The Middle East Mess

Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and the All the Same Old, Same Old Mess

Each country in the Middle East poses unique challenges. That said, gender apartheid, religious intolerance, tribalism, dictatorship, statism, and lack of transparency and free expression are widely shared in the region, and mean that any particular policy will almost immediately collide with some two millennia of habit and custom antithetical and often hostile to the values of the West. That the West is presently broke, multicultural, full of guilt and incapable of defending its values and history only confuses the issue even more.

Libya and Iraq

We are all glad that the Gadhafi regime is purportedly on its last legs. When I visited Libya in 2006, tragedy was what I saw—and a friendly population under the yoke of a psychopath. But I don’t think we have had much idea of what we were doing in Libya—a sort of diplomatic pastime secondary to presidential jet-setting and golfing. Moreover, I don’t see any hypocrisy in critiquing our confusion over Libya, as a supporter of the removal of Saddam Hussein. Wanting to use American power and influence to its fullest extent when going to war is preferable to not wanting to use all our power and influence when going to war. The hypocrisy is rather on the Left, which once damned the principle of intervention against an Arab Middle East oil-exporting nation that had not recently attacked us, only to support intervention against an Arab Middle East oil exporting nation that had not recently attacked us. In the Left’s defense, one could argue their consistency is that it’s OK if you have a UN vote, but irrelevant whether you have consent of the U.S. Congress.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the object of 23 different Congressional authorizations (one should go back and read that October 2002 long list of “whereas”es), had been in hot and cold wars with us since 1991, attacked four neighbors, and in the heart of the ancient caliphate was hosting all sorts of terrorists. In a post-911 climate it made sense to reckon with him. Indeed, I think one of the great untold stories of Iraq was the carnage of Islamic terrorists who by volition promised that Iraq would be the central theater in jihad, flocked there, were killed and wounded in droves, and lost—and vastly weakened their cause. But in contrast, the West was apparently in the middle of a weird charm offensive with Gadhafi (one advanced by bought-and-paid-for American academics, European oil companies, and multicultural elites), and the result by 2010 was that Libya was considered no longer the 1986 Libya that Reagan had bombed.

Syria and Iran

But no matter, monsters are always monstrous and we are all glad to see them go. The question, though, is: "monstrous" compared to which monsters in the region? In truth, we have two dangerous strategic enemies in the Middle East. They were not the dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya—countries whose indigenous unrest we opportunistically piled on only when welcomed regime change seemed a foregone conclusion.

Yet when a million dissidents hit the streets in Spring 2009 in Iran, the president deliberately decried “meddling,” invoked the tired, half-century-old Mosaddeq talking point, and kept mum—worried that his much heralded “outreach” to Iran might be jeopardized. But, of course, it was anyway. The Obama multicultural magic did not affect the theocracy, which laughed at four serial deadlines to cease and desist work on their nuclear projects—“or else.” In terms of population, history, national wealth, past relations with the U.S., nuclear capability, levels of support for terrorism, and attitudes toward U.S. allies, especially Israel, Iran was far more dangerous than all the North African nations combined—and yet somehow was courted the most under the new reset Obama diplomacy.

The other anti-American twin was Syria, the subverter of Lebanon and Iraq, Iran’s key ally, Hezbollah’s next-door sponsor, and a supplier of Hamas. So prior presidents had wisely broken relations with the Assad regime. Obama, however, immediately restored them, and without preconditions. Hillary Clinton dubbed the psychopathic Assad a “reformer.” Whereas Gadhafi deserved bombs, we still haven’t quite broken diplomatic relations with Damascus. If Obama’s grand strategy was to start with small words against Mubarak, a little bombing now and then against Gadhafi, followed soon by real pressure on Syria and Iran—then there is a logic to it. But right now the message, fairly or not, is that to the degree a thug likes America, gives up or does not try to acquire nuclear weapons, or wants to triangulate with us, we want him gone; to the degree he is an anti-American thug, a front-line enemy of Israel, and builds reactors, we deem him more authentic and legitimate and therefore adopt a policy of non-interference—unless of course, the million in the street, without our encouragement, are a day or so away from toppling the regime.

This policy is especially odd, when, in relation to Iran and Syria, we have a chance to dovetail our interests with the Gulf oil producers who want Assad gone; when we have a chance to weaken the Shiite extremists in both Lebanon and Iraq by pressuring Assad; when we can encourage a falling out between the new Ottoman Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and when we can weaken Iran by chopping off its key Arab ally. Let us hope that Obama sees that in comparison to Iran and Syria, Libya was small potatoes, and mostly a Europe/Mediterranean distraction.

The UN and the Middle East

We never quite knew what we were doing in Libya, which explains almost half-a-year and thousands killed to rout Gadhafi. Early on, President Obama said we were only following the UN and Arab League mandates to enforce a no-fly-zone that would have little bearing on whether Gadhafi survived or perished. Once those limitations were realized, we unilaterally broadened our mission to include ground targeting, claiming UN legitimacy in going well beyond the UN accords. In Iraq, we obtained authorization from the U.S. Congress; in Libya we bypassed it in preference to the Arab League and the UN. In Iraq, France and Russia said no to UN sponsorship; in Libya, the UN said no to bombing ground targets and targeting the Gadhafi family, as we nodded, praised, and then ignored all that.

A Reset Middle East

In the Balkans and Iraq, the U.S. led and took on the responsibility for either victory or defeat. In Libya, we sorta/sorta not participated and so allowed a dictatorship of about 7 million people to withstand the three principle NATO powers for nearly six months. If the point was to "lead from behind" and force our allies to “do their fair share,” we did not really accomplish that goal, but instead exposed European weakness and the impotence of NATO. Moreover, we will probably learn that the majority of the costs and supplies (and perhaps even the missions) were U.S., but the impression remains that France and Britain took out Gadhafi. Early on the president assured the country that regime change was not our goal, only no-fly-zones and humanitarianism; at some unspoken point that was dropped and reality set in: you don’t get rid of Gadhafi by buzzing his airports—and NATO does not bomb Libya without trying to rid it of Gadhafi.

Postmortem

At some point things could get ugly in Libya and someone is responsible; if we led from behind in the bombing, do we lead from behind in ensuring there is not a Mogadishu-like chaos? Or is that a European problem? With thousands of shoulder-held missile launchers in Libya, the question is not academic or partisan.

Well, then, what to do?

The center of our Middle East policy should be to ensure vast oil revenues are not translated into subsidizing terrorism aimed at the U.S. and its allies, or used by crazed dictators to absorb other weaker nations to create some sort of Pan-Islamic caliphate or Pan-Arabic belligerent.

That would mean in a post-Saddam world thwarting Assad’s Syria and theocratic Iran, and to the extent we can, steering the third stage of some seven decades of postwar Middle East unrest away from Islamic fundamentalism toward constitutional government, while remaining a strong supporter of Israel. To accomplish those goals, a confident America would (a) have to get its financial house in order; (b) seek to limit blackmail by exploiting all of our own huge and growing fossil fuel reserves; (c) stop backbiting democratic Israel; (d) work where we can and when it is possible with petro-rich Sunni states to isolate Syria and Iran; (e) promote consensual government apart from Islamic republicanism—especially through far more vocal and stealthy support for the Syrian and Iranian protestors. (Suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood is largely secular would not be part of the plan. Nor would apologizing for past American sins. Nor would publicly rebuking Israel. Nor would outreach to Iran and Syria.)

Idiotic Corner

It is odd for a newspaper in unsigned editorials to go after a writer. But the Monterey Herald has done that on occasion with me, and with the usual ad hominem tactics and failure to offer a rebuttal, which seem at odds with basic journalistic ethics. Here is the latest with brief commentary:

Real tax talk is needed

The Monterey County Herald

Posted: 08/24/2011 01:45:06 AM PDT

When someone as rich and influential as Warren Buffett speaks, most people listen, especially others who are rich and influential. But Buffett's recent New York Times column, in which he opined that the nation would be better off if he and the similarly situated were taxed at higher rates, has been dismissed by the right wing think tanks and others whose job description apparently is to protect the rich from the rest of us.

The Hoover Institution's chief saber rattler, Victor Davis Hanson, didn't even wait for Buffett's column. He went proactive a week earlier with an argument so simplistic that it becomes apparent that the protectors of the rich are running out of ammunition.

Here are some excerpts, with some of the verbosity trimmed away:

"About every month or so either a politician — a Barack Obama or John Kerry — or a billionaire — a Bill Gates Jr. & Sr. or Warren Buffett — or a celebrity — a Matt Damon — pontificates about the need for some sort of higher taxes, as if we are supposed to be in awe over such professed magnanimity. Usually the narrative goes one of two ways: 'I wouldn't mind paying more taxes' or 'My secretary pays more taxes than do I.'

"These apologies insult our intelligence, since the boaster either makes so much money that he would not notice whether he paid 35 percent or 39 percent on his income...

"Of course, the very wealthy who rant about higher taxes simply could pay higher taxes...The media would love Matt Damon if he were paying 70percent in taxes on his income. Indeed, he could start a movement to shame other Hollywood celebrities, who then could shame CEOs, who then in turn could shame the rich in general. Or alternatively, the very wealthy who feel under-taxed simply could donate directly to their own favorite government program — a Head Start, solar power subsidy, or food stamp program."

That's the best this darling of the rich right could come up with? If he thinks he should pay more taxes, then he should go ahead.

Brilliant. If it seems like you've heard or read that suggestion before, it's because you have. In dozens of letters to the editor over the years, letters written by earnest people who meant what they said but who were not paid big bucks to come up with ideas either original or profound, preferably both.

Signaling a potential shift in the national thought processes, Hanson's response has typified the reaction from the better board rooms: Buffett should just write a bigger check.

Here's hoping the feeble counterattack means that Buffett's words will help lead the nation into a new and meaningful conversation about taxes, a discussion that goes well beyond the "no new taxes" chants of the Grover Norquist followers. The rich and their front men have managed to make the conversation about the poor and the working class, vilifying them for paying relatively little tax and preventing people from noticing that the tax rate for the super rich in this country averages about 18 percent — not the 35 or 39 percent that Hanson suggests.

Buffett, by the way, pays around 18 percent, far less than any of his employees.

No, Victor, Buffett's secretary doesn't pay more taxes than her boss does, but her tax rate is less than half of his.

____________________________________________

Note again the unprofessional ad hominem tone, quite unbefitting a newspaper: “The Hoover Institution's chief saber rattler” or “protectors of the rich” or “this darling of the rich right,” or “front men,” or “but who were not paid big bucks to come up with ideas either original or profound." Such anonymous invective and cheap emotion in lieu of logical argumentation are simply beneath a reputable newspaper, and once again the Herald should know better and be ashamed.

For the record, I live by choice in a rural area of the poorest quadrant of one of the poorest counties in the central valley of California, a world away from Monterey. My interest is not with the “rich,” but jobs for the non-rich (unemployment in my home town hovers at 20%). I live with “the poor and the working class” and their lot has gotten far worse since 2008 as jobs have disappeared and even generous state entitlements have now become unsustainable and are being cut back, as too many taxpayers flee the state and revenues nosedive. Whether George Soros, John Kerry, Al Gore, or Warren Buffett fly a little more quickly in their private jets than I do in coach, or whether their hot water comes out of designer faucets and mine does not, or whether their Mercedes or BMW is quieter than my quite adequate Honda concerns me not at all.

The Herald deliberately did not address the chief point of my essay: My worry is instead with those creating most of the jobs who make between $200-$500,000. They represent about 5% of the tax filers and pay about 60% of the income taxes (about 50% of Americans pay no income tax and are thus not directly vested in income tax questions). They are not hiring in fear of higher taxes, rich/poor class warfare rhetoric, worry over new regulations, and rising fuel and energy costs—and that hesitation hurts poorer millions as we see with near nonexistent growth, a declining stock market, a 9.1% unemployment rate, near record low consumer confidence, record annual deficits and aggregate debt, and soaring fuel and food costs. Does the Herald not see that a red-state Texas or the Dakotas does not experience the stasis of the Illinois/New York/California blue-state model, in the manner a Germany or Netherlands does not suffer from the insolvency of a far more liberal tax-and-spend Mediterranean Europe? Did California’s 10% income tax rate, 10% sales tax rate, and record gas tax rates ensure that the problems of infrastructure (crumbling), education (near bottom in national test score rankings), crime (record numbers of inmates with record costs per inmate) and entitlements (among the most generous and the most endangered) were addressed far better than elsewhere with lower tax rates? Are job-employers arriving to, or leaving a naturally beautiful California in preference to a cold Utah, North and South Dakota or arid Texas?

Again, note the absence of any rebuttal to my original contention. Why does Warren Buffett simply not pay at the income tax rate, rather than at the capital gains rate, as do most of those who make over $200,000 who do not have his options? And why, given his belief that our debt problem is found in a lack of revenue rather than in wasteful and counterproductive government spending, did he assign his own fortune of nearly $50 billion to a private foundation rather than to a more benevolent and wise government to disperse as it saw fit, especially inasmuch he will deprive the community of billions in lost inheritance tax revenue? (And why invest heavily in life-insurance companies while advocating hiked inheritance taxes, when the former's profits so often depend on the latter?)

So the Herald does not address the chief point of my argument: that the super-rich are different from the upper-middle-class; they often make arguments for higher taxes usually when they reach the point of being super-rich, not while struggling and ascendant, at least in part apparently because higher taxation levels do not really affect their ample income in a way it might the family dentist, electrical contractor, or computer sales manager who, whether logically or due to emotion, so often reacts to a redistributive agenda like that of the last three years by not hiring another receptionist, another electrician, or another sales rep.

And finally, should we laugh or cry when the liberal Herald starts out with “When someone as rich and influential as Warren Buffett speaks, most people listen.” I guess I’m not “most.” You see, I don’t listen to someone, right or left, based on whether they are “rich and influential," but rather whether their ideas seem logical and well presented. In the case of Warren Buffett, his wealth and media exposure, as with a George Soros or Al Gore, mean less than nothing to me. I would rather listen to hundreds in Selma and Fowler who own tractor repair shops, oil driveways, and sell pesticides but who daily make far more sense than do Buffett and the “rich and influential” who live lives that do not match their advocacy.