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 31, 2009

Obama and FDR

A great deal of virtual ink is being spilt by progressives calling on Barack Obama to be the new FDR (in fact, mainstream progressive politics seems to have few ideas beyond recreation of the New Deal). In this context, I thought it might be illuminating to take a look at some of the remarkable statements in his famous first inaugural. The focus on "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," I think, gives people the impression that the speech was about all of us pulling together as a nation, etc., anodyne and uplifting. That is not the case at all.

As you compare and contrast the speech with Obama's first inaugural, keep a couple of things in mind. First, despite the hysteria, at this point comparisons with the Great Depression are silly. Indeed, for the vast majority of Americans, life has been going on more or less as it did last year. Things will likely get worse, but nobody can really tell how much worse. For them to be anything like the Depression (even translated into modern terms) seems very unlikely. Second, Roosevelt was an anti-Semite, perhaps even beyond the general level of upper-crust Americans at the time. So his maledictions against the finance industry, while accurate enough, may have had more than one motivation. More recently, people to the right left of Pat Buchanan feel much more constrained in saying such things, since anti-Semitism has lost its former widespread respectability.

Anyway, here's the most interesting part:
In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.

More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.
I suppose it goes without saying that the same things could just as easily be said of today's "rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods." Posted at 12:33 pm.

January 26, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Obama's War on Terror

Last Friday’s Washington Post carried a front-page “news analysis” piece headlined “Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ Comes to a Sudden End.” It turns out that the article was referring to Barack Obama’s decision to close the prison at Guantanamo eventually. It’s a nice symbolic decision, even if all that everybody can talk about is what other black hole to throw the remaining 245 people into and how their magical powers make putting them in American supermax prisons on 24-hour lockdown just far too dangerous. Why some other country should assume this risk because of American crimes is of course a question that it never occurs to anybody to ask.

The truth is, despite this gesture and despite Obama’s decision to overturn previous imperial edicts about torture and to require the CIA to follow the rules of the Army Field Manual, not only is Bush’s “war on terror” still going at full speed, the signs that Obama intends to continue it are legion.

Open the newspaper any day of the week and you can see how not just Bush’s but our war on terror has transformed the world. Christian Ethiopia is just ending a two-year occupation of Muslim Somalia, in which 16,000 Somalis have died – an intervention backed to the hilt and indeed enabled by the United States. 15 Somalis just died in a suicide bombing. Before the invasion of Iraq, suicide bombings were incredibly rare. One group, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, was responsible for the lion’s share of them, most of which targeted the government’s security forces.

The Swat Valley, not even part of Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas but a relatively central part of the Northwest Frontier Province, is ruled with an iron fist by a neo-Taliban group. Despite numerous reports that the neo-Taliban in parts of Afghanistan is making strong efforts to be more flexible and less oppressive than the old Taliban (a low bar to clear), Maulana Fazlullah, the leader in Swat, seems not to have gotten the memo. Already their campaign of terror has led to the destruction of 169 girls’ schools, with over 100,000 students unable to continue their educations. Such a situation would have been unthinkable in the pre-9/11 world; Swat is collateral damage of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and associated operations in Pakistan.

Obama has already approved two “targeted assassinations” by missile strike in Pakistan. Whatever one says about the actual practices of the Israelis, at least their language is a bit more honest. A recent raid in Laghman province in Afghanistan killed 15 Taliban militants, according to U.S. military sources, or 16 civilians, according to the Afghan government and victims of the assault. The latter source is significantly more likely to be right, for what it’s worth.

And you’ve all heard enough about Gaza, where Hamas is distributing compensation and reconstruction aid to victims of the bombing.

The main changes we hear about from Obama are twofold. First, to remove troops from Iraq, the place where they are currently doing the least damage, and put many of them into Afghanistan. Not long ago, Obama said that 30,000 troops were to be thrown in in the short term, to “buy time” until the United States comes up with a strategy. Everyone in the history of counterinsurgency has escalated for exactly the same reason, but few of them admit it openly. Second, to put more pressure on the Pakistani government to fight its own war on terror, while increasing non-military aid and making military aid conditional on doing what the U.S. wants. The fact that Pakistan has already done a great deal, almost all of it destructive, is irrelevant; the first rule of counterinsurgency is, if what you’re doing is counterproductive, it’s because you’re not doing enough of it.

Another brilliant recent Post headline: “U.S. Construction in Afghanistan Sign of Long Commitment.” What gave it away? The fact that we’ve been there for almost seven and a half years?

The reason “successful” counterinsurgencies usually last so long is that they are generally won by grinding the population down in misery for so long that it gets tired of war and stops caring who wins. U.S. techniques have advanced from slapping a few coats of paint on a school and calling reconstruction, as they did in the early Bush years, to actually carrying out or funding small development projects, as long as local populations cooperate with them. They did the same thing, on a larger scale, in Vietnam; the Soviets built schools in Afghanistan as well. This song has been played countless times before.

Sometimes, as in Iraq, things descend to such a level that even counterinsurgency is an improvement. That is a historical contingency, not a universal law of counterinsurgency. Pakistan and Afghanistan haven’t become that miserable yet; Obama’s war on terror is predicated, whether he realizes it or not, on their becoming that miserable.

Posted at 11:00 am.

January 12, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Israel -- Notes on a Society in Confusion

900 dead and no clear end in sight, as Israel throws its reserves into battle in Gaza. According to Monday’s New York Times, “senior Israeli officials” believe that Hamas’s military is “beginning to crack” and that Hamas may be ready for a cease-fire agreement.

It is not clear whether Israel is. If they wanted a cease-fire, they had one, enforced by Hamas with a minimum of violation between June 19 and November 4. A new study by a right-wing military think-tank in Israel points out that in that period Israel was hit by only 20 rockets and 18 mortar attacks (killing no one), the vast majority by groups opposed to Hamas, which was highly effective but not perfect in establishing control over them. In return, Israel was supposed to open the Gaza crossings and allow normal flow of goods; instead, the Israelis allowed roughly 20% of the traffic allowed in December 2005, itself a period of stringent control after the military withdrawal. And, on November 4, as the report points out, the ceasefire was severely undermined by an Israeli attack that killed 7 Hamas fighters. Since that time, the rocket fire increased and simultaneously the closures were made comprehensive; in all of November, about 20% of one day’s worth of trucks were allowed in, i.e., less than 1% of normal traffic, to a population where 80% depend for their basic sustenance on international aid.

Conversely, if they actually want Hamas’s control over Gaza to dissolve, then there will be no force that can stop small groups of fighters from launching rockets into Israel. Unless Israel either occupies Gaza with a large, permanent presence, something nobody wants to do, or somehow reimports the Fatah gangs that Hamas routed in June 2007 and helps them to establish control – which would also require an Israeli occupation.

Which of these two endgames – ceasefire or regime destruction – Israeli leaders want is unclear, although presumably at some point outside pressure will kick in and they will have to settle for the first. In the meantime, it is very difficult to see what they gain from all this violence. True, there is a temporary reduction in rocket fire, but if they continue to keep 1.5 million people in a cage, it will come back. They can’t possibly be trying to make life so miserable for people in Gaza that they flee, since there is nowhere they can go and, in any case, the Israelis aren’t letting anyone out; indeed, several observers have remarked that this is the first time they have seen a full-scale war on a population that can’t leave the area of fire. This, by the way, is the reason for the mad game in which the Israeli military satisfies its conscience by calling people and telling them to leave their houses, which are about to be bombed; and then bombs the places that these people flee to. Warning people about an attack is hardly evidence of great morality if you don’t allow them a safe haven to go to.

This parodistic assault is hardly the only evidence of something very wrong with Israeli political society. Just survey the newspapers randomly.

Founded on the idea that it would provide a safe haven from persecution for Jews worldwide, Israel is now the most dangerous place in the world for a Jew to live. Although Iranian Jews harassed by security services and offered rosy futures by the Jewish National Agency are making aliyah when they can, even Iran is safer for a Jew than Israel. And the result is clear: 2007 was the first year since the early 1980’s that emigration from Israel exceeded immigration.

The centrist ruling party Kadima, just decided to support a proposal to disqualify the mostly Arab Balad party from February’s elections, because Balad calls for Israel to be a multiethnic democracy with equality for all, rather than a Jewish state; according to Kadima, this means that Balad wants to destroy Israel. Democratically calling for democracy is illegal in Israel.

Last but hardly least, David Sanger reports in the New York Times, corroborating an earlier report in the Guardian, that last year Israel requested advanced military equipment and the right to overfly Iraq in order to mount a raid on Iran’s nuclear site at Natanz, and was turned down by President Bush, who was alarmed at the possibility that such a raid could “ignite a broad Middle East war,” while simultaneously accomplishing little but driving Iran’s nuclear program further underground. When George Bush is the voice of sanity, when you need a reality check from the man who doesn’t believe in reality, you have a problem.

Of course, the real problem is that the Palestinians are crazy. Ask anyone in Congress.

Posted at 10:54 am.

January 11, 2009

Self-Parody, the Highest Form of Satire

In 1973, when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with his Vietnamese interlocutor, Le Duc Tho, who declined the award), the songwriter Tom Lehrer declared the death of satire. When reality is more ironic than satire, what is a poor social critic to do?

Fortunately, the problem was resolved with the rise of the American right-wing and the powerful art form of self-parody (which it neither created nor does it exclusively monopolize, but to which it has a special claim nonetheless). That has now reached a height that I believe is theoretically impossible to top, with intrepid war correspondent Joe the Plumber (who is not named Joe, is not a licensed plumber, can't figure out that he makes nowhere near $250,000 a year, and wouldn't know a fact if one clogged up his toilet) going to Sderot and making an impassioned speech about how the media should be banned from covering war (and making it ostensibly as a member of the media).

If you have any interest in art at all, do watch the clip. And then ask yourself what bold new method of expression will come forward to replace self-parody, whose death is now historically inevitable.

Posted at 8:17 pm.

January 9, 2009

Comparative Terrorism

Yesterday, west of Kandahar, a neo-Taliban suicide bomber drove a vehicle into a crowded marketplace, detonating it and killing two American soldiers and three Afghan civilians, wounding 21 more.

The Israeli strike on Nizar Rayyan also killed two of his wives and seven of his children (numbers have varied in different reports). Rayyan was a senior political leader of Hamas and an influential cleric, but I've seen no evidence to suggest that he was part of Hamas's military chain of command (an assassination is only considered to be directed at a military target if the person is in the chain of command).

By any criterion of proportionality between military significance and civilian "collateral damage" I can imagine, the neo-Taliban strike is much more likely to be a "valid" military strike, while the assassination of Rayyan is much closer to indiscriminate violence or, dare I say, terrorism.

In toto, Israel has killed over 750 Palestinians in this assault. The first wave of targets had been identified over the course of at least six months of planning; about 225 people, mostly affiliated with Hamas, were killed within minutes. Though many of these were not combatants (Hamas runs the government of Gaza, and it needs police to do so; targeting them was not just a war crime but a way to ensure further disorder in Gaza, something Israel supposedly doesn't want). Discounting that wave, of over 500 killed, according to the UN (reporting figures compiled by the Palestinian Ministry of Health, since, of course, no one else could possibly know, )as of sometime yesterday, 257 were children and 56 women.

Half the inhabitants of Gaza are children, so the child fatalities in the later waves of bombing are consistent with completely random targeting (although the female fatalities are lower than you would expect). Complete randomness is apparently the reason why Hamas rocket fire is "inherently terroristic."

By these standards, Hezbollah, which killed 161 Israelis, 109 of them soldiers, in the 2006 war, is an exemplary force and should be conducting tutorials in the laws of war.

January 5, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Understanding the War on Gaza

They say the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime; it’s as good an explanation as any of the IDF’s reoccupation of the ruins of the settlement at Netzarim, near Gaza City.

For the majority of the Israeli population right now, including most definitely those settlers in the reserves who are back in their old stomping grounds after three years, the crime was the abandonment of the settlement and the withdrawal of military forces from permanent posts in Gaza.

For most of the world, the crime was the establishment of the settlement in the first place. Oh, no doubt there were crimes committed in 1948 and more in 1967, yet, given the tremendous power of the Israeli state (especially with the United States as a committed sponsor since 1967), it might well have lived down the consequences of those acts; after all, history is a tapestry of iniquity.

The point, though, is for those iniquities to fade into the past, they have to be ended, or at least toned down. But the Israelis just couldn’t get enough. The only country in the world that still hasn’t declared its borders, it has spent nearly 40 years now expanding into the pitiful scraps of land left to the Palestinians after two wars, in one of the original “public-private partnerships;” religious extremist organizations and then later émigrés from Russia supplied the settlers, while the state provided every possible assistance, both overt and covert.

Up through the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, nothing even slowed down this process. The so-called “peace negotiations” over “final status” of the occupied territories just accelerated it.

In the process of constructing an occupation, the Israelis also constructed a resistance. Hamas, originally supported by the Israelis as an alternative to the militance of the mostly secular activists of the first intifada (and to Fatah), started to gain support as the dominant organizations like Fatah were co-opted into acting as local enforcers for the Israelis (with the help of the CIA). Exploitation of the Palestinian labor force became less and less important to the Israelis, simultaneously making various kinds of nonviolent resistance less possible.

Economic strangulation of the Palestinians came next, along with repeated military incursions to undermine the nascent Palestinian state, which was pushed into resistance after all of its collaboration gained it nothing in meaningful concessions from the Israelis.

Repeated assassination of Hamas leaders helped create a paranoid, inflexible organization whose active members know they are living on borrowed time.

Cutoff of funds to the Palestinian government after Hamas won the legislative elections of 2006, active support of a split between Fatah and Hamas (especially on the part of the United States), the creation of Fatah security forces which are little more than armed militias of the United States, and open siege of Gaza ever since Hamas took it over in June 2007 have created a population with no political hope on the horizon.

Without understanding this back story, nothing about the current war, in which the Israelis have now killed over 500 Palestinians, makes sense.

From the perspective of the people of Gaza, there are two choices: give up and die or fade quietly into oblivion or continue to live. The stupid and indiscriminate firing of rockets into southern Israel continues in part because of the thousands of militants with a tenuous grasp of reality who live among the 1.5 million people of Gaza, but more than this, it is a way of saying, “We’re still alive. You haven’t destroyed us yet.” If you take away everything from people, don’t be surprised if their resistance takes irrational and immoral forms.

Of course, the argument against this analysis is that it was the Gaza withdrawal that provoked the rocket attacks, and withdrawal is the opposite of occupation. In truth, five months passed between the withdrawal and the creation of a concerted international effort to squeeze Palestine. If you control every aspect of a society’s interaction with the world, when you have made that society fundamentally dependent on aid, you have not ceased occupation in a moral or political sense.

Despite the above analysis, this assault is not the playing out of deep-laid expansionist plans. Indeed, the unified Israeli commitment to unceasing expansion has collapsed in the past several years, leaving a vast confusion among Israeli policymakers. The Zionist program of aliyah has failed; not only will the rest of the world’s Jews not come to Israel, Israelis are fleeing in droves. During this period where Israelis are struggling to come to terms with the “demographic problem” caused by occupation, they have one comforting, familiar principle to fall back on when dealing with Palestinians: the iron wall. A child could come up with a better way than “Operation Cast Lead” to end the rain of rockets, but such options simply cannot be considered in Israeli society today.

Still, the fact that the contradictions of expansionism and Zionism have caught up with the Israelis suggests some hope for the future – if somebody can stop them from turning Palestine into a wasteland of anarchy and despair in the meantime.

Masouda al-Samouni was preparing food for her 10-month-old son when an Israeli missile struck. “He died hungry,” she said. If something isn’t done, that will be as fitting an epitaph as any for all Gaza.

Posted at 10:57 am.
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