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08 November 2014


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Interesting piece. If only William R. Polk had shed some light on the present-day mindset of the Salafi leadership and religious advisors.

"But we must not“destroy the village to save it.” We must put aside the gun. That is the first step. Then
we must allow the healing and restraining processes to take effect within troubled societies -- as history
teaches us they are likely to do. How soon that will happen depends in part on how much pressure we
apply. The more we intervene militarily the longer it is likely to take."

While I agree on the minimal use of force however I see this quote as an abandonment of all those who do not fit the Salafist shoe. Restraint seems far away in Syria and Iraq.

William R. Cumming

Thanks again General Ali for this post and links.

FB Ali

I should perhaps have added that the three case studies Mr Polk discusses are the Cuban missile crisis (during which he was one of the three members of President Kennedy's Crisis Management Committee), the Somali piracy problem, and the conflict with Islam.

FB Ali

His point is that it doesn't matter what the "mindset of the Salafi leadership and religious advisors" is. The problem they pose has arisen from much deeper roots, spanning centuries. Even if these leaders and their organization are destroyed, another similar one will arise. If not here, somewhere else. It is the basic causes of this distemper that have to be dealt with.

His thesis is that Western intervention, especially of the present unthinking, heavy-handed variety, only exacerbates the problem. Such issues, however bad they may appear, can only be solved by the people directly affected themselves. Of course, this is going to take time.

Meanwhile outside powers can provide judicious and appropriate aid to the forces of moderation to help them in their struggle against extremism, and perhaps hasten their success.

robt willmann

William R. Polk wrote an excellent three-part article earlier this year called "The Battle for Palestine". It is found here--




Part 3 has a more detailed general summary of Islam and middle eastern governments than the article referenced in this post, "Polk on Strategy and International Relations".

Mr. Polk's website is here, on which he has some articles going back 15 years--


Babak Makkinejad

I think the best policy for NATO states is to cut and run.

This would focus the minds of their erstwhile allies like the proverbial death sentence and give leverage to NATO to shepherd into some sort of order.

I think also given the weaknesses of the Muslim states, order in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and Palestine cannot be restored.

I expect the new Salafi state in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria to endure and become - in time - a UN member.

I expect Afghanistan to be carved into local state-lets that endure because Iran or China or Pakistan see to the surviving.

I expect the war in and for Palestine to continue for decades more and progressively getting more viscous as West Bank is also organized to wage war against Israel.

I expect Central Asia to be consumed by Islamic insurgencies as the state institutions from the time of the Soviet Union further decay and die - reprising what happened in Africa after the Europeans withdrew. I give them 15 more years.

For Sunni-majority states, I am afraid, stability would only come from the military - they best rewrite their constitutions now and graft a sort of representative system to a Mamlukes structure.

And lastly, I expect all of this to continue for decades.

David Habakkuk

F.B. Ali,

Thanks for posting this. On the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the remarks by Polk I found most interesting related to the 'kriegspiel' which the Kennedy Administration organised in the wake of the crisis to test what might have happened had the Soviet missiles not been withdrawn from Cuba and the American from Turkey.

Recalling that he and his colleagues on the 'Red Team' had concluded that if the 'Blue Team' – the United States – had decided to take action they would have had no realistic alternative but to accept the logic of escalation, Polk continues:

'The game master, Professor Thomas Schelling of MIT and author of “The Strategy of Conflict” told us that we had “misplayed” the game. He did not believe we had correctly predicted the Russian reaction. But to find out, he asked us to assemble the next morning to discuss our action.

'When we and most of the senior officials of our government gathered in the War Room of the Pentagon, Schelling said that, if he thought there was any justification for our decision, he would have to give up the theory of deterrence. We replied that the theory had been proven to be flawed by the very game he had designed.'

William Fitzgerald


Also, his essay "Understanding Syria" (2013) is a must read, bringing together Syria's ethnic and religious complexities, French colonial policies, Baath Party concept of nationalism, Muslim Brotherhood aims and more. I wonder if it would help matters if the buffoons in the upper reaches of the national sec. bureaucracy and the congress were to read it? Probably not.



F B Ali, Sir, Dr. Polk says "Then we must allow the healing and restraining processes to take effect within troubled societies - as history teaches us they are likley to do."

Does he cite a couple - even one - example of what this magical healing and restraining process actually is?

Babak Makkinejad

Nuclear weapons, empirically, have kept the peace in Europe, in between India and Pakistan, and on the Korean peninsula.

So the dominant candidate theory was found to be inadequate but the empirical facts of continued peace are not altered.


Thank you for posting this wonderful work Gen. Ali.

FB Ali

Babak Makkinejad,

The only fact is that nuclear weapons have not so far been used after WW2.

What Polk is saying is that the elaborate theories of mutual deterrence built up by Schilling and others in that era did not have any sound basis in logic, and it would be foolish to depend on them.

I don't think it is correct to say that nuclear weapons have "kept the peace". Gen Musharraf's Kargil intrusion in 1999 sparked quite a sharp local war between Pakistan and India, and it was only US intervention that prevented it from escalating. The recent US adventure in Ukraine has caused a proxy war between two nuclear powers, which still has the potential for escalation. North Korea has played brinkmanship many times.

The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used so far is probably due largely to good luck in that, firstly, confrontations have been stopped before they entered dangerous territory, and, secondly, those controlling them have not been totally reckless or crazy characters.

How long can we continue to bank on such good luck?

FB Ali

I fully agree. No one should seriously think about or discuss Syria without having read this essay.

I also agree that, unfortunately, those who should read it, won't.

FB Ali

The healing process is effected by time. He also emphasizes that external interventions of the type undertaken by the West only prolong and worsen the problem.

As for time's healing power, in their own period the following, among many others, struck terror into the hearts of people, especially their enemies and victims, every bit as much as the IS does today: Scythians, Vandals, Vikings, Huns, Goths, Mongols, Tartars, Robespierre's revolutionaries, the IRA, the Tamil Tigers, etc etc.

Today, all these people or their descendants are considered part of the civilized world.


FB Ali - Thanks for today's post! Polk is always educational.

As for nuclear weapons... it's not clear that it's an either-or sort of situation. Both luck and mutual deterrence could be at play here.

I think we are all fortunate that someone or something deterred Churchill from this very bad idea.

Winston Churchill's 'bid to nuke Russia' to win Cold War - uncovered in secret FBI files http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2826980/Winston-Churchill-s-bid-nuke-Russia-win-Cold-War-uncovered-secret-FBI-files.html

From this article it does not appear the US values it nuclear arsenal the way it used to.

Aging nuclear arsenal grows ever more costly http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-nukes-cost-20141109-story.html#page=1

The nation's nuclear weapons stockpile has shrunk by 85% since its Cold War peak half a century ago, but the Energy Department is spending nine times more on each weapon that remains. The nuclear arsenal will cost $8.3 billion this fiscal year, up 30% over the last decade.

The source of some of those costs: skyrocketing profits for contractors, increased security costs for vulnerable facilities and massive investments in projects that were later canceled or postponed.

"We are not getting enough for what we are spending, and we are spending more than what we need," said Roger Logan, a senior nuclear scientist who retired in 2007 from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "The whole system has failed us."


What is really being advocated in this post & on the thread? Passive non-resistance? Complete non-intervention?
Moral relativism? Just sit back & twiddle our thumbs taking
no meaningful position against genocide, slavery, misogamy
& forced conversions? All with the historical hope that in a few centuries given our species natural inclination toward migration things will just magically work out?

Frankly it sounds like a very well written plea or academic threat calling for total surrender to whatever
existential threat is out there looming in the dark.


Babak Makkinejad,
"Nuclear weapons, empirically, have kept the peace in Europe, in between India and Pakistan, and on the Korean peninsula."

they seems to have kept the peace but the actual peacekeeping has been based on luck rather than any rational leadership skills. Only reason Cuban crisis didn't escalate in to WW III is because we have been extremely lucky. How many times have escaped a accidental war?

I agree, nuclear weapons are there and they will stay there. But putting your finger on the trigger waiting the signs that other person is going to pull the trigger is a very risky business (with high chance of a accidental discharge).

However some in europe and us seems to find the 90s calmness boring. I guess they would get the their excitement now.

Babak Makkinejad

Thank you for your comments.

I would like to point out that neither Kargil nor Ukraine rose to the level of a general war with full mobilization of forces.

If nuclear weapons were so useless, why does not the United Kingdom dismantle her nuclear forces? Or France? Or US? Or India? Or Russia?

Excepting China and India, none of nuclear-armed states or their allies can survive a nuclear war - yet they maintain those.

I realize that it is my assertions against yours and history has not yet eneded.

Babak Makkinejad

Thank you for your comments.

I think in the Cuban Missile Crisis, USSR backed down; we all owe a great debt to Nikita Khrushchev.

I think nuclear weapons have prevented Pakistan to be gobbled up by India - for example.

Such weapons also have guaranteed state survival in Israel against conventional Arab armies.

What is not to like?


David Habakkuk,

Knowing history of game theory as an intellectual exercise and Schelling indirectly, I have always been impressed by how people like him were willing to learn from experiences like this--which is what real scholars do. Others who try to straddle between the academic and policy universes, usually not so much...


Babak Makkinejad,
"I think in the Cuban Missile Crisis, USSR backed down; we all owe a great debt to Nikita Khrushchev."

We owe great deal to our guardian angel (if there is a such being). My point is that leaders may have created this kind of situations but ultimately the decision may not depend on the leaders. For example during cuban crisis if the officers on the Soviet submarine B-59 decided to attack then Kennedy nor Khrushchev would have been able to back down. Or if lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov informed his superiors that US has launched a nuclear strike on USSR during 83 able archer situation.

" think nuclear weapons have prevented Pakistan to be gobbled up by India - for example.

Such weapons also have guaranteed state survival in Israel against conventional Arab armies."

And I agree, nuclear weapons are here and they will stay here. But having a gun for protection is one things. But keeping a loaded gun aimed at your foe, finger on the trigger, waiting for indication of a hostile move is another story. Specially if you go to the front gate of your foe's house with a aimed gun, then that would be a totally different story.

Although in Isreal's case I don't think arab armies would be able to successfully invade a US supported conventionally armed Israel.



FB Ali


William Polk is not advocating "passive non-resistance" or "complete non-intervention". Nor is he against defending oneself against attacks, or providing aid to the local forces working to improve the situation.

What he is saying is that: (a) Heavy-handed interventions (invasions, sponsoring insurrections and coups, etc) only tend to worsen situations, besides causing great suffering to the subject peoples, which results often in blowback, and (b) many of these problems are solved in time through internal dynamics.

"Genocide, slavery, misogamy[sic] and forced conversions" are dangerous words to throw around, especially if one's only source of information is the popular media. The European invasions of the Americas, Australia and parts of Africa all resulted in genocides. There is a whole history of Western colonial occupations (and what happened under them) engraved on the collective memories of large parts of the world's populations. Slavery was once common in the Americas and Europe, with Africans as the unfortunate victims. Torture, burning at the stake, and forced conversions form part of the history of the church. Yet time has changed these peoples into the "leaders of modern civilization".

Then there is the "eye of the beholder". When you and others in the West recoil in horror at videos and pictures of beheadings and killings, many in the region and beyond see them as payback for the mass killings of the 'shock and awe' bombings and invasions, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc, etc.

The bottom line is that these are very complex and long-term issues; dealing with them, or even thinking about them, on the basis of what the popular media is currently saying is not a very sensible course.


reflection ain't surrender.

What's wrong about caution and thinking before acting?


Sorry to inform you that your text is ubreadable in 3 different browsers (Opera, Chrome, Iceweasel) because it is overlapped by "Live Traffic Feed" widget.
The text lines extend all over to the right instead of wrapping up at the main column margin.
To PL: it is not the first time that such thing happens some tuning of Typepad needed may be?

FB Ali


Also in Firefox!

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