Too late to be lucky

December 7 was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and of the birth thirteen years earlier of Noam Chomsky. Pearl Harbor led to American global dominance at the same time as Chomsky’s insights into the nature of language were beginning to have an impact on linguistic theory, philosophy and psychology. Chomsky is also an outspoken critic of his country’s foreign policy. Expanding his critique of B. F. Skinner’s and W. V. O. Quine’s behaviourist determinism to the political realm, he has developed a libertarian and socialist vision of free will, opposition to concentrations of private and state power, and resistance to the abuse of power at home and abroad.

Throughout his adult life, from his moral opposition to America’s invasion of Vietnam to his country’s more recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chomsky has argued that the US behaves much as its Spanish, British and French imperial predecessors once did. Moreover, he notes, the US has employed the same moral language to cover what appear to be global atrocities. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, he believes, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. Those Chomsky has consistently condemned must feel that he has looked into it too damned much…

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Free Austin Tice

The Enduring Search for a Missing American Journalist in Syria

Debra and Marc Tice left Beirut last week without their son. It was a disappointing, if unsurprising, end to their eighth trip to the Lebanese capital in the six years since Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and law student, vanished while covering the war in Syria. The Tices knocked on doors, hosted a press conference and applied for Syrian visas to plead for the Syrian government’s assistance in freeing their captive son. Their meetings in Beirut produced little more than sympathy, their dignified presentation to the press corps received minimal coverage and the Syrian government did not grant them visas.

Now, they anticipate their sixth Christmas at home in Houston without the eldest of their seven children. Austin Tice’s disappearance and prolonged captivity constitute a mystery that cries out for a solution. It began with his decision in 2012, just before the summer vacation preceding his final year at Georgetown University’s law school, to publicize the suffering of the Syrian people…

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Marie Colvin Dedicated Her Extraordinary Life to Describing “What Really Happens in Wars”

The extraordinary life of war reporter Marie Colvin would have merited a biography even if she had survived the Syrian army’s bombardment of Homs in February 2012. Long before her fatal trip into the city’s rebel-held Baba Amr quarter, producers had proposed turning her life into an action-packed movie. It was only after her death that two films, a documentary and a drama, appeared. Now, Lindsey Hilsum has written the book “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin,” and it is one of the best biographies I have read about any journalist. Colvin’s trajectory, personal as much as professional, was fascinating by any standard for the passion and turmoil that shadowed her from birth to untimely death. This is a great story, well told.

The controversy surrounding Colvin’s death partially overshadowed her achievements in life. Her family, friends, and Syrian opposition believe that the Syrian government assassinated her by targeting the Homs Media Center, where she and other correspondents were sending vivid reports of civilian suffering. Yet countervailing narratives persist. One is that the insurgents put journalists in harm’s way to create Western martyrs for their cause. Another is that Colvin and 28-year-old French photographer Rémi Ochlik were unlucky casualties of a military campaign that took thousands of civilian lives.

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Saudi Consulate doors Istanbul

Seeing Khashoggi’s Fate as a Death Foretold

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi was a death foretold from the time his comments on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and effective ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, reached the royal court. Princes do not tolerate what they perceive to be insults, especially from commoners. In an absolute monarchy, the difference between criticism and treason does not pertain. Khashoggi, for years a loyal subject of the monarchy, dared to suggest that his country refrain from devastating its smaller neighbor, Yemen, and permit the kingdom’s inhabitants a measure of freedom. That was enough for his liege lord to perceive him as an enemy of his person and of the state. The official Saudi line denies the crown prince’s complicity in Khashoggi’s death, but it would have been understood by members of the Saudi government that if Khashoggi continued, others would follow. The Western powers that have played a decisive role in the Saudi kingdom throughout the past century should not be shocked at what happened to Khashoggi. His death is one of many they have ignored since Abdulaziz Ibn Saud founded the kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula and named it for his family.

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World War Two’s Covert Ops Are Failing in the Post-War World

Before President Barack Obama authorized clandestine operations to defeat Syrian President Bashar al Assad in 2013, he asked the CIA to write the history of its secret wars. The classified document, say those who have read it, is a record of failure from Albania to Cuba to Angola to Nicaragua. Yet Obama went ahead with the covert program for Syria, which the CIA ran from Turkey and Jordan. Like its predecessors, Operation Timber Sycamore failed. It neither toppled Assad nor prevented Salafi jihadi fanatics from dominating the Syrian opposition. President Trump cancelled the program in July last year, but he is not immune to the siren call of another secret war – in his case, against Iran with as much chance of a positive outcome as Syria.

Why the fascination with arming foreign insurgents and proxy armies to fight wars that the US won’t fight itself? “We’re busily training, you know, local troops to fight local militants, why do we think we have this aptitude for creating armies?” Andrew Bacevich, a retired army colonel and author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, once told me. “I don’t know. It sure as hell didn’t work in Vietnam.” Two reasons stand out. One is that, as Bacevich explained, insurgencies are wars “on the cheap,” not only in dollars but in assuring the public that American soldiers’ lives are not in danger. It is also a midway point between invasion and doing nothing. And most American presidents, faced with an opportunity to undermine rival states, want to do something.

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Print, the legend – The life of an American newspaperman

“Hold the front page!” Editors have no doubt shouted those fabled words more often for Seymour Hersh than for any reporter living. Hersh – known to friends and colleagues as “Sy” – is a legend of my trade, born appropriately in that great newspaper town, Chicago, scene of sufficient political corruption and police brutality to sustain a dozen dailies. From his exposure of the My Lai massacre in 1969 and other war crimes by American forces in Vietnam to his recent accounts of official disinformation about Syria, Hersh broke from the pack to tell tales most of his colleagues avoided but which the public needed to know.

What a story. What a life. It’s hard to read this book without a tinge of envy and a lot of admiration for a poor kid from the South Side who watched friends go off to Harvard in the 1950s while he stayed to support his Polish-Jewish mother by running his late father’s dry cleaners. When his twin brother Allan finished his PhD and brought their mother to San Diego, Sy took an English degree and went to the University of California’s law school. Having been expelled for indolence, he got a job with the City News Bureau in Chicago, the windy city’s equivalent of Britain’s Press Association, where he learn the trade. The morning editor made young Hersh scrub his desk, and his beat involved reporting high school basketball scores. “Nonetheless,” he writes, “I was smitten.” Having been drafted into the army for six months of Stateside training in 1960, he returned to work on a suburban weekly, got fed up working for people he did not respect – a recurring theme in his career – and started the rival paper Evergreen park/Oak Lawn Dispatch with a few friends. “My idea of a solid story then was one that found a way to praise an advertiser”, Hersh admits.

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Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five

The Unjust Prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation Five

“For the law holds, that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer,” wrote Sir William Blackstone in 1765, expressing a fundamental principle of Anglo-Saxon justice. Miko Peled, in “Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five,” his exhaustive study of the U.S. government’s case against five defendants from a friendless minority, demonstrates how American justice has deviated so far from Blackstone that the courts can convict a hundred innocents for one who is guilty. “Injustice” portrays a modern version of Franz Kafka’s “Trial” in which five Palestinian-Americans confront the character Joseph K.’s dilemma: “K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home?”

The FBI, the Treasury Department, and other assorted police forces in Texas and California accosted them with raids on most of their family houses early in the morning on July 26, 2004. The criminal trial against the Holy Land Foundation Five — or HLF 5, as the five Arab-Americans became known, a reference to the Islamic charity they founded in 1990 — opened exactly three years later. It culminated in a hung jury. The retrial in Dallas federal court began in September 2008, and included unprecedented testimony from “Avi,” the pseudonym assumed by an Israeli intelligence agent whose qualifications the defense was unable to probe. Judge Jorge Solis, although he instructed jurors that they were allowed to weigh the agent’s credibility in light of his anonymity, nonetheless brushed aside the defendants’ right under the Sixth Amendment “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Nothing in the U.S. Constitution until then permitted conviction by anonymous accusations, but the court convicted all five men.

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Fighters with the YPJ

Syria’s Kurds Return to Al Assad’s Fold

The plain of northeastern Syria, where the Trump White House vacillates over whether to dig deeper or pull up stakes, has become an archipelago of mass graves. During the three years that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria dominated the remote landscape, it massacred thousands of civilians and captive Syrian government soldiers without allowing their families to bury them. Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, noted that the former capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, had “at least nine mass graves, each one estimated to have dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies, making exhumations a monumental task.” Four hundred bodies were unearthed at Raqqa’s municipal zoo, and it will take months for families to identify the decomposed corpses. Other towns and villages in the Kurdish-administered zone are discovering similar grisly mementos of Islamic State rule.

The mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which receives vital support from the United States and an estimated 2,000 special operations forces troops based in the northeast, made the unusual gesture on July 30 of returning to the Syrian army the remains of 44 soldiers who had been executed by the Islamic State in the village of Ain Issa in 2014. Ten days earlier, local officials had uncovered four mass graves near what had been the headquarters of the 93rd Brigade, and the Kurds used the occasion to help mend fences with President Bashar al Assad. The process of reintegrating the largest Kurdish-controlled region into the rest of Syria is underway, and the United States can do little to stop it.

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Magistrates Court of the Australian Capital Territory

Oil, Spies and Audiotape in East Timor

Conference in Algiers in the wake of the October Arab-Israeli War and the Arab oil embargo against Western countries supporting Israel. I remember meeting young men at my hotel from Portugal’s African colonies — Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. They had come to plead with the Arabs to keep withholding oil from Portugal even if they restored supplies to the United States. The conference’s declaration of Nov. 28 included the commitment to “sever all the diplomatic, consular, economic, cultural and other relations with South Africa, Portugal and Rhodesia of those Arab States which have not yet done so.” Economic hardship in Portugal produced the Carnation Revolution the next April, which overthrew the dictatorship and led to Portugal’s abrupt withdrawal from its colonial empire after four centuries.

Civil wars ensued in the largest colonies, Angola and Mozambique, while Portuguese East Timor, half of an island between Indonesia and Australia, awaited its fate. Indonesia claimed the territory, though the Timorese favored independence. The United States decided the issue on Dec. 6, 1975, when President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger descended on the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to inform military dictator Suharto that East Timor was his for the taking. A cable from the U.S. Embassy quoted Kissinger on the legality of Indonesia’s use of U.S. weapons in invading East Timor: “It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation.” East Timor, which had no army, did not attack Indonesia, but the self-defense ruse was sufficient for Suharto to invade as soon as Ford and Kissinger departed. Indonesian forces killed more than 200,000 people in the operation — one-third of East Timor’s population — suppressed all civil rights, confiscated land and implanted settlers from Java.

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City of Damascus pictured from Mt Qasioun

Trump’s Road to Damascus and a Chance for Conversion

The last U.S. ambassador to serve in Damascus, Robert Ford, testified to Congress earlier this year that the “U.S. military and civilian costs in Syria over the past four years are at least $12 billion.” It is a high price for failure — failure to depose President Bashar al Assad, to break his alliance with Iran, to prevent Salafist jihadism from taking root in Syria for the first time, to maintain the friendship of U.S.-NATO ally Turkey, to save an estimated half-million Syrians from death and to stem the exodus of nearly half the Syrian population from their homes. Most of the dozen or so former officials of the Barack Obama administration to whom I have spoken in Washington over the past three weeks regret what transpired on their watch, but it’s too late for them to do anything about it.

President Donald Trump’s administration inherited the Syria mess when it entered the White House on Jan. 20, 2017. Its policy was anyone’s guess, reminding me of an old joke about an Irish farmer telling a tourist who asked for directions to Dublin, “Well, I wouldn’t be going there from here.” It is unclear how far Trump and his new foreign policy team, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will commit the country’s money, armed forces and intelligence services to Syria. They could, if they dared, learn from the mistakes of Obama’s policies to avoid prolonging the war and deepening the United States’ involvement in it.

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