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The Political Animal

The Revolution with No Name

delalibWhen it seemed to some at the end of the Cold War that we had also reached the end of history, more than ever, every act of rebellion and revolution seemed cause to celebrate an elevated human spirit. After a long winter of merely staving off an enemy’s further success, now freedom was rising with people uprising, and cheer was in the air. We got, relatively peaceful and colored (orange and rose), revolutions and “springs” that sprang of the hope – so richly did the sap of it rise in great municipal squares around the world – that all that is necessary to topple tyranny is for good people to yearn in multitudes together in city centers, suffer only small losses against brutish police while their uplifting cause is broadcast to the world via iPhone and tweeted the encouragement of the well-fed and meaning.

Hold, now, candles up to the night, under music, for the next inspiring Apple or Nike commercial.

Nothing could stop universal liberation now.

Except as it turned out, lots of the colors faded, and the springs were either false or soon broken, which many people, it seemed, failed to notice. More begin to now.

The course of revolutions was never swift and sure, glorious or quickly final. There were counter revolutions, restorations, and failed republics, great dictators along the way before decades might cast a shadow of the original dream. The promise of the French Revolution was not soon borne out: eighty one years passed between the storming of the Bastille and the final establishment of republican government never again to depart.  Three quarters of a century after the Russian Revolution waited the collapse of Soviet barbarity and then Yeltsin on a tank  just to deliver, so far, ninety-three years later, Vladimir Putin on horseback.

The American Revolution stands more and more exceptional, especially for those who make Exceptionalism the currency of their daily political barter and harangue, though not so exceptional that many of the same won’t pretend that all it requires is a freedom agenda and a perpetual footing for war to spring the world’s restive and aspiring masses, properly watered, into the same colorful bloom.

For many, after Iraq and Afghanistan and those departed springs, it could be Syria that has taken so much the bloom off that rose, though there was Iran in 2009 before it. The right’s interventionists predictably made the failure of that revolution Barack Obama’s failure, though never a credible case was made by never a soul that a president’s greater public encouragement of the “Green” revolution would have led to anything other than the same dismal end with many more dead in the street.

Somewhere now in the consciences of some, not in those of others, arises amidst the inspired freedom calls also the moderating memory – the recollection, in the moral vision of King, that while, he hopefully told us, the arc of history bends toward justice, it is in the first place long. What is it that we provoke with our policies and acts, our encouraging words and cheers, and how, most importantly of all, have we prepared not others, but only ourselves to face what it is that we invoke in the world?

What do we invoke in the world? American troops still in Iraq and not to leave Afghanistan even after thirteen years if some would have their way. The same people would have led the U.S. to enter – oh, let us not argue for the moment over just how – the Syrian civil war. They wanted us, too, to be “all Georgians now” in 2008, when Russia sent troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And now there is Ukraine, hotter by the day, with Venezuela just a little on the back burner. North Korea, too, there is always the threat of North Korea, and if, likely, no negotiated settlement is reached with Iran over its nuclear program – just how many air campaigns, missile strikes, policing actions, proxy wars, full-fledged attacks, and all out wars do the impassioned eminences of American imperial militarism believe the United States can conduct at once or in just a decade or two, after a decade or two, without inflaming the world and putting the torch to America’s own democracy?

What is neither reasonably nor honorably, which is not to say  uncontested about Ukraine:

  • that Victor Yanukovych was the most corrupt of oligarchs and a malleable instrument of Russian imperial policy
  • that Russia’s invasion of Crimea is both illegal and unjustifiable.

Still, it is so that not many conclusions necessarily follow from these truths.

From the start there have been divisions over the identity and nature of those behind the anti- Yanukovych protests, with Timothy Snyder in The New York Review of Books and Steven Cohen in The Nation prominent opponents pitting freedom-loving liberals against the right wing nationalists the Russians want to cast as fascists. Snyder does not have to be wrong for Cohen to be partly right. Not all American revolutionaries were Tom Paine and Alexander Hamilton. Some retained their monarchical tastes. And do we not receive our very terminology of political right and left from the French Revolution? And did not the Bolsheviks out maneuver a host of competing and more moderate parties during the Russian Revolution? A revolution is never one thing.

Going back to the 2004 Orange Revolution, the evidence of Ukrainian liberal leaning toward the West is clear enough, particularly in the western Ukraine. The problem of Ukraine 2014, whatever the Russians say, is not who is behind the uprising, but what the West thought it was doing in Ukraine and what thought it gave to what the Russians would do when the West did it. The evidence is that what the Europeans and the U.S. thought they were doing was far too simple minded, and that barely a competent thought was given to what the Russians would do.

One does not have to be Henry Kissinger, characteristically unmindful of moral considerations, not to be James Kirchik, treating geopolitical fault lines as cause for a modern crusade on a high horse to the New Jerusalem. One need not be Kirchik to know which side acts more, in King’s words, to uplift human personality, or Kissinger to know when acts are better guided by the possible. The world is not remediated by zealotry.

The most telling words of anyone, by far, in these events were uttered by Vladimir Putin himself when he finally spoke to the public.

I think they sit there across the pond in the U.S., sometimes it seems … they feel like they’re in a lab and they’re running all sorts of experiments on the rats without understanding consequences of what they’re doing.

This striking observation reveals much. First, for the man who in the past year has emerged as the American right’s latest master strategist, the personal resentment – what should not guide the policy of master strategists – is palpable. Second, the words nonetheless confirm what many on the right have already charged – that Putin holds Obama in contempt. Third, Putin is right. The conclusion of amateurish fooling around in Ukraine, without “understanding consequences of what they’re doing,” is escaped only through partisan rationalization.

But a greater understanding of the mistakes here escapes both Putin and Obama’s home front critics. When all those EU diplo-  and technocrats were luring Ukraine toward membership, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, declaring the EU could get fucked, was picking and choosing who should govern Ukraine after a successful rebellion, it was not, clearly, just the Americans who were wearing lab coats. And it was not the Obama administration, but many of its current critics, before this administration, who have publicly desired all these years to bring the “defensive” lines of NATO right to the borders of Russia, about which the Russians were expected to think what – “Oh, we know, you’re the good guys, we shouldn’t worry”?

Steven Cohen has been infuriated by his own critics calling him a Putin apologist – and why should anyone so intimately connected to The Nation ever be considered tainted by anti-American apologetics – yet it is true that one can, without Cohen’s soft sell of Putin’s autocracy, understand matters from a Russian perspective. It is what fundamentally competent strategists do, and what is required to be done if one wants actually to accomplish a strategic goal and not simply posture about it before the alter of world-historical righteousness.

What stretch of imagination is required to recognize that Putin would not perceive Nuland’s and all the others’ lab set ups benignly? Nuland et al. may envision themselves as no more than traveling preachers tending to their flock’s greater yearning for nearness to democracy, but how much empathetic projection is needed to intuit that Putin, or any Russian leader, would likely see them as outside agitators firing up the flock, stirring up trouble in his own neighboring parish, about which, it just so happens, he cares a little and has an interest? How much geography and history must one know to recognize the significance of Ukraine to Russia? Or that Crimea, once, in 1954, in very different times, literally given to Ukraine for Soviet administrative and political purposes, would not now, seemingly pick-pocketed from Russia’s geopolitical hip, be simply given up with a shrug and a smile? “Oh, well, you win this time. Come back at ya with Mexico when I get a chance.”

Unsurprisingly, entreaties to true believers that they try reversing roles have been facilely dismissed. The U.S., they insist would hardly, in contrary circumstances, invade and annex part of Canada. The easy reply to that easy claim is that, no, obviously, the United States is not Russia. To whom other than rankest of crank extremists on either end of the political spectrum does that case need to be made? Less facile is to wonder just how obvious it is that the United States would not act similarly. American interventions in behalf of national interests are a twentieth century historical marker. Had the Canadian or Mexican governments been toppled during the Cold War by Marxist leaning street protests, how hard is it to conjure the frenzied calls, particularly from the right, for American action? In fact, the United States has maintained possession of Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, occupied by treaty signed under the duress of colonial domination, even as the internationally recognized government of Cuba has for more than fifty years protested that continued foreign occupation. Once the American Civil War was over, the U.S. began covertly to supply arms to Juarez in Mexico, in opposition to the French-installed Emperor Maximilian. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine declared that European interference, not in a neighboring country, but anywhere in the Western Hemisphere would be considered “manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”

None of this is to argue an equivalence between the United States and Russia. These commonalities alone create none such. Rather it is to hold out Russian interest in Ukraine as obvious and its response to events easy to have anticipated. That Putin would seek to regain Crimea, which had long been part of Russia. That he might opportunistically lie in wait for eastern Ukraine. That no election in May will invalidate the license Putin feels now even more strongly, as has the West all along as well, to work clandestinely to shape the future of whatever Ukraine will remain. Still, unprepared for the response so far, Western voices rail against it as a behavioral outlier.

When freedom agenda crusaders, particularly, rail so obviously about how good we are, and how bad is the autocrat of the day, they despoil statecraft with a simplistic Manichaeism. In this mode of thinking, Putin knows he is bad – chooses to be bad, like Satan in rebellion against God. He mentally spurns and is rejected by the goodness he recognizes and that in a better world would have been his. His opposition to “us” is thus a kind of private wound, a closely nurtured insufficiency that justifies itself in devilishness, while all the while he actually knows just how bad he is.

This is a misunderstanding of personality at its core.

While it is standard operating procedure to identify all of Putin’s lies, which, of course, are many, identifying Putin particularly with lying exhibits just that core misunderstanding. The autocrat is not fundamentally a liar, but a bullshitter.

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

Regarding Ukraine, we see that Putin does more than simply lie, in the claim, for instance, that uniformed troops in Crimea without insignia are not Russian, which no one believes: greater, he fakes the context of Ukraine entirely. The authentic individual lie is meant to deceive, to be mistaken in the greater context for the truth. Bullshit, however, is intended to confuse, so that the truth disappears. This is what all autocrats intend, the vanishing of the truth beneath the panorama that is their vision of the world – the extension of their own egos. The truth that is manifest in history is that autocrats believe in what they are doing.

To strategize against the likes of Putin, then, one must work with that understanding, along with historical and geopolitical fundamentals. From that perspective, there is no question of the autocrat’s commitment to negotiations as a matter of preferred principle, some shared belief that talking together,  regardless of conflicting interests, is always preferable to conflict. The autocrat will employ – as Assad has done – Mao’s policy of fight, fight, talk, talk until one way or the other he gains as much as possible of what he wants. (And, yes, the date on that linked article about Iran is 2005, under the Bush administration, not 2014.)

Effective negotiations against the autocrat will have two characteristics. They will offer the autocrat a less costly, limited win more easily achieved than through other means, and they will deliver to democrats their own limited win that blocks any near-term further success by the autocrat through continued conflict or subterfuge. Absent that second characteristic, democrats will have been outmaneuvered, as the U.S. thus far has been outmaneuvered on Syria, where a failure even to come close to meeting the February 6 deadline for the removal of all chemical weapons has been allowed to pass with barely comment from the Obama administration, let alone action of any kind. At the same time, the administration had a vision of Syrian peace talks, but, astonishingly, apparently believing that Assad actually wanted to talk, rather than use the talks to delay, had no strategy for the talks whatever beyond the idea of them. And now there is the distraction of Ukraine.

Contrary to the belligerent harangues of American militarists, however, the West and the Obama administration have not been outmaneuvered because they – really, the U.S. – are not prepared to shake a militant fist at every trouble spot and throw punches often. They are adrift because they had no coherent strategy either to accomplish the kind of end they sought in Ukraine. Obama has a proper global vision for the twenty-first century – a U.S. that resorts to military action only rarely, in vital or self-defense, and no longer multiple times a decade in vestigial Cold War defense of imperial interests, no longer in bearing the burden of ill-conceived humanitarian interventions on behalf of everyone else,. There is, too, the belief that in time, centers of power and concern will shift to Asia. All this is good, but it is a partial geo-strategic position, not a plan for getting there. Not a plan, most of all, for how to act in long term consonance with a part of the nation’s vital self-definition: a great democracy standing unselfishly, yet with a mature understanding of historical development, in support of democracy for all nations.

One senses that Obama embraces such a national self-definition with very great, truly conservative reserve. Thus he has no regional and global strategy for playing this role, and was as unprepared as were the Europeans for the entirely foreseeable response of Putin, who quite reasonably, by his lights, took developments in Ukraine as aggressive meddling in his interests. The militarists will assert that they are advocating the aggressive resolve that won the Cold War. But for all the necessary military preparedness, Western success in the Cold War was ultimately a holding action in which one side outlasted the inner contradictions of the other. On a contrasting track, with the exception of Korea, nearly every coup, proxy war, or semi-proxy war the U.S. fought during the Cold War was just as ultimately a disaster, for the U.S., the third nation involved, or both.

It is probable that a long end game in Ukraine would have been no different with planning than it may be now: re-absorption of Crimea into Russia, with some or all of the remainder of Ukraine, amid continuing contention with Russia, aligned now toward the West. Adequately prepared, with continuing contention thus perhaps moderated, and with all the pro forma legal and diplomatic objections to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukraine might have been successfully framed as a win for democracy – because it would have been, as it still may be – rather than as a crisis.

To avoid careening from one crisis to another, however, a clearer vision of future roles is required. The militarist American right will prefer a long continuation of the United States’ Cold War imperial leadership. That self-destructive vision needs to be dimmed. However, inadequately, Obama’s presidency came at the right time finally to begin to turn those lights out. More, though, is needed. Some clearer articulation of a more sharply defined strategy is required by a center-left neither committed to defining the American role via military action nor allergic to the legitimacy of it. A coherent expression of the international role of democracies in the twenty-first century must be formulated. An evangelizing freedom agenda is simply cold warriorism without the defensive rationale. It is a formula for endemic and destructive global conflict, which is an occurrence in nature sufficient to need no assist from the laboratory coats. Still, democratic nations cannot be expected in their intercourse with other nations not, by their very nature as democracies, to give expression to the character and promise of political freedom. They cannot be expected not to share their knowledge of this freedom and its rewards with those who seek it. But we must always understand what we are doing when we do so in any given context, with what chances of producing good rather than harm to those we hope to help, and to even more around them. We must consider how it advances a larger project, or retards it. We must consider the conflicting interests of others, and we must do it without the kind of righteous arrogance that produced during the Cold War, in Graham Greene’s words, a self-delusive American innocence of good intentions, in Vietnam, that was “like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

Essential to any new strategy will be a significantly elevated role for Europe and other democracies. Europe particularly has enjoyed a nearly free ride on the American people and their economy for over six decades. One strong expression of American leadership can be leadership to end that state of affairs and to bring mature democracies more fully into actively funding and engaging the defense of freedom. Another will be a recognition that the United Nations has run its course. It is exhausted as an instrument of assertive and effective action in support of the many supreme paper principles it has enunciated over its life. It is used by the worst tyrants in the world, through cynical manipulation of ideal expressions and exercise of institutional powers, to thwart actual amelioration and change in the world, such as what might have been possible in Syria without the veto power of Russia and China. It is time to start on the long course of superseding the United Nations with a new Global Union, in which the extent of a member nation’s institutional role is determined by a measure of its actual adherence to organizationally expressed principles of democratic practice and human and civil rights.

That would be a freedom agenda too, and the beginnings of a plan to help the many future Ukraines the world and history still has to offer.

AJA

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A Second Look: the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not

My recent posts on Syria were argued against a more global backdrop: considerations of war and how it is entered into, with what achievable (or other) ends in mind, and, more specifically again, how the United States engages in it. In focus were questions of American empire and the nature of victory and whether it can be achieved. Syria, like all the Middle East, offering up so much tyranny, appealing to so much humanitarian feeling, calling on so many instincts toward real politique – and with the ever present wild card Joker of Israel in the deck – seems to roil all settled understanding of right and left in politics.

The following post from 2010, in response to an essay by Andrew Bacevich, addresses all these issues, with the addition of the always fundamental matter of definition: in addition to wonder about the effects of our (warring) actions, there is the question of how we define victory, a pivot around which we assess past and plan future policy. There are, too, the distinct elements of the quality of our analysis and the quality of our inferences from it. From July 30, 2010:

This Is the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not

Andrew Bacevich is appropriately critical of the American impetus to hegemonic empire that grew out of its post World War Two ascendency and the commitment to communist containment. That was the subject of his 2008 The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Essential to any continuing practicability of this American role, he argues in yesterday’s HuffPo was a belief in the possibility of definitive victory in war. His post is entitled “The End of (Military) History? The United States, Israel, and the Failure of the Western Way of War.” The ostensible reasoning behind the connection of Israel to the U.S.in this regard is the shared belief, still, in the possibility of military victories. The differences – American hegemony versus Israeli existential concern – make the connection more problematic, but the meaning of the making of connections, real and imagined, between the U.S. and Israel, while a continuing interest of this blog, is not the subject today.

Bacevich begins,

“In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history.”  This sentiment, introducing the essay that made Francis Fukuyama a household name, commands renewed attention today, albeit from a different perspective.

Developments during the 1980s, above all the winding down of the Cold War, had convinced Fukuyama that the “end of history” was at hand.  “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” he wrote in 1989, “is evident… in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Today the West no longer looks quite so triumphant.  Yet events during the first decade of the present century have delivered history to another endpoint of sorts.  Although Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal, the Western way of war has run its course.

Now, we want a critique that has correctly identified its problem to successfully analyze it, but the introduction is a curiously self-refuting start. Although the communist era ended, socialist critiques of Western capital domination continue in various forms, Islam has reemerged as a starkly countervailing force to the Western idea, and the liberal idea, in relation to the first two forces, is strikingly challenged by among some of its own product. Notice that Bacevich himself felt reason to write “Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal.” Fukuyama was clearly wrong. It is on this parallel foundation then that Bacevich wishes to rhetorically support the claim that the curiously attributed “Western way of war has run its course”?

Certainly, the Second World War left many with the idea that military conflicts, even grandly scaled wars, can be fought to definitive and just conclusions. I think Bacevich is right to attribute to this consequent overconfidence the American military misadventures in the post war period, but he seems, in his critique, similarly shortsighted as well as selective in his vision. There were in this period American military actions, however relatively small in scale, that achieved their clear aims: Panama, the Dominican Republic, the Gulf War – and one rightly hesitates to add Granada. And however emblematic of indeterminacy Korea has been for nearly sixty years, it did achieve its original aim.

More significantly, though, if one excludes World War Two, from what historical evidence does Bacevich draw his claim of a particular way of war and the running of its course, upon which to predicate an accurate vision of the future? He confines himself to the twentieth century.

All of this furious activity, whether undertaken by France or Great Britain, Russia or Germany, Japan or the United States, derived from a common belief in the plausibility of victory.

Victory may have been the common belief, but what was ever the historical justification for it? And how was and is victory defined? In total conquest? That surrenders were offered? An armistice signed? An immediate pressure released? An international tension long or forever resolved? Bacevich isn’t clear beyond suggesting the Second World War model.

Campaigns of terror – e.g. nineteenth century anarchist movements – are not new, though possible now on a scale that requires strategic consideration and developed doctrine, not dismissal in simplistic oppositions of war and peace. History is replete with successful guerilla wars, depending, of course, on how success is defined and the duration of the achieved goal – wars in which great powers were perpetually harassed by smaller or insurgent armies. Wars badly fought or that ended in apparent victories only to set up over decades or even centuries the conditions of future war – the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian war, almost the whole history of European warfare – are not a new development in war, only a departure from the dominant U.S. expectation. There is, too, if the subject is going to be explored meaningfully, no reason to limit the historical and developmental review to the West.

If the U.S. had withdrawn from Afghanistan after routing the Taliban, and if, rather than embarking on nation-building, it had pursued the kind of counter-terror strategy it will probably pursue after a now likely withdrawal without a nation built, could the U.S. have rightly claimed victory – not the end of all Islamic terror, but the thwarting of Al-Qaeda’s access to a national base? Had Saddam Hussein actually possessed WMD, they would have been found and destroyed, his regime toppled, as it was, and with a relatively quick withdrawal after, the purported goal of the war – a Victory – achieved. These are complex and to some degree hypothetical considerations, but my point is that there does not seem anything structural in the historical development of war that precludes the possibility of victory, as long as one does not define victory so far up that one makes it almost by definition unachievable.

Alter these factors, and the narrative of a stumbling, crumbling U.S. giant is not as easily written. Writes Bacevich,

Politically motivated violence will persist and may in specific instances even retain marginal utility.  Yet the prospect of Big Wars solving Big Problems is probably gone for good

This qualifier is significant. Is Afghanistan a big war? By what measure? Are Israel’s wars big wars? Is it accurate to say that Israel these days perceives itself as fighting to solve big problems, or does it fight to maintain a safe power balance in a developmental holding action?

Bacevich observes,

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?

It’s a neat antithesis, but weakly and unnecessarily argued. American leaders and commanders do not have the luxury to argumentatively pretend that the Taliban-supported Al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan could have been left to function. Israeli leaders lack a similar luxury to ignore the ideological and military threats of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. That the expansive hegemonic reach of the U.S., an outgrowth of the Cold War, is now destructive of U.S. interests can be well argued. The claim does not require an overreaching corollary that is actually a bit suspect in its formation and application. It isn’t that humans have developmentally overcome their inclinations toward war – war has ceased, essentially, to work, and it has ceased to do so, when, according to Bacevich, only the United States and Israel, as he defines it, still engage in it.

Hmn.

AJA

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Syria, the Limits of Interventionism, and the International Order

Geschichte / Deutschland / 19. Jh. / Friedrich Wilhelm III.  / Regierungszeit / Vormärz / Wiener Kongreß 1814-15Noted in the comments to the previous post, “A Plague: Contesting Syria, in Context,” is the posting of a reply to it at his blog from my ever wry blogging compadre, Snoopy the Goon. Please do  read it here. Below is my response to, ahem, the Goon.

Dear Snoopy,

How do we go on after that John Lennon crack? I believe forgiveness is all. (Well, something, anyway.) And then there is your introduction. Okay.

I think there is not that much disagreement between us, some points needing just some clarification and refinement.

I note your eloquent and just paean to the “warriors of the cold war,” and what their sacrifice meant to those on the other side of the “curtain.” I agree, too, that the dollars of that war were well, if not all necessarily, spent, but the strategic purpose of my overview of the arms race was not to address the justness of the mission or overspending on it, rather the pattern of hyperbolic fear mongering often to be found in it. That purpose was a foundation to arguing that a variation on such heightened stirring of the passions toward war can be found in much commentary and journalism on Syria, including that compassionate solidarity journalism you reference.

I happily take your point that most Americans on the left and right are opposed to a Syrian intervention, however different the foundations for their feelings. My criticism, though, was of those on the far left who oppose it for thoroughly dishonorable reasons and those on the right – the “superpower imperialists” – who promote it so disingenuously.

Joined with superpower imperialists are those of the left not defined here by anti-imperialism, but internationalism, and a belief in humane interventionism – the “responsibility to protect.” I share this philosophical attachment and you echo its humane considerations. I claim, too, that this heightened attention to the lives of others, across national boundaries and cultures, is a product of already existent achievements in the “slow-developing international order” that challenges your credibility. But there is an irony in this.

I often call attention to the expanding web our affective associations woven by technology. It brings us, for instance, more completely and immediately, and with more vivid reality, news of the horrors of Syria. However, what informs your (and my own) skepticism of that international order is that other human abilities – the capacity, for instance, to act in concert and successfully against the horrors in Syria – have not advanced in conjunction with technology. Because our access to the reality of war is greater than ever before, that does not mean we have learned to end any and all wars whenever our best selves simply feel they cannot bear it anymore. We learn, we witness, we think we should act – our best selves cry out for our action – but we do not know in many cases, including Syria, I argue, how to act in ways that will not make matters generally worse.

When you say that you already perceive, awfully, that Assad has won, I respond, first, that by all appearances, whatever the ultimate varieties of outcome long down the road, what was Syria before will not be again. In that sense, Assad will certainly not have won. Beyond that, as I already argued, it was not previously American or Western policy militarily to overthrow Assad or any of the other tyrants who afflict the world; we need not have been made committed to that end by the outbreak of a civil war. To the degree that Obama’s earlier rhetoric seemed to make that commitment, it was an error of which his general critics regularly remind us and for which he should be criticized. Why, now, should he be criticized for failing to live up to a mistaken promise?

Round-the-clock cable news and Twitter cannot now by their mere existence have morally enjoined us to rush foolishly to intervene in all conflicts. You put it well about Iraq; I argue it to an nth degree about Syria, that

people who commanded the invasion, which was truly a work of inspiration and meticulous planning as far as military part of it was concerned, didn’t have a smidgen of an idea what to do with the hot potato, which was post-war Iraq. Still don’t, which sad fact costs so many lives and will continue to do so for a long time.

On the other hand, about the chemical weapons disarmament program in progress in Syria, the political rather than tactical nature of the response to this development is quite remarkable.

Unless one is already predisposed against Obama, which of course many are, or wishes, in part for that reason, to harp on one’s perception of the messy way the program came about, or harp on all of the things that the program is not, as would those promoters of intervention – who are bound to be profoundly disappointed by it – there is simply no downside to the program at all. Among the many previous fears attendant with the conflict (you can look it up) was the fear that chemical weapons, beyond their possible use by Assad, would fall into the hands of Islamist terror groups. Even if, unsurprisingly, and as is already suspected, Assad is trying to cheat, the volume of dangerous chemical weapons will have been dramatically reduced in a war torn region. Our knowledge of the presence and location of any smaller, still hidden stockpiles will have been enhanced, along with the capacity to strike and destroy or capture them whenever that decision might be made. All in all, the dangers those weapons pose – from Assad or Islamist warriors – will have been dramatically reduced from what it was. Other than providing a political stick with which to club Obama, the current disarmament program, had it been offered at any time outside of Obama’s threat of a military strike, would have been received by all as an opportunity to be grasped without doubt. Nothing changes that.

Finally, I assert again, withdrawal from an imperial expanse and posture in the world does not require the sacrifice of natural and sufficient economic, cultural, and political power or of necessary unilateral military power. These are an appropriate objective for one of the world’s great democracies already the most powerful nation in the world. However, the specific mission of the Cold War is not the same as a mission to ensure unchallengeable domination of the international sphere as a de facto, but by no means formally assented to, nation among nations. The political philosophy that the world shall henceforth be uni rather than multi-polar, and that it shall be so only by the dominating will and power of the existing unipolar power to keep it so, believing unwaveringly in its own justness and exceptionalism, is inherently undemocratic, even, ultimately, tyrannical in nature, if not in purpose. I do not believe the American people, unlike its militarists and supporters of an imperial presidency, would choose to purpose the future of their nation in this way. If they would, it would not be the nation they wish to think it.

The United Nations as an organization can serve as a convenient shorthand for two centuries of evolving Western and international order in various organizational and legal regimes. The deficiencies of that order are those of the humans creating it and can be likewise conveniently highlighted by such failures as the UNHRC or UNRWA. But however slow the progress, and tragic the continuing failures, I do not think many will make the argument that the world would be better were we to return to it to a time before the Congress of Vienna or the creation of the U.N.

It is slow and creeping, it is often inadequate, it is ready for mockery, but beyond a line on a map, a pistol shot in the face, and a drone strike from above, it is what we have.

AJA

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The Political Animal

A Plague: Contesting Syria, in Context

Context

american_empire_1_aThey are always there, sitting on both shoulders, sounding into your ears. On either side, they buzz insistently their ceaseless drone. Now, they speak of Syria, whisper and wheedle action or inaction as they wish. They have been singing their songs of superpower or imperial America since the end of World War II.

In the mid 1950s it was the “bomber gap.” Misconstrued numbers of Soviet M-4 Bison bombers, estimated at near a thousand and amplified by the device of policy by press release, set the United States on a frantic construction binge of almost 2,750 B-47 and B-52 bombers in response. President Eisenhower was doubtful, but even he did not face down the fervor of Air Force General Curtis Lemay and cries from congressional Democrats that Eisenhower – the former Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the invasion of Western Europe during World War II – was “weak on defense.”

“It is clear that the United States and its allies,” said Senator Stuart Symington sounding what would become perpetual alarm, “may have lost control of the air.”

But there was no gap. It was later established that the Soviets had only 20 B-4 Bisons.

By the late 1950s, it had become the “missile gap.” A 1957 National Intelligence Estimate predicted a Soviet capability of 10 prototype ICBMs by 1959. By January of 1959, Albert Wohlstetter of the Rand Corporation published in Foreign AffairsThe Delicate Balance of Terror,” in which he argued that the “the thermonuclear balance” hung precariously against the U.S. and that current American efforts at deterrence were inadequate. Soon enough, influential journalist Joseph Alsop was citing classified intelligence that the Soviet Union would have 1500 ICBMs by 1963, compared to only 130 for the U.S.  John F. Kennedy and other Democrats consequently again charged Eisenhower with weakness on defense.

In fact, by 1960 the Soviet ICBM force was only 2, compared to a U.S. force of 12. By Alsop’s target year, the Soviet missile level rose to 99 rather than the prognosticated 1500, while the U.S. ICBM count was a six-fold greater 597.

There was, indeed, a missile gap – in favor of the United States.

Dwight Eisenhower departed office warning of a “military-industrial complex.”

Often, policy by press release has been masked as pure reportage.

“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression”, announced a Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964.

That same day, the front page of the New York Times reported: “President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and ‘certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam’ after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.”

But there was no “second attack” by North Vietnam — no “renewed attacks against American destroyers.” By reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.

The country would face the manipulation of “reporting official claims as absolute truths” again in the future.

In the 1970s, forces in the GOP foreign policy establishment began to argue again that the U.S. was underestimating Soviet nuclear capabilities and misunderstanding its strategic nuclear intentions. Once more the call to arms was made by Albert Wohlstetter, this time in Foreign Policy, in “Is There a Strategic Arms Race?” During a period of post-Watergate weakness and diminished morale, Wohlstetter and a bevy of defense hawks who opposed détente charged that the “intensity, scope, and implicit threat” of Soviet offensive intentions were being consistently underestimated by the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimates. While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued in speeches that the Soviet Union was acting against the spirit of détente, figures such as Richard Pipes, Paul Nitze and board members of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), with the aid of Rumsfeld protégé Paul Wolfowitz, made the case for an alternative, extra-agency assessment of the Soviet threat.

The focus of attention was the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), which new CIA director George H.W. Bush authorized to conduct the external review. Participants in the review were divided into three teams, with different areas of attention. The now notable “Team B,” chaired by Pipes and including William Van Cleave of the CPD, was advised by Nitze and Wolfowitz, among others. Over the course of 1976, in various venues and reports from other sources with which team members were associated, and in a Sunday, December 26, New York Times story, Team B’s classified conclusions were repeatedly leaked. They “identified a strong shift in the quantitative military balance toward the Soviet Union over the past 10 years.” Under pressure, the “CIA itself revised its estimate of Soviet military spending to 10-15 percent of Soviet gross national product (GNP), as compared to 6-8 percent in previous NIEs.”

The work of Team B, along with that of the CPD successfully scuttled the era of détente and led to the Reagan-era American arms buildup.

Among the many “Team B” assessments of a growing Soviet buildup and emerging strategic superiority was the prediction – like those in the 1950s about bombers and ICBMs – that by 1984 the Soviets would possess 500 Backfire bombers. In fact, and much as in those earlier instances, by 1984 the actual number of Backfire bombers in the Soviet arsenal was 235. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, it became known that the apparently dramatic increase in defense spending was, by the time of the Team B warning, already declining, with increased expenditures not the product of growing production, but economic inefficiency that would help spell the end of the Soviet Union – in the face of military competition that preceded the Reagan buildup.

The contours of Team B’s efforts were the same as previous militarist campaigns: expert warnings in conjunction with politics by press release, along with emergency organization (Committee on the Present Danger) to spread alarm. The alarm is twofold: the nation’s enemies are achieving a dangerous level of military advantage while responsible parties in the U.S. government are systematically failing in their response and weakening national security.

Attendant with the 1980s military buildup that Team B’s work successfully enabled were the Reagan administration’s anti-Communist counter insurgency efforts in Central America, which form a bridge between earlier Cold War preventive destabilizations and the George W. Bush administration “freedom agenda.” One instructive effort is that in Guatemala.

U.S. Cold War involvement in Guatemala dated back, infamously, to the 1954 CIA-sponsored overthrow of democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. The coup was not just a betrayal of America’s liberal and democratic principles. It had long-term after effects: a thirty-six year civil war between a succession of oligarchic governments and leftist groups, primarily supported by the vast, impoverished indigenous Mayan and the Ladino populations, that was not brought to a close until 1996, forty-two years after the coup.

It was estimated by Guatemala’s 1999 Historical Clarification Commission (HCC) that as many as 200,000 mostly Mayan Guatemalans had been killed over the course of the civil war, 93% of the deaths attributable to government forces. Most of these deaths occurred during the 1980s, when Guatemalan regimes were receiving full-throated and significant military support from the Reagan White House. After Gen. Efrain Rios Montt overthrew his predecessor in 1982, Reagan endorsed him as “a man of great personal integrity” who was “totally dedicated to democracy” and who was “getting a bum rap” in reports of his human rights abuses. History – and contemporaneous reports known to the Reagan administration – reveals a different story.

[I]n the 1980s, the army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. “The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages … are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala’s history,” the commission concluded.

The army “completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops,” the report said. In the northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter “genocide.” [Washington Post, Feb. 26, 1999]

Besides carrying out murder and “disappearances,” the army routinely engaged in torture and rape. “The rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice” by the military and paramilitary forces, the report found.

Just this year, in historic national proceedings, the 87 year old Rios Montt was convicted by a Guatemalan court of genocide. (The conviction was overturned on appeal and Rios Montt awaits retrial.)

In just and proper defense of its own and international security, the United States opposed totalitarian communist expansion, and in so doing, in numerous instances, was led by the most extreme elements of its own defense and security establishments to act, not just in the 80s in Guatemala, but in the 1950s and 60s, too, in direct opposition to its own national ideals and governing principles. In cases such as Guatemala, the unforeseen consequences linger now for more than half a century, tallied in numbers of lives lost attributable not to Marxist foes, but to the U.S. itself. And in a perverse rhetorical sally worth remembering as a model for today’s arguments, The Washington Post editorial board on March 1, 1999, while acknowledging the truths revealed by the HCC, sought to lay some of the blame for the crimes of the Guatemalan generals not at the feet of their rightwing U.S. supporters, but on the Carter administration in the 1970s –  for having cut aid to the Guatemalan government and thus helped foster the insurgent successes that led to the government war crimes in response.

At just the same time during the 1980s as genocide was being committed in Guatemala, another kind of aftermath, with different signification, was still unfolding in Southeast Asia. While the Marxist, Maoist, Trotskyite, and New Left were decrying U.S. Vietnam War deception and violence, they were also championing the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. As long as the United States remained a combatant, the lives, deaths, and “liberation” of Vietnamese were a precious subject of political debate and humanitarian concern. Once the U.S. left Vietnam, the far left fell out of compassion with the Vietnamese, soon enough turning its attention to Central America, where the single determining factor of interest and concern had now become part of the equation: U.S. involvement.

Yet according to the Aurora Foundation’s 1983 Violations of Human Rights in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, as many as one million non-communist former South Vietnamese were imprisoned in the infamous post-unification “reeducation” camps. Foundation reports indicated that the mortality rate in the camps averaged ten percent a year. During the same period, according to the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 1.6 million fled Vietnam as “boat people,” including the more than 260,000 ethnic Chinese who either took flight or were forced across the border by the Vietnamese government. Forty-eight years after American withdrawal from Vietnam – a withdrawal including that of the compassionate interest of the West’s far left – Vietnam continues to be ruled by an authoritarian government guilty of “administrative detention, religious repression, crackdowns on human rights defenders, stifling of press freedom, widespread use of the death penalty… [and] abuses of women’s rights, including sex trafficking and coercive birth control policies.’ And in what should serve as remonstrative symbol to right and left, the sign atop one of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest buildings reads Citibank.

This use of national populations and nationalist causes to advance a Western anti-imperialist agenda of course had pre-Vietnam antecedents. Even as there arose good cause to know of Stalinist crimes, apologists on the far left were content to offer just opposition to 1950’s McCarthyism while tendering no acknowledgment of their own Soviet misalignment. So it was with Mao and with Ho Chi Minh, until the Vietnamese, having served their purpose, were abandoned for the Sandinistas. Ever since, far left political allegiance, antipathetically rather than sympathetically motivated, has wandered ever farther from class analysis, internationalist bonds, and any grounding in universal human rights. Actual anti-imperialism itself need play no role in focusing far left anti-Western attention, and the cry of colonialism, using and abusing the Indigenous cause, can be heard even in the desert.

Thus, by way of Iraq, we arrive at Syria in 2013.

Contest

When President Obama threatened to strike Syria in response to the Ghouta Sarin massacre, both shoulder sprites began to sound off. The level of deception and hypocrisy was enough to fork tongues, but that, as they say, is a feature, not a bug.

On the right, Obama was criticized, even as he threatened to strike, for not having taken action at least half a year earlier, after previous, smaller chemical weapons deployments – as if wise policy for the world’s sole superpower is to be conned into war by any small force element able to obtain a modicum of chemical agent for purposes of just that manipulation. He was criticized simultaneously from the same quarter for planning only a punitive or preventive action and not plotting a course that could determine the course of the war – that is, more fully entering into the conflict in support of rebel forces.

Entrance into the war, in fact, is what the imperial right wishes, and nothing short of it will satisfy, so when Obama grabbed at the opportunity not to strike militarily to deter the Assad regime from further chemical attack, but to join with the Russians in fully chemically disarming a suddenly compliant Assad, the right mocked him. It still does, though its voices sound a little less assuredly, now, about the preposterousness of chemically disarming Syria, as the OPCW-UN Joint Mission in Syria meets the deadlines of its various stages. Let the mission fall behind at any point – as it not unlikely will given the complexity and difficulty of the task – and listen for the crowing choruses of “told you so.” They are being practiced as you read. One ugly secret is that the right does not truly wish for the mission to succeed – for the interim success of a chemically disarmed Syria is not what the right desires: that would ratify the possibilities of measured security gains without actual military engagement. What the right wants is Obama’s failure in pursuit of any kind of variant course. What the right wants is the United States in Syria.

In order to achieve the end of American involvement in the Syrian civil war, policy by press release has been deep and far ranging. The most notorious instance so far has been Elizabeth O’Bagy’s op-ed by in the Wall Street Journal, titled “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” seeking to counter the most oft-repeated concern regarding support for Syrian rebels – that they are constituted significantly of Islamist jihadists. O’Bagy confidently informed us otherwise, attempting to sell an uncritical readership on the presence of a larger “moderate” element among the rebels, who are significantly Salafist, and in whose behalf O’Bagy, unidentified in the op-ed as political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SEFT), could muster as her most ringing endorsement only that they are a “force with some shared U.S. interests.” SEFT has as its political director Mouaz Moustafa, who appears to be making a current career working for similar organization attempting to draw the U.S. into Arab “Spring” conflicts such as, previously, Libya. O’Bagy was also a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which has, undisclosed at its website, Bill Kristol and Elizabeth Cheney as board members. Kristol, as the reigning editorial voice of the post World War II militarist tradition, and Cheney as daughter and vocal advocate of her father’s militarism, provide only the most prominent link to the vein that runs back to Team B. I offered a fuller account of O’Bagy’s argument in “Masters of War,” but she has since been fired by both SEFT and ISW for lying about her academic credentials. Wrote Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor’s Security Watch,

But what’s most troubling is that despite the history of lies fed to the US government by exiles seeking US involvement in foreign wars (Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress’ role in stovepiping claims of Iraqi WMD programs ahead of the 2003 invasion of that country should be top of mind) [O’Bagy] was listened to in the first place.

In Washington circles her work with SETF was known – and she herself relied on one particular wing of Syria’s complex rebellion, a wing that she relied on to arrange her travel and meetings inside Syria, to arrive at her conclusions. The SETF’s leadership is largely composed of Syrian exiles, much as the Iraqi National Congress’s leadership was composed of Iraqi exiles. Should such people be taken at their word when they seek US assistance?

Since Obama’s decision to seek opportunistically and peacefully what he would far less certainly have accomplished with even a series of strikes, efforts at policy by press release have shifted in their message. Less often now is heard O’Bagy-brand assurance of rebel “moderation,” since almost daily accounts of the conflict offer an increasingly contrary report. Now the militarist narrative begins – in shades of  assigning responsibility for Reagan’s material support of Guatemalan genocide to Jimmy Carter, for his not having armed the oligarchs earlier – in blaming Islamic radicalization of the Syrian rebels on Obama, for not having armed the opposition earlier. Apparently, for America’s war adventurers, both Islamism and oligarchic genocide grow out of the barrel of an undelivered gun. That the presence of as many as 160,000 U.S. troops themselves on the ground actually provoked the Islamization of the Iraqi insurgency rather than forestalled it is effortlessly overlooked by the peddlers of perpetual war. It is a hallmark of contemporary American militarism, however, to disregard any lessons from the past twelve years of war other than to believe that their failures – much as in Vietnam – were the product only of inadequate force levels, insufficient tactical aggression, and the unwillingness to pacify foreign lands on the time-scale of Roman legions.

The most pervasive meme in the current policy by press release is Obama’s “dithering” or “uncertainty,” even “disinterest” in Syria. Against all the pervasive evidence that Obama is, in reality, quite certain what policy he wishes to pursue in the face of general Arab upheaval – decidedly not the policy of the militarists – rightwing efforts are purposely to misrepresent this certainty as its opposite. While the second most dysfunctional region in the world erupts in political chaos the after effects of which may play out for decades, interested parties scream out to the American president to “do something!” when the wisest course for some time to come may well be not to do anything too definitive at all. But purposeful caution will always be caricatured by the rash and aggressive as weakness and cowardice. The proper response to that cartoon, though, is to recall one benefit of the Iraq War: that in its aftermath few any longer criticize George Bush the elder for not, after driving Saddam Hussein from Kuwait during the Gulf War, having marched on to Baghdad.

Still, what we regularly read in the press is that U.S. allies in “the region” – that is, the monumentally despotic, oppressive and theocratic Middle East – are unhappy with U.S. policy toward Syria. This is the emerging militarist version of the “bomber gap,” missile gap,” and the analysis-and-war-head gap of Team B – a new confidence and trust gap.

Significantly, what this primarily means is Saudi Arabian displeasure. American militarists and superpower imperialists now actually openly offer as criticism of American foreign policy its misalignment with the wishes of the greatest sponsor of Islamist radicalism in the world. The Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith was refreshingly candid about this in conversation with Michael J. Totten.

I can make an argument for backing the Syrian rebels, but it can’t be for humanitarian reasons alone. I can make the argument that we should do it for strategic reasons.

And yes, a lot of people are making that kind of argument about the Saudis, saying a pox on them, how dare they complain. The Saudis from time to time make an awful lot of noise and at other times they cross us. And of course there were fifteen Saudi nationals on the planes on 9/11. And yet Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States for more than sixty years. The reason for that isn’t because we share cultural or political values—although some of the elites really are pro-American.

The reason we’re allied with Saudi Arabia is because they have the world’s largest known reserves of oil. This is a vital American interest, perhaps the most vital American interest after the security of our fifty states.

Lee Smith believes the world’s sole remaining “superpower” should express the meaning of superpowerness by pleasing the Saudis and going to war in Syria in order to preserve our access to cheap oil. “Peace and justice” minions all over the West are whispering “thank you.”

More subtle by far, and easily so, is the likes of “Obama’s Uncertain Path Amid Syria Bloodshed” by Mark Mazzetti, Robert F. Worth and Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times purporting to offer an inside account of Obama administration deliberations on Syria over the course of the year. Note the “uncertain” in the title.

A close examination of how the Obama administration finds itself at this point — based on interviews with dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials — starts with a deeply ambivalent president who has presided over a far more contentious debate among his advisers than previously known. Those advisers reflected Mr. Obama’s own conflicting impulses on how to respond to the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring: whether to side with those battling authoritarian governments or to avoid the risk of becoming enmeshed in another messy war in the Middle East.

Note that sources of this account include former members of the administration, including those whose advice will not have been accepted. So when one reads critical words like “paralysis,” understand that a critic’s choice of that word is a funhouse mirror of a proponent’s chosen “inaction.” When “one former senior White House official” critiques that “[w]e spent so much damn time navel gazing,” consider how much advice you want from that source on matters of whether to arm and even enter yet another war – a war far from critical to U.S interests, yet one that could be deeply destructive of them.

Under the shadow of the report’s titled uncertainty, we are nonetheless told that

from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.

In response to contentious debate among his advisors and a CIA plan “to begin arming and training small groups of rebel forces at secret bases in Jordan,”

Mr. Obama, who had said at the beginning of the meeting that he would make no immediate decisions, appeared skeptical. He cautioned against a “haphazard” plan to arm the rebels, and asked about tactics — who would get the weapons, how to keep them out of the hands of jihadists.

The president’s view, according to one administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing debates about classified operations, seemed to be that “we’d be taking a lot of risk without a clear plan.”

Far from “uncertain” or “navel-gazing,” Obama appears to be the wisest person in the room, and the only one among the major voices to have learned any lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan other than more, more, more, longer, longer, longer.

There is in the account one brief, yet remarkable passage – how often we have seen its like in the attempt to denigrate a leader. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we read,

Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.

Despite all the obvious reasons that some discordant voices might wish to offer this image of Obama, what are the reasons for reporting it? How many ways might we account for it, if we were to credit it at all? That at given moments the president was rightfully bored with repeated, discordant arguments among his advisors, offering nothing new? That he received a text message from a daughter, an email from an aide on Capitol Hill about budget negotiations? How often do you think, during these many hours of debate and policy consideration – in contrast to slouching and chewing gum (Nicorette or just a pacifier for the challenged smoker?) – Obama leaned in with interest, questioned, even challenged his advisors while keeping his own counsel, supremely interested in determining the right course in a critical foreign policy situation for which, of course, he will be scrutinized by history? Who knows?

Yet only this one image is offered of Obama’s bearing by the reporters. Who are the targeted readers for this reported slack comportment of a generally dignified and elegant Harvard law grad and constitutional law professor, first black president of the United States? The readers of National Review? Supporters of Louis Gohmert?

Who are the reporters, in fact? Gordon is the Times’ military correspondent, who has written extensively on the Iraq War and who, with Judith Miller – Bush administration house reporter at The New York Times – authored the September 08, 2002 “THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE IRAQIS; U.S. SAYS HUSSEIN INTENSIFIES QUEST FOR A-BOMB PARTS,” in which it was reported, among multiple other anonymously sourced and false claims about an ongoing Iraqi nuclear program,

In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Mazzetti is the Times’ national security and intelligence reporter who has often repeated the Bush administration line in war-against-terror coverage, including, as well, adoption of the “brutal interrogation” euphemism in place of the legally accurate torture. It was also Mazzetti who secretly provided without his colleague’s knowledge, before publication, a copy of a Maureen Dowd piece on “Zero Dark Thirty” to CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf, in order to calm concerns about what Dowd might have written.

Of course, in the contest over Syria many who believe in humanitarian intervention, in the principle of “responsibility to protect,” have been moved by the death toll and human suffering in Syria to offer a common call with proponents of superpower imperialism – which is the idea that now that the Cold War is over and the U.S. has emerged from it as the sole superpower, it must, to protect the  interests it accumulated in the course of its ascension, continue to bestride the world as that unchallenged and dominating force, acting, as if it always were possible, at all times to shape outcomes.

A Western guilt-inducing analogy commonly offered in the attempt to spur action has been to the precedents of Rwanda and Bosnia: how fallen are we that we would allow it to happen again?

But what is “it”?

What we refer to as Rwanda was exclusively a fast-moving genocide of enormous barbarity, in stupendous numbers. What we call Bosnia in this context, much smaller in scope, contained discrete acts of genocide. In either case, quick and decisive military action could have halted and reduced specific acts and patterns of violence.

Whatever the ethnic and religious components, whatever the magnitude of the death toll, Syria is not genocide, but  a civil war, one that began as a rebellion against a tyrant. Intervention of the kind contemplated would be aimed at producing a victory in a conflict between two sides battling each other with strategic objectives. However, we might wish it ended, the killing stopped, and the tyrant gone genocidal acts and civil warfare are not the same phenomenon. Perhaps it should not be left to the Institute for the Study of War to determine that the ideal responsibility to protect (R2P) be now transformed into the responsibility to intervene in civil wars when the side you wish to lose appears as if it may not lose.

When advocates of U.S. intervention attempt to shame those who resist it with declarations of their moral decadence, one has to wonder why there remains any Western moral fiber left to decay after its failure to intervene in the Congo Wars – also post Rwanda and Kosovo – from 1996-2003, that may have left in excess of six million people dead? Where were Bill Kristol, John McCain, and the Institute for the Study of War then?

Maybe we should look to Lee Smith for an answer.

Is it a consummation devoutly to be wished that the world might one day assemble via the U.N. the righteous unity, force, and will to referee and part all remaining combatants? To dream. And the United States would rightly be called upon to play its part. But the world is not yet there, and the United States for countless apparent reasons of human and political understanding cannot assume that role by itself as if there were no difference in effect. There is. There are multiple reasons why the U.S. should not hazard on its own a significant stake in Syria.

  • However the superpower imperialists will color it otherwise, there is no natural ally of the U.S. in Syria and little reason to expect one even in defeat of the Assad regime. Oil discounted, and the course of current Arab-world upheavals completely unpredictable, there is no clear strategic advantage to Syrian involvement.
  • It was not previously the policy of the United States to seek directly or by proxy the military overthrow of the Assad regime. There is no reason under current circumstances why the U.S. should be impelled into war by elements of the Syrian populace tht felt the need to take up arms. Would a like uprising in any unfree nation in the world similarly require American military support? Is that the destiny of the American nation, to be yoked to the chain of every national rebellion in the world?
  • After twelve years of war in two distant countries, all but one of those years, in one country, Afghanistan, mistaken – and at real cost to the nation’s economic and social health – another misguided militaristic venture could inflict determinative damage on the American polity.
  • There may be greater challenges ahead with Iran and against Islamic terrorism. To become embroiled in Syria to no clear purpose could be a major historical error, greater even than, and certainly compounding, that of Iraq.
  • Despite militarist’s consistent and typically disingenuous claims to the contrary, there is every reason to expect that what they urge as mere training and material support would gradually – even, in likely battlefield crisis, dramatically – transform into direct U.S. engagement. Not only would this transformation occur, but at every creeping step militarists would just as disingenuously urge that it occur, for we would by then have invested, committed and in every possible way offered up our sacred national burly world-power honor to the cause and to abandon it then, blah, blah, blah, blah.
  • Not even in Iraq in 2003 did the U.S. face ensnarement in distant, multi-party internecine conflicts profound and complex enough to lie so far beyond American military resolution, and with less of any idea how to cope with just one of a multitude of fissures and possible expansions of the conflict among the parties and surrounding nations. To wit:

There is the role of Hezbollah and Assad’s possible fall back into Lebanon, further pulling that country into the mix. There are the sectarian divides of Syria, just as in Iraq, that will not disappear during a civil war and even once Assad may be ousted from power. There are the Kurds, angling across four nations – Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria – for a nation of their own. Now, in addition to Iraq, they have their foothold in Syria. There is an incipient reconciliation process afoot in Turkey between its government and Turkish Kurds that, given history, could collapse at any time, particularly under the effects on Turkey of emboldened Syrian Kurds on its border. Now, too, Turkey has come to think Syria’s jihadist Jabhat al Nusra a threat as well.  The possibilities for spiraling and expanding conflict are deep and many. Should they grow, the effects on more surrounding nations, like Jordan, with its currently quiescent Muslim Brotherhood, may grow.

 The masters of war want to drag the United States into this.

  • The militarists, playing on the compassion and ideals of humanitarians, and the humanitarians themselves, repeat the mounting toll of the dead in Syria – a horror, as were horrific the deaths in the Congo. The current estimate is 115,000 dead. But it is to be recalled in this world of horrors that just this month – regarding a conflict in which the U.S. was actively engaged, indeed, the initiator – “a new study led by the [University of Washington]’s Department of Global Health estimates that nearly half a million people in Iraq died from causes attributable to the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011” (emphasis added). There is every reason to believe that increased U.S. military involvement, rather than acting to diminish the suffering in Syria, would only intensify it, as it did in Iraq. And Iraq, though the U.S. left two years ago, is not over yet: “Iraqi Leader Calls on U.S. to Help Fight Terror Threat.” The October death toll from renewed insurgency and al-Qaeda activity neared 1,000, bringing the 2013 total to over 6000 so far. Were the militarists not distracted by Syria, they would be calling for a return to Iraq, which they never wished the U.S. to leave.

It is folly to pretend the United States can manage the volatile historic, which is not to say necessarily beneficial, upheaval sweeping the Arab and Muslim worlds in the Levant and North Africa. Absent joint-force humanitarian campaigns, the wisest course is to stand back and remain ready to respond to low-cost opportunities to protect interests and serve ideals, such as the entirely unpredictable, yet comprehensible chance at Syrian chemical weapons disarmament, diminishing one fear of an Islamist victory. Another is an appropriate arms-length engagement with an Egyptian emergency government representing the still inchoate wishes of a populace that learned from experience that one future it does not want is that of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In opposition to the incessant and contrary militarist drive to expand U.S. interests and forcefully control them, there remain on the left the simultaneously slack and malign anti-imperial apologists for authoritarianism and illiberalism. A U.S. strike on Syria averted, we see now no further “stop the war” and “end the killing” crisis marches in the major cities of Western nations. The salt of the Syrian earth is quickly cleared from the table.

The contest over Syria in the West, especially in the United States, is not simply a debate over a regional crisis. It is a contest for the future course of American foreign policy, whether there will be now, two decades later, a reset of America’s role in the world with the end of the Cold War. The only other Democratic presidency since, Bill Clinton’s, was too soon after, and without the geopolitical circumstances in which opportunistically to chart the new course. Obama, compelled to end two wars, with the opportunity to reject entry immediately into another even more misguided, has the chance – and, rather than uncertain, is determined to take it.

The vortex of even benign empire is thus: a breadth of interests entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Even a benign power will be caught in this cycle of mutual reinforcement. Imperial behavior, conceived only as protection of interests, expands and then is justified, in what is now the expression of an imperial character, as a necessary advancement of interests. As I wrote in “Obama in Oslo: Power without Empire” about the imperial nation’s ever expanding interests,

Ironically, this makes the superpower a supplicant, always needing to negotiate with other nations over those nations’ natural interests and spheres of power, and far from the natural sphere of the superpower’s interests, because now the world has become its sphere. World security concerns become the superpower’s security concerns, and multiple nations, pursuing their own interests to some degree of variance with the interests of the superpower now become problematic concerns.

The current conservative formula is that any reconsideration of this cycle is a disengagement bespeaking weakness. In order to avoid this appearance – indeed, reality – of (relative) weakness, the cycle must be maintained perpetually. The United States, now that it is the sole superpower, must ensure that it remains the sole superpower. If it is not the conquering, occupying power of imperial epochs past, it must now be and remain the imperial power of enforceable influence wherever its interests and security are perceived to reside, and increasingly they reside everywhere.

Such, however, is part of the historic pattern in the decline of empires. Yet this is the imperative that serves as the basis for misconceiving and rejecting the Obama international vision. It offers a choice not between a weak America and a strong America willing and able to meet genuine security threats. It presents a choice between an imperial America, however internally democratic, attuned to the brute expression and imposition of its will across all reaches, and a strong America integrated, reasonably and with proper regard to its interests, within a slow-developing international order.

Americans will be both the audience and the object of play between both sides on this field of contest, addressed, subject to performance, and bandied about like ball or puck – thoroughly used and abused if they if they are not wise to the game. There are two contestants at play here, neither to be trusted, neither offering time out from the match. Each needs to be resisted if the U.S. is to find its way, finally, into the twenty-first century, and out of and beyond empire. Each needs to be recognized for what it is, with neither the best national self Americans imagine for their country.

Both their houses. Now and forever. No blood on the doorposts.

AJA

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Masters of War

masters “Masters of War,” compellingly titled, fortuitously timed in its creation, ranks among Bob Dylan’s most jejune songs. The apparent good fortune of its historic timing emerged out of a natural uprising from circumstance. Given that circumstance, and the song’s generalized complaint, how, it almost seems, could the United States not have become fully drawn into a Vietnam War? The song’s lyrics are commonplace at best, its ideas simplistic, its attitude simple minded – much of what is spoken about war is. But the song did not arise out of nowhere, was not merely the febrile complaint of a barely post-adolescent artist. There are, however much more complexly than the song suggests, masters of war.

The masters of war want an American war in Syria. They do not, as Barack Obama does, want a punitive or preventive strike against Syria in response to Syria’s chemical weapons use, in order to uphold international prohibition. They mock such an action. They mock it in itself and they mock it because it is, or was, the plan of Barack Obama. They refuse, still, to acknowledge that Obama early on made the clear choice not in any way to enter the Syrian civil war, because he believed there was little the United States could do and that it would only replicate an error of war the country has made already too many times. But whatever Obama does, if it is not in accordance with the aggressive Bush-era “freedom agenda,” has been, is, and will be called by his usual foreign policy critics “feckless” and “dithering.” They mean weak and cowardly. That is the way masters of war speak when you do not give them what they want. What they want, this time, is an American war in Syria.

My last post, “Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon,” attempted to limn the follies and even bad faith often to be found at far ends of the war question and now, particularly, a Syrian “war” question. I enclose “war” in those challenging marks because what I endorsed at the end of “Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon” is, as President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have presented it, a limited military action with two aims. The first is to deter the Bashar al-Assad regime from further use of chemical weapons. The second, collaterally, is to degrade the regime’s ability to further use those weapons and even, perhaps, its prospects of prevailing in the civil war. That last outcome could hasten – appears the only thing that might hasten – a move toward a political settlement and thus the end of the current bloodletting. Every other idea at “intervention” seems likely only to increase the death toll and draw the United States into actual, protracted war.

To be clear, however, the second goal is subsidiary and opportunistic in light of the first. Without the chemical weapons use, there has been no policy to pursue that second goal.

We should always be concerned about the uncertain consequences of military action, even when we think ourselves compelled by moral imperative as much or more than by the calculus of security and interests. We should be more concerned then, as we may act too rashly, driven by the values that impel us and not with sufficient focus on the effects of our actions. The best intentions may have the worst consequences.

With those concerns as pretense and cover, the usual political elements fashioning themselves as “antiwar” have reflexively appeared. In their opposition, they organize not against war in most places in the world, but against any action by the U.S. or the West in armed conflict. They contort even the most moral of purposes, in support of even their own highest ideals, into perversions of imperial power to be opposed. After organizing not at all for two years to “stop” the Syrian civil war, now they gather in spiritual enclaves to “stop” a war that for them began only as the U.S. might become attached to it and will escape their attention whenever the U.S. might move on. One death by Western bombs is an imperial outrage, 100,000 by tyrants are not theorizable for politicking. These protesters of war cannot lose the moral authority they lost long ago.

Preening “antiwar” protesters are not a fixed political block, however. Their numbers can swell and recede as people are led by their understanding to see the world. Doesn’t that make them ripe for manipulation. Are not we all, always.

The masters of war seek now again to manipulate public opinion, just as they did as proponents of the Iraq War, in just the same ways.

The single most cited account of the situation in Syria over the past two weeks was an Op-Ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy in the Wall Street Journal. Titled “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” the column sought to counter one of the greatest concerns regarding support for Syrian rebels – that they are constituted significantly of Islamist jihadists. O’Bagy, who has spent much time in Syria, informed us otherwise.

According to O’Bagy, jihadists like Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq are not at the front lines leading the fight against Assad, but busy consolidating territorial gains in the North of the country, where they hope to establish an Islamist state. It is unclear whether that detail is meant to reassure about intervention or provoke Americans to prevention.

O’Bagy characterizes the other rebel forces, collectively, as “moderates.” Never does she explain that descriptor. She does not, for instance, say what it is they moderate between:  jihadists and what the West would call “liberals”? She advises at the end that the “U.S. must make a choice. It can address the problem now, while there is still a large moderate force with some shared U.S. interests, or ….” O’Bagy concludes with her best description of the “moderates” as a “force with some shared U.S. interests.” What a curiously tepid and vague endorsement. Could it be because what counts among “moderates” are Salafists, who while not jihadists seeking a universal caliphate, do wish to create a state existing under Sharia law? You will have to ask O’Bagy, so let’s.

According to a O’Bagy, in a 2012 report for the Institute for the Study of War,

  • Moderate political Islam is not incompatible with democratic governance. However, ultraconservative Sunni Islamists, known as Salafists, envision a new world order modeled on early Islam that poses a significant threat to both democracy and the notion of statehood. Salafi-jihadists are those who commit to violent means to bring about the Salafi vision.

  • It is difficult to distinguish between moderate Islamists and Salafi-jihadists in the context of the Syrian civil war.

  • The vast majority of Syrians opposing the regime are local revolutionaries still fighting against autocracy; while they are not Islamists, in the sense that their political visions do not depend upon Islamic principles, they espouse varying degrees of personal religious fervor.

In this context, but absent the same clear, specific, but uncertain account, O’Bagy now advocates support by the U.S, including “a major bombing campaign by the U.S., sophisticated weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapon systems,” with the “ultimate goal of destroying Assad’s military capability while simultaneously empowering the moderate opposition.”

O’Bagy was identified in the August 30th op-ed as “a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.”  A full week later, the Wall Street Journal was led to offer a correction beneath her article.

In addition to her role at the Institute for the Study of War, Ms. O’Bagy is affiliated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit operating as a 501(c)(3) pending IRS approval that subcontracts with the U.S. and British governments to provide aid to the Syrian opposition.

Even in its correction the Journal was not completely forthcoming. O’Bagy is not merely “affiliated with” SETF; she is identified at its website as its political director. SETF is a Syrian-led organization, via its board of directors and advisors, dedicated to enlisting U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. It has sponsored John McCain in his trips to Syria. Its executive director, Palestinian-born Mouaz Moustafa, has a LinkedIn profile that still identifies him also as the Executive Director at the Libyan Council of North America, where he played the same role advocating for American intervention in Libya.

Even the Institute for the Study of War holds nuggets of information to be uncovered. Its website lists at the highest level of management Dr. Kimberly Kagan as its president. Of course, the institute does have a board of directors, discoverable through Guidestar. It includes Bill Kristol and Elizabeth Cheney.

The deceptions and manipulations of the masters of war are broader even than these examples. The very framing of the issue to be clarified – whether the Syrian opposition is forbiddingly jihadist or “moderate” enough to comfort Americans in a military engagement – is a deception. The complexity of Syria, the reasons for the United States to avoid entanglement in its civil war, the reasons why President Obama has avoided it, are far greater than the one issue of who the opposition may truly be.

There is the role of Hezbollah and Assad’s possible fall back into Lebanon, further pulling that country into the mix. There are the sectarian divides of Syria, just as in Iraq, that will not disappear during a civil war and even once Assad may be ousted from power. There are the Kurds, angling across four nations – Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria – for a nation of their own. Now, in addition to Iraq, they have their foothold in Syria. There is an incipient reconciliation process afoot in Turkey between its government and Turkish Kurds that, given history, could collapse at any time, particularly under the effects on Turkey of emboldened Syrian Kurds on its border. Now, too, Turkey has come to think Syria’s jihadist Jabhat al Nusra a threat as well.  The possibilities for spiraling and expanding conflict are deep and many. Should they grow, the effects on more surrounding nations, like Jordan, with its currently quiescent Muslim Brotherhood, may grow.

The masters of war want to drag the United States into this. After Iraq and Afghanistan, following the toppling of the Taliban, with that record, they want more. They will tell us, too, that the failure of Afghanistan is that we did not commit well enough and long enough – Obama’s fault, of course. Think they will not say that about Syria, too – more, more, longer, longer – when all does not go as swimmingly as they suggest?

They scorned Obama for seeking only to stop Syria’s chemical weapons use – too little, too little, too little. They scorn him now that he pauses to pursue a diplomatic possibility of ensuring that end without a military strike. Now, suddenly, after two years of protracted civil war, if Obama does not launch a strike immediately (which is inadequate anyway), then he has thrown away all trust and respect and the future of the West. He has achieved so far, without launching a missile yet, Syrian admission of its chemical weapons program, Syria’s public acceptance of a proposal that they relinquish it, and Russia’s public agreement to the same principle. Who, a week ago, conceived that those accomplishments were even to be considered as a goal?

Are the masters of war happy? Do they credit these advances at all? Do they do anything but ridicule and degrade? No. They do not. They do only one thing.

Only one thing satisfies the masters of war.

AJA

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Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon

Something fails to fire. Across the synaptic gap, neurotransmission falls short. For only a moment or forever, we cease to remember – “as if,” Billy Collins writes,

… one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Or there is one phone, in an old inn, and you reach somebody there, the keeper, who was a once a Captain in the British Navy, though he’s old and fuzzy now, and while you keep raising your voice as if louder means clearer, he persists in bellowing, “Hello? Hello?”

There are many agents of forgetfulness. They abound. They are in the water, in the air, in the waves of the air, in the words we read and hear. And they are invisible, like all the silent killers, not just of people, but of memory. To survive them is an act of will and determined focus, for to know one thing, one must remember many, and the agents never cease their attack. They work together, too, in admixtures, compounds, concentrates aiming to wreak havoc on our limbic systems.

About Syria, one agent group has told us all this before, and before, and before, that our decency depends upon it, that good men and women, Syrian Tom Paines all, are just waiting for us – our so little to give all that they need to prevail, storified in paeans to freedom and dignity. They are destined to prevail (the force is with them), yet, oddly, if we do not make their cause our cause, all will be lost, for now it will be our cause, and our failure if it is lost. Come, join in. We must engage them to win their hearts, for Tom Paines are fickle and Iraq was Iraq, Afghanistan Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia so twentieth century, what have you done for us lately, oh, you torpid and craven.

Forget Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the renowned Madisons and Monroes of Vietnam, forget the Sunni-Shia divide, the Alawite hatred, the streams of Kurdish aspiration seeking to conjoin across national borders, the scores of contending forces, the maniacally Muslim among them, and Hezbollah, and crumpled Lebanon, Turkey’s increasingly illiberal leanings, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and, oh, yes. Iran. Forget.

Fouad Ajami, he of the gravelly-wise empathetic voice, white beard and wild brows, beautifully unattractive like an old blind seer, he should play Homer – sing-o-muse – will wax again America toward war, uttering to Anderson Cooper the most foolish professional advice ever uttered by expert lips, that we, America “have to have faith in the Syrian people.”

Bring your American goodness – forged from American degeneracy if you don’t.

But memory is worn away in many directions. Ajami has his responders. We see them every time, they return every time, the End and Stop the War Coalitions that only work to end and stop the wars that the United States or the United Kingdom thinks about entering, otherwise not so much the banners and the burning outrage. War is cruel, but any war that America might join is most cruel, and it doesn’t matter what a president, or a secretary-of, might say, what party from, what history of belief and profession – the exercise of American power is at issue so everything everyone says is now a lie, a conspiracy, and a murderous plan to make a buck. “International law” floats in the air a utopian god-head, until it is a law of war over which the United States might flex a muscle, and then it is time for the hems and the haws, the  hundred indecisions, the visions and revisions, though the world might be more lawless after. They would have you forget that whatever the world’s corruptions and ills, not one pillar of the palace of human safety wrested from the jungle of human horrors was greased with their blood or erected by them.

It is time, instead, for, as Katrina Vanden Heuvel, put it “tough diplomacy,” which is diplomacy with a scrunched up face and a stern reproach. Alternatively, U.N. Security Council resolution can be sought, and if Syria ignores it, well, we don’t actually enforce international laws, though we righteously regret their violation.

Even the sense of violation can be forgotten. There are agents for that, too. They say that to die is to die. The agony of shrapnel in the stomach no less than the eruptions of the organs and the asphyxiated lungs. They offer arguments like this:

It’s not obvious that high explosives are inherently less evil than chemical weapons. People vividly recall the horrifying gassing of soldiers in the trenches of World War I. But it was artillery shelling that killed in hugely greater numbers.

Strip away the moralistic opposition to chemical weapons and you often find strategic self-interest lying underneath. Powerful countries like the United States cultivate a taboo against using WMD partly because they have a vast advantage in conventional arms. We want to draw stark lines around acceptable and unacceptable kinds of warfare because the terrain that we carve out is strategically favorable. Washington can defeat most enemy states in a few days–unless the adversary uses WMD to level the playing field.

“It was artillery shelling that killed in hugely greater numbers.” Apparently Dominic Tierney forgets that artillery shelling was used in hugely greater numbers. Yet it was chemical weapons that the perpetrators and victims of chemical warfare during World War I acted to ban. Tierney forgets that the original, 1925 Geneva Convention ban on chemical weapons was sought after the war not when today’s powerful nations might be seeking to enforce a tactical advantage, but when those nations who had used and suffered sought to limit themselves. Because they had the memories. They had not yet forgotten.

What greater crime of international, of institutional memory can there be than to dismiss the experience of those no longer living as unreal, to wave our hands in ideological reconstruction of their experience and cry it was not true. They did what they could. They left us this record of their reasons and their wrongs. And now, to excuse a score of other motives, we will say that the remnant of their wrongs, the extract of our lessons from them is nothing?

Those who forget the reality of chemical weapons are those who only see things in themselves. To reverse Plato, they see only things and not the shadows of things, the extra life of the world. The extra evil of the chemical weapon, like the biological weapon is that it is more than what it is. In the symbolic world, a thing is not only itself, but something else. It represents. What does the chemical weapon represent? Maybe if we remember another weapon.

Remember the neutron bomb? Few will. They were abandoned. It shocked not the conscience, but the imagination, that pathway to the symbolic world. Samuel T. Cohen, the physicist who invented the neutron bomb, insisted all his life that he had invented a saner and more moral weapon – a weapon that limited physical destruction and only killed people.

But many military planners scoffed at the idea of a nuclear bomb that limited killing and destruction, and insisted that deployment would escalate the arms race and make nuclear war more likely. The device was anathema to military contractors and armed services with vested interests in nuclear arsenals. Even peace activists denounced it as “a capitalist weapon” because it killed people but spared the real estate.

We are not just dreams and thoughts, but flesh, too. We live a life of the body. We live in the physical world, in relation to it. To destroy any of it is an abomination, yet what does it mean to separate ourselves in destruction from our worldly shell? Does it raise no specter? Why might it seem, saner, more moral, cleaner, easier to kill only ourselves and spare the world? We are disappearing all the time – this person, here, there, those people, everywhere, always. The life of the world is the loss of people from it. But the world is still there, right? And there are always more people.

Gas the people of Ghouta. People die in war all the time. But Ghouta still stands, and people will return. We will hardly know what was done.

The tragic, melancholy final shots of On the Beach, Stanley Kramer’s film version of the Nevil Shute novel, draw their bottomless sorrow from a single vision: the world still standing and the people gone. The nuclear war had physically destroyed very little, but the radiation – in the manner of the neutron bomb –  had wafted over atmospheric currents to kill all still living, finally those in Australia. What a loss. What a symbol of loss. If the world was not created mechanistically for sentient beings, does anyone have the least notion what value there is in all there is without sentient beings to know it, be in it and of it?

The physical world is destroyed every moment in natural decay: the world was born to end. That we were born to end in it, to end ourselves in it, must seem less natural. Streets without people, an empty city, a vacant world should always appear the essential crime.

Chemical weapons, we are told, we can see, produce agony. They encourage use directed at civilians, to clear populations, to terrify in their silence and their stealth, the invisible attack, which was the special horror of Ghouta. They are not weapons of war, they are weapons of inhumanity. Those who used and suffered them before, those who banned them, knew that. To fail to see that is our own inhumanity. To fail to act in response, a crime past forgetting.

AJA

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Why Obama Hearts Hagel

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This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on January 11. 

The last time I wrote about President Obama’s then only rumored selection of Chuck Hagel I said two things I knew I would wish to revise. The first, rhetorically, was the question: “What was he thinking?” The second was a quotation from Gil Troy’s generally very good writing on this subject, which I qualified then as “[p]erhaps overstating the case.” In attempting to answer the rhetorical question, I need to begin by deepening my critique of the passage I quoted from Troy.

Troy wrote,

The question of where Obama stands regarding Israel has often pivoted on this deeper question of which Obama shows up when doing foreign policy. His conjuring up of an American-Muslim heritage in Cairo, his dithering before supporting Iran’s Green Revolution, his historically sloppy comparisons between Palestinians and African-Americans, and his occasional “tough-love” approach to Israel, all expressed his inner McGovern—revealing how a position that appears lovely and idealistic often becomes morally myopic. But supporting Israel militarily, endorsing Israel’s defensive war against Hamas missiles, and backing Israel in the U.N., have all expressed his inner Kissinger—sprinkled with a dash of nobility and idealism worthy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

I cited these words by Troy because of this schism he noted in Obama’s foreign policy tendencies. The schism is real, but Troy characterized it too crudely and mislabeled its divisions. Nothing in Obama’s foreign policy descends to the McGovern caricature of “lovely and idealistic.” (And for the record, let us all recall that George McGovern flew 35 combat missions in World War II as a B-24 bomber pilot.) Nothing in Obama’s foreign policy descends to the cynical imperial machinations of Henry Kissinger.

What Troy confuses with Kissinger’s Machiavellian realism is Obama’s more straight forward and empirical political reason. Obama was clear about it in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Awarded a prize he knew he had accomplished nothing to earn, Obama’s expressed acceptance in a speech before that audience of the need for state violence, on that occasion and under such circumstances, constituted a minor profile in courage. Said Obama,

[A] head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

The concentration and determination with which Obama has prosecuted a controversial, vigorous and deadly stealth and drone war against the United States’ terrorist enemies is testament to the truth of the beliefs expressed in these words.

In a speech that attempted to grasp and express complexities of human and state development, and international relations, greater than those captured by brute or simplistic concepts identified with either Kissinger or McGovern, Obama said the following as well.

[W]ithin America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists — a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world.

I reject these choices…. No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests — nor the world’s — are served by the denial of human aspirations.

Along with the anti-terror campaign, we can see this complex of beliefs at work in Obama’s response to many of the developments in the Middle East not specifically related to Israel. On the one hand, while Obama’s more idealistic critics on the left and more militant critics on the right judged him harshly for weak support of the Iranian “Green Revolution” of 2009, Obama judged, realistically, that in the absence of evidence that the protests could actually succeed, the U.S. had nothing to gain by appearing one more time, however honorably in American eyes, to support the overthrow of an Iranian government. No greater and forceful expressions of idealistic or militant U.S. support for the protests, absent any inconceivable American military interference, would have made a difference to the outcome. Nothing to gain and historical propaganda points to be lost.

In much bolder terms and against the prospect of much greater losses than a propaganda war, Obama has made the same realistic determination about Syria.

The President received similar criticisms, more heavily weighed from the right, regarding his response to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Again, Obama even more finely weighed the apparent tensions between realism and idealism. The President, like every president before him, accepted the realistic necessity, toward other ends, of working with an autocrat like Mubarak. As with Iran, considering an uprising that might not succeed and the political losses that might follow from hasty support for the protests, Obama hedged his bets with middle of the road comments. Once the magnitude of what was occurring became fully apparent, Obama rightly judged that the United States – rather than working in practical self-interest with autocrats – could not be seen, as it was during the Cold War, actively to support autocrats in the repression of their own people.

Avoiding and overcoming such American excesses of the Cold War, and their continuation in too ready post Cold War entry into any but absolutely necessary wars, is central to Obama’s long-term vision of U.S. international realignment. That alignment is away from a unipolar America imperial reach and self-assertion toward an America that is rather a leader in a community of nations. Said Obama in Oslo,

More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.

There is no such mandate in Syria, not a mandate greater, really, than much of the rest of the West pushing American troops into battle. Obama ran in 2008 clearly against such solitary American commitments, especially after over a decade of war in two battle zones, and not to mention the untold unintended consequences that might follow. In Libya, however less consequential the case may seem, other nations, in an extraordinarily rare occurrence, did take the lead in promoting and accepting responsibility for the intervention while the U.S. bore the background brunt of the air and intelligence campaigns. This was precisely what Obama wished under the circumstances as they developed and entirely in keeping with his vision of an American international future.

Among American politicians, Obama is rare in recognizing the essential requirement, more than two decades after the Cold War’s end, of realigning the United States away from the imperial position it assumed in leading democratic forces in that war. Even an imperial sway conceived as benign and beneficial produces a perpetual descending cycle of reinforcing needs and behaviors. The breadth of interests that super power sway requires entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Imperial behavior conceived only as an advancement of noble ends can expand innocently and then be justified, in the maintenance of an imperial nature, as a necessary protection of interests.

Because the U.S. is the sole superpower in the world, it acts to extend the reach of its power (power not being static) in order to maintain itself and to protect the interests that naturally attach to that power’s reach. As the interests expand, the superpower must engage more nations with the purpose of pursuing and maintaining those interests. Ironically, this makes the superpower a supplicant, always needing to negotiate with other nations over those nations’ more natural interests and spheres of power, and far from the natural sphere of the superpower’s interests, because now the world has become its sphere. World security concerns become the superpower’s security concerns, and multiple nations, pursuing their own more vital interests, to some degree of variance with the interests of the superpower, now become problematic concerns.

The current conservative formula is that any reconsideration of this cycle is a disengagement bespeaking weakness. In order to avoid this appearance – indeed, reality – of (relative) weakness, the cycle must be maintained perpetually. The United States, now that it is the sole superpower, must ensure that it remains the sole superpower. If it is not the conquering, occupying power of imperial epochs past, it must now be and remain the imperial power of enforceable influence wherever its interests and security are perceived to reside, and increasingly they are perceived to reside almost everywhere.

Such, however, is part of the historic pattern in the decline of empires.

Chuck Hagel shares this vision with Barak Obama, and in a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world, Obama seeks Hagel’s advice and support in directing the nation toward its first profound international realignment since the Second World War. All this is independent of Israel.

The record of Barack Obama’s support for Israel is clear. Policy missteps and symbolic miscues provide fodder to those already otherwise inclined to mistrust him, but the record of action thus far is irrefutable. However, the idealist in Obama, the late twentieth century liberal in him, and the biographical outsider in him – however he may recognize the distinctions between Israel and the autocratic societies that have been its enemies – makes it difficult for him to articulate those differences in cultural or anything resembling Manichean terms, despite his asserted belief in Oslo in the existence of evil. Thus Obama, for all his vision, greater than many around him, of a necessary and better American international future, fails to see more than geopolitically local and limited threats. The limited are non-state organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the like. The local are the normal geopolitical contenders, such as China in Asia, and the historically garden-variety despots such as Gaddafi and Assad. However, there is a greater threat in the world.

A confluence has occurred in the post Cold War world. One stream may be found in Islamist theocratic intolerance, rooted in so many anti-Semitic cultures. This intolerance finds a supportive voice in far left postcolonial rationalizations of the conduct of “marginalized” and “powerless” peoples. It is further abetted by liberal reluctance, like Obama’s, to make cultural claims not only in praise, but in censure. This confluence finds its center in the Middle East, around Israel, and it is the greatest international threat since the fall of the Communist world.

The mystery will remain as to why Obama did not mind disappointing women in rejecting the highly esteemed Michèle Flournoy for Secretary of Defense. It will remain why he did not mind so upsetting so many Jews at his selection of Hagel. It may well have been his calculation that most of the Jews who would object were already opponents who mistrust and criticize him. There is much evidence to support the latter part of that claim.

About Hagel’s ultimate influence over Israel policy, a best case scenario might recall Obama’s obvious desire to surround himself in his cabinet with varied figures of name and stature, among whom he will still make his own final decision. From Mark Bowden’s book The Finish, about the Osama bin Laden decision:

The only major dissenters were [Vice President Joe] Biden and [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates and, by the next morning, Gates had changed his mind. [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright and Leiter favored the drone over the raid.]

That is the Vice President and, initially, the Republican and very heavy weight Secretary of Defense disagreeing, and a major military adviser and the director of the National Counter Terrorism Center urging a different option. Obama knows his own mind.

The worst case scenario is that Hagel further weakens a so far bumbling and ineffectual approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that he amplifies Obama’s failure to perceive the larger picture in the Middle East, and that his choice sends exactly the wrong signal to Iran.

The worst case scenario is too real, the consequences too great. That is why Hagel’s choice, despite the sense that can be found in it, is the wrong one.

AJA

 

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The Political Animal

A “Rose in the Desert” Smells Like Shit

I mean not to diminish but heighten in significance the state repression and murder currently being executed across Syria by reminding us all of what I had intended to write of at the time, the creepiest, most morally repugnant journalism of the year – Joan Juliet Buck‘s “A Rose in the Desert,” for Vogue, with photography by James Nachtwey. Might Anna Wintour and the other editors of that glossy dross, reeking of ancien regime parfum feel more chastened now to think it, worse, in bad taste? For there were only decades to know of the barbarous tyranny of Syria’s Ba’athist regime, no different from any other party in the Middle East under that banner, with one decade of Syrian interference in Lebanon sufficient to know the nature of Assad junior. Still, for Buck,

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.

Sigh.

That’s an estimated 340 dead so far in the nationwide protests, you should know.

Said the French Ambassador, according to Buck,

She managed to get people [at the International Diplomatic Institute in Paris] to consider the possibilities of a country that’s modernizing itself, that stands for a tolerant secularism in a powder-keg region, with extremists and radicals pushing in from all sides—and the driving force for that rests largely on the shoulders of one couple. I hope they’ll make the right choices for their country and the region.

But, writes Hisham Melham in Foreign Policy, in addition to both the historical and present reality of Syrian politics and behavior,

the underlying reality is much gloomier: Syria does not have a serious university or research institution, a notable press, hospitals with reliable medical care, or any efficient state agency — save the institutions of repression. Indeed, the ingrained inertia of the current Assad regime, its hollow and brittle institutions, and the very nature of the political system, including its instruments of coercion, prevents it from engaging in serious reform or from delivering on the requirements of regional peace. The regime may well have finally lifted the country’s Emergency Law this week, but that will do little to change the underlying authoritarian realities: Article 8 of the constitution (which establishes the primacy of the Baath party in state and society), the illegality of political parties, and an ongoing media environment of censorship and craven dependence.

In many of these ways, Bashar has simply carried on the authoritarian legacy of his father, Hafez Assad.

Quelle surprise.

Not all is lost, however. We can always treasure, here, Nachtwey giving us the Assads, en vogue with Disney World lighting, at play on the floor with the children and trucks, the modern tyrannical family spending quality time at home. I hope it’s framed above the reception desk at the Vogue offices. After all, one needs to take pride in one’s work.

AJA

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