Monthly Archives: November 2015

Applying Counterterrorism Consistently

Last Friday, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was attacked by a gunman who proceeded to barricade himself inside the building for a number of hours. Ultimately, the gunman surrendered to police, but three people were killed between the initial assault and the standoff that followed. Several others were also wounded. This story from CNN provides a reasonable summary of the attack and what we know about it so far:

http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/28/us/colorado-planned-parenthood-shooting/

Obviously, details from this case are still emerging, but early indications suggest that the shooter was motivated in part by the Planned Parenthood baby parts scandal* based on comments he allegedly made to police. This, combined with the fact that the target was Planned Parenthood, suggest that the shooter’s motivations were pro-life beliefs. To be fair, it’s entirely possible that this may have been a random attack and have nothing to do with abortion. But the popular assumption at this point is that it is related to abortion. And our focus for this story is on the popular response.

The suspect in this case is a white man, not an Arab. And there is no indication that he was influenced by Islam nor connected to ISIS or Al-Qaeda. I would like to suggest that these facts alone explain the response.

President Obama issued a statement on the attack, framing it as another instance of gun violence. Acknowledging that the motive for the attack was uncertain, Obama did not label this as terrorism. The Presidential candidates have also followed suit, with the exception of Republican Mike Huckabee who did describe it as “domestic terrorism”.

By now, it is probably well-established that the term “terrorism” is not consistently applied. When Arabs or self-professed Muslims commit atrocities, it is terrorism; when individuals with other attributes do it, it usually isn’t. This case appears to be another data point in support of that notion.

Another important observation here is how the proposed solutions vary depending on the demographic of the suspect.

In this case, Obama’s initial remarks are essentially suggesting gun control could have helped prevent this problem. This was also his response to the Charleston church massacre that was committed by a white supremacist earlier this year. But in response to the Paris attacks, the immediate Western response was an increase in airstrikes. To his credit, Obama was less enthusiastic about increasing airstrikes, but the fact remains that our fundamental strategy for combating that form of terrorism is airstrikes and drone strikes in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, etc.

Of course, the analogy between the Paris attacks and the Charleston or Planned Parenthood shootings is an imperfect one. In the case of Paris, there are identified groups (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and a few others) that overtly aspire to commit more such acts. In the other cases, the individual suspects seem to be one-offs. But the analogy is still relevant because the most hawkish among us are keen to suggest that in fact it’s not ISIS or Al-Qaeda that should be blamed but the general ideology of Islam.

Thus, for the sake of consistency I would like to propose a thought experiment. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the root problem is the Islamic worldview. From this, we could justify tailoring our counterterrorism efforts to focus on Muslims, and we would continue to justify preemptive drone assassinations against them. So what about the white supremacist in Charleston? He may not have been a part of an organization, but clearly he’s not the only white supremacist. Should we therefore engage in a policy of drone striking anyone with a Confederate flag on their truck because they might share the same extremist white supremacist views and might be plotting to shoot up a church? What about the pro-life activists? Surely, the Colorado Springs shooter is not the only one that harbors those views. Should we have a predator drone hovering over the next Republican convention because it might have a lot of pro-life folks inside?

Unless you believe in totalitarianism, I suspect the answer to the above hypotheticals was a resounding no. And the reason we should have revulsion to these ideas is precisely because a few violent crazies on the fringe do not justify discrimination or assassination against the broader group they identify with. Terrorists identifying with Muslims is not the same as Muslims identifying with terrorists.

But if you do still want to continue the policy of preemptive assassination based on suspicion in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, please be consistent and call for drone strikes on Colorado and South Carolina as well. You never can be too careful.

*Incidentally, I personally find it rather confusing why conservatives were so up in arms about the baby parts scandal to begin with. It appears that Planned Parenthood was only ever reimbursed for minor expenses, and they weren’t really selling baby parts. But what if they were? I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that cost is a deciding factor when one is debating whether to have an abortion. Therefore, even if Planned Parenthood was subsidizing abortions 100% to augment their booming baby organ business (which no one alleges), it seems unlikely that it would actually increase the number of abortions. And of course, though it may be a bit crass to say, we should note that the aborted fetus doesn’t have much use for the organs. But if Planned Parenthood made enough money on selling baby organs for research, then they could potentially become self-sustaining and would no longer require federal funding. And isn’t that the perennial uproar that we have when it’s time to pass the budget –that conservatives don’t want the federal government to subsidize Planned Parenthood? Now, this shouldn’t be interpreted as advocacy for the sale of baby parts, but the economic implications summarized above seem to reflect an odd contradiction in the conservative position.

Turkey Shoots Down a Russian Plane Along Syrian Border

Yesterday, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane that allegedly crossed into Turkish airspace. The Turkish story on this incident is more than a bit doubtful (for instance, it alleges that 10 warnings were given and ignored by the Russians, but also maintains its airspace was violated for 17 seconds). But whatever the truth of the allegations, it cannot be disputed that the Russian plane did not pose a threat to Turkey. Russia has been flying sorties over targets in Syria for some time now and still has not struck any targets in Turkey. Thus, it is worth wondering why the Turks were so trigger-happy to shoot down a Russian plane, based on what is, at worst, a technicality.

For more insights on this question, I recommend the analysis of Philip Giraldi at The American Conservative. He discusses the circumstances surrounding this event in more detail and speculates on the likely rationale of the Turkish government:

Why did Turkey attack a Russian plane?

Ultimately, this event appears to be a manifestation of some of our worst fears about the convoluted Syrian policy. America and its allies have effectively prioritized unseating President Assad over fighting ISIS. Thus, they have been indirectly or directly backing “moderate” rebels in Syria, many of whom ironically share virtually the same ideology and anti-Western sentiments as ISIS. However, this backing of the “moderates” puts the US and NATO at odds with Russia, who is supporting Assad and quite reasonably considers many of the “moderates” to actually be Islamic terrorists. This all has led to unnecessary tensions between Russia and the Western countries, who all share the goal of defeating ISIS.

Given all the complexities that unfold in a war, a direct incident between Russia and the US or its allies was virtually inevitable. This event is fulfilling that inevitability.

Now we must also consider what happens next? Will this escalate into a pointless and destructive conflict along the lines of World War I, since Turkey is, after all, a NATO member? Or will cooler heads prevail?

Thus far, Putin has condemned Turkey and (justifiably) accused them of being “accomplices of terrorists”, but has not made any serious moves towards further escalation. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration appears committed to blaming the victims and playing stupid–claiming this is the result of a flaw in the Russian strategy of targeting the moderate opposition. On the plus side, even Obama is not overtly calling for an escalation with Russia at this point. We should be grateful the situation has not spiraled out of control yet, but we are from in the clear.

As a practical matter, we should also be very relieved that it was a Russian plane that got shot down by NATO instead of the other way around. Thus far, Putin’s response has been admirably restrained on this issue. If it was a US fighter pilot that got killed because of deliberate fire from the Russians, I posit that American politicians would already be talking openly (and excitedly) about World War III.

Overreaction in Paris Curtails Basic Liberties

The series of events taking place in Paris right now is entirely predictable, but it is still frightening. In response to the coordinated attacks on Paris a week and a half ago, the French government has declared a temporary state of emergency and suspended many basic liberties. This write-up at Yahoo news offers a good summary of the situation so far:

Few Dissenting Voices as France Curbs Rights After Massacre

The French government has essentially assumed very broad policing powers. The net result appears to be that they can seize property and restrict freedom based on mere suspicion rather than proof. Additionally, the evidentiary standard for conducting searches appears to have been reduced considerably. Some of the highlights of the anti-terror activity so far include the following:

  • Raiding 793 residences and arresting 90 people
  • Placing 164 people under house arrest
  • Seizing weapons, money, and drugs from some of the above suspects
Asking what drugs have to do with combating terrorism is an obvious question. And the most likely answer is that these extraordinary additional powers are already being used for general law enforcement activities. But perhaps more important, is the virtual certainty that some of the people targeted by these raids and/or placed under house arrest are innocent. Either France is swarming with terrorists, or this is a frantic crackdown that is casting a broad net out of fear. The latter is clearly more likely. But of course, this is why we have standards and due process before depriving people of their liberty, to avoid unduly affecting innocent people. But under a state of emergency, such considerations are null and void.
Perhaps most alarming of all is that French officials are citing their equivalent of the bill of rights–namely the Declaration of the Rights of Man–to justify depriving people of those very rights. In the words of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, “Security is the first of all freedoms.” And it therefore would appear to follow that actions done to protect that alleged first freedom, and inherently justified. The French government is suspending the people’s rights to save them. How very noble.
As for what this looks like in practice, French police recently violently suppressed a pro-refugee protest. The State of Emergency instituted a suspension on freedom of assembly, and the police were enforcing it.
The crackdown on civil liberties in France is a real world example of the age-old debate between liberty and security. Most of the French people and the French government certainly seem willing to make the trade for increased security. But the long-term consequences are unclear. If you prevent people from going about their daily life, as occurred recently in Brussels, you can probably prevent them from experiencing a terror attack. But would that mean that we should stay in our homes at all time. What is the appropriate trade-off and who should decide that balance? These are the questions raised by the Paris attacks. And the trend so far appears to have a significant bias towards security.
Ultimately, ISIS is not nearly strong enough to pose a meaningful threat to the French people. They may be able to inspire one-off atrocities, but that is it. A few murderous people on a rampage cannot possibly destroy a society. But a government that is completely willing to suspend the most basic liberties in response, well, that is a threat that merits far more attention.

Stop the Bipartisan Grandstanding on Refugees

Lately, a heated debate has broken out over the question of admitting Syrian refugees. On the Republican side, Donald Trump’s previously hyperbolic suggestions of an ISIS “Trojan horse” have essentially become mainstreamed. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the aisle, President Obama has criticized the Republicans for demonizing Muslims and has argued that accepting Syrian refugees is required based on our American values. Many media outlets were also quick to highlight the very thorough vetting process refugees go through. Thus, the net narratives that have emerged on each side look something like this (and as will be clear from the rest of this post, I am definitely not endorsing either of these views, but merely attempting to summarize them):

Republicans: Obama’s commitment to admit new refugees is opening the US to new terrorist threats and is completely irresponsible. We’re totally fine with profiling Muslims because they’re the only ones that commit terrorism these days, and we should be honest about that. The First Amendment can go jump in a lake; we need security before we can consider rights.

Democrats: The Republicans are just being racist fear-mongers. There’s no credible terrorist threat from the refugee population because of our vetting process; the refugees have been victims of terrorism themselves. We have a responsibility to help those in need, and “we don’t have religious tests to our compassion,” in the words of Obama.

And while the Democratic position appears to have more traction in the media, a recent opinion poll shows that a majority of Americans (56%) appear to be leaning towards the Republican line.

Popular opinion aside, I would like to suggest that the core arguments put forth by both camps miss the point. There are grains of truth in each, but most of this debate amounts to just so much political grandstanding. The Democrats don’t give a damn about the Syrian people; the Republicans aren’t really afraid of them; and both of them need to be called out as such.

Let us begin with the Republicans. In fairness, we should start by pointing out that it’s not completely absurd to suggest that ISIS would like to infiltrate the refugee population for the purpose of committing attacks. Last week, we noted that the strategic purpose of ISIS attacks against Western targets is to provoke a harsh reaction by the people and governments of Western nations. If they can provoke extreme oppression against Muslims, then their narrative of a war against Islam gains credibility and they may be able to recruit more members to their cause. In other words, they need the West to behave like monsters. Few things would be more beneficial to this cause than inspiring a Western crackdown on Muslim refugees, a crackdown on the most vulnerable people in the world. And you don’t just have to take my word for this. One of the ISIS attackers in Paris was found with a Syrian passport that appears to have been fabricated or stolen. But all of the attackers were European citizens that would have no need for such a passport–it would obviously be easier for them to travel using their legitimate European nationality than faking refugee status. And accordingly, we must conclude that the Syrian passport served one purpose–to implicate refugees in the attacks and provoke a reaction against them.

The reality noted above could be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, we know ISIS would love to inspire the “refugees are terrorists” narrative. On the other, we realize that in France, they ultimately did not get into the country as refugees. Thus, one might conclude they feared the refugee vetting process would thwart their plans and won’t try to take the risk accordingly. But a more modest conclusion might just be that since the attackers really were European citizens, there was no reason to feign refugee status. Whatever the calculation may be, we still know that ISIS wants the West to fear refugees. It is therefore sad and ironic that the same Republicans who claim to know how to defeat ISIS are also the most eager to fulfill the ISIS strategy to a T.

And it’s worth noting all the ways that (mostly) Republicans are currently toiling to make the ISIS narrative a reality. At least two Republican presidential candidates, Cruz and Bush, are openly suggesting a religious test for the Syrian refugees–if they’re Christian, we’ll take them. If they’re Muslim–eh, maybe not so much. Donald Trump has said he would “strongly consider” shutting down some mosques amongst other absurdities (he’s moved on to discriminate against Muslims in General rather than just the refugees). Several Republican governors have vowed to challenge the refugee resettlement program. And this past week, the House passed a bill that would effectively stop the admission of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Any one of these developments would be remarkable and appalling by itself. The accumulation of them is incredible in the extreme. While all of these proposals play on the fears of the American people, the ideas floated by the Presidential candidates strike me as the most dangerous of all. From Bush to Trump, these ideas directly and openly contradict the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. The fact that these ideas are resonating with a segment of the American population is a truly alarming development. Desiring strong border security and a strict immigration policy is one thing; overt disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law itself is quite another. And for this reason, Obama is certainly right to denounce the Republicans for acting contrary to American values. Indeed, one struggles to find strong enough language for the task.

But then we must turn our attention to the Democrats and precisely what American values we are discussing here. At least on the surface, the argument presented by President Obama and his defenders is a persuasive one. But if the Obama Administration has taught us anything, it is that one must always look beneath the rhetoric.

At a recent press conference after the G20 Summit in Turkey, Obama called on more nations to contribute resources to the refugee crisis, noting that the US has donated the most thus far at $4.5 billion. Obama also said that we must accept more refugees, but ensure our own security in the process. Obama’s present plan calls for accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees by next year, and Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced the US would be increasing acceptance of all refugees (from Syria and elsewhere) to 85,000 per year by 2016, rising to 100,000 per year by 2017. This compares with just 70,000 per year right now.

The trouble is that, given the vast scope of the crisis sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, this effort all but meaningless. To see this, let’s run down the numbers. And to keep it conservative, we’ll restrict our focus to those countries in which the US and its allies have militarily intervened in one way or another:

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website, UNHCR.org. All except two of the figures come from detailed country pages and were stated as of December 2014, the most recent date for which comprehensive data were available. As Syrian and Yemeni refugee-only figures are updated more frequently, those figures are current as of mid-November 2015.

So in the table above, IDP refers to internally displaced persons. These are essentially people who were forced to flee their homes, but until they actually leave the country, they’re not technically refugees. In terms of desperation though, there isn’t much difference. Meanwhile, the refugees column includes a small number of asylum-seekers, which are defined slightly differently. But again, when we’re talking about suffering and risk, it’s kind of a distinction without a difference. All of these individuals in the table above were identified by UNHCR as part of the “population of concern”.

So what this table tells us is that nearly 25 million people have been displaced in countries that have been destabilized, at least in part, by US intervention over the past decade and a half. And while it is true that some European countries are working to permanently resettle them, the vast majority of these people, whether IDPs or refugees, remain in deeply desperate conditions.

If the US does manage to accept the planned figure of 85,000 next year, it’s clear that this amounts to little more than a rounding error in the face of the current need. As a percentage of total refugees, it comes to 1%. As a percentage of the total population at risk, in the countries we’ve directly affected, it literally rounds to 0%.

But if that was not depressing enough, let us now dive in to the much-discussed vetting process advocated by the President. According to a summary offered by The Wall Street Journal, the total vetting process is estimated to take between 18 months to 24 months for each applicant. Mostly, I’ve seen this presented as a virtue of the program. If it takes that long, it must be thorough. And it also would likely serve as a deterrent to an ISIS infiltration in the refugee stream precisely because of the time lag. These are both reasonable conclusions to draw, and it does make the notion of a legitimate refugee terror plot seem even less probable.

The problem is that the purpose of the program is not just to vet people; it’s to help people who are in immediate need. And while this vetting process is taking place, the refugees remain stuck in whatever terrible living conditions they’re already enduring. That is, they don’t come to the US until the process is completed. All of this means that in the very best case scenario, Obama’s policies won’t help any of the Syrian refugees for a year and a half. Thus, based on the professed Republican fears, they should still love this program. Chances are, we may not have to admit anyone because by the time they get approved, they will already be dead from starvation.

And herein lies the truly appalling reality of the refugee debate. President Obama is arguing for a policy that does almost nothing for refugees, and not until a year and a half from now. Meanwhile, the Republicans are advocating doing literally nothing for refugees, and using blatant fear-mongering to do so. Ultimately, this debate isn’t about helping the Syrians, and it isn’t about protecting the Americans. It’s just about electoral politics–the only American value that matters.

If the politicians really wanted to address the refugee crisis, they could start by stopping the intervention. But somehow, that option isn’t up for debate.

Terrorist Suspects Are Known to Authorities before Their Attacks

Authorities are currently working hard to get more surveillance powers in the wake of the attacks in Paris. This response is entirely predictable, and it seems to rest on the premise that if we had access to more data, these attacks could be prevented. But this obviously begs the question–is this premise even true? Would greater surveillance powers provide greater security? There are many compelling reasons to oppose increased surveillance based on constitutional or civil liberties considerations, but is it possible to oppose it on purely pragmatic grounds as well?

Writing at The Intercept, Ryan Gallagher has an important story out today that helps inform this debate. His story looks at ten of the last major terrorist attacks against Western targets. For each attack, he summarizes the relevant details about the perpetrators and also discusses what the authorities knew about these suspects in advance of the attacks. His conclusion is striking. In every case considered, authorities were aware of the extremist tendencies of at least one of the perpetrators in each attack:

From Paris to Boston, Terrorists Were Already Known to Authorities

How they came to know these details varies in each case. But the point is that they knew of the potential suspects, and failed to properly investigate. And there’s no indication that the failure stemmed from a lack of access or encryption or stringent civil liberties rulings. Rather, in most cases it appears the authorities just didn’t have the adequate resources to properly investigate the leads. Ultimately, the problem wasn’t a lack of data, it was a lack of focus.

This is important context as the surveillance debate begins anew. One of the goals of increased surveillance is that the government would be better able to identify real threats. But if you’re conducting surveillance against everyone and running the data through an algorithm to generate new leads–you’re certain to get at least a few false positives, leads that are really just a waste of time. The program is only as good as the programmers can make it, and it’s probably going to err on the side of caution. On the other hand, if you have someone explicitly tell police that they think their roommate is going to do something crazy, as allegedly happened for one of the Paris attackers, well, it’s probably safe to assume that’s worth following up on. In other words, to the extent that the surveillance powers generate even more leads, they could further dilute law enforcement’s efforts to pursue the most dangerous threats. And in this way, they may ultimately prove counterproductive, even on purely pragmatic grounds.

Advocates of the surveillance state are fond of saying that they are looking for a needle in the haystack. So in order to find the needle, they need to collect the whole haystack. What Gallagher’s research suggests, however, is that they already know where a lot of those needles are and should focus on picking those up first.

The Biggest Problem with the Syrian Peace Process Is US

After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, there is renewed focus on the struggling Syrian peace process. All sides seem to finally agree that the Syria problem is an urgent one, and they are eager to make progress. Thus, we heard an optimistic announcement from Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week that the Syrian transition could be just “weeks away”, but the roadmap to get there remains very unclear. This piece at The Guardian does a reasonably good job of summing the situation up from the perspective of the Western nations.

Basically, everyone is at least nominally on board for a transition, including countries as diametrically opposed as Iran and Saudi Arabia. But significant disagreement remains on the details. And these remaining areas of disagreement have the potential to delay or derail the peace process, prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people and increasing the threat of foreign terrorism. It’s therefore important to understand what these differences are.

One issue on the table is exactly who comprises the “moderate” opposition in Syria. You’ll recall that President Obama once called the idea of an armed “moderate” opposition in Syria a “fantasy”–by which, he meant that most of the people fighting against President Assad in Syria were extremists. But one of the key goals of this transition process is to broker a ceasefire between that same opposition and the Syrian government. Thus, the question is Who qualifies as part of the legitimate “moderate” Syrian opposition and gets a seat at the negotiating table? According to The Guardian article, the Jordanians have been tasked with sorting out the extremists from the moderates, but the opposition members quoted in the article are already concerned that Jordan will be too picky. From the article:

Opposition sources say they also fear that the Jordanian vetting process will exclude the majority of armed rebel groups and certainly important non-jihadi Islamist ones such as Ahrar al-Sham, and thus play into Assad’s hands.

Coincidentally, the Ahrar al-Sham group mentioned here–yeah, they’re actually quite extreme. For instance, they also believe in the Salafi version of Islam (i.e. the same sect of Islam as Al-Qaeda and ISIS), and they have openly worked with Al-Qaeda in Syria in the past. They also aren’t big fans of Shiites or democracy, and they want to impose pure Islamic law.  According to this thorough analysis at the Middle East Eye, Ahrar al-Sham shares most of the same goals as ISIS and Al-Qaeda; they just disagree on tactics. Thus, it should go without saying that they don’t fit any reasonable definition of moderate.

As a more general consideration, if you’re worried that your friends are going to be considered terrorists, you might want to consider getting new friends. Should we really be splitting hairs here? Of course it’s true that governments are usually very eager to accuse innocent people of terrorism because it serves their interests (usually, because they can claim an attack was thwarted by their heroism). But in this case, the incentives are reversed. The US is on the side of maybe-terrorists and thus they have an incentive to insist on a very lenient vetting process. Otherwise, consider how bad would it look if none of the opposition passed the non-terrorist test, and the Assad regime was left negotiating a ceasefire all by itself. Obviously, the US is not going to let that happen. They can’t let the Syrian government narrative that it’s fighting against terrorism be proven correct, regardless of what the facts may be.

And while I have not seen the US publicly comment on whether it supports including individual groups, the PR incentives outlined above will prove a significant obstacle for this process to overcome.

The second major hurdle is the question of Bashar Al-Assad. All sides agree in principle that Assad can probably stay to help manage the transition that ultimately culminates in free elections. The Western nations are insisting that Assad should not be allowed to participate in those elections. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, are suggesting that free elections should really be free elections, including the possibility of Assad being a candidate. Although it is not actually unique, this does seem to be an extraordinary situation on its face. Here we have the storied authoritarian regime of Russia and the theocracy of Iran advocating for truly free and fair elections, while the West wants to dictate some of the terms.

And of course, it may be tempting to note that Assad is Russia’s and Iran’s ally, and that’s why they’re taking this stance. That may be the case. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the right decision. If you want the free elections to have legitimacy, you can’t impose preconditions on it saying the people can’t vote for the incumbent. And it doesn’t matter if he’s a horrible bastard and a war criminal. Free elections mean free elections, and the Syrian people should be allowed to choose for themselves.

As Americans, we may be used to the idea that our government can dictate electoral conditions to other countries. But the absurdity of this cannot be understated. Imagine if Russia or the UN came in and said we couldn’t vote for George W. Bush in 2004 because he had violated the American people’s rights (the PATRIOT Act), tortured people (which had happened), and committed war crimes (namely, launching an aggressive war against Iraq). And I realize the analogy between Bush and Assad is imperfect, but the thought experiment is still a useful one. No American would tolerate that–probably not even the Democrats who hated Bush the most. And similarly, we cannot expect Syrians to accept us further meddling in their future, especially after everything we’ve already done in that region.

These two issues are going to be a challenge for the Syrian peace process to overcome. The US and its Western allies appear willing to seat questionable opposition groups at the negotiating table and are trying to ban Assad from the ultimate elections. And it must be recognized that both of these decisions are for domestic politics. We said the rebels are moderate and that Assad must go, and now we’re trying to will these statements into existence. But as we jostle for a hollow PR victory against Russia and Iran, one thing is certain: the Syrian people will continue to lose.

Fox News: The Problem with the War in Syria Is We’re Not Killing Enough Civilians

I confess, that was a slight paraphrase. But I suggest to you that it was very slight indeed. Here’s the headline that was at the top of Fox News yesterday:

France, Russia pummel ISIS stronghold as critics blast US rules of engagement
And in case that wasn’t quite blatant enough for you, the opening two paragraphs will give you a pretty good sense of the thrust of this article. Enjoy:

In the wake of Friday’s deadly terror attack in Paris and the confirmed bombing of a Russian airliner, Russia and France are pounding the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa as, while the number of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS still dwarves all others combined, America appears to be in a slap fight while others are punching hard, say military experts.

U.S. rules of engagement and the overarching desire to minimize collateral damage are holding back the true force of U.S. air power, while Paris and Moscow have taken off the gloves following the bombing of a Russian airliner and Friday’s horrific attacks in the French capital, according to one retired four-star general.

Great fun. They even threw in a misspelling of the verb “dwarfs” for good measure. Nice.

It turns out that this is actually a common grievance that Fox and other hardcore right-wingers like to dust off from time to time. The idea is that if only the US wasn’t so careful about avoiding civilian casualties, we could win all the wars we fight. The argument often also involves a vague reference to the good ole days when the US military had virtually unlimited tolerance for civilian casualties to “get the job done”–maybe the carpet bombing of Germany in WWII, maybe the Total War policy of Williams Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War, or maybe the best (and thus worst) example of all, nuking Japan. For proponents of this argument, these historical episodes are models to be emulated, not tragedies to be avoided.

But as you might expect, there are significant problems with this line of reasoning.

First, it’s simply not true. I don’t have military experience, but the results of the modern wars in the Obama era have yielded a very high number of civilian casualties. One recent report on a 5-month period of drone strikes (often referred to as precision strikes) revealed that 90% of the casualties were not the intended targets. That is, for every 1 alleged terrorist that was killed, 9 civilians were also killed on average. And this was according to classified government documents released by a whistleblower, so there is every reason to believe those figures. Meanwhile, reporting on airstrikes in Syria and Iraq suggest far better results thus far, with the ratio essentially being flipped. Specifically, an estimated 20,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in the coalition campaign to date with up to 2,000 civilians killed. But while these seem better on their face, we must note they are necessarily conservative because it’s difficult to get reliable reports out of ISIS-controlled areas.

In addition to the above statistics, we also have numerous anecdotal examples of the US bombing civilians, ranging from the recent and notorious hospital bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan (30 dead) to the drone strike that hit a random wedding party in Yemen (12 dead) to a cruise missile strike on a school in Yemen (45 dead). In all but the most extreme cases, the US denies that any civilians are killed or just refuses to discuss the issue. But while the US government is not transparent enough for us to know the exact number or percentage of civilians killed, we can say with certainty that it is significantly above zero.

Perhaps the rules of engagement really are onerous, and are just routinely ignored. Or perhaps the rules were lax to begin with. But either way, the notion that the US is exercising massive restraint to avoid civilian casualties does not stand up to scrutiny.

Having said that, I don’t doubt that our bombing campaigns could be even less discriminating than they are at present. Indeed, the Fox News article cites a former military officer who suggests that we should “flatten Raqqa [ISIS’s capital]”. But herein lies the second fundamentally flawed assumption underlying this argument–that a massive bombing campaign would work.

Though the idea is repugnant on its face, it may be conceivable that the US could destroy all cities and infrastructure that is currently under ISIS control–which would entail massive bombing of parts of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, and possibly Nigeria. Assuming we have the firepower to actually pull that off, what would it accomplish? Well, it might make us feel good for awhile. But it’s impossible that it would kill all ISIS members and sympathizers–particularly since a good number of these appear to be in Western countries at this point. Most ISIS members in the affected areas would just go back into the shadows until the onslaught subsided. Or in other words, we would just turn ISIS back into an insurgency. They wouldn’t be able to hold territory, but they would still be able to carry out guerrilla warfare from time to time. We’ve seen this happen before. When the US surged in Afghanistan, for example, violence eventually subsided because the Taliban were simply waiting it out.

More importantly, an indiscriminate bombing campaign would simultaneously be the most effective recruiting tool imaginable for ISIS and other extremists. Indeed, it is precisely that kind of overreaction that ISIS needs to bolster its support. Killing civilians creates terrorism; after 14 years of the formal War on Terror, this should be obvious to everyone. And it bears repeating that ISIS is trying to paint a narrative of a war between the Western countries (and their allies) against Islam generally. Nothing could be more conducive to that end than aggressively bombing more Muslim countries than we already do.

The problem isn’t the rules of the engagement in the War on Terror; it’s the War on Terror itself.

The Crisis Playbook – Paris Edition

In the aftermath of the tragic Paris Attacks last Friday, Western governments are responding with the typical crisis playbook:

  • Cast blame elsewhere (ideally scapegoats or political enemies)
  • Respond rapidly (even if ineffectively)
  • Most importantly, ask for more powers.

This script is not unique to terror attacks, but they seem to bring it out in its purest form.

The Paris Attacks have followed this rule quite well. Early on, in the effort to put the blame on something besides the incompetence of the government itself, many were highlighting the fact that that a Syrian passport had been found on just the attackers. The implication would be that refugees carried out the attack, and since France’s security services could not have possibly screened all of those individuals, they would be partially exonerated. And France would have been victimized essentially for its humanitarian impulse. It would have been a great narrative from a political standpoint. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a fake passport, and it appears that all of the attackers were European nationals, at least so far.

As for a response, France has already stepped up its bombing campaign in Syria and carried out over 150 counterterrorism raids, in concert with the Belgian authorities.

And then there’s the request for more powers. France has extended its state of emergency to three months and is currently asking for a variety of new measures:

  • The ability to remove French citizenship if someone is convicted of particular crimes
  • Increasing the police force by 5,000
  • Giving police officers more leniency to use lethal force

Of course, Hollande says he is doing this only to protect the freedoms already enshrined in the French constitution, but then, politicians always say something to that effect — we must violate the Constitution to save it. Yeah, that makes sense. It’s like how parents say sometimes you have to punch your baby in the face to save him. Wait, no one says that.

In this context, we’re seeing a new and particularly dangerous variant of the playbook. Many are trying to attribute part of the responsibility to whistleblower Edward Snowden. This truly bizarre line of reasoning suggests that terrorists are able to perform more sophisticated attacks now, because Snowden told them the US is spying on them. And for good measure, the argument also gets to cast part of the blame on the makers of encryption software. In other words, this one is a two-in-one – they get to attack people they want to attack anyway (Snowden, privacy advocates, etc.) and roll in a request for more powers at the same time (if only you let us have access to all your data, then we could have nice things).

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent summary and debunking of this latest blame Snowden initiative, and that’s our lead story. It turns out we shouldn’t blame Snowden–we should blame the government officials who are currently asking for even more power.

Exploiting Emotions About Paris to Blame Snowden, Distract from Actual Culprits Who Empowered ISIS

Action and Reaction on the Paris Attacks

The recent string of bombings and mass shootings in Paris are a tragedy of the first order. The most recent reports suggest upwards of 129 people killed in seven separate incidents, with many more wounded. Taken together, it is the most severe attack in France’s modern history, and ISIS has claimed responsibility. France remains in a state of emergency as the authorities try to identify the remaining perpetrators.

No doubt, the gruesome details of the attacks themselves will continue to emerge in the coming days as well as stories about the individual victims. All of that is important, and I do not wish to discount it. But in this post, we shall take a different approach and make a few observations that are unlikely to appear in most coverage of these events. These attacks were politically-motivated and they should be analyzed in that light.

All Human Suffering Is Not Created Equal
Perhaps this is an obvious point, but the reaction to the civilian deaths in France and other Western countries is very different than the reaction to deaths of civilians from other countries. A good rule of thumb appears to be that the farther east and south one goes, the value of human suffering declines precipitously. The Paris Attacks will certainly and rightly dominate the news cycle for the next few days. President Obama already gave remarks condemning the attacks (more on these later), as did many other leaders. On Twitter, many offered messages of support and condolences for the victims of the #ParisAttacks, and I’ve noticed a preponderance of profile pictures on social media overlaid with the colors of the French flag (no judgment if you did this, just noting). The message is clear: solidarity with the French. It’s a message we can all agree on.

But the point is that this response is not universal. Two weeks ago, an ISIS-affiliate appears to have planted a bomb on a Russian civilian airplane, ultimately killing all 224 people aboard. Although Russia hasn’t formally concluded its investigation, everyone basically agreed early on that this was indeed a terrorist attack, with senior US officials telling CNN they were “99.9% certain”. Yet, the first instance I can find of the US publicly expressing condolences or concern for the Russian people appears to have been yesterday, when Obama saw Putin at the G20 Summit. It’s possible that this delay was out of respect for Russia’s ongoing investigation. But given that doing anything out of respect for Russia is not really our thing, I’m going to assume that’s not the real reason. More likely, the Obama administration is beginning to wake up to the true degree of the Syrian catastrophe right now and recognizing that Russia’s actions are broadly in line with the US’s own efforts.

Earlier this week, ISIS claimed responsibility for another suicide bombing, this time in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 43 and injuring 239 people. The attack took place in a Shiite neighborhood known to have strong support for the Hezbollah group, which is fighting against ISIS in Syria. The local US Embassy released a statement expressing its condolences, but it was not a major news story. In the New York Times’ rendition, the story focused mostly on how the Lebanese group Hezbollah is supporting the Syrian government.

And of course, who could forget one of the wedding bombings in Yemen committed by Saudi Arabia, which killed 131 people and wounded countless others. The mere fact that I had to introduce this story as “one of” the wedding bombings is telling–indeed another one happened a week later killing at least 30 more people. While Saudi Arabia was widely condemned in the aftermath of those strikes, no real action came from it. And of course, no US official called for solidarity with the Yemeni people or the Houthi rebels as a result of this onslaught. I suspect few Americans even heard about it in the first place.

There is a way in which the string of terror attacks in Paris are qualitatively more significant than any of the individual incidents noted above. There were more attackers involved, the attack occurred in a relatively secure European city, and the coordination of the attacks suggests a more sophisticated threat than previously expected. These factors certainly add to the shock factor and explain some of the disparity in reaction.

But the point here is not to devalue the very real suffering occurring in France; it is to elevate the like experiences of people in other countries. It is entirely human to identify and sympathize more with victims and circumstances that are closer to our own. I have friends from France and it’s easy to imagine being in the places where these attacks occurred–a concert hall, a restaurant, a soccer stadium… But the fact that it’s easier to identify with these victims does not make the other victims any less important. Indeed, because the US government is entirely complicit with the many civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, etc. arguably makes them the most important of all. Because those are the ones we can clearly prevent.

The Goal of Terrorism is Extremism
Now and always, terrorism is politically motivated. Murdering French civilians does not achieve anything for ISIS in and of itself. Rather, it is designed to provoke a reaction. This was true for Al-Qaeda on 9/11, when they sought to provoke a military response to bleed America to bankruptcy. And it is true of ISIS today. ISIS’s desired result is to inspire more persecution and fear of Muslims by Western governments and by ordinary people. ISIS needs to create a more compelling narrative of a war against Islam generally, in which they can present themselves as the defenders of the faith being attacked by modern-day crusaders.

Dan Sanchez at Antiwar.com noted that ISIS has even explicitly stated this as their goal in an article called the “Extinction of the Grayzone”. Incredibly, the ISIS article cites George W. Bush approvingly when he said, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” That’s the kind of duality ISIS wants to create. This kind of mentality worked for Bush to justify an unnecessary war against the Taliban (which didn’t do 9/11), and ISIS is hoping it will help bolster their support as well.

It turns out the most significant threat to ISIS isn’t the War on Terror, it’s the absence of it.

Why France?
French President Hollande has promised to wage a “pitiless war” in response to the attacks, and indeed a new round of airstrikes were already launched on Sunday. This seems like an ominous development, but we must recognize that France has already been a very active military participant in the Middle East and northern Africa in recent years. The French participated in the disastrous war in Libya in 2011invaded Mali in 2012, and were already participating in airstrikes in Syria and Iraq before the attacks. None of these endeavors have turned out very well for the countries involved, and they inspire blowback against France itself. Indeed, one of the gunmen from Friday is reported to have said “This is for Syria” during the attacks. France’s military involvement in the region, along with its significant Muslim minority population and proximity to the Middle East, appear to be the main reasons it was targeted.

That said, don’t expect the US to present this in terms of cause-and-effect. In President Obama’s remarks, he implied that the people of France were being terrorized for “the values they stand for.” This is implausible. The correlation between military involvement in foreign countries and terrorism at home is not a coincidence. Sweden and Switzerland share France’s values too, but somehow they do not experience major attacks like this.

Though unsurprising, this framing of the issue is interesting in part because US officials and media have been warning Russia about the possible terrorism consequences of their intervention in Syria. It appears that when Russia experiences terrorism, it’s because they bomb Syria. When Western nations experience it, it’s because of their values.

Summing Up
Nothing can undo the tragedy experienced in Paris. But we should ask ourselves why we give a collective shrug when this happens to civilians in other nations. The attacks in Paris are thankfully over for now, but the chaos in Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere continue. And as politicians continue to devise a response to these attacks, we should ask if they are giving ISIS the exact reaction it wanted, by further ratcheting up a failed War on Terror.

A Depressing Update on Guantanamo Bay

The Guardian has a new piece out this week that offers a helpful update on the status of Guantanamo Bay. If you’ve followed this issue closely, you will be not be surprised to learn that the news is not good. Yes, there have been a few welcome transfers during Obama’s tenure, including the recent release of the last British citizen held there, Shaker Aamer. But many more people remain trapped, and nearly half of them have already been cleared for release. Now Congress has passed a law to ban transfers of detainees to the US, which would directly obstruct the latest plans from the White House to close the facility.

In other words, it looks like we’re still a long way off from closing this institution.

Many liberal commentators on this subject are inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and blame the failure to close Guantanamo on obstruction efforts by the Republicans. But as this article points out, this is fundamentally wrong for two key reasons:

  • Obama’s upcoming plan to close Guantanamo is largely a symbolic gesture. It will transfer the detainees to a maximum security prison in the US, but many of them will still not be released. They still won’t be charged with a crime; they just won’t be released. But the main problem with Guantanamo Bay was never Guantanamo itself–it was precisely this practice of indefinite detention, which is an overt violation of the Fifth Amendment. Transferring the practice to US soil would potentially allow Obama to make a victory lap on one of his campaign promises, but it does little to remedy the real issue. And indeed, it seems like this was the plan all along. 
  • Obama has consistently ignored Constitutional limits on his power throughout his Presidency on numerous issues. So the idea that his hands are really tied here is not credible. And since he clearly doesn’t believe in defending the Constitution’s limits on Presidential powers in principle, his failure to act on Guantanamo is not a matter of law but a matter of politics. And indeed, Obama has already explicitly violated the law by releasing Guantanamo detainees when he found it politically expedient to do so in the past. Nothing happened to him then, and nothing would happen now.
So Guantanamo remains open. And although we should rightly blame George W. Bush for starting the practice of indefinite detention, President Obama deserves full credit for perpetuating it.
For the rest of the current details, check out Trevor Timm’s full piece at The Guardian: