Last year I wrote about organizations struggling to preserve the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq. The struggle continues, as ISIS continues its path of destruction and looting, while other reports demonstrate organized looting in areas held by the Syrian government and its military.
Scholars feel mostly helpless regarding the situation. When I first looked at recent images of Dura-Europos provided by the Geospatial Technologies Project (an ancient site about which I've been writing a book for five years), I felt nauseated and useless. Sometimes we scholars look like we're in the proverbial "ivory tower" not because we don't care, but because we just don't know what to do -- and we're not accustomed to guessing when others' lives are at stake. Even seasoned on-the-ground archaeologists and museum curators in Syria are at a loss about the best way forward.
But a recent issue of the academic journal Near Eastern Archaeology demonstrates what scholars can do in response to calamitous world events. The special issue, edited by Prof. Jesse Casana of Dartmouth, presents the current state of cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Libya. Its ten articles -- which the journal made open access due to its humanitarian goals -- shows a blend of the latest technologies, keen analysis, and social engagement.
It's not ivory-tower scholarship, but a rare combination of the view on-the-ground with the view from a satellite.
You can find the whole issue here.
J.J. Goldberg follows Israeli politics closely. In his latest column at the Forward, he examines Prime Minister Netanyahu's claims about Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who has since revised his remarks, originally claimed that the grand mufti gave Hitler the idea for the Holocaust. As Goldberg points out, Netanyahu's revised explanation has not exactly clarified matters. Since "today’s Palestinian leadership continues to revere Husseini and his legacy," the violence now spreading from Jerusalem is due to implacable Palestinian hatred of Israelies. IDF officers in charge of responding and controlling the violence have a different take.
Goldberg reports that "two active-duty IDF generals who are among the army’s top experts on Palestinian affairs spoke out publicly to state that Palestinian violence is driven to a considerable degree by anger at Israeli actions. One of the two went a step further, warning that only a serious Israeli diplomatic re-engagement with the Palestinians will help to quell such violence over the long term." One general specifically cited attacks by settlers against Palestinians as part of the cycle of violence now roiling the country
Read Golberg's story in the Forward before commenting.
The wars in Syria and Yemen along with the continuing battle in Iraq between the government and ISIS have no end in sight. Attention to Russian intervention in Syria tends to obscure the tumult everywhere else. Charles Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the George H.W. Bush administration, offers a broad survey of the region, its history since the Gulf War, and U.S. ME policy since 1991. Here are the concluding paragraphs of his talk to the U.S.-Arab Policymakers Conference on October 15.
As refugees overwhelm Europe and both Asad and Da’esh continue to hold their own against the forces arrayed against them, the world is moving toward the conclusion that any outcome in Syria – any outcome at all – that can stop the carnage is better than its continuation. The ongoing disintegration of the Fertile Crescent fuels extremism; empowers Iran; drives Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria together; weakens the strategic position of the GCC; vexes Turkey; and leaves the United States on a strategic treadmill. The region seems headed, after still more tragedy and bloodshed, toward an unwelcome inevitability – the eventual acknowledgment of Iran’s hegemony in Iraq and Syria and political influence in Bahrain, Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen. That is not where Americans and our Gulf Arab friends imagined we would end up twenty-five years after liberating Kuwait from Iraqi aggression. But it is where protracted strategic incoherence has brought us. We can no longer avoid considering whether an opening to Iran is not the key to peace and stability in the Middle East.
Whatever our answer to that question, the seventy-year-old partnership between Americans and Gulf Arabs has never faced more or greater challenges than at present. We will not surmount these challenges if we do not both learn from our mistakes and work together to cope with the unpalatable realities they have created. Doing so will require intensified dialogue between us, imagination, and openness to novel strategic partnerships and alignments. There are new realities in the Middle East. It does no good to deny or rail against them. We must now adjust to them and strive to turn them to our advantage.
Previous efforts to discuss the ME here at dotCommonweal have not been very productive or, at points, even rational. I will open comments on Monday evening hoping that those interested will actually read Freeman's talk, "America's Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East," and speak to the points he makes and the issues he raises. And, of course, it can be read without any need to make comments.
10/19: Comments open. No bullies, no trolls, no hysterics. You will be deleted.
In a sprawling forty-five-minute address to the United Nations this morning, Pope Francis again urged world leaders to take practical measures to protect the environment, avoid armed conflict, and protect the most vulnerable.
After “reaffirming the importance” of the UN in working to promote justice and human rights,” the pope prodded the assembly to pay attention to the “victims of power badly exercised”: the environment and the “ranks of the excluded.” He warned against “false rights” presented by “the world”—and then he asserted a new one: “a true ‘right of the environment’ [derecho del ambiente, in the original Spanish] does exist,” Francis said. That is a very big deal.
Before the publication of Laudato si’, there had been some speculation about whether the encyclical would speak of the environment itself as having rights. After Francis told journalists that human beings had lorded their power over nature Robin Darling Young asked:
Was he really implying that created nature—the environment—has rights of its own? Such a view on the part of the pope would be a significant development in Catholic thinking about the inherent worth of creation apart from the humans who dominate it. We shall soon find out if he meant it.
It sounds like he did.Read more
President Obama spoke at American University on August 5. In defense of the Iran nuclear agreement he said many things, worth thinking about. Among them a recognition that U.S. and Israeli national interests (at least as seen by PM Netanyahu) are not congruent:
OBAMA: "I have also listened to the Israeli security establishment, which warned of the danger posed by a nuclear armed Iran for decades. In fact, they helped develop many of the ideas that ultimately led to this deal. So to friends of Israel and the Israeli people, I say this. A nuclear armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel, to America, and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.
"I recognize that prime minister Netanyahu disagrees, disagrees strongly. I do not doubt his sincerity, but I believe he is wrong. I believe the facts support this deal. I believe they are in America's interests and Israel's interests, and as president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.
"I do not believe that would be the right thing to do for the United States, I do not believe it would be the right thing to do for Israel."
AIPAC, Sheldon Adelson, and some other members of the U.S. Jewish establishment have announced their intention to spend millions (maybe billions!) to defeat the Iran nuclear deal.
And Yet...the dependable J.J. Goldberg of The Forward tells us that much of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment thinks Israel should support its passage. Instead of being obstructionists, they argue, Israel should work with the Obama Administration to insure its implementation. What a great idea!
P.S. Saudi Arabia appears to be on board with the agreement.
President Obama announces that the P5+1 have reached an agreement with Iran to limits its nuclear production capacity. New York Times
Congress wil get its say. It will be lobbied. The Forward: "Israel Hopes to Scuttle Iran Deal."
Blessed are the Negotiators.
U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East presents one of the most complex and convoluted set of issues the country faces. Yet very little changes in how we (or our leaders) think about it. Paul Pillar -- retired CIA officer, visiting scholar at Georgetown and Brookings (also served in Vietnam) -- writes regularly and intelligently about U.S. policy.
In a current essay, he asks what prevents us from conducting a "zero-based" review of MIddle East policy. His premise is that "historical baggage" weighs down politicians and policy makers who resist looking again at why we are doing what we are doing.
MIddle East policy began with FDR's visit to Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud; in effect, stepping in for the British in the Middle East. "The oil bargain" they struck needs rethinking. Seventy years later, Pillar observes: "In any other historical context it would be bizarre for the United States to treat as a coddled ally a state that not only is a family-ruled authoritarian enterprise with zero freedom of religion and based on an intolerant ideology that is a basis for violent jihadi extremism but also more recently has been a destabilizing factor as the family pursues its own vendettas and narrow interests in other Middle Eastern states."
Other baggage includes the Iranian hostage crisis, 9/11, the Iraq War (the last one!), and our relationship with Israel. On the latter: "The evolution [of the U.S.-Israeli relation]...has been one from a plucky little Jewish state, created in the shadow of the Holocaust and besieged by neighbors, to the militarily dominant power of the Middle East, which repeatedly throws its weight around with disregard for the sovereignty and security of others. It is a state that has moved ever farther from any commonality with laudable American values...."
Pillar recognizes, certainly in the case of Saudi Arabia and Israel, how hard it would be to rethink our policies. In enumerating the barriers to shifting historical baggage, he points to democracy itself. "With limits to policy being set by deeply entrenched popular attitudes and beliefs that democratically elected politicians continually recite, the history that gave rise to those attitudes and beliefs is a heavy restraint on any leader who might see the wisdom of following a different path."
Earlier this month, I happened to turn on the PBS NewsHour and caught a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s decision to send another 450 military “advisers” to help train the Iraqi army in its fitful fight against ISIS. One of the panelists was Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, among other books. Also on the panel were Ret. General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of policy at the Department of Defense, and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense. Zinni, Flournoy, and Panetta were all supportive of sending more advisers and even expanding the scope of the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, Bacevich was skeptical. As he saw it, whatever skills the U.S. military might instill in Iraqi forces, they will not “be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem.”
Panetta was hawkish and optimistic about an expanded U.S. military mission. He seemed to think that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be pressured into arming its Sunni and Kurdish partners in the north. “We’ve got to push the Iraqis,” he said. No one asked why we would have more leverage with the Shiites now than we did when we had a hundred thousand troops in Iraq. Panetta insisted that ISIS posed a grave threat not just to U.S. interests abroad, but to our domestic security. Bacevich responded that Panetta was “vastly exaggerating” any threat ISIS might pose to the United States. Given the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we “ought to be a little bit humble” about thinking that U.S. military can fix problems in that part of the world. Bacevich observed that we had in fact created many of those problems by invading Iraq in 2003. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability.”
Isn’t that a simple statement of fact? Evidently not to Panetta. He reads recent history quite differently. “The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism,” he said. “The reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades.”
I confess to being nonplussed by that statement. Does Panetta honestly think Iraq and Afghanistan have been rousing counterterrorism success stories? I suppose that might be true if the goal was to occupy both countries indefinitely. But there are limits to American dominance, and limits to what we should ask of our men and women in the armed forces.
To his credit, Bacevich was having none of what Panetta was selling. “With all due respect,” he answered the former secretary of defense, “we don’t know how to do this.”Read more
We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:
Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:
The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.
Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,” Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy.
Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?
Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religions, and Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe.
See the full table of contents here.
We've posted two new stories to the website.
First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.
Read the whole thing here.
Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:
…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.
Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?
Read the whole editorial here.
On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:
Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.
Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...
Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.
Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:
I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”
Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.
Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.
"All journalists are manipulated." I have to say, that line Judith Miller used in her interview with Jon Stewart this week is irking me. It's probably true, certainly for myself, that at some time or another, skillful PR people have managed to mislead, sidetrack, obstruct and otherwise manipulate every reporter.
But part of the job is to recognize when that's being done, and Miller, promoting her new book The Story, comes across under Stewart's questioning as willfully oblivious to that.
During the interview, Stewart calls Miller's attention to a September 8, 2002 front-page New York Times story Miller wrote (with Michael Gordon, as she noted) showcasing the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”
Stewart pointed out the phrase that says administration “hard-liners” were arguing that the first “smoking gun” to be sighted from Saddam's supposed build-up could be a “mushroom cloud.” (Condoleeza Rice used the line publicly the same day, and President George W. Bush repeated it in a speech the following month.)
“It’s a very powerful line, and it explains their thinking,” Miller responds.
Stewart retorts that the phrase originated with a White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson. “It’s a political line directly tied to the White House,” he says. In other words: recognize that it's spin.
"Jon, were we not to report what it was that had the community, the intelligence community to be so nervous about Saddam?" Miller replies. "Were we supposed to keep that from the American people?"
Stewart: "No-- you should have reported it though, in the context that this administration was very clearly pushing a narrative and by losing sight of that context by not reporting"--
Miller: "I think we did, the story said"--
Stewart: "I wholeheartedly disagree with you."
Miller: "Now, that’s what makes journalism."
Stewart: "It’s actually not what makes journalism, so let’s continue with this."
As the "Trans-Pacific Partnership" makes its way through the U.S. Congress, the trade agreement (with Pacific and Asian countries) is being amended to penalize BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) efforts against the West Bank Settlements.
The amendments from House and Senate committees "require U.S. trade negotiators to 'discourage politically motivated actions' by foreign countries and international organizations that aim to 'penalize or otherwise limit' commercial relations with Israel or 'persons doing business in Israel or in territories controlled by Israel."
"Territories under the control of Israel," of course, refers to the occupied land beyond Israel's 1967 borders. The measures are directed primarily at European countries and businesses who are increasingly opposed to the West Bank Settlements and to Israel's refusal to recognize a Palestinian state. The Occupation of the West Bank is against international law. If passed, these amendments would contervene long-standing U.S. policy opposing the Settlements.
Recall that the BDS movements was started as a non-military, non-violent protest against Israel's Occupation of Palestinian Territory. The movement has garnered more sympathy in Europe than in the U.S.; but even in Europe little has come of it.
How exactly is the U.S. Congress empowered to limit the free speech and political decisions of European countries? Why not ask your Senator or Representative?
In the April issue of The Atlantic, several thousand words into Jeffrey Goldberg's deeply reported, timely, and sobering assessment of Euorpean Jewry, he asks whether it's 1933 again.
Anti-Semitic attitudes have increasingly turned into anti-Semitic attacks, and perhaps 2015 is the tipping point. Goldberg was interviewing a group of Jews in a cafe near Sarcelles, a center of 2014's anti-Jewish riots.
The [town's] synagogue is now also used as a base of operations for the more than 40 soldiers who have been assigned to protect the town’s Jewish institutions.
“We’re very glad for the soldiers,” one of the men, who asked me to identify him only as Chaim, said. “But soldiers in the synagogues means that there is no life here, only danger. This is why I’m leaving.” It is, he said, using an expression common during the Algerian civil war, a choice between le cercueil ou la valise—“the coffin or the suitcase.”
After reading Goldberg's reporting, that stark dilemma does not seem melodramatic. Weaving interviews and synagogue visits with hate-crime data from throughout Europe, he portrays an existential anxiety among Jewish communities from Sweden to France to Greece. In one of history's most macabre twists, the tiny Jewish population of Gemany may have the strongest state support on the continent. Angela Merkel is "among the world's chief defenders of Jews."
Casual and even well-educated observers of modern European religion can learn much from Goldberg's narrative, so much of which shows a rapidly changing everyday experience for Jews. With the Shoah slipping from living memory -- and its memorials defaced, its museums attacked or empty -- anti-Semitism no longer lies dormant.
A younger generation tells its parents to stop going to their Jewish doctors. Jewish students are afraid to go to school: if to public school, they are individual targets; if to Jewish schools, a collective target. A Swedish rabbi and his wife do not walk in public together, for fear that they might both be attacked and leave their children orphans.
Goldberg concludes by considering whether emigration to Israel or the United States--the suitcase options--is the best hope for European Jewry. "Do you have a bag packed?" he asked Alain Finkielkraut, a celebrated French intellectual, referencing a classic question in Jewish culture. "We should not leave," he said, "but maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice."
As an American Jew whose family left Moldova just before its Jews were exterminated, Goldberg is not optimistic for the future of Jewish life in Europe. He visited what used to be the synagogue in the town of Leova, where his grandfather would have prayed. It is now a gymnasium. "The caretaker tried to sell it to me," he quips. A bid for the future? Goldberg demurs, and leaves us with this:
I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew—which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.
Forty-seven Republican Senators have written to the "leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," warning them that whatever agreement President Obama and Secy. of State Kerry might come to on Iran's nuclear progrgam, there's a good chance it will be dumped in a new administration. (Wonder which new administration?) Here's the NYTimes story with over 3500 comments.
Is this an Impeachable offense? Oh wait! Would these 47 have to bring articles of impeachment against themselves?
The Iranians seem to know enough about the U.S. government to call it a "propoganda ploy"; that's a little stronger than the President's observation calling the letter "somewhat ironic," putting the Senators on the same side as Iranian hardliners. Here's the letter; check out those signatures! From satirist Andy Borowitz: "Iran Offers to Mediate Talks Between Republicans and Obama." Amy Davidson at the New Yorker points out that the senator who wrote the letter has been in the Senate for two months. Marking the fence posts? Jim Pauwels points out below that they may have all used the same blue pen to sign. Even the Daily News!! And The Logan Act (1799) (text below) HT: Pat Lang.
March 11 @10:33: Having just finished reading the paper, I am thinking maybe this mess could prove a turning point. 1. The Democrats are backing away from new sanctions legislation; 2. Herzog and Livni running against Netanyahu are pulling up in polling; 3. Tom Frideman does a fact-filled column on how Sheldon Adelson is buying U.S. and Israeli politics. (Cites below in comments @10:44). Too pollyannish?
PM Netanyahu has delivered his speech to the Joint Session of Congress at the invitation of Speaker Boehner. Netanyahu's grand entrance to the floor of the house a la the President's for the SOU should not confuse us. Netanyahu wants to remain Prime Minister of Israel, but if he can manage U.S. foreign policy, he would consider that a plus.
Here is his address to the Congress, via CSPAN (at about 15 minutes).
Commentary: William Galston at Brookings on recent polling. Robert Hunter at Lobelog on outcomes of successful negotiations. Bernard Avishai at the New Yorker on what Netanyahu really wants--war. George Friedman at Stratfo on the U.S. dilemma in shaping a ME balance of power with or without Israel (HT: Jim Pauwels). Here's a British take on the speech. Reporters from the Guardian have annotated the speech. And here's Jon Stewart!! (R-rated metaphors!)Read more
Here is a vigorous rejoinder from the Jewish Daily Forward to PM Netanyahu's claim to speak for Jews everywhere. Well argued too.
An unnoticed side-effect of the Republican victory in the mid-term is the decision to launch the party's own foreign policy. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, has invited the governor of Israel, our 51st state, Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This appears to be part of the continuing effort of members of Congress to deep-six negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter's nuclear program. The Congress has threatened to pass legislation increasing the sanctions against Iran. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said he would veto such legislation, arguing that it would likely end the negotiations and raise the specter once again of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Presumably, Boehner thinks that a pep talk from Netanyahu would rally votes to override any veto.
It is not Boehner's responsibility to invite Netanyahu and the White House has objected. It is not Netanyahu's responsibility to interfere in U.S. politics. Perhaps common sense will prevail. Netanyahu will stay home. Congress will not pass further sanctions. Obama cannot therefore veto them. Talks will continue and perhaps an agreement will be reached. Stay tuned.
The Forward has this analysis: "Did Benjamin Netanyahu and the GOP just pull off a coup--or lay an egg?" Jim Lobe has a good round-up of everyone who wasn't asked about the visit, and is now angry, as well as some speculation about who actually proposed it, not Boehner or McConnell he opines.
"Jerusalem — Jewish settlers attacked American consular officials Friday during a visit the officials made to the West Bank as part of an investigation into claims of damage to Palestinian agricultural property, Israeli police and Palestinian witnesses say....Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that a small number of settlers threw rocks at officials who had come to an area near the Jewish settlement outpost of Adi Ad in two consular vehicles to look into Palestinian claims that settlers uprooted scores of Palestinian olive trees the day before."
More here: Christian Science Monitor.
Gosh. Wonder if the FBI, CIA, State Department are investigating. Sanctions? Drone surveillance?
- 1 of 4
- next ›