Sand Shortage

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Milton Friedman's notion that "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there'd be a shortage of sand," has been borne out for decades in US energy policy. Sitting on top of the world's most prolific supply of oil, coal, and gas, every president since Richard Nixon has promised energy independence. The result: an energy dependence that led to the September 11 attack by Osama bin Laden.

With terrorism financed by oil revenues (Saudi Arabian, for the Sunni variety, and Iranian, for the Shiite variety), fretting terrorists evidently anticipated an oil shortage. Who could blame them? When the oil ran out, they would be left with sand. Disconcerted, therefore, by America's voracious energy appetite, bin Laden complained, "Muslims are starving to death and the United States is stealing their oil." That, and our military presence in the Arabian peninsula, provoked his famous 1998 fatwa, exhorting God-fearing Muslims "to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

But Muslims were not starving because of US oil theft. We paid a fair market price of untold trillions (plus an annual premium of $30–60 billion in taxes to protect the Persian Gulf, even before 9/11). Hunger — along with poverty, ignorance, disease, violence, and despair, to name a few other maladies common to the region — was the result of Muslim governments put in charge of the oil fields.

In the early 1900s, when oil was first discovered in the Middle East, the Muslim world had been in decline from its former greatness for over 100 years. Defying the principles of free market capitalism, and at least a few laws of probability, Muslim political leaders managing Muslim oil — the greatest single source of naturally conferred, easily accessible wealth in the 20th century — extended the decline for another 100 years.

Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500?

The descent of Muslim military power, economic strength, and scientific leadership began, ironically, around the time the American republic was born and Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. The subsequent adoption of democracy and capitalism by the US and European nations produced immense prosperity and an ever-widening gap between the West and the Muslim world. Today, by any meaningful measure of achievement, Muslim countries lag dramatically behind the West. During a 2010 interview on Al-Arabiya Television, Saudi scholar, Ahmad bin Baz (the son of the former Saudi grand mufti, Abdul Aziz bin Baz), explained,

We Muslims have found ourselves at the tail end of the world's progress. The Muslims are always on the receiving end, and their only role in life is to receive from others. Western society has become the society of innovations. It is Western society that produces and adapts itself to the changes of life, whereas we Muslims have become passive recipients of all these innovations, and all we do is sit down and ponder whether these innovations are permitted or forbidden by Islam.

Muslim leaders are no doubt perplexed by their abysmal failure to rejuvenate Islamic civilization. Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500? Why has the terrorism of Islamists (i.e., religious tyrants from organizations such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the nation of Iran) been so slow to advance the Muslim cause? What other strategy might invigorate Muslim innovation, should corruption, cronyism, intolerance, bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny fail?

Give up? Here's a clue: it involves neither democracy nor capitalism. Instead, some Islamist intellectuals have decided that the future of Islam lies in a global Caliphate. They even have annual conferences for indulging in the fantasy. A promotional video for "Caliphate Conference 2012" proclaimed that "the Islamic Caliphate is the only social and political system that has the right solutions to the political, social and economic problems of humanity" and asserted that "the relentless decline of Capitalism has begun. The time has come to fight against poverty. Time to obliterate the injustices. Time for the correct system."

While the precise architecture of the "correct system" is a little sketchy, many of its core concepts — common bonding tenets, mandatory for all self-respecting Islamist intellectuals — are well known. These include (a) totalitarianism, masquerading as religion, (b) absolute rule by Sharia law, the legal codification of the Quran, (c) hatred of Jews, (d) blame to Jews (for caliphate failures), and, of course, (e) death to Israel.

When (or if) the Caliphate begins its transition from a pan-Islamic state to a global empire, the failures produced by the spreading dystopia and cultural havoc will be too numerous and varied to indict Jews alone. Thus, Islamists can be expected to add Christians and other infidels to (d) above.

As a surprise to Israel (not to mention the residents of cities such as Mecca, Damascus, and Cairo), Jerusalem will be the capital of the Caliphate. And as a surprise to capitalism (not to mention the billions of people it has lifted from poverty, more people than any other economic system in the history of mankind), it will be blamed for the world's poverty. Add “Capitalism” to (c) and (d).

A Sunni (al Qaeda) version of the Caliphate is scheduled to be victorious by 2020, right after four years of the "final battles against nonbelievers." However, given the pace at which Iran is developing its nuclear weapons, a Shiite version may be established sooner — unless, of course, al Qaeda steals its nuclear capability from a crumbling and sympathetic Pakistan. Picking a winner is troublesome, as is the idea of a Shiite theocracy having a nuclear bomb among its weapons and a “Death to America Day” among its holidays. Foreign policy experts tell us that Iran seeks its nuclear capability to gain a seat at the table of power. On the other hand, says former CIA director James Woolsey, al Qaeda simply wants to "blow the table up." It's a safe bet that “America” can be added to (c), (d), and (e).

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region.

America's hedonistic culture mocks the "purity" of Mohammed-era ideals. The conspicuous progress of American capitalism undermines Islamist efforts to reconcile Islam with modernity. To the more eager Caliphate builders, the salve for this incessant irritation might be an EMP attack. A small (1 KT) nuclear weapon or two, detonated at an altitude of as low as 40 km, would destroy our infrastructure (power, communications, transportation, etc.) and, as a bonus, instantaneously fry our blasphemy-spewing smartphones, TVs, radios, and other electronic devices. According to the 2008 “Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack,” its effect would be “something you might imagine life to be like around the late 1800s" — not the 7th century, but a start.

If the Islamists prevail, their caliphate will be the first since the previous Islamic Caliphate was dissolved by Kemal Atatürk in 1924, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Islamists are nothing if not ambitious, and patient.

That patience is about to be tested. Thanks to capitalism, America is now in the early stages of an oil and gas boom, despite all efforts by our federal energy intellectuals to stifle fossil fuel production. As Gary Jason pointed out in A Totally Fracked Planet, "We will reach energy independence in the not too distant future, thanks not to any corrupt crony green energy industry (solar, wind, ethanol, or biodiesel) but to the vast resources of shale oil and gas made available by advanced fracking technology." Privately owned US companies, employing innovative drilling techniques and private capital, on mostly private land, have made the US the fastest growing oil and natural gas producer in the world. The US is expected to be independent of all foreign oil, except for oil imported from Canada, by 2018.

During the last ten years, capitalism has been turning our long dependence on Middle East oil into little more than a bad memory of the 40 years of feckless policies concocted by our federal energy stewards. And it will turn the dream of Islamists into a nightmare. Try running a totalitarian state on oil revenues, when Brent crude drops from today's price of $110 per barrel to $70 by the end of the decade. What will Caliphate Conference 2020 have to say about world domination when dwindling Saudi Arabian and Iranian terrorism contributions squeeze prospective caliphate budgets to nothing?

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region. He may have pondered over the use of sand when the oil beneath it ran out. Perhaps he recognized that excessive reliance on oil was the real source of the Middle East plight — that all the while, Muslims were more dependent on their oil than Americans. If Muslim leaders meted out freedom and opportunity, instead of crumbs from the table of oil revenue, economic diversity would result. Industries such as manufacturing, banking, tourism, and agriculture would expand and thrive. Who knows? As America becomes the new Middle East, the Middle East could become the next Silicon Valley, creating thousands of companies, millions of jobs, billions in tax revenues, and trillions in profits to shareholders— as it did here, in capitalist America. Why not? Unless you are an Islamist, there is no reason to believe that Middle Eastern Muslims are not as intelligent, industrious, and ambitious as American Muslims.

Meanwhile, according to an NBC News series on the economic and political ramifications of the American oil and gas bonanza, things will be looking up in America. Lower energy costs are making American businesses more profitable and competitive. New and better jobs are being created. With lower product prices and rising incomes, our standard of living will increase. And we will buy unprecedented quantities of any blasphemy-spewing, Islamist-mocking semiconductor devices Silicon Valley can invent. Semiconductors, by the way, are made from silicon, which is, in turn, fabricated from silicon dioxide — aka, sand.




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The War of Words

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I am writing this during a long road trip. You know what happens when you’ve driven a few thousand miles and you’ve been through all your CDs and you’re off in the middle of farm country where there’s nothing between you and the stratosphere except NPR (which is everywhere), the daily hog reports, and Sean Hannity. So you listen to Sean Hannity. At least I do. Despite the fact that I dislike him intensely.

Well, not him. His shows. This side of the White House, there’s no purer example of partisan talking points. Every week Hannity has one thing to say, and he says it all week. During the week of September 16, his talking point was how terrible it was that President Obama gave a speech that day in which he made “noble” statements about the shootings at the Navy yard in Washington, then proceeded to give his scheduled speech about the economy in which he dissed Republicans and the former Republican administration. On Sept. 17, Hannity said, “I can’t think of anything more despicable” than Obama’s going on with that scheduled speech. Hannity said that for the rest of the week, in every context and on all occasions.

If you’re looking for overkill, look no further. Indeed, if you’re looking for irrationality, look no further. Obama’s remarks about the economy and about Republicans were nonsense; they always are. They were also obnoxious. But they were not obnoxious because a madman happened to conduct a shooting spree on the same day.

If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

What offended me was the fact that the president canceled a performance of Latin music that was supposed to be staged at the White House that evening. Why should he do that? People in Amarillo didn’t cancel music events that night. So what if the shooting took place in Washington, within miles, in the constantly reiterated media phrase, of the White House? Is life, such as it is in Washington, supposed to come to a stop because of a minor event (yes, I said minor event) like that? Was the Latin music troupe supposed to spend the night meditating about violence in our society? Or initiating a national conversation about our treatment of the mentally impaired? Were the rest of us supposed to do that? If Obama had any kind of leadership, he would have issued a brief statement and continued as usual, despising the criticism of people like Hannity, who was blue with anger for no reason at all.

Since I’ve said this much, I may as well say more. None of the shootings about which the country has paused, prayed, lowered the flag to half-staff, engaged in a national conversation, mourned the victims of tragedy, kept the families in our hearts and prayers, etc., etc., has been anything but a festival of hypocrisy. If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

Many of the deep mourners over the shooting victims are simply gun-control fanatics, happy enough to discover victims (of guns, not the lack of guns, which is a somewhat greater problem). Many of the others are chasers of thrills, ecstatically snuffing the air of crisis. Many of the rest are slaves of the eye, not followers of the brain: they mourn the deaths of anyone killed on national TV, but when they find out that someone they actually know has died from a car accident (or cancer, or a heart attack, or suicide), their reaction is to move on with their lives, in the same way they were five minutes before. Their reaction to violent news on television is sensationalism: the quest for sensations. But sensations aren’t moral feelings.

I am happy that in September the American populace staged a revolt against sensationalism, when they rejected the president’s plan to punish Syria for its government’s alleged gassing of some of its people. The point was clear: there are people who feel real concern about human life, and then there are people who merely think they do, or act as if they did, because they are interested in the latest media sensation; and that the latter group should not be allowed to set policy for the former.

Multitudes of people have died, in Africa and other places, because environmentalists succeeded in restricting the use of DDT, thus allowing insect-borne diseases to thrive, with devastating effects. Christians, gay people, and members of other minority groups are martyred daily in both “friendly” and “unfriendly” Islamic countries. Uncounted thousands of people have died in Syria, butchered by the government and its foes. Fifteen hundred of those people are thought to have died of a gas attack. Why is the conscience of the world aroused by the latest event and not by the earlier ones?

And what is the response of those whose consciences are so highly exercised? The response is that we should bomb the Syrians — not to remove the government, not even to cripple the government, but just to show ’em. Or, if you’re John McCain, the response is that we should send guns and ammo to antigovernment fighters (curiously, they’re never soldiers; I guess that would make them look bad, somehow), many of whom stand ready to become the jihadist foes of the United States. Do you think that more than 1500 lives might be lost in that way?

But now comes the Obama administration, with a hypocrisy even greater than that of the strict interventionists. And here I need no help from Hannity in discerning the debased quality of our leaders’ rhetoric.

On August 20, 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation." It was typical of Obama, that weird combination of faux folksiness (“a whole bunch”) and faux acadamese (“calculus,” “equation”).

The weirdness continued on Sept. 4 of this year. You remember the president’s remarks on that day. “First of all, I didn’t set a red line,” he said, with the high-school-principal petulance that expresses his dislike of criticism. “The world set a red line.” He continued, with equal testiness: “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.” He also mentioned America’s credibility, and that of Congress. There he went beyond hypocrisy. He told a set of flat-out lies.

Isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies?

Of course, the weirdest thing about the Syria affair was John Kerry, the dove turned screaming eagle. First Kerry ranted like a maniac about the gas attacks, which he insisted, because of evidence he would not reveal, were both real and the responsibility of the Syrian government, not that of its equally nasty opponents. About this, he said, in the bullying voice with which the global warming nuts announce their findings, there were “no dissenters.” (Whenever someone says that, you know they’re trying to fool you.) According to him, all good people must unite in hitting Syria so hard that it would never dream of gas again. Then, after he was criticized for being a warmonger, which he visibly was, he insisted that the airstrikes he advocated would be (dramatic drum roll) “unbelievably small.”

Tell me: can someone with such wild mood swings be believed about anything?

It’s curiously appropriate, isn’t it, that Kerry should come to roost on the word “unbelievably.” And isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies? Can it be, can it be, that they have never actually read a book?

Consider President Obama’s comments about Syria on Sept. 6:

"When there's a breach this brazen of a norm this important, and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn't act, then that norm begins to unravel. And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling, and that makes for a more dangerous world, and that then requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future."

Can you think of a good author who has ever tried to foist an image as bad as an unraveling norm? Jane Austen would slit her wrists before doing something like that. Jane Austen, hell; Harry Truman would slit his wrists. Not only did Obama evoke that unvisualizable image: he insisted on it; he used it three times in a row. It’s the kind of image that only the most childish of bureaucrats would use. You can picture them, hunched over the computers, proudly crafting their next public utterance. So, they’re thinking, there’s this really cool word, that word we hear all the time on NPR . . . norm, normed, normative, norming . . . And there’s this other hip, cool word, which is unravel. Like, uh, our initiative unraveled, our funding unraveled . . . . So yeah! It would be really really cool if we put them together and said, like, our norm, our norm unraveled.

James Rosen, the Fox News correspondent who probably dislikes Obama as much as Obama dislikes him, which is plenty, opined on August 31 that “this president, so attuned to literature,” would put a lot of effort into preparing his next speech on Syria. Obama would be all worked up about the judgment of history and so forth. But what’s the evidence that Obama is thus “attuned”? Name one author whom Obama reads and quotes. You can’t — and that’s enough to make my case. No one ever charged Obama with fleeing the responsibilities of office in order to curl up with a book. He is charged, instead, with fleeing his responsibilities to play golf or watch basketball on TV.

Obama is not only unattuned to literature; he’s unattuned to grammar. Try this passage, selected virtually at random from his recent (Sept. 6) verbal interventions:

"For the American people, who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice in blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion." Obama is a great orator. He just can’t make his subjects match his verbs.

 And Kerry is worse, much worse. As if to emphasize his total lack of literary education or sensitivity, Kerry (or one of his assistants, deputed to the hard task of fishing through the internet for jazzy quotes) discovered a cliché that has been kicking around for about 250 years. It started as one of Samuel Johnson’s witty remarks. According to Boswell’s Johnson, it went like this: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." 

That’s still quotable, I suppose. But when something, even a cliché, gets into Kerry’s maw, it ends up horribly mangled. “A lot of people,” he intoned on Sept. 10, à propos his threats to Syria, “say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”

I would like to find some cunning here. I would like to think that Kerry didn’t credit Dr. Johnson because he didn’t want to ruffle the rubes by implying that he could actually quote an actual author, and had therefore, at some desperate hour, managed to read a book. I would like to think he wondered about the possibility that someone would think, “Strange — I never heard anyone say that ‘nothing focuses the mind,’ etc.,” but concluded that the possibility was remote: no one would check his memory on that point. And I would like to think he substituted “focuses” for “concentrates” because he knew that “concentrates” would take the rubes as much as two seconds to figure out. But there’s no evidence that Kerry himself is anything but a rube. And that goes for the rest of our statesmen, too.

the judgment of historyJohnson




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Film and the Fight for Freedom

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In many works of fiction, the protagonist is an "outsider," either one who literally comes from outside the community or one who resides within the community but nevertheless is an outsider in terms of personal values and behavior. This character allows the reader or the audience to identify with the community and at the same time view the beliefs and values of the community through fresh eyes — often, in so doing, reevaluating ideas and practices that we once took for granted as self-evident and unalienable.

In Wadjda the title character (Waad Mohammed) is this kind of protagonist. She is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons, which are replete with the acknowledgement that everything is controlled by the goodness of Allah. When one of her pre-pubescent classmates is married over the weekend, Wadjda giggles but is not concerned. These are givens in her community.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean). She is attracted to the culture of the West, even though she is immersed in the culture of the Middle East.

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. But nice girls don't ride bicycles. A fall could be dangerous to their virginity — and we know how important that is in Middle Eastern culture. So no one encourages or helps Wadjda in her goal.

"Wadjda" does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film.

Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and with a determined voice and a winning smile convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes instant gratification in order to save for her big purchase when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store when her friends go shopping. Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price.

So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Quran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Quran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadja's mother (Reem Abdullah) is also an entrepreneur of sorts who understands that success requires taking risks. (Significantly, she has no name in the film except "Mother.") Her mother-in-law is shopping for a second wife for her husband, and she is determined to thwart that plan by showing everyone in the community that she is beautiful and desirable so that no other woman would be willing to become a second wife to her. To do this, she decides to invest her money in a stunning red dress to wear to a relative's upcoming wedding. This will remind everyone, including her husband, that she is not an old woman to be set aside and replaced. She is still beautiful, sexy, and valuable — not the kind of woman that another woman would want to compete with as second wife. She also makes it clear to her husband that she will no longer live with him connubially if he takes another wife. Like Wadjda, she risks everything to accomplish her goal.

As with the best of outsider fiction, Wadjda does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film. In fact, it is more about following one's dreams and making things happen than it is about the evils of a particular culture. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents the Saudi culture respectfully and matter-of-factly, without exaggeration or overt criticism. The film is subtly nuanced and carefully crafted not to offend; in fact, a true believer in the Saudi way of life could view this film as an example of what happens to women who rebel. No men ever step in to exert authority over the women. No overt abuse occurs. No legal authorities step in to limit these women's rights.

In fact, most of the rules are applied by other women. They simply accept the cultural mores regarding gender and enforce the rules themselves. The bike shop owner (a man) has no problem selling a bike to a girl; the men who see Wadjda and the other girls in public do not tell them to withdraw. In fact, it does not even seem to be against the law for girls to ride a bike; it simply isn't done, and it is the women, not the men, who enforce this cultural taboo. Moreover, Wadjda's father seems to be a very loving and affectionate man who is somewhat trapped by the culture himself.

Nevertheless, it took great courage to make this film in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that Al-Mansour expects her audience to open their eyes and see the hypocrisy and injustice that the characters themselves seem to overlook. Nineteenth-century writers and dramatists such as Jane Austen and Henrik Ibsen opened the eyes of their audiences in similar ways. They presented the current culture as it was, creating a setting in which the audience felt comfortable and at home. Then they skillfully allowed an outsider protagonist to lead the audience into discovering the hypocrisy and injustice of the culture in which they felt so comfortable. Why should Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), two of Jane Austen's most beloved characters, have fewer opportunities for happiness in marriage simply because their fathers did not inherit the family wealth? Why should Nora (Ibsen's proactive protagonist in A Doll's House), be forced to hide in the attic, earning money by copying documents, simply because she is a married woman and doesn't have her husband's consent to work?(Writers today take it another step and challenge the Victorian idea that marriage is the key to happiness.)

Works of fiction still have the power to influence their culture by shining subtle lights back upon itself. They have more power to change a cultural mindset than all the "pinprick" assaults and direct attacks of war will ever have. Film has the power to change minds and hearts, and Wadjda is an instance. It presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wadjda," written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Highlook Communications and Razor Film Produktion (2012), 98 minutes. (In Arabic with English subtitles. But don't let that hold you back.)



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Obama’s Syrian Folly

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President Obama is about to ask Congress to endorse military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Over the past week momentum has been building against the Obama policy of airstrikes to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians. It’s not that the case against the Assad regime is weak. On the contrary, it is clear that sarin was used by regime forces at Ghouta near Damascus on August 21, killing hundreds of civilians including children. (It is not known whether Assad personally ordered the use of gas, but it is virtually certain that his forces, and not the Syrian rebels, are responsible for the August 21 attack.) But a war-weary American citizenry simply sees no compelling reason to start yet another war in the Middle East. The atrocity in Ghouta does not rise above the many ghastly events that occur around the world on an almost daily basis. I have mentioned before in this space that some 7 million people have been killed in the Congo since civil war broke out there in 1996, and yet America has done nothing to stop the killing. Why then is Obama so keen to avenge what in comparison is a small-scale atrocity in Syria?

We should be clear that the president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility. In 2012 he foolishly called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that al-Assad must not cross. At Ghouta his bluff was called. Undoubtedly he now feels that he must strike in order to restore respect for himself and the nation he leads. He has in recent months been dissed by China (over hacking and other matters), Russia (over Edward Snowden), and Britain (where Parliament voted down a government proposal to join the US in attacking Syria). As Obama sees it, to do nothing would only further erode what remains of the respect he commands on the world stage.

A second reason for the strike is the misguided humanitarianism of the president and his closest advisors, particularly National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry. This past weekend Kerry bloviated ad nauseam about Bill Clinton’s regret over not intervening to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. Rice is known to believe in military action to fulfill humanitarian goals. Leaving aside the fact that there are more humanitarian crises in the world than we have forces to deploy on such missions, there is in fact no reason whatsoever to believe that lobbing a few cruise missiles into Syria will alleviate the suffering there. It may, in fact, increase suffering by intensifying and spreading the conflict. Al-Assad’s Shiite allies in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon have indicated that US and other targets in the Middle East and perhaps beyond will be hit if we act against Syria. Are they bluffing? Perhaps. But do we want to find out, given that we have already exhausted ourselves fighting terrorists and others over the past dozen years?

The president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility.

Russia has said that it will provide advanced weaponry to Syria in the event the US goes to war. Such a move could lead to additional US strikes to knock out Syria’s augmented defenses. A spiraling escalation of the conflict, while unlikely, should not be discounted. Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

The US and the new government in Iran have been talking behind the scenes about negotiating an end to the nuclear issue that has divided them for years. The prospect of ending the danger of war in the Persian Gulf, of avoiding yet more American blood and treasure spent, will be thrown away if we attack Syria.

In recent days world opinion as well as opinion here at home has turned decisively against the idea of US intervention in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the US Congress will find the courage to stand up to the president. Obama shrewdly asked Congress for authorization to strike, which places the burden of responsibility equally on its shoulders. The leadership of both parties appears to be “on board.” A certain amount of obfuscation has been used by the administration to persuade the leadership to support war. House Speaker John Boehner and others have been told that the strikes will be limited, that we will basically be sending Assad a message. At the same time, Senate hawks were told that the strikes will be more extensive and punishing. Its prestidigitation may come back to haunt the administration in the near future, assuming that Congress does vote for war.

We will soon know whether members will follow the leadership down the primrose path. At present, members see their constituents opposing war by 10-to-1 and even 100-to-1 margins. Most of them will await the president’s speech to the nation on Tuesday to see whether the political winds shift. Opponents of war on the far Left and far Right will vote their consciences; most of the rest will vote according to what’s best for them politically. Much therefore rides on Obama’s performance Tuesday. If his speech is well received, congressional authorization will be assured, and the missiles will fly soon thereafter. For what it’s worth, this analyst is convinced that Congress will vote to authorize war.

One hopes that the strikes will be limited, and that we will then declare that Assad has been taught a lesson, followed by a return to the status quo ante. Syria’s allies will choose not to act, and the war will not spread. But in the past few days the Defense Department has expanded its list of targets, some of which will require attacks by strike aircraft. An air campaign stretching out for days or possibly even weeks could be in the offing. Such an expanded campaign is more likely to provoke a response from Syria and Syria’s friends. A longer, messier intervention by US forces could conceivably devolve into a regional war. If events spin out of control, the possibility of boots on the ground cannot be excluded.

Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

It’s pretty clear that the military dreads such a possibility. On Sept. 5 Major General Robert Scales (ret.) published a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post opposing Obama’s march to war. Within the last two days I have spoken to a retired Army colonel and a captain in the Army Reserves. Both feel Syria would be the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The colonel in particular, a former brigade commander, spoke passionately about the need for the Army to recuperate from a dozen years of war. He told me that in his opinion, the Army is “broken,” pointing to the rise in suicides and the epidemic of sexual assault as sure proof of this. He would not exclude the possibility that another war now might end in defeat and a complete breakdown of the force.

A certain feeling of dread overhangs the movement toward war. US public and world opinion are strongly against any US action, allies are falling away, and enemies seem prepared to retaliate. The Congress is likely to endorse the war nonetheless. And the administration seems determined, come what may, to strike. Perhaps the event will prove less dramatic than one fears — a few days of bombing accompanied by shrieks of protest and threats from Assad and his friends. In that case, Obama and his friends will feel vindicated; presidential credibility will be, at least in part, restored. But nothing will have changed on the ground in Syria. The killing will continue. And there remains the possibility that we will become involved in a new war, a war that may extend beyond Syria. All this because the president chose to cavalierly lay down a “red line” he thought that a tinpot dictator wouldn’t dare to cross. Helluva way for a great power to conduct foreign policy.




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Waiting

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I write while waiting — waiting to find out whether the President of the United States is going to attack Syria (Syria!) and perhaps initiate another war in the Middle East.

The president. Not Congress. Not a political party. Not a movement among voters. Not necessity. Not even advisability. And certainly not the Constitution, which makes the president commander in chief but gives the power to declare war to Congress.

So we wait to discover what the decisions of one man may do to our lives and liberties. How is this republican government?

Readers of Liberty know that I am not an isolationist, if by that word you mean someone who is morally opposed to the use of military force outside our borders. To me, the borders of such a “nation” as Syria have no sanctity at all. And I can conceive of circumstances in which America’s safety would depend on our attacking some other country.

Barack Obama and John Kerry were formerly pacifists of the silliest kind. Both are now interventionists of the silliest kind.

But I am an isolationist in the sense in which the founding generation of the United States and the founding generation of libertarian thinkers were isolationists. These people believed that it is almost always best to mind our own business.

That’s just common sense, you say. Indeed it is. And how can people possibly be guided in their military decisions by anything other than sense and logic?

About military and diplomatic affairs, the president is even less good at thinking than he is about other things. He intervened in Libya, thereby dispensing arms to America’s worst enemies, Islamic radicals. He helped to destabilize the government of Egypt, thereby bringing to power an Islamist regime. He fecklessly “stood up to” Russia. In every case, there were disastrous geopolitical results. As for Syria, the common sense of both the Left and the Right, Democrats and Republicans, pacifists and military experts has pronounced the idea of an American military attack dangerous and ridiculous.

In his statement of August 30, and in an earlier interview, Obama claimed that the presence of chemical weapons in Syria imperiled the security of the United States, thereby justifying military action against that country. By this logic, the presence of serious weapons anywhere imperils our security and mandates war.

If you say no, that’s not what he means, please tell me what he does mean. By what principles is the foreign policy of Barack Obama and John Kerry governed? Both were formerly pacifists of the silliest kind. Both are now interventionists of the silliest kind.

Obama also claimed that the Syrians had killed many innocent people, and that no one on earth should be allowed (by us?) to do so. Kerry shouted in the same vein. Does this mean that we are obliged to intervene in half the countries of the world? Again, if that isn’t what they mean, what do they mean?

So now, we wait in fear for the decision of these men, because their decision is all that matters — in this, the greatest of all constitutional nations.




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The Egyptian Mess

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Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed . . .
                                                                                   —Isaiah 36:6

No one should be surprised by the recent events in Egypt. Indeed, this analyst foretold them here. A people unable to rule itself or even get its living without foreign assistance is bound to wind up in a bad place, and right now Egyptians are in a very bad place indeed.

The history of Egypt is well known, so I will touch on it only briefly here. The valley of the Nile was home to one of the earliest and greatest civilizations created by man. That civilization eventually declined, and Egypt became the booty of foreign conquerors — Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; the bounty of the Nile fed the Roman mob for centuries. Egypt’s population has been overwhelmingly Muslim since the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE. About 10% of its people are Coptic Christians.

Egypt enjoyed brief renaissances under the Fatimid dynasty (969–1171 CE) and then in the early 19th century under Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805–1848), an able military commander who nearly brought down the decaying Ottoman (Turkish) empire. Muhammad Ali’s descendants were the nominal rulers of Egypt until 1952, though from 1882 until the end of World War II it was Great Britain that actually ran the country. In 1952 the Egyptian Army seized power, which it held until the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in the popular revolution of early 2011.

We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic.

Mirabeau referred to Prussia as an army with a state. That description would aptly fit modern Egypt. The Army is the ultimate arbiter of politics in Egypt. It also plays a large role in the Egyptian economy, operating businesses and farms that account for a significant portion of Egypt’s GDP. Its businesses pay no license fees or taxes, and all profits disappear “off budget” into accounts under Army control. On top of this, it receives over $1 billion per year in American military aid. Its position in the state is comparable to that of the People’s Liberation Army in China — except that its political influence is probably even greater than that exercised by the PLA. The Egyptian Army projects itself as the guardian of the state and the people, but in reality it is a semi-parasitic organism whose primary goal is self-perpetuation.

The main counterweight to the Army is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, it has survived persecution first by the British and then by its bitter rival, the Army. For decades it too has been a state within a state, operating clinics and schools generally regarded as superior to those provided by the government, and dispensing aid to widows, orphans, and others. Indeed, the social safety net created by the Brotherhood was not only tolerated but partly funded by the government, which came to see the Brotherhood’s work as a pillar of social stability. In part, the poorest of the poor in Egypt survive because the Brotherhood has been there for them.

Of course, the Brotherhood is first and foremost an Islamist organization. Its ultimate goal has been and remains the creation of an Islamic society guided by sharia law. After the revolution of 2011 and the Army’s withdrawal from direct governance, the Brotherhood sought to fill the power vacuum thus created.

The revolution of early 2011 was not instigated by the Brotherhood, but rather by Western-oriented and social network-connected young people, more secular than religious in outlook, who wished to see Egypt become something like a European social democracy. That the revolution occurred just as European social democracy was beginning to crumble is ironic but beside the point. We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic. Even American-style political economy is incomprehensible to most Egyptians.

The young revolutionaries won out in 2011 because the Army had no desire to shoot people down in the streets. Moreover, repression might have forced America to rethink its relationship with the Egyptian military, thus jeopardizing that $1 billion in lucre for the Army’s coffers. Better to stand aside, the Army calculated, and sacrifice one of its own (the dictator Mubarak) to protect its corporate interest. It could wait upon events and intervene later if necessary.

Democracy had come to Egypt. . . Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution.

After the revolution the “liberal” forces swiftly fell into disarray. The various groups differed among themselves; they lacked both organizational ability and an agreed-upon program. They frittered away the goodwill they had had garnered in the heady days immediately following Mubarak’s fall. When the interim military government relinquished power in 2012, the liberals were unprepared to govern or even mount an effective political campaign.

Enter the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time of the revolution the Brotherhood had downplayed its political ambitions, even claiming that it would not offer a candidate for president. But its rallies were attended by large and enthusiastic crowds, and as it saw its liberal rivals fragmenting, the prospect of power proved too alluring. With the military partially discredited by its past association with dictatorship, the Islamists (including the Brotherhood and the very conservative al-Nour Party) were free to jump into politics with both feet. In 2012 they won a majority in the new parliament and then elected Mohamed Morsi to the presidency with an absolute majority of 52%. A constitution promulgated by the Islamists was ratified by 64% of Egyptian voters. Democracy had come to Egypt.

Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution; many non-Islamists refused to vote on a document that had been shaped along Islamist lines by the majority in parliament. Meanwhile, extra-constitutional steps were being taken against the judiciary and the media. This brought the secularists together again in opposition. The Brotherhood even alienated its Salafist allies in al-Nour, who found themselves marginalized as the Brotherhood’s arrogance grew.

Perhaps most important, the Brotherhood failed to grapple effectively with Egypt’s enormous economic problems. Forty percent of the population survives on the equivalent of $2 per day. Corruption is rife at all levels of society. Services as basic as electricity are often unavailable. It was certainly too much to expect that any man or party could correct these problems in a year’s time. But the Egyptian people were impatient. Many who had voted for the Islamists turned against the government when it failed to deliver basic improvements. Morsi and his supporters understandably took umbrage when the military warned them to compromise with the opposition forces. The president had been elected to a four-year term; surely he should be given that time to work out his plans for Egypt. That he had gone beyond constitutional bounds in some respects was not particularly unusual in the context of Egyptian politics. Nevertheless, when millions upon millions of Egyptians turned out across the country demanding his fall, the Army was bound to act. And the result was the recent coup.

When is a coup not a coup? When American law says that a country in which the military overthrows a democratically elected government cannot receive American aid. And so for the last few days we have witnessed the contemptible performances of the president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they wrestle to avoid the obvious. The ongoing massacre of language and truth being perpetrated by these men is prompted by the inexorable demands of empire: the Suez Canal remains a vital link for US forces deploying to the east. And the SUMED oil pipeline that crosses Egypt is vital to the transportation of Gulf oil to Europe. Already the current troubles in Egypt have caused West Texas intermediate to spike above $100 a barrel. If Egypt descends into chaos, that price could go to $140 or $150 a barrel, with terrible consequences for the American economy. So the servants of empire practice the art of obfuscation, and hope for the best.

Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

What is the best that can come out of the current crisis in Egypt? It is important to recognize the naked truth: Egypt is not a functioning society. Its problems are insurmountable. To declare that something cannot be fixed is discordant to American ears. But Egypt is a basket case that lacks even a basket. Consider the following facts:

  • Two-fifths of the population lives in great poverty, surviving on that $2 a day. Necessities are subsidized by the state; how long this can continue, given the increasing wariness of international lenders, is an open question.
  • The official unemployment rate is 12.5%, but likely much higher, and youth employment is higher still.
  • The country’s principal source of hard currency is drying up as tourism declines.
  • Egypt would in fact be bankrupt were it not for the money it receives in the form of handouts from the US and the Gulf States, and from Suez Canal tolls. National debt is approaching 100% of GDP.
  • Business is mired in bureaucracy and corruption and suffers from a lack of innovation and entrepreneurship (despite recent reforms), not to mention unfair competition from state enterprises.
  • The population has tripled in the past 50 years. It is expected to double again by 2050. Self-sufficient in food as recently as 1960, Egypt now imports over 40% of its total food needs, and 60% of its wheat.
  • Domestic oil production is declining while domestic consumption is increasing.
  • Egypt has virtually no tradition of self-government. The Egyptian people certainly failed to exhibit any real talent for democracy in the 18 months just past.

Egypt is in reality a fellahdom; its people, aside from the small middle class, are a fellah-people. In other words, they are an undifferentiated mass, a rabble incapable of governing or even sustaining itself. As it happens, this fellah-people occupies a strategic piece of real estate; therefore it will continue to receive enough in handouts from outsiders to keep starvation at bay. Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. Left to its own devices, it would undergo cataclysms that would probably kill millions. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

The principal actors in Egypt remain the Army and the Islamists. It should be noted that on July 6 the al-Nour party imposed a veto upon the appointment of the liberal, pro-Western Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister. Nevertheless, the Army, by drawing the secularists to its side, can guarantee continued support from the West. But if Western support should end — the result perhaps of a future crisis in the West itself — then the Islamists might again come out on top. The cry of “Islam is the answer” could resonate once more with the poor and disenfranchised. A descent into religious fanaticism would likely follow. What sort of Egypt would finally emerge is anybody’s guess.

I don’t pretend to know precisely what “solution” will be found for the present, short-term crisis. A patched-up one, no doubt, assuming civil war is avoided. But the long-term trend is clear. There is no way out for Egypt as it is presently constituted.




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The Arab Spring and After

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What we term virtues are often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune or our own industry manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste. —François de La Rochefoucauld

A few years back, people of Pakistan were fighting for democracy. I thought that Pervez Musharraf, their dictator, was the best they could get. But fashionable women were protesting and burning his effigy. The educated wanted democracy. They got democracy. Now, women cannot protest. And educated people have disappeared from the demonstration scene. The case with Nepal is similar. Since the end of monarchy, it has become a basketcase. How many people can remember places called East Timor and South Sudan? Not too long back the Western world was on the streets fighting for the social movements in these countries without a clue about the social or cultural contexts there.

 The Arab Spring brought a huge amount of excitement in the Gulf countries. The Western world had very romantic views about the protests in Egypt and Libya. Now it will blame the Muslim Brotherhood for what has been happening, rationalizing its initial support as good intentions. Or perhaps it will blame the military for the coup of July 3, 2013 that removed the democratically elected President, who soon after his election had catapulted into an autocrat. Is Egypt rapidly heading toward massive civil unrests and disintegration similar to that of Algeria in 1991? Only time will tell, but a few years down the road, one may well look at Egypt under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak with nostalgia. 

India has had massive protests against social ills and corruption.

If you are not supporting the protestors you are seen to be against democracy, liberty, hope, and change. The phenomenon is being repeated in Turkey and Bulgaria, where I have just spent two months. In both these countries, protests seem — from my rather limited outsider’s perspective but verified by my Turkish friends — to have developed for wrong reasons. More than listening to what the protestors say, one must delve more deeply into what they really want, for language is often a tool for deception and self-deception.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it.

Turkey and Bulgaria have progressed significantly over the past two decades. They are very significantly freer. The military in Turkey has increasingly taken a back seat. The mafia in Bulgaria is still a big problem, but a tourist, if he is not totally gullible, can move around safe and unmolested.

But what change is sweeping the developing world? Those with wishful thinking might suggest that it is, according to a survey, libertarians who are protesting in Turkey. They are completely wrong. Alas, even in the United States most people until not too long back did not really know what “libertarian” meant. A Turk explained to me that in the survey done in the Turkish language respondents had chosen what could be translated as “freedom-loving.” The newspaper that reported it decided to translate the word to “libertarian.” And we all know that the world is almost 100% freedom-loving. The question is what the people mean by “freedom.”

The very possibility of joining the masses makes me cringe. Not only do those who protest make jackasses of themselves, but there can hardly be any specific collective aims, for people have different motivations that are often in conflict with one another. Mostly even an individual’s protest is based on sound-bites rather than a coherent philosophy. Even when such groups have a coherent aim, they are often in opposition to some other, less vociferous group. And those who have nothing to do with any of the protests must suffer, for protestors disrupt the public space, aggressing against the uninvolved. While I do understand that it might make sense to protest publicly when the issues are of grave and immediate significance — the likelihood of a nuclear war, for example — it is generally true that only voluntary interactions among people have principled value.

So, if not for liberty, what underpins these protests — in Arab countries, Turkey, Bulgaria, and now in Brazil?

They are a result of several issues, all centred on democracy.

The weed of democracy has spread and rooted itself deeply in the psyche of people almost everywhere in the world. It is no longer seen as a new-age Western religion, which is what it is. When I was a kid in India, it was common for people to discuss why democracy — aka mob-rule — does not work. You would be called too simplistic and blamed for blindly following the West if you talked in favour of democracy. They would make fun of you for trying to look westernized. The winds have changed. I have not heard anyone saying anything against “democracy” for more than a decade now.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it. These people no longer have to show their fangs. They no longer have to show that they are ruthless exploiters, trying to steal a cut from wealth producers. Democracy has given them a garb of acceptance and the look of doing good. Psychopaths can now openly work their way up to rule others.

Given that democracy is in the DNA of today’s societies, there is no resistance to increasing its size. The size of the state — its power to tax, regulate, and control — has grown everywhere. It is the one-size-fits-all democratic institution in most parts of the world. Given its lack of connection with the underlying culture in many parts of the world, it cannot accommodate changes in society, including the fact that people are now more informed and much more mobile. The state had depended on a stable populace. But by encouraging people to get involved in democracy, it has opened a can of worms.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it.

Democracy is a much worse virus than dictatorship or monarchy. In those systems of mafia organizations called the state, people see themselves in opposition; they retain the ability to see the state for what it is: a group of people who cannot take responsibly for their own lives but believe that they can, through threats of violence, tell others how to live, meanwhile skimming off a large portion of wealth generated by the people. Democracy has made the state an inherent part of the society. The chains are no longer visible ones, but the ones within people’s minds. Those are the worst chains.

My Russian friend tells me that after the breakup of the USSR, people had no interest in standing up to sing hymns at a piece of their cloth or salute it. In Canada, until the Vancouver Winter Olympics, there were hardly any displays of nationalism. Now, flags fly everywhere in Vancouver. In India, when I was a kid, people used to walk away or ignore it when the national anthem was sung. But recently movie theaters have started running the national anthem. On a recent visit, everyone — except me — stood up. I could even see their glutes tightened — muscles that their personal trainers had failed to help them isolate — while they stood in complete discipline. I couldn’t shake the feeling of how much the State has become a part of society’s DNA.

Democracy is now in the DNA of individual people, too — a cultural meme that has found no competition. Even the ultra-religious in the Middle East must now give at least lip service to democracy, for they have failed to counter the ideological challenge. Democracy is seen as a given and a universal good, as if it were a first principle.

Democracy has encouraged herd instincts and lack of self-responsibility. Democracy has given equal participation to those who have no interest in social affairs, to those who are driven mostly by a 9-to-5 materialistic lifestyle, forever waiting for the next weekend.

Democracy has been propagandized as something that provides wealth as if by a magic. Young people in the developing world have grown up to think that democracy is a cure for all their problems. Somewhere in their minds, they have come to believe — as is the case even in the West today — that democracy creates something from nothing. They are on the streets asking for their share of this something.

Their protests have absolutely nothing to do with any libertarian mindset developing in the world. People around the world have come to depend more — emotionally and materially — on the state. They are not asking for a smaller state but for a more efficient state, which to them means a bigger and more influential one. Alas, given that democracy is a one-size-fits-all, alien institution for most societies, it has made the state less malleable than it would have been had those countries continued with the system of governance they had naturally evolved.

But even in the West the state has been increasing in size exactly at the time when the state, having hijacked emergency services and the maintenance of law and order, is very brittle and its structure completely unsuitable for the changing, mobile, and informed society. As Doug Casey would say, the State is on its way out.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it. Only time will show how this conflict — of the State falling apart while the people are becoming more dependent on it — will be resolved.




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Iran: A Shaft of Light in the Darkness

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On June 14 Iran held a presidential election. Emerging as the winner was Hassan Rowhani, a cleric of relatively moderate views. Rowhani took over 50% of the vote in a six-candidate field, thus avoiding a runoff. Over 70% of the electorate turned out to vote, and large crowds filled the streets of Tehran and other cities to celebrate the election result.

By all accounts the election was free and fair, without the manipulation and fraud that marked the 2009 contest. Of course, the candidates for president were selected, or given permission to run, by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, Iran is by Middle Eastern standards a functioning democracy. And Iranians are more pro-Western than any other people in the Islamic world, except perhaps the Turks.

The Iranian people have, through their votes, expressed a desire to re-engage with the West, and particularly the United States. This is hardly surprising, given the economic suffering caused by the sanctions under which Iran has been living since 2006. Rowhani, while ruling out direct talks with the US for the moment, appears to want some kind of deal on the nuclear issue that has plagued US-Iranian relations for more than a decade. He was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, during the presidency of another moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami. Khatami and Rowhani were responsible for Iran’s voluntary suspension of nuclear enrichment in 2004, a concession that brought no meaningful response from the US and its European allies. As a result, the hardliners in Tehran have been in the saddle since the Khatami presidency ended in 2005.

Iran will never agree to end uranium enrichment completely. Indeed, it has a right to enrich for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, in the present environment Iran may be willing to limit enrichment to less than 20% (at 20% enrichment uranium can be converted to weapons-grade material relatively quickly), and allow meaningful international inspections of its nuclear facilities. Given that President Obama has categorically ruled out containment as a response to a nuclear Iran, this option seems to be the only one other than war available to us. War would be a catastrophe for both Iran and the US.

The US has been given something very rare in international relations — a second chance. During the Khatami presidency from 1997 to 2005, the US failed to seize opportunities for an American-Iranian détente. The Clinton administration was too timid; the Bush administration had no interest in improved relations. Given the importance of the Persian Gulf region, and Iran’s status as a regional actor, every effort must be made to reach a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic. Rowhani’s decisive victory has given him weight to counterbalance the hardliners in Tehran. By reaching out to him we can perhaps tip the scales in favor of peace.




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Syria: Heading Toward War?

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On June 13 the administration announced that it will begin supplying small arms and ammunition to rebels battling the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It also indicated that it may decide at some point to send the rebels heavy weapons of the antitank variety. Off the table, at least for now, is the possibility of supplying the rebels with antiaircraft missiles.

The US has been supplying nonlethal aid to the so-called Free Syrian Army since 2012. The rebels are in fact a disparate grouping of Sunni Muslims, who range ideologically from mildly pro-Western to fanatical supporters of al-Qaeda. The pro-Westerners are by far the weakest group among the rebels. Hence the US hesitancy about supplying those antiaircraft missiles: it’s all too likely that they would fall into the hands of terrorists, who would use them to shoot down US military aircraft and passenger jets.

It is difficult to understand the administration’s decision to escalate our involvement, even in this small way. This spring the war turned definitely in the Syrian regime’s favor. In May a key leader of the Syrian Free Army admitted that the FSA lacked the power to topple the Assad regime. Supplying military aid now, when the rebels’ cause appears lost, seems foolish.

It may be that the administration is hoping to keep the rebels in the fight long enough to get a negotiated settlement. This analyst, however, believes that the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and Russia, is in a position to crush the rebels eventually. The peace conference to be held in Geneva starting in July will be a talking shop of the kind beloved by diplomats but incapable of stopping the fighting. The fight in Syria will be to a finish. Bashar al-Assad is almost certainly going to survive, although low-grade guerrilla conflict may persist for years.

The supplying of arms represents a commitment of US resources and prestige to the rebel cause. Will airstrikes, and possibly ground troops, follow?

The only possible way to alter the course of events in Syria is for the Western powers to intervene with force. The Syrian air force would have to be destroyed, or at least grounded. Heavy weapons and other matériel would have to be supplied to the rebels, and trainers (i.e., boots on the ground) would be necessary if the rebels were to employ these weapons effectively. This raises the question of whether the Assad regime would respond by employing chemical weapons.

Ostensibly, the US decision to supply the rebels with small arms came as a result of a US finding that Assad’s forces had already used chemical weapons against the rebels. A resort to chemical warfare on a larger scale raises the specter of a major US intervention, including ground troops. Securing or destroying Assad’s chemical weapons would require far more than a commando-style raid by Navy Seals or the Army’s Delta Force. At a minimum, two combat brigades with accompanying support forces, i.e., 10,000 to 15,000 troops, would be needed. That this might lead to an even deeper US involvement is, given the vagaries of war, quite possible.

The Syrian conflict is a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims (the Alawite sect, to which Assad and his supporters belong, is an offshoot of Shiism). The Sunni forces, all but a small portion of them, are anti-Western, and include al-Qaeda affiliated elements. We have already experienced the difficulties of sorting out such a situation. Needless to say, another Iraq is the last thing America needs.

So far, the drumbeat for war maintained by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham has fallen on deaf ears. According to the polls, 60% of the American people do not want a war in Syria. There is no great media push for war, as there was in Iraq. Establishment figures such as Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, are opposed to military intervention. Most importantly, and to his everlasting credit, the president has no desire to fight. Yet he has failed to come out and say frankly that Syria is a situation we cannot solve, and that to intervene in it would be a colossal blunder. His political timidity is baffling, given that he has no more elections to worry about.

The McCains of the world may yet have their way. The supplying of arms represents a commitment of US resources and prestige to the rebel cause. Will airstrikes, and possibly ground troops, follow? Incremental steps can lead to a deeper involvement, as Vietnam proved. There has been a small US force in Jordan for some time. In April Secretary of Defense Hagel announced that it would be augmented in order to “increase readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios.” It actually represents the germ of an advanced headquarters for a Central Command expeditionary force, should one be ordered into Syria. This constitutes another drop, and a significant one, in the trickle toward war. One hopes that Obama will find the courage to turn off the tap.

rsquo;s all too likely that they would fall into the hands of terrorists, who would use them to shoot down US military aircraft and passenger jets.em




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What Difference Did Benghazi Make?

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Remember the Benghazi attack, the one against our consulate in Libya, where terrorists murdered our ambassador and three other Americans? Vaguely? It was the debacle that we were told was caused by a silly anti-Islamic video — and led to a series of tedious hearings revealing almost nothing about the trans-attack activities of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Judging by media coverage, all that most people will remember of the hearings was the "What difference, at this point, does it make?” remark by Mrs. Clinton, in her January testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was Clinton's indignant rejection of a line of inquiry into the State Department's initial insistence that the attack was a spontaneous response to the silly video. But it represented a political victory for Democrats. Theatric, petulant, at times tearful, always evasive, Mrs. Clinton rebuked her inquisitors while defending her role, and that of President Obama, in the handling of the attack. She deftly accepted responsibility, but not a whit of blame; and shed not a particle of light on anything that she or Mr. Obama might have done to save lives on the night of the attack. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had escaped Benghazi, now a fading tempest in a politicized Republican teapot.

Indeed, what difference did it make? Mr. Obama was reelected in November. Time, and a fawning media, have dissolved public interest in the Benghazi matter. And Mrs. Clinton's testimony was, in no small part, a valedictory for her State Department stint. She departs as one of the country's most popular political figures, and a likely candidate for president in 2016. During her 60 Minutes appearance with Obama, this popularity led her to put what she may have thought would be the final nail in the Benghazi coffin, saying of her critics, "They just will not live in an evidence-based world."

But, only a week later, on February 7, public memory was refreshed with the "evidence-based" testimony (before the Senate Armed Services Committee) of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. We would learn that their participation during the eight-hour tragedy was timid and parochial, that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton negligent and ignoble; their escape from Benghazi was desertion.

At 5:00 pm on the afternoon of September 11, 2012, Leon Panetta and General Dempsey met with President Obama for a routine 30-minute weekly session. But on this day, Panetta and Dempsey brought news of the Benghazi attack: it had begun about 90 minutes earlier, the lives of more than 30 US citizens were at stake, and the whereabouts of Ambassador Stevens was unknown. They spent a whopping 20 minutes with Obama discussing the situation at the American embassy in Cairo and the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

It was at this brief meeting that Obama ordered Panetta and Dempsey to "do whatever we need to do to make sure they’re safe." Said Panetta, “He just left that up to us.” During the entire night, this was the only time Obama would communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. When Senator Lindsey Graham asked Panetta, "Did the president show any curiosity?", we found that Obama never called back to ask "are we helping these people?"

Sometime after the meeting, Obama placed a political call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to quell a perceived controversy over Obama's refusal to meet with Netanyahu two weeks later at the UN General Assembly. But he never called Panetta and Dempsey to make sure that Ambassador Stevens and associates in Libya — Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, and dozens of others — were OK. No situation room, no gutsy decisions; the 30-minute, 5 o'clock meeting and the one hour Netanyahu phone call are all we know of Obama's activities that evening. Panetta also testified that he did not communicate with a single person at the White House that night.

Nor did Clinton communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. Senator Ted Cruz asked them, "In between 9:42 p.m., Benghazi time, when the first attacks started, and 5:15 am, when Mr. Doherty and Mr. Woods lost their lives, what conversations did either of you have with Secretary Clinton?" The answer was that they had none.

Who would want to be in the shoes of Panetta and Dempsey? According to their testimony, they knew right away that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists. Yet, there they were, alone at the helm, ordered to keep Americans safe from what their commander-in-chief thought was an angry mob of protestors — a commander-in-chief who then left for the night.

The principal obstacle they faced was the time it would take for a military response. As Panetta testified, aircraft such as AC-130 gunships would have taken "at least nine to 12 hours if not more to deploy." Dempsey testified that a “boots on the ground” presence in Benghazi would have taken 13 to 15 hours. Our forces were unready. When Senator John McCain asked why, Dempsey said that General Ham, the commander of AFRICOM, had made him aware of Ambassador Stevens's repeated warnings, "but we never received a request for support from the State Department." After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

Senator Graham asked, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" "No," Panetta responded, "because the attack ended before they could get off the ground." His thinking might have been that there was no point in sending military assets on a nine-hour trip to save the lives of four people who would be dead an hour before it arrived. But at the time Panetta and Dempsey were considering response options, there were over 30 lives at risk and no one knew the attack would end in eight hours. The assault against the consulate may have ended before help could get off the ground, but for all they knew, the assault on the CIA annex could have lasted much longer.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it without hesitation — right after the 5 o'clock meeting would have been good. Send it all — so what if it might arrive late. Ruling out political risk, what is the downside? And what if the attack lasted, say, 18 hours? Gunships could be there in nine, and “boots on the ground” in fifteen.

Panetta testified, "Despite the uncertainty at the time, however, the Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to save American lives." But evidently, other than the dispatch of an unarmed drone and a six-man, Tripoli-based rescue team, all effort was in fact spared.

Nothing was done to enlist the aid of the Libyan government. In a letter to President Obama, Senator Graham asked whether he had ever called a Libyan official on September 11 to expedite the deployment of US support to Libya. According to Graham, “And he said after a two-page letter from his lawyer, no." Expedited deployment would have prevented the 90-minute delay experienced by the FAST team of Marines out of Spain, a delay caused by State Department officials who required the Marines to deplane and change out of their uniforms. It could have prevented the Tripoli team from being held up at the Benghazi Airport for three and a half hours.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it all, and send it without hesitation — so what if it might arrive late?

The responsible officials didn't even send the air support that was promised to be above Benghazi when the rescue team arrived. Despite Dempsey’s claims that US forces were “in motion” from the beginning, he admitted that none ever attempted to reach Benghazi; no one ever ordered them to go there. Obama, Clinton, Panetta, and Dempsey could not say, with honor, that they tried anything that had a chance of helping.

We do not know what Obama and Clinton did the tragic evening of September 11, 2012. They may have gone to sleep. Panetta and Dempsey did not sleep. Perhaps the harrowing night of monitoring an attack, an attack that could not end soon enough, kept them awake. For they knew that their timidity might result in the deaths of more than 30 people, if the attack continued. And though only four would die, Panetta and Dempsey would live with their answer to the question, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" — even if Senator Graham had never asked that question.

Then there was the anxiety of waiting to see whether the president would walk in. Would he be engaged and concerned, demanding a status report on what Panetta and Dempsey were doing "to make sure they’re safe"? Or would Mrs. Clinton barge in, at a point when it would have made a difference? Although the president had left it up to them, Panetta and Dempsey had not implemented a single effective military option; they had to worry that they would not be seen doing "whatever we need to do" to help. But Obama and Clinton didn't even care to call and check — not a single phone call throughout the entire, grueling attack. By the end of that dreadful night, Panetta and Dempsey might have asked, "What difference, at this point, does it make” that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton ever showed up.




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