By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
Critics of the U.S. drawdown in Iraq claim that we are foregoing hard-won gains – years of blood, toil and tears – by getting out now. This is what Liz Cheney said on Fox the other day. I disagree. Let’s review the gains of the Iraq War: You have an Iraq that is not ruled by a brutal, tyrannical dictator, Saddam Hussein; you have some kind of democracy in Iraq; and the Kurds have been given an even greater measure of autonomy.
These are all important developments but they are not core security gains for the United States. And they are not really threatened by our leaving.
The original goals of the Iraq War were to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and to change the dynamics of the Middle East. We now know that WMDs did not exist. Historians will debate whether the Iraq War changed the dynamics of the Middle East more broadly. I think it did have an impact but it was part of a broader trend after 9/11 when America began reducing its support for dictators like Mubarak. Those moves were probably more important than Iraq.
Moving forward we can be sure that no matter what happens in Iraq, the future of Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia will be determined by none other than the Moroccans, Egyptians and Tunisians. If Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki becomes more dictatorial, does anyone really think that will affect what’s happening in Egypt?
Another great concern with the drawdown is that Iraq will become a pawn of Iran. This is not an insignificant concern. But if the worry is Iranian influence, the time to have addressed it was when we invaded Iraq in the first place. The United States empowered Shia exiles that had spent nearly a decade in Iran. The Bush Administration made significant mistakes in allowing too much Iranian influence in Iraq, all while professing to be highly anti-Iranian. I don’t think it was intentional; it was just one in a series of blunders the Bush Administration made in Iraq.
Nevertheless, I don’t think Iraq will become a pawn of Iran in the wake of the American drawdown. National interest always drives foreign policy and Iraq has its own sense of nationalism. In the Iraqi imagination, Iran is not a friendly big brother. Iran is the country against which Iraq fought an eight-year war. Iraq lost hundreds of thousands of people in that war. A foreign policy seen as ceding Iraqi interests to Iran today would not be very popular among Iraqis.
So the question becomes whether this drawdown is too fast and too complete. Would it have been better if a few thousand American troops stayed behind? Possibly. But that proved difficult for domestic political reasons within Iraq. And it misses the larger point, which is that the drawdown is actually very beneficial for American foreign policy.
As I wrote in August on GPS, the U.S. needs to transition to a foreign policy in which its core interests can be preserved without occupying vast swathes of land and nation building in difficult societies. America’s foreign policy must take advantage of the fact that it is a distant power with a flexible, high-tech military. America should focus on protecting itself through targeted counterterrorism measures. It should leverage the flexibility and political space that it gains by not being an occupying force. This will make the U.S. far stronger and safer in the long run than sitting in Iraq trying to control more real estate.
By Arsalan Iftikhar, Special to CNN
Imagine for a moment that a major American corporation decided to remove its commercials from a reality television show highlighting the everyday lives of Latinos, African-Americans, members of the LGBT community or Jewish Americans because of coordinated letter-writing campaigns from right-wing organizations.
If you think this kind of bigotry could not happen in modern-day America, you would be absolutely wrong.
The hardware and building supply chain Lowe’s has pulled its TV commercials from future episodes of TLC’s new reality show “All-American Muslim” after a letter-writing campaign by the Florida Family Association, a Christian group.
The Tampa-based organization has urged companies to pull ads because it alleges the show is “propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law.”
This argument is lunacy and is a pretext for bigotry against Muslims, plain and simple. Using this sophomoric logic, the TLC reality show “Sister Wives” is a covert campaign to promote fundamentalist Mormon polygamy across America.
Nonetheless, in response to the growing controversy, Lowe’s issued a terribly weak statement (and non-apology) on its Facebook page which states, in part:
“Lowe’s has received a significant amount of communication on this program, from every perspective possible. Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views. As a result, we did pull our advertising on this program.”
Wait a minute, Lowe’s. Exactly what “topic” are you talking about? Are we 7 million American Muslims merely a “topic” to discuss in today’s America? In 2011, do we live in a country in which an entire minority group can be dehumanized as a “topic?”
Plus, it is cowardly for Lowe’s not to even mention this “topic” (aka Muslims) by name in its public statements.
What if right-wing groups were mobilizing against a television show highlighting the everyday lives of Latinos, African-Americans, Jewish people or gay people? Would Lowe’s have buckled?
Of course not.
What makes this national controversy all the more troubling is that many of the more than 12,000 comments responding to Lowe’s Facebook statement endorse the chain store’s decision, and in jingoistic language that is a lot less oblique than Lowe’s. Here are some of the comments that were showcased by BuzzFeed:
– “Thank you Lowes, for pulling your advertising from “All American Muslims” show (there is no such thing as “All American Muslims”).”
– “[The women on the TLC show] were almost pretty, till they put rags on their heads.”
– “How dare these people come into our country and try to take over and push their religion onto us!”
– “Thank you for pulling your support for American Muslim, now I will come back and shop in your stores.”
I wonder whether these people would ever have the guts to say these same things about other religious and ethnic groups in America today.
Do these people know that the cast members for “All-American Muslim” include a federal agent and a deputy chief of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, both of whom are proud American Muslims?
Do they know that some of America’s foremost heroes and celebrities, from boxer Muhammad Ali to comedian Dave Chappelle, are proud Muslims?
Just as anti-black, anti-Semitic, homophobic or anti-Latino campaigns should have no place in our country, it is important for Americans of all races, religions and ethnicities to stand up against the bigoted campaign against ”All-American Muslim.”
Otherwise, TLC might as well change the name of its show to “All-American Bigotry.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arsalan Iftikhar.
Editor’s note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com and the 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for online journalism. Follow him on Twitter at @locs_n_laughs.
Grand Rapids, Michigan (CNN) — If you haven’t heard the audio clip of high school football coach Shawn Abel going off, you need to take two minutes out of your life to do so.
It is classic.
Dude is yelling and screaming and you can hear stuff being banged around, and I don’t believe any actor outside of maybe Samuel L. Jackson could come close to re-enacting the level of passion that is wrapped around each curse word that comes flying out of this man’s mouth.
It is ^%$^&!! unbelievable.
But based on that clip — and the fact Abel is smart enough to teach A.P. precalculus — if my son played football at Collierville, I would be perfectly fine with him having Abel as his coach. Unfortunately Coach Abel resigned this week because, well, this audio clip exists. Some of the players secretly recorded Abel’s pregame speech, and one of them posted it on YouTube.
The actions of the players make me more upset than Abel’s rant.
Coach was ticked because they weren’t playing together as a team. What kind of player leaks his coach’s speech to the press?
A selfish one, thus proving his point.
While I’m sure it was uncomfortable for some of the players to sit through, I didn’t hear anything that was offensive. He cursed, he yelled. Big deal. It’s football, not Sesame Street.
If this is his only offense, the community should rally around the coach, encourage him to come back and tell the high school players to toughen up. They should not punish a man who has poured 25 years of his life into the community or someone who cares so much he talks about being a Collierville Dragon with pride.
Obviously if he’s been a teacher at the school for this many years, he clearly understands the difference between the field and the classroom, otherwise he would have been fired for going the ^%^%* off years ago. There is certainly language that I think is unacceptable under any circumstances, but I didn’t hear any of that on the clip.
He didn’t use any slurs; he didn’t threaten a player’s safety; he didn’t call the players anything other than apathetic and selfish. In some ways, it was one of the most respectful undressings I’ve ever heard. Since the story broke, there’s been a Facebook page established to show support. I’ve also seen anonymous quotes from Collierville players characterizing Abel as a “psycho” and noting that wasn’t his first rant. And I’m sure it wasn’t, given they had lost four of five games and need to win Friday to make the playoffs.
But funny, I didn’t see any quotes that denied Abel’s assessment of the team’s playing or their commitment to hard work. It was as if the players knew they weren’t playing up to their potential. They just didn’t like the way the coach said it. And having been around sports my entire adult life, I can tell you a lot of athletes — on every level — do not like it when a coach points out their faults. There is a line, but Abel didn’t cross it. There are some places in life where boo boos are met with a hug. The locker room is not one of them.
Near my home there is a gymnastics school, and plastered on the wall facing the highway it reads “Every child is a champion.” Each time I drive by, I just want to pull over, run inside and tell the kids the truth.
“Little Johnny, Little David, Mitch… these people are lying to you — only one of you can be a champion. They don’t hand out three gold medals… See you later.”
We are so obsessed with shielding kids from disappointment and discomfort that they have no idea how to deal with life when they leave the nest. That’s not parenting, that’s crippling.
Abel’s speech may have been shocking, but it may also have been the best thing to have happened to a kid in that locker room because it placed him in a highly stressful, highly confrontational situation, and the kid learned he can handle it.
I can hear parents now saying, “But this is just high school,” to which I say, yes it is, and Abel was trying to teach his players something. I hope they reinstate him as coach so he can finish the lesson.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.
By Tariq Alhomayed
In the midst of the [international] engrossment with the killing of Muammar Qaddafi, the Assad regime timidly announced that it might accept the Arab League initiative, but that it rejects Qatar chairing the committee [to monitor Syria’s adherence to this]. Important news, but not because of the Assad regime’s agreement, but because this new position reveals that the Syrian regime is fearful and horrified with regards to the changes taking place in the region around it.
The Assad regime’s acceptance of the Arab League initiative now, albeit with conditions, is no longer as influential or valuable, even if it previously announced that it completely and comprehensively rejected this initiative. This is because the death of Qaddafi at the hands of the Libyan rebels, 9 months after the outbreak of the Libyan revolution, has changed the [political] balance in the region, and may alter the international community’s view regarding the proposed solutions to the Syrian crisis.
Qaddafi’s end, which was similar to his approach [to dealing with his own enemies], tells us that international alliances are capable of eliminating any tyrant on the condition that such a move has the backing of the people, and this is precisely what happened in Libya, with the participation of NATO forces under the leadership of France and Britain, with American support. The same is not out of the question with regards to the situation in Syria.
All that is required is for a restricted area within Syria to be granted protection status, and the Syrian army defectors to take refuge there and organize their ranks, with this territory, of course, being provided with NATO air cover, along the lines of what happened in Libya. Following this, we will find that the Assad regime will be unable to do anything but issue audio recordings, and at this point it will, of course, not be able to find any advantage from Hezbollah or Iraq or Nouri al-Maliki. Indeed this is the same Nouri al-Maliki who congratulated the Libyan people on the “fall of the tyrant” according to his statement, and that is the very definition of irony, for look who is talking!
At this point, with the movement of international alliances [against Syria], everybody will look to their own strategic interests, and forget sentimentality or sectarianism. At this time, the Lebanese government will be focused on maintaining its own cohesion, whilst Hezbollah will be focused on watching its own back. As for the al-Maliki government in Iraq, it will be preoccupied with maintaining its own cohesion in order to ensure that it does not collapse, particularly as there have been protests against the Baghdad government, whilst it has been conspicuously absent in the media. The same applies to Iran which has been rocked by the repercussions following the uncovering of the assassination plot targeting the Saudi ambassador in Washington, so how can there be any military confrontation with the international community [over Syria]?
What I mean to say is that the region has changed, as has the manner in which the international community deals with it, not to mention Arab public opinion that now sees nothing wrong with toppling tyrants, even if this comes at the hand of the West. This clearly differs from the response following the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime; therefore the post-Qaddafi era will certainly be different, and this is something that is also revealed by the western leaders’ responses to Qaddafi’s death. The Assad regime has failed to understand this [change], and this can be seen in it trying to resurrect the Arab League initiative that it previously comprehensively rejected.
What the Assad regime must understand is that it is too late; it wasted one opportunity after another, exhausting its [political] tricks and ploys, and today it finds itself in a situation where its only option is to offer genuine and severe concessions, otherwise it will face a tragic ending. We have seen 4 different scenarios regarding the end of Arab rulers, each one worse than the last. We have seen one Arab ruler’s end [hiding] in a hole, whilst another fled his country, and a third has found his end on a sickbed in hospital, whilst the last hid in a sewage tunnel [before being killed].
(This article was first published in Asharq Alawsat on Oct. 22, 2011)
Ever since the bailout was agreed, this blog has been predicting a Greek default. Despite perfunctory official denials, almost no one now seriously expects the Greek government to honour its obligations. What’s more, it’ll be a proper, château-bottled default: not a deferral of interest, but a straightforward repudiation of liabilities.
I’ve also been predicting that Greek and EU leaders will try to keep Greece in the euro after the default. Here, by contrast, I’m still pretty much on my own. Most observers, whatever their sympathies, believe that a government which had reneged on its debts could not remain in the single currency. No one would lend it money. Simply to cover its immediate bills, it would need to price itself into the markets and print more money. To take the pain of a default without the compensating advantage of a devaluation, say all the clever commentators, would be the worst of all worlds.
They’re right; but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. For the past two months, Eurocrats have been talking increasingly confidently about an ‘orderly’ default within the euro. While the markets might refuse to lend to welshers, the EU could supply the shortfall. In the mean time, Brussels would bail out the banks which had foolishly bought Greek bonds.
Such a package would be tremendously expensive: in the trillions. It would be disastrous for Greece, which would remain nailed to its artificially high exchange rate. And it would involve yet another transfer of wealth from ordinary taxpayers to wealthy bankers and bondholders. Yet, unerringly, this is the option for which EU leaders are plumping.
It’s the show that time and the world forgot. It’s called the Occupation and it’s now in its 45th year. Playing on a landscape about the size of Delaware, it remains largely hidden from view, while Middle Eastern headlines from elsewhere seize the day.
Diplomats shuttle back and forth from Washington and Brussels to Middle Eastern capitals; the Israeli-Turkish alliance ruptures amid bold declarations from the Turkish prime minister; crowds storm the Israeli embassy in Cairo, while Israeli ambassadors flee the Egyptian capital and Amman, the Jordanian one; and of course, there’s the headliner, the show-stopper of the moment, the Palestinian Authority’s campaign for statehood in the United Nations, which will prompt an Obama administration veto in the Security Council.
But whatever the Turks, Egyptians, or Americans do, whatever symbolic satisfaction the Palestinian Authority may get at the UN, there’s always the Occupation and there – take it from someone just back from a summer living in the West Bank – Israel isn’t losing. It’s winning the battle, at least the one that means the most to Palestinians and Israelis, the one for control over every square foot of ground.
Inch by inch, metre by metre, Israel’s expansion project in the West Bank and Jerusalem is, in fact, gaining momentum, ensuring that the “nation” that the UN might grant membership will be each day a little smaller, a little less viable, a little less there.
Occasionally – say, when riding through a narrow passage between hills – it was possible. But not often. Nearly every panoramic vista, every turn in the highway revealed a Jewish settlement, an Israeli army checkpoint, a military watchtower, a looming concrete wall, a barbed-wire fence with signs announcing another restricted area, or a cluster of army jeeps stopping cars and inspecting young men for their documents.
The ill-fated Oslo “peace process” that emerged from the Oslo Accords of 1993 not only failed to prevent such expansion, it effectively sanctioned it. Since then, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has nearly tripled to more than 300,000 – and that figure doesn’t include the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.
The Oslo Accords, ratified by both the Palestinians and the Israelis, divided the West Bank into three zones – A, B, and C. At the time, they were imagined by the Palestinian Authority as a temporary way station on the road to an independent state. They are, however, still in effect today.
The de facto Israeli strategy has been and remains to give Palestinians relative freedom in Area A, around the West Bank’s cities, while locking down “Area C” – 60 per cent of the West Bank – for the use of the Jewish settlements and for what are called “restricted military areas” (Area B is essentially a kind of grey zone between the other two). From this strategy come the thousands of demolitions of “illegal” housing and the regular arrests of villagers who simply try to build improvements to their homes.
Restrictions are strictly enforced and violations dealt with harshly.
When I visited the South Hebron Hills in late 2009, for example, villagers were not even allowed to smooth out a virtually impassable dirt road so that their children wouldn’t have to walk two to three miles to school every day.
Na’im al Adarah, from the village of At-Tuwani, paid the price for transporting those kids to the school “illegally”. A few weeks after my visit, he was arrested and his red Toyota pickup seized and destroyed by Israeli soldiers. He didn’t bother complaining to the Palestinian Authority – the same people now going to the UN to declare a Palestinian state – because they have no control over what happens in Area C.
The only time he’d seen a Palestinian official, al Adarah told me, was when he and other villagers drove to Ramallah to bring one to the area. (The man from the Palestinian Authority refused to come on his own.)
“He said this is the first time he knew that this land [in Area C] is ours. A minister like him is surprised that we have these areas? I told him, ‘How can a minister like you not know this? You’re the minister of local government!’
“It was like he didn’t know what was happening in his own country … we’re forgotten, unfortunately.”
- Na’im al Adarah, from an Area C village
“It was like he didn’t know what was happening in his own country,” added al-Adarah. “We’re forgotten, unfortunately.”
The Israeli strategy of control also explains, strategically speaking, the “need” for the network of checkpoints; the looming separation barrier (known to Israelis as the “security fence” and to Palestinians as the “apartheid wall”) that divides Israel from the West Bank (and sometimes West Bankers from each other); the repeated evictions of Palestinians from residential areas like Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem; the systematic revoking of Jerusalem IDs once held by thousands of Palestinians who were born in the Holy City; and the labyrinthine travel restrictions which keep so many Palestinians locked in their West Bank enclaves.
While Israel justifies most of these measures in terms of national security, it’s clear enough that the larger goal behind them is to incrementally take and hold ever more of the land. The separation barrier, for example, has put 10 per cent of the West Bank’s land on the Israeli side – a case of “annexation in the guise of security”, according to the respected Israeli human rights group, B’tselem.
Taken together, these measures amount to the solution that the Israeli government seeks, one revealed in a series of maps drawn up by Israeli politicians, cartographers, and military men over recent years that show Palestine broken into isolated islands (often compared to South African apartheid-era “bantustans”) on only about 40 per cent of the West Bank.
At the outset of Oslo, Palestinians believed they had made a historic compromise, agreeing to a state on 22 per cent of historic Palestine – that is, the West Bank and Gaza. The reality now is a kind of “ten per cent solution”, a rump statelet without sovereignty, freedom of movement, or control of its own land, air, or water. Palestinians cannot even drill a well to tap into the vast aquifer beneath their feet.
Living amid checkpoints
Every Palestinian has a personal, traumatising story of how the occupation has impacted their life [GALLO/GETTY]
Almost always overlooked in assessments of this ruinous “no-state solution” is the human toll it takes on the occupied. More than on any of my dozen previous journeys there, I came away from this trip to Palestine with a sense of the psychic damage the military occupation has inflicted on every Palestinian. None, no matter how warm-hearted or resilient, escape its effects.
“The soldier pointed to my violin case. He said, ‘What’s that?’” 13-year-old Ala Shelaldeh, who lives in old Ramallah, told me.
She is a student at Al Kamandjati (Arabic for “the violinist”), a music school in her neighbourhood (which will be a focus of my next book). She was recalling a time three years earlier when a van she was in, full of young musicians, was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint near Nablus. They were coming back from a concert.
“I told him, ‘It’s a violin.’ He told me to get out of the van and show him.” Ala stepped onto the roadside, unzipped her case, and displayed the instrument for the soldier.
“Play something,” he insisted. Ala played Hilwadeen (Beautiful Girl), the song made famous by the Lebanese star Fayrouz. It was a typical moment in Palestine, and one she has yet to, and may never, forget.
It is impossible, of course, to calculate the long-term emotional damage of such encounters on children and adults alike, including on the Israeli soldiers, who are not immune to their own actions.
Humiliation at checkpoints is a basic fact of West Bank Palestinian life. Everyone, even children, has his or her story to tell of helplessness, fear, and rage while waiting for a teenaged soldier to decide whether or not they can pass. It has become so normal that some kids have no idea the rest of the world doesn’t live like this.
“I thought the whole world was like us – they are occupied, they have soldiers,” remembered Ala’s older brother, Shehade, now 20.
A view of a different life
“It was a shock for me to see [Italy]. You can go very, very far, and no checkpoint. You see the land very, very far, and no wall. I was so happy, and at the same time sad, you know? Because we don’t have this freedom in my country.“
- Shehade Shelaldeh
At 15, he was invited to Italy. “It was a shock for me to see this life. You can go very, very far, and no checkpoint. You see the land very, very far, and no wall. I was so happy, and at the same time sad, you know? Because we don’t have this freedom in my country.”
At age 12, Shehade had seen his cousin shot dead by soldiers during the second intifada, which erupted in late 2001 after Israel’s then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon paid a provocative visit to holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. Clashes erupted as youths hurled stones at soldiers. Israeli troops responded with live fire, killing some 250 Palestinians (compared to 29 Israeli deaths) in the first two months of the intifada. The next year, Palestinian factions launched waves of suicide bombings in Israel.
One day in 2002, Shehade recalled, with Ramallah again fully occupied by the Israeli army, the young cousins broke a military curfew in order to buy bread. A shot rang out near a corner market; Shehade watched his cousin fall. This summer Shehade showed me the gruesome pictures – blood flowing from a 12-year-old’s mouth and ears – taken moments after the shooting in 2002.
Nine years later, Ramallah, a supposedly sovereign enclave, is often considered an oasis in a desert of occupation. Its streets and markets are choked with shoppers, and its many trendy restaurants rival fine European eateries. The vibrancy and upscale feel of many parts of the city give you a sense that – much as Palestinians are loathe to admit it – this, and not East Jerusalem, is the emerging Palestinian capital.
Many Ramallah streets are indeed lined with government ministries and foreign consulates. (Just don’t call them embassies!) But much of this apparent freedom and quasi-sovereignty is illusory.
In the West Bank, travel without hard-to-get permits is often limited to narrow corridors of land, like the one between Ramallah and Nablus, where the Israeli military has, for now, abandoned its checkpoints and roadblocks. Even in Ramallah – part of the theoretically sovereign Area A – night incursions by Israeli soldiers are common.
“It was December 2009, the 16th I think, at 2:15, 2:30 in the morning,” recalled Celine Dagher, a French citizen of Lebanese descent. Her Palestinian husband, Ramzi Aburedwan, founder of Al Kamandjati, where both of them work, was then abroad. “I was awakened by a sound,” she told me.
She emerged to find the front door of their flat jammed partway open and kept that way by a small security bar of the sort you find in hotel rooms. Celine thought burglars were trying to break in and so yelled at them in Arabic to go away. Then she peered through the six-inch opening and spotted ten Israeli soldiers in the hallway.
They told her to stand back, and within seconds had blown the door off its hinges. Entering the apartment, they pointed their automatic rifles at her. A Palestinian informant stood near them silently, a black woolen mask pulled over his face to ensure his anonymity.
The commander began to interrogate her. “My name, with whom I live, starting to ask me about the neighbours.” Celine flashed her French passport and pleaded with them not to wake up her six-month-old, Hussein, sleeping in the next room.
“I was praying that he would just stay asleep.” She told the commander, “I just go from my house to my work, from work to my house.” She didn’t really know her neighbours, she said.
As it happened, the soldiers had blown off the door of the wrong flat. They would remove four more doors in the building that night, Celine recalled, before finding their suspect: Her 17-year-old next door neighbour. “They stood questioning him for maybe 20 minutes, and then they took him. And I think he’s still in jail. His father is already in jail.”
Most imprisoned people on earth
“You can’t go to Jerusalem to pray. And it’s only 15 kilometres away. And you have your memories there.“
- Saleh Abdel-Jawad, dean of the law school at Birzeit University
According to Israeli Prison Services statistics cited by B’tselem, more than 5,300 Palestinians were in Israeli prisons in July 2011. Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, an estimated 650,000 to 700,000 Palestinians have reportedly been jailed by Israel. By one calculation, that represents 40 per cent of the adult-male Palestinian population.
Almost no family has been untouched by the Israeli prison system.
Celine stared through the blinds at the street below, where some 15 jeeps and other military vehicles were parked. Finally, they left with their lights out and so quietly that she couldn’t even hear their engines. When the flat was silent again, she couldn’t sleep. “I was very afraid.” A neighbour came upstairs to sit with her until the morning.
Stories like these – and they are legion – accumulate, creating the outlines of what could be called a culture of occupation. They give context to a remark by Saleh Abdel-Jawad, dean of the law school at Birzeit University near Ramallah: “I don’t remember a happy day since 1967,” he told me.
Stunned, I asked him why specifically that was so. “Because,” he replied, “you can’t go to Jerusalem to pray. And it’s only 15 kilometres away. And you have your memories there.”
He added, “Since 17 years I was unable to go to the sea. We are not allowed to go. And my daughter married five years ago and we were unable to do a marriage ceremony for her.” Israel would not grant a visa to Saleh’s Egyptian son-in-law so that he could enter the West Bank. “How to do a marriage without the groom?”
A musical Intifada
An old schoolmate of mine and now a Middle East scholar living in Paris points out that Palestinians are not just victims, but actors in their own narrative. In other words, he insists, they, too, bear responsibility for their circumstances – not all of this rests on the shoulders of the occupiers. True enough.
As an apt example, consider the morally and strategically bankrupt tactic of suicide bombings, carried out from 2001 to 2004 by several Palestinian factions as a response to Israeli attacks during the second intifada. That disastrous strategy gave cover to all manner of Israeli retaliation, including the building of the separation barrier. (The near disappearance of the suicide attacks has been due far less to the wall – after all, it isn’t even finished yet – than to a decision on the part of all the Palestinian factions to reject the tactic itself.)
So, yes, Palestinians are also “actors” in creating their own circumstances, but Israel remains the sole regional nuclear power, the state with one of the strongest armies in the world, and the occupying force – and that is the determining fact in the West Bank.
“Existence is resistance.“
Today, for some Palestinians living under the 44-year occupation simply remaining on the land is a kind of moral victory. This summer, I started hearing a new slogan: “Existence is resistance.” If you remain on the land, then the game isn’t over.
And if you can bring attention to the occupation, while you remain in place, so much the better.
In June, Ala Shelaldeh, the 13-year-old violinist, brought her instrument to the wall at Qalandia, once a mere checkpoint separating Ramallah and Jerusalem, and now essentially an international border crossing with its mass of concrete, steel bars, and gun turrets.
The transformation of Qalandia – and its long, cage-like corridors and multiple seven-foot-high turnstiles through which only the lucky few with permits may cross to Jerusalem – is perhaps the most powerful symbol of Israel’s determination not to share the Holy City.
The Palestinians are said to be the most imprisoned people on earth [GALLO/GETTY]
Ala and her fellow musicians in the Al Kamandjati Youth Orchestra came to play Mozart and Bizet in front of the Israeli soldiers, on the other side of Qalandia’s steel bars. Their purpose was to confront the occupation through music, essentially to assert: We’re here. The children and their teachers emerged from their bus, quickly set up their music stands, and began to play. Within moments, the sound of Mozart’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major filled the terminal.
Palestinians stopped and stared. Smiles broke out. People came closer, pulling out cell phones and snapping photos, or just stood there, surrounding the youth orchestra, transfixed by this musical intifada. The musicians and soldiers were separated by a long row of blue horizontal bars. As the music played on, a grim barrier of confinement was momentarily transformed into a space of assertive joy.
“It was,” Ala would say later, “the greatest concert of my life.”
As the Mozart symphony built – Allegro, Andante, Minuet, and the Allegro last movement – some of the soldiers started to take notice. By the time the orchestra launched into Georges Bizet’s Dance Boheme from Carmen #2, several soldiers appeared, looking out through the bars. For the briefest of moments, it was hard to tell who was on the inside, looking out, and who was on the outside, looking in.
If existence is resistance, if children can confront their occupiers with a musical intifada, then there’s still space, in the year of the Arab Spring, for something unexpected and transformative to happen. After all, South African apartheid collapsed, and without a bloody revolution. The Berlin Wall fell quickly, completely, unexpectedly.
And with China, India, Turkey and Brazil on the rise, the United States, its power waning, will not be able to remain Israel’s protector forever. Eventually, perhaps, the world will assert the obvious: The status quo is unacceptable.
For the moment, whatever happens in the coming weeks at the UN, and in the West Bank in the aftermath, isn’t it time for the world’s focus to shift to what is actually happening on the ground? After all, it’s the occupation, stupid.
Sandy Tolan is author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. He is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is at work on a new book, Operation Mozart, about music and life in Palestine. He blogs at ramallahcafe.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author‘s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera‘s editorial policy.
Failure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Israel’s 40-year occupation, in the words of UN former Secretary General Kofi Annan, would “continue to hurt the reputation of the United Nations and raise questions about its impartiality”.
No cause has consumed as much UN paper work as the plight of the displaced and occupied Palestinians. But hundreds of its resolutions on Palestine have not been respected let alone applied for over half a century.
Nowhere has the UN ideals and mechanisms been more mired in power politics than in Palestine. The efforts to neutralise UN intervention have been championed mainly by the United States. This week’s efforts by the Obama administration working on behalf of Israel took advocacy into a whole new level.
Washington has vetoed more than 40 UN Security Council resolutions critical of its policies some of which were drafted by its European allies. A quick look at today’s Middle East makes it clear that such obstructions worked for the interest of neither party, nor for peace and security in the region.
Cold-War rivalries have also contributed to UN paralysis in the Israeli Palestinian-Arab conflict, which explains why more than half of the 690 resolutions adopted by the General Assembly from 1947-1990 have been ignored.
But what justifies sidelining the UN ever since, while keeping it at an arm’s length from a two decades of Peace Process?
The short answer is a double standard.
All major post-Cold War conflicts have seen direct UN involvement including, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and of late, Lebanon, South Sudan. Not the Palestine problem. It was deferred to the US sponsored diplomatic process even though Washington’s close relations with Israel rendered it anything but an impartial broker.
Not only was Palestinian Israeli conflict snatched out of the world body, most relevant US resolutions critical of Israel were ignored by the US sponsors.
Only after the peace process failed to yield a solution a decade later, did the Bush administration allow the United Nations to join, and even then, only as a junior partner in a newly formed International Quartet that includes the European Union and Russia, all of whom are members of the UN!
Meanwhile, Israel has disregarded tens of resolutions, “censuring”, “calling”, “urging”, “recommending”, or “condemning” its attacks, settlement, deportations, occupation, etc.
Likewise, all pleas and demands for humanitarian and political interventions fell on deaf ears. The only time the UN was allowed to act, was in 1997 when it sent few international unarmed observers to the occupied city of Hebron. Alas, they weren’t mandated to speak publicly about the ongoing violations.
For the past four decades, Israel has violated all relevant UNSC council resolutions such as the resolution 465 of 1980 that strongly deplored all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure of status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem.
It also rejected Resolution 476, which reaffirmed the necessity to end the Israeli occupation of Arab territories ongoing since the 1967 war. The only UN Security Council Resolution that was accepted by the US and Israel as the basis of the diplomatic process, i.e. 242 of 1967, was also systematically violated. Israel has been expanding its settlement activity when the resolution notes the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force”.
Paradoxically, Israel was created by a UN recommendation for Partitioning Palestine in 1947, and was accepted as a new UN member on the basis of its commitment to respect its resolution, and specifically UNGA 194 regarding the return of the Palestinian refugees.
Now that all other venues have been tried and failed, including 18 years of bilateral negotiations, the UN Security Council must carry its responsibilities by demanding that Israel carry its obligations under UN charter and by recognising the Palestinian right for self-determination in a state of their own. Period.
Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst.
He was previously a professor of International Relations at the American University of Paris. An author who writes extensively on global politics, he is widely regarded as a leading authority on the Middle East and international affairs.
By ALEXANDER BURNS & CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN | 8/23/11 4:30 AM EDT
Once again, there will be no flight suit photo op or “Mission Accomplished” banner for Barack Obama.
The ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi represents yet another military victory for a president long cast as a gun-shy liberal uncomfortable with the use of force. But while Obama has claimed credit for his individual successes — and has mentioned the killing of Osama bin Laden at campaign events — he has never fully embraced the role of a president at war.
Despite defining moments that include the NATO-led air assault on Libya, the decision to increase troop strength in Afghanistan and the daring special forces raid that killed bin Laden, Obama and his advisers still appear almost resigned to the fact that it will be the economy, not his national security record, that defines his presidency and his fight for reelection.
“The big picture with President Obama is that he demonstrates that a civilian without military experience can be an exceptional commander in chief,” said former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who served on the 9/11 Commission.
But Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, noted that Obama “doesn’t particularly define himself as a war president because he’s trying to shift attention to issues that are, in the long term, a lot more important.”
Obama’s statement Monday on the collapse of the Qadhafi regime was a case in point. The president applauded the efforts of the Libyan people, but declined to plant the rhetorical equivalent of an American flag on Tripoli and repeatedly emphasized that the situation there remained “fluid.”
Addressing reporters on Martha’s Vineyard, White House spokesman Josh Earnest refused even to say if the president’s approach to Libya had been vindicated, insisting that he wasn’t going to “play political pundit and sort of assess the winners and losers here.”
The closest thing to a White House victory lap came from National Security Council official Ben Rhodes, who told POLITICO that the latest turn of events in North Africa “reinforces that the approach we took on Libya was the right one.”
The situation in Libya was often described as a stalemate, but Rhodes said the U.S.-NATO mission effectively made “time work against Qadhafi,” with the deadlocked struggle gradually shifting in the direction of the Libyan rebellion.
“We have a strong record across the board, whether it is taking the fight to Al Qaeda, taking on Osama bin Laden, winding down the war in Iraq, turning the corner in Afghanistan and helping lead an international effort to prevent a massacre in Libya and to support the Libyan people as they brought an end to the Qadhafi regime,” Rhodes said.
He continued: “This is one more piece of a record that he has been building on national security that makes a very strong case about his ability to keep the American people safe and advance our interests around the world.”
That’s a case that Democrats acknowledge — with some frustration — hasn’t been made as aggressively as they think it could have been over the past two years.
With all the obligatory caveats about not wanting to repeat former President George W. Bush’s triumphalist landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, some members of Obama’s party express frustration that the president doesn’t get more credit for a defense record that makes even some neoconservative Republicans nod with approval.
It’s an unexpected electoral asset for Obama, whose 2008 presidential campaign took flight in large part thanks to his record of opposing the initial invasion of Iraq. Now, the interventionist wing of the Democratic Party, which tends to fare better in presidential elections, claims him as one of their own.
Former California Rep. Jane Harman, a Democrat whose support for the Iraq War earned her the enmity of the left, said Obama “has actually, in many ways, been tougher on counterterrorism than President Bush was, and I don’t think that’s widely understood.”
“He has stepped up and defined himself in that way, and I think the takedown of Osama bin Laden was probably the high point of his presidency,” Harman said. “I don’t know if everyone’s caught up with that, but that’s the camp he’s been in.”
The fact that Obama’s military accomplishments don’t define his presidency, however, is not an accident.
A large part of the disconnect between Obama’s record and his reputation is a result of circumstance. With unemployment over 9 percent, most voters aren’t paying close attention to foreign policy and national security.
The ones who are may approve of Obama’s performance, but not enough to offset the perception that he’s flailing when it comes to the economy.
A Gallup Poll released last week gave Obama a 53 percent approval rating on handling terrorism and only a 40 percent disapproval rating. On foreign affairs in general, he earned approval from 42 percent of respondents and disapproval from 51 percent.
But with his positive ratings on the economy at a mere 26 percent, Obama’s overall job approval was hovering around the 40 percent mark — a perilous point for any incumbent president.
Neera Tanden, COO of the liberal Center for American Progress, said that “in normal times,” voters would reward Obama for the Libya operation, as well as his handling of the war in Iraq.
“In these times, voters may be more focused here at home than in the success of interventions abroad,” Tanden said. “The fact that he made these decisions, knowing that possibility, makes his decisions, especially in Libya, all the more courageous.”
Other Democrats say that the White House’s general tendency toward caution, coupled with the high level of uncertainty that still surrounds the situation in Libya, may make for an especially unsatisfying political payoff.
“On the one hand, it’s in part because the economy … has been and continues to be issue No. 1,” said former Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney, who added: “It does not seem that the administration has done a good job as they could have in talking about the president’s leadership style.”
One Democratic official called the last few days of action in Libya a “major validation of the president’s Libya strategy,” but worried: “With the administration seemingly hesitant to pat itself on the back, given the uncertainty of what happens next in Libya, and with the economy big-footing all other issues, the president will probably once again reap far less credit than he deserves.”
That’s not to say that the president’s team is unaware of the political implications of a victory in Libya, if that’s what Qadhafi’s collapse turns out to be.
At the very least, Obama backers say, the end of the stalemate in Libya and Qadhafi’s apparent defeat should defang Republican attacks on the president for “leading from behind” in the conflict.
On Monday, Obama aides were relishing the opportunity to email each other clips from attacks launched against the White House Libya policy since the start of the year by his possible GOP opponents, especially from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who said of Obama: “He just has been like a deer in the headlights, not understanding what it takes to put people back to work and even foreign policy; he’s gone from guardrail to guardrail in Libya and Syria.”
Then there was Rick Perry, the Texas governor, who attempted to draw a contrast between himself and the president by saying that in a Perry administration: “If you’re our enemy, we’re not going to just give you some lip service. If you try to hurt the United States, we will come defeat you.”
“There have obviously been a lot of doubters and naysayers along the way, but the results speak for themselves,” said Democratic Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who praised Obama for showing “skill and steadfastness and smarts once again on an important national security question.”
A Democratic operative closely allied with the president was more pointed on the GOP field: “I guess now these guys just don’t have anything to attack him on.”
Even if that optimistic prediction holds true, Obama allies concede that he is unlikely to get a polling bounce from the Libya operation as he did — albeit temporarily — after the death of bin Laden. A positive impression of Obama as a war leader won’t eclipse voters’ concerns about issues like unemployment any time soon, one Obama supporter said.
But Dan Schnur, former adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, said it’s possible Obama will get some kind of lift from the outcome in Libya.
“Few Americans can find Libya on a map, but they do know their way to the corner gas station,” said Schnur, who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “Bin Laden and Qadhafi offer Obama a couple of compelling national security talking points to protect against GOP criticism. But a little relief for an automotive electorate isn’t such a bad thing, either.”
Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman contributed to this report.
By ALEXANDER BURNS | 8/22/11 6:39 PM EDT
It’s the 2012 Republican field’s first real moment in the foreign policy spotlight — the dilemma over how to respond to the apparent success of President Barack Obama’s intervention in Libya.
So far, the strategy for nearly all the candidates is: don’t.
For the most part, the GOP has offered only a slow and muted response to the collapse of Muammar Qadhafi’s regime, which seems to spell the end of a dictator who has plagued the United States for decades.
The only candidate to lay out a clear position on whether the NATO-led Libya mission was a good idea is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who said through a spokesman that he still believes the mission was “not core to our national security interest.”
The others who have spoken have issued only carefully parsed statements, applauding Qadhafi’s demise but stopping short of passing judgment on the months-long mission that led to his downfall.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry called the end of Qadhafi’s “violent, repressive dictatorship” a “cause for cautious celebration.” But his ginger, forward-looking statement didn’t offer a larger view of the action in Libya and didn’t mention either President Obama or NATO.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also responded with something of a dodge, simply noting that “the world is about to be rid” of Qadhafi and calling on the new Libyan government to hand over the mastermind of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing — an issue that might have some domestic resonance but is scarcely linked to events in Tripoli.
It’s questionable whether Republicans will be able to hold Libya at arm’s length for long. The United States is now involved in deciding the fate of the North African nation, and it’s all but inevitable that would-be commanders-in-chief will have to say whether or not they think that’s a good thing.
The political stakes are lower than the substantive ones. Few believe the 2012 election — let alone the GOP primaries — will hinge on foreign affairs. But the Libya operation promises to sort the Republican contenders in policy terms in a way that no other event has done, to date.
To some conservative foreign policy thinkers, the right response — politically and substantively — is to go further than Perry and Romney, applaud the outcome in Libya and call for more of the same.
Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol offered this response as the right tack for a GOP hopeful: “Congratulations to the president, our NATO allies and above all to the brave people of Libya. Now let’s help the brave people of Syria make the Assad regime the next to go — and soon.”
Brian Hook, a former assistant secretary of state and adviser to Tim Pawlenty’s campaign, said Republicans shouldn’t let Obama off the hook for moving so slowly into military action.
But he, too, urged Republicans to look to the next challenge — and not back away from foreign engagement.
“We need to hold Obama responsible for a Libya policy that not only weakened NATO but prolonged the war and the bloodshed,” Hook said. “But now, we all need to turn the page and focus on the difficult transition that Libya will need to make out of a civil war, and we need to be providing as much assistance as we can to make that possible.”
There are only a few candidates in the field, though, who can plausibly make that argument, which lines up with the aggressive, nation-building foreign policy championed by former President George W. Bush. The hawkish Pawlenty would have been one of them.
Among the remaining candidates, both Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum rebuked the Obama administration for not acting swiftly enough in Libya and deferring too much to U.S. allies in Europe. The two candidates might have to walk back their criticism a bit, if the mission proves a true success.
Neither of them expressed flat-out opposition to the idea of intervening in Libya. Instead, they urged the administration to take more “decisive action against [Qadhafi],” as Santorum put it in an April foreign policy address.
Romney knocked Obama for not having a “clear and convincing foreign policy” on Libya but never came close to saying that he was opposed to the mission.
But at least three Republican presidential candidates have done just that: Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman who has a lengthy record of opposing American military action abroad.
Paul can be reliably counted on to stick to his isolationist guns; it was little more than a week ago at the Ames straw poll that he once again called for the United States to bring its troops home.
Bachmann and Huntsman face a potentially tougher challenge as they explain their resistance to an intervention that — for the moment — looks to have achieved its main goal.
Huntsman’s decision to stand by that position is consistent with his general campaign approach, which has involved staking out a series of positions dramatically at odds with much of his own party.
But Bachmann, despite her place on the opposite end from Huntsman on the Republican ideological spectrum, was more or less in sync with Huntsman when she was asked about the Libya mission at a debate in June.
The Minnesota congresswoman said flatly that there was “no vital national interest” in Libya, explaining: “We were not attacked. We were not threatened with attack.”
And she expressed concern about potential instability stemming from the Libyan rebellion, warning that Qadhafi’s fall could also “empower Al Qaeda of North Africa and Libya.”
She reiterated her hesitancy about the intervention on Monday, saying in a hedged statement that while she hopes the outcome in Libya is for the best, she also “opposed U.S. military involvement in Libya, and I am hopeful that our intervention there is about to end.”
The pure politics of the Libya mission are unclear. While voters started out supportive of the mission, a June Gallup Poll showed that only 39 percent of voters approved of the U.S. action against Libya, compared with 46 percent who disapproved.
Among Republicans, those numbers were almost exactly the same: 39 percent approving, 47 percent disapproving.
One Republican policy thinker supportive of intervention acknowledged: “Americans are tired of foreign entanglements, and their focus is rightly elsewhere.”
But while Americans may be tired of foreign wars, they may be inclined to welcome something like a positive outcome in Libya.
In a frustrating accident of timing for his supporters, it’s Pawlenty — the former Minnesota governor who recently dropped out of the race — who would have had the easiest time reacting to Qadhafi’s fall.
Of all the Republican candidates, Pawlenty had the clearest, most unequivocal and hawkish view of military policy, having called early for a no-fly zone over Libya and Qadhafi’s ouster. He also spoke in Kristol-esque terms about the need to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Pawlenty ended his presidential campaign on Aug. 14, the day after coming in third at the Iowa straw poll, behind the staunchly anti-interventionist Bachmann and Paul.
“Over the past few weeks, Washington has seemed dysfunctional,” conservative columnist David Brooks opined recently in The New York Times. “Public disgust [about the debt ceiling crisis] has risen to epic levels. Yet through all this, serious people – Barack Obama, John Boehner, the members of the Gang of Six – have soldiered on.”
Here’s some of what Peter Coy of Business Week magazine had to say about the same issue: “There is a comforting story about the debt ceiling that goes like this: Back in the 1990s, the US was shrinking its national debt at a rapid pace. Serious people actually worried about dislocations from having too little government debt …”
Fox News, the Murdoch-owned house organ of America’s official right-wing, asserted: “No one seriously thinks that the US will not honour its obligations, whatever happens with the current impasse on President Obama’s requested increase to the government’s $14.3tn borrowing limit.”
“No one seriously thinks.”
Limiting the terms of debate
The American media deploys a deep and varied arsenal of rhetorical devices in order to marginalise opinions, people and organisations as “outside the mainstream” and therefore not worth listening to. For the most part the people and groups being declaimed belong to the political Left. To take one example, the Green Party – well-organised in all 50 states – is never quoted in newspapers or invited to send a representative to television programmes that purport to present “both sides” of a political issue. (In the United States, “both sides” means the back-and-forth between centre-right Democrats and rightist Republicans)
Marginalisation is the intentional decision to exclude a voice in order to prevent a “dangerous” opinion from gaining currency, to block a politician or movement from becoming more powerful, or both. In 2000, the media-backed consortium that sponsored the presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush banned Green Party candidate Ralph Nader from participating. Security goons even threatened to arrest him when he showed up with a ticket and asked to be seated in the audience. Nader is a liberal consumer advocate who became famous in the US for stridently advocating for safety regulations, particularly on automobiles.
Third-party candidates have taken part in televised presidential debates twice: John Anderson in 1980 and H. Ross Perot in 1992. Both, perhaps not so coincidentally, were men of the Right. In 2000, debate bosses excluded Nader using the excuse that his support (as measured by public opinion polls) was too insignificant to impact the election.
That assessment was dubious at best. Most analysts believe that Nader drew enough liberal votes away from Al Gore to cost him the state of Florida, which handed the election to Bush (This is not my assessment. The 2000 race was stolen by corrupt Florida election officials and a judicial coup d’etat carried out by the US Supreme Court). The point remains: Nader was denied access to the debates, and to coverage by the TV networks, because he wasn’t an “important” candidate. Yet those same networks argue that he changed the course of the election.
When a personality – almost always on the Left – becomes too big to ignore, the mainstream media often resorts to ridicule. Like Communist Party USA chief Gus Hall, Nader is often derided as “perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader”. Personalities on the far right wing, like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, on the other hand, are characterised as “refreshing” and “exciting” (if intellectually slight). Acknowledgement, when it happens, is post-mortem. Revisionist historian Howard Zinn and muckraking DC journo I.F. Stone received lengthy accolades in obituaries that appeared in The New York Times, which studiously censored them throughout their careers.
Fox News famously relies on the trope that “some people say …” in order to insert unsourced (i.e., Fox’s own) opinions into a news story. “Serious people say” and “no one seriously thinks” are the flip side of this technique. Corporate-owned newspapers and broadcast media outlets use “some people say” in order to define the range of acceptable discourse and “no one seriously thinks” to smear opinions that are widespread among the public at large as marginal, infantile and perhaps even insane.
When “serious people say” something, those who disagree are by definition trivial, insipid and thus unworthy of consideration. “No one seriously thinks” is brutarian to the point of Orwellian: anyone who expresses the thought in question literally does not exist. He or she is an Unperson.
Military withdrawals viewed as ‘un-serious’
Big US media uses the “serious people”/”nobody seriously thinks” marginalisation meme on numerous subjects, but none so often as on war. You guessed it: “Serious people” think wars are necessary and must continue indefinitely. “No one seriously thinks” that the American military can “just” stop fighting a war without suffering all sorts of terrible consequences: “Instability”. Becoming viewed by allies as “unreliable”. Creating a “power vacuum”. Allowing an already difficult situation to deteriorate “even further”. Sure, people are suffering and dying now. But if the US leaves, many more people will die. In order to avert a theoretical bloodbath of the future, the United States is obligated to continue its present, sustainable rate of killing and maiming.
In this wacky topsy-turvy world, where the people who are usually wrong get to lord it over those who usually get it right, abject failures like Obama and Boehner – who make logical assertions that are nothing but, and who have presided over fiscal collapse while not making the slightest effort to stimulate the economy with public works and other classic Keynesian responses to the global depression – are lauded as Serious People.
The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were initially popular with the American public. The subsequent occupations, however, have racked up a toll in blood and treasure of which most voters have long tired. Now the government and its media allies are trying to convince Americans, not to support – it’s way too late for that – but to tolerate continued expenditures on wars they view as unwinnable wastes.
Throughout the last few years, especially since Obama took office in January 2009 and after the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this year, calls to withdraw from one or both of America’s major quagmires have been met with media claims by Very Serious People along the lines that “no one seriously thinks we can just withdraw”.
According to a June 21, 2001 Pew Research poll, 56 per cent of Americans favour immediate withdrawal of US occupation troops from Afghanistan. Many of these antiwar voters know that there could be negative ramifications; the same percentage believes that the Karzai regime will collapse without a US military presence. So it is not not true that “no one” thinks we can withdraw. In fact, most people think we should withdraw. And many of them are willing to countenance the possibility that the Taliban would win an ensuing civil war.
For “their” newspapers, radio and television journalists, however, these people – over half the population – don’t count. They are “no one”. They are certainly not “serious people” who have done the hard thinking. They are not, in other favourite meme, “realistic” or “pragmatic”.
“We can’t leave Afghanistan at this juncture,” former US National Security Council member Rick Nelson told ABC News after US commandos assassinated Osama bin Laden. “There is still a significant terrorist threat emanating from western Pakistan.” The US must “commit the resources, personnel, and money against this threat until we are certain that it is completely dismantled”, said Nelson, talking as though to a small, slightly dim, child. To which such a child might reasonably respond: How would one know that such a threat had completely vanished? Fortunately for Nelson, ABC’s excuse for a journalist didn’t follow up.
“So why not just get out?” asked Newsweek’s John Barry in 2009. “As always, it’s not so simple.”
Sure it is.
To paraphrase my fellow political cartoonist Matt Bors, US soldiers could go to the airport. They could board planes. They could go home.
The US pulled out of Vietnam. Vietnamese and Americans are both better off as a result. The Soviets left Afghanistan. They boarded trucks and tanks and APCs and drove to Uzbekistan. The Russians’ big mistake was not leaving sooner. But no one talks about that – at least not on the air.
Barry lists a familiar litany of what-ifs. All that’s missing is the possible unleashing of killer blood-sucking zombies:
“If the Americans pull their troops out, the already shaky Afghan Army could collapse. (Once they lost US air support, South Vietnamese troops sometimes refused to take the field and fight.) Afghanistan could well plunge into civil war, just as it did after the Soviets left in 1989. Already, the Pashtuns in the south regard the American-backed Tajiks who dominate Karzai’s administration as the enemy. The winning side would likely be the one backed by Pakistan, which may end up being the Taliban – just as it was in the last civil war.”
As a decidedly unserious person – in fact, I rather deplore seriousness – I wonder: So what? If the only alternative to endless war and occupation and oppression by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan is civil war and Taliban domination, wouldn’t it be better to leave the carnage to the Afghans?
‘Serious people’ are often wrong
The American Conservative, a pleasurable and often surprising magazine aligned with America Firster and former presidential prospect Pat Buchanan, ran a 2009 essay by Daniel Larison that noted, reasonably, “after the last decade of terrible foreign policy guidance by self-proclaimed ‘serious people’ there is hardly anything more damning one can say about something than to say that ‘serious people’ embrace it.”
“There is a problem in hiding behind policy consensus and dismissing those outside it as an irrelevant fringe, and this is that the consensus gets important things wrong with remarkable frequency. Hawkish interventionists were able to create the (false) impression that 9/11 happened because America was too wedded to geopolitical stability and was too willing to tolerate authoritarian governments in the Near East, and then the lazy establishment consensus allowed itself to be dragged along with them to support an unnecessary and disastrous war. Establishment consensus views on Iraq and its weapon programmes were wrong; consensus support for the bombardment of Lebanon and the Gaza operation was also wrong; the ‘serious’ bipartisan consensus in favour of NATO expansion has been disastrously wrong.”
Back to the debt ceiling crisis.
For many Americans the gravity and absurdity of the current economy was crystallised by news accounts that Apple Computer had more ready cash on hand than the US Treasury ($76bn versus $74bn).
Apple isn’t alone. “Corporations collectively are hoarding more cash than ever before, posting glowing balance sheets,” reports International Business Times. “At the end of 2010, companies held an estimated $1.9tn of excess cash, and so far in 2011 most have not let go.” US banks, says The Washington Post, have more than $2tn available to lend.
If you’ve read Karl Marx you can probably imagine a solution to the US debt ceiling crisis. The government is poor but giant corporations are rich. Why doesn’t the Obama Administration appropriate the necessary sums from private companies and wealthy individuals via taxes or nationalisation? The Post answers: “But while the country is flush with assets, it doesn’t mean the government can seize them to pay for public debt.”
Why not? The article doesn’t say. Nor does it use the dreaded phrase “no one seriously thinks that …” But it’s there all the same. Because the US doesn’t officially countenance socialist economic solutions, advocates of European-style socialised medicine were dismissed by President Obama as naïve (and not Serious). Even when the federal government transferred hundreds of billions of dollars to banks and insurance companies during the 2008-09 meltdown, calls for accountability were dismissed as unrealistic. Not pragmatic. Nationalisation? Definitely not serious. Clownlike, really.
As Daniel Larison says, the track record of the Serious Ones is atrocious. And yet, on one story after another, even relatively minor ones, the US media continues to turn yesterday’s “no one thinks” into today’s “everyone knows”.
In 2006 Trevor Bormann told ABC-TV viewers that the world would never again see the famous statues blown up by the Taliban at Bamiyan: “Archaeologists and restorers are now cataloguing every significant piece of rubble but no one seriously thinks the Buddhas can ever be rebuilt”.
Here’s Joanna Kakissis of National Public Radio, less than a month ago:
“At the time they were blown up, the statues were the largest Buddha carvings in the world, and it seemed they were gone for good. But today, teams from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, along with the International Council on Monuments and Sites, are engaged in the painstaking process of putting the broken Buddhas back together.”
It won’t be as easy to rebuild Americans’ trust in their journalistic institutions.
Ted Rall is an American political cartoonist, columnist and author. His most recent book is The Anti-American Manifesto. His website is rall.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.