Monday, November 30, 2015

Defining the enemy.

Within hours of the shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, my friend, a long time reporter with years of covering the Department of Justice received a call from the editors of a major newspaper. They were struggling with how to describe the actions of Robert Lewis Dear: if it turned out the shooter had anti-abortion motives, would that meet the Department of Justice's definition of domestic terrorism.

The editors' question was specific to how the Department of Justice would interpret Robert Lewis Dear's assault and murders, but it mirrored the debate that springs up immediately after these events about what constitutes a terrorist act vs. other forms of violence. Terrorism is generally defined as a tactic using violence or the threat of violence to inspire fear in pursuit of a political goal.

The question raised by the editors points to the difficulty--and in their view the importance--of how we label incidents like this. Because of the prominence of Planned Parenthood as a political issue raised by Republicans over the past several months, people quickly looked to see how the Republican presidential candidates would respond to the question the editors raised. Mike Huckabee, a candidate with impeccable anti-abortion credentials who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, held down the straightforward, call-a-spade-a-spade, end of the spectrum when he declared that Dear's action was domestic terrorism. Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz hunkered down at the other end of the spectrum. Cruz took pains to suggest all manner of alternative explanations for why Dear did what he did--most remarkable of which was that Dear may be a transgendered leftist activist--in a strikingly defensive effort to deflect any culpability from his own anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol of the past few months. The queen of anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol, Carly Fiorina, launched a leftists-at-the-gates counter offensive.

Newspaper editors know better than most--their jobs are literally about parsing words and meaning after all--that terrorism is a highly subjective term. The use of the term terrorist today cannot be divorced from the language of the global war on terrorism (GWOT) declared by the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. One of the consequences of the GWOT is that it has provided a vocabulary that has come to be used by governments across the globe to label one's opponents in morally absolute terms, and in turn for sanctioning all manner of state action against them. Vladimir Putin rose quickly to our defense after the 9/11 attacks, as he saw in our determination to go to war half-way around the world under the banner of the GWOT a post-hoc justification for his own wars against Chechen separatists

There are myriad other examples of how the language of terrorism has since been used. Bashir al-Assad used the language of terrorism in the early days of civil protests against his regime, as he quickly labeled real and manufactured events as the work of terrorists to justify the tenor of the regime's own violent assault against its own people. China has used the language of the GWOT to justify its suppression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and Buddhists in Tibet. In Myanmar, the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority has struggled for the linguistic upper hand, as each has labeled the other side as the terrorists. Terrorism is both a tactic utilized against a state or other more powerful adversary, and a propaganda tool, in the GWOT context, used by those in power for the labeling of their enemy and the justification for means used to defeat it.

Each of these circumstances suggests the subjective nature of the terrorist label. Terrorism is what we call what the other guys do--the bad guys. That suggests why Ted Cruz cannot allow the murders in Colorado to be labeled an act of terrorism. While Robert Lewis Dear may (or may not) have been inspired by Cruz's history of vitriolic attacks on the evils of Planned Parenthood, Ted Cruz does not view his own rhetoric as extreme. To Ted Cruz, the other guys are the extremists, while he is a strict constitutionalist advocating for what he believes would be the mainstream of American thought if America had not deviated from its founding principles.

When Ted Cruz advocated admitting Syrian Christian refugees into the United States, because "there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror," he was not denying that Christians--notably anti-abortion activists with a history of attacks on clinics providing abortion services--promoted or committed violent acts, but rather his words reflected the fact that terrorism is a subjective category that is inherently about what the other guys do. Cruz posits that Christians do not commit acts of terror because if Christians commit them as acts motivated by their faith, those acts might step over the line of what is legal--and should be condemned as such when they occur--but because their cause is grounded in principles that he shares, those acts would not constitute terrorism.

In the second Republican debate, Carly Fiorina offered the most passionate anti-abortion call to action among the candidates with her testimony regarding a video showing the vivisection of a live fetus--a video that it turned out does not exist in the form she suggested. Fiorina, more than any other candidate, should not have been surprised if it turns out that Robert Lewis Dear was inspired by her words. Abortion has long been an irresolvable chasm in our politics. A woman's right to chose and a fetus's status as a living being set those on each side on a seemingly irreconcilable collision course. If one believes that a fetus is from conception a life endowed with all of the rights of any human being, then what Fiorina claimed to have seen is an abomination that might well in the minds of extremists warrant the action that Robert Lewis Dear--like others before him--took to act against the slaughter of innocents. Instead of deflecting blame for the actions that her words might have incited, perhaps Fiorina should have been true to her convictions and stood with a man who by all appearances put his own life on the line in response to rhetoric similar to her words of passion.

If we are going to use the language of terrorism, we have to be careful to apply it consistently. We cannot apply different standards because a person is Christian or because they are white, as some felt the New York Times did in its description of Robert Lewis Dear as "a gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent acts towards neighbors and women he knew." Given the current usage of the term, Dear should be labeled a terrorist if he did what he appears to have done. But we should not be surprised if doing so, in our current political landscape, turns out to be an unproductive step.

What Robert Lewis Dear did was terrifying and barbaric, and it is becoming increasingly clear that his actions were inspired by the anti-abortion meme. But it is not useful to label any crazy person who does horrific things a terrorist, however much the old definitions might fit. We have to be cognizant in this debate that the global war on terror changed everything, particularly the language of terrorism. Terrorism is no longer simply a word used to describe a political tactic, but has become a moral absolute, a designation of evil. It may be that the word has lost its salience for the application to events of "domestic terrorism" that lack an organized, systematic framework, and to which the anti-terrorism tools and tactics do not apply.

In his speech declaring the global war on terror, President George Bush assigned equal moral culpability to those who commit acts of terror and those who support them. Translated into our domestic landscape, this suggests that an acknowledgement by Carly Fiorina or Ted Cruz that their rhetoric may have inspired Dear's actions could imply culpability for a terrorist act. Even if that is exactly what their political antagonists would love to see, it would only take us farther down a slippery slope in a year when political rhetoric has already begun to test the limits of what a democracy can tolerate. Instead, we need to move in the opposite direction, and those who assign these labels might begin to consider language that reframes the issue in a way that allows people to confront the linkages between incendiary language in the public square and the violence that can ensue, without falling into the trap of debating who is a terrorist and who is not.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The new world order.

Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Hillary Clinton established the objective that is commonly held among all presidential aspirants: ISIS must not be contained, it must be destroyed. Yet beyond that statement, despite all the fury generated on the campaign trail by the ISIS attacks and the failures of American strategy to date, there is little that any of the candidates have suggested that differs much from what we have been doing so far. Aerial bombardment, special ops and arming the Kurds, plus other stuff at the margin. With 75% of Americans opposed to putting American forces on the ground, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week, only Lindsay Graham has remained outside of the arc of consensus that spans the left and the right and insisted that we must put armed forces on the ground in Syria.

Our engagement in Syria has a certain Alice in Wonderland quality to it. By all accounts, we are opposed to almost every side of that country's civil war. Our attempts to "train up" our own moderate fighting force has been an expensive failure. The notion that we were going to train moderate Syrian Sunnis on Saudi soil to return to Syria to fight Sunni extremists, who were themselves weaned on Saudi-Wahhabi theology and funded by Qatari money, was from the beginning steeped in irony. Our ability to engage our Sunni allies in the region to spearhead the anti-ISIS fight has had limited success. The Saudis, who funneled money into anti-Assad rebels from early in the uprising, briefly participated in the anti-ISIS airwar, but their interests remain primarily sectarian and their focus has shifted to their proxy war with Iran in Yemen. The Turks, who could steamroll ISIS should they choose to, are essentially in business with the caliphate, providing an outlet for its oil sales and a transit corridor for its recruits, and view growing Kurdish political and military strength in the wake of the Iraq war as the more immediate threat to Turkish interests. Only Jordan, led by Oxonian King Abdullah, has remained a stalwart ally, consistently embracing US interests as his own.

The formula that Hillary set forth this week suggests that ending the Syrian civil war is a necessary first step toward defeating ISIS. The strategy envisions enlisting Syrian Sunni rebel groups that are now focused on fighting Assad--of which there may be as many as 1,000--as a fighting force against ISIS. Turning those groups against ISIS requires first getting rid of Assad and creating a more benign Syrian government. This new government would have to retain the loyalty of Assad's senior military staff--lest they defect to ISIS as Saddam's Baathist generals did--as well as be acceptable to the Sunni population. This would allow for an end to the civil war. Once that political concord is achieved, those forces now targeting Assad would be turned against ISIS, providing the fighting force we need on the ground in lieu of sending our own.

If this generalized description of governmental reform and reconciliation as a prerequisite to military success on the ground sounds familiar, it should: It mirrors what we have been working toward for the past decade in Iraq. The battle against ISIS in Iraq has foundered on the continuing alienation of the Sunni population from the Shi'a dominated central government, which has not been resolved as promised since Nouri al Maliki was removed as Iraq Prime Minister. Trust, it appears, can be neither imposed from outside nor built quickly. In Syria, Hillary's strategy is predicated on two assumptions that seem to be tenuous at best. First, that there is a feasible replacement regime that would be embraced in short order by the warring parties. Second, that the range of powerful actors who thus far have been ignored in the strategy formulation process--notably Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated militia that is arguably the strongest military force in the country--do not have their own end-game in mind.

In her talk last week, Hillary largely ignored Russia's recent entry into the Syrian civil war in defense of the Assad regime. Syria has been a Russian ally for decades and Russia's naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast is one of only two Russian naval facilities on foreign soil. This week's downing of a Russian attack aircraft by at Turkish F-16, and the ensuing emergency meeting of NATO--the Turkish action was the first downing of a Russian aircraft since the end of the Cold War--will add some larger perspective to the Syria conflict, and force us to recognize that for all of the attention to Bashar al-Assad, and even to ISIS, how we manage our relationship with Russia is far more important than either of those issues.

If Russia is committed to the survival of its ally in Syria, that is a factor that cannot be ignored. Over the past few days, the notion of putting American forces on the ground in Syria seemed to be gaining support domestically. But to do so absent an alliance with Russia that goes beyond current "deconfliction" efforts to avoid unintended incidents between our aircraft and theirs in our respective air wars over Syrian territory would be enormously risky, as the downing of the Russian jet suggests. If we have troops on the ground while Russia is independently engaged in an air war over the country, it is inevitable that at some point American soldiers would be killed by Russian bombs, leading to terrible potential escalation possibilities.

Hillary's silence with respect to Russia was notable. It was over four years ago that Barack Obama declared that Bashar al-Assad must go, yet as America ramped up its verbal war on Assad, no consideration was given to whether Russia might come to the defense of its ally. Since that declaration by President Obama, however, Russia has seized the Crimea and sponsored a war in eastern Ukraine. That is to say, in the intervening years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared to the world--and to the United States in particular--that Russia is back from the dead, and can no longer be disregarded as a force in the world. Putin's domestic approval ratings are now near 90%, in large measure because of his reassertion of Russian interests on the global stage and his willingness to stand up to the United States. One has to imagine that Putin's entry into the Syrian conflict is a calculated step to reassert Russia's strategic interests beyond its immediate borders, and that he would not have engaged in the fight without first determining that he was prepared to stick it through to the end.

The Obama administration's determination to overthrow Assad has grown in intensity as the civil war has worn on, as civilian deaths mounted, and as our embarrassment at Assad's defiance of our demand that he step down has grown deeper. But the Assad regime has never been a strategic concern to American interests nor to our allies. Israel cautioned early on against American efforts to force Assad to step down, believing that what might come in their wake would very likely be worse. On the other hand, our relationship with Russia is one of critical national interest. For almost a quarter of a century, U.S. foreign policy has reflected a "unipolar" status wherein our military power allowed us to do what we wanted, when we wanted, wherever we wanted in the world. Russia's entry into the Syria conflict signals a change in the world. Their military may not be a match for ours, but as one Russian general noted recently, they are the only nation on earth with the capability of turning the United States into dust with a nuclear strike and their strategic interests will have to be taken into account.

Hillary's strategy to defeat ISIS had an eerily familiar ring to it. Nation building in a land torn by tribal and religious conflict. Notions of democracy in a country lacking core institutions. But its biggest gap was not taking into account Russia's determination to protect its ally and its interests. That may be a negative factor or it may be one that offers real opportunities, but one thing is for sure, it cannot be ignored.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Déjà vu, all over again.

The bodies were still warm on the streets of Paris, and the reprise of the Global War on Terror was ramping up back here at home. We can hear the old talking points being dusted off. In our new, real time, twitter world, it took barely a nanosecond for the attacks to start after the candidates at the Democratic presidential debate declined to call radical Islam by its name. How can you fight an enemy that you refuse to name, came the rebuke, in many splendored formsWe have been down this path before.

In the last Republican presidential debate, Jeb Bush made a brief stab at taking the high ground in the immigration debate that was dominating the Republican contest before the Paris attacks. Married to a Mexican woman and a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, Jeb admonished his colleagues to be careful about the political ramifications of the harsh language that they were using that has already alienated Hispanic voters. "It would send a signal that we're not the kind of country that I know America is. Even having this conversation sends a powerful signal."

It has been barely a week, and Bush's words have already been rendered quaint. In the wake of the Paris attacks—and particularly after word spread that one of the attackers had entered Europe as a refugee carrying a Syrian passport—Republican presidential contenders have been falling all over each other to tout how tough they would be on Syrian immigrants. Chris Christie—vying for a way back to the grownup debate—landed the most dramatic sound bite: I would take no refugees from Syria, not even a three year old orphan.

Jeb sees himself to be a compassionate man. From the outset of the primary season he has struggled with the harsh tenor of the campaign rhetoric, and nowhere more so than on immigration. He has watched as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have shown no bounds in their vilification of Hispanic immigrants, but had no comeback to Trump's simple declaration during the last debate: We are a country of laws. We need borders.

This week, Jeb again stumbled between his compassion for refugees, his urgent need to connect with Christian conservatives as his campaign flounders, and his better judgement, when he suggested that the US should accept only Syrian Christian refugees. He suggested that his rationale was that the Syrian Christians were uniquely caught between ISIS and the Assad regime, but he had his facts wrong, as Syria's Christian community has been largely supportive of the Assad regime. He may have been trying to find a compassionate middle ground where America didn't completely abandon the Syrians' exodus, but as he has been wont to do, his words just made things worse.

Jeb quickly walked back his words. Perhaps it was his brother who pulled him back on the issue. George has been down this road before, and even as the Republican candidates are railing against the Democrats for refusing to cite radical Islam as our enemy, they might recall that W. struggled as well with how to label Al Qaeda and their ilk in the months following 9/11. He and his administration ultimately came to realize that religious labels—radical Islam and Islamofascists most notably—undermined the ability of the US to build and sustain alliances with Muslim nations.

As much as Jeband now Ted Cruzmight want to appeal to the Christian conservative base by carving out special treatment for their co-religionists, their words impact how America is viewed across the Islamic world, and what they say as a candidate will live on should they become commander in chief. Jeb, in particular, bears the Bush name and legacy, and there is little doubt that there are those in the Muslim world who will find in his suggestion that only Syrian Christians be offered sanctuary in the United States validation that his brother was indeed a Crusader all along—a central tenet of Osama bin Ladin's rhetoric—and point to Jeb's words as proof positive that America was and remains a crusader nation.

Over the past two weeks, ISIS attacks have killed 400 people. They killed 224 Russian tourists flying on a passenger jet out of Sharm El Sheik, Egypt. They killed 43 worshippers at a mosque in Beirut. They killed 129 in Paris. And they injured hundreds more.

Fourteen years ago, we were Paris. We were Beirut. We were Russia. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, countries around the world expressed their sympathy and support for the United States. As the World Trade Center lay smoldering in lower Manhattan, the leading daily newspaper of France, Le Monde, pronounced Nous sommes tous Américains. We Are All Americans. We might, like Jeb, imagine ourselves a compassionate nation, but over the past days of tragedy, we have not proven to be the America of our and Jeb's imagination. For all the outrage over the horrific events in Paris, we have shown little or no similar compassion for the dead and dying in Beirut. Perhaps it is as simple as the fact that the city long known as the Paris of the Middle East remains in the Middle East and the dead and dying are Shi'a Muslims. While Nous Sommes Paris adorned the pages of the Russian news service SputnikNews in the wake of the Paris attacks, it is hard to find a corresponding response in the American press to the death of the many more Russians who died in the Sinai bombing. For reasons that confound the imagination, a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union it seems that when Russians die they are still little more than communists in our eyes.

The political firestorm over Syrian refugees erupted as Jeb's compatriots seized on one Syrian passport to demonstrate a threat to the homeland. If they imagined that by their words they were demonstrating their capacity to lead the nation, it has been a dreadful performance. These were not attacks on America, but they are right, that may yet come. However, if it does, it may come at the hands of a Syrian. Or perhaps a Frenchman, as most of the Paris attackers were. Or perhaps fifteen jihadis from Saudi Arabia, the ancestral homeland of the radical Wahhabi branch of Islam that birthed much of the worldwide scourge that has challenged the world for decades now, including ISIS itself. ISIS is a devious and strategic organization. One could not put it past them to have instructed the Paris attacker to make sure that his passport survived the attack, imagining the havoc it would create in western countries.

This week, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 60% of Americans believe that we should be doing more to attack ISIS. At the same time, the poll suggested that 65% opposed sending special forces to the region and 76% opposed sending ground troops. These numbers point in opposite directions, and suggest a populace that has no idea of the choices that we are likely to face in the months ahead and the costs that may be involved.

American public support for the war in Iraq lasted barely two years, and turned against the war by the middle of 2005. The question of whether the debate leading up to the Iraq war resolution was an honest one, and whether that war was "sold" to the American public remains a source of controversy and anger. In the days to come, we are going to have another national debate about terrorism, and how our nation should respond, and those who propose taking the country to war once again should consider that history.

Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, long-time chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee famously suggested that our nation's politics should end at the water's edge. Foreign policy and war are too important, Vandenberg asserted, to allow them to be embroiled in our eternal partisan battles—as we have seen erupt in a matter of hours in this go round—specifically because international relationships and alliances require that our nation's commitments endure from one administration to another, and survive transitions from one political party to another.

Barack Obama was elected on a platform of ending US intervention in the Middle East, and the American public continues to demonstrate strong opposition to many of the actions that an effective response to ISIS might entail. Whether it is a return to putting boots on the ground as part of an international coalition or once again enhancing government surveillance capabilities, public antipathy looms as the fruit of how the public debate was conducted last time we went down this road. Fourteen years ago, we started out with the same debate about what to call radical Islam, and the quality of our public discourse went downhill from there.

Already, there are calls to go to war, and we have not even been attacked yet. If our political leaders want to lead, and if they want our policies in the region to be successful and endure better than they have over the past decade, they should take a long look at how we got to where we are, and each take it upon themselves to do a better job of leading a public debate that will bring Americans to understand the choices that we face than they did the last time we went down this road.