Sometimes it’s OK to take the other guy (or lady) at his (or her) word

At Arms Control Wonk, Michael Krepon has written a great piece comparing the skepticism over Hasan Rouhani’s outreach to the West with the skepticism that greeted Mikhail Gorbachev’s similar overtures in the 1980s:

The Reagan and Bush administrations were initially caught off-guard by Gorbachev’s rhetorical flourishes and diplomatic initiatives. US intelligence community assessments, shaped by its top two resident Sovietologists, CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates and National Intelligence Officer Fritz Ermarth, were deeply skeptical of Gorbachev. Secretary of State George Shultz had to butt heads with the CIA repeatedly over these assessments. He wrote in his memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, that “Our knowledge of the Kremlin was thin… [and the CIA] was usually wrong.”

After yet another Gorbachev signal – a promise to stop arming the Nicaraguan Sandinistas – Bush’s White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, characterized Gorbachev as a “drugstore cowboy.” Most Americans were unfamiliar with the term, but its inference was plain: he was a phony who merely dressed and talked the part of Mr. Reasonable.

After a few months of drift, President Reagan embraced the challenge of engaging Gorbachev fully, despite his significant domestic obstacles and despite disturbing Soviet policies that Gorbachev couldn’t immediately tackle.

Compare what Fitzwater said about Gorbachev to some of the things Benjamin Netanyahu has said about Rouhani (the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” line comes to mind), and you’ll note the uncanny similarity. In Gorbachev’s case, presumably it became clear that he wasn’t just yanking everybody’s chain when he was arrested and removed from power by a hardline putsch, then again when he peaceably acquiesced to the dissolution of the USSR when that putsch was itself defeated by massive public opposition and Boris Yeltsin’s one inarguable moment of greatness.

If only he would've done more climbing on tanks and less getting tanked...
If only he would’ve done more climbing on tanks and less getting tanked…

In Rouhani’s case, hopefully things will turn out a little better. Iran isn’t going to break apart, but electing another Ahmadinejad is certainly within the realm of possibility.

In general, while it’s always a good idea to harbor a little skepticism about your neighbor/rival/enemy’s suddenly friendly overtures, it’s not such a great idea to just assume that you’re being played. History shows us that things can go very, very badly when you just decide that the other guy is up to no good and try to beat him to the punch. Oh, our skepticism of Gorbachev probably didn’t have anything to do with the ultimate failure of his managed reform effort, and anyway the breakup of the USSR wasn’t exactly a bad thing for the United States. How we engage with Iran over the next couple of years may have some impact on whether Rouhani remains in office or Iran lurches back to the right again, but even a once-again hardline Iran is unlikely to pose an existential threat to the US or our regional allies, despite all the breathless fear-mongering about how dangerous Iran is. But ask the Khwarazmshahs about assuming the worst in others. Oh, right, you can’t, because their pessimism got their dynasty, and their kingdom, obliterated.

Khwarazmian Empire, c. 1218, overlaid onto a map of the modern Middle East/Central Asia (via)

In 1218 the (briefly) dominant political power in the Islamic World was probably the Khwarazmian (or Khwarazmid) Empire, ruled by the Khwarazmshah Dynasty. They had grown out of a region called, you guessed it, Khwarazm (pronounced “Khorazim”) sometime in the 11th century, which was a fairly important Central Asian frontier region for the Muslims (and before them the Ancient Persian empires), since it sat at roughly the point where the strategically and commercially important Amu Darya River (which the Europeans usually called the Oxus) flowed into the Aral Sea, back when the Aral Sea looked a lot more like the picture on the left than the picture on the right:

The Aral Sea; believe it or not, the "before" picture is from 1989, and the "after" from 2008, so it's dried out that much in only about 2 decades.
The Aral Sea; believe it or not, the “before” picture is from 1989, and the “after” from 2008, so it’s dried out that much in only about 2 decades.

If I may pause just for a second, the picture above shows you what kind of impact human beings can have on their physical environment, in this case via uncontrolled and badly designed Soviet-era irrigation projects whose effects carried on after the USSR was gone, in only 2 decades. The Aral Sea is less than 10% of the size it once was, and its loss has decimated the lives of countless people in the region (encompassing parts of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan), who used to depend on it for fishing and/or for the impact it had on the local climate (as you might imagine, things are a lot hotter and drier in that region than they used to be). The UN and World Bank have been working with the Kazakh government to try to save the northern part of the sea, which is all that’s left, but our friends the Uzbeks have no interest in slowing their overuse of the Amu Darya for cotton irrigation to try to bring back the southern part, and are planning on drilling for oil in the dried up sea bed, because of course they are. The Amu Darya just kind of dries up and disappears into the desert now, since the sea is gone.

Anyway, the Khwarazmshah got their start sometime, we don’t exactly know when, in the 11th century; they were indigenous to Khwarazm and it probably took them most of that century to establish autonomy and then independence from the regional powers that surrounded them (mostly the Seljuks, who were the dominant regional power of the time, but also Central Asian kingdoms like the Kara-Khitay. They began really expanding in the middle part of the 12th century as the Seljuks began to collapse due to internal dynastic conflicts and another ongoing environmental disaster, the salinization of the soils in the once-highly fertile region of southern Iraq known as the Sawad, which had a crippling effect on the region’s ability to feed itself. As you can see from the map above, they expanded very quickly to cover all of present day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, including the Syr Darya (Jaxartes to the Europeans), the other major river feeding the Aral, and almost all of modern Iran and Afghanistan.

Their conquests brought them into direct contact with the Caliphate in Baghdad, which hadn’t really ruled anything in its own right since the advent of a military “protectorate” for the caliphs in the 10th century (although the Seljuk decline allowed the Caliph at the time, Al-Nasir, to actually exert direct control over most of Iraq and parts of Iran). Caliphs at this point tended to confer titles on rulers who already controlled their territory while still sort of feebly insisting on their political supremacy, not unlike Popes in Europe around this time, although it seems to me that there was more controversy about who was really in control in Europe than there was in the Islamic World. When caliphs conferred title on various sultans, they were effectively just acknowledging a fait accompli; there was no real pretense that a caliph had the muscle to refuse to invest a powerful ruler, though it was a good idea from an internal stability standpoint for any ruler to be invested by the caliph, and generous bribes gifts would be sent to Baghdad to procure investiture. The Khwarazmshah, who at this point was Ala al-Din Muhammad, didn’t see the point of sending gifts to Some Dude in Baghdad when he was indisputably in control of his kingdom. What was the caliph going to do, write him a stern letter? So he refused to play the game and just demanded that the caliph invest him, which the caliph refused to do without being properly rewarded. So Ala al-Din was most likely on a path to war with Baghdad when everything started to fall apart on him.

In 1218 a large merchant caravan, made up entirely of fellow Muslims, arrived at the Khwarazmian city of Utrar on the Syr Darya (in modern Kazakhstan, though I don’t think anybody lives there anymore) on behalf of a little-known eastern steppe ruler who called himself Genghis Khan. The governor of Utrar immediately had the entire caravan detained on the charge of espionage. It turns out that what little the Khwarazmians did know of Genghis Khan and his Mongols, they knew because Caliph al-Nasir had sent envoys to them asking for an alliance against Ala al-Din Muhammad. Now, if you know how roughly the Mongols wound up treating the caliph 40 years later, or what the Mongols thought of caliphs (and popes, let’s be fair) who would write to them and claim some kind of supreme spiritual authority, then you know there was no way that Genghis Khan would have agreed to do al-Nasir’s fighting for him. But Ala al-Din Muhammad didn’t know that. The Mongols were, at the time, wholly committed to their project of conquering northern China, and it’s pretty certain that the merchants he sent to Utrar really were just merchants. The Mongols liked commerce only just slightly less than they liked conquest. But, again, Ala al-Din Muhammad didn’t know that, so he assumed the worst, and he also assumed that he was in a position of strength with respect to the Mongols. Those assumptions both proved to be in error.

Genghis was a little incensed at the treatment of his merchants, so he sent ambassadors (three of them, including one Muslim) directly to Ala al-Din Muhammad to insist on their release. Ala al-Din Muhammad had the two non-Muslim ambassadors shaved, a major insult, and sent them back to Genghis carrying the head of the Muslim ambassador, which was a decidedly more major insult. Then he ordered the governor of Utrar to execute the merchants. Peaceful ambassadors were inviolable as far as Genghis Khan was concerned, and so his reaction to the way Ala al-Din treated his looked something like this:

In 1219, after spending several months sending actual spies into Khwarazmia to learn everything he could about his new enemy, Genghis Khan led a Mongol army over the mountains and into Khwarazmia. This army was even more imposing than the one he’d conquered northern China with, because he augmented his unstoppable cavalry with a whole bunch of Chinese, um, “volunteers” who were experts in things the Mongols didn’t do so well, like battlefield medicine, building siege engines, and crafting gunpowder weapons. Here is yet another thing that Ala al-Din Muhammad didn’t know; his people told him that the Mongols were not well-versed in siege warfare, which had been true but wasn’t anymore. Based on that information, and on the fear that his army, which still vastly outnumbered the Mongols, would be confused and routed by the Mongols’ intricate cavalry maneuvers in the open field, Ala al-Din Muhammad, decided to leave his army divided in his largest cities and simply wait out the Mongols when they came to besiege them.

Ala al-Din Muhammad's death, from an illuminated manuscript of a 14th century Mongol world history; I think those two guys on the left are shouting "WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST TRADE WITH THE GUY" at Ala al-Din as he lay dying. (via)
Ala al-Din Muhammad’s death, from an illuminated manuscript of a 14th century Mongol world history; I think those two guys on the left are shouting “WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST TRADE WITH THE GUY” at Ala al-Din as he lay dying. (via)

The Khwarazmians never stood a chance. The Mongols took Utrar in 1219, slaughtered most of the population including the governor who had executed the merchants, then took Bukhara (in modern Uzbekistan) in 1220, massacring most of the population there. These massacres were always intended to serve as examples for cities that would be attacked later, the lesson being “if you resist our army you’ll all be killed when we finally take the city.” From Bukhara the Mongols moved on to Ala al-Din Muhammad’s capital, Samarkand (also in modern Uzbekistan), where they feigned a retreat to draw the defenders out before slaughtering most of them and, again, massacring most of the city’s inhabitants. Ala al-Din ran as far and as fast as his could, out to a little island in the middle of the Caspian Sea, where he died, probably from pneumonia. After conquering the rest of Khwarazm, a task that was complicated by infighting between Genghis’ two oldest sons (which convinced Genghis to name his third son, Ögedei, as his eventual heir), the army moved into Khurasan (modern day Afghanistan and eastern Iran), where in 1221 a portion of it met an army that had formed under Ala al-Din’s son, Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, and was actually defeated. Genghis took personal command of the rest of the army, hunted down Jalal al-Din’s army, and crushed it. Jalal al-Din spent about three years in hiding in India before trying to re-establish come kind of kingdom in the Caucasus, mostly fighting the Seljuks who still controlled Anatolia, but the effort never really went anywhere and he was assassinated in 1231.

History is full of what can be described as “ass-kickings,” but I’m not sure any was more thorough than the one Genghis Khan laid on the Khwarazmians, and it all started because Ala al-Din Muhammad assumed the worst about his new eastern neighbors instead of engaging them. Oh, don’t get me wrong, eventually the Mongols may have turned a conquering eye to the west, but Genghis was fully committed to conquering China, not Central Asia or Iran, and he wasn’t a young man (he died in 1227 at the age of 65, which was pretty damn old for a steppe nomad). It’s possible that, had Ala al-Din Muhammad just welcomed the Mongol traders and done business with them, that Genghis would have died still on campaign in China, and that his squabbling sons would then have torn the empire apart in its infancy (as it was, internal discord and a coup in 1250 shattered the unity of the Mongol Empire forever, and by the 14th century its component khanates were all in decline on the way to vanishing). So, hey, maybe there’s a lesson here for us as we try to figure out whether Iran is serious or just playing around to buy time to develop nukes. Sometimes it pays to consider, with a healthy skepticism of course, that your erstwhile opponent’s outreach might actually be genuine.


2 thoughts on “Sometimes it’s OK to take the other guy (or lady) at his (or her) word

  1. Hard to think the Khwarazmid would have lasted much longer without having executed the merchants. Such was the destructive force that was the Mongols. The Golden Age of Islam barely stood a chance, soley based on its proximity to the greatest army known to mankind.

    Great post!

    1. But the Mongols really seem to have had no interest in marching west absent that provocation. China was always their target. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where Genghis spends the rest of his life conquering China, dies, and his sons tear the empire apart before they have a chance to move against anyone else. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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