Tag: terrorism

Why We Fight; and How We Will Win

no to terroris

When philosopher Erich Fromm introduced George Orwell’s novel 1984, he warned readers that the book was not about the Soviet Union and life under communism.  1984 was about the West, about democracy and the ease with which it can turn itself into dictatorship by succumbing to fear and hatred.  The novel was Orwell’s warning that in the conflict between the western democracies and the communism of the Eastern Bloc, both systems would become less distinct, more like each other.  Eventually, in fighting an ideological struggle, democracy would become more ideologically orthodox, more totalitarian.  Communism would for its part borrow ever more the Western language of liberation and freedom.  Orwell and Fromm both argued that, in ideological conflict, the main danger is not being defeated from the outside by the enemy.  The main danger is that in fighting their enemy, each side will assume the characteristics of the other until the struggle becomes only a semantic excuse for a fight over power, pure and simple.

The US has entered a new ideological struggle, this time against ISIS, an incoherent network of extremists who share a radical perversion of Islam (arguably an anti-Islamic vision), who have opened their arms to the disgruntled peoples of the world in the hopes of fomenting violence against their enemy.  ISIS’s enemy is the Muslim community; a community whose nations universally reject the pretended “state” and its “message.”  The Muslims of Syria and Iraq have formed an even more incoherent “alliance” of sorts, with Shi’a and Sunnis fighting seemingly side by side (or at least against the same opponent) to dislodge ISIS from its power base.  That power base was constructed in the vacuum of power created by Bush’s dissolution of the Iraqi Army in 2003.  The base was greatly strengthened after the Arab Spring, which briefly united many Arabs and Muslims of diverse beliefs and political views against corrupt governments like that of Egypt and brutal dictatorships like that of Syria.  ISIS called on extremists to reject the democratic principles that some Arab leaders promoted during the Spring, and instead to embrace a doctrine of fear, anger, and hatred toward those outside of their bubble.  They have warred against minorities like the Kurds and Yazidis, they have foisted a rape state of brutal sexual slavery upon women, and they have even looted and destroyed Arab, Muslim, and Christian cultural landmarks for profit and for attention.

Furthermore, as ISIS’s initial success in capturing a territorial base has now resulted in an alliance of forces steadily taking back that territory from them, ISIS is turning ever more to a strategy of “decentralized terror” against external forces predominant in aiding their chief Muslim enemies, especially Russia, Western Europe, and the US.  ISIS has reached out to other extremist groups throughout the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere to create an image of a “network” of groups that were already using terror to war against the forces of reason and community.  This network is a momentary alliance of groups that have shifted their alliances among groups like al Qaeda, and represent not a growth of ISIS, but an “alliance” of convenience between groups already extant and active.  Finally, ISIS has called on those outside the organization to “come to the dark side,” to commit terror in ISIS’s name regardless of their lack of actual connections to the organization.  This call has been answered in places like Paris, San Bernardino, and Orlando, where disgruntled people suddenly proclaimed “allegiance” to the group, an “allegiance” eagerly accepted by ISIS as a cost-free means of confusing their enemies into thinking that they are more widespread, embedded, and powerful than they are.

ISIS is using these tactics to build a regime of hatred, racism, and fear.  They hate Muslims who are not committed to their vision; and they of course also hate infidels and foreigners for the same reason.  They perpetrate racism against groups within and near their area of control in Syria and Iraq, and they perpetrate rape and slavery against women.  They work strenuously to frighten those in their base area to remain quiet about the extremist “state” that they are trying to establish, and to frighten those outside their power into doing their bidding.  Their chief external aim is to force other societies into more extreme anti-Muslim positions, to convince Muslims that their only viable option for retaining their Muslim identity is to embrace ISIS radicalism.  Those foreign leaders who do ISIS’s bidding; who follow ISIS’s game-plan by fomenting suspicion, fear, and hatred of Muslims; are helping to prop up ISIS’s failing outhouse of orthodoxy, and are keeping ISIS’s enemies from achieving victory.  Those leaders are building, both in their states, as well as in ISIS, a larger world dis-community of hatred, racism, and fear.

This is the enemy against which the US is poised.  In view of this enemy, Orwell’s and Fromm’s arguments from 1984 have become no less relevant today than they were in 1948.  In fighting ISIS, some like Donald Trump have sought to do exactly that which ISIS requires of them, and exactly that against which Orwell and Fromm warned us.  Trump seeks to “fight” ISIS by transforming the US into another version of ISIS, to transform the thing ISIS hates into the thing ISIS is trying to build:  a world regime of hatred, racism, brutality, and fear.  Trump followed the recent Orlando atrocity not with kind words and praise for the victims, but with calls for ever more astringent measures directed solely at Muslims, exactly the response ISIS hopes such actions will inspire.  Trump could not have followed ISIS’s playbook more faithfully if he were directly in their pay.

The response of Democrats (and even some Republicans) to Trump’s partnership with ISIS, however, reflected the better angels of America’s “shining City on a Hill.”  Democrats like President Obama and Secretary Clinton, and Republicans like Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham, condemned Trump’s inexcusable partnership with our enemies, declaring that the US was not about to turn aside from its historical legacy of building a greater community from diverse peoples, or from America’s record of taking in refugees and immigrants as new builders of our nation.  The legitimacy of our City is best exemplified in the fight with ISIS by a specific strength which Trump even denied without any factual basis.  The FBI has repeatedly reported that the American Muslim community continues to serve as the nation’s best early warning system against terror attacks, helping enormously to keep such incidents to a minimum.  Trump simply ignored our law enforcement and intelligence specialists, and the abundantly available facts, blaming Muslims for not supporting law enforcement or working with the government.  These unfounded verbal attacks by Trump on Muslims, for not doing exactly what our intelligence and law officials say that they have been doing exceedingly well, are not only “uninformed” or ridiculous.  They are seditious, slanderous, and dangerous to our established, effective, and functioning security system.

During the Cold War, the US on any number of occasions succumbed to the temptations of Orwell’s warning.  The US blacklisted Communists (real and alleged), imprisoned some just for their political views, maintained surveillance against civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., put out of work people who espoused nonconformist views as when Muhammad Ali was denied his boxing awards and credentials for his anti-war views.  Ultimately, however, such tactics did not weaken the Soviet Union, strengthen the US, or lead to any victory.  Instead, the Soviet Union was weakened by democratic forces eating away at it from the inside, by pin pricks of republican values as Americans engaged with the Soviets in travel, commerce, and science.  The US welcomed Soviet citizens seeking refuge like writers Vladimir Nabokov and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who became leading voices for Soviet nonconformists seeking an alternative vision for their society.  It was the best liberal traditions of our City on a Hill that pushed the Soviet Union over the cliff, not the worst moments of emulating our adversary.  Our victory over ISIS, once we have achieved it, will be no different.  Becoming like unto them will only strengthen them.  Our best liberal values are exactly what ISIS is working to undermine; and extremist thugs like Trump who help them will not “win” anything other than a fuller ISIS entrenchment.

Our liberal traditions, the vision of the City on a Hill, are Why We Fight; but they are also how we must fight if we are to win, and if a victory is to mean anything other than a closer partnership with our enemies.

Headline image posted on imamsonline.com, “Islamic Scholars Must Unite to Combat Extremism.”

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Why the Democrats are the New National Security Party

Gopper

Following a series of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and France, national security has become a vital issue in the continuing contest between the Democratic and Republican parties for the hearts and minds of the American voters.  Americans were particularly shocked by the Paris attacks, in a city seemingly far removed from the conflict zone of the Middle East, and especially considering the long and close relationship between the US and France.  Reacting with an almost post-911 frenzy, American pundits and social media commentators ratcheted up the panic level to maximum.  Seemingly reading the temperature of frightened Americans, the US House of Representatives pushed through House bill 4038, restricting the entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the US.  Numerous state governments also issued arguably illegal restrictions of refugees to their own states as well, ignoring increasing evidence that refugees in France were not involved in the attacks (perpetrated by French and Belgian nationals), and contradicting France’s own immediate response of welcoming even more refugees.  As the election year draws ever closer, American voters will consider the two major parties’ (and their candidates’) responses to terror and their positions on national security policy.

First on the radar screen at the moment is Daesh (or the Islamic State; the author prefers the former term particularly as the group finds that term to be offensive to their image), the group behind last week’s terror.  Sadly, neither party has a cohesive plan (let alone an exit strategy) for pursuing war, with both parties apparently employing a “one-piece-at-a-time” chess-game strategy.  Candidates from both parties are reluctant to engage in another seemingly indefinite ground war, and the complexities of the Syrian civil war perplex the candidates on all sides.  Trump, Cruz, Bush and Christie (and Clinton on the Democratic stage) all urge a greater use of US airpower (most unrealistic is Trump’s focus on destroying oil facilities, which are of only minimal value in petroleum-poor Syria).  Trump and Carson both urge a greater ground effort in Iraq (containing Daesh to Syria, though neither candidate is willing to use the term “containment” to describe their strategy).  Bush has, since the latest wave of attacks, begun to favor the use of ground forces, but has not specified where or how, or how many, or with what objectives.  Paul wavers indecisively between calling the use of ground forces “unconstitutional,” and stating that he would use “…overwhelming force.  I wouldn’t mess around.”  He is as devoid of details as Bush, however.  Kasich favors invoking Article V of the NATO agreement, to “take care of business and come home,” but also has not said how either the deployment or the coming home would actually work.  Finally, Sanders, still trying to maintain relevance against Clinton’s rising popularity among Democrats, calls for a new, greater coalition (including Russia as well as the Muslim states of the Middle East).  Sanders, however, has not been able to explain how to defuse the increasing hostility and suspicion between the US and Russia.  With Russia bombing anti-Assad groups who have been aided by the US, there is much to do if Russia and the US are to work together instead of seeing the war as a zero-sum conflict between themselves.  No one on either side of the partisan divide has successfully addressed that issue.

Another issue of the Syrian war is the status of refugees seeking to escape the war zone.  On this issue, the parties have spelt out their differences far more prominently.  Republicans pushed through the House bill, and most of the state efforts to restrict refugees have come from Republican governors.  Republican candidates have said little to oppose restrictions, and have even called for “religious tests” denying Muslims refuge in favor of Christians.  Trump has even echoed Nazi racial programs by calling for the “registration” of Muslim refugees.  Sanders and Clinton have both (in league with President Obama) attacked such as un-American and un-Christian; and that argument has resonated with the evangelical community (normally a Republican stronghold).  Various commentators have linked Republican language of restrictions to Daesh’s specific goal of dividing America from the Muslim community, calling the Republicans out for surrendering in one fell swoop the terrorists’ most immediate political objective.

Taking the bipartisan confusion about the Syrian war together with the clear partisan divergence on the greater philosophy of conflict and engagement, we can define a reluctant tendency of a few Republican hotheads to push for a greater “imperial overreach,” while most candidates agree that a new war may simply not be in our national interest.  The Democrats, while being only slightly more (but questionably) reasoned and willing to lean on allies and other powers, see a clear link between the pursuit of war policy in the Middle East and maintaining our “shining City on a Hill” through one of our most American and liberal values, the compassion for refugees seeking a better life in a civil society.  Republicans are more willing to sink to the lowest common denominator of popular suspicion and resentment of the “Other,” and choose to empower themselves in a confusing conflict by taking power from those seeking asylum.  As with so many other issues, the Democrats’ approach seeks to build the City on a Hill; whereas the Republicans want only to wave the flag while denying its true meaning and value.  The Democrats’ approach also de-emphasizes the military aspect of the conflict in favor of the greater political conflict, while the Republicans confusedly wallow in the mud over tactical military problems without a greater appreciation of the politics driving the issue.

Iran is another issue more cohesively dividing the parties, both as an actor in the Syrian war, and as a power seeking a greater role in regional affairs.  All candidates recognize that Iran and Daesh are inherently opposed to each other, but they also fear what an increased role for Iran in Syria would mean for Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and other regional states and issues.  Clearly as the US looks to regional states to step up and defeat Daesh, Iran’s massive and well-equipped military poses as a major potential ally; but a sudden US-Iran relationship could not be formed from that foundation alone, particularly as long as Iran and Israel both remain inherently hostile to each other.  As with Russia, Iran shows something of a zero-sum game approach to the conflict, with an Iranian defeat of Daesh as not necessarily in the strategic interest of the US (and with Iran viewing a potential US defeat of Daesh through a similar lens).  Neither US political party has developed a viable pathway to a US-Iran partnership on Syria.

Iran’s search for greater regional power and relevance further conflicts with American security policy on the nuclear weapons issue.  Flanked by  a hostile, nuclear-armed Israel to one side, and a hostile, nuclear-armed Pakistan to the other, and faced continuously by US naval forces in the Persian Gulf (themselves obviously backed by a massive nuclear deterrent), Iran has obvious motivations for acquiring a nuclear weapon.  Such a capability would force the US to use greater reflection before employing its military forces against Iran, and could theoretically increase Iranian prestige in the region (albeit also triggering a regional arms race, as Iran’s other regional rivals would seek to acquire their own nuclear deterrents).  The US, wishing to keep its military options on the table (and also fearing a potential Israeli-Iranian nuclear exchange), wishes also to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.  This issue has driven the past year’s antagonistic partisan debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and related agreements, by which Iran has agreed to surrender the vast majority of its nuclear weapons production potential (in both its on-hand materials and its processing capacity).  Republicans responded to their growing irrelevance in international politics with alarmist misrepresentations of the agreement (relying on their supporters’ reluctance to read 160-page technical agreements).  The Democrats, on the other hand, were able to brush aside Republican arguments, although they did face some difficulties over Republican accusations regarding “secret language” in the Additional Protocols.  Nevertheless, the Democrats secured a victory both internationally as well as domestically, in first pushing Iran to the peace table (through Clinton’s construction, as Secretary of State, of a rigid international sanctions environment), and second in getting the agreement approved over the opposition of the conservatives of both nations.

Another major security problem for the US is Russian expansionism.  Republicans have scored points by recalling Obama’s 2012 criticism of Mitt Romney, telling the governor that US-Russian conflict was a thing of the past.  Sanders hopes in effect to prove Obama right by developing a more productive relationship with Russia; but has not indicated how he would make that happen.  The Republicans dither between Trump and Fiorina imagining themselves using their corporate boardroom experience to build a better relationship (disregarding the historic lack of success that American business leaders have had in using business strategy in international politics), and Carson’s details-free “position of strength” exhortations.  Clinton is the only candidate with actual experience in negotiating with Russia and Putin; although her track record there is a combination of both successes and failures.  Otherwise, Republicans do not actually say what they would do differently from each other, or from Obama.  They attack Obama as somehow impotent in the face of Russian expansion into the Ukraine and Syria; but they ignore their own party’s failure in preventing or halting an actual outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.  They have offered no actual solutions not already explored or implemented, only insisting that their sheer Republicanness would somehow force Putin to back down (despite the fact that that did not work the last time they tried it).  The Democrats, with Sanders’ vague intent to partner with Russia, and Clinton’s actual experience in doing so, therefore show a modest superiority over the Republicans, who seem more confused and torn over what to do (and over how to frame a campaign statement about it).

Finally, the Democrats claim a right to a major national security interest that the Republicans have traditionally denied en masse: the threat posed by climate change.  A few of the current flock of “clown car” candidates, however, see the issue as an arena in which to grab moderate American voters, and so the GOP’s diversity on that issue has grown.  Trump, Huckabee, Cruz, and Carson are still flatly in denial; while Fiorina, Rubio, and Paul are willing to concede that something freaky is happening, but all demonstrably oppose any  government action to limit or reverse the process.  Kasich, Christie, and Bush all recognize climate change as the real result of human actions; but they only see the need for the most limited of government action to curtail the problem.  Clinton can also be shown as having only limited commitment, having (while serving as Secretary of State) pushed fossil-fuels development as a key to foreign states’ overall energy independence; but her language is far more hawkish and she supports the president’s Clean Power Plan.  She may well have been steered to the left by Sanders’ more inflammatory language (describing climate change, at least before the recent wave of attacks, as the greatest threat to the US).  Martin O’Malley has fought for relevance from his single-digit approval ratings by in part pushing a far more detailed and comprehensive Clean Energy plan than have either of his Democratic rivals.  Both parties have therefore used the issue not merely to hammer the other party, but as an in-party arena to attract different political constituencies.  However, across the board, the Democrats have called unapologetically for greater action, while the Republicans’ most “radical” elements call simply for limited action at best, preferring to rely on private corporations’ good will to accomplish energy transformation and ecological protections.  The most popular Republican candidates fall on the flat denial side (although collectively those “most popular candidates” still poll at less than half among total Republican supporters).  Overall, the Democrats continue to be the party most willing to pursue actual reform on environmental and energy policy.

The Democrats can lay claim, therefore to being the US’s “National Security Party,” having by far the more coherent view of American security interests, as well as potential solutions to current problems.  Neither party really has much of a vision for Syria; but the Republican “fire and forget” military strategy applied in Iraq (and which created the Daesh problem in the first place) still remains their preferred alternative.  The Democrats see the need for a more philosophically consistent political conflict, between the American City on a Hill and an extremist, deliberately antidemocratic way of life, using our nation’s greatest assets and the power of modern information systems to push Daesh into irrelevance while using limited military efforts to neutralize physical targets as they manifest themselves.  The Democrats also have a far better plan (and history) of dealing with Iran, although there, too, both parties suffer from strategic myopia.  Even more short-sightedness is evident on the Russian front; but the Democrats have the greater experience and willingness not just to talk but also to listen, a fundamental step to repairing relationships.  Finally, on climate change, the Democrats have a much clearer vision of both the scope of the problem and the venue for solutions, a vision far more consistent with the actual data acquired by climate scientists.  As we near the start of the election year, the Democrats have demonstrated themselves as the party most capable of facing and solving our most vital national security problems.

Spark! Special Report: The Friday the 13th Attacks on Paris

Image: Victim's body in street close to Bataclan concert hall early Saturday

A victim’s body in a street close to the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, France, early on Saturday.  Getty Images (photo and caption as reported by NBC).

Friday night, November 13, 2015, saw a wave of terror attacks ripping through the French capital of Paris, with multiple locations in the tenth and eleventh arrondissements being targeted by shootings, explosions, and a hostage situation. Six locations experienced the greatest carnage, including diner shootings (by assailants spraying automatic weapons fire from Kalashnikov assault rifles), explosions outside of the Stade de France football stadium and elsewhere, and mass terror in the Bataclan theater where an American rock group, the California-based “Eagles of Death Metal” was playing. The area of terror was adjacent to the neighborhood of the attacks against Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, in January.

The Stade de France was hosting a game (a so-called “friendly”) between Germany and France, attended by the President of France, Francois Hollande. While no incidents took place in the stadium, explosions could be heard outside, and the president was evacuated. The game, however, continued, and the French attendees sang the national anthem, “Marseilles,” as they left the stadium after the game’s conclusion.

Bataclan was held by several assailants in a hostage situation until a police assault, which apparently triggered suicide detonations by the assailants. While the site was the center of gravity of the night’s death toll, the band playing there is reported to be safe and all their people accounted for. There were, however, numerous other Americans involved in the events of the night, including dead and injured.

During the carnage, seven assailants killed themselves with suicide detonations, and an eighth was shot and killed by the police. Latest reports by AP, NBC, and other agencies have the police continuing a search for possible additional assailants or accomplices; none are currently known (or at least publicly reported) to be at large, however. One of the assailants was a French citizen, known to have links to “Islamic extremist activity” (as AP reports); and another reportedly had a Syrian passport, but his nationality has not been reported. As of Saturday morning, no other personal information has been reported on any of the assailants.

During the attacks, the French government declared a state of emergency, and tightened security at the border (mostly through repealing open-border measures enacted through the European Union). In addition, airport security was heightened, with NBC reporter Cassandra Vinograd describing “hours-long delays” at the airports. The terror of Friday the 13th is described by some reporters as constituting the deadliest attack on France since World War II, with (as of Saturday morning) 127 reported dead, and some 200 injuries, dozens critically.

In the wake of the attack, ISIS supporters have circulated unconfirmed statements of responsibility for the action. NBC reports that, “ISIS has previously threatened France due to its military operations against the group in Syria and Iraq.” Assuming their claims of responsibility are true, and with the likelihood that the recent downing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai was also an ISIS operation, the group’s opponents may now be facing an expanded terror campaign, as ISIS moves its area of operations beyond Syria and Iraq. President Hollande has vowed to attack ISIS “without mercy” in response to the attacks, which he described as “an act of war that was prepared, organized, planned from abroad with internal help.”

On Friday night, and Saturday morning, France was greeted with international support from multiple quarters. President Obama called the attack an atrocity against “all humanity,” and the FBI’s legal attache in Paris aided French officials in their investigations. In the meantime, the US Department of Homeland Security determined that there was “no credible threat to the US.” However, some US cities, like LA, saw a greater police presence at certain key sites and public venues. Other expressions of support to France poured in from foreign leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (as well as President Putin). Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned the attacks as a “crime against humanity,” and the Kuwaiti, Qatari, Saudi, and Indonesian governments uttered similar condemnations and expressed their solidarity with France. Facebook saw numerous expressions of personal solidarity with France; and Facebook deployed its “Safety Check” capability developed last year, enabling survivors to post their status to friends and loved ones (the capability sends a message about the sender’s safety, that appears in FB friends’ notification lists, therefore taking precedence over regular posts).

On Saturday morning, as police continued to search for accomplices and more answers, numerous public facilities and sites were closed throughout and nearby Paris, including museums, schools, the Eiffel Tower, the Disney theme park, etc. Border and airport security remained tightened. In the meantime, France and the rest of the world have to consider the ramifications of a post-911 world, as more and more groups and causes embrace the use of terror to push their message and agenda.