The Long View 2004-08-20: The Sick Man of Mesopotamia

The funniest [and most horrible] thing about this blog post is how very, very wrong John was about the relative stability of Iran and Saudi Arabia. I've been hearing rumors of collapse about Saudi Arabia for a long time, even Greg Cochran has gotten in the act recently. So far, the Saudis continue to do what they do, although running out of oil money, as Greg suggests is nearing, will be a real problem.

The Iranians seem to be relatively strong, and have managed to do quite well for themselves with many years of embargo by the US. I suspect they could outlast their regional rivals, but we shall see.


The Sick Man of Mesopotamia

 

When people talk about the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century, Lovecrafty adjectives like "moribund" and "necrotic" are brought into play. The empire had the unenviable distinction, until it actually did collapse in the chaos that followed the First World War, of being called "the Sick Man of Europe." The only thing that prevented the empire from being carved up was the inability of the European powers to agree on who would get what piece of it. The remarkable thing was how long the empire was able to loiter on the border between life and death. In effect, it turned the immensity of its weakness into an asset, like a failing business that is so huge that its creditors don't dare to push it into bankruptcy.

That is, pretty much, the strategy that Edward Luttwak advocated on August 18 for the United States, in a New York Times Op Ed entitled Time to Quit Iraq (Sort Of):

But if the Shiites were persuaded that America might truly abandon them to face Saddam Hussein's loyalists alone, it seems certain that they would quickly revert to the attitude of collaboration with the occupation forces they showed in the aftermath of invasion....

For now, with the United States viewed as determined to stay the course, the hard-liners in Iran can pursue their anti-American vendetta by encouraging the Shiite opposition, supplying Mr. Sadr's militia and encouraging Syria to help Islamist terrorists sneak into Iraq. But an American withdrawal would mean the end of any hopes for a unified, Shiite-led Iraq, which is Iran's long-term goal, and likely a restored Sunni supremacy, which is Iran's greatest fear....Again, the threat of American withdrawal would be apt to concentrate minds wonderfully. The goal would be to get Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to replace the American taxpayer in aiding Iraq; the two could also jointly sponsor peacekeeping troops, in earnest this time, financially rewarding poorer Muslim countries with troops to spare.

This is tactically impossible: there is no way the US could show just enough disinterest in the region while not signaling a complete loss of nerve. Even a conditional threat to withdraw would mean a complete collapse of the intermin government. If the Coalition threatened to withdraw, sort of, then what the US wants or fears in Iraq would become irrelevant. More important, though, is that this approach is strategically wrong-headed on two counts.

The first is that the regimes that Luttwak hopes to use to create a balance of power in Iraq, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, need to be changed. If that sounds like neoconservative hubris for you, we cannot avoid the fact that both are unstable and probably will change at no distant date. Indeed, one of the seldom-acknowledged reasons for the Iraq War is that the nature of the new regimes will turn in part on the nature of the regime that governs Iraq at the time.

The second point is more subtle, and has been missed both by Realpolitiker and tranzies: the international system is not going to work if the United States is discredited. This is one of the morals we should draw from another New York Times Op Ed, this one in today's paper, entitled An Idea Lost in the Rubble. It was written by Gil Loescher, who lost both legs in the terrorist bombing last year of the UN headquarters in Baghdad:

In fact, the Baghdad bombing and the retreat of Doctors Without Borders make clear that humanitarian workers have increasingly become the targets of violence in war-torn countries. For these workers, there is no middle ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are identified by militants in both countries as taking sides and collaborating with the United States.

The piece goes on to recommend that military forces in areas suffering humanitarian crises confine themselves to providing security and let the NGOs get on with their own work. That sounds like an unworkable solution, and in any case, it misses the point. The United States is a utility of the international system. The failure of one implies the failure of the other.

* * *

Speaking of failing tactics, one notes that The New York Times ran a frontpage, above the fold story today attempting to debunk the critics of Senator John Kerry's war record. The major media had tried to avoid mentioning the accusations at all. However, because talkshows and the Internet disseminated them anyway, Kerry himself said this week that he would meet the charges head on, just as he drove his swiftboat into hostile fire in Vietnam. "Bring it on!" he said.

This strategy will prove unfortunate. The Kerry campaign's rejoinders make plausible points when they argue that the circumstances under which Kerry won his medals were more or less as reported. His defenders make less good points when they go on at length about the funding sources of the swiftboat veterans who oppose Kerry. What could lose the election for Kerry is that his claims to have been in Cambodia on Christmas Eve in 1968 are demonstrably false; the fact that he has spoken of the incident as "seared in my memory" means he cannot pass the claims off as poor recollection. It sounds as if one of Kerry's favorite war stories is a personalized retelling of Apocalypse Now.

The Times can print all the charts it likes of Texan campaign donors. The senator's critics are simply correct on an accusation that is both damning and easy to understand.

* * *

I see that The Washington Post is conducting a poll for Best Political Blog. Anyone who wants to vote for The Long Viewis welcome, though it seems to me that this blog is not political enough, or even blog-like enough, to merit inclusion. I personally will vote for the Belmont Club.

* * *

Speaking of Internet behavior, here is a story that expands one's sense of the possible: Mass Hysteria Strikes Small Rural U.S. High School:

(Reuters Health) - Ten healthy female students at a rural, co-ed North Carolina high school had repeated bouts of seizures, swooning and hyperventilation over a four-month period in 2002 -- an outbreak that experts are calling an example of mass hysteria...The first girl began experiencing seizures in August. Over the next few weeks, more girls began to show the same symptoms. The attacks escalated throughout the fall months, then appeared to taper off by the winter holiday break....

Writing in the Archives of Neurology, [Dr. E. Steve Roach of Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Dr. Ricky L. Langley of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services ] conclude that the evidence "strongly suggested" that the girls were experiencing an episode of mass hysteria, defined as "the simultaneous occurrence of related signs or symptoms with a psychogenic basis in multiple individuals in a group."

Many episodes of mass hysteria are triggered by harmless odors or when a "prominent" person begins showing symptoms, they add. No environmental trigger was found, and since the first girl to experience seizures was a cheerleader and four others were as well, Roach and Langley suggest that seeing the symptoms in these girls "could have encouraged additional students to develop similar episodes."

This sounds like the behavior of the witnesses at the Salem Witch Trials. It sounds even more like the "dancing epidemics," which were supposed to have been a feature of late medieval Europe. One wonders why, with today's unmediated net of communication, things like this don't happen regionally, or even worldwide.

Something to look forward to, maybe.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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