Sunday, August 17, 2014

Should the U.S. Arm Syria to fight ISIS?

ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is no ordinary group of rebels bent on becoming a new government. ISIS is ultra-violent and ultra-orthodox, and worse still, ultra-competent in both military and economic matters.

Sometimes the least bad choice is the best choice. ISIS is clearly (from our secular, freedom-and-equality oriented American perspective) the worst choice for governance of the Arabic/Islamic nations.

It could be argued that Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, and that the rulers of Saudi Arabia are as religiously oppressive and dictatorial as ISIS. We believe the U.S. should not be allied with the Saudis, but then again they have grown soft on their oil money and don't represent a regional threat. We should continue to recognize the de facto, if democratically illegitimate, government of Saudi Arabia.

When it come to ISIS we have choices, both short term and long term. In the short term the only realistic choices are supporting the de facto governments of Iraq and Syria.

The Syrian government has long opposed U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, but for good reason. The Arabs have been beat up by European nations and the U.S. for about two centuries now. People are angry, and that anger has now been distilled into ISIS.

The Syrian government is headed by Bashar al-Assad, and in some ways resembles a dictatorship. But opposition parties are allowed to participate in elections, and Assad seems to be genuinely popular among much of Syria's population. In particular, when it comes to religion Assad has been non-sectarian, more so than most U.S. politicians.

ISIS was able to grow in strength in Syria because of the civil war against the Assad regime that broke out after the Arab Spring. That civil war has devastated the country, but it has not lead to the pro-U.S. rebels replacing the current government. At this point in time the pro-U.S. rebels are rapidly being squeezed between ISIS and the government of Syria.

President Obama, in consultation with those few members of Congress who are not suffering from hardening of the brain, should make a dramatic change in U.S. policy.

By giving support to Assad, including both military and economic support, the U.S. could put a stop to ISIS before it gets further out of control. ISIS running Syria, or Iraq, or Syria and Iraq, would be a disaster and would probably lead to an ISIS takeover of Jordan and then Saudi Arabia. With all those resources, global Islamic jihad would certainly be on the agenda.

U.S. support for Assad could be contingent on his government pardoning the pro-U.S. rebels and encouraging them to participate in the next election. The U.S. could give economic aid to compensate for the damage done. U.S. military aid would go a long way towards defeating ISIS. Done right, this might even eventually swing Syria into the U.S. camp, or at least into a tolerant neutrality.

Human rights activists will protest that the Assad regime has committed crimes against humanity. That might be true, but in a civil war it is hard to separate out civilians from resistance fighters. The U.S. failed to make that separation in its wars against Vietnam and the Philippines, and when it dropped firebombs and atomic bombs on the cities of Japan, and many, many other times. When the big fish have been fried, including George W. Bush, perhaps then we can go after the small fry.

If Assad defeats ISIS without U.S. aid, that would be fine, but it would create a long-term dynamic where Syria remains unfriendly to the U.S.

I simply would not bet on Assad' crew beating ISIS. It is too dangerous of a bet.

[Originally published at Mendoday]

Monday, August 11, 2014

Palestine, Israel, and U.N. Resolution 181

When tempers are high people tend, even more than normal, to discard any evidence that anything is wrong with the side they have chosen. They rally around the flag.

Add that to the tendency for history to be treated as propaganda, rather than a true record of the past, and it is not surprising that many people are confused by the history of Palestine as told by its partisans, which appears have very little in common with the history of the modern nation of Israel, as told by its partisans. Voices in the middle tend to get drowned out.

Here I want to take a look at the myth that the United Nations (U. N.) sanctioned the creation of the nation of Israel, and that the non-Judaic Palestinians were opposing a fair and just plan to create that nation. To do that I will be referring to the original 1947 document, available from Yale University at this link:

I highly recommend you read the document first, and think about it, before I walk you through how I see it. You may not agree with my analysis.

The key word to look at, in distinguishing historical propaganda from what actually happened, is the word "state." The document uses the word "state" frequently. It is a word that can mean "nation" or a government. But as we know from our own United States, the word "state" can mean a level of government different from (usually subordinate to) a national government.

Everyone agrees that a majority of non-Judaic citizens in the British Mandate of Palestine, possibly a majority of all citizens, rejected the U.N. resolution. They preferred the better-established international standard for transitions from imperial dominance to local freedom: national self-determination. Under that system all the voting-age citizens would elect representatives, mainly by geographic units, and those representatives would then write a Constitution for the nation, then have another election, and start writing the laws of the nation.

The Zionist Palestinians and their foreign supporters (but not all Judaic Palestinians) preferred a Jewish-majority, explicitly theocratic and ethnically defined Nation of Israel. They did not want to have a merely Jewish-majority "state" within a Palestinian nation.

How do we know that the U.N. did not intend to set up a sovereign Nation of Israel through Resolution 181?

In propaganda Resolution 181 is usually called the "United Nation Partition Plan for Palestine" which implies a two-nation solution. You can see that it is actually an attempt at a a one-nation solution from the text in the very first paragraph, which bears repeating: "for the consideration of the question of the future Government of Palestine."

The word Partition comes from the phrase "plan of partition with economic union" which first occurs in paragraph 6. Some relevant U.S. history is the partition of the various areas taken from Native American Indians and partitioned into a variety of states. Partition does not, in itself, imply nation. If historians focussed on the word "union" and minimized the word "partition," people would think about the events of 1948 dfferently.

The words "Jewish State" first appear (Part I, A., para. 3) in the context of withdrawal of British troops. After that the terms Jewish State, Arab State, and City of Jerusalem are used frequently, and they are described as "independent."

But Palestine is not really granted independence. Instead a U.N. commission is to take over the power formerly exercised from the British. The commission is empowered to make the final lines of demarcation of the Jewish, Arab and Jerusalem sectors.

Rather than holding elections, the commission is to appoint Provisional Councils for each of the "states". Among other responsibilities, each Provisional Council is to recruit an "armed militia." Even then "general political and military control, including the choice of the militia's High Command, shall be exercised by the Commission."

Then there are to be elections, and illegal immigrants (who would be mostly European Jews) can vote simply if they "have signed a notice of intention to become citizens of such State."

Neither elected government is supposed to discriminate based on religion or ethnic origin. There is to be freedom of transit, and you can see that a peculiar lapse in language consistency by a referral to "the other State in Palestine, " where elsewhere the term Arab State is used.

The three States are to establish "the Economic Union and Joint Economic Board." Recall that the original call in the United States to go beyond the Articles of Confederation was for an economic union between the 13 states, to be planned at the Annapolis Convention.

Resolution 181 even provides for Arabs living in the Jewish State and Jews living in the Arab state to have the option to vote instead for representatives in the state they are ethnically aligned with, and to be considered citizens of the State which they have opted to vote for. (Section C., Chapter 3)

You can see both the ambiguity of the word "state" and that the Resolution did not intend to create a Nation of Israel most clearly in Section C. Chapter 3, Subsections 2 and 3 where the overall state is again called "Palestine." The phrasing, "These obligations shall be fulfilled through participation in the Joint Economic Board in respect of those obligations applicable to Palestine as a whole, and individually in respect of those applicable to, and fairly apportionable between, the States" is particularly telling.

I'm figuring that is about as much information as anyone can be expected to absorb in one blog post.

I conclude that while Resolution 181 is somewhat ambiguous on the question of whether it authorized a Jewish nation in Palestine, the ambiguity results from the complicated political balance it seeks to impose. The most reasonable reading is that the intention is that a Nation of Palestine is to have three subordinate States, and that each state is to guarantee the usual generally accepted freedoms to all of its inhabitants. It is an attempt to guarantee some protection for minorities, in particular the Jewish minority, rather than to set up two or more racially supremacist or theocratic nations.

My own opinion is that the United Nations had no right to impose a solution on Palestine. The people of Palestine should have been allowed to go through the usual national self-determination process without United Nations (or any other outside) interference.

Although it begins a more complex topic (the history of the conflict), I would also add that the evidence is that a majority of Palestinians would have rejected the dictation from the U.N. had they been allowed to vote on it. However, the actual armies that opposed the creation of the Nation of Israel in 1948 were not Palestinian. The Palestinians had no army. The opposing armies were from other, pre-established Arab nations. In addition, the State of Israel, really a new nation, was declared on May 15, 1948, well before the August 1, 1948 expiration of the British occupation.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 2014 Gaza Uprising

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place in 1943. Essentially, some of the Jews who had been trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto took up arms against the German army. They were aware that Jews from the Ghetto were being systemically taken to death camps.

This essay is about comparing the current militant movement in Gaza, and more broadly among non-Jews in Palestine/Israel, to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There are some similarities and many differences. A lot can be learned about people by noting how they interpret this data.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place in the context of World War II and the Holocaust, which was Adolf Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews. The situation in Gaza today is in the context of the aftermath of the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, known as Israel, and the contemporary U.S.-led "War on Terror."

While Adolf Hitler was raised as a Roman Catholic in Austria, where anti-Semitism (more properly, anti-Judaism) was virulent among the Church hierarchy, his stance towards Jews was essentially racist, not religious. While Hitler and the Roman Catholic Church agreed on many things in the 1930's (notably the need to exterminate socialists, atheists and communists), they disagreed on the disposition of the Jews in Europe. The Catholic Church sought to convert them.

Hitler, who had added racist doctrines to the Church's anti-Judaism, thought the Jews were genetically inferior (actually, different in a dangerous way). Converting them would simply allow their genes to mix more with his beloved concept of the Aryan race. Hitler and his more radical followers within the National Socialist Workers Party (Nazis), decided to exterminate the Jews in the midst of World War II.

Anti-jewish laws came first, in the mid 1930's, but they were not much different than similar anti-Negro laws in the U.S., or discriminatory laws common in most of the world's nations at the time. Then came concentration camps, at first used to house political prisoners (atheists, socialists and communists), and then increasingly to use Jews for slave labor. Ultimately some of the concentration camps became death camps.

The Warsaw Ghetto, created in 1940, was effectively a concentration camp within a city. Perhaps 300,000 Jews were packed into about 1.25 square miles of city. Gaza is much less densely populated, currently estimated to have a population of 1.8 million enclosed in an area of 139 square miles. However, because Gaza is desert terrain, most of the population lives in Gaza City and other urbanized areas. In both the Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza the citizens were (or are) not free to travel outside of the designated limits.

The Warsaw Ghetto was meant to be temporary; its residents were meant to be deported to death camps beginning in 1942. The residents of Gaza have been there, for the most part, since 1948 and have hereditary refugee status. They are being confined, not exterminated.

The "uprising" began around January 18, 1943. Only a small percentage of Jews, perhaps 1000, appear to have fought the Germans. This may have been partly due to a shortage of weapons. Still, the German army needed only about 2000 troops to regain enough control of the ghetto to continue the deportations.

The same is true of Gaza. While people, when given the opportunities in elections, voted for Hamas, and to a lesser degree for the PLO, the number of active Hamas militants is estimated at about 10,000 (estimated by Israel), but that includes irregular volunteers. The other resistance groups in Gaza appear to be much smaller than Hamas.

Tunnels played a crucial role in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Tunnels were used to bring in food and weapons. Without tunnels, the earlier death rate in the ghetto from malnutrition and consequent disease would likely have been higher. In the end, many of the fighters used the tunnels to escape the fate of those who did not fight: transit to a death camp.

The various groups in Gaza did not build tunnels because the like to dig. The were dug for the same reasons the Jews had in Warsaw: to get supplies. And both some of the Jews and some of the Palestinians used the tunnels to get the weapons they needed to fight the army of the nation that had put them in their respective ghettos.

Very few German soldiers, officially just 17, were killed by the Warsaw Jewish resistance, and it is unlikely that the real total was over 100. The Germans disproportionately killed civilians, most of whom died from fires or smoke inhalation.

The army of Israel, and its air force, have elected to fight in a manner that kills far more civilians in Gaza than actual Hamas militants.

In both cases the resistance fighters were poorly armed compared to the army they fought. The Polish Jews had only one machine gun and a limited number of small arms. Gaza is confronted with an Israeli army far better armed than the German army was. In addition, Israel conducts much of its war on non-Jewish Palestinians from the air. The use of (mostly inneffective) rockets launched from Gaza is also a new phenomena.

So we have a paradox. In matching the contenders up, Hamas gunmen match up well with ZOB and ZZW, the Jewish Warsaw gunmen. The civilians of Gaza match well with the civilians of the Warsaw Ghetto.

And the Israeli state matches the Nazi German state well. And the Israeli Army matches the German army quite well.

But once racism, religious intolerance, or even nationalism enter the picture, this obvious way to connect the dots goes out the window. Racism makes it impossible to do a rational analysis of who is in the right, and who is being wronged. See my recent essay Ethical Asymmetry [July 22, 2014] for a treatment of the ethical problems resulting from bias.


Warsaw Ghetto Uprising