Monday, July 31, 2006

The Second Coming and Bush’s Second Term

History is never as rosy as we would lead ourselves to believe yet there are a growing number of people who believe something has changed in our country in recent years and that change has not been for the better. The Christianist grip on the nation’s agenda during the past few years has had a corrupting influence on our democracy. It has developed a very unhealthy polarization from which it may take years to heal if healing ever takes place.

There are a number of different explanations as to how this has come about. Certainly one of them is the election of a President who never appreciated and certainly does not respect the importance of consensus building by national leadership. Civil war is just under the surface of every society. This is not to say we are on the verge of civil war – quite the contrary. However, when the glue that holds us together is steadily eroded by a polarizing leadership then the groundwork for later conflict is laid. Good leadership should enable the moderates and marginalize the extremists. We have seen the opposite in recent years.

President George Bush has sought guidance and support from the fundamentalist strain of Christianity which has chosen to exercise -- or to be used by, depending upon your point of view -- conservative political power. This group is known by different names: Christianists, the Religious Right, theocons, etc. These people and their ideas are not new. What is new is their influence and access to power.

Karen Armstrong has written a number of books on the subject of religion. She writes in a column in today’s Guardian about the Christian fundamentalism and the Bush Administration. She writes,
… fundamentalists want to win a battle for God; liberals and
secularists are fighting for truth and rationality.

The same passions are likely to be aroused by President Bush's
decision last week to veto the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would
have loosened the restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research. …

His opponents point out that while the president zealously
champions the rights of the unborn, he is less concerned about the plight of
existing American children. The US infant mortality rate is only the 42nd best
in the world; the average baby has a better chance of surviving in Havana or
Beijing; infant mortality rates are unacceptably high among those who cannot
afford adequate healthcare, especially in the African-American community. And,
finally, at the same time as Bush decided to veto the stem cell bill, Israeli
bombs were taking the lives of hundreds of innocent Lebanese civilians, many of
them children, with the tacit approval of the US.

Is there a connection between a religiously motivated mistrust of
science, glaring social injustice and a war in the Middle East? Bush and his
administration espouse many of the ideals of the Christian right and rely on its
support. American fundamentalists are convinced that the second coming of Christ
is at hand; they have developed an end-time scenario of genocidal battles based
on a literal reading of Revelation that is absolutely central to their theology.
Christ cannot return, however, unless, in fulfilment of biblical prophecy, the
Jews are in possession of the Holy Land. Before the End, the faithful will be
"raptured" or snatched up into the air in order to avoid the Tribulation.
Antichrist will massacre Jews who are not baptised; but Christ will defeat the
mysterious "enemy from the north", and establish a millennium of peace.

This grim eschatology, developed in the late 19th century, was in
part a reaction to the "social gospel" of the more liberal Christians, who
believed that human beings were naturally evolving towards perfection and could
build the New Jerusalem here on earth by fighting social injustice. The
fundamentalists, however, believed that God was so angry with the faithless
world that he could save it only by initiating a devastating catastrophe; they
would see the terrible battles of the first world war, which showed that science
could be used to lethal effect in the new military technology, as the beginning
of the End.

The fundamentalists' rejection of science is deeply linked to their
apocalyptic vision. … They all condemn the attempt to reform social ills. When
applied socially, evolutionary theory "leads straight to all the woes of modern
life", says the leading ID ideologue Philip Johnson: homosexuality, state-backed
healthcare, divorce, single-parenthood, socialism and abortion. All this, of
course, is highly agreeable to the Bush administration, which is itself
selectively leery of science. It has, for example, persistently ignored
scientists' warnings about global warming. Why bother to implement the Kyoto
treaty if the world is about to end? Indeed, some fundamentalists see
environmental damage as a positive development, because it will hasten the

This nihilistic religiosity is based on a perversion of the texts.
The first chapter of Genesis was never intended as a literal account of the
origins of life; it is a myth, a timeless story about the sanctity of the world
and everything in it. Revelation was not a detailed programme for the End time;
it is written in an apocalyptic genre that has quite a different dynamic. When
they described the Jews' return to their homeland, the Hebrew prophets were
predicting the end of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC - not the
second coming of Christ. The prophets did preach a stern message of social
justice, however, and like all the major world faiths, Christianity sees charity
and loving-kindness as the cardinal virtues. Fundamentalism nearly always
distorts the tradition it is trying to defend.

Whatever Bush's personal beliefs, the ideology of the Christian
right is both familiar and congenial to him. This strange amalgam of ideas can
perhaps throw light on the behaviour of a president, who, it is said, believes
that God chose him to lead the world to Rapture, who has little interest in
social reform, and whose selective concern for life issues has now inspired him
to veto important scientific research. …

You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The failure of legitimate states

Is the Israeli fight against Hezbollah in Lebanon comparable to the fight the United States and allies against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Michael Singer thinks so. The problem he sees is the de-legitimization of states by non-state actors. Problems arising across national borders need to be settled nation-to-nation. Otherwise, nations risk being sucked into wars instigated by private organizations operating from their territories.

He writes,
…. Lebanon right now is very interesting, and distressing,
analyzed as a state. In the south, Hezbollah has essentially become a
state-within-a-state. The fundamentalist group has a quasi-monopoly on
violence. They provide social services and police functions. Their
members are further elected to positions in Lebanon's central government.
So you basically have southern Lebanon as a quasi-state that declared war (sort
of, in its own ineffectual and limited way) on Israel.

In the post-Westphalian world, we want, and should want,
states. Yes, we want humane and democratic states, but those are
second-order preferences. The first thing we want is states. States
are good. Speaking as a lawyer, it's like when there's a conflict between
individuals in the United States. Whether it's a traffic accident or a
surgery gone wrong, you want lawyers involved. You want arbiters who
themselves are invested in some sort of common system of reasoning (members of
the same bar, students of the rule of law) mediating between the chaotic
passions of individuals who, left to their own devices, might just tear each
other to shreds.

We cannot accept a world where non-state actors become
legitimate. In Weber's famous definition, a government is that which has a
legitimate monopoly on violence. The crucial gray area has always been
what "legitimate" means. The Taliban's (or Hezbollah's) legitimacy is not
your grandmother's legitimacy. Especially as Iraq teeter-totters toward a
status quo where Moqtada al-Sadr starts running his own state-within-a-state,
and Pakistan's madrassas become more powerful and start providing more services, America -- the strongest country in the world -- ought to do all it can to make its investment in legitimate states as strong as possible.

You may read his entire piece here at Democracy Arsenal.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The rise of Iran as an unintended consequence of American policy in the Middle East

If you think of foreign policy as a huge game with multiple players whose actions for and against one another can have the unintended consequence of putting one team ahead then you have to consider what is and has been going on in the Middle East as pushing Iran to the top of the list. At least that is what Daniel Benjamin thinks. He argues that Iran has benefited from recent events, not the least of which is events instigated by the United States and American allies in the region. He writes,
…. the contrast between the appearance of hostility and the reality that
American policy has consistently reduced the pressure on Iran to behave and has
thus emboldened it to take a more aggressive course.

…. By toppling the Taliban in 2001-02, the United States removed the threat to Iran's east. The Taliban were not a great danger to Iran, but, in a foretaste of the
sectarian murderousness of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, they had the habit of
slaughtering Hazaras, the Shiites of Afghanistan's western provinces, whose
protection is an Iranian concern. The Taliban also murdered nine Iranian
diplomats in 1998, almost causing a war.

Dispatching the Taliban was a small favor compared with the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime, which had been the biggest check on Tehran since the two countries' war of 1980-88, in which Iran suffered roughly 1 million casualties in some of the most senseless fighting since the trench warfare of World War I. As home of the Iranian opposition Mujahedin e-Khalq, Iraq remained a permanent thorn in the clerics' side. The Bush administration believed that the post-9/11 wars would result in U.S. troops and American-leaning regimes on either side of Iran and therefore a more airtight containment of the Islamic republic. With all its prewar talk of "shock and awe," the Bush team was also convinced that the demonstration effect of U.S. military power would have the mullahs quivering in their robes.

It didn't work out that way. No one can say if any U.S. occupation would have worked out, but if the Pentagon had put 400,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, the chances are greater that the Sunni insurgency could have been extinguished early on, and Iran would have felt significant pressure even as a Shiite majority came to power in Baghdad. But the comprehensive botch of the occupation has had the opposite effect. One Middle Eastern diplomat put it perfectly last week when he told me the Iranians have the United States exactly where they want it: tied down in Iraq, overcommitted, and incapable of acting.

As Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations
pointed out in a Washington Post
op-ed, the 135,000 overburdened U.S. troops are potential hostages—or targets—for Iran should the United States take military action to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. With many of Iraq's Shiite militias
and major Shiite political organizations subsidized by Tehran, life for the U.S.
forces could become very unpleasant very quickly. America has waged two wars in five years; Iran has been the big winner…..

The sum of all these missteps is that the Iranians feel they are in the driver's seat. When Condoleezza Rice persuaded Bush to commit his about-face in June and offer a package of incentives and direct talks over the nuclear issue, the Iranians felt
confident enough to ignore our deadlines and tell us they'd get back to us in
late August. Hezbollah's kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers should also be seen
as a response to U.S. pressure on the nuclear issue: By having terrorists nab
the Israelis, the Iranians both upended the G8 summit discussions about their
nuclear program and sent a clear reminder of the tools at their disposal should
there be a confrontation. They probably miscalculated regarding Israel's
reaction, but the message was unmistakable.

That Iran has broad regional ambitions—to steal the mantle of leadership in the Arab-Israeli conflict, ride the Shiite revival that began with the fall of Saddam, and fulfill its ambition to become a regional hegemon—is increasingly clear. The
containment strategy that had held the line on Iran for more than a decade looks
to be in tatters. It is tempting to say that the destruction of Lebanon is
the culmination of the administration's failed policy for the region. At this
point, though, that might just be too optimistic.

You can read the entire article here at Slate.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Civic Engagement

Larry Sabato raises the issue of civic engagement in the United States compared to Israel where he recently visited. I think this is an issue of importance -- as I have said before, I believe while Americans love democracy, they hate politics. And, of course, what is democracy if not politics. He appreciates the civic engagement of the Israelis in their own society. I fully agree with him that there “is every reason for Americans to debate and care about politics just as much as Israelis do.” Unfortunately, democracy suffers in our country. It is very limited.

Sabato lays out three examples of how Israeli society differs from our and thus may account for the more fully engaged civic society he sees there as opposed to our own. His examples deal with universal service, immigration policy, and political reorganization.

Universal Service: I like and dislike, at the same time, the idea of universal service. On the one hand universal service (with few or no exceptions) is the great equalizer. It is important that people from all classes and cultures rub shoulders in real life as opposed to staged "multi-cultural" events. I believe this can create the glue that holds us together as a society. On the other hand, I have this civil libertarian gut reaction against the compulsion of service of citizens into whatever activities that are not an emergency.

Immigration: Israel has a policy that is determined by the purpose of the state and that is to provide a homeland for Jews. That’s very easy. However, I don’t know how that applies to a multi-cultural society as we claim to be. Granted, not everyone agrees we are or should be a multi-cultural society but that’s the rhetoric for now.

Centrist Party: Granted our current political parties are out of date but how many decades old is that assessment? Given the grip the two current political parties have on the system, how realistic is it to even speculate another party even has a chance of taking power? For now, you either line up behind the Democrats or you don’t and if not, that means you support the Republicans.

The bottom line here is Israel is a small country with a parliamentary system. We are the opposite. This is the right conversation to engage in. These may or may not be the right issues to raise in this conversation.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Civil war in Iraq -- What do we do next?

In a New York Times op-ed piece today, Peter Galbraith argues that the Bush administration’s neglect of the necessary political work during the formal occupation has allowed the country to spin off in three different directions. (This is an argument he makes in his new book. I reprinted a few paragraphs in my post of 7/17/06 here.) He says,
WHAT is the mission of the United States military in Iraq now that the
insurgency has escalated into a full-blown civil war? According to the Bush
administration, it is to support a national unity government that includes all
Iraq’s major communities: the Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. O.K., but this
raises another question: What does the Iraqi government govern?

In the southern half of Iraq, Shiite religious parties and clerics
have created theocracies policed by militias that number well over 100,000 men.
In Basra, three religious parties control — and sometimes fight over — the
thousands of barrels of oil diverted each day from legal exports into smuggling.
To the extent that the central government has authority in the south, it is
because some of the same Shiite parties that dominate the government also
control the south.

Kurdistan in the north is effectively independent. The Iraqi Army
is barred from the region, the Iraqi flag prohibited, and central government
ministries are not present. The Kurdish people voted nearly unanimously for
independence in an informal referendum in January 2005.

And in the Sunni center of the nation and Baghdad, the government
has virtually no control beyond the American-protected Green Zone. The Mahdi
Army, a radical Shiite militia, controls the capital’s Shiite neighborhoods,
while Qaeda offshoots and former Baathists are increasingly taking over the
Sunni districts.

Rather than try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again at this late date, he recommends working with the separate entities as such. He says Kurdistan is essentially already operating as a separate country and the Shiite south is not far behind. The Sunnis of central Iraq should be encouraged to form their own security forces since they are distrustful of Shiite dominated Iraqi security forces. The United States could then operate out of bases in Kurdistan to tackle any Al Qaeda operatives who may use the chaos in the Sunni region to set up shop.

Andrew Sullivan tends to agree:
Maybe a de facto Iraqi partition after more bloodshed and sectarian
massacres may pave the way for a more peaceful future. We can hope. But
Baghdad is fast turning into what Beirut once was - a cualdron of unrestrained
sectarian hate and violence, fomented by a few empowered by the incompetence in Washington. I'm left with contrition at my own small contribution to the
misunderstanding; and abiding, deep, and furious anger at the administration
who conducted this war with such arrogance and negligence. This president's
betrayal of the Iraqis, his betrayal of the armed forces, his betrayal of
those who supported him, is profound. Some of his supporters will forgive
him. This much I'm sure of: History won't.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Virginia Reports is the title of a series of law books documenting decisions of the Virginia Supreme Court. The first sentence of the first case in the first volume, Marston v. Parish, decided in April of 1730 reads: “John Williams was possessed of two Negro boys, Arthur and Billy, and two Negro women, Dinah and Nanny, and made his last will the 22nd of April, 1713.” The report goes on to explain that Mr. William’s widow married twice before passing away herself. In the meantime, the four slaves above had three children between them. One of Ms. William’s heirs brought the case over the issue of who owned which slave.

Slavery, over the history of mankind, has taken different forms. In this country slavery was most identified with Africans and the evolving concept of race. What is remarkable about the above case is the matter-of-fact report of the facts of the case without even a hint that speaking of human beings as chattel was in any way strange let alone wrong. Slaves were simply not considered fully human and when slavery ended, racism continued to assign a “badge of slavery.”

Virginia certainly shares a place in the sad history of slavery and race relations in the United States.
  • In 1807, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was outlawed, Virginia became a “breeding” state for slaves, exporting them to the deep south for use on the plantations.
  • Two of the more famous slave rebellions in the United States were in Virginia – one in 1800 in Richmond led by Gabriel Prosser and the other in 1831 in Southampton County led by Nat Turner.
  • It took the army of the United States and a brutal civil war, fought largely in Virginia, before emancipation was won.
  • Following the Brown decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, the editorial page of the Richmond News-Leader became the leading propaganda organ for the cause of “massive resistance” to school integration.
  • Between 1959 and 1964, Prince Edward County shut down its public schools rather than integrate.
  • In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, metropolitan Richmond was the scene of parallel racially charged struggles over annexation and school integration. The region still bares the scars of those fights.

In Richmond near Byrd Park at the point where Boulevard curves around the tennis courts to intersect with Blanton Avenue, there is a flagpole. The flagpole was erected in 1926 as a memorial to the Richmond soldiers who died in the First World War. At the base of the flagpole are four plaques. The main plaque reads “They Gave Their Lives 1917-1918.” The other three plaques list the names of Richmond soldiers who died. The names on one plaque are divided by the word, “Colored,” indicating the names following were not white men. Remembering this memorial was erected in 1926 when Jim Crow reigned in Virginia, perhaps this was the best they could do at the time to honor those soldiers. However, eighty years later there is something offensive about dividing those brave men by that word. They died on the same battlefields wearing the same uniforms. The hues of their skin may have differed somewhat but their blood was equally red.

The impact of racism assigning the badge of slavery has had a devastating impact on our social order creating and maintaining various levels and degrees of injustice. Traditions die hard because we are the products of the past. Yet we have the intellect to recognize injustice and the power to act. We owe it to Arthur, Billy, Dinah and Nanny.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Reflections on September 11th: America’s Place in the World

I was sitting in my sixth grade class on November 22, 1963 when the principal came in to announce that the president had been shot. There was some anxiety and nervousness that something important had just happened but we were not quite sure how we should react. On the bus ride home, the bus driver speculated the shooting had something to do with what he called the Civil Rights “agitators” in the South. When I got home I walked into the door and saw my mother talking on the telephone with someone. She was sobbing. It had just been announced that President Kennedy had died.

The memory of what I saw, what I heard and what I felt that afternoon and the next few days is something I will never forget. There was a feeling of shock, sadness, anxiety, anger, and confusion but it was not personal. It was communal. The whole community was confused and we all grieved together.

Almost five years ago, everyone reading this and most people across the world, experienced a universal shock and outrage followed by sadness and anxiety by the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Everyone has their own memories and impressions of those horrible and sad events. We have had the opportunity to grieve together and express our feelings to one another in public and in private. Special anniversary remembrances will be held for years to come.

Attacks on our nation can be transformative events. One has only to think how the attacks on Pearl Harbor or Fort Sumter set off a chain of events that changed our nation, and the world, forever. It became a cliché following the 9-11 attacks that the world would never be the same or that everything had changed since 9-11. I believe that on the contrary that little has really changed at all. After almost five years, it has not made the United States necessarily better or stronger. Nor has it made Americans more civic minded in the long run. Nor did our uninspired national leadership use the opportunity of the moment to make bold initiatives the public would have rallied behind – such as a national energy policy aimed to not only make us less dependent upon foreign oil but less dependent upon fossil fuels of all types, foreign or domestic. Such an initiative would have had profound symbolic and practical significance because of the overlap of issues regarding oil, the Middle East, and these attacks. It was talked about at the time but we got a tax cut instead – the first tax cut, by the way, during a time of war in our history. Of course, this is what happens when we have a national leadership that does not value Americans as citizens but values them as investors and consumers. Sadly, our national leadership does not even view this as a missed opportunity.

Think of what we were asked to do following the attack on Pearl Harbor and how we responded. Thousands volunteered to serve in the military and fight the war. There were scrap metal drives, rationing, victory gardens, and war bonds. Housewives went to work in the factories to enable war production. Taxes were doubled to pay for the war. In other words, individual and communal sacrifices were asked for and received with the goal of winning the war. Compare that to what happened following September 11th.

I believe we are facing the same demons we faced in the twentieth century. The twentieth century will be remembered that following the First World War totalitarianism rose to challenge liberal democracy around the world. The attacks of September 11th, 2001, are a variation of the fascist threat we faced a little over half a century ago. The twentieth century also is a history of American successes in foreign policy coupled with bungling and failures – particularly in the Third World before, during and after the Cold War.

Let’s explore two issues related to this “9-11 era” we live in. First, I would like to discuss a little about how Americans are viewed by a certain groups who have come to despise the West. Second, I would like to explore a little about how we, as the United States, act and react on the world stage.

The United States draws strong reactions both home and abroad. People seem to love it or love to hate it. According to George Packer, “America is seen by much of the world as an empire without actual colonies, perhaps the most dominant since Rome. To Americans this view is bewildering…..They elect presidents who have barely traveled abroad, eliminate the U.S. Information Service and shut down cultural centers in foreign capitals, resent being the ‘world’s policeman,’ and pride themselves on their ignorance of other countries.”
But bewilderment or not, perception becomes reality and it is in response to this reality people act. There are many reasons that color different people’s varied views of the United States but for this discussion let’s focus just on the issue related to the 9-11 attacks.

Following the attacks there was speculation as to the motives of the attackers. Some argued they represented the poor and exploited from the Third World. Yet, many or most of the attackers were well educated and from middle class families. This argument also failed to explain why individuals or groups from far more impoverished areas such as Africa have never lashed out at any of the Western countries responsible for exploitation. Then there were those who argued this is a result of policies by the United States. U.S. policy in the Middle East has certainly been the subject of controversy since World War II but so has the policies of other Western nations as well as the former Soviet Union. And there have been nations which have received far worse treatment from the United States than those in the Middle East such as Vietnam from the 1950’s to the 1970’s or, closer to home, Mexico for two centuries. Yet, neither of these countries or others has seen fit to attack and kill innocent Americans on such a scale.

Anti-Americanism, of course, is sometimes the result of specific American policies, American actions or perceptions of American policies and actions whether true or not. However, it is also important to understand that anti-Americanism frequently is also a stand-in for the West in general and particularly as a reaction against the Enlightenment. It is this latter dehumanizing picture of the West which Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit call “Occidentalism” in their book, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies. They quote a Taliban fighter who said the Americans would never win because “they love Pepsi-Cola, but we love death.” Americans and liberal democracies in general, are seen as weak, soft, and addicted to pleasure. This is a view not only prevalent among certain segments of the Muslim world but could also have been said by Germans or Japanese during World War II and the decade which preceded it. In fact, Buruma and Margalit call this a cultural cross-contamination of bad ideas from Europe to the Middle East. What we face in Al Qaeda and like minded groups is a loose knit fascist ideology with roots in the religious fanaticism of an Egyptian organization founded in the 1920’s and modern fascist philosophy out of Europe in the aftermath of World War I.

Paul Berman explains in his book, Terror and Liberalism, that while Communism and Fascism were both totalitarian movements with many similarities in the twentieth century, there was at least one difference relevant for this discussion and that is there tended to be a uniformity among Communist groups around the world whereas fascists and fascist-like movements were very parochial and rooted in local traditions. Thus, for example, Spanish fascists idealized the Roman Catholic Church, in Italy it was the ancient Roman Empire, and in Germany it was the pure Aryan race. What they did share in common were apocalyptic visions of liberating certain people as the expense of others, mass movements obsessed with the purity of death, rule by a hierarchy of strong men, and a hatred for modern society and liberal democracy. The Middle East was not immune to this and developed two variations of fascist movements – one idealizing a Pan-Arabic unity, of which the Baath Party of Iraq represents on branch, and the other idealizing Pan-Islamic purity, which has given rise to Al Qaeda.
In 1924 Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, which replaced the Ottoman Empire, instituted a number of reforms to modernize Turkey including the abolition of the institution of the Caliphate thus separating religion from the State and declaring Turkey a secular state. By the twentieth century, the Caliphate was purely a ceremonial office without power but in the Middle Ages and before it was office of power and influence in the Muslim world.

In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt reeling in horror at Ataturk’s reforms. They wanted the Caliphate restored and not just as a ceremonial office. The power of the Muslim Brotherhood grew and when the nationalist Pan-Arabists, under the leadership of Gamal Nasser, overthrew the Egyptian king in the 1950’s there was an attempt at a coalition. However, the relationship went sour and the organization was banned after an attempt on Nasser’s life. The ban did not kill the organization but rather forced it underground in Egypt while many of its more public leaders went into exile in Saudi Arabia spreading their ideology through Saudi universities. Osama bin Laden was a student of one of the more prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders who then chaired the Department of Islamic Studies at a Saudi institution of higher learning.

The first video after 9-11 made available of bin Laden in which he bragged about America being filled with horror included the statement, “Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more that eighty years, of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated.” What was the event eighty years ago causing humiliation and disgrace? It was the creation of the modern secular state of Turkey and the abolition of the Caliphate. Thus, we have become the target of angry Islamists disgusted with the whole post Ottoman Arab order

In the world view of people who fear, and hate, the modern democratic world with its fluidity, openness, and assertion of individual freedom and equality we have come to represent the modern. American hypocrisy is only a minor concern. Their hatred of America is not over American failures to live up to its principles but its principles. In other words the opposition is because the United States is a liberal society, not because it fails to be a liberal society. And the most dangerous part of liberal society is the separation of church and state. To the fundamentalist Islamist the separation of church and state is like separating the head from the body. The West in general and the United States in particular support and encourage this modern concept and thus are seen as a threat.

Al Qaeda has gone on a rampage around the world not only against the United States but many symbols of Western life. In August 1998, the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are bombed killing over 300 and injuring at least 5000. On September 11, 2001, hijackers slam jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a fourth hijacked jet crashes in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000. On October 12, 2002, nearly 200 people are killed in bombings in a nightclub district of the Indonesian island of Bali. On May 12, 2003, four bombings kill 35 people in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In November 2003, on separate days, 27 are killed in bombings in Istanbul, Turkey at a London-based bank, the British consulate and two synagogues. On March 11, 2004, bombings on four commuter trains in Madrid, Spain kill 191 people. On July 7, 2005, bombings on three London subway trains and one bus kill over fifty people. A week later a similar attack is thwarted.

Al Qaeda got its start within the international volunteers’ movement fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It defined itself as a broad movement without ethnic identity – it was Islamist, not Arab. Al Qaeda received its inspiration for the September 11th attacks from a like minded group that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 killing six people. The World Trade Center had become a symbol of godless institutions of the world community.


Let’s now turn to the how the United States acts and reacts on the world stage.

I was born in 1951 and as a baby boomer for most of my life the foreign policy of the United States has been defined by and argued within the context of the Cold War. The United States and allies achieved a great success in the containment of the Soviet Union in Western Europe by the combined use of hard power – NATO – and soft power – the Marshall Plan, student exchange programs, support for labor organizing and other programs to build democratic institutions.

The Cold War success in Western Europe was as important as the victory over the Axis powers in 1945. If there was doubt in anyone’s mind about the importance of this success the erection of the Berlin Wall serves as reminder that it was built not to keep West Berliners out but to keep East Berliners in like the bars on a jail cell door.

However, the Cold War also had a corrupting influence on our thinking and judgments. For example, after WW II, instead of encouraging France to exit from Vietnam the possibility of a Communist government put us on the side of the French and, when they finally left in defeat, in place of the French. Following WW II, there were many liberation movements to expel the old colonial powers. These were movements we probably would have been supportive of but because the leadership of many of these movements were Communists we confused the two often ending up supporting oppressive governments to oppose liberation movements or those feared too closely associated with the Communists. Most liberation movements were suspected of being linked to Communist and all Communists around the world were seen as a monolith guided by the Soviet Union. The result was clumsy policies in the Third World which made enemies out of potential friends and many times putting us on the side of oppressive governments. In Vietnam the result was a disaster.

An example brings to mind that other September 11th – September 11, 1973 when the armed forces of Chile overthrew the Allende government. What was suspected at the time, and later confirmed, was there was American support behind the scenes of the overthrow of this democratically elected government of Chile. General Augusto Pinochet seized power and during this reign over 3000 people disappeared. Operation Condor was a terror campaign conducted by the Chilean secret police against Chilean dissidents around the world and included a 1976 car bombing on the Embassy Row in Washington, DC killing the former Chilean ambassador to the United States during the Allende years and his American assistant. Until September 11, 2001, this was the most infamous act of international terrorism to take place in the United States.

The Cold War abroad represented the best and the worse of American judgments and action and set the stage for the post-Cold War period.

Before discussing contemporary foreign policy it is important to understand differences are not just between liberals and conservatives. In fact, there is no unified liberal or conservative vision in this post-9-11 era on how the United States should conduct itself beyond its borders. There are, at a minimum, at least four different schools of thought and there are probably more. The four I will mention I have borrowed from an essay by Laura Secor in the book, The Fight Is For Democracy, edited by George Packer. She breaks the different schools down into four categories: Liberal Internationalists, Neoconservatives, Realists, and Anti-Imperialists.

The Liberal Internationalists generally believe American foreign policy should be promoting democracy, human rights and social welfare. They believe the sheer extent of American power carries with it a universal obligation. If innocent people are victimized, particularly in cases of genocide, and the United States has the means to protect them, then there is no escaping the responsibility – military action is not only justified but a moral requirement. It is a break from the pacifism of the Vietnam era and the Third Worldism of the Cold War era. This school of thought represents the heirs of Woodrow Wilson and their vision is most often articulated in the pages of the New Republic magazine.

The Neoconservatives are also idealistic and use much of the same rhetoric as the Liberal Internationalists. However, there is a fundamental difference. While the Liberal Internationalists believe the United States should use its power to promote what is good for the rest of the world, the Neoconservatives believe promoting American power is what is good for the rest of the world. Also, the Liberal Internationalists are more inclined towards multilateral efforts whereas Neoconservatives not only are willing to go it alone but almost prefer it because working with allies often means compromising. In fact, the trend in the last few years, promoted by Neoconservatives, has been to disengage from international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Court. The views of this school of thought are most often articulated in the Weekly Standard magazine.

The Realists believe the United States should only do what is in its interest. They do not believe in values, only interests. There are no friends, only temporary allies. Thus support for Saddam Hussein during the war with Iran, which he started, then turning around and going to war against Saddam Hussein three years later when he invades Kuwait, then leaving him in power when he is defeated in that war, then encouraging the Iraqi people to rise up against him, and then doing absolutely nothing to support the Iraqi people when he crushes this rebellion is no contradiction to the Realists but simple adjustments to policy made to maintain the balance of power which is perceived to be in American interests. This school of thought was dominant in the foreign affairs departments of American universities for many years as well as among our professional diplomatic corps.

Finally, there are the Anti-Imperialists. These are people mostly identified with a segment of the anti-war Left but not entirely. Certainly Patrick Buchanan and his magazine, The American Conservative, representing old fashioned right-wing isolationism also are very much part of this camp. Anti-Imperialists believe borders are sovereign and the United States has no business going to war anywhere unless it is directly attacked. Even then there is reluctance. I remember hearing people in this camp argue against the war in Afghanistan even though it was clearly a war of self-defense. “Swatting at flies with a sledge hammer” was the phrase I heard a number of times. They view national sovereignty as a bulwark against American hegemony and view humanitarian justifications for wars as fig leaves covering up ulterior motives of imperialism. Despite much of the idealistic language this camp uses about peace there is a side which can be as cold-blooded and cynical as the Realists and, surprisingly for a position more often than not associated with the Left, a defense of the status quo. To avoid war at any cost means turning a blind eye to oppressive regimes and the abuse of human rights. Don’t look to them to support General Wesley Clark’s recent call for NATO troops to intervene in Dafur to stop the genocide there.

These different schools of thought do conflict on the issue of the use of force. This raises the question: When is war just, if ever?

According to Michael Walzer in his book, Arguing About War, there are two elements to just war theory: “that war is sometimes justifiable and that the conduct of war is always subject to moral criticism.” The first is opposed by pacifists who argue no war is ever justified. The second is opposed by realists who argue anything goes in war. This puts just war theorists in opposition to both pacifists and realists.

Walzer argues there should now be a third element that there should be justice after the war. With the rise of failed states and re-emergence in some parts of the world of feudalism ruled by warlords or charismatic leaders, there comes an obligation to think of nation building as a necessary part of postwar politics. This is an issue to think about in regards to our current situation in Iraq.

The justification for war to stop genocide is perhaps an easy call. War to defend democracy is also easy to call to make but what about the promotion of democracy? I do not recall that we have ever gone to war exclusively to promote democracy but it often becomes a secondary cause when engaged in a conflict for other reasons such as Afghanistan. The argument then often heard in opposition is that this or that country or culture is incapable of democracy.

But we have to ask ourselves: Are Western freedoms only for Westerners? According to Paul Berman, it was argued in the nineteenth century liberal democracy was derived from Anglo-Saxon culture and for racial reasons would never go beyond the Anglo-Saxon world. There were always arguments as to how some fault line prohibited democracy. It was argued that democracy was a North European and Protestant and could not be transferred outside that zone. Indeed, until the 1970’s the notion of Catholic countries like Spain and Portugal embracing democracy seemed ridiculous but they did as did the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe a generation later. It was argued democracy was only doable in white societies yet Nelson Mandela became a world symbol for the creation of a liberal democracy in South Africa. It was argued democracy depends on Christianity yet the Hindus and Muslims of India live in the largest democratic state in the world. The same argument was made about East Asians but by 1989 South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines were all moving in democratic directions. The same argument has been made about the Muslim world but Turkey already started its democratic journey almost a century ago and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country as well as Arab countries such as Morocco and Bahrain have been making democratic soundings.
The same argument is heard about impoverished and backward countries but following the fleeing of the Taliban, Afghanistan started on the road to recovery with the selection of a Hamid Karzai, a man with democratic aspirations for his country. The year after the initial hostilities, the United Nations estimated 3 million children, many of them girls, enrolled in school for the first time. The year after, nearly 2 million Afghan refugees returned to their country who had fled the chaos of Soviet occupation and Taliban rule. The invasion had increased the population of Afghanistan by nearly 10 percent.

So what about American foreign policy up to and following 9-11?

During the 1990’s the United States was involved in two wars in the Balkans in efforts to stop widespread genocide and other violations of human rights.
In 1992, many Western nations recognized the independence of Bosnia, a mostly Muslim country with a Serbian minority, breaking out of the disintegrating Yugoslavia federation. The dominant country within Yugoslavia, Serbia, attacked. Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia, was assaulted by Serbian snipers who eventually killed thousands of helpless civilians including children. The Serbs began the systematic roundup of Muslim boys and men, executing many and placing the others in concentration camps. Rape was used as a weapon against Muslim women and girls.

The United Nations responded by imposing an arms embargo on both sides even though the Serbs were already well armed and the Bosnian Muslims were not. The U.N. also sent peacekeepers to Bosnia to establish safe havens for Muslims fleeing the Serb violence. In one safe haven, Srebrenica, the Serb forces marched in past the outgunned U.N. peacekeepers. They then systematically selected 8000 Muslim boys and men between the ages of 12 and 60 and slaughtered them all – the worse mass murder since World War II. By the time the conflict had ended, over 200,000 Muslims had been murdered, over 20,000 were missing, and over 2,000,000 had become refugees. This is what happened to Muslims in the heart of Europe just a decade ago.

The West, led by the United States, eventually did rally and halted the Serbian aggression in Bosnia and again later in Kosovo. However, Muslims must wonder if the West would have acted faster had the victims been Christians.
When the United States was attacked on September 11th by the forces of Al Qada who were protected by the Taliban government of Afghanistan, we had no choice but to defend ourselves by going after the Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. This “war against terrorism” was clearly defined and necessary.

There was an out pouring of solidarity with the American people. “We Are All Americans” read the headline in Le Monde. Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO –invoked Article V of its charter for the first time asserting that an attack on one nation was an attack on all. It was NATO that invaded, fought and remains in Afghanistan to this day. As noted above, it is one of the few wars, if the only one, in which the result of conflict actually increased the population of the country.

Finally, we are facing a tough situation in Iraq today. American policy has whipsawed back and forth in the Gulf region of the Middle East. Iraq launched a war against the Islamic Republic of Iran and from the mid-1980’s onward had the support of the United States. For many, this signaled not only a support for Iraq against Iran but also for the brutality of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

With Iran somewhat neutralized after eight years of war and over one million dead, the United States then turned against Saddam Hussein when he launched a war against Kuwait. With a huge international coalition the Iraqi invasion was repelled but the Iraqi tyrant was deliberately left in place after his defeat. To make matters worse, the United States actually encouraged a rebellion against Saddam Hussein by the Shia Arabs in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq but the U.S. and allies did not follow-up to assist. As a result over 20,000 Kurds were killed and 30,000 to 60,000 Shia and Marsh Arabs there killed. In addition, hundreds of thousands had to flee the country.

The defeat though left the establishment of two large no-fly zones over the country and the imposition of trade sanctions supposedly softened by a food-for-oil program so the population would not bare the hardship aimed at the leadership. However, the no-fly zones meant we were in a non-stop low-level state of war with Iraq for over a decade as the shooting never really stopped and the food-for-oil program turned out to be corrupt with the people suffering anyway and the leadership profiting from the oil program.

Also, at the conclusion of the Gulf War it was discovered Iraq had a very advanced program for the development of weapons of mass destruction. As part of the peace agreement it was required that Iraqi facilities be available for outside inspection. There were for a number of years until the Iraqi government kicked the inspectors out of the country and would not let them continue their work.

You will recall the events of the past few years of how the war against terrorism was defined to include Iraq, our invasion, and the successful toppling of Saddam Hussein followed by a one-year occupation by the Coalition Provisional Authority which made one bad decision after another reflecting the type of management by our federal government we got a close view of in New Orleans following Katrina. It didn’t have to turn out this way but it has set the stage for the current state of affairs.

There are similarities to the current situation in Iraq and the Spanish-American War just a little over a century ago. That short war saw the expulsion of the Spanish from Cuba, the Philippines and other island colonies. That was a good thing because the Spanish were oppressive rulers. However, this good deed by the United States became compromised by what was done next. Guam and Puerto Rico were annexed. Cuba was not annexed but the United States meddled in Cuba affairs for years creating a deep-seated anti-Americanism tapped into by Castro following his overthrow of the government in 1959. The United States attempted to annex the Philippines but unleashed a nationalist backlash by the same people who had welcomed the U.S. expulsion of the Spanish. The insurgency lasted over a decade.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein was certainly a good thing because he was a terrible, terrible tyrant and his failed state contributed to the rise of disillusionment in the Middle East. However, without the proper and timely commitment of troops and resources by an administration trying to fight a war on the cheap we may have traded a failed state of one type for another.

The likelihood of civil war in Iraq is significant and we face tough decisions about American troops in Iraq. Are our troops making the situation worse or are they preventing the situation from getting any worse and the country sinking into a Lebanon type civil war which could last years?


Our world is complex and messy. Our country is not the center of the universe and many things happen over which we are not responsible or can control. We can do all the right things and the outcome may still go all wrong.

But given our place in the world, it is important that we take the responsibilities that come with power seriously and try to do the best we can. We are not an empire – we are a democracy. As a democracy it is not our place to rule the world but it is our responsibility to provide leadership. The United States has the capacity to employ our economic and military power towards good ends around the globe helping building liberal democratic institutions and supporting the well-being of all our fellow human beings. If we are committed to freedom and equality of opportunity at home we should not refrain from supporting it abroad.
This post is an edited version of a presentation given at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, Virginia on September 11, 2005.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Weekend Without Echoes

I will submit posts to you this weekend as part of a “Weekend Without Echoes.” The brainchild of F.T. Rea of Slantblog, twenty-eight Virginia bloggers (at last count) will attempt to break out the bloglsphere echo chamber. He wrote,
…. I do think that notion of a group of bloggers trying to go for a
brief spell without adding more noise to the echo chamber -- by writing original
material and not merely cutting and pasting and linking -- is something to
pursue. Some bloggers I know are already doing that, for the most part. At times
I have saluted some of them in my comments on their blogs.

Accordingly, I’d like to propose that bloggers who want to participate
in a little experiment, use the weekend of July 21-23 to show the rest of the
blogosphere that it can be done. It would be a weekend vacation from copying,
and piling on, and talking points ... a weekend without calling everyone with
whom one disagrees a “liberal,” or a “conservative,” as if those are dirty

You can find a list of the participants at this post on Slantblog or on Vivien Paige’s sidebar. Be sure to check them out this weekend.

For my part, I will be offering over the weekend an essay on America’s place in the world following September 11th, some observations and thoughts regarding a particular memorial in Richmond, and a reflection on my encounter with the Klu Klux Klan several years ago.

Stay tuned.

Morality and politics of the current war in the Middle East

Michael Walzer wrote an important piece about the morality and politics of what Israel is doing in the current war in the Middle East that appeared in the New Republic. He writes,
Israel is now at war with an enemy whose hostility is extreme,
explicit, unrestrained, and driven by an ideology of religious hatred. But this is an enemy that does not field an army; that has no institutional structure and no visible chain of command; that does not recognize the legal and moral principle of noncombatant immunity; and that does not, indeed, acknowledge any rules of engagement. How do you--how does anyone--fight an enemy like that? I cannot deal with the strategy and tactics of such a fight. How to strike effectively, how to avoid a dangerous escalation--those are important topics, but not mine. The question I want to address is about morality and politics.


The argument, in this case, is prudential as well as moral.
Reducing the quality of life in Gaza, where it is already low, is intended to
put pressure on whoever is politically responsible for the inhabitants of
Gaza--and then these responsible people, it is hoped, will take action against
the shadowy forces attacking Israel. The same logic has been applied in Lebanon,
where the forces are not so shadowy. But no one is responsible in either of
these cases, or, better, those people who might take responsibility long ago
chose not to. The leaders of the sovereign state of Lebanon insist that they
have no control over the southern part of their country--and, more amazingly, no
obligation to take control. Still, Palestinian civilians are not likely to hold
anyone responsible for their fate except the Israelis, and, while the Lebanese
will be more discriminating, Israel will still bear the larger burden of blame.
Hamas and Hezbollah feed on the suffering their own activity brings about, and
an Israeli response that increases the suffering only intensifies the

So, what can Israel do? It is an important principle of just
war theory that justice, though it rules out many ways of fighting, cannot rule
out fighting itself--since fighting is sometimes morally and politically
necessary. A military response to the capture of the three Israeli soldiers
wasn't, literally, necessary; in the past, Israel has negotiated instead of
fighting and then exchanged prisoners. But, since Hamas and Hezbollah describe
the captures as legitimate military operations--acts of war--they can hardly
claim that further acts of war, in response, are illegitimate. The further acts
have to be proportional, but Israel's goal is to prevent future raids, as well
as to rescue the soldiers, so proportionality must be measured not only against
what Hamas and Hezbollah have already done, but also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do.

The most important Israeli goal in both the north and the south is
to prevent rocket attacks on its civilian population, and, here, its response
clearly meets the requirements of necessity. The first purpose of any state is
to defend the lives of its citizens; no state can tolerate random rocket attacks
on its cities and towns. Some 700 rockets have been fired from northern Gaza
since the Israeli withdrawal a year ago--imagine the U.S. response if a similar
number were fired at Buffalo and Detroit from some Canadian no-man's-land. It
doesn't matter that, so far, the Gazan rockets have done minimal damage; the
intention every time one is fired is to hit a home or a school, and, sooner or
later, that intention will be realized. Israel has waited a long time for the
Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government to deal with the rocket fire
from Gaza and the rocket build-up on the Lebanese border. In the latter case, it
has also waited for the United Nations, which has a force in southern Lebanon
that is mandated to "restore international peace and security" but has
nonetheless watched the positioning of thousands of rockets and has done
nothing. A couple of years ago, the Security Council passed a resolution calling
for the disarming of Hezbollah; its troops, presumably, have noticed that this
didn't happen. Now Israel has rightly decided that it has no choice except to
take out the rockets itself. But, again, how can it do that?


There is no neat solution to their dilemma. When Palestinian
militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves
responsible--and no one else is--for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli
counterfire. But (the dialectical argument continues) Israeli soldiers are
required to aim as precisely as they can at the militants, to take risks in
order to do that, and to call off counterattacks that would kill large numbers
of civilians. That last requirement means that, sometimes, the Palestinian use
of civilian shields, though it is a cruel and immoral way of fighting, is also
an effective way of fighting. It works, because it is both morally right and
politically intelligent for the Israelis to minimize--and to be seen trying to
minimize--civilian casualties. Still, minimizing does not mean avoiding
entirely: Civilians will suffer so long as no one on the Palestinian side (or
the Lebanese side) takes action to stop rocket attacks. From that side, though
not from the Israeli side, what needs to be done could probably be done without
harm to civilians.

I was recently asked to sign a condemnation of the Israeli
operation in Gaza--a statement claiming that the rocket attacks and the military
raid that led to the capture of Gilad Shalit are simply the inevitable
consequences of the Israeli occupation: There "never will be peace or security
until the occupation ends." In the past, I am sure, some Palestinian attacks
were motivated by the experience of occupation. But that isn't true today. Hamas
is attacking after the Israelis departed Gaza and after the formation of a
government that is (or was until the attacks) committed to a large withdrawal
from the West Bank. Similarly, Hezbollah's attacks came after the Israeli
withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The aim of these militants is not to create a
Palestinian state alongside Israel; it is to destroy Israel. Admittedly, that is
a long-term aim that derives from a religious view of history. Secularists and
pragmatists have a lot of trouble acknowledging such a view, let alone
understanding it.

By contrast, the Israeli response has only a short-term aim: to
stop the attacks across its borders. Until that is achieved, no Israeli
government is going to move forward with another withdrawal. In fact, it is
probably true that the Hamas and Hezbollah attacks have made any future
unilateral withdrawals impossible. Israel needs a partner on the other side who
is, first of all, capable of maintaining security on the new border and who is,
second, actually willing to do that. I can't pretend that the Israeli military
operations now in progress are going to produce a partner like that. At best,
the army and air force will weaken the capacity of Hamas and Hezbollah to attack
Israel; they won't alter their resolve. It will probably take the international
community--the United States, Europe, the United Nations, some Arab states--to
bring the Lebanese army into the south of the country and make it an effective
force once it is there. And it will take a similar coalition to sponsor and
support a Palestinian government that is committed to two states with one
permanent and peaceful border and that is prepared to repress the religious
militants who oppose that commitment. Until there is an effective Lebanese army
and a Palestinian government that believes in co-existence, Israel is entitled
to act, within the dialectical limits, on its own behalf.

You may read the entire essay here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sarajevo 1914?

The lesson learned from the hapless Neville Chamberlain’s failed efforts to prevent the outbreak of war at Munich in 1938 seems to have been over-learned or not kept in perspective. We forget that Chamberlain was desperate not to repeat the horror of World War I. In the summer of 1914 the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo sparked a series of reactions that spiraled out of control and led to almost all of Europe being engulfed in war. In dealing with our enemies we must not forget Munich 1938 but we must never forget Sarajevo 1914 either.

Israel is entirely justified in defending itself. It is worth remembering that Israel, after withdrawing from Gaza recently has suffered repeated missile attacks over the past year from Hamas and, after having withdrawn from southern Lebanon a few years ago, has seen a Hezbollah buildup along the northern border despite a United Nations’ resolution to disarm Hezbollah and the inability or unwillingness of the Lebanese government to do anything about it. The across border attacks on military outposts and kidnapping of soldiers have been only the most recent provocations.

That said, wars have unintended consequences not the least of which much larger wars than either side initially anticipated. Is the situation in the Middle East about to spiral out of control into a much larger regional war? That may or may not happen but it is a distinct possibility. Will Israel’s actions force Lebanon join Palestine as a failed state? That is in no ones interest, particularly Israel’s. Is the lack of diplomatic leadership by the United States making these scenarios more likely?

President Bush's remarks the other day about the need for Syria to pull Hezbollah back is simply wrong. First, we don't want Syria involved in Lebanon and neither do the Lebanese. Second, even if they had this power over Hezbollah, it's not in their interest to have them pull back so we would be fools to depend upon them. The big player here is Iran and we are not talking to Iran. Presently the Bush administration is taking the go slow approach hoping to give Israel time to destroy Hezbollah. The problem with this approach is its passivity and weakness. We are not taking control of events – rather events are in control of us.

The United States has an important role to play and must do so. Whether you take the liberal internationalist view that we must act for humanitarian reasons or the realist view we must act for self-interest the bottom line is the same: the United States is a key player and must begin to take its responsibility seriously.

From today's online publications are some thoughts below on the matter by various writers.

This is from David Ignatius in the Washington Post today. You may read his entire column here:

Bush's slow-motion diplomacy is partly an effort to allow Israel time to destroy as much of Hezbollah's arsenal of missiles as it can. But what comes next? Israeli officials talk of accomplishing what the Lebanese government would do itself, if it had the power -- which is to break the power of the Shiite militia. That's a worthy goal -- Hezbollah has it coming -- but one that is almost certain to fail. Lebanon is as thankless a battlefield as Iraq, as the Israelis well remember. They were initially welcomed as liberators by the Shiites when they invaded in 1982 -- only to be pinned down by Hezbollah's resistance movement and forced to retreat. Only a compulsive gambler would think the odds are any better this time.

Rather than bringing positive change, military action in the Middle East tends to bring unanticipated consequences. In this case, one wild card is the Shiite population of Iraq -- America's crucial ally there. If the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah stretches to weeks and even months, how long will it be before the U.S. faces a Shiite insurgency in Iraq, which would almost certainly spell a decisive American defeat there? And, ominously, CIA and FBI officials are said to be hearing increased "chatter’ about new terrorist attacks in America.

When international crises arise, analysts often cite the tragic chain of events that produced World War II -- Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement that emboldened the Nazis and led to the slaughter of tens of millions. The 1938 Munich lesson of the necessity for action is indelible. But it's also worth considering the lesson of August 1914, in which the world slipped toward a senseless war that could have been avoided had statesmen escaped the lockstep chain of action and response.

Are we living through a Sarajevo moment, like the concatenation of events that marched Europe toward World War I? Impossible to know. But given the risks for the United States and its allies, this ought to be a week when Americans are aggressive, active diplomats, rather than bystanders. If America means to be a world leader, it cannot appear to be a prisoner of events.

This is from Thomas Barnett’s weblog. You read the entire article here:

Our tie-down in Iraq is real, and everyone in the region knows it, so if we're not willing to engage the larger regional security agenda (and that's the signal we send with this myopic focus on WMD that's perverted our foreign and security policies almost like abortion has perverted our foreign aid agenda), then we give off the vibe that our diplomacy is fake, largely designed to buy time and consensus for ultimate military action. And guess what? The pigeons in question aren't going to wait around for that plan to unfold on Bush's watch, so they socialize their problem quite effectively through Hamas and Hezbollah.

As the NYT article pointed, it gets tough to seek diplomatic solutions when your basic foreign policy strategy is that we don't talk directly to rogues, we just threaten them and let others speak on our behalf.

Right now our approach comes off as rather bassawkwards: we decide who's bad and we threaten them directly, then we sort of backtrack to having our key allies (basically the G-8 crowd plus China) try and work the diplomacy. But we're leading with the military threat as the big prod both to our enemies and our allies, and that puts both in the position of being reactive, so the dialogue stays rather stale when our focus is so heavy on just this notion of WMD prevention.

Russia and China, no surprise, are acting like they won't let us track this war back to Iran. That leaves Assad as the weak link, so our focus will likely turn there. But if it does, Iran's already won what it really wanted: to move this discussion off their WMD pursuit, pushing the conversation back in the direction of

When I wrote last year in Esquire that Iran can basically veto our peace efforts in Beirut and Baghdad and Jerusalem, this is exactly what I had in mind. We go myopic, they socialize the problem, and our only option is diplomacy to achieve the same ends that we earlier vowed never to accept, or we fight, which we can't really pull off right now.

Iran remains the key, but this Administration hasn't expressed any interest in trying to unlock that particular door, so this war is what gets lobbed over the transom instead, and now Israel is running America's Middle East policy--which is exactly where Tehran wants us.

This is from John Judis in the New Republic. You may read the entire analysis here:

In their communiqué on Sunday, the G-8 nations warned that Hamas and Hezbollah threatened to "plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict," and they also cautioned Israel "to exercise utmost restraint" in retaliating against attacks. The United States was a signatory to, rather than a subject of, the document; but when the final account of this crisis is written--perhaps years from now--the Bush administration is sure to figure as a factor. That's because over the last few decades most, if not all, Arab-Israeli crises have occurred when the United States has been either unable or unwilling to play an aggressive role as a mediator;
and most have only abated after the United States has finally thrown itself into the middle of them. This latest conflict, which has engulfed Gaza and Lebanon and could spread eastward, may not prove to be an exception to this rule.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The failure of diplomacy

The failure of diplomacy is one of the hallmarks of the Bush administration. It was a failure of diplomacy to convince most of our allies to join the U.S. in the fight in Iraq (in contrast to the NATO led effort in Afghanistan) and the failure of diplomacy to accomplish the necessary political work establishing a solid foundation for governance during the formal occupation under the Coalition Provisional Authority that leaves our armed forces bogged down in that country. Of course, diplomacy requires listening and understanding. Sidney Blumenthal has a piece in today’s Guardian regarding Bush diplomacy. He writes,

… on Iraq, Bush has returned to mouthing inane platitudes about
"victory". He promises to "defeat" the enemy while ignoring his generals'
admonition that a political solution is critical as Iraq descends into civil

What the president doesn't know and when he didn't know it remain
pertinent. In January 2003 Bush met three prominent Iraqi dissidents who, in
discussing scenarios of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, "talked about Sunnis and
Shi'ites. It became apparent to them that the president was unfamiliar with
these terms." Peter Galbraith, who was involved in Iraqi diplomacy as a Senate
aide for decades, carefully sources this anecdote in his new book, The End of
Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.

The Bush administration has been critical of efforts by the Clinton administration to negotiate with North Korea yet the North Koreans were not signaling belligerence with long range missile tests in the 1990’s as they were a few weeks ago. With our armed forces already overcommitted in Iraq the military threat we could have used as leverage has been compromised. As a result we are now placing our interests in the hands of China to try and talk sense to North Korea (as if our interests and China’s are the same). Contrary to all the tough guy talk this is very much a sign of weakness. According to Blumenthal,

Bush's policy toward North Korea is paralysed, reduced to kowtowing to
China in the forlorn hope that it would implore the hermit kingdom to forswear
developing nuclear weapons and firing test missiles. But the Chinese have
declared they will veto any US-initiated sanctions in the UN security council.

When Bush was president-elect, Bill Clinton's national security
team had a treaty with North Korea essentially wrapped up. The incoming
secretary of state, Colin Powell, was enthusiastic. As president, Bush cut off
diplomacy and humiliated Powell and the South Korean president, Kim Dae-Jung,
for seeking to continue the process associated with Clinton. In Bush's vacuum -
a series of empty threats - North Korea predictably reacted with outrageous
violations intended to capture US attention. The US negotiator, Charles "Jack"
Pritchard, was constantly subverted by the then undersecretary of state, John

After Pritchard quit in 2003, Bush sent a new negotiator to the
six-party talks in 2004 but prohibited him from meaningful negotiation. The
North Koreans responded with extreme gestures, and Bush has answered that he
will not speak to them directly. "By not talking with North Korea," Pritchard
wrote last month in the Washington Post, "we are failing to address missiles,
human rights, illegal activities, conventional forces, weapons of mass
destruction, terrorism and anything else that matters to the American people.
Isn't it about time we actually tried to solve the problem rather than let it
fester until we blow it up?"

The failure of diplomacy with Iran is the most tragic because there were some very real opportunities to develop a working relationship that were missed. (And a working relationship is not the same as approving of their government’s actions – just see our relationship with Russia as an example.) We have had common enemies with Iran – al Qaida, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein. There were overtures from Iran of possible assistance but they were ignored and Iran was named as part of an “Axis of Evil.” (See a previous post about one of those overtures here.) With our military tied down in Iraq the Iranian government is now flexing its muscles with a nuclear program and egging on Hizballah in its attacks on Israel.

This failure of diplomacy has resulted in failure to make our nation more secure.

Diplomacy is, if anything, talking to your enemies. Yet this administration is convinced talking to your enemies somehow legitimizes their ideas or status. Talking to your enemies is an acknowledgement of power they may hold but then again why would you want to talk to enemies if they didn’t hold power? Last week there was buzz that perhaps President Bush was coming around to seeing the positive side of actually trying to negotiate with other nations over differences. (I’m not convinced of any change.) Sidney Blumenthal wrote,

President Bush was against diplomacy before he was for it. But with the
collapse of US foreign policy from the Middle East to North Korea he has claimed
to have become a born-again realist. "And it's, kind of ... painful ... for some
to watch, because it takes a while to get people on the same page," he said at
his July 7 press conference, adding, in an astonished tone, "Not everybody
thinks the exact same way we think. Different words mean different things to
different people."

Well, he can say that again (and again). Read Blumenthal’s piece here.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Partition for Iraq?

I must admit I have mixed feelings about the partition of Iraq. Would Turkey tolerate an independent Kurdish state on its border? Would Saudi Arabia tolerate a Shiite state, quite possibly within Iran’s orbit, on its border? Would the Sunni center deteriorate even more than it has into another Afghanistan destabilizing countries on its borders in every direction?

I have not read Peter Galbraith’s new book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, yet. However, there was a short extract in yesterday’s London Sunday Times and I do find his argument very interesting. In a nutshell, he makes the case that Iraq was the creation of the British following WWI when they slapped together what had previously been three different domains under Ottoman rule. The history of the country is one of violence as the three communities have struggled against one another from the beginning. It is too much to expect the fragile and weak Iraqi government to hold the country together when the Coalition Provisional Authority, with the full power of the U.S. and British armies to back it up when it ruled the country briefly, failed to disarm militias or quell the separatist sentiments. Galbraith argues we should help arbitrate an amicable divorce.

He says,
The conventional wisdom holds that Iraq’s break-up would be
destabilising and should be avoided at all costs. Looking at Iraq’s dismal
history since Britain cobbled it together from three Ottoman provinces at the
end of the first world war, it should be apparent that it is the effort to hold
Iraq together that has been destabilising.

Pursuit of a coerced unity under Sunni-Arab domination — from the
first British-installed king to the end of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in
2003 — has led to endless violence, repression and genocide.

I do not believe it is possible in the long run to force people living in a geographically defined area to remain part of a state against their
will. Certainly Iraq’s Kurds will never reconcile themselves to being part of
Iraq. Under these circumstances I believe that a managed amicable divorce is in
the best interests of the peoples of Iraq and will hasten American and British


Even when America and Britain had full legal authority in Iraq in
2003 and 2004, they did nothing to arrest the break-up of the country.

In the south they allowed the Shi’ite clergy and religious parties
to take power and to build their Islamic states. While saying that Kurdistan
should rejoin Iraq, America did nothing to reduce any part of Kurdistan’s
autonomy. While outlawing armed forces that were not part of the Iraqi army, the coalition allowed militias to proliferate.

If the coalition could not prevent Iraq’s unravelling when it was
fully in charge of the country, it is illogical now to put all the emphasis on
building strong national institutions, such as a single Iraqi army and powerful
central government, when American influence is much diminished.


In sum: partition works as a political solution for Kurdistan, the
Shi’ite south and the Sunni Arab centre because it formalises what has already
taken place. By contrast, the American effort to build a unified state with a
non-sectarian, non-ethnic police and army has not produced that result nor made
much progress towards it.

There is one remaining problem. Partition is a way to get most
coalition forces out of Iraq quickly. It does not solve the problem of Baghdad,

Theoretically, the United States has the power to provide some
level of security in Baghdad. This would require many more troops and result in
many more casualties. And it might not work. It is hard to imagine that there is
any support for this role in America.

The alternative is to recognise that there is not much that America
is able and willing to do to stop the bloodshed in Baghdad. Once they get
started, modern civil wars develop a momentum of their own. In Baghdad and other mixed Sunni-Shi’ite areas, America cannot contribute to the solution because there is no solution, at least not in the foreseeable future.
It is a tragedy and it is unsatisfying to admit that there is little that can be done
about it. But it is so. No purpose is served by a prolonged American presence
anywhere in Arab Iraq.

I still have mixed feelings and do want to read the book. If nothing else this idea at least is a creative alternative to the present policy of just muddling along.

You may read the London Sunday Times piece here, a short New York Times Magazine interview here and a review of the book by Christopher Hitchens here.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The White House power grab is at our nation's expense

It is no coincidence that as the executive branch exerts more power the nation becomes weaker politically both at home and abroad. Our system of checks and balances has become something of a joke. Internationally, instead of being a leader like we were for the half century since WWII, we have become a country to be avoided and ignored.

There is a very good editorial in today’s New York Times entitled “The Real Agenda” on how we have arrived at this sad and weakened state of affairs. It says,
It is only now, nearly five years after Sept. 11, that the full picture
of the Bush administration’s response to the terror attacks is becoming clear.
Much of it, we can see now, had far less to do with fighting Osama bin Laden
than with expanding presidential power. Over and over again, the same
pattern emerges: Given a choice between following the rules or carving out some
unprecedented executive power, the White House always shrugged off the legal
constraints. Even when the only challenge was to get required approval from an
ever-cooperative Congress, the president and his staff preferred to go it alone.
While no one questions the determination of the White House to fight terrorism,
the methods this administration has used to do it have been shaped by another,
perverse determination: never to consult, never to ask and always to fight
against any constraint on the executive branch.

One result has been a frayed democratic fabric in a country founded
on a constitutional system of checks and balances. Another has been a less
effective war on terror.


….the horror of 9/11 became an excuse to take up this
cause behind the shield of Americans’ deep insecurity. The results have been
devastating. Americans’ civil liberties have been trampled. The nation’s image
as a champion of human rights has been gravely harmed. Prisoners have been
abused, tortured and even killed at the prisons we know about, while other
prisons operate in secret. American agents “disappear” people, some entirely
innocent, and send them off to torture chambers in distant lands. Hundreds of
innocent men have been jailed at Guantánamo Bay without charges or rudimentary rights. And Congress has shirked its duty to correct this out of fear of being painted as pro-terrorist at election time.
You can read the entire editorial here.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

“Stabbed in the back”

Is it only a matter of time before “who lost Iraq” becomes an issue on which elections will turn? Given this administration’s lack of commitment to a winning strategy (see my previous post on that issue here) that seems a possibility. However, given the history of post-WWII politics in the U.S. that seems not only a possibility but a likelihood.

Kevin Baker has a very interesting article in the current issue of Harpers entitled “Stabbed In the Back.” He writes,

Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That is
why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some
momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.

As the United States staggers past the third anniversary of its
misadventure in Iraq, the dagger is already poised, the myth is already being

He traces the popularity of the stabbed-in-the-back myth to story of Siegfried who was assassinated by Hagen – a story popularized by Wagner in opera. Of course, the myth is much older with the story most Americans would be familiar with is the tale of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.

The word dolchstoss—“dagger thrust”—had been popularized almost fifty
years before in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. After swallowing a potion that causes him to reveal a shocking truth, the invincible Teutonic hero, Siegfried, is
fatally stabbed in the back by Hagen, son of the archvillain, Alberich.

Wagner had himself lifted his plot device from a medieval German
poem, which was inspired in turn by Old Norse folklore, and of course the same
story can be found in a slew of ancient mythologies, whether it’s the fate of
the Greek heroes Achilles and Hercules or the story of Jesus and Judas. The hero
cannot be defeated by fair means or outside forces but only by someone close to
him, resorting to treachery.

The Siegfried legend in particular, though, has nuances that would
mesh perfectly with right-wing mythology in the twentieth century, both in
Germany and in the United States.
Baker then explains the importance of this myth in Germany following its defeat in WWI. The myth was an important factor in the rise of the Nazi party and its seizure and maintenance of power over two decades in the German state.

Baker then points to how the myth served the purposes of right-wing politicians in the United States following the end of WWII. “Betrayal at Yalta” became a rallying cry for post-war conservatives. Even President Bush shamelessly denounced his own country for Yalta in an effort to pander to Eastern Europe countries for support of the war in Iraq. The Yalta betrayal myth does overlook the fact that agreement was an important factor in the stabilization of the world following WWII – something that failed to happen following WWI.

The stabbed-in-the-back myth became standard fare during the Cold War. China, Korea, Vietnam, domestic dissent and more all gave rise to variations of the same theme. Political careers rose or fell based upon how leaders approached (or used) this myth.

In mid-2006, will this myth have much traction. Maybe, maybe not. Having failed to do the critical political work immediately following the collapse of the previous regime and having failed to put the military manpower on the ground to protect the population from criminals, insurgents and assorted terrorists, the situation is slowly deteriorating towards civil war. The administration’s grand strategy for Iraq is to just muddle along and hope empty rhetoric will somehow win the war. In the meantime, Iran is flexing its muscles and situation in Lebanon and Gaze is spinning out of control with the real possibility of an all out regional war. It may be only a matter of time before someone will point back to the period and ask, “Who lost ______?” (You fill in the blank.)

The problem is the public has been kept at arms-length from the war in Iraq. The leadership of the nation asks nothing in the way of sacrifice. Quite the contrary, the administration pushes through tax cuts in a time of war and urges the public to go shopping. If the public feels no connection with what is going on with its troops then the myth will hold little resonance. Baker explains,
What has really robbed the conspiracy theories of their effectiveness
is how the war in Iraq has been conducted. Bush and his advisers have sought to
use the war not only to punish their enemies but also to reward their
supporters, a bit of political juggling that led them to demand nothing from the
American public as a whole. Those of us who are not actively fighting in Iraq,
or who do not have close friends and family members who are doing so, have not
been asked to sacrifice in any way. The richest among us have even been showered with tax cuts.

Yet in demanding so little, Bush has finally uncoupled the state
from its heroic status. It is not a coincidence that modern nationalism dates
from the advent of mass democracy—and mass citizen armies—that the American and French revolutions ushered in at the end of the eighteenth century. Bush’s
refusal to mobilize the nation for the war in Iraq has severed that immediate
identification with our army’s fortunes.

Anyone who doubts that this is exactly what we have done need only
look at how little the war really engages most of us. It rarely draws more than
a few seconds of coverage on the local television news, if that, and then only
well into the broadcast, after a story on a murder, or a fire, or the latest
weather predictions. Even the largest and angriest demonstrations against our
occupation of Iraq have not approached the mobilizations against the war in
Vietnam, but a close observer will notice that we also have yet to see any of
the massive counterdemonstrations that were held in support of that war—or “in
support of the troops.” Such engagement on either side seems almost quaint now.

Who could possibly believe in a plot to lose this war? No one cares
that much about it. We have, instead, reached a crossroads where the
overwhelming right-wing desire to dissolve much of the old social compact that
held together the modern nation-state is irreconcilably at odds with any attempt
to conduct such a grand, heroic experiment as implanting democracy in the Middle
East. Without mass participation, Iraq cannot be passed off as an heroic
endeavor, no matter how much Mr. Bush’s rhetoric tries to make it one, and
without a hero there can be no great betrayer, no skulking villain.

You can read his entire article here.