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Stooped with my hands on my knees, I took a few deep breaths, headphones still piping music into my ears. I’d sprinted the last few blocks of my evening run and managed to log a few miles more than last week. Only a couple blocks from home at 18th and R, I took a moment to admire the light, feeling proud of what I’d accomplished. Out of nowhere two hands came from behind me and grabbed my behind, clawing down at the band of my shorts. My elbows jerked back and hit whomever it was in the ribs so hard it sent a shooting pain down my hands. A young Hispanic guy about my height let go and sprinted ahead of me, turning to smile over his shoulder. The shock was suffocating. Without thinking, I tore after him. My knees, soft and gummy after running for an hour already. I couldn’t keep up. I chased him for four blocks, before it become clear he would win. I stopped short, wheezing hard and every part of me burning.
That was four years ago. Was it wrong? Of course. Am I alone? Hardly. A twenty-three-year-old woman testified Tuesday that Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, the Air Force’s then chief of sexual-assault prevention, molested her outside an Arlington restaurant in May, then taunted her about it:
‘I feel someone come up behind me—their chest is to my back, and they firmly grab my rear end as they’re walking by, and they ask me if I like it,’ said the woman, who broke down in tears during her testimony in Arlington County Circuit Court.
On Wednesday, Krusinski was acquitted of the assault and battery charges. His lawyers successfully argued that the fact that the victim apparently gave “inconsistent testimony” regarding how many times she hit Lt Col Krusinski in retaliation for his unwanted groping introduced some reasonable doubt into the case. A server from the bar near the alleged assault testified that she too was groped by Krusinski that night, along with one of her coworkers.
Krusinski has been assigned to another position in the wake of these events. Yet Lt Col Krusinski is far more than a larger symbol of the forces’ now well-chronicled rape epidemic. He is also represents a much more narrow and insidious problem of the new “leaders” the military has appointed to deal with sexual-assault cases allegedly perpetrating the very acts they are appointed to prevent. See additional instances of this pernicious pattern here and here.
According to the Washington Post, a recent Pentagon summary found that “reports of sexual assault in the military increased 46 percent to 3,553 reports this fiscal year, a spike Defense Department officials portrayed as a sign that victims now feel more comfortable coming forward.” More people coming forward isn’t bad, but truly, what good is it if there is still no successful command structure in place to address such crimes? Would you report your sexual assault to a chief who you know assaults? It’s a legitimate question.
It’s welcome news that the U.S. Senate is now pushing to overhaul how DoD handles the reporting of sexual-assault cases. But even so the institution of an “independent team of military prosecutors” that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is proposing may be insufficient for the scope of this problem. It’s statistically clear that despite the military’s repeated claims of “zero tolerance” for sexual assault, many abusers are rewarded for their actions while victims are washed out of the military with “personality disorders” and other invented ailments. It’s also clear that many members of the military who are specially appointed to deal with combating these crimes cannot adequately be trusted to do so. Putting seven of these appointees on a team does not seem to solve that problem. James Kitfield has extensively documented “a command climate that tends to cast suspicion and blame on victims.” The groupthink command climate will likely only be reinforced rather than checked in this type of group.
If one were in want of an objective group to rule on instances of theft, he wouldn’t pick from a pool with a blatant stealing problem. The military’s appointment of sexual-assault officers who violate the very nature of the positions they hold indicates a malignant cancer at the highest level. A civilian oversight committee entirely unrelated to the military is necessary to ensure a more neutral and objective environment for reporting such assaults.
Could the much-maligned cuts to defense spending actually be a good thing for American strategy? That’s the case that historian Melvyn Leffler makes in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Responding to those who argue that past retrenchments have left the military ill prepared to respond to future dangers and stress the need to avoid doing the same today, Leffler argues that these fears are overblown. In his words:
Contrary to such conventional wisdom, the consequences of past U.S. defense cuts were not bad. In fact, a look at five such periods over the past century—following World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War—shows that austerity can be useful in forcing Washington to think strategically, something it rarely does when times are flush.
The argument, in a nutshell, is that when the government is operating under constrained resources, it is forced to make more difficult choices and prioritize more effectively, leading to better strategy. It has a certain intuitive plausibility to it, but the examples he presents don’t really seem to support it.
Take the most infamous one—the U.S. military drawdown after World War I, which is often held to have left Washington unready for World War II as the fighting broke out in Europe and Asia. Not so, says Leffler. Rather, “When a second global war did come, the paucity of the resources on hand actually forced U.S. policymakers to make tough but smart strategic choices.” Thus, led by Harold Stark, then chief of naval operations, the U.S. government embraced a threat assessment that judged that the “principal threat to U.S. security was German power.” It allocated resources accordingly, focusing first on helping the United Kingdom to avoid defeat at Germany’s hands while simultaneously building up its own military power and “using diplomacy to avoid war with Japan.”
No doubt this approach has been vindicated by history. Yet while Leffler says that it was “a combination of austerity and crisis [that] helped forge a core strategic concept,” it seems abundantly clear that the crisis alone was the real driver. After all, defense spending had been comparably low for the two previous decades, but that didn’t mean that officials were doing particularly deep strategic planning before 1940. Indeed, as Leffler notes, during that time they embraced a “flawed threat perception” that downplayed the danger from Germany and Japan. The result was that, on the eve of war, the United States had only the sixteenth-largest military in the world. The crisis was grave enough that it would have certainly prompted some kind of rethinking no matter what shape the military was in at the time, but Leffler never gives us any concrete reason to think that the lack of military resources was a net asset for Franklin Roosevelt and his team. U.S. planners succeeded in spite of the resource limitations they faced—not because of them.
This account is meant to support the view that we ought not fear defense austerity today. However, if one wants to make the case for cutting defense spending now, the best arguments for doing so are those that stem from long-range thinking rather than asserting that the cuts themselves will spur better planning. Such an argument might run like this: The United States is a very secure country. It dominates its own hemisphere. It spends more on its military than the next ten countries combined—and many of those countries are its allies. America has adversaries, but its rival great powers are far less dangerous than those of the past. Thus, there is room to cut the U.S. defense budget to right-size it to the threats it actually faces, while still enabling it to maintain preponderant military strength. The money saved could then be used to accomplish any number of other national priorities.
Whether or not you find this line of thinking persuasive, the point is that it starts with an assessment of what the world and the international threat environment actually look like. It doesn’t start with a budget number and then assume that officials will be able to re-prioritize to figure things out within that constraint. In short, if we’re going to cut our military budget, we should do it in the service of a concrete goal rather than just hope that doing so will spur our future leaders to do better long-range thinking of their own.
From its ninth-century origins as a ceremony dedicated to remembering saints and the dead, Halloween has evolved—or, depending on one's perspective, devolved—into a largely secular holiday associated more with crunchy Candy Corn and costumes reflecting the increasing vacuousness of Western popular culture than with solemn reverence for the departed. But beware: an eerie number of frightening historical events have occurred on Halloweens past, events that resulted both in tremendous levels of bloodletting and far-reaching transformations of the world’s geopolitical landscape. Below is a list of the top five scariest historical events that happened on October 31. Read on, if you dare….
#5 On the night of October 31, 1954, the indigenous Algerian Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN, launched attacks on French government assets in Algeria, igniting the Algerian War of Independence, a brutal liberation struggle characterized by massive human rights abuses, including torture by both sides. The conflict divided France politically and cost numerous French prime ministers their jobs. It also brought down France’s Fourth Republic, which involved riots, revolts, and even rebellion by a section of the country’s army. After nearly seven-and-a-half years, over 40,000 terrorist attacks, and hundreds of thousands of battle deaths, the French withdrew in June 1962. The following month, Algeria, which France had since 1848 considered to be an integral part of French territory, declared independence, effectively ending the second French colonial empire.
#4 After the March on Rome from October 22-29, Benito Mussolini was sworn in as Italy’s prime minister on October 31, 1922, fulfilling his threat that "either the government will be given to us or we shall seize it by marching on Rome." Before long, Il Duce turned Italy into a police state. In what was quickly revealed to be a hopeless attempt to resurrect the Holy Roman Empire, Mussolini presided over Italy’s invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, during which Italy employed chemical warfare agents on a massive scale; the conflict led to approximately 20,000 battle deaths. After the demise of Italy’s colonial presence in Africa, Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis effectively put Italy in the position of being a puppet state subordinate to Germany. The result was Germany’s brutal occupation of Italy and the Allies’ invasion in 1943, which, in making Italy a key battleground during World War II, also devastated the country. In the end, despite supposedly making the “trains run on time”, Mussolini’s Italy was characterized by rampant corruption, dictatorship, racist laws and, finally, utter ruin.
#3 Turkey joined the Central Powers on October 31, 1914, which would eventually result in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the drawing of conflict-prone national borders across the Middle East. On November 2, Russia declared war against Turkey; France and Great Britain followed suit on November 5. Although the Ottomans were eventually defeated, the road to victory was hard, bloody, and horrific; the Gallipoli Campaign, generally considered a defeat for the Allies, was particularly costly. Eighteen months after jointly declaring war, France and Britain, with Russia’s assent, signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, spelling out each party’s proposed sphere of influence in a post-Ottoman Middle East. After Russia’s revolutionary Bolshevik government was subsequently denied any claims to Ottoman territory, it published the text of the agreement in November 1917, exposing French and British imperial designs on the region. The eventual implementation of Sykes-Picot resulted in the drawing of national borders that in many cases failed to correspond to demographic realities on the ground, thereby sowing the seeds of many future conflicts in the Middle East, a phenomenon that still haunts the region to this day. Nonetheless, the demise of the “sick man of Europe” ushered in a period of French and particularly British regional dominance that lasted for over four decades.
#2 However, everything started to come crashing down for Great Britain and France when they entered the Suez Crisis, one of history’s most infamous foreign policy misadventures, on October 31, 1956. In collusion with Britain and France, both reeling from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s recent nationalization of the Suez Canal, Israel invaded Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on October 29, 1956, after which Britain and France called on Israel and Egypt to cease all hostilities, withdraw ten miles from the Suez Canal, and allow Anglo-French forces to occupy the Canal Zone. When Nasser followed the Anglo-French-Israeli script by refusing these conditions on October 31, Britain and France intervened militarily against Egypt the same day, which also happened to be just days before the U.S. presidential election, infuriating President Eisenhower. The Soviet Union, which almost entered the conflict, stood by the US at the United Nations to condemn the British and French actions, which compelled British Prime Minister Anthony Eden to declare a ceasefire. At the end of the day, Britain and France, neither of which accomplished their military objectives in the campaign, during which over 2,100 men lost their lives, were discredited in the region, ushering the era of American preeminence in the Middle East.
#1 Characterized by tremendous turmoil and bloodletting, the Protestant Reformation was sparked on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1648, the Reformation concluded with the Peace of Westphalia, a series of peace treaties signed between the major European powers that ended the Thirty Years’ War, among the most destructive of Europe’s many conflagrations. Beyond ending Europe’s wars of religion, the peace treaties are also widely credited with establishing the principle of sovereignty, the fundamental basis for the modern international system of nation-states, which fundamentally redefined Europe’s age-old political fault lines.
Writing amid the first stirrings of the Progressive movement in the United States, Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner argued that seemingly positive social reforms always had an overlooked cost:
A government produces nothing at all...the state cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man, and this latter must be a man who has produced and saved it. This latter is the Forgotten Man....The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C's interests, are entirely overlooked....to lift one man up we push another down.
Sumner’s Forgotten Man concept isn’t perfect. Any technocrat today will eagerly assert that not all government activity is strictly zero-sum, that some forms of spending stimulate more economic activity than their own value. And Sumner deployed the concept as part of an extremely grim view of human society:
A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be, according to the fitness and tendency of things. Nature has set up on him the process of decline and dissolution by which she removes things which have survived their usefulness.
Yet Sumner had an important point. Those who seek to improve society can develop a laser focus on those they want to help, losing sensitivity to the interests of everyone else. And so they sometimes make improvements at the expense of others.
The Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, appears to have added a new wrinkle to the Forgotten Man idea. An NBC News investigation suggests that the administration “knew that more than 40 to 67 percent of those in the individual market [for health insurance] would not be able to keep their plans, even if they liked them.” This contradicts the president’s repeated assurances that “if you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan.” The NBC report tells the stories of multiple people on the individual market who did not get to keep their health plans:
George Schwab, 62, of North Carolina, said he was "perfectly happy" with his plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield, which also insured his wife for a $228 monthly premium. But this past September, he was surprised to receive a letter saying his policy was no longer available....The best option he’s found on the exchange so far offered a 415 percent jump in premium, to $948 a month. "The deductible is less," he said, "But the plan doesn't meet my needs. It's unaffordable."
And a new mother who received a cancellation notice from her insurer told NBC that
she supports the new law and is grateful for provisions helping folks like her with pre-existing conditions, but she worries she won’t be able to afford the new insurance, which is expected to cost more because it has more benefits. "I'm jealous of people who have really good health insurance," she said. "It's people like me who are stuck in the middle who are going to get screwed."
These people “stuck in the middle” are the new Forgotten Men of Obamacare. But unlike Sumner’s Forgotten Man, whose resources or liberties are taken for the benefit of another, Obamacare’s Forgotten Man has his health insurance taken away for his own good. Igor Volsky of ThinkProgress breaks out the apologetics, noting that many plans were cancelled because they didn’t comply with the new law’s tougher standards:
The goal...is to allow a consumer to keep their existing policies, while also ensuring that there are some basic patient protections built into these plans....Individuals can keep the plans they have if those plans remain largely the same. But individuals receiving cancellation notices will have a choice of enrolling in subsidized insurance in the exchanges and will probably end up paying less for more coverage. Those who don’t qualify for the tax credits will be paying more for comprehensive insurance that will be there for them when they become sick (and could actually end up spending less for health care since more services will now be covered). They will also no longer be part of a system in which the young and healthy are offered cheap insurance premiums because their sick neighbors are priced out or denied coverage. That, after all, is the whole point of reform.
Of course, some of Sumner’s Forgotten Man shows up explicitly—the “young and healthy” who once got cheap insurance are forgotten, for the benefit of “their sick neighbors.” (Some of those sick neighbors—such as the woman with the preexisting condition in the NBC story—are also among the forgotten, but let’s forget that.) Yet the new Forgotten Man is here, too, hidden behind Volsky’s hedge words: those who lose their policies can go on the exchanges and probably pay less thanks to subsidies; those who who don’t get the tax credits could end up spending less thanks to broader coverage. Implied: some who lose their insurance and go to the exchanges will pay more in spite of the subsidies; some who don’t get the subsidies will pay more in spite of broader coverage. And, if the reports are to be believed, some will simply lose their insurance altogether, as they’re no longer able to afford care under the Affordable Care Act. Volsky asks us to kindly ignore all these people, as they are not the law’s intended beneficiaries—and, moreover, he expects them to be grateful that they are no longer part of an unfair system. That’s a line the new forgotten men won’t soon forget.
Image: Flickr/LaDawna's Pics
Imagine that your great grandfather or great grandmother was an undocumented Irish immigrant who came to America. Maybe he stowed himself in the belly of a cargo ship between sacks of flour dreaming of the Statue of Liberty. Maybe she came to visit a friend in Boston but stayed forever. Your parents grew up in America. So did you. Maybe you even have a young child who speaks fluent English and wears Nikes. Your child has never been to Ireland and speaks no Gaelic.
Now imagine that the United States passed a law today retroactive to the 1920s decreeing that due to the migratory status of a family member two generations ago who you never met, you are not a U.S. citizen and have no nationality. You are stateless, without access to education or any other rights in the only country you have ever known.
So it is in the Dominican Republic, where nearly two hundred thousand people will be rendered without citizenship of any nation due to a baffling ruling by the Constitutional Court last week. The court ruling, which cannot be appealed, states that children of undocumented Haitian migrants, even those born in the Dominican Republic more than eighty years ago, are no longer entitled to the citizenship previously afforded them. Authorities have been instructed to examine all birth records in the DR back to the summer of 1929 to determine who will lose their citizenship.
The New York Times interviewed a woman affected by this massive legal change:
“I am Dominican,” said Ana María Belique, 27, who was born in the Dominican Republic and has never lived anywhere else, but has been unable to register for college or renew her passport because her birth certificate was no longer accepted. “I don’t know Haiti. I don’t have family or friends there. This is my home.”
While admitting so may be difficult for Dominicans, the DR is a country largely built on cheap Haitian labor. Approximately 83% of the braceros or sugar-cane workers in the country are of Haitian descent and often paid less than $2.50 a day, if at all. The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean’s second-largest producer of sugar cane, trailing only Cuba, and the plant continues to be the country’s most important crop, comprising the biggest portion of agricultural GDP, in a country where 30 percent of the land is used for farming.
In short: The Dominicans don’t want the Haitians to leave, but they also don’t want them to be Dominicans.
In order to accommodate this backward desire, Dominican migration director José R. Taveras indicated that this large class of people stripped of nationality would be given permits allowing their temporary residence until they can be given some immigrant status that does not include Dominican citizenship.
Even before this ludicrous sea change in what qualifies a person for citizenship, many Dominicans of Haitian descent faced racism and uncooperative authorities when trying to obtain the proper documents for passports and other legal matters.
According to the New York Times,
People born on Dominican soil, with some exceptions, generally were granted citizenship for generations. But people of Haitian descent often complained of discriminatory practices when getting official documents, and in recent decades the country’s civil registry officials often excluded the children of migrants whose papers were in question by considering their parents “in transit.”
This is of course despite the fact that the parents or grandparents were not in transit at all but had been brought to the DR on labor contracts by Dominicans and that now multiple generations of these Dominican-born citizens of Haitian heritage had made their permanent home there. In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights publicly denounced this practice as a way of purposefully discriminating against life-long Dominicans.
Historian Edward Paulino recently illuminated this struggle, saying of the DR, “It is a country of immigrants, but no other group is like the Haitians, which arrived with the cultural baggage of a history of black pride in a country that chose to identify with the European elite.” Indeed, it is thought that up to 84 percent of the Dominican Republic’s population is truly of African descent, yet in a 2011 federal census 82 percent identified as indio whereas just a bit over 4 percent identified as black. Discrimination and racism against Haitians is still widespread, even garnering it’s own word: antihaitianismo. For further reading, I would refer readers to the Parsley Massacre of October 1937, a Dominican government-sponsored ethnic cleansing in which twenty thousand Haitians were killed in five days. How a person pronounced the Spanish word for parsley, “perejil,” determined if they were killed. Haitian creole speakers had difficulty rolling their r’s and paid with their lives.
With or without the discriminatory evidence behind this new ruling in mind, it seems to be a complete violation of common sense to retroactively apply a new standard for citizenship, changing the status of 12 percent of a country’s population. Further, it appears an incident of legal schizophrenia since the original Constitution outlined citizenship as jus soli, changed only by a Constitutional amendment in 2010 to exclude Haitians going forward.
Perhaps most reprehensible is that the Dominican means of “solving” this issue, temporary permission to stay but no citizenship, will create a cycle of more nationless people being born into seeming indenture in the Dominican underclass, with no financial means to flee to another country and no country to call their own even if they could. It bears noting that the DR signed the 1961 U.N. Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, whereby sovereign states agree to reduce the incidence of statelessness in the world. This Constitution Court ruling and its reverberations seem to entirely contravene the spirit of that agreement. One can only hope that some judge ruling on the matter finds out rather unpleasantly that he is no longer a Dominican citizen, thereby disqualifying him from making such a wrongheaded decision in the first place.
Images: Flickr/Alex E. Proimos. CC BY-NC 2.0.
The New York Times has produced what must be the most comprehensive public account so far of the Obama administration’s internal deliberations on Syria. A few things are noteworthy. The administration comes off rather well--once you discount that it lacks a strategic vision. Most officials, even some with hawkish reputations, are painfully aware of the complexities and complications that bedevil every U.S. policy option. Many figures live up to their popular reputations. Samantha Power says to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, “if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am” about aiding them. Susan Rice, by contrast, warns that deeper involvement “could consume the agenda of the president’s second term,” a remark that ironically parallels her much-regretted Rwanda quip: “if we use the word genocide and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?” Tellingly, the Times’ otherwise long and detailed narrative offers little information on Obama’s decision to push a Syria intervention through Congress. There is even less about the decision to accept the Putin plan. This is further testament to the hastiness of both moves.
At moments, McDonough comes off well, resisting Power’s “passion” for armed salvation and hewing closely to the president’s own perspective. One might be tempted to call his instincts “realist.” The Times account shows such hopes are misplaced, revealing McDonough’s ultimate stance as pressure grew within the administration for closer ties to the rebels:
Mr. McDonough, who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria....Mr. McDonough argued that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage.
Patiently watching as ones’ challengers turn on each other might seem like the height of realism. Yet here it’s more of a cartoon-villain caricature of realism - one in which statesmanship means coolly tolerating any amount of death, destruction, and chaos, so long as it is visited upon the enemy. Yet that’s not realism - it’s barely distinct from nihilism. While actual realists have often given less weight to moral and emotional concerns, they do it out of regard for broader strategic interests, not out of a beggar-thy-neighbor thirst for blood. And adding any strategic breadth to McDonough’s view shows its weakness.
In absolute terms, the war is putting great pressure on a number of American friends. Refugees swamp Jordan and Turkey, and add to the social challenges facing Europe. Israel faces new instability on its border. Lebanon is on the brink of civil war - or, strictly speaking, closer to the brink than usual. U.S. differences with Saudi Arabia have been thrown into sharp relief. The Kurdish question has become even more complex, with potentially grave implications for stability in Iraq and for Turkey’s attempts to resolve its internal Kurdish troubles. Long-standing Middle Eastern borders are now being questioned. Relations with Russia have become more tense. Sectarian tensions stoked by the conflict have led to violence around the globe - including against Americans. It’s hard to see why we should root for all this to continue.
McDonough might answer that our Middle East policy still centers on two areas of concern: Iranian power and the threat of Sunni terrorism. That these forces are now focused on each other and not on us could be seen as a relative victory, even if there have been serious costs on other fronts. This view is also mistaken, and for multiple reasons. Jihadists, and to a lesser extent Iran, are deeply dissatisfied with the current regional order. It has deliberately marginalized and suppressed them both. The United States, however, finds the present arrangement more agreeable than most plausible alternatives. The Syrian conflict has chipped away at the foundations of that order, presenting opportunities for those it keeps out. The black banner of jihad now flies openly and proudly over parts of Syria - unimaginable just a few years ago.
Rising sectarianism can also play into our rivals’ hands. Arab Shia are now more likely to be targeted - and accordingly more likely to accept Iranian and Hezbollahi friendship. Iran has suffered a huge and expensive loss of influence in Syria, but its power over Syria’s remains has grown as Assad has turned from ally to dependent and as Iranian-tied militias have sprung up. Iran will now have to be included in any Syrian peace deal, and that wasn’t the case when the conflict first began. And Sunnis infuriated by the Alawi-Shia butchery of their coreligionists are more susceptible to the anti-Shia narratives of takfiri extremists.
Worse still is the excellent social-networking opportunity the war has produced for extremists of all stripes. Iran has new friends inside Syria, and it has deepened its ties to Iraqi Shia militias involved the conflict. And the war has been a magnet to Sunni jihadists around the globe, who are now in Syria making connections, being radicalized and learning how to fight. Osama bin Laden emerged from a previous international jihad campaign. This time it may be worse. Hundreds of the jihadist fighters in Syria come from Western countries. What happens when they come home? Keeping them out only partially solves the problem - a jihadist with nowhere to return to may be left with no alternative but continued jihadism.
McDonough’s view that the Syrian civil war serves American interests is unpersuasive. The only beneficiaries of continued violence in Syria are Bashar Assad and Al Qaeda. The United States - like Iran, like Israel, like everyone else - is losing.
Image: Wikicommons/Pete Sousa
Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick have joined the debate over how the Obama administration should address the conflict in Syria. Writing in the Daily Beast on Tuesday – the release date of their profoundly misleading The Untold History of the United States, which the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz has correctly dismissed as “less a work of history than a skewed political document, restating and updating a view of the world that the independent radical Dwight Macdonald once likened to a fog, ‘caused by the warms winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier’--but now more than twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet empire”– they suggest a new course for Washington’s Syria policy. But Stone and Kuznick flatter themselves. The impracticability of their policy prescriptions--which are themselves outgrowths of a specious view of America’s place in the world--means their proposals should not be taken any more seriously than their history.
Since the Syrian rebellion erupted in March 2011, a large and growing body of scholarship, studies, and commentary regarding the root causes of unrest there and elsewhere during the Arab Spring has emerged, with explanations ranging from rejection of autocratic rule to greater global interconnectedness enabled by information technology. That Stone and Kurznick merely point to economic issues – high poverty and unemployment levels – and sectarianism as the conditions that made Syria “ripe for an explosion” suggests that neither has delved too deeply into the existing literature.
Their suggestion that America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 “helped unleash the sectarian passions that now roil Syria” is ahistorical in the extreme: since 1966, Syria has been brutally ruled by members of the Alawite sect, who make up around twelve-percent of Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni-majority population. “Sectarian passions” are old news in Syria; older, even, than the first Iraq War. It gets better: the U.S., according to Stone and Kurznick, is also largely responsible for the droughts that, starting in 2006, devastated Syrian agriculture, exacerbating the economic factors purportedly responsible for the uprising. They reference a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report from 2011 that argued that the cause of the increased frequency of Mediterranean droughts, including Syria’s, was man-made climate change, something which Stone and Kurznick assert “the U.S., most pointedly and most shamefully, still refuses to take seriously.” Yet the United States is hardly the sole cause of climate change, and Stone and Kurznick give minimal attention to the host of other factors behind Syria’s agricultural problems - including Syrian government policies that ThinkProgress said had “criminally combined mismanagement and neglect of Syria’s natural resources.”
In fact, one could be forgiven for concluding that Stone and Kurznick see America as the root of all the world’s ills, or at least all of its wars. Indeed, they even go so far as to suggest that the U.S. is standing in the way of putting “the world back on a path toward peace.” Stone and Kuznick agree with interventionists that “something needs to be done” in Syria, but “not a military strike” or arming the rebels. Since “a solution will not come from solely within Syria – at least not in the near future”, one “will have to be imposed from without”; that is, via “unified U.N. Security Council action”. While the authors note that efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis through the Security Council have been blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes, they neglect to mention that these vetoes were cast against Western-led efforts to potentially use military force in or impose sanctions on Syria. But the authors suggest that the substance of these proposed efforts was not why Russia and China vetoed.
What then could explain the repeated opposition by Russia and China in the Security Council? Maybe Russia sees standing up for its Syrian client and against the West as a means to recoup some of its Soviet-era global sway. Perhaps Russia also wants to maintain access to its naval facility in Tartus. It’s certainly plausible that China is just following Russia’s lead, and would back down if and when Russia does. Both countries have extensive defense and trade ties with the Assad regime, and thus might want to keep it afloat; this surely counts for something.
Imagine that America’s relations with Russia and China dramatically improved overnight, thereby, following the authors’ logic, enabling cooperation on Syria. What would cooperation on Syria look like, and what could be accomplished cooperatively then that cannot be done today? Would Russia and/or China somehow compel the Assad regime to hand over power? Would all elements of the highly fragmented opposition be asked to lay down their arms, and would all comply? Would Russia, China, and the U.S. cooperate in using force to compel an armistice and maintain peace? Stone and Kuznick offered no answers for they have none. What they offer is shallow chest-thumping masquerading as policy proposals.
This is surely not the last time the team of Stone and Kuznick will instruct the rest of us in how America should conduct its foreign policy. Let’s hope, against the odds, that next time their little suggestions might actually be workable and suited to solving real-world problems. After all, this is not just show business.
Image: George Wiman. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The status of Jews in Europe remains a delicate one. At least that is what a new survey by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights suggests. The survey, to be released in full in November, found that nearly one quarter of European Jews avoid doing things or wearing symbols that could allow others to identify them as Jewish. And the numbers are worse in some places: Forty-nine percent of the Swedish utopia’s Jews avoid recognizably Jewish clothing and symbols in public. Eighty-eight percent of French Jews said antisemitism has become worse in the last five years. Thirty percent of Hungarian Jews have experienced an antisemitic incident in the past twelve months. And around Europe, two-thirds said reporting assaults and other antisemitic incidents to the police wasn’t worth it, or wouldn’t make a difference.
Surveys like this cast doubt on the belief that the history of the West has been one of steady progress. Sure, the Europeans seem to have finally been civilized, with their bloody, multicentury stream of wars and revolutions supplanted by social democracy and multinational union. But in 2012, reports Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center, France led the world in violent antisemitic incidents.
Who is to blame? The media would have you believe it’s the far right—Greece swarming with Golden Dawn blackshirts and cryptofascists flexing their muscles almost everywhere east of the Elbe. And the Kantor Center documents plenty of far-right violence. But participants in the EU survey, many drawn from Western Europe, saw it differently—just 19 percent pinned it on the extreme right. Twenty-two percent faulted the extreme left. But Europe’s Muslims are cited by 27 percent.
This brand of antisemite has imported the hatred of Jews to countries where it was historically less severe, such as Denmark. Tablet, a Jewish online magazine, relates the tale of Martin Krasnik, a journalist and a liberal Jewish Dane who decided to take a long walk through the immigrant neighborhood of Nørrebro with a yarmulke perched atop his head. He’s quickly harassed—flipped off, told to “go to hell, Jew,” told to his remove his cap, and so forth. There were plenty of threats—men tell him that “we have a right to kick your ass,” that his religion may tell him to wear the yarmulke but that it doesn’t tell him to get killed, that “my cousin killed a guy for wearing a ‘Jewish hat.’” Krasnik was extremely uncomfortable, telling Tablet’s Michael Moynihan that he thought, “If I keep doing this for an hour or two, something will happen. And if I did this everyday, I would get my ass kicked around.”
The rise of Muslim antisemitism in Europe is well documented—and widely ignored. Krasnik told Moynihan that the press and other elites give the phenomenon little attention and little energy—“The mayor of Copenhagen says ‘we will not accept antisemitism, but that we shouldn’t overdramatize the situation. We should breathe calmly, he said.” Moynihan noted that some school principals in heavily immigrant areas have begun warning Jewish parents away. Europe’s multiculturalists prefer to apologize for their more troublesome charges—and to bend native society to accommodate foreigners’ prejudices. Moynihan, again:
At a recent government-sponsored “multicultural festival” in Nørrebro, intended to promote cultural “diversity,” a Jewish group was barred from displaying the Israeli flag. TaskForce Inclusion, one of the Orwellian-named organizers of the event, claimed that the measure was taken as a “safety precaution” (a precaution that applied, it seems, only to Jewish groups and a tacit admission that the mere sight of a Star of David would drive certain other attendees into spasms of violence). One government official later said that, initially, the Jewish group was to be completely excluded for fear of offending Muslim participants.
Modern liberality veils Europe’s history—and it’s the same veil behind which some of Europe’s less pleasant impulses lurk. There is a fatal flaw, after all, in European claims of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism really can enrich societies. And there is no better testament to this than the history of the Jews in Europe. They gave Europe Einstein and Kafka, Freud and Arendt. They made Europe the world’s intellectual center of gravity—until the Europeans killed them and drove them out. So why would Europe’s self-proclaimed multiculturalists sweep their shining example under the rug, unless something more unsavory were at play?
Image: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Moderates within the Syrian opposition are increasingly losing ground—literally and figuratively—to extremists, and the Obama administration is partly to blame. If this trend persists, America is likely to lose its ability to shape events in Syria, which will have disastrous consequences there and beyond. Worse still, it may already be too late to reverse course.
It has become obvious that the administration’s reluctance to more robustly strengthen Syrian moderates and the extremists’ ascendancy are two sides of the same coin. Largely because radical groups generally have access to higher-power weaponry than what the U.S. has been willing to provide to the moderates, recruits are flocking to the extremists’ ranks.
Nobody should have been surprised by reports late last month that thirteen powerful rebel factions formally broke with the exiled Syrian National Coalition—the political arm of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA)—to form an Islamist alliance that includes the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front. On September 29, in a move that has further marginalized the FSA, at least fifty rebel factions operating mostly around Damascus—where the FSA had been the preeminent rebel force—merged to form the Army of Islam, which aims to topple Assad and institute Sharia law. Liwa al Islam, the central group in the Army of Islam, has become far larger than the FSA.
The administration’s professed desire to empower more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition relative to more extremist ones has backfired. Most fundamentally, this is because the administration has demonstrated that it will provide moderates with only lukewarm support at best, thereby decreasing their ability to effectively fight and, consequently, recruit.
It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the Obama administration has abandoned the moderates. In June, when the White House decided to provide military assistance to Syrian moderates in response to alleged chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, the rebels hoped that these arms would include game-changing weaponry—such as antiaircraft and antiarmor weapons—and that they would be provided quickly. These hopes were soon dispelled, as efforts to provide arms were held up on Capitol Hill; when deliveries finally began to arrive months later, they reportedly only consisted of light weapons, which are already abundant in theatre. And after the massive chemical attack near Damascus on August 21, hopes that President Obama would enforce his “red line” and launch air strikes against the Syrian regime were also shown to be misplaced; instead, the administration, which last December declared Assad to no longer be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, is now dealing with him to abolish Syria’s chemical arsenal.
A disconnect clearly exists between where the administration wants to go in Syria, and where it is actually heading. There are clear indications that a guiding aim of its Syria policy is to create a situation whereby both the Assad regime and moderate opposition perceive themselves to be strong enough to come to the negotiating table, but not so strong that they feel they do not need to negotiate. The purported means to achieve this is providing the opposition with arms, training, and other forms of material assistance. Extremist elements of the opposition, meanwhile, will hopefully be left out in the cold.
The recently retired Deputy Director of the CIA, Mike Morell, stated on September 15 that “Assad feels he's winning, so he has absolutely no incentive [to negotiate]. So, enough support has to be provided to the opposition—to put enough pressure on Assad—to bring him to the negotiating table, but not enough support provided to the opposition so that they feel that they don't need to go to the negotiating table.” (When asked whether that support is more or less than Washington had been providing, Morell replied that “I think it’s more.”) The Washington Post reported on October 2 that because the administration seeks a political settlement of the Syrian conflict based on an eventual military stalemate, the CIA is only authorized to provide sufficient support to ensure that moderate, U.S.-backed militias don’t lose, but not enough to enable them to win.
This approach has become divorced from reality.
The notion that Washington can bring about a stalemate in Syria is founded upon the assumption that it can control how strong or weak “the opposition” is. If the opposition were more unified—as it was earlier in the conflict—or if America were the sole or principal backer of the most significant opposition elements, then Washington could conceivably keep its hand on the spigot.
But just as there is not a single, unified Syrian opposition, neither is Washington the rebels’ only outside backer. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, for example, have demonstrated far less risk-aversion than the administration by providing more powerful weapons to factions more extreme than those “supported” by the United States. These outside backers and their hardline proxies will increasingly fill the vacuum created by the declining influence of the moderates and Washington.
The administration’s pussyfooting in Syria has frustrated America’s allies and emboldened its foes. Washington’s regional allies—and Iran—now have less reason to take seriously Obama’s declarations that “all options are on the table” when it comes to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. U.S. allies who are backing harder-line Syrian rebels will likely remain influential in Syria, yet their disappointment in the administration, and the consequent strain in America’s relations with them, will constrain Washington’s ability to work with them to strive for an outcome that advances U.S. interests. Already, the rise of extremists is alienating Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities, further fracturing the opposition and increasing the likelihood that a post-Assad government—if there ever is a post-Assad government—will be noninclusive and dominated by radicals. Moderates may soon become so marginalized that they and the U.S. cease to count for anything on the battlefield.
A loss of U.S. credibility, and by extension deterrent capability, is bad enough. What’s even worse, though, is that the administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis makes America appear irrelevant, which is simply damning.
The administration seems to be reacting to the extremists’ rise, although this reaction may be too little, too late. According to the October 2 Washington Post article, American officials said the CIA is expanding clandestine efforts to train moderate rebels because “the opposition [is] losing, and not only losing tactically but on a more strategic level.” Yet this training program is only expected to produce a couple hundred trained fighters per month, which U.S. officials said will hardly tip the scales in the moderates’ favor.
It’s remarkable that the administration, despite doing so little for so long, managed to keep the moderates’ expectations of meaningful U.S. support alive for as long as it did, although this is likely more a product of the rebels’ desperation than their faith in the administration. However, the primacy of the extremists could spell the end a period when Washington had the luxury of being able to meander along without taking larger risks and making tougher decisions. Today, the administration essentially has just three options in Syria: go hard, go home, or keep plodding along towards irrelevance.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which today announced its decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, seems increasingly over its head. Following last year’s selection of the European Union, the Committee’s recognition of the OPCW appears likely to further dissipate the value of the Peace Prize and the attention it receives. Taking into account the very real importance of peace and its advocates to the day-to-day lives of millions around the world, one can only hope that the Committee will reevaluate its approach to the award next year.
First, to be clear, the OPCW is a valuable organization that is conducting very important work in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. The weapons are a grave danger to innocent civilians in Syria and elsewhere and the individuals responsible for safely eliminating them deserve gratitude and praise.
At the same time, however, the OPCW was not pivotal in the chain of events that made its work in Syria possible. The key events were Syria’s entry into the Chemical Weapons Convention and the U.S.-Russian agreement on managing the process in the United Nations Security Council. The people most responsible for those two things were Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, and their diplomats and advisors. Only after their choices and actions did the problem of Syria’s chemical weapons fall into the lap of the OPCW and its staff. In other words, the men and women of the OPCW are simply doing their jobs—albeit demanding and significant jobs.
One can imagine why the Nobel Committee would not want to present the Peace Prize to some or all of Assad, Putin and Obama. In Assad’s case, he is widely believed to have used the weapons and is conducting a brutal civil war. Few admire Putin’s peacemaking—though a Russian parliamentarian did nominate him for the prize—and for many Europeans, Russia’s domestic governance, its war in Georgia, and its heavy-handed attempts at energy diplomacy would likely rule him out. For his part, Obama already received the prize once recently, in advance of any particular accomplishments. Moreover, awarding a peace prize to leader for failing to follow through on threats of military action might lower the bar even further.
What is harder to understand is why in facing this dilemma the Nobel Committee did not choose to focus global attention on another issue instead. There are clearly many other real threats to peace beyond Syria—some of which affect many more people than a tragic civil war inside one country—and many courageous leaders and ordinary citizens working to address them. A variety of contenders have appeared in the press.
Ultimately, the Norwegian Nobel Committee may be trying too hard to send messages through its choices. Committee members probably wanted to make a statement about Syria, but couldn’t identify an individual—or even two or three—who captured the sentiment they wanted to deliver. So they presented the award to the OPCW, which offers maximum clarity of message, but none of the inspiration or excitement that has made the Nobel Peace Prize internationally meaningful in the past. One suspects that they likely followed the same logic chain in selecting the EU last year. But only by selecting specific people, not groups, can the Nobel Committee offer a truly compelling message with real impact.