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Thursday, September 12, 2013

What Putin Got (Exceptionally) Right

I am no fan of Vladimir Putin and I have real questions about what is motivating his recent actions, but I have to say that these words from his major essay in today's New York Times are to me deeply true and resonate with what I felt when I heard Obama say his piece about American exceptionalism in his Tuesday night speech. (Kudos to Mark Silk for making me aware of Putin's words.)

 "I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is 'what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.' It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

A New Way to Fight AIDS in Africa

The staggering numbers surrounding AIDS in Africa can leave us numb and paralyzed to act, but a new program under development by my good friend Todd Thomas offers a clear way for us to get involved and make a positive difference. Todd, building on his years of service in Africa, has begun a new nonprofit called Change Crowd. As he describes it, "Change Crowd will be a nonprofit that purchases and delivers antiretrovirals to HIV infected people across the world, beginning on the African continent, by creating a donor base (crowd) of people giving only $10 a month!"

More details on this important new work are available at the indiegogo website that Change Crowd has developed to raise the initial seed money for the project. I hope you will check it out!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Russia’s—and U.S.A.’s—Dirty Hands on Chemical Weapons

News of Russia’s proposal to help eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons naturally brings out American suspicions about how genuine Russia’s efforts are. After all, the argument goes, hasn’t Russia been a supplier ofweapons to Syria for years? How can we trust their intentions?

The problem with that argument is that it assumes that a country must have a pure heart and clean hands in order to contribute to a diplomatic effort. If that were so, then the United States would hardly be in a good position to be lecturing Syria and Russia about their attitudes towards chemical weapons. After all, as recently released records, the United States played a significant role in enabling the last great user of chemical weapons in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Check out the complete report, but here is a portion of a story in the WashingtonPost:

Foreign Policy published a disturbing article over the weekend about U.S. complicity in Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s. Recently declassified CIA documents uncovered by the magazine and interviews with experts reveal that not only did the U.S. government know that Iraq was using chemical weapons in the conflict earlier than disclosed, it gave satellite intelligence to Iraqi forces that helped them plan future chemical weapon offenses:

In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that [Saddam] Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.
The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Saudis Announce Support For US Strikes: What Does THAT Mean?

The front page of the Washington Post announced the news: “Kerry: Saudis Support a Strike”, which elicited an instinctual response from me of “Is this good news?” I suppose that for a Secretary of State stumbling to find any international support for the course of action he has led the president towards, any kind of Arab support will qualify as a victory. But having the support of Saudi Arabia raises far more questions than it answers. While President Obama has gone to lengths to describes his military plans as being unintended to draw America into Syria’s civil war, Saudi Arabia has been an active supplier of arms and has been a key part of a plan that has CIA operatives actively training and supplying Syrian rebels. While Kerry sees Saudi support as a good sign, I see it as a sign that this proposed attack is about much more than just chemical weapons and that it is very much tied to an increasingly active intervention by the United States into the heart of the Syrian civil war. This perspective has been more fully developed by Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal. Entous was interviewed this past Friday on Democracy Now! Here is an excerpt from that eye-opening discussion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, your article provides enormous detail—for instance, the role of Jordan and the training, not only by the CIA, but by Saudi forces. Could you talk about Jordan’s role now in the training of the rebels?
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. So, what happened was, is, initially, the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey and, to a certain extent, the CIA in more of an observatory capacity, had set up their operations for arming the rebels out of Turkey. And about a year ago, a little over a year ago, you know, the Saudis were watching as these arms were flowing in, and were concerned that they were going to what the Saudis and what the Americans would consider to be the wrong rebels, and this would include Islamist groups, Muslim Brotherhood-connected groups. And so they decided to pull out of Turkey and move to Jordan.
They convinced the king of Jordan, who was a little—a little bit reticent initially to accept this being done in their territory, because they were worried about reprisals, where, for example, there are large refugee camps for Palestinians just north of the Jordan-Syria border, inside Syria, and the fear for the Jordanians was that the Syrians would literally push those refugees into Jordan and further destabilize the kingdom. What we found in our reporting is, is that Bandar spent many hours with the king and with his military chiefs, reassuring them that the Saudis would support the Jordanians through this. And then CIA Director David Petraeus was involved, as well, in helping assure the Jordanians that the U.S. would have Jordan’s back.
And last summer they created this operation center. And what would happen—what is happening now is you have actually more CIA officers now there at that base than there are Saudi personnel. They fly weapons in. The Saudis are the ones who are doing the bulk of this. They buy the weapons in—largely in places like Eastern Europe, to a certain extent Libya, and they bring them to this base, which has a landing strip and storehouses for the weapons to be stored. The Saudis and the Jordanians draw on defectors, largely, from the Syrian military, which already have a good degree of military training. And they’re brought to this base, where different intel agencies train them. And the Americans are there. The Brits are there. The French are there. The Saudis, UAE is there. And they train them, and then they send them into the fight. And this—but very, very slowly, this process has been built up over the last couple months.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you report, as well, again in a replay of Afghanistan, that the CIA is not only training some of these rebels, but actually has put key figures of the Free Syrian Army on the payroll.
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. It’s a very interesting development, which we learned of as part of the reporting, which is, you know, we are—you know, the United States is not at war with Syria, so this is obviously being done covertly with the CIA. The Saudis were instrumental in getting the CIA to agree to pay these salaries. And the idea is, if these—if these FSA commanders receive American money, the U.S. is building loyalty and building relationships that would last into the future. And that’s the main rationale with these payments that are being made.
And it’s part of, generally, an effort by the Saudis to gradually increase the extent of the U.S. investment in the war in Syria. And it’s been slow-going, as far as the Saudis are concerned, because the CIA is—remains, you know, divided and skeptical about whether or not this is—this has a chance of succeeding. And that’s why you see, for example, the number of CIA-trained rebels entering Syria is incredibly small, given the number of months that this has been going on. For example, Congressman—excuse me, Senators McCain and Graham were told on Monday by Obama that an initial group of 50 rebels trained by the CIA were getting ready to enter, and this is after months of work at this base in Jordan, and the number is incredibly small.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Saudi Arabia, Prince Bandar and the chemical weapons story?
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. So, you know, as you know, the U.S. right now is poised for military action in response to a very large alleged case of chemical weapons use on August 21st. You know, over the course of the last year, there have been these scattered reports of chemical weapons being used in much smaller quantities. Generally speaking, the U.S. intelligence community has been skeptical initially of those. The Saudis played an early and important role in trying to bring evidence of chemical weapon use to the West for analysis. And we were told, as part of the research for the story, that the Saudis had a—were brought by members of the Free Syrian Army, which is the Western-backed rebel group, a Syrian who had been exposed to an agent, a chemical agent. The Saudis arranged for that Syrian to be flown to Britain for treatment and to be tested. What the British found when they did the testing was that this Syrian was exposed to sarin gas, which the U.S. and British and French intelligence believe is only in the possession of the Syrian regime. That was sort of the first case that was—offered credible evidence that chemical weapons had been used.
And what you saw in the months that followed was, first, Saudi intelligence, so Bandar’s intelligence agency, concluded that chemical weapons were being used on a small scale by the regime. Followed by that, the Brits and the French were convinced of the same conclusion. It took U.S. intelligence agencies really until—until June to reach that conclusion. And that’s what led the Obama administration, at least publicly—it was cited by the Obama administration as the trigger for Obama’s decision to instruct the CIA and authorize the CIA to start arming the rebels at this Jordan base.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you write not only about the role of Prince Bandar, but also the current Saudi ambassador to the United States and his close connections to Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham and also to the Obama administration. Could you elaborate?
ADAM ENTOUS: Sure. So, Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir replaced Bandar as the ambassador here, and he is—you know, has the kind of access to the circles of power in Washington that few, if any, ambassadors have. He gets meetings with the president. He meets constantly with the top White House advisers, as well as members of Congress. And he sort of used the Saudi playbook from the 1980s in Afghanistan…Well, in the case of Syria, the Saudis identified the core group as being Senators McCain, Senator Graham and former—former Senator Lieberman. That was the core group. And then Adel al-Jubeir, the ambassador—
AMY GOODMAN: We have about five seconds, Adam.
ADAM ENTOUS: —worked to expand—sure—worked to expand that out to bring more people in, and in the end built a great deal more support within Congress for arming the rebels.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Pope's Challenge: "Conquer Your Deadly Reasoning"

"We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!"
Pope Francis, September 7.

In an extraordinary message delivered today at the Vatican’s 4-hour vigil for peace Pope Francis issued a ringing call, deeply rooted in biblical humanism, for an interfaith peace movement that will move humanity away from weapons and the logic of war. It is a brilliant meditation, sure to last as one of the most timely papal statements on war and peace in modern times. Here are some of the most striking passages to me:

God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other. This evening, in reflection, fasting and prayer, each of us deep down should ask ourselves: Is this really the world that I desire? Is this really the world that we all carry in our hearts? Is the world that we want really a world of harmony and peace, in ourselves, in our relations with others, in families, in cities, in and between nations? And does not true freedom mean choosing ways in this world that lead to the good of all and are guided by love?...

I would like for each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations, to respond: Yes, we want it! My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken…

Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation. Look upon your brother’s sorrow and do not add to it, stay your hand, rebuild the harmony that has been shattered; and all this achieved not by conflict but by encounter!

The Bacevich Moment

The book I had the opportunity to serve as research assistant for.
When I studied under Andrew Bacevich 15 years ago his was a voice in the wilderness. Now, sadly he would say given all of the suffering that has happened in the years since, his voice is the most credible representative of the vast majority of the American people. Where the clear majority of the people in this country country is now—disgusted by failed interventions, tired of continued fear-mongering and ready to reject an imperial president’s wishes—is where Bacevich has been for two decades. His interview with Phil Dononhue for the PBS show Moyers & Company is the clearest, most historically grounded and morally insightful expression I have heard in this debate. Be sure to see it. This is a moment when perhaps the American people will begin to dig deeper into how we have arrived at this moment. Here is a summary of his appearance:

With the probability of American intervention, Syria is everywhere in the news.  Phil Donahue, filling in for Bill Moyers, speaks with historian and Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich about America’s role in the world and the possible repercussions of our actions in the Middle East.  Given what we know about what’s going on in Syria, is a U.S. response justified? And if we take action, where and when does it stop? Is a military response justified and if we take action, where does it stop?
“If you think back to 1980,” Bacevich tells Donahue, “and just sort of tick off the number of military enterprises that we have been engaged in that part of the world, large and small, you know, Beirut, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia — and on and on, and ask yourself, ‘What have we got done? What have we achieved? Is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more Democratic? Are we enhancing America’s standing in the eyes of the people of the Islamic world?’ ‘The answers are, ‘No, no, and no.’ So why, Mr. President, do you think that initiating yet another war in this protracted enterprise is going to produce a different outcome?”

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dowd on Obama

Maureen Dowd can be rude and crude, but she can also be right on target as she is in her latest column. She concludes with this:

"Back in 2007, Obama said he would not want to run an administration that was 'Bush-Cheney lite.' He doesn’t have to worry. With prisoners denied due process at Gitmo starving themselves, with the C.I.A. not always aware who it’s killing with drones, with an overzealous approach to leaks, and with the government’s secret domestic spy business swelling, there’s nothing lite about it."