Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 25 Oct 2014 22:25:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 WWI: Remembering how Europe Blockaded Lebanese Civilians & Killed 200,000 with Famine Sat, 25 Oct 2014 04:38:42 +0000 BBC

“Unknown to many, a third of the Lebanese population [then West Syria] died of famine and disease during World War One. BBC Arabic’s Carine Torbey recounts the horrifying story of the Famine of Mount Lebanon.”

The famine of Mount Lebanon during WW1 – BBC News

Note: Contrary to what Ms. Torbey alleges, the Ottomans entered WW I for defensive purposes, being afraid of Russian expansionism, not for aggressive ones. -JRC

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Are US Drone Strikes in Pakistan War Crimes? Only 12% of those Killed are Known Militants Sat, 25 Oct 2014 04:33:06 +0000 By Rozina Ali

Drone Strikes: The numbers don’t lie, except when they do
By: Rozina Ali

At a time when President Barack Obama has likened his new military strategy in Iraq and Syria to his drone programs in Yemen and Pakistan, disturbing new information has surfaced that damn drone strikes as indiscriminate in their effect on non-combatants and probably constituting war crimes.

After a lull in drone strikes in Pakistan—marking what some thought was the beginning of the end of attacks in Pakistan—the United States has amped up attacks this month. Regarding one attack on October 7th, Reuters reported “at least 8 suspected militants” were killed; the New York Times and Washington Post republished Associated Press reports, which quoted an “official” saying “at least 10 militants” were killed. According to the scenario framed through media reports, U.S. counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan are successful. But this is a distorted perception.

A comprehensive investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that only 12% of those killed in Pakistan by drones over the past ten years were militants. Al Qaeda members—the original intended targets of the drone program—constituted only 4% of those killed. Civilians aren’t just collateral damage, they are the overwhelming victims of drone strikes. It’s a major challenge to a government who repeatedly insisted that drone strikes occur with “surgical precision”. Now that the U.S. is repeating the program in the Middle East and Somalia, we need to be able to understand just how effective drone strikes are, not just in eradicating terrorism, but simply killing terrorists.

What makes TBIJ’s estimates unique is that it went through the laborious process of identifying the dead through open-source reports and leaked Pakistani government reports. This isn’t possible for media who have to report events immediately. Out of 2,379 victims, TBIJ has identified 704 so far. Of those, they found that only 295 were militants and 84 were Al-Qaeda fighters. These numbers are staggering. If we take the total as the base, then effectively, nearly nine in ten people that U.S. drones have killed in Pakistan were not part of a militant group.

Compare TBIJ’s findings to numbers from New America Foundation, another reputable organization that has been diligently tracking drone strike victims. NAF offers estimates of victims killed in ranges. For example, they calculate the total to be 2,169-3,539. Calculations based on the higher number in each range find that militants made up nearly 82% of those killed—significantly higher than TBIJ’s 12%. Even if we compare this to the ratio of militants (295) to just identified victims (704) in TBIJ’s database, militants still make up only 40% of victims, half as many as those suggested by NAF.

Why such a huge difference? NAF’s estimates are based solely on media reports, which often have to rely on U.S. officials for information. Journalists have little access to Waziristan and the CIA offers limited information about attacks and their victims. But such limited information is dangerous: the U.S. is using media to distort the perception of the effectiveness of drone strikes, to make them appear as a viable alternative to “boots on the ground” to battling terrorists. The discrepancy between TBIJ and NAF’s numbers underscore just how big a blind spot the U.S. drone program is in media and public knowledge.

It’s not difficult to ascertain how we might be killing so many civilians. A 2012 New York Times report revealed that under his drone program, President Obama’s “kill list” effectively considers men of military age as legitimate targets. So, the U.S. can theoretically be hitting targets with “near precision”, if those targets are simply young men.

We also know that the U.S. government will consider victims civilians if there is “explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” But there is little incentive to prove their innocence. U.S. doesn’t have boots on the ground in Pakistan. Waziristan is a remote area with a strong presence of militants, and unsecure for reporters. The Pakistani government has a vested interest in keeping U.S. operations in Waziristan going, but it doesn’t like admitting its complicity in drone strikes. When there is no one looking, it’s easy to cover up the aftermath.

Drone strikes are becoming the new modus operendi in the next stage of warfare. The U.S. launched drone strikes last month in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. The repercussions are apparent: one strike killed nearly 12 civilians in Syria. But according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, determining if victims are “civilian” or “combatant” is a moot point: “We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are the bad dudes.”

We just have to take the government’s word that those killed are “bad dudes”.

Rozina Ali is Senior Editor at Cairo Review of Global Affairs and was formerly Deputy Editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit


Related video added by Juan Cole:

RT: Half of US Drone Strike Victims may be Non-Combatants

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US Negotiator: All the Components of an Enrichment Deal with Iran are on the Table Sat, 25 Oct 2014 04:29:28 +0000 By Golnaz Esfandiari

The top U.S. negotiator in nuclear talks with Iran says Washington will not allow Tehran to obtain nuclear arms.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman warned that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons could lead to an arms race in the region and create further instability and danger.

Sherman said the United States prefers to achieve its goal through diplomatic means.

But she added that “Iran will not, shall not, obtain a nuclear weapon.”

Sherman also acknowledged that the negotiations are controversial, with some — she did not specify who — hoping for success while others for failure.

Sherman spoke ahead of the November 24 deadline for Iran and six major world powers to reach a lasting agreement to the crisis over Iran’s sensitive nuclear work.

She said the U.S. administration has consulted regularly with members of the U.S. Congress and allies, including Israel and the Persian Gulf States, to allay their fear regarding a potential deal.

Sherman called on Iran’s leaders to make the right choice.

“If Iran truly wants to resolve its differences with the international community — and facilitate the lifting of economic sanctions — it will have no better chance than between now and November 24,” Sherman said.

She said now is the time to finish the job.

However, she added that she didn’t know if a deal would be reached by the target date.

“I can tell you that all the components of a plan that should be acceptable to both sides are on the table,” she said.

Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes and denies it is secretly developing nuclear weapons.

Sherman also said that on the margins of the nuclear talks with Iran, she and other U.S. officials had raised concern over the status of U.S. citizens detained or missing in Iran.

She said former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, Pastor Saeed Abedini, and “Washington Post” reporter Jason Rezaian should be allowed to return to their families.

Mirrored from RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.


Related video added by Juan Cole

Democracy Now!: “Former Weapons Inspector in Iraq Raises Skepticism over Claims Iran Is Hiding Nuclear Weapons Tests”

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Is Egypt’s Sinai going the Way of Syria? 30 Troops Killed by Militants Sat, 25 Oct 2014 04:09:20 +0000 By Juan Cole

The Arabic newspaper Ilaf reports that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has declared a state of emergency for 3 months in parts of the province of North Sinai after two attacks by Muslim radical groups in that province left 30 Egyptian soldiers dead. Ilaf says that al-Sisi is blaming Egypt’s intelligence services for not forestalling these attacks.


Egypt’s government also closed the border checkpoint with Gaza at Rafah from Saturday on, until further notice. Egypt’s government blames Hamas in Palestinian Gaza for radicalizing the clans of the Sinai.

These steps came after a car bomb attack on an army checkpoint near El Arish in North Sinai that killed at least 30 troops, in which a large quantity of high-powered explosives completely destroyed the small garrison. The checkpoint lay between El Arish and Rafah on the border with Gaza.

A few hours later, in a separate attack, militants shot at another checkpoint south of El Arish, killing an officer and wounding a soldier.

The Egyptian military is using Apache helicopters to monitor North Sinai.

Muslim radicals in Sinai blame the military for overthrowing the Muslim fundamentalist president, Muhammad Morsi, on July 3, 2013. Though, to be fair, the militants were active against the Egyptian army during Morsi’s tenure as president, as well. The last big attack of this sort, in December 2013, left 14 police dead, in the wake of the coup against Morsi.

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You’ll be Surprised which Congressmen get Most Campaign Money from War Industry Fri, 24 Oct 2014 04:36:12 +0000 AJ+

“War is a big industry in the United States, but who profits from it? AJ+ breaks down how much money was contributed by defense contractors to members of Congress in 2014 and exactly who got the bulk of that money.”

These Congressmen Made A Lot Of Money From War – AJ+

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Iraq: Are Senior ISIL Commanders already Defecting in Mosul & Tikrit? Fri, 24 Oct 2014 04:33:36 +0000 By Mustafa Habib | Baghdad | via

Senior members of the Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State, have disappeared from Mosul and Tikrit. Sources suggest they defected for a number of reasons: they fear the end is nigh for their group, the threat posed by unhappy former allies who have already assassinated some of their number and because of promises of money and safety.

Last week was a tough week for the Sunni Muslim extremist group known as the Islamic State, or IS. It had incurred serious losses of manpower in strongholds in both Syria and Iraq.

Figures released by the Iraqi Ministries of Defence and the Interior suggest that the IS group lost around 400 fighters in Iraq and reports from Syria say as many as 500 IS fighters have been killed there, particularly around Kobani where there is fierce fighting but also in strongholds like Raqqa, where airstrikes by an international coalition are having an impact.

And it seems that some of the leaders in the IS group now feel that the writing is on the wall and that the IS group won’t be able to hold onto power for much longer.

Confidential information from inside Iraq military intelligence obtained by NIQASH says that several senior leaders in the IS group have disappeared from areas the group controls – most particularly from inside Mosul, the northern city the group considers it’s Iraqi capital, and from parts of the Salahaddin province.

NIQASH’s source inside Iraqi intelligence says that most of the IS group leaders who disappeared are field commanders, men responsible for administration of combatants and territorial sectors. Most of them are Iraqis too – they are not from among the IS group’s Arab or foreign fighters. And apparently the group of defectors also includes one Ali al-Hamadani, who is thought to be very close to the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as another senior leader whose name is unknown as yet but who was allegedly responsible for al-Baghdadi’s personal protection.

Asked as to why these senior members may have defected, the source told NIQASH that it was down to the success of local and foreign infiltration into the organisation. The senior members had been promised money and protection, their future safety guaranteed if they left the IS group and gave up information about the group’s plans and movements.

It is also thought that the senior leaders are leaving because they fear that the IS group will not last much longer in Iraq and that they might eventually be killed. If they are caught though, they will also be killed as the sentence for betraying the organisation, as decreed by its leader, al-Baghdadi, is also death.

There has also been a rumour that al-Baghdadi had been moving a large amount of money around, smuggling it out of Iraq and investing it with friendly businessmen in the Gulf States in order to ensure that the IS group has financial stability – in case, one imagines, they lose the money-making territory they currently control.

After rumours about the defection of these senior leaders began to circulate, the IS group held one of their traditional demonstrations of strength and power, organising a parade of vehicles and manpower through Mosul’s streets.

Locals say that other senior members of the IS group –including the group’s spokesperson, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the IS-appointed governor of Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Khatouni, and the group’s military leader in Tal Afar, Abu Ala al-Afri – all returned from Syria to take over the posts left empty by the deserters.

After the IS group’s military parade ended, there was a wave of arrests in Mosul, during which many of the former police and military men still living in the city, who had repented for their past jobs, were taken away. They are apparently now being held in former government buildings that the IS group uses as prisons there.

One of the other reasons for the defections are the ongoing threats presented by armed groups inside Mosul, says Zakaria al-Hattab, who leads one of the anti-IS group militias working inside the city. There have been a number of IS members assassinated by unknown assailants in the city.

“Armed factions in Mosul are not yet able to confront the IS group openly,” says al-Hattab, who is currently in Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. But, al-Hattab, adds, he and a group of others are forming militias to try and do exactly that.

The majority of the IS leaders responsible for Mosul’s security and services are Iraqis and possibly also longer-term residents of the city. “Everybody knows them and everybody hates them,” al-Hattab explained to NIQASH. “And the tribal leaders in Mosul who are against the IS group have already made threats against the group’s senior members, saying they will chase them out of the city and kill them once IS is defeated. That’s what has scared these men and they’ve decided to leave before it’s too late.”

“The IS group leaders who defected left because they realized that the whole world was waging war against them,” suggests Rashid al-Samarrai, a local security expert. “They also know that the international coalition is going to benefit hugely from information they’re gleaning on the IS group’s plans and its hiding places.”

Additionally, al-Samarrai says, a lot of the most recent recruits to the IS group in Iraq are locals and former members of Saddam Hussein’s army and intelligence services. Many of them undertook religious training only after, or shortly before, they joined the IS group.

“Senior leaders in the IS group are military personnel who have been trained in warfare,” al-Samarrai says. “They only embraced radical religious thinking a few years ago and their belief in this system is actually fairly weak when compared to the core membership of the IS group, who have embraced radical religious ideas since they were young. The latter group would find it much harder to betray the organisation because they truly believe in it.”

Mirrored from”


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CNN: “Deal lets 200 join fight against ISIS

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Double-Edged Sword: Can US overcome its Feelings of Exceptionalism? Fri, 24 Oct 2014 04:27:20 +0000 By David Bromwich via

The origins of the phrase “American exceptionalism” are not especially obscure. The French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, observing this country in the 1830s, said that Americans seemed exceptional in valuing practical attainments almost to the exclusion of the arts and sciences. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, on hearing a report by the American Communist Party that workers in the United States in 1929 were not ready for revolution, denounced “the heresy of American exceptionalism.” In 1996, the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset took those hints from Tocqueville and Stalin and added some of his own to produce his book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. The virtues of American society, for Lipset — our individualism, hostility to state action, and propensity for ad hoc problem-solving — themselves stood in the way of a lasting and prudent consensus in the conduct of American politics.

In recent years, the phrase “American exceptionalism,” at once resonant and ambiguous, has stolen into popular usage in electoral politics, in the mainstream media, and in academic writing with a profligacy that is hard to account for. It sometimes seems that exceptionalism for Americans means everything from generosity to selfishness, localism to imperialism, indifference to “the opinions of mankind” to a readiness to incorporate the folkways of every culture. When President Obama told West Point graduates last May that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” the context made it clear that he meant the United States was the greatest country in the world: our stature was demonstrated by our possession of “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” uniquely tasked with defending liberty and peace globally; and yet we could not allow ourselves to “flout international norms” or be a law unto ourselves. The contradictory nature of these statements would have satisfied even Tocqueville’s taste for paradox.

On the whole, is American exceptionalism a force for good? The question shouldn’t be hard to answer. To make an exception of yourself is as immoral a proceeding for a nation as it is for an individual. When we say of a person (usually someone who has gone off the rails), “He thinks the rules don’t apply to him,” we mean that he is a danger to others and perhaps to himself. People who act on such a belief don’t as a rule examine themselves deeply or write a history of the self to justify their understanding that they are unique. Very little effort is involved in their willfulness. Such exceptionalism, indeed, comes from an excess of will unaccompanied by awareness of the necessity for self-restraint.

Such people are monsters. Many land in asylums, more in prisons. But the category also encompasses a large number of high-functioning autistics: governors, generals, corporate heads, owners of professional sports teams. When you think about it, some of these people do write histories of themselves and in that pursuit, a few of them have kept up the vitality of an ancient genre: criminal autobiography.

All nations, by contrast, write their own histories as a matter of course. They preserve and exhibit a record of their doings; normally, of justified conduct, actions worthy of celebration. “Exceptional” nations, therefore, are compelled to engage in some fancy bookkeeping which exceptional individuals can avoid — at least until they are put on trial or subjected to interrogation under oath. The exceptional nation will claim that it is not responsible for its exceptional character. Its nature was given by God, or History, or Destiny.

An external and semi-miraculous instrumentality is invoked to explain the prodigy whose essence defies mere scientific understanding. To support the belief in the nation’s exceptional character, synonyms and variants of the word “providence” often get slotted in.  That word gained its utility at the end of the seventeenth century — the start of the epoch of nations formed in Europe by a supposed covenant or compact. Providence splits the difference between the accidents of fortune and purposeful design; it says that God is on your side without having the bad manners to pronounce His name.

Why is it immoral for a person to treat himself as an exception? The reason is plain: because morality, by definition, means a standard of right and wrong that applies to all persons without exception. Yet to answer so briefly may be to oversimplify. For at least three separate meanings are in play when it comes to exceptionalism, with a different apology backing each. The glamour that surrounds the idea owes something to confusion among these possible senses.

First, a nation is thought to be exceptional by its very nature. It is so consistently worthy that a unique goodness shines through all its works. Who would hesitate to admire the acts of such a country? What foreigner would not wish to belong to it? Once we are held captive by this picture, “my country right or wrong” becomes a proper sentiment and not a wild effusion of prejudice, because we cannot conceive of the nation being wrong.

A second meaning of exceptional may seem more open to rational scrutiny. Here, the nation is supposed to be admirable by reason of history and circumstance. It has demonstrated its exceptional quality by adherence to ideals which are peculiar to its original character and honorable as part of a greater human inheritance. Not “my country right or wrong” but “my country, good and getting better” seems to be the standard here. The promise of what the country could turn out to be supports this faith. Its moral and political virtue is perceived as a historical deposit with a rich residue in the present.

A third version of exceptionalism derives from our usual affectionate feelings about living in a community on the scale of a neighborhood or township, an ethnic group or religious sect. Communitarian nationalism takes the innocent-seeming step of generalizing that sentiment to the nation at large. My country is exceptional to me (according to this view) just because it is mine. Its familiar habits and customs have shaped the way I think and feel; nor do I have the slightest wish to extricate myself from its demands. The nation, then, is like a gigantic family, and we owe it what we owe to the members of our family: “unconditional love.” This sounds like the common sense of ordinary feelings. How can our nation help being exceptional to us?

Teacher of the World

Athens was just such an exceptional nation, or city-state, as Pericles described it in his celebrated oration for the first fallen soldiers in the Peloponnesian War. He meant his description of Athens to carry both normative force and hortatory urgency. It is, he says, the greatest of Greek cities, and this quality is shown by its works, shining deeds, the structure of its government, and the character of its citizens, who are themselves creations of the city. At the same time, Pericles was saying to the widows and children of the war dead: Resemble them! Seek to deserve the name of Athenian as they have deserved it!

The oration, recounted by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian War, begins by praising the ancestors of Athenian democracy who by their exertions have made the city exceptional. “They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valor.” Yet we who are alive today, Pericles says, have added to that inheritance; and he goes on to praise the constitution of the city, which “does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves.”

The foreshadowing here of American exceptionalism is uncanny and the anticipation of our own predicament continues as the speech proceeds. “In our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons… As a city we are the school of Hellas” — by which Pericles means that no representative citizen or soldier of another city could possibly be as resourceful as an Athenian. This city, alone among all the others, is greater than her reputation.

We Athenians, he adds, choose to risk our lives by perpetually carrying a difficult burden, rather than submitting to the will of another state. Our readiness to die for the city is the proof of our greatness. Turning to the surviving families of the dead, he admonishes and exalts them: “You must yourselves realize the power of Athens,” he tells the widows and children, “and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this.” So stirring are their deeds that the memory of their greatness is written in the hearts of men in faraway lands: “For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb.”

Athenian exceptionalism at its height, as the words of Pericles indicate, took deeds of war as proof of the worthiness of all that the city achieved apart from war. In this way, Athens was placed beyond comparison: nobody who knew it and knew other cities could fail to recognize its exceptional nature. This was not only a judgment inferred from evidence but an overwhelming sensation that carried conviction with it. The greatness of the city ought to be experienced, Pericles imagines, as a vision that “shall break upon you.”

Guilty Past, Innocent Future

To come closer to twenty-first-century America, consider how, in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln gave an exceptional turn to an ambiguous past. Unlike Pericles, he was speaking in the midst of a civil war, not a war between rival states, and this partly explains the note of self-doubt that we may detect in Lincoln when we compare the two speeches. At Gettysburg, Lincoln said that a pledge by the country as a whole had been embodied in a single document, the Declaration of Independence. He took the Declaration as his touchstone, rather than the Constitution, for a reason he spoke of elsewhere: the latter document had been freighted with compromise. The Declaration of Independence uniquely laid down principles that might over time allow the idealism of the founders to be realized.

Athens, for Pericles, was what Athens always had been. The Union, for Lincoln, was what it had yet to become. He associated the greatness of past intentions — “We hold these truths to be self-evident” — with the resolve he hoped his listeners would carry out in the present moment: “It is [not for the noble dead but] rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

This allegorical language needs translation. In the future, Lincoln is saying, there will be a popular government and a political society based on the principle of free labor. Before that can happen, however, slavery must be brought to an end by carrying the country’s resolution into practice. So Lincoln asks his listeners to love their country for what it may become, not what it is. Their self-sacrifice on behalf of a possible future will serve as proof of national greatness. He does not hide the stain of slavery that marred the Constitution; the imperfection of the founders is confessed between the lines.  But the logic of the speech implies, by a trick of grammar and perspective, that the Union was always pointed in the direction of the Civil War that would make it free.

Notice that Pericles’s argument for the exceptional city has here been reversed. The future is not guaranteed by the greatness of the past; rather, the tarnished virtue of the past will be scoured clean by the purity of the future.  Exceptional in its reliance on slavery, the state established by the first American Revolution is thus to be redeemed by the second. Through the sacrifice of nameless thousands, the nation will defeat slavery and justify its fame as the truly exceptional country its founders wished it to be.

Most Americans are moved (without quite knowing why) by the opening words of the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers…” Four score and seven is a biblical marker of the life of one person, and the words ask us to wonder whether our nation, a radical experiment based on a radical “proposition,” can last longer than a single life-span. The effect is provocative. Yet the backbone of Lincoln’s argument would have stood out more clearly if the speech had instead begun: “Two years from now, perhaps three, our country will see a great transformation.” The truth is that the year of the birth of the nation had no logical relationship to the year of the “new birth of freedom.” An exceptional character, however, whether in history or story, demands an exceptional plot; so the speech commences with deliberately archaic language to ask its implicit question: Can we Americans survive today and become the school of modern democracy, much as Athens was the school of Hellas?

The Ties That Bind and Absolve

To believe that our nation has always been exceptional, as Pericles said Athens was, or that it will soon justify such a claim, as Lincoln suggested America would do, requires a suppression of ordinary skepticism. The belief itself calls for extraordinary arrogance or extraordinary hope in the believer. In our time, exceptionalism has been made less exacting by an appeal to national feeling based on the smallest and most vivid community that most people know: the family.  Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, in his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention, put this straightforwardly. America, said Cuomo, was like a family, and a good family never loses its concern for the least fortunate of its members. In 2011, President Obama, acceding to Republican calls for austerity that led to the sequestration of government funds, told us that the national economy was just like a household budget and every family knows that it must pay its bills.

To take seriously the metaphor of the nation-as-family may lead to a sense of sentimental obligation or prudential worry on behalf of our fellow citizens. But many people think we should pursue the analogy further. If our nation does wrong, they say, we must treat it as an error and not a crime because, after all, we owe our nation unconditional love. Yet here the metaphor betrays our thinking into a false equation. A family has nested us, cradled us, nursed us from infancy, as we have perhaps done for later generations of the same family; and it has done so in a sense that is far more intimate than the sense in which a nation has fostered or nurtured us. We know our family with an individuated depth and authority that can’t be brought to our idea of a nation. This may be a difference of kind, or a difference of degree, but the difference is certainly great.

A subtle deception is involved in the analogy between nation and family; and an illicit transfer of feelings comes with the appeal to “unconditional love.” What do we mean by unconditional love, even at the level of the family? Suppose my delinquent child robs and beats an old man on a city street, and I learn of it by his own confession or by accident. What exactly do I owe him?

Unconditional love, in this setting, surely means that I can’t stop caring about my child; that I will regard his terrible action as an aberration. I will be bound to think about the act and actor quite differently from the way I would think about anyone else who committed such a crime. But does unconditional love also require that I make excuses for him? Shall I pay a lawyer to get him off the hook and back on the streets as soon as possible? Is it my duty to conceal what he has done, if there is a chance of keeping it secret? Must I never say what he did in the company of strangers or outside the family circle?

At a national level, the doctrine of exceptionalism as unconditional love encourages habits of suppression and euphemism that sink deep roots in the common culture. We have seen the result in America in the years since 2001. In the grip of this doctrine, torture has become “enhanced interrogation”; wars of aggression have become wars for democracy; a distant likely enemy has become an “imminent threat” whose very existence justifies an executive order to kill. These are permitted and officially sanctioned forms of collective dishonesty. They begin in quasi-familial piety, they pass through the systematic distortion of language, and they end in the corruption of consciousness. 

The commandment to “keep it in the family” is a symptom of that corruption. It follows that one must never speak critically of one’s country in the hearing of other nations or write against its policies in foreign newspapers. No matter how vicious and wrong the conduct of a member of the family may be, one must assume his good intentions. This ideology abets raw self-interest in justifying many actions by which the United States has revealingly made an exception of itself — for example, our refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court. The community of nations, we declared, was not situated to understand the true extent of our constabulary responsibilities. American actions come under a different standard and we are the only qualified judges of our own cause.

The doctrine of the national family may be a less fertile source of belligerent pride than “my country right or wrong.” It may be less grandiose, too, than the exceptionalism that asks us to love our country for ideals that have never properly been translated into practice. And yet, in this appeal to the family, one finds the same renunciation of moral knowledge — a renunciation that, if followed, would render inconceivable any social order beyond that of the family and its extension, the tribe.

Unconditional love of our country is the counterpart of unconditional detachment and even hostility toward other countries. None of us is an exception, and no nation is. The sooner we come to live with this truth as a mundane reality without exceptions, the more grateful other nations will be to live in a world that includes us, among others.

David Bromwich teaches English at Yale University. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author most recently of Moral Imagination and The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s just published book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2014 David Bromwich

Mirrored from


Related video added by Juan Cole:

WBGH: “Andrew Bacevich – Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism”

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Why Can Europe have Climate Targets but not the US? Corruption Fri, 24 Oct 2014 04:08:32 +0000 By Juan Cole

The European Union climate summit has agreed to cut emissions by 40% by 2030, after hard bargaining by Poland and the UK failed to derail an agreement.

The 28 nations of the EU also agreed to improve energy efficiency by 27% over the next decade and a half, and to ensure a continent-wide proportion of at least 27% renewable energy market share.

In contrast, the production of carbon dioxide in the US increased in 2013, from roughly by 2.5 percent at a time when scientists are frantically signaling the need to significantly reduce that output. The US produces about 5.5 billion metric tons of CO2 a year. In 2014, the world crossed the symbolic barrier of 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, up from 270 in preindustrial times. Archeological examination of ice cores that show past atmospheric composition demonstrates that such high levels of CO2 in prehistoric times (then caused by volcanic activity rather than human) were correlated with higher sea levels and a third less land area, with megastorms, and with tropical climates throughout the planet.

US capitalism trumpets itself as efficient and agile, able better to deal with social and political crises than government policy because of the magic of the market. But the structures of markets are themselves produced by government policy, which plutocrats in the US have bought. In fact, US capitalism is acting like an ostrich, hiding from the biggest social and economic crisis — rapid human-caused global warming– that the human species has ever faced.

The Guardian notes that Tony Robson, the CEO of Knauf Insulation, complains that an increase of 27% in energy efficiency over 15 years is just about what people are doing anyway in Europe, where fuel prices are typically higher than in the US. So that isn’t exactly taking climate change as an emergency.

A goal of 27% renewables by 2030 is also not very ambitious. Renewables (including wind, solar and hydroelectric) have produced nearly 28% of Germany electricity this year, and German goals are far more ambitious than the EU overall. Renewables produced 42% of Spain’s electricity in 2013 and it reduced its carbon emissions by nearly a quarter.

Why are even center-right governments in Europe so much better at this than is the United States?

Europe is less politically corrupt. Although corporations play a big role in politics in Europe, private money is much less influential. In the US, we are to the point where it is all right for our politicians to be bought and sold sort of like slaves, and where 400 or so billionaires are the ones doing the buying and selling. If you are an American taxpayer and you think John Boehner represents you, you have another think coming. Big oil and big coal can just purchase speeches on the floor of the House that would be laughed off the stage in Europe, and European journalists are far more ready to ridicule flat-earth claims like climate change denialism.

Europe isn’t perfect. Poland’s coal addiction watered down the summit’s achievement (Poland would actually make money going into wind and solar instead of coal over the next 15 years, but coal mining owners and workers are vetoing economic common sense). And small businesses are afraid of higher energy costs (in fact, renewables are at grid parity in most of Europe). Also, Europe is afraid that China, India and other nations with already-lower labor costs will drag their feet on moving to renewables, leaving Europe less competitive in industrial production and exports.

And some of the impetus to reform comes from geopolitical considerations. Europe is not happy at being so beholden to Russia for natural gas, especially given Vladimir Putin’s thuggish behavior over it and the Ukraine/ Crimea crises. Russia supplies about 1/3 of European natural gas. Qatar is also a big player in that market and some European states are viewing it with increased unease because of its alleged backing for Muslim radicals in Syria and Libya.

But for all these powerful considerations, the EU was able to set significant carbon reduction goals, and many European countries have demonstrable avoided the production of billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide over the past decade– CO2 that would have warmed the earth even faster and produced even more climate disruption– disruption that will cost far more than the $100 bn the German consumers have paid since 2000 for the push for renewables. (At 82 million Germans over 14 years, it isn’t really even that much money– $82 a year per capita or so, less than most Americans spend on lattes).

In the meantime, US emissions are the biggest per capita of any major industrialized country and after a fall because of increased wind energy and a turn to natural gas, went back up last year.


Related video:

Euronews: “EU leaders mull climate targets for 2030″

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