Why does Washington’s imperialist warmaking continue?

(This is v.2 of this blog post. I edited it to try to give a better picture of the casualty tolls in Iraq from the 2003 decision to invade. But those numbers are still really hard to capture. ~HC.)

In the months leading up to March 19, 2003, when Pres. George W. Bush launched an unprovoked and completely optional war of “total regime change” against Iraq, I was proud to take part in several of the broad and spirited antiwar demonstrations and other actions that took place all around the United States and the world.

But we failed to stop Bush from launching his illegal war.

It was 15  years ago this week, on March 19, 2003, that Bush unleashed the war. The negative consequences of that decision– primarily on Iraq and its people, but also on the United States and the integrity of the global order– were massive, and continue to this day. They include (but are not limited to) the following:

  1. The number of those who died directly or indirectly as a result of the invasion of Iraq or the numerous secondary conflicts sparked by the invasion has been estimated at around half a million. Around 4,500 U.S. service-members lost their lives. The numbers of those Iraqi residents wounded or displaced during the 15 years of conflict has been considerably higher. All these casualty figures continue to rise.
  2. The physical infrastructure of Iraq, a country of some 33 million souls, whose schools, hospitals, universities, road system, artistic infrastructure, etc, had already been very badly damaged by 13 years of extremely punitive, US-led sanctions, received considerable additional blows, leading to numerous public-health crises and de-development.
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In praise of war-weariness

This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently… With regard to Obama’s step back (for now) from the brink of escalation in Syria and the rising possibilities of a negotiated de-escalation in Iran, some people here in America have lamented that these developments are “merely the result of war weariness”… As though being war-weary is some form of moral failing, and once Americans have just bucked up and re-gathered our national energies, we should all be “healed” of this war weariness and ready once again to ride off into yet another foreign war?

I demur. I am war-weary and proud of it. Indeed, I have been weary of all these wars since before they all started; and I only wish that more Americans– make that MANY more Americans– had also been war-weary back in those crucial weeks prior to the October 7, 2001 invasion of Afghanistan; those months of the buildup to the March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq; and those crucial days and hours prior to the March 19, 2011 launching of the NATO air attack against Libya…

Not one of those wars brought a discernible net benefit to the people of the country in which it was waged. All three of those countries are still reeling today from the terrible and continuing aftershocks of the violence that the U.S. military visited upon them. All are still trapped inside pulsing circles of violence and counter-violence with no end in sight. Let’s not kid ourselves– either about the current situation of those three countries, or about the huge responsibility that the U.S. government bears for bringing them to their current plight… Meanwhile, here in the United States, every town and city is now haunted by the presence of the traumatized and often deeply troubled U.S. veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the social-service, physical, and economic infrastructure of our country has been ripped almost to shreds by the astronomical cost of the wars.

So yes, I am war-weary. Or maybe, since I don’t want to make this only a retrospective sentiment, let me use the term war-averse instead.

Please! Let us take advantage of the present moment of sanity (in halting the rush to U.S. military hostilities in and against Syria), to connect once again with the ancient wisdoms that time after time after time have told humanity that war is (a) always harmful to the civilians in the war zone, despite all the claims about “precise targeting”, “surgical” strikes, and such; (b) always unpredictable in its political course and outcomes; and (c) always inimical to basic freedoms at home… and that tell us, therefore, that we should exert every possible effort to use means other violence and war to resolve our differences.

Yes, I am a pacifist– and more convinced of this stance than ever, these days… so you could say I am an “ideologue” on the matter, impervious to counter-arguments and un-swayable by new facts. (But really, what new facts could anyone adduce today, to persuade any reasonable person anywhere that the U.S. war on Afghanistan was, on balance, a good thing; that the U.S. war on Iraq was a good thing; or the war on Libya… or, looking forward, that a U.S. war or escalation against Syria would be a good thing, or ditto against Iran?)

But you don’t have to be a complete pacifist to reach these conclusions. There have been many, many smart thinkers throughout history, people who may not have absorbed all the wisdom of the sages of nonviolence but who, while allowing for the possibility of “ethically” waging a war in some circumstances, have nonetheless cautioned strongly about the dangers that any war carries. I’m thinking about St. Augustine, a man who broke from the nonviolent teachings of the first 400 years of Christianity and for the first time posited the idea of a “just war”– but who was so intimately familiar in his own lifetime with the destructive animal spirits that any warfare unleashes that he defined many layers of conditions and prohibitions that would be needed if any war could earn his label of “just”. Or more recently, the framers of the U.N. Charter– men reeling from the effects of two global wars within just one generation, who had seen the damages that both those wars (and also the obsessively punitive “peace” of the Treaty of Paris) had wrought. And thus, while the U.N.’s originators allowed for the possibility of some “legitimate” wars in the order they sought to build, they too defined their own tough layers of conditions that should be met if any war fought in the post-1945 world could meet their standard of “legitimacy”. And equally importantly, they issued passionate pleas for the nonviolent, negotiated resolution of international conflicts and built whole edifices dedicated to providing the mechanisms for doing so.

So yes, let’s hear it for war-weariness once again. And this time, please let the sentiment last a long time. And let’s start seriously planning how to divert all the efforts that have until now been directed to designing and building machines of destruction, control, and war into building structures of peace and human development– for all the world’s people– instead.

Notes on Israeli threats of launching a ‘Dahiyeh’ attack on Gaza

1. Some prominent Israelis are calling for a ‘Dahiyeh’ operation against Gaza.
I just watched this clip from a news/discussion program on Israel’s Channel 2. In it, “military analyst” Roni Daniel openly calls for the implementation of a “Dahiyeh” operation (“like in Beirut”), against Gaza. Dahiyeh is the simply the Arabic word for “suburb or neighborhood”. In this context it refers to the extensive and very highly populated southern suburbs of Beirut where, during the Israeli war against Lebanon of summer 2006, the Israeli military flattened an entire, more than kilometer-square area of 7- and 8-story buildings, the vast majority of them civilian apartments.
The topography and population density of the Beirut Dahiyeh (which has since been extensively rebuilt) is very similar to that of most parts of Gaza City and the six other cities that run down the long-besieged Gaza Strip.
When the Israeli military struck against the Dahiyeh in July 2006, the 450,000 or so residents of the area were able to flee. They fled en masse, ending up gaining a degree of refuge in mosques, schools, churches, and monasteries all over Lebanon. That mass relocation under fire was accomplished in a somewhat organized way by Hizbullah and its supporters because they had gained so much experience undertaking similar mass relocations-under-fire during Israel’s many previous assaults against both South Lebanon and other areas of the country. Relief supplies poured in to help the large groups of displaced families– who meanwhile lost all their worldly possessions as their homes were pulverized by the Israeli air force.
Israel’s authorities could threaten or even implement a “Dahiyeh Doctrine” assault against Gaza if they wanted. But where would the civilian residents of the targeted areas flee to?( And how could the supplies so necessary to their immediate relief after their dislocation be gotten into them?) The Gaza Strip is closed off from the outside world by the lengthy Israeli siege; and no part of the area inside it is immune from Israeli attack.
Already, many thousands of Gazans have received leaflets, phone calls, and text messages from the Israeli military telling them to flee their home areas. They regard those messages as a sick joke or an insidious form of psychological warfare. Where should they flee to?
2. Even the ‘Dahiyeh Doctrine’ DID NOT SUCCEED, strategically, during its seminal implementation, against the Beirut Dahiyeh in 2006.
The strategic goals of that war that PM Olmert and his generals launched against Lebanon in July 2006 were two-fold. Primarily, they were trying (as they openly stated) to inflict such pain on the population of Lebanon that the population would turn against Hizbullah and force it to give up the arsenal that it still retained under its control despite the fact that it had also, since 1992, been an active participant in Lebanon’s parliamentary system. In a secondary and broader way, the war was launched to “re-establish the credibility of Israel’s deterrent power” which, the generals thought, had been badly damaged by the unilateral withdrawal that Israel had made from South Lebanon in May 2000, bringing to an end a military occupation of the southern portion of Lebanon that had continued since 1982.
During 33 days of extremely damaging fighting, during which the Israeli military destroyed large portions of Lebanon’s national infrastructure, killed many hundreds of civilians, and dislocated more than a million people from their homes, the people of Lebanon rallied ever closer and closer around Hizbullah. Most certainly they did not “turn against it” or repudiate and seek to punish it, as Olmert and the generals had hoped.
Pres. George W. Bush gave Olmert a complete green light to continue his assault as long as he wanted, and provided some much-needed resupply for Israeli munitions as they started to run low. But still, Israel was unable to force Hizbullah and the Lebanese people to bow to their demands. After 33 days, the conflict was also becoming disruptive, to a small degree damaging, and definitely embarrassing to Israel. (A ground attack against South Lebanon that was a last-minute way the military sought to impose its will on the Lebanese turned out to be an extremely poorly planned fiasco.) So Olmert himself became increasingly eager for a ceasefire; and with the help of the Americans one was organized on August 13, 2006. The ceasefire terms notably did not include any mechanism for the disarming of Hizbullah.
This was also not great in terms of re-establishing the credibility of the Israeli deterrent. So in 2008, Olmert felt he had to try again to achieve this… which he did in late December 2008, against Gaza. Once again, there, he and his generals were unable to force their terms of capitulation on their target (Hamas), which was able to prevent the Israeli ground forces from taking control of any of the Strip except a small portion; and which survived with its leadership structures and its political positions unbroken… And so it goes.
It is, however, important to note that though it might feel “good” to some portion of Israelis if their government implements a “Dahiyeh Doctrine”, actually, even that is extremely unlikely to bring to the Israeli government the politico-strategic goals that its seeks. It is more likely, indeed, to be extremely counter-productive at the politico-strategic level.
3. Some good resources on the “original” Dahiyeh assaults:
To understand what it was like for one Lebanese civilian social activist to live in Beirut under the onslaught of the Dahiyeh Doctrine, read Rami Zurayk’s amazing and poignant, 60-page-long War Diary: Lebanon 2006, which my company published last year. You can get it as a paperback, or an e-book.
You can read the fairly detailed analysis of the 2006 war that I published in Boston Review in Nov/Dec 2006, here.

News from the negotiated transition in Burma/Myanmar

I’ve recently been devouring Evan Osnos’s brilliant piece of reporting in The New Yorker, on the exciting, now-underway, negotiated transition to much greater democracy in Myanmar/Burma.
Huge kudos to Osnos for doing this great research and reporting, and to The New Yorker for, presumably, funding his lengthy reporting trip to the country, and then publishing the lengthy article. (Sadly, only an abstract is available free at the link above. I hope you can find the whole, long paper version in your local library.)
Osnos’s report is full of fascinating details– about the calculations that Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies in the NLD were making as they decided to give the democratic opening process a chance; and about the deliberations and discussions that occurred deep inside the ruling junta that led to its participation. U.S. diplomacy, in the person of Secretary Clinton and some of her key aides, also played a role.
This is a major story of our time! It affects the future of all of the country’s 60 million people– and, of course, their neighbors. So why do the U.S. and ‘western’ media in general give it so little play and so little prominence, compared with the story of the tragic and violent continuing events in (much smaller) Syria?
It is, sadly, the violent aspects of the events in Syria that have been garnering by far the most attention in the western MSM over recent months. That is, both the violence of the regime, and its tragic effects– which are often waved in front of the western public like a bloody shirt, with the intention being to whip up western opinion against the regime– and the violence of the opposition, which is far too often romanticized and condoned, with the inevitable effects of opposition violence almost never being shown.
I believe there are two factors which explain the difference between the coverage of Syria and the coverage (or lack thereof) of Burma. Firstly, the sometimes almost pornographic fascination with violence and its representations in the western media, in general– as opposed to the much more visually ‘boring’ events that make up the day-to-day grind of diplomacy in a place like Burma/Myanmar; and secondly, the fact that there is huge buy-in from the vast majority of corporate owners and journos in the western MSM to the goal of violent regime change in Syria– but almost complete indifference to the fate of the 60 million people in Burma.
Not all is roses and honey in Burma yet, I know. But I find the story of the democratic opening there really engaging. I wrote a whole chapter about Aung San Suu Kyi in my 2000 book ‘The Moral Architecture of World Peace’. She is an amazing woman, and by all accounts the NLD, that she heads, is a sturdy, resilient, and visionary organization.
In addition, the careful, nonviolent, and negotiated way the transition there is being pursued by the local participants, and supported by external actors, like the United States, is an exemplary way for transitions from authoritarian and/or minority rule to democracy to be undertaken. As in South Africa, 1990-1994. This is exactly what we should be advocating for regarding Syria! If Sec. Clinton can be pursuing these policies of careful diplomacy with respect to the junta in Myanmar that has committed atrocities on a truly massive scale– some of which, truth be told, continue to this day– then why on earth has the Obama administration and so much of the rest of the U.S. political elite adopted such a belligerent and escalatory policy toward the regime in Damascus?
By far the best explanation for this contrast is, I think, the role played by the unremitting campaign of anti-Damascus agitation undertaken by pro-Israeli forces in American and other western societies for several decades now. There has been nothing like that agitation maintained against the junta in Burma. And this year is, remember, an election year in America…
It is not too late for the Obama administration to turn away from the path of escalation regarding Syria. Up until now– and especially with Sec. Clinton’s most recent visit to Turkey– there is no sign that they are doing so. But if they continue along this path, the fallout from any large-scale explosion of hostilities in Syria could well be massive.
Lessons from South Africa and Burma, please!

West Point military historian denies the net value of a decade of war

The NYT has a very important piece today reporting that the head of the military history program at West Point has openly stated that the United States gained “not much” from 10.5 years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The program head, Col. Gian Gentile, concluded– presumably in light of the cost of these wars in both blood and treasure– that they had been “Certainly not worth the effort. In my view.”
A sobering assessment. Especially since the NYT has published it on Memorial Day, the day on which U.S. citizens remember their (our) war dead, a remembrance that can have different emotional overtones depending on whether or not you supported the decisions political leaders made to send those military personnel into action against (and in many cases, in) the targeted foreign countries.
For those who by and large supported those war-initiation decisions (which I did not, in either case), I imagine it might be hard to hear that all the effort and sacrifices that members of the military and their families made may actually have ended up as “not worth the effort.”
However, if we are to prevent our political leaders from ever again making quite avoidable and extremely destructive and counter-productive decisions to launch wars against other countries, I don’t think we can afford to sentimentalize the human losses that U.S. military families have suffered to the point that we cannot make (or even really hear) the kind of clear-headed assessment that Col. Gentile made in that interview:

    Certainly not worth the effort.

Worth noting there, too: The fact that Col. Gentile is no merely academic egghead. Before serving at West Point he commanded a combat battalion in Baghdad.
Maybe now is a good time for the U.S. public to look back over these past 10.5 years of war-making and consider what might have been done differently, and what the probable or possible effects of such alternative, non-war-based policies might have been… And also, to look at the various hotspots and issues around the world where the (still fairly heavily bellophilic) U.S. political class is still, today, actively discussing the possibility of war or other forms of serious escalation of tensions, such as might very easily lead to war… And to redouble our efforts to explore alternatives to war as a way to meet the security or other forms of concern we have about the behavior of other governments, and the kind of responses our government might make that would aim centrally at de-escalating rather then escalating tensions, and resolving outstanding issues through negotiation, rather than war.
The two main places where people in that toxicly bellophilic space “inside the Washington Beltway” are currently actively discussion escalation and possible war, or “interventions” leading to war, are, of course, Iran and Syria.
It is obvious that regarding these two countries, as regarding the situation in Iraq leading up to March 2003, one of the major forces stoking the bellophilia of members of Congress and its suffocatingly incestuous helpmeets in the MSM has been the pro-Israel lobby. The lobby has effortlessly demonstrated its power in Washington in recent years– most notably when its shills in Congress orchestrated 29 standing ovations for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year– at a time when Netanyahu had come to Washington to openly confront President Obama’s policy on a settlement freeze.
For many months now, the advocacy efforts of the lobby’s main arm in Washington, AIPAC, have been strongly focused on stoking tensions with Iran, and ramming through Congress bills mandating an ever tougher U.S. posture toward the country, that have the effect of making the conduct of normal diplomacy with it ever harder and harder… More recently, AIPAC’s website has also started to feature the issue of Syria as one deserving of U.S. “intervention”. In this latter campaign, AIPAC and the other pro-Israel organizations have been joined by many apparently “liberal” and human-rights-focused organizations, who have been pushing for the kinds of policies “safe havens”, “humanitarian corridors”, etc, that sound as if they are only humanitarian and dedicated to saving lives but whose major effect would be to further stoke the tensions among the Syrian people that are already running high, and to give a green light and considerable de-facto support to the members of the country’s completely unaccountable and deeply Islamist-dominated armed opposition.
Ah, that old illusion of a “war for the sake of human rights”… Where has that led us, before?
Well, back in the 1880s, it led King Leopold of the still-infant “nation” of Belgium into a campaign to conquer and control the whole vast area of what became known as “the Belgian Congo”– a campaign carried out in good part in the name of “saving those native people from the ravages of the Arab slave traders.” Yes, there may well have been some Arab slave traders operating on the far margins of the area that the Belgian forces brought under their control. But the Belgians then instituted in Congo a system of extremely rapacious forced labor and prison camps that led to the death of an estimated 10 million Congolese people over the 23 years that followed…
Indeed, very many wars have been justified by their authors, either at the time or shortly after their initiation, as having a clear and present dimension of the enhancement or protection of rights. (Nobody ever launches an avowedly unjust war, remember. All wars have to seem to be “just” to their authors and supporters.)
In Iraq, as soon as it was clear that the U.S. military were not going to find any actual evidence of the (as it happened, quite illusionary) “WMDs programs” whose presence had been the ostensible cause for which the U.S. public was jerked into the war, Pres. G. W. Bush almost immediately started to rebrand the invasion and war as having been all about human rights.
In Afghanistan, as the war dragged on and on with no clear “victory” in sight, many efforts have been made to rebrand that whole conflict and the United States’s huge and expensive military presence there as being in good part an effort to assure the rights of Afghanistan’s people, especially its women.
Perhaps people who still have that illusion should read some actual testimonies about the situation and thinking of actual Afghan women, like this poignant and timely one published today by the great, heroic antiwar activist Kathy Kelly, currently in Kabul.
She writes about a meeting at a small, volunteer-run tutoring center with three Afghan mothers– two of whom have to try to raise their children almost alone while caring for husbands who are disabled..

    Fatima recalls the past winter which was particularly harsh. They couldn’t afford fuel and had to find other ways to keep warm. But Nuria adds that all the seasons present constant problems, and it is always difficult for the family to make ends meet. Asked whether they could recall ever getting a day off from work, the women answered in unison, – “No.”
    Asked about the notion that the U.S. is protecting Afghan women, Nekbat said that whatever officials claim in this regard, they are bringing no help. These women have seen no improvement in Afghanistan, and neither, they claim, has anyone they know. They don’t travel in the circles of those most likely to meet and speak with Western journalists, and poverty and the uncertainties of war seem to dictate their lives more surely than any government. They tell me all foreign money is lost to corruption – no one in their communities sees it going to the people.
    Although no government official or journalist ever asks them about the conditions they are facing, they know the West is curious; the mothers are aware of the drone aircraft – planes without pilots, some of them armed with missiles, with cameras trained on their neighborhoods.
    The drone cameras miss a lot. Nekbat adds that even when people come through to witness firsthand the suffering of common Afghans, she is sure this news never reaches the ears of Karzai and his government. “They don’t care,” she said. “You may perish from lack of food, and still they don’t care. No one hears the poor.”
    One hospital in Kabul, the Emergency Surgical Center for Civilian War Victims, serves people free of charge. Emanuele Nannini, the chief logistician for the hospital, reminded us, the previous day, that the U.S. spends one million dollars, per year, for each soldier it deploys in Afghanistan. “Just let six of them go home,” he said, “and with that six million we could meet our total annual operating budget for the 33 existing clinics and hospitals we have in Afghanistan. With 60 less soldiers, the money saved could mean running 330 clinics.”

These kinds of calculation about costs and opportunity costs are, within a slightly different framework, exactly what the U.S. public needs to consider as it looks– as Col. Gentile has– at whether any particular war is “worth the effort.”
Strategy, Gentile reminded the NYT interviewer, “should employ resources of a state to achieve policy aims with the least amount of blood and treasure spent.”
The NYT article also has, as an intriguing footnote, a quote from Col. John Nagl, who was one of the earliest adopters of, and avdocates for, U.S. use of a ‘COIN’ (counter-intelligence) strategy in Iraq, and probably elsewhere. Nagl currently teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis.
U.S. foreign policy, Nagl tells the reporter, should “ensure that we never have to do this again.”
The reporter then apparently asks him whether COIN works:

    “Yes,” he said. “Is it worth what you paid for it? That’s an entirely different question.”

For September 11, ten years on

… I want to link, first, to these reflections on 9/11, that I published in Friends Journal in 2007, and to this column, that I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor on 9/11 itself, and which ran in the paper two days later.
Tomorrow, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I’ll be spending a lot of time with my fellow Quakers here in Charlottesville. It feels like the right thing to do. At the Quaker meeting for worship (worship service) that we held very soon after the original 9/11, I said that then was the time that “the rubber really hit the road” for the adherence nearly all Quakers profess to the testimony of nonviolence and to the avoidance not just of all wars but also of the causes of war.
I believe that today, more Americans understand the futility and damaging nature of wars– all wars– than did ten years ago. But still, far too many of our countrymen and -women remain susceptible to arguments like those made in favor of the military “action” or military “intervention” in Libya earlier this year. (The advocates of such “interventions” are nowadays careful not to come straight out and call them “wars”.)
I mourn for each of the lives cut short on 9/11. But I mourn equally for each one of the lives cut short as a result of all the American and American-led wars since then. I bear a heavy weight of concern for the men still incarcerated under inhuman conditions and with no access to due process and no hope of any timely and fair trial– in Guantanamo and other elements of the U.S. ‘black’ prison system worldwide. I mourn for the moral blindness and real spiritual wounds suffered by all those who act with, or condone, violence. And I am staggered to think of the “opportunity costs” the whole world has incurred as a result of all the United States’ military spending since, and largely as a result of, what happened on 9/11: All the wonderful, life-supporting projects that that money could and should have been used for instead, which would have made the world a far safer place for everyone– including Americans.
Since 9/11, my own three children have grown into mature, capable, and wonderful adults. Two of them have married and now have children of their own. We all have a new generation to raise. The need to build a better world for these little ones– for all the little ones around the world!– has never felt more urgent. Our generation has a lot to apologize for. But luckily, many of us are still around, with a good few years of energetic and loving activism left in us, to try to make some good amends and get the global situation turned back onto a better track…
Here’s what I’m going to be doing next weekend: Friday night, speaking at the Annual Conference of the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation in Washington DC; and Sunday noon, speaking at the second conference this year that marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s 1961 warning about the dangers of the emergence of a “Military Industrial Complex.” This one’s in Charlottesville.
These both feel like great ways to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the tragedies of 9/11. Come to one or both, if you can.

Syria, authoritarianism, war, and peace

I regret that I haven’t had much time in recent months to blog and write about the many developments in the still-unfolding ‘Arab Spring.’ However, I think that much of what I was writing back in March and April– especially on the extremely upsetting and complicated series of events in Libya and Syria– has stood the test of time pretty well. That has been particularly the case, I think, with regard to the warnings I issued ( e.g. 1, 2) about the danger of trying to use military tools, as in Libya, in order to pursue a claimed human-rights agenda, and with regard to the calls I made (e.g. 1, 2, and in this late-May discussion at the Middle East Institute, MP3) for people to focus on achieving a reform process in Syria that is negotiated, inclusive, and wide-ranging rather than continuing to pursue only shrill and personalized “rights” campaigns that all too easily and often shift over into highly politicized calls for regime change.
I repeat: War and extreme social conflict are always and necessarily injurious to the rights of the civilian residents of the conflict zone, especially the most vulnerable. Armchair activists in the west who have never lived in a war zone often have zero understanding of this fact.
(Though I am strong critic, on pacifist grounds, of the whole concept of a “just” war, I do think the first proponents of that originally Christian doctrine understood the always-injurious nature of war; and they coded that understanding into their injunctions that wars should only be undertaken when there was a strong chance of a speedy and decisive victory, and when the goods to be gained through any proposed war could be seen to clearly outweigh the evils that would necessarily accompany it. No-one back then ever proclaimed the idea of an “easy” war that would be a “cakewalk” or that would bring “only” good to the world! How tragic that so many in the west have lost sight of that deep wisdom embedded into the “western” tradition… )
Back to Syria, though. There, as in Libya, we have a situation in which both the regime and the opposition have now proven their resilience. This is, of course, a recipe for stalemate and prolonged conflict that, so long as it lasts– and it has now lasted several months– will cause immediate harm to Syrians of all political persuasions while also sowing the seeds of a possible much more serious social breakdown (fitna) in the future.
I want to ask two questions:
1. How many of those in the west who are now clamoring for immediate regime change in Syria think the negotiated transition from minority rule to democracy that occurred in South Africa in the early 1990s was a good thing? I would imagine the vast majority of them (of you) do.
So has the violence enacted by the minority regime in Syria even come close to the violence enacted by the former minority regime in South Africa against its people?
No. I thought not.
So why was a negotiated transition to democracy good in South Africa, while most western rights activists shudder at the very idea of one in Syria? (I hope the answer is not a racist one: Namely, that westerners were prepared to give a generous pass to members of the minority regime in South Africa because they were “white”… but they’re not prepared to do so to members of the Alawite regime in Syria because, um, they’re just another bunch of Ay-rabs… )
2. Can I invite you to a thought experiment?
I know from my own extensive research that Israel came very close to concluding a peace agreement with Syria at two points since the 1991 Madrid Conference: firstly, in 1994-95, and secondly, in 2000.
Imagine if one of those attempts had succeeded… Then, in early 2011, when the winds of the Arab Spring started blowing in Syria they would have been blowing in a country that (like Egypt) had regained all the national territory seized by Israel in 1967 and held for many years thereafter, and that was in a state of fairly well-entrenched final peace with Israel.
How different would such a Syria have been? How different would have been the role of the “security” forces in the country’s politics and national culture? How different would Syria’s whole society and economy have been from what we see there today?
Note that I am not here just mindlessly “blaming Israel” for all the woes currently besetting Syria and its people. The people inside Syria– on both sides– who have been pursuing their agendas through violence must bear the first responsibility for the losses inflicted. (And there, as in South Africa or U.S.-occupied Iraq, or anywhere else, it has been the dominant security forces that have inflicted the vast majority of the casualties…)
But still, it is worth noting that the security forces in Syria in general have only continued to occupy the bloated social, economic, and cultural role that they have been occupying because of Israel’s steadfast intransigence in the peace negotiations over the years, and because of the extreme reluctance of Israel’s negotiators to abide by the Security Council resolutions (and longstanding international norms) that insist that Israel cannot hang onto any of the Syrian territory that it occupied through war, back in 1967.
If Syria in 2011 had been in a situation of peace with Israel since 2000– even a “cold” peace, as between Egypt and Israel– then might not the internal interaction between pro-democracy forces and the military look more like what happened in Tahrir Square, and since then, in Egypt this year?
In Tahrir Square, the leaders of the military were abiding by an arrangement they had reached with the political leadership (in that time, Pres. Sadat) back in 1977, under which they vowed they would never turn their tanks against civilian protesters. Yes, I realize that pledge was given even before Egypt concluded its peace with Israel in 1978-79. But still, the fact of the peace with Israel made it a lot easier for the Egyptian military in 2011 to once again abide by the pledge they had made in 1977.
… Ah, it’s too late now to “imagine” what Syria might have looked like today if either the 1994-95 or the 2000 peace talks with Israel had succeeded. Those of us around the world who care deeply about the wellbeing of Syria’s 21 million people face the situation we face.
For my part, I’ll continue to call for a reform process in Syria that is negotiated, wide-ranging, authentically Syrian, and inclusive (including of representatives of the present regime, as well as, of course, the different strands of the opposition)– rather than calling for any specific outcome such as either the downfall or the continuation of the present regime.
(In South Africa, putting the focus on the need for real reform and respect for a truly democratic nationwide election proved to be the key that winkled the pro-apartheid National Party out of office– and gave them a decent, respected position in the political opposition… until the NP withered completely on the vine around ten years later.)
I call for the same kind of negotiated outcome in Libya, where goodness knows the damage caused by this terrible, tragic war that NATO has waged for the past five months has been unconscionable.
But in the case of Syria, let’s also not forget that the country is still one that it is in a state of war with its neighbor, Israel; and that the only way to end that state of war is through conclusion of a final peace agreement that implements all the conditions of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. If westerners in countries that have given huge support to Israel for the past 40 years truly want to help the people of Syria– including the very numerous Syrian citizens still prevented from returning to their families’ homes and farms inside the occupied Golan– then surely they (we) should be agitating hard for Israel to conclude the kind of rules-based peace with Syria that it concluded with Egypt back in 1979. Certainly, no U.S. government aid to Israel, whether economic or military, should be given in a way that entrenches and strengthens Israel’s hold on the occupied Golan.

Remembering Qana, five years on

On this day five years ago, at 1:30 am Lebanon time, Israel’s U.S.-supplied warplanes attacked houses in the south Lebanese village of Qana, killing more than 60 civilians, 37 of them children. Go watch this soberly reported video clip from Britain’s Channel 4 to get a measure of the horror.
The Qana Massacre of 2006 was the single deadliest episode in the gruesome 33-day assault that the government of Israel unleashed against Lebanon– with the full support of the U.S. government– in July 2006.
Washington’s role throughout the war was twofold. At the military level it provided many services including speedy replacement of the huge amounts of ordnance with which Israel pummeled Lebanon’s people and their national infrastructure. At the political level, Washington’s main role was to stave off all the calls for a ceasefire that mounted internationally as the long-planned assault proceeded throughout July and the first half of August.
Over the weeks that the war lasted it became increasingly clear to Israel’s military leaders that (1) they could not force a Lebanese surrender purely through the use of standoff weapons, as their super-arrogant chief of staff Dan Halutz had imagined; (2) that they would therefore have to use ground forces, as well, to try to achieve their objective; but (3) their ground forces were unable to prevail against the very well-planned defenses that Hizbullah maintained throughout South Lebanon… The war– which had been designed to “restore the credibility of Israel’s military deterrent” in the eyes of potential opponents from throughout the region– was instead having quite the opposite effect! So by the second week of August, Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel was becoming increasingly eager for a ceasefire. A ceasefire agreement was finally agreed among the parties, via the U.N. Security Council, on August 11 and it went into effect on August 14.
Throughout the entire 33 days of the war, Washington put not one iota of pressure on Israel to stop the carnage. Indeed, some days before the July 30 Qana Massacre, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed the importance of the already heavy Lebanese civilian casualties by describing these losses as only “the birth pangs of the New Middle East.”
This woman– who fwiw has never herself experienced “birth pangs”– helped bring to the families of Qana and so many other places in Lebanon a stream of dead babies and toddlers, caked in the dust, grime, and blood of the sarcophaguses that had been their families’ homes.
For the people of Qana, the massacre of 2006 was an eery replay of the massacre they suffered ten years earlier, during the assault that Israel launched against Lebanon in April 1996. On that occasion, Israeli artillery demolished a clearly marked U.N.-run refuge in which hundreds of old people from the local area had sought shelter from the fighting, killing 106 of them.
On both occasions, Israeli leaders did all they could to deflect responsibility for these acts. They challenged the veracity of the very well-documented news accounts (and U.N. reports) of the incidents. And they claimed that because they had “instructed” local residents to leave the area prior to the attacks, the residents “had only themselves to blame” by staying their home villages: an amazingly arrogant and quite illegal argument for an attacking foreign army to make! In addition, very early in the fighting, the Israeli air force had demolished all the key highway bridges linking south Lebanon to the rest of the country. How were families with old people, disabled people, and young children supposed to “leave” their home village when “instructed” to do so by a foreign army?
I still have a deep well of sadness about what the Israeli military did– with the full backing of my own government– in Lebanon in 2006. Longtime JWN readers will know that on August 11, 2006, a cousin of my ex-husband was killed when the Israeli air force attacked a civilian convoy that was leaving Marjayoun for safer areas further north. The route and timing of that convoy had been clearly pre-arranged in coordination with the Israeli military. But still, the Israelis attacked, killing Colette Rashed and six others of the fleeing Marjayoun civilians. Read more details about that attack here.
… And please, don’t forget to check out (and buy) War Diary: Lebanon 2006, Rami Zurayk’s amazing account of what it was like to be in Beirut and South Lebanon during the whole of that war, which my company is publishing as an ebook ($4.00; several formats) and a short paperback ($7.00). The Israeli assault against Lebanon in 2006 was a turning point for the whole region in several ways. It gave Arabs and Muslims everywhere the idea that there were indeed ways for well-organized national groups to stand up to and defy military organizations that enjoyed apparently unchallengeable superiority on the battlefield. It revealed (yet again) the degree to which U.S. policy had been made into a handmaiden of Israel’s. And it showed the importance of forging strong bonds of unity between secular anti-imperial forces and more Islamist anti-imperial forces if the power of a a hostile and aggressive imperial alliance is ever to be successfully broken.
Rami Zurayk’s book is a wonderful document: humane, impassioned, tender, intimate, and wise. Advance orders for it will be fulfilled on or before August 10. Yes, I think it is important to sell this book and get the story it tells much more widely disseminated within the Anglosphere. But I also want JWN readers to stay keenly alive to the tragedies and costs of war, everywhere. In 2006– and still, today.

Afghanistan, logistics, geopolitics, war, peace

The WaPo’s Craig Whitlock has an informative piece in today’s paper about the many continuing challenges the U.S. military has faced as it attempted to provide logistic support to the “surged” U.S. troop presence in very distant Afghanistan.
Supplying these troops is particularly hard, due to three factors:

    1. Um, Afghanistan is a long way away from the United States; it is landlocked with high mountains surrounding it on nearly every side; and it has lousy internal infrastructure.
    2. The all-volunteer U.S. military is configured in a certain way and most of it fights in a certain way. Bottom line here: supporting one service-member in the field, what with bottled water, air-conditioning when at all possible, decent electric supplies, warm meals whenever possible– oh, not to mention the high cost of her or his weaponry, very high-tech vehicles, and the fuel needed to power them– etc., etc., places huge demands on the supply branches such as would not be placed by, for example, a Maoist-style field force “living off the land.”
    3. U.S. politics certainly constrains logistics choices that might otherwise be far simpler (and less expensive) to make. For example: one look at the map so handily provided by the WaPo today shows a big U.S.-logistics black hole in the whole of Iran, a neighbor of Afghanistan that has a number of pretty good land links with it. But the U.S. can’t use Iran as a transit zone! (More on this, below.) In addition, though, domestic U.S. political pressures mandate that the vast bulk of the goods supplied to U.S. forces be bought from (and shipped from) U.S. suppliers. So it might make a lot more sense to source the supplies from elsewhere. (And I believe that in the case of bottled water, this is not shipped in from the United States– can anyone confirm that?) But still, that domestic-sourcing pressure might help save a few jobs back in the United States, but it certainly adds hugely to the logistical challenge.

So yes, in some respects the U.S. military is a competent organization; and by and large it has been able to meet the logistical challenges created by the above factors.
Whitlock quotes Alan F. Estevez, the Pentagon’s principal deputy assistant secretary for logistics, as saying “If you look at what we’ve done there in the last two years, we look at it more or less as a logistics miracle.”
H’mm. “Miraculous”, maybe. But also a truly gargantuan money sump for the currently hard-pressed U.S. taxpayer, a massive burden on the global environment and especially the environment of the war zone itself… And all for– what exactly?
In order to deliver the machinery of lethal combat into one of the poorest countries on earth…

Continue reading “Afghanistan, logistics, geopolitics, war, peace”

On the killing of Osama Bin Laden

In the wee hours of this morning, Pakistan time, a U.S. Special Forces team entered Pakistan in helicopters and flew to a compound in Abbotabad where they found someone reported to be Osama Bin Laden and killed him.
In a briefing this morning, Pres. Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, told reporters that the mission of the team was defined as follows:

    If we had the opportunity to take Bin Laden alive, if he didn’t present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that. We had discussed that extensively in a number of meetings in the White House and with the president. The concern was that Bin Laden would oppose any type of capture operation. Indeed, he did. It was a firefight. He, therefore, was killed in that firefight and that’s when [his mortal] remains were removed.
    But we certainly were planning for the possibility, which we thought was going to be remote, given that he would likely resist arrest, but that we would be able to capture him.

I am glad that Brennan said that. The rhetoric surrounding the operation is important. However, the idea that Bin Laden was killed in “a firefight” doesn’t seem to have any evidence to back it up; and it seems to me distinctly possible that the U.S. team went in and simply snuffed him out. This is a modus operandi very frequently used by the U.S. forces using drones or other killing machines, in Pakistan or elsewhere. Such killings are correctly termed extra-judicial executions (EJEs) because they are carried out far outside the normal, and normally transparent, workings of legal systems.
The individual reported to be Bin Laden was not, like those numerous other victims of EJE’s, killed by a drone operator sitting many hundreds or even thousands of miles away, but by members of a team on the ground, able to look him in the eye as they killed him. Presumably the main intention in using a ground-force team was to obtain irrefutable evidence that the victim was indeed Bin Laden, though that evidence has not yet been presented to the public. The mortal remains of the victim were shortly after the killing “buried at sea”, according to the official U.S. version of events.
This was most likely done in order to prevent a Bin Laden grave from becoming– like that of, for example, the Jewish mass murderer in Hebron, Baruch Goldstein– a site of pilgrimage for followers. After eleven of the Nazis tried at Nuremberg were hanged to death as per their sentences, their mortal remains were almost immediately cremated and the ashes poured into an identified river for instant dispersal with the similar aim of preventing any grave from becoming a focus of pilgrimage.
I am still thinking hard about the U.S. decision-making during the time of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad. Was there really a firefight, or resistance? Though the compound had high walls as defenses, it did not seem to have many internal armaments, such as would be required in any serious “firefight” against a presumably very well-armed U.S. attack force. Bin Laden’s concealment strategy seemed to be centered overwhelmingly around the approach of “hiding in plain sight” near a large Pakistani military cantonment; and that strategy would depend for its success on not attracting attention by hauling large amounts of weapons into the compound.
Did the U.S. assailants indeed have a meaningful plan for “capture” and subsequent trial of their target? I hope so. But given the eagerness of the U.S. military to undertake extra-judicial executions against figures of far less renown and far less apparent culpability– in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere– I have many serious doubts that they did.
I hate the serious undermining of not only the letter of international law that EJE’s represent, but also the undermining of the whole idea of the rule of law that they represent. Anonymous bureaucrats sitting in offices 10,000 miles away get to consider a compilation of “evidence” against a suspect that is ever tested in an open court and that may consist of large amounts of hearsay, malice from jealous opponents, and/or mistaken identity; and they get to say “Kill this one; don’t kill that one; kill that one… ”
What kind of a system, what kind of a world is that?

The elected Hamas prime minister of the (Gaza-based) Palestinian Authority, Ismail Haniyeh, made a statement about the killing of Bin Laden today that I considered really callous (toward the thousands of noncombatant victims– Americans and others– whom Bin Laden had repeatedly and openly crowed about killing) and wrong-headed. He described Bin Laden as “an Arab holy man”.
Haniyeh also, according to that Reuters story, “noted doctrinal differences between bin Laden’s al Qaeda and Hamas.” But I don’t think that noting those differences erases the effects of him calling Bin Laden “an Arab holy man.”
Haniyeh also said this about the killing of Bin Laden: “We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood.”
I think I can understand to some extent where Haniyeh is coming from. Remember that like all the other leaders of the Hamas government that was elected in January 2006, Haniyeh has himself been living under imminent threat of being extra-judicially executed by the Israelis for more than five years now…. Many more than 200 Palestinian political figures have been extra-judicially executed by Israel since the conclusion of the Oslo Accords in 1993. In January 2006, Haniyeh and the rest of the Hamas leaders in the OPTs agreed to participate openly and peaceably in the P.A. elections on the understanding that they could do so without being picked up– or picked off– by the Israeli “security” forces as they campaigned. But the moment after they won the eection, the Israeli Prime Minister of the day, Ehud Olmert, declared them all to be fair game for assassination… And the U.S., which had encourage the whole process through which they had participated in the election, gave Israel 100% backing in that position.
And he is quite right about the amount of Arab and Muslim blood that has been quite wantonly shed by the U.S. over the past decade– especially in Iraq.
But still, as a national political leader– though not, it should be noted, the highest national leader in Hamas, who is Khaled Meshaal– Haniyeh should have been far more guarded and statesman-like in his comments.
As an American, I empathize with Palestinians as they mourn noncombatants who are killed. I would hope that a Palestinian who is also a leader can empathize with Americans who mourned nearly 3,000 dead from a single action led (and proudly claimed) by Osama Bin Laden.

Well, it is all extremely tragic, all this wanton and avoidable taking of life, all this callousness toward other humans. I am also concerned about the triumphalism that so many Americans have been showing in response to the news of the killing of Bin Laden.
If I have one strong hope in these days it is that perhaps, at this point, Americans who have long harbored a deep and unresolved grievance about what happened on 9/11 can finally, now, call it quits. On that day, Al-Qaeda killed some 2,800 Americans. Since then, Americans have killed many times that number of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalis, Yemen, and elsewhere, in pursuite of the so-called “Global War on Terror.” And now our government has killed Osama Bin Laden. Is there a way we can just declare some kind of “victory” in the GWOT at this point and bring all the troops home, out of all of the war-zones?
Of course there is a way to do this… if we want to. It wouldn’t be clean and simple, in any of the countries that our military presence has ravaged so badly over the past ten years. But U.S. forces almost certainly will be exiting Iraq by the end of this year– as per the agreement concluded in November 2008 with the Iraqi government… And there is no pressing reason why US/NATO troops need to stay on in Afghanistan, or engaged in Pakistan. Of all the external forces that one might imagine helping Afghanistan to recover from its 30 years of war wounds, the United States is probably just about the least well qualified, the least well prepared for this task.
American mainstream culture loves to personalize political matters– to make issues concerning Libya be all “about” Qadhafi, or issues of Afghanistan and Pakistan all “about” Bin Laden. So okay, now we no longer have unfinished business called “Osama Bin Laden.” True, Bin Laden’s killing doesn’t immediately make the problem of Al-Qaeda in its present, many-times transmutated form, go away…. But just continuing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan is far more likely to keep creating more hatred and more violence, rather than bringing peace to that part of Planet Earth.
So if there is a silver lining to my government’s killing of this man, let it be this: Let it be that now that he is gone, we American people can start to look more rationally at the real security and other needs of our nation, and of all the world’s other nations. Are these needs well served by our country’s current massive (and very expensive) reliance on the use of brute military force in distant lands?
I think not.
And now, I hope that greater numbers of other Americans can become persuaded of this, too…