‘Thinking Machiavelli, Acting Mussolini’
In the Middle East, the Shi’a – widely – are enjoying a renaissance, just at the moment when the Sunni ‘old’ establishment is convulsed with fear.
Earlier this month, the Lebanese al-Manar TV aired footage of Israeli bases in Upper Galilee, which were filmed by a Hizbullah drone. An Israeli base in Brannite and a command centre in Rowaysat al-Alam in northern Israel can be seen in the footage. According to Southfront, whose military expertise is highly regarded, Hizbullah now operates a variety of drones, some with combat capabilities. Reports suggest that Hizbullah has established a formidable stealth drone and smart cruise missile force (with support from Iran). The Russia-linked, military site, Southfront, concludes that today, the movement is better trained and equipped than many armies around the world.
Israel is convinced that, for the first time, that the ‘next war’ will not be limited to Lebanese territory; that its own borders will be violated; and that offensive combat forces will enter settlements and homes and clash with Israeli troops.
This is giant ‘chess’ – where a combination of armed drones, suicide drones and ‘smart’ missiles likely will predominate (rather than tanks, as in the 2006 war). In its evolving thesis of a new war with Hizbullah, Israel believes that all its airfields will be bombed with precision missiles. (And is therefore trying to get from the U.S., a few squadrons of the new generation F-35B jets that do not need long runways, so as to try to secure its air superiority in the face of a possible swarm drone or missile attack on its air defences).
This represents just one component to Iran’s transmutation of any Israeli or American ‘military’ option against Iran into a suicide ‘Red Pill’ for whomsoever might launch it. Quietly, while all the world was focussed on the ‘Big One’ (putative nuclear weapons), over the last four years, Iran has built a conventional ‘swarm’ and ‘smart’ (and virtually undetectable by radar) ‘ant’s hive’ of ‘micro’ weapons circling across the region – from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq to Yemen.
Although it is still to sink-in to European and American thinking (obsessed with the possibly now passé framework of the ‘Big One’ – the JCPOA), Iran quietly has inverted the calculus. It possesses the leverage now. And it has other trade options (through looking East) opening to it. Israel and its Gulf State ‘allies’, by contrast are on the defensive.
So what is next? An Iranian law has come into force setting a 60-day deadline for the U.S. to lift sanctions. If the U.S. doesn’t do so, the law states that Iran must raise uranium enrichment levels to 20% and limit UN inspectors’ access to its nuclear sites. The bottom line for Israel is that this new paradigm demands swift, confidential talks with America.
Some in Israel clearly ‘get it’: In one of the split-screen realities, it is all about nukes (on which U.S. politics is focused), but featuring on another screen is Iran’s Red Pill deterrence against the U.S. putting the military option back on the table.
However, as Professor Michael Brenner has observed, “foreign policy has got short shrift over the last two years” in the U.S. (Iran and the JCPOA being the one exception): “Even on that [latter] issue, there is scant dissent from the twin propositions that Iran is a hostile state that threatens our vital interests and that the Islamic state’s disappearance would remove a serious anathema. So pervasive is this consensus that the foreign affairs community has developed something that approximates herd immunity to critical thinking. Political élites, think tankers, and consultancy gurus all sing in chorus from the same hymnal. Such differences as exist are barely noticeable variations on the fundamentally same threat assessments or on tactics for countering those alleged threats. Strategy is nowhere to be seen”.
Today, we are all too highly susceptible, to “techno-chauvinist” perspectives. Because we are incessantly told technology – whether military, or via algorithmic control – is the irresistible driver of change. Consequently, we now simply cannot imagine a future in which the solution to our problems is not more and more technology (or more and better weapons). Clearly, step-evolutions in weaponry can become a strategic game-changer (it just has); yet the best lesson history can offer is that the future is determined by cultural and social dynamics, as much as it is shaped by technology alone
And just as America experiences its cultural Blue versus Red ‘war’, so the Middle East has its’ own cultural wars, which are being exacerbated and made more intractable by that Washington ‘tin ear’ to critical thought, and which insists to define the world around it as a Manichean struggle between the forces of light and of darkness; of freedom versus despotism; of justice versus oppression and cruelty.
Washington truly stares at its own image in the mirror, and throws this wide shawl across the rest of the world. Its’ own Presidential election is no longer purely political, but it too now is configured more as a ‘crusade’ against cosmic evil – a devil, or demiurge (Trump). The salience of this for the Middle East is that, what America defines as ‘evil and malign’, may be no more other societies’ cultural wars (little different to America’s own), playing out.
Here is the point: technology – whether military or financial – is often not the determinant. The Iranian nation has been placed under huge stresses, yet it has found the inner resources to build a solution (its smart weapon deterrence). It has demonstrated societal and cultural energy. This matters.
Jacques Barzun, the philosopher of history, asks the question: “What makes a nation?” He answers his own question. “A large part of the answer to that question is: common historical memories. When the nation’s history is poorly taught in schools; ignored by the young, and proudly rejected by qualified elders, awareness of tradition consists only in wanting to destroy it”.
The December issue of The Atlantic magazine has an interview with Professor Peter Turchin, who is actually a zoologist. He spent his early career analyzing population dynamics. Why does a particular species of beetle inhabit a certain forest, or why does it disappear from that same forest? He developed some general principles for such things, and wondered if they apply to humans, too.
One recurring pattern, Turchin noticed is something he calls ‘élite overproduction’. This happens when a society’s ruling class grows faster than the number of rulers it needs. (For Turchin, “élite” seems to mean not just political leaders, but all those managing companies, universities, and other large social institutions, as well as those at the top of the economic food chain.) As The Atlantic describes it:
“One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, élites overproduce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do …”.
The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising insecurity becomes expensive. The élites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.
Turchin’s article was intended – and did – resonate as a description of the U.S. in its current state. Yet it describes much of the Middle East to a ‘T’ – particularly in the context of weak oil prices. The region is an economic disaster. And no, Turchin’s observations apply not just to the region’s autocrats, but in certain important respects – i.e. in social poverty and inequality – they apply to Israel, as much as to anyone else.
Cultural ‘war’ is as much about whether a civilisational ‘life’ is ebbing, or is both vital and fertile.
In the wake of the Iranian Revolution; 9/11, and the ‘Arab Spring’, Robert Worth notes in a long essay in the NYT Magazine, key Gulf leaders such as Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ), shifted from an initial openness to political Islam, to a recognition that the path of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that of his own path to feudal power, simply “were incompatible”.
MbZ incrementally turned implacably hostile to the MB, to Iran, and was wary, even, of the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia. By 2013, MbZ was deeply worried about the future. The Arab Spring uprisings had toppled several autocrats, and political Islamists were rising to fill the vacuum. Worth expands:
“It was a recipe for apocalyptic violence; and regional powers were doing little to stop it. Turkey was vehemently cheering its own favoured Islamists on and backing some of them with weapons. So was Qatar, the U.A.E.’s oil-rich neighbour in the Persian Gulf. The Saudis were ambivalent, hampered by an elderly and ailing monarch.”
“He would soon enlist as an ally Mohammed bin Salman, the young Saudi crown prince known as MbS, who in many ways is MbZ’s protégé. Together, they helped the Egyptian military depose that country’s elected Islamist president in 2013. In Libya in 2015, MbZ stepped into the civil war, defying a United Nations embargo and American diplomats. He fought the Shabab militia in Somalia, leveraging his country’s commercial ports to become a power broker in the Horn of Africa. He joined the Saudi war in Yemen to battle the Iran-backed Houthi militia. In 2017, he broke an old tradition by orchestrating an aggressive embargo against his Persian Gulf neighbour Qatar. All of this was aimed at thwarting what he saw as a looming Islamist menace.”
Of course, all this, and the Sandhurst-trained monarch’s model ‘Spartan’ army, made him a star in Washington (although he subsequently fell-out with Obama, over the latter’s support for Morsi – and later, over Obama’s JCPOA, which MbZ opposed).
What then was the Gulf and Sunni riposte to this impending cultural war catastrophe? MbZ actualised an ambitious dream: that of “building a state that would show up the entire Islamist movement by succeeding where it had failed. Instead of an illiberal democracy — like Turkey’s — he would build its opposite, a socially liberal autocracy, much as Lee Kuan Yew did in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s.” The future was a binary choice: repression or catastrophe. He chose repression: “It is ‘culture war’” he said.
This was a coherent, if tiny, civilisation disintegrating. A Gulf cultural tradition was being eviscerated in order to shield it against the Islamist and Iranian ‘virus’’. Even Worth, who visited the region often, described the inhabitants as ‘rootless individuals’, wandering the caverns beneath the hyper-capitalist, glass towers. Energy fades, civilisation gently dies.
But for the Israeli commentator, Zvi Barel, MbZ’s normalisation with Israel is simply the inevitable continuation – a further weave into the fabric of MbZ’s worldview: “His hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood equals only to his fear of Iran, in which he sees a clear and immediate threat to the Emirates in particular – and to Sunni Islam in general”.
In the Middle East, the Shi’a – widely – are enjoying a renaissance, just at the moment when the Sunni ‘old’ establishment is convulsed with fear at being overwhelmed by the region’s Shi’a. Cultural virility can trump repression, as Iran is showing. And the correct response to a cultural resurgence is almost never a ‘military option’. Iran’s readiness to face-off over the JCPOA makes a western course-correction urgent. Will that happen? In Washington, almost certainly not: We shall just have to shuffle unsteadily and nervously along the cliff edge of Israeli and U.S. demands for ‘forever-containment’ – awaiting events.