Jihadistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran

Commentary No. 379, June 15, 2014

A jihadist movement, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has just scored a stunning and sweeping victory by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s third city located in the north of the country. Their forces are proceeding southward towards Baghdad and have seized Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi army seems to have fallen apart, having also ceded Kirkuk to the Kurds. ISIS has also taken prisoner Turkish diplomats and truckers. It now controls effectively a large chunk of the north and west of Iraq as well as a contiguous zone in the northeast corner of Syria. Commentators have labeled this trans-border zone Jihadistan. ISIS seeks to reestablish a caliphate in as large an area as possible, one based on a particularly strict version of sharia law.

The shock and fear that the successes of this movement have inspired may lead to major geopolitical realignments in the Middle East. Geopolitics is an arena of frequent surprises, in which known antagonists suddenly reconcile themselves and transform their relation into one of what the French call frères ennemis (friendly enemies). The most famous instance in the last half-century was the trip of Richard Nixon to China to meet with Mao Zedong, a trip that fundamentally revised the alignments within the modern world-system and has underlain the China-United States relationship ever since.

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The Russian-Chinese Geopolitical Game

Commentary No. 378, June 1, 2014

Governments, politicians, and media in the “western” world seem incapable of understanding geopolitical games as played by anyone elsewhere. Their analyses of the newly proclaimed accord of Russia and China are a stunning example of this.

On May 16, Russia and China announced that they had signed a “friendship treaty” that would last “forever” but was not a military alliance. Simultaneously, they announced a gas deal, in which the two countries will build a gas pipeline to export Russian gas to China. China will lend Russia the money with which to build its share of the pipeline. It seems that Gazprom (Russia’s major gas and oil producer) made some price concessions to China, an issue that had been holding up an agreement for some time.

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The Center Isn’t Holding Very Well

Commentary No. 377, May 15, 2014

The list of countries with enduring and worsening civil strife is growing. A short while ago, the world media were highlighting Syria. Now they are highlighting Ukraine. Will it be Thailand tomorrow? Who knows? The variety of explanations of the strife and the passion with which they are promoted is very striking.

Our modern world-system is supposed to permit the Establishment elites who hold the reins of power to debate with each other and then come to a “compromise” that they can guarantee. Normally these elites situate themselves in two basic camps – center/right and center/left. There are indeed differences between them, but the result of the “compromises” has been that the amount of change over time is minimal.

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The Neo-Zapatistas: Twenty Years After

Commentary No. 376, May 1, 2014

On January 1, 2014, the Ejército Zapatista de Libéración Nacional (EZLN) celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its uprising in Chiapas. This year, they are engaging in a self-appraisal. In April, in the official outlet of the EZLN, Rebeldía Zapatista, Insurgent Subcommandant Moisés published an editorial about the “war against forgetting.” He says that in a mere nineteen years, the struggle of the EZLN has “held in check” (toreado) the evil system that has been oppressing the indigenous peoples for 520 years.

What has been the achievement of the EZLN? In what sense can it be said to have been a success? The EZLN has been scoffed at not only by the world right but by certain elements of the world left as being largely irrelevant to the world struggle against imperialism and neoliberalism. What have they accomplished, ask the critics? Has their trajectory been more than a public relations show?

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Continuing Nuclear Proliferation

Commentary No. 375, April 15, 2014

The United States and Iran are in the midst of difficult negotiations about the possible acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons. The likelihood that these negotiations will result in an agreed-upon formula seems relatively low, since there are powerful forces in both countries that are strongly opposed to an accord, and are working very hard to sabotage any agreement.

The standard view in the United States and western Europe is that the issue is how to keep a presumably untrustworthy country, Iran, from acquiring weapons with which Iran might impose itself on Israel and on the Arab world generally. However, in reality this is not the issue at all. Iran is no more likely to use a nuclear weapon, if she acquired one, than any of the ten other states that already have such weapons. And Iran’s capacity to safeguard weapons against theft or sabotage is probably higher than most countries.

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Libertarian Politics in the United States

Commentary No. 374, April 1, 2014

The general elections of most countries with parliamentary systems have largely functioned in the same way. They have had some regular alternation between two parties, one ostensibly left-of-center and one ostensibly right-of-center. In these systems, there has been little difference between the two main parties in terms of foreign policy and only a limited set of differences on internal politics, centering on issues of taxation and social welfare.

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U.S.-Iran Negotiations: Parallel Dilemmas

Commentary No. 373, Mar. 15, 2014

For the last month or so there have been formal negotiations between the United States and Iran on nuclear questions. Actually, the negotiations had been going on unofficially and secretly for over six months. Technically the group negotiating with Iran is the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). But the P5+1 is largely a cover for the key negotiator, the United States.

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Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful

Commentary No. 372, Mar. 1, 2014

The Saudi regime has long been considered a pillar of political stability in the Middle East, a country that commanded respect and prudence from all its neighbors. This is no longer true, and the first ones to recognize this are those who are important internal players in the regime. Today, they feel besieged on all sides and quite fearful of the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East for the survival of the regime.

This turn-around derives from the history of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom itself is not very old. It was created in 1932 through the unification of two smaller kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz and Nejd. It was a poor, isolated part of the world that had liberated itself from Ottoman rule during the First World War, and came then under the paracolonial aegis of Great Britain.

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