Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Mercy Rule

There is no war going on in Gaza. I can prove this with one simple statistic, a score almost: 385 to 4.

Those are your death totals as of this morning for the Gaza "conflict." Israeli forces have killed more than 385 people including at least 62 civilians. Hamas' rockets have killed 4 Israelis.

In Gaza they have no electricity, no fuel, precious few other supplies. This is business as usual, of course, given Israel's harsh control of the region. Their hospitals are depleted and "stretched to the maximum" according to the Red Cross.

And in Israel they are in terror - terror! - because some rockets reached all the way to Beersheba, meaning thousands more Israelis could, potentially, someday be hit by rockets.

Of course, they could also be struck by lightning.

"What I don't get," a friend of mine's dad said last night, "is how come when the Palestinians fire rockets into Israel every day, that's not news, but when the Israelis fight back, that's a big story."

The answer is simple: Because the Palestinian rockets are wildly ineffective. They very rarely kill anyone. The news story would read: "Rocket Fired Into Israel: 0 dead, 0 wounded." Not exactly A1 material, at least not when it happens every day. It would be like the sports page leading with "Charlie Brown Fails to Kick Football."

The Beersheba rockets didn't actually hurt anyone. No one was so much as injured. But the specter of these utterly ineffectual rockets has whipped the Israelis into such a frenzy that they may launch a ground assault on Gaza.

Yes, if people were launching rockets into my town all the time, I'd probably want the government to do something about it too. I get that. And yes, the people firing the rockets are utterly unreasonable deuchebags.

But what Israeli and US politicians have done is turned the rockets into a full-fledged propaganda device. These rockets - these rockets which very rarely kill anyone - are the sole rationale given for this massive military mission that has already killed several hundred people, and will probably kill several more before this is all over. It is the sole rationale for every Israeli raid.

Yet no one in the American media or political structure has stepped in to point out the obvious disproportion between Israel's actions and the threat it's facing.

"Israel is acting in clear self-defense in response to heinous rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza," declared House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. "As a sovereign nation, Israel has an unequivocal right to take action to ensure the security and safety of her citizens."

"I strongly support Israel's right to defend its citizens against rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza, which have killed and injured Israeli citizens," quothe Harry Reid.

And, for the crowning ridiculousness, the White House declared that Hamas has "once again shown its true colors as a terrorist organization" by firing those dastardly rockets.

Nor have US media outlets called them on it. Take this Washington Post report on Israel's rejection of a humanitarian ceasefire. The entire first five paragraphs are from the Israeli perspective, why the Israelis didn't accept the deal - "it did not contain the necessary elements to make the truce permanent." From there it explains what attacks Israel conducted, followed by this paragraph:

Hamas continued firing as well. By Wednesday afternoon local time a barrage of more than 20 rockets and mortar shells had struck southern Israel, including five that crashed in and around the city of Beersheba, about 25 miles from Gaza. There were no serious casualties reported.

Yes, the Post reported the lack of casualties. But by beginning with the phrase "Hamas continued firing as well," it implies that Hamas' activities are essentially congruous with Israel's, and vice versa. Which is exactly the terms Israel wants everything framed in.

Israel wants this situation portrayed as a conflict, a war. In a conflict a cease-fire must be mutual. But 385 to 4 isn't a conflict, or an "all out war" as Ehud Barak colorfully described it yesterday. It's a massacre. If this were a football game, the mercy rule would be applied.

But Israel has no room for mercy. It is playing for all the marbles. It is pretty obviously intent on nothing short of the utter annhilation of Hamas, and it doesn't care how many Palestinians have to die to accomplish that. The rockets have fuck-all to do with it. They're a fig leaf, an excuse.

And it's a fig leaf every American politician and most media outlets are hiding behind. Why?

Because we like the Jews. We just plain like 'em.

Israel is a democracy. It shares our basic Western values and culture, we can go on vacation there, it's great. More importantly, Jews aren't scary. We have Jewish comedians and actors and politicians and businessmen. We have Jewish friends and colleagues, and, crucially for politicians, Jewish constituents. No Jews, to my knowledge, have ever flown a plane into an American building, at least not on purpose.

Muslims do not have it so easy. Remember the whisper campaign about Barack Obama being a Muslim? "That's a lie!" we Obama supporters were quick to protest. It shouldn't have mattered if Obama was Muslim, but we knew it did matter to the voting public, so we loudly pointed out that it wasn't true. We knew America wouldn't elect a Muslim.

That's the undercurrent beneath the Israel/Palestine debate in this country, or I should say, lack of debate. To voice the slightest equivocation in support for Israel is heresy.

During the election, Obama was once attacked for having a passing friendship with Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor at the University of Chicago, who happens to hold pro-Palestinian views. Nothing radical, he got along fine with Jewish students and even local Rabbis, he just happened to take the Palestinian point of view. When he left the university, Obama, a staunch supporter of Israel, said that his conversations with Khalidi had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases."

Seems reasonable and healthy right? And yet this association was deemed fittingly damning fodder for a political attack, albeit a clumsy and little-regarded one.

Now, this bias of ourse is being tested to its utmost. Israel has, in response to nothing in particular, killed almost four hundred people in about four days. Its pleas that it cannot live under constant fear of rockets would be touching, were we not to consider the Palestinians who likewise must live under constant fear of Israeli attacks. Since rocket attacks happen every day, and Israel seemingly needs no greater provocation to attack, its bombs are just as unpredictable as the once-in-a-blue-moon rocket deaths.

Yes, the assholes in Hamas are asking for this. But the people of Gaza aren't, and Israel is doing its damndest to ensure they can't escape. At least sixty-two innocent civilians have been killed. The hospitals are out of supplies, and Israel won't stop the bombardments to let more in.

And this is fine. Because Israel has the right to defend itself. Israel is our friend. It'll all be over soon. We're winning 385-4.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Making Frienemies

In an interview with Bill Maher recently, Bush chronicler Bob Woodward related a pretty crazy story. A major general recently asked President Bush what our strategy was for dealing with Iran.

"They're assholes," Bush replied.

That was it. That's the strategy. "They're assholes."

Not that Mr. President was entirely incorrect in his assessment. I've often thought that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and George W. Bush were weird mirror images of each other. Both are anti-intelletual, intensely religious, far-right dingbats, concerned mostly with their own personal obsessions and grievances. Both are prone to bombastic pronouncements, both love making enemies, and both have approval ratings somewhere south of Australia.

And both, it seems, have the same strategy for dealing with each other. They're assholes.

For a long time Iran has been asking us to negotiate without preconditions, secure in the knowledge that President Bozo wouldn't do it. But now that they're facing a President-Elect who will negotiate without preconditons, suddenly they've got some preconditions of their own.

In recent interviews, advisers to Ahmadinejad said the new U.S. administration would have to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, show respect for Iran's system of rule by a supreme religious leader, and withdraw its objections to Iran's nuclear program before it can enter into negotiations with the Iranian government.

Ah. I see. But surely the Iranians will want to be cautiously optimistic that this new president will be friendlier to them?

"People who put on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal, and who enter from the angle of negotiations without preconditions, are more dangerous," Hossein Taeb, deputy commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Wednesday.

Oh. Gotcha. Okay, we have a diplomatic about face, some incendiary quotes, is there anything else we can do to drive the hostility on home?

On Wednesday, Iran test-fired a two-stage, solid-fuel rocket, Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar announced on state television. He said the missile had a range of 1,200 miles -- meaning that it could reach Israel and U.S. targets in the Middle East.

Awesome! There we go. The full on belligerence trifecta. Like I said, Bush wasn't all wrong. These guys are assholes.

But what's crazy about all this is that there is very little our countries have to fight about except our innate cultural incompatibility. Iran's regime is an abhorrent theocracy, a dumbshow of a democracy devoid of real freedom. It's a place where you can be arrested for wearing the wrong clothes, hanged for being gay. It's a bad, bad place. But Saudi Arabia is a pretty lousy place too, when it comes to personal freedom, and they're our bestest buddies. Why? Because our national interests intersect.

Well, our interests intersect with Iran's too. We're fighting two wars with Iran's next door neighbors. In both cases, Iran would very much like to ensure that radical Sunnis do not prevail, which is essentially our goal as well. Tehran would particularly love to see the Maliki government succeed in Iraq, since it would surely be a steadfast ally. Nor is Iran a fan of our real enemy, al-Qaeda. John McCain may not be able to tell the difference between Sunni and Shiites, but rest assured that al-Qaeda and Tehran know which side of the denominational pissing match they're pissing on.

The only major sticking point is Israel, which at this point is more of a political dispute than anything else. Any US politician who even questions our relationship with Israel would be tarred and feathered, metaphorically, and an Iranian politician who supported Israel could potentially suffer the same fate literally. But again, we've gotten around this before. Israel's not super popular in Saudi Arabia or Egypt either. As long as we know no one's nuking anyone, we're good.

Which brings us to the real problem: The "They're assholes" factor. Iran can't make nice with Obama, because hating America is a central tenet of Iranian politics. Nobody wants to be seen paling around with the great Satan. Nor, of course, does Obama want to look like an Iranian sympathizer. Deep down, we just don't trust those assholes on the other side of the world. Even if every one of our national interests lined up, when all is said and done we just don't like how they do business in Tehran, and vice versa.

For George Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that means you act like little kids and play the "I'm not talking to him!" game.

Barack Obama, it seems to me, is an adult. He realizes that enough of our national interests intersect with Iran's that we ought to at least explore the potential for cooperation. Unfortunately, he's not dealing with an equally mature regime. Even if Ahmadinejad is voted out next year - a likely scenario if the vote isn't egregiously rigged, which it probably will be - nothing will change. He's a figurehead. The Ayatollah is the guy who's really in charge here, and he's not going anywhere. And how does he feel about the US?

Two weeks ago Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, said the conflicts between the two countries were deep-rooted and went beyond political differences.

"This is because of the numerous conspiracies of the U.S. government against the Iranian country and nation throughout the last 50 years, and not only have they not apologized for this but they have continued their arrogant actions," said Khamenei, speaking at a commemoration of the taking of 52 hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Khamenei has final say in all matters of foreign policy.

Ah. Still stuck in 1979 then, I see. Terrific.

-S

(Postscript: This post is too long already, but I wanted to point out this interesting article, suggesting we cut off Iran's gasoline supply. Don't know enough to comment on how feasible it is, but it seems like a logical course of action. I'm sort of baffled as to why we haven't tried this already.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

So How Was The Honeymoon For You?

Interesting story in today's Wall Street Journal. Apparently all those evil Bush intelligence gathering methods - think torture, warrantless wire-tapping, secret prisons, etc. - don't seem so evil when you're the guy in the Oval Office.

Now, the Journal's story is pretty speculative, and mostly anonymously sourced. Its main evidence that Obama will stay the course comes down to the following:

1). He "is being advised largely by a group of intelligence professionals, including some who have supported Republicans, and centrist former officials in the Clinton administration."
2). He voted for FISA (which essentially legalizes warrantless wiretaps to the extent that legalizing them is constitutionally possible), and
3). Some of said anonymous advisers say he might.

Here's the salient bit:
[Obama] recently voted for a White House-backed law to expand eavesdropping powers for the National Security Agency. Mr. Obama said he opposed providing legal immunity to telecommunications companies that aided warrantless surveillance, but ultimately voted for the bill, which included an immunity provision.

The new president could take a similar approach to revising the rules for CIA interrogations, said one current government official familiar with the transition. Upon review, Mr. Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight.

Again, this is hardly rock-solid. It's coming essentially from a Bush source ("current government official"), and it has that all important "may" attached. This could turn out to be nothing.

Or this could turn out to be yet more proof that when the Executive Branch takes power, it doesn't give it back. Bush appropriated a truly outlandish set of powers, and these were the most despicable of the bunch. If Obama is going to clean up at all, you'd think torture would be a nice place to start. If he doesn't, it'll be a gross violation of whatever trust and hope America invested in him.

Unfortunately, Obama's vote for FISA makes this all too plausible. For those of you unfamiliar with the bill, it allows the NSA to eavesdrop on any call, assuming they have reason to believe you're talking to a foreign target. They don't have to explain the reason they believe this to anyone or document it or anything. We just take their word for it.

Honestly, had Barack Obama supported that in the primary season, I would not have voted for him. I would have stayed home on Feb. 5. In the general election, Obama was so obviously the superior candidate on so many levels that we had to forgive him FISA, but it remains a stunning betrayal. I've never fully bought into the guy since. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy he's president, and I'm twice as happy to be rid of Caribou Barbie. But I've never been able to shake off that little voice in the back of my head insisting, "He voted for FISA." It's not like warrantless wiretapping is a tremendously popular policy point. I'm pretty sure only the hard-corest, Kool-aid-drinkingest 9/11 Republicans think it's a good idea. So why did he vote for this? Was it a window into the dark side of the magic Change faerie?

Right now, we don't know. Certainly, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. He's already drawing up plans to close Gitmo, after all, which is pretty fucking awesome. There is every reason to hope Obama will be a good or even truly great president.

But I for one will be watching him like a hawk. We elected this guy to turn this country back into something worth a damn, and if he doesn't, we have every right to eviscerate him. I will be watching, Mr. Obama.

And for all I or anyone else knows, you'll be returning the favor.

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