Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Juan Cole on Al-Qaeda and the 9/11: Mostly right about US domestic situation, mostly wrong about the Middle East

Juan Cole is notoriously sensitive about opposing views in the comments section of his blog. It was much less noticeable to me during the presidency of George W. Bush, whom Cole opposed than it is during the presidency of Barack Obama whom Cole supports. With Obama president, Cole is not far from just another jingoistic American, and not even the most fair. Other jingoistic Americans - Americans who are willing to bend any logical or moral principle in favor of their support for country - are usually more willing than Cole to expose their ideas to public scrutiny than Cole has been recently. At least on his own site.

Oh well. Other people have blogs. I have a blog. Over at RaceForIran.com , Flynt and Hillary Leverett have an unmoderated comments section. I'm told that Scott Lucas' Enduring America site has a comments section to which opposing views can easily be presented without alteration.

But if you read Cole's 9/11 article about the impact of Al-Qaeda in the Middle East and the US, you'll see that it's wrong in somewhat interesting ways. Cole presents the idea that Al-Qaeda's goal is to create a caliphate that, I guess, Bin Laden would rule. This is a very popular idea in the United States. I've only seen this idea presented by American supposed experts on Al-Qaeda. None of Bin Laden's interviews or statements, no statement of any kind from any member of Al-Qaeda, in fact no Muslim at all, as far as I've ever heard, has advocated creating the caliphate Cole talks about.

Now if someone digs up a statement that mentions a caliphate made by a Muslim in an aspirational tone, I'll stand corrected, but still, that is not a primary motivating factor or we'd read it a lot more than we have, which for me is never.

What motivated 9/11? A long term plan to build a caliphate, or the idea that the United States, from a long distance away, was killing Muslims and should suffer some consequence for that? The second seems a more obvious explanation, and is supported by Bin Laden's actual statements rather than what might be a fantasy in the minds of US-based researchers into Al-Qaeda.

(As a quick aside, here's a statement by Cole: "Had [the US] lifted the blockade on medicine and chlorine in Iraq, it would have forestalled charges of being implicated in the deaths of half a million children." Well, probably. Had the US not taken actions to kill hundreds of thousands of children and elderly in Iraq, then charges that the US took actions to kill hundred of thousands of children and elderly probably would have been "forestalled".)

The main error that pervades Cole's essay is this supposed caliphate motivation on the part of Al-Qaeda.

The second major error is that Cole speaks as if Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or any former pro-US dictatorship has been replaced by an accountable government. None have. I vigorously hope that they all will, but so far they have not. The efficacy of the Arab spring model for political change has not been demonstrated yet, and will not have been demonstrated until a government takes power that has defeated its opposition by getting more votes.

Every statement Cole makes about what the Arab spring has proven is so far false. I hope his statements become true as soon as possible. I hoped in February that they would have been proven true by now. But for now they are not true.

After that, he makes a lot of mistakes about the Middle East, but comparatively minor. He claims the student groups have been more important in the protest movements than the Islamists. None of the movements so far could have extracted promises of reform without both. Both were necessary, neither was sufficient. To say one was more important is inaccurate, but in a minor way.

He makes a weird claim that the Arab Spring proves that most Middle East publics have expressed a preference for parliamentary democracy instead of direct democracy. First, most Middle East publics, numerically, are still ruled by pro-US colonial dictators. Second, there is a consensus among political scientists, especially but not only in the West, that parliamentary systems are in many ways superior to the US' older model of government. This expert consensus has resulted in no public recently ever being given a choice between parliamentary and direct democracy. Third, even if Cole was right about this, which he isn't, this is the type of detail that still would hardly merit mention in any overview essay such as Cole's. I can't figure out what that's all about.

Cole also claims that there were no major Al-Qaeda attacks on the US post 9/11 because the first attacks were bait that accomplished their goal of causing the US reaction that occurred. That's just wrong. There were no later attacks because the US acted much more vigilantly to discover and break up potential attacks. Clearly Bin Laden did not have the ability to launch further major attacks on the US and refrained because the US had already invaded Iraq.

But where Cole is closer to right is the impact of 9/11 on the US. 9/11 unleashed forces in the United States that want the US itself to be a more tightly controlled and less politically free state. Barack Obama claimed, now obviously falsely, to oppose that tendency. Cole manages to criticize the actions of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to push the US in that direction without noting that Obama has expanded far more of their programs than he reduced.

Americans very rarely understand that freedom is a luxury and a by-product of wealth. Make Iran or Cuba two or three orders of magnitude more wealthy than their potential adversaries and either of them would likely be more politically free than the United States is. Both Iran and Cuba are ideologically inspired nations the way the US was in the late 1700s when its constitution was written and is far less today.

The personal freedoms afforded by the United States to its citizens come from its relative wealth and relative security from foreign intervention and not much more than that. Put either George Bush or Barack Obama where Cuba is, with a rich, hostile enemy to the north, and either will build far more ruthless dictatorships than Castro has, because neither, unlike Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Fidel Castro and Ruholluh Khomeini is motivated by a revolutionary vision of how good a state can be.

Related to the idea of the cost of the luxury of personal freedom, is the price to the US of Israel - the price of maintaining the string of colonial dictatorships necessary to fulfill the US' commitment that Israel will militarily dominate neighbors with far greater populations and economic resources. This cost was far higher on 9/12/01 than it was on 9/10/01. And continues to be much higher to this day.

Barack Obama, very disappointingly, in May claimed the US is still willing to pay any price. As the price goes up, we'll see where the US' commitment breaks. So far, Al-Qaeda has done far more than any other group or organization to raise the direct cost to the US of its commitment to Israel's ability to dominate its region. Iran comes second and the Arab Spring, so far, has not had any impact at all.

After Egyptian elections and a transfer of power that I vigorously hope to see, and that Obama (and Cole because of Cole's essentially blind loyalty to Obama) is much less enthusiastic about, possibly (hopefully for me) the relative impacts of the groups may change. So far it has not, and in a fundamental way Cole seems not to understand that.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Some Wikileaks about Egypt

¶3. (S) A serious political commitment, supported by dedicated and properly trained personnel, is key to progress. The Egyptians claim that they respond aggressively to Israeli intelligence leads, while both sides bicker over whether and how Egypt could deploy more Border Guard Forces. Meanwhile, the Egyptians continue to offer excuses for the problem they face: the need to "squeeze" Hamas, while avoiding being seen as complicit in Israel's "siege" of Gaza. Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Soliman told us Egypt wants Gaza to go "hungry" but not "starve." Minister of Defense Field Marshal Tantawi and the Director of Military Intelligence MG Mowafy both pressed recently for the return of EUBAM monitors to oversee the crossing between Gaza and Egypt of Palestinians with urgent humanitarian circumstances. In their moments of greatest frustration, Tantawi and Soliman each have claimed that the IDF would be "welcome" to re-invade Philadelphi, if the IDF thought that would stop the smuggling.
¶8. (S) The Egyptians are surprised and alarmed at the turn their relations with both the U.S. and Israel have taken in recent months. Mubarak and his security chiefs viscerally want Hamas "to fail." They thought their self-interest in this objective was so obvious to us, to Abu Mazen, and to the Israelis -- as it is to Mubarak's domestic opposition -- as to be beyond all question. They are looking for a way to get things back on track with the U.S. and the Israelis and to do all they can to thwart Hamas, but the GOE is intensely uncomfortable at squeezing the people of Gaza in the face of opposition charges that Mubarak, as America's tool, is supporting Israel's "siege of Gaza." Also, it is unclear whether the MOD can get a full grip on the fundamental security concerns in the Sinai, especially smuggling, given the practical restraints of troop limits and the generally poor performance of the Egyptian armed forces overall. The GOE wants regular openings at Rafah, when circumstances allow, to reduce the economic pressure that sustains smuggling and to ease the Gazans' humanitarian crisis while keeping Hamas under pressure. They also want their discussions with the United States, particularly when it comes to Egypt's FMF, not to pass through a perceived "Israeli filter" (Ref D). Meanwhile, the Egyptians show no grasp of Israeli outrage at continuing mortar and rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza -- mirroring the Israeli failure to comprehend the GOE's dilemma over Gaza and Hamas.

¶2. (C) CENTCOM Commanding General John Abizaid, accompanied by the Ambassador, met on August 30 with Egyptian Minister of Defense Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to review U.S.-Egyptian mil-mil relations and discuss the regional situation. Abizaid and Tantawi agreed that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is very strong; but, added Tantawi, "we want even more." General Abizaid thanked Tantawi for Egypt's cooperation in areas as diverse as granting overflight clearances to facilitating usage of the Suez Canal. Tantawi said it was important for the U.S. to remember that, while Egyptian political and military leaders understood the value of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, "the simple people do not see it." We need to work together to convince them, too. The key, according to Tantawi, is the reinvigoration of the peace process. "It is not a peace process just for the Palestinians and Israelis, but for the region as a whole."

¶2. (C) Comment: The Egyptians had initially indicated they would make a decision on the LOR by December 15. This apparently very quick turnaround is welcome. Tanatawi had agreed in principle to similar but less specific recommendations a year ago and ended up not signing an LOR. The USACE report gave us the technical arguments needed, and the Egyptians are conscious of their standing in Congress if they take no action. While Tantawi still needs to actually sign the letter, we are optimistic the MoD will sign the LOR this time.

¶1. (C) Summary: In a recent meeting with poloff, independent parliamentarian Anwar Esmat El Sadat (protect), nephew of the former President, discussed presidential son Gamal Mubarak's possible succession of his father, and opined that Gamal increasingly views Minister of Defense Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and EGIS head Omar Suleiman as a threat to his presidential ambitions. Sadat alleged that Tantawi recently told him, in confidence, of his deepening frustration with Gamal. End summary.
¶2. (S) On March 29, Sadat noted to poloff his assessment that the recently approved constitutional amendments package is largely aimed at ensuring Gamal Mubarak's succession of his father, and "a more controllable, stable political scene when he does take the reins." Opining that "Gamal and his clique" are becoming more confident in the inevitability of Gamal's succession, and are now angling to remove potential "stumbling blocks," Sadat said that speculation among Cairo's elite is that there could be a cabinet reshuffle as soon as May or June, in which Minister of Defense Tantawi and/or EGIS head Omar Suleiman would be replaced. "Those two are increasingly viewed as a threat by Gamal and those around him," and thus Gamal is reportedly pushing Mubarak to get them out of the way, so they "could not pose any problems" in the event of a succession. Sadat speculated that "hitches" to a Gamal succession could occur if Mubarak died before installing his son: "Gamal knows this, and so wants to stack the deck in his favor as much as possible now, while Mubarak is firmly in control, just in case his father drops dead sooner rather than later."
¶3. (S) Sadat said Tantawi had commented to him in a recent private meeting that, "he has had it 'up to here' with Gamal and his cronies, and the tremendous corruption they are facilitating." "Tantawi told me he is having trouble sleeping at night," he continued, "and that he cannot stand what has happened to the country, and what may yet happen to the country." Disappointed by the recent constitutional amendments, and skeptical about the will of either Mubarak or Gamal to push forward meaningful political reforms, Sadat said he viewed a post-Mubarak military coup as "the best possible way out for Egypt ... we are in a terrible spot, and that is the best of all the bad options available." (Note: Sadat provided no further details about a possible coup scenario, and appeared to simply be theorizing about the future. To date, we have not heard other interlocutors speculate about a possible coup option. End note).

¶6. (C) A/S Welch responded that there would be four losers -- including the Palestinians. Tantawi agreed. The Egyptians have tried to get the PA and Hamas to work together to address the Gaza border issue, but they have very deep divisions. We are forced to deal with Hamas on the tactical level, Tantawi said -- they are the ones on the other side of the border. A/S Welch stressed that the United States believes in dealing only with the PA; we do not believe in dealing with Hamas. It is very important that Hamas not be seen as the authority. All the political credit for solving this crisis must go to Egypt, Israel, the U.S. and the PA -- not Hamas.

¶7. (C) Harel admitted that whether the IDF wanted to be in the humanitarian business or not, the IDF was obliged by law to continue to provide humanitarian support to Gaza, and the delivery of humanitarian supplies were a daily part of Cast Lead. It was HAMAS, Harel stated, that decided to continue to shoot even during the humanitarian pauses, and the recent seizure of humanitarian supplies from UNRWA by HAMAS further proves who cares more about civilians in Gaza. In response to a question on how the international community can get Gaza,s borders open, Harel said there were several conditions -- Gilad Shalit is released; there is a cease fire agreement in place; HAMAS stops all rocket fire into Israel; HAMAS slows its force build up; and mechanisms are in place to slow the smuggling into Gaza from the Sinai. Harel further stated that Israel must control who the aid is assisting, and that Israel is not ready for the free flow of goods into Gaza.