Monday, 14 April 2014

Bashir's blowback

The sometimes dry-bones but meticulous London Review of Books has a disturbing article this week about the machinations of Syria’s horrible Bashir al-Assad in trying to corral and exploid jihadist agitation and militancy for his own nefarious goals. What does this story remind us of?

The author, Peter Neumann, outlines Assad’s active support for armed Sunni fundamentalists in making trouble for W in Iraq in the first years of the U.S. invasion. Assad’s thinking was based on the well-grounded fear that his regime was going to be next on the Bush-Cheney list—as was discussed quite openly in the heady days of neocon triumphalism circa 2004-05. Neumann writes:

Practically overnight, Syria became the principal point of entry for foreign jihadists hoping to join the Iraqi insurgency. Inside the country, Assad’s intelligence services activated their jihadist collaborators. . . .

According to records captured by the US military in the Iraqi border town on Sinjar, the logistics were handled by an elaborate network of at least a hundred facilitators, who were spread throughout the country and maintained weapons caches and safehouses in Damascus, Latakia, Deir al-Zour and other major Syrian cities. They, in turn, worked closely with tribes along the Iraqi border whose smuggling business had suffered as a result of the war and for whom facilitating the flow of jihadists was a welcome substitute.

Neumann says before long holy warriors from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco were flooding into Iraq via Syria along a well-established transit route. At one point some 90% of the suicide bombers turning Iraq into a dystopian nightmare were foreigners.

But the jihadists’ harassment of the Americans in Iraq quickly turned into a sectarian war aimed at Shiite heretics, which didn’t please Assad—whose Alawite sect is also Shiite. He tried to reel the fanatics back in and ship them westward to make trouble in Lebanon instead. But some stayed put in Syria and are now a real threat to his rule.

The parallels with the Americans’ cultivation of Osama bin Laden fairly leap off the page. In both cases, religious fanatics looked like just the handy thing to arm and send off to slaughter the enemy but—shock and awe—suddenly turned out to have minds of their own and now military skills and experience to go with them.

For some reason, the guys in charge always think they are smarter than their tools and that the social and political forces they stir up for their short-term ends can be controlled and managed after they’ve been unleashed. Then they find out differently after it’s too late.

This is nothing new in human history. But seeing the unintended consequences or “blowback” as it’s often called is a corrective to the common “realist” view that countries inevitably have to be cynical manipulators of all available resources and leave principles aside. Snatching the short-term advantage so often looks easy and cost-free—until it’s neither.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Saudi panic

The recent attention paid to Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq debacle stimulated by the new Errol Morris documentary The Unknown Known has reminded us of the awful cost of that imperial misadventure and the ongoing human toll that moral pygmies like Rumsfeld aren’t capable of noticing since it doesn’t touch them. But the focus on Iraq, infrequent as that is these days, obscures the other important tale of 9/11 and its aftermath—the conspiracy of silence around Saudi Arabia.

Patrick Cockburn penned an essential piece in The Independent (U.K.) a few weeks ago that put the pieces together in a way I haven’t seen in any U.S. media. He argues that the Saudis are now nervous about all their support for terrorism over the years for fear of the same blowback that turned the CIA Afghanistan asset, Osama bin Laden, into their worst nightmare. He writes:

A measure of the seriousness of the present situation is that, in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has for the first time been urgently seeking to stop jihadi fighters, whom it previously allowed to join the war in Syria, from returning home and turning their weapons against the rulers of the Saudi kingdom. This is an abrupt reversal of previous Saudi policy, which tolerated or privately encouraged Saudi citizens going to Syrai to take part in a holy war to overthrow president Bashar al-Assad and combat Shia Muslims on behalf of Sunni Islam. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has called on all foreign fighters to leave Syria, and King Abdullah has decreed it a crime for Saudis to fight in foreign conflicts.

Cockburn’s larger point is that the war on terror can now be declared an ignominious failure in its own terms given that the death of bin Laden himself, so celebrated here as a final triumph, has had no effect at all on the explosive growth and battlefield successes of the various jihadist movements in Syria, Iraq and of course Afghanistan itself. Furthermore, there is now a serious jihadist presence in Somalia, Libya, Lebanon and even Egypt. Some call themselves an al-Qaeda group of some sort; others don’t. But none of them respond to a centralized command structure and thus cannot be decapitated by droning a figurehead in the Pakistan mountains.

Cockburn lays out known but largely forgotten aspects of the U.S. complicity with Saudi support for jihadist extremists, the bizarre failure to blame reactionary Saudi religious beliefs for incubating the 9/11 terrorists themselves (16 of whom were Saudis), the quick spiriting of bin Laden family members out of the U.S. by the Bush Administration (drawing zero criticism from the loyal Democrats), and the pivot to blaming Saddam Hussein for the twin towers attack, which he had nothing to do with. So now those chickens are coming home to roost alongside the vast poultry farms of Iraq.

I take issue only with one element of Cockburn’s argument: that the war on terror is therefore a failure. It certainly is if we take at face value the consensus over its announced goal of destroying the armed threat to U.S. interests, including the safety of we citizens. That’s been a complete disaster.

But if a secondary aim were to feed the security state and channel vast sums into the military-contractor-weapons-media complex for the indefinite future and browbeat the citizenry into swallowing the destruction of our prosperity and well-being, well then, the war on terror hasn’t been a failure at all—in fact, it’s been a rousing success.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Poison gas politics


Last August, a horrific poison gas attack occurred in the outskirts of Damascus, killing hundreds of civilians. The images were appalling, even for Syria, as whole families choked to death, and the logical culprit to blame was one of the planet’s most despicable humanoids, Bashir al-Assad, who already had slaughtered thousands of his citizens in many of the more traditional ways. That’s when Obama came close to ordering an attack on the Syrian government’s positions, which could have turned the tide in that country’s civil war.

As we know, the British parliament balked at the idea, and Obama eventually went to Congress for approval, which was promptly denied. The whole operation had an air of amateurish ill-preparation and improvising, but what seemed fairly certain amidst all the maneuvering was that Assad, despite the predictable denials, had used sarin gas. A few dissidents claimed that the anti-Assad rebels might have done it, but that suggestion was dismissed as far-fetched theorizing by knee-jerk leftists who automatically rush to oppose any U.S. action on general principles.

I confess to assuming the worst about Assad myself and dismissing the doubts. But the indefatigable Seymour Hersh, writing in the London Review of Books, reports that the conspiracy theorists probably were right—that it was indeed the rebels who staged the poison gas attack with the help of Turkey for the purpose of drawing the U.S. into the war and ousting Assad. It’s an incredible story and a must-read.

Hersh’s account makes sense for a number of reasons: it explains why Obama went to Congress for permission instead of just launching the attack on his own. If Hersh is right, Obama knew the case against Assad was flimsy or even false but couldn’t say so in public for fear of undermining a NATO ally (Turkey), not to mention his own credibility. Even John Kerry’s apparent public goof about Assad getting rid of his poison gas weapons may have been a calculated or even pre-arranged signal, rather than a flub.

We know from subsequent revelations that Turkish officials have been actively considering how to stage a provocation that would give them the pretext for intervening in the Syrian civil war. The appearance on YouTube of a tape recording of a high-level security meeting outlining exactly how it might work led to the shutdown of that Web service in Turkey just last month.

Hersh reports an even more amazing detail involving a joint U.S.-U.K.-Turkey-Qatar-Saudi Arabia weapons pipeline channeling arms from the old Qaddafi stash to the Syrian rebels. He alleges that the entire operation was run out of the Benghazi CIA station, no less, which would be the real reason for the attack on it that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and the subsequent Fox News celebration known as Benghazi-gate.

There’s so much in this piece that it’s hard to digest it all and figure out what it might mean. Hersh says that after Benghazi the U.S. lost control of the situation to the Turks, who now support the worst Islamic extremist factions in Syria while Assad’s government seems to be stabilizing somewhat. The Saudis are pissed, and the Syrian refugee crisis keeps getting worse. Lebanon is, as usual, destabilized, and meanwhile the Israelis gleefully gobble up more of the occupied territories since no one can stop them. This is not going to end well.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Mistakes were made

Errol Morris’s new film, The Unknown Known, is a sustained observation of Donald Rumsfeld—not the sort of thing that would spring to mind when searching for something fun. Yet Morris must have a reason for wanting to spend months studying this profoundly creepy man. I’m sorry my membership at IFC didn’t land me a ticket to his appearance at the launch a couple of weeks ago because I would have asked him that straight out: given how unpleasant it was to spend 90 minutes watching a film about Rumsfeld, why on earth would you decide to spend two years of your life making it?

Morris’s approach isn’t journalistic, and he either doesn’t know all the details or chose not to confront Rumsfeld with the obvious distortions in his selective recollections. It’s not an Iraq war version of Inside Job, the Oscar-winning doc on the insidious role of prostieconomists in boosting the financiers’ coup. You don’t see Rumsfeld squirming like Glen Hubbard or Frederick Mishkin did in that film when director/interviewer Charles Ferguson nails them for their self-serving b.s. And with Rumsfeld, it would have been pretty easy for Morris to do it.

We do see Rumsfeld making shit up when it suits his purpose—it would almost impossible not to—and the occasional flashbacks to his performances at Pentagon briefings illustrate his cynicism plainly enough. For example, Rumsfeld pretends not to know why Americans were convinced in the pre-Iraq war days that Saddam Hussein had a direct hand in the 9/11 attacks. Another documentarian would have thrown in a half-dozen clips of Condi Rice and the Fox News hounds banging away at this theme, enabled by complicit news organs like the New York Times, to show how the propaganda apparatus was cranked up.

Maybe Morris thinks we know all that well enough and has other goals. He seems to want us to stare fixedly at a character who can continue, despite mountainous evidence to the contrary, to think he did a pretty good job and even now has no moral doubts. One could see a Rumsfeld type sitting with a puzzled expression in the dock at Nuremberg wondering what on earth he had done to be facing this unfair rap.

Morris in his other films often treats the offbeat but with a strong unifying theme of justice, especially when miscarried. He made the acclaimed film focused on Robert McNamara called The Fog of War, and he’s done films on people gaming the legal system (Vernon, Florida) and the wrongful conviction of a death-row inmate in Texas. (Morris’s work, which became The Thin Blue Line, got him freed.) He did one 20 years ago on Stephen Hawking’s gratifyingly weird life (A Brief History of Time) in his physical prison from which he contemplates the mysteries of the stars.

So what is it about Rumsfeld that Morris wants us to see? In interviews, Morris conceded that he didn’t try to back Rumsfeld into a corner and implies that that would be uninteresting. Instead, we are brought inside the strangely complacent world of a man directly responsible for vast amounts of human suffering and watch him shrug it off. It’s not a pleasant feeling. One inevitably thinks of all the executors of criminal orders in recent history who, if asked, universally say they had to do what they were told and point the finger at the guys on top. In sum, no one bears any guilt at all. Something just happened.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Justifying Crimea: the "Putin Doctrine"

Vladimir Putin made an important speech in mid-March that hasn’t received much coverage, I’d guess for two reasons: first and most obviously, it happened just as Russian troops were seizing Crimea.

But what a minute, wouldn’t that be a logical reason to pay even more attention to what he had to say, given that the topic was, um, the unveiling of the “Putin Doctrine,” a.k.a., how we Russians plan to behave from now on? Well, yes, it would be newsworthy—unless the arguments he put forth were perhaps too embarrassingly difficult for the major western capitals to formulate an answer to.

Analyst Vladimir Ryzhkov lays out in this Moscow Times article Putin’s seven main points, and they’re worth considering in full. But there is one assertion that is a timely reminder that what goes around comes around. Ryzhkov outlines it thus:

[I]nternational law has been reduced to a menu of options from which every powerful state is free to choose whatever suits its interests. To put down the uprising in Chechnya, for example, Moscow cited the international principle of upholding territorial integrity. But in annexing Crimea, it cited the fundamental right to self-determination.

This is a classical double standard, something Russia has always loved criticizing the U.S. for. But under Putin, Russia is now a powerful country and thus has the right to flaunt its own double standards, just like the U.S.

And thus “the whirlygig of time brings its revenge”: after watching Washington wipe its collective behind with the rights of sovereign states, Russia has decided that it, too, can use that brand of t.p. How about that? Staging a war of conquest in Iraq without any sort of UN mandate has opened the door for other powerful state actors to write their own rules as well.

This will surely be one of the most regrettable and damaging outcomes of American unilateral actions of the last 50 years and our leaders’ loud disdain for the body of international law and UN-based restraints built up to avoid the devastation of war. Decades of invasions, bombing campaigns, drone warfare and all the rest have set the precedents; others are now determined to use them.

The summary of Putin’s March speech also notes that Putin intends to apply the new doctrine to all the countries of the former Soviet Union with the exception of the three Baltic states that are NATO members. He also quite explicitly welcomes any other powerful states to jettison observance of the Westphalian principles of territorial integrity and national sovereignty whenever weak or failed states fall vulnerable to them. Thus China can act as it will in its self-defined sphere of influence, according to the Putin Doctrine, and no doubt other states eventually will bid for a similar special status.

How will American officials deny that this is exactly what the U.S. has done repeatedly in the pursuit of its own interests—treaties and UN principles be damned? The world system to prevent a repeat of the most destructive war in human history by outlawing, as defined and condemned at Nuremberg, aggressive war waged against countries too weak to defend themselves has now officially been tossed into the dustbin of history. As Ryzhkov concludes:

This new playing field for international affairs will make the world dangerously volatile and will increase the risks for more military conflicts. But the problem is that each country believes it will come out the winner in this global wrestling match, while there are few rules, regulations or umpires to help limit the losses and number of innocent victims.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Let's ditch liberal guilt about aid to Uganda

In response to the nightmare of homophobia rampaging through Africa with new and Draconian laws against same-sex behavior and lynchings reported in Uganda and Nigeria, there has been some guilt-ridden moaning about the dangers of “over-reacting” or suggesting that foreign aid money to these thug regimes should not be tampered with. Those making these arguments often are trying to avoid colonialist attitudes of knowing what’s best for Africans from the comforts of American suburbs, and they’re also sensitive to the possible harms to innocent beneficiaries of aid programs were international assistance to dry up.

That’s what’s reflected in articles like this one from Irin News, that describes its product as “humanitarian news and analysis,” entitled “Briefing: Punitive aid cuts disrupts healthcare in Uganda.” The piece mentions the anti-gay crusade and then quotes an anonymous “senior government official” that the aid cutoffs are producing “dire” consequences for the nation’s health.

There are a lot of problems with this type of report. First of all, many of the agencies that have reacted with alarm and dismay at the anti-gay laws (inspired, incidentally, by American evangelical Christians) have been careful to describe their actions as “reprogramming” of aid monies away from governmental entities to the independent sector. This does not preclude outright suspensions at some point, but so far all the accounts that I’ve seen of withheld aid money have stated that the commitments could still be honored if no funds will flow to discriminatory entities. This is not only eminently reasonable (why should Swedish taxpayers have to contribute to homophobic bullshit if they don’t want to?), but it seems to me the only defensibly ethical approach.

But there’s a deeper problem with the narrow focus on Uganda’s health needs, which is outlined in a devastating article in the latest New York Review of Books entitled, “Murder in Uganda” by Helen Epstein. It notes that the Uganda health system was once considered very advanced, and then says the following:

Today, this system is a shambles. Bats, snakes, and other wildlife have taken up residence in once-functioning rural clinics. I have seen fecal material rain down from the crumbling ceilings of operating theaters. Power cuts and water shortages in hospitals kill thousands of patients each year, and emergency operations on pregnant women are sometimes carried out by the light of torches made from burning grass. A decade ago, the UK government funded the construction of scores of new hospitals, but the Ugandan government neglected to staff them, and some are now hideouts for thieves.

In 2012, women were seven times more likely to die in childbirth at Mulago Hospital than when Idi Amin was president forty years earlier. Uganda loses one child to malaria every seven minutes, the highest death rate from that disease in the world, and in 2013, scores of people died of famine in this lush, fertile country for the first time in living memory, not because of food shortages, but because the government failed to provide the resources to send food where it was needed. The notorious Ebola virus, which spreads to human beings from monkeys and causes massive internal bleeding, kills scores of people every year or two. The outbreaks could be prevented with simple surveillance of animal populations, but the government doesn’t bother to maintain such a system. “Villages can be strewn with dead monkeys for months,” Margaret Mungherera, head of the Uganda Medical Association, told me. “No one does anything.”

The cause of this mess is no mystery. Ever since Uganda began receiving generous amounts of foreign aid two decades ago, senior Ugandan politicians and civil servants have been stealing virtually every shilling they can get their hands on. In 1995, the World Bank recapitalized the defunct Uganda Commercial Bank with a loan of $72 million. Museveni then sold it to a consortium that included his own brother for $11 million. The remaining $61 million has never been accounted for. A year later, the World Bank provided Uganda with a multimillion-dollar loan to construct fifteen irrigation dams. Museveni’s agriculture minister reported to Parliament that the dams were nearly complete, but a few weeks later, an investigative team confirmed that they did not exist. A Nigerian contractor was blamed for having stolen the money, but most Ugandans believe their own leaders took it. Nevertheless, despite these and other scandals, the World Bank lent Uganda ever more money, and even praised it as a model of development from which other poor countries could learn.

The US, Japan, and Europe also poured in aid, and as they did, ever more outrageous scandals ensued. Money intended for children’s vaccines ended up in the First Lady’s office; millions intended for forestry projects, AIDS and malaria sufferers, road building, and assistance to victims of the notorious warlord Joseph Kony turned up under ministers’ beds, in flower pots in the prime minister’s office, in Las Vegas casinos, in personal bank accounts, and in heaps on the floor in President Museveni’s official residence. Millions more disappeared into the accounts of nonexistent schools and hospitals, “ghost” soldiers and pensioners, and such initiatives as the “Rabbit Multiplication” project that perform no activities at all.

The author then describes the story of a parliamentarian who attempted to denounce corrupt practices and her sudden death in 2013 under suspicious circumstances. I recommend the full article, which is the first of two parts, here.

I am in no position to judge the accuracy of this account. However, if even a portion of it is true, it certainly gives us food for thought about how much a reprogramming of international aid away from government-controlled entities in Uganda is really responsible for the “dire” situation of public health in that country.

Furthermore, it should raise serious questions about the relationship of the U.S. government with the Ugandan military given fears of armed Islamic groups in Somalia, Kenya and perhaps elsewhere. While Obama and his spokespeople will surely make all the right noises about the awful homophobic laws, nothing will stand in the way of further coziness between the two countries when geopolitical goals are at stake. Anyone thinking that the fate of a few Ugandan homos will trump the U.S. security state’s machinations in East Africa is delusional.


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Obama's bad seed

Chris Hedges at Truthdig describes his ongoing legal battle with Barack Obama over Obama’s insistence that the armed forces should have the power to detain citizens and hold them indefinitely without charge. This little known and poorly understood case is a prime example of why having someone like Obama in the White House is, in one important sense, more dangerous than being ruled by radical wackos like Bush & Cheney.

Upon first glance the whole controversy might not even seem like such a big deal. After all, military forces have firepower; they capture enemies and imprison them; they kill people sometimes and have pretty wide authority to determine when to do so, at least in the field of battle. Why get all technical over the fact that they now can pick up a civilian?

As Hedges explains, one reason for concern is that this is an entirely new state of affairs. The military is supposed to be used for defense of the nation, not for policing, and there are very good reasons for the distinction that go to the heart of life in a free society. The state’s repressive powers are supposed to reside in the enforcers of statutory law, like cops and prosecutors, whose powers are strictly defined and limited. Their procedures are set out in massive and carefully constructed case laws built up at both the federal and state levels, which are meant to guarantee that individuals are not subjected to arbitrary abuses of power such as those, say, exercised by kings and feudal lords in the bad old days.

Post 9/11, however, Americans largely have turned a blind eye to the steady erosion of the distinction between policing and soldiering such that now a general in the field (or, more frequently, a CIA operative pretty much anywhere) can seize hold of your U.S. citizen grandma and spirit her off to a black hole prison somewhere without any due process and without any time limit on how long she is to be held there. The fact that they are unlikely to do so, for now, does not mean they can’t. Legally.

The grandma case is remote, but let’s think of one far more plausible example, as Hedges does, using himself. He was a foreign correspondent for many years and in that capacity often interviewed people considered enemies of the U.S. government and published their statements. He brought the suit because he is now painfully aware that were he to do so today, he could be detained under Section 1021(b)(2) of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011 for providing “substantial support” to a terrorist group.

This idea is not farfetched in the least. We have seen how Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was held at Heathrow airport in London last year under similar “support for terrorism” charges for allegedly playing an intermediary role in the Snowden revelations. The concept, while patently absurd, was upheld by British courts. Who said a law has to make any sense? There is precedent galore for legalistic abuses of this sort throughout human history.

As Hedges comments, in reference to his coverage of the wars in Central America and the Middle East, he was often viewed by U.S. officialdom as essentially indistinguishable from the individuals and groups it was trying to destroy. But as a journalist, he enjoyed some protection:

There was no law at the time that permitted the government, because of my work as a reporter, to order the military to seize and detain me. Now there is.

Obama has defended the military’s right to do so tooth and nail, seeking and winning temporary orders to keep the law intact even when Hedges’ lawyers won a ruling declaring it unconstitutional. If a reactionary like Bush had done so, half the country would know about it and be at least slightly alarmed. Because it’s Obama, people tend to give the whole story a pass. But when the reactionaries come back into power, they will love this little gift provided to them by the “liberals” and will use it with vicious glee. They’ll argue that no one much cared when the other team was in power, so get over it.

And they’ll be right.