Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What I Write When I Don't Write Here (and an update about the end of the world)'s been a while, Blogpost website.

I do have an excuse. I'm enrolled in the M.A. degree program at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago. I'm also still working part-time. I also tend to find extracurricular projects wherever I go. It's hard to make the time.

But I feel like you need an update, for a few reasons. First, my most recent post (five months ago - yeesh) is a little ornery. I still stand by it, but it's not the first thing I want your visitors to see when they come.

Second, while I haven't been writing on you very much, I have been writing elsewhere.

I got an article published on my favorite Syria blog in the world, Syria Comment. It's about an obscure political party called the Syrian Social Nationalist Party that's on the rise again in the current chaos. Perhaps not obscure for long! We will see.

I also published an article in Lights, the grad student journal for UChicago's Middle East Studies Student Association. It's all about slavery in Sudan, and the U.S. government's marked last of interest in it. If my readers are feeling especially good about the world, they might want to take a look, if only to bring them back down in the mire with us.

Finally, my apparently irrepressible urge to comment on things has found an outlet on my Facebook timeline, which is more suited to the two-paragraph volleys I can dependably make time for these days.

One of my new friends at UChicago has told me that my Facebook comments make him want me to start a Wordpress website, so I can expand on those volleys. (Cover your ears, darling; we've been together for six years and I would never switch platforms.) This is inordinately kind of him to say. Shout out to you, dude. I hope this post doesn't make you regret it.

Let me take this moment to expound on the blog post that I'm most proud of: "Reflections on the Nature of U.S. Power or Why ISIS is all the U.S.'s Fault." Maybe I can bring it up to date a little bit.

In that post, I wrote, referring to President Obama's attempts to force Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out of power,

"If Maliki goes, expect to see major U.S. operations against IS in Iraq. Maybe even in Syria. If he doesn’t, expect a lot more beheadings."

Well, Maliki went, and we did see major U.S. operations against IS in Iraq and in Syria. We also saw a lot more beheadings - most horrifically, the 21 Egyptian Christians beheaded on a beach in Libya last month.

At this point, two things seem abundantly clear to me:
1) The U.S. is not trying to seriously destroy the Islamic State.
2) The U.S. government is trying very hard to obfuscate that fact.

Take this January 22 report from the Wall Street Journal, where the head of U.S. Central Command boasts that the U.S. has driven IS out of "300 square miles of territory in Iraq."

This reminds me of nothing so much as the Austin Powers villain Dr. Evil holding the world hostage for "one million dollars." The American public just isn't very good with numbers, and our leaders' PR departments take full advantage of that fact.

IS controls territory the size of Great Britain. As my friend Neal points out, 300 square miles is smaller than the county he lives in in Iowa. Rhode Island alone is 1,200 square miles. In terms of IS' total territory, 300 square miles barely registers.

Over at The Atlantic, defense analyst Kenneth Bower cannot wrap his mind around this. "I simply do not understand our strategy, assuming we really have one," he writes:

"As I see it the Sunni minority in Iraq and the Sunni majority in Syria are under siege by Shia. ISIS is the one successful Sunni group opposing the Shia. A very large portion of Arab Sunnis at least passively support ISIS, not because they support its extreme ideology but because they want the Sunnis to emerge victorious. A subset of the pro-ISIS Sunnis actually support their extreme ideology. What we call the Iraqi military is seen by almost all Arab Sunnis as a Shia army under the influence, if not the control, of Iran. This explains why Turkey maintains open borders, as well as the policy of Jordan, Saudi, and the Emirates.

"...If our goal is defeating ISIS's ideology and its support of international terrorism this cannot be done by indirect fire, PERIOD! If [conclusive defeat] is our objective we only have limited choices: either military control of 25 million Syrian/Iraqi Sunnis, which will require a sustained force of 500,000 for decades; or creating conditions whereby the majority of Sunni Arabs will see it in their self interest to subjugate the ideological minority."

Let me explain what he's saying a little bit: the parts of Iraq and Syria that IS has taken over are Sunni Muslim-majority. Both Iraq and Syria have governments led by Shia Muslims. (Syria's government is a secular dictatorship dominated by Muslims from the Alawite sect, who believe in the divinity of Muhammad's son-in-law and reincarnation and such.) These governments are, by nature, very oppressive towards their Sunni citizens. IS has arisen as their champion, and has built, effectively, a new state for the Sunnis along the Syria-Iraq border.

This area is mostly desert and grasslands. There are no significant resources there. Only a bunch of angry people who probably don't like IS very much, but like their old governments even less.
This is also where some 600,000 Christians and Yazidis used to live, but they have now been driven out of their homes. Probably, for good.

Bower's analysis is spot-on.  He is only confused because he assumes the goal of the U.S. is to destroy IS. It's not. It can't be. Why would we want to? As Bower points out, destroying IS means militarily occupying millions and millions of poor, brutalized, angry people who have nothing to offer. Don't be shocked that nobody is leaping at the chance.

We DO have a strategy, but in the words of George Orwell, it is "too brutal for most people to face, and does not square with the professed aims of the political parties."

IS is the new Gaza. Israel failed at integrating the Palestinians there into its system, and then it failed in subjugating them. So, it pulled all its own people out, put up a wall around it, watched as a radical Islamist group took over, blockaded it from the sea and air, and now bombs it every time they get too unruly.

The most difficult-to-manage and low resource parts of Iraq and Syria have now been sawed off, lumped together, and totally cut off from the rest of the world. This is in the U.S.' interests. IS continues to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which is good for us, because it keeps Syria and Iran, our enemies, weak. Right now, we're protecting the Iraqi government from IS, but if they ever get too close to Iran, we can threaten to stop protecting them. IS has put the U.S. in a sweet spot, geostrategically.

Just like Hamas in Gaza, we will leave IS in power, and bomb them just enough to keep them from expanding too much. The IS regime may one day collapse. It may not. Perhaps one day, the time will be right for a "Nixon goes to China" moment. The president will send his secretary of state to Mosul, who will shake hands with the IS foreign minister, and say lots of nice things about Islam.

Too hard to believe? The single most radical Islamic state in the world, Saudi Arabia, is the U.S.'s closest Middle East ally. It can be done.

The truly depressing thing is, if the U.S. wanted to, it could probably use its airpower to liberate the areas that Iraq's Christians and Yazidis were expelled from. Friends in the area tell me that the "occupation" of the Christian and Yazidi homelands is mostly guys in pickup trucks roaming around, looting homes. It's too dangerous for Christians and Yazidis to go back, but it is not a full-scale occupying force. The U.S. could pick them off from the skies, and create a no-fly zone, allowing Christians and Yazidis to move back.

But then, the Christians and Yazidis would have to be reckoned with. They would have their own militias, probably. They would want to elect their own leaders. The U.S. would have to referee their spats with the Kurds and with the Shia government in Baghdad. They might not always do what they're told. Who wants the hassle?

The difficult part about this style of thinking is avoiding conspiracy theory. I'm not sure that what I've laid out above is some kind of evil master plan that the whole government is in on. It could be. But more likely, it's simply what we're doing by default.

Our enemy, the Syrian regime, is facing an uprising? Well, let's throw some weapons at it.

The uprising has morphed into a massive jihadist force threatening our ally, the Kurds? Better start bombing it.

Our bombing them is allowing our enemy the Syrian regime to regain ground? OK, boys, ease up a bit.

Destroy IS completely? Well, we're not ready to commit ground troops to control their territory, so...

The public is complaining we're not doing enough? How many square miles has IS lost now? 300? Triple-digits, that's good. Get me the Wall Street Journal...

And what we see now is the result. 

Immensely depressing, I know. This is what America's policy of interference-without-responsibility has wrought in the Middle East: the likely destruction of Middle Eastern Christianity, as well as a host of smaller religious and ethnic groups like the Yazidis, the Turkomans, the Shabaks, the Sabeans, etc., and a sweeping fire that is destroying the diversity of Islamic thought and culture in the region.

In this age of literal beheadings, the Book of Revelation is becoming more and more important for us Christians. John sees "the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God."

Are we holding on to our testimony about Jesus? Do we testify that He, not the United States, is the Last Best Hope for mankind, the Light of the world, the Indispensable One? Do we bear witness that we, as his followers, and NOT the American nation-state, are the city shining on the hill? When people look to us, do they see that city? Do they see people at peace with each other and with others? Do they see a better way to live? Do they see peaceful resistance against and condemnation of this evil?

Or do they see us hating on Muslims, rushing out to buy Mike Huckabee's new book, fretting about immigration, ranting about other sinners attaining full civil rights, voting for the political parties waging war on the innocent in the Middle East, and serving in the military and the government like everyone else?*

What does the world see when they look at us? What do Middle East Christians see?

"This beast was given power to wage war against God's holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God's people."

Middle East Christians are enduring. They are bearing witness.

Are we?

Happy Ash Wednesday.

"The world was not worthy of them." Hebrews 11:38

*I'm not necessarily saying don't serve in the government. I'm saying don't serve in the government like everyone else. I'll leave you to figure out how to do that.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book un-Recommendation: Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour

I feel like there are a lot of books out there that get recommended all the time, despite the fact that they are bad, bad books. I'm going to start doing my part to point them out.

Today's un-recommendation: Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour. The story of a young Palestinian Christian boy expelled from his home by the Zionists, and how he brought himself to love Jews anyway. A sad story? Yes. A bad book? Also yes.

Is it the fact that well-meaning Christians are constantly recommending this book to people who just "want to know more" about the Israel-Palestinian conflict? Is it the fact that you will learn almost nothing about the history and contours of that conflict by reading it? Is it the fawning foreword by James Baker, an architect of the U.S.' 24-year-long war on Iraq, which has to date claimed roughly twelve times as many lives as the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

It is all of those things.  But most of all, it is this passage, from pp. 132-133, in which he calls the destruction of Iraq's ancient Jewish community a Zionist plot.
In the years following the declaration of the State of Israel, its government needed desperately to flood the new land with settlers. ...Something had to be done. ...the Jewish community in Iraq, for instance, became the victim of 'anti-Semitic' violence of suspicious origin. On the last evening of Passover in April 1950, some 50,000 Jewish people, celebrating an ancient tradition, were enjoying a stroll along the Tigris River in Baghdad. ...Out of the darkness a car sped along the river esplanade and a small bomb was hurled, exploding on the pavement.

Though no one was hurt, shock-waves of fear rocked the Jewish community. Rumors of uncertain origin spread: A new, fanatic Arab group was planning a Jewish pogrom. It seemed unreasonable to many, since Jews had lived undisturbed in Iraq for a long time. But leaflets appeared mysteriously the very next day urging Jews to flee to Israel - and ten thousand signed up for emigration immediately. Where had the leaflets come from? How had they appeared so instantly? 

[Me: ???]
The mystery was forgotten when a second bomb exploded - then a third, killing several people outside a synagogue. The rumors flew. By early 1951, Jews fled Iraq in panic, abandoning homes, property and an ancient heritage until only five thousand remained in the country.

Some fifteen people were arrested in connection with the bombing - and the remnant of the Jewish community was outraged. The Haganah [Jewish military], it was discovered, had smuggled arms caches into Iraq and it was they who had thrown the bombs at their own Jewish people.

I don't care how many times Chacour says that he's "forgiven" the Jews. THAT, my friends, is anti-Semitic hate speech. It is also 100% false. It barely deserves refutation. But here we go anyway.

From the BBC (hardly a pro-Israel source):
On 1 June 1941, a Nazi-inspired pogrom erupted in Baghdad, bringing to an end more than two millennia of peaceful existence for the city's Jewish minority. ...Thousands of armed Iraqi Muslims were on the rampage, with swords, knives and guns. The two days of violence that followed have become known as the Farhud (Arabic for "violent dispossession"). It spelt the end for a Jewish community that dated from the time of Babylon. There are contemporary reports of up to 180 people killed, but some sources put the number much higher. The Israeli-based Babylonian Heritage Museum says about another 600 unidentified victims were buried in a mass grave. ...A red hand sign, or hamsa, had been painted on Jewish homes, to mark them out. Families had to defend themselves by whatever means they could.

...Steven Acre, now 79 and living in Montreal, climbed a palm tree in the courtyard when the violence began. He still remembers the cry "Cutal al yehud" which translates as "slaughter the Jews". The men...crossed the street and screams began to emanate from the house of his mother's best friend.

"Later lots of men came outside and set the house on fire. And the men were shouting like from joy, in jubilation holding up something that looked like a slab of meat in their hands.

"Then I found out, it was a woman's breast they were carrying - they cut her breast off and tortured her before they killed her, my mother's best friend, Sabicha."

Yeah. Not so mysterious.

This happened in 1941 - seven years before the State of Israel was established. You can just imagine how fun it got for the Jews after that.

So why did the Jews only leave in 1950? Because it was only in 1950 that they were allowed to.
In 1950, Jews were finally allowed to leave, on condition they give up all their property and assets, including their bank accounts. By 1952, only 2,000 of 150,000 were left.
Today there are seven.

The same thing happened in virtually every other Arab country at this time, except Syria, which didn't formally allow its Jews to leave until the 90s. The vast majority of them found a way to escape anyway.

Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour - don't read it!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reflections on the Nature of U.S. Power


Why ISIS is all the U.S.’ Fault

“Our military has no peer.  The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War. Meanwhile, our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth; our businesses the most innovative.  Each year, we grow more energy independent.  From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations. …So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.  That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come.” 

President Barack Obama, May 28, 2014

“People  worshiped the beast and asked, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?’”

- Revelation 13:4

Today, as I write this, U.S. warplanes have been striking positions of the “Islamic State” (IS) in northwestern Iraq for three days.

This has been a rough week for me emotionally. A ludicrous thing to complain about given the context, but there it is. I haven’t been sleeping well. I’ve been getting lots of headaches.

I’ve spent a grand total of seven days in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, but that apparently was enough time for me to develop an emotional attachment to this lush region, its wealth of ancient peoples, languages and religions, and my brave Iraqi friends who live there.

Over the past week, fighters from the Islamic State have gone on a rampage across the region, forcing 400,000 Christians and Yezidis (an ancient pre-Christian religion) to flee their homes. Nearly the entire Nineveh plain – all the ancient Christian towns and cities – has been emptied, all in one day (Thursday, if you were wondering). All my Iraqi friends are homeless. All the kind, longsuffering refugee families I met there are refugees once again. The Yezidi city of Sinjar was also emptied, with 50,000 people fleeing to a nearby mountain, only to find themselves surrounded by Islamic State fighters, without food or water.

By now, the Islamic State’s modus operandi is well-known – crucifixions, torture, rapes, abductions and enslavement of non-Muslims, mass executions of Shia Muslims and Yezidis, forced subjugation and plundering of Christians, videotaped beheadings. The indigenous peoples of Iraq have every reason to be afraid. 

The news that my country was bombing these monsters, and airdropping humanitarian aid to the children trapped on that mountain, came as an enormous relief to me. Even as an ostensible pacifist, I couldn’t help exulting in this act of war.

Nevertheless, I insist on seeing this bombing, not as an act of mercy from the world’s superpower to the wretched of the earth, but as an act of imperialism.

I spent most of yesterday with an old DC friend I hadn’t seen for some time, who was introducing me to a lot of his new friends. He kept asking me to share “your conspiracy theory” with them. Apparently it was entertaining or enlightening or something. After telling it for the third time, I figured I better write it down so my paranoia can be public knowledge. Here it goes.

The U.S. is using IS as a tool of its Middle East foreign policy. It facilitated and allowed its rise to power, and is now seeking to benefit from the chaos it is stirring up.

My friend’s introduction notwithstanding, this is not a conspiracy theory, nor is it mine. There is no secret to the U.S.’s Iraq and Syria policy. It simply needs to be put into context for the U.S. government’s true intentions to emerge.

Consider: ever since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has proclaimed itself to be at war with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda operatives across the globe have been hunted down, killed, abducted and droned into oblivion, whether they are active or inactive, imminent threats or merely have bad intentions, are violent themselves or mere propagandists. This has only increased after President Bush’s departure from office. On October 5, 2013, U.S. forces launched simultaneous attacks to kill two low-ranking al Qaeda members 3,000 miles apart from each other – one in Libya, one in Somalia. Drones attacks on people loosely affiliated with al Qaeda are more or less constant in Pakistan and Yemen. In some areas of Pakistan, the sound of buzzing from American drones looking for al Qaeda and Taliban targets to kill is so frequent that it wreaks psychological damage on the entire population. “Total war” is an accurate description.

How does one square that reality with the fact that, in March 2013, the Islamic State (at the time an al Qaeda affiliate known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria”) took over Raqqa, Syria, a city with over a million people, religiously cleansed the entire region, and has held it ever since with NO response from the U.S. government? No airstrikes, no drones, nothing?

At the time, the press accurately reported that Raqqa was the largest city ever controlled by al Qaeda. Today, IS is no longer affiliated with al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s successor expelled them for being too extreme. Think about that for a second.

How is it that, over a year later, IS was able to overrun Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul – population two million – and seize huge amounts of abandoned U.S. military equipment belonging to the Iraqi Army, once again without any response from the U.S. government other than mealy-mouthed statements of concern from the State Department?

Answer: the U.S. allowed it to happen. Perhaps it’s too strong to say they wanted it to happen, but they correctly perceived that IS was not a threat to their regional strategy, and actually fit into it quite neatly.

The U.S. purposefully dominates the Middle East. It has ever since the end of World War II, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union, victorious allies, turned on each other and began a long struggle for control in the region. Both powers saw very well how a lack of oil played a large role in Germany’s defeat, and decided that they would not allow that to happen to them. Needless to say, the U.S. won that struggle, along with everything else.

The U.S.’s dominance over the region rests on its alliance with two countries – Israel, which we hear about all the time, and Saudi Arabia, which we hardly ever do. Were it not for our alliance with Saudi Arabia, we would probably view that country as something akin to North Korea. Thousands of foreign workers are held in slave-like conditions. Women are subject to what can only be described as gender apartheid. Religious police force everyone in the country to practice the most severe variety of Islam.  No political or religious dissent is allowed. Jews are not allowed to enter the country (unless they happen to be high-ranking U.S. diplomats.)

The U.S. uses its alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia to achieve two key objectives in the region: protecting U.S. access to oil, and preventing the Islamist terrorist threat to the homeland from getting out of hand. We could add many smaller goals to this list – regional peace and stability, democratization, human rights, cultivating pro-American public opinion – but all of these come second to oil and counterterrorism.

Why? Because, the intelligent, dedicated government officers who direct our policy tell themselves, without a secure oil supply and protection from terrorism, the U.S. won’t be in a position to help anybody. First things first.

Al Qaeda is not the biggest threat to this arrangement. Not by a long shot. The biggest threat to this arrangement is the Islamic Republic of Iran – a huge, revolutionary, anti-American country that is seeking to replace Israel and Saudi Arabia as the strongest country in the region.

That cannot happen. So Iran is public enemy number one. Their alleged nuclear weapons program is the justification given. Their potential to wrest the region from the United States’ control is the real reason.

Forget everything you ever heard President Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry say about democracy in the Middle East, and take another look at the region. In 2011, revolutions broke out in six Arab countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

Bahrain is an island nation near Iran. The majority of the population is Shi’a Muslim, like Iran and Iraq, and unlike the rest of the region. Their king is Sunni Muslim, like the king of Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which protects U.S. interests in the Middle East. The Sunni king of Bahrain is a U.S. ally. If he were overthrown, he would almost certainly be replaced by a Shi’a ruler who would be much friendlier to Iran and much less friendly to us.

Early on in the Bahraini revolution, Saudi tanks invaded Bahrain across an enormous bridge that connects Saudi Arabia to the island (which was built for precisely that purpose) and put down the revolution. The U.S. gave its tacit approval.

Did you even hear about it?

Compare that to the revolution in Syria – a majority Sunni Muslim country ruled by a secular dictator from a Shi’a Muslim offshoot religion, the Alawites. The Syrian government is Iran’s closest ally.

Working together, the United States, and the Sunni countries Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar took advantage of the Syrian revolution and funded and armed a violent, Sunni Islamist insurgency that tore the country apart. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have died so far. Nearly half of all Syrians have had to flee their homes.

Mind you, the U.S. and its allies haven’t given the rebels enough money and weapons to actually win. The last thing the U.S. wants is for the Sunni extremists it is supporting in Syria to take over. We support them just enough to keep the war going and going, and to keep Iran (and the Syrian people) bleeding, and bleeding, and bleeding.

It is in the chaos and horror the U.S. created in Syria that the Islamic State arose.  And they had considerable help. Not from us, of course! Perish the thought. Just from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – our closest allies in the region.

Meanwhile, across the border, in Iraq, the prime minister we had chosen to lead the country we spent so much money and gave so many lives to “liberate” and “rebuild” (the electricity still isn’t on, if you’re wondering) was not cooperating. Weapons shipments from Iran to Syria passed through Iraq easily and regularly, despite the U.S.’s public protests. Nouri al-Maliki had decided his Shi’a-majority country’s ties to Iran were more important than his ties to us.

Then, in June of this year, lo and behold! Here comes IS, overrunning huge parts of Iraq and humiliating the Iraqi army. The U.S., of course, promises immediate assistance. On one condition: that Iraq chooses a new prime minister.

None of this is a secret. It is merely done in the name of “spreading democracy” and “protecting human rights.” Because our efforts have manifestly failed to do either, pundits on the right criticize the Obama administration for its “failure” and “incompetence” while pundits on the left praise him for his “restraint” and “keeping us out of war.”

We are very much at war. And it is not failing. It is succeeding brilliantly. All of Iran’s allies are on fire, and Iran has elected a president who all but begging the U.S. to back down.

Why then, if IS is serving the U.S.’ goals so well, are we bombing them now? Not because they are threatening genocide against Christians and Yezidis. That’s been the case for over a year. My best guess is that it is because, this week, the Islamic State stopped attacking the Iraqi Army and started attacking the Kurds.

With extensive American help over the last twenty-three years, Iraq’s Kurds have set up a virtually independent state in the northeast of the country. They are oil-rich and very reliably friendly to America. And IS’s latest attacks drove almost to the gates of their capital, Erbil. (The Christians were unfortunate enough to live in the region between them.) That was a step too far for America. 

So we have started bombing IS. Not enough to wipe them out (like we do virtually everywhere else al Qaeda rears its head). Just enough, as White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said this week, to "tip the balance in support of Kurdish forces." Any more help, Obama continues to openly insist, is dependent on Maliki getting replaced by someone more to our liking – pardon me – on having “a legitimate Iraqi government.

If Maliki goes, expect to see major U.S. operations against IS in Iraq. Maybe even in Syria. If he doesn’t, expect a lot more beheadings.

Again, I don’t consider this to be a conspiracy theory. Much of this is said aloud by public officials. The U.S. government is working for American interests first of all, and tacking on good deeds for human rights secondly. We do nice things for people who are nice to us. People who get in our way, we undermine.

That’s to be expected, right?

Why has this perfectly normal behavior – supporting human rights where we can, but pursuing our own interests first of all – resulted in the near-complete destruction of Iraq and Syria, serial massacres in Gaza, a crushed and terrorized population in Bahrain, two military coups in Egypt, civil war and religious cleansing in Libya, near civil war in Ukraine, etc., etc., etc.?

Because the U.S. defines its interests globally.

The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called Obama’s May 2014 West Point foreign policy address “literally pointless.”

On the contrary – it had a very, very telling point. You may have missed it, because in the U.S., we are raised to take it for granted.

Here it is:

Read that again.

Isn’t that kind of insane?

Consider the implications of that. Ukraine? Dispensable. Israel? Dispensable. Syria and Iraq? You’d better believe they’re dispensable! Only the interests of the U.S. are sacrosanct. The interests of all other nations must give way to the U.S.’s efforts to maintain its leadership status.

In the same speech, Obama continues,

“The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead - not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe.”

America – under President Obama and under all presidents since World War II – sees itself as responsible for the peace and prosperity of the whole world.

A laudable goal, perhaps – but how much power will we have to accumulate to achieve it? And how many people will we kill in pursuit of that power accumulation?

In the Middle East over the past 13 years, the answer is somewhere north of a million. And there’s no end in sight.

This is not a vision of the world that allows for alternate centers of global power.  So NATO and the European Union steadily integrate more and more of Russia’s former satellite countries into their alliances. And when the government of one of these nations – Ukraine – reneges on a EU deal in favor of closer ties with Russia, we overthrow their government and replace it with one of our liking. (Again: not a conspiracy theory. There are tapes of U.S. diplomats discussing which Ukrainian opposition figure to put into power weeks before Yanukovych’s overthrow.) It’s just too bad about the hundreds of Ukrainians (and Dutch air passengers) who have died as a result.

And when China starts increasing its military strength and making noise about disputed islands and extending its navy into the South China Sea, the Obama administration starts talking about “pivoting to Asia” and shoring up our alliances with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Muslim-killers in Myanmar.  If China doesn’t cut it out, look for the U.S. to start championing human rights in Tibet and East Turkestan.

Hopefully I’ve made clear that this problem is much bigger than any individual or political party within the U.S. government. The U.S. government’s foreign policy has taken on a life of its own. Each new president, secretary of state and foreign service officer inherits a set of commitments, priorities, alliances and arms agreements from his predecessors, and is constrained by them. It’s much easier to ride a tiger than dismount it.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment, I believe, is a principality – one that is increasingly given over to the demonic power of death.

Bear with me.

I owe basically all my thinking in this area to William Stringfellow, an Anglican lay-theologian from the 1970s. Drawing on the Apostle Paul’s reference to “the principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), Stringfellow defines a principality as “a living reality, distinguishable from human and other life” – in other words, something that has taken on “a life of its own,” such as images, institutions and ideologies. 

In our fallen world, Stringfellow says, “each principality boasts that men will find the meaning and fulfillment of human life in service to the principality and that which abets its survival; a profound concern for self-survival is the governing morality of every principality. This comes first. To this all other interests must be sacrificed.”

I can personally testify that this is an accurate description of the workings of the U.S. government. I know people who have been literally blacklisted by U.S. State Department employees for embarrassing the Department over its inaction on its human rights commitments. People are capable of unbelievably brazen perfidy when they are defending their principality.

Because the principalities deny the lordship and power of Christ, the only power that they are able to use to control human beings is the power of death. In Stringfellow’s words, “death is the only moral and political sanction of the State.” Every government, organization, and institution naturally seeks to accumulate more power, and outside the will of Christ, the quest for power eventually reduces down to death and the threat of death.

Witnessing the carnage of the Vietnam War in his day, Stringfellow identified the U.S. government’s institutions as principalities that were possessed by the demonic power of death:

“The war has exposed the process by which a principality or conglomeration of principalities beguiles and entraps people in courses of action that wantonly debilitate and destroy human life. …during the ordeal in Southeast Asia of the past decade, Americans have been successively induced to squander life on a scale so prodigious it appalls imagination and defies calculation for the sake of stopping the alleged threat of communist China or of securing ‘self-determination’ for the Vietnamese or of hindering the so-called domino theory or of vindicating American ‘honor’ or of serving the ‘national security’ interests.”

The squandering of human life on a prodigious scale has not changed. Today, the justification is “extending peace and prosperity throughout the globe.” 

In that goal, our leaders may be sincere. But they are trying to achieve it through the power of death - military power, economic coercion, violent revolution, coups d'etat, sanctions. Accumulating the power necessary to dominate the world is ultimately impossible. It requires the killing of too many people. Eventually, the power of Death takes over completely. We have to destroy the village in order to save it.
Considering all of this, I have to laugh every time I see a new instabook in Christian bookstores about the “Islamic Antichrist.” Such a book could only be published in America. Forget 666 and the ten horns and all the other biblical identifiers prophecy enthusiasts puzzle over. Surely the crucial feature of the Beast is that it controls the whole world. Does that sound like Iran?

Nearly all of the Bible’s symbolism of the antichrist – seven hills, ten kings, “Babylon” - pointed to ancient Rome for John’s first readers. Where is Rome today?

If you were the devil, what country would you focus your efforts on? Who else would have the power to make American Christians obsess over inscriptions on courthouses and Obama’s birth certificate, and ignore the U.S.-engineered starvation of a million Iraqi children?

Besides William Stringfellow, these thoughts also owe a lot to Professor John Kok. I distinctly remember being at Dordt College as a sophomore, giving a presentation at a Kuyper Scholars Seminar where I argued for the U.S. to work to maintain its global supremacy to prevent China or Russia from replacing it. Because, I reasoned, obviously they would be worse!
After I finished, Professor Kok posed some questions to me that (kindly) made it clear he disagreed.  He finished by advising me to read I John 5:19, which said that the whole world was under the control of one person.  Being a good Kuyper scholar, I was about to answer, "Jesus!" but he cut me off and said, "Look it up, and you'll find out who that is."

That wasn't my moment of conversion. I’m kind of thick-headed. But over the last four years, God in his great mercy has brought into my life a great number of Christian and Muslim Middle Easterners whose lives have been turned upside down by the terror unleashed on their countries by my government. They were unfailingly gracious about that reality, and today, I’m honored to call them my friends. But early on in my relationships with them, the Lord made something clear to me: you can’t call yourself their friends, and still support what your government has done to them.
In a month, I’ll be on my way to grad school at the University of Chicago. My career prospects after that are far from certain, but I intend to try to find a way to use my life to do something about this.
It’s taken me a long time here to get here from being the insufferable neoconservative know-it-all you knew so well. But here I am. I am ready to be talked down.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Moral Sophistry in Gaza


"An attempt to stop talking past each other."


"How to not let yourself get talked into killing 1,000 people."

What follows is an extended response to Charles Krauthammer’s July 17, 2014, column, “Moral Clarity in Gaza.” Krauthammer's words are in normal type. Mine are in bold.

Israel accepts an Egyptian-proposed Gaza cease-fire; Hamas keeps firing. Hamas deliberately aims rockets at civilians; Israel painstakingly tries to avoid them, actually telephoning civilians in the area and dropping warning charges, so-called roof knocking.

All true, though by the time of this writing, Israel has also rejected a proposed Gaza ceasefire.  

But here’s what supporters of the Jewish state need to ask themselves: are they okay with bombing residential areas in the most densely-populated area on earth if it’s done while trying really hard to avoid civilian casualties? Is it okay to drive 100 mph the wrong way down a busy highway as long as we’re all wearing our seatbelts and flashing our lights? 

Under some circumstances, sure. Are these those circumstances?

“Here’s the difference between us,” explains the Israeli prime minister. “We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.”

Again, all true. Again - does that make it okay for Israel to kill 1,000 people? 

Rarely does international politics present a moment of such moral clarity. Yet we routinely hear this Israel-Gaza fighting described as a morally equivalent “cycle of violence.” This is absurd. What possible interest can Israel have in cross-border fighting? Everyone knows Hamas set off this mini-war. And everyone knows the proudly self-declared raison d’etre of Hamas: the eradication of Israel and its Jews.

Again, all true. (Or at least arguably true.) But for the answer to the question, “What possible interest can Israel have in cross-border fighting?,” read on. And again – does this make it okay for Israel to kill 1,000 people?

Apologists for Hamas attribute the blood lust to the Israeli occupation and blockade. Occupation? Does no one remember anything? It was less than 10 years ago that worldwide television showed the Israeli army pulling die-hard settlers off synagogue roofs in Gaza as Israel uprooted its settlements, expelled its citizens, withdrew its military and turned every inch of Gaza over to the Palestinians. There was not a soldier, not a settler, not a single Israeli left in Gaza.

And there was no blockade. On the contrary. Israel wanted this new Palestinian state to succeed. To help the Gaza economy, Israel gave the Palestinians its 3,000 greenhouses that had produced fruit and flowers for export. It opened border crossings and encouraged commerce.

The whole idea was to establish the model for two states living peacefully and productively side by side. No one seems to remember that, simultaneous with the Gaza withdrawal, Israel dismantled four smaller settlements in the northern West Bank as a clear signal of Israel’s desire to leave the West Bank as well and thus achieve an amicable two-state solution.

This is not ancient history. This was nine years ago.

And how did the Gaza Palestinians react to being granted by the Israelis what no previous ruler, neither Egyptian, nor British, nor Turkish, had ever given them — an independent territory? First, they demolished the greenhouses. Then they elected Hamas. Then, instead of building a state with its attendant political and economic institutions, they spent the better part of a decade turning Gaza into a massive military base, brimming with terror weapons, to make ceaseless war on Israel.

Where are the roads and rail, the industry and infrastructure of the new Palestinian state? Nowhere. Instead, they built mile upon mile of underground tunnels to hide their weapons and, when the going gets tough, their military commanders. They spent millions importing and producing rockets, launchers, mortars, small arms, even drones. They deliberately placed them in schools, hospitals, mosques and private homes to better expose their own civilians. (Just Thursday, the U.N. announced that it found 20 rockets in a Gaza school.) And from which they fire rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

All tediously debatable, but for the sake of argument - fair enough. Hamas is the worst. But read on! We’re about to reach a crucial point. 

Why? The rockets can’t even inflict serious damage, being almost uniformly intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. Even West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas has asked: “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?”

The rockets can’t even inflict serious damage. So. Hamas took advantage of Israeli generosity, squandered a chance at peace, and turned Gaza into a hellhole/base for launching rocket attacks on Israel. Attacks that “can’t even inflict serious damage.” So let’s ask ourselves again – why has Israel just killed 1,000 people? 

It makes no sense. Unless you understand, as Tuesday’s Post editorial explained, that the whole point is to draw Israeli counterfire.

Fair enough. But then why does Israel oblige? As one Washington Post columnist recently asked us, “What possible interest can Israel have in cross-border fighting?” If Hamas’ attacks do not inflict serious damage, why does Israel feel the need to kill 1,000 people? 

We can multiply possibilities. Israel needs to demonstrate that people who attack it, however ineffectually, will suffer. Israel needs to punish the Palestinian population to terrorize them into relative docility. Israel needs to keep Gaza uninhabitable to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state or civil society. Israel needs to fight terrorists to legimitize its existence as a state. The current Israeli government needs to demonstrate its strength to the Israeli electorate and keep its coalition partners in line. Israel is just bombing back because that’s what, in our enlightened world, one does when one is bombed. 

Are any of those reasons a good reason to kill 1,000 people? 

This produces dead Palestinians for international television. Which is why Hamas perversely urges its own people not to seek safety when Israel drops leaflets warning of an imminent attack.

To deliberately wage war so that your own people can be telegenically killed is indeed moral and tactical insanity. But it rests on a very rational premise: Given the Orwellian state of the world’s treatment of Israel (see: the U.N.’s grotesque Human Rights Council), fueled by a mix of classic anti-Semitism, near-total historical ignorance and reflexive sympathy for the ostensible Third World underdog, these eruptions featuring Palestinian casualties ultimately undermine support for Israel’s legitimacy and right to self-defense.

All plausible. Is that a good reason for Israel to telegenically kill 1,000 people? 

In a world of such Kafkaesque ethical inversions, the depravity of Hamas begins to make sense. This is a world in which the Munich massacre is a movie and the murder of Klinghoffer is an opera — both deeply sympathetic to the killers. This is a world in which the U.N. ignores humanity’s worst war criminals while incessantly condemning Israel, a state warred upon for 66 years that nonetheless goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming the very innocents its enemies use as shields.

It’s to the Israelis’ credit that amid all this madness they haven’t lost their moral scruples. Or their nerve. Those outside the region have the minimum obligation, therefore, to expose the madness and speak the truth. Rarely has it been so blindingly clear.

A good rule of thumb, for Christians especially, but also for Jews, Muslims, and everyone else - if your moral scruples and clear truth have led you to support the killing of 1,000 people - mostly civilians, although that matters less in God's eyes than our murderous species would like to think - then stop. 

Just stop. Be silent. Breathe deeply. Take a step back. Wipe off the chalkboard. Pray for mercy. Start again. Start with this: lo tirṣaḥ. La tiqatl. You shall not kill.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

12 Years A Slave: Some Thoughts (and spoilers)

I got to see the movie 12 Years a Slave last night with my sophisticated and attractive friends Jordan, Landon and Janae.  It is an incredible movie - incredibly good and incredibly disturbing.  The nearest thing I can compare it to, movie-wise, is The Passion of the Christ.

12 Years a Slave is a true story, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a free black man, an American citizen from New York with a wife and two kids, who was abducted by slavers on a trip to Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery in the Deep South.  He stayed trapped in slavery for twelve years until


he was able to convince a sympathetic white laborer to carry a letter to his white friends in New York, who came and rescued him.


For me, the most arresting scene in the film comes soon after Solomon is sold into slavery.  The master of his plantation is supposedly a "decent" slave owner.  He gives his slaves plenty of food and good living quarters. He is unable to purchase a woman's children along with her to keep her family together, but he feels bad about it.  He respects Solomon's intelligence and obviously realizes he was not born in slavery, but makes no effort to find out the truth, since he went into debt to buy Solomon. 

One day, one of the master's  sadistic overseers attacks Solomon, and Solomon, still fresh from the North, fights back, steals the overseer's whip, and strikes him with it.  Shocked and enraged, the overseer flees, and returns with a gang to hang Solomon.  They get the noose around his neck and hoist him into the air from a tree branch, the other end of the rope staked to the ground.  At that moment, a different overseer arrives, and, knowing Solomon's value to his master, drives his attackers off at gunpoint.  After the attackers release the rope, Solomon drops just low enough that his feet are brushing the ground, and he can breathe if he pushes his body up with his feet.

This is where the truly horrible part comes.  Instead of cutting Solomon down, the overseer sends for the master - and then leaves.  Solomon is left hanging by his neck for hours, just barely able to breathe by constant, laborious footwork.  In the background, we see the other slaves coming and going about their work, their eyes averted.  And not just other slaves, but other white people - the master's wife, the other overseers, day laborers.  No one dares rescue Solomon until the master returns at sunset, rushes over with genuine alarm, and cuts Solomon down with a machete.

That night, Solomon sleeps on the floor in the foyer of the master's house, the master watching over him with a shotgun, hastening to investigate every little sound in the darkness beyond the porch.  He is terrified that the attackers are coming back for Solomon, and arranges to sell him as soon as possible.

For the vast majority of this horrifying segment, there are no villains onscreen.  The only villain present is the invisible, demonic Power of racism.  This Power dictates the actions of everyone onscreen, from the blacks who have been taught by long years of terror never to interfere in the punishment of a black, to the whites who have learned the same lesson.  Even the supposedly all-powerful master is only powerful enough to cut down the noose - to do the very least to help the black man.  He is too afraid to do anything else.  The terror, the violent Power of racism that Americans invited in to help build their country hangs over all their heads, ruling over them.  Some people in this picture are rich and comfortable, but none are free.

Over and over again, the movie presents us with similar no-win scenarios.  Does the "good" slave master buy the enslaved mother and separate her from her children, or leave her with her children and run the risk that they get bought by someone awful?  Does Solomon accept his status as a slave and get constantly abused, or insist on his rights as a free citizen and get beaten even more?  Does he help a tormented female slave  commit suicide, or force her to stay alive?  Do the slaves intervene when the master rapes a slave woman, or look away?  When Solomon's deranged second master pulls out a gun and orders Solomon to whip his fellow slave or "I'll kill every n----- here," does he do it?

There might not be right answers to these questions.  There might also not be right answers to the questions that confront Americans on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not.  I passed a homeless man asking for money twice on the way in and out of the theater last night.  Do I give him money and contribute to making degrading street begging a viable means of survival for him, or do I pass him by and do nothing to help him survive?  Which of two candidates promising to continue bombing innocent people overseas do we vote for?  Which national corporate bank involved in massive fraud and economic malpractice do we open an account with? Which grocery store carrying cheap products produced at unimaginable cost to the environment and overseas laborers (and yes, slaves) do we shop at?

This summer, I read An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, a frustrating, convicting book by William Stringfellow, an Anglican lay-theologian and 1970s antiwar activist.  Stringfellow argues that the "powers" of the world - all governments, organizations, militaries, churches, schools and families - are fallen creatures, fallen separately from the human beings that constitute them, and are given over the demonic Power of death.  Certain things - the Vietnam War, for him, and I would add the Iraq War, farm subsidies, carbon dioxide pollution and the abortion industry to that list - only make sense if we realize that they operate not for the benefit of anyone involved, but for the benefit of the System itself - which is to say, for the benefit of Death.

For Stringfellow, the only answer to this dilemma we are all caught in is to resist the power of death, in whatever fashion our circumstances and the Holy Spirit avail us of.  Our resistance will inevitably be futile, fallen and sinful to some degree, but "resistance is the only human way to live."

I'd be remiss if I didn't add that, except for the racial and religious dynamics, all the elements of slavery I saw in this film are present in modern-day slavery in Sudan, where I regularly travel to see people who have been liberated from slavery through the organization I work for, Christian Solidarity International.  Abduction, family separation, name changes, murder with impunity, rapes, constant beatings, torture, maimings - it's all still happening today, and at about the same level of technological development, in the Darfur and Kordofan regions of North Sudan.

I met this man, Deng Akol Acien, in September.  He was 20 years a slave.  Before his capture, he was a Christian, a sugar trader.  His master changed his name to Abdullah and forced him to pray like a Muslim.  After Abdullah lost one of his master's sheep, he beat him, cut off the tip of his ear, tied him to the ground and left him in the sun for three days without food.  On the fourth day, his master brought him food mixed with dirt to eat.  Abdullah saw seven of his fellow slaves executed for trying to escape.  There's more, but it's not fit even for this horror-show of a blog post.  When I met him, he told me he wanted to be called Deng again. "I'm done with Abdullah forever now."

We can get people like Deng out of slavery through our contacts in Sudan, usually for the price of about $50 worth of cattle vaccine - per person.  

It won't solve poverty, racism, systematic abuse of women, and war in Africa.  We can't defeat the power of death on our own. 

But we can resist.  And that, I believe, is what we are called to.