Genocide in Yemen, turmoil in Lebanon, major power war, Jared Kushner, and Tom Friedman. We live in terrible times, with Mohammed bin Salman and his techno-tyrant ambitions at the center of them.
Genocide in Yemen, turmoil in Lebanon, major power war, Jared Kushner, and Tom Friedman. We live in terrible times, with Mohammed bin Salman and his techno-tyrant ambitions at the center of them.
Last August, we talked about the UN reopening an investigation into the 1961 death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, whose plane crashed in the Congo while he was trying to broker peace between the new post-colonial government and Western-backed Katanga separatist factions.
The reason it was re-opened is that it was always suspected that the plane was deliberately brought down. Remember, it had only a few months since the CIA worked with Katangese separatists to murder the left-leaning Congolese liberation leader, Patrice Lumumba. And now Hammarskjöld was attempting to get the rebels to be part of a the newly independent Congo, instead of another white-dominate vassal state. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he was marked for death.
In February 1961, the French secretly supplied three Fouga warplanes to the Katanga rebels, “against the objections of the US government”. Contrary to previous findings, they were used in air-to-air attacks, flown at night and from unpaved airstrips in Katanga.
Fresh evidence bolsters an account by a French diplomat, Claude de Kemoularia, that he had been told in 1967 by a Belgian pilot known as Beukels, who had been flying for the rebels as a mercenary, that he had fired warning shots to try to divert the plane away from Ndola and accidentally clipped its wing. Othman said he was unable to establish Beukels’ identity in the time available for his inquiry.
The UK and Rhodesian authorities were intercepting UN communications at the time of the crash and had intelligence operatives in the area. The UK should therefore have potentially crucial evidence in its classified archives
The US had sophisticated electronic surveillance aircraft “in and around Ndola” as well as spies, and defence officials, on the night of the crash, and Washington should be able to provide more detailed information.
The report’s author, Mohamed Chande Othman, says that member states (namely the US, UK, and France) should have the information that proves Western involvement. But maybe not murder! It might have been an accident during an attempt to send a “message”.
But, to make it clear, the West was involved in arming rebel groups in order to splinter the sovereignty of a newly-independent nation, going so far as to murder the leader of the country, and harass the Secretary-General of the United Nations because he was attempting to preserve Congolese nationhood. And, when things went pear-shaped, covered it up for more than 50 years.
Even if this wasn’t murder, it was pretty damn close to manslaughter. And it was covered up because, man, that’s how did things. It wasn’t for the Congolese to know what was happening in their country, and it wasn’t for the rest of the world to know what the Western powers were up to. A UN head gets iced? That’s the price of doing business.
As I wrote then, this isn’t the distant past.
This isn’t ancient history, and what’s interesting is the way that the old blended with the new. Leopoldville and Congolese slavery seem like a throwback (admittedly, just to the early 20th-century), but they mix with the post-WWII attempts to crush independence, with South African mercenaries and the rise of the apartheid state. And in that you really see the apotheosis of the CIA, grim crew-cuts sweating through the necessary work of protecting “interests” for the US or its racist allies, amoral moralists in short-sleeves deciding the fate of millions.
There’s a through-line between those jungle days and our era’s black sites and other assorted lawlessness.
Since its inception, the CIA has been on the wrong side of the law, an institution dedicated to operating without the hard work of participating in our self-governing experiment. It has perverted that, and in doing so, distorted our image around the world.
When you wonder why people in hotter, angrier countries blame the west for everything, it is because they have reason. A true reckoning with the death of Dag Hammarskjöld could be the purgative we need.
What can bring together the governments of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the United States?
Voting stations set up for the referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq have closed their doors and counting of ballots has begun, according to the official supervising body.
Voting closed at 6pm local time (16:00 GMT) on Monday, and the final results were expected to be announced within 72 hours.
Erbil-based Rudaw TV, citing the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, said 78 percent of the more than five million eligible voters turned out to vote.
In Kirkuk, authorities declared a curfew an hour and a half before polls closed as jubilant Kurds started to celebrate.
Yup. After 13 years of virtual autonomy, decades of Baathist repression, nearly 100 of being yoked into an imperial etching of a country, and centuries of repression, the Kurds of Iraq have taken a huge step toward having the first independent Kurdish state. That’s uh…not going over great in the rest of the region.
Needless to say, the government in Baghdad isn’t happy, but neither are their neighbors. Iran, Syria, and most of all Turkey have large Kurdish populations which could see this (non-binding) referendum as an incentive to start their own state.
Turkey has spent its entire post-WWI history defining being Turkish as being “not-Kurdish”, and has fought a long-running civil war to maintain that identity. Its intervention in Syria was more to prevent Kurdish power than to stop ISIS. Kurdish oppression has long been a key part of Asad rule in Syria, and Kurdish fighters (allied with the US) have been using the chaos to create autonomous zones, much like they did in Iraq.
So this is a hinge time, but it has been a long time coming. In the post-Ottoman scramble after WWI, England and France divvied up the Middle East, creating what seemed to be manageable states for the purpose of exploitation. The Kurds were left stateless, divided between these new countries and a newly Kemalist Turkey, fighting to consolidate power in the rump of empire.
It isn’t that there was no sympathy for the Kurds; it is just that, well, the whole thing was too damned difficult. Better to have a few pliant countries than actually care about national ambition, no matter the noble mummerings of Versaille.
(Fun counterfactual history for HBO: imagine if both Kurdish representatives and Ho Chi Min were listened to at Versaille. You probably can’t, because history would be more boring).
To be fair, though, it isn’t like oppression was new to the Kurds. A regional minority, they had fought against Arabs and Persians and Turks and Russians and everyone else since forever, honing skills in their mountain fastness. There is a reason the US has cultivated them as allies: the peshmerga have a reputation as ferocious fighters, and unlike when we cultivate allies in other parts of the world, seem to have developed excellent democratic instincts.
Indeed, in many ways, the Kurdish indepenence movements are some of the last bastions of true radicalism in the world, which is why so many American leftists have gone to fight with them. They have a reputation of being egalitarian in terms of gender. We all love praising female peshmerga, with a frisson of excitement, but they are no less progressive in their politics. If you want to hear a very weird but cool story, read how Abdullah Ocalan was influenced by the ecological radicalism of Murray Bookchin.
Indeed, the Kurds might be too liberal for the US, but that isn’t why America opposes the referendum. We support Kurdish independence in theory, but would like it to remain in theory until the right time, which is when the Middle East is stable, peaceful, and able to absorb a political shock, which is to say: never.
But never seems too long for people who have successfully set up a government and who are far more capable of governing themselves than the kelpto-theo-crats in Baghdad. The US, though, has no one to blame but itself. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the catastrophic jolt that set history back in motion after the colonial/post-colonial interregnum.
We’ve argued in this joint that the 100 years after WWI have been just a post-Ottoman shakedown, stilted and perverted by the the colonial period and the distortions of the post-colonial reactions, which took place in the context of the nation-state. But the invasion of Iraq broke apart that status quo, leading as it did to:
All of these are essentially post-state, post-Sykes/Picot, post-Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchhill and Nasser and the Shah and Saddam. The war was the preciptiating factor int he great Near East dissolve, unleashing as it did forces which had been shifting around under the surface of a phony, ahistoric map.
To say we’re entering a new historic era is wrong. We’re just entering the next phase of an era that began as the Ottoman Empire fell and Europe rushed into the void. The Kurdish referendum won’t solve anything, and on the surface won’t change anything, but will set the tenor for the next step. The US can’t stop the forces that the invasion set loose. Nor, I think, should it try. More than one empire has been wrecked on the shoals of that sort of hubris.
In this week’s New Yorker, John Lanchester has a really interesting, humbling, and depressing read about how civilization turned out to be really bad for people in general. It made us unhealthier, more stressed, and, though he didn’t say it, downright meaner.
He says outright that the Neolithic Revolution is the worst thing that’s ever happened to humans, and that if we had slowed our roll a few hundred thou after harnessing fire, we’d be much happier.
That isn’t to say we’d be stupid. As Lanchester points out, there were literally thousands of years after the dawn of agriculture but before the rise of city-states. This was a time where there was art and some religion, mythologies, and knowledge about how the world worked. People, it seemed, didn’t resist collecting into civilization because they didn’t know how, but because it didn’t seem to make sense.
The whole article is really interesting, and points to some fascinating-sounding scholarship, but this might have been my favorite part.
The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. (Affluence without abundance- ed) It’s just that we’re choosing not to. A key to that lost or forsworn ability, Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are “not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,” hunted meat is very carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called “insulting the meat,” and it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else. “When a young man kills much meat,” a Bushman told the anthropologist Richard B. Lee, “he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. . . . We can’t accept this.” The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, “the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”
This egalitarian impulse, Suzman suggests, is central to the hunter-gatherer’s ability to live a life that is, on its own terms, affluent, but without abundance, without excess, and without competitive acquisition.
What really strikes me about this is how hunter-gatherer societies embrace and understand the role of luck in life. Think about it. You could be an amazing hunter, but if something else spooked the animals, they’re off and running before you unleash and arrow. You could throw a spear perfectly, but if the gazelle zigs left instead of right, it falls clattering to the earth, pointedly and pointlessly.
So much in life is about luck, chance, and circumstance. You could stumble into some sweet hunting grounds or be born rich. You could watch the prey you’ve been stalking get freaked by a bird and run off, or you could grow up in the shadow of industry that’s poisoning your water and putting lead in your brain, limiting opportunities in life.
Things happen. As we’ve grown as a species, we’ve invented new ways to heighten the role of luck, the roll of the dice. Capitalism exacerbates this, with all its talk of meritocracy. Racism, prejudice, and borders make it stronger. Where you are born and to whom you are born make more a difference than who you are.
Hell, luck can extend to the random sequencing of a genetic code, a little glitch that makes you sicker or weaker or less able to rise up. That’s luck.
Paul Newman, in talking about his camp for sick children, had one of my favorite quotes about luck in life.
“I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.”
And we’ve set up a society that refuses to recognize that. We’ve set up a society where the national myths are that you deserve your fate, and that there are many people who deserve to suffer. If they are suffering, ipso facto, they must deserve it. And they should suffer more, so that the luckier, who never consider their fortune anything just the justifications of virtue, can have more.
You may have recognized this as a summation of the Republican platform. It’s made crystal clear in their multiple attempts to repeal the ACA (and how goddamn happy Paul Ryan was when he thought he did).
Because that’s what repeal really is. It is saying that if you work three jobs, none of which have health care, you don’t deserve it. If you have a pre-existing condition, that’s too bad. If you live in a state with a Republican governor, too bad. If your cancer becomes metatastic and you can’t afford care, well, them’s the breaks.
That comes from the inability to understand that life is about luck. It’s about the driver looking up just in time to slam on her brakes before she t-bones you. Another second, another half-second, and you face a lifetime of therapy and mounting bills. There’s no virtue there. That’s only chance. The same as if you had entered the intersection a half-second earlier and were in her way.
Our system shouldn’t be about ignoring luck. It shouldn’t imagine that the person who happens to have the most meat at any given moment is the bravest, the best, and the most worthy. Our adherence to that superstition puts us far behind hunter-gatherer socieites. We’re less wise, less moral, and less knowledgeable about the world. We’re just less.
(h/t to Allison, Dee, and Bill Breeding for the breakfast conversation about this piece that made me think about luck and who we are. Always my favorite people to talk to.)
This is the last weekend of the year you are legally allowed to listen to this song.
I always want to do “Quick Hits” and such because I think they’ll be shorter, but they never are. Anyway, here are a few scatterings on some stories as well as things you should read, if you don’t have anything else going on during summer weekend, as summer blazes up once again to send us into the fall.
Let’s do this gossip column style.
First off, I’m not going to pretend to an expert, or even particularly knowledgeable about Myanmar and the Rohingya. Before the crisis of the last couple of weeks, I could have told you exactly three things about that group: they were Muslim, they were frequently the victims of persecution by the Burmese government, and they were essentially stateless. But if pressed, I don’t think I could have given you the details.
That said, it is a humanitarian crisis that has now come to the world’s attention, partly because the sainted Ayn Sung Suu Kyi seems to be, at the very least, complicit in the ongoing ethnic cleansing (if not outright genocide) of a long-persecuted people.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing state-sanction violence, the latest in the ongoing Burmese campaign against the Rohingya. Who are they? I’ll leave that work to this easy al-Jazeera explainer.
The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken in Rakhine State and throughout Myanmar. They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.
OK, but…why? Well, even though many historians agree that Muslims have been living in that area since the 12th-century, the Buddhist-majority post-independence government of Burma/Myanmar disagreed. They considered them recent interlopers, because a lot more Muslims had come to the area from Bangladesh. To the government, they are officially Bengali.
OK, so then…why aren’t they refugees? A delightful quirk of history!
During the more than 100 years of British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant amount of migration of labourers to what is now known as Myanmar from today’s India and Bangladesh. Because the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, such migration was considered internal, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Because the British colonized both “India” (which also became Pakistan after independence, and then Bangladesh after the 1971 war which killed at least a million), as well as Burma, where Orwell shot an elephant, these are not refugees. But they also aren’t recognized. So they have no rights, and are denied basic services. That’s a neat trick!
Not everyone thinks so. When you have displaced and persecuted Muslims, that becomes a breeding ground for radicalization. Not necessarily of the Rohingya (I haven’t seen much about radical tendencies in that population), but for al-Qaeda, ISIS, and regional offshoots/independent groups.
This is quickly becoming a major cause for transnational Islamist groups. As The Soufan Group points out, “An example of how the situation can easily get worse and morph into a larger issue came in a September 12 statement by al-Qaeda The terrorist group called for all Muslims to come to the defense of the Rohingya; a call to jihad similar to that of the Afghan War with the then-Soviet Union that set al-Qaeda’s foundation. Now three decades later, al-Qaeda is calling for more of the same in Burma. The statement derides the ‘fight against terrorism’ and calls for ‘all mujahid brothers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma…to secure their [the Rohingya] rights, which will only be returned to them by force.’”
This is like Bosnia, Chechnya, Yemen, Algeria: a place for jihadis around the world to flock to, to train, and to use for recruitment purposes. It is also a boon for regional groups, as Eurasia Review points out, with the charismatic Masood Azhar, leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, calling for much the same.
JeM is a Deobandi Sunni group, which is similar to Salafism, but has its roots in South Asia and the Subcontinent. It has largely been active in Kashmir, and its primary goal is to bring Kashmir back to Pakistan. Its relationship with the Pakistani government is officially complicated.
Actually, this is all really complicated. What, one might reasonably ask, does JeM really have to do with this? Is it just opportunism? And same with al-Qaeda. They’ve never shown a deep interest in Burma before (little need for aftershave)(sorry). So what is this all about?
For one thing, it is partially opportunism. Groups like Qaeda see a void in the state that leaves Muslims vulnerable and in danger, and they step up to be the protector. We’ll see of course if this translates into any action, but that’s almost beside the point. They are positioning themselves as champions of any Muslims, when the state can’t, and won’t protect them.
This is where this gets very dangerous. As we saw with the brief history above, the Rohingya are victims of history and geography; like Iran, their legacy rests on the perversions of colonialism and nationalism. The problem is that their land is in one of the soft spots of the state system, where maps were fluid and borders were permeable until, suddenly and horribly, they weren’t.
Whenever I had thought of the Rohingya before, skimmed a headline that talked about tens of thousands in misery or whatever, my mental map had people feeling in an Asian jungle, akin to Laos or Cambodia. That’s where I saw them going.
But that’s not really the case, as everyone now knows. They are inextricably linked to the bitter and violent history of the sub-Continent and the legacy of colonialism. Take a look at this map.
Look at the way India pushes through the top of Bangladesh, encircling it save for the tiniest border with Myanmar. And think how irrelevant these borders really are to the historic lived experience of these people. You don’t have “Indians” on the east of Bangladesh as something ethnically dissimilar. There is mixing and blending, right through to Myanmar.
This is where the ridiculousness of the state system makes itself known. This is where the bitter fruits of “partition and parturition”, in Christopher Hitchen’s memorable phrase, fall to the ground, overripe and rotting. And this is what groups like al-Qaeda (and especially al-Qaeda) are so skilled at manipulating.
Al-Qaeda is both pre-and-post state. They reject borders and want to move the world to how they felt it was before: huge rolling Eurasian landscapes united by Islam. It was never that neat, of course, but the vision is nearer to the truth. These borders, which divide groups, and render the same people stateless or stated depending on the accident of migration and the whims of Westminster, are ridiculous, and al-Qaeda knows that.
They exist to exploit the crumbling and ahistorical state system that exists on the Eurasian heartland (and that isn’t doing too terribly well in Europe, either). They are wrong to think that a continental centralized caliphate is in line with history; things were always more subtle and local and free-wheeling and interesting than that.
But they know that the modern system, a legacy of the West trying to impose itself over the long-held order of the East, a paternalism imposed upon highly-developed cultures, couldn’t last. The contradictions and conquests of the 20th century are breaking up the order of the world, and groups like al-Qaeda know how to exploit that. Until we understand what is actually happening here, we’re powerless against groups that actually do.
In Deadspin today, Burneko talks about why he doesn’t think Trump is a real ideological Nazi or Confederate or even an actual white supremacist. I sort of disagree, but this is a solid point.
Honestly, even his white supremacism is a second-order thing, an artifact of the coincidence that he, himself, is white, and cannot tolerate less than personal supremacy. He likes the things in the world that gratify him, and those things happen to be good for preserving the power of white people, men in particular, literally any of whom he’d run over with a combine harvester in a moment if it got the New York Times to treat him like a True New York Big Shot.
There’s a lot to that, I think, especially about how he’d uncaringly destroy the people who for whatever reason adore him. He has no problem crushing the people closest to him, his advisors and staff and defenders. Indeed, he likes cruelty, probably because it reminds him that, despite being a mush-headed coward, he still has unearned power.
He clearly doesn’t care about any of his voters. As Burneko puts it, ““Nazi” and “Republican” and “fork” and “war” and “hello”: For Donald Trump these are just noises you make with your mouth. You make the ones that get people to look at you; if they also smile, fine, but if their eyes widen in shock or horror or disgust, that’s fine too, so long as they don’t look away.” I do think he’s a pretty old-school Queens/Staten Island racist, but he played it up more to get the people cheering. He’s a wrestling heel and a reality show savant (that’s not a compliment). He knows how to gin up conflict for the cheap seats.
Indeed, that’s confirmed by a post late yesterday in the Times.
The president’s top advisers described themselves as stunned, despondent and numb. Several said they were unable to see how Mr. Trump’s presidency would recover, and others expressed doubts about his capacity to do the job.
In contrast, the president told close aides that he felt liberated by his news conference. Aides said he seemed to bask afterward in his remarks, and viewed them as the latest retort to the political establishment that he sees as trying to tame his impulses.
First off, people who are stunned: you’re idiots. This is who he has always been. It isn’t like he somehow became a different man over the 200 days of his Presidency. Everyone knew this was exactly how it would go, so don’t act surprised. When Gary Cohn resigns because his conscience was rocked, don’t treat him as a hero. He’s a goddamn dope if he ever thought differently.
But it’s the last line that’s key. The political establishment is trying to “tame his impulses”, and that’s why he feels great. It doesn’t matter what he said, it doesn’t matter how divisive it was, it doesn’t matter that he broke up his precious CEO conclaves or emboldened Nazis or hurt his chances of passing policies. He was able to be Trump.
That’s what it is all about. That’s what it has always been about. He wants to be the swaggering anti-PC cowboy he envisioned back in his old draft-dodging days, and wants to be seen as the big man who tells it like it is because he’s the only one smart enough to know that George Washington owned slaves, and because all he really wants is attention.
The key to this is his reality show days, which are the main reason he is now President, as terrible an indictment of the United States as that is. On his show, he pretended to be the titan of business and the guy in charge, deciding on the fates of supplicants depending on if they pleased him or not. In reality, producers decided who came and went. At least, according to Clay Aiken, but come on: does Trump seem like the guy who makes real decisions?
He doesn’t. He just likes the trappings of power and fame. A perfect example of this was the North Korea showdown. Trump blustered and blathered, but the DoD played it straight, and Nikki Haley did her job, and we didn’t move to DefCon 1 or anything. Indeed, Trump’s statements seemed outside the process. He was the fake President.
The problem is that he is still the real President, and he made the situation more tense, and could have made it catastrophic. On TV, he could pretend to be the boss and say stupid shit, and it didn’t matter. But here, all you have is people trying to do their jobs under a guy who has no concern for protocol or the right way to do things, because they constrain Trump from being “Trump”. He doesn’t know anything, doesn’t make actual decisions, doesn’t care to handle things, but wants to be seen as the boss. Wants to be seen as the swaggering tough. And that’s enormously dangerous.
When he adopts the language of white nationalism because he likes to be seen as anti-PC, it is dangerous. When he threatens North Korea because he likes to be seen as bold, it is dangerous. When he is willing to say anything because he can’t stand being anything other than his own stupid caricature, it is dangerous.
The entire Donald Trump candidacy and presidency has been about serving this empty ego. It’s about propping up his fraud. Maybe that’s the only way to get through to his most stubborn supporters. Just keep pointing out that at no way, in no form, has this ever been about them. It never will be.