Musings on the Muddle East

   Leafing through the pages of one of my recent, regular and austere journals, Foreign Affairs [1] I delighted to come across some of the most deleterious nonsense I had read for months.

    Penned by a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Kenneth M Pollack, is an essay on how to create an army to defeat Assad and “how to turn Syria’s opposition into a real fighting force’. 

    Being a sucker for the surreal I was immediately attracted by the title. I wasn’t disappointed.

   Although he accepts that the only way to defeat the Assad regime is by deploying large numbers of ground troops he concludes: “The United States can end the Syrian civil war on its own terms and rebuild a stable Syria without committing ground troops.”

    Really! I can see the airborne battalions of flying pigs already!

    He continues in a fanciful way about building a new Syrian army, beholden to  no one except the well-being of Syria and loyalty to d’etat [my interpretation];   reasonableness, peace, love and humanity and all the rest of it. If you don’t believe my interpretation I quote:

   Recruiting Syrian army personnel would be the first task. These men and women could come from any part of the country or its diaspora, as long as they were Syrian and prepared to fight in the new army. They would need to integrate themselves into a conventional military structure and adopt its doctrine and rules of conduct. They would have to be willing to leave their existing militias and become reassigned to new units without regards for religion, ethnicity, or geographic origin. Loyalty to the new army and to the vision of a democratic post-war Syria for which it would stand must supersede all other competing identities.[2]

    What has this bloke been smoking? Where do the Americans drag up such nonsense?  Pollack’s thesis reads like something straight out of the 1950’s – 60’s Viet Nam counter insurgency modelling, much beloved by various American think tanks such as the Rand Corporation; Foreign Policy Institutes, the CSIS [centre for international studies and the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Indeed, the Brookings Institute is a Washington based liberal think tank and is often considered to be an open window into Washington.

   If this be the case, it helps explain why the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been so unbelievably appalling. It is not unreasonable to assume therefore the current administration’s thinking on this matter. Obama has been vacillating and extraordinarily inept and his only constant has been his anti-Israel position.

    Returning to think tanks. During the 50s and 60s such centres employed academics by the hundreds who wrote all manner of fanciful scenarios and models as to how to beat the Viet Cong. The Pentagon, and indeed, field commanders, under the meddlesome direction of a succession of inept presidents and their advisers, had to deal with these young button-down collared Ivy League men almost into the foxholes.  

   Yet it would appear that very few of them had ever read Graham Greene’s Quiet American. Set in the late stages of the French war in Indo China this classic and prescient novel traces the origins of the American involvement in Viet Nam. Its American anti-hero piffles on interminably about a ‘Third Force’ emerging as the saviour of the country until he mercifully gets killed. Decades after my service in that sad and beautiful country I used that novel as a primer when lecturing students at the Northern Territory University on the subject of the decolonisation of Asia. 

   It is a great shame that more Americans didn’t read the book at its time of publication. But then, it is a pity that the Pentagon actively rejected the British Military Mission to South Viet Nam led by Sir Robert Thompson and invited by President Kennedy to provide advice on Viet Nam. Again, decades later, whilst interviewing Sir Robert, he treated me to some pithy comments on his views on American military strategy.

   One of his more printable comments on that particular subject included the observation that the American over-reliance on airpower was a grave mistake and that the war could only have been won by intelligence and troops on the ground.[3]

   Now I admit to being a great friend of America. Unlike many Europeans and Australians who see America as a large target for cheap shots, I regard America and its people as some of the most generous, decent people on the globe. However, as a friend, I reserve the right to be critical as and when musts. And regarding America’s Middle East policy I have little to say except for the fact that they have consistently got it wrong since 1948.

    Largely because of their ineptitude, and because of their reluctance to apply some political leverage on Israel when they had a chance – they lost the opportunity to demonstrate to the Arab community their bona fides. To this end they are mistrusted if not actively disliked by the vast majority of the inhabitants of that seemingly irrational part of the world.

   Furthermore, neither do the people of that region particularly like Britain [Australia], France, Italy or any other colonial power very much. None of this should come as a great surprise given that they don’t like each other very much either.

   But Britain, the US and its allies are held in high, if barely concealed detestation. Given the colonial meddling and general post-imperial political interference in the region by the Western World this is understandable.

   Despite years of American policy disasters, the United States still seems intent on imposing its own brand of democracy and the all-American way on the region. Quite obviously the region doesn’t want it. They want to be left alone. Let them therefore rejoice in their C7th savagery – and let us remember that we caused it.

   The harlots of Islam, those corrupt little Sheikdoms propped up with oil, foreign investment, replete in every excess and worked by peoples from Asia and Europe must be quaking in their sandshoes. I wonder why they enjoy such a peaceful political existence – who are they buying off? Aside from oil, their contribution to the international milieu is negligible. Moving along, the disgustingly corrupt, grossly wealthy and completely illegitimate House of Saud is about as trustworthy as a bath tub of adders and the Egyptians, Libyans et. al. are as stable as an ice addict in Kings Cross on Saturday night.

   But we still cling to the optimistic and damn stupid theory that we can train them? To evidence: the recent story of the 300 Libyan militiamen at Bassingbourne Barracks in Cambridge being sent home for being drunk, rape, assault and general breakdown of law and order. A whistle-blower told Channel 4 that:  "A bunch of militiamen were in control of a British army base in the UK”. [4] The story included rape, stabbing, British soldiers having to drive minibuses to Tesco’s to buy supplies for the Libyans and so forth. In short – a right cock-up. Aside from this news being kept very much out, once again, of BBC international headlines, it demonstrates the entire futility of training and our trying to make sense out of the region. What was Britain thinking of? Obviously the MoD dunderheads hadn’t read Kenneth M. Pollack’s article!

   Of course, the problems of the Middle East are to a large extent of Britain’s own making and extend back to at least the Treaty of Versailles [1919]. Britain’s shameful abandoning of its Arabian allies, so carefully nurtured during the war against the Turks by General Allenby and British Intelligence, and exemplified by Colonel T.E. Lawrence. It is little wonder that the latter thereafter hung his head in shame. He was cognizant and part of British duplicity in this matter. He was later to write:

   The Cabinet raised the Arabs to fight for us by definite promises of self-government afterwards. Arabs believe in persons, not in institutions. They saw me as a free agent of the British Government, and demanded from me an endorsement of its written promises. So I had to join the conspiracy, and, for what my word was worth, assured the men of their reward. In our two years’ partnership under fire they grew accustomed to believing me and to think my Government, like myself, sincere. In this hope they performed some fine things, but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.

   It was evident that from the beginning that if we won the war these promises would be dead paper, and had I been an honest adviser of the Arabs I would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff: but I salved myself with the hope that, by leading these Arabs in the final victory I would establish them, with arms in their hands, in a position so assured (if not dominant) that expediency would counsel to the Great Powers a fair settlement of their claims.[5]

   There can be few damning, honest and sincere admissions of duplicity ever penned in the history of international diplomacy than Lawrence’s. It is a measure of the man that he wrote it and lived for the remainder of his life with his demons in his own private disgrace.

   Equally damning to the Pan-Arabian cause was the 1917 Balfour Declaration whereby Britain pledged support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine – provided appropriate safeguards could be met for the ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ in Palestine. Thus, by 1920 were the Arabic peoples of the Middle East treated not only by English perfidy but by increased European expansion across North Africa.

   Shortly after that the Europeans visited a Second war across the bloodied lands of Northern Africa. Then, following independence and the emergence of oil politics, the West prostituted itself to, collaborated with, and ignored any manner of excesses, corruption and human rights abuses emanating from that benighted region. Can it be any wonder why they detest us?

   A further sadness is that the Persians, a great civilised race, so badly governed, are without the internal oppositional leadership to break free of their chains. Unfortunately and understandably they don’t trust the Americans, the British or the Russians, again because of extensive past experience. Ideally a thoroughly modern Persia – call it Iran if you must - as well as a country centred on Bagdad – would serve as the centrepieces for a modern Islam. Reflecting the intellectual glories of the past and leading the way for tomorrow.

   But as ever it is pointless beating up on history or contemplating upon a perfect world. We have to deal with the reality of the here and now. And the reality is that the region is a mess. The only stable viable state is Israel. For better or worse Israel is a geopolitical reality. Whether its detractors want to admit it or not, it is also the only functioning liberal democracy in the Middle East; Jewish culture is at the at the heart of our Judaic Christian liberal tradition; Israel is our only ally in the Middle East – indeed, it is our natural friend and ally in the region; it has no has no argument with anyone who accepts the existence of the State of Israel and, despite the constant propaganda to the contrary, it provides economic and humanitarian relief to thousands of Palestinians. What is also overlooked, that as a successful and plural democracy, it has Arabs and extreme leftist critics in its Parliament [Knesset] who are given full freedom of expression – and who are not afraid to use it.  

   So what to do?

   I read recently a very lucid and splendid article by David Aaronovitvch, originally printed in The Times, commenting on the nature of modern ‘deathstyle’ jihadists.[6]  His article is chilling; it tells the tale of the modern young psychopath, far from being alienated from society comes from an ordinary background and is highly interconnected. He describes how:

   You can act in your own movie, blow things up, terrify people, take women into sexual slavery and it’s all ideologically legitimate. You can be one of ‘Caliph; al-Baghdadi’s “army of young lions whose drink is blood and play is carnage”.[7]

   As absorbing and abhorrent I found Aaronovitvch’s article - the obviously accuracy and intellectual content of his account shining through – I still cannot come to grips with his apparently logical conclusion:

   ….defeating jihadism is a bit like gun control. You’re inevitably going to get these young men harbouring fantasies of being cold-eyed killers; you just have make sure there is no gun for them to kill with. In this case it means – right from the soonest possible moment – not allowing there to be an Islamic State for them to join. Destroying it early. It’s what we have armed forces for.[8]   

   Given the Coalition of the Willing’s track record in Iraq and its disgracefully premature exit; given its premature exist in Afghanistan; given its premature exit in Viet Nam and so forth and so on – it is most obvious that the West has no stomach for extended conflict and occupation. Think Northern Ireland. No one wants to commit ground troops, history tells us that air war without ground support is pointless – so what to do? It is tempting to do the Arabs and north Africans a favour. Leave them alone.

   But for the sake of humanity this clearly will not do. But, in my view, if the West wants to be constructive, it will unilaterally stop supplying arms and armaments to the Middle East. Period. Full stop. America France and especially Britain should butt out completely – indeed, what collection of lunatics appointed that goofy-faced embodiment of duplicity Tony Blair, as the European Middle East Peace Envoy!!! My G-d. There alone stands a weapon of mass destruction.

   But to return to sanity, the West should leave formal dialogue with the Middle East in the hands of genuine and sincere countries such as Singapore, Switzerland, the Scandinavian trio and Japan.

   In the course of this formal dialogue, the West should put a cordon sanitaire around Israel for practical security purposes but not in the cause of dialogue. Israel will be forced to make accommodation, and I am sure it will do so – but it is not going to do so whilst the Damocletion Sword of extinction hangs over its head. The Arabs and Mediterranean littoral states are going to have to accept and embrace Israel as part of their geopolitical milieu. Until this happens the region’s politics will continue along its C7th century barbarism.

   In writing about Syria before I said that: “This should be the supreme test for the UN. Should it fail, as it has so many times before, it no longer deserves support. To this end, its real backers and bankers – being the Western World - should withdraw their complete support and create a new and effective entity to replace it”.[9]

   As I wrote those worlds well over twelve months ago and the UN has failed – the time has come to create another, effective entity. This will take time.

   Pro tem the future of the Middle East, in my view, lies with the formal formation of the aforedetailed set of international brokers to try to hammer out some solution. The only roles to be played by Britain, America, and France will be to promise to abide by decisions made and taken.

   And as for that bellicose little country, Australia, vying as ever for a place at the top table – it should pack up its bongos, piss off and learn to how to govern itself.    

[1]September/October 2014

[2] Pollack, K.M. “And Army to Defeat Assad.” In Foreign Affairs. Vol 93 No.5. Council on Foreign Relations. NY. 2014. P 114.

[3] Thompson 1988. Interview with Sir Robert Thompson by the author. Winsford. UK. 12.7.1988. 

[4]  6 November 2014 & The Spectator 8 November 2014.

[5] Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Johnathan Cape. London. 1965. pp 23-24.

[6] Aaronovitch, D. ‘Destroying Islamic State only way to stop ‘deathstyle’ jihadists’. In The Australian. 21 November 2014.


[8] loc cit.

[9] Coe. Blog. The Syrian Cirrhosis. 28 August 2013.


colin haywood

02.09.2015 21:57

As you can see from my first comment the rum got in the way sorry


02.09.2015 12:54

I have read yor plece on Conwy.The momory of that time came flooding back.You are a very gifted man your use of language to paint a picture is wonderful from your Cousin in blood but Brother in spirt


04.09.2015 02:15

Colin, thank you for your moving sentiment, which I assure you is totally reciprocated. Thank you and Chris for the inspiration to write this. G-D Bless you both.

Latest comments

08.11 | 06:21

The Australian community is in for a world of long overdue pain. It is wholly its own fault for which I have nil sympathy.

08.11 | 06:15

Thanks indeed for the comment. I do agree that we badly need to 'clean out the swamp'. Trump certainly stirred those fetid waters.

08.11 | 05:22

I agree with the general thrust of your comments but the Australian community believes the governments can deliver without pain and there will be a lot of pain up ahead.

07.11 | 11:17

Nice job on the essay John, but regardless of his positions, Dutton is too much a cretin of the past, he also looks like the walking dead. We don't need more career politicians, we need a Trump.

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