President Obama on Monday lifted the ban he imposed two years ago on military trials for detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison, ending his bid to move most terrorism trials to civilian courts and pushing his already busted deadline for shuttering the island prison indefinitely forward.
The reversal came as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited Afghanistan and indicated that he was willing to keep a presence of U.S. forces in the war-torn country beyond the Obama administration’s 2014 pullout goal, highlighting again the difficulty the president has had moving from the policies of President George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama announced the Guantanamo decision in an executive order that also sets forth a periodic review process for detainees who have not been charged or convicted but are still considered threats to the U.S.
White House aides stressed that Mr. Obama remains committed to closing the prison, which he has described as a key recruiting tool for terrorist groups, and pursuing some cases in civilian courts. Mr. Obama vowed during the campaign to close the prison by the end of 2009, his first year in office.
All of this responds to Obama’s archives speech of May 2009, where he walked back his more progressive January 2009 position but tried to retain a bulwark of detention and prosecution principles for terrorism detainees. Since then, Congress has passed laws blocking the closure of Gitmo by preventing the transfer of detainees by the executive branch. House and Senate Republicans (McKeon and Graham) are expected to introduce bills further blocking detainee access to U.S. courts in the coming week.
On a conference call Monday, Obama senior advisors said the president remains committed to closing Gitmo by diminishing the number of detainees held there. But the moves announced today could have the opposite effect, admits a senior White House official. The Bush and Obama administrations have faced repeated habeas corpus challenges to their detention of alleged terrorists at Gitmo. Last I checked, detainees bringing habeas cases were winning by a 4-to-1 ratio. By increasing due process at Gitmo, the new measures make it more likely judges will defer to the executive branch and rule against detainees claiming they are being held unfairly at Gitmo. One administration official argued that judges would not be affected by the new procedures.
The habeas releases remain the only way that Gitmo’s numbers can decrease these days. The administration is still debating how to comply with the Congressional ban, but as long as it is in place even a detainee who uses his new due process rights to challenge his detention in military commissions and wins will stay in Gitmo forever… or until Congress changes its mind about closing it down.
Who wins in this? Do we think that “American system of justice” means whatever it is Americans do, as long as some court-like trappings are present? The order acknowledges that the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” is available to inmates, but also sets up a routine for holding prisoners indefinitely without charges (what the order calls “the executive branch’s continued, discretionary exercise of existing detention authority”). In statements today, Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates all mentioned how highly they thought of the federal court system. Gates said,
For years, our federal courts have proven to be a secure and effective means for bringing terrorists to justice. To completely foreclose this option is unwise and unnecessary.
So this order doesn’t “completely foreclose” on the rule of law—is a partial foreclosure supposed to count as a moral stand? Given all the nice things the Administration has to say about the federal court system, one would think that it might find it wise, and even necessary, to actually use it a bit more. Instead, the statements seem more concerned to note that the President is not giving up any options or powers—as if bringing accused murderers to court were a prerogative, rather than an obligation. No doubt, Republicans, and some Democrats, have made it hard for Obama to close Guantánamo. But it might be easier if he wanted to do it; the order today makes it sound like he considers it a somewhat useful place. It is not.
Speaking of questionable detention measures: Can someone in the Administration explain, slowly and clearly, why Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leaking the WikiLeaks cables, is required to stand naked in front of his cell in the morning and sleep naked, ostensibly for his own protection? The military’s explanations so far—that he could somehow harm himself with underwear (though he is not on suicide watch and is being monitored by video) so he can’t sleep in any, and then there is just no time for him to put underwear on in the morning before they get him out of the cell—are just not plausible. (By coincidence, a case about Americans being strip-searched after being arrested for minor offenses may be coming before the Supreme Court.) A naked man who hasn’t been convicted of a crime—that shouldn’t be what American justice looks like.
Only two years into his presidency, Barack Obama has learned that there are no easy answers to dealing with captured transnational terrorists. It’s easy to create sound bites decrying the evils of holding terrorists at Gitmo, and it’s easy to create sound bites about how awful it is to try them in military tribunals (even though that’s where illegal enemy combatants should rightfully be tried), but it’s very hard to change reality. So bowing to reality, Obama has authorized the re-start of military trials for captured terrorists.
The Obama administration’s anti-war campaign rhetoric and naive first-year promises continue to collide with reality. And happily, reality continues to prevail. The Obama administration has finally admitted, I think, that the Bush administration’s decision to detain al Qaeda operatives and terrorists at Gitmo was sensible. It wasn’t driven by some bizarre desire to mistreat terrorists, but instead was the best way to address security concerns without keeping them in Afghanistan or inside the United States.
It also turns out that the military commission trials too were a sensible decision. Civilian trials threaten the revelation of valuable intelligence in a covert war where hostilities are still ongoing. Military commissions allow a fair trial to be held but one that does not blow our wartime advantages. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s track record has been poor — it was lucky to get the limited convictions that it has. Obama folks owe an apology to the Bush administration for their unjust criticism of military trials.
It should also be noted that Obama did not come to this turnabout after reasoned consideration alone. I think there are significant figures in the administration that would still love to close Gitmo tomorrow and give every terrorist the same exact trials reserved for Americans who commit garden-variety crimes. Congress dragged the administration kicking and screaming to this destination by cutting off funds for the transfer of any detainees from Gitmo to the U.S. This effectively used Congress’s sole power of the purse to prevent Obama from making a grievous national security mistake. The new Congress should continue to keep the ban in its Defense spending bills to prevent Obama from another 180 degree turn.
Conservatives committed to burnishing Bush’s legacy were quick to claim vindication, arguing that the decision proved that the detention camp at Gitmo was a good idea all along. But Obama’s decision doesn’t prove this at all.
The administration also released an executive order outlining its new indefinite detention policy. Not much has changed from when I first wrote about it a few months ago — the new procedures formally adopt what Karen Greenberg referred to as “the heart of Bush policy” while making the process marginally fairer by allowing individuals detained indefinitely who have lost their habeas cases to be represented by counsel during periodic reviews every six months.
The president and the secretary of defense also reiterated the importance of trying terrorists in federal courts, but they might as well be shouting into the wind. The ban on funds for transfers of Gitmo detainees to federal court won’t be going away any time soon, but it’s worth remembering that ban actually ensures that fewer terrorists would be brought to justice than would be otherwise. Only six terrorists have ever been convicted in military commissions, compared to hundreds in federal court.
Failing to close Gitmo remains the most visible symbol of the president’s failure to reverse the trajectory of Bush-era national security policy, but the reality, as Glenn Greenwald notes this morning, is that most of the substantive decisions adopting Bush policies were made long ago. The new policies don’t amount to a “reversal” on the issue of whether Gitmo should be closed. Republicans are eager to portray Gitmo staying open as a “vindication” of the prison’s usefulness, but the fact that the indefinite detention order is limited to detainees currently at Gitmo means that the administration won’t be reopening the facility to new detainees, as Bush apologists have suggested doing.
Gitmo isn’t open because the administration doesn’t want to close it, although its efforts in this area are ripe for criticism. It’s still open because Republicans in Congress successfully frightened Democrats in Congress out of giving the administration the necessary funds to close it when they had control of Congress. In the process, they’ve managed to obscure the original reason detainees were brought to Gitmo — to keep them away from the scrutiny of the federal courts. Once the Supreme Court held that federal courts had jurisdiction and even habeas rights, the facility was useless for that purpose. Republicans are determined to keep it open not because we can’t safely imprison terrorists in the U.S., but because they feel its ongoing presence vindicates Bush in the eyes of history.
The American invitation on Friday to the Israelis and Palestinians to start direct peace talks in two weeks in Washington was immediately accepted by both governments. But just below the surface there was an almost audible shrug. There is little confidence — close to none — on either side that the Obama administration’s goal of reaching a comprehensive deal in one year can be met
Instead, there is a resigned fatalism in the air. Most analysts view the talks as pairing the unwilling with the unable — a strong right-wing Israeli coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with no desire to reach an agreement against a relatively moderate Palestinian leadership that is too weak and divided to do so.
“These direct negotiations are the option of the crippled and the helpless,” remarked Zakaria al-Qaq, vice president of Al Quds University and a Palestinian moderate, when asked his view of the development. “It is an act of self-deception that will lead nowhere.”
And Nahum Barnea, Israel’s pre-eminent political columnist, said in a phone interview: “Most Israelis have decided that nothing is going to come out of it, that it will have no bearing on their lives. So why should they care?”
That such a dismissive tone comes not from the known rejectionists — the Islamists of Hamas who rule in Gaza and the leadership of the Israeli settler community in the West Bank — but from mainstream thinkers is telling of the mood.
State Department officials had been sure that the statement, a formal invitation for both parties to enter direct negotiations, would be released earlier this week. But last-minute objections from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides forced new rounds of discussions, culminating in what Reuters reported was a conference call between Quartet members Thursday afternoon to discuss the latest draft.
“There are details that are still being worked out. You could quote Yogi Berra, I suppose, ‘It’s not over till it’s over,'” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday. “We think we’re very, very close to an agreement.”
Multiple diplomatic sources confirmed that the substance of the reported draft represents a compromise intended to accommodate the Palestinians’ calls for the pending Quartet statement to include several specific items that they believe are “terms of reference” for the direct talks but which the Israeli side sees as “preconditions” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to reject.
The apparent compromise would result in a statement whereby the Quartet reaffirms a “full commitment to its previous statements,” according to Reuters, a reference to the March 19 Quartet statement issued in Moscow, but doesn’t explicitly repeat certain contentious language from that document.
Among the disputed items in that statement, which Netanyahu ultimately rejected, were calls for a Palestinian state to be established in 24 months and for Israel to halt all settlement building, including natural growth of existing settlements, as well as building and evictions in East Jerusalem.
Neither side wants to be seen as resisting the move to direct talks, which the Obama administration has been pushing hard to begin before Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement moratorium expires next month. If the Quartet is able to get its new statement out Friday, it will be about a week later than State Department sources had predicted, due to some extra shuttle diplomacy that the U.S. team had not anticipated.
When Special Envoy George Mitchell traveled to the region last week, he believed he had a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the wording of the statement, but it was clear upon arrival that Abbas had additional concerns, multiple diplomatic sources said.
So, Mitchell called back home to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to inform her that the Palestinians were not on board. After further negotiations, Abbas set forth his demands for what the statement should include, but when Mitchell brought those terms to Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister told Mitchell he couldn’t accept them.
“We wanted the statement to include the same elements the March 19 statement included,” the PLO’s Washington representative Maen Rashid Areikat, who is in the region, told The Cable in an interview.
“The Quartet statement must be clear about how the quartet sees the terms of reference, the time frame, and the situation on the ground, such as the cessation of settlement activity,” Areikat said.
Mitchell was forced to return to Washington empty-handed, but left the National Security Council’s David Hale in the region to continue working the problem and negotiations continued.
Mitchell’s trip wasn’t a failure, according to Areikat. “I believe it was part of an overall discussion of progress with the parties, and if we see progress in the statement it will have been worth it,” he said.
The big news today is of course the announcement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been invited to Washington at the beginning of September to engage in the first direct talks between the two sides in two years.
The stakes are high on a regional and international level, but Clinton’s announcement left many things up in the air, by refusing to endorse the pre-1967 boundary as the starting point for negotiations on borders, and leaving so-called “final status” issues, like the fate of Jerusalem, land swaps, and settlements, to be brought up when Netanyahu and Abbas decide to do so.
Still, the onus is on the United States to bring the two sides together, as President Obama will have to deal with the backlash if talks fail. As Daniel Levy, the co-director of the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force said today:
[Clinton’s] announcement covered very familiar ground, following a playbook that has been tried many times and found wanting. Instead of terms of reference to guide negotiations we received today a guest list for a September 1 White House dinner – even the chaperons for that dinner have a decidedly retro ring to them – Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Mubarak. Today’s announcement could have been an opportunity to introduce some clarity to proceedings and to jumpstart real decision-making (by for instance, defining border talks as being based on ’67 lines with one-to-one land swaps). Rather we were served ambiguity, and not it seems of the constructive variety……What today’s announcement has done is to raise expectations given the one-year deadline placed on the resumed talks. Yes, deadlines have been missed before, but this time the US national interest in resolving the conflict has been placed front and center and there is now broad consensus that the two-state option is passing its sell-by date. It was the Obama administration that insisted on the direct talks format as the way forward, and the ball will now be in their court to produce results.
It is easy to be cynical about the scope of this supposed breakthrough. By getting the two sides back into direct talks Mr Obama has merely returned to where George Bush was after his Annapolis summit of November 2007. Big deal: the direct talks initiated then got nowhere, even though Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, was far readier for territorial compromise than is Mr Netanyahu. Even if, by some miracle, the two men came close to agreement, Hamas is still absent from the table. This means that half of the Palestinian movement would not be party to any deal and will try hard to sabotage one. So indeed will those Israelis in Bibi’s governing coalition who for reasons of ideology, security or both vehemently oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. It is better for the parties to be talking than not talking, but a betting man would not favour the chances of a breakthrough to peace.
That said, it would be a mistake to put the chances of success entirely at nil. When Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas hit the inevitable impasse, the Americans, who intend to be actively involved in the process through the person of George Mitchell, will doubtless table a bridging proposal. And this is the point at which the script could begin to depart from the precedent Mr Bush set at Annapolis.
Mr Bush left his push in Palestine to the end of his presidency, and with the Iraq war to fight never saw the peace process as much more than a distraction or palliative. Mr Obama, on the other hand, started early, and seems determined to persevere despite the pushback he ran into from Israel’s friends in Congress after his brutal confrontation with Mr Netanyahu over settlements in the territories. America’s president, in short, shows every sign of being a true believer in the necessity of solving this conflict, not least in order to redeem the promises he gave the Muslim world in his famous Cairo speech. A year from now, when the negotiation “deadline” expires, he may be approaching the final year of his presidency—but for all the parties in the region know he might still have another four-year term ahead of him. That will make it more expensive for the Israelis or Palestinians to resist whatever bridging ideas America brings to the table.
Well there is certainly less here than even the initial Obama spin would have had us believe. It seems to be that only an initial dinner is set. (”The United States will put its imprimatur on the talks in an orchestrated series of meetings that begin with a White House dinner Sept. 1 hosted by Mr. Obama.”) Beyond that? “Within the negotiations we’ve obviously had a lot of preparatory discussions with the parties on how to structure them,and we’ll need to finalize those, so we’re not in a position now to really talk about that.” Good grief. This has all the makings of a rushed announcement to try to put a horrid week for the White House behind them.”
It is interesting that Obama’s role is not yet finalized either. In fact, as my Israel expert points out, the death knell of the talks may be Obama’s own presence. After all, the Israelis have learned the hard way not to trust him, so it’s difficult to see how his presence could be a help. The telltale sign of the level of animosity between Obama and the Jewish state – he doesn’t yet have the nerve to visit Israel, where he could very likely face angry crowds. (”‘He looks forward to an opportunity to visit Israel,’ [Dan Shapiro] said of Obama, adding that such a visit would likely include a stop in the Palestinian Territories. The visit ‘could be very valuable and very meaningful at the right time.’”) Translation: he’s not going anytime soon.
The statements by others released on Friday were indicative of the low expectations that these talks engender among knowledgeable observers. AIPAC, which is obliged to cheer each step in the fruitless “peace process,” declares that it ”welcomes the renewal of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), as announced Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and expresses its appreciation to the Obama administration for its efforts in making this goal a reality.” But even its usually bubbly tone was replaced by sober and somewhat skeptical caveats:
For talks to succeed the PA must match Israel’s commitment to conducting peace talks without preconditions or excuses, abandon its longstanding attempts to avoid making difficult choices at the negotiating table and cease incitement against Israel at home and abroad. Likewise, Arab states must heed the calls by the Obama Administration and Congress to take immediate and meaningful steps toward normalization with Israel, and they must provide the political support for the Palestinians to make the kind of significant and difficult choices that will be required.
An even more candid statement came from Senate candidate Pat Toomey, who said he was hopeful but also “wary”:
Too often such talks produce little substance, and devolve into casting unfair blame at Israel for its legitimate efforts to guard its own security, while ignoring the unending violence that is openly encouraged by Palestinian leaders. That is especially the case with negotiations that involve the United Nations, the Russians, and the Europeans. I encourage President Obama to work against that tendency, and to set the tone in these talks by stressing the very real national security concerns Israel is dealing with.
And what happens when the talks go nowhere? Will we face yet another intifada? Will the bridging proposals morph into a imposed peace plan? Who knows — not even Day 2 is set yet. The administration has imbibed the peace process Kool-Aid, but there is little evidence that it promotes peace or that the Obami are competent to oversee negotiations. And meanwhile the real Middle East crisis — the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon looms on the horizon. In a real sense, the “peace process” is nothing more than a dangerous distraction.
Coincidentally, according to today’s front-page administration-fed NYT story, one year is also the timeframe U.S. officials are now claiming Iran has before it achieves nuclear breakout capacity. The idea of this two-step media offensive, presumably, is to put pressure on Israel not to do anything “rash” before the new round of peace talks plays out, especially with news set to break tomorrow that the Bushehr reactor is ready to go. That’s consistent with the White House’s thinking all along: They’ve always believed that settling the Palestinian issue first will make it easier to deal with Iranian nukes by denying the mullahs an opportunity to exploit the great Muslim grievance. If a peace deal is struck, then theoretically the goodwill it’ll generate towards Israel and America among Sunni nations will neutralize the Muslim solidarity that Iran wants to exploit when the confrontation over its nuke program finally comes. I’m not sure how that’ll work in practice, though, since Hamas will play no role in the peace negotiations and has no interest in ceding Gaza to its enemies in the Palestinian Authority in the event that a peace deal is hashed out. On the contrary, with Iran’s full support, they’ll inevitably accuse Abbas of having sold out the Palestinian nation in order to inflame the same sense of Muslim grievance and solidarity that the peace talks are meant to mute. In fact, if O shocks the world and the talks start making serious progress, I assume Iran and Hamas (and Hezbollah, of course) will simply precipitate some sort of crisis in order to derail them. Which is to say, how can you expect any deal to hold as long as Tehran and its proxies still have fangs?
If you think today’s announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to resume “direct talks” is a significant breakthrough, you haven’t been paying attention for the past two decades (at least). I wish I could be more optimistic about this latest development, but I see little evidence that a meaningful deal is in the offing.
Why do I say this? Three reasons.
1. There is no sign that the Palestinians are willing to accept less than a viable, territorially contiguousstate in the West Bank (and eventually, Gaza), including a capital in East Jerusalem and some sort of political formula (i.e., fig-leaf) on the refugee issue. By the way, this outcome supposedly what the Clinton and Bush adminstrations favored, and what Obama supposedly supports as well.
2. There is no sign that Israel’s government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian “state” consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, air space, water supplies, electromagnetic spectrum. etc. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that this is what he means by a “two-state solution,” and he has repeatedly declared that Israel intends to keep all of Jerusalem and maybe a long-term military presence in the Jordan River valley. There are now roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews living outside the 1967 borders, and it is hard to imagine any Israeli government evacuating a significant fraction of them. Even if Netanyahu wanted to be more forthcoming, his coalition wouldn’t let him make any meaningful concessions. And while the talks drag on, the illegal settlements will continue to expand.
3. There is no sign that the U.S. government is willing to put meaningful pressure on Israel. We’re clearly willing to twist Mahmoud Abbas’ arm to the breaking point (which is why he’s agreed to talks, even as Israel continues to nibble away at the territory of the future Palestinian state), but Obama and his Middle East team have long since abandoned any pretense of bringing even modest pressure to bear on Netanyahu. Absent that, why should anyone expect Bibi to change his position?
So don’t fall for the hype that this announcement constitutes some sort of meaningful advance in the “peace process.” George Mitchell and his team probably believe they are getting somewhere, but they are either deluding themselves, trying to fool us, or trying to hoodwink other Arab states into believing that Obama meant what he said in Cairo. At this point, I rather doubt that anyone is buying, and the only thing that will convince onlookers that U.S. policy has changed will be tangible results. Another round of inconclusive “talks” will just reinforce the growing perception that the United States cannot deliver.
In unveiling his first formal National Security Strategy Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama called for “a strategy of national renewal and global leadership,” emphasizing U.S. economic strength as the foundation of American power and promising to deepen U.S. alliances and partnerships around the world.
The Cable has obtained the text of the 52-page document, which the White House is planning to roll out later today.
The NSS was the product of months of deliberation and consultation inside the administration. Its lead author is Ben Rhodes, the president’s lead foreign-policy speechwriter and a deputy national security advisor. It represents both a repudiation of some of the most controversial aspects of the Bush-era strategy and a continuation of many of its key elements.
The opening letter from President Obama begins with a call to arms:
“Time and again in our nation’s history, Americans have risen to meet — and to shape — moments of transition. This must be one of those moments,” it starts. “We live in a time of sweeping change. The success of free nations, open markets, an social progress in recent decades has accelerated globalization on an uprecedented scale.”
He then pivots sharply to the tense national security atmosphere and the war against Islamic extremism — though the word “Islamic” is no longer in the document, as the administration seeks to head off concerns that the United States is at war with the Muslim world:
“For nearly a decade, our nation has been at war with a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” it reads. “Moreover, as we face multiple threats — from nations, non-state actors, and failed states — we will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades.”
The roll-out of President Obama’s National Security Strategy tries to frame the strategy as a repudiation of his predecessor’s. But the reality is that the new strategy is best characterized as “Bush Lite”, a slightly watered down but basically plausible remake of President Bush’s National Security Strategy. If you only read the Obama Team’s talking points, or only read the mainstream media coverage, which amounts to the same thing, this assessment may come as a big surprise. But if you actually read the Obama’s NSS released today, and President Bush’s most recent NSS released in 2006, the conclusion is pretty obvious.
President Bush’s NSS emphasized effective, action-oriented multilateralism to address the challenges of the day: to “strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends” and to “develop agendas for cooperative action with the other main centers of global power.” Obama’s NSS emphasizes “comprehensive engagement” built on the “cornerstone” of our traditional allies but expanding outwards to include “more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence.”
Bush’s NSS emphasized that our national security did not rest solely on material factors (eg., the balance of military forces) but also on the strength and appeal of our moral values, especially America’s commitment to defend and advance “human rights protected by democratic institutions.” Obama’s NSS makes the same point: “The United States rejects the false choice between the narrow pursuit of our interests and an endless campaign to impose our values.”
Bush’s NSS recognized that international institutions were flawed but essential and thus needed to be reformed. Obama’s NSS makes the exact same point: “we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions that were developed to deal with the challenges of an earlier time and the shortage of political will that has at times stymied the enforcement of international norms. Yet it would be destructive to both American national security and global security if the United States used the emergence of new challenges and the shortcomings of the international system as a reason to walk away from it. Instead, we must focus American engagement on strengthening international institutions and galvanizing the collective action that can serve common interests…”
Bush’s NSS identified the most urgent threat to be the nexis of WMD proliferation (especially nuclear), terrorists, and state sponsors of terrorism. Obama’s NSS makes the same determination, “there is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction, particularly the danger posed by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists and their proliferation to additional states.”
Bush recognized that the war on terror would require all elements of national power, from military to law enforcement to soft power, and Obama’s NSS makes the same point.
Obama’s NSS even explicitly endorses America’s prerogatives to use military force well before it is a last resort — “While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can (emphasis added)” — and unilaterally — “The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests.” (emphasis added)
Perhaps the most striking continuity is in the recognition that America must lead. This was an important theme of Bush’s NSS. Effective action depended on American leadership – “the international community is most engaged in such action when the United States leads.
It’s an impressive document, and goes a long way towards providing a coherent framework for American foreign policy and national security which makes sense of what the administration has been doing and offers a roadmap to where it wants to go. From my perspective, the most interesting — and strongest — part of the NSS deals with the administration’s new approach to al-Qaeda. The most problematic is the gap between its strong commitment to civil liberties and the rule of law and its practice thus far with regard to things like drone strikes.
The NSS lays out “a comprehensive strategy” in what it repeatedly calls a war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, one “that denies [al-Qaeda and its affiliates] safe haven, strengthens front-line partners, secures our homeland, pursues justice through durable legal approaches, and counters a bankrupt agenda of extremism and murder with an agenda of hope and opportunity.” It defines this in narrow terms: “this is not a global war against a tactic — terrorism or a religion — Islam. We are at war with a specific network, al-Qa’ida, and its terrorist affiliates.” It places this war within the perspective of broader foreign policy concerns, and warns against overreaction to terrorist provocations — pointing out, correctly, that al-Qaeda’s strategy hopes to trigger such American overreactions, leading to counterproductive political responses and interventions which drain our resources, alienate our friends, and radicalize Muslims around the world. Much of the NSS can be read as a multi-level, robust strategy to prevent such self-defeating responses, while doing everything actually necessary to disrupt and defeat the threat which actually exists.
There’s a certain caricature of Obama on the right that holds he only accepts American exceptionalism — the view that America has an outsize role to play in global affairs — in the sense that he finds America exceptionally blameworthy. The responsible exercise of U.S. foreign policy for Obama, goes this view, is to restrain it until it withers away. Charles Krauthammer offered that thesis. Mitt Romney put it in hardcover. Sarah Palin put it on Facebook. And it won’t go away with the National Security Strategy, because it was never tethered to reality. But the National Security Strategy demonstrates how it’s the exact opposite of what the Obama presidency is about.
Every single focus outlined in the National Security Strategy is about the maintenance of American power on the international stage in an era when the international order is less tethered to the traditional power of big alliances of states than ever, thanks to global financial destabilization, super-empowered individual extremists or proliferating nuclear weapons. American power, Obama argues, rests on insolvent foundations if it doesn’t invest in domestic priorities, principally “the long term growth of our economy and competitiveness of our citizens.” It won’t rally global actors to a common purpose if it doesn’t pursue “comprehensive engagement” with the world, predicated on the international institutions that represent and reflect the world’s forums for expression of consensus standards of behavior. And it won’t possess credibility if it violates “respect for universal values at home and around the world.”
That creates an interlocking series of obligations for implementing the strategy. “National security draws on the strength and resilience of our citizens, communities, and economy,” Obama argues, so that requires the maintenance and integration of not only military, diplomatic, development, intelligence and economic power, but also of domestic prosperity and justice. This is a blueprint for investing in health and education as much as it is a blueprint for investing in the military. When you think about it, how can you really separate the two? The military is worried about the security implications of the obesity epidemic, after all. This is a broad expansion of a military concept known as “interdependent capabilities,” where the assets within one service or branch or department can support and magnify those of others — applied across the government, and across governments.
Second, it requires a “a rules-based international system that can advance our own interests by serving mutual interests. International institutions must be more effective and representative of the diffusion of influence in the 21st century. Nations must have incentives to behave responsibly, or be isolated when they do not.” International power isn’t a “zero-sum game,” Obama argues — a central refutation of Bush’s insistence that the U.S. ought to never allow a new superpower to develop — with one major conceptual exception. Isolated nations and actors really do face zero-sum situations against an international community united around common norms. And that’s how Obama argues American leadership can marshal institutions for common objectives over the long term.
Eli Lake at The Washington Times, before the release, on John Brennan’s speech about the NSS:
The new strategy, according to Mr. Brennan, will continue the George W. Bush administration strategy of seeking to distinguish al Qaeda terrorism from the religion of Islam. Mr. Brennan specifically said the Obama administration would no longer use the terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” “because jihad is holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community.”
At the same time, the new strategy states that the United States remains on a war footing against al Qaeda and seeks to destroy the group and its affiliates, Mr. Brennan said. He further noted that the group behind the Sept. 11 attacks is different from other Muslim terrorist groups that might have local grievances.
The emphasis on homegrown radicals reflects the recent trend of attacks and attempted attacks in the United States by U.S. citizens or residents who were inspired to wage terrorism as a result of information posted on the Internet.
The latest such attempt was purportedly made by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-born naturalized American arrested in connection with an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a homemade car bomb in New York City’s Times Square.
In summary, I would have liked to have seen a more ruthless prioritization of efforts. If I were a reporter working the national security beat and could ask Sec. Clinton just one question today, my question would be, “Madam Secretary, this strategy lays out some very ambitious goals for the United States. But if we could only do three of the things on the list of activities, what would they be? What, in other words, are this nation’s top priorities in national security — whereby if we get other stuff wrong but get these specific things right, we can sleep soundly at night?”
UPDATE: A couple of my friends have written some good dissenting opinions in reply to my comments. The first objection (written by my officemate, the GZA aka The Genius, and soon-to-be-posted in full on Tom’s blog) is basically, “Exum, as usual, you’re complaining too much. The NSS is not meant to match ends, ways and means. It is intended to outline the broader way in which the administration thinks about the contemporary security environment. The NSS can’t allot resources because we have this thing called the legislative branch — you may have heard of it? — which does that. The QDR and QDDR are the documents that should then identify ends, ways and means.”
My response to that is, uh, first off, the QDR preceded the NSS. Which, we can all agree, is as f***ed up as a football bat. Also, the QDR also punted on setting priorities, something that has frustrated both allies with whom I have spoken as well as key legislators. (See, Abe! I am aware of the Congress!) I will note my major complaint about all of this, though, after I cover the second objection.
The second objection is that these kinds of “strategies” are really just long political speeches focused on national security. There is a little in there for everyone, and everyone’s activities and opinions are at least acknowledged if not promoted. The document is, at the end of the day, intended more for external consumption than for internal use.
The problem with this is the internal leadership vacuum that results. Like it or not, people in the Departments of Defense, National Intelligence and State — not to mention USAID and the combatant commands — will refer back to this document to justify their programs and budget requests before both the administration and the Congress. And who can blame them? It’s an official document signed off on by POTUS himself. All of those good progressive voices who fret the military has too much power and is dictating strategy from below need to take note here: when you produce something-for-everyone documents like this NSS and the QDR which do not set firm priorities, you’re essentially asking departments and commanders below you in the food chain to set their own priorities. Or, at best, you are forcing them to constantly be seeking guidance as to what your true priorities are.
I may be asking for too much — I don’t know. But both the QDR and this NSS strike me as thoughtful, intelligent, comprehensive and … kinda empty. Because these documents do not establish clear priorities or recommendations, I am left studying the budget like everyone else for clues as to what the U.S. government’s real priorities are for national security.
Israel’s deadly naval commando raid Monday morning on a flotilla carrying thousands of tons of supplies for Gaza is generating widespread international condemnation and diplomatic repercussions far beyond the waters where the confrontation occurred.
Several European nations summoned their Israeli envoys to explain Israel’s actions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his plans for meeting with President Obama in Washington on Tuesday, an Israeli government official confirmed. Mr. Netanyahu, who is visiting Canada, planned to return home Monday to deal with fallout from the raid, the official said.
The criticism offered a propaganda coup to Israel’s foes, particularly Hamas, the militant group that holds sway in Gaza, and damaged Israel’s ties to Turkey, one of its most important Muslim partners and the unofficial sponsor of the Gaza-bound convoy. Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling the raid “state terrorism,” cut short a visit to Latin America to return home.
The Israeli Defense Forces said more than 10 people were killed when naval personnel boarding the six ships in the aid convoy met with “live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs.” The naval forces then “employed riot dispersal means, including live fire,” the military said in a statement.
Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, speaking by telephone from Cyprus, rejected the military’s version.
“That is a lie,” she said, adding that it was inconceivable that the civilian passengers on board would have been “waiting up to fire on the Israeli military, with all its might.”
“We never thought there would be any violence,” she said.
At least four Israeli soldiers were wounded in the operation, some from gunfire, according to the military. Television footage from the flotilla before communications were cut showed what appeared to be commandos sliding down ropes from helicopters onto one of the vessels in the flotilla, while Israeli high-speed naval vessels surrounded the convoy.
A military statement said two activists were later found with pistols they had taken from Israeli commandos. The activists, the military said, had apparently opened fire “as evident by the empty pistol magazines.”
The warships first intercepted the convoy of cargo and passenger boats shortly before midnight on Sunday, according to activists on one vessel. Israel had vowed not to let the flotilla reach the shores of Gaza.
Named the Freedom Flotilla and led by the Free Gaza Movement and a Turkish organization, Insani Yardim Vakfi, the convoy was the most ambitious attempt yet to break Israel’s three-year blockade of Gaza.
About 600 passengers were said to be aboard the vessels, including the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mairead Corrigan-Maguire of Northern Ireland.
There are, not surprisingly, competing versions of exactly what transpired, and Israeli officials not only defended the existing blockade policy, but said Israeli forces faced resistance on the ships. Every claim has a counter-claim, of course, and those condemning the violent raid this morning insist Israeli forces attacked peaceful civilians, including a flotilla carrying a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and 85-year-old Holocaust survivor.
Either way, as the AP noted, the pre-dawn violence has “set off worldwide condemnation and a diplomatic crisis.”
This much is clearly true. The ship was unofficially sponsored by Turkey, which has long been a key Israeli ally in the regional, and which recalled its ambassador to Israel this morning in the wake of the incident. The United Nations, among others, is demanding a detailed Israeli explanation.
The White House issued a written statement, noting that the United States “deeply regrets” the loss of life and injuries, and was gathering information to understand exactly what transpired in this “tragedy.”
1548 GMT: The United Nations Security Council will meet on Monday afternoon for an emergency session that will start at 1 P.M., New York time.
1545 GMT: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Chile: “This is a state terrorism.”
1515 GMT: While on his way to Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said: “This is clearly a piracy. Israel must apologize and answer. According to unconfirmed information, we have around 50 wounded and 10 martyries. No country is above the international law.”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands people are protesting in front of Israel’s Consulate General in Istanbul.
Israel has once again clearly demonstrated that it does not value human lives and peaceful initiatives through targeting innocent civilians. We strongly condemn these inhuman acts of Israel. This grave incident which took place in high seas in gross violation of international law might cause irreversible consequences in our relations.
Besides the initiatives being conducted by our Embassy in Tel Aviv, this unacceptable incident is being strongly protested and explanation is demanded from Israeli Ambassador in Ankara, who has been invited to our Ministry.
Whatsoever the motives might be, such actions against civilians who are involved only in peaceful activities cannot be accepted. Israel will have to bear the consequences of these actions which constitute a violation of international law.
May God bestow His mercy upon those who lost their lives. We wish to express our condolences to the bereaved families of the deceased, and swift recovery to the wounded.
1440 GMT: Israel’s Portrayal. Amidst the rush of Israeli depictions of the attack — with the continuing use of the word “lynching”, now from the commandos who carried out the assault — this story stands out from a “Ron Ben Yishai” in YNet:
Navy commandoes slid down to the vessel one by one, yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back.
However, to their misfortune, they were only equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, such as the ones held in Bilin. The paintballs obviously made no impression on the activists, who kept on beating the troops up and even attempted to wrest away their weapon.
1435 GMT: Washington’s Reaction. The US statement, given by White House spokesman Bill Burton, is far more restrained than the UN denunciation of Israel (1330 GMT) and even Britain’s expression of concern (1035 GMT). Burton said the Obama administration “deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained” and officials are “currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy”.
Our Navy commandoes fell right into the hands of the Gaza mission members. A few minutes before the takeover attempt aboard the Marmara got underway, the operation commander was told that 20 people were waiting on the deck where a helicopter was to deploy the first team of the elite Flotilla 13 unit. The original plan was to disembark on the top deck, and from there rush to the vessel’s bridge and order the Marmara’s captain to stop.
Officials estimated that passengers will show slight resistance, and possibly minor violence; for that reason, the operation’s commander decided to bring the helicopter directly above the top deck. The first rope that soldiers used in order to descend down to the ship was wrested away by activists, most of them Turks, and tied to an antenna with the hopes of bringing the chopper down. However, Flotilla 13 fighters decided to carry on.
Navy commandoes slid down to the vessel one by one, yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back.
However, to their misfortune, they were only equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, such as the ones held in Bilin. The paintballs obviously made no impression on the activists, who kept on beating the troops up and even attempted to wrest away their weapons.
One soldier who came to the aid of a comrade was captured by the rioters and sustained severe blows. The commandoes were equipped with handguns but were told they should only use them in the face of life-threatening situations. When they came down from the chopper, they kept on shouting to each other “don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” even though they sustained numerous blows.
‘I saw the tip of a rifle’
The Navy commandoes were prepared to mostly encounter political activists seeking to hold a protest, rather than trained street fighters. The soldiers were told they were to verbally convince activists who offer resistance to give up, and only then use paintballs. They were permitted to use their handguns only under extreme circumstances.
The forces hurled stun grenades, yet the rioters on the top deck, whose number swelled up to 30 by that time, kept on beating up about 30 commandoes who kept gliding their way one by one from the helicopter. At one point, the attackers nabbed one commando, wrested away his handgun, and threw him down from the top deck to the lower deck, 30 feet below. The soldier sustained a serious head wound and lost his consciousness. Only after this injury did Flotilla 13 troops ask for permission to use live fire. The commander approved it: You can go ahead and fire. The soldiers pulled out their handguns and started shooting at the rioters’ legs, a move that ultimately neutralized them. Meanwhile, the rioters started to fire back at the commandoes. “I saw the tip of a rifle sticking out of the stairwell,” one commando said. “He fired at us and we fired back. We didn’t see if we hit him. We looked for him later but couldn’t find him.” Two soldiers sustained gunshot wounds to their knee and stomach after rioters apparently fired at them using guns wrested away from troops.
The planned rush towards the vessel’s bridge became impossible, even when a second chopper was brought in with another crew of soldiers. “Throw stun grenades,” shouted Flotilla 13’s commander who monitored the operation. The Navy chief was not too far, on board a speedboat belonging to Flotilla 13, along with forces who attempted to climb into the back of the ship
I have my doubts about the wisdom of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and there was obviously an operational/intelligence failure that led to Israel’s naval commandos having to open fire to defend themselves, giving the other side a propaganda victory. But it does appear that the physical violence started from the other side, which to begin with had the rather unhumanitarian mission of aiding Hamas, and, to the extent there were sincere humanitarian/peace activists involved, allowed themselves to get hijacked by violent Islamic extremists who manned one of the ships.
Net result of the “peace/humanitarian” mission: dead activists, wounded Israeli soldiers, no more humanitarian aid to Gaza than if Israel’s offer to transfer the aid to Gaza from Ashdod had been accepted, and a likely breakdown in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks that were about to start. Congratulations.
This crisis — and it is a crisis — is the fairly predictable outcome of the years of neglect of the Gaza situation by the Bush and Obama administrations. Bush turned a blind eye during the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008, and then the Obama team chose to focus on renewing peace talks between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority while continuing to boycott Hamas. The U.S. only sporadically and weakly paid attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the strategic absurdity and moral obtuseness of the Israeli blockade, or the political implications of the ongoing Hamas-Fatah divide. Now, on the eve of Obama’s scheduled meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas — the fruits of the “honey offensive” towards Israel — can they be surprised that Gaza is blowing up in their face?
The Israeli assault on the flotilla has galvanized Arab and international media attention (to say nothing of my Twitter feed). Arab and Turkish publics appear to be truly outraged, as do the Turkish, Arab and many European governments. The issue is evidently headed to the Security Council. It is difficult to fathom how the Israeli government could have thought that this was a good way to respond to a long-developing public relations challenge, but its actions will certainly fuel its evolving international legitimacy crisis. We’ll be keeping track of the story as it develops.
The incident is being portrayed in the Arab press as an unprovoked attack by the soldiers. As usual, the flaw in this theory is that if the soldiers had set out to massacre the activists, they would have done a better job of it. Violence occurred on only one of the six ships, because only on that ship was it instigated by the pro-Palestinian activists. But that won’t stop the incident from triggering another round of world-wide Israel-bashing.
The government has let the flotilla “drive Israel into a sea of stupidity,” writes Gideon Levy, a senior columnist for Haaretz the country’s most prominent liberal daily.
“We were determined to avoid an honest look at the first Gaza war. Now, in international waters and having opened fire on an international group of humanitarian aid workers and activists, we are fighting and losing the second,” writes Bradley Burston, a senior editor at Haaretz. “We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel’s Vietnam.”
Burston would know: A Los Angeles native and Berkeley graduate, he moved to Israel in the 1970s with some young Americans I knew to settle in Kibbutz Gezer, a progressive outpost between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If you can recall that in those Vietnam War/Nixon years Israel seemed a lot more noble and just to many of us than the U.S. did, you’ll understand why Burston served in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat medic and studied medicine in Be’er Sheva for two years.
But Burston must also know that his scathing Vietnam analogy has its limits: The U.S. could have walked away from Vietnam with no dangerous consequences. In Gaza, by comparison, the influence of Iran and other powers make the Israeli situation a little more… existential. Israelis also don’t have Americans’ history of conquering a whole continent and not having to care about it. Their history, too, is more… existential.
But precisely for those reasons, Haaretz reports, Israeli security forces are now on high alert, bracing for protests closer to home, maybe even for a third intifada if it turns out that one of the Palestinian activists on board the flotilla was killed. That only underscores the government’s stupidity.
There is a word in Yiddish, seichel, which means wisdom, but it also means more than that: It connotes ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance. Jews have always needed seichel to survive in this world; a person in possession of a Yiddishe kop, a “Jewish head,” is someone who has seichel, someone who looks for a clever way out of problems, someone who understands that the most direct way — blunt force, for instance — often represents the least elegant solution, a person who can foresee consequences of his actions.
I don’t know yet exactly what happened at sea when a group of Israeli commandos boarded a ship packed with not-exactly-Gandhi-like anti-Israel protesters. I learned from the Second Intifada (specifically, the story of the non-massacre at Jenin) not to rush to judgment without a full set of facts (yes, I know what you are thinking: So why have a blog?). I’m trying to figure out this story for myself. But I will say this: What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today? Israel may face, in the coming year, a threat to its existence the likes of which it has not experienced before: A theologically-motivated regional superpower with a nuclear arsenal. It faces another existential threat as well, from forces arguing that Israel’s morally disastrous settlement policy fatally undermines the very idea of a Jewish state. Is Israel ready to deploy seichel in these battles, rather than mere force?
UPDATE: Lots and lots of posts on this one. Just a handful, a sprinkling here.
In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel. In response, he unwittingly produced the most damning indictment of the organized American Jewish community that I have ever seen.
The philanthropists wanted to know what Jewish students thought about Israel. Luntz found that they mostly didn’t. “Six times we have brought Jewish youth together as a group to talk about their Jewishness and connection to Israel,” he reported. “Six times the topic of Israel did not come up until it was prompted. Six times these Jewish youth used the word ‘they‘ rather than ‘us‘ to describe the situation.”
That Luntz encountered indifference was not surprising. In recent years, several studies have revealed, in the words of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis, that “non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,” with many professing “a near-total absence of positive feelings.” In 2008, the student senate at Brandeis, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in America, rejected a resolution commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Jewish state.
Luntz’s task was to figure out what had gone wrong. When he probed the students’ views of Israel, he hit up against some firm beliefs. First, “they reserve the right to question the Israeli position.” These young Jews, Luntz explained, “resist anything they see as ‘group think.’” They want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its flaws. Second, “young Jews desperately want peace.” When Luntz showed them a series of ads, one of the most popular was entitled “Proof that Israel Wants Peace,” and listed offers by various Israeli governments to withdraw from conquered land. Third, “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.” When Luntz displayed ads depicting Palestinians as violent and hateful, several focus group participants criticized them as stereotypical and unfair, citing their own Muslim friends.
Most of the students, in other words, were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. Luntz did not grasp the irony. The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was the kind that the American Jewish establishment has been working against for most of their lives
Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age. And it starts where Luntz’s students wanted it to start: by talking frankly about Israel’s current government, by no longer averting our eyes.
What prompted the essay? Why now, when you previously have not written much about Israel?
Having kids definitely played a role. I think it made me think about not just my Zionist identity, but what kind of Zionism was available to them. And the more I thought about that, the more I began to worry. I also think that we all operate at intellectual levels and emotional levels, and for me I just decided … There was this story in the New York Times about the Gaza War, about the house in Gaza where they found the children whose parents were dead. What you may find, if you do have kids one day, you are affected at an emotional level more strongly by certain things, in a way you may not be entirely prepared for. I think that’s a good thing, it’s primordial. I know people develop all kinds of shrewd and sophisticated and clever ways of explaining anything that happens, but when I read the story I just thought I was not in the mood to try in some clever way to explain it away. And the fact that I felt I was supposed to just sickened me a little bit.
That’s not to say there are never gonna be civilian casualties in war. But knowing the people who are running Israel now. … The amazing thing about Netanyahu’s book, which is a pretty long book, is there is not a single word of human empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians or Arabs. It was for me such a chilling book in its willingness to essentially. … there was something so inhuman about it, I felt. I just felt like that wasn’t something that I wanted to apologize for.
Why did you publish the essay in the New York Review of Books, which has a reputation of being distinctly left-wing, particularly on the question of Israel?
In all honesty, it was originally supposed to be New York Times Magazine. I don’t have any ill will, but there was a stylistic disagreement, not an ideological one.
There are not very many places anymore where one can write long, serious essays. Secondly, although my piece is a piece about liberal Zionism—I don’t believe in a binational state—Jeff Goldberg is my friend, but I disagree with him when he saysNYRB is an anti-Israel. It publishes some of the most important people on the Israeli left. … We should draw inspiration from those people who share our values in Israel. If you’re going to tell me the New York Review of Books is an anti-Israel publication, that just makes no sense. I don’t think I’m anti-Israel. I think people throw around these terms way too promiscuously.
But doesn’t this make it easier for those who disagree with you to simply dismiss the piece given where it appeared?
I did think about that. You’re right: People will say that. And I think it’s a little bit silly. I wrote 5000 words. If you disagree with what I said—and there are reasonable disagreements—if you just say, ‘Oh well, it’s in the New York Review,’ that’s a sign that you’re looking for an opportunity not to engage with it. Tell me where I’m wrong! I can think of counterarguments.
Peter Beinart’s new essay indicts American Jewish organizations — AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents first of all — for, as he sees it, apologizing for an extremist and racist Israeli right. It will cost him friends, and start a conversation, particularly in the shrinking space occupied by liberal, Zionist* voices like his, Jeffrey Goldberg’s, and Jonathan Chait’s.
In its intellectual style, Peter’s piece reminded me of another attention-grabbing essay he wrote – “A Fighting Faith,” his 2004 manifesto in TNR urging Democrats to purge their anti-interventionist wing. Both essays exude an almost masochistic “tough love” toward groups which Peter (and I) feel affinity, urging them to adopt positions that Peter (and I) share or else face political annihilation. Both also suffer from analytical shortcomings – Peter’s latest less so than his last one – that leave me a bit intellectually queasy.
First, both reflect Peter’s highly idealistic conception of the world, in which political setbacks are the consequence of a failure to confront difficult truths, and intellectuals themselves hold a decisive place in the course of events. Peter’s 2004 essay argued that liberals had lost the presidency, and would continue to lose the presidency, because they had failed to confront the anti-war tendency within their base:
[L]iberals don’t have a sympathetic White House to enact liberal anti-totalitarianism policies. But, unless liberals stop glossing over fundamental differences in the name of unity, they never will.Likewise, his current piece places the blame for the lack of Zionist passion among secular Jews upon the failure of the Jewish leadership to confront Israel’s right-wing lurch:
This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s.You can see the polemical imperative of such warnings. But a bit of reflection makes clear that they bear little relationship to reality. Democrats managed to sweep the two elections that came after “A Fighting Faith” without undergoing anything like the rigorous ideological cleansing Peter prescribed. I suspect that young Jews’ indifference toward Israel is overwhelmingly a function of their weakening ties to Judaism itself. Peter argues for such reforms as bringing pro-peace Israeli students to campus. I suspect that such things, or even a dramatically more liberal turn by the American Jewish establishment, would have little effect on the opinion of young Jews. Sometimes virtue must be its own reward.
Second, Peter can over-react to the most recent political setback, all the better to lend urgency to his call to arms. 2004 was not just another electoral setback, but a harbinger of existential crisis for the Democratic Party:
Two elections, and two defeats, into the September 11 era, American liberalism still has not had its meeting at the Willard Hotel. And the hour is getting late.In the same vein, Peter now paints Israel as falling almost inexorably into the grip of the far right. “The Netanyahu coalition,” he writes, “is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society.” There is certainly some truth to this – Russian immigration and the higher Orthodox birthrate have altered the face of the Israeli electorate. On the other hand, it was not that long ago that left-of-center parties governed Israel. Demography does not work that rapidly. Though he concedes that Israeli government can move in and out of power quickly, the tone of his essay has the same two-minutes-to-midnight urgency. I hope that, just as he rethought the stridency of “A Fighting Faith,” he’ll eventually look back on this piece as somewhat overwrought.
Finally, and most seriously, the stridency and clarity of Peter’s argument comes at the cost of shaving off the rough edges of reality that would otherwise intrude. Just as he once all-too-quickly dismissed the flaws of George W. Bush’s foreign policy for the good of urging Democrats to move rightward, he seems to have again temporarily blinded himself to counter-argument. Peter, for instance, twice writes that Palestinians “wanted peace, but had been ill-served by their leaders.” It’s an odd contrast with his description of the Israeli polity, every problem with which he portrays as reflective of a deep cancer on the Israeli soul. Moreover, if you examine the respective public opinion, it’s not actually true – most Palestinians want to undo the Jewish state altogether, while most Israelis accept the need for a two-state solution.
Ben Smith has helped me figure out the source of the claustrophobic feeling I’ve been experiencing lately. It turns out that it occurs when you’ve been locked in a small room (decorated, ambivalently, in blue and white) with Peter Beinart and Jon Chait and…. well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Who else is still out there arguing that you can be liberal and Zionist at the same time, meaning, pro-Israel and anti-occupation? There’s Leon Wieseltier, of course, but who else? Tom Friedman is in the same camp (and has been there for a long time) but he pays only intermittent attention to the problem.
I’ve only read through Beinart’s essay quickly (though not so quickly that I haven’t already exchanged a couple of e-mails with him about it) and I think it is in many ways analytically valid, if unsympathetic to some of the existential challenges faced by Israelis. But the essay’s placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart’s goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it. Who is he trying to convince? Timothy Garton Ash? Peter should have published this essay on Tablet, or some other sort of publication not associated with Tony Judt’s disproportionate hatred of Jewish nationalism.
To get the inevitable out of the way: back when I worked with Peter, the magazine we worked for, for all its professed love of Israel, would never be as frank and as brave and as honest and as morally urgent to publish a piece like this. It would be a hurtful shame if it continues its current pattern and instead either attacks Peter for writing it or dismisses the points he raises. Whatever some of you think about Peter, it takes a brave and reflective man to write this. Don’t hate, congratulate.
Now that that’s out of the way, Peter falls prey to a certain myopia when assessing the political options for the mainstream American Jewish organizations. Their problem is stark: younger generations of American Jews are liberals who greet the growing illiberalism of Israel with discomfort that tribal loyalty doesn’t assuage. (“In their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel” is Peter’s felicitous and, I presume, caustic and personal turn of phrase.) So if those organizations want to maintain their influence without challenging that growing Israeli illiberalism, what to do? Peter:
To sustain their uncritical brand of Zionism, therefore, America’s Jewish organizations will need to look elsewhere to replenish their ranks. They will need to find young American Jews who have come of age during the West Bank occupation but are not troubled by it. And those young American Jews will come disproportionately from the Orthodox world.
Well, no, because there’s a different and vastly more sustainable political option for those organizations, and it’s one that’s been underway for decades. It’s to build more durable ties with conservative evangelical Christian communities, which have attachments to Israel based on millennial, eschatological commitments that are entirely untroubled by liberalism — or, for that matter, Jews and Arabs. All that matters to them is that Jews conquer the biblical land of Israel. So if you’re an organization devoted less to liberalism than to letting Israel do whatever it wants whenever it wants to do it — well, then, Jews are nice, and your Jewish grandkids are nicer. But they’re nothing compared to tens of millions of motivated voters.
Matthew Yglesias insightfully calls this a post-Jewish brand of Zionism, and he’s exactly right. Peter is right that it’s the moral task of Zionist liberals like, well, himself and myself and the J Street generation to save Zionist liberalism. But if you’re Malcolm Hoenlein or Abe Foxman, why should you care what pischers like us think? You’ve got aspirant Republican officeholders tripping over each other to profess their deep faith in Israel.
That should underscore the urgency of the J Street generation. Liberal Zionism is as much an archaic and dying trend in American politics as it is in Israeli politics. What Peter might have more forcefully added in his piece is the hidebound hostility that the mainstream organizations express toward it. Well, what did these self-hating Jews say about Gaza? What did they say about Goldstone? How dare they connect the occupation to anti-American sentiment? Don’t they know Iran is an existential threat and the end of Jewish democracy isn’t! We left-wingers in the Shtetl live amidst a sentiment among our parents and grandparents that tells us that we can take the position that a Jewish democracy and two-state solution is a fine thing. But if we advocate for it too strongly — if we put it in the language of justice; if we see Zionism’s early universalism as demanding Palestinian statehood; if we plead for Israel to abandon its current anti-Jewish course — then we’re merely useful idiots giving aid and comfort to the enemy. To listen to our parents and grandparents in 2010 is to be told that you ought to have a mere superficial attachment to Jewish democracy and Jewish justice after all. And that’s why we don’t listen anymore.
But it’s also true that they don’t have to listen to us. And that’s the more vexing problem.
This is an excellent, well-argued piece by Peter Beinart about the moral failure of Jewish-American leaders with regard to Israel’s hard-right turn. I would hope that the leaders of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League etc etc would read it and think about it carefully, and that it forces those who have refused to debate these issues–how unJewish!–to start a real dialogue.
But I’m sure that it’s only a matter of hours before someone calls Beinart anti-Israel or a self-hating Jew. How sad.
Come on, Joe! There is real debate all the time in the Jewish community, even within the ADL! I’ve been to national meetings of the ADL when actual debate broke out! I belong to the biggest and most established Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., and one of beloved rabbis is a leader of the hard-left group Rabbis for Human Rights, and you know what? No one cares. Liberal critics of Israel and the organized Jewish community are going to have to let go of this particular meme. (Please see my post on a related subject, the taboo that won’t shut up.) We live in an age when cartoonists — cartoonists! — are threatened with death for drawing pictures of the Muslim prophet, and yet an unseemly amount of space on the Interwebs is given over to condemning Abe Foxman for writing hostile press releases. It is not an act of bravery — physical bravery, spiritual bravery, intellectual bravery — to criticize Israel, not ever, and certainly not today.
By the way, I just asked Peter Beinart if he’s been called an Israel-hater or a self-hater today. His response: “Actually no one has. It’s been the biggest shock — and happiest one — of the piece. I don’t think my grandmother has read it yet, though.”
The problem, however, isn’t with leading Jewish organizations that defend Israel, but with liberalism. As sickening as it sounds, Jewish liberals see their fellow Jews as noble when they are victims being led helplessly into the gas chambers, but recoil at the thought of Jews who refuse to be victims, and actually take actions to defend themselves. It isn’t too different from American liberal attitudes toward criminal justice or terrorism, where morality is turned upside down and the lines between criminals and victims become blurred, and in certain cases, even reversed.
In the case of Israel, what changed over time was that Israel went from a state that exemplified Jewish victimhood (a role that Jewish liberals are comfortable with) to one in which Jews were actually in a position of power, which liberals are not comfortable with. Meanwhile, Palestinians, aided by the media, effectively exploited Jewish liberals by portraying themselves as the real victims, and Israel as the oppressors. I experienced this first hand once when I went on a Birthright Israel trip (which is a paid trip for American Jews to travel to Israel). At one point, we went to the cemetery at Mount Herzl, which is sort of Israel’s equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery, and is located by Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust Museum. While stopping at the cemetery, we were asked to offer our feelings standing in a cemetery honoring fallen Israeli soldiers, and the first American Jew who commented was this liberal girl who reflected, “All I can think about is how many Palestinian graves there are.”
Israel, right now, is surrounded by terorrist groups dedicated to the nation’s destruction. Palestinian society teaches its children to aspire to slaughter Jews much in the same fashion as the Nazis indoctrinated their young. Suicide bombers who die in the act of killing Jewish civilians are celebrated as heroes. It’s a culture that glorifies death and uses women and children as human shields to gain sympathy from the international community — and especially liberal Jews. And the terrorists are receiving aid from Iran, a radical nation that vows to wipe Israel off the map within the context of seeking a nuclear weapon.
Yet against this backdrop, all liberal Jews want to do is to pin the blame on Israel’s efforts to defend itself, and engage in the magical thinking that more Jewish concessions will create peace and security. By doing so, they are helping the enemies of the Jews who are intent on finishing the job that Hitler started. While Israel has no shortage of critics, when Jewish liberals attack Israel, it’s that much more damaging, because Israel’s enemies can say, “See, even Jews admit that Israel is the oppressor.”
While I would never suggest that Jews who happen to be politically liberal would want a second Holocaust to happen, I do think that by participating in a campaign to defang Israel and prevent it from taking the actions necessary to defend itself, that Jewish liberals are making things significantly easier for those who do want to carry out a second Holocaust.
Luckily, though, there are a lot of Jews in Israel who are determined not to let that happen.
Whether Klein finds it sickening or not, the more important point here is that this doesn’t seem to be true. I can’t speak for liberal Jews, but my guess is that what causes them to recoil is the thought of fellow Jews imposing inhumane, unjust policies on people under their power. If it were simply a matter of self-defense, rather than one of sustained occupation and the attendant humiliations and degradations visited on a subject people, there would be far less criticism because the government’s policies would be much easier to justify. Nationalists here in the U.S. insist on uncritical support for our policies abroad because they see this as an expression of loyalty to their country “right or wrong,” and “pro-Israel” hawks insist on offering the same kind of uncritical support for Israeli policies regardless of their merits or their consequences.
Of course, nationalists typically have a defective understanding of loyalty and a distorted understanding of patriotism, and hawks have a similarly defective understanding of what constitutes real, effective support for an ally. Encouraging a government in its worst habits and instincts, remaining silent in the face of its abuses and focusing all of their energies on attacking dissidents and critics are not the acts of friends or supporters. They are instead the acts of the blindly loyal who ultimately contibute to the ruin of the state they claim to defend.
P.S. As Beinart’s essay makes clear, it is the hard-line Israeli politicians who constantly invoke the history of Jewish victimhood to justify what they want to do. On the whole, it is “pro-Israel” hawks in the U.S. who grossly exaggerate the vulnerability and weakness of Israel’s position in the region to justify aggressive policies vis-a-vis Israel’s neighbors and other Near Eastern states. The trouble isn’t that Jewish liberals are uncomfortable with the power of Israel, but that “pro-Israel” hawks refuse to acknowledge the disparity between the power of the Israeli government and its enemies and the disparity in power between Israelis and Palestinians. On the whole, Jewish liberals seem to be willing to accept responsibility that wielding such power requires. In the meantime, “pro-Israel” hawks prefer an Israel that wields power under the constant protection of invoking victim status whenever someone criticizes the Israeli government’s abuses of power.
This disagreement often falls across generational lines. As Beinart says, young Jews do not remember Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria massing forces in the run-up to the Six-Day War. They do not remember a coalition of Arab forces streaming across the Sinai on Yom Kippur in order to catch the Jewish state by surprise. Their understanding of Israel was not forged watching the weak and threatened state improbably repel the attacks of potent adversaries.
The absence of such definitional memories has contributed to a new analysis of the Israeli situation. Today, Israel is far, far, far more militarily powerful than any of its assailants. None of the region’s armies would dare face the Jewish state on the battlefield, and in the event that they tried, they would be slaughtered. Further stacking the deck is America’s steadfast support of Israel. Any serious threat would trigger an immediate defense by the most powerful army the world has ever known. In effect, Israel’s not only the strongest power in the region, but it has the Justice League on speed dial.
That is not to say that the Jewish state is not under threat. Conventional attacks pose no danger, but one terrorist group with one nuclear weapon and one good plan could do horrible damage to the small, dense country. That threat, however, is fundamentally a danger born of the Arab world’s hatred of Israel. It follows, then, that hastening the peace that will begin to ease that hatred makes Israel safer. Exacerbating the tensions that feed it, conversely, only makes the threat more severe.
And to many of us, it looks like Israel is making the threat more severe. Its decision to pummel the city of Gaza from the air in a misguided attempt to punish Hamas. The ascension of Avigdor Lieberman and the return of Benjamin Netanyahu. Neither an overwhelming assault certain to kill many Arab civilians or a political movement that seeks to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs — whose respected position in Israeli politics has long been a point of pride for Jews — seems likely to begin the long process required to get back to the place where peace is conceivable.
Jeffrey Goldberg interviews Peter Beinart here and here
Liberalism assumes that clever and and enlightened people can engineer happy outcomes for everyone. The notion that some peoples fail of their own deficiencies is anathema to liberalism, whose premise is that enlightened intervention can solve all the problems of any society. That is what Jewish college students are taught.
It certainly is getting harder and harder to be both a liberal and a Zionist. To support a Jewish state on purely secular grounds is the conceit of generations that long ago faded away. There is no more illiberal notion than the Election of Israel. To a generation whose heart bleeds for every endangered species, the prospect that peoples may perish of their own cultural failings is an unthinkable, horrendous, nightmarish proposition.
Nonetheless Israel’s position is stronger than ever in the hearts of Americans. The Orthodox may be fewer in number, but more young Americans are spending time in Israel, studying in Israel, and moving to Israel than ever before. The rapid growth of the young Orthodox Jewish population is making an impact on Israeli demographics (which are in excellent condition due to a fertility rate of nearly 3), and will make an increasing impact over time. Skullcaps are multiplying on American college campuses, and many of them sit on heads that spent a year before college at an Israeli yeshiva.
In absolute numbers, the support of young American Jews for Israel is stronger than it ever has been. Zionism is in no danger. The entity that is in trouble is Jewish liberalism.
I will leave the debate over the justice of Beinart’s portrait of both Israel and its American supporters to his fellow anguished liberal Zionists, Jeffrey Goldberg and Jonathan Chait. What I wonder is whether the trend that Beinart describes — the diminishing bond between secular American Jews and the state of Israel — was more or less inevitable, no matter what policies were pursued in Israel and what kind of attitudes American Zionist organizations struck. Benjamin Netanyahu and Abe Foxman may have accelerated the process, but it’s hard to imagine that the more secular, more assimilated sections of the Jewish-American population wouldn’t have eventually drifted away from an intense connection with Israel anyway, in much the same way and for many of the same reasons that Italian-Americans are less attached to both Italy and Catholicism than they were in 1940 or so, or that Irish-American are far less interested in the politics of Eire and Northern Ireland than they used to be.
The Obama administration is pressing Congress to provide an exemption from Iran sanctions to companies based in “cooperating countries,” a move that likely would exempt Chinese and Russian concerns from penalties meant to discourage investment in Iran.
The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act is in a House-Senate conference committee and is expected to reach President Obama’s desk by Memorial Day.
“It’s incredible the administration is asking for exemptions, under the table and winking and nodding, before the legislation is signed into law,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and a conference committee member, said in an interview. A White House official confirmed Wednesday that the administration was pushing the conference committee to adopt the exemption of “cooperating countries” in the legislation.
Neither the House nor Senate version of the bill includes a “cooperating countries” provision even though the administration asked the leading sponsors of the Senate version of the bill nearly six months ago to include one.
A Middle East hand sends over an excerpt of Eli Lake’s story today on the White House working to soften congressional plans to sanction Iran on behalf of Chinese and Russian companies. My source says the following took place in the bicameral, bipartisan leadership meeting with Obama at the White House April 14:
One congressional staff member working on the bill told The Washington Times that Mr. Obama personally asked the House leadership this month to put off the sanctions bill until after the current work period. Shortly after that meeting, both the House and Senate named conferees for the legislation.
What could possibly be the rationale for this? Why the Obami are working on an international agreement, of course, and we can’t let sanctions with bite get in the way of international sanctions without any. This is the substitution of the intermediary goal — international agreement — for the end goal (it is the end goal, right?): an effective sanctions regimen to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. It seems our real interest is to make China and Russia happy — and exempt them from public scrutiny for doing business with the mullahs
Apparently, the administration has given up on the end goal of effective sanctions and is now in the business of papering over its failure with an international agreement (that must be held together with bribes and favors to Russia and China). This is the equivalent of “engagement” — a time waster that allows the Iranian regime still more time to proceed with its nuclear plans.
Amid the mounting diplomatic row over Mossad’s alleged assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai, the Israeli embassy has turned to Twitter to comment.
A tweet issued by the embassy today read: “@israeluk You heard it here first: Israeli tennis player carries out hit on #Dubai target http://ow.ly/18A79”. It links to a story about the Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer, who beat the top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki yesterday to reach the quarter-finals of the Dubai Championship.
But the tweet is open to interpretation. The Mossad hit squad accused of assassinating Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior figure from the militant group Hamas, at the Al-Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai were disguised as tennis players.
CCTV footage released by Dubai police shows the assassins dressed as tennis players following Mabhouh into the hotel lift as a member of staff showed him to his room.
Police said this was an attempt to note down his room number.
The post isn’t there now; it’s not clear when it was taken down (see the screen shot above). It’s better down, as it’s really not funny—or maybe just funny in the sense of strange. The reference was to the victory of Shahar Peer, an Israeli tennis player, over Caroline Wozniacki, the top seed in the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championship. Apart from what Haaretz referred to as “criticism on grounds of taste,” the tweet was unfair to Peer, who has had her career politicized quite enough. Last year, she was denied a visa to take part in the tournament, and she’s been walking around Dubai surrounded by security guards. And tennis and politics had already been mixed enough in this case: in security videos released by the Dubai police, some of the alleged assassins are carrying rackets, presumably as camouflage. (The Economist described them as “stout figures in tennis gear.”) They also had wigs and fake mustaches: one surveillance clip shows a man entering a bathroom bald, and emerging hairy. (See Close Read’s earlier post on the assassination for more details.)
This is where one sympathizes with the Israeli-embassy Twitterer: there is certainly material for comedy in this story, starting with the Dubai police’s press conference on Monday unveiling the pictures, names, and passport numbers of the suspects—six, as it seemed, from Britain; three from Ireland; one each from France and Germany—only to have it emerge that the identities were assumed, the passports faked (the German one didn’t even have the right number of digits in its serial number). Most of the people didn’t exist, although half a dozen British-Israelis had had their identities stolen, and they were not very amused by the prospect of having Interpol after them. Reuters reported that they have been offered brand-new passports, to reduce the risk, a spokesman at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv said, that they might be “inadvertently detained.” It was mildly engaging to learn that the technical term to describe a fake passport based on a real passport is “cloned.” (See Shahida Tulaganova’s brilliant BBC report on how easy it is to get a fake E.U. passport, even when you don’t have the resources of an intelligence agency.) Britain’s Serious Organized Crime Agency is now investigating. The Dubai police mentioned that al-Mabhouh had bought a pair of shoes, while the Israelis, according to the Economist, put out “leaks to the effect that the victim was buying arms from Iran.” That would be much less entertaining. But other details were not entirely unfunny, like the New York Post headline on reports that the assassins used American credit cards: “ ‘Plastic’ explosive.” And then there was the outrage that the assassins had used Western European passports, as opposed to someone else’s, as if the problem, primarily, was one of etiquette. (What is the right nationality to wear to an assassination?) Some pointed out that the last time something like this happened, in the botched Israeli assassination of Khaled Mishal in 1997, fake Canadian passports were used; perhaps that option was dismissed this time in the spirit of the Olympics. And that, of course, leads back to the most and least funny part of the story: the question of Israel’s role.
The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that there was no evidence showing that the Mossad carried out the hit, although he added that “Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies.” Maybe it was someone else—do we know much of anything about the killers, other than that poor Melvyn Mildiner, like others whose identities were stolen, was not among the bewigged figures in Dubai? And yet in many quarters calling their nationality a mystery was laughable; the questions a number of British M.P.s were raising were less about whether the Israelis had done it than whether they had told Gordon Brown’s government first. (The Foreign Office denied that they had.) And it was the Israeli Ambassador to Britain, Ron Prosor, whom the Foreign Office called in because, as Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it, “We wanted to give Israel every opportunity to share with us what it knows about this incident.” Prosor told reporters afterward that he was “unable to add additional information.” Then he smiled.
So let me see if I can wrap my head around this: Israel tracked a Hamas terrorist to Dubai and executed him at close range and by hand so as to avoid any collateral damage to civilian life. Shouldn’t we be celebrating this as the way war should be conducted instead of putting our noses up in the air and acting as though we’re so much better when we lob a missile at a terrorist from an airplane?
I mean, look, I’m all in favor of lobbing missiles at terrorists from airplanes; it’d be nice to capture them alive and get some info out of them via harsh interrogations, but a Tomahawk up the keister works just as well as far as I’m concerned. But then you get all the hemming and hawing about “Oh, we’re just creating more terrorists when we accidentally kill an innocent bystander.” Well, there’s none of that here, is there? The guy was traced to his hotel room, zapped with a stun gun, and smothered to death. Quick and easy. If only all terrorists could meet the same fate.
Dubai police have released a video account painstakingly cataloging the sequence of events that led up to the January assassination — by smothering — of a Hamas terrorist and gunrunner in a swanky hotel.
The short version from DubaiTV is here:
The default assumption in such cases is Mossad involvement, though Israel’s elite clandestine service never confirms or denies such things. But now that 11 of the 17 suspects seen in the closed circuit tape have been “identified” — including three nonexistent Irish citizens, and six Britons and one German living in Israel who appear to be victims of identity theft — and the agents’ faces have been splashed across television screens, the hit is starting to look amateurish by Mossad standards. And it might just be the beginning of a major diplomatic incident.
Israel is receiving mounting criticism in connection with the murder in Dubai of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The slaying is assumed to be work of Israel’s spy agency, Mossad.
Mabhouh was a founding member of Hamas’ military wing and was linked to the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers years ago. More recently, he has been involved in supplying arms and money to Hamas militants in Gaza.
In light of Mabhouh’s past, the criticism of Israel (at least as presented in this Washington Post report) does not focus on the slaying itself. Rather, the critics cite improprieties in how Mossad (or whomever) went about getting to the terrorist.
Great Britain is unhappy that six of the 11 individuals thought to be part of the Mossad (or whomever) team used fake British passports bearing the names of Israeli citizens. Prime Minister Gordon Brown sniffed that “the British passport is an important document that has got to be held with care.” However, I’m confident that if the agents had possessed real British passports, they would have held them carefully.
The Post also reports that Israeli citizens whose names appeared on the fake passports were “shocked to find themselves mentioned in the material released by the Dubai police.” No doubt. Israel’s position, though, is that “if there is concern about identity theft, those involved should consult a lawyer.” Always good advice.
But passport fraud and identity theft hardly exhaust the ways in which the slaying of Mabhouh affronts modern sensibilities. For example, the photos of the 11 suspects raise questions about the diversity of the team Mossad (or whomever) assembled. It includes only one woman (an attractive blond,naturally) and looks to be short on people of color.
There is also no indication that the team advised Mabhouh of his rights or offered him a chance to exculpate himself before he was killed. Indeed, from all that appears, no lawyer was present.
Finally, what about the carbon footprint of the operation? Did the team travel to Dubai in an energy efficient way? And how much electricity did they use once they arrived? Some reports say they used electricity to stun Mabhouh before killing him. Couldn’t he have been executed in a more energy efficient way?
Paul’s concerns to the contrary notwithstanding, the operation may in fact have been admirably “diverse.” This “diversity” adds context to the operation. The Guardian has reported that a “key security operative of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas was under arrest in Syria tonight on suspicion of having helped an alleged Israeli hit squad identify Mahmoud al-Mabhouh before he was assassinated in Dubai[.]”
Our man in Damascus may not just have been a token. He appears to have been in good company. According to the Daily Mail, “[i]intelligence sources say al-Mabhouh was lured to a meeting in Dubai by two men who had worked with him in Hamas in Gaza.” Haaretz identifies the two Palestinians as Ahmad Hasnin, a Palestinian intelligence operative, and Anwar Shekhaiber, an employee of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The Daily Mail suggests that al-Mabhouh “did not realise they had defected to the more moderate Fatah, bitter enemies of Hamas, and were secretly working with the Israelis.”
The latest word from Dubai included more evidence of the operation’s tradecraft: “The director of the Dubai Police forensic medicine department revealed yesterday that finding the cause of al-Mabhouh’s death had been the most difficult post mortem he had ever done. British-trained Dr Fawzi Benomran said the killers had put his body in bed and covered it, to make it appear he had died in his sleep.”
According to the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, Dubai police said Wednesday that they hold retinal scans of the suspected assassins. Given the volume of evidence, the story may yet resolve itself together with the weirdly misplaced indignation that surrounds it. And yet, one senses, such a resolution will not be conducive to a happy ending.
Those JSOC guys doing America’s assassinating better make sure they don’t get caught using British passports. Because if the Brits’ claimed anger at Israel for giving its Mossad killers UK passports is any indication, it would not help relations.
Britain fired the first shot last night in a potentially explosive diplomatic row with Israel by calling in the country’s ambassador to explain the use of fake British passports by a hit squad who targeted Mabhouh in Dubai last month.
The Israeli ambassador was at the Foreign Office this morning for a brief meeting to “share information” about the assassins’ use of identities stolen from six British citizens living in Israel, as part of the meticulously orchestrated assassination of Mabhouh.
“After receiving an invitation last night, I met with Sir Peter Ricketts, deputy-general of the British foreign minister,” Ron Prosor said after the meeting. “Despite my willingness to co-operate with his request, I could not shed new light on the said matters.”
Britain has stopped short of accusing Israel of involvement, but to signal its displeasure the Foreign Office ignored an Israeli plea to keep the summons secret. “Relations were in the freezer before this. They are in the deep freeze now,” an official told the Guardian.
Of course, the UK is pissed about the passports, not necessarily about the assassination of a top Hamas figure more generally. So maybe Britain is okay with our assassinations squads, too.
But the very public response to the Mahmoud al-Mabhouh killing, as well as certain details like the involvement of the Palestinian Authority, is sure to bring some interesting scrutiny on our own practices (as a number of you have pointed out in comments).
And WTF? Did the clowns who botched the Abu Omar rendition in Italy teach this Mossad squad tradecraft? Or did they just misjudge Dubai’s willingness to play host to assassinations?
The problem is that Obama is increasingly using drone strikes as a substitute for operations to bring terrorist leaders in alive for questioning — and that is putting the country at risk. As one high-ranking CIA official explained to me, in an interview for my book Courting Disaster, “In the wake of 9/11, [the CIA] put forward a program that had a lethal component to strike back at the people who did this. But the other component was to prevent this kind of catastrophe from happening again. And for that, killing people — especially killing senior al Qaeda leaders — is potentially counterproductive in that we can’t know or learn of future attacks. You can’t kill them all, and you don’t want to kill them all from an intelligence standpoint. We needed to know what they knew.”
In the years after the 9/11 attacks, the CIA worked with Pakistani and other intelligence services to hunt down senior terrorist leaders and take them in for interrogation. Among those captured were men like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Riduan Isamuddin (aka “Hambali”), Bashir bin Lap, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and others. In all, about 100 terrorists were detained and questioned by the CIA. And the information they provided helped break up terrorist cells that were planning to blow up the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti; explode seven airplanes flying across the Atlantic from London to cities in North America; and fly hijacked airplanes into Heathrow Airport, London’s financial district, and the Library Tower in Los Angeles.
Today, the Obama administration is no longer attempting to capture men like these alive; it is simply killing them. This may be satisfying, but it comes at a price. With every drone strike that vaporizes a senior al Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him. Dead terrorists can’t tell you their plans to strike America.
Obama’s drone campaign is costing the United States vital intelligence, and it has also exposed him to the charge of hypocrisy. The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the “the false choice between our security and our ideals.” Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target — individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?
It is true that Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush also reportedly increased the use of drone strikes against senior terrorist leaders toward the end of his term. But the Bush administration also maintained and exercised the CIA’s capability to capture and interrogate such leaders. Obama has now dramatically escalated drone strikes while eliminating what is arguably the most important and successful intelligence programs in the war on terror. This is not a sign of Obama’s seriousness. To the contrary, he is using drones as cover for his dangerous decision to eliminate the CIA’s capability to take terrorist leaders in alive and question them effectively for actionable intelligence. That is nothing to praise.
“The handling of detainee issues is going to be a huge, huge issue in the period ahead,” said Marc A. Thiessen, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush.
“For six years,” Mr. Thiessen added, “the left has had a field day with this, running around saying we tortured people and comparing us to the Spanish Inquisition.” Now, he said, the politics have turned. “It’s a huge vulnerability for Obama and the Democrats, and Republicans are starting to gather their courage and talking about this.”
Democrats see the criticism as expedience more than courage, noting that under Mr. Bush, terrorists were charged in civilian court, read Miranda rights and given lawyers.
“The one thing that’s changed is there’s now a Democratic president instead of a Republican president,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. “It’s fairly obvious that a lot of the criticism is being driven by politics and not substance.”
I’m fairly certain that I’ve only compared Bush administration interrogation techniques to the Spanish Inquisition while seated. But at the end of the day, the reason the Bush administration’s preferred torture methods get compared to the Spanish Inquisition is that they used techniques cribbed from the Spanish Inquisition:
Its use was first documented in the 14th century, according to Ed Peters, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. It was known variously as “water torture,” the “water cure” or tormenta de toca — a phrase that refers to the thin piece of cloth placed over the victim’s mouth.
At the time, using water to induce confessions was “a normal incident of law,” Peters says, and people viewed it more or less as we view a cross-examination today. If anything, Peters says, the Inquisitors “were more careful about it” than others of their time. […]
“The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, the toca was withdrawn and he was adjured to tell the truth. The severity of the infliction was measured by the number of jars [of water] consumed, sometimes reaching to six or eight,” writes Henry Charles Lea in A History of the Inquisition of Spain.
“The thing you could not do in torture was injure the body or cause death,” Peters says. That was — and still is — what makes waterboarding such an attractive interrogation technique, he says: It causes great physical and mental suffering, yet leaves no marks on the body.
Now it’s true that Thiessen’s pals’ appropriation of a Spanish Inquisition torture method was more-or-less a coincidence. The lineal descent of their torture methods is rather different. US soldiers taken captive by Chinese forces during the Korean War were often tortured in order to induce false confessions of war crimes and such. Consequently, the American military compiled a manual that detailed the kind of torture techniques the Chinese used and offered training in torture-resistance. The Bush administration decided to turn that around and start applying many of the same methods to terrorism suspects. As a result of convergent evolution of torture practices, it seems that various figures interested in coerced confessions—Spanish Inquisitors, People’s Liberation Army, Khmer Rouge, etc.—all hit upon the basic idea behind waterboarding.
The patient was placed on . . . a kind of trestle with sharp-edged rungs across it like a ladder. It slanted so that the head was lower than the feet and, at the lower end was a depression in which the head sank, while an iron band around the forehead or throat made it immovable. Sharp cords, called cordeles, which cut into the flesh, attached the arms and legs to the side of the trestle and others, known as garrotes, from sticks thrust in them and twisted around like a tourniquet till the cords cut more or less deeply into the flesh, were twined around the upper and lower arms, the thighs and the calves. . . .
The cords on the rack, Lea writes,
were carried to a maestro garrote by which the executioner could control all at once. These worked not only by compression, but by traveling around the limbs, carrying away skin and flesh. Each half round was reckoned a vuelta or turn, six or seven of which was the maximum, but it was usual not to exceed five. Formerly the same was done with the cord around the forehead, but this was abandoned as it was apt to start the eyes from their sockets.
Once the “patient” was secured to the rack, Lea explains,
An iron prong, distended the mouth, a toca, or strip of linen was thrust down the throat to conduct water trickling slowly from a jarra or jar, holding usually a little more than a quart. The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, the toca was withdrawn and he was adjured to tell the truth. The severity of the infliction was measured by the number of jarras consumed, sometimes reaching six or eight.
Needless to say, none of this even remotely resembles what was done by the CIA. No sharp cords cutting into the flesh; no iron prong distending the mouth; no strip of linen thrust down the throat to carry the water into the internal organs. No comparison whatsoever. But folks like Yglesias continue to make the specious comparison. And so each time I feel obligated to respond, to defend the honor of the courageous men and women of the CIA who kept us safe and who cannot defend themselves.
They deserve better. But at least they can take some satisfaction in knowing that when folks like Yglesias open their mouths on this topic, they demonstrate once again that they are speaking from a pinnacle of near-perfect ignorance.
Courting Disaster is Thiessen’s book, and if he wants me to read it he’ll have to force water down my throat to induce the sensation of drowning. But having summed that up, we come to Thiessen’s big point. It turns out that during the Spanish inquisition, in addition to the basic “water cure” elements beloved by Thiessen they also used “Sharp cords, called cordeles, which cut into the flesh, attached the arms and legs to the side of the trestle and others, known as garrotes, from sticks thrust in them and twisted around like a tourniquet till the cords cut more or less deeply into the flesh, were twined around the upper and lower arms, the thighs and the calves.” So you see, it’s totally different—when Thiessen and friends were running the show, they did tie people down to boards (like in the Spanish Inquisition!) and they did pour water on them (like in the Spanish Inquisition!) but in the Spanish version they used the cords to cause additional painful torture whereas in the more refined Bush/Rumsfeld/Thiessen era the water torture itself was deemed sufficient!
And that, my friends, is the advance of civilization over time.
I suppose the natural question to ask, though, is why these kind of comparisons to the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge and the Korean War-era People’s Liberal Army seem to bother torture advocates so much. The basic point made by torture advocates (when they’re not quibbling about whether or not you should call techniques poached from a torture resistance manual “torture”) is that the problem with liberals is that we’re not sufficiently willing to engage in brutal treatment of prisoners in order to compel their cooperation. But do you know who really didn’t shy away from brutal treatment of prisoners? The Spanish Inquisition! The Khmer Rouge! These are people who knew how to get the job done and it strikes me as deeply hypocritical of torture fans to turn around and get all squeamish and liberal when they hear that the inquisitors added a garrote or two into the torturing fun. The core element of the water torture is the same, even though different iterations of it are conducted in somewhat different ways—that’s the point of the Inquisition comparison.
I’m the kind of weak-kneed liberal who thinks that the government of a free people neither must nor should seek security through torture, so I’ll concede that I’m not nearly as well-versed in the precise ins-and-outs of different ways of torturing as a sicko like Thiessen is. But what’s the point. If torture in the name of a good cause is as awesome as Thiessen says it is, then why is it such a point of pride to try to maintain that what he advocates isn’t quite as brutal as what was done in the Inquisition? Could it be that somewhere lurking beneath the defensiveness, the partisanship, the blinkered worldview, and the immorality is a little nub of a conscience?
Matthew Yglesias Tweets my cover story in today’s Foreign Policy, “Dead Terrorists Tell No Tales.”
In it, I point out that sending Predators to kill senior terrorist leaders is a less-than-optimal approach to protecting the nation, because a dead terrorist cannot tell you his plans for new attacks. When we located KSM in 2003, we didn’t send a Predator to kill him; we captured him alive and brought him in for interrogation. Same for Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Riduan Isamuddin (aka “Hambali”), Bashir bin Lap, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and others.
The information they provided the CIA helped break up terrorist cells that were planning to blow up the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti; explode seven airplanes flying across the Atlantic from London to cities in North America; and fly hijacked airplanes into Heathrow Airport, London’s financial district, and the Library Tower in Los Angeles. If we had killed them, there would likely be craters in Karachi, Djibouti, London, and Los Angeles to match the one in New York City.
Today, the Obama administration is no longer attempting to capture men like these alive; it is simply killing them. This may be satisfying, but it comes at a price. With every drone strike that vaporizes a senior al-Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him.
Yglesias’s response to these arguements? He Tweets “Hilarious, @marcthiessen is upset that Barack Obama is too good at killing terrorists.”
Which raises the question: Did he actually read the article? Or was 900 words too much for him to handle?
The piece would make sense if only Thiessen were willing to write in the English language. He is, as we’ve seen, an advocate of torture. He thinks torture is an excellent thing, and like the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition he thinks it’s morally obligatory for the government to torture people. From inside this twisted mental space, the notion that killing terrorists is too soft on terror starts to make sense. After all, in Thiessenland it’s better to let four terrorists go free if that lets you torture a fifth. That’s just how awesome he thinks torture is. But he won’t write the word “torture” or say clearly “the problem with Obama killing these terrorists is that he should be torturing them.”
At any rate, it turns out it was actually Darth Vader, rather than Don Rumsfeld, who said “you are free to use any methods necessary, but I want them alive.”
First, he admits he has not read my book (“if he wants me to read it he’ll have to force water down my throat to induce the sensation of drowning.”) In other words, he acknowledges he is willfully ignorant (“I’ll concede that I’m not nearly as well-versed in the precise ins-and-outs of different ways of torturing as a sicko like Thiessen is. But what’s the point.”) and he is uninterested in correcting said ignorance. Matthew doesn’t even feel the need to get informed on what the other side is saying. Heck of a way to make your case, Matthew. “I don’t know as much about the topic the person I’m criticizing but here’s why he’s wrong.” You don’t need to put a dime in my pocket to get informed Matthew. Just grab a “comfy chair” at Borders or your local library, and you might seem a bit less of an ignoramus.
Second, Yglesias exposes his ignorance even in his explanation of why he has not read my book. He already admits in his post that the CIA did not use sharp cords to rip apart the flesh of the terrorists, as the Spanish Inquisition did. But if he had read Courting Disaster, he would also know that the CIA never “forced water” down the throats of terrorists. (He even includes a picture alongside his post of Inquisitors forcing a device down the throats of a man to fill his innards with water). This is a technique called “pumping” that was employed by Imperial Japan and other despotic regimes. They would force water into their victims until their internal organs expanded painfully (the Japanese even fed them uncooked rice first which then expanded inside their bowels when it made contact with the water), and the victims passed out from the pain. The torturers would then jump on the victims’ stomachs to make them vomit — reviving them so they could then start the process over again. The CIA never did anything even remotely like this. A few seconds of water being poured over the mouths of terrorists, never entering their stomach or lungs, does not compare to these tortures. Yet Yglesias and his ilk want you to believe the CIA did the same thing. They are either deeply uninformed or intentionally lying.
Third, critics like Yglesias really do themselves a disservice by insisting that the CIA and the Spanish Inquisition used the same techniques. It just makes them seem ridiculous. Few Americans really believe that the United States employed the same techniques as the Spanish Inquisition, or Nazi Germany, or the Khmer Rouge. That they stake their ground on this specious argument shows how vapid their case is.
Finally, Matthew writes: “Marc Thiessen and his friends aren’t very smart and they are very immoral. They love inflicting violence.” Really, Matthew? We love inflicting violence? We aren’t smart? These are the kinds of arguments people make when they are uninformed and incapable of engaging the other side on the basis of the facts.
Does Marc Thiessen realize how depraved his “defenses” sound? “But, but… there were these PINCERS when the Inquisition did it!”
As it happens, I have a friend who’s both been waterboarded and subjected others to waterboarding. His name is Malcolm Nance. Malcolm used to be an instructor for Naval special forces, and in 2007 he described the experience of how terrifying and thoroughly torturous being waterboarded is. We were at an Adams-Morgan coffee shop and it was chilling. Shortly afterward, he shared the experience with a congressional panel; here he is making his points before a similar one. Listen to him and it’s plain: waterboarding is not something civilized people do to prisoners in their custody. Is it exactly like the Spanish Inquisition? If you start asking the question like that and believe the answer to be significant, the jig is up. It’s too fucking close for a civilized people, let alone citizens of the world’s greatest nation, to ever perform.
Another thing. Thiessen says that Yglesias, by being descriptive, is slandering the CIA. Malcolm has worked alongside U.S. intelligence agents, in some of the most dangerous circumstances, for about as long as I’ve been alive. In my six or so years reporting on national security, I’ve spoken with a number of CIA agents and officials who consider waterboarding to be disgusting. They’re not angry with anyone for pointing out how repugnant it is. They’re angry with those people, like Thiessen’s colleagues in the Bush administration, who ordered the agency to debase itself by performing it.
Few Americans really believe that the United States employed the same techniques as the Spanish Inquisition, or Nazi Germany, or the Khmer Rouge.
They cannot believe that because it does not square with their whole concept of America. What they don’t fully understand is how radically Bush and Cheney and Thiessen assaulted the core idea of America in their period in office.
And, yes, there are distinctions between water-boarding and water-torture. So far as we now, the CIA didn’t force large amounts of water into someone’s stomach. But the principle of using water as a torture tactic is the same, along with the sensation of drowning. What’s indisputable is that Thiessen backs the Khmer Rouge version, memorialized below in Cambodia’s museum of torture. It is exactly the same as the CIA’s, with a cloth over the face so that no water actually goes down into the lungs, but tricks the body into feeling that it does. The same tilted board, the hands and feet bound, and repeated up to 183 times. There is simply no moral, historical, legal debate that this is now and always has been torture.
Thiessen also suggests that the Obama Administration is deliberately avoiding efforts to capture terrorists because high-level interrogations would force “hard decisions” about what’s “needed to protect the United States.” By “hard decisions,” Thiessen is presumably referring to the use of torture, a cause he’s championed tirelessly in recent months. This is a clever insinuation, but it’s worth noting that the Obama Administration opposes torture not only on moral grounds, but also because it’s not particularly effective. If we take the Administration at its word that conventional interrogation techniques work better than torture, there’s no real political incentive for Obama to deliberately avoid capturing terrorists.
Despite his enthusiasm for mistreating prisoners, Thiessen does raise one important point. Namely, the moral contradiction between opposing torture and endorsing targeted airstrikes:
The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the “the false choice between our security and our ideals.” Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target — individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?
My intuition is that airstrikes are appropriate if the military takes all reasonable precautions to avoid civilian casualties. My thoughts on this issue are pretty unformed, however, so I thought I’d throw these questions at the commentariat: Why does the status of terrorists change so dramatically after they’ve been captured? Is it because we can afford to treat enemies better once they’re detained and rendered harmless? Or does being held in captivity fundamentally change a detainee’s moral status?
I received a paper copy of this a few days ago and understood it was embargoed so I didn’t post it. But now I’m starting to receive it over email as a .pdf, so I figure it’s out there already and that readers of this blog should get the chance to read it. My first thoughts on this are very positive.
References to the “Long War” in 2006 QDR: 31, not counting the 10 pages in the chapter titled “Fighting the Long War”
References to the “Long War” in 2010 QDR: 0
The 2006 QDR was explicitly structured around the concept of the “Long War,” which is essentially another name for the War on Terror. The Long War is more or less defined as follows:
Since 2001 the U.S. military has been continuously at war, but fighting a conflict that is markedly different from wars of the past. The enemies we face are not nation-states but rather dispersed non-state networks. In many cases, actions must occur on many continents in countries with which the United States is not at war. Unlike the image many have of war, this struggle cannot be won by military force alone, or even principally. And it is a struggle that may last for some years to come.
The chapter “Fighting the Long War” then includes references to the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, operations in the Horn of Africa and the Trans-Sahara, tsunami relief, earthquake relief in Pakistan, “stabilization” operations in Haiti, assistance to the government of Colombia, and domestic initiatives such as bio-terror preparedness and civil support. The Long War concept provided a unifying framework for thinking through a multi-continental strategy for fighting “terror,” epitomized not simply in terrorist networks but also in terror-supporting states and in the conditions that allow terror to grow. Re-reading this chapter, I find it striking the degree to which the Cold War could easily be substituted for the Long War, with communists playing the role of terrorists. This is to say that the threats to the United States and its interests were represented in a fashion that’s not quite monolithic, but is nevertheless singular. Rather than responding to multiple, quite different crises around the world, the 2006 QDR wanted us to understand US military operations as part of a coherent strategic response to the threat posed by terror, much in the same way that the various forms of Containment were responses to the threat posed by the USSR and international revolutionary communism.
And why the hell not? It makes sense to defend against capabilities, not enemies, because if you identify what capabilities threaten you, you have a defense against whoever uses them. Someone might object that such a construct neglects the broader struggle against those enemies. But it does no such thing. It just recognizes that those missions aren’t military ones.
I know this is a weird thing for a journalist to write, because it’s better as a default position to be oppositional — better for the country, I mean — but I’m starting to think Robert Gates is the best defense secretary this country has ever had. I’ll think about this for awhile, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a challenge since he arrived in 2007 that he didn’t rise to meet. Granted, the top Pentagon job is a meat grinder, but that just makes Gates’ achievements all the more significant. You can say I’m just greasing sources, but — trust me on this, OK? — I’m never going to have access to Gates and I actually don’t want any, because I don’t want to conduct a sycophantic interview. (Maybe that’s appropriate for a post-retirement review, but not while the dude is in office.)
By and large, progressives don’t care so much about the QDR. This shouldn’t be taken as an absolute statement; every progressive think tank has specialists on defense, there are many progressive journalists who take an interest in defense and security issues, and there are plenty of ordinary progressives who do think regularly about things like the QDR. I’m nevertheless confident, however, in the contention that defense wonkish types are found more often in conservative circles than progressive, that conservative organizations spend more time on defense issues than progressive organizations, and that typical, everyday Joe/Jill Conservative is more knowledgeable on defense and military issues than typical, everyday Joe/Jill Progressive. The central reason for this is not difficult to articulate; conservatives (at least in the current American construction of the term) are more likely to favor the use of force, are more likely to favor high defense budgets, are more likely to focus on military capability as a central component of American identity, and (statistically) are more likely to have served or know someone who has served in the military than are progressives.
Moreover, I suspect that there’s broad agreement among people who self-identify as progressive that the current defense budget of the United States is wildly oversized relative to the threats that the United States faces. In this context, arcane discussions about preference for this weapon over that, or this capability rather than the other, or the elimination of this platform in favor of that platform, seem like debates either over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, or the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. For the former, the QDR and the precise makeup of the defense budget are part of an unfortunate reality of American politics, the details of which aren’t particularly relevant. For the latter, the imperial proclivities of the outsized defense establishment and the negative effects of the military-industrial complex on American life make micro-discussion of defense issues essentially beside the point. In both cases, valuable time required for digestion of detail is better spent on other, more important and perhaps more contingent issues.
Both of these perspectives get much more right than they do wrong. Nevertheless, let me suggest two reasons why progressives should pay much closer attention to statements of strategy such as the QDR than they do. The first reason is that debates about the makeup of the defense budget and the construction of the QDR happen whether progressives are involved in them or not. There is something to the idea of granting too much legitimacy to the abjectly idiotic idea that the United States needs to militarily outspend the rest of the world, but check it out; the US outspends (or very nearly outspends) the rest of the world anyway. Progressive engagement with the finer aspects of the defense debate can hardly make things worse. The second reason is that the details really do matter. The 2010 QDR is quite a bit different than the 2006, which was quite a bit different than the 2000. The precepts set forth in the QDR are often honored in the breach, but they nevertheless help structure what the military will look like, and consequently what the military will be good and bad at for decades to come. You could argue that the 2010 QDR pays only lip service to climate change and to the humanitarian potential of military capability, but this lip service will be replicated in policy in ways that will affect how the US military is structured, behaves, and interacts with the real world. The US military is a huge organization of organizations, and by virtue of its size even small course corrections affect the lives of millions of people.
The idea of the QDR is that it both serves as a statement of intent, indicating what high-level DOD policymakers tend to pursue in terms of budget objectives and resource-allocation, and also that it functions as high-level guidance for career personnel as to what their bosses want everyone to do.
Robert Farley makes the case for why these debates are worth delving into. I’m with Farley that the primary change in overall strategy seems to be that they’ve dropped the totalizing conceit of a “Long War” and not really replaced it with anything. I think that’s the right call. It’s good to have a unifying strategic theme, but it’s not at all good to be so devoted to coming up with one that you embrace an idea that doesn’t make sense. The fact of the matter is that the US Department of Defense is routinely asked to engage in a rather miscellaneous set of undertakings. My preference would be to pare back this set of undertakings to something more modest and coherent, but insofar as that’s not on the table at the moment it’s better to try to be clear-sighted rather than delusional.
In brass-tacks terms, this all seems to be very good news for people who make helicopters.
U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.
The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and munitions. Highly sensitive intelligence is being shared with the Yemeni forces, including electronic and video surveillance, as well as three-dimensional terrain maps and detailed analysis of the al-Qaeda network.
As part of the operations, Obama approved a Dec. 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was thought to be meeting with other regional al-Qaeda leaders. Although he was not the focus of the strike and was not killed, he has since been added to a shortlist of U.S. citizens specifically targeted for killing or capture by the JSOC, military officials said. The officials, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operations.
But buried in Priest’s article is her revelation that American citizens are now being placed on a secret “hit list” of people whom the President has personally authorized to be killed:
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. . . .
The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, “it doesn’t really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them,” a senior administration official said. “They are then part of the enemy.”
Both the CIA and the JSOC maintain lists of individuals, called “High Value Targets” and “High Value Individuals,” whom they seek to kill or capture. The JSOC list includes three Americans, including [New Mexico-born Islamic cleric Anwar] Aulaqi, whose name was added late last year. As of several months ago, the CIA list included three U.S. citizens, and an intelligence official said that Aulaqi’s name has now been added.
Indeed, Aulaqi was clearly one of the prime targets of the late-December missile strikes in Yemen, as anonymous officials excitedly announced — falsely, as it turns out — that he was killed in one of those strikes.
Just think about this for a minute. Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests.” They’re entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations. Amazingly, the Bush administration’s policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals (along with a couple of American citizens) without charges — based solely on the President’s claim that they were Terrorists — produced intense controversy for years. That, one will recall, was a grave assault on the Constitution. Shouldn’t Obama’s policy of ordering American citizens assassinated without any due process or checks of any kind — not imprisoned, but killed — produce at least as much controversy?
Obviously, if U.S. forces are fighting on an actual battlefield, then they (like everyone else) have the right to kill combatants actively fighting against them, including American citizens. That’s just the essence of war. That’s why it’s permissible to kill a combatant engaged on a real battlefield in a war zone but not, say, torture them once they’re captured and helplessly detained. But combat is not what we’re talking about here. The people on this “hit list” are likely to be killed while at home, sleeping in their bed, driving in a car with friends or family, or engaged in a whole array of other activities. More critically still, the Obama administration — like the Bush administration before it — defines the “battlefield” asthe entire world. So the President claims the power to order U.S. citizens killed anywhere in the world, while engaged even in the most benign activities carried out far away from any actual battlefield, based solely on his say-so and with no judicial oversight or other checks. That’s quite a power for an American President to claim for himself.
Drawing the line is difficult, indeed. Most obviously, if said accused terrorist were located within the borders of the United States, it would be clearly illegal to simply assassinate him. (Provoking him into defending himself by kicking in his door late at night, thus necessitating killing him, would of course be permissible.) But that would be true, I should think, of Osama bin Laden himself, much less an American citizen.
On the other hand, we blow up suspected terrorists — or, even Taliban leaders — in commando raids and drone attacks in places like Pakistan without thinking about it. Indeed, according to an official quoted in Priest’s report, “There have been more such strikes in the first year of Obama’s administration than in the last three years under President George W. Bush.” No one seems to be complaining about the president’s authority to do this. (Many question whether it’s a sound strategy, of course, but that’s a different issue entirely.)
Would it make any difference if the accused terrorist had American citizenship? I’m not so sure.
Obviously, this is an awesome power and one that could easily be abused. But it’s not at all clear where the line should be drawn.
This Dana Priest article is interesting for the way it fleshes out the way the US is working in Yemen (primarily), Pakistan, and Somalia. But note this line, which she kind of buries in there.
As part of the operations, Obama approved a Dec. 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was thought to be meeting with other regional al-Qaeda leaders. Although he was not the focus of the strike and was not killed, he has since been added to a shortlist of U.S. citizens specifically targeted for killing or capture by the JSOC, military officials said. [my emphasis]
That is, somewhere there’s a list of Americans who, the President has determined, can be killed with no due process.
Of course, they said Jose Padilla had close ties to al Qaeda, but those turned out to be more tenuous than originally claimed. Likewise the case against John Walker Lindh. And there are any number of “aspirational” terrorists whom officials have claimed had joined al Qaeda.
But I guess the tenuousness of those ties don’t really matter, when the President can dial up the assassination of an American citizen.
Talking About The Talking About The Talking… Do You Feel Cynical Or Dizzy?
Ethan Bronner at NYT:
Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up
Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:
Andrew Lebovich at Washington Note:
Lexington at The Economist:
Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:
Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy:
UPDATE: Daniel Drezner and Heather Hurlburt at Bloggingheads
UPDATE #2: Hussein Ibish and Eli Lake at Bloggingheads
Max Fisher at The Atlantic
UPDATE #3: Daniel Levy at The Huffington Post
Filed under Israel/Palestine
Tagged as Allah Pundit, Andrew Lebovich, Bloggingheads, Commentary, Daniel Drezner, Daniel Levy, Eli Lake, Ethan Bronner, Foreign Policy, Heather Hurlburt, Huffington Post, Hussein Ibish, Israel, Jennifer Rubin, Josh Rogin, Lexington, Max Fisher, New York Times, Stephen Walt, Taylor Marsh, The Atlantic, The Economist, Washington Note