In my last post I described a world familiar to all of us: chaos in every direction, not unlike the (miserable) 1970s. But I also noted that, if you look hard enough at each trouble spot, what you see are a bunch of very strange bedfellows.
I’m not the first to notice this phenomenon, of course, but most observers seem to have noted it in one context or other without noticing how pervasive it is. And when something is so ubiquitous, my suggestion is that it means something.
First, though, let’s observe the many strange bedfellows we are seeing around the world.
The sudden popularity of Israel. While Israel and Hamas fought each other to a standstill in the recent Gaza “incursion,” the US attempted to stay neutral enough to use its good offices to bring about a cease fire. True, we continued to honor our military commitments to Israel, but we did our best to act as an honest broker between the Israelis and Hamas. We got nowhere. In fact, our own Secretary of State was publicly attacked by high Israeli officials, treated with a level of disdain that would be unusual between enemies. Partly, this was extreme foolishness on the part of the Israelis, but it also showed how out-of-touch the US was during the conflict. In the past, Israel was essentially isolated, surrounded by hostile Arab states (plus Iran) and with the rest of the world, ex-US, largely unsympathetic. America was its only ally. But during the recent conflict, it was Hamas that was isolated. Most of the Arab world – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, the UAE – quietly supported Israel against the (radical) Sunni Hamas. On top of this, Israel was publicly supported by China, India and Russia. In other words, roughly 80% of the world’s population was in Israel’s corner. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
Suddenly, everyone loves the Kurds. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the Kurds have been a stateless people, and most of the world has conspired to keep them that way. Iraq did its best to subdue the Kurds, succeeding (largely) during the Saddam Hussein era, less so under Maliki. The US ignored the Kurds’ demands, believing that its interests lay with Turkey and Iraq. Turkey has long fought against the Kurds, especially the terrorist branches (see below). Then, suddenly, all that stood between the collapse of Iraq as a state and the establishment of an ISIS “caliphate” was – the Kurds. Voila! The US, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, France, the UK and Germany all made common cause with the Kurds, supplying weapons, attacking ISIS from the air, and even supplying ground forces (in the form of US Special Forces and troops supplied by Iranian Kurdish parties). Even the so-called “terrorist” Kurds, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) are now fighting with the US and peshmerga against ISIS. In Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, the hated Assad regime has joined forces with Kurdish Peoples Protection Units to fight ISIS. Most Americans don’t much keep up with the Kurds, but if you were a Kurd you would think that this was quite suddenly a lot of strangers in your bed.
Iran makes common cause with Saudi Arabia. In the Muslim world, Iran is the leader of the Shia faction and Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Sunni faction. Although Iran is much larger than Saudi Arabia, there are many more Sunnis than Shia in the Middle East. (Almost 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis.) These two nations have been enemies since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, fighting mostly proxy wars throughout the MENA(1) region. Now the threat from ISIS and other radical Islamists has caused the two strangers to become bedfellows. Both countries backed the same candidate to lead Iraq post-Maliki, and at the end of August Iranian and Saudi diplomats met face-to-face to discuss mutual interests. A year ago, it would have been almost impossible to imagine these two having “mutual interests.”
ISIS versus the world. Only a few months ago the idea of expanding any kind of military operations in Iraq was as anathema as an idea can get – both in the US and in Europe. But the rise of ISIS has caused a 90-degree turn in public opinion, and it doesn’t take a lot of foresight to see that this turn could get perilously close to 180 degrees.(2) The countries allied against ISIS – allied in the strict sense of actually engaging in combat or combat support – already include such strange Iraqi bedfellows as Iraq itself, the US, Canada, the Kurds, France, Australia, Britain, Germany, Iran, Turkey and Syria. (Note, however, the conspicuous absence of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, the countries most exposed to an ISIS caliphate.) And, if you’re sitting down, consider that one of our key allies in the battle against ISIS is al Qaeda, whose Syrian branch (known as the Nusra Front) is, except for Syria itself, ISIS’s most feared foe.(3)
Our new friends in Syria. Nobody will say it out loud, but it’s screamingly obvious that the most effective way to defeat – and destroy – ISIS is to back Assad’s hated regime in Syria. Simply attacking ISIS in Iraq isn’t going to be good enough, because ISIS can simply slink back into its Syrian hideouts (ISIS already controls an entire Syrian province, Raqqa) and then invade Iraq again when the Americans and Iranians go home. And note that, wholly aside from the ISIS threat to Iraq, ISIS forces have recently penetrated to within less than a mile of the Israeli border with Syria. If the Israelis enter the war essentially on the side of Assad, that will make it politically easier for the US to get in bed with the Devil. However outrageous it sounds to ally with Assad, it’s useful to remember that Churchill and Roosevelt cheerfully allied themselves with that other monster, Stalin – and as a result, defeated Hitler.
The US and Iran: buddied up? After roughly 35 years of bitter enmity, the US and Iran not only engaged in productive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but now we are joined at the hip in Iraq, joining together to force Maliki out, backing the same candidate to replace him (Haider Al-Abadi), coordinating battle plans against ISIS both via support for the Kurds and in more direct, although officially unacknowledged, ways.(4)
Russian aggression in Ukraine revitalizes NATO. Over the years NATO grew from a small coterie of 12 countries banding together against the USSR to an almost-useless gaggle of 28 states engaged mainly in bickering and reducing their defense spending. Russia grabbed the Crimea while NATO continued to sleep, but the recent aggression in Ukraine finally got people’s attention. The 28 member states weren’t bedfellows at all pre-Ukraine, but now, suddenly, they’re acting more and more like it.
Chinese aggressiveness creates unusual bedfellows in Asia. The rise of Chinese aggressiveness in Asia has created some remarkable bedfellows, starting with the US and (huh?) Vietnam. More recently, India and (huh?) Japan have made common cause against the Chinese. While most everyone worries about the growing power of the Chinese, what the Chinese worry about is the fact that they are ever-more surrounded by US bedfellows: India, Vietnam, Australia, Philippines, South Korea, Japan.
France and Italy join forces against Germany. Strange bedfellows are arising even in Europe, where the traditional – and essential – bedfellows have been Germany and France. European peace and prosperity since 1945 have depended on those two countries maintaining their close partnership. But the formation of the Eurozone, followed by the Financial Crisis, highlighted the profoundly differing competitive postures of Germany and France, and also highlighted the quite similar competitive postures of France and Italy. The new bedfellows in Europe could well be France and Italy, aligned (along with the rest of peripheral Europe) to counter German power and influence. That’s a very different Europe than we’ve lived with since the end of World War II.
In my next blog I’ll examine some of the implications of these new and strange bedfellows.
(1) Middle East and North Africa.
(2) In the late summer of 2013 only 21% of Americans believed military action in Iraq was in the national interest. Today, following the frightening gains made by ISIS and the beheadings of two Americans, this number has risen to 61%. Politicians trying to suck up to dovish public opinion suddenly found themselves leaning the wrong way.
(3) Even the Catholic Church announced its approval of steps to stop ISIS, after decades of anti-war rhetoric. It’s one thing, after all, to oppose the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (as the Church did), but to oppose the use of force against Serb massacres in Kosovo? To oppose the use of force to free Kuwait from Iraqi conquest? To oppose the use of force to halt the genocide in Rwanda? But then, on August 19th Pope Francis himself called for action to stop ISIS, which he called an “unjust aggressor.” However, said the Pope, “I am not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ but stop him.” Maybe we should just ask politely?
(4) If Iran is leading the attack on ISIS on the ground, as it is, and if the US is leading the attack on ISIS in the air, as it is, then Iran and the US are cooperating closely whether they officially admit it or not. You cannot have uncoordinated ground and air forces on the same battlefield.
Next up: Strange Bedfellows, Part 3
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