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.

Revisiting Iran

By Peter Zeihan and Michael N. Nayebi-Oskoui

The White House has been strongly hinting for two weeks that President Trump is unlikely to “re-certify” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or as it’s better known, the Iran Nuclear Agreement. The emotions from across the political spectrum range from jubilation to outright hysteria though, it’s important to note, the reactions don’t fit neatly within American party lines (plenty of Democrats had to be strong-armed into supporting the deal, and more than a couple Republicans believe it is in America’s interest to stay within the accord). The reality of the matter is much more complicated, though I believe it’s safe to tell everyone to take a deep breath and calm down.

A quick and dirty discussion of the mechanics of the JCPOA are in order. Technically speaking, it’s a non-binding political agreement (remember the Paris Climate Accords?). The Iran Nuclear Deal is not a treaty. It’s a series of interconnected agreements and a complex set of verification steps and was designed to make it easy for the United States to pull out or re-apply sanctions on Iran at will. To that end, the American president has to re-certify the agreement every 90 days, as well as sign off on a series of sanctions waivers that cover periods of time from a couple of months to a year. We’ll come back to this part.

The agreement, however, was approved by Congress, and in the event that President Trump or any of his successors decide to refuse certification of the deal – essentially declining to admit that Iran is holding up its end of the bargain – Congress has 60 days to attempt to change portions of the JCPOA they disagree with or (re)apply sanctions both old and new.

That last bit about sanctions is where things get tricky, before we even get into the fact that Congress couldn’t get anything done in 60 days in a normal political season, let alone when they’re racing to hammer out a budget and attempt to forge some sort of tax reform deal. The JCPOA and the Presidential waivers cover a web of sanctions that are both those passed by Congress and those that came into effect via executive order. The latter is where Trump could snapback previous executive sanctions and apply new ones if he feels Congress isn’t taking Iran to task as much as he’d like.

There are other complicating factors here, namely the five other nations who are members of the accord (including a France that has steadfastly refused to renegotiate the terms of the deal as its companies race to access Iranian energy plays and the third largest market in the Middle East). Europe as a whole and France, Germany, and Britain in particular are loathe to re-enter a difficult and prolonged negotiations with the Iranians given all the other problems they’re dealing with (like RussiaMerkel’s declining power, and an overhaul of the socioeconomic pillars of political life…  just to name a few), and traditionally have had a much easier time dealing with Tehran than the Americans.

At the end of the day, though, not much is likely to immediately change. There is a strong argument to be made that it’s bad for America’s long-term interests to be seen as an unreliable partner to international agreements as well as further alienating EU/NATO partners, but the most likely scenario is that President Trump refuses to certify, the US Congress gets busy doing nothing, and that Iran continues trading and dealing with Europe, Russia, and China. Meanwhile, the US create a unilateral sanctions system to target Iran – perhaps with secondary sanctions to target European and Asian players who are doing business with Iran. That’d return us to the status quo ante that defined the US-Iran relationship for not only much of the Obama administration, but also the past four decades.

So… now what? If the US is serious about disengaging from the Middle East—and the relatively standoffish (in terms of the US response) American action in Libya, Syria, post-ISIS Iraq, and Yemen are goods signs that the US is indeed serious—there are few realistic options on how to contain the Middle East quagmire.

Option one is to establish a regional balance of power. This requires encouraging Turkey to be an independent actor rather than a state that is a mere adjunct of NATO (check), turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s tendency to spawn Sunni terror groups (check), and somewhat rehabilitating Iran in the international community so that it can counter the other two. That last was the Obama administration’s rationale for the nuclear deal in the first place. The advantage of this route is that the region’s various players become locked into a never-ending death struggle that so consumes them, they lack (ideally forever) the freedom to act out-of-region.

Option two – which appears to be Trump’s preference – is to anoint one of the three major players to run the region in the Americans’ stead. Those of us who remember the heady days of sword-dancing and orb-touching from President Trump’s earlier visit to Saudi Arabia will not be surprised to hear that the likely beneficiary of the Trump administration’s emerging Middle East policy is Riyadh. What’s more important is that Riyadh certainly thinks so, too. From lip service moves such as allowing women to drive, to staging a practice war against mountain-bound Shi’ite-aligned rebels in Yemen, to buying-off and/or strong-arming regional Arab competitors such as Egypt and Qatar, the Saudis are certainly trying to set themselves up as the regional powerhouse.

But Saudi Arabia is an odd choice. It is a desert country completely dependent upon oil sales, predominantly to a China that hopes to challenge US hegemony in the Pacific. It is the only of the three that is not a democracy, and shows zero interest in even considering shifting its domestic politics in a liberal direction. It’s primary foreign policy strategy is to spam out militant groups to turn its rivals’ neighborhoods into post-apocalyptic carnage zones (its hands were in the rise of al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS). Between its deliberate lack of civil society, its brittle political culture and its monochromatic economy, it simply doesn’t have any of the “normal” levers of power that would allow it to be a regional hegemon without a great deal of ongoing help.

And if it needs a great deal of ongoing help, that doesn’t really mesh with the core American desire to get out of the region.

The Next Iraq War

Trouble is (again) brewing in Iraq.

The Middle East is a wild and wacky place. The core issue is geographic: basic resources – especially water – are in short supply and resource competition breeds violence. Cultural and sectarian differences are what outsiders are often aware of, and for good reason. Out-of-region powers ranging from the British to French to Russians to Americans have been playing Persians and Turks and Arabs of various flavors against one another for centuries. First to get beneficial trading relationships with the Eastern world (think spices and silk), then to keep potentially hostile forces locked up in the sand box, and finally to get preferential access to the bounty of oil and gas resources in the area.

The Middle East boasts five major civilizational zones, four of which we’ll examine here. What sets them apart from the wastes that dominate the broader region is the simple fact that they have water. It is a basic concept, but it bears stating plainly: water enables agriculture enables populations enables cities enables education enables technology enables a military. Without water, it is damnably hard to develop into, well, anything.

  1. Anatolia (aka Asia Minor, aka Turkey). This first zone gets both the most and the most reliable rainfall. The real gem is western Anatolia – not only is this zone (relatively) wet, its mountains low, and its valleys broad, it directly abuts the Sea of Marmara: a warm temperate zone with fertile lands and excellent trade opportunities, making it among the world’s richest and most advanced regions going back to antiquity. Move further east in Asia Minor, however, and the land rises and sharpens. The Marmara region can – and often has – projected power deep into the Middle East, but it must always first negotiate its own internal rugged zones before venturing out. For the past half millennia, Anatolia has been home to the Turks.
  2. Persia (aka Iran). The second-most powerful regional geography are the Persian Highlands. Geographically an extension of eastern Anatolia, the lands are riven by dozens of minor mountain chains generating hundreds of tiny valleys with dozens of distinct cultural and linguistic communities. Like the Turks, the Persians can only venture out when they have their internal house in order. They’re getting close. It has taken the largest group – the Persians – the better part of recorded history to consolidate the messy region under their control, in part by promulgating a multi-ethnic/religious, semi-nationalist identity we know today as “Iranian”.
  3. The Levant (aka the Eastern Mediterranean shore). Whereas Persia is shot through with micro-climates and hundreds of separate identities, the Levant’s mountains are lower, its valleys bigger, and its flat lands more contiguous, meaning it has only generated a score of so peoples. It is also somewhat hived off from the other areas by mix of deserts and mountains, allowing the bigger fish in this smaller pond to carve out their own worlds. The Jews proved capable of re-creating their ancient homeland, albeit at the cost of the Palestinians who had been living there since the Old Testament was completed. A more motley crew involving Sunni, Shia, Maronite Christians and others has attempted with some success to spackle together Lebanon. The Alawites of the northern Levantine coast partnered with the Shia and Christians of the mountains to dominate the interior cities of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Damascus to run Syria – a partnership that has yet to breakdown despite the agonizing civil war.
  4. Mesopotamia (aka Iraq). In the final area it hardly ever rains at all, but it still has water courtesy of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The saddle of desert land separating the pair is so low that stone-age level irrigation technologies can turn it green. Unique among the four for its broad, unified flat lands, when Mesopotamia is able to rise it is able to rise very quickly (all the neighbors are constantly dealing with the agony of a difficult, rugged, arid geography while the lowlanders simply shift around some water and build roads through flat areas for a quick economic pick-me-up). As such Mesopotamia is the most likely region to launch invasions…but also the power that is the least defensible and most likely to get wrecked in a prolonged war.

Between the competing nationalities, ethnicities (map courtesy of the Gulf/2000 Project), religions, clans and factions, there just isn’t anything that most – much less all – of them can agree on. Or at least there wasn’t until about four years ago. That’s when the Islamic State popped up.

Istanbul, Turkey

Unlike Persia or the Levant where it rains or Mesopotamia where irrigation is easy, the lands in the Middle East’s middle are hard desert. The Euphrates does flow through the area, but the middle Euphrates’ banks are steeper than those in southern Iraq, so the “green zone” from the high point above one bank to the other is typically but a few miles. With so little usable land stretched across so much empty, in no era has controlling this narrow ribbon been worth the effort, particularly since desert raiders can easily punch anywhere into it.

Consequently, the regional powers simply leave what is today western Iraq and eastern Syria alone until some of the local crazies (or resource competitors, if you’d rather) cause sufficient problems that one of the regional powers feels moved to send the army in and burn everything to the ground. The Islamic State is merely the most recent manifestation of a problem that has plagued this area since the dawn of civilization.

IS owes not just its rapid rise, but its very existence, to the Middle East’s recent geopolitical disarray. Syria has been locked into a civil war and been unable to patrol, much less act decisively, in its eastern lands. Israel’s glee at watching the Syrian war continue to wreck its primary regional foe has prevented it from acting. After their World War I defeat, the Turks closed themselves off from the world and ceased participating in Middle Eastern affairs; they are out of practice. Iraq faced not only the U.S. occupation and its own civil war, but its Western-trained and -supplied army proved so incompetent that it had to be disbanded. Iran has had bigger fish to fry in Iraq – a country it is hoping to turn into a client state – and Syria – a regional ally it very nearly lost. Americans, gun-shy from their Iraqi occupational experiences, didn’t want to take the lead on another Middle Eastern war. (Incidentally, the only reason Americans care at all about IS is that a few idealistic Americans refused to believe that the local mass-murdering militant group known for enslaving or beheading any Christians they came across would target even secular American aid workers.)

But all this and more has recently changed.

Six years into the Syrian civil war, the Iranians (and Russians) have poured in resources sufficient to turn the tide in the government’s favor. Anti-government rebels in the country’s west have suffered a litany of defeats, freeing Damascus to push more resources against IS in the east. The Turks have recently consolidated their own internal political schisms and for the first time in a century, started venturing out again. Syria and Iraq are the first step on a broader…regional tour. The Iraqi army was re-mustered, re-trained and re-supplied, and during the past year it has made steady gains against IS in Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul. American forces did a bizarre dance of advising-but-not-fighting-but-ok-sort-of-fighting-sure-really-fighting.

One functional regional power would have been enough to roll IS up given time, but three plus some international add-ons were more than enough to decimate it. At long last, IS in its Middle East “caliphate” form is rapidly deteriorating after a two-year-long staccato of steady, significant losses. Recently their “capital” at Raqqa fell, and what little remains of the institutional core of IS-prime is itself no longer a significant geopolitical threat. It has been a long, messy, bare knuckle brawl, but it is nearly over.

Tehran, Iran

Given the cast of characters we’re talking about there was never 100% unity behind how or if or when or to what extent IS needed to be crushed, but to have folks as widely divergent as Persia and Arabia, Russia and America, Israel and Syria on the same page – however briefly – is far more than a mere historical footnote.

Now, with the unifying threat the Islamic State posed largely fading into the desert, things in the Middle East are about to get a hell of a lot uglier. No longer will everyone be putting their other beefs aside to deal with the threat of IS. Now they have to deal with each other.

The next crisis will boil up out of Iraq, a country comprised of three mutually-loathing groups:

Iraq’s Arab Shi’ites make up the bulk of the population, and have for centuries. But being the majority does not work for them. Living primarily in the southeast edge of the country near Iran, their Shi’ite beliefs have placed them at odds with the Sunni Ottoman, Hashemite and Baathist leadership that have ruled Mesopotamia since the 16th century. Proximity to Iran should have had benefits, but then again being Arab subjects of a Persian empire isn’t a great position to be in. With roots in the marshy swamplands of the southern tip of Iraq, these Arabs have long been poor, but Iraq’s Shi’ite core now rests atop most of Iraq’s superfields. After the fall of Saddam and the introduction of representative democracy thanks to the United States, Iraq’s Shi’ite Arabs (with plenty of community organizing thrown in by Iran) have the numbers and oil wealth, much to the dismay of everyone around them. As much as the Iranians want to have Shi’ites running things in Baghdad, they don’t want a wealthy, ethnically Arab oil competitor on their western flank who can challenge their regional role. Iraq’s Shi’ites have grown to resent not only their typical Sunni masters, but also Iranian attempts at puppeteering Iraqi suffering to their benefit. Iran saw this coming, and has spent decades sowing infighting and competition among Iraq’s Shi’ites – and it did so expertly.

The Sunni Arabs have a long cultural pedigree, with tribal links to Saudi Arabia and especially Jordan. Bedouin tribesmen gave their support and legitimacy to the Hashemite monarchy (a branch of which still rules in Amman). Sectarian links to distant Ottoman sultans, and tribal links to Saddam gave the sectarian minorities oversized control and the lion’s share of state oil revenues (before American-led forces bombed them twice, the Sunni triangle had excellent connectivity with Baghdad, European-built highways, good hospitals and universities even as Shi’ite Iraqis were living like 14th century peasants). Unfortunately, the Sunni live along the fringe of the broad, arid expanse of Iraq’s Western Desert. Of late their fortunes have reversed: they have no oil, their sons are wooed by an alphabet soup of militant groups, and they are vehemently opposed to any subgroup – be it Shi’ites or Kurds – dismantling what they view as an inherently Arab Iraqi state or taking their share of national oil revenues… which comes from oil fields they no longer control. In addition to having fallen the furthest, the Sunni Arabs are the smallest of the three groups. They simply cannot win at either representative democracy or open warfare, so they have learned to change the game and fight irregularly, kicking over the table. Iraq’s Sunnis are the ones who ran the Baath insurgency and the local al Qaeda chapter against the Americans, and who gave birth to the Islamic State.

Iraq’s Kurds are a subgroup of a broader community stretching from Iran through Iraq and Turkey to Syria. Like most other groups in the Middle East, the Kurds are as prone to infighting as anyone else. More in fact, as they hail from not only the steppes of northeastern Syria, and highlands of Iraq, but also the riven mountain valleys of southeastern Anatolia and northwestern Iran. Simply – if not entirely accurately – put, Iraq’s Kurds are divided between pro-Turkish and Iranian camps, and Iraqi Kurds have been slow to support Syrian Kurds in their fight against IS or Turkish Kurds in their armed resistance against Ankara (with Iranian Kurds another entity entirely). Iraq’s Kurds also have something no other Kurdish group does: control over significant oil and natural gas reserves. This infuriates Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to no end for taking the money, Iraq’s Shi’ites to no end for taking de facto political control of their territory, and gives the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil an effective bargaining chip against Baghdad. It also – so far – makes them valuable to Turkey, an oil importer.

It is the final of these three groups that perked up my attention recently. On September 25 they held an independence referendum in which some 90% of the electorate is believed to have shown up, with 93% of voters answering in the affirmative.

Pretty much everyone – including the United Nations and the United States, the two groups who have most aggressively supported Kurdish rights – have condemned the vote and called upon all parties to ignore the results.

“Why?” you might ask. And it’s not a stupid question.

The Kurds have suffered greatly at the hands of Iran, Turkey and Iraq, and their many waves of refugees haven’t exactly been welcomed in Europe with open arms despite their relatively secular approach to religion. They’ve certainly been Washington’s regional ally of choice, asking for little while supporting American efforts throughout their region with land, basing rights, tactical and strategic intelligence, and – when push has come to shove – some of the most badass fighters the region has ever produced. Of late they have done most of the heavy lifting against both the Assad regime and the Islamic State.

The problem is that the battles against IS achieved something that no other conflict in the region ever has: it gave the various factions of Kurds a singular enemy to fight, helping craft a proto-identity that might actually help the notoriously fractured ethnic group unify. And if the Kurds all agree that they are the same people, then an independence vote – regardless of obstacles – makes a lot of sense.

And that’s a problem for everyone.

It’s a problem for the Iraqi Arabs of all sectarian stripes who see Kurdish territories as theirs. It’s a problem for the Iraqi Shia who see their northern tier coming unhinged and a loss of northern oil revenues. It’s a problem for the Americans who would like nothing more than to get the hell out of the region, but who feel responsibility to their loyal Kurdish ally and would prefer to not leave them in a lurch – no matter how self-imposed that lurch is. It’s a problem for Iran and Turkey and especially Syria where local Kurdish communities have identities forged in the common anti-IS effort and who all directly border a would-be independent Iraqi Kurdistan. And it is a problem for the Iraqi Kurds, whose landlocked nature means that without the buy-in of the other regional players any independent Kurdistan would be so economically broken and dysfunctional as to make Bolivia look wildly successful.

And that’s only half the problem.

The other half is that the Islamic State was not an import – it was the noxious weed that took root in the fractures of Iraqi society. The Kurds’ push toward independence risks pushing those fractures further, and a destabilized Iraq (and yes, it can always get worse than what we see now) risks pulling its neighbors down with it. To give you an idea of just how disruptive that would be to, well, everyone in the neighborhood, the only country in the world supporting the Kurdish referendum is… Israel.

With the shiny disco ball of IS crashing down, the players of the Middle East are taking stock of each other as the lights turn back on. No longer facing a common enemy, each major player is seeking to capitalize on the weakness of their competitors. The Levant and Mesopotamia are in need of rebuilding, and Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia want to limit risks while maximizing their own strategic gains in the process. Baghdad and Damascus will protest loudly during any vivisection of their territories, but the Kurds are looking to reap the rewards of fighting on the front lines against IS. Their success against the informal forces of the Islamic State has them feeling up for a fight, though the regular armies of the regional states will not be routed as quickly. Current US/NATO support belies how little overt (if any) military support the Kurds can expect in a fight against Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran, and yet the vast majority of the population is expecting Erbil to act in accordance to the referendum, and to find some dividends on the huge amount of suffering endured by Kurdish people in their frontline fight against IS.

And never forget that should the regional powers start battling an emerging Kurdistan, the no-mans-land of western Iraq and eastern Syria will once again fall off the region’s collective radar…granting yet another breed of desert militant the perfect environment to gain strength once again.

Looking Ahead

I’m in the process of my annual reset.

From time to time it is important to take a step back from the noise and splatter of the news cycle (and oh my has there been a lot of noise and splatter this year!) and take a good deep, hard look at trends old and new to see how they are strengthening, weakening, and weaving themselves into new forms.

The big three megatrends that guide my work – the American withdrawal from global management, the steepening inversion of global age demographics, and the ever-advancing shale revolution – remain my guiding stars. Shale has slowed somewhat but that’s largely irrelevant as the U.S. and Canada combined are only a rounding error away from becoming net oil exporters. The global demographic shift is right on schedule (it is far too late in the game to magic up a fresh batch of Millennials). And the American withdrawal from the global order has obviously accelerated under the ever-thoughtful, always-restrained, humble modesty of President Donald Trump.

Lurking under the rumbling tectonic plates, however, are roughly a score of significant issues that are breaking out into the open. Some of these – like the coming European crisisthe Saudis’ beef with Qatarthe breakdown of the global Left, and all things North Korean – I’ve written about. But others, still on simmer, have yet to reshape the discussion.

They’re coming, and in about a year they will be with us.

To that end I’m putting together a three-part newsletter about what everyone will be worried about next year. These are issues that will have an outsized impact not just for the United States, but the wider world that will impact regional events for a decade to come:

  1. With the Islamic State all but wrapped up, it is time for the Middle East to embark on its next – and far more violent and far reaching – military conflict.
  2. The pause in the violence of the drug war is nearly over and what comes next will have far greater implications for both Mexico and the United States.
  3. The one trade deal that the Americans made for economic, rather than strategic, reasons is in danger. The year 2018 will be when NAFTA’s future is decided one way or another.

We’ll have more, but hopefully this trio is enough to whet everyone’s appetite for what is shaping up to be an extremely active year.

Qatar, PACOM, and the Absence of US Foreign Policy

So, two things that happened in the past week that were of interest to me.

First, Saudi Arabia issued its official demands that the Qatari government would need to meet for the Saudis and their allies to end their diplomatic, political and economic blockade. With deep conditions ranging from the shuttering of the al Jazeera news service to a complete realignment of the country’s foreign policy from one of independent stances to something more appropriate to a province of Saudi Arabia.

Second, I spoke at PACOM in Hawaii about the changing nature of American power. The subsequent discussion focused heavily on the evolving role of the U.S. military as the country’s geopolitical priorities shift. The two neatly dovetail and highlight one of the deepening challenges the U.S. government faces in the next few years.

Let’s start with the background.

Near the end of World War II at the Bretton Woods conference the United States struck a deal with the allies. In the post-war order, the United States will defend not just your countries, but all your trade. You will no longer need to fight one another to access raw materials or markets. Furthermore, the American market — the only one of size to survive the war — will be open to you. All you have to do is side with America against the Soviets. Put simply, the United States pledged its military and economy to subsidize history’s largest alliance network.

By 1992, however, the Cold War had ended and — caught up in the transition from the Bush Sr administration to Clinton — the Americans neglected to craft a replacement strategy. The world changed, but U.S. strategic overwatch and subsidization of the alliance did not. All the various Cold War allies — ranging from the Germans to the Koreans to the Chinese to the Greeks — continued to benefit economically, but the Americans no longer received the strategic deference that was part of the original Bretton Woods deal.

Twenty-five years later, the economic cost of such an outdated strategy has led to the perception in many Americans’ minds that the world is freeloading on American security commitments. This isn’t intolerance or a fit of pique, it is a reasonable response to Washington’s inability to craft a replacement for a security policy that is a generation out of date. Such perceptions heavily colored the populist nature of the 2016 presidential election, and of course the election of Donald Trump — and now the American retrenchment is in full swing.

Yet it hardly started with Trump. American strategic policy has been on autopilot since 1992. The Clinton, W Bush and Obama administrations were too distracted, disinterested and/or unaware of the intricacies of the international system to meaningfully update the original Bretton Woods deal. In Donald Trump the Americans now have a leader just as distracted, disinterested and/or unaware as his three immediate predecessors. What is different about Trump is that as a populist he feels no attachment to the Bretton Woods system, so there is no natural inclination to just let-it-ride. Consequently, there are a growing number of breaches as the freshmen president, by action and inaction, peels away bits of the old system — but doesn’t replace them with anything new.

Such peeling is on full display with U.S. policy to the Persian Gulf. Trump’s first overseas visit wasn’t to traditional partners like Canada or Mexico or traditional allies like the United Kingdom or Japan, but instead to Saudi Arabia where Trump was quickly sucked into a gilded flattery fest of Trumpian proportions. The Saudis emerged from the visit-glow thinking they had the White House’s stamp of approval to restructure their region in whatever way they saw fit. Their first act wasn’t to move against ISIS or Iran, but Qatar — a tiny country the Saudis have long viewed as unnecessarily close to Iran, unnecessarily promiscuous when it comes to sponsoring political groups opposed to Saudi goals, and in general unnecessarily free-willed.

Qatar, however, didn’t buckle — and that brings us to PACOM.

The U.S. military apparatus is charged with dispensing and enforcing U.S. strategic policy. As part of such duties, the military must constantly interact with allies and rivals around the world. That takes soldiers. Sailors. Marines. Airmen. Bases — and those bases require commitments to local and regional security concerns. That takes engagement, reliability, consistency. Every. Single. Day. By far the Americans’ largest overseas base these days is in Doha…the capital of Qatar. The CENTCOM base there has been the nerve-center for all US operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan for some 15 years now.

The Qataris believe — correctly — that the U.S. military has their back and so there is no need for them to back down to the Saudis. The Saudis believe — correctly — that the Trump administration has green-lit their desire to restructure their region more to their liking. The Trump administration believes — correctly — that the U.S. strategic policy it inherited needs an overhaul, but has yet to craft that replacement policy.

The result in the U.S. military and diplomatic community is an overriding sense of confusion and frustration. Their standing orders are clear, but the shifts out of the White House are equally clear. And increasingly, the two contradict. The folks at PACOM can’t figure out, for example, whether they are supposed to treat China as a threat, a partner, a rising power who should be engaged…or given space. And mixed messages aren’t the best things when dealing with multiple aircraft carrier battle groups.

The issue is not so much Trump’s tendency to make policy via Twitter (although that obviously doesn’t help), but instead that ever since the Cold War ended the Americans have not had a goal.

Until the Americans select a new one they cannot have a coherent strategy. Until they have the national conversation required to select that goal, these deepening splits between needs and actions will only widen, leaving allies new and old not just in a lurch, but often acting against one another — as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now.

There are plenty of places where this disconnect between emerging strategic interests and outdated policy will grind. Some of the louder ones include NATO, where it is no longer clearly in America’s interests to defend Europe against Russia. At the DMZ, where North Korea is far more a threat to South Korea, Japan and even China than it is to the United States. In the South China Sea where Chinese aggression is less a threat to American interests than to Taiwanese and Japanese. In Kuwait where America’s lack of oil import needs staggeringly reduces the Americans’ interest while staggeringly increasing Saudi belligerence. America’s use of Turkey’s Incirlik airbase will likely evaporate for a mix of reasons ranging from disenchantment with the evolution of the Turkish political space to a general feeling that the refugee issue is Europe’s problem, while Syria is Turkey’s problem.

Other places generate a lot less heartburn and — even without some new overarching strategy — are likely to keep their current levels of American involvement regardless. The UK, Canada and Australia have been and will remain America’s closest allies under almost any reasonable scenario. Morocco and Algeria are reliable partners in the struggle against Islamic militancy. Proximity and economic centrality will keep the Americans involved in Panamanian affairs for as long as water transport is a thing. Singapore sits on the world’s most strategically located real estate and is likely to be a valued partner until the end of time itself.

Perhaps the quirkiest aspect of all this are the countries likely to suffer the most from the policy discombobulation.

On the surface the Qatari-Saudi spat seems like it would deliver the Persian Gulf to Iran on a silver platter. But no. Within the first week of the argument, Turkey had deployed troops to its airbase in Qatar. Nothing is easy in the Middle East, even (especially!) for powers inhabiting the region. Turkey’s push to support Qatar is a clear indication to Tehran (and Riyadh) that even if US troops left the region tomorrow, Iran gets to look forward to facing off against yet another superior economic and military power. Unlike the United States, however, Turkey has a bevy of permanent regional interests directly opposed to Iran’s own, and occupies prime real estate in the neighborhood.

Trump’s wobbling on NATO seems like it gives the Russians everything they want — a Europe without the American security umbrella. But no. With the Americans out, the Germans have no choice but to rearm — and every time that has happened, it hasn’t turned out well for Moscow.

Loosening security ties with the East Asian rim seems like a dream come true for the Chinese. But no. Not only does that force Japan, Korea and Taiwan to massively bulk up their defense capacities (and perhaps go nuclear), but China’s extensive international economic position is utterly dependent upon the Americans keeping markets open and sea lanes safe on a global scale. Without America, there is no Chinese economic miracle — and most likely a naval war with Japan that China simply cannot win.

What will the Americans decide they want out of all of this? What will their new goal be? No clue. American politics are loud and messy and amped up with righteous indignation at present. Even if Americans could start the national conversation on finding that elusive goal today, I doubt they’d come up with the final answer in this presidency.

Qatar Caught in the Disorder

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a full-court press against the government of Qatar, leading a coalition of countries as varied as Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Yemen and the Maldives. All these states and more have severed diplomatic relations, in addition to barring all land, air and maritime transport to and from the tiny Persian Gulf country.

So what’s up?

Think of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar like the relationship between the United States and France during the Cold War. It was obvious to everyone who was stronger, and France didn’t appreciate playing second fiddle. So, in order to balance relations and maintain some independent standing, France would cut side deals with the Soviets. Little that Paris did was purposefully hostile to Washington, but France was certainly the gap in the Western wall.

Qatar is a Sunni Arab country, just like Saudi Arabia; in fact, Qatar is the only other country claiming Wahhabi Islam as its official state religion. But that doesn’t mean Qatar — with a citizen population less than one-twentieth that of Saudi Arabia — wants Riyadh to be the boss of it. Qatar’s independent streak is borne out of a perception of its options. Qatar is the only Persian Gulf state not utterly dependent upon oil. Instead it exports natural gas in liquid form, making the Qatari economy resistant to any minor Saudi meddling. Doha has weaponized news media in the form of Al Jazeera, routinely blasting out stories critical of its neighbors (read: the Saudi royal family) throughout the Arab speaking world.

Most importantly, Qatar has worked to bring other powers into its side of the Persian Gulf. The most obvious of these powers is Iran — Saudi Arabia’s arch-nemesis (shameless plug: for lots of information on the coming war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, see Chapter 7 of my new book, The Absent Superpower.

But Qatar has hardly stopped there. Qatar has also pursued an aggressive foreign policy that seeks to back Islamist groups — oftentimes militant Islamist groups — throughout the Middle East. Based on your politics, many would agree with the Saudis and classify some of these Qatari-backed groups as being in the terrorism business.

A few things come from this:

First, this points to how emboldened the Saudis must feel after Trump’s visit and sword-dancing bonanza. Riyadh is desperate to position itself in the region before Iran can get back on its feet, however wobbly. An early step is to ensure that all regional states fall in line, and fast. Qatar has long been the most defiant Gulf Arab state. Any concessions Doha grants in upcoming days will be an important message to Oman and Kuwait, who have yet to side with the Saudis in halting trade with Qatar. Also important is the reaction of Turkey — the only other Sunni state in the region that might butt heads with Riyadh over who is really in charge.

Second, the Saudi strategy seems expressly designed to bring about a rupture in Qatari-American relations. One of the balancing powers the Qatari brought in to offset the Saudis is the United States. CENTCOM established a forward headquarters in Qatar to coordinate the Afghan and Iraqi Wars, and now CENTCOM plays a leading role in anti-ISIS operations. So long as the Americans have CENTCOM in Qatar, there is only so much the Saudis can do to counter Qatari ambitions. But should the Trump administration conclude the Qataris are Iranian-loving terrorist-sponsors, CENTCOM would relocate back to the American mainland in a heartbeat. That wouldn’t just leave tiny Qatar utterly alone, it would probably result in its de facto annexation by Saudi Arabia within a few years.

Third, welcome to the new normal. From 1945 until … last month, the world was more or less American-managed. The United States used its control of global markets, global security and the global ocean to build a series of alliances and institutions to hold everything together. In this system, the participants gained global market access, global resource access and physical security in exchange for deference to Washington on defense matters. They also agreed to not do certain things. Near the top of the no-no list was economic warfare: embargoes, for example, were to be relegated to history. The United States would arbitrate disputes to prevent them from spinning out of control, particularly between countries that were on the ally list. Countries like, say, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The United States has been backing away from such active management since the Clinton administration and I’ve long maintained that whoever was elected president in 2016 would be the leader to preside over the formal abandonment of that system. (Lots on that in my first book: The Accidental Superpower.) Trump won. Trump is on deck. Trump is trashing the American-built, -maintained and -brokered global Order. Bereft of American overwatch, regional powers are taking matters into their own hands. The Saudi-led actions against Qatar are a (very small) taste of the Disorder to come.

Fourth, do not allow yourself to get caught up in the Saudi propaganda. While the groups that Qatar (and Iran) back are not nice people, it isn’t as if the Saudis are paragons of pacifism. Saudi foreign and security policy going back to the 1980s is to export Saudi malcontents to conflict zones, as well as to supply fighters within and beyond their region with weapons, intelligence and money so they can bloody Riyadh’s foes. By the very definition that the Saudis are using to condemn Qatari actions, the Saudis are the industry leaders in the terrorism business.

You can easily make a strong case that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are all complicit with militant groups of all sorts — and have been for decades. Sometimes they control these groups, sometimes they simply assist them, sometimes they lose control and the groups rebrand, sometimes factions within the sponsoring countries keep supporting the militants even after control is lost. This last is certainly what happened with mujahedeen-turned-al Qaeda 20 years ago and is happening with al Qaeda in Iraq-turned-ISIS today. No one in the Persian Gulf has clean hands.

Fifth, a key characteristic of the emerging Disorder is that while the United States will not feel that it is nailed down to express security guarantees or global structures, it still will intervene from time to time and will still play favorites. While I believe it is high time for the United States to bring CENTCOM home, I also read Saudi actions as an attempt to shape American behavior. Is there room for Saudi-American cooperation on a great many issues? Sure. But as the U.S. lets the global order break down, there will be constant risks of being coopted, bribed, tricked and otherwise manipulated into subconsciously adopting the goals of other countries as America’s own.

Qatar is just test #1.