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What Next? Who Benefits?

What is the U.S. doing in the Middle East? A senior retired diplomat, Robert Hunter, looks back on U.S. policy after 9/11 and looks forward to the effort to degrade ISIL. He argues that U.S. presidents have failed to ask two questions: What follows? Who benefits? He points to the cross-purposes and their conseuqences as the U.S. once again tries to lead a grand coalition against ISIS/ISIL.

"The US has committed several key errors, some out of lack of knowledge, some out of the felt need to respond to external events, and some in misguided response to the desires of US partners in the region.

"After 9/11, the US chose not only to extirpate those responsible for the first attack on the continental United States since 1814, but also to overthrow the Taliban regime, occupy the country, pull in all 27 other NATO allies to help, and try—but fail—to create a New Afghanistan. Then in 2003, a small group of advisors around President George W. Bush leveraged popular reaction to 9/11 to invade Iraq, one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in US history....

"With the invasion of Iraq, the US blundered into the midst of civil war in the Middle East. It overthrew a Sunni regime that dominated a Shia majority population. Most of the troubles the US now faces in the Middle East flow from that fact. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have sought to “redress the balance,” in particular by getting the US to overthrow the minority Alawite (Shia) regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.... Thus the United States became an active party in a Sunni-Shia civil war, first unwittingly on the Shia side (invasion of Iraq) and subsequently on the Sunni side. It has also been supporting the geopolitical interests of states that oppose Iran, among other countries, which are competing for power among themselves, thus double-binding the US in support of others’ regional agendas that should mean little or nothing to the United States and its interests.....

And it goes on, check out Hunter's analysis at LobeLog.

Why Obama's strategy won't work

Two pieces (somewhat long) lay out the reasons 1. there will be no grand coalition gathered against ISIS and 2. the competing goals of the relevant Middle Eastern nations.

Raghida Dergam The World Post   The US president may decide in the end that this is not his war, and that it is best to return to his country to fortify it against terrorism, and let ISIS unleash itself on everyone until it commits suicide or until it is slayed eventually. This is perhaps the course he might choose if it appears to him that all those who want him to fight their wars on their behalf will meet his war with ingratitude and petulance.   

David Stockman Contra Corner  In truth, the whole thing is a giant, pathetic farce. There will be no coalition, no strategy, no boots, no ISIS degradation, no gain in genuine safety and security for the American homeland. This is an utterly misbegotten war against an enemy that has more urgent targets than America, but a war which will nonetheless fire-up the already boiling cauldron of Middle Eastern tribal, religious and political conflict like never before. There is no name for what Obama is attempting except utter folly.

Compared to the furrowed brow of American newscasters and journalists, these two pieces have a distant skepticism about the ISIS situation and the U.S. response so far. Note the competing and incompatible Sunni/ Shiite interests at stake. These make a grand coalition unlikely and as Dergam suggests it might also be the key to any small local coalition that would "degrade" ISIS.

Now They Tell Us UPDATE

Three knowledgable and connected Times reporters, Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Landler, write today:

....Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East.

Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser during Mr. Obama’s first term, said the public discussion about the ISIS threat has been a “farce,” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”

Should that story have been written a week ago? They note one element that I have thought and argued about over the last few weeks: What are "the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East." Story here, NYTimes, 9/11!

UPDATE: Can Obama's plan work? Skeptics right and left. Lobe Log

What Is George Mitchell Up To?

For those who've watched his public career over the years, the three-part essay just published by the Boston Globe on the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, and the importance of America's role in achieving that peaceful resolution, is classic George Mitchell.

He begins by acknowledging the complexity of the situation and the legitimacy of the deeply felt emotions experienced by all parties.

"Conflicts in the Middle East are many and overlapping: Arabs and Jews; Israelis and Palestinians; Persians and Arabs; Sunni and Shiite Muslims; fundamentalists and moderates; Sunni-led governments and Sunni opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In this highly complex and volatile region, what should the United States do? What can we do?"

See what he did there?  Having acknowledged the complexity and seeming intractability of the problem, Mitchell immediately frames the discussion in terms of his own country's moral and pragmatic responses, and responsibilities.  He's intensely interested in dealing with the world as it is...but always in the context of thinking about the world as it should be.

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Something to think about

A poster, Freddie deBoer, at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish has come under fire for not being even-handed in the Israel-Palestine debate. He has decided to take some time off, he says, but before he goes he has posted a short reflection on what "balance" might mean and what is required to strike a true balance.

Here is a piece of what he was to say:

I also don’t seek balance because I don’t pretend that there is equality of blame in this issue. Many smart, decent people I know treat this issue with a “plague on both houses” attitude, talking about a “cycle of violence,” or “ancient grudges.” They speak as though this issue is so polarized and so complex that we can’t make meaningful judgments. I find that, frankly, bullshit. I’m not usually a big fan of Max Fisher’s work, but he had this perfectly right: the occupation is wrong, it is the problem, and Israel is to blame. Israel has been illegally and immorally occupying the Palestinian territories for almost 50 years. And Israel has the ability to end it. The Israeli government could unilaterally withdraw from the territories and leave the Palestinians to build their own state, or they could fully incorporate Palestinians into a new unified Israeli-Palestinian state that recognized total and complete political and social equality between all people. If you find those ideas radical, consider that they are merely what basic liberal democracy requires.

Whole post here.

Naturally, I have some sympathy for his views. NB: Skip the references to John Chrysostom.

Maybe more than you want to know: A fascinating and revelatory piece by J.J. Goldberg in the Forward on the politics of the Israeli war cabinet.

Remembering James Foley

After his release from his first captivity in Libya James Foley wrote this letter to his alma mater, Marquette University. He said:

Myself and two colleagues had been captured and were being held in a military detention center in Tripoli. Each day brought increasing worry that our moms would begin to panic. My colleague, Clare, was supposed to call her mom on her birthday, which was the day after we were captured. I had still not fully admitted to myself that my mom knew what had happened. But I kept telling Clare my mom had a strong faith.

I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her.

I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed.
I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.

Clare and I prayed together out loud. It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.

In case you missed this UPDATE

UPDATE, AUGUST 3: JJ Goldberg of the Jewish Daily Forward is, I hope, on top of the news this morning. He has a rundown of a possible scenario to bring the carnage in Gaza to closure. Whether Netanyahu will follow this path may be up in the air. Reading between the lines, it appears that the Israeli military thinks its job is done. (Goldberg is my neighbor and I salute his general sanity on Israel and his ability to keep five or six conflicting ideas in the air at the  same time.) Jewish Forward

August 2: PM Netanyahu has issued marching orders to President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and perhaps the rest of us: "Netanyahu told [U.S. Ambassador] Shapiro the Obama administration was "not to ever second-guess me again" and that Washington should trust his judgment on how to deal with Hamas, according to the people. Netanyahu added that he now "expected" the U.S. and other countries to fully support Israel's offensive in Gaza...."  AP at Yahoo News

Obama and Kerry seemed to have clicked their heels and saluted. "I have been very clear throughout this crisis that Israel has a right to defend itself.  No country can tolerate missiles raining down on its cities and people having to rush to bomb shelters every 20 minutes or half hour.  No country can or would tolerate tunnels being dug under their land that can be used to launch terrorist attacks. And so, not only have we been supportive of Israel in its right to defend itself." 8/1 Obama News Conference. Kerry's statement.

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In case you didn't know UPDATE

UPDATE: Here is the Financial Times (British) on the Obama conundrum with Israel/Palestine: "The odds are that, once the dust settles in Gaza, Washington will let the situation drift. It is arguably the fourth of Mr Obama’s Middle East crises after Iraq, Iran and Syria. Why waste more capital on it? The answer lies as much within the US as in the Middle East. Unless Mr Obama is prepared to play the role of a genuinely neutral broker, talks are always likely to fail. If, as a growing number of American Jews and a brave minority of Israelis argue, Israel is digging its grave by undercutting moderate Palestinians, it is time for more thoughtful friends in the US to speak out. Why should Aipac be the one with the megaphone?"  Whole article here

Original post: 7/31: "While Congress figures out how to pass $225 million in new Iron Dome funding before the August recess, DoD supplies Israel with new ammo. Stars and Stripes' story: "As conflict continues between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza, the Department of Defense has released arms to Israel from a weapons stockpile maintained within the borders of the close U.S. ally, defense officials confirmed Wednesday. The ammunition sale from the weapons stockpile, established in the 1990s for use by both countries in case of emergency, took place within the past week, following three weeks of battle between the Israeli military and Hamas militants in Gaza."  Foreign Policy Situation Report, Gordon Lubold

"But according to a defense official it was not in response to an emergency request from Israel. "Instead, the United States elected to supply 120mm mortar shells and 40mm grenades from the stockpile because the arms were approaching the date they would require replacement, he said. Israel regularly buys such ammunition when the United States rotates its stocks, he said, and the United States would meanwhile send new ammunition to refresh the stockpile." Stars & Stripes

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The Lives of Children 2 Update

Here is more on our subject of how children are spending their summer (at least in the Northern hemisphere).

ABC reporters are in Gaza. They saw first-hand an Israeli shelling of a beach where four boys were playing. Their Report here.

The story is confirmed in this eyewitness account of Guardian reporter, Peter Beaumont.

"It was there that the second shell hit the beach, those firing apparently adjusting their fire to target the fleeing survivors. As it exploded, journalists standing by the terrace wall shouted: "They are only children."

"In the space of 40 seconds, four boys who had been playing hide and seek among fishermen's shacks on the wall were dead. They were aged between seven and 11; two were named Mohammad, one Zakaria and the youngest Ahed. All were members of the extended Bakr family."

UPDATE:  You may remember New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks from various mideast wars. He has this account in Thursday's paper of the killing of the four Palestnian boys. His photos show the grusome condition of their blown-apart bodies.  Here.

From Mission Creep to Creepy Mission

SOS John Kerry is quoted in a NYTimes story by Michael Gordon (war correspondent) thus: "BAGHDAD — Winding up a day of crisis talks with Iraqi leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the Sunni militants seizing territory in Iraq had become such a threat that the United States might not wait for Iraqi politicians to form a new government before taking military action."

If we take military action, why would Maiki and his Shiite government become more inclusive? In any case, what is the U.S. interest in supporting either Shias or Sunnis? What interest do we have in favoring one religious group over another. 

Things Fall Apart

Events in Iraq over the last week have "boulversed" the Iraqis, the U.S., the Iranians, the Turks, and the whole Middle East. Attacks by the ISIS succeeded in capturing Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, along with other smaller cities to the south. Fears that Baghdad would fall seem to have abated for the moment. In the meantime, several items of historical interest have emerged:

  • Will Sykes-Picot be overturned? The French-English 1916 agreement to draw ME boundaries created Iraq. Is it time for colonial borders to be redrawn?
  • Who was responsible for disbanding the Iraqi army and civil service in 2003? Condolezza Rice? Paul Bremer? The Neocons? G.W. Bush? And who will be held responsible? Obama?
  • Were VP Joseph Biden and Envoy Peter Galbraith correct in calling for the break-up of Iraq during the 2006 civil war?
  • Will the U.S. and Iran mend fences and go to work to stave off another Iraqi civil war?
  • Will the Neocons reemerge as America's foreign policy gurus? See this NYTimes puff piece on Robert Kagan, who comes out in favor of Hillary Clinton.
  • Will Obama keep his cool?

Nicea III in 2025?

With the unpredictability of Pope Francis, some Catholics have wondered if he would call another council -- a Vatican III. It appears not.

Something that big won't do for Francis. He's thinking even bigger: the church universal will be getting a Nicea III.

According to reporting from AsiaNews, His All Holiness Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has announced that an ecumenical "gathering" will be held in Nicea in 2025.

Speaking exclusively with AsiaNews, Bartholomew says that together with Pope Francis "we agreed to leave as a legacy to ourselves and our successors a gathering in Nicaea in 2025, to celebrate together, after 17 centuries, the first truly ecumenical synod, where the Creed was first promulgated."

The exact nature of the planned meeting at Nicea (now Iznik, Turkey) is not known. But how could it be, over a decade in the future?

The ongoing Catholic-Orthodox dialogue will be intensified in preparation for the event. What began in Jerusalem in 1964 and was celebrated last week at the Holy Sepulchre will continue in the holy city this fall, when, in Bartholomew's words, "a meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Commission  will be held hosted by the Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III. It is a long journey in which we all must be committed without hypocrisy."

In all the attention to the Pope's gestures toward political peace in the Holy Land last week, the joint event with the Orthodox got a bit lost in the mix.

But Francis and Bartholomew didn't lose focus. And they've got a date on the calendar to prove it.

The Spirit on the Ground: Pope Francis' Mass in Amman

A First Communicant waves a Jordan flag at the Pope's Mass in Amman.

Queen Alia Street, a main thoroughfare in Amman, was packed with traffic on May 24th, the day of the Pope’s visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Vertical posters depicting important places in Jordan, like the site of Jesus’ baptism or the massive, blue King Abdullah I mosque, read “Joy and Hope” in Arabic and English. The flags of Jordan and the Vatican lined the overpasses and the walls of the Amman International Stadium where the Pope would say Mass later in the afternoon.

These decorations appeared just days before the Pope’s visit, but signs of his impending arrival were visible throughout Amman for the preceding weeks: curbs received a fresh coat of yellow and black paint, and images of Jordan’s King Abdullah and Pope Francis shaking hands were posted throughout the city. Jordanians, both Christian and Muslim, were excited not only to receive Francis—the fourth pope to visit them in fifty years—but also to use the opportunity to showcase their country’s long history of Muslim-Christian coexistence.

Along with 30,000 other Jordanians—mostly Christians but some Muslims—I attended the Mass over which Francis presided. Because I taught religious education classes for our English-language parish in Amman, I was able to sit on the grassy, ground level of the stadium with the families of the First Communicants, who would be receiving their First Eucharist at the Mass. I had a clear view of the altar and its big, yellow tent, and was able to walk around the field easily, greeting friends and fellow parishioners in the four hours before the liturgy.

As we waited in the hot sun for the Pope to arrive, Fr. Bashir Badr, a friend and Roman Catholic priest, served as an emcee, leading the congregation in chanting and singing. We yelled, “Long live the king!” and "Viva il papa!", sang along to well-known Arabic liturgical hymns, and learned the words to songs written especially for the visit of the Pope. Children let balloons fly into the sky, including two large balloon rosaries, one blue, one pink.

When the Pope arrived, we all ran to the edge of the track that encircled the field.

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Israel/Palestine: Having tried everything else...

...can prayer hurt?

Today's NYTimes does a run down on Francis's invitation to Presidents Peres and Abbas to come to the Vatican to pray. Amdist the story's general skepticism about prayer, there are those who think it could help....and proabably won't hurt.

"Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli author, said he thought for some time that “what we’re missing around the negotiating table are chaplains....I’d like to replace some of the diplomats with genuine religious leaders, people who understand that this conflict is primarily about intangibles and not a line on a map,” said Mr. Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “The problem is, how do you separate politics from prayer, how do you get prayer to influence politics rather than politics intruding on prayer.”

In a previous post, I mentioned a book I've just read: Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes by Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem (published by Orbis). It is a theological, scriptural, geo-political meditation on the long history of empire in Palestine, includng the current empire. Raheb's weekly preaching task must have helped him create this thought-out and accessible way of seeing the conflict without being conflictual himself. A short piece is excerpted after the break.

Bonus link: Forty maps that explain the Middle East.

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Francis Visits State of Palestine...

...and other nearby countries.  The Pope referred to the "State of Palestine" in his meeting with Palestinian President Abbas. In an unexpected and unplanned gesture he stopped his car to get out and pray at the security wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and the Palestinians from the Israelis.

He has invited Israelie President Peres and Abbas to the Vatican to pray for peace. From the NYTimes story: "Father Jamal Khader, head of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jala and a local spokesman for the pope’s visit, said the invitation on Sunday to a joint prayer session was “taking the negotiations to another level – a meeting in front of God.”  Who knows!? Can't hurt!

Reminds me of ideas from a book I just finished, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes, by Mitri Raheb, the pastor of a Lutheran church in Bethlehem. Maybe Francis has read it too.

Welcome? Francis! 2

As Francis arrives in the Middle East on May 24, there are continuing concerns both about the diplomatic to and fro, and about security.

The New York Times reports on the trip's several pitfalls, suggesting that the visit acknowledging all the major players will please few of them. "At each stop on the orchestrated itinerary, the Vatican’s focus...could be overshadowed as all sides dissect Francis’ every action. Already, his effort at ecumenical outreach, traveling with a rabbi and an imam from his native Buenos Aires, has led to criticism that he is not fully engaging local religious leaders."

And from Loblog a run-down of the security concerns about his visit to Israel. "The section of the [U.S.] State Department’s 2013 County Reports on Terrorism dealing with Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza drew attention to the growing threat posed by “extremist Israeli settlers.” It cited “399 attacks by extremist Israeli settlers that resulted in Palestinian injuries or property damage” and deemed them “violent extremists” — mostly over “price tag” attacks against Palestinian Arab homes and property. “Price tag” is a code-term used by Jewish extremists to justify what they claim are retaliatory actions against Arabs or proposed policies of the Israeli government — policies that would restrict the expansion of settlements in “Judea and Samaria,” the preferred settler term for the occupied territories in the West Bank. “Price tag” has been appearing prominently in the Hebrew graffiti defacing Christian sites."

"Lights and shadows" as Israel prepares for the Pope

M. Peppard, view from Austrian Hospice

Almost fifty years ago, the conciliar document Nostra aetate removed a cancer from the heart of Christianity. Its central section, on Jews and Judaism, overturned centuries of faulty interpretation regarding the main "teaching of contempt" for Jews that was part of Christian culture, doctrine, and liturgy.

Surgery is one thing; rehabilitation another. The first is relatively quick and anesthetized; what follows is more challenging, sometimes painful, and often a test of perseverance and endurance.

So as the Pope prepares for the Holy Land, how healthy is the Jewish-Christian relationship? And how is Israel preparing for the Pope?

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Pope's trip to Israel canceled? Or not?

The small but dedicated world of Jewish-Christian relations is busy this morning trying to figure out what's going on. The Times of Israel reported yesterday that the Pope's trip to Israel has been canceled due to a labor dispute.

A source at the [foreign] ministry confirmed to The Times of Israel on Thursday that the pontiff’s trip was cancelled because Foreign Ministry workers are currently on strike and are unable to make the necessary arrangements for the high-profile visit.

The cancellation is likely to cause “large, measurable economic damage, with all the lost tourist revenue that would have accompanied the visit,” the source said.

The strike within Israel's diplomatic service would also endanger a visit from British PM David Cameron.

But a few hours ago, the Jerusalem Post countered yesterday's news:

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Wait, I thought that was a Muslim thing?!

A Christian husband and wife, both wearing traditional Jordanian head scarves, after a Mass celebrated by the Latin Patriarch near the site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.

On a bright, sunny morning in central Jerusalem, two friends and I approached a domed house of worship. A sign outside the door asked us to remove our shoes, so we slipped off our sandals and walked inside, where elaborate carpets covered the floors. A woman wearing a long floral skirt and a sweeping white headscarf bowed and prostrated in prayer, her forehead and lips touching the ground. These images and practices were ones I was used to encountering in Muslim communities, both in the United States and the Middle East. If it weren’t for the icons and crucifixes on the walls, I would have thought I was visiting a mosque. 

But this place was an Ethiopian Orthodox church, a Christian sanctuary. Many of its features—a shrouded altar for consecration, images of Mary and St. George, and twisting crosses that reminded me of Celtic ones—gave away its Christian affiliation. But other qualities, like the practices and attire of those who prayed there, to me were reminiscent of Islam. 

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Israel gets mad (at Kerry) and others

As Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to present the U.S. framework for two-states in Israel and the Occupied Territories, the rhetoric is heating up. And so is the politics. There is a rich trove of news and opinions this week-end some of it focused on the impact of BDS on Israel and on the Israeli government's reaction; some of it focused on U.S.-Israeli Relations.

PM Netanyahu and Israeli cabinet members: "strongly criticized groups who are threatening a boycott of Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. Their remarks were a sharp retort to Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned a day earlier that the risk of boycotts would intensify should the current Middle East peace effort fail."

The State Dept retort: "Secretary Kerry has a proud record of over three decades of steadfast support for Israel’s security and well-being, including staunch opposition to boycotts,... At the Munich Security Conference yesterday, he spoke forcefully in defense of Israel’s interests, as he consistently has throughout his public life. In response to a question about the peace process, he also described some well-known and previously stated facts about what is at stake for both sides if this process fails, including the consequences for the Palestinians. His only reference to a boycott was a description of actions undertaken by others that he has always opposed.” Even a little wishy-washy there at the end sent Netanyahu off the cliff. NYTimes.

And there are these: "Israeli Official Paints Bleak Scenario of Failed Peace Talks" / "Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners" / "Loosing the Propaganda War" / "Why Israel Fears the Boycott" / "A Star Stumbles in the Settlements"