David Kilcullen’s 2021 wrap up – a weak US emboldens its rivals

Commentator and counterinsurgency expert is always worth reading – and below is his latest piece  for The Australian.

As the time of the year would have it, I read his review of 2021 as I was completing my own for publication in the That Was The Year That Was series. Here is mine. Kilcullen’s follows.

As for the world at large, COVID19 continues to dominate the news, with more contagious variants popping up all over the place lake a game of “whack a mole”. As does the ongoing struggle to reach global consensus on the need to confront climate change. Tackling both looks a little like the story of Sisyphus, the Greek King of old who was condemned by Zeus to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down as soon as he reached the top.

The year kicked off to a fine start with the January 6th Insurrection in Washington DC as Donald Trump endeavoured to cling on to office by inciting his supporters and sundry militias to storm the Capitol to stop the count of electoral votes that would cede the presidency to Joe Biden. Though he failed, and was impeached for a second time, and the Biden administration sought to calm America’s troubled waters, the Orange One haunts The US’ fractious and paralyzed politics and the prospect of a second Trump term is not beyond imagination.

Trump’s bestie, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime’s minister, also got the push in the wake of the third election in just over a year. The unique coalition that emerged from torturous negotiations spanned the political, social and religious spectrum – left and right, secular and orthodox, Arab and Jew, and promised little more than maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo, that pertaining to the occupation and the settlements, illegal migrants, and the disproportionate influence the Haredim, none of which are morally, politically, socially or economically sustainable.

China under would-be emperor Xi Jinping continues to aggressively build its military and economic power, determined to take its rightful and long overdue place at the top of the geopolitical ladder, causing consternation among its neighbours and also other powers and fears of war in our time. With Xinxiang’s Uighurs and Hong Kong firmly under its autocratic boot, it continues to expand its nautical footprint in the South China Sea and signals loudly that Taiwan’s days as a liberal democracy are numbered. It’s belligerency is increasingly meeting blow-back as other nations react in various ways to what they perceive as clear and present danger. What happens next is anybody’s guess.

Russia under would-be czar Vladimir Putin continues to aggressively rebuild its military power and influence, determined to revive the glory days of the defunct Soviet Union, whist channeling memories of its former imperial glory. Whilst in no way as powerful as China, it is taking advantage of the the world’s preoccupation with the ascendancy of the Celestial Kingdom Redux to reassert its influence in its own backyard – including the veiled threat to reconquer Ukraine – and also in the world, particularly in Syria and also, through the use of shadowy proxies and mercenaries, in Africa. What happens next is anybody’s guess.

America finally ended its “endless war” in Afghanistan, in a chaotic, deadly scramble that left that country’s forever unfortunate people in the hands of a resurgent and apparently unreformed and unrepentant Taliban. It’s over a 100 days since the last evacuation plane took off in scenes of chaos and misery, leaving behind thousands of employees and others at risk of retribution, and the new regime has yet to establish a working government. Meanwhile professionals, human rights workers, officials of the former regime, members if the old government’s security forces, and especially women and girls wait, many in hiding, for the worst. Meanwhile, winter is coming and th country is broke and on the brink of of starvation. A major humanitarian crisis is imminent. What happens next, everybody does indeed know. As St. Leonard said, “We have seen the future and it’s murder!”

Whilst the war in Afghanistan ended, there are still plenty to go around for the weapons manufacturers and arms dealers, the mercenaries and the proxies. The year began well for Azerbaijan when it emerged victorious from a vicious 44 day drone and missile war against Armenia for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave that saw Turkish and Syrian proxies engaged each side of the conflict. An old War was rekindled in Ethiopia as a Nobel Peace Prize winner sent his troops to rake pillage and conquer a fractious province which turned the tables and is now poses to seize his capital. Hubris extremis?  Meanwhile, war went on in the usual places – Syria, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, and places too obscure to mention.

Meanwhile, back home DownUnder, the story that dominated political news – apart from COVID19 and the total fuck-up of the vaccine roll-out, was the delinquent behaviour of politicians and their staffers in Parliament House – commentators have likened the goings-on in there to a school yard or frat house, and more bluntly, to a Roman orgy, with tales of bullying and sexual harassment, drunken parties, mutual masturbation sessions, and even rape. The prime minister huffed and puffed and asked his wife how he should deal with the situation; commissions of inquiries were set up; and reports handed down. The motto is “we must do better – and we shall!” But as with most things these days, nobody believes what politicians say anymore.

And not just here in Australia, but all over the world. Trust is in short supply, and indeed, people’s faith in democratic traditions and processes is shaking as populism and a taste for autocracy spreads like … well, a coronavirus. The US was recently named a “backsliding democracy” by a Swedish based think-tank, an assessment based on the attempted Capitol coup and restrictions on voting rights in Red states. In the bizarro conspiracy universe, American right wing commentators and rabble-rousers are urging their freedom-loving myrmidons to rescue Australia from totalitarianism. Apparently we have established Covid concentration camps and are forcible vaccinating indigenous people.

In early December, US President Joe Biden held a summit for democracy, and yet his administration are still determined to bring Julian Assange to trial, a case that, if it succeeds, will limit freedom of speech. The conduct of the trial also poses a threat to the US’s reputation because it could refocus attention on the ugly incidents during the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were exposed by WikiLeaks. There is a strong humanitarian and pragmatic case to look for a way out of Assange’s Kafkaesque nightmare, but the bastions of freedom, America, Britain and Australia show no interest in doing so notwithstanding the harm it does to their democratic credentials.

Uncustomary for him – it must be the season of goodwill – Kilcullen ends his review on a note of cautious optimism:

“Given the events of 2021, all this suggests that in 2022, despite the darkening international threat picture, a more independent, self-reliant, resilient and capable Australia, stepping up to confront the challenges of great-power competition – amid a rising threat from China, declining US influence and an increasingly complex and dangerous security environment – will be necessary and achievable. We should all hope for a sense of urgency and commitment in the face of the new environment’.

I am more sanguine. To quote  the famous American coach Yogi Berra. As we leave 2021:
“Predictions are always very hard, especially when they’re about the future”
Over to David Kilcullen …

 

.Weak US emboldens China, Russia and Iran  
The security picture for Australia has never been darker or more complex. But several key events this year offer clues into the challenges we’ll be facing in the year ahead.

David KilCullen, Weekend Australian 18th December 2021

 

Afghans struggle to reach the foreign forces to show their credentials to flee the country outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul.

Afghans struggle to reach the foreign forces Hamid Karzai International Airport,Kabul.

    As we look forward into next year, the geostrategic and security picture for Australia has never been more complex and rarely more challenging. In security terms, this year was one of American weakness, Afghan betrayal, rising Russia-NATO tension and the emergence of space warfare and advanced technologies as domains in a new Sino-American Cold War.

    But it was also the year of AUKUS and the year Australia found its feet despite increasingly belligerent bullying from Beijing. Several key events shaped 2021, and these in turn give us a clue as to how things might develop next year.

    US weakness  

    The year began in chaos as Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol, seeking to stop what they saw as a stolen election. Belief that an election has been stolen is one of the most well-documented triggers for revolutionary unrest.

    Many Republicans, independents and even some Democrats still see the election as rigged – and, by extension, the Biden administration as illegitimate – boding ill for US stability into next year. The unrest that peaked during deadly riots in 200 US cities and all 50 states through the summer of 2020 seems to have subsided. But this is an illusion, since last year’s tension was stoked by the media and anti-Trump politicians.

    Now back in charge, establishment institutions have an interest in damping dissent and, as a result, media amplification of unrest has been more subdued this year. But the underlying issues remain: riots continue in places such as Portland and Seattle, racially charged trials have triggered deadly protests, extremists are active on left and right, and murder rates are at levels not seen for 30 years. All of this is likely to come to a head next year around the US midterm elections. The worst inflation in four decades, supply-chain disruptions, labour disputes, retail shortages, soaring fuel prices, persistent Covid-19 restrictions (800,000 Americans have now died during the pandemic) and the most illegal border crossings since records began in 1960 complete the picture of a superpower in decline whose domestic weakness encourages its international adversaries.

    Afghanistan: a triple betrayal

    US feebleness was evident in August when, without bothering to consult his allies, President Joe Biden insisted on the rampantly incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan that prompted apocalyptic scenes at Kabul airport. The botched evacuation was not only a betrayal of our Afghan partners – in whom the international community, at Washington’s urging, had invested unprecedented effort since 2001 – but also a betrayal by Biden of NATO and non-NATO allies, including Australia.

    Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the group's feared hardline brand of Islamist rule.

    Afghans climb atop a plane at the Kabul airport in Kabul,lAugust 16, 2021, 

    It was a defeat on the scale of Saigon in 1975, though the comparison is unfair to that withdrawal, which was more profes­sional and less self-inflicted than this one. The resulting contempt in coalition capitals (and military headquarters) has been quietly intense, even as Americans’ trust in the armed forces plummeted to its lowest level this century, reflecting the military’s recent inability to win wars and its failure to hold anyone accountable when it loses.

    It was a triple betrayal: Afghan leaders from president Ashraf Ghani down abandoned their people in the moment of truth, fleeing to safety while leaving them to the Taliban and the prospect of famine. The UN estimates that more than 20 million Afghans are at risk of starvation this winter, meaning 2022 may well turn out to be an even worse year for Afghans than 2021. Even while many of us continue working frantically to help evacuate his people, Ghani is calmly writing a book in Abu Dhabi – perhaps a sequel to his well-received Fixing Failed States – while his henchmen live large on money squirrelled away in advance of the collapse or carried with them as they fled. Some, such as the leaders of the National Resistance Front, Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, fight on, while others (including former president Hamid Karzai) proved courageous in the crisis. But with these few exceptions, never was a people so ill-served by their own leaders or so badly left in the lurch by their self-styled friends.

    Russia: playing a poor hand well

    America’s enemies, and not only the terrorists emboldened by the Taliban victory, have noticed its weakness. Vladimir Putin moved quickly to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan’s Central Asian borderland, partnering with China on several military and economic initiatives, deploying troops to the Afghan-Tajik border and signing a weapons deal with India, a move that parallels his efforts to win Turkish support through arms sales. In the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic and Arctic oceans Russian ships, submarines and aircraft are more active than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago next week.

    Putin always has been brilliant at playing a weak hand well, and this year has been no exception. In the early months of 2021, with Biden distracted after the Capitol riot, and congress impeaching Trump for the second time, Russian forces pressured Ukraine with a troop build-up and threatening deployments on its border. The result was a conciliatory summit meeting between Putin and Biden in June, seen in Europe as mostly benefiting the Russan side.

    President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast with vodka during a signing ceremony in Shanghai, China.

    Vladimir Putin and  Xi Jinping toast with vodka during a signing ceremony in Shanghai

    After the Afghan fiasco, Russian activity in the Baltic States and Ukraine ramped up, and Russia’s ally Belarus tested the frontier defences of Poland and Lithuania with a manipulated flood of refugees, copying a Russian technique pioneered in Norway in 2015 and repeated several times since. Now Russian forces, including missile, tank and artillery units – perhaps 175,000 troops in all – are again massing within striking distance of the Ukrainian border, prompting urgent concern in Kiev.

    Again, the US response reeked of appeasement, with Biden allegedly urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to offer formal autonomy to the eastern region of his country that has been under de facto Russian occupation since 2014, while assuring Russia and NATO that the US has no plans to fight for Ukraine’s freedom. These assurances were given the same week Biden hosted the Summit for Democracy, posing as leader of the free world. Neither Ukraine’s elected leaders nor Afghan parliamentarians – now on the run for their lives – commented, though Russia and China issued stinging critiques.

    With winter approaching, Russian energy exports remain essential for Europe, while Russia – as a side effect of US policies targeting domestic energy production in pursuit of the Green New Deal – is the second largest source of US petroleum imports, giving Putin yet another card to play. The northern hemisphere winter of 2021-22 is thus likely to see Russia making use of its “energy weapon” within a broader suite of coercive tools.

    China’s uneasy rise

    If Russia played a weak hand well this year, China continued strengthening its hand. Beijing’s navy is growing at an astonishingly rapid pace while the modernisation and professionalisa­tion of its land, air, cyber and rocket forces continue. The regime’s nuclear arsenal is undergoing substantial expansion, with hundreds of new missile silos discovered in remote desert areas. Cyber attacks, economic coercion and diplomatic bullying remain core elements of the Chinese repertoire, even as Western business leaders and sports stars (again with honourable exceptions) turn a blind eye to its crackdown in Hong Kong, bullying of Taiwan and oppression of the Uighurs.

    China’s completion last year of its BeiDou satellite constellation, equivalent to the US Global Positioning System, threatened the dominance of GPS for the first time since 1993, with implications for every aspect of Western society, from EFTPOS transactions to infrastructure and transportation. Then in mid-October China tested a fractional orbital bombardment system, a shuttle-like spacecraft moving at hypersonic speed, able to evade missile def­ences and deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world with limited chance of interception.

    The Chinese test demonstrated how far US technology is lagging in this area, while marking the emergence of space warfare as a domain of conflict. Russia’s demonstration of a counter-space capability, destroying one of its own satellites in orbit (and creating a debris cloud that threatened the International Space Station) showed China is not the only adversary in space. Moscow and Beijing have announced joint plans for a permanent moon base, while China’s space station appears to include military modules.

    More broadly, hypersonic technology – missiles moving at more than five times the speed of sound that can manoeuvre to avoid defences – are proliferating.

    The so-called tech war among the superpowers includes these technologies alongside directed-energy weapons, robotics, nanotechnologies, bioweapons, quantum computing and human performance enhancements. These are among the most important areas of competition in the new cold war, along with the contest to control commodities (rare earth metals, copper, cobalt, lithium and uranium) and assets such as silicon and gallium nitride semiconductors that sustain them.

    The first big event for China next year will be the Winter Olympics in February. Australia has joined a US-led diplomatic boycott of the Games, with Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Lithuania. Others may follow, but a diplomatic boycott – where athletes still participate – will have limited impact.

    The Olympics are important for another reason: Admiral John Aquilino, newly appointed chief of US Indo-Pacific Command, has argued that Beijing is holding back on any move against Taiwan until the Games are over, meaning that from next March the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait may rise significantly.

    Reservists of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces line up during military exercises at a training ground outside Kharkiv, Ukraine December 11, 2021.

    Reservists of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces Kharkiv, Ukraine, December 11, 2021.

    Beijing may be emboldened towards any future conflict by US failure in Afghanistan, of which China is the biggest beneficiary. China’s control of mineral res­ources in the country (and its de facto recognition of the Taliban) gives it leverage, while Beijing’s alliance with Islamabad allows the currently dominant Taliban faction in Kabul, which is heavily influenced by Pakistan’s intelligence service, to draw on Chinese support to consolidate control.

    Indirectly, the failure of two decades of intervention in Afghanistan is seen as discrediting Western attempts to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, vindicating China’s transactional approach.

    Beijing’s 25-year strategic co-operation agreement with Tehran, signed in March, lets China import oil directly from Iran, helping to draw Afghanistan into a Chinese-dominated regional economic and security order.

    It also reduces China’s reliance on seaborne petroleum imports through the Malacca Strait and South China Sea, making it less vulnerable to US action in the Pacific.

    Iran: further than ever from a nuclear deal

    For its part, Tehran has made great strides in developing its nuclear capability since 2018, when Trump suspended US participation in the multilateral deal signed by Barack Obama in 2015. This prompted severe concern about Iranian nuclear weapons in Israel and in the Sunni Arab states of the Middle East, while European diplomats warn the 2015 deal will soon be beyond saving. Iran suspended its involvement in talks to rescue the deal, conducting an internal review after its presidential election in June. Though talks have resumed, and Tehran seems willing to co-operate with UN monitoring, a return to the previous deal appears further away than ever. The fact Iran is revising its stance largely because of pressure from Russia and China, rather than in response to US sanctions, underlines American impotence and Sino-Russian influence, even as the two US rivals meet this week to discuss joint responses to what they describe as increasingly aggressive US rhetoric and sanctions threats.

    Iran’s dominance in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and Lebanon’s ongoing humanitarian and security crisis) has helped cement Tehran’s influence across the Middle East and Levant while reinforcing the regional role of Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, and the Russia-Iran and China-Iran partnerships that made that position possible. This will persist next year. After the Afghan withdrawal it is hard for Washington to justify its troop presence in Iraq (where the anti-ISIS combat mission has officially ended) or eastern Syria, where US forces are deployed without approval from congress or any clear mission or end state. Something to watch in the coming year will be whether progress towards any resumption of the nuclear agreement coincides with further US withdrawals across the region.

    AUKUS: doubling down on a weak partner?

    As this overview shows, Australia’s environment this year has been more threatening and less predictable than at any time since the 1930s, as recognised in last year’s strategic update and cyber-security strategy, and underlined by the AUKUS agreement in September. Much has been made of the nuclear-powered submarines to be acquired under the agreement, a truly transformational move for Australian naval capability, though one that will take a long time to implement. Much sooner, indeed starting next year, long-range strike capabilities including Tomahawk and JASSM-ER missiles for the navy and air force, Apache attack helicopters for the army, and self-propelled artillery (under a separate deal with South Korea) will represent an immediate step up in Australia’s military posture. A new national critical technologies strategy, part of the broader technological component of AUKUS, is another important element of the new, more assertive stance.

    As 2022 unfolds, AUKUS will represent an important indicator of the way ahead. If the agreement becomes a broadbased framework on which to build expanded co-operation with like-minded players – particularly Britain, which is rediscovering a role East of Suez and partnering with Australia on more issues than ever – then it will strengthen our leverage in the face of this new era of conflict.

    If, on the other hand, AUKUS becomes another way to double down on the US relationship, increasing our reliance on a declining partner, the agreement could quickly become a net negative.

    Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces the AUKUS pact with the President of the United States Joe Biden and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson in Canberra. Picture: Newswire/Gary Ramage

    Scott Morrison announces the AUKUS pact oe Biden and  Boris Johnson 

    The alienation of France (given that the French have more citizens and more capable military forces than any other European power in the Pacific) carries significant risks, as the South Pacific increasingly looks like a new theatre of conflict with China. Likewise, as India’s recent weapons deal with Russia illustrates, AUKUS can neither replace the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the informal partnership between the US, Japan, India and Australia – nor should it.

    Encouragingly, 2021 seems to have been the year Australia found its feet despite bullying by Beijing since Canberra’s call for accountability on Covid-19 last year. China’s diplomatic high-handedness, shrill anti-Australian propaganda, economic coercion, cyber attacks, political interference and aggressive deployment of intelligence assets near our coastline were designed to teach us a lesson and show every Western-allied power what happens to those who step out of line. This backfired badly, pushing Australia into closer relations with allies, helping Australia’s economy diversify away from a damaging dependence on China, and prompting a sharp decline in Australians’ perceptions of China.

    As a global energy shortage began to bite in late 2021, and China’s growth slowed, Chinese dependence on Australian iron and coal revealed itself as a key aspect of economic leverage – naturally prompting Beijing to threaten Australia over it.

    Given the events of 2021, all this suggests that in 2022, despite the darkening international threat picture, a more independent, self-reliant, resilient and capable Australia, stepping up to confront the challenges of great-power competition – amid a rising threat from China, declining US influence and an increasingly complex and dangerous security environment – will be necessary and achievable. We should all hope for a sense of urgency and commitment in the face of the new environment.

    Messing with the Mullahs – America’s phoney war?

    “The Iranian regime took action today to increase its uranium enrichment.  It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level.  There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms”. Statement from the White House Press Secretary 1st July 2019

    The White House has not subsequently explained how a country can violate the terms of a deal before that deal existed. But, as New York Times commentator Roger Cohen wrote recently, ”President Donald Trump has been all over the place on Iran, which is what happens when you take a serious subject, treat it with farcical superficiality, believe braggadocio will sway a proud and ancient civilisation, approach foreign policy like a real-estate deal, defer to advisers with Iran Derangement Syndrome, refuse to read any briefing papers and confuse the American national interest with the Saudi or Israeli”.

    There is transparent angst and disappointment among many in the US Administration that that Iran’s Islamic Republic has endured for forty years with no sign of collapse (there are parallel palpitations and peregrinations with regard to Cuba and more recently, to Venezuela). Iran ‘hawk’ John Bolton might declare that the Islamic Republic would not celebrate its fortieth anniversary the Iranian Revolution. But the anniversary is upon us already. Iran is not going anywhere else soon.

    Presently, it would appear that the administration is backpedaling on its bellicose rhetoric as it responds to Congress’ concerns about what is perceived as a lack of a unified US strategy. The dispatch of an American battle fleet to the Persian Gulf in response to unexplained and indeterminate Iranian threats and provocations has now been re-framed as having successfully deterred Iran’s hardliners from miscellaneous mischiefs and miscalculations. And yet, others in the US and elsewhere are attributing such follies to the US itself?

    By ironic synchronicity, I am rereading historian Barbara W Tuchman’s acclaimed The March of Folly – From Troy to Vietnam. Her opening sentence reads: ‘A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than most any other human activity’. Her many definitions of folly include dangerous delusions of grandeur and “and obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals”. History has shown us – I refrain from saying “taught us” because we rarely learn from history – the consequences of single-minded determination amounting to a tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity. Charging ahead regardless only works for those who are stronger than all obstacles. Only those holding all the trump cards can ignore the other players at the table. With the US ratchetting up the pressure on Iran, the law of unintended consequences is in play with many observers perceiving the American leadership as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

    In recent moves that recall the US’ lurch into Iraq sixteen years ago on the basis of nonexistent – or at the least very well hidden – weapons of mass destruction, war drums are beating across the Potomac as Iran hawks boost the potential for war with the Islamic Republic. Curiously identical damage to Saudi and Emiratis vessels in the strategically important Persian Gulf point to Iranian sabotage. rather than signally Iran’s provocative intent, it looks more like a clumsy false-flag frolic by the geniuses who gave us thrillers like “how to murder a dissident journalist in plain sight”, “let’s bomb one of the poorest countries on earth back into the Stone Age”.

    This can be set against a historical record that the US has not initiated a major war – that is one with congressional approval – without a false flag since the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour in 1898, thus taking the US into a war with Spain that resulted in the colonization the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. This includes the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident 1964 escalated an ongoing “skirmish” in Vietnam into an all-out conflict, and those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that arguably brought us to where we are now.

    Most folk who are into history like to draw parallels and identify patterns in the past that reflect upon the present. As I do also, albeit in a more ambivalent way. Cleaving to Mark (Twain, that is) rather than Marx, I am fascinated more by the rhymes than the repetitions. But “remembering’, as Taylor Swift sings. “comes in flashbacks and echoes”. Over to Bob Dylan:

    Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
    Where the neon madmen climb
    They all fall there so perfectly
    It all seems so well timed
    An’ here I sit so patiently
    Waiting to find out what price
    You have to pay to get out of
    Going through all these things twice
    Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
    To be stuck inside of Mobile
    With the Memphis blues again

    The story of the Iranian Revolution is a complex, multidimensional one, and it is difficult for its events and essence to be compressed into brief opinion pieces of any political flavour, no matter how even-handed they endeavour to be.

    The revolution began slowly in late 1977 when demonstrations against Shah Reza Pahlevi, developed into a campaign of civil resistance by both secular and religious groups. These intensified through 1978, culminating In strikes and demonstrations that paralyzed the country. Millennia of monarchy in Iran ended in January 1979 when the Shah and his family fled into exile. By April, exiled cleric and  longtime dissident Ayatollah Khomeini returned home to a rapturous welcome. Activist fighters and rebel soldiers overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah, and Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic republic on April 1st 1979. A new constitution saw Khomeini became Supreme Leader in December 1979.

    The success and continuing durability of the Iranian Revolution derived from many sources, and many are not touched upon by commentators and pundits. Here are some of my own thoughts on disparate but intrinsic parts of the Islamic Republic’s story.

    One can’t ignore the nature of the monarchy that preceded it – modernist on the one hand, and brutally repressive on the other; nor the unwavering and hypocritical support (including infrastructure, weapons, and intelligence) provided to it by western “democracies” since Britain and the US placed Reza Shah Pahlevi on the throne in 1953. And nor should we ignore the nature of the unprecedented regime and state that was established forty years ago – a brutal, theocratic, patriarchal, quasi-totalitarian system that endeavours to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives, its rule enforced by loyal militias like the ruthless Basij and by the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex more powerful than the regular army.

    The support and succour that the US gave to the deposed Shah and his family and entourage, and later, to the opponents of the revolution, served to unite the population around a dogmatic, cruel and vengeful regime, which, in the manner of revolutions past and present, “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike. One of the ironies of the early days of the revolution was its heterodox complexion – a loose and unstable alliance between factions of the left, right and divine. History is replete with examples of how a revolution besieged within and without by enemies actual and imagined mobilizes it people for its support, strength and survival. Recall France after 1789 and Russian after 1917.  The outcome in both was foreign intervention and years of war and repression.

    I fought in the old revolution 
    on the side of the ghost and the King. 
    Of course I was very young 
    and I thought that we were winning; 
    I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing 
    as they carry the bodies away.
    Leonard Cohen

    Too often, in modern times, the US administration of the day has been called upon by a new and potentially radical regime to take sides, and indeed, to accept a tentative hand of friendship. And too often, for reasons political, ideological, economic, religious even, the US has made what historians of all colours would deduce was the wrong call – with disastrous consequences for the  newly freed nation and, with perfect if partisan hindsight, the world. Think Vietnam, Egypt and Cuba. In each, there was a pivotal moment when the US could have given its support to the new rulers and potentially changed the course of the revolution, and the freshly “liberated” people, and our world, might have been better off for it. And, so it was in 1979, with Iran.

    The US’ steadfast support for the Shah during his reign, and its enmity towards Iran’s new rulers, predictably reciprocated by the mullahs and their zealous supporters, created “the Great Satan”, a symbolism sustained by the reality that many in US political circles actively sought to undermine and destroy the revolution (and still do, championing the late Shah’s son as their annointed one.

    Time and folly have not softened the fear and the fervour.

    Here are but a selection from a sorry catalogue: the long-running embassy hostage drama, and failed and ignominious rescue attempts; the subsequent and continuing economic sanctions; the moral and material support provided to Saddam Hussein during the bloody eight year Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) which cost the lives of over half a million soldiers on both sides; the years of wrestling and wrangling, politicking and posturing over Iran’s quest for a nuclear deterrent against perceived US aggression, and the western powers’ push-back; the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and beyond through proxies and patronage, subterfuge and subversion – often through those latter day sell-swords the Revolutionary Guards – a form of what strategic analysts now call “offshore balancing”, or, simply put, fighting your foes outside rather than within your own borders; and today’s quixotic tango in which a false move or miscalculation could have catastrophic consequences.

    There have been moments of what reasonable folk might perceive as farce, such as when in February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, sparking violence and protests around the world. Or as tragedy, as in July 1988, when the USS Vincennes blew Iranian Flight 655 out of the sky above the Persian Gulf, killing 290 men, women and children. The ship’s captain was exonerated.

    In February 2019, a Middle East Security Conference was convened in Warsaw by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It brought together sixty countries, including Arab states and Israel, ostensible to discuss a range of issues, including Syria and Palestine, but in reality, it was always about Iran. The Warsaw gathering was a strange beast – its very title was a misnomer, Vice President Pence making it quite clear Iran was the ‘greatest threat’ to peace and stability in Middle East that it’s transgressions be punished. He even implied that it was God’s will.

    The conference was most notable for who wasn’t there – Russia, Turkey, China, and the EU leaders British, France and Germany, all of whom are opposed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. It is indicative of the US’ isolation with regard to Iran, and its inability to call the shots in a Middle East where Russian, Turkey and Iran hold all the cards. Pence and Pompeo meanwhile talk about regime change and democracy in Iran but ignore what is going on in the US’ lacklustre autocratic allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain – this and international reaction to the US’ alleged complicity a slow-motion, as yet unresolved and unconsummated “coup” in Venezuela only serve to remind the world of Uncle Sam’s not altogether successful track-record of hypocrisy and hubris, interference and inconsistency.

    Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had initially tweeted that the conference was convened to discuss what he called the “war with Iran”. Although he amended his tweet soon afterwards, he was not exaggerating. There is indeed a war between Iran on one hand and Israel and the Gulf monarchies on the other with other countries lending their support to one side or the other. America and its Middle East allies have been at war with Iran for forty years, and Iran has reciprocated.

    It is said, not without reason, that Iran has long been preparing for a war with the US, and that the US has psyched itself into a martial mindset that justifies Iranian fears. If push did indeed come to shove and the present cold war turned hot, Iran might appear to be at a disadvantage. Compared to the US, its forces are poorly equipped and lacking in battle experience, although they are indeed well-provided for by the sanctions-hit regime, whilst the Revolutionary Guard’s Al Quds brigade has been given real battlefield experience in Syria and Iraq’s civil wars. They would however be defending their homeland, which for Iranians is holy ground regardless of who rules it.

    The American people are weary and wary of foreign military commitments, and doubtless confused by the administration’s mix of pullback and push-back. For all it’s manpower and materiel, it’s experience and equipage, after its problematic excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US armed forces cannot be said to be a uniformly committed, effective and high-morale fighting force. It would be dependent on allies of dubious intent and ability, and on free-booting contractors and mercenaries like Erik Prince’s hired guns and sell-swords.

    As the Warsaw talk fest demonstrated, the US would have to act very much on its own against Iran, with Israel being its only potential partner of any value. And yet, even Israel appears to be reticent, having of late toned down its bellicose rhetoric.

    Despite Bibi’s bark and bluster, Israel does not want anyone to go to war with Iran, and it does not want to be blamed if a conflict does erupt. Nothing focuses the mind more than the thought of thousands of Hezbollah’s Iranian-sourced precision missiles raining down on the Galilee. The Gulf states are tin-pot tyrants with meagre military skill and no desire to throw away their toys when the US (and Israel?) will do the fighting for them. Russia, Turkey, and, potentially, China, would be implacably opposed and would indeed run interference, and provide diplomatic, economic, military and logistical support.

    Iran itself is not without the ability and the means to set up a multitude of diversions and distractions, whether it is playing with the US administration’s head, as it has been for forum decades, encouraging Hezbollah and Bashar Assad to make mischief on Israel’s northern border and the Golan, inciting its Palestinian pawn Islamic Jihad in Gaze, providing Yemen’s Houthis with the means to better target Saudi cities, or, perhaps counter-productively, initiating espionage and terrorist incidents on the US mainland and in Western Europe.

    The US may opt for measures short of a “hot” war, as it doing right now with limited success, but the hawks are circling over Washington DC and may have the President’s feckless and fickle ear – and, as they say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.


    Here are some recent articles on the latest Iran-US  tango:

    For more on the Middle East in in In That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany 

    The man with the plan

    All that was old is new again with the potential re-emergence of the US’ Cold War strategy of “offshore balancing”
    Commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen is always worth reading. Here is his latest piece  for The Australian on this subject.
    It is a well-tried and well-documented strategy whereby an offshore power counters a rival by backing opposing coalitions in a region of ­strategic competition, supporting local allies indirectly (with weapons, money, advisers intelligence or diplomatic cover), and using proxy military muscle, regular and irregular, to prevent any one rival dominating the region.

    Maritime powers (including Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the US for much of its history until 1945) historically used offshore balancing to counter land-based rivals while lowering their own costs and avoiding ­decisive commitment. To succeed, the offshore power does not need to control a region itself, merely to prevent a rival doing so. As such, this is a low-cost approach — something military planners call an “economy of effort” strategy — that reduces exposure and preserves freedom of action.

    This comes in the wake of hugely expensive and largely unsuccessful efforts by the US to dominate a region directly through direct military intervention – and subsequent entanglement that left it ‘neck deep in the big muddy’ to quote political activist and balladeer Pete Seeger. It was a maximalist approach that had ad­verse consequences in terms of lives lost, funds wasted, credibility eroded and loss of freedom of ­action (particularly after 9/11, as the US became bogged down in self-inflicted wars of ­occupation).

    But, offshore balancing requires a cool nerves, a steady hand and deft footwork.

    Bad timing and miscalculation can increase the risk of wars that the US neither wants or is prepared for. And in inexperienced, needful, and impetuous hands, it could render the US vulnerable to being played by its partners. Kilcullen notes that a body of opinion in the US intelligence community,  and also, within Israeli intelligence,  holds that the threat from Iran has been overstated, that Iran’s ability to dominate the so-called “land bridge” from Afghanistan to the Golan Heights is overblown, and that no regime in Tehran would be suicidal enough to consider a nuclear strike on Israel, Saudi Arabia or any of its other regional rivals.

    But it would appear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince Muhammed bib Salem have successfully sold Donald Trump on their expansive vision of the Iranian threat, creating the possibility that Washington may be manipulated into decisions that run counter to its own wider interests.

    Moreover, with regard to US foreign policy generally, one size does not necessarily fit all. Taking a strategy like offshore balancing, however successful it might prove to be in the Middle East, and blindly applying it on the Korean peninsula, to Russia or China  where conditions are dramatically different, would be full of risk.

    Read on…

    Donald Trump: The man with the plan

    David Kilcullen, Contributing Editor for Military Affairs, The Australian, May

    Donald Trump welcomes home three Americans released by North Korea. Picture: AFP
             Donald Trump welcomes home three Americans released by North Korea. Picture: AFP

      This week, as Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and start reimposing sanctions on ­Teh­ran, a chorus of condemnation broke out on both sides of the Atlantic. European politicians condemned the decision and began working on ways to keep Iran in the deal, while in the US former secretary of state John Kerry engaged in last-minute direct negotiations with Iranian leaders.

      Fred Kaplan of Slate penned a piece that was typical of the mainstream media reaction, arguing that Trump withdrew “because of spite, ignorance, or both”.

      There is no doubt that the US President’s decision reflected animus toward his predecessor’s signature achievement in foreign policy. It also highlighted president Barack Obama’s self-­inflicted vulnerability over the deal, which he approved personally as an executive agreement rather than submitting it to the US Senate for formal ratification as a treaty. His administration also voted for a UN resolution lifting sanctions on Iran before congress had properly begun its review of the agreement. These ­decisions, over near-un­animous Republican opposition, made the deal a bone of partisan contention from the outset, a pro­blem Obama’s staff exacerbated through a manipulative media campaign that drew harsh criticism when disclosed in 2016. All this made it easier for Trump to leave the deal with just a stroke of the pen.

      Yet there’s reason to believe Trump may be acting from more than political spite. Indeed, it’s possible we might be witnessing the early signs of a new approach with the potential to transform America’s overseas military posture, though also carrying enhanced risk of war and other unintended consequences. The new approach may signal the re-emergence of Washington’s former strategy of working through regional coalitions to counter rivals in the ­Middle East, thereby enabling US military disengagement from the post-9/11 wars.

      The decision to dump the deal is far from the only indicator. Other recent signs include statements by Trump to the effect that he seeks to withdraw from Syria while sponsoring an Arab coalition to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State. Under this scheme, Washington would support allies (including, potentially, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a coalition of local Kurdish militias) but end combat troop deployments.

      Last month’s coalition strike on Syria sent a similar message in that it avoided targeting the Assad regime’s leadership or Russian and Iranian assets in Syria. It was also accompanied by clear statements that the US did not seek regime change — effectively acquiescing in Bashar al-Assad’s victory, moving away from Obama’s goal of regime change and further disen­gaging from involvement in the Syrian conflict.

      Iranians burn US flags and makeshift Israeli flags in Tehran. Picture: AFP
                           Iranians burn US flags and makeshift Israeli flags in Tehran. Picture: AFP

      Alongside an Arab coalition, ­Israel seems ready to step into any gap created by US withdrawal, while cheering Trump’s decision to exit the Iran deal. Indeed, an undeclared low-level air battle has been going on between Israel, Hezbollah and Iranian forces in Syria since February. Israel decided to retain its advanced fighter aircraft in-country rather than send them to a scheduled exercise in Alaska last month and this week it raised military forces to their highest alert level, called up air defence and intelligence reservists, and opened air-raid and missile shelters for Israelis living within range of the Syrian border. If anything, Israel’s willingness to directly engage Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria has only increased after since Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

      At the same time, statements by Saudi Arabia and the UAE indicate that the Sunni monarchies and their Gulf allies would consider participating in an Arab stabilisation force in Syria. Saudi leaders also have expressed a willingness to participate in strikes within Syria (making Saudi Arabia a de facto coalition partner with Israel, a tricky political position for Saudi leaders).

      Overtures by the US towards Egypt suggest Washington also is seeking ­Egyptian support for the same Arab coalition.

      All this may be evidence of an emerging post-deal strategy, whereby the US works through ­Israel and Arab partners in the region to weaken and contain Iran. For political reasons, Israeli and Arab components would operate separately, but Washington would co-ordinate with each and support both to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State while containing and undermining Iran, ­Hezbollah and Russia (with the emphasis very much on Iran).

      As part of this strategy, US ­forces may launch periodic operations (missile and drone strikes, air raids or special forces operations) to preserve their preferred balance but would avoid protracted commitments, and troop numbers in Iraq and Syria would be drawn down. Washington would operate with allied support where possible, but strike unilaterally if needed.

      Provided Turkey can agree on a ­demarcation line with US-backed Kurdish groups — probably somewhere near the present line of control along the Euphrates river — the US also might support Turkey’s buffer zone in northern Syria. In that case Turkey, too, would play a role in containing Iran and preventing the re-­emergence of Islamic State — the two paramount US objectives.

      This approach, if it does emerge, would be a classic instance of offshore balancing, where an offshore power counters a rival by backing opposing coalitions in a region of ­stra­tegic competition, supporting local allies indirectly (with weapons, money, advisers intelligence or diplomatic cover) to prevent any one rival dominating the region.

      Maritime powers (including Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the US for much of its history until 1945) historically used offshore balancing to counter land-based rivals while lowering their own costs and avoiding ­decisive commitment. To succeed, the offshore power does not need to control a region itself, merely to prevent a rival doing so. As such, this is a low-cost approach — something military planners call an “economy of effort” strategy — that reduces exposure and preserves freedom of action.

      One of the strategy’s key attractions would be that it might restore a critical strategic distinc­tion: the difference between hugely expensive (and largely unsuccessful) efforts to dominate a region directly, and the far cheaper and more achievable goal of merely preventing a rival doing so.

      In the post-Cold War era of liberal and neo-conservative interventionism, US leaders often con­flated the two, as if preventing a hostile power from dominating a region necessarily implied dominating it themselves.

      This maximalist approach had obvious ad­verse consequences in terms of lives lost, funds wasted, credibility eroded and loss of freedom of ­action (particularly after 9/11, as the US became bogged down in self-inflicted wars of ­occupation).

      Trump has been railing against these overseas commitments for years. Indeed, one of his themes on the campaign trail was the need to get out of overseas commitments, bring troops home, force allies to commit their own resources to their defence, cease putting American lives at risk to provide security guarantees for countries (in Europe, Asia or the Middle East) that were unwilling to pay their fair share, and stop spending money on nation-building that would be better used at home.

      An offshore-balancing strategy offers a way to do this while still acting tough and reserving the right to intervene unilaterally (another key Trump theme).

      Offshore balancing does not preclude periodic interventions to restore a favourable balance of power in a given region, but it does tend to rule out long-term occupation or decisive commitments of the post-9/11 kind. It also implies holding military power back, over the horizon or outside the region, rather than establishing permanent bases.

      As such, naval forces (including warships, expeditionary marine units, carrier-based aircraft and submarines) are the key assets needed for such a strategy — and for now, at least, the US leads the world in these capabilities, giving it a comparative advantage.

      The strategy’s other key benefit is its low cost and ability to preserve (or, in this case, restore) strategic freedom of action. Its disadvantage is that interventions, when they do occur, can be extremely costly.

      Britain’s approach to Europe from the 1680s to 1945 — periodic interventions to prevent any one power dominating the continent but reluctance to create permanent alliances or bases — is one ­example of offshore balancing. Another was the US strategy for the Middle East from just before the end of World War II (when Washington first became concerned about the strategic centrality of the region) until the Gulf war in 1991.

      From 1944 to 1992, despite periodic interventions (a CIA-backed coup in Iran in 1953, brief engagements in Lebanon in 1958 and 1983, bombing Libya in 1986) the US generally kept its military out of the region, preferring to counter Soviet influence through partners such as Israel, Turkey, the Arab monarchies, the Afghan mujaheddin in the 1980s and, until 1979, the shah of Iran.

      After 1991, everything changed: permanent US bases in Saudi Arabia (plus no-fly zones over Iraq, and the Clinton administration’s policy of “dual containment” towards Iraq and Iran) committed the US directly to the Middle East. US bases in Saudi Arabia, in particular, created intense grievances that led in part to the 9/11 attacks. After 2003, the Iraq war mired Americans in a full-scale military occupation. Successive presidents have sought to extricate themselves, but to little avail, proving what advocates of offshore balancing long have argued: hard though it is to avoid being dragged into permanent commitments, it’s far harder to ­extract yourself once committed.

      It’s unclear whether Trump knows any of this history; Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt argued last month on Foreign Policy’s website that he probably does not.

      This may not matter, though, since offshore ­balancing so closely aligns with Trump’s instinctive preferences. Despite his surface volatility, Trump consistently follows certain patterns of strategic behaviour. His two main (and apparently contradictory) urges — the desire to appear strong, while disengaging from post-9/11 commitments in the Middle East and lopsided (“unfair”) treaty arrangements in Europe and Asia — would be well served by an offshore-balancing strategy, so he may consistently follow it, consciously or otherwise.

      A more serious criticism, from the few analysts who have yet commented on the emerging strategy, is that Trump is too mercurial and strategically illiterate, and his administration too incoherent, to enact this kind of strategy. These criticisms, too, are overblown. The sacking of secretary of state Rex Tillerson and national security adviser HR McMaster in March has removed competing power centres in US foreign policy, while former CIA director Mike Pompeo (Tillerson’s replacement as Secretary of State), and Defence Secretary James Mattis appear more than capable of executing an offshore balancing strategy.

      New national security adviser John Bolton is from the neo-conservative tradition that led directly to the post-9/11 wars of occupation and to the invasion of Iraq, and he will have to modify his views to be able to support this kind of strategy. Likewise, independent-minded UN ambassador Nikki Haley will need to collaborate more closely with the State Department and the White House than she has done to date.

      But neither Bolton nor Haley are likely to oppose the strategy if it appears to be succeeding.

      If it does succeed — a big if — offshore balancing may become a de facto Trump doctrine to be applied elsewhere. Opportunities to apply it include the Korean peninsula, where Trump seems willing to agree to partial US withdrawal and a permanent peace treaty in return for North Korean denuclearisation and enhanced sponsorship of Japan and South Korea to balance China.

      Another possible opportunity is eastern Europe, where Washington may continue arming Ukraine, and support the Baltics and Scandinavia to balance Russia while stepping back from permanent NATO commitments (or making them more conditional on European ­defence spending.)

      Africa, where efforts to work through regional coalitions against terrorists are already well advanced, naturally lends itself to this strategy, which could be further enhanced through France and its G5 Sahel regional coalition, which is already operating against Islamic State in northwest Africa.

      Likewise, in Southeast Asia, enhanced support for Vietnam and The Philippines may combine with existing US relationships with Australia, India and Japan to balance China.

      Whatever its possibilities, offshore balancing does carry significant risks. The most important is proxy conflict, which can spiral out of control when more than one external power backs local actors, drawing them into confrontation. This risk is severe in the Middle East, where Iran and Russia are sponsoring their own proxies. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are already fighting a proxy war against Iran and its Houthi allies in Yemen, from where conflict is spilling into the Horn of Africa and bringing missile strikes to the heart of Saudi Arabia (most recently, this past week after the nuclear deal announcement).

      Internal conflict in Saudi Arabia is also a risk: a recent incident where a drone flew into the royal compound in Riyadh triggered a coup scare and highlighted nervousness within the Saudi royal family about opposition towards Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms. Co-operation between Saudi and Israeli forces (even tacit) would be highly controversial within Saudi Arabia and could prompt sharply increased internal unrest.

      For its part, given this week’s series of strikes and the ongoing air campaign, Israel appears to be posturing for imminent war against Hezbollah and Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and possibly Lebanon too. This could draw Israel into more direct conflict with Iran — indeed, one possibility here is that Israel is deliberately escalating conflict with Iran in order to increase its leverage in post-nuclear-deal Washington.

      In the same region, a US exit from Syria (a key element of a balancing approach) would remove deterrents on Turkey’s ability to attack Kurdish groups, heightening conflict risk between Ankara and the Kurds.

      Besides enhanced war risk, the other important concern of an ­offshore-balancing strategy is that it leaves Washington vulnerable to being played by its partners. A body of opinion in the US intelligence community (and also, ironically, within Israeli intelligence) holds that the threat from Iran has been overstated, Iran’s ability to dominate the so-called “land bridge” from Afghanistan to the Golan Heights is overblown, and no regime in Tehran would be suicidal enough to consider a nuclear strike on Israel, Saudi Arabia or any of its other regional rivals.

      But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince seem to have successfully sold Trump on their expansive vision of the Iranian threat, creating the possibility that Washington may be manipulated into decisions that run counter to its own wider interests.

      Likewise, taking a strategy such as offshore balancing, however successful it might prove to be in the Middle East, and blindly applying it on the Korean peninsula or in Europe, where conditions are dramatically different, would be full of risk.

      Still, despite the ongoing condemnation from the policy establishment and allies alike, Trump’s decision to exit the Iran deal may indicate something deeper than mere ill-informed petulance — and if a strategy of offshore balancing does emerge, it just may point the way to disengagement from the post-9/11 wars, a goal that every president since 2001 (including George W. Bush himself, since about five minutes after his “mission accomplished” speech in May 2003) has sought but failed to achieve.

      Thermidorian Thinking

      I fought in the old revolution
      on the side of the ghost and the King.
      Of course I was very young
      and I thought that we were winning;
      I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
      as they carry the bodies away.
      Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

      ‘Thermidorian’ refers to 9th Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the date according to the French Republican Calendar, when Robespierre, Danton and other radical revolutionaries came under concerted attack in the National Convention, resulting in their downfall and execution.

      Grim travelers butt each other to establish dominance. One lot plays Danton to another’s Robespierre, with the moderate Manon Roland and her Girondins trampled underfoot in the melee. Robespierre destroys his erstwhile friends and slaughters thousands, precipitating the Jacobin meltdown as the ascetic and purist Marat is murdered in his bath. Robespierre and Saint-Just are guillotined by those who believe “the Terror” had gone too far.

      I would argue that this “Thermidorian Reaction” – the ostensibly “better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln said that) reasserting themselves – is a rare bird indeed. Inevitably, things get worse, much worse, before they get better. As WH Auden observes in Age of Anxiety, “many have perished: more will”. 

      Revolutions are unpredictable. They never run in straight lines. They reverberate, the shock-waves expanding and impacting on their vicinity,  and way beyond. The shots ricochet, like drive-bys and crossfires, and you never know who will be hit, where the bullets will come to rest, and who will be damaged or destroyed. Many people will be liberated, and many enslaved. Many peoples will prosper, and many, many will perish. As TS Elliot wrote, “between the idea and the reality falls the shadow”.”

      Stalin seizing Lenin’s crown as the father of the revolution lay dying. Trotsky launching the Red Army against the sailors of Kronstadt whose guns had heralded the fall of the Romanovs, and who then fought to last man against their former comrades. Stalin and Trotsky wrestling for control of party and power as the old Bolsheviks disappeared into the gulags and the execution cells. Stalin’s long arm putting an ice pick through his rival’s skull in Mexico decades later. Trotsky knew a thing or two about “permanent revolution”!

      Adolf Hitler making his move against the corrupt and sybaritic Rohm and his Brown Shirt bully boys, a threat to his control of party and state, in the “Night of the Long Knives”, and setting the course for a Germany’s slow spiral to damnation with the plausible deniability of the similarly dramatically named Kristalnacht. The German language has surely given the world ominous words of iron – Nacht und Nebel; Storm und Drang; Weltanschauung – none of them boding well for tyranny’s unwelcome attentions.

      It is a zero-sum play book well thumbed by latter-day revolutionists like the Baathists Saddam Hussein and Hafiz Assad in their relentless and merciless accession to power in Iraq and Syria respectively, like the cruel and vengeful but infinitely pragmatic regime that has ruled Iran’s Islamic Republic for these past forty  years, and the kleptocratic dictators who Lord over much of South Saharan Africa. In the manner of revolutions past and present, each one has “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike.

      The sad reality in so many countries is that when the going gets tough, the mild get going, and the hard men ride roughshod over their people.

      Vengeful, vindictive. Merciless. Unforgiving and never forgetting. Do no deals. Take no prisoners. Give no quarter.

      Also in In That Howling InfiniteA Political World – Thoughts and Themes

      Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

      Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland