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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February 27, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Sectarian Violence and the United States as "Honest Broker"

Iraq has just gazed into the abyss and recoiled – for now.

Last Wednesday’s destruction of the beautiful golden dome of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the four most important Shi’a shrines in the world and final resting place of two of the twelve Shi’a Imams, brought Iraq closer to civil war than it has been since 1991, when a major popular uprising imperiled Saddam’s regime.

Over 150 people have been killed in acts of sectarian reprisal, dozens of Sunni mosques damaged or occupied by Shiites with several Sunni imams killed (early numbers may have been inflated), and further attacks launched on lesser Shiite sites. Perhaps the worst act of violence was the killing of 47 people at a fake checkpoint, Sunni and Shi’a, many of them returning from a Shi’a-Sunni unity demonstration against the destruction of the shrine.

The violence was only brought under control with an emergency curfew in Baghdad and three central provinces, combined with vehicle bans in some areas.

With some discordant notes, major political figures have generally spoken and acted against this rising tide of sectarian violence. Although Sadrist militia members were implicated in some of the early attacks on Sunni mosques, once Moqtada asserted control, he actually sent militias to protect some Sunni mosques; Sadrist clerics also joined Sunni imams at a nationally-televised prayer service on Saturday broadcast from the Sunni Abu Hanifa mosque.

Sistani called for Shi’a to hold their patience, as he has been doing for two years of savage sectarian attacks carried out by Salafi extremists.

Early on some important Sunni figures played a negative role, with a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party decrying the “Shi’a rabble” that attacked his party’s offices in Basra and Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars calling for other Arab countries to intervene to protect Sunnis. Others, especially from Samarra, had condemned the destruction of the shrine from the beginning.

Although Iraqi figures took the lead in the various on-the-ground reconciliation attempts just mentioned, Zalmay Khalilzad and the United States also played a significant role. As mentioned in earlier commentaries, last fall, the United States made a major strategy shift, exposing and denouncing torture and killings by the Badr and other Shiite militias, and beginning to reach out to the Sunni insurgency.

Although the shrine bombing seriously imperiled the new U.S. strategy, in particular the formation of a new government that includes representatives of all sectarian and ethnic groups, the basically rational response of Iraqi political figures has also presented the United States with a unique opportunity, on which it has already capitalized, managing to pressure the Sunni Iraqi Consensus Front to return to talks on forming the new government.

An article in the Boston Globe quotes U.S. diplomats who mention casually that all sides see the United States as "honest brokers," a term that should be familiar to observers of another long-term Middle East occupation.

This is exactly the role the United States wants to play. In that other conflict, its honesty means unconditional support for Israel. In this one, its honesty will manifest in the steady building and consolidation of lines of U.S. influence and control. The most important of those is to be U.S. training and joint operations with a new Iraqi army in which the United States hopes to break down soldiers’ loyalty to their own militias and replace it with loyalty to a U.S.-dominated Iraqi military. Another line, though much less significant in terms of control, is economic austerity, with severe IMF conditionalities and a complete cessation of reconstruction aid at a point when Iraqi services are no better than they were before the invasion, and in many ways worse.

The third leg of the strategy is to keep all the sectarian groups in the government together, without outbreaks of open violence -- which could draw the United States back into the old trap of attacking Sunni areas while Shiite parties run the government and align more closely with Iran -- but with a constant need for an "honest broker."

This is certainly better for Iraqis than the previous plan of unending U.S. counterinsurgency combined with an increasingly dirty war carried out by Iraqi government-affiliated militias. At times of potential sectarian crisis, the United States may even temporarily play a somewhat positive role. In the long run, it will just be a recipe for ongoing U.S. influence, a worse life for ordinary people (their food ration may be on the block next), and a lack of any permanent solution to the sectarian problem. That permanent solution can come only through the efforts of Iraqis to negotiate with each other, with no "honest brokers" concealing ulterior motives.

Posted at 10:40 am

February 20, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- War with Iran?

Spring approaches and a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of war with Iran. This seems to have become a seasonal ritual, starting in a small way in 2003, building in 2004, spiking in a serious way in spring 2005, and building to an even more violent crescendo this year.

As summer comes, new flowers start to wilt and die, and hurricane season starts, the talk dies away for a time, only to find another joyous resurrection the next year.

At the moment, everyone seems to be talking about war with Iran. Many in the antiwar movement are treating it as inevitable.

Predicting what this administration will do is a very tricky business, since they’re not even close to rational. War on Afghanistan and Iraq were easy predictions. Beyond that, it’s tough. Last year saw the publication of a number of asinine articles predicting war with Iran within months.

Personally, I think military strikes are seriously unlikely and other sanctions completely unworkable.

This seems counterintuitive given the way the issue is flaring up. In January, Iran removed IAEA seals on uranium enrichment equipment at Natanz, a primary nuclear research site, where it had suspended operations for 2.5 years while it negotiated with the EU. The IAEA then resolved to report Iran to the Security Council for possible penalties. Most recently, Iran has confirmed resumption of uranium enrichment at Natanz. A final IAEA report is due on February 27.

Yet the United States is unwilling to adopt a truly bellicose stance. Look at the State of the Union address. After saying, “The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons. America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats,” all Bush could do was tell the Iranian people that “our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.”

Americans love to make threats. This is nothing in comparison. Remember the mantra about Iraq: “If Saddam does not disarm, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.” This time, Bush can’t say a single thing he will do if Iran continues to “defy the world.”

Condoleezza Rice’s recent call for $75 million extra for “democracy promotion” in Iran, including $50 million for satellite broadcasts and $15 million for Iranian labor and civil society groups, is not exactly a sign of incipient aggression either. Much to the contrary, the scale of it ($75 million is a lot in the world of “democracy promotion”) suggests rather that the administration sees no reasonable military option and is desperately grasping at the straw of a mass democratic uprising in Iran, something that their highly propagandistic broadcasts will not foster and which is phenomenally unlikely anyway.

It is also a continuation of a strategy that, while it has had numerous successes in the past, is failing badly in the Muslim world. It has failed in Iraq (they knew it would, which is why they had to be forced into allowing elections), where the parties the United States feared most came to power, and in Palestine, where the United States helped get Hamas elected, as well, parenthetically, as in Haiti. In Haiti, it failed, as it had before in 1989 and 1990, because of the phenomenal class polarization in Haitian society; in Iraq and Palestine, occupation is the key factor making it fail.

No serious person believes action against Iran will involve invasion and occupation. The United States would, at the very least, have to divert every active-duty person from the Navy and from Army bases around the world, to occupying Iran – and it would still fail. It would never get that far, because there would be an open revolt from the military.

Limited air strikes, aimed at taking out Iran’s nuclear capabilities, are always being considered. It’s difficult to see how they could work. They would subject U.S. forces in Iraq to retaliation, so they could only be contemplated in a situation where U.S. forces had been drawn down and had disengaged from contact with Iraqis (retreating to bases, for example). They would also subject the world to the possibility of an Iranian cutoff of oil exports (as would any lesser sanctions against Iran), an action that would hurt Iran badly but would also undoubtedly cause a huge spike in the price of oil at a time when the price is already generating significant domestic political pressure. And, most important, they would have no hope of bringing about regime change.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that, almost certainly, Iraq will remain the issue for a considerable time to come.

Posted at 10:50 am

February 13, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Clash of Civilizations

The battle is joined. The clash of civilizations is here. Countless editors in “Western” papers have reprinted the cartoons, some of them perhaps because it’s legitimate news, most of them, I guess, to show Western solidarity and to strike at the amorphous Muslim masses they are so terrified of. Letters to the editor bravely declaring that we must stand up to the Islamic assault on our civilization abound.

And columnists have delivered numerous annoying lectures, among the most noxious of which was a piece by New York Times columnist and all-around vapid right-wing culture-warrior David Brooks. Drafted as an open letter to Muslims (he says in the middle of the piece that it is not addressed to all Muslims, nor to “genuine Islamic scholars,” but only to Islamist extremists, but if you believe that I know a bridge that, according to George Bush, narrowly escaped being destroyed with blowtorches), it sets out in stark terms the difference between “us” and “them:”

“We in the West were born into a world that reflects the legacy of Socrates and the agora.

In our world we spend our time sifting and measuring, throwing away the dumb and offensive, e-mailing the smart and the incisive. … We believe in progress and in personal growth. By swimming in this flurry of perspectives, by facing unpleasant facts, we try to come closer and closer to understanding.

But you have a different way. ... Our mind-set is progressive and rational. Your mind-set is pre-Enlightenment and mythological. In your worldview, history doesn't move forward through gradual understanding.”

And George W. Bush’s favorite political philosopher is Jesus. And until very recently 40% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. And roughly half of the population thinks Bush is “honest and trustworthy.” As far as I can tell, we Westerners live more in a world that reflects the legacy of Socrates’ trial and execution.

But I digress. It takes two sides to make a Kulturkampf. Massive protests in numerous Muslim countries, the protests from governments, the editorializing, the incendiary khutbas in the mosques, the chants of “Death to Denmark” and “Death to America” all make it pretty clear that the other side is present.

The war has a body-count. At least 14 people have died, perhaps more. Except for the murder of a Catholic priest in Turkey by an obviously disturbed 16-year-old boy, it should be noted that it is not the supposed howling fanatical mobs who have committed murder, but the forces of order and enlightenment, in the service of Western civilization – especially in occupied Afghanistan, where 11 protesters were killed. Oddly, amid all the ravening about the uncivilized, bloodthirsty Muslims and the outrage at the tremendous harm inflicted to us by people shouting and by the burning down of a few buildings, I detect no outrage at the killing of 13 protesters.

It’s easy to be a naysayer about this clash of civilizations. Numerous Muslims have written and spoken to condemn any violent reaction or threats; numerous “Westerners” have written to condemn the assault on Muslims’ feelings, though few have termed it racist. Jyllands Posten, the paper that started the furor, is a right-wing anti-immigrant paper and the editor in question, Flemming Rose, is a right-wing provocateur who likes to hobnob with ranting Islamophobe Daniel Pipes. The Syrian government was obviously complicit with the protests in Syria; unauthorized protests are shut down within minutes. The issue didn’t start to take off until a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference at which many governments shared their outrage; it also required fabricated cartoons, including one showing the Prophet as a pig.

It’s dangerous, however, to conclude from this that the ordinary people are not involved and it’s just a few interested parties on each side stirring things up. Politics always requires people to stir things up – there’s no such thing as a spontaneous demonstration. The point is that the background of racial hatred, misunderstanding, paranoia and wounded feelings, 9/11, occupation of three Muslim countries by Western troops, and much more was incredibly conducive to a flareup like this.

This episode reveals, in a way, more about the deep underlying problems that have made our American crusade and our tremendously polarized world possible, than anything since the reaction to 9/11. Some people of good will like to say that the problem is that “we” don’t understand “them,” so “we” should study the Koran, and so on. I think the problem is that “we” don’t understand “us,” a theme I will continue to explore.

Posted at 10:21 am

February 12, 2006

Daily Telegraph -- Soldiers 'in fear of front line prosecution'

The British Daily Telegraph is an interesting anomaly -- a right-wing rag that is often worth reading. In fact, it's worth reading because it's so right-wing; the British military often use it as their mouthpiece. So, every now and then, you see an article that purports to be a straight news story but is actually a transmission of thoughts the British high command has that it is not always willing to utter directly, at least to the public.

During the April 2004 assault on Fallujah, for example, the British military was, it turns out, very angry at the United States for two reasons. One was that the simultaneous assault on Shi'a (the Mahdi Army) and Sunni (Fallujah) targets was bidding fair to create some semblance of national unity in resistance, which would make the occupation untenable. The second was that the United States insisted on the British sending troops to help out in the assault.

As a result, on April 11, the Telegraph ran a remarkable piece. Innocuously titled "U.S. tactics condemned by British officers," it had this quote, from an anonymous British military officer:
"My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans' use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. They don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are. Their attitude towards the Iraqis is tragic, it's awful.

"The US troops view things in very simplistic terms. It seems hard for them to reconcile subtleties between who supports what and who doesn't in Iraq. It's easier for their soldiers to group all Iraqis as the bad guys. As far as they are concerned Iraq is bandit country and everybody is out to kill them."
Of course, the British reading public actually knows what "Untermenschen" means and to whom it refers, so it's hard to imagine a more scathing criticism. (I blogged about it

All of which is preamble to the latest revelation. A couple of days ago, their Defence Correspondent, Thomas Harding, wrote a story about British soldiers' fears of "front-line prosecution." The idea of prosecuting soldiers for the crimes they've committed in occupied Iraq has, interestingly, caused even more outrage in Britan than in the United States, with condemnations of the entire concept from major political figures (whereas in the United States, ever since the Abu Ghraib photographs, the attitude has been more a CYA approach of blaming crimes on individual soldiers in order to exonerate the larger policy and its policymakers). This attitude is clearly a legacy of the old-time British imperial mindset (I was deeply annoyed to see, in a recent speaking tour in Britain, how much of a feeling there is that the British empire was benevolent).

In addition, Britain, unlike the United States, supports the International Criminal Court, so if soldiers don't get a proper trial for crimes in Britain there is the specter of trial at the Hague as well. So, says Harding,
British troops operating in Iraq are becoming increasingly "risk averse" over fears of being prosecuted, a former military chief told a Parliamentary committee yesterday.

Evidence also emerged at the Defence Select Committee that a senior Army leader had asked whether it was necessary to "offer for prosecution" troops in order to placate pressure groups and lawyers.

Admiral Lord Boyce, who was Chief of the Defence Staff during the Iraq invasion in 2003, told MPs that after talking to soldiers he believed there was now "a rise in risk averseness" and "a feeling of legal encirclement".
And here's a revealing training story:
Lord Boyce, who was giving evidence for the new Armed Forces Bill, repeated a story about soldiers doing pre-Iraq deployment training in which civilians dressed up as local Iraqis.

One soldier shot a "good" person and the training sergeant, in reference to the International Criminal Court, said: "Right lad, that's you for The Hague".

"That's the feeling out there, people are under pressure," he said.

He was also concerned at the "creeping jurisdiction" of the ICC whereby British soldiers could become more "vulnerable" to prosecution as war criminals.
It's not clear how much this fear of prosecution is justified and how much of it is the military's overreaction to the idea that any of its members should be held responsible for the crimes they commit, but one thing is clear: This is good. It's a damn good thing that British soldiers are going to be more careful in how they treat Iraqis, if only because of their fear of prosecution.

As far as I can tell, even American soldiers have become somewhat more careful. So far, that is only in response to the twin imperatives of effective counterinsurgency and making sure no Abu-Ghraib-type pictures get out. If only they too had a real fear of genuine prosecution. Posted at 12:44 pm

February 9, 2006

Cartoon Blogging -- Freedom of Speech

I was just on Democracy Now, talking about the cartoons. I think the segment went pretty well. I was on with Behzad Yaghmaian, an Iranian professor and author, and with the editor of a small-town Wyoming newspaper that has published the cartoons.

I had run across Yaghmaian's name, but was unfamiliar with his work. He's an excellent fellow and I'm definitely going to check out his new book, Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West, as well as his 2002 book, Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights.

I've been restricting my blogging essentially to a weekly commentary, but this cartoon issue raises so many questions, that are being so inadequately explored, that I'm going to post more often for a while.

To start with, a few words about my attitude toward freedom of speech. It's interesting that, even though I have stressed in every context the right of freedom of the press, and even the right of newspapers to publish racist and crudely defamatory cartoons, some people, reacting to the tenor of my remarks (I suppose) rather than the words, seem to believe that I'm calling for censorship.

And, of course, some of them believe, including one person who apparently really likes my blog, that in this case my "Muslim prejudices are peeking out." Of course, I'm not a Muslim and my response focused on the fact that we're all affronted by racism, not just the targeted group.

Anyway, here it is. I'm not a free speech absolutist, in part because frankly any absolutism is rationally suspect. In particular, free speech absolutism would have to argue that freedom of speech always and inevitably must trump every other concern, rights-based or not, and I don't see how one could argue this. It's worth noting that, for example, Milton's celebrated defense of freedom of speech and the press in Areopagitica is not an absolute one. It accepts that public welfare is the ultimate criterion and, in particular, argues that it's ok to censor certain publications -- what is argues against is prior restraint. Personally, I think his view is still too tolerant toward censorship, but his basic framework is correct.

In practice, however, I come down pretty close to free speech absolutism. Aside from deliberate and specific libel, you should be able to publish anything in a book. Newspapers should have the right to publish racist cartoons or, like the LA Times did a while back, a racist op-ed proclaiming that Jews are really God's chosen people. And they shouldn't be subject to government sanction when they do, although organized (nonviolent) campaigns by readers are perfectly legitimate as a response.

The reason is the difficult in setting boundaries and figuring out who decides what the boundaries should be. I can't imagine any argument that says public welfare would be served by newspapers publishing cartoons that suggest all Muslims are terrorists. But I do believe that no human belief system, religious or secular, should be above criticism; in particular, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, etc. are not above criticism, even in newspapers. Nor are people's particular religious beliefs above criticism. And sometimes people will get offended.

The problem is that there is no good universal way to draw the line. And lots of people who are upset about these cartoons draw it differently than I would. So there are very few instances where you could make the case for censorship and these cartoons, racist and inflammatory as they are, are not among those instances. There is no serious way to argue for legal action against Jyllands Posten or anyone reprinting the cartoons.

But other kinds of sanctions are a different matter. Boycotts are perfectly legitimate for any reason, or for no reason at all. It's politically stupid to attack the country of Denmark for an action by one newspaper, but that's a different question. And firing of editors is again not a clear issue. Editors can be fired for all sorts of things short of breaking the law. Showing bad judgment is definitely high on the list. I think it's a case-by-case matter. I'm not saying I would approve of all the firings, but they are potentially a legitimate response to a big mistake.

Far more interesting is the question of "Western" double standards regarding freedom of speech, a subject to which I'll return shortly. Posted at 11:27 am

February 6, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- The Danish Cartoons

Last September, a Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, ran twelve cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad; today, everyone is talking about it.

The cartoons range from unclear or neutral to increasingly scurrilous. The worst depicts the prophet with a bomb in his turban, and the Muslim creed, “Allahu akbar,” “God is great,” written on it.

Muslims responded with outrage and calls for a boycott of Danish goods, for the Danish government to apologize or to act against the newspaper, for the U.N. to sanction Denmark in some way.

Supposedly as a lesson to Muslims about freedom of speech, papers in Norway, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and other European countries reprinted the cartoons – as has the Philadelphia Inquirer in the United States. Papers in Jordan ran them as well.

The Muslim response has escalated, with calls from some groups for violence, the burning of embassy buildings in Syria, and finally the burning of the Danish consulate in Beirut.

Everyone is talking about it, but some key things are being left unsaid.

First, the cartoons are not just blasphemous. Blasphemy, to me, is an internal matter for any religion and not the business of the state or the polity as a whole. Here, however, the portrayal of the prophet as a terrorist was not primarily a statement about him and his life but a claim that Muslims are essentially terrorists.

As such, it is deeply racist. Except that racist is not the right term, because Muslim aren’t a race. We need new categories.

In theory, attacking members of a religion is different from attacking members of a race because you can choose your religious beliefs but not your race. In practice, there is often little difference. The vast majority of people are born to their religion; they don’t choose it. And in the context of a “war for civilization” where Muslims are being essentialized, uniformized, and criticized on a constant basis, the distinction blurs almost into nothingness.

It is not simply a matter of the cartoons’ being offensive to Muslims. They are offensive to everyone who is anti-racist, and we all have an interest in opposing them. This does not mean keeping criticism of Islam and even of the prophet out of the public sphere, but this depiction crosses the line into a universally discredited discrimination. A newspaper has the right to publish even this, just as it has the right to publish offensive depictions of African-Americans, but it should be opposed when it does.

Also left unsaid in the various pious finger-wagging lectures about free speech so graciously delivered to Muslims by newspapers in Christian countries is an extreme double standard. It is true that Christian countries have seen art works like Andres Serrano’s depiction of a crucifix in urine without erupting into violent conflagrations (although there was a great deal of protest by Christians), but those were works by individual artists. Please, show me the American or European mainstream daily newspaper that would publish something so defamatory about Jesus. Has the Inquirer or any other paper run a cartoon depicting Jesus sodomizing stacked naked inmates at Abu Ghraib or even Jesus yelling “Yee-hah” as he drops a bomb on Fallujah (much as George Bush might be doing today had he stuck it out with the Texas Air National Guard)? Until they do, all this talk about free speech is the sheerest hypocrisy.

The response from the Muslim world has been excessive. Of course, boycotting Danish goods is their right – our wonderful economic system is based on freedom of transaction – although it makes little sense to target all of Denmark instead of the paper in question. Calls for a government apology or for government action against the newspaper betray an unhealthy lack of appreciation for independence of the press. And, of course, burning down buildings and calls to kill people are unacceptable, as numerous Muslim leaders, including one of the key organizers of the march in Beirut that led to the burning of the consulate, have stated quite clearly.

But let’s get a grip here. One person may have died in Beirut; reports conflict. But so far nobody else has been killed in this campaign that has aroused so much opprobrium. All of the Sturm und Drang doesn’t compare to one day in occupied Palestine, let alone to the violent invasion and occupation of two countries, killing tens of thousands directly and leading, in Iraq, to the death, direct and iof over 150,000 people.

It is a little too much to see the perpetrators or supporters of those atrocities lecturing the victims about overreaction.

The great crusade and culture war the Bush administration has set in motion since 9/11 has had many unfortunate effects. One of the worst for the Middle East, other than direct occupation and destruction like in Iraq, may be the hardening of increasingly strict religious interpretations. That will harm the people there far more than those in Europe or the United States, but it also increases an already extreme polarization that is harmful for everyone. Bombing Muslims while simultaneously lecturing them is not the way to defuse this dynamic. That really ought to be obvious.

Posted at 11:25 am

February 2, 2006

State of the Union Rebuttal

The Institute for Public Accuracy has a one-page pdf rebuttal to the State of the Union, with comments from experts on a wide variety of subjects.

February 2, 2006


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