Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thomas Friedman's "Extra Mile"

Ah, the ever-flowing fount of cynical wisdom that is Thomas Friedman.

In today's NYT, TF pans the UN speeches of Messrs. Obama, Abbas, and Netanyahu - but in his belief that it's Israel thta has the most to lose in the current impasse, he suggests that Mr. Netanyahu go the "extra mile" for the cause, not so much of peace, but of Israel's security and international standing:

Given these stakes, here is what a farsighted Israeli government would say to itself: “We have so much more to lose than the Palestinians if all this collapses. So let’s go the extra mile. Abbas says he will not come to peace talks without a freeze on settlement-building. We think that is bogus. We gave him a 10-month partial freeze and he did nothing with it. But you know what? There is so much at stake here, let’s test him again. Let’s offer him a six-month total freeze on settlement-building. What is six months in the history of 5,000-year-old people? We already have 300,000 settlers in place. It is a win-win strategy that in no way imperils our security. If the Palestinians still balk, they will be the ones isolated, not us. And, if they come, who knows? Maybe we cut a deal.”

That so many Americans can accept as a legitimate international-affairs columnist a man who strives more for catchy phrasing that deep analysis is worrisome - and depressing - in itself.  But I'm staggered by the blatant cynicism here.  A six-month total freeze?  Because, after all, Israel has succeeded in planting 300,000 settlers in occupied territory?  (And actually, the number is much higher; I believe TF omits from his count the number of colonists Israel has planted in East Jerusalem - where, yesterday, it approved 1100 new housing units, much to the dismay of the EU (along with a tellingly puny complaint of "not helpful" from Hillary Clinton).

Has Friedman now joined the ranks of the Elliot Abramses of the commentariate?  You know, the "experts" who insist that the whole issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem  is bogus?  Are they blind? No.  I suspect that they are more than happy to be complicit in what has been, since 1967, the creeping - and blatantly illegal - Israeli annexation of land that represented the last hope for the creation of a viable Palestinian state and at least a partial fulfillment of long-stymied Palestinian nationalism.  

And the cynical prescriptions of Thomas Friedman reflect a view of Middle Eastern affairs that is focused almost entirely, and exclusively, on Israel's security, rather than on any desire for the justice that the Palestinians deserve, and must be accorded - and soon - if Israel is indeed to have any security, much less any longer-term existence.  Let's face it.  With

  • an Israeli regime that features a bluntly spoken racist-fascist foreign minister and that is apparently happily in thrall to settler extremists and ultra-religious elements
  • a Turkish government that is recreating itself as the neo-Ottoman shield, standard-bearer, and potentially avenging sword for the Arabs (Erdogan as Saladin?)
  • a populist neo-Arabism - its burgeoning supporters linked by shared sense of ethnicity, grievance, and core Muslim values, by Facebook and Twitter, and by a resurgent anti-Americanism born of too many years of US myopic focus on Israeli interests (and too many years of the American military - or its proxies - humiliating or slaughtering fellow Muslims)

Israel is both isolating itself (along with an America rapidly becoming too enfeebled to ride to its rescue) and narrowing its options to either somehow turning to a very new and brighter page in its relations with its neighbors, or else death-marching to Armageddon (the original site of which - Megiddo - lies within the modern state of Israel).

And with such cynical prescriptions, Thomas Friedman may someday be remembered as one of the many escorts along that march.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dennis Ross Strikes Again

From the LA Times, word that a special policy paper crafted by Dennis Ross (commonly known as Israel's lawyer during the "peace process") and a sidekick was the "last straw" in impelling Mahmoud Abbas to present recognition of Palestine to the UN:

Shaath, speaking in Ramallah on Saturday, said the U.S. paper Hale and Ross had presented to Abbas when they met him at his headquarters and that was supposed to get him to decide against going to the U.N. has actually increased his resolve to go.

“It was the last straw” that got Abbas to take the decision in favor of going to the U.N. to ask for membership, Shaath said. “It seems that it [the paper] was designed to be rejected,” he said.

The American paper, Shaath said, was worse than a statement the U.S. had wanted the Middle East quartet -- the U.S., the U.N., Russia and the European Union -- to adopt two months ago and which the quartet members had then rejected.

The U.S. paper, he said, referred to the controversial settlements Israel had been building on Palestinian land occupied since 1967 as “demographic changes.” This, he said, would actually legalize the settlements, which the entire world, including the U.S., had so far considered as illegal.

Immovable Object (Pakistan) Deflects a Very Resistable Force (USA)

In Time mag, former CIA analyst Robert Baer on the dilemma of US-Pakistan relations and why the Pakistani military is not going to back down:

At the core of the problem stands a simple proposition: Pakistan doesn't trust us with Afghanistan — and from Islamabad's perspective, not without cause. We took a strategic decision to invade a country central to their national-security doctrine without seriously consulting them, preferring to think in terms of an Afghanistan of our dreams. Nor did we take into account their strategic interests and the proxies through which they have pursued them. The Soviet Union made the same mistake when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979.


Having failed to prevail a decade later, we now have two choices, neither of them particularly attractive to Washington. We can attempt to destroy the Haqqani base in North Waziristan by invading Pakistan. But to do that effectively would require more troops than we currently have in Afghanistan. Doing so would obviously destroy whatever relations we still have with Pakistan, with profoundly dangerous consequences in Afghanistan and far beyond.

Alternatively, we could hash out a settlement with Pakistan, which would inevitably mean accepting the Haqqanis and easing out Karzai in any political settlement to the conflict. Such a deal would also potentially bring in Afghanistan's other neighbor with real strategic interests in the country — Iran. Iran can be unpredictable, but it's by no means certain it would accept true Pakistani-American collusion in Afghanistan. In the mid-'90s, Iran was all but at war with the Taliban, and if Iran isn't consulted on a settlement, it could play the spoiler.


Accepting Pakistan's postconflict agenda and backing off on the Haqqanis at Karzai's expense is too bitter a pill for Washington to swallow in an election year, so we'll muddle through for another year. But when the U.S. finally leaves, don't be surprised to see the Haqqanis in Kabul.


And as for the Haqqani "network's" influence, and the Pakistani military's ties to them (and why they're not about to sever them, no matter how much Mike Mullen huffs and puffs, or Lindsey Graham rattles his ever-brandished saber), see this recent report in the NYT.

How Israel Lost America

Very perceptive post from Larry Derfner, a former Jerusalem Post columnist who was fired only a few months ago because his perspective was consistently too critical of the Netanyahu government (for which the J-Post is one of the louder cheerleaders).  Pasted below, in full:

“Tafasta meruba, lo tafasta,” is a Hebrew saying that means, “If you get too greedy, you end up with nothing,” and it fits well to the arm-twisting job Israel just did on Obama at the UN. By leaning on him too single-handedly to block the Palestinian statehood bid, to pressure countries like Gabon and Bosnia-Herzegovina to go along, and to give a speech that Avigdor Lieberman said he would “sign with both hands,” Israel bent Obama too far, until he just broke. In the eyes of Palestinians, Muslims of the Middle East and probably everybody else in the world, the U.S. president has now assumed the identity of the ultimate Israel lobbyist, of Mr.Hasbara. “He’s not the president of the United States, he’s the president of Israel,” a man in Ramallah said to me the day after the speech, and that’s what Palestinians think today: They flat-out hate Obama. They may hate him more than any other U.S. president in history, including George W. Bush. They thought Obama was on their side, and in the moment of truth he sold them out to the LIkud, to the settlers, to the Republican wackos. Palestinians, and presumably all Muslims, feel toward Obama today how the settlers felt toward Ariel Sharon after he decided to withdraw from Gaza: betrayed.

With Obama’s America now having zero credibility in the Middle East, where does this leave Israel? Alone and vulnerable to an extent that’s unfamiliar to Israelis. Until now, the U.S. held sway with the Palestinians; it doesn’t anymore. It held sway with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey; I wonder how much it has left now. In highly dramatic fashion, the U.S. stood up for the occupation and against Palestinian independence, and the result of this disgrace is that outside of Israel and America, the occupation is more unpopular and Palestinian independence more popular than ever. It’s the Palestinians who have the wind at their back now, and Israel that’s pissing in the wind. And America can’t help us anymore because America has become a spent force around here.

Having gotten no respect from the U.S., the Palestinian Authority shows it none. Abbas’s aide Yasser Abed Rabbo says publicly that the Palestinians will refuse to negotiate with Israel if America is the mediator. The Quartet’s mealy-mouthed proposal for talks about talks gets blown off by the PA. The eminiently mealy-mouthed Tony Blair gets chewed out by Abbas. What leverage does America or its emissaries have over the Palestinians anymore? What can America and Europe do for Israel – threaten to cut off funds to the PA? This is the threat coming from the Netanyahu government and the Republican Party – and Abbas is just daring them to go through with it. If we can’t have independence, he’s telling them, the PA will shut down and Israeli soldiers and money can keep the peace in the refugee camps, villages and cities of the West Bank. U.S. congressmen and most Israeli cabinet ministers are too fat-headed to understand, but this is something like Abbas’s doomsday option.

He has other options, though. He can keep going back to the Security Council time after time and force Obama to embarrass himself again and again. He can launch non-violent “people power” protests across the West Bank. He can give up on the two-state solution and demand the one-state solution: Israeli citizenship for Palestinians. The Palestinians are the darlings of the world, while not only Israel but Israel’s great protector are in the world’s doghouse, or certainly the Middle East’s.

And in all this, what are Israel’s options? What leverage does it have over anybody – except the Obama administration, which, as noted, is a spent force in this neighborhood. Who wants to be Israel’s friend today, aside from Glenn Beck Nation?

Tafasta meruba, Bibi – you were too greedy. You wanted to beat Obama, but you beat him to death, for Israel’s purposes. Effectively, you lost America for this country. When it comes to alliances Israel can count on, you’ve left us with nothing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Christian Zionists: Patriots?

From CNN's recent report on the impact of Christian Zionists on the debate surrounding UN recognition of a Palestinian state:

The Christian Zionist drumbeat against the Palestinian statehood push at the U.N. has grown so loud that some prominent Christians penned an "Open Letter to America's Christian Zionists," arguing that the movement is damaging prospects for Mideast peace.

While it's clear that they are becoming increasingly importantly players in the global debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what is less clear to many Americans is exactly who Christian Zionists are and what they believe.

Even many American and Israeli Jews, who would presumably welcome a group that emphatically supports Jews and the Jewish state - some Christian Zionists go so far as to celebrate Jewish holidays and to make repeatedly trips to Israel - are uneasy about Christian Zionist support.

Some Jews wonder whether evangelicals should be embraced as allies at a time of growing Israeli isolation or shunned as covert proselytizers interested in the Jewish state only for its perceived role in provoking Jesus' second coming.

Some prominent Christian Zionists promote the idea that the Jews' return to Israel, which became a Jewish state in 1948, is a sign of the fast-approaching Rapture, when the righteous will ascend to heaven while others are left behind.

The Rapture, many evangelicals believe, will usher in an apocalyptic period that will culminate in Jesus' return. And some Christians believe that keeping Israel in Jewish hands will help expedite that end-times scenario.

These Christians, called dispensationalists because they believe history is divided into different eras, or dispensations, "believe the Jews need to go back to the land of Israel before or immediately after the Rapture and create a commonwealth," said Yaakov Ariel, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina.

"This is not believed to be the great Davidic Kingdom that would be ushered in by Jesus' second coming," Ariel said of the Jewish state, "but it is a stepping stone in that direction. Dispensationalists believe they can help pave the way for that."

Activists, academics and religious believers disagree about how influential this kind of apocalyptic thinking is in factoring into Christian support for Israel.

A growing number of prominent Republican figures, including Perry, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, have couched support for Israel in ways that place them in the Christian Zionism camp, say those who study the movement.

Such irony when one considers that Christian Zionists number themselves among the US's most devoted patriots - yet their support for such a myopically pro-Israel stance by the US has been a huge contributor to the US's current international isolation and virtual elimination as a leader in addressing the most pressing issues in the Middle East.

Lindsey Graham: Consider Military Strike against Pakistan

Sometimes you truly have to wonder: What part of the concept of limits - or hubris - is Lindsey Graham unable to understand?

From the AP, a report on Graham's comments on Fox News:

Graham did not call for military action but said "all options" should be considered. He said assistance to Pakistan should be reconfigured and that the U.S. should no longer designate an amount of aid for Pakistan but have a more "transactional relationship" with the country.

"They're killing American soldiers," he said. "If they continue to embrace terrorism as a part of their national strategy, we're going to have to put all options on the table, including defending our troops."

The senator seems unaware of some rather important considerations here:

  • From the day US forces intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, the US war there has been immensely unpopular among Pakistanis.  The US bullied Pakistan's then military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, into cooperating with the US - with US diplomat Richard Armitage threatening that the US would otherwise bomb Pakistan "back into the Stone Age."  In the eyes of the vast majority of Pakistanis, the Afghan war was Bush's war, now Obama's war - one that had nothing to do with them, but that has cost them dearly in helping stir trouble throughout their country.
  • Pakistan is a nuclear-armed military power.  It has no capacity to use nuclear weapons directly against the US, but has rattled the nuclear saber vs. US ally India on more than one occasion.  Moreover, a US military strike against Pakistan would likely destabilize Pakistan enough to endanger the security of its nuclear arsenal.

In an op-ed I published several years ago with Asia Times, I mentioned a scenario - envisioned by another commentator - of a Pakistan becoming destabilized enough by a putative US attack on Iran for some rogue element in the Pakistani military to commandeer a nuke-armed bomber and attempt a nuclear strike on Israel.  The blowback from a US military strike against Pakistani forces inside Pakistan beggars the imagination.

Senator Graham needs to calm down - and he needs to quit floating ideas such as these among the chest-thumping crowd that accept Fox News as tantamount to divine guidance.  In his misguided effort to protect US troops overseas, he just may end up getting more of them killed.

Turkey-Iran Joint Offensive vs. Kurd Resistance

As noted in the WaPo.
This surely injects into State Department thinking - and Congressional hem-twisting over Israel - even greater concern about Turkey's direction under PM Erdogan.  A country that had been both Israel's and the US's staunchest ally in the Middle East now purports to coordinate with the "mad mullahs" in military strikes against the Kurds.  And some of those strikes will undoubtedly cross into Iraqi Kurdistan, where the government has long relied on the US's backing.

And this atop Turkey's assurance to Iran that the NATO radar bases it will be hosting are no threat to Iran.
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A Way Ahead for the Middle East?

Leon Hadar (at The National Interest) makes a very interesting pitch for the formation of a new ASEAN-like regional grouping, which he provisionally names ASWAN (Association of Southwest Nations):

. . .  ASEAN members have not been brought together by common ideology—or religion or culture, for that matter—but by the recognition of their mutual economic and political interests. It is a mosaic of various political systems and old and new civilizations in various stages of economic development: The most populated Muslim country and an evolving democracy under the influence of the military (Indonesia) and a constitutional monarchy and messy democracy where the primary religion is Buddhism (Thailand); A harsh military dictatorship (Myanmar), a communist-ruled state (Vietnam) and a former U.S. dependency (the Phillippines); Booming economic success stories (Singapore; Malaysia) and struggling developing countries (Cambodia; Laos).

Which reminds us very much of the existing Middle Eastern mosaic of monarchies (Saudi Arabia; Jordan; Morocco), military regimes with socialist systems (Egypt; Algeria) and democracies with free-market economies (Israel; Turkey); of multi-sectarian states (Iraq; Lebanon) and states with large minorities (Israel; Turkey; Morocco; Algeria); of Arab and non-Arab states and entities (Turkey; Iran; Israel; Kurds; Berbers) and large concentrations of non-Muslims (Maronites; Copts; Assyrians; Israeli Jews).

In a way, in addition to becoming a vehicle for facilitating trade and investment in the region and with outside economies, the ASEAN has also served as geopolitical system under which the regional hegemonic tendencies of powerful states like Indonesia and Vietnam were contained—and tensions between old antagonists like Singapore and Malaysia were managed—while U.S. military presence was institutionalized in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the economic and political integration of China was eased.

Currently, the ASEAN countries are hoping to ensure that the United States will continue to project its military and economic presence in East Asia to counterbalance the rise of China, which has disputes with Vietnam and other members over competing claims in the South China Sea.

Consider now the idea of applying the ASEAN model to a strategic part of the Middle East—the Fertile Crescent or the Levant. Notwithstanding the current divisions between Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians and Iraqis, the governments of Southwest Asia—not unlike the members of the ASEAN—share mutual geopolitical and economic interests.

It goes without saying that the formation of a free-trade zone in the area, one that would make it possible to utilize its large and educated middle class and to combine Israel’s high-tech industry, Lebanon’s financial center and Iraq’s energy resources—not to mention large Diaspora communities—and traditional ties to the EU and the oil-producing states in the Gulf, could transform it into a global economic powerhouse.

Moreover, the potential members of the Association of Southwest Nations (ASWAN) have an interest in maintaining friendly relationships while containing possible challenges from the three rising regional powers—Turkey, Iran and Egypt—an interest they share with the U.S. and the EU as well as with Saudi Arabia. An ASWAN system will also provide a regional system to help co-opt the Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon and provide a broader response to Palestinian and Kurdish aspirations.

But, to my thinking, the rub might come here:

The United States and the EU could help form the foundations for such a regional group by leading an effort towards an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and a peaceful political transition in Syria. The facilitation of an Israel-Palestine accord and the coming to power of a Syrian government that downgrades partnership with Iran and Hezbollah and upgrades an effort to reach accommodation with Lebanon and Israel could fit into a new overall U.S. strategy to prevent Iran from emerging as the hegemon in post-U.S-occupation Iraq and Middle East. That is the kind of strategy that could win support from Turkey and Egypt and help maintain U.S. influence in West Asia—in the same way that the ASEAN assists the U.S. in remaining a central player in East Asia.

At this point, and especially given Congress' inability to adopt anything remotely resembling an approach balanced enough to make the US a credible mediator for Israel-Palestine talks, it's difficult to envision how most of the region's people would accept a US role in leading such an effort, especially if it was perceived as serving an ultimate design of maintaining US influence in the region.


As US Influence Wanes in the Middle East . . .

The waning of US influence in the Middle East has been truly remarkable, in its rapidity and extent, and in its causes: namely, the degree to which it was self-inflicted by a Congress that refused to see beyond its myopic obeidance to the dictates of the Netanyahu govenment and the overweaning influence of the Israel lobby and its Christian Zionist partners.  Combine that with the ineptitude of a once-promising young president who pledged to transform US relations with both the Arab countries and Iran, only to betray that promise in the face of a savvy, much more experienced Israeli prime minister . . . and the result is shocking, and saddening to any of us who still clung to hopes that, after the debacle of George W. Bush, the US might re-emerge on the international stage as a force in which we might have some modicum of pride.

Instead, the evidence of our leaders' myopia and boneheaded decision-making confronts us wherever we look:

  • as the Arab uprisings (the Arab "spring") play themselves out, the US has hamstrung its ability to be a force for good by emptying its treasury to fight ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, running up a massive debt from under which we have little prospect of escaping and which has trashed our ability to contribute significantly to pro-democracy movements in Egypt and elsewhere.
  • As a report in today's WaPo makes clear, we're reluctant to make any such contributions because Congress cannot stomach the likelihood that Islamist parties may emerge with some modicum of political power.  The calculus?  Islamism = bad for Israel.  As it happens, though - and as a superb analysis by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the NYRB illuminates - we're highly likely to see (in Egypt, especially - and what happens there may well be a lynch-pin for much of the region) a victory of counter-revolutionary forces in the shape of an alliance between the Egyptian military and the well-positioned, well-organized Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.  In other words, not much of a democracy - but a regime whose military leaders will need to pay some heed to widespread anti-Israeli sentiments on the "street," but also play ball well enough with the US to ensure continued weapons shipments and military help.  If the US plays along, the reward is hope for a stable relationship with Egypt, under a military regime.  So much for support for democracy.
  • In Iraq, more evidence that the "Surge" perhaps gave the US a feel-good moment, and enabled what's become a highly repressive Saddam-lite government under Nuri al-Maliki to cement its control of Iraq's security apparatus, but failed to do what it was supposed to do: provide breathing space for a political reconciliation that would draw together Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Kurds (and Turkmens) under a new national compact.  Ain't happening; probably ain't gonna happen; and meanwhile, Sunni insurgent groups (including al-Qaeda in Iraq) are regularly attacking Iraqi security forces and perpetrating bombings (like the latest, at the Shii holy city of Karbala, which killed as many as 10).  And as the US still tries to wrangle some kind of permission from the Iraqi government to maintain US forces in Iraq after the 31 December withdrawal deadline, Muqtada al-Sadr has militia members (the Mumamidun) ready to take up arms if American troops do indeed say - and Iran will surely provide them with any assistance they might need. 
  • And Mahmoud Abbas has returned to the West Bank, the conquering hero (even if his people still have no state) who thumbed his nose (long overdue, I might add) at what Rami Khouri recently- and very aptly - referred to as "Israel-America" (and the new South Africa, to boot).

One could go on and on: the debacle at the UN, the ongoing blood-letting (and night raids) in Afghanistan, the drones that will do oh-so-much to win hearts and minds in Somalia and Yemen, the thousands of hearts and minds that US drones and general arrogance toward the Pakistani leadership have cost us there.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

US Sidelined in the "Peace Process"

Again, the NYT nails the story:

 A last-ditch American effort to head off a Palestinian bid for membership in the United Nations faltered. President Obama tried to qualify his own call, just a year ago, for a Palestinian state. And President Nicolas Sarkozy of France stepped forcefully into the void, with a proposal that pointedly repudiated Mr. Obama’s approach.

The extraordinary tableau Wednesday at the United Nations underscored a stark new reality: the United States is facing the prospect of having to share, or even cede, its decades-long role as the architect of Middle East peacemaking. . . .

American diplomats turned their attention to how to navigate a new era in which questions of Palestinian statehood are squarely on the global diplomatic agenda. There used to be three relevant players in any Middle East peace effort: the Palestinians, Israel and the United States. But expansions of settlements in the West Bank and a hardening of Israeli attitudes have isolated Israel and its main backer, the United States. Dissension among Palestinian factions has undermined the prospect for a new accord as well.

Finally, Washington politics has limited Mr. Obama’s ability to try to break the logjam if that means appearing to distance himself from Israel. Republicans have mounted a challenge to lure away Jewish voters who supported Democrats in the past, after some Jewish leaders sharply criticized Mr. Obama for trying to push Israel too hard.

The result has been two and a half years of stagnation on the Middle East peace front that has left Arabs — and many world leaders — frustrated, and ready to try an alternative to the American-centric approach that has prevailed since the 1970s.

“The U.S. cannot lead on an issue that it is so boxed in on by its domestic politics,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator in the government of Ehud Barak. “And therefore, with the region in such rapid upheaval and the two-state solution dying, as long as the U.S. is paralyzed, others are going to have to step up.”

It's indeed beyond sad that an American president whose message of change and hope helped net him the Nobel Peace Prize at the start of his presidency now presides over the marginalizing of the United States in the attempts to resolve a struggle that has been a centerpiece of American diplomacy for more than 60 years.  To a great extent, Obama has been held hostage by the ignorance and bias of millions of American Christians.  But it was also his failure to measure up to the forcefulness of Mr. Netanyahu  when Bibi refused to halt settlement building in the West Bank, and then flouted that refusal to discredit and humble a young, inexperienced president, that brought Obama's presidency - and the US's credibility - to this low point.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Human-rights Travesty of US Night Raids in Afghanistan

Gareth Porter at IPS on recent findings regarding US night raids to round up Afghan civilians:

The report suggests that it is dangerous to detain family members in particular in order to exploit their knowledge of relatives in the insurgency, because it further inflames an already angry population across the country.

"If that is the criteria, they might as well arrest all southerners," said one Afghan journalist living in Kandahar. "The person who is an active Taliban is either my uncle, cousin (or) nephew…"

Based on interviews with residents in villages where raids have taken place in the past several months, the report concludes that communities "see raids as deliberately targeting and harassing civilians, in order to discourage communities from providing food and shelter to insurgents, or to pressure them to supply intelligence on the insurgency."

Most of those civilians targeted or swept up in night raids are released within a few days, according to the report. That assessment is consistent with the revelation, reported by IPS in September 2010, that roughly 90 percent of the individuals who were said by ISAF in August 2010 to have been "captured insurgents" were in fact released either within two weeks of initial detention or within a few months after being sent to Parwan detention facility.

The authors of the report conclude that deliberately targeting and rounding up civilians who are not suspected of being insurgents merely to exploit possible intelligence value "may constitute an arbitrary deprivation of liberty" and thus "inhumane treatment" in violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

Porter makes another observation that suggests a rather cynical underpinning for the recent ramping up of these raids: the Special Operations Forces who conduct them have been rather successful in forcing Taliban leaders to flee from Afghanistan into Pakistan, which means that it would seem less urgent to increase the night raids.  However, the night raids are a chief raison d'etre for the SOF to remain in Afghanistan.  So . . . instead of focusing on killing Taliban commanders who may no longer be there to be killed, round up villagers to press them for information.  Result: SOF get to hang around, Army brass gets to showcase them and keep the money flow coming to those units.

And speaking of Taliban commanders and fighters heading across the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, the US now says that it has arrogated to itself the prerogative of intervening unilaterally against the Haqqani network - i.e., sending its forces inside Pakistan itslelf if necessary - if the Pakistanis won't do so themselves.

Our arrogance is breath-taking . . . and the possibilities of provoking the military of what is, in fact, a nuclear-armed power, have increased exponentially.

Obama at the UN: an Embarrassment to Himself, and to the US

The NYT's report on Mr. Obama's speech to the UN today pulls no punches: Obama's lofty, silky rhetoric were not enough to mask the abject failure of his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

For Mr. Obama, the challenge in crafting the much-anticipated General Assembly speech on Wednesday was how to address the incongruities of the administration’s position: the president who committed himself to making peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians a priority from Day One, who still has not been able to even get peace negotiations going after two and a half years; the president who opened the door to Palestinian state membership at the United Nations last year ending up threatening to veto that very membership; the president who was determined to get on the right side of Arab history ending up, in the views of many on the Arab street, on the wrong side of it on the Palestinian issue.

The Arab Spring quandary, in particular, has been enormously troublesome for Mr. Obama. White House officials say that he has long been keenly aware that he, like no other American president, stood as a potential beacon to the Arab street as the ultimate symbol of the hopes and rewards of democracy. But since he is the president of the United States, he has had to put American interests first.

So Mr. Obama’s entire 47-minute address appeared, at times, an effort to thread the needle meant to balance his efforts in support of democratic movements against his efforts to stand behind Israel, America’s foremost ally.

Obama wants to have it every which way he can: as warrior for peace and human dignity, as fan of Palestinian statehood and Arab democracies, but also as ultimate guarantor of Israel's security and Israel's status as the US's foremost ally in the Middle East.

But in two and a half years as president, he has succeeded only in bowing before the dictates of Israeli domestic politics, as well as those of US congressmen held in (often willing) thrall by the powerful pro-Israel lobby and its Christian Zionist/evangelical/Islamophobic tag-team partners.  He continues to insist that only the US can act as a fair and honest broker between the two sides, and that those sides can hope to achieve a settlement of their differences only by returning to the negotating table.  Meanwhile, Israel's backers rail at the Palestinian leadership for refusing to accept Mr. Netanyahu's always-open invitation to sit down, even when they and any other reasonably sentient observer know that, in Netanyahu's world, such talks are nothing more than an opportuniy for Israel to insist on the same conditions it has been insisting on for years, call it "negotiation," and all the while, keep on expanding settlements in the West Bank, colonizing East Jerusalem, blockading the unfortunate Palestinians of Gaza, and in general make a two-state solution to the conflict impossible.

The only thing worse than Obama's feckless "leadership" on this issue is the solution that Texas governor Rick Perry - a prime contender for the Republican presidential nomination - is advancing: that the US adopt as its own the "Greater Israel" policy of the Netanyahu/Lieberman government: complete the colonization of the West Bank, eliminate any further consideration of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and cement that new US position by moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  In his view - as he stated yesterday at a press conference - in a Perry administration, if you want to work for the US State Department, you'd better plan to be working in Jerusalem.

Secret Deals to Expand US's Permanent Wars

As the WaPo reports (from documents published by Wikileaks), the US has made some secret deals with Ethiopia and the Republic of Seychelles to host small fleets of drones for use in counterterror operations in Somali and Yemen.

Day by day, the ability of the American people to monitor and comprehend the miltary actions launched on their behalf disappears farther over the horizon.

Sad times for American democracy.  And a disappointing policy decision from a president whose inauguration was thought to be a harbinger of transparency and honesty in the government's dealings with the American people.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Did 9-11 Change Everything?

As we examine the 9-11 attacks 10 years after, one of the persisting questions seems to be: Did 9-11 change everything?

My take?  It didn't have to, but as a nation, we let ourselves be too easily manipulated to believe that everything indeed had to change if we weren't to be swept away in some surging Islamist tide.  The danger of that was never as great as Bush and his spin-meisters tried to convince us it was.  But they did their job well, and thoroughly.

And as Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes make clear in their latest essay (via the LA Times), we're going to be paying for it for a long, long time:

We chose to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan with a small, all-volunteer force, and we supplemented the military presence with a heavy reliance on civilian contractors. These decisions not only placed enormous strain on the troops but dramatically pushed up costs. Recent congressional investigations have shown that roughly 1 of every 4 dollars spent on wartime contracting was wasted or misspent.

To date, the United States has spent more than $2.5 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon spending spree that accompanied it and a battery of new homeland security measures instituted after Sept. 11.

How have we paid for this? Entirely through borrowing. Spending on the wars and on added security at home has accounted for more than one-quarter of the total increase in U.S. government debt since 2001. And not only did we fail to pay as we went for the wars, the George W. Bush administration also successfully pushed to cut taxes in 2001 and again in 2003, which added further to the debt. This toxic combination of lower revenues and higher spending has brought the country to its current political stalemate.

There is only one other time in U.S. history that a war was financed entirely through borrowing, without raising taxes: when the Colonies borrowed from France during the Revolutionary War.

Even if we were to leave Afghanistan and Iraq tomorrow, our war debt would continue to rise for decades. Future bills will include such things as caring for military veterans, replacing military equipment, rebuilding the armed forces and paying interest on all the money we have borrowed. And these costs won't be insignificant.

History has shown that the cost of caring for military veterans peaks decades after a conflict. Already, half of the returning troops have been treated in Veterans Administration medical centers, and more than 600,000 have qualified to receive disability compensation. At this point, the bill for future medical and disability benefits is estimated at $600 billion to $900 billion, but the number will almost surely grow as hundreds of thousands of troops still deployed abroad return home.

And it isn't just in some theoretical future that the wars will affect the nation's economy: They already have. The conditions that precipitated the financial crisis in 2008 were shaped in part by the war on terror. The invasion of Iraq and the resulting instability in the Persian Gulf were among the factors that pushed oil prices up from about $30 a barrel in 2003 to historic highs five years later, peaking at $140 a barrel in current dollars in 2008. Higher oil prices threatened to depress U.S. economic activity, prompting the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates and loosen regulations. These policies were major contributors to the housing bubble and the financial collapse that followed.

Now, the war's huge deficits are shaping the economic debate, and they could keep Congress from enacting another round of needed stimulus spending to help the country climb out of its economic malaise. Many of these war debts are likely to continue to compromise America's investments in its future for decades.

For years, the public failed to adequately question how it was possible that we could spend and borrow so freely, with so few consequences. But now the painful legacy of these decisions has become clear. Throughout the past decade, Congress routinely approved huge "emergency" appropriations to pay for the wars. This process preempted the usual scrutiny and debate that accompanies large spending bills. In part, this is because the U.S. lacks the basic accounting tools necessary for informed debate. Our future debts from the war are not listed anywhere in the federal government's budget. We don't even know for certain where the money has been spent. The Pentagon hasn't produced a clean financial audit in the 20 years since government auditing began, nor has it developed an accounting framework that would allow an assessment of the future costs of current decisions. This has almost certainly increased the overall cost of the war.

Our response to Sept. 11 has weakened both the current economy and our future economic prospects. And that legacy of economic weakness — combined with the erosion of the credibility of our military power and of our "soft power" — has undermined, rather than strengthened, our national security.

Nearly 10 years into the Afghanistan war, the violence in that country shows little sign of abating. August was the deadliest month of the war yet for U.S. troops, and there were also multiple attacks on Afghan security forces, government officials and civilians. The surge in violence comes as NATO is drawing down and handing over security control to national forces. But tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel are scheduled to remain in Afghanistan through the end of 2014.

The costs of fighting the war on terror have already been far higher than they needed to be. The U.S. should not take on even greater war debt without understanding the true costs of continuing down that path.

On America's Imperfect Democracy

Rami Khouri, in The Daily Star, reporting on his attending a Philadelphia city council meeting where the council members - acting well outside the mandate of a city council, and certainly well outside their competence - voted to support the US House of Representatives resolution opposing Palestinian efforts to gain UN recognition as a state:

My conclusion at the end of the day was that the struggle for justice, fairness and equal rights in Israel and Palestine will not be won or even seriously nudged forward in the United States, where the structural biases for Zionist zealotry are too deeply entrenched.

This has also been a useful refresher course for me – 40 years after living and attending university in the United States – on why American democracy is not a useful model for the Arab world. I understand better now why Palestinians are taking their battle for statehood to the U.N. and defying the U.S. and its threats and blackmail; and why so many newly democratizing Arab societies are asking Americans offering money, advice and assistance on democratic state-building to stay home for now.

It’s amazing how much you can learn in America about democracy’s strengths and weaknesses in a day, traveling between the wellsprings of America’s imperfect democracy in Boston and Philadelphia.



Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Long-Term Human Cost of the Iraq War

The AP (via WaPo) reports on a tragedy that has remained way too under the radar here (as has, for that matter, anything at all about Iraq, except for the push to keep thousands of troops there, to protect "American interests"):

A study released Sunday by a global humanitarian aid organization concluded that three out of every five widows in Iraq lost their husbands in the years of violence that followed the 2003 invasion.

The study by Los Angeles-based Relief International found that about 10 percent of the estimated 15 million women who live in Iraq are widows. Among them, 59 percent have lost their husbands during the U.S.-led war.

The study warned that criminal gangs and terrorist groups might try to recruit desperate widows, and that ignoring their suffering could lead them to prostitution, drugs and terrorism.

“The Iraqi state has neglected the widows with their enormous problems, and the solutions lie in the establishing of bodies to take care of and solve the problems of these women,” the report said.

The report was released at a conference in Baghdad where parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi pledged to help widows through job opportunities, salaries and loans to help them start small businesses.

“The misery of those widows has an impact on the whole society,” al-Nujaifi said. “This catastrophe is growing, and its danger will threaten our values.”

In a small room in eastern Baghdad where she lives with her four children, widow Wafiya Hussein said she depends on relatives’ donations to keep her family alive. Her husband was killed in a Baghdad explosion in 2009 as he was heading to work.

“I receive no assistance from the government, and I cannot work due to my illnesses,” said Hussein. 41, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Our situation is difficult,” she said, pleading for government support to help raise her children, including a crippled son.

Also underreported - and forgotten - in the US: the impact of Mr. Bush's Iraq adventure on Iraq's children - killed, maimed, disfigured, emotionally traumatized, forced into exile, their educations interrupted or terminated, their lives ruined.  Even, of course, as the McCain-Lieberman-Grahams boast of how we've "liberated" them

Speaking of which . . . more liberation on the docket?  In Salon, Trita Parsi describes the GOP push for US action against Iran.

In spite of the Republicans' recent gains, the candidate that stands the greatest chance of defeating Obama 2012 is Obama '08. Instead of running away from his record and betraying the foreign policy values he promised to bring to the White House in 2008, Obama should restate the case for diplomacy and point out its benefits and virtues, including the superiority of diplomacy in addressing Iran's flagrant human rights violations. And point to Iraq to remind the American public of the unacceptability of failure when it comes to diplomacy.

As Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told me recently in a sharp reminder of what the end game of the hawks is: "If diplomacy fails and the economic sanctions fail, [then] everybody understands that all options are on the table."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

McCain and Pals are at it Again: More US Troops in Iraq

From the usual suspects: The song that never ends.  McCain, Lieberman, and Lindsey, in the WaPo: setting up Obama to be the guy who "lost" Iraq.

The Iraqi leaders really, really want us to stay; Iraq will fall apart if we don't; we need to maintain as many as 25,000 troops there, or else al-Qaeda and the nefarious Persians will take over.  And the US budget? Not a problem, say they.

They seem to have missed those stories about how Muqtada al-Sadr has threatened to call out his militias to go after US forces if they stay.  Is he bluffing? Who knows.  If he's not, and Sadr City and much of southern Iraq rise up against US forces, could US forces light 'em up?  Maybe.  

You'd call that a "win" for the US?  Do you really believe that the already riled up "Arab street" will simply sit still as US forces chew up hundreds more Arab lives?  Do you really believe that Israel won't be made to pay a price that might drive it into retaliations, which could perhaps touch off a regional war?

Gentlemen, is your American exceptionalism so overweening that you'd roll the dice with the fate of an entire region - not to mention the lives of American men and women who have probably seen as much of Iraq  as they'll ever want to, and who probably know much better than do you, that a continued US military presence - be it 3000, be it 25,000 troops, staying one more year, staying 5 more years - will never be enough to "fix" what's wrong in Iraq?

In all likelihood, keeping US troops there will

  • be a magnet for more attacks by "al-Qaeda" and Shii militias - with Shii militias supported from Iran, and Sunni al-Qaeda groups funded from Saudi Arabia
  • provide more opportunity for provocations that will lead to armed conflict with Iran (something that Lieberman and Graham would likely love to see happen)
  • provide cover for Mr. al-Maliki to solidify his regime, make his security forces ever stronger, and destroy whatever threat he may feel from the disempowered Sunni Arabs of Iraq - in effect, a new Saddam-type regime.

The American people elected Barrack Obama in 2008 on the promise that he would get the US out of Iraq.  Let him keep that promise.

FBI: Muhammad a "Cult Leader"

The NY Times reports that in its training materials, the FBI refers to the prophet Muhammad as a "cult leader."

In a training segment called “Militancy Considerations,” posted on Wired’s Web site, a chart correlated a steady level of violence with “adherence by pious and devout” to the Koran. In contrast, the chart showed violence decreasing with “adherence by pious and devout” to the Bible or to the Torah.

A PowerPoint presentation titled “Strategic Themes and Drivers in Islamic Law” described Muhammad as a “businessman,” a “cult leader for a small inner circle” and a “religious leader with political ambitions.” The Prophet, the presentation said, “ordered the assassinations and executions of critics” and “employed torture to extract information.”

In a statement posted on its Web site on Friday, the F.B.I. said the training material “does not reflect the views of the F.B.I. and is not consistent with the overall instruction provided to F.B.I. personnel.”

The material was presented only once, in April, to an audience of 37 agents at the Northern Virginia Resident Agency, according to the F.B.I., “and was quickly discontinued because it was inconsistent with F.B.I. standards on this topic.”

In the statement, the agency said that “as of August 2011, the individual who delivered the presentation no longer provides training on behalf of the F.B.I.”

“These corrective measures were made before recent media attention was given to this topic,” the agency said.

Earlier this year, the F.B.I. came under fire for the use of a counterterrorism manual that described Islam as transforming a country’s culture “into seventh-century Arabian ways.” The agency was also criticized last year for inviting Robert Spencer, a blogger and author whose work is widely perceived as hostile to Islam, to speak to a joint terrorism task force.

“This isn’t a revelation to us,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group in Washington. “We’ve been dealing with this issue for quite some time now.”

He added, “There’s a problem with the use of anti-Islamic trainers and Islamophobic materials.”

More Money - and Trouble - for Iraq?

AFP reports that the Iraqi government has recovered more than $100 million in funds from overseas bank accounts held by former Saddam Huseein-era officials.  It would be interesting to track that money from this point, to see if it goes down Iraq's huge corruption hole, or if it is applied to creating jobs and restoring services - something for which thousands of Iraqis marched a few days ago, having been called into the streets by Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Another potential source of jobs in Iraq - again, for the predominantly Shia south - is the new Faw port that the Baghdad government is pushing.  The rub?  The Kuwaiti government is pushing its own new Persian Gulf port - the Mubarak port - and threatens to complete it ahead of Iraq's planned port, which will draw lots of expected commerce from Iraq.  Iraqi pols are furious, and have been railing against the Kuwaitis for months.  As the WaPo notes:

The rival ports have caused a major feud between the neighbors. Baghdad has tried to play down concerns that the Kuwaiti facility will disrupt Iraqi shipping.

But on Saturday, Mansour al-Timimi, a Shiite from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political bloc, said Kuwait’s Mubarak port will have a “destructive” impact on Iraq’s economy and waterways.

Al-Timimi is urging Baghdad to finish up the construction of its own Faw port, which stalled after it started two years ago. He also says Iraq should boycott companies involved in building the Kuwait port.

This is, of course, not simply about jobs and revenues - as important as they surely are, especially for an Iraq that struggles to regain its economic footing.  The prime beneficiaries of the Faw port would be the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, as well as the local Shia-dominated provincial governments and people of Iraq's south.  Ranged against them - and leading the charge to complete the Mubarak port - is a Sunni Kuwaiti government, which can count on the support of the staunchly Sunni Saudi monarchy - which, of course, sees the al-Maliki government in Baghdad as stooges for the Shia-Islamist regime in Tehran.

Why We Stay in Afghanistan

Thanks to Salon's Glenn Greenwald for reminding us (commenting on a report in the WaPo):

our invasion and occupation is what enables the Taliban to recruit massive numbers of Afghan teenagers into their cause.  And now, we have to stay until we either kill all the people who hate us and want us gone from their country or propagandize deradicalize them into meekly accepting our presence.  Once there are no more Afghans left who want us gone, then we can leave.  For those of you who have been cynically claiming that this war has no discernible purpose other than the generalized benefits of Endless War for political officials and the Security State industry, now you know.

(Of course, the goal of ridding Afghanistan of all those who want to fight us will never happen precisely because the American military presence in their country produces an endless supply of American-hating fighters -- just as the Soviet military presence there once did, and just as the general War on Terror [and its various bombings, detentions, occupations, assassinations and the like] ensures that Terrorism never ends by producing an endless supply of American-hating Terrorists -- but that's just a detail.  All wars have challenges.  At least we can now see the very important purpose of the war in Afghanistan: we stay until there's nobody left who hates us and wants us gone, then we triumphantly depart.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

So, Bibi, Who Ya Gonna Call? O-ba-ma!

Daniel Levy, ever incisive and insightful, in a Foreign Policy analysis that makes plain: The US is squandering whatever reputation and good-will it still might have in the Middle East, with its shameless pandering to Israeli interests during the run-up to the Palestinian petition for statehood at the UN (which, the NYT now reports, will be brought first to the UN Security Council, where the US will veto it).

Whatever the outcome, the United States is guaranteed to be the real loser in all of this. For domestic political reasons the Obama administration is committed to oppose any U.N. initiative not authorized by Israel and to cajole and convince other countries to do likewise. The United States will find itself isolated, blamed for its own vote and the "no's" of others, weakening its Palestinian friends while frittering away further diplomatic capital, and all at such a delicate time in the Middle East. Having previously been aligned with Arab autocracies, the U.S. could have opened a new chapter post-Arab awakening. Instead, with Arab public opinion now a driving force, the United States will further alienate itself from popular sentiment by (again) trampling Palestinian rights. Making matters worse for President Obama, the relationship with Netanyahu is wholly unidirectional. According to ex- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Netanyahu is "ungrateful" and U.S. interests (let alone Obama's own needs) do not figure in his calculations.

Those interests, and America's regional alliances, are being stretched to snapping point by the excesses of Israeli belligerence toward the neighborhood and dismissiveness toward the Palestinians under its current coalition. Democratic Turkey and democratizing Egypt are increasingly unable or unwilling to feign indifference. Israeli hegemony faces new and serious challenges. The unraveling of Israel's regional relations could make New York a sideshow, and a tame one at that. If Israel chooses to take punitive counter-measures against the Palestinians -- withholding tax revenues belonging to the PA, annexing settlements, or responding violently to unarmed marches (and if the Uunited States joins suit by cutting its own PA funding) -- then events could spiral in dangerous and unpredictable ways. The PLO move at the United Nations is not an incitement to violence by any reasonable measure -- but the Netanyahu government's response might become just that.

Watching from the sidelines with a mixture of amusement and bemusement will be America's emerging global competitors from the BRIC countries and beyond. After the recent Congressional debt-ceiling debacle, a U.N. display of the United States tying itself in knots and squandering reputational currency due to its inability to manage relations with a country so in its debt, will offer further evidence of Washington's unreliability as a competent world leader.

(For more detailed analysis of the situation, read the International Crisis Committee's recent report .)

It's a truly sad reflection of the dysfunctionality of the American political system that, in a country where (according to most polls) a majority of its citizens want its leaders to take an impartial stance in promoting a settlement between Israel and Palestinians, their representatives in Congress adopt almost unanimously a stance aligned lopsidedly with the interests of only one party - Israel - and designed to inflict maximum humiliation on an evidently well-intentioned president who, owing to spinelessness, or considerations of political expediency and longevity, or some combination of the two, has opted to back away from his earlier promises (Cairo, 2009) to work for a just and equitable settlement.  The result: US policy and actions that represent a complete caving-in to the dictates of the Israeli government, and to a well-organized, well-funded, vocal, but perniciously ignorant and myopic element of the American electorate: Christian Zionists - who just happen to dominate the Tea Party, a throwback to the nativist Know Nothings of a previous - and very sad - era in American politics.

They call themselves patriots, "real Americans" - yet stood by and guffawed when the prime minister of Israel came to Washington and dissed the president of the US (in his own house!) on his hardly innovating proposals regarding a peace settlement, and they then cheered his address to Congress like teenyboppers at a Beatles concert.

Yet, to whom did the prime minister turn when his country's embassy in Cairo was stormed by real patriots - Egyptian citizens intent on signaling that their country would no longer be content to kowtow in the face of Israel's provocations?  Netanyahu couldn't get the leader of Egypt's military government on the phone during the crisis.  So (channeling "Ghostbusters"), Bibi, who ya gonna call?  O-ba-ma.

And, after absorbing all those body shots from Bibi, Obama came through; the Israelis were permitted to fly in a special military plane to get their diplomats out, undoubtedly because of Obama's intercession.

No matter.  As the UN vote approaches, and it becomes ever more obvious that the General assembly will approve - overwhelmingly - the recognition of Palestine, the Tea Party element of the GOP will scream bloody murder about how Obama let Israel be dissed, how he let down the stalwart Bibi.  Indeed, when Tea Party darling rootin-tootin Rick Perry can celebrate rootin-tootin Israelis as being just like rootin-tootin Texans, how long a jump is it to declaring the Israelis are better Americans than is Obama?

Of course, Texans have a long history of white Anglos dominating - and abusing - darker-skinned cohabitants of their state.  Kinda like the long history of Ashkenazi European-descended ("white") Israelis dominating - and abusing - darker-skinned Mizrahi Jews, as well as Arabs.  Kinda like how the white Christian evangelicals who dominate the Tea Party have a long history of abusing their darker-skinned fellow citizens - especially ones with a middle name like Hussein.




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