Archive for February, 2009

A: When it leaves behind 50,000 combat troops and an uncertain number of “advisers.”

From the Guardian UK:

WASHINGTON – Democratic Congressional leaders have expressed dismay that President Barack Obama is planning to leave as many as 50,000 US troops in Iraq even after the long-awaited withdrawal of combat troops next year.

Obama, on a visit to a military base in North Carolina today, will announce plans to make good on his campaign pledge to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq. There are about 145,000 US troops in Iraq and Obama is expected to say that most of the combat troops will be withdrawn by August next year.

From the International Herald Tribune, Feb. 25:

Similarly, defense officials said they did not know how many combat troops would stay behind as renamed “trainers” and “advisers” in what would effectively be combat roles. Military planners have said that to meet withdrawal deadlines, they would reassign some combat troops to training and support of the Iraqis, even though the troops would still be armed and go on combat patrols with Iraqi soldiers.

It will be interesting to see how this plan conforms to the Status of Forces Agreement we worked out with the Iraqis last year that sets a very hard expiration date on the withdrawal of our troops:

Jan. 1, 2012, was set as the deadline for final withdrawal of all U.S. forces, in a status of forces agreement signed last year by President George W. Bush and the Iraqi government.

After the final SOFA had been worked out and Obama won the election, the government started a semantic tap-dance, proposing that we just re-label combat troops as “advisers,” thereby short-circuiting the clear intent of the Iraqis that we be out of their country by the first day of 2012. Fifty thousand troops is better than 140,000 troops, but that’s certainly not the “end” of the Iraq debacle that the peace and justice movement fought for.

P.S. Tens of thousands of our troops in Vietnam were “advisers.”

Update: Obama’s speech at Camp Lejeune appears to leave no wiggle room:

Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.

As we carry out this drawdown, my highest priority will be the safety and security of our troops and civilians in Iraq. We will proceed carefully, and I will consult closely with my military commanders on the ground and with the Iraqi government. There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments. But our enemies should be left with no doubt: this plan gives our military the forces and the flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed.

After we remove our combat brigades, our mission will change from combat to supporting the Iraqi government and its Security Forces as they take the absolute lead in securing their country. As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35-50,000 U.S. troops.

Through this period of transition, we will carry out further redeployments. And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned.

This seem unequivocal, but “intend” can be a little malleable. All troops out by the end of 2011–this is the standard to which we must hold the administration accountable.

From the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer:

Litany of Penitence

The Celebrant and People together, all kneeling

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation
of other people,

We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done:
for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our
indifference to injustice and cruelty,

Accept our repentance, Lord.


Abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has worsened sharply since President Barack Obama took office as prison guards “get their kicks in” before the camp is closed, according to a lawyer who represents detainees.

The Independent UK:

Less than a month after signing an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, President Barack Obama has quietly agreed to keep denying the right to trial to hundreds more terror suspects held at a makeshift camp in Afghanistan that human rights lawyers have dubbed “Obama’s Guantanamo.”

In a single-sentence answer filed with a Washington court, the administration dashed hopes that it would immediately rip up Bush-era policies that have kept more than 600 prisoners in legal limbo and in rudimentary conditions at the Bagram air base, north of Kabul.

Now, human rights groups say they are becoming increasingly concerned that the use of extra-judicial methods in Afghanistan could be extended rather than curtailed under the new U.S. administration. The air base is about to undergo a $60 million expansion that will double its size, meaning it can house five times as many prisoners as remain at Guantanamo.

Dahlia Lithwick:

…[T]he Obama administration’s secrets will someday be evaluated by the next administration. We keep your secrets, the next guy keeps ours. (Or so the president may hope.)

…[B]y keeping the worst of the Bush administration’s secrets hidden, the Obama Justice Department can defer awkward questions about prosecuting the wrongdoers. In his press conference Monday night, Obama repeated his mantra that “nobody is above the law and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, people should be prosecuted just like ordinary citizens. But generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.” The principle once again is that Obama is for prosecuting Bush administration lawbreaking only when proof of such lawbreaking bonks him on the head. All the more reason to keep it out of sight, then.

Wild Swings

Posted: February 26, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

A few days ago I wrote about a recent Harris/BBC America poll that showed barely a third of Americans supported a troop increase in Afghanistan. That’s no longer the case: according to a USA Today/Gallup poll published on Monday:

President Obama’s decision to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan is supported by 65% of the American public, including not only majority support from Democrats, but even larger support from Republicans — marking one of the few instances in which a president receives more support for a policy decision from those who identify with the opposing political party than he does from his own.

USA TODAY/Gallup poll re: Obamas troop increase in Afghanistan

USA TODAY/Gallup poll re: Obama's troop increase in Afghanistan

Overall approval for a troop increase in Afghanistan doubled in one month. What happened?

There are several possibilities. One is that either the Harris/BBC poll or the Gallup poll were outliers and randomly selected a sample totally unrepresentative of the American people. Another is that the polling methods of one or the other were flawed. Both of these scenarios are possible. However, my wife may have nailed it on the head with her analysis: public opinion on Afghanistan policy is still soft, a very popular president made the hypothetical policy into his actual policy, and now that troops are sure to be sent Americans want to support them.

If that’s the case, however, the administration should keep in mind that using your popularity to cause wide swings in public opinion irrevocably ties your political fortunes to the outcomes of the policy. Obama’s team keeps telling us that even with more troops,

“…if your question is, might it get worse before it gets better, the answer is yes, it might.”

Congressional elections will take place late next year. Remember what happened to the sitting president’s party the last time we had a war that “got worse before it got better” just in time for a mid-term election?

Update: The Washington Post just released new polling that tracks with the Gallup poll above.

WAPO/ABC News Afghanistan Poll

WAPO/ABC News Afghanistan Poll

In his analysis of the data, WAPO’s Jon Cohen says:

Nearly four in 10 who said the war has not justified its costs back the new troops, signaling that some people may expect better results after the troop levels rise. (Among Democrats, that number is closer to 50 percent.)

See above comment re: things getting worse before they get better.

‘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. [Matthew 5:38-41, NRSV]

A few days ago, ex-Vice President Dick Cheney gave an interview to The Politico in which he criticized the new administration’s restrictions on torture. The reporter wrote:

Protecting the country’s security is “a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business,” [Cheney] said. “These are evil people. And we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.”

Cheney used (and derided, intentionally or not) one of Jesus most central and radical teachings as the antithesis of strength and responsible leadership in the face of violence. He implied that, when dealing with real, mortal enemies, the Sermon on the Mount has nothing to say.

He’s not alone.

A while back, then-Senator Barack Obama said something with similar implications [emphasis mine]:

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?

Obama is now the President of the United States. Presumably, he plans to keep the Pentagon open. In fact, he just ordered 17,000 more troops to deploy to Afghanistan. Obama has intoned the Sermon on the Mount as central to his faith, but, like Cheney, does not seem to trust it to guide a response to evil in the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty” real world of Talibans, al-Qaidas and Iranians.

Cheney and Obama seem to have found a little bit of bipartisan agreement. They both have faith in the power of violence to solve problems. And, as Obama’s new troop deployment and Cheney’s sadistic defense of torture show, they act (or order others to act) on their faith. Both are stuck on anachronistic readings of the Sermon on the Mount.

Theologian Walter Wink’s exegesis on the Sermon shows what a caricature the modern concept of Jesus’ teachings has become. Jesus, speaking to a crowd, living under a humiliating occupation, watching his people bubble towards a suicidal rebellion, gives in the Sermon one of the most revolutionary teachings on love and nonviolence in history. This sermon lays the foundation for a movement that will, in the years after his death and resurrection, become the first totally anti-violence sects in recorded history.

Wink explains:

“Turn the other cheek” suggests the passive, Christian doormat quality that has made so many Christians cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice. “Resist not evil” seems to break the back of all opposition to evil and counsel submission. “Going the second mile” has become a platitude meaning nothing more than “extend yourself.” Rather than fostering structural change, such attitudes encourage collaboration with the oppressor.

Jesus never behaved in such ways. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, it is neither Jesus nor his teaching, which…is arguably one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered.

The Greek word [commonly translated “resist”] means…to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection. Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. …He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition.

A proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would then be, “Do not retaliate against violence with violence [emphasis mine].”

Jesus clarifies his meaning by three brief examples. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Why the right cheek? How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. As the Dead Sea Scrolls specify, even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days penance. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.

What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer in this way, and if one did the fine was exorbitant (four zuz was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuz for backhanding him; but to an underling, no penalty whatever). A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.

We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. It is important to ask who Jesus’ audience is. In every case, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor. Rather, Jesus is speaking to their victims, people who have been subjected to these very indignities. They have been forced to stifle their inner outrage at the dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and by the guardians of imperial occupation.

Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how can he now hit the other cheek? He cannot backhand it with his right hand. If he hits with a fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. But the whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality.

The second example Jesus gives is set in a court of law. Someone is being sued for his outer garment. Who would do that and under what circumstances? Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but an outer garment to give as collateral for a loan. Jewish law strictly required its return every evening at sunset, for that was all the poor had in which to sleep. The situation to which Jesus alludes is one with which his hearers would have been too familiar: the poor debtor has sunk ever deeper into poverty, the debt cannot be repaid, and his creditor has hauled him into court to wring out repayment.

Indebtedness was the most serious social problem in first-century Palestine. Jesus’ parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. It is in this context that Jesus speaks. His hearers are the poor (“if anyone would sue you”). They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, finally even their outer garments.

Why then does Jesus counsel them to give over their inner garment as well? This would mean stripping off all their clothing…Put yourself in the debtor’s place…There stands the creditor, beet-red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand, your underwear in the other. You have suddenly turned the tables on him. You had no hope of winning the trial; the law was entirely in his favor. But you have refused to be humiliated…You have said, in effect, “You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?”

Nakedness was taboo in Judaism. Shame fell not on the naked party but the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness (Genesis 9:20-27). By stripping you have brought the creditor under the same prohibition that led to the curse of Canaan…The creditor is revealed to be not a “respectable” moneylender but a party in the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution. This unmasking is not simply punitive, however; it offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause-and to repent.

Jesus’ third example, the one about going the second mile, is drawn from the enlightened practice of limiting the amount of forced labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples. A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law. In this way Rome tried to limit the anger of the occupied people and still keep its armies on the move. Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.

Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack (sixty-five to eighty-five pounds in full gear). You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.” Normally he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack; now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther then you should? Are you planning to file a complaint? To create trouble?

From a situation of servile impressment, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response.

This is not the passivity mocked by Cheney nor discarded by the president. In Jesus’ statements we have a perfect illustration of active, nonviolent, loving resistance to evil and oppression. These statements helped build the foundation for the nonviolence of Tolstoy, and later, Gandhi.

Wink asserts that every act of violence is an act of faith in a violent system. Right now, the U.S. is offering up 17,000 more troops and who-knows-how-many civilians on the altar of that system. The American Friends Service Committee has put together an online letter you can send to your federal representatives, asking them to deny funding for troop increases in Afghanistan. It’s a small offering to the nonviolent God revealed in Jesus, but small offerings can be the seeds of miracles.

Obama’s Justice Department just reaffirmed one of the most egregious, unconstitutional and criminal practices of previous administrations: using an expansive version of the state secrets privilege to block suits brought against a Boeing subsidiary for helping the CIA kidnap and outsource torture of people not yet convicted of a crime (and no, I’m not making this up, and h/t to Greenwald for staying on top of it and providing fantastic source links).

According to the lawyers:

[Plaintiff Ahmed Agiza] was picked up off the streets of Stockholm and then he was taken to an airport where a CIA rendition team–this is a bunch of men dressed all in black, with their faces covered–sliced off all of his clothes, put a suppository into him, chained him to the floor of an airplane, flew him to Egypt, where he was exposed to absolutely brutal torture, including shock treatment, all kinds of beatings. He was then given a show trial in an Egyptian military court and sentenced to 15 years for involvement in a banned organization.

The state secrets privilege is intended to protect specific classified documents, not throw out whole cases. But that’s exactly what President Bush used it to do, denying people like Ahmed Agiza their right to be made whole in our legal system. What makes this particular case so astounding is that little about Agiza’s case remains secret. Sweeden’s government paid him restitution, and the timeline of the kidnapping and torture have been reported in books and the press in detail.

Use of the privilege in this way has one purpose: to shield the people involved in illegal, unconstitutional and inhuman behavior from accountability.

Today’s New York Times editorial put it very well:

The Obama administration failed — miserably — the first test of its commitment to ditching the extravagant legal claims used by the Bush administration to try to impose blanket secrecy on anti-terrorism policies and avoid accountability for serial abuses of the law.

On Monday, a Justice Department lawyer dispatched by the new attorney general, Eric Holder, appeared before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. The case before them involves serious allegations of torture by five victims of President Bush’s extraordinary rendition program. The five were seized and transported to American facilities abroad or to countries known for torturing prisoners.

Incredibly, the federal lawyer advanced the same expansive state-secrets argument that was pressed by Mr. Bush’s lawyers to get a trial court to dismiss the case without any evidence being presented. It was as if last month’s inauguration had never occurred.

A while back, I wrote a post arguing that the Christian peace and justice movement should prepare to continue to push and protest policies of the Obama administration. Many of Obama’s proposed policies at that time were much-need deviations from President Bush’s policies, but his ambiguity on matters of war and peace left no doubt that he would need pressure and political space to moderate American militarism. This development confirms that concern.

Obama’s affirmation of kidnapping and outsourced torture should remind all of us, especially Christians who give their allegiance only to the loving, nonviolent Jesus Christ, to moderate our enthusiasm for change. True change will be hard-won. We elected a president, but that does not mean our job is finished.

No, no, no.

Posted: February 9, 2009 in Uncategorized

No. This will not help, and will make things worse.

Thank You, Glenn.

Posted: February 9, 2009 in Uncategorized

Greenwald nails it:

Using the prevailing media-logic applied to Bush’s counter-terrorism policies such as torture and Guantanamo (i.e., if a country is attacked by Terrorists, its Government then does X, and there are no Terrorist attacks for some period of time thereafter, then that is “proof” that “X stops Terrorism”), I believe these events in Spain constitute proof that the way to stop Terrorism and to keep the citizenry safe is to stop invading and occupying Muslim countries and take accused Terrorists and put them on trial with full due process rights before putting them in cages for life.  After all, that’s what Spain did, and there’s not been another Terrorist attack for five years.  Therefore, those policies have kept the Spanish people safe.