Archive | September 5th, 2020

Biden and global Islamophobia

by: Laila Ujayli

If elected in November, a Biden administration must be prepared to confront a teeming pile of crises, including a devastating pandemic, an economic catastrophe, and mounting climate chaos. In his speech last week at the Democratic National Convention, Biden appeared clear-eyed about this reality. However, there is at least one global crisis that Biden seems unprepared to meaningfully confront — intensifying anti-Muslim bigotry and violence.

Anti-Muslim hatred has been rising for years, always soaring ever higher. From bigoted surveillance and incarceration policies in the wake of 9/11, to the crimes of endless wars in the Middle East and Africa, to the Trump administration en masse, the United States has been a leading incubator of Islamophobia.

Globally, the crisis is manifesting from India to Israel to the whole continent of Europe. Its most severe symptoms include the ongoing persecution and genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the repression and forcible internment of more than a million Uyghurs in China, and the massacre of more than 50 worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. Leaders including Donald Trump, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, India’s Narendra Modi, the UK’s Boris Johnson, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have all successfully weaponized Islamophobia to win elections, proving its political viability and so securing its longevity. Despite our naming Islamophobia as a global crisis and marching in streets and airports to oppose it, the phenomenon flourishes.

If a president Biden truly wants to safeguard communities and confront the global crises Trump has facilitated, combatting anti-Muslim hatred must be high on his agenda.

While courting Muslim voters, Biden has promised to repeal the Muslim ban on his first day in office, called for greater education on Islam, and committed to rebuilding the U.S. refugee program. His agenda for Muslim-American communities condemns the violence against Muslims in Myanmar, China, and Kashmir. But these commitments represent the barest minimum. Words and promises are woefully insufficient to confronting a crisis with tentacles in genocide, torture, and endless war. Political courage is needed — a courage demonstrably absent during the Democratic National Convention.

Instead of centering Muslims in the fight to unseat a president who won partly by demonizing them, the DNC included no Muslim speakers in its primetime lineup. Meanwhile, the DNC managed to find the space for Republicans and Michael Bloomberg, who infamously oversaw and never apologized for the surveillance of New York’s Muslim communities in the wake of 9/11.

To make matters worse, the Biden campaign capitulated to Republican criticism of the briefest appearance of Palestinian-American Muslim organizer Linda Sarsour at an associated event, distancing her from the Biden campaign and smearing her as antisemitic for her support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and criticism of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Such bad-faith accusations of antisemitism are particularly leveled against Muslim critics of Israel from both sides of the aisle, silencing Muslim voices by weaponizing the very real threats faced by Jewish communities.

Subsequent outrage from Arab and Muslim groups prompted the Biden campaign to issue a private, off-the-record apology for a very public affront. The message Biden’s campaign sends to Muslim-American voters — particularly those calling for Palestinian rights and dignity — seems clear, one Rokia Hassanein aptly summarized as, “We want your vote, but not your voices.”

At best, Biden is taking Muslim voters for granted, assuming his quality of “not being Trump” will be enough to win him their votes. But the global crisis of anti-Muslim hatred is much larger than November’s election. And if Biden fails to counteract latent Islamophobia at his own party’s convention, it bodes poorly for his ability to do so while in office. Fortunately, it’s not too late for Biden to prove that he can rise to meet this challenge.  

Biden must begin at home. He should support abolishing the Department of Homeland Security, a post-9/11 relic that has been at the vanguard of inflicting trauma on Muslim communities in the United States. Biden must commit to terminating the $80 million discriminatory federal surveillance program, Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention — rebranded from the Countering Violent Extremism program pioneered by the Obama administration. By categorizing Muslims as either terrorists or assets against terror, these policies undermine the security of communities through disproportional policing, incarceration, and surveillance. They amount to nothing short of American militarism creeping onto American streets.  

Instead of sidelining Muslim voices, Biden should elevate them by naming at least one Muslim-American to his cabinet — the first in U.S. history. He must lead the Democratic Party by example and defend Muslim voices in Congress, throwing his support in particular behind Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who have been subject to attacks by members of their own party for their constitutionally protected criticism of Israel’s discriminatory policies. Where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi failed to come to their defense, Biden must prove he will — without qualification. He must hold his own party to account for anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies and, unlike Obama, finally pursue accountability for the crimes of the ongoing post-9/11 wars. This includes finally closing Guantanamo Bay prison.

Rooting out Islamophobia in the Democratic Party is more important than ever when faced with an increasingly anti-Muslim far right and the Trump administration in particular. “Proud Islamophobe” Laura Loomer raised more than a million dollars to win her Republican primary in Florida. And while she is unlikely to walk the halls of Congress, Republican nominee for Georgia’s 14th district, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said Reps. Omar and Tlaib were part of “an Islamic invasion of our government,” likely will.

As a Muslim growing up in post-9/11 America, very little Islamophobic rhetoric phases me. But I find Greene’s comments on Islam shocking. If elected, she will write and vote on legislation that directly impacts Muslims in the United States and across the world. Biden must be ready to protect Muslim communities from this bigotry and disavow it in the plainest possible terms. 

Biden must also reject American militarism in the Middle East and Africa, which is directly linked to anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry. Not only will doing so help him meaningfully combat the climate crisis — already a stated priority — ending endless war is also necessary to tackling systemic racism. For too long, Muslim communities abroad have been diminished as security threats — justifying military occupation and airstrikes that have cost too many civilian lives, with little to no accountability. Biden needs an approach to foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa centered on uplifting the rights and dignity of its inhabitants, one that refuses to replace endless war with endless sanctions, revitalizes diplomacy with both allies and adversaries alike, and denies allies blank checks to act with impunity. That includes Saudi Arabia, and, despite Biden’s repeated and loud reluctance, Israel.

Only by making confrontation of anti-Muslim hatred a priority of U.S. domestic and foreign policy can a Biden administration meaningfully diminish not just American militarism and bigotry, but also anti-Muslim violence in other countries, like China, India, Myanmar, and Israel. Given the continued rise of global Islamophobia, the stakes of tackling this issue are higher than ever.

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The US helped create the UN precisely to block antics like Mike Pompeo’s obsession with Iran

by: Assal Rad

In late November of 1943, FDR, Churchill, and Stalin met in Iran, which the allied powers had occupied during World War II, in what came to be known as the Tehran Conference — a strategy meeting to combat Nazi Germany and consider a post-war settlement. Another significant outcome of the meeting were conversations addressing the demise of the League of Nations, which had failed to prevent a second world war, and the need for an international body to be established with the mission to nurture world peace.

One of the central reasons for the League’s failure was that the United States refused to participate, fearing it would be constrained by international obligations. However, after the devastation of World War II, the need for such a body was self-evident and so the United Nations was born from its rubble. In a world facing a rise in authoritarianism, pandemic, the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and the existential threat of climate change, the significance of the U.N. and its origins are more relevant than ever.

Most recently, the United Nations and the international community held the United States accountable — despite its position as the unipolar power of the world — by rejecting the absurd U.S. claims that it is a “participant” in the Iran nuclear deal (which it withdrew from in May 2018) and could therefore initiate a “snapback” mechanism to reimpose U.N. sanctions on Iran.

Rather than submitting to the arrogant posturing of the Trump administration, the international body held firm to its mission of fostering peace. In their joint statement following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attempt at “snapback” of all U.N. sanctions on Iran, the E3, Britain, France, and Germany, made their position clear yet again, “France, Germany and the United Kingdom note that the US ceased to be a participant to the JCPOA following their withdrawal from the deal on May 8, 2018…We cannot therefore support this action which is incompatible with our current efforts to support the JCPOA.”

The 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran was a breakthrough for nuclear non-proliferation and a model for global diplomacy. While peaceful relations with allies and friends is admirable, the real work of diplomacy is its effectiveness with presumed adversaries. In the Iran deal, the second breakthrough was détente between the U.S. and Iran, after both sides had engaged in belligerent rhetoric against the other for decades.  

As the U.S. under the Trump administration — and at the behest of an outspoken Iran hawk, Mike Pompeo — has tried everything to sabotage years of negotiating efforts by the Obama administration and brought us to the brink of war with Iran, world powers, Iranians, and the American populace continue to support diplomacy and a peaceful resolution. While President Trump has maintained the language of his campaign platform and appears to want a deal with Iran in his own name, instead of a war, it has become increasingly plain that Secretary of State Pompeo wants no such deal.

In the just under two weeks since the U.S. attempt to extend the arms embargo on Iran through a U.N. Security Council resolution failed miserably, an obsessed Pompeo has tweeted more than 20 times about Iran, taking up approximately a third of all his activity. After the vote, Pompeo lambasted the international body stating, “The Security Council’s failure to act decisively in defense of international peace and security is inexcusable.” While the irony of such a statement — in light of the Trump administration’s destruction of a deal that advanced peace and prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — is striking, the dogmatic tone should not be overlooked. During his short tenure as Secretary of State, Pompeo has led the U.S. to increased isolation in the international community, slowly eroded the State Department, undermined diplomacy in favor of hostility, been investigated for misconduct, and his discourse has grown gradually more divisive both domestically and globally.

If the United Nations is to succeed where the League of Nations failed, it must stand up against precisely this kind of rhetoric, and the aggressive unilateral actions of a member state led by an administration that has damaged its own democratic institutions and seems determined to destroy an international body if it does not bend to its will. We can never know if a properly functioning League of Nations could have prevented WWII, what we do know however, is that we cannot allow another failure of that magnitude. With the global challenges we face, the need for an international body that provides collective security and prevents war through disarmament and diplomacy is crucial. The U.N. fulfilled its duty by rejecting Pompeo’s reckless schemes, it must continue to show strength, deny warmongers their desired legitimacy, and encourage the peace it was founded to protect.

Posted in USA, Iran, Politics, UN0 Comments

Bipartisanship in Congress is a relic, except when it comes to preserving American militarism

by: Elizabeth Beavers

One of the most common myths about Washington is that Republicans and Democrats can’t find a single thing to agree on. Our parties are so divided, the thinking goes, that it is close to impossible to advance bipartisan legislation on just about anything. If only they could come together, we might be able to solve some of the country’s most pressing problems.

But that’s not quite true. There are actually plenty of goals that both parties agree upon and consistently work together to advance, sometimes to the detriment of the country. Case in point: the long, strong bipartisan tradition of working to prevent the reduction of the American mlitary presence abroad.

There have been far too many recent examples of this phenomenon. During the House Armed Services Committee’s markup on July 1 of the annual National Defense Authorization Act  — a bill which, it should be said, is another perfect example of how the parties are happy to work together when it comes to advancing big military spending and policy — the committee adopted a bipartisan amendment offered by Reps. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) that sought to defund the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan unless certain lofty conditions were met. Despite the fact that the American public and veterans and their families overwhelmingly support withdrawal, the amendment sailed through on a 45-11 vote, foreshadowing another development when the bill went to the full floor of the House of Representatives. There, an amendment by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that sought to actually accelerate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was defeated when 103 Democrats joined 181 Republicans in opposition.

But the bipartisan squeamishness for troop withdrawal isn’t limited to current, messy, controversial operations like those in Afghanistan. There has been similar bipartisan pushback over proposals to pull back troops from deployments that are legacies of wars that have long concluded. When the Trump administration proposed reducing the number of American troops in Germany down to 24,000 from the current level of 36,000, the chorus of opposition sounded off in near unanimity from both Democratic and Republican corners. Quickly — and again, despite opinion in both the U.S. and Germany largely favoring some kind of withdrawal — lawmakers from both parties introduced bills and sent worried letters to the president seeking to constrain the withdrawal. Bipartisanship!

Members of Congress are even able to come together quickly across the aisle to prevent troop withdrawals that haven’t yet been proposed. Though reporting at one point indicated that the Trump administration was considering a small reduction of troops stationed in South Korea, this was likely public posturing to bolster ongoing cost-sharing negotiations between the two countries, as no formal proposal followed. Nonetheless, Democratic and Republican lawmakers hastily introduced a bill to prevent any such thing, and successfully included the measure in the annual defense policy bill.

Similarly, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s mere launching of a “clean slate review” of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Africa set off alarm bells across the ideological spectrum. Again — despite Americans being tired of the endless “war on terror” — members of Congress introduced bipartisan letters and bills  to prevent withdrawal of armed forces from Africa, before such a proposal was actually even on the table.

To be sure, there is plenty of legitimate criticism to go around about each of these proposed or contemplated withdrawals, especially coming from the Trump administration. For example, members of Congress could have focused their ire on Donald Trump’s bizarre rationale for the proposed reduction of troops from Germany (he appears to still be under the impression that NATO countries literally pay membership fees and that Germany was delinquent in paying said fees) or his lack of an accompanying broader strategy to reassess the actual American interests served by maintaining a permanent military presence in Europe and beyond. Instead, members from both parties mostly focused on slamming troop withdrawal itself as a gift to Russia and a sign of weakness.

Similarly, many lawmakers insist they want an end to the nearly 20-year Afghanistan war, but they simply vote to constrain troop withdrawal because they think the Trump administration’s plan is hasty or incomplete. Yet it is nearly impossible to articulate what sort of withdrawal these members would support in the alternative, particularly since so much of the bipartisan consensus that has emerged in opposition to withdrawal rests upon the same premises that keep wars endless.

These include reinforcing the myth of eradicating terror “safe havens” and warning of diminished human rights protections or increased violence upon U.S. withdrawal. Of course, these tropes ignore the harm that’s been done through decades of U.S. military presence thus far, and fail to articulate a positive, alternative vision of what a successful end to this war should actually look like with these concerns in mind.

And that’s the heart of the problem. Donald Trump knows how to work a crowd and has discovered that campaigning on “ending endless wars” and “bringing the troops home” gets a reliable standing ovation. He’s right: polling consistently demonstrates that these are indeed popular ideas among American voters. However, he hasn’t actually done anything to draw our wars to a close. So it’s a real missed opportunity for Congress to rush to bipartisan condemnation of even the hint of troop withdrawal anywhere in the world. They (and the American people) would be better served by calling Trump’s bluff and advancing real, concrete proposals that engage with the nuance and messiness of ending wars and present a positive vision of what it should actually look like.

It’s heartening in the fleeting moments when this happens, like when Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) teamed up to champion an end to U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, or when Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) partnered in an effort to prevent a war with Iran. But they are working against a bipartisan status quo favoring militarism that has been decades in the making, fueled by powerful moneyed interests, and massively out of step with the desires of the public or the true needs of the nation.

But the tide is turning. Candidates running boldly on disrupting that status quo are winning elections and members daring to champion a change of course are finding deep support among the people. It will take courage, it will take creativity, and it will take time. But at some point, rather than just sloganeering about “ending endless wars,” we’re going to actually have to end them.

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Yazidi sex slaves: Our stain and legacy in Iraq

by: Kelley Beaucar Vlahos

A year and a half ago I heard former ISIL sex slave Nadia Murad speak before a packed crowd at the Doha Forum in Qatar. At that time, the soft-spoken but steely Nobel Peace Prize winner reported that there were some 3,200 Yazidi women and girls still in ISIL captivity. Sadly, as the Yazidi diaspora commemorates the 2014 massacre of their people in Iraq this month, reports indicate that number has barely budged, with around 2,800 still suspected in ISIL’s hands today.

The Doha audience for Murad in December 2018 was rapt, some tearful and many, like myself, looking a bit ashamed that there had been no government-wide attempts to find the victims. That included the United States government, which had all but created the conditions for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, leading to the obliteration of Yazidi villages, the outright slaughter of thousands, and the displacement of some half a million people in 2014. Murad herself had watched her six brothers and mother killed before she was taken to be repeatedly raped and beaten in an ISIL-held house in Mosul. She managed to escape to tell her story.

This is the failure of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in stark relief: Washington’s unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003 without comprehending nor preparing for what came next, then its complete disregard for the human pieces scattered everywhere when it left at the start of the Obama administration in 2011.

When ISIL began devouring Iraqi territory after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, killing, kidnapping and subjugating villages, President Obama sent troops and airpower back in to help the Iraqi government. This included the Aug. 7, 2014 airstrikes on Mount Sinjar to save the Yazidis trapped there after the massacres began. The United States air-dropped aid afterwards, but that was it. The American people were weary of war, and Obama promised limited engagement.

The Yazidis are an ancient ethno-religious sect and considered heretics by Iraq’s Muslim population, though they have lived alongside one another for centuries. Unfortunately, the Yazidis were easy prey for ISIL and found little safe harbor from their Muslim, mostly Kurdish neighbors, as ISIL rampaged across northwestern Iraq in 2014. Only about 15 percent have returned to their homes in recent years, only to find burned out buildings, crumbling infrastructure, and crushing poverty.

The only real effort to rescue the kidnapped women and children has been from privately funded organizations that are in many cases paying ransom for their release. To be fair, through 2018 there were reports of coordination between the Kurdistan Regional Government and intelligence services in Turkey to locate and extract thousands of Yazidi victims who were smuggled there or had ended up in Turkish refugee camps. But recent news yields very little on the subject beyond lamentation over the 2,800 still out there, with hope dwindling as the years go by.

Meanwhile, after sparking the war that touched off a wave of human displacement over the last 18 years, the United States has all but closed its doors to refugees, leaving many victims of the violence wasting away in refugee camps. According to The Washington Post,the United States admitted 1,524 Iraqi Christians and 417 Yazidis from Iraq and Syria in 2016. In 2018, that number shrank to 26 Iraqi Christians and five Yazidis. The total continued to hover around single digits in early 2019, mostly because of the Trump administration’s crackdown on refugee admissions overall.

Unfortunately, even if the international community put 100 percent effort behind rescuing the captive Yazidis, there are serious complications standing in the way of these women healing and the community moving forward in any way one would call “becoming whole again.”

For example, last April, Yazidi faith leaders declared that while Yazidi women who were raped and forced into Islamic State marriages can return in acceptance to their villages, the children born of those rapes will not be recognized by the sect. This has caused a divide within the community, many of whom have been fighting for the women’s right to reunite with their families in peace and security.

Nadia Murad weighed in at the time, saying there were women in refugee camps who were afraid to come home because they did not know if their children would be rejected. She has counseled them to return anyway, and urges religious leaders to set the tone for acceptance. Meanwhile she has worked to hold the perpetrators of crimes accountable, again, to little avail.

The “status quo is destroying our community” and international inaction is enabling ISIL remnants to “accomplish their goal of eradicating the Yazidis from Iraq,” she said this month. Murad and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney addressed the United Nations Security Council last year in an ongoing attempt to open an International Criminal Court enquiry to try the Islamic State for its crimes. “No progress has been made,” Clooney said.

Also, in a joint statement the women said there “is no concerted attempt to search for or rescue over 2,800 women and children who remain missing and in captivity in Iraq and Syria.”

For the United States, the “status quo” seems to be breaking things and then walking away. In 2018, Vice President Mike Pence was able to direct $100 million in aid to religious minorities, including the Yazidis, in Iraq — a nod to religious liberty advocates who had been lobbying his office hard for attention. That was commendable and welcome, but what if he were to use that same power of the office to put muscle behind these stilted rescue efforts — particularly as some believe that many of the lost Yazidi women and children are now victims of even broader human trafficking networks?

It wouldn’t address all of the Yazidis’ current problems, but it would certainly line up with the Trump administration’s call to assist victims of religious persecution, and go the extra mile to change the perception that we are a nation unwilling to pay for what we break and leave behind.

Posted in Middle East, Human Rights, Iraq, Syria0 Comments

ZionistArab rulers may face greater criticism if populations can no longer displace resentment at ‘Israel’

Arab rulers may face greater criticism if populations can no longer displace resentment at Israel

by: Annelle Sheline

A wave of commentary followed the August 13 announcement of the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel, as observers debated the impact of the deal on the region, the effect on the Israel-Palestine conflict, if other countries would follow suit, and whether or not the deal was as historic as the Trump administration has claimed. 

Subsequent analyses have begun to gather public opinion data about the deal. James Zogby opined that the issue of Palestine is less salient among Arab publics than polls previously recorded. He stated that “attitudes across the Arab World have undergone a dramatic change in the past few years.” However, his own polling shows that the shift in opinion is not away from the salience of Palestine, but toward a pragmatic acknowledgement on the part of Arab publics that doing nothing is in fact detrimental to the Palestinian cause, as more and more land is taken by settlers, themselves driven by Israeli policies that subsidize settlement of the West Bank over life in Israel itself. Therefore, if normalizing relations with Israel helps to achieve a better outcome for the Palestinians, then those polled are in favor of that better outcome.

When considering the question of public opinion in response to the UAE-Israel deal, it is important to keep in mind that survey respondents may feel compelled to express their support for the deal. For example, a friend in Saudi Arabia told me that he had received a call requesting a reaction to the deal. My friend responded that he was too busy, knowing that criticism could elicit unwanted attention from Saudi authorities. Despite the risks, Saudi public opinion polls assert stout opposition to normalization with Israel, prompting skepticism that Saudi Arabia will normalize any time soon, despite pressure from Trump and Kushner.

In the UAE, some citizens have voiced support for the deal. An Emirati Twitter user tweeted that he will be able to visit Islam’s third holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount, built on the location where the Prophet Mohammad is believed to have ascended to Heaven to converse with God before returning to earth. The tweet in question depicted the iconic Dome of the Rock, covered in the gold provided by the late King Hussein of Jordan in his role as the caretaker of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. The apparent confusion of the Emirati — as well as English language Google — between the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock generated over 1,600 comments and retweets as Twitter users debated whether he had mixed up the two holy structures, reiterating the lack of access that many Muslims have to this holy site due to travel restrictions to Israel. Twitter debates aside, Emirati citizens who privately oppose the deal may hesitate to express their dismay, aware of the possibility of recrimination in their small and highly surveilled state.

Despite commentary that attributes the UAE’s decision to normalize with Israel to its concerns about the threat posed by Iran, a crucial reason why MBZ sold out the Palestinians has been under examined. MBZ’s primary concern is not in fact Iran: he possesses the best military in the region, aside from Israel’s, and knows that Iran is highly unlikely to dare attack his territory outright. His primary concern lies in the domestic threat posed by Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. This antipathy towards Islamism explains the UAE’s decision to support a former foe, the Assad regime in Syria, against the Islamist groups operating there. The fear of Islamism also motivated the UAE to support General Khalifa Haftar against Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which is backed by Turkey — thoughthe Libyan civil war is not easily divided into sides for or against Islamism; instead the involvement of the UAE is more about irking Turkey’s Islamist president. 

In the wake of the Arab uprisings nearly ten years ago, Islamist groups emerged as some of the only viable political players to withstand decades of attacks by authoritarian governments on Arab civil society. Feeling threatened by their newly apparent sway, the UAE worked with Saudi Arabia to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood never attained real power in Egypt, despite briefly holding the presidency, and that regional branches of the Brotherhood were not able to exert significant influence despite winning parliamentary majorities in places like Morocco. From Libya to Syria to Yemen, the UAE has used military force to counteract Islamist groups, demonstrating MBZ’s determination to prevent such organizations from attaining additional outposts of control. Beyond Hamas in Palestine, no Muslim Brotherhood- affiliated or inspired group currently controls a government in the region, due in part to the efforts of the UAE. 

Palestine remains a central motivating issue for the Muslim Brotherhood, its supporters, and its various local manifestations that extend from Morocco to Yemen. The salience of the issue of Palestine is partly religious. The Muslim Brotherhood asserts the primacy of Islamic identity over national identity, which includes an emphasis on transnational issues that it maintains should be important to all devout Muslims, namely access to and control of Jerusalem as the third holiest site in Islam. 

However for many Arabs, the resonance of the Palestinian cause is primarily about injustice. Across the Middle East and North Africa, the seizure of Palestine by the European powers during the period of the British Mandate between the world wars, and the subsequent establishment of the state of Israel, represents one of the most blatant instances of European oppression, but by no means the only one. Populations across the region dealt with decades if not centuries of European colonialism which was later replaced by the cultural colonialism of the United States. For non-Palestinians, expressing outrage through the prism of Palestine would be met with many corresponding echoes from across the region and the world. Palestine offered a unifying symbol of collective grievance, as well as an outlet to articulate dissatisfaction with ineffective and corrupt governing structures that do not tolerate explicit critique.

Arab rulers have long used the Israel-Palestine conflict as a convenient outlet for their populations to release dissatisfaction. The ill-advised 1967 war launched by Arab governments against Israel was partly the result of leaders stoking the fires of public opinion against Israel until war was inevitable. The Muslim Brotherhood gained popularity in this era of Arab nationalism, which itself was tied to collective fury about the establishment of the state of Israel and the plight of the Palestinian people. The issue of Palestine and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood are linked. For MBZ, eliminating Palestine as a topic that unites Arab publics, often against their own rulers, is desirable for a ruler primarily concerned about the possibility of domestic unrest. Although they may not yet feel able to do so, other Arab autocrats would similarly relish the opportunity to disempower the Muslim Brotherhood, support for which is partly tied to the group’s frequent references to the issue of Palestine. Support for the Palestinian cause and support for the Muslim Brotherhood are both dangerously close to democracy, from MBZ’s perspective.

Thus far, MBZ’s efforts to kneecap the Muslim Brotherhood, in part by attempting to deflate the matter of Palestine, may leave him isolated. Sudan, Bahrain, Oman, and other countries initially fingered as possible dominoes to fall, have all maintained their unwillingness to formally normalize with Israel. Yet covert relationships with Israel are now the norm for much of the region, and these are likely to strengthen. 

Arab populations are aware of creeping normalization, and some no longer feel able to voice their generalized resentments by venting anger at Israel. By not providing their publics with another safe target for their rage, the Arab autocrats are taking a chance. When their citizens can no longer safely blame Israel, they are more likely to blame their own rulers for corrupt and failing systems. If faced with another instance of mass unrest, which is likely to occur as a result of persistently low oil prices and shifting social bargains especially in the Gulf countries, MBZ and other rulers may rue their willingness to sell out the Palestinians.

Posted in ZIO-NAZI, UAE0 Comments

Austerity politics aren’t going to cut out of control Pentagon spending

by: Lindsay Koshgarian

The Pentagon budget now stands at $740 billion, higher than at the peaks of the Vietnam War or Cold War. At the same time, we’re sure to see arguments that the trillions in emergency spending on the COVID-19 crisis require more austere federal budgets in the next administration.

For those who want to see a correction to bloated Pentagon spending — and the military overreach it represents — the deficit fears deeply ingrained in American politics may seem like a nifty political means. But this is at best a short-term strategy.

The events that arose from the last austerity movement, beginning with the 2011 passage of the Budget Control Act, can show us why.

As austerity politics took hold following the Obama administration’s $800 billion stimulus during the Great Recession, the BCA passed with bipartisan support in the new Tea Party Congress. The BCA aimed to bring back so-called fiscal discipline by placing strict spending limits over the next 10 years in the separate categories of military and nonmilitary spending.

The BCA did, in the very short term, result in a temporary reduction in Pentagon spending — a fact that was passionately decried by hawks and the Cold War-era old guard. Yet even with that short-lived downward trend, Pentagon spending was still higher than at the height of the Vietnam War or the Cold War. And the short-lived decline was followed by a robust increase, landing us at today’s $740 billion.

Instead of jumping on the austerity train for a shot at lower spending, the time has come for Pentagon budget watchers to dream a bit bigger.

The politics of austerity and the realities of the Budget Control Act have meant that for 10 years, it hasn’t been necessary — or possible — to have a real debate about Pentagon spending. In a fight over the national debt, it’s easy for those who are already inclined to defer to someone in a uniform on military policy to accept that the only problem with the size of the Pentagon budget is its contribution to the deficit. 

This approach fails to build any opposition to military interventionism and the U.S. imperialist presence abroad, leaving a dangerous premise untouched: that the agency itself is essentially working as it should. Just like that, we’ve effectively ceded the discussion of what foreign policy (and therefore Pentagon spending) should be to the military maximalists.

What follows is something like what we saw in the 2010s: the Pentagon gets off the hook with a brief bit of belt-tightening and no real scrutiny, while the deficit soldiers move on to more politically palatable targets like the domestic safety net — and then Pentagon spending skyrockets once again.

For those who recognize the depth of the trouble we’re now in, austerity is already an enemy, since the obsession with the deficit is bad news for domestic investment as well. The resulting decay and dysfunction of American life may even fuel America-first politics and its reflexive militarism both at home and abroad — undermining Pentagon cuts by making the Pentagon into an even holier entity than it was already.

Then there’s the fact that the Budget Control Act has effectively cut off active opposition to Pentagon spending from left-leaning members of Congress. 

For the last 10 years, a trail of bipartisan congressional legislation has repeatedly raised BCA spending limits — but this has meant that securing funds for domestic programs has been explicitly tied to accepting higher Pentagon spending, too. In 2019, many top progressives reluctantly supported a bipartisan budget deal that hiked the Pentagon budget for this very reason.

The Budget Control Act expires in 2021, and some on the right are calling for an extension. 

This may present a tempting opportunity to halt the out of control growth in Pentagon spending, 

but it hews too closely to the politics of the past. Our politics have shifted in nearly unimaginable ways since the Tea Party’s glory days. Imagine telling a 2011 version of yourself about the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the embrace of Black Lives Matter by a majority of Americans, the 2020 pandemic lockdown, or the simple fact of a Donald Trump presidency. 

Powerful forces that didn’t yet exist in 2011, including the Movement for Black Lives, have called for Pentagon cuts. A July poll found that a majority of Americans would support cutting the Pentagon budget by 10 percent to fund domestic priorities — including half of Republicans. And polls have shown that voters of both major parties share a wish to see less U.S. military interventionism in the Middle East.

With all that in play, it’s no longer a given that sky-high Pentagon budgets — and the wars that drive them — are untouchable. 

This summer, Sen. Sanders, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) introduced matching amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act to cut Pentagon funding by 10 percent and invest instead in domestic needs. The measure wasn’t expected to pass, and didn’t. But it did win the support of 93 House members and 23 senators — a new watermark — and garnered the support of even mainstream lawmakers like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

It signaled a revived fighting spirit to bring our military spending to heel — just in time for the expiration of the budget caps. In order to carry the fight forward, we must make sure austerity doesn’t once again stand in the way. The call to cut military spending should be paired with a demand for the investments that are worth making — and a critique of the wars that aren’t.

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The costs of Mike Pompeo’s partisanship

by: Paul R. Pillar

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speaking role in the Republican National Convention was contrary to the practice of other secretaries of state, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, as well as violating his own department’s code of conduct. Even prior secretaries such as Hillary Clinton who, like Pompeo, had aspirations for higher office stayed far away from any involvement in their parties’ conventions.

Pompeo’s appearance in the Republican show was consistent with his conduct throughout Donald Trump’s presidency. Pompeo, when he was a congressman, initially got Trump’s attention by exploiting a tragic turn of events in Benghazi, Libya to aggressively attack Clinton. That performance won him the job of CIA director, a position that ought to be kept even farther away from partisanship than the secretary of state’s job.

Pompeo’s subsequent promotion to the foremost cabinet position — unlike the many other senior officials in this administration whom Trump has discarded once they became the least bit inconvenient or annoying to him — testifies to the extent to which he has shaped his conduct to appeal to Trump and to Trump’s political base, which he hopes to inherit. The blurring of partisan politics and official duties that Pompeo’s convention speech entailed meshes with the similar recurrent blurring by Trump himself, which the president continued on the same night that Pompeo spoke.

Such conflation impairs good government across a wide range of issues. The costs are especially severe with a secretary of state, because foreign governments get involved in the resulting messiness and amplify it in ways that hurt the U.S. national interest.

Pompeo’s role in wrecking good governance starts with the damage done to the State Department itself, as reflected in disrespect for the Foreign Service and everything that implies regarding morale and recruitment. The damage will take many years to repair. Probably the low point of this sad process was Pompeo’s abandonment of Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, a respected diplomat whose only offense was to do her job properly, including opposing corruption, and in so doing got in the way of Trump and Rudolph Giuliani’s dirt-digging caper in Ukraine. The damage has been compounded by Trump administration ambassadorial appointments, which have featured an unusually large number of unqualified political supporters of the president.

Having an unrelenting partisan warrior such as Pompeo as secretary of state corrupts U.S. foreign policy with narrow political motives more than it otherwise would be. In any senior policy discussions there is no one to argue, as a secretary of state should, for the best ways to advance the interests of the nation as a whole.

That Pompeo spoke to the Republican convention while on a foreign trip supposedly devoted to diplomatic business compounds this and the other problems that his appearance involved. Based on his itinerary, he evidently is trying to milk as much as he can from the recently announced establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE.  This arrangement between two states that were not warring against each other brings peace to no one and instead sharpens lines of conflict between the Gulf Arabs and not just Iran but also Turkey, in disputes mired in different views about political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. Pompeo’s use of Jerusalem as a prop leaves unstated how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very much unresolved and how the development with the UAE makes resolution less likely because it reduces further any Israeli government incentive to resolve it.

The Trump administration’s enticement of the Emiratis to upgrade their relationship with Israel is another in a series of gifts that the administration has given the Netanyahu government. Other gifts have included recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. The United States has gotten absolutely nothing in return for the gifts. It is only the political fortunes of Trump and the Republican Party that — or so Trump hopes — get any return payment.

In one of Trump’s occasional candid blurts about his political motives, he said that the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was “for the evangelicals” — while expressing disappointment that American Jews did not seem as excited about the move as the evangelicals were. This is not the sort of consideration that ought to motivate important U.S. foreign policy decisions. Such decisions ought to serve the interests of the entire nation and not to cater to one subset of it, including subsets defined by the eschatological beliefs of a particular revealed religion.

Pompeo, an evangelical Christian himself, must have felt in his element standing on a Jerusalem rooftop while preaching to the political faithful back home. But a secretary of state who takes seriously the responsibilities and constraints of his office would not have done anything of the sort.

When foreign policy is blatantly conducted to appeal to a subset of voters at home, foreign governments get a vote too.  Those governments are apt to react in any of several ways detrimental to U.S. interests.

When the foreign policy coming out of Washington is the narrowly based policy of only one faction, foreign governments are conditioned to expect much inconsistency from one U.S. administration to another. The foreigners might be reluctant to make commitments or reach agreements with the United States if the drivers of current U.S. policy are parochial and ephemeral. They may decide their best approach is to wait for the next U.S. election. This is basically Iran’s current approach.

Alternatively, a foreign government may try to appeal to the fancies of whoever is in power in Washington at the moment while shoving aside more fundamental and long-term U.S. objectives. Such reaction may be largely harmless ego-polishing, such as talk about Trump Heights in the Golan or Fort Trump in Poland. But it is a diversion from diplomacy that would advance real U.S. interests.

Worst of all is when a highly partisan approach to foreign relations in Washington encourages foreign governments to indulge in the same partisanship. Thus Russian President Vladimir Putin has even more of an incentive to interfere in this year’s U.S. election than he did, as confirmed by the Senate intelligence committee’s report on the subject, in 2016. That makes Putin all the more of a problem for the United States.

Pompeo’s Jerusalem performance encourages additional interference by Israel, the foreign state that has interfered in U.S. politics more than any other. The Trump/Pompeo handling of Israel-related issues has moved matters even farther from what would be a healthy U.S.-Israeli relationship to what instead is a Likud-Republican partisan alliance, with each side using the other’s cities as props in election campaigns.

The Founding Fathers were very concerned about the deleterious effects of partisanship on the new republic’s foreign relations. James Madison wrote in The Federalist Number 42, “If we are to be one nation in any respect, it clearly ought to be in respect to other nations.” The United States may be as far away from that ideal as it has ever been.

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After the Beirut blast: Hezbollah and Iran walk a tricky line

by: Daniel Brumberg 

In the wake of the August 4 mega-explosion that leveled parts of Beirut, there is one silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud: the possibility that the blast might catalyze a sustained effort to refashion Lebanon’s political system. But there are two key obstacles to such change. The most elemental is the conviction of the ruling class that its political survival depends on sustaining the tattered power-sharing system. The second hurdle is the regional environment, wherein the goal of Iran, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia is to ensure that Lebanon’s fragile balance of power does not shift in ways that could undermine their geostrategic interests. The challenge facing all of these countries—and their Lebanese allies—is how to secure their long-standing relationships in the face of grassroots demands in Lebanon for restructuring the country’s politics.

The Beirut port blast has accentuated this vexing dilemma. Still, it remains to be seen how the key domestic and regional players will react as the international community responds to the humanitarian disaster facing Lebanon. Of all these protagonists, Iran has the most to lose. After all, its geostrategic interests depend on protecting its relationship with Hezbollah. In the face of growing internal and international pressures, Hezbollah and Tehran must tackle a basic challenge: how to shield their vital relationship while avoiding steps that might further erode Hezbollah’s domestic credibility. The way they walk this tricky path will play no small role in the unfolding drama to shape Lebanon’s confessional order.

The economic logic of political survival in Lebanon’s confessional system

At least two related domestic factors have helped to sustain that system. The first is the fear of all the key leaders that any bid to rework it would provoke another civil war. The second is the tight meshing of the economy with confessionalism. Power sharing in Lebanon pivots around a protracted cease-fire between 18 confessional groups. The latter share power because each sect assumes that a truly democratic system will give its rivals the means and votes to impose their domestic and foreign agendas on the country. Beyond fear, what glues the system together is the capacity of all leaders to use public and private funds to purchase the political support of their followers. Power flows through a vast, deeply corrupt patronage system that is partly subsidized by foreign governments. The costs that come with this system have been partly responsible for Lebanon’s ballooning public debt, which stands at over $90 billion.

Power flows through a vast, deeply corrupt patronage system that is partly subsidized by foreign governments. The costs that come with this system have been partly responsible for Lebanon’s ballooning public debt.

Lebanon’s port has played a role in this system. Because it is at the center of the import-export economy that provides Lebanon with 80 percent of its goods, control over the port has been divided between different factions. The harbor’s fiefdoms allow each group to secure payoffs before goods go into the country, providing a lucrative channel of patronage and corruption. Thus it is hardly surprising that while requests were made for the government to investigate the tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port since 2014, no action was taken. Doing so could have exposed all the factions to scrutiny from a government that was partly complicit in the problem in the first place.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese have taken to the streets to protest the massive corruption and foreign backed Ponzi schemes that have fueled this system. Yet no one knows how to replace “Grand Theft Lebanon” with a system that will rescue the country from financial ruin while also preventing those groups that control patronage from aiming their guns at the thousands of Lebanese who have bravely defied the ruling elite in their quest for real democracy.

Dangerous foreign liaisons

The capacity of Lebanon’s confessional leaders to sustain the patronage system is closely tied to and constrained by their financial, political, and geostrategic links to outside players. Such liaisons can prove dangerous and even fatal. Late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s efforts to advance his political and business relationships with Saudi Arabia and other states (including France) helped to set the stage for the February 2005 bombing that ended his life—and 21 others. His son Saad’s very reasonable assumption that agents from Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah organized the assassination may have guided his bid to depart from his father’s risky regional diplomacy by acquiescing to Hezbollah’s push for a commanding position in government. Hariri’s policy provoked retaliation from Saudi Arabia and its new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who effectively took Saad Hariri hostage in November 2017. But MbS’s wager that this bold move would deter Iran and Hezbollah only strengthened the latter’s resolve to consolidate the movement’s political position, a project that has depended on an uneasy alliance between Hezbollah and Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun.

The capacity of Lebanon’s confessional leaders to sustain the patronage system is closely tied to and constrained by their financial, political, and geostrategic links to outside players.

Hezbollah has used the leverage afforded to it by this alliance to protect its special relationship with Iran. This partnership extends far beyond common military and geostrategic spheres. With Iran’s backing (estimated at $700 million yearly), in March 2019 Hezbollah’s control of key economic and governmental entities, such as the Ministry of Health, has given the movement a vital source of patronage. Its economic influence has been further strengthened by smuggling operations across the Syrian Lebanese border, by funds generated through a network of Hezbollah-linked businesses and, as recent reports show, by profits gained through global drug sales and related money laundering operations. No Lebanese faction can match these enormous resources, a fact that has earned Hezbollah both respect and contempt. Indeed, Hezbollah’s leaders have long grappled with the risky business of shielding its financial, political, and strategic ties with Tehran and Damascus while defending its oft-contested assertion that the movement is a national player that is committed to Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Hezbollah defends its turf

If the August blast has complicated Hezbollah’s ability to walk this fine line, it suffered several setbacks well before the explosion. One hurdle came in late 2019 and early 2020 when it tried to clamp down on public protests, some of which included members of the Shia community. Another was in May 2019 when, in the wake of the sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration, Hezbollah reduced funding for its militia of 20,000 to 30,000 regular troops, its huge cadre of civilian employees, and its TV station, Al-Manar. Roughly a year later, the White House imposed a new set of sanctions. While targeting the Assad regime, reports suggest that the secondary effects of the June 2020 sanctions associated with the Caesar Act undermined Hezbollah’s practice of using Lebanon’s central bank to secure, at subsidized prices, basic commodities such as fuel, which it had then  smuggled to its ally in Damascus. One month later, the Trump Administration put two Hezbollah members of parliament on its sanctions blacklist, bringing the total number of Hezbollah leaders to 50.

While it is hard to assess the precise impact of these sanctions on Lebanon’s economy, Hassan Nasrallah’s assertion that US sanctions were “starving both Syria and Lebanon” was not totally off base. Indeed, the sanctions fanned the flames that have consumed the ailing banking sector and the collapsing currency. But to the sure consternation of Hezbollah’s leaders, US sanctions also fed the conviction of a growing number of political activists—including some from the Shia community—that Hezbollah was largely responsible for Lebanon’s suffering.

To the sure consternation of Hezbollah’s leaders, US sanctions also fed the conviction of a growing number of political activists—including some from the Shia community—that Hezbollah was largely responsible for Lebanon’s suffering.

Given such perceptions, it is hardly surprising that Hezbollah’s leaders strenuously denied any responsibility for the August 4 explosion. Nasrallah was emphatic: “I categorically deny the claim that Hezbollah has arms cache, ammunition or anything else in the port.” Warning his rivals that they would “not achieve any result” by blaming Hezbollah, he added an implicit threat: Hezbollah, he declared, is “greater and more noble than to be taken down by some liars, inciters, and [those] who are trying to push for civil war.” At the same time, he tossed critics a bone by calling for a full investigation and denouncing the corruption, nepotism that led to it. But these clashing messages only further enraged protesters, some of whom carried effigies of Nasrallah with a noose around his neck as they stormed government ministries.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this fury, Nasrallah has not uttered one word that would suggest the he might support the protesters’ demands for comprehensive political change. To do so would not only align him with demands that could undermine the very political system upon which Hezbollah’s power rests, but it would also create deep consternation within the movement’s leadership as well as within Hezbollah’s wider social base. For while its followers have called for reforms to fight corruption, they remain strongly committed to Hezbollah’s survival as Lebanon’s largest and most powerful militia and political movement.

The August 18 verdict of the special UN tribunal charged with investigating the murder of Rafic Hariri in 2005 will not change such calculations. On the contrary, the tribunal’s decision to convict only one Hezbollah operative will probably reassure Nasrallah that he can continue to pay lip service to the high demand of reform while taking whatever steps necessary to preserve the political status quo.

Iran’s leaders back Hezbollah and the “Lebanese people”

Like Hezbollah, Iran wants to pose as a defender of Lebanese society while ensuring that its ally remains the country’s dominant political and military power. Following the explosion, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman warned that “some countries” were trying to “politicize the blast for their own interests.” Insisting that the “blast should not be used as an excuse for political aims,” he telegraphed Iran’s primary concern, namely that such efforts are aimed at undercutting Iran’s Lebanese friends.

This clever if unconvincing pitch for rising above “politics” came in tandem with statements by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterating Iran’s readiness to provide humanitarian aid. Zarif’s August 14 visit to Beirut—during which he asserted that the “state and the people of Lebanon … must decide the future of Lebanon and how to move things forward”—underscored the pragmatic realism of two leaders who have been largely eclipsed by their hardline rivals. Indeed, Rouhani and Zarif might see in the Lebanese crisis an opportunity to reassert their role in defining Iran’s regional diplomacy. But with their wings already clipped, and in the face of continued US-Iranian tensions, they have little room for maneuver.

Rouhani and Zarif might see in the Lebanese crisis an opportunity to reassert their role in defining Iran’s regional diplomacy. But with their wings already clipped, and in the face of continued US-Iranian tensions, they have little room for maneuver.

In sharp contrast to the above messages, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander Hossein Salami framed Iran’s position in distinctly ideological and even sectarian terms. Because they are “the great stars of resistance in the Islamic world,” all “of our abilities will be mobilized to help the Lebanese people.” For the IRGC, the interests of the people and those of the resistance (i.e. Hezbollah) must be made inseparable. Thus, from the IRGC’s vantage point, it is essential to ensure that Iranian humanitarian aid to Lebanon is distributed in ways that enhance Hezbollah’s position. With some 300,000 left homeless by the blast, the escalating spread of COVID-19, and a partial collapse of the health system, the movement’s ability to leverage Iranian assistance has been further weakened. Nevertheless, for the IRGC, the survival of Hezbollah and the political system that has enabled it is an existential priority.

Hopes for a new U.S. policy?

President Macron’s August 6 visit to Beirut illustrated the paradox of reform in Lebanon. For within hours of declaring that the entire political system must be transformed, Macron held talks with all the key factional leaders. As in other divided societies, in Lebanon the road to change is controlled by the very political bosses who have sustained the system. They cannot be circumvented, even though engaging them gives these leaders the means to obstruct change. This is Lebanon’s catch-22.

While there is no simple solution to this conundrum, the prospects for change will remain slim so long as foreign states unconditionally support Lebanon’s factional leaders. What is needed, among other things, is a multilateral diplomatic effort that diminishes the incentives for foreign powers—not least of which are Iran and the United States—to wage their geostrategic disputes through the arena of Lebanon’s confessional rivalries. A reduction of these regional tensions could provide a necessary—if far from sufficient—context for fostering a much needed internal dialogue in Lebanon on how to move beyond the current stalemate.

For now, the prospects for this kind of diplomacy look grim. Having failed to gain the UN Security Council’s support for a renewal of the arms embargo on Iran, the Trump Administration now proposes to reimpose “snapback” sanctions. This policy plays into the hands of Iranian hard-liners and Hezbollah, both of whom want to avoid a military conflict with the United States and Israel while still reaping the political benefits of continued US-Iranian tensions. The recent publication of investigative reports in the European press that suggest a circuitous link between Hezbollah and the purchase of the chemicals that exploded on August 4 will keep Hezbollah on the defensive while emboldening its domestic critics. These developments are sure to further stoke Lebanon’s internal conflicts.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for now is a massive effort by the international community to help Lebanon overcome its humanitarian crisis. The November 3, 2020 US elections could also invite a revival of talks between Iran, the United States, and the international community. Even if a Democratic Biden-Harris administration emerges, however, it would still have to contend with a regional order that has invested heavily in the very leaders who want to preserve Lebanon’s political system by hook or by crook.

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Grading Trump’s foreign policy

by; Gil Barndollar

Donald Trump came into office nearly four years ago promising to be the most disruptive foreign policy president in decades. On the campaign trail he had attacked both competitors like China and longtime allies, boasted that he knew more about war than the generals, and promised an “America First” foreign policy.

On a debate stage in South Carolina during the 2016 campaign, Trump attacked the invasion of Iraq and the president who ordered it — points that should have been obvious a full decade earlier but still qualified as sacrilege in the Republican Party of 2016.

The majority of senior GOP national security figures denounced Trump, even after he became their party’s nominee. Thanks at least in part to his foreign policy heresies, Trump defeated over a dozen other Republican candidates, broke both the Bush and Clinton dynasties, and won perhaps the most shocking presidential election in American history.

For advocates of foreign policy realism and restraint, November 8, 2016 was the high point. But both at home and abroad, Trump has since led and governed as a mostly conventional Republican, albeit with an extra dollop of incompetence and chaos. America First has become little more than a slogan and an attitude. With a few important exceptions, the reality of President Trump has not matched the rhetoric of candidate Trump.

The Middle East

President Trump inherited three major wars and several smaller counterterrorism campaigns in the Greater Middle East from President Obama. His record in handling them has been a mixed one: he is the first American president since Jimmy Carter to not start a war, but he has ended none of the conflicts he was saddled with.

Like Obama, Trump folded to “his” generals on Afghanistan, allowing himself to be talked into a small surge of forces that failed to change any of the underlying realities of America’s longest war. Unlike his predecessor, Trump seems willing to acknowledge those realities. His withdrawal agreement with the Taliban may be a fig leaf, but it is a long-overdue recognition that American forces have little reason to remain in Afghanistan.

It is with Iran that Trump has come closest to foreign policy disaster and yet, paradoxically, has demonstrated prudence at the eleventh hour. Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018, exiting an agreement that had broad international support and had constrained Iranian nuclear ambitions. The “maximum pressure” policy that followed has ravaged Iran’s economy but not Iran’s proxies, who remain ascendant in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.

Despite creating this problem, Trump ultimately turned away from war three times: after the Iranian downing of a U.S. Global Hawk drone in June 2019, in the wake of the Iranian missile strikes on the Saudi oil refineries at Abqaiq and Khurais that September, and after a symbolic, bloodless Iranian missile strike on a U.S. base in response to the U.S. killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January. All three near-misses were due to Trump’s own decisions — cases of an arsonist deciding to extinguish his own blaze.

Nonetheless, the president ultimately chose to turn away from war, in line with the wishes of the vast majority of Americans. That aligning with 87 percent of the country qualifies as an act of political courage is a testament to the size of the chasm separating most Americans from their politicians and foreign policy elites.

Yet “ending endless wars” has thus far amounted to little more than an applause line for the credulous and the craven. Like Infrastructure Week, bringing the troops home is always just out of reach. There are more U.S. service members in the Middle East now than there were when Trump took office. Even in Afghanistan, the numbers are virtually identical to what they were in January 2017.

Europe

Trump entered office as NATO skeptic. He seems to have instinctively felt that alliance members were free riding on the U.S. security blanket — which in fact they are. Many in Washington feared he might damage or even destroy the Atlantic alliance.

Yet in practice, Trump has merely settled on a more abrasive version of the standard U.S. president’s NATO playbook: browbeat the other alliance members to spend more on collective defense while expanding the alliance with ever more free riders. Montenegro and North Macedonia have joined on Trump’s watch, despite their tiny armies and the president’s fear of being drawn into a war by their “very aggressive people.” Even the recent announcement of a partial U.S. troop withdrawal from Germany is something of a shell game.

Promises have been made and European defense spending has ticked up, but with budgets busted by COVID,. even that minimal progress will disappear. The United Kingdom, one of the alliance’s heavyweights, is now talking about mothballing all of its tanks.

Despite — or perhaps because of — his 2016 campaign’s contacts with Russian officials, the Trump administration has probably been the most hardline on Russia since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. American troops continue to patrol the undefendable Baltics while American weapons arm Ukrainians fighting Russian proxies. A continent away, American and Russian forces have had several near-misses and one unofficial battle.

The realist objective of at least creating some daylight between Russia and China has apparently been discarded, in favor of maintaining a bankrupt status quo in Europe that diverts American resources and attention from other, more serious security challenges.

China

It is on China that Trump deserves the greatest credit for actually making a break with the assumptions and failed policies of his predecessors. Trump has long dissented from the free trade consensus that immiserated many Americans and made the country demonstrably less secure. His National Security Strategy rightly recognized that China is a far graver threat to America than terrorism. But there is little evidence yet of serious economic decoupling, even in sectors critical to national security. Fixing the dysfunctional U.S. Navy has barely begun.

COVID, regardless of its origins in China, has demonstrated anew that national security starts at home. America’s inept handling of the pandemic has gravely undermined faith in U.S. competence even among close U.S. allies.

Luckily, the Chinese have not done themselves any favors either, alienating potential fence sitting nations through bullying “wolf warrior diplomacy” and regular skirmishes with neighbors both at sea and on land. As Harvard professor Stephen Walt has noted, the United States and China seem to be competing to see who can hemorrhage power and influence faster. Bismarck’s old adage about the United States’ special providence may yet hold.

***

What accounts for the Trump’s failures as a foreign policy president? The old cliché that “personnel is policy” best explains the president’s inability to effect the agenda he campaigned on. Whether they are conventional hawks like the retired general James Mattis or zealous ideologues like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s key advisors and appointees have nearly always steered him back to the comforting cant of American primacy, power projection, and “leadership.”

Iran is perhaps the best example. Trump evinces no hostility for either the Iranian regime or the Iranian people and openly pines for some kind of agreement. But by surrounding himself with ultrahawks and de facto foreign lobbyists like former national security advisor John Bolton, Trump and the United States remain one incident away from a disastrous war in a secondary region with a third-tier power.

Trump’s erratic judgment and refusal to do the reading have also had real costs. His apparent yellow light to Libyan general Khalifa Haftar may have been a final factor in Haftar’s unsuccessful assault on Tripoli last year. Trump’s reversal on withdrawal from Syria has left Americans and Syrians with the worst of both worlds: a minor stake in someone else’s civil war, enough to do little more than obstruct. U.S. forces maintain a small desert redoubt at al-Tanf and control much of Syria’s oil — apparently making the president happy while impeding a Syrian reconstruction efforts that even U.S. partners are eager to join.

As both a candidate and a president, Donald Trump was willing to challenge America’s national security elite and give expression to the inchoate foreign policy desires of a majority of Americans. Given the oppressive orthodoxy of “the blob,” this is no small thing. His willingness to give peace a chance and negotiate with the likes of North Korea and the Taliban is welcome, however meager its yield. The Overton Window on American foreign policy has moved since 2016.

Yet as John Bolton’s boyhood hero, Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, told his teammates before every game: “Talk is cheap.” There has been little action to match Trump’s words. For those hoping for a fundamental reappraisal of America’s role and goals in the world, the Trump administration has been a disappointment to date.

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Why ending our endless wars isn’t a ‘vacuous’ exercise

by: David Sterman

Thomas Joscelyn, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argued recently that the narrative of ending endless wars is “vacuous.” Joscelyn points to real problems with how some have applied the narrative. Yet the proper response is not abandonment of ending endless war as an aim, but requiring Americans to face each counterterrorism decision in terms of the benefits, costs, morality, and achievability of seeking specific objectives via military force.

Joscelyn mounts four main critiques of the narrative of ending endless war.

First, he contends that it is an “example of strategic narcissism, framing these wars purely through the lens of American decision-making” because jihadist insurgents will not stop fighting.

A serious effort to end America’s endless wars must acknowledge that jihadists will continue to wage insurgencies even with the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Yet rather than “strategic narcissism,” a focus on U.S. decision making is a proper recognition of the true power balance between insurgents who are unable to project power into the U.S. beyond occasional raiding and a superpower that is secure.

Between the 9/11 attacks and December 6, 2019, when Mohammed al-Shamrani killed three sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola, no foreign terrorist organization directed or even coordinated a deadly attack inside the U.S., and it is far from clear that attack in Pensacola, which al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula at least helped coordinate reflects a sustainable capability to do so.

There is likely no situation in which jihadists could pose an existential threat to the United States. To the extent they might, the mechanism would be political overreaction due to fear of terrorism, emphasizing that the power to define the conflict and to decide which terrorist threats justify war sits not with the jihadists but with the U.S. Americans may decide the increased risk of terrorism in the homeland or interests outside the homeland justify war, but they should not pretend it is not an American choice. American neo-Nazis also often view themselves as waging an endless war, Americans don’t have to accept war as the proper frame for that just as they don’t have to when it comes to jihadists.

Second, Joscelyn contends that the Obama administration also talked about ending endless war and already brought the “vast majority of our troops home” largely mooting the issue.

Obama did use such rhetoric. Yet even in 2008, critics argued he would be prone to continuing the endless “war on terror” despite his expressions of concern. Obama’s failure cannot be read as proof the frame has no content.

This contention then is not about newness, but rather that smaller wars do not deserve the label “endless” and are not significant. This stance conflates endlessness with deployment size. Endlessness emerges when a belligerent adopts objectives it lacks the capability to achieve and at the same time is not at risk of being defeated. Where these two conditions hold with no visible possibility of change, endlessness emerges regardless of how many soldiers are involved.

Third, Joscelyn contends that it is unlikely that ISIS or al-Qaida will be defeated, writing, “there is an obvious tension” between politicians’ calls for defeating terrorist groups and their calls for ending endless war. He argues “it’s better to think in terms of containment and disruption.”

This is correct. As I have written, the decentralization of the jihadist movement and socio-economic conditions that enable insurgency throughout the Greater Middle East makes defeat a pipe dream. As Joscelyn has noted (and as I have noted as well) the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party have at times proclaimed defeat as an objective while also claiming they will end endless wars. The agenda released by the Trump campaign — effectively the GOP platform given the GOP’s decision to not draft one — falls into the same contradiction, asserting that Trump will “Wipe Out Global Terrorists” and “Stop Endless Wars.”

Yet containment and disruption as strategy is best implemented alongside ending endless war. The U.S. should view itself as in a long-term competition with jihadist insurgents but should not view that competition itself as war with all the acceptance of legal and normative exceptions and tendency towards military means war brings. Instead, the U.S. should wage specific, congressionally authorized wars for clear and achievable limited objectives.

The American public and policymakers should have to make a choice with each such war that the war aims are worth the costs in Americans’ and others’ lives and that the war is consistent with moral and legal principles. Wars should be guided by judgments that the objectives are achievable without permanently applying military force, and where they turn out not to be, Americans should admit they failed.

Joscelyn’s framing of containment retains too much of the view of jihadists as a permanent enemy requiring defeat. His discussion of the threat emphasizes the speed with which jihadists can emerge as threats and their continued intent to target the U.S. In the absence of discussion of specific capabilities in particular contexts, this amounts to an acceptance of preventive war logic. He asserts, contra advocates of ending endless wars, that “Wars do not typically ‘end’—they are won or lost,” yet holding such a stance while eschewing defeat as objective is merely an admission of strategic incoherence — unless one’s objective is specific and defined as something limited.

Joscelyn further argues that withdrawals will harm the structure needed for effective disruption. This is a real concern, but it calls for developing restraint-oriented force structures not embracing the incoherence of endless war.

Fourth and finally, Joscelyn argues that because the commitment of U.S. forces is so small today, “it isn’t clear how ‘other instruments of American power’” are harmed by the missions.

The costs of counterterrorism operations since the heights of both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been relatively limited — so far —  for the United States. Yet this view is too sanguine in an era, where the United States seems to have few limits on the expansion of the endless “war on terror”, having returned to a now 17-year-old war in Iraq and extended it into Syria.

Policymakers should not trust that an expansion of war that has already seen the United States exchange fire with Iran directly and by proxy; with pro-Syrian regime forces, with semi-state Russian mercenaries who are connected to transnational networks of far-right extremists, and with Turkish-backed rebels, is devoid of escalation risks no matter how few U.S. troops are involved in those firefights.

Rather than illustrating the vacuity of ending endless war as a narrative frame, Josceyln’s arguments illustrate the need to protect its meaning from politicians who would seek to turn it into a vacuous phrasing. The end point of weak commitments to end endless war that don’t address American objectives is indeed the snapback of American warfare when the terrorists’ endless jihad poses a threat to still-valued American interests.

The value of the narrative when properly applied is that it forces decisionmakers to address American objectives and the cost of using military force rather than letting permanent warfare become the backdrop of American life until a crisis spins out of control.

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