Wednesday, 8 January 2020

The death of Qasem Soleimani and Twitter's response to it

Lost among the recent fury of the 24 hour news cycle has been an interesting insight into the old adage about militaries being consumed by fighting the last war. Allow me to explain. 

When news of the death of Qasem Soleimani broke, twitter understandably was ablaze with opinion. And let's just be clear about one thing before we delve too deep: Twitter is a social media platform, nothing more. It's not an official news agency. It's not a think tank. It's not a forum reserved solely for the use of one group or another. It is a platform which allows literally anyone to create an account and start posting their thoughts. Treat it is as such.

Now in the wake of Soleimani's death a somewhat interesting bubble began to expand in the Twitterverse; that of the "Only Iran Experts". Essentially, if you didn't speak Farsi, hadn't lived in Tehran for at least four of the last 25 years, and hadn't once personally inspected Soleimani's prostate then suddenly your opinion was irrelevant, at least according to some. 

It was, to say the least, bizarre. No matter how qualified or serious a commentator might have been, within hours all that mattered was whether or not they had a deep and serious knowledge of Iran. It was odd to see perfectly reasonable, rationale, knowledgeable individuals, many of them with the Holy Blue Tick of Twitter next to their name, dismissed purely on the basis that their speciality was only thirty years of studying and lecturing on international relations.

What we appeared to be watching was something akin to a very extreme appeal to authority. Yet it was far, far more than that. Lots of the people complaining were not actually authorities themselves, but they happily pitched in to lambast the idea that anyone might appear on TV and radio to give an opinion who was not in fact an Iran expert. 

From my perspective it seemed very much like we were seeing an extreme, knee jerk over compensation to one of the often repeated problems with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a lack of credible local knowledge. Back then the perceived problem was that military commanders didn't have enough people around them who really knew the lay of the land in detail, especially the human landscape. 

Now we seem to have vaulted right over the middle ground and landed at the opposite extreme of the spectrum, where only regional experts matter and where generalist advice and opinion is to be shunned in an almost obsessive manner, as if letting in generalists might somehow spoil someones understanding of a situation by clouding the otherwise clear waters of local insight.

Nowhere was this better demonstrated than with the assessment of who Soleimani was and how significant his death would be.

According to many of the local experts this was the most significant thing to have ever happened in the middle east since the birth of Jesus and that Iran was about to unleash all manner of righteous terror on the world in revenge. "You just don't understand," they affirmed, "Soleimani was the Thelma to the Grand Ayatollah's Louise. If one goes off the cliff the other is going with them."

Apparently in the rush to proclaim how terrible Iran's vengeance would be, few people actually sat down and asked themselves the question; "Can Iran actually deliver on these promises?"

Because as angry and upset as the Ayatollah might have been, Iran's options were always going to be limited. Religious, ethnic and cultural awareness of Iran is all well and good, but just because Iran does things differently than in the West that doesn't free them from the restraints of military capability and geopolitics anymore than it allows them to bend the laws of physics.

People tripping over themselves to explain how Iran's naval forces are tailored to causing maximum disruption in the Strait of Hormuz neglected to stop and consider the underlying reason as to why Iran has chosen this path, or why it operates on the ground regionally primarily through proxy forces. Local knowledge badly needed tempering with a dose of reality, but frequently those who tried to offer it were dismissed because of their lack of regional policy credentials.

And that's the most saddening thing for me. Twitter represents a free market of ideas. It is a forum for the free exchange of knowledge, both practical and theoretical. It allows all manner of people with all manner of backgrounds and skill sets to come together and offer their insight. One of the beauties of this environment is that you can absorb all of this information, consider it, assess its merits, and then draw your own conclusions from it.

Twitter should not and cannot become a place where only those deemed worthy are allowed to speak on a given topic. The whole point of Twitter is to grant an equal platform to all. It should be used for what it is; a melting pot of knowledge where experts of all kinds can share their view and where the rest of us can just randomly throw in our opinions.

And the occasional knob gag.

1 comment:

  1. ...just to add to the ill-informed chatter, it has always stuck me that Iran's "success" with respect to asymmetric warfare rather hinges on them confronting the West, rather than anyone else...and depending on our response being "restrained" and "proportional". Which it pretty much always has been, because they are irritating affront to our interests and values, as opposed to an existential threat to our way of life (at least at present). In consequence, our leaders have been constrained by public opinion (which is uneasy about military casualties, and horrified by cvilian ones)...and equally by elite opinion, appalled by anything that looks anything like "Western Imperialism".

    I note in particular that they deal with Russia and China quite differently, and in my view not only because their interests more often align...also because they know full well that both those lesser powers would act with utter ruthlessness if their state interests were threatened...and are not much worried by "collateral damage" to innocent civilians, their own or others...because their publics would not expect the Czar or the Celestial Emperor to prostrate themselves to spare some hapless subject of theirs discomfort, imprisonment or death. But would require revenge to be taken in such a way that the Islamic Courts would think twice before banging-up some hapless Russian on trumped up charges...and the Revolutionary Guards would hold their hand in the face of a surly group of Han Chinese.

    Iran behaves like an enraged seven-year-old who knows they can hit Daddy as hard as they can, and will be punished perhaps even with a smacked bottom...but they won't be beaten senseless and bloody. The same child will also be cautious with the tough teenagers next door, who might whack them good and hard...and could just have found out that mummy has a new boyfriend whose idea of punishment involves a belt-buckle and a few nights in hospital.

    Hard to tell at this stage, but they MIGHT have stuck to a series of casualty-free missile strikes...because what comes next may be a lot worse than an immolated "Martyr" the whole Al-Quds C&C Network obliterated...a coastal landing to reduce Iran's fast-attack navy to twisted wreckage located in smoking rubble with a top-dressing of dead sailors...or waking up to Fatimah's Shrine looking like a skating rink made of black volcanic glass...

    I'd imagine they are thinking long and hard about what comes to that extent, the PotUS seems to have come up with his own variant on assymetric warfare...GNB