Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What I Write When I Don't Write Here (and an update about the end of the world)'s been a while, Blogpost website.

I do have an excuse. I'm enrolled in the M.A. degree program at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago. I'm also still working part-time. I also tend to find extracurricular projects wherever I go. It's hard to make the time.

But I feel like you need an update, for a few reasons. First, my most recent post (five months ago - yeesh) is a little ornery. I still stand by it, but it's not the first thing I want your visitors to see when they come.

Second, while I haven't been writing on you very much, I have been writing elsewhere.

I got an article published on my favorite Syria blog in the world, Syria Comment. It's about an obscure political party called the Syrian Social Nationalist Party that's on the rise again in the current chaos. Perhaps not obscure for long! We will see.

I also published an article in Lights, the grad student journal for UChicago's Middle East Studies Student Association. It's all about slavery in Sudan, and the U.S. government's marked last of interest in it. If my readers are feeling especially good about the world, they might want to take a look, if only to bring them back down in the mire with us.

Finally, my apparently irrepressible urge to comment on things has found an outlet on my Facebook timeline, which is more suited to the two-paragraph volleys I can dependably make time for these days.

One of my new friends at UChicago has told me that my Facebook comments make him want me to start a Wordpress website, so I can expand on those volleys. (Cover your ears, darling; we've been together for six years and I would never switch platforms.) This is inordinately kind of him to say. Shout out to you, dude. I hope this post doesn't make you regret it.

Let me take this moment to expound on the blog post that I'm most proud of: "Reflections on the Nature of U.S. Power or Why ISIS is all the U.S.'s Fault." Maybe I can bring it up to date a little bit.

In that post, I wrote, referring to President Obama's attempts to force Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out of power,

"If Maliki goes, expect to see major U.S. operations against IS in Iraq. Maybe even in Syria. If he doesn’t, expect a lot more beheadings."

Well, Maliki went, and we did see major U.S. operations against IS in Iraq and in Syria. We also saw a lot more beheadings - most horrifically, the 21 Egyptian Christians beheaded on a beach in Libya last month.

At this point, two things seem abundantly clear to me:
1) The U.S. is not trying to seriously destroy the Islamic State.
2) The U.S. government is trying very hard to obfuscate that fact.

Take this January 22 report from the Wall Street Journal, where the head of U.S. Central Command boasts that the U.S. has driven IS out of "300 square miles of territory in Iraq."

This reminds me of nothing so much as the Austin Powers villain Dr. Evil holding the world hostage for "one million dollars." The American public just isn't very good with numbers, and our leaders' PR departments take full advantage of that fact.

IS controls territory the size of Great Britain. As my friend Neal points out, 300 square miles is smaller than the county he lives in in Iowa. Rhode Island alone is 1,200 square miles. In terms of IS' total territory, 300 square miles barely registers.

Over at The Atlantic, defense analyst Kenneth Bower cannot wrap his mind around this. "I simply do not understand our strategy, assuming we really have one," he writes:

"As I see it the Sunni minority in Iraq and the Sunni majority in Syria are under siege by Shia. ISIS is the one successful Sunni group opposing the Shia. A very large portion of Arab Sunnis at least passively support ISIS, not because they support its extreme ideology but because they want the Sunnis to emerge victorious. A subset of the pro-ISIS Sunnis actually support their extreme ideology. What we call the Iraqi military is seen by almost all Arab Sunnis as a Shia army under the influence, if not the control, of Iran. This explains why Turkey maintains open borders, as well as the policy of Jordan, Saudi, and the Emirates.

"...If our goal is defeating ISIS's ideology and its support of international terrorism this cannot be done by indirect fire, PERIOD! If [conclusive defeat] is our objective we only have limited choices: either military control of 25 million Syrian/Iraqi Sunnis, which will require a sustained force of 500,000 for decades; or creating conditions whereby the majority of Sunni Arabs will see it in their self interest to subjugate the ideological minority."

Let me explain what he's saying a little bit: the parts of Iraq and Syria that IS has taken over are Sunni Muslim-majority. Both Iraq and Syria have governments led by Shia Muslims. (Syria's government is a secular dictatorship dominated by Muslims from the Alawite sect, who believe in the divinity of Muhammad's son-in-law and reincarnation and such.) These governments are, by nature, very oppressive towards their Sunni citizens. IS has arisen as their champion, and has built, effectively, a new state for the Sunnis along the Syria-Iraq border.

This area is mostly desert and grasslands. There are no significant resources there. Only a bunch of angry people who probably don't like IS very much, but like their old governments even less.
This is also where some 600,000 Christians and Yazidis used to live, but they have now been driven out of their homes. Probably, for good.

Bower's analysis is spot-on.  He is only confused because he assumes the goal of the U.S. is to destroy IS. It's not. It can't be. Why would we want to? As Bower points out, destroying IS means militarily occupying millions and millions of poor, brutalized, angry people who have nothing to offer. Don't be shocked that nobody is leaping at the chance.

We DO have a strategy, but in the words of George Orwell, it is "too brutal for most people to face, and does not square with the professed aims of the political parties."

IS is the new Gaza. Israel failed at integrating the Palestinians there into its system, and then it failed in subjugating them. So, it pulled all its own people out, put up a wall around it, watched as a radical Islamist group took over, blockaded it from the sea and air, and now bombs it every time they get too unruly.

The most difficult-to-manage and low resource parts of Iraq and Syria have now been sawed off, lumped together, and totally cut off from the rest of the world. This is in the U.S.' interests. IS continues to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which is good for us, because it keeps Syria and Iran, our enemies, weak. Right now, we're protecting the Iraqi government from IS, but if they ever get too close to Iran, we can threaten to stop protecting them. IS has put the U.S. in a sweet spot, geostrategically.

Just like Hamas in Gaza, we will leave IS in power, and bomb them just enough to keep them from expanding too much. The IS regime may one day collapse. It may not. Perhaps one day, the time will be right for a "Nixon goes to China" moment. The president will send his secretary of state to Mosul, who will shake hands with the IS foreign minister, and say lots of nice things about Islam.

Too hard to believe? The single most radical Islamic state in the world, Saudi Arabia, is the U.S.'s closest Middle East ally. It can be done.

The truly depressing thing is, if the U.S. wanted to, it could probably use its airpower to liberate the areas that Iraq's Christians and Yazidis were expelled from. Friends in the area tell me that the "occupation" of the Christian and Yazidi homelands is mostly guys in pickup trucks roaming around, looting homes. It's too dangerous for Christians and Yazidis to go back, but it is not a full-scale occupying force. The U.S. could pick them off from the skies, and create a no-fly zone, allowing Christians and Yazidis to move back.

But then, the Christians and Yazidis would have to be reckoned with. They would have their own militias, probably. They would want to elect their own leaders. The U.S. would have to referee their spats with the Kurds and with the Shia government in Baghdad. They might not always do what they're told. Who wants the hassle?

The difficult part about this style of thinking is avoiding conspiracy theory. I'm not sure that what I've laid out above is some kind of evil master plan that the whole government is in on. It could be. But more likely, it's simply what we're doing by default.

Our enemy, the Syrian regime, is facing an uprising? Well, let's throw some weapons at it.

The uprising has morphed into a massive jihadist force threatening our ally, the Kurds? Better start bombing it.

Our bombing them is allowing our enemy the Syrian regime to regain ground? OK, boys, ease up a bit.

Destroy IS completely? Well, we're not ready to commit ground troops to control their territory, so...

The public is complaining we're not doing enough? How many square miles has IS lost now? 300? Triple-digits, that's good. Get me the Wall Street Journal...

And what we see now is the result. 

Immensely depressing, I know. This is what America's policy of interference-without-responsibility has wrought in the Middle East: the likely destruction of Middle Eastern Christianity, as well as a host of smaller religious and ethnic groups like the Yazidis, the Turkomans, the Shabaks, the Sabeans, etc., and a sweeping fire that is destroying the diversity of Islamic thought and culture in the region.

In this age of literal beheadings, the Book of Revelation is becoming more and more important for us Christians. John sees "the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God."

Are we holding on to our testimony about Jesus? Do we testify that He, not the United States, is the Last Best Hope for mankind, the Light of the world, the Indispensable One? Do we bear witness that we, as his followers, and NOT the American nation-state, are the city shining on the hill? When people look to us, do they see that city? Do they see people at peace with each other and with others? Do they see a better way to live? Do they see peaceful resistance against and condemnation of this evil?

Or do they see us hating on Muslims, rushing out to buy Mike Huckabee's new book, fretting about immigration, ranting about other sinners attaining full civil rights, voting for the political parties waging war on the innocent in the Middle East, and serving in the military and the government like everyone else?*

What does the world see when they look at us? What do Middle East Christians see?

"This beast was given power to wage war against God's holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God's people."

Middle East Christians are enduring. They are bearing witness.

Are we?

Happy Ash Wednesday.

"The world was not worthy of them." Hebrews 11:38

*I'm not necessarily saying don't serve in the government. I'm saying don't serve in the government like everyone else. I'll leave you to figure out how to do that.

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