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[update below] [2nd update below]

This is my first post on the NSA/Edward Snowden brouhaha, which I have admittedly not been following extremely closely. Lots of headlines, a newspaper article read to the end here and there, reports on the TV and radio news, that’s about it. Certain gauchiste FB friends have gotten all bent out of shape over the affair, poussant des cris d’orfraie, announcing that they will henceforth be encrypting their emails (as if anyone could care less what they have to say about anything), etc etc. I abstractly understand that there may be constitutional and civil liberties issues at stake here but don’t personally feel concerned by it, as I just don’t care if the NSA is logging my emails and records of my phone calls along with trillions of others. A couple of grains of sand on a long stretch of coastline. I have no illusions about the potential—indeed the present-day ability—of the US government to behave arbitrarily and/or in a repressive manner, but don’t see it being realized through electronic surveillance. And what does privacy mean nowadays anyway? If I have anything really confidential to tell someone, I’m certainly not going to do it via email or social networks, NSA PRISM or not. I’m sorry but Big Brother just doesn’t worry me.

But I have now been compelled to read into the NSA/Snowden business, as a couple of students in a Master’s course I teach will be doing a class presentation on the subject tomorrow (they proposed it). So I have had to inform myself and particularly on the European angle—being in France and the students French—and the revelations of the NSA’s surveillance of Angela Merkel’s and other European leaders’ phone calls. Of the numerous articles and analyses I’ve read on this aspect of the affair, the one I’ve found the most useful is by ex-CIA case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht in TWS, “When to spy on our friends: The NSA in Europe.” As he argues, it is not only normal that America should spy on its friends—as the friends spy on America—but there are excellent reasons to do so, and this includes eavesdropping on the communications of allied leaders, who may be engaged in their own dealings, sometimes shady, with non-allies (e.g. Gerhard Schröder with the Russians); pursing particular policies that may collide with those of the US; or may be penetrated themselves by enemy intelligence services (remember Günter Guillaume?). European allies know this, which is why their publicly indignant reactions after the latest revelations are to be taken with a grain of salt.

Gerecht also had a good piece in June on the American side of the issue, “The costs and benefits of the NSA: The data-collection debate we need to have is not about civil liberties.” Gerecht nails it in these two articles, IMO.

Jennifer Sims of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs echoes Gerecht in a good piece on the Foreign Affairs website last week, “I Spy… Why allies watch each other.”

French physicist and former research director at the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique, Jacques Villain, had a salutary op-ed in the October 25th Le Monde, informing the reader that “Les Etats-Unis n’ont jamais cessé d’espionner la France.” But France, so he reminds us, has seriously spied on the United States as well. Ce qui est tout à fait normal.

It is also tout à fait normal for Europeans and everyone else to try to protect themselves from the NSA’s mega-vacuuming of their metadata—as this analysis in today’s NYT explicates—, notably by working to break America’s near total control of the Internet.

Stephen Walt had a good post on his Foreign Policy blog last week as to whether or not the US is getting its money’s worth with the NSA spying—that can justify the massive resources consecrated to it (and that offsets diplomatic problems generated by revelations of the NSA’s reach). And last June Walt had a blog post spelling out “The real threat [to Americans] behind the NSA surveillance programs.” Ordinary Americans may not have much to worry about but potential government whistle blowers, investigative journalists, and the like may indeed need to worry.

Eric Posner, in a review essay in TNR, “Before you reboot the NSA, think about this: The paradox of reforming the secrecy-industrial complex,” ponders how to implement effective institutional oversight of the NSA. The book under review is Princeton political scientist Rahul Sagar’s Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, which looks to be the one to read on the topic.

In this vein, Jeffrey Rosen wrote an op-ed for Le Monde, “PRISM, un défi pour le droit,” on NSA espionage and what judicial recourse may be available to French citizens.

Affaire à suivre.

ADDENDUM:  It turns out that I had a post on the NSA affair back in July. Totally forgot about it.

UPDATE: Le Monde has a page 2 article, dated November 29th, entitled “La France, précieux partenaire de l’espionnage de la NSA.”

2nd UPDATE: The National Interest has a piece, dated December 4th, on “Why we must spy on our allies.” The author, Elbridge Colby, served with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and with the President’s Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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That was the code name for the US invasion of Grenada, which happened 30 years ago this past Friday, an anniversary I was reminded of by engagé political scientist Stephen Zunes, who has a retrospective on the event. The episode was so pathetic, less on account of the invasion itself—though rightly criticized as a violation of international law by even America’s closest allies (including Margaret Thatcher’s UK), it could have perhaps been defended as a low cost R2P-type operation against a bunch of thugs who had just seized power in a bloody coup (and the Grenadian people did seem grateful for the US action)—than the reaction of the American public. I remember well the upsurge of patriotic chest-thumping and flag-waving—of America kicking butt in a tiny speck of a country that practically no one had heard of—, commentaries by pundits on how the “Vietnam syndrome” had been vanquished, etc, etc. The best reaction to all this came from Clark Clifford, who sniffed that the invasion was akin to the Washington Redskins playing Little Sisters of the Holy Cross, beating them 451-0, and then chanting after the game “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” Clifford, who had been Defense Secretary at the height of the Vietnam War, was not impressed. The pride Americans take in the US military kicking butt in small countries requires explanation, but which I don’t have. Cf. France, which has militarily intervened in small countries on numerous occasions (Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali, etc) but that has never aroused any kind of patriotic or nationalist sentiment among the French public. So why are Americans different on this score? Ideas, anyone?

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Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest NYRB has a must read essay by Malise Ruthven on anthropologist and Islam specialist Akbar Ahmed‘s latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, published by Brookings. Money quote:

As an anthropologist with deep knowledge and direct experience of tribal systems, Akbar Ahmed demonstrates in The Thistle and the Drone how richly Tolstoy’s thistle metaphor [of 19th century Russia's wars with the tribal peoples of the Caucuses] applies to contemporary conditions in regions, distant from urban centers, where clans resist the writ of government while also engaging with it. He points to their “love of freedom” to act without external constraints, as well as “egalitarianism, [and] a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition, and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies…. Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.”

Ahmed is especially troubled by the use of drones against Muslim tribal groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but his analysis of the nature of the state and its relation with tribal peoples has application far beyond the condition of Muslim tribal societies. As he sees it, the use of unmanned aircraft as a leading counterinsurgency weapon has morphed into a campaign against tribal peoples generally, with the US president disposing of “Zeus-like power to hurl thunderbolts from the sky and obliterate anyone with impunity… Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.”

There’s this fascinating passage on the Saudi Arabia-Yemen borderlands, and notably the Asir region

Ahmed, by contrast, sees ethnicity or tribal identity as the crucial factors in the recruitment of the hijackers. “Bin Laden,” he states, “was joined in his movement primarily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes… Indeed the only one of the nineteen hijackers without a tribal pedigree was Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the operation and had much to do with its planning.

The Asiri background is highly significant because of the region’s history. For centuries the terrain, which is divided between rugged highlands with peaks rising to nine thousand feet and the coastal plain, or Tihama, was riven by tribal conflicts, as in the Caucasus and Waziristan. Like the Pukhtun clans of Waziristan, the Yemeni tribes of Asir are organized in “segmentary lineages” (i.e., prone to splitting) without formal leaders. The clans tended to quarrel among themselves when not coalescing in the face of outsiders. In 1906 the charismatic scholar-king Sayyed Muhammad al-Idrisi, connected to the Sufi or mystically oriented Sanusiyya order in North Africa, was invited to settle disputes between these warring tribes. His rule was in many ways similar to that of Shamil in the Caucasus, as described by those Russian observers, better informed than Tolstoy, who recognized that his diplomatic skills were as impressive as his military ones.

Al-Idrisi’s domain grew rapidly as tribes, attracted by his reputation for piety and justice, rallied to his cause against the Ottomans. After backing the Allies in World War I, he hoped that the victors would reward him by preserving Asir’s independence. All such hopes were dashed, however, following his death in 1922, when the region came under the sway of the reinvigorated tribal empire created by the emir of Nejd, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia. In his aggressive drive for territorial expansion (which included expelling the Hashemite rulers of Mecca), ibn Saud swallowed up most of the region, leaving the southern part to al-Idrisi’s inveterate enemy, the imam of Yemen. Some 400,000 people are believed to have been killed in the course of this conflict.

The Saudi annexation was followed by an invasion of religious clerics who imposed their narrow Salafist practices on Asiri society. Asiri males were known as the “flower men” from the flowers they wore in their hair (an indication perhaps of their status as cultivators rather than nomads). Even their turbans were adorned with flowers, grasses, and stones. Asiri women were clothed in spectacular explosions of color, their headdresses glittering with coins and jewelry. The Saudi clerics forced young males to remove their “un-Islamic” locks and headgear as well as the traditional daggers that symbolized their masculinity. The women were obliged to adopt the niqab (full facial veil) in place of the traditional headscarf.

In short, says Ahmed, while Western countries were appeasing the Saudis in order to secure their oil supplies, the Saudis were systematically destroying the Yemeni-Asiri culture. During the 1960s this process was exacerbated by the civil war that brought into Yemen 70,000 Egyptian troops who used poison gas alongside conventional weapons. Represented in the West as a Spanish-style conflict between “progressive” republicans backed by Egypt and “reactionary” royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, the war was really a conflict between tribal systems that had been drawn into supporting different sides.

Saudi Arabia: the Evil Kingdom. I’ve said it before and will say it again.

Ruthven’s essay may be read in its entirety here.

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

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Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

Tokyo, May 25 2012 (Photo: AFP)

[update below] [2nd update below]

The TPP. Any idea of what that is? Most likely not. I hardly knew myself until today, and I like to think that I’m well-informed on international affairs. It’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement the Obama administration is presently negotiating below the radar screen with several Asian and Latin American countries (map below). And it is very important. So important for the business interests that are driving it—and of the governments doing their bidding—that, from their standpoint, it best be kept way below that public radar screen. The redoubtable Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, who has been organizing around trade and globalization issues since the ’90s, explains what’s at stake with the TPP in this Democracy Now! interview. It will take 14-minutes of your time to watch it (it starts at the 13th minute) but is well worth it if you’re a citizen of any of the countries involved. So please watch it now.

Re Lori Wallach: Talk about being well-spoken and having your facts and arguments down cold. I would dread being on the opposing side of a debate with her. For more by Wallach on the TPP, see the article she wrote last year in The Nation, “NAFTA on steroids.” The lede: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would grant enormous new powers to corporations, is a massive assault on democracy.” If Wallach’s characterization of the TPP is at all accurate—and I have no reason to believe that it’s not—, it represents, at the very least, a significant, European Union-like transfer of national sovereignty to a supranational entity. Except that, unlike the EU—until the enlargements of the past decade plus Greece—, the TPP involves countries with vastly different standards of living, political institutions, systems of governance, and economic legislation (labor, consumer, etc), to name a few, but without any EU-type supranational institution (commission, parliament, council, court) and absent any pretense of democratic accountability. Moreover, one has a hard time imagining what benefits could accrue to significant numbers of citizens in the countries involved, and particularly the United States. This thing needs to be stopped, and beginning with Congress refusing fast-track authority to President Obama. NAFTA, which I was all for twenty years ago, turned out to be a mistake. The TPP will definitely be a mistake and a much bigger one.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a post (December 12th) on his blog on why he doesn’t think the TPP is a big deal. Dean Baker explains on his blog why his friend Paul is in error on this, that the TPP is indeed a big—and bad—deal.

2nd UPDATE: Joseph Stiglitz has a must read article on the TPP, “On the wrong side of globalization,” on the NYT op-ed page. (March 15, 2014)

newTPP map cropped

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Alain Frachon, éditorialiste et chroniqueur du Monde, a eu une bonne analyse il y a dix jours de la puissance américaine—ou plutôt, de son absence—dans le Moyen Orient. Un passage clé

Barack Obama, le contraire d’un homme à la gâchette facile, s’apprête à sanctionner par la force l’emploi de l’arme chimique en Syrie. Au Proche-Orient, l’épisode renforcera dans leurs convictions tous ceux – ils sont nombreux – qui diabolisent l’Amérique : quoi qu’il arrive, coupable de tous les malheurs de la région !

Elle tirerait les fils des tragédies en cours. Cheftaine du monde occidental, elle manipulerait, corromprait, intimiderait ou séduirait les uns et les autres avec toujours le même sinistre et noir désir : priver les Arabes de la maîtrise de leur destin.

L’Amérique en éternelle puissance suzeraine du Proche-Orient ? C’est un mythe, une légende. Mais ils sont plus partagés que jamais.

Exemples. La presse du Caire accuse les Etats-Unis d’avoir propulsé les Frères musulmans au pouvoir pour mieux asservir l’Egypte – les éditorialistes ne précisent pas comment. La propagande de Damas affirme que Bachar Al-Assad est victime d’un complot américano-israélo-djihadiste – Washington, Al-Qaida et Israël coalisés pour en finir avec le seul régime qui tienne tête aux Occidentaux. Sur le Net, une rumeur incrimine l’hypocrisie prétendue de Barack Obama : le président américain, voyez-vous, n’attendait qu’un prétexte, celui de l’attaque chimique du 21 août, pour intervenir en Syrie…

La légende de la surpuissance des Etats-Unis – et de son président – ne s’embarrasse pas des faits. Elle les ignore. Elle est l’une des formes d’une maladie que l’Organisation mondiale de la santé (OMS) a oublié de traiter dans la région : la “complotite”.

La complotite : un dérangement psychologique, voire une maladie mentale. Je l’ai dit depuis longtemps.

Un passage sur l’Egypte

De même que la capacité des Etats-Unis à exercer une influence sur la situation en Egypte s’est avérée largement “surestimée”. A plusieurs reprises, les Américains ont mis en garde Mohamed Morsi contre sa dérive autoritaire, sectaire et suicidaire. Sans succès. Passé le coup d’Etat du 3 juillet, ils ont supplié le nouveau “patron” de l’Egypte, le général Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, de ne pas aller à l’affrontement avec les Frères musulmans. Là encore, sans le moindre succès.

Aucune des pressions exercées par Washington n’a intimidé les généraux égyptiens. Pas même la menace esquissée, et restée en suspens, d’une interruption de l’aide militaire de 1,3 milliard de dollars accordée chaque année au Caire depuis 1979.

Le texte entier de la chronique se trouve ici.

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Tahrir Square, Cairo, July 7 2013 (photo: Khaled Desouki/Getty Images)

Tahrir Square, Cairo, July 7 2013 (photo: Khaled Desouki/Getty Images)

[update below]

A US intervention, that is. If it indeed happens, which is now looking uncertain in view of the current vote count in Congress. On verra. But if it does happen, what will be the reaction in the Arab world? On this, Marc Lynch has an important article in FP. Money quote

Despite the intense efforts by these Gulf states [Saudi Arabia, UAE] over the past two years to build public support for the Syrian opposition, Arab public opinion remains sharply divided over what to do about Syria and broadly hostile to American military intervention regardless of views on other issues. The one thing which seems to unite this fragmented and intensely divided Arab public is a rejection of American meddling. Forgetting Iraq may be one of the 10 Beltway Commandments, but Arabs have not agreed to move on. Arab leaders may harp on American “credibility” and the costs of not acting, but those sentiments likely do not extend far beyond regime circles. It is exceedingly difficult to find any trust in American intentions or positive views of America’s role in the region — and hard to imagine how U.S. military strikes would change those views for the better. As former Al Jazeera boss (and strong supporter of NATO’s Libya intervention) Wadah Khanfar put it, “this strong desire to eradicate the regime will never be translated into support for American military intervention.”

One may object that there was practically no opposition on the “Arab street” to the intervention in Libya, though to which one may counter that Libya was an exception in view of the universal hatred of Qadhafi across the Arab world, by regimes and peoples alike. And the Libya intervention had a clear—if not explicitly stated—objective and by which success could be measured—regime change—, and that could be accomplished by physically terminating the ra’is. Syria is different, obviously, as regime change is not the US goal—and could not be achieved even if it were—and the probability of a successful intervention, however “success” is defined, is minimal at best. And the US, which is already in a minority internationally on the question, is sure to be vilified ever more in the Arab world. So an eventual Syria intervention really is looking like a fool’s errand.

And then there’s the attitude of the US military, which will carry out the eventual intervention bien entendu. On this, Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major-general and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, has an op-ed in WaPo, “A war the Pentagon doesn’t want.”

Also worth reading in WaPo is a post by Max Fisher on “A terrorism expert’s Twitter rant about how we get Syrian rebels all wrong.” The expert, who is no dummy, is Charles Lister, head Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre. His bottom line: Syria is “immensely complex” and one must not forget this.

Columbia University’s Richard Betts has an article on the Foreign Affairs website—its most viewed at the moment—on “Pick[ing] your poison: America has many options in Syria, none are good.”

Continuing his campaign for a US intervention, Hussein Ibish has written an “Open letter to Congress on Syria,” in which he argues that “US credibility, not only in the Middle East, but globally, requires military action in Syria.” Peut-être.

Finally, I must link to this tribune in Le Monde of a week ago by the great Syrian intellectual Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, “Il faut une bonne fois pour toutes mettre fin à la dynastie Al-Assad en Syrie.” To my knowledge, al-Azm has never been exiled from Syria. Until now. With views like this, he probably won’t be going home anytime soon.

UPDATE: Marc Lynch posted on FP the other day “A Syria reading list,” offering “a selection of some of the most useful books [emphasis his] for making sense of what’s happening in Syria now and what might be coming.” Very useful. Lynch writes that

The very best book for all this is probably Patrick Seale’s sadly out of print The Struggle for Syria: a definitive, highly readable account of an earlier era of regional proxy wars over Syria. I’m shocked that it doesn’t seem to be available at an affordable price, but get your hands on it if you can.

I entirely agree. It’s a great book. I’ve read it twice—and touted it in a post last year.

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The Bush Burden

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Timothy Egan has a great commentary in the NYT on one legacy of the Bush administration—and on the current Republican party. Le voici

He’s there in every corner of Congress where a microphone fronts a politician, there in Russia and the British Parliament and the Vatican. You may think George W. Bush is at home in his bathtub, painting pictures of his toenails, but in fact he’s the biggest presence in the debate over what to do in Syria.

His legacy is paralysis, hypocrisy and uncertainty practiced in varying degrees by those who want to learn from history and those who deny it. Let’s grant some validity to the waffling, though none of it is coming from the architects of the worst global fiasco in a generation.

Time should not soften what President George W. Bush, and his apologists, did in an eight-year war costing the United States more than a trillion dollars, 4,400 American soldiers dead and (more…)

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© The Economist

© The Economist

That’s what Patrick Cockburn says it is, in an absolute must read piece in The Independent. The lede: “History teaches us that limited Western intervention can only inflame this complex war and will do nothing to bring peace.”

In a somewhat similar vein, Ignace Leverrier, in a post on his “Un œil sur la Syrie” blog on Le Monde’s website, says “Non aux frappes symboliques et de bonne conscience. Oui aux frappes utiles en Syrie.” Pour l’info, Ignace Leverrier is the nom de plume of a French ex-diplomat with extensive experience in the Arab world (and who is an arabisant).

Also en français, geopolitical commentator Bernard Guetta—whom I like, even if I don’t have to agree with him 100% of the time—informed his France Inter audience this morning (which included me) that “La messe syrienne n’est pas forcément dite.”

And if one didn’t see it, Vali Nasr had an op-ed in yesterday’s NYT—and with which Bernard Guetta would certainly agree—on “Forcing Obama’s hand in Syria.”

À suivre.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

Paris-based grand reporter Christopher Dickey has an “Open letter to President Obama” in TDB that has been making the rounds (on my FB timeline and email inbox), in which he cautions the president that “Syria is not our war.” The lede: “Assad has learned from history that what doesn’t kill him will make him stronger. President Obama, you need to understand that lesson too.” Dickey then enumerates the many US military interventions—limited and not—that have ended in fiasco or engendered perverse consequences, though covers his rear in acknowledging the few that have yielded positive results (e.g. Bosnia, Kosovo), but which he says were exceptions to the rule. There’s a certain amount of fallacious reasoning here, as the fact that Lebanon 1982-84, Libya 1986 etc etc didn’t work out as the US had intended does not ipso facto mean that such will be the case in Syria next week (or even later today, who knows). Every case is specific. There is no hard and fast rule. Iraq 1991 and Afghanistan 2001—”good” interventions in my book—were not Iraq 2003 (bad). And the West militarily intervening in Syria in 2011-12 (bad idea, I insisted) was not the same as Libya 2011 or Mali 2013 (good). And the latter two have worked out okay so far (oh, of course Libya is still a mess—how could it not be?—but the psychotic Qadhafi regime is gone, and for that alone the intervention was worth it).

But Syria 2013 may be different from 2011-12. I don’t know. I’ve been totally opposed to intervening there—and this is at least the 337th time I’ve said it—but, as I argued two days ago, the latest chemical attack may have changed the equation, that now something may have to be done, though I have no idea what that something should be. It has become tedious and boring to say that there are no good options in Syria and that a Western military strike—which will necessarily be limited—may not only not work but make things worse (not to mention go horribly wrong, by accidentally killing a lot of civilians). But the argument of Bernard Guetta (to which I linked on Thursday) and others that the costs of inaction may now outweigh those of a limited military strike—and with all its risks and uncertainties—is not one I can dismiss.

In regard to an eventual intervention, there are three issues that need to be laid to rest. One has to do with international law. David Rieff in TNR the other day asserted that a US intervention, in the absence of a UNSC resolution, would be “illegal.” Legality, shmegality. Or, to borrow from David Ben Gurion, um-shmum! Seriously, who gives a caca about the United Nations Security Council?! It is, of course, nice to have the green light from the UNSC when intervening militarily somewhere—to have the benediction of the “international community” (i.e. to have Russia and China in one’s corner)—but it hardly matters one way or the other, in that no state is going to forswear military intervention outside its borders in the face of a UNSC veto, nor will there be any legal consequences for that state if it does what it does against the wishes of the UNSC. And does anyone (in America or Europe) seriously argue that the US (and France etc) should have its action thwarted by a Russian or Chinese veto?

Secondly, on US congressional approval. I’m not going to get into a legalistic-type argument here—and US law, unlike international, is an important consideration for a president—except to assert that a president should not need prior congressional authorization for a limited military operation somewhere, particularly if it doesn’t involve ground forces. Generally speaking, Congress—or parliament elsewhere—should be consulted if the US (or UK, France, etc) plans a limited operation but must not have a veto (as was the case in the British House of Commons yesterday). On this matter—of foreign policy—, I am a longtime believer in the supremacy of the executive over the legislative.

For more on these issues, see U of Chicago Law School prof Eric Posner’s piece in Slate, “The U.S. has no legal basis to intervene in Syria: But of course that won’t stop us.” And on the British vote, see Alex Massie’s commentary in The Spectator, “On Syria, parliament has voted to have no policy at all.”

Thirdly, the question of public opinion. Those arguing against an intervention in Syria have been citing polls showing large majorities of Americans opposed to the idea. Likewise in France and the UK. It’s only normal that public opinion would be reticent on this score (there is no rhyme or reason for any middle American or citoyen lambda in France to favor bombing Syria). But presidents (or prime ministers) cannot be guided by polls when making such decisions. And while the public in its majority may have the right instincts on military interventions, it doesn’t always (e.g. polls in 2003-04 showed majorities supporting the Bush administration’s action in Iraq). A president (or PM) has to do what he thinks in the national interest, not what some polls tells him.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan at Slate weighs in on “Obama’s gamble,” arguing that his “seeking congressional approval for his Syria strike was risky and right.”

2nd UPDATE: David Rothkopf at FP has an analysis—which I do not necessarily share in its entirety—of “The gamble,” in which he enumerates the “five big consequences of the president’s call to let Congress decide about America’s Syrian intervention.”

3rd UPDATE: On the French position, Hubert Védrine has a must read interview in the JDD, in which he asserts, entre autres, that “La pire des solutions à ce stade serait d’adresser un signal d’impunité au régime syrien, mais aussi à d’autres puissances et d’autres groupes dangereux.”

4th UPDATE: For more on the French position, see Yochi Dreazen’s piece in FP, “Paris Match,” in which he describes “how France became America’s favorite—and sometimes only—shooting buddy.”

5th UPDATE: Steven A. Cook, whose analyses I respect, has an op-ed in WaPo explaining why he no longer supports intervention in Syria.

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Aleppo after army shelling, August 26 2013 (AMC/AP Photo)

Aleppo after army shelling, August 26 2013 (AMC/AP Photo)

It looks like it’s going to happen. Some kind of Western military intervention seems imminent. I have been resolutely opposed to the idea from the outset, though suppose they (the US-UK-France) now have to do something following the latest chemical attack. Bernard Guetta made the case in his commentary this morning on France Inter, “Pourquoi l’inaction ne serait pas une option en Syrie.” He makes four points: if the West does not launch some kind of military action now, the Syrian regime will interpret the inaction as a green light to employ CWs with impunity, the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra & Co will be reinforced in the face of Western passivity, the Iranian regime will lose all fear of the US and accelerate its nuclear program, and Vladimir Putin will feel vindicated in his dissing of Obama and the Europeans, and likely up the ante as a consequence.

Good points. Monsieur Guetta is likely correct. But I’m still thinking of Edward Luttwak’s op-ed in the Sunday NYT, “In Syria, America loses if either side wins,” in which he argues that American policy should be to continue the stalemate in Syria. Money quote

This strategy actually approximates the Obama administration’s policy so far. Those who condemn the president’s prudent restraint as cynical passivity must come clean with the only possible alternative: a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime. That could lead to a Syria under American occupation. And very few Americans today are likely to support another costly military adventure in the Middle East. A decisive move in any direction would endanger America; at this stage, stalemate is the only viable policy option left.

If/when Obama launches an attack, it will likely be in pursuit of this strategy: to send Bashar al-Assad a message by hitting him hard for a few days—as Bill Clinton did in Iraq in 1998—but not degrading the Syrian army enough to dramatically shift the balance to the Islamist-dominated armed opposition.

Will surgical strikes work? As reported in FP, “a former U.S. Navy planner responsible for outlining an influential and highly detailed proposal for surgical strikes…has serious misgivings about the plan”… Oh well.

On the dilemmas of what the US should do, George Packer has a great piece in The New Yorker, “Two minds on Syria,” that absolutely nails it.

So what should the objective in Syria be? Patrick Cockburn in The Independent says that “Only a peace conference, not air strikes, can stop further bloodshed.” I’m dubious that such is possible but hope that Cockburn’s plan will ultimately be pursued.

For his part, CUNY poli sci prof Rajan Menon, in a National Interest piece from April that’s back up on its website, offers his ideas of “How to end the war in Syria.”

And Hussein Ibish, whose views on MENA I invariably share—though not 100% always—, argues, in an essay in NOW, that America should “Go strategic in Syria.”

In a useful commentary on the European Council on Foreign Relations website, Anthony Dworkin et al of the ECFR enumerate and examine “Eight things to consider before intervening in Syria.”

Back to the question of CWs, Le Monde has translated into English its headline reportage of three months ago, “Chemical warfare in Syria.” À propos, Foreign Affairs has republished a commentary from April by Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, that carries the unfortunate title “Erase the red line: Why we shouldn’t care about Syria’s chemical weapons.” As the piece won’t be freely accessible on FA’s website forever, here it is

The rebels in Syria could be excused for wondering what U.S. policy toward them might be. At times, President Barack Obama has implied that the United States can’t do much to help them because none of them has been gassed. By threatening “enormous consequences” should the Syrian regime use chemical weapons, he seemed to be saying that the first chemical attack would bring the Americans running in, guns blazing. Although understandable, that is likely to be a substantial misreading of the message coming out Washington.

The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.

As it happened, chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal. After the war, some military analysts such as Basil Liddell Hart came to believe that chemical warfare was comparatively humane — these weapons could incapacitate troops without killing many.

But that view lost out to the one that the British propagandists had put forward — that chemical weapons were uniquely horrible and must, therefore, be banned. For the most part, the militaries of the combatant nations were quite happy to get rid of the weapons. As the official British history of the war concludes (in a footnote), gas “made war uncomfortable … to no purpose.”

To be sure, some armies occasionally still saw a purpose. Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons in its 1980-88 war against Iran (to little outside protest). Their effectiveness in killing in that conflict remains a matter of some controversy. According to Iranian reports, of the 27,000 Iranians gassed through March 1987, only 262 died.

Other episodes in that war — in particular, Baghdad’s chemical attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 — have been held up as examples of the extensive destructive potential of chemical weapons. It is commonly contended that 5,000 people died as a result of the gas attacks. But the siege on the city took place over several days and involved explosive munitions as well. Moreover, journalists who were taken to the town shortly after the attack report that they saw at most “hundreds” of bodies. Although some of them report the 5,000 figure, this number is consistently identified as coming from Iranian authorities, an important qualification that was often lost in later accounts. The Iranians apparently also asserted that an additional 5,000 were wounded by the chemical weapons, even though experience suggests that any attack that killed 5,000 would have injured vastly more than that. Iraqi forces also used chemical weapons on other towns in the area. In two of these attacks, the most extreme reports maintain that 300 or 400 might have been killed. According to all other estimates, under 100 died. And most of those accounts figure that the death toll was under 20.

Back in the West, as the Cold War came to an end, the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” was coming into vogue. Earlier, the term had generally been taken as a dramatic synonym for nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. In 1992, however, the phrase was explicitly codified into American law and was determined to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological ones as well. Then, in 1994, radiological weapons were added to the list. (The 1994 rendering also brought explosives into the mix. As a result, under this law almost all weapons apart from modern rifles and pistols are considered weapons of mass destruction: Revolutionary War muskets, Francis Scott Key’s bombs bursting in air, and potato guns would all qualify.)

A single nuclear weapon can indeed inflict massive destruction; a single chemical weapon cannot. For chemical weapons to cause extensive damage, many of them must be used — just like conventional weapons. As a presidential advisory panel noted in 1999, it would take a full ton of sarin gas released under favorable weather conditions for the destructive effects to become distinctly greater than those that could be achieved with conventional explosives.

The muddling of the concept of weapons of mass destruction played a major role in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. That campaign was mainly justified as a way to keep Saddam Hussein from obtaining uniquely destructive weapons. At least in the first instance, this meant chemical weapons, which Iraq had already shown itself capable of developing. Initial support for that war was impelled by the WMD confusion, and many analysts fear that alarm about chemical weapons could lead the United States into another disaster in Syria if they become the game changer that the Obama administration has proclaimed them to be.

Those fears are probably misplaced. The Iraq War, like the war in Afghanistan, was a response to 9/11. In the decade before those two wars, U.S. policy toward conflicts around the world had been primarily humanitarian. The United States did get involved sometimes, but rarely showed a willingness to sacrifice American lives in the process. Policy, then, was a combination of vast proclamation and half-vast execution. In Bosnia and Haiti, for example, intervention on the ground was held off until hostilities had ceased. Bombs, but no boots, were sent to Kosovo, and in Somalia the United States withdrew its troops as soon as 19 soldiers died in a firefight.

Although 9/11 disrupted that pattern, in its wake the United States has returned to limiting its involvement in conflicts around the world. Overall, we have not really witnessed the rise of a new militarism in the last couple of decades, as some analysts have suggested. The intervention in Libya was strained and hesitant, and Washington has showed little willingness to do much of anything about the conflict in neighboring Mali that was spawned by the Libyan venture. It seems unlikely, then, that chemical weapons in Syria — however repugnant they may be taken to be — will notably change that basic game.

À suivre.

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[update below]

Steven Salaita, a prof at Virginia Tech, has a nice piece in Salon in which he rails on against the inane rhetoric in America about “supporting the troops.” He says that in America

we are repeatedly impelled to “support our troops” or to “thank our troops.” God constantly blesses them. Politicians exalt them. We are warned, “If you can’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them.” One wonders if our troops are the ass-kicking force of P.R. lore or an agglomeration of oversensitive duds and beggars.

Such troop worship is trite and tiresome, but that’s not its primary danger. A nation that continuously publicizes appeals to “support our troops” is explicitly asking its citizens not to think. It is the ideal slogan for suppressing the practice of democracy, presented to us in the guise of democratic preservation.

Democracy may perhaps not be suppressed as a result of this nationalistic rhetoric but the latter is certainly a prerequisite in bringing about this eventuality.

Salaita continues

“Support the troops” is the most overused platitude in the United States, but still the most effective for anybody who seeks interpersonal or economic ingratiation. The platitude abounds with significance but lacks the burdens of substance and specificity. It says something apparently apolitical while patrolling for heresy to an inelastic logic. Its only concrete function is to situate users into normative spaces.

Clichés aren’t usually meant to be analyzed, but this one illuminates imperialism so succinctly that to think seriously about it is to necessarily assess jingoism, foreign policy, and national identity. The sheer vacuity and inexplicability of the phrase, despite its ubiquity, indicates just how incoherent patriotism is these days.

Who, for instance, are “the troops”? Do they include those safely on bases in Hawaii and Germany? Those guarding and torturing prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo? The ones who murder people by remote control? The legions of mercenaries in Iraq? The ones I’ve seen many times in the Arab world acting like an Adam Sandler character? “The troops” traverse vast sociological, geographical, economic and ideological categories. It does neither military personnel nor their fans any good to romanticize them as a singular organism.

And what, exactly, constitutes “support”? Is it financial giving? Affixing a declarative sticker to a car bumper? Posting banalities to Facebook? Clapping when the flight attendant requests applause?

Ultimately, the support we’re meant to proffer is ideological. The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical. To support the troops is to accept a particular idea of the American role in the world. It also forces us to pretend that it is a country legitimately interested in equality for all its citizens. Too much evidence to the contrary makes it impossible to accept such an assumption.

In reality, the troops are not actually recipients of any meaningful support. That honor is reserved for the government and its elite constituencies. “Support our troops” entails a tacit injunction that we also support whatever politicians in any given moment deem the national interest. If we understand that “the national interest” is but a metonym for the aspirations of the ruling class, then supporting the troops becomes a counterintuitive, even harmful, gesture.

The government’s many appeals to support the troops represent an outsourcing of its responsibility (as with healthcare, education and incarceration). Numerous veterans have returned home to inadequate medical coverage, psychological afflictions, unemployment and increased risk of cancer. The free market and corporate magnanimity are supposed to address these matters, but neither has ever been a viable substitute for the dynamic practices of communal policymaking. A different sort of combat ensues: class warfare, without the consciousness.

As in most areas of the American polity, we pay taxes that favor the private sector, which then refuses to contribute to any sustainable vision of the public good. The only serious welfare programs in the United States benefit the most powerful among us. Individual troops, who are made to preserve and perpetuate this system, rarely enjoy the spoils. The bonanza is reserved for those who exploit the profitability of warfare through the acquisition of foreign resources and the manufacture of weapons.

Supporting the troops is a cheerful surrogate for enabling the friendly dictators, secret operations, torture practices and spying programs that sustain this terrible economy.

Très bien. Read the whole thing here.

UPDATE: A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog has a valid response to Steven Salaita’s essay.

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Thomas Friedman's McMansion, 7117 Bradley Blvd, Bethesda, MD

Thomas Friedman’s McMansion, 7117 Bradley Blvd, Bethesda, MD

That’s the assertion of writer and former Wall Street executive Richard Eskow, who has a brilliant takedown of NYT Über-pundit Thomas Friedman—whom I essentially ceased reading years ago—on the Campaign for America’s Future blog. Money quote

Friedman occupies a unique place in the pundit ecosystem. From his perch at The New York Times, he idealizes the unregulated, winner-take-all economy of the Internet and while overlooking human, real-world concerns. His misplaced faith in a digitized “free” market reflects the solipsistic libertarianism of a technological über-class which stares into the rich diversity of human experience and sees only its own reflection staring back.

Friedman is a closet Ayn Rand in many ways, but he gives Rand’s ugly and exploitative philosophy a pseudo-intellectual, liberal-friendly feel-good gloss. He turns her harsh industrial metal music into melodious easy listening: John Galt meets John Denver…

Great stuff. Read the whole thing here.

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about foreign cultures. Following from my previous post, a few days ago I read the cover article in the current issue of The National Interest, “Wasting the golden hour in America’s Iraq meltdown,” by James Clad, who served in the US occupation authority in Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion (and, during the last two years of the Bush-Cheney administration, was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs). An interesting insider’s perspective on what went wrong for America in Iraq and what could have been (my own ten years after assessment of Iraq is here). On the ‘what went wrong’—including, among other things, why Americans were so uninterested in Iraq during the US presence there—, I found this passage noteworthy

NEITHER RETROSPECTIVE nor early reportage comes close to an interesting complaint I heard from the ORHA military chaplain as staff on off-duty hours were watching escapist action films screened on the blank palace wall. “We are not a curious people,” said the chaplain. I’ve thought a bit about this in the intervening years. Whatever the arrogance of European imperialism, there were periods when that continent also took an interest in places that were being explored, mapped or invaded by Europeans.

Consider Alexander in Persia, Napoleon in Egypt or the British in Asia. In just a three-year occupation of Java in the early nineteenth century, the governor wrote a two-volume encyclopedia about the place. What set these conquests apart from other depredations, aside from blood and the overwhelming of subject territories? I think the answer is “curiosity.”

Back in World War I, the British Indian Army took four years to get from Basra to Baghdad. Mishandling the aftermath led to a revolt in 1920–1922. But an abiding reality of that experience, apparent in the writings of T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and others influencing British policy, was an insatiable curiosity about the place. Earlier European archaeological discoveries, in Nineveh and Ur before the First World War, had become common knowledge. Even if we call this “Orientalism” and steeply discount it for abundant European condescension, the British in Mesopotamia, like the French in Egypt a century before, at least realized they had shot their way into a very deep place. The British knew Iraq held claim to the world’s earliest literature, the earliest crop-rotation schemes and organized city-states. After a week’s diet of Hollywood sitcom films and other escapist fare, the chaplain sought to locate BBC or National Geographic documentary films about Arabia and about Iraq’s history and archaeology.

But the chaplain, to put it gently, was out of sync with staff preferences. In the same week, Garner commented about ORHA staff spending time “sending e-mails to each other, instead of getting out and learning something about the place we’ve just taken over.”

There are, of course, many Americans who are curious about foreign cultures but they’re not the kind who wanted anything to do with America’s Iraq adventure. Nor did those who spearheaded that adventure want anything to do with them. In one of the Iraq war books I read—I think it was Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City—an anecdote was recounted of a lunch table conversation at one of the Green Zone cafeterias, at which there were several CPA staffers, one of whom happened to be a Democrat. When he mentioned in passing his partisan preference, the others at the table reacted as if he had just farted. Embarrassed silence. The American enterprise in Iraq was partisan; it didn’t involve America as a whole. Those who led and staffed that enterprise were Republicans, and during the CPA period many were directly involved in Bush’s reelection campaign. Moreover, Republicans are nationalists—far more so than Democrats (and liberals are not at all)—and, as one knows, nationalists tend not to be curious about foreign cultures or histories (when they are not militantly incurious). If one wants to engage the curious classes of American society—curious about foreign cultures—in some foreign enterprise, then one needs to reach out to the left side of the political spectrum, ’cause that’s where most of them are (and this is a fact; it is true and educated, curious conservatives—and there are a few—know it’s true). So the next time—God forbid—that America embarks on some imperial adventure, make sure it’s bipartisan, involving the universities, and, if the adventure is in the Arab-Muslim world, has the support of people who write for publications like this. Good luck.

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cov3514

Political scientist Stephen Holmes—who is quite brilliant—has a must read review essay in the LRB on Mark Mazzetti’s new book The CIA, a Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth, entitled “What’s in it for Obama?” It’s one of the best analyses I’ve read of the Obama administration’s drone warfare strategy.

In a similar IR vein, Stephen Walt has a post on his FP blog in which he links to the full text of political scientists Keir Lieber and Daryl Press’s recent article in the journal International Security on “Why States Won’t Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists.” Walt concludes his post with this

I might add that this is the kind of important, nonpartisan, policy-relevant work that more social scientists ought to be doing. It is also important to disseminate these findings widely, so that 1) U.S. policymakers won’t keep chasing phantom dangers, 2) the leaders of nuclear-armed states understand that their arsenals are good for deterrence and not much else, and 3) said leaders also understand the need to keep whatever weapons they might have under very reliable control.

Amen.

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© IDÉ

© IDÉ

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

One of my faithful readers (French) has sent me an email expressing indignation at the latest Snowden revelations, on NSA eavesdropping on the telecommunications of its European allies. My faithful reader is very mad at America, so much so that he is even thinking of cancelling his planned summer vacation in California (which would really be too bad, as California is a great place, the best in America; and believe me, he will find many people there who entirely share his indignation over this matter). And in his email, my reader, wondering about my “radio silence” on the affair, put this to me

not one word on [Art Goldhammer's] French politics blog, neither on yours… Why ?

Ma réponse: (a) I’ve had a lot of work lately and haven’t been able to spend much time on the blog (and which will be the case for the next couple of weeks at least); (b) as I can’t devote as much time to the blog as I would like—and no one is about to pay me a centime for it—, I can’t write on all topics de l’actualité; I have to make choices on what I write about; I can’t be on all fronts; (c) in point of fact, the Snowden affair is not at the center of my preoccupations; I’ve been following it more or less but have not been riveted to or as outraged over the affair as have numerous gauchiste friends stateside, who are all bent out of shape about it; c’est comme ça, qu’est-ce que vous voulez que je dise?; (d) one of the reasons for my relative lack of indignation is that I don’t feel particularly threatened by the hypothetical prospect that the NSA may have tapped into my emails or phone calls, or those of anyone I know (and I know numerous loudmouthed leftists who sound off against the USG almost daily); I just don’t think it’s that big of a deal (though am respectful of reasoned arguments to the contrary—but please, spare me Glenn Greenwald—and more than willing to change my attitude); and (e) don’t states snoop and spy on their friends? hasn’t this long been the case, including with the French?

À propos, here’s an article on the FP website by Adam Rawnsley that carries the title of this post, in which he says that when it comes to spying on friends, the French political class is being somewhat hypocritical in its collective cri d’orfraie. À lire.

UPDATE: Libération’s Jean Quatremer has a pertinent commentary, “Grandes oreilles US: hypocrisie européenne.”

2nd UPDATE: “Listening in on Europe“: a sensible editorial in the NYT.

3rd UPDATE: The headline of the latest issue Le Canard Enchaîné (image below) is priceless. (July 3)

une_canard_03072013

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Richard Falk

I just came across this interview that Richard Falk, UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories—and Princeton emeritus professor of international law—, gave this past May 31st to 9/11 Truther and anti-Semite Kevin Barrett, host of “Truth Jihad Radio,” which appears to be a program on a flaky, obscure network called American Freedom Radio. I’ve already said it once on this blog and will say it again: Professor Falk is a nutcase and a whack job whose UNHRC position discredits the already discredited UNHRC. This interview with the crackpot Kevin Barrett—a man with whom Falk is manifestly on the same political wavelength—, discredits Falk even further (if such is possible). Let me state it categorically: Falk needs to be fired from the UNHRC. Immediately! Ambassador-to-be Samantha Power will do well to make an issue of this upon assuming her responsibilities.

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Aleppo, October 3 2012 (photo: SANA AP)

Aleppo, October 3 2012 (photo: SANA AP)

So says Leslie Gelb in a column in TDB. The lede:

Obama is right not to rush to war, given our checkered past on the use of chemical weapons and the sinkhole of hatreds in Syria

On the question of chemical weapons, Gelb says

Of course, we Americans think it’s horrible for any nation to use chemical weapons—except when we don’t. And of course, we want to punish any user of chemical weapons—except when we don’t. And of course, many now screaming against Syria’s likely use of chemical weapons against its rebels didn’t do much complaining when Iraq hurled these internationally banned gases against Iran and its own Kurdish people in the 1980s. And of course, American interventionists now demand U.S. military action against the Syrian government. But America’s history on chemical weapons is littered with mistakes and hypocrisy, and Syria itself is a bottomless pit of hatreds that can’t be “fixed” by more and more outside military force.

In regard to America’s history, he reminds us that

The United States used Agent Orange against the North Vietnamese (and in South Vietnam). Agent Orange is a chemical herbicide. Washington excused its employment on the grounds that U.S. forces used it for purposes of “deforestation” and not against people. Incidentally, it killed and injured many, perhaps half a million of them. We’ve flushed memories of this incident aside; others remember it well.

Read Gelb’s column here.

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nushi20130331224547650

[update below]

There are plenty of reasons to be disappointed with Obama’s presidency but one of the most is his failure to close the Guantánamo prison as he promised he would during the 2008 campaign. One could perhaps understand the political constraints during his first term—in view of the opposition from Congressional Democrats and public opinion—but he has no such excuse now. So he’s speaking out again against Gitmo and his desire to close it. If he can do so via executive order, he should just do it. Shut the goddamned place down and now. If assholes members of Congress and right-wing media pundits scream and holler, let them scream and holler. Ignore them. The New York Times has a good editorial on the subject. Le voici

The President and the Hunger Strike
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

President Obama said a lot of important things on Tuesday about the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It is a blight on the nation’s reputation. It mocks American standards of justice by keeping people imprisoned without charges. It has actually hindered the prosecution and imprisonment of dangerous terrorists. Even if Guantánamo seemed justified to some people in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, those justifications are wearing thin. It is unsustainable and should be closed.

We were pleased that Mr. Obama pledged to make good, finally, on his promise to do just that. But that reaction was tempered by the fact that he has failed to do so for five years and that he has not taken steps within his executive power to transfer prisoners long ago cleared for release. Mr. Obama’s plans to try to talk Congress into removing obstacles to closing the prison do not reflect the urgency of the crisis facing him now.

As of Tuesday morning, Charlie Savage reported in The Times, 100 of the 166 inmates at Guantánamo are participating in a hunger strike against their conditions and indefinite detention. Twenty-one have been “approved” for force-feeding, which involves the insertion of a tube through their nostrils and down their throats.

Mr. Obama defended the practice. “I don’t want these individuals to die,” he said.

Most people don’t. But a recently published bipartisan report on detainee treatment by the Constitution Project said “forced feeding of detainees is a form of abuse and must end.” The World Medical Association has long considered forced feeding a violation of a physicians’ ethics when it is done against a competent person’s express wishes, a point that was reinforced on April 25 by Dr. Jeremy Lazarus, president of the American Medical Association, in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

There is no indication that the inmates being force-fed were unconscious or incapable of making decisions. And virtually all inmates at Guantánamo have never been charged with any crime and never will be. Nearly 90 have been cleared for release, and another large group can never be tried because they were tortured or there is no evidence they were involved in a particular attack. Only six are facing active charges before a military tribunal.

Mr. Obama was asked about the hunger strike at a White House news conference. “I think it is critical,” he said, “for us to understand that Guantánamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists.”

Mr. Obama said permanent detention without trial is “contrary to who we are. It is contrary to our interests.”

Mr. Obama correctly said that Congress passed malicious laws that restrict the use of federal money to transfer Guantánamo detainees to other countries and prohibit sending them to be tried in federal courts, which, unlike the military tribunals, are competent to do that.

But those laws were lent political momentum by the Obama administration’s bungling of an attempt to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, in a federal court. And, since then, Mr. Obama has approved a dangerous expansion of military detention of terrorist suspects.

If he is serious about moving toward closure, there are two steps proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union that could get the ball rolling. He could appoint a senior official “so that the administration’s Guantánamo closure policy is directed by the White House and not by Pentagon bureaucrats,” the A.C.L.U. said, and he could order Mr. Hagel to start providing legally required waivers to transfer detainees who have been cleared. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has urged Mr. Obama to urgently review the status of those prisoners — a primary issue for the hunger strikers.

The hunger strike is an act of desperation over policies even Mr. Obama says cannot be defended. It is his responsibility to deal with it — and close the prison.

Shut it down, Mr. President. Shut it down.

UPDATE: In an NYT op-ed (May 3) Bruce Ackerman and Eugene R. Fidell of the Yale Law School tell President Obama what he should do: “Send judges to Guantánamo, then shut it.”

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

I just watched it on YouTube. It was a great speech. And the Israeli university students were equally great. They cheered and wildly applauded throughout, including at numerous points during these passages

First, peace is necessary. I believe that. I believe that peace is the only path to true security. You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine. That is true.

There are other factors involved. Given the frustration in the international community about this conflict, Israel needs to reverse an undertow of isolation. And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long term is through the absence of war. Because no wall is high enough and no Iron Dome is strong enough or perfect enough to stop every enemy that is intent on doing so from inflicting harm.

And this truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab world. I understand that with the uncertainty in the region — people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics — it’s tempting to turn inward, because the situation outside of Israel seems so chaotic. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve and commitment for peace. Because as more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace simply with a handful of autocratic leaders, those days are over. Peace will have to be made among peoples, not just governments.

No one — no single step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. No single step is going to erase years of history and propaganda. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and thrive on division. It would make a difference.

So peace is necessary. But peace is also just. Peace is also just. There is no question that Israel has faced Palestinian factions who turned to terror, leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is all true. And that’s why security must be at the center of any agreement. And there is no question that the only path to peace is through negotiations — which is why, despite the criticism we’ve received, the United States will oppose unilateral efforts to bypass negotiations through the United Nations. It has to be done by the parties. But the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized.

Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own. Living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displace Palestinian families from their homes Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.

I’m going off script here for a second, but before I came here, I met with a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons. I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say,

I want these kids to succeed; I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. I believe that. (…)

Now, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with anyone who is dedicated to its destruction. But while I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. I believe that. And they have a track record to prove it. Over the last few years, they have built institutions and maintained security on the West Bank in ways that few could have imagined just a few years ago. So many Palestinians — including young people — have rejected violence as a means of achieving their aspirations.

There is an opportunity there, there’s a window — which brings me to my third point: Peace is possible. It is possible. (…)

Negotiations will be necessary, but there’s little secret about where they must lead — two states for two peoples. Two states for two peoples. (…)

Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn. (…)

Look to the bridges being built in business and civil society by some of you here today. Look at the young people who’ve not yet learned a reason to mistrust, or those young people who’ve learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents, because they simply recognize that we hold more hopes in common than fears that drive us apart. Your voices must be louder than those who would drown out hope. Your hopes must light the way forward.

Look to a future in which Jews and Muslims and Christians can all live in peace and greater prosperity in this Holy Land. Believe in that. (…)

Again, wild applause at everything Obama said here. I was surprised by these Israeli students. And impressed. I’ve been among those who thought Obama’s I-P trip was a waste of time. On account of this speech and the reception it received, I may revise that view.

UPDATE: Hussein Ibish nails it in an analysis in FP of Obama’s “extraordinary speech,” which he says “was without question the strongest ever made by a senior American politician on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

2nd UPDATE: Yossi Klein Halevi writes in TNR about “Obama’s big Israel breakthrough.” Money quote

Next time the Israeli government announces a settlement expansion, there will likely be widespread opposition, rather than indifference, among the public. Obama has reminded us that, even in the absence of peace, we have a responsibility not to take steps that will make an eventual peace all the more difficult.

I hope he’s right.

3rd UPDATE: David Makovsky of WINEP has an analysis (YouTube) of Obama’s I-P trip. Money quote

Being that [the Israelis] feel more enveloped in the warmer embrace, they were able to hear messages about what’s the compelling case for peace. Obama put the peace issue back on the agenda because it was not considered a major issue until then because people were so despairing of the Palestinian side so I think he has returned this issue to the agenda and has made a compelling and strategic moral case of why the current course is unsustainable for [Israel]…

4th UPDATE: Ian Black in The Guardian writes that “Obama show[ed] emotional and political intelligence with Jerusalem speech,” though he pointed out that

Palestinian and Arab audiences were generally not impressed – not least because the president offered not a single practical proposal to advance the long-stalled peace process

But what could Palestinian and Arab audiences possibly expect here, as every practical proposal to advance the peace process has already been put forth more times than one can count? What more can one say about peace proposals at this point? (I actually have an original proposal, that I will unveil in the near future)

5th UPDATE: Ynet News.com has a wrap up of Arab press reaction to Obama’s trip. The lede

Arab world has slightly different take on US President’s Jerusalem speech, claiming he fawns over Israel and seeks to please Israeli leaders and public.

Zzzzzzzzzzzz. Is this news to the Arab press? Haven’t they figured this out after all these years?

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Baghdad, March 21 2003 (Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images)

Baghdad, March 21 2003 (Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

There have been a number of good articles and retrospectives on the 10th anniversary of the invasion over the past few days. Here are a few.

John Judis has a good piece in TNR, on “What it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003.” This passage is noteworthy

I found fellow dissenters to the war in two curious places: the CIA and the military intelligentsia. That fall, I got an invitation to participate in a seminar at the Central Intelligence Agency on what the world would be like in fifteen or twenty years. I went out of curiosity—I don’t like this kind of speculation—but as it turned out, much of the discussion was about the pending invasion of Iraq. Except for me and the chairman, who was a thinktank person, the participants were professors of international relations. And almost all of them were opposed to invading Iraq.

In early 2003, I was invited to another CIA event: the annual conference on foreign policy in Wilmington. At that conference, one of the agency officials pulled me aside and explained that the purpose of the seminar was actually to try to convince the White House not to invade Iraq. They didn’t think they could do that directly, but hoped to convey their reservations by issuing a study based on our seminar. He said I had been invited because of my columns in The American Prospect, which was where, at the time, I made known my views opposing an invasion. When Spencer Ackerman and I later did an article on the CIA’s role in justifying the invasion, we discovered that there was a kind of pro-invasion “B Team” that CIA Director George Tenet encouraged, but what I discovered from my brief experience at the CIA was that most of the analysts were opposed to an invasion. (After Spencer’s and my article appeared, I received no more invitations for seminars or conferences.)

Judis’s last bit here reminds me of a well-known political science academic MENA/IR specialist, who had been frequently solicited in Washington over the years—and who happened to be a registered Republican—, telling me in the fall of 2002 that when his opposition to an invasion of Iraq became known, he stopped receiving phone calls from his contacts in official Washington. His explanation: “I wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear” (I remember his precise words).

I found this retrospective by David Frum—who was one of Bush’s speechwriters at the time (“Axis of Evil” etc) and not exactly an opponent of the war—to be interesting and worth reading. One important observation he makes—and which has been largely overlooked—is the central role played by Tony Blair and Ahmed Chalabi in winning over Democrats and liberals to the pro-war cause. This was before many of Blair’s early admirers had become cynical about him, so he had a lot of cred at the time in center-left circles. (Quant à moi, I remember listening live on the BBC World Service to Blair’s September 2002 House of Commons speech attacking Saddam Hussein and liking it, though he wasn’t overtly advocating war at the time).

Mother Jones’s David Corn has a good piece on “Iraq 10 Years Later: The Deadly Consequences of Spin.” And then there’s this MSNBC commentary from last night by the always excellent Rachel Maddow, on how the “Architects of [the] Iraq disaster [are] still running from history.” Please take 7 minutes and 56 seconds of your time to watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

Entre autres, Rachel M. examines the American Enterprise Institute’s current spin on the war. A bunch of pathetic SOBs they are. À propos, I note that The Weekly Standard and National Review Online have had nothing on the 10th anniversary. Nor has the prolific blogger and geopolitist Walter Russell Mead, who was a war cheerleader and Dick Cheney fan back then. Radio silence.

In thinking about that miserable time, I am reminded of the line attributed to Condoleezza Rice in the spring of 2003, “Forgive Russia, ignore Germany, punish France.” And of Bush displaying the New York Post’s infamous cover of the “Axis of weasels” (France and Germany) on his Oval Office desk. What a bunch of arrogant a-holes. Who do these people think they are? And to speak of a great nation and one far older than America—and that has always stood with America in its real hours of need—in this way? France was right to tell the Bush-Cheney administration to f— off.

University of Chicago historian Orit Bashkin has a good article in the lefty academic webzine Jadaliyya on “The Forgotten Protagonists: The Invasion and the Historian,” in which she discusses advances in the historiographical knowledge of Iraq over the past decade but also of what has been irretrievably lost with the looting and destruction of Iraq’s archives (National Library etc) and architectural patrimony (and which happened under the US’s watch).

On present-day Iraq the FT’s Roula Khalaf has a lengthy article on “Iraq: 10 years later.” And here’s a 23 minute report on Al Jazeera English on “The Green Train: A journey through the heart of modern Iraq – a country struggling to put itself back together.”

UPDATE: The Nation has two not bad articles: “The American Legacy in Iraq” by Patrick Cockburn, who was one of the best informed journalists reporting from Iraq over the past decade, and “The Iraq Invasion, Ten Years Later” by Jonathan Schell.

2nd UPDATE: Here’s a short, very good commentary by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker, on “How we forgot Iraq.”

3rd UPDATE: Mark Lynch has a good piece in FP on “What’s missing from the Iraq debate.” Answer: Iraqis.

4th UPDATE: The Boston Globe has a portrait of Kanan Makiya, who “has no regret about pressing the war in Iraq” (his views influenced those of certain liberal hawks). I was an admirer of Makiya’s books Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence, but wasn’t on board with him in his 2003 war cheerleading.

5th UPDATE: Kathleen Geier of The National Memo has a very good article dated March 22nd—and praised by Paul Krugman—, “The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq,” in which she skewers some people who richly deserve to be skewered.

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