The war on terror: Misnamed, misfought, misthought

Sam Smith – According to the belligerently bombastic Daily Beast:

ISIS continues to gain substantial ground in Syria, despite nearly 800 airstrikes in the American-led campaign to break its grip there. At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities that the so-called Islamic State hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate. Meanwhile, the Islamic extremist group does not appear to have suffered any major ground losses since the strikes began.

At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities it hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate.

In the first two months following American airstrikes, about a million Syrians who had previously lived in areas controlled by moderates now lived in areas controlled by extremist groups al Nusra or ISIS, according to CDS, citing conversations with European diplomats who support the Syrian opposition.

If the Daily Beast had used the phrase “because of” rather than “despite” it would have been much closer to describing the situation and its context.

We haven’t seen a war close to its traditional meaning since Vietnam and even there we badly misgauged it as Ray McGovern pointed out last November:

Why was I reminded of Vietnam on Saturday when Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Iraq to “get a firsthand look at the situation in Iraq, receive briefings, and get better sense of how the campaign is progressing” against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL?

For years as the Vietnam quagmire deepened, U.S. political and military leaders flew off to Vietnam and were treated to a snow job by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander there. Many would come back glowing about how the war was “progressing.”

Dempsey might have been better served if someone had shown him Patrick Cockburn’s article in the Independent entitled “War with Isis: Islamic militants have an army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader.”

Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, told Cockburn that “I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters because they are able to mobilize Arab young men in the territory they have taken.”

Hussein estimated that Isis rules about one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria with a population from 10 million to 12 million over an area of 250,000 square kilometers, roughly the size Great Britain, giving the jihadists a large pool of potential fighters to recruit.

While the Kurdish estimate may be high … the possibility that the Islamic State’s insurgency is bigger than believed could explain its startling success in overrunning the Iraqi Army…

Westmoreland insisted that the number of enemy Vietnamese in South Vietnam could not go above 299,000.

The inconvenient truth finally became abundantly clear during the Tet offensive in late January and early February 1968, but still the misbegotten war went on, and on, ultimately claiming some 58,000 U.S. lives and millions of Vietnamese.

A traditional war is, in no small part, about gaining ground, but since Vietnam the term has become hard to define because our leaders use it in whatever way seems most convenient at the moment. For example, in Iraq, our mission was accomplished – at least according to our then president – in a matter of months but we stayed there another eight years and now may be headed back. As for Afghanistan, even our publicly stated mission was far mushier, but also a failure: to dismantle Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

To understand why the world’s most powerful nation – one that spends more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UK, Japan, India, Brazil and Turkey combined – should do so badly it helps to recognize that war today is no longer about physical conquest so much as it is about the reaction of the prospectively conquered and their allies. It is far more about anger than about acres.

And when the targets are especially poor and lacking in economic and social support, bombing their friends and relatives does little good. The Pentagon is trying to defeat those who already feel defeated and furious about it. Further, it makes these societal victims perfect conversion targets for the likes of the Taliban or ISIS. The war on terror is really a war for more terror.

In a sense, what we are seeing is the grand failure of the drug war being applied to foreign affairs, involving a massive cultural dysfunction created by our government’s action and exploited by what we would call in the case of drugs, cartels, mob leaders or drug lords.

In short, we are seeking to obtain acreage when we should be seeking to contain anger. The terminology of war serves little good and works against our stated goals.

A few scholars and journalists have noticed this. Tom Porter in the International Business Times drew some striking parallels between the war on terror and the war on drugs:

US president Barack Obama has deplored Isis’ violence and pledged to “degrade and destroy” the group, but Musa al-Gharbia, a research fellow at the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts, claims that there is a far graver threat to the US closer to home.

He points to a series of figures showing that the violence of the [drug] cartels in some cases eclipses, and in others equals that of the Islamist group.

A recent United Nations report estimated that nearly 9,000 civilians had been killed and 17,386 wounded this year in fighting in Iraq… On the other hand figures from the Mexican government show that last year cartels were responsible for murdering more than 16,000 people in Mexico alone, and an estimated 60,000 in the preceding six years.

– Like Isis, cartels aim to strike fear into their rivals and opponents through torture and mass executions. They carry out hundreds of beheadings every year, and deliberately target women and children. Executed and mutilated victims have been displayed in gruesome arrangements in town squares and at town roundabouts, as cartels strive to outdo each other in violence.

– Both groups exploit social media to advertise their exploits. Only this week, cartel members executed anti-cartel activist, Dr Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, accessed her Twitter account, then posted a picture of her corpse.

– Isis is believed to have enslaved approximately 1,500 Yazidi women and children, yet by some estimates cartels have enslaved tens of thousands, forcing some into sex work, and others to labour in plantations.

-Isis is believed to have recruited children as young as 10 to take part in suicide bombing missions and to fight on battlefields. Mexican cartels are also believed to have recruited scores of child soldiers, and have kidnapped children to harvest their organs.

The author goes on to argue that with its tentacles having reached every city in the US and claimed thousands of US victims in the ‘narco wars’, the cartels in fact pose a graver threat to the US than Isis.

Coleen Jose, writing for Mic Network last fall, added, “The cartels killed 293 Americans in Mexico from 2007 to 2010. The groups have also repeatedly attacked U.S. consulates in Mexico. In October 2008, two assailants fired their weapons and threw a grenade at the consulate in Monterrey.”

To bring it even closer to home, consider that the domestic drug trade has been estimated to be the size of the pharmaceutical industry yet you would have no hint of it in the major media which virtually never looks into the effect on politics and life in general from the perspective of those with power. It is only the minor dealers and their customers who get covered. As I learned examining the drug culture of Arkansas in the 1990s, nobody in the establishment wants to touch this issue and that, rather than there being a drug war, there is a covert relationship between the alleged enforcers and the actual enablers.

A rare exception is a remarkable story from the British paper, The Independent:

The entire criminal justice system was infiltrated by organised crime gangs, according to a secret Scotland Yard report leaked to The Independent. In 2003 Operation Tiberius found that men suspected of being Britain’s most notorious criminals had compromised multiple agencies, including HM Revenue & Customs, the Crown Prosecution Service, the City of London Police and the Prison Service, as well as pillars of the criminal justice system including juries and the legal profession.

The strategic intelligence scoping exercise – “ratified by the most senior management” at the Met – uncovered jurors being bought off or threatened to return not-guilty verdicts; corrupt individuals working for HMRC, both in the UK and overseas; and “get out of jail free cards” being bought for £50,000.

The report states that the infiltration made it almost impossible for police and prosecutors to successfully pursue the organised gangs that police suspected controlled much of the criminal underworld.

The fresh revelations come a day after The Independent revealed that Tiberius had concluded the Metropolitan Police suffered “endemic police corruption” at the time, and that some of Britain’s most dangerous organized crime syndicates were able to infiltrate New Scotland Yard “at will.”….

In 2000, according to Tiberius, a key police informant was secretly helping Scotland Yard with an investigation into the importation of £10m of heroin by a Turkish gang in north London.

The deal went wrong, the informant was tortured in a cellar and “an attempt was made to sever his fingers with a pair of garden shears”. His associate was also attacked and had “three fingers chopped off with a machete”.

The henchman Tiberius alleged had committed the assaults was the son of a named Met detective, who repeatedly tried to impede police inquiries into the case, according to Tiberius. He also had a corrupt relationship with a named detective sergeant then based in Marylebone police station who is suspected to have “organised cheque frauds”. Research conducted by The Independent suggests that none of the three men has ever been prosecuted.

The truth is that in Mexico, Arkansas or Britain – to name a few – there are too many in power who could say “Je suis ISIS” people who have learned how to defeat or capture the system without the conventional tools of warfare.

Their weapon is a populace too much ignored, mistreated or excluded from the benefits of conventional citizenship, making them easy candidates for either ISIS or a Mexican dug cartel. Chris Hedges hit on this remarkably recently:

The 5 million North Africans in France are not considered French by the French. And when they go back to Algiers, Tangier or Tunis, where perhaps they were born and briefly lived, they are treated as alien outcasts. Caught between two worlds, they drift, as the two brothers did, into aimlessness, petty crime and drugs.

Becoming a holy warrior, a jihadist, a champion of an absolute and pure ideal, is an intoxicating conversion, a kind of rebirth that brings a sense of power and importance. It is as familiar to an Islamic jihadist as it was to a member of the Red Brigades or the old fascist and communist parties. Converts to any absolute ideal that promises to usher in a utopia adopt a Manichaean view of history rife with bizarre conspiracy theories. Opposing and even benign forces are endowed with hidden malevolence. The converts believe they live in a binary universe divided between good and evil, the pure and the impure. As champions of the good and the pure they sanctify their own victimhood and demonize all nonbelievers. They believe they are anointed to change history. And they embrace a hypermasculine violence that is viewed as a cleansing agent for the world’s contaminants, including those people who belong to other belief systems, races and cultures…

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, while living in Paris and working as a reporter for The New York Times, I went to La Cité des 4,000, a gray housing project where North African immigrants lived in apartments with bricked-up windows…

“You want us to weep for the Americans when they bomb and kill Palestinians and Iraqis every day?” Mohaam Abak, a Moroccan immigrant sitting with two friends on a bench told me during my 2001 visit. “We want more Americans to die so they can begin to see what it feels like.”

“America declared war on Muslims a long time ago,” said Laala Teula, an Algerian immigrant who worked for many years as a railroad mechanic. “This is just the response.”

It is dangerous to ignore this rage. But it is even more dangerous to refuse to examine and understand its origins. It did not arise from the Quran or Islam. It arose from mass despair, from palpable conditions of poverty, along with the West’s imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and hubris. As the resources of the world diminish, especially with the onslaught of climate change, the message we send to the unfortunate of the earth is stark and unequivocal: We have everything and if you try to take anything away from us we will kill you. The message the dispossessed send back is also stark and unequivocal. It was delivered in Paris.

To declare a war on terror and ignore such socio-economic realities makes no more sense than to declare a war on drugs or crime and ignore the similar truths of the neighborhoods being targeted for raids, chokeholds and stop and frisks.

The typical result of such a mindless strategy is to create more violence and far more power for the violent, which is just what is happening now in the Mid East. To end the violence, we must end our part in it and seek solutions that move both sides – however slowly – towards a more peaceful and rational future.


New Republic calls Review editor ‘idiotic’

Sam Smith, 2006 – The New Republic, purveyor of cheap paradigms to the Washington elite, has included some of your editor’s comments on the current crisis in its “Idiocy Watch,” described as “our attempt to keep up with all the dumb and outrageous things being said and written about America and the terrorists.”

The words in question – “The World Trade Center disaster is a globalized version of the Columbine High School disaster. When you bully people long enough they are going to strike back,” – were delivered in a speech to a Green Party conference.

For a two sentence summation of a half century of Middle East policy it’s not all that bad. It certainly compares favorably to the deadly and disastrous advice the New Republic has been giving on the subject. Hear, for example, what comforting words NR’s Martin Paretz had to say back in 1982. He advised Israel to deliver Palestine a “lasting military defeat” that would “clarify to the Palestinians in the West Bank that their struggle for an independent state has suffered a setback of many years.” Then “the Palestinians will be turned into just another crushed nation, like the Kurds or the Afghans,” and the Palestinian problem – which “is beginning to be boring” – will be resolved.”

The New Republic staff, rather than describing as “idiots” those urging a rational response, could better use their time apologizing for their part in creating the crisis that America now faces. And while they’re it, they might explain how those crushed Afghans came back to life.

Mid East paradigms

Israel is a state like all the rest.

AIPAC is just another political group like the National Rifle Association. It is not a religion but one more Washington lobby corrupting the political process and making American voters less powerful.

The policy of the Israeli government is clearly distinguishable from the theology of Judaism to all but a small yet powerful and noisy crowd including neo-conservatives, cable TV anchors and semantic bomb throwers. Israeli policy reflects Judaism about as well as George Bush reflects Christianity.

Our policy towards Palestine, based on polling, is one of the major issues dividing us from the Muslim world. This policy helped lead to the World Trade Center attack and the international disasters that have occurred since. It has also made Israel less safe. We can not solve our current crises nor end our manic fears of the Muslim world without changing our policies towards Palestine and the Middle East.

If what goes on in the synagogue doesn’t stay in the synagogue than it can not be expected to be treated as though it were still there. In other words, if you’re going to ask American taxpayers to subsidize Israel and back its policies, the matter should be handled no differently than building a B2 bomber or putting a federal agency’s office in some congress member’s district. If you want to play by religion’s rules act like a religion. Otherwise, the rules of politics govern. And anyone who calls that anti-Semitic is either a cry baby or a scoundrel.

Just because you’re pro-Israel doesn’t mean you have to be anti-Muslim. The present crisis stems in no small part from conflating the two. American policy has been anti-Muslim or cynically manipulative of Islamic states for decades. No policy of ours has been more wrong-headed.

If there is another disaster such as the World Trade Center, it will also be in no small part due to our policies in the Middle East including that towards those toward Palestine. No issue has done more damage to America and none continues to cause a greater threat.

I’m confused

Sam Smith – If beheadings are what have us so upset, why aren’t we bombing Saudi Arabia?

If the killing of innocent Americans is what has us so upset, why aren’t we bombing Ferguson, Missouri?

If the largest military force in the world is so afraid of ten to thirty thousand rebels, why are we so aggressive towards the Russians?

Why we have we done virtually nothing in over a decade to make Mid Eastern moderates feel better about us?

Why will our current strategy work better than it did previously in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Vietnam?

Does it bother anyone in Washington that our strategy is serving as a recruitment tool for ISIS?

Why were we so opposed to South African apartheid but don’t mind it a bit in Israel?
What non-military strategies were examined by the Obama administration and why were they rejected?

Might supporting Palestinian nationhood and opposing Israeli invasion of same not be a good one?

If we had public campaign financing, how would our policy towards Israel change

Syria misadventure blows Obama’s cover

Sam Smith

It’s likely that the Republicans – with their cuts in food stamps and other social welfare – will kill more children than Syria has with chemical warfare. .

But these days, this sort of comparison doesn’t matter because the people in the White House and the media have declared Syria our major crisis and the days of, say, Helen Thomas challenging such things are over.

How much of what Obama and aides are saying is pure lies is hard to tell at this point. Ten years back I did a piece for Harper’s written entirely in lies about the Iraq war. When I set out on this project I was amazed at how easy it was, including stuff like this:

The fundamental question was, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer was, absolutely. His regime had large, unaccounted-for stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons–including VX, sarin, cyclosarin, and mustard gas, anthrax, botulism, and possibly smallpox. Our conservative estimate was that Iraq then had a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical-weapons agent. That was enough agent to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets. We had sources that told us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons–the very weapons the dictator told the world he did not have. And according to the British government, the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as forty-five minutes after the orders were given. There could be no doubt that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.

It will be sometime before we successfully dissect the verbal remains of the Obama Syrian misadventure, but one thing we know: he is being nowhere near as convincing as Bush and his efforts to overcome it with his misguidedly vaunted verbiage is not being particularly successful.

But then people who consider themselves intellectually superior don’t make particularly good liars. It’s not that they don’t lie; they just know how to do it well.

Part of this is the particular narcissism of the well educated, which often confuses recitation with communication and assumes that those being addressed will share the speakers’ admiration for themselves. The other is a failure to understand that effective fraud is an act of theater as much as one of argument. Which is why Pat Robertson is better at it than John Kerry.

But, says a reader, Barack Obama was so impressive as a presidential candidate.

Admittedly, he had a certain advantage amongst the liberals: he was black, a Harvard Law graduate and looked and acted the part.

But when you review the actual figures there was really nothing particularly astounding about his 2008 victory (unless you believed at the time that a black couldn’t possibly get elected).

In 2008, according to Gallup, 52% of Americans described themselves as Democrats and 42% as Republicans.

Barack Obama got 52.9% of the vote and Romney got 45.7%.

In other words, nothing much surprising happened.

But because of the way the media and the Democrats portrayed the vote, many Americans thought we were headed for a new age.

This not only was not true there was considerable evidence before and during the campaign that it wasn’t. For example, Obama:

– Wrote that conservatives and Bill Clinton were right to destroy social welfare,

– Supported making it harder to file class action suits in state courts

– Voted for a business-friendly “tort reform” bill

– Voted against a 30% interest rate cap on credit cards

– Had the most number of foreign lobbyist contributors in the primaries

– Was even more popular with Pentagon contractors than McCain

– Was most popular of the candidates with K Street lobbyists

– Supported the war on drugs

– Supported Real ID

– Supported the PATRIOT Act

– Supported the death penalty

– Campaigned in to support Joe Lieberman in the primary against liberal Ned Lamont

– Voted for a nuclear energy bill that full funding for Yucca Mountain.

– Came in at 48th in the ranking of senators by the League of Conservation Voters

– Promised to double funding for private charter schools, part of a national effort to undermine public education.

– Supporrted the No Child Left Behind Act

– Expressed a willingness to bomb Iran, expand the Afghn war and invade Pakistan

– Supported Israeli aggression and apartheid.

– Favored turning over Jerusalem to Israel- Opposed gay marriage

– Opposed single payer healthcare

– Said “everything is on the table” with Social Security early in campaign. In May 2008 he indicated opposition to privatizing Social Security, raising the minimum age, or reduce cost of living increases.

Yet the media and Obama’s backers maintained the fiction that because he was a bright good looking liberal black guy everything would be all right.

The truth has been coming home to roost ever since and Syria has perhaps finally blown the cover.

It’s too early to know for sure, but perhaps it’s at least time to stop pretending Obama was someone he never was.

Time to stop being afraid of Israel

Sam Smith


Every time Israel does something mean, cruel or stupid you can almost hear the sound of liberals and progressives rushing for a place to hide. Strip away the rhetoric and the excuses and the problem basically comes down to the fact that people don’t like being called anti-Semitic.

It’s a great shtick the Israelis have used so effectively that behaving appropriately towards their country has cost the U.S. over $100 billion since Israel was founded. For gratitude we have been granted a plethora of unnecessary conflicts, anger in the Muslim world that contributed to 9/11 and the madness of the war on terror, as well as periodic spying on the U.S. by Israeli agents. What other country to whom we have given so much has been so loath to return the favor?

Israel’s attack on Gaza, for example, is not only vicious, inexcusable and a violation of international law, it is a direct attempt to interfere with American politics by making sure Obama’s hands are completely tied.

Yet, once again, the Israelis are getting away with it because even such supposedly enlightened corners of America as the media and liberal groups are afraid to take them on.

If, the other hand, one feels that it is far worst to support a cruel and unnecessary war than it is to be labeled an anti-Semite then it may be time to be as brave in the face of right wing Jewish accusations as we are confronting criticism by Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. It is, after all, a partner in illogic – of the sort where unsupportable accusations are used to drown actual facts – such as the constant evocation of the Holocaust in which past victims are shamefully dishonored by using them to justify the creation of still more victims.

Once you take the simple liberating step of saying that you don’t give a damn what Abe Foxman says about you, then the whole Mid East issue takes on a new look.

For example, you are suddenly free to wonder whether some sort of boycott against Israel might not be worthwhile. As UN General Assembly President, Miguel D’Escoto Brockman put it, “More than twenty years ago we in the United Nations took the lead from civil society when we agreed that sanctions were required to provide a nonviolent means of pressuring South Africa to end its violations. Today, perhaps we. . . should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its violations.”

Such a boycott might include all of the following: AOL Time Warner, Coca-Cola, Disney, Estee Lauder, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Nokia, Revlon, Sara Lee, Home Depot, Starbucks, Timberland, or McDonald’s. Or it might include just one for ease of organizing.

Another approach would be a campaign to cut aid to Israel. A modest ten percent – $300 million – would start to make the point.

If you’re not quite up to being at least as tough on Israel as Congress was on the auto workers, there are other ways to make your discomfort known – including sending some money to groups like the New Israel Fund that are trying to set an example of what a progressive Israel would be like.

But whatever the approach one prefers, we should all take a vow not to be afraid of pro-Israeli extremists anymore. They are bullies and it’s long past time that we started treating them as such.