Countering American anti-intellectualism involves more than challenging ignorance

The Washington Post reports on President Obama’s commencement address at Rutgers University on Sunday: The president throughout his speech decried a strain of anti-intellectualism in American politics that he said rejects science, reason and debate. “These are things you want in people making policy,” Obama said to laughter. “That might seem obvious.”

At one point, clearly referring to Trump and congressional Republicans who have decried efforts to combat global warming, Obama warned that “in politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”

“It’s not cool to not know what you are talking about,” he said. “That’s not keeping it real or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you are talking about.”

Throughout the year, Obama has turned again and again in speeches to the obligations that come with citizenship and the need for a more reasoned and respectful political debate at a moment when the country’s politics have never seemed more vulgar and poisonous. [Continue reading…]

Given Obama’s youthful audience, it’s hardly surprising that he would appeal to their desire to be cool, but that itself strikes me as being part of the problem.

Intellectual development hinges less on knowing what you are talking about, than it requires the cultivation of curiosity.

It’s got more to do with asking the right questions, than knowing the right answers.

To be cool, on the other hand, suggests never being caught by surprise — as though to be surprised (which means to encounter the unexpected) must be a bad thing.

But no one can become so seasoned in life that they actually never encounter anything new. On the contrary, where the sense of surprise has been lost, nothing more is being learned. The process of digesting new information and new perceptions that modify ones understanding of the world, has atrophied. Thought, once malleable, has become fixed.

Those who claim they’ve seen it all before, have more likely just stopped looking.

The rancor in political debate which Obama criticizes, is itself not simply representative of a fractious political environment. It isn’t just that discourse is lacking in civility; it’s a reflection of the fears that inhibit creative political thinking.

When politics is strictly factionalized, orthodoxies rule. No one wants to challenge the conventional wisdom inside the camp to which they are aligned. Politics is then simply a power struggle between competing camps.

The intransigence we project onto our opponents is mirrored by the inflexibility on our side.


The fallacy that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II

Hiroshima: the original Ground Zero

Hiroshima: the original Ground Zero

Whenever questions are raised about the moral justification for destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs in 1945, it’s generally assumed that President Truman’s decision to use these weapons was instrumental in ending World War II.

Given the staggering loss of life the war had already brought by that time, it’s hard to avoid imagining that almost any means possible — including the use of nuclear weapons — might have been justifiable if this would result in hastening the end of the war.

Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, 1945. Japan’s surrender was announced by Emperor Hirohito on August 15. For this reason, many Americans think that apologizing for the destruction of these two Japanese cities would make no more sense than wishing that the war had dragged on for longer with even more lives lost.

But in Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons published in 2013, Ward Wilson argues that it was Stalin’s decision to invade Japan — not the use of the bomb — that led to the Japanese surrender.

Wilson points out that while the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are typically viewed as extraordinary in the level of destruction they caused, during the U.S. air campaign at that time there was less reason than we imagine to draw a sharp distinction between conventional and nuclear bombing.

In the summer of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force carried out one of the most intense campaigns of city destruction in the history of the world. Sixty-eight cities in Japan were attacked and all of them were either partially or completely destroyed. An estimated 1.7 million people were made homeless, 300,000 were killed, and 750,000 were wounded. Sixty-six of these raids were carried out with conventional bombs, two with atomic bombs. The destruction caused by conventional attacks was huge. Night after night, all summer long, cities would go up in smoke. In the midst of this cascade of destruction, it would not be surprising if this or that individual attack failed to make much of an impression — even if it was carried out with a remarkable new type of weapon.

Japan’s decision to surrender probably had less to do with the effect of nuclear weapons, than with Stalin’s decision to invade. Wilson writes:

The Japanese were in a relatively difficult strategic situation. They were nearing the end of a war they were losing. Conditions were bad. The Army, however, was still strong and well-supplied. Nearly 4 million men were under arms and 1.2 million of those were guarding Japan’s home islands.

Even the most hardline leaders in Japan’s government knew that the war could not go on. The question was not whether to continue, but how to bring the war to a close under the best terms possible. The Allies (the United States, Great Britain, and others — the Soviet Union, remember, was still neutral) were demanding “unconditional surrender.” Japan’s leaders hoped that they might be able to figure out a way to avoid war crimes trials, keep their form of government, and keep some of the territories they’d conquered: Korea, Vietnam, Burma, parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, a large portion of eastern China, and numerous islands in the Pacific.

They had two plans for getting better surrender terms; they had, in other words, two strategic options. The first was diplomatic. Japan had signed a five-year neutrality pact with the Soviets in April of 1941, which would expire in 1946. A group consisting mostly of civilian leaders and led by Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori hoped that Stalin might be convinced to mediate a settlement between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and Japan on the other. Even though this plan was a long shot, it reflected sound strategic thinking. After all, it would be in the Soviet Union’s interest to make sure that the terms of the settlement were not too favorable to the United States: any increase in U.S. influence and power in Asia would mean a decrease in Russian power and influence.

The second plan was military, and most of its proponents, led by the Army Minister Anami Korechika, were military men. They hoped to use Imperial Army ground troops to inflict high casualties on U.S. forces when they invaded. If they succeeded, they felt, they might be able to get the United States to offer better terms. This strategy was also a long shot. The United States seemed deeply committed to unconditional surrender. But since there was, in fact, concern in U.S. military circles that the casualties in an invasion would be prohibitive, the Japanese high command’s strategy was not entirely off the mark.

One way to gauge whether it was the bombing of Hiroshima or the invasion and declaration of war by the Soviet Union that caused Japan’s surrender is to compare the way in which these two events affected the strategic situation. After Hiroshima was bombed on August 8, both options were still alive. It would still have been possible to ask Stalin to mediate (and Takagi’s diary entries from August 8 show that at least some of Japan’s leaders were still thinking about the effort to get Stalin involved). It would also still have been possible to try to fight one last decisive battle and inflict heavy casualties. The destruction of Hiroshima had done nothing to reduce the preparedness of the troops dug in on the beaches of Japan’s home islands. There was now one fewer city behind them, but they were still dug in, they still had ammunition, and their military strength had not been diminished in any important way. Bombing Hiroshima did not foreclose either of Japan’s strategic options.

The impact of the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island was quite different, however. Once the Soviet Union had declared war, Stalin could no longer act as a mediator — he was now a belligerent. So the diplomatic option was wiped out by the Soviet move. The effect on the military situation was equally dramatic. Most of Japan’s best troops had been shifted to the southern part of the home islands. Japan’s military had correctly guessed that the likely first target of an American invasion would be the southernmost island of Kyushu. The once proud Kwangtung army in Manchuria, for example, was a shell of its former self because its best units had been shifted away to defend Japan itself. When the Russians invaded Manchuria, they sliced through what had once been an elite army and many Russian units only stopped when they ran out of gas. The Soviet 16th Army — 100,000 strong — launched an invasion of the southern half of Sakhalin Island. Their orders were to mop up Japanese resistance there, and then — within 10 to 14 days — be prepared to invade Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s home islands. The Japanese force tasked with defending Hokkaido, the 5th Area Army, was under strength at two divisions and two brigades, and was in fortified positions on the east side of the island. The Soviet plan of attack called for an invasion of Hokkaido from the west.

It didn’t take a military genius to see that, while it might be possible to fight a decisive battle against one great power invading from one direction, it would not be possible to fight off two great powers attacking from two different directions. The Soviet invasion invalidated the military’s decisive battle strategy, just as it invalidated the diplomatic strategy. At a single stroke, all of Japan’s options evaporated. The Soviet invasion was strategically decisive — it foreclosed both of Japan’s options — while the bombing of Hiroshima (which foreclosed neither) was not.

In this case, even if the nuclear attacks hastened the end of the war, it may have only been by a matter of a few days or weeks. The assumption that some greater good had been served is much harder to sustain.

At the same time, having already chosen to use these weapons twice and chosen to use them to wipe out civilian populations, the United States was thereafter in a much harder position to assert moral authority in saying that nuclear weapons must never be used again.

When Barack Obama visits Hiroshima later this month, he will make no apology for the destruction of this city. He will again call for global nuclear disarmament, but his appeal won’t carry much weight, given his decision to spend $348 billion on upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next decade.

To many observers, Obama’s nuclear aspirations do more than highlight his nuclear hypocrisy:

That declaration rings hollow to critics who believe Obama’s plan to overhaul and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is sparking a dangerous new arms race with China and Russia. The modernization program, including purchases of new bombers and ballistic missile submarines, could cost as much as $1 trillion over the next 30 years, said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.

“The plan to rebuild and refurbish every weapon that we have basically sort of throws the gauntlet down, and Russia and China feel like they have to match it,” Gronlund said in an interview. “He has said really great things but his actions have not really been consistent with his words.”

As the Daily Beast reports, the “post-Cold War nuclear holiday is over” — a new nuclear arms race has already begun.


The pendulum of American power

Having been exercised with the imperial hubris of the neoconservatives, American power thereby overextended was inevitably going to swing in the opposite direction. What was not inevitable was that an administration when forced to deal with current events would cling so persistently to the past.

Through the frequent use of a number of catch phrases — “we need to look forward,” his promise “to end the mindset that got us into war,” and so forth — Barack Obama presented his administration as one that would unshackle the U.S. from the misadventures of his predecessor.

Nevertheless, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s closest adviser helping him craft this message, has a mindset in 2016 that shows no signs of having evolved in any significant way since he was on the 2008 campaign trail. As one of the lead authors of the 2006 Iraq Study Group report, Rhodes became and remains fixated on his notion of Iraq.

In a New York Times magazine profile of Rhodes, David Samuels writes:

What has interested me most about watching him and his cohort in the White House over the past seven years, I tell him, is the evolution of their ability to get comfortable with tragedy. I am thinking specifically about Syria, I add, where more than 450,000 people have been slaughtered.

“Yeah, I admit very much to that reality,” he says. “There’s a numbing element to Syria in particular. But I will tell you this,” he continues. “I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we’re there — nearly a decade in Iraq.”

Iraq is his one-word answer to any and all criticism. I was against the Iraq war from the beginning, I tell Rhodes, so I understand why he perpetually returns to it. I also understand why Obama pulled the plug on America’s engagement with the Middle East, I say, but it was also true as a result that more people are dying there on his watch than died during the Bush presidency, even if very few of them are Americans. What I don’t understand is why, if America is getting out of the Middle East, we are apparently spending so much time and energy trying to strong-arm Syrian rebels into surrendering to the dictator who murdered their families, or why it is so important for Iran to maintain its supply lines to Hezbollah. He mutters something about John Kerry, and then goes off the record, to suggest, in effect, that the world of the Sunni Arabs that the American establishment built has collapsed. The buck stops with the establishment, not with Obama, who was left to clean up their mess.

In this regard — “their ability to get comfortable with tragedy” — Rhodes and Obama mirror mainstream America which views the mess in the Middle East as being beyond America’s power to repair.

The fact that the U.S. bears a major portion of the blame in precipitating the region’s unraveling, is perversely presented as the reason the U.S. should now limit its involvement.

What, it’s reasonable to ask, does Iraq actually represent from this vantage point?

Wasted American lives? Wasted U.S. dollars? The destructive effect of American imperial power?

Is Iraq just a prism through which Americans look at America?

Is Iraq merely America’s shadow, or is there room for Iraqis anywhere in this picture?

What Samuel’s describes as this administration’s willingness to accept tragedy can also be seen as the required measure of indifference that makes it possible to look the other way.

The desire to make things better in Syria and Iraq is not contingent solely on an assessment of U.S. capabilities; it is more importantly a reflection of the degree to which Syrian and Iraqi lives matter to Americans.

The evidentiary record clearly shows that the scale of this tragedy all too accurately reflects the breadth of American indifference.


The spark of life and a burst of zinc fluorescence

For some religious believers, the idea that human life has a divine origin includes the notion that the biological event of conception has a divine component: the moment at which a soul enters a developing embryo.

It is now being claimed that this belief is supported by scientific evidence.

Citing a recently published study appearing in Scientific Reports, Catholic Online says:

Researchers discovered the moment a human soul enters an egg, which gives pro-life groups an even greater edge in the battle between embryonic life and death. The precise moment is celebrated with a zap of energy released around the newly fertilized egg.

Teresa Woodruff, one of the study’s senior authors and professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the university, delivered a press release in which she stated, “to see the zinc radiate out in a burst from each human egg was breathtaking.”

It’s easy to understand why images showing a burst of light as an egg is fertilized, might appear to provide scientific validation of religious belief.

But attaching religious significance to these findings requires ignoring a key detail in what has been reported.

If the zinc spark that’s been observed — a burst of zinc fluorescence that occurs as millions of zinc atoms get dumped out of the egg — actually bore a relationship with the arrival of a soul enabling the emergence of life, then no such sparks would have been photographed. Why? Because the experiment involved staging a facsimile of fertilization using a sperm enzyme, not live sperm.

Either the experimenters fooled God into placing souls into unfertilized eggs, or these “sparks of life” can be understood as chemical events — though no less wondrous to behold.

Moreover, for those who insist these zinc sparks are triggered by souls, they might need to make some theological revisions to accommodate the evidence that mice apparently possess souls too.

To understand the science in more detail, watch this:


Peace and the politics of outrage


“Any religion worth talking about is essentially political and any politics worth talking about has some vision of transcendence and of the mystery of human life,” said the Jesuit priest, antiwar activist and poet, Daniel Berrigan, at the time of the trial of the Plowshares Eight in 1981. Berrigan died on Saturday at the age of 94.

In 2006, noting that the “short fuse of the American left is typical of the highs and lows of American emotional life,” Berrigan said: “It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognizable form without a spiritual base.”

This absence of a spiritual base, expressed through commonly held values, can be seen as one of the defining characteristics of the politics of dissent in the post 9/11 era.

The commonalities around which shifting forms of unity have emerged and dissolved have invariably come in the form of shared outrage and hatred.

We decide who we stand with by flagging what we stand against:

  • American Empire
  • Western Imperialism
  • Zionism
  • Capitalism
  • Neoliberalism
  • Militarism
  • Corporate power
  • Globalization
  • National security state
  • Mass surveillance
  • Mass incarceration
  • Police brutality
  • Racism
  • Xenophobia
  • Islamophobia
  • Homophobia
  • Sexism

But the affirmative common ground gets far less clearly defined if articulated at all.

Where humanitarianism and internationalism once prevailed, anti-interventionism has become one of the most frequently voiced principles.

Opposition to America imposing its values on the world, has come to mean the plight of people who lives and basic rights are in peril can often be ignored.

It seems we have less responsibility to make this a better world than to merely claim we have done it little harm.

It is as though the measure of a life well lived be that it is of no consequence as we each swear to a political Hippocratic oath.

Indeed there are those who now view the concept of human rights as so tainted that it functions as nothing more than a justification for war.

Out of this emerges for some a libertarian insularity where the least harm each of us might do is to mind our own business, and for others an isolationist social-justice realism which says, take care of the folks at home instead of trying to fix the world.

In a political context where it’s much safer to assume an adversarial posture and stand up against our nameable enemies, what’s much harder is to move beyond divisions and to focus instead on the greatest deficits in our world: a lack of love and kindness and the absence of a widely embraced vision of a better future.

It’s much easier to unify around what we stand against.

Bring love and kindness into the equation and most of the boundaries we use to define our political identities become less secure; our opponents cannot so easily be made other.

Consider, for instance, the issue of Palestine.

If viewed through a dispassionate political lens, we can talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of self-determination, social justice, and anti-colonialism and yet as a human concern, empathizing with Palestinians being bombed in Gaza by Israelis is surely no different than responding with empathy to atrocities being carried out in Aleppo.

For those on the ground, the outcome of the bombing is no different and yet the fact that the former provokes global outcries while the later is met largely with global indifference speaks to something that few observers will dare state: their hatred for the perpetrators of the violence is more deeply rooted than they sympathy for the victims.

* * *

To recognize the political and social influence of Daniel Berrigan did not require that you shared his pacifism or his religious beliefs and yet his striking integrity derived from the fact that he was a living expression of religion and politics made indivisible.

In 2006, as Berrigan turned 85, he was interviewed by Chris Hedges for The Nation:

All empires, Berrigan cautions, rise and fall. It is the religious and moral values of compassion, simplicity and justice that endure and alone demand fealty. The current decline of American power is part of the cycle of human existence, although he says ruefully, “the tragedy across the globe is that we are pulling down so many others. We are not falling gracefully. Many, many people are paying with their lives for this.”

“The fall of the towers [on 9/11] was symbolic as well as actual,” he adds. “We are bringing ourselves down by a willful blindness that is astonishing.”

Berrigan argues that those who seek a just society, who seek to defy war and violence, who decry the assault of globalization and degradation of the environment, who care about the plight of the poor, should stop worrying about the practical, short-term effects of their resistance.

“The good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere,” he says. “I believe if it is done in that spirit it will go somewhere, but I don’t know where. I don’t think the Bible grants us to know where goodness goes, what direction, what force. I have never been seriously interested in the outcome. I was interested in trying to do it humanly and carefully and nonviolently and let it go.”

“We have not lost everything because we lost today,” he adds.

A resistance movement, Berrigan says, cannot survive without the spiritual core pounded into him by [Thomas] Merton. He is sustained, he said, by the Eucharist, his faith and his religious community.

“The reason we are celebrating forty years of Catonsville and we are still at it, those of us who are still living — the reason people went through all this and came out on their feet — was due to a spiritual discipline that went on for months before these actions took place,” he says. “We went into situations in court and in prison and in the underground that could easily have destroyed us and that did destroy others who did not have our preparation.”

During an interview in 1981, Berrigan was asked how he came to the “deep waters” — the spiritual perspective — that enabled his activism.

It’s a question of coming from somewhere, having some tradition available to you — some symbols, some worship, some common life… coming from somewhere better than America, because I don’t think America is anywhere to come from.

In a world where it has become so easy to denounce America and point to the extensive harm this nation has done as its imperial power ungracefully unwinds, the politics of outrage nevertheless evokes little sense of somewhere better than America.

The collapse of empire is nothing to celebrate if we lack a vision of something better to take its place.


An American divide

McClatchy reports: “The establishment is anybody with big money who can get to the Congressmen and lobbyists,” said Judy Surak, a nurse from Clemson, South Carolina.

All over South Carolina, ask the people reveling in the music at Greenville Heritage Main Street Fridays, or starting their day with homemade onion sausage at Lizard’s Thicket on Two Notch Road in Columbia to define the establishment, and they usually echo Surak.

They often add a gentle qualifier: They don’t want to blow up the political system. They just want it to be more responsive, to work better.

“The country’s long-term problems have to be fixed within the system we have,” said Mark Cruise, a Columbia executive.

The most wary tend to be better educated, higher earning, older voters, according to the national poll. They tend to see establishment figures easing in and out of lucrative, comfortable jobs, climbing ladders to success that seem unavailable to the rank and file who populate South Carolina’s office cubicles.

Of 78 members of Congress who left after the 2010 elections, four out of five found work with lobbying firms or clients, state or federal governments or political action committees.

One of Bill Clinton’s former White House spokesmen hosts an influential network Sunday talk show. NBC hires Chelsea Clinton as a “special correspondent,” paying her a reported $600,000 annually, far above the typical pay for a reporter with no journalistic experience.

The ties are intricate and deep. Five Treasury secretaries in the past three presidential administrations have either headed big Wall Street firms, or became top executives after leaving their jobs.

Every member of the U.S. Supreme Court has at least one Ivy League degree. Every president elected since 1988 is an Ivy Leaguer. So are Clinton and Trump.

Even among Republican presidential candidates who insist they’re running against the establishment, establishment ties have served them well.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, promotes himself as a maverick, but has two Ivy League degrees and worked in state and federal governments before being elected. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio was a congressman for 18 years, then was a senior executive at Lehman Brothers’ investment banking division. Trump’s company is building a luxury hotel five blocks from the White House.

Somehow, many see Trump through a different lens.

“He has all he ever wanted. He doesn’t have to bother with this,” explained Elaine Verma, a Kiawah Island court reporter. “He just has the best interests of the United States at heart.” [Continue reading…]

Nicholas Kristof writes: I personally made the mistake of regarding Trump’s candidacy as a stunt, scoffing at the idea that he could be the nominee. Mea culpa.

We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing [the first being that the news media gave Trump $1.9 billion in free publicity, and the second being that the media treated Trump as a farce]: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated. “The media has been out of touch with these Americans,” [Ann] Curry notes.

Media elites rightly talk about our insufficient racial, ethnic and gender diversity, but we also lack economic diversity. We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.

All this said, I have to add that I don’t know if more fact-checking would have mattered. Tom Brokaw of NBC did outstanding work challenging Trump, but he says that when journalists have indeed questioned Trump’s untrue statements, nothing much happens: “His followers find fault with the questions, not with his often incomplete, erroneous or feeble answers.” [Continue reading…]

Once a system is perceived as rigged, its agents lose social authority — and that opens a space in which authority is up for grabs and the loudest voices will be those who claim their own authority on the basis that they operate outside the establishment. Paradoxically, authority is easily transferred to those who possess none.

Someone like Kristof can spend as much time as he wants talking to jobless Americans, but that won’t change his status as a member of the establishment. It won’t increase his level of influence among those Americans who are open to the influence of people like Alex Jones.

Half of Republicans don’t believe in evolution. 40% of conservative Republicans think global warming will never happen. 43% of Republicans think that President Obama is a Muslim.

Alex Jones now claims that “the establishment is announcing that they do intend to cancel the presidential election in this country.” And he says the mainstream media is being encouraged to report it “like it’s no big deal.”

In a Facebook video, Jones hands over to his cameraman, Buckley Hamman, who says: “Whether or not Trump is the person that we all hope and believe that he is, he is our last best hope at this point…”

“That’s right,” Jones interjects, “the establishment is scared of him.”

“They don’t have a right to come steal the elections and steal the government and be run by foreign interest, like communist China and all these other foreign governments and Saudi Arabia, telling us we can’t have Donald Trump. Donald Trump could be a monster and I would say we have to vote for him because these foreign mass murderers tell us he’s the worst guy in history.”

Hamman adds: “He is aware, he is open and he is conscious to the idea of the world being enslaved. And he is pissed off about it and he doesn’t want to have it happen any more… And look at how brilliant he is at manipulating the media.”

And who does Trump hold up as an authoritative media source? Alex Jones.

The problem in a broken political system where the mainstream media has largely abandoned its responsibility as a fourth estate, is that the doors get flung open to false prophets — people whose passion for “truth telling” and “exposing lies,” can seduce an audience ripe for a populist, xenophobic message.


How extensive is the ISIS threat inside Europe?


Rob Wainwright, chief of Europol, says that security authorities are focused on some 5,000 suspects who were radicalized in Europe and went to fight in Syria. Many of these battle-hardened fighters have now returned.

The Washington Post reports: The French newspaper Le Monde and the Belgian broadcaster RTBF reported that video monitors had captured images of another possible accomplice, who is believed to have slipped away on the Brussels subway. The report could not be immediately confirmed.

Authorities also suggest that the Brussels attackers — two of them brothers — were spurred into action as security crackdowns and raids closed in.

Days before the attacks, counter­terrorism police had raided their Brussels safe houses. An ally who took part in November’s Paris carnage was shot and captured by authorities. And Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, a 29-year-old Belgian with a thick rap sheet, wrote that he did not want to wind up in a prison cell, Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said Wednesday.

Bakraoui and his younger brother, Khalid, were among the three suicide bombers in the back-to-back strikes: tearing apart a Brussels subway car and shattering the city’s main airport terminal. At least 31 people were killed and 300 injured in the bloodiest attack on Belgian soil since World War II.

Bakraoui detonated a suitcase full of nails, screws and powerful explosives at the airport, killing himself in the process, Van Leeuw said. So did Islamic State bombmaker Najim Laachraoui, 24, who is also believed to have prepared explosives for the Paris attacks, according to an Arab intelligence official and a European intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

An unidentified man who left an even larger suitcase of explosives at the airport is believed to still be at large, he said. That suitcase did not immediately detonate, sparing Belgium even more casualties.

Laachraoui’s involvement draws the boldest line yet between the Paris attacks and those in Brussels. His DNA was found on explosives in the Paris attacks, and authorities believe that he was versed in assembling powerful explosives from ingredients readily available. His participation in two attacks suggests that the Islamic State is increasingly able to strike on European soil — although his death may also mean that he feared imminent capture by European authorities.

Terrorism experts regard bomb­makers, especially those trained in handling sensitive explosives, as among the most valuable and protected members of a terrorist organization. It is highly unusual for them to participate in suicide attacks themselves. [Continue reading…]

At a moment such as this, politicians, security officials, security experts, and other commentators all want to exercise caution and avoid understating the risks of further acts of terrorism.

Public awareness of risks is obviously an essential element that helps facilitate ongoing security operations and this is not the time to encourage anyone to be less vigilant.

Nevertheless, the close ties between the Paris and Brussels attacks and the fact that the individual believed to have been the bombmaker in both attacks killed himself on Tuesday, suggests that with the possible exception of a very small number of individuals at large, nearly all the culprits in these atrocities are now either dead or in detention.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be other groups who follow in their footsteps. That’s why the danger of further attacks is real. Even so, there often seems to be a tendency to extrapolate from specific events, wider connections that don’t necessarily pertain.

Donald Trump and other Islamophobes like to evoke images of terrorists being provided refuge inside Muslim communities — the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels has frequently been characterized as a “haven” for extremists.

Yet when the decisive break in their investigation came for Belgium police last week, it was through their discovery of an a hideaway where it was evident that the fugitives appeared to be receiving no outside support.

As the New York Times reported:

The turning point in the case came last week when the police raided an apartment about six miles from Molenbeek, seeking clues but believing it to be empty.

Instead, they were met with gunfire. They killed the gunman, Mohamed Belkaid, a 35-year-old Algerian who had already been linked to the Paris plot. But two men escaped. And when the police entered the apartment, they found large quantities of ammunition, an Islamic State flag — and Mr. Abdeslam’s fingerprints.

“There was no electricity, no water, no gas,” said Ahmed El Khannouss, the deputy mayor of Molenbeek. “He was living in catastrophically unhygienic conditions.”

That two individuals happen to cross paths in the same bar or go to the same school, might turn out to be as consequential as the connections they’ve made fighting in Syria.

Often, the small stories turn out to be as, if not more significant than the big stories. Every life is filled with the random, messy details of happenstance.

In other words, although political, sociological, and ideological lenses are all useful, we need to avoid deterministic conclusions that make terrorism appear inevitable. It isn’t. Ultimately it hinges on choices made by individuals.

The fact that European security services have as many as 5,000 suspects in their sights underlines the challenges they face in attempting to keep track of these individuals.

At the same time, this number may be misleading if it conjures an image of a hidden army scattered across the continent. Moreover, this representation itself risks empowering these individuals with a sense that they remain part of a movement, when in reality they may now be utterly isolated.

These are individuals who really deserve to be called dead-enders.


Would Trump consider launching a tactical nuclear strike against ISIS?

That was a question posed by Fred Ryan, publisher of the Washington Post, in a meeting between Donald Trump and the paper’s editorial board on Monday.

You mentioned a few minutes earlier here you’d knock out ISIS — you’ve mentioned that many times. You’ve also mentioned the risk of putting American troops in a danger area. If you could substantially reduce the risk of harm to ground troops, would you use a battlefield nuclear weapon to take out ISIS?

Trump: I don’t want to use… I don’t want to start the process of nuclear. Remember, one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counter-puncher.

Note that Trump wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons — he merely said he wouldn’t start the process.

Last month Reuters reported that the theft of radioactive material last year “has raised fears among Iraqi officials that it could be used as a weapon if acquired by Islamic State.”

Fears of a nuclear-armed ISIS were fueled today by Britain’s defense minister who confirmed, “this is a new and emerging threat.”

If ISIS was to use a dirty bomb, or, so to speak, start the process, Trump seems to have just strongly inferred that he would throw a “counter-punch” with a tactical nuclear strike. Indeed, maybe the existing warnings are sufficient for Trump to see a process in motion.

It’s hard to imagine a strategic blunder of greater proportions as this would subsequently be seen by friends and foes alike both as an unjustifiable use of American power (deterrence means nothing to ISIS) while also opening the door to a new age of unleashed nuclear force.

That the Trump team is oblivious to the value of refraining from using nuclear weapons became evident in December when campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson said on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor: “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?”

Towards the end of the Post interview, Trump returned to the issue of nuclear weapons after being asked:

Do you think climate change is a real thing? Is it man… human caused?

Trump: I think there is a change in weather. I am not a great believer in man-made climate change… not a great believer. There is certainly a change in weather that goes, and if you look they had global cooling in the 1920s and now they have global warming, although now they don’t know if they have global warming. They call it all sorts of different things — now they’re using extreme weather I guess more than any other phrase. I am not — I know it hurts me with this room and I know it’s probably a killer with this room — but I am not a believer (perhaps there’s a minor effect) but I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change.

Don’t good businessmen hedge against risks, not ignore them?

Trump: Well, I just think we have much bigger risks. I mean I think we have militarily tremendous risks. I think we are at tremendous peril. I think our biggest form of “climate change” is — that we should worry about — is nuclear weapons. The biggest risk to the world to me — I mean I know that President Obama thought climate change — to me the biggest risk is nuclear weapons. That is climate change. That is a disaster. And we don’t even know where the nuclear weapons are right now. We don’t know who has them. We don’t know who is trying to get them. The biggest risk for the world and for this country is nuclear weapons — the power of nuclear weapons.

Trump’s thinking process is primitive.

As is sadly commonplace, he doesn’t understand the difference between weather and climate. He uses the language of an anti-intellectual who conspiratorially believes that terminology is designed to bamboozle the uneducated — as though scientists keep on tossing out new phrases all of which simply mean changeable weather. He thinks climate change and extreme weather are interchangeable terms.

But recognizing that as an expression climate change has an emotive yield — that its users hope to generate alarm — he uses it as he has used it before, to circle back to nuclear weapons.

Rather than convey that he truly understands the gravity of having control of a nuclear arsenal, Trump hints that he’s starting to get a tantalizing glimpse of what it might mean for him to grasp that power — and use it.

Would he launch a nuclear strike against ISIS? Trump clearly sees the maximum value in leaving the world guessing.


Progressive only on Palestine?

Yesterday, I saw someone on Facebook express his disgust for Hillary Clinton’s speech at AIPAC by concluding that the most dangerous presidential candidates are first Clinton, second Cruz, and third Trump.

Underneath this outrage there clearly lurked a tenuous hope that Clinton’s message might have been different — that along with the predictable pandering there might have been a modicum of truth telling.

Still, it makes more sense to be disappointed that any politician chooses to speak at an AIPAC conference rather than disappointed by what they end up saying after having crossed that threshold. Everyone knows in advance that these are servile and self-serving exercises.

If we need to score such performances in some way, the criteria on which they should be assessed are their measures of cynicism, shamelessness, gall, hyperbole, and obsequiousness. By those measures, everyone tends to compete very closely.

For that reason, it’s debatable how much value there is in analyzing the specific content of any AIPAC speech when there is arguably no other venue in which such little weight can be attached to what anyone says.

Nevertheless, there is a risk that a small constituency of American voters, on the basis of her AIPAC speech (and her political history), are now leaning in the direction of believing that it would be worse to see Hillary Clinton enter the White House than it would be for Donald Trump to be elected.

Phil Weiss writes:

If there was any doubt that Hillary Clinton is running to the right of Donald Trump on Israel, she removed it this morning with a fist-pumping hard-right speech to the Israel lobby group AIPAC that mentioned Israeli settlements just once, in passing, and continually derided the idea of American “neutrality” in the conflict, which Trump has embraced.

Often projecting an adamant posture in the speech, Clinton said she was willing to use force against Iran if it violates the Iran deal, praised Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and promised to invite the PM to the White House in one of her first acts in office. She concluded the speech by thrusting her fist in the air as she vowed to take the relationship to the “next level” so that Israel and the U.S. could face the future together.

When Trump addressed the AIPAC conference yesterday afternoon, he offered a clue of how the “neutrality” of a Trump administration would work:

When I’m president, believe me, I will veto any attempt by the U.N. to impose its will on the Jewish state. It will be vetoed 100 percent.

He also said:

The United States can be useful as a facilitator of negotiations, but no one should be telling Israel that it must be and really that it must abide by some agreement made by others thousands of miles away that don’t even really know what’s happening to Israel, to anything in the area. It’s so preposterous, we’re not going to let that happen.

And in the most loyal expression of fealty to the Zionist lobby, Trump promised:

We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.

Let’s assume that Trump is no less cynical than any other politician in serving up the sentiments that AIPAC wants to hear. Would it be worth voting for him on the basis of some tentative hope that he might turn out to be a great Middle East deal maker? Or, simply because you imagine that in relation to Israel, Clinton could be worse.

Hell no!

The fact that for some people, Palestine is the only issue, doesn’t actually make it the only issue. It just means they have chosen to reduce politics to the singular focus of their own passion.

Ironically, for some Palestine watchers, as humanitarian as their sensibilities might be, in recent years their focus has become so tightly constrained, they have largely averted their gaze from the worst humanitarian crisis of the twenty-first century — even as it unfolds right next door in Syria.

To be open-minded about a Trump presidency solely on the basis that on a few occasions he has broken ranks with the pro-Israel political establishment, is to overlook the fact that whatever his actions on this issue might turn out to be, he would certainly be more active in many other arenas — active in ways that pose all kinds of adverse consequences.

Even if one adopts a thoroughly agnostic position and decides that it’s impossible to predict what a President Trump might do, the question is: Do you want to take the risk of finding out?

This much we already know: Trump is a demagogue. He is vain, ignorant, extraordinarily arrogant, and deceitful. He promotes xenophobia and mob violence. He is a misogynist and a bully.

However dark your view of the U.S. presidency might be, Donald Trump isn’t fit for office.

As sickened as many Americans feel about the corrupt nature of this country’s political culture, sending Trump to Washington makes no more sense than employing an arsonist to put out a fire.


The Madison Valleywood Project: A media-tech alliance formed to fight ISIS

Kaveh Waddell writes: On January 8, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the directors of the FBI and the NSA, the director of national intelligence, and other officials traveled to San Jose, California, to meet in secret with tech-company executives. The officials asked for the executives’ advice for how to launch counter-messaging campaigns on social media, according to reports. And a few weeks later, Secretary of State John Kerry made his way to Universal Studios, where he met with a dozen Hollywood studio executives to discuss how film and storytelling could be used to counter extremist narratives, reports said.

The culmination of the government’s efforts came just last month, when officials packed a room to capacity for a closed-door meeting at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. There, the three elements of the government’s push came together both in person and in name: The agenda that was distributed to participants bore the title “Madison Valleywood Project,” in honor of the three main industries in attendance.

The meeting, which was scheduled to take three hours, was a chance to connect attendees whose worlds don’t usually intersect. After Carlin gave opening remarks, a New York-based branding consultant presented an overview of ISIS media strategies and recruiting tactics. Then, participants broke into eight-person teams and had an hour to storyboard a messaging plan.

The government played host and incubator, but left the creative work to the guests, who also included documentary filmmakers, political consultants, NGO representatives, and even a video-game developer. “We tried to cast a wide net,” said the administration official with knowledge of the meeting. “A lot of effort went into ensuring that each table had a person from each community.” Each table also included someone from the government.

Sitting next to Carlin, Jeffrey connected with another of his tablemates, a D.C.-based political consultant who staffed Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The two began to talk about one of the main hurdles that the anti-extremist project faces: how to fund it.

They’re considering setting up a 501(c)(3) non-profit or a foundation, which would allow American companies to donate toward the cause. It’s important the money come from the private sector and individuals, Jeffrey said. “It can’t look like anything political or part of the U.S. government.”

One reason the government wants to stay out of the equation is to preserve the credibility of whatever the participants produce. For a would-be terrorist, the U.S. government probably isn’t the most trusted source for information. Officials are bringing people together, and giving them advice and information, but they appear to want the final product to be free of the baggage of being connected to the feds. [Continue reading…]

That’s right: ISIS recruits aren’t big fans of Uncle Sam, but they use social media, seem impressed by Hollywood blockbuster-style violence, and are responsive to slick advertising.

The logic of bringing together Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Silicon Valley to fight ISIS, makes sense, kind of — except it really doesn’t.

The masters of form in this arena seem about as clueless as anyone else when it comes to content. There’s a consensus, apparently, that they need to come up with a “positive message.”

ISIS is appealing to people who want to bring about a radical change in the world and participate in the fulfillment of what they regard as a utopian vision. A plausible alternative would need to go some distance in appealing to such grandiose ambitions.

Whatever this as-yet unfunded project ends of producing, seems likely to be as half-baked as its conception.

If they are really intent on countering the propaganda coming from ISIS, then at the outset they surely need to be as focused and serious about their own undertaking as is ISIS’s own propaganda machine.

There’s no point coming up with a brand if you don’t have a product.


The Intercept, busy denouncing critics of Trump, now says media hasn’t done enough to denounce Trump


Glenn Greenwald writes:

As Donald Trump’s campaign predictably moves from toxic rhetoric targeting the most marginalized minorities to threats and use of violence, there is a growing sense that American institutions have been too lax about resisting it. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan on Sunday posted a widely cited Twitter essay voicing this concern, arguing that “Trump’s rise represents a failure in American parties, media, and civic institutions — and they’re continuing to fail right now.” He added, “Someone could capture a major party [nomination] who endorses violence [and] few seem alarmed.”

Actually, many people are alarmed, but it is difficult to know that by observing media coverage, where little journalistic alarm over Trump is expressed.

Really? Everywhere I look there has been no shortage of voices of alarm — everywhere other than, perhaps, The Intercept.

Greenwald and his colleagues have too often seemed more concerned about the hypocrisy of Trump’s critics than about Trump.

On March 4, for instance, Greenwald wrote:

in many cases, probably most, the flamboyant denunciations of Trump by establishment figures make no sense except as self-aggrandizing pretense, because those condemning him have long tolerated if not outright advocated very similar ideas, albeit with less rhetorical candor.

The same day, The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz wrote:

Over 90 “members of the Republican national security community” have now signed an open letter to express their united opposition to a Donald Trump presidency. The letter makes many reasonable criticisms of Trump for his “military adventurism,” “embrace of the expansive use of torture,” and “admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin.”

But some of Trump’s critics have no standing here, given that they’ve publicly supported or even directly participated in the same kinds of things for which they are now criticizing him.

At the end of February, The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani saw “Trump moving the GOP to a more dovish direction” — the context of that dubious prediction being the fact that Trump’s success “is setting off alarm bells among neoconservatives who are worried he will not pursue the same bellicose foreign policy that has dominated Republican thinking for decades.”

One gets the sense that at The Intercept, a resurgence of the neocons strikes louder alarm bells than Trump’s rising power.

But today Greenwald writes:

Imagine calling yourself a journalist, and then — as you watch an authoritarian politician get closer to power by threatening and unleashing violence and stoking the ugliest impulses — denouncing not that politician, but, rather, other journalists who warn of the dangers.

Except that seems to be pretty much what Greenwald himself and his colleagues have been doing.

Sounding the alarm about Trump has been the mainstay of the mainstream media for months — even though that alarm has often been diluted by the false expectation that Trump would cause his own campaign to implode.

The problem for those whose own overriding preoccupation is criticism of the establishment/government/media has been a reluctance to echo a mainstream critique of Trump and thereby risk appearing to be in alignment with the forces one rigidly opposes.

Those who pound too hard on the anti-establishment drum are opening up a real danger in November.

If, as seems likely, it comes down to a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, a significant number of Bernie Sanders’ current supporters may decide not to vote for the establishment candidate, Clinton, and some may even opt for Trump, not because they agree with him but because they see intrinsic value in shaking up the system.

If, for the sake of his readers, Glenn Greenwald wants to unequivocally register the degree to which he is indeed alarmed by Trump, maybe he can say right away that in a Clinton vs. Trump general election, in spite of the mountain of misgivings he has about Clinton, he will nevertheless vote for her. But maybe he won’t.

(And just in case anyone is wondering: In my state’s primary, I just voted for Bernie Sanders. If the general election turns out to be Clinton vs. Trump, I’ll vote for Clinton.)


Trump takes cue from Assad by casting critics as terrorists

A couple of days ago, a Syrian-American tweeted:

Even though Trump didn’t make the call, he clearly has no shame in following Assad’s example by accusing a protester of having ties to ISIS after rushing the stage at a Dayton rally.

Needless to say, Trump’s accusation is baseless, as reports:

Tommy Dimassimo, a student at Wright State University in Dayton, has been an avid supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on social media.

The video [which Trump tweeted] seems to have been created by a troll, the same person who started a Facebook page called “Tommy dimassimo wasn’t hugged enough as a kid.”

The Arabic caption on the original video appears to be a joke, including a phrase that roughly translates to saying Dimassimo thought he’d be a big man by standing on the American flag, but really has a small penis.

When George Bush launched the war on terrorism, his rhetoric was a bountiful gift to tyrants around the world. In its response to 9/11, the U.S. had effectively issued a free license for global political oppression which could henceforth all be conducted in the name of fighting terrorism.

Donald Trump has brought that gift back home and anyone who wonders how he would operate as president, merely needs to see how he now demonizes his adversaries.

Yet among some reactionary anti-imperialists, there is a notion that, bad as Trump might be, Hillary Clinton would be worse. Clinton is supposedly the ultimate war-maker whereas Trump strangely gets cast as some sort of man of peace.

For instance, at Counterpunch, William Blum says of Trump:

He speaks of Russia and Vladimir Putin as positive forces and allies, and would be much less likely to go to war against Moscow than Clinton would.

On the Syrian dictator, Trump said last September: “Assad, to me, looks better than the other side,” and in January he claimed that Clinton and Obama “created ISIS.”

Those who want to see Trump as an anti-interventionist should note that in the same speech in Biloxi, Mississippi, he proudly asserted in front of a crowd of thousands of supporters, “I am the most militaristic person in this room.”

On the nuclear deal that Obama struck with Iran, Trump warns: “I will police that [deal], to a level that they [Iran] will not believe even exists.”

Anyone who thinks that a president Trump who has vowed to expand America’s military strength would turn out to be a stabilizing influence in the world, seems to be indulging in wishful thinking.

But let’s suppose that Trump did indeed turn out not to start any wars overseas, there isn’t a shred of evidence that he has the capacity to be the “great unifier” at home that he claims to be.

Trump builds unity in the same way that every tyrant employs: by fomenting hatred of the enemy.

The enemy is a revolving target. It alternates between immigrants, Muslims, the media, China, and now, disruptive protesters.

The result of this approach is always the same: division.

Although he keeps on winning primary after primary, Trump is viewed across America more unfavorably than any other major candidate — and yet he’s likely to become the Republican nominee.

He may even become president. As he correctly says, Clinton’s supporters lack “fervor,” while Bernie Sanders faces a struggle in the Democrat delegate count.

The risk is that out of cynicism about the political process, or out of a sense perhaps that America might be getting what it deserves, Trump’s half-hearted critics may hand him power — power gained not because of the breadth of his support but because too many people underestimated the threat he poses to this country.


Donald Trump’s strongman strategy


To the mild frustration of reporters and commentators, Donald Trump has thus far run a presidential campaign that is virtually content-free when it comes to policy substance.

The main thing he promises to deliver if he becomes president is Donald Trump. He isn’t asking voters to support what he stands for; he wants Americans to support him.

And as for why anyone should support him, his reason is plain: I’m the man. I’m stronger than anyone who tries to challenge me. I can make America great because I am great.

Each time Trump casually generates outrage, he demonstrates his growing power. He parades his ability to act without constraint and baits the media which promptly and obediently declares, “this time Trump’s gone too far.”

Yet as both he and they know, on the contrary, he’s just shown that none of his rivals or critics have the power to rein him in. Like a boxing champion, he continues waiving his fist in the air to the delight of his admirers.

When Trump refused to disavow the Ku Klux Klan this weekend, did this have anything to do with his views about the KKK? I very much doubt it. Instead, it much more likely revealed what he thinks of Jake Tapper and CNN. Trump wasn’t about to jump through a disavowal hoop on the command of a journalist.

Trump has made it abundantly clear how he views the media, not only through his countless verbal expressions of contempt, but also through demeaning the press at campaign rallies by forcing them into pens, like farmyard animals — a humiliation that news organizations accept because of their own greed.

Since Trump is running as a strongman for America, all he has to do is pick fights and win them. It doesn’t matter what the fight is about — just that he’s the one who comes out on top.

When the pope seemed to be picking a fight with him, Trump backed down — that was a fight that offered no reward.

When Trump runs as the Republican candidate in the general election, he won’t need to be the most popular candidate in order to win — he’ll just need to get the most votes. In other words, it probably won’t matter who he is running against if he is successful in generating a higher turnout from his supporters than that of his opponent.

In this regard, Trump’s trump card is the fact that he mostly appeals to Americans who are loyal to strong leaders and obedient to their commands.

Last month, Max Ehrenfreund wrote:

One of the reasons that Donald Trump has flummoxed pollsters and political analysts is that his supporters seem to have nothing in common. He appeals to evangelical and secular voters, conservative and moderate Republicans, independents and even some Democrats. Many of his supporters are white and don’t have a college degree, but he also does well with some highly educated voters, too.

What’s bringing all these different people together, new research shows, is a shared type of personality — a personality that in many ways has nothing to do with politics. Indeed, it turns out that your views on raising children better predict whether you support Trump than just about anything else about you.

Matthew MacWilliams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted a poll in which Republicans were asked four questions about child-rearing. With each question, respondents were asked which of two traits were more important in children:

  • independence or respect for their elders;
  • curiosity or good manners;
  • self-reliance or obedience;
  • being considerate or being well-behaved.

Psychologists use these questions to identify people who are disposed to favor hierarchy, loyalty and strong leadership — those who picked the second trait in each set — what experts call “authoritarianism.” That many of Trump’s supporters share this trait helps explain the success of his unconventional candidacy and suggests that his rivals will have a hard time winning over his adherents.

When it comes to politics, authoritarians tend to prefer clarity and unity to ambiguity and difference. They’re amenable to restricting the rights of foreigners, members of a political party in the minority and anyone whose culture or lifestyle deviates from their own community’s.

“For authoritarians, things are black and white,” MacWilliams said. “Authoritarians obey.”

When Donald Trump calls out his troops on November 8, they will obey.


In Libya, Obama chose to lead from behind; in Syria it’s now feed from behind

The New York Times reports: Most of the Russian and American aircraft traversing Syria have been warplanes firing missiles and dropping bombs. But under an international agreement to aid Syrians trapped in the fighting, Russian planes will soon be dropping food in an operation partly financed by the United States.

The United Nations World Food Program will start its first airdrops in Syria in coming days, relief officials said Thursday. The main focus is Deir al-Zour, an eastern Syrian city where more than 200,000 inhabitants are ringed by forces of the Islamic State, which has made land access impossible.

Under the emergency aid agreement, truck convoys began supplying food and medicine to five besieged towns in other parts of Syria on Wednesday. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for the Syrian conflict who helped to negotiate the final arrangements, had hinted that airdrops were an option for areas that are unreachable by land.

The World Food Program will use aircraft provided by a Russian contractor for the drops, which are conducted by parachute from high altitudes, said Bettina Luescher, a spokeswoman for the agency. [Continue reading…]

If the U.S. administration wanted to salvage a few crumbs of credibility among the Syrians who it has otherwise deserted, it could have seized this opportunity in public diplomacy — just as the Russians have.

It’s all very well to say that getting aid to those in need is more important than taking credit, but somehow, I doubt very much that U.S. decision-making at this juncture has been guided by humility. Moreover, Russia’s interest in taking the lead is surely guided by its own desire to do exactly what the Assad regime has in its long-running manipulation of UN aid distribution: support it’s military strategy by steering aid towards its own supporters.

Obama might persist in his passive approach to Syria because he sees himself as the choreographer of America’s departure from the Middle East, but walking away is much easier said than done.

Syria has become a global crisis precisely because so many governments and populations outside the conflict thought it could be ignored or viewed calmly from a comfortable distance.

Meanwhile, many of those who in the past argued most vehemently against Western intervention have since become cheerleaders of Russia’s intervention — erstwhile anti-militarists who turn out to be secret admirers of Vladamir Putin’s muscularity.


How to lose sight of war crime immorality


After the U.S. dropped bombs on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Afghan city of Kunduz on October 3, Glenn Greenwald wrote:

Doctors who travel to dangerous war zones to treat injured human beings are regarded as noble and trustworthy. They’re difficult to marginalize and demonize. They give compelling, articulate interviews in English to U.S. media outlets. They are heard, and listened to.

MSF has used this platform, unapologetically and aggressively. Its staff are clearly infuriated by the attack on their hospital and the deaths of their colleagues and patients. From the start, they have signaled an unwillingness to be shunted away with the usual “collateral damage” banalities and, more important, have refused to let the U.S. military and its allies get away with spouting obvious falsehoods.

Greenwald shared MSF’s disgust in response to statements which amounted to justifications for war crimes.

Following the latest airstrikes on MSF hospitals in Syria, Greenwald’s reaction has so far been much more muted. It has yet to go beyond a couple of tweets which rather than being directed at the likely culprit of these war crimes, Russia, focus instead on the hypocrisy of the U.S. government.

Indeed, the U.S. can’t credibly denounce Russia for bombing MSF hospitals in Syria when it has done the same in Afghanistan.

By the same token, however, how can Greenwald credibly denounce American war crimes if he’s going to refrain from denouncing Russia’s?

He can’t be accused of being a hypocritical U.S. official. He doesn’t represent the American government.

Maybe at the moment he’s suspending judgment about who was responsible for the latest airstrikes in Syria — even though MSF says the attack was “deliberate” and says “either the [Syrian] government or Russia” was “clearly” responsible:

That’s a pointless question in this case since as far as Russia is concerned, there is nothing to investigate.

As TASS reports:

Asked for a comment regarding reports a hospital in Syria’s Idlib province had been bombed, as well as claims the Russian air group was responsible, [Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry] Peskov invited everybody to rely “on the root source first and foremost.” “In this particular case the representatives of Syrian authorities are the root source,” he said.

Peskov recalled that Syria’s ambassador to Russia, Riyadh Haddad, said on Tuesday the hospital in Idlib province was destroyed by the Americans, and not the Russian air group.

If Greenwald actually believed Haddad’s claim, I would expect him to be now denouncing U.S. airstrikes on MSF hospitals in Syria, but he isn’t — most likely because he realizes the Syrian ambassador was spouting obvious falsehoods.

Instead, Greenwald’s primary interest is in using these war crimes as an opportunity to take shots at the U.S. government — even though as Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and others have documented, attacks on medical facilities are neither accidental nor incidental to the conflict: they are an integral feature of the war strategy used by Assad and his allies.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine in December, doctors with PHR said:

Since the conflict began in 2011, PHR has documented the killings of 679 medical personnel, 95% of them perpetrated by government forces. Some personnel were killed in bombings of their hospitals or clinics; some were shot dead; at least 157 were executed or tortured to death.

The issue here is that anyone who wants to resolutely challenge American double standards needs, for the sake of credibility, to avoid having their own double standards on war crimes.

As for the notion that Greenwald, as an American, has a duty to challenge his own government rather than Russia’s, he might pause to consider that his tweets and articles probably attract more attention in the Kremlin than they do in the White House.