The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine


The Reason for the Paris Attacks

So, 128 dead so far, and over 200 injured in multiple attacks across Paris. ISIS has claimed responsibility, though nothing in their communique shows any knowledge not in the news, so it may or may not be them.

In a sense it doesn’t matter who it is. The task of any group which seeks minority support is to “heighten contradictions,” as the old Marxists used to say. You commit atrocities precisely because you want backlash against an identifiable minority. The more they are oppressed, the more they will turn to you, the less they will inform, and so on.

“Terrorists” and western Governments have become co-dependent. Many in the West want further excuses for internal repression (which is usually justified as just being against a despised minority, then spreads), and for more war.

Hollande has used language which indicates he may be about to invoke NATO Article 5. If so, he would presumably want significant Western military action where ISIS is—Iraq and Syria.

This is a potential disaster, given the Russian presence, and given that the Russian presence, in part, was to forestall a NATO “no fly zone.” With public opinion inflamed, the West may tell Russia to “step aside, or else.” What if Russia doesn’t?

Even if Russia does withdraw, welcome to another quagmire, ending in a failed state. (Yes, Syria is a failed state now, mostly, but if you think Western intervention will fix that you haven’t been paying attention.)

Let us hope sanity reigns. And let us remember that attacks of this magnitude are reasonably common in Iraq, Syria, and other failed states. To be sure, it is a tragedy. It is no more of a tragedy, nor less a tragedy, than a similar attack in Baghdad.

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Hizbollah’s Leader Says They Are Battling All Across Syria


The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah has said his fighters would expand their presence in Syria, saying the group was engaged in an existential battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged for the first time that his Shia group was fighting across all of Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Picture of Hassan Nasrallah

Picture of Hassan Nasrallah

Years ago, I noted that Hizbollah needed to keep supply lines open to Iran, and thus had reason to support the Syrian government. That was a near-existential reason in itself.

And he called specifically on his fiercest critics in Lebanon to back his intervention across the border, warning that their support for Assad’s opponents would not save them from ISIL.

I think this is accurate. There is a weird idea that if ISIL conquers Syria it won’t move into Lebanon. Of course it will. ISIS is the Caliphate. As a matter of belief and ideology, their legitimacy is tied to expansion, and Lebanon is definitely part of the lands they consider as rightfully belonging to the Caliphate.

To not fight them will not save Lebanon if ISIL wins, and Lebanon is a heck of a lot easier of a target than Iran or Turkey. Thus, former prime minister, and leader of Lebanon’s anti-Hezbolla bloc, Saad Hariri’s criticism of Nasrallah’s speech and his movement’s intervention in Syria is nonsense:

“We in the Future Movement declare publicly that the Lebanese state and its institutions are legitimate and our choice and guarantee,” Hariri said in a statement. “Defending the land and the sovereignty and dignity (of Lebanon) is not Hezbollah’s responsibility.”

Well, I suppose the last part might be true. But it is laughable to suppose that the Lebanese army can guarantee Lebanon’s safety from an ISIL invasion. Lebanese who are old enough will remember how well the Lebanese army performed against the Israeli invasion. I am unaware of any particular reason to suppose they would do better enough this time to matter. (It is also true that Hezbollah is currently mostly fighting the Nusra front.)

These wars are also sharpening fighters throughout the Muslim world. They are becoming tougher and smarter. Hezbollah has already defeated the Israeli army twice, ISIL is fighting very well, and the same can be said of many other forces in the Muslim world. I will be frank: I believe that Western force’s edge now comes down mostly to military equipment, which means air power–open-field battle systems (i.e., shoot them before they are even in range of you) and surveillance systems.

I believe the Israeli military, especially, given its corruption due to being an occupying force whose primary job is to beat up, torture, and kill the effectively defenseless, is not even close to as good as quite a number of Muslim (non-state and ISIL) forces.

One really shouldn’t create the perfect Darwinian learning system for those one considers one’s enemies.

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As Palmyra Falls to ISIS, What Are the Syrian Government’s Prospects?

Palmyran AmphitheatreSo, yet another city falls, and the city has some very nice ancient architecture, which we will no doubt soon see sledgehammered.  Some Palmyrans apparently thought the international “community” might protect them since they’re a great cultural site. I’d laugh if it wasn’t so sad.

ISIS has fought well and fought smart, and came into a regional war which had been going on for years.  (One can argue, in Iraq, since the first Gulf War.) They have a huge ideological advantage in claiming to be the Caliphate reborn, and they have made ground. I keep hearing speculation that Syria’s government is on its last legs, but I have no feel for whether this is true or not. In large part, they appear to have been giving back gains.

One advantage the Syrians have is that they have to fight in their core areas; if they lose, there will be no mercy from ISIL. Everyone knows what they do to prisoners. A second advantage is that Hezbollah can’t afford for Assad to fall. If he does, their supply routes to Iran are cut off.

Back in 2008, I was in Las Vegas, and I sat at a table with a wealthy Syrian merchant and his beautiful wife. We talked about what we did, and he thanked me for what I did at the time, because he understood that I got paid shit in order to work against events like the Iraq war. I thought that was awfully gracious, given how little success those of us who oppose such stupidity as Iraq or arming the dissidents in Syria have had.

It’s not that I have any mandate for Assad; he’s a truly horrible man who appears to personally delight in torture. But war and anarchy have huge costs, and the early opposition were always very dubious people–perhaps not quite as bad as ISIL, but certainly no great improvement over Assad and without the saving grace of competence, meaning that they couldn’t necessarily expect to win the war quickly.

And Assad proved to be a lot more determined than most observers expected, the Syrian army, under Iranian and Hezbollah tutelage improved, and so on.

I’m not against all war, or against all violence. Sometimes they are the least worst option. But Syria never passed that test.

I wonder what happened to the gracious Syrian merchant I met. Are he and his wife and children alive? Being wealthy, did he get out? It’s not that he was more deserving of life than any other Syrian just because he happened to play blackjack with me.

But he was kind and gracious, and I remember him. And I wonder how many kind and gracious Syrians and Iraqis have died, men and women I would have liked, in the Middle East.

With no Iraq invasion, there is no ISIS. Saddam was a bastard, but again, the status quo was better than what the invasion caused.

The barrier for “just war” is high, and it is both pre- and post-facto: Fuck it up, and it doesn’t matter how wonderful your intentions were. Idiots used to go on about the Pottery Barn rule: “If you break, it you own it.” They didn’t mean “You then have to fix it.” Japan and Germany were rebuilt, but the preparations for Iraq made it clear that such rebuilding would never happen there, and the aftermath of Libya has been a clusterfuck.

Perhaps George Washington, whom I believe (with those who lived at the time) was the greatest of America’s Founders, was right. Not just for America, but for all nations, when he advised avoiding all foreign entanglements, and to be a friend to all nations.

Perhaps not always right, but perhaps you really do need to pass the “Nazi” test, and Saddam, Assad, and Qaddafi were never Hitlers, despite the rhetoric used to justify each war or intervention or “aid.”

Leave people alone. If they want to overthrow their rulers, great, but that’s their business and not yours. Short of actual genocide (which we never intervene against anyway–see Rwanda or Cambodia), war is almost always worse than the status quo, and outside intervention rarely seems to make the situation better. (See the Ukraine for this also–and yes, Maidan was an intervention by outside forces.)

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The burning of the Jordanian pilot

I’m with Robb on this.  It’s barbaric and no one should be burned alive.  I also strongly believe in good POW treatment (though, obviously, ISIS is not a party to the Geneva conventions.)

But pilots are more hated than virtually anyone.  They kill and maim (and often burn people to death) and they do it with what seems like complete impunity.  The Afghans used to throw Soviet pilots to the women, and, well, you don’t really want to think about what happened to them.

Pilots aren’t given sidearms to kill the enemy with if they are shot down.  They’re given sidearms to kill themselves.

The Kipling rule applies: always save the last bullet, for yourself.

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Obama’s Speech on War with the Islamic State

Let’s just quickly point out the obvious: air power only works if you have effective ground troops backing it up, or your enemy is easily dissuaded from war by losses of infrastructure. Otherwise it wrecks great destruction, and does little more.

To put it simply, this strategy will certainly help those fighting the IS, but it won’t make that big a difference, and it isn’t new, it’s what the US has been doing for some time.  Failure to coordinate with Syria is a mistake, and the only people in the region who have significant numbers of troops capable of defeating the IS are Iran and Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is unlikely to move large numbers of troops into Syria out of fear of Israel attacking them, and there is no assurance Obama can give them of that not happening, because America answers to Israel, not Israel to America.

Meanwhile the US is still giving arms to so-called moderates like the FSA, which wind up in the hands of ISIL.  The Peshmerga have proved largely incapable, though they are more willing to fight than the pathetic Iraqi army, and the IS is filling up with ex-Baathists: very capable soldiers.

The alliance is also laughable: Turkey has been funneling weapons to the Syrian opposition for some time and Saudi Arabia is the spiritual home of the form of Wahhabism the IS believes in.  That said, I do believe that the Saudi royal family is soiling themselves over the IS, because their ideology requires them to overthrow the corrupt rulers of Saudi Arabia and conquer Mecca as part of their caliphate.  The Saudi royal family deserves nothing more, this is an exact result of their pushing Wahabbism as the ideology of Jihad for decades.

And so it goes.  Obama hasn’t managed to fight a war yet that didn’t destabilize multiple countries.  I wouldn’t expect this to be any different.

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The Barbarism of ISIL, the Taliban and Wahhabism and collapse of hegemonic ideology

One of the particulars of my writing and thinking which confuses many people is that I am able to respect the worthy qualities of individuals and groups whom I otherwise despise.  So I can say that George Bush was a great man (he changed the nature of his country and made it stick), while also despising him.  By the same token, Hitler and Osama Bin Laden were great men. They also had great gifts: it is jejeune to not admit, for example, that Hitler was a great orator, one of the greatest in the 20th century.  Without his great gifts, he would have been far less dangerous.

In the same regard, I can admire the pre-9/11 Taliban for their apparent genuine belief: their actions were in accord with their theology.  I can admire them for all but eradicating the opium crops and for bringing peace to most of the country.

I can admire, likewise, the fighting ability of ISIL and, to a lesser extent, their belief.  I can admire the breadth of the dream of creating a new caliphate.  I can admit that these are dangerous people and that their belief makes them more dangerous.

For that matter, I can admire Putin’s abilities while noting he’s committed many many war crimes: I haven’t forgotten what happened in Chechnya, and the sheer brutality Putin used to put down the Chechens.

People think that because I can admire something about individuals or groups they hate, that I like those groups or people.

In many cases they’re simply straight up wrong. The Taliban and ISIL are, to me, barbarians.  When the Taliban dynamited the giant Buddhas, I lost all sympathy for them.  Only barbarians do such things, and any faith that requires such actions is my enemy, straight up.  In a world ruled by the Taliban, I would have no place.

Likewise ISIL’s destruction of the Syriac Archdiocese is just barbarous.  I suspect this is a perversion of the Islamic faith, which always mandated respect for other religions of the book, but it occurs nonetheless.  Their treatment of non-Sunni Muslims is likewise atrocious in the true sense of the word: it’s an atrocity.  They are backwards, uncivilized and barbarous, savages who can only destroy the finer products of civilization, not appreciate or conserve them.  They are provincial bigots.

I also have no time for any movement which treats women as second class in the way the Taliban and ISIL do.  Some will say that this is my own provincialism, but I am heir to a universal ideology, in its own way as powerful or more powerful than Islam; one which says all humans are equal before the law.  Like all ideological statements of justice, this cannot be proved.  I can’t say “I am right and they are wrong” because of arguments based on logic back to first principles.  Those first principles, whatever they are, are always axioms, and unprovable.

Such ethics, morals and values need arguments, they need logic; they need revelation too, often enough.

But at core those ethics and the ideologies they are fostered by, are choices, and choices that say who we are, embedding our treatment of others—and ultimately it is how we treat others that speaks to who we are.

It is for this reason that while I don’t agree with, say Hezbollah, about everything, that I have respect for them overall: they have non Shia members.  After the war they rebuilt non-members houses.  They restrict themselves to military targets much more so than any of their enemies (the attack on the marine barracks was an attack on a military target, in response to US shelling of Shia villages, non-military targets.)  To the extent they are Islamic, they embody much of what is, to me, admirable in Islam.

Hezbollah’s ethics, as they are played out in the real world, are not antithetical to mine.  They can exist in a geographic space, I can exist, we could be friends (we’re not, for the dull).  Their values do not demand my destruction.  If ISIL took over a city I was in, I’d be beheaded.  They would treat large classes of people in ways I find deeply unethical, even evil.  And they are barbarians.

Because a group is barbaric does not mean eterna-war.  Sometimes the best response is no response, containment or simply slowly destroying them ideologically.  The inability to understand which barbaric groups are a threat to spread, and which aren’t a threat to spread is constant, as is the understanding that ideological war must be fought materially and ideologically, but only rarely with guns.

Taking out unpleasant regimes and creating power vacuums which real barbaric threats could arise is another constant mistake.

I have no mandate for Qaddafi, for example, but the Libyan war was a mistake.  Qaddafi was better for his population and for the West, than what has come since.  Syria’s Assad is a monster who tortures, and who seems to enjoy torturing (similar to George Bush in this respect).  His regime is deeply distasteful.

Syria under Assad was far better than Syria in civil war, with ISIL controlling a large chunk of it and using it as a base to invade Iraq.

The inability to recognize real enemies is ongoing and pernicious.  The ultimate source of the barbarism of movements such as ISIL is Saudi Arabia.  Containment of Saudi Arabia’s influence should be a cornerstone policy of the West, because their noxious form of Islam spreads barbarism.  Making deals with Saudi Arabia and using them as instruments of US policy has lead to endless problems far larger than they were meant to cure.

This is true as far back as the original Afghan war against the USSR.  This was not a war the West needed to interfere in.  Arming the Mujahideen there is the grandfather blowback decision which has led to virtually all of the problems discussed above (much of the rest is Israel/Palestine based).  The war in Afghanistan did not just destabilize Afghanistan it corrupted, destabilized and radicalized Pakistan, which had been on a secularizing path before all that dirty money started flowing into the country through networks infected by a noxious variant of Saudi Islam.  As with pictures of Afghan girls in Kabul wearing skirts, Pakistan was a far more liberal nation in the 70s, socially, than it is today.

Don’t use barbarians as your proxies.  Saudi Wahhabism and its offshoots is fundamentally in opposition to secular Western enlightenment society.  Doing business with such people undermines the core ethics of our own system of ideology.

This does not mean neo-con style perma war.  It means showing that our ideology produces better outcomes for them than their own ideology does.  Through the fifties and even into the seventies, secularism rose in the world because it was seen as providing better outcomes.  It was constantly undermined by the actions of the United States in overthrowing democratic governments they didn’t like.  Noticing that the West didn’t believe in its own ideology (at least not for Muslims, and today not even for its own citizens), and that they could not share in the prosperity of secular democracy and socialistic capitalism, is it any wonder that many turned to another strong ideology?

This disease is the disease of unaccountable elites.  Elite families, even in democracies, would rather deal with other elite families than with messy democracy.  A Shah seems more amenable than a democratic Iran.  It’s easy to do business with Saudi Princes, you know who to talk to.  Deals can be cut, and if they don’t work out for most of the population, who cares?

Playing the game as a chess-board; using whatever proxies or allies come to hand, and violating your own ideology undermines the true basis of your power. Western hemegony was based on blood and iron, to be sure; but it was also based on the very real promise of emancipation, freedom and prosperity.

Deny the fruits of western ideology to those who reach for them, and of course they will turn against you.  Pervert them even within your own countries by undermining your own democratic principles and by concentrating wealth and income in the hands of a few, while impoverishing the many; make it clear that modern neo-liberal capitalism doesn’t spread prosperity to even the core nations, and you have set up one of the preconditions of not just hegemonic collapse, but of internal collapse of a civilization.  People who do not believe in the genuine goodness of what they are fighting for, hardly fight for it at all.

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