Belmont Club

Long wars

Michael Totten interviews Jeffrey Goldberg who brings a fascinating perspective to the problems of the Middle East. Some key quotes:

  • “I think there’s a great opportunity right now for a Sunni-Jewish convergence. The Sunni Arab states and Israel have, for the first time, a common adversary.”
  • “The question of Israel is the question of what happens to all minorities in the Middle East. The Arab Muslim Middle East has 300 million people. It has a very hard time treating Coptic Christians with equality, treating Maronites in Lebanon with equality, treating Southern Sudanese in an equal way, treating Kurds in an equal way, and dealing with Jews – not only in their national expression, but even as minorities within their own countries.”
  • “Just because a belief sounds ridiculous to you doesn’t mean it’s not sincerely held.”
  • “Palestinians, over the years, have proven that they’re willing to sacrifice generations of people to achieve their goal of a Jewish-free Palestine. “
  • “there are two Israeli strategic doctrines in confrontation right now. The first is: never do anything that harms the strategic relationship with the United States of America. The second is: prevent, at all costs, the possibility of a Second Holocaust. What if these two things come into conflict?”
  • “Arabs are misreading history if they believe Israel is a temporary phenomenon. Nothing like this has ever happened in history. A dead tribe came back and seized the land it had, and did so after a devastating tragedy.”

It’s fascinating reading.

Meanwhile, Michael Yon visits the Maranaos of Mindanao in company with Filipino and American soldiers. Some excerpts:

  • “Since going to British tracking school in Borneo, I pay closer attention to feet. The Taliban normally wear running shoes that often are not available in local Afghan markets. One British soldier wrote that he took inventory of all the shoes sold in his Area of Operations (AO) in Afghanistan, and subtly photographed all the men’s shoes so that he could build a library of footprints in his AO. His men avoided at least one bomb due to his tracking skills.”
  • “The AFP troops held themselves like experienced soldiers. The were respectful and professional, but watchful. Made sense because I had a camera, but I also had plenty of time alone with the villagers and they could have dropped a hint if this were just a dog and pony show, but none did.”

Perhaps the greatest driver of military outcomes in history is demography, and its handmaiden, culture. Goldberg’s view of the problems of the Middle East appear to be partly rooted in the unresolved question of minorities under the Ottoman Empire. That vanished entity was based on the idea of civil peace in exchange for subordination. For so long as minorities acknowledged the theoretical superiority of the Sublime Porte and Islam then the principle of subordination was observed. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed under the impact of rising nationalism that principle was challenged. Huge upheavals followed beside which the foundation of Israel was small potatoes. Who can now remember that Smyrna was once the largest Greek city in the world. It’s now Izmir. Vast populations moved into their historic “homelands” from the wrack of the Ottoman empire. Some succeeded, some failed. In the case of the Maronites and the Jews the issue is still in doubt. Now, with nationalism and the West apparently on the wane, the old idea of subordination may be asserting itself again.

In Mindanao the story is similar but on a much smaller scale.  What defeated the Moros were roads and ports and public school teachers. Together they brought the Christian Filipinos in vast numbers to Mindanao under the security of the US Army.  So many that “Muslim Mindanao” as such died, probably forever. And while the Filipino Christians were often the early adopters of Western technology and education, many of the Muslims clung to their warrior ways. The Mindanao State University, which is located in the area Michael Yon visited, was lavished with an extraordinary amount of funding not only from the Philippine government but from the Middle East. But it remained a hulk, its funds looted by Muslim warlord politicians and its culture of Western-style learning fundamentally despised.  The divide between the two cultures remained, though they lived in close proximity. What holds the ring in Mindanao isn’t tactics but demography.

Michael Yon is absolutely correct is emphasizing the importance of “professionalism” and relative honesty as important factors in the long term victory in Mindanao. The biggest contribution American troops make in a Philippine setting is that they often provide the role models which Filipino politicians do not. Strange though it may sound to some, many Filipino soldiers want to be good, professional and disciplined soldiers. But like everyone else, they must have leadership. And while there are some Filipino officers and politicians who provide that, many alas, fall somewhat short of the mark. And while some Americans by contrast can be rascals, by and large, when you consider the average values of professionalism in their respective cultures, the US military is much more likely to provide a good role model than the Manila politician. I know it is an oversimplification to say it, but if informal American influence can simply keep the Armed Forces of the Philippines from descending into chaotic gangsterism, then numbers will do the rest. Many of the problems of the AFP are rooted in Philippine politics. On paper its numbers are impressive. On the ground, except for the few units which are combat effective, much of the Philippine Armed Forces is fit only for garrison. Available ammo, fuel and money limit the actual sustained combat capacity of that force to a small fraction of its numbers.

Maybe history suggests that “democracy agendas” and “grand bargains” are misleading terms.  Perhaps when we say “democracy” we really mean decent behavior more than mere formal elections. I doubt that the Muslims of Mindanao can ever learn to love the Christian Filipinos, but they can learn to grudgingly respect them; to live and let live. And in the Middle East, what “grand bargain” is possible when the demand on the one side is the destruction of the other? Goldberg notes that for the first time in decades, Israel’s choice may be between its strongest alliance and its self preservation.  When were the roots of this contradiction planted? When Britain defeated the Ottomans? When the US toppled Mossadegh? When Carter dropped the ball on Iran? When Bush invaded Iraq? Or when Barack Obama, in pursuit of his Grand Bargain, drove the Sunnis and the Jews into temporary alliance? Political dreams often give rise actual nightmares.

There is in Michael Yon’s article a series of pictures showing the everyone eating rice and fried fish off a mat on a table, washing it down with Pepsi. The kids are giggling, the Americans are pawing at the rice with as much gusto as anyone else and even the scowling Muslim warrior is grinning, in spite of himself. It’s a snapshot of a non-political moment; an instant in time when everybody forgets he’s from Duluth, or Marawi, or Fort Bonifacio and one mumbles to the other, “please pass the ginamos“.  History is our curse. We cannot transcend it. But we can glide through it with as much goodwill as we can muster.