Demographics Part 10: Problems in The Middle East

Coming to you from Milford Sound in New Zealand.

The demographic situation in the Middle East can be explained by three factors: water, oil, and food. Water prevented the population from expanding. Oil generated the capital needed to industrialize and help the population grow. Food security will ruin all of this.

The Middle East doesn’t have a ton of moisture, so most populations remained relatively small and geographically concentrated. This kept demographics in the traditional pyramidal structure. Once oil was discovered, these populations had the money to industrialize. This enabled Middle Eastern populations to grow beyond the land’s carrying capacity.

As the population expands, you naturally have more mouths to feed. The only way to sustain a growing population is through imports and subsidies. While Middle Eastern countries have retained their pyramidal demographic structures, these populations have become increasingly unstable.

Since the Middle East is so dependent upon globalization, any disruptions to the global system could turn catastrophic. Combine a potential food crisis with wealth inequality and political instability, and the degree of civil breakdown in the Middle East could be devastating.

Prefer to read the transcript of the video? Click here

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Hey everybody. Peter Zeihan here. Coming to you from Milford Sound, one of my favorite places on the planet. Still in New Zealand. Today we’re going to do the most recent of the demographics series, specifically focusing on the Middle East. Now, the key thing to remember about the entire swath of territory between roughly Kuwait and Algeria. So that whole stretch – Northeast Africa, all the way into the Persian Gulf region – is that there’s not a lot going on from a moisture point of view. Most of these cultures are centered around oases or narrow river valleys. The Tigris and Euphrates in many places, the entire coastal plain is less than ten miles thick. And the coastal plain in places like Libya look very, very similar. Egypt doesn’t even have water on its coastal plain. It’s just the Nile. So you get these very, very dense population patterns on a very, very concentrated footprint. And the carrying capacity of the land is very, very low. And it wasn’t until the 1900s when you could introduce things like artificial fertilizer that you really got a very dense population even within that zone. So this is an area that was among the last parts of the world to enter the industrial era. And so you had kind of a classic pyramidal formation for the population density until relatively recently in their history.

Okay. Where was I? There are some exceptions. In northern Algeria, you’ve got a much wider coastal plain. So agriculture is more favorable there. Obviously the Nile Valley and Mesopotamia, places that are still desert, but they have irrigation figured the places between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. Obviously going back to antiquity. These have had a lot of people. But the general point when it comes to industrial agriculture stands, you can have a certain concentration and then you just kind of stop to be in the desert, which means that these are some of the last areas in the world to experience industrialization, artificial fertilizers, mechanized agriculture, that sort of thing. And so they don’t, they just have never historically reached the level of population density that you’re able to achieve in, say, the Western world or the East Asian world. Now, what that means is that there’s been a hard population cap on all of these regions up until today, until one thing changed. Oil, whether it’s in Algeria or Libya or Egypt or Iraq or Iran or Saudi Arabia. Once oil became part of the equation, the income potential for these regions expanded by more than an order of magnitude in some cases, almost literally overnight, certainly within a decade. And what that has allowed is these populations to expand beyond the carrying capacity of the land. In the case of Egypt, Cotton contributed well. So these countries could all bring in food and sell the oil to pay for it and then generate a very, very different population matrix.

And we’re back. All right. So what this means is the countries have had it. All these places have a traditional pyramid going back to antiquity and then as we hit industrialization because of oil and the food just kept coming, they were able to maintain very high birth rates. They were no longer doing this with domestic food production, but instead with imported food. So the pyramid has stayed. It’s just gotten broader and broader, broader and broader because most of these countries have food subsidies in order to maintain political tranquility. But when the food is cheap, but you’re not producing it yourself, we get more and more people, but it eventually becomes more and more unstable from a demographic point of view. And now, whether you’re in Algeria or Egypt or Iraq, and especially in places like, say, Lebanon or Libya, you’ve seen the populations increase by a factor of four or five, even six or seven over the time since 1945, while food production has gone stagnate or in many cases like in Egypt, actually gone negative as we switched over to things like citrus and especially cotton. Which means these are the parts of the world that are now most vulnerable to anything that happens with globalization, because if anything impacts their ability to export their non staple food products and import wheat, you get a population crash. It’ll probably be worse in places like Libya, where food production has maybe doubled since 1945, but population has increased by a factor of seven or eight. And in Egypt, where a lot of the wheat has gone away and it’s been replaced with cotton and citrus since a population has boomed. And now, even if they switch all the food production back to wheat, you still would have a 50% shortage. And the ability of local food production in order to support the local population. So these places have seen some of the greatest expansions in population ever in human history and we’re not too far away from them experiencing some  population crashes in human history. What we’re about to see as the global population sinks in is a degree of famine that is absolutely unprecedented and is likely to be even far more extreme than what we’re about to see people in china.

And so remember when you got a pure pyramidal population structure with lots of people under age 40, in that sort of situation, you’re going to have high growth because of the consumption, high inflation because the consumption and not a lot of productive capacity, because you don’t have a lot of skilled workers that are age 40 to 65. You also don’t have a lot of capital. And so these societies had a hard time lifting themselves out of poverty, except when it comes to things like oil sales, which is then usually the province of the state that doesn’t generate the sort of velocity of capital that is necessary for good infrastructure, for good education, and for all the other things that we kind of celebrate as the norm in the first world. It also means that you have a lot of young people who don’t really have a stake in the system because they don’t control the wealth that’s controlled by the sheiks and the princes at the top. So you tend to get very politically unstable systems. And if you add in the coming food crisis, the degree of civil great down that is possible in this, these areas are few. And for those of you who consider yourself students of history, if you look back and the rise and collapsed rise of cloud and the rising collapse of city states and empires throughout this entire region, this is starting to sound a little bit familiar. This may be where humanity got its start, but it’s also capable of some of the most catastrophic civilizational collapses. And we’re going to see that next decade or two.

Oh, yeah. One more thing. On yeah we relocated to Te Anau. I know there is a unique demographic pattern for some countries in the Middle East that is largely based on their intense wealth, because once you get to a certain level of income, you start paying people to do other things. So, for example, if you’re in the United States in your top 1%, you probably have a housekeeper. Well, you carry that into the Middle East where you’ve got this oil and natural gas income and you’re surrounded by places with a pyramidal demographic structure, and you start hiring people to do everything. So it’s not just menial chores or raising the kids. It’s building roads. It’s building bridges, it’s doing your oil infrastructure. You bring in labor for absolutely everything. And so if you look at countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar or especially the United Arab Emirates, you will notice that they have a pyramidal demographic structure. But on the men’s side, between roughly age 15 and 40, there’s a huge bulge that goes out, which is in essence, foreign guest workers who for the most part, unless you’re on that top end, it’s like doing the air traffic control and stuff, basically slave labor.

And in some cases that is not just a significant percentage of the population. In the case of Qatar, that is like half the population for the UAE, almost three quarters. So when you’re looking at the geopolitics of the region, you’re like, Oh, you don’t like the Iranians or We don’t like the Iraqis. Just keep in mind that the countries that the Israelis and the Americans, to a certain degree have identified as potential allies of the future Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE.

You are dealing with slave autocracies. So have fun with that.

Biden’s First Air Strike

In the wee hours of February 26, American military forces in the Middle East carried out a handful of air strikes against Iranian paramilitary forces in Syria. To my knowledge it represents the first such public strike against known Iranian forces in the country in a very long time.
It is exceedingly dangerous to opine at length about any military action carried out by an administration as newborn as TeamBiden. The almost-overwhelming urge is to read-in grand-plan ambitions such as attempting to reset relations with Iran, or shape the Israeli-Saudi dynamic, or presage greater involvement in the region as a whole as a prelude to a broadscale geopolitical rewiring. (Many of Biden’s current national security team were with then-Vice President Biden during the Obama Administration, and watched helplessly and hopelessly as President Obama failed to do jack at a time when forthright American action could have generated positive results. There very well could be some now-that-I’m-in-charge-ism going on.)
The reality is probably much more prosaic, and probably is much closer to what the Biden administration’s official statement claimed: On Feb 15 a local militia carried out rocket attacks against a U.S. facility in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. That group was a front for Iranian militias in the region. TeamBiden wants to dissuade future attacks while the White House finishes reviewing options for American policy in Iraq.
If the official statement holds true, it’d put the U.S. strike very firmly in the Clintonesque bucket. Bill Clinton wasn’t particularly interested by anything that had to with foreign affairs, but he also wasn’t shy about dispensing moderate levels of military force when his advisors so advised. That isn’t meant as either a lauding or condemnation of the Clinton administration’s Middle East policies, but instead simply a recognition that Clinton was willing to use the various levers of American power in ways neither Obama nor Trump ever did. It’s a fairly traditional view of American power.
Now, just because there probably is no grand plan here doesn’t mean that there won’t be many reverberations. After all, it has been 20 years since the United States had a commander in chief that did much of anything against Iranian interests in the region by means of military strikes – W Bush required a degree of Iranian cooperation against al Qaeda and in managing Iraq, Obama was (infamous) for wanting nothing to do with it at all, and Trump opted for a nearly complete hands-off approach with a couple notable exceptions. Intentionally or not this is a signal change that will have consequences.
A few thoughts:
Turkey: The Turks are absolutely thrilled. Any U.S. policy which involves hurling American ordinance into Syria against anyone except Turkish proxies is one that Ankara can set to music. Turkish-American relations under the past three American presidents have gotten steadily worse to the point that today they are somewhere between cold and nonexistent. It isn’t so much that the Turks want the Americans to be in-region in general, but instead the Turks do appreciate it when the Americans shoot up military factions that the Turks oppose but are too gun-shy to directly go after themselves. The Turkish government was furious with the Obama Administration for threatening to go after the Syrian government but then ultimately backing down. In the Turkish mind Biden is no longer synonymous with his old boss. Down the road, that little reclassification will come in handy for both the Turks and Americans.
Israel: The Israeli government loved the Trump Administration’s maximum pressure campaign to isolate Iran, just as much as they hated the Obama Administration’s engagement with Iran. With Biden flinging bombs and looking to enact a far harsher version of Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal, there now exists the tantalizing possibility of the best of all worlds. Military and economic containment of Iran. I’m sure folks in Jerusalem are smiling thoughtfully at the possibilities.
Russia: According to regional press reports the Biden Administration only alerted the Russians of the actions after the munitions were in-flight. America has long opposed the Russian military presence in Syria, but Obama and Trump were simply not invested enough to do anything about it. Anything that raises a hint of Russian military casualties at American hands is something that would make the Russians extraordinary nervous. After all, the Russian deployments to Syria cannot be maintained in the face of Turkish or American military hostility.
Iraq: Baghdad hasn’t had much to be happy about for a good long while, existing as it does in a politically fractured, economically devastated, strategic limbo. They’re not happy with Iranian militias, but they’re equally unhappy with American military actions. That this counterstrike occurred in Syria rather than Iraq deflects attention from the Iraqis. It’s a small favor from TeamBiden, but Baghdad will accurately interpret it as a favor nonetheless.
Iran: Strategically, the Iranians are in a box. Trump’s maximum pressure campaign had gutted Tehran’s ability to sell crude – and those sales pay for everything that makes Iran Iran, from subsidies to keep its own citizens quiet to the paramilitary forces that comprise the bulk of Iran’s broader Middle Eastern strategy. Iran has run out of expendable forces to deploy in Syria and is now digging deep into its formal army officers. I’d be surprised if the Iranians did not lose someone fairly high-up the chain in today’s U.S. strike.
For some time now, Iran has been attempting to generate some leverage to use against the Americans in upcoming talks, but it isn’t going well. Iran hijacked a South Korean products tanker back around New Years, but neither TeamTrump nor TeamBiden has cared enough to do anything (all hail shale-revolution-induced-American-energy-independence!). Iranian proxies in Iraq regularly lob rockets into American green zones. What was different about the Feb 15 attack is they actually killed a civilian contractor (a Philippine national), which led TeamBiden to underline that consequence-free American blam remains just a button-push away.

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Life After Trump, Part VII: The Crisis List—The Middle East

Read the other installments in this series:
Life after Trump, Part I: Living in the Lightning
Life after Trump, Part II: Searching for Truth in a Flood of Freedom
Life After Trump, Part III: The End of the Republican Alliance
Life After Trump, Part IV: Building a Better Democrat…Maybe
Life After Trump, Part V: The Opening Roster
Life After Trump, Part VI: The Crisis List—Russia
Life After Trump, Part VII: The Crisis List—The Middle East
Life After Trump, Part VIII: The Crisis List—China

The second major international issue facing the incoming Joe Biden administration is that never-ending joy, the problem that just keeps on giving: the Middle East.
If there is one thing most Americans agree on in this age of social media screaming, it is that they want the United States to get out of the Persian Gulf. The challenge is finding a way to do so that also avoids sucking America back in in a few years.
There are two general approaches to consider:
The first strategy is the one Biden’s immediate predecessor, Donald Trump, attempted: appoint a strategic successor to manage the region. Trump decided the successor should be Israel. That…that was a poor choice.
Is Israel very militarily competent and blam-heavy for its size? Undeniably. But it is neck deep in managing its own micro-neighborhood of the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. It cannot execute an American-style policy in the Persian Gulf that keeps the oil flowing while preventing Iraq from collapsing while keeping Iran down.
It is clear that at least to a degree TeamTrump grasped that Israel was not up to the task, so the administration worked to rig the game. Trump greatly intensified sanctions on Iran, largely preventing the Iranians from selling…anything internationally. An economic crash resulted. Trump also worked to build a coalition of Arab states to buttress the Israelis. That required Trump convincing the Arabs that they should recognize Israel as something other than the “Zionist entity” and treat it as an actual country that had an actual right to exist.
Trump met with some success and deserves some serious diplomatic kudos, but let’s not get crazy. Consider the countries Trump flipped:

  • Morocco – a state that is literally over a continent away from the drama of the Persian Gulf.
  • Bahrain – an island statelet that has run out of oil and has but 1.6 million people.
  • The United Arab Emirates – a confederation of city states who collectively are Iran’s largest (non-oil) trading partner.

A coalition, yes, but not a strategically effective one. Strategically, Trump’s achievements changed little.

The second option for American extraction from the region is the one selected by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama: establish a regional balance of power so the region’s countries contain one another. Israel aside, consider the other major players:

  • Saudi Arabia, as the world’s largest oil exporter and the keeper of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, asserts that it should lead the entire region. That’s an assertion which aggravates everyone, but in particular aggrieves…
  • Iran, the country with the largest population on the Persian Gulf, and whose dominant religion – Shia Islam – clashes with that of the Wahhabi Sunni Islam of the Saudis. Problematic for the Saudis, Shia Islam is practiced by the majority of people who live within 100 miles of the Persian Gulf’s shores. Even Saudi Arabia itself has a large Shia minority.
  • But neither of these countries are the region’s most powerful. That title goes to Turkey, a country which doesn’t even border the Gulf itself. Turkey has the broader region’s largest and most sophisticated economy, largest and most capable military, and a population slightly larger than even Iran.

The whole point of Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal between the United States and Iran was to bring Iran in from the cold, enable it to economically develop, and re-establish Iran as a formal player in the Middle East space. Then, as the logic goes, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran would all counter one another, leaving the Americans to play an eclectic variety of Middle East-news-driven drinking games.

There was nothing wrong with the idea, but there was plenty wrong with the execution. The nuclear deal was (in)famously light on details of anything beyond the nuclear program itself. It didn’t address Iran’s paramilitary and assassination activities throughout the region, the status of Israel, or the religious splits among the region’s populations the Iranians exploited as a matter of course.

Obama (in)famously found speaking with people – any people – tedious, and so tended to toss out grand ideas and then walk away forever. Establishing a regional balance of power in which you do not plan to actively participate requires a lot of upfront work and a lot of lengthy conversations. Under Obama that just didn’t happen. Far from generating a balance of power, the Obama plan was little more than an unstable deal which made an unstable region even more unstable.

My goal here isn’t to condemn the strategies of both Trump and Obama (that’s more of a side bonus), but instead to highlight that the Middle East is difficult. My point is that for the approaches the pair of American presidents chose, they simply did things wrong.

For the successor strategy to work, Trump should have picked a different country. Israel lacks the military capacity to control its own neighborhood, much less the distant Persian Gulf where the populations are four times as large. Saudi Arabia might look good on paper, but it is broadly militarily incompetent. The only regional power that could even theoretically fill the role would have been Turkey, and America’s relationship with the Turks under Trump (and under Obama) descended into such a deep freeze to the point that the two are no longer even functional allies.

For a balance of power strategy to work in the Persian Gulf, it must be like all the other successful balances of power throughout human history. It cannot be purely military. There must be excessive entanglement on multiple fronts. There must be an economic angle. A political angle. A diplomatic angle. For Obama’s strategy to work, any Iran “deal” was really only the first baby step. He would then have had to build relationships among the regional players. That’d require some seriously uncomfortable diplomacy not simply with Iran and Turkey, but also Saudi Arabia and Israel. That would require a lot of political capital and even more face time. Considering how much Obama loathed speaking to people, especially about uncomfortable issues, it’s a minor miracle he made it as far as he did in the region.

So now we get to try this again with a new president: Joe Biden.

Believe it or not, there may be some room for progress – in part because of the efforts of Biden’s predecessors.

As part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to crush Iran, the Iranian economy has been absolutely devastated. The Iranians cannot even sell pistachios any longer, to say nothing of large-scale oil sales. With Iran proving to be an unreliable oil supplier, traditional customers like Italy, Greece, India, China, Korea, and Japan have all turned elsewhere for crude. Then COVID reduced global oil demand, crushing Iranian finances. No oil income means the Europeans have zero interest in participating in a revised nuclear deal because there is literally nothing in it for them. No oil income also means Iran has proven unable to sustain many of its paramilitary efforts in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Iran hasn’t been this weak since the rise of the ayatollahs in 1979.

America has changed as well. Politically, there is no longer an American faction pushing for deep regional involvement. While the shale revolution was little more than a glimmer in some oilmen’s eyes when Obama stepped into the White House the first time, twelve years later the United States is functionally energy independent. The energy cord has been cut. The Forever Wars are…over. Both America and Americans can tolerate a far higher degree of chaos in the Persian Gulf than they previously could.

Which means TeamBiden might actually have a third option that hasn’t existed since the early days of American involvement in the region in the 1950s. To simply leave.

America will still play at the margins. Just because the United States doesn’t need a stable global oil market doesn’t mean having a knife to the region’s pulse isn’t useful. So, Biden has already announced it is maintaining every speck of the sanctions Trump enacted. If there is to be a new deal, TeamBiden has made it clear they won’t be following the Obama script because Biden’s negotiating power is already far superior to that of any of his predecessors. Nor is Biden playing favorites like Trump did; the new president has already cancelled advanced weapons sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (two states that were supposed to be at the core of Trump’s Israel-coalition).

Consider what this means: The Israelis are appalled Biden is even talking about talking to the Iranians. The Iranians are appalled that Trump’s exit hasn’t ushered them back into the world. The Saudis are appalled they can’t purchase weapons. Just a couple weeks on the job Biden has done something none of his predecessors would have dared: pissed off everyone in the entire region. It’s unclear if this general pissing-off effort is part of a broader plan, or nothing more than a series of tactical decisions TeamBiden believes are unrelated. It is also unclear whether it matters. And if it does matter, it’s unclear if the administration even cares.

Will that have consequences down the road? Certainly. But not for the United States, or at least not for the United States on anything less than a decade time scale. The global superpower has barely been able to keep the region’s many fires on smolder. No one else has within an order of magnitude the necessary power or reach to step in, suggesting flare ups will be the new norm. Fires in the part of the world responsible for the majority of globally traded crude oil will absolutely reverberate.

And for the world’s most vulnerable country, it just adds one more mortal threat to the cavalcade of crises that were already barreling down.

It’s time to talk about China.

Coming soon:
Life After Trump, Part VIII: The Crisis List – China

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The economic lockdowns in the wake of COVID-19 left many without jobs and additional tens of millions of people, including children, without reliable food. Feeding America works with food manufacturers and suppliers to provide meals for those in need and provides direct support to America’s food banks.

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Video Dispatch IV: America’s Mid-East Partners in Disarray

The pullout of US troops in the Middle East is likely to continue after November’s presidential election. We’re already seeing significant changes in how the Middle East works, including what sorts of antics local players can get into when the US is distracted. And for once, Iran isn’t at top of mind. Iran is a known quantity at this point, making whatever moves it can from a very constrained set of options that it has been relying on since 1979. Rather, it’s the Saudis, the Turks, and everyone else who has been wholly dependent on American protection since the end of the Cold War (if not World War II!).   

NB: at 1:46 I definitely meant to say *Turkey.*

If you enjoy our free newsletters, the team at Zeihan on Geopolitics asks you to consider donating to Feeding America.

The economic lockdowns in the wake of COVID-19 left many without jobs and additional tens of millions of people, including children, without reliable food. Feeding America works with food manufacturers and suppliers to provide meals for those in need and provides direct support to America’s food banks.

Food pantries are facing declining donations from grocery stores with stretched supply chains. At the same time, they are doing what they can to quickly scale their operations to meet demand. But they need donations – they need cash – to do so now.

Feeding America is a great way to help in difficult times.

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Waking Up to Reality in the Middle East

Thursday, August 13 the Trump administration released a series of breathless communiques proclaiming the onset of formal peace and diplomatic recognition between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Shortly thereafter the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the American releases in both substance and theme. The Emirati leader, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was far less…gushy in his own announcement, but critically contradicted nothing stated by Trump or Netanyahu.
Waitaminute! Don’t the Arabs hate Israel? Why in the world would a rich Arab statelet on the far side of the Arabian Peninsula want to exchange ambassadors with the Zionists??
It isn’t so much that the Emiratis don’t care about the Palestinians any longer (although they really, really don’t), and instead it is bound up with the rapidly simplifying American position in the Middle East. The Americans have nearly completed their pullout from the overall region, and the Emiratis are hoping to get ahead of their rapidly disintegrating geopolitical environment.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Americans crafted the global Order to bribe up an alliance to fight the Soviets. Part of that was funding rebuilding, financing the construction of industrial plant, and enabling the Europeans and East Asians to access the American consumer market. All that required oil, and that oil for the most part came from the Middle East. And so, the Americans went to the Middle East.
We are now thirty years after the Soviet collapse. Americans are done managing the world, and the Americans are especially done managing the Middle East. They’re going home. Troop rotations have outnumbered permanent deployments in-region for years. The Iraqi deployment is quickly approaching zero. The Syrian deployment is no longer more than a rounding error. Only Afghanistan remains as a meaningful deployment, and it is a deployment few Americans want to continue. The naval base in Bahrain and CENTCOM’s operations center in Qatar only continue existing to service the Afghan deployment. And that’s…all of it.
From the United Arab Emirates’ point of view this is an unmitigated disaster. The UAE (and  their fellow Gulf states of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar) don’t care what US troops do in the Middle East or how many locals they kill or how many US troops die at the locals’ hands. They simply want the Americans present – both regionally and around the world. So long as the global superpower is active, the Gulfies don’t have to worry about guarding the production, processing, and exporting infrastructure for their oil and natural gas. So long as the Americans are globally engaged and guaranteeing freedom of the seas for all, the Gulfies know their hydrocarbon exports will safely arrive at their customers’ ports. National safety and national bank. For them, it’s that simple.
Those heady days are over. America’s withdrawal from the wider world has been a longer running development than its Middle Eastern wrap-ups. It, too, is now multiple presidential administrations underway. Total US force deployments globally are at the lowest level since before the Great Depression, and still trending down.
For the Emiratis in specific and the Gulfies in general, the Americans’ past-the-point-of-no-return departure conjures up multiple, reinforcing disasters.
1: Iran
Unlike many who have a finger in the world of national security, I’ve never found Iran to be strategically threatening.
Iran’s army is designed to oppress its own population, not march on its neighbors. Its air force hasn’t been updated since the fall of the shah in 1979, and the Iranians are running out of jets to fall out of the sky. It’s navy…well, it doesn’t have a navy. It has a bunch of speedboats. Should Iran march on the Gulf states, it would face four challenges:
First, its army would have to march. It isn’t motorized. Second, it would have to first march through its own region of Khuzestan – a region populated by restive minorities. Third, it would have to cross a pontoon bridge into Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city. A high-school science experiment could take out the bridge, while needing to pacify Basra’s two-million-strong population at the beginning of an invasion’s supply line would about as much fun for the Iranians as it was for the Americans when they conquered/liberated Iraq in 2003. Finally, there’s a blistering six hundred miles of completely empty desert between the Kuwaiti border and any meaningful infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. That’s a loooooong walk.
Yet as unimpressed as I am by the Iranian military, it is the freakin’ Roman Legion compared to the militaries of the Gulf states. The Gulfies are beyond military incompetent because they’ve never had to be competent. Sure, the Emiratis and Saudis are getting some good target practice for their air forces in Yemen, but their armies are largely paperweights and none of them have a navy that’s more than a coast guard. Not only have all depended upon the Americans to do their fighting for them, most consider a functional domestic military a potential threat to the ruling dynasties.
2: Their own populations
All the Gulfies ship in vast swathes of workers, to the point that over 70% of the “populations” of Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE are imported labor. This isn’t like Western Europe or the United States where the migrants do jobs the locals don’t want. In the Gulf states, the migrants do everything. The migrants are not allowed to bring their families or own property, and as soon as the migrant men lose the ability to carry their own weight or the women lose their looks, they are rooted out and sent packing. They are regularly the target of every assault imaginable, including sexual assault.
In the United states, we have a word for that: slavery.
Treat this many people this badly, and only the existence of a wildly intrusive and brutal and unfettered internal security service can maintain domestic control for the ruling dynasties. As much of a threat as Iran is, the day-to-day internal pressures of the Gulf states are far more likely to end them.
Many make light of the fact that the actual citizens of the Gulf states could be a risk as well. After all, they are used to cradle-to-grave support for everything from food to rent to hookah bars. The idea being, that should social spending falter, the locals might rise up against their rulers.
While I don’t quite dismiss this concern out of hand, I’m not all that worried. The Gulf states in general – and the UAE in particular – have addressed this problem by helping their peoples consume as many saturated fats as possible to make them as unhealthy as possible. The idea being that overweight people laden with heart disease who can only get around on scooters aren’t the type to leave their air-conditioned compounds to riot in the desert sun. Pampered corpulence as a national security strategy might sound odd, but it works for the most part. Therefore, I am – and the local governments are – more watchful of the larger, younger, healthier, angrier and institutionally abused slave class.
The only way this system is sustainable is if the money from hydrocarbon sales keeps flowing in and whoever guarantees Gulf state security turns a blind eye. The Americans are leaving, endangering both the income flows and the political cover.
3: Outside expeditionary powers
Key thing to keep in mind when considering the United States in the Middle East: the US was primarily interested in Middle East oil for its alliance network, not for itself. Historically, the United States has gotten nearly all its crude from its own territories or its North American neighbors, plus Venezuela. With America’s shale revolution now mid-way through its second decade, technically, it is already independent. Its need for Middle Eastern oil has gone from minor to nearly nonexistent.
Not so for…pretty much anyone else. Despite all the Green rhetoric on wind, solar and the like, combined they still generate only about 2% of the world’s total energy needs. Oil and natural gas clock in at more than half. And for most of the world, it must be imported. From the Persian Gulf.
Outside powers who have been dependent upon the Americans to maintain energy flows can do the math. Outside powers who have navies can do it faster. The first time there’s a real energy crisis anywhere in the world after the Americans have left the Middle East, we’re going to see some records broken for sailing times from the United Kingdom, France, India and Japan to the Persian Gulf.
Note: China can only play in the Persian Gulf if the United States makes the Pacific and Indian Oceans safe operating zones for the Chinese navy. The Chinese navy only has a handful of ships that can sail beyond the First Island Chain. The operative word is “sail”. It is almost certain they cannot fight their way much past the Chain, much less operate five thousand miles beyond it in the Middle East. China simply is not an expeditionary power, and is a non-power in the Persian Gulf.
The Gulfies might not like the Americans very much, but the Americans have had a vested interest in the Gulf states remaining independent and making boatloads of money by selling their hydrocarbons. For the locals it was a sweet deal. Any post-American power that comes to the Gulf is unlikely to be nearly as…understanding.

So, what does this all have to do with a normalization of relations deal between the UAE and Israel. Simply put, the Emiratis (really, all the Gulfies) know the Americans are leaving and they are massively – hysterically – unable to look out for their own interests in the world that’s coming. Between the threats of Iran, their own populations and extra-regional powers, none of them are long for this world.

Unless they can get some help. They need someone who can help them resist Iran. They need someone who can help them infiltrate and purge undesirable elements from their own populations. They need someone who can help them stand up to far outsiders.

Banding together is off the table. As much as the Gulf states dislike Iran, they like one another even less. These are not countries. They are dynasties. It is as if each of the Kardashian sisters ran her own kingdom. (The GCC – for those of you who follow the region enough to know what that is – is nothing more than the Saudi attempt to force everyone to do things their way.). The Gulfies trust – they all trust – Israel more than one another.

To call Thursday’s agreement a peace deal is a rhetorical flourish. A bit of PR flim-flamery. The UAE and Israel were not at war. Israeli military planners didn’t lose much sleep thinking about Emirati-backed militant cells in Palestine or Syria or Lebanon targeting their populations, much less a conventional Emirati military attack. Thursday’s announcement was more about a public acknowledgement of cold, hard, geopolitical reality: the issue isn’t an Israel-Arab divide being healed, much less one of Jewish-Islamic ecumenical healing. The difference hasn’t been that broad is decades.

Rather, it is about an American security dependent heeding the writing on the wall. Of wanting to (of having to) protect their interests (their existence) without the promise (or hope) of American intervention. The Emiratis are worried about Tehran. About Tokyo. About Paris. About New Delhi. About London. (About Riyadh.)

They should be.

The real kicker? This diplomatic normalization is only the first step. In time the UAE – indeed, each of the Gulf states – will need to partner with an outside power if they are to survive the predations of the others. Kudos to the Emiratis for the first-mover advantage. They’ve not only gained themselves a diplomatic, political, intelligence and military partner, they’ve broken the ice and made it a bit easier to stomach partnering with a true infidel.

Time will tell if it is enough.

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Another Round in the Middle East?

In the middle of the night January 3-4 an American air strike in Baghdad killed Qassem Soleimani, senior General of Iran’s Qud’s Force, arguably the second most important man in the Iranian state. The Americans blame Soleimani for masterminding hundreds of attacks on American forces.

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Goodbye to the Middle East

This day was always going to happen.

On October 7, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Soon after, Turkish forces began moving south across the border to strike Kurdish forces which had been until extremely recently under American protection. Two days later the partial American withdrawal was upgraded to a full evacuation of all forces.

Wailing and gnashing of teeth across the American political spectrum quickly erupted, with many condemning the tactical and political aspects of the president’s decision. I’m of mixed minds:

On the one hand, the Kurds – whether in Syria or Iraq – have been America’s only reliable regional allies since America’s first major confrontation with Iraq back in the early 1990s. When we have asked, they have answered. Every single time. In many cases U.S. forces didn’t even do the heavy lifting, but instead relegated themselves to providing intelligence and materiel support. Without the Kurds’ assistance the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would have been far nastier affair, post-Saddam Iraq would have been far less stable, the defanging of ISIS and the destruction of the ISIS caliphate would not have happened. In Syria in specific, the Kurds habitually provided at least five times the forces the Americans did.

On the other hand, the United States was always going to leave Syria. If the Americans were unwilling to commit 100,000 troops to the overthrow of Syria’s Assad government and its subsequent forcible reconstruction, then there was little reason to become involved in a decades-long, grinding multi-sided civil war.

The primary reason American forces remain in Syria at this point is to limit Iranian penetration. That battle was lost six years ago when then-President Obama allowed the Syrian government to cross Obama’s own red line on the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Obama made it crystal clear that any U.S. military action would be small scale, focused on Special Operations Forces, and largely dedicated to backing up the Syrian Kurds. Whether under Obama or Trump, an American withdrawal has always been inevitable. It’s just taken seven years of Syrian-Russian-Iranian victories on the battlefield and the large-scale dismemberment of the ISIS Caliphate to make it imminent.

Aside from the Iranian vector, American national and strategic interests in Syria are utterly nonexistent. Syria – even backed up by Iran – is a military pigmy that Israel could easily shatter. If Jerusalem really wanted to, it could roll into Damascus in a long weekend. (Sticking around, of course, would be a barrel of shiv-wielding monkeys.) American interests in Lebanon are less than American interests in Syria. Jordan has been a de facto Israeli client state for years. And that is quite literally all she wrote.

The far more important fact – comfortable or uncomfortable depending upon your view – is that the evolving American view of Syria is really little more than a microcosm of an evolving American view of the Middle East writ large. American troop deployments throughout the region have been plunging for a decade and are now down to about one-tenth of their peak. America now has more troops in Afghanistan than the rest of the region combined, and that deployment is well on its way to a complete phase out. CENTCOM HQ in Qatar will almost certainly be closed soon (you don’t need a forward command center if there’s nothing to command). The Iraq advisory force is leaving. Kuwait, once the launchpad for multiple wars, has been reduced to lilypad status. The Turks are certain to eject U.S. forces from the Incirlik base within a year.

Within two years the total regional deployment figure will be in the low-to-mid single digits of thousands, at most one-fifth of what is there today.

That sounds shocking and, considering it wasn’t that long ago that the Americans had a quarter-million troops in-region, it kind of is. But take a step back and look – really look – at the region, and it actually isn’t all that mind blowing.
Iraq is falling apart. Mass unrest is now entering its third week and if it continues along its current trajectory it risks bringing down the government. That isn’t “bring down the government” European-style which would mean new elections, but instead “bring down the government” in the post-Arab Spring style, which means an extended period of mass chaos, violence, and very likely a return to some degree of civil war. While it is true that Iraq has experienced cyclical public unrest since 2015, never has the regional climate been more tenuous, with Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia openly involved in regional conflicts – meaning the normal balancing act between Iraq’s Shi’ites, Kurds and Sunnis (and their foreign backers) is over. Stabilizing this mess would require the Americans (re)injecting 100,000 troops. Far more likely, the Americans will remove the five-ish thousand troops which remain, taking the last thin reed of stability with them.
Iran is the regional bugaboo that most Americans fear. Since the end of the Clinton Administration American policy has held quixotic goals: we want the Iranian government gone, but we don’t want to use U.S. forces to do it. Under Clinton that meant the dual containment. Under W Bush it meant a forward blocking position in Iraq. Under Obama it meant trying to set up a regional balance of power. Under Trump it means economic sanctions backed by exactly zero military force.
None of it has worked. None of it was ever going to work. The Shia clergy is the Iranian political elite, giving the Iranians the deepest bench of political leadership in the region. You’d literally have to kill 10,000 mullahs to induce a shift. Nor is Iran revolution-prone. The first task of the country’s infantry-heavy military is to occupy Iran to ensure domestic unity. There are solid reasons why Iran’s 2009 “Green Revolution” was over in under a month.
Nor is knocking Iran off feasible. Iran is a mountain nation, granting it a defensibility which partially obviates the sort of air and tank warfare for which the Americans are renown. Moreover, Iran’s population in 2019 is over triple that of Iraq in 2003. Overthrowing the government would necessitate a force over twice as powerful as the one that took down Saddam’s Iraq, followed by an occupation force three times as large. No thank you. The U.S. military and public has exactly zero interest in putting 400,000 troops back into the Middle East to fight another grinding war of occupation.
What about America’s “allies”?

The Persian Gulf

Qatar is the perfect example of a friends-like-these ally. In per capita terms it is almost certainly the top financial supporter of Islamic terror groups in the world (I say almost certainly since Qatar doesn’t disclose their terror accounting). On the nicer end Qatar fundees include the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, ramping up to more knifey groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. Doha also has a nuanced-to-positive relationship with Iran for various reasons, not the least of which is its gas wealth stems from the shared North Dome/South Pars gas field. Qatar has hosted the operational headquarters for most U.S. warfighting in the region for the past two decades despite being a place that is in part responsible for the Americans needing to do the warfighting in the first place.
That’s nothing compared to Saudi Arabia. A half century from now when today’s headlines are parsed for the history books, the world will remember Saudi Arabia’s current de facto leader – Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) – as one of the evilest individuals in modern history.
The sheer volume of public support, money, arms and ideological cover given to religiously-tinted fighters – that’s jihadis or terrorists based on your politics – by various Saudi citizens and royals alike has boomed in step with the Kingdom’s regional ambitions. (Qataris have been implicated in plenty of terrorist financing schemes, but fewer than a relative handful have taken up arms themselves; 9/11 shows that the same cannot be said for Saudis.) Saudi Arabia habitually backs the most extreme, violent interpretation of Islam and regularly exports it far and wide at the end of a gun or leading wave of an explosion.
MBS has taken things further. Once he realized the Americans were serious about leaving the region, he shifted tact and instead of simply seeking destabilization of his enemies, he now seeks to burn down the pillars of civilization across the entire field of competition. Much of the Sunni Islamic extremism in Syria can be laid at his feet, as can much of the ongoing violence and chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor are MBS’ actions limited to the battlefield. About a year ago on MBS’ orders, a hit squad suffocated and dismembered a Washington Post columnist in Istanbul, transported his remains to the Saudi consul general’s house where they were incinerated in a custom-built “barbeque pit” just before the consul hosted a massive party that utilized the same pit to help degrade any lingering forensic evidence.
MBS is not a friend, nor is Saudi Arabia an ally. America used to have to put up with this sort of activity from the Saudis during the Cold War because without Saudi oil, the global trading system would have collapsed and taken the American alliance network with it. Courtesy of America’s shale revolution, those days are over.
Rhetoric aside, even President Trump doesn’t see the bilateral relationship as all that close. Last month the Iranians launched a drone and missile attack on Saudi energy facilities, taking some 5 million barrels of daily output offline. Under normal circumstances that would have prompted massive American military retaliation. Instead, Trump’s response to MBS’ call for assistance was something along the lines of, “sorry, I have a fundraiser.” For those of you who think oil is a globalized commodity and so the U.S. remains vulnerable to price swings, think again. The president has preexisting authority to limit U.S. crude exports. Should global prices get too crazy, an executive order can keep U.S. shale output at home, splitting the North American energy market off from the global market. The Saudi headache is now optional.
Even Israel isn’t what it once was. Within the next decade the country’s mostly-Palestinian Muslim population will become the majority, although about 90 percent of them have no political rights in the Israeli system. The two-state process that sought to generate a country for the Palestinians has been dead for years and we have already seen the Israelis implement a very successful separation plan more than a bit reminiscent of South Africa’s Apartheid.
In fact, Israeli ultranationalists in private conversations even welcome the comparison to Apartheid, because they think Apartheid was gentler than what modern Israel has achieved. Under Apartheid, the black South Africans could travel to white-controlled zones for work. Under the Israeli program the Palestinians languish behind 35-foot-tall concrete walls in what are little more than open air prisons with the Israelis controlling Palestinian access to power, food and water. As the thinking goes, who cares if this radicalizes the Palestinians if they are radicalized on the other side of a wall. Arguably, places like Tunisia or Pakistan are now “more equal” democracies than Israel. (Ugh, I’m going to get so much hate mail for these last two paragraphs.)
Turkey and the United States have been pulling apart for three decades. In a world where Soviet containment is the end-all be-all, the alliance was everything. Remove the Soviet threat, however, and the Turks have interests in the Balkans, Caucasus, Persia, Mesopotamia and the Levant that have next to nothing to do with American interests. Turkey is reasserting itself as a major regional power, and since the American military position in places like northern Iraq and Syria are largely dependent upon supply routes through Turkey, there is no long-term American strategic position in these regions without express Turkish assistance. That assistance has been removed, so the Americans – regardless of domestic policy preferences – have no choice but to leave.
That just leaves the Kurds, a mostly mountain people. That makes them a fractious bunch whose fractured leadership has traditionally been willing to fight to the last Kurd to determine who is in command, while enabling more homogenous ethno-sectarian groups on all sides to easily demonize them, oppress them, and play them off one another. They are the largest ethno-sectarian group in the world without a country, and their entire land-locked population is split among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. For those familiar with West Virginia, Switzerland or Chechnya, squabbling oppressed mountain people make great fighters, and since they lack a country they have little to lose by allying with, well, anyone. No wonder the Americans depended on them so much.
But the Kurdish dream of independence was never going to be more than a dream. Landlocked and partitioned, the only way a real Kurdistan could emerge would be if one of the four countries which house Kurds actively sponsor it. That’s just not in the cards. The Kurds are a lost cause; They were never more than an ally of the moment.
They are hardly the only ally of the moment the Americans have abandoned. At the end of the Vietnam War the Americans left the Hmong – another fractious mountain people who allied with the Americans – in the lurch. Their massacre at the hands of the Vietnamese is the stuff of legend. Something similar is about to happen to the Syrian Kurds at the hands of the Turks. The biggest difference between the two groups is there are too many Kurds to resettle them to Minnesota.

So why all the noise back in the United States? Aren’t the Americans exhausted with the Middle East? Shouldn’t they be celebrating?
In part it is because the extreme unpopularity of Donald Trump means any decision he makes is going to be parsed for negative sound bites, and there is no end of hypocrisy in play. My personal favorite are the former Obama team talking heads hitting the airwaves who only now find Syria’s murder and mayhem worthy of American military action.
In part it is because abandoning an ally is bad form, particularly if you think the U.S. should play a role in preventing genocide, promoting human rights, stymieing traditional rivals, or keeping a hand on the throat of the global economy. Even if you think none of this is the U.S.’ business, you’ve got to admit a lot of stuff happens in the region, and having a finger in the pot does prove useful from time to time. In the grand scheme of things, 2000 troops in Syria isn’t that big of a deal.
A deeper (and IMO far more substantive) issue is the fate of America’s national security professionals. Trump initially liked the generals because of their “yes sir” and “can do” attitudes. After all, civilian supremacy means the president is in charge, you do what you are told and if you have a problem with the president’s policy you don’t undermine him, you leave. Well, two years on, pretty much all of them have left.
The break has become so extreme that Trump now considers national security-minded Republicans to be greater ideological foes than the Democrats. One of the big outcomes of the 2018 mid-term elections was the wholesale ejection of that faction from Congress as well as from the Republican Party leadership itself. For many of this group, Syria is the prefect example of poor leadership: Trump’s policy not only betrays a loyal ally, it abdicates an American role throughout an entire region. We can debate the pros and cons of that abdication, but for folks in the military, intelligence and diplomatic communities this is a step that unwinds a half-century of painstaking military, intelligence and diplomatic efforts paid for with untold resources and blood. You don’t have to view the world their way to understand why they’re pissed.
That doesn’t change the simple fact that if not for the seemingly bottomless volume of TrumpDrama in America these days, most Americans would probably be sighing in relief right now. If the Americans really don’t have an interest in maintaining a global Order, then the Middle East is barren of American national interests and it can now firmly be someone else’s problem. It isn’t nice. It isn’t responsible. It won’t be pretty. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Of course the road from here to there is neither straight nor level. There are still plenty of land-mines to dodge:

  • The evacuation of U.S. forces has been ordered, but it has not been completed. That evacuation has to proceed through the Turkish advance and through Turkey. Things are already looking dicey. Shortly after the initial withdrawal order some Turkish forces apparently (intentionally) dropped some artillery near remaining American outposts, forcing the remaining Americans to scramble lest they find themselves in a shooting war with the Turks. The U.S.-Turkish alliance is over, but based on how events unfold in the next couple of weeks a U.S.-Turkish hostility may emerge.
  • The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are both armed and trained and experienced and on the edge of statehood. Just because they (especially the Syrian Kurds) are doomed to fail does not mean they are doomed to fail today. How they fight back and/or seek alignment with Syria and/or Iran and/or Russia will determine the region’s next set of battle lines. This matters the most for the Turks. The Turks are out of practice, having not fought a meaningful military campaign since World War I. If they perform badly it will reshape their regional ambitions. If they perform well there are lots of regional players – Armenia, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia come to mind – who will be extremely worried.
  • Of those, by far the most important one is Russia. Like American forces, Russian forces can really only operate in Syria with Turkish acquiescence. With the Americans gone and the Turks ramping up, it’s probably the Russians’ turn to GTFO of the region. If they don’t, a direct Turkish-Russian clash that leaves the Russians on the wrong side of all their backup will ensue. The climbdown and/or massacre would be globally humiliating.
  • One smallish bit of good news is that the ISIS Caliphate is definitely gone, and the ISIS militant movement is broken and on the run. Many have opined that without the American-Kurdish alliance ISIS in any form would have never been defeated. That is true. But that’s not the same as saying that ISIS is doomed to rebound. Historically, the territory that comprises eastern Syria and western Iraq – the ISIS heartland – has been on the bleeding edge of useless. Rain doesn’t happen and the only crops grown are those in the Euphrates floodplain. In most places that band is less than 20 miles across. Civilizing this region is wildly expensive, and so the powers of the region tend to ignore it…until some wackadoo group like ISIS starts causing problems. Then one of the region’s powers invades and burns everything to the ground. From 2003 until 2018 the region’s powers were non-functional: Iraq and Syria had civil wars, while Turkey was gun-shy. The fact that the ISIS Caliphate lasted as long as it did was testament to how abnormal the region had become. Well, Turkey is now invading. It will burn everything to the ground. The atrocities the world is about to pin on the Turks mean we are returning to something a lot more normal.
  • Europe is… screwed. It is one thing to have to deal with a prickly Turkey who stays at home. It is quite another to have Europe’s largest land army deploying in force in a way that most Europeans have publicly condemned. With the exception of the French, no European power has the capacity of independent power projection to the region. And now Turkey is publicly threatening to herd millions of Syrian refugees to Europe’s doorstep unless the Europeans shut up about Turkey’s new military campaign. After the United States, Turkey ties with Russia for being Europe’s most important partner. Expect those ties to burn in the months to come.
  • Finally, there’s Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities, the Saudis have paid the Americans to deploy 3,000 troops to the Kingdom. Two things from this: First, sooner or later the Americans will internalize just how messed up the Saudis are and will evacuate everything at once, precipitating a whole new regional crisis. Second, the Americans going pseudo-mercenary is about to be the new normal. If you cannot provide something shiny to bait the Americans into your region (cash is shiny), then you are on your own. That development will reverberate far beyond the Persian Gulf region.

The Turks Return

Thousands of Turkish troops poured into the northwestern Syrian province of Afrin in recent days. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan promised that the deployment was only the start of a broader effort that would see Turkish forces sweep the entirety of northern Syria – all the way to the Iraqi border – in order to purge Syria of forces hostile to Turkish interests.

Under pretty much any circumstances, the entry of a new power into a multisided melee that involves the Syrian Alawite leadership, the Lebanese militias, the Iranians, the Russians, the Americans, the French and dozens of local warlords when that new power alone has more armed combatants within arm’s-reach than all the other factions have in-theater put together would be notable. But the kicker is that this is only the first of three relevant facts.

The second is that the world has forgotten just what “Turkey” means.

The Ottoman Empire’s fall in the First World War (1914-1918) was far more than a mere military defeat. For much of the previous millennia, Istanbul had been the world’s economic and cultural capital – the crossroads not just between Europe and Asia and the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, but between everything that mattered. At war’s end the country suffered not just an economic depression and loss of nearly all its imperial territories, but crushing humiliation on every conceivable level. At one point it got so bad that dysfunctional, tribal, underequipped Greece even staged a brief invasion. It would be as if the United States didn’t just lose a war, but had all its territory west of the Appalachians amputated and divided among other countries, and then somehow the Puerto Ricans marched on Atlanta.

In the aftermath, Turkey’s response was to close itself off from the world, lick its wounds and struggle to forge a new identity. Two factions eventually emerged as heirs to the empire: a secular, military-rooted group that sought integration with Western structures; and a mildly Islamist, more Orientalist faction who saw advantages of the non-Western way of doing business whether that be the centralization of the Soviet/Russian system or the dynastic, clan-based communities of the Arab world. Put simply, one faction favored the military and economic patterns of the West, while the other preferred the cultural and political styles of the East.

While this soul-struggle ebbed and flowed through the Cold War decades, the Turks realized they were simply too broken to stand on their own. One result was reluctant inclusion into the NATO alliance. Another was a partnership with the Europeans that stopped short of formal European Union membership. But beyond those narrow topics, the Turks kept to themselves.

Istanbul, Turkey

There are a few thoughts to take from this:

  1. Even in times when the Turkish soul was most divided against itself, both factions maintained a firm belief in the unique nature of Turkishness – a self-identity that is far less compromising than that of most peoples. Even the most ardent pro-Western secularist never saw Turkey being the same as the West, just as even the most Islamist Orientalist always considered Turkey as being apart from (and above) the Arabs, Persians and Russians. American commanders operating from Turkish bases consistently and unequivocally warned their troops that on Turkish soil you follow Turkish law or else you end up in a Turkish prison and there’s not a damn thing that American military lawyers can do about it.
  2. Since 2000 the Islamists/orientalists haven’t simply won the culture contest, they’ve won so decisively they’ve eliminated the secularists from nearly all walks of Turkish life. Ruling Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has also purged the ranks of the Islamists themselves so that his particular version of Orientalism will remain the ruling ideology of Turkey for decades to come. Turkey is once again of a single, consolidated, confident voice. If you don’t like its tone and timbre, well, you missed your opportunity and you’ll have to wait for the wheel of history to turn once more. Last time that took a century.
  3. Turkey in general and Erdogan in specific are only now making their first steps as an independent power in their neighborhood. In a neighborhood made up of the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East the margin for error is thin, the opportunities for missteps are omnipresent, and complications that will take decades to sort out are all but guaranteed. Between the neighborhood’s volatility and the twin, potent egos of Turkey as a nation and Erdogan as a leader, Turkey has become an erratic force in the regional geopolitic.

Much as America’s remoteness from the Eastern Hemisphere coupled with its naval prowess means that American power doesn’t matter until suddenly it does, Turkey’s century of self-imposed isolation combined with its 600,000-strong army means that the Turks are roundly ignored until they suddenly and unexpectedly show up.

As they are now in Syria.

The final issue is that the Syrian war is no longer some tangential issue for the Turks. It has been elevated to an issue of national survival.

Part of Turkey’s post-WWI cultural reflection was a dismantling of its old multi-ethnic imperial Ottoman identity and its replacement with a far narrower emphasis on ethnic Turks specifically. If you’re Turkish this of course makes perfect sense. If you’re of one of the few other nationalities that live in Turkey, however, it is somewhat problematic. The largest of these “other” groups are the Kurds, who started out as second-class citizens (at best). Over the decades some Kurds didn’t simply resist, they revolted, with the more militant ones forming the PKK – a quasi-terror rebellion group under the leadership of one Abdullah Ocalan. Conflicts between the Turkish government and Ocalan’s PKK have claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Another armed Kurdish faction – the YPG – is active all along the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border. They are by far the most competent fighters battling the Syrian regime in the civil war, and have often served as reliable proxies for American efforts against both ISIS and Damascus. The YPG has proven itself united, capable, loyal and ultimately effective at breaking ISIS not simply in the Syrian periphery and ISIS core territories, but right up to and including ISIS’ capital at Raqqa. The YPG is the centerpiece of America’s Syria strategy, and American success against ISIS would have been fundamentally impossible without the YPG.


The fact that the YPG is Kurdish and that YPG’s presence is right on the Turkish border was enough to make the Turks nervous, but YPG actions at the Raqqa battle chilled the Turks to their core. At Raqqa’s moment of liberation from ISIS, YPG fighters replaced the ISIS flag with the personal standard of none other than Ocalan himself.

Turkey cannot and will not tolerate a PKK-leaning Kurdish statelet on its border, and so Turkish troops have rolled across the border.

They haven’t moved alone. Turkey has mobilized every Syrian faction over which it has influence. Beginning in late 2016 the Turks assumed functional control over the Free Syrian Army, transforming a ragtag coalition of local Arab and Turkmen fighters into a direct Turkish proxy. The “Army” is operating hand-in-glove with Turkish forces… against the American-backed YPG.

Turkey is now not only the most powerful faction in the conflict, it is putting its back into the war, and it is motivated by a deep-seated fear to the coherence of its national identity. This is not the stuff of which compromises are made. And the Turks are now not just standing against the Americans, but literally firing artillery into the very heart of the Americans’ entire Syria strategy.

It is my belief that the NATO alliance ended back in 2017. It is a position which I’ve seen no reason to amend, but what is occurring now in Syria is a whole other level. Two NATO “allies” are not simply having a disagreement, but they are shooting at one another’s assets in a conflict that one of them defines as an existential crisis.

Many have commented that a meaningful breach between the Americans and Turks would spell disaster in Washington’s ability to manipulate the Middle East and hold Iranian and Russian power at bay. I don’t necessarily disagree with those concerns, but they miss the broader issue:

Turkey, the Middle East’s most powerful player who is far more economically and militarily potent than Iran and who could even stand up to the Russians in a fair fight, has returned to the world as a fully independent player. With the Russians, Turks, Iranians and Saudis all gearing up for a battle royale, the United States has already achieved everything any sane Middle Eastern policy could ever hope for: The region is divided against itself and will marvelously self-contain for decades.

The United States has no meaningful interests in Syria. Israel is safe. Iran is locked into a combat it cannot possibly win. The United States no longer has a stake in the region’s oil. And the newest power player – Turkey – just made an open-ended commitment to a multi-sided land war. There has never been and likely never will be a better time for the Americans to disengage.

So what’s the problem again?

Shifting Saudi Sands

The Saudi Arabian sky is falling… or at least that is the tone being set by the mainstream media. In a broad-scale “anti-corruption” action over the weekend Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) arrested 11 senior princes, 4 current ministers, and dozens of others across the country’s military, political and business elite. Most appear to be held in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton (which isn’t taking new reservations until December 1 in case you are planning a trip).

MBS has only been the Crown Prince since this past June, and his father has only been king since 2015. In the past, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by private consensus among many members of the House of Saud. Seeing any bit of what happens behind the curtain – much less something as notable as mass detentions of the American equivalent of senior senators and cabinet secretaries – feels and sounds like upheaval.

It is upheaval. But please keep in mind that there is no such thing as “normal” in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is a relatively new monarchy. As such, I find it less than helpful to discuss topics like succession “tradition” and how things are “supposed to be.” The country is an absolutist monarchy that has only ever had seven kings, the second of whom was deposed, the third fell victim to the hands of an assassin, the fifth suffered from dementia and let his crown prince run the place in his name while he shopped in Switzerland (for the better part of two decades), and the seventh (the current one) is likely too physically and mentally frail to run the county.  A “normal” day in the life of Saudi Arabia is anything but.

What this does look like is a new, young leader – one Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – attempting to firmly establish just whose country this is. In a word, his.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

And this isn’t Phase I. That was when he dished out some $5 billion in bribe- er, cash payments to Saudi families and the military at a time when oil prices were plummeting. In doing so he discovered just which branches of the family could be bought.

It isn’t even Phase II. That was the Yemen war when he started the process of establishing the military as a power node loyal to his person. (That MBS is the world’s youngest defense minister doesn’t hurt.)

This is more Phase III. Figuring out which family members cannot be bought or flattered, and putting them in a (velvet) box to see who cracks. The media has lost its mind a little bit because one of those detained is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, long a major (and loud) personality in the Western investment and media community for his large stakes in everything from Citigroup to Facebook and Twitter. Within Saudi Arabia, however, al-Waleed is simply a buzzing annoyance. The most significant thing about his detainment is that we (thankfully) won’t have to hear about him for a while.

Far more important are two sons of one of the country’s previous kings: Princes Mutaib and Turki bin Abdullah. While neither have direct claim to the throne, Turki is/was governor of Riyadh Province and the manager of his branch of the family’s money, while Mutaib is/was commander of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard – one of the country’s few tools of hard power that MBS does not (did not?) already control directly. (In a bit of delicious irony that is no longer possible in Western democracies, the National Guard’s primary responsibility is protecting the ruling family against coup attempts.)

What’s happened so far has been MBS being nice. Next will come Phase IV – using heavy and/or sharp objects on those who refuse to bow to the Crown Prince’s vision.

The importance of this process should not be trivialized. There are tens of thousands of members of the extended Saud family, with in excess of 2,000 princes of reasonable power. Before now Saudi Arabia’s rulers have placated many of them with the hope that they or their progeny would hold a governorship or high-ranking ministry or perhaps even be in line to rule. Salman’s appointment of his son to the position of Crown Prince leapfrogged literally dozens of potential rulers, brutally ending that pleasant fiction. MBS is only 32, so barring poison, bullets or something of similar unpleasantness, MBS will rule the country for the better part of this century. In my opinion, he’s already been ruling the place since his dad became king.

Al-Masjid an-Nabawī Mosque in Medina

In my last newsletter, I discussed how personalities rarely matter in the world of geopolitics… except in the moments when they do. Mohammad bin Salman is not yet king and there’s no way I can guarantee that he will be or, when he takes the throne, he will be successful in his endeavors. But what I do know is this: that despite its relative wealth, Saudi Arabia is one of the most staggering collections of geopolitical weaknesses in the world. It is a slap-dash fusion of desert hicks elevated by the British to royalty, fused to one of the world’s most backwards-looking and violent political ideologies, who rule over a largely uneducated population that lives in a trackless desert fueled by but a single commodity that is sold in markets far beyond their reach, that find themselves standing against some of the world’s powerful nations (Russia, Iran and Turkey). And the one country that has traditionally protected them – the United States – no longer finds that singular commodity particularly useful.

This is not a recipe for success. MBS has upended the country’s go-slow consensus model largely because he has no other choice. He needs unity, or at the very least, loyalty. And he is hardly the only world leader to realize that saying “please” doesn’t necessarily get you where you need to go.

China needed Mao to gut a corrupt bureaucracy, Deng to catapult the country out of terror into the 20th century, and now Xi to forcibly unite what’s left. India’s Indira Gandhi smooshed the various disparate elements of her country into a mostly-modern, largely-meaningful whole. The French and English fought multiple civil wars over what it would mean to be French and English – names like Joan and Napoleon and Elizabeth and Victoria are celebrated for good reason. Even Lincoln is well known for prosecuting a brutal conflict as a means of unifying a country that after four-score-and-seven-years had yet to gel. Blessed are the few that can do it without violence, but not everyone can be New Zealand or Singapore.

For many countries – Saudi Arabia among them – the cold, hard geopolitical reality is that the only way to successfully cobble together a cohesive modern state is through strong, direct leadership and the consolidation of authority. Considering the proto-tribal nature of Saudi politics, the only bit that surprises me is how civilized the consolidation of Saudi Arabia has been to this point. Don’t count on the calm lasting.