Against informed pragmatism in the Middle East

By Razib Khan | September 15, 2013 4:38 pm

A little editorializing by me….

We need to be careful about overfitting, but one of the major problems with the American relationship to the Middle East is the superficial understanding of its ethnographic framework. For example, I noticed this weekend that there was media mention of an attack upon the Shabak of northern Iraq. CNN describes them as Muslim, 2/3 Shia and 1/3 Sunni. Reuters, which The New York Times republished, states they are mostly Shia. UPI says they are an offshoot of Shia Islam. The AP states that they are Shia Muslims who are ethnic Turkmen (Turkic speakers). Wikipedia says they are a Kurdish people who adhere to a syncretistic religion. The Reuters piece alludes to the suspicion that Sunni Islamic militants are suspected to be involved in this attack, and that they consider Shiites infidels. The framework here is the typical Sunni-Shia conflict…but as the reference to a syncretistic background indicates it is a little more complicated and much more clear at the same time. I have read enough about the history of the Middle East and its ethnography to immediately recall that the Shabak have a religiously ambiguous identity, and this complicated ambiguity explains rather easily why Sunni militants would target them. From Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East:

So little is known with certain about the Shabak’s religious beliefs that I will abstrain from a detailed description…The Shabak with whom I spoke were reluctant to talk about their religion, and claimed to be “just Muslims”…The Shabak maintain good relationships with the Yezidis, and make pilgrimages to Yezidi shrines….

An association with the Yezidi is a clue to the affinities of the Shabak. Broadly speak in the Post-Ottoman Middle East you have a religious landscape where Sunni Islam is the normative standard. Set against this you have some clear and distinct pre-Islamic religious groups who are bracketed unequivocally under the term “People of the Book,” Christians, Zoroastrians (yes, I know there is some debate about this middle group) and Jews.  But these are not the only two classes. There is an enormous grab-bag of what I will term ‘heterodox’ groups who are not Sunni Muslim or one of the People of the Book. Some of these are straightforward in their taxonomy. Twelver Shia Islam, the dominant strain of Shiism, is clearly heterodox from the Sunni perspective, but also clearly Muslim (unless you are an extreme Salafi). The Mandaeans have emerged from the same Late Antique religious cauldron as Muslims, and so their inclusion as a People of the Book seems to follow the spirit of the category. In contrast the now extinct Sabians of Haran were clearly a pagan Hellenistic sect that exploited the rather vague reference to “Sabians” in the Koran to continue to practice their unique religion in a Muslim dominated world. Today the Druze are a case study in a modern post-Muslim heterodox group. Their historical origin is one which derives from the Ismaili Shia tradition, but they have transcended the bounds of orthodoxy as defined by Sunnis. The Alawites share many resemblances with the Druze, but are closer to the Muslim mainstream in their self-identity, and recently have been espousing a more orthodox Shia self-conception.

One thing you have to understand is that the Islamic, and for the purposes of the core Middle East, Ottoman, order required all religious groups to fall into specific categories. If a religious group was outside of a sanctioned category it might be targeted for persecution and forced conversion. Because the Shia identity is more expansive and open ended than that of the Sunni many heterodox groups take refuge under the umbrella of Shiism even if their connection to the Twelve Shiism dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, is tenuous at best. This is certainly a plausible explanation for the religious identity of groups like the Shabak who seem intent on maintaining a marginal Muslim identity. In contrast a group like the Yezidi has left Islamic identity for all practical purposes, and open themselves up therefore to justifiable persecution from the perspective of orthodox Sunni Muslims. The evasiveness of many heterodox groups in the Middle East, and their tendency toward esoterism, is a function of this long history of state sponsored policing of belief and practice, and the majority trend of enforcing hostility against heretical and apostate groups.

Why does any of this matter? In the comments a few months ago a someone suggested that rather than following a ideological position, like isolationism, we should engage in pragmatic case by case decision making when it comes to foreign affairs. My argument is that very few people actually know enough to engage in informed pragmatism. I’m 99.9% sure for example that I know more about the history and ethnography of the Middle East than the patronizing commenter in question. This ubiquity of unselfconscious ignorance to me explains why the commenter thought that informed pragmatic international intervention was so obviously possible. If everyone around you is rather ignorant you don’t seem that bad. On Twitter I regularly have interlocutors who attempt to argue with me or comment on the Middle East in response to a short Tweet pointing to my clear anti-interventionist sympathies, but it’s often quite obvious that their knowledge is as superficial as the “First Books” designed to prime seven year old children on a particular topic. To give an explicit example someone on Twitter just tried to lecture me on Syria’s long history of pluralism. If someone says this to you you should immediately respond that Millet system is not the sort of pluralism we should be relying upon as surety for a liberal order in the wake of Baathist despotism. My interlocutor did not engage my volley, and I suspect they were not even aware of what the Millet system was.

When it comes to foreign policy people seem to think that the superficial pap they read in The New York Times can be the basis of informed comment. We’ve been through this before during the lead up to the Iraq War. Back then when I was blogging I deferred to people making strong and bold claims under the assumption they knew something I didn’t. They didn’t, and most of the people offering me their worthless opinions today do not. People know just enough to engage in sophistry so as to confuse and convince the choir, and bluster among the ignorant. Since most people are ignorant and are going to remain so, this blustering normally yields dividends. But don’t try to pull that on me please. (I immediately ban commenters who do so here, and generally block people on Twitter that attempt to do so)

An informed response is not going to work against war-hawks like Eliot Cohen, because I’m rather sure they aren’t promoting their cheerleading for war based on information in the first place. Similarly, many liberal internationalists are no more well informed about the details on the ground. Rather, they have normative frameworks of global law and human rights in mind (neocons focus on American exceptionalism and unipolarity). As a rule of thumb arguments predicated on factual information always strike me as arrogant posturing meant to intimidate, rather than sincere attempts to model a situation. It may be that a genuine model of these sorts of complex dynamics is impossible. And therefore we fallback on normative grounded heuristics.

Where does this leave us? Shrill accusations. Billions and perhaps trillions of dollars are on the line. Thousands to hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance. It is natural then that people will resort to extreme rhetoric. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Isolationists are to a great extent naive. The world is a brutal place. But I also believe at this point that the hawks are ultimately a danger to the republic, and have confused their globalist interests and overclass egos with the interests of the people, both American and non-American.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: International Affairs
MORE ABOUT: Middle East
  • Robert Ford

    somewhat related:

    Amanpour seems to be pretty sure. Nick Kristof seems kinda sure

    I know you made the point about the NYT but I’m just sayin’ that if I’m agreeing with either one of those people I’m *very* sure that this is an oddly polarizing debate that’s creating unlikely bedfellows. After seeing the entire gas attack vid it seems hard to be completely against bombing.

    What’s everyone think about Juan Cole?
    A formidable debater. Would’ve been nice to see him vs. Hitchens on this one.

    • razibkhan

      they’ve been eating people in the congo for 20 years. i fail to see why ‘brown people’ (as my liberal friends like to call syrians) matter more than black people. atrocities are legion. that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene, but if that was the logical and necessary reason for intervention we should have been carpet bombing much more of the world by now.

      • Robert Ford

        Fair enough but, as Amanpour and Kristof said, Rawanda that was one of Clinton’s biggest regrets.
        I don’t think it necessarily has to be perfectly logical against history just as long as it makes sense now (even though I’m not totally confident in it myself but am clearly more open to it than most.)

        • razibkhan

          arguably rwanda was low hanging fruit in terms of upside gains – downside risks (the interhahmwe are good at killing civilians, bad at fighting any military force). also, the scale of slaughter was far greater than in syria.

        • razibkhan

          and just to be clear, i’m not fanatically opposed to intervention in this case. i’m just opposed to sloppy/incoherent/uninformed arguments. i’ve gone though this once in 2002/2003, AND I PROMISED I’D NEVER STAND FOR THAT AGAIN. to give an example recently heather hulburt on a bhtv said something to the effect of ‘how long can we let muslims get slaughtered without seeming to be anti-muslim.’ she’s a ‘foreign policy specialist,’ but trading in total tripe, because all the polls/assessments i’ve seen indicate the population of muslim countries oppose american intervention. we’re already seen to be anti-muslim, and we’ll pretty much always be seen to be anti-muslim for a host of unchangeable structural reasons. the talking point is specious.

          i will take interventionists seriously when they make an honest case for why, and a serious informed ledger of upsides and downsides. the fact that elites tend to be so pro-intervention is partly i think a function of the fact that they don’t have much ‘skin’ in the game. they’re playing out their ideological fantasies with role playing on a risk board.

          • Robert Ford

            re: risk board – yeah, i assumed that was the deal as it seems even congress is powerless against our military elites but I thought I’d piggyback my “save the brown people” campaign on top of their Master Plan. There will never be a truly altruistic war. As I said before, I don’t much care for islam so it’s not a problem to me if we do nothing (I think that’s what we’ll do anyway) but the gas attack vid reminded me so much of the video of the Saddam gas attack vid it really seems like it couldn’t get much worse…so why not just do it? Like with Rwanda – once you see a FIELD of people chopping up other people it seems like one would pull the trigger. And watching assad’s tanks roll around shooting people reminds me of WW2 footage. It seems so out of control there I feel like you couldn’t “plan” much anyway.
            side note – miss you on bheads. I don’t hang there much anymore as Bob banned my IP for swearing but it’d be nice to see you interview some people in some capacity – even if you just emailed them questions to answer at their leisure. I find that interviews provide those juicy nuggets of info you don’t always find in articles and I know you’d ask questions we’d never think of. Start with Turkheimer, Hawks, Hsu, Paabo!

          • razibkhan

            And watching assad’s tanks roll around shooting people reminds me of WW2 footage. I

            the issue of magnitude. this isn’t ww2. assad isn’t hitler. neither was sadam, though he was just as nasty (chemical weapons en masse against kurds and our iranian enemies in the 80s).

          • Robert Ford

            for the record, what’s your response on Kristof’s lists of successful interventions?: Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Mali, Ivory Coast.

            worth it?

          • razibkhan

            bosnia/kosovo happened because they were in europe. i can see the risk calculus, though i was skeptical of the latter because it seems to have been a relatively marginal affair in terms of regional impact compared to bosnia. local actors have more moral urgency and self-interest in intervention. i think turkey should ‘man up’ and intervene rather than waiting for the west. as it is even the turkish public opposes intervention. why is it always the west’s responsibility? america is somehow both the great satan and the foreign policy god.

            i doubt mali, sierra leone, and ivory coast are going to make a big difference in the medium term. but the issue with african interventions is that from what i can tell there’s less institutional organization in these nations, so a relatively small western force can easily transform the landscape. syria’s armed forces are not much, but history has taught us that middle eastern interests can wage concerted non-conventional warfare and wear down conventional forces. also, the gap between the free syrian army and assad isn’t that big IMO in terms of the humanitarian consequence. i suspect if you gave syrian arab sunnis carte blanche there’s be a serious out migration of kurds and religious minorities, ~1/3 of the population. similarly, the RFP under kagame engaged in genocide and mass killings on the scale of hundreds of thousands. even to the point of killing women and children on the other side of congo fleeing them! these aren’t black/white situations, and military strikes against one side are not subtle.

          • GuestOfGuests

            “RFP under kagame engaged in genocide and mass killings on the scale of hundreds of thousands”

            I lost you here, tens of thousands is sound… But hundreds of thousands? I don’t know where you got that from, but I sure want to know more about these numbers.
            If anything, you might put the blame on France, if you’re concerned by the death-toll that is.
            In fact, pretty much everything which has been happening in the Great Lakes region these last 20 years has to do with the Elysée’s African cell (Kouchner himself mouthed about the whole thing, and he’s the last one you’d expect this from… And then there are the most valuable accounts fournished by Saint-Exupéry ).

            Note, I am not saying that Kagame and his RPF have no blood on their hands, though you simply cannot wave aside the fact that they were the only forces stopping the genocide while the French made sure it spilled over with Opération Turquoise & the subsequent refugee crisis.

            France is accountable for what has been happening back there ever since, and even decades prior to the 1994 genocide I’ll wager.

            The Ituri conflict, itself an extension of the North Kivu feud is also the natural outcome of the “Françafrique” dynamics which have been going on since the 80s in the area.

          • razibkhan

            “RFP under kagame engaged in genocide and mass killings on the scale of hundreds of thousands”

            Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa.

  • MrJones

    People who acknowledge their mistakes aren’t guaranteed to not make them again but people who won’t even acknowledge mistakes e.g. over Iraq, are pretty much certain to make the exact same mistakes again.

  • Contemplationist

    There’s little naivety in proclaiming a humble stance of ignorance and defaulting to non-intervention. It’s far more profound than the retarded bellicosity and moral posturing of both neocons and liberal internationalists.
    Great post.

    • Robert Ford

      Idk I don’t exactly admire the Swiss for being “neutral” in WW2.

  • Ballomar Cingetorigis

    FWIW, you’re conclusion is correct, IMHO:

    “Isolationists are to a great extent naive. The world is a brutal place. But I also believe at this point that the hawks are ultimately a danger to the republic”

    At least you are correct in so far as the debate is currently framed. However, if you move the frame, i.e. think outside the box, you might come up with intervention which might serve US (and Western interests), for example (you’re going to hate these):

    – co-opt Assad. That is remove him from Russian/Iranian sphere of influence and make him our ally. That way we mess up Iran AND al-Qaeda. Yeah, he’s a bad buy, but at least he’ll be our bad guy.

    – guarantee the security of the Alawites in the Alawite homeland. That way you may destroy a lot of Assad’s grass roots support – as well as recruiting many anti-al Qaeda fighters

    – give the Israelis the go-ahead to mop up Hezbollah in Lebanon – thus impairing Assad’s current fighting capability.

    There are many more I can think up. Your strategic objectives are:

    – degrade al-Qaeda
    – reduce Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon (long-term objective install US-friendly govt. in Iran as pre 1979)
    – reduce Saudi’s destabilizing influence

    I can’t see any proper strategic thinking coming out of the current White House. This administration is totally bankrupt (and almost not only intellectually). Like I said, you’ll hate all of this

    • razibkhan

      you sound like you’ve been playing too much risk. your suggestion about israel and hezbollah is an indicator that you’re either not intelligent or ignorant. i’ve seen this sort of brazen ‘strategic’ thinking before on comment boards in 2002 and 2003. i think i’ve made it clear what i think of that.

      • Ballomar Cingetorigis

        I said you’d hate it.

        You reduce everything to DNA and tribal ethnicities. Which is OK as far as it goes, but only as far as it goes.

        You’re not reversing this enough. You have to think from the point of view of Russia, Iran and Saudi and try to understand what their strategic interests are.

        Why is Saudi arming the al Nusrah front (Syria is after all not THAT close to Saudi)? Why is Iran supporting Assad? Why (as we now know) is Turkey supporting anti-Kurdish fighting in Syria? Why is Russia supporting Assad?

        Now, you might take the view that the ME is a far away place about which the US knows little and it doesn’t matter. But unless the US can be sure of a source of oil that doesn’t rely on the Gulf, i think this is naive.

        You are like a man whose only tool is a hammer – every problem is reduced to ethnicity.

        • razibkhan

          as greg cochran would say less politely, you are not very smart. more scientifically, what’s going on here is a form of:


          your deep insights are obvious to a 6th grader (and seems a risk-inflected realism).

  • PrasadRao

    Have you elaborated on “long history of state sponsored policing of belief and practice” anywhere?
    Would it be right to say that “state policing of belief” is a “traditional farmer” practice in the robin hanson framework and, in that relative sense, the alawites are “modernist” reactionaries? I think many modern confucian societies have, similarly, used modernist reactionary sentiment to reach similar social goals – having modern industry while denying “western liberal thought”.
    Some of what you write guide me thataway but it would be nice to know where the limits are.

    Am not an american so my vote doesnt count in the political discourse. Just interested in the subject matter

  • Lookatthat Boat

    Do we even have a republic? Contra the standard conservative position of a proposition nation it looks to me as if the US is comprised of multiple very distinct peoples. By my reckoning, that makes the US an empire, not a republic.

    If the US is really an imperial hegemon then doesn’t it sort of make it necessary to intervene to maintain hegemony?

    • razibkhan

      the roman republic was a coalition of peoples assimilated to the latin identity. the mythology even involves the kidnapping and rape of sabine women. two of the patrician houses of great note, aemelia and claudia, seem to have been sabine. though you are correct that an explicitly multicultural order seems to be necessarily imperial.

  • Riordan

    The irony is that two years ago, the situation was almost completely the opposite, with large segments of the media elite either loudly opposing any military interventions in Syria or at least cautioning about our limits and the dangers of intruding upon “complex” Middle Eastern scenarios. Those that did not voice such objections at least stayed silent and noncommittal regarding the decision to use force. Much of the prevailing sentiment seems to be that military intervention back then would risk increasing the scale and scope of the conflict, invite the Iranians and Saudis into a proxy war, or cause chemical weapons to be used, or embolden Al Qaeda or whatever extremists groups out there while further fracturing Syria beyond repair. The problem is, all of these have escalated even with the absence of American/European intervention, though just how much in degree and horror compared to a real intervention back then vs now is another story.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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