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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

Still the Evil Kingdom

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

I labelled Saudi Arabia the “evil kingdom” in two posts here and here some five-and-a-half years ago. It had long gone without saying, in North America and Europe at least, that the Baathist regime in Iraq—followed by its cousin in Syria—was the bloodiest, cruelest, and all-around most repressive in the MENA region. I had thought such myself through the 1990s, giving the palmarès for overall awfulness to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And Saddam was indeed everything one could say about him. But looking into the matter more closely in the last decade, I determined that—when it came to internal repression—Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi was every bit as bad as Saddam—and was a greater destabilizing force regionally to boot. And then looking just a little more closely, it became manifest that Saudi Arabia was hardly a nicer place than Saddam’s Iraq when it came to domestic repression, and was, in fact, far worse outside its borders, with its aggressive promotion of Wahhabism across the planet—wherever Muslims were to be found—the Saudi roots of Al-Qaida, ISIS, et on en passe. So why weren’t the Saudis taken to task on all this. Because they were allies of the US and other Western powers, duh.

But with the rise last year of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a.k.a. MBS, who was touted as a reformer and modernizer by high-profile US pundits, I thought—briefly—that maybe my view of Saudi Arabia needed revising. LOL. Between the criminal, near genocidal, Saudi-led destruction of Yemen, the unhinged campaign against Qatar, the brutal crackdown on domestic dissent, and the now certain murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul—the grisly details of which everyone has read; if not, see the coverage in Middle East Eye—MBS looks to be, as analyst Rula Jebreal put it on Al Jazeera today, a Qadhafi “on steroids.” Far from being a reformer, MBS is establishing a Bonapartist dictatorship far more repressive than its predecessor—though without Napoleon Bonaparte’s brilliance as a military strategist or state modernizer.

If one is going to read just two pieces today on the Jamal Khashoggi affair, I highly recommend these, both by Washington insiders:

Jamal Khashoggi’s long road to the doors of the Saudi consulate,” by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, which I found most informative—and which cites the brilliant political scientist Barnett Rubin, who knows more about Afghanistan than just about anyone.

A fatal abandonment of American leadership: The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi drives home the consequences of the Trump administration’s refusal to champion democratic values around the globe,” by Ben Rhodes—former deputy national-security adviser to Barack Obama–writing in The Atlantic.

À suivre.

UPDATE:

2nd UPDATE: The gauchiste webzine Jadaliyya has usefully compiled its articles and documents on dissent in Saudi Arabia in one piece (October 17th): “Outrage overdue: Saudi Arabia’s long history of dictatorship and opposition.”

3rd UPDATE: See Rula Jebreal’s posthumous “secret interview” with Jamal Khashoggi in Newsweek (October 19th), “The Saudi journalist’s views of Islam, America and the ‘reformist’ prince implicated in his murder.”

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In English: The Bureau. In my last post, on Icelandic films, I mentioned the French actress Florence Loiret-Caille, who plays a character in this brilliant, excellent, terrific French TV series created and directed by Eric Rochant, the first three seasons of which my wife and I binged-watched (on DVD; yes we still watch stuff on those) over the past couple of months. I had been hearing about the series—which began in 2015—for the past year, notably from dear friend Adam Shatz, who deemed it sufficiently compelling to devote a post to on the LRB blog (the series may be viewed subtitled in the US and most everywhere else).

In short, the series centers on the deep cover section of the DGSE (the French CIA)—dubbed “le bureau des légendes”—its operatives, and their operations, notably in the Middle East (and principally in Syria, with ISIS and all). It’s a French version of ‘Homeland’ but is far superior (I watched three seasons of the latter before abandoning it). There is no comparison between the two when it comes to the sophistication of the screenplays and knowledge of its subject matter (espionage, the Middle East, etc). The geopolitical knowledge is indeed very good and numerous languages are spoken by the French agents—English, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew—which one does not see in ‘Homeland’, needless to say. The Middle East-North Africa scenes—here, Iran, Syria, Algeria—are naturally shot in Morocco, as in ‘Homeland’, but are pulled off much better (e.g. the scenes in Tehran really do look like Tehran—so much as I imagine Tehran, at least—though the ones in Algiers were admittedly rather obviously shot in Casablanca; bon, a minor detail). And the CIA and Mossad naturally figure.

The pacing is not Hollywoodish, that’s for sure. If you like high octane, edge-of-your-seat action thrillers, with car chases and explosions, ‘Le Bureau des Légendes’ is probably not for you. On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde

As for the casting, it’s stellar, with well-known French actors of the big screen: Matthieu Kassovitz, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Léa Drucker, Sara Giraudeau… And then there’s the Nadia El Mansour character, played by the Franco-Moroccan actress Zineb Triki—her Syrian Arabic accent is impeccable, so I am told—who is quite simply one of the most beautiful women on this planet (there is a developing consensus on this among both men and women I know).

In short, if you loved The Wire, you are certain to feel likewise about ‘The Bureau’, no two ways about it. The fourth season debuts on Canal+ this fall (and which is focused on Russia, so one reads). Will binge-watch when the whole thing is available.

UPDATE: My wife and I binge-watched season 4 (July 2019) on DVD. It’s excellent, as expected, taking place mainly in Russia, with the FSB, CIA, Russian militiamen in Ukraine, and all (and none are good guys—and certainly not the DGSE). The way the final episode ends insures that there will be a season 5. On l’attend avec impatience.

2nd UPDATE: We binged-watched season 5 (May 2020), streamed on Canal+. Excellent again, as expected. It takes place in Russia (Moscow), Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt (Cairo, Sinai), and Cambodia (Phnom Penh). Not too much in Paris. Several of the French agents speak Russian, including Mathieu Amalric’s character, “JJA” (Jean-Jacques Angel), a clin d’œil to James Jesus Angleton (JJA, as the new chief of the bureau, descending into paranoia). Jacques Audiard directed the final two episodes (9 and 10), though will apparently not be taking over the series from Eric Rochant—who’s stepping down—if there’s a 6th season, which the (stunning, unexpected) end of the final episode leaves open.

3rd UPDATE: Uber-pundits Max Boot and Fareed Zakaria praised the series to the high heavens, in a survey (December 16, 2020) of The Washington Post columnists’ favorite series, movie, book, etc of the year.

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Photo credit: Michael Fleshman/Flickr

[updates below]

This is the title of an excellent, must-read post on the blog of British-Syrian progressive activist Leila Al-Shami, who is, entre autres, co-author (with Robin Yassin-Kassab) of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, published by Pluto Press in 2016. Al-Shami specifies that she has “consistently opposed all foreign military intervention in Syria” but has had it up to here with the Western “anti-war” left, which opposes interventions only when the US is involved—and, of course, the really Great Satan, Israel—and supports the Syrian Ba’athist regime in the name “anti-imperialism.” As she puts it, “[t]his pro-fascist left seems blind to any form of imperialism that is non-western in origin” (here, Russia and Iran). And it doesn’t give a whit about the people of Syria, ça va de soi. As I have been fuming myself of late at this pro-Bashar, Putin-apologizing “left”—which I hold in the utmost contempt—I read Leila Al-Shami’s commentary with delectation. If you, dear reader, are a right thinking person, you will too.

More on this later.

UPDATE: Daphne Lawless, heretofore unknown to me, has a most interesting three-part series, beginning on May 9, 2018, on the New Zealander website Fightback: Struggle, Solidarity, Socialism, entitled “The Red-Brown ‘zombie plague’: how fascist ideas are becoming popular on the left.”

2nd UPDATE: Javier Sethness, also previously unknown to me, has a pertinent analysis (Jan. 13, 2019) in the British anarchist website Freedom on “Radical media and the blurred lines of ‘red’ fascism.”

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[update below]

Adam Shatz—contributing editor at the London Review of Books and dear personal friend—did a two-hour podcast interview with Olivier Roy, the well-known political Islam specialist, earlier this month, the first part of which is up on the LRB website. The podcast coincides with the publication of the English translation of Roy’s 2014 En quête de l’Orient perdu: entretiens avec Jean-Louis Schlegel, which is an interview-memoir about his life and career. In the first part of the podcast, Roy talks about his soixante-huitard youth, 1970s engagement with the Parisian extreme left, and his years of field work, as it were, in the 1980s with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Très intéressant. I’ll post the second part of the interview in an update when it goes up this week.

UPDATE: The second part of the podcast is up on the LRB website. I find it even more interesting than the first. Roy talks, entre autres, about his knock-down-drag-out Parisian academic brawl with the Islamologist Gilles Kepel (for the uninitiated, see here, here, and here). The two really don’t like one another. For the anecdote, I received an invitation from a high-profile US-based foreign policy-oriented journal/webzine to write an article about the brawl when it was in full swing last year but politely declined. I didn’t want to touch this one with a ten-foot pole (as, entre autres, I had already published an essay some two decades prior rubbishing Kepel, which he neither forgot nor forgave). Though I lean toward Roy in the brawl, I don’t think their respective arguments—Islamization of radicalism vs. radicalization of Islam—are mutually exclusive. Both their approaches—and what they bring to the table generally—are interesting and can be synthesized. As an American political science MENA specialist friend—who is friends with Kepel but stayed clear of his conflict with Roy—wrote on social media last year: “The level of analysis and debate [on Islam, radicalization, and terrorism] is so far ahead [in France] of what we have in the US it’s almost embarrassing.”

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Jihadi terrorism, that is. The news was dominated this past week by the terrorist attack in Manchester. There is not a sentiment I can express about it that hasn’t been by everyone else. Targeting youngsters for death and maiming, and at a festive event no less: ça dépasse l’entendement. One has no words. Je ne sais pas qu’est-ce qu’on peut dire de plus.

I did not scour the internet for articles to read on the atrocity, though stumbled across a few, such as this one from The Independent, “Salman Abedi: How Manchester attacker turned from cannabis-smoking dropout to Isis suicide bomber;” Emily Crockett’s comment in Rolling Stone, “Why Manchester bomber targeted girls: As is so often the case, misogyny was woven into this act of violence;” and the report in The Telegraph that the security services ignored reports from Muslims in Salman Abedi’s neighborhood about his erratic, worrisome behavior. And this editorial in The New York Times: “When terrorists target children.”

Some ten days ago I took a group of a dozen journalists from Denmark, who work the immigration/Islamic radicalism/terrorism beat in their country, on a walking tour of “immigration and the changing face of Paris,” which I periodically lead for the Paris office of Context Travel. The leader of the group was a sharp Copenhagen journalist named Jakob Sheikh (he’s Danish-Pakistani), who has reported extensively on the radicalization of young Muslims in Denmark. Two articles of his have been translated into English, which are particularly pertinent at the present moment, “My childhood friend, the ISIS jihadist,” in Mashable (October 15, 2014), and “Meeting the foreign fighters: how does Islamic State recruit thousands of Westerners?,” in the New Statesman (December 1, 2015).

My mother emailed me the other day, asking, in the context of the Manchester atrocity, if I had done a blog post on Udayan Prasad’s 1997 film My Son the Fanatic, the screenplay of which was written by Hanif Kureishi (and inspired by his 1994 short story in The New Yorker of the same title). I have not, in fact, had a post on the film, as it’s been over ten years since I last saw it. The one thing I’ll say about it here—in addition to it being first-rate and with a great performance by lead actor Om Puri—is that it remains, twenty years after its release, one of the best cinematic treatments one will find of the religious radicalization of the youthful offspring of immigrant families from Muslim countries—here, Pakistanis in the British Midlands—and of the perplexity, indeed despair, this provokes in their parents, who seek nothing more than to work, better their families’ lives, and integrate into the receiving society. But their children feel no such need to “integrate”—whatever integration for them is supposed to entail (those who yammer on about this never say)—or to keep their heads low and not make waves, because they were born into that society and are of it. Anyone interested in the subject should see the film (which is available on Netflix). The late, great Roger Ebert’s review of it is here and the trailer is here. See also Hanif Kureishi’s piece in The Spectator last December 10th, “‘My son the fanatic’ revisited: Can one generation’s mistake be corrected by the next?”

À propos, jihadi terrorism has been the subject of some six French films—feature-length, that have opened theatrically or were initially slated to—over the past couple of years, all which I have seen. If there’s a pic on the topic, I’ll see it, no matter how mixed or negative the reviews. And the reviews are often this, as of the six or so films in question, only one gets the thumbs up from me—more or less—and may be recommended—more or less—which is Le Ciel attendra (English title: Heaven Will Wait), by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar (who also directed the 2015 Les Héritiers). Moreover, it is the only one of the six or so that found an audience (330K tix sold, which isn’t too bad for a film of this genre).

The story is of two typically French middle-class teenage girls, Sonia (Noémie Merlant, nominated for the ‘most promising actress’ César for her performance) and Mélanie (Naomi Amarger, who lives in Créteil in the film, près de chez moi), with stable, loving families (Sonia’s father is Algerian but totally laïque) and who are doing well at school, but have become self-radicalized, via the internet, into Islamic State-style jihadi Islam. The film depicts their solitary descente aux enfers into Islamic extremism, the desperation of their parents (Sandrine Bonnaire plays the mother of Sonia) when they realize what is happening, and then the efforts to deradicalize them in therapy sessions led by the anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who plays herself.

Bouzar has had a high-profile in France over the past decade, for her work on Islam and France—she publishes a book a year—and the tidy subventions she has received from the state for her association—the Centre de Prévention contre les Dérives Sectaires liées à l’Islam—and proactive work on deradicalizing French adolescents who have returned from Syria, been caught trying to get there, or contemplated doing so. For the anecdote, I saw Bouzar speak to a packed auditorium at the École Militaire, which seats 700, in January 2015 and which was streamed live to audiences throughout the world, but with her face blurred on the screen for security reasons (as if it was not already well-known to those who would want to know it). She was quite the star.

As for Bouzar’s arguments on self-radicalization and how to counter it—which I won’t try to summarize here—I found them interesting enough, though she has been severely criticized by academics and others who work in her domain, for, entres autres, her exclusive focus on juridical minors (those under age 18), emphasis on converts to jihadi Islam (including heretofore non-practicing Muslims), and of Facebook and other social media as a vector of radicalization. Bouzar and her work are controversial among practitioners and specialists, who consider her analysis of the wellsprings of jihadi radicalization to be problematic (there is also a personal side, as all of Bouzar’s university degrees were obtained after age 35, so she is not considered by some to be a bona fide member of the academic club, even though Olivier Roy was her doctoral thesis supervisor).

Back to Mention-Schaar’s film, French reviews were good (Paris press) to very good (Allociné spectateurs), though Hollywood critics who saw it at the Locarno film festival—here, here, and here—found it unsubtle, overly didactic, and with unconvincing performances. I won’t quibble with the stateside critics, though their objections didn’t bother me as much. One didactic point in the pic’s favor is that it depicted the reality of jihadi self-radicalization in this web 2.0 era by teenagers who have never set foot in a mosque or had actual face-to-face contact with real live salafis. Trailer is here.

As for the other films:

Made in France, by Nicolas Boukhrief: This was scheduled to open in theaters throughout France on November 18, 2015, and with big eye-catching posters (below) in the metro stations and elsewhere in public in the weeks prior. But then there was the terrorist atrocity of November 13th. Bad timing for the pic, the release of which was naturally postponed to a later date, and with the distributor finally announcing that it would go straight to VOD in January ’16 and not open theatrically at all. So one had to see it chez soi, on the small screen. That’s okay. It’s a by-the-numbers thriller, about a Franco-Algerian journalist named Sam (Malik Zidi) who infiltrates a jihadi cell in the Paris area (an alternative English title of the film is ‘Inside the Cell’) to land the big scoop. But then he gets caught in the engrenage—from which he cannot extricate himself—with the fanaticized cell leader Hassan (Dimitri Storoge), who is determined to commit a terrorist atrocity (spoiler alert: nothing happens), and flanked by the other cell members, all stock characters: Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed), the not-too-bright Maghrebi thug; Sidi (Ahmed Drame), the black, who’s not a bad guy deep down; and Christophe (François Civil), the Français de souche convert who’s settling personal scores. A genre film from A to Z. While entertaining, it’s not on the same pedagogical or sociological level—if one is looking for that—as Philippe Faucon’s 2012 La Désintégration. And the depiction of the cell—comprised of men who have not personally known one another for long—is of a bygone era. Jihadi terrorist cells in Europe nowadays are invariably composed of blood relatives. Hollywood press reviews—here and here—are more positive than for ‘Heaven Will Wait’. Trailer is here and interview with the director in The Guardian is here.

Les Cowboys, by Thomas Bidegain: This one, which opened two weeks after the November 13th atrocity, is less about terrorism than the sudden indoctrination of one’s child into a cult—here, salafi Islam, presumably terrorist-inclined—though which is not actually seen. It’s an odd film and from the opening scene, of a Western-style rodeo and hootenanny, with everyone dressed up like cowboys and cowgirls, contra dancing to country music, eating barbecue and burgers et le total, except that they’re all French people in the Bas-Bugey and in precisely 1994, when the story begins. Alain (François Damiens), Stetson on his head, is dancing with his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, who then vanishes from sight. Alain and his wife, Nicole (Agathe Dronne), find a letter she has written them, saying that she has moved on to another life and bids them adieu. As they quickly learn, she has absconded with her petit ami, named Ahmed, who had become a salafi. She could be in Algeria—then in throes of the Islamist insurgency, though Ahmed’s Algerian immigrant parents, whom Alain knows, have no idea—the Middle East, Afghanistan, or anywhere. So Alain sets out on the obsessive quest to find his daughter, which takes him to Yemen, Pakistan—where he is helped by an American CIA type (played by John C. Reilly)—and other points on the globe, and that spans 17 years, though with him being killed in an automobile accident along the way, and with the search continued by his son (and Kelly’s younger brother), Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), who finally, maybe locates his sister in 2011.

Reviews of the film were good, including in the US, and with Damiens and director Bidegain receiving César nominations. It certainly held my attention, though I had mixed feelings about it. One understood Alain’s desperation as a father but his persona irritated me throughout, with his incessant blowing his stack and flying off the handle. And the ending left me unsatisfied. Bidegain was, as every review took care to mention, inspired by John Ford’s 1956 Western ‘The Searchers’, with Damiens obviously the John Wayne character and modern-day Muslims the savage Comanches. Having never seen ‘The Searchers’, I got it on Netflix in the US after seeing ‘Les Cowboys’. I was fully aware that Ford’s classic is considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest Westerns ever made—that, e.g., Martin Scorsese considers it one of the greatest films ever, period—but, personally speaking, thought it was crappy 1950s dreck, with wooden acting, a stupid story, and racist in the way it portrayed American Indians. And my mother, who has highbrow film tastes and knows well American cinema of the ’50s—when she was a young adult—entirely agreed with me. And no patient explanation of the film’s qualities will change our minds. Voilà. ‘Les Cowboys’, despite its flaws, is better. Trailer is here.

Taj Mahal, by Nicolas Saada. This one opened three weeks after the November 13th terrorist attacks. It reenacts the November 2008 terrorist operation in Bombay by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba—that lasted three days and killed 164 people—entirely from the perspective of an 18-year-old Franco-British girl named Louise (Stacy Martin, the protag in “Volume 1” of Lars von Trier’s preposterous 2014 ‘Nymphomaniac’), who found herself trapped during the attack in a suite at the Taj Mahal hotel, where she was staying with her parents. One hardly sees the terrorists as they maraud through the luxury hotel on their murderous campaign, the idea presumably being that one is supposed to feel the terror of a potential victim as she hides in the suite, keeping in touch with her parents, who are outside, via mobile phone.

I saw the film at an avant-première—on precisely the seventh anniversary of the first day of the attack—with the director and part of the crew present, plus members of the Association Française des Victimes du Terrorisme, who wholeheartedly endorsed the film. The intentions of the director were laudable and the film does have some merit—it was partly shot on location in Bombay—but unfortunately it’s a turkey. If one is expecting a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat thriller, this film is not it. One is struck by the blasé, low-key attitude of the parents (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Gina McKee) as they await the dénouement of the terror attack, and with their daughter at imminent risk of violent death. If it were me and my wife, we would, at minimum, be panic-stricken, if not downright hysterical. The general sentiment of Hollywood press critics is that the film was “inert” and low energy (here, here, here, and here). French reviews were more respectful—possibly because director Saada was a longtime critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, so a member of the club—though Allociné spectateurs were not so indulgent. The pic, needless to say, was a total box office failure. French audiences simply didn’t want to see such a film less than a month after November 13th. Trailer is here.

Salafistes, by François Margolin and Lemine Ould Salem. This is a  71-minute documentary that opened in late January 2016 and to controversy, as the Ministry of Interior sought to prevent its release—arguing that it constituted an “apology for terrorism” (a criminal offense in France)—and with the Ministry of Culture then trying to forbid it for persons aged 18 and under (which, in France, is exceedingly rare). The film, which finally opened in two theaters in Paris, consists of actual footage, by Mauritanian co-director Ould Salem, of Timbuktu under the rule of AQIM; interviews with radical salafi theologians in Mali, Mauritania, and Tunisia; and then raw footage of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq carrying out horrendous acts, one of the more shocking being IS fanatics in their pick-ups racing down a desert highway in Iraq, machine-gunning every car they pass, just for the hell of it. In your face. My attitude during the film was who needs this? I am sufficiently well-informed on the subject, the film wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, and watching psychotic people commit acts of gratuitous sadism and mayhem—not to mention salafi theologians (or “theologians”) blather about their crackpot Weltanschauung—is just not something I enjoy doing. But various persons thought the film worthwhile, e.g. former Le Monde editor-in-chief, Natalie Nougayrède, who wrote in The Guardian that “Salafistes is gruelling viewing – but it can help us understand terror.” And Claude Lanzmann, writing in Le Monde, called the documentary a “véritable chef d’œuvre…d’une grande beauté formelle, rapide, efficace, très intelligent,” and slammed the government for trying to block or restrict its release. And The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer also recommended it. Voilà, comme vous voulez. Trailer is here.

Voyage sans retour, by François Gérard. No one saw this film, or practically. It was slated for release in September 2013 but, in the month prior, was subjected to a campaign of denigration on social media, accusing it of being “Islamophobic,” with a lawsuit filed against it by a dodgy (subsequently disbarred) lawyer named Karim Achoui and actor Samy Naceri, who had a secondary role in the pic, entering into a conflict with the director and also trying to thwart its release. Director Gérard—who is ethnically Algerian (malgré his name)—denied that his film was in any way Islamophobic but the damage was done. It opened in only a couple of independent salles in the Paris area and was gone within two weeks. Vanished into the ether. I saw it via the internet a couple of years later (and needed help from a movie streaming-savvy colleague in finding the pic). In a nutshell, it’s about a Toulousian voyou named Kad (played by Gérard), who runs afoul of a gang of dealers, is obliged to hightail it out of France to England, where he is dragooned into an international terrorist organization, ends up in India and then Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he undergoes terrorist training, and with the idea that he will return to France to commit attentats. But then in Bombay, he runs into a former teacher of his, Nadine (Marie Vincent), who happens to be living there, the two develop sentiments for one another, and with her convincing him of the error of his ways. But he is not out of the woods yet.

The film was said to be loosely inspired by the story of Khaled Kelkal, though I didn’t perceive this at all. The review in Le Monde (one of the few) maintained that while “[f]ragile certes, imparfait assurément, Voyage sans retour est un document choc sur le recrutement des djihadistes dans les banlieues françaises, ce qui le pare d’une dimension testimoniale et pédagogique estimable.” This is too nice. All in all, it is not a good film. The sequence in south Asia is not credible—and particularly the relationship with the former teacher—the acting is mediocre, and one doesn’t give the film a moment’s thought after it’s over. If one wants to see the trailer, voilà. If one wants to actually see the film, good luck.

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

The SIG MCX, a.k.a. the “Black Mamba.” That’s the assault weapon Omar Mateen used to commit his massacre. And which he, of course, purchased legally. Over the counter. As just about any person may in the state of Florida, as in much of the United States, even if he is a hate-spewing psychopath—as Mateen manifestly was—and/or has expressed an affinity with radical Islamist groups. To see what this rifle is about, watch the videos here. Anyone who can defend the freedom to acquire such weapons over the counter is not one with whom I can have any sort of dialogue. Repeating for the umpteenth time, what happened in Orlando is a uniquely American tragedy. Israeli journalist Anshei Pfeffer argued as much in the JDF, observing that though there are similarities between Islamic State-inspired or organized terrorist attacks in the US and those in Europe, these similarities end when it comes to the availability of weapons of war to civilians, which, he asserted

is inconceivable to outsiders. Not just the ease with which a “civilian version” of a military assault rifle can be bought over the counter, but the possibility of loading it with customized magazines holding 100 bullets, more than three times the number even armies use. The potential for bloodshed by one isolated and individual attacker is so much greater.

This availability of weapons enables isolated American Muslims with anger management problems—the Muslim population in America otherwise being well-to-do and thoroughly integrated—to express their rage in freelance bloodbaths such as the one yesterday in Orlando, whereas such is much more difficult in Europe, where Muslim populations contain larger numbers of extremists but who necessitate mobilization into cells of transnational terrorist organizations in order to commit mayhem, as in Paris and Brussels. If the US had stricter gun legislation, it would face no domestic jihadist terrorist threat.

On “lone wolf” terrorists, see Isaac Chotiner’s must-read interview in Slate with political scientist Jeffrey D. Simon, author of the 2013 book Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat.

Academic blogger Juan Cole has an instant analysis, “Omar Mateen and rightwing homophobia: Hate crime or domestic terrorism?” See also sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer’s blog post, “Orlando massacre: ISIS inspired or homophobic attack?”

France 24 reporter-blogger and friend Leela Jacinto, who has reported extensively from Afghanistan over the years, has been looking into the curious case of the Orlando shooter’s father, Seddique Mateen, “Sins of the father do not apply to the Orlando nightclub attacker.” Money quote

By all accounts Mateen Senior is bombastic, delusional, prolix and probably dyslexic. In some crazy phase of his prolific, self-made media career, he proclaimed himself president of Afghanistan. That’s how batty he is.

But like many parents of kids who have jumped on the Daesh/Islamic State (IS) group killing train, he has never advocated killing people who disagree with him.

This is consistent with the generational break we are witnessing between immigrant parents who have left their native lands and their children who have a limited, at best, grasp of their parents’ countries of birth.

Leela quotes Barnett Rubin of Columbia University, the world’s leading political science authority on Afghanistan, who has also been on the Omar Mateen père story

As Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan, tweeted, “Orlando shooter’s dad Seddique Mateen doesn’t support Taliban or anything but himself. No wonder his son was unstable. Look at his FB page.”

After examining what he deliciously called Mateen’s “logorrhean FB page,” Rubin not surprisingly concludes, “He is a nut”.

Not nearly as much as his son, alas.

As for the fallout on the US presidential campaign, there will be none, except perhaps to reinforce Hillary and make the specter of Trump in the White House that much more alarming. If terrorism becomes an issue in the fall campaign, Hillary can only benefit. More on this another time.

UPDATE: See the powerful “Reflections on Orlando” by New York LGBT blogger Michael Bouldin.

2nd UPDATE: On the matter of guns, Huff Post foreign affairs reporter Jessica Schulberg has a piece explaining “what happened when a terrorist attacked LGBT people in a country with strict gun laws.” The country in question is Israel. The lede: “There’s no right to bear arms in Israel, and the death count in recent terror attacks is much lower than in terror-inspired U.S. mass murders.” Right-wing Americans who adhere to the NRA (and AIPAC) viewpoint are invited to read this and, if they care to do so, respond to it.

3rd UPDATE: Watch Vox’s extraordinary seven-minute video, “America’s gun problem, explained.”

4th UPDATE: WaPo reporters Kevin Sullivan and William Wan have a must-read portrait (June 17th) of Omar Mateen, “Troubled. Quiet. Macho. Angry. The volatile life of the Orlando shooter.” It wasn’t sympathy for the Islamic State which drove him to commit mass murder, that’s for sure.

Also see the report (June 18th) by TDB’s Shane Harris, Brandy Zadrozny, and Katie Zavadski, “The unhinged home that raised Orlando killer Omar Mateen.” Talk about a dysfunctional family, and for whom religion was clearly not central.

5th UPDATE: Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, in an Orlando-related piece (June 22nd), “The Islamization of radicalism,” interviews Olivier Roy “on the misunderstood connection between terror and religion.”

New York Daily News_June 13 2016

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Aleppo

Aleppo, April 28th (photo credit: AFP/Ameer Alhalbi)

Aleppo, April 28th (photo credit: AFP/Ameer Alhalbi)

A day of hell in. In case one missed it, see the photos taken last week—and with commentary—by Agence France-Presse’s Ameer Alhalbi. I don’t know how to think about what is happening in that city—and as I write—of the unbelievable war crimes that are being committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad—and for which its Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese allies bear their share of responsibility. The reports in the French media are insoutenable. Idrees Ahmad, who teaches digital journalism at the University of Stirling in the UK, calls Aleppo “our Guernica,” though observes that there are a number of apologists for the Syrian regime in the West who are, as it were, cheering on the Luftwaffe. Ignoble. C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.

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Cologne, December 31 2015 (Photo: Deutsche Presse-Agentur)

Cologne, December 31 2015 (Photo: Deutsche Presse-Agentur)

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

This is the first post I’ve had on what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, though I’ve been riveted to the story and its aftermath since it broke in the days following that calamitous evening. My immediate reaction—apart from indignation over the actions of the hordes of men—was that the perpetrators were most certainly not recently arrived Syrian refugees. This made no sense to me and for a variety of reasons (that need not be elaborated upon here). And my supposition was correct, as police and journalistic accounts have revealed that the men were mostly from the Maghreb and undocumented migrants, not refugees.

As for why the men behaved toward the women in the way they did, the link with religion, i.e. Islam, was prima facie nonsensical, as if a mob of several hundred drunken non-Muslim men would have behaved differently. Not that there are not specific issues with gender and women in public space in a number of Muslim (mainly Arab) societies. On this, one naturally thinks of the numerous incidents reported in Egypt over the past several years and of feature films on the general subject. As I wrote in a post on one of these some 3½ years back

The attack on [CBS reporter] Lara Logan [in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011] no doubt gave many Americans the unfortunate impression that Egyptian/Arab men are misogynistic a**holes and that there is something sick about those societies. Well, there are indeed such men in Egypt—as there are everywhere—and on the matter of gender relations there are some issues that are specific to that part of the world. But it has to be said that Egypt was not always this way. When I lived in Cairo in the mid 1980s it was absolutely one of the safest cities in the world, on a level with Tokyo, and that likely had less crime than even Oslo or Stockholm. One could leave one’s apartment door unlocked and walk about anywhere at any time of the day or night without the slightest worry. And this was also the case for women too (maybe not late at night, but then hardly anyone went out late in Cairo back then; the city was asleep by 11 PM). The situation has changed considerably over the years, with the worsening economic conditions for so much of the population, overwhelming population density, etc, etc. Egypt is incontestably a coarser, more violent place nowadays than it was in past decades.

In reading the polemics over Cologne, of the European and North American commentators who have tried to establish a link between the men and the fact they were from Muslim cultures, I was reminded of my visit with relatives in India some twenty-five years ago, where a 16-year-old cousin told me that she avoided walking around the center of the city (Allahabad) even during midday, as she was constantly harassed by groups of men (whom she specified were mainly migrants from the countryside recently arrived in the city). And, as one knows, there have been numerous incidents (reported in the international media) of gang rape in Indian cities, which, until proof to the contrary, were not committed by Muslim men. Indian cities are not necessarily safe spaces for unaccompanied young women.

Whatever cultural variables one may isolate regarding the men in Cologne, the determinate ones were, I will venture, the mob and inebriation. On this, one recalls New York City’s Puerto Rican Day parade in June 2000, during which dozens of women were sexually assaulted by packs of men (e.g. here, here, here, and here). And none of the men arrested or otherwise identified were refugees and/or from Muslim cultures.

One thing Cologne and New York City in June 2000 had in common: the police were not present. The packs of alcohol-imbibed young men had free reign of public space.

What is prompting me to write about Cologne at this particular moment is a debate/polemic on the subject that has been raging this month, including this weekend, which was initiated by the now well-known Algerian writer and commentator Kamel Daoud, who published a full-page tribune in Le Monde dated February 5th (online on January 31st), “Cologne, lieu de fantasmes,” in which he sought to establish a link between what happened on New Year’s Eve and Islamism, and which he followed up with an op-ed in The New York Times (February 14th) carrying the titre de chocThe sexual misery of the Arab world.”

Daoud’s linking of Cologne with Islamism and sexual pathologies in the Arab/Muslim world was too much for a certain number of readers. Nineteen MENA specialist academics of varying nationalities thus signed a tribune in Le Monde dated February 12th, “Nuit de Cologne: ‘Kamel Daoud recycle les clichés orientalistes les plus éculés’” (Kamel Daoud is recycling the most hackneyed Orientalist clichés), which was translated into English by the Jadaliyya webzine, under the title “The fantasies of Kamel Daoud.” A full-throttled polemical pushback, with no mincing of words. Disclosure: I know several of the 19 signatories personally and am personal friends with the tribune’s veritable authors.

My dear friend Adam Shatz, who published a profile of Kamel Daoud in the NYT Magazine last April—and with the two becoming good friends—had a few issues with the critique of Daoud, but was also disturbed by what he considered to be excesses by his friend. So he wrote him a letter/email several days ago and which prompted a response by Daoud, the two being published in Le Quotidien d’Oran this week (here and here) and then together in this weekend’s Le Monde, under the title “Kamel Daoud et les ‘fantasmes’ de Cologne, retour sur une polémique.” It’s a moving exchange between two friends, not to mention intellectuals.

On making sense of what happened in Cologne, the best analysis I’ve seen is a lengthy article that led Le Monde’s Culture & Idées supplement (February 6th), “Cologne: peut-on expliquer cette nuit de cauchemar?” by Frédéric Joignot. The lede: “Faut-il voir dans les agressions sexuelles massives de la Saint-Sylvester une conséquences des rapports compliqués qu’entretient le monde arabo-musulman avec les femmes et leurs corps? Plusieurs thèses s’affrontent.” Several major French MENA specialists weigh in. As the article is behind the wall, I’ve copied-and-pasted it in the comments thread below for non-subscribers.

While I’m at it, The New Yorker (February 8th-15th) has a must-read article by staff writer Elif Batuman, who’s Turkish-American, “Cover Story: The head scarf, modern Turkey, and me.” Don’t miss this one.

UPDATE: The Adam Shatz-Kamel Daoud email correspondence has been translated into English, by Elisabeth Zerofsky, and posted on the blog of the World Policy journal. (February 26th)

2nd UPDATE: The intellectual food fight debate over Kamel Daoud’s February 5th Le Monde tribune has continued into the second week of March, with all sorts of intellos, talking heads, and even politicians (qui ont perdu une bonne occasion de se taire) weighing in. As for contributions by the principal parties to the debate, Thomas Serres (one of the 19 signatories of the counter-tribune) launched a polemical salvo, “Autopsie d’une défaite et notes de combat pour la prochaine fois,” in the neo-anarchist Article 11 (March 2nd); Adam Shatz wrote a follow up, typically thoughtful essay on “The Daoud Affair” in the LRB Online (March 4th); Muriam Haleh Davis (one of the 19) has a post in the World Policy Blog (March 7th), “The ‘Daoud Affair’ sparks debate;” and Kamel Daoud penned a column entitled “Mes petites guerres de libération” in Le Quotidien d’Oran (March 7th).

3rd UPDATE: Olivier Roy is interviewed in the April 7-13 issue of L’Obs on a variety of topics, one of which is Cologne and the controversy over Kamel Daoud’s position. Here’s the question and Roy’s reponse

A la suite de votre tribune «Cologne ou “le tartuffe féministe”», parue dans «Libération», on vous a reproché d’apporter votre caution au «procès en sorcellerie» intenté au romancier algérien Kamel Daoud pour ses propos sur les violences sexuelles en Allemagne. Vous dénonciez en effet l’analyse culturaliste des agressions du Nouvel An. Quelle était votre intention ?

J’avais précisément refusé de signer la tribune contre Kamel Daoud. Car ses signataires, dont beaucoup me sont proches, me l’ont évidemment proposé, et j’ai décliné, parce que, si je partage leurs idées, je ne partageais par leur indignation. Pour ma part, je n’attaque pas Kamel Daoud, qui en tant qu’écrivain a le droit d’écrire ce qu’il écrit et d’être excessif, de même que chacun a le droit de critiquer ses opinions.

Ce que j’attaque, c’est l’idée qui traîne désormais partout qu’un musulman harcèle parce qu’il est musulman, et qu’un Européen harcèle parce qu’il a une pathologie particulière. Je ne comprends pas cet essentialisme. Qu’on nous dise qu’il y a une culture musulmane machiste, oui ; que la société algérienne soit une société où les femmes ont beaucoup de mal à aller dans l’espace public, oui. Mais qu’ensuite on nous décrive les musulmans, où qu’ils aillent, comme se trimballant avec un petit logiciel culturel de violeur potentiel dans la tête, non.

A contrario, on dit que les Occidentaux respectent la femme. Mais quand Cécile Duflot se fait siffler à cause de sa jupe à l’Assemblée nationale, ce n’est pas le petit beur de banlieue qui siffle ! Nous sommes dans des sociétés où le féminisme est un combat permanent. Le machisme est certes prégnant en Méditerranée, dans des sociétés qui n’ont pas fait Mai-68, mais il n’est pas spécialement religieux et, surtout, c’est la chose la mieux partagée au monde. Regardez Donald Trump.

I agree with Roy, needless to say.

4th UPDATE: Kamel Daoud’s January 31st Le Monde tribune has been translated by Elisabeth Zerofsky and published in the summer 2016 issue of World Policy Journal, under the title “Cologne, scene of fantasies.”

5th UPDATE: Adlène Meddi, an editor at the Algiers daily El Watan and one of Algeria’s sharper journalist-essayists of the younger generation, has an opinion piece (March 9th 2017) in the French edition of Middle East Eye, “Le cas Kamel Daoud, contre-ênquete.”

 

 

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Vladimir-Putin-Islamic-State-troops-609757

This piece by George Soros in Project Syndicate (February 10th) merits a blog post, not a mere tweet. It begins

The leaders of the United States and the European Union are making a grievous error in thinking that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State. The evidence contradicts them. Putin’s current aim is to foster the EU’s disintegration, and the best way to do so is to flood the EU with Syrian refugees.

Soros gets it right, IMHO. Putin, via Russia’s action in Syria, is out to destroy the European Union as a supranational political entity and assert Russian primacy in Europe. Europeans need to understand this and, if they have the interest and will, to resist it.

On Syria and US policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on tribune in The Wall Street Journal (February 12th), “The flawed logic in blaming the U.S. for Syria’s humanitarian crisis.” ADM concludes

As horrible as the destruction in Syria has become, the U.S. doesn’t bear primary responsibility. A more accurate assessment starts with Bashar Assad, ISIS, Iran (and Hezbollah), and Russia.

In case one missed it, Vox’s Max Fisher has a must-read post dated February 10th on the “14 hard truths on Syria no one wants to admit.”

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A drone over Homs

homs-drone-footage
[update below]

I’ve had three posts on the horror in Homs (here, here, and here), the first dating from exactly four years ago. The latest images of the unbelievable destruction visited upon that city—as has been visited upon so many towns and cities in Syria—is this one-minute video taken by a drone, broadcast on Russian television, and aired on Channel 4 in the UK (the original from the Russian TV network, which I saw a couple of days ago, appears to have been removed from its website; not surprisingly, one supposes, in view of Russia’s implication—indirect and now direct—in that destruction). If anyone is still wondering why Syrians are fleeing their country, watch the video.

UPDATE: Natalie Nougayrède—former editor-in-chief of Le Monde and its Russia correspondent for many years—has an opinion piece in The Guardian dated February 5th, “What happens next in Aleppo will shape Europe’s future.” The lede: “If there were any doubts about Vladimir Putin’s objectives in Syria, the recent Russian military escalation around this city must surely have set them aside.”

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Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia (Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Syrian refugees in Greece near the border with Macedonia
(Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

[update below] [2nd update below]

The headline story in last Friday’s Le Monde, which I am looking at on my desk as I write, is entitled “Après les attentats, Europe se referme” (After the attacks, Europe is closing the door), and with a big photo of refugees, presumably Syrian, in a dingy off the coast of Lesbos. The accompanying article, on “the return of fortress Europe,” quotes PM Manuel Valls—a member of the Socialist party and formally a man of the left (albeit its most rightist flank)—saying that Europe must make it clear that it cannot welcome as many migrants as it has up to now. And on the France 2 news yesterday evening was a report from Slovenia, which is putting up a barbed wire fence on its border with Croatia to keep migrants out, taking after Hungary, Slovakia, and other EU member countries sure to follow.

On some level I can comprehend the reflex of Slovenia et al (though not Manuel Valls; I don’t care if he’s prime minister but it is simply not acceptable for a leading personality of the French PS to talk the way he does on this issue). European states are indeed not prepared to confront the torrent of refugees and migrants flowing into the continent—even though Europe has successfully dealt with refugee/migrant flows of equal, indeed greater, importance in the recent past (Yugoslavia in the 1990s), not to mention after WWII. Hopefully the EU-Turkey agreement that’s being hammered out, which will presumably allow for an orderly processing of asylum requests of the refugees in Turkey, will work.

As for the bottom line—and there is no getting around this—the majority of Syrian refugees will eventually have to be settled in third countries, mostly in the West. The war in Syria will not end anytime soon and when/if it does, there will be nothing for Syrians who have left the country to go back to. Syria has been destroyed and is not likely to be rebuilt, at least not in the foreseeable future (e.g. see this report from Kobane). The destruction of Syria is not only physical—of cities (Aleppo, Homs) and towns—but also societal. Wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that have generated large cross border refugee flows have mainly involved rural people, who await the war’s end so they can return to their villages and farms and try to resume their lives. The great majority of Syrian refugees are urban and educated. Their livelihoods and social networks—not to mention extended families—are gone. And they can’t sit around in refugee camps in Lebanon, or live on handouts in Turkey, for years on end. They need to be able to work, continue with their education if they’re of that age, and rebuild their lives. Now. A few will be able to do so in the MENA region but the only part of the world where this can happen for most is the West (including Russia).

The United States could easily absorb a large number of Syrians—say, one hundred thousand, even more (why not?)—but obviously won’t in view of the current political climate. The post-Paris hysteria in the Republican party—leaders and base—over taking in any refugees leaves one speechless. As WaPo’s Alexandra Petri put it a couple of weeks ago, the reaction of Republicans is “past the point of parody.” The fear of Americans—mostly on the right—that even a tiny number of potential terrorists could be embedded in a refugee population is particularly puzzling in a country where just about anyone can legally constitute an arsenal of assault weapons and then carry out a massacre—in a movie theater, elementary school, college campus, family planning clinic, social services center, you name it—and with no reaction whatever from the political system—and precisely because those Americans who fear potential refugee terrorists are also the kind who are all for the unlimited right to acquire assault weapons and will vote against any candidate to elective office who thinks otherwise. Fearing jihadi terrorism in a country with practically no jihadis but where mass shootings happen every day of the week—and to which politicians respond with prayers and thoughts and that’s it—is, objectively speaking, irrational.

Continuing to speak objectively, Syrian refugees are “not the problem,” as Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch asserted in a piece in Foreign Policy. Americans who do think that refugees are a problem tend, however, not to look at websites like Foreign Policy. Addressing Americans on that side of the political spectrum, my friend Claire Berlinski, who blogs at Ricochet—the tagline of which is “Conservative conversation and community”—has a good, well-argued post, dated November 24th, “What’s in it for us? Why we should accept Syrian refugees.” Glancing at the comments thread, it doesn’t look like she convinced too many of her numerous refugee-skeptical readers.

One group that has been excellent on the refugee question is the libertarians, with whom I otherwise disagree 100% on a whole range of issues (notably the economy and social policy). E.g. Dave Bier, the director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center in D.C.—a new libertarian think tank—has a fine piece (November 16th) on the “Six reasons to welcome Syrian refugees after Paris.” See as well the analysis (November 18th) by the Cato Institute’s immigration specialist Alex Nowrasteh, “Syrian refugees don’t pose a serious security threat.”

If one needs further convincing on the question, don’t miss historian Josh Zeitz’s explanation in Politico Magazine (November 22nd), “Yes, it’s fair to compare the plight of the Syrians to the plight of the Jews [and] here’s why.” Voilà.

UPDATE: Regarding my comment above on “mass shootings” in the US, Mother Jones’s Mark Follman has an important clarification in the NYT op-ed page, “How many mass shootings are there, really?”

2nd UPDATE: Comedian and TV host Samantha Bee had a humorous but informative two-part report on Syrian refugees and the American reaction on her show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Here’s part 1 and part 2. (February 24, 2016)

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[update below]

It’s been a week since my reflections à chaud on the attacks. Like quite a few other people, I’ve been talking, reading, and thinking about little else since then. In the torrent of commentaries and analyses that have been posted online, some have been very good (I linked to a few in the previous post). But now my dear friend Adam Shatz has written the best so far, “Magical thinking about Isis,” in the London Review of Books. Adam and I had lengthy Skype discussions and email exchanges while he was writing the piece, during which he read me parts of it, so I knew what he was going to say. Having now read the published version I can report that it is even better than I expected (and I naturally knew it would be tops, as Adam’s writings invariably are). I have much to say on the subject myself, which I will do in due course. In the meantime, read Adam.

ADDENDUM: The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud—whom Adam profiled in the NYT Magazine last April—has an op-ed in the NYT (dated November 20th), “Saudi Arabia, an ISIS that has made it.” Pour l’info, Daoud is presently in the US and Canada on a book tour, speaking in New York City this past Monday to a packed house. The event, which Adam moderated, was a smashing success, so I heard.

UPDATE: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi—an Iraqi national, Oxford University graduate, Middle East Forum research fellow, and all-around smart person—has a must-read analysis (November 20th) in The Huffington Post, “The Paris attacks reflect intelligence failure — not a change in ISIS strategy.”

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Ansongo, Mali, 29 January 2013 (photo: Kambou Siakmbou Sia/AFP/Getty Images)

Ansongo, Mali, 29 January 2013 (photo: Kambou Siakmbou Sia/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s the title (in English) of an op-ed in Le Monde (issue dated 11-12 October), by Sciences Po international relations professor Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, and with which I entirely agree. For those too lazy to click on the link, here’s the full text, with notable passages on the Libya intervention in bold (a subject on which I have periodic contradictory exchanges) [UPDATE: Jeangène Vilmer has a piece with Olivier Schmitt—who teaches political science at the University of Southern Denmark—dated 14 October on the War on the Rocks blog, “Frogs of War: Explaining the new French military interventionism.”]

Avec le chaos en Libye, l’emprise de Daech en Irak et en Syrie, et la progression des talibans en Afghanistan, il est de bon ton de s’en prendre à l’interventionnisme occidental des quinze dernières années, dont les crises actuelles ne seraient que les contrecoups. Il est certainement nécessaire de tirer les leçons de nos échecs, mais il faut le faire sans céder à la simplification.

Premièrement, cet examen de conscience ne doit pas être une excuse pour amalgamer des interventions plus ou moins légales et légitimes : l’invasion de l’Irak (2003) reste un cas à part, une guerre de choix non autorisée par le Conseil de sécurité, contrairement aux autres.

Comparer, pour la décrédibiliser, l’intervention en Libye (2011) à cette agression illégale est faire fi de la résolution 1973 qui, contrairement à un préjugé répandu, n’a pas été dévoyée. Elle n’autorisait certes pas le changement de (more…)

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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: DHA Photo/Hakan Kaya)

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

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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.

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CM2kF8mUYAAPf-x

I’m reblogging this essential post from the campaign Planet Syria.

1. The government of Bashar al-Assad is killing at least 7 times more civilians than Isis.

2. More than 11,000 barrel bombs made of scrap metal and high explosives have been rolled out of government helicopters onto hospitals, homes and schools since the UN banned them. These aerial attacks are the biggest killer of civilians. They drive extremism.

3. These barrel bombs are a leading cause of displacement, forcing refugees to cross the Mediterranean and other borders.

4. Many of the barrel bombs are dropped on areas under siege. More than half a million people in Syria live in areas with no access to food, water or medicine since 2013, including the areas of Ghouta that were targeted by the sarin gas attacks in the same year.

5. The international anti-Isis coalition is flying in the same airspace where many of these barrel bombs are dropped, choosing to look the other way.

There is no military solution to the fighting in Syria. But like in Bosnia, a no-fly zone can help protect civilians from the worst of the violence and encourage the fighting parties to come to the negotiating table.

It’s time to #ClearTheSky. Join over a hundred non-violent Syrian groups in asking for the international community to enforce the UN ban on barrel bombs with a Bosnia-style no-fly zone.

A no-fly zone over Syria. I was opposed to the US trying to enforce such a thing back in 2011-13 but now it’s time.

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Kuwait_August 2 1990

I am reminded via social media that today is the 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a day that changed the destiny of the Middle East. Several persons with whom I am friends or connected on social media have recounted where they were when they heard the news that day of Saddam Hussein’s fateful move. Voilà mine: I was in Paris chez my parents—in transit, having arrived from Algiers the previous month—, in the chambre de bonne of their apartment in the 5ème. I woke up at 7 AM to the BBC World Service news (on my short wave radio), with the headline story of the Iraqi army entering Kuwait City. My immediate reaction (approximate quote): “Oh fuck, the son of a bitch [i.e. Saddam Hussein] did it!” I had been following the news over the previous days of Saddam’s sabre-rattling toward Kuwait in regard to its alleged slant drilling along the Iraqi border, and of speculation that Iraq could possibly send troops across that border—though no one expected they would go all the way to Kuwait City. My thoughts upon assimilating the news were that Saddam would never withdraw from Kuwait and only a US intervention could throw him out of there. And I stormed around my parents’ living room that morning demanding that the US send the armada to expel Saddam from Kuwait (my mother was a witness, so may attest to this). This was the first time since the Second World War that a state had invaded a neighboring state unprovoked, with which it had diplomatic relations, and was at peace. And then outright annexed it. Saddam’s action was unprecedented in the postwar era; it was an act of extreme gravity and simply could not be allowed to stand. Inaction on the part of the “international community” was inconceivable. So I was pleased when President Bush announced that the US would indeed not let Saddam’s action stand, that 200K American troops would be sent to Saudi Arabia illico, and with the UNSC adopting a unanimous resolution and President Mitterrand unreservedly on board. In short, I supported the Bush 41 administration’s policy 100% during the entire crisis—including over the January 1991 congressional vote—, and then war, and never wavered. Et je ne regrette rien.

I initially regretted that Bush did not send the 101st Airborne all the way to Baghdad to eject Saddam from power but eventually understood that this was not in the cards, as it was not part of the UNSC mandate, would have blown apart the international coalition, and possibly led to an open-ended US occupation of Iraq, which no one wanted—in Washington or anywhere—and that the US was absolutely not prepared for. The US was hoping that the Iraqi military would overthrow Saddam and replace him with a general less bloody-minded, i.e. a standard issue Arab dictator, and less threatening to surrounding countries. It didn’t work out that way, needless to say.

N.B. There were no good arguments against the action of the US-led international coalition. I had more contradictory exchanges—many heated—than I can remember over the subsequent months with opponents of the US-led intervention (among them numerous friends), in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Algiers (especially!), Chicago, New York, Washington, and Philadelphia. Not a single contrary argument held water (“No blood for oil!”: what an inane, stupid ass slogan). And none were vindicated after the fact.

As for subsequent US policy toward Iraq, that’s another matter altogether. I was initially favorable to the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq after the war but did a 180° in the late ’90s, deciding that the sanctions were not only ineffective but also immoral—that they were accomplishing nothing but entrenching Saddam’s regime and impoverishing the Iraqi population, and with disastrous consequences for Iraqi society—and should be unilaterally lifted. As for the 2003 invasion, I’ve written about that here.

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The ministers of foreign affairs of France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Chinese and Russian diplomats announcing an Iran nuclear deal framework in Lausanne on 2 April

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

I should have had this post up at least ten days ago but Greece and other things (e.g. work) got in the way. I’m not sure I have anything original to say about the Iran deal—a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as, to paraphrase my friend Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, just about everything has already been said on the deal and will continue to be said over and over again. I was naturally happy when the deal was announced and think it’s a good one. Not that I possess the expertise to evaluate the technical details, as arms control agreements—and nuclear weapons in general—have never been my thing. So like most people out there, I’ve been depending on the assessments of specialists (arms control or Iran) who have followed the dossier closely and whose sensibilities on the issue I trust, e.g. Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey professor Avner Cohen—author of the leading academic works on Israel and nuclear weapons—who had an op-ed in Haaretz arguing that the JCPOA is a good deal (and particularly for Israel; which is likewise the view of members of the Israeli security establishment), and Georgetown University political science MENA specialist and friend Daniel Brumberg, who, in a Washington Examiner op-ed, asserted that failure in Vienna was not an option (for any of the parties to the negotiations). As for nuclear weapons/non-proliferation experts, e.g. Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Aaron Stein of the Royal United Services Institute, they “love the Iran deal,” say “it’s a damn good deal,” and quite simply have a “very positive” assessment of the deal. One may also take a look at the forum in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in which “top international security experts with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds [were asked] to offer their [instant] assessments of the [deal]” on the day it was announced (note in particular the contributions by Oliver Meier, Chuck Freilich, Sharon Squassoni, Lawrence Korb and Katherine Blakeley, Kingston Reif, Siegfried S. Hecker, and Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian). On the technical side of the issue, all this is good enough for me.

As for the opponents of the deal—US Republicans, the Israelis, US Democrats who unconditionally support Israel (who will side with Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of a foreign state, against their own president and from their own party), and Gulf Arab regimes—they were clearly going to be against anything that could have possibly been negotiated at Vienna, as they don’t want a deal with Iran, period (the flagrant proof: prominent Republican senators rushed to denounce the deal before they had even seen it). They want war with Iran but, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias correctly observed, cannot publicly admit that. Yglesias, in engaging a Commentary magazine pundit in debate, delved into their arguments—notably those of Elliot Abrams and Ron Dermer, which were recommended by the pundit—against the JCPOA, after which Yglesias concluded that “they’re utter nonsense.” One argument I read was a WSJ editorial which, in lambasting “Obama’s false Iran choice,” argued that a third option—between the JCPOA and war—could have been put on the table by the US, something the WSJ editorial writer called “coercive diplomacy.” As if the US, in taking an intransigent hard-line with the Iranians and making demands that the latter would never accept, could have dragooned along the rest of its E3+3 partners, and notably the Russians and Chinese, in a posture that would have resulted in certain failure in Vienna (it was and is striking how the American right and other neocons have seemed to view Vienna as a bilateral negotiation between the US and Iran, forgetting—or simply dismissing the fact—that there were other major powers at the table and with whom the Americans had to coordinate a consensus position). The Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz wrote an op-ed in much the same vein as the WSJ’s, “No, we don’t want war, and yes, there was a better deal.” This passage said it all

A country led by a regime that secretly pursued nuclear weapons, that fosters unrest across the region, that calls for the elimination of Israel, that finances, arms and trains terrorist armies in Lebanon and Gaza, that orchestrates terrorism worldwide, that works to bring Europe and North America into the range of its missiles, that criminalizes homosexuality, that discriminates against women, that jails, tortures and executes political opponents, that executes more juvenile offenders than any other country on earth… that Iran must not be allowed to become a more dominant regional power.

N.B. When it comes to mistreating political dissidents, women, homosexuals, and juvenile delinquents, in financing terrorism (i.e. groups Israel is in conflict with) and engaging in other such disreputable behavior, Iran is hardly the worst offender in the region, let alone the world (and if I were a woman, gay, dissident of any sort, or even a Jew, I would rather find myself in Iran than in Saudi Arabia—and definitely if I were a Jew!). And in any case, none of these things have anything to do with an arms control agreement. And the Vienna negotiations were about arms control, tout court.

And then there’s Michael Oren, Israel’s ex-ambassador to Washington, who wrote in Politico on “What a good Iran deal would look like.” In his view, such would have involved “intensified” US sanctions—and with foreign companies violating these barred from doing business in the US—and a “credible military threat.” In other words, by being “tough”—an American right-wing fetish word—and rattling the sabres, the US would have caused the Iranians to cry uncle, all while intimidating the US’s E3+3 partners, via the threat of economic retaliation (one smiles at the image of Washington snapping its fingers at Beijing here; China, pour mémoire, being Iran’s largest trading partner and by far, e.g. here and here), into falling in line behind the tough US position.

Sure. As any level-headed person could inform Ambassador Oren, his “good Iran deal” is a fantasy, as none of the things he advocates could or would possibly happen. And now with UNSCR 2231, cannot legally happen (sorry, Ambassador Oren, but your “good Iran deal” has been superseded by events). In point of fact, what Horovitz, Oren, and other Israeli and pro-Israel opponents of the JCPOA cannot abide is Iran’s stature as a regional power. To repeat: the Israelis and their unconditional US allies simply do not want a nuclear deal, as this will necessarily reinforce Iran’s regional position. Robert Farley—Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce—thus put it in a post on the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog

No conceivable deal could achieve what [Michael] Oren declares that he wants, but of course the point is that he doesn’t want a deal. He, and other hawks, want the constant threat of US military action, in order to reassure our allies that we will always be prepared to bomb their enemies. There is no conceivable set of nuclear concessions that could make Michael Oren (or [Michael] Doran, or [Matthew] Kroenig, or [Eli] Lake, or [William] Kristol, or [Tom] Cotton, et al ad nauseum) pleased with this deal, because they want military confrontation based on other Iranian foreign policy behaviors.

And those “other” foreign policy behaviors are things that have nothing to do with anything that could have been put on the table at Vienna.

Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, got it exactly right as to “Why the Iran deal makes Obama’s critics so angry.” Money quote

[The Iran deal] codifies the limits of American power. And recognizing the limits of American power also means recognizing the limits of American exceptionalism. It means recognizing that no matter how deeply Americans believe in their country’s unique virtue, the United States is subject to the same restraints that have governed great powers in the past. For the Republican right, that’s a deeply unwelcome realization. For many other Americans, it’s a relief. It’s a sign that, finally, the Bush era in American foreign policy is over.

It should be said that not all commentators on the right side of the political spectrum have denounced the JCPOA. E.g. foreign policy and MENA specialist Adam Garfinkle, who has worked for successive Republican administrations, has a not uninteresting essay—albeit complicated, verbose, and overly long: a Garfinkle trademark—in The American Interest (of which he is editor) on the day the deal was announced. Which is not to say that I’m on the same page with him across the board, e.g. his argument that the deal, which consecrates Iran’s status as an almost nuclear threshold state, will no doubt cause other regional actors—Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE—to develop or purchase nuclear weapons, thereby “making a nuclear war in the region, perhaps involving the United States and perhaps not, more likely, after approximately 15 years.” Mr. Garfinkle should know better than to be making predictions about what will or will not happen a decade down the road, let alone longer (and Abu Dhabi going nuclear? Or any of the other places Garfinkle mentions? Oy vey, GMAB!).

In fact, the best rubbishing of the arguments of opponents of the Iran deal has come from one of their (more or less) ideological kindred spirits, the paleocon Patrick Buchanan, who, writing in The American Conservative, incisively informed his erstwhile political soul mates that “Rejecting the Iran deal would be GOP suicide.” Buchanan is very good here. His TAC has indeed had a number of fine commentaries on the deal, e.g. TAC founding editor Scott McConnell on “How the Iran deal serves America” and the almost daily posts by TAC senior editor Daniel Larison, who has been taking particular aim at the reactions to the deal by GOP presidential candidates, e.g. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul, plus Mitt Romney; Larison’s subtext: on the subject of Iran—and foreign policy more generally—the Republicans are both crazy and don’t WTF they’re talking about.

One matter needs to be put to rest, which is the hostility of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to the deal, indeed to any deal with Iran. As the NYT reported ten days ago based on WikiLeaks revelations, Saudi Arabia has “an obsession with Iran” and which is driven by the Sunni-Shia divide. That is to say, the Saudi hang-up over Iran is existential. It is religious in nature. Which means that it is permanent and timeless. Let us be clear about a couple of things here. First, the United States of America has nothing whatever to do with—and must absolutely not allow itself to get caught up in—the existential angst of the fucking Saudis in regard to Shi’ism. This is not America’s problem. Second, Saudi Arabia is not a friend of the United States, nor is it an ally. Saudi Arabia is a state with which the US has an important relationship but which is based exclusively on realpolitik, i.e. on raisons d’État. America has important interests in Saudi Arabia—economic, strategic—but there is no political or cultural affinity whatever between the two countries. And there never will be, as the problem with Saudi Arabia goes well beyond the nature of its political system. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is a major source of what ails the Muslim world today—and a big source of a lot of the problems in that Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is, as I have labeled it, the Evil Kingdom. And let’s not forget the role of Saudis in 9/11—and which no doubt went well beyond the 15 of the 19 men who commandeered the four airplanes that day. So: the US, in the pursuit of its national interests, must not humor or indulge the existential fears of its interlocutors in Riyadh (or Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, or Kuwait).

On the Iran deal, I have been particularly interested in the reaction of the E3+3 member that took a particularly hard line against the Iranians during the long negotiating process, which was, of course, France. French policy has been consistently distrustful of the regime in Tehran, and during the Sarkozy and Hollande years both. Now there is a tenacious notion out there among Anglo-Americans who opine on the question that French foreign policy is driven primarily by base commercial considerations, of winning contracts for big French corporations (in the case of Iran, see, e.g., here). Insofar as any principles may be involved, they’re mainly about France trying to cling to the fading glory of its past as a colonial empire. This is, of course, Anglo-Saxon poppycock, and particularly in the case of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, over which the French took, as one knows, a harder line than the US and which has been explicated, entre autres, in recent Foreign Policy articles by Colin Lynch and Yochi Dreazen, and Joseph Bahout and Benjamin Haddad—and with the latter emphasizing the deep knowledge of Iran in the French foreign policy, intelligence, and defense establishments (and which is certainly greater than that of the US).

For the anecdote, some 2½ weeks ago I participated in a forum in Paris with major American politicians at the state level—and they were there from almost all 50 states plus Puerto Rico—along with corporate types, that was organized by a New York-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. The speaker who preceded me (my topic was immigration in France) was Jean-David Levitte, who spoke to the (exclusively American) audience about geopolitics. As Levitte has been a top person in the French foreign policy establishment over the years—and particularly during Sarkozy’s presidency—I took the opportunity to ask him a question about French policy toward Iran and why France has taken an even harder line than the US. His lengthy answer focused on nuclear non-proliferation as a cornerstone of French policy in the Middle East—as primordial for the French national interest—and, in regard to the negotiations in Vienna, of the need to, as he put it, “get it right,” i.e. to arrive at an agreement that would stop Iran’s nuclear capacity short of the threshold that would provoke its neighbors into trying to acquire that same capacity (he was speaking five days before the JCPOA was announced). At the forum the following day, two of France’s top academic MENA specialists—both quite brilliant and for whom I have the utmost regard—spoke on the region to the audience of Americans. Somewhat to my surprise, both gentlemen expressed deep reservations over an eventual Iran deal. One of them, who is a former diplomat and with personal experience in dealing with the Iranians in an official capacity, emphasized the nefarious role Iran has played in the region (notably in Syria) and evoked Iran’s long history as a sponsor of international terrorism (and with France and Frenchmen having been a target, particularly in the 1980s). The other specialist assured the audience that a deal with Iran that enshrined its status as a nuclear threshold state and ended the sanctions regime and diplomatic quarantine—thereby augmenting Iran’s status as a regional power—would frighten masses of Sunni Arabs into the arms of the Islamic State. No less.

Now I don’t share the views of my esteemed colleagues on this question but found them interesting, as they so closely hued to the official French position. So the fact that the French were fully on board with the JCPOA was, in my book, prima facie proof that the deal was a good one. On this, here is the reaction of François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Tehran and nuclear weapons specialist, speaking to Libération on the day the deal was announced

C’est un bel accord qui doit convenir à toutes les parties et répond en particulier à tout ce que souhaitaient les Américains, dont 80% à 90% des demandes se voient satisfaites (…). Je ne crois pas que l’on aurait pu obtenir mieux. C’est le triomphe de la volonté et de la persévérance, en particulier de John Kerry (…) qui a déployé une énergie extraordinaire, de Hassan Rohani qui a su attendre son heure pendant dix ans [il était déjà le chef des négociateurs iraniens, en 2003-2004] et de Barack Obama qui avait tendu la main à Téhéran après son élection, en 2008.

See as well Nicoullaud’s “Premières leçons de l’accord nucléaire avec l’Iran,” on the Boulevard Extérieur blog. In the days following the accord, I checked out the Twitter accounts of two leading French geopolitical analysts, both Atlanticist in orientation (i.e. not out on the left or the souverainiste and/or Russia-friendly right) and exceptionally smart, to see their reaction. One, François Heisbourg, called the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231 “a remarkable achievement,” though emphasized that the deal was not likely to modify Iran’s policy in the region (see this graphic that Heisbourg retweeted, which suggests that France succeeded in Vienna in pulling the US toward its tougher position). The other, Bruno Tertrais—whose position on Iran was close to that of US neocons—tweeted an op-ed by Ariel (Eli) Levite, who was the principal deputy director general for policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission from 2002 to 2007, “The good, the bad and the ugly nuclear agreement,” published in Haaretz and on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website, and with this comment: “In the maelström of reactions emerges a really thoughtful piece”…

The official French commentary on the Iran deal came from foreign minister Laurent Fabius in an interview in Le Monde, which was translated into English by the Worldcrunch website and linked to by my friend Claire Berlinski, in her Ricochet blog post on “France and the Iranian nuclear deal.”

In Claire’s post there is one little line that caused me to leap out of my chair and to which I must respond. Claire says that “France is objectively the weakest of the P5+1.” Weaker than the United Kingdom? In what respect? Military spending? On this score, France and the UK rank 5th and 6th in the world, with France higher in one ranking (SIPRI) and the UK higher in another (IISS). But the two are essentially at parity here and with comparable ability to project military force to faraway places, and which has been the case for decades. As for economic strength, France and the UK, in nominal GDP, are also ranked 5th and 6th worldwide, with France having consistently been ahead of the UK over the years but with the UK now slightly so in some rankings (mainly on account of fluctuations in the € and £ exchange rates). But again, the two countries are essentially at parity (though in country rankings of GDP at PPP, France is ahead of the UK in all). And when it comes to military strength, France is, of course, well ahead of Germany, and with the French economy being considerably stronger than Russia’s.

One thing about the Iran deal, and which seems obvious, is that, in addition to controlling Iran’s nuclear capacity, it involves a gamble on Obama’s part that the deal will influence the political dynamic in Iran and push the country in a more moderate direction, both internally and in its foreign policy choices. This will, of course, not happen right away—certainly not as long as the Ayatollah Khamenei is Supreme Leader, and Iranian regional behavior may even worsen in the immediate period—but the gamble clearly needs to be made, as, in view of the chaos in the region—of collapse and fragmentation of the core Arab states and emergence of the Islamic State—America and Europe need—or need to hope for—a stable, prosperous Iran, which has ceased financing terrorist groups (e.g. Islamic Jihad), arming non-state actors to the hilt (e.g. Hizbullah), and supporting criminal regimes (e.g. the Syrian Ba’athist), and with which America and Europe can cooperate. E.g. it is hard to see how any kind of solution can be found in Syria—if such is possible (and which I doubt)—without Iran on board. And Iran is clearly a bulwark against the advance of the Islamic State, which, ça va de soi, presents a grave threat to the region and anywhere significant numbers of Muslims are to be found.

Assertion: America and Iran have a vocation to be friends. As one knows well by now, the problem in Iran is the regime and political system, but which are seriously contested within the country and by forces in Iranian society that look favorably to America and Europe. And Iran has a vibrant, sophisticated civil society and with currents far more liberal than anything to be found in the Arab world. As for what the US can do to influence Iran internally, Adam Garfinkle, in his essay linked to above, has this to say

[I]f sanctions relief is to come, it is probably in U.S. interest to rush as much of the roughly $150 billion involved into the Iranian economy as fast as possible. It is likewise in our interest to open the economy to all manner of foreigners as quickly as possible: sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll to the max. If we want to weaken the regime—and its emetic IRGC/Qods Brigade Praetorian guard—we should do our best to serve up maximum feasible Schumpeterean “creative destruction”, the same stuff that KO’ed the Shah. The more social change we help unleash, and generate from a new baseline, the more the inability of the current Iranian regime to adjust will doom it to oblivion.

The regime fears its own people and is doubtless prepared now to crack down hard, lest melting glaciers of pent-up frustration get out of hand. How this will play out is hard to say; it may hurt Rouhani more than help him. In any event, we need to do what we can to undermine or overwhelm the crackdown, and being a little (or a lot) more voluble on Iranian human rights violations—which are massive and ongoing—is not a bad way to go about that given the limited means at our disposal to influence internal Iranian social trends.

In a similar vein, Paul Berman, whom I normally do not link to favorably, had a hopeful commentary in Tablet on “Why President Obama’s deal is not just an act of faith, but a call to arms—of the liberal sort.” Also in Tablet is a must-read article by Samuel Thorpe, a Jerusalem-based writer and translator of Persian, on Tehran University political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam, “The most dangerous man in Iran.” It begins

This past March Tehran University political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam said the unspeakable. In a wide-ranging foreign-policy debate with conservative journalist Seyed Yasser Jebraily at Islamic Azad University of Mashhad, videos of which have circulated widely on the Internet, Zibakalam blasted the Iranian government’s oft-stated goal of destroying Israel.

Sitting with Jebraily at a small, microphone-studded table, Zibakalam, dressed in an open-collared shirt and dark blue sports coat over his trademark suspenders, first argued that conservatives’ anti-American rhetoric was harming Iran’s national interest. Then he turned to Israel, saying that cries of “Death to Israel” do the same.

“Who gave the Islamic Republic of Iran the duty of destroying Israel?” he asked sarcastically to the audience’s thunderous applause. “Did the Iranian people have a referendum and say they want to destroy Israel? Did the parliament pass a law saying that we should destroy Israel?”

When hard-line hecklers tried to interrupt they were quickly shouted down by the crowd. “Twenty-four hours a day you have the radio, the television, Kayhan newspaper, the parliament, the Friday sermons,” Zibakalam boldly replied. “We have two hours here—one for me and one for Jebraily. You are so authoritarian and dictatorial that you disrupt even this.”

Watch the YouTube embedded in the article of Zibakalam pronouncing the above words and note the audience reaction. One would never see such a spectacle anywhere in the Arab world (or in Turkey, or any other Muslim majority country).

See also Zibakalam’s “Letter from Tehran” in Politico from last March (linked to in the Tablet piece), “Why Iran’s hardliners fear a deal: A nuclear pact means our regime will have to surrender its No. 1 justification for its actions: anti-Americanism.”

On the question of regime opponents—of which Zibakalam is one—and what they think, see the In These Times piece by Iran specialist Danny Postel of the University of Denver, “Iranian dissidents explain why they support the nuclear deal.” They support it to a man and woman. Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they? One would think that US opponents of the deal would be minimally interested in the views of the pro-democracy, anti-Ayatollah camp in Iran. On this, TAC’s Daniel Larison has a post, “The nuclear deal and Iranian dissidents,” in which he took apart a particularly stupid comment by the reactionary pundit Victor Davis Hanson—and with Larison concluding that the likes of VDH couldn’t care less about the Iranian opposition (reading the bit by VDH that Larison quotes, one is struck—yet again—by the alternate reality in which VDH inhabits, along with most others of his ideological ilk).

The leitmotif on the Iran deal at the moment—in the US at least—is that it has to get through Congress, which is sure to reject it, though most likely will not garner the two-thirds majority needed to override President Obama’s certain veto. If the Congress does override, however, it is being said that the deal will thus be dead, i.e. the Congress will have killed it. But will this be the case? I’ve read the relevant sections of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231, which, unless I missed something or misunderstood what I was reading—which can happen—do not stipulate that legislative action against the JCPOA in one of the signatory states would result in the nullification of the accord. In other words, UNSCR 2231 will come into effect after ninety days—on October 20th—regardless of what the US Congress does. UN (and EU) sanctions will be lifted and if Iran scrupulously adheres to the terms of the JCPOA, the latter will be implemented, albeit without the United States. The rest of the world will trade with and invest in Iran as the JCPOA allows, and without the US being able to do a thing about it. If I am mistaken on this, please correct me.

UPDATE: Tablet magazine has a useful “Guide for the perplexed: The Iran nuclear agreement” by Thomas R. Pickering, former under secretary of state in the Clinton administration and ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, Israel, and several other countries. Pickering, in short, “defends the most complex and important treaty this century.” See his link in the article to James Walsh of MIT’s “excellent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 25, 2015.”

2nd UPDATE: Here are two smart reflections on the Iran deal I’ve come across in the past two days: Paul Pillar, “The sources of opposition to the Iran agreement,” in The National Interest; and James Fallows, “The real test of the Iran deal,” in The Atlantic.

3rd UPDATE: Suzanne Nossel writes in Foreign Policy on “What will happen if Congress blows up the Iran nuclear deal.” And Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, rhetorically asks about “The big hole in the Iran debate,” observing that “[i]n most televised discussions of Iran, the word ‘Iraq’ never comes up, and that’s insane.”

4th UPDATE: Slate’s William Saletan, writing on the Senate testimony of John Kerry and energy secretary Ernest Monitz on the Iran deal, asserts that the GOP is “Not fit to lead.” The lede: “The Iran hearings have shown how the Republican Party can no longer be trusted with the presidency.” Read Saletan’s piece. To call the Republicans appalling is almost an understatement.

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I am Suruç

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Heartbreaking the images of the youthful victims of Monday’s IS terror bombing of the Amara Cultural Center in Suruç, Turkey (the death toll is 32 as of today). See the photo gallery with profiles here. Also here and here. The victims were militants in the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), which is linked to the extreme-left Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP, whose founder and leader until last year, Figen Yüksekdağ, is now co-chair, along with Selahattin Demirtaş, of the HDP). The SGDF was an active participant in the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, with its contingent in Suruç preparing to cross the Syrian border to help in the reconstruction of neighboring Kobanî.

The AKP government, not surprisingly, has had no better response to the massacre than to have a court ban media images of the victims (and to block access to Twitter) and with the police attacking demonstrators in Istanbul expressing rage over the terror bombing with tear gas and water cannon. Pathetic.

UPDATE: See this photo gallery in the MailOnline, “Minutes later she was dead: Tragic story of Turkish student who posted haunting selfie moments before ISIS bomb that killed her and 30 others.”

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palmyra isis

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My social media news feeds have been covered the past two days with comments and links from people in extreme distress—and that includes me—over the Islamic State’s capture of Palmyra and the likely consequences for the archaeological treasures there. The fall of Palmyra to IS—or, rather, its abandonment by Bashar al-Assad’s army—has been grist for the mill for those in France—numerous on the right—who have been advocating a rapprochement with the Syrian Ba’athist regime. A high-profile tribune in Le Figaro yesterday, by Hadrien Desuin, an analyst previously unknown to me—he has a military background and is clearly on the souverainiste right—thus asked rhetorically “why such inaction from the [US-led anti-IS] coalition?” in the face of the IS offensive on Palmyra. Answering his own question, he asserted that the coalition preferred to watch Palmyra fall rather than support the Ba’athist army’s effort to fend off IS and save humanity’s historical patrimony. How abject of the coalition—and, ergo, France (i.e. François Hollande) and the US.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, the well-known Middle East specialist and islamologue—and who has been engagé on the Syrian issue—will have none of this. In an interview in Politis (May 20th), he asserted that Bashar al-Assad allowed the jihadists to approach Palmyra, so as to show the world that his regime was on the front line against IS—when, in fact, it has never been before and still wasn’t—, and then quit the city without putting up much of a fight, thereby getting the belles âmes in the West worked up into an even greater tizzy over the IS fanatics, deflecting attention away from Bashar’s crimes, and thereby hoping to neutralize Western opposition to the Ba’athist regime. In other words, the fall of Palmyra was cynically engendered by Bashar al-Assad himself, as it’s only Palmyra after all—and whose loss does not, in fact, increase the threat to Damascus or Homs—and what does Bashar care about archaeological treasures anyway, as his regime, as Filiu reminds us, has also been pillaging and degrading those treasures for years? On all this, Filiu is rather more convincing than is Monsieur Desuin.

As for the IS capture of Ramadi, this has provided the usual suspects (neocons, etc.) another occasion with which to bash President Obama for the apparent failure of his Iraq policy (e.g. the Kagan couple and IDC Herzliya Rubin Center director Jonathan Spyer). Journalist Ann Marlowe, who’s done some good reporting from the Middle East—and has a smart piece in Tablet, dated May 18th, on Libya and why the post-Qadhafi order was not a preordained failure—went so far as to call Obama “the worst president ever” on account of Ramadi’s fall. Ouf, GMAB! Pour mémoire, defending Ramadi was the responsibility of the Iraqi government, not the United States, and the city’s fall reflected a failure in Iraq’s strategy against IS, not that of the Obama administration.

In a column in Slate (May 19th), Fred Kaplan, offering his own not very palatable options to Obama’s policy dilemma, rubbished the armchair warriors in Washington and its punditocracy. Money quote

Those who believe that Obama caused these troubles, or that they can be solved by a few thousand American ground troops, are so naive and shallow that we can only hope that none of them wins the White House or advises the candidate who does. For one thing, “a few thousand ground troops,” in fact, means many more: They would need air support (including transport planes and helicopters), bases, supply convoys, and a headquarters, plus additional troops to protect the troops, bases, convoys, and headquarters.

For another, what are these troops supposed to do? And which would have the larger effect—the additional firepower that they could bring to bear against ISIS or the additional recruits that ISIS could rally to kill Americans in the name of jihad?

In other words, neocons, other right-wingers, and their ilk who are beating up on Obama for losing Ramadi don’t know WTF they’re talking about. They just want to beat up on Obama, that’s all.

I just read journalist Graeme Wood’s article in the March issue of The Atlantic, “What ISIS really wants.” It’s a great piece, long—34 pages printed out—but absolutely worth the read. Two big points: (a) IS is a serious, millenarian Islamic force such as we’ve never seen before and whose ideology and world-view is in no way un-Islamic, and (b) there is, for the US and the West, no military response except for containment and aiding local Muslim actors who oppose IS.

À suivre, certainement.

UPDATE: Nicolas Pelham has a most interesting, must-read report, datelined Baghdad May 6th, in the June 4th issue of the NYRB, “ISIS & the Shia revival in Iraq.”

2nd UPDATE: Journalist Patrick Symmes, who “cover[s] insurgencies, global environmental problems, travel, and the geopolitical fault lines that underlie them all,” has a compelling op-ed in the NYT (May 23rd) on Palmyra’s “ancient ruins [that] terror can’t destroy.”

3rd UPDATE: Paleocon Patrick Buchanan has a commentary (May 22nd) in TAC on “What the fall of Ramadi means.” Personally speaking, I can find no flaw in what he says. If someone can, please let me know.

4th UPDATE: Journalist Erika Solomon, writing for the FT from Beirut (May 22nd), says that the taking of Palmyra puts “Isis in [a] position to advance on Damascus.” Perhaps. On verra.

5th UPDATE: In an analysis (May 22nd) that would tend to confirm the one above, The Guardian’s Martin Chulov says “First Ramadi, then Palmyra: Isis shows it can storm bastions of Syria and Iraq.” The lede: “Terror group faced little resistance from local forces, prompting re-evaluations across a region that had sensed it might be in retreat.”

6th UPDATE: Hassan Hassan, the sharp analyst at Abu Dhabi’s Delma Institute and co-author of a new book on the Islamic State, has a column in The Guardian (May 24th) on the “Religious teaching that drives Isis to threaten the ancient ruins of Palmyra.” The lede: “Most historical sites under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria remain intact. Palmyra might be different precisely because of western warnings.”

7th UPDATE: CSIS geostrategic specialist Anthony Cordesman, who knows more about Middle Eastern military matters than anyone inside the Beltway (and most outside of it), has an analysis (May 21st), on the CSIS website, on “The defeat in Ramadi,” which he says, in regard to US policy, signals “a time for transparency, integrity, and change.”

8th UPDATE: Dov S. Zakheim, who was a Pentagon official in the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, has a commentary in The National Interest (May 23rd), in which he argues that “The only ISIS strategy left for America [is] containment.”

9th UPDATE: Amos Harel of Haaretz says (May 26th) that “Hezbollah leader’s speech makes [it] clear: Israel may soon be faced with post-Assad Syria.” The lede: “The bigger picture is gradually becoming clear: After almost a year of a relative stalemate, the Assad regime is retreating on multiple fronts.” So it looks like the fall of Palmyra has increased the threat to Damascus, Homs, etc. after all.

10th UPDATE: Beirut-based reporter Kareem Shaheen, writing in The Guardian (May 27th), informs us that “Isis [has] release[ed] footage of Palmyra ruins intact and ‘will not destroy them’.” The lede: “Ancient ruins are not statues and so will be spared, Isis commander reportedly tells radio station amid new humanitarian crisis in the area.” If true, that’s a relief. As for the humanitarian crisis, any calls from the belles âmes for a Western military intervention to deal with that?

مدينة-تدمر-سوريا

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