U.S. Foreign Policy and the Mideast




Both economic fundamentals and the geopolitical environment influence the stock market. What happens in the Mideast, a major source of the world’s energy, matters.


Former Bush White House press secretary, Scott McClellan reveals in his new book (2008) that the administration’s major motivation for going to war in Iraq was ideological, “reshaping the Mideast as a region of peaceful democracies.”


















To be rational in any sphere, (is) to display good judgement in it...


                                   Isaiah Berlin

                           “Political Judgement


                            The Sense of Reality












The values of a society determine the feasibility of liberal democracy. Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian with a profound insight into human nature. Commenting on two disastrous world wars that nearly ended civilization in Europe, he wrote:


…the most significant distinction between the human and the animal

world is that the impulses of the former are “spiritualized ” (abstracted)

…The will to live is thus transmuted into the will to self-realization

(with others)….On the other hand the will-to-live is spiritually transmuted

into the will-to-power or into the desire for also “power and glory.”…

The fact that the two impulses although standing in contradiction to each

other, are also mixed and compounded with each other on every level

of human life, makes the simple distinctions between good and evil,

between selfishness and altruism, which liberal idealism has tried to

estimate moral and political facts, invalid.1


Contemporary social science research validates his insight that many human values can be organized along the dimension survival/self-actualization (which also has collective characteristics), a dimension that is useful when comparing the values, and therefore the kinds of governments possible in societies with different economic circumstances and cultures. In “Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy,” Inglehart and Welzel (2005) surveyed the effect of economic variables (such as GDP) and cultural history (such as religion and locale) upon social values. To determine these values, they asked questions as: Do you give priority to economic and physical security over self expression and quality of life? Are you happy? Do you trust other people?


Both Marxism and Liberalism derive from the Enlightenment, the former a more extreme version of the latter. Marx assumed that he had discovered the key to human happiness, all that was required was the removal of class inequities. Liberalism assumes that this answer is always contingent, as various societal interests compete and rationally adjust within a framework of institutions and laws that protect individual rights.


Refuting simple Marxist 2 materialism, Inglehart’s study of sixty four societies found that economic variables explained 61% of the variation in social values. Cultural history further accounted for 23% of that variation.


Combined, economic variables and cultural history variables both accounted for 84% of the variation in social values. 3 The authors therefore concluded that both a country’s economic development and prior cultural history affect its values and therefore its movement towards liberal democracy. 4  The role of economic factors is major; but cultures and their “path dependent” evolutions also matter. The present and future depend on the past. The argument that economic development will lead to eventually to liberal democracy because both are congruent is a long-term argument for many countries.


The value dimension, survival/self actualization, can in turn describe U.S. foreign policy. Why did the U.S. face no competing coalitions in the potential anarchy of international politics, leaving the country “unmatched and unchallenged” after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Josef Joffe of Süddeutsche Zeitung noted:


        America is different. It irks and domineers, but it does not conquer.

        It tries to call the shots and bend the rules, but it does not go to war

        for land and glory. 5


9/11, “changed everything;” it suddenly brought out the administration’s survival instincts – it invaded Iraq in order to make an example of Saddam Hussein, sanctioned Abu Ghraib, and branded Iraq, Iran, and North Korea “the Axis of Evil” while trying to disarm them of nuclear weapons. By overreacting, the administration amplified the main problem of the Mideast, the cycle of retaliation and revenge. According to the government’s 4/06 National Intelligence Estimate, “The Iraq conflict has become the cause célèbre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” 


Actions can be self-fulfilling. An effective balance of power against the United States is beginning to coalesce in the form of radical Islam. What can the U.S. do?


1)      The U.S. should cease acting like its survival is at stake. The tragedy of 9/11 did not threaten its survival. The combined might of technologically advanced Germany and Japan truly did. As Muslim reactions to the Pope’s comments and the cartoons of Mohammed illustrate, nerves there are on edge. The U.S. should not further aggravate the situation. 


      This point can also be inferred from the NIE report summary.


2)      There may be many other social problems in the Mideast, but the Israeli/Palestinian conflict continues to provide a focus for other grievances. The resolution of this important core issue matters.


3)      Iraq continues fissure, with the U.S. continuing to have insufficient troops to restore order. According to Senator Arlen Specter (R-Penn), “the war in Iraq has intensified Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism…that’s a problem that nobody seems to have the answer to.” 6  


An open-ended “stay the course” strategy is not viable. The chaos in Iraq is getting worse as casualties continue to mount. At this point, there are only the least worst alternatives.


It’s useful to describe the role the U.S. has played in the international system of states. Why was the U.S. able to provide order to an often anarchic system of states? Joffe writes that is because the U.S. was like the Roman empire. No coalition of states rose against it because it was synonymous with the international order. This allowed states to adjust their interests without war; thus did the U.S. actualize itself abroad.


        The genius of American diplomacy in the second half of this century was

         building institutions that would advance American interests by serving others.

         Who can count the acronyms made in the U.S.A. – from NATO to GATT,

         from OECD to the PFP (NATO’s Partnership for Peace)? 7                 


To make such a modern system function, dialogue within the bounds of reasonable discourse is essential. NY Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman (9/29/06) writes about the need for dialogue not only between Islam and the rest of the world, but within Islam itself, among “people who’d like to see a marriage between Islam and modernity,” a dialogue between its past and the future.








The U.S. is unable to restore order to Iraq due to these faulty assumptions: that you could invade an Arab country, impose liberal democracy by military force and then treat the post-war administration of the country as a mere afterthought. In “State of Denial,” Washington Post editor Bob Woodward relates this cogent discussion on February, 2003 one month before the invasion of Iraq in March:


At a meeting with Abizaid and many senior staffers at the Central Command in Qatar that week, Garner explained that he planned to follow right behind the combat units as they moved into Iraq (to set up post-war administration).


Oh, really, thought one of the staff officers, Colonel Carol Stewart, the head of Central Command’s intelligence plans division …“Who’s providing security in Iraq?” Stewart asked. Garner said he expected the Iraqi police would still be on the job. That didn’t sound right at all to Stewart…Later that day, in a smaller meeting with Garner and other senior officers, Stewart spoke a little more freely. The Central Command intelligence estimate said there would be no Iraqi police on the job once the U.S. passed through, she stressed.


“What do you mean, no police?” one of the generals asked.


“It’s like Panama,” she replied, referring to the 1989 U.S. invasion of that country with some 24,000 troops. When the Americans had toppled the government and the local army, the police force had ceased to exist. In Iraq, the same thing was likely to happen. 8



























In the above, the author is asking why the existing occupation plan wasn’t being implemented. Ricardo Sanchez, former army commander in Iraq during the invasion, has written a new book called Wiser in Battle (2008). He thought that CENTCOM had no plans for the occupation of Iraq. 

Now, three years later, I was learning for the first time that my assumption was not completely accurate. In fact, CENTCOM had originally called for twelve to eighteen months of Phase IV (occupation) activity with active troop deployments. But then CENTCOM  had completely walked away by simply stating that the war was over and Phase IV was not their job.


That decision set up the United States for a failed first year in Iraq. There is no question about it. And I was supposed to believe that neither the Secretary of Defense nor anybody above him knew anything about it?














Apparently within the Administration, the ideologues had won. Freed of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqis would greet the United States with flowers and set about diligently building their new enlightened society. Victory would be immediate, just in time for the 2004 elections. All prepared plans for the occupation were simply ignored.




Rearing Horse

2-3 century B.C.

Southern Arab, Hellenistic Style

Exhibit, Smithsonian Institution

Washington, D.C.

Click here for a larger image.

11/06 - There are many Islamic art exhibits in Washington.










The politics of the Mideast is especially complicated. Situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, that area of the world has been ruled by at least sixteen different empires, beginning with Egypt in 3000 B.C. and ending with the nation-states founded during the 1920s and thereafter. The Mideast is continually riven by the major enduring factors of family, religion, Arabism, and (tribal) power. These complications are further exacerbated by the area’s political history, where the concept of nation does not match social realities. “(There is no) common definition of the (Iraqi) state or a common agenda for its future.” 9 The experience of the United States with Iraq’s non-institutional society is not unique. Right before the invasion, the WSJ (3/19/03) wrote:


For two centuries, foreign powers have been conquering Mideast lands for their own purposes, promising to uplift Arab societies along the way….


But in nearly every incursion, both sides have endured a raft of unintended consequences. From Napoleon’s drive into Egypt through Britain’s rule of Iraq in the 1920s to Israel’s march into Lebanon in 1982, Middle East nations have tempted conquerors only to send them reeling.


Little wonder that even many Arabs who revile Saddam Hussein view the prospect of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with trepidation. “Unless the Americans are far more subtle than they’ve ever had the capacity to be, and more subtle than the [colonial] British, it’s going to end in tears,” predicts Faisal Istrabadi, an Iraqi-born lawyer in Michigan who has worked with the State Department on plans to rebuild Iraq’s judiciary. “The honeymoon will be very brief.”


Again and again, Westerners have moved into the Mideast with confidence that they can impose freedom and modernity through military force. Along the way they have miscalculated support for their invasions, both internationally and in the lands they occupy. They have anointed cooperative minorities to help rule resentful majorities. They have been mired in occupations that last long after local support has vanished. They have met with bloody uprisings and put them down with brute force.

































As value investors, we prefer to base our decisions upon reasonable causes.






Prior to the invasion of Iraq, where were the political scientists?



…American political scientists whose business it is to know these things have been irresponsibly quiet. In the lead-up to the March 2003 invasion, neoconservative agitators shouted insults at anyone who dared to mention the many findings of academic research of how democracies evolve. They also ignored our own struggles over two centuries to create the democracy Americans enjoy today. Somehow Iraqis are now expected to create a constitutional order in a country with no conditions favoring it.


                                             William. E. Odom

                                              Former Head of Army Intelligence

                                              Director of the National Security Agency

                                              during the Reagan administration

                                              2/11/07 Washington Post


















In developing societies it is often the professionals, especially those who were educated abroad, who are for democracy; but what about the grass roots? Globalization, a U.S. CEO who grew up in Kashmir says, causes all sorts of conflicts in developing societies: economic, with the rule of law, and with the environment – to mention only a few. He went on to say that a modernizing country is like a climber of the Himalayas; it is not a good idea to climb too fast.







                                        Maremagnum, Port Vell

                                                     Barcelona, Spain

                                                     Click here for a larger image.




Business and globalization have a wonderful ability to bridge cultures. How can the U.S. deal with different political cultures, a more complicated question? Perhaps the best answer is, “ by constructive engagement.” Politics is enduring and almost always local; a 3/27/07 NYT article illustrates this principle at the extreme:


We are learning, painfully, that many of the problems in Iraq or Afghanistan – from violence and state failure to treatment of women – are deeply embedded in local beliefs, political structures and traumatic histories. Iraqis and Afghans do not want their country controlled by foreigners and non-Muslims…We may never be able to build a democratic state in Iraq or southern Afghanistan. Trying to do so through a presence based on foreign troops creates insurgency and resentment and can only end in failure.


“You are saying,” the politician replies, “That we ought to sit back and do nothing.” On the contrary I believe we can do a great deal. But ought implies we can. We have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do.
















Political cultures are composed of deeply held attitudes and beliefs which change but slowly. Why the constant turmoil in the Mideast? We suggest an explanation that might be useful. Speaking in glitteringly broad generalities, the West is institutional. Its collective conflicts can be described as a struggle between institutions: class v.s. class within the Greek city-states, Church v.s. State during the Middle Ages, and then nation v.s. nation. In contrast, Arab societies are not institutional, Allen (2006). These societies are, to use an anthropological term, segmentary. An ahl is a group of people patrilinealy related to a common ancestor five generations back. This is a person’s affinity group. Within each tribe there are different aal, and they compete furiously against each other and against outsiders. This explains the disorder in Iraq; even Saddam had to take its tribal structure into account.


(add:) In the 3/23/11 NYT, Thomas Friedman writes in an article on the Libyan uprising:


“Is the battle for Libya the clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or is it a fundamentally a tribal civil war?”


This is the question because there are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders, myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens. They are Libya, Iraq (n.b.), Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The tribes and sects that make up these more artificial states have long been held together by the iron fist of colonial powers, kings or military dictators (Southern Africa also has this problem). They have no real “citizens” in the modern sense. Democratic rotations in power are impossible because each tribe lives by the motto “rule or die” – either my tribe or sect is in power or we’re dead.


It is no accident that the Mideast democracy rebellions began in three of the real countries– Iran, Egypt and Tunisia…




There are many complications when the structure of the nation-state is superimposed upon societies that are differently organized, a crucial detail that current democratization theory ignored.* As our adventure in Iraq clearly illustrates, it is not possible to terraform other societies.


The paradigm shift in comparative political analysis of the 1990s effectively obscured much more of historical reality than it revealed. It encouraged a voluntarism, an optimism, a Leninist-style conviction that great ideas and great men could move history. It underwrote a tendency to discount deep knowledge of specific countries and regions in favor of gross comparative generalizations. As a result, this branch of the neo-Wilsonian movement lost sight of the embedded nature of the many obstacles to democratization and of the dangers that that could arise in some circumstances should imprudent risks be run.…when such optimism was taken up by the Bush Doctrine, the experts to act as a reality check were few and far in between. 10**



                                                             Tony Smith (2007)

                                                             Professor of Political Science

                                                             Comparative Political Analysis

                                                             Tufts University



** Our note, they were probably in the history department.























*(add: 3/21/11) The current popular uprisings in the Mideast are also fascinating political science experiments, further testing democratization theory. Can liberal democracy exist in any society (we don’t think so); or does the success of that democracy depend crucially upon the level of social trust, a trust that makes possible power sharing among citizens and their government?





So what about the future of the U.S. in Iraq? Here’s the situation. Former Iraqi defense minister Ali A. Allawi, previously a professor at Oxford, has written a new book called, The Occupation of Iraq (2007). In this book, he quotes the social psychologist and historian Ali al-Wardi (PhD, University of Texas):


The process of modernization and urbanization was skin deep in Iraq and (the) tribal values, born of the experiences of surviving in the harsh environment of the desert, continued to hold sway for the vast majority of the country’s inhabitants….Iraq would rapidly shed its civilized veneer and revert to the culture and values of tribal nomadism…(the governing state of advanced civilizations) stands in contrast to tribal solidarity as an organizing principle. 11













What happens when the U.S. tries to impose its foreign form of government upon a fundamentally tribal society? Allawi writes:


  "Whatever outcome might evolve, the least stable one would be the continuation of the current desperate attempts to maintain a degree of integrity for the central state. The Iraq state that has evolved as a result of the tumultuous changes over the past five years is not one to which many people are prepared to give their allegiance. It is unloved by the Sunni Arabs, who have lost control over it, and barely tolerated by the Kurds....Even the Shi'a, who have been the greatest gainers in the central state, see it mainly as a jobs and spoils dispensing institution (our note: In 2014, the Iraqi army simply collapsed under the onslaught of ISIS. The former Prime Minister Maliki had gutted the army's Sunni command structure and replaced it with inept Shia loyalists.) The increasing instability, and the state's own feebleness, alienate more and more people - who leave Iraq for other horizons (our note: including the moderates, leaders, and core supporters of a democratic system)." 12


In a nutshell, the U.S. invaded one of the world’s largest tribal societies, situated on top of what was probably the world’s largest ammunition dump. It will be a long time before anyone can restore order to Iraq by any means, and the best the U.S. and other nations can do is to mitigate the situation*. Iraq is beyond blame.



*War ought truly to be a last resort because, being an extreme act, it forces agonizing choices and costly tradeoffs: the lives of people v.s. the security of society, domestic needs v.s. military requirements. Furthermore, as Berlin (1990) points out, its outcomes are seldom as expected.




We wrote the above comments about two years ago. Our emphasis was less on current events, but on the overall philosophy justifying the war in Iraq. As seems increasingly clear, that overall ideology was the primary motivation; the practical details like providing security and governance were given short shrift. As was said at the time, we would be “greeted with flowers.”                                                     


Why did the U.S. invade Iraq? In “Plan of Attack,” Bob Woodward related that George W. Bush simply said, “I think I have to do this.” Since 2004, little more is known. Richard Haass was head of the State Department’s Office of Planning from 2001-2003. In his new book, “War of Necessity, War of Choice (2009)” he wrote:



What struck me (in 2003) more than anything was how comfortable Bush was with his decision to attack Iraq…How did George W. Bush reach this point? I will go to my grave not fully understanding why. There was no meeting or set of meetings at which the pros and cons were debated and a formal decision taken. No, this decision happened. It was cumulative. The issue was on the table from the onset of the administration, but before 9/11, Iraq was simply one of many concerns on an evolving foreign policy agenda. After 9/11, the president and those closest to him wanted to send a message to the world that the United States was willing and able to act decisively….


Iraq was fundamentally different. The president wanted to destroy an established nemesis of the United States. And he wanted to change the course of history, transforming not just a country, but the region of the world that had produced the lion’s share of the world’s terrorists and had resisted much of modernity.…The arguments put forward for going to war-non compliance with U.N. resolutions, possession of weapons of mass destruction-turned out to be essentially window dressing, trotted out to build domestic and international support for a policy that had been forged mostly for other reasons….September 11 transformed the administration into the proverbial hammer looking for a nail. Iraq became that nail.



At the time a military official, more frankly, said that the United States went after Saddam because, “he could be rolled.” The psychology of this is interesting, but the logic is not. The decision to commit the United States to years of war was a decision made without much intervening analysis or consultation.




What was Saddam thinking? According to a 7/3/09 NYT article, a series of FBI interrogations conducted in 2004 after his capture revealed that “the United States had many policy options short of war.”


Saddam Hussein told an F.B.I. agent that on the eve of the 2003 American invasion, Iraq was trapped between United Nations orders to demonstrate that he had disarmed and a fear that appearing too weak would invite attack from its powerful neighbor and foe, Iran…. Obsessed with Iran, with which Iraq had fought a devastating eight-year war in the 1980s, Mr. Hussein did not take seriously the demands from President George W. Bush that he prove he had no unconventional weapons.


“We did not appreciate how large the threat of Iran loomed in his thinking,” Mr. Duelfer* said, calling the United States’ understanding of Iraq in 2003 “cartoonish.”



* Charles Duelfer was head of the Iraq Survey Group, a multinational task force that was sent to find WMD.




















The broad brush of ideology lead to a foreign policy that was initially devoid of salutary considerations such as context, situation, and details.  The 7/7/09 NYT wrote, Robert S. McNamara “…spent decades thinking through the lessons of the (Vietnam) war. The greatest of these was to know one’s enemy – to ‘empathize with him.’”




After nine years of war, all U.S. combat troops left Iraq on December 18, 2011. The war cost 4,485 U.S. military lives; tens of thousands of Iraqi lives; and as Stiglitz and Bilmes estimate, at least $3 trillion dollars. What did we buy with these sacrifices?


Only a few days after the U.S. left, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, brought terrorism charges against Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi who fled to the Kurdish north.  The 12/22/11 NYT reports that a wave of coordinated explosions then shook Baghdad, killing 63. This is what we bought in Iraq.




Which leads to a broader point. The market system and political democracy appear to be analogs. They both involve individuals voting their free choice, either with money or with ballots. Why, then, is it much easier for globalization to spread the market system rather than liberal democracy?


Both social phenomena rest upon specific social matrices that general economic theory and political science democratization theory ignore. In "The Wealth of Nations"(1776), Adam Smith described the principle from which arose the division of labor, "It is the necessary...propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another." Our experience in the Istanbul Spice Bazaar illustrates that a simple exchange transaction rests upon a set of social perceptions and assumptions.

Political democracy, only a theoretical analog, involves many more complicated social structures that include custom, path-dependent history, existing institutions, power and - most important - social trust. To approach this issue logically: If democracy requires social trust, then as a logical consequence, no social trust results in no democracy. A necessary condition for spreading democracy is increasing the degree of social trust. That is a socialization that begins in the early years, and which societies must gradually evolve.