The Middle East and Syria right now

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Some historical events are relatively easy to model with game theory: the Cuban Missile crisis, many of the Cold War proxy wars, the crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons. In those conflicts, the number of relevant parties is small and each typically has some degree of internal cohesion.

To find a situation comparable to the Middle East today, with so many involved countries, and so many interrelationships between internal and external political issues, one has to go back to the First World War, not an entirely comforting thought.

The situation right before that war had many distinct yet related moving parts, including the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialist scramble for colonies, the prior Balkan Wars, a rising Germany seeking parity or superiority with Great Britain, an unstable alliance system, an unworkable Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the complex internal politics of Russia, which eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution.

What do we learn from the history of that time? Well, even if the chance of war was high by early 1914, it was far from obvious that the Central Powers attack on France, Belgium and Russia would be set off by a political assassination in the Balkans.

Nonetheless, in sufficiently complex situations, chain reactions can cause small events to cascade into big changes. In World War I, one goal behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to break off parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a new Yugoslavia. The empire responded by making some demands on Serbia, which were not heeded, a declaration of war followed, and the alliance system activated broader conflicts across Europe.

If you don’t quite follow how a single assassination, which was not even seen as so important the day it occurred, triggered the death of so many millions, and the destruction of so much of Europe, that is exactly the point. When there is no clear way for observers to model the situation, a single bad event can take on a very large significance and for reasons that are not entirely explicable.

Do read the whole thing.


I think that Syria's situation is not hard to understand: a resurgent Russia under Putin is trying to show the world and specially NATO that it is an equal. So they are supporting a regime that NATO wants to destroy, in order to show their strength, while NATO now feels like it must show it's resolve by supporting even more strongly the rebels. The situation is escalating and the only power who gains from it is China: they would love to see Russia and NATO destroy each other.

It's more similar to the Spanish civil war where Nazi Germany supported one side while the USSR supported the other than with WW1 IMO.

The Russians have had bases in Syria and have been supporting the Syrian regime long before Putin.

Your reading is completely wrong (ok I guess if you read NYT and WP that's what they want you to think). Russia is not resurgent, Russia is declining. Russia is just helping its ally which is reasonable. They don't have many allies. The Syrian situation started because the West and Saudi Arabia want to overthrow Assad. At first they tried "colour revolution". When that didn't work they used ISIS , now that ISIS is defeated they need "chemical attacks".

Remember Iraq 2003? It's obvious that Russia's Putin can not be trusted and Putin is a kleptocrat, but is the West really any better?

"The Syrian situation started because the West and Saudi Arabia want to overthrow Assad": I dare say. But why?

“Because Iran”

No need to thank me, just doing my job.


But if Iran is a big deal why did the US destroy Sunni rule in Iraq and hand control of Iraq to Iran's allies? The whole bloody mess makes no sense.

We Americans want to be liked. And we see the best in people. (In short, Realism doesn't come easy to us.) We thought, "let's overthrown a hated tyrant and the Iraqi masses will have elections and be a beacon of hope in the ME."

We also thought (and here's I'm channelling my inner Obama): "let's remove a malevolent threatening monster in the ME and even Iran will see this as a plus and maybe this will boost their reformers." Needless to say, even after Bush's neocon experiment above failed, Obama's response was: "let's go one further and draw up a deal with Iran."

Maybe you thought that, and maybe other Americans did too, but you are not the ones making decisions. The decision makers have always been realists and what they do is for geopolitical/national security reasons, not because they want to be liked or because they thought someone was a bad guy - just like with any other government.

The decision makers have always been realists and what they do is for geopolitical/national security reasons

US foreign policy seems way more idealistic than realistic.

US foreign policy is all about oil and who controls it.

You spelled Israel wrong

Yeah, right. Doesn't show from the actions of the U.S. government nor from any serious strategic papers from the Pentagon or other national security agencies. Classic national security policy like all other superpowers in history, who have also used idealism to sell their policies to the public.

Actually it does show exactly from the actions of the US government and from all the serious strategic papers from the Pentagon.

The US is pretty much uniquely idealistic in its foreign policy and it is an absurd misreading of the historic record to think otherwise.

Toppling democratically elected governments just because they don't suit U.S. government interests is uniquely idealistic?
Propping up and tolerating dictators when it suits national interests is uniquely idealistic?
Supporting Operation Condor and government repression of civilians is uniquely idealistic?
Using Agent Orange and napalm on civilians is uniquely idealistic?
The Phoenix Program was uniquely idealistic?
Being close allies with the Saudis because of self-interest is uniquely idealistic?
That's what the historical record shows.
The U.S. behaves pretty much like other superpowers - they had good excuses too and claimed they were unique and idealistic while being driven by self-interest.

It's always 1968, and Nixon is a fascist, Dad!

Not sure what your point is, but the events listed obviously span a much longer period and a number of administrations.

Well yeah. Pretty much. There was no US interest involved in Vietnam at all. If Tom Hayden's best friends carried out genocide in Indochina it meant nothing to American interests.

It was entirely humanitarian feelings from liberals and Democrats that sent soldiers to Vietnam.

The US is not particularly like other powers. Except perhaps Britain that also sacrificed thousands of lives to make the world a better place - fighting slavery for instance. It is unique in that it believes in making the world a better place and it has made the world a much better place. Except where it has been defeated. Vietnam is much worse off because America lost. So is China and North Korea. So is Iran.

This is wildly inaccurate. The vast majority of the policy makers/foreign policy “experts” fall on a continuum of Samantha Power to Wolfowitz. This would be: military intervention for feels/virtue signaling, all the way to military intervention to remake the world in our image. Realism does not even have a voice at the table.

Wilsonian foreign policy, whose current manifestations would be Hillary/Libya and Bush/Iraq, are probably the farthest thing from realism you could plausibly come up with. A syncretic fusion of American exceptionalism and blank slatism (Inside every Afghan/Iraqi/Libyan/Syrian there is an American dying to get out), it is the kingmaker of stupidity and arrogance.

And if a politician makes it to the general election, he or she will be fully committed to the “consensus.”

The fact that the government uses virtue signaling as a pretext to convince the general public to support a certain policy doesn't mean that the policy itself is not realist. The U.S. is not the first government to use ideals and values as a pretext - all governments do that.

I think this is broadly right - but it's not that the politicians and policy makers are not cynical - they area - but they are doing things overseas that they think will play well with their voters, who are idealistic. I think the North Easterners in the US are possibly the most idealistic people ever to have lived. They live in this amazing bubble where the biggest concern is over some-one being horrible to their kid at school. And they think the rest of the world works that way. So when they see horrible things on the news, they want it fixed.


Try to explain any of our main foreign policy moves in the Middle East of the last 18 years through the prism of realism.

The truth is Neocons and R2Ps fully drink their own koolaid.

The fact that the results are what you would expect from people intentionally trying to do stupid things out of malice...

It’s not a conspiracy. They’re just Wilsonian nutjobs.

Here's a realist take on Syria from 2013. Ages pretty well. Round and round we go:

That is a great comment. The diplomacy of President Wilson after WW I, with its almost mystical belief in the powers of democracy to overcome ethnic, racial, religious, or any tribal connections, helped set the stage for WW II.

American foreign policy continues to have great faith in the power of democracy to advance peace. Regretfully democracy does not heal all wounds everywhere. That does not mean that tyrants are better, just that democracy is often fragile and sometimes fails in hostile environments.

Why did the US dismantle Sunni rule in Iraq?

Because the Iraqi ruler was mean to the US Prez's father.

>Obama's response was: "let's go one further and draw up a deal with Iran."

His immediate response was "let's invade Libya," and in the process, send a message to other dictators that they need to cling to power, no matter what....Bush had just made an executive agreement with Gaddafi to give up his WMD program in return for a promise not to depose him

Because it is entirely possible to be corrupt and incompetent at the same time

Yes, the West is better. For one thing, we've held elections in Iraq, perhaps idealistically (rather than installing a more sane strongman than Saddam). But above all, your lot told me, way back when, that it was a war started solely for oil. And that turned out to be a bald faced lie told to protesters to swell their numbers.

It would have been better, smarter and more fair minded if you had said: "dammit, there's no good solution to a poison gas wielding, WMD pursuing warmongering neighbour invader like Saddam: either remove him and try for a democracy, or at least remove him. Or leave him in power and harass him with Tomahawks whenever he invades Kuwait, etc."

Never say X was never the plan, just because X was stupid and never worked.

Iraq II itself was stupid and never worked.

Why not add free flowing oil (with US partners) to other stupid, but real, failures like "beacons of democracy?"

The majority of Iraq's population lives in the Shi'ite and Kurdish provinces which have been quiet for the last 10 years. Works for them.

I don't live there. I live in the country that dropped roughly trillion dollars buying more trouble.

>The Syrian situation started because the West and Saudi Arabia want to overthrow Assad

IDK. As late as the 1st Obama administration, Assad was the darling of our chattering classes. See e.g., the infamous Vogue profile.

Russia is declining. Yes. Then the more dangerous it is. A cornered rat who had missed on the big cheese and is still hungry.Ready to go for broke.

Very good. It's complex in Syria because Syria reflects the complexity of the region, with enemies of my enemies a better way to describe erstwhile friends than friends. Or to be concrete: is Syria America's enemy because the minority Syrian government of Assad (Alawite/Shia Muslims) is the friend of America's enemy Iran and the enemy of America's friend Saudi Arabia; is Saudi Arabia America's friend because Saudi Arabia is the enemy of Iran; or is Saudi Arabia America's enemy because Saudis attacked America on 9/11, Saudis funded the insurgents in Iraq who killed and maimed thousands of American soldiers, and Saudis fund the Sunni extremists including al Qaeda and ISIS. The idea that Trump could understand the complexity is absurd.

Private citizens of KSA =/ government or country of KSA. Just like specific Muslims are terrorists =/ “Muslims are terrorists.”

When it comes to Iran, the opposite is true. It literally is the government of Iran doing these acts. They are responsible, directly. Hence the different approach vis-à-vis KSA and Iran.

Don’t thank me guys, just doing my job.


Goldberg: Isn’t it true, though, that after 1979, but before 1979 as well, the more conservative factions in Saudi Arabia were taking oil money and using it to export a more intolerant, extremist version of Islam, Wahhabist ideology, which could be understood as a kind of companion ideology to Muslim Brotherhood thinking?

MbS: First of all, this Wahhabism—please define it for us. We’re not familiar with it. We don’t know about it.

Goldberg: What do you mean you don’t know about it?

MbS: What is Wahhabism?

Goldberg: You’re the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. You know what Wahhabism is.

MbS: No one can define this Wahhabism.

Why couldn't Trump understand that a geopolitical morass is a morass? In fact that's what he's said all along. Like Obama, except for the ridiculous "red line in the sand" line by the sophomoric Obama, Trump has said it is so convoluted that America should keep its distance.

Reagan essentially learned the same thing after the Marines bombing in Lebanon and pulled out. Sad for the moderates in Lebanon, all 15 of them, but still...

To repeat, why should Trump be unable to understand anything that Rayward can understand?

I don't understand this constant automatic reflex to attack Trump. Did the Hillary/Obama response to the Arab spring work? What was the great foreign policy success in the middle east of the Obama years?

There is no easy solution in Syria or the middle east. Trump reflects the isolationist trend that runs deep in America. He also seems conflicted about the desire to help those that are perceived as innocent and the victims of cruelty. The impulse to be the world's policeman also runs deep in America.

Trump is a reflection of long-held American views. We can all argue about the optimal path, we can disagree with Trump, but this blind hatred of Trump is also a hatred for American impulses for many administrations. How would those who want to vilify Trump evaluate a young Kennedy in Cuba and Vietnam?

Bill Clinton used missile attacks to send a message. Trump used missile attacks to send a message. Both were typical responses to complex problems that the American public will support.

If you prefer an alternative policy, then make a case for that course of action. But knee-jerk reactions to whatever Trump does serves little purpose other than to fill time on CNN.

Well said

Yes, well said. Hope Rayward reads it but I doubt it.

"The idea that Trump could understand the complexity is absurd."

Trump's been doing business in this part of the world for years. The only absurd thing is that, while complex to you, that it's all that complex to Trump.

The situation right before that war had many distinct yet related moving parts, including the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialist scramble for colonies, the prior Balkan Wars, a rising Germany seeking parity or superiority with Great Britain, an unstable alliance system, an unworkable Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the complex internal politics of Russia, which eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Yet Germany was allowed to remain unified, just as it was a second time in 1990, instead of reverting to the cozy and harmless principalities of bygone times. The earth doesn't need another, unnatural Reich.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire worked just fine, at least as good as that of the Ottomans, and was the acknowledged center of fin de ciecle civilization. The Russian revolution succeeded because of the impotence of Czar Nicholas, who failed the cruel traditions of his ancestors and allowed himself to be led around by the nose by his English/German wife.

Good piece. I will be the first to admit that I don't know what we should be doing in Syria right now. I had sympathy for Donald Trump's "just leave" tweet, and sympathy for a punitive strike now. I really don't know how to tell which one is right.

The reactions of other parties seem very strange as well, for instance this tweet from the Russian Embassy.

Insult to Putin? What happens if more than one world leader tries to play The Madman card?

The Russians had to say something. So they said the this nothing tweet you linked to.

More importantly, what they apparently did -- but did not tweet about -- was turn off their air defences in certain corridors in Syria.

Presumably that was because they were either wary of having their air defences tested, exposed and attacked, because they don't have confidence in them, or because they don't want to provoke us any more than they already have.

It's not looking good for Russia this month, what with the expulsion of "diplomats" (European unity) and now the participation of Britain and France in this missile punishment of Assad. (And Assad has probably used chemical weapons in defiance of Moscow.)

It's also possible the Russians were uncertain whether there would be any airplanes in our punitive strike, and didn't want to chance the kind of escalation that would have resulted if some American, British, or French pilots got killed.

My (limited) understanding is that Assad looks almost certain to win the civil war, at this point. Once he's won, he will be massively beholden to both Russia and Iran. I assume Russia is pretty comfortable with letting their ally get smacked around a bit, as long as that outcome isn't put into doubt and they keep their influence.

That Russian message was fairly crazed, and we don't need more crazy actors at this point.

Spool tape of the nerve gas attack in London.

The biggest potential conflict is Israel and Iran. If Iran or Iranian proxies attack Israel the area will probably erupt. I find it difficult to understand the long-term goals of Russia. Do they want a strong Iran on their Southern border? Do they think they can control Iran? Do they fear a US, Saudi and Israel alliance on their Southern border?

Russian having conflicting, unclear objectives is the greatest danger.

Historically, Iranians have hated the Russians, the Brits a little less. The Russians want access to the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean anyway they can get it. One reason they seized the Crimea. Israelis live with terror 24/7.

Actually, Israel and Iran have more in common than Israel and Saudi Arabia: Israel is surrounded by enemies (Muslims), and Iran is surrounded by enemies (Sunni Muslims). Israelis (Jews) are at risk because Jews are the minority, just as Shiite Muslims (Iran is a Shiite Muslim majority country) are at risk because Shiite Muslims are the minority (less than 15% of Muslims worldwide are Shiite, more than 85% Sunni). Sunni Muslims believe Shiite Muslims are heretics and must either reform or suffer the consequences; just as Jews must suffer the consequences for having rejected Jesus.

Israel was allied with Iran in the 1960's.

It helped the Shah build out SAVAK.

It helped the Shah build out SAVAK.

But of course. Israel had diplomatic relations with Iran. Ergo it was 'allied'. Ergo Israel is responsible for Iran's secret police. (Alt-right palaeotrash do fantastic imitations of the Chomskyite left, every time).

Having things in common is a very far cry from having objectives in common. Have no idea what your point was.

Russia has clear, easy to understand objectives in Syria. Put a check on the American habit of regime change.

Not exactly. Don't forget: Retain a few allies, and sell some weapons too.

As for your claim about regime change, America had ample time and opportunity since the Syrian civil war started several years prior to Russian involvement, to contribute to the overthrow of Assad.

Yet neither Obama nor Trump did this (understandably, because the removal of Assad will almost certainly put radical Sunnis into power).

Access to a port on the Mediterranean

Russia, as in all things these days, has a profit motive. The natural gas fields in Syria could help Russia dominate the natural gas market in Europe and enrich friends of Putin.

Russia has used Syria as "war games" for the Russian military command and equipment.

Russia fears Islamic extremism and sees Assad as a buffer against it. The results of the Arab Spring and regime changes do not make the Russian comfortable with middle east upheaval. They prefer the strong man they know to any change in governments. The Russians fear the destabilization effects of freedom movements. The Russians may not like Iranian leaders, but they respect the ability to control their population and stability.

Talk to Russians about what they like about Putin, and they will often say they prefer his stability over the risk of anarchy.

When Trump talks about exiting from Syria, he is accepting the reality that Russia and Assad have won in Syria. The remaining American ties to Kurds creates a potential conflict with Turkey. Turkey has sided with Assad and Russia against the Kurds. But with American backing, at this point, Kurds control most of Syria's wealth (oil and gas fields).

The Americans have strong ties with Kurdish rebels, but Kurdish ambitions conflict with Turkey and other countries. Where do the Kurds go. Do they get their own country like Israel? How has that worked out?

Russian victory in Syria now sets them up with potential conflicts with Iran. The Iranian desire to recreate a Persian Empire will increase disputes with Turkey, Israel, and Russia. Russia wants to avoid a conflict between Israel and Iran. They want Iran to use a steady hand to limit Islamic extremism. Good luck with that.

America favors freedom movements. That risks the rise of radical elements

Russian favor stability. That risks supporting repressive regimes.

Iran seeks a Persian Empire and conflict with Israel. That risks a massive war in the middle east.

A port is secondary, or really down the list.

Good post.

The US should support a state for the Kurds.

The Russians fear the destabilization effects of freedom movements.
There aren't any freedom movements. There are simply others seeking power for themselves.

Where do the Kurds go. Do they get their own country like Israel?

The Kurds weren't gathered up from every corner of Europe to form a new country, they've been in Syria, Iraq and Turkey for a long, long time. Their situation corresponds more with the Scandinavian Sami, American natives, or Australian aborigines.

Depends on how you view Arab Spring. Perhaps you and the Russians are correct that regime change changes leads to instability and opportunities for extremists.

Carving an independent Kurdish nation would not be easy.

Nothing could satisfy the Austrian thirst for revenge in 1914. And Germany did nothing to effectively stop the Austrians. Numerous errors in communication. Once nations mobilize it is hard to stop the momentum towards war. I suggest you read August 1914 by Solzhenitzyn or read about some of the events in Africa the last 20 years. People in the Middle East are tired of war and terrorism. They trying to establish Western style democracy while under attack from religious zealots and terrorists.

Bryan Caplan:

"(...) overwhelming majority of recent events are sound and fury, signifying nothing. Serious thinkers don't base their worldview on what happened yesterday, or last week, or last year. Instead, they endlessly ponder the totality of human history, a body of evidence that makes all recent events combined look small and hollow."

Signaling, like mimetic desire, is an effort to reduce human behavior down to something understandable. I agree. In my opinion, human behavior can be reduced to one desire, and that would be f . . . . . g. Now, having written that, I recommend this essay about The Great Gadsby: The essay defines human behavior (Gadsby's) according to mimetic desire (not the other desire).

You don't mention the bigger precipitating event -- Obama's constantly signalling that he was all bluster. People always forget that one of the instigators of the Pacific War in WW2 was Japan's increased conviction that the US would always cave in a serious conflict due to its isolationism in the 1930s.

TC "And if you’re grumpy about the inability of social scientists or the news media to explain it to you in simple terms, that is exactly why the situation is so dangerous."

... just who expects social scientists, the news media, or Bloomberg columnists to somehow correctly explain the complex Syria/MidEast situation (??) and just who becomes grumpy when that does not happen? Just how do clueless social scientists and news media people make the situation more dangerous?

That statement is literally nonsense.

No making fun of Tyler's friends!

Seriously, when was the last time a social scientist or news media talking head was ever accused of complexity?

Yeah, the US starting a war against countries that have not attacked the US - while getting involved in a Muslim civil war supporting moderate head choppers that will eventually strike back at the US - while Assad protects his own country and SOME religious minorities such as Christians - while US illegally violates the sovereignty of nations with unilateral strikes while condemning using weak evidence using the laughable crux of 'international law' that does not apply to the US has some semblance to

Weak sauce.

Iraq (one of the primary causes of ISIS) and its unintended consequences still has infinity more relevance - yet all these IYI chickenhawks try to make some grand strategy with pseudo historical analogies.

That being said, this was not an attack on TC, just the IYIs out there. Scroll down on the Bloomberg article and see TC's colleague and resident Israeli Firster Eli Lake: "America Learned Wrong Lessons From Iraq, and Syria Suffers"

If these too old/fat/successful to enlist types care so much then go over there and fight, I will contribute via crowdsourced funding, 'send Eli Lake et al. with a M4 and some ammo with a one way to ticket to whatever place US is "lacking leadership" in.'

Good god, US does not want to lose INFLUENCE or face in the region since it has been paying dividends.

WWI can be somewhat simplified in hindsight:

- Bismarck uses the Franco-Prussian war explicitly to unify a Germany.
- Kaiser Bill fires Bismarck, ending balance of power.
- The remainder much attributes to familial squabbling between Kaiser Bill and his various cousins. See "Royal Cousins At War" for details.

Can we use any of that to predict present-day events? Probably not.

Which major actor has the least internal cohesion ? Maybe it should stay home.

Other than complexity and the danger of unintended consequences, what is the similarity to WWI? Those general points are worth keeping in mind but I’m not sure I see what lessons of WWI are particularly applicable to navigating the current situation.

an unworkable Austro-Hungarian Empire

Minor criticism, but I don't think this should be taken as true. Christopher Clark's World War I lead-up The Sleepwalkers makes the point that the Empire was a lot sturdier than it is commonly described, and it had been through an economic boom and industrialization in the prior 30 years or so.

Indeed - as a proto-European union (customs, light central legislation with lots of local autonomy, single currency) it could easily have endured for long time if they hadn't decided to become all militaristic.

Bzonkerville in the middle east. a chaotic process of evolution. The winners move north and replace the ice people.

Nuremburg Principle VI

"The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

(a) Crimes against peace:

(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;

(ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

The U.S. Army's Law of Land Warfare (Field Manual 27-10) states:

498. Crimes Under International Law
Any person, whether a member of the armed forces or a civilian, who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment. Such offenses in connection with war comprise: a. Crimes against peace.

Do these principles or laws apply in this situation more to the US or Syria? What about KSA and Yemen? Does anyone care?

This is a such a beautiful legal code, but who enforces its “commands”?

Short answer, the sovereigns who care to.

International "law" is anarchic, not civic, a distinction lost on many people, including the anarcho-capitalists themselves. Nuremberg was a contrivance. The Allies should have just summarily executed the Nazi leadership.

+1. Worse, the Obama administration later doubled down on that gaff when they acknowledged that the red line had been crossed. It would have been trivial to 'nuance' their way out of this fiasco using the normal 'we need to investigate' and 'the situation is complex' excuses.

I'd worry much more about an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. (And possible retaliation). That would be a big deal. Some damned fool thing in the South China Sea is another concern. Or the Baltic states.

As of now, it's difficult to see any analogy to 1914. The only cultural fragmentation in any occidental power is that being promoted by elites and professional-managerial types against their own vernacular populations, something of which Cowen / Tabarrok are all in favor. None of the major powers are holding a portfolio of overseas dependencies (apart from some modest insular territories satisfied with their current arrangements). The decline in the significance of agriculture renders territory less salient as a source of wealth while the mobilization of populations on the ground renders foreign populations more difficult to hold. Military spending all over the globe is contextually modest. The only countries with much economic or demographic weight who spend more than 3% of their domestic product on their militaries would be Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan, Colombia, the United States, and Russia. As far as devoting resources to the military, the U.S. is close to the post-1939 nadir. Only Saudi Arabia exceeds our Cold War nadir of 5.6%. Where are the colonial acquisitions, the naval races, the shifting alliances and ententes?

It's hard to see any situation that would lead the Iranian government to launch a nuclear strike on Israel, given that there's no way their country would survive it. You can imagine war by miscalculation of some kind, but not an actual decision "hey, let's nuke Israel and then watch our country get destroyed."

You're assuming there aren't a critical mass of apocalyptic fanatics in the Iranian government. Hope you're right.

I would worry more about apocalyptic fanatics in the government that has nuclear weapon: #Russia and #Iran still have exactly what they want in Syria. Warm water naval bases and a foothold in the middle east. If #BiblicalProphecy is correct, and I believe it is, this is where Armageddon will be fought. I know, I believe in things that many others dismiss as fantasy - Chuck Woolery

Maybe America should stop supporting terrorists.

Great suggestion. After all, the US military stopped using chemical weapons like napalm years ago.

America supports Saudi Arabia, Turkey and ISIS.

Perhaps it's time for some of us to stop playing contrarian with respect to this administration. Peter Thiel's risky play is the world's problem now.

Perhaps it's time for some of us to stop playing contrarian with respect to this administration. Peter Thiel's risky play is the world's problem now.

If you view the Cuban Missile Crisis as a straightforward event that was easy to model, you should stop writing about international politics. See Graham Allison's Essence of Decision.

The best advice on Syria comes not from IYIs but from Taleb:

I don't get the recent WW1 parallels. If the US empire were falling apart like the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian ones were, maybe there's a point. The rising appeal of nationalism and falling multi-ethnic empires contributed more to WW1 than any assassination, if that hadn't sparked it something else likely would have. Now we have the enormous hegemonic USA which will always act in self interest dominating any game, so where's the uncertainty?

WW1 parallel is good because we've left the "unipolar moment". Russia in particular actively resists our dominance, while China does so in a quiet fashion.

We've also left the "unipolar moment" in more objective terms. China is surpassing us economically, and while Russia is a fundamentally weaker state than us they cannot be destroyed militarily by us.

We're not the Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian Empire in this case of course. We're effectively Britain, and China is Wilhelmine Germany.

Not sure who Russia is exactly. They're not the Russian Empire in that in 1914 Russia was rising, which they're not doing today.

But they're not disintegrating either.

So yes, not an exact parallel.

But the situation reminds me of 1914 in that the international situation is tense and we could very well stumble into a world war.

The Cold War-era was pretty simple: the US-NATO vs. The Evil Soviet Empire. China was a problem too but Nixon solved that. China lets Japan and South Korea alone, and we let China alone.

Then the Cold War ended (we won), but we still carry the same priors about Russia. Maybe we should and maybe we shouldn't. In any event the dynamic doesn't seem to have changed.

The US, China and Russia are the only three countries that matter on the globe and so far they seem pretty scrupulous about tiptoeing around each others' assets. This strike, like the first strike, was apparently way more show than substance. (Apparently Mattis was the voice of moderation. #Mattis2020). But there is a lot of incentive for the Syrian rebels to accuse the government of more chemical attacks.

For an intelligent and very well read man, TC shows an incredible degree of credulity, with respect to Skripal and Douma among other things. If he is genuinely concerned about the complexity of the situation, and the many, many ways in which it can escalate beyond our worst nightmares, then he would do well to start asking some uncomfortable questions.

1. The Russian government proposed that the Security Council support an independent investigation into the recent alleged chlorine gas attack in Douma. This resolution was vetoed by France, the UK, and the US. Why, exactly, is unclear to me. The US also proposed a resolution for investigation, but with a clause allowing for military intervention depending on the outcome of the investigation. Vetoed by Russia, presumably because they don't want another Libya.

2. The OPCW has done very good work in reducing stockpiles of chemical weapons around the world, including in Syria. They have protocols for dealing with alleged violations of their treaty, precisely in order to prevent escalation. The recent missile attack on Syria by France, the UK, and the US, ostensibly to destroy chemical weapons sites of the Syrian government, came right before the OPCW was to start an investigation. Why? Fortunately, the OPCW will continue its investigation nonetheless:

A few relevant facts.

3. The current government of Syria is that recognized by the UN. In the absence of a Security Council resolution, any military action against the Syrian government (such as the recent missile launch) is in violation of the UN Charter and is an act of war.

4. The Syrian government has the right to defend itself and to invite its allies (in this case, mostly Iran and Russia) to help to help defend against foreign aggression.

Points 3. and 4. stand *completely independently* of personal opinions about the current government of Syria or that of its allies. The fact that France, the UK, and the US ignore this makes them rogue states and their leaders war criminals. Plain and simple.

Are you a Russian bot

“Are you a Russian bot?” I think the word you are looking for is paid troll, not bot. Or you think I don’t pass the Turing test?

Sorry to disappoint, however. I’m just an American who has lived and worked in many European countries, most recently Russia. But if only I could get paid for stating the obvious, I’d have beluga and caviar every day for lunch.

Just wondering. Never know where those Russians pop up these days

“Never know where those Russians pop up these days.”

Dude, I know. Who knew you could sway a US presidential election with $100,000 of Facebook ads about nothing in particular? Some American politicians need to get smart and hire these guys!

What's your take on the refusal to allow the inspectors in?

Concern that the mean-spirited triad here will attack the sites again to be sure the inspections cannot take place? Or maybe some cleanup is in place?

Thanks for the link. I'll continue to follow the question. The OPCW does important work and all sane people hope that they will succeed

My take is basically the same as that of dearieme above. Every interested party here is lying. But for what it's worth, my priors are the following:

I don't doubt that the Syrian government is capable in principle of gassing people, any more than I doubt that the Russian and US governments are capable of destroying East Aleppo and Raqqa. At the same time, the Syrian government is winning the war and had nothing to gain by gassing people, especially since doing so was likely to trigger retaliation. On the other hand, because of likely retaliation against the Syrian government, those fighting the Syrian government have a perverse incentive to either gas people and blame it on the government, or at least to fake a gas attack.

At this time there is zero evidence either way, but the burden of proof lies with those flouting the UN Charter and attacking a sovereign state. In fact, even if there were substantial proof that the Syrian government were responsible, flouting the UN Charter would only aggravate the problem, since it undermines the incentives for other actors to play by the rules.

DanC, you are an Israeli butt.

It's very odd to choose to opine about a topic on which, a wise man would assume, almost nothing that is said is trustworthy. I assume that Washington is lying, and Moscow; Damascus and Tel Aviv; Riyadh and Ankara; Baghdad and Tehran; London and Paris. It's the Middle East, for heaven's sake; it's all bloody lies.

"It's the Middle East, for heaven's sake; it's all bloody lies."

I think that is the reasonable prior. However, I am aware of at least two experienced mainstream journalists writing in English who actually do ground work in the Middle East and have a history of accuracy and fairness: Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk. Most relevant to the current conversation is Fisk's report on his recent visit to Douma:

In the end, it is mere posturing. The actors involved are privy to the causes of war, and of its consequences. The "single, bad event" scenario has been played in the Middle East time and time again without any monumental fallout. Pundits say "well, the NEXT event will be the trigger for war".

I'll wait for the movie to come out.

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