Sisi lets Obama off the hook

As it turns out, President Obama isn’t even going to get a chance to cave to Benjamin Netanyahu one last time before he departs the White House, because that UN Security Council resolution on halting Israel’s annexation/ethnic cleansing of the West Bank isn’t coming to a vote today after all. Why? Because Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decided to do the caving for everybody:

Egypt postponed a U.N. Security Council vote on Thursday on a resolution it proposed demanding an end to Israeli settlement building, diplomats said, after Israel’s prime minister and U.S. president-elect Donald Trump urged Washington to veto it.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Egypt’s U.N. mission to postpone the vote, which would have forced U.S. President Barack Obama to decide whether to shield Israel with a veto or, by abstaining, to register criticism of the building on occupied land that the Palestinians want for a state, diplomats said.

In a sign that they feared Obama might abandon the United States’ long-standing diplomatic protection for Israel at the United Nations, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the White House to veto the draft resolution.

Sisi put off the vote after a request from Israel, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.

So now we all know what happened. Sisi’s government drafted the resolution, with Palestinian input, in order to boost Egypt’s standing in the Arab world. Egypt’s standing in the Arab world has taken quite a tumble from the days of Nasser, and Sisi has overseen its transition from the, or at least a, leading Arab state to partially owned subsidiary of Saudi Arabia, Inc. And now that even that Saudi aid, for which he sold Egypt’s international standing, has stopped flowing, Sisi wants to do a course correction. Bringing up a pro-Palestinian resolution in the Security Council, one sure to be vetoed by the Americans, was a nice, low cost way to claw back a little of Cairo’s former credibility.

Only then it started to look like maybe the US wouldn’t veto the resolution. Sisi didn’t actually want the resolution to pass, as now seems clear, because then it might damage his chummy relationship with Netanyahu, so he was counting on that US veto. Then he could trumpet the failed resolution, and his own leadership on the Palestinian issue, to the Arab world, while not doing anything tangible that might piss Netanyahu off. When the veto started to look wobbly, he had little choice but to pull the resolution, because while greater prestige in the Arab world would be nice for Cairo, maintaining good relations with Israel is more essential to its foreign policy status quo.

So Israel gets what it wants, Donald Trump gets what he wants, Barack Obama (let’s be honest) gets what he wants, and Egypt loses a bit but keeps what it needs. The only real losers in this little drama, as always, are the Palestinians. So it shall ever be.

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More on Ohio State

As more information comes out about Abdul Razak Ali Artan’s Facebook manifesto, his rationale for his actions looks like something you’d expect to see from a typical “lone wolf” terrorist:

Appearing three minutes before the beginning of the rampage that left 11 people injured, the post reads: “I can’t take it anymore. America! Stop interfering with other countries, especially the Muslim Ummah. We are not weak. We are not weak, remember that.”

The post also invokes the name Anwar Al-Awlaki, a radical American-born al-Qaeda cleric, describing him as a “hero.” Al-Awlaki was killed in 2011 but his propaganda has been linked to several domestic terrorist attacks in the years after his death.

“If you want us Muslims to stop carrying lone wolf attacks, then make peace,” the post reads. “We will not let you sleep unless you give peace to the Muslims.”

There’s been no official claim of responsibility by ISIS, though Artan’s tactics are consistent with advice that ISIS has been disseminating on the use of vehicles and knives as opposed to guns and explosives, which are more easily tracked. But a claim of responsibility is almost beside the point–ISIS will claim responsibility for anything and there’s really no way to prove them wrong. And ISIS seems, at this point, to be incidental to the attack, a convenient brand that we can slap on today’s events to make them fit The Narrative. We’re still left with a crime that, had it been motivated by racism or caused by psychosis (and we don’t even know whether Artan may have been suffering from something like that), would never in a million years meet any imaginable definition of “terrorism.”

Nothing I’m writing here will matter. This attack is already “terrorism” in the public consciousness and has been since Artan’s name was released. Today’s events will be used to help justify whatever dystopian plan our President-elect and his collection of grotesques plan to visit upon the Muslim community here in the US. That’s all locked in. But the thing is, people do bad things every day, often violently so and sometimes on a grand scale. Dylann Roof murdered people in a Charleston church, and nothing changed. Elliott Rodger murdered people at UC-Santa Barbara, and nothing changed. Adam Lanza gunned down elementary schoolchildren at Sandy Hook, and nothing changed. It’s only when the perpetrators have Muslim names that we selectively identify their crimes as part of a Pattern that requires punishment to be meted out to an entire community.

Whatever President Trump does–immigration bans, reviving/expanding the Bush administration’s Muslim registry, torturing suspected terrorists, killing their families–it’ll be our fault for letting it happen. We elected the guy. But some part of it will be Artan’s fault too, and Omar Mateen’s, and Syed Rizwan Farook’s, and Tashfin Malik’s, and Dahir Adan’s, and so on. That might not have bothered some of them–it certainly won’t bother ISIS, which needs Western countries to mistreat their Muslim residents in order for its rhetoric to gain currency. But Artan doesn’t seem like someone who wanted to heighten the contradictions or destroy the “gray zone.” He seems like an angry 18 year old who wanted America to stop hurting his fellow Muslims. But assuming the feelings he expressed on Facebook were genuine, then he picked absolutely the wrong way to convey his message. These lone wolf attacks aren’t going to make the United States stop interfering with the Muslim world, or to start treating Muslim Americans with more decency and respect; they’re going to do precisely the opposite. Artan’s dead now, so he won’t have to live with the consequences of his actions, but the people on whose behalf he seemed to feel he was acting will have to live with them.


What a difference a few hours can make

Just around the time I settled down to read the news this morning, the top story was a breaking report about an “active shooter” at Ohio State University. I quickly turned on the television, broke my post-election rule about avoiding cable news, and learned that the situation seemed to be under control and that, while there was still the possibility of other “shooters” at large, police were sounding the all clear. So I turned off the TV and went back to reading.

I just turned the TV on again and, as it turns out, there wasn’t a shooter at all, unless you count the campus police officer who put an end to the attack. Instead, the attacker, a Somali refugee, legal US resident, and (apparent) Ohio State student named Abdul Razak Ali Artan, drove his car onto a campus sidewalk, then got out of his car and began attacking people with a knife before he was shot and killed by the aforementioned campus police officer. This gets said during every shooting and/or terrorist attack, but it bears repeating: initial reporting will often be wrong and sometimes it will be wrong in very substantial ways.

Officials are giving a press conference about the attack as I’m writing this, and they just said that there were 11 people injured in the attack, which is up from the figure of 9 I’ve seen in online reporting. At least one of those injured is reportedly in critical condition.

Given who Artan was and what we’re already learning about him, the assumption will be that this was a terrorist attack, and I guess I’m no longer able to tell the difference between “terrorism” and “violent crime committed by a Muslim,” assuming there still is a difference. In an interview with an Ohio State campus newspaper and in a Facebook post made shortly before today’s attack, Artan expressed fear and frustration about the treatment of Muslims around the world and about his own experiences as a Muslim in America. If he pledged allegiance to ISIS or talked about striking America in vengeance for its policy in the Middle East or something like that, nobody has yet reported it.

Instead, what we know so far is that he was frightened and angry, and if the details were only slightly changed we might be talking about his anger that women wouldn’t date him, or his fear of African-Americans. In that hypothetical scenario, the underlying crime would be exactly the same but the perception of that crime would be totally different. Artan was 18, so maybe if his name were Alan Richard Anderson we’d be looking for family history of violent psychosis or some terrible childhood trauma to explain what caused him to commit this act. Again, the underlying crime would be the same but the perception would be totally different. Does that make any sense? Shouldn’t the criteria for deeming an act “terrorism” be a little more complex than determining the attacker’s religion? Obviously we’re going to learn more about Artan in the coming days and maybe it will turn out that he did have some connection to ISIS (or a similar group) and/or some sort of political motivation for what he did. But until that evidence is found, maybe we shouldn’t jump to call what he did terrorism.


You broke it, you own it

I’m still processing what happened last night and I think I’ll be processing it for a few days, so if blogging isn’t what it normally is please bear with me. I know it’s bad form to wield your child in political discussions, and I totally understand why, but I am genuinely worried about her growing up in a country governed by a mix of white male resentment, Ayn Randian dystopianism, all-consuming fear of the Other, conspiracy insanity, and hostility to factual reality.

I’ve written one piece on one small part of the Trump effect, the danger he poses to the Iran nuclear deal, for LobeLog, but I think that’s all I’ve got by way of analysis right now. If you’re looking for some needed takes today, I recommend Jim Newell’s eulogy for the Democratic Party (it couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch) and Alex Pareene’s eulogy for all of us (ditto).

One thing I will say, as the title of this post suggests: we all own what happens next. We all allowed this vapid gasbag of grievance and unearned victimhood to gain a foothold in our politics and to spread his toxic message to the places it was best received. Some of us may bear more responsibility for it than others (Hi CNN! What a fucking catastrophe you turned out to be! Hi, Hillary Clinton! How’d all that outreach to The Good Republicans go?), but whatever damage this man, and the depraved Congress he’ll have to work with, do–to women, to immigrants, to minorities, to Muslims, to healthcare, to the economy, to the human race–is on all of us. And so is the responsibility to resist him in every way, at every turn, in every time and place, until he and his grotesque followers are excised from American politics like the tumor they are.

But that same message also applies to President-Elect Trump. Congratulations, Donald, you’re going to be the next President of a United States that is divided at home and is now being looked upon with disbelief abroad. And here you are, having won a long, grueling presidential campaign and still yet to articulate a single coherent thought about what you might do in office. Good luck with that. You broke it, you own it.


A sense of proportionality


Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and Saudi King Salman

Earlier today the Yemeni rebels (I’ve decided to stop always calling them “Houthis,” because they’re not all Houthis) launched a ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia. The missile was intercepted and destroyed by the Saudis before it reached its target, and the Saudis then counterattacked against the site from which the missile was launched.

Ho-hum, right? Well, the target, according to the Saudis, was Mecca. Not so ho-hum. The rebels, however, insist that they were firing at King Abdulaziz International Airport, in the northern part of Jeddah. Now, Mecca and Jeddah are very close to one another, and depending on the point of origin it is possible that a missile fired from inside Yemen would have to pass very close to Mecca in order to reach the airport. The Saudis say that they intercepted the missile 65 km outside of Mecca, and at that distance it should be possible to determine with more specificity what the missile’s target was. On the other hand, if you believe they only unintentionally massacred a Yemeni funeral a couple of weeks ago, then you must figure that the Saudis aren’t particularly skilled in matters related to targeting.

But OK, let’s assume the rebels fired on Mecca. That would be very bad, probably a war crime. Even striking the airport in Jeddah would be unconscionable, as it is a civilian facility and civilians would be the ones dying in a successful strike. But there’s no reason to target Mecca except to kill civilians and damage a beloved religious site in order to embarrass the Saudis, who after all are supposed to be the custodians of Mecca. Now, this wouldn’t have been the first, or even the most destructive, time that Mecca has been attacked since the advent of Islam back in the 7th century. Nevertheless, a decision to strike the city would be indefensible.

But you know what else is indefensible?

Apart from the thousands of Yemenis killed directly by Saudi airstrikes, millions are at risk of starvation. A few days ago, more than a year and a half after they imposed a blockade on Yemen that has contributed mightily to this humanitarian catastrophe, the Saudis asked the world not to believe its lying eyes and denied having ever imposed a blockade at all. The Saudis are only “controlling” traffic into and out of Yemen, and “control” is different from “blockade,” you see. For example, there’s only one ‘o’ in “blockade,” and two in “control.”

However, and this is an important point, there is not a single ‘o’ in “what a bunch of fucking bullshit.”

I’m not excusing a missile attack on (maybe) Mecca. I’m not telling you not to be mad about that. But I am saying that a single failed missile attack on a city, any city, isn’t equivalent to the deliberate starvation of millions of human beings, of hundreds of thousands of children. Those two things aren’t even in the same ballpark. Bear that in mind when you see Saudi mouthpieces in Washington and elsewhere talk about the horrible attempted attack on Mecca. Put a picture of Saida Ahmad Baghili in your mind and ask yourself who’s committing the greater atrocity.


From bad to unbelievably bad

This is about as awful a thing as you could have envisioned, both from a humanitarian standpoint and if you had any hope that the nearly busted Syrian ceasefire could somehow be saved:

A United Nations aid convoy and a Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse were both struck by warplanes in Syria Monday local time, a UN spokesman said.

Twelve people involved in the aid delivery were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based organzation that monitors the conflict in Syria.

At least 32 people in total were killed in strikes that hit Aleppo and its western suburbs, SOHR said.

The UN is working with the Syrian humanitarian organization to deliver aid to 78,000 people in the town of Urum al-Kubra, just west of Aleppo.

The UN estimates that 18 of 31 trucks in the aid convoy were hit.

The fog of war being what it is, it’s not yet entirely clear what happened. If this was an airstrike, which is what the UN is saying, then obviously you’re talking about either the US coalition, Russia, or Syria. Then you have to look at who was flying sorties in that area. It’s not inconceivable, I suppose, that the coalition might be bombing targets north of Aleppo, but it’s not as likely as Russia or Syria. And of those two, this seems more like something Assad’s forces would do. This is certainly the argument being advanced by the US:

Secretary of State John Kerry challenged the Syrian military’s declaration that the cease-fire was over, suggesting that the United States would hold Russia responsible for seeing that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, one of its principal allies, implemented it.

“The Syrians didn’t make the deal; the Russians made the agreement,” Mr. Kerry said during meetings in New York before the annual United Nations General Assembly. “The important thing is the Russians need to control Assad who evidently is indiscriminately bombing, including of humanitarian convoys.”

Of course, pushing that theory also works to Washington’s benefit, in terms of redirecting outrage away from Saturday’s unintentional (probably) US/coalition strike on Syrian army positions in Deir ez-Zor. But assuming it was Syria, the question is whether or not the strike was deliberate (I think we can assume that Moscow would not want the international heat that would come from striking an aid convoy, so if it was a Russian strike it was most likely unintentional). Reports from witnesses suggest that this was a “double-tap” strike, which doesn’t say much about who did it but does suggest a certain level of malicious intent.

Look, I understand why Washington wants this ceasefire to work. It’s realistically the last chance the Obama administration has to make progress on Syria before Obama leaves office. But barring some kind of miracle at the UN this week, it doesn’t look good. If it’s determined that this was Assad’s air force that struck the convoy, it will probably renew Western opposition to his remaining in power, at a time when the US and Europe had come to pretty much acquiesce to the notion that Assad would at least remain in place through a hypothetical transition. Five years later, not much about the Syrian civil war has actually changed. Sure, the disposition of forces on the ground has shifted, but the war’s central questions–whether Assad stays or goes, and what kind of Syria emerges if he goes–are no closer to being answered than they were back in 2011.


How is America helping to kill Yemenis today?

Here’s an interesting tweet, I think:

It’s all true. On Tuesday, Saudi airstrikes hit a potato factory in Sanaa, killing 15 people. On Friday, a bridge connecting Sanaa to the port city of Hobeidah was destroyed in another Saudi airstrike; no one was directly killed in that attack, but since the bridge was a key route for humanitarian supplies to get to Sanaa (from there to be disbursed around the country), it’s possible that its destruction will lead to people dying down the road. On Saturday, 10 children were killed and 28 others injured when the Saudis attacked a school in the northern Yemeni district of Haydan, and another four kids were killed in an airstrike on a school in Razeh. In fairness, the Saudis insist that they weren’t targeting the schools, and I’m sure the families of those 14 kids will be comforted to know that the slaughter of their children was just an oopsie and not intentional. Then, today, the Saudis upped the ante still further by striking an MSF hospital in the Abs district of northwestern Yemen, killing at least 11 more people. One wonders what they’ll destroy tomorrow: day care center? Petting zoo?

Although everyone, including me, talks about the “Saudi-led coalition” whose aim is to restore the government of Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to full control over the entire country, the by-now-pathetic fact of the gross spectacle taking place in Yemen is that the United States owns it. American targeting intel supports those Saudi strikes (sorry, schools and hospitals! You looked dangerous from over here!), American-made planes are the ones doing the striking, American-made spare parts are keeping those planes together, American refueling aircraft are keeping them in the skies, and America is happily selling the Saudis more stuff with which to wage more war against Yemen:

Washington has made another major arms sale to Saudi Arabia to replace tanks destroyed in the war in Yemen. The sale underscores the Obama administration’s deep role in backing the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels as the war is escalating.

The State Department this week notified Congress of an impending sale of 153 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and twenty heavy tank recovery vehicles plus assorted ammunition, weapons and other kit to the Saudi army. Buried in the fine print of the notification is the statement that twenty of the Abrams tanks are intended to replace tanks destroyed in combat. The only place Saudi tanks are in combat are along the Saudi–Yemeni border in the Kingdom’s southwest where the Houthi rebels have been surprisingly effective in striking targets inside Saudi Arabia since the start of the war sixteen months ago. It’s probably a good bet that more than just twenty Saudi tanks have been damaged. The Kingdom has an inventory of 400 Abrams.

Of course, selling weapons to the Saudis is one of the Obama administration’s favorite pastimes:

President Barack Obama has been the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history. All told sales on his watch total over $110 billion. None has provoked a serious challenge on the Hill. Only Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut has called for greater scrutiny of the arms relationship with the Kingdom.

Riyadh was the first Arab capital Obama visited as president. He has visited Saudi Arabia more than any other country in the Middle East including Israel. The relationship has been bumpy but lucrative.

If there was any strategic reason for the US to back the Saudis when their air campaign began–the Hadi government was/is a US ally, the Saudis are a US ally, and the Houthis are nominally aligned with Iran, so you can advance an argument along these lines–it has been entirely washed away in a sea full of stalemated fighting, a resurgent al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and thousands upon thousands of Yemenis who are now dead for no discernible reason. If Yemen was the price Obama had to pay to get the Saudis to grudgingly acquiesce to the nuclear deal with Iran, then that price has already more than been paid in full.

But the truth is that neither of these points fully explains what the US is doing in Yemen as well as one simple, two word term: customer service. The Saudis buy lots and lots of US weapons and they always pay in full, and if the price of maintaining that relationship is a few thousand dead Yemenis in a war that runs counter to American security interests, so be it. And, of course, America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil still tethers Washington to Riyadh no matter what, even if that dependence has lessened over the past decade (give or take).

The Yemen war has quietly stripped bare any pretense that American foreign policy might have to higher principles, and led to one inescapable truth about US policy: when principles and cash conflict, fuck principles.