Skip to content

Archive for

Review: The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate

By Taylor Marvin

The A-10 Thunderbolt II is one of the world’s most fascinating combat aircraft. Dubbed the “Warthog”, both lovingly and disparagingly, for its unique appearance, the A-10 was designed as a purpose-built aircraft uncompromisingly dedicated to Close Air Support (CAS), or supporting ground troops in direct contact with enemy forces. CAS has a controversial history within the US military because the mission can arguably be best performed by either the Air Force or the Army; while the Air Force is traditionally tasked with land-based fixed-wing aviation, effective close air support required close coordination with the Army’s ground troops. The Air Force has traditionally been accused of neglecting CAS in favor of the more glamourous air superiority and strategic bombing missions, and the service’s A-10 grew out of a complicated and protracted late-1960s bureaucratic struggle over the future of CAS pitting the Air Force against the Army’s claim that advanced helicopter gunships could fill the hole left by the service’s — in their minds — obvious neglect in the mission. This interservice rivalry and the increasingly-dangerous projected Cold War battlefield resulted in the A-10, a slow, heavily armed and armored aircraft armed with a massive, devastating gun.

51R1Q29YPVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Douglas N. Campbell’s 2003 book The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate (which I read after the book was noted by Robert Farley) is an excellent history of the A-10, and more broadly the postwar American debate over the best means of providing CAS and which service should fill the role. Campbell takes time to lay out the history of American CAS, beginning with the enormously successful WWII-era P-47, designed as an air-to-air fighter, that convinced the soon-to-be US Air Force that multirole aircraft were the best answer to the CAS mission. This perception was only strengthened by the Eisenhower-era “New Look” defense outlook, which stressed nuclear deterrence and the high-tech, high-flying strategic bombers and air-superiority fighters that the Air Force brass favored. During the Vietnam War relations between the Army and Air Force became more and more strained as the Air Force’s favored fast jets’ high speed, lack of maneuverability, and high fuel consumption made them unsuitable for the CAS mission. As helicopter gunships came into their own, the Army — prohibited from operating most fixed-wing aircraft — came to believe that its advanced AH-56 Cheyenne helicopter concept could provide the answer to the CAS question.

The A-10 was the Air Forces answer to criticisms that it was unprepared to fulfill the need for CAS. Recalling some aspects of contemporary procurement, the A-X program, the forerunner of the A-10, began as a Vietnam-influenced concept primarily dedicated to counterinsurgency, but as the war in Southeast Asia wound down and the US military refocused on the European theater the A-X’s mission shifted to killing Soviet tanks. Unlike previous efforts to realize the CAS role through multirole aircraft also capable of air-to-air combat or bombing missions, the A-10 was entirely dedicated to CAS. Its straight wings and engines made it slow, but also gave it superb low-speed maneuverability and the ability to loiter above battlefields for extended periods, abilities appreciated by ground forces that fast jets were incapable of. Heavily armored and designed to be as survivable as possible, the A-10 could take hits that would kill other aircraft.

But in the 1980s the A-10’s role was once again called into question. The Army, freshly armed with the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter that replaced the cancelled Cheyenne, now felt that the A-10 was less necessary, and the Air Force had decided that multirole F-16 could be a more versatile — and, importantly in some eyes, more glamourous — replacement for the Warthog. While most modern observers now dismiss proposals that the fast, multirole F-16 could replace the specialized A-10, it is important to remember that the Air Force had real concerns over the slow A-10’s ability to survive in the face of increasingly-capable air defense systems, and folding the CAS mission into the F-16 fleet would simplify the service’s maintenance, logistics, and training. As Greg Goebel notes in his excellent history of the A-10:

“While the military has its fair share of dumb SOBs, it also has its fair share of sensible and competent people, and the CAS issue was one in which good people could differ: What you see depends on where you stand.”

The Air Force has a long history of favoring multirole aircraft that ultimately proved unsuited to the CAS mission. But the argument that the A-10 would not survive the European war Air Force officers of the late-1980s were preparing for is not in and of itself unreasonable, and importantly it’s a question we’ll never know the answer to. However, the Air Force’s “A-16” proposal never progressed, and the A-10 famously served through the Gulf War and into the 21st century.

Image via Wikimedia.

Image via Wikimedia.

The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate focuses on the aircraft’s procurement, rather than combat, history, and contains relatively little description of the aircraft itself. But Campbell’s book is a fascinating look at the politics of military procurement and interservice rivalries, as well as how individual aircraft influence institutional behavior. Campbell’s most important insight is that the A-10’s dedicated single-role mission, rather than the aircraft itself, is its most important feature. Even if the Air Force could somehow adopt a multirole fighter as perfectly suited to the CAS mission as the A-10, pilots would inevitably spend less time training for close air support as other missions competed for their time and attention, an argument with particular relevance to discussions over the ability of the multirole F-35 to replace the A-10 in the CAS role.

Campbell includes many amusing anecdotes as well, including a McNamara Office of the Secretary of Defense staffer (Pierre Sprey, who bizarrely seems to have recorded the chorus sampled in the Kanye West song Jesus Walks) who left a short stint at Grumman Aircraft because “it would be twenty years before they let me design an aileron” and then played a pivotal role in the early A-X program: in Campbell’s words, “as a brilliant and energetic participant who helped ensure that the plane’s design remained practical, he influenced more than an airplane aileron’s construction.” Referencing the Army’s perception that the A-10 existed only to kill their beloved Cheyenne attack helicopter concept, Campbell relays an 1968 Armed Forces Journal cartoon showing

“a winged tank sitting behind a ‘Tactical Air Command’ sign. An Air Force general glares at the craft, while a subordinate says to him, ‘No sir General it won’t fly, but it will sure scare the hell out of the Army!”

The A-10’s unconventional appearance and slow speed also inspired its share of jokes: “What’s the speed indicator on an A-10? A calendar.”

Also mentioned is fascinating obscure trivia from the A-X program. Early in the program mounting a recoilless rifle was studied — which if adopted would have produced a far different aircraft — the A-X program was one of the first to be decided in a competitive flyoff since the 1950s, and the Army consistently referred to helicopter CAS as “direct fire support” to keep its options open by preserving the rational for the Cheyenne while also acknowledging that improved USAF CAS capability would be nice.

The book’s main shortcoming is its brevity. Campbell covers the flyoff between the Northrop A-9 and the winning Fairchild Republic A-10 in only a few pages, and in particular devotes little time to the engineering decisions led to each prototype’s differing design schemes. While Campbell briefly discusses foreign CAS, notably the IDF’s experience, more information would be valuable to contextualizing the American CAS debate. Additionally, the book’s scope is limited by its 2003 publication date: Campbell covers the post-Gulf War period only in the book’s conclusion. Today the debate over the future of CAS is dominated by questions over drones, the ability of advanced precision-guided munitions to allow non-tradition aircraft to fly CAS, and the real-world capabilities of the F-35, which is intended to fill the A-10s CAS shoes. Given The Warthog’s publication date, Campbell is unable to discuss these questions. Despite this, The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate is a fascinating book, and is recommended for anyone interested in the A-10, military procurement, and interservice politics.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

J. M. W. Turner, 'The Harbor of Dieppe', 1826. Via Wikimedia.

J. M. W. Turner, ‘The Harbor of Dieppe’, 1826. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

On the global role of English: Arab student bemoan their lack of access to the language that they see as increasingly important, while China considers reducing the importance of English in college and senior high school entrance exams.

Kyle Mizokami questions why South Korea is investing in an impressive blue water navy, which he sees as a distraction from the country’s most pressing security threat along its northern border. Robert Farley chalks South Korea’s decision up to its desire to “portray itself as a ‘normal’ East Asian nation, and for better or worse ‘normal’ East Asian nations currently build large, technologically impressive destroyers, flat-decked aircraft carrying warships, and powerful submarines.”

The Economist’s Free Exchange blog reviews the economic impact of the Black Death, which according to new research led to a persistent but not immediate rise in wages.

National Geographic highlights a gorgeous vintage photograph of a Vickers Vimy over the pyramids of Giza, which reminded me of another picture of a British Imperial Airways Handley Page H.P.42 in historical Palestine.

By National Geographic.

By National Geographic.

Marc Ambinder runs down the NSA foreign ally spying dustup.

Brazil’s Black Blocs and black gold — who are the members of black blocs, and why are they so angry?

A positive review of Kenneth Pollack’s new book on Iran, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy.

From earlier in the week, more linkage at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Hector Zazou & Swara – Wanna Mako.

Young and Sexless in Japan

By Taylor Marvin

Two years ago I wrote a piece asking whether heterosexual dating norms would change as women’s educational achievements and incomes increased. In American society men have traditionally paid for dates, and more broadly been expected to ask women out rather than the other way around. This norm grew from a patriarchal culture where men were assumed to be the head of the household, and women typically did not work outside the home. Women practically had less money to spend, and men were expected to impress potential wives with their earning potential, important in an era when single-income households were the norm. But as women’s education attainment and incomes have increased, this norm seems to be growing less prevalent. Among many young people in my age range splitting the bill between heterosexual dating couples is more common than the man simply paying himself, and today women are more likely to ask men out or propose sex than decades before — especially given the proliferation and normalization of online dating sites. While it is unclear if American dating norms will continue to shift as women grow on average higher educated and better remunerated, it does appear that some degree of norm shifting is occurring in American dating behavior.

In the Observer* Abigail Haworth has a fascinating piece reporting on Japanese young people’s growing disinterest in sex and relationships. Termed sekkusu shinai shokogun, or “celibacy syndrome”, in the Japanese media, Japan’s already low birth rate and aging population appears further threatened by a trend away from sex and permanent relationships among millions of young people. A recent survey reports that 45 percent of women and more than a quarter of men ages 16 to 24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact” and according to a relationship counsellor interviewed by Haworth, Japan’s young men and women are on divergent paths that no longer intersect in long-term relationships and marriage. While it is unclear if this trend away from sex and marriage will last or is just a passing social phenomenon, it does give increasingly-geriatric Japanese society reason to worry.

The immediate causes of “celibacy syndrome” differ between men and women, though they are both rooted in Japanese patriarchal society. Japanese women are increasingly highly educated, ambitious, and career-driven, but this ambition is punished rather than rewarded by Japanese society. Married women who work outside the home are disparaged and the gender gap and female economic participation in Japan is far worse than in western countries. Japanese business culture also places higher value on long hours and extreme corporate loyalty — as the famous term karōshi, or “death from overwork” exemplifies — making it extremely difficult for ambitious women to have both a career and family, and many women find that promotions cease with marriage anyway. This makes marriage and motherhood an impossible burden for many ambitious women, and creates an incentive towards long-term singleness. As Haworth writes:

“But what endless Japanese committees have failed to grasp when they stew over the country’s procreation-shy youth is that, thanks to official shortsightedness, the decision to stay single often makes perfect sense. This is true for both sexes, but it’s especially true for women. ‘Marriage is a woman’s grave,’ goes an old Japanese saying that refers to wives being ignored in favour of mistresses. For Japanese women today, marriage is the grave of their hard-won careers.”

Haworth additionally relays the “astonishing” statistic that 90 percent of young women “believe that staying single is ‘preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like’.” Casual sex is also stigmatized, and altogether Japan’s fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world.

Fertility rate, 1960-2011. Data by World Bank via Google Public Data Explorer.

Fertility rate, 1960-2011. Data by World Bank via Google Public Data Explorer.

For their part men face the opposite pressures. Japanese society still stresses that a man’s role is a breadwinner, and prizes single-income homes. But three decades into Japan’s economic slump the jobs that would allow young men to fulfill these expectations are rare, and many men have retreated from the workforce entirely, living with aging parents and embracing social isolation or all-consuming hobbies. Insecure about their inability to meet expectations of paying for expensive dates or supporting a stay-at-home wife, many men withdraw from romantic or sexual relationships.

Additionally, it’s not difficult to imagine that this “celibacy syndrome” dynamic is self-reinforcing. As heterosexual young people pass though youth without gaining romantic and sexual experience with the opposite gender, and surrounded by peers who are similarly uninterested in long-term marriages, it stands to reason that these lifestyle habits will become more difficult to break with age — recalling The 40-Year-Old Virgin, if people “can’t be bothered” with sex in their twenties and thirties, it is unclear if this lifestyle will change later in life. And while individual Japanese young people may be happy choosing a celibate lifestyle, it’s difficult to not see the trend as something of a loss. “The ebbing of human intimacy seems to come from a place of disenchantment and frustration,” writes Slate’s Katy Waldman in a summary of Haworth’s report. “I can’t make this historical husband-wife arrangement thing work, so I’m giving up altogether.

Haworth closes her report by asking if Japan’s apparent future of the unmarried and childless is “providing a glimpse of all our futures,” citing falling birth rates and delayed marriages across the Western world. While there are many cultural reasons suggesting that Japan is a special case, many of the same trends are affecting the United States. In recent decades the American middle class has worked increasing hours, while working wages, especially for middle class men, have stagnated. It’s not impossible that if the American middle class finds itself working hard and harder for less that marriage could become an inconvenience.

But I suspect that for American society Japan’s celibacy syndrome is less of a portent than a warning of what happens when patriarchal societies fail to adapt to changing economic conditions and social norms. American women still, of course, face a persistent wage gap and gender discrimination. But these gender barriers pale in comparison to Japan’s, and working mothers have become normalized in America society. Indeed, discrimination in Western society often flows the other way, with stay-at-home mothers “increasingly facing a damaging but unspoken prejudice that assumes they are stupid, lazy and unattractive.” This shift towards two-income households and female remuneration approaching mens’, especially among the highly educated, has provided American society with some degree of a buffer against stagnating middle class wages, manufacturing flight, the end of jobs that allowed high school-educated men to solely support their families.

Returning to the norms governing heterosexual courtship, relationships, and marriage, unlike in the United States Japan’s appear to have not changed with the times, and remain suited to a patriarchal and hierarchical society that forced men to be wage-slave absent fathers and women marginalized stay-at-home mothers. As women’s liberation, a changing culture, and economic stagnation made this social model untenable, Japanese relationship norms broke instead of bending. In America and western Europe, this seems not to be the case (Europe’s low birth rates are not related to the same social roots as Japan’s). Instead of a harbinger, Japan’s low birth rate** could be seen as an endorsement of the value of feminism and flexible social norms unbound by rigid tradition.

Update: At Kotaku Brian Ashcraft has a piece doubting Haworth’s reporting, citing data complaints by Inoue Eido and others.

* I originally credited the piece to the Guardian, which shares a website with the Observer. **This originally read “celibacy syndrome”; altered to the wider notion of low birth rate.

Sunday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Fernand Khnopff, "Memories", 1889. Via Wikimedia.

Fernand Khnopff, “Memories”, 1889. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

The Guardian has a fascinating piece on Japanese young people’s move away from sex and relationships, relaying that “an astonishing 90% of young women believe that staying single is ‘preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like’.” Unsurprisingly, this mindset is partially due to a misogynistic culture that punishes women who opt for marriage while staying in the workforce, and disenfranchises the low-earning men that Japan’s decades-long economic malaise has produced. “”I don’t earn a huge salary to go on dates and I don’t want the responsibility of a woman hoping it might lead to marriage,” says one man.

Nima Shirazi argues that orientalist tropes about “the Persian mind” undermine diplomacy between Iran and the P5+; I’d add how tropes of Eastern irrationalism play into the ridiculous notion that Iran’s low birth rate is evidence of a national death wish, an argument that would never be made about, say… Japan.

In more positive news, back pain tips unite diplomats at Iran nuclear talks.

In a surprising move Saudi Arabia has rejected a non-permanent seat on the UNSC, ostensibly over the body’s inaction in Syria and Palestine. Thomas W. Lippman dismisses the rejection — which came as a surprise to Saudi diplomats — as “pointless theatrics” and Kevin Lees remarks that the close US-Saudi relationship may be coming to an end.

How the ghost of socialist President Salvador Allende is changing Chile.

Anthony Sagliani passes along a marvelous photo of cyclones impacting South Asia:


Gershom Gorenberg’s takeaway from a visit to Catalonia is that Middle East piece schemes must account for nationalism, the scourge of potential one-state solutions, and four reasons why there will be no Catalan independence referendum.

After the end of the US federal government shutdown and averting the debt ceiling, Joshua Green writes that a generation-long realignment in American politics has made crisis the new normal. Fixing America’s apparently-chronically unstable politics will require literally changing American society. On a similar theme Kimberly J. Morgan sees Obamacare’s problematic rollout as further evidence of the way that American’s distrust of government mandates “the complicated way in which it achieves even basic tasks.”

More linkage at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Ryuichi Sakamoto + Taylor Deupree – Jyaku.


Albert Eckhout, 'Mameluca woman', 1644. Via Wikimedia.

Albert Eckhout, ‘Mameluca woman’, 1644. Via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

When the Portuguese landed on the eastern coast of South America they, like the Spanish elsewhere in the Americas, intermarried with local women. In Spanish Latin America those descended from both Europeans and Amerindians were termed mestizos, while in Brazil the first mixed-ancestry people were called mamelucos. Interestingly, the term mameluco appears to have been derived from the Arabic mamluk, which refers royal slaves or, more famously. an enslaved warrior caste. This adoption of an Arabic loanword seems to align with other instances of Iberians framing their encounters with Amerindians in the terminology of their interactions with Muslims. As related in Jon Manchip White’s Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire, in Cortés’ dispatches he refers to Aztec temples as “mosques”, the only other non-Christian religious buildings with which he would have been familiar. 

The Iberian Christians of the 15th and 16th century inhabited a world divided into two separate spheres: Christendom, and the alien. For Iberians, this alien signified Muslims, which had recently been evicted from the peninsula in the centuries-long reconquista. It is unsurprising that the Iberians adopted the same terminology they used to categorize the other they had previously impinged on — the Muslims — with the new other of the Amerindians.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Konstantin Andreyevich Ukhtomsky, Interiors of the Winter Palace, 1866. Via Wikimedia.

Konstantin Andreyevich Ukhtomsky, Interiors of the Winter Palace, 1866. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

The US government shutdown continues to dominate domestic news. Jonathan Bernstein pushes back against the commonly-argued idea that a parliamentary system would necessarily be superior.

Sarah Bauerle Danzman and W. Kindred Winecoff examine whether US financial hegemony will continue after a month of default threats.

The US military’s growing presence in Italy, a springboard to the Middle East and Africa.

Should realists stand for international human rights?

James Kitfield has five thoughts on the recent US raids in Somalia and Libya, including an argued shift in the counter-terror center of gravity from the CIA to the US military. Daniel Byman examines the tradeoffs of efforts to capture versus kill terror targets.

Saudis brace for ‘nightmare’ of U.S.-Iran rapprochement: “If America and Iran reach an understanding it may be at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia,” says a Saudi parliamentarian.

Are the effects of the Iran-Iraq war fading?

Earlier this week I compiled links on political violence at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Nicolas Jaar – Mi Mujer.

Banksy, Art, and Syria’s War

By Taylor Marvin

The famous British street artist Banksy has released a short video satirizing the Syrian civil war. The video, a minute and a half long, depicts two rebel fighters firing at an arial target with a MANPADS, or shoulder-fired anti-air missile system. Shouting Allahu Akbar, the rebels down an aircraft and run towards the crash site. The ‘aircraft’ is then revealed to be an animated depiction of the Disney character Dumbo the flying elephant, dying in pain. A child, dismayed at Dumbo’s death, kicks the fighter who fired the MANPADS, who falls clutching his shin in pain.

Washington Post writer Max Fisher has a thought-provoking post examining the video, which has been criticized by many. Fisher attributes the video’s odd tone to liberal internationalists’ conflicted relationship with a war where no armed faction seems worthy of support, and any intervention is perceived to carry imperialist overtones. “There’s been a real hesitancy among leftists like Banksy to embrace the Syrian opposition, which is reflected a bit in his choice to skewer the rebels, portraying them as murdering beloved children’s cartoon characters,” Fisher writes. But the murderous Assad regime is if anything even more unworthy of leftist’s support. “There’s no good guy for them; Islamist rebels – especially ones who might receive support from the West – are the closest they can get to a pure bad guy.” As Fisher notes, this bird’s-eye view of the Syrian war makes taking any stance beyond simply decrying the loss of life difficult; the only firm position taken by the international leftists Fisher associates with Banksy has been opposition to US or NATO entry into the war. Of course, this opposition is similarly fraught; while the efficacy of proposed airstrikes is unclear, opposing Western intervention in Syria means at best admitting that the killing will continue, as will Russian and Iranian aid to the Assad regime. It is perhaps this confused position that explains leftist’s adoption of the “endless war for empire” rhetoric better suited to their narrative of the lead-up to the Iraq war than the Obama administration’s real dilemma in Syria.

Fisher attributes Banksy’s muddled message to this awkward balancing act, which leaves caricatures of Islamist fighters as the only channel for satire left:

“Unlike his West Bank work, it’s not really dealing with the conflict or its larger issues, even from a one-sided ideological perspective. It’s not getting to the core issues, but rather sticks on one of the few aspects that European and Arab leftist movements feel comfortable addressing, and ignores all the rest. That doesn’t mean the video is bad or wrong as a piece of political art, of course. But it’s an interesting lens into a larger ideological movement’s struggle to figure out how it feels about a conflict that has killed over 100,000 people and displaced millions.”

I think this is certainly true. Crafting artistic depictions of wartime that do not endorse or denounce any one side is extraordinarily difficult, particularly within the constraints of a 90 second viral video. But I also think Banksy’s narrative choices take his work beyond the “awkward” and into outright unsettling.

Screen shot 2013-10-10 at 5.26.29 PM

Admittedly, I know very little about Banksy’s wider work and believe that the video’s intended reading is a statement on how Syrian adults’ warfare makes childhood impossible, an artistic message emphasized by the closing image of the child kicking the MANPADS-armed fighter. But this simple denunciation of the horrors of warfare is contradicted by other elements of the video’s symbolic toolkit. Importantly, Banksy chose to associate Dumbo, the murdered children’s cartoon character, with airpower, one of the few element of military force that the regimen enjoys a complete monopoly over. Syria’s rebels fight with small arms, rockets, armored fighting vehicles, and potentially even chemical weapons (a common but very unlikely accusation disseminated by the Assad regime’s messaging and global news organizations like RT). But only Assad can operate military aircraft, and regime fighter aircraft bombing rebel forces and civilian neighborhoods in relative safety is one of the defining image of the war. Moreover, denying the Assad regime the use of its monopoly on airpower — either through a No-Fly Zone or airstrikes targeting the regime’s air force — is one of the most-discussed options for a potential Western intervention.

Given this monopoly, Banksy’s choice to incapsulate the Syrian war in a depiction associating regime airpower with a symbol of childhood is striking. I don’t believe that this can be read as even an indirect endorsement of the regime, but it is in my mind a clumsy attempt to satirize the conflict. But Banksy has taken on a difficult challenge. In the midst of a war between a brutal autocratic regime and an increasingly-disunified opposition, Syria is fracturing along ethnic lines with any losing side facing the prospect of brutal retaliation by the winner. Ultimately, the tragedy of the Syrian war breaks any mode of satire, except for complete cynicism.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Rembrandt, "The Fall of Haman", 1665. Via Museo Nacional del Prado.

Rembrandt, “The Fall of Haman”, 1665. Via Museo Nacional del Prado.

What I read this week:

Newsweek leads with a story arguing that concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are greatly exaggerated, terming it a repeat of the supposed threat from Iraq that lead to war — “except this time, the intelligence world knows there are no weapons of mass destruction.” Matthew Duss asks if Netanyahu can tolerate a potential deal between the US and Iran, a deal that the Israeli leadership very much would like to block.

The talk of the week is the federal government shutdown. An excellent BBC piece illustrates that while the extreme House Republicans driving the impasse might not represent America as a whole, they do represent their districts. In the New Yorker Ryan Lizza writes that these representatives “represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular.”

How does the shutdown look abroad?

“There is this sense that the shutdown is a symptom of a larger national decline. Talking to people you get the sense that the U.S. is no longer considered the most serious country in the world, that an extreme right wing group is running things, and that this is what you get in a capitalist system. Right or wrong, that’s the perception.”

Josh Busby passes along the above quote from former Bolivian ambassador to the United States Jaime Aparício OteroKevin Lees checks in on how America’s government shutdown looks to the rest of the world, and Russians wish they could have a government shutdown of their own.

What does China want in space? Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan and Arvind K. John doubt that China will surpass the United States’ space program any time soon, namely due to the country’s lack of a commercial space sector.

I have more linkage on political violence at PVG.

Hassan Erraji & Arabesque — Nikriz.

Who’s Fence-Sitting in Syria?

By Taylor Marvin

Writing at Political Violence @ a Glance, Barbara F. Walter poses an interesting puzzle (note: I contribute to PVG). Citing Eli Berman, Walter outlines a problem facing Syria’s urban Sunni Muslim population living along the country’s western strip that is for the most part controlled by the regime. These Sunnis are understood to be the “swing voters” in Syria’s civil war; while they could benefit from a complete rebel victory bringing a new regime dominated by Sunni Muslims to power, they have also historically benefited from the stability enforced by the Assad family’s Alawite Muslim-dominated government. In Berman’s view these urban Sunnis are waiting to see who appears likely to win the war; when this information is revealed they will then side with the likely victor.

Many Syrians, especially urban Sunnis, are reluctant to choose sides in the Syrian war. In a January New York Times piece Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad related the dilemma of a Damascus Sunni Muslim civil servant quietly pondering “his own private endgame, toying with defecting to the rebels, yet clinging to his post, increasingly sure there are no fighters worth joining.” However, it is worth noting that Berman’s argument that Syrian “swing voters” will decide the war is not universally accepted; an April 2013 Rand report claimed that “the remaining fence-sitters inside Syria are not in a position to tip the military balance” (it is also worth noting that elements of this report have been passed by events since its publication).

However, Walter has a problem with this logic, which presumes that Syria’s urban Sunnis have the option of laying low and emerging from the war in good condition. What if they are instead locked in a “lose-lose” situation? A rebel victory would subject these well-educated urban moderates to a new government dominated by Islamist extremists, an outcome not in their interests. But if Assad should win, these Sunnis could be grouped with their co-sectarians who had rebelled against the government and targeted for reprisals.

Source: The Economist.

Source: The Economist.

I think this interaction is more complex. While Syria’s urban Sunnis may face a lose-lose situation now, in 2011 it was plausible to suspect that a rebel victory could lead to a Sunni-dominated but largely secular government; today, as Islamist rebels appear more and more ascendant within the rebel movement, this is much less likely. Not only are today’s rebels more dominated by jihadists, the inability of the rebel movement to coalesce into an operationally-unified force and frequent incidents of rebel infighting in the three-sided civil war make further civil war in the aftermath of an Assad regime defeat a very real possibility. If we accept that Syria’s western urban Sunnis have for the most part so-far declined to definitively chose sides — a key assumption of the “swing voter” theory and one that appears to be true — then the fact that the outcome of a rebel victory appear to be growing less amenable to their interests suggests that they will continue to fence-sit.

The most obvious answer is that Walter’s logic is correct, and there is no puzzle at all: Syria’s urban Sunnis have, for the most part, already made their choice because in the context of the Syrian civil war their fence-sitting for all practical purposes serves the regime. While contested by the rebels, large cities like Damascus, Homs, and Hama all lie within the western strip held by the regime, which is centered on the country’s smaller Alawite-dominated coastal strip that is the Assad regime’s heartland. A large-scale rebellion by this region’s Sunnis would be disastrous for the regime, depriving it of its base, threatening its Alawite backers, and eating up military resources that could otherwise be employed in the hinterland and central Euphrates valley that for the most part is held by the rebels. If the regime loses control of this region its ability to eventually win the war — or, more importantly in the context of a civil war with fence-sitters, ability to appear likely to win the war — would be cast into much greater doubt. Barring situations where western villages are forced to choose, fence-sitting can still be considered valuable for the regime.

Remapping the Middle East, Part II

By Taylor Marvin

In what is apparently a popular sub-genre, last week the New York Times published a map by Robin Wright speculating how Libya, Syria, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries could soon split along sectarian, ethnic, and regional lines. After the destabilizing Arab spring and widening Syrian war, Wright writes, “countries could unravel through phases of federation, soft partition or autonomy, ending in geographic divorce.” Citing the Syrian civil war, regional sectarian rivalries, and the unresolved legacy of colonial borders imposed by the British and French after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Wright speculates that Saudi Arabia could divide into five new independent states, Yemen could once again split in two, and that a formally independent Kurdish state could emerge in northern Syria and Iraq.

middle east map

Click through to the New York Times for labels.

On Twitter, Kal of the blog The Moor Next Door criticized the Wright’s speculation, noting that it, like many popular conceptions of Middle Eastern violence, attributes the region’s weak states to to sectarianism rather than the colonial mandate system and historical regionalism. Worse is the map’s use of the Persian “-stan” suffix to name hypothetical states like “Sunnistan”, “Shiitestan”, and “Wahhabistan” — with no relevance to these Arabic-speaking countries, the “stan” suffix is perhaps only used because the term Kurdistan entered the American lexicon after the invasion of Iraq and hey, it’s the Middle East, right?

Aside from these objections, Wright’s analysis does reflect a broadly-held theory that the borders imposed by the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement are uniquely unstable and are at the start of process of violent reorganization. In a March piece in Slate Fred Kaplan wrote that the US invasion of Iraq accelerated the “collapse” of the Middle East’s system of colonial borders, questioning how “far this unraveling goes” and whether new borders will “be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically ‘natural’ sectarian divisions”; at the time I doubted that the last decade was a sufficient catalyst for the change Kaplan predicted. This August David W. Lesch asked whether the Syrian war heralded the end of the Sykes–Picot borders, concluding that “we seem to be witnessing much of the Levant returning to its constituent parts, where the nation-state as a unit of analysis may no longer be valid.”

What I think is most interesting about the redraw-the-Middle-East theory is while many apparently agrees that Middle Eastern countries’ artificial borders are due for violent revision, as Kaplan noted there is absolutely no consensus on even the broad outlines of a redrawn map of the Middle East. While Wright imagines Saudi Arabia perhaps splitting into five regions, a September 2012 piece by Frank Jacobs and Parag Khanna — again published in the Times — imagined Saudi Arabia uniting with Yemen, Oman, and the Gulf States into an Arab Gulf Union “to counter the rising Iranian threat”; or exactly the opposite! In a 2006 piece in the Armed Forces Journal, Ralph Peters presented another view of a redrawn Middle East.* While Peters’ analysis presented simply a view of how a “better Middle East would look” rather than a prediction of future border changes, it is notable that Peters’ map again looks nothing like Wright’s or Jacobs and Khanna’s. Yemen grows rather than shrinks, and southern Iraq’s “Shiitestan” (to use Wright’s term) gains Iranian territory, as does Azerbaijan. Like in Wright’s and Jacobs and Khanna’s analysis coastal Syria splits from the country, though here it is incorporated into a “Greater Lebanon” rather than an independent Alawite-dominated state.

The Project for the New Middle East

Map by Ralph Peters, 2006.

In my mind these maps reveal more about the biases of the year in which they were created than any truths about the Middle East. Peters’ map was devised in 2006, and it is easy to see his shrunken Iran as suffering from the era’s strong US animosity towards towards the country (though again, it is important to note that Peters is not attempting to predict the future) even though during the Iran-Iraq War Iran’s Arab-settled western Khuzestan province did not rebel to the extent that Saddam Hussein’s invasion plans counted on. Similarly, Jacobs and Khanna’s map shows Azerbaijan gaining Iranian territory despite the fact that Iran’s Azeri minority is not particularly restive and the Iranian state, counter to Jacobs and Khanna’s claim, is not at risk of “implosion”. Today the Syrian conflict has brought the Alawite minority’s domination of Syria to wide attention, so now Alawites gain a state, as may well be a result of the Syrian war. But complicating this possibility is a very real chance that in the event of a rebel victory, in Steve Saideman’s words, “the folks who win in Syria are not going to let their former oppressors escape, especially if they take the coastline along with them” and no one knows how a stalemate could affect Syria’s de jure borders.

Similarly, while Peters’ depiction of a large independent Kurdistan is perhaps only just, it also reflects the dynamics of the US occupation of Iraq that made Turkey unpopular in American circles, Kurds close US allies, and attracted widespread popular sympathy to their cause. Wright’s contemporary prediction that the de facto independent Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq could one day unite into a formally independent state completely glosses over the problem of Turkish and Iranian objections — two of the region’s most powerful players, and both of which have a strong incentive to block the emergence of an independent Kurdish state that could stoke nationalism among their own Kurdish minorities.

Again, all of this isn’t to say that the artificially-imposed borders of the Middle East aren’t an impediment to state consolidation, or to criticize different authors for their differing speculations about the future. But I do think it is telling that these three views about what the “right” or “future” Middle East would look like differ so substantially. Modern observers frequently joke about arrogantly oblivious European diplomats dividing the Middle East with straight lines drawn between letters on a map. But predicting that the region will divide based on a bird’s-eye view of “natural” sectarian distributions strikes me as perhaps similarly misguided — after all, it is the same logic that Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini followed during the Iran-Iraq war, to disastrous results.

*Peters apparently expands on this argument in a book that I have not read.

Updated for clarity.