Monday, February 25, 2013

Steve Coll on the Terrorist Groups Formerly Known as al-Qaeda

At The New Yorker, Steve Coll makes the point that "al-Qaeda" has become strictly "yesterday."   Money quote:

This March marks ten years since the United States led an invasion of Iraq based on bad intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. That dark anniversary offers a reminder, if one is required, that in any conflict where a President claims war powers the Chief Executive’s analytical precision in describing the enemy is a grave responsibility. A franchise is a business that typically operates under strict rules laid down by a parent corporation; to apply that label to Al Qaeda’s derivative groups today is false. If Al Qaeda is not coherent enough to justify a formal state of war, the war should end; if the Administration wishes to argue that some derivative groups justify emergency measures, it should identify that enemy accurately.

Jihadist violence presents an enduring danger. Its proponents will rise and ebb; the amorphous threats that they pose will require adaptive security policies and, occasionally, military action. Yet the empirical case for a worldwide state of war against a corporeal thing called Al Qaeda looks increasingly threadbare. A war against a name is a war in name only.

Earlier in the piece, Coll points out that with the Obama administration's hammering on what has become a perpetual (and self-perpetuating) state of war with "al-Qaeda," the late medieval Hundred Years War may come to seem like child's play.  Yet as long as Obama and his successors can dangle before a largely ignorant and easily inflamed American public a Medusa-faced al-Qaeda, we as a nation will never be able to move completely on from the events of 11 September 2001.  More significantly, we may never be able to move off the path down which we have been headed these last years. That path ends with the US as global proconsul enforcing its will through an over-glorified military elite complemented by off-the-radar special forces inflicting instant - and sometimes unjustifiable - destruction from the skies.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Obama's Dilemma in Syria

For weeks, people like Elliot Abrams, Richard Cohen, John McCain, Lindsey Graham  - the list is long and, in a manner of speaking, distinguished - have been hammering Mr. Obama for his failure to bring the US "into the fight" in Syria.  We are warned repeatedly that "the rebels" are storing up resentment against the US for its refusal to supply them with heavier weapons to use against Asad's forces.  Meanwhile,wiser and cooler heads - among them, Marc Lynch at FP - have praised Obama for limiting the US's involvement in Syria.  For the most part, Israel has been depicted in this imbroglio as essentially a concerned and ambivalent onlooker - no fan of Bashar al-Asad (whose Syria for years has styled itself the spearhead of resistance to Israeli domination of the Middle East), yet wary of what Asad's demise might bring in its wake.

At least two recent articles, however, make plain another dimension of this situation.  Both Sheera Frenkel (for McClatchy) and Barbara Slavin (for IPS, posted also at New Atlanticist) report on how Israel is keeping careful watch over arms being shipped to the anti-Asad forces and is working to dissuade the Obama administration from changing its policy and sending advanced weaponry to the rebels.  

Why? Obviously, the Israelis are concerned that Asad's eventual ouster will lead to a new government likely dominated by Sunni Islamists whose military deterrent will comprise the various militias - some of them, like Jabhat al-Nusra, motivated by jihadism - now leading the rebellion.  The better-armed they become, the greater threat they will pose to Israel in the months ahead.

But, second, dissuading the US from sending weapons to the rebels leaves Israel with a hand much freer to intervene in Syria in any fashon Israel sees fit.  That could be with airstrikes or special forces, or even - as some have suggested - the creation of a "security zone" along its border with Syria, a la its security zone in southern Lebanon during the era of the Lebanon civil war.  No US weapons to the rebels means no possibility of hard feelings with the US if the IDF takes military action that might blow up those American-supplied weapons. 

Given these revelations, it will be interesting to see if the usual suspects begin to dampen down their demands that Obama send high-end weapons to Syria.

And for those who want the US to send in those weapons because of moral, humanitarian, R2P concerns for Syria's people, they ought not be surprised that Israel's interests supersede those concerns.  The people of the West Bank could tell them all about that.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Where Iran Might Be Headed

At the National Interest, Yousaf Butt makes an important point: In recent history, when countries have suffered economic hardship due to sanctions or other external pressure/factors, they have tended to elect hyper-nationalist leaders in response.  Think Putin in Russia . . . and Adolf Hitler in Germany.

All of which goes to Butt's larger point: it's time for the US et al to make Iran a serious offer, with real compromises (dare we even say, concessions?) on its nuclear program and the current harsh sanctions.  Iran is not going to fold; and Obama would be an idiot to launch a military strike that would only imperil the US's slow-motion economic recovery as well as threaten the global economy with a severe downturn.

It stands to reason, of course, that with sequestration looming and the issues of immigation reform and gun control demanding his attention - and with Bibi soon to pin a medal on his chest - Obama may be content to nudge the Iran can slowly down the road.  But in doing so he may be making it even harder to reach a deal.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

More Thomas Friedman Nonsense re Iraq and Syria

OK, I'm supposed to be hunkered down with revising my way-way-overdue book manuscript (a history of Mesopotamia/Iraq - you can already find it advertised on - so I can't take time to take this latest Thomas Friedman piece apart the way I'd really like to.  But you'll find in it so much of what's wrong with Friedman's method and style as a commentator - and so much of why people who really have capacity for insight into Middle Eastern history and politics become so regularly infuriated both with him and with the underserved adulation he receives from so many quarters, including the White House.

His jumping-off point for telling us what India thinks about the mess in the Middle East is the opinion of one journalist, probably garnered over drinks at some high-end club. TF is not a streets-guy

He ascribes what's going on to deep, timeless histories that he vastly overgeneralizes, and to easy binary oppositions like Arab v Kurd and Sunni v Shia.  No room for nuance or complexity - which is probably why so many in the general public buy his books.  I mean, Gee, he makes things so easy to understand.  

But then, at the end, in his inimitably cutesy fashion, he sorta throws up his hands and resorts to a cheap out: "It's the Middle East, Jake."  For those of you not of a certain age, Friedman is stealing from the very last line in one of Jack Nicholson's early movies, "Chinatown."  Nicholson's client and love interest (played by Faye Dunaway) has just been gruesomely shot in her car, on a busy street in Chinatown.  Looking on is her father, played by John Huston, with whom she had had an incestuous relationship that produced a child, who's also looking on, screaming in horror while her father/grandfather tries to comfort her.  Surreal, no?  Nicholson's character (Jake) has just watched all this go down.  He is confused, angry . . . whereupon the police captain, his former colleague, tells him, "Go home, Jake; it's Chinatown" - the insinuation being that Chinatown is where things wacky and inscrutable have always gone down.   No way you can figure it out, Jake.  Why even try?

Just like in Thomas Friedman's Middle East.

As Belen Fernandez demonstrates in her masterful take-down of Friedman as an "expert" in international affairs (full disclosure: I reviewed her book, quite favorably, here and here), there's no other region on the planet upon which Friedman has lavished more attention, and for which he claims more "expertise," than the Middle East.  Yet, perhaps no other mainstream commentator has done more to relegate that region to the category of "Other" as far as the West is concerned.

By my lights, that hardly recommends him as an expert to whom Americans, or anyone else, ought to be turning for insight into the peoples of a region they so desperately need to  understand. 


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