Ask the Candidates – 1a

I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I posted the questions on the 70th anniversary of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”. After the dust of WWII had settled, it was becoming clear that the United States’ chief rival in the near future would be the Soviet Union. Kennan, the American “charge d’affaires” at the Moscow Embassy, was asked to provide answers to a couple of questions about the Soviet Union’s general outlook and policies.

His response was much longer (thus the name) and more insightful than anyone had any right to expect. It described the Soviet Union perfectly, and his recommendations became the center of the “Truman Doctrine” of containment that kept communism in check in the opening phase of the Cold War.

One wonders if there is anyone today in the State Department providing a similar analysis of Islamic terrorism, and if there is anyone in government ready and willing to listen.

Anyway, here are my answers to the questions I asked last time. Of course, I’m cheating. I only asked questions that I felt I could give good answers to….

1. What are the primary desires of the following nations or groups?

The Kurds: They pretty much want to be left alone to govern themselves in peace. The actual geographic country they live in doesn’t matter much – they’ll obey those laws as long as they can run their own area.

Iran: They want to be a regional power. That’s why they wanted to get nuclear weapons – to give them influence in the region. They feel it’s important, as they are the only Islamic nation where the Shi’a are in a clear majority (see below).

Iraq: They want a stable government. However, the Sunni minority wants to be in charge like they used to (they’re also afraid of retribution from the Shi’a majority), and the Shi’a majority wants to be in charge since they are the majority, and they don’t want to be oppressed by the Sunnis like they used to be.

ISIS/ISIL: To re-establish the Baghdad Caliphate. The Islamic world was at its most prosperous, stable, and influential when there was a Caliphate in Baghdad. What they’ve forgotten is that when there was a Caliphate in Baghdad, Islam was also (in general) at its most open, liberal, and tolerant….

Israel: Guaranteed security. Duhh….

Palestine: Pushing Israel into the sea is out of the question by now; they’ll settle for a nation of their own – with guaranteed security. Maybe a chance at moving back into Israel, where they can live as peaceful citizens….

Russia: Status as a Great Power. The current “Ruling Generation” (people in their late 40s and early 50s) in Russia were teenagers when the Soviet Union still had the ability to scare the crap out of people. They watched it all come apart as their client states broke off, the ruling class turn into a kleptocracy, and the economy and society go to ruin. Now Putin is leading a revanchist movement in the hopes of recovering the lost glory…

Saudi Arabia: Preservation of the monarchy. The House of Saud doesn’t really want to liberalize, since the first thing that will happen is that they will find themselves out of a job.

Syria: Assad wants to stay in power, the rebels want him out, and everyone else wishes both would go away so they can live.

Turkey: In the short term, for the Russians to GTFO. In the long term, for their minorities to STFU. Russia’s been a traditional enemy (probably their only real one) for centuries. Something to do with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and Turkey controlling the only exit from the Black Sea… After WWI, the new government of Turkey put itself into place with an appeal to Turkish nationalism. Minorities (Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, et al.) were pushed aside and oppressed. This became self-perpetuating (if you apologize to the Armenians, then the Kurds will go “What about us?”, and then the Greek minority will start to raise a fuss….), and Turkey’s never-very-stable governments can’t break the cycle.

NOTE: Did you notice that NO ONE has “Defeat ISIS/ISIL” as a primary goal?

2. Briefly describe the threat posed by each of these to our national security.

China: The major threat here is that their aggressive expansion into the South China Sea might drag us into a military conflict. A secondary threat is that the nation is also the source of some of the most serious cyber attacks on the US. It’s not clear to the public how serious those attacks are, or what their overall intent is. But they are serious….

ISIS/ISIL: They are more of an immediate threat to the peace and stability in the Middle East. They don’t have the manpower or reach to present a real serious danger to the US. To individual citizens, yes. But not really to our government or way of life. They aren’t out to take over the US; just goad us into overreacting.

North Korea: While they are actively working on nuclear weapons, and are developing missiles capable of reaching Alaska and our bases in the Pacific, Kim Jong Un doesn’t seem stupid or crazy enough to actually use them in an attack. He’s just got to do all the saber-rattling to justify the cult of personality that surrounds him, and distract his people from how crappy their lives really are.

Pakistan: You do know that they have nuclear weapons, right? And their government is rather unstable, right? And the country is a base for the Taliban and other tribal militia types, right?

Russia: Vladimir Putin is a bully, but he’s only pushing Russia outward piecemeal. He’s much more of a threat to Europe than to the US.

3. Give one reason why you shouldn’t compare Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler.

Because in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), the Soviet Union sacrificed some 10 million of its citizens in defense of the Motherland – and that doesn’t include civilian casualties. Honest historians know that the “Eastern Front”of WWII was the single greatest war between two nations – ever. It’s hard to see how the Allies could have beaten Hitler without the Soviet Union’s sucking in all the men and material of Nazi Germany that they did. It is, quite frankly, an insult to Russia to suggest that their leader is in any way like the leader of their greatest enemy in history.

4. At this time, is a one-state or two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem more likely? Why? What might the long-term consequences of that solution be?

While a two-state solution is the most desirable, at this point the one-state solution is most likely. Israel has been doing nothing to stop the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank, and they’ve been treating the Gaza Strip as a giant prison camp. However, the Palestinians (and the organizations representing them) have blown every opportunity for peace and settlements that they’ve had, and they continue to antagonize Israel at practically every turn.

The net result, if things do not change, will be an effective apartheid state (and I’m using that term deliberately) where Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens.

5. Which of these statements best describes Islam?

A. A dangerous faith which (like Communism under Stalin) has world domination and conquest as its goal.
B. A backwards religion that oppresses women and insists on strict adherence to its doctrines under penalty of death.
C. A theocratic doctrine that wants the state to be run under strict religious lines.

Can you do better?

Of the three, C is probably the closest overall to the actuality. However, it is vital to keep in mind that just as there are many varieties and interpretations of Christianity (heck, just take a look at the variety of Protestant denominations – Anglican, Episcopalian, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist…), there are many varieties and interpretations of Islam.

6. Islam is divided into the Shi’a and Sunni groups. What is the most significant difference between the two? How important is it in the politics of the Middle East?

Very early in its history, Islam split along what was essentially a dispute over succession. One side went with Mohammed’s father-in-law Abu Bakr, the others followed his cousin and son-in-law Ali. The former became the Sunni branch; the latter became the Shi’ites. The rivalry between the two became intense, and led to outright war. The division has never even come close to being healed.

Politically, the difference is important in that almost all Islamic countries have a solid Sunni majority. The exceptions are Iran (over 90% Shi’ite), Iraq (roughly 2/3 Shi’ite), and Yemen (1/3 Shi’ite). This helps explain why Iran wants to be a regional power, Iraq is a mess, and Yemen is in the middle of a civil war.

There is a truly amazing graphic on all of this here.

7. What is the most important international issue that your successor will have to deal with?

Personally, I see two things:

1: The effects of global warming. Where do people living in coastal regions go when they get flooded out? How about industries and port facilities? What happens when climate shifts affect agricultural regions? What about other resource shortages – like fresh water? Can you still be a citizen of an island nation if the islands comprising that nation disappear beneath the waves?

2: Increasing “tribalization”/”fragmentation”. These days, it’s pretty easy for a minority population to get its voice out there and rally its members – and to get hold of weaponry. There are already places where the central government has pretty much collapsed (Sudan and Somalia are prominent examples) leaving the place in the hands of warlords and militias. What can be done to restore legitimate government in these places? Can the trend be stopped? Can we at least keep things from spreading?

The combined effect will be lots and lots and lots of refugees….

8. The recent arms control agreement with Iran is very unpopular in some circles. What would be the primary result if the United States were to repudiate it?

As far as Iran is concerned, nothing. The other parties to the agreement (China, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia) aren’t going to abandon it just because we do. What would happen is that the United States will take a hit in its trustworthiness. If we make it known that we could pull out of international agreements due to petty internal politics, how likely is it that others will bargain fairly with us in the future?


What newspapers do you read?

Katie Couric gave VP Candidate Sarah Palin this “gimmie” of a question – and Palin blew it. She could have at least mentioned her hometown Frontiersman (how can you NOT know the newspaper of your hometown, even if you don’t read it?) or the Juneau Empire, which she must have known as the paper in Alaska’s state capital from her time as governor. And for cryin’ out loud, if you want a broad, populist appeal, you mention the blandly middle-of-the-road USA Today….

Anyway, while I don’t really “read” an actual newspaper in its entirety, there are some newspaper and news magazine websites I visit almost every day:

The Journal News – my local paper
The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today – Always get your serious news and commentary from more than one source.
The New York Post and the New York Daily News – just in case they have something outrageous on the front page (and for some New York Mets coverage)
The New Yorker – Well-written commentary on many issues
Mother Jones – If they were any more to the left, even Democrats would call them communist… Seriously, though, they quite often have some great reporting with excellent research.

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