Sunday, September 1. 2013
The best piece I've seen recently on Washington's incessant drumbeat for intervening militarily in Syria is Stephen M Walt: We're Going to War Because We Just Can't Stop Ourselves:
Since Walt wrote those words, the UK Parliament voted against joining in the American folly. First time that's happened, so I'm reminded of the 1960s sign, "suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" And today, Obama announced that he'll seek Congressional authority before he'll launch that war, and John Boehner slated the House vote on Sept. 9. So while the chatterers on last night's Washington Week were excitedly expecting a volley of cruise missiles before Obama's trip to Russia next week, retribution is at least ten days away.
Lots of things can happen in those ten days. The UN will get a chance to finish its evaluation of the alleged chemical weapons attack, and debate its own legal recourse. (Any American attack without UN sanction would be illegal under international law, not that the threat of war crimes trials has ever stopped the US in the past.) Obama will have some face time to negotiate with Putin in Russia. Someone might realize that there is a new president in Iran who might be more amenable to diplomatic measures than the previous one. (Not that there is any justification for the popular notion that the Syrian Civil War is a "proxy fight" between Iran and "pro-Western forces" -- you know, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.) And Congress might decide to buck its 20% approval rating and do something that actually aligns popularly with the wishes of the American people. Also expect some large anti-war rallies along the way.
In Congress, opposition to a resolution giving Obama the option to "use force" will be bipartisan. How that breaks depends a lot on how much pressure Obama puts on Democrats to give their president the benefit of their doubts: the more so the more Democrats he gets, and the fewer Republicans. From the Wichita Eagle today, I know that Tim Huelskamp will oppose in any case, but I also see Mike Pompeo very critical of "a warning shot across the bow" -- he wants what he calls a "robust response," but since Obama is unlikely to satisfy his bloodlust, he too may oppose. (In this he's not as bloodthirsty as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who'll take what they can get and pray the war gets worse and we get sucked in ever deeper -- although I've seen reports of even them holding out for a more resolution that commits the US to toppling Assad.) Also, his patron David Koch has come out against intervention.
And while the Senate seems more likely to consent than advise, can't we at least expect a fillibuster?
Some things I've been reading as I try to catch up (much more pro-hawk than I'd like; cartoons from Truthdig):
The Syrian Civil War is a great human tragedy, and a decent United States government should do everything reasonable to help bring it to a just and peaceful solution. However, a decent US government would not have conspired to overthrow the democratic government of Iran in 1953, nor subsidized and rationalized Israel's aggressive war in 1967 and occupation of Syrian and Palestinian land ever since then, nor subsidized a civil war in Afghanistan since 1979, nor countenanced let alone abetted Israel's interference in Lebanon from 1982-2000 (again in 2006), nor supported Iraq in their 1980s war against Iran, nor repeatedly and almost promiscuously bombed Libya and Sudan and Iraq and Afghanistan (and with drones much more, from Somalia to Pakistan), nor helped Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States suppress democratic movements for decades, nor invaded and fomented a civil war in Iraq from 2003-09, and that list goes on and on -- did I mention Yemen yet? Nor is there much evidence that anything that the US consciously tried to do in the Middle East has actually turned out the way expected. The bottom line here is that the US has no credibility trying to insert itself, militarily or clandestinely, anywhere in the entire region. And the degree of US failure in the region isn't exactly a secret. The regimes we put in place in Iran and Egypt proved to be so corrupt and hated that they led to revolutions. And US acts have generated blowback like kidnappings and bombings including the 1983 Beirut event and the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. We should know better by now. After all, we have laws like "3 strikes and you're out" which seek to prevent serial offenders from ever getting another chance to do ill -- yet the CIA and the DOD goes on and on, from one blunder to another.
So the first reason why the US shouldn't intervene in Syria is that we've proven that we're absolutely incapable of doing so in a way that doesn't make things worse. The second reason is that in order to quit intervening (and making matters worse), we need to break down the institutional support for doing so. They only way to stop making these mistakes in the future is to deny ourselves the ability to make them. (Then you won't have some Madeleine Albright character coming around and taunting you with "what's the point of having this magnificent military if you never use it?")
Beyond this obvious point there is a more profound one, which is that war or the threat of war almost never resolves a conflict without making it much worse, at least in the short run. Lots of people don't recognize this, and that's a big problem, but we can run through hundreds of cases, and it's really hard to find cases where wars couldn't have been profitably avoided had people made the effort to negotiate just solutions ahead of time. A corollary here is that the defense dogma -- the idea that we can avoid war by preparing a strong military defense -- is utter bullshit, as anyone can see by looking at the how often the dominant military power wound up using that power (e.g., the UK in the 18th-19th centuries, and the US since 1945; in between the dominant power was mostly Germany, which doesn't counter my point).
So again, on these grounds, what the US should be doing is cutting back its military power (including the CIA and NSA), not blundering its way into more wars.
So far these are just general statements that would apply anywhere to any such conflict, such as the decisions to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. While those instances were disastrous enough they shouldn't generate much controversy, the models that you hear socalled experts jaw about as pertaining to Syria are Kosovo in 1998 and Libya in 2008 -- air-only campaigns that are commonly remembered as successful, mostly because our memory is rather selective, and is focused rigidly on minimal costs to us as opposed to the suffering of actual people in the countries the US claimed to be helping. Two points here: one is that neither of those cases weaken by one iota the general principles above; the other is that many of the specific circumstances that made Kosovo and Libya relatively manageable are not applicable to Syria. (Also note that Libya turned out not to be as painless as originally thought, as several Americans were killed in blowback against a CIA base in Benghazi.)
Given the above, we shouldn't have to argue specifics about Syria, but some are worth noting. The first is that Syria is approximately the same size and population as Iraq and Afghanistan: two countries that the US was able to quickly invade but never quite pacify. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, it has a stronger, more modernized military that is actively supplied by Russia and Iran. It has a functioning air force and anti-aircraft defenses, intermediate range missiles, and evidently some chemical weapons -- none of which Iraq had in working order in 2003, or Afghanistan had ever. So the bottom line there is that Syria would be more difficult, at least more painful, for the US to invade than Iraq was. That Obama isn't contemplating "boots on the ground" pretty much acknowledges this difficulty.
That in turn brings back the question of the effectiveness of airpower only. That was widely debated a decade ago, when Bush decided to invade Iraq, arguing that the "no flight" zones that the US had enforced over Iraq for more than a decade had no real effect on Saddam Hussein's control within Iraq. For many reasons Syria is more similar to Iraq than it is to Kosovo or Libya, so what article of faith makes people think that "no flight" zones and periodic bombing that didn't work in Iraq would work now? (On the contrary, Syria's superior air defenses make at least some observers think the opposite.) The only thing that makes Syria seem more vulnerable is the ongoing civil war, which has broken Assad's power in several scattered areas of the country. That opens up the possibility that the US could arm and direct rebel armies as proxy "boots on the ground" -- that the US could fashion a combination of sophisticated weaponry and tight air support that would eventually defeat Syria's professional army, air force, and security services.
That was, after all, what basically happened in Libya, but: Syria is a more populous country with a larger, better equipped, and much better trained army; taking out Syria's air defenses would be a major undertaking, whereas Libya's were wiped out in two days; Assad has a much larger internal security organization than Gaddafi had (in large part because he had been challenged much more before the civil war broke out); Assad (or his regime) is also, by any conceivable measure, much more popular within Syria than Gaddafi was in Libya -- moreover, the split in Syria is largely sectarian, which quickly hardened the lines in the civil war, and raised fears of mass killings (especially if Assad loses); meanwhile, the anti-Assad forces are split and scattered, and it seems very likely that even if they defeated Assad they would wind up fighting among themselves (as did the Afghans).
Most of those problems can be overcome if the US is desperate and committed enough to make the investments and bear the pain -- pilots shot down, CIA operatives lost, etc. But neither Obama nor the DOD (see Dempsey's testimony above) really seem up for that level of involvement, so they are vulnerable to the charge that whatever they do will won't be enough to get the job done. But the latter is the real vexing problem. It turns out that the most militant of the anti-Assad forces are affiliated with Al-Qaida, making our worst enemies in the region our best friends in this particular battle (and not for the first time -- recall Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Osama Bin Laden got his first taste for blood working for the US war effort). A good indication of how big a problem this is can be gleaned by the fact that some months ago Obama decided to start arming the Syrian rebels, but now we know that the US hasn't delivered any of those arms, mostly because we haven't found any rebels we trust with those arms.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you can't find any Syrian rebel groups to arm, the strategy that is based on arming the rebels isn't really an option. So that leaves you with the plan that says you're just going to bomb shit until Assad cries uncle. OK, that one worked in Kosovo, but there the Serbs had the option of just retreating into Serbia, where they were unthreatened (an option that Assad, and more importantly his sectarian supporters, lack). But what Obama's proposing isn't even that: it's that, like, the US is going to bomb Syria until we feel like we've punished Assad enough, then leave him be until he pisses us off again, at which point we'll bomb him some more, and maybe, eventually, he'll get tired of it, or we'll get tired of it, or something.
The more you dig into these specifics, the less reason you can come up with why anything the US is likely to do is likely to come anywhere close to working. It's certainly true that a dictator who responds to peaceful demonstrations by shooting people or firing artillery into whole cities has no right to continue ruling. He should be arrested and hauled before the ICC, or dealt with appropriately by a local court. On the other hand, demonstrators who respond to such provocations by starting an insurrection, leading to a civil war resulting in over 100,000 deaths, don't deserve to rule either. Nor do you ever want to set up a situation where people simply because they are affiliated with a sectarian group -- sunnis, alawites, kurds, christians; you can slice and dice Syria dozens of ways -- are put at risk simply because people associate those groups with various power factions. All that has happened in Syria, and, sure, someone needs to sort it out, but it can't be the US, it can't be Israel, it can't be Turkey, it can't be the Arab League, it can't be Russia, it can't be Iran, it can't be Hezbollah; it has to be done in Syria, and sooner or later the factions (if not the individual leaders) need to learn to live together and accommodate one another. Maybe a non-violent group like the UN could facilitate in a useful way, and it would probably help if everyone else get behind them in some way. But what doesn't help at all is for outsiders to try to align with inside groups.
If you'll indulge a fantasy solution, it's that while Obama and Putin are drinking in Moscow next week they'll agree to freeze arms shipments to Syria, press whatever other countries they have any influence with (Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for the US; Iran for Russia) to do the same; insist on a cease-fire with no jockeying for control; get Syria to bring the UN in to oversee dismantling their chemical arms (which, as with Iraq in the 1990s, are more a liability than an asset); negotiate a broad framework for opening up the existing Syrian government to democratic reforms while at the same time ensuring minority rights (e.g., from the sort of overreach the Muslim Brotherhood tried in Egypt). Even if the latter parts of this fantasy are a tough sell in Damascus, any sort of international arms embargo would start to starve out the war, whereas Obama's current plans can only escalate it.
And by the way, the demonization of Assad (which I admittedly did a bit of above) isn't helpful. While it might be ideal to see everyone on every side responsible for any death brought to justice, these conflicts usually end in broad amnesties and it is better to have lifted the burden of revenge. (Even the US let Robert E. Lee retire from the battlefield.) Again, Iraq offers a good example of what not to do: the demonization of Saddam Hussein gave the regime no reason to compromise or liberalize, and the complete sacking of the Baath state and army led directly to chaos and civil war which still smolders today. One thing that makes today's hawks so dangerous is that they haven't begun to come to grips with their tragic mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two more points need to be made, if only briefly:
The first is that Israel has had an enormous impact on the thinking of America's hawks, and that this has completely distorted their sense of America's interests in the region. Israel's deepest desire is to preserve its unity and ethos as a warrior-settler state, which means it has no desire for conflict resolution. In 1951 Syria was the first Arab state to seek a peace agreement with Israel, and they were rebuffed. Israel initiated many border skirmishes with Syria over the next 16 years, after which they occupied and annexed a substantial strip of Syrian territory, now called the Golan Heights. Since then, Israel has kept Syria as a close enemy, and that status has informed America's own troubled relationship with Syria -- despite occasional attempts by Syria to cozy up to the US, especially when they supported the Gulf War against Iraq. But Syria could never make peace with Israel as long as Israel held onto Syrian territory, and Syria had no choice but to depend on Russia for weapons in a region with many enemies. The only real US interest in the region is for peace, free trade, and free capital flows, and that's the opposite of Israel's warrior-settler interest. Yet because US policy has been so reflexively stupid for so long, Israel can easily manipulate the US into opposing its enemies -- Iran has been the big project since Iraq was defanged in 1991 -- and as such we keep feeding the conflicts that Israel depends on.
If Obama were to make peace with Syria and Iran, he would move a long way toward freeing American foreign policy from the perverse stranglehold of Israel.
The second, and last, point I want to make here is that growing Republican opposition to Middle Eastern entanglements is the logical outcome of their racism and Islamophobia. I wouldn't want to support their thinking in those terms, but at least it gets you to the right policy answer, which is disengagement. The right were the first to see that the Syrian rebels were mostly sunni fundamentalists, and that arming them is equivalent to arming Al-Qaida. (The liberal hawks, on the other hand, reflexively see only fellow liberal hawks in the region.) If Obama's war powers resolution fails in Congress, it will largely be a victim of Republican nativism. That's not the best reason to vote against Obama, but it's the right vote.
Saturday, May 11. 2013
A little over two years ago the "Arab Spring" pro-democracy movement broke out in Syria, a nation that nearly everyone agreed could benefit from more political freedom, seeing as how it's been ruled by the Assad family since the 1960s and by one military clique or another even further back. Similar dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly; struggles against the dictators of Yemen and Bahrein dragged out inconclusively; but in Libya and Syria demonstrators were met with violence and some fraction of the military establishment broke against the regime, plunging those nations into civil war. Demonstrations in Jordan faded quickly with a few token reforms. And nothing much happened in Saudi Arabia, probably the one nation in the region most in need of a democratic overhaul.
One prism into understanding how these movements played out is to map them against US influence in the region. US interests and actions in the Middle East have been schizophrenic since the late 1940s when US administrations found themselves not just allied but in love with two conflicting suitors: Israel, and Saudi-Arabian oil (although any oil would do, especially Iran's from 1953-79). One problem was that those paramours came with a lot of baggage: Israel was constantly at war with its Arab neighbors and its own [Palestinian] people, forging an elite militarist culture that thrives on conflict, foments hatred against everything Arab, and has turned most of world opinion against them -- the major exception America's own fundamentalist Christians and militarists. The Saudi ruling family, on the other hand, is joined at the hip to the most extremely reactionary Salafist Muslim clergy, and has spent billions of dollars attempting to export their religious orthodoxy throughout the Middle East and into Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it turned virulently anti-American. But America's true obsession was the Cold War, in service of which no tyrant or ideologue could be found too unsavory. The Israelis and Saudis became expert at camouflaging their own obsessions as anti-communist fervor, so the US could embrace them both.
But another facet of America's Cold War obsession was promotion of democracy, not so much for allies as for countries on the other (or no) side, but as a contrast to the "unfree" Soviet-style regimes. So when masses of people demand democracy, our natural tendency is to applaud. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt -- secure military allies with tired and unsavory leaders -- Obama had little reason to resist, so the US subtly nudged their power structure to go with the flow. In Yemen, one of Obama's favorite drone-shooting ranges, and Bahrein, with its Shiite majority possibly tilting toward Iran, the US was more reserved. But Libya and Syria were rarely US allies, and most of the "brains" behind US policy in the region -- especially the "neocons" -- have spent most of their careers bashing their leaders, so the US had no interests in maintaining them, but also no influence or leverage that could be used to democratize them. Consequently, the more the US leaned against them, the less then had to lose by suppressing their revolts violently. In hindsight, the best way the US could have helped to democratize those nations would have been to develop normal relations with them. (It is worth noting that the only Soviet bloc states that didn't democratize are the ones the US fought wars against, followed by long, grudge-filled periods of isolation: China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba.)
As soon as Libya and Syria broke into civil war, the neocons -- most vociferously, Senators McCain and Graham, who never miss an opportunity to plunge us deeper into hell -- and their "liberal hawk" cronies started crying for the US to intervene. How anyone could think that inserting the US military into a conflict would save lives is beyond me. (The historical basis for that idea was probably the NATO intervention in Bosnia. After just two weeks of bombing, the Serbs accepted a ceasefire and signed the Dayton Accords ending a war between Serbia and Bosnia that had dragged on for more than two years. That intervention surely did save lives, at least if you don't factor in the subsequent Kosovo War, which was made all the more likely by the expectation that NATO would again intervene against Serbia -- as it did.) But you can't judge interventions by simply balancing deaths on one side versus the other. US intervention means that people who wouldn't have been killed otherwise are now being killed by the US -- a fact that won't be easily rationalized by the people the US attacked.
Obama did finally agree to intervene in Libya, but only after France and the UK had committed to do so. US firepower quickly degraded Libya's military power, and the civil war turned against Gaddafi, ending after about three months. Obama was careful not to land US troops, or to put the US into a position where the US would have any responsibility for postwar administration and reconstruction. Nonetheless, last September a group of Islamic jihadists attacked the US consulate in Benghazi -- the center of the anti-Gaddafi resistance, presumably the most grateful city for the US intervention -- killing four Americans, the sort of blowback that should always be expected. The Benghazi attack has since become a cause celebre for the Republicans, who have gone so far as to argue that Obama should be impeached for his "cover up" of the attack. (As far as I can tell, that "cover up" consisted of nothing more than Susan Rice making some erroneous statements the day after, confusing the violent attack in Benghazi with non-violent anti-American protests elsewhere. I would write more about this if I could make any sense out of it, but I can't. The one thing I can say is that attacking Obama for something bad happening after he intervened in Libya isn't likely to be the most effective way to convince him to intervene in Syria, where the number of bad things that can happen is much greater.)
Dexter Filkins has a long article, The Thin Red Line, on Syria, the pressures put on Obama to intervene there, and some of the risks. Filkins is one of those reporters for whom war is just business -- booming, as his book, The Forever War, shows. He recounts much of what I wrote above on Yugoslavia and Libya, while only glancingly mentioning less "successful" US interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan. The title refers to Obama's casual warning to Assad that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" leading to US intervention. ("Red lines" have been much in the news lately, especially regarding Iran's "nuclear program" -- what degree of offense would "justify" Israel and/or the US to preemptively attack Iran.) Consequently, advocates of going to war with Syria are scouring the data for any evidence of poison gas use, under the theory that having drawn a red line there, Obama will have no choice but to intervene -- the entire credibility of the US is put at stake by Obama's careless use of jargon.
The Syrian Civil War has resulted in, to pick two recent estimates, between 70 and 120 thousand deaths, with more than a million refugees, and many more internally displaced. Those are substantial numbers, even if they are still less than the death-and-refugee toll of the Civil War in Iraq that was triggered and abetted by the US invasion and occupation. (At least no one was so stupid as to urge anyone to intervene to "save lives" in Iraq. Of course, enforcing a "no fly" zone against the US would have been difficult, but we are talking about genocide here, something the world has committed to tolerate "never again.")
Filkins reports on three options for US intervention: establishing a "no fly" zone; arming the rebels; and somehow securing Syria's chemical weapon sites. The "no fly" zone is regarded as more difficult than it was in Libya because Syria has more sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses, although they don't seem to cause Israel much trouble. The bigger problem is that in itself it's unlikely to have much effect -- e.g., on artillery and missiles. One suggestion is to use the "Patriot anti-missile system" to intercept Syrian SCUD missiles. (Is this the source of the adage that "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels"?) So it's very likely that a "no fly" zone will be a stepping stone to deeper involvement, as indeed it was in Libya.
Arming the rebels is relatively easy to do, and is already being done by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and possibly others. However, this gets real tricky real fast. There are multiple groups of rebels, and some of them are friendlier to the US than others, and the last thing you want is to send arms to Al-Qaeda-types in Syria -- which are a formidable part of the resistance -- who might wind up using the arms against American targets, so you want to pick and choose who gets what, but in doing so you're not only arming the rebels against Syria, you're arming them against each other. And while you might argue that a "no fly" zone is a neutral way to level the battlefield, arming select groups of the rebels ends any pretense at neutrality or disinterest. You now have a "dog in the fight": which is not only bad news for Assad, it's a challenge for anyone who is wary of American power in the region -- a short list which includes Iran and Russia, even before this revolt provided Syria with arms. The result is surely an arms race, escalating even further the level of violence.
Arming the rebels also means forgoing the alternative, which is to negotiate an arms embargo with Syria's suppliers, and enforce comparable limits on the rebels' suppliers. The desired effect would be to let the conflict degrade into a stalemate, which would give both sides reason to negotiate a power-sharing agreement and move toward a democratic scheme which protects interests allied with both sides. If the US goes in and arms the rebels, that option disappears. The rebels become more convinced in their eventual triumph, cementing their resolve to fight on. From that point the only way to long-term suffering is to shorten the war by increasing the rebels' firepower and leverage, which not only helps them defeat Assad, it also allows them to more completely dominate the social, ethnic, and tribal groups that had favored Assad. And it also makes more likely an internecine war between rebel groups -- as happened when the Russians finally quit Afghanistan.
Even Filkins admits that the third option -- securing Syria's chemical weapons -- is a fool's errand. Nobody knows how many sites there are, how many munitions there are, where they all are, or much of anything else about them. What you really need is a UN disarmament team to set up camp in Syria and track them all down, but for that to happen you have to stop the shooting, in which case you might as well solve the conflict. As for the US doing it directly, Filkins reports an estimate that it would take 75,000 troops: the basic scheme there is to conquer the country, then look for the illicit weapons -- for lessons on how this "works," see Iraq. Even if you could magically wipe the country clean of chemical weapons, it's unlikely that the conflit would be less deadly. They wind up being nothing more than a side-thought: a problem people should have thought of before starting a war that makes their use much more likely.
Obama has managed to frustrate virtually every side in the conflict. He never offered any pretense of neutrality, and has gone out of his way to offend Assad backers from Iran to Hezbollah. He's had better relations with Russia, but not much. Saudi and Qatari arms shipments inevitably smell of US approval, as does Israel's recent bombings of Syria -- one thing the latter does is to test Syria's air defenses, useful research for that "no fly" zone. The CIA is reportedly on the ground in Syria, feeding intelligence info to the rebels. On the other hand, it's hard to tell who's "winning" the war, and nothing Obama has done is likely to tilt the balance, so he's not winning points with the neocon crowd -- nor should he, given the way they've lashed out at him over Libya, which he finessed about as elegantly as any American president could.
As far as I'm concerned, Assad's extremely violent counterrevolt is inexcusable, ensuring his future as an international pariah. However, the more I read of the rebels, the less sympathetic I am to them, and the more I fear their possible triumph. Andrew Bacevich makes an interesting point:
If Assad falls, either democratically or by arms, the successor state will very probably be more conservative, more devoutly Islamist, and very likely more aggressively anti-American and anti-Israel -- in other words, it will be a state that most Americans who reflexively clamored for Assad's ouster will find disappointing. And as such it will ratchet America's frustration with the region even deeper. It will also be a war-torn wreck, with few prospects of reconstruction any time soon. Barring US occupation, it is unlikely to become as corrupt as Iraq or Afghanistan, but like those two disaster areas, its people has already fragmented into many conflicting identities, which will continue to tear at the social fabric even after the war ends. Moreover, as far as the US is concerned, Syria will always be on the wrong side of Israel, and for that matter the wrong side of Lebanon, and if those features fade it will revert to no meaning at all. The only reason McCain and Graham and their ilk care at all about Syria is that they smell war there, and they see in every war an opportunity for the US to assert its omnipotence.
I too see war in Syria as a test for the US, and especially as a test for Obama: the test is whether we can finally see clear to stay out of a conflict where in the long run we can only hurt ourselves. The US is so infatuated with itself that it is a sucker for the likes of McCain and Graham, and Obama has repeatedly allowed himself to be seduced by American power -- partly, no doubt, because the Republicans so delight in trash talking to him, taunting him as an apologist, impugning him for every irresolute doubt. Obama once said that he wants to change how America thinks about war, but he seems unable to even change how he himself thinks. Syria is a test of his ability to pit sanity against jargon, for rarely has a course of action -- intervention -- loomed so temptingly yet been so clearly fraught with folly.
Thursday, March 21. 2013
Ten years ago this week George W. Bush launched his war against Iraq. He was almost solely responsible for the act, at least in the sense that had he decided not to go to war he would have met virtually no resistance. Yet he also had little real choice: he was a mental slave to the logic that had led his father to attack Iraq in 1991, and that had prevented either Bush or Clinton from making any serious effort to normalize Iraq. Moreover, he was still smitten by the political euphoria his father had briefly enjoyed when the 1991 war had initially seemed so successful, and he was convinced that his own "tougher resolve" would lock in the same political euphoria, allowing him to build up "political capital" for ever greater feats, like war with Iran, or wrecking social security.
Invading Iraq turned out to be a surprisingly difficult political play, especially compared to the utter ease with which Bush was able to sink the US military into a hopeless quagmire in Afghanistan -- one that, needless to say, still saps US forces while remaining as far as ever from resolution. Many figures came forth declaring Iraq "a war of choice," "the wrong war" (as compared to Afghanistan), but for me the real wrong choice was Afghanistan, especially following Bush's wholehearted support of Ariel Sharon's destruction of the Oslo Peace Process in Israel/Palestine. In an unguarded moment, Bush himself referred to his efforts to bend the Middle East to his will as a new "crusade": his "born again" certainty reinforcing the hubris of America's anti-communist triumphalism.
This was all clear at the time. And while I wrote little about Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11 -- my website barely existed then, I spent the month following 9/11 away from home, and I had yet to grasp the event's political importance -- by 2003 I was writing regularly. When I grep "Iraq" in my notebook file, I fish up more than 4000 lines. I thought I'd quote a few of them, mostly from March-April 2003, a few earlier (including one from Sept. 11, 2001), ending with a couple from August 2003. Reading through them, I see that I'm missing a lot of detail, especially the whole WMD controversy (a bogus argument if ever I've heard one).
Of course, much more happened after August 2003, and at least some of that shows up in subsequent posts. Then there are the books: I've read at least thirty specifically on Afghanistan and Iraq, another twenty on the Bush administration and the more general War on Terror. Of those, the Bremer administration is pretty well documented, except for the decision to put an idiot like Bremer in charge in the first place -- that's one thing I've never even seen a plausible denial on. After that, from mid-2004 to 2007, the history gets much harder to come by -- the US, especially with Khalilzad, becomes very secretive, and the whole country becomes dangerously inhospitable to reporters. From 2007 on, you get a lot of pro-military hype, especially from the platoon of Petraeus sycophants -- one of the few exceptions here is Nir Rosen's Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World (2011).
Many of the books are commented on (and some extensively quoted) in the books section, but it will take another post to properly index and annotate them.
More (much more) after the break . . .
Continue reading "Ten Years of Infamy"
Wednesday, September 19. 2012
I understand that Jeffrey Goldberg and others have attacked an op-ed by Maureen Dowd for being anti-semitic. The offending line seems to have been the title, Neocons Slither Back. To understand how anti-semitic this title is, you first have to realize, as Goldberg put it, that in using "slither" "she is peddling an old stereotype, that gentile leaders are dolts unable to resist the machinations and manipulations of clever and snake-like Jews." You also have to assume that neocons are Jewish, a mental process that involves blotting out such infamous figures as Dick Cheney, John Bolton, and Fouad Ajami, although I suppose she (or Goldberg) could be arguing that those neocon gentiles (as well as their followers, like G.W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney) are really manipulated dolts.
I picked up the Goldberg quote from Dylan Byers at Politico, who provides many more uselessly out-of-context quotes, like Daniel Halper calling "it" (whatever it is) "outrageous," and Jonathan Tobin describing something as "particularly creepy." Byers quotes Max Fisher as saying, "[The] weirdest part of the anti-semitic tropes on the Dowd column is how lazy they are," without explaining what tropes those were, or why they were "on" the column and not "in" it -- I'd parse this as meaning Goldberg et al. were the lazy ones.
Parsing itself is fairly critical here. As someone who's had his titles mangled by everyone from editors to typesetters, I try to say what I mean at least once in the article. Dowd uses the word "slither" only once in the article, when she quotes Paul Wolfowitz, "slimily asserting that President Obama should not be allowed to 'slither through' without a clear position on Libya." But here the imputed serpent isn't Jewish (or neocon, or Republican); rather, it sounds at least vaguely racist, but then that's easy to do when the object of one's scorn happens to be black (or for that matter Jewish). In many cases the writer is just trying to spritz up a bit of language, and it's best not to read too much in it.
That's certainly the case with Dowd, whose piece often appears to be written in a private language. For instance, her first line threw me: "Paul Ryan has not sautéed in foreign policy in his years on Capitol Hill." It took some delving into Wiktionary to come up with any plausible deciphering of this line, but it turns out that the French verb sauter has a slang usage "to bang, jump, have sex with." Still, if what you wanted to say was that Ryan was a virgin in foreign policy, wouldn't it have been much clearer to say, "Ryan was a foreign policy virgin"? (Personally, I'd rather say, "Ryan has never fucked with foreign policy, and therefore has never fucked it up.")
And Dowd does more spritzing to even more dumbfounding effect: Romney foreign policy adviser (or, as Dowd puts it, "neocon puppet master") Dan Senor was "secunded to manage the running mate [Ryan]" -- presumably she means "seconded" (temporarily assigned). She refers to Romney and Ryan as "both jejeune about the world"; most likely "jejune" (naive, simplistic, lacking matter, devoid of substance). She also refers to Romney as "Mittens," but not consistently enough to make a style or attitude out of it; more like a brain fart.
I don't normally read Dowd, so this column mostly served as a reminder why. Still, she did come up with one remarkable quote from Ryan:
As I recall, "moral clarity" was a favorite G.W. Bush term, which is to say the guy who's response toward peacemaking in Israel-Palestine was, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." The decade prior to that was the only period where the US took a role in attempting to bridge the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and and Bush squandered that by endorsing Sharon's show of force. After Bush, Obama made a pathetic gesture at returning to America's pre-Bush role as an "honest broker" in favor of peace, an effort Ryan decries as "indifference bordering on contempt" because it presumes that Israel would benefit from peace, even though Netanyahu wants no such thing.
But in terms of moral clarity, the bit about Syria and Libya is even more confused. Many of those "dissidents" in Syria Ryan wants to help are Islamists, as were the "dissidents" the US helped in Libya (who in turn attacked the Benghazi consulate there). Indeed, the US has a long history (at least back to the Afghan mujahideen in 1979) of supporting Islamists who ultimately turn on us, a track record that would give anyone knowledgable and sane pause. Obviously, that excludes Ryan and Romney (who may well not know better), and their neocon advisers like Senor (who probably does but doesn't care, so committed are they to perpetuating US conflicts in the region).
MJ Rosenberg, on Dan Senor:
Some relevant links in Dowd's defense (along with Rosenberg above):
Thursday, September 13. 2012
On September 10, a US airstrike in Yemen killed seven people, including Saeed al-Shihri, alleged to be "al-Qaida's No. 2 leader in Yemen." This follows numerous other US airstrikes in Yemen, including one that killed US-born Anwar al-Awlaki.
On September 11, a demonstration at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, turned violent, and the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed. Most likely the demonstration was incidental, providing cover for an independent attack force (see the Quilliam report, which describes a video released by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with a call "to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al-Qaeda's second in command killed a few months ago"). The US responded by sending a small detachment of Marines to Libya -- not enough for an occupation, but quacks like one, and will be taken as such by those so inclined.
What this shows is that after eight years of Bush and nearly four of Obama virtually nothing has changed. The US still throws its weight around the Arab world, siding with tyrants it finds conveniently corrupt, helping them kill and imprison their own people, getting trapped in blood feuds, and blamed for the dearth of progress that keeps these nations poor. Sensible persons back away from tactics that don't work; US politicians stumble forward, convinced that losing credibility would be far worse than throwing away lives and treasure.
Oil gets blamed for this, and indeed there are lots of things one can pin on the oil companies, but they prefer to work quietly, and were doing nicely in places like Saudi Arabia until external politics got in their way. The rub there is Israel, ever more a warrior state, which has spent the last four years goading Obama into a pointless and potentially tragic showdown with Iran. That may seem nothing more than good sport for Israel, much like their dabblings in US domestic politics, like smacking down uppity presidents with congressional resolutions and radio flak.
For Israel, hostilities are a win-win proposition: either they kick ass, or they burnish up their victimhood cult, renewing their claim to the moral high ground. (And while they whine about their losses, they're never so severe they disturb the warrior ethos.) On the other hand, for the US war is lose-lose: like Todd Snider's bully, what kicking ass winds up meaning is you got to do it again tomorrow, and again and again and again, all the while exposing your inner wretchedness. Israel, behind its Iron Wall, can fancy that it's better to be feared than liked, but the US needs good will to do business, so with every misstep risks losing it all. That's why the two days both wind up in the loss column.
In the wake of the embassy incident, Obama promised to bring the killers "to justice": the first thing that flashed through my mind was Pershing chasing all over Mexico after Pancho Villa, nothing but a wild goose chase. But even nominal success most often rings hollow, as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden have proven. (Ultimately, both happened after killing more people than the evildoers had themselves, making one wonder what a higher power should do with Bush and Obama.)
Meanwhile, Romney accused Obama of "apologizing for America" when the State Department tried to disclaim and disown the video that triggered (or served as the pretext for) the demonstrations. Presumably, Romney thought that Obama should have stood up for gross slander of a religion with one trillion followers -- presuming that Romney was thinking, as he's likely to disavow the video himself by week's end. Still, even if he walks back the particulars, you've seen his basic instinct: to plunge headlong, chin up, into every conflict that comes his way, as if, like Israel, he's convinced that every fight is win-win.
That last point is the secret behind the Neocons' slavish idolatry of Israel: envy. They want to fight, and they want to win. They want to thumb their noses at the world, and have the world cower before them. They see that on a small scale with Israel, and even there they don't actually see very well, but they're convinced that if only our leaders had the vision and the guts we could scale Israel's formula up and leave the world awestruck. Romney, of course, is as committed to Neoconnery as McCain and Bush -- see John Judis: never apologize, never negotiate, never think, just act. After all, you're America: always right, invincible (except when led by cowards like Obama, Clinton, and Carter).
Update: Minor edit above, changing "Israeli movie" to "video." Initial reports were that the demonstrations were against a movie produced by a California-based Israeli named Sam Bacile. WarInContext has a post that suggests that it was in fact produced by an Egyptian Christian living in California. As I understand it, the title is Innocence of Muslims, and at present it is only distributed as a 14-minute excerpt on YouTube, so it is not clear to me whether words like "film" and "movie" are appropriate. These details don't have any real bearing on the argument above. The video may be a convenient pretext for a demonstration, but the real issue is US interference in the region, including support for regimes that do real violence to people, especially Israel's occupation.
Speaking of which, I see now that Obama has dispatched several Navy ships to the Libyan coast, and has started flying drones over Libyan air space "to search for the perpetrators of the attack" -- once again the instinct of US leaders is to make it all worse. Romney, clueless as ever, argued: "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." What he means is that the government should stand up in solidarity with every bigot identified as American because failure to do so could be construed as "apologizing for America," and the World's Greatest Nation should never apologize for anything.
Further Update (Sept. 15): Two items from Washington Monthly's Lunch Buffet:
It's easy to see how such great minds can get confused. The nominal purpose of America's "Oil Wars" -- the long string of US operations in the Middle East (and Afghanistan) since Carter declared the oil in and around the Persian Gulf a "national interest" in 1979 -- has always been to help our good Muslims against those bad Muslims (the definitions sometimes changing, e.g., in Afghanistan), so the US has always had to be careful not to make offense against Islam. But it's always been easier to sell those wars to the American people with a dollop of racial and religious bigotry -- you could even call it "Crusader zeal" -- and as the wars have unfolded, most of what you actually see is Americans killing Muslims, the "good" inevitably mixed in with the "bad" -- and this results in a polarization that undermines the original premise. For someone like Bachmann, the enemy winds up being all of Islam. Romney is more of a neocon, so he has to keep the notion that we're helping "good Muslims" in play, even though he doesn't always remember that before he speaks.
Friday, March 30. 2012
I went to a presentation Rannfrid Thelle gave last night to the Wichita Peace Center about Syria. It was offered mostly as historical background ("From Aram to Assad"), PowerPoint bullets with archeological pictures from Rannfrid's 2006 visit to Syria. A couple dozen people were present, mostly the usual crowd, plus two ringers with Syrian connections pushing an anti-Assad, pro-revolution line (but, thankfully, well short of calling for armed intervention). They didn't quite hijack the presentation, but they reminded me how defenseless well-meaning people are when confronted with evidence of brutal repression. The urge to help is overwhelming, swamping the critical recognition that help is something we are unable to offer.
I know I find myself moved by reports of the Assad regime's violent suppression of demonstrations, but when I hear pleas for outsiders to step in and "protect the people," all I know for sure is that if the US were to intervene in any way, all we would do is kill more. It seems clear that the Assad regime has killed more people and done more damage than any of the other targets of Arab Spring -- with the possible, but not certain, exception of Libya, where the US did add to the body count. (And for that matter, Assad has killed more than Iran and Myanmar did in forcibly suppressing major demonstration movements over the last few years.)
No doubt the Assad regime has disgraced itself. However, it is far from the only government that has done such, so why focus on it? (One could, after all, cite the elephant-in-the-room, Israel, which has killed a comparable number of people under its sovereignty, albeit stretched out over a longer timeframe.) Syria moved to the forefront of the news partly because it flowed out of the "Arab Spring" revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, and partly because we in the US have long held a grudge against it. In particular, Bush's generals loudly threatened to invade Syria in 2003-04 if Syria in any way aided the resistance in Iraq: the goal then wouldn't have been to liberate the Syrian people from an oppressive regime, but to get rid of an inconvenient one and replace it with something more to our liking. Indeed, the US did just that in occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea that we might selflessly liberate a country so that its people could run a free democracy was at best a propaganda afterthought.
Rannfrid did a generally good job in outlining Syria's history, but she missed one essential item: in 1948, Syria woke up on the wrong side of the bed and found itself locked into conflict with Israel. What happened was that the British quit their mandate in Palestine without having established any sort of agreement on the shape of its future independent government. In this void, the Zionist organization declared Israeli independence, and marshalled its army to secure as much territory as it could within Palestine, with no concern for the two-thirds of the mandate's population who were not Jewish, and who had agreed to no such division. As the Israeli militias advanced, the Palestinians appealed to the newly independent Arab states for help (like the Free Syrian Army currently begs for outside help). The Israelis like to describe this as all the Arab armies invading on Independence Day, another example of their accustomed blindness to the Palestinian presence.
Those Arab states had various agendas. Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq were ruled by crony kings installed by Britain, and Transjordan was practically invited to invade by the Israelis in the hope that they would pick up the Arab West Bank and prevent an independent Palestinian state from being established. Israel's success, both in expanding its territory way beyond what the UN had offered -- without consent of the people actually living there -- and in driving over 700,000 Palestinians into exile proved to be deeply embarrassing to the junior officers caught up in the 1948-49 war. This, in turn, led to military coups in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria -- to a long series of such in Syria until Hafez Assad was finally able to stabilize control of the government.
Israel signed temporary armistice arrangements to end the war, but refused to sign peace treaties -- mostly because Israel was unwilling to readmit any refugees, but also because Israel was still unsatisfied with its borders. Up to 1967, Israel repeatedly provoked border incidents with Syria, then in June 1967 Israel used the closing of shipping to Eilat as a pretext to invading and snatching large chunks of territory from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Later that year, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights that it had seized from Syria and depopulated. In 1979 Egypt was able to recover its lost territories by signing a unilateral peace treaty with Israel, which left Syria permanently maimed and powerless to cut its own deal. (Ehud Barak made a token effort at a deal in 2000, then backed away when it looked like Assad might agree.)
America's relationship with Syria has always been a reflection of its relationship with Israel. When Israel sought alliances in the west, Syria had no other defense option but to turn to the Soviet Union, which only hardened US antipathy to them. Syria's relationships with other Arab nations broke up over one issue or another. Syria occasionally made gesture to appease the US, like their enthusiastic endorsement of the 1990 Gulf War against Iraq, but they were easily forgotten -- in large part because for the US Israel always came first. The US at first welcomed Syria's intervention in Lebanon, then ultimately insisted that they leave. It's hard to think of any nation the US has had a more fickle and unprincipled relationship with, although Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan come close, for much the same reasons. That Bush decided not to invade in 2004 most likely had less to do with excuses than with lack of imagination about what to do with the carcass. That in turn may be because Israel seems to like the Assad regime: it's not only the devil they know, it's such a toothless wreck of a government they can bomb it on a whim and know there won't be any consequences.
One major reason the situation in Syria has become so grave is that the regime is so isolated from the rest of the world. It has only partly rebuilt its relationship with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it's unlikely that Russia has anywhere near the deep-seated relationship with Syria that the US was able to exploit in nudging Mubarak out of power in Egypt, even assuming Russia has any desire to do so. The only other countries with any links to Syria are China and Iran, and neither is very sensitive about the rights of pro-democracy demonstrators. One thing we've seen again and again is that the more isolated a nation is, the less its leaders have to lose in resorting to violent repression -- again, consider Iran, Myanmar, Libya. And in Syria's case, it's too late to fix that: now that the regime has so disgraced itself, the pressure is against anyone trying to build relationships.
Meanwhile, the anti-Assad opposition -- especially the exiles who are safe from retribution -- have only become emboldened, ever more militant. They plead for arms, for intervention, to fight not to depose the regime but to conquer it. We are, in effect, being asked to choose sides in a civil war we actually have no stake in and no comprehension of. Sure, we can grasp the brutality of the Assad regime, but not yet the brutality of an opposition that has already decided to resort to killing and maiming its opponents -- a process that the longer it persists the more dehumanizing it will become. Indeed, one theme that emerged in the meeting was the fear that a triumphant anti-Assad movement would take its revenge on the Allawite community that Assad came from and favors. Several people were reminded of Rwanda; my own thoughts gravitated to the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad by Shiite militias as the US decided that the only way to keep Iraqis from uniting against the occupation was to turn them against each other. On the other hand, we had to sort through wild stories about Assad importing Iranian snipers, mass incarcerations, torture, and ritualistic killings. It's impossible to know what's actually true because access is so limited and propaganda is so free.
The dehumanization of the other side is inevitably one of the first things that happens in war, and it's well under way in Syria. The longer and bloodier the struggle continues, the worse it will be for all sides. (The continuing turmoil in the so-called Libya success is an example of what happens when you militarize conflict.) It's dehumanization that leads to atrocities, which leads to more of the same. The sane way out is to back off from anything that implies violence, while maintaining a vigilant concern for any violation of basic human rights by any party. The most effective approach would be to shame the Assad regime into backing down, chilling out, and opening up. That involves engaging with the regime, no matter how distasteful that seems, and it involves rejecting any elements of the opposition who insist on fighting this out in the streets. The end result should be a democratic government where individuals can speak up and protest without fear, and the end result should have nothing to do with the ulterior motives of other countries.
Making this work will take some effort, and more carrots than sticks, but it has worked elsewhere, and the all-stick approach (so dear to John Bolton) has failed virtually everywhere. To take one example, Turkey had built up a pretty rotten human rights record, but over the last 10-20 years they've done much to turn that around. They still have a long ways to go, but the prospect of joining the European Union steered them toward reforms, and the odds of a military coup have gone way down. Latin America and the former Communist states provide more examples, and Myamnar, which only a few years ago brutally suppressed demonstrations, seems to be opening up to diplomatic efforts. The Middle East and North Africa remain in turmoil, but as more nations there become more legitimately democratic Syria will be more tempted to join them.
Aside from the short-sightedness of the Assad regime, the main obstacle to democratic reforms in Syria is Israel and its clumsy, incoherent puppet, the United States. The US has bases all over the region, which do little more than make it a target for local rage and offer opportunities for embarrassing adventures. Israel, meanwhile, has no desire for any form of peace that would entail concessions, like basic human rights, to its Palestinian subjects (let alone refugees). The whole Arab Spring movement makes Israel uneasy: Israel has long prided itself on being the region's "only democracy," but it is nothing of the sort, no longer "only" and hardly in any sense a democracy. What it is, however, is a rogue state -- with its targeted killings and nuclear blackmail -- the threat that generations of Arab dictators have used to rationalize their own corruptions. Solve the Palestinian problem, turn Israel into a normal nation, let the US pull back its tentacles, and the whole region will open up.
 Helena Cobban, citing Patrick Cockburn, makes this point effectively. Cobban goes on to counter the arguments for outside armed intervention: something you should bookmark and re-read every time you find yourself entertaining the thought that doing so just might work.
 The standard solution to the Israel-Syria conflict is for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, which was pretty much (if not necessarily seriously) what Barak offered in 2000. I wonder if a simpler solution might be for Israel to buy the territory. It might work like a mini-Marshall Plan: I don't know what the price might be, but say $20 billion, offered as credits over 50 years, which works out to $400 million per year. Syria would cash in those credits by buying goods (anything but arms) from Israel, so this would be a domestic stimulus that also provided genuinely useful aid (which is pretty much what the Marshall Plan did, unlike USAID's scams to dump agricultural surplus). Just an idea. They could do similar things with settlements on Palestinian land. I would prefer for Israel to hand over the settlements with the understanding that any Jews who wish to stay become Palestinian citizens (with full and equal rights), but for a lot of (I'd say bad) reasons that ain't gonna happen. It may not be justice to convert your problems into money, but at least it makes them negotiable.
Saturday, March 17. 2012
The Wichita Eagle front-page headline is "Soldier suspected in killings gets to Kansas," the piece attributed to Kansas City Star staff and wire reports. (I can't find the piece online, but it is apparently based on this piece.) It doesn't acclaim Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as a hero, but isn't everyone who signed up for the post-9/11 Global War on Terror a hero? They're automatically acclaimed when they die, as at least 6,398 have done, or when they're wounded (as Bales was, losing part of his foot), or when they receive medals (Bales is oft described as "much decorated"). So why not when they go berserk? The Army may prefer precise and unemotional control over its violence against Afghan villagers, but Bales' methodical killing of sixteen (mostly) children wasn't far out of the long line of atrocities other US "heroes" have committed. It just underscores how unfit the US military is for the difficult task of nation building, and therefore how hopeless what Obama can only describe as "the Mission" -- an abstract noun that has thus far proven impossible to define -- really is.
Some background on Bales is available here and here, and here. He is 38, was born in the Midwest, is married, has two children (3 and 4). He served three tours in Iraq, and was recently deployed to Afghanistan. He was trained as a sniper, which is to say someone who calmly and methodically picks out targets at distance, and kills them. The Pentagon describes his career as "unremarkable." A neighbor is quoted: "A good guy go tput in the wrong place at the wrong time." Happens all the time.
Problem is, if you're Afghan, this looks like stone cold murder. And if you're Afghan, you probably have a clear idea of what justice should look like -- and it's probably not that it would only be fair to ship the killer half-way around the world to a cozy cell in Kansas to let his shrinks and lawyers come up with arguments and excuses to try show that Bales is the victim here.
There is a case to be made that Bales was indeed a victim: of a president who decided to double down on the same military that had turned eight years of arrogance into abject failure, but Obama was stuck, like Rumsfeld complained earlier, with the army he inherited, and with a political culture that insists that America's heroes will prevail eventually (unless sabotaged by cowardly politicians). No one thought of the welfare of the troops before launching this war, but ever since politicians have been hiding behind their confused feelings, ignoring the fact that they were never fit for the purpose, that their deeply trained lethality ensures a string of atrocities. Anyone who seriously believes the popular counterinsurgency theories should start by building a new army; the real one doesn't work, even if some officers have learned to talk the talk.
Talking the talk, after all, has always been the easy part. What's hard is understanding you can't occupy a country you have no business in, no understanding of, and no awareness of your own alien nature. The US entered Afghanistan seeking revenge for 9/11, and never quite satisfied that itch. Overstaying its welcome, the US set up a puppet regime, then proceeded to delegitimize it by continued dominance -- Bush was too busy starting new wars to bother cleaning up after this one. Then came Obama, proving that America's best efforts were just as futile as America's worst efforts. Now he thinks he can tiptoe away without admitting fault or error, when the entire campaign has been nothing but wrong.
Bales' massacre is deeply embarrassing for Obama because there's no way to scrub away the stain. Either it was policy or not, the latter proof that we cannot manage our policy: we can't control our own troops, nor the Afghans we've trained, even less the Taliban. Even the right is abandoning this war: the carnage doesn't bother them, but they'd rather hate Muslims from a distance than try to divide and conquer them far away. And I suspect more and more we'll see the military itself turn on the mission: as good as it's been for budgets and careers, incidents like this show that the troops are wearing out, that the strain is cracking them up. Maybe they even like the idea of leaving Obama holding the bag. His statements this past week have been the most tone-deaf of his tenure.
Some more relevant links:
Thursday, November 17. 2011
Saw this in the Eagle this morning, and it turned my stomach: Ben Feller: Countering China, Obama asserts US a Pacific power. AP article. Some quotes:
There's a tendency to treat this as business as usual, but at a time when the US occupation of Iraq has nearly wound down and the operating assumption is that US troop levels in Afghanistan will start to decline, when there's nearly universal agreement on the need to reduce military spending, this is an unnecessary and provocative new venture, intended to, well, do what? Prove that the world's most genocidal Anglo-settler nations are still joined at the hip? Show that the US is planning on entering yet another generation of Asian land wars? Prove that Obama is still under the thumb of the Joint Chiefs?
Over the last few years, we've seen a virulent outbreak of books fretting over the looming threat that China, with its huge population and burgeoning economic growth, might challenge the US for dominant superpower status. Reading such books involves a lot of navel gazing, since the essential premise is that China in the future will wind up acting exactly like the US has in the past. Perhaps the most disturbing prospect from today's news is that Obama may actually be reading such rubbish. True, one might argue that the US has lost leverage recently in its ability to influence politics in the bottom tier of "developing countries" but this has nothing to do with lack of military resources, and everything to do with their uselessness.
Meanwhile, Obama has utterly failed to confront the real Chinese threat: the way its currency manipulation preserves a crippling US trade deficit. The core reasons here is that Chinese businesses think in terms of national (which is to say popular) interests, where US government policymakers have chosen to support the world capitalist class with little or no regard for Americans who merely work for a living. Such policies started in the Cold War when the US gladly built up the economies of former powers like Germany and Japan as as well as borderlands like Korea and Taiwan as bullwarks against Communism. At first the US could afford such largesse. Later, as we started sinking billions into foreign oil, the ascendant right was happy to repatriate our losses by swelling the financial sector and selling off assets for inflated prices: in effect, our trade deficits became a pipeline redistributing wealth from the working class to the very rich.
No one but the neocons really thinks China's going to be impressed by the US caching arms in Australia. That Obama's bought into their phallic fantasies -- the whole "real men go to Tehran" thing -- is just sad. That he would defend the country from military threats that exist only in the fevered imaginations of discredited neocons but has no interest or desire to stop companies -- after forty consecutive years of trade deficits as likely to be foreign owned as not, and certain to have massive foreign investments -- from shutting down US jobs and moving them overseas is cowardly and indifferent. That he would mourn the loss of soldiers abroad 70 years ago but won't stand up to banks throwing people out of their homes, to business owners shutting down factories, to schools closing, here in America today, is just plain perverted.
As for Australia, the people there need to ask themselves how many more Koreas and Vietnams and Iraqs and Afghanistans will they let the US drag them into, not to mention the possible Gallipolis our alliance promises them.
Saturday, September 24. 2011
This from an AP piece by Matthew Brown which appeared (somewhat shorter) in the Wichita Eagle this morning, titled Victim in Mont. grizzly attack was shot by friend:
One could use this to question the sanity of encouraging every fool in the country to carry guns, but more than anything else this reminds me of George W. Bush's foreign policy, albeit on a much more intimate scale. There, too, doing things one shouldn't do in the first place led to reckless endangerment and death, often by "friendly fire." There, too, "no charges are expected."
Sunday, May 8. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week, plus a belated comment at the end on Bin Laden:
Killing Bin Laden
I held back from making any rash comments about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and don't have much to say now. I never believed that the US should have taken military action against Afghanistan in 2001, either to pursue Bin Laden or to overthrow the Taliban (Bush's either-you-with-us-or-against-us theory). I never had a problem with the assertion that Bin Laden was a criminal or with conventional (non-military, non-CIA) efforts to bring him to justice. His culpability for the 9/11 attacks and for previous crimes like the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania is well established including by his own unforced (and boastful) admissions. Moreover, he has provided ideological cover for any number of similar criminal acts. And while he's not the only one responsible for the US -- one hesitates to blame this solely on Bush although he was, as he liked to proclaim, "the decider" -- response to his provocations, he claims to have acted aware of and actually hoping for the US to strike back at Afghanistan, launching a horrific war. Given all this, plus the failure of pre-2001 efforts to apprehend him, I could even see a case for taking extraordinary actions to capture or kill him. But I do draw the line well short of sending an army and air force to occupy another people's country, which is what the US did and for ten years continues to do.
For one thing, no system of justice is perfect, and ours breaks down especially when it comes to the most staggering crimes: politicians who commit acts of war, violently depriving people of human rights. The fact is that most such people have never had to face justice. As unfortunate as it was the Bin Laden to have escaped after 9/11, worse things have happened: one of which is that the US lost all sense of what justice means. Today we instinctively equate might with right, since the only sense in which we have been right over the last ten years is in our ability to get away with it. We have come to admire and emulate gangsters -- people who think that all they have to do to solve their problems is to kill those in the way.
It bothers me not at all that Bin Laden is dead. My position on capital punishment was never that the person doesn't deserve to die; it's that the government has no right to kill. Does the US have the right to send commandos into a foreign country to kill someone there? No. On the other hand, that Bin Laden was executed by a team of Navy SEALS does have a certain justice to it: it was, after all, his scheme to get the US to invade his adopted homeland and wage war against him and the people who adopted him. You can't say he didn't have it coming, and you can't say he hadn't asked for it.
I could also try to look at this pragmatically. Killing Bin Laden doesn't justify the US mission in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), but does it help end that mission? Killing Bin Laden was one of the main rationales for getting into Afghanistan in the first place. Now that he is dead, why not just say "mission accomplished" and get out? If indeed that happens the killing will be a blessing. There are lots of things I don't like about this, but anything that extricates us from occupying Afghanistan and meddling in Pakistan would be good news.
One aspect of this that is rather disturbing has been Obama's own elation over the killing -- not least his "victory lap" going to NYC and sucking up to the troops. Some of it is that he took a rather cynical political position when he reframed his opposition to the Iraq war as mistaken priorities -- he didn't want to be seen as an anti-war candidate, so he pushed Afghanistan as the right war, and Bin Laden as the true object of that war, so he gains on two counts by killing Bin Laden: he vindicates his policy vs. Bush, and he gets a tangible milestone which allows him to get out from under the millstone of an endless, fruitless war. But what's truly disturbing is how much he's getting into his role as killer-in-chief. He got his first taste of directly ordering death in a Somali piracy event shortly after he took office. However, this week he's really hitting his stride: killing one of Gaddafi's sons in Libya, missing his target in Yemen (but killing a couple people anyway), and the big kill of Bin Laden. Moreover, there's very little to stop him from doing this: the military and CIA are geared up to keep doing this (indeed, moving Petraeus from one to the other looks like a policy decision to shift targeted assassination programs into ever more secretive and informal frameworks), the Republicans and the media will just cheer him on, and the ICC can't touch him; that just leaves his conscience, such as it is.
I thought about ending this with several trivial observations, but will leave you with just one. I noticed several pieces trying to parse Obama's speech: specifically the phrase "captured and killed," reading the two verbs as serial. My theory is that the person on scene said something like "we have Bin Laden and he is dead." Being a much better writer than the average Navy SEAL, Obama's instinct was to punch up the line, eliminating passive voice and using action verbs. Still, as a lawyer, you'd think he would have thought better. But I guess he's been in politics too long for that.
Thursday, May 5. 2011
Paul Krugman: How Should We Think of the Civil War?: Not often I disagree with Krugman these days, but he's out of his depth here:
I don't have much beef with Coates here, even not understanding however it is that the Civil War's "so often portrayed": the real issue is what actually happened in those wars, and what happened is often far removed from anything we might be inclined to take pride in. But before you go around glorifying wars, I think you have to ask some hard questions: Did the war achieve the intentions you are attributing to it? Did the people who fought the war, especially at the command level, understand and act on those intentions? Did the prosecution of the war undermine them? Did the aftermath of the war implement them? Did the war cause unintended consequences that complicated or compromise or deprecated its intentions? Ask those questions and I think you'll find that both wars are highly problematical.
The Civil War ended the institution of chattel slavery in the US and influenced its elimination elsewhere (in Brazil at the time and in Cuba twenty-some years later). Had the Confederate States been able to secede and form a modern state based on the institution of slavery, the system would have continued for at least a generation, no telling how much longer. It is not impossible that slavery could have continued well over a century, into our lifetimes and possibly into the present, even though we cannot now conceive of such a world persisting. The Union's suppression of the secession changed history so profoundly that we might as well embrace it because we can't make sense out of the alternative. Nor is it just descendents of slaves who were affected and therefore owe their lives to the war.
However, while the Confederate States seceded to protect the legal institution of slavery and the economic system built upon it, the Union had other reasons for suppressing the rebellion: above all, it did so to preserve the integrity and power of the nation state, to protect and promote its economy, and to position the United States as a more significant imperial power. The secession profoundly tipped the balance of power, resulting in a tariff to protect industrial development and a Homestead Act to accelerate the absorption and integration of frontier territories. With the Union victory, the economic gains from the power shift continued, while the ideals of ending slavery atrophied: slaves were freed nominally but soon subjected to economic and political controls, including a reign of terror, that left them as destitute (if not as hopeless) as before. Moreover, in the decades following the Civil War "free labor" throughout the Union was more often than not reduced to conditions of near-slavery (what came to be called "wage slavery," most blatantly in company towns).
One has to wonder to what extent the extreme brutality of the Civil War -- it was at the time the deadliest war in human history -- contributed to undermining the anti-slavery ideals. It certainly became a point of honor in the South both to reduce and roll back the initial gains of the Freedmen and to restore the antebellum social and political order. The South was willing to suffer great poverty and economic backwardness for over a century to make a point of revenge -- something the North permitted because those in power in the North were little troubled by gross inequality or even by the use of terror (indeed, Northern plant owners were as likely to hire goons to bust strikes).
Whereas the Union was pretty clearly the aggressor in the Civil War -- and set an example for many other nations to suppress their breakaway regions, Congo-Katanga, Nigeria-Biafra, Russia-Chechnya, and Serbia-Bosnia are among the bloodiest recent examples; that each was a choice based on dubious principles is clearly shown by the exception, Czech-Slovakia -- one can make a good case that war was thrust upon the US (and many other countries) by the Axis. I can quibble with that. The war was fundamentally about how the world should be carved up into colonial empires, each a broad swath of the world dominated by a relatively small and autocratic home base convinced of its racial superiority over its dominions. As early as the 17th century, the model for such empires was set by England and France (outflanking earlier efforts by Portugal, Spain, and Holland). Only in the latter half of the 19th century did Germany and Italy (previously not unified states), the United States (revolutionized by the Union's Civil War victory), and Japan forcibly "opened" by the US) decide that they needed to enter the game and play catch up -- indeed, each of these nations often saw their own aggressions as necessarily defensive. (Two other empires come into play here, Russia and China, but they were constructed on more ancient lines, by subjugating their neighbors, much as the Romans and Ottomans had done. Whereas Italy and the US primarily intended to build their empires along Anglo-French lines, Germany and Japan combined both models.)
The progressive idea attributed to the Civil War was abolition of slavery and establishment of civil rights: the latter failed, in large part because so much of the Union was unwilling to work to make it happen, indeed because so much of the Union didn't believe in it. (One result was that the Civil War was refought in the 1960s, much less violently even if it seemed pretty nasty at the time.) The progressive idea attributed to WWII was the abandonment of the colonial empire system and the establishment of universal human rights. The problem here was that both sides were committed to their respective empires, and indeed the US-UK-France had been more successful at it than the Axis powers ever could be. Indeed, the western Allies entered into the war not because they had been directly threatened but because their dominions and international interests were at risk. When Chamberlain sacrificed a sliver of Czechoslovakia, he made a calculated cost-benefit analysis; when asked to do the same over half of Poland, the results changed (but even then he didn't begrudge Stalin for scooping up the leftovers, because the Soviet Union was not deemed anywhere near as serious a challenge to British interests as Germany was). While Roosevelt was admirably principled about not firing the first shot, he was far from neutral, arming and financing China and Britain while embargoing Japan and Germany, all but daring them to sink US ships (Wilson's entrée to WWI) or, as happened, to bomb US bases in the Pacific. The US had become the world's largest economy well before WWI, the largest trading country, a net exporter (safe behind high tariff walls), and as such a net invester and lender, so the people who thought about such things realized that the world couldn't be trusted to handle anything so important as a World War on its own: the US had to take part, because US interests were already involved. The big problem was selling this war to the people who didn't have any real money at stake, and that's where progressive ideas -- anti-imperialism and human rights, also fear of Fascism -- came in handy. It helped that New Deal progressives were in power, and it helped that the Soviet Union was already in the war. But progressive ideas had always served to sell war -- at least ever since selling became necessary, at least since the American and French Revolutions. (It may seem laughable now, but "white man's burden" passed for progressivism in its time; even more cynically, King Leopold vowed to rid the Congo of slavery.) About the only thing those trying to nudge the US into WWII didn't use as a reason was the need to prevent the Nazi extermination of Jews from all over Europe.
There's no doubt that WWII resulted in some progressive things: it conclusively ended German and Japanese imperialism and militarism; it wiped out all of the Fascist and/or ultraconservative states in Eastern Europe (replacing them with Soviet-dominated satellites, which you may not like but was still an improvement in most cases); it led to a communist revolution in China (which again you may not like, but it put an end to foreign depredations like Britain's Opium War and eventually led to the fastest growing economy of the last 20 years); it significantly weakened the victorious western imperial powers, speeding up the liquidation of their colonial states (Spain and Portugal, their Fascist regimes having skipped the war, held out the longest, except for the US which gave up the Philippines but still holds onto scattered outposts); it led to an international declaration of human rights and to the United Nations and other international organizations (which ultimately proved inadequate to fulfill their promises but on balance have been more progressive than not); it resulted in a recognition of the horrible injustice of genocide; perhaps most important to an economist like Krugman, the war solved the chronic demand shortage of the Great Depression and laid the basis for several decades of widespread affluence. Needless to say, only the first item was on Roosevelt's progressive agenda when he led the US into war, and even that wasn't conceived of progressively: US Treasury Secretary Morgenthau wanted to reduce Germany to nothing more than a 17th century agricultural economy. The rest was made up on the fly, or happened on its own, but so did much else.
On the other hand, much else happened during and after the war. Some seventy million people were killed, including some ten million people in German concentration camps -- mostly Jews in the Nazi's deliberate program to eradicate "the race," but also huge numbers of communists and other political opponents and Russian prisoners of war. Some 22-25 million of the dead could be considered combattants, including 410,000 Americans -- a number that is small only compared to 2 million Japanese, 3-4 million Chinese, 5.5 million Germans, and 8-10 million Soviets. But the overwhelming majority of those killed were non-combattants. One number I can't find is how many perished by the main new technology of the war: aerial bombardment. When the war started, the US was very high-minded about limiting bombing to strictly military targets, but the war ended with the US wiping out entire cities with nuclear weapons.
Beyond those dead were many more wounded, millions dislocated, many forced into slave labor. In the German-Russian borderlands from Latvia to Ukraine prewar populations were reduced by 15-25%. The war changed people, and while many (especially in Europe and Japan) resolved to live in peace, some developed a taste for war. The Chinese communists continued to fight the Kuomintang army. The Vietnamese fought against the return of the French. Indonesia, the Philippines, and India would have erupted but were quickly granted independence (the Indians turning on themselves when the British decided to partition the country, resulting in more than a million deaths). Both sides of divided Korea plotted to unify the country, resulting in a horrendous war from 1950-53, sucking in the US and China. The Zionist settlement in Palestine revolted against Britain and seized three-quarters of the land, fighting off several Arab armies and driving 700,000 Palestinians into an exile that has still not been resolved. Israel was initially backed by the US, the USSR, and France, partly out of sympathy for the Holocaust, possibly out of a desire to settle displaced Jews elsewhere, with an almost absent-minded disdain for the Palestinians signifying that the colonial mentality had not yet been broken. The result was the creation of the most belligerent nation of the postwar period, one which still denies basic human rights to several million people -- one of many not-so-progressive things that emerged from WWII.
Then there was the US, the nation which gained the most and suffered relatively little, with virtually no civilian casualties, the homeland never seriously threatened. The war rescued the US economy; fear of slipping back into recession made the idea of maintaining a permanent war economy attractive. Moreover, the war swelled the American ego to a humongous degree: we had, after all, saved the world from extraordinary evils; we led the world, were good enough to rebuild Europe; our ideals were the world's. Except, that is, for the communists, who soon turned out to be more useful as enemies. They gave us reason to keep the military economy in gear, and they gave the right an opportunity to purge the left -- which they proceeded to do with generous but suicidal support from the liberal establishment.
Nearly everything bad that has happened to America since 1945 can be traced back to the unsatisfied sense of winning WWII and the craving for more. Tom Carson was right when he said that the worst thing that ever happened to the US was winning WWII. That isn't to say that losing would have better, or that we shouldn't have entered at all. But it should be understood that war isn't something one wins; it's always a loss, the real dilemma being how you handle that loss. It should also be understood that war itself is never progressive. The whole idea behind progressivism is to deliberately arrange society and economy in ways that work more productively and more equitably for all. Going to war doesn't do that, not least because in going to war you throw your fate to the winds. Maybe you'll learn something from the experience and use that insight to do something progressive: for instance, racism became much less popular after watching what the Nazis did with it, and that lesson helped revive the US civil rights movement, and indeed helped fuel anticolonial movements around the world. But real progressives didn't need, let alone want, that example. Had progressives been more successful before WWII they'd be less likely to think WWII a progressive war because they would have had less ground to make up, and less to learn from really awful events. Indeed, had they been more successful there might not have been a WWII.
Pacifism is a philosophy to live by; not one to judge history by. The prevalence of wars throughout history shows two things: that war is a plague upon human society, and that through so much history we haven't had the good sense to prevent it. One might cold-heartedly look back on history and say some war made for a turning point after which we decided to become more progressive. Maybe Krugman's favored wars qualify, but taking pride in them strikes me as not just excessive and selective but foolish. For every progressive impulse or moment, we should recognize two things: that it could and should have been done less violently, and that the process of going through war damaged us in too many ways to fully comprehend. For example, what abolitionist who supported the Union in the Civil War could imagine the residual power of George Wallace and Jesse Helms more than a century later? What liberal democrat (or communist) who understood the urgency to defeat Hitler could imagine the bloodthirst of Dick Cheney and Ariel Sharon sixty years later?
The lesson is that war begets iniquity and further war, and that is nothing ever to take pride in.
Tuesday, March 29. 2011
Juan Cole: An Open Letter to the Left. Another chapter in the long saga of when peace-loving people let themselves get seduced by war. Happens most to people who think a lot, enough to want to differentiate themselves from people who simply believe that all war is bad -- pacifists, you know. Also happens to people who feel so close to the immediately visible victims that they lose track of the big picture. Susan Sontag was the classic example, whining endlessly about how the US, NATO, anyone should step up and intervene in Bosnia and put a stop to the killing. The logic escaped me; they I found out she had actually moved to Sarajevo to put herself into the middle of the experience, something I found brave and touching and batshit insane. Cole isn't that far gone, but he clearly identifies with and cares a lot about the rebels in Libya, so he's trying to pitch his concerns as a matter of solidarity. That's a classic leftist pitch, but it's also a fool's trap.
I don't want to take the time to explain that last point either. What I really want to complain about is buried way down in the last paragraph:
Cole's a historian so he should know better than this. (And it's no excuse that Cole's specialty isn't England; Churchill was a worldwide plague, a name that should be very familiar to any historian who's ever done work on Iraq, Iran, and/or Egypt.) At best, Churchill was a stuck clock, right once in his long life, on Nazi Germany, although it should be recalled that the roots of his hatred for Germany date back to the intraimperialist Great War of 1914-1918 -- a war that leftists at the time blamed on all sides. Otherwise, Churchill spent his entire career denying freedom to British colonies, expanding the empire into places like Palestine and Mesopotamia, fomenting sectarian hatreds that would lead to further wars after Britain gave up; innovating the use of air war, weapons of mass destruction, systematic blockades aimed at starving the enemy (or most successfully, his own colony in India); then, out of power, he conceived and campaigned for the Cold War, a legacy continuing long after his death. If the 20th century was the Century of World War, that's to no small extent because it was the Century of Churchill. It was sheer dumb luck that he managed to hate Hitler, and even that only happened because Hitler was willing to give him one more jolly good war. The only thing that kept Churchill out of the pantheon of the century's greatest monsters -- Hitler, Stalin, maybe Mao, or Hirohito -- was that he was stuck in a democracy which had the good sense to periodically strip him from power. Had he been able to run England like he tried to run India, Ireland, and Palestine, well, one shudders at the thought.
Personally, I have some real reservations about all the principal allies in WWII, but even if you chalk that up as one good intervention, pray tell me about another? Sudan? The Boer War? The Boxer Rebellion? Ireland? Gallipoli? Iraq in 1920? Pallestine in 1937? He came along too late to crush the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, but he carried on from there. Iran (he was back in power to overthrow Mossadegh in Iran in 1953)? Malaya (the so-called success of the ink spot counterinsurgency theory)? Kenya? You don't need to dig into his private papers to find a racist and a warmonger. His whole career was built on the blood of others.
And even in death, Churchill lives on as an inspiration to others -- not just Cole here, but as I recall one of the first things George W. Bush did when he moved into the White House was to install a bust of Churchill. Everyone likes to argue with historical analogies. Most are bogus, but appealing to Churchill as a positive example is one of the worst. Pretty bad even to use him as an example at all: lots of characters from the 19th century seem hopelessly antiquated now, but few more clearly show how much the world has changed. When Cole cites Churchill favorably, he should remind us of the whole package, the self-glorifying conceit of "white man's burden," the machinery of massacre that so thrilled Churchill in the Sudan, the gift for twisting fancy words around 19th century racism. With allies like that, you are the enemy.
Cole's later piece on Obama's Monday night speech is a more reasonable piece, and has an easy time of rebutting various stupid things stupid Republicans say. One quote is worth expanding upon:
That sounds to me like a pretty good reason to oppose Obama on Libya. If you would oppose it if someone like Bush was president, then it would be consistent and more persuasive to oppose it as a general principle than to try to carve out some special exception for an exceptional and unreproducible president. (If indeed that's what Obama is; one could certainly argue otherwise.) In particular, if you had the choice of supporting Obama's intervention and keeping the US war machine in place through the end of his term(s) or dismantling the war machine so that neither Obama nor any future president could intervene in Libya or elsewhere, the latter would be preferable by far.
Sunday, March 27. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
Aside from the "stupid things people say" critiques, I have yet to read anything on Libya I find in any way useful. I really can't get bent out of shape over anything Obama has done regarding Libya thus far. That should not be construed as an endorsement: I have very real worries that he (or "events") could turn out far worse. I also don't agree with the tactical steps along the way, but in the context of everything else that he has done (or not done) I don't feel compelled to nitpick on Libya. I've been very critical of Obama for his escalation in Afghanistan and for his recklessly imperial approach to Pakistan. I'm bothered by signs of US military involvement in Yemen. I really want to see the US pack up and get out of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, all of CENTCOM. If we weren't in any of those places, I would be much more bothered about US entry into Libya than I am. But we are in all those places so I don't see how drawing the line at Libya makes any real difference.
To explain, it's worth starting with something the editors at The Nation wrote:
I'm not going to claim that the UN or the Arab League makes anything right. They are political organizations where wheeling and dealing occurs and they've made plenty of mistakes in the past. The UN resolution does place some significant restrictions on US intervention, but they seem to be there mostly because Obama wanted them -- his desire to minimize the US presence, to neutralize the threat of violence from both sides in what is now a Libyan civil war, and to lead to a negotiated solution appears to be genuine and uncommonly (at least by the standards of his predecessors) well reasoned. On the other hand, the UN and Arab League resolutions will prove to be toothless if (and some would argue it's only a matter of when) the US and its allies get impatient and more actively back anti-Gaddafi forces. It is pretty much unprecedented for a foreign power to intervene in any state's internal conflict without taking sides. (In Kosovo, for instance, pretense of neutrality was plainly a farce. The cards are even more stacked against Gaddafi in Libya.)
One thing we've already seen is that, like every other war in history, Libya has already turned into a cesspool of shameless propaganda. There is little reason to believe anything any side presents, and there is every reason to expect anyone with a stake in the conflict to mislead you in any way they can imagine. That is basically why so little that has been published is of any value at all. And, of course, I have my own peculiar take on it all, which may be suspect to, but please hear me out:
Two parts of this are hard to do, especially for the US foreign policy clique since they've made their careers out of ingoring them for the past sixty years. The hard one is to be neutral. As far as I know, the US has never intervened in a country without having a favored side. (Reportedly the reason the US didn't intervene in Rwanda was we "didn't have a dog in that fight.") But if the goal is a negotiated ceasefire leading to elections, the intervention should be willing to lean against either side if and when it looks like that side might win. The fact is that it is very easy for a propagandist to rile up the American people against Gaddafi, but allowing that to happen leads to a lot of bad outcomes, both for the Libyan people (whose sovereignty our taking sides sacrifices) and for the US (which once again will be seen as meddling in other countries for selfish reasons).
The other problem, of course, is how to intervene without causing additional harm. One can certainly argue that even relatively mild acts like blockades and sanctions harm innocent people more than they undermine regimes. As for bombing, there's no escaping the fact that bombs inevitably kill innocent people. That's why interventionists are so eager to invent hypothetical people "saved" by bombing to balance off against the real people killed by it. (That's also why those same interventionists are so keen on calling themselves and their acts "humanitarian"; one thing you must understand is that there is no such thing as a humanitarian military intervention -- that's a simple impossibility, and the very use of the word should clue you in to the deceit it's meant to shroud.)
So is there a calculation which can justify the US/UN going in and bombing Libya? It can't be humanitarian concern for the Libyan people -- for one thing the US/UN has no right to speak for the Libyan people, especially not for the unknown individuals killed by the bombing. The only calculation I can imagine is this: that Gaddafi's forces are already killing people, so if you pointedly attack their wherewithal to project violence, you might degrade and deter their ability and will to do further violence. Or you might not -- there are cases, and they are far from rare, where attacks, especially by foreign forces, increase one's resolve to fight on. There is some evidence over the last few days that this calculation is working, but there is no guarantee that it will hold out. The best evidence would be for a ceasefire to stabilize current positions, then lead to negotiations and resolution.
On the other hand, the intervention has meant a reversal of fortune: welcome in that it halted Gaddafi's forces, disturbing in that it let the insurgents regain the offensive. There will be a lot of propaganda coming on how the US/UN should deviate from neutrality and actively back the insurgents, both to shorten an expensive conflict and because deep down we just plain hate Gaddafi. The fact is we have no idea who the Libyan people might prefer in charge of the government, and because we are not Libyan we have no right to an opinion. The only thing we can maintain is that Libyans should be given the opportunity to express their preferences in free and fair democratic elections, and that the best way to do that is to get all parties to agree to participate. Letting the insurgents storm Gaddafi's strongholds won't achieve this goal. In fact, it will taint the insurgents by associating them with foreign invaders and outside interests. So while I'm not too worried right now seeing the insurgents move bit by bit closer to Tripoli -- Gaddafi's people should be more willing to negotiate if they feel more at risk -- it would be a dangerous policy change to bomb the way for them to close in.
There are several threads of antiwar opposition to Obama's Libya policy, and I'm not here to argue against them. I don't support or approve of Obama's policy for far more basic reasons: I don't believe that war is a proper or acceptable means of resolving disputes, and I don't believe that my country or any other should have a warmaking capability and especially that they should not position it abroad. Obviously, if the US had no such capability, Obama would not be able to implement this policy, and I would be opposed to him developing any such capability. Obviously, if the US was committed to pacifism, we wouldn't be having this discussion. (Indeed, we wouldn't have had the air force base in Libya, we wouldn't have broken relations, we wouldn't have bombed Libya in 1986, Gaddafi wouldn't have had the pretext to blow up that airliner, and so on.) I'm not "bent out of shape" here because Libya is a relatively minor and thus far relatively benign offense; I'd rather argue both the general principles and more egregious cases, like Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are legitimate worries that if Obama's Libya policy can be painted as successful -- and judging from past adventures like Bosnia and Kosovo, such interpretations can be pretty loosey-goosey -- it will lead to further and most likely more reckless interventions (as, e.g., Afghanistan led to Iraq; in computers we call this "second system complex"). If there's an answer to that objection it's not to be found in history. Nor is it terribly satisfactory to point out how unlikely any real form of success is. Gaddafi has already declared his intent to die a martyr, so the fairy tale solution of him panicking and suing for peace real soon now doesn't seem to be in the cards. As with all wars, the longer this drags on, the more people we kill, the more we blow up, the worse it all gets -- and the more likely the relatively cautious and balanced terms of the UN resolution are swept aside in favor of a full-blown invasion.
Obama has also been castigated for bypassing Congress -- Kucinich has gone so far as to argue that Obama should be impeached. Normally I'm in favor of anything that makes it harder to go to war, and I wouldn't mind Congress rising to the occasion to force that principle, but I shudder to think of this Congress getting wrapped up in that debate (let alone actually trying to figure out Libya). Besides, as I recall Kucinich blew his big chance back in 1998: when Clinton was impeached, I urged voting against him not because of the specific charges but because his recklessly insane pummelling of Iraq would eventually lead to war there, but Kucinich gave him a pass.
There are more isolationist antiwar positions that I can't fault, and more realist antiwar positions -- why do we care what happens in Libya? -- that I don't quite understand. (Isn't it in America's, as well as civilization's, interest for all nations to give up war and to refrain from attacking their own people?) One thing that I haven't seen any commentary on is the probability that Libya is primarily a European concern and that Obama got dragged into the conflict in order to keep his primary NATO relations from falling apart. (France and England are the bulldogs of Europe here, since they have the most firepower and they have all of that imperialist legacy and culture to draw on, but they are most likely assuming a generalized European concern.) The US doesn't need Libyan oil, but Europe does. Libya has a history of terrorist attacks against Europe, but only indirectly against the US. The US would be just as happy to shit can Libya for the next thirty years, as it did in 1981, but Europe can ill afford doing so, and certainly doesn't want to have to fend off a bitchy US when they're trying to work out basis business with Libya. On the other hand, the US still needs NATO in Afghanistan, and that deal only works if there is some two-way value exchanged.
I suppose that if all that's true (and I think it is, although I haven't read anything to corraborate it), opposing US intervention in Libya might be seen as a positive step toward breaking up NATO, but NATO's always struck me as the tail, not the dog. There are plenty of reasons to shut it down, so why not deal with them more directly?
There are also lots of theories about how the various Arab revolts will turn out: whether intervening in Libya will make other countries more or less likely to revolt, other governments more or less likely to try to forcibly repress revolts, whether the revolutionaries will be more or less pro-American, and whether that's a good or bad thing. I find it real hard to know, let alone to generalize.
The US has already taken a wide range of hypocritical positions, encouraging revolt in some countries, welcoming violent repression in others (chiefly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia). No matter how violent the Saudis get I don't expect the US will have anything to do with a no-fly zone there. And as for the one place that most desperately needs a no-fly zone, Gaza, about all you can do is work that into a stand-up routine. The country most analogous to Libya right now is Syria. It is an effective dictatorship controlled by a minority clique which can be presumed to be fairly unpopular -- again, it's hard to say, and harder to believe whoever's saying -- and they have at least one past incident where they suppressed a revolt with massive firepower (in Hama, in 1982, killing upwards of 10,000; Israeli military theorist Martin van Creveld was quite impressed). The US has large adjacent air bases in Iraq, as well as a fleet in the Mediterranean, and Israel would be more than happy to chip in, so a no-fly zone is pretty doable. So maybe Libya changes the odds in Syria, but it's hard to say how.
Whether these revolts turn violent is virtually always decided by the government. I've seen arguments that we shouldn't intervene in Libya because the protesters themselves turned violent so readily, but I find that hard to credit. Alternatively, I've heard is said that the revolution in Libya was premature -- that the protesters weren't ready to take over the government. It looks to me like in every case the protesters pushed, the government responded rather violently, the protesters consolidated and pushed back harder. In Tunisia and Egypt the military held together and shifted power, sending the existing regimes into exile. In Libya the military itself cracked, immediately militarizing the protests, but that's mostly a function (or dysfunction) of the government, nothing that the protesters could have prepared for.
No one can know how this will play out. At this point we don't even have the promised new governments in Tunisia and Egypt, which once they exist will become models for the region. So my advice, if anyone cares, is to slow down and chill out on Libya; get a ceasefire, figure out a process to unify the country democratically, and get it functioning again as a normal state interacting with the rest of the world. Obama's done a lot of things that seem no better than what Bush did, but thus far he hasn't screwed Libya up much worse that it already was. If he's lucky, he might get out of it without too much embarrassment, but for that to happen he's going to have to ignore a lot of stupid advice he's certain to get.
Friday, February 25. 2011
I feel like I should write something about Boeing being awarded a $35 billion Air Force contract to convert obsolete 767 airliners into tankers. The tankers would replace the existing fleet of KC-135 tankers, based on vintage Boeing 707 airliners, in service since the late 1950s -- seems like a long time, but they've periodically been retrofitted with new wings, engines, electronics, and so forth. In fact, keeping them flying has been a boon to the Wichita economy -- their replacement will cost jobs in Wichita that could well be moved elsewhere, a downside no one has bothered to mention in the perpetual hype over how many new jobs new tankers will provide.
Some Wichita Eagle links:
The Eagle also ran a useful timeline on the history of the scam, but I haven't found a link on their website. A slightly better article on the lobbying efforts is at OpenSecrets: Eric Chiu: Boeing Wins Refueling Tanker Contract After Massive Sustained Political Influence Effort. This points out that EADS, the military spinoff of Airbus, spent $3 million on lobbying last year. Boeing spent more than $17.5 million.
People like to talk about jobs here, as indeed they do with every serving of military pork. Even Republicans who've waged a holy war recently against John Maynard Keynes and the very suggestion that any government spending program could create jobs -- there's a very musty classical economics theory by David Ricardo that says as much, and has been miraculously resurrected recently long after Nixon insisted that "we are all Keynesians now" -- get all misty-eyed over defense contracts. And Democrats like Dicks, or former Boeing favorite Richard Gephardt, go positively ga-ga. Still, if you buy the estimates at face value, those 50,000 jobs will wind up costing $700,000 apiece. You don't have to be Harry Hopkins to come up with a more efficient jobs program than that.
Then there's the question of why the hell do we need these things anyway? The main purpose of a tanker is to act as an airborne filling station for fighters and bombers, to help them go further without having to find a landing strip. The main reason for doing that is to start wars in faraway countries. Now that we've spent the last decade blundering around the far side of the globe blowing up wedding parties and generally making ourselves a public menace, what everyone should be asking is why do we want to spend a lot more money to do even more of that?
Then there is the political corruption angle. The initial idea for a new tanker fleet wasn't thought up by the Air Force -- they were much more obsessed with future generations of stealth attack aircraft. The idea came from Boeing, and the main thing that spurred it on was that Boeing had this whole manufacturing line tooled up for the 767, which would soon be rendered obsolete by a new generation of advanced technology airliners -- the so-called Dreamliner, which Boeing has yet to deliver after more than ten years of mismanagement. So Boeing figured that there would be easy profits if they could get the Air Force to buy up their obsolete technology. The problem was that the Air Force didn't have any money to do so, so Boeing came up with a crackpot scheme to finance the planes privately and lease them to the government, so they would only appear as an operating expense on the Air Force books -- a real fat one, to be sure. That scheme blew up, and ended with several Boeing officials going to jail, but eventually the lobbying produced a new round of bidding. EADS got involved in the second round. They figured that if the US wanted Europeans to fight and die in Afghanistan, they should get a shot at the Pentagon booty, and they wound up winning the contract -- only to have Boeing go bezerk pulling in political favors to rebid the whole deal. Indeed, Boeing has such a huge home-field advantage, in political clout, lobbying dollars, flag waving, etc., that it's surprising that this was even close. But Boeing also has a horrible record of producing the things they sell -- indeed, their core competency has moved from airframes to crony capitalism, which seems to be the only thing they're at all competent in these days.
I've written about this several times in the past. My father, my brother, a couple of uncles, and numerous friends and acquaintances worked for Boeing. It is a company that has at times accomplished remarkable things, but lately has become a prime example of everything wrong in American business, and America more generally, today. You'll find many of the same points made over and over here:
Also found pre-blog notebook entries dealing with Boeing and most often the tanker scam. Dates: 2003-04-03, 2003-05-24, 2004-01-28, 2004-07-19, 2005-02-23, 2005-03-09, 2005-03-20, 2005-06-10, 2005-06-20. I used to have a website where a lot of this older stuff was archived, but it's down for now.
The key points are: that we already have way more tanker capacity than we need; we certainly don't need any more, and over the long run should radically cut back; the lobbying process is intensely corrupting, both of our elected officials, of the so-called public servants working in the Pentagon, and ultimately of Boeing itself; Boeing has lost its corporate soul.
Of course, the tanker contract award won't be the last that is heard of this whole thing. EADS will protest, and Europe and Alabama will feel shafted -- has their ever been a politician more in the pockets of foreign capitalists than Sen. Richard Shelby? The ridiculous price tag will look like a ripe target for anyone looking for government waste -- both by Tea Partiers and possibly by a Pentagon that never really wanted the thing in the first place. And Boeing's become so inept at manufacturing that we'll see innumerable delays and cost overruns before any plane appears. Maybe the whole thing will be scuttled by a labor dispute over at Boeing's subcontractors in China. I bet I've read over a thousand pieces on this over the last decade-plus. I'm sick of it, and amazed that other critics of US military-industrial policy haven't taken it up. (Robert Scheer does write about it a bit in his The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America.)
But right now Boeing is happy, thinking that crime really does pay. We'll see.
Thursday, February 24. 2011
Update: Added a paragraph toward the end.
I don't feel like I'm getting very good information on whatever's happening in Libya these days, so haven't had much to say. One thing that I do think is that the longstanding antagonism the US has shown toward Libya ever since Gaddafi seized power and forced the US to give up its military presence in Libya -- Wheelus Air Force Base, founded in 1943 to bomb Italy and Germany, but kept as a major cold war installation -- in 1970. Gaddafi rightly saw the US presence as a remnant of the Euro-American colonial past and as an affront to Libyan independence and sovereignty, but the US never forgave the impudence. The US withdrew its ambassador in 1972 -- an act Gaddafi rightly called "childish" -- starting off a long series of affronts and acts of spurious revenge. A useful historical timeline is here -- a couple years old, and could use more detail, especially on dealings with US oil companies which are a nontrivial part of US foreign policy in the region.
It should be clear that Gaddafi's support for terrorism came more often than not in response to US (and Israeli) policies and acts. Also that the various instances of US and Israel shooting down Libyan aircraft and Reagan's 1986 bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi were themselves heinous acts of terrorism. I don't mean to make excuses for Gaddafi, but it is significant that the site he chose for his speech where he vowed to die a martyr was the ruins of the 1986 bombing. That little bit of stage decoration was one of many ways the US has inadvertently kept Gaddafi in power.
I don't know much about Gaddafi's rule of Libya: whether he has been a progressive force, or a kleptocrat, or what, or how repressive he has been, or what his day-to-day role has been since he gave up any official position in the government -- he seems to be a rare example of what you might call "dictator emeritus" (Fidel Castro may be another). I know a little more about Gaddafi's interference with neighboring African states, where his incursions into Chad and his involvement in Darfur appear to have been disastrous -- that all by itself provides plenty of reason to wish for his demise.
Despite Bush's 2006 efforts to restore normal relations between the US and Libya, the US has little actual influence in Libya, and as such is ineffective in trying to restrain Gaddafi from using brute force to put down the rebellion. (Compare with Egypt, where Mubarak was practically on the US dole. Syria is another country where the US has no constructive influence.) Moreover, Gaddafi is so readily and universally despised in the US that policy makers are fervently looking for ways to meddle, oblivious to the fact that we've already messed up Libya quite enough, thank you. At this point it's hard for me to see how any outside pressure the US can apply can do much good. One can, of course, reiterate how much we disapprove of violent repression, and we can promise that all past differences will be forgotten once Libya is a democracy. Maybe there are funds that should be frozen, but sanctions in the midst of chaos seem like a pointlessly self-gratifying gesture, and a "no fly zone" seems like the perfect way to remind Libyans of our past crimes.
Besides, I expect that on their own Libya's elites will split against Gaddafi. When the Iron Wall fell, each nation in eastern Europe broke its own way -- most violently in Romania, the nation with the most charismatic leader and the greatest personality cult, not that either saved Ceausescu. Rather, they clarified the choice.
By the way, as all Marines know, US military involvement in Libya predates WWII. It goes all the way back to 1804 under Thomas Jefferson, the first time US forces were used overseas. At the time, Tripoli was a poorly managed outpost of the Ottoman Empire, much engaged in piracy, much like Somalia today. It's not clear that the intervention actually accomplished anything, other than to be remembered in song. But with piracy in the news again today, we should reflect on how badly we fucked up Somalia in the past before we rush in to fuck them over again.