Chas Freeman: Engaging the Middle East — after the Cairo speech

By Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.), Tufts University, October 15, 2010

As an American, I look at the results of U.S. policies in the Middle East and they remind me of the T-shirt someone once gave me. It said: “Sinatra is dead. Elvis is dead. And me, I don’t feel so good.”

The Middle East is a constant reminder that a clear conscience is usually a sign of either a faulty memory or a severe case of arrogant amorality. It is not a badge of innocence. These days, we meticulously tally our own battlefield dead; we do not count the numbers of foreigners who perish at our hands or those of our allies. Yet each death is a tragedy that extinguishes one soul and wounds others. This deserves our grief. If we cannot feel it, we may justly be charged with inhumanity.

All that is required to be hated is to do hateful things. Apparent indifference to the pain and humiliation one has inflicted further outrages its victims, their families, and their friends. As the Golden Rule, common – in one form or another – to all religions, implicitly warns, moral blindness is contagious. That is why warring parties engaged in tit for tat come in time to resemble each other rather than to sharpen their differences.

War is in fact not the spectator sport that the fans who watch it on television or on big screens in theaters imagine. Nor is it the “cakewalk” that its armchair advocates sometimes suggest it might be. War is traumatic for all its participants. Recent experience suggests that 30 percent of troops develop serious mental health problems that dog them after they leave the battlefield. But what of the peoples soldiers seek to punish or pacify? To understand the hatreds war unleashes and its lasting psychological and political consequences, one has only to translate foreign casualty figures into terms we Americans can relate to. You can do this by imagining that the same percentages of Americans might die or suffer injury as foreigners have. Then think about the impact that level of physical and moral insult would have on us.

Consider, for example, the two sides of the Israel-Palestine struggle. So far in this century – since September 29, 2000, when Ariel Sharon marched into the Al Aqsa mosque and ignited the Intifada of that name, about 850 Israeli Jews have died at the hands of Palestinians, 125 or so of them children. That’s equivalent to 45,000 dead Americans, including about 6,800 children. It’s a level of mayhem we Americans cannot begin to understand. But, over the same period, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed 6,600 or so Palestinians, at least 1,315 of whom were children. In American terms, that’s equivalent to 460,000 U.S. dead, including 95,000 children.

Meanwhile, the American equivalent of almost 500,000 Israelis and 2.9 million Palestinians have been injured. To put it mildly, the human experiences these figures enumerate are not conducive to peace or goodwill among men and women in the Holy Land or anywhere with emotional ties to them.

We all know that events in the Holy Land have an impact far beyond it. American sympathy for Israel and kinship with Jewish settlers assure that Jewish deaths there arouse anti-Arab and anti-Muslim passions here, even as the toll on Palestinians is seldom, if ever, mentioned. But, among the world’s 340 million Arabs and 1.6 billion Muslims, all eyes are on the resistance of Palestinians to continuing ethnic cleansing and the American subsidies and political support for Israel that facilitates their suffering. The chief planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, testified under oath that a primary purpose of that criminal assault on the United States was to focus “the American people . . . on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people . . . .” The occupation and attempted pacification of other Muslim lands like Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the shocking hate speech about Islam that now pervades American politics lend credence to widening Muslim belief in a U.S. crusade against Islam and its believers.

No one knows how many Iraqis have died as a direct or indirect consequence of the U.S. invasion and the anarchy that followed it. Estimates range between a low of something over 100,000 to a high of well over 1 million. Translated to comparable proportions in the United States, that equates to somewhere between 1 and 13 million dead Americans. Over two-and-a-quarter million Iraqis fled to neighboring countries to escape this bloodbath. An equal number found shelter inside Iraq. Few Iraqis have been able to go back to Iraq or to return to their homes. In our terms, that equals an apparently permanent flight to Canada and Mexico of 24 million Americans, with another 24 million driven into homelessness but, years later, still somewhere inside the country. I think you will agree that, had this kind of thing happened to Americans, religious scruples would not deter many of us from seeking revenge and reprisal against whoever had done it to us.

The numbers in Afghanistan aren’t quite as frightful but they make the same point. We’re accumulating a critical mass of enemies with personal as well as religious and nationalistic reasons to seek retribution against us. As our violence against foreign civilians has escalated, our enemies have multiplied. The logic of this progression is best understood anecdotally.

I am grateful to Bruce Fein (a noted constitutional scholar in Washington, DC) for calling attention to the colloquy of convicted Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad with United States District Judge Miriam Cederbaum. She challenged Shahzad’s self-description as a ‘Muslim soldier’ because his contemplated violence targeted civilians,

“Did you look around to see who they were?”

“Well, the people select the government,” Shahzad retorted. “We consider them all the same. The drones, when they hit …”

Cedarbaum interrupted: “Including the children?”

Shahzad countered: “Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war, and in war, they kill people. They’re killing all Muslims.”

Later, he added: “I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people. And, on behalf of that, I’m avenging the attack. Living in the United States, Americans only care about their own people, but they don’t care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die.”

No amount of public diplomacy, no matter how cleverly conducted, can prevail over the bitterness of personal and collective experience. The only way to reverse trends supporting anti-American violence by the aggrieved is to reverse the policies that feed it. That means finding alternatives to military intervention as the principal instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and it means returning to the American tradition of respect for the sovereignty and ways of life of other nations.

That perspective was best stated by John Quincy Adams in his speech to the U.S. House of Representatives of July 4, 1821. Adams said, with pride, that: “America . . . has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, [even] when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart . . . She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” In my view, Adams was right in both his prescription and his prognosis.

We are now a nation with unmatched military capabilities. Perhaps that is why we are the only country in the world to have proclaimed that our conflict with terrorists is a “war,” or to have dismissed civilian victims of our violence as “collateral damage.” Other nations have joined us in Afghanistan to demonstrate their solidarity with us, not because they see the piecemeal pacification of the Muslim world as the answer to the extremist non-state actors in its midst. It is not simply that terrorism is a tactic, not a cause against which one can wage war. Weapons are indeed tools with which to change men’s minds, but to do this they must be employed with care, otherwise they can entrench animosity and justify reprisal against the nation that wields them. No other people has so powerful a military establishment that it could even begin to persuade itself, as many Americans have, that guns can cure grudges or missiles erase militancy.

If you view the world through a bombsight, everything looks like a target. Yet the lesson of 9/11 is that if you drop bombs on enough people – even on people with no air force – the most offended amongst them will do their best to bomb you back. Security challenges far from our shores now challenge domestic tranquility. The lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that there are some problems for which invasion and occupation are not appropriate or effective responses. Far from demonstrating the irresistible might of the United States, as their neo-conservative champions intended, these wars have revealed the considerable limits of American power. Over-reliance on military instruments of statecraft has become a major problem for us. It is one we need to address.

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  1. “The chief planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, testified under oath that a primary purpose of that criminal assault on the United States was to focus “the American people . . . on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people . . . .”

    Check architets for 9/11 truth. They have analysed the footage of the collapse of the north tower. The footage clearly shows detanation charges. They scientificly explain the collapse and concluded that the official story is incomplete to say the leat and a total LIE.
    To base an article igoring that 9/11 official story does not fit with the observed/filmed sequence of events is a mistake.

    “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, testified under oath ” HE WAS TORTURED!!!!!!!! BY THE USA!!!!! BY THE OFFICIAL TELLING US THAT THE TOWERS, WTC1,2 & 7 PANKED ALL THE WAY DOWN.

    The official story is a LIE. I’m not a ‘truther’ or a member of any american cult like crap. Watch the collapse of WTC7!!!
    And I dare here and forever the Pentagon to show us the footage of a 757 hiting the building. Why don’t they make the footage available? What are they hiding? Why they haven’t explain what an E4-B plane was doing flying over washington on that day?
    A bunch of cave men with boxcutters and a computar in a cave in Afegahnistan did not make NORAD stood still for over 45 min.

  2. Ian Arbuckle says

    This speech though eloquent boils down to:

    “The only way to reverse trends supporting anti-American violence by the aggrieved is to reverse the policies that feed it. That means finding alternatives to military intervention as the principal instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and it means returning to the American tradition of respect for the sovereignty and ways of life of other nations..”

    I don’t think Ambassador Chas has quite understood the motor of the war machine and ignores the fuel that drives it. Yes, of course the ignorance and prejudice of the masses have been harnessed and honed however at the core is the vile little engine of capitalist profiteers and self serving elitists, as always in history. The “lesson of 9-11” has nothing to do with the angered Muslim extremists. Where does he get that idea from? Does he believe the conspiracy theory scenario cobbled together with destroyed or fabricated evidence, and whitewashed with a “9-11 Commission report” so full of holes? Does he expect me to accept that line of thinking?

    9-11 was an elaborately orchestrated pump primer, a required piece of the “New American Century”, another milestone towards the ultimate New World Order. It was the prime starter of the new improved reciprocating engine of endless and pointless war, and the justification for Orwellian controls being imposed around the world, but which were envisaged and composed far earlier. All this, The War on Terror, was just to serve the real and material benefit of a dastardly few who continue today to stoke the fires of hell and play two ends to the middle.

    Illegal wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Shock and Aw; war crimes of Fallujah; use of and graphic portrayal of torture at Abu Ghraib ; the injustices and humiliations of Guantanamo; were they not all designed provocation? They were certainly no accidents or just breakdown of moral or legal underpinning or a temporary abortion in the chain of command. These were all deliberate steps to ensure that an enemy could be fostered and found, or at least portrayed, “the enemy”; a necessary commodity to exploit trillions of expenditure to fight a phantom which never realy existed. So now they have some examples of “real” terrorists, with exploding underpants or a car-bomb in NY, wired with less technical acumen than that of a 5th grade high school shop student. Pathetic, they must be joking to think I believe that this is the enemy!

    To identify the cause, and effect the changes needed to abate the “over-reliance on military instruments of statecraft”, Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. should rather look within the machine itself and find a way to pinch the fuel line that runs through a money dominated domestic political party system and a corrupt House and Congress that together make war and disaster capitalism just another profit opportunity for the few in US Inc. while causing suffering to far too many. Dismantle the military industrial complex, which is so profitable.

  3. Why not form a “WE” org. and start addressing it as Mr. Freemans suggests.

    Tempest fugit!.

  4. After reading what Mr Freeman wrote, I find myself thinking that this is an enigma state of mind we are living in today., at least in the U.S.A. In the process of looking the other way, we have allowed the few to make decisions for the many, to the extent that now, because so many have been public figures, that fancy themselves Napoleons, have all the answers, but in reality, are just convoluted in the sense that not even they themselves quite understand. What good, comes from all the exposures brought to the front today? This mad dash that’s taking place in the U.S.A., the one of “who can sell out the country to the highest bidder” at the expense of the vast majority, doesn’t seem to be abating, but is feeding upon itself in a frenzy, of greed, corruption, disregard for what’s right & wrong. It’s as if the World’s leaders have gone mad, trying to be the one who will end mankind first, which will surly come soon enough. Out of the ash’s, will rise again “what”? What will be left for what rises, to nourish itself? All these Napoleons, among whom, one will use the Nuclear bomb, will cause the demise of what we know of today. How ignorant the leaders have become, letting the few govern in such fashion. If there is a GOD, then is this his way of watching mankind destroy what he gave, or is this really just a fluke?

  5. Tony Litwinko says

    It’s a real shame that Chas Freeman was driven out of the nomination to head the National Intelligence Council early on in President Obama’s term. You can thank fear of the Neocons and the Israeli Lobby for that. Nonetheless, the man speaks truth and understands the sources of retaliatory terrorism (as opposed to state terrorism). I have often used these numerical analogies in talks about the Iraqi refugees and internally displaced Iraqis in our illegal war in Iraq. Freeman goes one step further and makes the analogies to the conflict in Palestine. The War on Terror, however, has now become big business, and like the war on drugs, those making profits from the war on terror–like all bureaucrats–find that it is more in their interest to perpetuate the source of their income than to take steps to put themselves out of business. Welcome to the 21rst century.

  6. I wish Ambassador Freeman had taken this thought to its necessary conclusion — “Other nations have joined us in Afghanistan to demonstrate their solidarity with us, not because they see the piecemeal pacification of the Muslim world as the answer to the extremist non-state actors in its midst.”
    The majority of the people in these other nations are against, and have always been against, participating in these specifically American adventures. Only the political hacks in power benefit from ‘demonstrating their solidarity’ and only for the kickbacks and future payments they expect to get. America’s policies have not only corrupted itself, they have corrupted everyone who has come into contact with them.

  7. The sad thing for me is “no one cares”. I read comments on the net but, in my daily life, I meet no one who cares. In fact to even attempt to discuss the issues is met with thinly veiled hostility. Whatever it is we get, we deserve.

  8. delia ruhe says

    This guy is so devastatingly intelligent that it’s no wonder the Zionist lobby is terrified of him. I don’t know where he finds the energy to just keep plugging away. Personally, I think it’s hopeless. Empires in steep decline never do the smart thing. Americans will spend their last dollar on a war. And that also goes for idiot allies, such as Britain and Canada.

    He writes: “The only way to reverse trends supporting anti-American violence by the aggrieved is to reverse the policies that feed it. That means finding alternatives to military intervention as the principal instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and it means returning to the American tradition of respect for the sovereignty and ways of life of other nations.”

    Fat chance of Americans ever giving up their “aggression first” policy. Where would the decaying economy be without continuing arms production and more wars? Americans could care less about how many people they slaughter, but they’re not much more concerned about those Americans who get slaughtered in the process.

  9. Gunter Scherrer says

    Zeke – You pointed your finger in the right direction!

  10. Zeke wrote — ‘The sad thing for me is “no one cares”. I read comments on the net but, in my daily life, I meet no one who cares. In fact to even attempt to discuss the issues is met with thinly veiled hostility.’

    Well said — You are right. Most people don’t give a s___t, and just go for ‘the party line’ because it’s easy, or subconsciously, they hold racist, prejudiced views anyway, so probably simply prefer to think , “those towel head camel jockeys probably deserve it anyway. They may not be as bad as the press say — but, they must have done something wrong”.

    I meet these kinds of atttiudes all the time once I skim the surface it’s scary and alienating, and I am not a Muslim. So how do Muslims feel ?

    Here’s a good video on the situation from Professor Sheehan, an Arab American academic —

    And another…

    Planet of the Arabs :

  11. David Marchesi says

    It is probably enough to note that the US dollar, regarded as the motor of the world, is imprinted “In God We Trust” – here we see crass materialism cloaked with pseudo-religion, and these chimera drive US policies towards the rest of the world. The greatest ignominy of all both in the US and among its hangers-on in Europe etc (let’s re-arm Japan !) is the complicity of the vast majority of the “intelligentsia” and self-appointed moral leaders (rabbis,churchmen,philosophers, journalists etc) in cloaking the killings of mostly non-white people by “our boys” as a great crusade of Good vs Evil.Even Greenspan acknowledged the rapacious origin of the Iraq invasion, and perhaps the one hope is that a majority of “ordinary Americans” will eventually learn to counter the propaganda of the Establishment. Chomsky has written extensively on this issue ,viz. the “uneducated” in the US are/were less indoctrinated than the “educated”, who accept wars of aggression as good, inevitable – a cruel necessity, liberals often suggest- and “winnable”. I find it hard to believe that ordinary Americans are as bloodthirsty,heartless or indifferent as their rulers would seem to take for granted, but have to note Zeke’s comment.

    Freeman wonderfully points to the individual aspect of our killings – wonderfully, because virtually no major commentator refers to the horror of this . Yet, from the time of Albright’s comment , before the latest invasion of Iraq, that the deaths of 100,000’s of Iraqi children was a “price worth paying”,Iraqis/ Afghanis (today’s “gooks”) have been regarded as a sub-human lot , like anyone who stands in the way of the Almighty dollar.Finally, the rampant militarisation of the US will bring its pay-off in many thousands of severely-damaged psych cases, especially evident, I would guess, among enlisted men/ women.

  12. In relation to the Middle East, remembering and heeding of Camus’ experiences and observations in Algeria is surely very relevant here —

    “Camus looks back on his childhood, he often returns to the atmosphere that prevailed in Algeria at the time when the novel was written. We lived, he says, cheek by jowl with this “so close and yet so foreign people”. With their “hard, impenetrable faces” and sheer numbers, the Arabs constituted “an invisible threat that we could feel in the air”.[8] The natives’ stares and muffled murmurs reminded European Algerians that they were temporary strangers in the country and that they had made themselves masters at the cost of Arab blood. It would not be long before Algeria’s population would be forced to leave the beaches only to bathe in each other’s blood.

    Early May 1945 saw the first steps towards open warfare. In the midst of the French celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany, Algerian nationalists took the opportunity to remind them that Algeria also had the right to liberty and independence. They defied the ban on symbols of Algerian independence and refused to give way to police threats. Bloody confrontations followed: after some 100 European civilians had been found dead, the French embarked on a senseless massacre. Tens of thousands of Arabs were killed and the prisons were filled with suspected nationalists. Camus took up his pen and wrote a number of articles demanding justice for the Arab people. He argued that radical reforms were needed to reduce the disparities between European and native Algerians. No civilization could survive when “dignity” had been sidelined for a large proportion of the population. The French had to realize that the country’s Arab and Berber population were a “sister people” and that together they should lay the foundations for a “New Mediterranean Culture”. Otherwise, he warned, the whole country threatened to shatter from within; it was time for all good men of France to do their duty for the native population: “It is only through the infinite power of justice that we will be able to win back Algeria and its inhabitants.”[9]

    For many Algerians, however, the massacres were a decisive turning point. Mistrust of France had grown to such a degree that that there was no turning back. Since, after over a century of French rule, Arabs were still not welcome as equal citizens, they now needed to create their own Algerian state. Inspired by the worldwide anti-colonial struggle, the Algerian Liberation Front (FLN) proclaimed a national revolution on 1 November 1954. They accused the French of betraying their own ideals: it was now the Algerian nationalists who operated in “la pure tradition de la France révolutionnaire.”[10] The Declaration of Human Rights and the right to self-determination must also apply to the Algerian people.

    For eight years France would fight, to borrow a phrase from Simone de Beauvoir, “a war that dares not speak its name”.[11] The official line in France was that it was neither a revolution nor a war of independence, merely temporary disturbances instigated by fanatical terrorists. The French nation is one and indivisible, explained the regime, and is no more likely to leave Algeria than it would leave Provence or Brittany. One of the bloodiest wars of the post-war period begins and France stops at nothing to keep Algeria French: summary executions and use of prohibited weapons; systematic torture and terror against civilians; population displacement on a massive scale; and concentration camps. Nearly 1 million people lost their lives. During the last year of the war Algeria was a bloodbath and hundreds of thousands of Europeans were forced to flee their former homeland. A regular French civil war was soon looming large: French officers in Algeria threatened to overthrow the “traitor” De Gaulle for starting to negotiate with the Algerian nationalists. The export version of French military chauvinism fought back against the mainland government, but De Gaulle held his ground and in July 1962 Algeria won its independence.”

  13. Zeke,

    So true. Its especially galling that my so-called friends, that I grew up with, have similar background and education, prefer to just not talk about it. There’s an in-built aversion to anything that smacks of politics unless its for sport-like gossip-centred punditry. Most only go as far as chuckling at the absurdity of politics in John Stewart-land.

    Very depressing. I’ve been trying to get like minded activists together from chat rooms after a hopeless effort to alert people (friends) of the dire place we are in and are heading towards, with no luck.

    Where is the outcry?

  14. Fine article.
    However it does no good to know all this if we are not going to go after the bankers who own the government and media. FDR wrote to Cordell Hull, “you and I know that a financial element has owned the government since Andrew Jackson.”

    this excellent article speaks to us, as if we made the wars that we concocted by our ruling bankers for profit.

    Get to the root. Exactly which key gang of bankers led by who is presently in power forcing the gov to award them with trillions and continue the wars until told otherwise.