Monthly Archives: August 2013

Syria’s poison gas

Much yelling by Kerry about the use of toxic gas in Syria on Damascus’ suburbs and towns.  Calling the act “morally reprehensible” Kerry gets up on his high horse and talks of retribution.  He should be very careful of what he says in public.  We, the US have no high horse to stand on having used  cluster bombs, depleted uranium and phosphorous in Iraq.  Since the rest of the “international community” (western Europe) said nothing at the time officially about our sins, we got away with murder.  I can imagine the ironic laughter burbling up in Iran and Iraq.

The drums are rolling for a military response, which, if Obama lets himself be so persuaded, will either do nothing or lead to a disastrous involvement in the internecine strife going on all over the Middle East. The US really has no dog in the fight now going on in Syria.  Weakening Assad will only strengthen the islamists among whom are jihadis with long memories of American atrocities in Iraq.  Americans may have forgotten the killings in Fallujah, the abuses of Abu Ghraib, the drone bombings of villages in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, the abuses of Guantanamo, but the jihadis have not.

Matthew Schrier, the photographer who was captured by a jihadi group in Syria and escaped tells how the gunmen who tortured him reminded him of Guantanamo to justify their treatment of him.  What more will they do if the US takes military action against Assad?  How much blowback can we expect to see, regardless of our vaunted “security”?  What possible good can firing a few missiles at Assad do?  Obama has really put himself in an impossible position.  There never should have been any talk of “red lines”.

However that may be, why doesn’t anyone seem to consider that in the chaos that now reigns in much of Syria, some sort of an accidental release could have happened?  The military could have hit one of its own supply dumps.   Rebels might equally have set off the gas inadvertently.  Are we not looking for an excuse for war as in Iraq?  And why is it always war?  There are other ways of solving problems besides reaching for a gun, though in this case it would be difficult.  We would be better off if there were no choice to be made.  We can’t solve the problems in Syria.  We probably can’t solve the problems in the Middle East/ North Africa in general.  By our own behavior towards others, not our words, but our actions, over the last 10 years we have dug ourselves into a deep pit of hypocritical ineffectualness.

So we attack Syria militarily in some fashion.  What does it accomplish?  More death and destruction on top of what has already happened?  What does that prove?  Big Brave United States bombs a small country in the middle of a civil war.  Kills hundreds of innocent civilians from the air.  What a marvelous headline that would make!  And how on earth would such action “help” anything?  And how would it “punish” Assad?

There is talk of “proof” that Assad’s forces let loose the poison gas that sounds all too much like the “proof” of WMD the Bush regime put forth to justify the invasion of Iraq.  We know what a disaster that turned out to be.  There is no proof this time either, but we should have learned from bitter experience that once the engine of war has been started it’s impossible to stop.   Escalation or mission creep will inevitably follow any brief attack that we might make.  Think Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and how all those fights began as “small wars”.  Are we going to wait for the UN to finish its job this time, or are we going to thoughtlessly rush in again?

Obama is going to have to be particularly stubborn if he is to resist all the pressure being put on him to lead us into another foreign disaster.  It bothers me that he has a tendency to yield to so-called experts in an attempt to keep the peace in his administration.  It won’t work this time.

Some people bring up a comparison to Kosovo.  The former Yugoslavia was a much smaller country, and much less well defended than Syria.  It was also not home, however temporarily, to Islamic extremists and jihadis.  The “moderates” in the Middle East and North Africa have been fading into the background while the struggle goes on between military and islamic authoritarianism.  It is not a struggle that the West should be poking its nose into except in the most subtle and hidden ways to promote what remains of our interests.  And for heaven’s sake let’s stop gasping in horror over what has happened in Syria!  Think Napalm, cluster bombs, and phosphorous and where those poisons were used and by whom.  Think poison gasses given/sold to countries by our own CIA.  Above all, think of the possible consequences of any military action we might take.  Learn something from the chaos produced by the invasions of Iraq and Libya.

The arm chair warriors will always be there to trumpet their calls to arms far from the dirt, the blood, the dismemberment, the killing and the destruction they wish on those weaker than themselves.  Don’t listen for they are the true spreaders of evil in the world.

Note:  A tiny item in the NYT today  notes that an Iraqi court has ruled unconstitutional the term limits of the President, the Premier and the Speaker of Parliament.

So these worthy gentlemen can keep running for office as long as they wish while edging further and further away from George Bush’s model of “democracy”.  Surprise, surprise!


Stephen Walt in today’s Foreign Policy:

“Yet we now appear to be getting ready to drop a lot of ordnance on Syria — and for a pretty flimsy reason. John Kerry is outraged that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons — or so he believes — but as I’ve noted before, that fact (if true) is not dispositive. Assad’s forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases. Yes, chemical weapons are illegal and yes, there’s a taboo against their use, but going to war solely to reinforce a rather unimportant norm is a poor reason. The fact that Assad is killing innocent people with this particular tool and not some other equally nasty tool is not by itself a reason to get involved.

“What is most striking about this affair is how Obama seems to have been dragged, reluctantly, into doing something that he clearly didn’t want to do. He probably knows bombing Syria won’t solve anything or move us closer to a political settlement. But he’s been facing a constant drumbeat of pressure from liberal interventionists and other hawks, as well as the disjointed Syrian opposition and some of our allies in the region. He foolishly drew a “red line” a few months back, so now he’s getting taunted with the old canard about the need to “restore U.S. credibility.” This last argument is especially silly: If being willing to use force was the litmus test of a president’s credibility, Obama is in no danger whatsoever. Or has everyone just forgotten about his decision to escalate in Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and all those drone strikes?

“More than anything else, Obama reminds me here of George Orwell in his famous essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Orwell recounts how, while serving as a colonial officer in Burma, he was forced to shoot a rogue elephant simply because the local residents expected an official of the British Empire to act this way, even when the animal appeared to pose no further danger. If he didn’t go ahead and dispatch the poor beast, he feared that his prestige and credibility might be diminished. Like Orwell, Obama seems to be sliding toward “doing something” because he feels he simply can’t afford not to.

“Sad, but also revealing.”:

Secrecy and Fear

I’ve just finished reading Peter Maass’ fine piece in the New York Times on Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Edward Snowden.  It is at once terrifying and awe inspiring.  It is also a fairly accurate diagnosis of what the fear mongering of the Bush era and since has done to whatever was left of American civil liberties.  Government suppression of information about its questionable true activities have reached some kind of a nadir in a long history of secrecy and coverups beginning with Vietnam, and perhaps long before then.  That American citizens should be forced to go to such extreme lengths to provide the public exposure of government wrongdoing is very scary indeed.  It makes me feel as though I should be investigating ways of securing myself against the kinds of intrusion that Poitras and Greenwald have been subjected to, as well as the much more severe retaliation against Snowden and Manning and who knows how many others.  The brutality of war has infected all the security branches of our government, to the point at which the government itself becomes the enemy of every citizen who wishes to live in a democratic country that values the freedoms of speech, assembly, and of the press that it brags about to the world but does not practice.

And as an aside, the embassy shut downs have been called off, except for Yemen, and not one thing has happened to any of our embassies or foreign service personnel.  How strange!

Thoughts on surveillance and Senator McCain

In the last couple of days I’ve read posts by Englehart, Van Buren, and now Juan Cole  (whose post I can’t find).  On the NSA etc they seem to agree with what I’ve been saying, and it occurs to me in the light of all the hoopla over the embassy shut downs that the government is desperately trying to distract us from its egregious flouting of the Constitution.  Juan Cole wonders if we are waking up to the Soviet Union of America.  I suspect we’ve been there since 9/11, and it’s only going to get worse unless more people start to make a great deal of noise.

Senators McCain and Graham went to Egypt to try to “save” the situation.    All they did was insult the military and the interim government and destroy the quiet diplomacy Undersecretary Burns was attempting.  How, you say?  Well, at their press conference, these oh-so-smart and all-knowing Senators said outright that what had happened in Egypt was a coup, and that the Muslim Brotherhood should be let out of prison and house arrest and allowed to participate in the senators’ idea of Democracy.  How to start a civil war in one easy lesson! The last thing Egypt needs right now is the return of the Muslim Brotherhood. All the Senators did was undermine the people who actually believe in democracy which the Muslim brotherhood showed under Morsi’s rule that it does not.  

 It’s quite possible that if the US hadn’t meddled in the first place in 2011 that the Muslim brotherhood never would have been elected.  But no, we must rush everyone who’s never had it to instant Democracy!  Egypt needs time – time to come together as a country, time to develop the institutions that underlie something like democratic rule.  Elections by themselves won’t achieve anything in the winner-take-all minds of recent victims of dictatorship.


  • If Obama sent those two idiots to Egypt, he’s getting worse advice than I thought he was, or he’s beginning to lose his mind.
  • The drone wars have to stop.  All they do is make more terrorists.
  • Blanket electronic surveillance has to stop. It’s time we admitted that we have been ruled by fear and get over it.
  • Abuse of detainees, no matter where they are held, has to stop, and that includes Manning as well as the Guantanamo detainees.
  • Government secrecy and duplicity must return to the status quo ante 9/11.
  • Whistleblowers should be tolerated, especially when all they do is expose  government stupidity.  Embarrassment is no excuse to prosecute people for espionage.
  • Where’s our Harry Truman of the 21st Century?

John McCain seems to think he has superior knowledge and ability in foreign affairs than the President or anyone else.  He believes in the shoot-from-the hip style that was in vogue during the Bush administration.  He’s all for bombing people and forcing them to do what he thinks is right.  The only problem with that is, that it didn’t work in Vietnam, it didn’t work in Iraq, and its not working in Afghanistan, so why would it work in Egypt?  Someone should cancel his travel budget!

Embassy closures – really?

There’s been a lot of uproar about the NSA surveillance of phone and internet usage of practically everyone in the world.  It began to look like the argument in favor of limiting those secret powers and providing for greater transparency and legality was winning the day.  Then comes this announcement on Thursday that 21 American embassies around the globe will be closed for the immediate future because of some “credible” but unspecified “threat”.

Now there are worries about prison breaks:

“Prison breaks took place in Pakistan on July 31 in a Taliban-led operation, and in Iraq at the Abu Ghraib prison overnight on July 22. Some 500 convicts, among them senior al Qaeda operatives, escaped from Abu Ghraib.

More than 1,100 inmates broke out of a prison on the outskirts of Benghazi on July 27.

Interpol also noted that August was the anniversary of several violent attacks over the past years, including in Mumbai and Nairobi.”

We are also coming to the end of Ramadan (August 7), a time when some attacks in the past have happened, and the beginning of Eid-al-Fitr, a time for Muslims of charity giving and family celebration lasting 3 days.

Is any of this stuff related, or are we seeing something to justify the previous actions of our intelligence agencies?  Cynical? Yes!  It’s happened so many times before.  Someone on NPR last night even mentioned code Orange and code Red in connection with airports, the infamous codes to frighten everyone introduced during the Bush administration that brought us the TSA, its searches, its scan machines, etc.  It just smells like a change-the-subject operation to makes us forget about losing our privacy rights.

These are are the countries so far where Embassies and/or consulates will be closed (they are all Muslim countries, except Israel):

“Algiers, Algeria, Sana’a, Yemen; Tel Aviv, Israel; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Ankara, Turkey; Muscat, Oman; Doha, Qatar; Cairo, Egypt; Kabul, Afghanistan; Baghdad, Iraq; Amman, Jordan; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Manama, Bahrain; Tripoli, Libya; Nouakchott, Mauritania.”


That’s just 18 different countries from a list that supposedly came from an NBC report.  You have to watch the news clip to see the list of countries.  It certainly sounds a bit scary, but how do we know for sure?  Our intelligence folks have cried wolf so many times before.  And, in light of the NSA fiasco, how do we know the government is telling us or the world the truth?  It’s a stretch.

Here’s the entire list of travel warnings from the State Department:

U.S. Embassy Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

U.S. Embassy Algiers, Algeria

U.S. Embassy Amman, Jordan

U.S. Embassy Baghdad, Iraq

U.S. Consulate Basrah, Iraq

U.S. Embassy Cairo, Egypt

U.S. Consulate Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

U.S. Embassy Djibouti, Djibouti

U.S. Embassy Dhaka, Bangladesh

U.S. Embassy Doha, Qatar

U.S. Consulate Dubai, United Arab Emirates

U.S. Consulate Erbil, Iraq

U.S. Consulate Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

U.S. Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan

U.S. Embassy Khartoum, Sudan

U.S. Embassy Kuwait City, Kuwait

U.S. Embassy Manama, Bahrain

U.S. Embassy Muscat, Oman

U.S. Embassy Nouakchott, Mauritania

U.S. Embassy Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

U.S. Embassy Sana’a, Yemen

U.S. Embassy Tripoli, Libya

It includes the consulates and also Jordan, Algeria and Sudan.

That just looks like over wrought self-justification for the “security” agencies to me.

Trust in government

July 30:

Syria in ruins.  These are Reuters photos that make me wonder why people still believe that there’s something heroic in fighting each other.  When it’s all over, as it will, eventually, be over, won’t they say, “What was it all for?”  They will have nothing.  Will anyone help rebuild such self-destruction?  What if the old city of Damascus gets destroyed along with everything else?  Was one man’s life (Assad), worth the destruction of thousands of years of culture?

August 1:

Tim Wiener of Enemies: A History of the FBI and Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, has an editorial in today’s Cincinnati Enquirer that appears generally sympathetic to Pfc Bradley Manning.  I have admired Mr. Weiner’s writing, especially his history of the CIA, but he has some phrases in his column today that I find deeply disturbing.  Perhaps I misinterpret, but read the piece for yourself and decide what you think.

Speaking of the files leaked to Wikileaks that had to do with the Iraq war, Weiner says this:

“What the files reveal is a slice of what life during wartime was like under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. And understanding what war is, and what it does to people, is dangerous knowledge.” (Italics are mine)

Why does Weiner say this is dangerous knowledge?  Understanding what war is may well make us less willing to go off on similar disastrous adventures in the future.  Understanding the depths of brutality and depravity war causes in people should make us wary of ever engaging in it except for the defense of our nation on our own soil.

He goes on:

 When the Pentagon Papers were first leaked to the New York Times, White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman shared a fascinating insight with President Richard Nixon. Haldeman had been talking about the papers with another Nixon aide – Donald Rumsfeld – who had said that “to the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook.”

But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing,” Haldeman told Nixon. “You can’t trust the government. You can’t believe what they say. And you can’t rely on their judgment“. (Italics are mine)

Well…?  Relying on “their” judgement is exactly what we should not have done in 2003.  Is that lack of trust in government what’s “dangerous”?  Frankly, I’m not ready to put away my critical faculties or the ability to see what’s real in favor of some higher power that calls itself my government.  As Americans, we need to treasure the skepticism our nation was born with, not relinquish it to some Washington DC power that tries to tell us what to think.  That’s what the Germans did before and during WWII to their sorrow.  That’s what many of the citizens of Communist countries did during the Cold War, and that’s what we did during the long fight for Vietnam that turned out not to be the “domino” we were sold.  Unquestioning trust in any authority usually leads to some sort of disaster after which we live with the dead, the maimed and impaired, the suicides and substance abusers, the broken and scattered families, the homeless former warriors who walk our neighborhoods as pariahs, and the fanatics with murderous intentions.

Seems to me Life is more precious than that.  Think about those Reuters photos of Syria and think about the people who did the destruction and what it has done to them and those whose lives were destroyed.

Total trust in government is what gets us to the point where we don’t mind that our government can mine everything we say and do on the Internet or other electronic device, where something we believe to be safety leads us to relinquish our rights as citizens.  I think it could well be a slippery slide to authoritarianism.