I suppose something like the following was inevitable, given the circumstances and the historical sensitivity of the region:
The deadly violence percolating half a world away in Syria and the warnings of a possible U.S. attack have some people not only looking ahead to what might happen in the coming days—but also looking backward into ancient, apocalyptic prophecies in the pages of the Old Testament. In recent weeks, some dire prophecies have turned up on websites, in book stores, as the subject of Bible studies and in sermons by some Christians and others who see a link between the old passages and modern-day events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.
That’s from a report in USA Today. I’ve seen similar murmurings in my Facebook newsfeed.
Still … really?
Looking at a 20th-century timeline of Syrian history compiled by BBC News, one can’t help but notice several years as seemingly pregnant with apocalyptic significance as the present day. For instance: “1920 July—French forces occupy Damascus, forcing Feisal to flee abroad.” And: “1925-26—Nationalist agitation against French rule develops into a national uprising. French forces bombard Damascus.”
This is to say nothing of Syria’s wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973.
Delving further into the past, there’s this bit from Wikipedia’s entry on the history of Syria, chosen more or less at random:
In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, defeated the Mamluk army at Aleppo and captured Damascus. Many of the city’s inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. At this time the Christian population of Syria suffered persecution. By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria. In 1516, the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria.
I’m not scorning the current spate of prophetical dot-connecting. Consider this an offering of friendly advice its practitioners: Beware the mental affliction of presentism.
This, too—whatever this turns out to be—will probably pass.
The current debate about whether the president should take military action against the Syrian regime after Assad’s alleged use of chemical warfare against his people has taken a noteworthy turn. Those who oppose military intervention entirely or insist on making it contingent on congressional approval do not break down into the usual partisan categories. Broadly speaking, those who oppose immediate presidential intervention, or intervention generally, are a growing combination of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Standing with them is now more than half of the American public.
Among the prominent opponents of intervention are Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, all outspoken small-government conservatives and U.S. Senators who are concerned about constitutional restraints on presidential powers. These figures are making common cause with people on the left, who insist that the UN, not the U.S. government, should handle the Syrian crisis. For leftist critics, our country has domestic concerns that are more pressing than meddling in another country’s civil war. Significantly, opponents of intervention, right and left, see no “American interest” at stake in Syria.
Those on the other side, led by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Congressman Peter King of New York, and the Rupert Murdoch media empire, believe that Obama should be bombing Syrian military installations without congressional approval and trying to overthrow and replace the Assad regime. Those who favor intervention typically endorse a far-reaching involvement in Syria that goes well beyond destroying chemical weapons facilities. From their point of view, the Obama administration has compromised American credibility by not taking decisive action to remove the Syrian government. It has also dishonored the “democratic values” that the U.S. should strive to bring to other nations. In a ringing statement of this creed, Brookings Institute fellow and a leading neoconservative theorist Robert Kagan delivered a speech last week, affirming the need for a global American presence aimed at nurturing democratic institutions worldwide. Kagan, who was a major rhetorical influence on the foreign policy of George W. Bush, views the Obama administration as retreating into an isolationist posture that betrays what the U.S. has stood for internationally for the last hundred years. Read More…
The German government forcibly seized four children from their parents in a raid last Thursday in Darmstadt, Germany. Why? Because the Wunderlich children were home schooled – an illegal activity viewed by the German government as “child endangerment.”
Reports by World Net Daily and The Daily Mail said the police were armed with a battering ram, and held father Dirk Wunderlich to a chair while they removed the children. A team of 20 social workers, police, and special agents entered the home. According to a report by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), an organization that advocates for parental choice in education, the children were taken to unknown locations and officials told the parents they would not be seeing their children “anytime soon.”
In a phone interview, Wunderlich called the episode a “nightmare.” He said that for several days, he has felt “very down and crushed,” but is trusting that “this terrible thing is one piece in God’s big plan.”
Michael Donnelly, lawyer for HSLDA, said, “This shouldn’t happen in Germany. This is a very peaceful family.”
Not only did the German government seize the children – they seized the children’s passports as well. This prevents the family from attempting to move to another country where homeschooling is permissible. According to Wunderlich, the children could be taken from them permanently if they made such an attempt. “Our children are prisoners of the German government,” he said.
The Wunderlich family has been trying to homeschool their family legally for years, and attempted moving to other countries with greater educational freedoms. Although they found refuge in France, Mr. Wunderlich was unable to find a job. They had to return to Germany.
For the Wunderlichs, homeschooling is preferable for both religious and educational reasons. Wunderlich believes school can be a rather “artificial place for learning.” Via homeschooling, their children can immediately pursue and study specific interests. He also believes homeschooling has bolstered family relationships. But living in Germany has been hard for them. There are few homeschooling families in Germany. “In America, it’s perfect,” Wunderlich said. “But here in Germany, most parents are alone … if people were gentle and nice, it would be better, but society and authorities are against homeschoolers.”
German law states children must attend school from age six to 18. Homeschooling is not permissible. Two German Supreme Court rulings on the subject have given the state equal authority as parents over children’s education. The law is meant to ensure children receive the appropriate socialization, Donnelly said.
But according to Donnelly and other homeschooling advocates at HSLDA, this law is in direct contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Germany has signed. The ICCPR gives the following permissions to parents: “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” This parental liberty, Donnelly says, includes the right to homeschool.
In addition, Germany has signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which says states party to the covenant “undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents … to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
“Catastrophic!” said Sen. John McCain.
If Congress votes no on a resolution calling for U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war, says McCain, it would be “catastrophic” for U.S. credibility in the world.
Consider what the senator is saying here.
Because Barack Obama, two years ago, said “Assad must go,” and, one year ago, said any use of chemical weapons crosses his “red line,” Congress has no choice but to plunge America into yet another Mideast war.
Can this be? Are we really, as a nation, required to go to war to make good the simple-minded statements of an untutored president who had no constitutional authority to issue his impulsive ultimata?
Are we really required to go to war to get the egg off Obama’s face?
Not since the War of Jenkins’ Ear has there been a dumber cause for a great country to go to war. Is there no way out?
There is, and it’s right in front of us.
The House, Senate, or both can vote no on the war resolution and Obama can then say, as did David Cameron, that, while he disagrees, he respects the decision of a Congress in which the Constitution placed sole authority to authorize America’s going to war.
Are Brits now crying “catastrophe!”? Do the Spanish no longer think the Brits will defend Gibraltar? Is Britain now wholly non-credible to the world?
For Obama, and for us, it is the other options that invite catastrophe.
John B. Judis makes a questionable assertion about the looming Congressional vote on military action against Syria:
If Obama does win authorization in the House and goes ahead, he will have scored an immense political victory—one that would bode well for the budget and debt battles to come. To succeed, he will have to split the Republican party that, to date, has presented a fairly united front in the face of his proposals.
From the perspective of nose-counting, the last bit is obviously true. But of the first—parlaying a win on Syria into leverage over the debt ceiling and funding the government—I think rather the opposite is the case. If, as I suspect, a majority of Republicans vote aye on a strike against the Assad regime, they might feel emboldened to confront Obama on the domestic front. If politics stops at the water’s edge of foreign policy, as the cliché goes, Republicans will have earned a measure of good will from the media, and even, to a lesser extent, from the Obama administration itself. With Syria behind them, Republicans could thus reenter the budget and debt ceiling debates with renewed resolve: Okay, Barack; we’re on this side of the water’s edge again.
More than that, though, is the dubious idea of an “immense political victory” flowing from anything to do with Syria. The American public is nearly evenly divided on the question of intervening there. If and when the strike begins, support will temporarily rise in the fashion of the rally-’round-the-flag effect. After that … what? Will Assad be driven from power, as Libya’s Gaddafi was? No: by most insider accounts, that’s not even the aim of the “limited” actions under consideration.
So after a day or two of bombing, then what?
Obama’s “immense political victory” will recede from public view. At best, the question of Obama’s coherence on the question of what, if anything, to do about Syria will have been quieted: a “red line” was crossed, and, wham-bam, a regime was proportionally punished.
But an “immense political victory—one that and Denis McDonough and Jack Lew can carry into their back pocket during the next round of negotiations with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell?
The next 72 hours will be decisive in the career of the speaker of the House. The alternatives he faces are these:
John Boehner can, after “consultation,” give his blessing to Barack Obama’s decision to launch a war on Syria, a nation that has neither attacked nor threatened us.
Or Boehner can instruct Obama that, under our Constitution, in the absence of an attack on the United States, Congress alone has the authority to decide whether the United States goes to war.
As speaker, he can call the House back on Monday to debate, and decide, whether to authorize the war Obama is about to start. In the absence of a Congressional vote for war, Boehner should remind the president that U.S. cruise missile strikes on Syria, killing soldiers and civilians alike, would be the unconstitutional and impeachable acts of a rogue president.
Moreover, an attack on Syria would be an act of stupidity.
Why this rush to war? Why the hysteria? Why the panic?
Syria and Assad will still be there two weeks from now or a month from now, and we will know far more then about what happened last week.
Understandably, Obama wants to get the egg off his face from having foolishly drawn his “red line” against chemical weapons, and then watching Syria, allegedly, defy His Majesty. But saving Obama’s face does not justify plunging his country into another Mideast war.
Does Obama realize what a fool history will make of him if he is stampeded into a new war by propaganda that turns out to be yet another stew of ideological zealotry and mendacity?
As of today, we do not know exactly what gas was used around Damascus, how it was delivered, who authorized it and whether President Bashar Assad ever issued such an order.
Yet, one Wall Street Journal columnist is already calling on Obama to assassinate Assad along with his family.
Do we really want back into that game? When John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy explored the assassination option with Fidel Castro, blowback came awfully swift in Dallas.
Again, what is the urgency of war now if we are certain we are right? What do we lose by waiting for more solid evidence, and then presenting our case to the Security Council?
Kennedy did that in the Cuban missile crisis. U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson made the case. And the world saw we were right.
If, in the face of incontrovertible proof, Russia and China veto sanctions, the world will see that. Then let John Kerry make his case to Congress and convince that body to authorize war, if he can.
Andrew Doran’s article in National Review last week rightly notes the brutality undergone by the Copts in the aftermath of Egypt’s coup. He even compares the brutality with Nazi persecution of the Jews:
The Muslim Brotherhood’s systematic and coordinated attacks against Christians in Egypt are reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938, when Nazi paramilitaries systematically vandalized Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues and murdered scores of Jews in a disturbing foreshadowing of the fate of European Jews over the next few years. It is no accident that many Jews, including Barry Rubin and Jeffrey Goldberg, have been quick to raise the alarums over the persecution of Christians: They recognize the dangerous signs. “They have hatred in their hearts,” says Thabet of the Brotherhood, echoing observations commonly made of the National Socialists in 20th-century Germany.
But the Copt’s persecutors are not a well-organized military force, with a charismatic and powerful leader. Rather, they are a hurt and angry mob, with a rapidly dwindling leadership. Their acts of aggression against Coptic Christians seem less a calculated ruthless policy than the raged revenge of a hurt and angry people. Of course, this is not to excuse those horrendous actions. However, it does change the way in which we seek a solution to the problem.
In Egypt, the mob and the military are not unified; rather, their very friction has helped instigate and foster this persecution, more or less. More military crackdown only seems to result in more Coptic persecution. Thus, a foreign military strengthening Egypt’s military arm is not likely to fix the problem. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has been weakened significantly in recent weeks; this, as Eric Trager argued in The New Republic, makes the group even harder to control and direct in a peaceable manner. And this does make sense: without leadership with whom to reason, the group will become more and more unreasonable:
… By disorganizing Egypt’s most cohesive Islamist group, the generals have turned hundreds of thousands of deeply ideological Muslim Brothers into free radicals, who will no longer listen to their typically cautious leaders. Many younger Muslim Brothers, in particular, lean towards Salafism, and their upbringing in the Brotherhood—whose motto concludes with the phrase “death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations”—has made them willing to die for Islamism, and possibly willing to fight for it as well.
In addition, one cannot exempt the military from blame in Coptic persecution: John Storm, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday that “For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming, with Muslim Brotherhood members accusing Coptic Christians of a role in [Morsi’s] ouster, but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them.”
“Congress doesn’t have a whole lot of core responsibilities,” said Barack Obama last week in an astonishing remark.
For in the Constitution, Congress appears as the first branch of government. And among its enumerated powers are the power to tax, coin money, create courts, provide for the common defense, raise and support an army, maintain a navy and declare war.
But, then, perhaps Obama’s contempt is justified.
For consider Congress’ broad assent to news that Obama has decided to attack Syria, a nation that has not attacked us and against which Congress has never authorized a war.
Why is Obama making plans to launch cruise missiles on Syria?
According to a “senior administration official … who insisted on anonymity,” President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people last week in the two-year-old Syrian civil war.
But who deputized the United States to walk the streets of the world pistol-whipping bad actors. Where does our imperial president come off drawing “red lines” and ordering nations not to cross them?
Neither the Security Council nor Congress nor NATO nor the Arab League has authorized war on Syria.
Who made Barack Obama the Wyatt Earp of the Global Village?
Moreover, where is the evidence that WMDs were used and that it had to be Assad who ordered them? Such an attack makes no sense.
Firing a few shells of gas at Syrian civilians was not going to advance Assad’s cause but, rather, was certain to bring universal condemnation on his regime and deal cards to the War Party which wants a U.S. war on Syria as the back door to war on Iran.
Why did the United States so swiftly dismiss Assad’s offer to have U.N. inspectors — already in Damascus investigating old charges he or the rebels used poison gas — go to the site of the latest incident?
Do we not want to know the truth?
Are we fearful the facts may turn out, as did the facts on the ground in Iraq, to contradict our latest claims about WMDs? Are we afraid that it was rebel elements or rogue Syrian soldiers who fired the gas shells to stampede us into fighting this war?
With U.S. ships moving toward Syria’s coast and the McCainiacs assuring us we can smash Syria from offshore without serious injury to ourselves, why has Congress not come back to debate war?
When reading about war zones, it is easy to envision an endless battlefield, with uninterrupted explosions and turmoil. But Atlantic writer Cathy Huyghe pointed out Friday that, even in the midst of Syria’s turmoil, life goes on for many. Her story on Syrian winemakers highlighted the way people hold to hope in the midst of fear and death.
Karim Saadé and his family own a vineyard near Latakia, Syria, located on the outskirts of the Al-Ansariyah mountains in northwestern Syria. Because it is outside the towns experiencing heavy fighting, it has been safe from attack thus far. The Saadé family has had difficulty keeping workers, especially as the local currency has collapsed and taken an inflationary toll on wages. Despite these difficulties, Huyghe writes that the winemakers are “planting the seeds, literally, for the future: Derenoncourt pointed out that they’ve just bought fresh rootstock for new vines.” Her story suggests a deep sense of rootedness and loyalty to the land:
Fabrice Guiberteau, a winemaker at Château Kefraya in the fertile Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, can see the border with Syria from his vineyards. Despite the worries of a conflict so close to home, leaving Lebanon would be difficult, he said. ”It’s about having started something and wanting to see it through,” said Guiberteau, who previously made wine in Cognac, France, and Morocco before coming to Lebanon. The Saadé family has recently made new investments in material for Château Bargylus in Syria, he noted. As Karim Saadé says, “Wine ties you to the land, and you cannot just pack up and leave. It’s a signal to yourself and to others.”
The story reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In the throes of World War I, American ambulance driver Lieutenant Henry learns to cope and survive. His deepest moments of fellowship, love, and communion usually surface around food and drink: especially wine and cognac. He risks his life on the battlefront just to procure cheese for his comrades’ pasta. The descriptions of wine – “clear red, tannic and lovely” – of eating spaghetti – “lifting the spaghetti on the fork until the loose strands hung clear then lowering it into the mouth, or else using a continuous lift and sucking into the mouth” – are nuanced and vivid. Hemingway breaks with his dry, concise style in order to make such scenes come alive. He shows the human lust to live, to enjoy all the beauties of appetite and existence, to endure in the midst of change. For these characters, the drink is indeed “a signal” of sorts.
New York Times contributors Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez identify a similar “signal” and community-building power in coffee amongst the American military. By World War II, they write, American servicemen consumed 32.5 pounds of coffee per capita, per year. Whether carefully brewed or burnt and bitter, coffee is a soldier’s “constant companion”:
As platoon commanders, we would often share with our platoon sergeants and squad leaders while we gathered around a map and discussed our plans for the day. Whether in the forests of North Carolina, the mountains of California, or the deserts of Afghanistan, the ritual provided a sense of continuity … Coffee was more than just a drink. It was a way to remember what it’s all about, a way to connect with old friends, a way to make sense of where our paths in life had taken us.
Lieutenant Henry and his soldiers fight, retreat, laugh, and philosophize around alcohol. It helps them cope; it comforts them in the midst of sorrow. Even for civilians like the Saadé family, it is their wine – their simple work and community it gives them – that helps them cope with fear of the ominous war. Their wine ties them to the land, and to each other.
Lost in the chaos of Egypt and horror of Syria is the ever present Israel-Palestine question, now being dealt with by John Kerry’s initiative for Israeli-Palestinian Authority talks. Of course a fair compromise peace orchestrated by American diplomatic pressure could transform the American image in much of the Arab world, where we are now pretty much despised by moderate “allies” and “radicals” alike. William Pfaff makes the point here, arguing that the current turmoil makes a reset and a change of direction all the more necessary:
As for America’s assumed continuing relevance to the Islamic world, the advice from a leading American foreign policy figure in a New York Times op-ed Monday was that “the United States should do what it can to shepherd the arrival of liberal democracy in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. But the best way to do that is to go slow and help the region’s states build functioning and responsible governments. Democracy can wait.” What sound advice! Just what Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Tunisians, Lebanese, and the others were waiting to hear from the United States.
President Obama could then remain on the golf course, or play with the new puppy, and the nineteen American diplomatic missions across the Islamic world that closed during the past two weeks in order to protect the United States and its allies from new Islamic assaults (or protect the president from the Republicans – take your choice), might be left closed.
But critics are expected to propose solutions. I have a radical one, which I offer in full confidence that it will universally be regarded as frivolous and certainly not be adopted. It changes the scene of action to Israel-Palestine.
I propose that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry inform Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must agree within a defined and brief period to that two-state settlement with the Palestinians whose inevitable terms have long ago been negotiated, and are currently understood by both sides, as by every observer and bystander, except the most fanatical.
These terms are territorial partition and such population transfers as are necessary to restore slightly modified 1967 frontiers, with Jerusalem a dual capital; acknowledgement by the new Palestinian state of Israel’s Jewish character; and only symbolic Palestinian right of return.
Unless Prime Minister Netanyahu and his electorate agree to this within the set period, the White House would endorse a Palestinian claim to the prosecution in international courts of Israel’s continuing occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory as crimes of war under the Geneva conventions. While this proceeds, the United States would suspend the usual exercise of its UN Security Council veto on Israel’s behalf.
This, of course, would utterly transform the political situation in the Middle East, and bewilder the Arabs, leaving them with their own problems of Syrian revolutionary civil war, sectarian violence in Iraq as well as war in Syria between Shias and Sunnis, threatening to sweep into Lebanon, and impending crises in Libya and Tunisia. But who can solve these problems if not the Arabs themselves? Certainly not the United States, as has been amply demonstrated.
My proposal would embitter U.S.-Israel relations by its substance and by treating Mr. Netanyahu in the curt and disdainful way in which he is accustomed to treat American leaders, but in this case would be to the long-term benefit and security of the Israeli nation and of the United States itself.
Unfortunately, that is almost certainly not where the Kerry sponsored talks are headed. Instead leaders of a politically weak Palestinian Authority, lacking in political charisma or legitimacy, have had their arms twisted to sit down with Israel and make concessions. Surely there will be trade-offs, ample opportunities for selected Palestinian luminaries to cash in on the capitalist windfalls that “peace” would bring. And if the talks somehow fail because of Palestinian insistence on a real state with control of its own borders and natural resources, the full weight of American and Israeli propaganda will be brought to bear on the Palestinians for “once again” missing an opportunity.
Recently an Arab newspaper published purportedly leaked documents indicating what the Palestinian Authority has agreed to already. It’s hard to discern whether the leak is accurate, but it asserts that in order to sit down for talks, the PA has already agreed to accept Israel’s territorial grabs around Jerusalem, and the seizure of the water reserves under the Israeli side of the “separation wall” and beneath the large settlements planned and sited so as to deny a Palestinian state’s contiguity. Many Palestinians would call the enclaves they would receive around the large Israeli settlements and connecting infrastructure “bantustans” and they would be right.
Perhaps this kind of negotiating result is inevitable between a party as weak as the Palestinian Authority and as strong as Israel. But it doesn’t guarantee peace so much as oppression of the Palestinians under a modified guise. Moreover, it excludes the interests of many Palestinians with the capacity to undermine it. Former ambassador Chas Freeman shared this analysis with TAC:
It seems to me that the structure of these talks (even if it is not built on the preposterously one-sided formulas cited in Sam’s report) overlooks and violates a basic maxim of diplomacy. An agreement that excludes and fails to address the interests of those with the capacity to wreck it is no agreement at all. All Palestine has now been divided into four parts. The Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel are ignored by both the Israeli authorities and forgotten by the international community. The other three parts of Palestine are the West Bank, Gaza, and the Diaspora Palestinians driven from their homes into residence in refugee camps and foreign countries. Of these three parts, the Palestinian Authority, which the United States has appointed to represent Palestinian interests in negotiations with Israel, and which is now talking to the government of Israel under U.S. auspices is the weakest. It lacks a popular mandate, is dependent on foreign subsidies and tax revenue collected by Israel, relies on Israel’s staunchest foreign backer to extract Israeli concessions that will permit self-determination by Palestinians, polices the Jewish state’s occupation of the West Bank and isolation of Gaza, and whines ineffectually as Israel’s colonial enterprise consumes its territory and displaces its people. The PA cannot speak for Palestinians in Gaza or in the Diaspora, neither of whom would be bound by any agreement it might reach with Israel.
In January 2006, Hamas gained a popular mandate to govern all of Palestine beyond the 1967 borders of Israel. It is now besieged in Gaza by both Israel and Arab opponents of Islamist democracy. Neither Hamas nor Gazan Palestinians are represented in the so-called “peace process.” Neither will have a stake in making anything that might emerge from it work. The 7 million Palestinians who live outside their homeland have not been represented in discussions of its future since the Oslo accords created the PA. Revanchism on their part would not be cured by a deal between Israel and the PA. I don’t see how the “peace process’ Kerry has contrived is a path to peace even for the fifth or so of the Palestinians (those on the West Bank) whose future it purports to address. A peace that proposes to exclude about four-fifths of Palestinians is a fatally flawed diplomatic fraud — not, of course, the first one in this arena.
If Kerry’s goal is simply to ratify Israel’s seizure of critical Palestinian territory, while taking the steam out of the expanding civil society movements, like BDS, which oppose the Israeli occupation, then his initiative is right on track. But if his purpose is reach an accommodation that, as closely as possible, approximates a “just peace”, the signs are he is headed to failure.
On a personal note, blogging will be lighter over the next few months as I redirect my energies to a much delayed longer project.