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The De-Trumpification of America

Let’s assume that Donald Trump loses the election in November.

Yes, that’s a mighty big assumption, despite all the polls currently favoring the Democrats. If the economy begins to recover and the first wave of Covid-19 subsides (without a second wave striking), Donald Trump’s reelection prospects could improve greatly. The Republican Party has a huge war chest ready to fund ads galore, massive targeted outreach, and widespread voter suppression. And if all that isn’t enough, the president could borrow a tactic from the dictators he so admires and cancel the election outright out of concern over the coronavirus or some fabricated emergency.

Playing up fears of Trump’s reelection is a useful get-out-the-vote strategy, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the election happens and the president loses unambiguously. A majority of Americans will sigh with relief. Still, don’t count on Trump — and more important, Trumpism — evaporating like a nightmare at daybreak.

To begin with, there’s the president’s legendary base of support, the one-third of Americans who’d continue to back him even if he were to shoot someone on New York City’s Fifth Avenue (or, through criminal negligence, effectively murder more than 100,000 people by ignoring a pandemic for 70 days). Such Trumpists aren’t going to suddenly emigrate en masse to New Zealand, as some liberals threatened to do after the last presidential election.

For the time being, the president still has an entire party apparatus behind him, having transformed the Republicans into little more than a personality cult, banishing dissenters like former Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker to the political hinterlands, and silencing the handful of so-called moderates that remain.

Trump enjoys institutional support as well, having replaced so many putative deep-staters with civil servants prepared to unquestioningly do his bidding. He’s personally fired his perceived government enemies, chief among them six inspectors general. Minions like former body man John McEntee, former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, and presidential aide Stephen Miller have all purged experts, replacing them in the government bureaucracy with loyalists. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has done the heavy lifting in the Senate, filling the judicial system with Trump flunkies: two Supreme Court judges, more than 50 Court of Appeals judges, and 140 District Court judges so far.

Ever the money man, the president has secured a reliable cash flow, bringing the uber-wealthy class of conservative donors onto his team, a total of 80 billionaires, including Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, Texas banker Andy Beal, World Wrestling Entertainment cofounder Linda McMahon, Silicon Valley guru Peter Thiel, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Thanks to his violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Trump has also funneled taxpayer money into his own business: millions spent on rooms at the Trump Organization’s hotels and golf clubs. Even before factoring in his money — Trump personally spent $66 million of his own dollars on the 2016 election — his campaign fund already has more than one-third of a billion dollars.

And then there’s the bulk of conservative civil society — ranging from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and evangelicals like Franklin Graham to the anti-abortion lobby and the International Union of Police Associations — that now operates in his corner. Despite the entertainment world’s general loathing of the president, he’s even lined up a celebrity or two like rapper Kanye West and actress Roseanne Barr along with a handful of D-listers like actor Jon Voight and Barack Obama’s half-brother Malik. On the fringes roam the true “bad hombres”: white supremacists, live-free-or-die militiamen, and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Taken together, these component parts of Trumpism form that most dangerous of creatures, a political chimera with the head of an establishment machine and the body of a radical social movement. This creature has its hands on the levers of power, its boots on the ground, and its eyes on the prize of four more years.

Are all these people and institutions true believers in Donald Trump? Probably not. Sporting more of a performative style than a coherent ideology, he is, to misquote Lenin, a “useful idiot.” When he’s no longer useful — that is, no longer in power — he’ll only be an idiot and the opportunists will move on.

While Trump may be expendable, Trumpism — which lies at the intersections of racial and sexual anxiety, hatred of government and the expert class, and opposition to cosmopolitan internationalism — is not so easily rooted out. Drawing heavily on American traditions of Know-Nothing-ism, America-First-ism, and Goldwater Republicanism, Trump’s essential worldview will survive the 2020 election.

If their candidate loses in November, Trumpists will dig in their heels just as their predecessors did after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Only a month after his inauguration, the Tea Party was already up and running. But the Tea Party will prove child’s play compared to the resistance the Trumpists are likely to mount if their candidate tanks on Election Day 2020. And such resistance could succeed in finishing what Trump started — disuniting the country and destroying the democratic experiment — unless, that is, the United States were to undergo a thorough de-Trumpification.

Other societies have gone through such processes, but those efforts — Reconstruction after the American Civil War, denazification in Germany after World War II, and de-Baathification after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 — have all been flawed in various ways. Reconsidering them, however, might help us avoid repeating the mistakes of history as we try to drive a stake through the heart of Trumpism.

Regime Change

The United States hasn’t recently been invaded, lost a major war in its homeland, or had its government fall to a popular uprising.

That’s usually what it takes to dislodge a deeply entrenched ruling ideology. The South lost the Civil War, the Nazis World War II, and Saddam Hussein the second Gulf War. Those defeats provided the winners with unprecedented opportunities to remake the old order, but don’t seem to apply to America in 2020. The electoral defeat of a president and party, if that’s even what happens in November, doesn’t constitute regime change. It’s just the kind of peaceful transition of power that’s the cornerstone of democratic stability.

But let’s face it: 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a normal election year. Conservative pundits, like military historian Victor Davis Hanson, believe that Barack Obama and the Democrats have brought the country to the brink of a literal civil war. During last year’s impeachment hearings, Trump himself tweeted approvingly a comment made by Robert Jeffress, an evangelical ally, that impeachment “will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Meanwhile, typically enough, Clinton’s first secretary of labor, Robert Reich, suspects that President Trump’s flagrant disregard of the Constitution will precipitate major social unrest, even as comedian Bill Maher urges Democrats to reach out to Trump supporters as part of a bid to defeat the president — or risk civil war.

Many Americans seem to agree. In a 2018 Rasmussen poll, one-third of respondents thought it likely that another civil war would break out within five years. According to a 2019 civility poll from the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, the consensus was that the country is already two-thirds of the way toward a civil war.

Nor is there much confidence that the 2020 presidential election will go smoothly. Take your pick from a menu of potential disruptions: allegations of voter fraud and Republican voter suppression, a resurgence of the coronavirus, voting machine software glitches, Russian hackers, confusion over mail-in ballots, or an authoritarian president who repeatedly jokes about serving more than two terms. A recent Georgia primary offered a warning of what might come, with fiascos aplenty, particularly for voters of color. There weren’t enough polling places, people waited in line for endless hours, absentee ballots never arrived at homes. Multiply Georgia by 50 and you’d have a full-blown crisis of political legitimacy.

Even if this country manages to pull off the 2020 presidential election, a post-election insurrection is not out of the question. During the lame-duck period, a defeated Trump might call on his supporters — gun owners, militia members, active-service military — to serve as a Praetorian guard to keep him in office. Mark Villalta, an attendee at Trumpstock in Arizona last October, was typical of some Trump supporters in confessing that he’s hoarding weapons just in case Trump loses. “Nothing less than a civil war would happen,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t believe in violence, but I’ll do what I got to do.”

It’s essential to ensure that the November 3rd election is free and fair, but if Trump loses, then the bigger problems are likely to begin.

Confederacy of Dunces

In the 1860 election, America confronted a polarized electorate, a stupendously mediocre president in James Buchanan, and a clear geographic divide between north and south, urban and rural. Not even the election of Abraham Lincoln could save the union. The attack on Fort Sumter, the opening salvo of the Civil War, took place roughly a month after his inauguration.

Donald Trump seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from the “War Between the States,” resisting as he’s done recently the removal of “beautiful” Confederate statues and the redesignation of U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals. In the last Oscar season, he even wished that Gone with the Wind had won rather than some South Korean film he’d never heard of. Such favoritism for the disgraced and vanquished should be as politically disqualifying as a Heil Hitler salute.

The reason that Trump can get away with his Confederate nostalgia comes, at least in part, from the failure of the Reconstruction era after the Civil War to extirpate racism and its associated economic inequality from American society. In fact, as historian Allen Guelzo points out, “Reconstruction did not fail so much as it was overthrown. Southern whites played the most obvious role in this overthrow, but they would never have succeeded without the consent of the Northern Democrats, who had never been in favor of an equitable Reconstruction.”

The Democrats of the time, in other words, became a party of resistance — to Reconstruction, civil rights, and the radical Republicans of that moment. So the Confederacy continued to live on not only in the hearts and minds of defeated Southern whites but also in the racist policies that elected officials in both parts of the country would resurrect.

Here, then, is a lesson of the Civil War’s aftermath for this moment. Today’s Republicans, the equivalent of the northern Democrats of the post-Civil War era and a true confederacy of dunces, cannot be allowed to persist in their current incarnation as a vehicle for Trumpism. A thorough thumping at the polls in November is a necessary but insufficient response to what they’ve become.

Gaining a congressional majority, in other words, is not enough. The Democrats and chastened Republicans would have to work to make that party a far less extreme force in American politics, abandoning Trump and reclaiming Lincoln.

“We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” Barack Obama insisted as he entered office in 2009, sidestepping efforts to investigate the wrongdoing of the George W. Bush administration. He was convinced that such forward thinking would unite the country. He was wrong.

To avoid a Reconstruction-like fiasco, the next administration would have to drain the swamp Trump created, bring criminal charges against the former president and his key followers, and launch a serious campaign to change the hearts and minds of Americans who have been drawn to this president’s agenda.

Detoxifying Government

When Saddam Hussein fell and American troops took Baghdad, the United States established an occupation authority that attempted to expunge all traces of the former Iraqi autocrat’s Baath Party from that society. At the time, the State Department considered three basic positions on what came to be known as de-Baathification: focus just on Saddam’s inner circle of about 50 top-ranking officials, expand that circle to include a larger number of top politicians, or eradicate Baathism altogether because “democratization is simply not possible unless and until the entire apparatus of control and authority is uprooted.”

Thanks to Paul Bremer, the head of that Coalition Provisional Authority, the third option became its very first directive, which led to the ejection of between 35,000 and 50,000 Iraqi civil servants onto the streets of their country. “In effect, the United States dismantled the Iraqi state, leaving a deep security vacuum, administrative chaos, and soaring unemployment,” wrote pundit Fareed Zakaria in 2007. “We summarily deposed not just Saddam Hussein but a centuries-old ruling elite and then were stunned that they reacted poorly.”

That thoroughgoing purge, along with the literal dismantling of the Iraqi army, generated a deep distrust of the American occupation and provided an instant pool of recruits for any militant resistance, fueling an all-out war.

The good news is that since Trumpism has only been a governing ideology for three years, it hasn’t (yet) penetrated the civil service or the military to the degree that Baathism dominated the Iraqi government and armed forces. Since Trump appointees don’t form a particularly deep state, however much Trump would have liked to create one of his own, no Iraq-style resistance is on the horizon.

The judiciary is another matter. The roughly 200 judges that Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already managed to appoint for life will do their best to block all attempts to deconstruct Trumpism. If it can be shown that any of these judges engaged in serious ethical or criminal misconduct, then impeachment would be an option. However, you can’t impeach judges just because you don’t like their rulings (though some Republican legislators did try to do just that in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago).

Instead of attempting to remove individual judges, it would be more strategic to go after their ideological backer, the Federalist Society, an uber-conservative legal organization that has functioned as a judicial matchmaker for Trump, providing him with a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. All but eight of his federal appellate court picks have been members of the society.

You can’t outlaw a legal society, however lunatic its interpretation of the Constitution may be. However, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who’s on the Judiciary Committee, proposes to make it illegal for judges to be members of the Federalist Society. An added benefit: such a move would also go after the big money behind the attempted right-wing takeover of the court system because, as Whitehouse points out, “the Federalist Society is at the center of a network of dark-money-funded conservative organizations whose purpose is to influence court composition and outcomes.”

Detoxifying the court system is crucial not only for reversing Trump’s regressive policies but for clearing the way to prosecute him for his wrongdoing.

Hauling Them into Court

At Nuremberg after World War II, the Allied victors put nearly 200 Nazis on trial for various crimes: 161 were convicted and 37 sentenced to death. The precedents established there and at other war crimes trials have guided contemporary tribunals culminating in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It would be satisfying if the U.S. government could give Donald Trump and some of his top aides to the ICC for their violations of international law at the U.S.-Mexico border, the assassination of the head of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and similar actions. But that’s unimaginable even for a government led by President Joe Biden in which the Democrats had a veto-proof majority in the Senate. So it will be up to the American courts to charge and convict Trump, which has so far failed to happen, despite some cases related to his tax returns and allegations of sexual assault still inching forward.

The Nuremberg process developed new standards to prosecute the Nazis. Since the barriers have grown high indeed, the Trumpian opposition would have to get more creative to make sure that Trump goes to jail.

As soon as he is no longer president, federal prosecutors should label Donald Trump and his top associates an ongoing criminal organization and begin the process of bringing them to justice under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. For years, after all, the president has been acting like a mafia godfather, demanding loyalty, bullying competitors, and scorning “rats.” Last year, former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee laid out in graphic detail ways in which the president and his gang were guilty of racketeering: bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice, and the like.

The House of Representatives impeached the president, but with the help of his Republican enablers, he managed to avoid removal from office. Getting read the RICO Act, on the other hand, could leave him facing years in prison and the Trump Organization would be liable for treble damages as compensation for victims. As Forbes contributor Steve Denning concluded during the impeachment proceedings:

While impeachment would obviously be a severe personal sanction for Donald Trump, convicting the Trump Organization as a RICO enterprise could be far worse. If Trump is ‘only’ impeached, he could always go back to his family business, sadder but perhaps wiser. But if the Trump Organization were to be convicted as a criminal enterprise under the RICO Act, there might be no business for Trump to go back to.

U.S. diplomat Herbert Pell, instrumental in bringing war-crimes charges against the Nazis during World War II, saw “how Confederate veterans in the South had created for themselves a misty-eyed mythology about the U.S. Civil War and was determined that the Nazis would not do the same.” As Dan Plesch explained in his study of international war crimes tribunals, “Pell’s motivation was to prevent postwar nostalgia for the Nazis breeding more war.”

Putting Trump on trial would not only remove him from the political equation but could effectively delegitimize Trumpism and prevent a second round of it from occurring.

The Popularity of Trumpism

Nazism didn’t die with Adolf Hitler’s suicide, the collapse of his regime, or those convictions at Nuremberg. More than 10% of the German population had belonged to the Nazi Party. Early efforts at denazification sputtered out largely because the United States and its allies needed a stable, prosperous Germany at the heart of Cold War Europe — and Germany quietly allowed former Nazis to remain in every echelon of society. Seven years after the war, for instance, 60% of the civil servants in Bavaria were former Nazis.

Nazi ideology was even more difficult to root out. According to a public opinion survey conducted in West Germany in 1947, 55% percent of those living under the U.S. occupation believed that “National Socialism was a good idea badly carried out.” Worse yet, the majority of those in this category were under 30, not just the old guard.

As bizarre as Donald Trump might be, Trumpism itself is not a new American phenomenon. The difference is that the far right never before had such access to power, not during the George W. Bush era, not even during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It always remained on the margins, kept alive by the likes of the John Birch Society, the occasional extreme member of Congress, and weirdo talk show hosts like Alex Jones of InfoWars.

The danger of Trump lies in his remarkable capacity to mainstream views that previously had been beyond the pale (at least in official Washington). A significant number of Americans feel liberated, thanks to his imprimatur, to give voice to the worst angels of their nature. Transforming such deep-seated belief systems represents quite a different challenge than changing the guard in the Oval Office and beyond. After all, democratic societies don’t send people off to reeducation camps. Certain communities, like universities, can legislate against hate speech, but it’s people’s hearts and minds, not just their tongues, that must be reached.

To do so, it’s imperative to separate the legitimate grievances of Trump supporters from the illegitimate ones. Yes, “bad hombres” are attracted to Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, but many of the disenfranchised who voted for him were motivated by a disgust at political elites and the raging economic inequality they produced in this land. After the triple whammy of the coronavirus pandemic (and its disproportionate impact on the working poor), the economic semi-collapse that followed its spread (and the disproportionate benefits Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and other billionaires drew from it), and an epidemic of police violence (visited on people of color), more and more Americans are coming to feel that the status quo is simply unacceptable. They’re disgusted by Republican duplicity but also by the Democrats’ version of business as usual.

Because Trumpism is a cancer on the body politic, the treatment will require radical interventions, including the transformation of the Republican Party, a purge of Trumpists from government, and the indictment of the president and his top cronies as a criminal enterprise. To avoid a second Civil War, however, a second American Revolution would need to address the root causes of Trumpism, especially political corruption, deep-seated racism, and extreme economic inequality.

Otherwise, even if The Donald loses this election, the political creature he represents will rise from the ashes and eventually return to power (President Tom Cotton? President Ivanka?!). America can’t survive another civil war, but neither can it afford another failed Reconstruction, a half-hearted de-Trumpification of America, and a return to the previous status quo.

TomDispatch, June 26, 2020

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Trump: Not the Peace Candidate

Donald Trump presents his worldview as fresh and new. He promises to shake up the U.S. foreign policy elite that Hillary Clinton represents. He heaps scorn on the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, its failures to engage Russia and North Korea, its woeful neglect of the U.S. military. He wants U.S. allies to pull their own weight.

Trump intends to put “America first” as part of “making America great again.” Spend those war dollars at home, he urges.

It’s a compelling message for many Americans who are buried in debt and working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Trump’s rhetoric on foreign policy has also managed to persuade some who are weary of war: Critics of the Clinton-Obama brand of realism like Patrick Buchanan have gone so far as to suggest that Trump is the “peace candidate” in the 2016 elections.

But Donald Trump is not the peace candidate. True, he is no liberal hawk like Hillary Clinton. Rather, he is an illiberal hawk. He is far more committed to war than any conventional Democrat or Republican.

For instance, when it comes to military intervention, Trump is far from the isolationist that some of his Republican critics have charged him to be. Contrary to his claims, he supported the Iraq War in 2003. Today, he not only embraces the U.S. intervention in Syria but would escalate the air war against the Islamic State group and send 20,000-30,000 American ground troops there. He is in favor of continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. He would expand the U.S. drone program overseas and has backed the Obama administration’s recent strikes in Libya.

Indeed, Trump has pledged to use the military “if there’s a problem going on in the world and you can solve the problem.” One of those problems, apparently, is U.S. access to oil. Trump has promoted the idea of the U.S. military seizing the oil fields in Iraq and Libya and bringing in U.S. corporations to run them.

The only exception to Trump’s embrace of full-spectrum dominance is Russia. In Vladimir Putin, Trump sees a friend to oligarchs the world over, and Trump is nothing if not an oligarch. His business empire has benefited from Russian investments, and his campaign manager Paul Manafort was a top adviser to Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Trump wants to sit down and negotiate with Putin, which in itself is not a bad idea. But if his past record is any indicator, Trump will focus more on lucrative business deals than a fair and peaceful settlement of Cold War tensions in Central Europe.

Some liberals oppose all military intervention except those for humanitarian reasons. In other words, they make a liberal exception. Trump supports all military interventions except when they challenge his authoritarian friends and conflict with his business interests – an illiberal exception.

Much has been made of Trump’s reluctance to affirm U.S. obligations as a NATO member to come to the defense of a fellow member if attacked. As with Japan or Saudi Arabia, Trump believes that U.S. allies should pay for their own defense. As damaging to Trump’s reputation in foreign policy circles in Washington has been his refusal to rule out the use of nuclear weapons – against China, in Europe, or to defeat the Islamic State group.

Central to understanding Trump’s positions on alliances and nuclear weapons is his belief that predictability plays into the hands of opponents. Trump treats foreign policy like a poker game – he wants to keep allies and adversaries alike guessing. In this way, he hopes to prod U.S. allies into spending more on their own defense and scare U.S. adversaries into coming to the negotiating table.

In theory or in a poker game, this strategy is appealing. In geopolitics, however, unpredictability can quickly lead to unanticipated consequences, like the abrogation of alliances, an escalation of conflict or even war.

Moreover, despite his promise to spend war dollars at home rebuilding America, Trump is just as committed to Pentagon spending as the next presidential candidate. “Our military has been so badly depleted,” he told columnist Cal Thomas. “Who would think the United States is raiding plane graveyards to pick up parts and equipment? That means they’re being held together by a shoestring. Other countries have brand-new stuff they have bought from us.”

It’s obviously news to Trump that the United States spends more on the military than the next seven global big spenders (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, Japan) combined.

Nevertheless, Trump has promised to increase general military spending, boost funding to go after the Islamic State, implement major tax cuts, and balance the budget. But then, he never said that he was a math whiz.

The appeal of an anti-militarism platform is clear. U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan is in its 15th year. The fight against terrorist organizations like the Islamic State group and al-Qaida keeps spreading to more and more countries, and the United States sent special operations forces to nearly 150 countries last year. The metastasis of Pentagon spending shows no sign of abating.

Hillary Clinton has built a reputation as a hawkish Democrat, particularly during her term as secretary of state. She has shown no signs of bucking this military status quo.

Yet Donald Trump presents himself as an alternative to Clinton’s conventional thinking. Those in the anti-militarism camp who have embraced Trump as their own have been sorely mistaken. When it comes to foreign policy, he’s nothing but a militarist in maverick’s clothing.

U.S. News and World Report, August 9, 2016

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The Children’s Crusade

In 1954, a single book destroyed the popular notion that children are innocent souls. In that book, a plane of such innocent souls crashes on a deserted island. There, in a paradise of coral and coconuts and wild pigs, the survivors soon revert to a state of nature. But such a state, author William Golding warned us, is not an idyll of flower-sniffing and poetry-writing. In The Lord of the Flies, the children turn savage, inspired not by beauty or the common good but, rather, the will to power.

The Lord of the Flies takes place during a time of war. On a tropical island far from civilization, Ralph and Piggy and Jack reproduce the dynamics of the heartless society from which they’d been torn. The children become savages because savagery is an integral part of the modern world, with its trench warfare, nuclear weapons, and periodic genocides. The island to which devilish Jack sets fire during the final hunt for Ralph mirrors the world of their parents: a world in flames.

It’s no longer a shock to learn of what the very young are capable. In Britain in 1993, two 10-year-olds abducted, tortured, and killed a two-year-old boy, James Bulger. In Norway in 1994, two six-year-olds beat their five-year-old playmate with stones and left her in the snow to die. In America, which seems to be suffering an epidemic of children killing children, an 11-year-old last year shot dead his eight-year-old neighbor because she wouldn’t let him see her puppy.

By the time they become adolescents, young people become even more prone to impulsive, often violent behavior. They also reveal a greater susceptibility to peer pressure that can translate into gang membership or an obsession with cults. Our school shooters are usually teenagers. Our suicide bombers also tend to be quite young – the average age of the 9/11 hijackers, for instance, was 24 and of suicide bombers in Israel only 21. Of course, that’s also the age when young people acquire the legal right to kill when they enlist in armies.

What’s most unsettling is the sheer unpredictability of youth-on-youth violence. Consider the recent Washington Post story about a soccer game last month in an Iraqi village 40 miles south of Baghdad.

Dozens of kids had gathered to play a tournament final and cheer on their friends. One of the boys standing on the sidelines was wearing a thick jacket on an otherwise warm day. He couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old.

When the match ended, the boy in the jacket joined the scramble of boys converging at the podium to watch the awarding of the trophy and the medals, said Anmar, who attended the match with his 13-year-old brother, Bilal, and a group of friends.

 “Then he blew himself up, and I felt a fire hit my face,” Anmar said. “And then I ran away.”

The teenage suicide bomber had killed nearly 50 people, the majority of them younger than 17.

The soccer game violence was the latest atrocity committed by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) against Shi’ites in Iraq. IS claimed in its post-tragedy statement that it was targeting members of a Shi’ite militia, and two members of the militia attending the soccer game were indeed among the victims. Like all of the paramilitaries deploying child soldiers around the world, IS has no compunction about putting weapons into the hands of combatants of all ages – and sheds no tears over the young victims of its acts.

The imperative to send the very young into battle is nothing new. During a horrific, decade-long conflict in the 1980s, Iran sent waves of young martyrs into battle against Iraq. During the U.S. Civil War, young Johnny Clem, ten years old, put down his drum at the battle of Shiloh, picked up a rifle, and shot dead a Confederate officer – a story endlessly repeated by the Union PR team. Also during the Civil War, Willie Johnson received one of the first Congressional Medals of Honor – at the age of only 13. Going back much further, Joan of Arc was a young woman of 17 when she led her forces into battle, and David was a young teenager when he went up against Goliath –both foundational stories in the Western tradition.

When states have tried to keep the very young away from the battlefield, they have naturally focused their efforts on other states. The ban on child soldiers has been a long time in the making. Although the Geneva Conventions barred signatories from enlisting children, only a 1977 protocol banned governments from recruiting those younger than 15. Later, in 2002, anoptional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child raised that age to 18. The United States, which has signed but not ratified the convention, continues to militarize teenagers through its JROTC program.

But much of the violence perpetrated by youth comes from non-state actors not from government militias. Like nuclear weapons, the use of child soldiers can provide what seems to be an asymmetrical advantage. If some of these non-state actors removed children from their ranks, their militias would practically disappear.

Kids These Days

The al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia known as al-Shabaab – or the Youth – started out as a group of young people affiliated with the Islamic Courts Union. Their ranks are now fed by younger herders radicalized by fundamentalist preachers and by young Somalis in the diaspora who return home to fight. Al-Shabaab also forcibly incorporates young people into its ranks to fight, carry supplies, and prepare food.

“I had come prepared for anti-Western hostility from a gang of hardened jihadist militants,” journalist James Fergusson writes in his book, The World’s Most Dangerous Place, about his visit to a camp of al-Shabaab deserters. “Instead I found a crowd of school age teenagers, spirited, unruly, and for the most part instantly likeable. Their average age was fifteen.”

Young people also formed the core of the Taliban, which coalesced in the early 1990s. “Taliban” means “students,” and many of the fighters were originally Afghan students in Pakistani madrasahs. The civil war in Afghanistan had left many orphans in the Pashtun community who ended up over the border in these schools of religious instruction. In 1996, assisted by the Pakistani government, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. Simple math would suggest that the Taliban, particularly its military leadership, would be quite seasoned at this point after two decades of battle and five years of controlling the country. But thanks to a decapitation strategy delivered largely by drone, the United States and its allies have managed to reduce the age of the military command.

“When we got there, it was estimated the average regimental or battalion commander — whatever you want to call him — in the insurgency was about 35 years old,” Marine Major Gen. Richard Mills said back in 2011 after serving a year in Helmand province. “When we left, he was 23. Why? Because the rest of them are dead. What does that mean? It means they’re promoting younger and younger men — less-experienced men — into greater responsibility, and that’s a weakness.”

The leadership of Boko Haram in central Africa is also getting younger. James Schneiderwrites in New African magazine about how Cameroon’s Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) has followed a similar decapitation strategy:

The average age of Boko Haram’s fighting force keeps dropping. Now, the majority of fighters are teenagers. In battle, Boko Haram tends to have only a small number of older fighters coordinating the militants. They are identifiable by their walkie-talkies or satellite phones. So, BIR developed an 8-week sniper course. Now, BIR aims to pick off the older leaders at the start of any engagement. This strategy has exposed Boko Haram’s battlefield reliance on young, often poorly trained teenage fighters.

Boko Haram has also increasingly been relying on children for their suicide bombings. “The number of children involved in such blasts grew more than tenfold, from four in 2014 to 44 in 2015, according to a report released by the U.N. children’s agency on Tuesday,” writes The Washington Post. “And more than three-quarters of the children are girls — some as young as 8 years old.”

And now we have the Islamic State, which has elevated the use of children to the level of demonic performance art. The youngest recruits, the “cubs of the caliphate,” have been taking center stage more and more in recent months, as detailed by Charlie Winter in The Guardian:

In January, a young Kazakh boy was filmed as he shot a man in the back of the head; in March, Isis propagandists released a video in which a French child aged no more than 11 executed a Palestinian accused of spying for the Israeli government; in May, a young Russian was shown doing the same to an alleged member of the Federal Security Service; in June, 25 teens were filmed as they each shot a pro-Assad regime soldier in Palmyra’s Roman Theatre; and, less than a month later in July, Isis supporters circulated footage of a young Syrian boy beheading an officer, also in Palmyra.

This downward spiral of depravity arguably reached its nadir in December, when six small boys were shown playing Isis “hide-and-seek,” running through the ruins of a castle in eastern Syria, racing each other to kill one of the handful of captives who were tied up and defenceless inside.

The Islamic State knows what it’s doing. It uses children to sell its “product” knowing full well that the videos will garner outrage far and wide. The videos also demonstrate that IS will do whatever it takes to win.

The Failure of the Modern

And yet, the Islamic State is failing to appeal to its core demographic. A year ago, according toa 16-country survey of young people in the Arab world, 60 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 rejected IS. This year, that number rose to 80 percent. And the respondents wouldn’t change their mind even if IS were to abandon its brutal tactics.

To sustain its current operations, IS only needs to attract a tiny percentage of youth in its general vicinity. But as with Donald Trump, a high disapproval rate suggests a tenuous future.

When asked why IS continues to attract support, respondents in the poll pointed not to religious reasons but overwhelmingly to economic conditions. During the Arab Spring, young people who couldn’t get jobs went into the streets to protest. Those options have now narrowed. And the states of the Arab world are still not providing jobs to the young. The youth unemployment rates in the Middle East and North Africa are the highest in the world (28 and 30 percent respectively), and they’re only getting worse. Modernity has failed the young people of the Middle East. No surprise, then, that they are casting around for anti-modern alternatives.

There was a chance, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, for the West to invest heavily in the new and fragile democracies in Egypt, Tunisia, and eventually Libya. Such resources could have solidified the post-authoritarian political gains. But resources on the order of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East were not forthcoming. The United States and Europe were suspicious of the Islamist forces that came to the fore in those countries. Only Tunisia has succeeded in avoiding chaos and autocracy – thanks largely to their own efforts not the beneficence of outsiders.

But now Senator (and former presidential hopeful) Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is calling for…a Marshall Plan for the Middle East!

Graham wants to flood Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel with huge sums of money – “access to lower-interest loans, preferential trade agreements, and bolstering their civil society” – in order to fight the Islamic State. Talk about waiting until the horse is out of the barn. Egypt is back under military rule. The Arab Spring didn’t really touch Lebanon and Jordan. And Israel certainly doesn’t need any more American largesse. Marshall Plans, however, need enemies, and the Islamic State quite literally fits the bill.

Even if Congress does untie its purse strings, which is doubtful, it’s not going to stop young people from signing up to kill young people. Any U.S. money flowing into the region will serve to prop up unjust and often unpopular governments. It won’t go the source of the discontent. In previous eras, the Left offered young people a way to channel their desires for economic and social justice. But the Left is moribund in the Middle East. To a certain extent, political Islam speaks to a thirst for justice. As I wrote in Crusade 2.0, “Islamists decry the corruption, lawlessness, and economic inequalities that they see in their own societies. They have also protested against Western policies – promoted by governments or international institutions – that have perpetuated these injustices.” The Islamic State, in its perverse way, takes advantage of that desire for justice.

The generational despair is not limited to the Middle East. You can find it throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even here in the United States, young people are fed up with the status quo. Listen to pollster Ben Tulchin on why millennials support Bernie: “because their generation is so fucked, for lack of a better word, unless they see dramatic change. What’s their experience been with capitalism? They have had two recessions, one really bad one. They have a mountain of student-loan debt. They’ve got really high health-care costs, and their job prospects are mediocre at best. So, that’s capitalism for you.” And that’s in one of the richest countries in the world.

If the Middle East doesn’t produce its own versions of Bernie Sanders – and ones that can win and hold onto office – then the terrible children’s crusade will continue. Enough young people will be attracted to the Islamic State’s message of thoroughgoing transformation to keep the would-be caliphate going in some form. Enough young people will sustain operations like al-Shabaab and Boko Haram as they abduct little children and turn them into killing machines. And enough young people will be attracted to the job of piloting the drones that are killing other young people throughout the Muslim world to keep the war on terrorism going in its latest incarnation.

We adults can bewail the use of child soldiers by all those thuggish brigades around the world. But as in The Lord of the Flies, those young people are just enacting the savageries of their elders. They are both victims and perpetrators. If we don’t fundamentally care about the livelihood of the next generation, it’s no surprise that some members of the next generation don’t care about their own lives or the lives of others.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus and The Nation, April 13, 2016

Art Articles Featured

Iraq’s Artifacts of Exile

In the initial aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, looters swept through the National Museum in Baghdad and carted off 15,000 items of incalculable value. Some of these items were destroyed in the attempt to spirit them away. Some disappeared into the vortex of the underground art market. Only half of the items were eventually recovered.

In February 2015, after a dozen years in limbo, Iraq’s National Museum reopened. But it was a bittersweet reopening, and not only because of the thousands of missing treasures. That February, Islamic State (ISIS or IS) militants recorded themselves smashing priceless objects in the central museum in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that IS had occupied since June 2014. U.S. troops had largely left the country, and Washington had declared the war over. But the destruction of Iraq—its heritage and its people—was still ongoing.

Michael Rakowitz is involved in a massive reclamation project. Since 2007, in a project calledThe invisible enemy should not exist, the Iraqi American artist has been recreating the lost treasures of Iraq. He and his studio assistants locate the description of the objects, along with their dimensions and sometimes a photograph, on the Interpol or Oriental Institute of Chicagowebsites, which have been set up to deter antiquity dealers from buying looted artifacts. Then they set to work.

“To date, we’ve reconstructed 500 of the 8,000 objects,” Rakowitz says. “It’s potentially a project that will outlive me and my studio.” In addition to the objects looted from the National Museum, they’ve begun to reconstruct pieces that IS has destroyed in Mosul, Nineva, and Nimrod.

Rakowitz recently gave me a tour of an exhibit of these reconstructed objects at the George Mason University School of Art, which was part of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here Project. The largest piece on display is a brightly colored lion that stands about three feet tall.

“The Tell Harmal lion was destroyed,” Rakowitz says of the lion that once stood in the main temple of the Babylonian city of Shaduppum (today known as Tell Harmal) over 3,500 years ago. “Looters tried to take the head off the lion, and not knowing how fragile the terra cotta was, the entire head shattered beyond repair. We don’t just reconstruct the head but the entire lion: to give the viewer a sense of what that lion’s ghost might look like.”

The lion destroyed in Baghdad in 2003 was various shades of grey and white. But the reconstructed lion has a yellow torso and blue jaws. The difference in coloring is a function of the materials used for the reconstruction. “The artifacts are reconstructed out of the packaging of Middle Eastern foodstuffs and the Arabic-English newspapers available in the US where there are Arab communities,” Rakowitz explains.

The artist got the idea of using such materials during another of his art projects, the reopening the import-export business in Brooklyn that his grandfather established when he moved to the United States from Iraq in the late 1940s. This art project also involved an attempt to import Iraqi dates as a test case for the lifting of sanctions against the country.

In the process, Rakowitz discovered that packages of date cookies, for instance, rarely indicated the provenance of the fruit, often listing the ingredient as coming from countries that don’t even grow dates for commercial purposes. The sanctions had effectively rendered Iraq invisible. Later, for his tribute to the National Museum artifacts, Rakowitz wanted “to enlist these fragments of cultural visibility to construct what are now for all intents and purposes invisible objects.”

Curator in Exile

The person most responsible for retrieving so many of the pilfered objects from the National Museum was the former director, Donny George Youkhanna. Having participated in many of the excavations that uncovered these objects in the first place, Youkhanna felt a deep connection to the museum’s inventory.

After receiving a bullet in the mail that clearly suggested that he was in the crosshairs of militants, Youkhanna went into exile. He left for Syria, where he spent six months, and then accepted an offer from SUNY Binghamton to join its anthropology department.

During the creation of his project, Rakowitz formed a close friendship with Youkhanna and was touched that the former museum director visited his show when it was in New York. “He stayed at the gallery for hours, and as viewers came in, he gave tours of the artifacts on the table in the same way he would have given tours back in Baghdad,” Rakowitz said. “Donny George became very emotional about the artifacts. He said, ‘This is probably as close as I’ll get to them again.’”

Youkhanna passed away in 2011 as a result of a massive heart attack while traveling to Toronto. Not only did he die in exile, Rakowitz points out, but he didn’t even die within a country. He suffered a heart attack in the no man’s land between the United States and Canadian customs.

On Anger and Looting

The Iraq War, Rakowitz insists, was not just a disaster for Iraqis. Because it involved the destruction of so many ancient treasures from the birthplace of Western civilization, it was “a disaster for all of humanity.” He adds that, “It was also a lost opportunity when the outrage for missing objects did not translate into an outrage for missing bodies. So, the project does have an angry side.”

Through the reconstruction of these objects, Rakowitz wanted to make the Iraq War more present for American viewers. “In 2006, it was possible to go through Chelsea and not know that a war was going on,” he remembers. “I wanted to find a way of disturbing that. It is an antiquities market that made these objects desirable for the people who looted them for whatever reason. I’m an artist who is dealing with the contemporary art market, which is allowing me to show in a Chelsea gallery. Why not make an object that essentially haunts these collections as an uncomfortable apparition: to make us think about our complicity, conscious or unconscious.”

The name of the project—The invisible enemy should not exist—is the literal translation of the name of the street that ran from the Ishtar Gate, which Nebuchadnezzar built in 575 BC as a northern entrance to his city of Babylon. The gate was excavated between 1902 and 1914 by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey and then reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

“The countries of origin have called for the return of these objects,” Rakowitz argues. “There’s a large debate about this and the value of the imperial museum. For me it’s very simple. When things are taken without permission or under questionable circumstances, like backroom deals, this is a problem.”

The effort to reconstruct the objects looted from the National Museum in Baghdad is designed to be part of this debate. “The project has been acquired by several institutions, including the British Museum,” Rakowitz explains. Both the British institution and the Metropolitan will “take these replicas of looted artifacts from 2003 and put them next to Mesopotamian artifacts that they got under questionable circumstances.”

The juxtaposition of items representing two different eras of looting is a kind of artistic truth-and-reconciliation process.

“I appreciate when museums can be self-reflective or even critical when looking at its immense inventory the provenance and acquisition history of some of these things and to allow for some of the more uncomfortable stories to emerge,” Rakowitz points out.

At the same time, the objects that the British Museum or the Metropolitan essentially looted from Iraq many decades ago have at least been kept safe from the latest round of destruction. “Many Iraqis were calling for objects at the British Museum to return to Iraq,” Rakowitz says with a measure of sadness. “In the immediate aftermath of the looting, this attitude changed and these same Iraqis regarded those artifacts as fellow refugees and exiles just like themselves.”

LobeLog, April 6, 2016

Articles Featured Human Rights US Foreign Policy

Syria’s Two-Body Problem

In medieval Europe, the king had two bodies.

He sat on his throne in his own personal body, which suffered from the same sicknesses and infirmities that afflict all corporeal beings. But he also possessed a second body, the body politic, which represented the entire realm. The king served as “head of state,” a phrase that harkens back to this peculiar political theology. After the death of his own physical body, the king’s second body passed on to his successor, ideally his male offspring.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also has two bodies, and he’s worried about the fate of both of them.

The Syrian body politic is in the process of slow-motion dismemberment, for the head of state has lost quite a few of his extremities. Yet Assad is clinging to power in this shrunken entity, fearful of what might happen to his physical body — and those of his family and colleagues — if he should leave power, voluntarily or involuntarily. Images of the end days of Saddam Hussein (hanged) and Muammar Gadhafi (beaten, sodomized with a bayonet, and shot to death) are surely uppermost in his mind. Prison, exile, and answering charges in front of the International Criminal Court are only slightly less palatable scenarios.

The negotiations that took place last week in Vienna over the fate of Syria are the latest attempt to resolve a conflict that has lasted more than four years, left more than 250,000 dead, and displaced 11 million more. The diplomats are trying to come up with a compromise to transform Syria’s body politic. But the major sticking point is the actual body of Bashar al-Assad.

Some countries want Assad to stay. Some countries want him to go. In the end, we might end up with what physicists call a superposition of states. Call it Schrodinger’s Assad. The only sensible solution to the Syrian crisis is a quantum one in which the human-rights-abusing president is simultaneously there and not there.

Vacillation in Vienna

Diplomats from 17 countries, the EU, and the UN descended on Vienna last Friday. They were focused on resolving the conflict in Syria but not ending the war. This might seem like a contradiction in terms. It’s also what has made the situation in Syria so monstrously difficult to address.

In their final communiqué, the parties agreed that “it is imperative to accelerate all diplomatic efforts to end the war.” But at the same time, they agreed that the Islamic State “must be defeated.” And they were not talking about defeating the Islamic State through some soft power tactic like releasing videos that question the leadership’s virility or piety. “Degrading” the Islamic State means bombing them out of existence.

And the assembled diplomats were not just worried about the Islamic State. They agreed to defeat “other terrorist groups, as designated by the U.N. Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants.” Given that the “terrorist” label has been used to describe a large variety of actors in Syria — Russia and Turkey, for instance, have been bombing groups that the United States has been supplying — this particular clause in the communiqué doesn’t clarify who exactly is part of the problem and who is part of the solution.

Meanwhile, as the negotiators in Vienna were either hashing things out or just making a hash of things, many of their governments were actually ratcheting up the conflict. On the very day of the conference, the Obama administration announced that it was dispatching its first troops to Syria — a contingent of a few dozen Special Operations forces. The day before the conference, both the Syrian and Russian air forces conducted significant bombardments.

Given such mixed messages, the background music to the Vienna negotiations was not a comforting waltz but the immortal 1966 Fugs song Kill For Peace with its catchy lyrics: Kill, kill, kill for peace/Kill, kill, kill for peace/Near or middle or very far east/Far or near or very middle east.

Then there’s the question of the territorial integrity of Syria. “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental,” the communiqué states. That all sounds nice. But where does that put the Syrian Kurds, who are bent on establishing their own autonomous region in the north and are the recipients of U.S. largesse? And at least some of the forces receiving weaponry from the United States (and certainly from Saudi Arabia) are not committed to a secular future for Syria. Ditto some of Iran’s friends on the ground.

Indeed, the dynamic established in Syria by the contending parties and their backers suggests a very Iraq-like future for the country, with a Kurdish-Sunni-Shia cleavage destroying any hopes of territorial integrity.

Finally, the negotiators made a nod in the direction of self-determination. “This political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria,” the communiqué reads. And yet, there was not a single Syrian at the table in Vienna. This was no oversight. It simply speaks to the utter lack of consensus over who has the moral authority to speak for Syrians today.

There is no mention of Bashar al-Assad in the final communiqué. But his presence (and potential absence) looms over any discussion of Syria’s future.

Winners and Losers

The United States has long followed the “great man” theory of geopolitics in which leaders, benign or malign, are what matter. The United States practices foreign policy as if it were playing the market: picking winners and losers, hedging bets, engaging in the worst kind of speculation, and even indulging in some insider trading.

The “winners” are people like Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is supposed to be tying his country back together but in fact has done almost as much as his predecessor to split it apart. Past winners have included the Shah of Iran, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and (briefly) Saddam Hussein.

The losers are even easier to identify: Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein (again), North Korea’s Kim Jong Eun. Just as the winners are expected to do our bidding and achieve quick results, the losers are expected to herald a new era of prosperity through their political or physical annihilation.

And so it is with Assad as well. The Obama administration has an almost mystical belief that the removal of the Syrian president will magically make Syria whole once again. In other words, Washington has the same kind of faith in the body of the Syrian leader as the medieval community had in the holy king. The removal of Assad’s body, a political tumor, will somehow heal the Syrian body politic, as if the two were congenitally connected.

But the United States doesn’t have any replacement at the ready.

After all, it’s not clear-cut who’s doing what on the ground in Syria. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura has confessed that he is dealing in Syria with “230 different entities, groups, and the government.” The nearest thing to a government in exile — the Syrian National Council — has only one demand: the removal of Assad. Like the United States, it doesn’t have much of a plan for what to do in his stead. That’s not because the creation of plans is particularly difficult. Rather, how do you implement a plan when you have to get some semblance of consensus among 230 different entities, many of whom would much rather slit each other’s throats than hammer out political, economic, or social compromises?

Bashar al-Assad is not a charismatic figure. Nor does he maintain legitimacy through the exercise of policymaking brilliance. He’s a 3F kind of guy: he rules by force, fealty, and fear. In many ways, the Assad clan has reproduced a medieval system of authority. His father Hafez al-Assad started out embracing a version of Baathism — an amalgam of Syrian nationalism, pan-Arabism, and quasi-socialism — but gradually boiled down this ideology into the“Assadism” of an unquestioned leader, a personality cult, and a hereditary dynasty. The remnants of Assadism command the loyalties of three overlapping constituencies: tribe (around 2 million Alawites), party (the 1.2 million members of the Baath party), and patronage (government officials plus 250,000 in the Syrian army, including reservists).

It’s of course conceivable that all of these people will switch their loyalties to another representative figure. But that doesn’t appear to be in the offing.

A Quantum Compromise

And so we return to the Schrodinger solution.

According to quantum theory, a particle can exist in two different states at the same time. Physicist Erwin Schrodinger was uncomfortable with this superposition, so he devised a thought experiment that involved a cat in a box with some radioactive material and poison gas. The intricacies of this scenario aside, Schrodinger created his infamous cat to translate indeterminacy at a micro level into absurdity at a macro level (i.e.: a cat that is both dead and alive at the same time).

We are in a similar agony of macro-level uncertainty when it comes to Syria. How can we simultaneously oust Assad and defeat the Islamic State? How can we simultaneously respect the territorial integrity of Syria and support forces working to break it apart? How can we put the political process in the hands of Syrians and not invite a single one to the negotiating table? These paradoxes, as Schrodinger might have argued, reflect an underlying incoherence in our theories about Syria.

And yet, when it comes to a morass like Syria, it is only fitting that we fight paradox with paradox. The only sensible approach is to compromise on Assad by devising a political solution that keeps the head of state in power (nominally) and yet deprives him of power (substantively). Inside the box of Syria, Assad would be both politically dead and politically alive at the same time. It’s all a matter of perception, of course. Assad may well believe that he is the head of state even though everyone else treats him as a figurehead. In this way, compromises and political transitions are made.

In Vienna, the negotiators thought that an end was in sight for Syria. Without more substantial compromise, however, it will be the country, not the conflict, that will wink out of existence — the body politic and the body Assad both consumed in the flames of a civil war, a sectarian war, and a proxy war all combining into one huge conflagration.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 4, 2015 

Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe US Foreign Policy

Is Putin Really as Foolish as We Are?

Nixon lied.

Surely this is not a shocker. But what’s interesting about the latest revelation about the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War is that the most duplicitous president in U.S. history actually knew that the U.S. air war in Southeast Asia was a dismal failure. Even as Nixon was telling the media that the saturation bombings of Vietnam and Laos were “very effective,” he was privately acknowledging the opposite.

“We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam,” Nixon wrote to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, on January 3, 1972. “The result = Zilch. There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force.”

The Obama administration has unleashed a similar air war in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State. The results have been comparable to Nixon’s “zilch.” The Islamic State has not replaced its black flag with a white one, nor has it shrunk appreciably in size. Obama’s attempt to unseat Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has not produced much either, other than increased violence and chaos in the poor, benighted country. The Pentagon’s effort to train and re-insert “moderate” rebels into the country has proven so disastrous that the Obama administration recently suspended the project.

Meanwhile, the CIA’s rival plan to simply ship armaments to existing forces fighting against the government in Damascus has yielded more than “zilch,” at least according to recent reports. Indeed, the success that anti-Assad forces have had with anti-tank missiles helped persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene on the side of the Syrian government to forestall checkmate and prolong stalemate.

Since Putin is Russian, chess has been the go-to metaphor for portraying recent Kremlin strategy. No surprise, then, that Putin’s move in Syria has been hailed (by some) as the brilliant gambit of a grandmaster. They’re wrong. It’s more like a desperate pawn sacrifice designed to stave off the inevitably grisly endgame. Like Nixon, Putin would like us to think he’s tricky. But they’re both just brutal tacticians of limited imagination.

Putin’s Folly

Since the end of last month, the Russian government has sent fighter jets, tanks, drones and a couple hundred of soldiers to Syria. It has already conducted hundreds of air strikes. It has even launched cruise missile strikes from ships anchored in the Caspian Sea at targets nearly a thousand miles away. The Russian government claims that it is targeting the Islamic State, but many of the air strikes appear to have hit other rebel groups fighting the Assad regime. And in the short period that the air strikes have taken place, they’ve predictably generated the usual reports of “collateral damage,” including 17 civilians in Talbiseh at the very outset on September 30.

The Russian moves, if only because they represent something fundamentally different in a conflict that has ground on for more than four years, have attracted enormous media attention. Putin’s audacity has even garnered something approximating grudging respect from across the political spectrum. His speech at the UN last month, which heralded the more muscular Russian policy, qualified him as the “new sheriff in town” and his country as the “real powerbroker in the Middle East,” according to conservative national security analyst John Schindler. Economist contributor Edward Lucas termed Putin’s speech a “triumph” while his decisive intervention in Syria, in comparison to the blunders of the West, make the Russian leader seem “a responsible statesman, to whom we turn in desperation for help.” Juan Cole, after dismissing the Obama administration efforts as ineffectual, concludes that “Putin knows what he wants and has an idea about how to achieve it.”

Even for some on the left, Putin continues to represent a praiseworthy counterforce to American power and the kind of iron-fist response to the Islamic State that some crave. “Putin is not going to stop for anything or anyone,” writes Mike Whitney at Counterpunch. “He’s going to nail these guys while he has them in his gun-sights, then he’s going to wrap it up and go home. By the time the Obama crew gets its act together and realizes that they have to stop the bombing pronto or their whole regime change operation is going to go up in smoke, Putin’s going to be blowing kisses from atop a float ambling through Red Square in Moscow’s first tickertape parade since the end of WW2.”

It’s safe to say that most military interventions look decisive at the beginning. That’s when pundits and policymakers talk of “cakewalks” and “troops home by Christmas.” But there’s really no reason to believe that Russia’s military intervention in Syria will produce results appreciably different from what the United States and its allies have already (not) achieved. President Obama, who is probably enjoying his own private moments of schadenfreude, has predicted that Russia will descend into a “quagmire” in Syria (though, of course, the president hasn’t publicly acknowledged the quasi-quagmire into which he himself has tiptoed).

It’s impossible to know what Putin hopes to achieve from this gambit other than to guarantee Russian involvement in whatever happens next. Perhaps all sides will throw up their hands and take refuge at the negotiating table, with Putin emerging, as he did after the chemical weapons compromise in September 2013, as the master diplomat. Or perhaps the war will continue to grind on, but with more firepower added to the equation and thus more casualties, more extremist reactions, and more desperate refugees, with Putin playing the role of master spoiler who wants to pin the West down in an intractable conflict. In either case, Putin would earn his title as grandmaster of geopolitics.

I suspect, however, that Vladimir Putin is just as foolish and trigger-happy as any world leader with a large expeditionary force and the itch to use it. Attempting to save Bashar al-Assad in Syria is tantamount to trying to prop up Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam in the 1960s. The Russian government will claim success for its air war – just as the United States and allies do for theirs – and there will no doubt be some tactical victories as the Assad government reclaims some rebel-held territory.

But Putin will not likely accomplish the physically impossible task that Obama and others have already attempted: bombing a broken country back into shape. At what point will the Russian leader write a confidential note to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to confess that their strategy of “strategic bombing” has yielded “zilch”?

Rolling Back the Arab Spring

It’s heartening that the Nobel Peace Prize this year has gone not only to the one bright legacy of the Arab Spring – the democratic transformation of Tunisia – but to the civic groups that made it happen. Two trade unions, the oldest human rights organization in the Arab world, and a lawyer’s group, which together form the National Dialogue Quartet, have created a civil society that is so far strong enough to resist religious extremists, political strongmen, and outside intervention.

Tunisia is quite literally the anti-Syria, having taken the path that the initial non-violent protesters attempted and that Bashar al-Assad so ruthlessly suppressed. Tunisia is far from perfect, but it’s the one place in the region where “people power” hasn’t given way to civil war, counter-coups, and vertiginous descents into chaos.

Vladimir Putin has looked on all that the Arab Spring has wrought and fretted. Not only did he lose reliable allies like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, but he witnessed the rise of Islamic extremist groups that have direct links to secessionist movements within Russia itself. Where strong men reasserted control, as in Egypt, Putin has been quick to renew support. Opposition to Sunni extremism has also proven a useful means of establishing new understandings with Iran and Iraq. Putin doesn’t care about the human rights records of any of these governments. Given the periodic outbreaks of people power inside Russia itself, Putin appreciates the need for the occasional crackdown.

Putin probably doesn’t care one way or another about Bashar al-Assad. If someone else could hold the country together more effectively and mount a credible campaign against the Islamic State, the Russian president would embrace the alternative in a heartbeat. In the end, Putin doesn’t want Russia’s tenuous claim to geopolitical influence beyond its borders – primarily a stake in the vitally important Middle East – to disappear simply because of the political or religious passions of people on the ground. You can hear echoes of Nixon/Kissinger in such Russian realpolitik.

In this sense, Putin’s intervention in Syria is no different from his intervention in Ukraine – just substitute Arab Spring for Euromaidan, Islamic fundamentalists for Ukrainian fascists, and the beleaguered semi-state of Bashar al-Assad for the declared semi-state of the Donetsk People’s Republic. In Ukraine as in Syria, Putin is winging it. With Ukraine, however, the expedition is across the border and the lay of the land somewhat more familiar. In Syria, despite surveillance drones and guided missile technology, Putin is literally flying blind.

Which puts him in good company.

Following in Our Footsteps

As Nixon discovered to his dismay in the early 1970s, the virtues of bombing campaigns are often oversold. U.S. policymakers, led by Robert McNamara, believed that they were applying the lessons learned from World War II about the efficacy of air strikes. But as James Russell points out in LobeLog, “The allied bombers missed most of what they were aiming at, did not end Germany’s means to wage war, and did not convince the German people to give up the fight.” Greater accuracy didn’t produce better results in Vietnam – and even greater accuracy in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t ultimately create outcomes on the ground that the United States desired.

Putin’s attempt at “shock and awe” in Syria has all the hallmarks of failed U.S. policies of the past. In the initial days, for instance, the Russian media has focused on the pinpoint accuracy of the air strikes in taking out “most” of the Islamic State’s ammunition and heavy machinery. It will take some time before more critical reports – of Russian bombing of medical facilities or missiles that went astray in Iran – reach Putin’s constituents.

Then there’s the emphasis on the preemptive nature of the attacks. “It’s better to fight them there than here,” George W. Bush famously said (more than once). Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev essentially said the same thing last week: “It’s better to do it abroad rather than fight terrorism inside the country.”

Of course, the Russians have more to worry about. Neither the Taliban nor Saddam Hussein had any plans to attack the United States (al-Qaeda was a different matter). The Islamic State, meanwhile, has thrown a thousand Chechen fighters into battle, and who knows what might happen if these battle-hardened veterans ever make it back to Russia proper.

A handful of Russian tourists and hostages have died at the hands of Islamic extremists in the Middle East. A few of the Russian Marines now hunkered down in Syria will probably die as well, particularly now that the Homs Liberation Movement (part of the Free Syrian Army) has promised to use suicide bombers to weed out the Russians. Just this week, as a shot across the bow, insurgents shelled the Russian embassy in Damascus.

But Russians will only feel the true consequences of Putin’s actions when the next wave of retaliatory bombings strikes Russia itself. The Moscow subway was hit by two suicide bombers in 2010 and the Moscow airport was targeted in 2011. Just this week, the Russian government has reportedly thwarted another attack on public transportation, allegedly organized this time by the Islamic State. Here, then, is where Putin’s chess-playing skills reveal themselves to be sub-par. He is throwing his pieces into battle without protecting his flanks. The Russian public should brace itself for blowback.

This is the ugliest parallel with American follies. After all, the air wars that the Bush administration conducted in the 2000s continue to haunt the United States even after the dramatic toppling of the kings. Indeed, only as the wars continued in Iraq and Afghanistan long after Saddam and the Taliban no longer held power did the United States learn that a symmetrical game of chess was a poor metaphor for the strategies needed to address asymmetrical warfare against a determined adversary. Bombing a country to rubble only produces a flinty determination on the part of the survivors to fight back.

It’s a lesson that Nixon learned (too late), that Obama is struggling to learn (or perhaps struggling to teach his Republican opponents), and that Putin, in the arrogance of his power, probably thinks that he doesn’t need to learn at all.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 14, 2015

Articles Blog Eastern Europe Featured US Foreign Policy

The Middle East’s New Nakba

After midnight on August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan became separate countries.

What should have been a joyous occasion — a celebration of independence from three centuries of British colonial rule — quickly turned into one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. By the end of 1948, after an exodus of Muslims from India and a comparable hemorrhaging of Hindus from Pakistan, between 1 and 2 million people were dead. Extremists in both nascent countries had set out to create ethnically pure spaces by ruthlessly eliminating those that didn’t “fit in.”

“Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped,” Nisid Hajari writes in his new book Midnight’s Furies. “Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse.”

The history of population transfers is not a pretty one.

During World War I, the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and an ensuing three-year conflict between Turkey and Greece, as many as 1.5 million Greeks living in Anatolia died in a horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing. The official population transfer of 1923, unlike what happened later during the partition of India, was an attempt to avert further horrors rather than cause new ones. As a result, Turkey expelled much of its Christian Greek population (1.5 million) and Greece kicked out its Muslim population (500,000). Though the scale of death during this exchange was lower than in India, the human suffering was still immense, and communities of ancient lineage disappeared overnight.

The South Asian and Balkan population exchanges were largely based on ethnicity and religion. But occasionally ideology has compelled people to flee in one direction even as other people are running in the other. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the victory of the Red forces in the subsequent civil war, the losing Whites left in droves from the Soviet Union, as more than a million people established large émigré communities throughout Europe. The revolution also attracted people who wanted to experience life in a communist state, though the inflow was much smaller in comparison.

Today, the Middle East is witnessing a large-scale population transfer, the third major one in the region over the last century. Religion and ethnicity play a significant role in the displacement. But ideology also has a hand in it. Whatever the precipitating factors, the upheaval is a costly one. People are dying, borders are being redrawn, and the dragon’s teeth of discord are being sown for generations to come.

Remapping the Middle East

During the modern era, the Middle East has experienced three distinct waves of remapping and population transfer.

The first came at the end of World War I with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation, from its corpse, of the modern state of Turkey and a jumble of colonial mandates. The second wave came with the withdrawal of the European powers in the 1930s and 1940s, which produced the modern versions of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. And in 1948, the creation of the state of Israel out of what had once been a British protectorate drew millions of Jews from around the world to the new country and at the same time dispossessed millions of Palestinians in the Nakba (the “catastrophe”).

Today, the entire region is experiencing a Nakba as the third major remapping of the Middle East in modern times gets underway.

The states that we have taken for granted for so long — Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia — are being transformed. The chain of events set into motion by the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq is inexorably reaching its logical conclusion — not the consolidation of democratic, secular states but the disintegration of multi-ethnic and multi-confessional entities. Nationalist forces have squared off against religious extremists over not only who controls the states of the region, but the very nature of the state institutions. Meanwhile, outside powers have poured arms and money into the region in quixotic attempts to influence the outcome.

Many people aren’t sticking around to see who will win. They’re voting with their feet.

Millions of refugees, mostly from Syria but also from Afghanistan and Iraq, are pouring into neighboring countries. The shortfall in funds available to manage this refugee flow — and the resulting lack of food and health care in the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon — has precipitated a follow-on wave of emigration, mostly to Europe. The states of those strife-torn countries have failed their denizens, so they’re seeking out places where the state provides at least partial shelter from everyday violence and uncertainty.

In an equally startling development, tens of thousands are going in the opposite direction.

The Islamic State has attracted nearly 30,000 people in the last two years. Given an inflow of 1,000 new recruits each month, the entity is able to maintain its fighting strength of 20,000-30,000 zealots, despite having absorbed 7,000 air strikes and suffering an estimated loss of 10,000 members (or perhaps because of these well-publicized martyrdoms).

Although the recruits all subscribe to the same version of Sunni Islam, their decision to flock to ISIS is more like the earlier, more ideologically motivated migration to the Soviet Union. After all, if they simply wanted a more fundamentalist version of Islam, they could have gone to Saudi Arabia. Rather, they’re drawn by the ISIS promise to fuse religion and state authority in a new caliphate. At the same time deeply conservative and thoroughly revolutionary, ISIS promises to change the world by plunging it back into a Dark Ages of beheadings and Twitter.

The current refugee crisis is the most visible sign of this Middle East remapping. But it’s not the only one.

Enclaves Besieged

Both the United States and Russia are committed to bolstering unitary states in the Middle East. They just happen to support different ones.

Russia has long backed the government of Bashar al-Assad. It’s recently attempted to portray the Syrian regime as the best chance for defeating ISIS. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent advanced jet fighters and a contingent of soldiers to battle a force that’s already declared its own satellite state on Russian soil in the northern Caucasus. This week, Russia conducted its first aerial attack on ISIS in Syria.

President Obama, at the UN summit this week on countering ISIS, has pushed for a “hearts-and-minds” strategy to counter violent extremism at the source. But the United States is also bombing ISIS, supporting opposition fighters like the Kurds, and trying to train “moderate” fighters to insert into the conflict (a dismal failure to date). The likely outcome of this strategy will be an accelerated fragmentation of Syria. The Kurds, Druze, Sunnis, and Alawites are spinning apart in the country’s centrifuge of violence, and the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to oust Assad and defeat ISIS will drive the wedges even further between these communities.

Meanwhile next door, evidence of the failure of this strategy is on display in Iraq. Years of war have not produced peace or eliminated extremism. The Obama administration has tried to keep Iraq together through an ill-advised patchwork of alliances that have only compromised the country’s immune system, giving rise to the potentially terminal illness of ISIS. And Washington continues to look the other way in Iraq as Shi’ite militias engage in their own form of ethnic cleansing, using ISIS as an excuse to go after any and all Sunnis in the country.

Syria and Iraq are not the only countries drifting toward a terrifying homogeneity. The Christian population of the region has declined to a mere 4 percent — from 1.5 million in Iraq to 500,000 today, from a strong majority in Lebanon to a mere 34 percent. Sectarian violence has also threatened Coptic Christians in Egypt and Libya. If ISIS takes root in these countries, countless other minorities would be at risk as well.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has a significant minority population of Shi’ites, somewhere between 10 and 15 percent, who have faced persistent discrimination. The most recent case involves Ali al-Nimr, whom the Saudi authorities arrested four years ago when he was 16 for his participation in protests against anti-Shia discrimination. The Saudi government plans to behead him and then crucify the body as a warning to others. Who needs enemies with friends like these?

And then there’s Israel, which has done as much as possible to isolate Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and treat its Arab population as second-class citizens. The situation inside Israel has become so toxic that even Sayed Kashua — the most successful Palestinian writer in Israel — moved his family to Champaign, Illinois. A two-state solution that finally accords Palestinians their own functioning state is to be welcomed — but it’s also a sad recognition of the inability of Israelis and Arabs to live in a multiethnic society together.

Finally, with the fall of Kunduz to the Taliban this week, Afghanistan too is on the verge of following Iraq and Syria into a nation-state death spiral. A city of 300,000 people, Kunduz is the first urban area that the Taliban have seized since their defeat in 2001. If the Taliban retake power, expect the country to surpass Syria and once again become the world’s leading exporter of people, with minority populations suffering disproportionately.

A New Compact

Russia has already assembled a coalition with Iran, Iraq, and Syria to share intelligence for the purposes of battling ISIS. If the United States and Russia were to put aside their differences to pursue a political solution to the problems facing Syria in particular, it would go a long way toward achieving the consensus necessary to address what ails the Middle East. But it’s not enough.

The problem of the Middle East is not something that outsiders can fix. The essential problem involves the nature of the state.

The various state models on offer in the region are just not working. Authoritarian Arab nationalism, represented by Assad in Syria and al-Sisi in Egypt, is a human rights nightmare. The theocratic alternatives on display in Saudi Arabia and Iran are equally unpalatable, though at least some democratic procedures are in place in the latter. The sultanates of the Gulf States depend on cheap foreign labor and a caste system to keep the ruling families in place.

Israel, too, has created an apartheid system to keep itself afloat in a largely hostile environment. Lebanon’s confessional system has been paralyzed for years. Iraq was supposed to be the model that all post-9/11 countries in the region should follow, but it’s barely a state at all given the autonomy of the Kurds, the secession of ISIS, and the murderousness of the Shi’ite militias.

Turkey once offered great hope as a compromise between the religiously observant (the Justice and Development Party), the secular nationalists (Kemalists), and the minorities (particularly the Kurds). But that model has broken down because of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire for power.

Outsiders can’t impose a state system, as the colonial powers attempted to do after World War I or the Bush administration tried in Iraq after 2003. But they can help reduce the amount of violence in order to create space within which the critical discussions over what kind of state is appropriate can take place.

President Obama spoke once again at the UN about the importance of political solutions. Fine: Let’s stop focusing on the one (Assad) and refocus on the many (the refugees). Sit down with Russia, Iran, the EU, and others to work out a political solution in Syria that can stop the ongoing population transfer and avert an even greater tragedy.

World Beat, September 30, 2015

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Trump Takes on the World

It was 1972. The flamboyant rock star Alice Cooper, not quite a household name at that point in England, was booked to play London’s Wembley Stadium. Shortly before the concert date, only a couple hundred of the 7,000 available tickets had been sold.

Facing an epic failure, the redoubtable rock music promoter Shep Gordon emblazoned the side of a truck with a huge picture of Alice Cooper, naked except for a boa constrictor covering his genitals. As recounted in the recent documentary Supermensch, Gorden then instructed the driver of the truck to break down in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. Traffic was backed up for blocks. The press turned out to see what was going on. And so did the photographers.

The portrait of the unclad Cooper outraged British sensibility. The next day, newspapers were full of headlines and commentary about how degenerate American music was corrupting English culture.

Cooper immediately sold out his Wembley show.

Shep Gordon realized early on an important feature of celebrity culture. It’s long been true that all PR is good PR. But you also need to know your target audience. If parents denounce the demonic Alice Cooper, their children will surely rush out to buy tickets.

Donald Trump, the tone-deaf politician who acts as if he were a rock star, also knows his target audience.

Trump knows that if he sends mainstream politicians and establishment pundits and talking heads on TV into fits of pique, his target audience will only tighten their embrace of the rogue billionaire. The more that George Will and Megyn Kelly insinuate that the Donald is a political mayfly, destined for the briefest electoral lifespan, the more a certain segment of the voting population will rally around the self-proclaimed outsider as their preferred choice to lead the country.

After the first candidate debate, opinion polls among registered Republicans put Trump in a commanding lead over second-place Jeb Bush, 24 percent to 13 percent. Trump is also on top in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states.

What attracts voters to Donald Trump may well be his celebrity status and his genius at stoking the passions of his target demographic. What might well get them ultimately to cast a vote for the noxious tycoon, however, will be his stated policies and particularly his vision of the world. It’s worth, therefore, taking a look at Donald Trump’s foreign policy, even if the exercise seems somewhat ludicrous, like analyzing Kim Kardashian’s take on macroeconomics or Eminem’s analysis of abstract expressionism.

After all, even if Donald Trump does obey the general rule of mouthy outsiders and flame out, his take on the world may well insinuate its way into the platforms of his fellow Republican candidates for president. Indeed, on some issues, the Donald has already made his mark.

Mouth Not Memo

It’s tempting to see Donald Trump through the eyes of Key and Peele, the comic duo just wrapping up their final season on Comedy Central. In perhaps their most famous sketch, the preternaturally calm President Obama gives a speech alongside his anger translator. The president can’t give voice to his real feelings of rage — against the stupidity of his political opposition, the inanity of American racism — but his anger translator can vent freely.

Similarly, Donald Trump has emerged as the anger translator for the entire Republican cadre of presidential hopefuls. They’re concerned about gaffes and polls and focus groups. Trump seemingly couldn’t care less. He has eschewed memos — too bureaucratic-sounding — in favor of his mouth, which is connected directly to his gut rather than his brain.

As such, Trump has vented his anger at the “drug dealers, criminals, rapists” that Mexico is supposedly sending into the United States (if anything, increased immigration has decreasedcrime rates because immigrants are less likely than the native born to commit crimes). He’s slammed China for out-competing America economically (which hasn’t stopped him fromconcluding his own business deals with the country). He has railed against U.S. allies like Germany (for not leading more on the Ukraine conflict), South Korea (for not bearing more costs of U.S. military operations in Asia), and Saudi Arabia (for not giving America more of a quid pro quo for all the petrodollars it makes).

“Trump’s foreign policy agenda is a distillation of other GOP candidates’ platforms, but without a filter or appreciation for nuance,” concludes Alex Christensen. “His foreign policy as president would unpredictably put relations with U.S. allies on ice and be unlikely to produce détente with others.”

Trump’s foreign policy isn’t particularly detailed (he promises full policies in September). Where it is detailed, it’s often incoherent (his proposal to force Mexico to pay for a huge wall in the American southwest has made even conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin apoplectic). And where it’s not incoherent, it’s often contradictory (he hasn’t seemed to work out whether he’s a fan or a foe of Vladimir Putin). In a tribute to Trump’s “flexibility” in The Washington Post, David Fahrenthold counted up seven different versions of the candidate’s approach to the Islamic State.

It’s White People, Stupid

But none of that matters. We don’t watch reality TV to learn things. We’re drawn to the utter spectacle of it all.

And Trump is a spectacle, a very slow-motion car crash that the press and the public rubbernecks to ogle. He’s a renegade white guy, like the Michael Douglas character in the 1993 film Falling Down, who bemoans the multicultural direction America has taken. Trump is politically incorrect, which works intermittently for a comic like Bill Maher but should spell instant doom for a politician.

But political incorrectness can work for a guy like Trump because white men are the core constituency of the Republican Party.

Sure, the party can point to Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and even Spanish-speaking Jeb Bush as evidence of its newfound commitment to diversity. But don’t be taken in by this façade — Donald Trump hasn’t been. The consummate businessman, he’s run the numbers on the primary. He knows that 95 percent of self-identified Republican primary voters are white.

That’s Trump’s target demographic. That’s Trump’s trump card.

Pissing off women, Latinos, immigrants — that’s the political equivalent of pissing off the parents of Alice Cooper fans. Outrage sells tickets. And outrage will motivate Trump’s core constituency to put up yard signs and flock to the primary polls. It won’t, however, work in the general elections. The last time the white vote played a pivotal role in the presidential elections was 2004.

Of course, it’s been difficult for Trump to play anger translator for a Republican field full of irritable and often downright irate candidates. There’s Mike Huckabee saying that the nuclear deal with Iran is “marching [Israel] to the door of the oven.” There’s Ted Cruz calling undocumented immigrants a “clear and present danger to the health and safety of all Americans.” There’s Rick Santorum, who says that President Obama “rewards everything a country does to oppose and hurt the United States, hurt our economy, hurt our ability to protect ourselves.”

Also, Trump’s anger-fueled idiocy is contagious. His competitors have begun to echo his views, particularly on immigration. As the Post reports:

In Iowa, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also began to call for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, echoing a longtime Trump demand. Walker said the separation barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories is proof that the concept could work here.

Walker also seemed to echo Trump by questioning “birthright citizenship,” the constitutional provision that grants citizenship to anyone born in this country. After a reporter asked if birthright citizenship should be ended, Walker said: “I think that’s something we should — yeah, absolutely, going forward.”

Walker wants to reproduce the Arab-Israeli conflict in U.S.-Mexico relations? He wants to change a key provision of the constitution that’s made America a proud nation of immigrants? It’s one thing for Trump to spout nonsense, and quite another for a sitting governor to give those ideas the thinnest veneer of respectability.

Digging Deeper

What makes Trump particularly dangerous are his heterodox views. He’s not a cookie-cutter conservative. Sure, he is (newly) anti-abortion, pro-Wall Street, anti-Obamacare, and pro-family (except those of the undocumented). And he courts the lunatic fringe by refusing to give up on his “birther” beliefs.

But Trump has also staked out some truly populist positions. He’s come out squarely against free trade deals and wants to get American companies to stop outsourcing their manufacturing. He’s supported a wealth tax on the richest individuals to help pay for Social Security (though it’s unclear whether he still supports his earlier proposal). He wants to rebuild American infrastructure. He complained about the undue influence of corporate lobbyists in a recent Meet the Press interview.

Trump is also wary of military interventions. He emphasizes his opposition to the Iraq war. He’s lukewarm about NATO. He doesn’t want to get into a conflict with Russia. He confided to Maureen Dowd that he can make deals with anyone, from Putin to Kim Jong Un.

But he’s not an anti-militarist by nature, as demonstrated by his vacillating position on the Islamic State — which has involved, at various times, bombing, the seizure of oil fields in Iraq, and the introduction of ground troops. Trump can be just as gung ho about intervention as the next Republican if he thinks it’s what the public wants.

Alert to public desires, Trump is all persona and no substance, and all we can do is marvel at the chutzpah of his playacting. It’s amazing that a billionaire CEO can palm himself off as a friend of the working class. It’s amazing that a consummate insider can pretend to be an authentic political outsider. It’s amazing that a guy who never fought in a war can bad-mouth former POW John McCain and not suffer any remorse or repercussions.

Put crudely, Donald Trump is the closest thing the United States currently has to an authentic European-style fascist. He’s stirred together not-so-veiled racism, crude economic populism, and male bravado into a powerful snake oil. Throw in a bit of recycled Reaganism — “make America great again!” — and you get a garbled version of good old American triumphalism. Say that last bit 10 times fast, and it comes out: Trumpism.

Given the demographics of the Republican Party these days, this Trumpism can triumph in the primaries. It can push the Republican Party to further extremes of lunacy. But unless people of conscience sit on their hands in November 2016, it won’t put Trump in the White House.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, August 19, 2015

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The Kurdish Elephant

Let’s mix some metaphors in the Middle East, all of them involving elephants.

In the crisis zone that encompasses Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, the Kurds are the elephant in the room. They are the “problem” that no one really wants to talk about.

Because it would be stitched together from bits and pieces of their territory, the countries of the region oppose an independent Kurdistan. Outside actors, meanwhile, feel varying degrees of guilt for abandoning Kurds over the years: for not paying attention to human rights abuses visited on the minority, for ignoring the promises of self-determination (going back to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points), and for using the Kurds as pawns in myriad geopolitical games. Sovereign sensitivities and outsider guilt combine to drape a cloak of invisibility over the Kurds.

But the Kurdish problem is another kind of elephant as well — the one that the blind analysts grope and thereafter provide conflicting reports on what they’ve found.

For some observers, the Kurdish elephant is all tusk: a violent, thrusting animal that endangers all within its orbit. For other observers, the Kurds are a large flank that is strong and reliable. And for still others, the Kurds are nothing but a slender tail: sensitive, an easily victimized afterthought.

When we mix these two metaphors, we come up with a picture of the Kurds as a large, often ignored, and frequently misinterpreted creature — and all the other beasts of the jungle are either willfully or genetically blind. What could be more ridiculous than the blind leading the invisible?

This is a bad combination even in peaceful times. But it’s especially vexing right now, when the Kurds are at the very center of the most urgent issues facing the Middle East: the rise of the Islamic State, the ongoing fragility of Iraq, the disintegration of Syria, the negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran, and the democratic future of Turkey.

This urgency went up a notch in the last week. The Obama administration has just teamed up with Turkey to declare a “safe zone” on the border with Syria — and right between territories that Kurdish militias have occupied. This announcement comes only a few days after Ankara broke a two-year ceasefire and bombed Kurdish positions in Iraq (and possibly Syria as well).

Which brings us to our third elephantine metaphor. When the pachyderms of the region are fighting — the United States, Turkey, Syria — it’s not just the grass that must be careful. So must the Kurdish elephant: tusks, flank, tail and all.

Kurds and the Nuclear Deal

The 30 million Kurds dispersed around the Middle East maintain that they’re the largest ethnic minority in the world without a sovereign state to call their own.

But in the northern part of Iraq, Kurds have a near-country that controls its own educational system, deploys its own army, and conducts its own foreign policy. It has its own national flag and national anthem. But it doesn’t have full say over its economy — it must share oil revenue with the central government in Baghdad. It doesn’t have its own currency. And it doesn’t have a seat in the UN. But it’s the closest the Kurds have come to an autonomous existence since 1946, when the Kurds created a state for 10 months centered around the Iranian city of Mahabad.

You might think that this rump Kurdistan — officially known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — would have a terrible relationship with Iran. After all, Iran has persecuted its Kurdish minority for decades. And Tehran, a major backer of the central government in Baghdad, is deeply worried about the breakdown of the Iraqi state and the ceding of greater autonomy to the KRG.

And yet, Iran is the second leading trading partner of the KRG. As such, the recently concluded nuclear deal could be a major windfall for the Kurds of Iraq. According to Al-Jazeera:

As a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is expected to prompt the removal of some of the economic sanctions on Iran, Kurds might be poised to reap the fruits of an Iranian economic boom. “Iranian economic influence will bring with it increased prospects for economic growth and investments,” said Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute, a largely KRG-funded think-tank in Erbil.

Of course, high levels of trade do not a love fest make. Some Iranian Kurds still dream of reviving their short-lived, post-World War II state. Various politico-military formations are making plans in exile in the mountains of Qandil and KRG cities like Sulaymaniyah under slogans such as “democracy for Iran, autonomy for Kurdistan.” And Iran worries that the discord in Iraq among regions, confessions, and ethnicities can spread like a disease across borders.

Turkey has made a similarly pragmatic accommodation with Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s the KRG’s leading trade partner — primarily as a result of linking the Kurdish oil pipeline to its own Ceyhan line and allowing the KRG to deposit its oil revenues into a Kurdish bank in Turkey.

But that hasn’t prevented Turkey from going after the Kurds either, as the recent bombings indicate.

Turkey and the PKK

Turkey and its Kurdish population have long had a vexed relationship.

A quasi-Marxist liberation movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), emerged in Turkey in the late 1970s. It challenged Turkey’s right-wing authoritarian government and its identity as a unitary entity. The government’s attacks on the PKK, combined with its assault on leftist critics, produced a “dirty war” that lasted for nearly two decades and left tens of thousands dead.

The rise of the Justice and Development Party changed the dynamic in Turkey. As I wrote recently:

The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, generally took a more relaxed attitude toward ethnic minorities. The cultural and even political expression of Kurdish identity, for instance, became more acceptable with the development of Kurdish-language TV shows and college programs. The AKP’s embrace of a mild multiculturalism, as well its push for greater tolerance for the expression of religious identity, gained it support in those early years from various minority groups.

Ankara negotiated a ceasefire with the PKK two years ago. But it was increasingly difficult to maintain that agreement in the murky politics of Iraq and Syria, where PKK fighters have set up shop. The main Syrian Kurdish party and militia — the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and the Popular Protection Units (YPG) — are affiliated with the PKK. They have accused Ankara of supporting the Islamic State against the Assad regime (and against Kurdish militants). Last week, the PKK killed two Turkish policemen in retaliation for an Islamic State massacre in the predominantly Kurdish town of Suruc in Syria.

Turkey’s sudden decision to work with the United States on a “safe area” just across its border in Syria is thus the result of various calculations involving not just the Islamic State — and its potential to mount attacks in Turkey — but also the Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria, and the Kurdish minority within Turkey.

In the most recent Turkish election, the ruling AKP had its worst showing in more than a decade, thanks largely to the party representing the Kurds, the People’s Democracy Party (HDP). So slim was its margin of victory — and so divided are Turkish politics at the moment — that the AKP has not been able to form a government. It’s hard not to see the turnaround in Turkish foreign policy as a direct response to the AKP’s domestic political headaches.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for instance, has not simply blasted the PKK but all Kurdish politicians.

“Executives of this party should pay,” Erdogan said this week, referring to the HDP. “The Turkish state has the power to make so-called politicians [and] so-called intellectuals pay for the blood of its martyrs.” The president has gone so far as to demand the lifting of parliamentary immunity, presumably so that the state can prosecute HDP representatives. The head of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, accused Erdogan not only of dragging Turkey into a region-wide war but of using the conflict as an excuse to consolidate the AKP’s power through a “civic coup.” He has also offered to voluntarily lift the immunity of HDP MPs as long as the AKP does likewise.

The United States has been so eager to fly bombing missions out of Turkish bases that it’s chosen to ignore how its collusion with Ankara supports this disturbing trend in Turkish politics.

The Kurds in Syria

The Obama administration hasn’t been particularly enthusiastic about the forces arrayed against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Indeed, its lack of enthusiasm for the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, and the Army of Conquest has prompted a re-examination of its commitment to ousting Assad as a precondition to any political settlement. If Assad leaves, who will take over? It’s not as if the U.S. efforts at creating a reliably moderate counter-insurgency force have been going swimmingly. Promising over 5,000 recruits, Washington has managed about 1 percent of that amount: a mere 60 trained fighters to reinsert into the conflict.

The one force the Obama administration has consistently relied on in Syria has been the Kurds. The YPG has received military equipment and benefited from U.S. air support in its attacks on the Islamic State and its efforts to consolidate its control over Kurdish majority regions bordering Turkey. The 50,000-strong militia, which recently seized Tal Abyad from ISIS, seems to be on a roll and is “now poised to control the vast majority of Syria’s border with Turkey.”

But it’s precisely that success that worries Turkey. According to The New York Times:

The deal between the United States and Turkey, as described by the American officials, would implicitly freeze the YPG from making inroads into the border area near Aleppo. And on Monday, YPG fighters accused Turkey of going further, saying that its militia forces had been attacked by Turkish strikes in an area they had just managed to take from the Islamic State.

Say what? The Obama administration acknowledges that it is effectively tying the hands of its most effective proxy in Syria? I don’t read this as evidence that the United States is covertly backing the Islamic State as a cat’s paw against Assad (a favorite of conspiracy theorists). But I do question the wisdom of the Obama administration thinking that it can somehow manipulate actors in the region to achieve its intended results. It’s Washington that’s being gamed here.

One Iraq?

The Islamic State’s victories in Iraq have enabled Kurds in their near-state in the north to achieve even more de facto autonomy. The retreat of the Iraqi army before the ISIS onslaught allowed Kurdish forces to acquire more territory, including the previously contested Kirkuk (and the oil fields surrounding it).

The question is whether Iraqi Kurdistan wants to make this autonomy complete and de jure. In July last year, the Kurdish leadership instructed the KRG parliament to prepare a referendum of autonomy. This would seem an unambiguous indication of Kurdish intentions. But it also might be just a chess move in the game of wresting more powers from Baghdad. After all, no one in the region — and more importantly virtually no one in Washington — supports an independent Kurdistan.

As Dexter Filkins wrote in The New Yorker last year:

Obama has spoken carefully in public, but it is plain that the Administration wants the Kurds to do two potentially incompatible things. The first is to serve as a crucial ally in the campaign to destroy ISIS, with all the military funding and equipment that such a role entails. The second is to resist seceding from the Iraqi state.

But the Kurds are willing to play the long game. They know that they represent, particularly in the eyes of the United States, a bulwark against the Islamic State, against religious extremism, and against the enveloping chaos of the region. They are not only good fighters but good pragmatists as well. The KRG has managed to maintain good relations with Iran, with Turkey, and even (more or less) with Baghdad.

This then is the paradox for the Kurdish elephant. The more chaotic things get in the Middle East, the more power and territory Kurds can control. But the more power and territory they control, the greater the fear in Tehran, Ankara, and Baghdad that the Kurds will create greater Kurdistan.

Let’s mix metaphors one last time. The Obama administration must start acknowledging and addressing the elephant in the room: Kurds and their aspirations for a state. It must recognize that the elephant has many different aspects: the PKK and YPG tusks, the solid flank of the KRG, and the vulnerable tail of the Kurdish minorities in Iran and Turkey. And it must resist the temptation to pound the ground and smash heads with its adversaries in the region, for both the United States and the Kurds may well suffer adverse consequences.

Elephants are extremely smart creatures with legendary memories. Treating them like pawns, instead of the much more powerful rooks that they are, is a very risky proposition.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 29, 2015

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The Islamic State and the Terrible Twos

The Islamic State celebrated its one-year anniversary in customary fashion. Other organizations might sponsor parades and make speeches. ISIS spilled blood.

A beheading in France, the murder of 38 tourists at a resort in Tunisia, and a bomb blast at a mosque in Kuwait all reminded the world, if it had somehow forgotten, that ISIS isn’t merely interested in securing sovereignty over a particular stretch of territory. It has much grander ambitions.

At the moment, it doesn’t have the means to take on the world or take over even a single country. But that could change.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, analyst Stephen Walt writes that the international community should basically learn to live with the Islamic State if it “becomes a real state and demonstrates real staying power.” Other brutal proto-states in history — colonial America, marauding Brits — eventually settled down and acted like more-or-less responsible international actors, he points out. The IRA in Northern Ireland and the ANC in South Africa have channeled their more violent tendencies into the more mundane tasks of statecraft. So, why not expect the Islamic State to do the same?

Walt, usually quite astute, is wrong on this occasion. ISIS isn’t like previous proto-states or liberation movements. It’s a fundamentally different creature. I share Walt’s skepticism about the U.S. ability to “degrade and destroy” the entity, as President Obama proposes. But devising an effective strategy for countering the Islamic State requires a clear-eyed understanding of why this apparently medieval phenomenon is in fact a very new and very dangerous development.

What ISIS Wants

Most modern liberation movements have very traditional perspectives on the international system. They want to seize the machinery of the state, assert sovereignty over a particular patch of territory, and then sit in the UN General Assembly alongside other nations. In this sense, movements of stateless peoples like the Kurds or the Karen have the same aspirations as rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army or the FARC in Colombia.

Walt’s arguments certainly apply to these groups. No matter how violently they pursue their goals, they generally sober up when tasked with administering a state. They’re like volatile and unpredictable young men who suddenly must assume the mantle of fatherhood and become responsible adults. They put away childish things and start taking care of their children.

Liberation movements want a place at the table. The Islamic State, on the other hand, wants to destroy the table.

The Islamic State isn’t simply an insurgency. Though it certainly aspires to overthrow the current regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, it doesn’t have any particular attachment to this territory. If there had been the requisite chaos and a critical mass of committed fighters, it would have declared a caliphate in Yemen or Egypt or Somalia. It maintains a warm spot in its cold heart for the holy sites in Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, it doesn’t care about national boundaries. It has a 100-year plan for taking over the world and imposing its own version of Islamic orthodoxy.

ISIS has already established a state apparatus in the territory it has carved out of Syria and Iraq. But the mechanisms of the state only interest it to the degree that it must raise revenue, impose hierarchical control, and regulate social affairs. It has not created a state in order to participate in inter-state affairs. It has no interest in diplomacy. Despite its name, it’s not a state like other states.

Think of ISIS as a computer virus. It aspires to infect computers and websites wherever code is vulnerable and bring the entire system crashing down. The machete-wielding militants of ISIS are hackers in more ways than one.

ISIS Versus Iran

In an interesting way, Walt’s misunderstanding intersects with the hyperbole of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. As the negotiations on a nuclear agreement with Iran approach their deadline, which was recently moved to July 7, the Israeli government continues to try to disrupt the proceedings in an effort to keep Iran internationally isolated. A recent tweet from the prime minister’s account argued that: “The Islamic State of Iran — like ISIS. Just much bigger.”

Israel might dislike Iran as much as it dislikes the Islamic State. Perhaps Netanyahu sees Iran as a greater existential risk than the would-be caliphate. But the two are not at all identical. For one thing, ISIS has laid out a very specific plan for taking over Iran and seizing its nuclear program, according to a manifesto that the Iraqi army captured in the fall. Iran is particularly worried about the Sunni radicals operating in areas close to Iranian territory.

More importantly, Iran and ISIS are fundamentally different creatures. Iran is a state that engages in diplomacy, trade, and the expansion of soft power, all things that ISIS disdains. Iran is the perfect example of a revolutionary religious movement that has adjusted to life in the international community. Iran hopes that a nuclear agreement will function like an invitation back into the international community. ISIS looks at the example of Iran and shudders.

Saudi Arabia, interestingly, shares the same warped perspective as Israel. The Saudis are so fixated on the threat of Shia Iran that they’re blind to the far more immediate challenge of their Sunni co-religionists in ISIS. But Salafist chickens are just as prone to come home to roost as their haram cousins.

The Years Ahead

We may well look back at the first year of the Islamic State and wax nostalgic about how comparatively placid it was. Sure, it kept us up at night with all its crying and demands for attention. It certainly experienced a rather dramatic growth spurt. And it continued to resist potty training.

But brace yourself for the terrible twos. That’s when an infant organization becomes truly defiant.

The Obama administration, along with its allies in the region like the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army, thought that the coordinated air campaign had knocked the stuffing out of ISIS. As journalist Patrick Cockburn explains, the bombings

began last August in Iraq and were extended to Syria in October, with U.S. officials recently claiming that 4,000 air strikes had killed 10,000 ISIS fighters. Certainly, the air campaign has inflicted heavy losses on ISIS, but it has made up for these casualties by conscripting recruits within the self-declared caliphate, an area the size of Great Britain with a population of five or six million.

Most recently, ISIS demonstrated the inadequacy of bombing campaign by seizing Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. It clearly has the capacity to fight and win on two fronts.

My fear is not so much that ISIS will topple the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. It faces considerable resistance, both confessional and nationalist, in these two countries. A more serious concern would be ISIS taking root in Sunni-majority countries where Salafist teachings already have currency.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, ISIS suicide bombers have already targeted the Shi’ite minority. ISIS militants attacked a Saudi post along the border with Iraq back in January, and many supporters are lurking throughout the conservative society. In Libya, meanwhile, ISIS seized two oil fields a few months back and paraded through the streets of Sirte. The turmoil in that country offers an enormous opportunity to a ruthless few.

But the real threat from ISIS is not territorial but ideological. Fighters are flocking to the fledgling caliphate because they are attracted to the notion that violence and bloodshed can create a space of totalitarian homogeneity. It’s not simply the attraction of a particular religious interpretation. ISIS offers a counter-narrative to the particularism of nationalism and what it argues is the emptiness of godless globalization. The society that the caliphate has created is multiethnic, transnational, and fully conversant in the latest technology. And yet it also offers a very specific, historically grounded identity.

As such, recruits can have their Twitter account and their seventh-century religious convictions. In some ways, it’s an unbeatable combo. It’s the Lexus and the olive tree. It’s jihad and McWorld.

Walt argues that all revolutionary movements that aspire to take over the world eventually fall back onto building “socialism in one country,” as Stalin eventually settled for. Perhaps, too, ISIS will give up its dream of a global caliphate and settle down to cultivate its own oasis of sharia law. Walt recommends the Cold War strategy of containment to restrict the growth of ISIS and indirectly encourage it to mind its own business.

But ISIS was never about building a state. It is a movement composed of high priests and low brigands. Neither of these actors is interested in setting up a pension system or a civil service. They are interested in the propagation of ideas and the accumulation of power. Despite its insistence, we should not think of ISIS as a state or a movement that will one day act like a state. States are part of the world that ISIS rejects.

By all means, the international community should try to contain ISIS. But it’s the idea of the Islamic State that needs countering. That can best be done by Islamic movements and organizations that are woven into the very fabric of modern society. They offer both a particular identity and a way of interacting with the institutions of the modern state. The best response to the divisiveness of ISIS is the inclusiveness of multiculturalism. Sponsoring Muhammad cartoon contests, protesting mosque construction, deriding the cornerstones of mainstream Islam — such exercises in Islamophobia are probably more effective than ISIS manifestos in recruiting future militants.

If we continue to think about ISIS as a force to be fought on the battlefield or a state like any other state, the caliphate will only grow stronger, buoyed by its freshman successes. We have to beat ISIS in the battle of ideas. Or else its sophomore year will be a much bloodier and more terrible sequel.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 1, 2015