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.


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