Patrick Lang: “The Best Defense…”

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.
Personal footnote:
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.

13 thoughts on “Patrick Lang: “The Best Defense…””

  1. They were warned repeatedly on Iraq too – and then there is the overwhelming evidence of history, that violence leads to more violence, and that the seeds of the next war are sown in the present war.
    Any fool could have figured it out.

  2. “They were warned repeatedly on Iraq too…”
    One example of this was the lobbying effort against an invasion. Democracy Now did an informal survey of corngressional offices before the war which found constituent contacts with their reps. were running 50-1 aginst an invasion.

  3. Lang’s “bigest concern” for the Muslim world was over the “revolution” in the Shia-Sunni equation.
    Sure, and what part of that conflict is driving British muslims to blow up their host country?
    By the way Helena, these were just charged, in spite of your lunatic conspracy theories about false arrests in the UK.
    Five men and one youth have been charged in connection with a police operation targeting an alleged network of terrorist recruiters.
    The six charged are all from London.
    * Muhammad Al-Figari, 42, of Tottenham, faces three charges, including attending a woodland area in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, between 2 and 4 June this year, where terrorism training was being held, and another charge of possessing material likely to be useful for terrorism.
    * Atilla Ahmet, 42, of Lewisham, faces eight charges, including encouraging the murder of people not of the Muslim faith, and publishing a statement encouraging the public to commit acts of terrorism.
    * Kadar Ahmed, 19, of Plaistow, faces three charges, including attending a woodland area in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, between 28 April and 1 May this year, where terrorism training was being held.
    * Moussa Brown, 40, of Walthamstow, is charged with both providing and receiving training in the making or use of firearms.
    * Saloum Joh, 21, of Putney, is charged with possessing a shotgun, in contravention of the Firearms Act.
    * A 17-year-old youth from Camberwell, who cannot be named for legal reasons, faces four charges, including attending a woodland area in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, between 28 April and 1 May this year, where terrorism training was being held.

  4. A hudna? Like Hudaiybya? Like Hudaibya as understood by Arafat?
    If the best non-Islamist states like Egypt can do is a sustained military buildup to the next war with Israel while ignoring weapons smuggling across the border into Gaza and tunnels out of Gaza, why should Israel hope for any better from Islamist states-in-the-making like Hamasstine and Hezbollahnon?

  5. “We are flattening places we have already flattened, but the attacks have kept coming. We have killed them by the dozens, but more keep coming, either locally or from across the border,” one said. “We have used B1 bombers, Harriers, F16s and Mirage 2000s. We have dropped 500lb, 1,000lb and even 2,000lb bombs. At one point our Apaches [helicopter gunships] ran out of missiles they have fired so many. Almost any movement on the ground gets ambushed. We need an entire battle group to move things.”
    This is the end
    Beautiful friend
    This is the end
    My only friend, the end
    Of our elaborate plans, the end
    Of everything that stands, the end
    No safety or surprise, the end
    Ill never look into your eyes…again
    Can you picture what will be
    So limitless and free
    Desperately in need…of some…strangers hand
    In a…desperate land
    -The Doors

  6. their article makes a compelling case that there are no “realistic” military options to attack Iran, by land or air, conventional, or exotic.
    Too bad their article does not make the even more obvious and important case that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever on earth to attack or do anything else to Iran, and that the whole Iran “threat” is as manufactured and contrived as was the Iraq “threat”.
    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.
    Is he kidding?! When he made that fantastic (and somewhat orientalist) stretch didn’t he even consider the simple practical considerations of a need for deterrence against other nuclear states in the region – not to mention the lessons of the Bush regime’s Iraq invasion vs their kid-glove handling of North Korea? It did not occur to him that Iran might feel a need for some kind of mutual-deterrence-based defense against the region’s most aggressive bully, Israel – you know, the state that is fond of using its overwhelming deadly and destructive power at the drop of a hat, and that just happens to have hundreds of nuclear weapons? Or what about Pakistan, which is one fatal gunshot away from having its nuclear and other military capabilities in the charge of power-hungry religious fanatics? Not to mention the oil-hungry rising powers of China and India? Even the most cursory application of Occam’s Razor ought to at least raise the possibility that this, and not some battle of the sectarian civilizations, is behind Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
    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.
    Once again orientalism wins out over the simplest, most obvious explanation! “Muslims of all stripes” resent Israel not because of any concern about the “well being of the faith”, but because Israel is a sectarian western settler-state that was imposed on the region by colonial powers at the expense of the indigenous population, and because Israel refuses to be a good neighbor. No one likes a bully whether that bully shares one’s faith or not.
    This guy’s analysis is not even a little bit impressive. It is the same standard-issue orientalist nonsense that we hear out of western “Middle East experts” all the time. It insists upon viewing Middle Eastern peoples, and especially Muslims as some kind of “exotic other” that does not think like “we” do, and ignores the simple fact that Muslims are at their core human beings who share the same basic needs, desires, fears, concerns and reactions as do all other human beings.

  7. SamAdams
    “By the way Helena, these were just charged, in spite of your lunatic conspracy theories about false arrests in the UK.”
    SamAdams evidently doesn’t understand the way things work in the UK. The fact is that there is commonly a fair degree of trouble in the UK if you keep people in prison without charging them. In particular, Blair and his Rottweiler, Reid, have a made a big song-and-dance about threats to the country, which has been received coolly by sensible people (and that was the origin of “false arrests”). So in order to justify their position, they had to charge somebody. It may be that in two or three years time, when the trial takes place, the case can be quietly thrown out or dropped. That doesn’t matter; the political aim right now will have been achieved.
    Actually, there’s another trial taking place right now. The British government is presently at the peak of stirring up fears – I mean Blair will be out soon (even he says so), and the potential successors, I am glad to say, are more realistic men on this issue. There are accusations of fantasist witnesses for the prosecution, and even at best the plot as presented is far feebler than what the IRA was capable of doing.

  8. Actually Alastair, there’s also a fair degree of trouble if you charge someone knowing that the evdence is insufficient to bring about a conviction. Also, I’m certain that, in two or three years time when the trial takes place, that the suicide videos will make interesting viewing.

  9. If the suicide videos exist. Remember the 45-minute warning which Blair swore to? There’s been a lot of hype recently, and a good many arrests which have turned out to be nothing. Evidently JES, you don’t know the British system either. They’re quite good at hushing things up, if they want to. It’s quite subtle the way things work, in my personal experience. More so than in Israel.

  10. Sam, what’s with accusing me of peddling “lunatic conspiracy theories”? In the post in question I noted that Craig Murray, a person with much experience in both security affairs and the inner workings of the Blair government, had raised what seemed like some very pertinent questions about the way the “liquid bombs on aircraft” affair had been handled by the British (and US) authorities. The questions still seem very pertinent and yes, when the trials happen we will see how much of the evidence is/was solid and how many of the claims made by Reid etc at the time were exaggerations and fear-mongering.
    We already know some of his claims were in the latter category.
    So Sam, do you think it is the role of engaged citizens to ask questions and to encourage the asking of questions, or merely to roll over and believe whatever myth the government of the day seems to be serving up?

Comments are closed.