Archive for October, 2008

Strategy 101: When you overstretched your forces,

Coalition forces in Afghanistan have “now reached their limit”, according to General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of UN forces in Bosnia…Gen Rose warns there are not enough combat troops to continue the momentum against the Taliban.

do not do this:

…[O]fficials said the raid Sunday, apparently the first acknowledged instance of U.S. ground forces operating in Syria, was intended to send a warning to the Syrian government. “You have to clean up the global threat that is in your back yard, and if you won’t do that, we are left with no choice but to take these matters into our hands,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the cross-border strike.

The United States has offered similar justifications for recent cross-border strikes in Pakistan, where it has launched missile attacks and at least one air assault against suspected members of Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency. “As targets present themselves, and are identified . . . they become more and more at risk. Just like in Pakistan, there will be steps taken to deal with it,” the senior official said.

Jesus said, “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” That’s a clear warning, and the U.S. should heed it. A sword can cause you to perish in all sorts of ways. You might provoke the blow that kills you. You might cut yourself. Your swing might miss and you might murder someone you love. And the weight of a sword on your belt might cause you to drown as you swim through rough waters.

The violent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq spread to neighboring countries as the situation metasticizes. The U.S. should think ahead a few moves. A Syrian response might include an activation of Hezbollah against the U.S. forces in the region. They might take actions inside Lebannon. They might strike…Israel.  See how quickly this could get out of hand? What if an angry Israel learns from our example and not only responds, but lashes out at other perceived threats in a fit of “self-defense?” Think Iran. Think backlash. Think conflagration.

Beyond the strategic uncertainties, other costs accrue rapidly due to the U.S.’s choice to use violence. The poor and the merely nearby die. Words like “collateral damage” and “double effect” are not large enough to hide moral complicity with murder. (Thom Stark wrote about this on his blog as well, although I think he’s too easy on Sen. Obama and the implications of his proposals.)

Violence has a life of its own. It uses you; you don’t use it.

Camillo “Mac” Bica at Truthout wrote a great article blasting the idea of Afghanistan as “the good war” and pushing the anti-war movement to step up (or start) serious efforts to block an escalation.

Despite some subtle nuances regarding a timetable for the phased withdrawal of at least a portion of the combat troops from Iraq,(1) the positions of both John McCain and Barack Obama regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are quite similar. Under both their plans, American young men and women, despite their eventually being withdrawn from Iraq – “with honor” for McCain, “responsibly” for Obama – will not be returning home but, rather, redeployed to another battlefield upon which to continue to kill or be killed. Both candidates have promised a surge in Afghanistan, and a commitment to continue the “war on terrorism” until our enemies, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, perhaps Iran, are defeated and Osama Bin Laden is killed or captured. Consequently, while promising the American people real change from the politics of gunboat diplomacy and militarism of the last eight years, all we are truly being offered by either candidate is more of the same.

What is advertised as the pursuit of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is, in reality, an unnecessary and unwarranted war against the Taliban and the Pashtun tribes that inhabit the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Certainly, it is true that the Middle East, perhaps even the world, would be a safer place were Afghanistan stable and secure. However, winning the war against terrorism and gaining peace in Afghanistan is not about escalating violence, increasing the number of troops and dropping more and larger bombs. It is not about searching out and destroying al-Qaeda and the Taliban, or even capturing and killing Bin Laden. Rather, it is about inclusiveness, diplomacy, understanding and dialogue. It is about doing the difficult work of reconciliation and of addressing the grievances that nourish radicalism. It is about resolving, reasonably and fairly, the conflicts in Iraq, Kashmir and Palestine. Most importantly, I believe, it is about recognizing that the days of US unilateralism and imperialism are over and realizing the necessity of involving and soliciting the assistance of area powers such as Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China and India.

Read the whole thing…it’s a good article. This tracks closely with what I’ve said here and here.

The Religious Right sees the writing on the wall and is not happy about it.  From the AP:

Terrorist strikes on four American cities. Russia rolling into Eastern Europe. Israel hit by a nuclear bomb. Gay marriage in every state. The end of the Boy Scouts.

All are plausible scenarios if Democrat Barack Obama is elected president, according to a new addition to the campaign conversation called “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America,” produced by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family Action.

…Steve Strang, publisher of Charisma magazine, a Pentecostal publication, titled one of his recent weekly e-mails to readers, “Life As We Know It Will End If Obama is Elected.”

Strang said gay rights and abortion rights would be strengthened in an Obama administration, taxes would rise and “people who hate Christianity will be emboldened to attack our freedoms.”

…Among the claims:

  • …A series of domestic and international disasters based on Obama’s “reluctance to send troops overseas.” That includes terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that kill hundreds, Russia occupying the Baltic states and Eastern European countries including Poland and the Czech Republic, and al-Qaida overwhelming Iraq.

These hysterical Nostradamus-like prognostications continue the worst of the Religious Right’s tendency to ignore not only the facts,

A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks

but also the core of Jesus’ teachings:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. …Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you…

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The “Letter from 2012” made me giggle occassionally, mostly because of the palpable sense of fear from the Religious Right, not of an Obama presidency, but of the dissolving relevance of their voice in the evangelical community. In the best of these parts of the letter, the authors offer a not-too-subtle excoriation of those darn young people who dare to screw up everything the Right worked for:

The 2008 election was closer than anybody expected, but Barack Obama still won. Many Christians voted for Obama – younger evangelicals actually provided him with the needed margin to defeat John McCain – but they didn’t think he would really follow through on the far- Left policies that had marked his career. They were wrong.

Vigorous writing omits needless words, so I’d offer this as more consice phrase to replace the above:

Stupid, naive, diaper-wearing Christians voted for Obama. Smart, mature evangelicals voted McCain.

What’s prompting this hysteria? Simply put, reality:

(Ventura, California) – Unless a dramatic shake-up of the electorate occurs in the next two weeks, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is poised to win the November 4th election by a comfortable margin. A new survey from The Barna Group, exploring the voting preferences of registered voters who are likely to vote in the upcoming election found that Sen. Obama has a 13-point lead against Republican John McCain (50% to 37%).

One of the surprising insights of the research is the significant inroads Sen. Obama has made among the Christian community, particularly compared to 2004. In fact, among born again voters there is a statistical dead-heat: 45% plan to vote for Sen. McCain, while 43% expect to cast a ballot for Sen. Obama. Even if Sen. McCain were to sweep the 10% who are undecided born again voters, he would fail to reach the 62% who rallied for President Bush in 2004.

As my previous post shows, I have plenty of very serious concerns about an Obama presidency. But the polling data in this election shows me something I can celebrate without hesitation: the Religious Right can no longer claim to speak for my faith. That’s good news.

The ambiguities of presidential politics persist today.  From Globe and Mail:

Sounding presidential, Senator Barack Obama said Wednesday he would order a surge of U.S. troops – perhaps 15,000 or more – to Afghanistan as soon as he reached the White House.

“We’re confronting an urgent crisis in Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama, the Democratic contender and now clear front-runner to replace George W. Bush, said Wednesday.

“It’s time to heed the call … for more troops. That’s why I’d send at least two or three additional brigades to Afghanistan,” he said in his most hawkish promise to date.

A U.S. army brigade includes about 5,000 soldiers along with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and helicopter gunships.

The opening description, “Sounding presidential,” hits me in a bad way. “Presidential,” as in “his most hawkish promise to date.” Presidential means hawkish. Gotcha.

Each time I read a story about this topic, I hear two words in my head: Lyndon Johnson.  The analogy is not perfect, but you may recall Johnson became President in part because of fears that his opponent would wildly escalate existing conflicts; hence, the Peace Little Girl (Daisy) ad. But the relationship between the anti-war movement and “peace candidates” in the major parties was always ambigious:

A small, core peace movement had long existed in the United States, largely based in Quaker and Unitarian beliefs, but failed to gain popular currency until the Cold War era. The escalating nuclear arms race of the late 1950s led Norman Cousins, editor of the SaturdayReview, along with Clarence Pickett of the American Society of Friends (Quakers), to found the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in 1957. Their most visible member was Dr. Benjamin Spock, who joined in 1962 after becoming disillusioned with President Kennedy’s failure to halt nuclear proliferation. A decidedly middle-class organization, SANE represented the latest incarnation of traditional liberal peace activism. Their goal was a reduction in nuclear weapons. Another group, the Student Peace Union (SPU), emerged in 1959 on college campuses across the country. Like SANE, the SPU was more liberal than radical. After the Joseph McCarthy inspired dissolution of Communist and Socialist organizations on campuses in the 1950s, the SPU became the only option remaining for nascent activists. The goal of the SPU went beyond that of SANE. Unwilling to settle for fewer nuclear weapons, the students desired a wholesale restructuring of American society. The SPU, never an effective interest group, faded away in 1964, its banner taken up by a more active assemblage, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Throughout the first years of its existence, SDS focused on domestic concerns. The students, as with other groups of the Old and New Left, actively supported Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. Following Johnson’s victory, they refrained from antiwar rhetoric to avoid alienating the president and possibly endangering the social programs of the Great Society. Although not yet an antiwar organization, SDS actively participated in the Civil Rights struggle and proved an important link between the two defining causes of the decade.

In office, LBJ assisted in many important advancements in areas like civil rights, but certainly did not govern like a “peace president,” if such a thing ever existed. While the anti-war movement did arguably hem in Johnson, the dynamic between the anti-war movement and the President during Vietnam should stand as a cautionary tale for those of us who oppose war and other violence today. Then as now, it is a mistake to believe that a president helped into office by anxieties about war will refrain from warmaking absent early, intense and constant pressure. As Howard Zinn said earlier this week,

…[E]ven though Obama doesn’t represent any fundamental change he creates an opening for a possibility of change. That is why I am voting for Obama. That is why I suggest to people that they vote for him. But I also suggest that Obama will not fulfill that potential for change unless he is enveloped by a social movement, which is angry enough, powerful enough, insistent enough, that he fills his abstract phrases about change with some real content.

We in the Christian anti-war tradition need to begin to plan now. I’d suggest applying pressure against a buildup in Afghanistan from at least three angles: a specifically Christian perspective, holding him to his word on anti-hunger efforts, and pragmatic reasons that an escalation in Afghanistan will not achieve our goals.

A Specifically Christian Perspective

Obama’s Christian faith featured prominently in this campaign because of his and his advisers’ words and because his opponents sought to tie him to Islam in very ugly ways (not that ties to Islam are ugly; my concern is more how “black,” “Hussein,” and “Arab” swirled around him to connect him to “terrorist”). Secretary of State Colin Powell affirmed this identity during his endorsement on Meet the Press: “He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.”  Obama himself describes his faith thus:

At the point of his decision to accept Christ, Obama says, “what was intellectual and what was emotional joined, and the belief in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, that through him we could achieve eternal life—but also that, through good works we could find order and meaning here on Earth and transcend our limits and our flaws and our foibles—I found that powerful.”

The specific angle I’d suggest with Mr. Obama arises from his remarks in two separate venues which I’d suggest setting side-by-side.  First, from Obama’s answer to a question about gay marriage:

While Obama said he does not believe in same-sex marriage, he argued strongly for civil unions that allow same-sex couples to visit each other in the hospital, let them transfer property to each other and protect them from discrimination. “If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which, I think, is, in my mind, more central than an obscure passage in Romans,” Obama said.

The second remark comes from his Call to Renewal speech:

…Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.

Putting these two passages together could be the beginning of a very fruitful dialogue with Senator Obama. He’s openly declared the Sermon on the Mount as “central” to his faith, and he’s publicly recognized the incompatability of the Sermon with the application of military force.  No one should be so naive as to think his or his advisers’ response to such a tactic would be, “Huh. You got me. We’re pulling out tomorrow,” but these two statements do a good job framing a conversation on favor of adherents of Christian nonviolence.

War is an Enemy of the Poor – Holding Obama Accountable for His Anti-Hunger Rhetoric

I wrote about this topic a few days ago, so I will not belabor the point.  I simply offer the quotes from Senator Obama’s anti-hunger paper and set it next to Dr. King’s quote, which makes the point far better than I could.  If you want to read more of my thoughts on this topic, see the earlier post.  From Obama’s paper:

“We’ve got rising food prices here in the United States. My top priority is making sure that people are able to get enough to eat.” Senator Obama [Meet The Press, 5/4/08]

When he was a child, Barack Obama’s mother briefly received food stamps to put food on the table when she needed help.  As a result, Barack Obama understands firsthand that federal nutrition and food assistance programs play a key role in minimizing the ill-effects of poverty and improving the diets of low-income working families, especially children.  Barack Obama will strengthen and expand nutrition assistance programs and commit to ending childhood hunger by 2015.

Dr. King’s speech:

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Insisting on the “guns or butter” frame, i.e. money spent on war is bread taken from the mouth of the poor, is especially important considering the huge increase requested by the Pentagon in funds over the next five years:

Pentagon officials have prepared a new estimate for defense spending that is $450 billion more over the next five years than previously announced figures.

The new estimate, which the Pentagon plans to release shortly before President Bush leaves office, would serve as a marker for the new president and is meant to place pressure on him to either drastically increase the size of the defense budget or defend any reluctance to do so, according to several former senior budget officials who are close to the discussions.

Pragmatic Reasons: Flooding Afghanistan with Foreign Troops Strengthens al Qaida

The head of the UN Security Council’s al Qaida / Taliban monitoring group published a report earlier this year that said in part:

The key to defeating Al-Qaida will be to undermine its local base in the Afghan- Pakistan border area. …[I]t will be important to promote the drift of the Afghan Taliban away from Al-Qaida, which could be achieved by allowing President Karzai more political room to negotiate a deal. The Pakistan government, on the other hand, needs to drive a wedge between tribal leaders and Al-Qaida. For both Governments, it will be critical to improve their bilateral relationship and cooperation.

The international community can and must help with this, but it will have to do  so carefully. Al-Qaida will fight hard to obstruct the influence of the central government (in both Pakistan and Afghanistan) and will try to discredit it by arguing that it acts on behalf of external interests; it will aim to provoke further intervention by foreign forces, knowing that this is the one thing all the tribes will unite against. In order to be successful, therefore, the key objectives need to be achieved – and need to be seen to be achieved – by local governments on their own rather than as a result of external intervention.

Al-Qaida…will aim to provoke further intervention by foreign forces, knowing that this is the one thing that all the tribes will combine to oppose; it will exult in civilian casualties that it can exploit to stir up tension, and it will continue to abuse religion as a method of indoctrination and justification for its acts…[P]ouring more troops into Afghanistan will not help if it alienates the local population and allows both Pakistan and Afghan Taliban to forget their internal differences and combine against a common enemy. The focus should remain squarely on Al-Qaida, not on the internal politics of Afghanistan.

Reports about negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government filled the news recently (see here, here and here). The report quoted above indicates that this is the right path to end the vast majority of violence in Afghanistan and that flooding Afghanistan with more foreign troops will not only be counterproductive to that goal, but will also reunify Taliban factions and help repair degrading ties to AQ. Other experts and research echoed these sentiments and others that support them, many of which I wrote about in other posts.

Not only is Obama’s plan to use military force to “pacify” (read: silence) Afghanistan at odds with sacred texts on which he bases his faith, and a direct threat to his own anti-hunger plans, but it will provoke a unification of our enemies, more civilian deaths, and ultimately more terrorism.  It is essential that Christian opponents of violence (don’t you long for the days when that phrase would have been reduntant?) be organized and ready to apply pressure through these and similar arguments should Senator Obama win the election.

Wired posted an interesting article on the use of Facebook to circumvent “real world” political repression aimed at suppressing freedom of association:

In a twisted way, though, even the quashed demonstration of May 4 was a success, maybe more so because of Maher’s arrest. For one thing, it illustrated how just a little digital organizing can trigger a resource-sucking counteroffensive from state security. After the non-news of May 4 and the ongoing manhunt for Maher, there has been talk of new censorship legislation. Rights groups say that the bill, if passed, will give a supreme monitoring authority power to arrest anyone involved in the dissemination of information — like starting a Facebook group. (Authorities in Syria have taken a far more direct approach by simply blocking access to Facebook.)

Government retaliation against the youth movement has also embarrassed the regime. Many Egyptian citizens are rooting for the idealistic Facebook kids, and the international media look favorably on their cause, or at least tend to portray the activists as David to the regime’s Goliath: “fledgling rebellion on facebook is struck down by force in egypt” (The Washington Post), “crackdown on facebook activists” (Los Angeles Times blog), “egypt detains facebook activists — again” (The Christian Science Monitor), “egypt faces new media censorship” (Al Jazeera). Not exactly flattering headlines for one of America’s best friends in the Middle East.

…Maher’s star has risen. His real-world profile is now high enough that torturing him could backfire, inspiring countless networked young people to take action. The last thing Hosni Mubarak needs is to turn this Facebooking regular guy into a full-fledged hero.

Check out the full article.

I’ve added a new website to the “Resources” set of links on the right.  The Pace e Bene newsletter describes the site as follows:

BeyondIntractability.org, created at the University of Colorado, is a free knowledge base on constructive approaches to destructive conflict. Their free online courses range in topics from Conflict 101, Social Conflict & Social Issues, and Peace Studies. If you are a teacher, they have several tools that can be integrated into your courses. Whether a student, educator, activist, or mediator the site offers constructive approaches to dealing with conflicts at all levels.

Take a look and let me know if you find anything interesting on the site.

Another one for the “not helpful” file:

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher met with top Pakistani leaders today, praising the country’s military offensives in its tribal areas. Boucher also lauded the government’s effort to recruit local tribes to assist in fighting against militants. He said he believes that only ‘harsh military means‘ can solve Pakistan’s problems, and cautioned against talks with militants which he referred to as “people whose only goal seems to be to blow up the Pakistan state and society.”

Hmm.  More to the point:

But [Pakistan] retracted that offer [of peace talks with the Taliban] partly due to pressure from the United States and partly because the effort did not stop suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks that have killed more than 4,000 people across the country over the last year and a half.

Boucher said militants were only ‘interested in using the peace talks’ process as more space to rebuild their capabilities.’

Gee, you mean bombing the holy bejeezus out of the Pakistani Taliban from one side and talking “peace” from the other, while failing to provide training to local populations on how to resist nonviolently a violent dominator, didn’t produce results?  I cannot imagine why that didn’t work.

Violent militarism like that of the Taliban (and the United States) serves security, identity, and economic functions. It’s not enough to hold peace talks while threatening these three areas of need. You have to be able to redefine and provide access to these needs in order to end violence as a method of participating in political conflict. (For more on this, see Powerful Peacemaking by George Lakey…you know you’re on to something when Cesar Chavez writes an endorsement on your book jacket!) Boucher’s caricature of the militants’ goals are ridiculous.  There are very, very few purely villainous people in the world, who just want to ‘blow up people and society.’  These people fight because something is more important to them than peace.  The U.S. should spend less time and money on trying to exterminate them and more time and money trying to understand this underlying priority.