Yemen: Saudi backs Sunni revolution against Shiite Houthi Rebels linked to Iran

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Yemen Voice reports that Wahhabi Saudi Arabia has launched an all out political offensive against the Shiite Houthi rebels who have taken over the north of the country. The Houthis took the capital last September but kept the government in place until recently, when they made a full coup and established a governing council. Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as cat’s paws of Iran, but this point of view is a vast exaggeration.

Zaidi Shiites in Yemen, about a third of the population, do not belong to the same branch of Shiite Islam as most Iranians, and they are a local Yemeni movement reacting against Sunni and secular dominance of politics. (About two-thirds of Yemenis are Sunni Muslims and they predominate in the south of the country.)

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, elected in a referendum in February 2012, was forced to resign and was placed under house arrest. This weekend, Mansour Hadi escaped to the southern city of Aden, which is not in Houthi hands. In fact, several southern provinces have announced that they would not take orders from a Houthi government in the capital of Sanaa. The Houthis have subdued some nearby Sunni provinces by main force, but likely cannot forcibly take over the whole country. In the capital of Sanaa on Saturday, crowds demonstrated in favor of President Mansour Hadi.

Even before that happened, Yemen Voice alleges, Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman was trying to put together an anti-Houthi coalition. It would include the secular, nationalist General National Congress Party, which had ruled the country until last September, and its rival, the Islah (Reform) Party, a party of the religious right. Both have been sidelined by the tribal, rural Zaidi Shiites who flooded into the capital and have also taken other cities, including Ta’izz.

The Saudi-backed coalition also included Sunni tribal leaders in Maarib and Baida, oil-producing regions that are dead set against Shiite rule. One problem: some of the regions the Saudis are said to be encouraging to rise up against the Houthis have al-Qaeda cells, and if Yemen falls into civil war, they will reap the consequences.

Mansour Hadi has the support of provincial governors and their bureaucracies in the south, as well as of many in the public. Yemen has just been partitioned into a Shiite-dominated north and a Sunni-dominated south.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni economy continued its collapse, with oil revenues down in the past year by one billion dollars, to $1.6 billion instead of last year’s $2.6 billion. Political unrest and the destruction of pipelines was the major cause of the fall, though the lower oil prices of recent months have also hurt.

Saudi Arabian interference in the domestic affairs of the Zaidi Shiite north of Yemen is widely held to have produced the militant Zaid movement as a local phenomenon. It began clashing with the nationalist government (which was allied with the Saudis) in 2004. After the 2011 revolution, which removed a president for life, the state institutions were weakened, including the Army, allowing the Houthis to take over last fall.

The struggle in Yemen is now joined, with two fairly clear camps. One side is the nationalists of Mansour Hadi and possibly a new alliance between them and the Sunni fundamentalist Islah. The other is the Shiite Houthis. One has the south, the other the north. The future of Yemen depends on whether they go to open war or negotiate, and who ultimately wins.

Related video:

Reuters: “Anti-Houthi protest in Yemen as former leader escapes house arrest”

Top 5 Reasons Palestinian-Israelis Could shape the Israeli Election

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Israel, despite the attempts of current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to cast it as a monochrome “Jewish state,” has a divided and complicated population. Some 21 percent or 1.7 million of the 8 million Israelis are of Palestinian heritage, the majority of those being Muslim. About 300,000 Israelis are not Jewish or Palestinian-Israeli, many of them being immigrants from Russia or Eastern Europe who claim some Jewish antecedents but who are not recognized as Jews by the Israeli rabbinate. Of the 6 million Jews, about one million are recent immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Another 1.7 million are European Jews (Ashkenazis) who mostly came to Israel before the 1990s. Nearly 3 million are Eastern Jews originally from the Middle East or the Iberian Peninsula, called Sephardim or in the case of the Middle Easterners, Mizrahim (“Easterners”). Many Israeli Jews are secular-minded. Some 13% don’t believe in God and 24% are agnostics. But 750,000 or 9% are fundamentalist Haredis (“Ultra-Orthodox”).

Since Israel has a list-based parliamentary system, voters tend to elect many small parties to the 120-member Knesset, who then must put together a coalition of 61 in order to have a majority. In the last election, the far right Likud Party of Binyamin Netanyahu got 27 seats and the center-right Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni received 28 seats. But Netanyahu was able to get the requisite further 35 allies (and more) among the smaller right wing parties, whereas Livni was not, so Netanyahu became prime minister–even though Livni’s party had more seats.

1. That is why it is significant that the traditionally Palestinian-Israeli parties have joined together with the Communists (which are mixed Jewish and Palestinian) to form a single coalition party. They did this in part because the ruling Likud coalition passed a law raising the threshold of the proportion of votes a party list needs to be seated in parliament to 3.25%, from 2%. The threshold is intended to exclude from parliament tiny fringe parties, some of them extremists. But it could have excluded fairly mainstream Palestinian-Israeli parties because each is relatively small on its own.

2. Palestinian-Israeli voter turnout used to be 80% decades ago but has fallen to only 57% more recently. In polling they said it was because of the disunity of the parties they favored and their marginalization. Palestinian-Israeli members of parliament will be able to work against an increasing tendency in Israeli society toward discrimination against and marginalization of them. They oppose, for instance, Netanyahu’s formula that Israel is a Jewish state. Palestinian-Israeli politicians are hoping the united list will produce a much bigger turnout.

3. Because of the threat the 3.25% threshold poses, of disenfranchising Palestinian-Israelis if their parties remain small and disunited, it is possible that the Islamic Movement of Sheikh Raed salah will not boycott this election. The “Southern” branch of the Islamic Movement is already committed to the coalition. In the past Salah has held that to participate in an Israeli election is a surrender on the part of the Palestinian-Israelis to Israeli hegemony. But in parliamentary systems, boycotting the vote typically just leaves a group voiceless in government.

4. If the United List of the Palestinian-Israelis can in fact get the vote out, they could get between 12 and 15 seats. (They only won 11 seats in 2009).

5. This showing might allow them to help give a majority to the centrist coalition of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s HaTenua (she and some others on the left of the old Kadima have defected to this small liberal party). This outcome is a little unlikely but not out of the bounds of possibility.

The last time I was in Israel, I mentioned to a colleague that I thought Israel was becoming a multicultural state, what with the decline of dominance by the old Ashkenazi elite and its major institutions. He objected. “Israel already *is* a multicultural state,” he said. We’ll see if that assertion is borne out in the March 17 elections.


Related video:

WotchitGeneralNews: ” Israel’s Arab Parties Unite, Could Help Netanyahu Rivals”

Giuliani & Obama: Immigrant Families and Really Loving America

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Rudy Giuliani maintains that Barack Obama doesn’t love the United States of America because of the way he was brought up.


Obama was largely brought up after age 10 by his grandmother and grandfather on his mother’s side, Madelynn Dunham and Stanley Armour Dunham.

Stanley Dunham enlisted in the U.S. Army in January of 1942. His unit, the 1830th Ordnance Supply and Maintenance Company, Aviation, supported the 9th Air Force during the Allied landing at Normandy Beach in France on D-Day. Stanley and his unit were sent to France 6 weeks later, as was his brother.

As for his wife Madelyn, she made the sacrifice during the war of working the night shift in Wichita, Kansas, at a factory making the Boeing B-29.

Barack’s maternal uncle, Charlie Payne (Madelyn’s brother) served in the 89th Infantry Division. That division liberated one of the Buchenwald death camp complexes, Ohrdruf.

Somehow I feel that the Dunhams loved America and raised their grandson that way.

And it seems pretty clear that by referring to how Obama was brought up, Giuliani has just spit on the graves of the Dunham family.

In contrast, Rudy Giuliani never served in the US military and nor did his father (his grandparents immigrated from Italy). As for how he was brought up (and this isn’t his fault), his father Harold served time in Sing Sing for robbery and then was a soldier in an organized crime operation in Brooklyn that ran a gambling racket and did loan sharking.

I don’t know, maybe Harold raised Mr. Giuliani to love the country that offered him the opportunity to break people’s legs for not paying their vig.

And here you have to wonder if Giuliani’s bizarre trashing of Obama is a form of projection, if it is Rudy Giuliani who wasn’t raised to love his grandparents’ adopted country.

Obama and Giuliani are both from relatively recent immigrant backgrounds, but no one asked to see Giuliani’s birth certificate.

In fact there is an interesting reversal going on here, since Obama’s father came as a student and was from a rising family in the old country. Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. earned an MA in economics from Harvard. He rose to become senior economist for the Kenyan Ministry of Finance. Obama’s mother was from a Midwestern middle class family of old standing (it goes back to a signatory of the Magna Carta in England).

Obama’s antecedents were respectable ones and both of his parents had higher degrees. In the racist American system, though, he faced the challenge of low African-American social status.

Giuliani’s parents in contrast were children of Italian workers from the Tuscany region, who struggled to survive in the American urban jungle and cut some corners. Giuliani growing up also faced status issues in being Roman Catholic in a country with a Protestant establishment.

Both Obama and Giuliani overcame the challenges that their immigrant background presented to them, rising to high office despite not being WASPS. Both served the country to which their forebears came with high distinction. Giuliani as prosecutor helped clean up New York, though he later appointed corrupt officials once he became mayor. But his methods were unconstitutional, and involved constant pat-downs of minorities. Precisely because he was an outsider to the New York elite, Giuliani needed someone to look down on, someone on whom to blame crime, and for him it was the minorities (though his grandparents would have been viewed as minorities themselves on arrival here).

Giuliani should stop and consider that love for America is not just a statement of the sort, he says, Reagan and Clinton made. It is also honoring the central document of Americanness, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Giuliani is contemptuous of the fourth and eighth amendments and demonstrated it practically in the way he ran New York City.

That Obama is president and Giuliani is not clearly sticks in the latter’s craw. It is shameful that he should question Obama’s love of country. But surely he is just compensating in public for his own family’s shady background and his own mistakes such as violating the guarantee against unreasonable search, and promoting crooks such as Bernie Kerik. He should realize that he can’t convince people he loves America, after all his undermining of the US constitution, by denigrating the patriotism of the president of the United States.

Jeb Bush on Foreign Policy: Peddling old Iraq Myths Again

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Jeb Bush gave a maiden foreign police speech in Chicago yesterday in which he mixed up Iran with Iraq and alleged with science fictional inaccuracy that Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) has 200,000 men under arms. The actual number of fighters is probably 20,000. His office later admitted that he ‘misspoke.’

But did he? A slip like that can reveal how a person views the world. Jeb Bush seems to think that menacing groups out there are 10 times larger than they are.

For comparison, France has an active duty army of 215,000. He made a small congeries of criminal gangs in the arid east of Syria and northwest of Iraq into a military power equivalent to France!

(Even the 20,000 figure for Daesh’s supposed strength is misleading because it is an all-volunteer guerrilla force, essentially doubling as neighborhood thugs and enforcers in Raqqah and Mosul; Daesh can’t possibly field a conventional infantry division of that size in the field.)

J. Bush also said at one point that in 2003 ISIL did not exist. But Daesh or ISIL goes back to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and before that to Tawhid. Ironically, Jeb’s brother hyped Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq as a reason the US had to invade! So ISIL did exist under a different name. And Zarqawi’s 2003 tiny al-Tawhid group only morphed into Daesh and took substantial territory because W. invaded Iraq, abolished the Iraqi army, put the Shiites in power and created a power vacuum.

Jeb Bush also praised the ‘surge’ or troop escalation of 2007 when W. put an extra 30,000 soldiers into Iraq. The Washington myth is that this campaign turned the war around. But actually the US forces under Gen. David Petraeus made a deal with then (Shiite) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to disarm the Sunni militants first. They did that, and the Mahdi Army and Badr Corps militias promptly ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Baghdad, turning it into a largely Shiite city.

The displaced and desperate Sunnis, filled with rage and grievances against the US and its Shiite allies, gradually turned to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq, and then after 2011 became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL. That is, rather than being the great success Jeb painted it, the ‘surge’ was the origins of the collapse of Iraq.

The allegation that President Obama could have kept 10,000 US troops in Iraq after December 2011 is untrue. The Bush administration was the one that failed to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi parliament that would allow US troops to remain. It failed because there was no majority in the Iraqi parliament for such an idea. The Iraqis never wanted US troops in their country, something Washington won’t admit. All Obama did was acquiesce in Bush’s deal. Vice President Joe Biden was tasked with seeing if an adjustment could be made whereby US troops might remain, but Biden also could not put together a majority in the Iraqi parliament. (It was felt that US troops and commanders would be at risk of prosecution, either in Iraqi courts or international ones, unless the Iraqi parliament itself passed the SOFA as a treaty commitment; it wasn’t something the prime minister could do by fiat).

The Iraqi parliament consisted of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (Shiite, pro-Iran), the Sadr II Bloc or Free Ones (Ahrar) (fundamentalist Shiite), the Islamic Call or Islamic Mission Party (Da’wa- fundamentalist lay Shiite), the Iraqiya Party (supported by Sunni Arabs with a grudge against the US); and the Kurdistan Alliance. Only the KA might have voted for US troops to remain. The rest of the members of parliament were dead set against or at least couldn’t show their faces in their districts if they didn’t oppose it. No one has ever been able to show me where a majority existed in parliament for US troops staying in Iraq. People who make this argument are robbing Iraqis of any agency in their own destiny and discounting them in Orientalist style as easily manipulable by the US. They aren’t.

Moreover, 10,000 US troops in Iraq after 2011 would have been constantly targeted by Sunni guerrillas and Shiite militias, and would have been too small to defend themselves very well. They certainly would not have been stationed in any numbers in Mosul! That an imperial presence of this sort, what Iraqis call an “Occupation,” would have calmed things down and kept Mosul in Iraq is just a fantastic idea. It is like saying that if only there had been a few more British troops billeted in American homes in the 13 colonies in 1775, the American Revolution could have been put down and averted. It was things like billeting British troops in people’s homes that provoked the revolution in the first place!

Jeb Bush’s maiden voyage into foreign policy was painful to watch, a hodgepodge of exaggerated bogeymen, vague ideals, inaccurate assertions, and bad history. Oh. Where have we seen this combination of tropes before? Let me think…

here is my appearance discussing the speech on MSNBC’s

‘All In’ with Christ Hayes: “Jeb Bush Staggers into Foreign Policy”

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Iraq: Kurds repel ISIL/ Daesh w/ help of the Shiite Militiamen they Distrust

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

In a bold move, Daesh (i.e. ISIL or ISIS) fighters moved Monday on Kirkuk and Erbil, two cities patrolled by the Iraqi Kurdistan paramilitary, the Peshmerga (those who stand before death).

Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Kirkuk is an oil city and is disputed among Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds. If Daesh, based in Syria’s al Raqqah and in Iraq’s Mosul, could capture Kirkuk, it would gain a major source of oil income.

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Daesh fighters were repelled, and some number killed, by the oddest coalition you’d ever want to see. The Kurdistan Peshmerga took the lead in defending Kurdistan, but they were joined by Iraqi government security forces and by Shiite militiamen who came up from the south. These forces were given close air support by the US Air Force.

Kurdish commanders announced that they had regained control of Kirkuk and had chased away the Daesh fighters.

The Peshmerga were aided in a number of battles by the Arab Shiite militiamen, recalling their coalition at Amerli, last fall. They had also collaborated in Diyala Province more recently.

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani visited the front and stressed that any force willing to fight alongside the Peshmerga against Daesh is welcome.

Daesh fighters also tried to take villages near Erbil, the captial of Iraqi Kurdistan. They were repelled with the additional help of US fighter jets. Dozens died in this fighting.

The cooperation achieved between the Shiite “popular forces” militias and the Peshmerga may not have been unprecedented, but it did refute observers who had predicted an Arab-Kurdish fight.

Kirkuk has an Arab population, including some Shiites, along with Turkmen Shiites– who contest Kurdish insistence on annexing it to Kurdistan. Barzani appears to have earlier been threatened by the Shiite paramilitaries’ approach. He warned that he would not let them come into Kirkuk.

His warning was in part a reply to the leader of the extremist Shiite militia, the League of the Righteous (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq), who had complained of the “Kurdishization” of Kirkuk. Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Corps, another Shiite militia, also pledged to come into Kirkuk. The largely Shiite Iraqi army deserted its posts in Kirkuk last June, leaving the Peshmerga (who had conducted joint patrols with the army) in charge of the oil city. The Shiite militias appeared to wish to replace the Iraqi troops, laying down a marker on Arab interest in Kirkuk, which has de facto been annexed by Kurdistan.

As Daesh approached, Barzani abruptly changed his tune and welcomed the Shiite militias with open arms. (It is not impossible that Iran played a behind the scenes role in getting Barzani and the Shiites to make up. Iran supports both Iraqi Kurdistan and the Shiite militias.

This tension tells us two things. 1) The potential for further Kurdish-Shiite tension is there. And, 2), both sides are for the moment pragmatic enough to bury the hatchet in the breast of their common foe.

Not your Founding Fathers’ America: Permanent War, Permanent Election Campaigns, Guns, Drones and Surveillance

By Tom Engelhardt | (

I never fail to be amazed — and that’s undoubtedly my failing.  I mean, if you retain a capacity for wonder you can still be awed by a sunset, but should you really be shocked that the sun is once again sinking in the west? Maybe not.

The occasion for such reflections: machine guns in my hometown. To be specific, several weeks ago, New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton announced the formation of a new 350-officer Special Response Group (SRG). Keep in mind that New York City already has a police force of more than 34,000 — bigger, that is, than the active militaries of Austria, Bulgaria, Chad, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kenya, Laos, Switzerland, or Zimbabwe — as well as its own “navy,” including six submersible drones.  Just another drop in an ocean of blue, the SRG will nonetheless be a squad for our times, trained in what Bratton referred to as “advanced disorder control and counterterror.”  It will also, he announced, be equipped with “extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns — unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.” And here’s where he created a little controversy in my hometown.  The squad would, Bratton added, be “designed for dealing with events like our recent protests or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.”

Now, that was an embarrassment in liberal New York.  By mixing the recent demonstrations over the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others into the same sentence with the assault on Mumbai and the Charlie Hebdo affair in France, he seemed to be equating civil protest in the Big Apple with acts of terrorism.  Perhaps you won’t be surprised then that the very next day the police department started walking back the idea that the unit would be toting its machine guns not just to possible terror incidents but to local protests.  A day later, Bratton himself walked his comments back even further. (“I may have in my remarks or in your interpretation of my remarks confused you or confused the issue.”)  Now, it seems there will be two separate units, the SRG for counterterror patrols and a different, assumedly machine-gun-less crew for protests.

Here was what, like the sun going down in the west, shouldn’t have shocked me but did: no one thought there was any need to walk back the arming of the New York Police Department with machine guns for whatever reasons.  The retention of such weaponry should, of course, have been the last thing to shock any American in 2015.  After all, the up-armoring and militarization of the police has been an ongoing phenomenon since 9/11, even if it only received real media attention after the police, looking like an army of occupation, rolled onto the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in response to protests over the killing of Michael Brown.

In fact, the Pentagon (and the Department of Homeland Security) had already shunted $5.1 billion worth of military equipment, much of it directly from the country’s distant battlefields — assault rifles, land-mine detectors, grenade launchers, and 94,000 of those machine guns — to local police departments around the country.  Take, for example, the various tank-like, heavily armored vehicles that have now become commonplace for police departments to possess.  (Ferguson, for instance, had a “Bearcat,” widely featured in coverage of protests there.)

Since 2013, the Pentagon has transferred for free more than 600 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, worth at least half a million dollars each and previously used in U.S. war zones, to various “qualified law enforcement agencies.” Police departments in rural areas like Walsh County, North Dakota (pop. 11,000) now have their own MRAPs, as does the campus police department at Ohio State University.  It hardly matters that these monster vehicles have few uses in a country where neither ambushes nor roadside bombs are a part of everyday life.

Post-Ferguson, a few scattered departments have actually moved to turn these useless vehicles back in.  It’s clear, however, that police forces “kitted out with Marine-issue camouflage and military-grade body armor, toting short-barreled assault rifles, and rolling around in armored vehicles” — that is, almost indistinguishable from soldiers — are now the future of American policing and there’s no walking that back.  Since Ferguson, President Obama has essentially refused to do so and Congress certainly won’t.  Despite a small uproar over the pile of military equipment being transferred to the police, there is no indication that the flow will be stanched.

When it comes to all this militarized equipment, as the president has emphasized (and the task force he appointed to look into these matters will undoubtedly reemphasize), “reform” is mainly going to be focused on “better training” in how to use it.  In other words, reform will prove to be a code word for further militarization.  And don’t count on anyone returning those 94,000 machine guns either in a country that seems to be in some kind of domestic arms race and in which toddlers now regularly find their parents’ loaded guns and wound or kill them.

How the National Security State Outlasted Its Critics

Not so long ago, that 9/11 “changed everything” seemed like the hyperbolic cliché of a past era.  From the present moment, however, it looks ever more like a sober description of what actually happened. Congratulations, that is, are due to Osama bin Laden.  Even dead and buried at sea, he deserves some credit.  He proved to be midwife to the exceedingly violent birth of a new American world.  Today, 13 years after the attacks he launched, an exceptionally healthy, well-armed teenage America is growing fast.  Under the banner of Fear and Terror that bin Laden inspired, this country has been transformed in myriad ways, even if we only half notice because we’re part of it.  And it isn’t a world much interested in walking anything back. 

Consider the National Security Agency.  In June 2013, it was faced with the beginning of a devastating rollout of a trove of top-secret documents exposing its inner workings.  Thanks to Edward Snowden, Americans (and Germans and Brazilians and Mexicans and Afghans) came to know that the agency had, in the post-9/11 years, set up a surveillance state for the ages, one for which the phrase Orwellian might be distinctly inadequate.  The NSA was listening in on or intercepting the communications of 35 chancellors, presidents, and other world leaders, the secretary-general of the U.N., the offices of the European Union, foreign corporations, peasants in the backlands of the planet, and oh yes, American citizens galore (and that’s just to start down a far longer list).  All of this effort has — from the point of view of “intelligence” — been remarkably expensive but (as far as anyone can tell) relatively useless.  Few terrorists have been found, next to no plots broken up, and little useful, actionable intelligence provided to the government, despite the yottabytes of data collected.  The whole effort should have been written off as a bust and scaled back radically.  The agency’s methods arguably violated the Constitution, made a mockery of the idea of privacy, and tore up sovereignties of every sort.  Instead, that global surveillance system remains embedded in our world and growing, its actions sanctified.

Clearly, in the new post-9/11 American rulebook, no one was to have the right to keep a secret — except the national security state itself, which was madly classifying anything in sight, while the Obama Justice Department went after anyone who leaked anything about it or blew a whistle on it with a fierceness never before experienced in our history.  Hence, the towering anger of top NSA officials (and their retired colleagues) at Edward Snowden when he exposed their “privacy” to scrutiny, too.

If ever there was a system in need of “reform,” this was it.  And yet the NSA has successfully outlasted the long Snowden moment without a single thing being walked back, not even the most shocking revelation for Americans: that the agency was gathering and storing their bulk phone “metadata.”  A year ago, a presidential advisory board on privacy concluded that the bulk data collection was “illegal and unproductive” and recommended changes.  None have yet taken place.  “Reform” efforts on the NSA collapsed in Congress even before the Republicans took the Senate.  As with the police, so the president has announced minor “tweaks” to the system of data collection and it’s marching right on.

Similarly, the CIA outlasted Senator Dianne Feinstein.  After years of effort, a truncated, redacted version of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report that she oversaw was finally released, filled with American horrors and barbarities.  The result, as with Snowden’s revelations, was nada.  For torture, no one at the CIA is to be held responsible or accountable; nor did the CIA pay any price for hacking into the computer systems of the committee’s staff or turning on the woman once known as the senator from the national security state.  The whole process seemed to signal that congressional oversight of the U.S. intelligence community was now more fiction than fact.

Admittedly, when President Obama came into office, in what may be the single exception to the rule of the era, he walked back one crucial set of Bush administration policies, ending torture and closing the “black sites” at which much of it occurred.  Since then, however, the CIA has expanded, while its power, like the national security state within which it is lodged, has only grown.

The process of expanding that shadow government and freeing it from supervision has, in fact, been unending.  Only last week, for instance, the Obama administration announced that the 17 intelligence outfits that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community were about to get a new baby.  Amid a thicket of outfits now devoted to cyberintelligence, including “cyber-operations centers” at the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the National Security Agency, the new Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, which will be housed in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, will “analyze cyberthreats and coordinate strategy to counter them.”  It will assumedly be the civilian equivalent of the military’s 2009 creation, the U.S. Cyber Command.  And keep in mind that all this is happening in the country that is responsible for launching the planet’s first cyberwar.

Or consider another growth industry: drones and their progeny.  They are spinning off into domestic air space at a startling rate and can now be found from America’s borderlands to thousands of feet up in the skies above commercial jetliners to the White House grounds (reportedly thanks to the recreational activities of a drunken employee of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency).  Abroad, Washington’s drones have been this country’s true “lone wolf” hunters, inflicting terror from the skies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya in 2011, and most recently Syria.  In five of those seven countries they have been at it for years, in the case of Pakistan flying hundreds of strikes in its tribal borderlands.

Washington’s grimly named Predator and Reaper drones have been hunting their prey in the backlands of the planet 24 hours a day for more than a decade now.  Thousands of people have been wiped out, including women, children, and wedding parties, as well as numerous significant and insignificant figures in terror outfits of every sort.  And yet in not one of those countries has the situation improved in any significant way in terms of U.S. policy goals.  In most of them it has grown worse and the drones have been a factor in such developments, alienating whole populations on the ground below.  This has been obvious for years to counterinsurgency experts.  But a reconsideration of these drone wars is beyond the pale in Washington.  Drone assassination is now a sacrosanct act of the American state, part of a “global” war 13 years old and ongoing.  No one in any position of power, now or in the immediate future, is going to consider flying them back.

The CIA has sometimes been called the president’s private army.  Today, it’s running most (but not all) of Washington’s drone campaigns and so those robotic lone wolves could be considered the president’s private air force.  In the process, the twenty-first-century White House has been officially and proudly turned into an assassin’s lair and don’t expect that to change in 2016 or 2020 either.

Permanent War and the Permanent Election Campaign

Similar points could be made about the 13-year-old “global war” the Bush administration launched and the specific wars, raids, conflicts, invasions, and occupations that have been carried out under its aegis.  President Obama has been fighting Iraq War 3.0 and Syria War 1.0 for six months, claiming that Congressional post-9/11 authorizations allow him to do so.  Now, he wants a three-year extension on something he claims he doesn’t need and has delivered a text to Congress filled with enough loopholes to send an army (and air force) through — and not just in Iraq and Syria either.  Not getting this authorization wouldn’t, however, significantly affect the administration’s plans in the Middle East.  So much for the “power” of Congress to declare war.  That body is nonetheless evidently going to spend months holding hearings and “debating” a new authorization, even as fighting goes on without it, based on informal agreements pounded out by the White House and the Pentagon.  (Alice would have found Wonderland sane by comparison.)

In this way, the White House has in our time become a war-making and assassination-producing machine.  In the same period, terror groups and membership in them have leapt across the Greater Middle East and Africa; no terror organization has been destroyed (though the original al-Qaeda, a modest enough outfit to begin with, has been weakened); most have expanded; the Islamic State, the first mini-terror state in history, has taken over significant parts of Iraq and Syria and is expanding elsewhere; Libya is a chaos of competing militias, some of an extreme Islamic nature; Yemen is believed to be in a state of collapse with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the rise; Afghanistan remains a war disaster area; Pakistan is significantly destabilized; and so on.  And yet, as the president’s authorization request indicates, there is no walking any of this back.

In the meantime, on the domestic front in this “too big to fail” century, the country that eternally sallies forth under the banner of democracy has been working on a new political system which, as yet, has no name.  Here’s what we do know about our latest version of “democracy”: in a period when plenty of American citizens weren’t too small to fail, the inequality gap has grown to yawning proportions.  On the principle that what goes up must come down, some part of the vast infusion of money flowing to the .01% or even the .001% has, with a helping hand from the Supreme Court, been raining down on the electoral system.

In the same way that the national security state was funded to the tune of almost a trillion dollars a year and war became perpetual, the new political system, focused on TV advertising, has created a perpetual campaign season.  (It is now estimated that the 2016 presidential campaign alone could cost $5 billion, essentially doubling the $2.6 billion spent in 2012.)  And here’s the most recent news from that round-the-clock campaign, whose focus is increasingly on donors, not voters: the Koch brothers and their allied donor networks have pledged nearly one billion dollars for election season 2016 (more than double the amount they contributed in 2012).  And they already have pledges for $249 million, which suggests that they may even exceed their present guesstimate.

Despite comments from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg about her personal desire to roll back the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates of money, it’s clear that this court won’t be walking its election-financing positions back anytime soon.  In donor terms, think of what that court did as the equivalent of the Pentagon putting all those machine guns and MRAPs in the hands of the police.

And keep in mind that, as the U.S. changes, the world does, too.  Consider it a form of reverse blowback, as from drones to surveillance to cyberwar, Washington helps lay the groundwork for a new more extreme century in which, from sovereignty to privacy, boundaries are there to be broken, new kinds of weaponry to be tested out in the real world, and new kinds of conflicts to be launched.

In sum, we, the people, are ever less in control of anything.  The police are increasingly not “ours,” nor are the NSA and its colleague outfits “our” intelligence agencies, nor are the wars we are fighting “our” wars, nor the elections in which we vote “our” elections.  This is a country walking back nothing as it heads into a heavily militarized future.  In the process, an everyday American world is being brought into existence that, by past standards, will seem extreme indeed.  In other words, in the years to come an ever-less recognizable American way of life will quite expectably be setting in the west.  Don’t be shocked. 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s His new book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).

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 latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt



Related video added by Juan Cole:

Evidence of NSA Software in Hard Drives Discovered – IGN News

Today’s Top 7 Myths about Daesh/ ISIL

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The self-styled ‘Islamic State’ Group (ISIS or ISIL), the Arabic acronym for which is Daesh, is increasingly haunting the nightmares of Western journalists and security analysts. I keep seeing some assertions about it that strike me as exaggerated or as just incorrect.

1. It isn’t possible to determine whether Daesh a mainstream Muslim organization, since Muslim practice varies by time and place. I disagree. There is a center of gravity to any religion such that observers can tell when something is deviant. Aum Shinrikyo isn’t your run of the mill Buddhism, though it probably is on the fringes of the Buddhist tradition (it released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995). Like Aum Shinrikyo, Daesh is a fringe cult. There is nothing in formal Islam that would authorize summarily executing 21 Christians. The Qur’an says that Christians are closest in love to the Muslims, and that if they have faith and do good works, Christians need have no fear in the afterlife. Christians are people of the book and allowed religious freedom by Islamic law from the earliest times. Muslims haven’t always lived up to this ideal, but Christians were a big part of most Muslim states in the Middle East (in the early Abbasid Empire the Egyptian and Iraqi Christians were the majority). They obviously weren’t being taken out and beheaded on a regular basis. They did gradually largely convert to Islam, but we historians don’t find good evidence that they were coerced into it. Because they paid an extra poll tax, Christians had economic reasons to declare themselves Muslims.

We all know that Kentucky snake handlers are a Christian cult and that snake handling isn’t typical of the Christian tradition. Why pretend that we can’t judge when modern Muslim movements depart so far from the modern mainstream as to be a cult?

2. Daesh fighters are pious. Some may be. But very large numbers are just criminals who mouth pious slogans. The volunteers from other countries often have a gang past. They engage in drug and other smuggling and in human trafficking and delight in mass murder. They are criminals and sociopaths. Lots of religious cults authorize criminality.

3. Massive numbers of fighters have gone to join Daesh since last summer. Actually, the numbers are quite small proportionally. British PM David Cameron ominously warned that 400 British Muslim youth had gone off to fight in Syria. But there are like 3.7 million Muslims in the UK now! So .01 percent .000027 of the community volunteered. They are often teens, some are on the lam from petty criminal charges, and many come back disillusioned. You could get 400 people to believe almost anything. It isn’t a significant statistic. Most terrorism in Europe is committed by European separatist groups– only about 3% is by Muslims. Cameron is just trying to use such rhetoric to avoid being outflanked on his right by the nationalist UKIP. One of the most active Daesh Twitter feeds turns out to be run by an Indian worker in a grocery chain in Bangalore who lived in his parents’ basement and professed himself unable to volunteer for Syria because of his care giving chores. Daesh is smoke and mirrors.

4. Ibrahim Samarra’i’s ‘caliphate’ is widely taken seriously. No, it isn’t. It is a laughing matter in Egypt, the largest Arab country. There are a small band of smugglers and terrorists in Sinai who declared for Samarra’i, but that kind of person used to declare for Usama Bin Laden. It doesn’t mean anything. Egypt, with 83 million people, is in the throes of a reaction against political Islam, in favor of nationalism. It has become a little dangerous to wear a beard, the typical fashion of the Muslim fundamentalsit. Likewise, Tunisia voted in a secular government.

5. Daesh holds territory in increasing numbers of countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. But outside of Syria and Iraq, Daesh is just a brand, not an organization. A handful of Taliban have switched allegiance to Daesh or have announced that they have. It has no more than symbolic significance in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These converts are tiny in number. They are not significant. And they were already radicals of some sort. Daesh has no command and control among them. Indeed, the self-styled ‘caliph’, Ibrahim Samarrai, was hit by a US air strike and is bed ridden in Raqqah, Syria. I doubt he is up to command and control. The Pakistani and Afghan governments have a new agreement to roll up the radicals, and Pakistan is aerially bombing them.

Even in Syria and Iraq, Daesh holds territory only because the states have collapsed. I remember people would do this with al-Qaeda, saying it had branches in 64 countries. But for the most part it was 4 guys in each of those countries. This kind of octopus imagery is taken advantage of by Daesh to make itself seem important, but we shouldn’t fall for it.

6. Only US ground troops can defeat Daesh and the USA must commit to a third Iraq War. The US had 150,000 troops or so in Iraq for 8 1/2 years! But they left the country a mess. Why in the world would anybody assume that another round of US military occupation of Iraq would work, given the disaster that was the last one? A whole civil war was fought between Sunnis and Shiites that displaced a million people and left 3000 civilians dead a month in 2006-2007, right under the noses of US commanders.

In fact, US air power can halt Daesh expansion into Kurdistan or Baghdad. US air power was crucial to the Kurdish defense of Kobane in northern Syria. It helped the Peshmerga paramilitary of Iraqi Kurdistan take back Mt. Sinjar. It helped an Iraqi army unit take back the refinery town of Beiji. The US ought not to have to be there at all. But if Washington has to intervene, it can contain the threat from the air. Politicians should just stop promising to extirpate the group. Brands can’t be destroyed, and Daesh is just a brand for the most part.

7. Daesh is said to have 9 million subjects. I don’t understand where this number comes from. They have Raqqah Province in Syria, which had 800,000 people before the civil war. But the north of Raqqah is heavily Kurdish and some 300,000 Kurds fled from there to Turkey. Some have now come back to Kobane. But likely at most Daesh has 500,000 subjects there. Their other holdings in Syria are sparsely populated. I figure Iraq’s population at about 32 million and Sunnis there at 17%, i.e. 5.5 million or so. You have to subtract the million or more Sunnis who live in Baghdad and Samarra, which Daesh does not control. Although most of the rest Sunni Iraq has fallen to Daesh, very large numbers of Sunnis have fled from them. Thus, of Mosul’s 2 million, 500,000 voted with their feet last summer when Daesh came in. Given the massive numbers of refugees from Daesh territory, and given that they don’t have Baghdad, I’d be surprised if over all they have more than about 3-4 million people living under them. And this is all likely temporary. Plans are being made to kick them right back out of Mosul.

Related Video:

ABC News: “ISIS Recruiter Speaks”

al-Qaeda’s Feud with Denmark

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Denmark is a relatively small country, with a population of 5.7 million. But it is relatively wealthy, being the 35th largest economy in the world, producing more goods and services than Malaysia, Israel or the Philippines. Its military is more important than the country’s small size would suggest, since it is well supplied with fighter jets.

The country is clearly in al-Qaeda’s sights, and not only because of the Jyllands Posten publication in 2005 2007 of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. A Danish secret agent Morten Storm, went public with claims that he was key to tracking down Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen. On the basis of Storm’s information, he says, the US were able to launch drone strikes against al-Awlaki and to kill him in September, 2011. AQAP therefore has a vendetta against Denmark. The country also supported the Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq, so that Daesh / ISIL sympathizers have an animus against it. The Danish air force is bombing the radicals in Iraq nowadays.

AQAP is the most energetic of the al-Qaeda affiliates in attempting to inflict terrorism on the West, and was behind the 2009 ‘underwear bomber’ plot to blow up an airliner over Detroit, along with other plots targeting Western countries. The Kouachi brothers who spearheaded the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris were connected to AQAP and one of them had visited Yemen and been hosted by al-Awlaki in Maarib shortly before the latter’s death. AQAP claimed to have been behind the Paris attacks.

It is too soon to know (if we ever can) who exactly was behind the Copenhagen attacks on Saturday. But they followed very closely the Paris playbook, with an attack on a seminar discussing freedom of speech, attended by one of the caricaturists who lampooned the Prophet Muhammad. Then there was a side attack on a synagogue. These two targets were similar to those in Paris.

At the very least, it would be no surprise to discover that AQAP ordered them. Because this is a possibility, it seems to me that Danish authorities were lax in providing security to a meeting that involved Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist. AQAP or something like it has sleeper cells in Europe and has put the word out (whether formally or informally) to deploy violence. A Moroccan-Danish al-Qaeda enthusiast was just sentenced for trying to support and recruit for al-Qaeda on social media. Seasoned observers warned that the Paris attacks were unlikely to be the last by the radicals.

This kind of violence is extremely useful to al-Qaeda offshoots and affiliates, since it produces a Western backlash against ordinary everyday European Muslims, which can then drive the latter into the arms of the radicals. Denmark has a couple hundred thousand Muslims, and about 2700 Danish converts to Islam. Morten Storm was a Danish biker and misfit who became a radical Muslim and then switched to informing for the CIA. Because Danish Muslims are relatively wealthy and from a relatively wealthy country, and because they are Europeans, al-Qaeda would like to recruit them. But they would for the most part only embrace it out of desperation. It is therefore necessary to produce desperation by putting them in trouble with the government and with white supremacists.


Ruptly TV: “Denmark: BREAKING Police shoot man in Copenhagen train station”

700 British artists pledge to boycott Israel until Pal Rights Granted

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — 700 British artists have signed a pledge to boycott Israel as long as it “continues to deny basic Palestinian rights,” the latest major success for the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel movement.

“In response to the call from Palestinian artists and cultural workers for a cultural boycott of Israel, we pledge to accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights,” the call reads, according to the group Artists for Palestine UK, which organized the pledge.

“We support the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.”

The signatories include artists from many fields, including writers, film directors, comedians, musicians, actors, theater directors, architects, and visual artists.

The pledge’s supporters included many British citizens of Jewish heritage as well, including prominent actress Miriam Margolyes.

“My support for the Palestinian cause is fiercer because I am Jewish and I honor the strengths of that religion and the suffering my people have experienced through the years. My visits to Palestine showed me at first hand how the people there are treated by Israeli forces. Their lack of humanity disgusts me — I want no part of it,” she said in a statement.

“I realize we were fed a lie about the foundation of the State of Israel, a lie forged certainly out of desperate need to help the dispossessed millions devastated by the horror of the Nazi regime. But to force people from their homes, from their ancestral lands — that is no answer.”

Former head of the English PEN writers’ union, Gillian Slovo, compared his support to the boycott of Israel to the boycott of South Africa in a statement.

“As a South African I witnessed the way the cultural boycott of South Africa helped apply pressure on the apartheid government and its supporters. This Artists’ Pledge for Palestine has drawn lessons from that boycott to produce an even more nuanced, non-violent way for us to call for change and for justice for all.”

One hundred of the artists who signed the pledge also published a letter in the Guardian newspaper on Friday explaining their decision.

“Israel’s wars are fought on the cultural front too. Its army targets Palestinian cultural institutions for attack, and prevents the free movement of cultural workers. Its own theater companies perform to settler audiences on the West Bank — and those same companies tour the globe as cultural diplomats, in support of “Brand Israel,”‘ the letter noted.

“We invite all those working in the arts in Britain to join us.”

The boycott movement has grown increasingly strong in recent years around the world and particularly in Western Europe and North America, once bastions of support for Israel.

The Palestinian call for Academic and Cultural Boycott, which was launched in 2004 as part of the global BDS campaign, aims to pressure Israel to end its long-standing occupation of the Palestinian territories and history of human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Supporters argue that thus far outside political pressure and domestic left wing organizing has failed to effect change in Israeli policies, but believe a grassroots civil society movement to pressure the country’s authorities could effect meaningful change.

The boycott targets official and institutional collaboration with Israel or Israeli-government funded institutions, but does not sanction individual Israeli artists, a fact noted by some of the signatories of the British boycott letter.

“The choice not to present work in Israel is not an attack on Israeli artists, but rather a recognition that the thing you do may not be appropriate in a situation of ongoing violent conflict, and that to ignore that is to support the idea that everything is under control and life and culture continue as normal, while bombs fall,” choreographer Jonathan Burrows said in a statement.

Via Ma’an News Agency


British demo last summer

Iraq: ISIL advances to within 9 miles of 300 US troops at al-Ain Base

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The Jordanian newspaper al-Dustur [Constitution] reports that Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) has captured the al-Anbar city of al-Baghdadi in western al-Anbar Province.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 2.44.24 AM

Twenty-five Daesh commandos, some of them with suicide bomb belts, then threw themselves at the outskirts of the al-Ain military base about 9 miles away, where 300 US troops are stationed. That attack was beaten off, but there were fears for the safety of the big US contingent of trainers and special forces personnel at the base.

A US General Kirby maintained that the Daesh advance was not significant and that it is rare it gains a new town. But in fact, Daesh has been expanding its territory in western Iraq, even in the face of US bombing raids. The major Iraqi town it has lost in al-Anbar Province is Jurf al-Sakhr in the far south of the province near the capital.

That the Daesh extremists could take a town so near an Iraqi base, not so far from the capital, raises questions yet again about the competency of the Iraqi army.

The Iraqi government rejected the idea of foreign infantry troops being stationed in al-Anbar, and tried to shoot down allegations that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad was not very interested in the fate of strongly Sunni al-Anbar.