Saturday, August 15, 2015

My new article on Syria Comment

Hey there erstwhile blog-followers! I have a new piece up on Syria Comment, my favorite Syria blog, trying to explain why the U.S.' plan to train and equip a whole new rebel army in Syria has, to date, trained only sixty fighters. You can read it here if you're interested.

"It’s easy to understand the consternation of the senators at the Carter hearing. How could the U.S. foreign policy establishment possibly be so incompetent?

"To move beyond incredulity and consternation, we need to put this training project in context. Over four brutal years of civil war, the U.S. has announced a succession of programs to aid “moderate” anti-government fighters in Syria – all similarly modest, even embarrassingly so. But U.S. rhetoric about these programs has been jumbled and self-contradictory, and has had only the most tenuous connection to events on the ground – and to the true scale of U.S. involvement in Syria. The wide gulf between rhetoric and reality evinces a deliberate public information strategy to conceal the nature of that involvement."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

These Are Not The Islamophobes You're Looking For

Several times in the last few weeks, I’ve encountered the idea that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is driven by, or affected by, Islamophobia. I thoroughly disagree, and I've been tossing around thoughts on how to express this disagreement concisely. This is the result.

I use “Islamophobia” here to refer to the belief that Islam is irredeemably violent and oppressive, or a tendency to approach Islam expecting to find violence and oppression. In their more advanced stages, Islamophobes will believe that all Muslims believe in violent war against unbelievers, that Muslims who say they don’t are practicing taqiyya or dissimulation and biding their time, and that Muslims should not be allowed to establish a presence in the West. Islamophobia can and does lead to daily harassment for Muslims in the West, and sometimes deadly acts of terror. In Europe, it is obsessed with the “demographic threat” posed by Muslim immigrants, and often links up with anti-Semitic rightwing political parties. It is a real problem.

It’s just not a problem in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. In the U.S. foreign policy establishment (meaning the organs of the executive branch), Islamophobes are mocked and systematically excluded from decision-making. They have no real power there. And to accuse them of having power there is to completely miss the problem.

When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, don’t fear the Islamophobes.

Fear the president who hosts special Ramadan and Eid al-Adha celebrations in his palace, then launches wars that kill millions of Muslims (and other Middle Easterners.)

Fear the Defense Department that changes the name of their Muslim-killing war from “Operation Infinite Justice” to “Operation Enduring Freedom” to respect Muslim sensitivities.

Fear the government that designates high-level envoy after high-level envoy to reach out to Muslims and “counter extremism,” while basing regional security policy on an alliance with the most extreme “Islamic” state in the world.

Fear the political system, media and academy flooded with money from that same state.

Fear the presidential candidate who promises to side with Muslims and their civil rights “should the political winds shift in an ugly direction,” then oversees a government that systematically spies on Muslims and kills hundreds of Muslims and thousands of bystanders by remote assassination.

Fear the government that looks for ways to arrest Americans who offend Islam with YouTube videos and Qur’an burnings, because they might interfere with the war effort.

Fear the foreign service officer who, when a South Sudanese Christian American citizen comes to the embassy sobbing because his Sudanese Christian wife has been sentenced to death for apostasy, and their infant children are in prison, asks for a DNA test to prove that they’re really his children.

Fear the diplomats who think the Muslim Brotherhood could be a responsible ally if they were just given the chance to govern after winning free elections. Or rigged elections. Whatever. Egyptians are all Muslims anyway, right? This should make them happy.

Fear the administration that armed and equipped the Islamist rebel movement that gave birth to the Islamic State, then refused to call the Islamic State “the Islamic State,” lest they offend someone, then promised to “destroy” “ISIL,” then stood by as city after city full of Muslim and Christian civilians fell to the killers.

Fear the ambassador who blames Boko Haram on Nigerian Christians, because they didn’t give Nigerian Muslims “their turn” to rule the country.

Fear the president who gives an address at a “prayer breakfast” attended by an Islamist Sudanese minister personally involved in the killings of millions of Christians (and Muslims who weren’t Muslim enough for him), and uses it to talk about the Crusades.

Fear the State Department spokesperson who thinks the Islamic State wouldn’t exist if the unemployment rate in the region was a little lower.

Fear the foreign policy establishment that believes that Middle Eastern Muslims treat Islam the way they treat Christianity – something highbrow and cultural to do on Sunday and chat about at brunch on Monday, but that never interferes with their pursuit of the neoliberal dream. Fear the people who see Islam as a tool, a plaything, a collection of still-undeveloped peoples fit to be molded to America’s new manifest destiny. Fear the country that doesn’t bat an eyebrow when their “moderate,” “diplomatic,” “antiwar” president announces that he is leading “the one indispensable nation” on a mission to “extend peace and prosperity around the globe.” Fear those who believe that there’s nothing wrong with Middle Eastern history, society and culture that an infusion of capitalism and democracy can’t fix – even if we have to use American military power to do it. Fear the people who still think they can fix the Middle East, after everything. Fear the people who would try even if they didn’t believe it, because American power in the region depends on them being seen to try.

Don’t fear the Islamophobes. Fear the new Orientalists. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Primary Sources for High Schoolers Studying the Middle East Conflict: A Start

So, yes, it's been a while since I posted here (but check out my sick new page!) A teacher friend of mine from college, who now teaches at a classical school, asked me if I could put together any primary sources her high school students could use in studying conflict in the Middle East in the post-Gulf War era. I thought it sounded like a fun project, and might make for a good blog post as well.

Here goes nothing!


1974: Yasser Arafat's 1974 UN General Assembly speech

1988: The Charter of Allah: The Platform of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)

For decades, Yasser Arafat was the leader of the Palestinian war against Israel. Today, he is dead, and the main group fighting Israel is Hamas. How do Arafat and Hamas view the conflict? What unites them? What separates them?

1993: Address by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin upon signing the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles

2015: Netanyahu: No Palestinian State on My Watch.

In 1993, peace between Israel and Palestine seemed almost at hand. What changed? Why did the "peace process" fail?


In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood - a forerunner of Hamas - rose up in rebellion against the secular dictatorship of Hafiz al-Asad in Syria. Asad crushed the rebellion, destroyed the city of Hama, and killed tens of thousands of people. This is the speech he gave after the massacre.

How does Asad describe the Muslim Brotherhood? Who does he say supports it? What does he say about Islam?

In 2011, a new rebellion broke out in Syria against President Bashar al-Asad, Hafiz al-Asad's son. This is the speech he gave at the beginning of the rebellion, on March 30, 2011. What is similar between Bashar's speech and his father's speech? What is different? How do they describe the rebels? How do they describe America?

September 2013: "'No One's Left': Summary Executions by Syrian Forces in al-Bayda and Baniyas." (Human Rights Watch.)

How do the Syrian government's methods differ from President Asad's rhetoric? Why is the government so vicious?

January 2013: Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces: "Letter to the Christians of Syria."

November 2013: "Syria: Human Rights Abuses During Opposition Offensive." (Human Rights Watch.)

10% of Syrians are Christian. How do the Syrian rebels' words differ from their actions towards Christians? Why do the rebels want to reassure the Christians? Are there any "good guys" in this war?

March 2013: "Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With U.S. Aid" (New York Times)

April 2013: "U.S. Policy Towards Syria" (Elizabeth Jones, Acting Assistant Secretary of State)

What is the U.S. doing in Syria? What does Jones say the U.S. is doing? How does that compare with what the New York Times says?


January 2003: Denis Halliday, 2003 Peace Award Acceptance Speech

How did the first President Bush see the U.S.' role in the world, and in Iraq? How did Halliday? Why did Halliday resign from the United Nations? Was he right?

March 2004: Iraq Interim Constitution

2014: Speech by Iraqi parliament member Vian Dakhil:

2014: CNN video of rescue of Yazidi refugees in northern Iraq:

What were the hopes of Iraq's leaders after the U.S. invasion in 2003? What strikes you about the constitution? How did things go so wrong in the ten years after the constitution was drafted?

Al Qaeda

1998: Osama bin Laden, "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders"

What are bin Laden and al Qaeda's reasons for going to war against the United States? How is it connected to Iraq? What does it have to do with "the Jews"? Who are "the Crusaders"?

The Gulf States

January 2015: "Statement by the President on the Death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz"

December 2009: "Action Request for Senior Level Engagement on Terrorism Finance" (Secret U.S. State Department cable)

August 2014, "U.S. Relations With Qatar" (U.S. State Department Factsheet)

March 2014: Undersecretary of the Treasury David Cohen, "Confronting New Threats in Terrorist Financing"

What do President Obama and the State Department say about Saudi Arabia and Qatar in public? How do the secret U.S. State Department cable and the speech by David Cohen differ? Why are they so different? What is the role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the "war on terrorism"?

Christians in the Middle East

1982: Bashir Gemayel, president-elect of Lebanon, "The Last Speech"

1949-1958: Michel Alfaq, founder of the Ba'ath Party, "On Heritage"

Bashir Gemayel led a group of Christian fighting forces in the Lebanese civil war, from 1975 until his assassination in 1982. He fought to keep Lebanon as an independent "homeland for Christians" that would not be absorbed by other Arab countries. Michel Aflaq was from Syria. The political party he founded, the Ba'ath, would go on to seize power in Syria and Iraq. He believed in the absolute unity of all Arabs, whether Christians or Muslims, with no national boundaries in between them.

How do each of these Christian leaders see the history of Christians in the Middle East? How did each feel towards Islam? Why did they have such greatly differing views?

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.