Operation Cast Lead, two years on

Two years ago, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began the indiscriminate slaughter it named Operation Cast Lead. Some 1400 people were killed, thousands more wounded and displaced. Hundreds of sad people marched in Gaza in commemoration.

See here for the reasons Israel attacked Gaza.

Here I write about why the Mavi Marmara (the Gaza flotilla) incident may have been good for Israel, because it distracted the world from Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

I wrote here about attempts to try Tzipi Livni as a war criminal, which apparently did not go anywhere.

And here I wrote about how Israel’s culture legitimised Cast Lead (and other violence in Israel’s name).

Gaza is still under blockade, which means little rebuilding gets done. Things had been relatively quiet along the Gaza border for the past two years until recently, when more rockets have been fired from Gaza, Israeli air strikes have followed, and thus tensions are higher. There are fears (or hopes?) that another Cast Lead-like massacre might be “necessary”. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, said Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and “holds the Hamas terrorist organisation solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip”, which means the IDF does not distinguish between rockets fired by Hamas or by any other group.

It is sad that this crime will go unpunished, and that it may even repeat itself.

"Ismail, Abed and Leila don't go to the infant clinic anymore"

The power of the state of exception

It saddens me to hear Americans speak of their country as a paragon of freedom governed by the rule of law. It is possible that it once was. However, it is clear that the United States is no longer a free country. It is only free to those who put their heads down and keep quiet.

In 1922, Carl Schmitt wrote Political Theology, where he outlined his ideas on the state of exception. Schmitt advocated that the sovereign, defined as he who decides the exception, should be vested with extraordinary powers to deal decisively with an extreme emergency. If the state, and democracy, are in jeopardy, Schmitt believed, the sovereign should take control until the situation is defused. Schmitt erroneously believed, however, that the sovereign would restore democracy when conditions were reasonable to do so. It is perhaps for this reason that Schmitt enthusiastically supported Hitler during his rise through the chaos of the Weimar Republic and the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, including the political murders of the Night of the Long Knives. In a democracy, the sovereign is supposed to be the people. The people have the power to bring down governments, start wars and approve of virtually anything in their name. In the US, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led Americans to turn their power over to their government to keep them safe.

Elites frequently try to create a state of exception in order to use emergency powers. Sometimes, of course, they do not need to. The sight of two airplanes hitting the World Trade Center was so shocking that most Americans threw their hands up and cried out for a strong government to take over. As we now know, planning for a war in Iraq had begun before 9/11, so the US government could proceed to put its plan into action.

Since 9/11, the US government has blatantly flouted its own rules. Take the abrogation of the Bill of Rights with the USA Patriot Act. The government assumed greater power to spy on and detain its own people. The Patriot Act has not yet been repealed. Though such laws should only be enacted during a state of exception, the US government has done its best to prolong the state of exception through war and the creation of enemies, and keep everyone scared. Few Americans even question the Patriot Act anymore, perhaps because doing so might land them in jail.

In the course of the war in Afghanistan, the US locked up hundreds of “unlawful combatants”, a term deliberately chosen by the Bush administration because it fell into a legal grey area. The phrase does not appear in the Third Geneva Convention, which means that, unlike, say, prisoners of war, those designated unlawful combatants have no legal recourse. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires that anyone captured in war be protected and eventually charged. These are laws that the US helped craft for its own benefit. After all, if other states follow these laws, Americans are treated better by their enemies. But in a state of exception, laws go out the window. According to journalist Andy Worthington, there are still 174 inmates at Gitmo, 90 “approved for transfer”, 33 recommended for trial, and 48 still there indefinitely.

The intervention in Afghanistan was legally permissible. The UN Security Council acknowledged the US’s right to self defense with Resolution 1368. However, international law also bars indiscriminate use of bombs that do not attempt to hit specified enemy targets. It is all right to bomb what one strongly suspects is a military or terrorist stronghold, but many of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan targeted heavily populated civilian areas. Over three thousand Afghan civilians were killed in the first six months of that war. Most American citizens did not question the bombs and the dead people, because they saw that whole part of the world, wherever it was, as deserving of retribution.

Next came Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iraqi Freedom was not approved by the Security Council and was a wholly illegal war. It was an act of aggression, which is ius cogens, universally accepted as law and permitting no derogation. In case you have forgotten Abu Ghraib and CIA waterboarding (see more here), torture is also ius cogens. Extraordinary rendition, in which the UK’s and Canada’s governments also participated, and which seems like the kind of legal term or political euphemism that makes the average person turn the page, is abducting and transferring someone without trial to somewhere they might be tortured. The practice may still be going on. Government secrecy has made it almost impossible for us to know the truth.

We are aware, nonetheless, that the wars and violence in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. Pakistan has become the new frontier in the fight against terrorism, with drone attacks increasing under Barack Obama and killing 54 this past week. The war in Pakistan is an undeclared war, making it also illegal. After seven years of violence, the president announced in March 2009 the administration’s goal in the AfPak war: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” It is likely that special interests want a US presence to safeguard the building of oil pipelines through Afghanistan and the mining of the trillion-dollar mineral deposits under Afghan soil. So confident is he that the ongoing state of exception will vindicate him, Barack is free to continue drone strikes (which occupy something of a legal grey area; they may be legal if they can actually be shown to be used in self defense) and still not formally declare any kind of war in Pakistan (which is not grey at all) because the only ones who can truly stop him only receive a few soundbytes about it a week on TV.

Another practice that has not abated is illegal detention of Americans. Just this week, 131 peaceful antiwar protesters were arrested outside the White House, guilty of nothing more than voicing disagreement with their government. No less depressing is the state of Bradley Manning, stuck in solitary confinement for leaking documents that compromised the US’s and other governments’ ability to hide their crimes. Manning has not been charged; he has no access to the outside world; he is not let out of his cell for more than an hour a day and cannot exercise in it; nor does he have even a pillow or sheets. Psychological studies find prolonged solitary confinement highly destructive to the brain, with effects including “overwhelming anxiety, confusion and hallucination, and sudden violent and self-destructive outbursts”. The effects of such solitary confinement are not far from those of torture. According to lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald, the government is extremely concerned about leaks, and torturing those who do what concerns you is a brilliant way to prevent it. Bradley Manning, like Julian Assange, is being made an example of. Criminalising the publishing of classified information is akin to banning investigative journalism. But the US officials that ordered and approved of locking up Bradley Manning, along with the cutting up of the Bill of Rights, the illegal war, the bombing of civilians, the torture and the indefinite detentions, will never see a courtroom.

In a world where chaos is inevitable, we cannot let fear permit our worst behaviour and legitimise anything the government does. There are going to be more disasters, more terrorist attacks and more wars. We must not lose our heads and let them take our freedoms when no one has the right to take your freedom. How can we trust the government on anything? If the government does not follow its own laws, why should the rest of us? We should attempt to free ourselves from the arbitrary force of governments, and deny them the chance to take our freedom.

Taking sides in a cyberinsurgency

As a student of war, I am fascinated by the prospect of an internet-based conflict. It is being called a cyberwar, though it may more accurately be called a cyberinsurgency: Contrary to predictions of a China-US or other interstate cyberconflict, this first (with the exception, as far as I know, of the 2007 attacks on Estonia), major, online, political conflict is between a government and a loose, decentralised group of non-governmental actors.

I do not particularly like the idea of taking sides in conflict. In my estimation, most belligerents in war are guilty of enough that they are all contemptible. But sometimes, based on one’s philosophy, one side has clear moral authority over another. To those attacking Wikileaks and the act of whistleblowing, let me make clear the position you are taking. You are in favour of covering up and hiding from the public

-the repeated urging of the despotic (and with relation to the US government, influential) House of Saud and other Middle Eastern governments to start a war between the US and Iran;

-the US’s ally Saudi Arabia’s funding of violent extremist groups al Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba;

-the extent of the corruption of the Afghan government, which US, Canadian and other foreign taxpayers are funding;

-an accurate picture of the disastrous war in Afghanistan, including the extent of civilian casualties;

-and perhaps most disturbing of all, that US government contractor DynCorp threw a party at which children were prostituted (see also here), meaning that US taxpayers paid for sex with minors.

If the public has access to these revelations, it can better hold public officials to account. If it does not, it is more likely to believe the government line that all is swell over there. As Ron Paul explains, many officials taking aim at the messenger are simply afraid that these revelations threaten their pet project, an American empire.

Furthermore, by extension, Wikileaks’ detractors support the idea that the government can look at your emails, phone and bank records, track your car by GPS and give you a complete body scan, but we, the little people, cannot do the same to the government. If the people’s security increases due to the government’s power to violate your freedom so extensively, and from its spending billions of dollars to do so, why could the intelligence services not prevent 9/11? The billions of dollars for “homeland security” are about scaring you into seeing illusions of security. Now, we are getting a glimpse, however slight, at the wizard behind the screen.

In times of war, governments often declare a state of emergency, meaning, in effect, that citizens are no longer to be trusted with their own freedom. Since World War Two, the United States has experienced a permanent state of war in the form not of a clear and present danger but as creeping threats largely manufactured by the government whose popularity rises as it makes war. This battle could become a Long War, or some kind of war of attrition. Do not be surprised if this conflict requires laws that limit and track your internet use.

Why Wikileaks matters

I have heard many people speaking vaguely in support of Wikileaks, and I wonder if they have an understanding of what such document leaks mean, and why they believe so strongly in Wikileaks. Surely, it is not simply schadenfreude aimed at the US government. Well, I admit, that is a good reason to support it. But, on an intellectual level, there are better reasons. Here is the main one.

Governments are self-important. They believe that their knowledge is superior to that of us little people, that they are wiser and in a position to decide for the rest of us. As such, they are right to take our money, impose their will on us, regulate every aspect of our lives and send us overseas to kill people who had the misfortune of being born in the wrong country. They claim to need secrecy because if other people had the same knowledge, they would learn how poorly government policies actually function, despite the authorities’ supposedly superior wisdom. Now governments are being exposed, and people are finding out.

Statists from all corners have attacked Wikileaks with such cliched accusations as exposing troops to danger. (Viz. Iran-Contra criminal Oliver North: “This is an act of terrorism.“) However, they would presumably be in less danger if they had remained at Fort Worth. If anyone has put them in danger, it is those who voted for and approved of sending them overseas in the first place, and those who lie to keep them there. Naturally, having enemies requires secrecy; but since the enemies are just contrived, all the secrecy had accomplished was to eliminate accountability for the liars who had claimed otherwise.

Joel Hirst of the Council on Foreign Relations attempts to put things in perspective.

For those who applaud Mr. Assange and his particular version of cyber-terrorism, I would ask them how they feel about the rupture of other codes established to govern our relations in society. How would they like to see reports of treatment for their male-pattern baldness in downloadable format; or the details of their divorce settlements in an online database — displayed in vivid technicolor across the worldwide web. While this information may appear benign, and may be explained by cyber-thieves as an attempt to increase transparency, it will likely be viewed by the victims as damagingly intrusive. This is also true in the world of international diplomacy.

Unfortunately, Mr Hirst has missed the point. The treatment of my male-pattern baldness is purely a private matter. The actions and beliefs of influential public servants and the disastrous results of wars fought with our money by our friends in our names are not. Did we truly have no right to know that Afghanistan is messier than officials claimed, or that Arab leaders want the US to bomb Iran? Does the leaking of confidential documents erode public trust in government? It is now clear that there was no basis for such trust to begin with. Wikileaks has exposed not only the loose tongues of a few diplomats but the bankruptcy of statist arguments for secrecy.

In the end, government secrecy is little more than immunity for the mafia that poses as your superiors. There is no reason why government knowledge is better than yours, or why governments should impose their will on you. Now that ordinary people have the chance, thanks to anonymous whistleblowers and Wikileaks, to spy on their governments, they may have a better idea of how secrecy destroys accountability. If democrats truly want accountable government, they should embrace Wikileaks.

Muslim attitudes toward extremist groups

The Menso Guide to War may appear as a vehicle for teaching the world about its author’s perspective. However, as much as anything, it is about his own learning. It is a chance to study an issue sufficiently to write about it, and to put information out for others to evaluate (and argue with) for themselves. I assume nothing about the veracity of factual statements I say beyond well-established facts and my personal experience, not because I lack any conviction, but because I know I could always be proven wrong. Others have their own perspectives, and on most issues, I am more interested in hearing what others say than I am in hearing the truth. The truth is usually very difficult to ascertain when studying such issues as history, politics and conflict, given that some aspects of the truth vary by individual account. Those accounts may be biased by fault of memory, affiliation or ignorance. For example, we can know who won the Battle of Agincourt (the English) because the chroniclers agree on that fact; however, they give different accounts of the details. Indeed, so they should. If all records of Agincourt were the same, we would have more reason to be suspicious than if they differed, as they do, as it would imply some conspiracy or hoax. Moreover, if a new record of the battle came to light, after authenticating it, historians would need to incorporate it into their body of knowledge and assume that, all other things being equal, it is as valid as the others. Certainty, on the other hand, closes the mind to new accounts and potentially-valid perspectives.

That is why I want to know how others perceive the issues discussed on this blog. Polls are a reasonably reliable source of such insight. It is important not to extrapolate beyond the face of the question or assume that all of those polled who said “approve” have identical feelings. Nonetheless, within the limit of the question one can learn much about how millions of people think. The Pew Research Center released a poll of Muslim attitudes in Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey toward “extremist” groups Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda. Some interesting results:

-Hezbollah was most popular in Jordan, with 55% of those surveyed expressing favourable views of the group. Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, is deeply divided over it: 94% of Lebanese Shiis support Hezbollah; 84% of Sunnis do not. This result may reflect Hezbollah’s polarising effect on Lebanon; it undoubtedly reflects Lebanon’s older sectarian divisions.

-Hamas, too, received highest approval in Jordan–60%–with Lebanon, Egypt and Nigeria offering a half-hearted 49% approval each. Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are home to many Palestinians, and to anti-Israeli sentiment, having decades-long histories of conflict with Israel, and these figures might indicate lingering bitterness toward Israel rather than a love of Hamas’ actions and ideology. If that is true, however, a different explanation is needed for why Egyptians polled clearly preferred Hamas to Hezbollah (30%); my guess is, Hamas in Gaza is closer and more familiar (since it came from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood), and thus more sympathetic, than Hezbollah.

-Opinions on al Qaeda are less divided: with the exception of Nigeria (49%), support for al Qaeda is weak, ranging from 34% in Jordan to 3 and 4% in Lebanon and Turkey respectively.

-Turks, on the whole, had little sympathy for any of these groups, and have more mixed feelings than others about the role of Islam in politics.

-Finally, large majorities of Muslims in the countries surveyed said suicide bombings against civilian targets are never justified. These figures were higher at beginning of the War on Terror, and have since experienced double-digit drops.

These results matter. If vast majorities of Muslims viewed violent extremist groups favourably, the latter would have freer rein to cause problems. More people would shelter, feed and fund them. If almost no one liked them, they would be more easily dealt with, much in the same way as American authorities deal with weapon-stockpiling cults. The effects of ambivalent attitudes such as are expressed in this survey are harder to pin down. The future of this approval will depend on how governments of the US, Israel, and others to a lesser extent, are seen to treat Muslims around the world. A simple rule seems to be that bombs beget bombs, and peace begets peace.

Whether one considers these survey results discouraging or promising, according the Who Speaks for Islam? project conducted by Gallup and compiled by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Muslims show themselves as not significantly different from others in the world. They are as likely as others to aspire to peace, to condone terrorism, and to want democracy. They certainly do not “hate us for our freedom”.