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Posts Tagged ‘al qaeda’

We are arming al Qaeda-aligned rebels in Syria.  We are doing this because Bashar al Assad is supposedly a bad guy and now we are told there is a cassus belli in that he may have used chemical weapons.

Was it OK, by contrast, when the rebels massacred a Shia village earlier this week or shot government soldiers in cold blood and posted it on youtube?  Under what principle is it worse for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons than it is for the rebels fighting that government to engage in numerous, intentional, very brutal violations of the law of war?

One or another side’s tactics does not logically tell us that we ought to choose a side and go to war.  It matters a great deal what each of the sides are fighting for.  And it is even more important to assess whether assisting one or the other side is in our interest.  There is always the option of neutrality.  It should be adopted in the vast majority of cases.

Assad is no great guy.  He, like most Middle Eastern dictators, has little regard for the rule of law, has enriched himself at the expense of the public, has used disproportionate violence against his opponents, supported our enemies in Iraq, and has associated with Hezbollah, which is undeniably a terrorist group.  That said, he has led a moderately prosperous, orderly, and tolerant regime that is multireligious, protective of Christians, and otherwise stable and predictable. We’ve seen in recent years similar dictators deposed in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt with totally unpredictable results that are clearly worse than the status quo ante.  We can deal with dictators; we cannot manage anarachy.  Even if Assad deserves to be toppled–and I am doubtful of this–what business is it of ours to sign on with a rebel group that is even more hostile to our nation and its principles?

One may wonder why Russia has become so involved with this conflict, supplying sophisticated arms and a great deal of diplomatic support to Syria.  Two reasons seem clear.  Russia, like the US, has carried on some of its Cold War alliances out of habit, such as its friendly relations with Cuba and North Korea.   More important, Russia  is acting as the protector of Orthodox Christians throughout the world.  This is in line with Samuel Huntington’s thesis in Clash of Civilizations and explains at least a portion of Russia’s foreign policy. This was the chief reason for its support of Serbia during the Kosovo affair, for example.

Why this would be so in Syria is not readily apparent, as the Alawite minority ruling group is a subgroup of Shia Islam.  But there is a pretty obvious explanation.  The Alawaite Ba’athist regime in Syria, like Saddam’s Ba’athist regime in Iraq, grew out of a secular ideology and historically has found its greatest support in a hodgepodge of ethnic and religious minorities. These minorities are all scared of the numerical majority Sunnis and their increasing extremism.  In Syria, the Sunni extremists are part of the broader Salafist/Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam that finds its most militant expression in al Qaeda.

Thus, we have a war with secular and religious minorities (Christians, Shias, Alawites, Druze etc.) on one side, who favor law and order and the devil they know, and, on the other side, fanatical Sunni extremists aligned with increasingly irrelevant secular enemies of the regime. The rebel platform is essentially one of genocide and religious totalitarianism.  This is what we are supporting, and this is undeniably worse than what Assad has delivered throughout his time as leader, in spite of himself, because of the coalition nature of his minority support and the type of governance that flows naturally from such a coalition.

America and Reagan were criticized for “arming bin Laden” during the fight against the Soviet client state in Afghanistan.  This criticism always struck me as pretty stupid and facile.  It’s like saying we were incredibly wrongheaded in World War II to support the Soviet Union, whom we later opposed, in order to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Things change.  Coalitions come and go. There was no easy way to predict what exactly would come of the anti-Soviet rebels back when there was no Taliban or al Qaeda and, more important, it was worth it at the time to contribute to the devolution of the Soviet regime, even when some risks were apparent.

Whether that criticism of US policy has any merit, it surely is absolutely ridiculous to arm al Qaeda-aligned rebels simultaneously when we’re fighting a war with such people. There is no need for a crystal ball, unlike the 1980s support of the Afghan mujaheddin.  The better analogy would be if the US had adopted a schizophrenic policy during World War II of  aligning with Nazi Germany, while we were fighting Imperial Japan, even as the two remained allies themselves.

Let’s not forget what the real Benghazi scandal is.  Libya spun out of control after the US and European powers in 2011 undertook a totally lawless campaign there, a campaign without UN Security Counsel or Congressional authorization.   The rebels killed Qadaffi in cold blood, when they were not killing black Africans allied with the government.  Soon Libya, like Syria today, became a magnet for the “jihad tourists,” who undoubtedly could not resist the American target. Learning nothing of the very recent past, we’re now going to arm al Qaeda rebels because the regime they are fighting against used one among many nasty weapons in what is invariably the most nasty of wars:  a civil war.

The law of war is important, as is respect for the rights of civilians and other noncombatants.  But violations of the law of war alone are not a reason to go to war.  This is doubly so when the so-called good guys are just as guilty of violating the law of war as those whom we now aim to oppose.  Most important, the people we are proposing to support with arms, in addition to fighting atrociously, are fighting for a goal that is fundamentally atrocious:  Islamist totalitarianism and mass murder of  the Assad regime’s supporters. 

For a guy who appeared to have some sensible, nonideological instincts to oppose a great deal of military intervention during the 2008 campaign, Obama has shown himself to be as deeply wedded to the Washington DC interventionist consensus as anyone before him.  Indeed, he has apparently doubled down in his recent elevation of the interventionist Samantha Power to the post of UN ambassador.

We find the answer to this apparent contradiction in Obama’s lifelong leftism.  Obama is not essentially a pacifist, but rather an anti-American leftist.  He most favors wars that have nothing to do with America’s interest. In the liberal imagination, such wars are far preferable to wars where strategic goods like oil or commerce may be affected, as these interventions are marked by purity of intention.  Thus, he proposed to fold up the tents and scale back the war on al Qaeda earlier this week, even as he propels our forces into messy civil wars in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.  Worse, Obama is willing not only to ignore America’s interest in these cases, but to work directly contrary to it by arming al Qaeda-aligned rebels in the name of “humanitarian war.”

This is more than misguided do-gooderism.  This is treachery that knows no bounds, as it is no ordinary betrayal of the common good, but rather a treachery that imagines itself as a cosmopolitan, universalist morality that transcends parochial and discriminatory notions of mere national interest.

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Ten years ago today, our country and my family received a terrible blow.  We were attacked.  Our countrymen were murdered.  We were shaken. 9/11 is an important historical event that has defined much of the last ten years, but it was also a family tragedy for me, as my Uncle Donnie Regan gave his life that day in the line of duty with the New York City Fire Department.

I distinctly remember the day, as I’m sure most Americans my age do.  I was living in Texas at the time–taking time off and about to start my first law firm job in a few weeks–and received a call from a close friend.  They were evacuating the Dallas Federal Building.  I turned on the TV.  The first tower was already down.  I was stunned.  The second tower came down soon thereafter.  My alarm at this took a little time; at first, I thought this was a replay of the first tower falling.  Then I realized that this situation was even worse than I thought.  Rumors of the “mall in DC” being on fire were on the news.  No one knew the extent of it.   I spoke briefly to my parents, when I heard that Donnie–my uncle and the father of my cousins to whom I am closest–may have been at the towers.

(more…)

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Military tribunals make perfect sense for members of al Qaeda.  These individuals are non-citizens, their prosecution often depends on sensitive intelligence, and their presence in American courtrooms would be disruptive and a security risk.  In war, military tribunals have been used from the Revolutionary War forward, and their streamlined procedures, ability to hold proceedings in secret, and capacity for swift justice recommend them over civilian procedures designed for ordinary crimes.  Of course, the  years-long delays in trials for Guantanamo Bay prisoners and the failure, since 9/11, to execute huge numbers of al Qaeda members in our custody suggests the “swiftness” part is not taken seriously enough by the executive branch.  By contrast, in World War II, Germans using American uniforms to infiltrate allied lines and disrupt American units during the Battle of the Bulge were summarily executed.  But, even so, these tribunals are preferable to the alternative, even if their potential efficiency has not bee employed to great effect.

So it is with a mixture of happiness and schadenfreude that I learn the Obama adminsitration is going to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in a military tribunal down in Guantanmo Bay.  Recall that Obama and many of his supporters preened self-righteously about the demerits of preventitive detention, the need to accord al Qaeda detainees full POW status, the evils of military tribunals, the inhumanity of drone attacks and much else during the 2008 campaign and before.  That is, the left didn’t only rail against the War in Iraq, where they had a point.  They also railed against every aspect of the war against al Qaeda. 

On both fronts–preventitive war and the use of cedures for terrorists–Obama is in retreat.  He is realizing that most Americans don’t really give a fig about terrorists, they want them killed or captured, and simply have the minimal humane concern that innocent goatherders be returned to their families if they can be reliably identifiied.  We all know, and Obama and his buddies forgot, that the burdens of proof are shifted in wartime and that we must err on the side of safety, particularly as we face a foreign, ruthless, and uncivilized enemy that deliberately hides among civilians.  It is not America’s fault that the innocent Afghanis and al Qaeda terrorists appear similar; it’s al Qaeda’s, with their ragamuffin appearance and terrorist tactics. 

I’d like to think this decision is a sign of Obama growing in office, but it appears more like simple triangulation.  Just as he dropped his lifelong obsession with gun control once he became president and realized it was political dynamite, it’s obvious that his views on foreign policy and the law of war were mostly campaign props, instincts developed from years in liberal Hyde Park, rather than well thought out positions.  Here he has been temporarily burdened by the incompetent Eric Holder’s “true believer” implemntation of these principles, but Obama’s political instincts are not so terrible than a guaranteed loser–such as a face off with 9/11 Families in NYC–is going to be pursued to the bitter end. Even on his signature issue, race and American identity, he left his pastor of 20 years when it became a problem. 

We are reminded from all this and much else that Obama is not a man of high principle; his chief principle is his love of self and his interest in political survival.  And thus all that “hope and change” rhetoric is now quite obviously a bunch of gliterring genrealities uttered by a thoroughly ordinary politician.

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I read (but did not watch) the President’s speech on Iraq.  Of all the things he has done as President, stopping our mindless “stay the course” approach in Iraq has been something I generally approve.  I also think it’s a testament to his relative moderation on foreign policy that our withdrawal has been orderly.  I disagree with conservatives who say we’re “cutting and running” or that his failure to acknowledge the “success of the Surge” shows his bad faith.  The Surge, in fact, while it tamped down some violence in Iraq, has hardly been a success without qualification.  There is still a significant terrorist presence in Iraq.  Its politics are still corrupt, and its likely future will be as a Shia-led Iranian partner. And the Surge is often credited with a reduction in violence caused by the earlier Anbar Awakening, which itself was caused by the mistakes and oversteps of al Qaeda in Iraq.

The original mission in Iraq (of finding and destroying WMDs) turned out to be largely unnecessary.  Upon this, Bush elevated the secondary mission of installing a friendly democracy.  This led to a seven year counterinsurgency campaign that has ended inconclusively.  It likely created as many Iraqi nationalist terrorists as it destroyed Islamist ones.  And for its modest or nonexistent benefits, it did tie down our forces, cost many American lives, destroy much American equipment, and cost a great deal of money over the last seven years.  If the first part of the Iraq mission was defensible, the latter portion was clearly a mistake.

As a work of rhetoric, however, Obama’s speech was uninspired.  He never seems tremendously comfortable in the commander in chief role.  He keeps our troops’ sacrifices and honorable work on the same plane as jobs for steelworkers or healthcare reform. In other words, he misses some of the romance of the soldier’s life that Bush and Reagan understood.  This is one of many reasons a great many Americans view him as an alien figure, who does not share their values.

Where Obama does not get points from me and where he seems particularly confused is on Afghanistan.  He disagreed with Bush and pulled out of Iraq because he surmised, correctly in my opinion, that the mission was a counterproductive loser.  But why then should the same type of mission be pursued in Afghanistan so many years after the 9/11 attacks? Unlike 2001, there are not significant terrorist training camps there; we are dealing there, as in Iraq, with a nationalist and Islamic insurgency fueled by our presence and the various petty and major grievances Afghans have with our lumbering presence.  The main part of the enemy have fled to Pakistan, which is an on again, off again, partner in the war against al Qaeda.  The mere presence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan should not be enough to justify an extended nation-building campaign; al Qaeda is also in Iraq, not to mention Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and, for that matter, Germany, France, the UK, and the US.  It’s not clear from Iraq that replacing corrupt dictatorships with corrupt, sectarian democracies does anything at all to fight terrorism at a strategic level.  Once again, look at Pakistan, a functioning, long-established Islamic democracy, where large elements of its military and intelligence infrastructure support Islamic terrorists.  In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, limping along with a smaller, but still significant presence, hardly seems the kind of serious change Obama made such a show of in the campaign.  It looks more like hedging his bets in an area in which he is supremely unconfident.  And this course promises to continue blood-letting, expense, and meaningless accomplishments like slightly reducing the daily car-bomb count in countries that have nothing to do with us.

How to use the military to fight terrorism is not an easy question.  But part of the answer seems like focusing on the terrorists themselves and not being terribly concerned with changing the environment that incubates them.  That environment is fueled by a combination of Islam and typical Third World corruption, and it cannot be easily changed.  But what our military can do is blow up camps, lavish informants with cash, use drones to blow up terrorist leaders, bomb terror-supporting countries, sink ships, and otherwise engage in our own version of “hit and run” tactics rather than conventionally, and expensively, trying to transform ancient peoples into good liberal democrats.

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If Obama’s foreign policy is sometimes incoherent, Hillary’s is simply Bush-lite.  Her recent essay in Foreign Affairs reveals herself as someone who does not depart substantially from the globalist paradigm of Bush and President Clinton, with the main difference being her greater faith in “diplomacy.”  In a world where many nations’ interests involve knocking America down in prestige and power, this is simply wishful thinking of the worst sort.  It’s essentially the foreign policy espoused earlier by John Kerry.  It is vague about how she will fight terrorism, focusing instead on a policy of supporting the people that will clean up the pieces in the wake of an attack, the lauded “first responders.” 

The flaws in Hillary Clinton’s basic perspective are never more apparent than in her discussion of one of the major foreign policy failure of the last decade, the payoff deal given to North Korea to cease its nuclear programs.  This deal was brokered by Jimmy Carter and signed off by President Clinton and promised North Korea money to cease its nuclear arms programs after it had essentially threatened the West with its arsenal.  She writes: 

Like Iran, North Korea responded to the Bush administration’s effort to isolate it by accelerating its nuclear program, conducting a nuclear test, and building more nuclear weapons. Only since the State Department returned to diplomacy have we been able, belatedly, to make progress.

Actually, North Korea was undertaking all these programs after the deal when it promised it would not do so.  Nothing in Bush’s “axis of evil” remark could have set off such a massive undertaking.  The money paid off by the ’94 Clinton Deal enabled the North Korean regime by giving it much-needed financial and material support.  As I wrote earlier:

I can’t say I blame Clinton for not discovering North Korea violations and weapons plans earlier. The secret North Korean regime is notoriously hard for our spies to penetrate. But I do fault him for thinking he could bribe a criminal regime like this into behaving sensibly. The basic concept of the agreement was the problem, and the end result was more or less inevitable. Even the most minimally rationally black-mailer, once he’s been paid, has an incentive to seek more. And that’s exactly what North Korea’s been trying to accomplish ever since. Clinton’s plan was all carrot and no stick. Bush has been tasked with cleaning up a mess that he did not create, where he did not fail to negotiate real security guarantees, and under the threat of a far more substantial North Korean weapons capability.

On top of its flawed concepts, Clinton’s lengthy essay provides little guidance as to when and where diplomacy is necessary or unlikely to be of use, nor does it articulate when force is needed and under what circumstances she would use it.  For instance, does she embrace the “humanitarian wars” concept of President Clinton?  Does she think a UN mandate is always necessary (after all, her husband did not in Kosovo)? Does she recognize that certain irrational players on the world stage, such as A-Jod in Iran, may not respond to the same incentives as less ideological and religiously-tinged leaders?  Finally, does she recognize any inherent or at least structural tension between the Western World and the Islamic world?  She’s either silent or vague on these issues.  The world Muslim only comes up in referring to her support for “building a Muslim democracy in Afghanistan.”

Bush has been a disaster on foreign policy because he is a liberal.  He believes in spreading democracy, the universality of American values, and the necessity of idealism in our foreign policy.  He also has been incompetent, using tough talk without backing up words with appropriate action, alienating potential friends like Russia, using democracy as a substitute for the necessity of real security in Iraq, and being diffident and inarticulate about the need for intelligence-gathering against al Qaeda.  There is no reason to think Clinton will not be worse in all these respects, even if she is accepted more readily by the Europeans. 

Let’s not forget that it is al Qaeda, China, Iran, and Russia who matter most in the next President’s foreign policy.  On all four matters, the first President Clinton, embracing a very similar view as Hillary was a disaster.  Al Qaeda grew in strength and planned 9/11 during his watch.  China grew stronger military and economically under his watch, and its increasing trade with the West did not liberalize its internal affairs as promised.  Iran continued to support terrorism during Clinton’s more mild presidency and was linked to the Khobar Towers bombing without any retaliation on his part.  Finally, Russia grew increasingly alienated from the West during Clinton and Bush’s presidency because both presidents desired to expand NATO, criticized Russia on Chechnya (where it’s fighting al Qaeda and its allies), and both meddled in Russia’s internal affairs and elections.  Clinton may not be loony on foreign policy, but liberals and conservatives alike should expect many of the same problems as Bush has had, coupled with the likely disappointments that the deus ex machina of diplomacy will foster.  These problems will persist because both Hillary Clinton and Bush use liberal ideas–the importance of the UN, democracy (including among our allies), and human rights–as guides when hard-headed realism about diplomacy and the use of force is needed.

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Bush’s defense of his more controversial stands in the war on terror has been Clintonian. First, he denies that something is taking place. Then, when that something–in this case, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is exposed–he simply denies without explanation a reasonable characterization by critics: these techniques constitute torture. Now, I do not support torture. And, more precisely, I do not support official policies that sanction torture. There may be times to forgive ultra vires actions after the fact; this is different from allowing them in advance. These techniques and policies may be defensible. But Bush does not show respect to his critics or the citizens who elected him by providing such a defense. He never says, for instance, these are regrettable incidents of war, truly dirty deeds that are absolutely necessary. Instead, he just repeats: this is necessary, and also this is not torture. No one is fooled, not even his supporters. This kind of rhetoric has been his hallmark in other contexts; for example, he denied that his nation-destroying amnesty proposal was in fact amnesty.

Framing policies is important. There is nothing wrong with describing them in a manner that reasonably describes them in a way that is favorable. But simply denying reality and ignoring critics and proffering labels instead of reasoned arguments is a sign of decline. It’s a sign of decline in the Presidency and also in the citizens who accept this descent into unreason. Reagan, in describing his various controversial policies–the arms race or cutting taxes and spending, for example–did not deny reality, but instead explained how these policies were necessary and likely to work towards the common good. He acknowledged their essence and did not, for lack of a better word, lie.

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In between his paeans to folks in Bangalore wearing Nike shoes and drinking Starbucks coffee while talking on their Samsung phones, Thomas Friedman also likes to write about foreign policy. He infamously declared every six months for three years running that the situation in Iraq was critical and, by implication, that if things did not sort themselves out that the war was essentially lost. He never felt obliged to revisit his previous predications. He also quietly started speaking out against the war after positioning himself earlier as one of its most sentimental cheerleaders.

But now he’s turned a new corner. His banality and faddishness have fully joined forces with his peerless capacity for observing the mundane through the lens of a well-traveled propagandist for globalization. He basically has declared the war on al Qaeda won and the events of 9/11 over-played and, therefore, unimportant for the next election. No hidebound slave to the past, he writes:

I will not vote for any candidate running on 9/11. We don’t need another president of 9/11. We need a president for 9/12. I will only vote for the 9/12 candidate.

What does that mean? This: 9/11 has made us stupid. I honor, and weep for, all those murdered on that day. But our reaction to 9/11 — mine included — has knocked America completely out of balance, and it is time to get things right again.

Yes, in the wake of 9/11, we need new precautions, new barriers. But we also need our old habits and sense of openness. For me, the candidate of 9/12 is the one who will not only understand who our enemies are, but who we are.

I guess I missed that great day, some two or three years ago, where representatives of al Qaeda stood on the deck of the USS Nimitz and signed formal documents of surrender. Has Friedman not noticed the recent attacks on Glasgow airport, al Qaeda’s massacres of civilians in Iraq, the radicalization of European Muslims, the Paris riots, and the Bali, Madrid, and London bombings? We’ve not had a significant domestic attack after the various resrictions Friedman complains about were put in place. His failure to notice this bona fide success is analogous to the liberal complaint about “warehousing criminals,” even though the last decade of increased incarceration has also led to a significant reduction in violent crime. One of the worst things about Friedman, and one of his great deficiencies as a columnist, is his failure to refocus the public’s attention on important, though easily forgotten, matters of importance. He instead loves the ephemeral, as evidenced by his vulgar habit of dropping brand names to show how we all consume the same things world-wide.

Al Qaeda is real. It means us harm. Within its ranks, one finds motivated personnel who have shown a remarkable combination of cunning, high concept operations, and willingness to exploit our tendency towards forgetfulness and complacency. The post 9/11 changes on the border and outside our borders–including the establishment of GITMO and the increase of monitoring of visitors to the US–mean that American citizens can live more securely and with fewer restrictions upon ourselves. As I’ve noted before, the false freedom of open borders means less freedom of movement and security at home. Instead of coining useless new phrases–like al Qaeda 2.0–Friedman should use his powers of rhetoric to envision the results of al Qaeda’s next attack, perhaps an exploding LNG tanker in Boston or a hijacked cargo jet hitting the Sears Tower or a company of urban snipers slipping in through Mexico.

Friedman does not understand that the very openness he wants to return to was, in part, the cause of the various security lapses that led to 9/11. The government and private industry maintained a culture of willful blindness and wishful thinking. Frieman tells us we need to be more open and solicitous of the opinions of the rest of the world, and, to appease our critics, we must close GITMO and create procedures to faciliate easier access for business travellers. He intones, “Those who don’t visit us, don’t know us.” My God. Has Friedman not noticed that sometimes people visit us, hate us more, and use their visits to kill lots of us, e.g., Atta, Qutb.

It’s true, there has been a great deal of water under the bridge since 9/11 on how best to deal with al Qaeda; in particular, the strategy of forcible democratization of the Middle East seems entirely discredited by events in Iraq. But the problems of the Iraq War do not mean that al Qaeda is no longer a big deal or that we can turn our attention to the things that Friedman really gets excited about like gadgets and smart foreigners with similar, transnational values.

Friedman is the most prominent champion of globalization in the American media. He undoubtedly endures endless sleights, sincere pleading, and criticism from Davos People for America’s alleged crudeness and insensitivity. With his latest column, Friedman has guaranteed access to the finest cocktail parties in Davos and Geneva and Paris and Durban for years to come. At the same time, he has disqualified himself from being taken seriously by Americans who are concerned about American security.

There is little accountability in journalism. People make predictions that do not come true and still continue to earn a living. I want this stupid column plastered everywhere the next time al Qaeda manages to undertake a successful attack, which, sadly, is almost certainly inevitable.

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