No Friend but the Mountains

Regardless of what one thinks about President Trump’s planned drawdown in Syria, it undoubtably takes the wind out of the movement for Kurdish autonomy in some kind of devolved Syria. Facing the prospect of Turkish troops and Turkish-backed militants overrunning their positions, the Kurds had no choice but to ask the Syrian government for assistance. The Syrian government will oblige, as they have been asking Kurdish forces to relinquish territory and have threatened force if they refuse to do so.

The Kurdish situation lends insight into how complicated the civil war is and how allegiances can shift quickly. To sum up Kurdish positions during the revolution and subsequent civil war:

1: US-backed, Syrian government-backed, fighting ISIS.

2: US-backed, Syrian government-detente, fighting ISIS AND US-backed rebels.

3: US-backed, fighting ISIS, AND engaging in hostile skirmishes with Syrian government.

4: Syrian government-backed fighting ISIS and (possibly) Turkish forces.

There is a saying that the Kurds have “no friend but the mountains.” Their use and abuse during this civil war may prove that to be true but then again, it hardly seems like any party has a true “friend” in this conflict.

Who Doesn't Support the Iran-Deal?

In light of President Trump's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the "Iran Nuclear Deal," it is worth wondering if there are any well-known foreign policy scholars who agree with the President on this issue.  I cannot think of one.  

Political scientists are, on average, generally left of center and have a broadly liberal outlook. When it comes to foreign policy that means supporting economic globalization, international institutions, and the prevailing US-led liberal order. But on each of these issues and their sub-issues you can find significant disagreements and minority views coming from both the ideological left and right. For example, Dani Rodrik is highly critical of the "free trade" mantra. Stephen Walt is critical of US adventurism abroad and generally agrees with President Trump's critique of NATO. The late Samuel Huntington was a critic of multiculturalism and immigration to the US. So although the academy general favors economic and political liberalism there are minority views, some of which I think there is good evidence for. 

When it comes to the Iran Nuclear Deal, I cannot think of one prominent international relations scholar who agrees with President Trump's decision to withdraw. Even Randall Schweller, Professor of international relations at Ohio State and vocal supporter of President Trump, put his name alongside Noam Chomsky's in support of the deal

President Trump's statement was completely detached from reality. It got basic facts about the deal wrong (such as the inspection regime), it brought up Iranian-supported actions from decades ago that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons (such as the 1983 embassy bombings), and proposed no realistic means to achieve the goals of the deal in a more effective manner.

It is easy to be criticized by the majority of the academy (which President Trump is often) but it is a stunning achievement to be opposed by the academy in its entirety.   

UPDATE: Following the "hot takes" in the past day it looks like the closest you can get to an IR or FP scholar that supports President Trump's decision is Richard Goldberg, former Republican advisor and senior advisor to the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He hasn't published a single academic piece that I can find but he has a lot of practical experience. 

Is the Trump Administration Killing More Civilians?

Recently, at an academic conference, a colleague and I were talking about precisely what parts of Trump's tenure are going to be the most distinguishable from a hypothetical Clinton administration. When it came down to it, I think we both thought that national security policy was the area that would be most similar. Trump has recently been criticized for the amount of Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemeni civilians killed by the US or its partners in the past year or so. However, it is likely that the rise in numbers would have occurred no matter who was in office. Battles against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were coming to their horrifying but almost inevitable conclusions: the last strongholds of ISIS being besieged and bombarded. Civilian deaths are bound to increase when states bomb population centers from the air. The results are no different here and the bombing would have likely commenced in a similar fashion with Hillary Clinton as President.

The situation in Yemen is perhaps the area where Clinton would have handled things differently from Trump. The Obama Administration was seemingly on the verge of relinquishing its support from the Saudi campaign as Obama was leaving office, a move that President Trump has clearly reversed. However, Hillary was a hawk in that administration and would have perhaps also reversed course. All in all, while Trump's words set him apart I'm not sure his national security policies actually least not yet. 

On the Campaign in Mosul

I've recently published an article for Foreign Policy in Focus on the destructiveness of the Mosul campaign. You can find it here. What is difficult about writing these pieces is that the situation on the ground changes daily. As of this morning, you can add another 230 civilian deaths to the count, the result of a US airstrike. From Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria there is every indication that the Trump Administration is ramping up its "anti-terrorism" efforts, which are guaranteed to result in more civilian deaths. We've been in perpetual war for a decade and a half now, and there is no sign of an end anytime soon. 

Thoughts on the Failed Coup in Turkey

1. I have nothing but admiration for the bravery of the Turkish people in their opposition to the coup. The images and videos of Turks streaming into the streets, arresting soldiers, stopping tanks, and facing gunfire and attack helicopters are inspiring. Hundreds gave their lives to oppose military rule. This opposition cut across political, ethnic, and religious lines. 

2. Military coups are bad, and this one would have been no different. Despite some commentary I heard on CNN, the Turkish military has historically engaged in brutality during and after coups. Dissidents are usually jailed, tortured, and/or executed. Media is usually censored and shut down (the plotters of this coup attempted to do this). The Turkish military has also been completely antagonistic to the rights of ethnic and political minorities in Turkey, much more so than the Erdogan regime, so any attempted justification of the coup on these grounds also fails. 

3. The coup plotters gave Erdogan a gift. Erdogan has been paranoid about a coup for a while now, and the coup plotters have proven him right. As the coup failed, many (myself included) predicted a broad crackdown on Turkish civil society. This is exactly what is happening. Tens of thousands of educators have been fired. Thousands of judges have been jailed. Erdogan is well within is rights to imprison, prosecute, and punish the coup plotters in addition to restructuring the military. This is necessary for the preservation of a pluralist and democratic Turkey. But predictably, Erdogan is using the coup as an excuse to purge all opposition. 

4. The secularist vs. Islamist tension is being overplayed in my opinion. Yes, there are obviously tensions in Turkey between its newly emboldened Islamist elements, empowered by Erdogan's AKP, and its historical state-enforced secularism. However, it should be noted that many support Erdogan because of his success in growing the Turkish economy. They are willing to put up with moderate Islamism if it means business is good. Support for the AKP will likely erode if the economy experiences a sustained downward trajectory. Secondly, the man being blamed for the coup, Fethullah Gulen, is himself an Islamist and former ally of Erdogan, and it is not unreasonable to believe that his followers, or at least a portion of them, are the guilty party.  

5. The US reaction was predictable. The US needs Turkey in order to secure its interests in the region, no matter who is running the country. The US therefore refrained from commenting until it was clear that the coup would fail. The Obama administration then gave a statement in support of President Erdogan. If the coup had been successful, the Obama administration would have likely declared the coup-regime legitimate, as they did in Egypt. 

Western Coalition Claims Regarding ISIS Death Toll Are Still Obviously False

A while ago I wrote that the Western anti-ISIS coalition has claimed to kill roughly 22,000 "jihadist" fighters in Syria and Iraq. This translates to roughly 46 jihadists killed per day. These numbers contradict the numbers of other organizations on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Recently, a video surfaced of a US airstrike in Iraq, which US government officials claimed killed 250 fighters. How were US officials able to confirm this number when bodies were likely blown apart beyond all recognition? Has any other source corroborated the US government's (actually, one anonymous US official) report? Who knows?! 

Even if we assume reports such as this one are true, they cast further doubt on the US's story. If killing almost 50 fighters a day is a normal occurrence then is killing 250 fighters really that impressive? Other offensives with much lower numbers are also widely publicized. It's news when the Western coalition kills 58 fighters or 20 fighters in one go. If killing 46 fighters a day is the norm then the deaths of 20 fighters should provoke the headline "Below average day for the Pentagon in Iraq" but it doesn't. 

The US has every incentive to over-sell its effectiveness in Iraq and Syria (overstate the jihadist death-toll) and undersell its brutality in Iraq and Syria (understate the civilian death-toll). When you compare the numbers out of the Pentagon (~27,000 ISIS fighters killed, 6-15 civilians killed) to those of non-governmental organizations (~5,000 ISIS fighters killed, ~1,100 civilians killed) it seems the US is acting accordingly.  

Who Gets Mourned?

In Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman's Manufacturing Consent, the authors demonstrate that with regard to US activities in Latin America and Vietnam, the massacres of the enemy are dutifully reported while massacres of the US and its allies are downplayed or ignored altogether. This still holds true today (as this blog has related time and time again). Another prominent example of this phenomenon occurred this week.    

Three recent events involving international conflicts were newsworthy: (1) On August 21st Saudi Arabian airstrikes killed about 70 civilians in Southwestern Yemen. (2) On August 16th Syrian regime airstrikes killed scores of civilians (possibly up to 100) in the rebel controlled Damascus suburb of Douma. (3) On August 22nd the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) murdered an 83-year-old archeologists and later destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra. 

If the United States had a "watchdog" media, the kind that does what it claims to do, the kind that files reports exposing the actions of governments for the benefit of the American people, there would be a clear justification for giving priority to each of the events in the above order (1,2,3). Although the death-toll of the Saudi strikes is less than the death-toll of the attack on Douma, the Saudi airstrikes were carried out with US intelligence support, US logistical support, and with US-manufactured weaponry. Saudi Arabia is a strong US ally, with whom the Obama Administration concluded the largest ever American weapons sale in 2010. The deaths in Yemen are appalling and have a clear connection to the actions of the US government, clearly making them a concern of the American people.  

Why the Douma massacre should take precedence over the actions of ISIL in Palmyra should be obvious. The death-toll is substantially higher with the former, while the latter concerns primarily ancient artifacts. There is no doubt that the destruction of Palmyra accords with ISIL's other actions aimed at eliminating any vestiges of opposing cultures but it should be a truism that human life should be valued above stones.  

If, on the other-hand the US has a media that serves primarily state-interests, through self-censorship, reliance on government reports and estimates, a profit motive, and a meta-framework that portrays only certain threats to human life as "dangerous," we would expect the news to reported in inverse (3,2,1). ISIL's actions are more newsworthy because it accords with the framework of "anti-Islamism," much like the news of the 1950's-1980's was reported within the framework of "anti-communism." The Syrian regime's actions should take precedence over the actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen precisely because of Saudi Arabia's status as "ally" while the status of Assad is officially one of "enemy." The Syrian regime's goal is obviously mass-murder while the goal of the US and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is to "restore" the "legitimate" government that was essentially hand-picked by the United States and its allies in the Gulf. 

A brief look at the evidence points to the latter hypothesis: a media that essentially serves US geopolitical interests. The Los Angeles Times filed a single report on the airstrikes in Yemen, and although it mentioned the humanitarian consequences it pinned the blame on both sides for the fighting, even though Saudi Arabia is the aggressor in the conflict and is solely responsible for the airstrikes. Additionally, Saudi Arabia's status as US ally is never mentioned, nor is it mentioned that every cluster munition (banned by almost every country in the world) fired in Yemen is manufactured by the United States. The Los Angeles Times also filed only one report on the Douma massacre. However, qualitatively the blame is placed squarely on the Assad government (as it should be). Other groups fighting on the ground are not mentioned. When it comes to the murder of an archeologist and the destruction of Palmyra, the LA Times produced an amazing 5 reports. Two of the reports surround the execution of the archeologist, three of the reports surround the ISIL demolition of Palmyra, linking it to prior incidence of the group's destruction of antiquities. 

The reports produced by The New York Times also conform to the latter hypothesis. Once again, a single report regarding the Saudi perpetrated massacre in Taiz was produced. The report blames both sides and makes no mention of Saudi military and political connections to the US, nor does it make mention of US-material support for the massacre. The New York Times reporting regarding the massacre in Douma is slightly more comprehensive. Three reports were published. The initial report is a short brief describing the massacre while the two later reports recount the massacre in greater detail and connect it to prior regime-perpetrated killings. Once again, the coverage of Palmyra significantly outstrips coverage of the massacres. The New York Times filed six reports on Palmyra, one reporting the murder of archeologist Khalid al-Assad, a few initial reports of the destruction, several follow-up pieces connecting the destruction to the anti-antiquity stance of ISIL, as well as a photo-blog post taking a look back at the ancient city and contrasting it to its current state.  

The post here is obviously not intended to be a comprehensive qualitative or quantitative analysis of international news coverage. However, given that two major US newspapers follow the same pattern of putting enemy actions first/US-sponsored massacres last, it is not unreasonable to think that the same pattern would likely be found with a more in-depth analysis. If victims of state and non-state violence wish for their plight to be publicized in the United States they should hope that (1) their plight is consistent with the prevailing US discourse and frameworks, and that (2) they don't find themselves victim to massacres perpetrated by US allies or the United States itself.  

Foreign Policy Choices in the Age of ISIS

We are constantly subjected to the liberal intellectual class proclaiming the barbarity of the Islamic State and they aren't wrong. What they are wrong about is their view of US-perpetrated violence, which they see as being altered, reformed, and improved through ethical and moral concerns. I don't know who said it first but whenever I see a liberal talking about ISIS I'm reminded of the mocking refrain "Vote Democrat for a kinder, gentler imperialism." Anyway, I recently published a piece at Cultura Critica on how the standard liberal view of the ISIS tends to glorify US violence. You can read that piece HERE

An Update and Op-Ed

So my goal for this blog has been to put at least one medium-length piece out every other week. So far I've been pretty good about this (we'll see what happens around finals week). However, this week things are a little different because a significant event happened on campus: we successfully passed a student government resolution to urge the UC regents to divest from companies committing human rights violations related to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In light of this, Yazan Amro and I decided to publish an Op-Ed for a Palestinian advocacy site on the matter. We discuss the three-year long campaign, how this represents a turing point in the on-campus debate, and the battles to come. Consider this my the fulfillment of my bi-weekly post. You can find the piece HERE. 

King Abdullah: Reformer or Tyrant?




King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia, died on January 23rd. The BBC called Abdullah a "slow but steady" reformer and a "vocal advocate for peace," while the New York Times called him a "cautious reformer" and a "force for moderation." Secretary of State John Kerry said that the world had lost a "man of wisdom and vision...a revered leader." 

The rhetoric coming from the media sharply contrasts with coverage preceding Abdullah's death. The Washington Post had just one day earlier ran a story on a renewed crackdown on Saudi dissidents. There had also been a focus on the Saudi state's reluctance to allow women to drive. The contrast is a symptom of a contradiction between the identity of the United States and its methods for maintaining it, where the US "supports freedom and democracy," yet needs authoritarian Saudi Arabia as an ally in the fight to "support freedom and democracy." Saudi Arabia is both the Western media's symbol of the barbarity and otherness of Islam and a source of stability for the forces of the freed world. 

What else but an attempt to remedy contradiction could explain the dubious claim that Abdullah was a reformer? One cannot read the NYT's obituary and make any sense of it otherwise: 

Still Abdullah became, in some ways, a force for moderation. He contested Al Qaeda's militant interpretations of faith as justifying, even compelling, terrorist acts. He ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language and sent 900 imams to re-education sessions. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded. 

Apparently execution by beheading has become moderate. 

The empirical evidence shows that Abdullah was no reformer, in fact, quite the opposite. Yousef Munayyer conducted a brief analysis on physical integrity rights during Abdullah's reign and found that they declined sharply. Looking at the Amnesty International Political Terror Scale (torture, imprisonment, extrajudicial killing etc.) one finds that the start of Abdullah's reign coincides with noticeable increase in state violence. There has been a slow and steady decline in press freedom in Saudi Arabia since the start of Abdullah's rule, with 2014 being the most repressive year on record. According to the Global Gender Gap Report, only in the area of women's rights has there been any recent improvement in Saudi Arabia, and this improvement is very marginal. 2015 will be the first year women can vote in municipal elections. Women still need the permission of a guardian (usually a father, brother, or husband) to travel, open bank accounts, enroll in college, or get elective surgery.

The idea that King Abdullah was a "voice for peace" is also laughable. Saudi Arabia has taken a hawkish stance on Iran and has pushed for an end to negotiations. In 2008 King Abdullah asked the US to take military action against Iran to "cut off the head of the snake." In 2013 it was Saudi Arabia that urged the US to involve itself in the Syrian civil war, no doubt another attempt to counter growing Iranian influence. Of course there was also the response to the Arab Spring, when Abdullah sent soldiers to kill and torture demonstrators in Bahrain and later sent billions of dollars to the murderous military junta in Egypt. 

King Abdullah was not a reformer and he was not a man of peace. He was, as John Kerry said, a "man of vision." It was a vision where dissent is crushed, armies are deployed, and resistors are eliminated for the sake of a secure and thriving Saudi state. The US was happy to allow this terrifying vision to play out, all in the name of freedom and democracy. 

Bait and Switch: The Politics of Samantha Power

The image above of the US exercising its veto power on the United Nations Security Council is not a rare one. The US has done so on dozens of occasions since it cast its first UNSC veto in 1970 to protect the white supremacist regime of Rhodesia. Since that time it has become the most frequent user of the UNSC veto. Most of these veto votes, including the one deployed above, have been in the service of the Israeli occupation. In that sense, the image is also unremarkable. 

The image is also unexceptional for another reason, although it may be illustrative. Samantha Power, the UN Ambassador from the United States that sits and raises her hand in defense of the decades long illegal Israeli occupation, is praised in the liberal press as a "child of Bosnia," "obsessed" with stopping genocide and crimes against humanity. To liberal eyes, Power is deemed remarkable and altogether different from brutal realist statesmen such as Kissinger or Bolton. 

But Samantha Power is not unique. Since the 1970's "human rights" have become part of the American foreign policy lexicon, like "democracy" or "economic freedom." Administrations have had some variance in their implementation of "human rights" as a principal. Carter at least made some improvements in US military aid policy, while Reagan openly opposed human rights even rhetorically, in favor of "fighting communism."

Despite small differences between administrations, US policy towards human rights has remained fairly consistent. The US supports human rights in enemy states, such as Iran and North Korea. When it comes to friendly clients and allies the US has generally shielded them from criticism or actively participated in their violations of human rights. Julie A. Mertus (2008) refers to this as the "bait and switch" approach to human rights, where the terminology of human rights is deployed to serve US strategic and ideological interests.  

The politics of Samantha Power almost perfectly conforms to "bait and switch." One only has to look to her twitter feed to find the evidence. Power finds it "absurd" that nations could fail to condemn DAESH or the Syrian regime. She points out the atrocious use of crude "barrel bombs" by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians, she fails to understand how countries could be "silent" in the face of North Korean crimes, and she condemns Palestinian terrorist attacks that kill praying civilians. Power's book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide plays similarly. In it she recounts crimes committed in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia. The only criticism of the United States is that it "stood by" while others conducted genocide. She fails to note that the US supported genocide in Cambodia for a time, and only briefly mentions the case of East Timor, a genocide in which the US did not "stand by" but actively assisted in its orchestration. In recent months, Power has ignored the Iraqi government's use of "barrel bombs" that, according to Human Rights Watch, have killed scores of civilians. Power also did not submit UNSC resolutions condemning recent human rights violations in a number of states such as Egypt, Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia...all friends of the US.     

The recent veto of the UNSC resolution on Palestine only adds to the "bait and switch" hypothesis and only further illustrates the unexceptional nature of Power as UN Ambassador. When Palestinians resort to violence against small numbers of Israeli civilians, Power immediately issues condemnation. When the Israeli state flouts international law, conducts a half-century long illegal occupation, kills Palestinians daily, and conducts savage bombing campaigns that kill thousands, Power is relatively silent at best and reiterates the Israeli right to "self defense" at worst.   

It is difficult to tell, as it is with many politicians, if Power believes the words she speaks. Regardless, the liberal obsession with "noble individuals" and "change from within" only obscures the underlying consistency of US policy. The most praise one should give Power is that she has been predictable at least.