Belmont Club

Business As Usual

Perhaps Samuel Huntington’s most famous assertion comes his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations in which he argues that “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.” The Western world is likely to remember the “borders” yet apt to forget the “innards”.  Yet it is the innards which is generating the greatest misery.  The quarrels of Islam are spewing out broken people at a near historic rate. There are more refugees in the world today than at any time since the Second World War: fifty million, according to the UNHCR.  Most of them are Muslims.

Though the great bulk of displaced persons come from the Middle East, Central Africa, South Asia and West Africa  the convulsions are now general. Apart from the boat people crossing the Mediterranean sea, thousands of Rohingaya and Bangladeshi Muslims have been cast out on the high seas, expelled by Burmese and Thais who have long fought and feared them — the “most unwanted refugees on earth”.

The flame consuming the Islamic world is burning so hot that it has reduced the dreams of young men to ash.  The Daily Beast notes that the horrible reality of war has disillusioned many a young Muslim who thought it was all fun and glamor. “There used to be each week 100 to 200 foreign [Western] recruits arriving in Raqqa; now there are five or six every week. The foreigners inside are communicating to their friends back home not to come and they’re explaining the reality of what life is really like inside.”

You would think they would stop, but that’s unlikely. Odds are the fire will just find fresh fuel. Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution argues that a deadly fuse has been lit within the innards of the Islamic and in Western countries as 20,000 unemployed terrorists return to their domiciles at loose ends.

Exact figures are elusive, but in February 2015, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center testified that over 20,000 foreign fighters from at least 90 countries had gone to Iraq and Syria. Only 3,400 from the United States and Western Europe—the rest came from Muslim countries, particularly those in the Arab world. Few countries are spared: longstanding jihadist hotbed Saudi Arabia is again a reliable supplier of fighters, but so too are countries far from Syria and Iraq like Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco.

But what happens when these fighters return home?

Foreign fighters who gain combat experience in Iraq and Syria pose a double danger. Many of those who go to war will come back as hardened veterans, steady in the face of danger and skilled in the use of weapons and explosives—ideal terrorist recruiting material. More important, their worldview may change. While in the conflict zone, they will form networks with other radicals, embrace techniques like suicide bombings and beheadings, and establish ties to jihadists around the world, making them prone to further radicalization and giving them access to training and weapons they might otherwise lack.

Byman suggests moderating the threat with reintegration programs, but it may do too little to stop a chain reaction.  Once chaos gets going, it acquires a momentum of its own. The Washington Post reports that grade school children in Yemen are going straight from the classroom into the the Jihadi recruitment pipeline. The parents are helpless before the tides of history, but at least they recognize them.

By contrast the West has made a fetish of band-aids, except that it can’t pay for as many as it once did. The ever-spreading conflict has produced a kind of “compassion fatigue“, even in Europe, as the standard instruments of relief are overwhelmed. 2015 may be remembered as the year when the world forgot its post Second World War resolutions and returned to the raw brutality of human history. Forgot it because it ran out of money. In order to stop the refugee tide coming over from Africa Europe is actually planning to sink people-smuggling boats ashore before they can take on a human cargo.

This would entail having EU vessels in Libyan territorial waters, including the Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark – currently in Malta – and deploying helicopter gunships to “neutralize” identified traffickers’ ships used to send tens of thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East on the short but highly risky voyage from the Libyan coast to the shores of southern Italy.”

One of the possible consequences of the disintegrating world order is the return of modes of behavior long believed to be extinct.  Remember when conflict was ‘unthinkable’ in Europe? Only a year ago, Russia’s most public worry was the over the success of the Winter Olympics at Sochi. Now, 2015 finds Vladimir Putin putting in a good word for the memory of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact while of all things, receiving Angela Merkel, perhaps hinting not so subtly that what once was, could be again.  The frightening thing is it doesn’t sound out of place with the times.

Indeed the shades of the past could return to haunt us. Adrian Croft of Reuters quotes NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as saying “there has been a Russian build-up, both along the borders between Russia and Ukraine but also inside eastern Ukraine, with a steady flow of heavy equipment, tanks, artillery, ammunition, air defense systems and a lot of training. So they have the capacity, the capability to launch new attacks with very little warning time. But of course no one can say anything with certainty about the intention.”

Except that Russia’s intentions are increasingly suspect. The Guardian reports that NATO is kicking out known Russian agents in what looks like a revival of the Cold War. “Despite the decision to revive the emergency hotlines, Nato has cut most contacts with the Russians at its headquarters in Brussels and is in the process of emptying the offices of dozens of Russian diplomats and officers.”

Under a decision taken last month, the size of non-Nato member states’ delegations at the Brussels headquarters has been limited to 30. Russia’s was the sole delegation that numbered more than 30. It is the only country affected by the new ruling, which is being implemented over the rest of this year.

Nato diplomats and officials said privately that about half of the Russian delegates were assumed to be working for their country’s intelligence services.

The slide back into the past can be arrested, but only by a Western leadership alive to the peril. But danger is a hard concept to sell to Western leadership who have never known it in their lives. That makes it had to avoid. The Wall Street Journal’s latest editorial describes the scenarios that may result from president Obama’s recent peace making efforts, which is desperately trying to harpoon a legacy to put on display in the planned library in Chicago.

The White House will now have to scramble to rescue its policy, and one thing we can expect is a new round of arms sales to the Gulf. The region is already awash in new weapons, including a recent announcement that Qatar will purchase $7 billion in French fighter jets. The signature U.S. contribution will probably be the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (Thaad), which can shoot down Scuds and other ballistic missiles fielded by Iran.

There’s nothing inherently destabilizing about arms sales. But the pace of Arab purchases, up 50% in the last year alone to $18 billion, along with the types of weapons they are buying, says something about their assessment of the threat they face. Why buy the multibillion Thaad system if diplomacy neutralizes the Iranian nuclear threat? What’s the sense of fielding brand new air squadrons if they are confident in traditional U.S. defense guarantees?

Mr. Obama also hopes to dissuade the Arab states, particularly the Saudis, from seeking their own nuclear weapons. One idea is to extend U.S. defense guarantees, perhaps including the U.S. nuclear umbrella, to the Gulf.

Such guarantees would put the U.S. on the hook for the defense of regimes such as Qatar, which sponsors Hamas and has links to the jihadist Nusrah Front in Syria. Mr. Obama may find such a commitment expedient for his Iran diplomacy, but if so he should explain this to the American people. Americans understand that Article 5 of the NATO treaty obliges the U.S. to defend Poland. But Mr. Obama should be honest if one price of his deal with Tehran is that Americans are committing to defend Dubai with a nuclear exchange. …

Prince Turki al Faisal, Riyadh’s former intelligence minister, was even more blunt, saying in March that the Kingdom “will want the same” nuclear technology Iran is granted in a deal. That would include a plutonium reactor and thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium. The Kingdom already has plans to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2030, claiming it needs them to power desalination plants.

Liberal politics demands that the cures be are worse than the disease.  Modern Western elites don’t do consequences. They are doomed to view the world through a political calculus which discounts anything that happens more than a month from now to zero. If it’s any comfort, politicians have been doing stupidity for a long time.  Barbara Tuchman described the essential mystery of political stupidity in her book, the March of Folly:

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?

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