Memories of Galeano’s Fire: My Afternoon with the Late Uruguayan Writer

by Danny Postel

eduardo-galeano

My heart has been heavy since learning over the weekend of the death of the radical and marvelously lyrical Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, whom I had the enormous pleasure of meeting some 20 years ago.

Galeano was an iconic literary and intellectual figure of the Latin American Left, but his work has a global footprint. Arguably among the most influential books of the second half of the 20th century, his landmark 1971 Open Veins of Latin America has been translated into more than a dozen languages and sold over a million copies. It stands with Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, as part of the pantheon of anti-colonialism and Third Worldism. Hamid Dabashicalls Galeano a “creative voice of an alternative historiography, a mode of subaltern thinking and writing before a number of Bengali historians made the term globally popular.”

Open Veins of Latin America was banned under the murderous military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay alike, and Galeano himself was driven into exile under his country’s regime during the 1970s. In 2009 the book made international headlines—and saw a major surge in sales—when Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez personally presented Barack Obama with a copy.

But while Open Veins was Galeano’s best-known work, his magnum opus was a trilogy titled Memory of Fire. My friend Scott Sherman captures it beautifully:

Unquestionably Galeano’s masterwork, Memory of Fire is a kind of secret history of the Americas, told in hundreds of kaleidoscopic vignettes that resurrected the lives of campesinos and slaves, dictators and scoundrels, poets and visionaries. Memoirs, novels, bits of poetry, folklore, forgotten travel books, ecclesiastical histories, revisionist monographs, Amnesty Inrnational reports — all of these sources constituted the raw material of Galeano’s sprawling mosaic.

Indeed, Galeano “rivals such masters of the fable as Kafka,” the literary critic Michael Dirda once wrote.

Galeano’s Book of Embraces occupies a special place in my heart, in part because it was a gift from my then-girlfriend, Debbie Bookchin. Our mutual love of Galeano was bond-forming. “A Diego Rivera mural in words,” the literary critic John Leonard felicitously called it. I read it the way I read Adorno’s Minima Moralia (another book Debbie and I bonded over), sipping from its aphorisms here and there, drawn back in by its charms over years, decades now.

Walking-WordsThe Galeano book that has always meant the most to me as a physical object isWalking Words. Illustrated by the Brazilian woodcut artist José Francisco Borges, it is work of arresting, hypnotic visual beauty. One reviewer called it an “assemblage of tales, fables and parables [full of] intense lyricism, subversive humor and spellbinding storytelling.”

I feel deeply fortunate to have spent an afternoon with Galeano almost exactly two decades ago, in the summer of 1995. I hosted a radio show in Chicago at the time. When I found out that Galeano was coming to Chicago to do a literary reading, I scrambled to get an interview with him. I contacted his US publisher, W. W. Norton. They were not encouraging. It was too late, they informed me. Galeano’s itinerary was already full and in any case he was in Seattle and out of contact (this was before cell phones and e-mail). And besides, who was I? I hosted a show on a college radio station.

I refused to take no for an answer. I asked them which hotel he was staying at in Seattle. They somewhat reluctantly told me. I called and got the hotel’s fax number. I rushed over to a nearby printing and computer shop (I didn’t own my own computer) and composed a desperate but serious letter to Galeano requesting an interview. I poured my heart into the letter, expressing my profound admiration for his books. I also mentioned how much I liked an article he had just published in the magazine NACLA: Report on the Americas (a staple of the left-wing Latin Americanist diet) on the tyranny of cars (cleverly titled“Autocracy: An Invisible Dictatorship”). I faxed the letter to the hotel and called (more than once) to make sure that the front desk had received it and gotten it into Galeano’s hands.

The next day, my roommate, Benjamin Ortiz, called me at work and said, incredulously, “Yo, there’s a message for you on our answering machine from Eduardo Galeano!” Time stopped. It was one of the coolest moments in my life. Galeano would later tell me that it was the specificity of my letter that won him over: in particular the fact that I had read his NACLA article. He was impressed by this obsessive metabolism and by my stalking techniques, he told me. It was a refreshing departure, he said, from many of the media requests he got, for example, in New York — from journalists who had never even heard of publications like NACLA, let alone read them.

galeano-caricaturaI met Galeano at the hotel he was staying at in downtown Chicago and we conducted the interview in his room. I was in such awe of his presence, and so captivated by his eyes, that I can barely remember what he said. It torments me to no end that no recording of that interview has survived. (If anyone reading this happened to be listening to WLUW when it was broadcast, and recorded it, and saved the recording, please contact me!) One of the great regrets of my career is that I never transcribed that interview and published it…

The one thing I vividly recall from the interview is that when I said, by way of introduction, “My guest on this week’s program is Eduardo Galeano, author of the classic Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent…” he stopped me in my tracks and asked me to start the interview over (I was recording it for later broadcast). He explained that he hated the subtitle and wanted me to leave it out. It was only the English edition that carried that subtitle, he told me. The original Spanish edition had no subtitle, just Open Veins of Latin America. The book’s US publisher, Monthly Review Press, was a Marxist operation that specialized in political nonfiction. It was they who added Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent as a subtitle, which Galeano, a prose stylist of the first order, found utterly leaden.

I didn’t dare tell Galeano that I loved that subtitle. I remember the first time I held the book in my hands and took in those words on its cover. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Veins. Pillage. Centuries. A cascade of images, ideas, sensations. I knew I had to read the book and that doing so would turn my world upside down.

But I was a poetically tone-deaf leftist. Galeano was an artist. I of course obliged and started the interview over.

It’s because of that experience that I wasn’t as shocked as some were when it wasreported last year that Galeano had disavowed that book, or at least distanced himself from it. “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again,” he remarked at a book fair in Brazil. “I’d keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it.”

But this recoil was more than just stylistic. He went on to say in Brazil:

Reality has changed a lot, and I have changed a lot. … Reality is much more complex precisely because the human condition is diverse. Some political sectors close to me thought such diversity was a heresy. Even today, there are some survivors of this type who think that all diversity is a threat. Fortunately, it is not.

As far as I know, Galeano never wrote an essay or gave a full-blown interview elaborating on the this line of thinking. I interpret his comments not as an abandonment of leftism as such but as an affirmation of pluralism. In a brilliant talk at a recent conference at Columbia University, the Tunisia scholar Monica Marks distinguished between the politics of “purists” and “pluralists”. I read Galeano’s comments in Brazil as an expression of disdain for the former and sympathy for the latter.

Walking Words. Memory of Fire. What fitting images Galeano conjured with these titles. His words will continue to walk, to wander the earth, to inhabit our thinking, and to ignite our imaginations. Thank you, Eduardo, for the memory of your marvelous fire.

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What Do Syrians Want? The Syrian Freedom Charter

by Danny Postel

Resposted from: http://pulsemedia.org/2015/04/06/what-do-syrians-want-the-syrian-freedom-charter/

Syrian-Freedom-Charter-logo

Planet Syria – كوكب سوريا‎ has declared today — 7 April — a global day of solidarity with the people of Syria. In the spirit of this important effort, I present the following interview with Talal Barazi, Program Associate with the

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Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), a civil society development and humanitarian support organization, about the Syrian Freedom Charter, a momentous initiative inspired by the South African Freedom Charter.

The Syrian Freedom Charter is a national unity document based on tens of thousands of face-to-face interviews with Syrians, in every governorate of the country, about what kind of society they want. Over the course of a year, a team of over a hundred activists assembled by FREE-Syria and the Local Coordination Committees (LLC) of Syria, completed more than 50,000 surveys.

How did the South African Freedom Charter influence the Syrian Freedom Charter?

The Syrian Freedom Charter used the South African Freedom Charter as a model from which to work. The biggest influence the South African Freedom Charter had on the Syrian counterpart was in the idea. We also leveraged the expertise of a university professor who was involved with South Africa’s ANC for more than 30 years, and other experts with experience in other conflicts (Ireland, South America). In the final analysis, we consider the Freedom Charter a national unity document, in which the vision of the Syrian people is the only component. We also used the format of the South African predecessor to lay out the vision of the Syrian people. 

How representative is the Freedom Charter? The introduction refers to Syrians “from our diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and religious sects”. How much of a cross-section of Syrian society does the document represent? Were Syria’s minority communities genuinely included? Can you provide some numbers?

As a document of national unity, the target number of surveys for the Freedom Charter was done proportionally based on districts, not based on ethnicities or religious sects. To get a proportional representation of all districts, we looked at the percentage each district made up of the total population, and set our goal for each district, proportionally, based on that. We did work in areas with prominent minority presence such as Sweida, a governorate known for the high presence of Druze, and Hassaka, a governorate with a large number of Kurds. The work was harder in predominantly Alawite areas and Damascus proper.

With that, we see that 50% of people chose not to disclose their ethnicity, and 36% of people chose not to disclose their religious beliefs. Below are the graphs for the demographic questions.

EthnicityReligionAge-Group

How would you respond to the argument that the sentiments and ideals expressed in the Freedom Charter represent only a thin layer of Syrian society — an elite sector that is educated, westernized, urban, and/or living in exile — and that the sectarian violence the country has descended into is a more realistic reflection of popular sentiments and political loyalties? This view has been advanced by Joshua Landis, for example, but it’s widely shared across all sorts of ideological boundaries.

There is nothing elitist about the Freedom Charter — in fact, it is truly “the voice of the people.” The Freedom Charter represents the opinions of ordinary Syrians — more than 50,000 — the majority of whom live inside Syria under abysmal conditions imposed by the Assad regime and other militarized groups. The actual surveys were conducted at the grassroots level. Activists surveying in a specific district were locals of the district. 99% of surveys done were completed inside Syria and in neighboring countries that currently host a large number of refugees. The only precondition for surveys was that respondents be Syrian, without regard to ethnicity, religious affiliation, political affiliation, or social/economic status.

There’s a lot of discussion now of finding a political solution in Syria  some sort of negotiated settlement. Of course that’s not a new idea, but for a while it seemed to have receded from the horizon with the failure of the Geneva process, the exasperated resignation of both Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi as Special Envoy for Syria, and the seemingly intractable geopolitical deadlock over Syria. Recently, however — with the new geostrategic equation created by the intervention against ISIS  the push for a political solution is being revived. Various proposals have been floated, and virtually all of them involve Assad staying in power in some form. So my question for you is: the Freedom Charter doesn’t directly address the issue of political transition  how to get from the current moment to the political order outlined in the document  but from your point of view is there ANY scenario in which it would be acceptable for Assad to remain in power, or does the Freedom Charter necessarily preclude that?

For more than three years, Syrians have taken to the streets in both nonviolent and armed resistance to state what they do not want. The goal for the Freedom Charter was to express to the world what Syrians do want. The document does not discuss the transition period, nor the current situation; it is purely a statement of what Syrians are demanding. The Freedom Charter articulates the desires and goals of the Syrian people, not the process to achieve them.

With regard to the political process, FREE-Syria certainly advocates nonviolent solutions. However, the Assad regime has proven, through the failed initiatives of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, that it is not prepared to pursue a political process. Rather, the regime has and continues to use deadly force, including chemical weapons, against civilians, particularly children. We do not foresee a future in which Assad or those regime supporters with blood on their hands can play a lasting role in a peaceful, democratic Syria.

For more on the Syrian Freedom Charter, go here. For more on ‎Planet Syria‘s global day of solidarity with the Syrian people, go here.

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REMEDIAL MATH (2): MORE ON THE 2015 ISRAELI ELECTIONS

An addendum to our last post from Daniel Bertrand Monk and Daniel Levine, reposted from: http://relationsinternational.com/remedial-math-2-more-on-the-israeli-elections/#more-778

Guest Post from: Daniel Bertrand Monk, Colgate University and Daniel Levine, University of Alabama

Claims that Tuesday’s elections in Israel resulted in a striking victory for the right are as untrue as last week’s predictions that a narrow center/left ‘win’ was in the offing. It is true that Likud’s capture of 30 Knesset seats took most pollsters by surprise (the center-left Zionist Camp garnered only 24, about what the polls predicted). But despite claims to the contrary, no large-scale shift in voter preferences over the previous Knesset should be read into this. Likud’s gain was almost entirely at the expense of other parties within the right-wing nationalist bloc: the ‘Jewish Home’ and ‘Israel is Our Home’ parties. While viewed as a whole, this bloc did pick up two additional seats, its ‘natural’ coalition partners – the clerical/orthodox parties – suffered a stunning loss offive Knesset seats relative to the last election cycle, owing to divisions among them and a newly-raised minimum vote threshold.

As a result, the Likud must now build a parliamentary majority with only 57 secure seats: three fewer than it held after the 2013 elections. For that, Netanyahu will have to seek partners from among his former rivals: the Zionist Camp, the Centrist Parties, or both. Among the Centrists, ex-Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon’s ‘Kulanu’ party could provide 10 seats.   But these would come at the expense of stability for the new government. Kahlon – against whom Netanyahu ran a nasty, ‘dirty tricks’ campaign – would effectively become kingmaker; and because all but one of Bibi’s other partners have more than 7 seats, his government would always be one defection away from collapse.  The alternative, a ‘unity government’ (ie, a ruling coalition of center-left and center-right parties) would give Bibi a wider base, but at the cost of a coherent political program. Such a government could well survive for its appointed four years – unity governments were a feature of Israeli politics in the 1980s – but at the cost of enforced inaction. Its coalition agreements would be structured so as to ensure that the government could never rule effectively: its only mandates would be concerning the formalities for declaring another election, or going to war. Meanwhile, everyone (hawks, settlers, doves, supporters of the clerical and Arab parties) would see it as illegitimate. This was the structural stalemate that we described last week. The eventual ‘winner’ of these elections was always going to be confronted with this same choice: between coalitional breadth and political legitimacy, between stability and inaction.

If it seems otherwise in many other post-election analyses, it is because many observers of Israeli politics fail, in our view, to distinguish between tactical shiftswithin electoral blocs and strategic shifts in the balance of power among them. The latter are extremely rare. Even ostensible sea changes in voter affiliations – like the 1992 elections, which brought a center-left coalition into power and ushered in the Oslo Accords – were the result of razor-thin majorities and the widespread invalidation of votes owing to parties that had failed to pass the minimum vote threshold.

Why do so many pundits and policymakers fail to make this distinction? Why, that is, do they continue to view Israeli elections as moments of actual political decision, rather than rituals in which voters make largely tactical shifts within stable – and orthogonal – voting blocs? What is it that drives what we can only consider to be a willed – albeit perhaps unconscious – mischaracterization of Israeli elections as events marked by potential shifts between Left, Right, and Center, when the experience of some two decades of voting suggests that while names of individuals and parties may change, the situation after each election is structurally indistinct from the one that prevailed the day before?

For US-based observers, that mischaracterization may reflect a broader unwillingness – or an inability – to see the image of a Middle East that is increasingly unlike the one that American hegemony had painted for it. In Israel, that mischaracterization may persist because many Israelis themselves still advance it. The fact that every election produces its own parade of ‘centrist’ candidates – senior army officers, public officials, leading media personalities – who believe themselves capable of rising above the old ideological divisions and producing a new national consensus, is proof of this. The ‘ash-heap’ of Israeli political history grows with each passing election: the Third Way and Center Parties, Shinui, Kadima, HaTnuah – and now, Yesh Atid and Kulanu. To date, all have suffered the same fate: they either disappear, or are re-absorbed into the electoral blocs they claimed to supersede.

The desire for a center party represents a legitimate political yearning: Israeli voters are trapped within an intolerable status quo. The details of that status quo are those we described last week. To maintain coalition governments, the Israeli state has effectively had to subsidize two ‘para-states’: one in the occupied territories, and one in ‘Israel proper’. The former boasts an enormous, state-supported settlement project and an equally large, and equally expensive, mechanism for systematically containing and dispossessing Palestinians. The latter is rigorously committed to a constant, moralizing rhetoric of free-market capitalism and public-sector belt-tightening – except when coalition obligations demand monumental ‘side payments’ to clerical parties for parallel and separate infrastructures in housing, education, and more. The logic that holds this status quo together is that of a hostage crisis: to address the enormous costs of those ‘para-states’, one would need to confront the possibility of armed violence from Israel’s settlers, and the fact that the clerical parties have no sustained commitment to Israeli civil society.

The appeal of so-called ‘center parties’ is that they address the symptoms of this condition, while evading its structural causes. Their platforms unfailingly address the effects of skyrocketing economic inequality, the rising cost of housing, and the problems in the state health care and education systems, but rigorously ignore the steps needed to address them. As we’ve argued elsewhere, it is this same species of “actionism,” – talk of action, but ultimately for the sake of inaction – that animated Israel’s 2011 housing protests [http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/09/12/the-end-of-the-israeli-spring/]. In elections, then, Israelis debate the consequences of the political hostage crisis under which they live, even as they perpetuate it: the separate infrastructures of the occupation and of the clerics can’t be challenged seriously, and everyone understands that the state is expected to survive on what remains, if it wishes to avoid dissolution or civil war.

It’s not clear how long this evasion can persist. It is largely underwritten by American diplomatic and security backing: that support has made this ‘hostage crisis’ seem largely a domestic affair – to everyone save for those who must suffer its effects. Were that to waver – and the exigencies of Bibi’s campaign, from his congressional speech to his recent pronouncements on the death of the two state solution, have certainly revealed new fault lines, both within the Beltway and beyond it – it might yet force a reorganization of Israel’s domestic-political map.

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“Remedial Math: The Israeli Election of 2015,” by Daniel Bertrand Monk, Colgate University and Daniel Levine, University of Alabama.

Reposted from http://relationsinternational.com/remedial-math-the-israeli-election-of-2015/

With one day remaining before Israel’s Knesset elections, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party appears poised to fall at least four seats short of its principal rival, the Zionist Camp (an amalgam of the Labor Party led by Yitzhak Herzog, and the remains of the Kadimah party led by Tzipi Livni), presently polling at about 25 seats.  Many pundits are now daring to suggest that a stable Left/Center coalition – unthinkable for well over a decade – may now be in the offing.   math20

The truth is quite different.  Unless a real upset occurs, the brute mathematics of Israeli politics suggest that it will be nearly impossible for anyone to build a stable coalition that can also govern the country. The President of Israel, Re’uven Rivlin, understands this well. Last week he summoned Netanyahu and Herzog to his residence in order to deliver a caution: when the election results are posted, instead of charging one of them to try to form a coalition, he may call on the two rivals to form a national unity government simply for the purpose of revising the electoral system. His well-founded fear is that the Israeli electoral system can’t produce stable coalition blocks and is lapsing into something resembling Italian-style paralysis.

Few American observers understand the extent of the Israeli political stalemate, even though it threatens to boomerang on US foreign policy in the region – again. Despite news flashes that Netanyahu’s political end may be near, he still faces a much shorter path to a forming a parliamentary majority.  That holds, even if the Likud party – now polling at about 21 seats – garners fewer votes than the Zionist Camp.  In tandem with its right wing allies (the 17-odd seats of the ‘Jewish Home’ and ‘Israel is Our Home’ parties), Likud has a clear path to what Bibi calls a ‘natural’ coalition with the ultra-orthodox factions (another 17-odd seats).  Netanyahu can fatten those margins by extorting the participation of centrist parties whose leaders genuinely fear the social and economic costs of the same ‘natural’ coalition’s rule.  Coalitional stability will be achieved at the expense of governance.  This is not a new story.  Since the 1990s, the two logics – getting to a 61-seat majority in Israel’s Parliament on the one hand, and actually forming a coherent sensus communis out of an increasingly fragmented electorate on the other – have been growing ever more orthogonal.

Conversely, if present polling figures hold, Herzog’s and Livni’s Zionist Camp cannot make its way to a stable governing coalition very easily. To arrive at suitable numbers, the Zionist Camp would have to break an established taboo and form a coalition with what is expected to be the Knesset’s third-largest block, and its newest – the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties now polling at about 13 seats. The Zionist Camp would then have to persuade its other would-be coalition partners to do the same.  The pressure on those parties to defect would be enormous, and would only grow, if serious peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority were to resume.  The Zionist Camp’s only other option is an assortment of Orthodox parties, which would have, somehow, to be persuaded to sit in tandem with the same centrist parties that are intent upon checking their power.

Whether from the left or the right, then, the essential crisis of Israeli parliamentary democracy remains the same: there is an irreducible gap between coalitional stability and political legitimacy.

This situation explains the current rise of Israel’s centrist parties, which together account for a block of approximately 20 Knesset seats.  Popular support for them has been fueled by the electorate’s prioritization of social and economic justice concerns in a country that now boasts the largest gap on the planet between rich and poor. As we’ve argued elsewhere, however, the turn to ‘social issues’ – housing, health, and education – is actually an evasion.  That is, it is a means to avoid a direct confrontation between average citizens and those extorting, through coalitional blackmail and the implicit threat of extra-judicial violence, the ongoing maintenance of two overlapping para-states: one in the occupied territories, and one in ‘Israel proper’.  The former boasts an enormous, state-supported public housing project and an equally large, and equally expensive, mechanism for systematically containing and dispossessing Palestinians.  The latter is rigorously committed to a constant, moralizing rhetoric of free-market capitalism and public-sector belt-tightening – except when coalition obligations demand monumental ‘side payments’ to clerical parties for parallel and separate infrastructures in housing, education, and more.

The unspoken convention – and this is why talk of ‘social issues’ is actually an evasion – is to deny that these ‘para-states’ even exist, or that their constituents’ support of Israel is anything but conditional.

According to this ‘public secret,’ the separate infrastructures of the occupation and of the clerics can’t be challenged seriously, and the State is expected to survive on what remains.  If the public sector in ‘Israel proper’ is starved of funds, it is because of greedy plutocrats and inter-ethnic and secular-religious rivalries among Israeli Jews, rather than because of the enormous costs of occupation and settlement building.  While it should, theoretically, be possible to confront this convention, doing so cuts across the map of electoral politics as presently constituted. No matter how many times one plays the ‘fantasy coalition’ generators like the on Israel TV’s Channel 2, all Israeli elections result in a de facto preferential democracy.

The math is clear. There is no viable coalition that can govern Israel, except by renouncing governance in favor of an intolerable status quo and by periodic turns to military unilateralism.  Israel’s democracy cannot function except in dysfunction, as the centrifugal forces of income inequality, territorial para-politics, and sectarian kleptocracy continue to fragment the polity and the state even further.   The question is, for how long?

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Israelpolitik, the Neocons and the Long Shadow of the Iraq War—A Review of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s book ‘The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War’

Danny Postel

This essay first appeared in The Drouth (‘The Thirst’), a quarterly magazine published in Glasgow (Issue 50, Winter 2014/2015). I wrote it in December 2014.

Road-to-Iraq-COVER

The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad Edinburgh University Press £19.99 Reviewed by Danny Postel I was reluctant to review this book. With all the dramatic developments in the Middle East today—the ISIS crisis, the siege of Kobanê, the deepening nightmare in Syria, the escalating repression in Egypt, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the sectarianization of regional conflicts driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry—delving back into the 2003 invasion of Iraq seemed rather less than urgent. It’s hard enough just to keep up with the events unfolding day-to-day in the region. Reading—let alone reviewing—a detailed study of the internal processes that led to the United States toppling Saddam Hussein over a decade ago seemed remote, if not indeed a distraction. But I’m glad I set these reservations aside and took the assignment. This forcefully argued and meticulously researched (with no fewer than 1,152 footnotes, many of which are full-blown paragraphs) book turns out to be enormously relevant to the present moment, on at least three fronts:

  • ISIS emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without the 2003 invasion, there would be no ISIS as we know it—and the region’s political landscape would look very different.
  • The US Senate report on CIA torture has brought back into focus the rogues gallery of the Bush-Cheney administration—the same cast of characters who engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion. This book shines a heat lamp on that dark chapter and many of its protagonists.
  • There is talk of a neoconservative comeback in Washington. This thoroughly discredited but zombie-like group are now angling for the ear of Hillary Clinton, who might be the next US president. Ahmad’s book provides a marvelously illuminating anatomy of the neocons, which has lessons that apply directly to this movement’s potentially ominous next chapter.

The central question Ahmad attempts to answer is: Why did the 2003 Iraq War happen? In one of the book’s most valuable sections, felicitously titled ‘Black Gold and Red Herrings’, he goes through several prevalent explanations/theories and takes them apart one by one:

Oil.‘If Iraq was invaded for oil,’ Ahmad writes, ‘then the US was remarkably negligent in securing the prize’. Iraq awarded its first major post-invasion oil concessions in 2009, and the big winners? Norway, France, China and Russia. Of the 11 contracts signed only one went to a US company (Exxon Mobil). The only sector in which US firms prevailed was oil services—but ‘in that sector the US has always enjoyed a virtual monopoly, invasions or no’, Ahmad notes. It’s true that Bush and Cheney had worked in the energy industry, but US oil companies did not push for the invasion—in fact they lobbied to lift the sanctions on Iraq, which blocked potential profits. The oil industry has long favored agreements with governments, Ahmad notes; belligerence, in contrast, ‘has only jeopardized investments and brought uncertainty to future projects’. Did US oil companies try to cash in on the opportunity presented by the toppling of Saddam Hussein? By all means, but this is not to be confused, Ahmad argues, with why the invasion happened. Gulf energy resources have long been a vital US interest, he notes, but on ‘no other occasion has the US had to occupy a country to secure them’.

Free markets. Naomi Klein has done the most to popularize this notion with her widely-read 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, seeing Iraq as a paradigmatic case of disaster capitalism—of predatory market forces exploiting a society convulsed by shock and awe. But ‘[b]eyond short-term gains for a few businesses’, Ahmad writes, ‘the war proved a disaster for the world capitalist system’. The world will be paying for the Iraq war for a bloody long time, as Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes have demonstrated in The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. (They later revised that estimate upwards.) Market fanaticism of the Milton Friedman variety, Ahmad acknowledges, ‘was certainly ascendant in the aftermath of the invasion, but there is no evidence that it played any part in the deliberations over war’ (emphasis mine). He shows, moreover, that Klein conflates neoconservatism and neoliberalism—two distinct doctrines. His excellent discussion of the differences between them provides a salient corrective to the widespread confusion about this, especially on the Left.

Global hegemony. The idea that the war was waged to expand US global dominance is belied, for Ahmad, by two facts: that it had ‘remarkably few supporters among the traditional advocates of American primacy’ and that the results have been a geostrategic catastrophe for the United States on myriad levels. The first point might seem counter-intuitive, but as someone who wrote extensively about the Iraq debate in US foreign policy circles, I can confirm that Ahmad is exactly right about this. Attacking Iraq was a minority position in US officialdom. Against it were the realists of the sort who dominated the administration of Bush’s father and were pillars in the foreign policy teams of Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon: think national security advisers Brent Scowcroftand Zbigniew Brzezinski, secretary of state James Baker and the late senior diplomatic adviser Lawrence Eagleburger. All of them opposed the war. As didColin Powell. This has been largely obscured by the secretary of state’sinfamous presentation to the UN on the eve of the invasion, one replete with lies and distortions. Not only Powell but virtually the entire state department, and indeed a significant swath of the military and intelligence establishments, opposed going to war.

Who, then, were the war party—and how did this minority faction get their way? The road to Iraq was paved with neoconservative intentions. Other factions of the US foreign policy establishment were eventually brought around to supporting the war, but the neocons were its architects and chief proponents. New York Timescolumnist Thomas Friedman, himself a supporter of the invasion, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in April 2003: ‘I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office [in Washington]) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened’.

The neocons were obsessed for decades with toppling Saddam’s regime. Ahmad provides a thorough and instructive genealogy of the neoconservative movement, mapping both its intellectual coordinates and its ‘long march through the institutions’ of the national security apparatus: from its roots in ex-Trotskyism, to the office of US Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a hardline Cold Warrior, ascending into the Reagan administration and the Pentagon, and a labyrinth of magazines, think tanks and ad hoc committees. There is nothing conspiratorial about Ahmad’s analysis: he sees the neocons as a network of individuals (or what the anthropologist Janine Wedel calls a ‘flex-net’) with a particular ideological agenda, using the levers of the state and the media in pursuit of that agenda, in close coordination with one another. In this figure from the book he maps what he calls ‘the neoconservative core’:

Figure 1 The neoconservative core and Ahmed Chalabi. Richard Perle lies at the core of this unusually dense network with a direct, one-to-one relationship with every other member of the network. Albert Wohlstetter is the outlier mainly because he belongs to a previous generation. He is included because he played the crucial role in inserting apex neocons into government.

The neocons were the Iraq war’s sine qua non, but other stars had to align for the opportunity to present itself: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a godsend. The moment was ripe, and the neocons were abundantly prepared to exploit it. They ‘succeeded in using the shock and disorientation of the attacks to place Iraq…on the agenda and helped manufacture the case for invading it’, Ahmad writes. Indeed, such was their preoccupation with Iraq that many of them urged going to Baghdad immediately after 9/11, never mind Afghanistan. Deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz argued this case a mere four days after the terrorist attacks, at the first gathering of Bush’s national security team post-9/11, held at Camp David. Not even Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, supported Wolfowitz’s position—at least not at that point. (The ‘flipping’ of Rumsfeld and Cheney—their metamorphosis from traditional conservatives, or ‘aggressive nationalists’, into two of the war’s key champions—was pivotal in the decision to go to war. Ahmad offers a discerning if ultimately inconclusive discussion of this opaque piece of the historical puzzle.)

But why exactly was toppling Saddam an idée fixe in the neocon mind? And how did this minority faction ultimately prevail over its rivals within the administration? Much of the book is devoted to answering these two critical questions. Ahmad’s discussion of the latter—his chapters on ‘Setting the Agenda’ and ‘Selling the War’—are well crafted but cover familiar ground. There are several other books that tell that story, and Ahmad relies on them extensively in his own account. But his discussion of the former—the explanation he advances for what motivated the neoconservative crusade against Saddam Hussein—is this book’s real contribution.

The war was ‘conceived in Washington, but its inspiration came from Tel Aviv’, he writes, echoing the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of the influential (and controversial) book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (which began as an essay in the London Review of Books).Mearsheimer and Walt, the two preeminent realist scholars in international relations theory, maintain that both Israeli leaders and the Israel lobby in the US urged the Bush administration to invade Iraq—a course of action, they contend, that was not in the geostrategic interests of the US but that Israel saw in itsinterests. Ahmad concurs with them. ‘Not all imperial projects are about economic predation: some simply aim to destroy political enemies’, he argues—correctly, in my view. But in taking out Saddam Hussein the US destroyed one ofIsrael’s political enemies. In so doing, Mearsheimer and Walt argue, it undermined American national interests. Figure 2: The Institutional infrastructure of the Israel lobby.

Ahmad demonstrates in painstaking detail how the neocons in the Bush administration—especially in the Pentagon (Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith—think ‘Feith-based intelligence‘) and the office of the vice president (Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby)—aggressively advanced the (Israeli) case for the invasion. ‘It’s a toss-up whether Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans on any given day’, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw remarked. Joe Klein, a centrist columnist forTime magazine (and himself Jewish) wrote that the neocons pushed for the invasion ‘to make the world safe for Israel’. As Ahmad notes, however, the neocons operate on the basis ‘of what they think are Israel’s best interests’ (his emphasis): whether the war, which has significantly strengthened Iran, was actually in Israel’s interests, is highly contestable. Many Israelis opposed the war. But as former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan contends, neoconservatism ‘is about enabling the most irredentist elements in Israel’. The neocons are more accurately seen as Likud-centric than Israel-centric.

Against the widely-held view that Israel does America’s bidding, Ahmad shows how Israelpolitik is at odds with both US geostrategic interests and those of global capital. Big Oil, the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce have locked horns with the Israel lobby on multiple occasions over sanctions on Syria, Iran, Libya and other states—measures that the lobby pushed hard but the corporations opposed fiercely. ‘US support for Israel, when considered not in abstract but concrete detail, cannot be adequately explained as a result of American imperial interests’, the late anti-Zionist and leftist writer Israel Shahakobserved. ‘Strategically, Israel is obviously a huge burden for the US’, notes Sullivan. This view is becoming increasingly clear to many observers and indeed to more and more in the US foreign policy establishment.

I find Ahmad’s arguments about the motivations behind the Iraq war—and his critiques of the dominant alternative explanations—broadly convincing. But I wish he had engaged directly with some of the criticisms of the Mearsheimer-Walt argument. I share his view that most of those criticisms are unconvincing and that the Israel lobby thesis generally stands up to scrutiny—but his defence of that thesis would have emerged stronger had he dealt with some of the more serious criticisms leveled at it. He doesn’t even mention, much less engage, the criticisms that Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, or Joseph Massad, for example, have advanced against Mearsheimer and Walt. Like Ahmad, I think those criticisms are wrongheaded. They take issue with Mearsheimer and Walt at the level of their ideological framework, or the conceptual arc of their argument. They argue—to make a long story short—that Mearsheimer and Walt let the US off the hook, in effect, and are insufficiently anti-imperialist. But the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis is an empirical matter—the question isn’t what one thinks of their worldview in general (a worldview Ahmad and I both find deeply flawed, by the way) but whether their argument about why the US invaded Iraq in 2003 is correct or not. I agree with Ahmad that the evidence is on the side of Mearsheimer and Walt rather than their critics. But it would have made Ahmad’s defence of their (and his) case more compelling had he aired those arguments.

Finally, I want to pick a bone with Ahmad’s discussion of liberals and humanitarian interventionists. In a section polemically titled ‘From humanitarian intervention to shock and awe’, he takes them to task for forging a ‘neoconservative-liberal alliance’ in support of the 2003 invasion. The liberal interventionists helped shape ‘the climate of debate’, he asserts, by ‘easing the inhibitions of some about the use of force’. There are two problems with this section.

First, he wildly overstates the extent of support for the Iraq war among liberals. In fact, the majority of liberal intellectuals and commentators opposed the invasion—but Ahmad fails to mention that any of them did. It’s true that several high-profile liberals signed on—infamously among them, Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman, George Packer, David Remnick and Peter Beinart. (Ahmad includes several others in this group who are/were decidedly not liberal: Jean Bethe Elshtain was explicitly anti-liberal; Kenneth Pollack is a creature of the CIA and the National Security Council; Christopher Hitchens was a Trotskyist who morphed into a ‘neo-neo-con’, in the apt phrase of Ian Williams, and was decidedly hostile to liberalism.) The pro-war liberals were disproportionately prominent. But in fact their support for the war was a minority position among liberal interventionists. In his important book The Left at War, Michael Bérubé lists just some of the liberal intellectuals and writers who opposed the Iraq war: Ian Buruma, Martha Nussbaum, Jürgen Habermas, Timothy Garton Ash, Richard Rorty, Stephen Holmes, Tzvetan Todorov, Mary Kaldor, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ronald Dworkin, Saskia Sassen, Mark Danner, Samantha Power, Amartya Sen, Seyla Benhabib, Charles Taylor, David Held, Ian Williams, Kenneth Roth, David Corn, the editors of The Nation, Boston Review, openDemocracy, The American Prospect, and the New York Review of Books. (And this is only a very partial list.)

Ahmad takes the liberal writers Michael Tomasky and Todd Gitlin to task for ‘denounc[ing] anti-war voices’—but both Tomasky and Gitlin opposed the Iraq war. They had criticized opponents of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, not the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ahmad approvingly quotes Tony Judt’s brilliant London Review of Books jeremiad ‘Bush’s Useful Idiots’ (21 September 2006), in which the late historian upbraided the liberal intellectuals who supported the war. I havewritten in praise of the piece myself. It was Judt at his best. But Ahmad neglects to mention that Judt himself was a liberal who strongly supported the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Like most of us who supported those interventions, Judt strongly opposed the Iraq war—which, as Ahmad demonstrates, was anything but a humanitarian intervention. To their eternal shame, some humanitarian interventionists supported the Iraq war—but they were in the minority within the humanitarian interventionist camp. Judt belonged to the very camp that Ahmad criticizes for, in his view, providing intellectual cover for the Iraq war. In fact, Judt was squarely in the majority among liberal interventionists in opposing the Iraq war. Indeed, liberals and humanitarian interventionists articulated some of the most forceful arguments against invading Iraq.

It isn’t just that Ahmad gets the intellectual history wrong in this admittedly brief section of his otherwise outstanding book. The much more serious issue is that the arguments he advances against the principle of humanitarian intervention flirt with the very logic deployed, for example, by the targets of Ahmad’s sharpest criticisms in his more recent writings on Syria: those on the Left who steadfastly oppose any form of intervention in Syria on the grounds of defending the ‘sovereignty’ of the murderous Assad regime. Ahmad finds those arguments as specious and pernicious as I do. And, to be sure, he concedes in passing that there are ‘crises where predatory states use the cover of sovereignty to tyrannise vulnerable populations’. But he doesn’t think through the larger implications involved here. This is not the place to open a philosophical debate on humanitarian intervention. But I’ll close by posing a question to Ahmad: has the Syrian conflict, and the ideological fault lines that have formed around it, occasioned any rethinking on his part of the debates about intervention going back to the 1990s?

These criticisms aside, let me reiterate the enormous significance and relevance of The Road to Iraq. It is a work of tremendous intellectual diligence and moral seriousness. We are all indebted to Ahmad for undertaking this major contribution to the debate on one of the central events of this century, whose aftershocks continue to unfold daily, to disastrous effect. With the neocons poised to make a comeback, this book serves as a cautionary tale of bracing urgency. It is a must-read guide to the history of the present.

Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and a co-editor of PULSE. He is the author of Reading ‘Legitimation Crisis’ in Tehran and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and The Syria Dilemma. Between 2003 and 2008 he wrote a series of articles about the neoconservatives, Iraq and Iran for The American ProspectopenDemocracyMother Jones and other publications.

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JE SUIS CHARLIE HEBDO!

Critical Inquiry shares the universal outrage felt by decent people all over the globe (including 99% of Muslims, the Palestinian movement known as Hamas, and the broad range of political opinion in the U.S. and abroad. Two things we DO NOT SHARE: 1) the timorous response that blames the victims and the satirists themselves for having offended radical Muslims. They deserve to be offended. Their actions invite universal condemnation, and are inexcusable. 2) the right wing reaction that tries to use this terrible event as an excuse for even more erosion of civil liberties, more calls for police and state surveillance of whole populations, and more expressions of hatred for Islam, as if these acts were somehow a natural outgrowth of this great religion. They are not, and the completely betray the spirit of Mohammed.
We also want to commend cartoonists and intellectuals like Joe Sacco and Robert Crumb and Slavoj Zizek, who have taken up the only real armor against fanaticism and violence, namely the great tools of satire. Long live the right to offend, and to be funny!  We offer the following links to these artists and writers, and welcome our readers to suggest more.

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Should We Oppose the Intervention Against ISIS?

Danny Postel


This piece was originally published on In These Times on 18 December 2014

http://inthesetimes.com/article/17423/should_we_oppose_the_intervention_against_isis


ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State) sent shock waves through the Middle East and beyond in June when it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The organization has now laid claim to a swath of territory “stretching from Baghdad to Aleppo and from Syria’s northern border to the deserts of Iraq in the south,” in the words of Patrick Cockburn, author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.

In August, the United States assembled an international coalition (eventually including more than a dozen countries) to conduct a campaign of air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Then, in October, the coalition expanded the intervention into Syria, coordinating with Kurdish fighters on the Syrian-Turkish border and Free Syrian army forces.

American progressives have been relatively uniform in opposing the intervention against ISIS. But to most Kurds and many Syrian activists, the intervention is more welcome. Turkish and Syrian Kurds along the border watch the battles against ISIS from hilltops, breaking out in cheers and chanting, “Obama, Obama.”Within the Syrian opposition, one finds a range of perspectives—some support intervention, others oppose it, and many, like the Syrian leftist intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, are torn. In late September Saleh told me,

On the one hand, I would like to see this thuggish gang wiped from the face of the earth. ISIS is a criminal organization that has killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis while leaving intact another criminal organization—the Assad regime—that is responsible for the deaths of close to 200,000 people. ISIS has destroyed the cause of the Syrian revolution as much as the Assad regime has destroyed our country and society. On the other hand, an attack against ISIS will send a message to many Syrians (and Iraqis and other Arabs) that this intervention isn’t about seeking justice for heinous crimes, but is rather an attack against those who challenged Western powers. This will lead to more resentment against and suspicion of the outside world, which is the very nihilist mood on which ISIS capitalizes and profits.

Some Syrian activists question how committed the Kurds are to toppling the Syrian dictator. The Kurds, for their part, distrust Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition. These debates and dynamics are mostly unknown to American progressives.

Given that ISIS and the intervention against it directly impact the peoples of the region, it behooves us to know what they have to say about it. So when In These Times asked me to convene a roundtable discussion on the ISIS intervention, I saw it as an opportunity to bridge this gap—to explore some of these contending perspectives and stimulate a conversation between U.S. progressives and some of our Syrian and Kurdish counterparts.

Richard Falk has been one of the leading voices of peace and human rights over the last half century. He was the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights and a member of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. His blog, Global Justice in the 21st Century, is a constant source of thought-provoking and self-reflective analysis. His essay in The Syria Dilemmathe book I co-edited with Nader Hashemi, is among the most thoughtful and challenging arguments about the Syrian tragedy I have read.

The Kurdish region of Rojava in northern Syria has been likened to the Zapatista autonomous territories of Chiapas and has inspired  international solidarity efforts with its experiment in democratic autonomy . The anarchist writer and activist David Graeber has written a forceful plea to stand with the beleaguered Kurds as they fight for their lives. With Graeber’s help I reached out to Alan Semo, the UK representative of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), to get his perspective on the ISIS intervention.

I also deemed it essential to include a Syrian opposition voice in the discussion. There has been and remainsdeep confusion about the Syrian conflict amongst many leftists. So I reached out to Rime Allaf, who serves on the board of directors of The Day After Project, an international working group of Syrians building toward a democratic transition in Syria. She is a former advisor to the president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and former Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank.

There are few people I hold in higher regard than Rafia Zakaria, a lawyer, board member of Amnesty International USA, columnist for Al Jazeera America and the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and the author ofThe Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (forthcoming in February from Beacon Press). Rafia brings both an international human rights perspective and the painful knowledge of what U.S. military intervention, in the form of drone strikes, has wrought in her part of the world.

Richard, with only one or two exceptions (notably Kosovo), you have opposed U.S. military interventions for the past 50 years. As someone who has opposed those interventions as a champion of self-determination—especially self-determination for formerly colonized peoples—what do you make of the current U.S. intervention against ISIS? And specifically, the siege of Kobani and the Kurdish resistance against ISIS along the Turkish-Syrian border?

Richard: It’s a tough question. We need to contextualize this a bit further. In my view, there is no basis for the United States to play a constructive role in this region. Its role in Iraq and Syria—much less, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere in the region—figures into an overall strategy of dominating the region and supporting highly reactionary forces in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. The notion that the United States can be a liberating actor by narrowing the focus to one specific battle site isn’t convincing to me. The plight of the Kurds in Kobani and their courage in resisting ISIS poses a tragic predicament that does challenge the kind of anti-interventionism that I feel is justified overall, particularly in the Middle East. But to overcome the presumption against military intervention, especially from the air, one needs very powerful evidence. And one needs a full-fledged diplomatic initiative, which I see lacking so long as Iran continues to be excluded from any effort to resolve the Syrian conflict. Like the drone attacks, the ISIS intervention doesn’t seem designed to actually deal with the problem. Rather, it looks like a projection of U.S. power in the region.

Where do you stand on the intervention, Rafia?

Rafia: I oppose it. Look at what the U.S. has done in South Asia in the past ten years. As someone who has covered drone attack after drone attack in Pakistan, I can tell you that the dynamics are very similar. When the U.S. began its drone campaign in north and south Waziristan, where the Taliban were headquartered, there was a lot of support from Pashtun tribal leaders, similar in a way to the current situation between the Kurds and ISIS. The narrative was that the drone attacks were empowering the indigenous people of area who were facing incursions from the Taliban. It’s been beyond a miserable failure. The drone attacks have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Whenever you have communities that are displaced—and this is precisely what is happening in Syria and Iraq as a result of ISIS incursions and the airstrikes against ISIS—their social mechanisms, their political allegiances, their forms of governance all collapse. Once that happens, those populations are far, far more vulnerable to being recruited by groups like ISIS. Or they become disenchanted with any effort to rebuild or organize. The consequence of intervention is displacement. And the consequence of displacement is further civil war, which is what you have in Pakistan right now.

Syrian activists have expressed a range of views on the intervention against ISIS. Rime, how do you see it?

Rime: I very much share the ambivalence of Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Many of us in the Syrian opposition do. Everything that has happened in Syria was predictable—and indeed was predicted. The rise of these Islamist terror groups…before they became an organized entity calling itself ISIS, they were smaller groups fighting in various areas in Iraq but mostly in Syria, where they had free reign because the only forces fighting them during roughly their first year on the scene [2013] were the Free Syrian Army. The FSA—the bulk of the Syrian armed opposition to the Assad regime—thus found itself fighting two very brutal forces, the Assad regime on one side and these Islamist groups on the other—and those two forces were not fighting each other. This is an essential point. It was inevitable that this would weaken the opposition and strengthen the regime. Because the Assad regime was not attacking this Islamist plague, it was to be expected that these terror groups would gain ground. They had help from al-Qaeda type groups in Iraq. Plus they had the advantage of their enemies [the FSA] being bombed relentlessly by the Syrian regime. So they gained strength.

Let’s be very clear that for the longest time, the Syrian opposition was not asking for a “boots on the ground”-style intervention, or even for a bombing campaign led by the U.S. What was being requested early on was the establishment of humanitarian corridors with the help of a “no-fly-zone” and/or weapons for the FSA to defend liberated areas from the relentless barrel bombing campaign of the regime. Since none of this happened, it was to be expected that these Islamist groups have been able to gain so much ground and find themselves with a weakened opponent in the FSA. Now the Assad regime doesn’t even need to worry about ISIS because it’s got the U.S. fighting [ISIS].

Alan, where does the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which you represent, stand on the U.S. intervention against ISIS? The PYD has opposed external military intervention in the Syrian conflict, but hasn’t the Kurdish struggle against ISIS benefited from the coalition airstrikes?

Alan: I think the American-led international intervention against ISIS has been efficient. The Americans realized that the expansion of ISIS is serious and threatens the region—it has to be stopped and eliminated. The U.S. has been relying on air strikes alone, and they know they need troops on the ground. The forces on the ground fighting ISIS in northern Iraq and now in Kobani, in northern Syria, are Kurdish troops. They have been defending themselves very efficiently against ISIS, which is a real threat to the region. So I think eliminating this threat is the right step, both for the Syrian people and for regional security and stability.

Rime: From January roughly until the summer, what happened is that ISIS was allowed to spread its terror throughout the Jazira region of Syria without any intervention of any kind from outside Syria—or within Syria.  The only people fighting them were the Free Syrian Army—alone, without ammunition. So I agree with Alan that the intervention is proving useful, but only up to a point. It is proving useful in a very limited area, and—this is critical—it is not tackling the origin of this plague, which is the Assad regime.

Alan: Now, Kurdish forces are working together with some sections of the Free Syrian Army and other forces in northern Syria.

The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based organization, has recently put forward aproposal to end the Syrian conflict that includes the creation of a Peace and Reconstruction Authority that would implement local ceasefire agreements and serve as an interim governing authority. The report also suggests that once a deal has been struck, the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition could focus their energies on fighting ISIS. What do you make of this idea?

Rime: It’s an absolutely obscene proposition because it takes the position that anything is better than ISIS, whereas most Syrians view ISIS and the Assad regime as being on an equal level of savagery. Many Syrians will tell you the Assad regime is actually worse than ISIS and has killed far more people.

To consider ending the war, which is what all of us want, without considering what’s at the root of this entire monstrosity—which is the Assad regime itself—is unacceptable. To propose that in order to end ISIS we have no choice but to work with Assad is not a solution at all.

Alan: At the end of the day, we have to end Syria’s war. To end the war requires a solution on three levels: the internal balance on the ground inside Syria; the regional circumstances; and the international level. I believe the will of the Syrian people has been hijacked by regional powers and by global powers—America and Russia. But the Syrian people have to determine their own destiny. The Syrian opposition has to be united. And they have to have a clear vision of how they can end this war. I do not agree with Rime’s statement that you have to fight the regime before fighting ISIS.

Rime: I did not say that. I said that you can’t just get rid of ISIS. You cannot just get rid of Assad. You have to get rid of both.

Alan: The Syrian people are defending themselves. They are fighting against ISIS. The people of Kobani have been protecting themselves for two months with their limited resources.

Rime: But the coalition’s airstrikes are helping them. For three years Assad has been dropping barrel bombs on civilians and yet no help has come from anybody. But now you have the coalition bombing ISIS, which helps the Kurds in Kobani to defend themselves.

Richard, what do you think of the idea of a Peace and Reconstruction Authority?

Richard: I think that a proposal of this sort is somewhat suspect given both how it originated and what it’s proposing, because it’s really a plea to, in effect, enlarge the anti-ISIS military coalition. I agree with what Rafia said earlier, that bombing only contributes to destabilizing the whole underlying reality. And we still have to address why Iran hasn’t been brought into the process as a major political actor that needs to participate in any kind of diplomacy to resolve the Syrian crisis.

I think there are desirable elements [in the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue proposal], such as trying to respect the ceasefire, but it overlooks the complexities and contradictions that have emerged in the Syrian conflict. To try to solve the problems of the Middle East from above is very unlikely to have constructive effects.

Finally, there’s an absence of political imagination. The American approach has become so militarized over such a long period of time that it’s just about incapable of thinking outside of the military box. It therefore keeps reinventing a military solution to essentially political problems—and is undeterred by a record of failure because it’s the only way it knows how to project its power. The U.S. is so addicted to hard-power ways of behaving in the world. It has very little credibility in my view—even when you narrow the focus and it looks like it’s better to help those beleaguered in Kobani than to ignore them. That’s why I say it’s a tragic predicament: Every alternative is repugnant under these conditions. I’ve always felt that when all alternatives are repugnant the one point of moral clarity is, don’t add to the killing. And, echoing what Rafia said, don’t add to the displacement, which is subverting any possibility of benevolent political reconstruction.

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