Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Spin on al-Qaeda in Iraq

Baghdad. I don't know whether Jabbur, on the southern bank of the Tigris, is the
Arab Jabour cited as the operation's location (Map: Perry-Castaneda)

This morning I saw an interview with Col. Terry Ferrell, the commander of 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, who answered questions about an operation that took place several days ago, on July 14. The operation targeted an Iraqi al-Qaeda (AQI in the military press release) leader by the name of Abu Jurah, in a suburb southeast of Baghdad. The particular brigade that he commands is the heavy brigade combat team (HBCT) "Spartan," which includes armored and artillery battalions. The latter were apparently used to full effect, firing two Excalibur rounds on Abu Jurah's safe-house.

The White House has been talking up its actions against al-Qaeda in Iraq recently. This looks like a another desperate attempt by the administration to spin the obvious failure of the surge. It has become clear that the surge has been able to score only tactical victories against the insurgents - whether al-Qaeda, Sunni, or Shi'a. Thus, once again, the White House is trying to portray the army's battles in Iraq as efforts to defend America from al-Qaeda attacks on its soil.

Interestingly enough, the CNN anchor asked the colonel several times whether he believed that this latest operation would contribute to protecting Americans from an attack "in the homeland." Both times, he avoided giving an answer that would be either blatantly misleading or blatantly subversive of the current White House press campaign.

As the recent attempted attacks in the UK showed, Islamist terrorists inspired by al-Qaeda still pose a great threat to the world. It would be foolish to downplay the dangers posed by such groups. However, no one is served by the ongoing misinformation that casts Iraq as a front in the global war on terror. The Iraqi al-Qaeda "franchises," as a recent Stratfor report by Peter Zeihan argues, have a rather tenuous connection to the real al-Qaeda, currently holed up in Northwest Pakistan. The association between the Iraqi node and the bin Laden crew, Zeihan argues,
started with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who put himself forward as the leader of the Iraqi node of al Qaeda in 2004. While one can argue that al-Zarqawi might have been through an al Qaeda training camp or shared many of bin Laden's ideological goals, no one seriously asserts he had the training, vetting or face time with bin Laden to qualify as an inner member of the al Qaeda leadership. He was a local leader of a local militant group who claimed an association with al Qaeda as a matter of establishing local gravitas and international credibility. Other groups, such as Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah, had associations with al Qaeda long before al-Zarqawi, but al-Zarqawi was the first to claim the name "al Qaeda" as his own.

For al Qaeda, prevented by its security concerns from engaging in its own attacks, repudiating al-Zarqawi would make the "base" come across as both impotent and out of touch. Accepting "association" with al-Zarqawi was the obvious choice, and bin Laden went so far as to issue an audio communique anointing al-Zarqawi as al Qaeda's point man in Iraq.
Militants such as the late Abu Jurah are engaged in a terrorist war against the Iraqi government and U.S. forces in Iraq. However, their abilities to launch operations against America on its soil are virtually zero.

I am not sure what the current White House strategy on Iraq is. Everyone knows that the U.S. will not be involved much longer in the costly counter-insurgency that has claimed so many of its soldiers' lives for little in return. Given the failure to achieve calm in Iraq, the administration seems to be angling for dramatic victories against Iraqi al-Qaeda crews, before U.S. troops pull back to safer locations in the region. However, it is possible that the U.S. will have to redefine its mission in Iraq as war against Iraqi al-Qaeda, not in order to defend the homeland proper but to prevent Islamists from destabilizing U.S. allies in the region. The Americans would do well to observe developments in Pakistan, where al-Qaeda seems to be growing ever stronger in the frontier region of Waziristan and poised to attempt a dramatic strike against the unpopular Musharraf dictatorship.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Meet Tzipi Livni, Spartan -- but wears jeans!

Watch out for this one (Photo: NYT)
The Sunday NYT Magazine's cover story today is a profile of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The author is Roger Cohen, a regular Page 2 columnist for the International Herald Tribune. At the IHT, his stuff is savvy commentary on Europe from an American perspective. In the Livni profile, he sets out to explain to an American reader largely unfamiliar with contemporary Israeli politics and culture what makes Tzipi tick. So it's half a not so sympathetic deconstruction of a tough cookie, and half primer on the predicament of Israel today, decadent in its post-heroic age, paranoid about the future, but unwilling to make the hard sacrifices to secure it. The article is worth looking at for two reasons. First, you get a sense of Livni's vision, which is to say, her platform for the PM job. Time is not on Israel's side, she argues. In fact, the state, the Jewish character of the state of Israel, is being delegitimated. You could also say that Livni seems to be going for a "post-ideological" posture -- a new way forward. She's almost Obama-esque both in the content of her tirelessly forward-looking message and in her delivery. Which brings me to my second point. One thing that Cohen misses, for all the pretense of getting beneath the surface, is just how clever a politician Livni is. I think she puts one over on her interviewer, though he, in starting the article by relating an anecdote about her nerves and desire not to be seen as a tight-ass, thinks it's the other way around. What I mean is that this is clearly someone capable of using the foreign media to bolster her position in Israel and vis à vis her rival, PM Olmert. Somewhat ironically, Cohen mentions the FM vs. PM struggle to dominate the relationship with Washington as a recurrent feature of Israeli politics. Livni plays this game very well. And, disappointingly, that part of her story isn't at all covered in a profile in a US newspaper that dwells on her brief (but sexy?) stint in the Mossad and misses that she has strong US connections and speaks perfect English!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Jesus in the Talmud

Something new to quarrel about. (Image: Princeton Univ. Press)

Princeton University Prof. Peter Schaefer has written a new book called "Jesus in the Talmud," which seeks to move beyond mere positivistic compilation of the meager rabbinic sources for the "historical Jesus," and to instead make sense of these cameos as a kind of "counter-narrative" to the Gospels. Who knew that the authors of the Babylonian Talmud knew the Gospels so well? I'm surprised to learn as well that, as the J-Post review points out, Jesus' Sanhedrin trial (not dealt with explicitly in the Talmud) lacked so much in the way of adherence to Jewish law. As it turns out, it's in the Babylonian Talmud that Jesus tends to show up, in what some zealots are calling, "pornographic" detail, whereas, in the Palestinian Talmud, Jesus appears less often, mostly as a target of an attack on magic. Schaefer's historical explanation here is compelling: in post-Constantinian Palestine, more and more the site of inspired imperial patronage, bashing Jesus was risky. But in Sassanian Babylonia, where an attack on Christianity could be construed as an attack on Rome, it was cool. The J-Post review is a little suspect, but Antiquitopia has read the book and provides interesting analysis. Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, Schaefer's seen Amos in diapers, so we have to tread carefully here.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Fourth of July

Chinatown, San Francisco, June 2007

Happy Fourth of July to all our American readers, and happy belated Canada Day to the Canucks!

Monday, July 02, 2007

War with Syria?

Battle of the Golan Heights, 1967 (Map Source: Wikipedia)

Uri Bar-Yosef is concerned about the lack of interest in negotiations with the Syrians. He argues that Israel is once again underestimating the enemy's willingness to go to war. From 1962 to 1967, Israel's political and military leaders believed that Egypt did not have a military option against Israel because of Nasser's embroilment in the war in Yemen. Hence, Israel persisted in escalating the conflict with Syria. According to Bar-Yosef, it was the domestic pressure inside Egypt, which eventually forced Nasser's hand and compelled him to move his army into Sinai. The lesson for today: pushing Assad into a corner could lead to a Syrian attack on Israel, which would be painful, even if unsuccessful.

Bar-Yosef seems to be arguing for the primacy of domestic politics in understanding the likelihood of a Syrian decision to go to war. This frame of reference, in his view, increases the possibility of Assad turning to a military option. On the other hand, if we were to see foreign policy and such measures as national interest and security as the primary factors, it would seem rather obvious that it is not in Syria's interest to attack Israel.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, West German historians such as Fritz Fischer, in his second work, War of Illusions (1969), and Hans-Ulrich Wehler in his German Empire (1972), suggested that the empire's ruling elite saw the war as a domestic stabilizing factor that would function to safeguard its power from the challenges of democratization. This thesis has since been heavily revised, but few historians today would argue for the absolute supremacy of foreign policy considerations in the decision to go to war.

Does Assad need a war (or peace agreement, for that matter) to stay in power? What would the cost-benefit ratio of such a decision be?