Wednesday, August 16, 2017

August 2017: The News Cycle

The news cycle resembles one of those disturbing, dramatic medieval landscapes.  This one is informed with some enigmatic message conveyed by the placement of its elements.

At the center, but not dominating it, is Trump.  Almost all of the painting concerns him.  Groups animatedly argue about some utterance of his, or some failure to utter something, or some utterance that came too late, or didn't.  One corner section of foreground displays some fighting - not a bloody battle but there is someone dead on the ground.   In another corner stand mythical figures, the characters of the Game of Thrones.  Interlaced with all this, like flitting birds, are vignettes of racism or sexual misconduct.  Someone who really has everything - fame, fortune, talent, beauty - had her ass grabbed; there was a trial.   Someone said 'nigger', but the saying is implied; it cannot be depicted.  Some did or did not go to this or that parade.  On some tiny bit of canvas there is a toilet; it refers to a dispute about who can use it.

What then lies in the distant background?  Three hundred dead in a mudslide in Sierra Leone; they are barely a smudge.  A sea dotted with thousands of drowning people.  Many black lives lost, but they didn't matter.  We also see giant icebergs drifting, scorching cities, arctic fires, and in another far corner, the Middle East, hundreds of thousands murdered; thousands more tortured to death.  The level of detail is incredible given how, by the standard of column-inches, these depictions must be almost microscopic.

Some things you might expect in the landscape aren't there at all; they are too small to represent.  The prison populations, the unemployed, the people on food stamps, the meth cookers, they might rate a flick of paint, not enough to bring recognition.  Far off, the Thai slave trawlers, the world's torture chambers, the Rohingya, one could go on and on...  nothing.  For the millions who have died in the Congo, year in year out, not one speck.

What is the meaning of this?  It is not that people don't care about the catastrophes and atrocities.  Contrary to so much moralizing, anyone will tell you that three hundred black lives, even in Africa, matter more than one white life in Charlotteville.  Anyone will tell you that the Syrian holocaust is vastly more important than who grabbed Taylor Swift's ass.  Anyone, one hopes, will acknowledge that climate change matters more than toilet disputes.  Nobody thinks the theft of Game of Thrones episodes is a world-shattering crisis.  There is nothing wrong with people's real priorities.

No, the picture quietly suggests those over-crowded rats who savage one another.  They cannot affect their environment, so they fixate on one another.  Trump, for the left as well as the right, is a hope substitute.  He is something someone might possibly affect, either to help or to hurt.  When he was elected, some of his opponents said they would be - how mortifying - 'diamond-hard' in opposition, on the streets in the hundreds of thousands to fight his agenda.  But it was always clear that going into the streets, in the hundreds of thousands, would achieve nothing, not even in defense of the Paris Agreement which also, truth be told, will almost certainly achieve nothing.  No marches and no computer classes will create jobs and bring better lives to the rust belt.  No street theatre will get many thousands of unjustly incarcerated black people out of jail.  No one expects anyone to devote enough resources and political will, let alone intelligence, to help Africa or the Middle East.

Indeed politics itself is done.  For ten years I taught courses on democracy at a university in Canada, often thought to have one of the world's best democratic societies.  I was critical;  I hoped for students to defend the institution.  Never, in ten years, did I find one single student who believed democracy was worthwhile.  The despair we feel goes much deeper than what's discovered in polls; it manifests itself in our focus.  That is why we obsess about terror, sin, racism, and generally speaking the evil hearts of our neighbors.  We cannot see a way out of the cage, so we lash out at our fellow rats.

We certainly will find no way out if we don't look.  We shock one another, but that is no excuse for wallowing in indignation.   Demoralized as we may be, we still need to reconsider how to change the landscape in which we are all so shocked.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Heller's right about the rebels and wrong about Syria.

Sam Heller is quite correct. It is a myth that the FSA ever was or ever had a prospect of being an essential counter-terrorist force.   He is also correct in saying others performed better.  But you can drive a truck through what he infers from these undeniable truths.

First, the FSA isn't an essential counter-terrorism force because no Syrian force is essential.  That's because almost any Syrian force will likely get about the same results if adequately supported.  It is either myopic or disingenuous to hold up the superior success of the Kurdish SDF as some significant fact about the relative capabilities of the Kurds versus the rebels.  The rebels never had anything remotely resembling the US air support, special forces, intel, and equipment lavished on the SDF.  Perhaps that's why, in Heller's world, the SDF seems more 'motivated' to fight ISIS than the rebels.  The most he's entitled to say is that we haven't any idea whether or not the FSA would, comparably supported, have done as well.

The only anti-ISIS elements that can be considered essential are Iran's regular and irregular forces.  After all, the West wouldn't dream of putting significant numbers of ground troops at risk; that wouldn't go down well with the voters.  No other regional power offers anything like the resources Iran commits.  To talk about who's essential without acknowledging this plain fact displays a will to distort the region's realities.

Heller's amplifies his righteous indignation by attempting to outbid other analysts in the who's-freaking-out-more-about-terrorism sweepstakes.  Yes, Jabhat al Nusra used to cooperate with ISIS.  Yes, the FSA did a bit too.  Yes, all rebels at some point cooperated with Nusra, & probably will again.  However the issue he apparently tries to address is whether the rebels, not only in the past but today, are a credible anti-ISIS force.  Are they?

Well, nothing changes your mind about people like them constantly trying to wipe you out.  That's what ISIS tries to do to the rebels, with some success.  So any rebel groups - if, as Heller seems to say, reliability is an issue - are entirely reliable ISIS opponents.  The US could shower them with weapons and air support and no, they wouldn't suddenly switch sides and fight for the Caliphate.  Does this really need saying?  If Heller is worried that the rebels would use this stuff to fight Assad, he needs to tell us why he thinks it would be a shame that someone, at least, opposed a murderer orders of magnitude worse than ISIS.

Lastly, Heller follows the analysts he likes to dump on by suggesting that the rebels are unreliable counter-terrorist forces, not just because (contrary to fact) they are soft on ISIS, but also because they are soft on Nusra.  Here he sinks low.  He counts Nusra as terrorist because, five years ago, they set off bombs in Assad-controlled areas.  Every party in the region has knowingly killed civilians at some point.  Since US air attacks are conducted with the certain knowledge that many civilians will die, it's fair to say that, after Assad & Company, no one does this more than the US.  But the plain fact is that, for the past two years at least, Nusra has caused as few or fewer civilian casualties than anyone else.  There is also, despite claims to the contrary, no credible basis to warnings that they plan to attack the West.  So to call Nusra terrorist is to place one squarely in Humpty-Dumpty's camp:  "a word means anything I want it to mean."

At the heart of Heller's 'anger' lies a hatred, not of terrorism, but of Nusra's extreme social
conservatism.  You can hate this all you want, but someone posing as a harsh realist should acknowledge that Nusra's attitudes are shared by a large portion of Syria's population.  The record of militant opposition to the Assads, going back to the 1980s, strongly suggests that the choice in Syria has always been between Assad and 'radical' Islamists: indeed Heller's claims support that view.  No matter how distasteful that choice, the scale of Assad's atrocities dictate a preference for the Islamist alternative.  The 'caution' and 'honesty' that drives analysts to cry for Nusra's blood is - if we're being realists - nothing more than de facto support for a mass murderer.