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By George Friedman ~ Honorable Political Season Contributor
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 23. The meeting follows the explosion in U.S.-Israeli relations after Israel announced it was licensing construction of homes in East Jerusalem while U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel. The United States wants Israel to stop all construction of new Jewish settlements. The Israelis argue that East Jerusalem is not part of the occupied territories, and hence, the U.S. demand doesn’t apply there. The Americans are not parsing their demand so finely and regard the announcement — timed as it was — as a direct affront and challenge. Israel’s response is that it is a sovereign state and so must be permitted to do as it wishes. The implicit American response is that the United States is also a sovereign state and will respond as it wishes.
The polemics in this case are not the point. The issue is more fundamental: namely, the degree to which U.S. and Israeli relations converge and diverge. This is not a matter of friendship but, as in all things geopolitical, of national interest. It is difficult to discuss U.S. and Israeli interests objectively, as the relationship is clouded with endless rhetoric and simplistic formulations. It is thus difficult to know where to start, but two points of entry into this controversy come to mind.
The first is the idea that anti-Americanism in the Middle East has its roots in U.S. support for Israel, a point made by those in the United States and abroad who want the United States to distance itself from Israel. The second is that the United States has a special strategic relationship with Israel and a mutual dependency. Both statements have elements of truth, but neither is simply true — and both require much more substantial analysis. In analyzing them, we begin the process of trying to disentangle national interests from rhetoric.

Anti-Americanism in the Middle East

Begin with the claim that U.S. support for Israel generates anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world. While such support undoubtedly contributes to the phenomenon, it hardly explains it. The fundamental problem with the theory is that Arab anti-Americanism predates significant U.S. support for Israel. Until 1967, the United States gave very little aid to Israel. What aid Washington gave was in the form of very limited loans to purchase agricultural products from the United States — a program that many countries in the world participated in. It was France, not the United States, which was the primary supplier of weapons to Israeli.
In 1956, Israel invaded the Sinai while Britain and France seized the Suez Canal, which the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized. The Eisenhower administration intervened — against Israel and on the side of Egypt. Under U.S. pressure, the British, French and Israelis were forced to withdraw. There were widespread charges that the Eisenhower administration was pro-Arab and anti-Israeli; certainly no one could argue that Eisenhower was significantly pro-Israel.
In spite of this, Nasser entered into a series of major agreements with the Soviet Union. Egypt effectively became a Soviet ally, the recipient of massive Soviet aid and a center of anti-American rhetoric. Whatever his reasons — and they had to do with U.S. unwillingness to give Egypt massive aid — Egypt’s anti-American attitude had nothing to do with the Israelis, save perhaps that the United States was not prepared to join Egypt in trying to destroy Israel.
Two major political events took place in 1963: left-wing political coups in Syria and Iraq that brought the Baathist Party to power in both countries. Note that this took place pre-1967, i.e., before the United States became closely aligned with Israel. Both regimes were pro-Soviet and anti-American, but neither could have been responding to U.S. support for Israel because there wasn’t much.
In 1964, Washington gave Cairo the first significant U.S. military aid in the form of Hawk missiles, but it gave those to other Arab countries, too, in response to the coups in Iraq and Syria. The United States feared the Soviets would base fighters in those two countries, so it began installing anti-air systems to try to block potential Soviet airstrikes on Saudi Arabia.
In 1967, France broke with Israel over the Arab-Israeli conflict that year. The United States began significant aid to Israel. In 1973, after the Syrian and Egyptian attack on Israel, the U.S. began massive assistance. In 1974 this amounted to about 25 percent of Israeli gross domestic product (GDP). The aid has continued at roughly the same level, but given the massive growth of the Israeli economy, it now amounts to about 2.5 percent of Israeli GDP.
The point here is that the United States was not actively involved in supporting Israel prior to 1967, yet anti-Americanism in the Arab world was rampant. The Arabs might have blamed the United States for Israel, but there was little empirical basis for this claim. Certainly, U.S. aid commenced in 1967 and surged in 1974, but the argument that eliminating support for Israel would cause anti-Americanism to decline must first explain the origins of anti-Americanism, which substantially predated American support for Israel. In fact, it is not clear that Arab anti-Americanism was greater after the initiation of major aid to Israel than before. Indeed, Egypt, the most important Arab country, shifted its position to a pro-American stance after the 1973 war in the face of U.S. aid.

Israel’s Importance to the United States

Let’s now consider the assumption that Israel is a critical U.S. asset. American grand strategy has always been derived from British grand strategy. The United States seeks to maintain regional balances of power in order to avoid the emergence of larger powers that can threaten U.S. interests. The Cold War was a massive exercise in the balance of power, pitting an American-sponsored worldwide alliance system against one formed by the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has acted a number of times against regional hegemons: Iraq in 1990-91, Serbia in 1999 and so on.
In the area called generally the Middle East, but which we prefer to think of as the area between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush, there are three intrinsic regional balances. One is the Arab-Israeli balance of power. The second is the Iran-Iraq balance. The third is the Indo-Pakistani balance of power. The American goal in each balance is not so much stability as it is the mutual neutralization of local powers by other local powers.
Two of the three regional balances of power are collapsed or in jeopardy. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the failure to quickly put a strong, anti-Iranian government in place in Baghdad, has led to the collapse of the central balance of power — with little hope of resurrection. The eastern balance of power between Pakistan and India is also in danger of toppling. The Afghan war has caused profound stresses in Pakistan, and there are scenarios in which we can imagine Pakistan’s power dramatically weakening or even cracking. It is unclear how this will evolve, but what is clear is that it is not in the interest of the United States because it would destroy the native balance of power with India. The United States does not want to see India as the unchallenged power in the subcontinent any more than it wants to see Pakistan in that position. The United States needs a strong Pakistan to balance India, and its problem now is how to manage the Afghan war — a side issue strategically — without undermining the strategic interest of the United States, an Indo-Pakistani balance of power.
The western balance of power, Israel and the surrounding states, is relatively stable. What is most important to the United States at this point is that this balance of power also not destabilize. In this sense, Israel is an important strategic asset. But in the broader picture, where the United States is dealing with the collapse of the central balance of power and with the destabilization of the eastern balance of power, Washington does not want or need the destabilization of the western balance — between the Israelis and Arabs — at this time. U.S. “bandwidth” is already stretched to the limit. Washington does not need another problem. Nor does it need instability in this region complicating things in the other regions.
Note that the United States is interested in maintaining the balance of power. This means that the U.S. interest is in a stable set of relations, with no one power becoming excessively powerful and therefore unmanageable by the United States. Israel is already the dominant power in the region, and the degree to which Syria, Jordan and Egypt contain Israel is limited. Israel is moving from the position of an American ally maintaining a balance of power to a regional hegemon in its own right operating outside the framework of American interests.
The United States above all wants to ensure continuity after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dies. It wants to ensure that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan remains stable. And in its attempts to manage the situation in the center and east, it wants to ensure that nothing happens in the west to further complicate an already-enormously complex situation.
There is very little Israel can do to help the United States in the center and eastern balances. On the other hand, if the western balance of power were to collapse — due to anything from a collapse of the Egyptian regime to a new Israeli war with Hezbollah — the United States might find itself drawn into that conflict, while a new intifada in the Palestinian territories would not help matters either. It is unknown what effect this would have in the other balances of power, but the United States is operating at the limits of its power to try to manage these situations. Israel cannot help there, but it could hurt, for example by initiating an attack on Iran outside the framework of American planning. Therefore, the United States wants one thing from Israel now: for Israel to do nothing that could possibly destabilize the western balance of power or make America’s task more difficult in the other regions.
Israel sees the American preoccupation in these other regions, along with the current favorable alignment of forces in its region, as an opportunity both to consolidate and expand its power and to create new realities on the ground. One of these is building in East Jerusalem, or more precisely, using the moment to reshape the demographics and geography of its immediate region. The Israeli position is that it has rights in East Jerusalem that the United States cannot intrude on. The U.S. position is that it has interests in the broader region that are potentially weakened by this construction at this time.
Israel’s desire to do so is understandable, but it runs counter to American interests. The United States, given its overwhelming challenges, is neither interested in Israel’s desire to reshape its region, nor can it tolerate any more risk deriving from Israel’s actions. However small the risks might be, the United States is maxed out on risk. Therefore, Israel’s interests and that of the United States diverge. Israel sees an opportunity; the United States sees more risk.
The problem Israel has is that, in the long run, its relationship to the United States is its insurance policy. Netanyahu appears to be calculating that given the U.S. need for a western balance of power, whatever Israel does now will be allowed because in the end the United States needs Israel to maintain that balance of power. Therefore, he is probing aggressively. Netanyahu also has domestic political reasons for proceeding with this construction. For him, this construction is a prudent and necessary step.
Obama’s task is to convince Netanyahu that Israel has strategic value for the United States, but only in the context of broader U.S. interests in the region. If Israel becomes part of the American problem rather than the solution, the United States will seek other solutions. That is a hard case to make but not an impossible one. The balance of power is in the eastern Mediterranean, and there is another democracy the United States could turn to: Turkey — which is more than eager to fulfill that role and exploit Israeli tensions with the United States.
It may not be the most persuasive threat, but the fact is that Israel cannot afford any threat from the United States, such as an end to the intense U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship. While this relationship might not be essential to Israel at the moment, it is one of the foundations of Israeli grand strategy in the long run. Just as the United States cannot afford any more instability in the region at the moment, so Israel cannot afford any threat, however remote, to its relationship with the United States.

A More Complicated Relationship

What is clear in all this is that the statement that Israel and the United States are strategic partners is not untrue, it is just vastly more complicated than it appears. Similarly, the claim that American support for Israel fuels anti-Americans is both a true and insufficient statement.
Netanyahu is betting on Congress and political pressures to restrain U.S. responses to Israel. One of the arguments of geopolitics is that political advantage is insufficient in the face of geopolitical necessity. Pressure on Congress from Israel in order to build houses in Jerusalem while the United States is dealing with crises in the region could easily backfire.
The fact is that while the argument that U.S. Israel policy caused anti-Americanism in the region may not be altogether true, the United States does not need any further challenges or stresses. Nations overwhelmed by challenges can behave in unpredictable ways. Netanyahu’s decision to confront the United States at this time on this issue creates an unpredictability that would seem excessive to Israel’s long term interests. Expecting the American political process to protect Israel from the consequences is not necessarily gauging the American mood at the moment.
The national interest of both countries is to maximize their freedom to maneuver. The Israelis have a temporary advantage because of American interests elsewhere in the region. But that creates a long-term threat. With two wars going on and two regional balances in shambles or tottering, the United States does not need a new crisis in the third. Israel has an interest in housing in East Jerusalem. The United States does not. This frames the conversation between Netanyahu and Obama. The rest is rhetoric.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR


David Frum on MSNBC:

   Those of us who said there was a deal to be done, that there are a lot of parts of this bill that look familiar, that look like Mitt Romney’s plan, that look like plans Republicans proposed in 1993 and 1994, they look like things that were drafted at the Heritage foundation in 1990 and 1991, we can work with this, there are things we don’t like, [but] President Obama will pay a lot maybe for 20 or 30 Republican votes, let’s deal — that was shut down, we went the radical way, looking for Waterloo, and it looks like we arrived at Waterloo.

   …Some of the Republican leadership like Jim DeMint, I think did play a very hard-line role. Some of our leaders were trapped. They were trapped by voices in the media that revved the Republican base into a frenzy that made dealing impossible. I mean, you can’t negotiate with Adolf Hitler, and if the President is Adolf Hitler, then obviously you can’t negotiate with him. So some of the blame has has got to go to those who said, who got the psychology of the party to a point where a lot of good people, reasonable people were trapped.

   …We are encouraging a mood of radicalism in the party that is not just uncivil, that’s not the problem, the problem is it makes you stupid. It makes you make bad decisions, it leads you to think that President Obama with 53% of the vote is as beatable in 2009 as President Clinton with 42% of the vote in 1993, and that’s obviously not true.

 Frum makes the essential point that reform was inevitable and instead of going for the all or nothing path to derail it, the GOP should have negotiated their way to getting something good out of it. Now, in the search for Obama’s Waterloo, they have created their own because I’m not sure there is any other way to spin it other than Obama won this political battle, despite vigorous and unified GOP opposition. The GOP will get a lot of mileage running on their opposition to the bill in November, but Democrats may be able to make some hay out of passing it despite the opposition of the party of No.

Frum’s other point here is the one I think I really co-sign, namely that the GOP in encouraging a sort of ravening and unmitigated anger at the White House and casting Obama as a Marxist monster, has really limited its own options.  If Obama is a monster, then you have to oppose anything he does (even if it makes sense) and this is the trick bag I think republicans have gotten themselves into somewhat.  With the passage of healthcare reform, the President will now have imposed his socialist, Marxist, communist and evil will upon the country, destroying all our freedoms and the future of our children. How can you work with someone like that? But thats the view of him that the GOP encourages and enhances at every opportunity.  I don’t think it is serving the party’s interests well, nor more importantly, the interests of the American people. Lastly, his exit point is that politics is about getting things done, or it ought to be.  By going for and failing to get, the political win, the GOP have now suffered a permanent policy loss.

Soooo, I get a little preoccupied with the cares of life and turn my head for a minute and look what happens.   A couple of prominent black leaders and commentators decide to start beefing with each other.  Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton egos have collided in a absolutely delightful and entertaining manner.  Tavis jumped it off with this commentary on the Tom Joyner Morning Show Feb. 23, 2010

It’s just really hard not to hear it as an ego driven, self righteous screed. Tavis opens up talking about how he chooses to stand with poor black folk and makes some allusions about taking up his cross. He then basically calls out a number of prominent black folk (Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous, Charles Olgletree, Valerie Jarret, Mark Morial), several of which participated in a discussion with the President at the White House about jobs. He calls them out for giving the President a pass on having a black agenda. He accuses them of misleading black folk by not pressing for a black agenda from our first black president. Then, he goes another step further to announce that he’s calling for a meeting where these called out black folk can come to explain themselves.

The way he presents it, its the Obama apologists team vs. his black agenda team, which includes names like Cornel West, Farrakhan, Barbara Lewis and others. It is amazing to watch Tavis position himself as the designated black accountability moment facilitator for black America and announce this meeting and his invitations to it as though it’s a forgone conclusion that they will show up. But it gets better when Sharpton gets wind of this commentary and calls in to the TJMS show to answer the charge that he’s just singing Obama’s tune.

Sharpton emphatically denounces the charge that he or any of the people in the meeting are actively selling the idea that no “black agenda” need be pursued by this President.  Tavis decides to respond and calls in to Sharpton’s radio show the next day to beard the lion in his den.

Political Season Post Battle Analysis: Rhetorically and factually, Tavis got his clock cleaned. He’s wrong on the merits. Sharpton didn’t say that the President shouldn’t have a black agenda. Didn’t happen.  Sharpton effectively called him on his hubris in trying to place himself in a position to hold black leadership accountable based on his opinions and ideas. Sharpton is missing the boat here too though. For all Shapton’s claim to keeping it real, he is not saying a word about how this administration is sold out to the financial sector for example. Too busy being on the WH invite list and rubbing it in Tavis’s face.  In the end, neither of them has the right of it when it comes to holding the President to some measure of accountability. Tavis is consumed with a self righteous crusade to force the President to pursue a blatant black agenda. Sharpton would have us to believe that he is simply smarter than Tavis and can balance accountability with collaboration in order to be effective, but thats hard to swallow with an administration so sold out to Wall Street, on which point Sharpton has no commentary. I’m willing to bet Sharpton isn’t going to practice any accountability that gets him put off that White House invite list. You know, the one Tavis is permanently off of, though apparently the Clinton’s still roll out the red carpet for him.

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor
The United States apparently has reached the point where it must either accept that Iran will develop nuclear weapons at some point if it wishes, or take military action to prevent this. There is a third strategy, however: Washington can seek to redefine the Iranian question.
As we have no idea what leaders on either side are thinking, exploring this represents an exercise in geopolitical theory. Let’s begin with the two apparent stark choices.

Diplomacy vs. the Military Option

The diplomatic approach consists of creating a broad coalition prepared to impose what have been called crippling sanctions on Iran. Effective sanctions must be so painful that they compel the target to change its behavior. In Tehran’s case, this could only consist of blocking Iran’s imports of gasoline. Iran imports 35 percent of the gasoline it consumes. It is not clear that a gasoline embargo would be crippling, but it is the only embargo that might work. All other forms of sanctions against Iran would be mere gestures designed to give the impression that something is being done.
The Chinese will not participate in any gasoline embargo. Beijing gets 11 percent of its oil from Iran, and it has made it clear it will continue to deliver gasoline to Iran. Moscow’s position is that Russia might consider sanctions down the road, but it hasn’t specified when, and it hasn’t specified what. The Russians are more than content seeing the U.S. bogged down in the Middle East and so are not inclined to solve American problems in the region. With the Chinese and Russians unlikely to embargo gasoline, these sanctions won’t create significant pain for Iran. Since all other sanctions are gestures, the diplomatic approach is therefore unlikely to work.
The military option has its own risks. First, its success depends on the quality of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities and on the degree of hardening of those targets. Second, it requires successful air attacks. Third, it requires battle damage assessments that tell the attacker whether the strike succeeded. Fourth, it requires follow-on raids to destroy facilities that remain functional. And fifth, attacks must do more than simply set back Iran’s program a few months or even years: If the risk of a nuclear Iran is great enough to justify the risks of war, the outcome must be decisive.
Each point in this process is a potential failure point. Given the multiplicity of these points — which includes others not mentioned — failure may not be an option, but it is certainly possible.
But even if the attacks succeed, the question of what would happen the day after the attacks remains. Iran has its own counters. It has a superbly effective terrorist organization, Hezbollah, at its disposal. It has sufficient influence in Iraq to destabilize that country and force the United States to keep forces in Iraq badly needed elsewhere. And it has the ability to use mines and missiles to attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf shipping lanes for some period — driving global oil prices through the roof while the global economy is struggling to stabilize itself. Iran’s position on its nuclear program is rooted in the awareness that while it might not have assured options in the event of a military strike, it has counters that create complex and unacceptable risks. Iran therefore does not believe the United States will strike or permit Israel to strike, as the consequences would be unacceptable.
To recap, the United States either can accept a nuclear Iran or risk an attack that might fail outright, impose only a minor delay on Iran’s nuclear program or trigger extremely painful responses even if it succeeds. When neither choice is acceptable, it is necessary to find a third choice.

Redefining the Iranian Problem

As long as the problem of Iran is defined in terms of its nuclear program, the United States is in an impossible place. Therefore, the Iranian problem must be redefined. One attempt at redefinition involves hope for an uprising against the current regime. We will not repeat our views on this in depth, but in short, we do not regard these demonstrations to be a serious threat to the regime. Tehran has handily crushed them, and even if they did succeed, we do not believe they would produce a regime any more accommodating toward the United States. The idea of waiting for a revolution is more useful as a justification for inaction — and accepting a nuclear Iran — than it is as a strategic alternative.
At this moment, Iran is the most powerful regional military force in the Persian Gulf. Unless the United States permanently stations substantial military forces in the region, there is no military force able to block Iran. Turkey is more powerful than Iran, but it is far from the Persian Gulf and focused on other matters at the moment, and it doesn’t want to take on Iran militarily — at least not for a very long time. At the very least, this means the United States cannot withdraw from Iraq. Baghdad is too weak to block Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, and the Iraqi government has elements friendly toward Iran.
Historically, regional stability depended on the Iraqi-Iranian balance of power. When it tottered in 1990, the result was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The United States did not push into Iraq in 1991 because it did not want to upset the regional balance of power by creating a vacuum in Iraq. Rather, U.S. strategy was to re-establish the Iranian-Iraqi balance of power to the greatest extent possible, as the alternative was basing large numbers of U.S. troops in the region.
The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 assumed that once the Baathist regime was destroyed the United States would rapidly create a strong Iraqi government that would balance Iran. The core mistake in this thinking lay in failing to recognize that the new Iraqi government would be filled with Shiites, many of whom regarded Iran as a friendly power. Rather than balancing Iran, Iraq could well become an Iranian satellite. The Iranians strongly encouraged the American invasion precisely because they wanted to create a situation where Iraq moved toward Iran’s orbit. When this in fact began happening, the Americans had no choice but an extended occupation of Iraq, a trap both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to escape.
It is difficult to define Iran’s influence in Iraq at this point. But at a minimum, while Iran may not be able to impose a pro-Iranian state on Iraq, it has sufficient influence to block the creation of any strong Iraqi government either through direct influence in the government or by creating destabilizing violence in Iraq. In other words, Iran can prevent Iraq from emerging as a counterweight to Iran, and Iran has every reason to do this. Indeed, it is doing just this.

The Fundamental U.S.-Iranian Issue

Iraq, not nuclear weapons, is the fundamental issue between Iran and the United States. Iran wants to see a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq so Iran can assume its place as the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf. The United States wants to withdraw from Iraq because it faces challenges in Afghanistan — where it will also need Iranian cooperation — and elsewhere. Committing forces to Iraq for an extended period of time while fighting in Afghanistan leaves the United States exposed globally. Events involving China or Russia — such as the 2008 war in Georgia — would see the United States without a counter. The alternative would be a withdrawal from Afghanistan or a massive increase in U.S. armed forces. The former is not going to happen any time soon, and the latter is an economic impossibility.
Therefore, the United States must find a way to counterbalance Iran without an open-ended deployment in Iraq and without expecting the re-emergence of Iraqi power, because Iran is not going to allow the latter to happen. The nuclear issue is simply an element of this broader geopolitical problem, as it adds another element to the Iranian tool kit. It is not a stand-alone issue.
The United States has an interesting strategy in redefining problems that involves creating extraordinarily alliances with mortal ideological and geopolitical enemies to achieve strategic U.S. goals. First consider Franklin Roosevelt’s alliance with Stalinist Russia to block Nazi Germany. He pursued this alliance despite massive political outrage not only from isolationists but also from institutions like the Roman Catholic Church that regarded the Soviets as the epitome of evil.
Now consider Richard Nixon’s decision to align with China at a time when the Chinese were supplying weapons to North Vietnam that were killing American troops. Moreover, Mao — who had said he did not fear nuclear war as China could absorb a few hundred million deaths — was considered, with reason, quite mad. Nevertheless, Nixon, as anti-Communist and anti-Chinese a figure as existed in American politics, understood that an alliance (and despite the lack of a formal treaty, alliance it was) with China was essential to counterbalance the Soviet Union at a time when American power was still being sapped in Vietnam.
Roosevelt and Nixon both faced impossible strategic situations unless they were prepared to redefine the strategic equation dramatically and accept the need for alliance with countries that had previously been regarded as strategic and moral threats. American history is filled with opportunistic alliances designed to solve impossible strategic dilemmas. The Stalin and Mao cases represent stunning alliances with prior enemies designed to block a third power seen as more dangerous.
It is said that Ahmadinejad is crazy. It was also said that Mao and Stalin were crazy, in both cases with much justification. Ahmadinejad has said many strange things and issued numerous threats. But when Roosevelt ignored what Stalin said and Nixon ignored what Mao said, they each discovered that Stalin’s and Mao’s actions were far more rational and predictable than their rhetoric. Similarly, what the Iranians say and what they do are quite different.

U.S. vs. Iranian Interests

Consider the American interest. First, it must maintain the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. The United States cannot tolerate interruptions, and that limits the risks it can take. Second, it must try to keep any one power from controlling all of the oil in the Persian Gulf, as that would give such a country too much long-term power within the global system. Third, while the United States is involved in a war with elements of the Sunni Muslim world, it must reduce the forces devoted to that war. Fourth, it must deal with the Iranian problem directly. Europe will go as far as sanctions but no further, while the Russians and Chinese won’t even go that far yet. Fifth, it must prevent an Israeli strike on Iran for the same reasons it must avoid a strike itself, as the day after any Israeli strike will be left to the United States to manage.
Now consider the Iranian interest. First, it must guarantee regime survival. It sees the United States as dangerous and unpredictable. In less than 10 years, it has found itself with American troops on both its eastern and western borders. Second, it must guarantee that Iraq will never again be a threat to Iran. Third, it must increase its authority within the Muslim world against Sunni Muslims, whom it regards as rivals and sometimes as threats.
Now consider the overlaps. The United States is in a war against some (not all) Sunnis. These are Iran’s enemies, too. Iran does not want U.S. troops along its eastern and western borders. In point of fact, the United States does not want this either. The United States does not want any interruption of oil flow through Hormuz. Iran much prefers profiting from those flows to interrupting them. Finally, the Iranians understand that it is the United States alone that is Iran’s existential threat. If Iran can solve the American problem its regime survival is assured. The United States understands, or should, that resurrecting the Iraqi counterweight to Iran is not an option: It is either U.S. forces in Iraq or accepting Iran’s unconstrained role.
Therefore, as an exercise in geopolitical theory, consider the following. Washington’s current options are unacceptable. By redefining the issue in terms of dealing with the consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there are three areas of mutual interest. First, both powers have serious quarrels with Sunni Islam. Second, both powers want to see a reduction in U.S. forces in the region. Third, both countries have an interest in assuring the flow of oil, one to use the oil, the other to profit from it to increase its regional power.
The strategic problem is, of course, Iranian power in the Persian Gulf. The Chinese model is worth considering here. China issued bellicose rhetoric before and after Nixon’s and Kissinger’s visits. But whatever it did internally, it was not a major risk-taker in its foreign policy. China’s relationship with the United States was of critical importance to China. Beijing fully understood the value of this relationship, and while it might continue to rail about imperialism, it was exceedingly careful not to undermine this core interest.
The major risk of the third strategy is that Iran will overstep its bounds and seek to occupy the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf. Certainly, this would be tempting, but it would bring a rapid American intervention. The United States would not block indirect Iranian influence, however, from financial participation in regional projects to more significant roles for the Shia in Arabian states. Washington’s limits for Iranian power are readily defined and enforced when exceeded.
The great losers in the third strategy, of course, would be the Sunnis in the Arabian Peninsula. But Iraq aside, they are incapable of defending themselves, and the United States has no long-term interest in their economic and political relations. So long as the oil flows, and no single power directly controls the entire region, the United States does not have a stake in this issue.
Israel would also be enraged. It sees ongoing American-Iranian hostility as a given. And it wants the United States to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. But eliminating this threat is not an option given the risks, so the choice is a nuclear Iran outside some structured relationship with the United States or within it. The choice that Israel might want, a U.S.-Iranian conflict, is unlikely. Israel can no more drive American strategy than can Saudi Arabia.
From the American standpoint, an understanding with Iran would have the advantage of solving an increasingly knotty problem. In the long run, it would also have the advantage of being a self-containing relationship. Turkey is much more powerful than Iran and is emerging from its century-long shell. Its relations with the United States are delicate. The United States would infuriate the Turks by doing this deal, forcing them to become more active faster. They would thus emerge in Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran. But Turkey’s anger at the United States would serve U.S. interests. The Iranian position in Iraq would be temporary, and the United States would not have to break its word as Turkey eventually would eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq.
Ultimately, the greatest shock of such a maneuver on both sides would be political. The U.S.-Soviet agreement shocked Americans deeply, the Soviets less so because Stalin’s pact with Hitler had already stunned them. The Nixon-Mao entente shocked all sides. It was utterly unthinkable at the time, but once people on both sides thought about it, it was manageable.
Such a maneuver would be particularly difficult for U.S. President Barack Obama, as it would be widely interpreted as another example of weakness rather than as a ruthless and cunning move. A military strike would enhance his political standing, while an apparently cynical deal would undermine it. Ahmadinejad could sell such a deal domestically much more easily. In any event, the choices now are a nuclear Iran, extended airstrikes with all their attendant consequences, or something else. This is what something else might look like and how it would fit in with American strategic tradition.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

Traditionally White Sorority Zeta Tau Alpha Pulls Shocking Upset. 

The ladies of Zeta Tau Alpha – Epsilon chapter at the University of Arkansas rocked and shocked the crowd during the Sprite 2010 Step-Off  Finals in Atlanta on Feb. 20th. The blogosphere is full of haterade over their shocker win.  Stepping and step competition is a long standing cultural tradition within black Greek organizaitons with roots deep in African American culture.  So it was a shock to the system to see the sisters of Zeta Tau Alpha, a traditionally and predominantly white sorority, bring a tight routine to the stage and rock it pretty decent. Now, black folk are mad but wait a minute, its a step COMPETITION. So I’m moved to ask “What? White sorority girls ain’t allowed to win?

The anger at this win is running hot and heavy in many sectors of the net with some alleging that ZTA won based on novelty value, others stating flatly that they were not as good as the 2nd place team (AKA Tau chapter, Hoosier women hailing from right here in Indiana at IU Bloomington). Others have said they won because of Sprite/MTV rating manipulation or simply because the judges were influenced that they got more “house” than the other teams did.  Some folks who were on the scene for the competition say ZTA broke the rules with the rump shaker moves at the end of their routine and should have been penalized.

I’ve watched the routine several times from a variety of You Tube generated vantage points and I’ve watched the other routines.  ZTA was good. They weren’t perfect.  They got a lot of house from the crowd, perhaps a fair bit more than the other teams and that was certainly due in part to the fact that they were white and doing something a white sorority was assumed incapable of.  But for me, the bottomline was that their routine was a whole lot of fundamentals. A lot of step action, very little dancing or playacting and short transitions without long pauses.  They were in motion nearly the entire routine. At the end of the day, ZTA won with a little bit of novelty and a whole lot of heart and hard work.  They brought it as hard as they knew how and it was enough to win.

They took home $100,000. The crowd and now the rest of us, took home a whole lot of angst. Here is the team that the judges awarded second place.  You can judge for yourself. Bear in mind that for both, the angle is not the best.

Around the net, here were common themes and my reaction:

Stepping is Ours, Now White People Want That Too?
I am so sick of our culture getting raped and we can never have anything to have self respect of our culture and pride….Kingsley –

Black folk didn’t lose something because a white sorority chapter learned to step. Their win doesn’t elevate to a rape of black culture just because they won $100k doing something that traditionally has been a cultural domain of black America. On a more objective level, its not true. This is a southern chapter of ZTA based at the University of Arkansas, so for their entire history as a chapter, they have been surrounded by the cultural practice of stepping. Why be surprised that they took it up. This chapter has been stepping for 15 years according to some reports. I would be very surprised to find that stepping is a part of ZTA sorority culture outside their southern chapters. The reality is that stepping remains very much a part of the cultural DNA of black folk. Nobody came and violated us to take stepping away, we freely displayed and spread it, indeed taught it to ZTA at some point. To say now that we are diminished by their emulation of us is simply foolish and misapprehends the value of our cultural capital.

They Won Because of the Novelty Factor
I was there, and while the ZTA’s did do an excellent job, the Tau Chapter AKA’s definitely did better. What put them over the top for the win was shock value which garnered crowd participation. The crowd went wild when they saw they were white. Bailey – The Smoking Section

This basically boils down to the argument that they had an unfair advantage because they had a gimmick: they were white.  Guess what? That’s true.  They were white and that made them interesting out the gate. The fact that they actually knew what they were doing however is what took them to the next level.  The novelty would have meant nothing if they could not actually step. The novelty was an early hook, it got you to pay attention. After that, it was all hard work and showmanship, the best way they knew how. Crowd appeal is a component that affects judges scoring and Zeta Tau Alpha had that. Its called showmanship. The fact that they (ZTA) all looked alike in appearance and body type generally also gave the “illusion” of higher levels of precision and so on.They worked with what they had.

My personal favorite – Conspiracy! It Was Fixed by Sprite for the Ratings
they definitely won for ratings, which obviously worked; its all over the media.  Bailey – The Smoking Section

This last one is so stupid you can only laugh. They got a standing O from a black crowd in a competition filled with black teams and with all black judges. But the fix was in. This line of thinking was apparently being spun by some judges from the competition on Atlanta radio, some stating they gave TAU a perfect score, and questioning what may have happened.

Bottom line: the contest result here upended everybody’s cart of assumed understandings about who can step, who should step and how we interpret this cultural activity when people traditionally not a participant in it get involved.

Update:  Holy mackerel! Sprite announces on their Facebook page that they have discovered a “scoring discrepancy” that can’t be resolved and to preserve the “integrity” of the competition, they are naming AKA TAU chapter as co-winners of the competition.  The ladies of Indiana’s TAU chapter will now also pick up $100,000 as well.  I’m happy for the AKA sorors because they can use the money I’m sure.  It makes Sprite look pretty lame though, caving in to all this pressure and lends credence (in some minds) to the conspiracy theory.  Pooly played Sprite, poorly played.

Takeaways from this debacle:

Black Greeks: Stepping is traditionally, historically, culturally your territory and domain, but don’t let cultural arrogance allow you to take your eye off the ball in a step competition.  As ZTA has now clearly demonstrated, you don’t have to be black to step with some level of proficiency. You are all on notice, you can get hosed by a white, yellow, brown or something in between step team on any given day if you’re not paying attention.  We invented the game, now raise it.

White Greeks: The novelty factor will only provide an edge once and this was it. From here on out, you’re going to have to bring it hard and with authority. Given the controversy surrounding the ZTA win, you may even have to be twice as good as the black greek teams in the field to get the win, because now black greek teams will be checking for you.  ZTA did a good job, but their performance was not error free. Future white greeks entering the arena won’t have the surprise factor ZTA did to help cover their mistakes. We’re all clear now; white greeks can step if they put their mind to it. You want to compete in this cultural tradition owned by the black greek community, respect it by bringing your A game.

Sprite: Raise the level of your game with the Step-Off competition. First, make sure the rules of competition are clear and fair. Some transparency about the rules and the judging criteria would have helped you immensely in this mess. Clean that up.   Second, make sure you have judges that have some background relative to stepping. Celebrity judges are cool, but you need to balance them with other judges who command credibility (like some stepping experts)  to avoid this kind of controversy in the future.

Now,  the reaction to this has been silly, but for those of my brothers and sisters who just really can’t get past a white step team taking the top prize, you can be consoled in the knowledge that the competition passed out over a $1.5 million in scholarship and prize money and the vast bulk of it went to worthy recipients from black greek organizations, with the exception of the $100k to ZTA. If that doesn’t get you there, you can further console yourself with the knowledge that at least one of those ladies appears to have been a very fair sista who led this team in competition and taught them the moves (look for the one who’s dance moves look particularly competent, practiced and natural…).  Feel better now?

Thats my take on this controversy. Whats yours?


My wife, The Hot Little Number, has two smiles. One is a nice, warm smile appropriate for everyday use. Its a perfectly pleasant smile and I always enjoy seeing it. It pales in comparison however to smile #2.  That one is bigger, brighter and blazes with raw, megawatt sex appeal.  I like that smile.  Lately I feel like I don’t make it appear often enough, so anything that does is intriguing to me.

Now, I have to confess that intrigued was not my first reaction when I saw the new Old Spice “Look at Your Man” commercial the other night for the first time.  The Hot Little Number is looking at him, then looking at me, then looking at him, and by the time the commercial is over, she’s got the megawatt smile going and she’s cracking up.  I’m feeling a little perturbed. I ask the Hot Little Number, how the heck do they think they are gonna sell me Old Spice with that pitch?. She laughs and says “they’re betting that I’m the one buying the smell good.  I’m thinking , yeah, damn right, cuz I’m not feeling like shelling out my hard earned cash for some Old Spice after Mr. Pecs finishes comparing and contrasting my mild flabby flab with his rock hard abs.

Later on, I run into an online ad with the same guy at You Tube.  In this one, you get a choice of watching his spot again or finding out ways to romance your woman. I think to myself, okay, something I can use and click through for some of this assistance brother man is offering, which turns out to be kinda cool.  So I decide that the whole Old Spice “Look at Your Man” campaign is not quite so foul.

The other thing that struck me about this commercial is how times have changed.   I wonder  if the Old Spice marketing folks believed this ad would be effective to capture the buying attention of white women? Old Spice using a sexy black man to sell the product is just a weird contrast to the Old Spice commercials I think I remember from my youth.  Didn’t those all used to have like this handsome Nordic white guy with a corn cob pipe in his mouth in a seaman’s jacket with the smell of the sea about him? (or is that the Irish Spring commercials of old?).  Now, unless Old Spice is now competing with the likes of Drakar (Yes, I’m dating myself) and such for the black male fragrance top spot, I don’t recall Old Spice being marketed to brothers or their women, but without a doubt this ad is clearly designed to get the attention of a black woman. Its effective too, if the back and forth glances of the Hot Little Number are an accurate judge. So brothers, tell me, how does this ad strike you? How did your woman react? If you are a white female reader, tell me, does this ad make you think about adding some Old Spice to the shopping cart? Anybody had a new bottle of Old Spice show up in your bathroom recently?

UPDATE: My wife, the Hot Little Number, just bought me some Old Spice.

Its a definitive statement about the scandal and his responsibility for it.  My only nitpick with it is the passing reference to in-patient therapy (the guy isn’t sick), but its a nitpick, he was very clear about it being his fault.  His speech makes very clear that a lot of people took it on the chin because of his affairs. I thought it was much better than the bare minimum apology you see from others in these situations.  I thought this was pretty comprehensive and definitive. I don’t know if any of Elin’s family members were on hand for this, but his mom was there and you could tell it was hard for her to hear and hard for her to watch him have to do it in a way that probably only mom’s understand, but she embraced him afterward.  Just goes to show you always have your momma.

Some strong words about maintaining his privacy and demanding that the focus be on him. Very smart for personal and business reasons. I thought this was pretty good from a business perspective. Some pros worked on that and its the clearest indication to me that Tiger will be returning to golf.  Chris Brown needs to call Tiger and ask him if he can get a consult.  

Update: Praise God. She’s back home safe and sound.

Have You Seen Me….?

Autiyana “Tiana” Hughley 

Height: 5’5 ½
Weight: 150 lbs.
Hair: Brown (Blonde)
Eyes: Hazel
Age: 15
Missing since Tuesday February 16, 2010
(Last Seen at 6:30 AM on her way to the bus stop)
Park Hoover Condos @ 64th and Hoover Rd, Indianapolis

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Please call Mom at 317-405-8986 or email at or contact IMPD.

By Kamran Bokhari, Peter Zeihan and Nathan Hughes
On Feb. 13, some 6,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops launched a sustained assault on the town of Marjah in Helmand province. Until this latest offensive, the U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan had been constrained by other considerations, most notably Iraq. Western forces viewed the Afghan conflict as a matter of holding the line or pursuing targets of opportunity. But now, armed with larger forces and a new strategy, the war — the real war — has begun. The most recent offensive — dubbed Operation Moshtarak (“Moshtarak” is Dari for “together”) — is the largest joint U.S.-NATO-Afghan operation in history. It also is the first major offensive conducted by the first units deployed as part of the surge of 30,000 troops promised by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The United States originally entered Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. In those days of fear and fury, American goals could be simply stated: A non-state actor — al Qaeda — had attacked the American homeland and needed to be destroyed. Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan at the invitation of a near-state actor — the Taliban, which at the time were Afghanistan’s de facto governing force. Since the Taliban were unwilling to hand al Qaeda over, the United States attacked. By the end of the year, al Qaeda had relocated to neighboring Pakistan and the Taliban retreated into the arid, mountainous countryside in their southern heartland and began waging a guerrilla conflict. In time, American attention became split between searching for al Qaeda and clashing with the Taliban over control of Afghanistan.

But from the earliest days following 9/11, the White House was eyeing Iraq, and with the Taliban having largely declined combat in the initial invasion, the path seemed clear. The U.S. military and diplomatic focus was shifted, and as the years wore on, the conflict absorbed more and more U.S. troops, even as other issues — a resurgent Russia and a defiant Iran — began to demand American attention. All of this and more consumed American bandwidth, and the Afghan conflict melted into the background. The United States maintained its Afghan force in what could accurately be described as a holding action as the bulk of its forces operated elsewhere. That has more or less been the state of affairs for eight years.

That has changed with the series of offensive operations that most recently culminated at Marjah.

Marjah Map

Why Marjah? The key is the geography of Afghanistan and the nature of the conflict itself. Most of Afghanistan is custom-made for a guerrilla war. Much of the country is mountainous, encouraging local identities and militias, as well as complicating the task of any foreign military force. The country’s aridity discourages dense population centers, making it very easy for irregular combatants to melt into the countryside. Afghanistan lacks navigable rivers or ports, drastically reducing the region’s likelihood of developing commerce. No commerce to tax means fewer resources to fund a meaningful government or military and encourages the smuggling of every good imaginable — and that smuggling provides the perfect funding for guerrillas.
Rooting out insurgents is no simple task. It requires three things:

  1. Massively superior numbers so that occupiers can limit the zones to which the insurgents have easy access.
  2. The support of the locals in order to limit the places that the guerillas can disappear into.
  3. Superior intelligence so that the fight can be consistently taken to the insurgents rather than vice versa.

Without those three things — and American-led forces in Afghanistan lack all three — the insurgents can simply take the fight to the occupiers, retreat to rearm and regroup and return again shortly thereafter.  But the insurgents hardly hold all the cards. Guerrilla forces are by their very nature irregular. Their capacity to organize and strike is quite limited, and while they can turn a region into a hellish morass for an opponent, they have great difficulty holding territory — particularly territory that a regular force chooses to contest. Should they mass into a force that could achieve a major battlefield victory, a regular force — which is by definition better-funded, -trained, -organized and -armed — will almost always smash the irregulars. As such, the default guerrilla tactic is to attrit and harass the occupier into giving up and going home. The guerrillas always decline combat in the face of a superior military force only to come back and fight at a time and place of their choosing. Time is always on the guerrilla’s side if the regular force is not a local one.

But while the guerrillas don’t require basing locations that are as large or as formalized as those required by regular forces, they are still bound by basic economics. They need resources — money, men and weapons — to operate. The larger these locations are, the better economies of scale they can achieve and the more effectively they can fight their war.

Marjah is perhaps the quintessential example of a good location from which to base. It is in a region sympathetic to the Taliban; Helmand province is part of the Taliban’s heartland. Marjah is very close to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, the religious center of the local brand of Islam, the birthplace of the Taliban, and due to the presence of American forces, an excellent target. Helmand alone produces more heroin than any country on the planet, and Marjah is at the center of that trade. By some estimates, this center alone supplies the Taliban with a monthly income of $200,000. And it is defensible: The farmland is crisscrossed with irrigation canals and dotted with mud-brick compounds — and, given time to prepare, a veritable plague of IEDs. Simply put, regardless of the Taliban’s strategic or tactical goals, Marjah is a critical node in their operations.

The American Strategy

Though operations have approached Marjah in the past, it has not been something NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ever has tried to hold. The British, Canadian and Danish troops holding the line in the country’s restive south had their hands full enough. Despite Marjah’s importance to the Taliban, ISAF forces were too few to engage the Taliban everywhere (and they remain as such). But American priorities started changing about two years ago. The surge of forces into Iraq changed the position of many a player in the country. Those changes allowed a reshaping of the Iraq conflict that laid the groundwork for the current “stability” and American withdrawal. At the same time, the Taliban began to resurge in a big way. Since then the Bush and then Obama administrations inched toward applying a similar strategy to Afghanistan, a strategy that focuses less on battlefield success and more on altering the parameters of the country itself.

As the Obama administration’s strategy has begun to take shape, it has started thinking about endgames. A decades-long occupation and pacification of Afghanistan is simply not in the cards. A withdrawal is, but only a withdrawal where the security free-for-all that allowed al Qaeda to thrive will not return. And this is where Marjah comes in.  Denying the Taliban control of poppy farming communities like Marjah and the key population centers along the Helmand River Valley — and areas like them around the country — is the first goal of the American strategy. The fewer key population centers the Taliban can count on, the more dispersed — and militarily inefficient — their forces will be. This will hardly destroy the Taliban, but destruction isn’t the goal. The Taliban are not simply a militant Islamist force. At times they are a flag of convenience for businessmen or thugs; they can even be, simply, the least-bad alternative for villagers desperate for basic security and civil services. In many parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban are not only pervasive but also the sole option for governance and civil authority.

So destruction of what is in essence part of the local cultural and political fabric is not an American goal. Instead, the goal is to prevent the Taliban from mounting large-scale operations that could overwhelm any particular location. Remember, the Americans do not wish to pacify Afghanistan; the Americans wish to leave Afghanistan in a form that will not cause the United States severe problems down the road. In effect, achieving the first goal simply aims to shape the ground for a shot at achieving the second.

That second goal is to establish a domestic authority that can stand up to the Taliban in the long run. Most of the surge of forces into Afghanistan is not designed to battle the Taliban now but to secure the population and train the Afghan security forces to battle the Taliban later. To do this, the Taliban must be weak enough in a formal military sense to be unable to launch massive or coordinated attacks. Capturing key population centers along the Helmand River Valley is the first step in a strategy designed to create the breathing room necessary to create a replacement force, preferably a replacement force that provides Afghans with a viable alternative to the Taliban.

That is no small task. In recent years, in places where the official government has been corrupt, inept or defunct, the Taliban have in many cases stepped in to provide basic governance and civil authority. And this is why even the Americans are publicly flirting with holding talks with certain factions of the Taliban in hopes that at least some of the fighters can be dissuaded from battling the Americans (assisting with the first goal) and perhaps even joining the nascent Afghan government (assisting with the second).

The bottom line is that this battle does not mark the turning of the tide of the war. Instead, it is part of the application of a new strategy that accurately takes into account Afghanistan’s geography and all the weaknesses and challenges that geography poses. Marjah marks the first time the United States has applied a plan not to hold the line, but actually to reshape the country. We are not saying that the strategy will bear fruit. Afghanistan is a corrupt mess populated by citizens who are far more comfortable thinking and acting locally and tribally than nationally. In such a place indigenous guerrillas will always hold the advantage. No one has ever attempted this sort of national restructuring in Afghanistan, and the Americans are attempting to do so in a short period on a shoestring budget.

At the time of this writing, this first step appears to be going well for American-NATO-Afghan forces. Casualties have been light and most of Marjah already has been secured. But do not read this as a massive battlefield success. The assault required weeks of obvious preparation, and very few Taliban fighters chose to remain and contest the territory against the more numerous and better armed attackers. The American challenge lies not so much in assaulting or capturing Marjah but in continuing to deny it to the Taliban. If the Americans cannot actually hold places like Marjah, then they are simply engaging in an exhausting and reactive strategy of chasing a dispersed and mobile target.

A “government-in-a-box” of civilian administrators is already poised to move into Marjah to step into the vacuum left by the Taliban. We obviously have major doubts about how effective this box government can be at building up civil authority in a town that has been governed by the Taliban for most of the last decade. Yet what happens in Marjah and places like it in the coming months will be the foundation upon which the success or failure of this effort will be built. But assessing that process is simply impossible, because the only measure that matters cannot be judged until the Afghans are left to themselves.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR