Friday, March 27. 2015
I finally got around to seeing Clint Eastwood's American Sniper film yesterday. It took me so long mostly because my wife, who usually picks the films we see, wanted no part of it: I had to go alone, something I hadn't done since I caught the "last chance" showing of Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In in 2011. I didn't argue very hard. Everything I had read suggested that the movie has many problems and few virtues. More importantly, I read Nicholas Schmidle's profile of the sniper in question, Chris Kyle (In the Crosshairs), so I had a pretty good idea what the story was going to be. The only question was whether director Clint Eastwood might add some nuance and conflict that Kyle doesn't seem to have ever grasped. But after Eastwood's senior moment at the GOP convention, and given his occasional infatuation with American jingoism, that wasn't guaranteed.
It turns out that the movie is remarkably compressed (despite a 2:20 running time). It starts with what became the trailer, a scene with Kyle on a rooftop in Fallujah contemplating shooting a child and/or his mother as armored vehicles inch down a rubble-strewn street with US soldiers methodically going house-to-house, kicking doors in. He ultimately kills both, but before the shots are fired, the scene is interrupted for a little background.
We see a pre-teen Kyle hunting with his father, and fighting with schoolkids. At the family dinner table, his father explains that there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs, who protect the sheep from the wolves -- Kyle's worldview in a nut shell. Grown up, Kyle rides bulls and broncs in a rodeo. Then, after a news report of a terror attack he signs up for the Navy Seals. We then get many scenes of sadistic basic training, a bar break where he picks up a wife, intense sniper training, 9/11, and his first tour in Iraq, where his first kills were that child and mother.
The bulk of the film recounts his four tours in Iraq, each staged with an intense action sequence, separated by brief returns home as his family grows. Two of the action sequences involve talking to his wife on the phone, so she gets in on the war experience. As a sniper, Kyle lurks patiently on rooftops and in buildings, surveying the war calmly, methodically picking off "bad guys." But over time he seeks more action, so he joins in on clearing buildings, and is close by as two of his closest buddies get shot (one killed instantly, the other survived but was blinded and died in a later surgery).
The action intensifies, with the final battle ultimately won by Mother Nature as a sandstorm engulfed Sadr City. That was the one where he made an "impossibly long shot" to kill his nemesis, a notorious Syrian sniper, only to have his building surrounded by swarming enemies with AK-47s -- the intense action interrupted by a call to the wife to tell her he's "ready to come home now." Of course, the crowds ate it up. The postwar scenes were anticlimactic: at first he showed signs of PTSD, but they fade away as he dedicates his life to helping other veterans. He takes one multiple-amputee to the shooting range, and when the disabled vet hits the target, he announces that he feels like he got his balls back. Salvation through shooting becomes Kyle's cause. In the last scene, he gets into a truck with another PTSD-damaged vet. Then the movie cuts to black, revealing that the vet murdered Kyle that day. The movie ends with footage of Kyle's funeral, and indeed it is touching. Just not clear for what.
The film is based on Kyle's autobiography, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written with two co-authors. The book came out in 2012 and was a bestseller before his death in 2013, and has sold many more copies (more than 1.2 million) since. The movie doesn't show anything about Kyle's post-Navy business or how the book and his self-promotion affected his life. The movie doesn't bring up Kyle's claim to have shot looters after Hurricane Katrina from atop the Superdome, or his story about "punching out Scruff Face" -- Jesse Ventura, who successfully sued Kyle's estate for libel (see Nicholas Schmidle: The Ventura Verdict).
This would be a good time to quote Wikipedia's paragraph on "Historical accuracy":
"The Butcher" is an "Al-Qaeda enforcer" who is shown attacking a child -- the son of a "sheik" who gave info to Americans after Kyle's team broke into his house -- with a drill. He is killed in the firefight after the scene with the weapons stash. Mustafa is an enemy sniper -- an Olympic-winning marksman from Syria who appears at least three times in the movie, becoming a personal obsession for Kyle. Kyle kills him with his 2100-yard long shot, as part of the climactic battle scene.
In other words, each and every significant encounter Kyle has with any Iraqi was invented for dramatic effect. (Presumably at least some of the anonymous, long-distance sniper kills come from the book. Kyle was credited with 160 kills. The movie shows maybe a dozen.) No doubt the fiction adds to the movie's drama. Perhaps it also whitewashes the US war effort, but Kyle was never more than a small cog in the military machine -- his rank after four tours was Chief Petty Officer, basically a sergeant -- and his approach to the war was so simplistic you hardly expect anything more: kill "bad guys"! Who are the "bad guys"? The ones who are trying to kill you.
One of Donald Rumsfeld's most indelible one-liners was that "you go to war with the army you have, not necessarily the one you want." The actual army that Kyle belonged to is defined simply: they are trained to be extraordinarily lethal, when deployed they are very focused on their own self-defense, and their primary defense strategy is to be as aggressive as possible. No one in Kyle's army questions why they are in Iraq. No one doubts their right to be where they are or go where they want. And everyone is deeply affronted any time they meet any form of resistance. No one recognizes that other points of view are possible. For Kyle, in particular, everyone he kills is evil; if not, he wouldn't have killed them. The whole movie, from the sheepdog story on, is testament to Kyle's moral certainty, and the tearful funeral excess just serves to elevate his moral certainty to the nation as a whole. And that's why the movie elicits such a solemn reaction from a certain kind of American: the one who believes that America is the greatest nation in the world, so great that the rest of the world can (or should) prostrate itself at our feet.
Nothing in the movie gives you a chance to question either the politics or the wisdom of Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq, let alone the wider trajectory of US involvement in the region. Even though most of the movie takes place in a foreign land, it never leaves an American mindset. For that reason it works as propaganda: even without explicit lies it reaffirms the war by not questioning it. What makes that worse is that the trajectory of understanding the Iraq war started to change with the Surge in 2007. The early period, 2003-04, was eventually viewed as an unmitigated disaster, but that boiled down to three things:
It's hard to remember that when Bush et al. conjured up this war, even though they led with the fear card, they tried to present the war like we'd be doing the Iraqis one big favor. That sentiment was one of the first casualties of the war. There's an old joke that goes: it's hard to remember that your mission was to drain the swamp when you're ass-deep in alligators. In the early days, Iraq was seen as an epic adventure in nation building. In the end, it's no more than alligator killing, which is probably why the SEALs are the last soldiers standing tall.
Moreover, the worldview has changed. Early in the War on Terror, the "bad guys" were few: the religious fanatics of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Baathist elites of Iraq and Syria, a few others -- as much oppressors of their own people as enemies of the US. However, it turns out that the US was never "greeted as liberators" -- that everywhere the US bombed turned into enemy territory. That should have led us to question our entire approach, indeed who we are, but not being capable of introspection, we've changed out view of them instead. Looking at the US response to ISIS, even we can imagine no upside: just a long slog of killing a neverending supply of "bad guys," because once we enter a region, practically everyone turns into "bad guys."
Of course, if you're not entranced by this latest, most vicious twist on "the American religion," it's possible to view American Sniper differently. It is a celebration of a cold blooded killer, but it also details his descent into PTSD, as he turns into someone his wife at one point says she no longer recognizes. Kyle at least saves himself by doubling down on the militaristic pietism that made him rich and famous, but he is surrounded by other vets who can't make that work -- including the one who killed him. It takes an extraordinary amount of empathy to watch this movie and conclude that the war has been disastrous for Iraqi families, even though there are scenes that show just that. But it should be easier to see how expensive the toll on American lives has been, whether you do or do not accord any special value to the lives of soldiers. Kyle should be viewed as a tragic figure in American history. He sure is no hero.
 Some links from previous posts:
We can add a few more:
One more thought about the movie. One thing that is loosely implied is that Kyle got a perverse satisfaction out of sniping, at least for a while. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle as exceptionally modest -- lots of other characters dub him "The Legend" and offer other accolades, but Kyle mostly sloughs them off. Even though he's always teamed with a spotter, sniping is patient and methodical work, not something full of adrenaline rushes. But as he goes from tour to tour, he keeps getting drawn back for more and more -- although he never articulates it, there is something to sniping that he never experienced before and that once he experienced it would be missing from his life. It reminded me of a remarkable interview in the second season of The Fall, where serial killer Paul Prescott explains the intense sensation of living that he feels when he kills someone. Of course, Prescott killed far fewer people than Kyle, and did so furtively against the law whereas Kyle was on his government's payroll -- the difference was that Kyle never had to hide what he was doing -- but both were similar in the meticulous, artful way they set up and dispatched their victims. (You can find a summary of the episode here, although it skips the part I'm referring to.)
Wednesday, September 17. 2014
Every year dozens of books are published about a topic that only a handful of Americans care about: specifically, those with cushy "think tank" jobs, plus a few military officers and State department bureaucrats who aspire to those jobs. Most assume that the US has a rightful role running the World Order, with some fretting that China or some other nation is going to butt in and offering sage advice on how the US can secure its rightful role. Against these stalwart hegemonists, now and then someone will argue that a "multipolar" isn't such a calamity, but they are in the minority, and are still so obsessed with dominance they needn't fear about losing their status as Very Serious Thinkers.
The books, of course, are nonsense, predicated on unexamined ideas: that chaos and war are the natural state of the world, that order is so valuable you have to accept it from whoever can impose it, that inequality is the best we can do given man's venal nature. That is, of course, the way conservatives think about everything. Unfortunately, it is also the way liberals usually think about the foreign world, given how readily they have sucked up the prejudices of the West's imperial past. In 2003 Jonathan Schell published an antidote to that kind of thinking, a book called The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. It was published just as the neocon ideology had become fashionable and powerful enough to "create new reality" in Iraq, and predicted failure for such hubris. Ten years later the results should be clear, but still the foreign policy elite natters on, too absorbed in their own prejudiced thoughts to have noticed their failures.
Case in point: a new book called World Order by America's most venerable war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Fortunately, we don't have to actually read the book: we can skim through the New York Times' review by John Micklethwait -- editor-in-chief of The Economist, the kind of journalist who makes his living chronicling the rarefied world of conservative "think tanks." (Micklethwait's most famous book is The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, which every 4-5 pages reiterated the mantra that conservatives are America's "idea people." He also wrote A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization  and God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World , extolling the wonders of free capital flows and fundamentalism, respectively. His latest is The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, about how the future belongs to oligarchies that are able to usurp the powers of the state.) Rarely has reviewer and subject been so perfectly matched to bring out the worst in a book.
However, before we dive into the review, I should point out that there is an alternative approach to international relations that is wholly absent in the thinking of Kissinger and Micklethwait: the idea that order can be obtained through the consent of equal nations with a common commitment to basic, inalienable human rights and a just body of international law. In the wake of two horrific world wars, and the advent of even more destructive nuclear weapons, that idea got so far as the founding documents of the United Nations -- before that body got turned into a cartel of superpowers -- and the basic ideas have reappeared occasionally since. I could elaborate more, but for now just keep the idea in mind.
The first quarter of Micklethwait's review is sheer flattery:
It's not as if Kissinger didn't have the ear of the Bush Administration after 9/11. He was, after all, Bush's first pick to chair the commission that would report on the 9/11 attacks. (He turned the job down for fear of having to disclose who his consulting clients were.) If he had any reservations about Bush's approach to Iraq or anything, he was remarkably circumspect about voicing them. And since when has Churchill been an expert on anything? He always said he hadn't been elected to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire, but no one did more to wreck it, which he repeatedly did by insisting on substituting his prejudices for any understanding of or empathy for the empire's subjects. On the other hand, Kissinger's own record is nearly as bad. The suggestion that he would have handled Syria and Ukraine better than Obama has -- admittedly a low bar -- overlooks how much his own policies contributed to those conflicts today.
The Westphalia treaties ended the 30 Years War in 1648 with a set of agreements between nations/states/cities to respect each other's autonomy and work with each other in prescribed ways. This later led to an ever-adjusting set of alliances to maintain a balance of power -- which mostly worked to keep the peace in Europe (and to export war to the third world) until its colossal failure in 1914. Kissinger always thinks in the past, and far enough back as to ignore recent novelties like the European Union, so balance of power is the best he can do. Unlike the neocons, he recognizes that the US isn't the sole power in the world, one suspects this has less to do with realism than with the fact that it takes multiple powers to balance.
After all, while the neocons hate Kissinger, he has never really reciprocated. The reason, I think, is that both worship power. It's just that the neocons think they have so much power they can create their own reality, and Kissinger, well, he's never been to type to point out "the Emperor's new clothes" -- he's too much of a flatterer for that, too worshipful of power.
The review goes on and on iterating Kissinger's past examples, a litany of Richelieu, Metternich, Palmerston, Talleyrand -- curiously enough, courtiers like Kissinger and not the monarchs they served. Kissinger goes on to belittle the European Union:
For Kissinger, historical change not accomplished by force hardly counts. Then he explains Putin and Russia:
Again, nothing like a historical factoid to explain away current behavior or policy. This one is about as facile as trying to explain the Bush occupation of Iraq as the latest wrinkle on Manifest Destiny. It may indeed be that a nation capable of the former is predisposed to the latter, but that leaves a lot of intervening history unexamined in favor of a pat answer.
I suppose this is where you notice that Micklethwait is British: he can't quite fall for the poor, tiny, beleaguered Israel line that is political orthodoxy in the US. Kissinger has been around the block enough to know better too, but to say so would take principles, or courage, neither a Kissinger staple. Propounding ignorance about Islam, on the other hand, takes neither. It's right up his alley.
Another remarkable example of Kissinger's ability to look at al the complexities of history and only see power relationships, then to take the narrowest thread and explicate it through some totally unrelated event in European history. Sure, Britain united India politically -- more Bismarck than Napoleon, I'd say, until they also split it into two warring halves -- but they also destroyed India economically. (One thing I wonder is whether Kissinger would have been so successful had stayed in Europe, where his audiences and patrons might actually know much of the history he revels in.)
Middle Kingdom? Another example of forcing the present into the distant past so he can avoid having to understand what's happening there. I like the line -- "Good men do not become soldiers" -- but modern China does not lack for soldiers, or for nails. While modern China must in some sense continue to reflect and resonate ancient China, the nation's remarkable economic growth of the past 20-30 years is more due to forced modernization. This is a modern (perhaps even postmodern) phenomenon -- unexplainable through ancient history, but also non-analogous to the processes that created similar results in Europe and America. In particular, China (and most of East Asia, Japan a partial exception) achieved its wealth without building on imperialism, so is unlikely to look at the world the same way Europe and America do. Needless to say, that's a thought Kissinger is incapable of.
One of my favorite rock lyrics is from the band Camper van Beethoven, and goes like this: "If you weren't living here in America/you'd probably be somewhere else." There are several problems with being self-centered. One is that you can't see yourself as others see you, and as such you have no clue when you do something wrong. Back when the US army was smaller than Bulgaria's it still did things that were wrong -- 1890, the very year Micklethwait cites, was the date of the Wounded Knee Massacre -- but those wrong things were much smaller in scope and more isolated from the rest of the world than they are today. I don't know why Kissinger/Micklethwait complained about the size of the 1890 army. Back then, the US was already the most prosperous nation in the world, without getting into the trap of managing overseas colonies (although it often treated Central America like one). Nor was the US isolated: with the possible exception of the UK, no nation traded more all around the world. What more do they want?
The notion of America as an "indispensable nation" dates from WWII, when latent industrial might turned the tables against the Axis -- although we conveniently forget that most of the actual fighting was carried out by the Soviet Union and China. Unfortunately, Americans had too good a time in that war -- a massive Keynesian stimulus, strict profit controls, and a sense of common purpose pushed a previously depressed economy into overdrive, while all of the war's destruction took place elsewhere. By the time the war was over, over half of the world's industrial capacity resided in the US, and America alone had the financial power to jumpstart the world economy. After some early gestures to build a peaceful world community, Truman got distracted and decided that the US should side with capital in the international class war, so efforts like the Marshall Plan were turned into political weapons against not just the Soviet Union but the whole working class. The "Cold War" somehow managed not to destroy the world, but the US repeatedly supported desperate attempts by colonial powers to recapture their empires, and corrupt dictators and oligarchs when independence was inevitable, while isolating nations that had the gall to turn toward communism. Ultimately, the big loser of the Cold War wasn't the Soviet Union, which gave up the game, but America's own middle class democracy.
Micklethwait, possibly echoing but at least distilling Kissinger, described the Cold War thusly:
After the Soviet Union fell, America's foreign policy elites were beside themselves with triumphal glee -- proclaiming The End of History and looking forward to The Clash of Civilizations -- but their triumph was little more than a con. Had Reagan's rhetoric caused the Soviet Union to disintegrate, why did communist states the US confronted much more aggressively (like Cuba and North Korea) stay communist? If communism was a dead end, how was China able to post the world's strongest economic growth record over the last 25 years? Moreover, when you sift through the real rubble of the "Cold War" you find enormous chasms where the US took the wrong side of history and left enormous destruction in its wake: the "chaos in the Middle East" that Micklethwait bemoans is largely the result of America's Cold War embrace of Salafist jihadism -- a program, by the way, initiated in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger came up with the bright idea of propping the ultraconservative Saudi monarchy up as a US proxy in the Middle East (and soon thereafter Afghanistan). To say "America's moral order worked" is well beyond insane.
This isn't to say that the US should have no role in the world (although that would clearly be an improvement over the one the US has practiced for nearly seventy years now). Clearly there are useful and valuable things a large and rich nation can do in the world -- the $750 million Obama just proposed to fight the ebola epidemic is a nice gesture (although, as Nick Turse recently documented, the US has a terrible track record of running "humanitarian projects" in Africa). But what needs to be done is for the US to meet other countries in forums that give everyone a fair and equal shake, and for that to happen the US has to stop throwing its weight around, trying to bully everyone else into submission. More specifically, the US needs to develop a genuine commitment to peace and human rights, to equality and justice, to a sustainable stewardship of the earth. To do that, a good first step would be to stop listening to Henry Kissinger. In fact, a good step would be to extradite him to the Hague, to finally be tried as the war criminal he was (and is).
Thursday, June 19. 2014
I was thinking about doing a roundup of Iraq/Syria war posts, but despite finding some useful links -- cf. Juan Cole: Who are Iraq's Sunni Arabs and What Did We Do to Them?; Bob Dreyfuss: How Iraq's Crisis Got Started, and How It Didn't -- they seemed to be coming in rather scattershot. Then I ran across the following Obama quote in a comment and it pretty well sums up the essential incoherence of the American position(s). Obama's quote was from November 2010 on occasion of "The Erbil Agreement" which secured a second term as Prime Minister for Nouri al-Maliki:
Maliki got his first term in 2006 when the Bush administration conspicuously meddled in Iraq's political process to get rid of then-Prime Minister Ibrahimi al-Jaafari, an intellectual who was considered too socialist and too timid when it came to controlling the Sadr Movement militia (the Mahdi Army), perceived by the US as a major threat to its occupation. Maliki proved to be an effective strong man, but that was partly because the US could offer Sunni Awakening groups protection against Shiite assassination squads. With the departure of US troops, the protection and bribes that the US had provided vanished behind a thin cloud of rhetoric such as Obama spouts above.
Obama's speech is doubly dangerous. The obvious problem is that what he's describing is pure fantasy: Maliki is a sectarian, and the entire basis for his government, indeed the very structure of that government, was a set of tradeoffs designed to cultivate and reward sectarian parties. It may be obvious to Obama that what the Iraqi government needs to do is to is to become more inclusive and fair, but there was no reason to think that any politician in Iraq would put the public interest above his own pocketbook (and that of his own family, clan, etc.). That just wasn't in the cards, and that wasn't an accident: the US built Iraq that way.
Beyond the obvious problem of its fantasy lies a deeper problem in Obama's speech: he's trying to use Iraq's progress toward stability and prosperity as something vindicating Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq. For someone who gained a large chunk of his credibility for his early opposition to the Iraq War, his stance is stupid and insane. It's stupid because it wasn't true and it's falsity would become clear as soon as Iraq's government faltered -- which is what just happened. It's also stupid because it shifts the blame for Iraq's failure from Bush (who was solely responsible for the war) to Obama (casting away the credibility he gained from his antiwar stance). What Obama should have done is to remind people that this was Bush's war each and every time the subject came up, that it was a disaster, and what the real costs have been. Instead, Obama's legacy is littered with speeches like the one above, where he not only lies to us, he lies to himself. That's insane.
Many commentators (e.g., see Dreyfuss above) have pointed out that the Sunni Islamist insurgencies in Syria and Iraq are joined together. That is, after all, embedded in the name ISIS. They've also pointed out that while Iran and Qatar are consistent in supporting their co-religionists, the US is confused, backing Maliki while opposing Assad. It's certainly hard to see either government as worthy of support, nor is there any reason to think that either insurgency would solve anything. Indeed, the only sensible lesson that one can derive from either war is that all those who resort to violence should be condemned. But Obama isn't drawing that lesson, and you have to wonder why. The simplest explanation is that Maliki is "our" guy while Assad isn't, but that assumes continuity between the Bush administration (which was responsible for empowering Maliki) and Obama. Then there's the notion that the US can't help but choose sides and back one with military power -- there's simply no one in power who can think differently.
Still, that's hardly reassuring for the guy who campaigned on how he wanted to change the way we think about war.
Sunday, June 15. 2014
Rather than spending the day chasing down odds and ends, I want to focus on one key piece: Tom Engelhardt: A Record of Unparalleled Failure. This came out nearly a week ago (June 10), well before the Iraqi government -- the legacy of six year of US occupation -- lost control of the nation's second or third largest city (Mosul). Now that large parts of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and large swaths of north Africa are under (sunni salafist) Islamist control, often identified with Al-Qaeda, it should be clear that the Global War on Terror G.W. Bush launched in 2001 has not only failed; it has blown back spectacularly.
Of course, the people who brought you all that war have a solution: more war. They blame the stalemate in Syria on Obama's reluctance to arm the so-called "moderate Syrian rebels" -- allowing the Islamist rebels to take over. And they see the chaos in Iraq as a consequence of the US pulling its troops out: firepower that both limited the Sunni insurgency and restrained the Shiite-dominated government. And they have more or less similar fixes for everything else, like the drone warfare over Yemen and the recent insertion of US Special Forces into Chad. They blame Obama for his week-kneed, wobbly responses. He, in turn, without any success on the Israel-Palestine diplomatic front, has been unable to resist the hawks' browbeating, repeatedly putting himself into lose-lose positions, where the hawks get to characterize the failures of American force as the results of "too little" rather than "too much."
There is an alternative view that virtually no one in Washington in any way invested in US foreign policy would dare bring up. Engelhardt makes this view succinctly:
Engelhardt's memory of America's wars goes back past the GWOT, all the way to Korea and Vietnam in the anti-communist era (the so-called "Cold War"), and he doesn't find any exceptions there either (nor in the so-called "little wars" that Max Boot is so fond of). The essay continues with him going back over all five points, adding details to reiterate the case. But he doesn't go after deeper answers. He doesn't, for instance, wonder how the American fetish for individualism and obsession with profit warp a military culture which has traditionally depended on selfless sacrifice. He doesn't go into the changes brought about as the Army abandoned the draft in favor of career soldiers (something Andrew Bacevich goes overboard on in his latest book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country). He doesn't even note that all of "America's wars" have been fought on foreign ground for political reasons that have had nothing to do with "the American way of life." He doesn't note the fickle tendency of American leaders to pick sides in fights they hardly understand, and how this almost invariably leads to the US allied with corrupt and ineffective leaders. He doesn't delve into how the desire to impose American-like systems of government always wind up reproducing the most unjust aspects of American society -- a problem that only became worse as conservatives gained power. (This is, of course, why Peter Beinart argued that only liberals could win the War on Terror, ignoring the fact that liberals had tried and failed to win the anti-communist wars in Korea and Vietnam.) Nor does he go into factors extrinsic to the US, such as the analysis that Jonathan Schell summed up perfectly in his book title, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People: could it be the case that one reason the US has always failed was that time and again it attempted the impossible?
When you think about it, not only is what Engelhardt says true, it's pretty obviously true for lots of easily identifiable reasons. Yet hardly anyone with a stake in power realizes that. Engelhardt reminds us: "keep in mind that we are inside an enormous propaganda machine of militarism, even if we barely acknowledge the space in our lives that it fills. Inside it, only certain opinions, certain thoughts, are acceptable, or even in some sense possible." There are lots of components to this propaganda machine, but I think the blinders that most elites have that prevents them from doubting the efficacy of "the military option" are rooted in two great myths.
The first is that the US always fights for right, and therefore our motives and goals are beyond question. For this, one can cite our major wars: the War for Independence, which established our democracy free from foreign rule; the Civil War, which ended the odious "peculiar institution" of slavery; and the World Wars, when Germany and Japan threatened to subdue whole continents and subject them to racist and colonialist exploitation. Of course, this ignores the 1848 Mexican-American War and 1898 Spanish-American War, which were blatant imperialist land grabs, and slights the many Indian wars, which were land grabs with a whiff of genocide thrown in. But after WWII, the anti-communist wars aligned the US with capital (and its cronies) against labor, ultimately leading to grave damage to America's own working class -- which is to say to the detriment of most Americans, as well as most people in the countries we fought or subverted. Moreover, where the US failed to impose its will, it turned out to be remarkably petty and vindictive, as we see even today in US efforts to blockade Cuba and North Korea.
The problem here is not just that our motives are impure -- if you look close enough you'll find that they never were, although it certainly suited the people who led those wars to get us to think so -- but that this sense of self-righteousness results in a huge blind spot around the terrible costs of war. Indeed, how blind one can be is amply demonstrated by WWII, which saw the US carpet-bombing Europe, creating horrific firestorms in Japan, and ultimately using nuclear weapons that obliterated whole cities. The notion that that was "the good war" is frankly obscene. What was "good" about it was that it was run by the most fair-minded and equitable administration the US ever enjoyed, one that worked hard to instill in all Americans an unprecedented sense of joint purpose and solidarity, and that was what felt good. But on the war fronts, which few Americans actually experienced, the usual atrocities of war prevailed.
And ever since then, that sense of solidarity is remembered in unthinking ritual, in waving the flag and commemorating veterans and cheering the troops, as if what they do now has anything to do with our declining standard of living.
The second myth has to do with the ever-increasing efficiency of killing that the US military wields. The problem here isn't that the efficiency is mythical (although it takes on mythical airs in some respects, like the doctrine of "shock and awe"), but that it gives our political elites a false sense of superiority and, indeed, invulnerability which makes them excessively confident and therefore more likely to use "the military option." On the other hand, the military's measures of killing efficiency turn out to be of very little value in the real world. No enemy since the Chinese in Korea have fought anything resembling a conventional war against the US, yet that never stopped them from finding effective ways to fight -- especially as the US is always fighting on foreign territory, ostensibly in support of local allies which necessarily provide cover for their enemies.
We also need to consider the touchy subject of defense. The US military has become increasingly reluctant to risk the lives of its soldiers: eliminating the draft has much to do with this, but one should also factor in the decreasing stakes of the wars the US has entered into -- maybe Iraq matters to Exxon, but is it worth your while to risk your life for slightly cheaper gasoline back home? The worst case scenario for Iraq might embarrass some politicians and generals but won't change a single thing in everyday life back home -- except, of course, for the ex-soldiers wounded and traumatized, and recognizing that helps push survival to the top of nearly every soldier's priority, changing the risks they're willing to take, and reducing their effectiveness at everything but killing.
The bottom line here is that the first time anyone in power says anything about "hearts and minds" you know that the US has lost the war, because American soldiers don't do "hearts and minds": they kill people, they blow shit up, they act menacing and invincible, but that's it. They may be the most efficient killers in the world, but for anything else they're useless, in large part because they're scared shitless any time they're not on the offensive.
While I was contemplating writing about Engelhardt's post, I ran across another piece that says the exact same things (working in a few of the extra points that I chided Engelhardt for not digging up): Gordon Adams: Blame America ("The United States tried to build a stable state in Iraq. We should've known better."):
Back during Bush's runup to the Iraq War, it suddenly became very popular to talk about the US occupation of Germany and Japan as huge success stories. Anyone familiar with the details should have objected, as indeed John W. Dower (author of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War and Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II) did, explaining both that Iraq had next to nothing in common with Japan, and that the United States in 2003 was nearly as far removed from the US in 1945. Some of the big differences:
Iraq and Afghanistan had their own experiences with colonial and quisling rulers. As Muslims, they had grown up with the historical remembrance of the Crusades and the knowledge that their ancestors had beaten back the infidel invaders. (Afghanistan, of course, was responsible for the utter rout of British colonial forces in the 19th century, as well as the more recent destruction of the Soviet Union.) So the idea of fighting back was deeply embedded in both places, and the pathetic performance of the Saddamist and Taliban armies smelled more like desertion than defeat, and happened to haphazardly that the people wound up with large stockpiles of arms.
The Bush administration, on the other hand, was utterly cynical about government, seeing it as little more than a vast store of pilferage and patronage -- they invested more in Iraq for the bare reason that there was more to steal there. Moreover, they were absolutely shameless in their manipulation of constitutions and elections, seeing them as games to be scammed to make sure that the resulting institutions were dependent on and submissive to the US, as opposed to representative of their constituencies. (In other words, pretty much the same attitude Republicans have toward elections in the US.) And when things went wrong, they talked a lot about "hearts and minds" and sent the military out to do the only thing it does at all well: kill. And when that didn't work, they whipped multiple sides up and aimed them at killing each other, a divide strategy that didn't conquer so much as protract the embarrassment of defeat. Obama finally pulled out not so much because he knew better as because the entire war machine was so wore out that they preferred to move on to greener pastures -- drone warfare, Libya, north Africa, places where they can do their damage without getting their boots dusty (or bloody).
Still, Engelhardt and Adams are very exceptional in pointing out the obvious about US military power. It's very hard for politicians to do the same, not because they can't see failure all around them so much as that hawk patriotism is so entertwined with self-flattery of Americans, and politicians understand that flattery works. Give us a prospective crisis like, say, preventing the destruction of the Shiite shrine in Karbala and no self-revering American will concede that there's nothing we can do to save it, and that if we even tried the most likely outcome would be that we blow it up ourselves.
Ultimately we need to understand: there is no answer to war but no war. Until we take that to heart, we'll be stuck in this endless cycle of futility.
Saturday, March 8. 2014
I rarely pay any attention to news when I travel, and my recent trip to Florida was no exception. When I left I was vaguely aware of violently repressed anti-Russian (aka "pro-West") protesters in Ukraine, but when I got back to Wichita the table had flipped with Ukraine's Prime Minister (democratically elected, as best I recall) ousted and exiled to Russia, while a new "caretaker" government had taken over and was, in turn, violently repressing pro-Russian (aka "anti-West") protesters. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in turn, had become very upset, and intervened militarily taking control of the Crimean peninsula -- with an invite from the regional government there, and aided by the fact that Russia already had a substantial military presence in Crimea.
As usual, outsiders see events like this through their pre-existing lenses, which in the US mostly means the relics of the "Cold War" -- the anti-Communist ideology that drove America's security state to seek worldwide hegemony. The issue is no longer economic: Russia adopted a particularly brutal form of privatized capitalism following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but remained more/less isolated from the neoliberal international system, and after Putin came to power resumed thinking of itself as an autonomous regional (if not world) power. Meanwhile, neocons in the US shifted their focus from economic to military hegemony, seeking to contain and marginalize any nation that had not aligned itself under US military command.
As such, they were more focused in extending NATO -- which with the end of the Cold War seemed to have no reason for continued existence -- through eastern Europe to the former SSRs than they were interested in pushing economic integration. Russia, quite reasonably, regarded such efforts to expand NATO as a challenge to its own autonomy. The Ukraine has turned out to be a focal point in this US-Russia struggle because popular opinion there is closely divided between pro- and anti-Russian factions, with each able to draw in foreign alliances by catering to the prejudices of Moscow and Washington. That, in turn, results in overreactions by all parties.
I was thinking about doing a piece collecting various links, but one article stands out: Anatol Lieven: Why Obama Shouldn't Fall for Putin's Ukrainian Folly [March 2]:
Many Americans are so fond of zero-sum games that they assume any "serious geopolitical defeat for Russia" is a net gain for the US -- a sense reinforced by sixty years of unrelenting Cold War propaganda. That's very foolish: a crippled Russia is more desperate and dangerous, more estranged from international norms, and more likely to provoke worse behavior from the US -- a superpower with a notoriously weak sense of international law, scant appreciation that such law holds the key to a stable future, and none that Americans might actually benefit from some constraints.
The neocon notion that a superpower can impose its vision of how political economies should work on foreign peoples has proven to be a disaster, most obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US spent so many billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of soldiers. That lesson hasn't sunk in, least of all for morons like John McCain, who was so eager to send troops to defend Georgia in 2008, but at least those currently in control recognize that American power is limited -- in particular, an army that can't manage a few thousand Taliban has no itch to take on nuclear-armed Russia or China.
Still, the Obama administration hasn't done much to reassure us of its sanity. They've moved token armed forces into position close to Russia. Secretary of State Kerry has pushed for economic sanctions against Russia -- "war by other means" but still hostile with an aim toward crippling -- while his predecessor, probable future president Hillary Clinton, has absent-mindedly likened Putin to Adolph Hitler. (The problem isn't just historical. The US waged total war against Hitler, insisting on nothing short of unconditional surrender. When Bush I painted Saddam Hussein as "just like Hitler" he set up an expectation for victory that his 1991 Gulf War couldn't deliver, a shortsightedness that Bush II felt the need to remedy in 2003.)
One more point: intervention, and its ill effects, didn't start with Putin seizing Crimea. It goes back to when the Ukraine became independent, split off from the Soviet Union, with NATO expansion a particularly aggressive move by the US. Moreover, apprehension and bad blood wasn't inevitable after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main ways the US irritated Putin was the program to install a US-controlled anti-missile defense network in Poland during the Bush II years. This should remind us all once again: conflicts don't begin with war; rather, war is the shameful and disastrous failure of parties to solve conflicts before they get out of hand.
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.