Archive for category 9-11

Benghazi: Another Faux Scandal Falls

mccaingraham

There are two realities.  In one, President Obama has had a relatively scandal free Presidency.   No major investigations or revelations have dogged him like they did his predecessors.  No Whitewater, Monica, Iran-Contra, Iraq, etc.   In another, Obama has been awash with scandals involving the IRS, Benghazi, where Obama was really born, gun running, etc.  That second reality, however, is built on a house of cards.  There is no real evidence, just suspicions drummed up by Obama’s opponents trying to do what they can to undercut the President.

For awhile the biggest and most threatening to Obama was the aftermath of the terror attack on Benghazi on September 11, 2012.  Led by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republicans claimed that the US muffed the reaction, covered it up, didn’t do what could have been done to prevent or respond to the attack, and as late as March this year Graham claimed that Obama’s response to Benghazi was the reason Russia took Crimea.

Graham was adamant on Benghazi.   It was symbolic of Obama’s “inability to lead,” “lies the administration told,” and ultimately “proof Hillary Clinton (Secretary of State at the time) is unqualified to be President.”   He called the people at the White House “scumbags” who were “telling lies,” full of venomous accusations that we now all know were utterly baseless.

Saturday a Congressional report from a Republican led committee finally give the last word on Benghazi and guess what: the Obama Administration did nothing wrong.   There was no evidence of anything close to a scandal, or that there is some trove of evidence that isn’t being released.  In short, Graham was always just grandstanding.

A tragedy like the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in 2012 should have brought us together to counter terror; instead petty politicians tried to turn it into a scandal to serve their personal needs.

A tragedy like the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in 2012 should have brought us together to counter terror; instead petty politicians tried to turn it into a scandal to serve their personal needs.

That has caused me to lose all respect for Lindsey Graham and John McCain.  To use a national tragedy like that not to unify the country but to try to undermine the President and manipulate the media is sick.   When the US was attacked on 9-11, the US rallied behind President Bush.  Even though the 9-11 Commission found plenty to fault the Bush Administration on in the run up to 9-11, it was deemed wrong to try to use that to politically attack the President.  In crises things are fast moving and hindsight has 2020 vision.  Alas, Graham and McCain were guided by neither ethics nor honesty.

The report drew no fanfare.  Certainly the two did not apologize or admit defeat.  Graham used attacks on Obama over Benghazi to shore up his conservative bona fides before his re-election, and has tried to use it to attack Obama’s foreign policy — one that is much more successful than the Bush foreign policy Graham supported.

In a just world Graham and McCain would stand on the Senate floor as rotten eggs were hurled at them, humiliated and ashamed.  But they’ll move on.  They are politicians.  They’ll be shameless in attacking the President, and will probably wink and dance to avoid having to admit being wrong about Benghazi.  I find it disgusting.

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Obama Destined to be Remembered as a Great President

Destined to be ranked among the greatest US Presidents

Destined to be ranked among the greatest US Presidents

The right wing has been obsessed with doing all they can to vilify and attack Obama.   But if you pay attention these attacks are either broad and empty (personal attacks on him, his experience or motives) or simply wrong.   The right wing was all over Obama because Putin attacked Crimea, showing real ignorance about Russian interest and world affairs, for example.

My goal here is not to argue against the babble on talk radio or the right wing blogosphere, but point out that President Obama is amassing a record that all but assures that his Presidency will be remembered as not only a success, but one of the greatest.   The reasons full into four categories:  1)  Policy success, including fundamental changes in the nature of public policy; 2) A successful foreign policy, shifting US interests to adjust to new political realities while extricating the US from two painful wars; 3) Economic success, preserving through the deepest economic crisis since the great depression; and 4) Personal and cultural factors – who he is, and the shifting culture of the times.

Domestic Policy:   The White House was almost giddy as enrollments in Obamacare reached over 7 million, a number nobody thought they’d reach after the problems with the website roll out last year.   It is almost inconceivable that this law will be repealed – the cost and disruption of doing so would be immense, and it would create a massive health care crisis.    There will be reforms; once the GOP realizes the law is here to stay they’ll work on fixing problems in it rather than waging ideological jihad.  But President Obama did what Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all failed to do: achieve a major health care overall to expand coverage to tens of millions (ultimately) uninsured, and slow the rate of health care cost increases.

It took patience and persistent leadership, but President Obama claimed success this week as Obamacare enrollment hit the 7 million goal

It took patience and persistent leadership, but President Obama claimed success this week as Obamacare enrollment hit the 7 million goal

Obama has amassed a series of other major policy victories that often get neglected, but will shape the nature of US politics in the 21st Century.   He turned around the auto industry which stood on the brink of collapse in 2009.   He got an economic stimulus package passed that started creating jobs, including for the first time in decades an increase in manufacturing jobs.    Wall Street reform is major improvement on what we had before, and likely will protect the US from the kind of Wall Street induced crisis like that of 2008.  Relatedly, the recapitalization of banks, while controversial, avoided an entire collapse of the credit market in the US and allowed for a quicker recovery than I expected – I thought in 2008 we were looking at a decade before the economy would come back.

He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and his justice department gave considerable support to the growing move to legalize gay marriage by recognizing such marriages at the federal level, being on the right side of an irreversible cultural shift.  He also worked to get the banks out of the student loan business, increase Pell grants, and make student loans easier and more accessible at a time when education is becoming more expensive.   Also under Obama’s stewardship the US became the world’s leading producer of natural gas and oil for the first time since the early 70s.

Other policies involve significant education reform, toughening fuel efficiency standards, major credit card reform, improved veterans benefits, food safety, an emphasis on nutrition that may be turning around the obesity epidemic among the youth, federal regulation of tobacco, expanded national park service, massive investment in green technology (which will pay benefits long after Obama leaves office), new sentencing guidelines, and more.   Obama has reshaped the policy landscape. That’s one reason the right is so beside itself hating him: he’s an effective leader that has altered the political environment and put the US on a fundamentally different path than had been the case six years ago.

At time when child obesity threatens both the health system and young people's future, Michelle Obama's focus on nutrition is a needed shift in thinking

At time when child obesity threatens both the health system and young people’s future, Michelle Obama’s focus on nutrition is a needed shift in thinking

Foreign Policy.   The US has undertaken a quiet but very successful shift in foreign policy, including military downsizing, the Asian pivot, support for nascent democratic movements in the Mideast, and an effective effort to collaborate on international financial regulations.   He ended the war in Iraq and is ending US involvement in Afghanistan, reoriented US missile defense, helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and supported South Sudan independence.  Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, and al qaeda is a shadow of what it was in 2008.    Due to unprecedented cooperation between countries (even ones not exactly friendly with each other) on intelligence about terrorism, terrorism has gone from being a threat feared by Americans daily to just a nuisance.

For me, a scholar of international relations, Obama's foreign policy has been a remarkable success in that he turned around policy content and America's image in a way many Americans don't yet grasp.

For me, a scholar of international relations, Obama’s foreign policy has been a remarkable success in that he turned around policy content and America’s image in a way many Americans don’t yet grasp.

Perhaps most importantly by ending torture policies and having two very capable Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – US prestige and clout is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War.   President Obama is respected internationally, and has shown himself capable of engineering significant breakthroughs with Iran and – if reports are right – soon in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.   When people claim that Putin’s taking the Crimea is a failure of Obama, they are grasping at straws.  That is, as I noted, a sign of Putin’s weakness and desperation.   Obama has reinvigorated US international leadership.

Economic success.   When President Obama took office, the US was bleeding jobs, and the budget was out of control.   Now the deficit is far lower than anyone predicted (federal spending has grown much more slowly than during the Bush Administration), and more jobs have been created than during the entire Bush Administration when the US was experiencing a bubble economy. The economy looks set to take off with increased job creation this summer, meaning that the book ends of Obama’s Presidency will be an inherited economic crisis of immense proportions at the start, and a growing and revived economy by the end.

Job growth has been consistent and beyond levels during the Bush years; many economists expect increased job creation towards the end of 2014

Job growth has been consistent and beyond levels during the Bush years; many economists expect increased job creation towards the end of 2014

Finally, when the GOP tried to hold the US economy hostage on the debt ceiling, Obama starred them down, refused to bend, and ultimately the GOP was forced into a humiliating retreat, being blamed for a government shut down, a downgrade in the US credit rating, and playing Russian roulette with US jobs.   That was an example of the successful leadership that defines Obama’s stewardship of the economy.

Personal/cultural factors:  Although the right has tried to find one, Obama has had a clean and scandal-free Presidency.   He has shown himself to be a strong personal leader, using speeches, visits, and his own influence to guide policy.  He is, of course, the first black President, and reflects an America that is more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and diverse.   Just 20 years ago it would have been inconceivable that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency.

The so-called Tea Party in the US, made up of mostly older white folk (my demographic), reflects shock at the scope of this change.  They believe they are losing America to some strange force which Obama – the black President with the funny name maybe born in Kenya – personifies.  He’s not “one of us,” he went to a radical church, he travels, he’s well educated, he’s not a good old boy like “W”. In that, Obama is indeed symbolic the emerging culture shift.   The process is just beginning, and Obama is destined to be associated with these changes.  He took office as the old order collapsed in an economic crisis and failed wars; he’ll leave office with the country revived and heading down a different path.  He symbolizes a pivot to a new direction for the 21st Century.

Just as most people now forget the attacks on Reagan by the left, or the vicious attacks on Clinton by the right – the two are both remembered fondly by most Americans – the attacks on Obama will fade from the collective memory.   Within ten or twenty years it’ll be clear that his Presidency was not only successful, but ranks alongside America’s greatest Presidents.

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Does Romney even WANT to be President?

Romney launches a bizarre partisan attack in the wake of a national tragedy

Mitt Romney is a deep undercover agent for the Democratic party.   See, he used to be pro-choice, test drove a health care reform in Massachusetts, and overall until about a decade ago had pretty moderate, even liberal positions on most issues.

Here’s what I think happened:  Mitt realized he had no future in a Republican party drifting right.   So he talked with leading Democrats and hatched a plot.   It was brilliant – Romney would change all his policy positions to the far right, use money to crush his Republican opposition, and then siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars from rich GOP donors to fund a campaign designed to fail.

In 2008 the operation got underway, but it was a test run — the Democrats felt they could win it on their own, especially against McCain, and used that election to set Romney up for the 2012 campaign.   Now they’re reaping the benefits of that strategy.   Romney has the Republican nomination, massive amounts of money are flowing his way, and he’s doing his best to bring down the Republican ticket top to bottom.   I’m not sure what Romney will get in return, but don’t be surprised if after the election President Obama gives him a plumb job “in the spirit of bi-partisanship.”

No, I’m not serious, but given how ineffective his campaign has been, today’s bizarre and inept response to the terror attacks in Libya make it a plausible theory!    The 9-11 attack at the US Embassy killed US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three embassy staff.   The attacks appear to have been planned in advance and were not simply a protest gone out of control.   Libya’s President has apologized, and President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have condemned the attacks.  The President called on Americans to hold the victims “in our thoughts and prayers,” vowing that justice would be done.   He ordered the flags flown at half mast.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton call on the nation to come together in response to the terror attack in Libya.

Governor Romney decided that this was the perfect event to use to launch partisan broadsides at the President.    He called the President’s response “disgraceful” and said “When our grounds are being attacked, and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

Get that – President Obama responded to attacks on US grounds and the killing of American diplomats by apologizing for American values.   Wow, what a horrible President Obama must be to do that!   Except, of course, he did nothing of the sort.   Not even close.

Apparently the Egyptian Embassy, when protests grew over an anti-Muslim film, put out a statement condemning religious bigotry (and Mitt should recognize the need not to have religious bigotry!)   That statement was released before the attacks in Libya.   It is to that statement that Mitt responded, and since then he’s doubled down his response, blaming President Obama for the terror attacks.

Attacks in Libya underscore the fact that the Mideast remains a dangerous place.

I realize Romney’s weak on foreign policy, but the idea that someone would use an attack on Americans in a dangerous part of the world for partisan purposes on the day of the deaths is shocking.    At a time when he should be showing himself to be Presidential, rising above the partisanship, recognizing the difficulties in that part of the world, and helping the country heal from this latest terrorist wound, he simply goes for the sound bite.   Moreover, in keeping with other recent tactics, it’s not even a true claim – Obama never apologized and no such statement about the attacks was released.

He also tried to weave in an attack on Obama over Israel, saying he’d always find time to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.   Apparently Obama chatted with him for an hour by phone while he was in the US rather than planning a meeting.   Why Romney connected this to the Libya attack is incomprehensible.

Now the Romney camp has put out talking points that were leaked to CNN, presumably by a disgusted Republican surrogate.   The document urges Republicans to spin this to be about Obama’s weakness, and when pressed on Romney speaking too rashly before checking the facts, to simply say only “it’s never too early to stand up for American.”

Oh, come on.   This is over the top.

No.  No.  No.

Governor Romney, you say this: “Earlier I criticized the President based on a belief that his first response to the attack in Libya was to apologize that a film had offended their values.   I was mistaken, the President did not do that, and I apologize for my inappropriate criticism.   There will be time to discuss and debate what policies United States should have in the Mideast, but right now it is time to come together, pray for the victims and their families, and show the world that what unites us is far more powerful than our political differences.”

Get it?   You actually act Presidential.   You show that you can stand up for something more than campaign spin, but for the country as a whole.

But he can’t.   The people in his campaign cannot admit a mistake, they see it as a sign of weakness.    They’re so caught up in the campaign that they are taking every event as something to try to use for political advantage.

Or, perhaps, Mitt is indeed an undercover agent, trying to secure a Democratic victory.   That would also explain the refusal to release tax returns as well as his unbelievable omission of any mention of the troops and the US military in his convention acceptance speech.   In fact, Clint Eastwood may be in on this too!   Because if Romney is not part of some grand Democratic scheme to secure Obama’s re-election, he is proving himself to be one of the more incompetent Presidential candidates the US has had in a long time.

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Islamophobia Receding?

Huma Abedin, aide to Secretary of State Clinton and, according to Michelle Bachmann and a few other extremists, a potential threat

If the charge had been made in early 2002 it may have gained traction.   Michelle Bachmann and others claimed that Huma Abedin should be investigated for possible links to Muslim Brotherhood.   The warning: perhaps she and other Muslim “extremists” have infiltrated the highest ranks of the State Department and US government, putting the country in danger.

Bachmann had no evidence, and ultimately only could point to the fact that back in Saudi Arabia her late father had connections with people who had connections with people who were in an organization with connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.   So clearly, she’s a threat.  She also probably knows Kevin Bacon.

But in the emotion-laden post-9-11 days, just the hint of the fact a Muslim was high up in the State Department and could potentially be linked to extremists would have had the country atwitter.    There probably would have been a series of calls for investigations and warnings of Muslim infiltration of the apparatus of the US government.   Unfortunately for Bachmann her call came ten years too late — it was like warning of Communists in the State Department in 1963.

Bachmann followed the game plan of former Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy – make wild claims backed by no evidence and hoping fear would take hold

Instead Republicans from John McCain to Jim Sensenbrenner called Bachmann out for her outlandish claim, defending Abedin and noting that it was un-American to make such accusations based solely on her religion or vague ties of acquaintances of her family decades in the past.   The Muslim Brotherhood itself professed puzzlement at the charge, noting that it’s having trouble infilitrating even the Egyptian government!

After mocking Bachmann’s flimsy evidence of Abedin’s “link” to the Muslim Brotherhood, Stewart shows how easily Bachmann could be similarly accused due to her campaign contributions from HSBC, which is accused of providing banking services for Islamic extremist groups including al qaeda. Ooops.

Hopefully this is a sign that the Islamophobia that seemed to grab the country in the 00’s has given way to recognition that Muslim Americans are not all would-be terrorists out to destroy the western way of life.   Indeed, the Arab spring has shown Americans that Muslims in the Mideast want freedom and democracy as well.

Still, the fear remains.   Behind Bachmann’s outrageous charge is a nefarious organization called the Center for Security Policy, headed by hard core neo-con Frank Gaffney, which has as its primary goal the promotion of a neo-conservative foreign policy.    Such a policy seeks to spread American ideals through force if necessary, and sees any indigenous Islamic movement in the Mideast as dangerous.    However, even Gaffney has to know that Abedin is no inside threat.   What really bothers him and those who still cling to the neo-con dream of an American dominated Mideast is the fact that the US increasingly recognizes that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups in general are not the enemy.   Indeed, they are important actors in moving the Islamic world towards modernism.   Gaffney and those of his ilk would prefer we see any Islamic organization not overtly embracing western values as a threat.

During the era of knee jerk Islamophobia after 9-11 it was assumed that political Islam was all a variant of Osama Bin Laden’s ideology and al qaeda.    Evidence for that claim could always be found using quotes of members of different organizations, even if the quotes were decades old and not aimed at the US.   This led to support for a US effort to dominate the region to both bring in an American style democracy and have friendly regimes in control of Persian Gulf oil.   That was considered the best way to undercut future terrorism.    The Iraq war has shown that such a strategy was folly – it didn’t work and was based on false premises.

As they strive for political acceptance and power, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood realize that a ‘war with the West’ and extremism are against their self-interest. There is no need for enmity with the West.

Now, however, a more nuanced view dominates.   Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have a wide range of views, and some quotes and ideas do sound radical.   That’s to be expected given the oppression and violence used against them by dictatorial regimes in the past.   But these organizations are evolving in a reality where politics is becoming more open.   They are no longer just a small group competing against powerful corrupt regimes, but have become a large organization needing public support to try to remake the politics of the region.

As such there is no reason to expect them to be hostile to the US and the West, so long as we are not hostile to them.  Indeed, it is in our interest to cultivate a solid relationship with such groups to help them make the transition from being on the outside fringe to governing.   This isn’t a new process either.   Ever since Robert Michel put forth his view on the “iron law of oligarchy” in 1911, it’s been well known that radical groups moderate when they become part of the system.   The Greens in Germany, for instance, went from being radical pacifists and anti-NATO/anti-growth to being part of a German government that fought in Kosovo and embraced pro-market policies to increase growth and competitiveness in Germany.

The neo-cons and other fear mongers will point to parties like the Nazis in Germany and say “see, they didn’t moderate.”   But there is no reason to expect the Muslim Brotherhood or other such organizations to behave that way – quite the opposite, in fact.

Which one is crazier?

Change in the Arab world will be gradual, a culture dominated by Ottoman style repression and dictatorship for 700 years doesn’t blossom into a stable functioning democracy overnight.   Some states like Saudi Arabia have yet to start the inevitable transition.   But with the almost universal rejection of the McCarthy like Islamophobic “warning” of Michelle Bachmann, there is cause to believe that the US can be a positive influence in assisting change, working with a variety of groups in the Mideast to develop a path to democracy rather than fearing our lack of control over the process.

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Leave Afghanistan Now

Tom Hanks and Charlie Wilson - Hanks played Wilson in "Charlie Wilson's War"

One of the better foreign policy movies is Charlie Wilson’s War, a story about how a relatively obscure Texas Democratic Congressman helped guide the US towards funding the largest covert operation in history.   To be sure, it ended up covert in name only, as it was clear to everyone by the mid eighties that US support was fueling the Afghan mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets.

The film is delightfully entertaining and demonstrates how some of the inner workings of DC politics and bureaucracy can impact policy.  In the public eye the President takes the lead, but rarely is it that simple.   The film also shows the dangers of blow back.   The mujahideen, or “soldiers of God” were fiercely anti-Communist.   There’s a scene in the film where the Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chair Doc Long is giving a speech in Afghanistan, telling the people that they would win because it is good vs. evil, and God is on their side.   Seen now in the light of 9-11, it the exuberant reaction is eerily frightening.    Yes, this was a movie, but CNN’s Cold War series also shows then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski saying essentially the same thing in 1980.

More poignant is the fact that in hindsight its obvious that the side we were supporting turned against us.    It’s clear that while Pakistan was helping us beat the Soviets by funneling weapons to the rebels, they were choosing the most extremist groups to fund, ignoring others like the fighters of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was more moderate.  Massoud, a leader of a group called the “northern alliance” got virtually none of the weapons and was himself assassinated on September 9, 2001 to try to disrupt the anti-Taliban forces just before the 9-11 attacks.    In fact, the Taliban itself was a creation of the Pakistani secret police, the ISI.

The Koran burning incident was called the "worst US PR disaster in the entire Afghan war." It held that title for about a week and a half.

In most foreign ventures the US tries to get by “on the cheap.”   It’s politically and economically costly to send troops and  personnel into diverse conflicts, especially when it’s not clear why the conflict is important.   Look at what happened in Vietnam and Iraq, after all!

Even in Afghanistan in 2001 the US tried to outsource most of the fighting to the Northern Alliance, allowing them to defeat the Taliban.   The US seemed not to really get all the rivalries and intricacies of Afghani culture and politics, for soon the US pushed off responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan to NATO and shifted attention to Iraq.   That’s where the neo-conservative dream of the US transforming the region and spreading democracy went up in flames.

As Iraq was becoming increasingly critical, Afghanistan was slowly disintegrating.   It started with stories of a Taliban resurgence, growing corruption, and a lack of control of most of the country by the central government in Kabul.  By the time the Iraq war had finally been ended Afghanistan became the dominant security problem.   President Obama tried to solve it in typical US fashion – on the cheap.

The "situation room" where President Obama worked with his advisors to try to find the right course of action in Afghanistan.

Rather than leave or go in big, he opted for a smaller force designed to train the Afghans so they eventually could handle their own affairs.   After some major fighting to try to put the Taliban off balance, the effort shifted towards an advise and assist role.   But we are still there.

The argument for staying is that we need to avoid neglecting Afghanistan like we did after 1989.   We need to make sure that if the Taliban does become part of government, it will be a reformed Taliban.   We need to have boots on the ground to act in the name of counter-terrorism thanks to residue al qaeda and Taliban operatives who still dream of hitting the US.

Any good the US presence can do is rapidly undone by images like this - a child shot by an American soldier (her grandmother is with the body).

None of those arguments are persuasive.   All could be done through covert operations, information sharing, and the usual counter-terrorism methods.    It’s likely that a total withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan in 2012 instead of 2014 (about 90,000 are there now) would not alter the long term course of the country.   In fact, it might even help.

Consider two recent incidents: violence caused by Koran burnings by the US military, and a rogue soldier who went on a rampage and killed at least 16 civilians.   The cost of these incidents is immense.   It does more to push people away from a pro-US position than anything the Taliban could do, and undermines both the safety of the troops and the potential success of the mission.  Arguably it makes those who work with the US look like collaborators with a foreign occupier.

At least 16 Afghan civilians were killed by an America soldier who apparently lost control. To me, that soldier is also a victim of the war -- what kind of life might he have had if not for being put in these circumstances?

The US has been in Afghanistan for over ten years — longer than the Soviets were there.  The famed “killer of empires” hasn’t brought the US down, at least not yet, but it has proven itself again unconquerable.  60% of Americans now say the war wasn’t worth fighting.   Originally anger at Osama made the war immensely popular, President Obama called it ‘the good war’ in the 2008 campaign.   Now, people want out.  It’s a drag on US policy, the military, and our efforts to win hearts and minds in the Islamic world.

There will be a lot of pondering on what went wrong, could things have been done differently, were we wrong to choose war in 2001 or whether or not we misread and misplayed Pakistan and other regional powers.   While President Obama’s caution about leaving too quickly is understandable — and certainly based on military advice, since this is one President who listens to his advisers — it’s time to extricate ourselves from this situation.  Osama bin Laden is dead, al qaeda is in shambles, and the world is a much different place than in 2001.   It’s not fair to our military personnel to keep them in a fight that will have no clear end, and which has already caused hardship and harm to many military personnel and their families.   It’s not in our national interest to let this conflict continue to drag the country down.   Time to come home.

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No Need to Fear Islam

When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting.   Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity.   Most people thought it was Judaism.  She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith.   I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following.   Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.

Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one.   After all, there are Christian extremists as well.   During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.

Then came 9-11.   Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US.    19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction.   For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam.   Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.

Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others.  Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.

Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good.  The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties.   Those problems are real but can be overcome.   The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix.   There is no other way.

The US can facilitate this with a clear message:  We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences.  All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies.   For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.

If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough.    There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories.    That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant?  But there is hope.

The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis).   After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat.   They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory.   Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.

Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders.  My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders.  If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided.   Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.

Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked.  They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away.   One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.

Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism.   As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel.   One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around.   Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.

Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity.   Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies.     Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone.    After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.

First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values.   A Taliban like state will have to be opposed.    If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm.   We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over).   Finally, we need patience.   Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism.  Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.

Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism.  The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes.   But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity.   We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.

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Love and Fear

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
– Yoda, Jedi Knight

Being asked to participate in a panel discussion about 9-11 Monday has caused me to reflect on what that event means ten years on.  There are many directions I could take in analyzing the impact of 9-11.  What does security mean in an age where technology allows a small group armed with only box cutters to alter the course of the world’s greatest power?   Did Bin Laden succeed in causing us to react in ways that harmed our country and the world economy?   Is there such a thing as a ‘war on terror,’ and if so, is anyone winning?

But as I reflect, it strikes me that the real lesson is more basic, it’s in the emotions that the events of 9-11 evoked in the public.   The strongest were love and fear.  I have a theory that most people’s personalities can be explained by the way they handle love and fear.  Those with the most fear are distrustful of others, angry at life, and often feel that they are victims of some kind of conspiracy.   Those with the most love are helpful, giving and open.   Too much love without fear opens one up to being abused and taken advantage of; too much fear and one lives a life of depression and bitterness.

By love I don’t mean romantic love, or even the love one has for family and friends.   Love at its purest is the sense that links us as humans.   It is what caused New Yorkers to help each other out and comfort each other on that horrific day.   It is the connection two people felt on that day when their eyes met and they realized they were sharing the same shock and grief.  It is what brought the country together to celebrate American values, it is what caused us to cry at the stories of tragedy and heroism, and feel for those who lost loved ones.    That sense of love also created a hole in our hearts as we looked at Manhattan burning.   Even if we had never been there, we connected.   Similar emotions were felt around the globe as they always are in times of tragedy — love is the core instinct that brings us to want to help and identify with others in times of trouble.  It is real and the most pure of human emotions.   It cuts through the fog of diverse perspectives, ideologies, politics and religion — it is the recognition that as humans we are linked.

Fear emerges when one believes that the very things that bring stability and order to life are under threat.    Fear is important to survival. Our cat has a fear of brooms.  Get a broom out and he goes into hiding.  No matter what treats are offered or if the broom gets put away, that fear lingers for awhile, until he’s convinced things are safe.   For humans fear is similar but due to our complex societies the base reaction to a sense of danger (such as an attack by a sabre tooth tiger) gets applied to social conditions that are more abstract and symbolic.

Shortly after the attacks I heard of how Arabs, Sri Lankans, and people from India were being beat up or intimidated by Americans who thought them a threat.   At that point I realized that fear was unleashing the worst of what we are capable of doing.   When President Bush called Islam a “religion of peace,” I was shocked to hear countless pundits attack the President and defame a great world religion, trying to associate its one billion adherents to that small pocket of radical extremists represented by Bin Laden.  Fear causes one to imagine dangers far greater than they are, and abstract them to whole groups of people, nations, ideologies or religions.   Fear allows bizarre rationalizations of what otherwise would be unthinkable.  Genocide, war crimes and cruelty are driven by fear.

9-11-01 brought out fear as well as love.   Suddenly people felt vulnerable, the images were intense, the perpetrators both strange and yet inconspicuous.    Would they strike again?  Where and how?   We didn’t know.   Anthrax, small pox, poisoning of water supplies and chemical warfare dominated discussion.   Fear reigns in conditions of uncertainty and ignorance.

Shortly after 9-11 students contacted me saying that they were impressing family and friends with their knowledge of Bin Laden, chemical and biological weapons and Islamic extremism — all from my World Politics class, where these themes were touched on years before 9-11-01.   The fact I’d been worried about these issues, and on visiting cities like New York and Washington always thought about the possibility of terrorism just as one thinks of earth quakes in California, made 9-11 less of a shock.   For people who thought all was secure and safe, the shock evoked a stronger sense of danger.   What other unexpected threats are out there?

After 9-11-01 I started studying Islamic religion and history, since it was clear that many were defining the attack as the opening act of a war between Islam and the West.   The more I learned about Islam, the clearer it became that like almost all religions it was focused on good, but had portions that could be used to arose anger and violence.    It is no more inherently violent than Christianity or Judaism, and certainly Islamic culture can’t be seen as more violent than that of the West — a culture that has given us colonialism, nuclear weapons and world wars.  Over time as a society we went from knee jerk fear to perspectives tempered with more knowledge and understanding.

Consider: Since 3000 people were killed on 9-11, only 33 people have been killed in the US by Islamic extremists.  During that same time there were 150,000 murders and 350,000 traffic fatalities.  By any rational measure one should fear their car more than Islam!   But uncertainty still intervenes — there are Islamic extremists out there, and they can strike again.

So ten years after I’d say that the biggest lesson from that horrific attack is the power of love to unify us, and the danger of fear to get us to act against our values.   We showed both.   In the time just after the attack I think at times fear trumped love — the treatment of the Dixie Chicks, the journalist Chris Hedges being booed off the stage when he gave a commencement address critical of US policy in Iraq, and admonishings to “watch what you say.”    That’s declined as we’ve learned more and worked through the wars and controversies of the last ten years.

But the love that brought us together has also declined.    The politics have become more petty and personal, with emotion and demonization replacing a sense of trying to come together to solve problems.

Societies may be like individuals.  Too much fear and they become aggressive, afraid of self-criticism, arrogant and unable to cooperate with others.   Learning from the strengths and weaknesses learned from 9-11 and its aftermath will help us keep a proper balance as we face future crises and threats.  The best way to limit fear to its rational and protective functions is to avoid ignorance and try to limit uncertainty.  Fearmongers probably driven by their internal demons, feed on ignorance, emotion and uncertainty to try to push people to embrace hatred and violence.

Clearly there are threats.   There are evil doers like Bin Laden, so blinded by fear and hate that they can rationalize mass destruction.   The power of love — us recognizing our common humanity and coming together to be more than what we could be separately is the best protection against folk like that.   Fear tempered by knowledge and understanding will help us measure how to respond to threats.

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