“Annihilation” star Natalie Portman replied to the controversy stirred by her declining to attend the Genesis Foundation awards ceremony in Jerusalem in June because of her distress at “recent events” (the shooting down of unarmed protesters in Gaza by Israeli snipers at the order of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu).
“Let me speak for myself. I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance.’”
She added “But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values.”
She appears to be characterizing the Likud Party’s punitive treatment of the Palestinian civilian population of Gaza, which the Israelis have blockaded since 2007, as an ongoing atrocity and to be characterizing the assassination by Israeli marksmen of the protesters as mistreatment.
Prominent Likud Party member of the Israeli parliament Oren Hazan, a former casino manager in Bulgaria, said,
“[She is] a Jewish Israeli, who on the one hand cynically uses her birthplace to advance her career and on the other is proud of the fact that she managed to avoid enlisting in the IDF [euphemism for the Israeli Army]. She’s an actress, but she is unworthy of any honor in the State of Israel . . . Sweetness can come from strength: I call on Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) to rescind Portman’s Israeli citizenship. She left Israel at age four, and has no real connection to the State.”
Hazan denies that there are any Palestinians, and is notorious for harassing families of Palestinians going to see imprisoned relatives (some Palestinians have been imprisoned for writing poetry or for Facebook posts, while several hundred children are being held for acts of protest against the Israeli military). He told one bus full of relatives, that the garbage they called loved ones would never see the light of day:
Political scientist Ian Lustick has estimated that there are as many as one million Israeli Jews living outside Israel, out of the alleged 6 million Israeli Jews (and 2 million Palestinian-Israelis). It is possible that they or significant numbers of them are being counted in the Israeli official statistics so as to make the Jewish population look larger than it is on the ground. Perhaps MK Hazan should strip them all of citizenship?
NBC is reporting that Mike Pompeo lacks the votes in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to have his nomination to be Secretary of State be favorably reported out of committee on Monday night. Democrats on the committee have expressed fears that Pompeo, a warmonger, will reinforce the worst tendencies of Trump. Pompeo has been director of the Central Intelligence Agency for the past year. He was tapped to succeed ousted former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to Trump, in large part because Tillerson was “all right with” the Iran deal negotiated by the UN Security Council in 2015. Fears that Pompeo might drag us into a hot war with Iran may also have swayed some Republican members of the committee, which has a GOP majority.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell still has the ability to bring a vote on Pompeo to the floor of the full senate, assuming he can bypass some procedural obstacles created by the virtually unanimous opposition of Democrats. My guess is that Pompeo would be voted in under those circumstances, and the committee’s opposition could end up being a hiccough.
It is, however, extraordinary for a Secretary of State nominee to be rejected by the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, especially when the Senate is dominated by the president’s party!
Here are some reasons that the Committee is right to have the severest reservations about Pompeo as Secretary of State:
1. Pompeo has openly stated that he intends to undermine the Iran Deal (JCPOA) . The Iran deal is perhaps the most successful piece of anti-proliferation diplomacy in history. The new secretary of state will have to see through negotiations with North Korea. Pyongyang will notice if Iran is actively punished, as Pompeo intends, for having cooperated on non-proliferation with the international community. Although Kim Jong Un has secretly met with Pompeo, he likely was taking his measure. If it becomes clear that if you do a deal with Washington on closing down nuclear enrichment, you will then be stabbed in the back by the likes of Pompeo, then North Korea will likely get cold feet.
2. Pompeo is confused between ISIL, a seedy terrorist organization that brutalized and over-taxed its captive population, and Iran. The Iranian government is authoritarian, but less so than Pompeo’s friends the Saudis (he gave a CIA honor to King Salman). Iran has parliamentary and presidential elections that are deeply flawed but still consequential. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that imposes a thousand lashes on dissident bloggers for speaking out. Neither one is like ISIL. Someone who does not know the difference between ISIL and the republic of Iran should not be secretary of state.
3. Pompeo is a bigotted and fiery Islamophobe who has attempted to smear ordinary Muslim-Americans. It is not clear that he believes in their first amendment rights to freedom of religion. He is close to conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney, a known hate purveyor against Muslim-Americans. Pompeo cannot work with the 56 Muslim-majority countries in the world, or with countries with substantial Muslim populations from Singapore to India, if he hates the Islamic religion and sees its law code as illegitimate (does he feel that way about Jewish halacha as well?)
4. Pompeo opposes gay marriage rights and slammed the Supreme Court decision (by a GOP-dominated court) recognizing those rights as “a shocking abuse of power.” He can’t lead gay State Department personnel if he thinks they are perverts.
5. Pompeo is and has for long been in the back pocket of the Koch brothers’ big oil interests. The secretary of state has an important environmental impact. Even Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, recognized the importance of the Paris Climate Pact. Pompeo will take orders from the Kochs to destroy it, and the earth along with it.
6. Pompeo is a conspiracy theorist who should not be making US policy. He spent millions of tax payer dollars on a phony investigation of the Benghazi tragedy that was designed to tear down Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because she was seen as a plausible future Democratic president. Pompeo continually and deliberately distorted the documents thrown up by the inquiry and knew very well that the secretary of state does not order military operations. Someone who thinks that is the secretary’s mandate shouldn’t fill those shoes.
Natalie Portman has declined the award of the annual Genesis Foundation Prize in Jerusalem on the grounds that she is distressed by recent events.
The Academy Award-winning actress, who was born in Jerusalem and is an American and Israeli dual citizen, said that she “cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony.”
Her representative issued a statement saying, “Recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.”
Portman has been a strong supporter of Israel and rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. She has said in the past that she disapproves of people who become prominent and then denigrate Israel.
It seems to me that this past position makes her announcement all the more powerful.
Ms. Portman had been announced as the fifth laureate of the $1 mn. Genesis prize late last fall. Many of the awardees have been personally wealthy and have regifted their prize money to the foundation. Ms. Portman continued that tradition, funding a program to advance women’s rights and equality. That program was supported by Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn, who donated a further $1 million for a Genesis-Natalie Portman initiative on women.
Her abrupt withdrawal thus must have come as a high-voltage shock to the foundation, which has cancelled the June awards ceremony.
The foundation’s website explains,
“The Genesis Prize is a global award created to celebrate Jewish achievement and contribution to humanity. Launched in 2013, the Prize is financed through a permanent endowment of $100 million established by the Genesis Prize Foundation (GPF). The Prize operates as a partnership among The Genesis Prize Foundation, the Prime Minister’s Office of the State of Israel, and The Office of the Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
Although Ms. Portman’s laconic announcement does not spell all this out, it seems most likely that it was the involvement of the Prime Minister’s office in the prize that caused her to withdraw at this time.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is allegedly closely involved in the decisions of the foundation and it was rumored that he had nixed giving the 2018 award to US supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for fear that it would annoy Donald Trump, of whom Ginsburg has been overtly critical. Genesis denies these rumors. Ginsburg was given a Genesis lifetime achievement award in fall of 2017.
Again, Ms. Portman did not say explicitly what so disturbed her, but I think I will be forgiven for the educated guess that it was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision to order his troops to shoot dead some 40 unarmed Palestinian children and other peaceful civilians at the Gaza border fence and to use live fire to wound hundreds more.
The actions of the Israeli army and of its commanders, including Mr. Netanyahu, are war crimes. A systematic series of war crimes becomes a crime against humanity, an infraction of which Mr. Netanyahu is certainly guilty.
Ms. Portman is a vegan who does not approve of harming animals, and she has also been involved in refugee rights. Mr. Kahn, who supported her initiative on women at Genesis, has also been an activist on refugees.
In addition to the murders committed by the Israeli army at the Gaza border (when you kill unarmed peaceful people on their own territory, that is murder, not a “response” to “clashes”), the Netanyahu government has been expelling thousands of African refugees who came to Israel because its government had announced sympathy with their plight. Israeli mobs have often mobilized against these refugees, chanting racist slogans.
In the age of Trump, Mr. Netanyahu will face no formal justice for his crimes in Gaza and the West Bank against the 4.5 million Palestinians over whom he malignly rules.
Ms. Portman’s announcement shows, however, that the turn in Israel to the increasingly brazen deployment of a lawless and fascist set of policies does have public costs, even among faithful Jewish supporters of the state.
It should also be underlined that Ms. Portman’s decision showed extreme bravery. Public persons who criticize Israel openly are often viciously targeted by the Zionist right wing in the United States, and she could suffer professional and personal reprisals. In fact, social media is abuzz with calls for her to be attacked and refuted on the part of the American Likud.
Concluding parable: Padme Amidala, Queen of Naboo and Luke Skywalker’s real mother, gradually realized that her husband Anakin Skywalker had gone over to the dark side.
Thomas Friedman’s column this week made several allegations about the danger of an explosive situation in Syria, about which he is certainly correct.
He pointed out that the US-UK-France missile strikes on Syria in reprisal for the alleged use of chlorine gas at Douma by the Damascus government held the potential for severe tensions between the West and the Russian Federation. Had a missile gone astray and hit Russian military personnel, there would have been hell to pay.
He goes on to say that the tensions between Washington and Moscow were only the second-biggest crisis, and that Syria is about to explode because of a building Israel-Iran conflict there.
He puts the blame for the growing conflict between Tel Aviv and Tehran in Syria squarely on the shoulders of Qasem Solaimani, the commander of the Quds Force special operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, saying that now that the [US, Saudi and Turkey-backed fundamentalist Salafi] rebels in Syria have largely been defeated Solaimani’s “ego-trip” had lead him to build munitions factories in Syria.
Solaimani, he alleged, now controls–through proxies– four Arab capitals: Sana’a, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, and has escalated its simmering conflict with Israel through use of armed drones.
This argument is open to challenge on several grounds.
Many observers have pointed out that in the Cold War, American journalists always spoke of American allies but of Soviet “satellites,” as though the Soviet Union were so intrinsically odious that no political elite would dream of actually voluntarily allying with it, and any international support Moscow garnered came as a result of strong-arm tactics.
Mr. Friedman seems to be updating this language for the twenty-first century, giving Iran “control” of Lebanon (!) through its “proxy” (a.k.a. satellite), the Hizbullah party-militia.
Many of us who love Lebanon wish that *someone* were in control of it. But nobody apparently is. If it had a government rather than rolling anarchy, it would have proper electricity, internet, and garbage collection.
Hizbullah has a slight preponderance on the cabinet at the moment, but has a hostile prime minister, the Sunni, Saudi dual-national, Saad Hariri. Despite Hariri’s having been kidnapped and having had his family implicitly threatened and having been forced to resign, by Mr. Friedman’s new hero Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Hariri is still prime minister and somehow managed to blame Iran for the entire imbroglio.
Iran’s proxy, Hizbullah, cannot be said to be in control of Lebanon if it doesn’t even have a friendly prime minister. You could argue that Saudi Arabia, having the executive and having disciplined its “proxy,” actually has control.
Further, Hizbullah’s strength in the current parliament and cabinet comes from its alliance with the Maronite Christians led by former general Michel Aoun. The Maronites also control the officer corps of the Lebanese army.
So Lebanon looks less and less under the “control” of Qasem Solaimani the closer you look.
The fact is that southern Lebanese Shiites had tilted toward Israel back in the 1970s when Mr. Friedman was hanging out at the Concorde Hotel in Beirut and I was living in an apartment in Ain Mreisse. What changed was that the Israelis invaded the country, indiscriminately (Friedman’s word) shelled Beirut, and then occupied southern Lebanon, turning the Shiites against it and causing them to ally with Iran. Israeli policy created Hizbullah, a small organization. (Lebanon’s citizen population is only 4 million or so, and Shiites are probably a third, or 1.3 million. Two-thirds of most populations are children, leaving 410,000 adults, half of whom are women who don’t typically serve as guerrillas. And then some of the 205,000 adult men are old, disabled, running shops, etc.; they can’t possibly mount a very big military force. Someone should ask why Israel, which has the best military in the region and the most sophisticated weaponry and several hundred nuclear weapons is so afraid of 25,000 Shiite boys from the hill country or the rougher neighborhoods of East Beirut. If that is what it takes to put the country in mortal danger, then they may as well pack up and emigrate to Europe and the US today. The answer is that they are not afraid of them as a threat to Israel, but as an annoyance with regard to any plans for Israeli expansionism or hegemony.
The idea that Iran controls the Zaydi Yemeni Helpers of God (Houthis) is even less plausible than that it controls Lebanon. That Tehran has slipped them a little money and a bit of military equipment is not out of the question, but Yemen is blockaded so that will not have been easy. Most Houthi weapons are American, given them from Army stockpiles by their erstwhile ally Ali Abdullah Saleh before the two fell out and they killed him.
Moreover, the Houthis only have about a third of Yemen, with the other two-thirds occupied by Saudi Arabian and Emirati invaders whom Mr. Friedman does not mention. Why, could the Houthi outreach to Iran, likely as limited as it is, have anything to do with thirty years of Wahhabi pressure on them?
Iran has more influence in Baghdad than in the other two countries but Qasem Solaimani doesn’t control the ruling Da`wa Party, which has anyway just split. The Iraqi Shiite militias are increasingly powerful, and are running as parties in the upcoming elections, and Solaimani has a lot of influence with them. But they are his allies, not his proxies, and they hardly control the country.
As for Solaimani and the ayatollahs controlling the Syrian Arab Baath Party in Damascus, surely you jest. Hizbullah and the Shiite militias of Iraq have been useful to the Syrian government but theirs has been a non-ideological alliance of convenience against the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi-backed Salafis, some of the latter affiliated with al-Qaeda.
That the Israelis de facto allied with the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria somehow escapes Mr. Friedman’s notice when he is putting all the onus for conflict on Solaimani’s ego. It got to the point where the Israeli Druze protested and lobbied Prime Minister Netanyahu to abandon these commitments in the Golan.
Israel’s de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia accounts for a lot of Iran’s influence in the region, since the Shiites of Iraq, the Zaydis of Yemen, the minorities and secular Sunnis of Syria, and the Shiites and Christians of Lebanon have every reason to fear and hate the hard line Salafis and the fate of being oppressed dhimmis that the Saudis wish for them. Israel tried to occupy a substantial part of Lebanon for nearly twenty years, occupies Syrian territory on the Golan Heights, and raises the hackles of the Arab publics by shooting down peaceful Palestinian protesters in Gaza in cold blood.
Sure, Iran is taking advantage of these fears and fissures. That isn’t control. And Mr. Friedman’s analysis is flawed inasmuch as he puts the Israelis off stage as innocent victims being surrounded by an aggressive Iran rather than seeing them as serial aggressors and occupiers who created some of the opportunities Iran now has in the region by their arrogance and expansionism.
As for an explosion, I doubt it. As long as Russia is in Syria, it is a Russian sphere of influence, and while Moscow doesn’t mind Israel occasionally intervening to attempt to stop the transfer of military equipment to southern Lebanon, Vladimir Putin will not put up with any Israeli actions that endanger Russian military personnel or endanger the stability of the Syrian government.
Hence, we’re much more likely to see simmering low-grade conflict than a big explosion. In all probability, Russia would intervene to stop anything bigger.
President Trump’s determination to withdraw US troops from eastern Syria by October, so that GOP candidates for representative and senator can run on having defeated ISIL and having then brought the troops home, has created a policy dilemma for the Department of Defense and for the National Security Council.
Apparently, Trump’s plan to get out has been unaffected by the alleged gas attack at Douma or the US, British and French punitive missile strikes on Syrian military facilities (attacks that likely did little damage to the Syrian military).
Trump’s plan to bring US troops back out resolves diplomatic problems with Russia, Damascus and Turkey.
The plan raises questions, however, on several fronts. Without US presence and backing, will the Kurds be willing and able to stay in Arab southern Raqqa and parts of Deir al-Zor?
Without the US troop presence, will ISIL remnants be able to regroup and take back territory in eastern Syria, reconstituting a mini-caliphate from which they can plot further attacks on Paris and perhaps on Iraq?
The US policy elite had hoped to use its presence in eastern Syria to block overland truck shipments of weapons to Lebanon’s Hizbullah from Iran. Would Iran be strengthened by Trump’s departure from that region?
At the suggestion of the notoriously unstable and corrupt Newt Gingrich, Trump appointed as his national security adviser the perpetually angry, aide-abusing, dishonest warmonger John Bolton (who has shadowy ties with the People’s Jihadi Organization or MEK of Iran, which was long on the terrorist watchlist). Bolton wants to create a Sunni Arab patrol in the region which could prevent any resurgence of ISIL and could block the Iranian truck trade coming from Iraq.
Here are the problems with Bolton’s wild-eyed and impracticable plan:
1. He wants Egypt to be part of it. Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, tilts toward the government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Both dictators are fighting Sunni fundamentalist insurgencies in the name of nationalism. For al-Sisi, anyone who is crushing the Muslim Brotherhood can’t be all bad. He will therefore not be inclined to get involved with a military adventure in eastern Syria that might interfere in the prospects of Syrian government reassertion in that area after the defeat of ISIL. Moreover, Egypt’s officer corps is congenitally allergic to military adventurism. They absolutely refused to send troops to Yemen (the Egyptian army had been mauled there in the 1960s), despite the entreaties of the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, which have given al-Sisi billions in aid. Egypt’s military is also tied down with a major domestic insurgency in the Sinai, and feels stretched thin. So the Egypt piece is likely a non-starter and if Bolton suggested it, he was displaying his unplumbed depths of ignorance.
2. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE might be willing to send troops to eastern Syria, they are highly unlikely to be effective there. The Syrians don’t want them there, and neighboring Iraq wouldn’t want them there either. They aren’t very good militarily and have botched their joint Yemen war since launching it in 2015 (and sometimes their clients have even fought one another!).
3. Having defeated the extremist ISIL in eastern Syria and liberated its population from the harsh rule of its uber-Salafi minions, it would be cruel and unwise to deliver them into the tender mercies of the Saudi Wahhabis, who have a rigid and extreme interpretation of Wahhabism, an ideology that helped inspire ISIL in the first place! Many Saudis have a sneaking admiration for ISIL, and the possibility of collusion between Saudi troops ISIL remnants cannot be ruled out. Send in liberal Sunni YouTube stars, not Wahhabis, if you want to help people readjust to the real world.
4. The daft idea in Washington that somehow Iranian overland smuggling routes can be blocked in eastern Syria falters on several basic facts. The border is very long and very porous. Trucks can go off road. And some observers maintain that Iran flies in the military supplies for Hizbullah to Damascus Airport.
5. The Syrian government and its Shiite militia allies over time will raise the cost for the Saudis and the UAE to stay on their soil. If Hizbullah was able to get Israel back out of southern Lebanon after an 18 year occupation, it can get a few Saudi troops out of Deir al-Zor. If Yemen is any indication, anyway the Saudis will be unwilling to put very many boots on the ground.
Once again, Washington Fail.
Trump’s refusal to spend the $200 million slotted for reconstruction aid in eastern Syria, after US fighter jets reduced its cities to rubble in the course of defeating ISIL, points to how mean-spirited and impractical his plans are.
The US has about 2,000 special operations forces embedded with the leftist Kurds of the YPG (people’s protection units) in northeastern and eastern Syria. Those YPG fighters, along with some rural Arab clansmen, did the hard on-the-ground fighting against ISIL and took its capital of Raqqa. Only a few pockets of ISIL fighters remain, in Deir al-Zor province. The YPG fighters were able to do so well because the US trained and equipped and advised them, and gave them air support, knocking out ISIL sniper nests, armored vehicles, and mortar emplacements.
The YPG are the paramilitary of the Democratic Union Party, a Kurdish nationalist party. The YPG is hated by the fundamentalist Arab rebels, who are latent Arab nationalists, and who accuse the Kurds of expansionism and of ethnic cleansing of Arab villages in the course of seeking a compact Kurdish super-province they call Rojava. Kurds speak an Indo-European language related to Persian and English. Arabs speak a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Amharic.
So, the US strategy of using the YPG to conquer majority-Arab Raqqa Province and parts of all-Arab Deir al-Zor is politically risky, since there could be a strong local backlash to Kurdish suzerainty.
The US dependence on the YPG also drove the government of Turkey absolutely crazy, since they see the YPG as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an eastern Anatolian guerrilla movement seeking more Kurdish autonomy inside Turkey (where 20% of the population is Kurdish), and which Turkey and the US brand as a terrorist organization. The US does not concur that the YPG has the PKK in its command line or that it is a terrorist group. Turkey decided to try to break up the US-YPG alliance this winter and spring by invading Syria to conquer and ethnically cleanse the westernmost Kurdish enclave, Afrin, which had no embedded US troops and had not been directly involved in the fight against ISIL at Raqqa. Afrin was thus a sitting duck for Turkey, and its troops, supported by fundamentalist Arab Muslim guerrillas, have taken the main city of the canton and many of its villages, sparking an exodus of Kurds and allowing Turkey to resettle Arab fundamentalist allies along its border with Syria to create a security belt against the Syrian Kurds north of Afrin.
Russia and its client, the Syrian Baath government of Bashar al-Assad, also object strenuously to the US presence in eastern Syria and the apparent attempt to create an autonomous Kurdish-ruled entity there. That is one reason Trump seems eager to get out.
Nor is it only Fox that hides the financial and personal interests of its celebrity commentators from the public.
In 2008, in a story that is unremembered and unheeded, The New York Times blew the whistle on a Pentagon scam to place ex-officers on CNN as Iraq War and security commentators, while never disclosing their ongoing ties to the US military or their ties to companies making money off the war. There is no reason at all to believe that CNN has cleaned up its act. Fox is guilty of the same sort of interlocking directorates strategy in “news” provision.
The information system in the United States is mostly broken. 24 hour cable news is just a pretext for earning advertising dollars and therefore mostly presents infotainment or cheap panel debates (mostly by partisans or people without any obvious credentials or special knowledge).
A handful of corporations own all of the major television news outlets. Even at the level of more trusted local stations, Sinclair has been buying them up and using onerous contracts with the anchors to force them into reciting pro-Trump propaganda.
Fox Cable News is a project of far rightwing Australian-origin billionaire Rupert Murdoch to push television news in the United States in the direction of white nationalism, white grievance, romanticism about the business class, defense of neocolonialism, and punitive attitudes toward workers and the dissident middle class. It has a firm editorial line, which is set in explicit memos to on screen presenters. Its stars have been serial sex abusers like Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. Hannity has emerged as the last Great White Hope among the bullies of cable news, and that he is corrupt and dishonest should come as no surprise.
What to do about all this? Most of the people reading this don’t watch Fox anyway (and by the way there are some excellent reporters employed by this corporation and the local stations are often quite good).
The only thing that has been shown to work is a consumer boycott of advertisers. That is what got rid of the odious O’Reilly.
Note that I am not calling for a boycott of Hannity advertisers because I dislike him personally or because I disagree with his politics.
He has revealed himself to be corrupt and dishonest with his viewers on a basic level that should be unacceptable even in a generally corrupt company like Fox Cable News.
Of course, ideally, the Democratic Party would be planning for a reform of the FCC once it takes back over Congress. The poor things don’t seem to realize that the Reagan dissing of the Fairness Doctrine was one of the trucks that ran over the Democrats after 1981.
But in the short term, it is up to us. The lists I could find for advertisers on Hannity were old, from last year when people were disgusted by his support for that kooky right wing nutjob Judge Roy Moore.
This is different, because it speaks not to political views or values, about which we can disagree, but to professional ethics. No one should be on air who speaks about subjects on which they have personal interests, and who does not disclose them.
In former FBI director James Comey’s interview with ABC News, he attempted to position himself as an upholder of the rule of law, of the constitution, and even of the truth.
Human beings are very good at forgetting their own misdeeds and building narratives that justify themselves, which may even be desirable evolutionarily. But the particular shape of Comey’s amnesia is troubling because of what it means for American democracy.
Comey has been a central figure in the gutting of the fourth amendment of the Constitution and in attempts to make sure the FBI and the rest of the US government can break your encryption and spy on you illegally. It is true that Comey did not want to go as far in that direction as former vice president Dick Cheney, but he wanted to go so far as nevertheless to make the constitution meaningless and to make Americans vulnerable to hacking. You see, the tech companies cannot create backdoors for the FBI without creating backdoors for Russian troll farms in St Petersburg.
Am I saying Comey did it to himself? I am saying Comey did it to himself. And to the rest of us.
Comey condemned Edward Snowden for his revelations about illegal government collection of Americans’ data from telephone calls. Even that was misdirection because Snowden’s more important revelation was that the NSA has individual-level tools to monitor emails. But even the telephone metadata issue is grave, since it would tell you to whom Warren Buffet is speaking, potentially allowing manipulation of the stock market; it would tell you if a politician is seeing a specialist in venereal diseases, allowing you to blackmail him.
And apparently Comey and others corrupted the entire US judicial system by illegally requisitioning telephone metadata to zero in on drug sellers, then notifying local police to arrest them and lie to the judge about how the police began their evidence trail. 100,000 of the inmates in our vast penitentiary gulag are guilty of no more than selling some pot, which most of us don’t even think should be illegal, and many were put there by unconstitutional government surveillance which then concealed itself from the judiciary. Far from standing for the constitution or the truth, Comey dramatically undermined both. Comey has bequeathed these unconstitutional tactics to the weaselly and wholly unscrupulous Jeff Sessions, who is having his minions use them against DACA dreamers and Black Lives Matter.
Comey watched James Clapper lie to Congress about mass warrantless surveillance of the American people. Comey knew Clapper was lying. He did not come after Clapper. He did not resign. His insistence on truth-telling suddenly was abandoned. He was disappointed that Gen. Petraeus was not prosecuted for lying to the FBI about his affair. Clapper’s assassination of the Fourth amendment and dissimulation was not an issue for him.
Comey doesn’t like Trumpworld. Comey helped create Trumpworld.
Then there was his attempt to strongarm Apple into weakening (you might as well say deleting) encryption on its smartphones. Comey saw an opening to get rid of that pesky encryption by creating a legal precedent, and he lied about his true motives, maintaining that there was no other way for the FBI to investigate the San Bernardino shootings. (Let me help him with that; a couple of mentally unstable people were allowed to buy an arsenal and went postal). When the FBI did hack in, they found nothing useful. They did Apple the favor of demonstrating that current encryption is too weak.
National Security elites like Comey are not our friends when it comes to privacy. The NSA used tradecraft and bribery to get an encryption company to adopt an NSA standard, which turned out to have backdoors for the NSA. And, of couse, for everyone else.
American democracy was certainly hacked in 2016. You can argue about whether Putin’s patriots were decisive or not, but you cannot deny the attempt. Comey has been so eager to get the bad guys that he has robbed the rest of us of our 4th amendment rights and of our privacy, and gave Russian and UAE hackers essential tools.
Iraq’s foreign ministry came out strongly against the US, British and French missile strikes on Syria. In a statement issued Saturday, the ministry called the attacks “an extremely dangerous step”that could result in a weakening of regional security.
Spokesman Ahmad Mahjub said, “The ministry underlines the necessity for a political solution that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people.” Strikes like those launched Friday, he said, “give terrorism a new opportunity to spread after its defeat in Iraq and its substantial retreat in Syria.” He said Iraq calls on the Arab League to take a clear stance against this dangerous development.
The Iraqis are clearly afraid that the North Atlantic intervention will embolden ISIL/ Daesh to start back up its operations.
Iraq is also worried about instability in Syria that might affect its border with that country. Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told Alarabiya, “The outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011 was the principle cause of the rise of Daesh (ISIL) and its spread and its entry into Iraq in the middle of 2014, and the continuation of strife.” He added, “The intervention of numerous countries in Syria played a role in nourishing Daesh (ISIL), and we see a necessity for finding a political solution in Syria to achieve stability and to finish off the remnants of Daesh in the regions neighboring Iraq.” He said that Iraq’s focus was to avoid doing anything that might help ISIL remain in eastern Syria.
He said that Iraq had a policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of Syria and sees foreign interventions there as having worsened the situation.
The Iraqi government tilts to Iran, the leader of which, Ali Khamenei, denounced the strikes as “a supreme crime” and warned that they would fail, just as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq failed. Iraq also does have some 5000 US military personnel at an Iraq Command in Baghdad, who were key to the defeat of ISIL in the Sunni Arab north of the country and are still helping with mop up operations. Also key to the fight, however, were Shiite militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
While it is not surprising that the ruling Da`wa (Islamic Call) Party took a more subdued version of the Iranian position, it appears that even Sunni Iraqi parties are condemning the move. Given that the al-Assad government was fighting the hard line Saudi-backed Army of Islam in Douma when it deployed the chlorine gas, it may be that traumatized Iraqi Sunnis just have no sympathy with the extreme religious Right.
In accordance with Syrian, Russian and Iranian propaganda, some some Iraqi newspapers attempted to cast doubt on the reality of the Douma chem attack or to muddy the waters as to its provenance. They complained that the reports of the use of chemical weapons is coming out of Israeli, Western and Gulf media, and observed, “not again!” The reference is the the 2003 false allegations by the Bush administration that Iraq had chemical weapons stockpiles or “weapons of mass destruction” (a propaganda term), which were the pretext for the US invasion of Iraq.
In the Egyptian parliament, MP Emad Saad Hamouda said that the Tripartite aggression on Syria depended on the same sort of lies that had been deployed by the Bush administration in its attack on Iraq in 2003. He said that Egypt rejects the imposition of any foreign countries’ policies on Syria, with which Egypt has long and close associations. (Since the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew a Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013 and then declared most of the religious Right terrorists, and since the secular, putatively socialist Baath Party in Syria has been facing a rebellion led by the Muslim Brotherhood and other elements of the religious Right, the Egyptian government and press have tilted toward Bashar al-Assad in recent years. This development has sparked some disputes with Egypt’s financial patrons in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, who also hate the populist Eygptian Muslim Brotherhood but who have funded hard line Syrian Salafi guerrillas in a bid to overthrow the al-Assad regime).
These reactions show how profoundly the George W. Bush administration damaged American credibility on the world stage by its gotten-up war on Iraq. At a time of rising China, resurgent Russia, profound doubts about President Trump, and the rise of algorithmic fake news on social media, the United States cannot afford this major and lasting hit to its credibility. Those Americans who are now thinking more positively about Bush (why?) should reconsider.
Washington keeps hoping that post-American Iraq will emerge as a strong US ally in the region. The reality is mixed. Iraq’s Shiite elites, along with most Kurds and Sunnis, are happy to ally against al-Qaeda and ISIL and other Sunni/Wahhabi extremist groups. But Iraqi Shiites and Kurds are not willing to line up against Iran or Iranian allies like Baathist Syria. That is a key contradiction in US policy in the region, to the extent that there is any policy.
It was not a piece of military strategy designed to win any war aims.
It will have no effect on the situation in Syria at all.
It was not authorized by Congress. The Republicans in Congress had threatened to impeach Barack Obama if he struck Syria in 2013 under similar circumstances.
It was not authorized by the UN. None of the three striking states had been attacked or harmed.
In our age of politics as reality show, where we have hired the star of NBC’s “Apprentice” to play president (apparently in large part because he is both consistently awful and highly entertaining at once), even geopolitics is done for show.
The United States, France and the UK lost the Syrian War to Russia and Iran. It is all over but the shouting. They had hoped that the al-Assad regime, which had been a thorn in their sides for decades, would be overthrown. It isn’t an ignoble hope. It is a horrible, Stalinist regime with massive amounts of blood on its hands. But the reasons for which Washington, Paris and London wanted it gone were not necessarily noble ones. Syria is among the last states to reject Israel. Its secular elites reached out, isolated after the end of the Cold War, to Iran for support. Its system does not accommodate the Western corporate take-over of the country’s economy. Overthrowing countries that buck the neoliberal, barracuda capitalist Washington consensus and challenge the neocolonial order in the Middle East (with the assumption of Israeli hegemony in the Levant) is a no-brainer for the North Atlantic powers.
The Syrian revolution of 2011 was a homegrown revolt against a regime that had already largely abandoned its socialist policies in favor of the establishment of Alawite oligarchies, which imprisoned people for the slightest criticism of the regime, and under which the proportion of people living in absolute poverty was rapidly increasing. But when the regime cleverly maneuvered the revolutionaries into allying with Muslim extremists on the battlefield, even then the CIA went on supporting the rebels. Its officials would deny it, but they were one degree of separation away from al-Qaeda, just as they had been in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And even while the US FBI and right wingers in the Senate like Ted Cruz were darkly intimating that the Muslim Brotherhood and all its offshoots are terrorist organizations, the 40 vetted groups supported by the CIA were mostly Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
No lesson of history is ever learned in Washington, D.C.
As I argued on Thursday, the Russo-Syrian military operation against the Saudi-backed Army of Islam in Douma, in the course of which chemical weapons appear to have been used, was a resounding success. Once the chem was released, the Army of Islam fighters, who had dug in their heels and inflicted substantial casualties on the elite Panther Brigade special ops forces of the Syrian Arab Army, abruptly surrendered. They turned over hundreds of their weapons, released dozens of captives, and agreed to exit north to Jarabulus in their thousands. It was one of the most ignominious defeats visited upon any guerrilla group in the course of the seven-year war.
If you had wanted to work against further such chemical use, the more effective method would have been to negotiate with Russia about it and apply pressure on Moscow.
The Tripartite missile attacks on Saturday will attrite some regime military capabilities in a small way. But since the Russian Federation’s Aerospace Forces are actually supplying the air power to defeat what is left of the rebels, the regime’s loss of some facilities won’t matter to the course of the war. I expect further Idlib and Deraa campaigns later this year, and I expect the regime over time to win them. I have to say that I’m surprised by the resiliency of the al-Assad clan. You wouldn’t have expected them easily to restore control over places like Homs (a largely Sunni Arab city with a strong Muslim Brotherhood movement). Security is no doubt fragile. But it appears that a reassertion of the regime is plausible in the short to medium term.
The missile attacks are for domestic politics, and perhaps to some extent a demonstration of political will to Russia and Iran. As military history they are a footnote.
Those who argue that they were necessary to show resistance to the use of chemical weapons are missing some things. The West backed Saddam Hussein’s use of chem in the Iraq-Iran War. It is hard to see why killing children with chlorine differs from the point of view of the children from killing them with bombs. Military action should be taken in accordance with international law. And, deploying missile strikes ineffectually renders them less effective politically down the road.
These strikes are like when a fistfight breaks out on the reality show Big Brother. The show will go on next week.
A key advisor to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s clerical leader, is in Syria to take stock after the military success in retaking the East Ghouta neighborhood near Damascus from Salafi Jihadi rebels. The latter part of that campaign, last Saturday, allegedly involved the use by the Bashar al-Assad government of a barrel bomb loaded with chlorine and a nerve agent, which killed some 70 persons, mostly noncombatants and including children. The gas attack has provoked Donald Trump and the governments of Theresa May in the UK and Emmanuel Macron in France to plan for a possible punitive set of air strikes on Syrian air force facilities.
The Iranian adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, said in a news conference with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad that Syria is more prepared than in the past to face what is coming. He charged that the United States directed the launching of the civil war in Syria and took part in it extensively. (The first part of this allegation is not true; the Syrian uprising of 2011 was indigenous, not a CIA covert operation. Once the regime turned it into a civil war by using massive military force on civilian, peaceful protesters, the US did give some billions in aid via Saudi Arabia to some 40 “vetted” guerrilla groups it said were unconnected to al-Qaeda or extremism. The US role appears to have been much larger than the press reported at the time, but Russian and Iranian investments clearly outweighed it in the end in any case.) What’s left of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is now a mere handmaiden of secular Baath dictators and neo-imperialist Russian oligarchs.
Velayati dismissed Trump, whom many in the Middle East had initially admired on his election, as having become a mere laughingstock.
Bashar al-Assad in his remarks warned that a Western strike on his country would accomplish nothing but to destabilize regional security. He complained that every victory Syria gained was met with Western cries and movements in hopes of altering the course of events. They are the ones, he said, who are harming international peace and security.
Meanwhile, a Russian spokesman confirmed that Russian and US military officers were using intensively the “deconfliction” telephone line to ensure that no step is taken that would spark conflict between the two powers.
BBC monitoring paraphrases a column by Alexander Atasuntsev and others at the liberal business daily RBC . He quotes retired Col. Andrei Payusov as predicting that any US strikes on Syria would be “superficial” and affect only “minor” targets announced in advance. He complained that this sort of US showboating aims at trying to reverse its weakening position in the Middle East brought about by Russian successes. He said that the US would choose targets and bases where there was no chance of hitting Russian troops. Other Russian experts quoted in the article, however, could not rule out the possibility of a clash between the United States and the Russian Federation in Syria.