No Love Triangle: Yemen’s president, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Washington D.C.

Yemeni president for 30-plus years, Saleh developed a love/hate relationship with al-Qaeda and Washington DC

Review of Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: al-Qaeda and America’s War in Yemen

“After two months of fighting, Yemeni forces retook Ja’ar and the Abyan capital of Zinjibar from al-Qaeda in June.” Global Post, Sunday August 5, 2012

On Saturday August 4 2012, a suicide bomber killed at least 40 mourners at a funeral in Ja’ar near the Yemeni port of Aden. The target, a defector from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), managed to escape with minor injuries. On Tuesday August 7, U.S. drones killed 10 al-Qaeda militants in separate strikes aimed at moving vehicles in Yemen. On Saturday August 18, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the grenade-assault deaths of about 20 Yemeni intelligence and security personnel.

This tit-for-tat was not front page news, nor did it become a hot pundit topic at magazine sites like Foreign Policy. Even if the media weren’t in a 2012 presidential campaign frenzy, there would still be Egypt, Israel-Iran, Af/Pak and of course Syria. Yemen, a rather exciting place, has slipped through the cracks now that the hullabaloo over the drone assassination of American-born citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 had its fifteen minutes. Awlaki preached death to Americans in videos on YouTube, and President Obama was keen on destroying the New Mexico native.

To his credit, author Gregory Johnsen doesn’t spend much time on Awlaki, by far the most media saturated aspect of U.S. relations with Yemen. Johnsen’s most important contribution is chronicling a tribal, desert nation’s quasi-government caught squarely in the 21st century crusade against religious extremism. Though its not meant to be analytical or biographical, the book is disappointingly superficial—yet its relevance and clear delivery override the quibble.

FLASHBACK to 1990

Johnsen relays the rise of Yemen’s Islamic militants since the 1980s, when the government of President Abdullah Ali al-Saleh encouraged its young men to go wage jihad in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and the true inspiration for al-Qaeda, Shayk Abdullah Azzam, were already there. Azzam had issued fatwas claiming it was the duty of all Muslims to defend their Afghan brethren and testified that he’d seen miracles in the battles against the evil Soviet machine. The day he was supposed to meet Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a Yemeni cleric on his way to becoming the religious rationalizer of al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY), Azzam was assassinated by a mujahadeen faction in the Afghan Civil War. Like Azzam, Zindani manipulated the Quran in key ways—primarily saying it allowed war with infidels as well as violence against Muslim apostates, a concept known as taqfir. Though not a true member of al-Qaeda, Zindani is still a major CIA target.

Nineteen ninety was a big year. Like East and West Germany, Yemen looked to benefit by uniting after the Soviet Union broke down and the Cold War superpower payments ended. The North and South (a Soviet client) unified as al-Qaeda fighters from both halves came home from Afghanistan. Saleh, president of North Yemen since 1978, retained the presidency and the leader of the People’s Democratic Republic in South Yemen, Ali Salim al-Bid, got the vice slot. However, the rival rulers undermined one another from the get-go. Machiavellian Saleh joined up with jihadis and the embryotic AQY to launch guerilla attacks on the Marxist South through the early nineties, culminating in a short civil war in ’94.

Also in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Saleh made a principled yet disastrous decision to stick by the Iraqis against a broad multinational coalition, including key Yemeni financial backers. Secretary of State James Baker told Yemen’s ambassaor at a United Nations vote on whether to go to war with Iraq: “This will be the most expensive no vote you ever cast.” Saudi Arabia struck back at its southern neighbor by suspending all aid and sending a million Yemeni migrants back down to the poorest Arab country in the Middle East and North Africa.

Osama bin Laden had concerns of his own stemming from the Gulf War and the U.S. coalition’s Operation Desert Shield. The Islamic purist got busy trashing the Saudi Royal family for allowing Americans (women soliders even!) to set up shop on the peninsula. So he went to Yemen, the birthplace of his larger-than-life father and a country where jihadi renegades could easily integrate—its inhospitable deserts and mountain caves make it the Afghanistan of Arabia. Bin Laden set up training camps and cells, plotting to drive out all infidels from the holy land. The Yemeni cell’s first mission—to bomb U.S. Marines staying at a hotel in the southern port city of Aden—failed to kill any Marines but succeeded in driving away Western naval vessels. That would end up as the highlight of AQY’s political agenda until the 2000 USS Cole attack.

9/11

Johnsen cites Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower often and that is the book to read if you want to know about al-Qaeda from its official inception in 1987 to its escape from Tora Bora in 2001. Thankfully The Last Refuge breaks new ground after 9/11. AQY was not involved in the coordinated jetliner strikes that killed 2,819 people in and above Virgina, Pennsylvania and New York City. But the resulting War on Terror was the dawn of a new era for them as much as anyone else. President Saleh became an official U.S. client (and form of mercenary), hunting down fighters from a CIA list for cash. At the top of the list was Abu Ali al-Harithi, dubbed the godfather of AQY, and the tale of his assassination shows Saleh’s limits and America’s advancing role. Harithi escaped Saleh’s soldiers when his tribal hosts in the eastern desert used rocket propelled grenades to fend off the government and its tanks. It seemed al-Qaeda might be able to hold its own against Saleh in the fractious pseudo-nation. But post-9/11, the U.S. began flying predator drones over Yemen. Harithi was the highest profile remote kill from 2002 to 2009 (when the CIA hit Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan).

Soon Saleh and his Political Service Organization (PSO) proved a capable arm of American justice and, aside from the destruction of a French oil tanker in 2002, AQY bungled, floundered and flailed for most of the new century. Just like Guantanamo Bay, the PSO prisons quickly filled up with all manner of “suspects.” Johnsen doesn’t dwell on the Saleh government’s morally questionable tactics, rampant nepotism or shady dealings—much like in Afghanistan, Western concepts of corruption are simply the way things get done. But Saleh’s behavior during the 2005 elections is telling: the twenty-seven year ruler claimed he wouldn’t run for president then had the media and/or thugs intimidate anyone who announced his candidacy. Guess who got elected. Another unintentionally amusing scene involves the frequent scolding of Saleh by U.S. officials: “Ill prepared for the meeting, the Yemeni president could only sputter in frustration as [Condoleezza] Rice ‘rapped him over the knuckles’ on corruption and lack of reform.” Saleh is the most interesting character in the most dramatic position—his famous “dancing on the heads of snakes” analogy proves well-suited—among the Yemeni people, AQAP and Washington. Yet, we get no insight into his personal or family life or friendships. And there are no comparisons of Saleh to America’s classic or modern client strongmen; no examination of why al-Qaeda in Yemen never tried to assassinate him. Johnsen has to cover a unique stretch of 21st century war and, again, can be forgiven for presenting mostly raw material.

The Last Refuge effectively points out the cyclical trend of prisoner radicalization that comes back to haunt the governments in Sanaa and Washington. After his massive roundups, President Saleh greenlighted a program to let the men out if they swore to renounce violent jihad. In a form of faith rehab, Judge Hamud al-Hitar set about reinterpreting the Quran for the incarcerated. The biggest obstacle was trying to convince these hardened jihadis that serving President Saleh, a man who dealt directly with the Great Satan, represented legitimate Islam or Sharia. (The failure of the program is noticed by the Bush II administration.) If that weren’t bad enough for Saleh and the PSO, the AQY gang escaped prison in 2006 in another comical anecdote.

Books like The Looming Tower allow us to see the men of al-Qaeda develop into murderers for a cause. No matter how much we are disgusted by their actions, the details enable us to put ourselves in the shoes of terrorists. The personal biographies of bin Laden and cofounder Ayman al-Zawahiri, who both grew up privileged, help first-world folks understand them as rebels. Tower gets around looking like a terrorist-sympathizing tome both because it gives a mindnumbingly comprehensive account of terrorism and goes into detailed bios of American agents as well. The Last Refuge doesn’t provide enough character study to really feel for these bitter holy warriors, but the tale of the Saudi Asiri brothers is an example of Johnsen’s surface inspection of their motivations. The elder, Ibrahim, becomes an expert bombmaker who designs the underwear bomb for the failed Christmas Day 2009 airliner attempt. The device he makes for his younger brother, Abdullah, is to be self-detonated while concealed rectally. In his suicide mission to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s Prince Nayif, the security chief and archenemy of the Saudi AQ, Abdullah is the only one killed though he was standing only a yard from his target. The ill-conceived bomb caused his head to pop off and put a hole in the ceiling. A reader might get emotionally invested in if Johnsen could relate Ibrahim’s response—it’s not as if Nayif is a guiltless civilian.

The Last Refuge confirms that, whether its misguided acts of violence or spurring a government to overreact and punish the guiltless, al-Qaeda and similar groups unhinge the lives of innocent Muslims infinitely more than they terrorize the thoughts of Westerners. Often by accident, U.S. intelligence massacres civilians close to an al-Qaeda target. Then these genius jihadis retaliate by blowing up Muslim women and children at Arab amusement parks (e.g., Baghdad, August 16, 2012).

In January 2009, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a combo of cells from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, announced its birth via a 19-minute introduction video that included former inmates Guantanamo Bay. This upended newly inaugurated President Obama’s plans to the close the Cuba detention center the same week. Johnsen anchors his narrative with this stunningly timed intro exemplifying the complex issues that arise when governments, in effect, go vigilante. However, certain recent revolutions have quickly made Gitmo, black sites and rendition passé—and put Yemen on the historical backburner once again.

The Arab Awakening affected AQAP in two ways. First, the Islamic insurgents saw that popular movements were more effective at removing Western-backed dictators—such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whom Zawahiri had tried to assassinate a dozen times—than their suicide bombers. The revolts also reinforced the take-away from al-Qaeda’s failures during the Iraq War: Murdering scores of the local Muslims causes them to side with the Great Satan against pure Islam. Second, directly related to the first, Saleh, a thirty-three year ruler, was forced to resign and flee. He didn’t learn from Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad in Syria: Murdering scores of your countrymen causes them to turn against you.

In August, the author told The Yemen Times, “in 2011 and 2012, AQAP started taking over towns in southern Yemen—reinventing itself in a matter of speaking by changing its name to Ansar Al-Sharia, or Supporters of Islamic Law. The new group had essentially exactly the same membership as AQAP, but the new name was meant to project a kinder, gentler image.” Al-Qaeda’s coordinated attacks across the globe (from Yemen and Iraq to Pakistan) at the end of Ramadan 2012 beg to differ. As noted above, AQAP has gone back to the goal of massive civilian casualties in the hopes of gaining an illusory political end.

The title, The Last Refuge, harks back to the seventh century in the Arabian Peninsula. “When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen,” the Prophet Muhammad, knowing he might not make it back from his violent quest of conversion, told his followers. Now, hunted as outlaws throughout the world, this deluded group of Islamic fundamentalists has heeded the prophet’s timeless wisdom by settling. Is Johnsen saying al-Qaeda, with its belief in a violent worldwide conversion, the truly faithful? Is the jihadi aim to restore the caliphate and strict Sharia at all costs what the Quran really says? Thankfully, this story doesn’t bare that out. Indeed, if one otherworldly idea comes across, it is that any powerful god is not on al-Qaeda’s side.

Good News! Obama Centrist, Realist

Get it?

It can be really depressing studying foreign policy and international conflicts. It’s mostly bad news. Especially when, in addition to the death, destruction, terrorism and war reporting on mainstream media, you must also study the conspiracy sites. Blogs like The Ugly Truth, which I found off a link on a great foreign policy roundup of blogs. I signed up for the newsletter and the next day received 10 emails of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. propaganda (not necessarily all untrue). Though there are worthwhile alternative media perspectives among the posts, 10 highly subjective posts in a day is both lazy and desperate. And gratuitous: Commenting on the link to a story about how U.S. sanctions are compromising the safety of Iranian airlines, The Ugly Truth editors noted

ed note–which means that if (when) there is some crash of an Iranian airliner, resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians, more likely than not it will be due to the American (Israeli) sanctions put in place. 

Just in case we didn’t see what this post had to do with Israel. Thanks for making your bias so blatant, The Ugly Truth. Another Ugly bias example is the tying of Israel to the Syrian opposition. From what I’ve read, Israel is at worst ambivalent about the somewhat one-sided Syrian Civil War. And I read a lot of different sources. For instance with Syria, Aljazeera English’s website is predictably anti-Assad, Russia Today is mildly anti-U.S. so they support Russia’s position even while they criticize the Kremlin and report on protests. The Economist is capitalist, imperialist and interventionist and The New York Times is, well, getting better.

They no longer just trumpet that “Massacre in Syria blamed on Assad, says everyone”, and try to use vague terms when they don’t know something (like “bloody clash”) instead of just repeating what the Syrian opposition claims (like “civilian massacre”). The Times got a bit of a beatdown, and rightly so, for its reporting on Iran’s nuclear program because it kept substituting “weapon” with what should have been “capability.” As in, it’s been proven Iranians want a “weapon” as opposed to just the capability to build one. Foreign correspondent David Sanger wrote the most egregious substitutions.

And this brings me to the good news. David Sanger’s new book about the Obama foreign policy, Conceal and Confront, came out recently. Guess who was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this week. The Times writer was getting his book reviewed in the Times about what he wrote about for the Times. This must be a totally objective review, right? No, of course not. But to tell the truth, I didn’t care. I was just so happy that Sanger’s book was not a hatchet job of the President’s record. There are plenty of complaints to level at Obama from both the left—legit concerns like drone strike legality—and the right—mostly bullshit, like Obama’s no friend of Israel—but, like Sanger, I believe that President Obama, aside from the Af/Pak surge, has a strangely decent, pragmatic and limited so-called doctrine.

First of all, to address the Israel criticism, the main reason there was tension between Washington and Jerusalem, was Obama wanted to avoid dragging us into war with Iran. We definitely don’t want to go to war with Iran, because if there were any case at all for it, Mitt Romney would be howling. Republicans don’t want to go into Syria, even John McCain has shut up about it. Hell, we told Turkey not to go to war with Syria.

No politician in the U.S. can sell any more American war. Republicans shut up about the lack of soldiers left in Iraq, even while Iraq teeters on the edge (you’d think Romney would attack with that). With soldiers in Afghanistan being blown up or murdered by their allies almost weekly, Obama’s strategically ridiculous decision to surge with 30,000 troops and announce a short-ass withdrawal date at the same time has worked to his political advantage pre-election. Accelerating the withdrawal was cynical yet shrewd.

The other Republican criticism, correct if not utterly hypocritical, has Obama running an imperial presidency. Notice how no one in Congress actually bitched about Obama’s decision to help NATO topple Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, just how he didn’t check with Capitol Hill first. Every president gets this “overreach” criticism at some point.

Obama is certainly impenetrable to the charge of softie, ordering countless more drone strikes than W. and virtually assassinating quantities of al-Qaeda and Taliban officers. He refused to apologize for a chopper strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, even though Pakistan is a client-ally we need. He ordered the Afghanistan surge and the killing of Osama bin Laden. He hit Iran with the toughest sanctions yet and unleashed a cyberwar on their nuclear program (detailed in Sanger’s book).

Our defense department’s pivot toward East Asia strategy has led to an arms race with China, the budding superpower. And this all in one term. By the way, we are sending warships to the Persian Gulf right now.

Where Obama’s foreign policy sought restraint was in the Arab Awakening. Bravo! The left attacks him for not acting in some inspirational role with the Egyptian masses and the right attacks for betraying Hosni Mubarak, whom they claim was an ally. He was just another corrupt client and a greedy dictator who started killing his own people. That’s why we “betrayed” him, Monica Crowley. Crowley is a racist fear-monger who preaches that Obama would rather see America destroyed than win a second term and that Sharia law is strangling America.

State and Defense had to walk a tightrope through the Mideast revolts, often following a healthy dose of rhetoric with, well, nothing. It was the sanest thing to do in such a complex situation. Hillary Clinton is meeting with new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, as well as the leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The rightist Islamophobia critique again fails because Egypt’s Islamists—a comparatible Third Reich for Republicans and Fox News—are still off-set by the military, whom the U.S. supported to help keep things status quo. Clinton is asking the SCAF to give power to the President Morsi, but only in public. Both cynical and shrewd again.

As a realist who understands how low our country can sink (from Rumsfeld/Cheney’s Iraq and Iran-Contra to Pinochet), I have such confidence in current best practices, with regard to this epoch of unstable nations, religious extremism and runaway deficits, that should Mitt Romney become president, I predict little will change. It can’t get that much worse, can it? Never mind.

As the Times review of Sanger’s book reads: “But in truth [Obama] has positioned himself nicely within a political sweetspot, one where Americans are loathe to see their country relinquish its premier global position but wary of unnecessary wars undertaken on wispy rationales.”

Islamic Democracy, Oxymoron?

The Supreme Leader

 “Everybody in the Arab world remembers 2009.”

– Marc Lynch, author of The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolution of the New Middle East, on NPR’s ‘Brian Lehrer Show,’ Monday March 26, 2012

THE REAL POWER IN IRAN

It’s hard to remember a time when Iran wasn’t associated with its current president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. With his provocative anti-Zionist declarations to the world and his U.N. Assembly appearances decrying the evils of the U.S., he has become a Western media pariah. His photo adorns most articles about Iran and its defiant nuclear program. I am guilty of this as well.

But more and more Ahmadinejad, both inside and outside of Iran, should be seen as a nuisance who is fading from the scene. The parliamentary elections of March 1, 2012, weakened him. The majles immediately called him out for reckless economic policies and other questionable actions. Now there is gossip about impeachment in Tehran.

Would the Islamic Consultative Assembly, as the legislature is known, go after a president without the consent of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei? Unlikely. Since Ahmadinejad’s latest perceived insubordination—sacking an intelligence chief close to the Supreme Leader—Khamenei has made a public statement about eliminating the office of the president in 2013. Apparently he hasn’t been a big fan of the last few chief executives.

While President Ahmadinejad is no paean to justice and liberty for all, Ayatollah Khamenei, who took over from revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini upon his death in 1989, and the conservative clerics of the Islamic Republic are the true enemy of any Islamic democracy. This was made clear by the rigged presidential election of June 2009 and confirmed by the brutal and immediate reaction to the Arab-inspired Green Movement surge in February 2011.

These Mideast revolts for an Islamic democracy are linked. After the uprisings began in late January, Iran’s 2009 reform candidate Mir Houssein Mousavi claimed on his website: “What we are witnessing in the streets of Tunis, Sana, Cairo, Alexandria and Suez take their origins from the millions-strong protests in Tehran in 2009.” In those mass Arab demonstrations aided by laptop and cellphone, Facebook and Twitter, Iran’s student activist Daneshjoo News saw what they had started, adding a high-tech angle to civil disobedience. The Internet guru of the Egyptian revolution, Wael Ghonim, gave a speech calling for Iranian support of the Arab uprising. He told the people of the Islamic Republic “We learned from you.”

Heeding these calls for solidarity, a reinvigorated Green Movement planned giant rallies in mid-February 2011. But they would be shutdown.

“On the streets of Tehran, a new slogan is being sprayed: ‘Seyed Ali go be with Ben Ali'” says the Wall Street Journal. A sentiment that Khamenei should go the way of ousted Tunisian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali. This would not stand.

Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad found a strategy they agreed upon: Co-opt the Arab uprisings as pro-Islamic, anti-Western phenomena and crush any revitalized movement before it starts at home. The crackdown on protests was comprehensive and included cutting Internet and cellphone reception. Opposition candidates, such as Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi, were placed under house arrest. Revolutionary Guards and police used tear gas, live rounds and beatings—but were careful not to be caught on video killing protestors this time.

As the Arab Awakening continues in different forms in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries—with everything from massacres to progress—one can argue that the liberal movement in Iran is neutralized. One might conclude that the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and their armed forces are solely concerned with the preservation of their regime.

FLIRTING WITH DEMOCRACY

It wasn’t always this way in Iran, but how would Westerners know? Back in the late nineties, the American media wasn’t covering President Khatami encouraging a free press to flourish in Iran. The U.S. focus during the liberal Seyed Hussein Khatami’s eight years as president was first Saddam Hussein, then al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then Saddam again.

Khatami allied with the centrist political parties and tried to implement democratic changes at home, while curbing the Islamic Republic’s practice of sponsoring terrorism abroad. When he started reaching a hand toward America, Ayatollah Khamenei slapped it back, re-emphasizing that the U.S. is always a virulent foe. Led by the Supreme Leader, conservatives in the Guardian Council, the body that passes bills from parliament, blocked attempts at legal reforms. Sometimes the Revolutionary Guards went further:

“In July 1999 [the Guards] closed a popular reformist newspaper, triggering six days of severe rioting that shook the foundations of the Islamic regime.”

Indeed, Iranians are no strangers to protest. But they were still under the impression they could speak with their votes, and maybe a movement wasn’t deemed necessary yet. The reform parties continued to win seats in parliament in mid-term elections and Khatami easily became a two-termer in 2001.

THE MOVEMENT’S ROOTS

Having effectively shut down Khatami’s liberal agenda, the conservatives took full control in 2005. The Guardian Council disqualified serious liberal contenders, so after Khatami’s two-term limit, the reformers were forced to run a somewhat weak platform of unknowns. The women and younger voters who turned out in 1997 and 2001 became disillusioned and didn’t vote en masse. The Bush Administration gave the conservatives a boost by including Iran in the Axis of Evil, therefore reinforcing right-wing aggressive stances. Voting results point to the long-time centrist and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani splitting the liberals. But skeptical Iranians would say the Supreme Leader and the conservatives helped hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a surprising victory in a low-turnout affair.

Often seen as an uneducated religious zealot, whether for real or as a tactic, Ahmadinejad awakened the opposition. His nepotism, brashness and ego, which put off even Ayatollah Khamenei, gave disparate liberal groups something to galvanize them. Protests against Ahmadinejad during the December 2006 parliamentary elections helped reformists secure a partnership with Rafsanjani’s centrists. By 2008, according to Iranian journalist Hooman Majd, even conservatives were split over the unpopular president.

For Iranian dissenters, as for the Arab revolutionaries, frustration was like seeping gas filling a room for years. And as the cliché goes, it just needed the spark to spread like wildfire.

JUNE 2009

Was there any way the embattled, unpopular president could have been re-elected with 64 percent of the vote? In his book The Ayatollah’s Democracy, Hooman Majd notes:

“While it would have been impossible to prove that Mousavi was more popular than the president, it is also a virtual impossibility that Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Parliament and liberal cleric, could have received only one-twentieth the votes he did four years ago, and less votes than there were card-carrying members of his own political party.”

Clearly supporters of Mousavi didn’t accept it. According to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper:

“As the official results were announced, baton-wielding riot police clashed with angry Mousavi supporters in some of the most serious unrest Tehran has seen in years.”

“Riot police on motorbikes used batons to disperse Mousavi supporters who staged a sit-in near the interior ministry, where the results were announced. Up to 2,000 Mousavi supporters erected barricades of burning tyres and chanted “Mousavi take back our vote! What happened to our vote?”

The results according to Wikipedia’s ‘Iranian Presidential Election, 2009’:

“On the night of 14 June the pro-Ahmadinejad Basij paramilitary group raided Tehran University, injuring many.”

“On 15 June millions of protesters marched on Azadi street and Mousavi made his first post-election appearance.”

The mass demonstrations were met with violence by the Basij (security forces) and Revolutionary Guards, just as Khamenei had promised in a speech warning protesters. It took a viral video of a young, attractive woman named Neda shot dead in the street to drive home what was happening. With the help of instant, mobile technology, cyber witnesses around the world experienced a movement creating itself with more immediacy and truth than ever before.

That a web-connected Arab generation wouldn’t be paying very close attention to the 2009 protests in Iran is unlikely. The Heritage Foundation in their “Index of Economic Freedom 2012” cited a correlation between Iran mid-2009 and North Africa in early 2011:

“Facebook and Twitter feeds during Iran’s Green Movement include messages from young Egyptians blaming themselves for not following the Iranian lead.”

“Both the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Movement were organized by groups of youngsters frustrated with their gloomy economic prospects. Importantly, they had no ties to extremist fundamentalism; they were “non-ideological,” and their solidarity and integrity were unprecedented.”

“The Iranian government’s violent and deadly response to protests … sparked outrage and antagonism against the regime and sowed seeds of discontent against dictatorship and repression that spilled throughout the region, inflaming aspirations for economic and political freedom.

In twenty years, historians and writers will tie the Green Movement to the Arab Awakening (they are only eighteen months apart) as they analyze how technology gave a new era of revolutionaries instant global exposure.

THE FUTURE

Though the liberal movement in Iran has gone underground, the Greens always had a serious disadvantage when compared to the Arab countries with more secular rulers, as the Heritage study observes:

“Iranian protesters faced a regime with strong fundamentalist ideology, wielding a weapon—“religious authenticity”—that other authoritarian regimes in the region lacked, observes Nader Hashemi, a teacher of Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.”

Messianic righteousness has historically been used to justify brutal repression, and it has been used to do this in Iran since the 1979 revolution, even though much of Iran’s privileged class is secular. In contrast, the Arab uprisings, awash in speeches of freedom and democratic reform, has resulted in a turn away from secularism and given Islamic parties more power. Thus a fundamental question is brought to the forefront again for Muslims societies in the Middle East: Is Islam compatible with democracy?

There was certainly a pretense of “one person, one vote” and other civil liberties before 2005 in Iran. As Majd writes:

“Years ago, President Seyed Mohammad Khatami had told me elections in Iran were generally fair—fair, that is, if the winner of any election won by more than three or four hundred thousand votes.”

While detailing the conservative conspiracy to rig the election in June 2009, Majd also cites revolutionary leader Knomeini’s promise of an “Islamic democracy” and the seeds it planted in those hopeful of its truth:

“But there are still many believers in the possibility of an Islamic democracy, including leaders of the opposition, backed by some of the senior Ayatollahs, such as Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei.

Sanei and his fellow reform-minded partners, ex-president Khatami and Green Party candidate Mehdi Karroubi, seem to believe a theocracy and a democracy can coexist. But Turkey, the supposed model, still jails those critical of the regime and refuses to recognize the Kurdish minority. But perhaps if the will of the people can bring about open, peaceful transfers of Islamic leadership, the Western powers and Israel can stop inadvertently radicalizing Muslim populations.

Mao Zedong was a World-class Mofo: a review of Mao’s Great Famine

Mao Zedong wrote the book on guerilla warfare, literally, and was the godfather of Communist China. But thanks to scholarship like Frank Dikotter’s 2010 book, based on the latest archives out of Beijing, there’s more hope that Chairman Mao will be solely remembered as an asshole of the first order—even before he unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Why isn’t Mao, responsible for the deaths of at least 25 million people within four years, a supervillain in the vain of Stalin or even Pol Pot? (Ho Chi Minh is more of a household name.) A couple big factors inform Mao’s lack of mainstream infamy. Most notably, the slow death of neglected peasants isn’t compelling Middle-American entertainment. It lacks cinematic drama. Unlike WWII, there’s no happy ending and there are no heroes. Another notoriety tamer: Mao didn’t specifically order Stalin-style show trials, executions and massacres. Nor did his henchmen dress in stylish black leather or shoot people, like the Nazis. Cable channels, like National Geographic and History, have never given Mao’s China its due.

The title Mao’s Great Famine puts the blame squarely on the Chairman. This specific ‘Fuck You’ is necessary to drive home his complicity because Mao is rather far from the actual carnage. As such, he is conspicuously absent from the second half of the book, especially in the long section called ‘Ways of Dying.’ It almost seems as though he has plausible deniability. He does not. The subtle evil of the Chairman is that he caused a famine then neglected to save his subjects. And it would have been so easy. Mao’s advisers, his planners and his enemies in the party whole-heartedly—yet silently—welcomed an end to his counterproductive policies.

The author takes care not to romanticize Mao and his cult of personality. Mao comes off as a flat character: impetuous, spoiled and often moronic, he seems to lack any skepticism. He’s described thusly:

“Mao spewed disdain”  “Mao now demanded full allegiance” “left Mao seething with resentment”

But Mao had seen his share of hardship, leading his communist guerillas on the Long March of retreat in the  Chinese Civil War. That Mao was desensitized to the suffering of others is not explored in the book—and it’s to his credit that Dikotter won’t allow Mao to escape responsibility via diagnosis.

The word ‘Great’ in the title is a reference to Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1958-1962. Irony doesn’t come much more blatant than this name: The Leap was one of the most insane self-inflicted steps backward in world history.

SOME CONTEXT

After WWII, Joseph Stalin was world communist No. 1—the most powerful soul in the eastern hemisphere. He bankrolled Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War against General Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists in 1947-48. But Stalin treated Mao like an illegitimate child.

“For thirty years Mao had suffered humiliation at the hands of Stalin, willingly subordinating himself to Moscow out of sheer strategic necessity.”

Mao’s accomplishments were nothing to sneer at. He was a pioneer of guerilla warfare and fought off Imperial Japan before driving the Nationalist army to the sea. As a fierce-willed proproganda-spewing prophet, he then cemented Communist China.

Mao had once respected Stalin’s vision but by the early ’50s he was plotting China’s course to match Soviet power. When Stalin died in 1953 of a brain hemorrhage, the Chairman saw no reason he couldn’t become the one true god of communism. Soviet successor Nikita Khrushchev, a loyal Stalinist thug, was not particularly respected inside or outside Moscow—which is why he survived Stalin’s frequent purges.

In 1957, the Sputnik satellite orbited the earth and earned the Soviets the superpower championship belt. Khrushchev boasted loudly about the advances of the industrial wonderland communism built. He proclaimed the USSR would overtake America in everything from color TVs to steel production. Mao began to echo these boasts and assured the world that China would soon outproduce Britain in steel. Soviet communism flourished, so surely China could achieve a Great Leap Forward to industrialization, a la Stalin’s Five-Year Plans.

THE LEAP IS ON

Mao solidified top-level party support through fear and sold the Great Leap Forward as a way to both cure poverty and industrialize the countryside. But the phrase was first used “in the context of a water-conservancy drive” for which 30 million people had been recruited in 1957.

The Leap was China’s second get-power-quick scheme—Mao’s mid-50s Socialist High Tide faltered and drew heavy criticism. But Mao soon purged non-believers and continued collectivizing the vast rural population—seizing its property and forcing it into hard labor—as the People’s Republic sought an edge in prestige, goods and geopolitics. Ideology was a key method of oppression as Mao and his central committee instituted a military-based society: ‘villagers were “footsoldiers” who had to “fight battles” on the “front line” … while “shock brigades” might “stage a march.”‘ Beijing corralled peasants into the continuous revolution, the People’s communes.

Dikotter quotes Mao: “If we can provide food without cost, that would be a great transformation. I guess that in about ten years time commodities will be abundant, moral standards will be high. We can start communism with food, clothes and housing. Collective canteens, free food, that’s communism!”

Like five-star generals, Beijing’s economic planners gave orders that ran down the totem pole of party officials, from province to region to county to brigade and finally to individual cadre. Wielding authority and clubs, cadres stripped millions of poor villagers of their land, herded them into communes or collective farms, and put them to backbreaking work.

Not that the cadres were necessarily evil, they were simply under a lot of pressure to produce tons of steel and grain and other commodities. Cadres were responsible for getting giant damns built, irrigation systems dug and iron ore mined. To motivate workers, they threatened to withhold food.

County chiefs—who wanted to gain favor with the province boss, who wanted to gain favor with Mao—demanded production targets be met and projects be completed quickly. From cadres on up, everyone had to stay on the party’s good side.

Competition was fierce among counties to earn a coveted Red Flag, like a gold star, from Beijing. The state assigned ill-conceived projects and demanded high yields of crops, then provided no oversight, no quality control and no incentive to work effectively. Cutting corners became policy down the line. Tried and true farming methods were scrapped, so attempts to develop more foodstuffs directly resulted in serious food shortages. Entire villages were razed for steel and fertilizer in probably the most prolific residential destruction of all time. Quickie dams collapsed and reservoirs leaked dry. Irrigation schemes salinized—or salted—millions of hectares of soil, making it less fertile. Half-assed industrialization was rampant.

“One chemical workshop in Nanjing, put together in a residential dwelling, had a bamboo roof and paint peeling from mud walls…. Radioactive waste permeated nooks and crannies…. Some of the women had the cartilage separating their nostrils eaten away by constant inhalation of chemicals.”

Indeed, no examples were spared in Dikotter’s comprehensive exposé of dangerously shoddy Great Leap Forward campaigns. Brigades worked the malnourished villagers longer hours but it only wore them out or made them lazy with spite.

As pieces of the sky fell, local leaders buried them, hiding the horrors.

Though the last two-thirds of the book isn’t much fun to read, a relatively enjoyable part of Mao’s Great Famine comes in the ‘Survival’ section. In chapters such as ‘On the Sly’ and ‘Wheeling and Dealing,’ Dikotter concentrates on how regular people defied the party and managed to squeak out an existence. In a society where the lowliest bureaucratic functionaries held life and death in their hands —in the form of ration cards—smart folks learned fast to barter, bribe and network. Savvy businessmen found ways to outwit the state, bypassing the ‘planned economy’ with creative accounting and developing a ‘shadow economy,’ a vast black market.

“Li Ke, a cadre from Jianguomen commune to the east of Beijing, wrote himself a certificate for sick leave for nine months and started trading in sewing machines, bicycles and radios, investing the profit in a bulk acquisition of electric bulbs and cables. These he sold in Tianjin, purchsing in turn furniture which he unloaded in the suburbs precisely when the market contracted…”

Dikotter’s unromantic anecdotes, when they finally arrive, feel like tall tales of capitalist cowboys sticking it to the communist empire.

Cadres and county officials regularly stole from the state, smuggled goods and ran under-the-radar factories and even complex trading operations. What might be considered unconscionable corruption in a socialist democracy became survival in a totalitarian kleptocracy.

Other sections of the book, such as ‘Destruction’ and ‘The Vulnerable,’ detail the wide range of awfulness. The chapters therein, while fascinating in scope, offer up repetitive, depressing statistics for scholarship. One titled “Nature” reveals how Mao’s vainglorious delusions led him to declare war on the physical land.

THE FAMINE

The famine mentioned in the title is presented mostly as a sequence of brief images or as reams of statistics.

“In a hamlet once humming with activity, two children with drumbstick limbs and skeletal heads, lying by their cadaverous grandmother, were the only survivors. One in four people in a local population of half a million had perished in Guangshan.”

Though he’s wise to avoid drawn-out scenes of family’s cannibalizing one another, Dikotter could have found more room for peasants with names and character traits. Instead the reader sometimes sees the rural Chinese as Mao saw them: numbers.

The most sympathetic character, whose story would make fine historical fiction, is Liu Shaoqi’s, Mao’s head of state. He finally returns to his hometown in Huaminglou, Hunan, after 40 years, to investigate the results of 18 months of the Great Leap Forward.

One passage from Liu’s journey sums up how the Leap begat the famine.

‘He [Liu Shaoqi] tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959. Duan Sucheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a Red Flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions [taken by the state], villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.’

In short, Beijing took more and more food from the counties as they produced less and less.

Those who criticized the Leap were labeled ‘rightist’—like ‘commie’ during 1950s America’s Red Scare, a derogatory term that meant you could be blacklisted or worse. The scrutiny by cadres tasked with finding rightists led to the discovery that farmers had been hiding grain.

After a report was issued to Beijing, a furious Mao sent the orders that translated into brigades rampaging through small towns and villages, beating, looting and terrorizing peasants. As tons of hidden grain were violently confiscated, starvation increased exponentially.

When Liu Shaoqi returned home it was April 1961, after several rounds of rightist purges and grain confiscation, and the results of a famine, which had been severe since 1959, were hard to hide. Liu saw with his own eyes the obvious destitution and ‘clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer [Liu’s] team from speaking with villagers.’ Liu called the provincial Bureau of Security ‘completely rotten’ and immediately shut down the wretched canteen in his native village of Tanzichong.

Liu, clearly shocked with the conditions on the ground, was also disturbed that he had stopped getting mail. Dikotter quotes Liu: ‘My home town is such a mess but nobody has sent me a report…. I am afraid they were simply not allowed to write, or they did write and their letters were inspected and confiscated.”

Liu Shaoqi spoke truth to power a month later at a gathering of leaders and called on the party to accept blame for their errors, revealing: ‘in Hunan the peasants have a saying, “30 percent is due to natural calamities, 70 percent to man-made disasters.”‘

For his challenges to Mao and criticism of the Great Leap Forward, Liu’s stock tumbled until he was officially purged in the Cultural Revolution of 1966.

THE END

As early as 1959, Mao had to admit that mistakes were made, but he didn’t change the policies of the Great Leap Forward. A phrase he often used to explain it away was, ‘Out of ten fingers, only one fails, where nine succeed.’ And Zhou Enlai, the senior economic planner, routinely insisted on taking the heat for Mao.

When it was to his advantage, Mao did pretend to care about the rural population. By October 1960, as reports of mass starvation finally made it to Beijing, ‘Mao was visibly shaken’ and party leaders (such as Liu Shaoqi) were finally dispatched to the countryside on fact-finding missions into 1961. The state rounded up, imprisoned and/or purged the most abusive and neglectful county leaders and cadres. Mao called those offenders ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘rightists’ who were taking revenge against the communist vision. But “at no point did the Chairman acknowledge that the regime of terror he modeled at the top was being mirrored at every level down the party hierarchy.”

By the end of 1960, Zhou Enlai and members of the central committee made subtle adjustments in economic policy to slowly reverse the catastrophic death and destruction. A year later, they even convinced Mao that imports of grain were needed to heal the countryside. Most of the famine-fueling elements had been rooted out, and conditions, which had nowhere to go but up, improved considerably by late 1962.

As Dikotter continually points out, a final damage assessment is hard to verify, given all the fraudulent information passed up and down the chain of command. An estimate of 25 million avoidable deaths is the low end of the spectrum—45 million the high. And he argues convincingly that Mao, who expelled experts overseeing an irrigation project for reporting that hundreds had died, knew what was up from the getgo.

Destabilization was obvious: a brief history of Iraq

Studying Iraq’s modern history for a few days and reading books such as Patrick Cockburn’s Muqtada, it seems obvious that the W. Bush Administration either intended to destabilize—i.e incite civil war in—Iraq or at the very least considered chaos as an acceptable side effect to the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. It’s no secret CIA studies had concluded that a major outbreak of sectarian violence would follow a regime-changing invasion. It’s also been a stated neocon goal in regard to the defense of Israel.

The volatile cross-identification of tens of millions of Middle Easterners—tensions based on religion, region and race, not to mention family bloodline and political party—and the traditions of violence in Iraq have been U.S. news since the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War. The Baath party (Arab nationalists) and its early de facto leader Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni, had ruled Iraq for two generations by 2003. In a society such as Iraq where one either rules or is oppressed, leaving a power vacuum is a recipe for bloodshed—then add a dollop of Islamic martyrdom and stir with unpopular Western forces. The complexity of hatred that America has either witnessed or directly fostered upon the fragmented country for 40-odd years might have tipped off U.S. warmongers (who had taken a day to study Iraqi history) that civil war was likely to erupt.

(In the 1970s, Saddam himself recognized that Iraq’s sectarian rivalries and tribal and religious divisions had to be quashed with a combination of violent repression and rapid modernization.)

Saddam engaged in ethnic cleansing, brutally silenced dissent, murdered countless allies in paranoid fits and instigated an unpopular eight-year war where hundreds of thousands were killed. It certainly wasn’t a hard sell for the Bush Administration to paint Saddam Hussein as the tyrant whose removal would be a cure-all and allow the U.S. to be “welcomed as liberators.” (This war argument was, of course, supplemental to the WMD hoax that Donald Rumsfeld et al force-fed the American public and Congress.)

But, again, a cursory study of Iraq in the second half of the 20th century reveals that the “liberators” prediction was absurd and that anything other than civil war could not have been realistically presumed (at very least in the short term). Here are some warning signs about the largest and most clearly defined potential insurgent group, the Shiites.

1) Without a doubt, studious Shiite Muslims live through their history and pay very close attention to it (chess is still forbidden because Yazid, the Umayyad leader who beat up on Muslims from 680 to 683, was playing it during the Battle of Kerbala). Shiite Muslims, a 70-plus percent majority in Iraq, remember that the U.S. supported secular Saddam and the Baath party, indirectly or directly, from 1963 to 1991.

2) The Shia themselves are separated into several factions along philosophical, familial and economic lines, e.g.: Quietism practicing Marji’iyyah clerics; political parties like al-Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq [ISCI]; millions of poor in what is now Baghdad’s Sadr City. Saddam’s atrocities and the Iran-Iraq war in particular—pitting Shiite against Shiite—resulted in further division (Iran’s Shia theocracy also has a lot to do with the lack of Shia unity).

3) Adding U.S. insult to Shia injury: After Saddam’s army was humiliated by U.S. forces in 1991, George H.W. Bush said it was time for the Iraqi’s to overthrow him themselves. When Shiites rose up and rebelled against the Iraqi president, they assumed they would have U.S. military backing. But the U.S. left, and Saddam crushed the violent Shia uprising with, of course, extreme prejudice. Even if the Shia had misinterpreted H.W.’s dedication, how could the second Bush Administration—a direct descendant not just in name, but in cabinet too, of the offending previous president—assume that Shiites in general would welcome U.S. forces as liberators? Nearly the exact same administration betrayed them to the tune of about 100,000 dead.

Did the Bush Department of Defense (DOD) anticipate the reaction of the divided Shiites—not to mention desperate Arab nationalists and Sunnis, nihilistic al-Qaeda and the emboldened Kurds—to be a unified front once the Americans stepped in to smooth the post-Saddam path? Did the DOD experts expect to only deal with Sunni vs. Shia (both of which only serve as an umbrella for a variety of subset insurgencies)? Did they care?

The U.S.’s 2003 invasion exacerbated Shia schisms, illustrated by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army (now the Sadrists) and its disconnect from both the Shia religious authority (grand ayatollahs such as the current leader al-Sistani) and the Shia politicos. This should not have been a surprise to the administration’s Iraq experts, but they underestimated this Shia insurgency by thinking not many would follow the nonclerical Muqtada—even though his twice-martyred family is a descendant of Muhammad’s cousin Imam Ali (the figure at the heart of the Shia/Sunni split in the 7th century).

The Sadrists, probably one of the easiest threats to be predicted, became arguably the most violent and frustrating force the U.S. occupiers had to deal with from 2004 to 2007. Muqtada al-Sadr still refuses to deal with U.S. now and is certainly not beholden to Shiite prime minister Nur al-Maliki. Muqtada, in exile in Iran, has even recently met with al-Maliki’s rival Ayad Allawi (the Shia ex-Baathist the U.S. installed as prime minister in 2004).

More than six months after the Iraqi elections in March, a government has not been formed. It’s good that the civil war is over. It is too bad nobody won.

As there are countless players and organizations to reference, the following timeline skews toward Sadrist ascendance and U.S.-influenced events. (It’s important to note that the holiest Shia cities, Najaf and Kerbala, are in Iraq near Baghdad, not in Shia-ruled Iran)

TIMELINE
1958 – General (later president) Qassim overthrows the Hashemite Monarchy. In general, secularism, nationalism and even communism are superior to Islam or religion as a governing force at this time.

Late 50s – Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (Muqtada al-Sadr’s cousin and father-in-law), descendant from a line of respected Shia clerics going back to the 7th Imam and Muhammad himself, helps found and lead Shia political activism and the Dawa party. The practiced doctrine of Quietism (separating Islam from politics and the state) had led most Shia cleric elders (i.e. Marji’iyyah, ayatollahs) away from seeking direct political power, even though they were the majority. Sunnis, on the other hand, traditionally did not separate Islam from the state. Many Marji’iyyah saw Baqir al-Sadr and Dawa’s political aspirations as dangerous because they would draw attention.

1959 – The mainly Sunni Baath party (Arab nationalists) and Saddam Hussein in particular try to assassinate the communist leaning President Qassim. The U.S., under the Truman Doctrine auspices of containment, begins to back the Baath party.

Early 60s – 1) Saddam, a student of Stalin, helps create the Baathist secret police. 2) Baqir al-Sadr rallies the urban poor Shia (in what would become Sadr City), providing services and promoting his Dawa party—even drawing many Marji’iyyah to tentatively ally with him.

Feb. 1963 – The Baathists stage a military coup encouraged by the U.S. It is seen as “anti-Shia” by the majority of Iraqis. The U.S. sees the party as an enemy of communism. However, despite Qassim’s death, the Baathists cannot hold on to power.

1967 – The Shah of Iran, a U.S. ally installed by the CIA in a 1953 coup, declares himself a Persian King of Kings, expanding his powers and becoming more repressive and unpopular with Shiites, students and intellectuals.

1968 – The Baathists finally seize control of Iraq. Saddam is made vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, head of security forces.

1974-76 – Saddam consolidates his de facto leadership of Iraq. He has seized Iraq’s oil interests and marched the fractious nation into modernization. After a tentative peace with the northern Iraq Kurds, Saddam sacks the region and deports hundreds in his bid to take over oil interests in Kirkuk (and foster Arabization). Saddam becomes General of Iraq’s armed forces.

1978 – In a fateful move, the Shah of Iran asks Saddam (now vice president) to kick exiled Iranian Grand Ayatollah Khomeini out of Najaf, Iraq. Khomeini, who had been speaking out against the Shah (and against Shia Quietism) for years, moves near Paris where mass media outlets allow him to address the millions of disenfranchised Shiites in Iran much more easily than from Najaf. Khomeini has been reinterpreting Shiite religious authority to not only dove-tail with political power, but to in fact supplant it (Knomeinism).

1978-79 – 1) During the Iranian Revolution, the Shah is deposed and Khomeini assumes supreme leadership. 2) Saddam becomes official president of Iraq and immediately has 22 “disloyal” Baathist party members executed. 3) Al-Dawa and Baqir al-Sadr, tolerated by Saddam to keep the Shia majority in check for the last decade, support the revolution.

1980 – Saddam, to avoid the Shah’s fate, cracks down on Shia militants and sees fit to execute the man whom Shiites see as Iraq’s Khomeini. Grand Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr and his sister are murdered. He becomes the Sadrist’s first martyr. Many Dawa members flee to Iran, including future Iraqi prime minister Nur al-Maliki.

1981-1988 – Iraq goes to war against Iran. Despite being supported by U.S. money and arms (Special envoy Donald Rumseld visits Baghdad to make sure Saddam knows where on his side), the war is a bloody stalemate à la WWI’s trench warfare. Iraqi Shiites are forced to kill their religious brothers in Iran. Captured Iraq Shiite soldiers (betrayers of the faith) are treated far worse than Sunni or secular Arab prisoners.

1987 – Saddam begins a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, using chemical weapons and killing at least 50,000.

1991 – Khomeini has died and the Iran-Iraq War is over. Saddam invades Kuwait for oil control. When the U.S. responds, Saddam’s prized military deserts him.

1992 – With the hopes that the U.S. military will help finish the job, a Shiite rebellion explodes with Baathist’s murdered throughout the south. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (cousin to first martyr Baqir al-Sadr, and father to Muqtada) takes control of the many young militant Shia poor in Sadr City, Baghdad (then called Rebellion Township). Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the most powerful Shia cleric in Iraq today, encourages the uprising with much more subtlety. Both the U.S. and Iran do nothing to support the uprising, leading to further Shiite rifts after Saddam crushes the rebellion. However, the ghetto of Rebellion Township was so Shia- entrenched that Saddam could only contain the area, not control it nor kill Sadeq al-Sadr. In fact, soon after the uprising, Saddam believes he is shrewd by making Sadeq al-Sadr the Marji’ al-Taqlid, the Shiite religious leader of Iraq to appease the Shia after massacring their people.

1998 – After years of targeted U.S. bombings and harsh sanctions (leading countless Iraqi’s to die), Saddam still refuses to comply with U.N. disarmament terms. War with Iraq is discussed but unpopular with the American public. President Bill Clinton signs the Iraq Liberation Act, calling for regime change.

1999 – Openly critical of Saddam while gaining support of millions of Shia poor throughout the 90s, Sadeq al-Sadr and his two eldest sons are finally assassinated. Just as his cousin Baqir al-Sadr did when he became an official target of Saddam in 1980, Sadeq donned the white death shroud before he was killed. He became the second martyr.

2003 – 1) Saddam and his Baathists are quickly eliminated by Coalition forces. The U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority’s Iraq Governing Council (IGC) is set up with Paul Bremer as viceroy and Shia ex-Baathist Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. 2) Muqtada al-Sadr consolidates control of the almost 2 million Shia in Sadr City, providing basic services through his Sadr Bureau and arming his Mehdi Army (he, of course, runs the newspaper Hawza). Muqtada, hero to the Sadrists, opposes the U.S. occupation and speaks to the illegitimacy of the Iraqi Governing Council. He declares a shadow government and is at odds with both the leading Shia cleric, al-Sistani, often seen as the representative of the middle class and wealthy Shitte elite, and the Coalition’s Shia IRC “stooge” Ayad Allawi.

Counterinsurgency Redefined

The COIN Field Manual defines insurgency as an “organized movement aimed at overthrowing a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict” and counterinsurgency as “those political, economic, military, paramilitary, psychological and civic actions taken by the government to defeat an insurgency.” Insurgents can be revolutionaries who want to upend the political power structure of a country or secessionists that seek independence. Insurgencies are always internal wars, with one exception, says the manual’s Chapter 1 overview: the “liberation insurgency” where “indigenous elements” seek to overthrow what they perceive as a foreign government’s occupation.

Though Chapter I “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency” is mostly written with an eye toward analytical inclusion of historic insurgency trends and definitions, make no mistake, this manual is about the specific U.S. entanglements of the here and now. As General John Nagel writes in a new introduction: “It is designed both to help the Army and Marine Corps prepare for the next counterinsurgency campaign and to make substantive contributions to the national efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The 2006 manual was a comprehensive update to a shorter, hurried manual written as a response to the explosion of violence in Iraq after 2004’s de-Baathification. Its primary function was to layout the best (if not the most feasible) of all military strategies for the two American wars. It was also seemingly written to get the Pentagon off the hook, as COIN in its most effective form 1) “emphasizes the primary role of traditionally non-military activities and the decisive role of other agencies and organizations” and 2) admitted in the manual, requires an extensive commitment of time and resources that no U.S. politician, nor the general public, would provide nor have much patience for in wars of choice.

Some, like Don Bacon, argue that authors General David Petraeus and General James Mattis, in fact, hijacked the term counterinsurgency to spin the perception of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To avoid calling ourselves an occupational force, which often has a negative connotation, they made COIN the overarching term for U.S. strategy (what has been conflated with our goal and mission as well), and of course insurgentsounds bad. If the bad guys are the “insurgents” (conveniently decreasing the potential for them to be called Iraqis or Afghans or even Sunnis or Shias in the media) then what would that make America as leading the “counterinsurgency”? This argument makes sense because pro-war propaganda is key to help garner support while conducting not just one but two wars of choice.

Whether the manual’s jamming of COIN into the nation’s vernacular was a side effect of media coverage or a sly attempt to reframe the wars to make us look noble and good, the field manual is the ultimate guide to a “just war.” It is not concerned with how or why these wars were started, but how to conduct them now with not only minimal damage to the Host Nation (HN) but a solid commitment to protect the HN civilians, and make the HN more structurally and economically sustainable. It paints our intentions in the best of all lights (though in a much different way than George W. Bush did, even though we haven’t been greeted exactly as liberators).

The field manual’s first chapter implies but never states that counterinsurgency is good and insurgents are evil. The most obvious distinction is that insurgents tend toward terrorism as tactic to “sow chaos and disorder.” There are more subtle tells, such as phrases within the counterinsurgency definition like supporting “constituted government” in “restoring and enforcing the rule of law,” as if the ruling parties of nation-states were inherently benevolent and never to be insurged upon. (Ironically, Mao Tse-Tung, the iron-fisted famine-causing Red China dictator, is cited as the leading insurgency expert.)  The most dubious “just war” implication in the first chapter overview portrays counterinsurgency as defensive—a response to aggression and not the cause. This of course wouldn’t matter at all in terms of public opinion if the field manual were not being sold on Amazon.com.

A very short history of some “counterinsurgency”

In the paper “Effective Leadership in Counter-Insurgency: The North-West Mounted Police in South Africa, 1899-1902,” the author makes a strong, if not obvious, case that having a leader who is respected personally by his men and who has the appropriate experience (in this case, as a veteran mounted North-American Indian killer) is key when fighting insurgents, especially as the fighting is particularly unpredictable and stressful. Though the paper, which opens by discussing the modern-day trend away from traditional warfare to guerilla warfare (a.k.a. irregular warfare), was written in 2008, its title bears no relationship to the COIN manual definitions.

Instead it refers to the Canadian Mounted Police regiment called to South Africa to “fulfill its assigned task of counter-insurgency” against the Boer settlers, who were whipping the British army with snipers, ambushes and the intimate knowledge of their land. And thus throughout the paper, the “counter-insurgency” is simply a group of men with guerilla-combat experience employed to defeat the “insurgents,” who—true to typical underdog definition—used hit-and-run tactics to compensate for their lack of numbers and/or technological disadvantages.

Counterinsurgency came into its modern incarnation as President Kennedy took over the Cold War. He believed one of our biggest threats to be Soviet-sponsored “wars of liberation” in smaller nations around the world. As such he expanded Eisenhower’s CIA-run undercover and paramilitary missions to “overt and covert war against the internal enemies of friendly governments…. ”

Kennedy sought a large increase in Special Forces and increased military authority abroad (over U.S. ambassadors in particular) to go beyond containment of the Soviet threat and provide comprehensive support to countries facing communist insurgencies, though he asserted that “the main burden of local defense against overt attack, subversion and guerilla warfare must rest on local population and forces.” His requisite speeches clarifying the need for billions in military buildup and foreign aid to take on the threat by nonnuclear “forces of subversion, infiltration, intimidation, indirect or non-overt aggression, internal revolution, diplomatic blackmail, guerilla warfare or a series of limited wars [his words]” makes the War on Terror and its Middle Eastern boogiemen seem like cowboys and Indians in scope. (A result of our Hubris of Toughness according to Peter Beinart.)

Cuba and Vietnam, the two biggest concerns of the Kennedy administration and the trial and error of infant COIN, were unmitigated disasters.  After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a broader, comprehensive vision of COIN was needed and a cadre of high-level national-defense officials, called upon by the likes of Robert Kennedy, became Special Group Counterinsurgency. It was created by National Security Action Memorandum 124 to “assure the use of U.S. resources with maximum effectiveness in preventing and resisting subversive insurgency in friendly countries.”

In South Vietnam, the U.S. backed in battle Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem against the North Vietnamese communists and their Vietcong “insurgency” in the South (ostensibly because of the Domino Theory for all of Southeast Asia). But Ho Chi Minh was teaching the Vietcong from the Mao insurgency playbook. Among the major COIN mistakes the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations would make: Camelot allowed Diem, the only effective SV leader, to be killed in a 1963 coup de tat after his corrupt, oppressive regime became national news. Coup after coup followed and, as anyone who knows about COIN today will tell you, it doesn’t work without a legitimate Host Nation. The field manual derives a good portion of its existence from the lessons of Vietnam—where we bombed and murdered the indigenous people as we tried to win their “hearts and minds.”

For Kennedy’s part, his counterinsurgency plan had been based on Diem defeating the Vietcong on his own, and JFK spoke out against putting any boots on the ground (as in Cuba). “Counterinsurgency” in the U.S. in 1963 didn’t even involve soldiers.

‘The War Lovers’ and Related Thoughts on American War

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898

The War Lovers by Evan Thomas is more evidence that it wasn’t just the influential yellow journalism of the New York Journal (William Randolph Hearst) and the New York World (Joseph Pulitzer) and an accidental explosion on the USS Maine that drove us into the Spanish American War in 1898. It was a cabal of powerful agitators such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge who stoked the fire, as vehemently as the papers, in the name of manifest destiny, Anglo-Saxon superiority and the moral strength of war as an end in itself.

One of the book’s most fascinating epistolary revelations is the all-consuming fear of its antihero, Teddy Roosevelt, that he might not see battle. (He eventually leaves sick child and bed-ridden wife to lead the Rough Riders.)

Both he and Lodge had watched the mounted, regal officers of the Civil War cheered through their New England towns on their way to fight and die. The romantic visions of these heroes, and their glorified deaths, never left them. Then there was the fact that Roosevelt’s father had bought out of Civil War conscription. TR had to redeem his family name and pay his debt of honor to society—even if he had to start a war to do it.

While Roosevelt was hunting big game and writing countless books on frontier cowboys, Lodge was getting his PhD in Anglo-Saxon studies and buying into the faux-science du jour (especially for Anglo-Saxons) that, according to the Social Darwinists, they were the master race responsible for civilizing the rest of the world. Along with poems such as Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” this notion helped comfort the WASPs distressed by watching Eastern European immigrants flood our shores.

Lodge and TR, close friends, believed that without war, manliness would decay and our country would become soft and weak. Without a frontier to march toward, our spirit of exploration and conquest had been snuffed out. Expansionism, was in fact, a major facet of “Americanism,” and had to be resuscitated. Oh, the myriad reasons these men who had never seen war could call upon to defend its moral replenishment! Roosevelt put his money where his mouth. After almost single-handedly modernizing the U.S. Navy as its assistant secretary (with Massachusetts senator Lodge shouting for funding), he created his own regiment of Western cowboys and Eastern elites, and made a dramatic display of fighting in Cuba that would propel him to the presidency.

The other two 1870s-ish Harvard men chronicled in The War Lovers are William Randolph Hearst and William James.

Hearst was an awkward prankster who never graduated and whose überrich family eventually let him run one of its newspapers. Finding a talent for sensationalism, stoking people’s basic fears and desires, and always shouting in huge, bold letters about his “journalism that acts,” Hearst was actually shy and introverted in public. His competition with Pulitzer’s New York World, selling newspapers, and his desire to be a historymaker put his motivations for jingoism in plain sight. No one would expect any less than the Journal’s bellowing of conspiracy theories about the Spanish spies who blew up the USS Maine, despite a lack of evidence and a lack of motive for Spain to provoke the U.S.

If Hearst’s New York Journal exaggerated and spun everything, its account and photos of the Cubans’ suffering and starvation in Spanish camps were reasonably accurate. According to the book, though never plainly stated, the humanitarian cause for intervention was needed to get the ball rolling on a publicly approved war.

William James, teaching at Harvard while Hearst attended, was one of the leading American psychologists and philosophers in the early 1900s. He takes a character-actor role in The War Lovers as the conflicted conscience of a nation. James was a Roosevelt foil: A man of nuance who could not abide sweeping ideologies or simple overarching explanations—especially those concerning WASP Social Darwinists. Literally writing the book on pragmatism, the subjective-minded realist was often attacked for agnosticism and moral relativism, but he was fervent individualist who championed the wisdom of personal experience (“radical empiricism”).

James admired aggressive men of action, such as his two brothers wounded in Civil War battle, mostly because he was not one. And he supported the Spanish-American War, after long and serious consideration, as a remedy to Spanish atrocities and a just liberation of Cubans. James loved his country, even while his anxieties about the concept of American Exceptionalism grew. He “understood that war, while sometimes necessary and unavoidable, could be a bitch goddess, a seductress of young men and old fools, particularly the kind who had never experienced her savage embrace,” Thomas writes.

Reluctant to become an activist and speak out against American “imperialism,” James finally cracked at the McKinley administration’s disastrous handling of the Philippines situation (which preceded the Filipino-American War, officially concluded in 1902 with insurrections raging on until 1912). He took his pluralistic views a step further to condemn intolerance and became a voice railing “against the unintended consequences of liberating a people by conquering them” in 1899’s “On Certain Kinds of Blindness in Human Beings.” We are “insensible to the inner significance of lives different than our own,” he said, referring to our tendency to view strange cultures of dark-skinned people as less than human. “What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another.”

The Filipino-American War
Only in the last five years has the U.S. been involved in a tragically mishandled population massacre, the “unintended consequences” of the Iraq War’s sectarian violence explosion, comparable to the Filipino-American War of 1899-1902 (Vietnam and Korea differ vastly in scale and complexity). Miscommunication with regard to the post-Spanish authority and the long-term plan for Filipino autonomy (the administration’s exploratory commission decided the natives were not fit yet to govern themselves), allowed maverick U.S. generals and local insurgencies to quickly ratchet up the death toll.

McKinley’s calls to maintain a semblance of order and his overtures to the local leader Emilio Aguinaldo that the march to independence would be slow but certain, came too late to be regarded realistically. After Aguinaldo’s necessary switch from conventional to guerilla warfare against the U.S. military, the policy of “total war” had been adopted by generals such as E. Stephen Otis and Jacob H. Smith, and overcrowded, disease-ridden camps were set up to distinguish civilians from insurgents (ironically, we had initially gone to war with Spain over the squalid death camps they forced upon the Cubans!). Many thousands, whose villages fell to the “scorched earth” tactics, died in the camps and anyone who ventured out was free to be gunned down.

Soldiers who sent letters describing the atrocities back to the States were either forced to retract their statements or court-martialed (though one made it through to Hearst’s Journal, which ran the front page story that General Smith had ordered his men to shoot anyone over 10 years old). Torture, including water-boarding, and horrific mutilation were common on both sides. In the end, anywhere from 35,000 to 100,000 Filipinos, and approximately 4,000 U.S. soldiers, died. If only the Filippinos had been patient enough to wait 45 years for independence, as was promised by McKinley’s administration from the get-go.

Comparing the Spanish-American-Filipino War to recent conflicts

Evan Thomas makes an analogy between the Iraq War and the Spanish-American War in the intro to The War Lovers, offering a modern context and perhaps modern relevance. In February 2003, just before the Iraq War officially started, Salon.com offered a comparison as well. And in the broad view, the similarities are there, primarily their status as “wars of choice.”

The United States entered both the Spanish-American War and the Iraq War without direct provocation, there were no threats or treaty obligations. It took war mongers and jingos (as they were called in 1900) fanning the flames of war from the top down with scurrilous evidence. Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge had the Maine explosion ; Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had yellow cake uranium and WMD. It took the hubris of dominance, the idea that victory would be not only assured, but at little cost. It took international-cop ideas of moral superiority: clamoring about Spanish atrocities against Cubans and Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime gassing its own people. The administrations seemingly attempted all diplomatic solutions, though William McKinley was looking to avoid a conflict while George W. Bush wanted an excuse to invade. Both administrations went to war without a clear or realistic view of an end game for the battlefield countries.

In the end, counting the Filipino-American War, the casualties ended up roughly the same. So far, the spoils appear to be similar: nada. The Philippines never became a major economic market (eventually gaining independence in 1946) and Cuba, of course, played host to our sworn superpower enemy from the ’40s to the ’80s. In the Middle East, we’ve helped our most hostile adversary, Iran, by destabilizing their archenemy and making a suppressive Islamofascist party the de facto power in the region (outside of Israel). And the oil reserves in Iraq have yet to materialize to benefit Americans, if not the oil companies who will be stepping in soon. As our combat troops leave Iraq, August 20, 2010, nobody is writing about any potential U.S. oil windfall.

It is indeed beneficial to compare and contrast all U.S. wars to gain insights. The similarities were, again, only comparable in broad swaths. In fact, the Spanish-American War (minus the Filipino conflict) is more akin to the Persian Gulf War of 1991 as a whole. More than 20 years had passed since a major mobilization of forces had occurred, an economic recession was waxing and as the Salon piece claims (in much more of a stretch for the 2003 contest) a national sense of purposelessness pervaded (the frontier was settled; the Cold War had ended). The goal was not the toppling of a regime but the liberation of a state. The short-term, decisive nature of both fights could be billed under the headline: “Splendid Little War.”

Speaking of a hawkish public opinion and Congress, fueled partly by the yellow press of 1898 and cable news now, the Salon piece posits “that Spanish transgressions were as much an excuse for war as a cause, which may be the strongest similarity between that war and our putative one.” As has become clear, the Bush administration was looking for an excuse for “preemptive invasion” before 9/11, but to leave 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan out when considering the run up to the Iraq War, as the Salon does, is to leave out a third dimension from reality. Would the Bush administration have been able to bring about the nationalist, flag-waving momentum of post 9/11 or the “fight ‘em over there” revenge-cry foundation of the newly instituted global war on terror? Would Cheney and Rumsfeld have so carelessly sought reasons to strike Saddam, unprovoked, if we hadn’t scored victory in Afghanistan in under 90 days with barely more than a CIA presence? We’ll never know. But considering that the Iraq War was still somewhat tough sell after 9/11 and considering the less than credible ascension to power of W., I’d wager that without provocation from Saddam, beyond harassing weapons inspector, the case for an Iraqi invasion would have fell on deaf ears. (Still, with the Persian Gulf War in 1991 as the model of a quick casualty-less success, having been proceeded by prompt, guiltless incursions into Grenada and Panama in the 80s, who can say?)

In further comparison, our far superior military condition in both Iraq adventures underlies the uniqueness of the Spanish-American War: In 1898, the U.S.’s vigorous war drum–beating was inversely proportional to the the Army’s preparedness for war. As War Lovers illustrates vividly, the Spanish-American War was being pursued and contemplated with an army only 28,000 strong and a newly built navy, both untested. Though 200,000 volunteers clamored for the excitement of war, they had yet to be organized or trained.

Moral Equivalent of War

Written in 1906 by William James, it is clear from his first sentence in this essay that his ambiguity on the subject of war circa 1898 is gone: “The War against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.”

Indeed, James cites the Illiad as representative that “history is a bath of blood.” With epic tales of great warrior/conquerors “our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bones and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us. The popular imagination fairly fattens on the thought of war. Let public opinion once reach a fighting pitch and no ruler can withstand.” Here James brings in the brief example of the Spanish-American War, in which the frothing, restless masses forced McKinley’s declaration.

James writes persuasively that the military-minded cannot fathom that war could be a passing phase in “social evolution,” and are disgusted by even the notion. Nations, they argue, are constantly either shrinking or growing, and without permanent war preparations, a nation is doomed. But not only from outside threats; interior degeneration will creep in and laziness will bring about inferiority. War brings discipline, physical health and hardiness, honor and selflessness, and common purpose and unity. And on top of that, a world without it would be boring: Political and military leaders possess a deep “unwillingness to see the supreme theater of human strenuousness closed.” Even confronted with the death and destruction, they will only say that without the horrors, there would be no triumphal exaltation: “Where is the blood-tax? Where is anything that one feels honored by belonging to?” asks the general.

Admitting himself a pacifist who would like to see the abolition of all war, James sees only one viable option to negating war’s existence: developing a moral equivalent of war. A sort of civil service tour of duty dedicated to constructive, goal-oriented labor, that would serve to turn boys into men, unite them, humble them and discipline them as the military does—and to be “redeemed by that from the suspicion of inferiority.”

I’ll let William James break it down:

“We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built….

The war-party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial virtues…are absolute and permanent human goods. Patriotic pride and ambition in their military form are, after all, only specifications of a more general competitive passion. They are its first form, but that is no reason for supposing them to be its last form. Men are now proud of belonging to a conquering nation, and without a murmur they lay down their persons and their wealth, if by so doing they may fend off subjection. But who can be sure that other aspects of one’s country may not, with time and education and suggestion enough, come to be regarded with similarly effective feelings of pride and shame?…Individuals, daily more numerous, now feel this civic passion. It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent, and on the ruins of the old morals of military honor, a stable system of morals of civic honor builds itself up….

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature…to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.”

With terrorism and Third World destruction for all to see in the news daily, James’ idea in today’s context seems rather ridiculous. But as a universal concept about a future without war, it is the equivalent, I believe, of an absolute truth. And applied to the once insanely militaristic Japanese becoming a socialist-economic juggernaut by the ’80s, it seems to have enjoyed practice in the modern era. The doctrine otherwise seems to apply only to Western Democracies that have no clear need for national defense, after having had one for a while. Or, more specifically, it seems to apply to a notion of isolationist idealism of what America had the luxury of becoming because of its status as prosperous ruler of its own continent. We should all hope that this theory will apply again someday.