Mea culpa

Fasten your seatbelts, America.  You’re in for a bumpy night.

Plainly, I’ve let this blog lapse for far too long.  The  United States seemed to be a stable place when I started it back in 2014.  To be sure, foreign policy was disintegrating at a rapid clip, particularly in Syria.  But all seemed more or less normal at home.  Barack Obama’s approval rating by the end of the year was a respectable 48 percent, Hillary Clinton was living quietly in Chappaqua, Bernie Sanders was an obscure senator from Vermont, while Donald Trump was still a hugely entertaining buffoon whom no one took seriously.


Since then, a few things have changed.  Obama is writing his memoirs and giving speeches on Wall Street, Clinton is in semi-exile, Sanders is gearing up for 2020, and instead of holding forth on “The Apprentice,” Trump now does so from the Oval Office.  Politics have cratered, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle where idiots like Adam Schiff and Chuck Schumer have passed the GOP on the right when it comes to beating the drums for a new Cold War with Russia.  The infighting on Capitol Hill has intensified as Republicans charge their opponents with attempting to drive Trump from office and liberals fire back that anyone saying any such thing is clearly on the Kremlin payroll.  While no one knows where all this will end, the one certainty is that the breakdown can only intensify.


All of which is perfectly in keeping with my thesis, first propounded in my 1996 book, The Frozen Republic, that America’s 1787 constitutional arrangement has entered the last stages of senility and that a massive overhaul is both overdue and impossible under anything resembling present circumstances.  Only a clean sweep will do, one proceeding from the assumption that the Constitution is hopelessly out of date along with the ideological assumptions behind it.  If history has an iron rule, it’s that change is unstoppable and that any attempt to halt the process only insures that it will be all the more radical when it finally arrives.  Yet this is just what the US has attempted to do by tying society up in a constitutional straitjacket for close to a quarter of a millennium.  Now that the arrangement is coming undone, we will all have a chance to see what happens when the old rules collapse and society is forced to begin again from scratch.


There is much to explore here, e.g. the relationship between political structure and economics, the role of law amid a growing constitutional breakdown, and so on.  Meanwhile, we can all sit back and watch as the gaudy spectacle unfolds.  Will Trump fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller?  Or will Mueller save his own neck by forgetting about Russiagate and charging former FBI Director James Comey with perjury by falsely introducing the famous Steele dossier as evidence before a federal court?  How long before the war of nerves in Washington leads to fighting in the streets?  And what will the effect of a growing blowout on Wall Street?  (Hint: it can only cause the crisis to intensify.


Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night….


Charlie Hebdo and Blowback

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi

There’s been a bit of Internet chatter lately about the Charlie Hebdo and Porte-de-Vincennes attacks as false flag operations by intelligence agents eager to poison relations with France’s Muslim community and pave the way for deeper intervention in the Middle East.  After all, the French police had the Kouachi brothers under surveillance for years, one of them (Chérif) had been arrested for attempting to bust an Islamic militant out of jail, while Amedy Coulibaly actually met with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009. So who can’t help feeling a mite suspicious? The fact that all three have since been “liquidated” seems to clinch it for certain types of conspiratorialists. Since dead men tell no tales, it seems we will never know who really put Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers up one of the most sensational crimes since 9/11.

But there’s a problem with scenarios like this since they assume that intelligence agencies are masterminds effortlessly manipulating events behind the scene.  But as we know from repeated intelligence foul-ups from the Bay of Pigs to the Edward Snowden affair, these people are the kind of royal screw-ups who couldn’t put together a two-car funeral.  Not that it’s entirely their fault, though.  The real incompetence lies further up the food chain where imperial leaders have promised different things to different people and are in quandary now that the bills are coming due.

Take for example an article that Aaron David Miller, vice president of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Center, published recently on The Wall Street Journal website.  Entitled, “Why the U.S. Prefers Assad to ISIS in Syria,” it argued that Obama has decided that leaving Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power is the least-bad option since removing him would effectively turn the country into a jihadi state:

Islamic State would take over its first major Arab capital, and recruitment would skyrocket.  Alawites and other minorities would flee, further stressing neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, which are already burdened with refugees.


Syria, moreover, would turn  into a launching pad for attacks on neighboring states — Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and most especially Saudi Arabia, a nightmare society that I think is just an inch or so away from collapse.

So Miller is correct – the idea of an ISIS state in the middle of the Levant staggers the imagination.  But while he’s right about ISIS, he’s wrong about Obama.  Rather than leaving Assad in place, the U.S. has merely decided to kick the can down the road, putting off his removal to some future date when Washington will be in a better position to dictate the terms of a post-Baathist government and see to it that a compliant pro-American (and pro-Israeli) regime takes control.

Indeed, the same day that Miller’s article ran on the WSJ website, an excellent piece by Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum ran on the newspaper’s front page describing how the U.S. is following a two-pronged strategy aimed at pushing ISIS out of Iraq but merely bottling it up in Syria.  “Certainly ISIS has been able to expand in Syria, but that’s not our main objective,” Nissenbaum quoted an unnamed “senior defense official” as stating.  “I wouldn’t call Syria a safe haven for ISIL, but it is a place where it’s easier for them to organize, plan and seek shelter than it is in Iraq.”

In other words, Syria is a safe haven for ISIS, a place where it can regroup and expand its territorial control, as Nissenbaum makes clear.  The article adds that “U.S. strategy in Syria is also constrained by a reluctance to tip the balance of power toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting Islamic State and other rebels.”  Washington wishes ISIS would leave its client government in Baghdad alone, but at the same time it wants ISIS to keep the heat on the Baathists in Damascus.  It is thus using ISIS to keep Assad on the defensive — to soften him up until the time is ripe to finish him off.

Although some might see this as some sort of fine-tuned policy-making, it’s really a case of driving with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake.  Obama is torn.  He’s frightened of what will happen if Assad goes and frightened of what the Republicans and Hillaryites will say in Washington — not to mention the Saudis in Riyadh — if he stays.  So his response is to straddle, allowing ISIS to enjoy a little R&R in Syria, leaving Assad in office in Damascus a little while longer, and promising to train some 3,000 “moderate” rebels under Saudi auspices to insert in the Syrian battlefield as soon as the right moment comes.

But the results are disastrous.  ISIS is growing stronger, the addition of several thousand Wahhabist troops can only add to the combustibility, while the violence continues to overflow into other countries — as the recent carnage in Paris shows.  The idea that the violence can be contained in Syria is ludicrous.  When veterans of the Saudi-backed fighting return to their families, they do not leave their jihadist doctrines behind.  To the contrary, they take them with them.

The upshot has been a growing “Syrianization” of the banlieues complete with radical imams spewing hatred at all and sundry, extremist camps and schools, and ISIS-style attacks on everyone from freethinkers like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to religious minorities like the Jews.  Yet François Hollande is just as paralyzed as his mentor Obama, declaring war on Islamic fundamentalism while at the same time siding with the Saudis, the ultimate jihadist state, in its efforts to overthrow one of the few secular regimes left standing in the Middle East.  The civil war can only intensify in its latest venue.

Although Chérif and Saïd Kouachi never got an opportunity to fight in Syria and Iraq, they reportedly rubbed shoulders with mujahideen who did.  But Chérif did succeed in traveling to Yemen, an other war-torn society in which the U.S. is also playing both sides of the fence, i.e. bombing Al Qaeda militants while at the same time joining with the Saudis in backing local Wahhabists in their fight against Shi‘ite insurgents known as Houthis  Since Wahhabists and Al Qaeda are often difficult to tell apart, Saudi money has wound up flowing to both, with little or no protest from the Americans as far as anyone can discern.

Benefiting from both U.S. and Saudi largesse, Chérif Kouachi used the money and training provided by the Wahhabists and Al Qaeda to assemble his little venture against Charlie Hebdo.  This doesn’t make it a black flag operation, but, rather, a classic case of blowback.  After financing Islamic-fundamentalist violence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and numerous other placesl, the U.S. and its allies can hardly be surprised that it is now washing up in Paris.

Waiting for Santy

The great S.J. Perelman

The great S.J. Perelman

Jacobin’s mock-Marxist analysis of Santa’s North Pole sweatshop was pretty good, but I think S.J. Perelman did it much better back in 1936: 



(With a Bow to Mr. Clifford Odets)

Scene: The sweatshop of S. Claus, a manufacturer of children’s toys, on North Pole Street.  Time: The night before Christmas.

At rise, seven gnomes, Rankin, Panken, Rivkin, Riskin, Ruskin, Briskin, and Praskin, are discovered working furiously to fill orders piling up at stage right.  The whir of lathes, the hum of motors, and the hiss of drying lacquer are so deafening that at times the dialogue cannot he heard, which is very vexing if you vex easily.  (Note: The parts of Rankin, Panken, Rivkin, Riskin, Ruskin, Briskin, and Praskin are interchangeable, and may be secured directly from your dealer or the factory. )

Riskin (filing a Meccano girder, bitterly)— A parasite, a leech, a bloodsucker— altogether a five-star nogoodnick!  Starvation wages we get so he can ride around in a red team with reindeers!

Ruskin (jeering) —Hey, Karl Marx, whyn’tcha hire a hall?

Riskin (sneering)— Scab!  Stool pigeon!  Company spy!  (They tangle and rain blows on each other.  While waiting for these to dry, each returns to his respective task.)

Briskin (sadly, to Panken)— All day long I’m painting “Snow Queen” on these Flexible Flyers and my little Irving lays in a cold tenement with the gout.

Panken— You said before it was the mumps.

Briskin (with a fatalistic shrug)— The mumps— the gout— go argue with City Hall.

Panken (kindly, passing him a bowl)— Here, take a piece fruit.

Briskin (chewing) —It ain’t bad, for wax fruit.

Panken (with pride)— I painted it myself.

Briskin (rejecting the fruit)— Ptoo!  Slave psychology!

Rivkin (suddenly, half to himself, half to the Party) — I got a belly full of stars, baby.  You make me feel like I swallowed a Roman candle.

Praskin (curiously)— What’s wrong with the kid?

Riskin— What’s wrong with all of us?  The system!  Two years he and Claus’s daughter’s been making googoo eyes behind the old man’s back.

Praskin— So what?

Riskin (scornfully)— So what?  Economic determinism!  What do you think the kid’s name is— J. Pierpont Rivkin?  He ain’t even got for a bottle Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic.  I tell you, it’s like gall in my mouth two young people shouldn’t have a room where they could make great music.

Rankin (warningly)— Shhh!  Here she comes now!  (Stella Claus enters, carrying a portable phonograph.  She and Rivkin embrace, place a record on the turntable, and begin a very slow waltz, unmindful that the phonograph is playing “Cohen on the Telephone.”)

Stella (dreamily)— Love me, sugar?

Rivkin— I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, that’s how I love you.  You’re a double malted with two scoops of whipped cream; you’re the moon rising over Mosholu Parkway; you’re a two weeks’ vacation at Camp Nitgedaiget!  I’d pull down the Chrysler Building to make a bobbie pin for your hair!

Stella— I’ve got a stomach full of anguish.  Oh, Rivvy, what’ll we do?

Panken (sympathetically)— Here, try a piece fruit.

Rivkin (fiercely)— Wax fruit— that’s been my whole life! Imitations! Substitutes!  Well, I’m through!  Stella, tonight I’m telling your old man.  He can’t play mumblety-peg with two human beings!  (The tinkle of sleighbells is heard offstage, followed hy a voice shouting, “Whoa, Dasher! Whoa, Dancer.”  A moment later S. Claus enters in a gust oi mock snow.  He is a pompous bourgeois of sixty-five who affects a white beard and a false air of benevolence.  But tonight the ruddy color is missing from his cheeks, his step falters, and he moves heavily.  The gnomes hastily replace the marzipan they have been filching.)

Stella (anxiously)— Papa!  What did the specialist say to you?

Claus (brokenly)— The biggest professor in the country … the best cardiac man that money could buy … I tell you I was like a wild man.

Stella— Pull yourself together, Sam!

Claus— It’s no use.  Adhesions, diabetes, sleeping sickness, decalcomania— oh, my God!  I got to cut out climbing in chimneys, he says— me, Sanford Claus, the biggest toy concern in the world!

Stella (soothingly)— After all, it’s only one man’s opinion.

Claus— No, no, he cooked my goose.  I’m like a broken uke after a Yosian picnic.  Rivkin!

Rivkin— Yes, Sam.

Claus— My boy, I had my eye on you for a long time.  You and Stella thought you were too foxy for an old man, didn’t you?  Well, let bygones be bygones.  Stella, do you love this gnome?

Stella (simply)— He’s the whole stage show at the Music Hall, Papa; he’s Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Fifth; he’s-

Claus (curtly)— Enough already.  Take him.  From now on he’s a partner in the firm.  (As all exclaim, Claus holds up his hand for silence.)  And tonight he can take my route and make the deliveries.  It’s the least I could do for my own flesh and blood.  (As the happy couple kiss, Claus wipes away a suspicious moisture and turns to the other gnomes.)  Boys, do you know what day tomorrow is?

Gnomes (crowding around expectantly)— Christmas!

Claus— Correct.  When you look in your envelopes tonight, you’ll find a little present from me— a forty-percent pay cut.  And the first one who opens his trap— gets this.  (As he holds up a tear-gas bomb and beams at them, the gnomes utter cries of joy, join hands, and dance around him shouting exultantly.  All except Riskin and Briskin, that is, who exchange a quick glance and go underground. )


Timothy Snyder does it again

Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder

Best-selling historian Timothy Snyder has posted another screed on The New York Review of Books web site, his first in eight months, and it’s pretty much what readers of his 2010 bestseller Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin would expect: a dangerous farrago of half-truths and non-sequiturs whose purpose, as I pointed out in a detailed analysis in Jacobin a couple of months ago, is to pump up the anti-Russian war fever now sweeping through portions of eastern Europe and the US.

The occasion is a recent comment by Vladimir Putin about the 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact.  “The Soviet Union signed a nonaggression treaty with Germany,” the Russian president told a gathering of historians last week.  “People say, ‘Ach, that’s bad.’  But what’s bad about that if the Soviet Union didn’t want to fight?  What’s bad about it?”

Seems like a fair question.  But rather than answering it, Snyder uses it as an excuse to throw in everything from Hitler’s Anschluss to the Russian war of aggression supposedly now underway in the Ukraine.  Where the casual reader might think that Putin was merely defending the pact in a tentative, half-hearted way, Snyder argues that he was attempting nothing less than to “rehabilitate the alliance between Hitler and Stalin that began World War II.”  Putin is seeking a symbolic “rapprochement with Nazi Germany” in order to hook up with ultra-rightists bent on Europe’s destruction and, in the process, jettisoning “one of the basic moral foundations of postwar politics: the opposition to wars of aggression in Europe in general and the Nazi war of aggression in 1939 in particular.”  Combining the worst aspects of both Hitler and Stalin, the Russian president thus wishes to turn the clock back to the nightmare years of 1939-41 – or so Snyder’s latest NYRB contribution contends.

All this because of an offhand remark about a 75-year-old treaty.  Based on the flood of excited messages on Twitter, it appears that there are a lot people out there who just lap this stuff up.  But the spin that Snyder puts on Putin’s comments couldn’t be sillier.  To begin with the treaty itself, Putin’s point is far from mistaken.  As repellent as the idea of a military accord with a monster like Hitler might seem, the Soviets had every right to stall for time if it was to their advantage.  This was particularly the case in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement just eleven months earlier when Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier gave Hitler the go-ahead to dismember Czechoslovakia.  The Soviets had offered to come to Czechoslovakia’s aid in the event of a Nazi attack, but the Anglo-French capitulation left Prague no choice but to throw in the towel.  For Stalin, it was a sign that British Tories were giving the Nazis a free hand in the east and that the USSR would henceforth be on its own.  Given their isolation, the Soviets can hardly be blamed for doing whatever was necessary to preserve their fighting capabilities.

Putin was therefore not incorrect as far as he went.  What he did not say, of course, is that if the Soviets not ready for a fight at that point, it was because Stalin had just finished decapitating his own military by executing scores of generals, admirals, and commanders in the Great Terror of 1937-38.  He also neglected to mention that rather than taking advantage of the breathing space to build up his forces, Stalin dropped all mention of anti-fascism and lulled himself into the belief that Hitler’s promises were trustworthy.  The result was one of the greatest blunders in diplomatic history, which is why, when Beria, Mikoyan, and other members of the politburo showed up at Stalin’s dacha eight days later, he assumed that he was about to be arrested and presumably shot.  But since just about everyone already knows how the story things turned out, Putin probably figured that there was no reason to revisit such a painful topic and decided to leave it at that.

Yet Snyder takes a tepid defense of a disastrous 75-year-old treaty and turns it into a blueprint for European conquest.  Stalin wasn’t stalling for time, he now argues, but was actively seeking to turn German forces to the west so that “the inherent contradictions of the capitalist world would be exposed, and Germany, France, and Britain would collapse simultaneously.”  By defending the 1939 treaty, Putin is making clear his intentions to do the same by hooking up with various elements opposed to European unification: “Just as Stalin sought to turn the most radical of European forces, Adolf Hitler, against Europe itself, so Putin is allying with his grab bag of anti-European populists, fascists, and separatists … [who] wish to bring an end to the current European order.”  Putin, in Snyder’s view, is Stalin without the mustache.

But he’s wrong on both counts.  Stalin was not a grand strategist seeking to bring about the collapse of European capitalism, but a petty and provincial politician chiefly concerned with shoring up defenses in its own backyard, i.e. the Balkans and the Black Sea.  As the Israeli historian Gabriel Gorodetsky notes in the most incisive study of the non-aggression pact to date, his vision extended no farther than that of Pavel Miliukov, the Liberal foreign minister who was Lenin’s archenemy and whose chief concern was maintaining control of the Bosporus.[i]  Contrary to those who see him as an arch-revolutionary, Stalin’s outlook was actually quite backward, which is why he was so unprepared when a real revolutionary like Hitler came along, albeit a revolutionary of the right rather than of the left.

Snyder is no less wrong about Putin.  The man clearly has his authoritarian side.  But rather than a radical rightist out to overturn the western order, he is an old-fashioned conservative struggling to hold things together at home under increasingly adverse circumstances.  Perhaps the biggest problem he faces is not taming the oligarchs or diversifying an oil-dependent economy, but the old nationalities question.  The Soviet Union was not a unified nation-state along French or Italian lines, but a multinational federation consisting of 176 nations and ethnic groups according to the 1926 census, all bound together under the rubric of proletarian internationalism.  Such principles suffered repeated assault and battery during the Stalin years, yet somehow the system still held together. But when it finally came undone in 1989-91, the post-Soviet leadership found itself faced with the problem of what to replace it with.  Since it couldn’t be communism or czarism, it had to be … what?  With NATO and the US encouraging separatists in the Baltic, the Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asia, something had to be done to prevent the structure from unraveling.  If Russia had had a better government than the cumbersome bicameral legislative system that Boris Yeltsin foisted on the country during his alcohol-sodden reign, it might have managed the transition more democratically.  But it didn’t, so a drift to some ill-defined authoritarianism was inevitable.

This does not make Putin a fascist, merely a cautious politicians seeking to check such centrifugal tendencies and, in the international arena, return to the balance of power that pertained prior to 1989.  This could change.  Either he could lurch to the right in the event of a major politico-economic breakdown or a real strongman could push him aside, one who is much tougher and harder-edged.  But for now, the best way to describe his actions is as wary and defensive.

This includes his actions in the Ukraine.  Western media reports notwithstanding, Putin did not encourage separatism.  To the contrary, it was Ukrainian nationalists who encouraged it by hoisting the banner of the World War II collaborator Stepan Bandera, notorious for slaughtering not only Jews but tens of thousands of Poles, and pushing to downgrade the Russian language.  Russophone elements in the east responded exactly as blacks would have responded in the US if giant portraits of Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest had suddenly gone up on Capitol Hill and a KKK-led mob had forced Barack Obama to flee the White House — in other words, with fear and outrage.  Russian speakers wanted out of a ramshackle republic that was turning on itself and lurching toward civil war – and who can blame them?  Putin did not invade the Crimea; he already had 25,000 troops there under a 1997 agreement giving him full access to Russian naval facilities in Sevastopol and other areas.  Faced with a mass rebellion on the part of the Crimea’s overwhelmingly Russian-speaking population, he merely bowed down before a fait accompli and cleared the way for union with Russia.

Indeed, the radicalism has been entirely on the other side. The insouciance of the US with regard to the growing fascist presence in the Euromaidan uprising that began last November has been astonishing.  While passing out cookies on the barricades and posing for photos with Svoboda Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland put out word that all those masked fighters with Wolfsangel insignias on their armbands – the same isignias that the Second SS Panzer Division used to wear, by the way – were of no consequence and that the Russians were wrong even to bring them up.  In his latest post, Snyder similarly turns reality on its head by railing against Russia’s “grotesque claim” of a fascist threat.  If the Russian foreign minister had called for the forcible breakup of the United States, Congress would be resounding with war cries.  Yet when Zbigniew Brzezinski called for breaking up Russia into three separate entities in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, he met with nothing but praise.

The growing hysteria of Snyder and his ilk is further evidence of a deepening radicalization.  His vision of a Russian threat extending all the way to Lisbon is the perfect complement to the Russian fascist Alexander Dugin’s concept of a totalitarian state stretching along Eurasia’s entire northern tier.  One foresees an expansionist Russia pushing steadily to the west and the other an expansionist Europe pushing steadily to the east.

Snyder is also evidence of growing support for what Dovid Katz, in his invaluable website, calls the theory of a double genocide.  By now an East European orthodoxy, the theory holds that Nazism’s crimes were in no sense singular or unique, but part of a gruesome pas-de-deux in which Stalin’s murderous policies played no less an important role.  The rightwing German historian Ernst Nolte set off a firestorm in the 1980s by arguing that the Nazis “commit an ‘Asiatic’ deed merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be potential victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed,” i.e. a mass slaughter by Stalin and his Mongol hordes; and now Snyder seems to be saying much the same thing by arguing that Stalin’s crimes somehow paved the way for Hitler’s genocide years later.  As he says of the non-aggression pact in the NYRB blog:

Less than two years later, the Holocaust began in precisely the part of Europe that was dealt with in the secret protocol of the pact.  By 1945 almost all of the millions of Jews who lived in these regions would be dead.  Stalin famously said that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an alliance “signed in blood.”  Much of the blood shed in the lands concerned by the agreement would be that of Jewish civilians.

The pact led to the death of the six million, although precisely how is left unclear.  But the argument is spurious for the simple reason that the Nazis would have slaughtered every Jew they could get their hands on regardless of whether the anti-Soviet war had started in 1939 or 1941.  To be sure, Stalin made Hitler’s job easier by being so criminally unprepared.  But so did FDR by delaying America’s entry into the war by a full 26 months and then repeatedly putting off the opening of a second front.  Does that mean he, too, prepared the way for the Holocaust?

What Snyder is trying to do here is get the Nazis ever so slightly off the hook.  By “relativizing” Nazi crimes in this manner, he makes Hitler seem merely reactive while portraying Stalin as the prime mover.  Since the two tyrants were morally equivalent, as he argues again and again in Bloodlands, Poles, Ukrainians, and others who aided the fascists were no worse than Jews who aided the Soviets.  Either side contributed to what he calls an “escalation of both German and Soviet violence.”  The lesson that growing numbers of East European nationalists take from this is that there is no point prosecuting Nazi war criminals until every last Communist is prosecuted as well, including those Jews who managed to join the Soviet partisans.  Since they fought on behalf of a criminal regime, they must have been criminal, too.  And if Jews persist in hailing them as heroes, then Ukrainian nationalists will feel justified in hailing Stepan Bandera as a hero as well.  Based on Snyder’s “scholarship,” this seems to be the only conclusion one can draw.

[i] Gabriel Gorodetsky, Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1999), p. 58.

Daily Beast: Swastikas are “hot” in the new Ukraine

Winston Churchill: Singing the praises of a new Germany in 1933.

Winston Churchill: Singing the praises of a new Germany in 1933.

Russia Insider, a right-of-center web site run by Moscow-based expats, has spotlighted an article in The Daily Beast, which, with amazing loopiness, poses the question, “Why Are Swastikas Hot in the West Ukraine?”  After noting that such images are popping up all over – on military helmets, in party insignias, in demos, etc. – the reporter, Anna Nemtsova, assures us that neo-Nazism has nothing to do with it.  To the contrary, the swastika merely stands for national independence and resistance to Russia.  To be sure, “most nationalist and ultra-right youth organizations in Ukraine today use symbols that millions of Ukrainian citizens associate with the Nazi army.”  But, she says, “one reason, certainly, is that the much longer and very deadly occupation by the Soviets is also a huge part of the national consciousness.”  Given that the Soviet occupation was so much more recent, the old one has thus acquired a certain burnished glow.  “[I]n Lviv,” Nemtsova goes on, “…legislators and the local administration insist the Nazi symbols are not dangerous for the country.”  She quotes a political official declaring, “I don’t care what flags or symbols they use for as long as they fight for Ukraine’s freedom,” and passes along comments by a certain Ostap Stakhiv, the 28-year-old leader of a start-up ultra-right group calling itself Idea of the Nation:

The swastika is a very strong symbol, and as soon as we adopted it, we immediately grew popular among young people.  Those who join us know exactly what they want, and they are ready to go to the very end. …   A yellow swastika on a black field stands for power and spirit.

All this without a hint from Nemtsova that anything is amiss.  So not to worry: the swastikas that nice young Ukrainian nationalists are waving these days have nothing to do with the ones that bad old Nazis used to display. The new ones stand for strength and nationalism whereas the old ones stand for, umm, nationalism and strength.

This is all quite ridiculous, of course. The new swastikas are exactly the same as the old ones.  The reason they’re so popular among Ukrainian nationalists fired up with anti-Russian zeal is that they remind them of the last time the Russians took a good beating, which was at the hands of Hitler’s Wehrmacht in June 1941.  What everyone else remembers as the start of a long nightmare was, from a Ukrainian nationalist perspective, a short-lived period of national liberation.  Since the Nazis were on the side of freedom and patriotism, local rightists welcomed them with open arms, declared a fascist Ukrainian republic in their honor, and then went on a rampage against local Jews just to show that their heart was in the right place.  In Lviv, for example, where the slaughter claimed an estimated seven thousand lives, the killings began as soon as German troops arrived in town on July 1, 1941, and went on for days after.  By displaying the swastika, Ukrainian nationalists are essentially adopting the same logic.  It they don’t specifically endorse the actions that followed, they don’t reject them either.

Not that this is particularly surprising.  When the Euromaidan barricades went up last November, leftists raised the alarm about the prominent role that ultra-rightists were playing in Kiev, only to be dismissed either as hysterics or pro-Russian stooges.  But Nemtsova’s article is one more piece of evidence that the left was correct and that the stooges were entirely on the other side.  The New York Times has written about a growing neo-Soviet trend in the pro-Russian east where people are increasingly nostalgic for the good old U.S.S.R.  But what seems to be happening in the rest of the country, the portion under Austro-Hungarian domination prior to 1918, is an equal and opposite process of neo-fascism, one in which the swastika is more and more popular and the World War II collaborator Stepan Bandera, whose forces slaughtered not only Jews but tens of thousands of Poles, is more and more hailed as a national hero.

Although fascists like the Svoboda Party and Right Sector have gotten most of the attention, the phenomenon is much more widespread.  In 2011, parents with small children waving Ukrainian flags crowded into downtown Kiev to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the German “liberation” while soccer fans have long made a point of taunting opponents from the east by hoisting Bandera’s portrait.  Last week, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s “moderate” president, declared October 14, the day Bandera’s Ukrainian Insurgent Army was founded in 1942, to be “Day of Defender of Ukraine.”  As Alya Shandra, the editor of Euromaidan Press, helpfully explains (in somewhat imperfect English), the purpose of the proclamation is to

go beyond the black-and-white painted by Soviet historiography … by giving room for glorification of forces that fought against Red Army and Soviet powers, such as the army of the Ukrainian People’s republic and the UPA.  Vilified in Soviet times … these military formations [are] gradually getting the appreciation and attention they deserve.  This gains a special meaning nowadays, as thousands of Ukrainian men and women are giving their lives to fight off the regular Russian army invading its East.

 So there you have it.  Contrary to Soviet propaganda, World War II was not all black and white and the Ukrayins’ka Povstans’ka Armiya, as Bandera’s fighters were known, are finally coming in for a bit of their own. The Ukrainian People’s Republic, led by the Ukrainian nationalist Simon Petlyura, is coming in for praise since its forces fought against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, even if they killed around 50,000 Jews in the process.

A Banderist-Petlyurist state has thus arisen on the banks of the Dnieper, one that vilifies Russians, brands dissidents as “terrorists,” and, according to Human Rights Watch, uses cluster bombs against the civilian population in the east.  As The Times noted, “The army’s use of cluster munitions, which shower small bomblets around a large area, could also add credibility to Moscow’s version of the conflict, which is that the Ukrainian national government is engaged in a punitive war against its own citizens.”

Precisely.  Where the Times once airily dismissed Moscow’s depiction of neo-Nazi running amuck as “caricatures in the Russian media’s fun-house mirror,” it is now forced to backtrack.  This is why pro-Washington shills like Nemtsova are rushing into action, telling readers to pay no attention to the proliferating number of swastikas because they’re really quite benign.

The Daily Beast piece is a joke, but a dangerous joke since the effect is to disarm readers and allow fascism to slip in through the back door.  Neo-Nazism under the impact of the economic crisis is spreading not only in the western Ukraine, but in Hungary, the Baltics, and elsewhere as well.  The more people turn a blind eye to it, the stronger it will grow.  It wasn’t so long ago that nice respectable people thought that fascists were people they could sit down and do business with.  FDR referred to Mussolini in 1933 as “that admirable Italian gentleman” while, less than three weeks after Hitler took power, Winston Churchill was among those singing the praises of a new Germany

with its splendid clear-eyed youth marching forward on all the roads of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland.

Eighty years later, The Daily Beast is serenading western leaders as they go down that same garden path, oblivious to the consequences.

Obama: Born-Again Neocon

Preparing to wage war on Syria…

Preparing to wage war on Syria…

“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams once observed.  No matter how much you wish they’d go away, yet they continue squatting in the middle of the road, like some angry wildebeest, refusing to budge.  In view of Obama’s upcoming speech on ISIS and the general rush to war, here are a few unbudgeable facts that have come to light in recent weeks and are all but guaranteed to make mincemeat of his foreign policy:

  • Steven Sotfloff, the freelance journalist beheaded last week, turns out to have been sold to ISIS by U.S.-backed rebel forces in Syria.  As a family spokesman put it, “We believe these so-called moderate rebels that people want our administration to support – one of them sold him probably for something between $25,000 and 50,000 and that was the reason he was captured.”
  • A field report by Conflict Armament Research, a private study group in the UK, has reported that much of military hardware intended for “moderate” Syrian rebels has wound up in the hands of ISIS, either because ISIS captured it or, according to The New York Times, because they were “sold or traded to ISIS by corrupt members of the rebel ranks.”
  • Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem has made it clear in an interview in late August that any attempt by the U.S. to bomb ISIS forces in his country would be viewed as an act of aggression unless Syria’s gives its specific approval, something it is unlikely to grant as long as the United States funds the on-going civil war.
  • A new book says CIA commandos sent to rescue U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012 were ordered to hold off so that friendly local forces could do the job instead.  Yet the commandos suspected throughout that their so-called friends were really working for the other side.  “What’s the difference between how Libyans look when they’re coming to help you versus when they’re coming to kill you?” one joked.  “Not much.”
  • A Norwegian TV news team has brought back footage of members of the Azov Battalion, one of a number of far-right volunteer outfits fighting against Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine, sporting helmets adorned with swastikas and SS insignias.

What does it all mean?  Simply that much as the Obama administration wishes that the facts would just go away, they insist on doing otherwise.  The president has asked for $500 million in military aid for pro-U.S. rebels on the premise that the hardware will be carefully targeted to insure that none of it winds up in the hands of ISIS or other such groups.  Yet, as the Conflict Armament Research report show, such assurances are meaningless.  The idea that the U.S. can distinguish so-called moderate rebel forces from the hard-line holy warriors of ISIS and Al-Nusra is no more believable today than in Benghazi in 2012.  The notion that the rebels fall neatly into two groups, secularists and fanatics, is also absurd.  After three years of civil war, the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army has all but collapsed while the remaining forces have been marked by a pronounced ideological convergence.  Whether or not they fly the ISIS flag, they all believe in more or less the same thing, i.e. militant Sunni Islam, holy war, the imposition of shari’a, and a genocidal hatred for Shi‘ties, Alawites, Christians, and all other “idolators” and “apostates.”

Equally nonsensical is the idea that the U.S. can field an anti-Assad force while simultaneously waging war against ISIS.  If it bombs ISIS, then Syrian government forces will advance to fill in the vacuum.  In the highly unlikely event that the Free Syrian Army succeeds in pushing Assad back, then ISIS will be only a step or two behind.  If Assad’s government was to suddenly collapse, then ISIS would almost certainly come out on top not only because it is better armed and more experienced than the FSA, but because its militant Sunni politics mesh far better with those of the bulk of the anti-Assad forces.  After all, if you were a Sunni fundamentalist with an RPG on your shoulder and a Qur’an in your back pocket, who would you support, the new Sunni caliphate that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared or a group that, as Patrick Cockburn reports, is little more than a front for the CIA?

The U.S. has set itself two contradictory goals, the overthrow of Assad on one hand and the destruction his archenemy ISIS on the other, which is why it will almost certainly fail in either or both.  Three years ago, Obama was riding high after the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Now Al Qaeda and its various offshoots are metastasizing from Nigeria to Iraq.  Simultaneously, the president finds himself mired in a civil war in the eastern Ukraine in which the official fiction that groups like the Azov Battalion are nothing more than liberal patriots is becoming harder and harder to maintain.  As neo-Nazis and white supremacists from as far away as Sweden flock to Azov with its swastikas, “wolfsangels,” and SS insignias, a fascist army has been raining down rockets and shells on a major European city (as Robert Parry reports in for the first time in seventy years.  Yet the U.S. cheers from the sidelines.  It’s a situation that even the lapdog press is unable to cover up, which is why alarming news stories have been finding their way into the Guardian, Foreign Policy, and even (if only in the tiniest dribs and drabs) The New York Times.

Referring to the Azov Battalion as “openly Nazi,” FP, for one, declared:

Pro-Russian forces have said they are fighting against Ukrainian nationalists and “fascists”  in the conflict, and in the case of Azov and other battalions, these claims are essentially true.

In other words, it’s Russia that’s telling the truth and the U.S. that is participating in a cover-up.  Rather than learning from his mistakes, Obama seems determined to repeat them — in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and undoubtedly other areas as well.  On Monday, The Times reported that Obama was calling in a group of well-known Middle East “experts” to advise on his next move, prominent Bushies like Stephen J. Hadley and Richard N. Haass as well as Democrats like Samuel R. Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strobe Talbott, and Jane Harman.  With the exception of Brzezinski, all are hardliners who backed Dubya’s 2003 invasion of Iraq to the hilt and were hence party to one of the most disastrous decisions in U.S. military history.  Asking such people for advice is rather like asking an arsonist to help put out a raging house fire.  As a critic of the 2003 invasion, Obama was elected to clean house, yet he has done nothing but sit back while neocons and neolibs strengthen their grip on the Pentagon and Department of State.  The more Obama tries to be both a good antiwar liberal and a hard-nosed neocon, the more confused and muddled his foreign policy becomes.  He wishes reality would allow him to have it both ways, but reality refuses to comply.

More on the neocon ISIS Tilt

Michael Oren at Aspen: Genocide has its uses…s

Michael Oren at Aspen: Genocide has its uses…s

Here is Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., holding forth on the subject of ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham — in conversation with the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 27:

 Keep in mind that I don’t speak for the [Israeli] government, I’m speaking for me … and what I’m going to say is harsh, perhaps a little edgy, but if we have to choose the lesser of evils here, the lesser evil is the Sunnis over the Shiites. …  It’s an evil, a terrible evil.  Again, they’ve just taken out 1700 former Iraqi soldiers and shot them in a field.  But who are they fighting against?  They’re fighting against a proxy with Iran that’s complicit in the murder of 160,000 people in Syria.  You know, do the math.  And again, one side is armed with suicide bombers in Iraq and the other side has access to nuclear military capabilities.  So from Israel’s perspective, you know, if there has got to be an evil that is going to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail….

This is horrifying, of course, although I don’t know who is worse, the speaker, his bland interlocutor, or upscale festival-goers listening to nonsense without a murmur of protest.  Oren’s charge that Iran is complicit in the murder of 160,000 people in Syria is an outrage.  While Teheran certainly has its crimes to answer for, it is the U.S. and its Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf who have funded the Syrian civil war and kept it going long after it began degenerating into a sectarian bloodbath.  Patrick Cockburn, the London Independent’s brilliant Middle East correspondent, recently recounted a conversation with Richard Dearlove, the former head with MI6, the British secret intelligence unit, who in turn quoted a rather offhand remark by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador in Washington and until recently head of Saudi intelligence.  “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard,” Prince Bandar told him, “when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia.’  More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”  That was prior to 9/11, according to Dearlove, which is to say back in the days when Riyadh was still funding Osama bin Laden and the Saudi-Iranian conflict was still in its infancy.  Since then, we have seen the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which infuriated the Saudis by installing a Shiite-dominated government, and then the Arab Spring, which tore apart the compromises holding the region together and pitched the Muslim world into headlong sectarian strife.

Now the Saudis are funding a Sunni fundamentalists who are out to slaughter every last Shiite, beginning with the Syrian Alawites then moving into the Shiites in Iraq.  In the process, it also wishes to enslave the Christian population of both countries.  Yet this is the group that Oren now regards as the lesser evil.  Isn’t it remarkable that a country founded on revulsion against genocide now views an Alawite genocide with something less than alarm?

Oren, of course, is disingenuous in insisting the he does not speak for the Israeli government.  In fact, his views perfectly mirror the thinking of the ultra-rightists currently running the Jewish state.  A few days before Oren spoke in Aspen, Benjamin Netanyahu was only slightly more circumspect on “Meet the Press.”  When asked what the U.S. should do to counter ISIS, he replied that militant Shiites and Sunnis are  both anti-American.  “And when your enemies are fighting each other,” he said, “don’t strengthen either one of them.  Weaken both.  And I think by far the worst outcome that could come out of this is that one of these factions, Iran, would come out with nuclear weapons capability.”

A plague on both their houses, but an extra-special plague on the Shiites.  When asked whether the U.S. should launch air strikes against ISIS, Netanyahu went on to say: “I think that there are two actions you have to take.  One is to take the action you deem necessary to counter the ISIS takeover of Iraq.  And the second is not to allow Iran to dominate Iraq the way it dominated Lebanon and Syria.  So you actually have to work on both sides.”  Give Maliki just enough aid, in other words, to prolong the slaughter indefinitely.   Then, when the countryside is littered with countless bodies, blame it all on primitive Arab bloodlust.

A Friend Writes…

Philip D. Zelikow: Admirably candid about neocon intentions

Philip D. Zelikow: Admirably candid about neocon intentions

Further evidence that the neocons are continuing their pro-ISIS tilt can be found in a column by Philip D. Zelikow that ran in The International New York Times on July 5.  Zelikow, a high-ranking member of George W. Bush’s State Department, executive director the 9/11 commission, and of course an enthusiastic supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, had this to say about the dismemberment of Iraq and Syria:

The most destructive outside force pushing violent Islamist extremism is the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Revolutionary Guards.  Our current policy seems to recognize that, but we must stick to it, swayed neither by artificial deadlines nor dreams of holding Iraq together by going easier on Tehran.  Iran’s interventions across the region are part of the problem; they cannot reliably be restrained by agreement.  Still, negotiators can make Iran choose between economic recovery and military advancement, as we are now trying to do in the nuclear talks.  Sanctions should be relieved only if Iran offers to comprehensively roll back that program.  If needed, American military power can be readied to maintain or strengthen the sanctions.

Second, the United States should not join in the Iraqi government counteroffensive to reconquer northern and western Iraq.  Let that divisive government, like the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, reap the balance of power that its narrow policies have sown.  The United States should not expect to be able to fashion desirable replacement regimes, and there is no compelling American interest now in restoring the unity of Iraq or Syria.  Their borders reflect only the British-French bargains that divided the spoils of World War I.

ISIS may seem like a super-Al Qaeda, but Zelikow’s advice is not to be deceived.  Iran remains “the most destructive outside force pushing violent Islamic terrorism” and hence is still the real enemy in the Middle East.  Because ISIS is only a pale imitation, moreover, the Obama administration should do nothing to challenge it head on.  It should not support Iraq’s counteroffensive and should continue to apply military pressure against Iraq’s main ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran.  It should also see the ISIS-Kurdish dismemberment of Iraq as a fait accompli and recognize that Maliki — and, by implication, Syria’s Assad — are now reaping the whirlwind that their “narrow policies have sown.”

Could anyone imagine a more glaring violation of the old Bush doctrine that people like Zelikow once espoused?  According to Bush, Al Qaeda represents pure metaphysical evil and anyone who has anything to do with it will wind up morally besmirched.  “If you harbor a terrorist, you’re equally as guilty as the terrorists,” he declared.  But now Zelikow informs us that ISIS is less important than Iran, that the U.S. should not allow itself to be dragged into the fight to roll it back, and that, in any event, its rise is somehow a case of poetic justice.

Indeed, his column implies something more.  In expressing a certain satisfaction that Maliki and Assad are reaping what they have sown, he is essentially advising the White House to recognize ISIS as a de-facto asset.  Obama obviously should not embrace it too closely, but neither should he be unduly concerned about its activities.  For the moment, ISIS’ efforts do not go counter to U.S. interests, so why not leave al-Baghdadi alone in his mini-caliphate and hope that he continues to apply pressure against Bashar al-Assad?

Zelikow is a blazing hypocrite, obviously.  But to be fair, the Middle East has never been more overflowing with hypocrisy.  ISIS created a mini-revolution with its June blitzkrieg.  It completely upset all the old alliances, which were coming apart at the seams but now are completely in tatters.  Everyone is scrambling for new allies as a consequence and tossing old principles overboard.  The U.S. professes to be anti-terrorist but, in sponsoring sectarian warfare against Assad, it has in fact been playing footsie for years with people who make Osama bin Laden look like Bill Moyers.  Now it thinks it can make use of ISIS to secure a momentary advantage against Syria, Iran, and, to a degree, Iraq as well.   Israel also claims to be anti-terrorist.  But since a battle-hardened Baathist state is the last thing it wants on its northern border, it would not be unduly upset if ragtag Salafists caused heads to roll in Damascus.

Saudi attitudes are particularly complex.  Contrary to Zelikow, the people who have really sown the whirlwind are King Abdullah and the exceedingly mysterious Bandar bin Sultan, Dubya’s former bosom buddy and, until recently, chief of Saudi intelligence.  Today’s Wall Street Journal quotes an unnamed U.S. official as declaring, “There was no question that Bandar and private Saudi people were pouring money into” anti-Maliki tribal groups who became the backbone of the ISIS-led Sunni jihad.  But now Abdullah is worried that he has gone too far and that a victorious ISIS will turn against him just as Al-Qaeda turned against the Saudi monarchy in the years following 9/11.  If so, his fear is that he will wind up as the latest victim of Chop Chop Square, the Riyadh plaza famous for its public decapitations.  It would be real poetic justice if he did.  But with neocons like Zelikow now firmly in control of U.S. foreign policy, the Obama administration is determined to stand by its oldest Mideastern ally — at least for now.


A World War III Lexicon

Oceania has always been  at war with Eurasia….

Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia….

Exciting news!  World War III is busting out all over – in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and East Asia!  For perplexed souls wondering how the earth got itself into such a sorry mess, here’s a political lexicon to help make sense of it all.

Terrorism: Extreme violence directed at U.S. interests.

Shock and Awe: Extreme violence directed at people the U.S. doesn’t like. e.g. Saddam Hussein.

Freedom Fighter: Anyone who practices extreme violence in an authorized manner, e.g. Osama bin Laden when he was fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Terrorist: Anyone who practices extreme violence in an unauthorized manner, e.g. Osama bin Laden after he turned against the United States in 1998.

Islam: Noble religious tradition dating from the seventh century.

Islamism: Noble religious tradition taken to political extremes.

Jihad: Noble religious tradition taken to violent extremes.  Laudable when aligned with U.S. interests as in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  (See “freedom fighter.”)  Reprehensible when not.

Sectarian: Any Shiite who behaves in a way prejudicial to Sunni interests, e.g. Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Non-sectarian: Any Sunni who behaves in a way prejudicial to Shiite interests, e.g. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Extremist: Any Muslim who turns Islam into a source of hatred and fanaticism, e.g. Al Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Moderate: Any citizen of a pro-U.S. Persian Gulf state even if he funds Al Qaeda, Al-Nusra, or ISIS.

Axis of Evil: Formerly Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, but since reconfigured now that Baghdad is in the U.S. fold and Iran may be needed to beat back ISIS.  Putin’s Russia and Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela may be added at some future date.

Bush Doctrine (“If you harbor a terrorist, you’re equally as guilty as the terrorists”): Formerly applicable to Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan under the Taliban, but never to Saudi Arabia even though Hillary Clinton admitted back when she was secretary of state that Saudis “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”  Kuwait and Qatar are also exempt, as are Turkey and Jordan even though they have allowed terrorists to use their territory to stage attacks inside Syria.  Applicability to Iran currently uncertain.

Democracy: Essential goal for all Middle Eastern states except certain Sunni oil producers in the Persian Gulf.

Repression: What Bashar al-Assad did in crushing popular protests in 2011.

Restoring Law and Order: What U.S. ally Bahrain did in crushing popular protests in 2011.

Propaganda: Information, communications, etc. contrary to U.S. interests.

Crude propaganda: Russian information, communications, etc. contrary to U.S. interests.

Caricatures in the Russian media’s fun-house mirror: Moscow’s cockeyed view of world events in The New York Times’ offhand description.  (See Andrew E. Kramer, “Front and Center in Ukraine Race, a Leader of the Far Right,” Mar. 11, 2014.)

Caricatures in the American media’s fun-house mirror: Contradiction in terms since U.S. media are always rigorously objective.

World War II: Great military conflict won by Tom Hanks at D-Day.

Battle of Stalingrad: Great military conflict that can be safely ignored since everyone knows the combatants were morally indistinguishable. For an extended disquisition on Soviet-Nazi moral equivalency, see Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 2010.

Genocide: Greatest conceivable political crime unless it involves the Syrian Alawites, in which case it is simply part of the price of ridding Syria of Assad family tyranny.  (Sorry about that.)

Safe Haven: Something that John Kerry says that ISIS must absolutely be denied, except in Syria where the U.S. has been providing it for years by sponsoring sectarian warfare against the Assad regime.

Political debate: A process that lesser countries engage in but never the U.S. because Americans know what’s right without even having to think about it.

Indispensable nation: America due to its unerring moral compass.

American exceptionalism: The doctrine that the aforementioned moral compass exempts the U.S. from ordinary legal standards and allows it to assume the role of global dictator.

Energy conservation: Something for dispensable nations to worry about.

Bonus question: How do you tell a good neo-Nazi from a bad neo-Nazi?

Answer: A bad neo-Nazi is someone like France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, who taunts Jews and makes light of the Holocaust.  An even worse neo-Nazi is one who gains real political power, e.g. the Jobbik Party following its strong showing in the Hungarian elections last January or Jörg Haider when his far-right Austrian Freedom Party became part of the ruling coalition in the year 2000.  But a neo-Nazi who becomes part of a pro-U.S. government in an important swing state is another story.  This is why Svoboda Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok, who once railed against “the Moscow-Jewish mafia” ruling the Ukraine, was granted a friendly photo op with assistant U.S. secretary of state Victoria Nuland in February.  Anti-Semitism is very bad unless it’s on the side of the U.S., in which case it’s no longer anti-Semitism at all.



The Obama Straddle


State Department spokesman Jen Psaki: Budding young war criminal.

State Department spokesman Jen Psaki: Budding young war criminal.

Why isn’t Barack Obama pouring troops and weapons into Iraq in response to ISIS’s dramatic offensive?  Most liberals assume that the president has at last learned the lesson of Libya and other such misadventures, which is that bombing not only doesn’t work, but that often backfires, spreading the fires of Islamic terrorism all the faster.  Obama is thus getting in touch with his inner non-interventionist.  But State Department spokesman Jen Psaki’s daily press briefing on Tuesday suggests something more complicated.  Here is what Psaki had to say when a reporter asked her reaction to Iraqi Prime Minister’s charge that Saudi Arabia has been supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham both “financially and morally”:

PSAKI: Well, that’s the opposite of what the Iraqi people need right now, and we have continued to make the case to Prime Minister Maliki – Ambassador Beecroft met with him just yesterday – that taking steps to govern in a nonsectarian way, to be more inclusive to increased support to the security forces is what his focus should be on.  And this is obviously the opposite of what that is.  It’s inaccurate and, frankly, offensive.  

QUESTION: Would you say that –

QUESTION: Sorry. What –

QUESTION: – he is fanning the flames of sectarianism

QUESTION: – is inaccurate?

PSAKI: The comments that he made.

QUESTION: What is inaccurate and offensive?

PSAKI: The comments he made.  I would –

QUESTION: About Saudi?


QUESTION: Would you say that Maliki is basically fanning the flames of sectarianism?

PSAKI: I think I would say there’s more that can be done to be more inclusive and govern in a nonsectarian manner.

QUESTION: And one more – sorry James – on this.  Saudi Arabia called the events in Iraq a Sunni revolution, adding that the sectarian – that the exclusionary policies in Iraq over the past three years are behind the recent unrest in the country.  Do you agree with the Saudis on this?

PSAKI: Well, I – the way we see this is that the situation is complex, and there are some tribes and key local Sunni politicians have joined with the Iraqi Government.  Others are working with ISIL through violence to destabilize the government.  Those working with ISIL are, of course, supporting terrorists who adhere to an extreme ideology, which believes that Shia should be killed based on their sect alone.  Obviously, our view is that there needs to be – the way that Iraq is governed by the leaders needs to take into account the legitimate grievances of all of the people.

QUESTION: That means you don’t agree with them that what’s happening is a Sunni revolution?

PSAKI: I think I made my comments clear.

But what, precisely, is inaccurate about Maliki’s statement?  Administration officials have long complained that Saudi Arabia, not to mention Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, were looking the other way while it came to private donations to Al Qaeda and like-minded groups.  In Hillary Clinton’s 2009 Wikileaks memo, the then-secretary of state complained that “while the kingdom … takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”  The memo goes on to note that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” and that various restrictions put in place by Riyadh “fail to include multilateral organizations such as the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), Muslim World League (MWL) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).  Intelligence suggests that these groups continue to send money overseas and, at times, fund extremism overseas.” While shutting down some channels, in other words, the Saudis have left others wide open.   David Cohen, under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, made essentially the same point just this past March.  Although Cohen’s focus was on Kuwait and Qatar, he made it clear that the problem was regional:

Donors who already harbor sympathies for Syrian extremists have found in Kuwait fundraisers who openly advertise their ability to move funds to fighters in Syria.  Constraining this flow of funds is particularly challenging in an era when social media allows anyone with an Internet connection to set himself up as an international terrorist financier.  We see this activity most prominently in Kuwait and Qatar, where fundraisers aggressively solicit donations online from supporters in other countries, notably Saudi Arabia, which have banned unauthorized fundraising campaigns for Syria.  

Nothing had changed. While the Saudis continued to impose certain restrictions, fundraisers have no trouble getting around them. Money continues to flow to Al-Nusra, ISIS, and other such groups from sources throughout the peninsula.  So why does Jen Psaki now describe Maliki’s remarks as inaccurate? Admittedly, Psaki is an unscrupulous hack who will say anything to advance the latest State Department line.  But her words are revealing nonetheless.  What seems to be going on here is that the Obama administration is engaged in a delicate balancing act between defending Iraq and appeasing the Persian Gulf forces that fund ISIS and side with it in its battle against the Baghdad government.  Obama is wavering in between the pro and anti-ISIS elements, neither supporting the effort to tear Iraq into pieces nor opposing it either. In a bizarre but nonetheless interesting item on the Washington Post website, Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, observed:

Many of the most vocal Arab backers of Syria’s rebels support what they cast as an Iraqi popular revolution against an Iranian-backed sectarian despot.  They equate the Iraqi uprising with the Syrian uprising, as a Sunni revolution against a Shiite tyrant, and actively oppose U.S. or Arab intervention against it.

ISIS may be a mite over-aggressive, but its heart is basically in the right place — or so Saudis, Kuwaitis, et al. seem to believe.  Lynch quotes a popular Saudi professor named Ahmed bin Rashed bin Said as declaring, “We must support the Sunnis of Iraq not only because they represent the Arab and Islamic face of Iraq, but to save Syria and limit Iran and protect the Gulf.”  He also quotes Faisal bin Jassim al-Thani, a Qatari journalist: “Hezbollah and the United States and the United Arab Emirates are all in Maliki’s trench while the people and the ulema and the honest ones are with the revolution.” ( Actually, Lynch notes, the UAE has withdrawn its ambassador from Iraq and is now critical of Maliki.)  According to a McClatchy news service article, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, a former Qatari ambassador to the U.S, recently tweeted:

For the West or Iran or the two working together to fight beside Maliki against Sunni Arabs will be seen as another conspiracy against Sunni.

Psaki’s failure to forthrightly condemn the characterization of the ISIS offensive as a “Sunni revolution” indicates that the State Department is struggling to accommodate the Saudi perspective.  So Obama is not heading off in a new direction after all, but standing by his old policy of endlessly appeasing Persian Gulf interests.  Or, to put it a bit more kindly, he’s trying to head off an all-out sectarian war involving Iraq, Iran, Syria, and possibly the gulf states too by reassuring Riyadh that he continues to tilt in its direction.  But it still means the same thing, i.e. countenancing mass murder or at least not opposing it too strenuously.  Has American policy ever been more bankrupt?

Postscript: The lead story in today’s Wall Street Journal (“U.S. Signals Iraq’s Maliki Should Go”) quotes White House spokesman Jay Carney as saying that regardless of whether Maliki stays or someone else takes his place, “we will aggressively attempt to impress upon that leader the absolute necessity of rejecting sectarian governance.”

Sorry, but what government is more aggressively sectarian than Saudi Arabia’s?  Riyadh terrorizes propagates ultra-Sunni Wahhabism throughout the world, it terrorizes its own 15-percent Shiite minority into submission, and in March 2011 it sent troops to crush a democratic protest movement among Shiites in neighboring Bahrain.  Non-sectarianism is an absolute necessity for Iraq, yet Saudi Arabia gets a free pass.  How do these people look themselves in the mirror?