“This Parrot is no More”: The 2016 Presidential Election did not Take Place

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

The French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote a book in 1991 entitled The Gulf War did not Take Place .

In the same way, the 2016 presidential election did not take place.

Baudrillard did not mean to say, of course, that no war was prosecuted by the US and its allies, positioned in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, against the Iraqi occupation army in Kuwait, eventuating in the expulsion of the Iraqi tank corps.

He did think that for Western audiences, the war was a staged television conflict, an imitation of reality or simulacrum–a phony copy of reality. The weeks of US bombing of Iraqi lines that kicked off the war beginning in mid-January left behind black carbon dust. Iraqi soldiers, many of them poor Shiite conscripts, might have wanted to surrender. But they weren’t allowed to raise a white flag to the F-16s pulverizing them from 30,000 feet. That isn’t a war, that is shooting fish in a barrel. When the land war did begin, it was clear that the war directors connived at having the handful of Egyptian troops drive into Kuwait City first, for the cameras, so that Kuwait was liberated by the Arab League, not by 600,000 Western troops.

In some ways Baudrillard’s point goes back to an insight of the early twentieth century Belgian painter, René Magritte, who adhered to the surrealist school. His 1928-29 painting, “The Treachery of Images” shows a pipe, but then underneath it Magritte wrote in French, “This is not a pipe.” Of course it is not a pipe. It is just an imaginary copy of a pipe. It now hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

magrittepipe

If the Gulf War was a television spectacle, the 2016 election is much more of one, with the added phony copies of reality flying around on social media. Not only did the election not take place, Donald Trump did not run. He has virtually no campaign machine, few functioning district offices. He holds rallies, which are dutifully televised by the cable “news” networks– they actually just turn their airtime over to him on a regular basis (while not doing any such thing for Hillary Clinton). His campaign is his staged rallies, which then are piped out to millions gratis. Trump is given free airtime because he is a creature of television, a reality show star, famous for being famous (i.e. for no particular reason; lots of real estate magnates are not famous, e.g.) He is given air time because viewership rises when he is on tv, and networks can charge advertisers more if they have more viewers.

Trump, in other words, functions for cable news in the same way as the ghostly Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 did for CNN in particular. Apparently hundreds of thousands of Americans were riveted by 6 months of rank speculation as to whether the airliner had landed in Tibet’s Shangrila or been kidnapped by Vladimir Putin’s air force. We are told that

“From 10pm-12am, [CNN’s] All Business: The Essential Donald Trump ranked #1 among adults 25-54 with 448k, beating the combined delivery of Fox News and MSNBC. Fox News averaged 193k. MSNBC trailed with 101k.

Let’s repeat that. A quick and dirty basic cable documentary on Trump outdrew both Fox and MSNBC live magazine news shows among the target demographic (the elderly, from a marketing point of view, do not actually exist). The non-Trump, the copy of Trump over at CNN, overshadowed Greta van Susteren and Lawrence O’Donnell’s news shows, which faded into unreality in comparison. Van Susteren demonstrated her own inability to grasp reality when she doubted that Fox poobah Roger Ailes had been a serial sex harasser; but then as reality sank in, she began to flicker and after a while, when she had accepted the non-televised non-Fox reality, she could no longer be found on the airwaves herself. Not only is there no election, but those who acknowledge the hard facts obscured by the 24 hour “news cycle” also come not to exist.

Did the press demand that Trump, the oldest person ever to have the prospect of taking office as president for a first term, reveal his physician’s health report?

Trump has an eccentric doctor write up a very brief one-pager, and then Trump shows it to Dr. Oz, Oprah’s physician, on afternoon television. Done. The health report is “public” because televised. No matter that it was a skeleton report, and raised questions about weight and cholesterol. There was no real health report of the sort the reporters had in mind, and which past candidates had released. There was only a phony copy of such a report in the form of a t.v. broadcast with a t.v. quack, half of whose statements about medicine and treatment appear to be ungrounded in reality.

As with a scripted reality show, Trump creates and keeps tension in his story line. His character is the grumpy anti-immigrant who shouts, “You furriners get off my lawn!” But if he does that consistently there is no tension. So in late August he asked the audience at a “town hall” (a phony t.v. town hall) whether he should “soften” his stance. He created a frenzy. Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter, bit players in the reality show, are stricken, in tears, angry and betrayed. Donald, you were our great white hope– how could you do this to us. Serious journalists were made to sit in televised roundtables (phony t.v. substitutes for actual reportage) and discuss ad nauseam whether Trump was “softening.” Or the serious journalists were switched out for campaign “surrogates” like Corey Lewandowski, hired by CNN to parrot Trump even though he was still on Trump’s payroll. Cable news journalism made its own journalism disappear. “This is not a journalist,” the ticker underneath should read.

Then the scripted reality character grumpy Trump comes out and gives a fiery speech denouncing immigrants, resolving the tension he had artificially created.

The one-week “softening crisis” never actually took place. There was no softening. Just as there is no election.

The unreality of the election is easily demonstrated. The controversies broadcast both on television and radio and on social media do not refer back to any verified, reasoned facts. More dramatic tension was introduced just yesterday when the Trump campaign (which doesn’t really exist) announced that Barack Obama was not actually born in Kenya. But the star, Trump, is sulking and won’t say that, won’t allow the concrete reality of the hospital in Hawaii in 1961 to seep into the televised rally, the holodeck of Trump’s spaceship.

The controversies are not about farm policy or who will be appointed to the Treasury, as in the actual elections of the past. They are over whether Hillary Clinton has a brain tumor, or whether her cough indicates she might expire any moment, like Monty Python’s parrot (which the pet shop owner insisted was alive, insofar as it was only a television simulacrum of a parrot, sort of like Magritte’s non-pipe).

The controversies are over whether Trump is a Manchurian candidate being run by Russian President Vladimir Putin or whether Hillary Clinton deliberately endangered national security with classified emails (not marked classified) that would inevitably fall into Putin’s hands.

The figure of Putin as the eminence grise of the non-election underscores its unreality, since Putin has nothing to do with the “election.” Aside from a few ineffectual sanctions over Crimea (increasingly resisted by the Europeans), the Washington power elite has acquiesced in eastern Ukraine as a Russian sphere of influence, and increasingly in Syria as a Russian sphere of influence. Trump and Clinton may talk a different game around these realities, but neither of them is likely to depart dramatically from Obama’s current course. Putin is irrelevant to domestic politics But in the un-election of 2016, he is elevated to a spectral presence standing behind everything from Trump’s hotel deals to Clinton’s fiendish email ploy.

putinghost

Likewise with climate change, which Trump and most of the Republicans insist is a mirage, just as the pet store owner insists that the parrot is alive. Although Hillary Clinton says she believes in the reality of climate change, she has given no indication at all of wanting to move dramatically to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. When she gave conditions under which she would now not support fracking, she did not bring up its CO2 emissions! She seemed to want localities to make the decision (but many Red states are forbidding localities to make the decision). Hydraulic fracturing is the single biggest threat to climate change amelioration, but that doesn’t cause her simply to call for it to be banned. What is the difference between denying that human beings are altering the climate with their emissions and acknowledging it but doing nothing significant about it?

In short, friends, this is not a pipe. As for the parrot, it “is no more”, “has ceased to be”, is “bereft of life”, and “this is an ex-parrot.”

Trump-inspired felon allegedly torches Ft. Pierce FL Mosque, says “All Islam is radical”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Joseph Michael Schreiber stands accused of having carried out an arson attack against a mosque in Fort Pierce, Florida, about an hour’s drive north from West Palm Beach.

The mosque was burned down on the first night of Eid al-Adha or the Festival of Sacrifice, a major Muslim holy day that in part commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command. The fire was set after midnight and it wasn’t until 5 am until the local firefighters could put the blaze out.

The small congregation of 100 vows to rebuild the edifice.

Those who want to contribute to the rebuilding can do so at this page by clicking on “support.”

The Fort Pierce Islamic Center had a web page that wished visitors “peace be upon you” and described itself this way:

“In the name of God, the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate,

The Islamic Center of Fort Pierce is the oldest mosque in the Treasure Coast area, located on West Midway Road in White City. The purpose of this mosque is to cater to the needs of the greater Muslim community by providing a wide range of services, activities, programs, and classes. Over the years, the mosque has been a central point for the Muslim community and the center has been used for events, lectures, meetings, classes, and much more. We strongly condemn all acts of terror and violence.”

It serviced a diverse community from 22 countries. Muslim-Americans in the Fort Pierce have been living in fear and suffering from severe harassment for several years.

Schreiber, 32, is single and is likely to remain so. He has a history of petty theft and faces 30 years in prison if he is convicted of the arson as a hate crime.

He at one point posted to his Facebook page a GOP National Committee picture showing Trump/Spence and the words “The team that will make America great again!”

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-1-39-39-am

It seems to me that Donald Trump bears some of the responsibility for the burning of the mosque and that the congregants should look into suing him.

Trump has said that “Islam hates us,” has advocated banning Muslims from coming to the United States and has baited President Obama for not using the phrase “radical Islamic extremism.” He might as well have handed the Fort Pierce arsonist a can of gasoline and some matches.

Schreiber at one point wrote ““IF AMERICA truly wants peace and safety and pursuit of happiness they should consider all forms of ISLAM as radical . . .”

He also attacked President Obama and Sec. Hillary Clinton.

Actually, Muslim-Americans have served in the US military protecting the United States from terrorist and other threats. The community is thought to be at least 3 million strong in this country and so comprises 1 percent of the US population. They are disproportionately well educated. They agree that women should have their own careers if they want them, and the women in the Muslim-American community have even more higher degrees that the men. Muslim-Americans have a deep history on this continent. Many Latinos in the southwest were of Arab Muslim heritage from Andalucia, who had been forced to convert to Catholicism but sometimes kept some Muslim customs. Muslims were brought from Africa as slaves from the beginning of American history in the time of the British colonies, and at least 20% of the slaves were Muslim. Since Muslim slaves probably helped build the White House, it is only right that the African-American son of an African Muslim now inhabits it.

Schreiber does not appear anywhere to have mentioned Omar Mateen, who frequented a gay nightclub in Orlando seeking dates and later committed a mass shooting there. It is alleged that Mateen may have stopped in at the Fort Pierce mosque two or three times a year and that he attended there as a small child.

It is extremely irresponsible for the press to put Mateen in the headlines and the lede about the arson, since there is no known connection, and the members of the Fort Pierce congregation aren’t responsible for him. Many are high-powered physicians curing local Floridians of their ailments.

Indeed, foregrounding Mateen, who was not living in Fort Pierce and did not commit his crime there, is a form of blaming the victim and would never be done with regard to other religions.

If there were an arson at the Christian church would journalists dig up all the felons who had gone there and mention them in the headline?

The story here is not that the Fort Pierce Muslim community deserved what happened to them. It is that they were attacked by a racist bigot who appears to have been inspired by the anti-Muslim hate speech of Donald J. Trump and his acolytes. And mark my words, this is only the beginning.

Syria Truce holds, despite questions on Humanitarian Aid

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The London pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-`Arabi reports that the truce that began Monday night held during its first twenty-four hours, in the areas designated for a cease-fire by Russia and the United States. The boom of artillery fire faded away at nightfall on Monday. It coincided with the beginning of the Muslim holy day, Eid al-Adha. The Syrian Observatory also confirmed that the main battlefields in Aleppo, Damascus and Idlib had fallen quiet.

Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned that this cease-fire might be Syria’s last chance to remain together as a single country.

(Juan says that you can’t really tell about these things. The Lebanese fought for 15 years, then made peace. All 15 years people were saying it would split up into cantons, but it didn’t. Then South Sudan fought a separatist insurgency for years and finally did secede, breaking up Sudan; but that didn’t bring peace to South Sudan, where the factions no longer even have Khartoum to mediate between them. This fixation on breaking up countries is hard for me to understand).

One of the big changes the truce brought is an end to the intensive bombing of rebel-held areas by the Syrian Air Force. In the village of Talbisa on the outskirts of the city of Homs, rebel fighter Hassan Abu Nuh told AFP that the bombing had been keeping them up all night every night, but last night they were able to sleep.

Many Syrians in the countryside are skeptical that the truce will hold past the three days of the Eid.

The next step foreseen, if it becomes safe enough, is for humanitarian aid to begin being delivered to populations that had been under siege or whose supply routes had been cut by the fighting.

There was little sign of political compromise, however, which is a bad sign for the future. Regime strongman Bashar al-Assad gave a creepy speech in which he pledged to recover control of the entire country (and since he runs secret police that specialize in torturing political prisoners, he does mean control). Al-Assad also said that Turkey was not welcome to bring in humanitarian aid into Syrian territory unless Ankara cleared the shipments with Damascus first. Fat chance.

On the other hand, the remnants of the Free Syrian Army rebels (mostly Muslim Brotherhood) issued a communique outlining their discontents with the truce agreement, though they did not reject it. If the ceasefire holds in disputed areas for 48 hours, it will be renewed for another 48, and so on in hopes that it will become long-lasting.

The Freemen of Syria, a major hard line Salafi Jihadi group, did reject the ceasefire, as, of course, the Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) or Army of Syrian Conquest (whose leader is pledged to al-Qaeda).

On Monday, Russia asked the US and its air coalition to begin bombing Fateh al-Sham positions, on the grounds that they are terrorists.

The ceasefire does not cover either Fateh al-Sham or Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).

The US hit a Daesh facility on Monday that it believes has been used to produce chemical weapons.

—-

Related video:

AFP: “Syria ceasefire takes effect in Aleppo, scepticism persists”

What did we buy with the $5 Trillion that the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars have cost us?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

A Boston U. political scientist estimates that as of 2016, The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have cost the American taxpayers $5 trillion. That number isn’t important when we consider the human cost– Some 7,000 US troops dead, 52,000 wounded in action; hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead who wouldn’t otherwise be, 4 million displaced and made homeless, etc.

Just to put that $5 trillion in perspective. Let’s say you chose five individuals. Each of the five will spend $10 million a day. That’s the cost of Heidi Klum’s mansion. They’d be buying the equivalent of five of those each day.

They’ll do that every day of their lives. All five of them. And then each of them will be succeeded by one their children, who will spend $10 million dollars a day, and one of their grandchildren, and one of their great-grandchildren, until 270 years have passed and it is the year 2286. That’s the equivalent of a stardate for Captain Picard of the Enterprise.

spend-1-trillion

Neta Crawford, a professor of Political Science at Brown University published the study for Brown University’s Watson Institute.

Professor Crawford writes:

“As of August 2016, the US has already appropriated, spent , or taken on obligations to spend more than $ 3 . 6 trillion in current dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and o n Homeland Security ( 2001 through fiscal year 2016 ) . To t his total should be added the approximately $6 5 billion in dedicated war spending the Department of Defense and State Department have requested for the next fiscal year, 2017 , along with an additional nearly $3 2 billion requested for the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, and estimated spending on veterans in future years . When those are included , the total US budgetary cost of the wars reach es $4.79 trillion.”

The US has spent $1.7 trillion for combat and reconstruction. I have a sinking feeling that first they spent half of it on destroying things and then they spent the other half on rebuilding them.

Through 2053, the US government owes the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans $1 trillion in medical and disability payments along with the money to administer all that.

Crawford adds,

“Interest costs for overseas contingency operations spending alone are projected to add more than $1 trillion dollars to the national debt by 2023. By 2053 , interest costs will be at least $7.9 trillion unless the US changes the way it pays for the wars.”

Of 2.7 million military personnel who served in those two theaters, 2 million have now left the military and have entered the Veterans Administration system. Some 52,000 of them were wounded in action and many need care.

Because the Bush administration borrowed money to pay for the wars, we’ve paid half a trillion dollars in interest alone.

At least al-Qaeda had been based in Afghanistan. Iraq had had nothing to do with September 11. It was Bush’s invasion that brought al-Qaeda there, which later morphed into ISIL.

We were lied into that war, and it has weakened our economy. If anyone can tell me what benefit that war brought the average American, I’d like to hear it.

The Iraq War was a government-led Ponzi scheme and as usual the little people are the ones who took a bath.

Iran and Hizbullah Welcome Kerry-Lavrov Syria Ceasefire

Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Hizbullah, the national guard for South Lebanon, announced Saturday that it supports the agreement on a truce in Syria, where its fighters have been battling on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Its statement said that “the field commander for operations in Syria has affirmed that allies of Syria are abiding in a complete and exact fashion with what has been decided by the Syrian leadership and the government and the security and political leadership with regard to the truce and to respecting their decisions and implementing them in the desired manner.”

Damascus itself signed off on the truce agreement worked out between the United States and the Russian Federation, which aims at an immediate tamping down of violence and and kickstarting negotiations toward achieving a political transition.

It is estimated that that 5,000 to 8,000 Hizbullah militiamen are fighting at various fronts in Syria.

Hizbullah receives military and financial support from Iran, which also welcomed the truce on Sunday.

The truce is supposed to come into effect Monday evening, in conjunction with the Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim holy day.

Hizbullah said that it would continue its open war against terrorist excommunicators, i.e. groups that try to throw other Muslims out of Islam and target them for violence. (The Salafi vigilantes in Syria consider Shiites to be heretics deserving of death.)

For its part, Iran said that the agreement, which it welcomed, needed a “monitoring instrument” so that what it called ‘terrorist groups’ did not exploit the truce.

The office of Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed the Russo-American understanding. Spokesman Bahram Qasemi said that Iran looked forward to the implementation of any truce in Syria. He said its success would depend on the establishment of means to monitor the border so as to stop the flow of terrorist volunteers and weapons and finances.

It should be noted that the regime’s Syrian Arab Army and its Shiite militia allies, including Hizbullah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the Iraqi Movement of the Noble (Harakat al-Nujaba’) at the moment have East Aleppo surrounded and besieged, and that the truce requires allowing civilian aid to reach it. Will they give up their current advantage and allow these supplies in?

——

Related video:

Press TV: “Iran welcomes Russia-US ceasefire deal for Syria”

15 Years after 9/11, can we Recover our Republic?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Founding Fathers thought keeping a standing army was a danger to democracy. The great wars of the twentieth century appear to have imbued the United States with a permanent standing army, and this institution has been reinforced by the September 11 attacks. Or rather it has been reinforced by how Washington elites have decided to respond to those attacks. They have responded with lawlessness. If only we had treated al-Qaeda as the criminals they are instead of creating a ‘war on terror’ then we would have relied more on courts and due process and less on force majeure.

Perhaps the US military itself is not a danger to democracy, but that it is there, well-trained and well-equipped, creates a constant temptation for presidents to use it. And war presidents are imperial presidents, as we have seen with both Bush and Obama.

The pretext of national security born of wars has been fatal to our basic liberties. Both Bush and Obama sought to have their intelligence agencies carry out massive domestic surveillance and both have killed and buried the Fourth Amendment.

Alongside the standing army, however, is the post-9/11 legislation, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, bestowed on the president by Congress, which is still in force even though Usama Bin Laden is dead and his organization is a shadow of its former self.

Here is what the AUMF says:

“SEC. 2. AUTHORIZATION FOR USE OF UNITED STATES ARMED FORCES.

(a) < > In General.–That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

As Mary Louise Kelley pointed out at NPR, the White House is using the AUMF to justify continued intervention in Libya against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) there.

Since many of today’s ISIL fighters were born after 9/11, it is frankly ridiculous to derive Obama’s ability to make war on them from this vague text.

Like a standing army, a standing AUMF is a danger to democracy.

Obama’s wars in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, etc., would not have been so easily pursued if he had had to go back to Congress in each case to get a specific authorization.

The way in which the National Security Agency used the Iraq War as a pretext for increasing its surveillance of ordinary Americans should be a cautionary tale. Likewise, Obama’s use of the fascist 1919 Espionage Act against whistleblowers would not have been so easy had we been at peace.

It is time to end the AUMF and reduce the presidency back to being a republican institution. Likewise other agencies of the executive need to be constrained by the constitution again, a task only Congress and the courts can undertake.

Making sure the Constitution and our rights are strong is the best way of honoring the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

——-

Related video:

Open Road Films: “SNOWDEN – Official Trailer”

US and Russia plan Joint Air Command to hit Terrorists in Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Pentagon isn’t going to be happy about this.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced an agreement on a Syria plan between the US and Russia late on Friday, which they said the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad had agreed to.

The agreement seems to have the main ingredients I talked about last Saturday:

1. Syrian Air Force stops bombing cities, including Aleppo and Homs

2. Humanitarian aid allowed to reach millions of civilians

3. Russia will also stop its bombing campaign on all groups except Daesh (ISIS, ISIL)

4. Once these steps have been taken, the US will join Russia in bombing positions of the Army of Syrian Conquest (Jabhat al-Nusra), whose leader is loyal to al-Qaeda

What is now elaborated and a little unexpected is that if the agreement holds for a week, the US has agreed to establish a joint Air Force operations center to coordinate air strikes on Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and on al-Qaeda in Syria (the Army of Syrian Conquest [ASC] or the Nusra Front).

As I noted last Saturday, a lot of officers in the US military do not like the idea at all of coordinating with Russia, and feel that Russia has taken advantage of past ceasefires to advance its interests and those of al-Assad on the ground.

Air Force Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein has complained bitterly that Russian pilots in Syria have been reckless and endangered the American pilots. But Gen. Goldfein is just going to have to spend some time doing joint planning with the commander of Russian Aerospace Forces, Colonel General Viktor Bondarev.

With regard to broken ceasefires, to be fair, Russia holds that US-backed fundamentalist guerrilla groups have often broken past cease-fires and actually joined in with al-Qaeda to attack Russia and its allies and to grab up new territory.

One implication of the agreement is that the 30 or so CIA-vetted rebel groups, mostly Muslim Brotherhood, to which the US has funneled money and arms through Saudi Arabia, are being forced to break their alliance of convenience with Abu Muhammad al-Julani, who has pledged allegiance to 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri, and who leads ASC/ Nusra. Since both Russia and the US will be bombing the positions of al-Julani’s ASC/ Nusra Front, the remnants of the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups such as

If the rebels keep their battlefield alliance with it, they’ll be bombed alongside the al-Qaeda affiliate.

(Why the US is supporting allies, even allies of convenience, of al-Qaeda 15 years after 9/11 I’ll never understand; apparently you’d have to ask John Brennan at the CIA).

In return for joint US-Russian air action against Daesh and al-Qaeda, Russia agreed to a kind of no-fly zone in Syria– there are areas of Russo-American air dominance where the Syrian regime’s planes will not be allowed to fly. Hence Damascus won’t be able to send down barrel bombs on rebel-held areas at will anymore.

Moreover, the regime will have to let food and supplies into besieged urban quarters. Al-Assad and his henchmen have been starving rebel groups out and forcing them to relocate.

—–

Related video:

RT: “Syria ceasefire: Kerry, Lavrov agreed on a new plan on Syria”

Nearly 500 more US Troops sent to Iraq for Mosul Attack in advance of Election Day

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Stars and Stripes is reporting that the number of US troops in Iraq has risen from 4,000 to 4,460 in preparation for the Iraqi government campaign against Mosul.

The WSJ reported that the government of Iraqi prime minister Haydar al-Abadi wants to begin the campaign in October.

Mosul was a city of 2 million in its metropolitan area before Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) took it in June of 2014, and mostly Sunni Arab. It is probably now only 1 million, held by about 4,000 Daesh fighters. Originally the terrorist organization was able to take Mosul because local groups like the Naqshbandi Sufi order cum resistance guerrilla group welcomed Daesh into the city. Some reports speak of a city-wide uprising against the then Iraqi army, which helped to chase them out of the city. But by now everyone in Mosul hates Daesh and the population will likely welcome the Iraqi army as liberators. This is so even though many Sunni Iraqis view the Iraqi government as a Shiite preserve and see the Iraqi military as having been sectarianized by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Meanwhile, Athil al-Nujayfi, the titular governor of Ninewah Province (in which Mosul is located), engaged the prime minister Haydar al-Ibadi in a spirited debate, over the participation of the Shiite militias in the taking of Mosul. Al-Abadi is said to be committed to deploying them, but Sunni Arabs often feel that they have carried out reprisal attacks on Sunnis and fear them..

President Obama reconstituted the Iraq Command of the US military after the fall of most of Sunni Iraq to Daesh fighters in summer of 2014. Many of the personnel are on secure bases in Baghdad, but US trainers and support troops have gotten permission from the Pentagon to get pretty close to the front in order to help the Iraqi military.

If Mosul falls before Election Day in the US, it will undermine a key talking point of the Republican Right, i.e. that Obama is weak on terrorism. (Why they say this is anyone’s guess. Obama has authorized enormously more drone strikes than any other country in the world, and killed Bin Laden. Obama’s counter-terrorism strategies could be questioned on human rights grounds, but not on the grounds that they are a sign of weakness.)

The Democrats will suddenly be the party that defeated Daesh/ ISIL. This is kind of an October surprise of the sort that campaign managers dream of.

It seems a little unlikely that PM al-Abadi cares about US electoral problems. He has his own reasons for wanting to roll up al-Qaeda in Iraq quickly. But his timetable could play into Hillary Clinton’s hands.

Related video:

Aljazeera English: “Inside Story – Is the Iraqi army ready to liberate Mosul?”

Clinton: No US ground troops in Iraq, Syria; Trump: Steal Iraqi Oil

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The NBC Candidates Forum continued the shameful corporate coverage of the Great American Meltdown that is our election season. That season has given us a Faux Cable News that runs clips of only one side and pays out hush money to cover up how its blonde anchors were not so much hired as trafficked; a CNN that has hired a paid employee of the candidate as a consultant and analyst; and networks that won’t mention climate change or carbon emissions the same way they won’t mention labor unions. They aren’t even trying to do journalism any more– cable “news” is mostly infotainment as a placeholder between ads for toilet paper. I can’t bear to watch it most of the time and just read the news on the Web. If I have to watch t.v. I turn on local news (often does a better job on national stories too) or Alarabiya and Aljazeera, which for all their faults do actually have real news (and their faults cancel out one another). I can always get the transcript for the cable news shows; reading it is faster and less painful than having to watch.

The NBC Forum didn’t really challenge either candidate on implausible statements, but on the whole engaged in a lot of badgering of Hillary Clinton while letting Donald Trump get away with outright misstatements of the facts and tossing him a lot of softballs.

The big Middle East questions for Clinton came from military personnel and veterans and concerned Iraq and Syria. She also got an Iran question.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, as an Army veteran, a commander-in- chief’s to empathize with servicemembers and their families is important to me. The ability to truly understand implications and consequences of your decisions, actions, or inactions. How will you determine when and where to deploy troops directly into harm’s way, especially to combat ISIS?

LAUER: As briefly as you can.

CLINTON: We have to defeat ISIS. That is my highest counterterrorism goal. And we’ve got to do it with air power. We’ve got to do it with much more support for the Arabs and the Kurds who will fight on the ground against ISIS. We have to squeeze them by continuing to support the Iraqi military. They’ve taken back Ramadi, Fallujah. They’ve got to hold them. They’ve got to now get into Mosul.

We’re going to work to make sure that they have the support — they have special forces, as you know, they have enablers, they have surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance help.

They are not going to get ground troops. We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria. We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops. So those are the kinds of decisions we have to make on a case-by-case basis.

So that’s the headline: Hillary Clinton pledges no ground troops in Iraq or Syria. She doesn’t seem to understand that President Obama has recreated the Iraq Command and has 4,000 or so troops there. There are 250 embedded with the far-left Kurdish YPG in northeast Syria. So is she saying she would pull those troops out? Or that they aren’t ground troops?

Plus she started by saying she will defeat ISIL (though it may be already defeated territorially before she ever gets into office). She says she will defeat it from the air and give support to the Iraqi Army.

From the point of view of military strategy, nothing she said makes any sense. You can’t defeat a guerrilla group from the air. So far no force on the ground has been willing to go after ISIL in its Syrian lair, al-Raqqa. How would she change all that?

As for supporting the Iraqi army, it collapsed in 2014 and only one really good brigade has been retrained and shown effectiveness. None of the cities she mentioned it taking would have fallen to it without extensive help from Shiite militias, many of which are tight with Iran. So if she is going to intervene from the air, she is going to have to support pro-Iranian irregulars, not just the Iraqi army.

Nor is it clear that the Iraqi Army and its Shiite auxiliaries can truly defeat Daesh/ ISIL. Yes, they can take territory. But a lot of Sunni Arabs are frustrated with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and they are not going to be less frustrated if they feel they have traded Daesh rule for Shiite militia rule.

Iraqi Shiites have a profound blind spot to their own sectarianism, having occupied the space of “the national” in Iraq and claimed it for themselves. They are in denial about how much the Sunni Arabs collaborated with Daesh to get away from Shiite rule. While it is true that many Sunni Arabs were happy to be rescued from Daesh by the Iraqi Army, it is not clear that any of the promises of Baghdad to put money into cities like Ramadi and Fallujah will be honored.

As for Iran, she stood by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that pledges Iran only to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.

“LAUER: Do you think they’re playing us?

CLINTON: On the nuclear issue, no. I think we have enough insight into what they’re doing to be able to say we have to distrust but verify. What I am focused on is all the other malicious activities of the Iranians — ballistic missiles, support for terrorists, being involved in Syria, Yemen, and other places, supporting Hezbollah, Hamas.

But here’s the difference, Matt. I would rather as president be dealing with Iran on all of those issues without having to worry as much about their racing for a nuclear weapon. So we have made the world safer; we just have to make sure it’s enforced.

It is not clear to me what terrorists she thinks Iran is supporting. Hezbollah doesn’t function as a terrorist organization but as the national guard for Shiite-majority south Lebanon. Israel annexed south Lebanon in 1982 after launching a brutal war of aggression that may have left 90,000 dead. Hizbullah grew up as a resistance movement to that aggression and that occupation, both of which the United States government tacitly supported. We all know exactly what Israelis would do if someone tried to occupy 10% of Israel as it is now constituted. So why call Lebanese who resist occupation ‘terrorists’? Except, if you rather like the idea of Israel occupying neighboring Arabs?

As for Hamas, Iran and it haven’t had good relations since Hamas broke with Tehran to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (they bet on the wrong horse). Besides, demonizing Hamas is silly. The Gaza Strip is a large outdoor concentration camp kept that way by the Israelis and the inmates under such conditions are likely to stage prison riots from time to time. End the occupation, Hamas might go away. There wasn’t any Hamas in Gaza to speak of anyway until the Israelis themselves covertly built it up in the 1980s as an alternative to the secular PLO.

The Iranians are not involved in any meaningful way in Yemen, which is beset by internal struggles between the deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh (an Arab nationalist that Mrs. Clinton used to support) and his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, with the Saudis having come in on the side of the latter (they used to support Saleh). True, Saleh has allied with a Zaidi militia, the Houthis, but Zaidism is a completely different kind of Shiism than in Iran and Iran is not a big player in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, which is indiscriminately bombing civilian infrastructure in Yemen like bridges and hospitals, is the meddling party, not Iran. Over a hundred thousand residents of the capital, Sanaa, demonstrated recently against the Saudis. Not even one was an Iranian.

It is truly scary that this is Clinton’s take on Yemen.

As for Syria, I also criticize Iran for propping up the genocidal al-Assad regime. But the forces backed by the Saudis in conjunction with the US CIA are just as bad; some of them are worse.

And besides, we just decided that she needs pro-Iranian Shiite militias if she is going to have someone to give close air support to in the fight against Daesh.

These talking points on Iran may as well have been written for Clinton jointly by Bibi Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. They bear no resemblance to an American grand strategy that would make sense for American interests.

So I don’t think she has a realistic way of intervening effectively in the Middle East (air power is useless in these kinds of struggles), and I fear she is so biased against Iran that she will end up de facto undermining the JCPOA and thence alienating the only effective set of potential regional allies against Daesh.

She also doesn’t say what she will do when air power fails to defeat Daesh.

As for The Donald, I don’t know if there is a lot of point in analyzing what he says, since he will say the opposite things tomorrow.

On Middle East issues, Trump said:

“President Obama took over, likewise, it was a disaster. It was actually somewhat stable. I don’t think could ever be very stable to where we should have never gone into in the first place.

But he came in. He said when we go out — and he took everybody out. And really, ISIS was formed. This was a terrible decision. And frankly, we never even got a shot. And if you really look at the aftermath of Iraq, Iran is going to be taking over Iraq. They’ve been doing it. And it’s not a pretty picture.

The — and I think you know — because you’ve been watching me I think for a long time — I’ve always said, shouldn’t be there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil. If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn’t have ISIS, because ISIS formed with the power and the wealth of that oil.

LAUER: How were we going to take the oil? How were we going to do that?

TRUMP: Just we would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil. They have — people don’t know this about Iraq, but they have among the largest oil reserves in the world, in the entire world.”

Iraq was not stable in 2011; it was being regularly blown up by terrorists. Obama’s withdrawal of US troops did not destabilize it. That had already happened. There was no way for US troops to stay there since the Iraqi parliament would not vote them immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

Trump’s ridiculous suggestion that the US should have found a way to steal Iraq’s petroleum, apparently by establishing a mercenary force at the Rumayla fields near Basra, is so preposterous that even Matt Lauer timidly and briefly questioned it.

The proposition that if the US had in fact managed to steal Iraq’s petroleum fields for itself that would have calmed the country down and prevented the rise of ISIL is so absurd that there are no words to describe how absurd it is. It is actually more absurd than any of Sarah Palin’s word salads.

It is like a presidential candidate saying that we’d have much better relations with Norway, and that country would be more stable, if the United States hired local mercenaries to occupy its oil fields and siphon of their profits to US banks. (Sounds properly absurd when you put it in the context of white people, doesn’t it?)

Then there was this:

“TRUMP: Hey, Matt, again, she made a mistake on Libya. She made a terrible mistake on Libya. And the next thing, I mean, not only did she make the mistake, but then they complicated the mistake by having no management once they bombed you know what out of Gadhafi. I mean, she made a terrible mistake on Libya. And part of it was the management aftereffect. I think that we have great management talents, great management skills. “

Trump supported the Libyan intervention at the time. In fact, he was outraged before the intervention that there hadn’t been one according to Politifact:

“”I can’t believe what our country is doing,” Trump said, according to a BuzzFeed transcript. “Gaddafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around we have soldiers all have the Middle East, and we’re not bringing them in to stop this horrible carnage and that’s what it is: It’s a carnage.”

Matt Laurer didn’t challenge any of Trump’s lies about his past positions, and his journalistic reputation suffered badly for it last night.

Trump also said that Russia wants to defeat Daesh/ ISIL as badly as the US does and there should be more cooperation between the two. But in fact, Daesh doesn’t pose that big a danger to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, since it is out in the eastern desert. So Russia is not in fact that interested in it, since it is in Syria to prop up al-Assad. Russia wants to destroy the Syrian Army of Conquest or Nusra Front, the leader of which is an al-Qaeda operative. The US complains that the fundamentalist militias vetted by the CIA are cooperating too closely with al-Qaeda for it to be possible to separate the two out in bombing raids. Actually I’d say that if the militias you support are so intertwined with al-Qaeda that they’d get hit if al-Qaeda was bombed, then you haven’t done a very good job of vetting.

Then Trump went on to heap praise on Vladimir Putin and to call him a better leader than President Obama. He kept saying Putin had called Trump “brilliant,” which he didn’t (not sure if praise from an old KGB operator is high praise or just manipulative).

Lauer was criticized for letting Trump get away without answering any substantial questions about his Middle East policy.

It was a low, wretched performance, by the network and both candidates, full of fluff and posturing and Alice in Wonderland statements of policy along with an almost complete derogation of authority by the anchors. It marked a low point in our national discourse about world politics.

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Related video:

The Young Turks: “NBC Presidential Forum: The Young Turks Summary”

Saudi Bigot-in-Chief Declares Iranian Shiites “Not Muslim”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

`Abd al-Aziz Al Shaikh, the chief jurisconsult or mufti for the interpretation of Muslim law in Saudi Arabia, said Wednesday that Iranian Shiites are not Muslims.

This statement is a huge step back from the limited progress Saudi had made under the previous king, Abdullah, toward being a more inclusive country.

It is also a violation of the 2005 Amman Message crafted by a large number of Sunni and Shiite leaders to combat the social ill of takfir or summary excommunication of some Muslims by others.

Al Shaikh was responding to the demand by Iran’s clerical Leader, Ali Khamenei (a Shiite) that the Muslim world establish a commission to look into replacing the Saudi administration of the pilgrimage with a more efficient and accountable body. Iranians still smart from the massive stampede in 2015 that left hundreds dead, a large number of whom were Iranians.

Al Shaikh said, “This matter is not surprising coming from those people. We have to understand that they are not Muslims. They are descendants of Zoroastrians. Their enmity with the Muslims is an old affair, especially toward the Sunnis.”

Ironically, in the 18th century Wahhabis were the ones denouncing the Sunnis and attacking the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Through the centuries the Wahhabis have gradually asserted that they are Sunnis themselves. But they did not start out that way.

The foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, replied to the mufti on twitter, saying sardonically that it is certainly true that the Islam of Iranians and indeed of most Muslims does not resemble that of Saudi Arabian Wahhabis:

But calling the Saudis “terror masters” isn’t fair, and feeds into a widespread prejudice against Wahhabis, most of whom are not terrorists and most of whom don’t support terrorism (in opinion polling, the Saudi public identifies terrorism as one of the biggest challenges facing their country).

The fact is, most countries support some terrorist group or another as part of their statecraft (consider the Reagan administration’s alliance with the Mujahidin and al-Qaeda against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s), and Iran would do better to challenge this unhelpful discourse in international affairs than to join in the game.

Admittedly, Saudi Arabia’s “Unitarian” form of Islam, founded in the 18th century by Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab and popularly known as “Wahhabism,” is one of the more intolerant strands of the religion. In the past, its adherents excommunicated the sultan of the Ottoman Empire and mounted a rebellion against him (sort of like Protestants excommunicating the Holy Roman Emperor). The Saudi Wahhabi tradition is also peculiar in its patriarchy, oppressing women and declining to even let them drive. (But note that Qatar is also Wahhabi and does not have the same policies, so it isn’t just the religious tradition).

One of the challenges to what I have called the “Wahhabi myth,” the stereotyping of Wahhabism as promoting terrorism, is that it isn’t good social science. Many Sunnis influenced by Wahhabism, the Salafis, check out of politics and are quietists. The Salafis in Egypt have been a force in parliamentary politics in the past 5 years. The Saudi citizen population is probably 20 million, and almost none of them are terrorists.

From an outsider’s point of view, Saudi Wahhabism is certainly a much more intolerant tradition than Sunnis; but there have been intolerant Sunnis and Sunni movements (e.g. the Almohads).

That is, Wahhabism is not a static essence but has a history. In the reign of King Abdullah (r. 2005-2015 but the real ruler from the mid-1990s), small attempts were made to reform the Wahhabi tradition. That king founded a university of science and technology that has a mixed-gender student body. He reached out to the 12% of the population, mainly in the Eastern Province, who are Shiites, and effected a reconciliation with some of their previously dissident leaders. These Saudi Shiites were allowed to become powerful through local elections on municipal councils in largely Shiite cities such as Qatif. Shiite rituals were allowed in public in wholly Shiite neighborhoods. At the national level, King Abdullah appointed two Shiites to his 150-member appointive National Consultative Council, the embryo of the future Saudi parliament. He brought the former dissident Shiite cleric Shaikh Safar to Riyadh for a joint t.v. appearance with a Wahhabi cleric (a first).

In King Salman’s reign, all these (admittedly minor) forms of ecumenism have been undone and the kingdom’s rhetoric against Iran and Shiites has ratcheted up, recalling the old Wahhabi intolerance of the 19th century. The recent apogee of this turn to intolerance was the execution of dissident Shiite cleric Shaikh Nimr last winter (see video below).

The mufti’s pronouncements, which painted Iranians as crypto-Zoroastrians, reflected Arab nationalist themes more than religious ones. Iranians are not Arabs, speaking Persian, an Indo-European language. One of the subtexts of this sort of claim is that Arabs are echt Muslims, since Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula.

But most Arabs at the time Islam began were pagan worshipers of north Arabian deities like Allat and al-`Uzza, or were Christians (the Banu Ghassan in Syria) or Jews (most Yemenis). What is the difference between these backgrounds to becoming Muslim and Zoroastrianism?

Moreover, Iranians were central to the development of the Sunni tradition and most did not become Shiites until the Safavid reformation of the 1500s and 1600s. That is, Iranians were Sunnis for hundreds of years and it is not clear that historical Sunnism would look at all the same without their contributions. Remember that Wahhabism began as a rejection of Sunnism and involved violent attacks on Sunni authorities.

Twentieth-century Muslim reformers often aimed at taqrib or bringing Sunnis and Shiites closer in an ecumenical spirit.

In some ways those efforts culminated in the Amman Message of 2005, which said,

“They specifically recognized the validity of all 8 legal schools of Sunni, Shi’a and Ibadi Islam; of traditional Islamic Theology (Ash’arism); of Islamic Mysticism (Sufism), and of true Salafi thought, and came to a precise definition of who is a Muslim.

Based upon this definition they forbade takfir (declarations of apostasy) between Muslims.

Based upon the legal schools they set forth the subjective and objective preconditions for the issuing of fatwas [jurisprudential rulings], thereby exposing ignorant and illegitimate edicts in the name of Islam.”

In the end, the mufti’s name-calling is just juvenile, like kindergarten taunts. The difference is that his sentiment at this time of terrorists and guerrilla movements could get Shiites killed. As I survey history from the vantage of my 60s, I am increasingly convinced that most of the wars and violence in world history have been fueled by immature behavior. Immature is a better word for it than ‘childish.’ Some children are well-behaved.

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Related video:

RT from last winter: “Executed cliric al-Nimr’s son: ‘Saudis didn’t extract bullet to make him suffer’”