I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – Part IV of V: Foreign Policy as a Motive for Accepting Refugees

Miliband offered four other reasons for accepting refugees having more to do with international relations than domestic reasons. The development of new international institutions and instruments for sanctioning and delivering global responsibilities beginning with the Atlantic Charter during WWII was one. On this Miliband seemed to be on firmer ground and it accords with Molloy’s tale of the postwar development of Canadian refugee policy. I will come back to the fourth reason in a moment, but the fifth and sixth reasons, the search for security in an interconnected world where refugees were viewed as a source of instability and the strategic interest in winning friends by sharing the burden of first receiving countries least able to support a large refugee influx, both seem a propos and in accordance with the narrative of Mike Molloy and his co-authors, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka.

What about the fourth reason, that a state accepted refugees when they were the result of foreign policy mistakes of the state taking in the refugees? “Among the reasons for giving them (the Vietnamese boat people) refuge was the United States’ role in the Vietnam War.” (Miliband 55) But why was Canada so forthcoming? It had stayed out of that war. Most Canadians were critical of the whole war effort. In fact, I used to believe, until I read Molloy’s book, that from 1975-77, Canada offered only token support for resettling the refugees to appease our partners more than out of any concern for the refugees. Canada only became involved in 1978 when government officials became convinced that the refugees were not fleeing because they had worked for or allied themselves with the Americans, but because of the intolerance of the government. That proved not to be the explanation for the Canadian initiatives.

When Canada evacuated its embassy in April 1975, the mission was small, lacked any security arrangements to deal with the huge mobs seeking to escape and would or could not waive the requirement that Vietnamese wishing to leave with them would have to have a passport and exit permit. Canadian officials claimed that the South Vietnamese government enforced these requirements at gun point until the very last minute. But the American evidence and other accounts indicate that money (and one’s own guns) could determine a different outcome. Canadian officials were not in a position to use either device to get the exit permit requirement waived. However, the Canadian behavior contributed to the widespread belief that Canada wanted to completely dissociate itself from Vietnam and the Vietnamese refugee problem.

One exception was the Canadian baby lift of 120 (of the 2,547 orphans taken abroad) that came to Canada, many of mixed race abandoned at orphanages. The Canadian contingent, however, consisted mainly of Cambodian orphans as well as some of the Vietnamese orphans who survived the crash of the US Air Force C-5A that killed 135 of the orphans and escorts on board.
The very high percentage of Cambodians also reinforced the image of Canadian detachment from Vietnamese refugees. But if this was the case, why did Canada admit nearly 7,000 refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam in 1975-76? One answer was that 4,200 were sponsored relatives of Canadian citizens. 2,300 were considered to be genuine Convention refugees. Further, as Molloy pointed out, “The general feeling of Canadian commentators was that the war in Indochina was the United States’ war and that it was up to the Americans to deal with the results of war’s lost.” (43)

That was my understanding – tokenism, minimalism, legalism – not compassion and commitment. Molloy’s book shifted my perspective. The make-up and work of the immigration processing teams tell a very different story. Nick Kyriakides, a Canadian Health and Welfare doctor, died from dengue fever contracted in the Guam processing centre. To grossly understate them, the working conditions were challenging. What pushed those officers? Duty? A moral imperative? Certainly a high sense of responsibility to get the job done in as efficacious and professional a manner as possible. But more than any or all of these was “the sense of adventure, comradeship, and teamwork.” (46) They were having a good time doing good work, good in its accomplishments and good in its implementation in ensuring every chartered flight was full, even though simple tasks like counting were very difficult under the circumstances. In every single location in which they worked, they seemed to be able to combine hard work and joy. Instead of 7 files a day as the norm, the immigration officers processed 80. The 1976 new legislation delegated to those officers discretion and flexibility based on that pilot demonstration.

The real challenges to the nascent program came out of left field. Lieutenant General Dăng Van Quăng, who had a very questionable reputation, had been admitted. One unsavory character did more to blacken the prospect of any increased intake than any single cause. With innovation come risks – “there was little appetite, public or political, for serious engagement.”

What changed between 1976 and 1978? Canadian foreign service and immigration officers delivered intelligence. Small boats filled with refugees continued to arrive. The receiving countries were not only not integrating the refugees, they were voicing growing reluctance to even allow the refugees entry. The numbers had grown enormously, placing an unsustainable burden on the economies and capacities of those states. Politicians (Jake Epp and Doug Roche) and the Indochinese ethnic associations in Canada kept up the pressure. UNHCR added to that pressure. And a wise and perspicacious Deputy Minister, Allan Gotlieb, offered the analysis and the sympathy to make the first tentative steps towards a new Canadian initiative. These refugees were not fleeing because of the American involvement in the Vietnam War but because of the harsh and discriminatory rule of the new regimes now in power, regimes that now were at war with one another.

As indicated in Part III, the biggest difference resulted from the new 1976 Immigration Act promulgated in 1978. Legislative foundations matter, especially when “the new act created, for the first time, a legislative and regulatory framework for Canada’s refugee resettlement programs.” (62) Canada had previously admitted refugees who were technically not Convention refugees. Now grounds were provided to make that part of Canada’s mission as the means were provided to carry it out. Humanitarianism directed at refugees had now been ensconced as a “tradition” within Canadian law. This is who we were as Canadians. In addition to the Political Prisoner and Oppressed Persons Designated Class (Chileans and Argentinians) and the Self-Exiled Person Designated Class (Jews and others from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe), the Canadian government named the Indochinese as a Designated Class, as refugees who could be admitted without determining whether they met the criterion of the Refugee Convention.

Even before the legislation was promulgated, Immigration Department officers began to gear up in 1977 in anticipation of an inevitable new and large resettlement effort. The requisite regulations were drafted in the spring of 1978 and the Indochinese Designated Class came into effect in December 1978.

Ideals were at work. So were interests. But government civil service experience and professionalism, legislation and regulations, the necessary tools for a large-scale refugee resettlement program, were indispensable. However, I had previously believed that the most significant innovation was due more to serendipity than anything else – the creation of the Private Refugee Sponsorship Program. I had thought that this initially minor change in the legislation was made to satisfy the Jewish community which wanted to sponsor one or two hundred Soviet Jews. Molloy documents, as indicated in Part III, that this initiative was very deliberate. It was introduced to assuage critics from the left about Canada’s handling of the Chilean refugees. The program for the Soviet Jews was not the impetus; rather, the latter established the operational principles: efficiency, no cost to the taxpayers, local groups responsible for resettlement, sponsoring organizations guaranteeing the local group commitment, and defining the package of services to be provided.

Chance without a push to take advantage of that opportunity might prove irrelevant. Far-sighted civil servants saw that opportunity. In the spring of 1978, they initiated a public relations program to educate the public and to bring the churches on board to apply the program to help the anticipated influx of Indochinese refugees. It was an opportunity for Canada. (Gerald E. Dirks, Canada’s Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977) As well, politicians and civil servants had created a mechanism to act. One year later, the effort yielded its first results when the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada came on board and signed a master agreement. The Christian Reformed Churches of Canada followed suit a month later.

Molloy does not raise the question why it took many of the mainline churches – Anglicans, the United Church, Catholic dioceses – until the summer of 1979 to join the private sponsorship movement. This is one of the few weaknesses of the book. However, Molloy is not writing critical history; he provides a detailed chronicle, one shaped by his diplomatic background. He probably saw no benefit in investigating this question closely, especially since his focus was on the role of mandarins in the program. But it was widely known at the time that the mainline churches were wary, some believing that the private sponsorship program was a conspiracy to dump the responsibility for resettlement of the refugees on the private sector. Further, there was a degree of racism among some of the congregants of one at least of those churches. By chapter 5, the text makes clear that there was “opposition from refugee advocates in a couple of mainline churches.” (91)

The book narrates how the government overcame religious institutional wariness, fears of a large intake given rising levels of unemployment and suspicion that the refugees were just rich immigrants buying their way out and their passage to Canada. Further, even a left-of-centre newspaper like the Toronto Star initially opined that Canada was not a suitable environment for resettling Indochinese refugees.

To be continued with a final section…

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Moderate Plaudits for Trump’s Moving the American Embassy Policy: Part II

Moderate Plaudits for Trump’s Moving the American Embassy Policy: Part II

by

Howard Adelman

“Whether motivated by the importance of preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a concern for Israel’s and America’s relationships with key Arab partners, or a desire to cut ‘the ultimate deal,’ the new administration shows signs of investing heavily in Middle East peace negotiations. The president even assigned his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a potential peacemaker.” In such an interpretation, Trump’s move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without predetermined borders had rational strategic goals: strengthening Israel, strengthening U.S.-Israeli ties and advancing the peace process towards an ultimate deal. Tomorrow I will consider the last goal and the technique seen as a method of achieving it – disruption. In this blog I want to analyze the positions of those who applaud the move as reasonable and strategic, and offer a rationale for its beneficence.

However, I begin this blog with other criticisms and caveats that, like the initiative, offered a more nuanced critical response, but without declaring the Trump initiative as stupid or rash or uncalled for or biased or as destroying the possibility of peace. American diplomats with a long history of engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, such as Dennis Ross, who served the Bush administration as Director of Policy Planning in the State Department and as a special Middle East coordinator for Bill Clinton’s government, offered a mixture of approval and reservations about the initiative.

The reference point was always the passage by Congress in 1995 of legislation obligating a transfer of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, legislation with large bipartisan support, but with the inclusion of the waiver allowing the president to delay the move for six months at a time if needed to secure American interests. Up until Trump’s announcement, all presidents, including Trump six months ago, had signed the waiver. This time, however, Trump signed the waiver with two caveats: a) practical measures were now to be initiated to arrange the move; and b) Jerusalem was being recognized as Israel’s capital, but with the important caveat that this in no way preempted the determination of borders or the control over holy sites.

Previously, the waiver had been signed “to prevent damage to ongoing efforts to negotiate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Would such an initiative serve the pursuit of peace in the Middle East or undermine it? The signing of the waiver never meant that there was no recognition of “the centuries of history that link the Jewish people to the city.” The resolution of Congress sent a clear signal to those who wanted to delegitimize Jewish claims in Palestine more generally. However, there had also always existed practical administrative and security reasons for moving the embassy – convenience to American diplomats who must travel back and forth to Jerusalem all the time, the inadequate security in the existing Tel Aviv embassy, and the general perception that the U.S. does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The issue was when to take the initiative not whether, and under what qualifications. Would such an initiative be neutral or would it undermine America’s role as a useful arbitrator? Would it advance or impede the prospects for negotiations and peace? How would such a move fit in within this larger strategic goal? Would it enhance Israel’s willingness to make concessions or set back that possibility? Would it drive more Palestinians into a rejectionist corner or send a message that the U.S. tolerance for Palestinian procrastination was near its end? More specifically, would it give greater strength to Jared Kushner’s leadership on the question, propel it forward by signaling the possibility of further additional moves that would reinforce the Israeli government position, or drive the Palestinians and their supporters to distraction making them both unwilling to participate and/or accept America’s mediation efforts?

Supporters of the move asked for even more nuance and more statements of clarification. For supporters who approached the new position with qualms and qualifications, an embassy move must demonstrate that such an initiative would not prevent a Palestinian capital in the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem from emerging through negotiations. It must explicitly and repeatedly be linked with an insistence that the initiative does not change the status quo at the city’s holy sites. U.S. statements should make even more explicit that the policy decision to move the embassy is not an endorsement of Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the entire city. These additional statements must make absolutely clear that the U.S. is committed to the status quo of the holy sites. Only when the initiative is followed by such reassurances can Muslim sensitivities about the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) be assuaged while Jewish sensitivities about the Western Wall are reassured.

Even if the prime message still lacked substance and was only symbolic, it had to state clearly and unequivocally that the negotiations could not have as a starting point the cease fire lines of 1967. Those were not borders. It had also to signal that a one state solution was not in the offing and that only a two-state solution was and would be on the table, but one which offered the prospect of a continuing diminution in that state, its power and geographical reach. At the same time, Israel had to be sent a message that it too could not envision a one state solution including all of historic Israel and Palestine and, thus, that there was no alternative to continuing to substitute facts on the ground as an alternative to negotiations in that direction. The direction being pushed in UNESCO, in the absence of an American veto on a core issue, had to be reversed and done so loudly, clearly and backed up by the will and might of the world’s most powerful nation.

Further, Trump must further clarify the character of recognition without defining borders. Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since 1949. That is a fact and not a matter of negotiation. Negotiations are needed to resolve all the respective claims that Israelis and Palestinians have, including questions related to Jerusalem. Israelis and Palestinians must resolve these issues directly without outside interference. Does the new initiative reinforce this route or undermine it by expressing a bias in favour of the Israeli position and, thereby, ruling out the American role as a supposed “neutral” intervenor?

There is a logic to the duality of recognition, on the one hand, and declaring that this still left the borders undefined. Israel’s prime minister and parliament are located in the part of Jerusalem that is not contested. There is an honesty in ending the fiction that the city is not the Israeli capital, a fiction which has gone on for 70 years. At the same time, given the centrality and potentially explosive nature of Jerusalem, the ability of the parties to determine the boundaries of the city must be respected. The possibility even that Jerusalem will become the capital of two states must be left open.

Of course, those who are anti-Zionist and deny Israel’s legitimacy will never be satisfied by such nuances and elaborations. Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, has already called for an uprising. In the violent riots thus far, several Palestinians have already been killed. The president’s declaration can be exploited further.  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas never went as far as the Hamas leader. He merely declared that the U.S. could no longer assume the mediator’s role.

Jerusalem is an emotional issue. Any initiative will be misrepresented. That misrepresentation can help encourage violence or accompany the violence instigated by extremists. That, in turn, will strengthen the hand of the rejectionists and undermine the more moderate elements in both the PA and in Jordan. According to these modest plaudits, the initiative must be followed by a diplomatic offensive which repeats as a mantra that the two initiatives – moving the embassy and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – do not, repeat, do not preempt any final decision on borders. How this will be accomplished without diplomats in place in critical centres is, of course, a related question, especially when this failure was accompanied by the appointment of David Friedman as the U.S. ambassador to Israel, an individual who openly opposes a two-state solution. The Trump administration has not named an ambassador to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar or a replacement of Barbara Leaf as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates; this has already been considered a sign of disrespect by the countries in the region.

Beinart in opposing the initiative, even with the nuances and proposed elaborations, never wanted “to detract from the primary moral responsibility of those ‎Palestinians who detonate bombs or shoot guns or stab with knives. Palestinian terrorism ‎is inexcusable. It always has been. It always will be.”‎ However, he drew an equivalence between those who commit acts of violence and those who trigger a violent response because of their insensitive and unrealistic politics, however much they did not intend to do so. In answer to the criticism that this gave Palestinians a veto over policy since they need merely hold out the threat of an uprising to get those who initiated policies not to their liking to back off, critics of Beinart and defenders of the initiative claimed that Beinart’s stance was akin to blaming the victim, such as a raped woman, for the violence of the man who assaults her.

Peter Breinart, however, made the following distinction. The violence of a male rapist is a product of male pathology. The cause of Palestinian violence, however pathological, is a response to a genuine grievance. This is the nub of his position. He accuses Israel of being the primary reason that the peace process has not advanced. Israel has been guilty of creeping annexation.

It is on this that we disagree. For I hold both parties responsible at the same time as I hold neither responsible for their key difference – the final disposition of Jerusalem. The bottom lines of both parties are incompatible so there is no possibility of peace unless one side or the other budges from its position. Beinart is not simply concerned with the optics of Trump’s announcement; he finds Palestinians to be the lesser responsible party, even though they resort to initiating violence. He takes that stance because he holds that the responsibility for the violence ultimately rests in the hands of the Israeli government and its supporters. I try to bracket my evaluations about responsibility, however, when I undertake an analysis to try as best I can to minimize the effect of my own value priorities and dispositions.

It should be clear that Beinart’s evaluation is not a product of detached analysis but of a moral framework which stimulates within Peter a Cassandra perspective, not simply a very pessimistic outlook concerning political outcomes, but an absolute conviction that he has the power to prophecy accurately even if many or most do not buy into his prognostications.  Hence his support for boycotting products produced in settlements in the West Bank.

Different critics of Beinart who support Trump’s initiative offer some of the following arguments; I put them forth as an amalgam:

  1. The Trump initiative was indeed lacking in substance, and this was its merit; the pronouncement simply recognized the reality on the ground but there was not any there, there, that changed anything;
  2. The move actually made the U.S. more of an honest broker, in Israeli eyes at least, providing more leverage over the Israelis, but without diminishing American neutrality as well as U.S. influence among Muslims and Arabs, quite aside from the current theatrics;
  3. In openly and formally endorsing a two-state solution, the U.S., in fact, had made a step forward;
  4. The absence of a clear strategic vision can be read as a failure, but it could be an intentional step in keeping a mediator’s cards close to one’s chest;
  5. Though the action failed to spell out either the needs or demands of either side, this again was better in reifying America’s role as a neutral party;
  6. In answer to the claim that the initiative had given a green light to Israel to expand its settlement efforts, those were already well underway;
  7. Other initiatives, such as a temporary stop to settlement building, had not been sufficient in the past to drive the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but combining that with the signal of an even possible greater initiative, might do the trick;
  8. In any case, what was there to lose since there was widespread agreement that the so-called peace process had reached a dead end;
  9. Though lacking in substance, though consisting of only a move with great symbolic significance, this initiative was the only one available when the differences over Jerusalem had remained so intractable for far too long;
  10. When such a move had been preceded by envoys from the business world rather than the traditional diplomatic core, it offered the Palestinians an opportunity to signal back under the cover of street demonstrations by keeping those demonstrations confined and also restricted largely to the symbolic level.
  11. Finally, it was urgent that the Obama non-veto in the dying days of that administration, that had given encouragement and a greater rationale for the Palestinians becoming even more intransigent, be reversed if any breakthrough could be expected.
  12. The above points indicate, not a missing U.S. strategy for the Middle East and for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically, but may have also signalled a non-rational and radically new disruptive approach rather than being content with the so-called tried and true methods of international diplomacy [this will be the subject of my analysis in tomorrow’s blog].

As I will explore tomorrow, disruption rather than going-along-with-the-flow has emerged as the new mechanism to replace the old one of “trying harder,” of banging one’s head against an insurmountable wall of resistance whereby each side saw time on its side. At least one of the parties had to come to the realization that time was not on their side. That of necessity had to be the weaker party. Besides, hypocrisy had to come to an end, not only hypocrisy about the discrepancy between reality on the ground and the frozen postures of outside countries, but the hypocrisy whereby Arabs building on conquered land had never been branded illegal by the international community, but moves by Israel, including those in places such as French Hill and Gilo, were so branded in a way that ran completely contrary not only to the facts on the ground, but what could realistically be expected in the future given Israel’s real power and given Israel’s real control of the ground game.

 

Tomorrow: Disruption as a Foundation for International Diplomacy

 

Wronging and Opp Strangers

Wronging and Oppressing Strangers: Mishpatim Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

by

Howard Adelman

Is it serendipity that we read such a text between Donald Trump’s aborted cruel, inhuman and unconstitutional Executive Order dealing with migrants and the delayed promise to issue a revised order next week? When immigration enforcement officers were previously restricted to rounding up illegal aliens in the U.S. found guilty of serious crimes, is it serendipity that we read Mishpatim when restrictions on U.S. immigration officers have been lifted and they are now instructed to round up illegal aliens found or even alleged to be guilty of any conviction (going through a red light) and not just a criminal let alone a serious criminal record?  Guadalupe García de Rayos, was arrested in Phoenix and ordered deported; she is the mother of two American-born children and had been in the U.S. ten years and was registered with the American Immigration Service to which she reported dutifully twice per year. But she had been found guilty years ago of carrying and working under a fake ID.

Is it serendipity that we read Mishpatim when refugees in the dead of winter have been crossing the undefended and usually unprotected land border between the U.S. and Canada at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec or near Emerson, Manitoba or in British Columbia at unmanned border crossings such as in Surrey where a Honduran family recently entered Canada? RCMP officers may monitor banks of screens receiving data from surveillance cameras, but that only tracks and does not stop claimants from crossing into Canada. Once on Canadian soil, they are assisted by Quebec provincial police, RCMP officers, Canadian Border Services agents or volunteers to be taken to a centre where they can make a refugee claim. In January alone, 452 asylum seekers crossed into Quebec and over 400 into Manitoba. To repeat, this has been in the dead of winter. In another month, we can expect the numbers to greatly increase so that I will not be surprised, if the circumstances do not change in the U.S., to see up to 40,000 asylum claimants cross the border into Canada illegally in 2017. And this could turn out to be a gross underestimate.

There is a way to circumvent these riskier crossings. Allow claimants to cross at legal entry points and make a claim there. That would mean suspending the definition of the U.S. as a Safe Third Country. For that provision presumed that asylum claimants would be protected by U.S. law. There are justifiable fears that this is no longer the case, not just by sympathetic Canadians, but by supporters of refugees in the United States, many of whom have volunteered to take the asylum claimants to areas where they can walk across the border at a terminus of a new underground railway network into Canada.

Many Americans and Canadians are taking Justin Trudeau at his word when he tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” This week, Canada welcomed into Manitoba another group of the 1,200 Yazidis due to arrive in Canada this year as humanitarian refugees who will not have to be processed through the Convention refugee claims system.

Canada is on the outer fringes of the refugee movements, especially the hundreds of thousands crossing into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. This past week, we read of 87 bodies recovered from a capsized boat off the cost of Libya; the smugglers had removed the motor and allowed the boat to be swamped. Last week I learned that the son of an Israeli friend, a diver who inspects underwater pipelines, found numerous bodies trapped under the pipeline at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.

Several weeks ago, a visiting Israeli rabbi talked to a group of us about the refugees arriving in Israel from Africa and the Middle East and discussed the “Extradition of Refugees According to the Jewish Tradition.” He quoted Deuteronomy 23:16-17 dealing with the treatment of bondsmen who should not be returned to his master and, instead, should be allowed to dwell with one who found him or her. That escaped bondsmen should be allowed to live in freedom within the gates of the city and no wrong should be committed against him.

Mishpatim (laws) deal with both slaves and strangers. Though Genesis 14:19 enjoins Israelites to “love the stranger for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Mishpatim is the first time this moral injunction is put into a legal code posed as a negative as distinct from a positive moral injunction of action that is just, These Covenantal laws, Sefer HaB’rit, are not as generous as the Deuteronomic Code or the Holiness Code found in Leviticus, but just as Moses upon the advice of Jethro made a beginning in the administration of justice and introduced a more decentralized system of administering law, one in which the magistrates were to be chosen based on moral criteria without direct guidance from God (see my blog from last Friday), much more specific and clearly man-made laws well beyond the Ten Commandments had to be introduced. If we take the position in the text as reflecting a time when the laws were introduced (unlikely), these laws were promulgated before Moses disappeared for forty days and forty nights.

It is telling that the very first laws are those applicable to Hebrew slaves and then to property. Only then, and very briefly, do we read, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (22:20) I thought that Rabbi Plaut had told me that this injunction was the one most repeated in the Torah and was cited 27 times, but my memory must be incorrect because the visiting rabbi said that, in fact, he had counted and it was repeated 36 times. As everyone knows, and as the Babylonian Talmud reminds us (Bava Metzia 59b), the more repetition, the greater the significance. It isn’t as if there is a causal relationship between the experience of slavery in Egypt and the obligation not to wrong or oppress strangers, but, as many know who have undertaken research on those who assist refugees, the closer the connection in the family history with the experience of refugees, the greater the motivation to help. Having been a stranger is neither an adequate nor a necessary motive for helping refugees, but, statistically, it increases the likelihood of offering such assistance. Even more importantly, it established a fundamental identity between the person offering assistance and the refugee. History and memory must be reinforced to ensure hospitality for the stranger.

But the Israelites were not just strangers in Egypt; they were slaves. The section Mishpatim begins with slaves as an echo of Genesis, “Know now that your descendants shall be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years.” (Genesis 15:13) Refugees are often treated worse even than slaves, for they often lack the protections of the larger society or state in which they live. However, if we are to understand what it means in the instruction not to wrong or oppress the stranger, it is helpful to look at the initial and first try at dealing with slaves, not slaves who are non-nationals, but Hebrew slaves.

Hebrew slaves in Exodus were debt slaves, though in Leviticus (17-26) they are simply called debtors. Reduced to impoverishment, they became slaves to compensate for debts. But as Hebrews, they were not Other. Further, there was a maximum limit to their enslavement – 6 years unless the master provided a male with a woman to wed and they had children. (The Deuteronomy Code – in reality more an incomplete collection of common law rather than a systematic code, but I will use the latter as a term of convenience – renames the debt slave as a brother and goes further, requiring the master to release the debt slave with part of his profits from his years of labour to allow the debt slave to get a new start -15:13) In the latter case, in the Exodus Code, the wife and the children continue to remain slaves belonging to the master, but they were also released in the improved Deuteronomy Code. If a man does not want to be separated from his wife and children, he may voluntarily stay as a refugee for the rest of his life, a status to be marked by an awl pierced through his ear.

Note that this part of the code had to do with male slaves. The code was based on gender discrimination. Daughters could be sold by their fathers (not their parents) but as “wives,” not as slaves, but only under the Exodus Code. But if the male tired of a woman he kept as a concubine, he either had to let her go free, especially if he violated her rights, or provide for her for the rest of her days. He could not sell her. If his son married her, then she had to be treated equally as any other woman chosen to be a wife. (Exodus 21:2-11) So there is a hierarchy of Others – male slaves, female concubines and strangers. The greatest number of injunctions by far apply to the treatment of strangers.

This does not mean that there was a correspondence between the law and actual behaviour. As is well known, there is often a gap between the moral aspirations of a society and its conformity to those ideals. Abuse of debt slaves, of women in slavery and of strangers increased as the gap widened between the protections offered to those at the bottom of the ladder and the rewards taken and presumed by those at the top widened. That is, as societies became more corrupt, as the prophet Amos pointed out, the greater the mistreatment of debt slaves, of women and of strangers. That mistreatment is often a by-product of that corruption and/or used as a distraction from it.  The results were often horrific.

For example, a widow cried out to the prophet Elisha:

ד:א וְאִשָּׁ֣ה אַחַ֣ת מִנְּשֵׁ֣י בְנֵֽי־הַ֠נְּבִיאִים צָעֲקָ֨ה אֶל־אֱלִישָׁ֜ע לֵאמֹ֗ר עַבְדְּךָ֤ אִישִׁי֙ מֵ֔ת וְאַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתָּ כִּ֣י עַבְדְּךָ֔ הָיָ֥ה יָרֵ֖א אֶת־יְ-הֹוָ֑ה וְהַ֨נֹּשֶׁ֔ה בָּ֗א לָקַ֜חַת אֶת־שְׁנֵ֧י יְלָדַ֛י ל֖וֹ לַעֲבָדִֽים: 4:1 A certain woman, the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets, cried out to Elisha: “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know how your servant revered Yhwh. And now a creditor is coming to seize my two children as slaves.” (2 Kings 4:1)

This ruthlessness, obviously, is not restricted to the ancient world. When the very people who caused the mortgage crisis and economic collapse in 2008 were rescued, the hundreds of thousands who owed money on many of those mortgages on properties that were then financially underwater were not given relief by and large, but were foreclosed upon and thrown out of their homes because the system “sold the just for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” Ruthlessness became even more the order of the day.

When we do not take care of our own needy (evvon), it is much more difficult to take care of the needs of strangers. The innocent, the just, the idealists (tzaddiqim) are swept aside and everyone out for himself becomes the ruling ethos. The poor, the needy, have indeed been cheated by the system as their incomes decline and they fall into poverty. It is no wonder that many are willing to follow a leader who displaces the blame on foreigners, on strangers, for often, this is a distraction to hide even more deep-seated corruption.

The stranger is not to be treated wrongly or oppressed. These are not the same, but there is contention about the difference. Some argue that a wrong falls under the law – someone is wronged when he or she is treated other than in the way the law requires. A person oppressed is a victim of society. In another interpretation, a wrong is a monetary infraction for which there can be compensation. There can be no compensation for oppression. Alternatively, a wrong is a verbal slight, an expression of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia for which there can be no financial compensation. Oppression is a specific action of exploitation. In a fourth and somewhat complementary conception, a wrong is corrected by writing and applying just law; oppression can only be corrected through empathy by a native-born for the stranger.

Whatever the differences, a ger stranger is not a visiting foreigner (nochri), but an alien living among us who is not yet a citizen. The Torah demands that the ger be treated with all the rights we have and, as well, with a welcoming hand and smile. Xenophobia is the precise opposite to this treatment.

 

I am grateful for the insights into debt slaves to the commentaries of Professor Marvin A. Sweeney (“The Bible’s Evolving Effort to Humanize Debt Slavery”), Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber (“The Law of the Hebrew Slave: Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy”), and Dr. Aaron Koller (“The Law of the Hebrew Slave: Reading the Law Collections as Commentary”) who contends that the three different versions apply to three different types of servitude and that Deuteronomy fills in lacunae rather than develops the law in a more benign direction. On the principle of treating the stranger, see Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s commentary from 2 February 2008 entitled “Loving the Stranger.”

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda – A Distinct Form of Documentary Film

by

Howard Adelman

In part I, I insisted that a good documentary should not be a propaganda film which brackets critical thought in favour of a single message pushing an ideological agenda on the public. When critical thinking is suspended, the documentary becomes a propaganda film. Today I will try to show how 10% of the Vietnamerica documentary that was ideological undermined the narrative of the suffering of the refugees who fled Vietnam.

Yesterday, I focused largely on the central core of the film and to some extend on one bookend, the success stories. Both happened to be military successes, one about the son of a refugee family who became the first Vietnamese-American general, and the other about the Vietnamese-American scientist who led the team that created the bunker buster bomb. This emphasis on militarism and a revisionist version of the Vietnam War opened the film. The film was transformed in good part from a view and record of the horrific experiences the Vietnamese had under the communists and in their efforts to escape, into an explicit propaganda film in defence of the theory that America betrayed its ally, South Vietnam. For it argues that the war had been effectively won when Kissinger was responsible for the stab-in-the-back, not only in abandoning Vietnam, but in refusing to re-equip the South Vietnamese army when China and the USSR were re-equipping the North Vietnamese. This thesis is dubious to say the least.

The film does not try to defend its extreme revisionist view, but simply to propagate the tale as a given. Quite aside from the questionable historical account, the effort to combine a historical propaganda film with a film of the experiences of the Vietnamese boat people allows the former to both undermine and detract from the latter.

There are the obvious readily challenged factual claims. A narrator says that half who fled Vietnam died in trying. If the numbers who fled were about two million, that would mean one million died in the effort to find freedom. But the film itself provides the generally accepted figure of 200,000 to 400,000 deaths. My studies indicate that the number was close to the higher estimate and North Vietnamese repression can be held responsible for at least half of those deaths. But not one million. Further, in the movie, there is no effort to resolve the contradiction in the figures cited. Similarly, assertions that 7 million died in the war are dubious. There is scant evidence to support such claims and virtually all authoritative sources cite a total of about 4 million dead and wounded on both sides, including 40,000 troops and civilians in The Convoy of Tears as civilians and military personnel fled the aggression of North Vietnamese armies as they moved against Saigon during March and April of 1975.

As far as atrocities and summary executions go, these were committed by both sides. The most famous was that of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the National Police, whose shooting of a handcuffed prisoner in the head with his 38 Smith & Wesson revolver became an iconic picture for the anti-war movement. The victim was Nguyễn Văn Lém, a member of the Việt Cộng captured in the Tet Offensive. Given the status of the photo, few knew that Lém was responsible for cutting the throat, not only of South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Tuan, but his wife, six children and 80-year old mother. I do not know which side was guilty of the greater number of atrocities, but I suspect it was the Hanoi regime. Lém was captured beside a mass grave that held 34 civilian bodies.

It is easy to hold the Hanoi regime responsible for large numbers of deaths. After their victory over the French in the north and their breaking up the large estates and targeting large landowners, the Hanoi communist regime introduced land “reform.” that is, transferring all ownership of property to the state. Pacification followed. It is estimated that the Hanoi regime over four years killed almost 300,000 North Vietnamese citizens. In the period preceding the attack on Saigon, as suggested above, “Of the 200,000 refugees that fled the Highlands offensive by the North in March 1975, only 45,000 made it to Tuy-Hoa. Many of the 155,000 missing were killed by North Vietnamese troops; others were captured. Rebel highlanders also fired on the refugees, some were mistakenly bombed by government planes, and still others may have been run over by fleeing government vehicles. Some died by drowning and sheer exhaustion.” Of the death toll from one military advance over two months, Hanoi was probably responsible for almost half those deaths.

Thus, an estimate of those killed after the fall of Saigon of 100,000 does not seem so outlandish, especially if one includes in the total not only those executed, but those who were worked or starved to death in the so-called “re-education” camps. Some estimates go even higher. For a breakdown of civilians indiscriminately killed as a result of or consistent with orders from higher command, that is, democide, I use Bob Rummel’s publications in chapter 6 of Statistics of Democide focused on democide in Vietnam over 35 years.

The central issue of the propaganda element in the film is, however, not about numbers, but about the stab-in-the-back explanation of why Hanoi conquered South Vietnam. The propagandistic aspect of the film begins with two so-called authorities featured near the beginning of the film. One is Robert Turner, a Vietnam veteran and Associate Director of National Security Law at the University of Virginia, the university from which he earned his academic and professional degrees. Turner has been a national security adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and testified before numerous congressional committees. Studying his works offers some hint of the weaknesses of his academic input into foreign policy in the United States. His CV is very skimpy to say the least, largely consisting of op-eds, power-point presentations and submissions to government committees.

Turner is most famous for his defense of presidential prerogatives in military matters without the checks of Congress. In contrast to the vast majority of scholars, Turner has argued against the doctrine that “unchecked” presidential power is incompatible with democratic governance. He defends “unfettered” presidential power to be at the heart of the constitution, namely, that the power of the democratically elected “monarch” is unboundaried. This thesis is not accepted as a very serious perspective by the vast majority of established constitutional experts. Here is how he expressed his view. “Congress exceeded its proper authority in several instances related to war powers and intelligence.” Turner especially stressed the issue of intelligence and often cited John Locke’s doctrine (Two Treatises of Government) that success in war, described by him as a state of enmity and destruction, required unity of plan, speed, dispatch and secrecy

Turner is fond of quoting Chief Justice John Marshall on this issue. “By the Constitution of the United States, the President is invested with certain important political powers, in the exercise of which he is to use his own discretion, and is accountable only to his country in his political character, and to his own conscience…whatever opinion may be entertained of the manner in which executive discretion may be used, still there exists, and can exist, no power to control that discretion. The subjects are political. They respect the nation, not individual rights, and being entrusted to the executive, the decision of the executive is conclusive.”

The problem is that secrecy in John Locke applied to implementation not to strategy and direction. The latter required a shared long term and even permanent conviction and shared by the executive, the legislature and the people of a realm. This required articulation and consent, not deceit and surreptitious behaviour. Strategy applies to long term existential threats. Tactics apply to the management and execution of opposing that threat. A State of peace among citizens requires consent. Conduct of a war against an enemy requires secrecy. The issue is always how you combine secrecy with consent and not have secrecy supplant consent. Interpreting the power of the purse and the approval of appointments very narrowly just does not cut how the dialectical dance works.

However, Turner’s interpretation of the last years of the Vietnam War, while influenced by that non-conventional doctrine, is, if that is possible, even more questionable and, I believe, outlandish. Those interpretations can be read in many of his presentations that presumably informed Nancy when she began making the film: “Reflections on the Vietnam War,” given to the Air Force Military Academy in 2010; “The Consequences of U.S. Abandonment of Indochina” given at the Fall of Saigon conference in April of 2010. For more recent references, see Turner’s power point presentations on the net entitled, “Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Indochina (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution)” given to the National Press Club in August 2014; “The Vietnam War and Constitutional War Powers” (October 2014), “Myths of the Vietnam War,” (2015) and “Views on Vietnam: The Irony of the LBJ Library Vietnam War Summit” (April 2016).

All are part of a revisionist history narrative that is akin to the one Hitler offered to Germans explaining why Germany lost WWI. “I continue to believe,” said Turner, “that a misguided and horribly misinformed Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Indochina, leading directly to the slaughter of millions of innocent lives and the consignment to Communist tyranny of tens of millions more.” Why would you include the testimony of such a questionable authority in a film about the horrible experiences of Vietnamese refugees even if it was somewhat credible? The thesis on the fall of Saigon is a crucial debate and a conflicted issue requiring one form of documentary treatment. The portrayal of the suffering of those who fled is based on a very wide consensus. The cost to credibility of including a thesis about the reasons for the loss of a war in a film about human suffering is enormous.

This is also true of the narrative offered by Lewis Sorley, author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. His thesis is bought hook, line and sinker by Nancy Bui and, in the film, is offered in an abbreviated account. She expanded upon this thesis in my discussions with her after watching the film. The Americans and South Vietnam had defeated the Viet Cong, had allowed the South Vietnamese government to once again exercise its authority in the towns and villages, and the South Vietnamese army had by then been so well trained that it could carry the war forward without the use of American troops on the ground. However, Nixon and Kissinger sold out South Vietnam in the Paris Peace Accord of January 1973 and then double crossed the South Vietnamese by not resupplying them with arms and ammunition. This position has some justification, particularly the first of these two propositions. But the argument that in 1972, the Americans had won the war when General Abrams replaced General Westmoreland and shifted the strategy from the pursuit of the Viet Cong and body counts to a war to secure villages is highly questionable. Essentially, the thesis argues that the war had been virtually won by the American and South Vietnamese military and then the victory was squandered by the politicians and diplomats engaged in the Paris Peace Accords and its aftermath.

Colloquially put, the U. S. bugged out. Having gotten the North back to the bargaining table, Nixon and Kissinger cut a deal – the 27 January 1973 Paris Peace Accord – which allowed the North to keep its forces in South Vietnam. 80,000 North Vietnamese troops were permitted to remain in South Vietnam and this number was surreptitiously expanded to over 100,000 troops as Hanoi prepared for its 1975 offensive. The breach in the Accords was never really challenged by the U.S. or the world. At the time, of the 160,000 American troops once in Vietnam, down to 27,000 when the Accords were signed, under pressure from the anti-Vietnam War movement and a cowardly Congress, America cut and ran.

Further, Nixon refused to resume bombing to enforce the Accords. This enabled the North to use the cover of a cease fire to move more men and materiel into the South. Meanwhile, Congress, with bills like the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, and extensive cuts to the military budget, pulled the logistical rug out from under the South. At the very time that the North was stockpiling arms, supplied by China and Russia, the South was having its supply of arms seriously curtailed. It was South Vietnam’s bad luck, at its hour of greatest peril, to be saddled with a feckless ally. Imagine having to depend on the U.S. for the logistical support which is your life’s blood at a time when it was being run by Nixon and Kissinger at the executive level and by folks like Ted Kennedy in the congressional realm. Sorley, and Nancy Bui in turn, lays much of the blame at the doorstep of the American political leadership.
Who else were the real villains responsible, in this revisionist version, for the fall of Saigon? The media focused on the protesters and the casualties (57,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War). A fickle public led by students and liberals opposed the war. There is no discussion in the film about the bombing of Hanoi, the efforts to destroy the supply lines, the refusal of the Saigon government to recognize the reality of the Viet Cong and the civil war (the Viet Cong are, to the best of my memory) never mentioned in the film.) and the widespread destruction in Laos, the failure to sustain a representative government instead of corrupt dictators or even a disciplined core of army officers – failures that would be repeated again and again for decades after the Korean conflict when America entered a foreign theatre to fight a war.

South Vietnam surrendered on 30 April 1975. America rescued 10,000 Vietnamese linked to the military effort and subsequently took in tens of thousands of others in the next three years, many or most of whom were linked with the American war effort. But in 1978, the Vietnamese government began a much wider and more oppressive regime that first targeted the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam and then spread to all other middle class Vietnamese. The suppression was horrendous and it was in this period that Canada entered into scene to help resettle refugees fleeing communist repression and not just those who lost the war.

Did a film about oppression and flight of refugees have to be combined with an alt-right interpretation of failure in the war? Obviously not. Interpreting the reasons for the fall of Saigon deserves a separate film in its own right. The effort to marry the two related but separate topics gives the impression that the plight of the refugees is merely being used to advance an ideological viewpoint. An excellent and emotionally powerful film about the Vietnamese refugee exodus is, ironically, almost drowned in a propaganda film about the reasons the South Vietnam government fell. I personally was torn between the tears I shed at the horrors suffered by the refugees and the tears I metaphorically shed at this lost opportunity to create an award-winning feature-length documentary. Though a lost artistic opportunity to make a great documentary of the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people does not compare with the real tears I have shed over the years at the suffering of the Vietnamese refugees fleeing a communist regime, nevertheless I was torn between my sadness at the lost opportunity and the revival of my compassion for the suffering and the dead. The film is valuable for attending to the latter. But it is flawed and distorted by advancing a far out historical thesis. And that is a pity.

An Afterword

One final and minor but relevant academic point arose, not in the film, but in my subsequent discussions with Nancy Bui. Nancy contended that the Paris Peace Accord obligated the U.S. to resupply South Vietnam with military weapons. I argued that the Peace Accords only permitted the U.S. to make up for depletions. As I recalled, the Accords stipulated that the U.S. would stay out of Vietnam after the U.S. army withdrew in terms of supplying military troops or equipment, except to replace losses on a one-to-one basis. Nancy insisted that there was no provision forbidding America from resupplying the South Vietnamese Army. I was not sure if my memory was correct and I promised to re-read the Accords to check whether Nancy’s interpretation was more accurate. The point is obviously relevant to a thesis that faults the U.S. for the fall of Saigon in general and for the refusal to re-supply South Vietnam with military arms.

There is some truth in this. Nixon did evidently secretly promise President Thiệu both that America would be able to maintain its logistical advantage and that if North Vietnam breached the agreement, the U.S. would resume bombing the North. However, chapter V, article 15(d) of the Paris Peace Accords provided that North and South Viet-Nam shall not join any military alliance or military bloc and shall not allow foreign powers to maintain military bases, troops; military advisers, and military personnel on their respective territories, as stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam. Article 2 of Chapter II specifically stated that, “the United States will stop all its military activities against the territory of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam by ground, air and naval forces.” This was interpreted as excluding the Americans from acting militarily in any way on behalf of South Vietnam.

Further, the Case-Church Amendment approved by the U.S. Congress in June of 1973 endorsed this interpretation and explicitly prohibited further U.S. military activity in Indochina and at a time preparations were underway to impeach Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. When North Vietnam resumed the war and launched the 1975 offensive, the U.S. refused to offer further military assistance and certainly refused to bomb the North. The North Vietnamese succeeded in defeating the South Vietnamese army, not primarily because North Vietnam was being supplied by Russia and China but America was not re-supplying South Vietnam, but because morale in the South Vietnam army had disintegrated, because corruption had eaten away at its soul and because most officers fled the field and abandoned their troops as the North Vietnamese advanced. The North Vietnamese did not have to fight very much to win the war. Replacing equipment was irrelevant when the South Vietnamese army was collapsing and the North Vietnamese were seizing more and more American arms and equipment.

Whether South Vietnam lost the war or the war was lost because the American people and the Congress betrayed and let down their partners is at best a matter of controversy. Dogmatic assertion on one side produced a propaganda film that undermines the documentary on the suffering of those who fled the new totalitarian order.

With the help of Alex Zisman

IX Combatting BDS: Domestic Politics

IX Combatting BDS: Domestic Politics

by

Howard Adelman

Domestic Politics in the U.S.

Every country has its weak points where political parties are susceptible to infiltration and the promotion of the BDS agenda. In the United States, it has been the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, in Britain, the left in the Labour Party and the Green Party, in Canada, weakest of all, the party most on the margins, its Green Party has been directly targeted by BDS. But the actual tactics are similar in various countries – promote candidates within the party sympathetic to the BDS cause, promote members on policy platforms and policies that advance the BDS position, and do so by playing down the BDS anti-Zionism and playing up the “illegal” settlements on the West Bank and Palestinian human rights. The counter-attack pushes in precisely the opposite direction.

Bernie Sanders had been given the right to name five of the fifteen members of the Democratic Party Platform Committee, though he still held out from endorsing Clinton. In May, Bernie chose Cornel West to be one of his five nominees on the National Democratic Committee to draft the Democratic political platform in the forthcoming election, in particular, the platform on Israel and Palestine. Cornel West, a philosopher and an eminent academic, has been a strong backer and campaigner both for Bernie Sanders and for BDS. However, on Friday 15 July, Cornel did not follow Bernie’s lead in endorsing Hillary Clinton, the presumptive presidential candidate for the Democratic Party.

Cornel West announced that he would be backing Jill Stein, another Jew, who is the American presidential candidate for the Green Party; Jill Stein is a supporter of BDS. Like many leftist dissidents before him, in a close race, Cornel West was willing to split the left vote that would give an enormous boost to Donald Trump’s chances. “I have a deep love for my brother Bernie Sanders, but I disagree with him on Hillary Clinton. I don’t think she would be an ‘outstanding president’. Her militarism makes the world a less safe place.” I read no announcement that Cornel was resigning from the Policy Platform Committee of the Democratic Party, perhaps because the committee had already completed its work.

Bernie named a second strong BDS supporter, one who was part of the party establishment, James Zogby, the President of the Arab American Institute and a very strong backer of BDS as well. Bernie also appointed Keith Ellison, the Democratic House of Representatives member from Minnesota’s fifth district, the first Muslim elected to Congress. Keith did not have a reputation as a backer, strong or otherwise, of BDS, but had been an outspoken critic of Israel while maintaining close ties to the Jewish community. The two other nominees were environmental activist Bill McKibben and Native American activist Deborah Parker, neither known to have taken a stand on BDS or on Israel for that matter.

DNC’s chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in the party, named four members of the committee. Three of them were very strong backers of Israel: Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s chairman had for years run a program in conjunction with the organized Jewish community to send a dozen Baltimore black high-schoolers to Israel each year; former Rep. Howard Berman, D-California, in 2010, had been responsible for shepherding the strong Iran sanctions as chair of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee; Bonnie Schaefer, a philanthropist, is involved with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Weizmann Institute of Science. The only member Schultz picked who was not a strong supporter of Israel was Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, who had joined Ellison, the Bernie appointee, in opposing the House resolution condemning the 2009 Goldstone Report which had been so flawed and which Goldstone himself subsequently renounced. However, she was not a known backer of BDS.

Hillary Clinton was given the right to name six of the members of the Platform Committee. Among the six Clinton backers was Wendy Sherman, the former deputy secretary of state who was a lead negotiator in the Iran nuclear talks over which she received a great deal of bric-à-bac from the Jewish establishment, but remained a strong supporter of Israel. Sherman has spoken warmly of her involvement in Jewish life in suburban Maryland. Neera Tanden, a long time Clinton confidante and president of the Center for American Progress, was a second nominee who identified strongly with Israel, even while sometimes critical of Israeli government policies.

In recent years, she took a lead role in trying to establish a dialogue between Israel’s government and the American progressive community. Her main credentials, however, were as a progressive domestic policy wonk. Others included Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez of Illinois; Carol Browner, a former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency; Ohio state Rep. Alicia Reece; and Paul Booth of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. All were known to back Hillary Clinton’s strong pro-Israel stance.

The breakdown was as follows: Shultz Clinton Sanders Total
BDS Supporter 0 0 2 2
Israeli Critics but not BDS supporters 1 0 1 2
Neutral 0 0 2 2
Strong Israeli Supporters 3 6 0 9

Total 4 6 5 15

There was no chance of the BDS support or position being endorsed. 60% of the members were strong pro-Israel supporters, though on the progressive end of that support. There were only two strong supporters of BDS and, as stated, one in effect bolted the party. Three of the four Congress members were on record as strong supporters of Israel – Cummings, Lee and Gutiérrez. The only outspoken critic was Ellison who had never endorsed BDS and had strong Jewish support. All four had been endorsed by the political action committee affiliated with J Street, the Jewish liberal Middle East policy group.

Not only was BDS not supported, even efforts calling for Israel to end settlement activity and to label Israel’s presence in the West Bank as an occupation failed. But that could have been anticipated. The real play was to get a minority report. That required 25% support so the Israel-Palestine issue could be debated on the convention floor. Even that failed. It should be noted that Bernie Sanders himself, a strong critic of Israeli settlement policy, has never advocated that established settlements be dismantled – in contrast to Cornel West. He did support naming the Israeli military presence as an occupation, urged recognition of a Palestinian state. But he also refused to condemn Israel for its 2014 Gaza war, insisting it was fought in self-defence, while, at the same time, claiming that the military response was disproportionate. (http://forward.com/news/national/310087/is-bernie-sanders-a-lefty-except-for-israel/#ixzz4EcepUh5A)

So why did Sanders appoint two of his five appointees who were known as BDS supporters when he himself had an infamous debate with BDS supporters in a town hall meeting in Cabot, Vermont in August 2014 in which he told a critical member of the audience to “shut up.” Though he did not co-sponsor a resolution expressing support for Israel in the conflict with Hamas, when it was voted on 17 July of that year, he did not object to the motion which passed by unanimous consent. (For the Cabot confrontation, see http://forward.com/news/national/310087/is-bernie-sanders-a-lefty-except-for-israel/#ixzz4EcepUh5A.) I am not sure why. I can only think it was because he wanted to appease the large number of supporters who were far more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than even he was.

Britain

Larry Sanders is Bernie’s older brother (by seven years) whom he credits with inducing him to enter politics in the first place. Larry is an American-British academic, social worker, and health spokesperson for the Green Party of England; he ran as a candidate for the party in the Oxford West and Abingdon riding in the last British election. And lost. Badly! Larry, unlike Bernie, supports the BDS movement against Israel. In a tweet on 20 April 2015, he called for Israel to “end occupation of West Bank, siege of Gaza, [and grant] Palestinians in Israel equal rights.” “BDS yes,” he ended.

In Britain, the Green Party is an open supporter of BDS. Natalie Bennett, an Australian rather than an American immigrant to Britain and leader since 2012, endorsed the previous party platform supporting BDS which she depicts as a human rights and international law issue. “We need to get the message across to the Israeli state. It needs to comply with international law and human rights.” The party calls for suspending the EU-Israel Association Agreement worth more than nearly $1.5 billion per year. Bennett also supports a boycott on any sale of arms to Israel. One Green Party candidate, Tanya Williams, called Israel “a racist and apartheid state.” Sharer Ali, deputy leader of the party, is a harsh critic of Israel.

However, the battle in Britain is for the soul of the Labour Party. That battle appears to have been lost. The UK Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, openly supports BDS, though he personally would restrict the boycott only to products produced on the West Bank. He also calls for penalizing Israel, cancelling the EU-Israel trade agreement and even banishing Israeli politicians, though not academics, from entering Britain. He has called Israel’s treatment of the population of East Jerusalem illegal and an abomination. Though he has visited Gaza and called Israel’s politicians criminals, he has never replied to the invitation of the leader of his cousin party led by Isaac Herzog to visit Israel.

Corbyn has called Hezbollah a “friend” and has urged dialogue between Israel and Hamas and insisted that, “You don’t achieve progress by only talking to those who you agree with,” but seems only willing to talk to Palestinian and Arab extremists and not Israeli moderates. Though not an anti-Zionist, and certainly not an anti-Semite, nevertheless he clearly favours the Palestinian position by a wide margin. Further, he is not pro-Zionist for he called the Balfour Declaration “an extremely confused document which did not enjoy universal support in the cabinet of the time, and indeed was opposed by some of the Jewish members of the cabinet because of its confusion.”

It did not have to go this way. Corbyn was the long-shot candidate for the Labour Party leadership. Corbyn’s views were reasonably well-known and were explicitly articulated at an all-candidates meeting sponsored by the Jewish Chronicle, Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement at the JW3 community centre in north London. All three of his opponents were strong backers of Israel and opponents of BDS – Andy Burnham, the Labour Party MP from Leigh who was widely expected to be elected leader, Yvette Cooper, a former shadow foreign secretary, and Liz Kendall, MP for Leicester West. British Jews had failed to unite behind one candidate and, in part, the establishment had followed the lead of the American Jews, but primarily Bibi Netanyahu, and put their energies into backing the one clearly pro-Israel party, the Conservatives.

Further, in combatting the move of the Labour Party to the more radical left and the supporters of the Palestinians versus Israel – Corbyn was elected leader with an overwhelming majority – the Jewish establishment in Britain tended to support smearing the Labour Party with the anti-Semitic brush instead of stressing the basic anti-Zionist character of BDS. Mind you, the Labour Party itself in good part invited such a tactic as the anti-Semites within the party came out of the woodwork. Vicky Kirby, a former Labour parliamentary candidate, referred to Jews having “big noses,” equated the “Zionist God” with Hitler and accused Jews of “slaughtering” the oppressed. She was forced to resign. But Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford, called for shipping the Jews in Israel to the U.S. and Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London and close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, defended Shah and, in that defence, claimed that in the thirties Hitler had conspired with the Zionists. The two were only suspended.

In a subsequent blog, I will explore the link between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and the propensity among many Jews to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Zionism, and then anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, possibly valid when anti-Zionism is an effort to deny the Jewish people a right of self-determination and to delegitimize Israel. I will also have to explore who really was the first to renege on the Oslo Accords and whether settlements are expressions of colonialist imperialism. In this blog, however, I want to stick to the machinations to get political parties to line up for or against Israel. I will not have the time or space to discuss what has happened in this battle in other European countries, such as the Dutch endorsement of BDS activism as a form of free speech and the Foreign Minister of Ireland, Charles Flanagan’s non-endorsement of BDS while defending its legitimacy and objecting to the demonization of BDS.

Canada

On 22 February 2016, Canada’s newly-elected Liberal Government supported a Conservative anti-BDS motion by a vote of 229-51. However, an Ontario Bill co-sponsored by Liberal MPP Mike Colle and Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak as a private members’ bill, was defeated. Hudak had labelled BDS “the insidious new face of anti-Semitism” and the bill failed to win support from the Liberals. Though Premier Kathleen Wynne openly opposed the BDS movement, she refused to follow the lead of American states because of her defence of free speech. “I support all rights to freely express their views, freely expressed without fear of discrimination or persecution, whether in Ontario or in the Middle East. Freedom of speech is something that all Canadians value and we must vigorously defend. But, it’s unacceptable for students, or parents, or children to feel unsafe or discriminated against.”

The real focus of attention currently is the Green Party. In Britain, the Green Party is represented by one lone member, Caroline Lucas, who is an ardent opponent of Israel and not only supporter of but active campaigner for BDS, labelling Israel an apartheid state and the Board of Deputies of British Jews the “Zionist lobby.” She even blamed Israel for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack perpetrated by Pakistani Muslim zealots that killed about 200, including the Chabad rabbi and his wife, and supports violent action against Israeli interests.

Elizabeth May, the leader of the Canadian Green Party and its sole MP here, is not a supporter of BDS, is a supporter of Israel, but has permitted two BDS resolutions to go to the floor of the Convention in August, one denying income tax deductible status to the Jewish National Fund and another endorsing the BDS movement. Further, outspoken anti-Semites have been candidates for the Green party of Canada. For example, Marika Schaefer produced a video denying the Holocaust and calling it “the biggest and most pernicious, persistent lie in all of history,” denied there were death camps and insisted that the showers were used to keep the inmates healthy. She has been denounced by the partly leadership and a process has been set up to expel her from the party.

We await the August Convention to examine the fallout.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Colm Tóibín on the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising

Colm Tóibín on the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising

by

Howard Adelman

Colm Tóibín wrote a very interesting and insightful piece on the 1916 Irish Easter uprising for the London Review of Books titled, “After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting.” The reference http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n07/colm-toibin/after-i-am-hanged-my-portrait-will-be-interesting was sent to me by one of my readers in response to my blog on the mini-series “Rebellion;” I opened the response and read the Tóibín article yesterday evening.

Colm began by referring to Henry James’ depiction of his ancestral tribe in his novel, The Princess Casamassima in a letter to a Bostonian friend. Ireland “seems to me an example of a country more emancipated from every bond, not only of despotism but of ordinary law, than any so-called civilised country was before – a country revelling in odious forms of irresponsibility & licence. And surely, how can one speak of the Irish as a ‘great people’? I see no greatness, nor any kind of superiority in them, & they seem to me an inferior and 3rd rate race, whose virtues are of the cheapest and shallowest order, while their vices are peculiarly cowardly and ferocious. They have been abominably treated in the past – but their wrongs appear, to me, in our time, to have occupied the conscience of England only too much to the exclusion of other things.”

In my blog, I had referred to the clash between two camps, the realist (Jimmy Mahon, the socialist leader of the Irish Citizens Army played by Brian Gleeson) and the romantic (Patrick Pearse, the poet orator and leader of the rebellion played by Marcus Lamb), the two polar opposites within the rebellious ranks. However, I totally missed the allusion of this premise in the series to Henry James’ thesis that it was only when the two polar opposites joined forces, that the action could begin and the rebellion take off. James in his preface in the novel wrote of his own romantic hero, Hyacinth Robinson, that the action could only take place when he became “‘most acquainted with destiny in the form of a lively inward revolution.’ For any action to take place, the novel needs another force, which emerges as the more determined and unconflicted figure of Paul Muniment, who is all outwardness, decisiveness and manliness, with politics that are focused, thought-out, physical, set against Robinson’s ambiguous sexual and social presence. But drama in the novel can only occur when Hyacinth’s bookishness, his soul and his soft feeling, have been lured into the orbit of cold steel and hard strategy. The novel’s energy is released when these opposites cease to move against each other, or cease even to run in tandem, but merge, to become aspects of a single burning emotion.”

Colm via James and his novel provides the historical background and context missing in the series, such as the role of Millbank Prison by the Thames that held the Fenian rebels who had initiated the raids from post-bellum America into Canada from 1866 to 1871. The Fenian Brotherhood’s attacks on British army forts and customs posts in Canada, all ending in failure, within Upper Canada and subsequently Ontario, strengthened the Orange Order (still the dominant force in my home province when I was a kid). Those raids from the modern founders of terrorism helped lead to Confederation in 1867, the same year that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. For if the realists brought discipline and organization, the romantics brought a desire for and an expertise in notoriety and theatricality.

The “Revolution” series did bring out the radical rhetoric that made death and dying for a cause a romantic aspiration in the face of those who had white milk in their arteries and veins instead of red blood. The ruthlessness of the rebels, the dramatization of conspiratorial action, was present early on, but not the guile. So in 1885 the Fenians blew up half of Westminster and the Tower in London using Alfred Nobel’s wicked invention. But it would be the disciplined, focused, selfless and implacable Irish-American, Thomas J. Clarke, who had set up an elaborate bomb factory in Birmingham, and was caught, charged with treason and conspiracy, who would make the difference. He initiated the conspiratorial web from his prison cell in Millbank that set off the 1916 Irish Easter Rising. It was from that prison cell that he wrote his archetypal prison memoir and its depiction of the horrific conditions and the combined stupidity and lack of compassion of the British, and contrasted that with the camaraderie and courage of the prisoners in subverting their jailers. That memoir directly lead to the creation of Amnesty International that would campaign for the release of the prisoners, with the unintended consequence of allowing the rebels to return to Ireland to engage in much more effective Irish revolutionary activity.

Henry James had referred to Ireland as an “accursed isle, “where literature, art, conversation, and society had all been murdered in the name of an ardent nationalism.” In 1907, Joseph Conrad wrote and published the thriller The Secret Agent that would outsell Heart of Darkness. According to Colm Tóibín, Sir Robert Anderson, the police commissioner who had played such an important role in his insistence on treating the rebels as felons rather than political prisoners, as the British army general does in the five part series, published Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement, which inspired Joseph Conrad’s treatise on terrorism. But in Conrad’s foreword to the 1920 edition, he claimed it was the “Greenwich Bomb Outrage” of February 1894 that had inspired him. But it could have been both. When Martial Bourdin blew himself up in Greenwich Park accidentally with his own terrorist bomb (I witnessed the same type of event in Jerusalem in 1978 when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up outside my classroom window when I was teaching a class on Hegel at Hebrew University), Conrad called this incident “a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.” But it is precisely such irrational acts of theatricality, when combined with disciplined political calculation, that, according to Henry James, sets off revolutions.

Responsibility for the planning of the rising was given by Patrick Pearse to Tom Clarke (the tobacconist played by Lalor Roddy in the series) who was killed by the firing squad on the first day of the executions (3 May 1916) alongside Pearse himself, and Séan Mac Diamada, also known as Séan Macdermott, played by Sean Fox, who was killed by the firing squad on the final day of the executions on 12 May 1916. None of these leaders during WWI came within a shadow’s breath of the charismatic and clever, audacious and super-intelligent nineteenth century Irish firebrand, Charles Stewart Parnell. But in the series, the combination of characters, together with an obtuse British leadership, provide the spark that would lead to both a failure in the battle for Dublin by the rebels and a victory by their successors in the war for independence. There is no hint in the series that I recall, and hence the criticisms of lack of context, that both Patrick Pearse and James Joyce, in the footsteps of their fathers, revered Parnell.

Colm fills it in. “The clash between the two (Joyce and Pearse) over ideas of language and cultural identity would make its way into the encounter between Gabriel Conroy and Miss Ivors in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.” For Joyce deplored the romanticism of the Irish nationalists, particularly the cultural nationalists like William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. The clash between the cosmopolitans and the nationalists ripples through Joyce’s Artist as a Young Man where Stephen Dedalus is denounced by an ideologue who romanticizes dying as a hero for a nationalistic cause. James Joyce, on the other hand, revered “the reality of experience” and “the uncreated conscience” rather than the romanticism of a dream – make Ireland, or America, great again. Romantic longings appeal to a reified Irish (or American) essence.

Colm also brings out information that I never knew and that is entirely ignored and even contradicted in the series. Pearse liked talking (and sleeping) with young boys. Colm quotes his 1909 poem, “Little Lad of Tricks.”

Little lad of the tricks
Full well I know
That you have been in mischief:
Confess your fault truly.
I forgive you, child
Of the soft red mouth:
I will not condemn anyone
For a sin not understood.
Raise your comely head
Till I kiss your mouth:
If either of us is the better of that
I am the better of it.
There is a fragrance in your kiss
That I have not found yet
In the kisses of women
Or in the honey of their bodies.

Though a reactionary of old age pensions and a strong opponent of Irish emigration, Pearse revered women and did not denigrate their role, as Pearse does in the series. Pearse promoted women for the board of the National University of Ireland. Mercurial, solitary and protean, Pearse evolved into a leading revolutionary who, narcissistically, fell in love with this new emerging messianic and somewhat reckless image of himself as having transformed from a dreamer to a man of action. And he was propelled by a dream of martyrdom rather than victory. When his portrait was requested for a pamphlet, Pearse wrote, “I think a portrait of Emmet would be better (as well as handsomer) on the cover. After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting, but not before.” This evolutionary development from romantic poet and political orator to romantic rebel and political martyr was understandably also ignored by the series.

Colm also displays his intimate knowledge of the inner workings and political struggles of the Irish independence movement and portrays how a rag tag group of rebels divided among Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, the Gaelic Athletic Association and Redmond’s National Volunteers transformed itself into a divided but effective revolutionary force, which eventually wins, more because of the stupidity of the British command structure than the discipline, organization and wisdom of the revolutionaries whose 1916 Easter rising was such a tremendous failure as a military operation, but such a successful advertisement for rebellion in the face of British obstinacy and perfidy.

Colm and the series both fill in the divisions between the archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh (Barry McGovern) – protection of the church must be our first priority – and the need to identify with the people – the position of the archbishop’s secretary portrayed as Monsignor Mulcahy (Gus McDonagh) rather than Father Michael Curran, but I found this identification somewhat confusing in the series. It was also not clear to me, as Colm points out, that Pearse’s reading of the proclamation in front of the Post Office was met by a small and uninspired crowd. Though that was how it was portrayed in the movie, I thought that this was the product of series budget shortfall rather than a mimetic version of what actually took place.

Colm also makes clear that the choices of properties to occupy ignored seats of power in favour of symbolic locations, and the choice of the centre of the main shopping area and close to Dublin’s north side slums, led to a large number of civilian casualties, unintentionally or otherwise, when combined with the British use of artillery and large guns clearly in breach of the norms of just war. This barrage that killed a large number of civilians took place in spite of the fact that 200,000 Irishmen were serving in the front lines in Europe and the lives of their relatives would be sacrificed to British indifference to Irish lives. This is conveyed in one dramatic moment with the death of the Irish fusilier’s young boy.

Colm reminds us that the rebellion had cultural as well as political consequences. I remember as an undergraduate reading Sean O’Casey’s 1925 comic portrayal, The Plough and the Stars which captured the rhetorical romanticism of the revolt – I never read or saw the earlier Shadow of a Gunman. The scene of the looter with “a new hat on her head, a fox fur around her neck over her shawl, three umbrellas under her right arm, and a box of biscuits under her left” has a variation in the series, but without O’Casey’s depiction of her comic relish in her acquisitions.

Colm should be read in juxtaposition to the series, for he supplies context and richness, though he largely ignores the feminist message of the series. That context is important the morning after a rhetorical clown with stock phrases like, “We – no I – will make America great again,” is repeated for the umpteenth time by the now presumptive Republican presidential candidate. The advertisement for myself rings out once again like one of those barker ads, but without the promise that, “I will refund your money.” Men in coal mines will be proud once again to work as miners – environmental consequences be damned. Just as Trump won against the prognostications of virtually all the pundits, he could beat Hillary. She is vulnerable. The appeal to ignorance is powerful.

God bless America. Who else will if Donald Trump wins?

Fighting ISIL or ISIL or Daesh – to what end?

Corporealism XVIII: Body Politics in the Middle East

Fighting ISIL or ISIL or Daesh – to what end?

by

Howard Adelman

If I have characterized Daesh with reasonable accuracy, how should the West best fight this menace? Daesh is ensconced in eastern Syria and in western Iraq separated from the Turkish and Iranian borders by Kurdistan, the northern part of Iraq controlled by Iraqi Kurds and its Peshmerga forces. Daesh also has a presence in an oil rich small area of Libya. Daesh first captured Rojava after the Syrian army retreated in 2012. The great victory was the capture of Mosul that allowed ISIL to declare a caliphate established in the summer 2014.  This key victory included the defeat of the Iraqi army which literally turned tail.

Since then, ISIS has suffered setback after setback and the number of militants identified with its cause and fighting on the ground in Iraq and Syria is now estimated to have fallen from 31,500 to 25,000 altogether. (“The latest assessment about the number of fighters who are fighting on behalf of ISIL in Iraq and in Syria – based on an earlier assessment – was up to 31,500 fighters in that region of the world.  There’s a new assessment from our intelligence community that indicates that that number is now up to about 25,000 fighters.”  U.S. White House Press Secretary John Earnest 2 February 2016)

The key force that has limited the expansion of Daesh and that has itself expanded to fill the vacuum has been that of the Kurds of Northern Iraq and Syria who have won back Sinjar, Ramadi and Tikrit. Within Iraq, the Kurds now control disputed Kirkuk completely. In northern Syria, the Kurds much more than ISIS are being attacked by Turkish jets.

ISIS has been pushed back. The question is not its defeat but when and how and what part Canada and other countries in the West should play in its defeat. For the dilemma is a matter of “boots on the ground.” The West has relied on the Kurds with 120,000 experienced, battle-trained and determined fighters, largely equipped by the U.S. The other force countering Daesh has been a reconstituted Iraqi army, also trained and equipped by the U.S. and its allies. In the meanwhile, Russia and Iran are supporting Assad and his re-equipped army with Russian air support. Those forces have captured large swaths of territory from the American-supported Syrian rebels who lacked any air support or significant amounts of updated equipment.

In this multi-faceted war with multiple sides with some parties on the same side really engaged in supporting opposite strategies on the ground – the Turks and the Americans. The point is that the defeat of Daesh must be seen within a much larger context. The thirty million Kurds have been seeking an independent state since the end of World War I where, in the divvying up of the Middle East among the Great Powers, they were left divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and to a small extent, Iran. They now have de facto independence in northern Iraq and in parts of Syria. They are also the major boots on the ground responsible for the pushback of Daesh. But what is in it for them to combat Daesh in Mosul? It is not a Kurdish city. So the Allies are buying time to retrain and strengthen the Iraqi army. But a strengthened Iraqi army to the south of the Kurds endangers their quasi-independence. So if ISIL totally loses, they are likely to lose the strategic advantage they enjoy currently.

The other major concern is Turkey, which views the rise of the Kurds as the greatest threat they face, not Daesh. Turkey is involved in widescale bombing of Turkish Kurdish territories as well as Kurdish-controlled area in Syria under the guise of the war against ISIL. This is the paradox. The boots on the ground best able to defeat Daesh supplied by the Kurds and those supported by the Turks respectively, each for very opposite reasons, has no reason to destroy Daesh. At the same time, the Kurds in Syria have consistently ignored Turkey’s threats – such as when Turkey insisted that the red line of the Euphrates was not to be crossed by Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria. The Kurds, like the Russians subsequently, ignored Erdoğan’s bluster, even when they were attacked by Turkish jets. In fact, in the battle over the Menagh airbase, the Syrian Kurds defeated the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has been a proxy on the ground for Turkey.

The problem is not the defeat of Daesh, but the political order that the allies want to emerge out of the wreck in Iraq and now the even much worse wreck in Syria. In Iraq, the Kurds are at their peak now. If the allies build up the Iraqi army now to defeat ISIL, then what will almost certainly follow eventually will be a war between the central government in Iraq and the Kurds. And the Kurds fear being abandoned once again by the West after they have done the main dirty work in stopping and pushing back Daesh.

If the Iraq situation were not complicated enough, the issue of the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds exponentially increases the problem. When the revolution in Syria broke out in 2011, Turkey envisioned extending its influence southward. But Turkey has been thwarted at every turn – the rise of the Kurds in power in key parts of Syria along half of the border between Turkey and Syria, the increasing weakness of the rebels against Assad, the Russian support for Assad that has brought the two powers close to war with Turkey effectively now breaching Turkish air space almost with impunity.

More on the Kurds. They are not natural allies of the West; they have been allies of convenience. Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), may have been in jail since 1999, but he not only remains the titular head of the PKK in Turkey but the de facto head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) based in Rojava, Syria and in Kobani, Syria where the Kurds delivered a resounding defeat to Daesh. The Kurds even captured Tal Abyad on the Turkish border and sent chills up the spine of President Erdoğan. Turkey may be an ally of the U.S. and a member of NATO, but the Kurdish boots on the ground fighting ISIS, whatever their skills, courage and determination, have been helped enormously by American air cover, the very air cover the Canadian CF-18s have now backed away from providing. Further, the main spotters have not been the aircraft that Canada and other coalition partners have left in the air – they mainly confirm reports from the ground that come virtually exclusively from the Kurds who then mop up after the fighter jets have destroyed the identified targets.

The Tories have been dead right. The air strikes against ISIS have been highly effective. It is estimated that in the battle for Kobani, air strikes, leaving aside injuries inflicted, killed over 10% of ISIL militants on the ground in the months of fighting for Kobani. But that does not mean that Canada should continue participating in the air strikes. Or, for that matter, even advising and training troops on the ground. It depends on what Canada envisions as the outcome it favours and whether there is a realistic prospect of bringing about its preferred outcome.

The key factor is the de facto new quasi alliance between Russia and the U.S., two world powers that seem to once again dividing up the Middle East as spheres of influence by either side. Will the cease fire they have organized bring peace to Syria and on what terms? Shades of the end of WWI and WWII! The situation will become even more destablized when, as I anticipate, Turkey implodes under all the competing pressures and the series of failures in Turkish foreign policy under Erdoğan, matched by even greater political and economic crises at home. Kurdistan, with its apparent stability, is also seething underneath in a general context of a recession instigated in good part by the dramatic decline in oil prices compounded by corruption and nepotism.

I could go on. But my purpose here is not to lay out a political-economic and military analysis of that part of the Middle East, but merely to point to three main themes:

  1. The defeat of Daesh is not the main problem – that will come; it is just a matter of when, where and how.
  2. The defeat is not a matter of destroying an insurgency in a battle for hearts and minds, but destroying the army of a quasi-state.
  3. The main problem is regional stability; right now it is a balagan, in Hebrew, an absolute and total mess.

Begin with the immediate problem, the coming battle over Mosul and even perhaps Raqqa, the presumptive capital of the Caliphate. It is no secret that the coalition forces will be attacking Mosul, likely in the spring and certainly by summer. Will Daesh stand and fight to the last man and woman? Hardly likely. They have not done so thus far. And their sending out signals that they will is but the first rule of warfare – deceive your enemies. When claiming that you will stand to the last militant, plan a careful retreat, first of the political leadership and then of the military leadership, and finally, whatever militants can be saved while leaving enough to sacrifice as many civilians as possible in Mosul. Evidently, the political leadership has already relocated to Libya in anticipation of the next defeat. For the second rule of warfare is, when you know you have a significantly inferior force, evade direct conflict with the enemy.

Whatever Daesh suffers on the moral front, they clearly understand the basic laws for conducting war. The fact that they are ethically challenged is not only revealed in their cutting off of heads and the severe repression they practice about dress and social behaviour, but also in the moral deterioration already underway as the leadership deserts and the militants resort to corruption and smuggling civilians out of Mosul for US$500 a person. Daesh will leave behind sleeper cells to work behind enemy lines. For they realize they are at the mercy of fighter jets in the air and have to avoid open battles lest their backs be broken by the jet-fueled falcons and hawks patrolling the skies that will break their backs if they appear openly. Hence the rapid decline in missions and the ability of the coalition to release Canada from its commitment to supply six CF-18s.

In the battle against Mosul, the coalition partners have much to learn from the Israeli battles in Gaza with roughly the same population. However, the coalition has one major advantage. It can conduct a pincer movement as Kagame did in 1994 in Rwanda and allow the enemy to escape. I am convinced the allies will follow this pattern otherwise the costs to civilian lives in Mosul will be too high. A third law of warfare is that the best victories are based on building a golden bridge to allow your enemy to retreat. When they cross that bridge, attack them from the air on the other side.

The problem, to repeat once again, will not be to defeat ISIS in battle, but to win the war. And I have not read anywhere what a victory at that level will look like.  Further, unless victory in the war is envisaged, the battle may be won, but the losses will be much greater as has been the pattern in so many American wars from Vietnam on. The key problem is not victory in the battle over Mosul, but victory in the war in the Middle East. And the wars fought there, whether under a Democratic or a Republican commander-in-chief, have been disastrous because battles are being fought, not wars.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Israelis, it may be impossible to fight a real war because of diplomatic and other considerations. But that does not seem to be the case with the Americans. Except they no longer recognize what war they are fighting and what they are fighting for. Stopping ISIL is the least of their worries. The problem is that the lack of clear direction from the Obama administration is certainly far better than the mass hysteria, currently being whipped up by the Republican Party front runner. And it is not just The Donald that is the problem. He is just the loudest barker by far in the current American political circus on the Republican side. After all, it was overwhelmingly Republican state governors who announced that they would not permit Muslim Syrian refugees to enter their states. It was these Governors who initially completely ignored the laws of the United States and the Constitution.

I wrote on Friday that a core of politics is not inflaming emotions and passions. On shabat, on the day dedicated to peace, the real purpose of fighting any war has been determined. Further, the precedent must be set for skill, understanding and judgment to rule the roost. Instead, all three appear to be totally invisible on the Republican side and just barely on the horizon in the case of the current American administration in spite of its enormous efforts to reign in the war hawks.

So the coalition lacks strong and wise leadership that allows us to discern the overall goals and strategy. The U.S. was correct to release Canada from its responsibilities to continue contributing CF-18s from the war in Iraq and Syria because those jets were, in fact, no longer what was really needed. But why train Iraqi soldiers unless we want Kurdistan in Iraq eventually to be significantly reduced in size and even eliminated, and, if the course as set continues to be followed, eventually ending the dream of an independent Kurdistan. The chance to redeem just one of the major errors from WWI will be lost.

Should Canada back the Kurds, not just opportunistically as the Americans currently appear to be doing, but long term? I do not know. I am, however, convinced that unless we answer that key question, we cannot have a judicious and intelligent foreign policy in the area backed up by the limited military forces we are able to contribute. What about Turkey? Should we continue backing our formal ally Turkey which, under Erdoğan has been practicing a vicious anti-democratic policy over the last few years and one even far more dictated by a combination of whim and hysteria than even the U.S. Republicans are promising.

ISIS may be a much bigger threat than either al-Nusra and al-Qaeda because it is driven by a war strategy and not an insurgency, and it has brought sabotage and not just terror to the home fronts of its enemies. So ISIS as an organization needs to be extinguished. But let us not exaggerate the threat as U.S. Air Force General Phillip M. Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe who dubbed ISIS an existential threat. The real threat is that America may be in the process of blowing up whatever degree of sobriety there is left in America and setting off a really-out-of-control wildfire. Do not light matches at home on shabat if your eventual goal is peace.

On the other hand, ISIL terrorists are not just out-of-control testosterone driven thrill-seeking teenagers. Their average age is 26. They are dedicated and sober, even if truly psychopathic martyrs for their cause. But the West in warfare can take advantage of that wish to die a martyr by making it convenient for them, without sacrificing a sense of security and swaths of civilians in exchange. They have largely been nihilistic mass killers alienated from institutions of order and cool rational judgment who use Islam as justification for their heated madness and cold compassion.

What about the NDP’s proposals to concentrate on cutting off the financing of ISIS and acquiring more intelligence on the movements of volunteers for ISIS? The latter is declining anyway. On gathering intelligence overseas, Canada lacks and in-depth capacity. As for cutting off financing that has already been underway led by the Americans and Canada is a bit player in that game.

What about the push to increase humanitarian and development aid even further? The reality is that Canada under the Liberals by ratio to population already contributes roughly the highest amount in both categories compared to the $5.1 billion in total dollars committed by the U.S. to emergency aid, the $3.3 billion EU, $3.6 billion from Germany, $1.75 billlion from the U.K., etc. As my opening paragraph indicated, the replenishment of fighters has largely been effectively staunched and ISIL which is no longer able to replenish its losses. I think these NDP suggestions look more like panic in search of a policy and a strategy, though the NDP is the only party calling for a consistent policy within an overall plan.

The real larger issue is how to contain the enormous ambitions of Iran and Russia, which has already checked Turkey. Obama has been counting on diplomacy since he is unwilling to contribute more American troops on the ground to the fight. In the meanwhile, Assad’s forces, reinforced by Iranians and Hezbollah volunteers and resupplied by Russia and provided air cover by the Russian air force, has been able to recover control of a great deal of territory and even totally encircle Aleppo, which had been under the control of America’s Syrian allies according to a study by the Institute for the Study of War in its 5 February Report. In addition, the military pressure on Kuweires Airbase has been relieved and the threat along the Mediterranean coast to the Russian fleet has virtually been eliminated, at great cost to the Turkish strategic aim of bringing down the Assad regime. Russia has emerged as a “hero” against Turkish military intervention in Iraq. Thus, Turkey’s ambitions in Iraq have been set back considerably.

The Russians and their allies conducted a very strategic operation to suck the rebels and other militants from urban areas into the open and to destroy them there, indicating that the rebels were more committed to saving civilian lives at the cost of strategic advantage, especially in comparison to Daesh. The biggest winners over the past year have been Assad, the Russians and the Iranians, though the losses on the ground for both the Iranians (143 officers alone from the rank of captain up) and their cannon fodder from Hezbollah volunteers has been huge in addition to the huge cost in dollars, which Iran could ill afford at this time, estimated at $6-12 billion per year, after having lost $450-500 billion since the sanctions took effect and while costs rise for its support of the Houthis in Yemen as Saudi Arabia directly supports the other side.

In my estimation, the current “peace” efforts offer an opportunity for the Syrian regime and its Russian ally to recuperate and regroup from the recent strenuous efforts and unrestrained attacks on civilian populations, a justifiable concern that handicaps the West in the type of warfare being fought in Syria. There is clearly no comparable effort by the Western coalition to counter the Syrian-Iranian-Russian partnership and that coalition, not Daesh, has been the major victor over the last year of the war. The peace talks look to me more like a front to confer de facto victory to Assad and his backers.

So where does this put the various parties in the Canadian parliament, ignoring the separatist party in this assessment. The Tories appear to want to fight last year’s battles. The NDP seems determined to be irrelevant. And the Liberal policy may be the most delusionary since this is not a war for hearts and minds, but a typical power play by regional and international actors. If this assessment is anywhere near correct, how does it affect the development of an overall Canadian defence strategy and our deployment of troops in the Middle East? In the next blog, I will deal with the need for a revitalized defence policy and intervention policy for Syria and Iraq. Clearly it will be a sketch only since I have merely provided a caricature of what has been going on in Iraq and Syria rather than a detailed area by area analysis of this multi-sided competition for power and control in the region.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman