Unorthodox Thoughts In Regard to the Middle East Military Dimension

Unorthodox Thoughts In Regard to the Middle East Military Dimension
(Mark Helprin, June 28, 2017)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Educated at Harvard College, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (Center for Middle Eastern Studies), Princeton, and Oxford, novelist Mark Helprin has served in the Israeli army and the Israeli Air Force. He has written about defense and foreign relations for fifty years. Advising half a dozen presidential candidates, and officials at the highest levels, from the White House on down, he was personally commended by the Director of Central Intelligence for making the best military estimates “in or out of government.”

Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, former Guggenheim Fellow and Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute, and Adviser on Defense and Foreign Relations to presidential candidate Robert Dole, he has been awarded the National Jewish Book Award, the Prix de Rome, the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, 2006, and the 2010 Salvatori Prize in the American Founding, among other prizes.

Helprin’s novels include Refiner’s FireWinter’s TaleA Soldier of the Great WarMemoir from Antproof CaseFreddy and Fredericka, and In Sunlight and In Shadow. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker for two decades. He writes essays and a column for the Claremont Review of Books. He serves as a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. His writings, including political op-eds, have appeared in The Wall Street Journal (for which he was a contributing editor until 2006), The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Criterion, National Review, and other publications.


Robert Reilly:

It is a great privilege to have Mark Helprin here, who is maybe known to you in one of several capacities. He is a renaissance man. He is one of the greatest American novelists writing today. If you do not read novels, maybe you saw one of the films based on his novels, “A Winter’s Tale,” of which I am sure you will disapprove.

Mark Helprin:


Robert Reilly:

What do you get? What do you claw back?

Mark Helprin:

I clawed back the money.

Robert Reilly:

No, we do not want that. I thought maybe you could get something from Colin Farrell. Okay. Well, anyway… but some of those novels I am sure you have either read or heard of are “Refiner’s Fire,” “Winter’s Tale,” the terrific novel “A Soldier of a Great War,” “Memoir from the Antproof Case,” which my daughter is enjoying right now, “Freddy and Fredericka in the Sunlight and in the Shadow.” He is, of course, a renowned essayist as well.

On the strategic thinker’s side you may be familiar with Mark Helprin’s writings for many years in The Wall Street Journal and more recently his regular back page column in the Claremont Review of Books. In The Wall Street Journal about a month ago or several weeks ago was your strategy for how to deal with the threat from North Korea. Mark is not only a theoretician, he is a practitioner because he served in the Israeli infantry and in the Israeli Air Force. He knows the Middle East very well as you shall hear in just a moment. [He] also speaks Arabic I understand. You know Arabic?

Mark Helprin:

…Fifty years ago.

Robert Reilly:

Fifty years ago.

Mark Helprin:

I could watch the news and have a conversation in Arabic and talk to diplomats. It is not too difficult.

Robert Reilly:


Mark Helprin:

I could not order a glass of water in a restaurant. It has been fifty years since I could do whatever I could do.

Robert Reilly:

But it is not safe to drink the water there, so you are fine. Well, without further ado, let me welcome Mark Helprin to the podium where he is going to address the topic of “Unorthodox Topics in Regard to the Middle East Military Dimension.” Mark, thank you.

Mark Helprin:

It is not dementia, it is dimension, and you know, upon further reflection, after I supplied this title I realized that everything you are going to hear from me is actually quite orthodox. It depends upon your frame of reference. It is only unorthodox given the miserable record that the United States and Europe has compiled since the Gulf War. That is 25 years. But in 1945 it would not be. It would not be seen as unorthodox at all and Marshall would not have seen it as unorthodox nor would Moshe Dayan.

So what you will hear from me may seem pedestrian in that sense. However, there are a lot of people who would think it really, really way off the reservation. And I have divided what I am going to say into three parts. The first is a fairly brief I hope essay upon overarching principles and conditions which now appear mainly in the brief.


The first is overarching principles and conditions which are now observed mainly in the breach. And then second I have a few examples to comment upon. The third part of it would be necessary conditions precedent in order to achieve success.


So first, and it may seem quite obvious, is the question of restraints that you have to reckon with before you go into a country, before you invade, before you make a policy, etc. We do not really address these things diplomatically, which is briefly the public and oft times officials do not comprehend these even when they are overt. When they are covert, sometimes even analysts with security clearances short of cosmic, do not comprehend the meter because they don’t know what’s going on if they are covert.

Now, let us first talk about the covert ones. They are pretty obvious. The fear of China intervening during the Vietnam War was probably at least half of what was responsible for any kind of analysis of the Vietnam War. There is an overt threat of a major power, which is contiguous to the area of operations, that is obvious. Then more obvious things are nuclear-protected alliances such as NATO or the Warsaw Pact, and the next step down would be nuclear-protected sovereignties such as India, Pakistan, Israel, and what Iran and the DPRK are aiming for.

The important thing is to not only recognize these things when they exist, but what is pertinent to our operations in the Middle East is that we often do not recognize that they do not exist. So in their absence we still behave with unnecessary limitations of our own efforts. One good example of this was in the 2003 Iraq War when we unnecessarily limited our efforts, and we did so for other reasons. I will get to that in a minute, but without a systematic analysis of this kind of thing, then we go in with strengths that are either too great because they are subject to a threat from another peer-power or near-peer or too little because we do not recognize that that threat does not exist.

Then there is a question of covert. I was in Italy during the missile crisis and I was working unofficially with the embassy and there was a kind of thing, how you feel the outlines of the elephant, and the outlines of the elephant were that everything vis-à-vis the deployment of cruise missiles in Comiso and the P2s in Germany suggested that there was a secret understanding between the United States, Italy, and Germany, which was delaying things and messing things up.

And this very obviously kept on coming up, so I asked the ambassador, do we not have a covert agreement with these countries so that such and such, you know, laying it out. This was Max Rabb. I do not know if any of you knew him, but he said, “Covert, no, I do not know about anything like that.” He was very animated. I never found out about that and this may have been something that even he did not know.

Jump ahead to the Gulf War. The question in my mind was why did Saddam release the hostages as quickly as he did? Because they were a major card that he could have played and he was not shy. And then the second question was why we did not follow through. There are all kinds of reasons given for it, but I had the opportunity to ask President Bush multiple times about this and he very calmly, unlike Max Rabb, just looked at me and said no, there was no secret agreement. Now he may not have been telling the truth, but on the other hand he was not lying. If you know what I mean.

Then there are the necessary restraints, depending upon your available resources, the possible conflicts elsewhere, so then you talk about division of your forces, the required reserves for things that are unexpected, not least political restraints. And then finally, there is the self-inflicted restraints in which I would put catering to Iran’s nuclear inhibitions as number one these days, and opening the Middle East to Russia after ten administrations kept it closed to Russia as an extraordinarily self-inflicted restraint and almost self-sabotage. That is as far as the restraints. If we do not approach those systematically, and I can guarantee you that in this administration now, it is not being done. Nothing is being done systematically because it is kind of chaotic.

The next thing is war aims and strategic objectives. We tend not to have clear war aims, but on the one hand, limited and reactive plans to solve an immediate problem, such as striking back at Al Qaeda or cleaning out ISIS. And on the other hand, impossible and grandiose notions such as ridding the world of tyranny or transforming the Dar al-Islam to the Dar al-Vermont. The former cedes the initiative to the enemy, the latter is so diffuse as to deprive us of a proper focus. Without a war aim, you cannot have a successful war because you do not know what you are doing. Wars that are commenced without war aims tend to go on forever.

The second thing, which is subsidiary to war aims, is the strategic objective. We tend to think of strategic objective as a campaign strategy. In other words, the air campaign, and then what cities to take and what routes to take. That is not a strategic objective. In the case of the Arab world, we really would do well to focus on the much higher and essential objective, which is to flip our Arab opponents into fatalism. This is something that Israel has always been cognizant of, and it is a very, very important part of their strategy. And any good commander would know this, but it is particularly relevant to the Arab world.

Why is that?

Conceptions of Divine Action and Will

First of all, you have to contrast Islam’s conception of divine action and will with the Judeo-Christian conception of divine action and will. In the Judeo-Christian conception, God makes rules that He abides. He will follow His own rules, He does not have to but most of the time he does, even though sometimes bad things happen to good people who follow His rules, but then you say He works in strange ways. It is an attempt to explain it. In Islam, Allah does not have rules. There is, of course, the Qanun, but that is different, that is for us or for Muslims. Allah himself is capable of creating and recreating the universe in nanoseconds, as He wishes. Nothing is certain, nothing is fixed. Of all things, He is not subject to any rule.

Therefore, things are constantly changing, and when they constantly change, think of a totalitarian society or a prison where the rules are constantly changing or when they go against their own rules. For example, I was in a military prison on the West Bank, and we were told these are the rules, and then they would change the rules. They would go opposite to what the rules were, and that makes you feel completely powerless. That is one of the secrets of controlling people, you make rules, they try to follow them, and it does not matter, you execute them anyway even if they are loyal people, the way Stalin used to do or Saddam used to do.

But this is – without any pejorative connotation, this is one of the central planks of Islam, which is that God is constantly changing the universe, constantly making [rules], and you are therefore completely subject to his will, completely. You must submit because you do not know what is coming, you do not know how it is coming, and therefore anything that happens is His will. If you can show that whatever happened is Allah’s will, then you have submission.

Now, I have to quote T.E. Lawrence on this because in The Seven Pillars he is magnificent in laying this out. Let me read this quote. He says, “This people,” meaning the Arabs, “was black and white, not only in vision, but by inmost furnishing: black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition… Unconscious of the flight, they oscillated from asymptote to asymptote.”

Now, T.E. Lawrence did not know what an asymptote was. I think he meant apogee and perigee. I do not know. And he is very charming because in his proof notes when the editor says that is not what an asymptote is, he says, well, I did not know what an asymptote was, but everyone will know what I mean, so keep it. And he does that throughout. If you look at the manuscript notes for The Seven Pillars, he says, well, okay, this is spelled this way here, and this way there, and it does not matter, people will know. He was very casual about that.

But anyway, look, targeting enemy morale is not exactly an unknown concept. Every good commander wants to do that. My point is that the nature of Islam and the Arab Middle East offers far more than the ordinary advantages in regard to this, and I would say further that defeatism’s strongest levers (other than Western elites) are to be found here in Islam.

Now, I thought that we had understood this with shock and awe, when they said we are going to do a campaign of shock and awe, but in so doing we fell short, and we created a situation which is analogous to not finishing a course of antibiotics. What it did was it taught them, it taught our enemy, that we did not wipe them out to the point where they were frozen and completely shocked as in the ’67 war, as to some extent in the Gulf War, especially had we continued. And they learned, well, if they just hang tight, they can keep on fighting and defeat us because as everyone knows, they have a different timescale than we do.

It is almost like negligence, really, not to understand this, and not to use maximum force. When you have a problem that you have to solve by force, unless you are a cop, and you are dealing with your own citizens, you have to use the maximum force, which will achieve your objectives. And part of this is we did not really define our objectives, and certainly we do not know about flipping our opponents, the Arab opponents, into their fatalistic view of things.

Then there is the principle of the organizing force. Now, as we all know, in the Middle East there is a huge number of constantly shifting combinations, alliances, permutations among not just nations but sects, tribes, movements, ideologies, etc., much faster than the normal fluctuations and changes in alliances among nation-states, much, much faster than that. Anyone who observes the Middle East can see that. This means that the Western interventionist power must be sufficiently overwhelming so that the disparate components that we encounter there in the field of operations will adhere to us, that we cannot be just another component, we have to be so much more in the plurality or a majority that there is no question as to who the various components will adhere to. In other words, we have to be stronger than any alliance that might occur to them temporarily.

And we do not seem to know that, and therefore we often use insufficient force. For example, in Iraq, there is the myth of the surge. Now, there are a lot of myths that are politically convenient, and that people stick to. For instance, the myth that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent.

See the rest of his talk…