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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December 29, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- War on Gaza

The ongoing destruction of Gaza is reaching a fiery denouement. In the past few days, over 100 Israeli aircraft have carried out repeated strikes on a wide array of targets, killing over 300 and wounding over 1300. The vast majority of targets are police who work for Hamas; although at least 50 and perhaps up to 100 of the fatalities are civilian non-police, including at least 22 children under the age of 16. Among the “military targets” deliberately hit are a police cadet graduation ceremony, the Islamic University in Gaza, and Hamas’s television station.

Tanks and armor are being massed at the border, along with thousands of ground troops, and the reserves are being called up, as Israel telegraphs the possibility of a full-scale invasion.

In the days leading up to the attacks, the two leading candidates for prime minister, Tzipi Livni and Binyamin Netanyahu, both promised to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza.-

This war is the culmination of a campaign inaugurated in January 2006 with Hamas’s victory in legislative elections. Early on, Israel got the cooperation of the United States and European Union, and the partial cooperation of most Arab nations, to isolate and undermine the Hamas government. Aid was cut, financial flows were squeezed, blockades were imposed; the idea was simultaneously to undercut Hamas’s ability to govern, to undermine the potential nascent structures of Palestinian self-administration, and to convince the population that Hamas was responsible for the new misery that would be imposed on it. Numerous attempts by Hamas leaders like Ismail Haniyeh to create a basis for moves toward reconciliation could be dealt with easily by ignoring them; for the most part, the world went along.

Next, Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah were cultivated; the United States has managed to turn Fatah, the original incubator and catalyst of Palestinian resistance to the occupation, into essentially a U.S.-backed militia. Now, some Fatah officials do not trouble to hide their anticipation that Israeli aggression will win them the fruits of consolidated rule over the territories.

In June 2007, Hamas and Fatah went to war, with Fatah taking over the West Bank and Hamas establishing rule in Gaza; that September, Israel declared Gaza an “enemy entity.”

Since the split, Gaza has been under blockade more often than not. The blockade impacts imports of food, fuel, medical supplies, and other necessities of life, and, especially since February, has included regular Israeli-caused power outages. In March 2008, a report by Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Care International UK characterized conditions in Gaza as the worst they have been in the over 40 years of occupation since the 1967 war. The 2002 Bertini report, issued at the height of an earlier blockade, found that one in five children in Gaza were malnourished; one hesitates to speculate what the numbers are now. 80% of families in Gaza are now directly dependent on humanitarian aid for their daily survival.

The official story is that the blockade, the frequent airstrikes, the occasional tank incursions, and other incidental violence perpetrated by Israel on the people of Gaza are all simply directed toward forcing Hamas to stop the barrage of Qassam rockets that it and other militant groups regularly launch at southern Israel. Those rocket attacks have indeed killed some people and totally altered life in Sderot.

The Qassam rockets, and the occasional Katyusha, are hopelessly inaccurate; thus, apparently, they are by definition terrorist. 17 Israeli civilians have died in the past seven years by rockets fired from Gaza. Israel always claims to be attacking military targets; thus, the far greater number of civilians they have killed in these past few days alone are simply “collateral damage.”

Never mind that the Israelis openly advocate regime change in Gaza, completely belying the story that security is the only consideration; never mind that the blockade targets all 1.5 million people of Gaza (perhaps only dead Gazans are civilians?). Never mind that Israeli police would be “civilian targets.”

At least, according to news reports, the Israeli government has learned from the fruitless Lebanon war of 2006; unfortunately, what it has learned is that one needs better intelligence and more comprehensive targeting. Otherwise, the strategy is the same; bombard the people until they decide that they like you better than the people who are fighting against your bombs.

One must pity the Palestinian people, caught between a cruel Israeli policy, the completely unprincipled collaborationists of Fatah, and a Hamas leadership that is cut off from reality, over its head in international politics, and stuck in a hopeless and nihilistic “strategy” that actually makes the Israelis look like grand masters by comparison.

Posted at 10:23 am.

December 22, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Free Muntader al-Zaidi

When Fareed Zakaria says something, you can be assured that it is either conventional wisdom already or about to become so. Indeed, he has a book currently in stores, The Post-American World, that is full of such deep insights as “China and India are rising, and we will need to deal with them, but without going to war,” and “We should work together with Europe.” He defers to no man in the relentless pursuit of banality.

Such talents were on full display in a recent CNN interview. When asked if the “shoe-throwing incident shows that Iraq is becoming an open society,” he replied, “Yes, and President Bush was right that it represents a huge advance in freedom in the Middle East. There is quite simply no other Arab country in which that scene could have taken place.”

Although there is acknowledgment that the shoe-throwing and, more important, the reaction to it in the Arab world reflect a genuine anger at what the United States has done, sadly, the dominant strain in the U.S. media and among politicians is precisely this, that somehow this episode shows how much the United States has accomplished in Iraq.

To most people living in relative middle-class comfort and relative freedom in this country, I suppose, this has some plausibility. In an authoritarian or totalitarian society, who would dare to make such a public statement of their views?

And yet, this only goes to show how blinkered most Americans’ view of the world is; it speaks not only of the evil of banality but of the wrongness of conventional wisdom, especially when applied to things we are not equipped to understand.

Virtually no society in history, not even Nazi Germany, has lacked people with the courage to stand up to tyranny. And, yes, Saddam Hussein saw many nonviolent, symbolic protests during his reign, especially among Shi’a in 1980 after his security forces killed Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his sister, and in 1995, in Anbar province, after his security forces killed Major General Muhammed Madhlum al-Dulaimy.

Indeed, police states often harbor much livelier political dissent and opposition than liberal democracies. In truth, the freeness and openness of societies is judged not by the presence of protest but by how those protesters are treated.

On that score, the brave new world order and Iraqi government that George Bush has created do not fare so well – admittedly better than Saddam, but, sadly, there are many indices on which the occupation has fared worse.

After making his protest, Muntader al-Zaidi was seen being beaten savagely by Nouri al-Maliki’s security detail, and, so it is claimed, his arm was broken. His brother Udai recently met with him and has relayed to the world a story of torture, of the kind that George Bush has made all too familiar in recent years. According to this report, Zaidi had cold water poured on him, was beaten with a cable and burned with a cigarette. One of his teeth was knocked out.

And, claims Zaidi, his torturers repeatedly waved in front of him a confession already written that “admitted” that a terrorist persuaded him to throw the shoes. When he broke down and indicated he would sign, though, they took the paper away; I suppose even the dimwitted thugs in charge of his interrogation understand that a trial, if he does get one, will attract a lot of attention and an obviously coerced confession would be unhelpful.

Best of all, and a true indication of the “freedom” enjoyed by Iraqis, Zaidi stands to receive a sentence of up to seven years, if tried under a Baathist-era law that forbids insults to visiting heads of state. If Bush intends to travel after he leaves the White House, I suggest that other countries look into passing such a law as well.

Zaidi’s detention and treatment have already aroused much controversy in the Iraqi parliament, where he has many champions. The Turkish manufacturer that made the shoes he threw at the president has had so many new orders it hired 100 people. Around the world, there have been spontaneous expressions of sympathy and admiration.

But maybe we can do more. This matter is in the hands of the Iraqi government, but there is no reason we can’t agitate for Zaidi’s freedom as well. His act was not a protected form of speech or even a nonviolent protest, but he was overcome by sudden and very understandable passion and his act was harmless.

We couldn’t save Iraq; maybe we can save this Iraqi.

Posted at 10:41 am.

December 15, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Iraqi Ingratitude: How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth

George Bush’s attempts to strike the right valedictory note and secure his legacy by helping people to forget exactly what it is were marred recently when a young Iraqi journalist, maddened by the proximity of the man who destroyed his country, threw a shoe at the still-president of the United States and called him a dog, then threw the other shoe, saying it was from the widows, orphans, and martyrs of Iraq.

As might be expected in the gloriously democratic Iraq that Bush has built, the journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi, was hustled away by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security detail and beaten until, in the words of another Arab journalist, he “was crying like a woman.” In a sign of the gloriously democratic world order recently ushered in, we are probably all wondering whether Zaidi will be removed to some dank hole in the earth to rot for the foreseeable future.

This incident is probably the closest that Mr. Bush will ever come to accountability for his crimes. At the very least, it has probably revived his puzzlement over the vexing question of why the Iraqis are not more grateful.

This is a question that has bothered Bush for years, and his desire to get the Iraqis to show some gratitude has been as strong a driving force as anything else in his decisionmaking. Before the so-called “transfer of sovereignty” in June 2004, Bush told L. Paul Bremer, his viceroy in Baghdad, that the leader of the new Iraq should be "someone who's willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq." He picked Ghazi al-Yawer, an obscure businessman and tribal leader, to be the first president of the supposedly newly sovereign Iraq, on the basis of his “open thanks to the Coalition.”

Iraqi ingratitude has also been an obsession of the right wing and its pseudo-intelligentsia, but more importantly, it is simply an item of conventional wisdom in the political mainstream. When retired General Barry McCaffrey wrote in a 2006 report on the Iraq situation, “U.S. public opinion may become increasingly alienated by Iraqi ingratitude for our sacrifice on their behalf,” he didn’t even see the point as debatable.

Democratic politicians and liberal intellectuals generally don’t phrase their conceptions in terms of ingratitude, but it can be hard to tell the difference. The standard juxtaposition is the “amazing, unbelievable, brilliant, courageous” performance of our troops, who constantly meet and exceed the highest expectations, with the Iraqis who have “refused to step up,” have remained mired in parochial concerns, have spent too much time killing each other, and who, in general, supposedly should shoulder the burden for rebuilding the country destroyed by our intervention.

Another indication: we are starting to see once more the claim that at least Iraqis are better off than they were under Saddam, an idea that was very prevalent in the United States during the first two years or so, then went underground as Iraq hit its nadir of violence, but has resurfaced with the surge and the deeply important question of Bush’s legacy.

Virtually nobody tries to challenge this ludicrous idea, perhaps in part because Americans are just not equipped to employ the minimal empathy required to evaluate this claim.

It reminds me of the one I heard long ago from a radio host interviewing me, who suggested that, badly off as the Palestinians were, they were far better off than the population of other Arab nations. Although, of course, Palestinians have the nominal right to denounce the Israeli Prime Minister, something not always true for heads of state in Arab countries, to think that this is more important than ongoing theft of property, mass detentions, house demolitions, house raids, and checkpoints, let alone frequent aerial bombing and blockades requires an almost complete detachment from the idea of evaluating Palestinians’ lives as if they were the lives of human beings like yourself.

Recently, I was telling someone about Iraqi hatred of the American troops in 2004, and she could not understand why, because “they were just doing their job.” I suppose that understanding or even imagining how it feels to be treated like a subject population in your own country is just too much for most Americans.

And to understand that more Iraqis have died by violence in the five years of occupation than in any other such period in Iraqi history, to understand that they had a society that functioned to some degree (in fact, under heavy constraints, during the sanctions, Saddam’s government implemented a massive food-distribution program that was the only thing that staved off mass starvation), that individuals, despite voting, have had less freedom even than under a totalitarian dictator, and to understand that almost every institution in their country was destroyed – well, that will only happen if we start talking about it.

Posted at 10:51 am.

December 8, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Who Were the Victims in the Iraq War?

In an otherwise insightful op-ed lamenting the fact that David Halberstam’s ironic phrase “the best and the brightest,” used by him to describe the self-conception of the master of the universe who planned the Vietnam War, is now being used without irony by commentators describing Barack Obama’s evolving cabinet, Frank Rich quotes Halberstam’s conclusion that Vietnam was America’s “worst tragedy since the Civil War.”

Indeed, for 30 years at least, that has been the dominant – practically the only – American perception of the war. Popular representations generally focus on the angst of the veteran, whether they are execrable films like Rambo: First Blood, Part 2, where an anguished Sylvester Stallone pleads that if he is sent back, he be “allowed to win” this time or mediocre sentimental films like First Blood. In The Deerhunter and Apocalypse Now, Vietnam and the Vietnamese are corrupting influences sowing moral contagion in the hearts of good American boys; Good Morning, Vietnam performs the neat trick of making an American DJ the victim of the war.

In 1994, when the trade embargo with Vietnam was finally lifted, the debate was all over whether we should really forgive the Vietnamese for what they had done to us.

Indeed, if a Martian came to earth and had to analyze the war simply by examining American representations, he could not be blamed for concluding that America was victimized by Vietnamese aggression, ripped apart, with its social fabric rent, its families wrecked, its fields sowed with salt or “unexploded ordnance.”

When the specter of the 60’s was once again resurrected in the 2008 presidential campaign, it was utterly surreal. Apparently, the only terrorist in the Vietnam era was a man named Bill Ayers, whose compatriots had once blown themselves up. The question for the truly morally serious was whether it was acceptable to be in the same room without denouncing him. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger is trying to meet with Obama, Robert McNamara was given an entire film in which to pose as the voice of morality, Richard Nixon was a respected elder statesman until his death, Bob Kerrey is the president of the supposedly leftist New School, and the entire left is nostalgic for Lyndon Johnson.

Thirty years from now, will we have the same level of moral discourse about Iraq? Why not? After all, we have it now and the war isn’t even over.

It’s very difficult to hear a word about Iraq that doesn’t involve the heroism and sacrifice of our soldiers. Among the most popular campaign videos was one called “Dear Mr. Obama,” which drew 13 million views, almost entirely among conservatives. In it, an Everyman-type American soldier explains to Obama that to call the Iraq war a mistake is to dishonor the wonderful work of American soldiers in Iraq. He says that Iraqis are just like us and deserve peace, freedom, and prosperity, and concludes that Iraq is much better off than before the invasion – that last a bit of nonsense that is rarely challenged on any side of the political spectrum. What is notable is that, because it was addressed to conservatives, it at least talks (if ignorantly and dishonestly) about the plight of Iraqis; on the other side, there is no patience with such matters, since they can’t be used to score rhetorical points.

As the Bush era hopefully draws to a close, people look forward to national reconciliation, to “healing the wounds of the nation.” Some liberal bloggers are angry at the fact that Obama is clearly not going to prosecute anyone from the Bush administration; others defend him by saying that actions like that are not in his nature. Conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, who has gone from making the most scurrilous and disgusting remarks after 9/11 to attacking other right-wingers who make those remarks and who has emerged as an eloquent critic of the Bush administration’s attempted legalization of torture, wants a national truth-and-reconciliation commission. Apparently, the remedy for the crimes we have committed against others is for us to forgive each other.

There have been times in the occupation of Iraq when the American troops were not the most destructive force; although really dependable numbers are not forthcoming, it’s possible that as few as one-fourth of the dead were killed by Americans, a huge change from the situation in Vietnam. The baroqueness of the atrocities committed by some Iraqi factions still astounds me. But we caused the destruction of that country and we bear moral responsibility for all that has happened since. With two more countries waiting to be destroyed, it’s really time for somebody to say something.

Posted at 10:46 am.

December 1, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- A Milestone on the Road to Hell

Last week, we passed yet another major milestone in what George Bush likes to call the “global war on terror.” India, which has seen more terrorism-related deaths in recent years than any country other than Iraq, everything from an assault on Parliament House by gunmen in 2002 to multiple simultaneous train bombings in Mumbai that killed 200 in 2006 and shrugged them all off, has finally had one whose effect will stick.

At least 10 gunmen attacked crowds in several locations with gunfire and grenades before converging on the Taj and Oberoi hotels and a mission of the Lubavitch community, a sect of Hasidim. They took numerous hostages, held out against commandoes of the Indian National Security Guards for three days, and killed close to 200 people, including many foreigners. The 9 who were killed and the one taken into custody seemingly had no plan to escape; well before they were finally defeated, all hostages had been killed. It is unclear whether there were others who did escape, or whether a mere 10 men could actually paralyze India’s financial center for three days.

This attack differs in its effect from previous incidents in India in several ways. It lasted longer and involved a far higher level of planning, coordination, and training than simple suicide bombings. Most important, it targeted two major five-star hotels in downtown Mumbai, iconic symbols of the prosperity and multinational business savvy of the new Indian elite, and, not incidentally, the places where they meet with their numerous foreign partners and business associates.

Killing construction workers, chai wallahs, anonymous office staff, and others who travel on Mumbai’s trains doesn’t really make that much difference, other than to the victims and those who knew them. This attack will have reverberating effects on the manner and amount of business done in India and on the perception of safety of various important people.

According to the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence organization, the group behind these seaborne attacks was Lashkar-e-Taiba, best known for its role in the ongoing dirty war in Kashmir. U.S. intelligence, which also concluded that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear program, has, unsurprisingly, concurred with this assessment. The group, which is usually not shy about taking credit, has denied responsibility.

Although more people were likely killed in the Godhra massacre of 2002, where the vast majority of victims were Muslims killed by Hindu mobs with the tacit or overt assistance of police of the Hindu fundamentalist dominated Gujarat state government, than by all standard “terrorist”-type attacks, the fact that these mass casualty bombing and gunman attacks are carried out by Muslims is certain to fan the flames of sectarian tension and violence in India; the Hindu right has already started to carry out its new electoral campaign, under the banner of law and order.

Unlike in the 9/11 attacks, where no U.S. official, airline employee, or anybody else apparently had any responsibility, heads have already rolled in India, including the Home Minister and Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister. The response of India’s central government earlier had also been significantly better than that of the Bush administration. After the attack on Parliament House, India did pass the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act, which had unsavory provisions like those of the PATRIOT Act; that bill, however, was repealed in 2004 when the current government came to power.

Unfortunately, that semi-reasonableness is likely over. Among the likely consequences of this incident:

A significant security crackdown in Mumbai, combined with explicit appeals to the politics of fear, not only at the regional levels but nationally as well.

Numerous calls for war with Pakistan, although actual war is very unlikely; unlike in 1999, when the two countries did fight a border war, there is a new 800-pound gorilla in the region with an interest in having only its own wars fought at any time.

Said gorilla, which has converged around a bipartisan approach to stepping up the pressure on the incredibly fragile Pakistan government, will once again see a major terrorist attack as a major opportunity; with the Indians in tow, the United States will use this situation to strongarm Pakistan into fighting a more aggressive, though likely not more effective, “war on terror.”

Things will get worse in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India before they get better. While they do, the increases in violence themselves will be treated as justifications of the newly aggressive strategy; once the violence burns itself out, the smoke clears, and the bodies are dragged away, that end itself will be treated as the ultimate vindication of the “war on terror.”

Posted at 10:43 am.
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