Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

The Diminishing of Christopher Hitchens

March 14, 2015

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A foundation has recently announced that it will be handing out an annual journalism award named after Christopher Hitchens. One of the judges for this award will be Christopher “Thanks, Dad!” Buckley, so you know beforehand that this will be yet another meaningless award that we can all safely ignore.

I stopped paying attention to Hitchens back in 2001, when he wrote that the 9/11 attacks gave him a feeling of “exhilaration”. (Katha Pollitt rightly called this “childishness”.) At the time, I made the naive, but nonetheless reasonable, assumption that everyone else had done the same thing. I gradually became aware that I was sadly mistaken about this. (Personal disclosure: I never met Hitchens, but he once spat a cigarette at a friend of mine.) Hitchens became a noisy advocate for the illegal invasion of Iraq. In spite of this, Hitchens is greatly admired today, but he is admired for the wrong reasons.

Hitchens’s most important work is also his least influential: The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which he convincingly argued that Kissinger is a war criminal and possibly a traitor as well. Today, Kissinger is widely feted, and he even makes appearances on comedy shows. When an anti-war group recently interrupted Kissinger’s testimony before a Senate Committee, Sen. John McCain called them “low-life scum”. McCain apparently doesn’t mind the fact that he spent six years in a North Vietnamese POW camp because Nixon and Kissinger prolonged the Vietnam War. Such forgiveness is truly touching to see. (This same McCain once said that he wouldn’t mind if US troops were in Iraq for the next 100 years. This is masochism as foreign policy.)

According to Vanity Fair: “… the foundation intends both the prize and the award ceremony to celebrate and draw public attention to the values that marked Christopher Hitchens’s life and career…” What it will actually celebrate is the moral bankruptcy of our society.

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Hannah Arendt on the Mob Mentality

January 26, 2015

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In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes:

    For the propaganda of totalitarian movements which precede and accompany totalitarian regimes is invariably as frank as it is mendacious, and would-be totalitarian regimes usually start their careers by boasting of their past crimes and carefully outlining their future ones. The Nazis “were convinced that evil-doing in our time has a morbid force of attraction”…”

Arendt goes on to say:

    The attraction of evil and crime for the mob mentality is nothing new. It has always been true that the mob will greet “deeds of violence with the admiring remark: it may be mean but it is very clever.”

By mob, Arendt means “a group in which the residue of all classes are represented.” In other words, the mob consists of people who, through economic or political circumstances, have been deprived of their class standings and impoverished. Arendt tells us that “the mob hates society from which it is excluded.”

This put me in mind of the Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL or Daesh or whatever you want to call it.) Reports of its atrocities – massacres, beheadings, the raping of women and girls – have actually resulted in it attracting jihadis from all over the world. This is clearly a case of evil-doing having a “morbid force of attraction”.

Consider the case of Cherif and Said Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo shooters. Abandoned by their parents and placed in foster home, they moved to a northern suburb of Paris where they engaged in petty theft and drug dealing before they gravitated toward radical Islam.

The mob, which was the mains support of the Nazis, may well be the main support of IS as well.

What is the US Doing in Syria?

October 10, 2014

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There has been a proliferation of conspiracy theories since ISIS captured Mosul last June. This should not be surprising, considering the way that ISIS just seemed to appear out of nowhere, though what actually happened is that the Western media simply didn’t pay any attention to them up until that point.

One of the most popular conspiracy theories holds that the US deliberately created ISIS to give itself an excuse to send troops back into Iraq. CJ Werleman has put forward a somewhat more plausible theory, which holds that the US and Saudi Arabia have conspired to create a sectarian army that would attack Iran’s allies in Iraq and Syria, and perhaps eventually Iran itself. But if this is the US’s plan, wouldn’t the US now be attacking Assad, who is Iran’s ally?

I’ve have grown wary of conspiracy theories as I’ve gotten older, but I still have to wonder if we’re being told the truth about what is going on. A recent article in The Guardian reports that:

    No coalition strikes have been made to help or relieve rebel forces where they were facing either Isis or government troops. Emile Hokayem of the International Institute of Strategic Studies said Assad has been able “to give his troops a break while surveying the landscape and looking for opportunities.”

We also learn that:

    Coalition hits on grain silos and a gas plant in Manbij and Deir al-Zor drew warnings of a humanitarian disaster – and the risk of playing into Isis’s hands, as shortages during the winter will be blamed on the international community. The Hazm movement – backed by the US and supplied with advanced anti-tank weapons – publicly denounced the intervention but was quickly silenced by Washington, rebel sources say. Attacks on Jabhat al Nusra (another al-Qaida-linked jihadi group and a rival to Isis) have backfired, and are said to have brought it new recruits.

    Civilian deaths caused by coalition attacks clearly risk a backlash. “We had 10 martyrs when they targeted Al-Riqa,” said Zeid Al-Jabli, a student from Zawiya in the Idlib area. “There had been a base for Jabhat al-Nusra but they pulled out a long time ago and the civilians were killed instead. Shelling by the regime has intensified because of the coalition. We have martyrs and wounded every day.”

The Guardian also reports that Kurdish fighters are saying the air strikes are doing no good:

    He [a Kurdish spokesman] said Isis had adapted its tactics to military strikes from the air. “Each time a jet approaches, they leave their open positions, they scatter and hide. What we really need is ground support. We need heavy weapons and ammunition in order to fend them off and defeat them.”

The US is following a strategy that is not only not working, but which is actually counterproductive. One can spin all sorts of conspiracy theories about this, but I suspect the problem is really just that our policymakers have no idea what they are doing.

Once More into the Big Muddy

September 25, 2014

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Earlier this month, Andy Borowitz wrote an article with the title “Growing Pressure on Obama to Do Something Stupid”. This title is (partly) meant in jest, but it has proven to be prescient. Obama has finally done something that he has long resisted doing: he has bombed Syria. Why? Salim Lone, in The Guardian, writes: “Obama’s resistance to launching a war has for months made him the target of a sustained barrage of criticism, of a vehemence suffered by no other US president in the last 40 years.” Lone is probably referring to Jimmy Carter here. He was harshly criticized for not going to war with Iran over the hostage “crisis”. I would go back further, to Harry Truman, whom Republicans and much of the news media accused of “losing” China. These accusations may have contributed to Truman’s later reckless behavior during the Korean War, when he allowed Gen. MacArthur to exceed the UN mandate and invade North Korea – which led to a horrific war with China.

Over the past year or more, Obama has been under intense criticism from the media. They accuse him of being “soft” on Putin. (Do these people really want the president to start World War III?) As Lone points out:

    To get a sense of the pro-war shift in the US political landscape, recall how Bush’s infinitely more contentious 2003 war was preceded by a national debate. [Not much of a debate, actually.] Merely a media-amplified campaign for stepped-up military intervention has preceded Obama’s war. Even within his party, there has been little support, with senior figures like Hillary Clinton pouring scorn on his reticence.

Such discredited figures as Dick Cheney, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham – all of whom helped to create the current crisis in Iraq and Syria – are being exhibited on news shows as “experts” on what we should do now. We shouldn’t consider this surprising, considering that most of the people in the news media supported the invasion of Iraq.

Once again into the Big Muddy.

One Point about Iraq

September 17, 2014

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I would like to make a point here about Iraq, that, so far as I know, no one else has made. Years ago, Iraq had a capable, battle-seasoned army that could have easily dispatched a group like ISIS. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US disbanded this army. The US then trained and equipped a new Iraqi army. It was this army that abandoned Mosul in the face of an ISIS offensive, leaving behind US-supplied weapons. So, yes, in that respect the US does bear responsibility for the current crisis in Iraq.

Tunnel Vision on ISIS

September 13, 2014

Isis fighters, pictured on a militant website verified by AP.

There is a certain type of argument that I’ve been hearing on the Left lately, a good example of which can be found in an article by John V. Walsh at Dissident Voice, entitled Syria Next on Hit List (ISIS is a side issue at best). In it, he writes about President Obama’s recent speech:

    The rationales that Obama is peddling make no sense. If the barbarity of beheading were the actual trigger of this latest onslaught on the Middle East, then the U.S. would not be sending our “moderate” trainees to Saudi Arabia where beheading is a well respected national past time – far more popular than allowing women to drive automobiles.

But the beheadings aren’t the only trigger. ISIS has carried out mass killings of Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a Muslims. These have received extensive coverage in the US media. Walsh must surely know this, yet he never mentions this. The point about beheadings in Saudi Arabia is basically true, but it’s not really pertinent to the situation in Syria. Walsh goes on:

    And ISIS remains a mysterious entity, springing up out of nowhere and carrying arms that are supplied by American and Saudi agencies. In Iran as was reported in the NYT yesterday on the front page, the great majority of “the street” believes it is an American/Israeli/Saudi creation.

Since Walsh apparently reads the New York Times, he must surely know that ISIS captured US weapons when the US-trained Iraqi army fled Mosul. Another important detail that he neglects to mention. And in what possible sense can “the street” in Iran be considered a reliable source on the relationship between the US and ISIS?

    Syria, of course, was on the list of targets that General Wesley Clarke [sic] revealed to us that there was a hit list in the Middle East and North Africa of seven countries, “starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” And miraculously the schedule has been modified only slightly perhaps because Assad has put up such fierce resistance.

Walsh has no idea what he is talking about here. The “hit list” he refers to was drawn up by neoconservatives in the Bush Administration before the invasion of Iraq. They expected to accomplish all of their goals within five years. (You can see how well that worked out.) It’s doubtful whether this list still has any influence over US foreign policy. Obama has had five years in which to attack Syria. Last year’s Sarin gas attack gave him a perfect excuse to do so, yet instead he eagerly accepted an offer by Russia to negotiate a deal with Assad.

Walsh ends with this rhetorical flourish:

    The dream of the U.S. Empire to dominate the Eurasian land mass is being implemented: Damascus, Tehran, Moscow and finally Beijing unless nuclear war breaks out first. Obama and the rest of the imperial elite are flirting with Armageddon.

Uh, yeah. Look, I have strong reservations about what the president is proposing to do in Syria and Iraq. We need to have a serious national discussion about this. Unfortunately, we have too many people like Walsh, who just want to idly spin conspiracy theories.

Iraq and the Law of Unintended Consequences

August 17, 2014

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Nouri al-Maliki and Barack Obama

The other day I went to my local library to read Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices. I found it dull, and it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I was, however, struck by the following sentence on page 389: “Benghazi is a port city on the Mediterranean Sea with a population of more than 1 million people, mostly Sunni Muslims, and large African and Egyptian minorities.” So, our former Secretary of State doesn’t know that Libyans and Egyptians are Africans. Interesting.

I got so bored, that out of desperation I picked up a copy of Robert Gates’s memoir, Duty. I must say that I found Gates to be a more interesting writer than Clinton, if only because his writing doesn’t sound like sound-bites from a presidential debate. I also learned something from him: Bush had frequent video conferences with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, and with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq. Gates says that Bush acted as a “useful mentor” to these men (page 337). The idea that Bush could serve as a mentor to anyone, let alone the leaders of two nations, is mind-boggling to me. Later, Gates says that Maliki’s party came in second in Iraq’s 2010 (page 472) elections, but Maliki was nonetheless eventually able to resume his position as prime minister. What Maliki apparently learned from Bush was how to take office after losing an election.

Gates shares with us the following heart-warming anecdote:

    … Maliki, frustrated and angered by Iranian-backed Shia extremist actions in Basra, ordered units of the Iraqi army into the city to reestalish control. The U.S. commanders were horrified that Maliki had taken such a risk without proper preparation. They scrambled to provide the logistics, planning, and military advice to support Maliki’s effort; without such help, he almost certainly would have failed. But he didn’t and therefore won significant recognition all across Iraq for acting like a “national” leader by suppressing his Shia brethren. The president told the chiefs, “We ought to say hurray to Maliki for going down to Basra and taking on the extremists.” He charactized is a “milestone event.” “Maliki used to ba a paralyzed neophyte – now he is taking charge.” Bush was right. (Page 233.)

This same “national”, Maliki, is now widely blamed for the disintegration of the Iraqi state; his relentless sectarianism is alleged to a have antagonized the country’s Sunni Muslim minority. At this point, one must question whether Bush and Gates really understood what was going on in Iraq.

Ah, but according to conspiracy theory, leaders always have complete control over what is happening. Consider this article by Mike Whitney, Why Obama Wants Maliki Removed in the most recent isssue of CounterPunch. Whitney writes:

    The Obama administration is pushing for regime change in Iraq on the basis that current prime minister Nouri al Maliki is too sectarian. The fact is, however, that Maliki’s abusive treatment of Sunnis never factored into Washington’s decision to have him removed. Whether he has been “too sectarian” or not is completely irrelevant. The real reason he’s under attack is because he wouldn’t sign the Status of Forces Agreement in 2011. He refused to grant immunity to the tens of thousands of troops the administration wanted to leave in Iraq following the formal withdrawal. That’s what angered Washington. That’s why the administration wants Maliki replaced.

That’s right! Obama was so angry at Maliki, that he waited three years to demand his removal from office.

The life of a conspiracy theorist is difficult and unpleasant. He must be continually searching for whatever paltry (or perhaps non-existent) evidence that may buttress his pre-conceived ideas. He simply cannot concede the possibility that the people in charge may not always understand what exactly is going on.

The Empire of Shamelessness

June 17, 2014

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Iraq’s slide into sectarian civil war is conclusive proof, as if any were needed, that the US’s Middle East policies of the past twenty years have been an absolute catastrophe. Yet it is an indication of the neoconservatives’ endless capacity for stupid opportunism and self-delusion, that they see the current crisis as an opportunity to re-occupy Iraq.

The New York Times – which, you may recall, published false claims about Saddam Hussein having “weapons of mass destruction” – recently posted a puff piece devoted to the neoconservative “historian”, Robert Kagan. In it, we learn:

    To Mr. Kagan, American action to stop the militants is imperative, but a continued military presence in Iraq and action in Syria would have averted the crisis. “It’s striking how two policies driven by the same desire to avoid the use of a military power are now converging to create this burgeoning disaster,” Mr. Kagan said in an interview.

Mr. Kagan apparently failed to notice that the presence of US troops in Iraq failed to stop a previous sectarian civil war in that country, one in which thousand of Sunni Muslims were driven out of Baghdad. As for “action in Syria”, I assume that what he means by that is going to war against the Assad government, which is fighting against ISIS, the same group that Kagan wants us to now fight in Iraq. Yes, this man is clearly a master strategist.

We do learn some interesting things from this article. For example:

    But Exhibit A for what Robert Kagan describes as his “mainstream” view of American force is his relationship with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who remains the vessel into which many interventionists are pouring their hopes. Mr. Kagan pointed out that he had recently attended a dinner of foreign-policy experts at which Mrs. Clinton was the guest of honor, and that he had served on her bipartisan group of foreign-policy heavy hitters at the State Department, where his wife worked as her spokeswoman.

    “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy,” Mr. Kagan said, adding that the next step after Mr. Obama’s more realist approach “could theoretically be whatever Hillary brings to the table” if elected president. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue,” he added, “it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”

Those liberals who are “ready for Hillary” are in for a nasty surprise should she ever be elected president.

We also learn that Kagan is married to Victoria Nuland – yes, that Victoria Nuland. The article tells us that Nuland is:

    … an assistant secretary of state and one of the country’s toughest and most experienced diplomats, whose fervor for building democracy in Ukraine recently leaked out in an embarrassing audio clip.

Just how stupid do these people think we are? Nuland’s notorious “fuck the EU” phone call showed a sneering contempt for democracy. It was all about her belief that she has a right to tell the Ukrainians how to run their country.

Meanwhile, Paul Wolfowitz showed up on Meet the Nation:

    … on June 15 from his NBC platform, Wolfowitz opined that the current Iraqi violence could be traced to the absence of U.S. troops, suggesting that we should have stayed in Iraq just as we “stuck with South Korea for 60 years.”

Wolfowitz must surely be aware that the US pulled out of Iraq at the insistence of the Iraqi government. Such is Wolfowitz’s arrogance, that he doesn’t even pretend to care about the sham democracy that he helped to create. When asked what he would do about ISIS, Wolfowitz said, “I would do something in Syria.” Uh, you mean like drop bombs on people? The US has been dropping bombs on various parts of the Middle East for years now, and nothing much has really changed.

Even the ghoulish figure of Tony Blair has been resurrected. (George W. Bush appears to be too busy with his newfound career of painting, as well he should be.) He has been telling people: “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this.” We need to liberate ourselves from the notion that we need to listen to the advice of people such as Tony Blair, Robert Kagan, and Paul Wolfowitz. Only then can we begin to understand what is going on in this world.

Wadjda

April 1, 2014

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A recent article by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent argues that the “War on Terror” has been a failure. He points out that jihadists have seized control of large areas of Iraq and Syria and that the Taliban have been making a resurgence in Afghanistan. He argues that the main reason for this is that the United States and Britain are allied with the two governments that do the most to spread jihadism: those of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. You can’t win a struggle when you’re allied with your enemies. (Those on the left who advocate the “red-brown” strategy should think about this.)

Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2012 film set in Saudi Arabia, gives us a rare glimpse inside a country that is often misunderstood in the West. (9/11 Truthers will be surprised to learn that people in Saudi Arabia do not live in caves.)

This film tells the story of Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a young girl who dreams of owning a bicycle. Girls riding bicycles is frowned upon in religiously conservative Saudi Arabia. Wadjda’ mother (Reem Abdullah) works as a teacher. Because women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, she has to be driven to work by a hired driver who treats her rudely. Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) is loving and kind, but his parents pressure him into taking a second wife, because Wadjda’s mother can no longer bear children.

At Wadjda’s school, we see the headmistress (Ahd Kamel) scold some girls for laughing in the schoolyard – apparently because men can hear them. This film portrays the bleakness of religious fundamentalism. Wadjda subtly resists, yet she herself succumbs to it at times; for example, she betrays a couple of her fellow students to the headmistress at one point. This film ends on a heart-warmingly optimistic note, however.

Wadjda features strong performances and is beautifully filmed. This is an all the more remarkable achievement considering that this film was made under less than ideal conditions. (It is the first feature film made in Saudi Arabia, as well as the first film directed by a woman there.) Wadjda is about as close to a perfect film as I have ever seen.

The Guardian Advocates Saudi Exceptionalism

November 4, 2013

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The Guardian is my favorite newspaper. It often has articles that I find informative and thought-provoking. Every now and then, however, the paper makes an editorial decision that I find inexplicable. On Saturday, November 2, they ran an article by a Saudi Arabian man named Ahmed Abdel-Raheem titled Word to the west: many Saudi women oppose lifting the driving ban. In it he writes:

    If you read any western coverage of the recent protest of Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban, you probably thought, “finally, the kingdom is waking up”. But the problem is, that’s not what many Saudis think, including Saudi women.

Raheem goes on to claim that he conducted an informal survey of female college students in Saudi Arabia. He says:

    To my surprise, 134 (out of 170) respondents said female driving is not a necessity and that it opens the door for sexual harassment and encourages women to not wear the niqab under the pretext that they cannot see the road when driving. Some also fear that it gives husbands a chance to betray and agree with the assertion that it creates sedition in society.

That’s an interesting word there: sedition. Not long ago Saudi Arabia helped crush an uprising in neighboring Bahrain. I’d be curious to learn about the social backgrounds of these women, particularly if any of them come from families connected with the government. Raheem quotes one respondent as saying:

    Honestly, I don’t like women to drive. This will create sedition … I agree that there are already different kinds of sedition we see every day, but the right place for a woman is her house; this will really save her from what is happening in the outside world.

Sedition seems to be a big concern among some people. Raheem then writes:

    This stresses that the continuous attempts from the west to impose its values elsewhere are pointless. Western feminism is not only unlikely to take hold in countries like Saudi Arabia, it is not what many women in the kingdom want. Consider what Amany Abdulfadl, member of the Egyptian Centre for Monitoring Women’s Priorities, said in a 2007 piece in Al-Ahram Weekly: the west’s ”definition of equality cannot work in our Arab world because neither will our women find jungles to cut wood in, nor our men ever have breasts to feed babies.’

You see, the best way to make a point is with a non-sequitur.

    People in Saudi Arabia have their own moral views and needs. What works in other societies may not fit in Saudi (sic), and the reverse. In short, instead of launching campaigns to change the driving laws in the kingdom, the west should first ask Saudi women if they really want this or not, and western countries should accept the result, even if it’s not to their liking.

The next day – Sunday, November 3 – The Guardian ran an aricle titled Saudi Arabia ‘arrests Kuwaiti woman for driving diabetic father to hospital’. It tells us:

    The English-language Kuwait Times said that the woman had been driving in an area just over the border, with her father in the passenger seat, when she was stopped by police. The woman, who said that her diabetic father could not drive and needed to be taken to hospital for treatment, was being held in custody pending an investigation, the paper said, citing police.

Yet another reason why women shouldn’t be allowed to drive is that they might be tempted to drive their diabetic fathers to the emergency room instead of letting them die. This might work in other countries, but it might not fit in Saudi Arabia. (And, who knows, it could lead to sedition.)

According to his bio, Raheem currently lives in Poland, where the women are allowed to drive, and the men do not have breasts. (I swear, this is true.)