists who wield US-made arms.

Many of Obama’s critics are underwhelmed. But most members of the US House of Representatives are impressed enough to legislate support for Obama’s strategy. They will fund the training of Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State.

Apart from carrying out a systematic campaign of airstrikes and supporting the forces fighting the IS, Obama’s strategy also calls for intensive use of American counterterrorism capabilities, and the dispatch of humanitarian aid to displaced civilians. So it’s a strategy with four planks.

The most striking part of it is, of course, the air strikes. That’s also an unwieldy part. It’s OK to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, because then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested it. But there’s a bit of a legal nicety involved if you do that in Syria.

Nobody has recognized a government in Syria that is not Bashir al-Assad’s. So if the US bombarded the IS on Syrian soil, it would be violating international law if Assad did not request it. That is if sovereignty still counts for something.

In fact Assad can take advantage of the legal awkwardness of the projected US air strikes in Syria by simply making such a request. Would the US desist from attacking the IS on Syrian soil because Assad requested it? No. But when the US strikes the IS in Syria anyway, it would look like compliance.

The Obama strategy follows a tradition. George Friedman of the Geopolitical Weekly has written: “US strategy ought to be to maintain the balance of power in a region using proxies and provide material support to those proxies but avoid direct military involvement (read, boots on the ground) until there is no other option. The most important thing is to provide support that obviates the need for intervention.”

That, I think, is essentially another way of stating the Obama strategy. It’s a Cold War strategy. One that will settle for a stalemate in case the enemy is too strong for the proxies to defeat. In this case the enemy is the IS and the proxies are the Syrian rebels, the Kurds, the Shi-as and the Sunni tribes that won’t accept the IS.

The main deficiency of this strategy is that it says nothing about addressing the root causes of terrorism. It’s silent on what drives young people—most of the IS fighters are under 30—into the arms of a murderous and merciless ideology. What are their grievances? And how may these be redressed?

What environments warped the hearts and minds of these young people? How may these environments be reshaped?

The Obama strategy is silent on these questions. Yet, it’s not a bad strategy. It may work to some extent, depending on how well the proxies fight.

But until the root causes of terrorism are addressed, the 80 countries that produced today’s IS fighters will keep on manufacturing terrorists.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Who Cares About Ukraine? We should!

Late last week, a cease-fire deal went into effect in east Ukraine, giving both the government forces and the Russian-backed separatist rebels some respite from the bloody fighting.

The lull is not expected to last, as the rebels insist on their goal of an independent state, and Russia will keep on sending armaments and “vacationing volunteers” (battle zone tourism?) to the rebel side. On the other hand, new, heftier sanctions will be inflicted on Russia. The US will soon lead military exercises involving several allies inside Ukraine. A NATO quick-reaction force will be deployed near the western border of Ukraine.

Putin seems unimpressed. The Russian people will suffer the brunt of the sanctions, but pride and the reliving of past glory will probably sustain them.

What amazes me is the dawdling response of the Western powers to Putin’s methodical and aggressive destabilization of Ukraine—when in fact they’ve been provoking this kind of behavior since the Berlin Wall fell in 1990. Over the bitter objections of a weakened Russia, they kept hustling NATO eastward, finally promising eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008.

Naturally, Putin was incensed. A NATO spearhead on Russia’s Western border would be a security nightmare.

By then strong enough to invade Georgia, invade he did. And in recent months when the pro-Russian president of Ukraine was ousted in a coup, Putin promptly annexed Crimea and threatened to gobble up the rest of Ukraine. But he knows the Ukrainian heartland is a poisoned pawn, so he settles for destabilizing the country so it can’t join NATO.

On the eve of new economic sanctions, with perfect timing Putin allows the pro-Russian rebels to agree to a cease-fire. A cease-fire that was born moribund. But we can hope against hope that it will last long enough to lead to a real dialogue.

You may dismiss Putin as just a glory-seeking strongman, but the grievances that embittered him are valid. Address those grievances and his jitters, and he well may reveal himself as human. The West should stop treating him like the Cold War loser that a predecessor, Gorvachev, was. This means NATO should stop marching eastward.

What both Europe and Russia need is a buffer zone, in the same way that the French and the British needed a buffer zone between them in Southeast Asia during colonial times. That’s why they allowed an independent Thailand to stand between them. Ukraine—and for that matter Georgia—can serve the same purpose for Europe and Russia today.

So long as Russia binds itself to respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, there’s no need for Ukraine to join NATO. Nor does the West need Ukraine in NATO. With a buffer between itself and NATO, Putin’s Russian bear should be less skittish.

Given that, Putin can be persuaded to leave Ukraine alone to engage Europe to its heart’s content in non-military ways, and to become as democratic as it wishes to be. The same goes for Georgia.

And both Europe and Russia will reap peace dividends.

Now, why should we in ASEAN care about what happens in distant Ukraine? Well, as in the financial realm, there’s contagion in conflict. Look at the tragedy that befell Malaysia’s MH-17.

And there’s the tyranny of limited resources that has gripped even the big powers. If they fight a war over Ukraine, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham will say thank you, sirs, for your inattention, and merrily keep on growing as an evil global threat. And if the US is in that war, its stabilizing presence in East Asia will become less reliable. Especially in the South China Sea.

So we should all care what happens in Ukraine. Governments here should keep calling on those directly involved in the muddle to start talking sense with one another.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The IS and the ‘Common Enemy Effect’

The Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), now a self-styled caliphate, seems to have succeeded where diplomacy has failed. It has managed to make strange bedfellows of key players in the Middle East who wouldn’t normally give each other the time of day.

Look at the scorecard: first, the United States and Iran have teamed up against the IS, with the US clobbering IS convoys and artillery emplacements from the air, while the Iranian Quds Force operate on the ground, supporting and advising the Iraqi army and mobilizing militias against the IS. Neither the US nor Iran admits they’re working together, but they own up to “coordinating their actions” against the IS.

OK, this isn’t the first time Iran and the US fight a common enemy. There was the Taliban and then Saddam. But this kind of “coordination” between the two doesn’t occur everyday. This time it took an IS to make it happen.

Now Shi-ite Baghdad and Kurdish Erbil are working together to stop the IS fighters. This wouldn’t have happened if Nouri al-Maliki had not been replaced by a less rabidly sectarian Haider al-Abadi. Al-Maliki was tossed out because he alienated the Sunnis and the Kurds, and stuffed the Iraqi military with incompetent protégés, who ran away as the IS fighters charged toward Baghdad.

So Erbil and Baghdad are talking again, but can al-Abadi bring back the disenchanted Sunni tribal chiefs into the Iraqi fold? He’ll need both canny political skill and uncanny luck to succeed.

Even Bashir al-Assad is getting into the act. Within a 48-hour period recently, the Syrian air force hammered the IS headquarters in Syria. It has kept up the air attacks, as IS fighters march towards Aleppo, a major Syrian city.

So al-Assad has changed sides. Until recently he wouldn’t touch the IS fighters. But now these bloodthirsty terminators have captured many of his Russian-supplied tanks and are reaching for his neck. So he orders air strikes against them. And tells the world: I am your ballast against terrorism and extremism.

To the US, he seems to say in effect: “You do your air strikes against the IS on the Iraqi side while I bomb them on the Syrian side. I’ve got your back, buddy.” Who’s he fooling?

A White House spokesperson has taken the trouble to emphasize that the US and the Syrian regime may happen to hit the same target but the US will never work with Assad. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has intimated that the US may do its own bombing of the IS on the Syrian side of the border.

Meanwhile various militant organizations are calling on all Muslims to rise in arms against the IS. Al-Qaeda has denounced the IS for its brutality, which alienates other Muslim militants. You see, the IS doesn’t practice religious discrimination: it decapitates everyone it wants dead—Yazidis, Mandaeans, Christians, Shi-ites, fellow Jihadists, whoever.

Social psychologists have a name for the impact the IS has created: the “common enemy effect.” One study I’ve read about says people who think they’ve a powerful enemy find the world more coherent. Things make more sense. They know who’s responsible for their troubles.

And nothing unites nations or groups of people as quickly as a common enemy. Studies have shown, however, that fighting a common enemy doesn’t necessarily create trust. Those who are also fighting your enemy are not necessarily on your side. Al Qaeda doesn’t become the Salvation Army just because it condemns the IS.

It has been said ad nauseam: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Hogwash! The enemy of your enemy, if he dreams of cutting your throat after you’ve both disposed of the other bad guy, is still your enemy.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio