Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘USA: foreign affairs’ Category

9/11 + 20

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

Ilhan Omar’s thoughts are mine, of course, and certainly those of all AWAV readers, regular or occasional. As I don’t have anything in particular to say on this 20th anniversary that hasn’t been said by many others, I will merely offer a few recommendations of pertinent films to watch and noteworthy articles to read, beginning with the first-rate, five-part Netflix docuseries, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, which was completed after the August 15th fall of Kabul, so covers that calamitous event. In her review of the series, the Washington Post’s TV critic, Inkoo Kang, deems it

The most honest and exhaustive retrospective [on 9/11]… If you have the time or energy for only one TV commemoration, make it this one. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, the five-part docuseries foregrounds an unfortunate facet of 9/11 remembrance: For the country at large, that date can’t be extricated from the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the justifications of torture by the George W. Bush administration, and the subsequent increase in surveillance and Islamophobia within the United States.

Without partisan or ideological bias, “Turning Point” provides an opportunity to look back at the blunders in the “war on terror” (especially the lead-up to the Iraq War), the atrocities at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and the delusions of the Rumsfeld and Bush doctrines to make strange and outrageous once again what we’ve come to accept as normal — all while paying respect to the dead and the first responders who sacrificed their lives and their health. That de-normalizing lens, fortified by perspectives from Afghans, provides an invaluable service, recalling many of the Bush White House’s human rights scandals while reminding us that none of them were preordained. Though occasionally dry, the docuseries’ sober tone also makes for a welcome refuge from the sea of maudlin or faux-suspenseful 9/11 content elsewhere.

A good half of the series focuses on Afghanistan and the fiasco of America’s twenty-year intervention (Iraq is covered too, of course). On the incredible tragedy in Afghanistan, do read, if you haven’t already, the extraordinary report by Anand Gopal in The New Yorker (Sep. 13th issue), “The other Afghan women: In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them,” which has been praised by all and sundry, including MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who thus tweeted, “I think this is one of the best pieces of journalism I have ever read.” I agree. One quote:

What’s clear is that the U.S. did not attempt to settle such divides [in Afghan society] and build durable, inclusive institutions; instead, it intervened in a civil war, supporting one side against the other. As a result, like the Soviets, the Americans effectively created two Afghanistans: one [in the countryside] mired in endless conflict, the other [in the cities] prosperous and hopeful.

Gopal’s bottom line: of all the forces that have inflicted misery on Afghanistan’s rural population, men and women alike, over the past four decades—the Soviets, the Americans and their allies, the Afghan army, the Mujahideen and their warlords, and the Taliban—the least bad were the Taliban. It was otherwise for the urban population, which naturally wanted the Americans to stay—if I were a middle-class Kabuli, I would be pro-American too, believe me—but for villagers, the Americans—with their drones and B52s (which killed upwards of 50,000 civilians), predatory warlord allies, the soldiers themselves—were a disaster. The lives of rural Afghans, and particularly men, were permanently at risk from an American drone or bomb. For those who wished for a prolonged US military engagement, there is no dancing around this reality.

And as we learn in this Sep. 10th New York Times report on the last Afghans killed by an American drone, it wasn’t just rural civilians who were at risk.

Also worth the watch is the 45-minute Sep. 6th report on the Australian ABC network, “The fall of Kabul: The last days of the war in Afghanistan.” President Biden is spared no quarter for the manner in which the withdrawal was executed but it is clear that the real culprit is Trump and the February 2020 Doha agreement he concluded with the Taliban. As Afghanistan IR specialist William Maley asserted, the Doha deal was the “worst single exercise in diplomacy since the Munich agreement of 1938…a catastrophic error of diplomacy” that “gave the Taliban everything they really wanted.” This was the agreement Biden inherited and it is hard to see what he could have done to change it—without committing the US to a veritable forever war.

One can hardly discuss the legacy of 9/11 without mentioning the massive corruption the trillion $$$ wars engendered, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but, above all, in the United States itself. For recent sources on this, see Sarah Chayes’ Sep. 3rd article in Foreign Affairs, “Afghanistan’s corruption was made in America: How self-dealing elites failed in both countries,” and Isaac Stanley-Becker’s report in The Washington Post (Sep. 4th) on how US military generals, notably Stanley McChrystal (incarnated by Brad Pitt in the Netflix movie ‘War Machine’), cashed in big time after their service in Afghanistan.

And then there’s Guantánamo. And torture. On this sinister legacy of 9/11, I will simply recommend the salutary Hollywood movie The Mauritanian (in France: Désigné coupable), on the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, which is reviewed in The Conversation by UC-Santa Barbara sociology professor Lisa Hajjar, “‘The Mauritanian’ rekindles debate over Gitmo detainees’ torture – with 40 still held there,” who will soon be publishing a savant book on the general topic.

Closer to the homeland is a lengthy article by Jennifer Senior in the September issue of The Atlantic, “What Bobby McIlvaine left behind: Grief, conspiracy theories, and one family’s search for meaning in the two decades since 9/11.” I was prompted to read it while in the US last month, after seeing Anne Applebaum’s tweet, which enjoined her followers to “Drop what you are doing and read this.” So I picked up the issue off the coffee table and executed Ms. Applebaum’s directive. My 90-year-old mother likewise found the piece sufficiently compelling to read to the end.

UPDATE: On Jennifer Senior’s article in The Atlantic, film director Ava DuVernay tweeted

This long-read by @JenSeniorNY stayed with me. It’s about the ripples that each of our lives makes on other lives. In this case, the focus is a bright young man lost on 9/11 and the waves of pain and misunderstanding, but also purpose for those left behind.

To which Oprah Winfrey replied

Yes I read this. Found it striking. And haunting. What happens in just one family.

2nd UPDATE: Michelle Goldberg’s terrific Sep. 9th NYT column, “How 9/11 turned America into a half-crazed, fading power,” is a must-read.

3rd UPDATE: Fintan O’Toole’s review essay in the NYRB (Oct. 7th issue), “The lie of nation building,” is a tour de force. The lede: “From the very beginning, the problem with the US involvement in Afghanistan lay essentially in the deficits in American democracy.”

Read Full Post »

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below] [8th update below] [9th update below] [10th update below] [11th update below] [12th update below] [13th update below] [14th update below] [15th update below]

I can hardly differ from my friend Stathis, whose sentiments here are mine. Along with countless millions—including at least half of those I follow on Twitter and Facebook—I have been riveted to the breaking news from Afghanistan over the past ten days, and particularly this past weekend, not to mention stunned and so deeply saddened by the spectacle. One thing I am not going to do, however, is play the Washington/media pundit blame game as to Who Lost Afghanistan. Biden is going to take the hit, as he should, for the calamitous manner in which the US withdrawal was executed—with the prospect of tens of thousands of Afghans who collaborated with the Americans over the years being stranded and at the mercy of the Taliban—but the larger calamity of Afghanistan and the US role there is not on him, and while Afghanistan may be, for part of elite opinion, an indelible stain on his record, it is doubtful that it will affect his job approval rating—not after his forceful statement on Monday—or the Democrats’ electoral prospects in 2022, for the simple reason that the larger American public just doesn’t care about Afghanistan.

The editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone gets it right:

As for the impact of Afghanistan on US “credibility,” the smart political scientist Marc Lynch thus tweets:

The fall of Kabul and ignominious end to the US presence is naturally being compared to Saigon 1975. On this, the brilliant young historian (notably of modern Algeria), Andrew Bellisari, who teaches at Fulbright University Vietnam, posted a commentary on his Facebook page on Sunday, which I am taking the liberty of copying-and-pasting: 

A lot of comparisons to Vietnam will be made today. They’ve been made since the beginning of our involvement in Afghanistan. They’ll continue for a long time after. Vietnam comparisons are inevitable. They’re everyone’s favorite because “Vietnam” still remains the most evocative shorthand for tragedy and misadventure we have in our journalistic lexicon.

As we see images of Chinooks taking off from the roof of the US embassy in Kabul it’s hard not to make the direct link to Saigon. But the real tragedy is that our handling of Afghanistan is far worse than what occurred in April 1975. In Vietnam, we negotiated a ceasefire and troop withdrawal with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1973 that held for two years. When the DRV began its Spring Offensive in March 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam mobilized 270,000 troops and more than 300 tanks against the 1 million man Army of the Republic of Vietnam. As stunning at the RVN’s disintegration was, at least it occurred between the military forces of two well-equipped sovereign nations.

When North Vietnamese tanks carrying the flags of the southern revolutionary National Liberation Front rolled through the gates of the Dinh Độc Lập , Communist forces were barely two hours behind the last Marine helicopter out of the city. The fear and uncertainty that many South Vietnamese felt in the face of their city’s “liberation” was real. Acts of revenge did take place. Government employees and those who had worked with Americans were rounded up, certain families were blacklisted and relocated to “special economic zones” in undesirable parts of the countryside. “Re-education” (an imperfect translation of “học tập cải tạo“) took place at varying degrees of intensity as Communist forces struggled to win over “reactionary” elements and cement their authority, often in the face of small acts of protest and sabotage. Some were in camps for a few weeks of pro-forma political lessons. Others were held for years.

But the DRV and the Provisional Revolutionary Government had come to integrate the RVN into a unified nation under Communist rule. Proving they could rule competently and winning over the people was their most important goal. No massive violent retribution took place. There was no bloodbath. 20 years after the capture of Saigon, the US and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations. I am a professor of history at a liberal arts college in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Taliban is not the Vietnamese Communist Party. With pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs they steamrolled the Afghan National Army and entered Kabul as US forces were caught off guard, scrambling to leave and get their Afghan allies out. Unlike in Vietnam, no serious effort to negotiate anything with the Taliban was ever attempted. Nor did we attempt to enforce whatever terms were agreed to. What we were hoping for was that the Taliban would hold off until we were out and then move in, precisely so we could avoid the Vietnamese comparison and save face. Meanwhile, we’d watch Afghanistan crumble at a distance. Now we get to watch in real time as 20 years of desultory interventionist liberalism implodes. Unlike in Vietnam, there may very well be a violent coda to Kabul’s capture. Perhaps not right away. Perhaps out of sight just a bit. But the Taliban will try to recreate the state it established in the 1990s. And those Afghans who we convinced to believe in the promises we made will suffer the most. In Afghanistan, the liberal arts college that the US constructed will be shuttered.

So make all the Vietnam comparisons you want. Post the side-by-side pictures of helicopters leaving. We get it: “history is repeating itself.” Wink, wink. But it’s not. It is a new tragedy rooted in lessons forgotten and ignored. But Kabul 2021 is not Saigon 1975. It’s worse. And it’s worse all the more for the brief interlude during which we convinced ourselves it wouldn’t be. Remember that next time.

Could America’s Afghanistan fiasco have been avoided? In a rather hyperbolically titled post in The Cosmopolitan Globalist substack site—edited by my good friend Claire Berlinski—”Biden betrays Afghanistan—and the world,” former airborne sergeant Michael Fumento, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, insists that the US could have thwarted a Taliban conquest with an open-ended force presence of several thousand troops—necessitating a formal denunciation of Trump’s 2020 Doha agreement, which Fumento asserts would have been justified—and with the US backing up the Afghan National Army with air power. The stalemate would have presumably lasted indefinitely, with US forces sustaining losses that Fumento deems acceptable (he suggests that the US should have done likewise in Vietnam after 1973).

WADR, in view of how quickly the Afghan army and state collapsed—simply vanished—it is delusional to think that a residual US military presence—for which there was no political support outside the Beltway—could have changed a thing apart from delaying the inevitable. The futility of the US/Western military engagement in Afghanistan was manifest to anyone who read nothing on the subject but merely watched the feature-length films on the Afghan war that came out over the past decade, which I wrote about in April.

But if one is to read just one article on the subject, let it be Anatol Lieven’s in Politico (Aug. 16), “Why Afghan forces so quickly laid down their arms: Opposing Afghan factions have long negotiated arrangements to stop fighting—something the U.S. either failed to understand or chose to ignore.”

If one wishes to read more articles, see, e.g., “How the good war went bad: America’s slow-motion failure in Afghanistan,” by Carter Malkasian in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020); and “Afghan security forces’ wholesale collapse was years in the making,” by Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post (Aug. 16).

N.B. Whitlock is the author of WaPo’s “The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war,” published in Dec. 2019. The lede: “At war with the truth: U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it, an exclusive Post investigation found.” It begins:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

Going back a decade and some is a piece in Armed Forces Journal (Oct. 1, 2010) by Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, “War on the brink of failure: 7 obstacles stand in the way of success in Afghanistan.” The lede: “Absent a major change in the status quo that currently dominates in Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military effort there will fail to accomplish the president’s objectives and, despite our best effort to spin it otherwise, we will lose the war in Afghanistan.”

There was, needless to say, no major change in the status quo. On this, Davis, now a civilian, posted a commentary four days ago on a website called 19FortyFive, “Why Afghanistan is falling to the Taliban so fast.”

And then there’s this:

Peter Galbraith posted the following on Facebook four days ago:

I watch the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan with disbelief and horror. I first visited the country with the mujahideen on February 14, 1989—the day the Soviets withdrew—and served there as Deputy Head of the UN mission in 2009. So much went wrong but here is my very partial list of those most responsible for the fiasco.

1. The Afghan political and military leaders who were more interested in staying in power than doing anything while in office except for stealing as much as they could.

2. The US government which pumped so much money into Afghanistan that there was a lot to steal and it was easily stolen.

3. Hamid Karzai—Afghanistan’s first president was corrupt, ineffective, weird, and—after the massive fraud that accompanied his reelection, illegitimate. In 2009, he organized the fraud that got him a second term. That enabled him and his cronies to steal everything else.

4. Ban ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General who tolerated the massive fraud in the UN sponsored (and paid for) Afghanistan 2009 presidential elections. This undermined Obama’s surge which may have been the last chance to get it right.

5. David Petraeus, the other US military commanders and the so called strategic thinkers who all declared the Afghanistan War to be a counter-insurgency and also stated that successful counter-insurgencies require a local partner. They then pretended the corrupt Afghan government was a real partner when they knew it wasn’t.

6. USAID which built roads intended to raise rural incomes by getting farm products to market but actually enabled corrupt police to shakedown farmers. This won the Taliban new supporters and the new roads gave the Taliban speedy access to previously defensible areas like the Panjshir Valley (which neither the Soviets or the pre 2001 Taliban ever took).

7. Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan second president, who was a victim of Karzai’s fraud in the 2009 presidential elections and willingly took office—twice—thanks to massive electoral fraud. Ashraf is personally honest but when you come into office thanks to a stolen election, it is hard to crack down on the corrupt power brokers who got you there.

8. The US and UN architects of Afghanistan’s highly centralized constitution that was utterly inappropriate for a country that is as ethnically and geographically diverse as Afghanistan. Not only did the Constitution concentrate all power in Kabul at the expense of the provinces and districts but it also gave all power within Kabul to a Pashtun president as opposed to sharing power with an ethnically diverse parliament.

The rapid collapse follows a surrender agreement negotiated by Donald Trump and implemented by the Biden Administration. There is no reason to think the outcome would be any different if the US took another ten years to withdraw.

A comment by a former French ambassador to Washington (2014-19):

For more on the failed state in Afghanistan, see two remarkable, lengthy articles in The New Yorker—long form journalism at its best—from which I learned a lot: In the July 4, 2016 issue, by George Packer, “Afghanistan’s Theorist-in-Chief: President Ashraf Ghani is an expert on failed states. Can he save his country from collapse?” (response five years later: no); and in the March 8, 2021 issue, by Dexter Filkins, “Last Exit from Afghanistan: Will peace talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?” (response: a collapse; also see/listen to the interview with Filkins on NPR’s Fresh Air).

Also this:

As for what happens now, of how the Taliban are going to rule, there is every reason to fear the worst. E.g. two Afghanistan specialists I esteem, Ahmed Rashid and Gilles Dorronsoro, assert that the Taliban has not fundamentally changed over the past two decades, and is, moreover, still in cahoots with Al-Qaida. But other esteemed specialists differ, e.g. Olivier Roy, who, in an interview (Aug. 16) in Ouest France, “‘On a sous-estimé la stratégie des talibans’,” argues that Taliban 2.0 has indeed evolved since it was ousted in 2001.

And then there’s the NYT guest essay (Aug. 17) by Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute, “How will the Taliban rule? Here’s the early evidence.”

Finally, do take four minutes of your time to read this:

Inshallah.

UPDATE: Roane Carey, former managing editor of The Nation and friend, tells me that if one is looking to read just one book on post-2001 Afghanistan, to figure out what has happened there and why, it should be Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books, 2014).

2nd UPDATE: This is useful.

3rd UPDATE: Sarah Chayes, who knows her subject better than just about any non-Afghan, has one of the best pieces one will read on Afghanistan, “The Ides of August,” on her website. I particularly like this passage:

And what did we [America] stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.

Is that American democracy?

Well…?

4th UPDATE: An article by CPW Gammell in Prospect magazine: “Herat is the cultural heart of Afghanistan. Can it survive the Taliban? A city of poets and artists, Herat once challenged Florence for splendour. In defiance of the Taliban, Heratis have tried to keep that spirit alive.”

5th UPDATE: Pakistani/American lawyer/author Rafia Zakaria has a provocative piece (Aug. 19) in Literary Hub, “How the War on Terror became America’s first ‘feminist’ war,” which is excerpted from her new, provocatively-titled book, Against White Feminism.

6th UPDATE: Ryan C. Crocker, former US ambassador to Pakistan (2004-07) and Afghanistan (2011-12), has a guest essay in the NYT (Aug. 21), “Why Biden’s lack of strategic patience led to disaster,” in which he argues—as does Michael Fumento above, though in a more measured tone—that the US could have maintained an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan.

One sympathizes with Crocker’s sentiments but political scientist Rajan Menon lays waste to such illusions in an excellent analysis (Aug. 20) posted on the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft blog, “Why it’s wrong to blame Biden for the Afghanistan debacle: Washington elites are rightly horrified by the Taliban’s swift takeover, but more troops and more time wouldn’t have made a difference.”

7th UPDATE: Two Afghanistan-themed films seen on Netflix since posting. One is David Michôd’s 2017 War Machine, based on the late journalist Michael Hastings’ 2011 best-seller The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, and with the impeccably cast Brad Pitt’s character rather obviously inspired by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It’s a mordant satire/black comedy, set in 2009-10, on the delusions and general absurdity of the US military, and, pace Ryan Crocker, of the utter futility of the US’ “nation-building” efforts in Afghanistan. Reviews were mixed, which I find puzzling—and totally disagree with—as it’s a very good film, with a sophisticated screenplay and well-drawn characters, and is spot-on in its critique (and which is particularly pertinent today). It was also notably shot in the United Arab Emirates, which I believe is a first for such a sizable-budget film. The Moviefone website justly says that ‘War Machine’ “might be the most wicked, funniest, and wackiest wartime satire since Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ (Yes, it’s really that good).” [UPDATE Aug. 27: Matt Stoller has a great discussion/review of ‘War Machine’ on his Substack site, “The war in Afghanistan is what happens when McKinsey types run everything.”]

The other film is Rod Lurie’s 2020 The Outpost, based on Jake Tapper’s 2012 best-seller (of course) The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (reviewed here in Small Wars Journal), of a US army base camp in Nuristan province that was incomprehensibly located in a valley surrounded by steep mountains and swarming with Taliban fighters, and who launched an all-out assault on the camp in October 2009 (the film was shot in Bulgaria, where one apparently finds the appropriately rugged terrain). It’s a more classic war movie and which was generally well-reviewed. The ultimate battle scene is very well-done, as is the depiction of the soldiers’ band-of-brothers camaraderie. And the interactions of the latter with the local villagers—in which there is a manifest failure to communicate—underscores, perhaps unwittingly, the futility of the American enterprise in Afghanistan.

8th UPDATE: The NYT’s Alissa J. Rubin has a devastating, mind-boggling, must-read report (Aug. 23), “Did the war in Afghanistan have to happen? In 2001, when the Taliban were weak and ready to surrender, the U.S. passed on a deal. Nearly 20 years later, the Taliban hold all the cards.” Money quote:

It was in the waning days of November 2001 that Taliban leaders began to reach out to Hamid Karzai, who would soon become the interim president of Afghanistan: They wanted to make a deal.

“The Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty,” recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the United Nations’ political team in Afghanistan at the time.

Messengers shuttled back and forth between Mr. Karzai and the headquarters of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai envisioned a Taliban surrender that would keep the militants from playing any significant role in the country’s future.

But Washington, confident that the Taliban would be wiped out forever, was in no mood for a deal.

“The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a news conference at the time, adding that the Americans had no interest in leaving Mullah Omar to live out his days anywhere in Afghanistan. The United States wanted him captured or dead.

Almost 20 years later, the United States did negotiate a deal to end the Afghan war, but the balance of power was entirely different by then — it favored the Taliban.

On the Doha negotiations:

“When I heard the U.S. were going to meet in Doha with the Taliban and without the Afghan government, I said, ‘That’s not a peace negotiation, those are surrender talks,’” said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan.

“So, now the talks were all about us retreating without the Taliban shooting at us as we went,” Mr. Crocker added, “and we got nothing in return.”

The deal the Trump administration struck did not enshrine rights for women, nor guarantee that any of the gains the United States had spent so many years, and lives, trying to instill would be preserved. Nor did it keep the Taliban from an all-out military push to take over the country.

It was not even a peace deal. Instead, it extracted a somewhat vague promise by the Taliban to prevent future attacks against the United States and its allies. And even that language was contested: In the agreement, the Taliban refused to accept the word “terrorist” to describe Al Qaeda.

N.B. Obama and Biden bear their share of responsibility for the Afghanistan fiasco but the Bush-Cheney administration and Trump bear far more.

Jeet Heer has an on-target post (Aug. 23) on his Substack site skewering the POVs of people like Ryan Crocker, “Lies about Afghanistan: Joe Biden’s critics in the national security establishment are pretending that the status quo is easily sustainable. That’s absurd.”

9th UPDATE: In the interests of fairness and balance, see the hard-hitting indictment (Aug. 16) of the US action by Pakistani/American columnist Mohammed Taqi in the Indian webzine The Wire, “Biden’s Afghanistan blunder will come back to haunt the US and its allies: Whatever else might be the consequences of the US debacle, Biden has virtually thrown Afghans to the wolves.”

Also take 7-minutes to listen to the anguished testimony of Pulitzer Prize-winning Afghan photo journalist Massoud Hossaini in Mediapart (Aug. 20, in English), who made it out of Kabul—to Turkey, then the Netherlands—in the nick of time.

NPR’s 1A program had a segment this morning (Aug. 24), “Afghan women on what’s at stake for women in Afghanistan,” that is worth the 47-minute listen time.

10th UPDATE: Linking to an NYT guest essay by Afghan national army commander General Sami Sadat—in which he asserts that the withdrawal of US military contractors was one of the factors causing the collapse of the ANA—Anne Applebaum poses this pertinent question:

A particularly delusional argument that the Taliban could have been indefinitely held at bay with 2,500 US troops remaining and US air power and contractors backing up the ANA’s elite units is advanced with insistence by retired US army Lt. Col. Brad Taylor in the National Review (Aug. 25), “The day Afghanistan died,” and where he makes the ridiculous analogy with the US in South Korea.

Ivo Daalder puts paid to this notion in a brief Twitter thread.

Shadi Hamid’s latest piece (Aug. 23) in The Atlantic, “Americans never understood Afghanistan like the Taliban did: In the end, few Afghans believed in a central government that they never felt was theirs,” is worth the read.

11th UPDATE: Ezra Klein settles the matter in an excellent column in the NYT (Aug. 26), “Let’s not pretend that the way we withdrew from Afghanistan was the problem.”

12th UPDATE: Onetime “neocon” Robert Kagan, who’s always interesting to read, has an essay in The Washington Post (Aug. 26), “It wasn’t hubris that drove America into Afghanistan. It was fear.” He manages not to mention the Iraq war once, but we’ll give him a pass on that.

Thomas Meaney, presently a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen—and who writes excellently on a whole range of subjects—has a piece on the war in Afghanistan (Aug. 27) in the London Review of Books, which begins with a series of remarkable quotes and ends with this:

And, just as before, the women and girls of Afghanistan are foremost among the war lobby’s playing chips. They face violence from every quarter and their weaponisation by the West – as a post-hoc justification for invasion and now as an argument for continued occupation – only exposes how irrelevant the long-term future of Afghan women has been to the US project. The improvements in their health and education under the US occupation – as under the Soviet one – are incontrovertible. But to cheer on such progress in a Potemkin state is to lead people to the slaughter. There is talk of an effort on a par with that performed after the collapse of Saigon in 1975 to shelter refugees in coalition countries. But an exodus has been going on for years, and today taking in refugees isn’t the symbol of Western largesse that it was in the 1970s. ‘A simple way to take measure of a country,’ Tony Blair once said, ‘is to look at how many want in … and how many want out.’ That verdict came some time ago in Afghanistan.

13th UPDATE: Ashley Jackson, who is linked to above, enumerates “Five myths about the Taliban” in The Washington Post (Aug. 27). The myths are:

1. Pakistan controls the Taliban.
2. The Taliban fragments easily.
3. The Taliban has a plan for running Afghanistan.
4. The Taliban will bring back al-Qaeda.
5. The Taliban doesn’t reflect Afghanistan’s diversity.

In regard to myths 3 and 4, France’s two top specialists of Afghanistan, Gilles Dorronsoro and Adam Baczko, have a noteworthy tribune in Le Monde (Aug. 25), “‘Le mouvement taliban est paradoxalement dans une situation de faiblesse, le moment est propice pour négocier avec lui’: Dans une mesure limitée mais réelle, l’évolution du nouveau régime en Afghanistan dépendra de notre attitude à son égard.”

14th UPDATE: An exceptional report in The Washington Post (Aug. 28) on the fall of Kabul: “Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war.”

And do not miss the essay by Kevin Baker in Politico Magazine (Aug. 28): “The old cliché about Afghanistan that won’t die: ‘Graveyard of Empires’ is an old epitaph that doesn’t reflect historical reality — or the real victims of foreign invasions over the centuries.”

15th UPDATE: Another terrific article by Anatol Lieven, this in Prospect magazine (Aug. 27): “Nemesis: Why the west was doomed to lose in Afghanistan: And why it could be doomed for good—unless we learn from this catastrophic occupation unmoored from reality.”

Read Full Post »

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

Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good war.” Just about everyone outside the far left—in the US and France, at least—supported the US intervention after 9/11, to smash Al Qaida and eject the Taliban; and, personally speaking, I didn’t waver on this over the years. When it comes to Afghanistan, I have long deferred to the views of two specialists. One is NYU political scientist Barnett Rubin, who quite simply knows Afghanistan better than anyone in the academic world anywhere—and who, in addition, had an Af-Pak policy position in the Obama administration. Whatever Barney Rubin says about Afghanistan, I’ll go with that. The other specialist is the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, whom I started to follow when the Taliban was in power, as he was reporting from Kabul at the time. In his book Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Penguin Books, 2008), Rashid emphatically argued that a fully-funded US/Western/United Nations et al-led “nation building” project could have worked—that the Afghan people in their majority were willing to accept a foreign military presence during the time necessary to rebuild the country—but that the Bush-Cheney administration quickly turned its attention to Iraq and away from Afghanistan. There was a short window of opportunity to make positive things happen in Afghanistan but the US, as is its wont, blew it.

N.B. Barnett Rubin’s latest book: Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2020),

On President Biden’s announcement that the US will entirely withdraw its troops in September, I naturally follow Rubin on this (see, e.g., his United States Institute for Peace Afghan Peace Process Issues Paper of March 2021), as well as Fareed Zakaria—whose analyses are as level-headed and well-considered as they come—in his April 16th Washington Post column, “Biden is right. It’s time to end the forever war in Afghanistan.” (N.B. Zakaria, to his credit, does not speak of “forever wars” in the text of his column, an expression that the sharp MENA specialist Steven A. Cook calls a “cliché” in his latest piece in Foreign Policy). But the smart, erudite, never boring Adam Garfinkle is not so approving of Biden’s announcement, as he spells out in a commentary in The Bulwark (April 16th) on “Leaving Afghanistan: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq.” The lede: “Spoiler alert: This never ends well.” Pessimism over the outcome in Afghanistan after the US departure may indeed be warranted, though it’s hard to see how a prolonged US military presence—and an indefinite Taliban insurgency—could somehow yield a more positive outcome. And particularly as a majority of Afghans, including secular women, are willing to give peace with the Taliban a chance.

And let’s face it: the United States simply lacks the competence and intelligence (in the opposite-of-stupidity sense) to successfully stabilize a country like Afghanistan, as Jason Dempsey—Afghan war veteran and adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security—makes clear in a must-read essay (April 25th) in Politico, “We got Afghanistan wrong [and] what our military misread over the past 20 years.”

On this broad subject, I watched on ARTE last month an excellent multinational/mainly German produced four-part documentary series (which first aired in April 2020) on the past sixty years of Afghan history, Afghanistan: Pays meurtri par la guerre (English title: ‘Afghanistan: The Wounded Land’), with exceptional film footage and interviews. Despite some gaps in the historical narrative it is, from a pedagogical standpoint, the best documentary treatment of that country one will find. Here is a description from a French website (fed through Google Translate and edited à ma guise), with links to the episodes from YouTube (a number of the interviews are in English but the narration is in French):

In four 53-minute episodes, the documentary deciphers Afghanistan’s relentless downward spiral into war and ruin. By way of numerous archives and exceptional testimonies (including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the rival of Commander Massoud; Sima Samar, Afghan Minister for the Status of Women from 2001 to 2003; but also a Taliban, a former CIA officer, and major of the ex-Red Army), it shows how the population found itself entrapped, with hopes and disillusion, by the conflict between the two superpowers of the Cold War and the subsequent civil war involving the Mujahideen and Taliban fundamentalism.

On February 29, 2020, the Americans and the Taliban reached a historic agreement. Can hope for peace finally emerge? What if it came from the oppressed half of the country: women. At the end of the documentary, two speak about this:

Nilofar Ibrahimi, re-elected to parliament in 2018: “I sat at the negotiating table with the Taliban, the Afghan woman is not the same as 20 years ago, they know they can no longer reduce us to silence, this country needs me and hundreds of women like me.”

Shukria Barazkai, also remained in Kabul: “We will solve this problem through discussion and negotiation. Through tolerance and mutual respect. We have the right to disagree but not to kill each other. I learned enormously from this war. We can hit rock bottom, be totally broken, but get up to rebuild our country and ourselves. That’s the beauty of Afghanistan.”

Episode 1 [“The Kingdom”] takes us back to the 1960s, under King Mohammed Zahir Shah, whose reign began in 1933 and during which Afghanistan witnessed its longest period of stability. But there is a big gap between Kabul, where the Westernized elite lives, and the countryside, which has 80% of the population. A severe drought destabilizes the king, who is overthrown in 1973. There is a Communist coup in 1978 and instability begins. On December 27, 1979, the USSR sends its troops to Afghanistan to rescue the Communist regime.

Episode 2 [“The Soviet army”] traces the ten years of war between the Soviet army and the Afghan rebellion, ten years which bled the country dry. Over a million civilians were killed and up to five million crossed the border to seek refuge in Pakistan and Iran.

Episode 3 [“Mujahideen and Taliban”] sees the commanders Ahmed Shah Massoud, an Islamic moderate, and Hekmatyar the fundamentalist engage in internecine warfare, which causes the arrival of a new force in 1996: the Taliban. Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, develops its murderous ideology there. On September 11, 2001, despite Commander Massoud’s warning to the Americans, Al-Qaeda succeeded in carrying out its plan: to strike at the heart of the United States.

Episode 4 [“The NATO troops”] tells about the American and NATO reaction, the collapse in November 2001 of the fundamentalist regime, the hunt for Bin Laden… Democracy emerges, wearing the burqa is no longer compulsory but the extreme poverty and widespread corruption are slowly undermining the country. The Taliban, who had managed to blend into society after their debacle, are regaining ground. And we arrive at today’s deal filled with uncertainties with a thin thread of hope.

A few random comments. First, the images of Kabul in the 1960s and ’70s—of unveiled women pursuing higher education and in the workforce—are a striking reminder of how Afghanistan was modernizing during those decades, without the heavy hand of dictatorship (cf. Iran and Arab states of the era), and what could have been had the country not gone off the rails from 1978 on. Second, it is manifest that the responsible party in triggering the country’s descente aux enfers was Afghanistan’s Communists and the coup d’État they staged in April 1978—their first act being the physical liquidation of President Daoud Khan (who had not been a nasty dictator) and his entire family, including the children. Not an auspicious beginning for a new political order. The Communists were Jacobins on steroids, who, armed with bayonets, were determined to bring modernity to the very conservative rural population whether the latter liked it or not, thus provoking the inevitable, religiously-inspired reaction. As the Communists’ social base was too narrow, the Soviet Union thus made the fateful decision to rescue its client regime from inevitable collapse. Third, the Soviet intervention accelerated Afghanistan’s downward spiral. The US military has killed its share of civilians in its many wars but the Soviet army—which has never paid even lip service to winning hearts and minds—was on another level altogether in Afghanistan. Fourth, the open-ended NATO counter-insurgency was destined to be an unwinnable quagmire—when the short window of opportunity mentioned above passed—in the same way as it was for the Soviets—and for every foreign intervention in Afghanistan’s history. Fifth, the Afghan interviewees in the documentary love their country and profess optimism for its future, however incongruous such sentiments may seem to outsiders. And the women, insisting that Afghanistan has changed over the past two decades, seem not to fear peace with the Taliban, who, they contend, will not try to lock them up as during the 1996-2001 period. Inshallah.

The Soviet army in Afghanistan—specifically, the experience of a Soviet soldier who was captured by the mujahideen—was the theme of a good French film that came out in 2006, L’Étoile du soldat, directed by the prolific filmmaker-journalist Christophe de Ponfilly, who had made a number of reporting trips to Afghanistan (Ahmed Shah Massoud was the subject of at least three of his documentaries). The film, which was shot in Afghanistan and Russia and adapted from the late de Ponfilly’s eponymous novel—itself based on an actual experience of his—is worth seeing (if one can find it).

There have been a dozen or so feature-length films on Afghanistan under the Taliban or post-2001 that have come out over the past two decades (that I’ve seen at least; there are no doubt more but that didn’t make it to France or I somehow missed). The one Hollywood production is German director Marc Forster’s 2007 The Kite Runner, adapted from the best-selling novel by the Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. (As for Mike Nichols’ 2007 Charlie Wilson’s War, which is entertaining and fun, this doesn’t count).

Four films focus on women and their status in that hyper-patriarchal society: Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 2001 Kandahar, which was shot in Iran and clandestinely in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; the 2003 Osama, directed by Siddiq Barmak, based on a real life story during the Taliban era about an 11-year-old girl in Kabul who passes for a boy in order to go to school but, with the onset of puberty, has her true gender revealed and with not nice things then happening to her; Atiq Rahimi’s 2013 Syngue Sabour: The Patience Stone, which I reviewed here; and the 2013 Wajma, an Afghan Love Story, by Barmak Akram, set among the post-Taliban Kabul middle class and which presents such a bleak picture of the female condition that I tweeted this after seeing it.

These films are all worthwhile, particularly ‘Syngue Sabour’ and ‘Osama’. When the latter came out, we saw it en famille, which provided a pedagogical moment for our then 10-year-old daughter. As it happens, the protagonist—the girl who disguises as a boy—named Nadia Ghulam in real life, is one of the interviewees in the documentary series discussed above, now in her mid-30s and speaking in Spanish, as one learns that, sponsored by a Spanish NGO, she relocated in 2006 to Spain, where she pursued higher education and is now settled.

As for war-related films on the NATO intervention, there have been six by my count over the past decade, with, interestingly enough, only one being American, the very good 2010 Restrepo, but which was a documentary. The others have been European, on the participation of soldiers from other contingents of the NATO coalition, which Americans have only been dimly aware of (if at all). When Trump would go on about the NATO allies not pulling their weight or for freeloading off the US—and whose casualties sustained in this US-initiated war he was certainly ignorant of—I wanted to spit in his face (among the countless times I dreamt of doing such).

Probably the best of these war films is the 2014 German Inbetween Worlds (French title: Entre deux mondes), by Austrian director Feo Aladag—whose excellent 2011 When We Leave, on the subject of honor killings among Turks in Germany, I reviewed here—and that was shot on location in northern Afghanistan, which was kind of a daring thing to do. The reviews in Variety, IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter describe the plot better than I can (as it’s been 6½ years since I saw the pic). The beginning of the latter review merits quoting:

Anyone who believes Western military intervention in Afghanistan is a huge waste of time and lives will probably have their opinion confirmed by Inbetween Worlds, a beautifully shot art house film that takes the audience behind the scenes of a German Army unit defending a village from Taliban attacks. Another viewer could argue that director Feo Aladag shows precisely the opposite: the urgent need for Western and Afghani cooperation to win the conflict, at a time when German troops are preparing to withdraw from the country after more than a decade.

The depiction of the interaction between the Western soldiers and the Afghan villagers, who are supposed to be collaborating with the foreigners against the Taliban but who knows?—there is a manifest failure to communicate, and with the Afghan translator endangering his and family’s lives by the mere fact of having his job—led me, at least, to the first sentiment, of sensing the futility of the NATO engagement

Here are brief descriptions of the other films.

Kajaki (a.k.a. Kilo Two Bravo; in France: En terrain miné), directed by Paul Katis. This one, which came out in 2015, tells the true story of British paratroopers, in 2006, who found themselves trapped in a Soviet-era minefield and with the Taliban lurking in the vicinity. It’s a tense film, well-analyzed in this review in The Guardian by historian and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann, “Kajaki – an impressive war movie with questions and ballistic grit.”

A War (same title in France), by the well-known Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm, who has directed and/or written the screenplays for a number of first-rate Danish films and series (including the excellent ‘Borgen’) over the past decade. This one, which was an Academy Award nominee in 2016 for best foreign language film, is similar to ‘Inbetween Worlds’ (though was shot in Turkey and Spain) in depicting the Western soldiers (here, Danes—though it doesn’t matter where they’re from—in Helmand province) fighting an impossible war in a country they don’t understand and whose rural population could not be more culturally alien. And with the inevitable killing of civilians—accidental or deliberate—which happens here. A very good film.

This is actually the second Danish film with an Afghan war theme, the first being Susanne Bier’s 2004 Brothers (Brødre), which I saw when it opened in France and remember thinking good.

Two French films, one Ni le ciel ni la terre (English title: The Wakhan Front), directed by Clément Cogitore, which premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Here, French soldiers patrol a sector in the Wakhan Corridor, near Pakistan, which is relatively peaceful (the pic is shot in Morocco), but one night weird things start to happen and with soldiers vanishing, though not from engagement with the Taliban. The film, which was engaging enough up to this point, albeit somewhat low octane, descends into the supernatural, which, not being a fan of the fantasy genre, I didn’t care for too much. But others may think differently. The cast is good (Jérémie Renier, Kévin Azaïs, Swann Arlaud), as are US reviews, e.g., in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Screen Daily.

The other film is Voir du pays (English title: The Stopover), directed by the sister tandem Delphine and Muriel Coulin, and which premiered at Cannes in 2016. This one I liked more. It’s entirely set in Cyprus, where French soldiers freshly arrived from Afghanistan are “decompressing” at an upscale seaside resort hotel, while attending sessions organized by their superior officers to deal with PTSD and review their recent action in Afghanistan, in which one of their comrades was killed. The protags are two female soldiers—the fine actress Ariane Labed and singer-actress Soko—with one of the film’s themes the uneasy role of women in the army, with its macho, hyper-masculine culture. The thumbs up reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter get it right.

For the record, an Afghanistan war veteran’s PTSD figured in the 2015 Franco-Belgian film Maryland (English title: Disorder), directed by Alice Winocour and which also premiered at Cannes. It’s a slick thriller starring Matthias Schoenaerts (who suffers from the PTSD) and Diane Kruger, though is set entirely on the French Riviera (and mainly in a villa called Maryland), not at all in Afghanistan.

UPDATE: Gilles Dorronsoro of the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, who is France’s leading political science specialist of Afghanistan, has an informative, not-too-optimistic article (April 29th) in the high-quality webzine AOC, “Qui sont les Taliban?” While the Taliban has evolved in certain respects over the past two decades, he observes, notably in attitudes toward technology, it remains rigidly fundamentalist, particularly when it comes to women. And the relationship with Al-Qaida remains largely intact.

2nd UPDATE: Journalist and lawyer Jill Filipovic, who specializes in women’s issues, has a post (April 22nd) on her Substack site, “In the country of men: What does the US owe the Afghan women we’re leaving behind?” In it, she links to what she says is “a really excellent report from the Crisis Group” dated April 6, 2020, “What will peace talks bode for Afghan women?”

3rd UPDATE: Excellent tribune in Le Monde dated May 2-3, by Adam Baczko (CNRS, CERI-Sciences Po) and Gilles Dorronsoro, “La guerre en Afghanistan, première défaite historique pour l’OTAN.”

4th UPDATE: Newlines Magazine—which is new to me and looks to be good quality—has an interesting, knowledgeable article (April 26th) by Austro-Afghan journalist Emran Feroz, “What the CIA did (and didn’t do) in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan: Western leftists think the CIA created al Qaeda by helping the mujahideen shoot down Russian helicopters. They’re wrong.” (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld)

5th UPDATE: Le Monde dated May 30-31 has an enquête by Jacques Follorou datelined Kabul, “Vingt ans après leur intervention en Afghanistan, les Américains s’en vont sur un sentiment d’échec.” The lede: “Privilégiant la lutte contre le terrorisme à la reconstruction du pays, les Etats-Unis ont multiplié les changements de stratégies depuis 2001. Ils quitteront le sol afghan début juillet sans avoir remporté la guerre la plus longue de leur histoire, laissant les talibans en position de force.”

Follorou’s article is followed by a full page interview with Ahmed Rashid, “‘Les talibans n’ont jamais montré la volonté d’aboutir à la paix’.” The lede: “En actant un retrait inconditionnel des troupes américaines d’Afghanistan, le président Joe Biden prend un risque énorme, analyse cet expert pakistanais. Les liens entre les insurgés et Al-Qaida constituent une menace à long terme”…

Read Full Post »

A friend (Franco-Algerian) has asked me for my take on the rapprochement between Morocco and Israel, and the role of the United States, i.e. of Trump and his recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara (neither of these developments have been warmly received by Algerians, needless to say). As for the Israel-Morocco aspect of the matter, the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two states is normal and hardly necessitated US mediation, as they have enjoyed a close, unofficial relationship since the early 1960s—and which became official in 1994 with the opening of liaison offices in their respective capitals (Tel Aviv for the Moroccan one), and while closed by Morocco in 2000, during the second intifada, did not fundamentally change anything. Ronen Bergman has a piece in the NYT on the ongoing 60-year relationship and Yossi Melman writes in Haaretz on how the Mossad, over the same period, built “perhaps the most steadfast clandestine relationship between Israel and any Arab state.”

Morocco’s rich Jewish past and present is obviously the bridge between the two countries—and with Morocco valorizing and promoting that heritage. As one knows, Morocco had, along with Iraq, the largest pre-1948 Jewish population in the Arab world (around 250K), but, unlike Iraq, with Moroccan Jews emigrating pacifically (albeit surreptitiously in the decade after 1956) to Israel over time, with no pressure to leave or flight on account of persecution. And as one equally knows, Israelis with personal or family ties to Morocco (some 10-15% of Israel’s Jewish population) maintain an affectionate relationship with the country and freely travel there—which is unique to Israelis with roots in MENA lands (and despite the fact that the status of Jews in Morocco to the early 20th century was not significantly better than in Eastern Europe). For this reason alone, it makes total sense that the two states would have diplomatic and commercial relations, with tourism, direct flights, and all.

As for the Palestinians, I argued in a social media exchange (with Algerians) that the Israel-Morocco rapprochement won’t change a thing one way or another, though it was observed in a very good 40-minute International Crisis Group podcast conversation—with Rob Malley, Richard Atwood, Dahlia Scheindlin, and Riccardo Fabiani—on “Trump’s Morocco-Israel transaction,” that this will further comfort Netanyahu & Co in their calculation that Israel can normalize with Arab states—as it already has with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan—without conceding a thing to the Palestinians. Good point. It is increasingly evident, however, that no state—even a powerful one like the USA—or coalition of states can compel Israel to make substantial concessions to the Palestinians that it doesn’t want to make—that it believes will compromise its security and/or be rejected by Israeli pubic opinion. E.g. when I visited the Beit El settlement on the West Bank in 2009 and talked to a few people there, it became clear to me that no Israeli government will ever get those settlers out of there were it to try, that there would be refusal and resistance, and that such would be the case with just about every settlement in the occupied territories. Israel is content with the status quo—which I argued over eight years ago—as are most Arab states in regard to the Palestinians, alas.

N.B. The normalization with Israel by Arab states may not only not prejudice the Palestinians but even work to their benefit, with the UAE and other Gulf states financially supporting the Palestinian Authority, investing, and the like (and which may be part of the deal with the Israelis, who will have an interest in that).

The American aspect of the Morocco-Israel deal is another matter. Not only was the US role superfluous—it was thoroughly unnecessary—but the US got nothing whatever out of it. No tangible US interest is advanced in the two states reopening liaison offices and establishing direct flights. Trump was simply doing Netanyahu’s bidding, to reinforce the latter’s election prospects and further solidify Trump’s evangelical base as he tries to stage an autogolpe before January 20th. Not only can this not be considered a foreign policy triumph for Trump—and it’s likewise with the UAE-Bahrain-Sudan deals—but, in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, it’s a big foreign policy blunder and setback for the US. The US thus becomes the first Western state (Albania excepted, if that counts) to recognize Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara.

À propos, one notes with interest the left-right consensus on Trump’s action among the handful of US academic and policy specialists of the Western Sahara question. E.g. on the left, the engagé University of San Francisco political scientist (and friend), Stephen Zunes—who’s co-authored a book on the subject—fired off a Washington Post op-ed arguing that “Trump’s deal on Morocco’s Western Sahara annexation risks more global conflict.” Human Rights Watch—which is not stricto sensu on the left (though I’d be most surprised if a single one of its American staff members did not vote for Biden-Harris)—issued a communiqué (in which acting HRW-MENA director and good friend Eric Goldstein is quoted) stating that “US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty doesn’t change territory’s status.” And FWIW, in the Uber-gauchiste Jacobin, Madrid-based writer Eoghan Gilmartin asserted that “Donald Trump has just traded Western Sahara like a Victorian colonialist.”

The left-leaning Scholars’ Circle Interviews has a worthwhile one-hour podcast conservation on the “Western Sahara conflict towards peaceful resolution,” with academics R. Joey Huddleston, Randi Irwin, Stephen Zunes, and Jacob Mundy.

Particularly interesting are the reactions from Republicans. James A. Baker III, who was the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004, penned a Washington Post op-ed bluntly stating that “Trump’s recognition of Western Sahara is a serious blow to diplomacy and international law.” And then there’s John Bolton, who knows the WS dossier comme sa poche, with a strongly worded piece in Foreign Policy, “Biden must reverse course on Western Sahara: Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty dangerously undermines decades of carefully crafted U.S. policy.”

Accompanying Bolton on the GOP right-wing is the ultra-conservative Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who has long felt strongly about the Western Sahara and been a strong supporter of Polisario, and who pronounced Trump’s action “shocking and deeply disappointing,” declaring himself “saddened that the rights of the Western Sahara people have been traded away.” As one learns in an informative dispatch in Axios by Tel Aviv-based reporter Barak Ravid, it appears that a recent dispute between Trump and Inhofe—who otherwise 100% supports the SOB—paved the way for Trump’s gift to Morocco.

Another Western Sahara/Polisario supporter way out there on the Republican right-wing is the longtime Washington conservative operative David Keene—who also happens to be Algeria’s well-remunerated Washington lobbyist—who ran an op-ed in the Washington Times (which is read exclusively on the right) explaining “Why Trump’s deal with Morocco is immoral and shamefully cynical: The people of the Western Sahara had no say in it’s making, another blow against self-determination.”

I find it intriguing that these right-wing Republicans are so harshly critical of Morocco—which has always been such a faithful ally of the United States and the West—favorable toward Algeria—which has had correct to good relations with the US but, while a leader of the non-aligned movement, tilted toward the Eastern bloc during the Cold War—and supportive of Polisario, which has otherwise been a Third World movement of national liberation and identified with the tiersmondiste camp (and with an always large stand at the French Communist Party’s annual Fête de l’Humanité; for pics of the stand, go here and scroll way down). And that these America-firster conservatives should care so much about a sparsely, exclusively Muslim-populated patch of desert in Africa—and as they have not objected to land-grabs elsewhere (e.g. Israel and its neighbors). There is not a single right-wing person in France who would break ranks with Morocco on this question or touch Polisario with a ten-foot pole. Perhaps Polisario has had an effective US lobbying operation (for the anecdote, I was acquainted with Polisario’s Washington representative back in the mid-80s, who was romantically involved with a college friend of mine; he must have been doing a good job).

The most reliable establishment commentary on Trump’s action IMHO is by Christopher Ross, who served as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy on Western Sahara from 2009 to 2017. Ross was a US Foreign Service officer, spending most of his career in the Arab world (he’s a fluent Arabic-speaker), including as US ambassador to Algeria from 1988 to 1991. Those were my years in Algiers and I saw him a number of times (I was on a Fulbright grant but otherwise had no relationship with the US embassy), at events and dinners, plus a few tête-à-têtes, at the residence and in his office, with him inviting me in to discuss the political situation in Algeria (we were much on the same page, particularly in regard to the rise of the Islamist FIS). Chris Ross represented the best of the US Foreign Service. Voilà his commentary on Trump’s action, posted by Stephen Zunes (Dec. 13th) on his Facebook page:

This foolish and ill-considered decision flies in the face of the US commitment to the principles of the non-acquisition of territory by force and the right of peoples to self-determination, both enshrined in the UN Charter. It’s true that we have ignored these principles when it comes to Israel and others, but this does not excuse ignoring them in Western Sahara and incurring significant costs to ourselves in terms of regional stability and security and our relations with Algeria.

The argument that some in Washington have been making for decades to the effect that an independent state in Western Sahara would be another failed mini-state is false. Western Sahara is as large as Great Britain and has ample resources of phosphates, fisheries, precious metals, and tourism based on wind surfing and desert excursions. It is much better off than many mini-states whose establishment the US has supported. The Polisario Liberation Front of Western Sahara has demonstrated in setting up a government-in-exile in the Western Saharan refugee camps in southwestern Algeria that it is capable of running a government in an organized and semi-democratic way. The referendum proposal that the Polisario put forward in 2007 foresees very close privileged relations with Morocco in the event of independence. It has answered the claim that it could not possibly defend the vast territory of Western Sahara from terrorist or other threats by stating that it would request the help of others until its own forces were fully in place.

It is true that the US has always expressed support for both for the UN facilitated negotiating process and, since 2007, for Morocco’s autonomy plan as ONE possible basis for negotiation. The word ONE is crucial because it implies that other outcomes might emerge and thus ensures that the Polisario stays in the negotiating process instead of retreating into a resumption of the open warfare that prevailed from 1976 to 1991. It was in that year that Morocco and the Polisario agreed to a UN settlement plan that promised a referendum in exchange for a ceasefire. Thirteen years were spent trying to reach agreement on a list of eligible voters, the last seven of them under the supervision of James Baker. In the end, these efforts failed because Morocco decided that a referendum was contrary to its (claims of) sovereignty and, in doing so, got no push back from the Security Council. In 2004, this caused Baker to resign.

The Security Council then substituted direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario as an alternative approach. Chaired by three successive UN envoys from the Netherlands (van Walsum), the U.S. (yours truly), and Germany (Kohler), thirteen rounds of face-to-face talks in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania took place from 2007 to 2019. To date, these efforts have also failed because neither party has been prepared to alter its position in the name of compromise. With the resignation of the most recent envoy in 2019 “for health reasons” but more likely out of disgust for Morocco’s lack of respect and efforts to impede his work (as they did with me), the UN Secretary-General is looking for yet another envoy. Those approached to date have demurred, probably because they recognize that Morocco wants someone who will in effect become its advocate instead of remaining neutral and that, as a result, they would be embarking on ‘mission impossible.’

If we are ever to arrive at a settlement, it will be through a drawn-out negotiating process of some kind. President Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty destroys any incentive for the Polisario to remain in that process. It also threatens US relations with Algeria, which supports the right of Western Saharans to decide their own future through a referendum, and undercuts the growth of our existing ties in energy, trade, and security and military cooperation. In sum, President Trump’s decision ensures continued tension, instability, and disunion in North Africa.

Pour l’info, my principal source of knowledge on the Western Sahara is Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, by Tony Hodges (Lawrence Hill Books, 1983). It’s a terrific book (reviewed here in the NYRB), the first one to read on the subject, in which one learns, among many other things, that Morocco has no legitimate claim to the WS—historically or legally—and that the Sahraoui people, historically mostly pastoral nomads, were largely sedentarized by the early 1970s, had developed a national consciousness under Spanish colonialism, and possessed all the attributes of a nation deserving self-determination. Whether or not Morocco will ever surrender the WS—I have my doubts—is another matter, but the conflict remains,

The parallel between the Moroccan occupation of the WS and the Israelis in the West Bank-Gaza is evident (Moroccans naturally go ballistic over the comparison). There are similarities and clear differences (e.g. the cultural proximity of Moroccans and Sahraouis is obviously closer), but on the level of human rights violations, Stephen Zunes, whose left-wing credentials are ironclad, asserted on his Facebook page last week that these are “much worse” in the Western Sahara than in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Returning to the subject of Moroccan Jews and Israel, I want to briefly mention two feature-length films I’ve seen on the subject over the past several years. One is the 2010 ‘Où vas-tu Moshé?’ (Where Are You Going, Moshe?), directed by Hassan Benjelloun, who recounts-reenacts the sudden, literally overnight exodus in 1963 of the Jewish community in his town in the Atlas mountains, which he witnessed as a boy. There was no particular problem between the communities, which co-existed cordially, but the deeply religious Jews dreamed of aliyah to the ‘land of Zion’, of which they concretely knew little, and as emigration to Israel was not authorized at the time, the collective departure was organized clandestinely by the Jewish Agency. So one day the townspeople woke up to find that the local Jews were all gone and with their shops shuttered, having slipped out of town en masse in buses in the middle of the night. It’s an interesting, original film, needless to say.

I read about the film when it opened—it came and went—but heard more about it in 2011 from a former Franco-Moroccan student of mine, who happened to be in Israel-Palestine (working with a Palestinian-oriented NGO), who was so impressed with the film (which she had seen in Canada, where it was co-produced) that she took the initiative to promote it in Israel and organize screenings, particularly in localities with sizable Moroccan communities. It received an enthusiastic reception and showed at the 2011 Maghreb film festival in Ashdod, which saw a good turnout.

The other film is a 2012 documentary, Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echoes from the Mellah, by Kamal Hachkar, a Franco-Moroccan public school teacher in Paris, whose family hailed from Tinghir, a town in southern Morocco, from which Kamal’s parents emigrated to France shortly after his birth in 1979 but which he regularly visited on family vacations while growing up. On one visit he learned, to his surprise, that Tinghir had had a Jewish community but which suddenly departed in the 1960s, to Israel, and which the younger generation in the town knew almost nothing about. Fascinated by the discovery, Hachkar decided to research his ancestral town’s Jewish past and make a documentary—he talked about it at a screening I attended in 2013 and heavily promoted the film on Facebook—which involved interviewing inhabitants of Tinghir about their memories of the town’s Jews, then tracking down the latter in Israel and traveling there to meet them. This part is quite interesting. The Tinghir Jews imagined they were going to a mythical Jerusalem in the mythical land of Zion but when they arrived in Israel they were settled in apartment blocks in soulless development towns. It wasn’t what they were expecting. When Hachkar met the Tinghir old-timers in Israel, who spoke with him in Tamazight, they welcomed him like a long-lost member of the family (watch the moving segment here of one of them on a Skype conversation with Hachkar’s father). It’s too bad it’s not likewise with other Israeli MENA Jews and their countries of origin.

Hachkar’s film was shown on Moroccan television in 2012 and screened publicly, provoking a firestorm, with Hachkar and the film denounced by Islamists and others in the anti-normalization crowd, and which was perhaps stoked by Hachkar’s rather manifest philo-semitism. Jamal Bahmad, who teaches at Mohammed V University in Rabat, has an informative post on this from February 2013 in Africultures, “Tinghir-Jerusalem-Tangier: The Jew, the imam and the camera in Morocco.” But that’s all in the past, so says Hachkar—who now lives in Morocco—in an interview last week in the Moroccan Le 360 website, with the film and its message of fraternity no longer arousing controversy. C’est bien.

Read Full Post »

[update below]

What a way to ring in the new decade. I’ve been reading about the Qasem Soleimani assassination for a good part of the day, plus discussing it with dear friend Adam Shatz, who has an instant commentary up on the LRB website, “Trump declares war.” Soleimani was certainly a “bad guy”—in a world where bad guys are a dime a dozen—but terminating him with extreme prejudice was a colossally stupid thing to do and for a number of reasons. E.g. one reads in a must-read portrait of Soleimani in The Daily Beast, dated August 7, 2018, by the well-known Middle East correspondant Borzou Daragahi, “Is the Iranian general taunting Trump on a U.S. hit list?”:

Many described the idea of targeting Suleimani as counterproductive, entailing untold risks without any guaranteed benefits. In 2008, Suleimani, famously approached then U.S. General David Petraeus to inform him that he was the guy who could stop the rocket attacks hitting U.S. bases in Iraq. Since then the U.S. has managed to communicate indirectly with Suleimani through Iraq’s Kurds and other officials. The senior Obama administration national security official said the U.S. contemplated directly reaching out to Suleimani to ask him to rein in militias bombing American troops as they were attempting to withdraw from the country in 2011.

In the pantheon of rogues, troublemakers and warlords playing the Middle East’s games of infiltration and subterfuge, Suleimani’s a guy you can at least talk to.

Andrew Exum, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, writes in The Atlantic that Soleimani was Iran’s “indispensable man,” thus irreplaceable. I’m dubious that anyone in a large organization is indispensable and, as Daniel W. Drezner reminds us, ‘[s]tandard international relations theory suggests that decapitating a key leader would not fundamentally affect that state’s capacity to act.” And political science MENA specialist Marc Lynch tersely tweeted, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Borzou Daragahi continues:

“There’s a verified public history of the U.S. making outreach efforts,” said a former CIA official who served in Iraq and worked on Iran. “[Suleimani is] still an asshole. But we know his mentality. We know him. It’s not a secret what he does.”

There’s another consideration. Some former officials liken Suleimani to a sort of Ho Chi Minh, overseeing a cabal of brasher, bolder and more ruthless young men eager for action and recognition. Get rid of Hajj Qasem, as he is known by his supporters in the Shiite world, and power might pass into the hands of a more reckless young tough eager to make a name for himself. ”If there’s a younger, more ruthless generation waiting in the wings, I’d rather stick to granddad,” said the former CIA official.

N.B. The Israelis have had plenty of experience assassinating top bad guys in Hizbullah and Hamas, with both now stronger than ever.

If one missed it at the time, Dexter Filkins had a lengthy portrait of Soleimani, “The shadow commander,” in the September 30, 2013, issue of The New Yorker.

Gary Sick has a particularly excellent analysis, “Trump lit a fire by exiting the Iran deal & poured gasoline on it by assassinating Soleimani,” posted on the Responsible Statecraft blog.

Also see the irate post by The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, “Four years ago, Trump had no clue who Iran’s Suleimani was. Now, he may have kicked off WWIII.” Money quote:

This is not a column, however, about the consequences of the United States government assassinating the second-most powerful man in Iran… Rather, this is a column that allows me to express my ongoing astonishment that Donald Trump is president of the United States; my ongoing bewilderment with a world in which an unhinged, know-nothing former reality TV star and property developer, with zero background in foreign affairs or national security, may have just kicked off World War III. (From his golf course, no less.)

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment has a tweet storm on Soleimani (here) that is worth reading. Likewise with Politico Europe’s Rym Momtaz (here). Both are dubious that we’re looking at WWIII.

Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution writes in The Washington Post that Iran will “bide its time” and that we should not “expect immediate retaliation for Soleimani,” though concludes that “[n]either Trump nor Tehran may really want a war, but each side has proved unwilling or incapable of detouring from a path that will almost inexorably precipitate a much wider and more costly conflict.” Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative writes in the NY Times that “Qassim Suleimani’s killing will unleash chaos.” Robin Wright, who has been writing about the Islamic Republic of Iran forever, and Fred Kaplan are very much on the same wavelength.

As for “The Democrats’ gutless response to Trump’s airstrike,” maybe more on that another time.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Julia Ioffe, who is normally a first-rate journalist, has a piece in GQ arguing that a war with Iran would all but guarantee Trump’s reelection (people rallying around the flag, etc). Arguing the opposite is UC-Irvine political scientist Michael Tesler, writing in Monkey Cage, who posits that “[a]ttacking Iran won’t help Trump win reelection.” A key initial factor in public opinion supporting a war and thus the president, he says, is a bipartisan elite consensus, which was the case in past major wars (Iraq, Vietnam, etc). This is not likely to obtain if Trump launches a war with the Islamic Republic.

À propos, Bernie Sanders gave a speech (excellent) last night (Jan. 3rd) at a town hall in Iowa strongly condemning Trump’s Iran action and talk of war (watch here, from 46:00). And Elizabeth Warren had a strongly-worded series of tweets (here) in the same vein. Andrew Yang is also on this wavelength. If Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and other candidates occupying the moderate lane—plus Nancy Pelosi and the congressional leadership—were to acquiesce in a Trump war with Iran—or even tone down the critique—this would blow the Democratic Party apart, a consequence being that Trump would indeed win in November. For this reason, I will wager that in the ghastly eventuality that a war happens, Biden, Pelosi & Co will align themselves with the Sanders-Warren-Yang position.

Read Full Post »

Australia had a parliamentary election on Saturday, if one didn’t know, with the outcome a shocker, as the incumbent conservative coalition led by PM Scott Morrison won against all expectations, the polls having unanimously pointed to a decisive Labor Party victory. One does not have to care one way or another about Australian politics to regret this result, as the very conservative Morrison—who’s a Pentecostal (already one strike against him)—is not good on the climate change issue—which is particularly important there (Great Barrier Reef, etc)—and is downright execrable on immigration, which he was in charge of as a government minister in 2013-14, putting in place Australia’s cruel policy of sending asylum seekers (principally from Iran and Afghanistan) to Christmas Island, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea, where they are kept in what are in effect prison camps for years on end, their asylum applications rejected but with repatriation manifestly inadvisable (if one wishes to read about this—and be indignant—see the reportages by Roger Cohen here and here). Scott Morrison is not a good man.

One of the news articles I read about the Australian election referred to “the cut-throat world of politics in Canberra.” As it so happens, I just watched in the past month—on the recommendation of a political science friend—the full two seasons (six episodes each) of the riveting Australian Netflix series Secret City, which is entirely set in and around Canberra (with a few brief scenes in Adelaide in season 2). It’s all about espionage, geopolitics, and just Australian politics, and boy, it sure is cut-throat, both figuratively and [spoiler alert!] literally. Here’s a brief description from IMDb:

Beneath the placid facade of Canberra, amidst rising tension between China and America, senior political journalist Harriet Dunkley uncovers a secret city of interlocked conspiracies, putting innocent lives in danger including her own.

That’s as much as one needs to know. The screenplay is sophisticated—it’s very well written—the pacing impeccable, and the acting first rate. It’s an Aussie answer to the brilliant French series The Bureau (and is, needless to say, on a far higher level than ‘Homeland’). It’s just all around excellent. In the first season the bad guys appear to be China but that’s somewhat of a ruse, as in season 2 [spoiler alert!], a Deep State theme is developed (yes, there is indeed one Down Under). The message, and which holds everywhere: if you want to know where the real threat to your homeland comes from—to your security and freedoms—look at your own state. The threat is at home.

A sub-theme in season 2 [spoiler alert!] is drone warfare, of Australian military drones in action over Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of the international coalition in that conflict—and of the PTSD-suffering drone pilot having notched 448 kills, so we learn, not all of whom were Taliban and other bad guys. This reminded me of the 2015 Hollywood movie, Good Kill, by director Andrew Niccol, which, to my knowledge, was the first one of its sort to focus on the ethical dilemmas of military drones, here via the états d’âme of the protag drone pilot, played by Ethan Hawke, who kills people in Af-Pak daily—who may or may not be combattants—whom he sees on his console screen at a base in Nevada, after which he goes home to wife and children in his sub-division. The film deals ably with its subject, though is somewhat marred by a Hollywoodish sub-plot about the protag’s marital problems. Reviews were middling, including in France, but the pic may certainly be seen (and Allociné spectateurs liked it more than did the critics).

On drone warfare and the effects it has on the soldiers who wage it via remote control, see the excellent New York Times Magazine article (June 13, 2018) by Eyal Press, “The wounds of the drone warrior.” And going back a few years: “Confessions of a drone warrior,” by Matthew Power, in GQ; “Everything we know so far about drone strikes,” by Cora Currier, in ProPublica; and Jane Mayer’s “The predator war: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” in The New Yorker.

Back to ‘Secret City’, as much as I liked it I hope it doesn’t go to a third season. It achieved closure at the end of season 2. Nothing is left hanging and it said what it needed to say.

Read Full Post »

This just opened in France. The reviews are good to very good—better than in the US—and with friends asking what I think of it (as I saw it in the US last month). My succinct take: the film is brilliantly cast and acted—particularly Christian Bale, whose performance is exceptional—the politics are impeccable—Dick Cheney was/is a right-wing reactionary de la pire espèce, not to mention a despicable human being—and is well-done overall and entertaining, but it’s just a little too un-nuanced and heavy-handed. The pic is a red meat crowd-pleaser for liberals and lefties: agitprop for that very sizable portion of America’s citizenry—of which I am a part—who despised and loathed the Bush-Cheney administration, indeed the Republican Party tout court (don’t even talk about the Trump regime).

Journalist-writer James Mann—who authored the most important book on the war cabinet of Bush-Cheney’s first term—had a spot-on critique of the film, dated December 28th, in The Washington Post, “The Dick Cheney of ‘Vice’ just craves power. The reality was worse.” The lede: “The former veep’s ideological agenda did far more damage than his quest for clout.” The film does indeed focus mainly on personality and gives short-shrift to key historical moments, e.g. the 1990-91 Gulf War—which is barely mentioned—as well as to Cheney’s ideological motivations, which, as we know, were deep, and on domestic policy as well as foreign.

I also had a problem with the implicit suggestion that the Iraq war was driven by oil and Halliburton contracts, which was not only nonsense but stupid, boneheaded nonsense (for my own view of the Iraq war, go here). In short, while Adam McKay’s film may certainly be seen, my assessment of it is mixed.

Another movie about US politics I’ve seen of late is Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, about the sudden demise of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in May 1987. The film opened in France in mid-January, vanishing from the salles obscures after two weeks (I caught it in the nick of time). Hollywood movies on subjects of little interest to the French public (e.g. baseball, US politicos almost no one has heard of or remembers) usually linger a little longer. The film is based on journalist Matt Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, which chronicles what was the first-ever media-fabricated sex scandal (or “scandal”) that felled a presidential candidate. Bai’s book—which the NYT’s reviewer called “a miniclassic of political history”—is also an indictment of the behavior of the media—the Miami Herald and Washington Post in particular—during the miserable episode. Bai is still indignant three decades later at the media feeding frenzy that ended the political career of the Democratic Party’s most promising politician of the time—and certainly one of the smartest—and its strongest candidate by far going into the 1988 presidential campaign. Hart’s downfall, as Bai wrote in the NYT Magazine, forever changed American politics. And not for the better.

Bai is not the first author to take on the media for its role in Hart’s fall. John Judis published an enquête, “The Hart Affair,” in the July-August 1987 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review—unfortunately not online—which begins:

Sooner or later Gary Hart would probably have destroyed his own candidacy. Hart, the Washington Post‘s Meg Greenfield wrote in retrospect, was “living a life he could not justify or reveal.” But the inevitability of Hart’s political demise does not justify the press’s singular role in precipitating it. In reporting about Hart, the mainstream press departed from its past standards in covering a candidate’s private life and displayed unwonted recklessness in reporting what it had discovered.

We’ll obviously never know if Hart would have self-destructed if he had never crossed paths with Donna Rice in Florida. Perhaps, but perhaps not.

Before the 1984 presidential campaign I was aware that Hart was a senator from Colorado but didn’t know much about him until he emerged as a serious candidate, unexpectedly winning the New Hampshire primary and giving Walter Mondale a run for his money. I wished Hart well at the time—though voted for Jesse Jackson in the Illinois primary in March—as I didn’t find Mondale—a good man and decent liberal—too inspiring, and doubted his chances against Reagan. I was an enthusiastic Hart supporter from the summer of 1986, as he prepared his candidacy for ’88, though was pretty much alone in this among my lefty friends in Chicago, where I was living at the time, who thought of him as a neoliberal (which was absolutely not the case). The one time I saw Hart speak was at a Citizen Action convention in September ’86, at a hotel near O’Hare airport. The reception was indifferent. I remember him speaking, getting no questions, and leaving unnoticed. And needless to say, I was stunned and incensed by the media feeding frenzy over the Donna Rice/Monkey Business business and its denouement, as there was no evidence that Hart had done anything wrong or unethical, let alone illegal. Quel gâchis.

I was reminded of the Hart debacle last November, before hearing about ‘The Front Runner’, in reading an article in that month’s issue of The Atlantic by James Fallows, “Was Gary Hart set up? What are we to make of the deathbed confession of the political operative Lee Atwater, newly revealed, that he staged the events that brought down the Democratic candidate in 1987?” Now James Fallows is quite simply one of America’s best journalists—and has been for decades—whose signature is a mark of quality, and whom I will read on any subject. And while I am allergic to conspiracy theories of any sort, if Fallows is speculating that Hart was indeed a victim of a plot in 1987—that the Monkey Business was a Republican dirty tricks operation and with there being no evidence that anything happened with Donna Rice—then I need to take that seriously. And John Judis, who was a Hart supporter when the thing happened, informs me that a number of level-headed observers have indeed suspected all along that it was a set-up.

I would certainly like to believe the theory but in reviewing the affair after seeing the movie, I don’t know. Hart was, after all, a reputed coureur and there was no reason for the comely Ms. Rice, who had no known political convictions at the time (nowadays she’s a conservative evangelical and Trump supporter), to have paid him a visit at his Capitol Hill townhouse except for we know what. But whatever. It was their private business and no one else’s. In point of fact, the biggest mistake Hart made during the media frenzy was to have abandoned his candidacy, particularly as public opinion was with him. If he had stonewalled the reporters and continued campaigning, he would have likely survived intact—as did Bill Clinton five years later after the Gennifer Flowers eruption.

As for the movie, which covers the final three weeks of the ill-fated campaign, it’s not bad. Hugh Jackman is well-cast as Hart, as is Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee (portrayed by the media at the time as a silently suffering martyr). Leaving the theater I wondered what the point was in making the film, particularly today. Perhaps as a reminder to the Fourth Estate that it is not exempted from critique—for its herd mentality, obsession with ratings, etc—while we’re all celebrating it—and rightly so—in this age of Trump? Whatever the reason, one thing we do know—and do not regret—is that it is no longer conceivable that an American presidential candidate could be driven from a race for having had a sexual relationship with someone who was not his (or her) spouse. Good for that.

Another Hollywood movie with a US politics theme I’ve seen of late is the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder. This one has had more success at the box office in France than ‘The Front Runner’, perhaps in part because of its title, Une femme d’exception (which is superior to the English one), even though not too many here know who RBG is. The reviews have also been positive, including among Allociné spectateurs, whereas they were mixed in the US. It’s a perfectly serviceable biopic, beginning with RBG—ably played by Felicity Jones—at Harvard Law School in the 1950s as one of the tiny handful of female students, and who had a baby to boot; then the sexism she had to confront in the 1960s, being rejected by major law firms despite her brilliant law school record; career as a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she pioneered the study of gender discrimination; and which ends with her victory in the SCOTUS’s 1975 landmark ruling in the Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld case, for which she wrote the brief. It’s a feel-good movie about a remarkable person, and which, entre autres, shows that women can indeed “have it all”—how I hate that expression (when prefaced with “can’t”)—of leading an exceptional career and doing great things, and while raising a family (having a loving, supportive husband certainly helped).

Someone on Twitter last month made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how nice it would be if we could all subtract one day from our respective lives and add it to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (which would certainly prolong it into the next millennium). We’re all crossing our fingers that she remains in good health to at least January 2021…

Read Full Post »

[updates below]

Far from me to speak positively of a Republican president but of the six in my politically conscious lifetime, he was the least bad. And unlike the others (Gerald Ford excepted), I never actively disliked him, let alone despised. I naturally voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988—who was my candidate from the outset of that primary season—and was thrilled with Bill Clinton’s victory in ’92. On that 1988 campaign, Bush carries the stain of the Willie Horton ad—and of having hired his racist campaign manager, Lee Atwater, in the first place, who hatched the ad—and demagoguing the ACLU, entre autres. But when it came to domestic policy during his administration, he was pretty good for a Republican, as Matthew Yglesias reminds us, e.g. signing the Americans With Disabilities Act, a law expanding legal immigration, amendments to the Clean Air Act that tightened regulation of air pollution, running afoul of the NRA (and whose membership he renounced in 1995), and, of course, approving a tax increase when this needed to happen. Utterly inconceivable for a GOPer after his presidency, not to mention today. Bush was a moderate Republican, an honorable political species that is now all but extinct. Like many moderate Republicans he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, which, for a lifelong Republican, was an honorable thing to do.

It was, of course, in foreign policy where Bush stood out. Borrowing from Georges Marchais (albeit in a different context), le bilan était globalement positif, i.e. the record was largely positive. I personally supported the 1989 Panama invasion at the time, though felt differently about it later in view of the civilian casualties. I did not, however, feel differently later on about the 1990-91 Gulf intervention, during which I entirely, 100% supported the Bush 41 administration. As I’ve already written about this I won’t elaborate here, except to recount how, in October ’90, I informed a group of Saddam Hussein-supporting youths on an Algiers street, who were trying to get my goat (they were from my neighborhood, so knew me), that Bush would squash Saddam like a bug, and then stomped my foot on the ground like I was squashing a bug, specifying that I was Bush and the imaginary bug was Saddam. Not an adult-like reaction but, hey, it made me feel good. I did change my mind later—in 1998, to be precise—on the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq, i.e. that it should be unilaterally ended, in view of the catastrophic effects it was having on the Iraqi people, but that was under the Clinton administration’s watch.

Bush père is also to be commended for his even-handed policy toward Israel, in opposing settlement construction in the occupied territories and refusing to be intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Above all, though, was the role he played at the end of the Cold War, specifically the fall of the Berlin wall and inevitable reunification of Germany. Bush’s leadership on this—on unequivocally endorsing reunification—was critical, and contrasted with the, shall we say, unhelpful attitudes of François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher. In foreign policy, Bush was, in Walter Russell Mead’s four school schema, a Hamiltonian, befitting his elite East Coast pedigree: internationalist, Europe-oriented, and strongly adhering to a free trade regime, American participation in multilateral institutions, and close relationships with longstanding allies. In the Hamilton world-view, the prosperity of Europe and the world is in the interest of America, as it contributes to the prosperity of America and, concomitantly, to peace and stability. It is the opposite of zero-sum, which is to say, the world-view of the present occupant of the White House. Bush was indeed the kind of American president most appreciated in chancelleries in Western Europe, and most definitely in Paris. George H.W. Bush was the last Hamiltonian president of the Republican Party we are likely to see.

Stephen Walt summed it up in this tweet:

Tim Naftali, a clinical associate professor of history and public service at NYU, has an obituary in Slate that is worth the read, “The overlooked president: We should thank George H.W. Bush for many of the successes attributed to Reagan and Clinton.” And see the seven-minute video from Vox, “The George H.W. Bush promise that changed the Republican Party.”

Conclusion: GHW Bush was the kind of Republican whose election we would be disappointed by though without fearing catastrophe. Or worse.

And, needless to say, he was far better than his son.

UPDATE: David Greenberg—who teaches history, journalism, and media studies at Rutgers University—has a critical article in Politico, “Is history being too kind to George H.W. Bush? The 41st president put self-interest over principle time and time again,” that views Bush differently from Tim Naftali, linked to above.

2nd UPDATE: Voilà Bruce Bartlett, writing in The Baffler, “Death and taxes: George H. W. Bush was right about taxes, but he broke the Republican Party.”

3rd UPDATE: Andrew Nagorski writes in The Daily Beast that “Reagan brought down the Berlin Wall, but it was George H.W. Bush who unified Germany.” The lede: “A united Germany might not have emerged at all without the consummate skill that the late president displayed.”

4th UPDATE: Here’s a critical assessment by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, “George H.W. Bush was a family man and war hero who gave America its horribly destructive politics.”

5th UPDATE: Never Trumper ex-neocon Max Boot calls George H.W. Bush “the anti-Trump.”

6th UPDATE: The New Republic’s Jeet Heer writes on “The whitewashing of George H. W. Bush: Elite nostalgia and anti-Trump sentiment are leading to one-sided reminiscences.”

7th UPDATE: John Judis has a post in TPM on “George H.W. Bush and the quest for a realistic foreign policy.”

Read Full Post »

[update below] [2nd update below]

Subtitle: “The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia.” This is the latest book by journalist and writer Craig Unger, whose previous ones include the 2004 House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties. I’ve been following the Trump-Putin/Russia link like everyone, though haven’t been as riveted to the story as have others. Reading the recent enquêtes by Jonathan Chait, Julia Ioffe, and Blake Hounshell was more than enough to convince me that Trump’s engagement with the Russians is deep and long-standing, and that Vladimir Putin does indeed have the goods on him.

Unger seems to push the story to a whole new level, though. Now I have admittedly not yet seen the book, though did read the article (August 28th) in The Times of Israel, by founding editor David Horovitz, and which is followed by an interview with Unger, “Bestselling US author: ‘Russian asset’ Trump doesn’t truly care for Israel, Jews.” The lede: “Craig Unger, author of ‘House of Trump, House of Putin,’ urges Israel to be wary of dangerous, unprincipled US president, and even more so of Russian leader who helped install him.” It’s an amazing piece, an absolute must-read. Unger details the deep relationship of Trump with the Russian Mafia, whose oligarchs have laundered billions of dollars in Trump’s real estate empire—the American real estate industry being “virtually unregulated,” in Unger’s words. There is, in addition, an important Israel link. Quoting Horovitz:

Unger’s revelations directly impact Israel as well. About half of those 59 named “Russia Connections” are Jewish, and about a dozen of the 59 are Israeli citizens and/or have deep connections to Israel. (Several of those he names, such as Lev Leviev, Alexander Mashkevich and Mikhail Chernoy, are very wealthy and prominent businessmen with direct access to the highest levels of Israel’s elected leadership.)

Those numbers necessarily raise questions about whether Israel too is being compromised by Putin’s Russia — about whether unsavory characters are exploiting Israel’s Law of Return to gain Israeli citizenship and by extension access to the West; about whether Israel, with its own lax financial regulations and inadequate law enforcement, is serving as a conduit for money laundering by Moscow-linked individuals and companies; and about whether Moscow is building strategic relationships with Israeli politicians — as Unger charges it has done to such phenomenal effect with the president of the United States — in order to influence and if necessary subvert Israeli policies in its interest.

Israel is not the focus of the book and Unger says he doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s pretty clear that Bibi Netanyahu is knee-deep—if not higher—in the muck and that Israel is a pretty corrupt place. As is the United States—except that in the US, corruption, a.k.a. K Street, is mainly legal. Also, Vladimir Putin is indeed a danger, and particularly to Europe. Just read the piece, right now.

UPDATE: Specifically on the “House of Trump,” lots of people have been (rhetorically) asking over the past three years if the S.O.B. is a fascist. The real thing. The most recent are journalists Talia Lavin—presently a researcher of far-right extremism and the alt-right at Media Matters—and Andrew Stuttaford—a contributing editor at the National Review—who debated the question, “Is it right to call Trump a fascist?,” in the September issue of Prospect magazine, with Lavin saying ‘yes’, the branleur is indeed one (small f), and Stuttaford ‘no’, that El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago may be a lot of things but he’s not that. I agree wholeheartedly with Lavin, ça va de soi, as would, I am sure, my favorite “neocon” intellectual Robert Kagan, whose column from May 2016, “This is how fascism comes to America,” may be reread with profit.

2nd UPDATE: NYT contributor Thomas B. Edsall has a must-read column (Sep. 6th), “Trump and the Koch brothers are working in concert.” The lede: “They disagree about trade, tariffs and immigration, but don’t be fooled. Neither side can get what it really wants without help from the other.”

Read Full Post »

Credit: Getty Images

Like everyone I read all about last Tuesday’s grotesque farce in Singapore, though as it was so manifestly a publicity stunt, indeed a con job, by the White House dotard—the DPRK regime is to be eternally commended for informing us native speaking Anglophones of the existence of this word in the English language—I avoided watching the TV coverage. It goes without saying that the summit was a clear win for the DPRK and with the US coming away with nothing in particular; this is the consensus among objective observers and commentators (so much so that no references are necessary). How could it be otherwise with an ignorant idiot like Trump, whose sole sources of information are what he sees on television and whatever may be whispered in his ear by one of the lackeys, lickspittles, or whackadoodles in his entourage? He reads nothing, as we know, not even short memos or abbreviated intelligence briefings. The fact that Trump was winging it in Singapore—that the preparatory work of his staff was minimal and that he had no idea what he was doing or talking about—was confirmed—if confirmation were necessary—by his own words at the press conference after the event.

While the reviews of Trump’s performance have been heavily negative, I did note a couple of gauchiste friends on social media who put a positive spin on it, taking liberals and lefties to task while they were at it for not giving Trump credit where credit was due. One of their arguments was that South Koreans in their majority were delighted by what happened in Singapore. Well, of course they would be: when a mentally deranged US dotard president threatens to rain “fire and fury” on the Korean peninsula and then, for reasons known only to himself—and even then—suddenly does a 180° and starts talking peace, then obviously people south of the 38th parallel will be relieved. So no, Trump gets zero credit. None whatever.

One friend who has weighed in publicly on Singapore is Stephen Zunes, a smart engagé political scientist well-known among lefties and peace activists, who posted his take on social media, and on which he invited me to comment. So here’s his commentary followed by my response:

Some thoughts on the Singapore Summit between Trump and Kim:

1) The joint statement is vague and doesn’t amount to much, so I’m dubious it will amount to any treaty or denuclearization or lasting peace, at least while Trump is president

2) Nevertheless, they are talking with each other instead of threatening each other and are at least pretending to move in the right direction, and that is very positive

3) US-South Korean military exercises, while largely defensive in nature, are not really necessary and are seen as provocative by the North Koreans, so their unilateral suspension by Trump as a confidence-building measure is a good thing

4) If Obama had done the same thing Trump has done in recent days regarding North Korea, Democrats would be defending him and Republicans would be mercilessly attacking him. Since it’s Trump, however, it’s largely been the other way around. The summit and the joint statement should be judged on its own merits, not by partisan politics

5) Trump is being totally hypocritical to walk away from a detailed verifiable nuclear agreement with Iran while praising a vague unverifiable set of principles with North Korea.

6) North Korea would be naïve to sign any binding agreement with Trump, since he clearly does not feel obliged to keep the United States’ international commitments

7) The joint statement was NOT one-sided in North Korea’s favor. It was one-sided in the United States’
favor, since it said nothing about the U.S. eventually getting rid of or even reducing its vast nuclear arsenal

8) North Korea is a horrific dictatorship, but that doesn’t mean that the United States shouldn’t engage in respectful diplomatic negotiations in areas of mutual concern. Indeed, the Trump administration provides arms and security assistance to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes with bipartisan support in Congress, so it’s ridiculous to claim that meeting with Kim means the United States is suddenly coddling dictators

9) Trump probably took his far more moderate and conciliatory position than many expected because the South Koreans had so strongly objected to his earlier belligerent approach and he realized it would be difficult for a country on the far side of the world to take a more hardline position than the country most affected by North Korea

10) Despite these positive developments, the world should still be concerned about having an unstable impulsive militaristic narcissist with nuclear weapons; we should also be concerned about Kim Jong-un.

I agree with all of these points except 3, 7 and 9, and with a comment on 2. On the latter, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war but in this case, the only serious threat of war—and nuclear at that—has come from Trump. The DPRK may act crazy from time to time but, as I think we understand, it is not actually crazy, and certainly not enough to launch a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack on South Korea or Japan, let alone the US. Sure, it’s a totalitarian regime and behaves horribly toward its own people, plus to unfortunate foreigners who get into trouble there, but it does not behave irrationally in its foreign dealings. And while we have no idea about Kim Jong-un’s mental health state, we do about that of the malignant narcissistic megalomaniac in the White House, who is entirely capable of doing another 180°, tearing up what was signed at Singapore, and once again threatening to rain fire and fury if it dawns on him that he’s being played by Kim. As Emmanuel Macron and countless others have learned, Trump keeps no commitments, respects no rules, and has no friends. So one can only look at what happened in Singapore with a jaundiced eye.

On point 3: the US-South Korea military exercises are entirely legitimate and normal in view of the defense treaty between the two countries, the heavy militarization of the DPRK, and the formal state of war that still exists. Trump’s unilateral suspension was not only gratuitous—he did not need to offer Kim any more confidence-building measures than he did by simply meeting with and flattering him—but also a slap in the face to South Korea and president Moon Jae-in, who was not informed about it beforehand. This is the sort of concession to be made as part of a negotiating process, in which the US and South Korea receive something concrete and comparable in return. But such was not the case with the famous deal-maker Trump.

Point 7: The size, let alone existence, of the US nuclear arsenal is not on the table in negotiations with the DPRK. Only the latter’s is. The objection here is irrelevant.

Point 9: This assumes a logic and rationality to Trump’s thinking on foreign policy—indeed his thinking on anything—but also that he cares a whit about what other countries—here, South Korea—think or desire. Trump acts on impulse and follows his gut instinct. He cares about no one and nothing but himself. As for why he took his more moderate and conciliatory position toward the DPRK, again, we have no idea. For all we know, someone in his entourage told him that if he sought a meeting with Kim and talked peace, that he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. And Trump thought: “Great idea! And if Obama can have a Nobel Prize, why not me?” Such would also up his poll numbers and thrill the base to no end. If doesn’t get the Nobel—and he won’t—he may well walk away from his peace process, if he hasn’t already by then.

The fact of the matter is, there will be no deal with the DPRK, at least not one in which the latter denuclearizes and allows foreign inspectors unfettered access to verify that such is taking place. The DPRK would be crazy to sign such an agreement after what happened in Singapore. And they would be doubly crazy to sign any such deal with Trump.

À propos of all this, Slate staff writer Lili Loofbourow has a pertinent essay, dated June 14th, “We are in a linguistic emergency when it comes to Trump: He is getting exactly what he wants.” For those too lazy to click on the link, here’s the whole thing:

In the wake of the horrors currently being done to children in America’s name, here’s one thing we can do: Recognize we’re in a linguistic emergency. We have a president whose single-minded praise for macho might is wearing down even those who refuse to overlook his incompetence. Trump, the only presidential candidate to refer to his penis size during a national debate, wants nothing more than to be seen as powerful and manly, and to align himself with those who project the characteristics he desires. And he’s gotten help—from us. If you’ve ever called Trump “tough” on immigration, note that he just called a dictator “tough” for murdering his citizens. (And “very smart” for staying in power.) That should be a wake-up call to journalists responsible for telling the story of this moment: Stop using the words he routinely chooses to describe himself. And think hard about whether you’re accidentally reinforcing the model of power he’s trying to sell.

That change is task one: Sidestep every attempt he and his allies make to equate treating people badly with being strong, because their efforts to link those concepts are working. Neutral outlets are defaulting to his language for what he does—he’s “cracking down” on unions! He’s taking a “hard line” on the G-7! Driving “hard bargains”! These all position him as powerful, which he loves. The trouble is, it’s wrong. In practice, Trump’s positions slip and slide all over the place. He never got that “hard bargain” he allegedly drove (though he sure got credit for driving it). His deals fall through, his policy shifts depending on whomever he spoke to last. It would be the height of irony if the weakest president on record managed to rebrand himself as the strongman he so badly wants to be.

So: Infectious though his formulations can be, it’s time to break the habit. Don’t use his language outside quotation marks. Take particular care to avoid words that confuse cruelty with strength. Avoid warlike metaphors. No taking aim, no battles, no doubling down. No punching metaphors. No deals. Deny him the framing he wants. There are, after all, other words. Arbitrary. Confused. Crabby. Ignorant.

This is an extraordinarily weak president. Narrate him that way. It’s the truth.

Language reshapes relations; even the famous Stanford prison experiment—which ostensibly demonstrated that people with perceived power devolve to treating each other brutally—was recently exposed as having some of its more horrifying results engineered. The “brutal” guards were told to be brutal and how to be brutal. George Lakoff has argued that the metaphors underpinning language do at least as much messaging work as the words themselves do. He’s right. And Trump is good at using hoary old frames about mighty men, of calling losses wins. It doesn’t matter if he lies—the only goal is to convey strength. And it works.

His presidency has not, so far, been described faithfully and consistently for what it is. Take this December Bloomberg story, which describes a speech in which Trump makes it clear he has no idea how the immigration system he’s promised to change works. This is what he said: “They give us their worst people, they put them in a bin, but in his hand when he’s picking him are really the worst of the worst.” That is not, in any way, how America’s immigration functions.

In any other climate, the newsworthy element of the story would be obvious: a president claiming he can fix immigration doesn’t understand, at the most basic level, how the current system works. That’s a scandal. But rather than center that fact, the headline is “Trump Calls Immigrants With Lottery Visas ‘Worst of the Worst.’ ” That Trump got everything wrong doesn’t show up until the seventh paragraph. Not only does this marginalize what really matters—i.e., that the man in charge is so incompetent he can’t even describe the thing he plans to fix—it also concentrates the power of the story on Trump. It suggests that the important takeaway from this speech is what he calls a group of people that he just demonstrated he knows nothing about.

A president’s lack of basic competence is worth accurately reporting on. And it must be reported on when there is nothing else of value worth reporting.

So why doesn’t this happen more? Two reasons: For one, I sense in much of the reporting on Trump a secret fear that maybe we’re missing something. He won, after all. And he keeps insisting that he’s strong despite all the evidence, so maybe there’s something we’re not seeing. This, as many have pointed out, is gaslighting. It’s why he always says he has a plan he won’t describe.

The second reason is that many news organizations still confuse neutrality with accuracy. Better to just report what he says and let the people decide, the thinking goes.

But that’s wrong. And that’s due to the power of language: Simply repeating his fantastical claims makes them seem less fantastical. What a president says usually matters a great deal. But because what Trump says usually bears no relation to the truth (or to what his own policies end up being) it therefore fails to inform the public, and is not worth repeating. He wants to propagate the story of a power he doesn’t have. We shouldn’t help him.

Instead, repeat the valuable news that emanates from this White House: Usually, that will involve showing all the ways this president is wrong, weak, and reactive.

And if you’re stumped on finding the words to do that with, look to misogyny. I’m serious. Just imagine how the past week would have been framed had Trump been a woman—weakness would be the constant subtext. “A shaken Trump tries to shift blame for broken families on nonexistent ‘Democrat bill.’” “At Singapore summit, Trump makes nervous joke over weight.” “Trump catty with Trudeau.”

And then there’s this “Memo to the press, after 18 months of Trump,” posted June 15th by Robert Reich on his Facebook page:

1. Stop treating Trump’s tweets as news.

2. Never believe a single word that comes out of his mouth.

3. Don’t fall for the reality-TV spectacles he creates. (For example, his meeting with Kim Jong-un.) They’re not news, either.

4. Don’t let his churlish thin-skinned vindictive narcissistic rants divert attention from what he’s really doing.

5. Focus on what he’s really doing, and put stories into this context. He’s: (1) undermining democratic institutions, (2) using his office for personal gain, (3) sowing division and hate, (4) cozying up to dictators while antagonizing our democratic allies around the world, (5) violating the rule of law, and (6) enriching America’s wealthy while harming the middle class and the poor. He may also be (7) colluding with Putin.

6. Keep track of what his Cabinet is doing — Sessions’s attacks on civil rights, civil liberties, voting rights, and immigrants; DeVos’s efforts to undermine public education, Pruitt’s and Zinke’s efforts to gut the environment; all their conflicts of interest, and the industry lobbyists they’ve put in high positions.

7. Don’t try to “balance” your coverage of the truth with quotes and arguments from Trump’s enablers and followers. This is not a contest between right and left, Republicans and Democrats. This is between democracy and demagogic authoritarianism.

8. Don’t let him rattle you. Maintain your dignity, confidence, and courage.

À suivre.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been travelling the past couple of weeks—mainly in Egypt (Cairo), a little in Turkey (Istanbul)—so have been off AWAV. So as to get something up—and in the same vein as the last post, on Trumpian America being a rogue state (and with the latest declaration of trade war on the country’s closest allies, can anyone seriously deny that it is?)—I offer this recent article by Andrew J. Bacevich in The American Conservative that carries the title of the post, in which it is rhetorically asked “How can you trust an establishment that so easily succumbs to fantasies of global hegemony and go-it-alone militarism?”

Bacevich aims his fire at the Washington neocon/liberal hawk think tank swamp and punditocracy, which is in permanent agitation for America to militarily intervene in some country or countries, but the main takeaway from his piece is that at this point—and given its imperialist history—America has no moral authority to be intervening just about anywhere. This was driven home to me in a review essay I just read by Max Hastings, “The Wrath of the Centurions,” in the London Review of Books, in which he reviews Howard Jones’ My Lai: Vietnam, 1968 and the Descent into Darkness. As Hastings recounts, My Lai was only the biggest massacre of non-combattants committed by American soldiers during the Vietnam War, who, in fact, murdered civilians regularly and with impunity. The number of Vietnamese villagers raped and/or killed in cold blood by American soldiers will likely never be known but it was significant. In point of fact, American soldiers have behaved thusly in every war they’ve ever participated in. Every army does likewise, of course, and a good number have been far worse, but we’re talking about America here.

On that note, here’s a thought by my friend Claire Berlinski, who has believed all her life in America as a force for good but is having second thoughts nowadays.

Read Full Post »

I don’t know if there’s a commonly accepted definition of a “rogue state” but this one I found seems right: “a state that conducts its policy in a dangerously unpredictable way, disregarding international law or diplomacy.” If this does not accurately characterize the Trump regime’s foreign policy, and particularly since the declaration on the Iran deal last Tuesday, then I don’t know what does.

Adam Garfinkle of The American Interest has a typically savant analysis—as well as typically long-winded—on “The meaning of withdrawal: Seven key questions to ask about Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran Deal,” which he begins with the observation that “enough electronic ink has been spilled in efforts either to explain or to spin what has happened to fill a virtual ocean basin.” As he and others have added amply to that basin, I will not do so myself—and particularly as the story is a week old—so will simply link to selected pieces on one of the more roguish aspects of Trump’s decision, which is its impact on America’s historic allies in Europe—and the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance—in view of the extraterritoriality of American law, here the imposition of secondary sanctions unilaterally decided by the US. Secondary sanctions are an old story, of course, and with both Republican and Democratic administrations culpable—I recall telling my French students back in 2000 about the Helms-Burton Act and ILSA (both signed into law by President Clinton), and with a couple expressing open indignation—but Trump and his henchmen have pushed the unilateralism to a whole new level.

Everyone’s seen by now the US ambassador to Germany’s now infamous tweet after Trump’s announcement:

How to react to this arrogant diktat? Der Spiegel has an editorial in its current issue with the arresting title, “Time for Europe to join the resistance.” Money quote:

Every Wednesday at 11:30 a.m., senior DER SPIEGEL editors gather to discuss the lead editorial of the week and ultimately, the meeting seeks to address the question: “What now?” Simply describing a problem isn’t enough, a good editorial should point to potential solutions. It has rarely been as quiet as during this week’s meeting.

Europe should begin preparing for a post-Trump America and seek to avoid provoking Washington until then. It can demonstrate to Iran that it wishes to hold on to the nuclear deal and it can encourage mid-sized companies without American clients to continue doing business with Iranian partners. Perhaps the EU will be able to find ways to protect larger companies. Europe should try to get the United Nations to take action, even if it would only be symbolic given that the U.S. holds a Security Council veto. For years, Europe has been talking about developing a forceful joint foreign policy, and it has become more necessary than ever. But what happens then?

The difficulty will be finding a balance between determination and tact. Triumphant anti-Americanism is just as dangerous as defiance. But subjugation doesn’t lead anywhere either – because Europe cannot support policies that it finds dangerous. Donald Trump also has nothing but disdain for weakness and doesn’t reward it.

Clever resistance is necessary, as sad and absurd as that may sound. Resistance against America.

One doubts there’s any sector of mainstream opinion—public and elite—in most countries in Europe that is not of this view. When geopolitical analysts like Bruno Tertrais—who’s as Atlanticist as they come in Paris—writes that “[l]a fermeté vis-à-vis de Washington s’impose d’autant plus qu’elle soudera les Européennes davantage qu’elle ne les divisera,” then one knows that the US really is isolated in Europe.

Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, in explaining “Why Germans are getting fed up with America,” had this

Now, another incomprehensible economic spectacle is unfolding parallel to Trump’s pressure on European steel and aluminum exporters. National Security Adviser John Bolton is threatening sanctions against European companies for dealing with Iran — and, at the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is promising U.S. investment in North Korea if it denuclearizes. Wasn’t that what the Iran deal was about?

“So, American firms will soon be able to do business in North Korea, but not European ones in Iran,” commentator  Mark Schieritz wrote on Twitter. Schieritz published a column in the weekly Die Zeit on Sunday arguing that the U.S. was no longer a partner but a rival for Europe. He argued that time had come for Europe to confront the U.S. and respond to its “blackmail” in a tit-for-tat format — something the more sober Spiegel editorial didn’t advocate.

In the short and medium term, however, there’s not much that European states—or even the EU acting as one—can do to effectively counter US imperialism—there, I said it!—as the FT reminded its readers

One former senior US Treasury official predicted that governments will be unable to persuade a European bank or company to continue doing business with Iran given the risks of being shut off from the US financial system. “You will see over-compliance, much in the way we have seen in recent years. That is true for the Europeans, Japan, South Korea. The only question mark is China, and perhaps Russia,” this person said.

European executives conceded in private that it would be hard for any multinational company with businesses and financial ties to the US to remain active in Iran. They pointed to the $9bn US fine imposed on BNP Paribas, the French bank, in 2014 for violating sanctions against Iran, Cuba and Sudan, as evidence of the risks. (…)

Some EU officials have already become resigned to European companies suffering the economic consequences of Mr Trump’s decision. “I’m discovering every day how much Europe can endure pain from its American partner,” said one European official. “The question is how much more can we endure.”

Back to Adam Garfinkle: in answering his question, “A trans-Atlantic breach too far?,” he thus offered

It could be, at least for a while.

There is a history here. First came the U.S. withdrawal from the TTP, but with implications for the T-TIP; then came the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; along the way was the Brussels Summit at which President Trump refused to explicitly endorse Article V of the NATO Treaty; then the “easy to win a trade war” remark and the tariffs—and now this.

But not just this: Mark the way of this. Emmanuel Macron comes to the United States, and we all know his view of the Iran deal. He puts it to Trump; Trump smiles and is cordial. Angela Merkel follows, with the same view. Trump harrumphs, and she goes home. And then Trump ignores them both, doing it even sooner than the May 12 deadline requires, so that no one can miss the intended humiliation. It’s reminiscent of how Trump handled Mitt Romney before the inauguration, dangling the State Department job before this prominent member of the establishment, the Republican Party establishment at that, before humiliating him as well.

The press in the United States and in Europe is now referring to this as a “snub.” It goes much deeper than that. It is personal, because Trump makes everything personal. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump really does ultimately support Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, and the likes of Nigel Farage in Britain. How comfortable AfD types would have felt in Charlottesville this past summer, among what Trump called some “fine people.” Just as the vast majority of what seems to be foreign policy in the Trump Administration is just signaling for domestic political purposes in Trump’s quest to realign American politics, so his manipulations of NATO-European leaders seems tailored to encourage certain political outcomes in those countries. (So Teresa May was smart not to come to Washington in recent weeks.) To the extent there is a “nationalist internationale” reminiscent of its 1930s’ fascist forerunner, Trump seems to be aware of and subtly supportive of it….

Peter Beinart, in a spot-on piece in The Atlantic, “The Iran deal and the dark side of American exceptionalism,” has this spot-on observation

The United States is today led by insular, self-satisfied men who demand that other nations fulfill their commitments to the United States while denying that the United States has reciprocal commitments of its own. In their hands, American exceptionalism is a danger to the world.

Let’s just say US imperialism.

One of the best analysts of US foreign policy—and particularly of the Iran deal—if one doesn’t know, is Daniel Larison of The American Conservative.

And don’t miss my dear friend Adam Shatz’s post in the LRB blog last week, “The drift towards war.”

French commentators across the board have all been saying more or less the same thing about Trump’s decision, and with which I am naturally in agreement, though there are some misconceptions. E.g. Hubert Védrine, who epitomizes the dominant gaullo-mitterrandiste current in the French foreign policy establishment, said a couple of things on France Inter last Wednesday that require correction. One was that the “American deep state” (l’État profond américain)—”tout un système américain”—does not want to see Iran return to the “jeu international,” or for Iran to reform or modernize. This is nonsense. First, there is, in point of fact, no American “deep state.” I’ve used this expression myself, more or less tongue-in-cheek, but it really does not exist. There is no grand corps of lifelong civil servants embedded in the agencies of the US federal government who know one another, share the same world-view, and act in concert to influence policy or impose their will, and particularly in foreign policy. As anyone who has taken American Politics 101 in his or her freshman year in college knows—or is simply minimally informed on how the American state works—the 6,000-odd top positions in the federal government are staffed via the spoils system with every incoming administration, and with the political appointees leaving when that administration gives way to the next. Structurally speaking, an American “deep state” is not possible.

Secondly, on the notion that lots of people in Washington want to keep Iran frozen out: a number of analysts here—e.g. Védrine, Bruno Tertrais cited above—have said that Americans have not forgotten the 1979-80 hostage crisis or forgiven Iran for this (and with Védrine adding the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut). I think this is greatly exaggerated. Americans under age 60—some right-wing Republicans aside—are not hung up on this. And it is likely that what most Americans by now know about what happened in Tehran in 1979 comes from the movie Argo. Anti-Iranian sentiment in Washington has, in fact, been fueled by the virulent anti-Americanism of the ayatollahs and those who rule Iran with them. If the Iranians were to suddenly moderate their policy and overall rhetoric toward the US and Israel—if it were clear that the reformers in Tehran were on the way to vanquishing the hard-liners—the positive response would be immediate.

Védrine’s second problematic statement had to do with the “alignment between American neo-conservatives and the [Israeli] Likud,” and which, Védrine added, led to the Iraq war. If the notion of an American “deep state” is a myth, so is that of the so-called neo-conservatives (a.k.a. neocons). Their existence—as some kind of cabal, with an esprit de corps—was already greatly exaggerated in 2003 but to speak of neocons in 2018 is downright absurd. If one wants to insist that the neocons are alive, well, and continue to throw their weight around on foreign and defense policy, I will ask, at minimum, that one identify the top five neocons who are wreaking policy havoc today—I want their names—and specify what makes them “neo-conservative” (as opposed to conservative tout court; what’s the “neo” all about?). As for the Likud and its leader, Bibi Netanyahu, it goes without saying that they are celebrated in the Republican Party. But they do not call the shots. The US did not attack Iraq in 2003 for the benefit of Israel.The tail does not wag the dog. Come on. Even in the neo-conservative heyday in the 1970s, when neo-conservatives really did exist (Norman Podhoretz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle et al), they were America Firsters whose overriding obsession was the Soviet Union and the Cold War, not Israel.

À suivre.

 

Read Full Post »

[update below]

The greatest parade in the world, as I say on every Bastille Day. Today’s was somewhat particular in view of the guest of honor, whom Emmanuel Macron invited to commemorate the centenary of America’s entry into World War I and the arrival of US troops in France. I was initially appalled by the specter of le gros con at the Place de la Concorde on France’s fête nationale but, after a few seconds of reflection, figured that it was totally normal that the president of the French Republic would invite the POTUS to Paris to mark the occasion, and all the more so as the parade was to be led by 190 American soldiers and with a flyover by US Air Force Thunderbirds and an F-22 Raptor.

As for the politics of the invitation, I think it was a shrewd move on Macron’s part. And Trump—who tweeted that the parade was “magnificent”—was clearly impressed and enjoyed himself. He looked like a boy seeing a military parade for the very first time (“Wow! Awesome! Why can’t we have parades like that?”). If that gets him gushing about France and enables Macron to roll him in the process, tant mieux.

The army marching band’s playing Daft Punk at the end: that was pretty cool IMO. I doubt anyone was expecting that one.

For pundit commentary, if one is interested, France 24 had a round-table last night on “Trump in Paris: America’s new place in the world.” The representative of Republicans in France: I had the dubious pleasure of debating him some seven years back. I told the debate host afterward never again to pair us in a contradictory exchange. As for the rep of La France Insoumise, he’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s spokesman for defense and foreign policy. No comment.

France 5’s ‘C dans l’air’ yesterday on Trump in Paris is also worth the watch.

UPDATE: The New Yorker’s very smart Francophile Adam Gopnik, in a comment otherwise riddled with small errors on French political parties and recent French political history, asks “Why is Emmanuel Macron being so nice to Donald Trump?”

See also the FT’s Gideon Rachman column, “Emmanuel Macron demonstrates fine art of handling Donald Trump.”

Writer and broadcaster Mary Dejevsky, writing in The Guardian, says that “Even in the face of Trump’s sexism, Macron is a genius in diplomacy.” The lede: “The French president showed elegance and discretion with Trump, as he has with Putin. His diplomatic skill shows up Theresa May’s ineptitude.”

And The Washington Post’s sharp Paris correspondent, James McAuley, says “‘Thank you, dear Donald’: Why Macron invited Trump to France.”

Read Full Post »

Ottawa G7 summit meeting, 21 July 1981 (photo: Georges Bendrihem/AFP)

Ottawa G7 summit meeting, 21 July 1981 (photo: Georges Bendrihem/AFP)

This is the title of well-known filmmaker-author Patrick Rotman’s most interesting 55 minute documentary—en V.O., ‘Mitterrand l’Américain’—on François Mitterrand’s friendship with the United States, which aired on France 5 this past Sunday. Mitterrand, the first Socialist president of the French Fifth Republic—and who brought Communists into the government immediately after his election in May 1981, at the height of the Cold War—was Washington’s best ally during his fourteen years in power, so one learns. Rotman indeed portrays Mitterrand as an outright pro-American. This is not exactly the impression one has gathered from other sources, e.g. Ronald Tiersky’s biography but also in some of Mitterrand’s own pre-1981 writings. As Rotman’s principal informants were Mitterrand’s closest foreign and defense policy advisers in the Élysée—Jacques Attali, Hubert Védrine, and Admiral Jacques Lanxade, who are interviewed throughout—his depiction of the relationship is compelling.

Much of the story has been told over the years, e.g. the Americans’ alarm at the appointing of the four Communist ministers to Socialist prime minister Pierre Mauroy’s first government, President Reagan dispatching Vice-President Bush to Paris to find out what the French were up to, and Bush returning to Washington satisfied with Mitterrand’s assurances. This we know. What was said in private by the principal actors is most interesting, though. Védrine recounts that Mitterrand told Bush that there were no greater adversaries on the French political scene than the Socialists and the Communists, that the two rival left-wing parties were separated by, among many other things, fundamentally different conceptions of the “philosophie de l’homme” and of “la place de l’homme dans la société et l’État.” In Attali’s account, Mitterrand explained to Bush that the only way to reduce the weight of the Communist party in French society—the PCF representing 20-25% of the electorate from 1945 to the 1981 election—was to ally with it—with the unavowed goal of stripping it of its voters.

Attali, in recounting Bush’s June 1981 visit to the Élysée, said that the US vice-president was “intellectually a European” and with Mitterrand and his advisers having the sentiment that, in the company of Bush and his entourage, they were with “Europeans.” Well! Like father, not like son. A veritable friendship between Mitterrand and Bush was forged at this moment. Védrine described Bush as an “elegant and distinguished” man, one of the rare American presidents who possessed a “culture internationale” before acceding to executive office, that Bush exhibited “great consideration” for Mitterrand, and with the two men “appreciat[ing] one another greatly.”

As for Ronald Reagan, he and Mitterrand would become, in Rotman’s words, thick as thieves (“ils vont s’entendre comme larrons en foire“) and despite all that separated them politically. Between the French Parti Socialiste and US Republican Party, there wasn’t a whole lot in common. Reagan was wary of Mitterrand when the latter was elected—less than four months after Reagan’s inauguration—but changed his attitude, and particularly after they met at the Ottawa G7 summit in July ’81. The two developed a “warm relationship,” as Védrine tells it, adding that the common view of Reagan as an “idiot” was “totally false,” that he was “un homme simple, intelligent, perspicace,” and also “sympa et accueillant.” Attali, for his part, said that Mitterrand was fascinated by Reagan and they got along “marvelously well,” that Reagan was “warm and charming” and always telling “funny stories” during their down time together. When with Ron, François and his advisers “laughed a lot.” How about that. The Mitterrand-Reagan/Bush relationships were, along with perhaps that of Georges Pompidou and Richard Nixon, the closest of a French and American president(s) in our time.

The relationship was, of course, ultimately based less on personality than national interest and geopolitics. There were points of divergence here—and with tension in the Franco-American relationship ensuing—over the Euro-Siberian gas pipeline, French arms sales to Nicaragua, France’s refusal to include its nuclear force de frappe in any East-West arms control negotiations, and the 1986 US bombing of Libya (this not mentioned in the documentary), to name a few, but these were secondary, fleeting disputes and did not undermine the convergence over the really big issue—the Soviet Union—on which Mitterrand and Reagan were in complete agreement. That Mitterrand would be a faithful ally of the US vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was understood by Reagan at the Ottawa summit, when Mitterrand informed him of the Farewell Dossier, which Reagan’s National Security Advisor of the time, Richard Allen—interviewed in the documentary—called a “remarkable gift from France.” As Védrine put it, the Farewell Dossier was, for Reagan, proof of France’s “fiabilité, efficacité, et utilité” as an ally.

The proof in the pudding was, however, the Euromissile crisis. As it happens, last week I took my American students on a field trip to the Socialist Party HQ on the Rue de Solférino, where we were kindly received by a member of the PS National Secretariat, who gave us an informal talk about the party, past and present. During the discussion of the Mitterrand years I mentioned France’s alignment with the US on the Euromissiles and relative insignificance of the early 1980s “peace” movement here—unlike in Great Britain and West Germany at the time—to which he quoted Mitterrand’s famous words—seen in the documentary—that “pacifism is in the West whereas the SS-20s are in the East.”

Mitterrand’s hard line on the Soviets should not have been surprising in view of his own political past as an anti-communist, and who entered into the short-lived Common Program with the PCF for purely opportunistic reasons—as, in the 1970s, it was the only way for Mitterrand and the left to have a chance at winning national elections—but also, as mentioned above, for strategic ones, to crush the communists by embracing them. In this regard, the documentary reveals declassified cables from the US embassy in Paris detailing the secret contacts Mitterrand established with the US in the 1960s and ’70s, to assure the Americans of his indefatigable support for the Atlantic alliance. Mitterrand, who was an habitué of the Avenue Gabriel, told his American interlocutors that, once in power, he would junk Gaullism and lead a pro-American foreign policy, and that such had been his position since the Fourth Republic. And when Mitterrand entered into the circumstantial alliance with the PCF in the 1970s, he felt more than ever that he needed the United States.

Moving ahead to the Bush 41 administration, the documentary looks at the Mitterrand-Bush interactions in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, in which the convergence of views is highlighted more than the well-known disagreements, notably over the looming reunification of Germany (as Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher were rather less enthusiastic over the prospect than was Bush). The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was, of course, the overriding geopolitical issue in the latter half of 1990 and with Mitterrand deciding from the very outset that force would have to be used against Saddam Hussein if he did not unconditionally withdraw his troops. For Védrine, the French position was crystal clear, which is that it was quite simply impossible for the international community to allow a state to invade a neighboring state—and that was a member of the United Nations—and annex it outright. The Iraqi action could not be allowed to stand, as allowing it to would open all sorts of Pandora’s Boxes. As a consequence, Saddam would have to execute a complete withdrawal from Kuwait or be compelled to do so by the force of arms, period (my own personal position at the time was identical, BTW).

Védrine, emphasizing Mitterrand’s “profound attachment to the international order,” says that there was no pressure on this whatever from the Americans. For Mitterrand, however, military action against Iraq necessitated a UN Security Council resolution—which was forthcoming—and a broad international coalition, which was also forthcoming. As Admiral Lanxade, who was Mitterrand’s military chief-of-staff at the Élysée at the time and liaison with National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft in the White House, tells it, Mitterrand’s political entourage did not favor a close alignment with the United States over Iraq and that there was “reticence” to France participating in the impending military action. Lanxade does not name names, though one presumes that the reticent ones included Jean-Pierre Chevènement (obviously), Roland Dumas, Pierre Joxe, Paul Quilès, and perhaps Jack Lang. According to Lanxade, Mitterrand, faced with the qualms, informed the Council of Ministers in one meeting that “we may disagree with the Americans at times but we cannot be anti-American.” Boom! Fin de discussion.

Lanxade recounts the telephone conversation between Mitterrand and Bush on the eve of the international coalition’s military action against Iraq, on January 15th 1991. He calls the conversation “extraordinary” in tone and solemnity, recalling that of FDR and Winston Churchill on the eve of the D-Day landings. No less. Lanxade concludes that the quality of the Franco-American relationship in the early 1990s was “exceptional.”

The documentary ends with Bush’s departure from the White House and does not treat the two-plus years of Bill Clinton’s presidency that overlapped with Mitterrand’s. There probably isn’t much of note to recount, as it was the fin de règne for Mitterrand, who was in a cohabitation with the right and dying of prostate cancer. That he was disappointed that Bush was not reelected goes without saying. But it was not only on account of their personal relationship, as when it came to American presidents, the French, until the 1990s, systematically preferred Republicans to Democrats. And in 1992, no one in France knew Clinton—and whom the French political class, media, and public opinion did not take to until his persecution during the Monica Lewinsky affair in 1998, when he became hugely popular here. On this, the French were totally right.

The documentary may be watched until Sunday here (in France at least; it may or may not be viewable abroad). And here it is on YouTube.

As it so happens, François Mitterrand was born 100 years ago today. Joyeux anniversaire, tonton!

Read Full Post »

North of the Mexico-Arizona border, 2007 (Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

North of the Mexico-Arizona border, 2007 (Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

[update below]

In case one missed it, Vox had a must-read piece by Dara Lind dated April 28th on America’s “disastrous, forgotten 1996 law that created today’s immigration problem.” The law in question, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), was forced on the Clinton administration by the Republican Congress of the time, though was not bereft of Democratic support and with President Clinton not exactly signing the bill under duress. Au contraire.

IIRIRA has indeed been a disastrous law, as it has dramatically increased the number of undocumented migrants in the US who could be—and have been—deported and without judicial recourse, curtailed the possibilities for undocumented migrants to regularize their status, and placed even legal resident aliens in more precarious situations. And Vox is correct to say that the law has been “forgotten,” as the only persons who know anything about it are professionals in the immigration field plus, obviously, undocumented migrants or legal immigrants who are directly concerned by its provisions.

This is one of those lois scélérates enacted in the 1990s—along with the crime and welfare bills—that will need to be repealed—that must be repealed—if the US is to reform its calamitous immigration system—and which is certainly worse than France’s. For that, there will, at minimum, need to be a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress. Inshallah.

On Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey—who is one of the top academic specialists on the subjects of immigration and international migration, notably between Mexico and the US—has a tribune dated April 21st on the Market Watch website saying that it “would be a waste of money.” The reason: undocumented immigration from Mexico essentially ended in 2008, with more Mexicans returning home in the intervening years than heading north to the US. And the reason for this: there are fewer jobs for them in the US and more in Mexico. It has nothing to do with more restrictionist laws or border fences.

I somehow doubt Trump will read Massey on this—or change his mind if he does.

UPDATE: Vox’s Dara Lind explains (October 17, 2017) that “Democrats are taking a hard line on immigration—from the left: How they stopped chasing the center and started embracing the activists.” Alhamdulillah. Hopefully whenever the Dems regain control of the White House and Congress, they’ll abrogate IIRAIRA. Inshallah.

Read Full Post »

Clinton vs Trump projection_Screenshot by Ryan Witt

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

Nice-looking map, though is not for real—at least not yet. It’s a projection of the outcome of a hypothetical Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump general election match-up based on polls taken in May and June of last year, which were worth what they were worth. I’m dubious about some of it—e.g. I really don’t see Wyoming voting Democratic under any circumstances and it is not out of the question that Texas could go blue—but am nonetheless confident that this is pretty much how the map will look on the night of November 8th in the now likely event that we do get that Clinton-Trump contest.

Continuing from my post of yesterday, in which I touched on the eventual legacy of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, a likely one—that one hopes for, at any rate—is that it will push the Democratic Party to the left on issues relating to economic inequality, with the Dems advocating increased government action to reduce this. Bernie supporters are quite certain that such will not happen with Hillary in the White House but blogger-political science professor Scott Lemieux begs to differ. In a piece in TNR (April 29th) he explains, convincingly IMO, “Why Hillary will govern more like Bernie than people think,” arguing that if the Dems as a whole move left, Hillary will too, as, “in the end, parties matter just as much as individuals.” If Hillary is to govern from the left, though, it will be important that Bernie’s supporters stay mobilized and work within the Democratic Party, so Markos Moulitsas—founder-editor of the Über-partisan Daily Kos—exhorted them to do in a commentary after last Tuesday’s primaries.

Foreign policy is sure to be an issue in the campaign, particularly in view of what Trump has had to say on the subject, notably in his speech last Wednesday, which analyst Fred Kaplan trenchantly called “the most senseless, self-contradicting foreign policy speech by any major party’s presidential nominee in modern history” and “even more incoherent than his impromptu ramblings.” The Donald’s speech, needless to say, got low marks across the political spectrum (the NYT editorial on the speech has this great line: “When one has a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when one’s experience is limited to real estate deals, everything looks like a lease negotiation.”).

Hillary, ça va de soi, has no such credibility problem when it comes to foreign policy, though lefties have been denouncing her as a neocon warmonger for years. And more grist was added to the left’s Hillary hysteria mill with the NYT Magazine’s widely read article last week on “How Hillary Clinton became a hawk,” with author Mark Landler observing that “[t]hroughout her career [Hillary Clinton] has displayed instincts on foreign policy that are more aggressive than those of President Obama—and most Democrats.” Landler’s piece—an excerpt of his newly published book, which looks most interesting—quite literally struck terror into one well-known Hillary-hating Bernie Bro academic political science friend—otherwise a smart guy but who has a severe case of Clinton Derangement Syndrome—who asserted on social media that “I really do fear for what she would do as president.” He and other lefties have indeed been of the intimate conviction that Hillary, the day she takes office, will look around for a war to start, that she will order the Pentagon to attack some country, probably in the Middle East but maybe anywhere. And why will she do this? Because she likes war. And she’s Hillary Clinton. C’est tout.

People need to get a grip. Landler’s piece did indeed reveal Hillary’s deep respect for the men and women of the US military, her internationalism, and greater propensity than President Obama to advocate the use of force in situations where the option is seriously on the table. In this, she may be a little more hawkish than other establishment Democrats but, I would venture, no more so than her husband was, or than Al Gore or John Kerry likely would have been had they been elected POTUS. Her 2002 Iraq vote is a big stain—and that lefties do not forgive her for (though it wasn’t redhibitory for them in John Kerry’s case in ’04)—but would she have attacked Iraq had she been in the Oval Office at the time? I doubt it. Really.

Hillary is also being pilloried by lefties for the Libya intervention—for which she was the leading proponent in the administration—and particularly for the failure to adequately anticipate and deal with the aftermath. Personally, I thought Libya was a close call but tilted toward intervention; and once Obama made the decision, I was 100% gung-ho. As for the post-regime change planning, sure, this didn’t happen the way it should have, but it didn’t seem that way at the time. And I don’t recall any of today’s Monday morning Cassandra quarterbacks warning of it back then. Syria: Hillary was the most interventionist actor in the Obama administration through 2012. I didn’t share her viewpoint. But the Syria policy she advocated was not beyond the pale among Democrats—and was indeed that of certain Syria specialists whose analyses I respect. And Israel and her AIPAC speech? Ouf. So what? What difference does it make?

In short, Hillary is getting a bum rap from the left on foreign policy. In point of fact, she is an establishment Democrat and mainstream Hamiltonian—in the Walter Russell Mead sense—in her foreign policy positioning. Though I have largely sided with Obama in his foreign policy decisions, I don’t have a problem with Hillary in this domain. And Hillary’s “toughness”—how I hate that word—on foreign policy will likely draw Republican defectors in November—who will discount her progressive positions on domestic issues (banking on the GOP holding the House and thereby acting as a brake). And the more Republican defectors, the wider her margin of victory will be and, consequently, the better Democratic candidates down-ballot are likely to perform. So let’s keep our eyes on the big picture.

But “[i]s Hillary Clinton really the foreign policy super-hawk she is portrayed to be?” so asks Vox’s Max Fisher? Answer: it’s a complicated question but, in short, no, she is, in fact, not; and she is far more dovish than any of the remaining Republican candidates. And, pour mémoire, she wholeheartedly supported the Iran deal and secretly pushed for normalization with Cuba for years before it finally happened.

All this being said, though, I still feel more comfortable with Bernie’s foreign policy vision as spelled out by UMass Amherst political science professor and informal Bernie adviser Charli Carpenter, in a post (April 27th) on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog.

On the subject of foreign policy, did one see Obama’s speech in Hannover last Monday, in which he spoke about Europe? If not, watch it here. He’s excellent, comme d’hab’.

Some have expressed concern about Hillary being indicted for the email business, which would put a serious crimp in her candidacy indeed. But in point of fact, she most likely won’t be indicted and shouldn’t be, as Richard O. Lempert—the Eric Stein Distinguished University Professor of Law and Sociology emeritus at the University of Michigan—explained in an “objective legal analysis” in The American Prospect (March 20th), asserting that “[t]here is no reason to think that Clinton committed any crimes with respect to the use of her email server.” And how likely is it that the Obama administration’s Justice Department will legally pursue Hillary over this?

As for the emails, The Guardian’s political columnist Jill Abramson read through them, leading her to assert (March 28th) that “[t]his may shock you: Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest,” adding that “I investigated Hillary and know she likes a ‘zone of privacy’ around her[; t]his lack of transparency, rather than any actual corruption, is her greatest flaw.” And then, FWIW, there’s the témoignage by an anonymous activist, who wrote that “[she] was one of the most ardent Hillary haters on the planet…until [she] read her emails.”

And Hillary’s speeches at Goldman Sachs and her stonewalling on releasing the transcripts? MoJo’s Kevin Drum is pretty sure there’s nothing there—that, as an issue, it’s one big nothing—and that “[e]veryone knows why [she] won’t release her Goldman Sachs speeches.”

And then there was Charles Koch saying that he could just possibly vote for Hillary in November, which prompted an “aha!” from Hillary-hating gauchistes on social media (which I saw with my own eyes). But The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who has written the most important book out there on the Koch brothers and their malevolent influence in the GOP—and in American politics more generally—dismissed that out of hand (April 26th), saying “Koch for Clinton? Not a chance.”

On the Republicans, just four points. First, though I am not displeased by the prospect of Trump’s nomination—in view of the debacle it will bring about for the GOP in November—I nonetheless adhere to Slate columnist Jamelle Bouie’s sentiment (April 27th) on Trump’s apparent triumph, which is “Don’t ever get used to it: This is unprecedented and terrifying.” Second, in case one missed it, read Paul Krugman’s April 25th column on the “The 8 A.M. Call,” on how we would really not want to have Trump or Ted Cruz at the helm in the event of a sudden global financial meltdown. Third, Trumpism is the likely future of the Republican Party—and Clintonism of the Democrats—as Michael Lind argued (April 16th) in the NYT. Fourth, as Politico reports (April 29th), both Dem and GOP insiders are convinced that “Clinton [will] crush Trump in November.” Voilà.

UPDATE: There have actually been a few analyses of Trump’s foreign policy speech by serious persons that have been less dismissive of it than those of most mainstream commentators. E.g. Jacob Heillbrun—editor of The National Interest—explained in Politico (April 27th) “Why [he] hosted Trump’s foreign policy speech.” Writing in TPM (April 28th), John Judis asserted that “Trump’s foreign policy speech should be discussed not dismissed.” Salon’s foreign affairs columnist Patrick L. Smith submitted (April 28th) that “Trump opposed Iraq, Hillary voted for war: Let’s take his foreign policy vision seriously,” further opining that “Trump gets some things very wrong, but [the] speech was still daring, spot on and [an] important contrast with Hillary.” And the Financial Times’s Edward Luce weighed in on the speech in a column (May 1st) entitled “Donald Trump’s war with best and brightest,” in which he asserted that “[Trump’s] confused foreign policy still offers a legitimate contrast to Clinton’s.”

John Judis has another column on Trump in TPM (May 1st), BTW, this on his economic vision: “Trumponomics explained – sort of.”

2nd UPDATE: NYT columnist Ross Douthat has had a couple of good pieces of late. One, “The idea of Trump’s electability,” examines the intriguing question of why Republican primary voters are about to deliver the nomination to a candidate who is manifestly one of the most unelectable of the 22 or however many it was who entered the race, when electability has always been an important criteria for voters in primaries. In the other, “Give us a king!,” Douthat discusses the increasing support in the American electorate for a strong presidency, or what he calls “executive branch Caesarism.” Money quote: “That clamor [for a strong executive] is loudest from the Trumpistas and their dear leader. Donald Trump is clearly running to be an American caudillo, not the president of a constitutional republic, and his entire campaign is a cult of personality in the style of (the pro-Trump) Vladimir Putin.”

3rd UPDATE: University of Nebraska political science profs John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse have a must-read post (May 2nd) on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog, “A surprising number of Americans dislike how messy democracy is. They like Trump.” According to their data, the “surprising number of Americans [who] feel dismissive about such core features of democratic government as deliberation, compromise and decision-making by elected, accountable officials” are far more Republican than Democrat.

In this vein, Andrew Sullivan has a pessimistic, almost alarmist article in the May 2nd issue of New York magazine on—what else?—the Trump phenomenon: “Democracies end when they are too democratic: And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny.” Money quote (one among a number):

And so those Democrats who are gleefully predicting a Clinton landslide in November need to both check their complacency and understand that the Trump question really isn’t a cause for partisan Schadenfreude anymore. It’s much more dangerous than that. Those still backing the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders, might want to reflect that their critique of Clinton’s experience and expertise — and their facile conflation of that with corruption — is only playing into Trump’s hands. That it will fall to Clinton to temper her party’s ambitions will be uncomfortable to watch, since her willingness to compromise and equivocate is precisely what many Americans find so distrustful. And yet she may soon be all we have left to counter the threat. She needs to grasp the lethality of her foe, moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers him, make an unapologetic case that experience and moderation are not vices, address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class—and Democrats must listen.

And the concluding paragraph

For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

Sullivan’s article is long—almost 8,000 words—but is worth the read.

4th UPDATE: Bruce Bartlett has reposted on his Facebook page his thoughts (here) on Trump’s candidacy dated last August 30th. They were prescient and worth rereading today.

Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

obama-foreign-policy

Yesterday I had a post taking apart putative GOP foreign policy heavyweight Marco Rubio’s critique of President Obama’s action in this domain, and notably in the Middle East. So now I come across an article in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, by the journal’s editor Gideon Rose, on Obama’s foreign policy record, which, Rose argues, is very largely positive.

The piece begins with the inevitable sports metaphor

How should one judge a president’s handling of foreign policy? Some focus on what happens in a few lonely moments of crisis, casting the nation’s leader as Horatius at the bridge or Casey at the bat. But a better analogy would be a member of a relay team or a middle relief pitcher: somebody who takes over from a predecessor, does a hard job for a while, and then passes things on to the next guy.

In baseball, there are special statistics used to judge such players, the hold and the blown save, which essentially tally whether the pitcher’s team keeps or loses the lead while he’s in the game. Looked at in such a light, Barack Obama has done pretty well. Having inherited two wars and a global economic crisis from the George W. Bush administration—the foreign policy equivalent of runners on base with no outs—Obama has extricated the country from some old problems, avoided getting trapped in some new ones, and made some solid pickups on the side.

There have been errors, wild pitches, and lost opportunities. But like George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama will likely pass on to his successor an overall foreign policy agenda and national power position in better shape than when he entered office, ones that the next administration can build on to improve things further. Given how many administrations fail even that limited test, such an accomplishment is worthy of praise rather than the contempt the administration’s foreign policy often receives.

The key to Obama’s success has been his grasp of the big picture: his appreciation of the liberal international order that the United States has nurtured over the last seven decades, together with his recognition that the core of that order needed to be salvaged by pulling back from misguided adventures and feuds in the global periphery. The president is variously painted as a softheaded idealist, a cold-blooded realist, or a naive incompetent. But he is actually best understood as an ideological liberal with a conservative temperament—somebody who felt that after a period of reckless overexpansion and belligerent unilateralism, the country’s long-term foreign policy goals could best be furthered by short-term retrenchment. In this, he was almost certainly correct, and with the necessary backpedaling having been accomplished, Washington can turn its attention to figuring out how to get the liberal order moving forward once again.

An “ideological liberal with a conservative temperament.” Tout à fait. I like that.

On MENA

…looking at recent history, the president concluded that the region’s various domestic problems are neither easily solvable nor his to solve. After all, as the former administration official Philip Gordon has noted, “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.” And in Yemen, one might add, the United States relied on drone strikes and active diplomacy, and the result is a costly disaster. If the Middle East is bent on convulsing itself in costly disasters, as seems unfortunately true these days, trying to play a constructive role from the sidelines rather than getting embroiled directly represents not weakness but prudence.

As for the administration’s signature diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear deal, it exemplifies Obama’s broader approach to foreign policy. Having pledged as a candidate to be willing to talk to any country without preconditions to see if relations could be improved, once elected, Obama spent years doggedly pursuing a less conflictual relationship with Tehran. Judging that the Islamic Republic was not about to collapse, he gave a cold shoulder to the opposition Green Movement that sprang up after Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election. When the Iranian government rebuffed his initial efforts at reconciliation, he worked with other countries to craft a tightened net of economic and financial sanctions. And when Iran decided it did want to negotiate after all, he invested substantial effort and political capital in trying to make the talks succeed. The result was a solid arms control agreement trading sanctions relief for a decadelong pause in Iran’s quest for a bomb. No war, no appeasement, a team effort with other great powers to try to come up with a practical solution to a significant but limited problem, and the creation of conditions in which progress might be made on broader issues over time­—all vintage Obama.

And

Listening to discussions of American national security these days, one would think the country were in truly dire straits. “The world has never been more dangerous than it is today,” according to Senator Marco Rubio. “The world is literally about to blow up,” says Senator Lindsey Graham. Even people who are not running for the Republican presidential nomination apparently agree. In 2012, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” In 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that the threat from ISIS “is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

To use a technical term, this is hogwash. The United States today may be richer, stronger, and safer than it has ever been; if not, it is certainly close to it. It has a defense budget equivalent to those of the next seven countries combined and together with its allies accounts for three-quarters of all global defense spending. It has unparalleled power-projection capabilities and a globe-spanning intelligence network. It has the world’s reserve currency, the world’s largest economy, and the highest growth rate of any major developed country. It has good demographics, manageable debt, and dynamic, innovating companies that are the envy of the world. And it is at the center of an ever-expanding liberal order that has outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted every rival for three-quarters
of a century.

Seriously, between Barack Obama and Marco Rubio—or any of the other GOP candidates—il n’y a pas photo, as we say in these parts.

Read all of Gideon Rose’s article here.

Read Full Post »

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, if one hadn’t heard, is considered to be a foreign policy heavyweight in the GOP, or at least more knowledgeable and thoughtful on the general subject than the other candidates of his party, perhaps Lindsey Graham excepted. Rubio is naturally opposed to the Iran deal and explained why in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, which was published twelve days ago on The Atlantic website. My friend Claire Berlinski, who is situated on Rubio’s side of the political spectrum, is impressed with what Rubio says to Goldberg, writing on the Ricochet blog—where she’s an editor—that Rubio “makes sense.”

Well, I beg to differ with my friend Claire, as I don’t think Rubio makes sense at all. I think he makes nonsense, and along with the rest of his GOP associates on the Iran question (not to mention on every other question)—though, I will grant, he does come across as more thoughtful, at least superficially, in proffering his nonsense. As I am not a dues-paying member of the Ricochet blog—so may therefore not post comments there—and in lieu of sending Claire a private email, I will post my critique of Rubio’s nonsense here on AWAV.

Rubio thus tells Goldberg (N.B. all block quotes are of Rubio, unless otherwise indicated)

Well, I was just reading out of the text of the agreement, and I assure you that the Iranians interpret it the way that I alluded to, which is that if they come under cyberattack or any other effort to sabotage their program, then not just the U.S., but all the world powers, will have the obligation to assist them technically in defeating those measures. Now obviously Kerry and the administration would say that their reading of this is that we’re trying to protect them from some sort of terrorist group, for example.

Rubio is no doubt referring to the JCPOA’s Annex III.D.10 on nuclear security, in the context of civil nuclear cooperation. There is no mention in this clause of any “obligation” in regard to technical assistance. The operative passage here is “co-operation in the form of training courses and workshops.” This seems uncontroversial and not something to set off alarm bells. Also, one wonders how Rubio can know in advance how the Iranians are going to interpret the clause.

There are companies and banks around the world that might be considering making significant investments in Iran, and what they need to know is that if they make a significant investment in Iran and a future administration reimposes sanctions, or Iran violates the deal, or Iran conducts some outrageous act of terrorism around the world and [is] sanctioned for it,

An “outrageous act of terrorism around the world”?  The last time Iran was accused of such a thing was in Buenos Aires in 1994 but, while the Iranian regime was surely behind that one, such has not definitively been proven and twenty-one years after the fact. No specific sanctions were imposed on Iran as a consequence. So why, pray, would a hypothetical recidivist attack in some far-flung corner of the world—for which Tehran would deny any responsibility and could not be proven—now get Iran in hot water?

your investment could be lost. If you go into Iran and build a pharmaceutical plant, and you invest all this money to build it, and then suddenly Iran does something, and now you’re subject to sanctions if you continue to do business with them, you’re going to lose that investment. And so I do think that it’s important for investors and others around the world who are looking to do more business with Iran to be very conscious about this, because they’re basically gambling that this regime is not violating the deal or doing something new that could impose sanctions.

Once the JCPOA is implemented and the UN and other sanctions are progressively lifted, companies, banks, and other investors will make investment decisions in Iran based on that, as well as on business-related criteria. And in the event of a complaint about Iran to the UNSC from one of the E3/EU+3 and that results in snapback sanctions, investments already made in Iran will not be affected, as—and the JCPOA is explicit on this—there will be no retroactivity in regard to contracts signed before a hypothetical reinstatement of UN sanctions.

As for a future US administration unilaterally reimposing sanctions, this cannot and will not affect non-US investments in Iran, as any attempt by the US to impose sanctions on third countries will provoke a firestorm in US relations with its E3/EU+3 partners, not to mention just about everyone else. Unless the US formally commits to issuing blanket waivers, it will be subjected to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism—the EU and/or other WTO members will be certain to file a complaint—and the US will lose, period, as third country sanctions are, except in exceptional circumstances, illegal in international law.

If the US ignores the certain WTO/DSM ruling and seeks to bar offending foreign companies and financial institutions from the US market anyway, the US will be an international outlaw. A rouge state. And it will still lose in the end.

Well, the likeliest way it’s going to happen is there will be some facility somewhere in Iran that we have suspicions about, and the IAEA will go to Iran and say, “We want to see this facility.” And Iran will say, “This is outrageous. We’re not showing you anything.” And they’ll go through a 24-day process back and forth, and ultimately it won’t be a massive thing, it’ll be an incremental thing, and Iran will say to the world, “Are you going to blow up this entire arrangement and allow us to go off and do whatever we want over this small technical issue?” And there will be a series of small, incremental violations like that, that ultimately over time will wear down the enforcement mechanism. And unless you absolutely catch them in a Cuban missile crisis-style situation, with pictures, red-handed, the world’s not going to force it, because there’ll be too many vested interests economically in Europe and around the world arguing against it. (…)

Well, I just think in their mind, they figure, “We can game this thing for a while. We still haven’t developed a long-range rocket anyway. You know, we didn’t necessarily intend to have a bomb in the next 48 months anyway. So, let’s go ahead and incrementally wear on this thing while we aim for modern-day centrifuge capabilities, while we rebuild our economy, while we rebuild our conventional capability.”

Rubio is engaging in what we in France call a discussion de café de commerce. In other words, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s tossing out half-baked hypotheses and idly speculating. On Iran’s eventual behavior when the JCPOA comes into effect, Rubio is quite sure the Iranians will cheat. For opponents of the Iran deal, it is a mantra that the Iranians are cheaters. This almost goes without saying; as if cheating is an Iranian cultural trait, congenital to the national character. Now it is, of course, possible that Iran will surreptitiously seek to contravene its treaty obligations, which is why the JCPOA contains inspection measures that the vast majority of arms control experts consider to be exceptionally robust. But seriously, why do Rubio and other deal opponents think Iran will cheat? Does the Islamic Republic of Iran have a history of not respecting bi- or multilateral agreements it has signed? If so, it would be helpful to have examples (I can’t think of any offhand). And why should Iran be trusted less than, say, the Soviet Union was, or any other adversary with whom the US signed arms control agreements over the decades (or agreements of any kind)? In point of fact, the default attitude here should be that the Iranians—like the E3/EU+3—will respect the JCPOA. Honestly, why shouldn’t they?

But if Marco Rubio or one of his GOP compères enters the White House in January 2017 and proceeds to denounce US commitments to the JCPOA, which country will the international community conclude cannot be trusted to respect agreements it has signed?

On the US isolating itself if it rejects or repudiates the Iran deal, Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd, in a NYT op-ed dated August 17th, “Iranians dare to hope,” concludes with this

But the deal isn’t about the United States anymore. If Iran abides by it (even as America rejects it) the rest of the world will too, and the United States will have killed not the deal but its own credibility, the tremendous goodwill it has in Iran, and even its own economic interests. And Iran, the Iranians know, will abide by the treaty, make do in a world without America, and will re-elect, in 2017, the president who brought them the promise of a better life.

Back to Rubio:

 I would argue that it is not, because you’re about to see billions of dollars of assets held abroad returned. That money can’t be pulled back. Once [the Iranians] get it they’ll be able to do what they want with it. I mean, it isn’t going to be used to build hospitals and roads.

How the hell does Marco Rubio know this?! How does he know that the billions of Iranian dollars will not be used for infrastructure and other things that will benefit the Iranian people (and increase the popularity of the regime in the process)?!

In fact, he doesn’t know at all. He’s just idly speculating. Le café de commerce.

I imagine they’ll spend some on domestic considerations, but if history is a guide, they’ll use the money to increase their reach in the region, and that means supporting [Syrian President] Assad, Hezbollah, the 14th of February movement in Bahrain, the Houthis in Yemen, you name it. There are Shia militias in Iraq they will support, and this is not to mention their long-range missile capabilities and their other asymmetrical conventional capabilities that they’ll work on.

First of all, history is no guide here. And I will wager that Marco Rubio, were he to take an exam of mine on this history (without having taken my course, at least), would not get an ‘A’. Second, precisely how will Iran “use the money” to support its clients in the region? Regarding the Assad regime in Syria and Hizbullah, they’re already being backed by Iran to the hilt. According to Israeli intelligence, Hizbullah already has over 100,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, all presumably supplied by Iran. So would more money for that many more rockets and missiles increase ever more the danger to Israel? On the “14th of February movement [sic]” in Bahrain: Why shouldn’t this receive more money? It could no doubt use some. And there is no reason under the sun why anyone with an interest in democracy promotion in the region should be opposed. The Houthis in Yemen? So what about them? In point of fact, the US has no dog in the Yemeni civil war and, par ailleurs, has no reason whatever to be opposing the Houthis. If anything, the US should be tilting toward the Houthis, who are fighting Al-Qaida in Yemen and, as Zaidis, will be reliable enemies of the Islamic State should the latter set up shop in the Arabian peninsula (an eventuality that must not be excluded). Shia militias in Iraq? I’m sorry to inform you, Senator Rubio, but that horse has already bolted. Shia Iraq is entirely occupied by Shia militias and which are, let us be clear on this, an essential bulwark against the expansion of the Islamic State. Long range Iranian missiles? Ouf! GMAB.

The view in the region is that Iran is a country bent on regional domination. They believe the ayatollah’s call to be a leader of all the Muslim world, not just Shia Muslims, and they have a view that Iran has a rightful place in the world as a dominant power.

The only people outside US right-wing circles who believe this preposterous, ridiculous notion are the ruling cliques in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who have an existential hang-up about Persians and Shi’ism. That’s their problem, not America’s.

And so Sunni Arabs see all this as a direct threat, and they view Iran as being empowered now. They are now the power in the region that has been given global-power status.

Oy vey, Iran being “given global-power status”… This one takes the cake. Now we’re in La La Land. The notion of Iran endowed with global-power status—and of this being delivered to it on a platter by the JCPOA—is utterly unserious; it is so unworthy of serious response that it will not receive it here (if one does want a response to Rubio’s ludicrous assertion, see Daniel Larison’s takedown in TAC).

As for Sunni Arabs—but which ones outside ruling Saudi/Gulfi circles precisely?—who see Iran as a threat (existential), let them deal with that. The Saudis (and Gulfis et al) will look after their interests, and the United States of America will look after hers…

and if we would just mind our own business, this theory goes [i.e. that a lot of our problems in the region were caused by us being too engaged, because we were telling people what to do]—and in particular force the Israelis to work out a deal with the Palestinians—that somehow the region would become more stable. And so you married that belief to fatigue, and that leads to this foreign policy we now see. What happened since is you’ve seen the fatigue go away as ISIS began beheading people, and you’ve seen the implications of this retreat from the region, which is that it leaves behind a vacuum, a vacuum that has led to chaos. It’s led to chaos in Iraq, it’s increasingly leading to chaos in Afghanistan. ISIS is now fighting with the Taliban to become the premier Islamist group on the ground. You’ve seen the chaos in Libya. You’ve seen the chaos spreading to other parts of North Africa as well. And so you’re seeing the results of that play itself out in chaos, but ultimately they’re forcing this president back into the region.

This is gobbledygook. Hot air. MENA is in chaos. We know that. Who doesn’t? But what specifically does this have to do with the actions, or non-actions, of the US? Except if one wants to argue—and not without reason—that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq set off a chain reaction of events in the region that led to the current situation, though one doubts this is what Rubio is getting at.

[Obama was] the guy who was going to get us out of these conflicts, but now he has been pulled back in, and he’s trying to do it in the most limited way possible.

A historical mise au point is in order here. President Obama pledged during the 2008 campaign to withdraw US forces from Iraq. But, in fact, this became a done deal in the final weeks of Bush’s presidency, when the US and Iraq signed a SOFA stipulating that all US forces in Iraq would be withdrawn by the end of 2011. Obama, during the 2011 negotiations for a renewed SOFA, strove to keep a residual US military presence but the Iraqi parliament would not agree to this, as the US was insisting that US military personnel not be liable for prosecution in Iraqi courts, and to which the democratically elected Iraqi parliament responded with a categorical ‘no’. And so that was that. The US had no choice but to quit Iraq at the end of 2011. If Marco Rubio or anyone who shares his world-view on foreign policy wishes to disagree on this, I invite him or her to explicitly state what the US president should have done in this circumstance.

And then there’s Afghanistan, which is curiously absent from present-day GOP discourse. Republicans like to extol Bush’s Iraq surge of 2007—which sent US troop numbers there from 130K to 160K—but neglect to mention Obama’s Afghan surge of 2009-10, when US troop levels more than tripled, from 32K to 100K. Not that this made a huge difference in the end but still, it did not precisely signify a wish on Obama’s part “to get us out of these conflicts.”

But this is ending up making it worse, not better, because what’s happening now in Iraq is people are looking at these limited air strikes and saying, “This is not American power. We know what American power really looks like, and this isn’t it.” This is a cosmetic show of force that ultimately shows you’re not truly committed to defeating these people, and this has undermined our credibility with Jordan, with the Saudis, with the Egyptians, with others.

Immediate question: how on earth does Marco Rubio know what “people” in Iraq are saying in regard to US air strikes? More to the point: What precisely does he think the US should be doing to defeat “these people”—presumably the Islamic State—in Iraq and Syria? And how does he propose to display “American power [as it] really looks like”? Send American troops back to Iraq? If so, how many, knowing that taking on IS will be a somewhat greater challenge than the 2003 cakewalk to Baghdad?

In a Ricochet post a couple of months ago, Claire, in taking the Obama administration to task for what she called its “non-strategy” vis-à-vis the Islamic State, expressed puzzlement at the relative silence of “our-too-calm” Republican candidates. Claire was miffed as to why the latter weren’t “screaming” over the latest outrage committed by IS. In fact, the answer is simple: If the GOP candidates are going to scream bloody murder about IS, they will necessarily have to say what they would do about it if they were to succeed President Obama. And the fact is, they have no idea. They haven’t a clue. (On the GOP’s Middle East/foreign policy cluelessness, see David Sanger’s NYT article from the other day). More air power will not do the job and sending 10,000 US troops to Iraq—as Lindsey Graham has proposed—won’t either. If the US wishes to eradicate the Islamic State—which, horrible as it is, poses no threat to the American homeland—it will take an armada larger than the one in 2003 and that will stay in Iraq and Syria for many years (and under what mandate?). The Republicans may be crazy warmongers—in their rhetoric, at least—but none of their candidates are so crazy—or at least imprudent—as to propose such a thing.

There is actually one Republican candidate who has made sensible statements of late on the Middle East, and that’s the current front-runner. As Bloomberg Politics writer Melinda Henneberger reported from the campaign trail in New Hampshire last weekend

[Donald Trump] called himself the “most militaristic person in the room,” then added, “but you have to know when to use it.” And he also says not only that we should never have gone into Iraq, but that we were better off with Saddam Hussein in charge there. “You had Iran and Iraq and they were the same; they were twins…Well, we took one out and look at the mess we have; we destabilized the Middle East. I’m not a fan of Saddam Hussein, but he ran the place, and he had no weapons of mass destruction. And now, instead of Saddam Hussein, we have far more brutal.” No, this is not an unheard-of view, but it is one that has generally been heard only from Democrats. Yet when the Republican front-runner says these things now—that we have nothing whatsoever to show for all the blood spilled there—many heads nod.

Not bad. What Donald Trump had to say in NH was certainly more level-headed than Marco Rubio’s brandishing the spectre, sans rire, of Iranian nuclear mushroom clouds over California in a speech there last month. Haven’t Republicans learned their lesson by now about conjuring up mushroom clouds to scare people?

Rubio is at least lucid about one thing, which is the likely outcome of the congressional vote on the Iran deal. Congress will certainly reject it but will not have the votes to override President Obama’s veto. There is no way 13 Democrats in the Senate plus 44 in the House will go against their president. Jamais de la vie. So the Iran deal will be a done one once and for all. And the Republicans will have to find another foreign policy issue to demagogue and talk nonsense on.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: