Browsing the archives for the Middle East category.


The Fantasies of Sam Harris

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Middle East, Religion

I find Sam Harris slightly less annoying than, say, Richard Dawkins, but that’s not saying much. Much like Dawkins, Sam Harris is intelligent and articulate and a seething mass of self-deception. He’s a smart guy soaking in his own bullshit, basically.

If you know me at all you know I don’t give a hoo-haw whether someone believes in God or not, as long as they aren’t being missionaries about it, either way. I’m fine with atheists. I call myself that sometimes, although I prefer the label non-theist if I have to be labeled. What bugs me aren’t so much atheists but anti-theists, people with a knee-jerk disdain for all religion. Anti-theists are inevitably ignorant of religion — including non-theistic ones — and assume it all to be just varying degrees of fundamentalism.

Harris also represents another crew I can do without, the true believers of scientism. Scientism — the current and more dogmatic form of what is also called positivism —  is not science; it’s a blind faith that the scientific method is the measure of all truth, and whatever is not subject to falsification by the scientific method is just superstitious nonsense. Scientism is itself unscientific, since its premise is not subject to testing by the scientific method, but the scientismists get very angry when you point that out to them.

You may have heard about the televised flame over Islam among Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Maher’s show last week. Affleck isn’t the guy I would have chosen to stand up to Harris, and I confess I haven’t taken the time to watch it. (I defer to Juan Cole’s analysis of the event.) Nicolas Kristof was on the show, too, and apparently could get few words in edgewise. But the fallout has been interesting, possibly more so than the flame itself.  People clearly are judging the “winner” based on their prior opinions of Islam. And now Harris writes on his blog that Affleck and Kristof were mean to him. “Affleck and Nicholas Kristof then promptly demonstrated my thesis by mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims,” Harris writes.

But Harris’s bigotry to Muslims, and toward all religion generally, has been commented on for years; he really ought to be used to it by now. For the ultimate analysis of Harris’s twisted worldview, see this 2011 article by Jackson Lears, “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.”

There is copious data in the field of psychology suggesting that people are not nearly as rational as we think we are, and the myth-making parts of our brains are still churning out myths. Generally without being conscious of it we’re all creating a narrative, a personal myth, that explains us to ourselves. As we go through life we make up a story about ourselves and our role in the world, and who we think we are, and we process our experiences by fitting them into the narrative. I wrote in the book,

In his book The Unpersuadables, which really is the best thing I’ve read on this topic, Will Storr suggests that our thinking skills haven’t evolved beyond the age of myth as much as we think. Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.

Indeed, it may be that the most foolish belief of all is the belief that any of us are rational. The only difference between a sensible person and a kook may be that the sensible person holds irrational beliefs that conform to a socially acceptable norm, while the kook is more creative.

Further, the social psychologists tell us our opinions on just about everything are being generated by our subconscious, and without realizing it we then craft a story to tell ourselves why we believe as we do. We’re all being jerked around by biases unless we come to know ourselves very, very well and recognize the emotional cues we’re getting from our ids, and make a conscious choice to ignore them. And that would be one person in a million.

And a bit later in the book, I wrote,

What’s happening with scientism believers (scientismists?), seems to me, is that they very much want to believe they are as entirely rational as computers and utterly unlike those irrational religion-believing people they so dislike. So the myth-making parts of their brains have developed a strong cognitive bias to “confirm” their belief in absolute rationality and of themselves as relentlessly rational. They’re living in a myth that they’re not living in a myth.

I say a person cannot be genuinely rational until he recognizes and acknowledges his own irrationality. Otherwise, he’s just kidding himself.

IMO this is precisely what’s going on with Harris. He is living in a myth that he is entirely rational, and in his mind everything he thinks must be rational because he’s the one thinking it. If you disagree with him, you are being emotional and irrational.

Harris’s and Dawkins’s groupies are just as bad. Find any online article critical of one of the Prophets of New Atheism and you get hundreds of comments sputtering in outrage that anyone dare question the wisdom of The Prophets. It doesn’t matter how clearly the article writer has expressed himself and supported his views; whatever he writes will be dismissed as ad hominem and even as bigoted toward atheism. This is true even if the author acknowledges that he is an atheist himself. (This review of the first volume of Dawkins’s autobiography is a good example. If you read it, then see “John Gray’s scurrilous attack on Richard Dawkins” for the knee-jerk defense of a true believer against anything short of fawning deference toward the Great Man.)

In the book I make mention of Harris’s ideas on science-based morality, which he described in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values and elsewhere, and which I dismantled in some detail. Harris really does see the ideal human as absolutely rational and as logical as a computer, which is nonsense, and as a neuroscientist he ought to know better. In fact, we’re all an oozy mess of biases and various psychological pathologies trying to cope with it all, and our brief moments of pure rational thought are like lightning flashes in the sky of our otherwise muddled understanding. That may sound pessimistic, but it’s the truth, and I honestly don’t believe anyone can be rational at all until he or she owns up to that and makes allowance for it.

Regarding Islam, Harris is stuck in the belief that the ghastly violence and extremism roiling the near and middle east are entirely coming from Islam, which is irrational on its face considering that there really are devout Muslims who are gentle and nonviolent human beings and not violent psycho-pathological killers. New Atheists assume all religion exists on a sliding crazy scale, and the more “devout” one is the more extreme, crazy, and potentially dangerous one is, but it actually doesn’t work that way. As I observed in the book,

Violent religious factions around the globe appear to share some characteristics, and one of these is a tendency to disregard doctrines that counsel putting away hatred and avoiding violence. In fact, the more radical and violent the group, the less likely the fanatics are to accept their religion’s doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they tend to make a fetish out of some doctrines, usually those involving enforcement of morality and respecting the religion’s deities and symbols, while ignoring deeper spiritual doctrines about humility and compassion. We can see this clearly in radical Islam, but the same tendencies are apparent in hyper-conservative Christianity and Judaism as well as in the militant Buddhist monks.

As I document at some length in the chapter on religious violence, “religious violence” never happens in a vacuum. If you look deeply and objectively at the episodes of religious violence around the world today and back through history, they are never just about religion. Violence happens during a confluence of particular cultural, social, political, historical, and sometimes religious factors, usually combining some kind of “holy cause” — which is not necessarily a religious one — with a fanatical grievance, an unshakable belief that one has been wronged somehow and is entitled to get back at somebody for it, a belief that can manifest in many forms. Sometimes religion is a primary motivator, but more often, when religion is a factor at all, it’s used to package the rage and give atrocity a fig leaf of respectability.

Among New Atheism’s pet dogmas is the belief that religion is the cause of nearly all wars. I understand there is a massive tome called the Encyclopedia of Wars that analyzes wars, mentioned recently in a Timothy Egan column. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,’” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” I would have guessed a bit higher than that, frankly, but I will assume that’s accurate.

New Atheists get around apparently non-religious reasons for war by equating all ideological fanaticism as “religious,” even when the fanaticism has a stated anti-religious basis, as in Communism.  In the late Christopher Hitchens’s largely ridiculous book God Is Not Great, Hitch supported his argument that religion is the root of all evil essentially by classifying things he disapproved of as religious and those he approved of as not religious. Thus, Mao Zedong was religious, but Martin Luther King wasn’t. And Hitch believed himself to be entirely rational.

Islam actually is a hugely diverse tradition in which scripture and teachings are interpreted and practiced many different ways, which means anyone who ever speaks of Islam as if it were one monolithic thing should automatically be dismissed as ignorant. And if you can’t see the many historical, cultural, social and political factors fueling violence in the Muslim world, you are blind. There’s just no getting around that; you’ve got to be a blinkered idiot to assume Islam alone is the cause of the current madness. And since Sam Harris sees the world that way, I have to assume there’s something seriously wrong with him, and applied rational thinking isn’t it.

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Why Cruz Got Himself Booed

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Middle East

Last week Ted Cruz was invited to be the keynote speaker at a gala dinner for a group called In Defense of Christians, and he was booed off the stage. The group was made up mostly of Arab Christians, and the Christians they want defending were in the Middle East. Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East. Homes and churches are being destroyed. They are in serious trouble.

But instead of talking about the crisis Christians in the Middle East are facing, Cruz made the speech about supporting Israel.

On first glance, this looked like an unforced error on Cruz’s part. He could have stood up and given an anti-ISIS, rah rah Christians speech, and they would have loved him. But I have come to believe he deliberately antagonized the group; he wanted to be booed. Read on to find out why.

First, the boos. The real kicker was when he said “Christians have no greater ally than Israel,” at which point a large part of the audience lost it.

Since then all manner of people have tried to understand why Cruz gave such an inappropriate speech. James Zogby:

It is generally known that Ted Cruz can be a demagogue, a quality that makes him immensely disliked by his colleagues. He is also considered to be quite bright and calculating. And so as I have attempted to understand why he did what he did, two distinct scenarios come to mind. It is possible that he went to the IDC conference to provoke a “Sister Souljah” moment — which he could then exploit with his supporters on the fundamentalist right as evidence of his political courage. It is more likely that he had no clue about the reaction his taunting remarks would receive and was, therefore, stunned by the audience reaction — and that it was only mid-stream that he decided that he could use the audience reaction to his political benefit.

In either case, Cruz displayed a shameful insensitivity to the concerns of Middle East Christians and a total lack of awareness of their history and current needs. Like too many of his colleagues, he can only see the Middle East through then lens of what is good for Israel. Because he comes out of the Christian fundamentalist world and now operates in the bubble of Washington politics, he simply had no understanding of his audience and no desire to listen to them and learn from them.

That’s what I thought, too, but I realize now I was wrong. At the American Conservative, Rod Dreher shed some light:

The politics of the Middle East are tangled and almost impossible to understand. Many Maronites despise the Palestinians, for example, blaming them for destroying Lebanon. Within Lebanon, there is no love lost between Maronites, who are Catholics, and the Orthodox. But many Maronites are fond, however grudgingly, of the Israelis, because they see them as the enemies of their enemies, the Palestinians. But not all Maronites feel that way. It’s complicated. Insanely complicated. And everybody suffers from the same conspiracy theorizing that is common currency in the Middle East.

You will appreciate, then, what a diplomatic feat it was to bring a group of top Christian leaders from the Middle East together in Washington for a summit to talk about the crisis of the persecution of Christians in the region. The Washington Free Beacon shamefully characterized the event as a pro-Hezbollah hootenanny, citing the anti-Israel politics of some conference participants as if that were the most important thing about this religious and human rights event. As if Israelis were the only people in the Middle East whose suffering matters.

Look at the Washington Free Beacon headline, which came out before Cruz gave his speech. Just look at it.

A light dawns. He had to get himself booed off the stage or risk becoming a pariah to the wingnut twits who are his base. It was deliberate.

In particular, the Free Beacon, Breitbart, and some other of the more irresponsible far-right propaganda tools named one of the conference attendees, Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, as a Hozbollah supporter. But in June The Blaze reported,

A Hezbollah member of Lebanon’s parliament is criticizing Lebanon’s top Christian cleric after the religious leader visited Israel last week where he traveled with Pope Francis, prayed with local Christians and met with fighters from the now defunct South Lebanese Army (SLA) who fled to Israel more than a decade ago.

Member of Parliament Ali Meqdad on Saturday addressed Maronite Catholic Cardinal Beshara Rai’s meeting with the former Lebanese fighters, saying, “We do not want agents among us.”

This isn’t my primary area of expertise, but after some digging I get the impression that the Lebanese Christians are in a very precarious position of trying to not get caught in cross-fire between Hezbollah and Israel, and of course Lebanon also shares a long border with Syria, so they’ve got a lot to worry about, and the Patriarch is not averse to talking to people who need placating, including Hezbollah. And in 2011 he issued a statement that said Hezbollah had a right to defend itself against Israel, which may have been an expedient thing to say if you’re a Lebanese Christian. But in the simple minds of the children who run the Free Beacon and Breitbart, this makes the Patriarch and some other conference attendees the enemy.

The Christian Broadcast Network covered the speech this way —

Well, Sen. Ted Cruz had an interesting night in Washington D.C. Wednesday and our Brody File camera crew was there to capture it all.

Middle Eastern Christians booed Cruz off the stage during his speech at a summit in Washington D.C. It was sponsored by a group called In Defense of Christians.

Cruz came to speak about Christian solidarity with Israel but some in the crowd were Palestinian Christian supporters of the Syrian government and even the terrorist group Hezbollah. Things got rowdy.

But the summit was not about Christian solidarity with Israel. At The American Conservative, Daniel Larison wrote,

Cruz’s behavior was unnecessary, it was insulting to his hosts, it was needlessly provocative to the audience, and it was an embarrassment to his voters. Because he has proven time after time to be a shameless demagogue, none of that will bother him.

An important point that has been lost in many of the reactions to this incident is that Cruz was completely out of line to set some kind of ideological litmus test for the attendees that requires them to endorse the “pro-Israel” views that Cruz happens to hold. Cruz is free to hold those views, and many of his voters agree with him, but it is obnoxious to demand that others, including many Arab Christian clergy in attendance, subscribe to those views in order to obtain Cruz’s sympathy for their plight. Not only is “standing with Israel” irrelevant to the reason for the summit, but as this incident has proven it is a completely unnecessary distraction from the work of the organization that sponsored the event.

Even Ross Douthat gets it

WHEN the long, grim history of Christianity’s disappearance from the Middle East is written, Ted Cruz’s performance last week at a conference organized to highlight the persecution of his co-religionists will merit at most a footnote. But sometimes a footnote can help illuminate a tragedy’s unhappy whole. …

… Many conservatives think Cruz acquitted himself admirably, and he’s earned admiring headlines around the right-wing web. There is a certain airless logic to this pro-Cruz take — that because Assad and Hezbollah are murderers and enemies of Israel, anyone who deals with them deserves to be confronted, and if that confrontation meets with boos, you’ve probably exposed anti-Semites who deserve to be attacked still more.

But this logic shows not a scintilla of sympathy for what it’s actually like to be an embattled religious minority, against whom genocide isn’t just being threatened but actually carried out.

And strictly speaking, Arabs are Semites, too, or at least the dictionary says so. But Cruz wasn’t just being stupid. He did what he had to do to help himself.

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Some Things Can’t Be Ignored

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Middle East

I confess I do tune out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for long stretches of time. This is possibly because I generally don’t favor one side over the other, and partly because I don’t know if we’re getting straight information about any of it, and partly because I feel powerless to do anything about whatever it is. In this I suspect I’m in the same boat with a lot of other people.

Now we read that a 15-year-old U.S. citizen and ethnic Palestinian from Tampa was brutalized by Israeli defense forces and jailed while in Jerusalem to attend a cousin’s funeral. The U.S. State Department has sent Israel a sternly worded memo.

The cousin, also a teenager, had been beaten and burned alive, an autopsy revealed. Palestinians blame Israelis for the murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khedair, saying the murder was retaliation for the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens. According to a pro-Israeli website I stumbled into this morning, Khedair was killed by his family when they found out he was gay. Police have arrested several Israeli suspects, however, and I doubt Israeli police would do that if there were a credible possibility the perpetrators were Palestinian.

There are videos showing the American teen, Tariq Khdeir, being kicked and punched by the security forces as he lay passively on the ground, and then his unconscious body was hauled away to jail. They clearly did a number on his face. He has since been released on bail.

Tariq Khdeir may or may not have been taking part in a protest. He may or may not have been carrying a slingshot. (A slingshot? Seriously?) All we know is that he got the stuffing beat out of him, and the beating continued as he offered no resistance.

Israel has enjoyed a seemingly bottomless reservoir of good will from the United States, even though IMO the relationship between the two countries has benefited Israel a whole lot more than it has benefited the United States. What was done to Tariq Khdeir will be excused by the Israel First crowd on the American Right, especially since they would never consider someone named Tariq Khdeir to be a “real American.”

But I think there is a point at which that reservoir could dry up among the majority of Americans, and unless Israel has some pretty heavy-duty evidence against Tariq Khdeir it would be to Israel’s own best interests to drop charges and issue an apology.

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Quote du Jour

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Middle East

At the least, when the main cheerleaders for the last war talk about what to do now, they should be relegated to a rubber room reserved for Bernie Madoff discussing financial ethics or Alex Rodriguez on cheating in baseball. [Timothy Egan]

It’s a good column; do read it.

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The Always Wrong Experts

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Middle East

Scott Lemieux

The Weekly Standard has an open letter explaining that blowing up lots of stuff in Syria is a great idea:

The signatories on the letter addressed to President Obama inlcude Senator Joe Lieberman, Bernard-Henri Levy, Karl Rove, Bill Kristol, Elliott Abrams, Leon Wieseltier, and many others.

The “other people” include Max Boot, Paul Berman, Dr. Clifford D. May, Marty Peretz, and Danielle Pletka.

If this crew is for it, it’s a bad idea. Need more be said?

Well, I’ll say some more, anyway. The always-wrong experts want the U.S. to arm the insurgents. My understanding is that there are several different insurgent groups, some of which are hard-core Islamists, although some are not. John Cole writes,

And then we get to look forward to the whole liberal hawk debate, and then the diehards who will support whatever intervention Obama engages in, should he, and call everyone else closet Republicans, someone will force me to read the fucking New Republic again, and then, the best part- if Obama does intervene, and the mostly secular Assad regime leaves, there will be elections in Syria, and a muslim government will be elected. We can then be treated to years of hearing how Obama and the Democrats lost Syria, just like they did Egypt, all of which will be more proof for the necessity to invade Iran.

The expectation is that the U.S. will drop a few bombs on Assad and then tell him to behave. Max Fisher writes,

What’s about to happen, if the United States and allies do go through with the strikes, is less of a war and more of a ritual. This isn’t about defeating Assad, it’s about punishing him. And that calls for being really precise about how much punishment the United States imposes.

If the U.S. military just fired off a bunch of missiles, it would probably cause more civilian causalities than with its current approach, and the amount of damage it caused would be tougher to predict. Maybe it causes less damage than the United States wants, and then Assad is not sufficiently deterred from future chemical weapons use. Maybe it causes more damage, and then Assad might feel compelled to respond, perhaps by striking Israel, and that’s how things spiral out of control.

No, what the Obama administration appears to want is a limited, finite series of strikes that will be carefully calibrated to send a message and cause the just-right amount of pain. It wants to set Assad back but it doesn’t want to cause death and mayhem. So the most likely option is probably to destroy a bunch of government or military infrastructure — much of which will probably be empty.

If it’s ritual that’s called for, I say equip Joe Lieberman, Bernard-Henri Levy, Karl Rove, Bill Kristol, Elliott Abrams, Leon Wieseltier, et al. with some drums and bagpipes and drop them into Damascus. That’ll learn ‘em.

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The Stupid War

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Middle East, Obama Administration, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

I was in Manhattan yesterday and saw a group of protesters in Times Square. They were waving Palestinian flags and carrying signs denouncing Israel and the U.S. for the current bombing of Gaza. And I’m thinking, this is what comes of idiot American politicians and right-wing gasbags saying there should be no space between the U.S. and Israel (and they still aren’t winning the Jewish vote). I’m also thinking that anyone who actually lives here ought to have noticed that the realities of both politics and international relations force President Obama to walk a very fine line regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, simultaneously voicing support for the security of Israel while signalling Bibi Netanyahu to stop being a dick.

But I guess U.S. righties are not the only ones who don’t get nuance. The firebagging twit who accuses the President of “eliminationist racism” is just the mirror image of the wingnut who calls Netahyahu “the leader of the free world” and accuses the President of embracing Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and all those other “A-rabs” who melt into one pernicious stereotype in the rightie mind. Neither one of these guys is bright enough to find his own feet, and it’s this kind of brainless reaction to events that gets in the way of applying anything resembling constructive thought to what are very complex situations.

One more time — bias ultimately is a strategy for conserving cognitive resources. It’s so much easier to just accuse people of being evil than to actually think things out.

That said, Juan Cole says that the bombing is not really about defending Israel.

Actions such as the assault on Gaza can achieve no genuine long-term strategic purpose. They are being launched to ensure that Jewish-Israelis are the first to exploit key resources. Rattling sabers at the Palestinians creates a pretext for further land-grabs and colonies on Palestinian land. That is, the military action against the people of Gaza is a diversion tactic; the real goal is Greater Israel, an assertion of Israeli sovereignty over all the territory once held by the British Mandate of Palestine.

It ought to be obvious that a land war is not in anyone’s best interests, including (in the long run) Israel’s, but of course “obvious” is too subtle for Israeli hawks. Juan Cole explains just a few of the really bad consequences of an Israeli invasion of Gaza.

And of course U.S. news media aren’t providing the full story to the American public, because doing so would draw the wrath of the U.S. Right. So as far as most people here know, Israel is just defending itself, and I doubt many Americans could easily be persuaded otherwise. And this very much ties the hands of any American president, who has little room even in foreign policy to completely ignore the consensus of Congress.

So, stupid wins time after time, mostly because it yells louder.

Update: Another perspective from Rabbi Michael Lerner.

First step: the international community, led by the U.S., should impose an immediate cease-fire on all sides of the struggle, and should introduce an international peace force to restrain and if necessary arrest anyone involved in any side of this struggle who is acting to continue the violence. That force should be equally charged with arresting any military figures on the Israeli side or guerrilla forces on the Palestinian side that are attempting to engage in hostilities.

That works for me, although I suspect Congress would mostly throw a fit about it. Still, if President Obama were to ever support such an action, the time to do it would be now, when he’s just won re-election and when the next mid-terms are more than two years away.

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Darrell Issa and the House Witch-hunt Committee

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Congress, Middle East, Obama Administration, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Rep. Darrell Issa dealt another blow to American security yesterday by compromising the identities of several Libyans working with the U.S. government. Josh Rogin reports at Foreign Affairs that Issa, as Chair of the House Oversight Committee, released a “document dump” of State Department communications without consideration of the people named in the “dump.”

Issa posted 166 pages of sensitive but unclassified State Department communications related to Libya on the committee’s website afternoon as part of his effort to investigate security failures and expose contradictions in the administration’s statements regarding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that resulted in the death of Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. …

… But Issa didn’t bother to redact the names of Libyan civilians and local leaders mentioned in the cables, and just as with the WikiLeaks dump of State Department cables last year, the administration says that Issa has done damage to U.S. efforts to work with those Libyans and exposed them to physical danger from the very groups that had an interest in attacking the U.S. consulate.

Way to go, genius.

One of the cables released by Issa names a woman human rights activist who was leading a campaign against violence and was detained in Benghazi. She expressed fear for her safety to U.S. officials and criticized the Libyan government.

“This woman is trying to raise an anti-violence campaign on her own and came to the United States for help. She isn’t publicly associated with the U.S. in any other way but she’s now named in this cable. It’s a danger to her life,” the administration official said.

Another cable names a Benghazi port manager who is working with the United States on an infrastructure project. …

… One cable names a local militia commander dishing dirt on the inner workings of the Libyan Interior Ministry. Another cable names a militia commander who claims to control a senior official of the Libyan armed forces. Other cables contain details of conversations between third-party governments, such as the British and the Danes, and their private interactions with the U.S., the U.N., and the Libyan governments over security issues.

Issa is turning into a one-man threat to national security. He’s so focused on trying to find dirt on the Obama Administration regarding national security that he is totally oblivious to, you know, actual national security issues. But you know GOP priorities — they’ll destroy Obama if they have to burn down the whole United States to do it.

A spokesman for the House Witch-hunt Committee said that the Obama Administration hadn’t protected sensitive documents within the Benghazi consulate when it was attacked, so nyah nyah nyah, they leaked first. The State Department says that Issa didn’t consult with them about releasing the documents and apparently gave no consideration to the consequences of the release.

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Primer on Democracy and the Middle East

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Middle East

A bit more on Mitt’s remarkably vacuous foreign policy op ed. Rightie blogger Rick Moran thought it was brilliant, but this sentence — well sentence fragment — of Moran’s jumped out at me —

A perfect summation of Obama’s “Leading from Behind” strategy, as well as his still incomprehensible embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood as some kind of agent for Arab democracy.

Righties do tend to use words without thinking real hard about what they mean. So let us examine democracy.

The word democracy is derived from the Greek dēmokratía, meaning “will of the people.” Essentially, a democracy is any government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. The people of a democracy enjoy the freedom to exercise its will, usually through elections.

Whether we in the U.S. like it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood has a broad popular following in the Middle East. The Egyptians had elections last year, and as a result, as I understand it, about half of the seats in the Egyptian parliament are controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won the election with 51.73% of the vote.

So, if one respects democracy, one must at least respect the legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood in the government of Egypt. Of course, a substantial percentage of Egyptians didn’t vote for the Muslim Brotherhood and don’t much care for them, but if we are to respect democracy we have to let the Egyptians work that out for themselves through their own constitutional processes. It’s not up to us.

However, it’s possible Rick Moran wasn’t using the word democracy to mean, you know, “democracy.” Sometimes I think righties use democracy in regard to the Middle East to mean “pro-American.” But that isn’t what it means. The people of a democratic Middle Eastern nation can choose to be anti-American if they want to. I’m not saying that’s what I like; I’m saying that’s how it works.

And this presents a paradox that U.S. conservatives have never been able to solve. They can barely acknowledge the paradox exists, in fact, but prefer to paper over it with rhetoric about how much we love democracy and freedom even when our foreign policy was anti-democratic and anti-freedom.

American foreign policy going back to the Cold War era has assumed that we prefer pro-American dictatorships over potentially anti-American democracies. This usually turns out to be a stupid policy that ends badly, but often that’s what we’ve done, reasoning that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. For example, during the Eisenhower Administration the United States played a significant role in overthrowing a popular, democratically elected government in Iran and installing the unpopular Mohammad Reza Shah in its place. It might have looked like a smart strategic move at the time, but you can pretty much draw a straight line between that and why Iran is so screwy today.

So now we’ve got the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. We may object to the Muslim Brotherhood for many reasons, but so far we cannot object to them for being un-democratic, since it was democracy that gave them power in the first place. It may be that the Muslim Brotherhood will morph into a dictatorship, but they haven’t done it yet. If the Right wants the U.S. military to overthrow every democratically elected government we don’t like, then they should say so, but lets not pretend we’re doing it because we love democracy so much.

Now, what does President Obama think of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? A short time ago the President said of the government of Egypt, “I don’t think that we consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.” The mouth-breathers on the Right promptly hooted that the President doesn’t know who are allies and enemies are. I thought the President was sending a not-too-subtle signal to the Muslim Brotherhood that they might want to spend some time considering Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. It was tough and smart, IMO. However, as we all know, righties don’t get nuance.

But just a few days later they’re back to calling the President a Muslim-lover and enabler of the coming globe-straddling caliphate. How soon they forget.

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Mitt: I’ll Bury Our Enemies With Platitudes

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Middle East, Mittens

Mittens has an op ed in the Wall Street Journal called “A New Course for the Middle East” that I made myself read so you wouldn’t have to. Although you can if you like.

Executive Summary: The strategy appears to be that we are going to overwhelm the Middle East with our glorious greatness, and once they fully appreciate how gloriously great we are they will love us and stop misbehaving.

At one point, Mittens writes that he would place “no daylight between the United States and Israel.” That’s as close as he gets to any concrete policy. The rest of it is all verbiage that doesn’t say shit. Writing an article about new Middle East policy without using the words “Afghanistan,” “Iraq,” “troops,” “drones,” or “Islam” may provide a clue how utterly empty this op ed is. It is a mush of platitudes and straw men.

Mittens appears to believe that the United States can control everything that happens in the world if we just want to badly enough, and the fact that people in other countries misbehave is all President Obama’s fault. Typical paragraph:

The first step is to understand how we got here. Since World War II, America has been the leader of the Free World. We’re unique in having earned that role not through conquest but through promoting human rights, free markets and the rule of law. We ally ourselves with like-minded countries, expand prosperity through trade and keep the peace by maintaining a military second to none.

We mostly got to be “leader of the free world” because we were the only major power on the winning side of World War II that wasn’t left in ruins when it was over. And thanks in large part to the economic stimulus provided by government spending on the war, plus postwar programs like the GI bill, our economy was strong and growing while most of Europe and Asia were still struggling to just find their socks and make some breakfast. We were fortunate to have moderately progressive leaders, including Republican ones like Eisehnhower, who respected FDR’s New Deal legacy and who ignored the hotheads who wanted nuclear war with China. We also implemented the Marshall Plan and maintained sensible foreign aid programs even though conservatives grumbled about it. And that’s how we got to be “leader of the free world.” But after the Debacle that was Dubya, it’s hard to say that title has any real meaning any more.

But in recent years, President Obama has allowed our leadership to atrophy. Our economy is stuck in a “recovery” that barely deserves the name. Our national debt has risen to record levels. Our military, tested by a decade of war, is facing devastating cuts thanks to the budgetary games played by the White House. Finally, our values have been misapplied—and misunderstood—by a president who thinks that weakness will win favor with our adversaries.

Mitt Romney seems to think that history jumped from VE Day to the assassination of Ambassador Stevens in Libya with nothing happening in between. He describes President Obama’s policy as afflicted with “incomprehension.” I don’t doubt Mittens doesn’t comprehend it, as there are no tax shelters involved, but fortunately President Obama is a lot smarter than Mittens.

In this period of uncertainty, we need to apply a coherent strategy of supporting our partners in the Middle East—that is, both governments and individuals who share our values.

And who would that be, Mitt, except Bibi Netanyahu? And, frankly, I’m not sure many of us over here share Netanyahu’s “values,” whatever they are. The U.S. has a long policy of propping up anti-communist dictators, such as the Shah of Iran — notice how that turned out — and of forming alliances with people who openly are selling us out — think Pervez Musharraf. But when people in other countries win the freedom to finally elect their own choices, they don’t always choose people we might like. Our glorious greatness doesn’t always make an impression, I guess.

This means restoring our credibility with Iran. When we say an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability—and the regional instability that comes with it—is unacceptable, the ayatollahs must be made to believe us.

And how are you going to do that, Mitt? Send them rotten fish in the mail? Insult their mothers? Threaten them with nuclear war? Don’t ever make threats you aren’t willing to carry out, dude.

It means placing no daylight between the United States and Israel.

OMG.

And it means using the full spectrum of our soft power to encourage liberty and opportunity for those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression. The dignity of work and the ability to steer the course of their lives are the best alternatives to extremism.

See, Mitt, I don’t think anyone actually disagrees with that. The question is, how will you do it? That’s kind of the catch, son.

But this Middle East policy will be undermined unless we restore the three sinews of our influence: our economic strength, our military strength and the strength of our values. That will require a very different set of policies from those President Obama is pursuing.

One might question the degree to which our “values” ever had much to do with our foreign policy. But I don’t see that President Obama is anti economic or military strength, or that he has no values. And throwing money at the Pentagon to maintain some muscle-bound military prepared to land on Normandy Beach and slog toward Berlin doesn’t necessarily address current military need.

And how is it that this moron was such a success in “business”? Making boatloads of money must not take much in the way of smarts.

Update: See also Paul Waldman, “Foreign Policy Is Hard.”

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Mitt’s Pancake Syrup

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Middle East, Mittens, Obama Administration, Republican Party

Every now and then Tom Friedman hauls his head out of his ass and writes a good column.

For the first time in a long, long time, a Democrat is running for president and has the clear advantage on national security policy. That is not “how things are supposed to be,” and Republicans sound apoplectic about it. But there is a reason President Obama is leading on national security, and it was apparent in his U.N. speech last week, which showed a president who understands that we really do live in a more complex world today — and that saying so is not a cop-out. It’s a road map. Mitt Romney, given his international business background, should understand this, but he acts instead as if he learned his foreign policy at the International House of Pancakes, where the menu and architecture rarely changes.

Rather than really thinking afresh about the world, Romney has chosen instead to go with the same old G.O.P. bacon and eggs — that the Democrats are toothless wimps who won’t stand up to our foes or for our values, that the Republicans are tough and that it is 1989 all over again. That is, America stands astride the globe with unrivaled power to bend the world our way, and the only thing missing is a president with “will.” The only thing missing is a president who is ready to simultaneously confront Russia, bash China, tell Iraqis we’re not leaving their country, snub the Muslim world by outsourcing our Arab-Israel policy to the prime minister of Israel, green light Israel to bomb Iran — and raise the defense budget while cutting taxes and eliminating the deficit.

I would add that all that stuff didn’t really happen in 1989, either. Of course, Republicans have been playing the “we’re tough on security and they’re not” game since the end of World War II, and they’ve had a good run with it. Dems were first soft on communism and then soft on terrorism, according to the GOP. Looking at the actual history of the past century or so, I see no evidence that Republicans are intrinsically more effective at keeping America safe than Democrats, but they have managed to market themselves as the superior foreign policy brand lo these many years. And they’ve gotten away with that because Americans on the whole don’t travel much and don’t have a strong grasp of what’s going on in the rest of the world. Or much care, for that matter, as long as it’s not in their neighborhood.

I’d like to think that the young folks who grew up in the Internet age are less provincial and not so easily fooled. We’ll see. But my sense of things is that right now the general electorate is not in the mood to hear about bombing some Middle Eastern country if we can, you know, choose not to bomb some Middle Eastern country. Recent experience tells us that bombing Middle Eastern countries doesn’t really settle anything.

As far as Mitt is concerned, his hookup with the old Bush neocon gang was not something I would have predicted a couple of years ago. I had assumed he was more sophisticated about the world than that. And maybe he is, and he’s just playing the game because he thinks it will help him get elected. But if he knows it’s all a scam, that doesn’t speak well for him, either.

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