Romney's Remnants

by Steve Niva | published September 12, 2012 - 3:33pm

In Egypt, popular sentiment runs high against those dubbed fuloul (leftovers or dregs), the epithet for politicians and former officials associated with the immense corruption and despotism of the Mubarak regime. Anti-fuloul sentiment ultimately doomed Mubarak’s final prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, to defeat in the presidential runoff against the Muslim Brothers’ candidate Muhammad Mursi. And public anger has fueled initiatives like Imsak Fuloul (Catch the Remnants), which, among other things, calls for the implementation of a law that would exclude former regime members from politics for ten years.

Contrast this ardor for accountability with the United States, where a “forgive and forget” attitude regarding fuloul seems to prevail, if the lack of indignation at the composition of the emerging Romney-Ryan foreign policy team is anything to go by.

The Romney-Ryan team is a virtual who’s who of the very same neoconservative ideologues who were responsible for many of the worst excesses of the Bush-Cheney administration, including two ruinous wars and occupations that destabilized the Middle East and helped bankrupt the United States; a counterproductive “war on terror” that embraced shameful policies of torture and undermined international law; and fervent support for Israel’s colonization of Palestinian lands and destructive wars in Lebanon and Gaza. Of Romney’s 24 special advisers on foreign policy, 17 served under Bush and Cheney. Many were original associates of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century (PNAC), wellspring of many Bush-Cheney policies, prompting Colin Powell to complain that Romney’s foreign policy team members “are quite far to the right.”

Although Romney’s choice of Robert Zoellick, a deputy secretary of state under Bush who was later appointed to head the World Bank, as head of his national security transition team has riled some who consider him too close to former Secretary of State James Baker and insufficiently friendly toward Israel, the rest of the team, as the New York Times’ Bill Keller notes, is chock full of “advisers with a decidedly neoconservative bent -- confrontational, unilateral, with a missionary urge to spread American-style democracy and a particular affinity for Israel’s hardliners.”

At the top of the list of fuloul is the mustachioed über-hawk John Bolton, Bush’s former UN ambassador and an especially vociferous PNAC man, who has become part of Romney’s inner foreign policy circle. Bolton has campaigned energetically for Romney, serving as a key surrogate on national security issues. He is a steadfast opponent of international organizations and treaties, and was an avid backer of Israel and the war in Iraq. Lately, Bolton has been an outspoken proponent of an Israeli attack on Iran.

Cut from the same cloth is PNAC co-founder Eliot Cohen, counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2007 to 2009, who wrote the foreword to the Romney campaign’s foreign policy white paper, which, not surprisingly, was titled “An American Century.” Cohen was a tutor to Bush administration neocons and particularly close to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Following the September 11 attacks, he dubbed the war on terror “World War IV,” arguing that Iraq should be the primary focus due to its weapons of mass destruction and close ties to al-Qaeda. Out of office, Cohen has urged the Obama administration to seek the overthrow of Iran’s government.

Romney’s top counterterrorism adviser since 2007 has been former CIA operative Cofer Black, another controversial figure from the Bush era, whom Romney has relied on for security assessments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Iran, including the last country’s nuclear program. As head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center when the harshest post-September 11 interrogations were carried out, Black supervised the agency’s “extraordinary rendition” program, which illegally transported alleged terrorists to secret detention centers abroad where they were often tortured. He joined Blackwater in 2005, specializing in intelligence gathering for governments and business before moving on to consulting with Romney.

Behind the scenes, the well-connected neoconservative Dan Senor is widely seen as a key player shaping Romney’s increasingly hawkish views on the Middle East. Senor served as the hapless spin doctor for Paul Bremer, who, as the American administrator of post-conquest Iraq, presided over the most ham-fisted stage of the occupation. Senor is also particularly close to the Israeli right, co-writing the 2009 book Startup Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, which reads like an extended infomercial for Israel. He now serves as a key conduit between Romney and right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and helped choreograph Romney’s summer trip to Israel, in which Romney shamelessly embraced extremist Israel backers like the billionaire Sheldon Adelson and gratuitously offended the Palestinians. His proximity to Romney foreshadows a Romney foreign policy that would take a harder line against Iran, embrace Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and openly sanction Israel’s continuing colonization of Palestinian lands.

The Romney team has even brought on board the self-styled terror expert Walid Phares, a Lebanese Maronite Christian with a history of involvement with violent militias in Lebanon, as a “special adviser” on Middle East affairs. Phares’ ties to Romney are long-standing, having consulted the candidate on “counter-terror” issues in the past. In a Salon piece on Romney’s “scary” Middle East adviser, As‘ad AbuKhalil details Phares’ involvement with the overlapping circles of Islamophobic activists and right-wing Israel supporters, noting his participation as a featured expert with the David Project, the Israel on Campus Coalition, David Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine, Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, and Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, among others. An early proponent of the Iraq invasion, Phares would be a key point person in perpetuating the “war on terror” as a war on Islam. For Phares, Hizballah, Hamas and al-Qaeda amount to one global organization and the democratic uprisings in the Middle East are little more than vehicles for advancing Islamic extremism.

And finally, although Romney’s vice presidential selection Paul Ryan is better known for his libertarian economics than foreign policy experience, he has dipped into the same well by bringing into the fold the well-known neoconservative ideologue, Elliott Abrams. A key Middle East adviser at the National Security Council during the Bush presidency, Abrams was a leading proponent of the “war on terror” and a relentless behind-the-scenes political operative promoting views in line with those of hardliners in Israel, including opposition to any “land for peace” deals and supporting Israel’s ill-fated war on Lebanon in 2006 as a harbinger of a “new Middle East.” He is now advocating Israeli strikes on Iran. Abrams may even be considered double-dipping fuloul: As a key figure in the Reagan administration he was indicted by a special prosecutor for intentionally deceiving Congress about White House support for the contras -- including his own central role in the egregious Iran-contra arms deal.

Any foreign policy advisory board that seeks the counsel of such figures as John Bolton, Cofer Black, Dan Senor, Walid Phares and Elliott Abrams is a real cause for concern. But even more disconcerting is the extent to which, in contrast to Egypt, such infamous former officials are stepping back into the limelight so quickly after producing such foreign policy debacles without a major outcry.

The Obama administration bears great responsibility for the shocking rehabilitation of neocon fuloul. It has consistently failed to pursue accountability or even public hearings into the crimes and foreign policy fiascos of the Bush administration under the ill-advised mantra of “looking forward, not backward.” Even worse, Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that he was closing without charges the only remaining cases under investigation related to the US torture program, according to the New York Times, “means that the Obama administration’s limited effort to scrutinize the counterterrorism programs carried out under President George W. Bush has come to an end.” As the columnist Glenn Greenwald ruefully noted, the Obama administration’s “aggressive, full-scale whitewashing” of the “war on terror” crimes committed by Bush officials is now complete. Not a single Bush-era official has been held accountable.

For now, one has to look outside the US for demands for Bush-era accountability. Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently refused to meet with Tony Blair on a visit to England, calling for both Blair and former President Bush to be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the anti-apartheid movement, accused the former British and US leaders of lying about weapons of mass destruction and claimed that the invasion left the world more destabilized and divided “than any other conflict in history.” For Tutu, as with many Egyptians, there can be no “looking forward” until there has been accountability for the past. For the United States, by contrast, it may be “back to the future.”

Copts Denounce Islamophobia

by Chris Toensing | published September 12, 2012 - 2:10pm

In the wake of the lethal rocket attack on State Department personnel in Benghazi, and salafi protesters’ assault upon the US Embassy in Cairo, Egyptian blogger Zeinobia draws attention to “the protest that everyone ignored.” (Thanks to Zeinobia for the images below.)

This demonstration took place in Tahrir Square on September 11. It was small, but just as worthy of attention as the salafis. The demonstrators were Coptic Christians, and they were there to denounce the stupid, incendiary we-hate-Muslims film allegedly produced by an Israeli Jew named Sam Bacile and promoted via the Internet by the self-styled Coptic-American activist Morris (or, as he sometimes calls himself, Maurice) Sadek. Sadek is well known for risible exaggeration about the proportion of Copts in the Egyptian population and clumsy attempts to exploit Islamophobia in the West to “help” his co-religionists in Egypt. That this film is also lauded by knuckle-dragging Florida evangelical Terry Jones -- he of Qur’an-burning infamy -- is telling in more ways than one.

Laura Rozen and Sarah Posner, in preliminary investigations, suggest that “Sam Bacile” does not exist and that his identification as an Israeli Jew is “misdirection” on the part of the film’s backers, one of whom now says that “Bacile” is a pseudonym. “Why the misdirection?” Rozen asks on Twitter. Hard to say, but some of the ramifications are made clear by going back to the demonstration in Tahrir Square.

Here is a photo of Mary Daniel, sister of Mina Daniel, a revolutionary activist and advocate for a “civil state” (dawla madaniyya) who was murdered by the Egyptian army in their rampage through the ranks of Copts and Muslim sympathizers outside the Maspero state media building on October 9, 2011. Her placard reads: “Egypt shall become like Mina Daniel and Sheikh ‘Imad ‘Iffat wanted it to be.” ‘Iffat was an Azhari cleric killed by an army sniper during the standoffs downtown in early December.

And here is a group called Copts 38. Their banner reads: “The Christians and Muslims of Egypt are one hand. We reject the casting of aspersions upon the prophet of Islam, and we condemn racism and sectarianism.”

These are not the images of Egyptian Christians that the likes of Sadek want the world to see. They imply the resiliency of a strong commitment to non-sectarian politics and coexistence in Egyptian society. They belie the notion that Copts and Muslims are necessarily separate or opposed to one another, despite all the discrimination against Copts that demonstrably occurs and the cowardice or complicity of the Egyptian state in its face.

No direct connection has been established between the film, its dissemination and acts of violence.

But it is clear that the images that Sadek and his ilk want the world to see are those of Muslim protesters scaling the US Embassy walls and burning the American flag. (Copts, on the other hand, should only appear as victims.) The film they are hawking is grade-D agit-prop intended to instill hatred, not just of Muslims, but also in Muslims, and thereby fulfill its own prophecy of an inevitable clash of civilizations. There’s no quicker way to stir up these antipathies than to imply an Israeli connection, playing upon anger about Palestine (and, yes, some anti-Semitism) among people conditioned by decades of deceitful state media practices to see a “foreign hand” behind everything. In this project, they find willing de facto collaborators among salafis, who also take advantage of prejudice and poor education for their own purposes.

And the Copts of Egypt, who have long regarded Sadek with bemused contempt, are right in the middle of the whole toxic mess, forced by people with an Islamophobic agenda constantly to assert their patriotism and sense of belonging in Egypt, much as Muslims have to do in the United States.

"Green on Blue": Message Not Received

by Steve Niva | published September 7, 2012 - 12:46pm

American and NATO media handlers are in message control mode trying to contain the fallout from the escalation of insider killings of American and NATO soldiers by trained Afghan forces, known in military parlance as “green on blue” attacks. The latest rash of insider attacks on coalition forces has left at least 45 dead in 2012 to date. Fifteen members of the international coalition were killed in insider attacks in August, 12 of them American. In 2011, there were 21 attacks, killing 35; and in 2010 there were 11 attacks with 20 deaths.

The skyrocketing rate of “green on blue” killings is forcing coalition forces to take some desperate measures. NATO has given orders for all coalition troops to remain armed at all times even when “inside the wire” on US bases. US commanders have instituted a “Guardian Angel” program in which one or two American soldiers keep an eye on their Afghan allies in every joint mission or meeting. And some US military units have even resorted to building hardened safe rooms, what they call “Alamos” to protect themselves from potential attacks from the soldiers and police officers they are training.

Throughout all of this, US and NATO spokespersons have made every effort to focus attention on individual cases rather than consider broader trends, resulting in a confusing array of explanations that range from personal grievances with coalition forces to cultural misunderstandings and even the strange notion suggested by Gen. John Allen that Ramadan fasting and unusual summer heat may have contributed to the latest uptick in attacks. Officials do admit that about a tenth of them have been due to actual Taliban infiltrators or Taliban coercion, though later reports concede the number could range up to a quarter. “American officials are still struggling,” wrote the New York Times in an editorial on the subject, “to understand the forces at work.”

But if one moves beyond the fog of individual cases to actually consider those broader “forces at work” it seems rather clear that the escalation in insider killings of NATO and American forces mirrors the simultaneous escalation of Taliban-led insurgent attacks across the country this summer. After a year of declining activity, insurgent attacks began to rise in April only to spike in June, which saw the highest number of attacks in nearly two years, with more than 100 assaults a day across the country. The UN reported in August that civilian deaths were lower in the first six months of 2012 than in the first half of 2011, but that an onslaught of summer attacks by insurgents were threatening to reverse that trend.

The Taliban escalation has been particularly evident in southern areas that were the focus of the 2009 US troop “surge,” but it has also reached parts of Afghanistan where violence had been on the decline over the past few years. Insurgents have targeted government and local officials in greater numbers; NATO reports that the number of IED attacks is rising and suicide bombings have also increased in number and scale, including brazen commando-style martyrdom operations involving as many as 14 bombers in a single attack. And notably, an even greater number of Afghan police and military have killed each other this year in “green on green” attacks than the more widely reported “green on blue” killings.

It was not a coincidence that the Taliban launched what they called the “Al Farooq Jihadi” offensive on May 3, the day after President Barack Obama flew to Kabul to seal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai a ten-year Strategic Partnership Agreement in which the US pledged to bolster the Karzai regime with aid and support and to keep around 20,000 troops until 2020 or beyond. What is clear to most, not least the Taliban, is that the emerging American plan is that by the end of 2014 US “combat troops” will be withdrawn, but left behind on the giant bases the Pentagon has built will be thousands of US trainers and advisers, as well as special operations forces whose job will officially be to “stand up” the Afghan force underwritten by continued US and NATO funding to the tune of billions per year.

Thus, while clearly not every insider killing has been carried out directly by the Taliban, the broader meaning and causes of the growing contagion of insider attacks is not in much doubt. The Taliban do not have the power to defeat Afghan or NATO forces in a direct confrontation, nor will they be able to impose their rule after the drawdown of American combat troops in 2014. But despite recent American counterinsurgency efforts, they are showing that they remain a resilient insurgency that can wage a long, innovative and costly rebellion against any plan for the future that does include them. That will mean more IEDs, more suicide bombings and almost certainly more insider killings of US and NATO forces.

In all of this the real message on these insider attacks for American policymakers should be clear. If the plan is to stay in Afghanistan and train an Afghan security force that is increasingly intent on killing Americans and one another, then the plan has already failed. As the influential policy adviser Stephen Biddle glumly commented, “Our ability to drive the war to a successful conclusion on the battlefield is nil at this point. Political settlement is the route out.” All roads now run through negotiations, and these talks would have to include not only the Taliban and regional parties, but also the goal of a timetable for a real US withdrawal. Given that 2012 is an election year, and given Obama’s electoral embrace of the “good war” and the hawkishness of Romney’s newly minted neocon war cabinet, the chances of Washington receiving this message any time soon are slim.

Liberal Sophistry About Drones

by Laleh Khalili | published September 7, 2012 - 9:41am

Drones kill civilians, but far fewer civilians than other forms of kinetic warfare, and anyway, war is about killing. The drones’ ability to kill from a distance is no more unsavory than aerial bombing, and in any case drones “enable us to kill enemies without exposing our own personnel.” That drones are like video games is neither here nor there, as they are no different than “having cameras in the noses of cruise missiles.” And “assuming [the law of war] does apply -- which is surely true in Afghanistan, at least – it’s hard to see the problem with targeted killing. Should we prefer untargeted killing?” These statements are offered by Rosa Brooks, a professor of international law and former Department of Defense official, by way of defending drones in an irate article criticizing the “wildly overblown case against remote-controlled war.”

There are kernels of truth in some of these statements: Indeed, killer drones are as deadly as aerial bombing and deploy similar video game technologies, just as Brooks claims -- though drones are also just as indiscriminate as aerial bombing despite her protestations to the contrary. And she is right that within the political and legal parameters decided upon by the US and NATO in Afghanistan, killing by drones is like any other form of killing.

What makes Brooks’ little article so obtuse, however, are the unstated assumption and unspoken assertions that underwrite every one of her arguments. When she attacks “killing from a distance” arguments, her only point of reference is “our” casualties, not theirs. When she complains that drones are as video game-like as any other form of surveilled assassination, she misses the argument that this particular quality is criticized because of the ways in which it pretends that war is a clean and sanitary affair. Yes, the pilots dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not see the devastation they caused beneath the mushroom cloud, and certainly had no visual image of the faces of the victims, but the ability to “look at their faces” is actually a feature of life-like video games. What does the ability of the remote operator to press the button even as he “see[s] these guys playing with their kids and wives” say about the ways in which we view “these guys” as stick figures in a distant puppet show, as dehumanized simulacra?

Brooks’ argument about the legality of drones in Afghanistan is dishonest, both in its intentional elisions and in its unspoken assumptions: Drones are now the weapon of choice for killing not just in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, and they had become a regular part of the US military’s killing machine in Iraq both before and after the “surge.” But the unspoken assumption in Brooks’ final bullet point is what I find most revealing and ultimately what is the most troubling aspect of the liberal defense of drones. Brooks -- like the good international lawyer she is -- essentially defines US wars overseas as “good” as long as they fit within the limits of international legal apparatuses. But the very formulation of these international laws, from the very beginning, has been riddled with power plays and political maneuvers by imperial powers engaged in asymmetric contests to pacify intransigent colonial populations. The laws of war left a great deal of room for reprisals and collective punishments, and intentionally left “internal pacifications” -- for example, the French pacification of Algeria -- outside their remit, since they could be classified as “police actions.”

After the wave of decolonization in the 1960s, when post-colonial states managed to insert minimal recognition of the right of colonial peoples to resist -- as in the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, the great powers simply refused to sign or ratify these protocols. The vaunted Geneva Conventions were simply sidestepped by the US, because the US could do so, and no other world power has had the capacity to punish Washington for its contravention of these laws. Today, the more power a state wields in the international arena, the easier it is for it to evade international legal “obligations,” or circumvent even the mildest of legal challenges against it. After all, in a vastly unequal system of international power, war crimes are only committed by African and Asian warlords, not by US generals. Universal jurisdiction is meant to apply to black and brown people, not to Israeli, European or US military personnel and policymakers.

The debate around drones in some ways crystallizes the problem with liberal challenges to and defense of the drones. Drones are disturbing not because they are any more vicious or indiscriminate or distant than aerial bombing, but because the act of marketing them as “clean,” “discriminate,” “precise” and “legal” diverts attention from why they are being used in the first place. They embody the sophistry of liberal warfare, focusing the debate on the mechanisms and machinery of warfighting, and effacing the militarist imperial wilfulness of the United States, which will use any expedient method of warfare, and cloak it in platitudes about protection, legality and noble intentions.

Nays and Yeas in Charlotte

by Chris Toensing | published September 7, 2012 - 9:07am

The kerfuffle over the initial non-mention of Jerusalem in the Democratic Party platform throws into particularly sharp relief just how disconnected are discourse and reality when it comes to Israel-Palestine.

To recap, the last three Democratic platforms have included language to the effect that Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. At first, and despite AIPAC vetting, the 2012 platform did not. Republicans pounced, and President Barack Obama himself is said to have intervened to restore the language, which was read out for approval by two-thirds voice vote at the convention in Charlotte. But roll the tape, which clearly shows that chair Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, was compelled to hold three separate votes because the nays sounded at least as loud as the yeas. So Villaraigosa simply decreed the changes confirmed, to audible boos from the crowd.

The big media, writes Philip Weiss, went into full-on “humminah humminah humminah mode” when chewing over the hot mess. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell and Lawrence O’Donnell all tried to pass off the arbitrary platform alteration as business as usual or just changed the subject. On PBS, liberal Mark Shields stammered out his usual trudging circumspection: “This is a -- ah, ah -- a core issue, for both parties. And it’s -- ah, ah -- not unexpected that there would be a flap over it.” Back at MSNBC, only Chris Hayes addressed the substance of the matter, labeling the revisions as “bad policy” and “a craven capitulation that empowers the worst elements among the people who are working on this issue.” True, as far as it goes. Yet the last word went to Al Sharpton, who returned the discussion to campaign tactics, crediting Obama with making sure that the platform “reflected his views,” if not necessarily the party’s, unlike Mitt Romney, he of the “bait and switch.” Obama had to intercede because he was being attacked for the original platform from the right.

Ex-State Department official Aaron David Miller adopts a version of the Sharpton line: “More likely, the platform’s drafters wanted to steer clear of Jerusalem entirely and hoped nobody would notice. But of course they did. What planet were the drafters who omitted Jerusalem living on? It’s silly season, the campaign is on, the Republicans see a wedge on Israel, and it’s Jerusalem. Need I say more?” In other words, it’s all meaningless pandering to the small, but geographically strategic knots of single-issue pro-Israel voters, the same old game delectably lampooned a while back by Dimi Reider at +972.

This is almost surely the case, and, even if each promises that he will, neither Obama or Romney is likely to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or rescind the long-standing US policy that the status of Jerusalem is to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.

So, yes, there is a disconnect between campaign rhetoric and actual policy, which remains informed by the concepts of the classic two-state solution. And there is a widening gap between those concepts and the one-state reality that Reider and other far-sighted analysts increasingly discern. But there is also a yawning chasm between the reality on the ground and the terms in which Israel-Palestine is conventionally discussed, not on the Internet or on campus, but in the corridors of power and in the pages that shape elite opinion, and thus a great deal of public opinion, in the US.

There, two-state logic reigns, but not supreme, both because revanchist views persist and because, when push comes to shove, the US elite does not really consider Israel-Palestine to be all that important. Witness the MSNBC discussion, where Hayes gamely articulates the two-state point of view and is dismissed, because his older politico colleagues care much less about the substance of the issue than the atmospherics.

It’s hard to say, in fact, what the chorus of nays in Charlotte actually means. Genuine discomfort with the pro-Israel drift of US policy? Anger at the bipartisan kowtowing to Israel and the pro-Israel lobby? Mere reflexive attachment to two-state nostrums? Resentment of the high-handed subversion of democratic procedure? Some combination of the above? Jewish Voice for Peace splits the difference, heralding a “deep division within the Democratic Party over its approach to Israel and Palestine.”

One reading of the platform episode is that the nays are the future, a portent of the slipping grip of the pro-Israel lobby on what is permissible to write and say, a marker of a sea change in public opinion that will eventually find stronger and more consequential expression in Washington.

Another view would be that the relentless expansion of Jewish colonies and other “facts on the ground” has outpaced the discourse -- long since. The coming rupture is not in US or international policy, but in the very notion that international engagement can or will steer the people in Israel-Palestine toward a “solution” of any kind. Rather, the reality of one all-controlling sovereign political entity on the ground will dictate the discourse, which presumably will (slowly) shift to denunciation of various kinds of Israeli discrimination against the Palestinians under Israeli rule. And perhaps then it won’t matter so much if the US does move its embassy to Jerusalem.

And still a third possibility, perhaps the darkest, is that the disconnect can and will continue to deepen for a long time to come, with no “solution” and no acknowledgement of reality either.

Displaced Syrians

by Chris Toensing | published August 20, 2012 - 3:45pm

As in Iraq, the internal war in Syria has forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes. Some 155,000 Syrians have registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq or Turkey and another 14,000 are estimated to be in those countries awaiting formal refugee status. An additional 1.5 million people are displaced inside Syria. Again as in Iraq, where a decade of economic sanctions had already uprooted many people before the US-led invasion, an untold number of the Syrian displaced were already on the move before the 2011 uprising -- due to the punishing drought that has afflicted the countryside since 2003.

CTV News of Canada recently hosted MER editor Rochelle Davis to discuss this under-reported story. Davis is author of the Woodrow Wilson Center report, Syrian Refugees: Lessons from Other Conflicts and Possible Policies, and (with MER photo editor Michelle Woodward) a photo essay documenting the plight of the Syrian displaced.

My 50 Minutes with Manaf

by Bassam Haddad | published July 25, 2012 - 11:54am

During one of my regular visits to Syria, I was with a group of friends at one of the bustling new restaurant-bars that dotted Damascus’ old city, around Bab Touma. Some places were more popular than others, frequented by internationals and a particular stratum of Damascene society that included some people who were pro-regime and others who were opposed. By the mid-2000s, one’s opinion of the regime did not matter much, in and of itself. What brought these Damascenes together was their common benefit from President Bashar al-Asad’s “economic reform” policies and the social stratification they had produced. In these circles, criticism of the regime was no longer taboo -- so long as it was presented in a pleasant and “reasonable” manner. No names, no mention of sect, nothing “subversive.” Anyway, why would these people want to subvert the status quo?

That night, I was introduced to Manaf Tlass by a friend as a “Syria researcher” working on the “Syrian economy.” At the time, Manaf was one of the regime’s top strongmen, working side by side with Mahir al-Asad (the president’s younger brother) as a commander of elite units in the Republican Guard. It was too dark to make out his features. Most of what I saw was the big round flame at the tip of the cigar that seemed surgically attached to his fingers, if not his lips. He asked a few questions. I answered politely. I knew who he was, and thought it was odd that he mingled so freely.

That was it.

On a subsequent trip, at a birthday party in another of those restaurants, I met Manaf again. This time, he asked someone to ask me to come to his table. Usually, that is not a good thing. I obliged, and he took me aside, asking more questions about regional politics and, then, Syria. I found myself discussing post-colonial development with Manaf and his cigar as Stardust’s remix of “Music Sounds Better with You” played in the background. We talked for a few minutes before I excused myself. Later, as he said his goodbyes to his fellow diners, Manaf approached me and asked me to come to his home office in Mazzeh. I was not asked for my cell phone number but was given an office number to confirm the visit.

I was in a tricky position. My research on Syrian political economy examined state-business networks and traced the deepening relationships between state officials and businessmen.

Manaf Tlass was no businessman, having gone the route of his father, Mustafa, the former defense minister who was a close confidante of Hafiz al-Asad for decades. But his brother, Firas, was. Many offspring of the Syrian leadership had gone the entrepreneurial route, and by the late 1980s they had become big businessmen, often with the aid of connections to consummate insiders like Manaf. Firas Tlass is said not to have exploited his connections as much as others, but the fact is that policymakers and policy takers in Syria were increasingly bound together. And there was another model that proved even more efficient at generating profits: The state official himself was a businessman in his capacity as a private citizen, creating what I called “fusion” between the public and private sectors.

For about ten years, I had been trying to study the development of capitalism in Syria, how it sustained authoritarianism and the attendant social machinations. I was not interested in exposing this or that character, as the “fusion” formula is not unique to Syria, and the Syrian regime was in no need of further unmasking. I purposely avoided talking to government and regime figures because the returns from such interviews are usually meager, and there is always the risk of raising suspicions about one’s research. The last systematic fieldwork by a Western scholar on Syria’s political economy had been carried out by Volker Perthes a decade earlier, producing the staple book The Political Economy of Syria Under Asad (1995). It was not a walk in the park for Volker, and nor was it for me. Though Firas Tlass, the fast-growing tycoon, was quite accessible, I elected not to speak with him, relying instead on an interview Joseph Samaha, one of the best journalists of our time, had conducted for al-Hayat in 1999. But now Firas’ brother, on the other side of the state-business equation, wanted to speak with me. It was not easy to say yes or no.

Manaf was quite candid and seemed more interested in conversation than surveillance. Still, I hesitated for some time before friends advised me not to skip out on the meeting.

At the time, Manaf was a rising star, quite close to the Asad family. Regime strongmen had regained their swagger after several years of “consolidation” that took place after the succession of Bashar to the presidency. It was a day to begin making Syria anew, with a younger and more contemplative, though less seasoned, leadership. The theme was less “reform” than “modernization,” less “change” than “continuity.” There was an atmosphere of cautious openness.

I walked into Manaf’s office and was politely asked to sit. I politely turned down the offer of a cigar. After some back-and-forth about my heritage (my mother is Syrian), Manaf asked me to share with him my frank thoughts about the Syrian regime, without stammering or self-censorship. It was surreal.

I was not unafraid. But I spoke forthrightly because it was the only thing I could do, and, honestly, because Manaf’s bearing was anything but intimidating or reminiscent of the stereotypical interrogator.

Taking care to be respectful, I shared my views on the limits of authoritarianism in time and space, and the limits of Syria’s regional role in the absence of more inclusive power-sharing formulas inside the country. When Manaf asked about corruption, I made sure to repeat, almost verbatim, the words of ‘Arif Dalila, an independent Marxist economics professor at the University of Damascus who was incarcerated in 2001 for his anti-regime views, during the post-“Damascus spring” round of arrests. ‘Arif was one of the most courageous people around -- a mentor and, later, a friend. In 1998-1999, under Asad senior, mind you, when mosquitoes shuddered at the thought of landing on a regime member’s nose, he would walk down the aisle of the packed auditorium at the Tuesday Economic Forum. He would take the stage and dismantle the state’s rhetoric regarding the causes of Syria’s economic decline after the mid-1990s. He would say to rooms crawling with informants (and worse), and I quote from my notes:

Corruption is not a moral or ethical problem at heart, and it does not start at the moment when a policeman or border officer asks for a bribe. It is a systemic practice with a social, economic and political material base intended to sustain the entire political formula in this country…. We should not blame the poor officer who cannot make ends meet on his salary, but instead we should demand accountability at the highest level possible in this regime.

Talk about goose bumps. It was scary just to witness those words uttered. The room would fall silent, as though everyone had literally died, but everyone was actually feeling hyper-alive as ‘Arif would yifish al-ghill (redeem) the listeners in the most visceral way. Almost immediately after he spoke, over half of the audience would leave. It was one of the reasons why the Forum’s general secretary, Farouq al-Tammam, would beg ‘Arif to postpone his intervention until the end, knowing that everyone would stay to hear him. ‘Arif was not just a political economist or regime critic. He was a visionary, versed in the intricacies of global politics, and someone who would tear up when discussing the loss of Palestine by Arab regimes, including Syria’s.

Manaf listened without interrupting, and without letting go of his cigar. He then responded for 20 minutes, challenging me mildly on the feasibility of genuine reform in Syria and giving his views on democracy, the United States and regional politics. He was also forthright. His ideas, however, were underdeveloped or, more precisely, developed in a mind accustomed to wielding excessive power.

On reform, he asserted the importance of gradualism, a Hafiz al-Asad mantra, one that suits the reformers’ timetable, not that of the purported beneficiaries. But he was also unabashed in asserting the need for top-down control, which to him transcended questions of right and wrong, or democracy and authoritarianism. The regime had to guide the reform process based on a holistic view, one that takes into account local and regional variables. I interjected that this approach is the norm for regimes like Syria’s because reform is not the goal. He did not correct me, and reasserted the need for control.

Earlier, I had said to him that, even by the Syrian regime’s logic, it was always possible to open up the system more, to take more calculated risks in order to reduce the constant pressure, to utilize better Syria’s resources, human and material, instead of having fewer and fewer Syrians set an entire people’s destiny. He seemed to think I was being idealistic, that “political rule” requires other considerations, then dove into stock ruminations about whether or not Syria was ready for democracy. I was taken aback to hear some of the culturalist arguments that many of us educators have spent years trying to debunk in American (or other) classrooms.

Manaf seemed to be thinking big. He spoke of the United States as an equal, and was interested to identify balances of power of which Syria could take advantage. He oscillated between great wariness of the West and openness to new forms of engagement. After a while, it seemed I had caught him (and his cohort?) at a time when he was simply brainstorming. Certainly, the regime had abandoned any meaningful notion of socialism or even social justice. Manaf was not overly sensitive about such matters. His friends and relatives, the Asads, the Makhloufs and others of his generation were divorced from the struggles that their fathers had gone through in the 1960s. The generational divide was wide, separating two entirely different worldviews, one held by men who saw themselves as underdogs championing the cause of the have-nots against great odds, and one born into a world of plenty, privilege and power.

It is not that Manaf’s bunch was not “nationalistic” or critical of Israel. It is that their views had come at little cost, and so were often more malleable. Yet it seemed that Manaf was embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, as though beginning to feel he was bigger than the regime. His style of jumping from one point to another did not in fact yield a holistic analysis; it was difficult to locate the center of gravity. He spoke as if luxury and plenty had turned policy imperatives into modular choices that could be exchanged in an exegetical manner. It was as if he was talking about a household, not a country.

The privatization of the Syrian state is a reality in the making and remaking. Something had to give as the regime widened the gaps between itself and the majority, between the haves and the have-nots, between the city and the countryside, between manufacturing and trade. When most Syrians are disenfranchised as a few gobble up the available capital, it signals the beginning of the end.

Syrians were ready for democracy when I spoke to Manaf, and long before then. It might have been the kind of democracy that involves no external pressure. Alas, it was not outside intervention that Syrian regime strongmen were most concerned about. They sought merely to forestall a marginal loss of authority and opulence. The luxury of plenty intoxicated them, even blinded them to their long-term self-interest.

Just a few years later, the unsavory actors of the world are amassed around Syria, calling for a “democracy” that will be obedient and not resistant on the regional stage, one that acquiesces in using the victimization of Syrians to perpetuate the victimization of others across the region. It did not have to be this way. And the only party that could have brought about a different kind of change is the party that had near total power. But that party failed to avert Syria’s present catastrophe, and brought so much more than itself crashing down -- all because it would not risk one iota of privilege. By sharing just a little power, the regime might have avoided issuing an invitation to those who were waiting to destroy what Syria might have stood for in the region, as they did with Iraq. Now the true friends of Syria are in an impossible position: If we identify with the plight of Syrians under dictatorship, we are branded as imperialists. If we caution against uncritical support of the uprising for the reasons above, we are called regime apologists. We are all wrong, no matter what we say.

Manaf thanked me for the visit, and I left about 50 minutes after entering his office.

On July 24, after leaving Syria some 12 days prior, Manaf Tlass for the first time announced his opposition to the regime that he embodied, as though its transgressions had begun in March 2011. And the external “opposition” benevolently embraced him, as did the Saudis, who admitted Manaf to their kingdom for the ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage). As Louis Armstrong sang, “What a Wonderful World!”

This piece has been slightly modified from its original version.

A Revolution Is Not a Marketing Campaign

by Joel Beinin | published June 18, 2012 - 4:20pm

A revolution is not a marketing campaign or a digital social network.

In the run-up to the second round of Egypt’s presidential election, the Supreme Constitutional Court validated Ahmad Shafiq’s candidacy for the presidency and ruled that the procedures for choosing the People’s Assembly, the only democratically elected body in post-Mubarak Egypt, were unconstitutional. These rulings signaled that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which gently nudged former president Husni Mubarak out of office on February 11, 2011, was preparing to consolidate its power. The SCAF will continue this effort despite the apparent victory of the Freedom and Justice Party’s Muhammad Mursi in the second round of the presidential election. As they have so many times in the past, the Muslim Brothers are likely to cut a deal with the army for a share of power rather than fight for democratic principles and the common interests of the broad majority of Egyptians.

The amended constitutional declaration issued by the SCAF, without the slightest pretense of democratic process, clarifies that the officer corps intends to maintain its perquisites and status as the ultimate arbiter of power in Egypt, to limit the extent of civilian political power and to undermine any political initiatives from Egypt’s popular classes. The fundamental structure of the military regime and the internal security apparatus -- the “deep state” whose origins and legitimacy (insofar as any remains) are based on the Free Officers’ coup of July 23, 1952 -- remains intact.

When the SCAF removed Mubarak, many Egyptians, including a good number of those who played heroic roles during the 18 days of the occupation of Tahrir Square, imagined that the army was a popular institution and, therefore, that the SCAF would carry out the revolutionary will of the people. They desperately wanted to believe that the simple act of removing Mubarak, his sons and a few of their most visible cronies would constitute a “revolution” and that law and order would be restored quickly, allowing the country to get back to business. Consequently, there were many pleas for “national unity” and for Egyptians to work together for the future economic development of the country. 

Such calls deeply misunderstood the nature of revolution. Revolutions involve broad and deep social upheavals that overturn existing hierarchies of power. No such upheaval has (yet) occurred in Egypt. And from February 11, 2011 to the present the SCAF has done everything in its power to prevent one from occurring.

The SCAF’s Decree 34 of March 2011 criminalized strikes and demonstrations, though this edict has been flouted on an almost daily basis. In the fall of 2011 the SCAF prevented the interim cabinet from enacting a draft law that would have established trade union pluralism and guaranteed workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. Such a law would have dealt a big blow to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, a pillar of the Mubarak regime. In early 2012 the SCAF prevented the elected parliament from holding ministers accountable and dismissing ministers who had blatantly lied to the people’s elected representatives. The SCAF trafficked in sectarian incitement, just as the Mubarak regime did. And it opened fire on peaceful demonstrators on several occasions in 2011-2012.

Continuing street protests, strike action by workers and the possibilities for a new parliamentary election may give Egypt’s revolutionary forces of all stripes -- leftists, liberals, Islamists -- another chance. To make the most of it, they will need to understand that democracy emerges from a social struggle against constituted power. They will need to find a way to maintain a united front against the remnants of the Mubarak regime while formulating a practical political program that addresses the most pressing needs of the Egyptian people -- good jobs at a living wage, especially for youth, adequate social services supported by sustainable economic development, thorough overhaul of the dysfunctional educational system and substantive, not merely procedural, democracy. In short: “Bread, freedom and social justice.”

Washington's Bahrain in the Levant

by Pete Moore | published May 23, 2012 - 9:56am

Despite sharing some of the socio-economic and political problems that propelled uprisings in other Arab countries, Jordan remains an exception to the trend. And if it can be kept that way, much of the world inside the Beltway will celebrate.

In that respect, Jordan is like Bahrain. A serious threat to regime stability in either country is seen to endanger core US and allied interests. So, as Jordan enters its second summer since the start of the regional uprisings, now under a caretaker government struggling with a moribund economy, there are expectations of change. There are parallels, of course, to the atmosphere during the summer of 1989, following mass demonstrations and violence in the south, and the summer of 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq. But there are some intriguing differences this time.

For one thing, the American wars on Iraq are now taking a different toll. While Jordanian exports to Iraq have recovered (albeit restricted to fewer sectors than in the past), the loss of preferential oil imports from Iraq has begun to bite. In 2010 alone, gasoline prices rose just over 30 percent and diesel over 20 percent, as the government decreased subsidies. Electricity prices may soon jump as well, along with fuel oil prices for industrial uses like power generation.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s time-tested ability to feast off regional turmoil (as in Lebanon, Palestine or Iraq) is not panning out with the crisis to the north in Syria. While some fleeing Syrian capital has arrived, the type of real estate and business investment that Iraqis brought in the 1990s and after 2003 has not. So far, Syrians prefer a wait-and-see-and-rent attitude. Real estate speculation, the bread and butter of Amman’s upwardly mobile elite, is finally flat. Poor Jordanians are squeezed between the subsidy cuts and a regressive tax system that misses few. In some agricultural sectors, Syrian exporters are dumping their produce on Jordanian markets pushing down prices for Jordanian exporters.

And corruption, that constant refrain, seems different as well. Millionaire ministers and buffoonish excess have always been around, yet now that the artificial growth of decades past has receded, the only things set in stone seem to be inequality and privilege. One needs a notebook to keep up with the list of projects in which regime cronies and parliamentarians are said to pillage and profit with no accountability: Jordan Gate, the tallest unfinished buildings in the Levant, and the ‘Abdali projects in Amman are among the most glaring. High-profile corruption arrests in the last year came across as cynical public relations schemes, a sort of penal version of the monarchy’s “Jordan First” campaign years ago. The joke is that the Suwaqa prison now has valet parking. And while the links of corrupt officials to the old king were spoken of only in whispers, ‘Abdallah II and Rania have succeeded in crafting one identity all Jordanians can share: extreme disdain for them and their cronies. Rumors of a palace reshuffle are commonplace, but beyond that it’s hard to tell what is in the air.

If and when mass demonstrations return to Jordan, the socio-economic problems won’t be the only factor. Many summers of socio-economic discontent have come and gone. More importantly, the regime’s economy of control can continue to rely on concerted American budgetary support with no ceiling in sight. The irony for American policy is that despite steady reductions in US assistance to Iraq, deposing the Baathists has forced continuous US aid to Jordan to counterbalance the Hashemites’ inability to adjust without Iraq’s help. Bahrain and Jordan are the new lines in the sand.

Letters re: Humanitarian Drones

by The Editors | published May 1, 2012 - 10:06am

Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Darryl Li square off re: “Some Bad Ideas Can’t Be Shot Down,” Li’s post about Sniderman’s January 30 op-ed, “Drones for Human Rights,” in the New York Times:


I’m glad you took the time to criticize my op-ed in your post, because I’m more than glad to have it torn down publicly and brutally if it’s a bad idea.

But I do not think you were fair, on many accounts.

Let’s be clear about what I’m talking about: human rights groups using flying cameras to complement the existing practice of human rights monitoring. In some situations drones could assist this work, and in some situations this might do some good. This is my thesis.

Can this make sense without the backdrop/endorsement of state power? My proposal wanted nothing to do with a state’s military. That Madeleine Albright used satellite imagery of mass graves does not discredit the independent practice of human rights monitoring, which can be valuable.

As an aside, perhaps multilateral bodies like the UN or the Arab League will make use of drones to monitor violence. I’m not sure that would be a bad thing, and in some ways it is less problematic than a non-state NGO doing it.

A drone in Syria would probably be shot down. In other situations, if a non-state actor is doing the killing (the LRA perhaps, or a lightly armed militia), this will be less of a certainty. It’s true that a drone monitoring human rights abuses in Hebron wouldn’t last five minutes. But that a drone can get shot down is not an argument against the role it may play while it flies.

You really get on a roll when you let me know what my real motive is: American-endorsed humanitarian intervention. What a swell fantasy. I didn’t realize that a commitment to documenting atrocities necessitates a unipolar military agenda.

I am not calling for armed intervention in Syria. Human rights discourse and reporting can certainly be problematic, but no, it doesn’t have to be the handmaiden of Western imperialism.

You say it’s difficult to see “how any version of their proposal would be practical” without a commitment to armed military intervention. What a farce. When Anthony Shadid breaks Syrian law to report on the uprising, I presume you’re OK with that. How about when Human Rights Watch sneaks in observers to gather testimony on the civil war in southeastern Burma? I’m not proposing that drones replace these reporting practices -- it cannot -- but, yes, in extreme cases they might assist.

Most importantly, there’s an enormous red line separating a drone carrying a camera and a drone carrying a missile. These are completely different things and you were lazily glib to suggest otherwise. And, yes, it’s possible to document atrocities without importing a particular interventionist agenda. I understand human rights reporting is a political act, and I understand how a language of human rights can be coopted. But human rights reporting does not prejudge the appropriate strategy to address problems, and at its best the information and understanding it gleans can help craft appropriate solutions.

Am I so “vapid” to think that drones will henceforth help us understand violence from a thousand feet in the air? Give me a break. The real question is whether better documenting atrocity as it occurs can play any positive role in reducing that violence. I don’t know the answer to that question, and it will always depend on the specific circumstances. But I think we should be willing to test that proposition.



My post analyzed why ideas such as your proposed use of “drones for human rights” have the appeal that they do with certain audiences despite their obvious problems. Your response is focused on still defending the merits of your idea. Because we seem to be arguing on different wavelengths, I am skeptical that dialogue would be useful. But perhaps others may find an exchange edifying.

I understand your basic argument to be that, in some situations, use of a drone by a human rights organization might be helpful. Political context isn’t the starting point here; it’s just an interchangeable backdrop. This sets the bar so low so as to make the argument virtually unfalsifiable. You concede that drones against powerful states are a non-starter. But that’s OK, we can still do some good somewhere, right? You concede that maybe drones in Syria also make little sense. So then you shift to talking about drones in central Africa against the LRA (which would of course be completely unlike the drones the US military is likely already using there). But wouldn’t that require the consent of Uganda or other abusive governments that might seek to coopt the drones for their own purposes? OK, how about case X, Y or Z? We could play this game forever because, in your framework, there is always some hypothetical situation in which drones would be feasible and more useful than not. This Gumby-like plasticity allows you to concede almost any critique and to appropriate any headline -- even Anthony Shadid’s death -- in service of your proposal.

This detachment from context is also what I imagine upset some of the critics of your op-ed: Regardless of what you may think or feel, real conflicts in which real people suffer and die have basically become just so many test cases for your pet idea. Your arguments are that of an evangelizing hammer salesman in search of the right kind of nail with the right kind of board in the right kind of weather for the right kinds of carpenters, wandering around the ruins of homes laid waste in a hurricane, some of whose owners have, incidentally, had their heads bashed in by...hammers. The audience to which this is going to be most compelling isn’t composed of people in these conflicts; it’s those who share your fantasy of a UN viewing session in which dramatic footage prompts dramatic action, a logic vividly illustrated by the domino sequence of the Kony2012 video (21:30-22:30).

You speak of drones as if they are nothing more than flying cameras, just another tool for human rights researchers and journalists. This ignores a glaring difference. When reporters or human rights researchers take the extraordinary step of acting contrary to a sovereign government’s laws, the personal risks they incur provide some degree of legitimizing constraint on their actions. What you are proposing is completely different: the use of a technology whose very appeal lies in its lack of risk and therefore is not similarly constrained. Indeed, insofar as you fantasize about their use in areas “without [a] strong state” in Africa, what you are talking about is NGOs effectively assuming some kind of quasi-public function, further exacerbating their already glaring lack of accountability. Now it may be that one day drones will lose this association with government power and become ubiquitous personalized technologies, like mobile phones. If that occurs, social movements embedded in contexts of struggle will find ways to adapt such technologies on their own -- as was the case with Facebook and Twitter. There wouldn’t even be a need for New York Times op-eds, TEDTalks or anything else -- people would just do it. In any event, at that stage we will all be debating the abuse of drones by private actors, a massive area of problems that your argument simply skips past.

For the foregoing reasons, your op-ed cannot be taken seriously on its face, so understanding its context becomes even more necessary. In this case, the context is one in which the US and allied governments want to intervene in Syria but know that an air war is not feasible. Therefore, the editors and readers of the New York Times are going to be interested in similar options that allow the exercise of influence on the cheap. I would venture to guess that is why your op-ed was published at that time and in that place, and not simply because of the inherent value of the proposal.

Yet you seem to be shocked that readers associate your op-ed with state or militarized use of drones. Why? You explicitly cite the NATO war on Libya as a precedent justifying your proposal. You have reportedly attempted to hire armed mercenaries for use in Darfur. And your argument does not provide any clues as to what its own limits might be. You claim there is an “enormous red line” separating military use of drones from your proposal. What, exactly, is that red line composed of other than your stated good intentions? From what I can see, not very much. When someone in the policy world took the entirely predictable step of locating the middle ground between your proposal and current practice by suggesting drone use by the UN, you had no clear position on the matter even weeks later. If you think it’s so unfair for readers to associate your op-ed with militarism perhaps you should start by opposing militarism.

When you wrote of a “precedent worth setting,” this was not just a step toward militarization in Syria. It was also a disturbing symptom of the general acceptance -- indeed mainstreaming -- of drones as a cost-effective, risk- and responsibility-free, omnipresent technology of surveillance and violence. A technology that has facilitated new regimes of remote-control atrocity: Israel’s maintenance of the Gaza Strip as an open-air animal pen for 1.6 million human beings, and the unchecked expansion of the US-led global civil war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. A technology that enables the US to swap the unseemly jingoism of George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier for the equally disturbing insouciance of Barack Obama cracking Predator jokes at a black-tie dinner. As a human rights worker, I have seen enough shrapnel wounds and houses bombed out from both kinds of weapons to assure you that the differences do not amount to very much in the end for those whose lives have been destroyed. I do not think it reasonable for you to expect readers to forget this context and treat your op-ed -- which takes this mode of warfare as given and merely seeks to share the joy of droning with others -- as nothing more than an innocent “thought piece.”