[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]

Since launching this blog 4½ years ago I’ve had posts on every major massacre in the US—Charleston, Isla Vista, Sandy Hook, Aurora—plus Utøya in Norway but didn’t have the reflex to comment on this latest one. Like, what’s the point? What more is there to be said about the insane American exception regarding the over-the-counter sale of semi-automatic weapons, which is the cause of the massacres? Moreover, there is clearly no chance whatever that the minds of the gun nuts will be changed by rational argumentation on the subject (à propos, I have been bombarded with the most hostile comments by far on my posts on guns; these people are completely unhinged). But there is always something new and/or interesting to be said. In lieu of saying it myself, I will link here to pertinent commentaries with original angles or analyses on the question that I’ve come across over the past couple of days.

Before I get to those, I would like to tell any anti-gun control/pro-NRA person—e.g. almost all Republican party politicians and right-wing commentators—who, after a gun massacre in the homeland, says that his or her “prayers and thoughts” are with the families of the victims to take those “prayers and thoughts” and stick them up his or her a—. And then to go f— him or herself.

Okay, that off my chest, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, who is brilliant on this issue, has a commentary dated yesterday explaining that “The Second Amendment is a gun-control amendment,” that sane gun control legislation may be entirely based on a correct reading of that unfortunate constitutional amendment. Money quote

In point of historical and constitutional fact…the only amendment necessary for gun legislation, on the local or national level, is the Second Amendment itself, properly understood, as it was for two hundred years in its plain original sense. This sense can be summed up in a sentence: if the Founders hadn’t wanted guns to be regulated, and thoroughly, they would not have put the phrase “well regulated” in the amendment. (A quick thought experiment: What if those words were not in the preamble to the amendment and a gun-sanity group wanted to insert them? Would the National Rifle Association be for or against this change? It’s obvious, isn’t it?)

Indeed. A question to the gun whack jobs: What is that bit in the Second Amendment about “a well-regulated militia” supposed to mean anyway?

In his comment, Gopnik refers to the dissent of SCOTUS Justice Jean Paul Stevens in the D.C. v. Heller ruling. More than one person on my social media news feeds has posted former Justice Stevens’s WaPo op-ed dated April 11th 2014, “The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment.” It won’t happen but is an excellent proposition nonetheless.

Vox has one its ‘Explainers’ columns explain “America’s gun problem,” in which several points are made and elaborated upon

1) America’s gun problem is completely unique. 2) More guns mean more gun deaths. Period. 3) Americans tend to support measures to restrict guns, but that doesn’t translate into laws. 4) The gun lobby as we know it is relatively recent but enormously powerful. 5) Other developed countries have had huge successes with gun control. 6) Although they get a lot of focus, mass shootings are a small portion of all gun violence.

Also on Vox is “One map that puts America’s gun violence epidemic in perspective,” which has a fact-filled 2½-minute video explaining that “America’s biggest gun problem is the one we never talk about.”

In the LAT last April 22nd, David Hemenway, who is professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. had an op-ed informing the readers that “There’s scientific consensus on guns — and the NRA won’t like it.”

For a historical perspective, Fordham University historian Saul Cornell and lawyer and Second Amendment specialist Eric M. Ruben have an article in The Atlantic dated September 30th on “The slave-state origins of modern gun rights.”

Voilà, until the next massacre…

UPDATE: Vox’s German Lopez interviews Vanderbilt University psychiatry, sociology, and medicine, health, and society professor Jonathan Metzl, in a post that says “Everyone blames mental illness for mass shootings [b]ut what if that’s wrong?”

2nd UPDATE: NYT columnist Frank Bruni’s Sunday column (October 4th), “Guns, campuses, and madness,” takes up insane new state laws that allow for concealed carry on university campuses, including in classrooms and dormitories. The lede: “The University of Texas, with its memory of mass death, is a study in our national perversity about firearms.”

3rd UPDATE: Also worth reading in the Sunday NYT is Nicholas Kristof’s column “A new way to tackle gun deaths.”

4th UPDATE: The Sunday NYT reports that the father of gunman Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed himself after committing his massacre, is “dismayed by [the] lack of gun legislation.” The report begins

The father of the gunman who killed nine people at a community college here called on the nation to change its gun laws on Saturday, saying the massacre “would not have happened” if his son had not been able to buy so many handguns and rifles.

“How was he able to compile that kind of arsenal?” the father, Ian Mercer, said in an interview with CNN at his home in Tarzana, Calif. He said he had no idea that his son owned more than a dozen firearms.

Of course.

5th UPDATE: Bruce Bartlett has a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post, as is his wont, asking “When will [Republicans] demand that the US break off diplomatic relations with any country that doesn’t allow visiting Americans to bring and carry their guns?” This actually poses an interesting question as to whether or not Republicans and others who share the NRA’s world-view consider the “right to keep and bear arms,” as their interpretation of the Second Amendment has it, to be an inalienable human right on a par with the rights in the First Amendment and, if so, if they think that US foreign policy, in its promotion of democracy and human rights, should also press countries to align their gun legislation along US norms. Just wondering.

6th UPDATE: Blogger/writer Amanda Marcotte has a spot on piece in Salon (October 5th) on “why the gun nuts win.” The lede: “The fantasy lives of gun lovers, such as Oregon sheriff John Hanlin, are why we can’t address gun violence.” This passage merits quoting

John Hanlin, the sheriff of Douglas County who has been in charge of the police response and investigation of Thursday’s shooting at Umpqua Community College, has fallen under media scrutiny because he’s left an eyebrow-raising trail of gun nuttery that shades into conspiracy theorist territory. His past behavior calls into question not just his own office’s ability to handle this case responsibly, but tells us a lot about why it’s so hard to even begin to have a reasonable conversation about guns in this country, much less move towards sensible policies to reduce gun violence.

Conservatives aren’t lying when they say they need guns to feel protected. But it’s increasingly clear that they aren’t seeking protection from crime or even from the mythical jackbooted government goons come to kick in your door. No, the real threat is existential. Guns are a totemic shield against the fear that they are losing dominance as the country becomes more liberal and diverse and, well, modern. For liberals, the discussion about guns is about public health and crime prevention. For conservatives, hanging onto guns is a way to symbolically hang onto the cultural dominance they feel slipping from their hands. (…)

It’s not just Hanlin. Guns are generally talked about in right-wing circles in…mythical terms. And because a gun isn’t just a gun to conservatives, but a symbol of all they hold dear, having a reasonable conversation about gun control has become impossible. To liberals, it’s about keeping guns out of the hands of people who misuse them. But to conservatives, it’s clearly about stripping away their very sense of identity, which is naturally going to be a touchier subject.

In this vein, MoJo has reposted a 2014 comment by Ben Dreyfuss on “what it’s like arguing with gun nuts on the Internet.”

Also in MoJO is a link to John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ commentary after the Oregon massacre, in which, using humor and irony, he makes a serious argument and “slams Republicans who only discuss mental health to actively avoid gun control.”

7th UPDATE: Following the Oregon massacre Politico reposted on social media an article dated July 18th, by historian Josh Zeitz, that poses the excellent question: “If guns make us safer, why not let them into the U.S. Capitol?”

Also in Politico is an article (October 5th) by UT-Austin prof Matt Valentine on “The myth of the good guy with a gun.”

Dheepan & La Vie en grand


These are two new French films set in the rough cités of the northern Paris banlieues and which I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. ‘Dheepan’, as one likely knows, was the surprise Palme d’or laureate at Cannes last May. The pic begins in a DP camp in far northern Sri Lanka, at what looks to be the moment of the army’s final victory over the LTTE insurgency (which would set it in 2009). LTTE fighter Sivadhasan—actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who was an LTTE guerrilla himself in his youth, so is familiar with the subject matter—is trying to hightail it out of the country—and for good reason, in view of the behavior of the Sri Lankan army after its victory (not to mention before)—for which he is aided by LTTE higher-ups, who furnish him with the passport of a dead fighter named Dheepan, that thus becomes Sivadhasan’s new identity. To improve his asylum chances abroad, he has to constitute a bogus family en catastrophe—his own has been killed—so does so with young widow Yalini (actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and nine-year-old orphan Illayaal (played by the impressive Claudine Vinasithamby, who was in primary school in the Paris area when she was cast for the role). They make the short hop by boat across the Palk Strait to India and then to Paris by plane (how that happened was not clear; did they get visas at the French consulate in Chennai? I’d be curious to know how this works, in view of the large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees France has received over the past 25-30 years).

Once in Paris, Dheepan requests political asylum for himself and his “family,” aided in crafting a halfway plausible story by his Tamil translator during the interview with the French case officer. The translator essentially makes up Dheepan’s story for him, with the fonctionnaire naturally not understanding a thing of what the two men are discussing and concocting. This bit I found interesting, as it points up a real problem in evaluating asylum requests, which is that asylum seekers can and do fabricate part or all of their stories—for which one can hardly blame them—and that are difficult, when not impossible, to verify by the host country authorities. And the veritable stories of many asylum seekers are indeed ambiguous. Dheepan, e.g., had well-founded reasons to fear that his civil rights, if not his physical integrity, would be violated were he to be taken into custody by the authorities of his country. On this level, his asylum application would be a no-brainer. But he had also been a fighter with an insurgent organization that carried out numerous atrocities, assassinations of elected officials—and in more than one country—and acts of terrorism—with it thus being designated as a terrorist organization by the EU, US, and others—which could result in the rejection of his asylum request. While watching ‘Dheepan’ I thought of the very good 2013 Sri Lankan film ‘Ini Avan’, which I wrote about at the time. The protag in that one, a former LTTE fighter, was not being sought by the authorities but, in view of his past, had become a social outcast and with his only option for making a living being criminality, of accepting offers he couldn’t refuse. And he was at permanent risk of retribution and from both sides. Had he been an asylum seeker in Europe, he would have had a strong case.

Returning to the film in question, after Dheepan’s asylum request is filed—and in France the process can take up to two years—he receives a job offer, to be gardien d’immeuble (superintendent) in a slummy building in a trashy cité, incongruously named Le Pré (the meadow), up in the Val d’Oise. This cité is as bad as they get: spatially isolated, populated entirely by immigrant families from the African continent—with nary a Français de souche in sight—and with rival drug-dealing gangs ruling the roost and engaging in periodic turf wars settled with semi-automatic weapons. If France allowed televised political advertising, the Front National would have a field day with images from the film. But a job is a job and an apartment that comes with it—even if it’s a dump—is an apartment, so Dheepan and his “family” take up residence there no complaints (this may be a movie—and thus fiction—but the image of immigrants willingly taking jobs that no one born and raised in France would do is real). Most of the film is set entirely in the cité and with three storylines, the first of the reality of their “family” situation, the couple of Dheepan and Yalini being purely instrumental, pour la forme, and devoid of sentiments—during most of the pic, at least—and with Yalini refusing to play mother to Illayaal, but with Dheepan nonetheless trying to build a normal life for them. And then there’s their adjustment to life in France, not speaking French—most of the film is in Tamil—and with the cité in which they live resembling nothing that the vast majority of French and non-Frenchmen alike would recognize as France. Dheepan, who has handyman skills, puts 100% into his job—he’s not a slacker (immigrants never are)—and forges a camaraderie with the older men in the building, who sit on the rooftop drinking and talking, while their gang-banger sons—over whom they have no authority—occupy the grounds of the cité below. Yalini finds relatively lucrative employment tending to the infirm father of the caïd, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), of one of the gangs, who’s nice to her but is not someone whose bad side one wants to get on. Illayaal has social adjustment problems in school. And then there’s the gang violence in the cité, that harks back to what Dheepan et al left in Sri Lanka and from which they cannot escape.

I found it an absorbing, well-acted film. The tension slowly builds, as you know something is going to happen. And—spoiler alert!—it does with Dheepan, who, fearing for the safety of Yalini and Illayaal, and fed up with the gangs and their crap, employs the skills he mastered as an LTTE fighter to bring the voyous to heel and clean up the cité. But the paroxysm of violence at the end sent the film into genre territory, as more than one reviewer observed. We’ve seen it countless time (I thought of the final scene in ‘Straw Dogs’). This was too bad. As one critic incisively tweeted: “It was 80% a great film…and then it wasn’t. Va savoir.” And the rose-tinted final scene, of Dheepan and the family—now a real one—settled in middle-class English suburbia, was problematic and on three levels: 1. The nightmare of France and its cités are starkly contrasted with the idyll of England (if current refugee/migrants in Calais were to see the scene, they would redouble their efforts to get across the Channel), suggesting a curious—and debatable—parti pris on director Jacques Audiard’s part. 2. How do Sri Lankan asylum seekers in France receive authorization and then visas to move to the UK anyway? and 3. How does a man who has just killed several persons in a bloodbath—even if they were lowlifes just asking to be whacked—get off the legal hook so quickly? I know that one sometimes has to suspend credulity for movies but still. So while I will give it the thumbs up, what could have been a great film turned out to be merely a good film and with a couple of issues. It is not on the same level as Audiard’s chef d’œuvre ‘Un prophet,’ though ranks above ‘Rust and Bone’, which I didn’t like too much. As mentioned above, its Palme d’or was greeted with surprise by critics at Cannes. As I have seen only one of the other nineteen pics that were in competition, I can’t say for myself if it was deserved or not. French reviews are good on the whole—critics and Allociné spectateurs alike—though the Africultures website critiqued what it saw as the film’s clichéd, stereotyped portrayal of the banlieues. Hollywood press reviews are also good grosso modo, notably the ones in Indiewire and THR. Trailer is here.

The second film is ‘La Vie en grand’ (English title: Learn By Heart), the directorial debut of Mathieu Vadepied and which also premiered at Cannes (though not in competition for the Palme). This one is set in a cité in the neuf-trois, also gang-ridden, where 14-year-old Adama (first-time actor Balamine Guirassy) lives with his Senegalese immigrant mother, Fatou (actress Leontina Fall), who has been constrained by a judge to live apart from her polygamous husband—as living in a polygamous household will get one’s carte de séjour cancelled—and is having difficulty making ends meet. Adama is an indifferent student at school and on the verge of expulsion for failing grades, which are not due to lack of ability but rather his preoccupation with his mother’s precarious financial situation, having to work the marchés at dawn to earn a little money, and his separation from his (half) siblings, who live in another banlieue and whom he misses. One day his buddy, the 11-year-old Mamadou (Ali Bidanessy), finds a quantity of hashish, comme ça, and then Adama finds even an even greater quantity (this one dumped by dealers during a police raid), which the two decide to sell to the upscale kids at the local private lycée. So they go into business together, though with Adama only wanting to make money to help his mother. But as drug dealing is a dangerous business, not only because it’s illegal but as new entrants inevitably encroach on the turf of other dealers—and who are never nice people—Adama gets into trouble with some badass motherfuckers, who decide to make him and Mamadou work for them. One thinks of the runners in season 4 of the The Wire. But Adama tries to outwit the caïds all while striving to keep up with his schoolwork and avoid expulsion. And aided by three of his teachers plus the school principal—who are firm with him but go all out to help him succeed—he does so.

The school, with its teachers and principal, are Adama’s salvation. The film is a paean to l’école de la République. If I were a fonctionnaire with l’Éducation nationale, I would love the pic. And as for me, I did like it. Despite the subject matter it ends up being a feel good movie, mainly as Adama and Mamadou are absolutely, totally adorable. They’re boys you care about and want to help, indeed give a big hug to. And then there’s the happy ending (no spoilers). Going into the theater I was under the impression that the pic would be a comedy. It’s more of a dramedy, though, with the comedy part being one particularly hilarious scene, when Adama, who is ordered by the principal to bring his father to school the next day for an urgent meeting—but which Adama cannot and will not do—pays a clochard to accompany him and impersonate his father. This is one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen on the screen this year. Reviews of the film—by critics and spectateursare mostly good, though Africultures, in the link above, sniffed that the film’s feel good side served to downplay the complexity of the problems of the banlieues (and which the functioning of the educational system is a part of). Bof. Trailer is here.


Syria’s lost generation

Syrian refugee collecting leftover food, Istanbul (photo credit: AFP)

Syrian refugee collecting leftover food, Istanbul (photo credit: AFP)

Istanbul-based journalist Sebnem Arsu has a feature article in Politico.eu on the dire situation of Syrian refugee children in the city—which, one may safely presume, is likewise elsewhere in Turkey as well, plus Lebanon and Jordan, not to mention in Syria itself—who have been descholarized in massive numbers, some since the outbreak of the war four years ago. The consequences of this, ça va de soi, will be calamitous—for the children’s futures, the countries in which they live, and Europe and the world—if the international community, such as it is, does not act quickly. Quoting Abdulrahman Kowara, director of the Syrian Education Commission—the de facto educational authority of the Syrian opposition in Syria and Turkey—at the end of the piece

“These children, if left uneducated, will harm Syria, Turkey and the entire world in the future…I see these children as time bombs, ready to explode any time. I see the expression of detachment on their faces. It is up to the world to help the future generations of Syria as much as their own.”

On the subject of Syrian refugees, the German website In a Nutshell – Kurzgesagt, which makes videos “explaining things,” posted a six-minute You Tube last Thursday—which has already been viewed almost 4.5 million times—explaining the European refugee crisis and Syria. It’s good and merits wide circulation, though, for the record, I will quibble with the line about how “[a]ll sides committed horrible war crimes, using chemical weapons, mass executions, torture on a large-scale, and repeated deadly attacks on civilians.” All sides have indeed committed exactions and done very bad things but the lion’s share of this has been the doing of the regime of Bashar al-Assad—and when it comes to the use of chemical and torture on a large-scale, that share is total. The Islamic State would commit worse crimes if it could but, so far at least, the aggregate quantity of its crimes and of persons killed, maimed and/or displaced from their homes as a consequence cannot hold a candle to those committed by the regime in Damascus.

In arguing for generosity toward the Syrian refugees landing on the continent, the video’s authors make this impeccable assertion

Even if the EU alone were to accept all four million refugees and 100% of them were Muslims, the percentage of Muslims in the European Union would only rise from about 4% to about 5%…The European Union is the wealthiest bunch of economies on Earth, well-organized states with functioning social systems, infrastructure, democracy, and huge industries. It can handle the challenge of the refugee crisis if it wants to. The same can be said for the whole Western world.

In a post two years ago on Syria’s Palestinians, I opined that it would behoove the European Union, US, Canada, Latin American states, Australia, and Russia to absorb all 300,000 of them. Comme ça. Can these states—to which one must add those in the OIC who have the means but have so far done little to nothing, but who can and must share in the responsibility—absorb four million Syrians? That’s a lot but what choice is there, as the Syrian war is not going to end anytime soon and what will become of those four million displaced persons in the meantime? But if some kind of international agreement can possibly be worked out on this at some point down the road—when the Syrian refugee crisis has really become untenable—the refugees should be offered choices as to where they want to go—where they have family or support networks, speak the language, and/or will encounter the least difficulties in finding employment, i.e. in integrating into the host society. If refugees are sent to countries—however generous the latter’s intentions may be—where they know no one, don’t speak the language, and are sure to have great difficulties in the labor market, there will be problems, as one learns in this report in Le Monde last week.

À propos of all this, see these two reportages—here and here—on the France 2 news this evening. Je n’ai rien à dire de plus.

Syrian refugees, Istanbul (photo credit: Vocativ/Jodi Hilton)

Syrian refugees, Istanbul (photo credit: Vocativ/Jodi Hilton)

Syrian refugees, Istanbul (photo credit: DHA Photo/Hakan Kaya)

Syrian refugees, Istanbul (photo credit: DHA Photo/Hakan Kaya)

Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana (photo credit: Lori Waselchuk & TMN)

Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana (photo credit: Lori Waselchuk & TMN)

This is the title of the excellent, first-rate, must-read lead article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the October 2015 issue of The Atlantic. The lede: “American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they’ve failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report ‘The Negro Family’ tragically helped create this system, it’s time to reclaim his original intent.” Coates emphasizes that “this system”—of mass incarceration of Afro-Americans—has been a bipartisan endeavor, with liberal Democratic politicians every bit as culpable as their Republican counterparts (entre autres, in the unlikely event that Martin O’Malley is the Democratic party presidential nominee next year, I will have a tough time supporting him; and if Joe Biden enters the race—and one hopes he will—he will have some explaining to do and profuse mea culpas to issue).

Coates’s article is the most important I’ve read on the general subject in a long time. It’s lengthy—some 19,000 words—but should be read off the screen and not printed out, in view of the embedded footnotes and videos. It is thankfully divided into chapters (nine), to facilitate the task for those who won’t get through it in one shot.

Coates ends his piece with a link to his lengthy 2014 essay on reparations, which I have yet to read. I will in the coming days sans faute.

Barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, December 2013 (photo: Aleppo Media Centre)

Barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, December 2013 (photo: Aleppo Media Centre)

I’ve been riveted these days to the refugee crisis in Europe, as have millions of others, and specifically to the tragedy of the Syrians who are landing on the continent en masse. I’ve had tears in my eyes more than once watching the televised interviews of Syrian refugees who have lost everything: their homes, livelihoods, life savings, family and friends dispersed—when not killed—social networks gone… And their country. Lost forever. Syria is shattered. It’s finished and won’t be put back together. The Syrian people are living through a nightmare such that I cannot begin to imagine. (If one has two hours to spare, France 2’s Envoyé Special two days ago was entirely devoted to the refugee crisis and may be viewed here through next Thursday).

One consequence of the surge of Syrian refugees on Europe’s shores has been a proliferation of commentaries trashing President Obama’s non-interventionist Syria policy of the past four years. I’ve been seeing a fair amount of this on social media, with those denouncing Obama’s inaction calling it the biggest stain—that’s the favored word (tache, en français)—on his foreign policy record. The Obama-bashers include not only right-wingers—whom I pay no attention to, as they just want to bash Obama—but also academics, policy intellectuals, and MENA-specialized journalists whom I highly respect—some I know personally—such as him, him, him, and him; also see him and him. These Obama detractors have, needless to say, been arguing for intervention in the Syrian civil war since the outset—arming “moderate” rebel forces (i.e. the Free Syrian Army), establishing a no-fly zone, and/or taking out the Syrian barrel bombers via air power. I was totally opposed to an intervention to August 2013—as I wrote several times here on AWAV—though became more open-minded on the question after the Ba’athist regime’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta—Obama’s famous “red line.” But Obama, seeing that he did not have the support of Congress or US public opinion—overwhelmingly hostile to another American war in the Middle East—decided against sending in the USAF. If there’s been a valid critique of Obama on Syria, it was his about-face at this moment; he could have acted the “leader” and done what he was thought was right—and not left France in the lurch,which was not nice—though it would have certainly been a fool’s errand in the end: an open-ended conflict with no end game, overwhelming pressure for the use of ground troops—which absolutely no one has advocated (at least openly)—and the US coming up against Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah, not to mention its putative regional allies—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—who have been arming non-moderate rebels from the very outset and are going to do what they’re going to do in Syria regardless of US may wish. The US would have been intervening in an exceptionally nasty and complex civil war, and that had already been invested by a number of regional actors who feel they have more at stake in the outcome than the US does itself. Syria is a catastrophe and would have been even if the US had done everything the interventionists had advocated. So despite legitimate criticisms of the president’s decisions, I have little patience for the Obama-bashing of my interventionist associates.

Saying all this better than I ever could is Aaron David Miller, who has an excellent, first-rate, 100% bull’s-eye essay in Foreign Policy, “It’s not Obama’s fault.” The lede: “The inconvenient truths about why you can’t blame the West for what’s happened in Syria.” ADM gets it exactly right on Obama and Syria. No money quotes. Just read the piece. The whole thing.

On Obama’s MENA policy more generally, see Marc Lynch’s excellent article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “Obama and the Middle East: Rightsizing the U.S. Role.” Lynch has his critiques of Obama’s MENA policy comme moi—e.g. I will fault him for pulling back from Libya after the successful intervention and backing the Saudis in Yemen—but defends it in the main. He begins

Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East strategy often complain that Obama lacks a strategic vision. This is almost exactly wrong. Obama came to office with a conviction that reducing the United States’ massive military and political investment in the Middle East was a vital national security interest in its own right. The occupation of Iraq and the excesses of the war on terrorism had left the United States overextended, especially at a time of economic crisis. “Rightsizing” the United States’ footprint in the region meant not only reducing its material presence but also exercising restraint diplomatically, stepping back and challenging allies to take greater responsibility for their own security. Obama has adhered consistently to this strategy, prioritizing it ruthlessly along the way and firmly resisting efforts to force it off track. This was not a strategy much beloved in Washington or in a region hard-wired for the exercise of American power. But it was a clear and coherent strategy that led Obama to undertake major initiatives on the problems he viewed as rising to the level of core national security interests: Iran’s nuclear weapons program, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the war in Iraq.

On Syria, Lynch has this

The defining issue of Obama’s tenure will likely be Syria, whose bloodshed, radicalization, and regional destabilization will haunt the Middle East for decades to come. Few policies have been criticized more widely than Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in support of Syria’s insurgency. It is easy to understand the outrage in the face of the Syrian regime’s unrelenting carnage and daily evils. But the hard reality, which Obama understood, is that none of the popular proposals for intervention would have made things better. Syria was doomed to its horrific civil war almost from the moment President Bashar al-
Assad chose to resort to military repression to stay in power and his opponents chose to take up arms and transform a peaceful uprising into an insurgency. U.S. forces could have been more or less deeply involved in the civil war that followed, but no degree of U.S. military intervention would have solved the problem. Even a large-scale military action would likely have failed, as the fruitless occupation of Iraq so painfully demonstrated.

Supporters of a Syria intervention usually insisted that they did not want U.S. boots on the ground. But the Obama administration was keenly aware of the pressures for escalation that would have followed even a limited operation, because the ideas for a limited U.S. intervention made little sense. Assad was not going to run away at the first sign of NATO bombers, and the limits of airpower have been demonstrated by the air campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. A no-fly zone might have quickly grounded Assad’s air force, but it would not have protected rebels from mortars or ground actions. Providing antiaircraft weapons to the rebels would have made a tactical difference but would also have posed 
a threat to civil aviation. The U.S. military would have had to defend any safe areas that it declared, which could not be done from the air alone.

Arming the opposition, the most popular proposal and one that the United States has fitfully pursued, 
was always the least likely to succeed. The Syrian opposition was from the beginning hopelessly fragmented and has become increasingly radicalized as the war has ground on. As early as 2012, huge amounts of money and guns were already flowing to opposition groups from the Gulf countries and Turkey, and covert U.S. operations were already under way. But there were few effective and ideologically acceptable groups that the United States could comfortably arm. Arming the opposition would not have given the United States control over these groups, and it would have inevitably entailed U.S. support for extreme jihadists. Insurgents do insurgent things, and as the Syrian uprising morphed into an insurgency, it became increasingly radicalized and brutal.

Assad’s foreign patrons roughly matched whatever support came to the insurgents. As a result, increased external help for the Syrian rebels led only to a more destructive balance of power, with minor fluctuations in each direction within a broader strategic stalemate. And an empowered opposition was always going to become less willing to compromise, as was an empowered Assad. Short of an outright victory by one side, no balance of power could have compelled negotiations.

In the face of all of this, the Obama administration was wise to resist the slippery slope of intervention and instead to try to corral its allies, shape the conditions for negotiations, and alleviate human suffering. Its worst blunder, the aborted bombing threat of August and September 2013, demonstrated just how easy it was to get drawn in: Obama’s redline on the use of chemical weapons had been mostly a rhetorical sop to give the appearance of toughness, but once articulated, it became costly to abandon. Obama was wise enough to walk away and pay the reputational costs of backing down—but it is telling how near a thing the bombing was.

As with ADM, Marc Lynch says it better than I. C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.

Donald Trump: Bonapartist

Mobile, Alabama, August 21st (photo credit: Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

Mobile, Alabama, August 21st (photo credit: Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

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

I had intended, until a few weeks ago, not to have a single post on the US presidential campaign before the new year, as whatever happens prior to the Iowa caucuses is invariably overtaken by events, neither here nor there, and soon forgotten. I may be a political junkie but only up to a point. But then there was Donald Trump. Whatever one may say about The Donald, he’s certainly made this presidential campaign—at this early stage, at least—the most interesting in as long as I can remember—and it is, BTW, far more interesting than anything happening politically in France these days (not even this compares)—not to mention highly revealing about the Republican party base.

À propos of this, Michael Lind has a spot-on article in Politico Magazine (September 3rd) on “How Trump exposed the Tea Party.” The lede: “The proof is in: the GOP base isn’t small-government libertarian; it’s old-fashioned populist.” Money quote

The success of Trump’s campaign has, if nothing else, exposed the Tea Party [which Trump has galvanized] for what it really is; Trump’s popularity is, in effect, final proof of what some of us have been arguing for years: that the Tea Party is less a libertarian movement than a right-wing version of populism. Think William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long, not Ayn Rand. Tea Partiers are less upset about the size of government overall than they are that so much of it is going to other people, especially immigrants and nonwhites. They are for government for them[selves] and against government for Not-Them[selves].

Pour mémoire, Lind’s argument was made four years ago by Harvard social scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, in their (excellent) book on the Tea Party phenomenon.

Conclusion: The “small government” discourse of the GOP is a lot of hokum. It’s eyewash; as I wrote in my last Trump post, Republican voters, including Tea Partiers, don’t care about the size of government, as rightist pollster Frank Luntz said himself 2½ years back. They just don’t want government benefits going to the “wrong” people.

On the GOP’s Trump conundrum not being Trump himself but rather those Republicans who support him, see MoJo’s David Corn (September 3rd), “The GOP’s problem is not Donald Trump: It’s their voters.” See as well NYT contributing op-ed writer Thomas B. Edsall examine “What Trump understands about Republicans.” Edsall thus begins

Donald Trump’s success is no surprise. The public and the press have focused on his defiant rejection of mannerly rhetoric, his putting into words of what others think privately. But the more important truth is that a half-century of Republican policies on race and immigration have made the party the home of an often angry and resentful white constituency — a constituency that is now politically mobilized in the face of demographic upheaval. (…)

Trump is going directly after those Republican voters who seek to protect what some scholars call “compositional amenities” – the comfort of a common religion and language, mutually shared traditions, and the minimization of cultural conflict.

The territory Trump has ventured onto is fertile ground for his brand of demagoguery. (…)

Transfer this to France and you have the hardcore base of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party down to a tee: a base that has been pulling France’s mainstream conservative party further to the right for the past decade and that Sarkozy strives to flatter and indulge… And then there’s Marine Le Pen, whom Sarkozy strives to mimic…

The Trump phenomenon is not only a hard right one, though. Christopher Caldwell, the unhackish senior editor of the otherwise Republican party hack rag TWS, has an interesting report (September 7th issue) from the campaign trail in Iowa, in which he asks “What’s the deal with the Trump?” Entre autres, Caldwell observes that a certain number of those who have attended Trump rallies and otherwise shown an interest in his candidacy are independents and even Democratic party voters, c’est-à-dire, Trump is not only attracting support from the Tea Party/hard right GOP base. His appeal goes well beyond that.

Caldwell makes a number of valid points, one of them this

One might compare Trump’s rise to the anti-immigrant populisms on the rise in Europe, but the parallel is deceptive. European immigration, unlike American, appears to be turning into an outright military threat [AWAV: this is nonsense]. The parties that focus on it often are suspicious of the European Union and have ideological affinities with old right-wing movements. Whatever one thinks of Trump, he is not an ideologue. (“I’m fine with affirmative action,” he recently told the Los Angeles Times.) The European radicals he most resembles are those freelances who combined (or combine) truth-telling and piss-taking: the Dutch firebrand Pim Fortuyn, assassinated on the eve of the 2002 elections, the radio host and UKIP leader Robert Kilroy-Silk, who rose and quickly fell two years later, the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, who still leads the Five-Star Movement.

In French terms, I’ve said it before and will say it again: Trump is a mix of Nicolas Sarkozy (for the brutality of his political persona, rank demagoguery, absence of core principles or morality, and careening all over the right side of the political spectrum in changing his positions on a dime), Jean-Marie Le Pen (for his flamboyant, megalomaniacal macho showmanship and oratory, brutal personal style, and general demagoguery, particularly on immigration), and Bernard Tapie (the brash, flamboyant businessman and TV entertainer dabbling in politics—from center-left to center-right—to further his ego and personal interest, and who, like his pal Sarkozy, is devoid of principles and morality).

Continuing with French parallels, the Trump phenomenon may perhaps be viewed as less Tea Partyish or reactionary than a sort of downmarket Bonapartism à l’américaine: a providential, nationalist, charismatic strongman leader who is generically conservative but devoid of ideology—there’s no fascism here or doctrinal rupture with the existing order—whose positions can lurch from the far-right to the almost center-left, and whose appeal consists entirely of his outsized persona and promise to uphold or restore national grandeur (the Bonapartist strain on the French right was, in the 20th century, incarnated by Charles de Gaulle but I won’t insult the great general’s memory by equating Trump with him). And there’s not a shred of libertarianism or “small government” blather in it.

MoJo blogger Kevin Drum has a post (September 5th) telling conservatives “Sorry…you deserve Donald Trump” and in which he links to a lament-rant by the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg against Trump and his Republican trumpenproletariat (great neologism) supporters. Goldberg’s jeremiad, “No movement that embraces Trump can call itself conservative,” is a doozy. This bit is particularly noteworthy

If you want a really good sense of the damage Donald Trump is doing to conservatism, consider the fact that for the last five years no issue has united the Right more than opposition to Obamacare. Opposition to socialized medicine in general has been a core tenet of American conservatism from Day One. Yet, when Republicans were told that Donald Trump favors single-payer health care, support for single-payer health care jumped from 16 percent to 44 percent.

Wow, that’s awesome! No wonder conservative ideologues are so disoriented and distraught at the Trump phenomenon. It is hardly surprising that some are even darkly suspecting that Trump may be, as National Review columnist John Fund wonders, “a double agent for the left.” E.g.

Indeed, all that hanging around Democrats really rubbed off on him. In a 2000 book, he declared “we must have universal health care” and said it should look a lot like Canada’s system: “Doctors might be paid less than they are now, as is the case in Canada, but they would be able to treat more patients because of the reduction in their paperwork.” As recently as last year, Trump was still praising single-payer medical systems overseas.

At the same time that he was plumping for single-payer health care in 2000, Trump called for a one-time 14.25 percent net-worth tax on individuals and trusts with a net worth of over $10 million. He has also called for a 20 percent tax on importing goods. All this has led talk-show host Glenn Beck to declare: “Donald Trump is a progressive. He’s not a conservative.”

A progressive or, rather, a moderate Republican, as the NYT’s Josh Barro suggested in a post last month on the NYT’s The Upshot blog? Whatever the case, the bottom line—and it’s kind of scary—was laid out by journalist Conor Lynch in Salon three days ago: “The shocking truth about Donald Trump: He’s actually the least terrifying GOP candidate.” Ex-GOPer Bruce Bartlett said much the same thing in a social media comment today: “Honest to God, if forced to vote for one of the wankers now running, I would vote for Trump in a minute.” Personally speaking, if I were ordered to choose among the candidates in the large GOP field, it would be a toss-up between John Kasich and Trump. Scary and shocking indeed.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman, in his Labor Day column, says that “Trump is right on economics.”

2nd UPDATE: Differing with Krugman, Wall Street executive and contributing NYT opinion writer Steven Rattner, in his August 14th column, laid waste to “Trump’s economic muddle.

3rd UPDATE: Michael Tomasky has a review essay in the September 24th issue of the NYRB—and that is well worth the read—of Donald Trump’s 2012 book Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again!

The other France

Clichy-sous-Bois (Seine-Saint-Denis), 2010 (photo credit: Sipa)

Clichy-sous-Bois (Seine-Saint-Denis), 2010 (photo credit: Sipa)

This is the title of a lengthy article by George Packer in the August 31st issue of The New Yorker, in which he inquires into the social climate and general mood in the Paris banlieues—the Seine-Saint-Denis (le neuf-trois) in particular—in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher killings of last January, specifically asking if they are “incubators of terrorism.” It’s one of the better explorations of the subject I’ve seen by an Anglo-American journalist, nowadays as in past years. I naturally have a quibble here and there and Packer made an unfortunate choice in at least one of his informants, but no big deal, as most of them are very good, e.g. Fouad Ben Ahmed from Bondy and the academics Farhad Khosrokhavar and Jean-Pierre Filiu. It’s too bad Packer didn’t meet Bernard Godard, who can speak more authoritatively on the subject of Islam in France than anyone (e.g. see his La Question musulmane en France, which came out in February). I’ll come back to the general subject soon, as, comme toujours, there is much to say about it.


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