The Ongoing Fantasy of Israeli Democracy Before 1967

by Shira Robinson | published February 25, 2014 - 5:31pm

The past week has a witnessed a flurry of debate in the American and Israeli media over the growing call to boycott companies and institutions that profit from or are otherwise complicit in the ongoing 47-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition to covering proposed legislation in New York and Maryland that would punish members of academic associations which endorse academic boycotts of the state, the New York Times and Washington Post have published op-eds and invited readers to weigh in on whether a boycott would be an effective and/or moral tool of political action.

The debate in Israel has the potential to carry more immediate consequence. On February 16, Israel’s High Court held a second hearing for opponents and proponents of a new law that criminalizes boycott calls of any kind by Israeli citizens (Arab or Jewish). On February 23, Ha’aretz reported the start of a campaign to draft a new law that would “enshrine the concept of Israel as a Jewish state in one of the country’s Basic Laws.”

This campaign is of course a rhetorical ploy, cynical and redundant at best. To cite just two of the most prominent examples, everyone in Israel knows that the state’s Palestinian citizens remain formally barred from purchasing over 93 percent of the land in the country, and that since 2003 they have been prohibited from living in Israel with a spouse if he or she hails from the Occupied Territories (or any “enemy state”). What is more remarkable about the campaign, though, is the fact that institutionalized discrimination against “non-Jews” in Israel was written into the very first Basic Law of the land. The Law of Return, which the Knesset passed in July 1950, granted legal residency status and de facto citizenship to all Jews in the world -- both those already living in the nascent state and those who might wish to immigrate to it in the future. As my new book documents, it was only the passage of the “Return to Zion” law, as it was first called, that broke the years-long deadlock over the country’s draft Citizenship Law. Unlike the 18 prior drafts of that law brought to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion for consideration starting in 1949, the “Return” bill was the first to drive an explicit legal wedge between those people granted effective entitlement to the state (Jewish immigrants) and those who would eventually be offered a handful of rights within it (the minority of native Palestinian Arabs who managed to remain inside Israeli territory after 1948). Critically, this racial distinction in the Law of Return (and “racial” is an adjective I do not use lightly) enabled the false universality of the state’s 1952 Citizenship Law.

I mention this history because I continue to be amazed by the disingenuousness -- or willfully ignorant wishful thinking -- of arguments made by liberal Zionist luminaries in favor of an economic boycott targeting companies that operate in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Earlier this week, for example, a former Israeli education minister, Yossi Sarid, pleaded passionately for a boycott to “remove the gangrene and save the healthy tissue” of Israel’s pre-1967 democracy. From his perch in New York, Ha’aretz columnist Peter Beinart waxed paternalistic about the desire of Palestinians for a state of their own that will ultimately trump their concerns about the immorality of “the very idea of a state that offers special representation to Jews.” (Since the boycott will hasten the establishment of two states, he reasons, supporters of a Jewish state should embrace the project in order to bring about a withdrawal to the Green Line before it’s too late.) Beyond the more than 4 million Palestinian refugees outside the Occupied Territories still denied the right to return to their homes, Beinart seems to be forgetting the 20 percent of Israel’s electorate that is increasingly demanding to end this injustice.

Whatever one’s vision of an end to the conflict, wishing these problems -- and people -- away will not make them disappear. It’s time for an honest reckoning with the past.

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The Sisi Shuffle

by Joshua Stacher | published February 24, 2014 - 4:21pm

This morning Egypt’s military-installed cabinet resigned en masse. Initial comment implies that the resignations were a surprise but nonetheless fit into a pattern of events paving the way for a presidential run by Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. If al-Sisi does indeed run, the outcome would not be in doubt.

That certainty has not stopped debate over why the cabinet departed this morning and who’s in and who’s out in the next cabinet. Will Prime Minister Hazim al-Biblawi stay or go? Can al-Sisi legally remain minister of defense when he announces his presidential candidacy? Does it matter? Is Military Chief of Staff Sidqi Subhi going to be the next minister of defense? How does the cabinet’s makeup mesh with the personnel shifting and morale building that al-Sisi has led among the top brass since the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) ordered Muhammad Mursi to appoint him defense minister in August 2012? There are endless permutations with which to understand the elite maneuvers.

Today’s reshuffle should not have been a surprise. The first junta-backed government was transitional, a way station on the route to the regime the military wants to make. With al-Sisi’s candidacy, the generals have decided to push all of their chips to the center of the table and try to dominate the increasingly fragmented political order. They probably wish that al-Sisi did not have to run for president and govern directly. But the generals don’t have a better choice for imposing their vision of stability. From their point of view, now is the time for concerted action to resubordinate the state apparatus, redraw the blurred lines between social obedience and dissent, and reorganize what’s prohibited and what’s tolerated. But, rather than declare the junta’s victory, it’s worth remembering that social processes are not inevitable. There are many interactions to come between this regime-in-formation and Egyptian society.

In that light, it is worth reviewing why the generals chose today to reshuffle the cabinet. Biblawi’s announcement of the move focused on how well his cabinet has performed. In his telling, the ministers bravely led a government that battles terrorists and left Egypt in a better place than when they started nearly eight months ago. “In most cases,” the prime minister said, “we have achieved good results.”

But another of today’s talking points reveals a key continuity with the early days of SCAF rule after the fall of Husni Mubarak. In those days, al-Sisi’s mentor Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi droned on about the imperative not to stop “the wheels of production” with strikes and other “fi’awi” (special interest) protests.

This morning the cabinet announced its resignation against the backdrop of a public transportation strike as well as a garbage collectors’ strike. There are likely other job actions underway. Meanwhile, Twitter and Egyptian newspapers are saturated with reports of cooking gas shortages. Like Tantawi before him, though, Biblawi admonished Egyptians that now is not the time to demand better working conditions, better pay or hot food. “We must sacrifice our personal and narrow interests for the benefit of the nation,” he said.

A cabinet reshuffle was foreordained the moment that the SCAF unanimously put forward al-Sisi’s name as a presidential candidate. The next government will certainly consist of ministers handpicked by the coterie in khaki. But that the reshuffle happened today is a reminder that the timing of these announcements is not entirely at the elites’ initiative. The junta continues to deal with a restive society that it wishes no one would acknowledge as existing. The generals can erect a façade of democracy, replete with constitutions, elections and parliaments, but they can’t make people struggling to be better served by their rulers go away.

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Looking for the Three of Diamonds

by Elliott Colla | published February 24, 2014 - 12:13pm

A few years ago, I began work on a crime novel set in Iraq. I borrowed the name of a real-life person, Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, as a writing prompt. Taking this man’s name seemed like nothing since my character was entirely fictitious and all resemblances purely coincidental.

As I revised the manuscript, I felt I owed it to myself to find out who the real man was. Al-Khafaji was number 48 on the list of “Most Wanted Baathists,” the Three of Diamonds in the US military’s deck of cards.

I had only the grim outlines of the real al-Khafaji’s story. He was sought for his participation in the bloody suppression of the 1991 popular uprisings against Saddam’s regime, and captured on February 7, 2004.

The events of 1991 may be largely forgotten in the United States, but not in Iraq. Encouraged by the fiery rhetoric of President George H. W. Bush, Shi‘a and Kurds rose up against the Baathist state. They might have succeeded were it not for the brutality of loyalists like al-Khafaji. By the time the rebellion was over, one hundred thousand civilians had been killed.

With a bad taste in my mouth, I set out to find what happened to al-Khafaji after his arrest. I found references to a Muhsin al-Khafaji detained in Camp Bucca. But it turned out that he was a different man, not a war criminal but a novelist. His arrest and three-year detention was a horrible error, possibly the result of mistaken identity.

In a 2005 letter from prison, this Muhsin al-Khafaji wrote:

Dear George W. Bush, I write to you from one of the southern prison camps. I came to you Americans in good faith. I imagined that I would find refuge with you. What I found instead was nothing but handcuffs and the cracking of bones. What people know about me is that I write. Sometimes I draw pictures, too, and I’ve got a pretty good hand for calligraphy. And my ability to sit around in cafes is the stuff of legends. I love the West. But not because you go around evangelizing about democracy. What I love is not Samuel Huntington, but Ernest Hemingway. And Walt Whitman. And John Updike.

I went looking for a war criminal, but found a novelist sitting in a US jail talking about some of my favorite American authors. Fantastic and disturbing as it was, this discovery did not relieve me of the task of finding out what happened to the Three of Diamonds. All I knew was that he was detained by US forces, and later remanded to custody with the Iraqi High Tribunal. He is currently serving a life sentence in the hush-hush Kadhimiyya prison, in the same wing as Tariq Aziz.

No matter what one thinks of the US invasion of Iraq, one of the nobler promises of the occupation regime was to try officials for the crimes committed by the Baathist regime against the Iraqi people. Many in the human rights community had hoped for an international, rather than a national, tribunal, as the best way to ensure that trials of these crimes would be fair and transparent. The decision to ignore lessons learned in Sierra Leone and the Balkans ensured that the judges and lawyers with the most professional experience in post-conflict transitional justice would sit this one out, and for the most part they did.

Over these professionals’ objections, the US decided to do things its own way. Rather than waiting for the conflict to end, the Department of Justice began judicial proceedings before the first American boots hit the ground. The original most-wanted list, which became the basis for the infamous deck of cards, was compiled by Justice Department lawyers working closely with Iraqi exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi. Some of the names on that list of most-wanted Baathists were obvious. But, given the thousands of high-ranking Baathists who participated in state crimes, there are real questions about the decision to place names like al-Khafaji on the list and not others.

L. Paul Bremer established the Special Tribunal and appointed Ahmad Chalabi’s nephew, Salim, as its first director. The controversy of the younger Chalabi’s appointment delayed the court’s work for months, and led to a name change. It was in 2005 that the Tribunal began its work in earnest, mounting high-profile trials of top officials. Some, like Saddam Hussein, were quickly tried and executed. Others were tried and imprisoned; a few were acquitted. There was no provision to make the indictments or the findings of the Tribunal public. After the first, most prominent trials, the court’s operations have been more obscure, its proceedings and decisions largely sealed from public scrutiny.

From early on, scores of American judges and lawyers were conscripted into a newly formed Regime Crimes Liaison Office of the Department of Justice in order to advise the Tribunal. They had little, if any, experience with system crimes or war trials. None had any knowledge of Arabic, Islamic law or even Iraqi law. With judges assassinated, fired and resigning, the composition of the Tribunal changed quickly. Likewise, the American experts came and went in a quick series of rotations. In the courtroom, where proceedings took place in Arabic and according to Iraqi law, all this American legal expertise came to matter very little.

By the time al-Khafaji’s case came forward, the Tribunal was being roundly criticized for its lack of transparency and fairness. By then, most of the American lawyers had gone back to their stateside careers, leaving the Iraqis they had appointed to muddle through in a judicial system that was never very insulated from the score-settling politics of post-conflict Iraq. In almost nine years of activity, the Tribunal has compiled a mixed record, shedding light on some of the crimes of the Baathist era, while burying others in shadow.

I have yet to discover the specific charges filed by the Department of Justice against the Three of Diamonds, let alone the court ruling that finally put him behind bars. All I know is that this former Baathist official is in one of the most infamous jails of the old Baathist state.

Whether this is justice, one cannot be certain. But we can be certain that the story of the Three of Diamonds is as American as it is Iraqi. Over the last decade, thousands of American experts and consultants came and went from Baghdad, setting up the Tribunal, drafting Iraqi laws and, in the process, leaving behind a very doubtful legacy.

And, of course, for every Muhsin al-Khafaji doing time for real war crimes there were thousands of other Muhsin al-Khafajis whose imprisonment (and sometimes torture) at American hands were crimes in themselves. These were not only crimes against Iraqis, they were also crimes against our reputation as a nation -- and they remain unpunished and uninvestigated.

I went looking for the Three of Diamonds and found a story of injustice that belonged to Baghdad and also Washington, with facts stranger than fiction. Iraqis won’t forget these stories soon, and neither should Americans.

Breaking “America’s Last Taboo”

by Alex Lubin | published November 27, 2013 - 11:28am

American Zionism has made any serious public discussion of the past or future of Israel -- by far the largest recipient ever of US foreign aid -- a taboo. To call this quite literally the last taboo in American public life would not be an exaggeration. Abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty, even the sacrosanct military budget can be discussed with some freedom. The extermination of native Americans can be admitted, the morality of Hiroshima attacked, the national flag publicly committed to the flames. But the systematic continuity of Israel’s 52-year-old oppression and maltreatment of the Palestinians is virtually unmentionable, a narrative that has no permission to appear.

—Edward Said, “America’s Last Taboo” (2000)

During the four days of the American Studies Association (ASA) annual meeting at the Washington Hilton, conference attendees were buzzing with talk about an Israel boycott resolution proposed by the Caucus on Academic and Community Activism. The resolution, based on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel call for solidarity, was proposed to the National Council of the association at the previous conference, held in Puerto Rico in November 2012. Over the last year the caucus website featured the resolution as well as a place to sign as an endorser. Amidst the normal chaos of a large academic conference the BDS resolution was everywhere a central theme. The executive committee of the ASA organized two large events to consider the resolution, including a town hall discussion featuring panelists who supported the resolution and an open forum in which attendees put their names in a box in the hopes that they would be selected to speak for two minutes. At the open forum 44 names were selected. Of these speakers, only seven opposed the resolution. Moreover, petitions circulated throughout the conference, with the “pro-” resolution group adding approximately 450 names and the “against” petition carrying 50 signatures including seven former presidents of the association. Both sides have many more signatures from petitions collected outside of the conference.

Although there are only a few active academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, discussions about boycotts within universities seems to be more common. In 2005 the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in Britain passed a boycott resolution against the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University. These institutions were singled out because of the ways that they limited the academic freedom of Israeli scholars critical of the occupation and because of academic programs they operate in illegal West Bank settlements. Within the United States the AUT boycott was fiercely condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as well as by the AAUP (and a bit more mildly reproved by the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association). The AAUP responded to the AUT boycott by drafting a policy statement opposing academic boycotts as “prima facie violations of academic freedom.” The AAUP has maintained this position amidst growing boycott movements within the American academy. In April 2013 the Association of Asian American Studies became the first academic association in the American academy to endorse a boycott resolution. The ASA boycott resolution was raised in a context of growing political awareness of the politics and possibilities of boycotts, including a controversial special issue of the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom in which most of the articles, many of which were authored by ASA members, made compelling endorsements of academic boycotts.

I am a co-founder of the ASA’s caucus on academic and community activism and I spoke in support of the resolution on the town hall panel and in the open forum. What struck me about this year’s conference was how quickly the impossible became possible. When the caucus first raised the question of Palestine in America many years ago, only a small handful of ASA members joined our conversation. At the 2012 conference we were amazed to see 80 people attend a meeting to discuss the boycott resolution. At the 2013 conference the issue took off, in large part because of the ways that the issue of boycott adheres to a vision of the ASA as an anti-racist organization. We saw nothing less than the breaking of what Edward Said called “America’s last taboo.”

In order to understand why the resolution gained the overwhelming support of conference attendees we have to understand a longer history of scholarly transformation within the ASA. The support for the BDS resolution represents a conjuncture between at least four ongoing social movements and the academic formations surrounding them. The ASA has recently been shaped by Native American and indigenous studies and its theorizing of settler-colonialism; activism coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its related analysis of debt and the neo-liberal university; the slow but steady march of the Palestinian freedom movement that has led to the formation of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters across academia; and the creation of American studies programs in the Middle East in which the question of Palestine can be discussed outside of the constraints imposed on discourse in America.

The interest within the ASA on studies of settler-colonialism are not new; yet they have been invigorated by a cohort of rigorous scholarship within Native American and indigenous studies who have unraveled the history of settler-colonialism within the US. This scholarship has been especially adept at theorizing the connection between US territorial expansion across North America and US extra-territorial expansion throughout its empire. Native American and indigenous studies scholars have always been active within Palestinian solidarity circles, but the recent growth of settler-colonial studies has provided the intellectual scaffolding through which to better understand settler-colonialisms rooted in liberal nation-states. Moreover, studies of settler-colonialism and indigeneity have allowed scholars to make comparison across time and space that bring into focus transnational processes of colonialism, as well as make evident new forms of anti-colonial solidarities. Recently, for example, Palestinian activists joined Idle No More, a global protest movement in support of indigenous rights.

Scholars who took part in Occupy Wall Street have contributed new insight into the relationship between neo-liberalism and the university. This scholarship has identified the university as being at the front lines of economic neo-liberalism, as tenure, state funding and the humanities have been embattled in the push for new efficiencies, downsized departments and outcomes assessments. In addition, this scholarship has linked higher education to the military-industrial complex in ways that reveals how universities participate in imperialism. What these insights reveal are the ways that higher education participates in the perpetuation and maintenance of inequality and therefore, that “academic freedom” takes place within local and global contexts that are always and already unequal and exclusionary. True academic freedom can only exist in a context devoid of social and political inequalities.

Although the Palestinian solidarity movement has existed for a long time, it has been the growth of SJP activism across American university campuses, more than anything else perhaps, that has expanded the possibilities for discussion of Palestinians within the American academy. Like many non-violent student movements, SJP is dedicated to analysis as well as action; it therefore is committed to spreading knowledge about the occupation throughout higher education, while also dedicated to protesting the occupation in various non-violent forms of civil disobedience. One notable action of SJP has been to link Palestinian solidarity activism to indigenous and migrant justice movements. In mid-October, for example, SJP activists in Arizona protested that state’s deportation policies. SJP should be understood as a community of scholarly activists whose knowledge contributed greatly to the BDS movement with the ASA.

And finally, new academic formations of American studies beyond the US have been open spaces within which the question of Palestine has not been a taboo but a central concern. The Palestine question was at the center of the formation of the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). When Mayor Rudy Giuliani refused Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal’s donation to the City of New York following the September 11, 2001 attacks because the prince dared to criticize US policy regarding Palestine, the prince formed two American studies centers in the Arab world in order that the Arab world could better understand and study America. Throughout its ten-year history CASAR has organized conferences and hosted visiting scholars who discussed the Palestine question openly, in ways that were unavailable in the US where there was supposedly academic freedom, but also a vigorous campaign to silence and prosecute those who discussed Palestinian solidarity. Moreover, in Beirut, American scholars interacted with Middle East Studies experts as well as Palestinian intellectuals and activists. Thus, while the Palestine question was a third rail in the US, CASAR provided a “third space” beyond the US and Israel where the Palestine question could be debated and theorized and the nature of American imperialism could be viewed through a new lens.

The combined academic and activist developments discussed above came together at this year’s ASA conference. The caucus organizing table became a meeting area for young SJP activists in their kaffiyyas, veterans of the Occupy movement, and faculty and graduate students of all ages and backgrounds. For the first time ever ASA members declared themselves on this issue and an overwhelming majority of conference attendees endorsed the resolution. Trailblazing scholars of African-American studies, Chicano studies, Asian American studies, American literature and history endorsed the call for the boycott, suggesting that intersectional analysis is also leading to intersectional politics. Many said they were relieved that they could finally voice in public their analysis of Palestine question without fear of retribution. One Palestinian activist told me that the ASA conference was the first time, outside of Palestinian events, that she felt that she was in the majority.

There were members of the association, and many non-members of the association, who signed a counter-petition. These scholars argued that the resolution unfairly targeted one nation and that the boycott resolution would have a negative impact on academic freedom. They often cited the AAUP statement against academic boycotts. Celebrity Israel supporters, such as Alan Dershowitz, are now on the prowl. Other opponents were sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, but felt that there are better ways to engage the occupation -- such as divestment campaigns -- that do not implicate institutions of higher education. Much of the criticism of the boycott concerned confusion about the difference between an institutional boycott (like the one proposed by the ASA caucus) and an individual boycott (which the ASA caucus did not propose). It would be a mistake to argue that the divide over the question of the boycott was generational; it seemed to have more to do with how different groups conceive of the role of activism in scholarship.

While much of the opposition merely reproduced talking points developed by distant federations and lobbies, within the ASA there was genuine concern among some that the academic boycott is the wrong strategy for fighting the occupation. This argument was often voiced to me in private, especially among self-described Jewish anti-Zionists who are repulsed by the occupation, but think that an academic boycott is misguided for the ASA. To these colleagues I would point out that the boycott asks each of us to prioritize the most immediate and serious political issue, which is the plight of the Palestinians, their precarious lives and the absence of their freedom. The boycott call came from within Palestinian civil society and represents how an indigenous people contending with colonialism are engaging non-violent resistance. Moreover, as Howard Zinn once wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Our silence represents complicity and our boycott call represents solidarity. And finally, we spoke about the important need to disaggregate Jewish identity from Israeli state policy. The boycott call is not a boycott of Jews, or of any individuals, but of institutions that are complicit in the occupation.
Drawing on the transforming and intersecting analysis of anti-racism and anti-imperialism within the ASA, the caucus members argued that universities do not exist outside of imperial contexts, and that academic freedom is a privileged category achieved by very few scholars in Israel-Palestine. Moreover, we argued that the boycott resolution affirms academic freedom in two important ways. First, the boycott will help to open up debate in Israel and Palestine about uneven access to academic freedom. Second, the boycott opens up space within the US to (finally) have an open discussion about Israeli policy and the Palestine question. The boycott does not discriminate against individuals because the boycott is targeted at institutions. And finally, we conceive of the academic boycott as consistent with the politics of divestment; as one member of the caucus argued, a boycott extends into the realm of the academy what divestment extends into the realm of economy.

More than anything the ASA members involved in the boycott resolution felt that we had breached America’s last taboo. A broad group of scholars and students with different backgrounds and research interests worked together in a supportive atmosphere to analyze and discuss boycott in ways that were not possible in previous years. I have studied global solidarity movements, but this was the first time that I felt what it was like to be part of one. Throughout the conference I received e-mails from friends in Beirut and Cairo, as well as from scholars across the US who lent their support and wanted to know what was happening at the conference. Moreover, those of us involved in the boycott movement saw evidence of how our scholarship informs all aspects of our lives, including our activism. The boycott supporters brought to our activism scholarly knowledge about social movements in the past and present that we could draw on for comparison and for inspiration. Whether it was by contributing their insights about the United Farm Workers struggle, the indigenous struggle for sovereignty, the prison abolition movement or the South African anti-apartheid movement, scholar activists put ideas into action in ways that were both inspiring and revelatory.

Update: On December 4, the National Council of the ASA decided to endorse a slightly modified version of the boycott resolution and put it to a vote before the full membership of the association.

Manhunting in Africa

by Steve Niva | published November 18, 2013 - 4:56pm

The penultimate scene in the recently released film Captain Phillips, about the 2009 seizure of the US-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, depicts the methodical precision with which a Navy SEAL Team 6 unit identified and then captured or killed the pirates during their doomed attempt to ferry their hostage to the Somali mainland.

According to Jeremy Scahill’s new book Dirty Wars, the crisis over the Maersk Alabama was the newly inaugurated President Barack Obama’s introduction to the formidable surveillance and intervention capabilities of the US military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which commands the military’s most elite commando units such as the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and the Army’s Delta Force. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney oversaw the expansion of JSOC into a shadowy manhunting army that could “find, fix and finish” alleged terrorist enemies around the world without Congressional oversight or public discussion. But following the Maersk Alabama operation, according to Scahill, President Obama “let JSOC off the leash” by expanding authorization for JSOC’s clandestine operations into previously off-limits areas and countries beyond the official battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama’s embrace of JSOC’s manhunting capabilities was on display in early October of this year with a pair of highly publicized raids in Libya and Somalia intended to capture alleged terrorist masterminds in Africa. The strikes were carried out by elite JSOC special mission units and were approved and overseen by President Obama, who was given regular updates. In one attack, JSOC commandos from the Army’s Delta Force snatched Abu Anas al-Libi -- an alleged al-Qaeda leader wanted for his involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings -- off the streets of Tripoli, Libya. Earlier that day, SEAL Team 6 operators assaulted a beachside villa in Barawe, Somalia, hoping to arrest the al-Shabaab operative “Ikrimah,” linked to the deadly attack on a Kenyan shopping mall. The SEALs were forced to turn back following a protracted gunfight.

Despite President Obama’s assurances in an important May 2013 speech that he rejected the concept of “perpetual war” and would seek to eventually bring the war against al-Qaeda to an end, the concurrent JSOC raids across the African continent illustrate a deepening institutionalization and expansion of the ongoing global shadow war the United States is waging against alleged Islamist terrorists and their “associates.”

Most immediately, the centrality of the US Special Operations Forces in these operations rather than the CIA using drones illustrates the continuing shift in the center of gravity for shadowy counterterrorism operations away from the CIA to the US military and its clandestine operators. The Obama administration has been stung by fierce criticism of CIA drone strikes, which critics condemned as an unlawful global assassination program. These two Africa operations thus appear intended to illustrate a broader Obama administration initiative to shift counterterrorism operations toward US military commands, which in theory provide “additional layers of accountability and oversight,” and put them under “a more disciplined command culture,” as James Kitfield writes. The shift to military control and away from drone strikes also implies a greater emphasis on capture instead of killing, though this may not necessarily be the case. Moreover, as Kitfield notes, during his March confirmation hearings to become CIA director, the leading architect of the CIA drone program, John O. Brennan, expressed his desire to move the drone program and paramilitary operations from the CIA back to the US military in order to return the agency’s focus to its traditional role of intelligence gathering and analysis. Nevertheless, an analysis by Foreign Policy suggests that the effort to remove the CIA from targeted killing and drone strikes is running into some obstacles due to the need for “agility” and deniability in the face of intense local opposition to such strikes in Pakistan, among other places.

More broadly, the two JSOC strikes shed light on the sweeping extension and institutionalization of the US military’s manhunting capabilities and operations across the African continent, in addition to its manhunting networks in Central and West Asia. Nick Turse has outlined the expansion of base construction, advisory deployments and Special Operations missions across the continent under the aegis of the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), established in 2007. AFRICOM’s primary mission is counterterrorism and the Special Operations Command Africa has been a major player in establishing a network of bases and logistical sites to support various “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara operating in North Africa as well as the quick response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 that operates closer to the Horn of Africa. In this context, it appears that JSOC forces have undertaken their own “Berlin Conferencedivision of the African continent into separate manhunting sectors that mirrors the JSOC’s earlier division of Southwest Asia. Following September 11, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 became the most active JSOC element in Afghanistan and Pakistan while the Army’s Delta Force became the JSOC force most responsible for Iraq. Similarly, as seen in these two operations, it appears that the US Army’s Delta Force has responsibilities for North Africa, while the Horn of Africa is Navy SEAL territory.

And lastly, the JSOC raids in Africa illustrate the further blurring of international and domestic counterterrorism agencies and authorities within the global manhunting infrastructure. One of the central organizational developments making possible global manhunting operations has been the emerging Joint Task Force model of interagency coordination and information sharing among the US military, the CIA, the FBI and other organizations into a seamless network across domestic and international authorities. It appears that both CIA and FBI agents played a role in the Libya and Somalia operations, linking with the US military in its kill/capture operations and in developing intelligence for targeted strikes. This blurring of boundaries between domestic and international counterterrorism and manhunting takes on a disturbing quality in light of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA has played a major role in assisting the targeted killing programs undertaken by both the CIA and the American military, in which data swept up from global communications networks, including those of American citizens, has been used to generate target packages for lethal operations in the global shadow war. The NSA has set up a special unit, the CounterTerrorism Mission Aligned Cell or CT Mac, to use its phone and e-mail interceptions to pinpoint the coordinates for CIA and US military drone strikes. It is possible, though it has not been proven, that NSA interceptions could also be used by the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI in targeting domestic threats or opponents.

Thus, although Obama’s May speech articulated an important recognition of the dangers of “perpetual war,” the Obama administration continues to streamline and institutionalize the highly classified practice of targeted killing and the rendition practices of the Bush administration, transforming ad hoc elements into an integrated and synergistic counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a permanent war across several continents as well as across domestic and international authorities. But rather than the CIA and its drones serving as the tip of the spear in this permanent war, it will increasingly be the clandestine “ninjas” of JSOC and their individually targeted and networked kill/capture model of counterterrorism that is in the lead. As Peter Bergen recently pointed out, a sign of where the Obama administration is placing its bets about the future of warfare is that while there are major cuts planned for all four of the armed services, Special Operations Command is one of the few places in the military where the force is actually growing. Although no longer named as such, the “global war on terrorism” is a long way from ending.

This post has been modified slightly from its original version.

Round Two to Arafat

by Mouin Rabbani | published November 6, 2013 - 8:48pm

The release of the Swiss Institut de Radiophysique’s Experts Forensic Report Concerning the Late President Yasser Arafat has lent further credence to the proposition that the iconic Palestinian leader’s 2004 demise was an act of Sharon rather than of God or nature. Speaking to the Guardian, forensic scientist David Barclay concluded the report provides

[A] smoking gun.… I don’t think there’s any doubt at all.… The report provides strong evidence, in my view conclusive evidence, that there’s at least 18 times the level of polonium in Arafat’s exhumed body as there should be.

The above notwithstanding, the report will have only minimal impact on Palestinian perceptions of Arafat’s death. The overwhelming majority has long since concluded that he was forcibly removed from the scene to inaugurate better days for Israel.

But the document’s political repercussions could yet be significant, particularly if there are further developments and Arafat remains in the headlines for an extended period of time.

Simply put, these latest revelations could not have come at a worse time for Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud ‘Abbas, currently engaged once again in bilateral negotiations with Israel under American supervision. The prospects for a new Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 2014 are real and growing, and greater today than at any time since Arafat refused to capitulate to Israel and the United States during the 2000 Camp David summit and thereby set the stage for the ensuing Palestinian uprising. More to the point, such an agreement would entail ‘Abbas signing off on many of the conditions Arafat refused to accept, in no small part because Arafat recognized that those arrangements fell considerably short of the absolute minimum his people were prepared to ingest.

For many of those who did not need to wait until the publication of a Swiss report almost a decade after the fact to conclude Israel is responsible for Arafat’s fate, the story has never been as simple as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon settling the ultimate score with his Palestinian nemesis. Rather, it is considered part of a broader strategy in which Arafat’s succession must have been as well thought out as his removal. Why would Israel go so far as to kill Arafat and thereby pave the way for his replacement by ‘Abbas? Might the progress of the current negotiations provide a clue or two? Hasn’t Abu Mazen’s exemplary commitment to Oslo over the years, and maintenance of security cooperation with Israel through thick and thin, already settled this question?

Additionally, renewed discussion of Arafat’s final days almost inevitably drags in its wake talk of the relationship between him and ‘Abbas during that period. To put it bluntly, they detested each other. Arafat denounced ‘Abbas as a “Palestinian Karzai” who allowed himself to be used by Sharon and George W. Bush to weaken the Palestinian leader. ‘Abbas has never forgiven Arafat for engineering the collapse of his short-lived premiership -- even though the post of Palestinian Authority prime minister had been created at the Quartet’s behest as a vehicle for transferring some of Arafat’s key powers to ‘Abbas. Those who reminisce about such episodes no doubt also recall that ‘Abbas was then the champion of Palestinian reform and institutions, but has since assuming the chair of the PLO Executive Committee, presidency of the PA and State of Palestine, and chair of the Fatah movement governed more autocratically than even Yasser Arafat -- and unlike the latter never appointed a deputy.

Finally, it is widely assumed that while of Israeli provenance the fatal toxin must have been administered by Palestinian hands. This possibility raises uncomfortable questions about the studied reluctance with which the Palestinian leadership has handled the Arafat death file. New evidence that he was killed therefore raises additional questions about why the Palestinian accomplice has yet to be caught or identified, and more broadly about why the leadership has not energetically pursued criminal proceedings against Israel.

The latest and potential further revelations about the circumstances of Arafat’s death are not going to derail the current negotiations or prevent an eventual agreement from being reached. But if an agreement is indeed concluded in 2014, and there is considerable opposition to the implementation of its terms, Arafat may once again emerge as the symbol of Palestinian rights, and help spur efforts to prevent the question of Palestine from being resolved on the basis of a West Bank statelet with circumscribed powers incompatible with any definition of sovereignty. Given that ‘Abbas’ role in Oslo has been highly exaggerated in the sense that only Arafat had the stature to make it happen, that outcome would be ironic indeed.

New Alliances and Schisms in Sudan

by Amanda Ufheil-Somers | published October 29, 2013 - 1:23pm

The ten days of protests in Sudan beginning September 23, 2013 were the largest in the country since the installation of the military government of Omar al-Bashir in 1989. As Middle East Report  editor Khalid Mustafa Medani explains in an interview with KPFA, unlike the youth-led protests of 2011 and 2012, the movement this September marked a resurgence of organizing across class, region and generation, incorporating middle-class professionals, youth and the urban poor.

Sudan’s economic crisis—precipitated by the 2011 secession of South Sudan and 60 percent reduction of state revenues from the oil fields there—has shifted the political balance in Khartoum. Cuts to public services and 40 percent inflation have begun to impoverish a middle class that sat out the protests over the past two years.

Though inspired by bread-and-butter issues, the economic demands of the protest movement are linked to the political crisis in the country: widespread (and widely known) corruption, the regime’s continued war-making in the west, south and east and its attempt to maintain pre-partition levels of funding for the military and security services. The demonstrations have also caused splits within the ruling National Congress Party over economic policy and the violence deployed against protesters. Amnesty International reports that 210 people were killed during the protests in Khartoum alone, most by gunshot wounds.

Despite the end of the mass protests, oppositional politics in Sudan has gained important ground. New bridges built between youth activists, unions and other civil society groups and the reemergence of women as leaders in political and activist networks are promising developments in the ongoing struggle for “freedom, peace and justice.”

Listen to the interview at KPFA. An uncut version is available here.

UN Admission, Ours and Yours

by Jamie Stern-Weiner | published October 10, 2013 - 2:12pm

Having declared independence in May 1948, the new State of Israel was lacking in international legitimacy. Recognizing the deficiency, Israeli officials invested tremendous effort over the course of 1948-1949 in securing Israel’s admission to the United Nations.

A recent paper identifies three arguments advanced by Israeli diplomats at the time in support of Israel’s application:

  • Peace: “Holding the peace process hostage” to UN admission, Israeli officials argued that the latter would advance peace talks. This approach -- of insisting that UN admission precede a peace agreement -- was championed by Israel’s first ambassador to the UN, Abba Eban. Speaking before the General Assembly, Eban impressed upon delegates that Israel’s admission would “contribute to the rapid conclusion of [peace] agreements.” Indeed, “nothing could be more prejudicial to the prospects of conciliation and peace than…doubts regarding Israel’s international status,” for why should the Arab states recognize Israel “if the United Nations hesitated to do so itself”?
  • Equality: The UN should accept Israel’s application in order to place it “on an equal footing with the Arab states in the ongoing armistice and upcoming peace talks.” “Surely,” Eban urged the General Assembly in December 1948, “the cause of conciliation would be advanced if both parties…had the same obligations, bore the same responsibility and enjoyed the same status.” It is “obvious,” he continued, that peace efforts “would be gravely undermined” without “a serious effort…to place both parties on an equal footing.” “At every stage of its checkered relations with the Arab world,” he repeated four months later, “Israel had felt equality of status to be the essential condition of partnership.”
  • Prestige: The UN’s legitimacy as a body aiming at “universality” would be undermined should it reject Israel’s application. UN prestige was particularly implicated in the case of Israel, whose establishment and recognition the UN had itself recommended. In rejecting Israel’s application, then, the UN would in effect be “repudiating its own decision.” “It would be an extraordinary paradox,” Eban declared in May 1949, “if the United Nations were to close its doors upon the State which it had helped to quicken into active life.” If it did so, “the future authority of the United Nations” would suffer.

In September 2011, after decades of fruitless bilateral negotiations, the Palestinian leadership applied for admission to the UN. Facing a certain US veto in the Security Council, the request was never voted on. Instead, a resolution according non-member observer status to Palestine was passed by the General Assembly in November 2012. Opposing the admission bid, Israeli officials took positions diametrically opposed to those advocated by their predecessors concerning Israel’s own application.

Rather than enhancing prospects for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation by reducing the inequalities that divide them, UN admission would simply remove Palestinians’ “incentive to negotiate.” Far from expediting peace talks, acceptance of the Palestinian bid would fatally harm them. Even the minor step of granting Palestine non-member observer status at the General Assembly, Israel’s ambassador to the UN warned, would “push” prospects for peace “backwards,” encouraging the Palestinians to “harden their positions.” Whereas Eban had pressed for Israel’s admission to the UN prior to a peace agreement with its neighbors, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted in 2011 that “Palestinians must first make peace” and only “then get their State.” And despite the fact that the UN has endorsed Palestine’s establishment far more emphatically than it did Israel’s, Israeli officials warned that by upgrading Palestine’s status it would go down in “history” as having aided the Palestinians in “undermining peace.” (The Obama administration endorsed these arguments, with Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice condemning the Palestinians’ UN bid as a threat to “the peace process.”)

Since crushing Palestine’s bid for UN membership, the Obama administration and Israel have pursued a renewed bilateral peace process. Reproducing the structure of countless previous rounds of negotiations, the process has also replicated the results: no sign of diplomatic progress, no sustainable development in the Palestinian territories and continued Israeli settlement construction on the ground. 

Curious that what was “obvious” to Abba Eban should now be so difficult to grasp: “Equality of status” is an “essential condition of partnership,” and the international community’s failure to take measures to “place both parties on an equal footing” leaves the “cause of conciliation” -- and, with it, the prospects for ending what is now going on seven decades of violence and misery -- “gravely undermined.”

Iran, the Twenty-First-Century Island of Stability

by Kevan Harris | published September 28, 2013 - 5:26pm

Iran’s 1979 revolution, in helping to push out Jimmy Carter and bring in Ronald Reagan, offered up one of the few instances in the latter half of the twentieth century where domestic politics in a Third World country affected domestic politics in the United States more than the other way around. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made no bones about it: The US couldn’t do a damn thing.

This fact remains an unspoken reason the Islamic Republic looms larger than life in our insecure American psyche. Thirty-four years later, it could happen again.

Wasn’t Barack Obama’s Friday fulmination against “extremists” in the Republican Party an attempt, perhaps by osmosis, to copy Hassan Rouhani’s refashioning of Iran’s domestic politics into a clash of “extremists” and “moderates”? Both presidents are faced with a divided and embattled conservative opposition. Both urgently need markers of progress -- symbolic and real -- to legitimate and push forward their agendas. Both men’s reputations are now linked together, for better or worse. Yet Rouhani, who clearly knows how to bend both the US and Iranian news cycles in his favor, seems to be more adept at handling his antagonists.

The recognition that Iran’s 2013 June election was no fluke has seeped in. Journalists and pundits are panting hard to fit the fast-paced events of recent weeks into the Procrustean mold of Kremlinology-cum-analysis that only sufficed when no competent Iranian interlocutors existed. Luckily, we are running out of Orientalist clichés from Victorian-era Persia travelogues to describe the situation: “rug bazaars,” “wrestling matches,” “chess games” and the like. Frankly, I’ve stopped reading the stateside stuff. Instead, a cursory glance at Iran’s domestic press displays a simple answer to why Rouhani has gotten this far, this fast: The new Iranian president seized hold of an already divided right wing and further fragmented it.

We now know, thanks to bleating by the losing team, that during the run-up to the June election nearly all the supposed pillars of the “regime” were busy throwing tantrums. In Qom, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi refused to back a conservative coalition that other high-ranking ulema such as Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani tried to foster, leading the seminaries to scatter their support to Rouhani among others. Mesbah-Yazdi, we were once assuredly told, was the true sinister power behind the state curtain.

The Islamic Republic’s Leader and Supreme Jurist, Ali Khamenei, never decided “to let Rouhani win,” as the US media bafflingly portrayed it, but instead prevaricated until it was too late to do anything to prevent the election from taking its course. He was locked, along with the rest of the conservatives, in a prisoner’s dilemma of his own making. In his September 5 speech to the Assembly of Experts, reported in the US for a throwaway line that “the US would suffer losses in Syria” in the case of Obama’s then-planned attack -- which is true no matter whether Iran does anything about it -- he spent the majority of his remarks trying to take credit for the entirety of Rouhani’s campaign platform. Rather than the point man and prime mover for the state’s decision-making process, Khamenei is the bellwether for where the political elite is already moving. It was only a few years ago when Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, was being touted as the (other) true sinister power in Iranian politics, not to mention the indisputable Leader-in-training. Heard much about Mojtaba lately? Maybe he and Mesbah-Yazdi took up backgammon.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their postulated potentate Qasem Suleimani are the current moment’s bogeyman of choice. Yet quoting the IRGC’s mouthpieces for the purpose of divining Iranian politics is like watching Red Dawn to understand the nuances of US foreign policy. This is why few registered the fact that the IRGC’s main spokesman Gen. Ramazan Sharif gave post-election interviews to the two most famous reformist newspapers, Sharq and Etemad, for the purposes of reputational realignment. The IRGC had been most unfairly treated not by the Rafsanjani or Khatami administrations, Sharif declared, but by the usurping Ahmadinejad team. These particular IRGC exclamations were blazoned above the fold on Iran’s dailies, but more pugnacious IRGC boasts ended up on the front pages of America’s establishment press. The truth is not located in either rhetorical maneuver, but in the recognition that this organization is as divided as the rest of Iran’s political apparatus, with an internal clique of Rouhani sympathizers to boot. Hence the IRGC eating humble pie and throwing darts at the same time.

One reason that politics are again realigning in Iran is that Rouhani is cultivating key conservatives as stakeholders in his own administration’s success. This is the LBJ rule: Good politicians prefer to have enemies inside the tent aiming their liquid invectives outside rather than the converse. Unlike Khatami, Rouhani did not enter office feebly speaking of civil society, NGOs and other liberal armchair fantasies. Instead, Rouhani flipped the right wing’s national security discourse of “resistance” on its head. The president’s current adviser, former Defense Minister Akbar Torkan, put it quite plainly just before the election: “Who can say that imposing various sanctions on the country is a revolutionary move and in line with serving the political system and the people? In our opinion, rationalism is revolutionary.” Rouhani has reframed the debate: Moderation is revolutionary, extremism is reactionary. If these remain the new stakes, then the recalcitrant hardliners, especially if they repeat the tactics of the 1990s by resorting to extra-institutional violence, may find themselves with even less influence than before. The smarter conservative players are going along with the show for now.

The other reason that politics are realigning, one that the Obama administration recognizes to its credit, is that the segment of the Iranian population that occasionally sits out elections pushed back publicly on the political elite through what can best be described as a heroic act of collective consciousness. In a quite tangible sense, Rouhani won his current mandate through a social coalition we might call “Green movement plus”: the 2009 supporters of reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, plus provincial urban fence sitters, plus ethnic minorities. Given the region’s further unraveling this summer -- Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Turkey -- it may well be the case that voting for Rouhani was the most revolutionary act available for Iranians en masse. It was for this reason that Roger Cohen in the New York Times branded the Islamic Republic an “island of stability” earlier this month -- echoing Carter’s Tehran toast to the Shah in December 1977 -- without a hint of irony.

Neither Obama or Rouhani know for sure how far they can secure their domestic clout. Yet, if I may lazily go Orientalist for a moment, both sides pushed against a wall and realized it was a beaded curtain. The politics, in sum, have just begun, and the bedfellows may get stranger.

On the Signs of Intervention in Syria

by The Editors | published August 30, 2013 - 4:16pm

Today Secretary of State John Kerry presented documents in support of his case that the Syrian regime ordered a chemical weapons attack that killed 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children. Days earlier Kerry had promised “consequences” if the US judged that the “red line” of chemical weapons use had been crossed. The nature of those “consequences” is not certain, but all signs point to a US missile or other aerial strike, “a bloody nose operation,” as MERIP editor Bassam Haddad puts it. The Obama administration promises a “limited, narrow act,” not an “open-ended commitment.” We asked a few veteran observers to comment on this turn of events.


Jim Paul

The chemical weapons attack in Syria and the debates in the Security Council recall previous episodes when Washington sought backing for war. Who can forget the presentation by Colin Powell to the Council on February 6, 2003, a presentation riddled with falsehoods? Powell later said that he felt “regret.” There was also the “dodgy dossier” concocted by Downing Street to prove that war was justified. Hans Blix, leader of the UN inspection team in Iraq at that time, has now commented on the rush to war in Syria. Recalling how the US and Britain preempted the UN inspection process in Iraq, he warns that, this time, we cannot rely on the self-interested pronouncements of powerful states and that inspectors must be allowed to do their job. Further, he says, the US is not the world’s policeman. A novel idea!

The Syria situation under international law is clear. The UN Charter only allows one state to undertake military action against another state in two cases: in self-defense against an imminent attack and in response to a Security Council resolution. Neither will apply in this case, because any resolution would be vetoed by Russia and China. So Washington is reaching for other justifications and looking backward at past interventions for recycled rationales. One is the concept of “moral” policy and the related “just war” idea, promoted by Tony Blair in his famous speech in Chicago in defense of the Kosovo NATO bombings in 1999. This dangerous approach enables powerful countries to attack others on the basis of supposedly ethical judgments, judgments which we know are always rooted in self-interest. The governments play on public fears and humanitarian sentiments. Dodgy dossiers and heart-rending speeches are an essential part of this strategy. Another approach is the still shakier idea that military action is “illegal but legitimate,” proposed after Kosovo by a panel of jurists, but widely regarded as dangerously vague and subjective. Legal systems must be broadly legitimate, to be sure, but particular applications cannot set aside law in favor of legitimacy alone, lest such a system become the plaything of propagandists and the powerful.

Another rationale on Syria, currently faddish, is the idea of the “responsibility to protect.” According to this doctrine, if states fail to protect their citizens, “the international community” should act. But here, too, the ground is very shaky. R2P, as spelled out in 2005, is vague and in its agreed form it certainly does not justify action outside UN authorization. Subjective judgments are also a dangerous part of the doctrine.

So Washington is in a pickle, which is worsened by the Arab League refusal to give regional endorsement for military action. In the wake of the Washington-backed military coup in Egypt, few governments in the region want to be seen as supporting yet another US intervention. So Washington and its friends change the subject and talk about Security Council “paralysis” as a way to justify their aggressive acts. This pretends that the veto (or threat of its use) is something that only the bad guys make use of. In fact, of course, it is a move used nearly every day and perhaps used even more prolifically by Washington than the other four. So Washington is now mumbling about “norms” being violated and promising “limited” attacks. But an air war is still a war and a short war is still a war also. More bombing will not solve Syria’s problems and it seems a bizarre way to “punish” the dictator Bashar al-Asad or to set in motion a new and more responsible government. It will only prolong the killing and promote the victory of the Islamic fundamentalist “rebels.” Legality will not be served.

Any talk about international law, chemical weapons and morality must be connected to the broader issues in the Syria conflict and the proxy war that is being fought so fiercely and cynically, to the ruin of the country. What is the “moral” case for Western military support for Islamic fundamentalist fighters -- the key to the “rebel” forces challenging the dictator? Would a victory for al-Qaeda in Syria be an ethical advance? Or just desserts for the Asad dynasty? MERIP readers know what a diverse country Syria is and how threatened most of the population feel by the Islamic rebels. Clearly, the military strikes are not about “punishment” or “protecting” anyone, but rather about tilting the balance of a devastating conflict in favor of the Western-backed forces. And securing hegemony in the oil-rich region. Neither the dictatorship nor the armed rebel army represent “legality” in the sense we would want to support. The only path toward legality -- a ceasefire and negotiated settlement in Geneva, as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi proposes -- has been foreclosed by the West. Instead of bombs, the “international community” should reach out to the Syrian democratic and non-violent opposition in search of peace.


Sarah Birke

The tragedy playing out on Syrian soil that has led to the very real possibility of American strikes is bad enough. But what makes the debate over whether to intervene even worse is that the war’s trajectory has been perversely predictable, as Peter Harling and I argued in April. From August 2011, when Bashar al-Asad sent tanks to crush the rebellion in Hama, it was clear that violence would be the regime’s solution: a slow, gradual escalation to both desensitize onlookers and test outside powers’ (lack of) appetite for intervention. Under such circumstances, and with a helping hand from the regime, the radicalization of the rebels and influx of foreign fighters were not hard to foresee. So here we are. Two and a half years since the uprising started and considering using force for the first time.

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. There were good reasons for not intervening earlier -- and indeed there are now. But the failure of foreign policy decision makers to acknowledge that the path ahead has long been clear is something to lament. Now they are stuck in a situation where intervention appears ever more pressing, yet is ever riskier.

Although the opposition in exile has been calling for intervention for months, and although many Syrians bemoan the lack of American and Western solidarity, there is a deep unease among Syrians about strikes. Western involvement in the Middle East, where priorities are driven more by Israel and other interests than by human rights, is deeply unsettling to many.

At root, the problem is that both Syrians and foreign officials are still struggling to answer how it would have been possible to help Syrians achieve the change they wanted without it coming to this.


Darryl Li

The war machine seems to have hit a bump in the road and lost its most trusty sidecar. Considerable disquiet within his own party about bombing Syria forced British Prime Minister David Cameron to allow parliamentary debate on the matter, only to be handed a humiliating defeat, even after promising to postpone a final vote on military action. Cameron’s woes were a sad reminder that, in matters of war, the closest thing the United States has to an effective democratic opposition is the legislature of a foreign country.

As part of a last-ditch maneuver to mollify skeptics, Downing Street had issued a two-page position paper asserting a right to wage war without the authorization of the UN Security Council by reference to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, permitting “exceptional measures to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.” The position paper -- which reiterates legal arguments used during the Yugoslavia and Iraq episodes in the 1990s -- did not attempt to demonstrate how military action prompted by the use of a specific type of weapon would prevent the subsequent use of that weapon, let alone ameliorate the overall humanitarian situation. Anyway, there may have been little point in explicating the legal rationale further, since scholars are nearly unanimous in rejecting humanitarian intervention as a legal basis for war (and the position paper did not mention the “Responsibility to Protect” line of argumentation that some push as a framework for humanitarian war). Even the United States has never supported it.

But making some kind of argument, however thin, was necessary because the British public has at least some concern for international legality in matters of war and peace, especially after the Iraq debacle. The British government went so far as to stage a commission of inquiry into its role in the Iraq war that, among other things, forced Tony Blair to confront his critics (and hecklers). For its part, the US failed to reexamine the 2003 rush to war in any credible way. It even went so far as to wage a campaign in 2010 to water down the International Criminal Court’s ability to prosecute the crime of aggression.

On our side of the Atlantic, the issue, of course, has been less about whether attacking Syria would flout international law but whether the legislature has been given a chance to sign off. Among members of Congress, a letter asking President Barack Obama for such consultation has gathered over 140 signatures so far (for his part, House Speaker John Boehner sent a polite list of questions to the White House). This letter explicitly rejects the administration’s argument during the Libya campaign that punitive air wars do not require Congressional authorization because they do not rise to the level of “hostilities” for the purposes of the 1973 War Powers Resolution.

These protestations -- consistent with the minimal public support for yet another war -- have never mattered much. US presidents have elected numerous times not to consult Congress before unleashing the country’s military, especially when ground forces were not to be involved. But Cameron’s defeat has precipitated perhaps the greatest rift in Anglo-American collaboration toward the Middle East since the 1956 Suez crisis and could do more to dampen the enthusiasm for war than any likely move by the US political class.


Rochelle Davis

In May, I met with a friend, a Palestinian from Syria who left for Amman after his home in the Yarmouk refugee camp was flattened by government bombs. A leftist and activist, he began talking about events in Syria since 2011.

He said: “We discovered that we are people. We have rights and we can achieve them. This is the beginning of the movement. It is happening. I relearned Gramsci from the youth of the Yarmouk alleys, not because Gramsci is right, but because the young people developed their struggle out of local society and their own resistance to the system. We witnessed the faithful and faithless together. But the elite of the dissident political movements held back from embracing this youth movement. I heard them say, ‘Don’t the people know how awful the regime is? Why did they revolt against it?’ It was as if they were blaming the people for inciting the regime against them. Of course, some of the leading dissidents were imprisoned for years and are traumatized. But good people, communists and nationalists, took surprisingly conservative positions. ‘Revolution, yes, but not like this.’ They cited various theories and tried to say what was happening on the ground did not fit and thus would not succeed. But nothing stays the same. And they can’t see that in the intellectual fantasy they have created.”

“What I see is that there is now nothing shared between these generations, not even a shared language or means of communication. The people on the ground are doing things, while the old ideologues shout in the other direction. This is why I say I relearned Gramsci from the youth in the streets of Syria. And the youth want leadership and want to learn. There are good leaders there, and there has been an important moral element. We were upset with the Islamists because this is not our way, not our history. Islam for us is a tradition, part of who we are, but not the only thing we are.”

“But this moral element is there in our people. One of the army’s intelligence men was injured badly and lying in the Palestine Hospital. When he woke up, they called his wife and told her where he was. She arrived, terrified of what she would find or what they would do. The doctors said, ‘Here’s your husband. Here’s the ambulance. Take him away for more treatment.’ It doesn’t matter who a person is -- these doctors and those around them were committed to the moral understanding of life. But this moral understanding is absent in the consciousness of the elite, in those who sit around and talk. And in those who don’t understand the revolution. We are witnessing, instead, a moral sin.”