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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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My friend Claire Berlinski has a post on the Ricochet blog, “Mass grave in the Mediterranean,” in which she favorably refers to Adam Garfinkle’s writings, on The American Interest website, on the Obama administration’s Libya intervention. Garfinkle was a strong opponent of the intervention and is feeling vindicated on account of his apparent clairvoyance as to how things would turn out there. I have a few issues with his POV, though, which I wrote to Claire in an email. But instead of sending the mail, I’m posting it here on AWAV instead, where others (e.g. Bob B.) can eventually weigh in:

On the Libya intervention, Adam Garfinkle has the satisfaction of saying he was right from the beginning—it’s always gratifying to be able to do that—but Libya was, in fact, a roll of the dice. Or a coin flip (a better metaphor). It was a 50-50 proposition (in terms of arguments for intervention vs. against). I wrote this four years ago almost to the day (here) and would write it again today.

There are a few things Garfinkle doesn’t consider, or maybe downplays (as I’m maxed out on my quota of free American Interest articles, I can’t go back and verify what precisely he said at the time or since). First, the Obama administration was divided on the wisdom of intervening in Libya but its hand was forced by Sarkozy and Cameron (in the same way as Clinton’s was by Chirac and Blair in Kosovo). But as it was clear that it would merely be a bombing campaign—no ground troops—the decision was relatively easy (and particularly as there was no objection from Russia or the Arab states, Algeria excepted; Qadhafi’s utter isolation in the Arab world, including in Arab public opinion, was striking; so the US had nothing to worry about in that department).

Second, there already was an insurgency/civil war underway and that would have worsened had the US not intervened. It is entirely possible—even likely—that the situation we’re witnessing in Libya today would have happened anyway (and with many more Libyans having been killed in the process). In other words, the US intervention may have merely hastened a possibly inevitable outcome.

Third, there is no reason to believe that Libya would be an island of stability today had Qadhafi prevailed in the civil war—with the inevitable massacres and exactions—for the simple reason that Qadhafi had always been a source of instability. A comparison with Iraq is useful here. Qadhafi’s regime was, in fact, far worse than Saddam Hussein’s; the internal repression and brutality of the two regimes were on a par—they were equally bad in both—but Qadhafi meddled in the affairs of other countries—in the Maghreb and West Africa—and generally wreaked havoc in a way that Saddam did not (with two big exceptions, of course, in 1980 and 1990, when he grossly miscalculated). And Qadhafi was a sponsor of international terrorism—targeting Americans and Europeans—in a way Saddam’s regime never was. No act of terrorism in Europe from the mid 1970s onward can be traced back to Baghdad (unlike to Tripoli, Tehran, or Damascus). So there is no a priori reason to assume that we would not be witnessing the current migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean if Qadhafi were still in power.

N.B. The disaster in Libya is due to the collapse of the Libyan state. But the collapse of the Libyan state was not brought about by the US intervention or events set in motion by this. It was brought about by Qadhafi. Qadhafi wrecked what existed of a state in Libya. Qadhafi patrimonialized the Libyan state—concentrating total power in the hands of his immediate family—to an extent unseen in an Arab country outside the Gulf. Ba’athist Iraq had a state. Qadhafi’s Libya did not. There was a short window in 2012 during which it could have been reconstituted. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.

One last thing. Garfinkle, in his post from this February, alludes to the mess in Mali and Nigeria as an unintended, but implicitly inevitable, consequence of the US invention. But did Garfinkle warn about this back in 2011? Did anyone? If so, I’d like the reference.

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IS fighters, Anbar province, Iraq

IS fighters, Anbar province, Iraq

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Politico Magazine has an interesting article (dated April 7th) by Emma Sky, “How Obama abandoned democracy in Iraq,” which is adapted from her new book, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. Sky, who’s British and presently a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, was the representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk in 2003-04 and political adviser in 2007-10 to US Gen. Ray Odierno, commanding general of the Multi-National Force–Iraq, so knows something about the subject and has much to say on it (and she speaks Arabic, which gives her extra cred). Sky—who says she opposed the 2003 invasion—essentially blames Iraq’s downward spiral from 2010 onward on the Obama administration—and particularly VP Joseph Biden and the US ambassadors in Baghdad (appointed by President Obama)—of their backing the wrong horse after the Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2010, i.e. supporting Nouri al-Maliki over Iyad Allawi. If the Obama administration had backed the right horse (Allawi), things in Iraq may have turned out very differently, Sky strongly implies. Subtext: If Obama had played it otherwise the Islamic State may have never seen the light of day and Iraq would possibly be a stable, democracy-consolidating polity at peace, and with Iranian influence kept to a minimum.

If Sky is right, then Obama botched this one big time, that’s for sure. Her argument is to be given due consideration but I’m not buying it. Ambassadors—even US ones—are simply not major actors in the domestic politics of any given country and at any given moment, and particularly in a country as consequential and complicated as Iraq—where ambassadors, for security reasons, hardly ever leave their embassies—and the utterances of a foreign leader on a lightning visit simply do not alter the course of history. But though I am skeptical of Sky’s argument, I have nonetheless put her book on my to-read list (expressing my best of intentions as to eventually reading it).

On the Islamic State—about which I read daily—the most interesting piece I’ve come across in the past few days is The Washington Post’s enquête (April 4th) by the paper’s Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly, “The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein’s.” Reporting from Turkey, Sly interviewed a former Syrian IS chieftain going by the name Abu Hamza, who

underscore[d] the pervasive role played by members of Iraq’s former Baathist army in an organization more typically associated with flamboyant foreign jihadists and the gruesome videos in which they star. (…) “All the decision makers are Iraqi, and most of them are former Iraqi officers. The Iraqi officers are in command, and they make the tactics and the battle plans,” he said. “But the Iraqis themselves don’t fight. They put the foreign fighters on the front lines.”

On the extreme cruelty of IS, this has an Iraqi Ba’athist pedigree

The raw cruelty of Hussein’s Baathist regime, the disbandment of the Iraqi army after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the subsequent insurgency and the marginalization of Sunni Iraqis by the Shiite-dominated government all are intertwined with the Islamic State’s ascent, said Hassan Hassan, a Dubai-based analyst and co-author of the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” (…)

At first glance, the secularist dogma of Hussein’s tyrannical Baath Party seems at odds with the Islamic State’s harsh interpretation of the Islamic laws it purports to uphold.

But the two creeds broadly overlap in several regards, especially their reliance on fear to secure the submission of the people under the group’s rule. Two decades ago, the elaborate and cruel forms of torture perpetrated by Hussein dominated the discourse about Iraq, much as the Islamic State’s harsh punishments do today. (…)

In the last two years of Hussein’s rule, a campaign of beheadings, mainly targeting women suspected of prostitution and carried out by his elite Fedayeen unit, killed more than 200 people, human rights groups reported at the time.

The brutality deployed by the Islamic State today recalls the bloodthirstiness of some of those Fedayeen, said Hassan. Promotional videos from the Hussein era include scenes resembling those broadcast today by the Islamic State, showing the Fedayeen training, marching in black masks, practicing the art of decapitation and in one instance eating a live dog. (…)

On the US role in unwittingly facilitating the current situation:

The de-Baathification law promulgated by L.­ Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American ruler in 2003, has long been identified as one of the contributors to the original insurgency. At a stroke, 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were barred from government employment, denied pensions — and also allowed to keep their guns.

The U.S. military failed in the early years to recognize the role the disbanded Baathist officers would eventually come to play in the extremist group, eclipsing the foreign fighters whom American officials preferred to blame, said Col. Joel Rayburn, a senior fellow at the National Defense University who served as an adviser to top generals in Iraq and describes the links between Baathists and the Islamic State in his book, “Iraq After America.” (…)

It was under the watch of the current Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that the recruitment of former Baathist officers became a deliberate strategy, according to analysts and former officers. (…)

The ex-Baathists could be lured away, if they were offered alternatives and hope for the future, [a former general who commanded Iraqi troops during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003] said.

“The Americans bear the biggest responsibility. When they dismantled the army what did they expect those men to do?” he asked. “They were out in the cold with nothing to do and there was only one way out for them to put food on the table.”

When U.S. officials demobilized the Baathist army, “they didn’t de-Baathify people’s minds, they just took away their jobs,” he said.

If one didn’t see it, the NYT’s Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt had a must-read enquête last August 11th on how “U.S. actions in Iraq fueled [the] rise of [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi],” to which may be added The Guardian’s Martin Chulov’s equally must-read December 11th report, “ISIS: The inside story.” The lede: “One of the Islamic State’s senior commanders reveals exclusive details of the terror group’s origins inside an Iraqi prison – right under the noses of their American jailers.”

Also worth the read is J.J. Goldberg’s commentary in the JDF (April 6th) on “How Bibi and Bush made a mess of the Middle East.” The lede: “Misplaced focus on Saddam’s Iraq tore region apart.”

ADDENDUM: Some ten days ago I attended a talk by Pierre-Jean Luizard, France’s leading academic specialist of modern Iraq, who has just published a book on IS, Le piège Daech: L’État islamique ou le retour de l’Histoire. He made a number of points in his dense, learned exposé, of which three may be mentioned: 1. The Americans bear considerable responsibility for the current calamity in Iraq, as they set out to confessionalize the Iraqi political system during the year the Coalition Provisional Authority ruled the country. But—and I’m extrapolating from Luizard’s analysis here—it was a near certainty that the imposition of a Lebanese-style system in Iraq would have deleterious consequences, as it would inexorably lead to a bid for hegemony by the Shi’ites and alienate the Sunnis, who had ruled the lands of Mesopotamia for centuries. If a confessional/consociational-type system is going to work—and this is my point, not Luizard’s—it has to be negotiated by the legitimate, recognized elites of the confessional groups themselves—as was the 1943 Lebanese National Pact—and all the groups have to be minorities.  2. IS is indeed heavily comprised of former Iraqi Ba’athists. The Saddam Hussein legacy is manifest. IS is the present-day political expression of Iraq’s Sunnis. The Shia-dominated Iraqi army will not be able to regain control of Mosul and other cities controlled by IS. If they manage to do so, massacres of Sunnis and/or mass pillaging of Sunni property will inevitably ensue—as witnessed in Tikrit earlier this week—as will permanent insurrection against the Iraqi state. In short, Iraq, as we have known it, is finished.  3. The US and its allies have neither the strategy nor the means to defeat IS. Bombing IS will change nothing, as there is no alternative force to take IS’s place—except, in Iraq, the Iraqi state as presently constituted (see point 2). As for Syria, Luizard stressed that the Ba’athist regime in Damascus will never again control Raqqa (not that it even seeks to). So, in short, the situation in Iraq (and Syria) is extremely bleak. Luizard ended on a very pessimistic note.

UPDATE: The Foreign Policy website has an appalling account (April 9th) by Qusai Zakarya—the nom de plume of Kassem Eid, a youthful Syrian-Palestinian activist—on “The starving of Yarmouk, then the capture.” The lede: “The Islamic State’s attack on the besieged Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus is highly suspicious. It could only have happened with Assad’s complicity.” Having visited Yarmouk five years ago and where I met kind, friendly people (here), what’s happening there has a particular resonance with me.

2nd UPDATE: Orthopedic surgeon Samer Attar, who volunteered in field hospitals with the Syrian-American Medical Society in Aleppo in August 2013 and April 2014, has an “Aleppo Diary” in the WSJ (April 12th) on “The carnage from Syrian barrel bombs.” Barrel bombs: If there’s one single thing that summarizes the evil of the Syrian Ba’athist regime, it’s this.

3rd UPDATE: Spiegel Online International has a lengthy, must-read report (April 18th) on the Saddam regime/IS link, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State.” The lede: “An Iraqi officer planned Islamic State’s takeover in Syria and SPIEGEL has been given exclusive access to his papers. They portray an organization that, while seemingly driven by religious fanaticism, is actually coldly calculating.”

4th UPDATE: The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who was the NYT’s Baghdad correspondent from 2003 to ’06, has a commentary (May 15th), “Did George W. Bush create ISIS?,” in which he revists decisions made early on in the Iraq war, notably the one to dissolve the Iraqi army, which Filkins calls “probably the single most catastrophic decision of the American venture in Iraq,” and from which the Sunni insurgency was launched. Ergo, Bush was at least partly responsible for the eventual rise of the Islamic State. But Filkins also points a finger in Obama’s direction, opining that “it seems possible that, if Obama had pushed [Nuri al-]Maliki harder, the United States could have retained a small force of soldiers [in Iraq] in noncombat roles.” Sure. As if the mere presence of a few US military personnel would have scared the IS away from seizing Mosul and everything else it has. Allez. And Filkins oddly neglects to mention the refusal of the Iraqi parliament to approve the SOFA, which gave the US no choice but to leave that blessed country to its own devices. So on this particular point, not convinced!

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american-sniper-poster-small

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I saw this three days ago, the day it opened in France. I made it a point to read nothing on the movie beforehand—either reviews or articles—though am aware that it is a big box office hit in the US—beyond all expectations—and particularly among conservatives. And I still haven’t read anything about the movie, though will, after writing this. My verdict: It is a reprehensible film. It is so because it makes a hero out of a man who is, in fact, not a hero and who achieved his heroic status—in the eyes of those who accord him this (and they are numerous in l’Amérique profonde, as one sees at the end)—in fighting and killing in a war that America had no business fighting. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is considered a hero because he killed 160 combatants and other irregulars who were out to kill American soldiers in a war zone. Bully for him. Soldiers protect their own in all wars, no? What else is new in the history of warfare? CPO Kyle, we learn, went beyond the call of duty to protect his buddies. He was a brave man, intrepid even. Bully for him again. One may understand why he was considered a hero within the US military—fellow soldiers called him “the legend”—but there is no rhyme or reason for him to be considered as such by any citizen outside the military.

It would be otherwise, of course, if CPO Kyle had been killing enemy combatants who were at war with America and posed a threat to America inside its borders. Celebrating his feats in the larger society would thus be comprehensible. But this was the Iraq war. The nagging (rhetorical) question that went through my mind throughout the film, in watching Kyle and his fellow soldiers engaged in urban warfare in Fallujah and Ramadi, was WTF were they doing there in the first place? What enemy were they fighting? Now it is established early in the film that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs following 9/11, as a patriotic reflex of an American whose country was attacked. Lots of Americans had that reflex (for the anecdote, in the days after 9/11 I let the US embassy in Paris know that my services were available—including to any intelligence agency—should they want them; I didn’t hear back). After completing SEAL boot camp the film jumps to Kyle in Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Iraq posed no threat to America. Now the US government of the time and all sorts of other Americans intoxicated by nationalist hysteria or Washington groupthink believed that Iraq was indeed a threat to the United States, but those who knew something about the Middle East and, more generally, how to analyze and think coherently—which includes myself, obviously—knew this was preposterous and argued it to all and sundry.

At one point in the film, Kyle tells one of his buddies that “we have to kill the enemy here so they don’t come and kill us in New York or San Diego” (approximate quote). That even an ignorant soldier could believe such bullshit by 2005 is breathtaking. The enemy that Kyle & Co were fighting is clearly identified: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Al-Qaida in Iraq (not once is Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist regime—the ostensible threat to America in 2003—mentioned in the film). Now Zarqawi and AQI were definitely not nice people. I will even agree with Kyle that they were Evil (capital E) (the notion that America is fighting Evil, and not just in Iraq, is evoked more than once in the film). But here’s the thing: America did not invade Iraq to fight Zarqawi and AQI. AQI, which posed no threat to the American homeland, did not even exist when America launched the Iraq war. The very existence of AQI—and its presence in Iraq’s Sunni triangle—was a direct consequence of America’s invasion. And Fallujah being reduced to rubble and its population driven from the city was directly caused by America being there (the scene in the house that the soldiers have stormed—with Kyle demanding to know what the family is doing there and why they hadn’t evacuated the city—is incredible, as if people should naturally abandon their homes and worldly possessions—to looters, criminals, terrorists, whoever—because a foreign army tells them to). None of this is examined in Eastwood’s film. America is in Iraq fighting the enemy because that’s what it’s doing. America is there because it’s there. Fighting Evil there, before it comes for us here.

Further contributing to the film’s reprehensibility is its backhanded celebration of America’s gun culture—and of militaristic values more generally (American society being the only one in the Western world, as Tony Judt observed in one of his later essays, that continues to exalt the military and its values). In the opening scene we see seven-year-old Chris in rural Texas bagging a deer on his first hunting trip with his father. Kyle père is teaching his son how to handle firearms. Now I can accept that rural people the world over and since time immemorial hunt and have rifles at home. I don’t relate to it but, for rural folk, that’s just the way they live and I pass no judgment on it. But the moral code that daddy Kyle seeks to instill in his sons around the dinner table—which is underpinned with violence and accompanied by stupid ass references to God and the Lord—is another matter. I’m sorry but Chris Kyle’s father—who was ready to whip his sons with a belt—was an asshole. And then there’s the scene toward the end, of Kyle at home with wife and kids—before he drives off in his pick-up and gets murdered—goofing around the living room and kitchen with a six-shooter, which may or may not be loaded (but if the gun’s not loaded, what’s the point of having it in the first place, if, acting with hair-trigger presence of mind, one can’t immediately neutralize a bad guy entering the house uninvited, or some shit like that?). Anyone who keeps a handgun at home, in proximity to children, and plays around with it in front of children to boot is a reprehensible SOB.

On ‘American Sniper’ as cinema, it’s okay. Bradley Cooper puts in an acceptable performance, though hardly deserves an Oscar nomination for it. Sienna Miller is likewise acceptable as Chris’s wife Taya—she’s certainly attractive—but spends too much of the film weeping over her husband going off on yet another tour with his beloved SEALs (for Chris Kyle, Iraq was a war of choice). And the scenes of their lovey dovey satellite phone conversations while he’s picking off enemy fighters from rooftops or heading into combat stretched credulity. One would think that any soldier who chats up his wife or g.f. on the phone while under fire would be reprimanded by his commanding officer, if not subjected to disciplinary action. Generally speaking and in view of its inescapable political parti pris, I don’t see how anyone outside of Jacksonian America—to borrow from Walter Russell Mead—can possibly adhere to the film and its message. But, as it happens, the early reaction in France has been positive, among both critics and Allociné spectateurs. The French love affair with Clint Eastwood continues. Every last Eastwood movie—including his worst and/or schlockiest—receives a rapturous welcome here and ‘American Sniper’ appears to be no exception. Hélas.

ADDENDUM: A further comment. Toward the end of the film Chris Kyle, in dealing with his PTSD, attends rehab sessions with Iraq war vets who have suffered serious injury (limbs blown off, etc). Some 40,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded in Iraq, many of the latter saved thanks to advances in military medicine, who would have died of their wounds in previous wars. What do Jacksonian, Fox News-watching Americans make of this? In fact, they almost have to uncritically accept the thesis of the film—that America was fighting Evil, no questions asked—as if one were to accept that the Iraq war was a catastrophic mistake—the most disastrous foreign policy decision in American history—then there would be no escaping the conclusion that Americans died or had their lives shattered for absolutely nothing. And then there is, of course, the number of Iraqis killed, which, since 2003, is heading upwards of 200,000 (if not more). Now most of those Iraqis were killed by other Iraqis. But if Iraq in 2003 was a Pandora’s Box of simmering sectarian hatred, America came in with a baseball bat and smashed that box open. The catastrophe in Iraq happened on America’s watch. And while there’s a lot of blame to go around, the catastrophic situation in Iraq today is ultimately America’s fault.

2nd ADDENDUM: One bit about the movie that caused me to jolt in my seat, but which slipped my mind while writing this post, was the final battle scene, where CPO Kyle finally terminates AQI sniper Mustafa with the golden bullet. The battle took place in Sadr City, which, as any halfway knowledgeable person knows, is the big Shi’ite quartier populaire of Baghdad. But AQI—which has since mutated into ISIS—is Sunni. AQI was killing Shi’ites when it wasn’t killing Americans. Sadr City at the time was Muqtada al-Sadr’s fiefdom, and he and his followers didn’t like AQI, to put it mildly. So on this level the scene makes no sense. Clint Eastwood and his team betrayed inexcusable ignorance here.

A correction: I wrote above that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs after 9/11. In fact, he did so after the 1998 Nairobi/Dar es Salaam bombings.

UPDATE: I’ve come across an excellent review/commentary on ‘American Sniper’, dated January 10th, by Ross Caputi, a former Marine who, like Chris Kyle, participated in the 2nd Siege of Fallujah. Caputi’s reaction to the film is similar to mine. His review is well worth reading. (February 28th)

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Pro-Mosaddegh demonstration, Tehran, March 2 1953

Pro-Mosaddegh demonstration, Tehran, March 2 1953

This post—which I intended to do several months ago but didn’t get around to—has nothing to do with anything that’s happening right now. I am posting it at the present time as part of a social media exchange I’ve been having this past week with a friend, who expressed astonishment at an assertion I made that the CIA did not engineer the coup d’états in Chile or in Iran in 1953. On the Chile coup, I offered my friend my post of last September, Chile’s 9/11: What really happened?, in which I linked to an article in Foreign Affairs by a CIA officer in Santiago at the time, who explained—convincingly, in my view—that the CIA was not implicated in what happened there on that fateful September 11th 1973. My friend, who’s Algerian, remains skeptical, which doesn’t surprise me: Western leftists over a certain age and tiersmondistes the world over are almost politically hardwired to believe that the CIA was responsible for the Chilean coup. It goes without saying. And if people have believed something dur comme fer for over four decades, they’re not likely to change their minds after reading a single article, and by a CIA agent at that.

It’s likewise with the 1953 Iranian coup that overthrew Mohammed Mosaddegh, perhaps even more so, as Kermit Roosevelt—the CIA’s man in Tehran at the time—practically bragged about the role he played in the coup, serious scholars and journalists (e.g. Stephen Kinzer, Ervand Abrahamian) have written books on it, and the US government has acknowledged its involvement. I accepted this narrative pretty much without question—there was no reason not to—until I read an article in the December 8th 2009 TNR by Stanford University’s Abbas Milani, “The Great Satan Myth,” in which he argued that the circumstances surrounding the coup against Mosaddegh were much more complex than the dominant version had it. Milani followed up the TNR piece with one on The National Interest website, dated January 24th 2011, “The Myth of Operation Ajax: America can’t form a prudent policy toward Iran until it exorcises the ghost of Washington’s role in bringing down Mossadegh.” Involvement is one thing, responsibility is another.

Then in the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, Washington-based Iran specialist Ray Takeyh had an article—in the same series as the one on Chile discussed in my above-cited post—entitled “What Really Happened in Iran: The CIA, the Ouster of Mosaddeq, and the Restoration of the Shah.” Takeyh’s argument—that the CIA role in the 1953 coup was “ultimately insignificant” and that Mosaddegh would have been overthrown regardless of outside meddling—settles the matter for me. For those too lazy to click on the above link, here’s the text of the article. À chacun de décider ce qu’il en pense.

By Ray Takeyh

Back in 2009, during his heavily promoted Cairo speech on American relations with the Muslim world, U.S. President Barack Obama noted, in passing, that “in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Obama was referring to the 1953 coup that toppled Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and consolidated the rule of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Obama would go on to remind his audience that Iran had also committed its share of misdeeds against Americans. But he clearly intended his allusion to Washington’s role in the coup as a concession — a public acknowledgment that the United States shared some of the blame for its long-simmering conflict with the Islamic Republic.

Yet there was a supreme irony to Obama’s concession. The history of the U.S. role in Iran’s 1953 coup may be “well known,” as the president declared in his speech, but it is not well founded. On the contrary, it rests heavily on two related myths: that machinations by the CIA were the most important factor in Mosaddeq’s downfall and that Iran’s brief democratic interlude was spoiled primarily by American and British meddling. For decades, historians, journalists, and pundits have promoted these myths, injecting them not just into the political discourse but also into popular culture: most recently, Argo, a Hollywood thriller that won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture, suggested that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution was a belated response to an injustice perpetrated by the United States a quarter century earlier. That version of events has also been promoted by Iran’s theocratic leaders, who have exploited it to stoke anti-Americanism and to obscure the fact that the clergy itself played a major role in toppling Mosaddeq.

In reality, the CIA’s impact on the events of 1953 was ultimately insignificant. Regardless of anything the United States did or did not do, Mosaddeq was bound to fall and the shah was bound to retain his throne and expand his power. Yet the narrative of American culpability (more…)

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Dick Cheney defending torture on 'Meet the Press', December 14th (photo: William B. Plowman/NBC News, via Reuters)

Dick Cheney defending torture on ‘Meet the Press’, December 14th
(photo: William B. Plowman/NBC News, via Reuters)

[update below]

That’s the title of yesterday’s NYT editorial, calling on President Obama to authorize the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of those who were directly implicated in the post-9/11 torture program, which should include, entre autres, Dick Cheney, his chief of staff David Addington, George Tenet, and John Yoo. Investigate, prosecute, and convict the SOBs, then throw ’em in the slammer. On the evil Cheney, I recently read—spurred by the release of the Senate torture report—Mark Danner’s three review essays on the calamitous ex-VP that appeared in the NYRB earlier this year: “In the darkness of Dick Cheney” (March 6th issue), “He remade our world” (April 3rd), and “Cheney: ‘The more ruthless the better’” (May 8th). All three articles are free access and absolutely worth reading if one hasn’t already done so (they may also be accessed on Danner’s website, along with the first three review essays—on Donald Rumsfeld—in his six-part series, two of which are gated on the NYRB website).

For additional readings on the unspeakable Cheney—post-torture report—see Heather Digby Parton’s piece in Salon, “Dick Cheney’s grotesque legacy: Why the record is so much worse than reported,” and these two blog posts by Andrew Sullivan: “Watching Cheney: He’s got nothing,” and “The depravity of Dick Cheney.” As Sullivan concludes in the latter piece

[Cheney] is a sociopath. He is a disgrace to his country. And he needs to be brought to justice.

Amen.

UPDATE: Yale University prof David Bromwich has an essay in the January 8th 2015 issue of the London Review of Books on the Senate’s torture report. Money quote

Cheney worked hard to eradicate from the minds of Americans the idea that there can be such a thing as a ‘suspect’. Due process of law rests on the acknowledged possibility that a suspect may be innocent; but, for Cheney, a person interrogated on suspicion of terrorism is a terrorist. To elaborate a view beyond that point, as he sees it, only involves government in a wasteful tangle of doubts. Cheney concedes from time to time that mistakes can happen; but the leading quality of the man is a perfect freedom from remorse. ‘I’d do it again in a minute,’ he said recently of the plan for the interrogation programme and the secret prisons which the office of the vice president vetted and approved.

Cheney: Bring him to justice.

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[update below] [2nd update below]

I’ve been reading more articles—or, to be precise, clicking on more links—about Cuba over the past four days than I have in I don’t know how long. Like just about everyone with half an intellect and a quarter ounce of sense, I was pleased by Obama’s announcement on the reestablishing of diplomatic relations. This issue—of putting an end to a pointless Cold War anachronism—is such a no-brainer that it’s beyond the pale of debate. I was surprised it took Obama even this long to do what should have been done years, if not decades, ago (it looks like Alan Gross was the stumbling block here). For the anecdote, in 2008 I gave a number of talks (under the aegis of the US State Department) on the American presidential campaign before audiences in Africa—sur place in the two Congos (Brazzaville and Kinshasa) and Cameroon, via video conference in a dozen other countries, plus on TV in Paris—and was frequently asked what I thought would change with US foreign policy if Obama were elected. I replied probably not a whole lot—that there would likely be more continuity than change—except on Cuba, where I predicted that a newly elected President Obama would act within his first term to normalize relations and push Congress to end the embargo—which is, as one commentator put it, “the longest-running joke in US foreign policy”—as this was a logical thing to do in terms of US interests and there was quite simply no good reason whatever not to. Looks like I was off by a few years.

As for the embargo, I guarantee that the GOP-led Congress will indeed put an end to that joke before the 2016 elections, as there is no way it will allow US corporations to lose out to European, Canadian, Brazilian, Japanese, Chinese etc competitors as the Cuban economy is further liberalized and opened up to foreign investment.

Obama’s announcement on Wednesday has been a big topic on social media—on my various news feeds, at least—and with all the liberal-lefties naturally giving it the thumbs way up. I have been particularly amused to read some of the reactions of American gauchistes, who backhandedly continue to indulge the Castro regime and see in its model of development something admirable and precious and that must be preserved. E.g. here is a social media status update following Obama’s Wednesday announcement by a university professor—who is very smart in his field of specialization (which is not Latin America)—I will call “Academic gauchiste 1″

I’ve been telling myself for years to visit ‪#‎Cuba‬ before they ruin it. Now it’s probably too late.

Which led to this comment by one of his friends

Although I suspect the Cuban regime did a pretty good job of ruining it before now, too.

Response by Academic gauchiste 1

Yeah, but now the shit storm apocalypse will destroy the place in 3 years flat. Massive cruise lines, privatized beaches, huge hotel developments, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, McDonald’s. It’ll be a spring break destination by 2017, mark my words.

Then this comment by Academic gauchiste 2

the number of extremely obese Americans and the fast food joints to feed them is about to go through the roof. perhaps Cuba can put a weight limit, or at least a body-fat ratio limit, on entering tourists… and outlaw fast food joints.

In a status update following this exchange, Academic gauchiste 2 asked this question

What is the chance Cuba can maintain anything resembling a welfare state with its renowned health, education and other services and a decent level of equality now that the US is about to barrel back into the country? Wasn’t the country already changed by its incorporation into the global economy via tourism and other sectors which have long been open to Europe and the rest of the world?

These boneheaded comments are typical of US leftists, who have manifestly not internalized the fact—to which they make not the slightest allusion—that the Cuban regime over the past 55 years has been a repressive dictatorship far worse—I repeat: far worse—than was the Pinochet regime in Chile (its first year excepted) or any other 1970s and ’80s Latin American military junta that wasn’t combating an insurgency. On this particular point, there is no debate whatsoever (emphasis added). As for the egalitarianism of the Castro regime—a nivellement par le bas, in effect—and its vaunted health care system, sure, except that there is a huge chasm in Cuban society today between those who have dollars and access to foreign goods, and those who don’t, which has engendered inequalities possibly greater than those predating 1959. Also, pour mémoire, Cuba was not a poor country when les frères Castro & Co took it over in ’59. In that year per capita income in Cuba was one of the highest in Latin America. Cuba was on a par with Argentina. Cuba today is not on that par. In terms of per capita GDP, it is somewhere between Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. And Cuba’s economic problems have nothing to do with the idiotic, pointless US embargo—an embargo which, in fact, strengthened the Communist regime and its administered economy, with the Soviet Union paying above world market prices for Cuban sugar and offering all sorts of subsidies (the stupidity and futility of the US embargo has long been evident to even mainstream commentators, e.g. Thomas Friedman, who had a lucid column on the subject fifteen years ago). With the end of the Soviet Union and its subsidies, the Cuban economy went into a tailspin, the country was pauperized, and with it producing, as in 1959, little for export apart from agricultural commodities and raw materials.

And then there’s the tourist sector. Academic gauchiste 1 above laments the inevitable advent of “privatized beaches [and] huge hotel developments,” except that Cuba already has these! And the “privatization” of beach fronts in Cuba today is no doubt even more extensive than in other Caribbean coastal countries, as Cuban nationals are banned from them—from interacting with the foreign tourists (prostitutes possibly excepted)—which is, of course, not the case anywhere else. On the matter of prostitution, the eradication of which was one of the early accomplishments of the Castro regime, or so it was claimed, Havana and other tourist areas have been inundated with women (and men) offering their services to foreigners, possibly to an even greater extent than in other less-developed countries with large numbers of rich country visitors. And in Cuba one may find hookers with university degrees—but unemployed, or employed and making $20 a month—which is rather less common elsewhere.

On the supposed egalitarianism of the Cuban model, see this piece from last February on the proliferation of gated communities for the Cuban elite (CP members, military officers, and other well-connected nouveaux riches).

As for McDonald’s, Starbucks, and other megabrands of the global consumer culture moving into Cuba, so f—ing what! So I suppose we should also regret the fall of the Berlin Wall, as one now finds McDo throughout the ex-GDR… Allez, only boneheaded gauchistes get exercised over such irrelevant symbols.

Concluding all this, here is the pertinent response to Academic gauchiste 2’s above quoted status update by a smart liberal

Cuba’s economic system is in shambles including its welfare state. For a welfare state to work, there needs to be wealth to redistribute. And equality of outcomes is an ideal (that can really never be reached in a well functioning economy) rather than a policy that can be pursued. Tourism and globalization did not ruin Cuba, even though they have some of the negative effects mentioned above. Cuba’s government ruined Cuba. You can have a redistributive welfare state in a well functioning economy (such as is certain Scandinavian and other contexts, and with things that could best be modified in those countries as well). The problem here is not imperialism or lack of it, it is that the only thing that really works is a mixed economy with redistributive policies and a strong welfare state. Cuba is in bad shape, and it can get worse or better, but the status quo, even the pre-tourism status quo, does not make it better, it makes it worse…

Très bien.

Continued in the next post

ADDENDUM: Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, or unfair, in skewering the above cited academic gauchistes for regretting the inevitable changes in store for Havana, as I have admittedly been guilty of this myself. During a visit in 2010 to Damascus—a city refreshingly untouched by the franchises and symbols of the global economy—I told a Syrian friend “Please, don’t let this place change. Don’t become like Beirut.” I was mainly joking, though did feel that it would be a damned shame if a McDo were to open next to the Souk Al-Hamidiyah, or anywhere in the city center. If that stuff was going to come to Syria—where there are clearly other preoccupations these days—let it be confined to malls in Mezzeh Filla Gharbiya and elsewhere out of sight from authenticity-seeking tourists…

UPDATE: Le Monde dated December 19th has an analysis of how the economic and political crisis in Venezuela pushed the Cuban regime to seek normalization of relations with Washington.

2nd UPDATE: Le Monde journalist Paulo Paranagua has an article (May 7th 2015) on the numerous obstacles to Cuba attracting significant foreign investment, “À Cuba, l’absence d’un Etat de droit freine les investisseurs.”

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