The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism
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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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April 30, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Colombia and Double Standards in the War on Terror

By now, it’s not exactly a secret that the U.S. government has no consistent commitment to its universalist bombast about fostering democracy or even fighting terrorism. One of my favorite examples is its cheap propagandistic embrace of the April 2005 elections in Lebanon followed by its support for the 2006 Israeli war – a war that, incidentally, wrecks the theory of the “democratic peace” so beloved of political scientists. You’ll all have your own – the consistent refusal to extradite Luis Posada Carriles to stand trial for killing 73 people in his attack on a Cuban airliner, the need to be dragged kicking and screaming by Ayatollah Sistani and the U.N. Security Council to agree to elections in Iraq (followed by making a virtue of necessity and loudly claiming credit for them), the support for a coup attempt in Venezuela; the list is not short.

But I’d like to suggest you seriously consider Colombia, where a storm has been brewing for the past month. It started in March, when an employee leaked a CIA document to the LA Times which concluded that the Colombian army, had been involved as recently as 2002 in joint operations with right-wing paramilitary groups, and that General Mario Montoya, the head of the army, was personally involved.

Since then, at least two dozen congressmen in Colombia have been tied to paramilitary groups and one lawmaker has alleged that President Alvaro Uribe himself was involved, and that in the late 1980’s death squads used to meet at his ranch. Uribe unsurprisingly denies this; as governor of Antioquia in the mid-1990’s, however, he created supposedly legal militias, the Convivirs, that have later been linked to illegal paramilitaries.

At first sight, these revelations are about as stunning as learning that Dick Cheney is a liar or that George Bush doesn’t understand what’s going on in Iraq. Not only have connections between the Colombian government and the so-called United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC is the Spanish acronym) been known for a long time, the creation of right-wing paramilitaries is a standard tool in counterinsurgency.

In the context of Bush’s “war on terror,” however, it takes on a whole new meaning. Not counting Iraq and Afghanistan, Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt. The AUC is one of the few right-wing groups on the State Department list of terrorist organizations. We all know that the United States supports terrorism in many places, including that carried out by parts of the Iraqi government; in this case, however, it has been supporting terrorism that it itself has proscribed.

When these CIA revelations came out, Sen. Patrick Leahy, one of the congressional leaders in the fight against Plan Colombia, placed a hold on the next tranche of $55 million in aid. Uribe will be in Washington this week to argue, among other things, for a resumption of aid.

The Moonie Times, always worth a read for the sensible right-wing militarist viewpoint (as opposed to the crazy Fox News viewpoint), just published an impassioned editorial calling for support for Uribe. Since no one can deny the crimes of the AUC, the argument is the standard one – whatever he may have done in the past, Uribe has been reining in and decommissioning the paramilitaries.

This is partly true, although it’s worth noting that all but a handful have complete impunity. Still, someone should tell this to the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, which in the past 10 years has lost 178 out of 1300 people – a casualty ratio you’d expect to see in an army engaged in hot combat, not a group of pacifists who just want to be left alone by all parties to the war – which has suffered massacres during Uribe’s reign, and is right now under siege by AUC-type groups.

If Bush administration support of Colombia’s paramilitary-ridden government is not enough evidence of hypocrisy for you, consider this: Colombia’s attorney general Mario Iguaran is trying to get 8 Chiquita executives extradited to Colombia because of $1.7 million in payments made by Chiquita to the AUC, about half of that after the State Department declared it a terrorist organization. Chiquita claims it was extortion; Iguaran does not agree.

Iraqis applying for asylum to the United States have their applications automatically denied if they have paid ransom to insurgent or terrorist groups to save a family member, because they have “materially supported” terrorism – I couldn’t make that up if I tried. Any guesses on whether the same criterion will be applied to Chiquita executives?

Posted at 9:37 am

April 23, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- De-Iraqification

According to an article last week by Nancy Youssef of McClatchy, the U.S. military has quietly abandoned its focus on “training” the Iraqi army.

Anonymous Pentagon sources link the de-emphasizing of training to the November 2006 election results, which show that the American people don’t have the “patience” for the putatively slower results of training Iraqi forces.

Numerous quoted official spokesmen say, of course, that training remains a key component of the strategy, although immediate establishment of “security” using U.S. forces is the priority; still, there’s no doubt that this is a major strategic shift.

Ever since the war started, Vietnam comparisons have flown around thick as mosquitoes in unreconstructed New Orleans. One big difference is getting surprisingly short shrift: we are following the opposite strategy here. Far from emulating “Vietnamization,” we are “de-Iraqifying” the conflict. Instead of drawing down troops as Nixon did, we’re increasing the number.

And, frankly, for those who still imagine there is a possibility of “winning” the war, this course makes sense. The Baker-Hamilton report’s key recommendation, so heralded by mainstream pundits, of drawing down American troops and switching over those remaining to “training” and “advising” the Iraqi Army didn’t make sense; the training was not working and would not suddenly have started working if the United States dramatically reduced its leverage.

I suppose the administration and the Pentagon deserve some credit for recognizing this fact; unfortunately, almost nobody seems to have understood why the training failed. If they did, perhaps they would realize that a strategy based solely on U.S. troops is even less likely to succeed.

Said Paul Hughes of the U.S. Institute for Peace on the reason the training failed: “In our initial efforts to hand security missions over to Iraqi forces, we took the training wheels off too early - and the bike fell over.” In addition to being positively Rumsfeldian in its casual contempt for Iraqis, the statement is emblematic of the continuing blindness of our entire mandarin class, even as all the information is out in the open for them to see.

The problem with the Iraqi Army’s performance was not a lack of training; it wasn’t because they were unversed in sophisticated combined-arms combat techniques that the U.S. military excels in – after all, Saddam’s forces were too and they kept order in Iraq. And it wasn’t because of inadequate human rights training, any more than the Haditha massacre was because Marines were inadequately informed on the idea that killing unarmed women and children in their beds is wrong or that the Abu Ghraib scandal occurred because of inadequate instruction regarding forming human beings into naked pyramids and forcing them to masturbate.

The problem is not technical; it is political. And it is twofold. The first is that there is no such thing as an Iraqi government and hardly any such thing as an Iraqi nation. People have loyalty to themselves, their families, their clans, possibly to their sect or ethnic group, and possibly to one of the political groupings with clout – SCIRI, Sadr, the Kurdish parties, the Sunni insurgency, a handful of smaller groups – but not to the government, an abstract and nebulous entity not based on any clear principles.

Even government bureaucrats, normally among the best candidates for loyalty to the government, don’t show it in Iraq; almost to a person, they do some combination of padding their own nests outrageously and working for the aggrandizement of their party.

So the talk about Shi’a militias “infiltrating” the Iraqi Army is nonsense; not only is it men from the militias who formed a large chunk of the recruits, even those who were initially neutral would eventually come under the sway of one political group or another in the absence of any larger authority to give their allegiance to.

The second problem, related to the first, is that nobody is on the Americans’ side. The Kurds are for instrumental reasons only; the others are not even that. Neither the elements of the government nor the elements of the army share the goals of the Americans; training them better would just make them better at opposing the Americans, either overtly or covertly.

The United States bears the responsibility for the total political fragmentation of Iraq. Unfortunately, even if it had the best intentions in the world, there is almost certainly nothing that it can do about that fragmentation now. Instead, it should limit itself to learning one of the key lessons from Vietnam: if your enterprise is hopelessly misbegotten politically, it cannot be saved by technical fixes.

POsted at 9:27 am

April 16, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Imus and the Politics of Racial Backlash

A few forlorn souls have called for the Don Imus affair to ignite a “national dialogue about race.” Personally, I would just as soon miss the kind of “national dialogue” in the 1990’s that gave us such profound insights as Toni Morrison’s statement that Bill Clinton was “the first black president;” and, as for a real dialogue about race, if the Katrina disaster couldn’t do that, this pathetic mess has no more chance of doing so than Anna Nicole Smith’s miserable death and life could about sexism. Or, indeed, than the casualness with which women can be called “hos” does.

In fact, I don’t think anything could, in part because we lack the language to communicate about it. Not to talk about it – the academic and activist left have their discourse about it and, much more important, the right wing and the audiences of “shock jocks” like Imus have theirs – but to communicate across barriers. The national consensus on race is paper-thin and hard to apply to actual cases of importance.

On the surface, this would seem an extremely pessimistic conclusion; after all, didn’t just about the whole country agree that Imus’s slurs on the Rutgers women’s basketball team were way over the line and, once Procter & Gamble and Staples showed us the way, that he deserved to be fired?

Actually, no. In fact, conventional wisdom about the incident placed special stress on the victims – hard-working young women who are concert pianists and future engineers and such and just finished a Cinderella season in basketball – and are probably bright, clean, and articulate to boot. It almost seems to suggest that such slurs about slightly less upstanding citizens might have been legitimate.

And, although the combination of corporate sponsors pulling ads and important employees at NBC and CBS registering their disapproval did get Imus fired, the majority of people think that was the wrong choice. In fact, the last time I checked, the Los Angeles Times and Doonesbury polls, to take some examples, show respondents evenly split on the question. This is true even though the polls are not based on random samples but instead on samples that skew very far to the left. Even the left of center population is split about Imus’s firing – although it is true that for many people confusions about freedom of speech and what it actually means play a part in that.

More important, even those who emphasized that “over the line” was the wrong way to look at it – like Barack Obama – didn’t really try to unpack the phrase. What is this line and what task is being served by continually dancing on its edge and occasionally deliberately going over but hoping to go over just far enough to increase one’s notoriety without getting sanctioned? Who are the millions who listen fervidly to these line-crossers and why do they do it?

A great deal of attention has been paid to the effects of talk like this on the aforementioned basketball players and on vulnerable youth and minorities – when CBS Corp. Chief Executive Les Moonves announced that Imus was being cancelled, in his statement, he said, “"There has been much discussion of the effect language like [Imus used last week] has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society.”

Important as that is, I’m frankly much more worried about the effect of dialogue like this on privileged middle-aged middle-class white men. And I’m much less worried about the overt racism of Imus’s remarks, either the one about “nappy-headed hos” or his characterization of Venus Williams as an animal and of Palestinians as “stinking animals,” among others, than I am about the seething white rage that is so palpable in the sudden indignation about black gangsta rappers and their violent, misogynistic lyrics or their use of words that begin with n – and which has nothing to do with actually being against racism, sexism, or the demeaning of the powerless.

Unfortunately, really doing something about these problems is going to take a different approach and a different analysis than the ones that are generally being put forth by civil rights advocates and others on the left. We still need a serious analysis of the politics and rhetoric of racial backlash so we can shift the focus from the individual perpetrators like Imus to society at large without simply repeating the “everyone’s a racist” line that gets us caricatured and creates resentment but little else.

Posted at 9:15 am

April 9, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Fourth Anniversary of the "Liberation"

Although the media in the United States generally focuses on the anniversary a few weeks past now, that of the invasion of Iraq, this week sees one that is equally portentous for Iraqis – April 9, 2007, the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saddam’s regime and the beginning of the occupation.

In the already outdated early hagiography of the war, April 9 was the anniversary of the country’s “liberation” – one of the first acts of Paul Bremer’s “Governing Council” was to abolish previous national political holidays, replacing them with April 9.

This particular “liberation” anniversary was accompanied by a couple of stories that tell of the occupation’s failures in a nutshell.

First, Moqtada al-Sadr called for protests on this day against the U.S. occupation.

The Guardian reports that hundreds of thousands marched from Kufa to Najaf, with the BBC quoting expectations (presumably by the organizers) that 1 million people would show. The New York Times, with its playful insouciance toward manifestations of popular will, whether here or there, reported the number as “tens of thousands.”

To understand the significance of this, it’s worth reminding oneself of who Sadr and his supporters are. While generally portrayed as violent anti-Sunni and anti-American extremists (the first charge is certainly true of many of them and the second is silly – being anti-American in Iraq is not extreme), Sadr and his supporters were also among the biggest victims of Saddam Hussein. Sadr’s great-uncle, great-aunt, father, and two elder brothers were murdered by Saddam’s regime. His followers, largely the poor, uneducated and downtrodden among Iraq’s Shi’a majority, were, along with the Kurds, Saddam’s biggest victims – especially in 1991, when Saddam put down their uprising with the aid of our current president’s sainted – or perhaps merely beatified -- father.

Nobody, except possibly the Kurds, should have felt happier about the removal of Saddam. Nobody should have been easier to win over to the Americans’ side if the slightest attention had ever been paid to ordinary Iraqis and their desires. Instead, nobody but the constantly brutalized residents of al-Anbar province in Western Iraq is a more implacable enemy of the United States.

On a lesser scale, but still symbolic is the subject of a story by Sudarsan Raghavan in the Washington Post. You likely have not heard of Khadim al-Jubouri, but you’ve almost certainly seen his face. He was the large, muscular man swinging his sledgehammer into the base of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdaus Square on April 9, 2003, in the clip that was aired and re-aired so interminably that it took iconic status second only to the clips of the World Trade Center coming down.

He is a Shi’a, who used to work out at one of Iraq’s few bodybuilding gyms not far from Firdaus Square and conceived a particular hatred of that statue; needless to say, he was very happy on that day. Now, he wishes Saddam was back.

In other news, preliminary results from the “surge” and the ongoing Baghdad “security operations” are in. In February 1100 people died in suicide car bombings; in March, almost 800. According to the statistics compiled monthly by the UN from various official Iraqi sources, 1806 civilians were killed in February and 2078 in March. Until the last few days, Shi’a militias had been laying low in order to avoid combat with U.S. forces, with the result that Shi’a areas were unable to defend themselves against Sunni extremist suicide bombers. Expect retaliations in the future by the Shi’a.

In yet other news, the increasingly irrelevant John McCain, roundly panned for his absurd claims that many parts of the capital are now safe, has apologized, saying he “misspoke.” Apparently, he meant to say, “Conditions in Iraq are so horrifically dangerous that when I visited the Shorja market, which had 61 people killed in a single suicide bombing in February when we were supposedly increasing ‘security,’ even though I was protected by a small army of 100 soldiers with 3 Blackhawk helicopters and 2 Apaches, I still needed to wear a bulletproof vest – oh, and by the way, there are reports that 21 people who worked there were assassinated afterwards, probably because of my pathetic and disgusting need for a photo-op,” but, due to a distressing speech impediment he has recently developed, it came out as, ''Things are better and there are encouraging signs.''

With the Democrats already sending signs that they will cave on the supplemental appropriations bill, expect a fifth anniversary very like the fourth.

Posted at 9:43 am

April 2, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Fight Over Iraq Appropriations, Part 2

Things may be shaping up for the first real fight over the Iraq war since the invasion itself and the biggest showdown between the legislative and executive branches since 1995, when the Republicans thought it would be nice to shut down the government on a lark – or the newfound resolve and unity of the Democratic Party may already be fizzling even before anything has actually happened.

Last week, the Senate followed the House’s lead, passing by a narrow 51-47 margin a supplemental appropriation bill (also, charmingly, with the words “Iraq Accountability Act” in the title – we really need to hold those Iraqis accountable) that puts sufficiently harsh conditions on the conduct of the war that President Bush cannot accept it.

Annoyingly, the bill’s language is rather different from that of the House. Whereas the House bill has troop withdrawals possibly starting as early as July 1 of this year and completing by the end of August 2008 (and does not mandate a full withdrawal, allowing for tens of thousands of troops to remain in a variety of combat roles), the Senate bill has troop withdrawals starting within 120 days of passage of the bill and a “goal” of completing them by the end of March 2008 (and similarly does not mandate a full withdrawal).

Both bills have the same logic of language watered down enough that the opportunistic pusillanimous wing of the Democratic Party – also known as the mainstream of the party – can agree to vote for it but still strong enough that Bush is forced to veto it.

Taken together, they are the opening step in a gambit that could lead to a real fight over supplemental appropriations, something the legislatively-inclined in the antiwar movement have been wanting to start for more than two years now.

What shape that fight could take even in principle is unclear. Obviously, the Democrats will not simply cut off the funding – indeed, it’s not likely many would want to even if they felt politically safe. When Bush vetoes whatever bill gets sent before him, the Democrats could simply pass the same bills again, but this is probably not in the cards. More likely, they would try to gain more minor concessions from the administration in exchange for passing the appropriations. Given Bush’s famous intransigence, those concessions might well be watered down to the point that they are merely notional.

It’s also entirely possible that, if there is a showdown, the Democrats will be unable to maintain their thin majorities – they have already had to placate wavering members with significant amounts of pork. Also, the Republicans in the Senate eliminated procedural obstacles to the bill’s passage in order to get it quickly vetoed and to get, in the words of Mitch McConnell, a “serious bill” on the table.

It’s equally possible that the Democrats will cave before there is a showdown. The first thing to watch for is the joint House-Senate resolution that emerges from the conference committee. Especially given the different language of the bills, the restrictions might be gutted right there. Nancy Pelosi has pledged to the House Out of Iraq Caucus that she won’t let that happen and it’s not likely that it will, but it is a possibility.

Or, more likely, after a veto, the Democrats will just pass a normal spending bill. The White House and Pentagon have blustered about the need for these funds by mid-April. This is a misrepresentation – the best guess is that there will be minimal impact even by the end of May – but it may allow Bush to scare the Democrats into a stampede away from their current position.

Particularly distressing in this regard is an AP report that Barack Obama’s position is that if Bush does veto the bill, “Congress quickly will provide the money without the withdrawal timeline the White House objects to because no lawmaker ‘wants to play chicken with our troops.’” If this accurately reflects Obama’s position, he is giving up the fight already – actually, it sounds more like Lieberman than Obama.

Given, on the one hand, the potential for a serious fight (even though it will be one that Bush will largely win in the end) and on the other for the Democrats’ caving without a fight, a serious attempt by antiwar activists to pressure their representatives – especially those Democrats newly elected in conservative districts – could potentially make a difference, especially if phones were ringing off the hook the way they did before the 2002 vote on authorizing the war.

Posted at 10:34 am
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