Civic Duty in the World of Social Media

My parents didn’t but most men went to the pub every evening and most women went to the Women’s Institute everye day seventy years ago in the farming village in England where I was a kid.

They went to talk about the news.  Much of it was local gossip but there was also a lot of national and international news on the radio that provoked debate.

Most people just enjoyed the entertainment but some of them very much wanted their neighbors to see sense.  The same sense they saw, of course…

That was how opinions about current events were formed.

Then came TV and the start of a new culture where men and women no longer so rigidly segregated themselves socially.

And then came social media.  Now we can have neighbors we never see but with whom we can chat or just listen to every day.

One way I’m different from my parents is I can’t stop myself from trying to get everyone, myself included, to see sense.  Social media gives me that opportunity and it also offers a fascinating challenge.

We all learn, with varying success, how to persuade others face to face and how to recognize when we’re the one who is mistaken.  But how to do that when we’re not face to face?

This is my first post in many months.  While renovating the house and surroundings of our new home outside Gettysburg, PA over the past year and moving our stuff from Maine I had no time for carefully researched posts.  Instead, I began posting links to the work of others on Facebook.

Now, I’ve dealt with the huge backlog of comments here (10,188 of them spam from bots) and I’m working on a piece about my current understanding of reality.

I have more building and yard work still to do but it’s less urgent so I’m starting to aim now for a new balance between that work along with my ongoing attempt to make sense of events, creating original content here about domestic and foreign policy here, and curating the work of others on Facebook.

But because I have to think about things before I speak, I won’t be on Twitter.

The State of Our Warfare Industry

Wars used to be fought for control of land, resources and people.  Some went on a long time, but they all ended.  Now, however, war is for the USA an industry.  Its goal is not peace and stability, but ever-growing war and instability.

Media bloviating about protecting the homeland, supporting allies, and spreading democracy is a well functioning distraction.  Industry leaders are expected to deliver growth, so warfare industry leaders are promoting terror.

Over the past decade the Middle East warfare market has been well penetrated to become a base for expansion throughout the area encircled by the “Functioning Core”:

Air_and_Space_MajGenMcDew [Compatibility Mode]

The GlobalFirePower project, which tracks defense spending around the world and shows our spending ($577B) to be four times higher than our closest competitor, China, and almost ten times higher than our former arch-rival, Russia, headlines its website: “Going to war is never a decision to be taken lightly, especially when considering the overall cost of such ventures.”

So how did it happen that we no longer consider the cost of wars, and why is it that we no longer decide whether to undertake them, only where we will make wars?

As these Federal Budget charts illustrate, we categorize military spending ($598B) as “discretionary” unlike Social Security and Medicare which are funded via dedicated taxes.  Discretionary means not mandatory, but no politician proposing big cuts in military spending is electable.

I’ve written before about Our Sacrosanct Jobs Program (“One man spoke of the mass unemployment of the 1930s and said that if we could attain full employment by killing Germans, we could have full employment by building houses, schools and hospitals”) and I’ve written about our arms export industry whose collapsing market after the Cold War was rejuvenated by President Bush’s War on Terror.

International Transfers of Major Weapons

It was only in President Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address, when he would never again seek election, that he warned:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.  The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Two years later, in 1963, President Kennedy tried again.  Condemning the demonization of Soviet leaders, he warned against the Pax Americana we still seek to enforce today:

“What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war … I am talking about genuine peace – the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living … let us not be blind to our differences – but let us direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved.”

President Kennedy was soon assassinated, his successor, President Johnson, led us into the Vietnam nightmare, in the next decades we greatly increased our military spending while fighting only small wars, and then President Bush hoodwinked us into a War on Terror that can by definition never end.

Now, when President Obama endorses spending $1,000B+ over the next three decades to enhance our ability to fight nuclear war using weapons with more flexible targeting and a range of yields even down to that of large conventional weapons, Ike is not among Obama’s potential successors.

Ike, Trump and Cruz

Let’s take stock.  How is Pax Americana going?

Late last month Iraqi forces retook the provincial capital, Ramadi, from the Islamic State.  That was possible primarily due to US airstrikes which, as a side-effect, destroyed over 80% of the city.  Victories like that destroy peoples’ means of existence.

As I wrote here when I began researching the Middle East:  “We have come to believe it is not only right but good to send our children to kill, and we revel in the destruction our media presents.”

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Mali are already failing or failed states, we will drop another 23,000 bombs on them and others this year, and our drones will go on creating “collateral damage” there, in Pakistan and beyond.

Back when I was a Senior Vice President of a large global enterprise, I sometimes imagined my colleagues’ decisions that would have bad results to be stupid.  They were not.  I was the stupid one, not recognizing those results were desired.  Now, our warfare industry leaders and I want different results.

The War on Terror will continue to grow our market.  The state of our warfare industry is strong.

Islam in the USA

Around 200,000 Africans had been brought to the US, some of them Muslims, when 55 delegates gathered at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.  Among them, 51 were Christian.  Some said Islam threatens Christianity, but those in favor of religious liberty prevailed.

John Adams had written a decade earlier in Thoughts on Government that Muhammad was a “sober inquirer after truth” along with Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, and others, and as President in 1797 he declared that the US has no “enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims).”

But Islam was not much thought about after that until the late 19th century since most owners made slaves attend Christian churches.  It was only when immigrants began arriving from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent that Muslims began to be noticeable.  Now the pace has greatly accelerated — two in five Muslim immigrants have come since 1990.

Around 3.3 million or 1% of the US population is Muslim today.  About 40% are white, 30% African-American and 30% Asian.   About half the native-born US Muslims are African-American, many of them converts, and 16% belong to what used to be the Nation of Islam aka the Black Muslims.

Muslim American Demographics

The first US mosque was founded in 1915, the first built specifically as a mosque in 1934.   Of 2,000+ mosques in the U.S. now, almost 90% were founded in the last three decades.  Around 400 are associated with The American Society of Muslims, the successor to the Nation of Islam.

During the first half of the 20th century, a small number of African Americans had established groups based on Islamic teachings.  Then in 1930 the Nation of Islam (NOI) was created.  Christianity, its founder declared, was the white man’s religion, forced on African Americans during the slave experience.  He said Islam was their identity.

The message resonated even though most slaves had come from West Central Africa where there were relatively few Muslims.  Slavery had been outlawed since 1865 but seventy years later in the 1930s, African Americans were still oppressed.  It felt long past time to bring that to an end.

In the 1950s Malcolm X, whose house was burned by Ku Klux Klan terrorists when he was a child, became the charismatic face of the NOI advocating complete separation of blacks and whites.

That Islam was brought to the US by relatively recent immigrants and embraced by black separatists colors our attitudes today.  And there is a much longer and broader history that labels Westerners and Muslims in each others eyes.

Pew Research studied traits each sees in the other in a cross-section of Western and Middle East and Asian Muslim nations.  No surprise; Westerners and Muslims see each other as violent and fanatical.

Westerners consider Muslims to be above all fanatical and lacking respect for women.  Muslims consider Westerners to be above all selfish and not generous.

Muslims also see Westerners as violent, greedy, immoral, arrogant, fanatical, neither honest nor tolerant, and not very respectful of women.

But perhaps surprisingly, although Westerners see Muslims as violent and intolerant, they also see them as honest, quite generous, and not selfish, immoral or greedy.

Muslim vs Western Perceived Characteristics

The perception Muslims have of Westerners was formed centuries ago in the Crusades, confirmed by Britain and France’s more recent colonial domination, and compounded by US-led regime change and warfare in the Middle East now as well as Islamophobia whipped up by our politicians and media.

Westerners and Muslims have a long history of prejudice and violence toward each other, but that can change.  It is encouraging that, along with the negatives, Pew Research found Westerners attributing positive traits to Muslims, especially in Europe where there are many more Muslims .

The more we interact the more accepting of differences most of us will become and the safer we all will be.

The Pathetic Fallacy – Corporations

The term “pathetic fallacy” comes from Ruskin’s 19th century campaign against false emotion in poetry.   Pathetic then meant emotional, fallacy falseness.

A pathetic fallacy is based on personifying what is not a person.  If we say clouds are sullen or leaves dance, we mask their reality with an idea.  We do not see them as they are and we respond in ways that do not result from their reality.  Pathetic fallacies trigger false emotions from false perceptions.

We make this mistake today when we think of corporations as people.  We admire Apple, vilify Monsanto, and so on.

We also think of nations as if they have an existence separate from their people.  And politicians speak of Islam as if it was an entity.  I will explore those pathetic fallacies in future posts.

This post is about corporations viewed as people, a delusion that got a powerful boost in 2010 from the US Supreme Court.

In Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, which relied on an earlier decision that associations of individuals have First Amendment free speech rights, the Court ruled that corporations are associations of individuals and therefore also have those rights.

Justice Stevens pointed out the failure of logic.  Since legal entities are not “We the People” for whom the Constitution was established, they have no Constitutional rights of any kind.

It is the members of a corporation or any other association who have Constitutional rights, said Justice Stevens.  Corporations do not have an additional set.

Because Justice Stevens was in the minority, corporations, which are not individuals with a vote, now significantly influence voting.

We the People can try individually to persuade others to vote like us and if we are wealthy enough, we can buy media advertisements to amplify our voice.   To balance that power, associations of individuals who are less wealthy can pool their resources.

But spending from corporate treasuries is now amplifying spending by wealthy individuals.

And our delusion that personifies corporations leads us to imagine they decide what politicians to promote.  But corporations do not make decisions — their executives do.

Let me personalize that.  The core business of Dun & Bradstreet where I was a Senior Vice President assumes that payment history is the best indicator of credit worthiness.  That was true in 1841 when almost every US business was a sole proprietorship — but note the fallacy.

It is the proprietor who decides when a sole proprietorship pays its suppliers and that is true for every business enterprise, which means the best indicator of the credit worthiness of a business is the honesty of its executives.

There were no personal credit reports in 1841 but there are now, so the trustworthiness of any business can be judged by the presence or absence of negative financial behavior by its executives.

That must be the case because it is not businesses but the people who manage them that decide when and whether to pay bills.

Although the fallacy of imagining that corporations behave as entities separate from their executives is not significant for the future of D&B’s business, it is very important for the future of our democracy.

The newly authorized corporate spending to promote political candidates on top of the existing spending on lobbying to influence legislation now impacts who gets elected in the first place.

That matters because legislation by politicians whose campaigns are largely funded by wealthy individuals and the corporate treasuries they control inevitably favors those wealthy individuals.

That was not what the framers of our Constitution intended.  Their goal was for legislation to “promote the general Welfare.”


Let’s Stop Being Terrorized

A year ago we were exhorted to close our borders against Ebola.  Some State Governors went ahead and did so, taking action, they said, when President Obama would not.

Then a friend posted this appalling and spurious image.  What we should really fear, she thought, is Islam.  One in three conservative Republicans already believed President Obama to be a Muslim.

Although fear trumps facts, that particular lie did not have legs.  Islam does not allow such behavior and Ayatollah Khomeini, who died a quarter of a century ago, is not the “current leader of Iran.”

Fear is a helpful survival instinct — we’re safer taking automatic fight-or-flight action with intellect engaging only later.  But there’s a downside.  Because it closes our mind, instilling fear is a powerful way to control us.

Knowing that, politicians are now instilling fear of a much more potent terror, ISIS.  They say it is the true face of a religion that commands its followers to kill all others.  And some Americans think they know exactly what to do about that nightmare.

Mainstream media eagerly participates in the fear-mongering.  Ten days after the recent San Bernardino massacre, the New York Times claimed one of the attackers had years ago publicly committed to terrorism.

The allegation is false, said FBI Director Comey, and the Times provided no evidence, but presidential candidates claimed it as a catastrophic Obama administration failure.

Voters want someone to blame for their struggles, politicians want us to have an enemy because they will get more power if we are fearful, and mainstream media amplifies our fears so we will consume more.  Our emotions are being manipulated.  We are being misdirected.

As I wrote a year ago, while we cannot eliminate infectious disease, a health care system that encourages all with symptoms to get treatment right away would minimize the spread of disease.

And while San Bernardino was horrific and likely was inspired by ISIS publicity, the odds of being killed by terrorists in America are extremely small. Depending on how you define them, there have been 40 mass shootings since 9/11/2001 but only a few were terrorist attacks.

Mass Shootings Map

We cannot anticipate all future mass shootings or other kinds of massacres.  We could not have anticipated Timothy McVeigh killing 168 people with a homemade bomb in Oklahama City twenty years ago, or the drivers who mass murder pedestrians.

We could eliminate many mass shootings, however, including San Bernardino and the massacre in my home town, by removing assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society.

And we could go further.  We could start eliminating the future equivalent of this year’s 355 shootings  in which four or more were injured or killed, and this year’s 33,000 individual deaths and 80,000 hospitalizations from gunshots.

Police work will not end hatred of blacks, Muslims, our government, fellow workers, shooters’ families or others, desire for fame, other people’s money or ending one’s own life, or just plain foolishness.

But we could start eliminating the easy way to kill by removing not only assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society, but all hand guns.  We could even restrict rifles and shotguns.

I do not expect our society will make that choice.  I expect our freedom to own a wide range of weapons will continue to outweigh its costs.  We will choose to continue having mass shootings.

Perhaps we will get a universal health care system one day because our present approach costs far too much.  But our freedom to own guns does not seem something about which we can make conscious choices.

Beset by all these nightmares and more, is there anything we can do as individuals?  As this wise Christian leader wrote when we faced immediate nuclear extinction, we can pull ourselves together and meet our fate doing sensible and human things.

Let’s stop being terrorized by politicians and media people.  Let’s summon the courage to live in the happily generous American way.

Things we do out of fearfulness with which we’ve been infected frustrate and sadden people like this Muslim family that we would not allow to come on holiday and enrage those in other countries like our own “Overpasses for America” people.  That rage is why some want to kill us.

So let’s each of us do the deeply human thing.  Let’s learn how to help each other overcome fear.

Beyond the Media Hype: Arms Exports

Most of us think beheading is barbaric and are horrified by 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for a website advocating free speech.  We abhor child marriages and are appalled that women anywhere should need permission from a male guardian even to travel.

Sweden’s foreign minister recently denounced those policies and acts by Saudi Arabia as extreme violations of human decency.

She went on to say it would be wrong for Sweden to continue military cooperation with such a regime.  European Union countries had after all in 2008 established a Common Position on arms exports making “respect for human rights in the country of final destination” a precondition.

The Saudi regime’s response was to withdrew its ambassador and stop issuing visas to Swedish businessmen.  Its allies condemned Sweden’s ‘unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’  The United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassador, too.

How would the Swedish government respond?  Sweden sold more than half a billion dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia from 2011 to 2014 and the Saudi regime is expected to buy 52% more arms this year than last.  Would Sweden give up such a huge opportunity?

And the impact could be much broader than Sweden’s arms exporters alone.  Denmark was hit with a major international boycott when a Danish newspaper published Muhammed cartoons in 2005.

Lobbying by Sweden’s business leaders began immediately.  Thirty chief executives signed an open letter saying that breaking the arms trade agreement ‘would jeopardize Sweden’s reputation as a trade and co-operation partner.’

Sweden’s king called the foreign minister to his palace and told her to back off.  The Constitution grants him no power, but…

And the Saudi regime positioned the minister’s denunciation of their human rights abuses as anti-Muslim hatred.

It looked like business priorities would trump human decency.  But, after no doubt agonized debate, the Swedish government announced the cancellation of its military cooperation with Saudi Arabia.  And a couple of weeks later Saudi Arabian media published a fabricated apology by Sweden along with the news that its ambassador would return.

This is a heartening story for anyone who thinks beheading and so forth is barbaric.  But it was little reported in Europe and almost not at all here.  So we must also note a couple of other things.

First, our US government supports the Saudi regime not just because we want their oil but because since we destroyed Iraq, it alone balances Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Middle East Map

Americans fear Iran.  We do not remember overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 and replacing it with the Shah’s dictatorship.  All we remember is the theocratic regime that overthrew our friend the Shah holding our Embassy staff hostage.  We imagine an Iran that we have always treated well but which is our mortal enemy for religious reasons.  And our ally Israel considers Iran an existential threat because it supports its Shia fellows, Hezbollah and Hamas, working for the Palestinian State that Israel’s newly re-elected leader declared he will resist to the end.

Second, Sweden’s admirable decision removes a competitor for Saudi Arabia’s arms purchases.

Arms Exporters

This March 2015 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report notes that we delivered major weapons to at least 94 countries in 2010-14.

The world’s largest importer, India, increased its purchases by 140% from 2005-2009, chiefly from Russia.  The second largest, Saudi Arabia, increased its purchases  by 400%, supplied chiefly by the UK (36%) and the USA (35%).Arms ImportersWe delivered $8.4 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and their Iran-facing neighbor United Arab Emirates last year, up from $6 billion the previous year.

A growing share of big fast-growing markets is what every business leader wants.

The Swedish government decided human rights trump what arms business leaders want.  My government is sticking with the opposite decision.

Beyond the Media Hype: Jordan

Jordan, Israel and Palestine coexist warily in what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land.  Jordan is east of the Jordan River with Syria in the north, Iraq in the north-east and Saudi Arabia in the south.   It was populated mainly by tribal Arabs when its borders were set.    They are outnumbered now by Palestinians who fled since Israel’s establishment at the end of WW2.

Most of Jordan is plateau and most of that is desert rising gradually in the west to villages in the Jordanian Highlands.  Further west, the highlands descend into the north-south rift valley down which the River Jordan flows through the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea to the Red Sea.   Only about 2% of Jordan’s land is arable, half of it permanently cropped.  There is no oil, insufficient water, few resources of any kind that humans value.

Jordan Topography

Jordan is landlocked except where the Gulf of Aqaba gives it access to the Red Sea.  Aqaba was a major Ottoman port connected to Damascus and Medina by the Hejaz railroad.  The WW1 Battle of Aqaba was key to ending the Ottoman Empire’s 500 year long rule of Arab lands.

Gulf of Aqaba

Jordan’s population is around 8 million, about half of whom are Palestinian refugees or their descendants.  It was 400,000 in 1948, about half of them nomadic, but when 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled that year from what became Israel, many went to Jordan, and many more came later.

Since the 2003 war in Iraq, a million refugees have also arrived from there, and, since 2012, more than half a million refugees from Syria.

About 92% of Jordan’s population is Sunni.  About 6% is Christian (the CIA says 2%), down from 30% in 1950 primarily because of Muslim immigration.  Well educated Christian Arabs dominate business.  A 1987 study showed half of Jordan’s leading business families to be Christian.

Since most of Jordan is desert, the population is highly concentrated in the northwest.

Jordan Population Map

When Britain gained control of Jordan and Iraq at the end of WW1 it appointed sons of Hussein bin Ali as their rulers.  Britain had promised Hussein rule of all Arab lands in return for leading the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.  Faisal ibn Hussein became ruler of Iraq and his brother Abdullah ibn Hussein ruler of Jordan.

Abdullah I established his government in 1921.  Britain granted nominal independence in 1928 but kept a military presence, control of foreign affairs and some financial control.  At the end of WW2, although the US wanted Israel to be established first, Britain granted Jordan full independence.  US President Truman recognized the independence of Jordan and Israel on the same day in 1949 considering them twin emergent states, one for refugee Jews, the other for Palestinian Arabs displaced as a result.

Jordan Relief Map

Abdullah I had represented Mecca in the Ottoman legislature from 1909 to 1914 but allied with Britain during WW1 and played a key role in the Arab revolt.  He ruled as an autocrat.

Recognizing the inadequacy of resources within Jordan’s borders, Abdullah hoped to reestablish and rule Greater Syria, the Ottoman district made up of present day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.  He invaded Palestine with other Arab states in 1948, occupied the West Bank and formally annexed it in 1950.  Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria then demanded Jordan’s expulsion from the Arab League but were blocked by Yemen and Iraq.  Abdullah was never trusted again by other Arab or Jewish leaders.  He was assassinated in 1951 by a Palestinian who feared he would make peace with Israel.

Abdullah I was succeeded by his son Talal who had to abdicate the following year because of mental illness.  His son Hussein who was educated in Egypt and England then ruled until his death in 1999.

King Hussein recognized that while the borders Britain had set for Jordan with Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia could not be eliminated as his grandfather had hoped, they might with negotiation be improved.  In 1965, he was able to make a deal with Saudi Arabia that gave Jordan an additional 11 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba to expand its port facilities.  The great problem was Jordan’s border with Palestine.

From 1950, near the end of Abdullah’s reign, Jordan administered the Palestinian West Bank.  Then Israel invaded and seized it in the 1967 Six Day War.  What should Hussein do?  He continued to claim the West Bank until 1988 despite its occupation by Israel.  He relinquished it to the Palestinians then, and signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.   Jordan is still only the second Arab nation to do so.  Egypt was the first in 1979.

Over the course of his long reign (1953-99) , Hussein kept negotiating for peace and managed to establish a relatively solid footing for Jordan despite competing pressures from great powers and massive immigration from Palestine, but his strongly pro-Western policy meant that he was never entirely trusted by other Arab leaders.

Hussein made less progress on Jordan’s economy, which is among the smallest in the Middle East.  Because there is so little fertile land, agriculture accounts for only 3% of GDP.  Phosphate mining and other industry is around 30%.  Trade, finance and other services make up the balance.  Jordan depends largely on foreign aid, of which the US is the main provider, and the government employs at least a third and perhaps more than half of all workers.

Jordan Land Use Map

Hussein was succeeded by his son, Abdullah II, who was educated both in England and the US and who served in the British army as well as both Jordan’s army and air force.  He has focused on religious coexistence, Israeli-Palestinian peace as well as building a powerful Jordanian military, and especially on Jordan’s economy.

Abdullah II  worked for several years to get agreement on a project that was first proposed in the late 1960s as part of peacemaking between Israel and Jordan.  The Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal will provide desalinated drinking water to Israel, Jordan and Palestine, replenish the Dead Sea whose surface area has shrunk 30% in the last 20 years because nine tenths of the Jordan River’s flow is diverted for crops and drinking, and generate electricity.  In late 2013 the three nations reached agreement to go ahead with the project.

Jordan Red Sea Dead Sea Map

What Abdullah II has not done is make Jordan’s government more democratic.  It is a constitutional monarchy in which the king is Head of State, Commander-in-Chief, and appoints the Prime Minister, Cabinet and regional governors and 75 members of the Senate.  The House of Representatives and other Senators are elected but elections have been seriously rigged.  A new law in 2012 prohibits parties based on religion.  That led the Muslim Brotherhood and others to boycott voting.

Although its military is strongly supported by the US, UK and France, Jordan is also a founding member of the Arab League whose goal is to “draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty” and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation whose goal is to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony.”  Jordan is also an active member of the UN and provides the third highest participation in its peacekeeping missions, and is in the European Union’s program to bring the EU and its neighbors closer.

Jordan’s ruling dynasty has good international relations and is well accepted by Jordanians despite autocratic rule, massive immigration of refugees, an economy that is not self-sufficient, and high unemployment especially among young adults.

Because Jordan’s population is so heterogeneous, it is not a nation in the sense of a potentially genocidal homeland.  It is very much a state, however, even though it has no natural borders with Syria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia.  They accept the ones drawn by colonial powers almost a century ago.  It does have a natural border with Israel and Palestine, the Jordan River, that is now accepted by all parties although the status of Palestine itself remains unresolved.

There is much to be learned from Jordan’s history of governance.

Imperial Conspiracy and the Islamic State

The leader of the self-declared Islamic State vows they “will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy,” utterly destroying “borders that were drawn by malicious hands in lands of Islam.”  It’s important to understand that “conspiracy.”

When the Ottoman Empire joined Germany in WW1, Britain conquered Palestine because it needed a route to move large forces fast from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf to defend its interests in India.  Britain then made a secret pact with France and Russia, the Sykes–Picot Agreement, about how they would divvy up the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces at war’s end.

Britain got present day Israel, Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq.  France got south-eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and northern Iraq (Britain later managed to get northern Iraq, too, when oil was discovered there).  But for the Revolution that overthrew its Tsar, Russia would have gotten Armenia and north-eastern Turkey.

This schematic of the original 1916 agreement shows the area Russia would have occupied in green, the area France would occupy in dark blue and the area it would control administratively in light blue, the area Britain would occupy in dark red and what it would administer in light red.  The purple areas were to be international zones.

Sykes Picot Schematic

The agreement was endorsed by Hussein bin Ali, the leader of Hejaz, who, in return for leading an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, was promised a post-war Arab empire from Egypt to Persia excepting only Britain’s possession of Kuwait, Aden and the Syrian coast.  Britain considered Hussein the Arabs’ leader because Hejaz incorporated Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

Hussein declared himself King at war’s end.  Then in 1924 he declared himself Caliph, political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad and leader of the entire Muslim community.  His arch-rival, ibn Saud, attacked and defeated his forces and unified what is now Saudi Arabia.

Hejaz Map

The area defined as an international zone in the Sykes-Picot Agreement that is now Israel and Palestine was defined that way because Britain’s Prime Minister had declared himself “very keen to see a Jewish state established in Palestine.”  Israel would, it was thought, be too small to defend itself so it would need the international community’s protection.

Promises were made separately and in secret to Arab and Jewish leaders during the war that were mutually contradictory.  One or the other had to be abandoned.

In 1917, Lord Balfour wrote a Declaration that Britain and its allies were committed to establish Israel.  Then in 1918, Britain and France pledged to “assist in the establishment of indigenous Governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia by setting up national governments [chosen by] the indigenous populations.”

Perhaps Arab leaders could have accepted a homeland for Jews who wanted to “come home” but “national governments chosen by the indigenous populations” negated the unified Arab homeland they had been promised.

This is why, speaking in Iraq, ISIL’s leader said: “We have now trespassed the borders that were drawn by the malicious hands in lands of Islam in order to limit our movements and confine us inside them.  And we are working, Allah permitting, to eliminate them (borders).  And this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

The Sykes-Picot Agreement did not clearly define the territory that would become Israel.  How big should it be?  What lands should it encompass?  The Old Testament had placed Israel’s tribes on both sides of the River Jordan, with the Manesseh tribe occupying not just the present day West Bank but also the East Bank, which is the fertile part of present day Jordan.  The Agreement was also less than clear about the eastern border of Palestine.

Israel 12 Tribes Map

In 1919, Chaim Weizmann, who later became President of the World Zionist Organization, made an agreement with a son of the King of Hejaz.  It defined a Jewish homeland in Palestine and an Arab nation that would include most of the Middle East.  That set Israel’s border within present day Jordan but the agreement was short-lived and would never have been acceptable to most Arab leaders.

Israel Faisal-Weizmann Map

In the end the League of Nations agreed in 1922 to a British Mandate for Palestine supplemented by a Transjordan Memorandum.  Transjordan was the site of most battles during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule.  The Mandate system was to provide government for the former Ottoman Empire territories in the Middle East “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

The British protectorate of Palestine was to include a national home for the Jewish people while Transjordan was to be an Emirate governed semi-autonomously by Hussein bin Ali’s Hashemite dynasty, which was also to rule Iraq.

Palestine and Transjordan Map

All these agreements, self-serving and/or well-intentioned, were based on ideas more than reality.

The best way to understand the reality is in terms of the Fertile Crescent, the relatively moist and fertile land where some of the earliest human civilizations flourished (the Crescent can also be defined to include Egypt.)  Writing, glass, the wheel and irrigation all originated in this crescent.

Fertile Crescent Map

The idea of nation states with borders to keep “us” safe and “others” out, the framework for the WW1 colonial powers and us now, is very recent.  Empires in and around the Fertile Crescent rose and fell centered on areas of agricultural surplus.

Settled farmers, seasonally relocating herders, and wide ranging tribal folks changed their allegiance easily to the extent they felt any at all to their distant rulers.  Religion was important as an inspiration for individuals — for rulers, it was a lever of power.

Entities we think of now as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey did not exist for most of history or had different definitions.  Cultures long preexisted nation states and they have far more powerful impact on possible futures.

Beyond the Media Hype: Kurdistan

The Kurds are not a nation and are without a state.  Ethnically Iranian and mostly Sunni Muslim, they live among mountains where Europe and Asia meet south of the Caucasus.

kurdish areas map

About half the 28 million Kurds live within Turkey’s borders, 6 million in Iran, 5 to 6 million in Iraq, and close to 2 million in Syria.  They form about 18% of Turkey’s population, 10% of Iran’s, 15%-20% of Iraq’s and 10% of Syria’s.

Where Kurds live is a battleground at the ever-changing border of great empires based in Turkey, Russia and Iran/Persia.

Ottoman forces that threatened Persia in the 1530s were deterred with a scorched earth campaign in which Kurdish settlements of every size were laid waste, crops were destroyed, resistors were massacred, and all others were relocated.  Destruction of the Kurdish area continued into the 1600s.

Over the centuries and as the fortunes of the great empires changed, Kurds fought sometimes alongside Ottoman forces, sometimes with Iran, sometimes among themselves, and most often against domination by any foreign power.  They remained a tribal people with principalities in present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Kurdish States 1835

The Ottoman Empire’s 1829–1879 centralization campaign had little impact on those Kurdish principalities.  Although flickers of Kurdish nationalism sprang up toward the end of the 19th century, the Kurds never united.

Turkey’s Kurds tried to establish autonomy in 1880.  The central government welcomed it at first, hoping to counter a potential Armenian state under Russia.  But they suppressed the uprising when they recognized that Kurds and Armenians, the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion, had always co-existed quite well.

Unlike Kurds in Turkey who consider themselves different from the majority, Iran’s Kurds did not.  They were treated as part of Iran’s Islamic majority, unlike Armenian Christians or Jews.  The central government was concerned about Ottoman invasion, Britain’s advance from India and Russia’s from the north , not differences among fellow-Muslims.  While the majority of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria are Sunni, they are about evenly split in Iran between Sunni, Shia, and Sufi.

Iran Map 1900

Kurdish nationalism began to grow in Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century because of Ottoman oppression of minorities and WW1’s devastation.  Much of the Kurdish area was laid waste by advancing and retreating troop forces and the Ottoman government drove out an estimated 700,000 Kurds, almost half of whom perished.  They also killed or drove into the Syrian desert a million or more Armenians between 1915 and 1916.

After WW1, Turkey’s Kurds became subject to aggressively enforced secular rule.  Kurds to the south fell under France in newly established Syria and under Britain in newly established Iraq.

To protect its new colonial possession, Britain advocated independent and allied Kurdish and Armenian states as a buffer against Turkey and Russia.  That idea died when Greece and Italy invaded Turkey and its Kurds joined the battle against the Christian invaders.

In 1920, Britain, France and Italy agreed to establish “a scheme of local autonomy for the predominately Kurdish areas” but Turkey’s government was strong enough by the following year to block it.  Then Britain abandoned the idea of a “quasi-autonomous” independent Kurdistan in Iraq in case the French established one in Syria.

Britain next encouraged Turkey’s Kurds to rebel but they stopped that when France ceded its lands north of Syria, which gave the Turkish government a base from which they could easily invade Iraq.   In 1923, Britain signed a treaty with Turkey that made no mention of Kurds.

Kurdish Areas Map 2

But Britain treated Kurds in Iraq well, giving Arabs and Kurds equal rights, Kurdish and Arabic languages equal legal status and dividing the country into Arab and Kurdish regions with separate administrative policies and practices.

When Iraq gained independence, however, the central government set up a unified state dominated by Sunni Arabs that suppressed Kurdish rights, militarized Kurdish regions, and destroyed Kurdish villages, especially where oil was found.  There has been pretty much constant strife in Kurdish Iraq ever since.

Kurdistan Map

Suppression of Iraqi Kurds increased further under Saddam Hussein.   During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, half a million Kurds were sent to detention camps in southern and eastern Iraq, villages were razed and Kurdish towns were attacked with chemical weapons.

After withdrawing its forces in 1991, Iraq’s government imposed an economic blockade on Kurdistan which the UN embargo on Iraq made worse by halting Kurdish trade with other nations.

But Iraqi Kurdistan had achieved de facto independence.

And Kurdistan is now a somewhat functional democracy.  Turkey is becoming its closest ally, major oil companies have made deals with it, and a pipeline to Turkey with a capacity of a million barrels a day is due to come online within a couple of years.

Turkey is also potentially a supporter of a self-governing Kurdish state in Syria.

Kurds only ever wanted to be free from oppression.  Turkey’s Sunni Kurds got on well enough with Christian Armenians, and Iran’s mix of Sunni, Shia and Sufi Kurds were treated as equals by Persia’s Shia rulers, so Kurds can coexist.  They have, however, been greatly abused, violently suppressed by Ottoman Turkey’s Sunni rulers, driven out by Iran in a scorched earth campaign, massacred by Iraq’s Sunni regime, and more.

Their latest battle is against an ever-shifting set of gangs, the worst of which, ISIS, is employing extreme terror to institute what they say will be global religious rule.  Their objectives certainly include temporal power…

What should we do?  Is the solution a nation state whose territory includes all Kurdish areas now in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria?  Should we work to establish that Greater Kurdistan?  And should we then supply it with weaponry to defeat any future threat?

Given what nation states have done in the past, that does not look to be the best idea.  A better approach will emerge when this research is complete.

Beyond the Media Hype: Turkey

Turkey, bordered by water on three sides and high mountains in the east, has lowland only on the coast.  About one sixth of its land can support agriculture, another sixth grazing.  Mountain ridges form a belt just south of the Black Sea.  A ridge in the south borders a central massif in the west and joins the northern mountains in the east.  Narrow straits in the east give Turkey control of the only outlet from the Black Sea.

Turkey Topo

Control of the Turkish Straits is valuable because they provide Russia’s only year-round ocean access.  Its navy is based on the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine.  The Straits also offer the only maritime trade route for Romania, Ukraine, Georgia and their neighbors.  International treaties govern what warships can use the Straits and Turkey’s rights to control the passage.

Black Sea Map

Turkey is where Silk Road routes linked Asian and European traders.  Trade for Chinese silk that began in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) expanded enormously enabling Islamic Empires to become the world’s greatest economic power in the 7th-13th centuries when their trade network covered much of Asia, Africa and Europe.  Cultures carried via the Silk Road helped shape the civilizations of China, India, Iran, Arabia and Europe.

Silk Road Map

Turks from Mongolia, Kazakhstan and other ‘stans began moving west long ago.  Some settled along the way.  Others went on to Anatolia, today’s Turkey, to establish what became the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922).  Many of them continued to live as nomads or moved seasonally between upland and plain in eastern Anatolia but three quarters of the population now is urban.  Almost a fifth of Turkey’s population are Kurds, an ethnic Iranian people, in eastern Anatolia.

The head of state  of the Ottoman Empire was also its religious leader.  Administrative, economic and political systems were guided by Islam, but non-Muslims had substantial religious freedom under the “millet” system that protected Christians in Zoroastrian Iran a thousand years earlier and was retained after the Islamic conquest.  Christians flourished under that system and sent missionaries via the Silk Road even to China and India.

The headman of a millet collected and distributed taxes and set laws for his people based on religion.  All Christians, for example, throughout the Empire were part of the Christian millet.  There was no citizenship based on location within the Empire, nor any ethnic separation.  People of every ethnic background in a millet had the same rights and privileges.  The law of the injured party’s millet was applied to crimes by those from a different millet.

The Ottoman Empire peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries after advancing northwest through Greece and Ukraine and southeast into Iran, and gaining control of the Mediterranean and of trade with east Asia via the Indian ocean.  It lost territory piecemeal in the 18th and 19th centuries then, faced with losses on every side, allied with Germany in WW1.  The Empire was utterly destroyed and Turkey was occupied  by the victors.  They were driven out in 1922 and Turkey became independent the next year.

Ottoman Empire Map


The new government was led by Mustafa Kemel Atatürk who replaced Islamic law with a secular civil code, gave women full political rights, and gave Turkey its alphabet along with many other reforms.  Ataturk means “Father of the Turks”.  He is the one who gave Turks their identity, and he remains a strong force even though he died in 1938.

Ataturk established many political freedoms although his was the only political party.  His successor established multi-party elections at the end of WW2, in which Turkey was neutral.  When the Soviet Union tried in 1947 to establish bases in the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the US guaranteed to defend Turkey and Greece militarily.

True multi-party democracy began in 1950 but it was interrupted by military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980.  Turkey’s military leaders saw themselves as responsible for protecting Ataturk’s secular state by replacing governments when necessary as a short term corrective.

The 1950-60 government had relaxed Ataturk’s restrictions on Islam.  Then, after short-lived economic growth, it took on huge debt that led to high inflation and dissent that it tried to quell with censorship.  The military took over and executed the Prime Minister.  Unstable civilian governments resumed in 1961, with another coup in 1971.  Violent clashes between ultra-nationalists and communists led to another military coup in 1980 and imposition of martial law throughout the country.

A one-party civilian government supervised closely by the military was established in 1983 and the economy boomed.  Kurdish separatists began an insurrection in 1984 which the government first tried to counter with local paramilitary militias.  In 1987, they placed the entire southeast under emergency legislation that stayed in force until 2002.  Political instability returned in the 1990s.  In 1997, the military forced the Prime Minister to resign, deeming his religious policies a threat to Turkey’s secular nature.

The next government reformed the economy, established human rights laws and began positioning Turkey for membership in the European Union, then the economy faltered again.  Another new government formed in 2002 under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has remained in power.  It arrested military leaders in 2008 and 2010, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the government.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP — Ak means “light” ) is oppressive, corrupt and may be aiming to reestablish an Islamic state.  A 2013 corruption scandal that led to arrests of his close allies provoked riots across the country.  Erdoğan claimed an attempted coup and blocked Twitter and YouTube when he was incriminated in a recording released on the Internet.  Media censorship, electoral fraud, and general disregard for law have branded him in many eyes as a dictator.  Western media are mostly supportive.

The challenges for Turkey are to establish a government that does not depend on military approval and is responsive to civil rights demands from all parts of society, especially Kurds in the east who feel closer to their fellows in Iraq and Iran.  Erdogan’s strategy is the usual strongman approach.  Turkey may not in fact have a better future without its secular military leaders.

Turkey’s relative advantage is that its geographic borders do make it a natural nation state unlike Iraq, Syria and others to its south whose territory was defined in the 19th and early 20th centuries by colonial powers with a ruler.

But what is a nation state?  State implies territory and nation implies culture, so a nation state implies a territory with a common culture.  Several states in this series of posts are multi-ethnic and/or multi-cultural.  They do not have the common culture that makes for a natural nation state and unlike the Ottoman Empire, they have no system to accommodate diversity.

The nation state idea arose from Romantic Age fantasies about racial heritage in early 19th century Europe.  States were replacing dynastic monarchies whose territory had often changed with the marriage of a king’s daughter.  Many states came to embrace ideas about the unique and superior nature of the people within their “traditional” borders.  The concept evolved in the 20th century into the idea of a fatherland, and that led to genocide in some nation states along with a world war over territory.

A different concept of nationalism arose in the second half of the 19th century as the Ottoman Empire declined.  Europe’s great nations were thriving as nation states, why not Arab nations, too?  In the early 20th century when much of the Arab world fell  to Europe’s colonial empires, the idea grew stronger.  All Arabs wanted the colonial powers gone — many wanted to replace their form of rule with a federation of Arab governments.

Arab World Map

When Arab independence came, mostly during or after WW2 and often with a ruler chosen by their imperial master, Egypt, Syria and Iraq made an abortive federation agreement, and there were other attempts, but local priorities and the drive for power always prevailed.

In fact, independent Turkey would never have allied closely with its Arab neighbors whether or not they united, nor would Turkey ally closely with Iran, and neither would Iran with the Arab world.  There’s simply too little history of good self-government, or willingness to trust.

Unsurprisingly, most post-Ottoman states have been stable only under a dictator whose military power subdued ethnic and religious rivalry within an arbitrarily defined territory.

So, how does the future look for Turkey and its neighbors?  Turkey and Iran have good potential as nation states.  Recently independent Kurdistan may have, too, but it has no natural borders.  Syria and Iraq are on the brink of fragmentation.  The Islamic State has no territorial or ethnic history, but its leaders may be sufficiently brutal to thrive for a time.

It is hard for Westerners to see a good future for the people of this area because we can no longer imagine any system of government other than nation states.  We think dynastic monarchies in the Middle East just need to become secular democratic republics like ours.  But the Ottoman millet system, for example, worked better than most nation states.

Hamilton argued in Federalist Paper 25 that power-seeking leaders of US states would make war on each other if they had military capability.  These nation states are doing exactly that.  We should stop arming them to escalate battles we do not understand.

We must also recognize that centuries of abuse by Europe’s colonial powers and now our own wars in Iraq and elsewhere have bred deep and inevitable mistrust of whatever help we may offer.