Tag Archives: geopolitics

Saudi Arabia’s motives for war

I was musing recently about what possible motive Saudi Arabia could have for provoking war with Iran. Joschka Fischer suggests one answer:

As part of his agenda, MBS has also launched an aggressive new foreign policy, particularly toward Iran. The modernizers around MBS know that the revolution’s success will require breaking the power of Wahhabism by replacing it with Saudi nationalism. And in order to do that, they need a compelling enemy. Shia Iran, with which the Kingdom is competing for regional hegemony, is the ideal foil.

These domestic considerations help to explain why Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet and escalated tensions with Iran in recent months. Of course, from the Saudis’ perspective, they are merely picking up the gauntlet that Iran already threw down by interfering in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, and other countries.

So far, the battle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been limited to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Neither side, it seems, wants a direct military conflict. And yet that outcome can hardly be ruled out, given recent developments. In the Middle East, a cold war can turn hot rather quickly.

Middle East “on a knife’s edge”?

Steve Bannon describes the Middle East as on a knife’s edge. It’s clear to me the U.S. is just being lured deeper and deeper into a regional Arab-Iran conflict, with Syria at the center and maybe about to spill into Lebanon. Tying all Islamic fundamentalist-inspired violence to Iran seems to be an effective strategy for drawing the U.S. in. Russia seems happy to see the U.S. bleed even though they are bleeding too. Israel is happy to see Iran and Lebanon bleed. It is hard to envision the end game that hard liners on any of the sides are trying to achieve, other than enriching the arms industry.



becoming a new U.S. state

Just following up on what the U.S. Constitution has to say about my idea of a metro area seeking to become a state:

New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

Hmm, so if the Philadelphia metro area (which includes parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) wanted to become its own State, it would need to sell all three existing states and the U.S. Congress on the idea. It sounds far-fetched. Then again, rural voters are often under the mistaken impression that they are subsidizing urban areas, even though the evidence proves that the exact opposite is the case. So if Philadelphia wanted to leave Pennsylvania for New Jersey, and it were put to a referendum, people might go for it. Electoral votes would be a potential sticking point, so getting rid of the Electoral College could help make something like this slightly more plausible. It still sounds implausible under our current (241 years and counting) Constitution. Still, there could be enormous advantages to a metro area controlling its own tax policy, housing policy, infrastructure policy, environmental policy, etc.

NATO expansion as a failure of empathy

This article in History News Network explains why allowing NATO to expand too much too fast after the fall of the Soviet Union may have been a crucial mistake.

By 2017 much of the former communist-ruled area of Europe—including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Albania—had joined the alliance, as had three former republics of the USSR itself (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). In 2008 NATO’s Bucharest Declaration indicated that two more former Soviet republics could at some point in the future join the organization whose original purpose was to protect its members against Soviet threats. (“NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.  We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”)

To realize how colossally we have failed to empathize with Russian concerns about such expansion, we should imagine how we would feel if Canada and Mexico and say some states that successfully seceded (imagine Texas, Minnesota, and North Dakota) joined a Russian alliance system. Our empathy deficit has been recognized by many leading political thinkers, including some conservative statesmen.

In her The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-first Century, Georgetown’s Angela Stent approvingly quotes a German official, who accused the United States of “an empathy deficit disorder” toward Russia. In addition, Henry Kissinger (former secretary of state), Jack Matlock (Reagan appointed ambassador to Russia), and Robert Gates (secretary of defense under both George W. Bush and Obama) all have criticized a lack of U. S. empathy toward Russian concerns about NATO expansion. Typical is Gates’s comment: “Moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to incorporate so many of its formerly subjugated states into NATO was a mistake. . . . Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching.” (See here for sources of quotes.)

I think there are some important claims here as we see echos of the same lack of empathy in U.S. statements and positions toward China. We can try to understand their motives, interests, and understanding of their role in the history of the region as we engage with them. This doesn’t mean being weak, it means being smart and strategic and giving peace a chance.



The Intercept has an article on what is going on in Indonesia.

On the surface, the massive street protests surrounding the April 19 gubernatorial election have arisen from opposition to Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok. As a result of pressure from the well-funded, well-organized demonstrations that have drawn hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — to Jakarta’s streets, Gov. Ahok is currently standing trial for religious blasphemy because of an offhand comment about a verse in the Quran. On Thursday, the day after he hears the results of the very close governor’s election, he is due back in court for his blasphemy trial.

Yet in repeated, detailed conversations with me, key protest figures and officials who track them have dismissed the movement against Ahok and the charges against him as a mere pretext for a larger objective: sidelining the country’s president, Jokowi, and helping the army avoid consequences for its mass killings of civilians — such as the 1965 massacres that were endorsed by the U.S. government, which armed and backed the Indonesian military.

Serving as the main face and public voice of the generals’ political thrust has been a group of what Indonesians call preman — officially sponsored street thugs — in this case, the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI (Front Pembela Islam). Originally established by the security forces — the aparat — in 1998 as an Islamist front group to assault dissidents, the FPI has been implicated in violent extortion, especially of bars and sex clubs, as well as murders and attacks on mosques and churches. During the mass protests against the governor, FPI leader Habib Rizieq Shihab has openly called for Ahok to be “hanged” and “butchered.”

Indonesia is easily the largest and most important country that most Americans know little or nothing about. I don’t claim to know a lot about it, but I have been there, lived not too far away from there and interacted with people from there. My personal interactions with Indonesians have been very positive. More than once intrepid female Indonesian tourists have stopped me on the street and asked to take photos with me. This inevitably leads to small talk, which always seems to involve asking my martial status and how many children I have in the first minute. On the flip side, I remember an Indonesian woman asking me once to please not sit next to her on a ferry. I tried not to be offended but it was the last seat available. Eventually I managed to change seats with another female passenger, and that solved the problem. So in my personal experiences I have found Indonesian people very personable, peaceful, friendly and tolerant. Which makes the country’s history of ethnic and religious strife a bit hard to reconcile in my head. I have also known Indonesians of Chinese descent who left the country during the ethnic strife in the 90s, but they won’t talk about it much. And I’m aware of the awful things that happened in the 60s, possibly with U.S. government involvement, although I didn’t learn anything about it in school. It is sad if that sort of thing is happening again.

what Americans believe

Apparently Survey Monkey does a weekly poll of what actual Americans actually believe. Respondents are self-selected, but Survey Monkey tries to use demographic weighting to obtain representative results. A few interesting outcomes from the February 22 edition:

  • 54% disapprove of Trump, and 43% strongly disapprove.
  • 55% disapprove of Democrats in Congress and 59% disapprove of Republicans.
  • 60% have confidence in the judicial system.
  • 52% have a favorable impression of the Affordable Care Act.
  • 56% oppose building a border wall with Mexico.
  • 47% would like to see National Parks expanded, and only 9% would like to see them shrunk.
  • 68% oppose taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school.
  • 80% support NATO.
  • 66% are worried about a major war in the next four years.
  • 58% have a family member or close acquaintance who is an immigrant.

If I had more time I wouldn’t mind having a more thorough understanding of the sampling and weighting involved, but on their face these numbers just support the idea that our politics is broken. Our politicians are not delivering policies that a majority of Americans would support, which suggests our voting system is not delivering politicians who really represent us.

World Order 2.0

Richard Haas has a vision for what a new international order could look like.

Today’s realities call for an updated operating system—World Order 2.0 – based on “sovereign obligation,” the notion that sovereign states have not just rights but also obligations to others.

A new international order will also require an expanded set of norms and arrangements, beginning with an agreed-upon basis for statehood. Existing governments would agree to consider bids for statehood only in cases where there was a historical justification, a compelling rationale, and popular support, and where the proposed new entity is viable.

World Order 2.0 must also include prohibitions on carrying out or in any way supporting terrorism. More controversially, it must include strengthened norms proscribing the spread or use of weapons of mass destruction.

He goes on to talk about climate change, trade, health, cyberspace, and refugees. It all sounds good but there aren’t a lot of specifics here.