Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 December 2015

A National Convalescence?

Winter solstice has just passed. The days are getting longer. As hours of light increase, the atavistic hope of primitive Man surges within us. No, the light that sustains our lives will not dim until it fails altogether. At least not this year.

There is a solstice in US politics, too. For six years, our Southern states have thrown a temper tantrum because a half-black, half-white man became president. Like a two-year old threatening to hold his breath until he turns blue, they have repeatedly threatened a national default. They have actually shut the government down a time or three. And they have begrudged and bewailed every practical measure to make our lives better, from the post-Crash stimulus, through modest and incremental health-insurance reform, to accepting the reality of climate change.

The so-called “Tea Party” was and is overwhelmingly a Southern phenomenon. Deceptively evoking the memory of our Founding, it threw out all the central tenets of the GOP—Lincoln’s equality, balanced budgets (with taxes as necessary!), and prudence and restraint in foreign affairs. Like a two-year-old writhing and screaming, it indulged itself in mindless rage.

Cynical pols and demagogues exploited the tantrum like devils. They convinced the South (and much of the rest of the country), that the Crash of 2008 was all Obama’s fault, although it had happened months before he became president.

To drive this false point home, they did their best to make the Crash’s consequences worse. They dragged their heels on necessary stimulus, drove up deficits by lowering taxes, and turned Congress into a mud-wrestling pit. They also resisted every reasonable measure to control guns, watching cynically as domestic mass shootings became an epidemic and now are morphing into lone-wolf jihadist terrorism.

All that had happened—and all the consequences of their own tantrum—they assured us, was and is the President’s fault. And with the megaphone of Fox to blare their big lie, and the ogre of racism behind them, a substantial minority of the public believed them.

But the world turns. Slowly the Earth moves in its orbit around the Sun, mocking the quarter or so of us who don’t believe in science. And term limits—the best invention in politics ever—have their effect. Barack Obama’s unprecedented and fraught presidency is coming to a close.

So slowly, stupidly, like the two-year-old gradually noticing his parents’ suppressed smiles and laughter, the GOP is coming to see the consequences of its tantrum. The most obvious consequence, of course, is the sickly hilarious GOP presidential debates.

Dubya was not one of the worst presidents in our history by accident. He was the least experienced. His total of six years in elective political office was, by far, the least of any president-elect in our history, excluding our Founders and our general-presidents, who substituted years of military command for time in elective office.

And so we have one of the oddest spectacles ever. We have a “debate” among presidential candidates, three of whom (Trump, Carson and Fiorina) have held no political office whatsoever. The most notable of the rest are ingenues to national politics (Cruz, Kasich, Rubio), demagogues (Cruz), or both. The “best” of the lot, the once-leading “Jeb!,” would barely have made the short list in the old days, when savvy and experienced elders selected the party’s best not by popular demagoguery, but on the basis of experience, accomplishment, and long and intimate observation and familiarity. It is as if the GOP wannabes are vying to see who is least qualified.

The next most obvious consequence of the Southern tantrum is the absence of any policy at all, let alone a coherent one. Six years of “just saying no” have left the GOP with absolutely no positive agenda. (Building a big fence to keep Hispanics out, or deporting eleven million of them, doesn’t quality as “positive.” Nor does exiling millions of innocent, peaceful Muslims, including US citizens.) With their tantrum waning, the few remaining rational GOP strategists are beginning to worry that the public might begin to smell their relentless negativity.

The final consequence of the tantrum is blind fear. If a flaming asshole like Trump gets the nomination, or even runs as an independent, the GOP would not only get the presidential drubbing it richly deserves and now reasonably expects. It also might lose control of Congress and many states as well—control it has devoted years to consolidating with gerrymandering and voter suppression. If the public sees that the Party of Lincoln has done nothing but throw a tantrum because of the logical conclusion of Lincoln’s policies, it could lose all.

So slowly, erratically, the tantrum is ending. The blue-faced two-year-old is now trying to insinuate himself into the Age of Reason in a few short months, in the hope that voters will forget his tantrum. In our Twitter Age of video propaganda, that’s not necessarily a vain hope.

Yet however vile the stink in morals and accountability, the results are welcome. Grown-ups always heave a sigh of relief when a two-year-old’s tantrum ends. And so we have, for the first time since President Obama took office, an actual bipartisan budget of $1.8 trillion.

Within that monster budget is a vital compromise on energy and climate policy. Renewable-energy subsidies continue for another five years, and Yankee Big Oil gets to sell its crude abroad.

About a year ago, I argued against selling our crude abroad because doing so will raise gasoline prices here at home and exhaust our national reserves (and Canada’s) more quickly. But in Bob Dylan’s immortal words, “Things have changed.” The Saudis are now trying to use their control of OPEC to knock our fracking producers out of business with low crude prices. If they succeed, they could thwart our push toward energy independence and, by sidelining drillers, disrupt our oil-production infrastructure. (In order to keep producing oil by fracking, you have to keep drilling. Individual wells don’t last long.)

At the same time, it has become clear that, at current burn rates, our species will exhaust known global crude reserves in around four decades. If current reserve estimates are high, known reserves might last as little as two decades. A few years more or less are not going to make much difference.

What will make a difference is converting our energy infrastructure and vehicle fleet to clean electricity. And there the other part of the compromise is crucial. Not only does it save the 80,000 or so jobs already in wind and solar electricity businesses. It also give those businesses a stable future, including firms like First Solar, Solar City and Tesla. It lets us Yanks follow the lead of Germany’s Energiewende while (as is our wont) claiming it was our idea all along.

Other signs of convalescence have nothing to do with the GOP’s tantrum or Congress’ sudden recollection that its job is to govern, not throw tantrums. They stem from a vastly under-appreciated feature of our society: parts of our government are run by independent, steely-eyed experts immune to tantrums and demagoguery.

The Fed is one such part, and Janet Yellen one such expert. After the most extended and careful series of warnings in financial history, she has begun the long process of raising interest rates back to something resembling normalcy. Her doing so will have two salubrious effects.

First and foremost, raising the price of money will, over time, reduce speculation in things like equities, real estate, collectibles and artwork. Speculation in derivatives caused the Crash of 2008, and the near-zero price of money since then has done little to curtail it. And as we all know, the bankers whose speculation caused the Crash have not suffered as much as a slight rap on the wrist. By slowly turning the interest-rate screws and making speculation more expensive, Yellen will direct their vain and self-serving gazes back toward real, productive business.

Second, as interest-rates rise, geezers like me will have more money. As our streams of income get bigger and more reliable, we just might spend more, if not on ourselves, then on children and grandchildren. And because there are so many of us, our increased spending just might help grow our economy.

It’s a long, long way from the tantrums of the Tea Party and the GOP’s so-called “Freedom Caucus” to the steady, expert hand of Janet Yellen. But the tantrums appear to be subsiding, and the structures of our government that rely on independent experts appear to be holding up. So the temporary insanity that, through no fault of his own, began with Barack Obama’s inauguration appears to be ending.

It would be too much to expect a sense of shame from those who have brought a great party and a great nation low for little more than bald racism. Two-year-olds are not big on shame. But at least the more sensitive and perceptive might inwardly acknowledge that their behavior the last six years has been neither practical nor patriotic.

As for those of us who know who and what caused the insanity, we will never forget. As long as we live, we will scorn the GOP’s wretched betrayal of its Founder’s and our nation’s principles. None of us will ever vote Republican again.

But forever is a long time. Impossible two-year-olds sometimes grow into fine adults. Maybe, some day, the GOP will do that.

In the meantime, governing the nation will have to depend on leaders who already have reached adulthood. New House Speaker Paul Ryan just might be one of them. Next year the catatonic racist from the state of coal, whiskey and horses may follow economic cretin Boehner (see 1 and 2) down the toilet of history, where both blue-faced two-year-olds self-evidently belong.


20 December 2015

Bernie’s Solution in Syria: Continued Ethnic Cleansing?

Let me say first that I will vote for and support Bernie Sanders until Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, as she now seems likely to do. In general, Bernie is smarter and more thoughtful, at least as regards “real life,” not just politics.

Also by way of introduction, let’s acknowledge that Bernie was not just right, but courageous, in outing an unpleasant truth.

We Yanks have a history of imposing “regime change” on other countries without, apparently, a single clear thought about the days and years therefter. Bernie was particularly courageous in including the names of Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh and Chile’s Salvador Allende—two democratically elected leftists—along with the dismal list of vile right-wing dictators that we have deposed or are trying to despose (Saddam, Qaddafi and Assad).

Deposing Mossadegh gave us the Shah and eventually today’s Islamic Republic, and deposing Allende gave Chile seventeen years of Pinochet’s dirty military dictatorship. So Bernie is absolutely right that, before we impose or incite “regime change” on or for yet another people, we’d better have a plan that works for what comes next.

But this is all by way of introduction. This essay covers a specific proposal that Bernie made (in last night’s debate) for cleaning up the mess in Iraq and Syria. He proposed that, for the time being, we forget about Assad and focus entirely on fighting IS.

On its face, it’s not a bad plan. By putting us on the same side as the Russians and Iran, it would make the job of fighting IS seem much easier, at least at first glance. It would reduce the risks of a superpower conflict, or of a second World War I in the Middle East.

Bernie’s plan would also have the virtue of consistency. Since invading and occupying Iraq, we Yanks have unwittingly made ourselves a superpower enemy of Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, just as Russia and Iran have done in backing Assad. We did so by deposing Saddam and supporting a series of self-evidently anti-Sunni governments in Iraq. Our strenuous efforts to make them less anti-Sunni have come to naught.

So Bernie’s plan seems expedient. But will it work? And more to the point, is it right?

I think not. What is going on in Syria right now, and what has been going on in Iraq for some time, is ethnic cleansing. Sunnis in these two western chimeras have been marginalized, mistreated, and (in Syria) massacred. So they are voting (and, in Iraq, have voted) with their feet.

The displacement of Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis has become the greatest ethnic diaspora since the surviving Jews’ at the end of World War II. Unfortunately, most of the world has only this year noticed an ongoing process that began in earnest during the sectarian strife of 2006-2007.

As I noted in a previous essay, Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis are really one and the same ethnic group. The British Foreign Office divided them for conquering at the end of World War I. In Iraq, our punishing them now, collectively, with Shiite domination is precisely the same mistake that the victorious allies made in collectively punishing Germans after World War I.

The result then was World War II. The result now may be a replay of World War I in the Middle East, or even World War III.

In Syria, supporting Assad’s industrial-scale massacre of Sunnis would promote butchery and ethnic cleansing. Partly as byproduct of that ethnic cleansing, we have a surge of religious extremism, jihadism, and terrorism among the international Sunni community. (By and large, Alawites and Shiites, let alone Kurds, are neither jihadis nor pushing for a global caliphate. Shiites already have their caliphate: it’s called the Islamic Republic of Iran.) The recent surge of extremism, jihadism and terrorism among Sunnis is a direct result of jointly misguided policies in the West and, more recently, in Russia and Iran.

It was not so in the Balkans. There our own cluster bombing stopped the Serbian takeover of Kosovo in its tracks. Our air power and the UN’s blue helmets fought ethnic cleansing, while at the same time recognizing it in part, through partition, as “facts on the ground.” The Russians, perhaps reluctantly, cooperated. That approach worked: today the Balkans are splintered, but at peace.

There seems no other way out in Syria and Iraq, where ethnic cleansing has been going on for some time. As much as it may recognize the ethnic cleansing that already has occurred, partition is only clear the way to peace. Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis must have a nation of their own, as must Alawites and the Kurds. And each nation must have enough oil and other resources to make it economically viable, if not give it an attractive future. When that happens, Sunnis will make short work of the jihadis, just as they did in brief the Sunni Awakening. And the Middle East, like the Balkans, will slide into an uneasy peace.

Helping Russia help Iran to help Assad rule what is left of Syria simply will not work. Syria will remain a crushed field of broken dreams, with destitute Sunnis picking their way through rubble as slaves to Alawite masters. As long as these conditions subsist, the Western chimera of Syria will remain a monument to ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide, and an open invitation to jihadis’ ambitions.

To see this point clearly, we must acknowledge one other dismal fact. There has never been a “moderate” Syrian opposition to Assad. The very concept has always been a pipe dream of armchair Yankee soldiers and diplomats. Why? Although Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis may not be fully modernized, they are not stupid. For years now they have understood that the world’s two great military superpowers—the US and Russia—have allowed or assisted the subversion of their national and ethnic ambitions in deed, if not in rhetoric.

And so Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis with education, intelligence and means have been pouring out of the region in droves. Jihadis have been pouring in. That process will continue as long as the two superpowers, whether or not in active concert, continue to pursue misguided policies that, in effect, promote ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Making their de facto cooperation explicit and formal would only make things worse.

So no, Bernie, Hillary is right on this one. We must fight IS and reverse our misguided policies—and the Russians’—at the same time. At very least, we must limit Assad and his 12% minority Alawites to the territory they can control and maintain without butchery. We must also provide a space for peaceful, rational Sunnis, on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border, to survive, to determine their own future, and eventually to thrive. Only then can the cancer of Sunni jihadism resolve and peace come to the Middle East.

The great powers have grown that cancer as surely as if in a petri dish. Now they can kill it only by depriving it of the nutrients that the US, Russia, Iran and even Europe have (mostly unwittingly) provided.

Massive, multinational bombing and special operations may be necessary as temporary expedients to set IS back. But they are not the solution. They will only kill and displace more Sunnis, attract more recruits to IS, and leave nothing but bare ground for IS to occupy. The international community must, for once, begin nation building and stop nation destroying, with equal opportunity for Alawites, Kurds and Sunnis—and yes, Shiites, too—where they now live.

Endnote on Bernie: I write this post with diffidence, because I think Bernie would be a far better president, in general, than Hillary. Bernie seems to understand, as Hillary does not, that our Yankee enterprise in democracy is bent and on the road to oligarchy. Misguided foreign policies like the ones that made the messes in Iraq and Syria follow as night the day.

Not too long ago, American popular sentiment turned overwhelmingly against war. But then came the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino. Demagogues like Trump and Fox—the most powerful and dangerous propaganda machine in human history—have had a field day. They’ve pushed relentlessly and mindlessly for more force, more bombing and more thoughtlessness (just not more ordinary ground troops).

But the real culprits are the powers behind the demagogues and propagandists, namely, the media and industrial titans who are becoming America’s twenty-first century oligarchs. They are not stupid men (they are all men: Carly is only a wannabe), at least within the realm of their business expertise. But they have little patience or experience in foreign affairs. All they want is lower taxes, less regulation of their business empires, and a military strong enough and aggressive enough so that they don’t have to think about foreigners, except as customers or suppliers.

If they devoted their not inconsiderable talents to actually finding solutions, they might stumble upon them. But they won’t and don’t. Instead, they instinctively support simplistic and unworkable “solutions,” as they never would in their own businesses.

So today, peace in the Middle East depends upon the thoughtfulness and political skill of a motley cast of characters. They include: a president embattled in his own country since his inauguration (Obama), a narcissistic autocrat (Putin), a Western-leaning autocrat trying to emulate Putin (Erdogan), an aging and inflexible cleric (Ayatollah Khamenei), an embattled socialist president trying to resurrect his nation’s imperial greatness (Hollande), a Tory prime minister trapped by the century-old mistakes of his Foreign Office (Cameron), and a cast of lesser characters including a young, impulsive and inexperienced Saudi defense minister.

Wouldn’t it be far better if the United States were less of an oligarchy and led by people capable of recognizing previous Yankee mistakes and courageous enough to reverse them? Might we Yanks then set an example of thoughtful problem-solving, rather than piling on our own endorsement of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity?

Only Bernie, in my view, offers the ghost of a chance of such necessary “regime change” here at home. But if he fails, I will support Hillary, who will at least offer a kinder and gentler oligarchy. In the longer term, she might also offer the alluring prospect of much greater female influence on a foreign and military policy traditionally ruled more by male testosterone than by any understanding of cause and effect.


11 December 2015

Fixing Iraq and Syria

Introduction: a century of catastrophic stupidity
The counterexample
The folly of war
Seeing the catastrophe clearly
What to do

Introduction: a century of catastrophic stupidity

If you look at the last century with clear eyes, the stupidity of major powers astounds you. Over and over again, they’ve tried to impose their will on others, or, for their own reasons, to set one ethnic group up as another’s master. And over and over again, they’ve failed. In the process, they’ve created death, destruction and misery on a continental scale. Their efforts and the consistently dismal results have proved beyond doubt Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

World War I, which started 101 years ago, got the ball rolling. Many think it was all the Kaiser’s Germany’s fault. But most major European powers enthusiastically partook of the general grab for power and territory, hoping they would come at others’ expense. The leaders even called the war “The Great Game,” as if it were some weird form of multinational rugby.

The results were the “culling” of a generation of (mostly male) youth throughout Europe and a redrawing of Europe’s political map. Today, a century later, no one but historians has any idea what it was all about. No one can point to any comprehensible, let alone good, reason for all the death and destruction. Like a plague or natural disaster, the “Great War” just was—a natural catastrophe of our own human making, a gigantic demonstration our penchant for stupidity and brutality.

The rest of the century was similar. Nazi Germany tried to dominate Europe. It failed. Imperial Japan tried to dominate Asia. It failed. In the process, Nazi Germany tried to exterminate its Jews and other minorities in the Holocaust. It failed, earning eternal international opprobrium and, eventually, provoking the most genuine contrition in human history.

The Nazis’ Holocaust exploded the Jewish diaspora just as Assad has created a new Sunni Syrian one. A key result was the intercontinental game of “whack-a-mole” that created Israel. Today, Israel and the displaced Palestinians, with lots of heavy foreign support, are now trying to impose their wills on each other by force. As Sarah Palin might ask, “How’s that workin’ out for them?”

The examples go on and on. The many disputes of Pakistan and India over Kashmir are among them. The Great Game and World War II created a multi-ethnic chimera called Yugoslavia, which the strongman Tito held together for a time. Try to find it on a map today. It fell apart in brutal combat, including atrocities like the Srebreniça Massacre, and orgies of ethnic cleansing.

The Soviet Union tried to impose its will on Afghanistan. It failed. France and later we Yanks tried to impose our respective wills on Vietnam. We both failed. France tried to impose its will on Algeria. It failed. Later, we Yanks tried to impose our will on Iran and Iraq. We failed in Iran, instead creating the Islamic Republic and, with the war we incited Saddam to make on Iran, entrenching it. As for Iraq, its future is still uncertain, after over a decade of war, 4,000 American deaths, and over a trillion dollars “invested.”

A particularly vivid example is Cuba. The US tried to impose its will on that rogue, socialist nation by force at the Bay of Pigs. The result was a superpower confrontation that almost extinguished our species.

Syria is just the latest proof of principle. Russia and Iran have tried to impose their will on that nation, its majority, and its neighbors. Assad, with his 12% minority Alawites, has tried to impose his will on the 88% mostly Sunni majority.

Those enterprises are self-evidently not going well. On the contrary, they’re creating a “whack-a-mole” international exodus of Syrians that makes Israel’s creation look like a minor perturbation. The torrent of refugees is now destabilizing two continents and fomenting a surge of right-wing extremism in the heart of Europe and here at home.

All these catastrophes have two things in common. First, they involved one people trying to impose its will on another—whether one imperial power on another, an imperial power on a subject people, or one favored ethnic group on another disfavored one. Second, the primary means was force.

There are many, many example of lesser means, including espionage and imposed coups. Perpetrators include the Soviet Union (on the Warsaw Pact nations and the Baltics) and the US in Argentina, Chile, Iran, Nicaragua and San Salvador. The results of these efforts, too, have been uniformly dismal, mostly for the subject people, but often for the perpetrator as well.

But we leave these non-forced errors for another essay. This essay examines, for Iraq and Syria, possible alternatives to the uniformly catastrophic approach of using force as a tool of inter-ethnic domination.

The counterexample

When people have trouble getting along, you separate them. Kindergarten teachers know this. So do police, military leaders and business bosses. It’s Human Nature 1A. You pull the combatants apart, tell them that their success (or survival) depends on cooperation, and hope for the best.

Once separated, erstwhile enemies can learn to coexist and eventually to cooperate. Since cooperation is by far our species’ single greatest evolutionary advantage, that approach ought to work better than the alternative, especially if the alternative is perpetual war.

We do have one recent example. It’s the Balkans, or that part that used to be called “Yugoslavia.”

Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia both ultimately proved unviable chimeras, created by major powers through force and war. Today, they no longer exist. In their places are Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Kosovo, Slovenia and diminished Albania and Serbia.

What happened? The Balkan Wars of 1990 did. They started with an inter-ethnic free-for-all among the various ethnic groups that now comprise the spin-off countries. They involved ethnic cleansing and atrocities, including the Rape of Sarajevo and the Srebreniça Massacre. But they are over. The Balkans are now at peace.

What made the difference? Two things. First, the major powers did not try to impose their will on anyone, or take sides. They just tried to stop the worst mayhem. Massive cluster bombing of Serbian troops advancing on Kosovo stopped the land grabs dead in their tracks.

The Soviet Union (soon to become Russia) sided with the Slavic Serbs at first. But it was then beginning its own process of dissolution and had bigger fish to fry. Eventually, it reluctantly cooperated with the United Nations’ intervention, whose sole goal was to stop the fighting, separate the warring parties, and bring peace. And no one should forget that one effect of the effort was to protect Muslim Albanian Kosovars from Christian Serbs.

The second unusual aspect of the Balkan Wars was separating the warring parties. This was an evolutionary measure, following the warring parties’ own acts and wills. Through the United Nations, the international community helped by providing “Blue Helmets” to keep the warring parties apart and prevent further atrocities. The International Criminal Court arrested and tried the worst perpetrators of atrocities, including Slobodan Milošević and Ratko Mladić.

No one can claim that the effort was easy, smooth, or free from casualties. But it worked. It least it worked far better and quicker than our Yankee effort in Iraq, let alone what is happening in Syria today.


You would think that a single, solitary success in a whole century of catastrophic failures would grab some attention. Yet the urging of many experts to partition the Iraqi chimera, rather than hold it together with blood, bribes and bandages, gained no traction.

Top US leaders and the international community had too much invested in the unviable chimera, which the Brits had spliced together after World War I. Nothing could change their minds: not Saddam’s slaughter of the “Marsh (Shiite) Arabs,” his gassing of Halabja, the massive civil war that followed Dubya’s “Mission Accomplished” declaration, our own-troops’ pyrrhic recovery of Fallujah and Ramadi, the so-called “Sunni Awakening,” its dissolution under Iraqi misrule, the rise of IS, or the failure of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to agree on anything important—from the structure of the Iraqi government to the division of oil revenues—for a dozen years and counting.

Iraqis are neither cowards nor incompetents. Iraq’s largely Shiite army just won’t fight to protect Kurds or Sunnis or their territory. We Yanks have lost huge stashes of weapons, equipment and ammunition for failing to understand that simple fact. How much more money, more troops, and more useless strategizing do we have to throw down a rat hole before we “discover” what every kindergarten teacher knows: if kids can’t get along, it’s time to separate them.


Much the same can be said about Syria. In broad outline, the problem there is astonishingly simple: the Sunnis who constitute (or used to constitute) the vast majority of Syria’s population don’t want to be ruled by the 12% Alawites, let alone the butcher Assad.

Why not? Well, let’s review a bit of history.

Assad started the Syrian civil war in 2011. He did so in violent response to peaceful protests. Since then, he has prosecuted his war with unprecedented savagery, using grossly inaccurate modern weapons against innocent civilians and their neighborhoods. Among the inaccurate weapons he has used are barrel bombs, unguided and inaccurate conventional bombs, mortars, artillery strikes, indiscriminate strafing, and nerve-gas attacks.

Using such weapons, Assad and his forces killed the vast majority of the over 250,000 Syrians who have died so far, and injured the bulk of the more than one million wounded. Assad’s deliberate assaults on civilian populations also have displaced an estimated 6.5 million Syrians internally and 4.28 million external refugees.

Syrians displaced, both internally and externally, now constitute about half of Syria’s pre-crisis population. On a per-capita basis, that’s the equivalent of 153 million Americans or 71 million Russians.

Already half of all prewar Syrians have voted with their feet. They have voted for “partition,” at least of themselves. They have left their ancestral homes and birthplaces for parts unknown, often braving storms in the Aegean Sea that have troubled sailors since Homer. Half a nation risking death to flee is not a vote for forced togetherness.

The Syrian diaspora has destabilized the entire Middle East. It has destabilized Lebanon, which has taken 1.1 million Syrian refugees. It has undermined the stability of Turkey, which has taken two million. It has overwhelmed tiny Jordan, which has taken 629,000, or nearly 10% of its pre-crisis population.

Last but not least, the attempt by Assad, Iran and Russia to impose Alawite rule on the vast majority of Syrians has created the so-called “Islamic State” and its fellow travelers, including the Nusra Front.

The folly of war

Two things about technologically advanced nations should now be obvious. First, they have all the sophisticated, heavy weaponry, quite apart from the nuclear kind. Second, their people don’t like war. Life is too good in these nations for people to throw their lives away in unnecessary mayhem. Slowly but steadily, their people are approaching the point where they will not fight unless directly attacked.

Want proof? We Yanks lost in Vietnam because our youth didn’t want to fight. Well-informed people didn’t care to fight in a colonial war started by the French to suppress a national liberation movement, albeit one with Communist overtones. The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan due to a little-known letter-writing campaign by Russian mothers, who did not like their sons getting killed by mujahedeen with advanced shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles supplied by the West.

Since then, the only major military victory anywhere in the world has been Colin Powell’s triumph in Gulf I. He took half a million troops. The war itself lasted only two months, although the in-theater buildup took five. Why was this war a success? Because oil was directly at stake, and because Saddam’s naked aggression posed a challenge to the global economy and to international order that had to be answered. Those circumstances are not likely to recur.

Whatever major power started them, subsequent wars have been desultory, half-hearted affairs. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan self-evidently involved a minor commitment of troops, material and societal resources. We Yanks invented the “all volunteer army” so we could make war in places and for purposes that the vast majority of our population didn’t or wouldn’t support. The Russians followed suit.

There was popular enthusiasm for war here in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but it soon waned. It waned especially quickly after the Iraqi Civil War started, and after President Obama dispatched bin Laden with ninjas, graphically demonstrating how little national survival or fighting terrorists demanded invading and occupying two whole sovereign nations.

Today there is no enthusiasm for “boots on the ground” in the United States, in Russia, or in Iran, which is still licking its wounds from the eight-year-long war with Saddam that we Yanks helped incite. What enthusiasm for military adventures Putin’s bloodless annexation of Crimea may have given ordinary Russians is now dropping precipitously after the grinding civil war in Eastern Ukraine, the displacement of many Russian-speaking Ukrainians into Russia proper, and the recent downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 and the Sukhoi fighter in connection with Russia’s involvement in Syria.

So what do big powers do today in proxy wars? They bomb. They strafe. They attack the bad guys with drones and now (for the US) with snipers and ninjas.

Drones, ninjas and snipers and not bad expedients. They are highly accurate weapons, except when the intelligence behind their use fails. But bombing campaigns are not so accurate. They often kill a lot of civilians to get few bad guys. They devastate cities and towns. And by killing innocents and terrorizing civilians, they often create as many enemies as they kill.

And so we have the spectacle of massive air power from the US, Russia, and now Britian and France, with logistical support from Germany, pounding IS again and again, in literally tens of thousands of air strikes. What has all this mayhem accomplished? It appears to have stopped IS’ forward momentum and the capture of new territory. But it has failed to strike at the heart of the problem. To do that, we must first find where the heart is.

Seeing the catastrophe clearly

Before we can even begin to visualize what to do, we must first see the situation clearly. To do that, we must return to the main theme of this essay: the utter, complete and repeated failure of attempts to impose the will of one ethnic group on another by force. It doesn’t seems to matter whether the force is supplied by the would-be dominant ethnic group, or by a major power for its own reasons. Still it fails.

That is precisely what has happened in Syria and Iraq, in particular to the Sunnis in those two countries. In Syria, this phenomenon is both clear and recent—the murderous attempt by Assad and his Alawites, with Russian heavy weaponry and Iranian support, to subjugate the Syrian Sunnis, an 88% majority of Syria’s prewar population.

In Iraq, the attempt began with our Yankee invasion and occupation. And, we Yanks should humbly recall, our Yankee blunder came first.

How bad was the blunder? We Yanks meant well. Under Saddam, the minority Sunnis had dominated and subjugated the majority Shiites and the Kurds in a brutal tyranny. That tyranny had produced periodic atrocities, including Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds at Halabja and his slaughter of the Shiite “Marsh Arabs,” on our Yankee watch and under our (loose) supervision.

So what did we do after our initially successful invasion and occupation in 2003? We turned the tables of domination and subjugation. We not only set the Shiites free; we put them in charge.

But turning the tables just changed the names of the victims.

We Yanks failed to foresee the natural consequences of decades of brutal suppression and domination, not to mention the millennial Sunni-Shiite divide. Not only that. Dubya, Cheney and That Idiot Rumsfeld committed the unthinkable blunders of adding to those consequences by disbanding the Iraqi army and purging all Baathists from government, without even attempting to vet them and see if any might have been good guys. And why did we not vet them? Because all our translators and spooks were busy searching for non-existent evidence of an ongoing nuclear program, in order to reinforce the Big Lie that “justified” our invading Iraq in the first place.

Together, those mutually reinforcing blunders constituted our single greatest mistake in foreign policy since our losing war in Vietnam.

So as we look at the catastrophes that are Syria and Iraq today, we desperately need to understand two things. First, there is ample blame to go around. We Yanks, the Russians, and the Iranians have been complicit in turning the Syrian-Iraqi Sunnis into underdogs with no viable future as a people.

Second, everything that has happened since is a natural consequence of that single fact. Sunnis in Iraq and Syria quite understandably see no future ahead but ceaseless violence and ethnic subjugation. So they have left the area in the largest migration since the end of World War II and Stalin’s forced displacements before it. The resultant vacuum of power has sucked in IS. In fact, you might say it has created IS as a combination of fanatics willing to fight and die for an apparently lost cause: swimming against the tide of opposition of the world’s two military superpowers.

Despite the unviable national chimeras that external powers have imposed on them for over a century, Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis are single ethnic group. They all speak Arabic. They all are Sunnis. They are all Muslims. Since the serial catastrophic blunders of us Yanks in Iraq and the Russians and Iranians in Syria—they all have the collective experience of oppression and subjugation at the behest of major powers whose military power and economic influence they can never hope to match.

And, strangely to say, under Saddam, Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, they were once all secular Muslims. The religious fanatics and terrorists that we see in Sunniland today did not exist before the major powers’ collective blunders created them.

The spawn of those serial blunders is IS. From the perspective of the mostly innocent Sunni underdogs, the terrorism now being visited on the great powers might look like poetic justice.

Seen from this perspective, the problem of Syria and Iraq today is easy to resolve in theory, if harder in practice. Give the Syrian-Iraqi Sunnis a nation of their own—preferably one a bit more modern and kind than the IS. Give that nation some oil and other resources to jump-start a civilized, modern life. In the process, give the Kurds their own nation too—something their patience, forbearance, realism and tolerance of other ethnic groups (such as the Yazidis before IS’ genocide) richly merit.

“Boots on the ground” are not the answer. Not for us Yanks, not for the Russians, not for Iran, and not for any European power. Nor is more and harder bombing. All that does is create more corpses and rubble, empty the territory of noncombatants, and create more recruits for people who profess to love war and death, namely, IS and Al Qaeda.

What to do

Probably the single most insightful comment ever made on war is Von Clausewitz’: war is politics by other means. In Syria, as in Iraq, the people who are going to have to do the fighting and the dying to clean up this mess, as well as make the necessary political compromises once their blood lust has been sated and they have been exhausted, are the people who live there.

In Iraq and Syria, the prime actors are the Alawites, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis and others who live in the region. They are going to have to fight each other to exhaustion, or eventually make a deal and get along. Or they are going to have to separate, with international help, as in the Balkans.

International aid in mutual mayhem hasn’t worked out so well, has it? That way lies a Middle-Eastern replay of World War I.

Partition seems by far the most promising approach, for three reasons. First, there has been far too much bloodshed, for far too long, for the warring groups to sit together in parliament, any parliament. Of all people, we Yanks ought to understand this point. We can’t seem to get along in Congress, and our own Civil War ended a century and a half ago.

Second, to the extent they have not simply fled the arena, as one-half of Syrians have done, the four groups have mostly separated already. At least they are all moving in that direction. Seeking safety, their people have fled to distinct areas, which they are willing and mostly able to defend. So a territorial settlement would have little more to do than recognize reality or, in the current cliché, “facts on the ground.”

Some further relocation of recalcitrants and laggards might be required. But it would entail nothing like the dislocation, horror, death and pain that has happened already—especially if supervised and guided by neutral international monitors.

The big powers who created this mess have a moral and practical obligation to provide that supervision and guidance. Doing so will be far less expensive and bloody than the repeat of World War I now beginning with the confrontation of Russia and Turkey.

Finally, the four groups seems to have no interest at all in defending each other’s territory, but lots of interest in defending and exploiting their own. Each group would no doubt welcome release from the big-power-imposed “obligation” to defend its enemies. Even more, it would welcome the self-determination and release from subjection to the others that partition would bring.

One possible sticking point is fairly splitting natural resources, including oil and gas and their proceeds. Here the influence of the big powers would be helpful. Not only do they supply the heavy weapons that keep the charnel house running; they also supply the tools and technology for exploiting those resources, as well as their primary markets. At least in theory, external big powers should wield enough power and influence—economic as well as military—to promote a fair and reasonable compromise. After all, they have not been slaughtering each other for half a decade or more, and they are used to making deals, including the nuclear deal with Iran just concluded.

The biggest remaining problem would be what to do about the jihadist and terrorist groups like IS and Al Qaeda, whose extreme agendas bear little relevance to what started the conflict in the first place. That problem seems much smaller once you consider a few essential facts.

First, the jihadis are almost entirely a Sunni phenomenon. The Alewites, Kurds and Shiites have no interest in jihad, let alone a global caliphate. The Sunni jihadis are using these grandiose ideas to attract recruits to fight the Alawites, Shiites and Kurds, in that order. This insight leads rapidly to two others.

Second, the jihadis (including Al Qaeda) total somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 souls, including fighters, families and support people. That’s a big gang but a small army. The remaining Sunnis could rout them in weeks if they wanted to. They did so before and during our “surge” in Iraq, because we Yanks paid and helped them to create the so-called “Sunni Awakening.” We and our allies might pay them and help them to wake up again; doing so would be far less bloody and risky than fighting a second World War I in the Middle East, even by proxy.

Despite the Awakening, the jihadis came back to Sunniland because of mistakes the Iraqis and we Yanks made. The victorious Shiites and Kurds refused to “play nice” and share with their erstwhile Sunni minority masters and oppressors. The now-governing Shiites even refused to play nice with the far-more-innocent Kurds.

In addition, the catastrophic blunders of Dubya, Cheney and That Idiot Rumsfeld (in disbanding the Iraqi army and purging Baathists) left virtually all Sunni Iraqi soldiers with no source of income, no prospect of any, and nothing to do. So once we stopped paying them to “Awaken,” they had no recourse but jihad.

Help Sunnis (especially tribal leaders) build a functioning society with some money, some Iraqi oil, and some respect, and they will turn Anbar into the center of a rational Sunni society. Iraqi Sunnis, who were secular under Saddam, are hardly religious fanatics. They are working with extremists financed and inspired by foreigners only because they have no other option.

And that brings us to the third and last point. If you want to know who or what funded, inspired, and practically founded Al Qaeda and IS, look to Saudis and to Saudi Arabia. Not only were Saudis the majority of the 9/11 hijackers. For far too long, Saudi-funded madrassas have inspired Islamic extremism, and Saudis have funded jihadis directly and indirectly, through so-called Islamic “charities.”

Much of the money comes from private sources, not the Saudi government. But that’s not much of a distinction. The riches of Saudi oil find their way into the pockets of jihadis and terrorists, as the House of Saud keeps totalitarian control within its borders while exporting terror to assuage the true believers inside.

This has to stop. If we can’t make it stop by pointing out the obvious—that eventually the chickens of death will find their way home to roost in the Kingdom—we should put serious pressure on the Saudis. We should threaten to stop and, if necessary, actually reduce military supply and assistance. What would the Princes do? Go hat in hand to Russia, the sponsor of their worst enemy (Iran) and an oil competitor? To China? To Europe? What major power there would have them? Now that we Yanks have fracking oil, we need to bring the murderous (by remote control) Saudis under control.

The solution that partition could provide would also offer the Saudis a carrot. They seem eager to protect and defend their fellow Sunnis. Fair enough. Big-power blunders in Iraq and Syria have given the Sunnis there too raw a deal for far too long. You can’t perpetually blame a whole people for Saddam’s depravity. If nothing else, the catastrophic results of the Allies’s collective punishment of the German people after World War I proves that collective punishment doesn’t work. The creation of a demilitarized Sunniland in Sunni sections of what is now Iraq and Syria would not only correct the big-power blunders. It would also erase the sole legitimate raison d’être for Sunni jihadism and its Saudi support.

As for IS’ push to recruit cannon fodder to terrorize the major powers who made this mess, that, too, has a clear solution. Cut off the Internet for terrorists and jihadis.

One of the most astounding facts about global terrorism is the extent to which we, its victims, not only forward its propaganda and recruiting pitches, but propagate and amplify them. Isn’t that self-defeating, if not masochistic?

The First Amendment is not a license for terrorists to radicalize our youth and sell them a culture of death in order to shoot us and blow us up. Perhaps our Supreme Court might think so. Recently it has raised impractical thinking to a high art. It appears to love legal abstractions and to hate thinking about cause and effect. But even if so, the war could be over by the time it rules.

After the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, some of us Yanks apparently are reconsidering boots on the ground in Syria. Others are talking about ramping up the bombing, just to make the rubble bounce. This despite a century of evidence that brute force doesn’t work, and over a decade of making our 1% “voluntary” military bear the brunt of misguided and often fruitless misadventures.

Before we march like the Light Brigade toward that dead end yet again, shouldn’t we fiddle with a bit with some software to make the jihadi Websites go dark? The nation that invented atomic weapons and the Internet itself probably has the ability to make and keep them dark, with a little preparation, some help from private industry, and some changes in law. It’s certainly worth a try; at least it would be cheaper and far less bloody than the alternatives. Shutting down jihadi and terrorist websites and social media would also be far less destructive of civil liberties than spying on hundreds of millions of innocent civilians.

From bin Laden to Al-Baghdadi today, jihadis are neither ten feet tall nor particularly good fighters or administrators. What they are is brilliant propagandists.

Al-Baghdadi, for example, used Cheney’s lie that Iraq helped the 9/11 attacks to make himself seem bigger than life. Now he is the self-proclaimed “caliph” of IS. Some caliph! His army is a ragtag gang of 30,000 untrained street thugs. Cut off his megaphone, which we in the West inexplicably provide him, and his image will deflate, along with his attraction to foreign recruits.


Under Einstein’s definition, our species now qualifies as insane. Despite a century of unambiguous proof that brute force doesn’t work, we still make it our first resort whenever we encounter dangerous opposition.

We Yanks and the West once faced down the Soviet Union—a nation with enough nuclear weapons (plus some secret biological ones) to extinguish all life on Earth. Yet we met the Soviet menace not with brute force, but with subtlety, determination and brains. Eventually that menace reformed itself on its own initiative, without a shot fired.

What makes IS scary is that it could, in theory, hurt any single one of us. Yet in comparison with threats we have successfully faced, including the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, it is risible. We will defeat it when we stop being scared and overreacting and start getting smart.

The first step is to stop IS and Al Qaeda from using the global medium of communication that we Yanks invented to delude and kill us and other innocent people. The second step is to recognize that the four main ethnic groups in Iraq and Syria have key roles to play, and that the Sunnis’ role is most vital. The third step is to shut down the jihadi factories that the Saudis and Pakistan have set up. The final step is to get the main players together, with carrots and sticks provided by major powers, and partition the region to look more like today’s Balkans and less like the false scriptural Armageddon that some jihadis seek. As our President has noted, bashing Muslims or Islam here or abroad is not part of the plan.