On the Significance of Social Media Activism

Any honest observer of contemporary activist struggles would be remiss to ignore the substantial influence of social media in bringing together disparate groups struggling to achieve a common goal. Contributions of social media activism to political discourse are numerous from gruesome images filtering out of occupied territories to raw footage of militarized police brutalizing nonviolent protestors. Undoubtedly, political agitation cannot be confined to the physical realm. Mass movements crucially depend on the rapid circulation of information and images, which, more often than not, occurs in cyberspace.

The social media activism that accompanied Israel’s seven week assault on the Gaza Strip offers a paradigmatic illustration of the central role Internet users play in galvanizing mass support for marginalized populations. As journalist Yousef al-Helou stated in his assessment of the impact of social media websites like Facebook and Twitter in generating support for Palestinians fleeing in terror under Israeli bombs:

“Citizen journalism from Palestine is especially valuable for those who are looking for information which has not been filtered through a Western agenda. Social media has definitely weakened the Israeli narrative, as Palestinians are able to connect directly with overseas audiences and tell the stories that they feel are important. Hundreds of thousands of tweets exchanged reports, opinions, and challenges to mainstream news reports and to each other.”

This adversarial spirit—the willingness to present “challenges to mainstream news reports”—is a thread that unites several of the most prominent social media campaigns and is reflective of the public’s desire to move away from the highly corporatized and anti-septic discourse of the establishment press toward more non-mediated and participatory forms of information sharing.

Not unlike other trends toward democratization, this blossoming in social media activism has elicited a fair amount of criticism from centers of privilege and power. Perhaps the most recent iteration of this elite backlash can be found in an article published in New York Magazine by former New Republic journalist Jonathan Chait. Decrying the rise of political correctness, a “system of left-wing ideological repression”, Chait targets social media and its broad influence as culpable in spreading this virus:

“Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.”

Echoing such establishment manifestos like the Powell Memo, which infamously denounced the failure of “institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young” (schools), Chait’s criticism conveys a palpable sense of alarm, a fear that the hallowed corridors of “respectable” discourse are being intruded upon by less qualified and less enlightened commoners. Fundamentally, Chait’s article conveyed, as Glenn Greenwald put it in a stinging critique, “anger over being criticized in less than civil and respectful tones by people who lack any credentials (and thus entitlement) to do so.” This is a sentiment that is as pernicious as it is pervasive and the elite response to social media activism is just one of its more visceral manifestations.
Incidentally, similar objectives to stem the tide of social activism’s “vast cultural reach” likely lay behind the concerted efforts on the part of the telecommunications industry to eliminate net neutrality, a campaign that was recently dealt a devastating defeat thanks to a grassroots movement of “guerrilla activism”, much of it online, dedicated to preserving the “the principle that all Internet traffic must be treated equally.” Responding to the FCC’s decision to uphold these basic rules of net neutrality, the campaign director of Free Press stated “this is probably the most important ruling in the history of the FCC.” In these hard-won achievements we can discern the significance of social media, not only as a virtual public square where dialogue and reflection on some of the most important issues of our time can flourish, but as a space whose mere existence constitutes a grave threat to those whose power relies on the erasure of these sites of democratic expression (the National Security Agency’s regime of electronic surveillance, a legal monstrosity hauntingly portrayed in Laura Poitra’s award winning documentary CitizenFour, is one of the more obvious opponents of Internet freedom in this respect.)

hasbaraUnderstandably, this is why “companies such as Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner Cable, had lobbied furiously against [net neutrality], spending tens of millions on lobbying and on so-called ‘astroturf’ efforts to pay third party groups to support their position.” Faced with the inability to manage the formation attitudes and opinion online, power systems have pursued the same tactic applied to the print media, namely exercising stricter control over the medium. Sometimes this control rises to the level of law enforcement, as the Obama DOJ made clear in a recent announcement that they would be “willing to indict people who assist ISIS with its use and production of social media”, a decision that “raises questions about where the government would draw the line between support for a terrorist group and legally protected free speech.” Indeed, if pro-ISIS propaganda is criminalized why not criminalize other forms of propaganda?

For example, why not criminalize the Facebook administrators who created a fan page for Chapel Hill murderer Craig Stephen Hicks? In fact, if we accept that issuing indictments in response to social media propaganda is the proper course of action (one would hope we don’t) then it probably would be more reasonable to indict these propagandists since gun related killings committed by non-Muslims vastly outnumber deaths associated with so-called Islamic terrorism. Or why not indict US citizens who regurgitated Israeli hasbara manufactured in IDC Herzliya “war rooms”? How was this not apologetics for terrorism? Naturally, certain forms of propaganda, namely those types which conform to elite US opinion, will pass under the DOJ’s radar more easily than other “anti-American” forms. Consequently, this decision risks converting policies with the ostensible purpose of combating “terrorism” into effective weapons against political opponents (terrorist or not).

Whether it’s a battle for Internet freedom, the publication of humanizing representations of Palestinians or the fight for social and governmental policies that affirm the urgent, inspirational demand that #BlackLivesMatter, it’s abundantly clear that the struggles currently underway cannot be reduced to petty ideological contests waged from the safety of our computers. To the contrary, these struggles raise profoundly consequential questions about the social, cultural, and political evolution of not only our society but, when one considers the unprecedented forms of solidarity that social media activism is able to foster, the fate of us all globally.












Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, & the (Un)making of Terrorists

41KqfuJMVDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Writing on the Obama administration’s military campaign against ISIS, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman provided a stark illustration of the prevailing mindset within elite circles in times of war. “The rise of the Islamic State,” he intoned “is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest, soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst.” Disregarding the by now uncontroversial fact that the rise of ISIS can be traced, in large part, to the criminality of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a war of aggression Friedman endorsed with near psychotic enthusiasm (see video below), this statement should raise fundamental questions about dominant portrayals of those we call “the enemy.” Scott Atran’s brilliant study Talking to the Enemy thoroughly deconstructs these media representations, offering an incredibly detailed and empirically grounded understanding of how sub-national terrorist groups are organized, the ideologies they subscribe to, and the goals they aspire to achieve. Quite apart from the simplistic “Sunni death cults” of the Thomas Friedman school of journalism, Atran draws from an extensive record anthropological field work, interviews, and surveys to show how terrorist atrocities (9/11, the 2002 and 2005 bombings in Bali, the 2004 Madrid Train bombings, etc.) are not centrally organized plots carried out after years of religious indoctrination in Pakistani or Indonesian madrassas.

Instead, these events are the end product of highly decentralized and self-organized groups motivated to reach a common goal. These goals are not religious in nature but extremely political. Take for example the 2004 Madrid Train bombings. This attack was organized by a Moroccan drug dealer by the name of Jamal Ahmidan, three Spanish collaborators (Emilio Trashorras, Carmen Toro, and Antonio Toro), and a large group of friends led by a Tunisian named Abdelmajid Serhane. As Atran notes, “there was no ingenious cell structure, no hierarchy, no recruitment, no brainwashing, no coherent organization, no Al Qaeda.” This amorphous character of sub-national terrorist operations plays an integral role in Atran’s study because it reveals how small group dynamics, what he calls “imagined kin”, are the principal drivers in the plotting and execution of terrorist attacks. In the case of the Madrid Train bombings Ahmidan’s and Abdelmajid’s social circles played soccer together.

Another major factor in the ideological backdrop that motivated the Madrid bombings was the 15th century conquest of Muslim Spain, a world historic event witnessed by Italian terrorist, and “founder” of the “New World” Christopher Columbus. “I saw the King of the Moors sally from the gates of said city … and kiss the royal hands of your Highnesses,” Columbus observed. Memories of this humiliating moment were revived centuries later in a video left in the wreckage of the apartment where the Madrid Train bombers blew themselves up. The video condemned the “Spanish crusade against the Muslims,” and “the tribunals of the Inquisition.”

Willingness to point out verifiable facts of this kind is rare in an intellectual culture eager to conflate mere explanation of potential motives behind horrific crimes with justification of those crimes but ignoring them virtually ensures that a discourse will not emerge to discourage future acts of violence, whether they be committed by subnational retail or wholesale state terrorists. For example, attributing sub-national terrorism to an innate, religiously fueled desire for martyrdom, completely divorced from any empirical analysis or investigation of how these plots come in to being, does nothing to illuminate the nature of this phenomenon. In fact, this frame of reasoning, when sincerely felt, can erect huge barriers to genuine understanding.

Such is the case with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist who, in Atran’s words, “insists that secular moderation toward religion and ecumenical tolerance only enable bizarre and belligerent beliefs to thrive and extremists to flourish with cruel and savage consequences for the world.” And Harris is by no means alone in his valiant stand against the purveyors of “ecumenical tolerance.” He is joined by esteemed biologist Richard Dawkins, who laments “suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools.” Dawkins also ridicules the “mainstream religious instructors” who “[line children] up in madrassahs” so they can “rhythmically [nod] their innocent little heads up and down while they [learn] every word of the holy book like demented parrots.”

Perhaps this lurid portrait of religious indoctrination will set off alarm bells among racists at NSA headquarters or “mosque crawlers” in the NYPD’s surveillance unit, but among serious analysts it’s hardly worth responding to. Not only did “none of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers or thirty-odd Madrid train-bomb conspirators [attend] a madrassah” but statistical data from Indonesia and Pakistan—“the two countries with the greatest number of madrassas as well as jihadi groups”—reveal “less than 1 percent of the madrassas can be associated with jihadis.”

Far from idle, academic debate, recognizing these realities ought to play a significant role in how we conceptualize so-called “enemies” and, more importantly, how we respond when power systems portray massive state violence and terror as the only legitimate solution. In his highly anticipated speech before the UN, President Obama stated, in reference to ISIS, “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” Compare Obama’s rhetoric to the approach of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a recent event held by the Council on Foreign Relations journalist Fareed Zakaria asked how the Turkish government managed to free 49 Turkish hostages who were being held by ISIS or as he put it “What did you give ISIS? Why did they give back your hostages?”

Erdogan’s answer was instructive: “When we say the word ‘operation,’ people only think of air strikes, bombs, aircraft, [and] weaponry. But an operation isn’t only that. Operations are political sometimes, or diplomatic, or civilian. And they involve discussions, contacts.” So alien is this perspective—that anyone could actually diplomatically deal with ISIS—that if a US Congress member or media personality were to go as far as suggesting a diplomatic solution they’d be immediately marginalized as irrelevant or, more insidiously, an ISIS sympathizer. Another possibility is a member from the commissar class would publish an Op-Ed in the Newspaper of Record, not to inquire whether or not such an approach is feasible, but to contemplate, in austere tones, whether or not the person who advocates such an outlandish position has a soul.

It’s therefore no surprise that Erdogan elicited harsh denunciations from the Captain of The Reluctant Warrior’s Cheer Squad. In addition to standing for “authoritarianism, press intimidation, crony capitalism and quiet support for Islamists, including ISIS”, as Thomas Friedman mournfully observed, he “won’t even let us use our base in Turkey to degrade ISIS from the air”, prompting the question “what’s in his soul?” Bombing countries without Congressional or UN authorization is perfectly fine. But disobeying the Godfather? This is the ultimate crime, if not the enigmatic behavior of a spiritless monster.

Apologetics of this kind is ugly but standard, as is the behavior President Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power, and the rest of the “we-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists” camp. Unless they are checked by popular dissent they will continue to operate under the doctrine that overwhelming military force must be used to terrorize the world into their image but much more informed analysts and scholars have long ago realized that such blind devotion to state violence endangers us all (Obama’s latest contribution to nuclear proliferation is a dramatic example of this). It is for these reasons that Scott Atran’s book should be required reading for those of us willing to confront these tribalistic taboos and a morally complacent intellectual culture that would like nothing more than to keep them intact.









The Reluctant Imperialist: Obama Gets A Boost From the Servants’ Quarters

HeadlinesSuppose some world leader who the US establishment considers “evil”—Vladimir Putin for example—held a closed door meeting with a group of prominent Russian journalists before his invasion of the Ukraine. And imagine in this meeting he informed this group of Russian journalists about his goals in this illegal invasion, which was then circulated in Russian newspapers as Vladimir Putin, The Reluctant Warrior Intervenes in the Ukraine. What would we think of such a display? Without carrying this thought experiment any further, we can safely assume that this would be condemned as an outrageous attack on principles of a “free press” and another sign of “Kremlin” authoritarianism. Well, this scenario doesn’t have to be imagined because it actually happened, but not in Russia or any other “enemy” state. It happened in the United States.

It has now been reported that the Obama administration held a closed door meeting with a group of high profile journalists prior to his speech on how he would “degrade and destroy” ISIS through aerial bombing. While many details of this secret meeting are unknown, the mere fact that this can occur in a purportedly free society should be alarming to anyone with a genuine concern for democracy and adversarial journalism. Furthermore, a thorough review of the reports published by the journalists in attendance at this meeting reveals commentary effusive in praise for Obama’s “caution”, “reluctance”, and “sensible” decision-making skills. None of these characterizations hold up under the most minimal level of scrutiny.

Take for example, New York Times columnist David Brooks. In an embarrassing exhibition of absolute subordination, (the kind of servility that would make Kim Il-sung blush) Brooks compares Obama to leaders from his Holy Book:

“The Bible is filled with reluctant leaders, people who did not choose power but were chosen for it — from David to Paul. The Bible makes it clear that leadership is unpredictable: That the most powerful people often don’t get to choose what they themselves will do. Circumstances thrust certain responsibilities upon them, and they have no choice but to take up their assignment. History is full of reluctant leaders, too. President Obama is the most recent.”

Since Brooks is white and he is defending the violence of a military superpower (and not a “terrorist” organization), he can be spared accusations of being indoctrinated into a “fundamentalist” ideology with an “end of days strategic vision.” One can imagine a different response in the US if he were brown and was making references to the Quran.

And this is only a sample. Other attendees made sure to add their voice to this chorus of apologetics. Washington Post journalist, Ruth Marcus—a reporter who Glenn Greenwald accurately described as someone who “exemplifies everything that’s horrible about the DC media”—observed “However you assess the blame for the menacing disaster that is the Islamic State, Obama’s plan is the most sensible one under the difficult circumstances.”

So “sensible” is the Obama administration’s strategy that he has sought neither Congressional nor UN authorization for his bombing campaign. Incidentally, the question of international law does not arise in a single article among the many attendees at this closed door meeting. This suggests a faith in executive power that, if not interrogated, can lead to disastrous consequences. The possibility that aerial bombing could escalate terrorism has been pointed out by a number of analysts yet this very real danger goes unacknowledged in these reports. In fact, the justification for the war is presumed to be so transparently beneficent that all criticism is confined to how efficacious, and not how legal, the assault will be.

This position was best summed up by New Yorker journalist Steve Coll, who stated rather straightforwardly “the question about President Obama’s resumption of war in Iraq is not whether it can be justified but where it will lead.” Eugene Robinson echoes this pragmatic stance in his article headlined What If This Doesn’t Work Against the Islamic State? Meanwhile, Daily Beast journalist Mike Tomasky goes beyond mere dismissal of any discussion about the justness of Obama’s war, and derides as “ridiculous” those who compare Obama’s use of military force to that of George W. Bush:

“So, another war in Iraq. On this superficial basis, some are saying that Barack Obama is somehow becoming George W. Bush, or that Bush is somehow vindicated. In a town where one frequently hears ridiculous things, I’ve rarely heard anything more ridiculous than this. What Obama laid out in his Oval Office address Wednesday is, within the context of war-waging, pretty much the polar opposite of what Bush did, the antithesis of shock and awe.”

Unmentioned in this criticism is the verifiable fact that the Obama administration is basing his decision to bomb Iraq on farcical legal doctrines concocted by George W. Bush’s lawyer (and author of the infamous Torture Memos) John Yoo. Tomasky’s remarks are designed to draw a sharp distinction between the “bellicose” foreign policies of Bush and the “reluctant” policies of Obama when, in actuality, such distinctions are tactical at best.

As FAIR reported in a recent article which thoroughly debunked this myth, “One clear message from corporate media has been that Barack Obama is unusually reticent about using military force.” David Ignatius of the Washington Post offers perhaps the most unambiguous example of this myth, describing Obama as a “reluctant warrior” whose “innate cautiousness” assures us that “he’ll fight this war sensibly, partnering with allies in the region in a way that doesn’t needlessly exacerbate the United States problems with the Muslim world.”
10494564_10152322484493093_2898375602888339896_nThat Obama’s “innate caution” can be seriously called into question by the fact that he has totally sidestepped the perfectly cautious action of seeking UN (or Congressional) authorization for his latest bombing campaign simply doesn’t occur to Ignatius nor does the fact that Obama greatly “exacerbated the United States problems with the Muslim world” when he resorted to diplomatic sabotage to prolong the civil war in Syria. But documentary evidence is of little relevance to these courtiers of power. What’s more important is that “it would not be tenable for the US and its allies to allow a group rejected by al-Qaeda as too extreme to control large swaths of territory in the heart of the Middle East,” and “our reluctant … president understands this.” (Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic).

Indeed, “our reluctant president” does “understand this.” He also understands that when he wants to carry out blatantly illegal policies in order to secure American hegemony in the Middle East he can rely on the loyal reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic to parrot the necessary myths to ensure the American public embraces them uncritically. Although there’s no proof that this was a coordinated attempt on the part of the commissar class to mold public opinion, the linguistic precision and ideological uniformity of the messaging certainly rivals the output of some of the most sophisticated propaganda agencies.  As journalist Matt Apuzzo stated in response to news of this meeting: “Let’s call it what it is: Using the power of the presidency to influence news coverage without the public ever knowing about it.” Unless these obvious truths are confronted and combated aggressively, the dangerous policies of the Obama administration will continue to inflict untold suffering on people across the world. An energetic and adversarial journalistic culture is needed to undermine these structures of domination, a culture without which all crimes will remain in the dark except as topics of discussion between “reluctant” imperialists and their servants behind closed doors.

UPDATE: In the hypothetical in the first paragraph I refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with a group of Russian journalists “before his invasion of the Ukraine.” This phrase—“invasion of the Ukraine”—is problematic because according to the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity “accusations of a major Russian ‘invasion’ of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence.” In simply referring to Putin’s “invasion”, but not this report or others like it which point out the “invasion” did not happen, I was swallowing propaganda.

Here is a link to the VIPS report:














Some Basic Points about Obama’s War against ISIS

NYTSince Obama’s latest speech on the upcoming US war against ISIS there has been a flood of commentary, some of it very cogent and some of it alarmist in the extreme. Based on reports from experienced investigative journalists and scholars, the US war against ISIS clearly runs the risk of inflaming the violence in the Middle East further and heightening the threat of terrorism. In order to grasp these realities an honest appraisal of the origins and development of this conflict must be made, admittedly an ambitious task in a media culture drowning in misinformation and deceptive insinuation. Below are just a few basic points that are worth bearing in mind as the Obama administration escalates this assault.

  1. The US is not bombing Iraq to “fix” anything but to sustain US regional hegemony.

A common criticism of the US attempt to bomb ISIS is that it will not “fix” the situation in Iraq and Syria. This argument is extremely misplaced for two reasons:

  1. The US, as the world’s leading military superpower, is primarily concerned with consolidating economic and political control over other countries, therefore “fixing” situations is only relevant insofar as it secures these goals. Additionally, US policy has absolutely no relation to human rights (see: Israeli occupation of Palestine). In fact, a study was carried out in 1979 by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky which revealed a correlation between US aid and human rights abuses.
  1. There is a diplomatic record that reveals that the US, quite apart from playing a constructive role in negotiations, has actively worked to undermine a peaceful resolution to this conflict. Flyntt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s commentary is particularly instructive on this count. The US role in prolonging the Syrian Civil War has stimulated the rise of ISIS and other retail terrorist organizations that turned the civil war from a conflict internal to Syria to a grave regional security threat.
  1. Aerial Bombing Does not Reduce Terror But Encourages It

Numerous reports have been published showing that drone warfare (the Obama administration’s favorite mode of terror) accelerates the threat of terrorism. This is most clearly shown in the US drone campaign in Pakistan where, according to Fawaz Gerges’ Obama and the Middle East, terror has not only increased due to drone strikes but Obama has been informed that it has this effect. The fact that the Obama administration is able to casually disregard this well documented fact shows that the reduction of terrorism is not a strategic priority for US policy makers.

It also must be noted that bombing other countries without UN authorization is an act of military aggression and a serious war crime. Much of the legal discourse over this bombing has confined itself to whether or not Obama will seek Congressional authorization. International authorization matters as well. That this is omitted in conventional narratives suggests that many media commentators have become comfortable with the US status as a rogue state.

  1. The Idea that Certain States are Too “Evil” to Work with is Diplomatically Backwards and Politically Dangerous

In addition for being responsible for a great deal of the diplomatic sabotage as it relates to the Syrian Civil war—the US distorted the meaning of the Geneva I communiques so that Assad would be forced to step down—this moralistic stance flatly contradicts official US policy.

The US has a long and sordid history of backing brutal regimes from Saudi Arabia, to Israel, to Egypt and Bahrain. To suddenly feign outrage over human rights violations illustrates a level of hypocrisy that exceeds even regular levels of duplicity (an impressive feat).

For example, the US was perfectly willing to cooperate with Bashar Assad when they kidnapped Canadian national Maher Arar and sent him to Syria to be tortured. To embrace Assad when he commits acts of torture at the behest of the US but to shun him when his cooperation is vitally needed to deal with a regional crisis further reinforces the notion that the US is primarily concerned with sustaining regional hegemony.

As Murtaza Hussain has astutely pointed out in a recent article for The Intercept, the US must work with Iran, and other regional actors, if they have any serious hope of ameliorating this violence. Hussain observes, “Rather than reflexively satisfying an emotional need to ‘do something’ in the face of atrocities committed by ISIS against American citizens, a policy of coalition-building across ideological lines could potentially eliminate the group and perhaps begin to heal sectarian divisions in the region.”

Multilateral initiatives of this kind will not emerge without concerted public pressure to force Washington elites to abandon their unilateral and ultra-militaristic policies. Doing this will create the necessary space for peaceful alternatives to be pursued.

  1. ISIS is not a threat to the United States (crawl out from under your bed).CNN poll

In an incredible display “democratic” values, the servants of power in the free press have managed to induce the necessary amounts of fear and trauma among the American public to get them to support this latest bombing. CNN has published a poll showing approximately 70% of Americans see ISIS as a threat to the United States.

This conclusion is not supported by the judgment of the FBI which has declared that ISIS presents “no credible threat to the US.” Nevertheless, the hysteria of the corporate press and many members of Congress have drowned out this verifiable fact. It’s quite amazing that the unprecedented propaganda offensive that preceded the Iraq war did not motivate those who support this current assault to be more skeptical of these efforts to frighten the American public.

The role of political party tribalism also must not be discounted here. It is not uncommon for so-called liberal Democrats to support criminal wars because a Democrat is carrying out the crimes. The large support for drone strikes among liberals is a graphic example of this unsettling reality.

  1. Public Opinion in the Middle East is Solidly Opposed to US Influence
    Pew Research

The insularity of imperial culture is particularly pernicious in its ability to filter out the viewpoints and opinions of those who reside in the outer reaches of empire. Throughout all the reports on the US bombing of ISIS one would be hard pressed to find any reference to the most current public opinion polls in Middle East.

The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project is informative in this domain. Of the nine countries in Middle East and North Africa polled, all of them, with the exception of Israel, look at the US unfavorably. Similarly, all the countries polled oppose drone strikes (Israel being the exception  again for obvious reasons.)

It’s not known if the civil war in Iraq and Syria affected these numbers but they certainly merit attention as they serve as a vigorous refutation of Obama’s nauseating homages to American exceptionalism or as he put it in his latest speech: “the endless blessings” which obligate us to take on an “enduring burden.” Perhaps the people of the Middle East can conceive of another “enduring burden” recently recognized as the “greatest threat to world peace.” Another statistical irrelevancy.

There are many more dimensions of this conflict —the role of the Gulf States in supporting ISIS, the significance of the Turkish-Syrian border, etc. — that are worth exploring and will undoubtedly increase in complexity as the Obama administration deepens its involvement in the region. What’s most important is that we not lose sight of the Iraqis and Syrians who are sure to suffer the most if the lawless policies of the Obama administration are allowed to be carried out unimpeded.







Retail Realpolitik: Washington, The “Just God”, & The Islamic State in Iraq

CNNBreakingNewsIt’s standard for powerful states to justify the most egregious of crimes by cloaking it in obscure terminology. Torture becomes “enhanced interrogation”, kidnapping is “extraordinary rendition”, and civilian casualties are “collateral damage.” While moderate criminals limit themselves to mere terms, more ambitious crooks embrace entire schools of thought to legitimize their behavior. Take for example what’s called in international affairs scholarship realpolitik. Realpolitik proposes that “foreign policy ought not to be driven by the demands for justice,” and that “a society’s principles, no matter how deep-rooted or heartfelt, [have] to be compromised in the name of international stability.” These are the words of Princeton University political scientist Gary J. Bass in his description of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger employed this concept in his backing of the Pakistani genocide in East Bengal, one of his lesser known contributions to global “stability.”

Perhaps no other doctrine has been applied with as much consistency and rigor and this one. President Obama’s policies in the Middle East offer a textbook example. While providing support to “rebel factions” in Syria, he has authorized airstrikes against the closely associated Islamic State in Iraq. The consequences of these policies have been gruesome. One effect was graphically portrayed in the murder of Global Post journalist James Foley. Captured in Syria in 2012, Foley was beheaded by a member of the Islamic State. According to the killer, the murder was carried out in retaliation against the Obama administration’s decision to bomb Iraq after news surfaced that Iraqi Yazidis, driven from their homes by IS terror, were under siege atop Sinjar mountain.

“No just God would stand for what they did yesterday or every single day,” intoned Obama after receiving news of Foley’s murder. Without a doubt, IS has amply demonstrated their capacity for cruelty and indifference but this is obvious. Less obvious is how they arrived at this point and, furthermore, if Washington shares any responsibility in their rise. This deeply disturbing connection between US policy in the Middle East and the proliferation of sub-state terror has a long history. In symbolic terms, this connection could be discerned in Foley’s attire at the time of his execution. As the New York Times acknowledged in a recent report, “the video shows the journalist kneeling in a desert landscape, clad in an orange jumpsuit — an apparent reference to the uniforms worn by prisoners at the American military detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”

Aside from its transparent illegality, the existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp has long been recognized as a “recruitment tool” for terrorism. So unavoidable is this reality that even conservative outlets like the Council on Foreign Relations concede this. In a 2010 “expert roundup” report there was unanimous agreement on this fact. William Yeomans of the Washington College of Law described the prison as “a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists,” adding that a decision not to close the prison “would be calamitous.” Four years have passed since the publication of this report and 149 prisoners (more than half of them cleared for release) remain caged in this penal colony far outside the bounds of international law. And this isn’t the only case of the Obama administration consciously pursuing policies which escalate the threat of terrorism. For years, the Obama administration has ignored statements, even by those within his administration, that his drone assassination program—a campaign of international terrorism unparalleled in global affairs—is heightening the threat of terrorism.

In his penetrating study Obama and the Middle East: the End of America’s Moment? London School of Economics International Relations professor Fawaz Gerges states that “the Obama administration has so far been unwilling to acknowledge the link between escalation of hostilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the rising incidence of homegrown radicalization.” When the so-called Times Square bomber cited the Obama administration’s drone campaign as the reason for his attempt to set off a bomb in New York CIA chief John Brennan (then White House counterterrorism adviser) “dismissed the notion,” and “argued that the suspect was ‘captured by the murderous rhetoric of Al Qaeda and TTP [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] that looks at the United States as an enemy.'” Meanwhile, “in private deliberations, according to Bob Woodward, Obama’s national security team [appeared] to be aware that their policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan [helped] fuel radicalization and terrorism.” Even Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, in one of her more overlooked statements, addressed this dangerous linkage when she visited Obama in the White House. Incidentally, these crimes, unlike those of IS, received the blessing of Washington’s deity , presumably because the author of these atrocities internalized the “just war” doctrines of St. Augustine prior to engaging in acts of terror that that have left approximately 3,800 dead in Pakistan alone.
james foley Given this sordid history of terror-generating policies, it’s not the least bit surprising that the New York Times published a story on August 10 headlined US Actions in Iraq Fueled the Rise of a Rebel. Writing on the ascendancy of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Times observed “most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action.” This is but one of many reports highlighting the troubling intersection between US military aggression and the growth of subnational terror. While Global Post journalist Lauren Dean stated IS “was born out of a security vacuum left by the 2003 American invasion”, UK investigative journalist Robert Fisk described the brutality of IS as “the epic violence which our invasion unleashed.” Anyone serious about reversing the influence of IS would not dismiss these reports.

For example, no serious person would look at the US-instigated terror drowning the entire region in blood and urge “sudden”, “swift”, and “surgical” strikes against IS, but this is precisely what retired General John Allen called for in a recent piece published in Defense One. Portraying IS as a grave threat to America and Europe, General Allen implored the Obama administration to act “NOW” (he actually used all capital letters. A tell-tale sign of intellectual sobriety). Moreover, this military action would not limit itself to Iraq. It also would extend to Syria, “a failed state neither capable of acting as a sovereign entity nor deserving the respect of one.” Contrarily, the United States—the “greatest threat to world peace” according to a recent WIN/Gallup poll—is not a “failed state,” but “remains the only nation on the planet capable of exerting the kind of strategic leadership, influence and strike capacity,” to eradicate the IS “scourge.” Consequently, the UN initiative to provide technical support to the Iraqi government to aid imperiled Yazidis atop Sinjar Mountain is, as Gen. Allen describes the border between Syria and Iraq, “irrelevant.” Equally irrelevant is the analysis of distinguished scholars like Flynt Leverett. Appearing on Background Briefing with Ian Masters he remarked that “nothing will rehabilitate [ISIS] like being bombed by the United States.”
Destroy ISIS NOW

This clear record of the US instigating rather than diffusing terror is rarely, if ever, highlighted in the pages of the “free press.” Instead the public is treated with alarmist descriptions of a “the most despicable band of barbarians to plague the world since the Khmer Rouge.” Los Angeles Times columnist David Horsey used these terms to describe IS, a group that has inflicted such extreme levels of violence that “a comparison to the Nazis” would not be “an exaggeration.” Conversely, he describes the US invasion of Iraq—the “supreme crime” of military aggression under the standard of the Nuremberg Tribunal—as a “misguided and frustrating occupation” and a “past mistake.” Notice the problem with the occupation was not that it killed over half a million Iraqis while turning hundreds of thousands of others into refugees. Rather, it was the “frustration” of the occupiers unable to subdue a population by force, a standard view within the American intellectual class.

Quite apart from a “misguided” war, the assault on Iraq was a carefully guided and deliberate war crime. The horrors unfolding in Iraq cannot be properly understood unless this elementary reality is first acknowledged.  It’s worth recalling that Obama hailed the invasion of Iraq as a war that left the country “to its own people.” Omitted from this statement was the long record of state-terror the US has inflicted on Iraq from bombings under the First Gulf War, to the genocidal sanctions of the 1990s, to the 2003 invasion and subsequent destruction of Iraq’s central government. With the commencement of this aerial bombing campaign, Obama has opened another chapter in Washington’s multi-decade torture session of Iraqis. It shouldn’t require stating, but aerial bombing will only exacerbate the nightmare that has enveloped the region. The actions of the Obama administration are not only illegal—he authorized air strikes in violation of the War Powers Act and the UN Charter—but they evade viable, peaceful alternatives that would significantly lower the risk of more violence.

Perhaps this is just another iteration of presidential “realism.” As Harvard University scholar Stephen Walt stated in a recent article which appeared in Foreign Policy magazine “[Obama’s] style as president resembles Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone and Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in many ways. They don’t make many threats, they never bluster, and they rarely raise their voices. But when the time comes, they dispatch opponents with remorseless indifference and pay little attention to who might get hurt in the process. ‘It’s not personal; it’s strictly business.'” Likewise, IS murdered James Foley with “remorseless indifference.” Moreover, they paid “little attention to who might get hurt in the process.” Did not the “cancer” of IS merely emulate, in a less sophisticated form, the “realpolitik” of their despised foe albeit in a more “personal” fashion? Why then are we rightfully appalled by their heinous crimes, but coldly silent about our own? Perhaps these questions will be contemplated by the more honest among us who remain unconvinced by the harsh moral judgments of President Corleone’s “just God.”


Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? by Fawaz Gerges

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass