The Mess in Mesopotamia

28 February 2015


Islamic state territory

Introduction: A Failed Region

What do you get when you cluster several failed nation-states together in a single geographical region? You get a failed region, and what we see today in Mesopotamia and the Levant is a failed region catastrophically failing. This is regionalism gone horribly wrong. Even by the self-serving standards of the international nation-state system, the several regimes of the region are not only failing to provide basic services for their respective peoples, but are manifestly making life much worse and more difficult for the unfortunates resident in the region.

My previous post on Islamic State, The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State, was purely analysis; I made no recommendations or policy prescriptions. Here I am going to shift gears and consider how the present violence in the region will ultimately be reduced through some settlement to the ongoing conflict. The level of violence in the region is not now compatible with civil society, and the longer this level of violence continues, the greater the breakdown of institutions on the ground. The sooner the violence is reduced, institutions still in existence may recover. If violence persists, all functioning institutions may disappear and new institutions will have to be established in their place, even if they are former institutions resurrected.

Violence is destabilizing; insurgencies and political movements know this (this knowledge is a major source of revolutionary violence), and so they foment violence as a tactic to destabilize the established order so that they can insert themselves in addition to or in place of that order. But implicit in this tactic is that, once a new political accommodation is found, violence will subside and civil society will be able to return to some semblance of normality, perhaps on a different basis (presumably the basis preferred by those who instigated the violence). Islamic State is no exception to this time-honored political calculation, despite its apocalyptic pretensions. They seek to eliminate the nation-states of the region and to assert the control of the Islamic State caliphate in place of these nation-states. Once the work of replacement is completed (if it is completed), civil society will proceed under principles of Islamic law as recognized by Islamic State. The point here is simply that, one way or another, the unsustainable levels of violence will recede, and the only question is the mechanism by which the reduction in violence takes place, and whether it leaves in its wake a stable civil society or an unstable civil society that will give way to further violence.

This fantasy map for a future Islamic State resembles of fantasy maps of Akhand Bharat and Gazwa-e-Hind I have previously discussed; it also reveals something of the secular ambitions of Islamic State sympathizers, apart from their eschatological expectations.

This fantasy map for a future Islamic State resembles of fantasy maps of Akhand Bharat and Gazwa-e-Hind I have previously discussed; it also reveals something of the secular ambitions of Islamic State sympathizers, apart from their eschatological expectations.

The Options for Islamic State

After I wrote ISIS and Sykes-Picot I must admit that I was quite surprised that Islamic State declared the reestablishment of the caliphate. The stakes are high. If ISIS proclaims itself to be the caliphate and then fails ignominiously, this compromises any future attempt to reestablish the caliphate (i.e., another subsequent caliphate wouldn’t be taken seriously, and the caliphate is an institution that must command respect or it is better off defunct). If, however, ISIS can secure enough territory to keep its caliphate intact for some period of time, the longer it endures the greater legitimacy it will have.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Islamic State has been called the best funded terrorist organization ever in existence. This may be overstating the case — organized insurgencies in the Golden Triangle that took control of the opium trade, and non-state groups in Andean South America that monopolized cocaine trafficking, both commanded serious financial resources — but even to be among the most well-funded of non-state entities is a significant accomplishment. If ISIS can continue the flow of money and find ways to increase its funding as it increases its de facto territory, this will go a long way toward securing a longer term future for the group.

On the surface, it would seem that the prospects of ISIS are grim, and that the group must almost certainly be destroyed, root and branch, as long as their horrific tactics alienate world opinion so that major powers (like the US) have the political cover to intervene with the support of regional powers. If a nation-state with the resources of the US decides that your group should be destroyed, then you really don’t have much of a chance. Under conditions of strong motive and weak constraints, the US can act with impunity at any place on the planet. However, ideal conditions of motive and constraint rarely obtain in the messy reality of politics and diplomacy.

ISIS is in the classic position of an insurgency, except that it has ambitions to rule territory distinct from any contemporary nation-state. Therefore it cannot simply replace the leadership of some extant nation-state; in order to achieve success on its own terms it must establish control over some territory that can with some credibility be called a caliphate, to which sympathetic Muslims can travel to join the cause. Situated as they are at present, they are in a geographical position to easily draw off the disaffected youth of six neighboring states, and the truly determined will find a way to join the cause regardless of geographical obstacles (individuals from all over the world have already, in fact, made their way to Islamic State). As long as this flow of fighters into Islamic State continues, the group can expand its ability to project power.

Inflows of money and fighters have made ISIS what it is today. Can it maintain or expanded its successes to date? What strategy could ISIS pursue in order to continue in existence as a viable political entity and thereby the gain credibility for the caliphate it has declared? There seems to be only a single viable course of action, and that would be to so divide regional powers so as to paralyze any coalition action against ISIS. If local powers are sufficiently paralyzed, larger powers would be hesitant to commit sufficient forces, or to unilaterally seek the destruction of ISIS. This paralysis is already one of the factors that has allowed ISIS to seize and to hold territory.

As it turns out, it is not terribly difficult to divide opinion and to politically paralyze those regional nation-states that a power like the US would require as cover for offensive action necessary for the attainment of decisive objectives. It has been pointed out by many commentators that the global Islamic community (i.e., the Ummah) is quick to jump on perceived slights to their faith from non-Muslims, but when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Muslims (as those being committed now by Islamic State as I write this) there is a preternatural silence. And even when the occasional Islamic nation-state makes an official condemnation of ISIS and their like, there still is no broad groundswell of outrage from the Ummah. There are theological reasons for this.

Islam has never had a top-down institutional organization of the kind that is commonplace in Christianity. As a result there has always been a tension in issues of governance of the Ummah. This is particularly apparent when it comes to declaring anything unislamic (takfir). If you wrongly denounce another Muslim as being non-Muslim in beliefs or practices, you are yourself non-Muslim. To be non-Muslim fallen from the true faith is to be an apostate, and the punishment for apostasy is death. Thus an outcry against Islamic State and its brutality would risk the standing of those protesting the beliefs and practices of Islamic State. As Islamic State appears to have a literal reading of the relevant texts on its side, few are ready to meet them in theological debate.

As neighboring regimes are kept off-balance by internal conflict, and no great power is willing to intervene regionally for this reason, ISIS can continue to expand its influence into the vacuum of destabilized and paralyzed regimes, making good on its commitment of offensive jihad.


The Options for Dar al-Harb

The appeal of ISIS is powerful, but also limited. If it demonstrated a resounding series of successes, it would expand its appeal and draw in more who want to believe its message but don’t quite dare to believe it yet. If ISIS can be contained, however, it will not be seen as moving from one success to another, the inflow of excited would-be jihadis will slow to a small trickle, and to the extent that the legitimacy of ISIS is predicated upon expansion through offensive jihad, its legitimacy would be called into question.

If ISIS is to be contained, and its prophetic mission thereby called into question as it accepts de facto borders between itself and surrounding nation-states, it must be contained by local forces with an ongoing interest in policing these borders. Anything achieved by outsiders who will eventually pull out and go home will necessarily be ephemeral, and ISIS can resume offensive Jihad after any pull out, legitimizing any pause in operations as a temporary truce (the latter acceptable according to the prophetic methodology). Thus the containment of ISIS must not be by the US, or NATO, or Europe, or even Russian or Chinese assistance to any one of the warring parties; containment must be effected by those who live in the region and who will remain in the region.

There is a way to do this, but this way is closed to the western powers for political reasons. The one coherent, workable strategy for Mesopotamia and the Levant that would have any chance of success — and by “success” I mean a long term reduction in violence and the establishment of a regional order that will allow the majority of individuals to live out their lives in relative safety and security — is, unfortunately, politically impossible… impossible, at least, for the US, and only nearly impossible for the rest of the world — and cannot be implemented for political reasons. There are, of course, many other strategies as well, but these other strategies are either incoherent, unworkable, or unlikely to issue in success (as defined above).

Because the US and its allies are not going to throw their resources behind Assad in order to resurrect Syria as an Alawite-minority-dominated, Sunni majority dictatorship, and because the other forces that have fought against Assad have proved themselves to be far less capable than ISIS, a workable strategy would need to employ proxies in the region that are militarily capable. And there are militarily capable forces in the regions: the Kurds and Iran and Iranian proxies. If support and materiel were funneled to the Kurds and to Iranian proxies, it would be possible not only to defeat ISIS on the ground, but also to change the political conditions in the region that allowed for the rise of ISIS.

There are problems with this, of course, The Kurds want their own nation-state, and a well armed, supplied and financed Kurdish Peshmerga would take for itself a nation-state carved out of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and in so doing to incur the hatred of all of these nation-states, who are jealous of their territory and who are not about to give up any of it for a homeland for the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Kurds have proved that they can fight and they can organize under adverse conditions.

Another problem is that Iran and Iranian proxies, which have also, like the Kurds, proved their mettle, are supporters of Assad. While this support for Assad has a long history, it is primarily a function of Syria’s ruling clique being Alawite, which is a small offshoot of Shia Islam, and I suspect that a deal could be struck that removed Assad from power while leaving the ruling clique of some rump Syria (dominated by Iran) in the hands of the Alawites. Such a deal would actually be facilitated by the credibility that Iran and its proxies would have in dealing with Assad and his supporters.

Once again I must assure the reader that I am under no illusion that the above scenario will take place, I only say that it is coherent and could be formulated into clear military objectives. There is already a certain measure of support being shown for the Kurds, and despite the apparent political impossibility, there is an article on Foreign Policy’s website, Washington’s Uneasy Partnership With Tehran Now Extends to Yemen by Seán D. Naylor, that discusses de facto US-Iranian cooperation, so, far from being unimaginable, such cooperation is already a fait accompli, and stunts like the IRGC blowing up a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz is merely a matter of placating domestic opinion so that no one thinks the regime has gone soft on the Great Satan.

These efforts, however, are much too small to contain what Islamic State has already become. A strategy that had a hope of success would have to be robust; instead of debating whether only non-lethal aid would be sent to the Kurds, the Kurds should receive massive support, and no complaints should be made when they assert territorial control over an independent Kurdistan with the assistance they were given. The geopolitical obsession with retaining current borders — itself an ideological outgrowth of the ossified international system of nation-states — prevents this kind of support from practical realization.

Since we can predict with confidence that the one chance for a sane stability in the region (not stability deriving from a xenophobic and genocidal regime imposing a Pax Islamica) will not be pursued, there is the question of the second best strategy. The second best strategy would be a decapitation strike against the apex leadership of Islamic State, and especially Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I understand that there have been airstrikes that have killed several prominent leaders of IS; these efforts to date have been as ineffectual as support for anti-ISIS forces in the region. by a decapitation strike I don’t mean a rain of cruise missiles, which is the nation-state equivalent of “spray and pray.” I mean two dozen or more stealth helicopters with special forces commandos coming down on top of the apex leadership of ISIS and capturing or killing that leadership. Knowing the ISIS obsession with Dabiq as the location for an apocalyptic battle, it would be no great difficulty to convincingly feint in the direction of Dabiq long enough to draw fighters away from other duties and so to leave the leadership relatively exposed.

Given the commando resources available to the US, it would be entirely within the capacity of US special forces to capture or to kill al-Baghdadi even in the midst of Islamic State territory. The mission would have to be quite large — much larger than the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden — and it would entail casualties. Such an operation would likely result in dozens of US casualties and perhaps hundreds of IS casualties, but successfully executed the apex leadership of IS could be captured or killed, and this might be a sufficient blow against the nascent regime to scatter those who remain behind. (Follow-on strikes could continue the dispersion of remaining leaders and prevent them from regrouping.) It would also be the occasion for much hand-wringing on the part of the international community and protests by nation-states who feel they have a stake in the conflict. It would, however, be a decisive strike and a coherent strategy.

This second option is not much more likely than the first, though it can at least be said that it is not politically impossible. At same time, its greater political feasibility is balanced against its absence of an endgame that would allow the region to transition toward a sustainable and less violent order in the near future. The elimination of ISIS is a mere tactic to stabilize the region; regional stability requires a regional strategy, and not a single operation.

dar al harb dar al islam

Dar al-Islam vs. Dar al-Harb

Perhaps it is a universal truth that all civil wars produce civil atrocities on an unprecedented scale. The civil war within Islam, i.e., the civil war of the Ummah, like the civil war within Christendom in the 17th century, will be no exception. Whatever side in this conflict receives support from western nation-states, will eventually be implicated in atrocities and war crimes, and, when these atrocities and war crimes come to light, all popular will to continue any support will vanish, and political will to continue support will vanish soon after.

As I have argued elsewhere (The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization), Islam is a civilization in the midst of neurotic misery, and the only therapy that will deliver them over into ordinary human unhappiness is philosophy taught by examples, that is to say, history.

There is a detailed article on The Atlantic’s website, What ISIS Really Wants by Graeme Wood that takes ISIS at its word in regard to the group’s “prophetic methodology,” which is the particular conception of history now entertained by the leadership of ISIS. Wood makes the valid point that ISIS is to a certain extent hamstrung by its Koranic literalness, and that this is a valuable guide in predicting the actions of the group. This is one of the few potentially valuable ways of understanding ISIS that can be of material benefit to any action taken against it.

Another point that Graeme Wood makes is that the west has, up to now, drawn a number of false analogies by putting all jihadist organizations into the same basket. This has indeed been part of the problem, but it is just as much of a problem to treat ISIS an the monolith it aspires to be. The success of ISIS to date has not only been the result of a brutal fidelity to “prophetic methodology,” but also a not inconsiderable rationality and organizational mettle. While there are no doubt a great many within ISIS who see their struggle as a cosmic war, there are probably also many who see ISIS in another, and much more pragmatic, light. Even if ISIS is successfully contained, and its claim to being in the vanguard of cosmic war called into question by any such containment, there will still be a struggle within ISIS between ideological purists and pragmatists who would be content with establishing a new state along the lines of Islamic State but shorn of its ideological pretensions.

A chastened but still violent and combat-effective ISIS could continue to destabilize the region for decades to come, if not centuries, during which time many strategies on both sides of the divide would be tested. If we test the optimal strategy for ISIS against the likely strategy of any anti-ISIS coalition (viz. the US and its European allies making feeble and half-hearted attempts to support the “good” side in this conflict), the prospects for the continued survival of ISIS are quite high, even if it is a mere shadow of its prophetic aspirations.

If a quasi-pragmatic leadership emerges from a less-than-triumphant ISIS, this leadership will have to arrive at some modus vivendi with its neighbors in the region. ISIS would then have to become a nation-state among nation-states, which is apostasy from the purely eschatological point of view, but also a human, all-too-human compromise that should be expected at some point in time.

In this case, the boundaries of existing nation-states — the status quo ante — would be re-established as far as possible given the events that have transpired to date, as part of the process of resurrecting institutions of civil society mentioned above in the Introduction. We recall that the European powers fought their religious wars for almost a century before they finally negotiated the Treaty of Westphalia (which came nearly to affirming borders that existed prior to the conflict), which settled on the principle cuius regio, eius religio, which I previously discussed in The Stalin Doctrine.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In several posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s influential essay (now considered a bit dated) on the “end of history” — Marx and Fukuyama, History Degree Zero, and The Zero Hour Thesis — which for Fukuyama means the end of titanic ideological struggles between existential enemies. Here is a definitive passage from Fukuyama’s essay:

“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan — horrible as that would be for those countries — does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”

Do we see, anywhere in the world’s current events, any sign of a systematic idea of political and social justice that claims to supersede political liberalism (or has pretenses to supersede liberalism)? Given Fukuyama’s intellectual debt to Hegel, we might begin such an inquiry by looking at some of the conflicts in the world today to see if they betray any signs of any nascent ideological conflicts that may come to define the titanic struggles of the future. Let us consider some of the world’s trouble spots at this moment: Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine.

After the hopes raised by the Arab Spring it is deeply disappointing to see the developments in Egypt, and even more deeply disappointing to see the supine reaction of the western liberal democracies (presumably those nation-states that carry aloft the torch of the liberal democracy that Fukuyama still sees as the unchanged political idea and ideal of our time), which have accepted without protest a de facto military dictatorship that has sentenced hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death and declared that the only truly representative institution in the country would exist no more. Nothing good is likely to come of this, but the world looks on, once again preferring the elusive promise of short-term stability over the messy but sustainable democratic process. Thus the political context of the developments in Egypt since the Arab Spring represent the same old, same old in geopolitics. Egypt is not yet even close to liberal democracy, so it is in no position to move beyond this to an innovative new ideology.

Syria is looking more and more like the Lebanese civil war, with multiple factions fighting over control of a nation-state while simultaneously fighting each other. Syrians are suffering, and the stagnation of the conflict suggests that the people of Syria will continue to suffer. No major power is willing to involve itself to bring about a decisive end to the conflict — Russia is not about to intervene on behalf of Assad, and the western powers are not about to intervene on behalf of the rebels — so the bloodletting will continue until some contingent and unpredictable event ends it, or until those doing the fighting get so sick of killing that they stop (as more or less happened in Lebanon). Syria seems mired in tribalism, so that, like Egypt, it is in no position to represent some novel ideological conflict.

In Egypt and Syria it is autocracy that is asserting itself, re-asserting itself, or attempting to re-assert itself. The Islamists make headlines through a mastery of the hyperreal event, but they have been markedly unsuccessful in bringing about any change. Even the recent displacement of governments by the Arab Spring has not resulted in any clear political victories for Islamists. We see instability, and the consequent attempt to impose stability and restore order; what we do not see is the emergence of an unambiguously Islamist regime, much less the restoration of the Caliphate, which is one of the key symbolic political events to which Islamists look forward. Indeed, Egypt represents the defeat even of moderate Islamists. There is no question that radical Islamic militancy views itself as a systematic idea of political and social justice that supersedes liberalism, but I think that even the advocates of radical Islam recognize that this is not a universal doctrine, and that if it is fit for any people, it is for those peoples who already fall under Islamic civilization.

What some are called the “resurgence of Russia” following the annexation of the Crimea and agitation in southern and Eastern Ukraine for closer ties with Russia could easily be assimilated to a narrative to the “return of history” (which I previously discussed in The Historical Resonance of Ideas, Doctrinaire and Inorganic Democracy, and Anniversary of a Massacre — too easily, as I see it. There is nothing particularly compelling about this narrative, and the “return of history” offers no systematic idea of political and social justice. Its only attraction is its facile familiarity and the ease with which the pundits evoke it.

Russia, which remains the overwhelming military power in Eurasia, is again re-negotiating its borders and its sphere of influence after a contraction of these following the end of the Cold War. This is nothing of great historical importance, however deleteriously it affects the lives of Ukrainians today. All of this is predictable, and should surprise no one. Even less than the situations in Egypt and Syria does the situation in Ukraine represent anything new from the geopolitical perspective. We could just as well assimilate these developments to the rise of autocracy in Russia, and this would be a little more accurate than talk of the “return of history,” except that Russia has rarely deviated from autocracy, so it would be deceptive to imply that Russian autocracy had lapsed and then been reborn under Putin. This patently is not the case.

None of these conflicts cause us to question or to reformulate the basic principles underlying our social order, yet there are developments of interest today for what they portend about the future. In my last post, The Finlandization of Germany, I mentioned what I called the contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection, as based on the devolution of warfare. During the Cold War, the devolution of warfare emerged as a strategy to avoid the possibility of wars crossing the nuclear threshold and triggering a massive nuclear exchange and mutually assured destruction. In the post-Cold War period the devolution of warfare has shifted to keep military depredations below the threshold of atrocity, thereby avoiding intervention by the international community.

I also mentioned the growth in efficacy of guerrilla forces. Both of these developments — devolution of state power below the threshold of atrocity and escalation upward to the threshold of atrocity by guerrilla groups — play a role in the three conflicts discussed above. That powerful states have sought to keep their depredations below the threshold of atrocity, while the most ambitious non-state actors have sought to precipitate hyperreal atrocities and therefore to claim the mantle previously reserved to nation-states, means that state power and asymmetrical warfare converge on a new symmetry defined by atrocity. Asymmetrical warfare converges on symmetry. Some have called this “symmetrizing,” although this term has meant the efforts by nation-states to copy the asymmetrical tactics of non-state actors, the better to counter their efficacy.

While much of this is of purely military significance — the attempt by disparate forces to engage each other on terms that each chooses, even while the other tries to force the other to engage on its terms — and so we can consider this merely the attempt to arrive at a balance of power between nation-state and non-state actors, it is of historical significance that the nearly all-powerful nation-state finds itself challenged by non-state actors, and challenged to the point that it is forced to respond.

Implicit in Fukuyama’s position that liberal democracy is the only systematic idea of political and social justice that survives following the collapse of communism is that that nation-state is the locus of liberal democracy. Beyond this implicit condition that liberal democracy be realized by nation-states, there is the historical fact that nation-states exist in a condition of anarchy vis-à-vis each other, i.e., the anarchical state system. Liberal democracy, then, is contingent upon nation-states embedded in an anarchical international system.

The challenge that asymmetrical non-state actors present to the nation-state they also present to both the liberal democracy realized by the nation-state and to the anarchical international system that is the condition the the contemporary nation-state that realizes liberal democracy. There is a sense, then, in which the ability of non-state actors acting asymmetrically and successfully challenging the nation-state that is a radical challenge to the locus of liberal democracy. However, this challenge does not rise to the level of constituting a systematic idea of political and social justice. At present, it is merely a threat. However, should we see this process continue, and the nation-state loses ground against non-state actors, those who sense the shift may endow this shift with meaning and value that it does not possess at present. At that time, a systematic idea of political and social justice may emerge, but it has not as of yet.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Syrian civil war

As Syria continues its slide from insurgency into civil war, and no one any longer expects the ruling Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad to triumph, it is an appropriate moment in history to reflect upon the fall of tyrants and tyrannical regimes. Not that we haven’t had ample opportunity to do so in recent years. The fall of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century and the fall of a series of Arab dictators in recent years has given us all much material for reflection (chronicled in posts such as Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny and Two Thoughts on Libya Nearing Liberation).


I have previously written about Syria in Things fall apart, Open Letter in the FT on Syria, The Structures of Autocratic Rule, and What will Assad do when he goes to Ground? Much more remains to be said, on Syria in particular and on the collapse of tyrants generally.

Bashar al-Assad

The obvious problems of governmental succession in Syria are already being discussed ad nauseam in the press. That there is trouble on the horizon is evident to all who carefully follow the developments of the region in which Syria is a central nation-state, bordering no fewer than five nation-states: Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the southwest. This centrality of Syria in a politically unstable region has led the surrounding regional powers to favor the devil they know rather than to chance the devil they know not. The ruling Alawite regime of Syria has been held in place not only by its own brutality, but also by the tacit consent of its neighbors. Now that the fall of the al-Assad dynasty is in sight, there are legitimate worries about the radicalization of the insurgents and the role of Islamist Jihadis in the insurgency. No one knows what will come out of this toxic stew, but it is likely to resemble a failed state even upon its inception.


At this moment in history, Syria is now the bellweather for the fall of tyrants, but Syria is only the current symptom of an ancient problem that goes back to the dawn of state power in human history. Since the earliest emergence of absolute state power in agricultural civilization, for the first time in human history sufficiently wealthy to support a standing army that could be employed by turns to oppress a tyrant’s own people or as an instrument to conquer and oppress other peoples, there has been a tension between the ability of absolute power to effectively exercise this absolute power to maintain itself in power and the ability of rivals or of subject peoples to wrest this power from the hands of absolute rulers and seize it for themselves.


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the institutions of tyrannical political rule are not sustainable. Tyrannical rule may be sustainable for the life of a tyrant, or for a few generations of a dynasty established by a tyrant, but history teaches us that tyrannical longevity is the exception and not the rule. The more onerous the rule of the tyrant, the more other factions will risk to overthrow the tyrant. A tyrant who sufficiently modifies his tyranny until it is approximately representative is likely to last much longer in power, and over time approximates non-tyrannical rule. But if a tyrant simply cuts a few others in on the spoils, creating a tyrannical oligarchy, the same considerations apply. In the long term, only popular rule is sustainable.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

But what does this mean to say that in the long term only popular rule is sustainable? The learned reader at this point in likely to begin a recitation of the failings of democracy, but I didn’t say that only democratic regimes persist. Unfortunately for most human beings throughout history, the fall of a tyrant has not resulted in democracy. The most vicious tyrannies call forth the most vicious elements in the population as the only agents willing to risk the overthrow of the tyrant, and so one tyrant is likely to be replaced by another. Even if a popular revolt and revulsion helped to topple the previous tyranny, the new tyranny reverts to perennial tyrannical form, and in so doing eventually alienates the popular movement that installed it in place of the previous tyranny.

This is a particular case of what I have called The Failure Cycle, since this pattern can be iterated. Much of human history has consisted of just such an iteration of petty tyrants, one following the other. That nothing is accomplished politically by the churning of tyrannical regimes should be obvious. There is no social evolution, no social growth, no strengthening of institutions that can provide continuity beyond the vagaries of personal rule.

Thus one consequence of the fact that only popular rule is sustainable is the possibility of an endless iteration of popular movements to overthrow serial tyranny, each tyrant in turn having been installed by a popular uprising. This constitutes a perverse kind of “popular” rule, though it is not often recognized as such or called as much.

Tyrannical regimes typically bend every effort in order to suppress, or at very least to delay, social change. The suppression and delay of social change means that societies laboring under tyrannical regimes — and especially those that have labored under a sequence of tyrannical regimes — have little opportunity to allow social change to come to maturity and for old institutions to be allowed to die while new institutions rise to take their place. Cynics will opine that there is no social evolution in human history, but I deny this. Social evolution is possible, if rare, but the conditions that lead to serial tyranny and serial popular uprisings are not conducive to the cultivation of social evolution.

It is the historical exception to interrupt this vicious cycle of serial tyranny and serial popular uprising, but it takes time for informal social institutions to reach the level of maturity that allows a popular uprising to install a genuine democracy instead of a tyrant who claims to be a democrat out of political expediency.

Homo non facit saltus. Man makes no leaps. We cannot skip a stage in our social evolution. We cannot impose democratic institutions, or freedom, or even prosperity. A people must come to it on their own, with the maturation of their native institutions, or not at all.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Today’s Financial Times published a letter signed by an impressive list of luminaries chastising the international community for not doing more about the violence in Syria and urging the UN Security Council to “revoke Assad’s license to kill.” This sounds like a strongly worded statement, but it is not quite what first appears to be.

The forty-three signatories of the letter include, but are not limited to:

Lord Ashdown, former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mr Lloyd Axworthy, Canadian former foreign minister
Mr Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Brazilian president
Jan Egeland, former UN diplomat
F.W. de Klerk, former South African president
Richard von Weizsacker, former German president
K.C. Singh, former secretary in India’s foreign ministry
Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian foreign minister
Clovis Maksoud, former ambassador of the League of Arab States
Shirin Ebadi of Iran, Nobel peace laureate
Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, Nobel peace laureate
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Hans van den Broek, former Netherlands Minister of Foreign Affairs
Umberto Eco
Jürgen Habermas
Peter Singer
David Miliband, former UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The signatories of the letter in the FT are some of the most renown statesmen and intellectuals of our time. These are obviously very intelligent people, and — I hesitate even to say it, but I must — well meaning, but it is difficult for me to believe that a group of people as familiar with diplomacy and hard-ball politics as this bunch could sign this letter with its numerous ellipses and systematic ambiguities.

The letter states that, “…crimes against humanity have been committed and that those responsible must be brought to account.” But the letter does not state who has committed crimes against humanity, leaving it open that both regime and rebel figures may be equally open to prosecution at the ICC.

The letter states that, “…we must see Russia working alongside other international partners.” But the letter does not state what concessions must be made to Russia in order to obtain Russian cooperation. Without stipulating the appropriate Russian role, other than Russian involvement, this requirement could just as well be interpreted that other nation-states should adopt the Russian position as that Russia should adopt the position of any other nation-state.

The letter calls upon the UN Security Council to pass a resolution, “Calling on the Syrian authorities to cease all unlawful attacks against its population immediately, remove abusive military and security forces from cities and inhabited areas, guarantee peaceful protests do not come under attack and release all political prisoners and those held under arbitrary arrest from the beginning of the uprising to the present day.” But it also asserts, “All other actors should also immediately cease all use of violence.” This stakes out a carefully neutral position between regime and rebel forces in Syria.

The letter most notably does not call for Syrian President Assad to step aside, or step down, or relinquish power, or in any way to cede control of the government. The letter does not even ask Assad to hold elections, free and fair or otherwise. There is only a single mention of “Assad” in the letter, and this is a reference to, “the Assad government.” Thus the signatories of the letter are acquiescing to the continuation of the Assad regime in Syria.

The letter speaks of the “paralyzing divide” in Syria, but this piece of non-state public diplomacy in fact perpetuates the paralyzing divide. The price of getting so many diverse eminent signatories was to water down the advocated measures to the point that the really crucial measures are simply missing, passed over in silence. Thus the signatories have no call whatsoever to criticize the UN Security Council, because this is precisely the same problem that faces the UN Security Council, constitutes precisely the same principles by which the UN Security Council has operated, and is precisely why the UN Security Council is ineffective.

Any settlement that leaves Assad in power, and with the regime’s security apparatus in place, would mean that every death so far as has been in vain. Nothing will have changed. The rebels know this, and, since they can smell victory, however distant, they are not going to accept anything less than the ouster of Assad, which is as symbolically important as the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt and the death of Gaddafi in Libya. If the rebels acquiesce to a “peace process” with the Assad regime still in place, not only do they lose, they also lose all credibility.

The Assad regime knows that if it accepts any settlement that deprives it of the means of regime survival that any such settlement is simply a delay in the inevitable ouster of Assad — and regime survival is as symbolically important to Syrian authorities as Assad’s ouster is symbolically important to the Rebels. Moreover, given the Assad family’s close relationship with the Alawite officer corps of the army, regime survival is predicated upon this particular force structure, just as this particular force structure is predicated upon regime survival. This means that the dissolution of the Syrian regime must also mean the dissolution of the army in it present form. In other words, the force structure of the security services that guarantee regime survival is inseparable from that regime.

In this context, “peace” without a decision between the regime and the rebels is only a delay in an existential contest that must be settled by a decision. Either side will accept “peace” on its own terms; neither side will accept “peace” on the other side’s terms. These two definitions of peace are mutually exclusive, and therefore to act on either one or the other definition of “peace” — that of the regime or that of the rebels — is to insist upon the continuation of the crisis, not its resolution. There is nothing new in this; it has been the formula of war since the beginning of human history.

We cannot wish away these political realities, and all the diplomats and negotiators who signed this letter ought to be well aware of this — much more aware than the average person. Therefore they have less excuse than the average person to advocate measures that they know are likely to come to nothing because they are not willing to make the hard calls that would result in the the pacification of Syria.

The signatories of the letter have shown themselves to be no more willing to make hard choices than the members of the UN Security Council, so that their letter is little more than the pot calling the kettle black.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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