Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion 2017-02-23T05:37:58Z WordPress Juan Cole <![CDATA[Buyers’ Remorse: Americans think Trump is bad at almost Everything]]> 2017-02-23T01:18:44Z 2017-02-23T05:19:31Z By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The vast majority of Americans in a new Quinnipiac opinion poll do not believe that Donald J. Trump is level-headed or shares their values. Of course, this is only one poll, and likely the plus or minus swing is 3 or 4 percent. But actually the findings are so decisive in most cases that that wouldn’t matter. Qunnipiac showed Trump beating Clinton last summer, so you can’t accuse them of being biased against him.

And only 38% think he is doing a good job in his first month, versus 55% who say no. In contrast, a strong majority trust the courts to do the right thing.

This finding has to be underlined. Only 33 percent of Americans (as projected from this poll) think Trump is level-headed.

So this is the guy with the nuclear codes. The guy with the power, as things evolved through the 20th century, unilaterally to declare war. The guy who presides over a trillion-dollar a year security and military complex. Who has several hundred thousand people spying on us all. The guy who issues executive orders, which now make up about 1/3 of all of our national legislation, and who does so by fiat.

And 63 percent of you think he isn’t level-headed? And, like, this wasn’t apparent to you all the way through 2016?

I mean, is this a joke? You put a flake (isn’t that what you mean by “not level-headed”?) in the most powerful office in the world? What, did you think it would be entertaining, sort of like one of those asteroid movies where in the end there is no way to stop it from destroying most of the earth? Did your mother drop you on your head?

And get this, only 37 percent think Trump shares their values. It would be scary, of course, if they really even believed what they told the pollsters. Do 118 million Americans really think it is all right to just start grabbing the person next to them in inappropriate ways? Or do they only talk like that in the locker room? Do 118 million Americans really think the 10% of the country that is first-generation immigrants are all criminals?

So my guess is that on mature reflection even the 37 percent might have some doubts.

But again, if 60 percent of you think this guy’s values are alien to you, why would you put him in the presidency? Just for a change of pace?

It goes down the line. You don’t think he is honest (55%). You don’t think he has good leadership skills (55%). You don’t even think he cares about the average Joe (55%). So you thought it might be a good idea to have a lying, incompetent elitist rat bastard as president?

The only positives for Trump here are that you think he is intelligent and a strong leader.

First of all, you have confused slyness with intelligence.

Second of all, you have confused mouthing off with being a strong leader. (I will remind you that you just said he has poor leadership skills; then how do you think he’s a strong leader?)

Then let’s take the issues, according to the Quinnipiac findings:

You think he is bad at handling foreign policy (56%). You think he’s bad on immigration (58%). You even think he is bad at counter-terrorism (49%). The only thing you think he is good at is running the economy (47% positive on that). And boy, do you have another think coming. What till he gets rid of Dodd Frank and deregulates even further the big banks and investment firms. The 2008 crash will look like a kindergarten field trip. And the environment is part of the economy. This is the guy who thinks it was much better when coal companies could release their toxic ash into our streams and rivers and when dirty oil pipelines could spill their poisonous sludge into our drinking water and fields. (So they can, again).

The vast majority of you think Trump’s Muslim ban went too far, and you are really against banning Syrian refugees, and you think in general the Federal government has taken this counter-terrorism thing way too far, chipping away at our civil liberties.

I saw on social media someone quoting a Trump supporter that they want us to give them a way to say they were wrong and made a mistake, without our telling theses voters that they were bad people.

OK, you’re not bad people. You just made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes.

But there are things you have to do to make up for the mistake. You have to give Trump a Democratic Senate and even House in 2018 if you want those bad instincts you just identified to be restrained. The GOP is obviously going to let Trump exercise his bad judgment all he likes. Even so-called mavericks like Sen. John McCain have not voted against Trump even once.

And, you have in your own life to counter-act Trump. Help with or give some support to refugees already here. Join a Muslim-American civil rights organization like MPAC or an Arab-American one like the Arab-American Antidiscrimination committee. And where you can afford it and it is practical, cut down on your carbon footprint. Use public transportation or drive an electric vehicle. Pressure your utility to give you more green energy. If you can, put up solar panels.

You made a mistake. Fix it.


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Juan Cole <![CDATA[Red state rural America is acting on climate change – without calling it climate change]]> 2017-02-23T01:46:12Z 2017-02-23T05:18:59Z By Rebecca J. Romsdahl | (The Conversation) | – –

President Donald Trump has the environmental community understandably concerned. He and members of his Cabinet have questioned the established science of climate change, and his choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA many times and regularly sided with the fossil fuel industry.


Even if the Trump administration withdraws from all international climate negotiations and reduces the EPA to bare bones, the effects of climate change are happening and will continue to build.

In response to real threats and public demand, cities across the United States and around the world are taking action to address climate change. We might think this is happening only in large, coastal cities that are threatened by sea-level rise or hurricanes, like Amsterdam or New York.

Research shows, however, that even in the fly-over red states of the U.S. Great Plains, local leaders in small- to medium-size communities are already grappling with the issue. Although their actions are not always couched in terms of addressing climate change, their strategies can provide insights into how to make progress on climate policy under a Trump administration.

‘Deliberate framing’

My colleagues and I did a survey of over 200 local governments in 11 states of the Great Plains region to learn about steps they’re taking to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to them. We found local officials in red states responsible for public health, soil conservation, parks and natural resources management, as well as county commissioners and mayors, are concerned about climate change, and many feel a responsibility to take action in the absence of national policy.

In terms of framing, using wind energy is a way to improve local air quality and save money on energy, while also reducing emissions from fossil fuels.
paytonc/flickr, CC BY-SA

But because it is such a complex and polarizing topic, they often face public uncertainty or outrage toward the issue. So while these local officials have been addressing climate change in their communities over the past decade, many of these policy activities are specifically not framed that way. As one respondent to our survey said:

“It is my personal and professional opinion that the conservation community is on track with addressing the issue of climate change but is way off track in assigning a cause. The public understands the value of clean water and clean air. If the need to improve our water quality and air quality was emphasized, most would agree. Who is going to say dirty water and dirty air is not a problem? By making the argument ‘climate change and humans are the cause’ significant energy is wasted trying to prove this. It is also something the public has a hard time sinking their teeth into.”

In order to address the vulnerabilities facing their communities, many local officials are reframing climate change to fit within existing priorities and budget items. In a survey of mayors, we asked: “In your city’s policy and planning activities (for energy, conservation, natural resources management, land use, or emergency planning, etc.) how is climate change framed?” The following quotes give a sense of their strategies.

“In terms of economic benefit & resource protection. This framing was deliberate to garner support from residents who did not agree with climate change.”

“We frame the initiative as: energy savings (=$ savings), as smart growth/good planning, and as common sense natural resource management. Climate change is only explicitly referenced in our Climate Protection Plan adopted in 2009. Most initiatives fall under the “sustainability” umbrella term.“

“We mask it with sustainability, we call it P3 (People, Planet, Prosperity)”

“The initial interest in climate change came about as a result of concern about the potential for poor air quality affecting economic development in the City. Air quality and climate change were framed as being extremely related issues.”

“Climate change is framed as one of several benefits of conservation measures. Other benefits of conservation, recycling, walking, etc. include it’s ‘good for the earth’ (regardless of climate change), healthful, economical, etc.”

The results show that energy, economic benefits, common sense and sustainability are frames that are providing opportunities for local leaders to address climate change without getting stuck in the political quagmire. This strategy is being used across the Great Plains states, which include some of the most climate-skeptical areas of the country.

Local needs and values

Every region of the U.S. will need to address practical questions of how states and local communities can reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Under the Trump administration, it is likely any progress on U.S. climate policy will continue at these subnational levels. That’s why a variety of experts argue that we should encourage the types of pragmatic strategies now being employed by local leaders in red states.

In the Great Plains in particular, local officials are facing severe impacts from higher temperatures, which will place greater demands on water and energy.

Capturing methane gases from landfill can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and be a local source of fuel for power.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, CC BY-NC

In our research we found local leaders focus on regional and local issues such as drought, energy and flooding. These are problems that are tied to climate change, but are already a priority on the local level. And the sought-for improvements, such as energy savings, health benefit and flood management, fit well with local needs and values.

For example, Fargo, North Dakota mitigates some of its greenhouse gas emissions and created a new source of city revenue by capturing the methane from its landfill facility and selling that gas to the electricity company. The city trash is now providing renewable energy for local residents and an industrial facility.

Perhaps the question facing us is: Should we reframe climate change and other environmental problems to fit the Trump administration’s priorities with a strong focus on practical solution ideas? For example, Trump has stated that infrastructure projects will be a high priority. That could easily translate into fixing the drinking water crisis experienced by Flint, Michigan and many other cities where it is likely to happen; Trump has also highlighted mass transit, which could help reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.

With an administration eager to expand fossil fuel development and consumption, the outlook for federal action on reducing climate-altering greenhouse gases is dire. Given that, reframing climate change to address cobenefit issues seems a logical strategy, and we can look for local government leaders in red states to show the way.

The Conversation

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Professor of Environmental Science & Policy, University of North Dakota

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

contributors <![CDATA[Trump v. Islam]]> 2017-02-23T02:07:12Z 2017-02-23T05:16:30Z By John Feffer | (Foreign Policy in Focus) | – –

Trump the businessman is at war with Trump the ideologue over the question of Islam.

Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of fear. During his presidential campaign, he portrayed terrorists, immigrants, the Chinese government and many other people and entities as threats to America. But nothing proved more powerful as a mobilizing force than his anti-Islamic pronouncements.

Other presidential candidates were careful to distinguish between what they considered to be radical extremists and ordinary Muslims. Trump made no such attempt. “I think Islam hates us,” he declared. It was not a very great leap to his conclusion: Ban all Muslims from the country. Trump was going beyond mere political incorrectness to challenge the very U.S. Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on religion.

As president, Trump has followed through on his promise. With his executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries entrance to the United States, the president has attempted to legalize his Islamophobia. The order does not mention Islam, and the order doesn’t include the largest Muslim country in the world: Indonesia. Nor does the order mention Christianity. But it promises to “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other interviews, Trump has made it clear that he means to specifically prioritize Christians.

True, the executive order doesn’t apply to all Muslims around the world. But Trump and his allies, like Rudy Giuliani, know that his policies must have at least the appearance of legality to make them less susceptible to judicial challenge. More importantly, Trump wants to foster a hostile climate of opinion in the United States so Muslims will think twice about visiting, immigrating or staying. The courts have, so far, blocked Trump’s efforts. But he will likely issue another executive order that tries to achieve the same results but within the parameters of the law.

The new president’s Islamophobia is purely political. As a businessman, Trump has had no problems making deals with predominantly Muslim countries. He owns a pair of towers in Istanbul. He’s moving forward on two luxury resorts in Indonesia. He licensed his name to a golf course in Dubai. He has Muslim clients in the United States as well, such as Qatar Airways.

If Trump were merely a transactional president, he would be making deals everywhere in the world. But Trump as president is not looking at the world through a businessman’s eyes. He has surrounded himself with advisers who have a very different approach. Strategic adviser Steve Bannon, for instance, wants to turn the United States into a Whiter, more Christian and more conservative country, and many Trump supporters concur. As a result, the Trump administration is pushing policies that Trump the businessman would have opposed because they adversely affect U.S. corporations and the U.S. economy.

This disregard for the bottom line can be seen most prominently in the administration’s approach to Iran. From a business standpoint, the nuclear deal with Iran is a win-win. The United States stops a potential nuclear threat, and U.S. businesses eventually gain access to a lucrative overseas market. During the presidential campaign, Trump disregarded the obvious economic advantages of the agreement in favor of using it as a cudgel to beat those associated with negotiating it.

Even after the election was over, Trump didn’t back away from his criticisms of the deal and of Iran in general. Ostensibly in response to an Iranian missile test, Trump applied new sanctions against the country. “The international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior,” Michael Flynn said when he was still national security adviser, signaling the new direction of U.S. policy. “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.” At risk is the nuclear deal as well as the nearly $17 billion worth of commercial jetliners that Boeing has sold to Iran.

Moreover, the Obama administration spent eight years trying to balance the two major powers in the Middle East — predominantly Shia Iran and predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia — in an effort to keep Iraq together, minimize fallout from the Arab Spring, and later find some solution to the conflict in Syria. Trump and the Republican Congress have no interest in maintaining such a balance.

Trump has widened the scope of his actions beyond Iran. In addition to threatening to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, the administration wants to include the Muslim Brotherhood. Here again, anti-Islamic orthodoxy has trumped pragmatism. The Brotherhood has attracted the ire of real terrorist organizations for abandoning armed struggle in favor of participating in democratic politics. Senior State Department and Pentagon officials are reportedly urging Trump to reconsider these designations.

During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to focus more on problems at home. He seemed less interested in trying to use either soft power or hard power to change the complex realities of the Middle East. With the single exception of destroying the Islamic State, Trump preferred to address problems at the water’s edge with immigration bans, physical walls and a beefed-up military to protect the homeland. A streak of isolationism ran through his “America First” rhetoric. Trump was also proudly ignorant of the most basic facts about the region, saying that he’d learn the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah if and when necessary.

As president, Trump has largely abandoned this hands-off approach. He has announced that he would be delighted to arrange a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. At the same time, he has sided almost exclusively with Israel on every important issue of disagreement — supporting a move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, condemning a UN vote on Israel’s settlement policy that the Obama administration backed, and nominating an ambassador to Israel (David Friedman) who believes that the country should simply annex parts of the West Bank.

Outside the Middle East, the Trump administration has betrayed a similarly anti-Islamic approach. It has aligned itself with far-right wing and Islamophobic political parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France. The travel ban has potentially jeopardized relations with majority-Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia and elicited adenunciation from the African Union as well.

But the most troubling aspect of the Trump administration’s approach to the Muslim world is its tendency to view matters through a “civilizational” lens. Bannon understands Western civilization as fundamentally anti-Islamic (and anti-secular), its identity forged at the Battle of Tours in 732 and through later conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. Bannon and his extremist allies in Europe are threatened not just by separatist movements like the Islamic State, but also by religious pluralism, which blurs the lines of their particular identity politics. The documentary project that Bannon was working on before joining the Trump campaign focused on a hypothetical Islamic takeover of the United States, a companion piece to the “Londonistan” and “Eurabia” arguments made by European Islamophobes. The resignation of Michael Flynn might diminish the overt Islamophobia of the administration but it will not affect the underlying civilizational framework within which Bannon and others operate.

Many Americans supported Trump because he promised to be a transactional president who “gets things done.” In the end, because of the people he has brought into his inner circle, Trump will end up attempting to transform the relationship between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. It’s not likely, however, that Trump will go down in history as either the dealmaker he promised to be as president or the transformational leader his aides are pushing him to become.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the new novel Splinterlands.


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Vox: ” How Steve Bannon sees the world”

contributors <![CDATA[Is Israel’s Netanyahu running Rings around the inexperienced Trump?]]> 2017-02-23T05:37:58Z 2017-02-23T05:02:42Z By Avi Shlaim | (Via ) | – –

Trump is unencumbered by any knowledge of the Palestinians, their history, their politics, or their legitimate struggle for statehood.

At the press conference after his meeting with Israel’s prime minister on 15 February, president Trump displayed ignorance and irresponsibility in roughly equal portions. In a single sentence, he blithely broke away from two decades of US commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump’s narrow focus on Israel sets him apart from postwar American presidents. Their stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict divides American presidents into two broad schools of thought: the even-handed and the “Israel first”. Jimmy Carter is the best example of the former, whereas George W Bush is the leading example of the second and much larger group. Trump does not fall neatly into either category because he is utterly one-sided in his identification with Israel. He is unencumbered by any knowledge of the Palestinians, their history, their politics, or their legitimate struggle for statehood.


Ever since the Oslo Accord was concluded by the PLO and Israel in 1993, the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel has been the cornerstone of American diplomacy under both Democratic and Republican administrations. While this was the policy at the declaratory level, America failed to exert effective pressure on Israel to implement it. Indeed, the very existence of the so-called “peace process” provided Israel with a convenient cover for promoting the Zionist settler-colonial project. Trump did not rule out a two-state solution, but he implied that his administration has no preference regarding the shape of the final peace agreement.

Standing alongside Mr Netanyahu, the neophyte president said: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like”. Referring to the Israeli prime minister by his nickname, but no Palestinian leader by any name, he added: “I can live with either one. I thought for a while it looked like the two-state, looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly if Bibi and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best”.

This vague and incoherent kind of talk on a crucially important issue is typical of the Trump White House. Under his mercurial management, the White House team is chaotic and dysfunctional. There is no decision-making structure, no rules, and no coordination in the formulation of foreign policy. Nor is it clear who the key players are in each particular area of policy. Within Trump’s inner circle there are advisers with wildly divergent views. Some of them are stone-cold racists and white supremacists. Hence the strange statement issued by the president on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which made no mention of either Jews or antisemitism.

On the other hand, two of Trump’s closest advisers on Israel-Palestine are not just Orthodox Jews but ardent Zionists. One is his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a real estate investor with zero diplomatic experience whose family foundation financially supports the illegal settlements on the West Bank and the Israeli military. Trump appointed the 36-year-old Kushner as senior White House adviser and put him in charge of brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

The other influential adviser is David Friedman, Trump’s real estate and bankruptcy lawyer for the last 15 years, who was picked to be America’s ambassador to Israel. Friedman is a controversial figure even among American Jews on account of his fervent pro-settlement views and firm opposition to a Palestinian state. Friedman does not consider the settlements as an impediment to peace and he does not think that annexing parts of the West Bank would compromise Israel’s Jewish or democratic character. He is the chairman of the American Friends of Beit El, one of the more hard-line ideological settlements on the West Bank. Friedman raises around $2 million of tax-free donations a year for the Beit El. One Donald J Trump contributed $10,000 to this charity.

Friedman is also a strong supporter of moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, one of Trump’s campaign promises. This move would ring the death knell of the two-state solution. It would mean American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem, including the Muslim holy places in the Old City. An editorial in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, titled “David Friedman Is Unfit to Serve as U.S. Envoy to Israel,” described him as “a man with a simplistic, dangerous worldview, a member of the extreme right who supports annexing territory on the West Bank to Israel”. On the Israeli political map, Friedman is well to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Odd as it may sound, Netanyahu is one of the more moderate politicians in the coalition government he heads. This is the most right-wing, racist, xenophobic, expansionist, and pro-settler government in Israel’s history. Despite the occasional rhetorical genuflection by Netanyahu in the direction of two states in the distant past, both he and his ministers are decidedly opposed to a Palestinian state. They have built a network of roads on the West Bank for the exclusive use of the settlers with the intention of making the status quo permanent. In the lead-up to the elections of 2015, Netanyahu stated categorically that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and the defence minister, is himself a settler who aggressively pushes the settlers’ agenda in the cabinet. Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party and minister of education, is vehemently opposed to a Palestinian state in any shape or form. He advocates the outright annexation of Area C which comprises 60% of the West Bank where the majority of the settlements are located. Ayelet Shaked, the minister of justice, is another member of the Jewish Home party with far-right, ethnocentric, and genocidal views. She is spearheading the attack on one of the last bastions of Israeli democracy and the rule of law – the Supreme Court.

Shaked was the driving force behind the law recently passed by the Knesset to legalise theft. Calling it the Regularization Bill could hardly conceal its highly irregular and crudely discriminatory nature. A more honest name would have been the Expropriation Bill. For what the bill did was to retroactively legalise 50 Jewish outposts, with around 4,000 homes, on the West Bank that had been built illegally on private Palestinian land. The bill is a naked land grab by the settlers and their sponsors whose purpose is to erase any prospect of a viable Palestinian state. Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, said he would not defend the law in the Supreme Court, calling it unconstitutional and a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Netanyahu initially opposed the bill, warning his cabinet that it could land its backers at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, but he changed his mind for fear of losing votes to his militant political rivals.

Both Netanyahu and the hawks in his cabinet were overjoyed by the election of Donald Trump. They expected him to give them a free hand to pursue their aggressive colonial project in what they call Judea and Samaria – and they were not far wrong. Naftali Bennett tweeted: “Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to retract the notion of a Palestinian state”. Two days after Trump’s inauguration, the cabinet announced two decisions: to issue permits for 5,500 new housing units, and to build an entirely new settlement on the West Bank. The second decision was a clear violation of an official pledge that Israel had given to the US at the time of the Oslo Accord not to build new settlements. The idea behind the pledge was to give peace a chance.

The reaction of the White House to these provocative announcements could have hardly been more equivocal. The statement read: “While we don’t believe that the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful to achieving that goal”. Muddled as it was, the statement signalled a clear reversal of American policy since 1967 which held that all settlements on occupied Arab territory are illegal and an impediment to peace.

This permissive attitude towards Israel’s violations of both international law and its promises to its chief ally assured Netanyahu of an easy ride on his meeting with the new incumbent at the White House. The contrast with his first meeting with Barack Obama in 2009 could hardly have been greater. At that meeting Obama wanted to focus on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while Netanyahu tried to side-line this issue by focusing on the threat of the Iranian nuclear programme. Obama identified an Israeli settlement freeze as an indispensable condition for any progress in peace-making. Netanyahu’s persistent refusal to freeze settlement activity soured his relations with the Obama administration. Yet, despite his evident personal loathing of Netanyahu, Obama gave more money and arms to Israel than any of his predecessors. His parting gift was a $38 billion military aid package for the next decade. With this gift securely in his pocket, Netanyahu could look forward to a new era in Israel-US relations and to taking advantage of a new president whose ignorance and insecurity made him an easy target for manipulation.

At the press conference with Trump, Netanyahu was evasive on the subject of a two-state solution. Rather than dealing with “labels”, he said he wanted to deal with substance. But his substantive position was completely uncompromising: “There are two prerequisites for peace”, he said. “First, the Palestinians must recognise the Jewish state…second, in any peace agreement, Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River…otherwise we’ll get another terrorist Islamic state in the Palestinian areas, exploding the peace, exploding the Middle East.” Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state is a relatively recent condition that he himself invented in order to make it difficult for the Palestinians to engage in peace talks. His second condition leaves no room for Palestinian sovereignty or statehood in any meaningful sense of these words.

Netanyahu routinely reiterates that he is ready to start peace talks with the Palestinians without any preconditions. This is a transparent propaganda ploy. The two “prerequisites” reflect his deep ideological commitment to hold on to, in perpetuity, what he calls the “Land of Israel”. Netanyahu grew up in a fanatical revisionist Zionist home. In a 2009 interview his octogenarian father, Benzion Netanyahu, asserted: “The two-state solution doesn’t exist…There is no Palestinian people, so you don’t create a state for an imaginary nation”. This apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

At the press conference Trump said to his guest: “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements a little bit”. This may sound like a mild rebuke, but it was not intended nor was it taken as such. On the contrary, this remark was actually helpful to Netanyahu, and he may have even solicited it himself. As prime minister, Netanyahu has to maintain a delicate balance between his right-wing coalition partners for whom any talk of peace is anathema and the pretence that his government is seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict. His partners-rivals are urging him to annex the strategic settlement blocs round Jerusalem, Ma’ale Edumim and Gush Etzion. He, for his part, lectures them on the need to coordinate their moves with the new president. Trump’s call for holding back a bit enables the embattled prime minister to protect his flank and to restrain the parties to his right. The friendship with Trump also helps him to bolster his position with the Israeli public at a time when he is being investigated by the police for receiving illicit gifts of champagne and cigars from a billionaire businessman. Netanyahu’s overriding goal is to maintain the status quo with only minor adjustments, and this he largely achieved at his meeting with the most powerful man in the world.

The other major item on the two leaders’ agenda was Iran, and here too there was a convergence of Israeli and American positions. Netanyahu had been the most strident opponent of the nuclear agreement reached between the Obama administration and five other world powers with the Islamic Republic of Iran. He claimed that Iran could not be trusted and that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel. The warning was coupled with threats of an Israeli military strike to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. These threats were not credible. At that time, none of Israel’s defence chiefs supported military action. Major-General Meir Dagan, soon after stepping down as director of the Mossad, said that this was the silliest idea he had ever heard. The considered opinion of Israel’s securocrats was that the landmark international agreement with Iran actually served to reduce the potential military threats to their country. The real concern which united the prime minister with his intelligence and defence chiefs was that the nuclear agreement would pave the way to a more general American-Iranian rapprochement and that this would downgrade Israel’s role as America’s primary strategic partner in the region. So while Netanyahu’s verbal assaults on Iran continued after the conclusion of the treaty, the threat of military action was quietly dropped.

The election of Donald Trump went a long way to allay Israeli concerns. During the presidential campaign candidate Trump echoed Netanyahu’s rhetoric, promising to tear up the nuclear deal that Obama had signed with Iran in July 2015. Following his election, however, Trump moderated his position, if not his rhetoric. His administration imposed new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missiles tests, but these were consistent with the American obligations under the nuclear deal. So by the time Netanyahu arrived in Washington, the threat of a US-Iranian détente had receded. At the 15 February press conference, Trump called the agreement with Iran “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen”, but he said nothing about abandoning or even renegotiating it. So once again America and Israel were singing from the same hymn sheet.

What was absent from the press conference was any consideration for the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people. Their “prerequisites” for peace were not mentioned even once. Echoing one of Netanyahu’s regular talking points, Trump castigated the Palestinians for allegedly teaching their children to hate Israel. His indifference to a one-state or two-state solution betrayed a shocking ignorance of the implications of the former. A one-state solution can mean one of two things. It can mean a secular democratic state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea with equal rights for all its citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity. This kind of a unitary state is anathema to all but a tiny fringe of left-wing Israelis because sooner or later the Jews will become a minority. The alternative is one state with two systems, in other words, a state in which the Jews preserve all their powers and privileges and the Palestinians remain second-class citizens in perpetuity. There is only one word to describe this scenario – apartheid.

A solution along these lines, if it can be called one, is totally unacceptable to the Palestinians. The Palestinians, the real victims of this bitter and protracted conflict, will accept nothing less and they deserve nothing less than a fully independent state alongside Israel with a capital city in Jerusalem. Moreover, a genuine two-state solution commands the support of the broadest international consensus which included, until the bizarre press conference at the White House, the United States of America.

All the international efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Gulf war of 1991 have been based on the premise of two states. The Arab states are part of this international consensus. In 2002 the Arab League put forward the Arab Peace Initiative. It was endorsed by all 22 members of the Arab League. It offered Israel not just peace but normalisation with all of them in return for the creation of an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 lines with a capital in East Jerusalem and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. There has been no official Israeli response to this offer.

The truth of the matter is that Israel is addicted to occupation, and it will continue to resist with all its might any international efforts to end it. So the Palestinians are engaged in what is probably the last anti-colonial struggle of the postwar era. The asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians is so great that a voluntary agreement between the two parties is inconceivable. A settlement of the conflict in line with the international consensus can only come about if America joins with the rest of the international community in pushing Israel into it. This has never happened in the past and there is even less of a chance that it will happen now under the one-sidedly pro-Israeli Republican administration.

Donald Trump has simply abandoned the long-suffering Palestinians to the tender mercies of their Israeli oppressors. The notion that the Palestinians deserve justice does not appear to have crossed his mind. The most charitable explanation of his conduct is that he lives in a delusional bubble. Be that as it may, there isn’t even the faintest prospect on the horizon that the self-proclaimed deal-maker will be able to broker a peace deal to end this tragic century-old conflict.

Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.


Juan Cole <![CDATA[Trump endangering rest of Us to hunt down the Law-Abiding Undocumented]]> 2017-02-22T16:41:07Z 2017-02-22T08:28:44Z By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Gen. John Kelly’s ramping up of deportation measures against undocumented residents of the US, in accordance with Donald Trump’s campaign promises, contains many hidden dangers.

The rational way to deal with long-term unauthorized immigrants would be to offer them a path to citizenship, not waste taxpayers’ money deporting 10.9 million people– the vast majority of whom do essential and backbreaking labor that the native-born eschew. Most people don’t realize that there is no way for someone brought up in the US without citizenship to apply for it. The US needs its immigrants if it is to remain a great power.

If the undocumented residents of the US who have not committed any other crime here become afraid that they will be arrested on sight, this fear will endanger the rest of us.

The undocumented will become less likely to seek drivers’ licenses and automobile insurance, which is a menace to other US residents. California, which has 3 million, convinced 800,000 undocumented residents to get drivers’ licences, a victory for public safety, which could now be undone.

Likewise, in California some 93% of the children of undocumented families are enrolled in school. Some proportion of these children were born in the US and we want them educated as future citizens. But will undocumented parents start avoiding all government facilities, including schools?

It is undesirable that this large population avoid getting vaccinations, or that battered women should fear to go to the authorities. Making law-abiding undocumented people go underground poses substantial health and other risks to the rest of us.

There is also a danger that Trump/ Kelly’s irrational obsession with the law-abiding undocumented will overwhelm local police departments, whether financially or with regard to manpower and jail capacity. Some departments are already announcing that they can’t handle these extra duties.

Trump’s conviction that there is a crisis of illegal immigration into the United States in 2017 is misplaced. There was a crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in some 12.2 million undocumented residents of the US by 2007.

In the past decade, that number has fallen by nearly a million and a half, to 10.9 million. This is true even though the number of deportations fell in 2013 and 2014. (Trump says that there are 30 million undocumented residents of the US, and alleges that 3 million of them voted in the presidential election. These are imaginary numbers much more imaginary than the square root of -1.)

In California, 7% of the undocumented are married to American citizens, and another percentage is married to green card holders. Many have children who are American citizens. Trump’s idea that any significant number are young male gang members with no roots in the US is monstrous in its gargantuan falsity.

That the crisis of unauthorized immigration is a problem of previous decades and hardly so urgent today is demonstrated by the simple fact that 66% of the undocumented have been in the US at least 10 years. In 2014, only 7% of undocumented Mexicans had been in the US less than 5 years.

Under the old rules by which ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) operated, which have now been changed by Gen. Kelly, undocumented people who weren’t near the border and who had not committed a crime were relatively safe from deportation. But it was not as though the Obama administration was sloughing off on deporting the undocumented. In some years Obama deported substantially more people than Bush had in his last year as president.


The old policy was to concentrate on criminals and leave the law-abiding alone. Last year, 92% of all the persons deported after being arrested by ICE agents in the interior of the US had been convicted of a crime (other than unauthorized entry).

Over 2/3s of those deported were arrested in the vicinity of the border, often by other agencies than ICE, including local police. Of these deportees picked up near the border, nearly 60% had also previously been convicted of a crime. That leaves about 100,000 people arrested who had no previous criminal record. Almost all of them were picked up near the border.

But only 2000 of the deportees were known gang members, so these individuals, who loom so large in Trump’s imagination, are a tiny proportion of the undocumented. They were less than 1% of the deported.

Only about half of the unauthorized immigrants who came in during 2014 were Mexicans. In recent years more Mexicans have been leaving than coming into the US.

More of those arriving are from Central America, and they are fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries. In 2016, some 100,000 unauthorized immigrants into the US from Central America claimed asylum because of the danger they faced back home. These asylum claims have to be decided by a judge and take a lot of energy. The US would certainly be better off launching Marshall Plan for Central America and trying to help those countries’ economies grow faster and trying to provide for more democracy and less danger for average citizens. Such steps are the real way to cut down on unauthorized immigration.


Related video:

Al Jazeera English: “US: Anxiety grows among undocumented immigrants”

contributors <![CDATA[Under Saudi Bombardment, 33% of Yemenis Food Insecure]]> 2017-02-22T06:58:24Z 2017-02-22T06:58:24Z TeleSur | – –

The U.N. says almost half a million children in the country are at risk of death from famine as Saudi Arabia’s war in the country completes a second year.

At least seven million people in Yemen are facing starvation as a result of the humanitarian crisis caused by almost two years of war by Saudi Arabia on the country, the United Nations warned Tuesday.

“Seven million Yemenis do not know where their next meal will come from and are ever closer to starvation,” one-third of the country’s 27 million population, Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the country, said in a statement.

“Over 17 million people are currently unable to adequately feed themselves and are frequently forced to skip meals — women and girls eat the least and last.”

The country had been in turmoil for years when in March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition, with U.S. aid, kicked off a military campaign in support of Yemeni government forces against the Ansarullah Houthi rebels.

The conflict has destroyed much of Yemen’s infrastructure and claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people, most of them civilians, while displacing millions.

“I am deeply concerned with the escalation of conflict and militarization of Yemen’s western coast. It is coming at a great cost to civilians,” McGoldrick added.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and is home to al-Qaida’s strongest organization in the world. The country is one of the U.S.’s most targeted countries in the world by unmanned drone bombers.

Some 462,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition and at “imminent risk” of death, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said Tuesday.

In December the U.N. also said that every 10 minutes at least one Yemeni child dies of preventable diseases such as malnutrition, diarrhea, and respiratory tract infections, citing the total collapse of the health system in the country amid Saudi Arabia’s ongoing attack on the country.

Saudi coalition jets targeted several hospitals in Yemen over the past two years including those set up and operated by Doctor Without Borders.

Via TeleSur


Related video added by Juan Cole:

A humanitarian crisis in Yemen | DW News

contributors <![CDATA[Like Shoplifting: Israel gives Azarya 18 mos. for Killing subdued Palestinian Assailant]]> 2017-02-22T06:45:02Z 2017-02-22T06:45:02Z Ma’aN News Agency | – –

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — After being found guilty of manslaughter for the filmed, execution-style shooting of 21-year-old Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif, 20-year-old Israeli soldier Elor Azarya was sentenced to 18 months in prison, a year’s probation, and a demotion in his military rank on Tuesday.


The prosecution had sought a three- to five-year prison sentence for the killing, with the maximum sentence for manslaughter being 20 years in prison.

The sentence was scheduled to begin on March 5, though Azarya’s defense team said it would submit an appeal to block the sentence, saying it had a “good chance” and “nothing to lose,” according to reports from Israeli media from inside the courtroom.

After al-Sharif and Ramzi Aziz al-Qasrawi, also 21, allegedly carried out a stabbing attack on another soldier in the southern occupied West Bank city of Hebron last March, al-Qasrawi was fatally shot, while al-Sharif was shot and left severely wounded on the ground for several minutes before Azarya stepped forward and shot him in the head, with a number of witnesses quoting him as saying “This dog is still alive” and “This terrorist deserves to die” before pulling the trigger.

Leading up to the announcement of the sentence, the panel of three judges weighed the “complexity” and “competing values” of the case; while they agreed that Azarya acted with the intent to kill and not because he felt threatened, a two-judge majority believed the “unique post-terror attack” atmosphere should work heavily in his favor.

Judges called for leniency due to the fact that it was Azarya’s first time in a “terror situation,” and also noted the alleged mismanagement of the scene by Israeli commanders at the scene, who later went on to give harsh testimonies against the young soldier.

The judges said that the prosecution had successfully argued that Azarya had failed to show regret throughout the trial, while Azarya also violated the so-called purity of arms value enshrined in the Israeli army’s ethical code.

They also said that the months Azarya has spent in open detention on an Israeli military base would not be deducted from his sentence, but would be taken into account “on some level.”

The lenient sentence came after judges gave a wholesale endorsement of the prosecution’s arguments against Azarya while refuting nearly every claim presented by the defense when he was convicted in January.

Members of al-Sharif’s family and Palestinian leadership have called the case a “show trial” for handing down a lenient manslaughter conviction for the soldier, while focusing on the case to distract from a wider culture of impunity for Israeli forces.

Following the announcement of the 18-month sentence, the family said they were “not surprised.”

Israeli daily Haaretz quoting them as saying: “from the onset we knew this was a show trial that will not do us justice. Even though the soldier was caught on video and it is clear that this is a cold blooded execution, he was convicted only of manslaughter, not murder, and the prosecution asked for only a light sentence of three years. The sentence he received is less than a Palestinian child gets for throwing stones.”

Al-Sharif’s family has vowed to take the case to the International Criminal Court.

PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi released a statement on Tuesday, slamming the sentence as a “travesty of justice.”

“It is apparent that the Israeli judicial system has become compromised with the systemic racism, injustice, and the culture of hate that is plaguing the Israeli occupation,” she wrote, adding that “This sentencing demonstrates the active devaluation of human life, especially the lives of Palestinians that have been oppressed and held captive by an Israeli occupation for far too long.”

Nevertheless, Azarya’s defense team has attempted to reverse the manslaughter charges deemed too harsh, while the young Israeli army medic has garnered widespread support among the Israeli public under a vocal and at times violent solidarity campaign that dubbed Azarya “everyone’s son.”

The Palestinian activist who captured the footage of the shooting has meanwhile received hundreds of death threats, and his house has been surrounded and attacked by Israeli settlers multiple times.

Some 67 percent of Israelis said they supported a presidential pardon for committing what has been branded an extrajudicial execution by the United Nations and rights groups.

On Tuesday, calls for a pardon were reiterated by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett who said that “Israel’s security demands he be pardoned. Elor was sent to protect Israelis at the height of a wave of Palestinian terror attacks. He cannot go to jail or we will all pay the price.”

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said it was a “sad” and “difficult” day, adding that “Elor should not sit a single day in prison beyond the time he has already served.”

Ashrawi in her statement said that the calls for a pardon by the right-wing Israeli ministers “reflects the true nature of this government that acts outside the most basic norms of justice, morality and judicial integrity.”

Other commentators have argued that the national debate in Israel over the case has laid bare a dim reality regarding where Israelis stand on the human rights of Palestinians.

Azarya is the only member of Israeli forces to be charged with killing a Palestinian in 2016 –when at least 109 Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli forces and settlers — according to Human Rights Watch.

According to rights group Yesh Din, of the 186 criminal investigations opened by the Israeli army into suspected offenses against Palestinians in 2015, just four yielded indictments.

The last time an Israeli soldier was convicted of manslaughter took place in 2003, according to Times of Israel, when Taysir Heib shot and mortally wounded British activist and photographer Tom Hurndall in the Gaza Strip.

“This case was exceptional in its indictment as Israel usually doesn’t indict its soldiers even when evidence very clearly indicates a criminal offence,” General Director of human rights NGO Adalah, Hassan Jabareen said Tuesday.

“This case was, however, unexceptional in its minimal sentence, which reflects the widespread impunity enjoyed by Israeli security personnel accused — or even convicted in a court of law — of crimes against Palestinians. Azarya’s light sentence of 18 months is an expression of disregard for the value of Palestinian life and likewise fails to serve as a deterrent.”

Meanwhile, a report released by Human Rights Watch days before Azarya was convicted documented “numerous statements” made by senior Israeli politicians and religious figures “calling on police and soldiers to shoot to kill suspected attackers, irrespective of whether lethal force is actually strictly necessary to protect life.”

HRW noted that Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy has received widespread support among Israeli citizens, citing a 2016 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute which found that 47 percent of Jewish Israelis supported the sentiment that “any Palestinian who carries out a terror attack against Jews should be killed on the spot, even if he has been captured and clearly does not pose a threat.”

Via Ma’an News Agency

contributors <![CDATA[The Misuse of American Military Power and Mideast Chaos]]> 2017-02-21T21:03:17Z 2017-02-22T05:14:54Z By Danny Sjursen | ( | – –

The United States has already lost — its war for the Middle East, that is. Having taken my own crack at combat soldiering in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that couldn’t be clearer to me. Unfortunately, it’s evidently still not clear in Washington. Bush’s neo-imperial triumphalism failed. Obama’s quiet shift to drones, Special Forces, and clandestine executive actions didn’t turn the tide either. For all President Trump’s bluster, boasting, and threats, rest assured that, at best, he’ll barely move the needle and, at worst… but why even go there? 

At this point, it’s at least reasonable to look back and ask yet again: Why the failure? Explanations abound, of course. Perhaps Americans were simply never tough enough and still need to take off the kid gloves. Maybe there just weren’t ever enough troops. (Bring back the draft!) Maybe all those hundreds of thousands of bombs and missiles just came up short. (So how about lots more of them, maybe even a nuke?) 

Lead from the front. Lead from behind. Surge yet again… The list goes on — and on and on. 

And by now all of it, including Donald Trump’s recent tough talk, represents such a familiar set of tunes. But what if the problem is far deeper and more fundamental than any of that? 

Here our nation stands, 15-plus years after 9/11, engaged militarily in half a dozen countries across the Greater Middle East, with no end in sight. Perhaps a more critical, factual reading of our recent past would illuminate the futility of America’s tragic, ongoing project to somehow “destroy” terrorism in the Muslim world.

The standard triumphalist version of the last 100 or so years of our history might go something like this: in the twentieth century, the United States repeatedly intervened, just in the nick of time, to save the feeble Old World from militarism, fascism, and then, in the Cold War, communism.  It did indeed save the day in three global wars and might have lived happily ever after as the world’s “sole superpower” if not for the sudden emergence of a new menace.  Seemingly out of nowhere, “Islamo-fascists” shattered American complacence with a sneak attack reminiscent of Pearl Harbor.  Collectively the people asked: Why do they hate us?  Of course, there was no time to really reflect, so the government simply got to work, taking the fight to our new “medieval” enemies on their own turf.  It’s admittedly been a long, hard slog, but what choice did our leaders have?  Better, after all, to fight them in Baghdad than Brooklyn.

What if, however, this foundational narrative is not just flawed but little short of delusional? Alternative accounts lead to wholly divergent conclusions and are more likely to inform prudent policy in the Middle East. 

Let’s reconsider just two key years for the United States in that region: 1979 and 2003.  America’s leadership learned all the wrong “lessons” from those pivotal moments and has intervened there ever since on the basis of some perverse version of them with results that have been little short of disastrous.  A more honest narrative of those moments would lead to a far more modest, minimalist approach to a messy and tragic region.  The problem is that there seems to be something inherently un-American about entertaining such thoughts.

1979 Revisited

Through the first half of the Cold War, the Middle East remained a sideshow.  In 1979, however, all that changed radically.  First, rising protests against the brutal police state of the American-backed Shah of Iran led to regime collapse, the return of dissident ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the declaration of an Islamic Republic. Then Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding 52 hostages for more than 400 days.  Of course, by then few Americans remembered the CIA-instigated coup of 1953 that had toppled a democratically elected Iranian prime minister, preserved Western oil interests in that country, and started both lands on this path (though Iranians clearly hadn’t forgotten).  The shock and duration of the hostage crisis undoubtedly ensured that Jimmy Carter would be a one-term president and — to make matters worse — Soviet troops intervened in Afghanistan to shore up a communist government there. It was quite a year.

The alarmist conventional narrative of these events went like this: the radical mullahs running Iran were irrational zealots with an inexplicable loathing for the American way of life.  As if in a preview of 9/11, hearing those chants against “the Great Satan,” Americans promptly began asking with true puzzlement: Why do they hate us?  The hostage crisis challenged world peace.  Carter had to do something. Worse yet, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan represented blatant conquest and spotlighted the possibility of Red Army hordes pushing through to Iran en route to the Persian Gulf’s vast oil reserves.  It might prove the opening act of the long awaited Soviet scheme for world domination or a possible path to World War III.

Misinformed by such a tale that they repeatedly told themselves, Washington officials then made terrible choices in the Middle East.  Let’s start with Iran.  They mistook a nationalist revolution and subsequent civil war within Islam for a singular attack on the U.S.A.  With little consideration of genuine Iranian gripes about the brutal U.S.-backed dynasty of the Shah or the slightest appreciation for the complexity of that country’s internal dynamics, they created a simple-minded but convenient narrative in which the Iranians posed an existential threat to this country.  Little has changed in almost four decades.

Then, though few Americans could locate Afghanistan on a map, most accepted that it was indeed a country of vital strategic interest.  Of course, with the opening of their archives, it’s clear enough now that the Soviets never sought the worldwide empire we imagined for them, especially not by 1979. The Soviet leadership was, in fact, divided over the Afghan affair and intervened in Kabul in a spirit more defensive than aggressive. Their desire or even ability to drive towards the Persian Gulf was, at best, a fanciful American notion.

Nonetheless, the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were combined into a tale of horror that would lead to the permanent militarization of U.S. policy in the Middle East.  Remembered today as a dove-in-chief, in his 1980 State of the Union address President Carter announced a decidedly hawkish new doctrine that would come to bear his name.  From then on, he said, the U.S. would consider any threat to Persian Gulf oil supplies a direct threat to this country and American troops would, if necessary, unilaterally intervene to secure the region.

The results will seem painfully familiar today: almost immediately, Washington policymakers began to seek military solutions to virtually every problem in the Middle East.  Within a year, the administration of President Ronald Reagan would, for instance, support Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s ruthless invasion of Iran, ignoring his more vicious antics and his proclivity for gassing his own people.

Soon after, in 1983, the military created the United States Central Command (headquarters: Tampa, Florida) with specific responsibility for the Greater Middle East. Its early war plans demonstrated just how wildly out of touch with reality American planners already were by then. Operational blueprints, for instance, focused on defeating Soviet armies in Iran before they could reach the Persian Gulf.  Planners imagined U.S. Army divisions crossing Iran, itself in the midst of a major war with Iraq, to face off against a Soviet armored juggernaut (just like the one that was always expected to burst through Europe’s Fulda Gap).  That such an assault was never coming, or that the fiercely proud Iranians might object to the militaries of either superpower crossing their territories, figured little in such early plans that were monuments to American arrogance and naïveté.

From there, it was but a few short steps to the permanent “defensive” basing of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain or later the stationing of U.S. troops near the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi attack.  Few asked how such forces in the heart of the Middle East would play on the Arab street or corroborate Islamist narratives of “crusader” imperialism.

Worse yet, in those same years the CIA armed and financed a grab bag of Afghan insurgent groups, most of them extreme Islamists. Eager to turn Afghanistan into a Soviet “Vietnam,” no one in Washington bothered to ask whether such guerrilla outfits conformed to our purported principles or what the rebels would do if they won. Of course, the victorious guerrillas contained foreign fighters and various Arab supporters, including one Osama bin Laden.  Eventually, the excesses of the well-armed but morally bankrupt insurgents and warlords in Afghanistan triggered the formation and ascension of the Taliban there, and from one of those guerrilla outfits came a new organization that called itself al-Qaeda. The rest, as they say, is history, and thanks to Chalmers Johnson’s appropriation of a classic CIA term of spy craft, we now know it as blowback.

That was a major turning point for the U.S. military.  Before 1979, few of its troops had served in the region.  In the ensuing decades, America bombed, invaded, raided, sent its drones to kill in, or attacked Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq again (and again), Somalia (again and again), Libya again, Iraq once more, and now Syria as well.  Before 1979, few — if any — American military personnel died in the Greater Middle East.  Few have died anywhere else since.

2003 and After: Fantasies and Reality

Who wouldn’t agree that the 2003 invasion of Iraq signified a major turning point both in the history of the Greater Middle East and in our own?  Nonetheless, its legacy remains highly contested. The standard narrative goes like this: as the sole remaining superpower on the planet after the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, our invincible military organized a swift and convincing defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf War.  After 9/11, that same military launched an inventive, swift, and triumphant campaign in Afghanistan.  Osama bin Laden escaped, of course, but his al-Qaeda network was shattered and the Taliban all but destroyed

Naturally, the threat of Islamic terror was never limited to the Hindu Kush, so Washington “had” to take its fight against terror global.  Admittedly, the subsequent conquest of Iraq didn’t exactly turn out as planned and perhaps the Arabs weren’t quite ready for American-style democracy anyway.  Still, the U.S. was committed, had shed blood, and had to stay the course, rather than cede momentum to the terrorists.  Anything less would have dishonored the venerated dead.  Luckily, President George W. Bush found an enlightened new commander, General David Petraeus, who, with his famed “surge,” snatched victory, or at least stability, from the jaws of defeat in Iraq.  He had the insurgency all but whipped.  Then, just a few years later, “spineless” Barack Obama prematurely pulled American forces out of that country, an act of weakness that led directly to the rise of ISIS and the current nightmare in the region.  Only a strong, assertive successor to Obama could right such gross errors.

It’s a riveting tale, of course, even if it is misguided in nearly every way imaginable.  At each turn, Washington learned the wrong lessons and drew perilous conclusions.  At least the first Gulf War — to George H.W. Bush’s credit — involved a large multinational coalition and checked actual Iraqi aggression.  Instead of cheering Bush the Elder’s limited, prudent strategy, however, surging neoconservatives demanded to know why he had stopped short of taking the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.  In these years (and for this we can certainly thank Bush, among others), Americans — Republicans and Democrats alike — became enamored with military force and came to believe that it could solve just about any problem in that region, if not the world. 

This would prove a grotesque misunderstanding of what had happened.  The Gulf War had been an anomaly.  Triumphalist conclusions about it rested on the shakiest of foundations.  Only if an enemy fought exactly as the U.S. military preferred it to do, as indeed Saddam’s forces did in 1991 — conventionally, in open desert, with outdated Soviet equipment — could the U.S. expect such success.  Americans drew another conclusion entirely: that their military was unstoppable.

The same faulty assumptions flowed from Afghanistan in 2001.  Information technology, Special Forces, CIA dollars (to Afghan warlords), and smart bombs triggered victory with few conventional foot soldiers needed.  It seemed a forever formula and influenced both the hasty decision to invade Iraq, and the irresponsibly undersized force structure deployed (not to speak of the complete lack of serious preparation for actually occupying that country).  So powerful was the optimism and jingoism of invasion proponents that skeptics were painted as unpatriotic  turncoats. 

Then things turned ugly fast.  This time around, Saddam’s army simply melted away, state institutions broke down, looting was rampant, and the three major communities of Iraq — Sunni, Shia, and Kurd — began to battle for power.  The invaders never received the jubilant welcome predicted for them by Bush administration officials and supportive neocons.  What began as a Sunni-based insurgency to regain power morphed into a nationalist rebellion and then into an Islamist struggle against Westerners. 

Nearly a century earlier, Britain had formed Iraq from three separate Ottoman imperial provinces — Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul.  The 2003 invasion blew up that synthetic state, held together first by British overlords and then by Saddam’s brutal dictatorship.  American policymakers seemed genuinely surprised by all this. 

Those in Washington never adequately understood the essential conundrum of forced regime change in Iraq.  “Democracy” there would inevitably result in Shia majority dominance of an artificial state.  Empowering the Shia drove the Sunni minority — long accustomed to power — into the embrace of armed, motivated Islamists.  When societies fracture as Iraq’s did, often enough the worst among us rise to the occasion.  As the poet William Butler Yeats so famously put it, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” 

Furthermore, the invasion played directly into Osama bin Laden’s hands, fueling his narrative of an American “war on Islam.”  In the process, the U.S. also destabilized Iraq’s neighbors and the region, spreading extremists to Syria and elsewhere.

That David Petraeus’s surge “worked” is perhaps the greatest myth of all.  It was true that the steps he took resulted in a decrease in violence after 2007, largely because he paid off the Sunni tribes, not because of the modest U.S. troop increase ordered from Washington.  By then, the Shia had already won the sectarian civil war for Baghdad, intensifying Sunni-Shia residential segregation there and so temporarily lessening the capacity for carnage. 

That post-surge “calm” was, however, no more than a tactical pause in an ongoing regional sectarian war.  No fundamental problems had been resolved in post-Saddam Iraq, including the nearly impossible task of integrating Sunni and Kurdish minorities into a coherent national whole.  Instead, Washington had left a highly sectarian Shia strongman, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in control of the government and internal security forces, while al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI (nonexistent prior to the invasion), never would be eradicated.  Its leadership, further radicalized in U.S. Army prisons, bided its time, waiting for an opportunity to win back Sunni fealty. 

Luckily for AQI, as soon as the U.S. military was pulled out of the country, Maliki promptly cracked down hard on peaceful Sunni protests.  He even had his Sunni vice president sentenced to death in absentia under the most questionable of circumstances.  Maliki’s ineptitude would prove an AQI godsend.

Islamists, including AQI, also took advantage of events in Syria.  Autocrat Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of his own protesting Sunni majority gave them just the opening they needed.  Of course, the revolt there might never have occurred had not the invasion of Iraq destabilized the entire region.  In 2014, the former AQI leaders, having absorbed some of Saddam’s cashiered officers into their new forces, triumphantly took a series of Iraqi cities, including Mosul, sending the Iraqi army fleeing. They then declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Many Iraqi Sunnis naturally turned to the newly established “Islamic State” (ISIS) for protection. 

Mission (Un)Accomplished!

It’s hardly controversial these days to point out that the 2003 invasion (aka Operation Iraqi Freedom), far from bringing freedom to that country, sowed chaos.  Toppling Saddam’s brutal regime tore down the edifice of a regional system that had stood for nearly a century.  However inadvertently, the U.S. military lit the fire that burned down the old order. 

As it turned out, no matter the efforts of the globe’s greatest military, no easy foreign solution existed when it came to Iraq.  It rarely does.  Unfortunately, few in Washington were willing to accept such realities.  Think of that as the twenty-first-century American Achilles’ heel: unwarranted optimism about the efficacy of U.S. power.  Policy in these years might best be summarized as: “we” have to do something, and military force is the best — perhaps the only — feasible option. 

Has it worked? Is anybody, including Americans, safer?  Few in power even bother to ask such questions.  But the data is there.  The Department of State counted just 348 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2001 compared with 11,774 attacks in 2015. That’s right: at best, America’s 15-year “war on terror” failed to significantly reduce international terrorism; at worst, its actions helped make matters 30 times worse.

Recall the Hippocratic oath: “First do no harm.”  And remember Osama bin Laden’s stated goal on 9/11: to draw conventional American forces into attritional campaigns in the heart of the Middle East. Mission accomplished!

In today’s world of “alternative facts,” it’s proven remarkably easy to ignore such empirical data and so avoid thorny questions.  Recent events and contemporary political discourse even suggest that the country’s political elites now inhabit a post-factual environment; in terms of the Greater Middle East, this has been true for years.

It couldn’t be more obvious that Washington’s officialdom regularly and repeatedly drew erroneous lessons from the recent past and ignored a hard truth staring them in the face: U.S. military action in the Middle East has solved nothing.  At all.  Only the government cannot seem to accept this.  Meanwhile, an American fixation on one unsuitable term — “isolationism” — masks a more apt description of American dogma in this period: hyper-interventionism. 

As for military leaders, they struggle to admit failure when they — and their troops — have sacrificed so much sweat and blood in the region.  Senior officers display the soldier’s tendency to confuse performance with effectiveness, staying busy with being successful.  Prudent strategy requires differentiating between doing a lot and doing the right things. As Einstein reputedly opined, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

A realistic look at America’s recent past in the Greater Middle East and a humbler perspective on its global role suggest two unsatisfying but vital conclusions.  First, false lessons and misbegotten collective assumptions contributed to and created much of today’s regional mess.  As a result, it’s long past time to reassess recent history and challenge long-held suppositions.  Second, policymakers badly overestimated the efficacy of American power, especially via the military, to shape foreign peoples and cultures to their desires.  In all of this, the agency of locals and the inherent contingency of events were conveniently swept aside.

So what now? It should be obvious (but probably isn’t in Washington) that it’s well past time for the U.S. to bring its incessant urge to respond militarily to the crisis of the moment under some kind of control.  Policymakers should accept realistic limitations on their ability to shape the world to America’s desired image of it. 

Consider the last few decades in Iraq and Syria.  In the 1990s, Washington employed economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein and his regime.  The result: tragedy to the tune of half a million dead children. Then it tried invasion and democracy promotion.  The result: tragedy — including 4,500-plus dead American soldiers, a few trillion dollars down the drain, more than 200,000 dead Iraqis, and millions more displaced in their own country or in flight as refugees. 

In response, in Syria the U.S. tried only limited intervention.  Result: tragedy — upwards of 300,000 dead and close to seven million more turned into refugees. 

So will tough talk and escalated military action finally work this time around as the Trump administration faces off against ISIS?  Consider what happens even if the U.S achieves a significant rollback of ISIS.  Even if, in conjunction with allied Kurdish or Syrian rebel forces, ISIS’s “capital,” Raqqa, is taken and the so-called caliphate destroyed, the ideology isn’t going away.  Many of its fighters are likely to transition back to an insurgency and there will be no end to international terror in ISIS’s name.  In the meantime, none of this will have solved the underlying problems of artificial states now at the edge of collapse or beyond, divided ethno-religious groups, and anti-Western nationalist and religious sentiments.  All of it begs the question: What if Americans are incapable of helping (at least in a military sense)?

A real course correction is undoubtedly impossible without at least a willingness to reconsider and reframe our recent historical experiences.  If the 2016 election is any indication, however, a Trump administration with the present line-up of national security chiefs (who fought in these very wars) won’t meaningfully alter either the outlook or the policies that led us to this moment.  Candidate Trump offered a hollow promise — to “Make America Great Again” — conjuring up a mythical era that never was.  Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton offered only remarkably dated and stale rhetoric about America as the “indispensable nation.”

In the new Trump era, neither major party seems capable of escaping a shared commitment to the legends rather than the facts of America’s recent past in the Greater Middle East.  Both sides remain eerily confident that the answers to contemporary foreign policy woes lie in a mythical version of that past, whether Trump’s imaginary 1950s paradise or Clinton’s fleeting mid-1990s “unipolar moment.” 

Both ages are long gone, if they ever really existed at all.  Needed is some fresh thinking about our militarized version of foreign policy and just maybe an urge, after all these years, to do so much less. Patriotic fables certainly feel good, but they achieve little.  My advice: dare to be discomfited.

Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.  He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. 

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author in an unofficial capacity and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Command and General Staff College, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

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Copyright 2017 Danny Sjursen