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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January 29, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Our Profound Ignorance of Muslims

Long-time readers of my commentaries will know that I do not subscribe to the liberal notion that our main problems in the Middle East derive from our blundering in without really understanding the peoples and cultures of the region – any more than I believe that the situation in Iraq right now derives from our lack of understanding that “Shi’a and Sunni have been killing each other for 14 centuries in Iraq.”

Instead, I believe that the significance of “our” failure to understand “them,” enormous as that failure is, pales in comparison with that of “our” failure to understand “us.” Instead of a deep analysis of the Shi’a-Sunni question in the Middle East, even a basic understanding of what we did in the Vietnam War, and why we did it, would have served us in much better stead in deciding whether or not to go to war.

Still, it is shocking, and not of minor importance, that over 5 years into the “war on terror,” we understand so little about Islam and Islamic cultures.

The proximate cause of this commentary is the recent flap over right-wing attempts to smear Barack Obama through claims that, while living in Indonesia as a boy, he attended a “madrassa.” In our current climate, this is much like claiming that the Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth.

The claim originated with a magazine linked to the insane megalomaniac, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, fellow traveler with numerous right-wing terrorists beloved of an earlier era of U.S. foreign policy. John Gibson of Fox News immediately jumped on it, speculating over the effect of radical Islamic indoctrination on Obama. CNN, with at least a modicum of actual journalistic sensibility, sent a reporter to Indonesia, who found that it was a normal public school.

Liberals then jumped to defend Obama, saying the claim he attended a madrassa was a lie.

Throughout the whole thing, we were told by countless ponderous TV pundits that a madrassa is a Saudi-funded school for religious fanatics that teaches Wahhabism and terrorism. Never mind that there was precious little Wahhabism in Indonesia over 35 years ago, when Obama was in school there. The word “madrassa,” after all, means what it means.

Except, of course, that it means no such thing. It is the most generic word for “school” in the Arab world, and in some other Islamic countries, where the language is full of Arabic loan words. It means a place of studying or learning. Considering everyone who has been to a madrassa as a terrorist in will then require that we take on the whole Muslim world.

This sort of ignorance is widespread. Jeff Stein, a reporter for Congressional Quarterly, found that numerous figures in the FBI and Congress did not know the difference between Sunni and Shi’a; more shocking, many did not know whether al-Qaeda and Hizbullah were Sunni or Shi’a – including the incoming Chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

To get slightly more sophisticated, Nicholas Kristof, one of the supposedly more intellectual regular columnists for the New York Times, developing the bubble-gum-wrapper historical theory that Islam needs to go through something like the Protestant Reformation, wrote a column several months ago called “Looking for Islam’s Luthers.” If he understood anything about Wahhabism, he would know that its founder was Islam’s Luther, and that more recent extremists like Sayyid Qutb were similar to founders of other Protestant sects. They are protesting the corruption of Arab leaders who are cozy with the West and getting paid hand over fist for it just like Luther and others criticized the medieval Catholic Church for its cozy relations with princes and potentates and its sale of offices and indulgences.

Examples can be multiplied infinitely, at every level of the public discourse. And they are more than just fodder for gotcha games. They have real consequences. The ignorance and lack of ability to reach even the most rudimentary understanding of another culture have certainly played a role in the fashioning of a “war on terror” that has been even more mindlessly destructive and damaging than it had to be; it is also helping to make sure that we don’t learn the lessons of this latest disaster we have inflicted. And so, in the end, it further reinforces “our” lack of understanding of “us.”

Posted at 9:53 am

January 22, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- State of the Union

Section 3 of Article II of the Constitution requires of the president that “he shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

Contrary to what you might think, the Constitution does not require that this address be attended by obscene and absurd political fanfare; it does not even require that it be filled with meaningless platitudes and rhetorical obfuscation.

State of the Union address have not, I suppose, always been as silly as they are now. Thomas Jefferson, believing that a verbal address to Congress was too monarchical, reminiscent of the King’s address to the British Parliament, submitted his reports in writing, an example followed for over 100 years until Woodrow Wilson revived the verbal address, with its concomitant elimination of specific information, dumbing down, and addition of rhetorical embellishments. And, of course, with the advent of television (Harry Truman’s 1947 address was the first to be televised), the fate of the event was sealed.

Now, of course, we expect bellicose garbage about an “axis of evil,” carefully parsed deceptions about uranium deals, and random nonsense about sending a man to Mars or starting a volunteer corps, or, my favorite, President Bush’s plea to develop programs that aid in the integration of formerly incarcerated felons back into society (yes, he really said that).

Even though few presidents have rivaled President Bush in these matters, almost all of them have had one thing in common: they don’t really talk about the state of the union. Especially in the modern era, all the emphasis has been on that second part, the recommendation of “necessary and expedient measures.” About all one hears regarding the first part is the ritual invocation of the phrase, “The state of the union is strong,” although James Madison did spare us that in his first address after the British sacked Washington DC.

Imagine instead a country in which the head of state spoke honestly for 45 minutes (without applause points) about the actual state of the union, and how it had changed in the past year. I don’t think you can; it’s certain that no national-level politician can.

We might then learn that our infant mortality rate is higher than Cuba’s, despite our vastly greater wealth and the cruel unilateral sanctions we have imposed on them. Or we might learn that 25% of all prisoners in the world are in the United States. Or that we have not increased mileage standards for normal cars since 1990. Or that roughly 40% of Americans think torture of detainees is sometimes justified.

Or, most important, that nobody important has any conception of a strategy for dealing either with Iraq or with the “war on terror,” – neither the president, with his delusional notions of “one last push” in Iraq to win a victory no one can define, nor the Democrats, who decry this plan but would like to see a “surge” in Afghanistan in order to make a push toward a victory there that no one can define, nor anyone who might possibly have a chance of influencing any of the politically powerful.

The fact that even the most superficial honest analysis of the state of the union is so utterly off the table in this and every other State of the Union address ought to be somewhat sobering. It would seem that something like this, at least now and then, is one of the most minimal requirements of democracy, yet it is just as inaccessible to most of us as Mars.

This is, in part, a flaw that mainstream politics shares with grassroots oppositional politics. When was the last time you heard an honest appraisal of the State of the Movement from activist leaders? Most of the time, we also talk about vaguely defined goals for the future, even if they are completely impracticable; when we do talk about the ground realities of the movement, our platitudes amount pretty much to “The state of the movement is strong.” Of course, the president has created much of the mess the world is in and we are trying to fix it, but that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to be honest and unsparing.

Posted at 10:49 am

January 16, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Iraqi Ingratitude

If you watched the president on 60 Minutes this Sunday, you could learn many fascinating things, including the fact that he sees himself as the “educator in chief” – which, of course, occasions the question, “Is our children learning?”

More important, you could learn that he believes that the Iraqi people owe us an enormous debt of gratitude, and that they are in arrears on their payments. When the remarkably ineffectual Scott Pelley asked Bush, “Do you think you owe the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job,” he responded with his trademark wit, “That we didn't do a better job or they didn't do a better job?”

He went on to say, “We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude, and I believe most Iraqis express that. I mean, the people understand that we've endured great sacrifice to help them. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq,” adding that Americans “wonder whether or not the Iraqis are willing to do hard work necessary to get this democratic experience to survive.”

Although he doesn’t talk about it much, this question of Iraqi gratitude has been an idée fixe for Bush. In 2004, as the transition from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim Iraqi government was being planned (the so-called “transfer of sovereignty”), according to Paul Bremer’s self-serving memoir, “My Year in Iraq,” Bush’s only consideration in picking the new leaders of Iraq was, "It's important to have someone who's willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq." Ghazi al-Yawer, virtually unknown before and unknown after, was picked as president over senior statesman Adnan Pachachi in part because Bush had "been favorably impressed with his open thanks to the Coalition."

In a culture with even the slightest ability for introspection or self-reflexivity, of course, such a notion would be monstrous and laughable. After all, the disaster of the occupation is simply the final entry in a list of the worst calamities in modern Iraqi history, all of which involved U.S. backing – the Iran-Iraq war, the near-genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, the savage suppression of the 1991 uprising, the brutally demoralizing sanctions. After all of that, even if the United States “liberation” of Iraqis from Saddam had made Iraq into a new garden of Eden, to claim that the Iraqis should be grateful to the United States would be a bit rich. Given that the occupation is actually a worse calamity than any of those just mentioned and has come closer to destroying the fabric of Iraqi society than all of them put together, the claim boggles the mind.

Unfortunately, this idea is not just Bush’s insanity; it is bipartisan and it covers most of the American political spectrum. It has emerged as the dominant idea in the public discourse. When Dick Durbin delivered the Democratic response to Bush’s speech about the escalation, a speech even more stomach-churning than Bush’s, this was the core theme: “America has paid a heavy price.” “We have given the Iraqis so much.” “It is time for the Iraqis to stand and defend their own nation.”

Even someone as innocent of foreign policy knowledge as first-out-of-the-gate presidential candidate Tom Vilsack, governor of Iowa, has been sounding that theme; it has become the Democrats’ rallying cry.

To be fair, there has been at least some response to this meme, most notably on the Daily Show, which produced a segment called “They-a Culpa,” about the fact that “Iraqis are to blame for the mess we’ve gotten themselves into.”

Still, overall, the unfortunate message from this is clear: Although we have learned that occupying Arab countries is a bad idea and that George Bush is an ignorant megalomaniac, we have not learned anything deeper about American culture and America’s role in the world from this occupation. And because of that, it’s very likely that some day – not right away, but far too soon – we will make others repeat this miserable experience.

Posted at 12:11 pm

January 8, 2007

Weekly Commentary -- Incipient Democratic Backbone-Formation and a New Campaign for the Antiwar Movement

We’ve had so much hype about the proposed “surge” of troops in Iraq, for weeks now, that when President Bush finally releases the details of the plan, perhaps as early as Wednesday, they will likely come as a surprise to no one.

It will probably involve numbers on the smaller side, in the neighborhood of 20,000, probably with no fixed timetable; the soldiers are to participate in an expanded version of what the United States already started last summer in Baghdad, a “security operation” that has disastrously increased the level of violence. If Iraqi Health Ministry figures give any indication, the commencement of “Operation Forward Together” coincides closely with a near-tripling of the numbers of Iraqi civilians and police killed.

And it will involve greater funds given directly to military commanders with which to buy off “hearts and minds,” by creating small-scale jobs programs – an idea that might have made a real difference had it been implemented about three years ago.

What has been a surprise, however, is the response of the Democrats to these plans. It started when the until recently ultra-hawkish Joe Biden, sensing a change in the prevailing winds, came out strongly against such an escalation; after that, his announcement that he would run for president was a foregone conclusion.

Considerably more important, Nancy Pelosi, going on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, hinted that Democrats might even consider using Congress’s celebrated “power of the purse” to oppose the president’s escalation plans, saying somewhat coyly that the president would no longer have a “blank check” for expansion.

All of this, coming a mere three weeks before a major antiwar march in Washington, with included lobby day, planned by United for Peace and Justice, presents the antiwar movement with a strategic opportunity of the kind that has been rare to nonexistent until now.

Aside from a street presence for a few hours a few times a year, the primary contribution of the antiwar movement at the national level in the past few years has been to call consistently for immediate withdrawal of troops – at the local level, considerably more has been accomplished in some areas.

For the past year, and especially since the elections, United for Peace and Justice in particular has made frequent reference to the possibility that Congress will cut off funding for the war.

Unfortunately, while this is a perfectly acceptable call, like calling for an end to the occupation now, the idea of building significant support for it in Congress is a fantasy. Congress is traditionally extremely leery of doing anything to hamper a president’s ability to conduct a war once it has been approved of. Even the celebrated final de-funding of the Vietnam War, happening at the absolute zenith of Congressional power and the nadir of presidential power, did not occur until December 1974, over a year and a half after final withdrawal of regular U.S. troops and a mere five months before the end and final victory by North Vietnam and the NLF.

Opposition to this war, though roughly as wide as opposition to the Vietnam War became, is nowhere near as deep. And the Democrats’ doing anything that might be interpreted as undermining troops in the field is unthinkable – indeed, Pelosi has categorically denied that the Democrats would do so.

Using the purse strings to keep further troops from being sent into the hell that we have made Iraq is very different, however, from trying to use them to force withdrawal of troops already there, something that Congress has never done. Even here, there is controversy – Biden, for example, on Meet the Press, said that he thought refusing to fund the escalation would be “unconstitutional.” He should consider becoming White House legal counsel once he loses in 2008.

But such opinions are rare; many Democrats might follow Pelosi’s lead if pressured. And, according to a column by Robert Novak, only 12 Republican senators support an escalation, although for them to overcome partisan pressures will be difficult.

Although the antiwar movement will, of course, keep its demand of an immediate end to the occupation, it is desperately in need of a campaign to accomplish something doable. Pressuring Democrats -- and Republicans – in Congress to cut off funding for an escalation might just be the ticket.

Posted at 10:53 am

January 2, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- The Good Die Young

Last week, two men died. One of them was an insignificant nonentity who hardly troubled people’s thoughts when he was in office thirty years ago, a man universally hailed for his “decency” and collegiality toward fellow politicians and members of his country’s political elite; the other, a brutal tyrant who ascended to ultimate power with a thoroughgoing purge of his own erstwhile political allies and once reportedly personally executed one of his ministers, a man who somehow contrived to loom large over the collective consciousness of what is usually called “the West” for 15 years.

The death of one, Gerald Ford, at 93, was met with a storm of hagiography in the mainstream media; many times, journalists who had cut their teeth on Watergate and despised Ford for his pardon of Nixon, decided retrospectively that it had been a necessary act to allow the nation to “heal.”

The death of the other, Saddam Hussein, 69, though it garnered criticism for the unseemly haste of the rush to execute, was generally regarded as the slightest of down-payments on his just desserts.

It was left to the perpetually and reflexively contrarian Christopher Hitchens to connect the two. After Saddam signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union and nationalized Iraq’s oil in 1972, the United States turned against him, even though it had likely been involved in the ascension of the Ba’ath Party just four years earlier. Ford inherited a policy of supporting the Kurds in the north, with the aid of the Shah of Iran, in order to de-stabilize the Iraqi government.

But when the 1975 Algiers accord was signed, briefly ending the enmity between Iraq and Iran, the Shah abandoned his support of the Kurds, and Ford lost no time in hanging them out to twist in the wind of Saddam’s deadly counterinsurgency. Henry Kissinger justified this to Congress by explaining that “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

Similarly, little mention was made of Ford’s giving the “green light” to Indonesia’s Suharto to invade the tiny nation of East Timor, which had just shaken off the yoke of Portuguese colonialism. As Ford and then Carter supported the Indonesian military’s genocidal killing of over 200,000 people, one-third of the country’s population, with military aid and diplomatic interference, the issue got almost no coverage in the American media.

It is probably true that Ford was a decent man, to those who entered into his moral calculus – this would include Washington insiders and the U.S. political elite, on both sides of the aisle, but did not include Iraqi Kurds and East Timorese, and at best marginally included the American underclass, or African-Americans.

Saddam, who came up in a rather different and much less collegial environment, had a moral calculus with perhaps an even more restricted ambit. Everything was a potential sacrifice to his personal power and his vision of Iraqi greatness.

No mention needed to be made for Americans of his crimes – the phrase “gassed his own people” has been ringing in our ears for 15 years – although, oddly enough, we never ever heard the phrase while he was doing it 18 years ago. It would, I suppose, enter the heads of few journalists to compare what Saddam did in Iraqi Kurdistan in the late 1980’s with the support of Reagan and Bush with what Indonesia did in East Timor in the late 1970’s with the support of Ford and Carter.

Given the brutality of Saddam’s mostly U.S.-backed crimes, it is sad to think that the United States and the new Iraqi government handled the entire affair in such a way as to engender doubts in the minds of many across the world – even here – about those crimes. For many, their knowledge of Saddam came first from feverish TV rhetoric about those crimes followed by feverish TV rhetoric about his weapons of mass destruction. Small wonder that when the U.S. case about WMD was revealed as a pastiche of lies, deceptions, and fabrications that they began to wonder the same about his other crimes.

In both cases, the victims of these men have been terribly dishonored. Neither of these men, living lives far longer than most of those they cut short, ever confronted the consequences of their actions or repented of them. The good die young.

Posted at 10:45 am
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