Balance of power — the board game
Henry Kissinger’s luminous career was punctuated by one great disappointment, namely his failure to foresee the collapse of the Soviet system and the downfall of the foreign-policy system to which he devoted his life. That’s on par with the old joke: “Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” Kissinger was more hedgehog than fox: The fox knows many things, said Archilochus, but the hedgehog knows one important thing. Kissinger knew one important thing, which had the sole defect of being wrong. Like the Bourbons, Dr. Kissinger has learned nothing and forgotten nothing, as he showed in an Oct. 16 essay for the Wall Street Journal entitled, “A Path Out of the Middle East Collapse.” Kissinger bewails “disintegration of the American role in stabilizing the Middle East order” and wishes to restore it.
As Angelo Codevilla argued on this site in his review of a new Kissinger biography, the great man took as dogmatic truth that the Cold War was unwinnable, and thus “’the goal of war can no longer be military victory,’ but rather to achieve ‘certain political conditions that are fully understood by the other side,’ and that to this end, the U.S would ‘present (the enemy) at every point with an opportunity for a settlement.'”
Ronald Reagan, by contrast, told the first meeting of his national security team, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.” He and his advisors–Richard Allen, William Clark, William J. Casey, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and then-younger men like Angelo Codevilla, Herbert Meyer and Norman Bailey–saw a sea-change when it stared them in the face.
Kissinger’s latest offering has the distinct virtue of reducing the foreign policy Establishment’s thinking to absurdity. Kissinger saw the major powers as fixed entities to be moved around on a geopolitical game board, in a Parker Brothers’ version of the Congress of Vienna or the Treaty of Berlin. He missed the internal decay of the Soviet economy and its strategic consequences–the Russians’ realization in the mid-1980s that they could not compete with the American economy and its capacity to invent new military technologies. It wasn’t quite Stratego, to be sure: Kissinger drew on non-trivial mathematics, for example Thomas Schelling’s game theory. Variables in an equation and tokens on a game-board, though, both remain fixed entities to be arrayed according to given rules. Sometimes the long-term sometimes overtakes the short-term and mugs it.
The internal decay of present and former nation-states from Libya to Afghanistan is even more obvious, and even more germane to the politics of the region. Kissinger’s current recommendations for the Middle East, outlined in an Oct. 16 essay in the Wall Street Journal, treat the region’s players as if they were fixed entities that can be manipulated into a stable balance of power. It is obvious, though, that nothing is fixed about these entities, and this leads Kissinger to torture logic until it expires on the rack. Here for example is a characterization of Iran: “On one level, Iran acts as a legitimate Westphalian state conducting traditional diplomacy, even invoking the safeguards of the international system. At the same time, it organizes and guides nonstate actors seeking regional hegemony based on jihadist principles….The U.S. should be prepared for a dialogue with an Iran returning to its role as a Westphalian state within its established borders.”
One can imagine Iran’s supreme leader attempting to parse Kissinger’s logic: “Westphalian? What is ‘Westphalian?’ I have Googled it, and behold!, it is a kind of ham! The infidel Kissinger likens us to pork!” Iran perhaps the least Westphalian political entity on the planet. It is not a nation-state in any sense of the term but the rump of a collapsed empire, in which Persians comprise barely half of the population, with “Azerbaijanis (16–25+%), Kurds (7–10%), Lurs (c. 7%), Mazandaranis and Gilakis (c. 7%), Arabs (2–3%), Balochi (c. 2%) Turkmens (c. 2%)” making up the rest, according to Wikipedia. Shi’ite messianism and attendant imperial ambitions are its raison d’etre. It is like saying, “Excuse me, Mr. Hyde, but is Dr. Jeykll at home?”
And about what should the United States engage Iran in its “Westphalian” incarnation? “It is preferable for ISIS-held territory to be reconquered either by moderate Sunni forces or outside powers than by Iranian jihadist or imperial forces.” If we had some Westphalian ham, we could have ham-and-eggs, if we had some eggs: if we had “moderate Sunni forces” we could persuade the “Westphalian” Iran to withdraw the “jihadist or imperial” Iran to acquiesce in the reconquest of ISIS-held territories by Sunnis. Then “The reconquered territories should be restored to the local Sunni rule that existed there before the disintegration of both Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty.” Someone should break the news to Dr. Kissinger that Saddam Hussein is dead and that the previous Sunni regime is not available.
Who is supposed to keep the Sunnis moderate? “After the resolution of its constitutional crisis, Turkey could contribute creatively to such a process,” Kissinger writes. Unfortunately, the term “Kurd” appears nowhere in his essay, suggesting that he expects Turkey to be very creative indeed in the face of an emerging Kurdish state on what used to be its borders with Iraq and Syria.
There is one salutory piece of realism in the essay, regarding Russia. Kissinger writes, “Russia’s principal concern is that the Assad regime’s collapse could reproduce the chaos of Libya, bring ISIS into power in Damascus, and turn all of Syria into a haven for terrorist operations, reaching into Muslim regions inside Russia’s southern border in the Caucasus and elsewhere.” Russian intervention is a fact of life, but Kissinger thinks it can be contained: “For Russia, limiting its military role to the anti-ISIS campaign may avoid a return to Cold War conditions with the U.S.” If “Cold War conditions” did not return over Russian intervention in Ukraine, why should Russia worry about a Western response to bombings in Syria? Zbigniew Brezezinski, who came in as Jimmy Carter’s strategy guru in 1977 when Kissinger left with the Ford Administration, wants to confront Russia; he wrote last week in the Financial Times that Washington should “convey to Moscow the demand that it cease and desist from military actions that directly affect American assets…The Russian naval and air presences in Syria are vulnerable, isolated geographically from their homeland. They could be ‘disarmed’ if they persist in provoking the US.” That is fantasy.
Kissinger’s “moderate Sunni forces” evidently are the Jaish al-Fatah, includes al-Qaeda (the al-Nusra Front); it is supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Russia has bombed them, because theythreaten the Assad regime more directly than does ISIS. As Jackson Diehl observed in the Washington Post last week, Putin’s model of success is the reduction of Chechnya, with utter disregard for civilian casualties.
To most of the world, and emphatically to Russia and China, ISIS looks like America’s Frankenstein monster. Many Russians are convinced that Washington helped create ISIS in order to destabilize Russia. “Paranoid Russian” may be a pleonasm, but the Russians do have enemies. It is hard to persuade our competitors that America fostered the emergence of ISIS out of pure stupidity rather than with malice aforethought. They will never believe we are that dumb.
Presuming that Washington 1) can find Sunni “moderates,” 2) persuade Iran to act as a “Westphalian state,” 3) persuade the Russians to shoot at no-one but ISIS, and 4) Turkey has contributed “creatively,” what should America do? According to Kissinger, ” The U.S. role in such a Middle East would be to implement the military assurances in the traditional Sunni states that the administration promised during the debate on the Iranian nuclear agreement.” That camel left the oasis a long time ago; American security guarantees carry no credibility among the Sunni Gulf States.
There are things America might do, if it is ruthless enough. The first is to stand godfather to a Kurdish state in what is now Iraq and Syria, and provide covert support to the Iranian Kurds. That will infuriate Turkey, but no matter. Second, allow Moscow to appoint a successor to Assad, provided that Assad leaves office. Once Assad is out, enforce a cease-fire, and allow Syria to devolve into provincial units including a Sunni-run territory in the South and East, an Alawistan on the northern coast, and a Kurdish entity in the north on the Turkish border. Third, wipe out ISIS sources of funding in oil wells and refiners, without worrying too much about collateral damage. Fourth, give Iran an ultimatum regarding its sponsorship of state terror, and if necessary destroy some Revolutionary Guards bases. Fifth, make clear to the Qataris that they are not a country but a tribe perched on a gas-bubble, that is, precariously, and that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t fund terrorists.
In short: neutralize the nastiest of the contending factions quickly and if need be, messily; and stop the killing as quickly as possible without worrying about confederations, power-sharings, or illusory constitutional arrangements for nonexistent states. This isn’t cryosurgery but battlefield triage, and it is the best way to stop the bloodshed fast.