Category Archives: Politics

Kalashnikov’s Remorse

The creator of the AK-47 assault rifle seeks mercy; regrets its use

66 years later, the Avtomat Kalashikova remains the world’s most ubiquitously used weapon, estimated in contributing – even in relatively “quiet” years – to the deaths of a quarter of a million of the world’s population per annum. Developed in the Soviet Union in 1947, used by its forces in 1949, the AK-47 assault rifle will undoubtedly endure for many decades more – a solemn fact that certainly contributed to its creator seeking mercy and forgiveness for his contribution to its existence. Mikhail Kalashnikov died late last month, two days before Christmas, at the age of 94. He lived to see and feel and weigh the horrors his invention was used to inflict; he lived with the astonishing fact that Kalashnikovs make up more than one in ten of all firearms, and are the weapon of choice for armies made up of drugged, deluded and manipulated child soldiers. In 2010, the then 91 year old Kalashnikov wrote the Russia Orthodox Church to ask a question I think he regrettably knew the answer to: was the blood shed by the weapon over the more than half a century since he created it, on his hands? “My spiritual pain is unbearable,” he wrote. “I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?”

The church told him not to dwell on the matter too heavily in his twilight years. Its press secretary, Cyril Alexander Volkov, wrote in a reply to Kalashnikov that, “The Church has a very definite position: when weapons serve to protect the Fatherland, the Church supports both its creators and the soldiers who use it.” The press secretary was later quoted as saying, “He designed this rifle to defend his country, not so terrorists could use it in Saudi Arabia.”

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The church’s position is, I think, correct. It’s difficult to impart much guilt on Kalashnikov for his creation, meant for the safeguarding of his country against the better-equipped Nazi invaders, especially since he could not have foreseen the abominable future misuse of it, and feels obvious regret and remorse for that misuse. It’s noteworthy to remind ourselves that Kalashnikov is not the first – nor will he be the last – weapon inventor who has expressed regret and remorse for their contributions. The namesake of the Nobel Peace Prize, Alfred Nobel, expressed similar remorse when his creation of dynamite – meant to be used as an instrument of peace – was used to wreak untold havoc throughout the breadth of the First World War. The nuclear scientists that developed the nuclear bomb(s) dropped on Japan during the Second World War pleaded with President Truman to not use the weapon to such effect. Even Albert Einstein, who famously consulted with President Roosevelt to urge his continued research on developing the bomb, expressed remorse: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger.”

Still, as RT.com notes, “AK-47s have caused more deaths than artillery fire, airstrikes and rocket attacks combined.” It’s easy then to understand why the man responsible for that creation feels such pangs about the millions who have lost their lives because of something he invented. In 2007, Kalashnikov was posed a question of the state of his conscience, and confidently replied, “I sleep well. It’s the politicians, who are to blame for failing to come to an agreement and resorting to violence.” It seems obvious that Kalashnikov is in some ways morally responsible for the weapon he created, but it’s perhaps unfair of us to depart on him much blame for the horrors perpetuated by the Avtomat Kalashikova. It was a weapon created for the defence of a people; it was meant for bringing about the end of a terrible war against a terrible foe. But wars were waged long before 1947, and will be waged for the entirety of our species’ time on this planet. We are all culpable for the millions who have given way to our frightful waging of war, not just Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Photo Credit: (Above) AK-47 assault rifle courtesy of Flickr user Brian nairB; (Below) Ethiopian National Defense Force 1st Lieutenant Ayella Gissa takes aim with an AK-47 assault rifle on a simulated enemy during a practical exercise as part of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa’s train the trainer course in Hurso, Ethiopia, December 27, 2006, courtesy of wikicommons.

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Exposing The Horror and Disgrace Of America’s Drone War

Green for Growth & Peace

After carefully reading the new human rights reports issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on America’s drone war, I can best describe my mood as equal parts nauseous and horrified. The reports are, in a word, gruesome. And while I have problems with various aspects of both – among them the overreach of each in conflating unintended collateral civilian casualties as war crimes – I nonetheless have to consider the fact that a great-many innocent people (up to 900 in Pakistan alone) have been killed, and their deaths seem to have come at the hands of my country’s government.

Like many others Americans my age, my formative years were consumed by a seemingly never-ending conflict between “good and evil” or “us vs. them”, aimed at justifying America’s engagement in I-don’t-know-how-many conflicts and moral crusades in order to “safeguard our freedom and way of life”. I was a kid (13) when the towers fell and we began this continuing trend of extremist-eradication at-all-costs. But then, in 2008, Barack Obama ran for President, and I’d never seen anything like it. I was too young and uninterested to remember the Clinton years, really. Everything I knew about Presidential power, and the exercise of it, I knew from George W. Bush and Dick “Chancellor Palpatine” Cheney. So when, in 2008, Obama ran on principles of transparency, honesty, accountability and justice, I was naturally inspired; hopeful that the world Bush and Cheney created would finally be jettisoned for something good.

As much I would like to follow the lefty herd and blindly claim that somehow, someway, we’ve gotten ourselves out of the same rut that consumed us during the breadth of Bush’s term(s), the truth is that we haven’t. The truth is we’ve replaced open evil with closeted evil.

Obama visits Pentagon

For years now the president and his senior advisers have made public claims about America’s drone program that have been found to be categorically false. We know, for instance, from top-secret intelligence documents, that “contrary to assurances it has deployed US drones only against known senior leaders of al-Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified ‘other’ militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area.” (Jonathan Landy) These revelations don’t just illustrate that the drone program is out of hand or that the Obama administration has become incapable in accounting for it, but that the Obama administration knowingly misleads the public about the scope of who can be legitimately targeted by unmanned aerial vehicles.

Here’s a crucial point: the Obama administration/US military/intelligence agencies often have no idea who they are killing. Even the CIA – whose intelligence reports are basically the means by which targets are chosen – often has zero idea of the identities of many of the people they target for death. President Obama, much like his predecessor, approves of the use of something called “signature strikes”, where the least important factor in the decision making process to target someone for a drone strike is who they are. More important to the decision making calculus the government employs – and the reason many are targeted for death despite their identity being unknown – is intelligence gathering suggesting that the individual is a ‘militant’ if he engages in a pattern of life more commonly engaged in by ‘militants’. The NY Times reported that “the joke [at the State Department] was that when the CIA sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks’, the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp”.

Chinook flight

I should note that the Obama administration has – prior to the reports – signaled its intention to embrace a policy shift away from drones towards various other counterterrorism measures. But because Americans are largely agnostic towards the use of drones in far-away places like Pakistan, and since that ambivalence means neither Republicans nor Democrats will pressure the President to make good on his campaign promises of accountability and transparency, there’s little chance he will.

Photos: Kashif Mardani; US Army

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Yes, Healthcare.gov Is A Disaster. No, Obamacare Isn’t Screwed. Yet.

Healthcare.gov User Experience, after Andreas Vesalius

Having absolutely no knowledge about what it takes to fix a huge piece of software like healthcare.gov (the online database for the Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare), I’ve been able to make my way through the mudslide of confusing reports and critiques regarding the website’s disastrous operation. Much to my own surprise, I’ve come to a dual (provisional) conclusion: either in a few weeks time, the website will be working like the Obama administration is claiming (hoping, praying) it will, and everyone will move on and forget this disaster ever happened. Or, it won’t, and Obamacare will be totally screwed.

Suffice it to say, there’s very little middle ground here. That being said, I’m still taking all of the disaster-reports coming from numerous insiders and journalists with a grain of salt. The fact is, very few people know exactly what’s wrong with the system, and being on the outside of that circle (like all of us are), I tend to air on the side that we shouldn’t purport to know more than we do, or speculate to that fact.

What must be noted, however, is that none of this should have come as a surprise to the Obama Administration. Staffers at HHS were warning about the system’s inadequacies long before the October 1 rollout. As reported by Lena Sun and Scott Wilson:

Days before the launch of President Obama’s online health ­insurance marketplace, government officials and contractors tested a key part of the Web site to see whether it could handle tens of thousands of consumers at the same time. It crashed after a simulation in which just a few hundred people tried to log on simultaneously.

The good news – relatively speaking – is that the Obama administration is well aware that the online portal of healthcare.gov is a complete disaster. Whether or not they’ll be able to fix it before this thing capsizes is the question.

Photo: Mike Licht

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Legalizing Pot Is Pretty Much The Most Popular Thing In America, Besides Freedom

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Yesterday, Gallup reported that for the first time ever, a solid majority of Americans (58%) are in favor of legalizing marijuana. For some perspective, consider that Gallup has been asking respondents about this question since way back in 1969, and never have they recorded a clear majority like this.

Barro went looking for some comparisons, to further emphasize the good news:

More Americans want to legalize marijuana than think President Obama is doing a good job (44%), want to keep or expand Obamacare (38%), favored attacking Syria (36%), support a 20-cent gas tax increase to pay for infrastructure (29%), or like the Republican Party (28%).

And legal marijuana has more than five times as many supporters as Congress does (11%).

Drum considers the shocking upwards trend of support for pot legalization, and marks 2020 as the date to look forward to (my italics):

I have a rule of thumb that favorability ratings need to reach about 65 percent before you hit a tipping point where a major social change starts getting codified into law nationwide. There’s nothing magic about this threshold. It’s just a general sense based on previous issues similar to this. And as you can see, public opinion isn’t merely rising on marijuana legalization, it’s accelerating. The rate of increase has gone from about 0.5 points per year in the 90s to 1.5 points in the aughts to 4 points so far in the teens. If this keeps up, we’ll pass the 65 percent threshold by 2016 or so.

And Andrew Sullivan – rightly – champions the news as further proof of societal norms “adjusted to empirical reality”:

Being gay went from being a crime to being a citizen in my lifetime. Now, smoking or vaping the harmless, ubiquitous drug, marijuana, is beginning to be thought of as indistinguishable from drinking the much more harmful, ubiquitous drug, alcohol.

What the two reforms also have in common, in my view, is adjusting our social norms to empirical reality. It was always absurd to think of gay people as somehow outside the norms of love, commitment and family. It is empirically insane to treat pot as having no conceivable medical use and classified in the most dangerous category there is. And yet our government proved itself incapable of adjusting to reality on both blindingly obvious questions, until the people long moved past it.

Well, Tocqueville is proven right again, isn’t he?

Indeed, he was.

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Theatre For The Absurd, By The Absurd

Tea Party Republicans Blame Obama for the Shutdown They Planned... Nice try Satan.

A Tea-Party rally posing as a veteran-rally, led by Senator Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin and Senator Mike Lee of Utah, pushed through the [admittedly nonsensical] barricades at the World War II memorial in Washington D.C. on Sunday, in what has to be the lamest attempt yet by Republicans to co-opt this entire government shutdown debacle in the hopes of coercing the uninformed that they are not singularly to blame for the impasse the country finds itself in.

Conor Friedersdorf shakes his head:

When the barricades are removed, whether because the Obama Administration is pressured due to the absurdity of it all or because the shutdown ends, conservatives will find a way to make Obama look bad in the next news cycle, and their political theater, whether successful or unsuccessful, won’t lead to any actual victories. They won’t marshall anything like the focus or grassroots passion that’s needed to actually improve the care of veterans in America or the degree to which our liberties are secure, because bettering governance is not their goal. Publicity stunts optimized for generating outrage in a given news cycle are all they’ve got, and even those haven’t been effective at winning converts.

And that’s the only motive here for these vandals posing as legislators and (in the case of Palin) patriots: their concern is how best to capitalise on the theatre of the absurd. But like Friedersdorf notes at the end of his piece, it might play well to the dying base of support they already enjoy, but they can hardly expect to win over any converts by staging this sort of inane political theatre.

At the rally in question, Sen. Cruz painted a picture of a malicious President hell-bent on using veteran misery to score political gains:

“Let me ask a simple question,” Cruz told the crowd. “Why is the federal government spending money to erect barricades to keep veterans out of this memorial?”

Sarah Palin was even more pointed in her comments:

“Our vets have proven that they have not been timid, so we will not be timid in calling out any who would use our military, our vets, as pawns in a political game,” Palin told the crowd.

But neither Palin nor Cruz went quite as far as Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch (though by their total refusal to distance themselves from his comments, one could argue they silently affirmed that which you’re about to read):

Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, a conservative political advocacy group, said the country is “ruled by a president who bows down to Allah,” and “is not a president of ‘we the people.'”

“I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come up with his hands out,” he said.

Andrew Sullivan delivers a strong, well articulated response to Klayman’s racist, xenophobic assertions:

Let’s not be mealy-mouthed. This speaker, Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, accuses the president of treason in this speech, of deliberately pursuing policies to kill members of the armed services, because he is an Islamist, and allegedly “bows to Allah”. What he is saying is the president is a deliberate mole of foreign agents determined to destroy the American way of life. And there is no pushback from the crowd and no pushback from GOP leaders.

This is what we’re dealing with. This is not an alternative budget; it is not another way of insuring millions and cutting healthcare costs; it is not a contribution to anything but to the logic of nullification of an election. It is yet another declaration of cold civil war – a call for a nonviolent refusal to be governed by a re-elected president because he is pursuing policies with which an electorally defeated minority disagree. Simply pursuing those policies has rendered Obama a “monarch” who is arguing “his way or the highway.” But all Obama is doing is implementing a campaign promise and settled law, while governing under a continuing resolution that reflects the sequester’s level of spending, a level agreed to by the Republicans. He wants a budget agreement between the House and Senate in a conference that the Republican House has long resisted entering. He has said that he is happy to negotiate with anyone on anything as long as the blackmail of a government shut-down and of a threatened global depression are ended. And his record shows that he has compromised again and again – as his own most fervent supporters look on in dismay.

In a few weeks, the government shutdown and [hopefully] the debt-ceiling debacle will be over. But the long term inadequacies of our political system will remain, and along with them these callous liars and disgraceful opportunists. We’re fortunate, though, that we live in a time and age where their exploits are documented by video evidence. We know exactly who and what we’re dealing with.

Photo: H. Michael Karshis

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Fear and Loathing in Washington D.C.

Washington DC Capitol - HDR

“President Obama will negotiate with the Syrian butcher Assad and erase his red line, will capitulate to Vladimir Putin, and he will negotiate with the happy face of the killer regime in Iran, President Rouhani, but not with Republicans over issues all presidents have always negotiated over.”

That quote – from American conservative radio host/shame-free liar and propagandist Hugh Hewitt – encapsulates how far the U.S. has to go to overcome the most embarrassing and pathetic government shutdown in the history of the country. Not every conservative in the United States is as crazy or deluded as Hewitt, but enough are to where an angry, xenophobic, racially charged minority, belonging to one faction in one house of government, has been able to manufacture a government shutdown threatening to destroy the US and global economy unless the party opposite capitulates to their bidding.

The truth is, no American president has ever “negotiated” repealing a duly enacted law [the Affordable Care Act] whilst being blackmailed with the destruction of his government, or indeed with the destruction of the global economy. But this line of baseless rhetoric has become the new mantra of the Republican Party and their apologists: repeat the lie until enough Americans have been coerced that they [Republicans] are not singularly to blame for the disastrous impasses the country continuously finds itself in (e.g. sequestration, shutdown, debt ceiling, etc.). This isn’t just a minority problem – it’s a party problem. The American Tea Party may be [entirely] comprised of callous fools and disgraceful opportunists, but we’re mostly here because “moderate” Republicans have consistently folded to these vandals rather than stand up to them.

It’s important not to forget that Republicans manufactured the U.S. government shutdown for one reason and one reason only: to stop poorer Americans from getting health insurance funded by cuts to Medicare and the taxing of the richest Americans. Let’s also keep in mind that Congress itself passed the healthcare law in 2010; the Supreme Court then affirmed its constitutionality through its landmark ruling earlier this year; and the majority of Americans want it – as proven when they re-elected the President who signed it.

In a few weeks (or sooner), the shutdown/default crisis will long be over and maybe even forgotten. The federal deficit will in all likelihood continue to fall, and growth will probably resume. But the long-term inadequacies of the U.S. political system will continue to be exploited by the Republican Party, creating a sort of dystopic future for American politics. The American people put pretty much all of the blame of the shutdown/default crisis on the shoulders of Republicans, but conservatives can still expect to hold enough seats in the House come the 2014 midterm elections (mainly because of the way district lines are drawn. Republicans were lucky enough to have had a huge win at the state level in 2010, which coincided with post-census redistricting or gerrymandering). Democrats may very well win the White House again in 2016 with Hillary Clinton or Papa Joey B, but the Congress will probably remain the same, meaning we’ll see more shutdowns/threats of defaults before it’s all said and done.

I’ve been able to gauge the puzzled, incredulous looks of my international friends at the LSE – many of whom come from democratic countries – when they hear that an extremist minority party caused the “most powerful” democracy in the world to close up shop. I tell them that American politics, as constructed by James Madison (“father” of the Constitution), was designed with stagnation, derision, and polarization in mind. But the country’s founders couldn’t foresee something as inane as the Tea Party (and warned against political party’s altogether); they couldn’t possibly expect the damning practice of gerrymandering districts or the influence of special interest groups both in elections and public policy.

Mostly, I’ve had to tell my foreign friends that what they’re currently seeing and reading about is not at all what American politics was meant to be. But they better start getting used to it, because it’s here to stay.

Photo: Nicolas Raymond

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Judgement Day

By Cato

Step 1: Turn on speakers
Step 2: Open this video in a different window.
Step 3: Read this news story while the previous link plays in the background.

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Could The Shutdown/Debt Ceiling Cost Republicans The House?

Because the American people are a fickle bunch, the usual order of things is that the sitting President’s party loses seats in the House during the midterm election. Conventional wisdom would then lead one to accept the points expressed by The New Republic and Real Clear Politics in their estimation(s) that it’s unlikely Democrats will overturn the Republican majority in 12 months. The rule has exceptions, of course. Clinton’s Democrats actually picked up a few seats in 1998, following Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 21 day government shutdown.

It’s been reiterated quite exhaustingly that one of the main reasons Republicans have been able to keep the House despite losing the national popular vote to Democrats by 1.5% is that they enjoy the considerable majority of gerrymandered districts. In short, Democrats needed to win the House by a margin of more than 7% to become the majority party.

Fast forward to today. If this WaPo/ABC news poll is any indication (and I’d like to think it is), the country soundly puts the blame of the shutdown and the upcoming debt ceiling disaster on the shoulders of the GOP.

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But while public opinion of the GOP might be very low, commentators have rightly noted that President Obama garners considerable blame (deservedly or not) for the current Washington impasse. That may be true, but luckily for the President and his party, Obama is not running for re-election in the next 12 months. That point led Public Policy Polling to conduct a set of district-level polls meant for ascertaining Congressional preference — which has, in the past, tracked the national vote pretty closely. So, PPP set out to survey 24 congressional districts held by Republicans, and asked voters there to chose between their current Congressional representative and a Democrat. Here are their results, plotted against last year’s election result:

It’s important to note that we’re talking about surveys taken during a government shutdown explicitly engineered by Congressional Republicans, but the results show that Democrats swung 23 races (below the red line) while Republicans held one race (above the red line). If the results hold (and I don’t expect them to), Democrats will win the House. Comfortably.

I say I don’t expect this to last because, well, Americans have the tendency to forget about things like the shutdown when it comes time to vote. The midterm elections are still a long away off to where Republicans can successfully coerce their constituents to re-elect them to the House. I do expect Democrats to pick up some votes, which is not totally inconsequential since they’d be able to force the chamber to actually vote on resolutions that Boehner refuses to allow.

The survey doesn’t take into account how voters will feel about House Republicans if the Government hits the debt ceiling, but given the plausible disaster that would ensue if such a thing were allowed to happen, when compounded with the shutdown and the [still] terrible sequester, these results could hold true to the midterm, and possibly even increase.

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These Quotes Should Really Worry You About The Debt Ceiling

House Speaker John Boehner

Let’s start with this doozy from freshman GOP Rep. Ted Yoho over the weekend: “I think we need to have that moment where we realize [we’re] going broke. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, that will sure as heck be a moment. I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets.

Oh good, now we have a Congressman who actually believes that breaching the debt ceiling will bring “stability to world markets”. Because nothing says stability and confidence quite like defaulting on one’s debts and obligations.

These next two quotes can work in tandem, but only because they come from mutually exclusive positions:

House Speaker John Boehner on [not] raising the debt ceiling: “We are not going to pass a ‘clean’ debt-limit increase.”

And from the White House we have Treasury Secretary Jack Lew: “[Republicans] need to open the government. They need to fund our ability to pay our bills. And then we’re open to negotiation.”

So we have The White House refusing to sign anything but a clean increase in the debt-ceiling, and Boehner signalling his party’s intent to refuse to pass a clean increase in the debt-ceiling.

Compounded by the fact that Rep. Yoho is not the only member of his party to actually believe that defaulting on the debt-ceiling is a good thing — and good for the economy!! — and you start to wonder if these people can figure this out in the next 10 days. Probably not.

Photo: Medill DC

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Republicans Ready Themselves For Self-Destruction

Rep. John Boehner

According to Robert Costa over at the National Review, the Republican leadership has given up: Boehner will allow the lunatic tea-party bandits in the House to move a resolution to keep funding the government, save for Obamacare. And, once that falls apart in the Democratically controlled Senate, and the next step is a government shutdown, the Republican leadership will try/pray/hope/beg/borrow/steal enough votes from their party in order to keep the government open. If you’re looking for an apt word to summarise this, might I suggest “stupidity”.

From Costa:

Here’s how my sources expect the gambit to unfold: The House passes a “defund CR,” throws it to the Senate, and waits to see what Senator Ted Cruz and his allies can do. Maybe they can get it through, maybe they can’t. Boehner and Cantor will be supportive, and conservative activists will rally.

But if Cruz and company can’t round up the votes, the House leadership will likely ask Republicans to turn their focus to the debt limit, avoid a shutdown, and pass a revised CR — one that doesn’t defund Obamacare.

The really mind-boggling truth to all this is that everyone knows what the deal is here: the bill will survive the House and Tea partiers who have done a really amazing job convincing stupid people that Obamacare is a bad thing will have a day of celebration. Then Harry Reid will light the stupid bill on fire and toss it in the trash in the Senate. In the end, we’ll be right back where we started, only that much closer to a government shutdown.

And unless the Republican leadership — which has pretty much lost all leverage and control over the party — can convince the loons of the far-right to relent and pass a funding bill, the government will indeed shutdown. The silver-lining? If-and-when that happens, only one party will be to blame.

(Photo: Medill DC)

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Even When The Chemical Weapons Are Gone, Violence And Despair Will Endure In Syria

A man bleeds in a northern Syria hospital after a ricochet bullet went through his foot. In a sense, he was lucky that the bullet did not stay in his body, which would have required surgery to remove. The hospital staff told us that until very recently th

Notwithstanding my remarkably horrendous coping with jet-lag, I have been following along — as best I can — with the developments in, around, and regarding Syria. From the hasty deal struck between Russia and the U.S. to account for Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, to the draft resolution currently underway — and meant for an imminent Security Council resolution — involving diplomats from the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain, it seems like the Obama Administration has been able to avert a war, save face, and reinforce everyone’s favourite international norm.

But while it’s a very good thing the international arena is acting in unison over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it makes little difference to the everyday Syrian — either fighting in the streets, or fighting to stay alive at home. The sad truth is, we’re in the early stages of a bloodletting in Syria that began nearly 94 years ago when one Brit (Sir Mark Sykes) and one Frenchman (Francois George-Picot) divided the Arab provinces — once belonging to the Ottoman Empire — between their two respective colonial powers. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (also known as the Asia Minor Agreement) of 1920 created the modern state of Syria as we now know it. 20130918-110243.jpgNo one living in Syria ever got a say in how their “nation” was constructed — both in terms of territory, and control. Syria was purposefully devised to pit the Shiite Alawite minority against the Sunni Arab majority, with a side-show consisting of Christians, Druze and Kurds (who are also Sunnis). The same principle (divide-and-rule) applied to Iraq, except the minority Sunnis were used to control the majority Shiites. The reason colonial powers constructed these cynical divisions is simple: appeal to the minority, train them, arm them, and use them to control the majority out of fear, oppression, and obligation. It’s how empires are made, and how they endure.

It should come as no surprise, then, that from Syria and Iraq we had (and have) two of the most brutal, horrific dictators of all time: Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad. They were (and are) manifestations of colonial manipulation; the products of two nations created under the weight of permanent warfare, oppression, and sectarian strife.

“Why do we have a brutal civil war in Syria?” is not the question we should be asking. We know why it’s happening. It’s the same reason we still have one raging in Iraq. The brutal and callous decades long oppression of the majority groups in both states broke free, at long last, with the Arab Spring. For better or worse, and due in large part to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the bloodletting in Syria has only just begun. It won’t stop if and when the chemical weapons stockpiles are accounted for. Nor will it stop if and when Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. Notice for example how when the United States argues that it’s justified in arming the opposition, they make it plain that they intend to only support “moderate” rebels. What about the not-so-moderate rebels? What role will they play in a post-Assad Syria? The quixotic idea that any two sides in this conflict could reach a political agreement, untainted by blood and terror, is as likely as it was in Iraq — where a decade of occupation and trillions of dollars could not prevent 100,000+ deaths.

Innocent men, women and children are being murdered at staggering rates. Some have been gassed, but 99% have lost their lives to the real “weapons of mass destruction”: small munitions. The images of dead children, and the videos of crying mothers holding their lost loved ones are unbearably heartbreaking. But for every image of an innocent life lost, there’s a video of a rebel, or one of Assad’s soldiers, reminding the world through barbaric savagery that this is a sectarian fight to the death.

And no UN Resolution is going to change that.

(Photo: Freedom House)

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Putin, Troll

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in today’s New York Times is … weird. It’s goal seems to be to urge President Obama not to launch a military strike against Syria, but it’s also about poking fun at the sort of American exceptionalism expressed in Obama’s recent speech to the nation. Some of the points are compelling and valid, but the piece as a whole is so totally riddled with boisterous hypocrisy, disingenuous double-standards and baffling untruths that any micro-analysis reveals just how anemic and ridiculous the document really is.

Let’s take a look at some key passages (Putin’s remarks are in bold-italics):

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

There are two ways to consider this passage, and both are important. First, Putin makes some valid arguments against US intervention — it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that military action will lead to an escalation of violence and extremism in the region. But let’s be real here: Putin’s thuggish regime has played one of the largest roles in enabling the already awful violence and extremism in Syria. Assad kills so wantonly and so freely in large part because he knows Putin’s got his back in the Security Council. Putin is also Assad’s main source of heavy weaponry.

“Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

These are strong, good arguments against outside intervention. Essentially, Putin argues that it’s not in the U.S’s interests to be embroiled in what is a sectarian civil war. But again, Putin himself has been one of the primary actors involved in making the conflict what it is.

“We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.”

Oh, please. Given how hard Putin has fought to block any UN resolution from even verbally condemning Assad’s actions, no thinking person should take seriously this hilariously disingenuous fealty to international law.

“Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”

Putin’s Russia launched a war against Georgia five years ago, and it wasn’t approved by the UN Security Council.

“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.”

Thankfully, this is totally untrue. An investigation by Human Rights Watch found the Assad regime responsible for the attack, and minutes after this op-Ed was posted, a story broke that the upcoming UN investigation into the matter amasses an unbelievable amount of evidence implicating the Assad regime as the culprits.

“A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.”

This short segment is really the entire purpose of the op-Ed: convince the American people that the best way forward is embracing the Russian plan for a diplomatic solution. But Sam Stein captures the contradiction of Putin’s previous attempt to lay the blame for the chemical weapons attack on the opposition:

“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Here we finally get to Putin’s criticism of American exceptionalism. You can judge for yourself whether or not you agree that it’s “dangerous” for a nation to believe itself to be exceptional, but just know that the only other country in the world that espouses a similar notion to its own people is — you guessed it — Putin’s Russia.

“There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Go ask a gay or lesbian Russian how they feel about this.

I can understand why readers and commentators find Vlad’s op-Ed interesting, and even “well-written”, but it should stop there. At its core, it’s a piece of disingenuous, hypocritical political propaganda penned by a KGB thug who couldn’t care less about international law, human rights, or the United Nations. Kudos to whoever wrote it.

(Photo: via Wikicommons)

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A Better Solution

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In the march towards a congressional vote on military action in Syria, one thing became glaringly obvious: the Obama administration had run out of options, and leverage. Maybe Secretary of State John Kerry sensed it and knew exactly what he was doing when he offered Syria an olive branch on Monday. The terms were (and are) simple: give up your chemical weapons stockpiles. We don’t know if this was a strategic plan by Kerry, but we do know that it was accepted almost immediately by both Russia and Syria, and has become a far better solution to this whole saga than anything previous.

Military intervention was meant for one (double) reason only: deter the future use of chemical weapons, and make sure Assad can’t do this again. It was never meant to remove Assad from power, or substantially help the opposition — that would be “war”, according to the Obama administration. What this proposal from Russia/Syria/Kerry does is put these weapons under the control of the international arena — presumably some UN agency — therefore accounting for both deterrence and Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons. If the Obama administration has been honest all along, and chemical weapons have been the first and only reason to act, it couldn’t have worked out better.

Many are pointing out that, “we’re relying on Russia and Syria to carry this out? Fat chance.” They have a point. Maybe the plan will never be realized; but it’s still a better option than military intervention. Russia’s acceptance of the plan means we may see a Security Council resolution affirming this proposal — something that’s been missing all along. Russia wont veto a resolution they themselves proposed, and I doubt China would want to be the lone state standing in the way of a diplomatic solution.

Another pessimistic — but possible — take is that Assad will never agree to go through with this. Having chemical weapons is not an insignificant thing in the grander scheme of regional power politics, where Assad has to keep one eye on neighbors like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, who want nothing more than a regime change in Damascus.

But even if Assad balks, the entire paradigm of this conflict has been altered for the better. If the United States feels forced to attack Syria if the proposal fails, they’ll probably do so with a UN resolution and a greater number of allies behind them — both pipe dreams on September 8. And if by chance Assad agrees to whatever the proposal ends up being, the U.S. will have averted a war, saved face, and accounted for Syria’s chemical weapons. Win-win-win.

On September 8, the United States stood completely alone. Domestic support was horrendous; the backing of the Security Council (and NATO) was nonexistent; Russia was becoming more vocal and dangerous; Iran was threatening retribution; and even Britain pulled support.

How strange would it be, then, if a simple gaffe by John Kerry ended up preventing another Middle-East war?

(Photo: Chair. Joint Chiefs)

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Could This Kerry Gaffe Accidentally Save Us From War?

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Earlier today, while pressed by the media for alternatives to military intervention, Secretary of State Kerry accidentally said this:

Asked if there were steps the Syrian president could take to avert an American-led attack, Mr. Kerry said, “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

The State Department went into crisis mode almost immediately, making it clear the Secretary was being totally hypothetical:

“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to reporters after Mr. Kerry’s comments. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That’s why the world faces this moment.”

So, here’s an idea: if you’re the Secretary of State for the most powerful country in the world, and coincidentally, that country is mulling over the option of launching missiles at another country — don’t be fucking hypothetical. And for the love of Zeus, stop making Hillary Clinton look like the best SOS in history.

Anyway, the Russians immediately pounced on the offer:

“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus,” Mr. Lavrov said at the Foreign Ministry. “And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”

Holy crap. Kerry made a blunder, but that blunder may actually save us from another terrible Middle-East war. The Russian foreign minister’s support for this — actually quite sensible — plan of controlling Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities is a huge deal. It would protect the world from chemical weapons, therefore appeasing the President. It would also allow Russia to involve itself in a peaceful resolution to this whole mess, without the added degradation of looking like their doing the U.S.’s bidding. And apparently, the UN Sec. Gen is on board. As is Syria:

Wow. This could actually work given the U.S. accepts the terms of the deal and Russia actually lives up to it by helping collect all the chemical weapons in Syria. Two big ifs, but both are better than the alternative of war.

Keep gaffing, Mr. Secretary.

(Photo: Shino)

UPDATE

Gaining momentum.

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The Astonishingly Bad Arguments For Another Middle-East War

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During the absurd Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing featuring three senior American officials — Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense, and John Kerry, Secretary of State — on why the Administration is justified in seeking Congressional approval for a strike against Syria, Kerry argued — with a straight face — that, “We don’t want to go to war in Syria either … The President is not asking you to go to war.”

Except that’s exactly what he’s asking. What is Kerry trying to argue? That just because the ships launching the missiles will be safe from retaliatory fire, it’s not war? Do we only label something as war when other nations kill Americans, not the other way around? I get that it’s kind of been an American thing to launch bombs against other countries, but have we become so jaded about the seriousness of war that we hesitate in labeling a massive bombing campaign against another state’s infrastructure (and people) as such?

The rest of the arguments for intervention — heard during the hearing — were just as illogical, and because I don’t want you to have to sit through the same excruciating video I did, here’s my summary:

    • Assad used chemical weapons, so we should make an example of him to deter other dictators from using chemical weapons in the future. BUT, we don’t mean we should punish him to the point of removing him from power, since Syria would “implode”. Instead, the punishment would focus ONLY on his chemical weapons capabilities. So, while our policy is that Assad has to go, we won’t force him to go. In that case, we’ll launch surgical air strikes directed at his chemical weapons capabilities, but not his ability to rule over Syria. And, we’ll just have to live with the fact that we’re NOT accounting for the other weapons that have killed 99% of Syrians during this conflict. Please vote yes.

Here’s the video (it’s really long):

While reinforcing some abstract international norm — that nations like the United States have willingly broken themselves by allowing Saddam’s regime to use chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War — sounds good as a talking point, it hardly motivates anyone to throw their support behind another war. According to The Independent, about 80% of the British people oppose exactly what Obama’s proposing. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found nearly 70% of Americans are likewise against it.

But even while Obama enjoys considerably less domestic support than Bush had with Iraq, as well as no British backing, and open condemnation from much of the UN for immediate intervention, his proposition for air-strikes against Syria may very well pass — by the skin of it’s teeth — in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Our only hope is that — as we saw in the House of Commons — the representatives of the American people will actually listen to their constituents, and save us all from yet another bloody, costly, unjustified and unpopular sectarian war in the Middle East.

(Photo: Chair. Joint Chiefs)

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