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Saturday, August 31, 2013


After a long and exhaustive exploration of the subject with the aid of Google, I have ascertained that the Geico Gekko is Cockney, not Australian.  I shall never be able to look at the little guy again in the same way.


I am very pleased that Obama has decided to seek Congressional approval for a strike against Syria, for two reasons.   First, he may not get it.  There is deep resistance across the political spectrum to such a move, which I think Bill Polk makes clear is really unjustified.  But second, the move constitutes a de facto limitation on the power of the presidency in foreign policy, and in light of America's three-quarters of a century long imperial expansion as world hegemon, almost always in pursuit of the wrong ends, any such limitation must be applauded.  It will be extremely interesting to see how this comes out.

Friday, August 30, 2013


I received this extremely long circular email from my old friend William R. Polk.  It is far and away the most detailed and knowledgeable discussion of the Syrian situation I have seen.  I reproduced it here unaltered.

Friday, August 30, 2013
Dear Colleagues and Friends,
Probably like you, I have spent many hours this last week trying to put together the scraps of information reported in the media on the horrible attack with chemical weapons on a suburb of Damascus on Wednesday, August 21. Despite the jump to conclusions by reporters, commentators and government officials, I find as of this writing that the events are still unclear. Worse, the bits and pieces we have been told are often out of context and usually have not been subjected either to verification or logical analysis. So I ask you to join me in thinking them through to try to get a complete picture on what has happened, is now happening and about to happen. I apologize for both the length of this analysis and its detail, but the issue is so important to all of us that it must be approached with care.
Because, as you will see, this is germane in examining the evidence, I should tell you that during my years as a member of the Policy Planning Council, I was "cleared" for all the information the US Government had on weapons of mass destruction, including poison gas, and for what was then called "Special Intelligence," that is, telecommunications interception and code breaking.
I will try to put in context 1) what actually happened; 2) what has been reported; 3) who has told us what we think we know; 4) who are the possible culprits and what would be their motivations; 5) who are the insurgents? 6) what is the context in which the attack took place; 7) what are chemical weapons and who has used them; 8) what the law on the use of chemical weapons holds; 9) pro and con on attack; 10) the role of the UN; 11) what is likely to happen now; 12) what would be the probable consequences of an attack and (13) what could we possibly gain from an attack.
1: What Actually Happened
On Wednesday, August 21 canisters of gas opened in several suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus and within a short time approximately a thousand people were dead. That is the only indisputable fact we know.
2: What Has Been Reported
Drawing primarily on Western government and Israeli sources, the media has reported that canisters of what is believed to be the lethal nerve gas Sarin were delivered by surface-to-surface rockets to a number of locations in territory disputed by the Syrian government and insurgents. The locations were first reported to be to the southwest, about 10 miles from the center of Damascus, and later reported also to be to the east of the city in other suburbs. The following Voice of America map shows the sites where bodies were found.
3: Who Told Us What We Think We Know
A UN inspection team that visited the site of the massacre on Monday, August 26, almost 5 days after the event.
Why was the inspection so late? As a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pointed out (Gareth Porter in IPS, August 27), the request to the Syrian government to authorize an inspection was not made until August 24 and was granted the next day. In any event, according to the spokesman, the delay was not of fundamental importance because "Sarin can be detected for up to months after its use."
What was the American government position on inspection? Secretary of State John Kerry initially demanded that the Syrian government make access to the suspected site or sites possible. Then it charged that the Syrian government purposefully delayed permission so that such evidence as existed might be "corrupted" or destroyed. On the basis of this charge, he reversed his position and urged UN Secretary General Ban to stop the inquiry. According to The Wall Street Journal of August 26, Secretary Kerry told Mr. Ban that "the inspection mission was pointless and no longer safe..." To emphasize the American position, according to the same Wall Street Journal report, "Administration officials made clear Mr. Obama would make his decision based on the U.S. assessment and not the findings brought back by the U.N. inspectors."
IPS's Gareth Porter concluded after talks with chemical weapons experts and government officials that "The administration's effort to discredit the investigation recalls the George W. Bush administration's rejection of the position of U.N. inspectors in 2002 after they found no evidence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the administration's refusal to give inspectors more time to fully rule out the existence of an active Iraqi WMD programme. In both cases, the administration had made up its mind to go to war and wanted no information that could contradict that policy to arise." Is this a fair assessment?
Why was the first UN inspection so limited? The only publicly known reason is that it came under sniper fire while on the way to the first identified site. Who fired on it or for what reason are, as of this writing, unknown. The area was contested by one or more rebel groups and under only limited or sporadic control by the Syrian government. Indeed, as photographs published by The New York Times on August 29, show the UN inspectors in one area (Zamaka) guarded by armed men identified as "rebel fighters." So the sniper could have been almost anyone.
How limited was the first phase of inspection? According to a report in The Guardian (Monday, August 26, 2013), the small team of UN Inspectors investigating the poison gas attack in Syria spent only an hour and a half at the site. So far, we have not been given any report by the UN team, but the doctor in charge of the local hospital was apparently surprised by how brief and limited was their investigation. According to The Guardian reporter, he said,
The committee did not visit any house in the district. We asked the committee to exhume the bodies for checking them. But they refused. They say that there was no need to do that.
We had prepared samples for the committee from some bodies and video documentation. There were urine and blood samples as well as clothes. But they refused to take them.
After an hour and a half, they got an order from the regime to leave ASAP. The security force told the committee if they did not leave now, they could not guarantee their security. They could not visit the main six sites where the chemical rockets had fallen and lots of people were killed.
Why did the investigators not do a more thorough job? The doctor at the site told the Guardian reporter that the Assad regime warned the investigators that they should leave because it could not guarantee their safety but the newspaper's headline says that the Syrian government authorities ordered them out. Which is true? Is there another explanation? And why did the inspection team not have the means to retrieve parts of the delivery equipment, presumably rockets? Were they told by the UN or other authorities not to retrieve them or were they refused permission by the Syrian government? We simply do not know.
To say the least, the inspection was incomplete. The best that the State Department spokesman could say about such evidence as was gathered is that there is "'little doubt' [Vice President Biden later raised the certainty from the same limited evidence to "no doubt"] that forces loyal to Mr. Assad were responsible for using the chemical weapons." ("'Little Doubt' Syria Gassed Opposition," The Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2013).
Much was made of the belief that the gas had been delivered by rocket. However, as The New York Times correspondent Ben Hubbard reported (April 27, 2013) ""Near the attack sites, activists found spent rockets that appeared to have been homemade and suspected that they delivered the gas." Would the regular army's chemical warfare command have used "homemade" rockets? That report seemed to point to some faction within the opposition rather than to the government.
Several days into the crisis, we have been given a different source of information. This is from Israel. For many years, Israel is known to have directed a major communications effort against Syria. Its program, known as Unit 8200 is Mossad's equivalent of NSA. It chose to share what it claimed was a key intercept with outsiders. First, a former officer told the German news magazine Focus (according to The Guardian, August 28, 2013) that Israel had intercepted a conversation between Syrian officers discussing the attack. The same Information was given to Israeli press (see "American Operation, Israeli Intelligence" in the August 27 Yediot Ahronoth,) It also shared this information with the American government. Three Israeli senior officers were reported to have been sent to Washington to brief NSC Director Susan Rice. What was said was picked up by some observers. Foreign Policy magazine reported (August 28, "Intercepted Calls Prove Syrian Army Used Nerve Gas, U.S. Spies Say") that "in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Minister of Defense exchanged what Israeli intelligence described as "panicked phone calls" with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answer for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people."
But, as more information emerged, doubts began to be expressed. As Matt Apuzzo reported (AP, August 29, "AP sources: Intelligence on weapons no 'slam dunk.'"), according to a senior US intelligence official, the intercept "discussing the strike was among low level staff, with no direct evidence tying the attack to an Assad insider or even a senior commander." Reminding his readers of the famous saying by the then head of the CIA, George Tenet, in 2002 that the intelligence against Saddam Husain was "slam dunk," when in fact it was completely erroneous, the AP correspondent warned that the Syrian attack of last week "could be tied to al-Qaida-backed rebels later."
Two things should be borne in mind on these reports: the first is that Israel has had a long-standing goal of the break-up or weakening of Syria which is the last remaining firmly anti-Israeli Arab state. (the rationale behind this policy was laid out by Edward Luttwak in the OpEd section of the August 24, 2013 New York Times). It also explains why Israel actively had sought "regime change" in Iraq. The second consideration is that Israeli intelligence has also been known to fabricate intercepts as, for example, it did during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
So, unless or until more conclusive evidence is available, the request by Mr. Ban ("U.N. seeks more time for its inspectors," International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2013) for more time appears to be prudent. Despite what Messrs Biden and Kerry have said, I believe a court would conclude that the case against the Syrian government was "not proven."
4: Who Are the Possible Culprits and What Would be Their Motivations?
Since such information as we have is sketchy and questionable, we should seek to understand motives. As a historian, dealing as one always does, with incomplete information, I have made it a rule when trying to get at the "truth" in any contentious issue to ask a series of questions among which are who benefits from a given action and what would I have done in a given situation? Look briefly at what we think we now know in light of these questions:
First, who gains by the action. I do not see what Assad could have gained from this gas attack. It is evident that while the area in which it took place is generally held to be "disputed" territory, the government was able to arrange for the UN inspection team to visit it but not, apparently, to guarantee their safety there. If Assad were to initiate an attack, it would be more logical for him to pick a target under the control of the rebels.
Second, to have taken the enormous risk of retaliation or at least loss of support by some of his allies (notably the Russians) by using this horrible weapon, he must have thought of it either as a last ditch stand or as a knockout blow to the insurgents. Neither appears to have been the case. Reports in recent weeks suggest that the Syrian government was making significant gains against the rebels. No observer has suggested that its forces were losing. All indications are that the government's command and control system not only remains intact but that it still includes among its senior commanders and private soldiers a high proportion of Sunni Muslims. Were the regime in decline, it would presumably have purged those whose loyalties were becoming suspect (i.e. the Sunni Muslims) or they would have bolted for cover. Neither happened.
Moreover, if it decided to make such an attack, I should have thought that it would have aimed at storage facilities, communications links, arms depots or places where commanders congregated. The suburbs of Damascus offered none of these opportunities for a significant, much less a knockout, blow.
Third, as students of guerrilla warfare have learned guerrillas are dispersed but civilians are concentrated. So weapons of mass destruction are more likely to create hostility to the user than harm to the opponent. The chronology of the Syrian civil war shows that the government must be aware of this lesson as it has generally held back its regular troops (which were trained and armed to fight foreign invasion) and fought its opponents with relatively small paramilitary groups backed up by air bombardment. Thus, a review of the fighting over the last two years suggests that its military commanders would not have seen a massive gas attack either as a "game changer" or an option valuable enough to outweigh the likely costs.
So, what about the enemies of the Assad regime? How might such an attack have been to their advantage?
First, a terrorizing attack might have been thought advantageous because of the effect on people who are either supporting the regime or are passive. There are indications, for example, that large numbers of the pathetic Palestinian refugees are pouring out their camps in yet another "displacement." The number of Syrian refugees is also increasing. Terror is a powerful weapon and historically and everywhere was often used. Whoever initiated the attack might have thought, like those who initiated the attack on Guernica, the bombing of Rotterdam and the Blitz of London, that the population would be so terrorized that they might give up or at least cower. Then as food shortages and disease spread, the economy would falter. Thus the regime might collapse.
That is speculative, but the second benefit to the rebels of an attack is precisely what has happened: given the propensity to believe everything evil about the Assad regime, daily emphasized by the foreign media, a consensus, at least in America, has been achieved is that it must have been complicit. This consensus should make it possible for outside powers to take action against the regime and join in giving the insurgents the money, arms and training.
We know that the conservative Arab states, the United States, other Western powers and perhaps Israel have given assistance to the rebels for the last two years, but the outside aid has not been on a scale sufficient to enable them to defeat the government. They would need much more and probably would also need foreign military intervention as happened in Libya in April 2011 to overthrow Muamar Qaddafi. The rebels must have pondered that situation. We know that foreign military planners have. (See "Military Intervention in Syria" Wikileaks reprinted on August 25, 2013, memorandum of a meeting in the Pentagon in 2011.) Chillingly, the just cited Wikileaks memorandum notes that the assembled military and intelligence officers "don't believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre, like the Ghadafi [sic] move against Benghazi." (See Time, March 17, 2011.) As in Libya, evidence of an ugly suppression of inhabitants might justify and lead to foreign military intervention.
Clearly, Assad had much to lose and his enemies had much to gain. That conclusion does not prove who did it, but it should give us pause to find conclusive evidence which we do not now have.
5: Who are the insurgents?
We know little about them, but what we do know is that they are divided into hundreds - some say as many as 1,200 -- of small, largely independent, groups. And we know that the groups range across the spectrum from those who think of themselves as members of the dispersed, not-centrally-governed but ideologically-driven association we call al-Qaida, through a variety of more conservative Muslims, to gatherings of angry, frightened or dissatisfied young men who are out of work and hungry, to blackmarketeers who are trading in the tools of war, to what we have learned to call in Afghanistan and elsewhere "warlords."
Each group marches to its own drumbeat and many are as much opposed to other insurgents as to the government; some are secular while others are jihadists; some are devout while others are opportunists; many are Syrians but several thousand are foreigners from all over the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. Recognition of the range of motivations, loyalties and aims is what, allegedly, has caused President Obama to hold back overt lethal-weapons assistance although it did not stop him from having the CIA and contractors covertly arm and train insurgents in Jordan and other places.
The main rebel armed force is known as the Free Syrian Army. It was formed in the summer of 2011 by deserters from the regular army. Similar to other rebel armies (for example the "external" army of the Provisional Algerian Government in its campaign against the French and various "armies" that fought the Russians in Afghanistan) its commanders and logistical cadres are outside of Syria. Its influence over the actual combatants inside of Syria derives from its ability to allocate money and arms and shared objectives; it does not command them. So far as is known, the combatants are autonomous. Some of these groups have become successful guerrillas and have not only killed several thousand government soldiers and paramilitaries but have seized large parts of the country and disrupted activities or destroyed property in others.
In competition with the Free Syrian Army is an Islamicist group known as Jabhat an-Nusra (roughly "sources of aid") which is considered to be a terrorist organization by the United States. It is much more active and violent than groups associated with the Free Syrian Army. It is determined to convert Syria totally into an Islamic state under Sharia law. Public statements attributed to some of its leaders threaten a blood bath of Alawis and Christians after it achieves the fall of the Assad regime. Unlike the Free Syrian Army it is a highly centralized force and its 5-10 thousand guerrillas have been able to engage in large-scale and coordinated operations.
Of uncertain and apparently shifting relations with Jabhat an-Nusra, are groups that seem to be increasing in size who think of themselves as members of al-Qaida. They seem to be playing an increasing role in the underground and vie for influence and power with the Muslim Brotherhood and the dozens of other opposition groups.
Illustrating the complexity of the line-up of rebel forces, Kurdish separatists are seeking to use the war to promote their desire either to unite with other Kurdish groups in Turkey and/or Iraq or to achieve a larger degree of autonomy. (See Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa, "The Civil War Within Syria's Civil War," Foreign Policy, August 28, 2013). They are struggling against both the other opposition groups and against the government, and they too would presumably welcome a collapse of the government that would lead to the division of the country into ethnic-religious mini-states.
It seems reasonable to imagine that at least some and perhaps all of these diverse groups must be looking for action (such as a dramatic strike against the regime) that would tip the scale of military capacity. Listening to the world media and to the intelligence agents who circulate among them, they must hope that an ugly and large-scale event caused by or identified with the government might accomplish what they have so far been unable to do.
6: What Is the Context in Which the Attack Took Place?
Syria is and has always been a complex society, composed of clusters of ancient colonies. Generally speaking, throughout history they have lived adjacent to one another rather than mixing in shared locations as the following map suggests.
Syrian ethnic and/or religious communities. The large white area is little-inhabited desert Courtesy of Wikipedia
The population before the outbreak of the war was roughly (in rounded numbers) 6 in 10 were Sunni Muslim, 1 in 7 Christian, 1 in 8 Alawi (an ethnic off-shoot of Shia Islam), 1 in 10 Kurdish Muslim, smaller groups of Druze and Ismailis (both off-shoots of Shia Islam) and a scattering of others.
Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.
USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Commodity Intelligence Report, May 9, 2008
In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria's farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria's 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to "extreme poverty."
The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population. Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.
Survival was the key issue. The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation "a perfect storm," in November 2008, he warned that Syria faced "social destruction." He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had "stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was 'beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.'" But, his appeal fell on deaf ears: the USAID director commented that "we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time." (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and "leaked" to Wikileaks )
Whether or not this was a wise decision, we now know that the Syrian government made the situation much worse by its next action. Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year. The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.
So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a "tinder" that was ready to catch fire. The spark was struck on March 15, 2011 when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives. The Assads, who had ruled the country since 1971, were not known for political openness or popular sensitivity. And their action backfired. Riots broke out all over the country, As they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force. They failed to do so and, as outside help - money from the Gulf states and Muslim "freedom fighters" from the rest of the world - poured into the country, the government lost control over 30% of the country's rural areas and perhaps half of its population. By the spring of 2013, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upwards of 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, perhaps 2 million have lost their homes and upwards of 2 million have fled abroad. Additionally, vast amounts of infrastructure, virtually whole cities like Aleppo, have been destroyed.
Despite these tragic losses, the war is now thought to be stalemated: the government cannot be destroyed and the rebels cannot be defeated. The reasons are not only military: they are partly economic -- there is little to which the rebels could return; partly political - the government has managed to retain the loyalty of a large part of the majority Muslim community which comprises the bulk of its army and civil service whereas the rebels, as I have mentioned, are fractured into many mutually hostile groups; and partly administrative -- by and large the government's structure has held together and functions satisfactorily whereas the rebels have no single government.
7: What are Chemical Weapons and Who Has Used Them?
When I was a member of the Policy Planning Council and was "cleared" for all information on weapons of mass destruction, I was given a detailed briefing at Fort Meade on the American poison gas program. I was so revolted by what I learned that I wrote President Kennedy a memorandum arguing that we must absolutely end the program and agree never to use it. Subsequently, the United States is said to have destroyed 90% of its chemical weapons.
My feelings aside, use of chemical weapons has been common. As the former head of the US Congress's committee on foreign affairs and later president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Lee Hamilton, told me, his experience was that when a weapon was available, the temptation to use it was almost irresistible. History bears him out. While most people were horror-stricken by the use of gas, governments continued to use it. In times of severe stress, it became acceptable. As Winston Churchill wrote, use "was simply a question of fashion changing as it does between long and short skirts for women." Well, perhaps not quite, but having begun to use gas in the First World War, when about 100,000 people were killed by it, use continued.
After the war, the British, strongly urged by Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, used combinations of mustard gas, chlorine and other gases against tribesmen in Iraq in the 1920s. As he said, "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes." In the same spirit, the Spaniards used gas against the Moroccan Rif Berbers in the late 1920s; the Italians used it against Ethiopians in the 1930s; and the Japanese used it against the Chinese in the 1940s. Churchill again: during the Second World War, he wrote that if the Blitz threatened to work against England, he "may certainly have to ask you [his senior military staff] to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany..." More recently in 1962, I was told by the then chief of the CIA's Middle Eastern covert action office, James Critichfield that the Egyptians had used lethal concentrations of tear gas in their campaign against royalist guerrillas in Yemen.
America used various chemical agents including white phosphorus in Vietnam (where it was known as "Willie Pete") and in Fallujah (Iraq) in 2005. We encouraged or at least did not object to the use of chemical agents, although we later blamed him for so doing, by Saddam Husain. Just revealed documents show that the Reagan administration knew of the Iraqi use in the Iraq-Iran war of the same poison gas (Sarin) as was used a few days ago in Syria and Tabun (also a nerve gas). According to the US military attaché working with the Iraqi army at the time, the US government either turned a blind eye or approved its use (see the summary of the documents in Shane Harris and Matthew Aid, "Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran," Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013) We were horrified when Saddam Husain used poison gas against the Kurdish villagers of Halabja in 1988 (killing perhaps 4-5 thousand people) but by that time we had dropped our support for the Iraqi government. Finally, Israel is believed to have used poison gas in Lebanon and certainly used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008.
I cite this history not to justify the use of gas - I agree with Secretary Kerry that use of gas is a "moral obscenity" -- but to show that its use is by no means uncommon. It is stockpiled by most states in huge quantities and is constantly being produced in special factories almost everywhere despite having been legally banned since the Geneva Protocol of June 17, 1925.
8: What Is Current Law on the Use of Chemical Weapons?
Use, production and storage of such weapons was again banned in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria it not a party). But nearly all the signatories to that convention reserved the right legally to use such weapons if the weapons had been used against them (i.e. no first strike). The Convention, unfortunately, contains no provision banning the use of weapons, as Saddam certainly did and as Assad is accused of doing, in civil war. My understanding of the current law, as set out in the 1993 Convention, is that the United States and the other NATO members are legally entitled to take military action only when we - not their citizens -- are actually threatened by overt military attack with chemical weapons.
9: Pro and Con on Attack
Putting the legal issue aside, there is precedent. A part of the rationale for the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq was the charge that it had or was developing weapons of mass destruction including poison gas which it planned to use against us. This was the essence of Secretary of State Collin Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council on February 6, 2003.
Powell then realized that there was no evidence to back up his charge (and it was later shown to be false), but that did not stop or even delay the attack. The determination to attack had already been made, regardless of evidence. An attack was undoubtedly then generally approved by the American public and its elected representatives. They, and our NATO allies, concluded on the basis of what the second Bush administration told them that there was a threat and, therefore, that action was not only necessary for defense but also legal. It is the memory of this grave misleading of the public that haunts at least some government officials and elected representatives today.
Memory of the Iraqi deception and the subsequent disaster is apparently responsible for the Parliamentary rejection last night of British Prime Minister David Cameron's announced plan to take military action against the Syrian government. "The vote was also a set back for Mr. Obama, who, having given up hope of getting United Nations Security Council authorization for the strike, is struggling to assemble a coalition of allies against Syria...But administration officials made clear that eroding support would not deter Mr. Obama in deciding to go ahead with a strike." ("Obama Set for Limited Strike on Syria as British Vote No," The New York Times, August 29, 2013)
The New York Times editorial board essentially joined with the British Parliament in arguing that "Despite the pumped-up threats and quickening military preparations, President Obama has yet to make a convincing legal or strategic case for military action against Syria." (Editorial of August 28, 2013)
As he often so eloquently does, President Obama said on August 23,
...what I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests?...Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.
However, as I point out below, his actions, as unfortunately also is typical of him, do not seem to mesh with his words.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Secretary General Ban urged the European heads of state and President Obama to "Give peace a chance...give diplomacy a chance."
There has been a steady outpouring of informed non-governmental opposition to an attack. Sir Andrew Green, the former British ambassador called it "poor foolishness...It beggars belief that we appear to be considering an armed attack on Syria with no clear purpose and no achievable objective." (Blundering into war in Syria would be pure foolishness." The English Conservative Party daily, Conservative Home, August 26, 2013). This was from a member of the Prime Minister's Conservative party; the Labour opposition was even more opposed to the adventure.
The Russian government was outspoken in opposition. Many Western commentators regarded their opposition as a sort of echo of the Cold War, but the Russians were acutely aware of the danger that their own large (16% of their population) and growing Muslim population might be affected by the "forces of extremism in country after country in the Middle East by [the US] forcing or advocating a change in leadership - from Iraq to Libya, Egypt to Syria." (Steven Lee Myers, "Putin stays quiet as his aides assail the West," International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2013) As I have mentioned, President Obama believed that the Russians would veto the resolution the British had submitted to the Security Council before the English Parliament voted down the Prime Minister's plan to intervene.
10): What is the role of the United Nations?
Perhaps the most important role of the United Nations has not been in the highly publicized meetings and decisions of the Security Council, but in its specialized agencies, particularly the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in the attempt to mobilized food aid and the High Commission for Refugees (HCR) in attempting to ameliorate the conditions of the millions of people displaced by the fighting. They have had little to work with.
But it is the UN in its more peace seeking role that is now in the forefront. Weapons experts from the UN are conducting the investigation of the sites where the victims were killed. There has been, as I mentioned above, an effort to end their work after their initial visit, but the UN Secretary General insisted that they continue for at least two more days. The British, French and American governments have attempted also to limit the role of the UN to give them more latitude for whatever action they wish to take. Indeed, the US State Department spokesman was quoted as saying that whatever the inspectors reported would make no difference to the decisions of the Western powers. Of course, the Western powers are concerned that whatever might be laid before the UN Security Council might be vetoed by Russia and perhaps also by China.
11: What is Likely to Happen Now
While President Obama has spoken of caution and taking time to form a coalition, the gossip around the White House (The Wall Street Journal, August 26 and later accounts cited above) suggests that he is moving toward a cruise missile strike to "deter and degrade" the Syrian government even if this has to be a unilateral action. (Paul Lewis and Spencer Ackerman, "White House forced to consider unilateral strikes against Assad after British PM unexpectedly loses key motion on intervention," The Guardian, August 30, 2013) The US Navy has moved 5 cruise missile armed destroyers into the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast and "all indications suggest that a strike could occur soon after United nations investigators charged with scrutinizing the Aug. 21 attack leave the country. They are scheduled to depart Damascus on Saturday [August 31, 2013]." (Mark Lander et al, "Obama Set for Limited Strike on Syria as British Vote No," The New York Times, August 29, 2013)
12: What Would Be the Probable Consequences of an Attack?
Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who was head of the Central Command when missiles were launched against Iraqi and Afghan targets warned (Ernesto Londoño and Ed O'Keefe, "imminent U.S. strike on Syria could draw nation into civil war," The Washington Post, August 28, 2013) that "The one thing we should learn is that you can't get a little bit pregnant." Taking that first step would almost surely lead to other steps that in due course would put American troops on the ground in Syria as a similar process did in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Stopping at the first step would be almost impossible as it was in those campaigns. As the former American ambassador to Syria commented "A couple of cruise missiles are not going to change their way of thinking." And, Zinni put it in more pointed terms, "You'll knee-jerk into the first option, blowing something up, without thinking through what this could lead to."
Why is this? It is called "mission creep." When a powerful government takes a step in any direction, the step is almost certain to have long-term consequences. But, it seldom that leaders consider the eventual consequences. What happens? Inevitably, having taken step "A," it narrows its options. It is embarked upon one path and not another one. At that point, step "B" often seems the logical thing to do whereas some other, quite different sort of action on a different path, seems inappropriate in the context that step "A" has created. At the same time, in our highly visual age with the forces of television coming to bear, governments, particularly in societies where public opinion or representation exist, come under pressure to do something as President Obama said in the remarks I have just quoted. Where lobbies represent sectors of the economy and society with vested interests, the pressure to do something become immense. We have often seen this in American history. One political party stands ready to blame the other for failure to act. And fear of that blame is often persuasive. Thus, step "C" takes on a life of its own quite apart from what is suggested by a calm analysis of national interest, law or other considerations. And with increasing speed further steps are apt to become almost inevitable and even automatic. If you apply this model to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, you can see how modest first steps led to eventual massive involvement.
During this time, it is likely that the victims of the attacks or their allies would attempt to strike back. Many observers believe that the Syrian government would be prepared to "absorb" a modest level of attack that stopped after a short period. However, if the attacks were massive and continued, it might be impossible for that government or its close allies, the Iranian and Iraqi governments and the Hizbulllah partisans in Lebanon, to keep quiet. Thus, both American installations, of which there are scores within missile or aircraft range, might be hit. Israel also might be targeted and if it were, it would surely respond. So the consequences of a spreading, destabilizing war throughout the Middle East and perhaps into South Asia (where Pakistan is furious over American drone attacks) would be a clear and present danger.
Even if this scenario were not played out, it would be almost certain that affected groups or their allies would seek to carry the war back to America in the form of terrorist attacks.
13: So what could we possibly gain from an attack on Syria?
Even if he wanted to, could Assad meet our demands? He could, of course, abdicate, but this would probably not stop the war both because his likely successor would be someone in the inner circle of his regime and because the rebels form no cohesive group. The likely result would be something like what happened after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a vicious civil war among competing factions.
No one, of course, can know what would happen then. My hunch is that Syria, like Afghanistan, would be torn apart not only into large chunks such as the Kurds in the northeast but even neighborhood by neighborhood as in the Iraqi cities. Muslims would take revenge on Alawis and Christians who would be fighting for their lives. More millions would be driven out of their homes. Food would be desperately short, and disease probably rampant. If we are worried about a haven for terrorists or drug traffickers, Syria would be hard to beat. And if we are concerned about a sinkhole for American treasure, Syria would compete well with Iraq and Afghanistan. It would probably be difficult or even impossible to avoid "boots on the ground" there. So we are talking about casualties, wounded people, and perhaps wastage of another several trillion dollars which we don't have to spend and which, if we had, we need to use in our own country for better heath, education, creation of jobs and rebuilding of our infrastructure.
Finally, if the missile attacks do succeed in "degrading" the Syrian government, it may read the signs as indicating that fighting the war is acceptable so long as chemical weapons are not employed. They may regard it as a sort of license to go ahead in this wasting war. Thus, the action will have accomplished little. Thus, as General Zinni points out, America will likely find itself saddled with another long-term, very expensive and perhaps unwinnable war. We need to remind ourselves what Afghanistan did - bankrupting the Soviet Union - and what Iraq cost us -- about 4,500 American dead, over 100,000 wounded, many of whom will never recover, and perhaps $6 trillion.
Can we afford to repeat those mistakes?
William R. Polk
William R. Polk
669 Chemin de la Sine
F-06140 Vence France
tel: +33 (0)493 581 627
Author of (among other books):
Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism
Understanding Iraq
Understanding Iran
Personal History: Living in Interesting Times
Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times
FORTHCOMING: Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change
and other books available on Amazon

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One of my favorite passages in all of the Platonic Dialogues appears in the Gorgias, at the end of 490E.  Callicles, with great bravado, has enunciated his shocking proposal that the strong should rule and get the lion's share of whatever there is to grab, and Socrates is systematically taking him apart.  Socrates begins by getting Callicles to admit that by "stronger" he means "better" -- a serious concession seeded with hidden mines and snares.  He then gives a series of humble examples -- farmers, shoe makers, weavers -- that exasperate Callicles, who wants to talk about big questions in a serious way.  Finally, totally out of patience with this puzzling, persistent man, Callicles bursts out:  "Socrates, you always keep saying the same thing over and over again!"  To which Socrates replies, "Not only that, Callicles, but on the same subjects, too."

This is a lovely passage.  Kierkegaard glosses it [or so I interpret him -- I do not recall that he ever actually refers to this passage] as meaning that whereas the mark of the aesthetic is novelty  [see Diary of a Seducer in Either/Or], the essence of the ethical is repetition, for the truth never changes.  Kant suggests the same thing in his well-known rejoinder to critics who said that his Categorical Imperative is nothing more than The Golden Rule.

I thought of all this as I was listening to a late Beethoven quartet, Opus 135.  There is an astonishing point in the second movement [between letters O and P, if you happen to have a score] in which the second violin, the viola, and cello, in unison, play the same five-note figure for forty-seven measures.  That is an eternity in a string quartet.  In my parts, the measures are numbered so that players will not lose their way.  There is a manic courage in Beethoven's willingness to violate all the rules with this seemingly endless repetition.  I would like to think that he was trying to tell us:  This is not merely beautiful, it is good and true.

I have never played opus 135.  It is well above the level of competence that I and my fellow quartet players in Pelham, Mass had achieved.  But I would like to have given it a try, just to see what it would be like to play that passage.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


It would seem that all of us are uncertain and frustrated by the situation in Syria.  I think, but I really do not know, that making no military moves is the least bad option, but I am painfully aware that it is not I and my family who are being slaughtered, whether by conventional weapons or by unconventional weapons.  Perhaps the only reasonable course of action is to accept the fact that America at this moment can do nothing useful or likely to succeed, and then instead of promptly forgetting about the region, work to make a fundamental change in the purposes that America pursues in the world.  If we were to do this successfully, it might then be that in twenty years we could help to bring about a set of circumstances in which we were able to use our wealth and power for good.

However, since the entire spectrum of American politics from extreme right to progressive left has, for seventy years, pursued fundamentally the wrong foreign policy, the prospect of making a real alteration in that policy seems slender indeed.  If it weren't, Noam Chomsky would be Secretary of State [so to speak.]


While we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, let us not forget that fifty years ago yesterday, the great William Edward Burghardt Du Bois died in Ghana.  Du Bois was, I would judge, the greatest American social scientist [not the greatest Black social scientist ], a brilliant historian of Reconstruction and urban life, a central figure in  the organization of African-Americans, and, in the end, an outcast from the land of his birth.  I cherish the honor of having served for sixteen years in a university department that bears his name.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Let us begin, for the sake of argument, by laying down two premises:  First, what Assad is doing is awful, deeply immoral, and without excuse.  Second, America's hands are so bloody in the Middle East that there is nothing it can do that is not compromised by past actions [and current ones.]  So, what if anything should the rest of the world community do?  [I am under no illusions that the hands of other nations are less bloody.]  Is there anything at all that anyone can do that will actually effectively stop the slaughter of innocents?  Can anyone with much more knowledge than I identify any actors in the Syrian theater that, by some reasonable moral standard, ought to emerge victorious?  Is it even clear what "victorious" could mean?

America is the richest and most powerful nation on earth, and there are any number of things it could have done over the past half century that would have stimulated and facilitated a better state of affairs in the entire region than now exists, including, of course, in Egypt.  But having said that, can we identify anything that ought to be done now?

Ought we simply to wash our hands of the situation and avert our eyes from the slaughter?  If not, then what?

I freely admit I have no idea what the answers are to these questions, and I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has either specialist knowledge or else just less compromised moral intuitions than I.


Perhaps responding to the recent discussion on this blog of Alan Sokal and Stanley Fish, a reader alerted me to an epic put down of Fish by Russell Jacoby, which can be found here.  [I pause to await the plaudits of the cloud for my success in embedding a link in my blog.  If I live long enough, I may make it all the way into the twenty-first  century.]  Then today, I came upon this piece by Fish in the NY TIMES.  [Twice in one paragraph!]  As you will see if you read it, it is, for the most part, a gracefully written defense of the Humanities against the new emphasis on measurable educational outcomes and on-line education.

Buried in the middle of Fish's highly critical discussion of on-line education, keyed to some writings of William Bowen and Derek Bok, there appear these sentences:

"Years ago when the philosopher John Searle returned from a conference on Transformational Grammar, I asked him what had gone on. “They can’t get from the physics to the semantics,” he replied. Getting from the physics to the semantics — from counting things to knowing anything deeply important about them — is what the new digital techniques (like the old computational linguistics) have not yet been able to do, and neither Bowen nor Bok offer any argument, save for the argument of faith, that what Bowen calls “nirvana” will ever arrive."

As I read these lines, it suddenly became clear to me that Fish did not have the slightest idea what he was talking about.  It was Alan Sokal all over again.  Searle had offered a precise, pointed, and perfectly reasonable critique of the work at the conference, and Fish's gloss on that critique interpreted him as expressing a longing for the ineffable over the scientific.  I would imagine that Fish hadn't a clue what the words "syntax" and "semantics" actually mean in Linguistics, nor did he really understand the debate that Searle had been having within the field of Philosophy of Language.  Fish obviously just thought it was a catchy tagline to use in his animadversions against online education [which, by the way, I am sympathetic to.]

The truth is, Fish is not able to offer a reasoned defense of the Humanities that will withstand criticism.  With friends like that, the Humanities have no need of enemies.

Monday, August 26, 2013


Yesterday, Susie and I celebrated our twenty -sixth wedding anniversary [nothing special -- we saw Woody Allen's new film, Blue Jasmine, and then went to Squid's for a dozen each of the best oysters around.]  That is a long time, but it is only a third of the time that we have been alive.  In November, when we are again in Paris, we will celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversary of our first date, on which I took Susie to see a revival of Marcel Pagnol's film of pre-war Marseille, Cesar.  Indeed, since we have talked of taking a brief trip to Marseille while we are in Paris, we could even celebrate the anniversary there!

Now sixty-five years is indeed a long time, but I can recall that first date vividly [and have described it in my autobiography.]  Having so long a spread of my life present to my mind inevitably makes me think of one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek:  The Next Generation, which I believe I have also referenced in my autobiography.  It seems that the Enterprise has stumbled upon a space buoy or marker in some far reach of the galaxy, and when they approach to investigate, the buoy sends out a powerful signal that knocks Captain Picard unconscious on the flight deck.  While Dr. Crusher works to revive Picard, we see what he is experiencing, thanks to the signal.  He finds himself on a planet, unable to return to his ship.  After a while, he settles in, acclimates to the local customs [fortunately they are humans and speak English -- oh well], marries [as he never has in real life], has a family, grows old, and has grandchildren.  He lives a long, full life on the planet in his mind, until -- only thirty minutes in Enterprise time since being knocked out by the signal from the buoy -- he is revived.  He now has, in addition to all of the memories of his real life, a complete set of memories of his "life" on the no longer existent planet.  It seems that the people of that world, aware that it would be destroyed by the explosion of their sun, have created the buoy in the hope that someone, sometime, will discover it and recall their world, their people, and their culture.

That is what it is like to be as old as I am.  I sometimes wonder whether my entire life has been simply one long extended, complex, rich, detailed dream, from which I will awaken to discover that I am a fourteen year old boy, about to go out on a first date with the lovely girl who sits in front of him in home room at Forest Hills High School.  Surely, I think, full as my mind is of so long an unfolding of experiences, this cannot be all life has to offer!  Perhaps I will awaken to find that I have an entire life before me, to be deepened and enriched by these memories I find in my mind.

Lacking a space buoy, I have no way of preserving what I have felt and thought for those who will come after me.  Perhaps that is why I write.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


I am, I suppose, in irrepressible optimist.  Not from experience, heaven knows, but simply by temperament.  At any rate, I discern a few signs that the progressive side of the American seesaw may be starting to weigh in just a bit.  Here in North Carolina, the sheer horrendousness of the actions of Governor Pat McCrory and his legion of orcs in the State Legislature has provoked a growing response from the previously complacent left [if I may use that term, here in the New South, comparatively.]  A series of "Moral Monday" demonstrations have been held in Raleigh at the State Capital, and although I have not taken part [I hate joining public demonstrations], I give money repeatedly.  I figure someone has to provide funds, and that is something I can do.  Elsewhere, court cases are being filed to reverse the assaults on voting rights and on reproductive rights, and already one or two federal judges have imposed stays on particularly hideous state laws.  Since the Supreme Court, in striking down the most important article of the Voting Rights Act, left in place a secondary route by which the Justice Department may challenge the most egregious limitations of the right to vote, Attorney General Holder has started efforts to invoke what remains of the Act.  Eventually, I would imagine, one or another of these cases will make its way back before the High Court, which will have to commit even more naked assaults on reason and justice if it is to block the efforts of the Obama Justice Department.

These are slender pickings indeed, but they are enough to give this congenital optimist reason to hope.

Friday, August 23, 2013


The news out of North Carolina is so awful that I have taken to retreating to the cultural superstructure as a way of maintaining my sanity.  Herewith some idle reflections that came to me as I was taking my morning four mile walk.

When I was a boy, there were two violinists whose technical virtuosity set them head and shoulders above all the rest:  Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein.  If I heard a violinist on the radio, I could tell that it was Heifetz or Milstein simply from the brilliance of the playing.  Heifetz had a more Romantic style, Milstein was more classically pure, but both were non pareil.  I once actually heard Milstein in person, at a recital in the old Town Hall in New York City.  I was at the time in high school, playing violin in the school orchestra.  [I was the concertmaster, which tells you how bad we were!  I never learned the words to the National Anthem because instead of singing it at assemblies, I had to play it.]  Milstein gave a brilliant concert, and was called back again and again by the audience for encores.  After seven or so, when he was returned to the stage by an audience that would not let him go, he started to play a technically very difficult but musically uninteresting piece that I did not recognize.  He got himself way up on the E-string, and then rather abruptly jumped down to the D-string.  Suddenly, I realized what was going on.  He had run out of prepared encores, and was just playing exercises.  In effect, he was doing tomorrow's practicing today.

A bit later on, a third transcendently great violinist came on the scene -- David Oistrakh, whose recording of the Beethoven violin concerto is to die for.  [Oistrakh and Milstein had the same teacher, in Odessa.  Heifetz was from Vilna, my grandmother's home town.  All three were Jews, needless to say.]

Today, there are so many violinists as good as that immortal trio that I simply cannot tell, from sound alone, who is playing.  Everyone knows Itzhak Perlman, but Pinchas Zuckerman, Joshua Bell, Hillary Hahn, and many others play at the same exalted level.  Perlman, in particular, has always been a total mystery to me.  Thanks to the miracle of television, I have on occasion been able to see an extreme close-up of Perlman's hands playing the violin.  Now, the thing is, he has stubby fingers.  I simply cannot figure out how he manages to play perfectly in tune with fingers that stubby!  Judging from the photos I have seen, Heifetz had long, slender fingers, which is what one would expect.

I often reflect on how difficult it must be to work these days as a professional music reviewer for a paper like The TIMES.  In the old days, you could rave about Heifetz or Milstein, and then offer guarded encouragement, hedged round with judicious critiques, to the other violinists.  These days, it seems every review ought to be a rave.  But newspaper readers do not want unrelenting praise.  They want the occasional rave coupled with criticism of the rest.  I think I would just throw up my hands and quit if I had to crank out a series of reviews of such phenomenal instrumentalists.

Here, by the way, is a true story about Zuckerman, who is not only a great violinist but also one of the very greatest violists in the world.  [He was also married for a while to Tuesday Weld, if you can believe Wikipedia.]  Zuckerman came to the United States from Israel as a teenager, and enrolled in Juilliard, the world-class music school in Manhattan.

Now a lengthy digression to explain how I know this story.  [But I warned you these would be idle thoughts.]  For six or seven years during the end of the 90's and the start of the new millennium, I played in an amateur string quartet in Amherst.  The quartet was organized by Barbara Greenstein, a wonderful woman and very close friend, now sadly departed, who played second violin.  [It was Barbara's death that led me to stop playing.  My heart simply went out of it.  I have not taken my viola out of its case since moving to Chapel Hill.]  The cellist was Barbara Davis, who has a lovely tone and was a pleasure to sit next to in a quartet.  I played viola.  Like all true amateur quartet experiences, we were friends as well as fellow musicians.  Indeed, the two Barbaras, with exquisite tact and patience, put up with my inferior play during the time when I was taking weekly lessons and practicing daily, until I finally brought myself up to their level of performance.

Our quartet had a number of first violinists.  The problem, you see, is this:  in the classical quartet literature -- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert -- the first violin part is a great deal more difficult than the other three.  Indeed, some quartets, such as the Haydn Opus 20 quartets, come closer to being little violin concertos with accompaniment.  Now, in the great professional quartets -- the Juilliard, the Emerson, the Boromeo -- everyone is a virtuoso quite capable of playing solo if they want to.  But that is hardly the case in an amateur quartet like ours.  So we were always looking for someone who, despite being a good deal better than we, was willing to play with us.  Why would any really good amateur violinist be willing to play with three inferior musicians?   Well, the alternative is to get hooked up with some really good players, in which case you might run the risk of ending up playing second fiddle.  So, happily, the world of amateur string quartet players contains a number of good violinists willing to put up with inferior cellists and violists in order to get to play those tasty first violin parts.  One of these generous souls was an Amherst College professor who had actually gone to Juilliard with Pinchas Zuckerman.  One day, as we were warming up, he told us this story.

Zukerman was a phenomenally gifted violinist, even as a boy, but he was a terrible cut-up, an unruly type who was forever making trouble.  All of the students were required to play in a chamber orchestra as part of their studies, and Zuckerman was a constant problem for the teacher who served as the conductor of the group.  Now, these were all serious music students and Zuckerman was clearly a standout, so he could not simply be kicked out of the group.  But one day, the conductor had had enough, and was unwilling to put up with Zukerman's shenanigans any longer.  In a desperate attempt to force the rambunctious teenager to concentrate on the music, he said, abruptly:  "Zuckerman!  You play viola."  So it was that a brilliant violin student became also one of the world's great violists.