Monthly Archives: November 2014

Is it any wonder no one wants Chuck Hagel’s job?

Is it any wonder no one wants Chuck Hagel’s job?
Does anyone want Chuck Hagel’s old job? (AP Photo/Mark Wilson, Pool)

First, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed said ‘no’. He’s enjoying serving his constituents too much to consider leaving the Senate.

Then, former undersecretary of defence Michèle Flournoy announced she wasn’t interested either. She is committed to spending more time with her family.

Nobody, it would seem, wants to succeed the dismissed Chuck Hagel as Barack Obama’s defence secretary.

But who would want the job?

Given what Mr Hagel had to deal with, and what happened to him as a consequence, the downside of any such appointment is glaringly obvious.

Since the financial meltdown of 2008, it’s almost universally agreed that significant budget cuts are essential to restore the American economy. Cuts in military spending are an indispensable component of this because the overall share of the Armed Forces’ funding is at least 17 per cent, which is a significant part of annual government spending. Many believe that 17 per cent is a gross underestimate.

It is often said that the Pentagon is effectively the largest corporation in the United States. It is also one of America’s biggest employers, of both uniformed and civilian personnel. In such circumstances, one of the key tasks of any defence secretary is to preside over some pretty ruthless downsizing.

The pain is even greater because in this case the expenditures are public rather than private. Jobs are lost every time a base closes, a contract cancelled, or a deployment scrapped. Mr Hagel was initially brought in partly to oversee another phase in this politically damaging process.

His successor will be the fourth defence secretary to preside over the giant rollback.

As the process moves on, it becomes more difficult, and the cuts more controversial. Indeed, Mr Hagel was reportedly upset that Mr Obama did not fight harder in Congress to secure the Pentagon’s budget.

There is also the problem of Mr Obama’s reputation as a chief executive who doesn’t pay much attention to what members of his cabinet think, preferring instead the counsel of his hand-picked White House inner circle. This concern applies to every cabinet-level position but it becomes particularly acute for any defence secretary.

But the biggest disincentive for any prospective Pentagon boss must surely be the Obama administration’s policy on ISIL and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Mr Hagel didn’t exactly resign; he was dismissed. This was, in large part, because of a two-page memo to national security adviser Susan Rice, in which he was said to be “sharply critical” of the strategy for dealing with Islamist fanatics.

He was, apparently particularly worried that American ambiguity regarding the future of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad places the entire US plan in grave jeopardy. He has reportedly been strongly arguing that American policies and practices must clearly demonstrate that the campaign against ISIL will not benefit the Damascus regime.

But the administration, led by the president, has carefully avoided any suggestion that American intervention in Syria against ISIL will involve or seek regime change. Indeed, last week Mr Obama was asked point-blank if he was considering steps that might lead to Mr Assad’s removal. He curtly responded, “no”.

Yet, the week before, Mr Obama noted that to “make common cause” with Mr Assad against ISIL “would only turn more Sunnis in Syria in the direction of supporting ISIL and would weaken our coalition”.

He appears determined to leave it at that: there will be no open or tacit alliance with the Damascus dictatorship. But he will not say that the United States is committed to regime change in Syria as it pursues the mission to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL.

Mr Hagel also reportedly found himself caught between administration demands for more air strikes in the Aleppo region, and Pentagon resistance to the idea based on alleged concerns about Syrian air defences.

His successor, whoever it is, will be handed primary responsibility for this frankly incoherent policy that, as it’s presently constructed, virtually insures its own inability to meet its broadest and most important goals. He or she will not be able to count on the president giving serious consideration to their perspective. Instead, if recent experience is any guide, especially as explained by another one of Mr Obama’s former defence secretaries Leon Panetta, the Pentagon’s new boss can expect their most difficult policies to be micromanaged by the White House.

Mr Panetta’s memoir was, of course, one of several angry accounts by former administration officials. Even so, someone willing to take the job will no doubt quickly be found. And they surely will be credible and qualified, and probably very distinguished. But anyone entering the administration as Mr Obama’s fourth defence secretary will have to wonder if two years isn’t enough time to add a fifth person to that list. Early departure seems to be built into the job description.

Hagel-ian dialectic

Hagel’s dismissal won’t make Obama’s Syria conundrum go away.

Chuck Hagel walks down the steps of the Pentagon. (AFP/Getty Images/Mark Wilson)


The dismissal of Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, marks yet another instance in which the President and his closest aides find themselves at odds with senior colleagues primarily on the issue of Syria. Hagel’s departure is openly acknowledged in Washington to have been more of a sacking than a resignation, and directly linked to disputes regarding Syria policy. Specifically, Hagel’s departure is linked directly to a highly critical two-page memo on Syria policy he addressed to National Security Advisor Susan Rice that was leaked last month.
At the time it was assumed that even though it was obvious that Hagel was addressing Obama indirectly by seeming to address Rice — the closeness of the two both personally and on policy issues being an administration byword — the memo fell into the category of permissible dissent because Syria policy was under construction. Over the medium term, however, it appears that Hagel went too far, and has been perceived as directly challenging the President. The memo is typically described as “sharply critical.”

The nature of the dispute is highly significant.

According to the leaked memo, Hagel had two main concerns about the administration’s approach to Syria policy. First, he argued strongly that the United States needs to be much clearer about its position on the future of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The studied ambiguity of the current policy regarding Assad, he argued, stands to “unravel” the American effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.

Hagel reportedly strongly urged the administration to clarify that it isn’t simply going to refuse to get into an open alliance with Assad, but that it is prepared to begin to take actions, as well as introducing much more rhetorical clarity, that leave no doubt that the US is both seeking and pursuing regime change in Syria. Without that, Hagel apparently argued, the campaign against the Islamist extremists would run up against unsurmountable obstacles because it would be perceived as benefiting the dictatorship and, therefore, being fundamentally inimical to the core interests of the Sunni Arab populations that ISIS both rules and claims to represent, particularly in Syria.

In ongoing administration disputes beyond his highly critical memo, Hagel has also strongly urged a greatly expanded campaign to arm, train and finance moderate opposition forces that could simultaneously serve as an alternative to ISIS and press the battle in Syria against the dictatorship. On both counts its efforts would be essential.

If there is no alternative to ISIS’ fighters, they will continue to be able to command unwarranted and unearned support from angry and desperate Sunni communities that have faced a regime that has had no compunction in using all forms of conventional firepower, as well as chemical weapons, to dispense with at least 200,000 of its own citizens in the past three years.

And if those same communities conclude that the anti-ISIS coalition effort either wittingly or unwittingly benefits that regime, rather than stands as a new challenge against it, there is no way for them to embrace the effort. To the contrary, as Obama himself recently noted, such an impression would serve to drive Sunni Arabs in Syria toward ISIS, however reluctantly, and away from any support for the coalition’s efforts.

Hagel therefore joins the distinguished and growing list of former administration officials deeply connected to Syria policy who have openly expressed their frustration at the Obama approach. Numerous former officials including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former CIA director David Petraeus, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former special advisor for transition in Syria Frederic Hof, and many others are on record as not only disagreeing with administration policy on Syria, but identifying some of it as part of the problem.

In August 2012, Petraeus presented a plan to the administration for greatly intensified arming and training of moderate rebel forces in Syria. The plan was supported by Clinton and Panetta, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey. But it was strongly opposed by Rice and others, and ultimately rejected by Obama.

Given that she almost certainly has ongoing political ambitions of her own, Hillary Clinton has, perhaps, been notably forthright. In August, she observed that, “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

In October at Harvard University, Vice President Joe Biden offered an alternate, although somewhat incoherent, theory explaining the rise of ISIS: “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends and I have a great relationship with Erdogan, which I just spent a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emirates, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a… Sunni/Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

Even if Biden is correct that some US allies, such as Turkey, were involved in the rise of ISIS through either acts of omission or commission, or both, Clinton’s indictment of administration policy still stands. The former Secretary of State was describing the vacuum that policy created. The Vice President was presenting an interpretation of who and what filled the vacuum once it opened. It’s noteworthy that Biden had to apologize to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for those remarks, while Clinton hasn’t apologized to anybody and isn’t going to.

Was Hagel offering a kind of policy synthesis resolving this thesis and antithesis regarding the rise of ISIS? If so, it wasn’t appreciated and it certainly hasn’t been accepted. To the contrary, it has resulted in his dismissal. But the fundamental contradiction that Hagel has identified — that the battle against ISIS cannot be won as long as US policy towards Assad remains ambiguous and ambivalent — remains unavoidable.

As I’ve written many times in the past, the inescapable bottom line is that the administration will ultimately have to choose between presiding over a campaign against ISIS that achieves much less than the stated “degrade and ultimately destroy” goal, or finally biting the bullet and making regime change in Syria an inextricable part of the American project. Getting rid of people who irksomely point this out isn’t going to alter an equation, like this one, that is hardwired into the reality of the problem.

Israel’s bid to ‘Arafat-ise’ Mahmoud Abbas will fail

Israel’s bid to ‘Arafat-ise’ Mahmoud Abbas will fail
The image of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat looks over Israeli security forces near Ramallah. Israel is trying to paint Mahmoud Abbas as another Arafat. Photo: Abbas Momani / AFP


The dynamics between Israelis and Palestinians – each side hopelessly set in its ways and bereft of new ideas – increasingly seem like a tiresome rerun of an old horror flick. It’s not just the war in Gaza that feels like Groundhog Day. The script in East Jerusalem also seems uncannily familiar.

The cyclical aspect is underscored by the leading role assumed by a new cadre of Palestinian protesters, who are too young to remember the trauma of the second intifada and the damage it did to Palestinian society, institutions, economics and prospects for independence. Even the focus on holy places in Jerusalem is reminiscent of past tragedies.

In recent days, however, an element of sinister farce has been introduced into what is an otherwise dark drama. A raft of right-wing Israeli politicians attempted to “Arafat-ise” Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. They wanted to subject Mr Abbas (Abu Mazen) to the same stigmatisation, opprobrium and isolation suffered by his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar), during the second intifada.

Israel was partially successful in turning Arafat from respected statesman and Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker into a diplomatically, politically and even physically isolated pariah. It accomplished this by means of a cooperative Bush administration and because it was able to keep Arafat under virtual house arrest. Many believe that the difficult, even squalid, conditions Arafat faced due to Israel’s treatment of him contributed to his death.

To recast Mr Abbas as the “new Arafat”, these two very different characters have to be portrayed as virtually indistinguishable. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talking points have been duly internalised all the way down the political hierarchy. A particularly useful opportunity arose on the tenth anniversary of Arafat’s death earlier this month.

Mr Netanyahu has led the attack, but without making an explicit link. He said the violence in Jerusalem was “the direct result of the incitement being led by Hamas and Abu Mazen”. Years ago, the Israeli government laid full responsibility for the second intifada, including actions by Hamas, at Arafat’s door.

Others have been more explicit. Earlier this year, Likud politician and deputy minister Ofir Akunis declared: “Abbas is Arafat in disguise”. Never one to allow himself to be outbid, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman not only endorsed the analogy but insisted that “the only difference [between the two] is that Abu Mazen is more dangerous because he knows how to mask his true face more effectively”. But this remake isn’t entirely faithful to the original production because this time the effort is failing.

Among other things, not all the cast are reading their assigned parts, especially Israel’s national security establishment. Yoram Cohen, the hawkish head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service told the Knesset last week that “Abu Mazen isn’t interested in terror and isn’t pushing for terror, not even under the table”.

Mr Cohen did express concerns that some of Mr Abbas’ comments had, probably unwittingly, contributed to an atmosphere of religious tension in Jerusalem. But he effectively squashed claims such as those by economy minister Naftali Bennett that “Abu Mazen is the driver of death cars in Jerusalem, and the terrorists are his emissaries”.

Though there’s been political confrontation at the United Nations, the Israeli security establishment recognises that Mr Abbas is continuing security coordination with Israel and the West Bank and cracking down on Hamas cadres in the areas under his control. Moreover, the violence is concentrated in Jerusalem, which is under Israel’s control. Parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) have remained largely peaceful. This is despite several dramatic attacks on Palestinians by Israeli settlers deep into the West Bank in recent days, as well as provocations such as the announcement of major new Israeli settlement expansions.

Mr Abbas was largely silent about the violence in Jerusalem, but strongly denounced the recent murderous attack on a Jerusalem synagogue. This makes it even more difficult to argue that his rhetoric is the primary cause of the present unrest. Moreover, a few weeks ago, Israel announced that it had discovered a Hamas plot to overthrow Mr Abbas and the PA precisely by means of an outbreak of destabilising violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem. They really cannot have it both ways.

The campaign to “Arafat-ise” Abu Mazen was a flop before it began. But it’s a troubling reminder of how deeply all sides, including Israeli political leaders, are trapped in their own failed policies and self-deluding rhetoric. Mr Abbas, for his part, doesn’t seem to have any new ideas either.

With ineffectual or weak leadership at the top, and extremists or hot-heads shaping the plot unfolding on the ground, Israel and the Palestinians once again find themselves drifting towards yet another confrontation that neither side can win and few want.

No one wants to watch this ghastly movie yet again. But, no one, it seems, is able to change the channel either.

The “Right of Revenge”

Israel and the Palestinians need international help to avoid another explosion.

Palestinians in Gaza hold knives and axes to celebrate Tuesday


Today’s appalling attack on worshipers at a Jerusalem synagogue that killed at least four people should serve as an urgent wake-up call to all those who take a nonchalant attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are many different ways in which a wide variety of people are blasé about it, but a shrugging of the shoulders in response to the conflict has become unfortunately widespread. And it’s profoundly dangerous.

Some, especially friends of Israel, suggest that the problem of the occupation is just not that big a deal. They argue that even if it once was a decisive factor in the Middle Eastern regional strategic equation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly isn’t now. They point to the war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Iraq, the meltdown in Libya and other dramatic and urgent crises and note that the question of Palestine just doesn’t have the cachet it used to in the Arab world, even two or three years ago. They say that the United States should not waste its limited and valuable resources on a fool’s errand of seeking peace where the parties are not ready, willing or able to compromise and it is simply not achievable, at least for the foreseeable future.

Others, including some in the Arab world, insist that Palestinian issues remain vital to other Arab societies and states, but that there are, perhaps, more urgent, although not necessarily more important, issues. The threat of violent extremism, as represented by but not limited to, ISIS, is most frequently cited as temporarily trumping the need for Israeli-Palestinian peace. But terrorism is not the only issue that has gobbled up political oxygen that otherwise automatically defaulted to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Concerns about Iranian hegemony and Turkish meddling in the Arab world, Qatar’s efforts to extend its sphere of influence by using soft power in support of Islamists across the region, instability in the most important Arab country: Egypt, and other dramatic developments are commanding the lion’s share of the Arab political imagination at the present moment. State policies are more focused on them. Political commentary, both print and broadcast, considers them more deeply and with a much more sustained attention than issues involving Palestine. It takes something as dramatic as the Gaza conflict this summer to return Palestine and the Palestinians to Arab headlines and daily examination in commentary forums.

So both Israelis and Arabs, and (their sometimes self-appointed) friends in the West, are just not as focused on Israel and the Palestinians as they used to be, even quite recently. As his term in office was winding down, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad frequently noted this troubling trend, which he correctly identified as downright disastrous for the Palestinians. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the present approach of many important external actors to the conflict has been “management,” rather than resolution.

Secretary of State John Kerry is mocked by some for his dedication to seeking peace negotiations, and even a potential agreement. It’s not just his “personalized,” and arguably self-centered or self-aggrandizing, approach that is the target for sneering. It’s the notion that attempting to resolve rather than manage the conflict that comes in for derision as naïve, quixotic or even absurd. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon notoriously described Kerry as “obsessed,” and, worse, “messianic,” not for his approach but rather merely for his commitment to seeking a peace agreement. “Messianic,” by the way, to all those who are not enthusiastically messianic or at least millenarian themselves, is, perforce, synonymous not merely with “ridiculous” but actually with “insane.”

No one doubts that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to be very difficult to resolve, that this process will take time and is unlikely to yield results in the short term. But no one should doubt, either, that the political vacuum left by the absence of any kind of diplomatic process or other horizon ending the conflict and the occupation produces a decidedly unmanageable and inescapably violent reality on the ground.

In my subjective and personal experience, Palestinians are angrier today than any time since at least the height of the second Intifada, and possibly all the way back to the 1980s. This rage is expressing itself on the ground in the form of violent attacks against Israelis, many of which appear to be spontaneous.

To be sure, many of these violent acts are being conducted by members or supporters of extremist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But a great deal of the street-level unrest is being driven by youths who do not remember the extraordinarily negative impact of the second Intifada, which ended nine years ago. A 14, 15 or even 16-year-old — and especially those younger — Palestinian lacks a framework for remembering that experience, which otherwise serves as a major disincentive from seeking violent confrontation with the occupying power, Israel, and ordinary Jewish Israelis.

But the violence is not only a two-way street. Israel, and even its antecedent Jewish settler communities in British mandatory Palestine have ensured that there has never been a period of sustained violence in which more Jews have been killed then Palestinians. Indeed, the ratio of Palestinian civilians killed is usually very high in comparison to Jews. And it is not just the Israeli occupation forces that are involved. Increasingly radical Jewish Israeli terrorists, vigilantes and “price tag” fanatics, operating out of the extreme right wing and pro-settler constituencies, are taking matters into their own hands, and attacking and, indeed, killing Palestinian civilians, including children.

Moreover, the occupation itself is inherently violent. It’s not just that by definition it involves a small group of people — the Israeli military — attempting to exercise discipline and control over a huge group of disenfranchised noncitizens — the Palestinians living under occupation. It’s that one of the most important defining features of the occupation is the settlement project that it facilitates and, indeed, that has come to serve as its raison d’être.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that in the absence of a diplomatic process or any other horizon for independence and freedom, Palestinian youths who are too young to recall the lessons of the second Intifada would quickly become restive. Agitation can also be expected from extremist groups that are drawn to reckless, and even reprehensible, activity, particularly in areas they do not control. Hamas has long been accused of seeking to undermine the Palestinian Authority by promoting violence in the West Bank.

And it’s no surprise, either, then, that extremist groups have welcomed the terrorist attack against the Jerusalem synagogue. Indeed, a Hamas spokesman, Mushir al-Masri, not only welcomed the attack, he coined a new version of “RoR” — which traditionally has stood for the Palestinian Right of Return. He wrote on his Facebook feed, “We have the full right to revenge for the blood of our martyrs in all possible means.”

This is precisely what can be expected in the absence of a political and diplomatic process, and in the face of not only ongoing occupation, but expanding settlement activity: aspirational dreams of the Right of Return give way to nightmarish fantasies about a supposed “Right of Revenge.” What’s taking hold in Jerusalem is a vicious circle of violence based on the logic of a “Right of Revenge,” embraced by both sides and expressed in many different forms of brutality.

This conflict cannot be managed, for it will continue to metastasize and smolder. Cyclically it will erupt into violence, whether of the more organized form such as the Gaza war this summer, or free-for-all’s such as the second intifada, because people cannot live with this degree of repression and tension. It cannot be sidelined because it will, forever, reassert its disproportionate, and indeed irrational, power to move people across the region and globe.

If it is a fantasy, and it probably is, to believe that the conflict can be resolved in the near-term of the next two or three years, then it is certainly also a fantasy — and a much more dangerous one at that — to believe that it can be successfully defused, contained and controlled. At the very least maintaining a level of calm, that is assuming it can be restored in short order, will require significant improvements to realities on the ground in order to break the cycle of violence, anger and incitement that is currently driving the vicious circle of “revenge” we have been witnessing in recent weeks.

When he launched his renewed peace initiative after he was appointed secretary of state, Kerry spoke in terms of a major project of investment in the West Bank. That never materialized, but there is no logical basis for it to be simply a reward or incentive for Palestinians regarding negotiations with Israel. To the contrary, such a project can and must stand alone as a positive initiative in its own right. The international community has a major obligation to ensure that Israel does not go forward with recently announced major new settlement expansions that would significantly alter the strategic situation in the occupied territories and make a peace agreement substantially more difficult to achieve under the best of circumstances. And the Palestinian Authority can and should do much more with international pressure and support to curb extremist activity in the West Bank. President Mahmoud Abbas’ condemnation of the synagogue attack was a positive but belated statement of opposition to the present wave of violence. The PA can and should be incentivized to do more to promote calm and enforce law and order in the areas under its control.

This isn’t asking for the world. Instead, these are modest, reasonable measures that are pursuant to the international community’s professed commitment to achieving a two-state outcome. And they are precisely the kind of serious, proactive measures by external, third parties that may well be necessary to break the current cycle of violence in which the parties themselves appear absolutely trapped. One could even frame it as a “conflict management” agenda, if you like, although they should be seen as immediate, emergency measures designed to calm the situation, before more ambitious measures are undertaken to develop, over the medium-term, a new horizon for hope and, ultimately, peace.

Coalition faces a series of difficult choices over ISIL

Coalition faces a series of difficult choices over ISIL
Smoke rises from Kobani during fighting between ISIL militants and Kurdish forces. Photo: Osman Orsal / Reuters

Despite its brutal murder of American aid worker Peter Kassig, there is mounting evidence that, as I noted on these pages last month, “slowly but surely, the tide is beginning to turn against ISIL”.

ISIL is finally being defeated in the Syrian border town of Kobani. Its advances in Iraq have been halted and are starting to be rolled back. The terrorist group lost control of the country’s biggest oil refinery at Beiji. The relatively poor production values of the latest ISIL murder video suggests a group in distress. Some reports even suggest that several key ISIL leaders, possibly including its “caliph”, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, may have been injured and others, including the notorious Chechen extremist Abu Abdul Rahman Al Shishani, killed in coalition airstrikes.

American Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General Martin Dempsey, confirmed last weekend that in his view the battle against ISIL is “starting to turn”, at least in Iraq.

However, as things stand, neither the strategic posture nor the existing resources of the US-led coalition are fully commensurate with the stated goal of “degrading and ultimately destroying” ISIL.

Therefore, the coalition faces a series of crucial choices. Either the ultimate goals of the mission will have to be downsized to conform with what can be accomplished by the present level of investment, or the degree of commitment and resources will have to be significantly increased.

The anti-ISIL campaign will almost certainly be expanded, particularly since Barack Obama can tap into considerable bipartisan and public support for that, and because not doing so would essentially mean pulling back from the “degrade and destroy” objective in favour of an indefensible policy of containment that can essentially live with a weakened ISIL.

But it’s not just a matter of increased airstrikes against a much wider array of targets, significantly expanded covert operations, or the carefully calibrated expansion of “boots on the ground” activities by special forces, trainers and advisers, or other coalition troops. There is a fundamental political conundrum that must be resolved.

On September 16, American defense secretary Chuck Hagel told a Senate committee that “destroying ISIL will require … effective partners on the ground in Iraq and Syria”, and that these do not presently exist.

Identifying or creating, and greatly empowering, such partners will be the single greatest determinant of the success of the broader mission to “destroy” ISIL.

In Iraq, Syria and some other parts of the Middle East, the traditionally empowered Sunni Arab regional majority now feels besieged, abused and attacked. ISIL’s rise to power has occurred in precisely those places where this is most deeply felt, as the organisation poses as a champion of the Sunnis.

Any local ground force that will be effective in truly demolishing ISIL, especially in northern Syria, will have to credibly challenge those claims. They will have to be seen as not just friendly, but as saviours of those very Sunni communities, and certainly cannot be perceived as representing hostile sectarian or ethnic interests.

This is going to be difficult enough in Iraq, where the betrayal of the “awakening” against ISIL’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, has left a vast chasm of mistrust between Sunni communities and the Baghdad government. Moreover, ISIL is aware of the danger surrounding them and has moved swiftly and brutally to crush any hint of dissent or opposition in Iraqi areas under their control such as Al Alam.

But it’s going to be even more difficult in Syria, where years of neglect for moderate opposition groups have left them hamstrung against both the Bashar Al Assad dictatorship and ISIL (which is moving ever closer to its former rivals, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra).

In both countries any sense that the anti-ISIL intervention either wittingly or unwittingly aids the central governments at the expense of Sunni communities will be disastrous.

And in Syria, the United States as leader of the coalition is going to have to work hard to overcome the impression that it is either ambivalent about the future of Mr Assad, or even reluctantly in favour of him staying in power.

Whether the impression of American ambivalence about Mr Assad is attributed to fears about the practical consequences of Syrian state disintegration, or is seen as emerging from a tacit respect for Iran’s sphere of influence and allies in the context of a potential nuclear agreement – and even if such perceptions are completely erroneous – the American-led coalition will not be able to dislodge ISIL in Syria if it is perceived as benefiting the dictatorship.

Mr Obama himself appeared to recognise this problem on Sunday when he said cooperation with Mr Assad was out of the question and noted: “For us to then make common cause with him against ISIL would only turn more Sunnis in Syria in the direction of supporting ISIL and would weaken our coalition.”

Mr Obama should follow this impeccable logic to its conclusion. In fact, the project to destroy ISIL, if it is to succeed, must be linked to a categorical and practical rejection of the Assad dictatorship and a policy, reflected on the ground, that explicitly and unequivocally seeks regime change in Damascus as well.

Without that, Mr Hagel’s indispensable “partners on the ground” – the eventual key to the entire campaign against ISIL – either won’t emerge at all or won’t stand a chance of prevailing.

Master of surrealism belatedly returns to his greatest triumph

Master of surrealism belatedly returns to his greatest triumph
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

The recent announcement by the American broadcaster Showtime that it has secured a contract with the surrealist film director David Lynch for a third series of his landmark 1990-91 TV programme Twin Peaks will be seen by cynics as another instance of the “nostalgia factor” that dominates the entertainment industry in the US. But with the nearly 70-year-old Lynch slated to direct all nine episodes, unlike most tiresome TV and movie remakes, unpredictability is the only plausible expectation.

In 1990, when I was beginning to work on my PhD in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, season one of Twin Peaks took American popular culture, including those of us who professionally studied art and culture, by storm.

The apparently idyllic town it depicted was populated by seemingly lovable, quirky characters, but beneath it all lurked an irrepressible darkness. As with Blue Velvet, his 1986 neo-noir thriller, Lynch seemed to be tapping into a fundamental aspect of Reagan-era America in Twin Peaks.

After Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis, stagflation and an atmosphere of national “malaise”, Ronald Reagan’s invocation of a carefully crafted “nonchalant” optimism and “small-town values” – as beautifully unpacked in Rick Perlstein’s new book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan – promised to somehow magically roll the clock back to a supposedly earlier, simpler American era.

“I really like Ronald Reagan,” Lynch frankly admitted about the first Hollywood president. But undoubtedly this attraction was heavily ambivalent since both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks focus on uncovering the dark realities beyond the white picket fence. Both deftly echoed how the early optimism of the Reagan era gave way to scandals and the sinister intrigue of the Iran-Contra affair, contrasting a crafty and conscious faux-naïveté with the grim secrets that lurked beneath.

In 1990, the United States reverberated with the programme’s central mystery: “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The girl, murdered and wrapped in plastic, was a seemingly perfect all-American teenager who turns out to be filled with secrets. Lynch adores conspiracy theories, both extant and imaginary. As the programme’s protagonist, FBI special agent Dale Cooper muses idly to himself: “What really went on between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys and who really pulled the trigger on JFK?”

The public was also gripped by the all-American iconography of the programme – “damn good” apple or cherry pie, washed down by endless mugs of piping hot coffee that were “black as midnight on a moonless night” – while only slowly realising it was being seduced by a hideous tale of not just murder, but incest as well.

Perhaps even more astounding at the time was the unprecedented artistry of the programme, particularly the Lynch-directed pilot, a beautiful and haunting film in its own right.

For the first time, cinematic techniques and standards were being applied to an American network programme, filled with still unsurpassed meta-televisual references. In the bizarre, surrealistic “red room” scenes, and the terrifying killing of Laura’s cousin Maddy, Twin Peaks still contains some of the most creative and harrowing television yet produced.

After a spectacular beginning, things started going badly wrong. The turning point came early in the second season when Lynch succumbed to pressure from the programme’s network, ABC, to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer (her father, who had also been abusing her for years). Lynch was using the Laura “mystery” as an elaborate ruse around which the rest of the narrative was constructed. Predictably, with its cornerstone kicked aside, the narrative meandered aimlessly and the programme soon folded.

But Lynch remained haunted by the story. He clearly felt that neither he nor the Twin Peaks programme had done justice to the central characters, particularly Laura, or to the depth of her tragedy.

He attempted to correct this in his 1992 prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Among other things, it depicts the last week of Laura’s life, but without the sly whimsy that made Twin Peaks so charming.

Indeed, Fire Walk with Me systematically repudiates everything that made Twin Peaks so popular, in favour of a much darker sensibility that is perhaps more suitable to the grimness of the basic story. Audiences and critics were outraged. Only in recent years has its terrible brilliance won more widespread recognition.

Lynch’s rage at television deepened when his 1999 pilot of Mulholland Dr, again for ABC, was rejected out of hand. After a period of intense bitterness, Lynch rejigged and expanded this pilot into what is now regarded by many critics as one of the greatest films of all time. Yet the avant-garde artist and usually lowest common denominator medium seem irresistibly, however incongruously, drawn to each other.

The return of Twin Peaks is the unlikely fulfilment of an old promise. In 1991, an angered and alienated Lynch returned to rewrite and direct the final episode. In it, the spectre of Laura tells Cooper: “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” The forthcoming Showtime episodes will be broadcast in 2016, exactly 25 years on.

Since then, Lynch’s love-hate relationship with the entertainment industry, including television, has only intensified, as Mulholland Dr and Inland Empire unmistakably demonstrate.

It’s risky for all concerned, since it’s almost impossible that the new episodes could have the impact of the first season. But Lynch and television have unfinished business. As the dialogue in Inland Empire keeps insisting, there is “an unpaid bill” to be settled.

And the Twin Peaks of the new millennium won’t be post-Reagan. It will be post-9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina and the calamitous fiscal meltdown of 2008. Even if the familiar quirky, charming town of Twin Peaks reemerges in the coming episodes, today’s nightmares are decidedly grimmer than those of a quarter-century back. It is, perhaps, high time for the ageing master of American surrealism to once again dive into the collective conscience and take a good, hard look at what lurks beneath the surface.

So, what kind of coalition should Tunisia gather?

So, what kind of coalition should Tunisia gather?
Tunisian supporters of Nidaa Tounes at a rally to support the party’s leader Beji Caid Essebsi. (Fethi Belaid / AFP)

Last week’s parliamentary elections in Tunisia were widely hailed as a breakthrough in the quest for democracy in post-dictatorship Arab societies. Despite gloomy predictions, voter turnout was nearly 70 per cent. The voting was free, fair and devoid of violence and intimidation. And, in a first in the Arab world, the Islamist Ennahda party peacefully accepted defeat at the polls and congratulated Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of Nidaa Tounes, whose party won 85 seats in the People’s Assembly compared to Ennahda’s 69.

The received wisdom now is that it is imperative for Tunisia’s future that the two main parties come together and form a national unity government. But there are significant arguments both for and against a Nidaa Tounes-Ennahda coalition.

Arguments for such a coalition government uniting the two main Tunisian parties are powerful, but not overwhelming. It is said that if Nidaa Tounes were to form a government without the participation of Ennahda, too many Tunisians would be “excluded” from government. Ennahda consolidated a powerful presence in the south of the country. It’s then argued that a coalition without Ennahda would virtually disenfranchise the party’s significant national support base, and, especially, the south as a region.

But a parliamentary system doesn’t imply that the party that comes in second has an automatic right to be included in the formation of the government. Rather it is the largest party that has a right to put together a coalition of its choosing, and live with the consequences.

Neither the Ennahda constituency nor the south would be disenfranchised at all. Both would be represented in parliament, but in opposition rather than in government. This is participation in an important and honourable role, since there must and will always be an opposition.

It’s also argued that Nidaa Tounes would need Ennahda support to carry out the necessary reforms that Tunisia will require to stabilise both its economy and its security requirements.

Just because Ennahda might find itself outside the coalition doesn’t mean it has the right, or even the incentive, to sabotage essential national requirements. If it did, it would be acting as a disloyal opposition.

There’s every reason for Ennahda, or any other parliamentary party, to stand strongly by the principles of its manifesto and the wishes of its constituents. But would that include blocking necessary economic and security sector measures that are in the national interest of all Tunisians? To assume so is to think the worst of both Ennahda and the parliamentary system.

The urgency of the security situation was brought home by an attack on a bus carrying military personnel and their families near the Algerian border, killing four and injuring 11. It’s unjust to assume that, because they are not included in a coalition arrangement, Ennahda or any other Tunisian party wouldn’t want this kind of national security crisis to be successfully dealt with.

Besides, the alternatives facing Nidaa Tounes aren’t particularly more palatable than Ennahda. The Free Patriotic Union and the Popular Front, two other potential coalition partners, are unlikely to welcome a coalition with Nidaa Tounes, which they openly describe as the rebirth of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) – the party of the former dictatorships. Ennahda, by contrast, has gone out of its way to welcome the prospect of a coalition. And without Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes would need either the FPU or the PF to gain a majority.

But would Ennahda really want to be part of a coalition with Nidaa Tounes? They say they do, but these assertions haven’t been tested yet in negotiations. There’s every reason they might just as easily want to step back and watch Nidaa Tounes struggle with the difficult decisions, and likely failures, that lie ahead – especially if they have inoculated themselves from charges of cynicism or disloyalty by feigning great enthusiasm for coalition government before deliberately making it impossible.

And as for Nidaa Tounes, their eyes are squarely on the upcoming November 23 presidential election, in which their leader, Mr Essebsi, is considered the front-runner. However, in early September Ennahda announced it wouldn’t field a candidate for the presidency. But at that time the Islamists also said they were confident of a bigger victory in parliamentary elections than they won in 2011.

As a practical and legal matter, it may well be too late for Ennahda to change its mind, but having reluctantly agreed to a mixed presidential and parliamentary system – and having been defeated in parliamentary elections – the calculations of the party must be undergoing some rapid reconsideration. One serious consideration is that a spell in opposition could afford Ennahda a chance to reconsider its priorities, and possibly to formalise a long-developing split between factions that want to focus on preaching and other religious work exclusively and those that are committed to further engagement with Tunisia’s evolving new political system.

It could well be in the best interests of everyone, for the country’s two largest political parties to form a coalition government. But other options are legally and politically viable, for both the elections winners and losers. And Tunisia’s democracy has to be able to withstand the normal, orderly competition of parties in a parliament that has no majority party and that will therefore require a coming together of strange bedfellows of one kind or another.

Will SCOTUS let Congress dictate US foreign policy?

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Jerusalem will determine the future of US foreign policy-making.

US Supreme Court. (AFP/Getty Images/Alex Wong)


With Jerusalem smoldering, the United States Supreme Court is set to rule on a case that could have profound implications not only for the status of that city in terms of American law and policy, but also for the relationship of different branches of government in the American political system as a whole. Indeed, it has the potential of completely restructuring the foreign policy-making process in the United States, and not for the better.


The lawsuit, Zivotofsky v. Kerry, No. 13-628, seeks to enforce a 2002 law that would compel the State Department to list “Israel” as a place of birth on American passports as opposed to “Jerusalem” for those Americans born in Jerusalem who request it. The Zivotofsky family asked the State Department to list “Israel” as the birthplace of their son, Menachem, who was born in Jerusalem shortly after the law was passed.
The Act in question holds that “[f]or the purposes of the registration of birth, certification of nationality, or issuance of a passport of a United States citizen born in the city of Jerusalem, the Secretary shall, upon the request of the citizen or the citizen’s legal guardian, record the place of birth as Israel.” It does not, strikingly, make any effort to define what, precisely, constitutes Jerusalem, despite the fact that there have been several different boundaries defining the city’s geographical definition in the 20th century alone.
At the Supreme Court hearing on Monday, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., speaking on behalf of the government, said the case was “the most vexing and volatile and difficult diplomatic issue that this nation has faced for decades.” That’s no exaggeration. Last year on this site I looked in detail at the international legal and diplomatic implications of the case.


The legal conundrum remains the same. But the political context has only intensified, given both the unusual levels of public acrimony between Washington and Tel Aviv over Israeli settlement policies in and around occupied East Jerusalem, and the extremely tense situation on the ground between Palestinians and Israeli occupation authorities.


Some observers are even going so far as to call the situation on the ground a “silent intifada,” or a “Jerusalem intifada.” Putting aside the fact that both of these phrases are oxymorons — to really be a politically significant uprising, an intifada can hardly be “silent,” and to rise to the level of a generalized uprising, unrest can hardly be restricted to Jerusalem, but rather must spread at least into the West Bank if not all of the occupied Palestinian territories — they do accurately gauge the highly volatile and combustible political situation on the ground.


This, apparently, isn’t lost on the justices.


During the hearing, Justice Elena Kagan responded to claims by the plaintiff’s counsel that changing the wording regarding birthplace on American passports as they requested wouldn’t signal a change in American policy and was relatively insignificant by observing, “Can I say that this seems a particularly unfortunate week to be making this kind of ‘oh, it’s no big deal’ argument? I mean, history suggests that everything is a big deal with respect to the status of Jerusalem. And right now Jerusalem is a tinderbox.”


Justice Antonin Scalia also seemed to be considering the issue in its diplomatic and political context, albeit in a very facile way, by observing that, “If it is within Congress’s power, what difference does it make whether it antagonizes foreign countries? The fact that the State Department doesn’t like the fact that it makes the Palestinians angry is irrelevant.”


Even the Solicitor General, speaking on behalf of the executive branch of government, urged the nine “Supremes” (a frequent nickname for the Supreme Court justices that rather makes them sound like a female vocal group from the Motown era) to consider the case in its diplomatic and political context. He urged them to bear in mind that, “The nations in the region, and, frankly, people around the world and governments around the world scrutinize every word that comes out of the United States government and every action that the United States government takes in order to see whether we can continue to be trusted as an honest broker who could stand apart from this conflict and help bring it to resolution.”


But ultimately the case is not about politics or policies, or at least it certainly shouldn’t be. It is about the constitutional division of power that renders the American system coherent. They may be enjoying a rare foreign policy conversation, but the justices certainly know that the case is about the separation of powers, and that, ultimately, they can only really rule one way.


As Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. correctly put it at the hearing, “Our decision isn’t going to be based on any view that we may have about whether Jerusalem should be regarded as part of Israel or the capital of Israel.” Instead, it must and will be based on how the Supreme Court interprets the relative roles of the legislative and executive branches of the American government regarding foreign policy.


There can be no doubt that, contrary to the claims of the plaintiff, the designation of a birth in Jerusalem as having taken place in Israel is, in fact, a major foreign policy statement. It can only be interpreted as implying that the United States either agrees that Jerusalem is in Israel, or doesn’t object to that designation, when, in fact, consistent American policy for over 60 years has held that Jerusalem’s status remains to be determined. The real question the Court must answer is whether or not Congress has the power to legislate foreign policy.


Historically the answer to this question has almost always been definitely not. Foreign policy has been strictly held to be the provenance of the executive branch, with very wide discretion in its conduct given to the president.


The two most obvious exceptions don’t suggest anything relevant for this case.


Congress does have the right to withhold funding from any policy it does not wish to fund, as it has absolute power over the nation’s purse strings. Congress did this with regard to funding the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. That set the stage for the Iran-Contra scandal when the Reagan administration sought to circumvent this funding crisis and still funnel funds and supplies to the Contras through secret weapon sales to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon.


Congress also, theoretically, has the exclusive prerogative of declaring war. However, Congress has not formally declared any war since the Second World War for a variety of significant reasons. The speed at which international relations move now suggests that the executive needs broad leeway in conducting military actions without congressional approval. Moreover, Congress’s role in declaring war increasingly became an anomaly that many felt could potentially throw the rest of the system into sudden disarray at the country’s expense. While many have bemoaned the de facto loss of this power by the legislature and to the benefit of the executive, national security concerns have consistently won the day for the White House.


Congress also has the power to “advise and consent” on treaties and other such commitments, which can have a major impact on foreign policy, and even its ability to confirm or reject cabinet-level appointees and other officials in the executive branch gives it some additional input and leverage. But overall, the American system and its logic strongly dictates that foreign policy (including domestic arrangements involving immigration) is otherwise very strongly reserved to the White House and not the Congress.


Moreover, none of these exceptions seem relevant to the questions raised by Zivotofsky v. Kerry.


When he signed the 2002 law in question, President George W. Bush promulgated one of his famous “signing statements.” It specifically objected to the relevant part of the Act, noting that “Section 214, concerning Jerusalem, impermissibly interferes with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs and to supervise the unitary executive branch. Moreover, the purported direction in section 214 would, if construed as mandatory rather than advisory, impermissibly interfere with the President’s constitutional authority to formulate the position of the United States, speak for the Nation in international affairs, and determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign states. US policy regarding Jerusalem has not changed.”


Because of the power of these arguments in the logical structures underlying the separation of powers that regulates relations between different branches of the American government, it’s almost unthinkable that the Court would actually rule in favor of the plaintiffs in this case. A ruling on behalf of the plaintiffs, forcing the President to yield to Congress on a core matter of fundamental American foreign policy, would be troubling and strange indeed.


One ought to be able to confidently expect the decision to uphold the basic constitutional arrangements that are being challenged in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, the plaintiffs’ attorney’s denials notwithstanding. Indeed, we should expect it. After all, if the Court rules on behalf of the plaintiffs and orders the executive branch to comply with Congress’ dictate regarding US foreign policy on Jerusalem, Pandora’s box will well and truly have been opened.


The Supreme Court (the judicial branch) will, in effect, have granted Congress (the legislative branch) authority to dictate through legislation granular and detailed matters of foreign policy to the presidency (the executive branch). Congress can be expected to understand this and to exercise its new powers with considerable relish and abundant audacity, particularly if the White House and legislature are held by different parties, as they very often are (and undoubtedly will be after today’s midterm elections, with Republicans poised to hold the House of Representatives and seize control of the Senate).


The entire process of making and, ultimately, even conducting foreign policy will be fundamentally transformed. And not for the better. What’s at stake could hardly be more significant or far-reaching in terms of constitutional modalities and policy-making processes. This little case, as the plaintiffs present it, has the potential to maintain the present system or completely overthrow it. The Supreme Court undoubtedly understands that. Stay tuned for a fascinating and exceptionally important ruling by late June of next year.

Palestinians must tread carefully as US-Israel ties falter

Palestinians must tread carefully as US-Israel ties falter
Any notion that strained US-Israeli ties are a benefit to Palestinians imposes an illusory zero-sum model. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo


When a “senior Obama administration official” was quoted in The Atlantic using a profanity to describe Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was only the latest in a series of mutual insults that have brought US-Israel relations to a new low.

John Kerry, US secretary of state, implies he blames Israel’s settlement policies for the breakdown in peace talks, while Mr Netanyahu has lectured the Obama administration on a range of topics, including “American values”.

The impulse of many Palestinians is to see this unusual acrimony between Israelis and Americans as a significant net gain. But they shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

Much as they may resent American closeness to Israel, Palestinians need the US if they are ever going to get an agreement on ending the occupation. Many complain that the US is an inappropriate third-party because it is biased towards Israel. But there is no other power seeking to replace the US as Middle East peace broker. Under these circumstances, Palestinians can either negotiate directly with the Israelis or they can continue to work with the Americans.

Moreover, given the reality that the US is the only plausible third-party mediator, and that the only way to end the occupation is through a successful negotiation with Israel, the strong US-Israeli relationship does potentially provide a benefit to Palestinians. The Americans can “deliver” the Israelis, at least in theory, to the negotiating table. Certainly there is no other party that Israel would trust as a guarantor of any agreement.

Finally, any notion that strained US-Israeli ties are a benefit to Palestinians imposes an illusory zero-sum model. It’s just not true that anything that harms Israel’s interests is good for the Palestinians and vice versa. The real world is much more complex than that. The tensions between Tel Aviv and Washington do open an important set of potential opportunities for Palestinians. But they have to proceed carefully if they are not to squander it.

During the first Obama term, the US and Israel had a major confrontation over settlements. Yet this did not help advance Palestinian interests at all because Palestinians did not position themselves as appearing to be willing to compromise.

US-Israeli tensions don’t amount to much if Washington also views the Palestinian position with suspicion. This leaves the US to conclude that, rather than having a recalcitrant Israeli interlocutor and a responsible Palestinian one, they are dealing with two fundamentally non-cooperative parties.

Yasser Arafat demonstrated, at the Wye River negotiations, how taking a political hit (in the form of accepting a deal that was less than he reasonably believed Palestinians ought to accept) in order to demonstrate a willingness to work with the Americans. It produced results. For one thing, it led directly to the defeat of Mr Netanyahu by Ehud Barak.

That wasn’t sustained, but it did demonstrate the basic pattern. The Palestinian leadership could take steps to try to demonstrate what it is willing to do to help the US achieve its broader goals.

One prospect that now emerges is not the US declining to veto Palestinian statehood initiatives at the UN, but a new Security Council resolution on settlements.

The deterioration of US-Palestinian relations began with the US veto of a Palestinian-driven Security Council resolution condemning settlements in February 2011. The US said it didn’t want to vote for a resolution describing settlements as “illegal”, but would accept the word “illegitimate”. Palestinians insisted on “illegal”.

Washington vetoed the resolution and relations have been strained ever since. Under the current circumstances, should Palestinians play their cards right, there is a real prospect for revisiting the crucial issue of the settlements in the Security Council. That would be a breakthrough both in US policy and US-Palestinian relations. And, given Israel’s missteps, it’s now achievable.

But if Palestinians don’t frame themselves as a responsible party, in contrast to Israeli irresponsibility, then the opportunity will, once again, have been wasted.