Middle East

The Point of No Return

Eric Holthaus, "The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here," Rolling Stone, August 5, 2013.

On July 20th, James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist who brought climate change to the public's attention in the summer of 1988, issued a bombshell: He and a team of climate scientists had identified a newly important feedback mechanism off the coast of Antarctica that suggests mean sea levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted: 10 feet by 2065. The authors included this chilling warning: If emissions aren't cut, "We conclude that multi-meter sea-level rise would become practically unavoidable. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea-level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization" . . . .

James Hansen, the dean of climate scientists, retired from NASA in 2013 to become a climate activist. But for all the gloom of the report he just put his name to, Hansen is actually somewhat hopeful. That's because he knows that climate change has a straightforward solution: End fossil-fuel use as quickly as possible. If tomorrow, the leaders of the United States and China would agree to a sufficiently strong, coordinated carbon tax that's also applied to imports, the rest of the world would have no choice but to sign up. This idea has already been pitched to Congress several times, with tepid bipartisan support. Even though a carbon tax is probably a long shot, for Hansen, even the slim possibility that bold action like this might happen is enough for him to devote the rest of his life to working to achieve it. On a conference call with reporters in July, Hansen said a potential joint U.S.-China carbon tax is more important than whatever happens at the United Nations climate talks in Paris.

One group Hansen is helping is Our Children's Trust, a legal advocacy organization that's filed a number of novel challenges on behalf of minors under the idea that climate change is a violation of intergenerational equity — children, the group argues, are lawfully entitled to inherit a healthy planet.

A separate challenge to U.S. law is being brought by a former EPA scientist arguing that carbon dioxide isn't just a pollutant (which, under the Clean Air Act, can dissipate on its own), it's also a toxic substance. In general, these substances have exceptionally long life spans in the environment, cause an unreasonable risk, and therefore require remediation. In this case, remediation may involve planting vast numbers of trees or restoring wetlands to bury excess carbon underground.

Motivations of ISIS Recruits

Lydia Wilson in The Nation, 10/21/15:

 There is no question that these prisoners I am interviewing are committed to Islam; it is just their own brand of Islam, only distantly related to that of the Islamic State. Similarly, Western fighters traveling to the Islamic State are also deeply committed, but it’s to their own idea of jihad rather than one based on sound theological arguments or even evidence from the Qur’an. As Saltman said, “Recruitment [of ISIS] plays upon desires of adventure, activism, romance, power, belonging, along with spiritual fulfillment.” That is, Islam plays a part, but not necessarily in the rigid, Salafi form demanded by the leadership of the Islamic State.

More pertinent than Islamic theology is that there are other, much more convincing, explanations as to why they’ve fought for the side they did. At the end of the interview with the first prisoner we ask, “Do you have any questions for us?” For the first time since he came into the room he smiles—in surprise—and finally tells us what really motivated him, without any prompting. He knows there is an American in the room, and can perhaps guess, from his demeanor and his questions, that this American is ex-military, and directs his “question,” in the form of an enraged statement, straight at him. “The Americans came,” he said. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”

ISIS is the first group since Al Qaeda to offer these young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.

This whole experience has been very familiar indeed to Doug Stone, the American general on the receiving end of this diatribe. “He fits the absolutely typical profile,” Stone said afterward. “The average age of all the prisoners in Iraq when I was here was 27; they were married; they had two children; had got to sixth to eighth grade. He has exactly the same profile as 80 percent of the prisoners then…and his number-one complaint about the security and against all American forces was the exact same complaint from every single detainee.”

These boys came of age under the disastrous American occupation after 2003, in the chaotic and violent Arab part of Iraq, ruled by the viciously sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. Growing up Sunni Arab was no fun. A later interviewee described his life growing up under American occupation: He couldn’t go out, he didn’t have a life, and he specifically mentioned that he didn’t have girlfriends. An Islamic State fighter’s biggest resentment was the lack of an adolescence. Another of the interviewees was displaced at the critical age of 13, when his family fled to Kirkuk from Diyala province at the height of Iraq’s sectarian civil war. They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too.

An illustration of the less-than-total commitment to the cause of the Islamic State by Iraqis came from the Kurdish peshmerga Gen. Aziz Waysi, commander of the elite Zerevani (“Golden”) forces. He relates an overheard conversation between an ISIS fighter on the battleground and his leader, via a walkie-talkie previously confiscated from an ISIS corpse. “My brother is with me, but he is dead, and we are surrounded, we need help at least to take away my brother’s body,” General Waysi heard, and then the reply: “What else could you want? Your brother is in heaven and you are about to be.” This answer wasn’t what the poor surrounded young man was hoping for. “Please come and rescue me,” he said, “That heaven, I don’t want it.” But they didn’t, leaving him to whatever paradise awaited.

Sharon and Gaza

"I'm Backing Sharon" -- Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, 10/27/04:

If you can judge a man by the enemies he keeps, then Ariel Sharon is someone in urgent need of a reappraisal. Reviled for two decades as the Bulldozer, the embodiment of the intransigent Israeli right, yesterday he became something else - the unlikeliest standard bearer for those who yearn for progress in the Middle East.

You only had to look at those denouncing him, as he won an emphatic 67-45 vote in favour of his planned pullout from Gaza in the Knesset last night. The most zealous of the settlers, parading their children in their thousands outside the parliament, condemning the prime minister for the treachery of giving away land that, they insist, was bequeathed to the Jews by the Almighty Himself; the theocratic rabbis, ruling that all those who believe in the Torah are divinely compelled to oppose the PM; the nationalist politicians, heckling Sharon from the back of the Knesset chamber, telling this hawk of all hawks to "go home".

Ariel Sharon has become public enemy number one to Israel's far right, which is why, if only temporarily, he deserves the support of the left - in Israel and beyond. In Israel, they gave it. It was not just the decision by Labour's 19 Knesset members, joined by the left-wing Meretz party, to back Sharon, in a bid to cancel out the almost equivalent number - nearly half - of his own Likud MKs who voted against him. It was also the sentiment of the wider peace movement, believing that - bizarre as it may seem - Sharon was, in this specific contest at least, their champion. The result was some surreal politics: witness the Peace Now demonstration addressed by Ehud Olmert, none other than Sharon's deputy.

There is more to this than the simple calculus of "my enemy's enemy". By pushing for a Gaza withdrawal, whatever his long-term motives, Sharon is finally beginning a process which Israel's doves - to say nothing of the outside world - have sought for nearly four decades. At long last, Israel is proposing to rid itself of part of the territory it won in 1967. Not all of it, not even most of it, but some of it. And that, after 37 years of policy in the opposite direction, constantly tightening Israel's hold on those lands, is one of the most significant moments in the country's history.

It is true that Sharon's destination is not the same as that of the Israeli peace camp. He wants to give away Gaza in return for keeping large chunks of the rest of the occupied territories. He said as much on Monday: his aim was to "strengthen Israel's grip over the land that is crucial to our existence" - in other words, parts of the West Bank.

He may even believe, as his chief of staff said in an interview earlier this month, that this is the best way to put the peace process with the Palestinians into "formaldehyde", putting off the prospect of a genuine Palestinian state "indefinitely".

The peacemaking left see things differently. For them, the Gaza withdrawal is the first move in a process that would see the bulk of the 1967 territories handed to the Palestinians. Put simply, the peace camp's plan is Gaza first. Sharon's plan may well be Gaza last.

Despite that vast difference in long-term objectives, progressives understand they have to be on Sharon's side for now. His destination may be A, theirs may be Z, but the first step is the same - and, right now, he is the one with the power to make it. If only for this first step, the Gaza pullout, Sharon and the doves must walk together.

The Larger Plan

The larger administration plan for the Middle East, of which the Iraq war is the first stage (and how first-stage failures will be used to justify confrontations with other states): Joshua Micah Marshall,
"Practice to Deceive"
, Washington Monthly, April 2003:

[T]o the Bush administration hawks who are guiding American foreign policy . . . . invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East. Prior to the war, the president himself never quite said this openly. But hawkish neoconservatives within his administration gave strong hints. In February, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials that after defeating Iraq, the United States would "deal with" Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Meanwhile, neoconservative journalists have been channeling the administration's thinking. Late last month, The Weekly Standard's Jeffrey Bell reported that the administration has in mind a "world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism . . . a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future."

In short, the administration is trying to roll the table -- to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism. So events that may seem negative -- Hezbollah for the first time targeting American civilians; U.S. soldiers preparing for war with Syria -- while unfortunate in themselves, are actually part of the hawks' broader agenda. Each crisis will draw U.S. forces further into the region and each countermove in turn will create problems that can only be fixed by still further American involvement, until democratic governments -- or, failing that, U.S. troops -- rule the entire Middle East.

Josh Marshall on War Planning

Josh Marshall, writing 3/14/03 at talkingpointsmemo.com :

Little more than a week ago, when the scope of the diplomatic train wreck wasn't quite so evident, the White House floated word that the whole Middle East peace process was on ice until we'd finished everything we were going to do in Iraq.

What's so sad and revealing and pathetic about this is that it's only at the eleventh hour and the fifty-ninth minute that the White House realizes that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is one of the moving parts involved in dealing with Iraq. On the whole world stage we're watching the president and his crew driving at eighty miles an hour into a brick wall called reality. Too bad we're in the car with them.

More from Josh Marshall, 3/13/03 (same link):

Speaking for myself, and perhaps for some other internationalists who feel as I do, part of our frustrated anger over the current impasse is watching the present administration traduce and plow under the work of half a century and seeing the administration's acolytes greet every new disaster and *&$#-up as a grand confirmation of their beliefs and principles. It's like we've been transported into some alternative reality where the debate about international relations is some awful mix of The McLaughlin Group and Lord of the Flies. As these folks should be starting to realize about now, months of this arrogant mumbo-jumbo eventually draws a response -- at home and abroad.