Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Osama's Victory

No, there's not going to be a new, worldwide Muslim caliphate; and no, al-Qaeda's hyper-Sunni Wahhabi-style extremism will never emerge as the basis of some worldwide Islamic resurgence.

But insofar as one of Osama bin Laden's goals was to bring down the United States just as he and his fellow jihadists brought down the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan - and, arguably, the Soviet Union itself, a new report out of Brown University (and highlighted in this Huffington Post report) makes it clear that the wars into which the 9-11 attacks drew the US have inflicted on it a crippling and long-lasting economic blow:
The United States will have spent a total of $3.7 trillion on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, costing 225,000 lives and creating 7.8 million refugees, by the time the conflicts end, according to a report released on Wednesday by Brown University.

The report, written by more than 20 economists, political scientists, lawyers, anthropologists and humanitarian personnel for Brown's Watson Institute for International Studies, gives staggering estimates for the cost of military action in those three countries. Nearly ten years since U.S. troops first entered Afghanistan, the report estimates the final cost of all three conflicts will be between $3.7 trillion and $4.4 trillion -- far higher than the $1 trillion price tag referenced by President Barack Obama earlier this year. The report estimates the U.S. government has already spent between $2.3 trillion to $2.7 trillion and will spend at least a trillion more over the next fifty years.

Long-term obligations to war veterans will cause the price tag of the conflicts to climb for decades after troops have returned home. The report puts the cost of health care for veterans at between $600 to $950 billion, not peaking until the 2050s.

Admittedly, to chalk up all this damage exclusively to the 9-11 attack could be unfair.  We are where we are because George W. Bush and his cadre of pseudo-messianic neo-imperialists made some of the most catastrophic decisions in the history of the American Republic - and because his young, inexperienced successor, overawed by the security responsibilities suddenly heaped upon his untested and not-so-broad shoulders, turned out to be not smart enough to stop digging the already too deep hole that Bush got the US into in Afghanistan.

But it ought to be clear that, in at least this very significant outcome, OBL got exactly what he wanted.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Afghanistan: Night Raids and "Victory"

Read this account of US forces conducting a night raid in Afghanistan; multiply it by 100 or so (at least); consider  the impact on "hearts and minds."

Then write John McCain and Lindsey Graham and ask them about that "victory" thing.

And have a look at David Ignatius' newest at WaPo, about the US's "long war" on terrorism, where he too raises the question of the impact of the US's harsh counterterrorism tactics in Afghanistan: 

What worries me, thinking about the future that Obama outlined in Afghanistan, is U.S. reliance on the harshest weapons in our arsenal — the killing machine that is America’s counterterrorism force. With Predator drones and the “capture or kill” night raids of the Joint Special Operations Command, America has found a way to punish its enemies without risking large U.S. casualties.
Obama concluded that this counterterrorism side of counterinsurgency works far more reliably than the uncertain, nation-building side. The embrace of counterterrorism tactics makes sense as an exit strategy from Afghanistan, and as a continuing check against al-Qaeda. But America should understand that this is a dark face of war — something perilously close to combat by assassination. It needs more debate before it’s elevated to a cornerstone of American strategy. 

But as the AP notes, ever since McChrystal departed and Petraeus took over, the US has largely abandoned the COIN approach for one that emphasizes - in both war-fighting and intelligence-gathering -  killing people over winning people over.

In a period when the epicenter of global economic - and perhaps, military and political - power seems inexorably moving eastward from the US and Europe, this may well come back to haunt the US.
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Friday, June 24, 2011

Latest Libya War WTF Update

The NYT reports on how Congress "spurned" Obama today by rejecting a resolution to grant authorization for the US military involvement vs. Libya, even as the WaPo's report highlights the House's rejection of a resolution that would have stripped funds from the operation.

And the message is . . .?

Teaching a Pig How to Sing

A Music Department colleague of mine sometimes employs an adage about never trying to teach a pig how to sing: it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.

By my lights, that's not an entirely inappropriate metaphor for these last several years of America's military intervention in the so-called "graveyard of empires."  American troops have fought hard, endured much, but in the end, achieved not nearly enough, but through no real fault of their own.  American diplomats have labored mightily with Mr. Karzai and his minions - cajoling, imploring, threatening; yet in the end, it's Karzai and his corrupted system, not the Americans, who will endure (though in Karzai's case, probably not for long after US forces pull out.  Bottom line: the US couldn't "fix" Afghanistan.  And trying to get the pig to sing our song, as it were, only left the Taliban happy to hear Obama's announcement, and Karzai cheerful that the foreigners would be leaving.

As Michael Crowley (at Time's Swampland) notes, Republican worthies are now likely to jump all over Obama, condemn him as a "declinist."  Whereas, in fact, Obama is simply taking a pragmatic decision.  Yes, it may work to his political benefit long-term, given how the US public has turned so definitely against continuing the Afghan war; there's room to wax cynically about that.  But the fact of the matter is that Obama also had the courage to recognize - even if belatedly - that the US had run up against the limits of what it can do, specifically in Afghanistan, but more broadly as well.  This idea of America's limits, of course, runs very much against the grain of many of my generation, who were raised on post-WWII triumphalism and the belief that "Americans" can do anything they set their mind to. 

Time to get real. (And, btw, for a superb reality check post-Obama announcement, see Tony Karon's superb analysis here.)  Our military is stretched too thin; our NATO allies are bailing out (as France announced earlier today; I don't think Sarko will take much heat from his countrymen for that); and the slowing-down US economy is headed for catastrophe unless Obama can get Congress to raise taxes and/or cut some spending.  (On that, see the WaPo on the new report from the CBO.)

I'll close with Crowley's own final thoughts:
Commentators will fixate on the military dimensions of Obama’s new policy. In truth the test for him now is the far more complicated political settlement of which he spoke. That is a huge diplomatic challenge, an elaborate dance between the Karzai government, the Taliban, and our frenemies in Islamabad. A real long term solution will likely involve Delhi as well, and even Tehran. In the coming days Obama’s conservative critics will talk at length about David Petraeus’s frustrations. But what matters more is this game of three-dimensional diplomatic chess. The Soviets, too, thought they could arrange a face-saving political solution, one that also involved Pakistan’s deep involvement. They were proven wrong when the country soon devolved to a horrendous civil war that wiped out their political allies. Obama’s challenge now is to avoid a repeat of that history. And to achieve diplomatically what seems futile militarily: an outcome that will prevent America’s adventure in Afghanistan from being recorded as another revelation of a great power’s decline.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How Netanyahu Government Divides the Jewish People

I cannot recommend highly enough this essay by Carlo Strenger in Haaretz.  It's truly worth quoting in full:

Israel is tearing apart the Jewish people

After all that has happened to us, we Jews must never, ever allow violation of universal human rights.

In June last year, Peter Beinart published an article in the New York Review of Books that created quite a storm by pointing out the deep estrangement between the young generation of American Jews and Israel. A year later, it is time to take stock.

Unfortunately, the situation has only grown a lot worse. In my travels to Europe I speak to predominantly Jewish audiences, but also to non-Jews who care deeply about Israel. They voice their pain and anguish openly: They want to understand what has happened to Israel. They desperately want to stand by it, but they are, increasingly, at a loss of knowing how to do so.

Their questions are simple. They know that Israel is located in one of the world's most difficult neighborhoods; they have no illusions about the Iranian regime or Hezbollah; and they know the Hamas charter. But they don't understand how any of this is connected with Israel's settlement policies, the dispossession of Palestinian property in Jerusalem, and the utterly racist talk about the 'Judaization' of Jerusalem. They feel that they no longer have arguments, even words, to defend Israel.

Israel has never had a government that so blatantly violates the core values of liberal democracy. Never has a Knesset passed laws that are as manifestly racist as the current one. Israel has had foreign ministers who were unworldly and didn't know English; but it has never had a foreign minister whose only goal is to pander to his right-wing constituency by flaunting his disdain for international law and the idea of human rights with such relish.

Moreover, there has never been a government so totally oblivious of its relation to world Jewry. It passes laws that increase the Orthodox establishment's stranglehold on religious affairs and personal life - completely disregarding that 85 percent of world Jewry are not Orthodox - and simply dismissing their Jewish identities and their institutions. As a result, this majority of world Jewry feels Israel couldn't care less about its values and identity.

Israel's Orthodox establishment claims that by monopolizing conversion to Judaism and the laws of marriage, they are preventing a rift in the Jewish people. The exact opposite is true: It is Israel's turn toward racism that extends not only toward its Arab citizens, but toward Ethiopian youth not accepted into schools in Petah Tikva, toward Sephardic girls not allowed to study in Haredi schools in Immanuel, that most Jews in the world cannot stand for. It is the unholy coalition between nationalism and Orthodoxy that is tearing the Jewish people apart.

The overwhelming majority of American and European Jews are deeply committed to Universalist values, and have been so for most of their existence. This commitment is not a fad or an attempt to be fashionable and politically correct. It is the deeply felt conclusion the majority of world Jewry draws from Jewish history: After all that has happened to us, we Jews must never, ever allow violation of universal human rights.

This is why Jews in the U.S. have been central in the Civil Rights movement; this is why Jews in Europe will never forget that only Universalist liberals stood by Alfred Dreyfus in 1890s France. For most Jews of the world, it is simply unfathomable: How can we, who have suffered from racial and religious discrimination, use language and hold views that - as Israel Prize laureate and historian of fascism Zeev Sternhell argued - were last held in the Western world by the Franco regime?

For most of world Jewry, the idea of Yiddishkeit in the second half of the 20th century meant that Jews must never compromise on the equality of human beings before the law and the inviolability of their rights. So how can they stand by a state that continues to pay rabbis who argue that Jewish life has a sanctity that doesn't extend to gentiles, and that it is forbidden to rent property to Arabs?

In moments of despair, I try to remember that Israel's move to the right is driven by fear and confusion, ruthlessly fanned by politicians whose hold on power depends on the panic of Israel's citizens. I feel it can't be true that the country that was supposed not only to be the homeland of the Jews, but a moral beacon, is descending into such darkness. I try to remember that such times of darkness do not reflect on the human quality of a whole nation; that countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal emerged from dark times into the free world; that even though the winds of right-wing nationalism are sweeping over Israel, it is still a democracy.

Sometimes, along with the majority of Jews committed to liberal and Universalist values, I feel as if I were simply in a bad dream; that when I wake up, Herzl's vision of a Jewish state committed to the core values of liberalism will be the reality.

Could War Break Out between Syria and Turkey?

The Telegraph reports a "stand-off" between Syrian and Turkish troops at Syria's northern border, to which Syrian forces commanded by the Syrian president's murderous brother, Maher al-Asad, have chased refugees streaming toward Turkey to escape being rounded up and/or shot:

An immediate cross-border exchange was averted after Turkish troops withdrew a few hundred yards. But, in a message of intent, they donned combat helmets and mounted a large Turkish flag above their new positions.

Fearing that the Syrian crisis could cause instability to spread into its territory, Turkey has ordered Mr Assad to end the military operations in the north, dismiss his brother and institute immediate reform.

According to Syrian opposition activists, Turkey has given Mr Assad until the weekend to respond.

Syria's decision to move troops even closer to the Turkish border despite the ultimatum suggests a determination by Mr Assad to engage Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, in a battle of nerves. The Syrian president is incensed that Turkey has given sanctuary to some of his most high-profile opponents.

But such defiance is unlikely to make the Turks back down.

Amazing to remember here that only a few months ago, Messrs. Erdogan and (Bashar) al-Asad were on excellent terms as Turkey pursued its "no problems" foreign policy with its neighbors - Iran included.

And bear in mind: If Syria were to initiate hostilities against Turkey . . . Turkey is a member of NATO.  What happens then?

Hopeful Sign for Egypt's Democracy, and America's View of Muslims

The Financial Times reports that "Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based religious institution regarded as the highest authority in Sunni Islam, has issued an unprecedented document spelling out a bold vision for the future of Egypt as a “democratic, constitutional and modern state”.

This announcement comes at a crucial point in the run-up to elections, with secularist liberals competing with various factions of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as salafist groups, for seats in a new parliament whose deliberations will likely have huge influence on shaping Egypt's governing system.

The report also notes:
The institution, whose views resonate across the Sunni Islamic world, has thrown its weight and prestige behind a modern vision of the state “ruled by law and law alone”. . . .

Although intended as a statement on “the future of Egypt”, its propositions are likely to have an impact on other Muslim countries where the relationship between state and religion is in question.

“This is the first comprehensive declaration about specific matters that are the subject of dispute,” said Gamal al-Ghitani, a novelist who took part in forging the document. “Al-Azhar is siding with modernity and rejecting the concept of the theocratic state. This is something like a bill of basic rights which speaks to Muslims everywhere.”

To “regain its original intellectual role, and global influence”, al-Azhar also makes a bid for independence from the Egyptian state in the same document. Fettered by government control for more than half a century, the institution is seeking a return to an old system under which the Grand Imam was elected by senior religious scholars, and not appointed by the president.

Significantly the Azhar document does not call for the application of sharia law, but says that laws would be based on “the principles of Islamic law” – widely interpreted as the universal values of freedom, justice and equality. . . .

The document also addresses the fears of the Coptic Christian minority – an estimated 10 per cent of the population – that in the future they could become second class citizens.

It says: “The exploitation of religion and its use to create division, conflict and enmity between citizens should be criminalised. Inciting religious discrimination or sectarian and chauvinistic tendencies should be considered a crime against the nation.”

It's also noteworthy that al-Azhar's statement, as well as the intentions expressed by the new Egyptian Current party - a break-away Muslim Brotherhood group comprising many young MB members who want a separation between state and religious authority - in many ways parallels the model that now dominates in Turkey, where a party with an explicitly Muslim focus (the AKP) has pledged to respect the secular foundations of the republic established by the republic's founder, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk.

This announcement also comes at a time when the inflammatory Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who advocates an extremely Islamophobic, anti-immigrant point of view, was acquitted of charges of resorting to political hate speech.  Wilders seems an Islamophobic version of the rabidly Communist-hating (and fear-mongering) Senator Joe McCarthy of the early 1950s U.S.  Wilders' rise to notoriety and influence ought to remind us all that Western political discourse is still full of unjust, counter-productive anti-Muslim venom.

The United States is no exception.  I strongly encourage any and all who might read my posts, to check out the excellent web-site of the group My Fellow American, where you'll find (among other informative links) a link to a short film clip via You Tube that ought to be a real consciousness-raiser.  It depicts American Muslim citizens at work in various professions and walks of life.  That American Muslims do indeed play such multiple and crucial roles in itself didn't surprise me, but after viewing the film, I found myself thinking about various television programs I've seen over the last few years - from Law and Order (in its sundry permutations) to the afternoon soap operas that sometimes play on the overhead monitors where I work out.  I cannot remember even one instance when a character who was identified as a Muslim was depicted as other than a "foreigner" or a John Walker Lindh wannabe.  No Muslim cops, no Muslim doctors or nurses, no Muslim housewives or husbands.  (Meanwhile, though, the popular NCIS series features, as one of the crime-solver team, an imported Israeli spy (played by a Hispanic actress) who nonetheless comes across as the all-American girl next door.

Think about it.  Or better, watch the film, and talk about it.

On the Afghan Withdrawal

Now that Obama has signaled that US troops will start moving to the exit in Afganistan, I find this Mike Luckovitch cartoon quite apt: