Friday, December 14, 2012

Obama Needs to Keep Brakes on US Syria Involvement

Reporting in today's NY Times (and elsewhere) that SecDef Leon Panetta has authorized the deployment of 400 US military personnel and two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey as a deterrent to a possible attack from Syria as that country's awful civil war continues.  Meanwhile, this post from Jon Lee Anderson at The New Yorker notes reports that US Special Forces may have been positioned in Jordan to move quickly into Syria to take control of chemical-weapons sites should the US feel that to be necessary.
But Anderson concludes his post with something we all ought to be mindful of:
For Assad, doing something to trigger a U.S. military intervention, even a limited one, might be a fatal misstep—or it could possibly be precisely what he needs to do to survive. The jihadists now fighting him might well turn their fire instead on the Americans, as they did before in Iraq.
For President Obama, U.S. military intervention has to be the least desirable of all possible actions—one with unforeseeable consequences, including the risk of becoming mired in a new, multi-sided Middle East conflict. For that reason, the threshold at which the U.S. might become more directly involved remains necessarily ambiguous, leaving the U.S. and Syria to test one another a little more closely all the time, in an old-fashioned, but very high-stakes game of chicken.
Whatever one's criticisms of the extent and nature of US involvement in Libya's civil war, Obama undoubtedly was wise in not inserting American boots on the ground.  As in Iraq, they would have been a magnet for jihadists from countries far and near.  The same considerations surely apply in Syria, where jihadists have already had a huge impact in the fighting.  But the Libyan situation wound down relatively quickly, and NATO air strikes could be launched with relative impunity.  The war in Syria, on the other hand, has stretched on for almost two years, and despite recent assessments that it has reached an "end-game" stage, it actually is likely to last much longer, even if Asad himself is driven from the capital in Damascus.  Syria has much better air defenses than did Libya; much of Asad's military and arsenal is still intact; and he has relatively powerful and reliable patrons in Russia and Iran.
That American troops have now been placed even closer to harm's way ought to concern us all.  If the carnage ramps up in Syria - and especially if it spills over even more into Lebanon and, quite possibly, Iraq - Obama will come under more pressure from some of the usual suspects in Congress to get America more into the fight.  And fresh off his success in forcing Susan Rice from the running for Hillary's soon-to-be-vacated SecState spot, Mr. McCain is going to be feeling both vindicated and invigorated. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Obama's "Benign Neglect" of Israel-Palestine

In today's Open Zion, Peter Beinart may have something - that Obama is backing away from the Israel v Palestine mess to "lead from behind" by letting the Europeans spearhead any effort to pressure Netanyahu on issues like the proposed settlement expansion in West Bank E1.

Beinart's also correct, though, that it may backfire: Bibi will keep on with settlement expansion, so that by the time (if ever) there's new opportunity for negotiation, there will be nothing left to negotiate about.

Let's face it: Obama has made a mess of the entire "peace process" issue.  As I warned back in early 2009, Bibi was able to bully our shiny-bright new president, although it was difficult for Obama to be tough with Bibi when Congress was in Bibi's corner to tag-team vs Obama.  But I now suspect that Obama's calculus is the following:

  • rebuilding here at home is priority #1.  That means expending tons of focus and energy on dickering with GOP leaders in Congress on fiscal cliff, taxes, etc.  Obama simply can't afford to dissipate his newly won political capital on battling with Bibi.
  • Congress, as ever, has Bibi's back. It would take a monumental blunder on Bibi's part for Congress to abandon him.
  • Bibi obviously is playing a long game with the "peace process" - meaning, stall, misdirect, do whatever it takes to give the settlers enough time to make "Greater Israel" an irreversible reality.  In point of fact, it probably already is.

How Israel's victorious Greater Israel champions are going to deal with the likewise probably irreversible rise of populist-Islamist-dominated states in their neighborhood is another question.  But they'd better be taking notice of how the leaders - and the people - of those states are no longer willing to take their cues from what Washington wants or demands.

Israel's leaders keep propelling their country farther and farther down the road to a defiant isolation from their neighbors.   In the process, they're also putting Israel farther and farther out on that proverbial limb. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Who Lost Syria" Debate Coming?

It's difficult to know exactly where the situation in Syria is right now, or where it's headed, or when the Asad regime might fall.  Some recent reports suggest that rebel forces have the lion's share of the momentum.  Others remind us that the core of Asad's military remains intact and that his regime is in no immediate danger of extinction.  Almost everyone seems agreed, though, that a new and very different Syria is in the making.  Anyone who says s/he can predict what it's going to look like is passing pundit gas.

One of the fears most commonly expressed, though, is that the new Syria will not be to the US's liking. John McCain has long been banging the drum of "we gotta do something," "get in the fight," etc., just on the principle of "American values."  Coming from the guy who touted the Petraeus "surge" in Iraq as US "victory" there and intoned "bomb bomb Iran" on the 2008 campaign trail, McCain's prescriptions can be ignored as the rants of a bitter, angry, semi-senile pol whose party ought to be pointing him toward the exit. 

However,  a Paul Richter piece in today's LA Times hammers repeatedly on the idea that some Syrian rebel groups have been pleading for help (meaning arms, including heavy weapons) from the US, only to have the Obama administration stiff-arm those requests.   Richter pays brief lip-service to concerns that such US-furnished weapons might fall into the hands of jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which hopes to see a strictly Islamist state established in Syria.  (For recent reports and analyses of the "Nusra Front," see here, here, here, and here.)   Nonetheless, his conclusion is that Obama essentially is blowing it in Syria.  Predictably, he gets support for that assessment from two "expert" worthies from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think-tank long regarded as the premier mouthpiece for the Israeli government in D.C. (Well, that's if we're not counting the US Congress, but let's not go there right now.)  Given the current state of relations between Obama and Netanyahu, I'd bet that WINEP is hardly poised to be a source of even tepid support for Obama's Middle Eastern policies.  WINEP's takes?


Though they are in regular contact with military councils — provincial bodies that try to coordinate the patchwork of militias — relationships are not strong with individual groups, said Andrew Tabler, a leading Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The United States could have built a valuable relationship, for example, with Al Farouq brigade, a nationalist but mainline group, he said. . . .

One unsettling possibility is that Syria could be filled with militias that retain their weapons, as in postrevolutionary Libya, but without goodwill toward the United States or loyalty to a transitional government.

"You could have dozens of militias, battle-tested and brimming with weapons, that don't necessarily consider the authorities in Damascus to be sovereign," said David Schenker, a Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Schenker, at least, is on to something, because the Syrian civil war has become a proxy war between Sunni and Shi'i sectarian forces in the region.  The Saudis and Qatar have been funneling money and weapons to Sunni militias fighting Asad's forces; Iran (with at least veiled support from Iraq's Shi'i-led government) and Russia have been backing the Syrian military; and Iraqis of both sects, impelled by either religious or tribal ties, have entered the conflict in Syria as well.  Meanwhile, Kurdish groups have begun, with the Asad government's at least partial collusion, to create a semi-autonomous enclave in Syria's north, along the border with Turkey.

The point here is that Syria has begun to fragment, and it's only going to get worse.  The newly formed coalition of exiled rebel political leaders has little control over the various militias inside Syria, and no one seems confident that such control will soon be in the offing.  For the US to declare its support for the coalition and then try to ship arms to selected militias that supposedly back that coalition has all the makings of what the US military would call a clusterfuck, logistically speaking.  It would also lead to a situation where some miltias would become "American" ones, in likely competition with jihadist militias and others who might not want the stigma of American (= Israeli) support.

I hope Obama continues his current stiff-arm policy.  Syria has never been America's to win or lose, and it won't be in the foreseeable future either.  But perhaps, by not engaging with the Syrian civil war too closely now, the US can preserve some leverage to help shape Syria's - or at least, Syrians' - future later.  There may not be a Syria when all is said and done.   That's not for us to determine.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Palestinians' Lesson of November

As noted by Karl Vick at Time:

Hamas launched 1,300 missiles into Israel during the military offensive aimed at stopping the launches, and in return won territorial concessions. Under the terms of the cease-fire brokered by Egypt, Gaza’s fishermen doubled the distance they can travel from shore before encountering Israeli gunboats, and Palestinian farmers won access to the one-third of the enclave’s arable land that abuts the border fence with Israel proper.  A week later, Abbas, who heads the secular Fatah party, won the lopsided vote at the United Nations, and Israel’s response was to appropriate another chunk of the West Bank for its own use.   

Meanwhile, at this weekend's Saban Forum in DC, as David Remnick reports, US-Israel chumminess prevailed (with the exception of Rahm Emanuel's dressing down of some of the Israelis in attendance, in reaction to Bibi's decision to move forward with settlement expansion into the E1 section of the West Bank, outside Jerusalem).  Hillary Clinton admonished the Israelis to be more "generous" toward the Palestinians, but assured them that the US has their back and reminded the Palestinians of how misguided was their coup at the UN General Assembly.

Very little will come of that coup without some sort of leverage, and the Palestinians' only leverage at this point is their newly won ability to pursue action against Israel at the International Criminal Court - something that European representatives, the Brits especially, have tried to discourage them from doing.  Otherwise, leverage will have to come from the Europeans, who seem to have reached their limit with Bibi's brazen decisions.  Max Fisher documents today the growing gap between Israel and Europe, with a distinct trend toward less diplomatic support from the Euros.

Whether that will translate into Bibi's rethinking of his policies regarding the burgeoning Jewish colonization of the West Bank, however, seems highly doubtful.  Netanyahu, perhaps courtesy of his indoctrination at the feet of his late father, has a quasi-messianic view of his role in the creation of Greater Israel and the nixing of any putative Palestinian state.  And by and large, despite the growing speculation that Ehud Olmert might enter the electoral lists in January, the Israeli public outside the few angry, plaintive voices at Haaretz and the peace movement seems likely to stand with him.

Israel is therefore well on the way to isolating itself internationally, save its American ally, which is becoming less and less listened to by Israel neighbors.  Perhaps, in the short to medium term, Israel can survive in such circumstances.  But across the Middle East, the wave of Sunni Islamist resurgence is beginning to crest - in Egypt, in Syria, in Turkey, in Jordan, and surely, of course, in Gaza.  And the US, increasingly wary of military involvement in Muslim lands, may become reluctant to have "the back" of an Israel whose political leadership rejects real compromise in the West Bank or Gaza.

A. B. Yehoshua has called upon Israel's leaders to talk with Hamas.  (And at Foreign Affairs, Tareq Baconi likewise urges, "Don't boycott Hamas.") Bibi needs to listen.  Israel's existence may well be at stake.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Question for Elliot Abrams

On his CFR "Pressure Points" blog, former Iran-Contra liar Elliott Abrams bangs on about what he obviously sees as the silliness of tomorrow's scheduled UN General Assembly vote to recognize "Palestine."  He also reminds us all that afterwards, presuming that the vote will be favorable, the US (via Israel's amen corner in Congress) will promptly "punish" the UN by withdrawing its funding from any UN body in which a "Palestine" delegation will be allowed to participate (remember UNESCO?).

Abrams concludes, though, by admonishing Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians (whom he labels the PLO; nothing like raising the specter of Arafat and 1960s terrorism) to desist with silly UN resolutions and instead focus on building "a decent, prosperous, democratic state."

But here's my question for Abrams: how are Palestinians supposed to build a state without territory on which to build it?  For years, Abrams has tried to downplay the significance of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank - even as successive Israeli governments have ramped up their financial and military support for those settlements.  The settler movement wields extraordinary power in the Knesset.  And in recent days, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has melded his Likud party (historically the most stalwart proponent of Greater Israel/Judea and Samaria) with the Yisrael Beiteinu party of  Bibi's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a resident of a West Bank settlement and on record with virulently racist anti-Arab comments.  

Bottom line: the Zionist colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem has become a juggernaut that can no longer be headed off.  Most Israelis hardly give a rat's behind about the fate of West Bank Arabs.  The ranks of the IDF are becoming increasingly imbued with a quasi-racist religious nationalism promoted by military rabbis who provide Biblical "justification" for the eradication of indigenous Palestinians.  

The "peace process" has become both a bad joke that Netanyahu can play on Abbas whenever he needs it - and a card that Abrams can cynically play whenever he sees Israel's interests threatened.

As for the US, the peace process has become a stained and shredded, but nonetheless still flapping, pendant which it pathetically lifts in order to remind the world that it is the "indispensable" global power.  Yet Russia and China will surely back the Palestinians' resolution in the UN.  And both France and Spain have declared their intention to support the resolution as well.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Gaza 2012: the IDF's Beat-down Goes On

Sitting in a recliner, coffee at hand, laptop on lap (which is aching; only 2 weeks since my left hip was replaced) . . . and pondering how it is that I can sit here comfortably and securely, even as the newly re-elected president of my country essentially condones Israel's murderous bombardment of the tiny, over-populated enclave that we call the Gaza Strip.

Some of today's reporting is here from the New York Times, here from the Washington Post (which notes the IDF's destruction of two buildings used by journalists in Gaza.  The IDF's rationale: Hamas was using the journalists as "human shields." Oh.)  The death toll in Gaza is near 50 - and despite Bibi's insistence that the IDF is being extremely careful not to target civilians (like journalists?), the pictures coming out of Gaza suggest that, as ever, the "most moral army in the world"'s resort to disproportionate force is wreaking lots of "collateral damage."  (A sample of pix is here . They're heart-rending.)

Who's to blame?  The WaPo runs a useful chronology of recent events, most of it lifted from work by Emily Hauser and posted by Robert Wright at The Atlantic.  At The Daily Beast, Leslie Gelb, one of the champions of the mainstream US foreign-policy establishment, assigns some blame to Israel and the US, but lays "the lion's share" of it on Hamas.  (Interesting expression, that; reminds me of the seminal role Great Britain played in the creation of the Zionist colonial-settler state in Palestine.)  After all, says Gelb,

Hamas pledges to destroy the state of Israel. Hamas-lovers lose all credibility when they ignore that fact.

Well, yeah, that's indeed in the Hamas charter.  But a recent, well-regarded academic study of Hamas (I own the book, but in my current circumstances am not up to retrieving it from my stacks) noted that several Hamas figures have expressed regret that that passage was ever included in the charter as well as willingness to ignore it if the Israelis were willing to negotiate in good faith on Palestinian statehood.  My point here is that Israel hawks keep throwing up that passage in the Hamas charter as an argument-ender (as Gelb does), but that many in Hamas have moved on in their thinking - as have many in the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas' parent organization, which now leads the new Egyptian democratic government, and upon whose support Hamas in Gaza surely has to rely.

IMO, a much better take on the current crisis is that of Juan Cole (at Informed Comment), who lists the Top Ten Myths about the Israeli Attack on Gaza ais nd provides a much deeper historical underpinning than do the reports in the MSM.

But the commentator who perhaps best gets to the heart of the matter is Rami Khouri.  Khouri notes (in a Daily Star essay posted at Agence Global) that the Palestinian resistance in Gaza now possesses longer-range rockets that

"generate a significant new dimension of psychological fear in Israel that mirrors the fear and tension that Israel’s aerial attacks have long inflicted on Palestinians and Lebanese. The ability of Palestinians today to fire rockets deeper into Israel, and, presumably, with more accuracy in due course, is just one indicator of the fact that time is not on Israel’s side. "

(BTW, the NY Times also has a report on these rockets titled "Arms With a Long Reach Help Hamas."  The report is by long-time NYT Israel hand Ethan Bronner, whose continued role with that paper has been criticized by many, given that his son is an Israeli soldier.)  But Khouri goes on then to make his much more important point:


As long as the crime of dispossession and refugeehood that was committed against the Palestinian people in 1947-48 is not redressed through a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides, we will continue to see enhancements in both the determination and the capabilities of Palestinian fighters -- as has been the case since the 1930s, in fact. Only stupid or ideologically maniacal Zionists fail to come to terms with this fact.

As a former anti-Vietnam War protester, I remember distinctly a much-used chant of that era of civil-rights and anti-war protest:

"No justice, no peace."  

Pitifully few members of the mainstream foreign-policy establishment in the US - not to mention the Congress and the American electorate - evince any awareness that the Arabs of Palestine were done horrific injustice by the Zionist ethnic cleansing that made possible the creation of Israel in 1948.  None of the negotiations and agreements between Israel and various Arab parties since that time have ever come close to rectifying that injustice.  In a region of the planet where values of upholding honor and exacting vengeance for its violation run so deep, people across the Arab world, as well as Muslims in Iran and Turkey, have been left to seethe for decades about Israel's refusal even to recognize even that an injustice was done, and about the United States' unwavering support of Israel's refusal.  

This same injustice, of course, underpinned the motives of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda in launching the attacks of 11 September 2001.  It continues to fire the fury of jihadists across the planet, many of whom are itching for opportunities to lash out at Israel's American enablers - be they soldiers in Afghanistan, or civilians in oblivious repose in the security of the American "homeland."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Biblical Dimension of New Israeli Campaign vs Gaza

At Moon of Alabama notes how Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF's current onslaught vs. Gaza, was initially named (in Hebrew) "Pillar of Cloud" - a Biblical term that indicates God's physical presence among the early Israelites during episodes of conflict.  The IDF evidently switched to Pillar of Defense to draw more secular observers' attention away from the ultra-religious-nationalist ideology that has begun to dominate Israeli security discourse.
That ideology hardly shines through, though, in these Instagram pictures recently posted by young IDF worthies as they muster for duty in Gaza.  War now becomes the equivalent of strutting down the runway.  These kids seem not to have a worry in the world.  Not surprising.  From a military standpoint, the IDF's war against Gaza is a turkey-shoot.  Pepe Escobar makes the same point at Asia Times.  And he also points out some of Bibi's more cynical motives here, to wit: if Obama is thinking about approaching Iran for direct talks, well then, I'll fix him! How 'bout a new war in Gaza to distract you?
Escobar correctly notes, though:

If Obama had any balls he would be fuming. Then he would smack down Bibi. Shouldn't even bet on it. We know he won't. 

But Obama needs to be climbing down Bibi's throat, pronto.  Sure, Bibi's ploy here may serve to back-burner Iran.  But as Escobar notes, it's not as if the Hamas government in Gaza is going to be left  hung out to dry:

Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi will have to do ... something; the Egpytian street, which is all in favor of scrapping the Camp David accords, will demand it. On top of that, Cairo itself broke the truce between Tel Aviv and Hamas - now totally sabotaged by Israel. Moreover, Hamas is supported by Turkey and, crucially, the Emir of Qatar and his petro-billions. Will they just shut up and watch the carnage? As for King Playstation in Jordan, he cannot play conciliator towards Israel because he may be booking a one-way flight to London sooner than he thinks.

If anything, a lesson emerging in all of this - not that it's anything new - is that Bibi could give a rat's ass when it comes to US hopes, relationships, and interests in the Arab/Turko/Iranian Middle East. Netanyahu will seek to advance whatever he considers to be Israel's interests, whatever the cost to the US.
And it may well happen that, if the Gaza onslaught ramps up, that cost will include more US embassies and consulates stormed and burned, and more American diplomats terrorized and killed.  
If that happens, of course, don't look to the Dos Amigos and their posse in Congress to point a finger at Bibi. 

Another Vietnam in the Making?

Paul Rogers (at Open Democracy) makes a compelling argument that the African forces being readied to move against the Islamist militias that now control north Mali will not be up to the task, even with the help of 400 or so Special Forces advisors from various European countries.  

The logical consequence will be the deployment of an expanded force with a substantial foreign input, whose responsibilities include a direct combat role, no doubt supported by both armed and reconnaissance drones . . . .


A bit reminiscent of the Vietnam War, no?  First, Green Berets, followed by regular army and marines when that proved insufficient?  Rogers continues:


It is possible that in the coming weeks there will be serious attempts to negotiate with at least some of the paramilitary Islamist groups operating in northern Mali. If they are successful, a conflict might still be avoided. It is clear, though, that intensive planning for military involvement is now underway, principally in Europe. If that military option does ensue, the result will be another international conflict with western participation - albeit likely to be on a smaller scale than Libya, and much smaller than Iraq or Afghanistan.


Its significance, though, may be less its size and intensity and more its status as a further example of western intervention against an Islamic region. In itself that may have little traction even with the great majority of the world's Muslim community, but for a core minority it will have a sharp impact. The most immediate effects may be felt in west Africa, where radical Islamist movements are influential, but also in east Africa, where similar currents are evolving. The experience of such wars also shows that once started they can take alarming directions, have very destructive results, and often enhance the very movements they are designed to counter. Whether such forewarnings make any difference remains to be seen.


With all of America's attention now riveted on the Dos Amigos' (John McCain and Lindsey Graham) frantic but flimsily supported attack on Susan Rice and the Benghazi "debacle" - and on the media carnival surrounding Petraeus/Broadwell/Allen/Kelley, Mali is getting nary a look-see in the US media.  But if it comes to what Rogers has outlined (and his track record in such predictions is quite good; he was spot-on about how Iraq would turn out), Mr. Obama may find himself signing off on drone strikes (and more) in yet another Muslim country.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Purple States Manifesto

I only wish I could claim to have written this.  It was shared by a friend (a history professor at the University of South Carolina) who had convinced HIS friend (the actual author) to share it via Facebook.

If you cannot find much here to agree with, then you are truly part of the problem.

The Purple States Manifesto

We reject the tired notion of Red states, Blue states. We are all Red, all Blue. We are Purple, one nation divided, diverse, but still American.
We stand together in the belief that polarization hurts us all, solves nothing, and ensures that our children and grandchildren will live in a country less powerful, less great, less happy than the one we know.
Together, we have conquered the British, slavery, fascism, segregation, polio, and communism. Surely, we can apply that same determination, passion, innovation, and genius to defeating climate change, racism, and debt. 
We are not moochers or takers. We are awake. We have witnessed middle-class wages stagnate for two generations. We have watched, with dismay, as unprecedented income inequality means our pensions disappear, our wages are cut, and the American dream as we’ve known it has been distorted into an oligarchic, winner-take-all monstrosity. 
We don’t want a hand-out. We want a cease-fire. If there’s a class war, we are its draftees. The first in battle, the first to die on the frontlines as the “Greed is Good” philosophy pummels equality of opportunity.
We are white. And brown. And black. And yellow. And red. And innumerable combinations thereof. We celebrate the not-too-distant future where the United States looks like the rest of the world. Rage all you will, but this is an inexorable reality.
We, unlike you, do not lament the death of “traditional” America. That is the America where Emmett Till was lynched. Where terms like “sexual harassment” and “domestic violence” didn’t exist. Where our Hispanic brothers and sisters were smeared as “wetbacks.” Where Native Americans were stripped of their lands and were victims of genocide. Where the back of the Statue of Liberty intentionally faced Asia. Where women were solely defined by their ability to serve their husbands and raise their children. Where Jews read “Gentiles only” want ads. 
We demand truth and openness. We deserve to know if our democracy is being sold to the highest bidder and if so, who is buying it and why. 
We believe that the richest nation in the world should be able to find a way to ensure that no American dies because of a lack of health care without simultaneously allowing our insurance companies and the prescription drug industry to hold us hostage; that national security does not necessitate our spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined; and that it is far past time to create a standardized, impartial national system for voting where votes are cast efficiently, fairly, and without fear of intimidation or invalidation. 
We demand that our public officials stop playing games, start compromising, and begin the hard work of tackling our fiscal crisis bravely, realistically, now.
We are willing to sacrifice, even to die, for America is she attacked by those who hate us, but we will not be lied to about the causes and costs of war again nor stand idly by while our warriors are expected to bear more than even the strongest soldier could endure. 
We are old and young; illiterate and educated; queer and straight; single and married; rich and poor; Southern, Northern, Eastern, Western. 
And we implore you to listen beyond whatever echo chamber you inhabit. 
We are so much more than the cynics claim, than the ratings require. 
There is a future we can build together; we can construct a bridge over all divides us. 
Isn’t it time we do it?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bibi to Arabs: Our Bombing Iran Will Feel Good to You

YNet reports on Bibi's interview with Paris Match:

In an interview published on Tuesday with French magazine Paris Match, Netanyahu said such a strike would not worsen regional tensions, as many critics have warned.
"Five minutes after, contrary to what the skeptics say, I think a feeling of relief would spread across the region," he said.
"Iran is not popular in the Arab world, far from it, and some governments in the region, as well as their citizens, have understood that a nuclear armed Iran would be dangerous for them, not just for Israel," he said.
Sounds a little like how Bush touted his Iraq adventure, doesn't it?  You know, trust us; we're actually saving you, liberating you so that you too can achieve the blessing of democracy and free-market capitalism.
I believe the Irish have an expression for this - and Joe Biden reminded us of it: malarkey.
The French have one as well, as Bibi's readers in Paris Match would know: merde.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Is This GOP Ad Incitement to Shoot the President?

Picture taken by a friend just outside Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.  Billboard reads: "The Seals Removed One Threat to America.  Remove the Other in November.  Vote Republican."

Doesn't that image perhaps want to plant in the viewer's mind: ". . . and if need be, we can shoot the SOB"?

This country becomes weirder by the day.  Scarier, too.

Should Israel Trade its Nukes to Stop Iran's?

University of Haifa professor Uri Bar-Joseph has published in Foreign Affairs what seems a remarkable proposal (Never mind, for now, that the Israeli establishment will blow it off): Israel should give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for Iran's stopping its nuclear "project."  The underlying assumption, of course, is that Iran's efforts are intended to produce a nuclear weapon.  There's no hard proof of that as yet, but many (including me) wouldn't be surprised if that was indeed their intention.

But my immediate question is, what if Iran's "project" is indeed principally interested in nuclear-power generation? Just as the Saudi government, with the planet's largest oil reserves, hopes to create a huge solar-energy capacity to power its people's future, the Iranians have been claiming that they are pursuing a nuclear program in order to generate power for their own use, and in the process, like the Saudis, free up their oil for sale to developed and emerging industrialized countries. 

I assume that Bar-Joseph's proposal would not require Israel to dismantle its own nuclear facility at Dimona.  (He doesn't say one way or another.)  Would Iran be required to dismantle the reactor at Bushehr?  As James Conca (at Forbes) reminds us, whereas Israel has the only nuclear weapons arsenal in the Middle East, Iran is the only country generating nuclear power in the region.

In light of the devastation that Frankenstorm Sandy has wrought along the US and Canadian coasts, such questions are hardly inconsequential.   Several (among them Tom Engelhardt) are attributing that storm, and other unusual weather events of the last couple of years, to global warming.  One of global warming's principal causes, as we all (ought to) know, is the over-use of carbon-based fuels (oil and coal especially) across the globe.  Although the Fukushima disaster (along with the earlier catastrophe at Chernobyl) has again raised awareness of the dangers of nuclear power generation, many still look to the increased development of nuclear energy around the world as a way of pushing us off our current glide path to destroying our own planet.

Richard Cohen: Obama is No Robert Kennedy. How Could He Be?

This morning's WaPo carries an essay from Richard Cohen faulting Barack Obama for not being Bobby Kennedy:

One of the more melancholy moments of the presidential campaign occurred for me in a screening room. The film was Rory Kennedy’s documentary about her mother, Ethel — the widow of Robert F. Kennedy. Much of it consisted of Kennedy-family home movies, but also film of RFK in Appalachia and in Mississippi among the pitifully emaciated poor. Kennedy brimmed with shock and indignation, with sorrow and sympathy, and was determined — you could see it on his face — to do something about it. I’ve never seen that look on Barack Obama’s face.

He goes on:

I once wondered if Obama could be another RFK. The president has great political skills and a dazzling smile. He and his wife are glamorous figures. He’s a black man, and that matters greatly.

Indeed, it does matter greatly.  Has Cohen not seen the AP report, only a few days ago, that suggests that more than half of white Americans - and more than two-thirds of white Republicans - admit to anti-black prejudice? Is he not aware that Limbaugh nation's millions are led by nose-ropes by a man who gleefully sang (on air) of "Barack the Magic Negro"?

Yes, Bobby Kennedy (whose memory I mostly revere) was Roman Catholic, which many then counted as a strike against him.  As a young Roman Catholic growing up in Kentucky, I thrilled at his brother's election in 1960.  But Bobby Kennedy was also a super-rich white man from a celebrated family, and the brother of a martyred president beloved by most of the country.  His sympathy for the miserable poor of Appalachia was heartfelt and stirring, given his own background.  It was also cost-free, politically speaking.

Can you imagine if Barack Obama had made a huge point of identifying his politics specifically with championing poor blacks?  It would have rendered him essentially a cloning of Jesse Jackson: cheered by millions, yet defeated in the end.  Given the anti-black prejudice that still burdens the souls of millions of rural whites - especially in the heavily GOP South - there's no way that Obama coulld have gone to Appalachia and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them.  Obama himself has been a bridge-builder between whites and blacks, in Hawaii, in Chicago.   But it's hard to imagine those white Christian folks of Alabama and Georgia - or my own home state of Kentucky - accepting him as their champion.

Cohen fails to mention that Obama did try, at the outset of his term, to reach out to one group of people (please allow me this vast overgeneralization, for rhetorical purposes) who needed his help, and with whom the US needs to build bridges: the mostly Muslim Arabs of the Middle East.  His Cairo speech of 2009 raised hopes across that region, and earned him a (perhaps prematurely awarded) Nobel Peace Prize.  

He tried to act on that speech by insisting that Mr. Netanyahu freeze Israel's colonization of the West Bank, only to have Netanyahu - and his own Congress - stiff-arm him.

And I don't recall Richard Cohen stepping up to support Obama in that cause - one that, I'd wager, Bobby Kennedy would have supported wholeheartedly.

Monday, October 29, 2012

WaPo's Walter Pincus Trashes Romney's Military Spending Plans

Walter Pincus notes that since 2010 Romney's spending proposals for the US military have been (to borrow Mr. Obama's characterization) "all over the map."  Pincus also tags Mitt for bringing up the old "two-wars-at-once" dictum about optimal US military capability.  Pincus sums up:

Romney should realize the old two-war theory was a myth. The Bush administration financed Afghanistan and Iraq on a credit card with Congress supplying all the additional funds, though the base defense budget was supposed to handle two wars.

The United States already has, to use Romney’s phrase, a “military second to none.” Spending additional billions may strengthen it but weaken the economy, which is also key to our national security.

Read the entire piece here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mitt the Peacenik?

I'm not buying it; neither are Greg Scoblete and Chris Preble (as highlighted at Scoblete's compass blog at RCW, here.  Why not?  Simple - because of the neocon posse with which Romney has surrounded himself.  As Scoblete notes: 

One reason that Romney has surrounded himself with pro-Iraq war neocons is because that's largely the GOP policy-making bench these days. While the American people writ large have a dim view of the Iraq war, there are plenty of people in Washington's foreign policy establishment that think it was a great idea, if poorly executed.

That means that, no matter the rhetoric of vote-seeking Romney, the policy proposals generated by a Romney administration are going to be made by the same people who thought invading, occupying and spending $1 trillion on Iraq was a brilliant strategic gambit.


I'm also not convinced that Romney's brain has ever entertained a thought on foreign policy that wasn't inserted directly by someone else.  And the fact that he and Bibi are such good buds and old school chums worries me even more on that score in the eventuality that Romney gets elected.

The point has been made by many, and often: Mitt is a creature of market testing.  His "people" surely made it clear to him before Monday night's debate that (1) the voting public want no more wars for the time being (a point that David Ignatius made today) and (2) there was no way that Romney was going to either kayo or outpoint Obama with both men wearing the commander-in-chief gloves.  Al Sharpton put it well (lkewise in boxing terms) on MSNBC after the debate: Romney's tactics were to clinch and hold.  That allowed him to stay in the ring with Obama without getting hurt.  Of course, he landed no telling blows either; but he didn't need to, having piled up lots of points in the first round/debate.

Let's face it: Mitt's advisers now how to work the referees - they being the American public.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Will the US and Iran Negotiate Directly on Iran's Nuclear Program?

The NY Times reported it, both the Iranian and US sides have denied it, Messrs. Obama and Romney have opted not to comment on it before tonite's debate . . .

Yet the blogo- and twitterspheres are all over the report that the US and Iran have agreed to direct negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.

But, in this election season, most Americans' attitude toward (not to mention knowledge of) that entire issue are perhaps best summed up in Karim Sadjadpour's comment, published at Huffington Post,  here:

"I don't really see it having a meaningful impact on the presidential campaign," Sadjadpour said. "I'd venture that more Americans are interested in Kim Kardashian-Kanye West relations than they are US-Iran relations."

Given the obvious impact that the earlier debates - especially the first one - have had on polling trends and momentum, tonite's debate ought to be a major event.  The issues to be addressed are central to America's way forward in the world.  One would hope that a citizenry that hopes to be better informed about the beliefs and positions of the man who will lead the US for the next four years would be glued to their screens at 9 PM.

Well, unfortunately, they will be.  The seventh and deciding game of the National League baseball championship series starts at 7 PM - on Fox network, no less.  Meanwhile, ESPN broadcasts at 8 this week's installment of the National Football League's Monday Night Football.

Tomorrow morning, thousands of Americans will be posted around their office water coolers, where they will yammer on, in nauseating detail, about who won, and how they won, those athletic contests.  

Many of those same thousands of American citizens will head to the polls in two weeks, where they will confidently cast ballots that will decide much about America's future stance on issues about which those same thousands of citizens will have remained willfully, blissfully, dreadfully, and in many instances totally, ignorant.

Ah yes - we are a truly exceptional nation, aren't we?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

To Neocons Screaming, "We Gotta DO SOMETHING!" Chill.

. . . or in this instance, "We shoulda done something."

They're everywhere these days - America's chest-thumpers, those who insist that the US stand ready to jump in anywhere, anytime, to fix some ill.  Thus, John McCain and his amigos are all over Obama for not getting the US in the fight in Syria - and I suspect that Mitt will be all over that one on Monday.

But the red-blooded American boy I want to spotlight today is Max Boot, who has penned for the LA Times a "too little too late" verdict on Obama's policies in Libya, in which he accuses Obama of repeating George W. Bush's mistake in Iraq.  Boot's point about Iraq, of course, is that Bush went in too light, without a plan to secure the peace and rebuild the country. Anyone who's read Thomas Ricks' account in Fiasco knows that to indeed have been the case.  But Obama's intervention in Libya was intended certainly to be the "un-Iraq" alternative: no boots on the ground, no US involvement in nation-building.  Indeed, the principal rationale for the intervention was the newly emerging R2P ("responsibility to protect") policy, which was seized upon because Qaddafi had begun to mouth off about essentially exterminating the opposition.  Obama knew that the American public had no stomach for major involvement in another Middle Eastern country, and that the teetering American economy ought not be asked to support such an involvement.

Boot seems to have forgotten all of that:

The Obama administration has waited about as long [as Bush did in Iraq] to get serious about security in Libya. Not until last month, just days before the attacks in Benghazi, did the State Department and Defense Department ask Congress to redirect $8 million in Pentagon funds to send Special Forces teams to help build a 500-strong Libyan special operations force, to be modeled on the highly capable Iraqi and Afghan special operations forces that have been created over the past decade.

Good idea, but it's too little too late. Why wasn't such an initiative undertaken a year ago when Kadafi was overthrown? And why is it limited to 500 special operators? However good those troops will turn out to be, by themselves they cannot possibly control thousands of militiamen.

A more ambitious program is needed, to be undertaken not only by the United States but by the same European and Arab allies that waged war to topple Kadafi (especially Britain, France, Qatar and the United Arab Republic). The goal would be to help build a state in Libya capable of controlling its own territory. This won't require the dispatch of large numbers of ground troops, just trainers and advisors. Libyan troops could also be sent to other nations for instruction, just as some Iraqi police recruits were trained in Jordan.

Nation-building (or, more accurately, "state building") is an enormously difficult and time-consuming task, but it is also inescapable if we are to avoid more fiascoes like the deadly assault on our Benghazi consulate.

OK, first - is he serious about the need for the US to go into Libya for nation-building? As if what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan - at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars - has worked out all that well for US interests? Or, more important, for the interests of Iraqis and Afghans?

Second, does Boot really believe that it's the US's proper role to insert its advisors to build a national army for the Libyan government and then expect the Libyan government to sic that army on already established and armed militias?  Is that not a prescription for civil war?  How is that going to serve US, or the Libyan people's, interests?

Third, as Britain deals with new fiscal austerity and Europeans in general are nervous as hell about the global economy, does Boot really expect them to step up and take on mounting even a small expeditionary force to send into a highly volatile Libya?

Methinks Mr. Boot is still stuck in pre-2001 US-is-hyperpower mind-warp.  Of course, Messrs. Romney and Obama will likely feel it politically expedient to retreat there as well on Monday night.  With regard to which, a must-read - especially, seems to me, for Max Boot - is Scott Shane's fabulous NYT essay, which exhorts us all to face up to America's problems, and limits.

The neocons (like Boot) and others who insist ever more shrilly that the US DO SOMETHING - in Libya, in Syria, in Iran - need to take some slow deep breaths, get a grip, and start coming to terms with America's new military and economic realities.  John Wayne's been dead a long time now.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Romney's Blown Benghazi Gotcha

Not gonna rehash here the angry broadsides over the Romney-Crowley exchange in the last debate, and what's become a ridiculously inane politicizing of a tragedy (the death of an evidently talented and surely dedicated ambassador in Libya).  But Steve Coll has made an incisive comment that bears posting:

Why are we arguing about bad intelligence reports or misleading characterizations from cabinet officials who were working from second-hand briefings when the facts have been more or less in plain sight since the beginning? There’s an answer, of course: a few weeks out from voting day, campaign strategists find phony but emotional arguments about foreign policy easier to make than subtle, meaningful ones.

Next week, the candidates devote an entire debate to foreign policy. After they are done arguing about who is a better friend of Israel or a more devoted enemy of the Taliban and Iran, what will they possibly talk about? Romney and Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan have both been repeating lately that Obama’s foreign policy is “unravelling before our eyes.” That is such a strange, vacant stretch of an argument that it will be entertaining to watch Romney try to extend it across ninety minutes. Surely by now, when he looks abroad, he no longer trusts his instincts.

Personally, I'm convinced that no matter who wins the debate Monday, and despite my many misgivings and complaints about steps that Obama has taken (or not taken) as president and commander-in-chief, he is - and will be - vastly more competent than Romney to lead the US's efforts in the wider world over the next four years.  He's a well-informed, sober calculator who has also surrounded himself with other mostly well-informed, sober-calculator, experienced experts.  Romney, on the other hand, though he presents himself to us as a would-be international leader, has no real experience on the international scene beyond organizing an Olympics in a (globally speaking) backwoods locale and making what amounted to a combination of pandering religious pilgrimage and tributary visit (to Bibi) to Israel.  In essence, he's not much more on this score than a taller, older, slcker version of Sarah Palin.

Romney furthermore has surrounded himself with advisors who include Bush-administration neocon dead-enders (to borrow a Bush-administration phrase) whose blustering, wrong-headed policies inflicted upon the US its worst-ever strategic disaster as well as brought it to the brink of economic catastrophe.  

That the Romney campaign now tries to pin the aftermath of both disasters on Mr. Obama should disgust any American who's been paying attention. And the possibility that the nation's security might be entrusted to the hands of such a non-statesman-like, patently vacillating politician and self-aggrandizing businessman ought to scare the be-jeezus out of all of us

Will Damascus Go the Way of Baghdad?

For centuries, the region that we have come to refer to (with unduly homogenizing overgeneralization) as the "Arab world" was dominated, and energized, by three great and ancient cities: Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo.  Cairo (Arabic "al-Kahira," or "victorious") was founded officially by the new Shi'i conquerors of Egypt during the 10th century (although the area roundabout had been a heartland of great cities for millennia, going back to Memphis, the capital of the earliest pharaohs).  Founded a couple of centuries earlier by the Arab conquerors of Mesopotamia, Baghdad too lay in the original heartland of cities (to borrow the phrase of the great American anthropologist/archaeologist Robert M. Adams); Babylon lies close by.  Damascus is the most ancient city of them all, its roots extending into the Early Bronze Age, but its fame is most associated with the first truly imperial Muslim Arab dynasty, the Umayyads, who in 661 made Damascus the capital of their already vast, yet still-expanding empire.

Today, all three cities are pale reflections of what they were at their respective apogees.  Cairo's impoverished population are awash in trash, even as the new Islamist-led government likewise tries to dig itself out from under a long-depressed national economy and decades of corrupt authoritarianism  under Egypt's preceding military-based rulers.

Anyone who's paid attention over the last few decades knows of the devastation the people of Baghdad have endured, beginning with Saddam Hussein's war launched against Iran in 1980.  Those horrors culminated in the Anglo-American conquest of the city in 2003, which touched off a massive breakdown of political and social order that led to Baghdad's self-cannibalization.  With the demons of Iraq's sectarianism resurrected, the city's Sunni and Shi'i populations turned against each other - and against the American occupiers of the city.  The evidence of the carnage looms everywhere across the city, which has lost a huge portion of its Sunni Arab - and Christian - population.

As this NY Times report today indicates, Damascus is now poised at the brink of its own self-cannibalization.  The civil war that has been tearing at what was an already loosely woven Syria national fabric is now beyond Damascus' lintel and making its way into the city's ancient interior.  Like Baghdad, Damascus has been the abode of a plethora of sectarian groups, all of whom had been living in relative harmony.  That harmony is fraying:

The reality of war has crept into daily life, and there is a sense of inevitability. Even supporters of the government talk about what comes next, and rebels speak of tightening the noose around this city, their ultimate goal.


Damascus was once known for its all-night party scene. Now, few people venture out after dark, and kidnappings are rampant. Gasoline is increasingly scarce, and as winter approaches, people are worried about shortages of food and heating oil. Streets are closed at a moment’s notice, traffic diverted, bridges shut down. Even longtime residents and taxi drivers get lost and have to weave in and out of parking lots to avoid barriers and dead-end streets. Shelling and machine-gun fire are so commonplace, children no longer react.


As recently as summer, while war raged in various neighborhoods surrounding the city, Damascus existed in a bubble of denial. War, people seemed to feel, was happening elsewhere — and the residents of Mr. Assad’s stronghold were determined to live their lives as if nothing had changed. There were garden parties and fashion shoots, and the Opera House hosted Italian tenors. There were elegant dinners at embassies — before the ambassadors fled, that is.


But as summer faded, the strangulation of Damascus began. More checkpoints appeared. The shabiha — Arabic for ghosts — progovernment paramilitary forces who are often held responsible for the most violent crimes, were defiantly visible in foreign hotels.


Now, suicide bombings are more frequent, and the rebels of the Free Syrian Army say they are slowly establishing control of the suburbs that ring the city, with the aim of slowly strangling the government. Some families say they are taking their children out of school and teaching them at home, because the drive to school is too dangerous.


Discussions among friends are no longer “of the real world,” as one writer put it. Talk turns more naturally to the fate of the homeless in the city’s parks, or the traumatization of the children.


“People,” one woman said, “talk of death.”


To a reporter based in Paris who has been granted three visas in recent months to report freely in the country, Damascus seems now like a city under siege, where for most people danger is a wearying companion — so much so that the last names of those interviewed for this article are being withheld for their protection.


Kidnapping of wealthy Syrians is on the rise, sowing fear in the city’s finest precincts. In Mezze, a politically and ethnically mixed neighborhood once known as the Beverly Hills of Damascus, people talk of the daughter of a local businessman who was kidnapped three weeks ago and ransomed for about $395,000. She was returned to her family, according to local residents, sexually abused, tortured and traumatized.


Residents say the kidnappers are from either the Free Syrian Army or renegade offshoots of radical groups or are, in the government’s catchall phrase, “foreign terrorists.”


One man, an Armenian Christian — “a minority within a minority,” he joked — said he was wary of laying blame on any one group.


“I am not aware of a unified opposition,” he said. “People call themselves groups — F.S.A., Salafists.” In the past, he added, neighbors lived so close together — Druze, Christians, Muslims — that “when something happened, we all offered condolences.”


“We went to each other’s funerals,” he said. “We did not have a feeling that one was different than the others.” Now, the man, a professor of linguistics, says, “I have a lump in my throat when I think about it.”


While people will openly complain of government corruption — even in Alawite pro-Assad regions like Latakia — they also fear what will come if and when Mr. Assad falls. Many are painfully aware that the breakdown of society into sectarian groups has echoes of earlier tragedies, in Bosnia and neighboring Iraq. As Samir, a resident of a Christian neighborhood, Baba Touma, said, “No one knows who is who anymore — what side they are on.”

If all goes as planned, Iraq will be awash in hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenue, some of which the central government may try to apply to Baghdad like a massive band-aid.  Things may improve there; or things may not - corruption is endemic to Iraq's government and politicians -  but the Baghdad that will be thus (if ever) restored will be a very different city from the glory days of the 1970s.

If the wave of violence and vengeance swamps Damascus, however, there will be no real oil money to band-aid the devastation.  Nor, for that matter, may there be an effectively functioning national government there to direct the triage and reconstruction.

The governments of Iran (the Syria government's chief patron) and Turkey (major patron of the opposition), along with UN envoy Lakdar Brahimi, are calling for a cease-fire in Syria.  Even if they succeed, I don't expect any cease-fire to last.  Assad is too dug in; the rebels are too fragmented; both sides will likely use a cease-fire as a breathing space for regrouping before resuming.

Short of a miraculous intervention, a horrible fate awaits Damascus.  The victims, as ever, will be most immediately the innocents caught in the crossfire.  But we all will be the losers in the devastation of one of the planet's most celebrated, historic, beautiful cities - one that I was so fortunate to be able to visit in 1990.  I visited the Umayyad mosque - one of the more rewarding spiritual experiences of my life.  I wandered the great souk in Damascus - and now shudder to think that it may suffer the same fate as the historic souk of now embattled Aleppo.

Here's to praying for that miracle.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Taliban Thwarting the War on Polio in Pakistan? Yes, but . . .

Thus claims this story via NPR, which notes how 

In July, the Taliban flat-out banned any polio teams from entering North and South Waziristan until the U.S. drone attacks stopped.

Rumors about the polio vaccine are rife: It'll make the children sterile; it contains the AIDS virus; the vaccinators are really CIA agents.

Those rumor sound absurd, don't they?  Makes an already hateful bunch (the Taliban) seem even more reprehensible.

Thing is . . . that bit about the vaccinators being CIA agents is not without substance.

More than a year ago, when that Navy SEAL team took out Osama Bin Laden, the intelligence that set up that event was provided, at least in part, by agents, employed by the CIA, whose cover was to act as medical personnel providing polio vaccinations for the locals in and around Abbottabad, where OBL was holed up.  As The Guardian reported at the time [emphasis mine}:

The National Disaster Management Authority, which oversees disaster relief, said it was issuing travel permits on a priority basis. "We are committed to facilitate aid workers in their pursuit of assisting affected communities," said spokesman Brigadier Sajid Naeem.


Tensions were exacerbated by news that the CIA ran a fake vaccination programme in Abbottabad to identify the occupants of Bin Laden's house. "It's adding fuel to the fire in terms of mistrust," said a senior UN official. "Now the Pakistanis can say 'We were right all along – these NGOs are only doing spy work.' "


Médecins Sans Frontières said the CIA operation was "a dangerous abuse of medical care" that would compromise humanitarian work.


The Taliban's intervention against polio vaccinations is cynical and reprehensible, surely.  But let's spread the credit around when it's so warranted.  And unfortunately - indeed, tragically - impoverished, frightened Pakistanis have reason to believe the Taliban when they claim that vaccinators are working for the CIA.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Limits of American Power

Will our people and politicians ever get over the later 20th century?  

You know, that era when "we" KO'd the Germans and Japanese to win World War II, then TKO'd the Soviets to win the Cold War, then circled the ring with a victory lap by waxing Saddam's Iraq in the Persian Gulf "Desert Storm" war?  When so may Americans became convinced that the "USA USA" was THE eternal, divinely ordained hyperpower that had brought the planet (to use Francis Fukuyama's expression) "the end of history" with the permanent and indelible victory of democracy and capitalism?

If the debacle of the Bush-and-Obama Afghan and Iraq adventures has reminded us anything, it's that history indeed moves on, that all empires have their inevitable rise and fall - and nowhere more so than in the Middle East and Asia.  The reasons have varied.  The Assyrians fell victim to the resurgence of once subjugated, resentful Babylonians and Iranians.  Alexander's was brought down by internal fragmentation and the rise of new powers east and west.  Roman/Byzantine, Arab, Seljuk, Ottoman . . . they waxed, sometimes for centuries; they dominated; they faded and they fell. When modern European nations stepped in - none with a bigger, heavier footprint than Great Britain . . . same story.  In the case of the British empire, the historian Paul Kennedy argued convincingly (in his seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers)  that its demise was the result of imperial overstretch, as the size of British dominion came to exceed the ability of the imperial economy to sustain it.  The US seems to have reached the limits of its dominion much more abruptly, for sure.  In 1991 the US military seemed able to work its will wherever it might choose to in the Middle East; and a few years later, the booming US economy produced a surplus in the federal coffers.  Imperial apogee.

Perhaps we owe George W. Bush a big thank-you after all.  Yes, by 2008 his ill-fated (to describe them kindly) ventures in the East helped to run the national economy aground and imposed unsustainable burdens upon a military that had been counted as invincible only a few years before.  But in the abruptness of the process, Mr. Bush equally abruptly forced upon the nation a realization that, under other circumstances, might have dawned much more slowly and, ultimately, have caused the American people, and the planet, much more pain.

That realization? The American empire, such as it was, was an unsustainable chimera that could never have lasted.  Whatever the US's military and economic might, it would (as in the case of all of history's empires) never be sufficient to sustain a permanent domination.  And more importantly, especially given the "values" upon which Americans have predicated so much of their national pride, the right of Middle Eastern peoples to self-determination, whatever form that self-determination might take, was bound to assert itself.

That is indeed what has been going on across the region, especially over the last couple of years of "Arab Spring," but just as surely with the post-World War II decolonization (of which the Palestinian struggle with Israel is a part) and even (yes . . . the horror, the horror) the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution. 

Unfortunately, as some of the rhetoric of the current election season reveals, too many American pols and pundits still don't get it.  When Paul Ryan can speak (as he did last Thursday's vice-presidential debate) of the need to preserve "our gains" in Iraq and Afghanistan; when the WaPo's Jackson Diehl can hammer Obama for "bungling" Syria's civil war (as if that conflict was somehow America's to manage and control so that it would serve "our" interests); when pundits galore can anguish and point fingers over who "lost" Egypt, or Iraq, or Turkey; and when Mitt Romney signs up neocon "thinkers" like Dan Senor and John Bolton as campaign advisors  . . . all of them stand in the way of this nation's coming to terms with a reality that, like it or not, history was always moving it inexorably towards.

Monday, October 8, 2012

How the US Makes Stuff Happen

Read this obituary (from The Economist) for former spook Edwin P. Wilson.  The CIA didn't know; then it knew . . . yada yada.

Then go reflect on all those things you were taught about American values in school.

Mitt Romney's Flawed Global Vision

Twitter is atwitter (sorry) and on-line sources alight with coverage and commentary on Mitt Romney's foreign-policy speech today at VMI.  Predictably, it's long on sermonizing, short on specifics, and replete with references to US leadership and domination and the continuation of the "American century."  The WaPo editors have already weighed in with their concern that the speech failed to outline a more "robust" policy in the Middle East - this, of course, obviously reflecting the views of Jackson Diehl, who's been wringing his hands for months over Obama's reluctance to jump into the Syrian fray with both feet.

I have to recommend most heartily Fred Kaplan's take (at Slate), where he characterizes Romney's speech as the most dishonest of what's now a long string of the Mittster's mendacious public statements.  As have many others (including Paul Pillar and, very pungently, Maureen Dowd), Kaplan reminds us that Romney's foreign-policy mentors include some of the same neocon "visionaries" who gave us the strategic and humanitarian debacle of George Bush's Mesopotamian adventure.  But perhaps most important, Kaplan highlights both Romney's ineptitude overseas (including his insults to the Brits in London and to the Palestinians for their deficient "culture") and the sense that he's stuck in a Cold War time-warp:

Romney proclaimed, “The 21st century can and must be an American century.” This is where he and his advisers, many of them Bush-Cheney neo-cons, share a dangerous assumption about the world. They seem to believe that the United States can wield the same force and influence it did during the Cold War, if only a strong president sat in the White House again. Yet the rise of American power after World War II was facilitated by the geopolitics of the day: a bipolar international system, a faceoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, with much of the rest of the world choosing, or falling into, one camp or the other. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union imploded, this international system collapsed as well—and, as yet, nothing has taken its place. Power has dispersed as power-centers have weakened.

As he has on other occasions, Romney asserted that a president must “use America’s great power to shape history,” not to let events shape America. But the fact is there are no superpowers in today’s world; no country has as much power to shape history—or as little immunity to the influences of others—as America did in the Cold War era. To exercise true leadership, a president must come to grips with the limits of his or her power. This has nothing to do with notions of “American decline.” It has to do with the shattering of the Cold War world.

What seems ever more frighteningly evident to me is that Romney really has not been paying attention to how geopolitics has changed and become more complex over the last decade or so, and how America has run up against (or run aground on) the limits of what its military can do and what the nation's economy can afford to undertake.  Admittedly, he's playing to voters by trying to cast himself as the "can-do" entrepreneur / potential president, versus Obama as the professorial, cerebral, consider-all-the-angles ditherer.  (It kind of hearkens back to the old, absurd bromide: Those who can, do.  Those who can't, teach.")

But I've heard nothing, either in today's speech or in anything else Romney has said, to assure me that he has any depth of understanding of the scope and complexity of the US's relations with the rest of the world.  His most basic belief seems to be: America - must - dominate - period.  With the debacle in Iraq, and at the start of the 12th year of America's longest war (and quite possibily its least successful one), it ought to be clear that that horse has been rode hard, put down wet, and is shivering in its stall. 

Everything beyond demanding US global domination seems, for Romney, simpldetails.  But a leader needs to demonstrate some mastery of those details.  From what I've heard so far, the extent of Romney's actual working knowledge of the details of international affairs could fit easily on a 3 x 5 index card.



Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Stupidity of the US's Anti-Palestine Stance at the UN

I wanna vote for Obama, I really do - and given the dangerous ignorance that Mitt Romney would bring to the global (and domestic) scene, I probably still will.

But damn, Barack, you make it hard.

Report from The Guardian (via @TonyKaron on Twitter) that the US has warned European governments (via a "private memo"!?) that any backing of the Palestinian initiative for recognition by the UN General Assembly,

saying such a move "would be extremely counterproductive" and threatening "significant negative consequences" for the Palestinian Authority, including financial sanctions.

The US demands that a settlement between Israel and Palestinians must be obtained only by direct negotiations between those two parties.  In other words, the so-called "peace process."

This is the epitome of stupidity. Why?

  • the peace process is a joke. It has gone nowhere, and it's going nowhere, ever.  Why? Because . . .
  • Netanyahu is using his never-ending demand for a viable "peace partner" to play for time, pure and simple, even while the Judaization of East Jerusalem and colonization of the West Bank proceed apace.  Any semi-sentient human being knows this; our professorial president surely knows it - yet he and his cohort acquiesce in it.  

This is a time when the US needs to be charting a new course in the Middle East that will reflect awareness of new political realities.  Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya now have popularly elected governments whose leaders need to be responsive to their respective publics.  Any poll you want to consult will tell you that those publics expect their leaders/governments to be mindful of the situation of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel, and to do what they can to hold the US accountable for its support of Israel as regards that situation.  

The newly resurgent Turkey - a country that the US would dearly love to reclaim as a dependable friend and ally - is led by a well-entrenched political party (the AKP) whose rise to power was predicated on responding to popular politics, and whose leader has made clear that he expects Israel to deal more fairly with the Palestinians.  

Moreover, assuming that Bashar al-Asad's regime is eventually toppled in Syria, the government likely to emerge there will have a significant Islamist element that (you can bet your bottom dinar) will insist that Israel's expansion in the West Bank be reined in.  

The US's only remaining strong allies in the Middle East are two hereditary monarchies - those of the ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia and the ibn Hashim in Jordan.  The future of neither of them looks particularly stable, and the possibility that one or both of them will fall in the not too distant future is quite real.

This is no time for the US to be falling back on its default mode when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Arab-Turk Popular Political Front Emerging vs Israel?

AP (via reports on Egypt PM Muhammad Morsi's speech at the convention of Turkey leader Erdogan's AKP in Ankara, where he proclaimed:

‘‘Our common goal is to support other people who are standing up against their administrations or regimes, to support Palestine and the Syrians in their efforts . . . . The events in Syria are the tragedy of the century,’’ . . .  ‘‘We will be on the side of the Syrian people until the bloodshed ends, the cruel regime is gone and Syrian people reach their just rights.’’

Whether this Turkey-Egypt front can be termed a "popular democratic" front is somewhat uncertain.  Both Erdogan and Morsi govern states that are structured as democracies, but both leaders have come under fire for authoritarian tendencies.  Watching the progress of "democracy" in both countries in the years to come will be an interesting exercise.

Nonetheless, both men seem to enjoy support on their respective domestic scenes; both men can claim popular mandates (achieved via the ballot box) to take the political bit firmly in their jaws and move forward.  Turkey's economy has burgeoned under Erdogan - enough so that, as this report notes, Turkey can pony up $2 billion to boost Egypt's economic reconstruction - without which Morsi, and Egypt's democracy, may well founder.

And as the report also notes, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was prominently in attendance. Erdogan spoke directly to the Palestinian cause.  As the report notes:


Erdogan said Turkey is determined to speak out against what he called Israel’s ‘‘state terrorism’’ in the region and praised Morsi for his support to Palestinians.

‘‘Through Morsi’s leadership, our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and in all other Palestinian cities are able to breathe easily,’’ he said.

Erdogan said Turkey would not reconcile with former ally Israel until it lifts its blockade of Gaza and apologizes for an attack in 2010 that killed nine mostly Turkish pro-Palestinian activists in a raid on a flotilla that tried to breach the blockade.


Mr. Netanyahu has been able to distract much of the West's leadership (Mr. Obama included) by (literally, at his recent UN General Assembly presentation) waving the picture of an Iranian bomb before their eyes.  But, along with the Iranian situation, there is no Middle East issue more urgent among the West's leaders as damping down the civil war in Syria before the flames there spread to Iraq, Lebanon, and beyond.  They likely are going to need the involvement, if not the leadership, of Messrs Erdogan and Morsi in achieving that.

Admittedly, Erdogan has his own dog in the Syria fight, what with Syrian refugees increasingly taxing Turkey's largesse, Turkey's own Alawis angry at Erdogan's hammering of the Alawi president of Syria, and Syria's resurgent Kurds beginning to establish an autonomy that Turkey's Kurds hunger for - and doing it along the Turkey-Syria border, no less.

But bear in mind that Israel now finds itself confronted, on its south, not only by a besieged and angry Hamas in Gaza, but also by a newly democratic Egypt whose leaders, if they are to remain in power, need to accommodate somehow the popular Egyptian "street"'s anger against Israel's long-time brutalization of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza.  To its north, Israel may likewise soon find itself confronted (assuming Assad's eventual downfall) by a new Sunni-dominated government whose leaders may rush to fellow religious-Sunni Erdogan's doorstep in hopes of obtaining help to rebuild an already shattered country.  Any such support from Erdogan will surely come with a price, or at least, expectations: that Syria position itself firmly alongside Turkey (and perhaps alongside Turkey's new ally, Egypt?) in holding Israel finally accountable for its policies in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu would have us believe that the direst existential threat to his country looms in Tehran. A Turkey-Syria alliance need not be an existential threat to Israel.  But it just might be what's needed to put paid to Netanyahu's dream of "Greater Israel" - and with it, Bibi's hammerlock on the rise of a real, viable Palestinian state.

Iraq, Afghanistan: America's Wasted Treasure

Among the many dismal pieces of news that awaited me in the morning's email were two bulletins from Time's Samantha Grossman: another Sunni-on-Shia attack in Iraq, and another American killed in Afghanistan.  Especially notable about the latter: the death was the 2000th of an American soldier in Afghanistan, the US's longest war.  What was the point of that death, or of the many more deaths that will follow in the months prior to the 2014 withdrawal (which, we know, will not be a total withdrawal), no one seems able to explain.  And Messrs Obama and Romney are giving the Afghan war a wide berth in the run-up to the November election.  (It will be interesting to see how they might dance around that issue in this week's first debate.)

The AP (via NYT) provides details of the attacks in Iraq:

 insurgents struck Shiite neighborhoods and security forces, officials said, killing at least 26 people.


Insurgents coordinated attacks in multiple cities, the latest strikes in a campaign apparently intended to rekindle widespread sectarian conflict and undermine public confidence in the beleaguered government.


The frequent bombings have raised concerns about the government’s ability to contain the violence, since the last American troops left in December after more than eight years of occupation and civil war that upended Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led minority power base and empowered Iraq’s long-repressed Shiite majority.


The deadliest attack on Sunday came in Taji, a former Al Qaeda stronghold north of Baghdad, where three explosive-rigged cars went off within minutes of one another. The police said eight people were killed and 28 were wounded in the early morning explosions.


In all, at least 94 people were wounded in attacks that stretched from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to the southern Shiite town of Kut.


An eight-year invasion followed by occupation in Iraq ended with 4000+ US soldiers killed, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  (It seems a war crime in itself that we'll never have an exact accounting of Iraqis killed.  The Pentagon couldn't be bothered, especially in the war's early phase.  After all, they were only dead hajjis, right?)  Iraq is really no closer to being a functional, unitary state now than it was when the US removed Saddam Hussein.  Rival Arab- and Kurdish-dominated governments in Baghdad and Erbil, respectively, vie for advantage over oil and territitorial claims.  The Kurds nurture grievances against the Arabs that the US occupation did nothing to assuage - and it was only a hubristic conceit of the US to believe that it might be able to do so.  The Sunni Arabs of Anbar province and other regions in Iraq deeply resent the Shiite dominance that is now entrenched in Baghdad, and that continues to arrest and imprison Sunni leaders as "Baathist terrorists."  Many of the now disenfranchised Sunnis fear the resurgence of al-Qaeda jihadists in Iraq, but likely shed no tears over the deaths of Shiites at al-Qaeda's hands.  And as the largely Sunni-Arab-based insurgency against Bashar Assad's regime in Syria gathers momentum and forces him from power (while the US cheers them on), it's quite likely that Sunni fighters there - a goodly number of them, from Iraq - will then turn their efforts to restoring their Sunni confreres to some greater measure of power in Iraq.

Yes, Iraq has a constitution (with the US's fingerprints still all over it), and a parliament.  And it has an elected prime minister, but he continues to display a penchant for authoritarianism and brutality, as well as a subservience to Shiite sectarian interests, that makes him a far cry from the kind of "democratic" leader whose installation might have warranted the entailed sacrifice in blood and treasure.

Of course, given the dysfunction of American politics these days, one might ask how, or if, the US really has much standing any longer to teach the world about democracy.  Prof. Shadia Drury, Canada Research Chair at the University of Regina in Canada, provides thoughtful, cogent reflection on that very question:

It is ironic that America has embarked on the monumental project of teaching the world about democracy at a time when its own democracy is in a state of decay and degeneration. It seems to me that the most important lesson that America can teach the world in the twenty-first century regards the conditions that signal the imminent demise of the democratic body politic. The elements of democratic health are not a mystery. Like all other forms of government, democracy requires virtue—especially among its ruling elites.

Democracy is not a panacea that brings with it all good things, as Amer­icans are inclined to believe. It is a challenging form of government that re­quires certain conditions to avoid de­scending into chaos, sectarianism, or the tyranny of the majority. The American Founding Fathers were particularly wary of the tyranny of the majority, so they created a republic of laws with a Bill of Rights to protect minorities and individuals from the power of the majority. A constitution that sets limits on the power of the majority is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy.

It has often been said that, more than any other form of government, democracy re­quires virtue. This was the view of Jean-Jacques Rous­seau, who was an advocate of small participatory democracies. Although he did not express it that way, he thought that it was possible for small participatory democracies to arrive at the common good (he called it the General Will) if individuals asked themselves the right questions when it came time to vote. Instead of asking, “What do I want?” they should ask: “What do we need?” If they proceeded in this way, then they were sure to arrive at the common good.

In truth, every form of government needs the kind of virtue that Rousseau espouses—at least among its ruling class. The men and women in Congress must have the virtuous attitude described by Rousseau when they vote on the issues if they hope to make decisions that serve the common good (not just private interests). Unfortunately, American politicians are more devoted to the interests of their corporate backers than they are to the public interest that they are sworn to serve. They are afraid to ask tough questions on committees investigating corporate fraud lest they find their campaign contributions decimated. They have made a valiant effort to conceal their corruption by claiming that the corporate oligarchs they serve are “the job creators” whose interests are identical to the interests of the nation. They have succeeded in duping the public with this sleight of hand, but there are signs that this ploy will not work indefinitely. In foreign policy, they defend the interests of Israel, right or wrong, at the expense of the United States. Again, they are motivated by fear—fear that they will find themselves facing a well-funded opponent when seeking reelection. The result of this widespread corruption is gargantuan profits for large corporations that ship jobs overseas, environmental degradation, impoverishment of the working classes, shrinking of the middle class, and useless wars in the Middle East that serve neither the interests of America nor her client state—they merely augment the financial coffers of security companies and the arms industry. It is time for Amer­icans to look for courage among their elected leaders. It is time to expose the cowards who have not the courage to stand up for the good of their nation.

I highly recommend the rest of her essay, here.

Do Americans truly value and mourn those American lives lost - as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars squandered - in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Or will we choose to keep our eyes shut, our ears closed, and party on?


Blog Archive

Cluster map

Search This Blog

ICAHD - 18,000 Homes Campaign (large banner)