Archive for March 2011
Iraq, whether justified or not, is only the latest in a long line of ill-considered and ill-planned U.S. military adventures. Time and again in recent decades the United States has made military commitments after little real debate, with hazy goals and no appetite for the inevitable setbacks… Too often our leaders have entered wars with unclear and unfixed aims, tossing away American lives, power and credibility before figuring out what they were doing and what could be done…. It would restore the Framers’ intent by requiring a congressional declaration of war in advance of any commitment of troops that promises sustained combat.
If we get a resolution, we should work with the Arab League to assemble an international coalition to impose the no-flight zone. If the Security Council fails to act, then we should recognize the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate government, as France has done, and work with the Arab League to give the council any assistance it requests. Any use of force must be carefully and fully debated, but that debate has now been had. It’s been raging for a week, during which almost every Arab country has come on board calling for a no-flight zone and Colonel Qaddafi continues to gain ground. It is time to act.
Needless to say, Ms. Slaughter did not fulfill her own minimum standards for sending U.S. troops into combat—including mentioning Congressional approval even once. So, the big question for a scholar and practitioner of such stature is: what the hell happened to all of her principles?
Over the weekend protesters in Yemen became convinced that the government was using some sort of nerve agent against them. They’ve even filed an official request for the WHO to come investigate, though the chances of that happening whilst there is tense and active violence remains small. The evidence for this claim is, typically, fairly thin:
“The material in this gas makes people convulse for hours. It paralyzes them. They couldn’t move at all. We tried to give them oxygen but it didn’t work,” said Amaar Nujaim, a field doctor who works for Islamic Relief.
“We are seeing symptoms in the patient’s nerves, not in their respiratory systems. I’m 90 percent sure its nerve gas and not tear gas that was used,” said Sami Zaid, a doctor at the Science and Technology Hospital in Sanaa.
Mohammad Al-Sheikh, a pathologist at the same hospital, said that some of the victims had lost their muscular control and were forced to wear diapers.
“We have never seen tear gas cause these symptoms. We fear it may be a dangerous gas that is internationally forbidden,” Al-Sheikh said.
Those symptoms generally match with some symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents. But it sounds wrong—sarin exposure, for example, usually starts with pupil contraction and shortness of breath, then leads to involuntary bodily functions like salivation, urination, and defecation, and eventually to convulsions which result in asphyxiation, coma, and death. I hate to say it like this, but if someone got a dose of nerve agent that was strong enough to knock them into a coma for several hours, they wouldn’t be angrily giving quotes to reporters soon afterward.
That doesn’t rule out any nerve agent, it just sounds weird (contrasted with Aum Shinrikyo attack on Tokyo’s subway, for example, the symptoms sound dissimilar). There are nerve agents beyond sarin, and it’s worth investigating.
What’s more worrying is how this is subtly changing the tone of the protests. Even accusations of using chemical weapons moves the conflict across some sort of red line, and when we consider those still-uncorroborated stories with the government’s expulsion today of four foreign journalists, it’s hard not to wonder what’s coming down the line. Those reporters had been covering, in depth, the violence the Saleh regime has used against protesters.
So, assuming both events a) happened and b) have meaning, what can we actually expect in Yemen? It’s not yet certain. What seems inescapable, however, is that the U.S.’s policy of detached neutrality probably makes less and less sense as events proceed.
In January, I had a brief—and very enlighteningᾹexchange with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross about “jihadi ideology” and what it means, and how we analyze it, and so on.
Something leapt out at me, namely how we “measure” the ways in which people can become radicalized. I understand there is some psychological process, and it’s related to social and physical environment, and so on. But when we look back on someone who’s been arrested, or who just committed (or tried to commit) some heinous act like blowing up an air plane, we usually cannot point the exact moment where that person changed from “normal” to “radicalized.” It’s like describing someone as rich, or some visual work as pornography: you can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it, and there are extremes at which you can meaningfully distinguish the two.
The difficulty in pointing to the exact process and stepping stones toward radicalization is, of course, very important for Central Asia. Even ignoring the whole Afghanistan thing (something I wish I could do, given my mental exhaustion on the topic, but which I apparently cannot given my continuing obsession about the war), we’re left with two broad genres of “Jihad in Central Asia”: the Uzbeks Are Scary school, and the Central Asians Will Radicalize & Destroy Us All movement. There is, of course, overlap between the two.
But what strikes me is how, in general, the sourcingᾹthe evidence—for arguing the presence or increase or danger posed by radicalization is incredibly difficult to come by. You can discuss speeches and Mosque sermons, for however influential they may be. You can talk about things on the internet, though we don’t know what role they really play in radicalizing people. We can even, if we’re lucky enough to have keen investigators, discuss communications between the target of radicalization and the radicalizer, though this, too, falls into the trap of maybe meaning nothing.
At the end of the day, people talk, they brag, and they bluster. In my personal life, I know I do—I think most people do, it’s normal. But when it comes to Islam, we seem to have a difficult time distinguishing between bluster and explicit plans for action. Not an impossible time, mind you, but a difficult one.
Which brings me to this post by our friends at neweurasia.net about Islamists in Turkmenistan. Try as I might, their argument amounts to “some guys on the internet talk about stuff.” The evidence for this actually being an Islamist Movement, like Hizb-ut Tahrir actually setting up shop and working a branch in Ashgabat or something, is really thin.
None of that means that there is no Islamist movement in Turkmenistan. But before we fly off talking about conspiracies within conspiracies, I think we owe it to ourselves to be very explicit about what we’re seeing, and not seeing, and fairly analyzing.
Congressional leaders are pushing for some sort of American response to the growing violence in Libya. It is the usual litany of easy-sounding policies, like no-fly zones and surgical strikes against certain Libyan assets, that always feel emotionally satisfying but carry enormous costs.
This sort of reaction seems born out of a particularly American political mindset: the sense that if a problem exists somewhere in the world, then America must be the one that solves it. Our urge to solve problems often overpowers our urge to operate within our budgetary and capability limits—framing things in terms of good versus evil, or vague notions of balances of power, rather than a sober and explicit conversation of our interests and the resources available to secure them.
There is a very understandable motivation for such a tendency. Politicians get blamed for whatever happens on their watch. It is why so many think George W. Bush is in some way responsible for the 9/11 attacks, or Barack Obama is in some way responsible for the current recession—even though both had their roots in processes and events from years before they came into office. Politicians are terrified of being blamed for something happening on their watch, and go to enormous extremes to avoid being seen as complacent whilst evil unfolds.
At the same time, many in office seem blithely unaware of the serious costs that accompany American meddling, along with a quasi-religious belief in the inherent ability of the U.S. military to accomplish all things. The resources needed to set up a no-fly zone over Libya, for example, are substantial, and run the very real risk of starting a shooting war with the Libyan military. Tragic though it may be to see Libyan protesters get bombed, the U.S. has no interest in risking its troops, equipment, or money to end the crackdown. The benefits simply don’t match the costs involved—and besides, that is not America’s fight. It is Libya’s fight. And what good would a no-fly zone do when there are still tanks and soldiers and secret police moving around? There’s no reason to believe a no-fly zone would be any more effective at stopping Qaddafi’s crackdown than it was in stopping Saddam Hussein’s own brutal repression of his people. In fact, we know that a NFZ was ineffective at doing that, since it didn’t stop it.
There are other things the U.S. government can do—cut off aid, end military-to-military cooperation, recall its ambassador—that are not coercive, per se, but do register American distaste at what the government is doing. The rebel areas in Libya are suffering rather severe food shortages (and it appears that Qaddafi is using a food embargo as a weapon to degrade the rebels’ ability to resist his military). The U.S. can supply food aid to the rebels, which can keep American investment in the civil unrest where it should be—minimal—while still making American preferences in outcome crystal clear.
The desire to take action—any action—in the face of what seems to be obvious evil is understandable and human. But it must be tempered with a sense of what is possible, wise, and in the country’s long-term interests. Sending in the military to do something militarily, which seems to be Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C of many in the government, just doesn’t make any sense.