Wednesday, September 11. 2013
Twelfth anniversary of the late Osama Bin Laden's orchestrated attack on the big buildings of New York and Washington, but today that appears strangely overshadowed by the first anniversary of a gunfight at the "US consulate" in Benghazi -- actually, just a CIA station, but an ambassador on the State Dept. payroll was killed along with three other Americans. The Benghazi attack has become a major bugbear for Republicans for reasons that have never made much sense, at least until recently.
Initially, the major complaint was that the administration (specifically UN Ambassador Susan Rice) confused the armed attack with angry but peaceful demonstrations at other US embassies over a YouTube film trailer that was believed to be blasphemously anti-Islamic, and failed to use the proper codeword ("terrorist") to describe the attack. While Rice no doubt misspoke, Obama himself never missed a beat in using the T-word or in avowing all the time-tested V-sentiments from vigilance to vengeance.
This gripe then evolved into a more general complaint that the Obama administration had covered up the event, which is true inasmuch as they tried to deny the central role and presence of the CIA, both in Benghazi on that day and in Libya during the summer-long operation that overthrew Gaddafi -- one where Obama had promised a limited NATO-led air offensive and "no boots on the ground." Obama's people never understood an issue here: presidents always have to lie to protect their covert operatives, and besides, weren't the Republicans way more hawkish on Libya than Obama was? Certainly John McCain and Lindsey Graham were, and weren't they the GOP's Fearless Leaders on foreign policy?
Well, we now know that McCain and Graham are no longer representative of the party: they're just a pair of superhawks, dedicated to getting the US into jams practically no one else wants to get stuck with. One hint should have been that when Obama belatedly went to Congress for approval of his Libya intervention, the Republican-led House refused to consent. Of course, that didn't matter much at the time -- Obama had done what he wanted to do -- but over time it became clear that a Congress that hadn't bought into the war in the first place felt free to snipe at every little setback: hence, Benghazi.
That turns out to have been a big part of the reason Obama went to Congress before bombing Syria. Back in the 1990s when Clinton would bomb Iraq Republicans may have seethed in private but they were so heavily committed to bombing Iraq themselves that they couldn't raise an objection to the act. McCain and Graham are still around, but most Republicans have quietly moved on. For example, consider this letter by William Stout in the Wichita Eagle today:
This letter didn't come from anyone in the traditional "peace and justice" camp. I would have toned it differently, but I can't say that I disagree with a word of it (well, I'm not wild about "treason" but it makes sense in context). I have several very different reasons for reaching the same conclusion, but if this is the way you think about the world, at least you're no longer the problem. And even if not every anti-Assad insurgent in Syria is anti-American, a US attack on Syria will push enough Syrians over the edge to make the net effect anti-American.
Personally, I could do without the word "terrorist": not that it is never applicable, but I've seen it used so casually to dehumanize people who are merely defending their homes -- Robert Fisk's big book on Lebanon, Pity the Nation, is so full of such examples it gradually eats at the author until he himself explodes. On the other hand, the assertion about sacrificing "freedom and personal liberty" is spot on: the monstrous NSA surveillance program could only have grown in an atmosphere of perpetual war.
I'm even more struck by the Eagle's editorial, titled Casualties still mounting, which starts like this:
This, by the way, was written by Rhonda Holman, who invariably takes the right-wing view on the editorial board. The first point is the active noun in the first sentence: "al-Qaida terrorists drew the United States into war." The US was suckered into a war that only compounded the initial suffering with more and more, a war where we can take no comfort in knowing that others have suffered even more.
Twelve years ago that rush to war was automatic, unthinking, a conditioned response to our self-image as the world's sole superpower -- the culmination of 55 years of patting ourselves on the back for saving the world in the second World War, and never admitting that we had made a mistake along the way. Osama Bin Laden recognized that hubris and knew how to play on it. He knew that empires including the British and the Soviet Union had crumbled in Afghanistan, and figured that he could topple the United States by luring it into war there -- and as much as we hate to admit it, he hasn't been proven wrong.
But if you carefully read Obama's "bomb Syria" speech last night, you'll see how skillfully he pushes the same buttons that let us be driven into war in 2001, but you will also feel that they ring hollow. This is partly because his arguments are exceptionally disingenuous and his logic is tortured, but it's mostly because we're no longer excited by the prospect of more war. Given that poison gas is on the menu, I'm most tempted to compare this to the first World War, which began with jubilant parades and ended four-and-a-half years later with 21 million dead, with its survivors holding much more somber views of war. (By the way, poison gas fatalities in WWI are estimated at close to 90,000 -- less than 4% of military deaths. Its use was largely discontinued after that not because it was universally abhorent so much as because it wasn't very effective or manageable. It doesn't seem to have been used on civilian populations, where it would have been more effective.)
But to return to Holman's editorial for a minute, she goes on to make an interesting point:
I'm not sure what to make of this. It is at least relatively easy to see how the debilitating injuries and PTSD make one more likely to commit suicide. But absent those exceptional stresses, this also suggests that mentally troubled people are more likely to join the military and/or are more fragile when exposed to military culture -- it does, after all, celebrate killing even for those not on the front lines. But also the military has become a very peculiar form of safety net for individuals who lack civilian opportunities, yet the skill set it leaves veterans with is increasingly at odds with what the economy needs.
(David Finkel has a new piece in the New Yorker, The Return, on veterans with PTSD -- unfortunately, only online for subscribers.)
The Eagle today also featured a frequent columnist writing what turns out to be an antiwar column: Cal Thomas: Mideast mistakes likely to be repeated in Syria:
Now, Thomas is no genius. In fact, he's one of the worst columnists working in America these days. And he's got virtually everything wrong about Iran. Carter may have been somewhat sympathetic to early demonstrators against Iran's Shah -- who had by then become one of the most embarrassing despots in America's shadowy closet of dictator-allies -- but he did nothing to overthrow the Shah, and his sole contribution to helping turn what was initially a democratic revolution into a theocratic one was by making the US public enemy number one by inviting the Shah to enter the US. And, by the way, the Shah did too have a nuclear program, and was involved in proxy fights (albeit against Iraq, not Syria).
So it's odd to read a column about the importance of history lessons written by someone with so little grasp of his subject, but even Thomas understands that bombing people to send a government a message isn't going to have the intended effect.
Today's reading on Syria:
War in Context has a series of posts arguing that the Russian-Syrian plan to give up chemical weapons will work in Assad's favor. This seems to bother Paul Woodward, although not everything he runs seems to be rebel propaganda. (Woodward's own piece on "Why Syria was so quick to support the chemical weapons deal," which I linked to yesterday, is a useful summary of that point-of-view.) Right now, the biggest risk to the chemical weapons deal is that the US and other "rebel" sympathizers will sabotage it in favor of trying to force regime change.
Tuesday, September 10. 2013
Note: This post was substantially written before Obama have his big speech tonight. The speech reiterates his desire to bomb Syria, either to punish Assad for using chemical weapons (adding to the death toll of Syria's civil war) or just to remind the world of America's might-makes-right moral superiority (adding to the death toll of Syria's civil war). And he still wants Congress to rally behind his leadership and bless his right to bomb Syria, but he's going to hold off on that for a few days -- not so much because Congress was prepared to vote against his war mongering as because he's willing to give Russia and the UN a few days to wrap up a deal where Syria would give up its chemical weapons (although he still wants the UN to authorize him to bomb Syria if they don't do it to his satisfaction). Not that he actually needs anyone's permission to bomb Syria -- he is, after all, the Commander-in-Chief and he can damn well bomb anyone he pleases: "That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional." And, uh, "God bless the United States of America."
One reason I've been harping so much on Obama's failures to engage Russia (and Iran) over Syria is that a deal such as the one Putin proposed (and Assad agreed) to on chemical weapons has always seemed possible. The Obama administration is now trying to spin this as a victory for their sabre rattling (see White House Takes Credit for Syria's Apparent Concession), but the main reason they have for embracing it is that it gives them an opportunity to put off potentially face-loosing votes in Congress. However, in order for the deal to go through, Russia insists that the US withdraw its threats to bomb Syria -- how, they argue, can you get a state to voluntarily disarm while under threat of attack?. Already, the French have attempted to undermine the deal by tying it to a UN Security Council Resolution that would authorize force. (See Russia balks at French plan for U.N. Security Council resolution on Syrian chemical arms). I've also seen reports that the insurgent groups are opposed to the deal.
For an example of how little effort the Obama administration put into diplomatic efforts, and how strong their mental blinders are, consider this quote from the latter article:
Lucky for us that Putin, at least, was paying attention. Also that he recognized that chemical weapons were a matter of some ambivalence for Assad. Chemical weapons have never been very effective -- the few exceptions were mostly cases where they were used on people who had nothing comparable to fight back with, such as when the British used them in Iraq in the 1920s or when the Italians used them in Ethiopia in the 1930s. Nor have they been an effective deterrent against powers like Israel and the United States. On the other hand, their possession can be pointed to in propaganda, as the US did with Iraq and is doing now with Syria.
As far as I can tell, Syria developed chemical weapons thinking they would provide a deterrent against Israeli attack, maybe even offering a cheap balance against Israel's arsenal of nukes. A second reason may have been Iraq, at least back when Saddam Hussein had (and was fond of using) chemical weapons. Syria and Iraq were both Ba'ath Party states, but they had split in terms of what that meant, and were rivals for the leadership of the broader Ba'ath movement (Arab nationalism). Syria was so hostile to Hussein it became an agitator for the US-led Gulf War against Iraq.
But the Ba'ath rivalty with Iraq is long past, and it never was clear that chemical weapons did much to deter Israel -- which continues to bomb Syria periodically, but is unlikely to send its army into Damascus, not because it fears the Syrian army but because there are just too damn many Arabs living there. So there's little reason for Syria not to give up its chemical weapons. Indeed, there's the risk that rebels will loot them for use against the government. So for Syria this isn't a setback. If anything, it makes the regime appear more reasonable and legitimate.
Aside from France, some Syrian insurgent groups, and superhawks like John McCain, everyone else is pleased by this turn of events. One more quote from the article is especially interesting:
This is an interesting choice of words, not least because the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia -- probably the three largest per capita military spenders in the world -- habitually accuse Iran of being the one militarizing a "Shiite Crescent" from Iran across to Lebanon. Afkham's choice of words not only express approval for ridding Syria of chemical weapons, they open the door to further demilitarization in Syria and elsewhere. Also, the word "resolve" is significant: the civil war could go on indefinitely without chemical weapons, but that doesn't seem to be Iran's intent or desire. We should look at this as one step of several toward a resolution.
It seems essential to me that there should be a ceasefire while the chemical weapons are being inventoried and secured. A ceasefire would freeze the current territorial division, and set up the basis for a negotiated resolution. It would stem the current torrent of refugees, and allow at least some to go home. It would be the right thing to do.
More reading today:
That's a good line to end on: "They have led the president into looking pretty stupid." Unfortunately, if you read his speech, you'll see that he has scarcely begun to recover.
Friday, September 6. 2013
Saw an article in the Wichita Eagle today about Obama bumping into Putin at the G20 conference in Russia. They greeted each other cordially, but didn't set up a much needed tete-a-tete on Syria. Although in general I don't like nations meddling in the internal politics of any country, the US and Russia are the principal arms suppliers to that conflict (so are in effect already involved) and also hold the most economic impact on the future of Syria. So right now the best chance for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement lies in Obama and Putin putting aside their other differences and agreeing to press to end this war. But Obama isn't even trying for that chance.
I dashed off the following to the Wichita Eagle's Opinion Line:
I could have written a letter about this and unpacked it a bit more. It's worth recalling that both the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars were ended under the pressure of UN ceasefire resolutions that were hammered out by the USSR and US -- the arms suppliers and economic allies of the belligerents. An Obama-Putin agreement would be easily ratified by the UN. Putin could put a lot of pressure on Syria for a ceasefire, and most likely for some controls in chemical weapons -- something Obama has no chance of doing through bombing. Obama would have to give up his missile campaign, and his insistence on Assad's removal as a precondition for negotiation, and would have to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and any other "allies" arming the insurgents. But none of those "concessions" really hurt American "interests." Syria is not a proxy fight between the US and Russia (and/or Iran). It is something that happened locally, and has sucked in foreign powers because of their pre-existing conflicts. (The US should empathize: we have been sucked into more than a few civil wars in defense of dictators we should have wanted no part of -- lots of examples in Latin America, but the most costly one was Vietnam.)
Besides, there was already a good letter in the Eagle today, from Kathleen Butler (don't know her):
I would quibble a bit here. I doubt that the "sectarian differences" in Syria were checked by the dictatorship so much as were things that didn't much matter until the civil war led both sides to associate minorities with the Assad regime. Those differences would again vanish under a properly liberal democratic society, but civil war may turn the conflict toward genocide. Indeed, that's exactly what happened in Iraq, and for that matter in Afghanistan -- in both cases groups that had lived relatively peacably with one another for thousands of years soon became bitter enemies.
The Eagle also had a good opinion column from a local professor, Russel Arben Fox: Vote 'no' on Syria strike, for whatever reason. They've also run pro-war columns by Clive Crook and Cal Thomas, and something in between by Kathleen Parker ("Credibility matters, but so does being wise").
More useful links keep coming it (cartoon from Truthdig):
I saw a bit of TV discussion tonight where veteran Washington pundits were sitting around absolutely incredulous that Congress might reject Obama's war resolution -- one admitting that his own reporting didn't confirm anything he believed. It's been clear that ever since the "sole superpower" moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union -- the "end of history" and all that-- that the US was declining as a world power, and for lots of reasons: the hollowing out of the economy, a series of debilitating military misadventures, fiscal crises, neglect of education and even public contempt for science, gross internal divisions. But all along politicians of both parties pretended nothing was amiss. And now they worry that the president may face a "loss of credibility" when in fact they're the only ones so myopic as to still deny that it's already been lost. The congressional vote may finally be their comeuppance. Welcome to the real world.
Thursday, September 5. 2013
As long as the war drums are beating for Syria, we might as well keep the links coming. But first, let me quote myself. I was asked to write something for a Wichita Peace Center press release, and turned in the following paragraph. (I've since added some paragraph breaks.) Not sure what they did with it, but I gather it was longer than expected, so they trimmed here and there. Anyhow, it's a succinct position paper, touching on a lot of the central points.
I didn't want to play up the question of chemical weapons. I'm not convinced that Assad's forces have actually used chemical weapons, but I don't think they have any particular scruples against doing so. One of the many problems with Obama's "red line" speech is that it gives anti-Assad forces reason to fake chemical attacks in the hope that if credible such attacks might push the US into providing more anti-Assad support. If that turns out to be the case, Obama could wind up bearing some responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
In any case, we won't know more about recent alleged chemical attacks until the UN inspectors finish and publish their analysis. At that point the findings should be kicked up to the UN Security Council for action, which could condemn Syria, impose sanctions, and/or authorize the US to use force to punish Syria, or not. But unless that happens, the strikes that Obama is proposing are war crimes, nothing less. I didn't get into that point either, because at this point it's virtually impossible to win an argument on the basis that the action you're opposed to would be a war crime. The problem is that hardly anyone in the US appreciates the prospect of living under international law any more. Proof of that is that even if he passes on Syria, Obama is already a war criminal, one of many in a procession that dates back through Bush and Clinton and on to the other Bush and Reagan, and Nixon and Johnson, and arguably other presidents.
We could, of course, debate about the need for international law and what that law should cover, and we could go into the need for reforms that would make the UN more effective. But you don't have to be so idealistic to see the folly in Obama's plans, so that is what I chose to focus on. I also didn't get into the matter of how much open-ended war with Syria would cost, or what else should be done with the money. For one thing the reflexive politics of Washington will always find money for any wars they want to fight, and can never be counted on to allocate that same money to any other project.
Needless to say, anyone who wants to limit government, let alone safeguard freedom, should first cast a jaundiced eye at the military. But those who do fall into the "limited government" trap will never be persuaded by arguing that the same money could be better spent on schools and bridges. Indeed, most of them have repeatedly voted for war on the theory that if the government has to spend money, at least there it won't be spent on anything constructive.
Some links (plus cartoons from Truthdig):
Given that this issue will be voted on in Congress, this is a rare time when it might actually work to put as much pressure as possible on your representatives -- especially in the case of Democrats, who seem to be especially wobbly on Obama (as well as soft on Israel). Much of Obama's own legitimacy as a presidential candidate owed to his prescient opposition to the 2003 Iraq War, but he has squandered his reputation several times over since assuming office, and nowhere more clearly than here. The same standards should be applied to all his potential successors: in particular, Hillary Clinton has once again proven her unfitness for the Oval Office. By all means be clear about that.
Sunday, September 1. 2013
The best piece I've seen recently on Washington's incessant drumbeat for intervening militarily in Syria is Stephen M Walt: We're Going to War Because We Just Can't Stop Ourselves:
Since Walt wrote those words, the UK Parliament voted against joining in the American folly. First time that's happened, so I'm reminded of the 1960s sign, "suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" And today, Obama announced that he'll seek Congressional authority before he'll launch that war, and John Boehner slated the House vote on Sept. 9. So while the chatterers on last night's Washington Week were excitedly expecting a volley of cruise missiles before Obama's trip to Russia next week, retribution is at least ten days away.
Lots of things can happen in those ten days. The UN will get a chance to finish its evaluation of the alleged chemical weapons attack, and debate its own legal recourse. (Any American attack without UN sanction would be illegal under international law, not that the threat of war crimes trials has ever stopped the US in the past.) Obama will have some face time to negotiate with Putin in Russia. Someone might realize that there is a new president in Iran who might be more amenable to diplomatic measures than the previous one. (Not that there is any justification for the popular notion that the Syrian Civil War is a "proxy fight" between Iran and "pro-Western forces" -- you know, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.) And Congress might decide to buck its 20% approval rating and do something that actually aligns popularly with the wishes of the American people. Also expect some large anti-war rallies along the way.
In Congress, opposition to a resolution giving Obama the option to "use force" will be bipartisan. How that breaks depends a lot on how much pressure Obama puts on Democrats to give their president the benefit of their doubts: the more so the more Democrats he gets, and the fewer Republicans. From the Wichita Eagle today, I know that Tim Huelskamp will oppose in any case, but I also see Mike Pompeo very critical of "a warning shot across the bow" -- he wants what he calls a "robust response," but since Obama is unlikely to satisfy his bloodlust, he too may oppose. (In this he's not as bloodthirsty as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who'll take what they can get and pray the war gets worse and we get sucked in ever deeper -- although I've seen reports of even them holding out for a more resolution that commits the US to toppling Assad.) Also, his patron David Koch has come out against intervention.
And while the Senate seems more likely to consent than advise, can't we at least expect a fillibuster?
Some things I've been reading as I try to catch up (much more pro-hawk than I'd like; cartoons from Truthdig):
The Syrian Civil War is a great human tragedy, and a decent United States government should do everything reasonable to help bring it to a just and peaceful solution. However, a decent US government would not have conspired to overthrow the democratic government of Iran in 1953, nor subsidized and rationalized Israel's aggressive war in 1967 and occupation of Syrian and Palestinian land ever since then, nor subsidized a civil war in Afghanistan since 1979, nor countenanced let alone abetted Israel's interference in Lebanon from 1982-2000 (again in 2006), nor supported Iraq in their 1980s war against Iran, nor repeatedly and almost promiscuously bombed Libya and Sudan and Iraq and Afghanistan (and with drones much more, from Somalia to Pakistan), nor helped Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States suppress democratic movements for decades, nor invaded and fomented a civil war in Iraq from 2003-09, and that list goes on and on -- did I mention Yemen yet? Nor is there much evidence that anything that the US consciously tried to do in the Middle East has actually turned out the way expected. The bottom line here is that the US has no credibility trying to insert itself, militarily or clandestinely, anywhere in the entire region. And the degree of US failure in the region isn't exactly a secret. The regimes we put in place in Iran and Egypt proved to be so corrupt and hated that they led to revolutions. And US acts have generated blowback like kidnappings and bombings including the 1983 Beirut event and the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. We should know better by now. After all, we have laws like "3 strikes and you're out" which seek to prevent serial offenders from ever getting another chance to do ill -- yet the CIA and the DOD goes on and on, from one blunder to another.
So the first reason why the US shouldn't intervene in Syria is that we've proven that we're absolutely incapable of doing so in a way that doesn't make things worse. The second reason is that in order to quit intervening (and making matters worse), we need to break down the institutional support for doing so. They only way to stop making these mistakes in the future is to deny ourselves the ability to make them. (Then you won't have some Madeleine Albright character coming around and taunting you with "what's the point of having this magnificent military if you never use it?")
Beyond this obvious point there is a more profound one, which is that war or the threat of war almost never resolves a conflict without making it much worse, at least in the short run. Lots of people don't recognize this, and that's a big problem, but we can run through hundreds of cases, and it's really hard to find cases where wars couldn't have been profitably avoided had people made the effort to negotiate just solutions ahead of time. A corollary here is that the defense dogma -- the idea that we can avoid war by preparing a strong military defense -- is utter bullshit, as anyone can see by looking at the how often the dominant military power wound up using that power (e.g., the UK in the 18th-19th centuries, and the US since 1945; in between the dominant power was mostly Germany, which doesn't counter my point).
So again, on these grounds, what the US should be doing is cutting back its military power (including the CIA and NSA), not blundering its way into more wars.
So far these are just general statements that would apply anywhere to any such conflict, such as the decisions to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. While those instances were disastrous enough they shouldn't generate much controversy, the models that you hear socalled experts jaw about as pertaining to Syria are Kosovo in 1998 and Libya in 2008 -- air-only campaigns that are commonly remembered as successful, mostly because our memory is rather selective, and is focused rigidly on minimal costs to us as opposed to the suffering of actual people in the countries the US claimed to be helping. Two points here: one is that neither of those cases weaken by one iota the general principles above; the other is that many of the specific circumstances that made Kosovo and Libya relatively manageable are not applicable to Syria. (Also note that Libya turned out not to be as painless as originally thought, as several Americans were killed in blowback against a CIA base in Benghazi.)
Given the above, we shouldn't have to argue specifics about Syria, but some are worth noting. The first is that Syria is approximately the same size and population as Iraq and Afghanistan: two countries that the US was able to quickly invade but never quite pacify. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, it has a stronger, more modernized military that is actively supplied by Russia and Iran. It has a functioning air force and anti-aircraft defenses, intermediate range missiles, and evidently some chemical weapons -- none of which Iraq had in working order in 2003, or Afghanistan had ever. So the bottom line there is that Syria would be more difficult, at least more painful, for the US to invade than Iraq was. That Obama isn't contemplating "boots on the ground" pretty much acknowledges this difficulty.
That in turn brings back the question of the effectiveness of airpower only. That was widely debated a decade ago, when Bush decided to invade Iraq, arguing that the "no flight" zones that the US had enforced over Iraq for more than a decade had no real effect on Saddam Hussein's control within Iraq. For many reasons Syria is more similar to Iraq than it is to Kosovo or Libya, so what article of faith makes people think that "no flight" zones and periodic bombing that didn't work in Iraq would work now? (On the contrary, Syria's superior air defenses make at least some observers think the opposite.) The only thing that makes Syria seem more vulnerable is the ongoing civil war, which has broken Assad's power in several scattered areas of the country. That opens up the possibility that the US could arm and direct rebel armies as proxy "boots on the ground" -- that the US could fashion a combination of sophisticated weaponry and tight air support that would eventually defeat Syria's professional army, air force, and security services.
That was, after all, what basically happened in Libya, but: Syria is a more populous country with a larger, better equipped, and much better trained army; taking out Syria's air defenses would be a major undertaking, whereas Libya's were wiped out in two days; Assad has a much larger internal security organization than Gaddafi had (in large part because he had been challenged much more before the civil war broke out); Assad (or his regime) is also, by any conceivable measure, much more popular within Syria than Gaddafi was in Libya -- moreover, the split in Syria is largely sectarian, which quickly hardened the lines in the civil war, and raised fears of mass killings (especially if Assad loses); meanwhile, the anti-Assad forces are split and scattered, and it seems very likely that even if they defeated Assad they would wind up fighting among themselves (as did the Afghans).
Most of those problems can be overcome if the US is desperate and committed enough to make the investments and bear the pain -- pilots shot down, CIA operatives lost, etc. But neither Obama nor the DOD (see Dempsey's testimony above) really seem up for that level of involvement, so they are vulnerable to the charge that whatever they do will won't be enough to get the job done. But the latter is the real vexing problem. It turns out that the most militant of the anti-Assad forces are affiliated with Al-Qaida, making our worst enemies in the region our best friends in this particular battle (and not for the first time -- recall Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Osama Bin Laden got his first taste for blood working for the US war effort). A good indication of how big a problem this is can be gleaned by the fact that some months ago Obama decided to start arming the Syrian rebels, but now we know that the US hasn't delivered any of those arms, mostly because we haven't found any rebels we trust with those arms.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you can't find any Syrian rebel groups to arm, the strategy that is based on arming the rebels isn't really an option. So that leaves you with the plan that says you're just going to bomb shit until Assad cries uncle. OK, that one worked in Kosovo, but there the Serbs had the option of just retreating into Serbia, where they were unthreatened (an option that Assad, and more importantly his sectarian supporters, lack). But what Obama's proposing isn't even that: it's that, like, the US is going to bomb Syria until we feel like we've punished Assad enough, then leave him be until he pisses us off again, at which point we'll bomb him some more, and maybe, eventually, he'll get tired of it, or we'll get tired of it, or something.
The more you dig into these specifics, the less reason you can come up with why anything the US is likely to do is likely to come anywhere close to working. It's certainly true that a dictator who responds to peaceful demonstrations by shooting people or firing artillery into whole cities has no right to continue ruling. He should be arrested and hauled before the ICC, or dealt with appropriately by a local court. On the other hand, demonstrators who respond to such provocations by starting an insurrection, leading to a civil war resulting in over 100,000 deaths, don't deserve to rule either. Nor do you ever want to set up a situation where people simply because they are affiliated with a sectarian group -- sunnis, alawites, kurds, christians; you can slice and dice Syria dozens of ways -- are put at risk simply because people associate those groups with various power factions. All that has happened in Syria, and, sure, someone needs to sort it out, but it can't be the US, it can't be Israel, it can't be Turkey, it can't be the Arab League, it can't be Russia, it can't be Iran, it can't be Hezbollah; it has to be done in Syria, and sooner or later the factions (if not the individual leaders) need to learn to live together and accommodate one another. Maybe a non-violent group like the UN could facilitate in a useful way, and it would probably help if everyone else get behind them in some way. But what doesn't help at all is for outsiders to try to align with inside groups.
If you'll indulge a fantasy solution, it's that while Obama and Putin are drinking in Moscow next week they'll agree to freeze arms shipments to Syria, press whatever other countries they have any influence with (Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for the US; Iran for Russia) to do the same; insist on a cease-fire with no jockeying for control; get Syria to bring the UN in to oversee dismantling their chemical arms (which, as with Iraq in the 1990s, are more a liability than an asset); negotiate a broad framework for opening up the existing Syrian government to democratic reforms while at the same time ensuring minority rights (e.g., from the sort of overreach the Muslim Brotherhood tried in Egypt). Even if the latter parts of this fantasy are a tough sell in Damascus, any sort of international arms embargo would start to starve out the war, whereas Obama's current plans can only escalate it.
And by the way, the demonization of Assad (which I admittedly did a bit of above) isn't helpful. While it might be ideal to see everyone on every side responsible for any death brought to justice, these conflicts usually end in broad amnesties and it is better to have lifted the burden of revenge. (Even the US let Robert E. Lee retire from the battlefield.) Again, Iraq offers a good example of what not to do: the demonization of Saddam Hussein gave the regime no reason to compromise or liberalize, and the complete sacking of the Baath state and army led directly to chaos and civil war which still smolders today. One thing that makes today's hawks so dangerous is that they haven't begun to come to grips with their tragic mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two more points need to be made, if only briefly:
The first is that Israel has had an enormous impact on the thinking of America's hawks, and that this has completely distorted their sense of America's interests in the region. Israel's deepest desire is to preserve its unity and ethos as a warrior-settler state, which means it has no desire for conflict resolution. In 1951 Syria was the first Arab state to seek a peace agreement with Israel, and they were rebuffed. Israel initiated many border skirmishes with Syria over the next 16 years, after which they occupied and annexed a substantial strip of Syrian territory, now called the Golan Heights. Since then, Israel has kept Syria as a close enemy, and that status has informed America's own troubled relationship with Syria -- despite occasional attempts by Syria to cozy up to the US, especially when they supported the Gulf War against Iraq. But Syria could never make peace with Israel as long as Israel held onto Syrian territory, and Syria had no choice but to depend on Russia for weapons in a region with many enemies. The only real US interest in the region is for peace, free trade, and free capital flows, and that's the opposite of Israel's warrior-settler interest. Yet because US policy has been so reflexively stupid for so long, Israel can easily manipulate the US into opposing its enemies -- Iran has been the big project since Iraq was defanged in 1991 -- and as such we keep feeding the conflicts that Israel depends on.
If Obama were to make peace with Syria and Iran, he would move a long way toward freeing American foreign policy from the perverse stranglehold of Israel.
The second, and last, point I want to make here is that growing Republican opposition to Middle Eastern entanglements is the logical outcome of their racism and Islamophobia. I wouldn't want to support their thinking in those terms, but at least it gets you to the right policy answer, which is disengagement. The right were the first to see that the Syrian rebels were mostly sunni fundamentalists, and that arming them is equivalent to arming Al-Qaida. (The liberal hawks, on the other hand, reflexively see only fellow liberal hawks in the region.) If Obama's war powers resolution fails in Congress, it will largely be a victim of Republican nativism. That's not the best reason to vote against Obama, but it's the right vote.
Saturday, May 11. 2013
A little over two years ago the "Arab Spring" pro-democracy movement broke out in Syria, a nation that nearly everyone agreed could benefit from more political freedom, seeing as how it's been ruled by the Assad family since the 1960s and by one military clique or another even further back. Similar dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly; struggles against the dictators of Yemen and Bahrein dragged out inconclusively; but in Libya and Syria demonstrators were met with violence and some fraction of the military establishment broke against the regime, plunging those nations into civil war. Demonstrations in Jordan faded quickly with a few token reforms. And nothing much happened in Saudi Arabia, probably the one nation in the region most in need of a democratic overhaul.
One prism into understanding how these movements played out is to map them against US influence in the region. US interests and actions in the Middle East have been schizophrenic since the late 1940s when US administrations found themselves not just allied but in love with two conflicting suitors: Israel, and Saudi-Arabian oil (although any oil would do, especially Iran's from 1953-79). One problem was that those paramours came with a lot of baggage: Israel was constantly at war with its Arab neighbors and its own [Palestinian] people, forging an elite militarist culture that thrives on conflict, foments hatred against everything Arab, and has turned most of world opinion against them -- the major exception America's own fundamentalist Christians and militarists. The Saudi ruling family, on the other hand, is joined at the hip to the most extremely reactionary Salafist Muslim clergy, and has spent billions of dollars attempting to export their religious orthodoxy throughout the Middle East and into Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it turned virulently anti-American. But America's true obsession was the Cold War, in service of which no tyrant or ideologue could be found too unsavory. The Israelis and Saudis became expert at camouflaging their own obsessions as anti-communist fervor, so the US could embrace them both.
But another facet of America's Cold War obsession was promotion of democracy, not so much for allies as for countries on the other (or no) side, but as a contrast to the "unfree" Soviet-style regimes. So when masses of people demand democracy, our natural tendency is to applaud. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt -- secure military allies with tired and unsavory leaders -- Obama had little reason to resist, so the US subtly nudged their power structure to go with the flow. In Yemen, one of Obama's favorite drone-shooting ranges, and Bahrein, with its Shiite majority possibly tilting toward Iran, the US was more reserved. But Libya and Syria were rarely US allies, and most of the "brains" behind US policy in the region -- especially the "neocons" -- have spent most of their careers bashing their leaders, so the US had no interests in maintaining them, but also no influence or leverage that could be used to democratize them. Consequently, the more the US leaned against them, the less then had to lose by suppressing their revolts violently. In hindsight, the best way the US could have helped to democratize those nations would have been to develop normal relations with them. (It is worth noting that the only Soviet bloc states that didn't democratize are the ones the US fought wars against, followed by long, grudge-filled periods of isolation: China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba.)
As soon as Libya and Syria broke into civil war, the neocons -- most vociferously, Senators McCain and Graham, who never miss an opportunity to plunge us deeper into hell -- and their "liberal hawk" cronies started crying for the US to intervene. How anyone could think that inserting the US military into a conflict would save lives is beyond me. (The historical basis for that idea was probably the NATO intervention in Bosnia. After just two weeks of bombing, the Serbs accepted a ceasefire and signed the Dayton Accords ending a war between Serbia and Bosnia that had dragged on for more than two years. That intervention surely did save lives, at least if you don't factor in the subsequent Kosovo War, which was made all the more likely by the expectation that NATO would again intervene against Serbia -- as it did.) But you can't judge interventions by simply balancing deaths on one side versus the other. US intervention means that people who wouldn't have been killed otherwise are now being killed by the US -- a fact that won't be easily rationalized by the people the US attacked.
Obama did finally agree to intervene in Libya, but only after France and the UK had committed to do so. US firepower quickly degraded Libya's military power, and the civil war turned against Gaddafi, ending after about three months. Obama was careful not to land US troops, or to put the US into a position where the US would have any responsibility for postwar administration and reconstruction. Nonetheless, last September a group of Islamic jihadists attacked the US consulate in Benghazi -- the center of the anti-Gaddafi resistance, presumably the most grateful city for the US intervention -- killing four Americans, the sort of blowback that should always be expected. The Benghazi attack has since become a cause celebre for the Republicans, who have gone so far as to argue that Obama should be impeached for his "cover up" of the attack. (As far as I can tell, that "cover up" consisted of nothing more than Susan Rice making some erroneous statements the day after, confusing the violent attack in Benghazi with non-violent anti-American protests elsewhere. I would write more about this if I could make any sense out of it, but I can't. The one thing I can say is that attacking Obama for something bad happening after he intervened in Libya isn't likely to be the most effective way to convince him to intervene in Syria, where the number of bad things that can happen is much greater.)
Dexter Filkins has a long article, The Thin Red Line, on Syria, the pressures put on Obama to intervene there, and some of the risks. Filkins is one of those reporters for whom war is just business -- booming, as his book, The Forever War, shows. He recounts much of what I wrote above on Yugoslavia and Libya, while only glancingly mentioning less "successful" US interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan. The title refers to Obama's casual warning to Assad that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" leading to US intervention. ("Red lines" have been much in the news lately, especially regarding Iran's "nuclear program" -- what degree of offense would "justify" Israel and/or the US to preemptively attack Iran.) Consequently, advocates of going to war with Syria are scouring the data for any evidence of poison gas use, under the theory that having drawn a red line there, Obama will have no choice but to intervene -- the entire credibility of the US is put at stake by Obama's careless use of jargon.
The Syrian Civil War has resulted in, to pick two recent estimates, between 70 and 120 thousand deaths, with more than a million refugees, and many more internally displaced. Those are substantial numbers, even if they are still less than the death-and-refugee toll of the Civil War in Iraq that was triggered and abetted by the US invasion and occupation. (At least no one was so stupid as to urge anyone to intervene to "save lives" in Iraq. Of course, enforcing a "no fly" zone against the US would have been difficult, but we are talking about genocide here, something the world has committed to tolerate "never again.")
Filkins reports on three options for US intervention: establishing a "no fly" zone; arming the rebels; and somehow securing Syria's chemical weapon sites. The "no fly" zone is regarded as more difficult than it was in Libya because Syria has more sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses, although they don't seem to cause Israel much trouble. The bigger problem is that in itself it's unlikely to have much effect -- e.g., on artillery and missiles. One suggestion is to use the "Patriot anti-missile system" to intercept Syrian SCUD missiles. (Is this the source of the adage that "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels"?) So it's very likely that a "no fly" zone will be a stepping stone to deeper involvement, as indeed it was in Libya.
Arming the rebels is relatively easy to do, and is already being done by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and possibly others. However, this gets real tricky real fast. There are multiple groups of rebels, and some of them are friendlier to the US than others, and the last thing you want is to send arms to Al-Qaeda-types in Syria -- which are a formidable part of the resistance -- who might wind up using the arms against American targets, so you want to pick and choose who gets what, but in doing so you're not only arming the rebels against Syria, you're arming them against each other. And while you might argue that a "no fly" zone is a neutral way to level the battlefield, arming select groups of the rebels ends any pretense at neutrality or disinterest. You now have a "dog in the fight": which is not only bad news for Assad, it's a challenge for anyone who is wary of American power in the region -- a short list which includes Iran and Russia, even before this revolt provided Syria with arms. The result is surely an arms race, escalating even further the level of violence.
Arming the rebels also means forgoing the alternative, which is to negotiate an arms embargo with Syria's suppliers, and enforce comparable limits on the rebels' suppliers. The desired effect would be to let the conflict degrade into a stalemate, which would give both sides reason to negotiate a power-sharing agreement and move toward a democratic scheme which protects interests allied with both sides. If the US goes in and arms the rebels, that option disappears. The rebels become more convinced in their eventual triumph, cementing their resolve to fight on. From that point the only way to long-term suffering is to shorten the war by increasing the rebels' firepower and leverage, which not only helps them defeat Assad, it also allows them to more completely dominate the social, ethnic, and tribal groups that had favored Assad. And it also makes more likely an internecine war between rebel groups -- as happened when the Russians finally quit Afghanistan.
Even Filkins admits that the third option -- securing Syria's chemical weapons -- is a fool's errand. Nobody knows how many sites there are, how many munitions there are, where they all are, or much of anything else about them. What you really need is a UN disarmament team to set up camp in Syria and track them all down, but for that to happen you have to stop the shooting, in which case you might as well solve the conflict. As for the US doing it directly, Filkins reports an estimate that it would take 75,000 troops: the basic scheme there is to conquer the country, then look for the illicit weapons -- for lessons on how this "works," see Iraq. Even if you could magically wipe the country clean of chemical weapons, it's unlikely that the conflit would be less deadly. They wind up being nothing more than a side-thought: a problem people should have thought of before starting a war that makes their use much more likely.
Obama has managed to frustrate virtually every side in the conflict. He never offered any pretense of neutrality, and has gone out of his way to offend Assad backers from Iran to Hezbollah. He's had better relations with Russia, but not much. Saudi and Qatari arms shipments inevitably smell of US approval, as does Israel's recent bombings of Syria -- one thing the latter does is to test Syria's air defenses, useful research for that "no fly" zone. The CIA is reportedly on the ground in Syria, feeding intelligence info to the rebels. On the other hand, it's hard to tell who's "winning" the war, and nothing Obama has done is likely to tilt the balance, so he's not winning points with the neocon crowd -- nor should he, given the way they've lashed out at him over Libya, which he finessed about as elegantly as any American president could.
As far as I'm concerned, Assad's extremely violent counterrevolt is inexcusable, ensuring his future as an international pariah. However, the more I read of the rebels, the less sympathetic I am to them, and the more I fear their possible triumph. Andrew Bacevich makes an interesting point:
If Assad falls, either democratically or by arms, the successor state will very probably be more conservative, more devoutly Islamist, and very likely more aggressively anti-American and anti-Israel -- in other words, it will be a state that most Americans who reflexively clamored for Assad's ouster will find disappointing. And as such it will ratchet America's frustration with the region even deeper. It will also be a war-torn wreck, with few prospects of reconstruction any time soon. Barring US occupation, it is unlikely to become as corrupt as Iraq or Afghanistan, but like those two disaster areas, its people has already fragmented into many conflicting identities, which will continue to tear at the social fabric even after the war ends. Moreover, as far as the US is concerned, Syria will always be on the wrong side of Israel, and for that matter the wrong side of Lebanon, and if those features fade it will revert to no meaning at all. The only reason McCain and Graham and their ilk care at all about Syria is that they smell war there, and they see in every war an opportunity for the US to assert its omnipotence.
I too see war in Syria as a test for the US, and especially as a test for Obama: the test is whether we can finally see clear to stay out of a conflict where in the long run we can only hurt ourselves. The US is so infatuated with itself that it is a sucker for the likes of McCain and Graham, and Obama has repeatedly allowed himself to be seduced by American power -- partly, no doubt, because the Republicans so delight in trash talking to him, taunting him as an apologist, impugning him for every irresolute doubt. Obama once said that he wants to change how America thinks about war, but he seems unable to even change how he himself thinks. Syria is a test of his ability to pit sanity against jargon, for rarely has a course of action -- intervention -- loomed so temptingly yet been so clearly fraught with folly.
Thursday, March 21. 2013
Ten years ago this week George W. Bush launched his war against Iraq. He was almost solely responsible for the act, at least in the sense that had he decided not to go to war he would have met virtually no resistance. Yet he also had little real choice: he was a mental slave to the logic that had led his father to attack Iraq in 1991, and that had prevented either Bush or Clinton from making any serious effort to normalize Iraq. Moreover, he was still smitten by the political euphoria his father had briefly enjoyed when the 1991 war had initially seemed so successful, and he was convinced that his own "tougher resolve" would lock in the same political euphoria, allowing him to build up "political capital" for ever greater feats, like war with Iran, or wrecking social security.
Invading Iraq turned out to be a surprisingly difficult political play, especially compared to the utter ease with which Bush was able to sink the US military into a hopeless quagmire in Afghanistan -- one that, needless to say, still saps US forces while remaining as far as ever from resolution. Many figures came forth declaring Iraq "a war of choice," "the wrong war" (as compared to Afghanistan), but for me the real wrong choice was Afghanistan, especially following Bush's wholehearted support of Ariel Sharon's destruction of the Oslo Peace Process in Israel/Palestine. In an unguarded moment, Bush himself referred to his efforts to bend the Middle East to his will as a new "crusade": his "born again" certainty reinforcing the hubris of America's anti-communist triumphalism.
This was all clear at the time. And while I wrote little about Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11 -- my website barely existed then, I spent the month following 9/11 away from home, and I had yet to grasp the event's political importance -- by 2003 I was writing regularly. When I grep "Iraq" in my notebook file, I fish up more than 4000 lines. I thought I'd quote a few of them, mostly from March-April 2003, a few earlier (including one from Sept. 11, 2001), ending with a couple from August 2003. Reading through them, I see that I'm missing a lot of detail, especially the whole WMD controversy (a bogus argument if ever I've heard one).
Of course, much more happened after August 2003, and at least some of that shows up in subsequent posts. Then there are the books: I've read at least thirty specifically on Afghanistan and Iraq, another twenty on the Bush administration and the more general War on Terror. Of those, the Bremer administration is pretty well documented, except for the decision to put an idiot like Bremer in charge in the first place -- that's one thing I've never even seen a plausible denial on. After that, from mid-2004 to 2007, the history gets much harder to come by -- the US, especially with Khalilzad, becomes very secretive, and the whole country becomes dangerously inhospitable to reporters. From 2007 on, you get a lot of pro-military hype, especially from the platoon of Petraeus sycophants -- one of the few exceptions here is Nir Rosen's Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World (2011).
Many of the books are commented on (and some extensively quoted) in the books section, but it will take another post to properly index and annotate them.
More (much more) after the break . . .
Continue reading "Ten Years of Infamy"
Wednesday, September 19. 2012
I understand that Jeffrey Goldberg and others have attacked an op-ed by Maureen Dowd for being anti-semitic. The offending line seems to have been the title, Neocons Slither Back. To understand how anti-semitic this title is, you first have to realize, as Goldberg put it, that in using "slither" "she is peddling an old stereotype, that gentile leaders are dolts unable to resist the machinations and manipulations of clever and snake-like Jews." You also have to assume that neocons are Jewish, a mental process that involves blotting out such infamous figures as Dick Cheney, John Bolton, and Fouad Ajami, although I suppose she (or Goldberg) could be arguing that those neocon gentiles (as well as their followers, like G.W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney) are really manipulated dolts.
I picked up the Goldberg quote from Dylan Byers at Politico, who provides many more uselessly out-of-context quotes, like Daniel Halper calling "it" (whatever it is) "outrageous," and Jonathan Tobin describing something as "particularly creepy." Byers quotes Max Fisher as saying, "[The] weirdest part of the anti-semitic tropes on the Dowd column is how lazy they are," without explaining what tropes those were, or why they were "on" the column and not "in" it -- I'd parse this as meaning Goldberg et al. were the lazy ones.
Parsing itself is fairly critical here. As someone who's had his titles mangled by everyone from editors to typesetters, I try to say what I mean at least once in the article. Dowd uses the word "slither" only once in the article, when she quotes Paul Wolfowitz, "slimily asserting that President Obama should not be allowed to 'slither through' without a clear position on Libya." But here the imputed serpent isn't Jewish (or neocon, or Republican); rather, it sounds at least vaguely racist, but then that's easy to do when the object of one's scorn happens to be black (or for that matter Jewish). In many cases the writer is just trying to spritz up a bit of language, and it's best not to read too much in it.
That's certainly the case with Dowd, whose piece often appears to be written in a private language. For instance, her first line threw me: "Paul Ryan has not sautéed in foreign policy in his years on Capitol Hill." It took some delving into Wiktionary to come up with any plausible deciphering of this line, but it turns out that the French verb sauter has a slang usage "to bang, jump, have sex with." Still, if what you wanted to say was that Ryan was a virgin in foreign policy, wouldn't it have been much clearer to say, "Ryan was a foreign policy virgin"? (Personally, I'd rather say, "Ryan has never fucked with foreign policy, and therefore has never fucked it up.")
And Dowd does more spritzing to even more dumbfounding effect: Romney foreign policy adviser (or, as Dowd puts it, "neocon puppet master") Dan Senor was "secunded to manage the running mate [Ryan]" -- presumably she means "seconded" (temporarily assigned). She refers to Romney and Ryan as "both jejeune about the world"; most likely "jejune" (naive, simplistic, lacking matter, devoid of substance). She also refers to Romney as "Mittens," but not consistently enough to make a style or attitude out of it; more like a brain fart.
I don't normally read Dowd, so this column mostly served as a reminder why. Still, she did come up with one remarkable quote from Ryan:
As I recall, "moral clarity" was a favorite G.W. Bush term, which is to say the guy who's response toward peacemaking in Israel-Palestine was, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." The decade prior to that was the only period where the US took a role in attempting to bridge the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and and Bush squandered that by endorsing Sharon's show of force. After Bush, Obama made a pathetic gesture at returning to America's pre-Bush role as an "honest broker" in favor of peace, an effort Ryan decries as "indifference bordering on contempt" because it presumes that Israel would benefit from peace, even though Netanyahu wants no such thing.
But in terms of moral clarity, the bit about Syria and Libya is even more confused. Many of those "dissidents" in Syria Ryan wants to help are Islamists, as were the "dissidents" the US helped in Libya (who in turn attacked the Benghazi consulate there). Indeed, the US has a long history (at least back to the Afghan mujahideen in 1979) of supporting Islamists who ultimately turn on us, a track record that would give anyone knowledgable and sane pause. Obviously, that excludes Ryan and Romney (who may well not know better), and their neocon advisers like Senor (who probably does but doesn't care, so committed are they to perpetuating US conflicts in the region).
MJ Rosenberg, on Dan Senor:
Some relevant links in Dowd's defense (along with Rosenberg above):
Thursday, September 13. 2012
On September 10, a US airstrike in Yemen killed seven people, including Saeed al-Shihri, alleged to be "al-Qaida's No. 2 leader in Yemen." This follows numerous other US airstrikes in Yemen, including one that killed US-born Anwar al-Awlaki.
On September 11, a demonstration at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, turned violent, and the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed. Most likely the demonstration was incidental, providing cover for an independent attack force (see the Quilliam report, which describes a video released by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with a call "to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al-Qaeda's second in command killed a few months ago"). The US responded by sending a small detachment of Marines to Libya -- not enough for an occupation, but quacks like one, and will be taken as such by those so inclined.
What this shows is that after eight years of Bush and nearly four of Obama virtually nothing has changed. The US still throws its weight around the Arab world, siding with tyrants it finds conveniently corrupt, helping them kill and imprison their own people, getting trapped in blood feuds, and blamed for the dearth of progress that keeps these nations poor. Sensible persons back away from tactics that don't work; US politicians stumble forward, convinced that losing credibility would be far worse than throwing away lives and treasure.
Oil gets blamed for this, and indeed there are lots of things one can pin on the oil companies, but they prefer to work quietly, and were doing nicely in places like Saudi Arabia until external politics got in their way. The rub there is Israel, ever more a warrior state, which has spent the last four years goading Obama into a pointless and potentially tragic showdown with Iran. That may seem nothing more than good sport for Israel, much like their dabblings in US domestic politics, like smacking down uppity presidents with congressional resolutions and radio flak.
For Israel, hostilities are a win-win proposition: either they kick ass, or they burnish up their victimhood cult, renewing their claim to the moral high ground. (And while they whine about their losses, they're never so severe they disturb the warrior ethos.) On the other hand, for the US war is lose-lose: like Todd Snider's bully, what kicking ass winds up meaning is you got to do it again tomorrow, and again and again and again, all the while exposing your inner wretchedness. Israel, behind its Iron Wall, can fancy that it's better to be feared than liked, but the US needs good will to do business, so with every misstep risks losing it all. That's why the two days both wind up in the loss column.
In the wake of the embassy incident, Obama promised to bring the killers "to justice": the first thing that flashed through my mind was Pershing chasing all over Mexico after Pancho Villa, nothing but a wild goose chase. But even nominal success most often rings hollow, as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden have proven. (Ultimately, both happened after killing more people than the evildoers had themselves, making one wonder what a higher power should do with Bush and Obama.)
Meanwhile, Romney accused Obama of "apologizing for America" when the State Department tried to disclaim and disown the video that triggered (or served as the pretext for) the demonstrations. Presumably, Romney thought that Obama should have stood up for gross slander of a religion with one trillion followers -- presuming that Romney was thinking, as he's likely to disavow the video himself by week's end. Still, even if he walks back the particulars, you've seen his basic instinct: to plunge headlong, chin up, into every conflict that comes his way, as if, like Israel, he's convinced that every fight is win-win.
That last point is the secret behind the Neocons' slavish idolatry of Israel: envy. They want to fight, and they want to win. They want to thumb their noses at the world, and have the world cower before them. They see that on a small scale with Israel, and even there they don't actually see very well, but they're convinced that if only our leaders had the vision and the guts we could scale Israel's formula up and leave the world awestruck. Romney, of course, is as committed to Neoconnery as McCain and Bush -- see John Judis: never apologize, never negotiate, never think, just act. After all, you're America: always right, invincible (except when led by cowards like Obama, Clinton, and Carter).
Update: Minor edit above, changing "Israeli movie" to "video." Initial reports were that the demonstrations were against a movie produced by a California-based Israeli named Sam Bacile. WarInContext has a post that suggests that it was in fact produced by an Egyptian Christian living in California. As I understand it, the title is Innocence of Muslims, and at present it is only distributed as a 14-minute excerpt on YouTube, so it is not clear to me whether words like "film" and "movie" are appropriate. These details don't have any real bearing on the argument above. The video may be a convenient pretext for a demonstration, but the real issue is US interference in the region, including support for regimes that do real violence to people, especially Israel's occupation.
Speaking of which, I see now that Obama has dispatched several Navy ships to the Libyan coast, and has started flying drones over Libyan air space "to search for the perpetrators of the attack" -- once again the instinct of US leaders is to make it all worse. Romney, clueless as ever, argued: "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." What he means is that the government should stand up in solidarity with every bigot identified as American because failure to do so could be construed as "apologizing for America," and the World's Greatest Nation should never apologize for anything.
Further Update (Sept. 15): Two items from Washington Monthly's Lunch Buffet:
It's easy to see how such great minds can get confused. The nominal purpose of America's "Oil Wars" -- the long string of US operations in the Middle East (and Afghanistan) since Carter declared the oil in and around the Persian Gulf a "national interest" in 1979 -- has always been to help our good Muslims against those bad Muslims (the definitions sometimes changing, e.g., in Afghanistan), so the US has always had to be careful not to make offense against Islam. But it's always been easier to sell those wars to the American people with a dollop of racial and religious bigotry -- you could even call it "Crusader zeal" -- and as the wars have unfolded, most of what you actually see is Americans killing Muslims, the "good" inevitably mixed in with the "bad" -- and this results in a polarization that undermines the original premise. For someone like Bachmann, the enemy winds up being all of Islam. Romney is more of a neocon, so he has to keep the notion that we're helping "good Muslims" in play, even though he doesn't always remember that before he speaks.
Friday, March 30. 2012
I went to a presentation Rannfrid Thelle gave last night to the Wichita Peace Center about Syria. It was offered mostly as historical background ("From Aram to Assad"), PowerPoint bullets with archeological pictures from Rannfrid's 2006 visit to Syria. A couple dozen people were present, mostly the usual crowd, plus two ringers with Syrian connections pushing an anti-Assad, pro-revolution line (but, thankfully, well short of calling for armed intervention). They didn't quite hijack the presentation, but they reminded me how defenseless well-meaning people are when confronted with evidence of brutal repression. The urge to help is overwhelming, swamping the critical recognition that help is something we are unable to offer.
I know I find myself moved by reports of the Assad regime's violent suppression of demonstrations, but when I hear pleas for outsiders to step in and "protect the people," all I know for sure is that if the US were to intervene in any way, all we would do is kill more. It seems clear that the Assad regime has killed more people and done more damage than any of the other targets of Arab Spring -- with the possible, but not certain, exception of Libya, where the US did add to the body count. (And for that matter, Assad has killed more than Iran and Myanmar did in forcibly suppressing major demonstration movements over the last few years.)
No doubt the Assad regime has disgraced itself. However, it is far from the only government that has done such, so why focus on it? (One could, after all, cite the elephant-in-the-room, Israel, which has killed a comparable number of people under its sovereignty, albeit stretched out over a longer timeframe.) Syria moved to the forefront of the news partly because it flowed out of the "Arab Spring" revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, and partly because we in the US have long held a grudge against it. In particular, Bush's generals loudly threatened to invade Syria in 2003-04 if Syria in any way aided the resistance in Iraq: the goal then wouldn't have been to liberate the Syrian people from an oppressive regime, but to get rid of an inconvenient one and replace it with something more to our liking. Indeed, the US did just that in occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea that we might selflessly liberate a country so that its people could run a free democracy was at best a propaganda afterthought.
Rannfrid did a generally good job in outlining Syria's history, but she missed one essential item: in 1948, Syria woke up on the wrong side of the bed and found itself locked into conflict with Israel. What happened was that the British quit their mandate in Palestine without having established any sort of agreement on the shape of its future independent government. In this void, the Zionist organization declared Israeli independence, and marshalled its army to secure as much territory as it could within Palestine, with no concern for the two-thirds of the mandate's population who were not Jewish, and who had agreed to no such division. As the Israeli militias advanced, the Palestinians appealed to the newly independent Arab states for help (like the Free Syrian Army currently begs for outside help). The Israelis like to describe this as all the Arab armies invading on Independence Day, another example of their accustomed blindness to the Palestinian presence.
Those Arab states had various agendas. Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq were ruled by crony kings installed by Britain, and Transjordan was practically invited to invade by the Israelis in the hope that they would pick up the Arab West Bank and prevent an independent Palestinian state from being established. Israel's success, both in expanding its territory way beyond what the UN had offered -- without consent of the people actually living there -- and in driving over 700,000 Palestinians into exile proved to be deeply embarrassing to the junior officers caught up in the 1948-49 war. This, in turn, led to military coups in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria -- to a long series of such in Syria until Hafez Assad was finally able to stabilize control of the government.
Israel signed temporary armistice arrangements to end the war, but refused to sign peace treaties -- mostly because Israel was unwilling to readmit any refugees, but also because Israel was still unsatisfied with its borders. Up to 1967, Israel repeatedly provoked border incidents with Syria, then in June 1967 Israel used the closing of shipping to Eilat as a pretext to invading and snatching large chunks of territory from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Later that year, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights that it had seized from Syria and depopulated. In 1979 Egypt was able to recover its lost territories by signing a unilateral peace treaty with Israel, which left Syria permanently maimed and powerless to cut its own deal. (Ehud Barak made a token effort at a deal in 2000, then backed away when it looked like Assad might agree.)
America's relationship with Syria has always been a reflection of its relationship with Israel. When Israel sought alliances in the west, Syria had no other defense option but to turn to the Soviet Union, which only hardened US antipathy to them. Syria's relationships with other Arab nations broke up over one issue or another. Syria occasionally made gesture to appease the US, like their enthusiastic endorsement of the 1990 Gulf War against Iraq, but they were easily forgotten -- in large part because for the US Israel always came first. The US at first welcomed Syria's intervention in Lebanon, then ultimately insisted that they leave. It's hard to think of any nation the US has had a more fickle and unprincipled relationship with, although Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan come close, for much the same reasons. That Bush decided not to invade in 2004 most likely had less to do with excuses than with lack of imagination about what to do with the carcass. That in turn may be because Israel seems to like the Assad regime: it's not only the devil they know, it's such a toothless wreck of a government they can bomb it on a whim and know there won't be any consequences.
One major reason the situation in Syria has become so grave is that the regime is so isolated from the rest of the world. It has only partly rebuilt its relationship with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it's unlikely that Russia has anywhere near the deep-seated relationship with Syria that the US was able to exploit in nudging Mubarak out of power in Egypt, even assuming Russia has any desire to do so. The only other countries with any links to Syria are China and Iran, and neither is very sensitive about the rights of pro-democracy demonstrators. One thing we've seen again and again is that the more isolated a nation is, the less its leaders have to lose in resorting to violent repression -- again, consider Iran, Myanmar, Libya. And in Syria's case, it's too late to fix that: now that the regime has so disgraced itself, the pressure is against anyone trying to build relationships.
Meanwhile, the anti-Assad opposition -- especially the exiles who are safe from retribution -- have only become emboldened, ever more militant. They plead for arms, for intervention, to fight not to depose the regime but to conquer it. We are, in effect, being asked to choose sides in a civil war we actually have no stake in and no comprehension of. Sure, we can grasp the brutality of the Assad regime, but not yet the brutality of an opposition that has already decided to resort to killing and maiming its opponents -- a process that the longer it persists the more dehumanizing it will become. Indeed, one theme that emerged in the meeting was the fear that a triumphant anti-Assad movement would take its revenge on the Allawite community that Assad came from and favors. Several people were reminded of Rwanda; my own thoughts gravitated to the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad by Shiite militias as the US decided that the only way to keep Iraqis from uniting against the occupation was to turn them against each other. On the other hand, we had to sort through wild stories about Assad importing Iranian snipers, mass incarcerations, torture, and ritualistic killings. It's impossible to know what's actually true because access is so limited and propaganda is so free.
The dehumanization of the other side is inevitably one of the first things that happens in war, and it's well under way in Syria. The longer and bloodier the struggle continues, the worse it will be for all sides. (The continuing turmoil in the so-called Libya success is an example of what happens when you militarize conflict.) It's dehumanization that leads to atrocities, which leads to more of the same. The sane way out is to back off from anything that implies violence, while maintaining a vigilant concern for any violation of basic human rights by any party. The most effective approach would be to shame the Assad regime into backing down, chilling out, and opening up. That involves engaging with the regime, no matter how distasteful that seems, and it involves rejecting any elements of the opposition who insist on fighting this out in the streets. The end result should be a democratic government where individuals can speak up and protest without fear, and the end result should have nothing to do with the ulterior motives of other countries.
Making this work will take some effort, and more carrots than sticks, but it has worked elsewhere, and the all-stick approach (so dear to John Bolton) has failed virtually everywhere. To take one example, Turkey had built up a pretty rotten human rights record, but over the last 10-20 years they've done much to turn that around. They still have a long ways to go, but the prospect of joining the European Union steered them toward reforms, and the odds of a military coup have gone way down. Latin America and the former Communist states provide more examples, and Myamnar, which only a few years ago brutally suppressed demonstrations, seems to be opening up to diplomatic efforts. The Middle East and North Africa remain in turmoil, but as more nations there become more legitimately democratic Syria will be more tempted to join them.
Aside from the short-sightedness of the Assad regime, the main obstacle to democratic reforms in Syria is Israel and its clumsy, incoherent puppet, the United States. The US has bases all over the region, which do little more than make it a target for local rage and offer opportunities for embarrassing adventures. Israel, meanwhile, has no desire for any form of peace that would entail concessions, like basic human rights, to its Palestinian subjects (let alone refugees). The whole Arab Spring movement makes Israel uneasy: Israel has long prided itself on being the region's "only democracy," but it is nothing of the sort, no longer "only" and hardly in any sense a democracy. What it is, however, is a rogue state -- with its targeted killings and nuclear blackmail -- the threat that generations of Arab dictators have used to rationalize their own corruptions. Solve the Palestinian problem, turn Israel into a normal nation, let the US pull back its tentacles, and the whole region will open up.
 Helena Cobban, citing Patrick Cockburn, makes this point effectively. Cobban goes on to counter the arguments for outside armed intervention: something you should bookmark and re-read every time you find yourself entertaining the thought that doing so just might work.
 The standard solution to the Israel-Syria conflict is for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, which was pretty much (if not necessarily seriously) what Barak offered in 2000. I wonder if a simpler solution might be for Israel to buy the territory. It might work like a mini-Marshall Plan: I don't know what the price might be, but say $20 billion, offered as credits over 50 years, which works out to $400 million per year. Syria would cash in those credits by buying goods (anything but arms) from Israel, so this would be a domestic stimulus that also provided genuinely useful aid (which is pretty much what the Marshall Plan did, unlike USAID's scams to dump agricultural surplus). Just an idea. They could do similar things with settlements on Palestinian land. I would prefer for Israel to hand over the settlements with the understanding that any Jews who wish to stay become Palestinian citizens (with full and equal rights), but for a lot of (I'd say bad) reasons that ain't gonna happen. It may not be justice to convert your problems into money, but at least it makes them negotiable.
Saturday, March 17. 2012
The Wichita Eagle front-page headline is "Soldier suspected in killings gets to Kansas," the piece attributed to Kansas City Star staff and wire reports. (I can't find the piece online, but it is apparently based on this piece.) It doesn't acclaim Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as a hero, but isn't everyone who signed up for the post-9/11 Global War on Terror a hero? They're automatically acclaimed when they die, as at least 6,398 have done, or when they're wounded (as Bales was, losing part of his foot), or when they receive medals (Bales is oft described as "much decorated"). So why not when they go berserk? The Army may prefer precise and unemotional control over its violence against Afghan villagers, but Bales' methodical killing of sixteen (mostly) children wasn't far out of the long line of atrocities other US "heroes" have committed. It just underscores how unfit the US military is for the difficult task of nation building, and therefore how hopeless what Obama can only describe as "the Mission" -- an abstract noun that has thus far proven impossible to define -- really is.
Some background on Bales is available here and here, and here. He is 38, was born in the Midwest, is married, has two children (3 and 4). He served three tours in Iraq, and was recently deployed to Afghanistan. He was trained as a sniper, which is to say someone who calmly and methodically picks out targets at distance, and kills them. The Pentagon describes his career as "unremarkable." A neighbor is quoted: "A good guy go tput in the wrong place at the wrong time." Happens all the time.
Problem is, if you're Afghan, this looks like stone cold murder. And if you're Afghan, you probably have a clear idea of what justice should look like -- and it's probably not that it would only be fair to ship the killer half-way around the world to a cozy cell in Kansas to let his shrinks and lawyers come up with arguments and excuses to try show that Bales is the victim here.
There is a case to be made that Bales was indeed a victim: of a president who decided to double down on the same military that had turned eight years of arrogance into abject failure, but Obama was stuck, like Rumsfeld complained earlier, with the army he inherited, and with a political culture that insists that America's heroes will prevail eventually (unless sabotaged by cowardly politicians). No one thought of the welfare of the troops before launching this war, but ever since politicians have been hiding behind their confused feelings, ignoring the fact that they were never fit for the purpose, that their deeply trained lethality ensures a string of atrocities. Anyone who seriously believes the popular counterinsurgency theories should start by building a new army; the real one doesn't work, even if some officers have learned to talk the talk.
Talking the talk, after all, has always been the easy part. What's hard is understanding you can't occupy a country you have no business in, no understanding of, and no awareness of your own alien nature. The US entered Afghanistan seeking revenge for 9/11, and never quite satisfied that itch. Overstaying its welcome, the US set up a puppet regime, then proceeded to delegitimize it by continued dominance -- Bush was too busy starting new wars to bother cleaning up after this one. Then came Obama, proving that America's best efforts were just as futile as America's worst efforts. Now he thinks he can tiptoe away without admitting fault or error, when the entire campaign has been nothing but wrong.
Bales' massacre is deeply embarrassing for Obama because there's no way to scrub away the stain. Either it was policy or not, the latter proof that we cannot manage our policy: we can't control our own troops, nor the Afghans we've trained, even less the Taliban. Even the right is abandoning this war: the carnage doesn't bother them, but they'd rather hate Muslims from a distance than try to divide and conquer them far away. And I suspect more and more we'll see the military itself turn on the mission: as good as it's been for budgets and careers, incidents like this show that the troops are wearing out, that the strain is cracking them up. Maybe they even like the idea of leaving Obama holding the bag. His statements this past week have been the most tone-deaf of his tenure.
Some more relevant links:
Thursday, November 17. 2011
Saw this in the Eagle this morning, and it turned my stomach: Ben Feller: Countering China, Obama asserts US a Pacific power. AP article. Some quotes:
There's a tendency to treat this as business as usual, but at a time when the US occupation of Iraq has nearly wound down and the operating assumption is that US troop levels in Afghanistan will start to decline, when there's nearly universal agreement on the need to reduce military spending, this is an unnecessary and provocative new venture, intended to, well, do what? Prove that the world's most genocidal Anglo-settler nations are still joined at the hip? Show that the US is planning on entering yet another generation of Asian land wars? Prove that Obama is still under the thumb of the Joint Chiefs?
Over the last few years, we've seen a virulent outbreak of books fretting over the looming threat that China, with its huge population and burgeoning economic growth, might challenge the US for dominant superpower status. Reading such books involves a lot of navel gazing, since the essential premise is that China in the future will wind up acting exactly like the US has in the past. Perhaps the most disturbing prospect from today's news is that Obama may actually be reading such rubbish. True, one might argue that the US has lost leverage recently in its ability to influence politics in the bottom tier of "developing countries" but this has nothing to do with lack of military resources, and everything to do with their uselessness.
Meanwhile, Obama has utterly failed to confront the real Chinese threat: the way its currency manipulation preserves a crippling US trade deficit. The core reasons here is that Chinese businesses think in terms of national (which is to say popular) interests, where US government policymakers have chosen to support the world capitalist class with little or no regard for Americans who merely work for a living. Such policies started in the Cold War when the US gladly built up the economies of former powers like Germany and Japan as as well as borderlands like Korea and Taiwan as bullwarks against Communism. At first the US could afford such largesse. Later, as we started sinking billions into foreign oil, the ascendant right was happy to repatriate our losses by swelling the financial sector and selling off assets for inflated prices: in effect, our trade deficits became a pipeline redistributing wealth from the working class to the very rich.
No one but the neocons really thinks China's going to be impressed by the US caching arms in Australia. That Obama's bought into their phallic fantasies -- the whole "real men go to Tehran" thing -- is just sad. That he would defend the country from military threats that exist only in the fevered imaginations of discredited neocons but has no interest or desire to stop companies -- after forty consecutive years of trade deficits as likely to be foreign owned as not, and certain to have massive foreign investments -- from shutting down US jobs and moving them overseas is cowardly and indifferent. That he would mourn the loss of soldiers abroad 70 years ago but won't stand up to banks throwing people out of their homes, to business owners shutting down factories, to schools closing, here in America today, is just plain perverted.
As for Australia, the people there need to ask themselves how many more Koreas and Vietnams and Iraqs and Afghanistans will they let the US drag them into, not to mention the possible Gallipolis our alliance promises them.
Saturday, September 24. 2011
This from an AP piece by Matthew Brown which appeared (somewhat shorter) in the Wichita Eagle this morning, titled Victim in Mont. grizzly attack was shot by friend:
One could use this to question the sanity of encouraging every fool in the country to carry guns, but more than anything else this reminds me of George W. Bush's foreign policy, albeit on a much more intimate scale. There, too, doing things one shouldn't do in the first place led to reckless endangerment and death, often by "friendly fire." There, too, "no charges are expected."
Sunday, May 8. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week, plus a belated comment at the end on Bin Laden:
Killing Bin Laden
I held back from making any rash comments about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and don't have much to say now. I never believed that the US should have taken military action against Afghanistan in 2001, either to pursue Bin Laden or to overthrow the Taliban (Bush's either-you-with-us-or-against-us theory). I never had a problem with the assertion that Bin Laden was a criminal or with conventional (non-military, non-CIA) efforts to bring him to justice. His culpability for the 9/11 attacks and for previous crimes like the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania is well established including by his own unforced (and boastful) admissions. Moreover, he has provided ideological cover for any number of similar criminal acts. And while he's not the only one responsible for the US -- one hesitates to blame this solely on Bush although he was, as he liked to proclaim, "the decider" -- response to his provocations, he claims to have acted aware of and actually hoping for the US to strike back at Afghanistan, launching a horrific war. Given all this, plus the failure of pre-2001 efforts to apprehend him, I could even see a case for taking extraordinary actions to capture or kill him. But I do draw the line well short of sending an army and air force to occupy another people's country, which is what the US did and for ten years continues to do.
For one thing, no system of justice is perfect, and ours breaks down especially when it comes to the most staggering crimes: politicians who commit acts of war, violently depriving people of human rights. The fact is that most such people have never had to face justice. As unfortunate as it was the Bin Laden to have escaped after 9/11, worse things have happened: one of which is that the US lost all sense of what justice means. Today we instinctively equate might with right, since the only sense in which we have been right over the last ten years is in our ability to get away with it. We have come to admire and emulate gangsters -- people who think that all they have to do to solve their problems is to kill those in the way.
It bothers me not at all that Bin Laden is dead. My position on capital punishment was never that the person doesn't deserve to die; it's that the government has no right to kill. Does the US have the right to send commandos into a foreign country to kill someone there? No. On the other hand, that Bin Laden was executed by a team of Navy SEALS does have a certain justice to it: it was, after all, his scheme to get the US to invade his adopted homeland and wage war against him and the people who adopted him. You can't say he didn't have it coming, and you can't say he hadn't asked for it.
I could also try to look at this pragmatically. Killing Bin Laden doesn't justify the US mission in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), but does it help end that mission? Killing Bin Laden was one of the main rationales for getting into Afghanistan in the first place. Now that he is dead, why not just say "mission accomplished" and get out? If indeed that happens the killing will be a blessing. There are lots of things I don't like about this, but anything that extricates us from occupying Afghanistan and meddling in Pakistan would be good news.
One aspect of this that is rather disturbing has been Obama's own elation over the killing -- not least his "victory lap" going to NYC and sucking up to the troops. Some of it is that he took a rather cynical political position when he reframed his opposition to the Iraq war as mistaken priorities -- he didn't want to be seen as an anti-war candidate, so he pushed Afghanistan as the right war, and Bin Laden as the true object of that war, so he gains on two counts by killing Bin Laden: he vindicates his policy vs. Bush, and he gets a tangible milestone which allows him to get out from under the millstone of an endless, fruitless war. But what's truly disturbing is how much he's getting into his role as killer-in-chief. He got his first taste of directly ordering death in a Somali piracy event shortly after he took office. However, this week he's really hitting his stride: killing one of Gaddafi's sons in Libya, missing his target in Yemen (but killing a couple people anyway), and the big kill of Bin Laden. Moreover, there's very little to stop him from doing this: the military and CIA are geared up to keep doing this (indeed, moving Petraeus from one to the other looks like a policy decision to shift targeted assassination programs into ever more secretive and informal frameworks), the Republicans and the media will just cheer him on, and the ICC can't touch him; that just leaves his conscience, such as it is.
I thought about ending this with several trivial observations, but will leave you with just one. I noticed several pieces trying to parse Obama's speech: specifically the phrase "captured and killed," reading the two verbs as serial. My theory is that the person on scene said something like "we have Bin Laden and he is dead." Being a much better writer than the average Navy SEAL, Obama's instinct was to punch up the line, eliminating passive voice and using action verbs. Still, as a lawyer, you'd think he would have thought better. But I guess he's been in politics too long for that.
Thursday, May 5. 2011
Paul Krugman: How Should We Think of the Civil War?: Not often I disagree with Krugman these days, but he's out of his depth here:
I don't have much beef with Coates here, even not understanding however it is that the Civil War's "so often portrayed": the real issue is what actually happened in those wars, and what happened is often far removed from anything we might be inclined to take pride in. But before you go around glorifying wars, I think you have to ask some hard questions: Did the war achieve the intentions you are attributing to it? Did the people who fought the war, especially at the command level, understand and act on those intentions? Did the prosecution of the war undermine them? Did the aftermath of the war implement them? Did the war cause unintended consequences that complicated or compromise or deprecated its intentions? Ask those questions and I think you'll find that both wars are highly problematical.
The Civil War ended the institution of chattel slavery in the US and influenced its elimination elsewhere (in Brazil at the time and in Cuba twenty-some years later). Had the Confederate States been able to secede and form a modern state based on the institution of slavery, the system would have continued for at least a generation, no telling how much longer. It is not impossible that slavery could have continued well over a century, into our lifetimes and possibly into the present, even though we cannot now conceive of such a world persisting. The Union's suppression of the secession changed history so profoundly that we might as well embrace it because we can't make sense out of the alternative. Nor is it just descendents of slaves who were affected and therefore owe their lives to the war.
However, while the Confederate States seceded to protect the legal institution of slavery and the economic system built upon it, the Union had other reasons for suppressing the rebellion: above all, it did so to preserve the integrity and power of the nation state, to protect and promote its economy, and to position the United States as a more significant imperial power. The secession profoundly tipped the balance of power, resulting in a tariff to protect industrial development and a Homestead Act to accelerate the absorption and integration of frontier territories. With the Union victory, the economic gains from the power shift continued, while the ideals of ending slavery atrophied: slaves were freed nominally but soon subjected to economic and political controls, including a reign of terror, that left them as destitute (if not as hopeless) as before. Moreover, in the decades following the Civil War "free labor" throughout the Union was more often than not reduced to conditions of near-slavery (what came to be called "wage slavery," most blatantly in company towns).
One has to wonder to what extent the extreme brutality of the Civil War -- it was at the time the deadliest war in human history -- contributed to undermining the anti-slavery ideals. It certainly became a point of honor in the South both to reduce and roll back the initial gains of the Freedmen and to restore the antebellum social and political order. The South was willing to suffer great poverty and economic backwardness for over a century to make a point of revenge -- something the North permitted because those in power in the North were little troubled by gross inequality or even by the use of terror (indeed, Northern plant owners were as likely to hire goons to bust strikes).
Whereas the Union was pretty clearly the aggressor in the Civil War -- and set an example for many other nations to suppress their breakaway regions, Congo-Katanga, Nigeria-Biafra, Russia-Chechnya, and Serbia-Bosnia are among the bloodiest recent examples; that each was a choice based on dubious principles is clearly shown by the exception, Czech-Slovakia -- one can make a good case that war was thrust upon the US (and many other countries) by the Axis. I can quibble with that. The war was fundamentally about how the world should be carved up into colonial empires, each a broad swath of the world dominated by a relatively small and autocratic home base convinced of its racial superiority over its dominions. As early as the 17th century, the model for such empires was set by England and France (outflanking earlier efforts by Portugal, Spain, and Holland). Only in the latter half of the 19th century did Germany and Italy (previously not unified states), the United States (revolutionized by the Union's Civil War victory), and Japan forcibly "opened" by the US) decide that they needed to enter the game and play catch up -- indeed, each of these nations often saw their own aggressions as necessarily defensive. (Two other empires come into play here, Russia and China, but they were constructed on more ancient lines, by subjugating their neighbors, much as the Romans and Ottomans had done. Whereas Italy and the US primarily intended to build their empires along Anglo-French lines, Germany and Japan combined both models.)
The progressive idea attributed to the Civil War was abolition of slavery and establishment of civil rights: the latter failed, in large part because so much of the Union was unwilling to work to make it happen, indeed because so much of the Union didn't believe in it. (One result was that the Civil War was refought in the 1960s, much less violently even if it seemed pretty nasty at the time.) The progressive idea attributed to WWII was the abandonment of the colonial empire system and the establishment of universal human rights. The problem here was that both sides were committed to their respective empires, and indeed the US-UK-France had been more successful at it than the Axis powers ever could be. Indeed, the western Allies entered into the war not because they had been directly threatened but because their dominions and international interests were at risk. When Chamberlain sacrificed a sliver of Czechoslovakia, he made a calculated cost-benefit analysis; when asked to do the same over half of Poland, the results changed (but even then he didn't begrudge Stalin for scooping up the leftovers, because the Soviet Union was not deemed anywhere near as serious a challenge to British interests as Germany was). While Roosevelt was admirably principled about not firing the first shot, he was far from neutral, arming and financing China and Britain while embargoing Japan and Germany, all but daring them to sink US ships (Wilson's entrée to WWI) or, as happened, to bomb US bases in the Pacific. The US had become the world's largest economy well before WWI, the largest trading country, a net exporter (safe behind high tariff walls), and as such a net invester and lender, so the people who thought about such things realized that the world couldn't be trusted to handle anything so important as a World War on its own: the US had to take part, because US interests were already involved. The big problem was selling this war to the people who didn't have any real money at stake, and that's where progressive ideas -- anti-imperialism and human rights, also fear of Fascism -- came in handy. It helped that New Deal progressives were in power, and it helped that the Soviet Union was already in the war. But progressive ideas had always served to sell war -- at least ever since selling became necessary, at least since the American and French Revolutions. (It may seem laughable now, but "white man's burden" passed for progressivism in its time; even more cynically, King Leopold vowed to rid the Congo of slavery.) About the only thing those trying to nudge the US into WWII didn't use as a reason was the need to prevent the Nazi extermination of Jews from all over Europe.
There's no doubt that WWII resulted in some progressive things: it conclusively ended German and Japanese imperialism and militarism; it wiped out all of the Fascist and/or ultraconservative states in Eastern Europe (replacing them with Soviet-dominated satellites, which you may not like but was still an improvement in most cases); it led to a communist revolution in China (which again you may not like, but it put an end to foreign depredations like Britain's Opium War and eventually led to the fastest growing economy of the last 20 years); it significantly weakened the victorious western imperial powers, speeding up the liquidation of their colonial states (Spain and Portugal, their Fascist regimes having skipped the war, held out the longest, except for the US which gave up the Philippines but still holds onto scattered outposts); it led to an international declaration of human rights and to the United Nations and other international organizations (which ultimately proved inadequate to fulfill their promises but on balance have been more progressive than not); it resulted in a recognition of the horrible injustice of genocide; perhaps most important to an economist like Krugman, the war solved the chronic demand shortage of the Great Depression and laid the basis for several decades of widespread affluence. Needless to say, only the first item was on Roosevelt's progressive agenda when he led the US into war, and even that wasn't conceived of progressively: US Treasury Secretary Morgenthau wanted to reduce Germany to nothing more than a 17th century agricultural economy. The rest was made up on the fly, or happened on its own, but so did much else.
On the other hand, much else happened during and after the war. Some seventy million people were killed, including some ten million people in German concentration camps -- mostly Jews in the Nazi's deliberate program to eradicate "the race," but also huge numbers of communists and other political opponents and Russian prisoners of war. Some 22-25 million of the dead could be considered combattants, including 410,000 Americans -- a number that is small only compared to 2 million Japanese, 3-4 million Chinese, 5.5 million Germans, and 8-10 million Soviets. But the overwhelming majority of those killed were non-combattants. One number I can't find is how many perished by the main new technology of the war: aerial bombardment. When the war started, the US was very high-minded about limiting bombing to strictly military targets, but the war ended with the US wiping out entire cities with nuclear weapons.
Beyond those dead were many more wounded, millions dislocated, many forced into slave labor. In the German-Russian borderlands from Latvia to Ukraine prewar populations were reduced by 15-25%. The war changed people, and while many (especially in Europe and Japan) resolved to live in peace, some developed a taste for war. The Chinese communists continued to fight the Kuomintang army. The Vietnamese fought against the return of the French. Indonesia, the Philippines, and India would have erupted but were quickly granted independence (the Indians turning on themselves when the British decided to partition the country, resulting in more than a million deaths). Both sides of divided Korea plotted to unify the country, resulting in a horrendous war from 1950-53, sucking in the US and China. The Zionist settlement in Palestine revolted against Britain and seized three-quarters of the land, fighting off several Arab armies and driving 700,000 Palestinians into an exile that has still not been resolved. Israel was initially backed by the US, the USSR, and France, partly out of sympathy for the Holocaust, possibly out of a desire to settle displaced Jews elsewhere, with an almost absent-minded disdain for the Palestinians signifying that the colonial mentality had not yet been broken. The result was the creation of the most belligerent nation of the postwar period, one which still denies basic human rights to several million people -- one of many not-so-progressive things that emerged from WWII.
Then there was the US, the nation which gained the most and suffered relatively little, with virtually no civilian casualties, the homeland never seriously threatened. The war rescued the US economy; fear of slipping back into recession made the idea of maintaining a permanent war economy attractive. Moreover, the war swelled the American ego to a humongous degree: we had, after all, saved the world from extraordinary evils; we led the world, were good enough to rebuild Europe; our ideals were the world's. Except, that is, for the communists, who soon turned out to be more useful as enemies. They gave us reason to keep the military economy in gear, and they gave the right an opportunity to purge the left -- which they proceeded to do with generous but suicidal support from the liberal establishment.
Nearly everything bad that has happened to America since 1945 can be traced back to the unsatisfied sense of winning WWII and the craving for more. Tom Carson was right when he said that the worst thing that ever happened to the US was winning WWII. That isn't to say that losing would have better, or that we shouldn't have entered at all. But it should be understood that war isn't something one wins; it's always a loss, the real dilemma being how you handle that loss. It should also be understood that war itself is never progressive. The whole idea behind progressivism is to deliberately arrange society and economy in ways that work more productively and more equitably for all. Going to war doesn't do that, not least because in going to war you throw your fate to the winds. Maybe you'll learn something from the experience and use that insight to do something progressive: for instance, racism became much less popular after watching what the Nazis did with it, and that lesson helped revive the US civil rights movement, and indeed helped fuel anticolonial movements around the world. But real progressives didn't need, let alone want, that example. Had progressives been more successful before WWII they'd be less likely to think WWII a progressive war because they would have had less ground to make up, and less to learn from really awful events. Indeed, had they been more successful there might not have been a WWII.
Pacifism is a philosophy to live by; not one to judge history by. The prevalence of wars throughout history shows two things: that war is a plague upon human society, and that through so much history we haven't had the good sense to prevent it. One might cold-heartedly look back on history and say some war made for a turning point after which we decided to become more progressive. Maybe Krugman's favored wars qualify, but taking pride in them strikes me as not just excessive and selective but foolish. For every progressive impulse or moment, we should recognize two things: that it could and should have been done less violently, and that the process of going through war damaged us in too many ways to fully comprehend. For example, what abolitionist who supported the Union in the Civil War could imagine the residual power of George Wallace and Jesse Helms more than a century later? What liberal democrat (or communist) who understood the urgency to defeat Hitler could imagine the bloodthirst of Dick Cheney and Ariel Sharon sixty years later?
The lesson is that war begets iniquity and further war, and that is nothing ever to take pride in.