The #MuslimBan, broken promises, and the Great Default

Tonight, a lawsuit by the ACLU stayed the executive order that aims to ban immigrants and refugees from an arbitrary collection of nations for varying amounts of time, from a few months to indefinitely.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-26-57-pm
From Bloomberg here

The ban was expected. That it was extended to green card holders (permanent residents) was surprising. Thus in addition to new refugees and family members on travel visas, you have this case at LAX:

One detained traveler was an Iranian woman who’d held a green card in the U.S. for five years and whose citizenship swearing-in ceremony is in two weeks, Cunnings said.

The woman has an 11-month old child with her who is an American citizen.

A CNN feature on the chaos surrounding the creation and implementation of the order includes this passage:

Friday night, DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen — did not apply to people who with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders.
The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President’s inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. Their decision held that, on a case by case basis, DHS could allow green card holders to enter the US.
Fundamentally, this order is a series of increasingly large promises being broken. People who followed the rules, did everything conservatives have asked immigrants to do, get nothing for their sacrifice. Translators for the US military who risked their lives in exchange for residency, nothing. Religious and ethnic minorities fleeing the Syrian civil war and ISIS, nothing. And people who were promised permanent residency, nothing. America has always been a land of broken promises, but for 2017 this is particularly sharp sting.
This is the beginning of what I’m calling The Great Default, where any prior promises and commitments made before Jan 20, 2017 should be considered conditional and uncertain. Climate agreements, trade agreements, foreign alliances, ethics rules, civil liberties, religious freedom. It’s a fire sale. The immigration ban is telling every other country that the US is willing to do things without consulting its own government, let alone yours. For those that say the system will ameliorate Trump and make a trade war with China impossible, well, what about now? Bannon and Miller overruled the part of the government that actually has to implement policy. They don’t want to learn, they want to extend their will. Bannon has been given a major national security position, letting those who said “it’s just an advisory position!” know that yes, that too is conditional.
There is no honeymoon period. Get the sandbags, close the storm windows. Nothing is sacred.

The action fallacy and Syria

The UK House of Commons finished marathon debate over authorizing airstrikes in Syria. The government motion passed 397-223. In 2013 the same body defeated a similar intervention bill, with a united Labour joined by minor parties and defections from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

It is not surprising that this vote will succeed, and do so by a considerable margin. The Paris attacks have turned dozens of Labour MPs into hawks. Jeremy Corbyn, the most anti-war party leader in recent memory, was unable to get his delegation into line. Ed Miliband, who led the opposition to the 2013 bill, also voted against airstrikes.

Corbyn is being pilloried by the press and by members of his own party, who has been given almost no breathing room despite an overwhelming mandate in his election.

This whole debate reeks of historical blindness. Corbyn and his anti-war brethren are just being consistent- 12 years ago the same debate occurred, about intervention in Iraq.

Is there a record of Western military intervention creating stable, secular nation-states?

No.

Was there an exit strategy before intervening in Iraq?

No.
Is there one now?

No.

Will an escalation of force undermine ISIS recruitment? Former hostage and journalist Nicolas Hénin thinks it’s a trap to rally support around ISIS.

The “good war” of today will be, just like Iraq, the “bad war” of a decade in the future. Each time a Noble Defense of Liberal Democracy(tm) turns into a bloody, expensive quagmire, there’s a whole round of editorials about a powerful lesson learned. Acquired wisdom will prevent the same mistakes.

I’ll forward the title of this post: the action fallacy. In times of crisis, it is always easier to defend doing something over not doing something. A wide range of people, including some of the Labour shadow ministry, see anti-war principles as weakness. Strength involves using people and money to destroy other people. Intervening in Iraq was worth creating free university, housing, investment in clean energy. Put this way- to dive into war with no evidence that it will improve the situation is to say you oppose programs that are guaranteed to improve a situation- not just in the United Kingdom, but Syria as well. For several million dollars you can build housing or turn one into a smoking crater.

Would ISIS exist in 2015 if there was no coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003? Highly unlikely, as its leadership in part are Sunnis who were displaced, and when the army was disbanded, they took their weapons and went home. If money was actually invested in creating a strong Kurdish state in northern Iraq, ISIS would never have been able to invade east.

The Western countries which are bombing (or will soon) talk about Western values and international cooperation. They’ve been completely unable to stop Turkey from bombing the Kurds, who are those secular anti-ISIS rebels that Westerners are always talking about. Never mind that the Kurds are the only thing keeping ISIS from having a long border with a NATO nation.

I’d like to finish by shaming one MP and praising another. Alison McGovern, a Labour MP who is voting for war but wants to couch it in humanitarianism, said this in her speech:

the biggest recruitment for vile extremism is want. It is dissatisfaction with the chances the world is offering you, whether in the back streets of Britain or the cities of Africa and the Middle East where young people find that the powerful in our world forget them far too quickly.

This is an awful chunk of hypocrisy, and exactly the sort of hawkish rhetoric you get from ostensibly liberal Democrats in the United States. The biggest recruiter for “vile extremism” are civilian casualties, creating the narrative that Islam is being attacked by a coalition of Western countries and needs people to come and save it. That ISIS is not in any way a genuine Islamic organization is irrelevant- violent intervention turns logical analysis on its head. Conflict narrows the focus of all involved. It stirs up the blood and legitimates cruelty.

Yet that’s not the most troubling part. It’s an argument about poverty being a key issue of the problem. This is in part true, and would make sense were it not in a speech justifying expensive military operations. Ending poverty requires money, which is wasted on weapons and a misguided form of ‘nation-building’ that failed to turn Iraq into a stable country. And many people in the Middle East do end up joining ISIS out of poverty- Western-created from warfare. The War on Terror has been a fourteen-year long lessons that attacking terrorism with military force both kills extremists and creates new ones. This ignores all the recruits from the West, including Paris, whose poverty is also Western-created through capitalist exploitation and inequality.

Alex Salmond, former first minister of Scotland, had a speech that had its issues, but summed things up well here:

we are being asked to intervene in a bloody civil war of huge complexity, we are being asked to do it without an exit strategy and no reasonable means of saying we are going to make a difference

Good point, Alex.

What our wars create: ISIS and the persistence of terrorism

ISIS soldiers celebrate. Credit: AFP/Getty
ISIS soldiers celebrate. Credit: AFP/Getty

A conservative Facebook friend posted a story from the YoungCons website (you know it’s a great right-wing website when one of the top results is “is this site satire?”) about the battle of civilizations- America vs. Islamic fundamentalism. It suggested that the US take after Jefferson and his war against the pirates in Tripoli- use force against these Islamic powers, and don’t back down, surrender, or be held for ransom. Those three things being what the Obama administration is currently doing re: ISIS. Apparently.

Here was my reply, and a reply against the US policy in the Middle East since 9/11:

Islamic fundamentalism post-dates Jefferson. It is a creation in response to colonialism and perpetuated by Western anti-terror actions that lead to far more civilian casualties than militant ones.

We’ve been actively killing people in the Middle East for thirteen years and radical fundamentalism is stronger than ever. A secular leader in Iraq was overthrown, the armed forces disbanded, and a Sunni insurgency created by former officers let loose with their training and weapons. The strongest terror-backed entity is using American weapons to massacre civilians.

So when is America going to bomb the Islamic world into prosperity and peace? Or perhaps basic history shows that’s not the case, and we’re actually fighting a war against groups that would not exist without the weapons and instability from Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, the United States of America.

Now please note that I am not a Hussein apologist, but we need to be honest and see what the early-stage plan in Iraq was, and how in toppling one dictator we sowed the seeds for others to come.

ISIS with captured tank
ISIS with captured tank

With ISIS, we must stop the ongoing nationwide amnesia about the two main wars fought with 9/11 as justification, and confront the new, post-Coalition Iraq. Any additional use of force in the region has to be weighed against what has happened with past uses of force. ISIS may not be a direct creation of the United States (with an assist from early 20th century France and Britain), but its current structure and power is related to US actions, and the War on Terror philosophy that terrorism must be stomped out using overwhelming force.

This is a terror group which is now confirmed to have access to chemical weapons. Just this week another Iraqi Army base was overrun, giving ISIS access to huge amounts of US-provided weapons and transportation.

The biggest discussion since 9/11 that nobody in the government or national media doesn’t want to have is a huge one: what it terrorism, and how is it persisting despite sanctions and military action? Central to this indefinite War is the justification of force without the analysis of its consequences. The Sunni insurgency comes from how the initial invasion of Iraq was manage, and how the Shi’ite and Sunni constituencies have their own paramilitary groups that can act independently of governmental authority. ISIS is a product of dysfunction, and there is no way to remove Coalition action from that dynamic.

Patriotism is a cheap word these days. Only brash, simple action can be patriotic, and dissent is met with ambivalence, if not outright hostility. No matter what ideology you subscribe to, what the United States does or does not do in the Middle East has a body count attached to it. Its size is important, as well as how we take responsibility for collateral damage, if at all.

The Kurdish experiment: democracy and freedom in the 21st century

Thousands of Yazidis were rescued in August by terrorists. Wait, I thought ISIS (Daesh) were the terrorists?

Oh they are, to be sure. Just that the United States government hasn’t been eager to admit that it wasn’t United States humanitarian intervention that saved these people hidden in those Iraqi mountains. It was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, best known by their acronym, PKK.

Three PKK fighters pose with an captured ISIS tank.  Taken August 25, 2014.
Three PKK fighters pose with an captured ISIS tank.
Taken August 25, 2014.

The PKK has a history of violent conflict with Turkey, which earned it a spot on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The past few years have seen one of the most radical political transformations in modern history. Led by their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK has ended their armed conflict and replaced that struggle with another. Something special is happening in parts of Kurdistan- the most daring democratic experiment of the 21st century.

Writing for The Guardian, David Graeber gives an idea of the political transformation led by the PKK and its Syrian sister party, the PYD:

But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution.

These assemblies start at the lowest level, electing higher levels. Diversity is mandated, including women in positions of authority. Radical literature is discussed frequently in meetings. In some places, the non-state assembly structure is more powerful than the regular government. In some sense, the PKK is replacing the independent country they cannot have with a new sort of free society- one that comes from direct democracy and an end to oppressive institutions.

As Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR) published earlier this year, the PKK has gone through a earnest transformation thanks in part to the honesty of its leader:

Öcalan embarked, in his prison writings, on a thorough re-examination and self-criticism of the terrible violence, dogmatism, personality cult and authoritarianism he had fostered: “It has become clear that our theory, programme and praxis of the 1970s produced nothing but futile separatism and violence and, even worse, that the nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us. Even though we opposed it in principle and rhetoric, we nonetheless accepted it as inevitable.” Once the unquestioned leader, Öcalan now reasoned that “dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god. That was the mistake I made.”

So many hardline Marxist-Leninist militias are unable to break out of their dogma, and they either forsake socialism altogether, or ossify into obscurity. Perhaps there is another way to move forward, to transform from a failed revolution to a thriving one.

Everything that is reprehensible about ISIS is countered by the Kurdish revolutionaries. Clearly they are not terrorists of the same ilk.

Female and male PKK fighters pose during training.
Female and male PKK fighters pose during training.

Thankfully the past day has seen CNBC post a short editorial with a simple title- “Why the US should take PKK off the terror list“. Put simply, the United States has gotten its ass saved by the PKK showing up to save Yazidi- especially after the US-trained peshmerga forces ran away after a brief fight with ISIS. For Western powers, the story of PKK should be positive- an enemy has become a friend. Not due to shifting alliances (the old Cold War mentality), but the transformation of a strong, dedicated group of people.

ROAR ends their feature with a call to action:

those of us who value the idea of civilization owe our gratitude to the Kurds, who are fighting the jihadists of Islamist fascism day and night on the frontlines in Syria and Iraq, defending radical democratic values with their lives.

The Kurds, in particular the PKK and the PYD, should be the talk of the radical left, and any that oppose what ISIS is doing to Iraq and Syria. But the Kurds are often ignored, and even moreso the democratic revolution that is going on in some areas. Let that not be the case. The Kurds are a stateless people, their history is one of cultural loss, genocide, and struggle- armed and unarmed. They have a story to tell us all, we only need listen.

Expansion of ISIS into Iraq, another bloody stalemate?

From The Economist (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21604230-extreme-islamist-group-seeks-create-caliphate-and-spread-jihad-across)

What used to be, in Neolithic and Bronze Age times, the Fertile Crescent, is a complete mess. Not that it’s unusual- on any scale of time the region is unstable and its political powers shifting.

ISIS/ISIL has won stunning victories in Iraq, after more measured and slow success in Syria. Part of that may have been the crowded and diverse ethnic and religious makeup, where they were hemmed in by Kurds, the Syrian government, and other rebel groups. Taking over the Sunni-dominated portion of northern and western Iraq was a bit simpler. Anonymous Twitter account @wikibaghdady throws in suggestions that the displaced Baathist regime is bolstering ISIS/ISIL. Its success was not instantaneous, and its progress was underreported in Western media. Now it is gaining weapons, money, and a population base to tax (or perhaps extort) funds from. There are certainly benefits in a shift from a terrorist militia to a political state. It cements power and creates a structure for expansion and resistance to attack.

The big-scale forces seem to be restraint and stockpiling weapons, intelligence, and resources. Each side in Iraq- the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds- have a rope pulling them back towards the land where their faction holds a strong population advantage. The Kurds are now openly selling oil on their own terms, and have gained Turkish support that they didn’t have during the independence campaign by the PKK and others within Turkish borders. With Kirkuk, their territory in Iraq is more or less as big as it could realistically be without currying a civil war with the government in Baghdad. While that government is gaining significant popular support from Iran and the Shia population, as long as ISIS/ISIL has a base in Syria to launch reinforces, long term occupation of Sunni lands seems untenable. As the linked story shows, shrine cities will be fought fiercely for, but more distant towns with no religious significance?

ISIS/ISIL is doing the expansion right now, but it remains to be seen if Baghdad could realistically fall (and how long it could be occupied). At some point, eastern advancements get close to the Iranian border.

It seems that stalemate is a likely result in the weeks and months to come. After all, that’s what Syria has devolved into- even if one side is gaining the upper hand, it takes an long time for any advantage to become clear.

These situations of a civil war reaching an equilibrium can be seen in Africa as well, it’s not a recent phenomenon or a Middle Eastern phenomenon. From a policy perspective, the question is what can be done beyond humanitarian damage control. Refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon that persist for years point to a social and national structure that is collapsing. Social services are very limited, education is spotty and inferior. It all leads to populations that are losing an ability to proceed, to rebuild economies and governments if and when the conflict ends.

Without strong policies that try to build (or maintain) healthy social structures, any peace will by nature be fragile. There are certainly many civil wars, in many different areas and continents, where nothing of value is learned.

If nothing is learned…

Same groups
Same factions
Same weapons
Same refugees
Same suffering
Same stalemate.

The fallout: intervention and the Arab Spring

Clashes between Gaddafi and rebel forces during the initial civil war. February 2011. Wikipedia license, public domain.

Disturbing news -there is a serious power struggle in eastern Libya– not just between secular and Islamist groups, but between government armed forces and renegade paramilitaries.

This is the lesson of 21st century Western-backed regime change in the Middle East. When a dictator is toppled, so goes the one institution that can use sanction and force to establish order. One may remember the order in 2003 that dissolved Iraq’s Republican Guard and other police and military forces as a more formal way to create a situation like 2014 Libya. True, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were using their armed forces for terrible things – both warfare against their own people and bloody wars like Hussein’s slugfest with Iran in the 1980’s. When they are gone, however, it becomes a free-for-all, and any democratic successor relies on the military foundation to enact political policy. If the rebel victory in Libya could be considered a potential revolution, though if it is it’s a complicated one, the reaction is when civil conflict attacks the ideals of the original movement.

In Iraq, looking solely at the development of democratic institution, the new regime had the assistance of a large Coalition force that, struggles with insurgents notwithstanding, had a lot of firepower to back a new government. Libya has none of that. It’s the remnants of Gaddafi’s power bloc and the shattered pieces of the rebels, plus any foreign Islamist force that wishes to creep in from neighboring countries. The country becomes a set of fiefdoms, just how the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds had their own districts in Iraq. It shouldn’t be some great surprise when this is where the Libyan Civil War ends up. Military intervention only becomes justifiable if it’s a benefit in both the short and long-term. Personally, I opposed any kind of bombing campaign against Syria, as proponents (who had the burden of proof) couldn’t show how it would save lives and improve a future resolution of the conflict. You don’t throw missiles into a situation without a clear of idea of why their damage is important. Or to be more realistic, you shouldn’t.

It was clear that a massive humanitarian response was both urgently needed and ultimately defensible. Libya is much the same- if not now then soon.

A paramilitary stands guard.

The ledger of the Arab Spring, about three and a half years later, is complex and still shifting. As Jeffrey Laurenti writes that elections “have been unfolding this spring in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as well as Egypt. Not all of them are a sham. But even the genuinely free elections are often associated with dysfunctional governments and deeply divided societies.” Egypt is going back to a military autocrat, with much of the electorate happy with the change, even among widespread violence against the Muslim Brotherhood. One may think of this as mere window dressing. Was Egypt really anything but a military junta going through a bit of an experiment? Laurenti points out that even Lebanon, which scores the highest in terms of political freedom in Middle East states if you disqualify Israel, is charitably a complete mess – though some of this is a war in Syria that they cannot separate themselves from.

This is the 21st century. Movements can be worldwide, countries influence each other on so many levels. And political revolution and crisis are harder and harder to ignore. From this comes the question – what can I do to make other societies fairer, safer, more egalitarian? What can my country do? Everyone is finding their limits. Clearly Western powers often get involved in cultural and societal conflicts that they don’t understand. But then other times they sit by and do nothing – as I write this, two decades ago Hutu extremists were massacring Tutsis in the streets with machetes. The balance of doing something and letting things play out on their own is always there, and everyone has their own take on where their country and the world should stand.