On 9/11, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia featured a talk by Colonel Patrick Lang – who returned here by reputation as a voice of reason, experience, “independence,” and wit regarding the Middle East. He did not disappoint.
Miller Center lectures are a rather unique phenomena here. First, they are popular. For this one, I arrived five minutes “early” (e.g. very late) – to be escorted to the fourth and last overflow room. Not bad for forums that ordinarily are simulcast on the net. Yet Miller audiences are hardly filled with bright-eyed students; the Miller Center is off the main “grounds” (campus) and students rarely comprise more than a handful amid the throngs. Instead, these sessions draw from the extraordinary community of retired policy professionals who seem to be flocking here to Hoo’ville.
Colonel Lang himself is “retired” from full-time government service, having served with distinction in the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) and then at the highest levels of U.S. Military Intelligence. His training includes a Masters Degree in Middle East studies from Utah, and he served in the mid-1970’s as the first Professor of Arabic at West Point. Today, he combines ongoing consulting and training projects with frequent media appearances, ranging from PBS to CBS to BBC. For more, see his bio and publications highlights, via this link on his blog.
Colonel Lang “sticks out” in Washington for his informed willingness to take on what passes for “received wisdom” regarding the Middle East. His publications include the memorable “Drinking the Koolaid” in Middle East Policy. It’s still an important, sobering read. Quite far afield from Graham Allison’s realist “rational choice” decision-making model, Lang attributes the disastrous decision to invade Iraq to a loss of nerve among policy makers and analysts. Instead of honorably sticking to their convictions, even if it meant “falling on their swords,” career-preserving senior policy makers were more inclined to drink from a Jonestown-like vat of poisonous illusions. “Succumbing to the prevailing group-think” drawn up by the small core of neoconservative “vulcans,” Lang’s former intelligence colleagues “drank the koolaid” and said nothing, leaving them henceforth among the “walking dead” in Washington.
Speaking here on 9/11, Lang’s comments were wide-ranging and stimulating; he didn’t stick narrowly to his talk title on Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah, but he had much to suggest related to all three. I offer a few highlights here:
On Military Options against Iran:
Here Lang summarized his now widely cited National Interest article from earlier this spring. (Issue #83 – no link available). Even though Lang and co-author Larry Johnson seem to accept standard worst-case assessments of Iran’s nuclear aspirations, their article makes a compelling case that there are no “realistic” military options to attack Iran, by land or air, conventional, or exotic. Air assaults, whether by Israel or the US, are a “mirage” – unlikely to succeed for long, while incurring the risks of severe retaliations by Iranian assets.
To Lang, these dangers are obvious. Yet spelling them out serves the purpose of going on record so that neoconservatives in the future cannot claim – as they did with Iraq – that the disaster could not have been foreseen. This time, we’ve been warned.
On the greatest source of conflict within Islam:
If I understood him correctly, Lang was not as concerned about a battle between extremists and political pietists, deeming the “pietists” overwhelmingly still in the ascendant. Instead, Lang’s “bigest concern” for the Muslim world was over the “revolution” in the Shia-Sunni equation. The old order of “Sunnis rule and Shias survive” is now in question. Lang depicted Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear option as the latest extension of a long-forming Shia effort to resist domination from the Sunni realm.
Yet Lang did emphasize that Muslims of all stripes come together in resentment towards Israel — as a direct affront to the well being of the faith. To accept the existence of Israel means having to admit that the Islamic world has been truncated, that part of the “realm of God” had been given back. Hizbullah thus has become widely popular among all Muslims, not just among Shia, for its demonstrated capacity to resist both Zionists and the modern day crusaders.
Iran’s support for Hizbullah:
Lang deems Iran’s support for Lebanon’s Hizbullah as “first and foremost” useful for Iran’s pursuit of respect and leadership within the Islamic world. Yet Iranian financial assistance for Lebanon has shrewdly earned friends among Arab Christians and Sunnis too. In this light, Iran’s low-key strategy has been quite successful; hardly a rat-hole, such “success” draws more support.
On Why Hizbullah beat Israel:
Lang does not attribute Hizbullah’s recent “astonishing” success simply to Iranian support, but to better strategy. On the Hizbullah side, Lang quoted Israeli military sources who conceded that it was difficult to distinguish Hizbullah fighters from Israeli soldiers, as they were just as well trained, armed and armoured. Most surprising, Hizbullah’s command, communications, and control systems remained intact and effective despite Israel’s best efforts to obliterate them.
Lang emphasized his previous high regard for the professionalism of Israeli military leadership. But Lang was scathing towards the present military leadership, noting that he had never before witnessed an Israeli Chief of Staff buying into the logic of Kosovo – ergo,
“if you bomb them enough, they’ll quit.”
About the sub-plot of bombing the entire country, Lang had this equally sardonic characterization of the logic afoot:
“If you beat them up enough, they’ll be our friends.”
Problem though, (and as anticipated here early) the strategy backfired perfectly. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Siniora now asserts that Lebanon “will be the last country to make peace with Israel.”
Lang drew a curious parallel to his own school yard experiences with bullies.
“The bullies who used to beat me up thought they could intimidate me to give up and like them too. I was tougher than they thought.” It didn’t work then, it doesn’t work now.
Lang also drew an ironic parallel to his own professional background during the Cold War. In 1976, he published a paper in Military Review on the “best defense” that American ground forces could muster against what then would have come from the overwhelming might of a Soviet ground invasion. Rationally, the odds then would have been heavily stacked against the American ground forces, just as one would have thought Hizbullah might have been similarly swept aside by superior Israeli forces. That they were not suggests to Colonel Lang that “defense” is the area in contemporary military doctrine wherein the most profound developments are emerging.
Lang’s suggestion here that “defense” may be ” the best defense,” is fascinating, especially for the Middle East. This observation likely will be disconcerting to most neocon empire builders. I hope Colonel Lang will clarify and expand on this for us soon in another publication.
Did the US have advance awareness of Israeli plans for attacking Lebanon?
Lang elliptically answered this question from the audience. He started with an empathetic analysis of the Israelis being profoundly “disturbed” by their perceived predicament of being surrounded by peoples who despise them. (I presume he’s referring to peoples, rather than governments of the moment) As such, Israelis have tended to be unwilling to contemplate, much less accept, half-measures towards compromise. Instead, they feel they have to maintain rigid domination over their neighbors and inevitable adversaries. Thus, an unrepentant Hizbullah force to Israel’s north was deemed intolerable, and Hizbullah’s kidnapping operation in July provided an “excuse” for the Israelis to again demonstrate their dominance — with the likely “approbation” from the USA.
On the linkage between Iraq and the global war on terrorism
Lang flatly rejects the linkage. Instead, the key problem in Iraq is the fragmented compostion of the country not externally linked, violent jihadis.
“Even if the US would withdraw today (which he doesn’t favor), would the 1500 or so jihadis there today take over? I don’t think so.”
Instead, the assorted centrifugual forces would continue to plague Iraq.
Should we talk to our enemies?
“The idea that we don’t talk is absurd. If you want to have an agreement, you must talk.”
Lang observed that both Hamas and Hizbullah have been “careful” not to target Americans or US interests. (at least not since the bombing by Hizbullah of the US Marine and Embassy targets over twenty years ago.) Yet they are targeting IIsraelis, and as such, Lang believes the Israelis should be talking to them. But as they haven’t been, and since the US has been “holding the coat for the Israelis,” the US may need to talk to the Israelis about talking to its enemies. Got it?
Can you deal with the devil?
Colonel Lang’s comments at different points suggested an ambivalence about prospects for dealing with the most radical of Islamists. On the one hand, he was “suspicious” of arguments for permitting Islamists to participate in elections, such as in Egypt. While he emphasized he “held no brief” for the Mubarak regime, he referenced the often heard concern that democratization would unleashes a “one vote, one time” result.
Pat Lang later emphasized to me that he is doubtful that there are benevolent Islamist movements. Until Islam achieves its own Reformation, he worries that American force or meddling to unseat governments like that of Mubarak “will only do mischief in the attempt.”
Yet Lang’s comments also suggest he has no confidence in an Israeli logic of iron fisted “domination” over presumed implacable neighbors. Instead, he briefly referenced the Islamic historical experience with the permitted ideal of “Hudna” – or truce. No, it would not be the same things as a full peace, or a full recognition of Israel. Yet Colonel Lang contended that it is the best that Israel can hope near term to achieve with Lebanon, with Hizbullah, with Hamas, with extreme Islamists across the region. A sustained truce combined with a lessening of tensions is better than the alternative of unending cycles of violence.
Lang no doubt knows that most Israelis and the neoconservatives prefer a black-and-white image of Islamists. For them, Hudna is dismissed as merely a “smoke-screen” cover for sinister long term intentions. Few Americans have even heard of it. Alas, those Hamas leaders who have proposed Hudna tend to find themselves assassinated by the Israelis — in turn disinclining others from even thinking of proposing such a truce.
Yet Colonel Lang counsels that Hudna remains an untested concept worth exploring further. Make it so.
Colonel Lang’s comments about strategic doctrine and defense had me thinking of my oldest son, a young reserve engineer officer in the Virginia National Guard. Like so many other Americans, he signed up for ROTC soon after 9/11, thinking to “do his part” to defend his country and “pay back” the terrorists. (It’s my hope that his service is more along the lines of constructing dykes, relief work, and building, rather than destroying, “bridges” – but that’s me.)
With America’s image so badly tattered around the world today, he and his military colleagues desperately want to believe that our military is still fighting an honorable, winning strategy – if only the “ignoramuses” in academia and the media would stop whining. Faux News & friends tell them what they want to hear.
Lately, he has been hearing from gung-ho offense-minded “trainers” of the siren song of “realism” and its “prairie dog” theory of crushing the insurgent. That is, if only we pound the insurgents hard enough, “whack ’em” down each and every time they pop out of their holes, then they’ll “face reality” and give up.
Come to think of it, the British may have had the same disdainful attitude towards the ungrateful rebel upstarts in America, 230 years ago. George the III then, like George the III today, sent forth the most powerful forces and mercenaries known to the world to teach some “reality” to those who otherwise refuse to accept the blessings of empire that we wish to bestow upon them….
I hope my son and his superiors will yet serve under a different set of influences — from those with the courage to refuse the Koolaid in favor of the clear, cool water that Colonel Lang’s independent wisdom offers.