By Professor Wayne McCormack for GlobalJusticeBlog.com.
“. . . the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
“Imagine there’s no countries.” – John Lennon
For some months, I have carried in my back pocket a proposal for ending the current round of violent jihad, which is built around a global coalition – not just Russia and the US but including the oil-rich sheikdoms and Iran. For millennia, men and women of all stripes, warriors as well as those of us who have never held a weapon in our hands, have dreamed of creating a peaceful world through military conquest. I am writing here to propose a temporary version of that dream, even though my better judgment would be to abandon all military attempts to deal with jihad. Doubting that the pacifist approach will gain traction, I offer this alternative scenario.
By my estimation from publicly reported sources, the NATO countries together with Russia and China (not even including India and Brazil from the BRIC countries) could field somewhere over 5 million combat troops within two weeks of deciding to do so. With these numbers and their collective technical capacity these new allies could easily overwhelm both ISIS and Boko Haram in a matter of days.
Whether these steps would set the stage for forestalling the remaining tribalisms and factions within the Middle East and Africa would depend on many of the factors that have plagued human security for millennia. For the moment, let us assume that I am right about the ability of these countries to subdue the worst of the militant jihadists – that raises two primary questions before we even get into the long-term planning.
First, obviously everyone will say “oh, it could never happen” or something worse such as “what has this guy been smoking?” Secondly, even if the alliance could happen, the next question is what would happen next, what would replace the jihadism?
The naysayers will respond that Putin has once again backed Obama down. But this assessment shows that there may be more in reality than meets the eye:
Obama’s main mistake was not going far enough to liquidate the unsound positions bequeathed by his predecessor: He should have gotten out of Afghanistan faster and never done regime change in Libya at all. By contrast, Putin looks successful at first glance because Russia is playing a more active role than it did back when it was largely prostrate. Given where Russia was in 1995 or even 2000, there was nowhere to go but up.
As recently as Oct 6, the N.Y. Times opined:
It may not be too late for Mr. Putin to reconsider. The United States and its allies are in need of help and might well be open to cooperating with Russia on finding a combination of military and diplomatic measures that could curb the Islamic State and, more important, impose cease-fires that would give civilians some respite from the violence. That, ultimately, should be the priority for both the West and Russia. And it would certainly be a better way for Mr. Putin to satisfy his need for respect and a role in the Middle East.
How an Alliance Could Be Built
With regard to the probability, I suspect that if we could keep the politicians out of the room, a group of colonels could sit around a table and realize that they have many mutual interests at stake. Indeed, my guess is that when a reliable history of the Cold War is written, we will find that the colonels were always engaged in some such discussions. What are these mutual interests?
The most obvious and fundamental is self-preservation. The MAD (mutual assured destruction) policy was one approach to the issue. Another would be collaborative policing of human security, a group enforcement of what the UN refers to as “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). R2P as it currently is phrased in UN literature is presented either as an obligation of the Security Council (which has proved itself unable to act effectively) or as an arguably illegal reason for unilateral intervention by one country into another country’s affairs (i.e., US or NATO invasion of dictatorial regimes for humanitarian reasons – and we see how well that has worked in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Egypt, etc). A much more realistic version of R2P is multilateral among all the nations with significant military power – there is no chance that any group could stand up against such a coalition.
R2P suggests that the reason for intervention is purely moral. While there is nothing wrong with moral arguments, they seldom persuade political powers and they can lead to disastrous results as mentioned above. The more compelling reason for collaboration is self-preservation. It should be obvious by now that violent salafist jihadism threatens the integrity not only of governments in general but also the security and economy of every nation, wherever it is situated and whatever its economic base. Violence prevents trade, it creates massive refugee problems such as Europe is facing at the moment, it threatens to spill over across borders (witness the Chechen attacks in both Moscow and Boston).
Perhaps the most dramatic visible impact of violence (along with corruption) is the flood of attempted immigration to Europe from the Middle East and Africa. True, a lot of this flood is prompted by the dictatorial and corrupt practices in countries such as Gambia, but a lot of it also stems from attempts to escape the violence of Boko Haram and its related ideologues. The fragility of the EU may have started with issues such as Greek fiscal woes and British resistance to collective decisions, but the immigration/refugee problem genuinely threatens to overturn the entire EU experiment.
Thus, R2P is not just a matter of doing the right thing; the morality is apparent, but it has very pragmatic roots in the global setting.
The second part of the likelihood question is how would it work? I envision a table with at least four sides around which are gathered the major planners from each of the military powers of the world. They are sitting there committing troops and technical resources to a military operation. This is their expertise, they are proud to show what they can do both individually and as a team – after all, each of them knows that a successful military operation is a team effort so they want to show that they know how to coordinate and orchestrate a massive undertaking.
The most important thing that happens as soon as this meeting gets very far along is that the persons sitting at the table realize that the best protection of their individual national security is collaborative enterprise. If Russia and the US are working together, neither has anything to fear from the other. In fact, the further they integrate into each other’s arsenals and planning, the more the reality that neither can harm one without harming the other. A genuinely combined global military power would be the safest course for all concerned.
That answers the easy question of why would they do it. The hard question is what comes next?
What Happens Next?
We have seen the results of Arab Spring. Some nations did not want a Western version of democracy. But neither do the jihadists want the monarchical dictators in many of the countries which support them. What does this mean? The oil-rich monarchies of the Middle East quietly support violent jihad essentially in the same manner as protection money paid by restaurant owners to organized crime. As long as the jihadists are attacking others, the monarchies (if not directly, then through surrogates) are quite happy to put the money on the table for weapons, equipment, training, and clandestine operations.
So what does the global coalition offer post-conflict? There are various options that should be thought through very carefully. The most successful post-conflict operations in recent times have been the Marshall Plan in Europe following World War II and its counterpart in Japan. The keys to these successes consisted of several stages: (1) holding accountable some of the worst offenders but then putting local leaders into positions to run the portions of government and industry with which they were familiar (including immunity for some war criminals), (2) supplying significant sums for rebuilding while carefully monitoring that the money was well invested and used appropriately, (3) building credibility with indigenous potential dissidents through rule of law efforts while simultaneously leaving sufficient occupation forces in place to ensure stability.
None of those steps was successfully implemented in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Maybe it was easy with Germany and Japan because they were already industrialized nations with technical knowledge and expertise. But the history of the Arab World is replete with phenomenal knowledge and expertise, either already in place or available through expatriates.
What is obvious is that significant planning by very wise people, both occupiers and occupied, must take place to build a new world in the Middle East and Africa. Whether this includes redrawing some of Churchill’s lines in the sand for national boundaries is one of many questions on the table. How to involve tribal loyalties and give appropriate deference to cultural traditions while protecting universal norms of personal freedom is another. This latter question, involving tribal loyalties in a stable society, may seem intractable to those of us in the West but it is essential that it be given priority by the best minds available.
In a cynical mood in the Spring of 2016, I penned this description of Western approaches to Middle East violence:
The U.S. considers both the PKK (which is supported by Kurdistan) and alNusra (which is supported by Iran) to be terrorist organizations. We have been aiding both alNusra and the PergaMesh (which is friendly to PKK and is a potential enemy of our ally Turkey) against the Islamic State (IS) (which is supported by our allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia), but now we are going to bomb alNusra because they are threatening the Free Syrian Army, which includes some jihadist-oriented rebels and Palestinians but which we support against Assad. So far, Assad is happy to have us helping him against IS, alNusra, and the rest but he and Turkey will both be upset if we collude with Kurdish elements. Meanwhile, we are cutting a deal with Iran to send their nuclear materials to Russia, against which we have economic sanctions, in return for Iran’s cutting off aid to various Shi’a groups who are the backbone of the militias on which our Iraqi government is relying against the Sunni coalitions that support IS.
Events are panning out pretty much as this predicted. All it means is that Western observers are unlikely to comprehend the tribal and cultural complexities of the region without a lot of help. And even more importantly, even if we comprehended, what business would it be of ours to structure governance systems for other cultures? That has been shown time and again to be an impossible task – witness the ten or more empires that have foundered in Afghanistan.
So what happens if the global alliance is successful in breaking down the jihadist alliance? Probably nothing within our control. There will certainly be a period of chaos as the existing power brokers in the region vie for their proportionate shares of power. Will anything helpful emerge? That depends ultimately on what the SinoWestern powers decide to do about their petroleum needs. Here are a couple of options, none particularly likely but each within the realm of possibility:
- Abandon the oil-for-security deal struck with King Saud by FDR in 1945 and then extended to the other Emirates over the years.
- Broker a regional alliance that places Israel at the table with its Arab neighbors (why would they go along with this? because NATO-BRIC would demand it as a condition of ridding the region of IS).
Some of my friends say I’m a dreamer (even though I’m not a John Lennon fan), and that the ancient rivalries in the Middle East are intractable. But I say that is defeatism which leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. After all, if we don’t have a dream, then we have no hope.
 Stephen M. Walt, Who Is a Better Strategist: Obama or Putin? Pitting a former KGB agent against a former community organizer and seeing what happens in Syria, Foreign Policy (October 9, 2015), available at https://perma.cc/N5K2-HG3V.