“Every Communist must grasp the truth, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. Yet, having guns, we can create Party organizations, as witness the powerful Party organizations which the Eighth Route Army has created in northern China. We can also create cadres, create schools, create culture, create mass movements. Everything in Yenan has been created by having guns. All things grow out of the barrel of a gun. According to the Marxist theory of the state, the army is the chief component of state power. Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army.” MaoTse-tung, 1938
Mao was wrong. Political power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun. More specifically, he was reasoning backwards, even as he offered up the real answer in his speech. Guns don’t shoot all by themselves. They need to be picked up by people willing to use them. These people also must be willing to face other people who also have guns. Just as important, these people must be motivated to keep those guns pointed in the “correct” direction. That is, away from those who wish to be in power.
Mao notes that his party created schools, culture, and mass movements. There is the key to his rise to power.
Power comes from the strength of a story. Mao and his followers spread an extremely compelling story about reversing a social order. The massive peasant underclass of China, trodden upon for centuries by a small elite, was ripe for a story that put them above the landlords and aristocrats. Mao put them at the moral apex of his story, virtuous by their humble birth, virtuous by their struggle, and virtuous by their fight against the elite. He offered them a vision of a world where they would have self-determination, equality, prosperity, and justice. As we know in hindsight, it didn’t quite work out that way. After a string of social and economic disasters China embraced oligarchic capitalism, creating political and financial elites to replace the old aristocratic one. And yet the Chinese government persists, albeit with modified economic policies. The story has been modified to be more western, the bait has been dangled again, and so far the combination of carrot and stick has kept the masses in line.
To repeat, for emphasis, political power comes from telling people a compelling story, a story that orders the world in a way that makes people want to do your bidding. The story has to take into account the existing mindset of the people in question. The Taliban and IS (ISIS, ISIL Daesh) have compelling stories, whether we like them or not. They are straightforward stories about belonging, good, evil, rules of conduct, action, and reward. They key into the existing religious and social beliefs of the population. The governments of Iraq and Afghanistan have muddled, nuanced, essentially false stories based on a mode of thinking alien to the inhabitants of those areas. Of course Iraqi troops folded in the face of inferior ISIS forces. They had no compelling reason to risk their lives.
One of the (many) reasons the American Civil War was so bloody is that both sides had stories that were convincing to their participants. Men walked upright into hailstorms of lead because they were convinced of the righteousness of their respective causes.
Today, members of the Taliban and IS take suicidal risks, and sometimes commit deliberate suicide, in pursuit of victory. They treat opponents and their fellow travelers with unflinching brutality. They tolerate harsh conditions. This implacability is both militarily effective and demoralizing to their opponents. They have the group cohesion vital to winning a political and military victory.
Any attempt to “win” in the Middle East should have started with the question of the beliefs and motivation of the people who live there. But of course, this approach doesn’t set up the hog trough for military contractors or resource extraction companies. A strategically half-assed, decade-plus military slog doesn’t do anything for American, Afghan, or Iraqi security, but it increases the profitability of a set of military and “security” firms.
To be absolutely pragmatic about it, we should look at the self-image of the countries we deal with in the Middle East and ally with those that have at least some potential for long term cohesion. This requires us to acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot Agreement is reaching the end of its lifespan.
Sykes-Picot was the initial agreement between the winning powers in the First World War on how to carve up the then prostrate Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot and the other agreements that followed it allowed the U.S., the U.K., and France to carve up the Ottoman Empire into convenient sections for the extraction of oil. Of course, most of these boundaries had no connection with how the people who lived there understood their world. Iraq is a mishmash of religions and ethnicities, as is Syria. Under stress, the citizens of these countries tend to revert to loyalties other than the nation state.
Iran is one example of a nation state with good cohesion. Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, which is more than a pedantic distinction to Iranians themselves. The Persian culture has a long and continuous history and the present boundaries of Iran are roughly in line with long historical precedent. The Iranians are overwhelmingly Shiite, and governed by Shiites. This is no small thing. One of the major political flaws in both Syria and Iraq has been the governance of a religious majority by a religious minority. From what I have observed, Iranians identify as Iranians, even when they have internal conflicts.
I would contend that Iran is no more politically and culturally estranged from us than Saudi Arabia, and probably somewhat less. I mean, at least Iranian women can drive and walk around in public without a male family member. Their elections differ from ours in that mullahs rather than millionaires decide who can run for office. They and the Saudis support different groups of terrorists.
When I look at trends, I see Saudi Arabia becoming less stable and less careful of our interests over time. Iran seems to be inching towards civil reform and détente with the west. I’d like to see a slow, careful pivot towards Iran. Even if we didn’t follow all the way through, it would give our Sunni sometime-allies a signal that we are looking for fewer empty declarations of friendship and more real on the ground action.
Which are the cohesive states in the Central Asia and the Middle East? I’d put my money on Iran, but also the nascent de-facto state of Kurdistan. For all their recent turmoil, Egyptians still identify as Egyptians. Hey, they’ve been around for a little while. The Turks identify as Turks. And then there’s our problem child, Israel. Perhaps Israelis identify as Israelis a little too much. The semi-state of Palestine has the cohesion of shared misery, despite the PLO/Hamas split in leadership.
What about the petro-states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates? Their histories vary, with Oman self-governing since the mid-18th century and Qatar only gaining independence from the U.K. in 1971. The real problem with the smaller states, tribalism and monarchy aside, is that large percentages of the populations are non-citizen foreign workers. Out of a population of 1.8 million, Qatar has only 278,000 citizens. The UAE has 1.4 million citizens and 7.8 million foreign workers. Oman does better with 2.2 million citizens and 1.76 million expats. Kuwait has 1.2 million citizens out of 4.1 million people. That’s working for the moment (at least for the citizens), but I don’t see these nations as stable in tough times.
This is magic wand waving, given our present government, but I’d like to see a “team of rivals” approach. Doris Kearns Goodwin explored Abraham Lincoln’s canny political strategy in a book of that name. Faced with political forces that threatened to confound his intentions Lincoln appointed a cabinet of politicos who distrusted and competed with each other. That allowed him to play them off against each other.
Under this admittedly improbable plan, the U.S. would have a sit-down with each of the cohesive states (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and Israel) and announce two things. First, that our support was now conditional (and possible, in the case of Iran). Second, that we now had a fixed budget of military, financial, and political support for this region, and that they would all be competing for their share. We’d be giving bonus points for human rights, non-intervention, not financing armed groups, and generally behaving well. We’d take away points for treating women like cattle and treating minority ethnic groups like insect pests. Fighting corruption and promoting transparency would be a big plus.
For example, Kurdistan and Turkey are at each other’s throats. We would tell Kurdistan to cut the crap with supporting PKK attacks on Turkey and to be satisfied with their present territory in northern Iraq. We would tell Turkey to start treating Kurds within their country with some consideration and to stop their double game – publicly opposing and privately enabling ISIS. Their internal policies are theirs to set, but don’t expect smiles, cash, and cooperation from us without some significant movement on these issues.
Likewise with the Saudis and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Iran, Egypt and its own people, and so on. The main thing is to let each one know that it isn’t indispensable and that we are willing to favor its rival. Then watch the fun begin. It would probably take some experimental misbehavior and consequences before things settled down. I imagine that the Kurds and Palestinians, being in the most tenuous positions, would show the fastest learning curve.
I don’t see Iraq or Syria ever returning to the status quo ante. They were political fictions held together by despotism. The minor oil states are political fictions held together by despotism and government subsidy. We should concentrate on working with the nations that have a strong story.