Olympic Patriotism Cops

The Buzz

It’s no secret that Fox News can be over-the-top, but a recent segment with David Webb criticizing American gymnast Gabby Douglas’ “lack of patriotism” was beyond ridiculous.

Douglas, who is both a gold medalist and—lest we forget—a child, is attacked by Webb for not wearing patriotic enough attire when competing or standing on the podium. He asks of Douglas “What’s wrong with showing pride? What we’re seeing is the kind of soft anti-American feeling, that Americans can’t show our exceptionalism.” What was the kid supposed to do? Break out red-white-and-blue Zubaz pants to spread liberty around the world? Nevermind that team gear is standard issue and that each athlete wears the apparel given to him or her by our country’s Olympic committee. 

According to Webb, it is through sport that we should illustrate our superiority to the world. Among other grievances, we are apparently guilty of not singing the national anthem as vociferously as we used to at baseball games and saying the pledge of allegiance less frequently. 

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf takes Webb down easily:

What's especially crazy about all this is that after Gabby Douglas won the gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around, she stood waving up at the crowd clad in a red, white, and blue jacket with USA written on the back. Later during the medal ceremony she wore a gray jacket with an American flag patch on the shoulder, stood atop the podium, and listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner" as an American flag was hoisted up above her. Even if that weren't all true David Webb's commentary would be nonsense, but the fact that it is all true adds to the comic ambivalence about factual accuracy that characterizes so much of what people say on Fox News.

Friedersdorf’s clincher says it best: “What other enterprise would turn Olympic gold for America into an opportunity to make Americans anxious and upset about allegedly waning patriotism?”

The Atlantic’s piece is a smart take on an unfortunate segment of cable news.


Civil Wars and the Ungrateful

Paul Pillar

Invalid reasons for getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war continue to be heard. One of the latest is in a front-page article in the Washington Post, which declares that America “increasingly is being viewed with suspicion and resentment for its failure to offer little more than verbal encouragement to the revolutionaries.” Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is cited in the article as arguing that unless the United States furnishes significant lethal aid to rebels, a virulently anti-American variety of Islamism could arise among disillusioned Syrians. If the United States maintains its current policy, “ultimately the political entity that comes to power is not going to be in U.S. interests,” says Tabler. “A secular and democratic Syria is what we're going to lose big-time.”

The Post's correspondent is no doubt reporting accurately some of the sentiments she is hearing from impatient rebels. And in a general sense, U.S. policies toward conflict-prone portions of the Middle East do significantly shape popular sentiments, and those sentiments do have significant implications for U.S. interests. But this is not just a matter of buying gratitude with lethal support.

The recent experiences of the United States with its most extensive efforts to intervene in (or to touch off) civil wars are instructive. The amount of U.S. aid and effort in them should have bought mountains of gratitude. One is the very long-running civil war in Afghanistan. Although it is not true, as some legend has it, that the United States created Al Qaeda with its aid to the jihad against the Soviets, and although the Afghan Taliban was Pakistan's child and not America's, U.S. support and involvement in Afghanistan do underlie much of what bedevils that country and the United States today. U.S. lethal support gave an important boost to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and it was even more important in developing into an effective fighting force the Haqqani group—which is now so much of an antagonist to the United States that it is the subject of Congressional resolutions urging the secretary of state to designate it formally as a foreign terrorist organization. Some gratitude.

Then there was the war in Iraq, sold partly on the idea that the United States would be lovingly showered with gratitude from Iraqis welcoming Americans as liberators. The war did not, of course, turn out anything like that. Even when events in Iraq have enjoyed an uptick or two, Iraqis have been slow to credit the United States for anything that has gone well and persistent in blaming the United States for much of what is still not going well.

Several things are happening to account for these results and can be expected to happen again if the United States were to immerse itself more deeply in the current conflict in Syria. One is that there never is much genuine gratitude in the first place. There is at most a tactical “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach by belligerents willing to take aid from the devil if it will help them to win the next street battle. When circumstances change (as they will when Bashar Assad falls), the illusion of friendship is dispelled.

Even as long as a common enemy remains and circumstances are largely unchanged, the provision of assistance creates the expectation of still more assistance. Failure to fulfill growing expectations leads to growing resentment. Attitudes tend to be shaped by asking “what have you done for me lately?”

Aiding any one set of contestants in such a conflict opens one up to resentment and anger from other contestants—even when they ostensibly are allies of the aid recipients but even more so when alignments change as a civil war and associated political struggles move into new phases. It is good advice to try not to play favorites, but that would be exceedingly difficult to do in the complicated Syrian situation.

The most important dynamic is that if the United States gets involved at all in a bloody mess, it tends to be seen as responsible for all of the bloodshed and mess, even beyond what is reasonably attributable to its actions. Even if the United States does not apply the Pottery Barn rule to itself, others do, and in an expansive and unfair way. This will be a major hazard with Syria, given the prospect of much bloodshed and mess there still to come.

The perceived power of the United States amplifies and sustains such sentiments, much more than the actual power of the United States enables it to shape and control circumstances for which it will be blamed. The United States will not lose a “secular and democratic Syria” no matter what it does, because such a thing is not America's to lose in the first place.

Image: upyernoz

TopicsHumanitarian InterventionPost-Conflict RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited StatesSyria

The Lives of Drone Pilots

The Buzz

It's easy to imagine that drone warfare will take on a dystopian quality, with pilots in air-conditioned rooms treating targets thousands of miles away more like the fictional characters of video games than human beings. But Elisabeth Bumiller's recent New York Times profile of drone pilots based in upstate New York puts some of these fears to rest.

The same surveillance qualities that make drones so capable of very precise strikes also result in drone pilots to becoming very familiar with the domestic lives of targets and their families. "You see them wake up in the morning, do their work, go to sleep at night," said one pilot. "I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer," said another.

While none of the drone pilots Bumiller interviewed "acknowledged the kind of personal feelings for Afghans that would keep them awake at night after seeing the bloodshed left by missiles and bombs," they nonetheless have a close-up view unavailable to the pilot or solider operating in theater. The drones allow "a certain intimacy with Afghan family life that traditional pilots never see from 20,000 feet, and that even ground troops seldom experience." 

Bumiller aptly compares these operations to a fictional '80s-era East German Stasi officer portrayed in the 2006 film "The Lives of Others." Like the drone pilots of today, the spy becomes intimately familiar with the target of his espionage, despite never meeting him. 

The article also makes clear that drones are the future: "By 2015, the Pentagon projects that the Air Force will need more than 2,000 drone pilots for combat air patrols operating 24 hours a day worldwide. The Air Force is already training more drone pilots — 350 last year — than fighter and bomber pilots combined." And many of these new trainees, unlike most of today's drone pilots, will never sit behind the controls of a traditional combat aircraft.

Unmanned aircraft do indeed represent a new experience for the nation's pilots. But Bumiller's smart reporting shows that the brave new world of drones may not be as inhumane as one might first imagine.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDefenseIntelligenceState of the Military RegionsAfghanistan

Four Syrian Scenarios

The Skeptics

As the fighting in Syria intensifies, it is evident that there are four plausible outcomes. Unfortunately, most of them are rather unpleasant for both regional stability and Western values.

The following scenarios are in ascending order of probability.

The Assad regime manages to suppress the rebellion. If it had not been for outside interference, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Turkey but secondarily from the United States and its core European allies, this would have been the most likely outcome. Given that interference, though, Assad’s days appear to be numbered. The Assad family’s rule was always a fragile one, based on a tacit coalition of its Alawite followers together with Christians and other religious/ethnic minorities. That “government of the minorities” faced the daunting task of maintaining control over the majority Sunni Arab population. The decision by Saudi Arabia and Turkey to fund and arm their Sunni brethren, who dominate the so-called Free Syrian Army, has likely made continued rule by the Alawite-led regime untenable.

The Free Syrian Army ousts Assad and manages a transition to a multireligious, multiethnic democratic Syria. This outcome is Washington’s fondest hope, but the odds are heavily against it. Although the FSA is likely to prevail militarily—at least in most areas of the country—the emergence of a democratic political system is a long shot. Not only does Syria lack a meaningful democratic tradition, it has a weak economy and civil society. That is worrisome, since a strong economy and a vibrant civil society are important factors for a stable, tolerant, democratic system. And there are the stark religious and ethnic divisions in Syria. The combination of all of these factors makes the emergence of a democratic Syria highly unlikely.

The insurgents win a decisive victory and establish an authoritarian state. Ominously, radical Islamist elements appear to be ascendant within the insurgency, and rebel units are already engaging in practices reminiscent of Al Qaeda. That development is unsurprising since Saudi Arabia’s theocratic regime has such a prominent sponsoring role. Even if the rebels can gain and maintain control of most of the country (a very big assumption), a post-Assad Syria is more likely to be Islamist and authoritarian than democratic. Indeed, authoritarian elements seem even better positioned for victory over secular, democratic factions in Syria than they are in Iraq, Egypt and Libya—and democratic fortunes over the long term are none too good in any of those countries.

Syria fragments into religious and ethnic enclaves or ministates. Given Syria’s complex ethnic and religious composition, this is the most probable outcome. Assad’s Alawite-dominated military shows signs of trying to establish an Alawite-Christian redoubt in the western part of the country. Absent massive interference by Turkey (or the United States and principal European allies), that coalition may have enough strength to sustain such an entity. However, that development would likely be the first, not the last, stage of Syria’s fragmentation. Syria’s Kurds are already establishing armed checkpoints in the northeast, where they are most numerous. The chance to form a de facto independent Kurdish state (a la the Kurdish region in Iraq) could prove irresistible.

All of the plausible scenarios have negative implications for regional stability. Syria has already become the pawn of a nasty power play involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Assad’s continued rule would still face a simmering Sunni-led insurgency backed by both Ankara and Riyadh. Conversely, a definitive Sunni victory, whether that led to a democratic or authoritarian Syria, would provoke countermeasures by the leading Shiite power, Iran. And a fragmented Syria would be an arena for endless brass knuckles maneuvers by all of those powers.

Pundits in the West who assume that Assad’s ouster would usher in an era of stability and freedom are as delusional as they were when they made the same assumption about the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Syria and the greater region are in for a very bumpy ride. And Washington would be well-advised to stay off of that dangerous roller coaster.

Image: PanARMENIAN_photo

TopicsPost-ConflictSecurity RegionsSyria

Spoilers in the Sinai

Paul Pillar

In many international conflicts some of the greatest potential for escalation and hindrance to de-escalation come not from the main parties to the conflict but from the fringe—from extremist groups that have no desire to be part of a plausible peaceful order and aim to spoil any progress toward establishing one. In Northern Ireland, for example, much of the slowness in moving toward a peace agreement even after the main IRA had decided to accept one was due to continued terrorist operations by die-hard groups that had splintered from the IRA. In South Asia, the pace of Indian-Pakistani detente has been set too often by terrorist groups rather than by the two governments. In the various dimensions of the conflict between Israelis and Arabs there also have been numerous instances of the extremist fringes of both sides exacerbating tension and impeding any lessening of it.

The attack Sunday in the northeast corner of the Sinai peninsula falls into the same mold. Armed gunmen overpowered an Egyptian border post and then used stolen Egyptian vehicles to race across the Israeli border before being stopped by Israeli airstrikes. The attack, by as yet unnamed militants in the Sinai, was against the interests of all of the major players in the area, and all of those players condemned it. Egypt had 16 of its soldiers killed as well as control of its sovereign territory challenged. Israel was the target of an armed assault across its border, even if a small one. For Hamas, the ruler of the Gaza Strip, the attack suspended a hoped-for expansion of its commerce with Egypt. One of the Egyptian responses to the incident was to close indefinitely the border crossing at Rafah, which has been almost the only point of significant relief from the Israeli blockade and isolation of Gaza.

One of the ways in which fringe-perpetrated incidents increase tensions among major players is by stimulating false accusations of responsibility. The incident in the Sinai is no exception. Statements from both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas suggested that it was somehow an Israeli operation. Meanwhile, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, perhaps operating on general instructions to blame Iran for anything it can possibly be blamed for, declared on Twitter and his Facebook page that “Iranian-backed terrorists” were the perpetrators. There was no more evidence for this than for Israeli involvement, and Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, later said the attackers were part of "apparently some kind of global jihad, with unclear connections"—which is probably the most that can be said about them so far.

The main parties to a long-running conflict should respond to an incident like this by using it as an opportunity to act on their shared interests, not to make propaganda. Egypt, Hamas and Israel all share an interest in curbing the extremists who—based not just on this incident but several others—appear to have made increasing use of the Sinai as a base of operations, especially since the beginning of the distractions and disorder in Egypt associated with the overthrow of Mubarak. Egypt and Hamas should show no tolerance for ludicrous accusations against Israel, such as that it engineered an attack that ended up being aimed at its own territory. Israel needs to do some more fundamental rethinking, especially regarding what it wants from its peace treaty with Egypt. Linked to that agreement were severe restrictions on what military forces Egypt could deploy in the eastern Sinai. Such restrictions made sense in the 1970s; they make less sense now, given a military balance that renders preposterous the idea of Egypt wanting a new war with Israel, along with internal security in this part of Egyptian territory having become a more serious concern for both countries. Israel has granted piecemeal permission to Egypt to increase its Sinai deployments somewhat beyond the limits originally established when the treaty was signed. This amounts to micromanaging how another country arranges its own military forces on its own territory. Evidently the Israelis are worried that a more wholesale revision of the deployment restrictions might cause the peace treaty itself to unravel. That would not be a problem if the other part of the Camp David accords were observed.

Israelis also need to realize that, just as even the closest allies have some conflicts of interest, even the bitterest of enemies have some shared interests. No provision for security in this corner of the Middle East can ever be complete without including whoever governs the Gaza Strip. Security problems illustrated by Sunday's incident on the border are reminders of how the policy of trying to strangle Hamas rather than dealing with it does not serve anyone's interests, including Israel's.

TopicsPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptPalestinian territories