March 02, 2011

What We Are Reading (And What We Are NOT Reading)

1. Yesterday, it was Gen. Mattis. Today's big cup o' ice water comes from Sec. Gates:

In his most pointed comment, Mr. Gates said that “we also have to think
about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the
Middle East.”

I have written about how horrified I am that so many folks here in Washington are so casually considering military intervention in Libya -- just 24 months after the negotiation of a status of forces agreement effectively wound down the U.S. war in Iraq. Many* of the people I have read advocating for military intervention in Libya

a) have no expertise in no-fly zones or other military operations,

b) will not be the ones responsible for the lives of any U.S. troops committed to such an intervention,

c) were prominent advocates for another military intervention in an Arab state a few years back and,

d) were themselves no where to be found when Capt. Exum and his Merry Band of Rangers actually ended up fighting in Iraq several months later (and thus were not on hand to learn the lessons about the limits of power than some of us did).

The U.S. military should give the president every available option on Libya and should plan for possible contingencies. But it is good to hear Gen. Mattis, Adm. Mullen and Sec. Gates informing what has thus far been a woefully informed public debate. And it is good to see some needed push-back against what, again, has been an entirely too casual dialogue about possible military intervention.

2. That's a great segue to this heart-breaking, beautifully written piece by Greg Jaffe in today's Washington Post about Lt. Gen. John Kelly, USMC, and his son, who was killed in Afghanistan. I myself fought in Afghanistan in 2002 and again in 2004 and, since 2009, have pretty consistently advocated for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan because I think they support the president's strategy to end that war. But when my cousin leaves active duty next month, my family will, for the first time since 2000, be one of those many, many American families that do not have any members serving on active duty or fighting overseas. And it will then be my turn to feel a little guilty about the incredible sacrifices that have been made by far too few Americans and their loved ones.

3. Finally, one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I have read in quite some time is this article in the Washington Monthly on the lucrative and poorly regulated terrorism counsultancy business. We basically have a cadre of yahoos running around the country teaching our police forces to fear any and all Muslims, which, if you're trying to radicalize your Muslim population, seems like a damn good way to go about doing it. Very few of these yahoos have any formal training or education in radicalization or currents of thought in political Islam. One consultant they profile is from the minority Christian community in Jordan and has a decidedly hostile view of Islam which he proceeds to share with his audience. Now, don't get me wrong, some of the very best scholars of Islam and political Islam in particular have been Arab Christians and Jews -- you can learn a lot from Albert Hourani
(Protestant, Lebanese) and Sami Zubayda
(Jewish, Iraqi), to name but two. But this article reminded me of this one scholar who often consults for the U.S. government and teaches about radical Islam without ever mentioning his ties to a certain right-wing Christian militia during the Lebanese Civil War. That has always rubbed me the wrong way.

What am I not reading? Well, Tom Friedman gets the bit about Google Earth and Bahrain right, but all the rest of this column -- the stuff about Salam Fayyad, al-Jazeera's coverage of Israel, President Obama and the Beijing Olympics -- just strikes me as crazy. Students of and experts in the politics of the Arabic-speaking world have never been big fans of Tom Friedman, but I have never seen a column of his greeted with such derision as this one, and I understand why. In defense of the man, let me just say that I once spent six months of my life reading newspaper dispatches in English, French and Arabic from the Lebanese Civil War, and Friedman's reporting for both the Associated Press and the New York Times stood out as top-notch. I sure can't defend this column, though.

*Note: "Many" does not mean "all," gang. Crisis Group has called for a no-fly zone, to pick but one example, and no one would dare accuse the folks on staff there of being callow about military interventions in the Middle East. I have read others make a case -- responsibly, and aware of the gravity of their recommendation -- for military intervention, and the majority of my above criticism does not apply to those people. So relax, David Kenner!