Focal Points Blog

Bacevich Held Over Another Week!

Foreign Policy in Focus recently posted two articles by Andrew Feldman on Andrew Bacevich, the esteemed international relations professor and author, who argues that, by habitually responding to threats with the military instead of diplomacy, the United States makes itself more vulnerable instead of shoring up its defense. Feldman not only reviewed his book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, but interviewed Bacevich for posts that both appeared on August 26. Despite Bacevich’s status in anti-intervention camps, Feldman doesn’t exactly lob softball questions at him.

For example, the former maintains, “But my argument is, roughly since the 1960s and very much so since 9/11, expansionism has an opposite effect. We’re not enhancing our power; we’re squandering it. We’re not building our prosperity; we’re going bankrupt.” But that’s not enough for Feldman, who replies, “Maybe you just don’t see it as a question of the ethical nature of expansionist policy.”

After President Obama’s Iraq speech, the New Republic posted an opinion piece by Bacevich that enjoyed wide readership. First he wrote:

And before we hasten to turn the page [on Iraq] — something that the great majority of Americans are keen to do — common decency demands that we reflect on all that has occurred in bringing us to this moment.

Decency? Where — I’m convinced many Americans were wondering — was the decency on the part of Sunnis and Shias who showed their gratitude for the freedom we gave them by mowing each other down and blowing each other up? Until the Surge saved Iraq. Sending in reinforcements — what a concept!

In fact, as Gareth Porter points out in a recent Focal Points post . . .

The Sunni decision to cooperate in the suppression of al Qaeda in Iraq had nothing to do with the surge. The main Sunni armed resistance groups had actually turned against al Qaeda in 2005, when they began trying to make a deal with the United States to end the war.

But that hasn’t kept the Obama administration from propagating the myth of the Surge. Porter again.

For the Democratic foreign policy elite, staying ignorant of the real history of the Iraq War allows them to believe that deploying U.S. military forces in Muslim countries can be an effective instrument of U.S. power.

Meanwhile, in his New Republic piece, Bacevich writes:

So the Americans are bowing out, having achieved few of the ambitious goals articulated in the heady aftermath of Baghdad’s fall. The surge, now remembered as an epic feat of arms, functions chiefly as a smokescreen, obscuring a vast panorama of recklessness, miscalculation, and waste that politicians, generals, and sundry warmongers are keen to forget.

The “ethical nature of expansionist policy” may not be as foremost in Bacevich’s mind as whether or not it helps the United States in its relations with the world. But has anyone summed up our Iraq adventure as well?

Israel’s Bacevich

Israel has its own Andrew Bacevich — a former solider who has become a respected spokesperson of his nation’s policies and, as well, a parent who has lost a son in one of his country’s military misadventures. David Grossman spoke to the Guardian on the occasion of the publication of his new novel, To the End of the Land, which it describes as “a memorial to his son who was killed while serving in the army, and why he remains an opponent of his country’s policy towards the Palestinians.” Interviewer Rachel Cooke writes:

Meanwhile, life in Israel grows somehow narrower. Grossman’s Arabic is almost as fluent as his superlative English, but it is harder and harder to maintain links with Palestinian friends, let alone to travel there. “I spoke three weeks ago to a dear friend, the writer Ahmad Harb…” He sighs. “Between us, there is the mutual disappointment of people who had a common dream and who saw it evaporate. But I know he continues to fight in his society exactly as he knows I do in mine. We are like two groups of miners digging from either side of a mountain; we know we will meet in the end.” The settlers? They are distorting an Israeli idealism he still holds dear. “The emotional investment we put into the occupation! As Gershon Sholem said, ‘All the blood goes to the wound.’ We are not taking care of ourselves. We are looking in the wrong direction. The settlement movement might really ruin us.”

By reflexively reaching for the military whenever they feel threatened, the United States and Israel threaten not only wreak havoc on national security and each respective state’s federal budget, but the very moral foundations of their societies.

Biden Embraces Myth That Surge Turned Iraq Into Good War

In an interview on the PBS NewsHour last Wednesday, Joe Biden was unwilling to contradict the official narrative of the Iraq War that Gen. David Petraeus and the Bush surge had turned Iraq into a good war after all. That interview serves as a reminder of just how completely the Democratic Party foreign policy elite has adopted that narrative.

The Iraq War story line crafted by the Petraeus and the new counterinsurgency elite in Washington assures the public that U.S. military power in Iraq brought about the cooperation of the Sunnis in Anbar Province, ended sectarian violence in Baghdad and defeated Iranian-backed Shi’a insurgents.

In reality, of course, that’s not what happened at all. It’s time to review the relevant history and deconstruct the Petraeus narrative which the Obama administration now appears to have adopted.

The Sunni decision to cooperate in the suppression of al Qaeda in Iraq had nothing to do with the surge. The main Sunni armed resistance groups had actually turned against al Qaeda in 2005, when they began trying to make a deal with the United States to end the war.

At an Iraqi reconciliation conference in Cairo, November 19-21, 2005, leaders of the three major Sunni armed groups (one of which was a coalition of several resistance organization) told U.S. and Arab officials they were willing to track down al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and deliver him to Iraqi authorities as part of a negotiated agreement with the United States. The Sunni insurgent leaders were motivated not only by hatred of al Qaeda but by the fear that a Shi’a-dominated government would consolidate power and exclude the Sunnis permanently unless the United States acted to rebalance its policy in Iraq.

Two months later, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad actually entered into secret negotiations with the three major Sunni insurgent groups 2006, as later reported by the Sunday Times and confirmed by Khalilzad. The Sunni leaders even submitted a formal peace proposal to Khalilzad. They insisted on a “timetable for withdrawal” as part of the deal, but it was “linked to the timescale necessary to rebuild Iraq’s armed forces and security services,” according to Sunday Times.

Khalilzad cut off the negotiations in February 2006, because such an agreement would have conflicted with a broader strategy of standing up a Shi’a army to suppress the Sunni insurgency.

The major Shi’a factions, determined to eliminate any possible threat to its power from the Sunnis in Baghdad, unleashed death squads, mostly from the Mahdi Army, in Sunni neighborhoods across the entire city in 2006 and early 2007.

The result was the defeat of the Sunni insurgents’ political-military bases in Baghdad, and the transformation of the capital from a mixed Sunni-Shi’a city into an overwhelmingly Shi’a city, as shown dramatically in this series of maps, based on U.S. military census data.

As a result, by late 2006, the Sunni leaders were feeling much more vulnerable to Shi’a power. Col. Sean McFarland, U.S. Army brigade commander in Al Anbar province throughout 2006, found Sunni sheiks expressing “[a] growing concern that the U.S. would leave Iraq and leave the Sunnis defenseless against Al-Qaeda and Iranian-supported militias….”

It was that fear of the Shi’a power that drove local Sunni decisions to join U.S.-sponsored Sunni neighborhood armed groups in Anbar.

The sectarian violence in Baghdad began to abate by August 2007, but not because of additional U.S. troops as the official narrative of the war suggests. It was because the Shi’a had accomplished their aim of confining the Sunni population to relatively small enclaves in Baghdad. That relationship between the achievement of that aim and the reduced violence was noted by the September 2007 National Intelligence Estimate.

The main Petraeus conceit about his strategy in Iraq is that it defeated a Shi’a insurgency that represented an Iranian “proxy war” in Iraq. But the main premise on which that claim was based — that Iran was backing “rogue elements” of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — was simply a psywar ploy by Petraeus and his staff. The objective of the “rogue elements” line was to divide the Mahdi Army, as military and intelligence officials admitted to pro-war blogger Bill Roggio.

The official narrative suggested that Iran exerted political influence in Iraq by supporting armed groups opposing the government. In fact, however, Iran’s key Iraqi allies had always been the two Shi’a factions with which the United States was allied against Sadr — the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. They had both gotten Iranian support and training during the war against Saddam, and the fiercely nationalist Sadr had criticized SCIRI leaders as Iranian stooges.

The al-Maliki government had no problem with Iranian training and financial support of the Mahdi Army in 2006, when the Mahdi Army was eliminating the Sunni threat from Baghdad. But once it was clear that the Sunnis had been defeated, the historical conflict between Sadr and the other Shi’a factions reemerged in spring 2007.

The Iranian interest was to ensure that the Shi’a-dominated government of Iraq consolidated its power. Iran’s “supreme leader” Ali Khamenei told al-Maliki in August 2007 that Iran would support his taking control of Sadr’s strongholds. Later that same month, al-Maliki went to Karbala and gave the local police chief “carte blanche” to attack the Sadrists there. After two days of violence, Sadr declared a six-month “freeze” on Mahdi Army military operations August 27, 2007.

By late 2007, contrary to the official Iraq legend, the al-Maliki government and the Bush administration were both publicly crediting Iran with pressuring Sadr to agree to the unilateral ceasefire – to the chagrin of Petraeus.

Al-Maliki launched the attack on Mahdi Army forces in Basrah in March 2008 in the knowledge that Iran would back him against Sadr. And when it went badly, he turned to Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard official in charge of day-to-day Iraq policy, to force a ceasefire on Sadr. Soleimani told Iraqi President Talibani that Iran supported al-Maliki’s efforts to “dismantle all militias”, and Sadr agreed to a ceasefire within 24 hours of Iran’s intervention.

So it was Iran’s restraint — not Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy — that effectively ended the Shi’a insurgent threat.

It was Soleimani who had presided over the secret April 2006 meeting of Shi’a leaders that had chosen al-Maliki as Prime Minister, after having been smuggled into the Green Zone without telling the Americans. And that was only one of a several trips Soleimani made to the Green Zone over a two-year period without U.S. knowledge.

But Biden doesn’t want to know this and other historical facts that contradict the official narrative on Iraq. For the Democratic foreign policy elite, staying ignorant of the real history of the Iraq War allows them to believe that deploying U.S. military forces in Muslim countries can be an effective instrument of U.S. power.

First posted at FireDogLake’s the Seminal.

What if the United States Deployed a Nuclear Drone?

In the early 60s, the United States came close to nuclear-weaponizing a drone. Before we explore that, did you ever notice how boring the quest for nuclear disarmament has become since the 1980s and the Nuclear Freeze?

Dr. Randall Forsberg, the one-time administrative assistant to an arms control organization, was no rock star, but she launched the movement that culminated in a massive demonstration in New York’s Central Park and arguably affected national nuclear policy. Today, instead of broad calls to disarm, arms control organizations focus on the nuts and bolts of nuclear weapons and treaties. But are they more effective than the Freeze, which simply called for a mutual freeze on the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons and the missiles on which they’d be mounted? Unless, that is, you believe it’s disarmament when the Obama administration requests $16 billion in new warhead spending over the next decade to induce Republican senators to sign the new START disarmament.

We found a succinct explanation of how nuclear disarmament became unsexy (except, maybe, when Hollywood stars show up for the premier of Countdown to Zero). Cutting-edge disarmament voice Darwin BondGraham writes at the Monthly Review’s MRZine:

Throughout the 1990s, but especially during the George W. Bush years, Ploughshares and its circle of foundations called the Peace and Security Funders Group increasingly narrowed the range of acceptable anti-nuclear activism, while simultaneously ghettoizing the field so that the work of various NGOs became less and less applicable to social justice and economic development issues, and increasingly focused on abstract global problems and hypotheticals, such as the possible use of nuclear weapons. In the process, discussions of the injustices of the global political economy and how nuclear weapons fit into it were silenced. Anti-nuclear activism became increasingly specialized, boring, and disconnected from issues that affect people’s everyday lives. Arms control eclipsed abolition as the rallying cry. Those NGOs that obeyed the consolidation period survived with funding and access to media, so long as they kissed the ring.

You Mean Drones Can Be Even More Lethal?

In an Air Force Magazine article titled The Weird Nukes of Yesteryear, excerpted from a book, Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris write about three nuclear weapons of our recent past that Americans are likely to know even less about than they do our current arsenal. The first two, though, are somewhat less unknown than the third. Developed by the Los Alamos laboratory, the enormous Mk 17 hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bomb . . .

. . . had a yield of 13.5 megatons [MT] — almost one thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima explosion. [Meanwhile the] Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory [proposed] 22,000-pound bombs that would have yields of 45 MT or 60 MT. Neither was developed, as critics claimed they had no realistic military value and could cause widespread nuclear contamination. However, the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s proposed Mk 17 hydrogen bomb with a 15-MT yield was considered a practical weapon.

Practical? Maybe in the sense that launching one of those mothers off could set off a sequence of events that would end practically all life on earth. Where’s the “practical” here — or with any nuke? Meanwhile, “At the other end of the nuclear weapons spectrum was the Davy Crockett. . . . a recoilless rifle. . . . Its warhead produced a yield in the 10- to 20-ton range (.01 to .02 KT).”

You may have seen this one on YouTube. Set on a tripod, it’s more of an artillery piece than a rifle. Lighting off these babies in tests must have been orgas-, er, a peak experience for anyone who loves explosions. Unlike the bomb, it was something that could be set off with some regularity in combat and would kill hundreds instead of millions. It spared the prospective trigger man that messy nuclear hangover that inevitably accompanies detonating a full-grown nuclear bomb — no matter how you slice it, the knowledge that you’ve killed millions is a buzzkill. Meanwhile, talk about weird, all nuclear weapons are weird, but a nuclear cannon?

Now the drone, a helicopter in this case, officially the Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH). Polmar and Morris write:

This was the only unmanned vehicle intended to carry a nuclear weapon — in this situation, a [nuclear bomb to be used as a maritime depth charge] with a yield of about five KT.. . . . . For a DASH mission, the drone was “piloted” during takeoff and landing by an officer at a console adjacent to the ship’s flight deck. During the mission, the drone was controlled by [another] officer . . . who would “fly” the helicopter to the target area and release the weapon.

Ultimately, DASH was only equipped with anti-submarine torpedoes, not nuclear depth charges as planned. Thank goodness for small favors. But, hey, it’s never too late to arm them with tactical-nuke warheads of the size used with the Davy Crockett!

Gie Her a Haggis! (Vintage Recipes for the Holiday)

“Her” being Scotland. Labor Day doesn’t have to be about barbecues. Stand out from the crowd and trot this mouth-watering dish out for your Labor Day guests. Just make sure that your haggis bag is perfectly clean!


Clean a sheep’s pluck thoroughly. Make incisions in the heart and liver to allow the blood to flow out, and parboil the whole, letting the wind-pipe lie over the side of the pot to permit the phlegm and blood to disgorge from the lungs; the water may be changed after a few minutes’ boiling for fresh water. A half-hour’s boiling will be sufficient; but throw back the half of the liver to boil till it will grate easily; take the heart, the half of the liver, and part of the lights [lungs], trimming away all skins and black-looking parts, and mince them together. Mince also a pound of good beef-suet and four onions. Grate the other half of the liver. Have a dozen of small onions peeled and scalded in two waters to mix with this mince. Toast some oatmeal before the fire for hours, till it is of a light-brown colour and perfectly dry. Less than two tea-cupfuls of meal will do for this quantity of meat. Spread the mince on a board, and strew the meal lightly over it, with a high seasoning of pepper, salt, and a little cayenne, well mixed. Have a haggis-bag perfectly clean, and see that there be no thin part in it, else your whole labour will be lost by its bursting. Some cooks use two bags. Put in the meat with a half-pint of good beef-gravy, or as much strong broth, as will make it a thick stew. Be careful not to fill the bag too full, but allow the meat room to swell; add the juice of a lemon, or a little good vinegar; press out the air, and sew up the bag; prick it with a large needle when it first swells in the pot, to prevent bursting; let it boil slowly for three hours if large.

We’ve saved the best for last. Provenance uncertain — either English or Colonial American. Just remember to “stop the pot close that he lep [leap] not out.”

To Mak a Freshe Lamprey Bake

To bak a freche lamprey tak and put a quyk [live] lamprey in a pot put ther to a porcyon of red wyne then stop the pot close that he lep [leap] not out and when he is dyinge tak him and put hym in skaldinge water then tak hym in your hands with alyn clothe and a handful of hay in the tother hand and strik hym so that the skyn go away and saue him hole then weshe hym and cut hym out whart a straw brod from the naville so that the stringe be lowse, then slitt hym a litill at the throt and tak out the string and kep the blode in a vesselle and it be a femal thrust in your hand from the naville upwards so that the spawn com out there as ye tak out the stringe and ye will boile it slat it a littill in the same place within that ye may cum and lowse the bone with a prik from the fische and brek it a litill from the hed and slit hym a litill from the taille then put the prik between the bone and the fische and drawe the bone from the taille as esly as ye may that it cum out all hole from the taile then wind the bone about thy finger and drawe it out softly for breking and so ye shall tak it out hole then cope the lamprey o thwart the bak eury pece iij fingers brode and let them hold to gedure and toile them welle in the blod, and ye will mak your galentyn of crust of white bred cut it in schyves and toiste it on a gredirne (gridiron) that it be somdelle broun and tak a quart of good red wyne for the baking of the lamprey and put the bred there in and drawe it and mak it not chargaunt and ye may grind a few of raisins and mak it up there with and let the fyft part be venygar put ther to pouder of cannelle a gretdele, pouder galingale pouder Lombard pouder of guinger sugur saffron and salt and let it be tweene braun and yallowe and mak thy colour of sanders then mak a large coffin of pured floure and put thy lamprey ther in and put in the galentyn that it stand as highe as the lamprey and let it haue a good lide and wet the bredes round about and lay it in the coffin and close it round about to the pen for ye must haue a pen between the lidd and coffyne to blow the pen that the lid may rise welle and luck the ovene be hoot and set it in to it.

Let us know in the comments section how your guests liked these dishes!

Peruvian President Fujimori’s Right-Hand Man Was a Gun Runner and Drug Dealer — and Employed by the U.S.

Vladimiro MontesinosA Supreme Court verdict in Peru this week once again shows how the U.S. government has engaged in unholy alliances — often with those involved in the very drug trade it claims to be combating — in order to further its short-term drug policy objectives and to the detriment of broader U.S. foreign policy goals.

After four years of deliberations, a tribunal of the Peruvian Supreme Court finally upheld the 2006 verdict sentencing Peru’s Vladimiro Montesinos to 20 years in prison and a steep monetary reparation for selling weapons to the Colombian Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia, or FARC. At the same time that Montesinos was running guns to the FARC, he was the right-hand man of then-Peruvian president turned dictator Alberto Fujimori, functioning as de facto security adviser and drug czar. He was also a key ally of the U.S. government in the so-called war on drugs. Even more ironic, Montesinos’ arrangements with the FARC coincided with the launching of Plan Colombia.

As in the case of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (a paid CIA informant until the 1989 U.S. invasion), the U.S. government’s relationship with Vladimiro Montesinos shows the absurd lengths that U.S. policy makers have been willing to go in attempting to show progress in the “war on drugs.” While in power in Peru, Montesinos organized death squads, orchestrated the undermining of Peruvian democracy with the aim of keeping Fujimori in power indefinitely, and amassed a huge illegal fortune (by some estimates over $250 million) through corruption and blackmail. He was also the U.S. government’s prime interlocutor on drug policy issues.

Before emerging as Fujimori’s trusted aide, Montesinos was widely known as a lawyer for major drug traffickers. Now-declassified 1991 cables from the U.S. Embassy in Lima carried clear warnings; one stated, “There is substantial circumstantial evidence linking Montesinos to past narcotics activity…among the police and military figures recommended by Montesinos are men with possible ties to drug trafficking.” Yet even that did not persuade U.S. intelligence and drug-related agencies from seeking to forge an alliance with him. Montesinos quickly won the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which then, with Montesinos’ help, edged out the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as the lead anti-drug agency for the U.S. government in the country.

He was soon courted by State Department officials as well. He became known in U.S. government circles as “Mr. Fix It.” If you wanted to get something done, you went to Montesinos. But the strategy worked both ways. If Montesinos didn’t like what he thought Washington was up to, he would withhold drug-related intelligence and slow down or even cease drug control activities. One U.S. official told me privately that Washington was always quick to give in. It seems that Montesinos, an expert in blackmail, managed to get the upper hand over his U.S. backers.

Montesinos was also quietly running the drug business behind the scenes. During Fujimori’s ten years in power, Peru went from being a coca producer (coca being a primary product in the production of cocaine) to a player in the cocaine business. And if you wanted to do business in Peru, you had to pay off Montesinos. The consequences for not abiding by his rules were steep: “intelligence” would be provided to the DEA and Peruvian anti-drug policy that would result in the arrest of any potential rivals.

Even as evidence mounted of Montesinos’ involvement in the drug trade, the U.S. government provided important political backing to him and it appears that the CIA continued to provide him with a lucrative monthly stipend. That assistance continued until the bitter end. After fraudulent elections and a series of outrageous scandals, Fujimori finally accepted defeat and on Sept. 16, 2000 he announced that he would call new elections, deactivate the notorious national intelligence services (which also got U.S. drug control assistance, despite its involvement in horrific human rights abuses) and fire Montesinos. It was only four days later that then Secretary of State Madeline Albright issued a directive that the U.S. government was to have no further contact with Montesinos. A week later, he fled to Panama. In June 2001 he was arrested in Venezuela and extradited to Peru, where he has remained in prison facing more than 60 separate court cases. Sentences run consecutively in Peru, so this verdict ensures that — barring some sort of political pardon — he will spend 20 years behind bars.

In Peru, justice has been served in this particular case. But what about in Washington? No serious effort to evaluate U.S. drug policy in Peru in the 1990s (or in any other period) has taken place. One 1994 inter-agency working group concluded only that relations with Montesinos should be downgraded slightly (one U.S. official involved at the time told me that despite a majority in favor of more drastic action, the CIA managed to get the upper hand in the internal debate). Later calls for investigations into U.S. support for Montesinos and intelligence agencies in Peru have gone unheeded. Similarly, efforts to obtain declassified documents have been met with resistance.

While allowing the full truth to come out about the U.S. relationship with Montesinos may be embarrassing for the U.S. government, such transparency and an honest reflection is necessary to avoid continuing to repeat the same bad strategies in the future. It is time for Washington to do two things: open up the files on Montesinos and undertake a serious review of how the U.S. government ended up throwing its support behind a corrupt, gun-running, drug-trafficking thug.

“Tolerating” the Ground Zero Muslim Center Is Damning It With Faint Praise

Ground Zero Islamic CenterAs the headlines and blogs about the “Ground Zero mosque” mounted in recent weeks, I, like many, wished the whole “debate” would just go away. To even refer to it as a legitimate debate struck me as far too generous. As many have noted, when opponents of the community center shifted the issue away from freedom of religion, they merely laid bare their irrational prejudices that equated Islam with terrorism. I’m sorry, I don’t have the patience to attempt a real exchange of ideas with anyone who argues that however irrational and hateful the feelings of some non-Muslims toward Muslims may be, they ought to guide the nation’s response to this issue.

But that doesn’t mean supporters of the community center are necessarily on the same page. There are actually several overlapping, but different claims on behalf of the community center. The most prominent is freedom of religion. Articulated weakly by Obama and with more gusto by Bloomberg, this legal emphasis stresses the constitutional right of Muslims in America to practice their religion without interference from the state. In its strictest version, this argument makes no claim about whether Islam is “good” or “bad” or whether the feelings of those who oppose the community center are legitimate or not. As critics of Obama’s politically cautious stance have suggested, the legal emphasis leaves an important part of the opponents’ position unanswered and constitutes a very weak form of support for the project.

Unfortunately, the void left by the legal argument has been filled by what I would call the “tolerance proselytizers.” These are groups and individuals who take the general freedom of religion argument and turn it into the specific need for Judaeo-Christian America to tolerate Muslims in our midst. Take a look at the editorials, organizational emails, and speeches on behalf of the community center, and you will find that the word tolerance has become especially prominent. “Ground Zero Mosque Testing Our Tolerance,” “Two Cheers for American Tolerance,” and “Fan the Flames of Tolerance,” to name just a few examples of the word in pro-mosque circles. Even Christopher Hitchens, who wrote an opposing piece in Slate, conceded that the debate is, in part a “test of tolerance,” although he and other critics were quick to turn the tables and demand tolerance from Muslims, as though the vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. were anything but tolerant of non-Muslims.

Surely tolerance is preferable to intolerance. But is tolerance really the appropriate ideal for those who support the community center? At a basic, everyday level, the word smacks of negativity. To tolerate something is to put up with it, even or especially if we don’t like it or it is somehow deemed bad for us. We tolerate our neighbor’s loud music, excessive heat, obnoxious children, and alcohol. Schools have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and drugs. And the military has a no-tolerance policy for gays, on the insane rationale that homosexuals pose a danger to the force. If you apply this logic to the mosque debate, tolerating Islam is accepting it within limits, while still suggesting something inherently negative about it.

Then, there is the more thorny issue of tolerance in a religious context. The concept of tolerance has a deeply religious history. It is linked to the notion of Christ’s endurance of hardship and the subsequent virtue of charity in Christianity. In the Reformation, tolerance referred to Catholic co-existence with Protestants, even though the Catholic church still regarded Protestants as heretics. Today, when we invoke tolerance in support of the mosque, we use a term laden with religious baggage. To call for tolerance is thus to reinforce the reigning, though problematic, notion that America is a Judaeo-Christian country, rather than a secular state. In this framework, the ideal is that established Christians and Jews in the United States will extend civil rights to Muslims, as though these things were theirs to grant.

The dangerous assumption that rights can be bestowed by those that have them onto those that do not raises the more basic issue of the relationship between tolerance and power. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida insightfully observed, tolerance “is most often used on the side of power.” People and groups in positions of power choose whether or not to tolerate people and groups with less power. Whether practiced by the Catholic church of early modern Europe or religious and civic associations in the United States today, there is, as Derrida noted, a certain “condescending concession” in the call for tolerance. This concession is inherently conditional. If civil rights are something that “real” Americans can grant to Muslims in the United States, it is also something that they can take away. People who call for tolerance of Islam believe that they are making Muslims feel welcome in America. But it’s hard to feel truly at home when your status in this country depends on the whims of those who welcomed you.

Well-intentioned though it may be, the call for tolerance is even more problematic than the limited freedom of religion argument. In addition to backing away from stronger support for Muslims in America, tolerance replicates many of the prejudices and assumptions of the community center’s opponents.

So, where does that leave us? What would a stronger civic argument for the community center entail? I don’t pretend to have THE answer. But it seems to me that real support would involve adding to the freedom of religion argument without reproducing the prejudicial and religiously-inflected arguments associated with tolerance. It would underscore the Muslim community’s right to be in lower Manhattan, but challenge any suggestion that this right is a conditional gift bestowed onto them by “real” Americans. It would also be more vocal about the community center as a potential asset to the neighborhood rather than something to be endured, while still vigorously reinforcing rather than muddying the line between church and state. And finally, in addition to challenging the irrational argument that links Islam with terrorism, it would challenge the fundamental hypocrisy and exclusionary notion of a Judaeo-Christian America.

Don’t Let Eugenicists Like the Discovery Channel Gunman Hijack the Overpopulation Issue

Our intuition informs many of us that the single greatest problem on earth, along with — and inextricably linked to — climate change is overpopulation. The earth is beginning to seem as overrun by humans as a neglected granary is by mice.

But, in American politics, the issue is, to use a term bordering on over-used these days, a “third rail.” (In other words, to those unfamiliar with subways and commuter rail lines, no one wants to touch it.) First, it antagonizes conservative Christians, who view the edict “go forth and multiply” as a virtual amendment to the Ten Commandments. Second, many whites interpret advisory warnings to keep family size down as an open invitation to American Latinos to surpass them in numbers The third concern comes from the left, some of whom think that attempts to control population are the work of those who believe in modern-day eugenics (the dark side of genetic engineering).

Unadorned, the voice of eugenics today is no more evident than in the manifesto cum ultimatum that the Discovery Channel hostage taker James J. Lee issued. According to an AP article, Lee, who obviously watches too much TV, had previously “demanded an end to Discovery Communications LLC’s shows such as TLC’s ‘Kate [Gosselin] Plus 8′ and ’19 Kids and Counting.’” He wrote ["sics" where called for]:

The Discovery Channel and it’s affiliate channels MUST [focus] on how people can live WITHOUT giving birth to more filthy human children since those new additions continue pollution and are pollution. A game show format contest would be in order. Perhaps also forums of leading scientists who understand and agree with the

Malthus-Darwin science and the problem of human overpopulation. . . . All programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants and the false heroics behind those actions. In those programs’ places, programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility must be pushed.

Admit it, don’t you kind of wish Lee had fleshed out the game show idea? Exactly how would that work? Also, referring to giving birth as “false heroics” is pure genius to those of us who believe that it may be more heroic for a married couple to choose not to reproduce and add to the overpopulation problem.

Okay, snap out of it. Whether or not events in his life helped drive him to his moment of infamy, Lee was obviously in the grips of advanced mental illness. His phrase “parasitic human infants” invokes how the Nazis killed “useless eaters” (the disabled). Also, thinking that media corporations would respond to his call for TV programs promoting sterilization is further evidence of how deluded he was.

Lee also invoked influential nineteenth century British scholar Thomas Malthus, who wrote:

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

Lee and his ilk vastly simplify Malthus. Still, the term Malthusian has come to mean that population increases more rapidly than the food supply unless slowed by disease and war. This concept, rightly or wrongly, instills fear in those who believe that the ruling class and the corporate rich seek ways to “cull the herd.” (More in a future post about how that helps oligarchs and their associates.)

In 1994 Webster Tarpley, who describes himself as an activist historian (though whose hyperbole, as seen in the excerpt quoted below, sometimes results in him being categorized as a conspiracy theorist ) wrote:

During their preparations for the United Nations’ so-called International Conference on Population and Development, scheduled to be held in Cairo in September of this year, the genocidal bureaucrats of the U.N. are seeking to condition governments and public opinion worldwide to accept the notion of a “carrying capacity” for our planet. In other words, the U.N. butchers would like to establish scientific credibility for the idea that there is an absolute theoretical maximum number of persons the earth can support. Some preliminary documents for the Cairo conference set a world population level of 7.27 billion to be imposed for the year 2050, using compulsory abortion, sterilization, euthanasia and other grisly means. It is clear that the U.N. and its oligarchical supporters seek to exterminate population groups in excess of the limit.

Whether or not overpopulation has the potential to be turned to its own uses by the ruling and corporate classes doesn’t make it any less pressing an issue. Nor does it absolve us of the responsibility to devise and implement solutions. (Culling the herd aside, that is.)

Viktor Bout, Much Bruited About by Far Left (and Right), Just a Fall Guy?

Viktor Bout“Justice Department officials were relieved on Aug. 20 when a Thai appeals court approved the extradition” of Russian Viktor Bout, who is accused of “a 15-year run as one of the world’s biggest arms traffickers,” reports Scott Shane in the New York Times. They seek to tap into “his vast insider’s knowledge of. . . . the trade and the transport that fuel drug cartels, terrorism networks and insurgent movements from Colombia to Afghanistan, according to former officials who tracked him.”

Question: How does news of Bout’s extradition intersect with Fidel Castro surfacing to support Bilderberg alternate historians? (We decline to use the term “conspiracy theorists,” because, no matter how wild their formulations might seem, nobody deserves to be reflexively corralled and branded as unfit for public consumption.) Some background on the latter from the AP:

Fidel Castro is showcasing a theory long popular both among the far left and far right: that the shadowy Bilderberg Group has become a kind of global government, controlling not only international politics and economics, but even culture. The 84-year-old former Cuban president published an article Wednesday that used three of the only eight pages in the Communist Party newspaper Granma to quote — largely verbatim — from a 2006 book by Lithuanian-born writer Daniel Estulin.

Estulin was actually photographed shaking hands with Castro. Turns out he also wrote a book in which key chapters cover the career of Bout. Before we explore Estulin’s findings, some of you may be familiar with Bout through the work of Wayne Madsen, another journalist who, like Estulin, is sometimes written off as a “conspiracy theorist.” For example, a year ago Madsen wrote . . .

On October 23, 2006, WMR [the Wayne Madsen Report] reported the following concerning Bout’s activities in Afghanistan on behalf of the U.S.-led NATO military force: “WMR has learned from an intelligence source in Afghanistan that the aircraft of the enigmatic Viktor Bout, who works as a Pentagon contractor, flew arms and passengers for the Taliban and ‘Al Qaeda,’ and maintains close links with the Russian-Ukrainian-Israeli criminal syndicates. [A few weeks later Madsen reported:] “A Ghanaian Boeing 707 [supposedly flying for Bout] was recently spotted off-loading 40 tons of ammunition at Mogadishu Airport in Somalia [for] the Union of Islamic Courts” [the precursor to al Shaabab that controlled much of the country at the time].

While I haven’t read the Daniel Estulin book that covers Bout titled Shadow Masters: An International Network of Governments and Secret-Service Agencies Working Together with Drugs Dealers and Terrorists for Mutual Benefit and Profit, a friend of mine has and provided some insights:

According to Estulin, Bout is basically just a fall guy, a low level arms dealer being used as a patsy in a Russian/US policy struggle. In Shadow Masters [Estulin] details the conversations he had with other writers (newspapers and magazines) who did stories on Bout. It was pretty funny seeing that the writers for Men’s Health and GQ straight-up fabricated information about Bout and got the rest off the internet.

The front man for the UN who has produced reports and “evidence” against Bout (actually pronounced Butt, Bout comes from an obsolete French-based translation model) is a guy named Peleman who has received millions of dollars in funding from the UN to write these reports. He has created a kind of flow chart which is cited as evidence by everyone else but there is apparently no tangible proof against Bout at all.

When the Thai judged asked the DEA agents present if they knew who Bout was they answered, “Yeah, we saw the movie” referring to the horrible Nicolas Cage movie, Lord of War. . . .

Having read the Times article I’m more convinced then ever that Estulin is on the right track. The NYT [pulls] the same players out of the closet to compose their thesis on Bout. They quote [Douglas Farah, author of a 2007 book about Bout titled Merchant of Death, to the effect, "He knows a lot about Russian intelligence as it's been restructured under Putin"] who has been discredited [doesn't say why -- RW]. They also quote a former DEA agent now working for Spectre Group International . . . which is another dubious organization.

My friend concludes:

This thing smells like a disinformation campaign which is about par for the course with the NYT [considering how they danced] to the CIA’s tune in regards to Vietnam and Guatemala.

Still, if Bout talks, the United States Justice Department will get a lot more than it bargained for.

The Lebanon Border: “Uniquely” Dangerous

HezbollahWhile the Middle East—indeed, the world—is riveted by the ongoing crisis around Iran’s nuclear program, the most immediate danger of a war may be on Israel’s border with Lebanon: “Exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous” was how the Independent’s Robert Fisk described it last month.

That quiet was broken Aug. 3 when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) got into a firefight over tree trimming that ended up killing one Israeli and three Lebanese. Both sides backed off, but events over the past several months suggest Tel Aviv may be looking for a fight.

“Israel has to be ready for any sudden provocation or outbreak of hostilities, the same way the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was triggered over Hezbollah capturing Israeli soldiers,” Dan Dicker from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs told the Inter Press Service.

The IDF has been smarting since Hezbollah fought it to a standstill in the 2006 war. While the Israeli air force inflicted massive damage on Lebanon’s infrastructure during the 34-day conflict, even Israel’s vaunted Golani Brigade could make little headway against Hezbollah’s tough and competent militia fighting on its home turf.

For the past two years the IDF has been training for a rematch: “Should another war break out—like the one with Hezbollah almost exactly four years ago—the Golani Brigade will not be unprepared,” reads a headline in the Israeli daily, Haaretz. At the Elyakim army base in northern Israel, soldiers are training how to take bunkers and fight in villages.

The IDF has also made it clear the next war will be vastly more destructive than the 2006 conflict that killed 1,200 Lebanese and inflicted $10 to $12 billion in damage. The IDF has instituted the “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after the Shiite quarter of Beirut that the Israeli air force flattened in 2006. According to Amos Harel of Haaretz, the doctrine means the IDF will “respond to rocket fire originating from Shiite villages by unleashing a vast destructive operation.”

Over the past several months the Israelis—sometimes with Washington’s help— have unleashed a steady stream of accusations that Hezbollah is preparing for war, that Syria is smuggling arms, and that Iran is up to no good.

Israeli intelligence claims that Hezbollah has up to 40,000 rockets aimed at Israel, and in April Israeli President Shimon Peres charged Syria with supplying the Shiite organization with powerful Scud missiles. Syria vigorously denies the charge, and the United Nations says there is no evidence for the accusation.

Then the Wall Street Journal reported that a “U.S. defense official” told the newspaper that Iran had deployed” sophisticated” radar in Syria as an early warning device for a possible Israeli attack on Teheran’s nuclear sites. The U.S. State Department’s Philip Crowley chimed in that the radar was a “matter of concern” because of Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah.

Added to the growing tension on Lebanon’s southern border was the exposure of an extensive Israeli intelligence operation aimed at Hezbollah that had successfully penetrated Lebanon’s telecommunication system. More than 70 suspects have been arrested and some 20 charged with treason.

According to UPI, intelligence observers say the ring was uncovered because Israel could be gearing up for war and took some chances. “It may have been the Israelis drive to amass intelligence on Hezbollah’s military capabilities ahead of renewed conflict…that prompted the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, to pull out all the stops in Lebanon when it did.”

The tree-trimming incident is an indication of how volatile the Lebanese-Israeli border is. While the Israelis claim they were on their side of the border, the UN only drew that border in 2000, and Beirut has never fully accepted it. While the UN found the tree was on Israel’s side of the border, Lebanon’s Information Minister Tarek Mitri said the section is “Lebanese territory.”

One reason for Lebanon’s sensitivity over the border is that its placement may have relevance to the enormous natural gas deposits off the coast of Gaza, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Extended out to sea, a matter of a mile or so in the land border could affect whether Lebanon has a claim on some of the gas.

The U.S. Geological Service estimates the fields could yield up to 122 trillion cubic feet of gas, and the Israelis have already laid claim to it. When the Lebanese protested, Israel’s Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said that Israel “will not hesitate to use force” to defend its claim on the gas field. Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, responded, “Lebanon’s army, people and the resistance will be ready to thwart any attempts to steal its resources.”

Added to the tense border, natural gas deposits, and Israel’s cold war with Syria and Iran, is a UN investigation that, according to most reports, will charge Hezbollah with involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah claims the investigation is an Israeli plot and that Tel Aviv pulled off the hit, but it has yet to produce any evidence to support that charge.

The UN charge could have a destabilizing effect on Lebanon—Hezbollah is the country’s most important political and military force—and a destabilized Lebanon is in no one’s interest, with the exception of Israel and possibly the U.S. That is why long-time antagonists Saudi Arabia and Syria huddled in Damascus and then flew to Beirut July 30 to confer with the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on how to avoid a Lebanese meltdown.

In the middle of all this, Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Congress decided to stick their finger in the pie and hold up $100 million in military aid to the Lebanese army. “I am concerned that the training and equipment we have provided the LAF for the purposes of counter-terrorism may in fact be used by the LAF against the Israelis,” said House Armed Service Committee chair, Ike Skelton (D-Mo). Skelton went on to say that, since the LAF collaborated with Hezbollah, the latter organization was an “indirect recipient of our aid.”

The U.S. started aiding the LAF after the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” put a pro-Washington coalition into power and forced Syria to withdraw following the assassination of Hariri. But the reality of Lebanon’s complex and fractious politics soon reasserted itself and what finally emerged from the last round of elections was a coalition government in which Hezbollah plays a prominent role. Regardless of what the Americans think of the Shiite group, marginalizing the largest ethnic group in the country is not an option.

That the military aid the U.S. is sending could pose a threat to Israel is simply silly. Most the aid consists of body armor, uniforms and unarmored Humvees. It includes neither warplanes nor anti-aircraft, and the tanks are M41 Walker “Bulldogs” designed for the Korean War. The Walker is an under-armored, gas guzzling light tank that wouldn’t last five minutes against the Israel’s modern armor or anti-tank weapons. Indeed, one military expert remarked that he was surprised there were any M41s—a weapon more “quaint” than threatening—that still ran.

If a war does break out between Hezbollah and Israel it might spread to Syria, and even Iran. In his recent report to the Council on Foreign Relations entitled “A Third Lebanon War,” former U.S. ambassador Daniel Kurtzer argues that Israel is likely to initiate the war, and that it might “also use the conflict with Hezbollah as a catalyst and cover for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” The former ambassador said Syria might also be a target. Kurtzer predicts a crisis sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, “but the situation could change or deteriorate rapidly.”

One explanation for Israel’s unwillingness to escalate the tree-trimming incident was because its antagonists were the LAF, not Hezbollah. Kurtzer—who was a Middle East advisor to President Obama during the last election—says Israel would rather “lure [Hezbollah] into a war.” In the tree trimming crisis the Shiite group stayed on the sidelines.

“Hezbollah is keen to avoid an escalation,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, “knowing how tough an all-out confrontation could be to the movement in Lebanon, and more broadly to the region.”

As analyst Jim Lobe points out, the Obama administration has little ability to prevent a war because it is hamstrung by its refusal to engage with either Iran or Hezbollah, and because it has allowed the Republicans to derail its efforts to improve relations with Syria.

A uniquely dangerous time, indeed.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays, visit Dispatches from the Edge.

Withdrawal from Iraq: Remembering the Quaker’s Colonel

Earlier this month, long time FPIF senior analyst, Col. Dan Smith (Ret.) passed away. Dan worked at the Friends Committee for National Legislation and the Center for Defense Information after 26 years of military service which ranged from the war in Vietnam to the Gulf War in Iraq.

It’s fitting to think about Dan today as President Obama makes his official speech marking the end of combat operations in Iraq. Dan wrote more than 70 articles for FPIF and blogged regularly at The Quaker’s Colonel on the Iraq War.

With 50,000 troops still on the ground inside Iraq, and many military brass and diplomats arguing that the final withdrawal date of December 2011 should be pushed back, the war is anything but over.

Pundits and politicians, such as John Boehner are focusing on the narrow issue of if the surge worked. Lost in the mix is the question of how we got into war in the first place, what the effects have been on our military readiness, and what has been the true economic, political and human toll to the United States and more importantly Iraq. Juan Cole has a must-read speech that Obama should give tonight where he touches on many of these critical issues.

Looking forward, Anne Applebaum writing in The Washington Post argues that despite the debate over the “success” of the war, it’s too soon to know the result. Applebaum is sadly wrong here—we do know the answers. Dan was writing about them before the war even began: we are weakened in our ability to organize coalitions, influence the Middle East, and have largely failed to care for our veterans. If things get better for Iraq, it will largely be in spite of the war, not because of it.

Dan wrote about many of the speeches President Bush gave on Iraq. He often chided Bush for declaring success where there was none. In reaction to a speech given at the Pentagon by Bush in 2005, he wrote:

Even the most casual review of the past five years substantiates the opinion of the majority of Americans that Bush administration claims of victory in Iraq are false. They don’t pass the sight, sound or scent tests – which is to say they don’t look like a duck, quack like a duck, or smell like a duck.

So why is the president still calling it a duck by giving victory speeches?

Obama will be careful not to declare victory tonight but he’ll likely be using the speech as a marker of progress and as a strong signal that it’s time to move on. I’m pretty sure Dan would argue that still doesn’t pass the sight, sound or scent tests.

I’ll be thinking of him when I’m listening.

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