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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Neocons and Many Democrats Try to Wreck Iran Talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L), EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton (C) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd R) speak together during the third day of closed-door nuclear talks. (AP Photo)

The fact that an accord between the United States and Iran, along with the other P5+1 world powers, would remove Iran as a potential nuclear threat and might do wonders to stabilize the entire Middle East hasn’t dissuaded the far right, the pro-Likud Israel lobby and the neoconservatives from trying to wreck any possibility that President Obama’s diplomacy might succeed.

It’s a precise analogue to the Republican party’s efforts to shut down the government, block every White House policy initiative and generally act as the Party of No. But in the case of Iran, the reactionaries include many Democrats, including dozens of US senators.

So far, it appears that the alliance between the White House and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, is holding, and it’s likely that Reid—for the time being, at least—will prevent any vote to impose yet another round of economic sanctions on Iran. But the pressure is mounting, and as the talks drag on—and they could take up to a year or more—Reid might change his mind. In any case, according to Foreign Policy’s The Cable, fifty-eight senators now support the new sanctions bill, called the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, a neoconservative outlet, which quotes a leading official of one of the Israel lobby’s units, at least thirty-four Democrats in the Senate support the new sanctions bill.

Seventy-four neoconservative pundits, analysts, former diplomats and others, nearly all of whom were part and parcel of the various committees and think tanks formed to demand war in Iraq in the late 1990s, released an open letter to members of Congress yesterday supporting more meddling by Congress in Iran policy, and adding that US policy toward Iran must additionally be “backed up by the military option.” They say: “Congressional leadership is once again required to set clear standards for enforcing Iranian compliance with the interim nuclear deal”—even though there’s no sign at all of Iran’s noncompliance with the interim accord reached on November 24—in fact, quite the opposite.

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Signing the letter were all the usual suspects: Bill Kristol, Joe Lieberman, the Kagans, various American Enterprise Institute pundits such as Michael Rubin and Danielle Pletka, Douglas Feith, John Podhoretz, Fouad Ajami and the rest.

The hawks, carrying water for Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and the king of Saudi Arabia, are doing whatever they can to upset the talks, and they’re providing fuel for hardliners in Iran who’ll try to oppose President Hassan Rouhani’s diplomatic team. They’re no doubt gratified by the fact that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has recently been largely supportive of Rouhani’s efforts, yesterday delivered a broadside against the United States, falling back on his old, anti-American rhetoric. But although he denounced the United States for a wide range of policies—including human rights, the Middle East and the “war on terror”—Khamenei still supported the P5+1 talks, and he pointed out, correctly, that sanctions didn’t force Iran into the talks:

“The enemies think they imposed the embargo and forced Iran to negotiate. No! We have already said that if we see interest in particular topics, we will negotiate with this devil in order to eliminate trouble coming from it.”

As long as Khamenei’s speeches are rhetorical, the talks will move forward. But there’s little doubt, even among Rouhani’s team, that another round of US-backed sanctions would kill the negotiations once and for all. (The November 24 accord, signed by the United States, explicitly says that no sanctions will be added as the talks go forward.)

Read Next: Why does Obama want to extend a war he doesn’t even believe in?

The Lesson of Carving Up Sudan

South Sudan

Southern Sudanese citizens hold their flag and chant slogans as they march in the streets in support of the independence referendum in Juba, South Sudan, December 9, 2010. (Reuters/Benedicte Desrus)

The staggering crisis in South Sudan is the perfect opportunity to tell the United States, and other meddlers in Africa and the Middle East: I told you so. That’s because the unfolding civil war in the rump state of South Sudan, whose ugly birth was midwifed by George W. Bush and by President Obama, is partly America’s fault, and it’s what happens when well-intentioned and not-so-well-intentioned outsiders decide that they know what’s best for a divided country. Let it be a lesson to those who would carve up Iraq, or Syria, or other countries into mini-states and statelets based on religious, ethnic and other divisions.

The birth of South Sudan, trumpeted as a great victory for the United States, was also promoted by Christian fundamentalist groups in the United States who were alarmed by the plight of Christians in Sudan’s south and who thought that their intervention in faraway Sudan might undermine Islam and the weirdly Islamist government in Khartoum.

But it’s clear, now, that South Sudan doesn’t deserve to be a state at all. It may be too late to stitch the cut-in-half baby back together, but at the very least the only real hope for South Sudan is to let the United Nations take over and administer it as a basket case. Above all, the United States ought to stay out of it altogether, except perhaps for organizing financial support for the region’s future.

Peace talks are underway between the savage factions cobbled together at independence, though the talks aren’t going well, and there are reports already that Uganda is sending additional troops into the fledgling nation. According to The Guardian, Uganda “had sent 1,200 troops to secure installations such as the airport and state house, adding that Ugandan military aircraft had bombed several rebel-held positions.” Uganda, of course, is intervening on one side of the war, in support of the supposed government in Juba, the capital.

In a New York Times–sponsored “Room for Debate” section today on South Sudan, one participant suggests, incredibly, that Christians ought to roll up their sleeves and get involved more fully. Mark Fathi Massoud, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, writes, “The last time these churches confronted such a choice—combining their spiritual and relief work with zealous advocacy—came during Sudan’s 1983–2005 civil war, which led to South Sudan’s secession from Sudan in 2011.” Exactly.

An even worse suggestion comes from G. Pascal Zachary, a “professor of practice” at the journalism school at Arizona State University, who calls for the United States to establish a trusteeship over South Sudan. With unbelievable arrogance, Zachary says:

Only the United States has the moral authority and the tactical resources to administer South Sudan for the multiyear period required to build a political culture that will yield stable and authentic self-determination.

Zachary adopts Colin Powell’s so-called Pottery Barn rule, namely, that “if you break it, you own it.” Leave aside the fact that the Pottery Barn doesn’t even have such a rule—if you break something, the staff just cleans it up—it’s a sad admission that Zachary accepts that the United States helped to “break” Sudan into pieces, even though he calls the creation of South Sudan “one of the most extraordinary diplomatic achievements of the United States in sub-Saharan Africa.” If that’s an achievement, then I’d like to see a failure. Eastern Congo, perhaps?

Indeed, Zachary—perhaps missing the days of imperial and colonial overlordship in Africa—penned an execrable piece for The Atlantic in 2011. Its title: “South Sudan: The Case to Keep Dividing Africa.” In it, he wrote: “Sudan has been successfully split into two independent countries. Here’s why more African nations should divide, secede, splinter, or otherwise scramble the old colonial borders.”

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Eric Reeves, another South Sudan expert at Smith College, doesn’t go as far as Zachary, but according to Reeves it’s all about the United States taking charge, too. At least Reeves says that the United States should take a back seat to the UN’s role. It’s left to Princeton Lyman, who served as Obama’s special envoy to South Sudan from 2011–13, to make the case for a bigger UN role. Without exactly saying so, Lyman suggests that the international community take over South Sudan and run the place:

First of all there must be a more robust role than heretofore for the UN peacekeeping operation. Backed by the UN Security Council, the operation must no longer accept restrictions by the South Sudan government on its movements, investigations and role as protector. Once a cessation of hostilities is agreed upon, the peacekeepers should be charged with monitoring the cease-fire, keeping the conflicting forces apart and reporting any violations of the agreement to the UN Security Council. Subsequently, the UN and donors should assist in creating a more unified and professional military for the country.

Furthermore, the international community must participate directly in helping South Sudan develop the institutions of governance, democracy and human rights protection that are lacking today. One vehicle for doing so would be the development of a permanent constitution that has been long delayed. The process should be placed under a respected, independent South Sudanese jurist. Broad civic and political participation in the process should be assured.

It’s possible, of course, that the two main factions in Sudan will patch up their differences under international pressure and stop tearing the country apart. But the events in South Sudan show the foolhardiness of trying to solve civil wars from the outside by giving every ethnic and sectarian faction a nation of its own. (Remember then-Senator Joe Biden’s terribly misguided idea at the height of the civil war in Iraq to carve three states out of Iraq, one for Shiites, one for Sunnis, and one for Kurds.) Had there been Christians in Iraq as one of the three factions then—Iraq’s small Christian population doesn’t rise to the level of a bloc that could have had an actual “state”—perhaps America’s meddling Christian churches might have backed Biden’s call, and Iraq’s current crisis would have been far, far worse than it is now. Like Sudan.

Read Next: US Special forces are currently deployed in 60 percent of the world’s nations.

The US Must Work With Iran to Stabilize Both Iraq and Syria

Hassan Rohani

The election of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani as Iran's president opened the path for negotiations with the United States. (Reuters/Far News/Sina Shiri)

Back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued a now-infamous remark during a visit to Tehran, when he toasted the soon-to-fall Shah of Iran and called his country an “island of stability.” Maybe he was just a few decades early. Today, even a cursory look at the region between North Africa and Afghanistan reveals that Iran, now led by a new president who’s seeking to strike a deal with the United States and the West, is indeed an island of stability—especially when measured against chaos in Libya, a profound crisis in Egypt, civil wars and violence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and an Afghanistan that may very well fall apart when the United States leaves.

That’s precisely why it’s so important for the talks between the United States and Iran to succeed. Iran can play an important stabilizing role in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, according to the Associated Press, Tehran has quietly offered to assist Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq’s battle against Al Qaeda, which is trying to seize and control territory in Anbar Province and has captured significant parts of Ramadi and Falluja, two important Anbar towns. According to the report, Iran’s army deputy chief of staff has offered to supply Iraq with “military equipment and advisers” but said that Iran would not supply Iraq with Iranian troops. Ironically, the general’s remarks came just as Secretary of State John Kerry, on a lengthy swing through the Middle East, said almost exactly the same thing, namely, that the United States would supply Iraq with arms, military assistance and other help, but no troops. Said Kerry:

“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis. We are not, obviously, contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight.”

Maliki, and Iraq’s Shiite government, are aligned closely with both Iran and the US, and they have been since 2003, when the George W. Bush administration toppled Saddam Hussein and put into power a group of Shiite militants and radicals who had lived in Iran and who had intimate connections with the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. So it’s not surprising that the United States finds itself on the same side as Iran when it comes to Iraq’s battle against Al Qaeda.

Now it’s time for the United States to apply the same logic to the war in Syria. Supposedly, though it’s not certain, there will be a peace conference of some kind in Geneva on January 22, bringing together representatives of both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and some of the rebels battling against Assad. For the first time, Kerry said this weekend that he’s open to the idea of Iran joining the talks. That’s crucial, since Iran has a vital interest in squashing Al Qaeda in Syria as well as Iraq, and it means that tactically, if not strategically, the United States and Iran could eventually end up on the same side in both Iraq and Syria.

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Ever since President Obama foolishly called on Assad to step down, a comment in 2011 that helped spark the civil war that has engulfed Syria, the rebellion against Assad has been increasingly led by radical Islamists, from the Al Qaeda-controlled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front to several other Islamist coalitions. More and more, it’s apparent that the United States is having second (and third) thoughts about supporting the Syrian rebels, and it may eventually figure out that it will have to reconcile with Assad. (And why not? The United States worked quite well with both Bashar al-Assad, and his father, Hafez al-Assad, since the late 1960s.) Ryan Crocker, the veteran former diplomat and ex-ambassador to Iraq, has expressed the opinion—unwelcome in many Washington circles, but certainly accurate—that it’s time to work with Assad. He wrote recently in The New York Times, in a piece entitled “Assad Is the Least Worst Option,” that “it is time to consider a future for Syria without Assad’s ouster, because it is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be.” He added:

President Obama’s bold declaration in 2011 that Assad must go violated a fundamental principle of foreign affairs: if you articulate a policy, you had better be sure you have the means to carry it out. In Syria, we clearly did not.… So we need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad—and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse. A good place to start is Geneva next month and some quiet engagement with Syrian officials.

That’s smart advice. Let’s hope that Kerry’s comment that it’s time for Iran to join the Geneva talks means that the United States may soon be on the same side as Iran in both Iraq and Syria.

Read Next: Greg Mitchell on Al Qaeda's takeover of Falluja

Don't Wreck the Iran-P5+1 Accord With Tougher Sanctions

Geneva nuclear talks

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at a news conference during nuclear talks in Geneva, November 10, 2013. (Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

The interim accord between Iran and the P5+1 reached in November is moving forward, but that hasn’t stopped members of Congress, the Israel lobby and the usual neoconservative suspects from trying to overturn it—especially via the imposition of new economic sanctions. Because the enactment of new sanctions against Iran is virtually certain to overturn the accord and cause Iran to withdraw from the agreement, it’s hard to explain the effort as anything but a deliberate effort by anti-Iran hardliners to blow up the agreement—even though they say, disingenuously, that they believe that increasing pressure on Iran now will force Iran to suspend its nuclear program.

As for the interim accord itself, well, things are fine. According to Press TV, the Iranian news service, Iran and the P5+1 will remain in regular contact for the first three weeks of January, until the projected start date for the actual implementation of the November 2013 accord on January 20. That’s the date on which Iran is supposed to begin carrying out the technical measures to fulfill the November accord, in which Tehran agreed to halt enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent purity level, suspend work at its Arak heavy water reactor and allow more complete inspections of its facilities. Iran also agreed to limit its stockpile of uranium enriched to fuel-grade, 3-5 percent purity. On that front, according to both Iranian and US officials, initial preparations are going well.

But that hasn’t stopped key members of Congress, including Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), from drafting a wrecking-ball piece of legislation, cosponsored by twenty-six senators, to intensify sanctions. Menendez, a top Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is being opposed by a phalanx of other Democrats, who’ve urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not to allow the Menendez-Kirk “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act” to come to a vote. (The November interim accord explicitly forbids new sanctions during the talks, and President Obama is certain to veto such legislation, although anti-Iran bills over pass with overwhelming, veto-proof majorities.) In their letter, however, ten Democratic Senate committee chairs told Reid, “At this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.”

There’s plenty of intelligent commentary on why the sanctions bill is a bad idea, starting with Colin Kahl—a former Obama administration official at the Department of Defense—writing in The National Interest. Kahl notes that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, elected in June, is quietly building a national consensus inside Iran in support of a lasting accord with the United States and the West, and Kahl argues that new sanctions would upset the apple cart. He says:

The Senate bill could also lead to provocative Iranian counter-reactions at an extraordinarily delicate moment for diplomacy. Indeed, nearly one hundred hardline Iranian parliamentarians have already drafted legislation that would mandate escalating enrichment to the nearly-bomb-grade 60 percent level if more U.S. sanctions are imposed. Given thirty-five years of distrust between Tehran and Washington, it would not take much perceived bad faith by either party to reverse the modicum of confidence built at Geneva. It is difficult to imagine negotiations surviving such a tit-for-tat retaliatory cycle.

Finally, Rouhani’s ability to forge elite consensus for the additional concessions required for a final nuclear deal hinges on his ability to deliver meaningful sanctions relief, not just avoid an increase in sanctions. Yet by imposing demands that Iran completely dismantle its enrichment program—which Khamenei, hardliners and the majority of the Iranian public view as unacceptable capitulation—prior to lifting U.S. sanctions, the proposed Senate legislation will make it extremely difficult for Rouhani to build a coalition in favor of further compromise. The net effect will be to make a comprehensive, peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis more difficult to achieve.

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Also writing in The National Interest, a moderate-conservative, “realist” publication, a former top US intelligence official, Paul Pillar, points out the central fallacy of the idea of new sanctions:

The promoters of the legislation contend that its effect would be just the opposite, and would increase U.S. bargaining power and make it more likely Iran would make concessions we want. It is possible that some members of Congress who might be inclined to vote for this bill, and even some who have signed on as co-sponsors, actually believe that contention. They keep hearing, after all, the trope about how “sanctions brought Iran to the table” and that if some sanctions are a good thing than even more sanctions are an even better thing. But anyone who has thought seriously for more than a minute about this subject—as the chief promoters of the legislation surely have—realizes how fallacious that idea is. Whatever role sanctions may have had in getting Iran to the table, it is the prospect of getting sanctions removed, not having them forever increase, that will induce Iran, now that it is at the table, to complete an agreement placing severe restrictions on its nuclear program. It goes against all logic and psychology to think that right after Iran has made most of the concessions necessary to conclude the preliminary Joint Plan of Action, “rewarding” it with more pressure and more punishment would put Iranians in the mood to make still more concessions.

Reinforcing Kahl and Pillar’s arguments is a piece by Reza Marashi and Trita Parsi, both from the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), writing for CNN. They argue:

Iranian voters know better than anyone that Rouhani’s victory at the polls is fragile. Boxing in their hardliners is not the same as eliminating them. What the outside world—particularly the West—does or does not do can help determine whether the win-win approach of Rouhani and Zarif will define Iran or whether it will once again be relegated to the sidelines. Thanks to the elections, not sanctions, the win-win narrative of the Iranian moderates is now dominant. But it won’t be for long if their corresponding policies do not prove successful.

Simply put: Proponents of sanctions can deal with the flexibility of Rouhani’s team now, or they can deal with the inflexibility of Iranian hardliners in six months. Knowing this, their choices in the days and weeks ahead will be telling.

Read Next: Could the Iran accord unlock American diplomacy in the Middle East?

The Benghazi ‘Al Qaeda’ Myth

Benghazi consulate

The burnt-out buildings of the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

On Sunday, December 29, The New York Times demolished the arguments of Republican critics and hysteria-mongers over the September 11, 2012, attack on a US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that left Ambassador Chris Stevens dead, along with three other Americans. But the piece, which began on the front page and filled three entire pages of the newspaper—complete with maps and diagrams—also raised important, unanswered questions about the Obama administration’s mistakes that allowed the attack to succeed in the first place.

The Times article has sparked sputtering outrage among Fox News pundits and other neoconservative commentators and by Republicans in Congress who’ve tried to gin up a phony crisis over the attack and the supposed cover-up by then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her cohorts. There’s been somewhat less response among the saner critics of the administration for its failure to anticipate the assault on the facility, despite plenty of warning and a general atmosphere of lawlessness and anti-Western and radical Islamist militia activity in and around Benghazi.

The Times’s conclusion: that the attack had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, which hadn’t established itself in post-Qaddafi Libya, and that it indeed began in part as a protest against the poorly made, provocative anti-Islam video that been circulated via the Internet and which caused an almost simultaneous attack by protesters against the US embassy in Cairo, too. Said the Times:

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

The Times added, citing intercepted messages from Al Qaeda gathered by US intelligence, that Al Qaeda had tried and failed to penetrate Libya in the wake of Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster, but had largely failed, except for a small beachhead in southern Libya. And, it said, the man who orchestrated the Benghazi attack was a quixotic, perhaps mentally ill man who’d managed to assemble a small but well-armed militia, one of many that were created in the Benghazi area.

Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, has long maintained that the attack in Benghazi was Al Qaeda–related, and he’s been predictably apoplectic about the Times report. But, in his comments on Fox News Sunday, Rogers seemed to back away slightly by saying that Al Qaeda had an “aspiration” to attack the United States in Libya. Said Rogers:

“There was aspiration to conduct an attack by al-Qaida and their affiliates in Libya; we know that. The individuals on the ground talked about a planned tactical movement on the [U.S.] compound. All of that would directly contradict what the New York Times definitively says was an exhaustive investigation.”

Defending his landmark article, writer David Kirkpatrick says that it’s wrong to call every Islamist with a grudge against the United States “Al Qaeda.” He says:

“There’s just no chance that this was an al-Qaeda attack if, by al-Qaeda, you mean the organization founded by Osama bin Laden. If you’re using the term al-Qaeda to describe even a local group of Islamist militants who may dislike democracy or have a grudge against the United States, if you’re going to call anybody like that al-Qaeda, then O.K.”

A report by Fox News says that its sources “sharply challenged” the Times account that Al Qaeda had nothing to do with the Benghazi attack. Many of the right-wing critics attacking the Times say that the paper is deliberately running interference for Hillary Clinton’s planned 2016 presidential run, since the Republicans and others intend to use the supposed Benghazi scandal as a political bludgeon against a Clinton campaign. A New York Times editorial, published on Monday, notes:

Republicans long ago abandoned common sense and good judgment in pursuit of conspiracy-mongering and an obsessive effort to discredit President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.

And it adds:

On the Sunday talk shows, Representatives Mike Rogers and Darrell Issa, two Republicans who are some of the administration’s most relentless critics of this issue, dismissed The Times’s investigation and continued to press their own version of reality on Benghazi.

Mr. Issa talked of an administration “cover-up.” Mr. Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has called Benghazi a “preplanned, organized terrorist event,” said his panel’s findings that Al Qaeda was involved was based on an examination of 4,000 classified cables. If Mr. Rogers has evidence of a direct Al Qaeda role, he should make it public.

The critics of the Times report make facile equations, namely that radical Islamists, the militia group Ansar al-Sharia, and Al Qaeda are all the same thing. That’s the equivalent of the “War on Terrorism&lrdquo; catechism under George W. Bush that declared that Iran, Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban are all linked, somehow, in a global Islamist, anti-American war—a conclusion that ignores the profound difference among those entities but which conveniently allowed the Bush administration to wage war from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond and threaten war against Iran.

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As the Times investigation makes clear, the attack on the US facility in Benghazi involved neither Al Qaeda nor Ansar al-Sharia, but instead it was led by a “malcontent” named Ahmed Abu Khattala:

In this case, a central figure in the attack was an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala, according to numerous Libyans present at the time. American officials briefed on the American criminal investigation into the killings call him a prime suspect. Mr. Abu Khattala declared openly and often that he placed the United States not far behind Colonel Qaddafi on his list of infidel enemies. But he had no known affiliations with terrorist groups, and he had escaped scrutiny from the 20-person C.I.A. station in Benghazi that was set up to monitor the local situation.

The Times carries a detailed profile of Abu Khattala, and it includes ths pungent quote from a Libyan, a member of parliament named Mohammed Abu Sidra, who knows Abu Khattala well:

“He is sincere, but he is very ignorant, and I don’t think he is 100 percent mentally fit. I always ask myself, how did he become a leader?”

Those, including Mike Rogers, who are trying to make more of this than there is, might also fit the description of not being “100 percent mentally fit.”

Read Next: Robert Scheer analyzes the intelligence community’s recent failures.

Racism in Israel

Then-US Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill, listens to Israel's President Shimon Peres, not seen, during a meeting in Jerusalem. (AP Photo)

Here is a shocking fact from a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and reported by the Times of Israel: fully one-third of Israelis say that unlawful, vigilante violence against non-Jewish African immigrants is fine with them.

Equally, 86 percent of Israelis who voted for the right-wing Shas party and 66 percent of Likud voters agree with the statements of far-right Israeli politician Miri Regev that African immigrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, are a “cancer” in the Israeli body politic.

The IDI poll analysis says :

A “cancer” in the body of the nation? More than half (52%) of the Jews agree with the statement of Member of Knesset Miri Regev that the unauthorized Africans living in Israel are a cancer in the body of Israel. Only 19% of the Arab respondents agreed with the statement. 

It adds:

How much support is there for the demonstrations against the presence of Africans by residents of south Tel Aviv? Here we practically found a “national consensus”: an overwhelming majority of 83% of the Jews expressed support for the demonstrations; among the Arabs, the number came to only 25%.

Israel is building refugee camps—let’s not use the loaded term “concentration camps”—for many of the estimated 55,000 Eritrean, Sudanese and other African refugees from civil wars and conflicts who’ve entered Israel, mostly undocumented, over the last decade or so. Reports The Washington Post, “Between 2005 and 2012, African migrants came in a trickle, then a flood, pouring across Israel’s border with Egypt, with a peak of 17,258 in 2011.” The paper adds:

The newly constructed “open facility” is designed to hold up to 3,300 illegal immigrants. It is not a prison, but not exactly a shelter, either. Residents will be required to answer roll call three times a day. They are not allowed to seek work. The facility is surrounded by a fence topped with spools of razor wire, and the migrants will be locked down at night.

Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar bluntly links his concerns to the fear of losing the “Jewish” nature of Israel:

“There are currently around 30 million people moving around Africa, people who have left their home countries and are looking for a place to be. We can all understand that pressure, but if we are too liberal, then we will lose the country. We will lose the only Jewish country that exists.”

Israel is seeking to deport the African migrants to Uganda, an ironic notion, since in the early days of Zionism Uganda was once held out as a long-shot possibility to host the creation of a Jewish state for European Jewish refugees.

Tensions and protests by the migrants, along with anti-African violence by vigilante citizens of Israel, has been on the rise. Reports Al Jazeera:

Tensions began on Dec. 10, when the Knesset passed an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law, which authorized the detention without trial of approximately 55,000 Africans currently living in Israel. On Dec. 12, Israeli prison officials began transferring Africans from the Saharonim prison to the brand-new Holot facility, which is still under construction only a few hundred meters away in southern Israel. Once the first 1,000 beds are filled with Africans from Saharonim, the government plans to move another 2,000 Africans now in Tel Aviv to the detention center.

Needless to say, Israel exists because millions of Jewish refugees, many of whom entered Israel illegally during and after the Holocaust and World War II, built it. Says Al Jazeera:

Israeli society rejects asylum seekers because they’re new, they’re poor and they’re darker-skinned. But over the decades, successive waves of Jewish immigrants also encountered hostility from native Israelis because of the same prejudices. The asylum seekers from Africa constitute the first large group of immigrants to Israel who are not Jews. That is the real reason the government is trying to drive them out.

Israeli liberals, such as Gideon Levy of Haaretz, the Israeli daily, are aghast at the open racism being exhibited by rightist politicians and much (most?) of the public. He writes:

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Israeli public opinion is being shaped by a grotesque Knesset member who has become a joke and a former MK whose party didn’t get enough votes to make it into the legislature. If it weren’t so sad, we’d be laughing until we cried. But now our tears should be over the unbelievable fact that these two marginal characters, these clowns, MK Miri Regev (Likud) and Michael Ben Ari, have, with their hateful incitement, succeeded in dictating the national agenda on the issue of African migrants and asylum seekers. From now on we’ll have to choose: Either you support the refugees, or you support the state (and the longtime residents of south Tel Aviv). Who decided that? Regev and Ben Ari.

In a strong conclusion, Levy says:

It’s Israel that made the African migrants a problem. That’s what incitement does. Since the border is closed and international conventions bar their deportation, the state should allow those already here to work, to rebuild their lives, and offer them the prospect of becoming citizens through a gradual, careful process. That’s how it’s done in normal countries. Israel is too small, too weak to do this? Nonsense, merely too racist.

Watch Next: Max Blumenthal and David Sheen's report on African migrants in Israel

Russia Wins a Round in Ukraine


(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russia, and its hardball-playing president, Vladimir Putin, may have won this round in Ukraine, and there’s not a lot that the United States can do about it—or should do about it—now that Russia and Ukraine have re-established economic and political ties. That’s bad news for Senator John McCain, who made a big splash visiting the Ukrainian capital of Kiev recently, and for American hawks who’ve tried to mobilize anti-Russian sentiment in the United States seeking some sort of quixotic showdown over the crisis there.

With Ukraine trapped between going “west”—signing a deal with the European Union that would have included political and judicial changes inside Ukraine and economic austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund—and going “east,” aligning itself more closely with Russia, President Yanukovich chose the latter. The inducement was a $15 billion Russian plan to underwrite Ukraine’s debt and a huge cut in the price of Russian gas for the Ukrainian market, from nearly $700 per 1,000 cubic feet to just $268.50. That was incentive enough for Yanukovich to go along, and it probably secures Russia’s interest in Ukraine for the foreseeable future.

It wasn’t merely Russia’s generous offer that tipped the scale, but also the refusal by the EU to sweeten its offer. As a special report by Reuters today points out, “The unwillingness of the EU and International Monetary Fund to be flexible in their demands of Ukraine also had an effect, making them less attractive partners.” On top of that, the EU didn’t really offer Ukraine membership in the EU but some vaguely defined partnership.

Yanukovich slammed the parade of US and European officials who’ve been shuttling in and out of Kiev ever since the start of the mass protests there. “I am categorically against anybody coming and teaching us how to live,” he said. Somewhat hilariously, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country has exerted enormous, blatant pressure on Ukraine to prevent it from going West, had this to say:

“Kiev is being flatly urged to make a ‘free choice in favor of Europe’—this very phrase is self-contradictory,” Lavrov added. “At the same time, a sovereign nation is being deprived of its right to deal with the situation on its own terms and function in accordance with its legitimate national interests.”

This was, of course, a blatant power play by Russia, which used its vast economic power in Ukraine to block the Ukraine-EU accord. As Tim Judah summarizes the hardball play from Moscow in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books,

In the meantime Putin was piling on the pressure. In August, trade ground to a virtual standstill as Russian officials began checking every single truck crossing the border. They began withdrawing licenses for certain companies—especially those connected to oligarchs in Yanukovych’s eastern heartlands—to export to Russia; and Russian importers began to break contracts already signed for metal products, steel, and cars. In only a few months the level of trade between Ukraine and Russia dropped 25 percent; in eastern Ukraine, one source who asked to remain anonymous told me, production dropped between 30 and 40 percent between May and November. All this served to compound Ukraine’s existing economic woes.

Raising the temperature of the crisis, a Russian analyst in the government-controlled Russian RT broadcast network says that McCain and others are “risking a sort of civil war” by intervening, threatening sanctions and backing the protests against Yanukovich’s government—protests, by the way, that include outright fascist, Nazi-like activists from the ultra-right Svoboda party. Says the analyst, Aleksandr Nekrassov, disingenuously,

The only reason why [the protesters] are still there is because they feel the might of the European Union behind them and so foreign politicians like Senator McCain and others, coming over and basically inflaming tensions. I think it is actually quite amazing that we see European countries sending their politicians there because it is provoking violence in a sense.… And for Senator McCain, of all people, to come over to Ukraine and threaten sanctions—who is Senator McCain to threaten sanctions when it comes to Ukraine? On what authority is he doing that?

McCain, like other hawks, has said that the United States ought to impose sanctions on Ukraine if the authorities use more heavyhanded tactics against the protests. But even McCain acknowledges that there isn’t a lot that the United States can do. In an interview with RFE/RL after returning from Ukraine, McCain had this exchange:

RFE/RL: Are there any other steps the United States should take to support pro-EU forces in Ukraine?

McCain: No, I was pleased to go there and support these people who are struggling for a better country and a better government. But the future of Ukraine will be determined by the Ukrainian people and I think right now they have some very fine leadership and I was really deeply impressed by the enthusiasm of these young people.

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The Wall Street Journal wants more action, though. In its editorial on the Russian offer, “The Putin Crony Rescue Fund,” the Journal says,

The U.S., which has public influence in Ukraine, could respond by considering sanctions on the Yanukovych government and its allies if it tries to keep power through repression. This message could be as powerful as the Kremlin’s checkbook.

So far, to its credit, the Obama administration is not talking about taking direct action, even though its officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the latter of whom visited Kiev, have declared their support for the protests. Let’s hope it stays that way. The crisis is far from over, and things could still take a turn for the worse.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the “Billie Jean delegation.”

Murder in Yemen


(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Here’s the bottom line on the American drone strike that slaughtered as many as seventeen people in a wedding party in Yemen last week: the CIA, which carried out the attack, had no comment. The State Department didn’t say anything. And the White House, ignoring outcries in Yemen, says merely, “We obviously cooperate closely with the government of Yemen on counterterrorism, have in the past and will continue in the future to do that.”

Way back in May 2013, President Obama delivered a major speech on counterterrorism policy and drones, in which he said that the use of drones “raises profound questions—about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.”

But in that same speech, Obama essentially said “too bad” when it comes to civilian casualties caused by drone strikes. “I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.” So I wonder, now, if Obama is weighing the heartbreaking tragedy that he ordered last week against the “alternative,” namely, putting an end to these assassinations by remote control.

What does it say about America’s $80 billion-plus intelligence system, including the all-powerful National Security Agency, if it can’t distinguish between a terrorist and a wedding party? Who, indeed, was the supposed target of this drone strike, and what exactly was he planning to do, that made it so important to try to assassinate him? Was he some kingpin plotting another 9/11, or just some mid-level bad guy like the dozens upon dozens of others that the United States has blown to pieces after the killing of Osama bin Laden made Al Qaeda a nearly destroyed entity? If US intelligence is so poor, it’s way past time to stop these attacks.

In his May speech, Obama said,

Yes, the conflict with al Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.

And he said that each and every strike would involve extensive review, and that information would be provided to Congress. “Let me repeat that: Not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. Every strike.” And this one?

Some of the people involved may have been members of tribes in Yemen linked to Al Qaeda, according to The New York Times. (According to the Los Angeles Times, which reported that seventeen died, “Five of those killed were suspected of involvement with Al Qaeda, but the remainder were unconnected with the militancy, Yemeni security officials said.”) But in Yemen’s chaotic, tumultuous tribal politics, there are countless violent actors and many who’ve identified with Al Qaeda simply because it’s the biggest, baddest gang in the area. (It’s not unlike the way many youth, in inner cities, become gang members for reasons of status, self-protection or self-respect.) But I don’t believe for one second that American intelligence is anywhere good enough to determine whether or not some people thousands of feet below a hovering drone are really worth targeting them for assassination—even leaving aside the constitutional, legal, moral and international-law aspects of the whole drone program.

As The Atlantic noted,

More than a dozen dead, many more injured, and an unknown number of survivors whose lives have suddenly taken a nightmarish turn the likes of which we cannot imagine, and all for the sake of five people suspected of ties to al-Qaeda. How many actual al-Qaeda terrorists would we have to kill with drones in Yemen to make the benefits of our drone war there outweigh the costs of this single catastrophic strike? If U.S. drone strikes put American wedding parties similarly at risk would we tolerate our targeted-killing program for a single day more? Our policy persists because we put little value on the lives of foreign innocents. Even putting them through the most horrific scene imaginable on their wedding day is but a blip on our media radar, easily eclipsed by a new Beyonce album.

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There’s new turmoil in Yemen, which has a fragile, barely functioning government. Yemen’s government defends the drone strikes and cooperation with the United States, but Yemen’s parliament is in an uproar, and voted to ban future drone attacks. But The Wall Street Journal reminds us that, for Yemen’s president and his circle, it’s all about the Benjamins:

Yemen’s parliament has stepped up pressure on the government to immediately end American drone strikes amid furor over an attack that officials said mistakenly killed 15 people in a wedding convoy.

However, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has the final say, isn’t likely to tell the U.S. to shut down the drone program because his impoverished government needs the American funding attached to it. … Last year, the U.S. provided nearly $350 million to Yemen’s government, split between military and civilian aid, U.S. officials said. That was up from $28 million in 2008, before the U.S. drone program resumed after a six-year hiatus.

So the going price for a poor country to allow the United States to blow its citizens to smithereens is, apparently, $350 million.

Read Next: John Nichols on Willy Brandt.

Slamming the NSA

White House

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The National Security Agency (NSA) and its high-tech spying cohorts have been slammed by a federal judge and, if a report in Politico is to be believed, the presidential commission set up earlier this year by President Obama, after the barrage of leaks from Edward Snowden, is going to be a “doozy” that rocks the NSA.

But it remains to be seen if Obama will carry out all, or any, of his own commission’s recommendations. The commission delivered its still-secret report to the White House last Friday.

We’ll get to the judge’s ruling in a second, but first, the report in Politico by intelligence writer Matthew M. Aid, who writes that although the Review Group won’t please many civil libertarians since it endorses some of the more controversial parts of the NSA’s work, it also won’t please the NSA one bit:

The Review Group’s preliminary findings and recommendations are anything but cosmetic. The still-classified report of the five-person panel, whose official moniker is the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, recommends sweeping and far-reaching changes in the way the NSA conducts its electronic surveillance operations, from a greater degree of executive-branch oversight of the agency’s operations to the imposition of new limits on what data it can collect, especially inside the United States—a move almost certain to anger the NSA and its supporters inside the U.S. intelligence community.

Politico adds, “U.S. intelligence officials I spoke with were clearly shocked by the Review Group’s recommendations, with one official admitting that he felt ‘slobbernockered’ by some of the things the panel was reportedly recommending.”

I’m not sure what “slobbernockered” means, but it doesn’t sound good if you’re the NSA.

Politico’s Aid quotes a Review Group staffer thus:

We had to go this route. If we did not recommend placing some additional controls and checks and balances on the NSA’s operations, the high-tech companies were going to kill us and Congress was going to burn the house down.

Now to the judge. As The Washington Post reports it, “A federal judge ruled Monday that the National Security Agency’s daily collection of virtually all Americans’ phone records is almost certainly unconstitutional.”

Although the judge, Richard J. Leon, stayed his decision for six months to give the feds time to appeal, and although this lower court ruling is just the first trip on a path that will ultimately lead to the Supreme Court, it’s a major blow to the NSA. Leon’s ruling, sixty-eight pages long, contains scathing denunciations of the NSA’s spying and data collection overreach.

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In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal expresses frantic alarm over the coming report by Obama’s Review Group, saying,

But the word on Capitol Hill is that the scope and radicalism of the recommendations stunned even this White House, not least because the task force was stacked with Obama loyalists. If the details are anything like the leaks, then the panel is advising the government to seriously degrade U.S. counterterror defenses and shut down several valuable surveillance assets in a dangerous world.

And the Journal goes on to link the report with Judge Leon’s decision and political opponents of the NSA:

The report lands at a bad political moment, with tea party Republicans and anti-antiterror Democrats smelling opportunity and sociopaths with stolen documents campaigning to harm U.S. national security. Federal Judge Richard Leon ruled Monday that phone metadata collection is unconstitutional, part of a larger post-Snowden legal assault.

We can only hope.

Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on why IT companies oppose government surveillance.

Podhoretz, Adelson: Bomb Iran!

Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, listens to a technician during his visit of the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility. (AP Photo)

At least he’s consistent—crazy, yes, but consistent. Back in 2007, Norman Podhoretz, the wheezing, 76-year-old neoconservative warhorse wrote a piece for Commentary magazine called “The Case for Bombing Iran.” (Commentary helpfully reprinted it this week.) In that piece, widely scorned at the time, Podhoretz urged immediate bombing of Iran. He said:

In short, the plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force—any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938.

Podhoretz said, then, that George W. Bush—who was, we now know, being urged to unleash the bombers by Vice President Cheney at the time—might be the man to bomb Iran. “As an American and as a Jew, I pray with all my heart that he will,” concluded Podhoretz. As evidence, perhaps, that one’s prayers aren’t answered when directed toward Satan, Bush didn’t.

Fast forward six years. This week, writing in the Wall Street Journal, the even older Podhoretz, 83, issued an updated version of his argument from 2007’s Commentary. Called “Strike Iran to Avert Disaster Later” (i.e., “Disaster Now, Not Later!”), Podhoretz has given up on the idea that the United States will bomb Iran, so he suggests that it’s Israel’s job:

Given how very unlikely it is that President Obama, despite his all-options-on-the-table protestations to the contrary, would ever take military action, the only hope rests with Israel. If, then, Israel fails to strike now, Iran will get the bomb.

He adds:

Yet as an unregenerate upholder of the old consensus, I remain convinced that containment is impossible, from which it follows that the two choices before us are not war vs. containment but a conventional war now or a nuclear war later.

In the piece, Podhoretz trots all the old arguments: that Iran’s moderates are really secret, Israel-hating hawks, that Iran doesn’t care if it loses millions of people in a nuclear exchange because they are suicide-loving fanatics (and here he quotes the equally old, wheezing warhorse Bernard Lewis).

When it comes to neoconservativism, of course, Podhoretz is royalty. His wife is the equally radical Midge Decter, his son-in-law is Elliot Abrams, and his son John Podhoretz—who, if anything, is crazier than his parents—is a stalwart at the American Enterprise Institute and current editor-in-chief of Commentary. It’s hard to overstate how far out of the mainstream is the Podhoretz clan, which makes it easy to dismiss old man Podhoretz’s ravings. Even the Israelis, who’ve bitterly criticized the U.S-Iran interim accord reached last month, generally recognize that the military option has been taken away from them, and so Israel and the Israel lobby in Washington have fallen back to a strategy of trying to head off the more permanent deal expected to be reached between Iran and the P5+1 in 2014.

But Podhoretz is channeling another extremist pro-Israeli kook, Sheldon Adelson, the 79-year-old billionaire casino magnate who singlehandedly funded Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. In remarks in October, Adelson said that the United States ought to bomb Iran, using nuclear weapons:

What are we going to negotiate about? What I would say is, “Listen, you see that desert out there, I want to show you something.” You pick up your cellphone … and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say, ‘O.K., let it go.’ So there’s an atomic weapon goes over, ballistic missiles, in the middle of the desert, that doesn’t hurt a soul. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, and scorpions, or whatever. Then you say: “See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development. You want to be peaceful? You want to be peaceful? Just reverse it all and we will guarantee you that you can have a nuclear power plant for electricity purposes, for energy purposes.” So.

So. You see. That’s it.

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Even though, according to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal ’sBret Stephens said that he agrees with “98 percent” of what Adelson said, even the Journal today isn’t quite calling for bombing Iran—though it gives Podhoretz a forum. Instead, like AIPAC and other hawks, the Journal is essentially trying to wreck the deal by demanding new, tougher sanctions on Iran. That’s not working, because Senate Democrats have been working with the White House to head off new sanctions, which would indeed destroy the ongoing talks with Iran. Thus, the Journal editorializes, not quite grammatically:

Especially since the only hope for producing a positive outcome is if the mullahs are convinced that the alternatives would be crushing sanctions and military strikes on their nuclear sites. The Administration has already all but declared that it does not view military strikes as a serious option and that it is prepared to accept Iran as a threshold nuclear state as long as it doesn’t actually test a bomb. Now the Administration is signaling that it also isn’t keen to exert more economic pressure.

In fact, Iran is already taking steps to implement the November agreement, and there will be new talks soon aimed at putting the finishing touches on the interim deal and then securing a final accord.

Read next: Bob Dreyfuss on the future of U.S. relations with Iran. 

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