Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

Three imperious challenges for U.S. foreign policy: Ukraine, ISIS and Ebola

Monday, October 13th, 2014

While the United States has finally, and belatedly, begun military actions in Iraq and Syria to slow the advance of ISIS forces, the country is still led by a White House of extraordinary incompetence. This is not about politics, but rather about the ability to formulate coherent strategies, policies and plans, and then to execute them effectively.

If this is what “driving from the back seat”means, it is a total and unmitigated disaster.

Syria

We have witnessed this disaster in the making, with Obama’s contradictory and indecisive policies toward Syria as far back as 2011 and 2012, when he refused the unanimous advice of his principal foreign policy advisers to provide military support to the Syrian opposition forces. His refusal to do so had the result of helping Syrian president al-Assad beat back the insurgents, and opened the space for the growth of what became known as ISIS, which now threatens not only Iraq and Syria but countries across the world, from Australia to the U.S. and Europe.

One element of Obama’s indecisiveness led to pulling the rug out from under Turkey in 2012 as it was poised to intervene in Syria, according to well-founded reports.

See “REPRISE: “Looney Toons” at the White House: New York Times article details Obama’s thinking on Syria—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #45,” The Trenchant Observer, May 27, 2012.

One of the first betrayals on Syria was with Turkey:

“Secretary Clinton caught her Turkish counterpart off guard during their meeting in Washington last month. Clinton reportedly told Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that the Obama Administration “preferred going through the Russians” in an attempt to achieve a political solution being shopped by the UN/Arab League’s Special Syrian Envoy Kofi Annan.
–Amb. Marc Ginsberg, “Syria Is Obama’s Srebrenica,” Huffington Post (The Blog), March 28, 2012 .”

On the U.S. decision to sell out its regional allies and to work through Russia instead, see

The Trenchant Observer, “The emperor has no clothes”: Foreign policy without a moral core—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #19 (March 29), March 29, 2012.

The Trenchant Observer, “Into the Abyss: Washington’s Fecklessness, Syria’s Fate—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #20 (March 30), March 30, 2012.

At the moment, Turkey stands over the border from Kobanê in Syria, a town with a large Kurdish population which has been coming under increasing pressure from ISIS notwithstanding U.S. and perhaps allied airstrikes and which, according to some reports, could soon fall into the hands of ISIS.

In order for it to intervene, Turkey is demanding a commitment from the U.S. that it will also include in its goals the defeat of the Syrian regime, which has caused the deaths of over 200,000 persons in Syria through barbarous atrocities including war crimes and crimes against humanity on a grand scale.

ISIS, Iraq and Syria

In Iraq, despite U.S. and allied coalition airstrikes, and even the use of Apache heliocopters, in addition to the successful formation of a new Shiite-led government after the departure of former president al-Maliki, reports speak of the realistic possibility that all of Anbar province could fall to the ISIS fighters. ISIS already holds a broad swathe of territory in the province.

While the U.S. has done an admirable job of putting together a coalition to fight ISIS, at least on paper, it has yet to prove that it is capable of leading and coordinating an effective military campaign and coalition war against ISIS, as demonstrated not by statistics on the number of airstrikes launched (self-regarding) but rather by strategic objectives and results obtained on the ground.

At the moment, Obama would appear to be not following the advice of his generals. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey stated in Congressional testimony that conditions could conceivably arise under which he would advise the president to send ground combat forces to Iraq, he was immediately contradicted the following day by President Obama who, in a military setting, firmly asserted that he would not introduce combat troops into Iraq.

Russian-Ukrainian War

With respect to the Russian-Ukrainian war, Obama was so slow in reacting that the Crimea had been annexed before the U.S., NATO and the EU could get around to offering a serious response. On economic sanctions, the U.S. did succeed in getting coordinated sanctions adopted with the EU, but only after much delay. Since September 5, when the sanctions were agreed and NATO also announced the creation of a rapid deployment force, the ceasefire called for in the Minsk Protocol of September 5 has stopped the advance of Russian troops, tanks and artillery, but has proven shaky particularly in the Donetsk region and around the Donetsk airport.

Over a month after the sanctions were agreed and the Minsk Protocol was signed, Russian troops remain in the Ukraine, and neither Obama nor the EU have taken any concrete initiatives to force their withdrawal.

The Ebola Epidemic

With respect to the Ebola epidemic, currently out of control in West Africa in Liberia, Sierra Leone and possibly Guinea, which potentially threatens the entire world, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have played a superb role in leading the response to he crisis on a technical, medical level. They have laid out the case that if 70% of new cases are not confined to Ebola treatment centers by November 20, the exponential growth in the number of infected individuals may reach 1.4 million in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January 20.

Obama has pledged to send 3,000 military personnel, but they will not be on the ground before November. Meanwhile the contagion of the disease continues to explode. Resources and above all the coordination of efforts have been slow to materialize on the ground. This is a situation which calls for massive and extraordinarily urgent action, but the U.S. has only said what it is going to do, and that’s it.

Unfortunately, the U.N. special representative for the Ebola crisis, Dr. David Nabarro, has been putting the credibility of the United Nations Ebola response on the line with optimistic statements that appear not to have a solid basis in scientific fact, or which are at least highly misleading. He hash stated, for example,

The UN special envoy on Ebola says he hopes that the outbreak can be brought under control within three months.

David Nabarro told the BBC the number of Ebola cases was currently increasing exponentially, but greater community awareness would help contain the virus.

People were becoming aware that isolating those infected was the best way to prevent transmission, he added.

So far, there have been more than 8,300 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola, and at least 4,033 deaths.

Mr Nabarro said that the number of new cases was “quite frightening”, as the spread of the disease was currently accelerating.

At the beginning, many west African communities did not understand that the outbreak was an infectious disease, he said.

“I think we’ve got much better community involvement [now] which leads me to believe that getting it under control within the next three months is a reasonable target,” he said.

–“UN: Ebola outbreak could be controlled in three months,” BBC, October 11, 2014 (23:52 ET).

His assertions stand in sharp contrast to the scientific analysis contained in the last (sixth) Morbity and Mortality (MMWR) Special Report, dated September 26, 2014, which explained that under a worst case scenario the total number of Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone would be likely to reach 1,400,000 by January 20, 2015.

If trends continue without additional interventions, the model estimates that Liberia and Sierra Leone will have approximately 8,000 total Ebola cases (21,000 total cases when corrected for underreporting) by September 30, 2014 (Figure 1). Liberia will account for approximately 6,000 cases (16,000 corrected for underreporting) (Appendix [Figure 1]). Total cases in the two countries combined are doubling approximately every 20 days (Figure 1). Cases in Liberia are doubling every 15–20 days, and those in Sierra Leone are doubling every 30–40 days (Appendix [Figure 1]).

By September 30, 2014, without additional interventions and using the described likelihood of going to an ETU, approximately 670 daily beds in use (1,700 corrected for underreporting) will be needed in Liberia and Sierra Leone (Figure 2). Extrapolating trends to January 20, 2015, without additional interventions or changes in community behavior (e.g., notable reductions in unsafe burial practices), the model also estimates that Liberia and Sierra Leone will have approximately 550,000 Ebola cases (1.4 million when corrected for underreporting) (Appendix [Figure 2]). The uncorrected estimates of cases for Liberia on September 9, 2014, were 2,618, and the actual reported cases
were 2,407 (i.e., model overestimated cases by +8.8%). The uncorrected estimates of cases for Sierra Leone on September 13, 2014, were 1,505 and the actual reported cases were 1,620 (i.e., model underestimated cases by -7.6%).

See

“CDC projects huge increase in number of Ebola cases in West Africa until 70% of new cases confined to Ebola treatment centers or equivalent, The Trenchant Observer, October 6, 2014.

Adam Nossiter, “Officials Admit a ‘Defeat’ by Ebola in Sierra Leone,” New York Times, October 10, 2014.

Whether the 70% level of Ebola treatment centers or equivalent isolation can be achieved in time to break the momentum of the epidemic by December is an open question. Significantly, the critical factor is isolation not community understanding of the disease and its transmission, though the latter factor is obviously critically important in order to reach the 70% isolation target.

Common Threads

The common thread to these ongoing failures of foreign policy, to which many other examples could be added, is Obama’s emphasis on what the U.S. is going to do–no more, and what other nations need to do. The emphasis almost seems to be on what the U.S. is not going to do, in a world in which time is not of the essence.

The focus is self-regarding, on what the U.S. and others are going to do, and not going to do, and not on the realities of the challenge on the ground and what is required to meet that challenge within the time limits that those realities impose.

Whether with respect to the Ukraine, ISIS and al-Assad in Syria, the defense of Anbar province and beyond in Iraq, or halting the explosion in Ebola infections, we are faced with policies which include many necessary elements (e.g., the replacement of al-Maliki with the formation of a more inclusive regime in Baghdad–a work in progress, yet to convince the Sunnis), but which are blind to the urgency of the moment, to quickly developing military advances of ISIS on the ground, or the rapid explosion in the number of Ebola cses in West Africa.

Returning to the situaiton in Kobanê, one has the impression that Obama is far more interested in winning a battle of wills with the Turks over whether to also target the al-Assad regime than he is in protecting the hundreds of thousands of human beings who will be affected by a continued failure to take effective action. The airstrikes are important, but not sufficient to achieve the goal.

Obama doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of symbolic and strategic victories or of momentum on the ground.

The Daily Star in Beirut expressed the general exasperation with Washington’s policies in the Middle East in an Editorial published on October 10. The paper wrote,

The vastly contradictory statements coming from the U.S. government over the last few days are emblematic of a wider problem: that the Obama administration apparently has no coherent strategy when it comes to Syria, and now Iraq, and is playing the whole thing by ear. But this absence of any tangible policy will have ramifications far wider than simply the countries directly involved.

Despite a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS, backed by a coalition of some 60 countries, the U.S. is confused and confusing. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that the U.S. was looking closely at the idea of a buffer zone along the border with Turkey, inside Syria. Hours later the Pentagon and the White House said option was absolutely not on the table.

This flip-flopping really makes one wonder where decisions are being made, and by whom….

(T)the mistakes of Obama’s administration have done untold and likely irreparable damage.

And the vacuum that has been left appears to have given oxygen to the most extreme and most dangerous groups around the world. The destruction and loss of life happening now across the Middle East is only the beginning. The aftershocks of current political indecisiveness will be felt for generations.

obama has decided to send 3,000 mikitary personnel, and other material assistance.

what is needed, however, is something like the Berlin Airlift of 1948, with all -out mobilization by the U.S. and other countries to get the people and the facilities to Liberia and Sierra Leone when they can still save tens or hundreds of thousands of lives.

The number of actual Ebola cases is estimated to,be 2.5 times the number of reported cases, or about 20,000 cases in Liberia a That number is doubling in Liberia and Sierra Leone every 20 days.

The Trenchant Observer

A rudderless U.S. foreign policy: Obama flounders in dealing with the Ukraine, ISIS, and Ebola

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

Draft

While the United States has finally, and belatedly, begun military actions in Iraq and Syria to slow the advance of ISIS forces, the country is still led by a White House of extraordinary incompetence. This is not about politics, but rather about the ability to formulate coherent strategies, policies and plans, and then to execute them effectively.

If this is what “driving from the back seat”means, it is a total and unmitigated disaster.

We have witnessed this disaster in the making, with Obama’s contradictory and indecisive policies toward Syria as far back as 2011 and 2012, when he refused the unanimous advice of his principal foreign policy advisers to provide military support to the Syrian opposition forces. His refusal to do so had the result of helping Syrian president al-Assad beat back the insurgents, and opened the space for the growth of what became known as ISIS, which now threatens not only Iraq and Syria but countries across the world, from Australia to the U.S. and Europe.

One element of Obama’s indecisiveness led to pulling the rug out from under Turkey in 2012 as it was poised to intervene in Syria, according to well-founded reports.

At the moment, Turkey stands over the border from Kobanê in Syria, a town with a large Kurdish population which has been coming under increasing pressure from ISIS notwithstanding U.S. and perhaps allied airstrikes and which, according to some reports, could soon fall into the hands of ISIS.

In order for it to intervene, Turkey is demanding a commitment from the U.S. that it will also include in its goals the defeat of the Syrian regime, which has caused the deaths of over 200,000 persons in Syria through barbarous atrocities including war crimes and crimes against humanity on a grand scale.

In Iraq, despite U.S. and allied coalition airstrikes, and even the use of Apache heliocopters, in addition to the successful formation of a new Shiite-led government after the departure of former president al-Maliki, reports speak of the realistic possibility that all of Anbar province could fall to the ISIS fighters. ISIS already holds a broad swathe of territory in the province.

While the U.S. has done an admirable job of putting together a coalition to fight ISIS, at least on paper, it has yet to prove that it is capable of leading and coordinating an effective military campaign and coalition war against ISIS, as demonstrated not by statistics on the number of airstrikes launched (self-regarding) but rather by strategic objectives and results obtained on the ground.

At the moment, Obama would appear to be not following the advice of his generals. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey stated in Congressional testimony that conditions could conceivably arise under which he would advise the president to send ground combat forces to Iraq, he was immediately contradicted the following day by President Obama who, in a military setting, firmly asserted that he would not introduce combat troops into Iraq.

With respect to the Russian-Ukrainian war, Obama was so slow in reacting that the Crimea had been annexed before the U.S., NATO and the EU could get around to offering a serious response. On economic sanctions, the U.S. did succeed in getting coordinated sanctions adopted with the EU, but only after much delay. Since September 5, when the sanctions were agreed and NATO also announced the creation of a rapid deployment force, the ceasefire called for in the Minsk Protocol of September 5 has stopped the advance of Russian troops, tanks and artillery, but has proven shaky particularly in the Donetsk region and around the Donetsk airport.

Over a month after the sanctions were agreed and the Minsk Protocol was signed, Russian troops remain in the Ukraine, and neither Obama nor the EU have taken any concrete initiatives to force their withdrawal.

With respect to the Ebola epidemic, currently out of control in West Africa in Liberia, Sierra Leone and possibly Guinea, which potentially threatens the entire world, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have played a superb role in leading the response to the crisis on a technical, medical level. They have laid out the case that if 70% of new cases are not confined to Ebola treatment centers by November 20, the exponential growth in the number of infected individuals may reach 1.4 million in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January 20.

Obama has pledged to send 3,000 military personnel, but they will not be on the ground before November. Meanwhile the contagion of the disease continues to explode. Resources and above all the coordination of efforts have been slow to materialize on the ground. This is a situation which calls for massive and extraordinarily urgent action, but the U.S. has only said what it is going to do, and that’s it.

The common thread to these ongoing failures of foreign policy, to which many other examples could be added, is Obama’s emphasis on what the U.S. is going to do–no more, and what other nations need to do. The emphasis almost seems to be on what the U.S. is not going to do, in a world in which time is not of the essence.

The focus is self-regarding, on what the U.S. and others are going to do, and not going to do, and not on the realities of the challenge on the ground and what is required to meet that challenge within the time limits that those realities impose.

Whether with respect to the Ukraine, ISIS and al-Assad in Syria, the defense of Anbar province and beyond in Iraq, or halting the explosion in Ebola infections, we are faced with policies which include many necessary elements (e.g., the replacement of al-Maliki with the formation of a a more inclusive regime in Baghdad (a work in progress, yet to convince the Sunnis), but which are blind to the urgency of the moment, to quickly developing military advances of ISIS on the ground, or the rapid explosion in the number of Ebola cses in West Africa.

Returning to the situaiton in Kobanê, one has the impression that Obama is far more interested in winning a battle of wills with the Turks over whether to also target the al-Assad regime than he is in protecting the hundreds of thousands of human beings who will be affected by a continued failure to take effective action. The airstrikes are important, but not sufficient to achieve the goal.

Obama doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of symbolic and strategic victories or of momentum on the ground.

The Daily Star in Beirut expressed the general exasperation with Washington’s policies in the Middle East in an Editorial published on October 10. The paper wrote,

The vastly contradictory statements coming from the U.S. government over the last few days are emblematic of a wider problem: that the Obama administration apparently has no coherent strategy when it comes to Syria, and now Iraq, and is playing the whole thing by ear. But this absence of any tangible policy will have ramifications far wider than simply the countries directly involved.

Despite a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS, backed by a coalition of some 60 countries, the U.S. is confused and confusing. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that the U.S. was looking closely at the idea of a buffer zone along the border with Turkey, inside Syria. Hours later the Pentagon and the White House said (the) option was absolutely not on the table.

This flip-flopping really makes one wonder where decisions are being made, and by whom….

(T)the mistakes of Obama’s administration have done untold and likely irreparable damage.

And the vacuum that has been left appears to have given oxygen to the most extreme and most dangerous groups around the world. The destruction and loss of life happening now across the Middle East is only the beginning. The aftershocks of current political indecisiveness will be felt for generations.

The Trenchant Observer

Order in the World: Things fall apart

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

One of the wisest and most-experieced journalists reporting on foreign policy, Roger Cohen, who writes an Op-Ed column for the New York Times, has published a thoughtful and deeply pessimistic article on the current state of world affairs.

See Roger Cohen, “The Great Unraveling,” September 15, 2014.

It was the time of unraveling. Long afterward, in the ruins, people asked: How could it happen?

It was a time of beheadings…

It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth pronounced his country encircled, even humiliated. He annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane. The victims, many of them Europeans, were left to rot in the sun for days. He denied any part in the violence, like a puppeteer denying that his puppets’ movements have any connection to his. He invoked the law the better to trample on it. He invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.

It was a time of weakness. The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory…. The nation’s leader…set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. In the way of the world these things were noticed. Enemies probed. Allies were neglected.. Words like “strength” and “resolve” returned to the leader’s vocabulary. But the world was already adrift, unmoored by the retreat of its ordering power. The rule book had been ripped up.

It was a time of disorientation. Nobody connected the dots…

Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.

Regarding the weakening of international order, see

“Imagine: The Collapse of International Order: Syria, and Berlin in 1945,” The Trenchant Observer, February 20, 2013.

In this article, we observed,

There is nothing inevitable about international order.

The lessons of two world wars which informed the creation of the United Nations in 1945, and the maintenance of international peace and security for some 60 years, can be forgotten.

It is entirely conceivable that without decisive leadership from either Europe or the United States, the international order that has existed for many decades could start to wobble and even collapse.

And it is nearly impossible to conceive of such leadership emerging any time soon.

The rubble in Syria resembles the rubble in Berlin and the destruction in Germany in 1945, which occurred the last time the international order collapsed.

How bad could it get?

You could have wars like the one in Syria devastating countries in Africa, a nuclear attack on Los Angeles from North Korea, Iran with nuclear weapons and delivery systems within 5-10 years, and Israel surrounded by hostile Islamist states.

Things could fall apart.

Imagine a world without law, without international law governing the use of force which is generally observed and which states seek to uphold when it is violated.

Imagine a  world in which states use force without acknowledging they have acted, and without any obligation to publicly justify the legitimacy of their actions by reference to international law.

That is the direction in which we are heading.

See also,

“A weak American president fails to lead, and anarchy is unleashed upon the world,” The Trenchant Observer, April 29, 2014.

“International Law and the Use of Force: Drones and Real Anarchy Unleashed Upon the World, The Trenchant Observer, July 17, 2011.

The only path that might lead us out of the present downward spiral of events, the Observer submits, is one that embraces the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter, including

(1) the prohibition of “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”(Article 2 paragraph 4),

(2) except in exercise of “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense” in the case of an “armed attack” (Article 51),

(3) and the international protection of human rights (Preamble and Aricle 55 (c) of the U.N. Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and many other human rights treaties).

That is the best starting point for halting and reversing the current process of a collapsing world order. If anyone has a better idea, let him or her come forth and state it.

Without a renewed dedication to upholding these cornerstone principles of the United Nations Charter, and international law, international order becomes increasingly difficult to conceive.

The world’s citizens, and their governments, must rededicate themselves to upholding these bedrock principles of international law, if international order is to endure.

The Trenchant Observer

The Russia-Ukraine War: Putin, cunning judo master, versus Obama, NATO, and EU, conflicted and confused; Protagonists continue battle for Ukraine and vision of world order

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Developing

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a cunning and brilliant tactician who has now taken on the entire international legal and political order through his invasions of the Ukraine and “annexation” of the Crimea, seems to seize every day on some new target of opportunity offered up by the West.

To their credit, the EU, the U.S. and NATO in the last two weeks have overcome the resistance of pacifists and appeasers within their midst and begun to take forceful decisions to use their economic power to counter the advances of Russian troops and tanks in the Ukraine, and to strengthen their military posture toward Russia in the East.

They are now embarked on a strategy which will cost Russia grievously in the long and even intermediate term.

Their antagonist, Valadimir Putin, who seems — perhaps deceptively — to represent an inreasingly arbitrary one-man rule tending toward a totalitarian future, is not a long-term strategist.

In strategic terms, his policy of support for Bashar Al-Assad as the latter committed war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale, leading to the deaths so far of over 200,000 people, has been deeply flawed. Focusing on the play-by-play game of defeating U.S. President Barack Obama and his allies, day by day, he has failed to anticipate the growth of ISIS or the “Islamic State” (“IS”) which poses a grave threat to Russia and its southern republics in the Caucasus.

ISIS is attracting, training, and providing experience to thousands of fighters some of whom will one day return to Russia to wreak havoc with their nihilistic and barbarian policies of sowing fear, death and destruction.

In the Ukraine, through his military invasions and short-term victories, Putin has brought Ukrainian nationalism to a brightly burning flame, and ensured that the population of this strategically and economically critical country will distrust and hate Russia for generations.

By trying to prevent the Ukraine from moving toward Europe and the West by economic war and military force, he has ensured the opposite result, at least in the intermediate to long term. While absolutely determined to prevent the Ukraine from joining NATO, Putin has virtually assured that they will do so in the longer term, as the only means available to them so secure their Eastern frontier.

In short, Putin is not a particularly good long-term strategist.

Rather, he is a briliant tactician whose cunning in the pursuit of his own personal short-term objectives far exceeds that of the divided leaders of the West.

Moreover, he seems to be obsessed with playing the current short-term game in the battle for influence and ultimately control over the Ukraine.

His moves, like those of a champion judo master, are brilliantly executed. His method includes the following elements:

1) Stealth, as in the way he invaded and seized the Crimea, and launched his invasion of the eastern Ukraine in April (if not before).

The plausible deniability such stealth provides him is useful in dividing his opponents, as he gives pacifists and appeasers in the West reasons not to act, or to argue among themselves over whether to take any actions in response to Russian aggression.

2) Blatant lies, Misrepresentations, and War Propaganda

Useful both at the diplomatic level, in confusing leaders of countries which might oppose him, and in maintaining domestic support through his control of the media and television in particular, Putin’s lies and war propaganda are eventually recognized as outrageous by foreign observers (after they have served their short-term purposes), but now remain essential domestically for him to maintain his grip on power.

On open question is whether the preposterous lies and propaganda can maintain their effectiveness over the longer term. In this respect, Joseph Goebels’ domestic propaganda in the German Third Reich may have been superior over the longer term precisely because of the realism with which it was imbued.

Putin’s domestic propaganda bubble could burst, which accounts for the extreme reactions of his government when news of Russian soldiers dying in the Ukraine began to come out. One deputy who visited the grave of a soldier who died in the Ukraine was beaten up. A highly respected NGO representing the mothers of Russian soldiers was denounced as subversive when it pressed too openly for details regarding the fates of missing and other soldiers deployed to the Ukraine.

3) Surprise

Putin is a master of striking a blow when his opponent’s guard is down. Thus, following the wrenching struggle to proceed with implementation of the latest EU sanctions by the EU, the day after news sanctions were actually implemented, Putin sent a second convoy of white trucks purportedly carrying humanitarian aid across the border into the Donbas region, in a blatant violation of the Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. There was no prior inspection by the IRC or the OSCE, or authorization by Ukrainian authorities.

4) De-sensitization to violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Putin has used this technique with great effect, both in the Crimea and in the eastern Ukraine. Executing small and low visibility violations of the border, repeatedly, by sending in irregular fighters, arms, and even sophisticated air-defense systems, Putin progressively de-sensitized leaders in the West to such border violations.

No single violation seemed worse than the preceding one, to which leaders had not objected. Once they had been de-sensitized, larger violations could take place without raising alarm, until finally thousands of Russian troops, and tanks, artillery pieces, and other equipment had entered the Ukraine and were engaged in fighting the Ukrainian forces.

Putin’s Latest Moves

Putin’s latest moves include sending the white truck convoy into the Ukraine beginning Saturday, without Ukraine’s permission or IRC or OSCE prior inspection and accompanying of the cargoes to their destination.

He has thus succeeded in de-sensitizing Western leaders by initially speaking to the IRC and OSCE, and even reaching some agreements on the first convoy in August, then violating them when he sent the first convoy into the Donbas without Kiev’s authorization or OSCE and IRC inspection and control.

This time he used great surprise, and unlike the first convoy which took weeks to travel from Moscow and cross the border, he quickly sent the second convoy across the border into the Ukraine with no inspections, no controL, and no authorization from Kiev.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko did not complain loudly, as he seems now to be buying in to the idea of appeasing Putin and responding to his threats–after the Ukrainian army was badly bloodied by the direct attacks of Russian troops–by going along with what he does, in order to maintain the viability of the Minsk Protocol cessefire and peace plan agreement.

This is the only way to understand Poroshenko’s statement in the last week that 70% of the Russian forces had been withdrawn, when NATO reported seeing no such activity.

At the same time, Putin has underlined the fragility of the ceasefire by resuming separatists attacks in Donetsk, with artillery and rockets being used in an attack on the Donetsk airport. The attack was successfully repelled by Ukrainian forces. But Putin made his point.

In the West, Obama, clueless, is focused on the wrong conflict

Meanwhile, as a showdown between Russia and the West is in full swing, Barack Obama is consumed with taking action in another conflict, with ISIS or the so-called Islamic State.

What the deaths of 200,000 people in Syria could not achieve, the beheadings by IS of two Americans produced within weeks: a decision by the Obama administration to engage militarily against ISIS both in Iraq and Syria, and to provide military aid to the “moderate” rebels within Syria.

The U.S. actions are necessary and appropriate, though perhaps not sufficient.

The important point here is that Obama has been focused on these decisions, and the dramatic change in his policies toward Iraq and Syria, instead of focusing on the war in the Ukraine.

In strategic terms, the war in the Ukraine is of paramount importance.

Obama and his administration should not be distracted from paying full attention, and being actively engaged in decision making with the EU, NATO and their allies,in deciding how to respond quickly to Putin’s next moves.

The Trenchant Observer

Barack Obama’s phantasmagoric world, where the choice of words defines reality

Friday, September 5th, 2014

phantasmagoria /ˌfæntæzməˈɡɔːrɪə/, phantasmagory /fænˈtæzməɡərɪ/
n
1. a shifting medley of real or imagined figures, as in a dream
2. a sequence of pictures made to vary in size rapidly while remaining in focus
3. RARE a shifting scene composed of different elements

Etymology: 19th Century: probably from French fantasmagorie production of phantasms, from phantasm + -agorie, perhaps from Greek ageirein to gather together

phantasmagoric /ˌfæntæzməˈɡɒrɪk/, ˌphantasmaˈgorical
adj

–Collins Concise English Dictionary © HarperCollins Publishers

U.S. President Barack Obama was quite successful as a candidadate in 2008 and 2012 through the modern political technique of managing the narrative.

Unfortunately, he has for five and half years applied the same tecnique to the management of his foreign policy narrative.

Tragically, he has paid much more attention to the narrative of his foreign policies and the fine intellectual distinctions he makes in his head than he has to the changing realities on the ground in a number of crises, the relationships between them, and the need for the adoption of an effective strategy and implementing actions which can simultaneously deal with all of them.

These crises include Russia and its invasions of the Ukraine, Syria, ISIS, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia, the expansion of islamic militant groups across the northern half of Africa (Boko Haram in Nigeria is but one example), and China’s territorial claims and militant actions in the South China and East China Seas.

The evidence that Obama gives priority to the choice of words and managing his foreign policy narrative instead of developing strategy and implementing it through decisive actions is very strong.

In Afganistan, the 2009 policy review spent an enormous amount of time debating whether the goal there should be to “degrade” or to “defeat” the Taliban.

With ISIS, which did not come upon the scene overnight, there is evidence that a similar debate has been taking place, with the president only at the NATO Summit on September 4-5 declaring that the goal should be both to “degrade” and to “destroy” ISIS.

Aside from revealing the divisions within his foreign policy team, this unhappy formulation also reveals–paradoxically–that the president does not always think through the implications of the words he speaks.

From a foreign policy narrative perspective, the formulation makes perfect sense, since it can be portrayed as not reflecting a change in policy. From a strategic and action perspective, the words are pure nonsense.

Further evidence of the priority given by the President to words instead of actions is provided by the emphasis he has placed on calling ISIS by his preferred name, ISIL (“the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”), instead of ISIS (“the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or “the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham”).

Most recently, as the EU, NATO and the U.S. have faced the challenge of how to respond to the second Russian invasion of the Ukraine, this time in the Donbass, Obama has been very careful to characterize the movement of Russian tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and sophisticated air-defense systems into the Ukraine as an “incursion” and not an “invasion”. This played right into Vladimir Putin’s hands, as he sought to confuse the issue and hide the fact that an outright military invasion had occurred and was continuing.

The pacifists and appeasers in NATO and the EU have displayed a similar diffidence in avoiding the term “invasion”, whether due to Obama’s leadership on verbal formulations or not.

An “incursion” might be allowed to stand, as in Georgia. Still, it is hard to see how the seizure of the Crimea and its annexation could be considered a mere “incursion”. It may be that, for now, the pacifists and appeasers who lead the West are simply unable to think about the Crimea.

Finally, mention must be made of Obama’s careful phraseology in stating that if Putin continues on this or that course of action, he and Russia will pay additional “costs”.

This way of looking at the world can be found in Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance sppech where, while reserving to himself the right to use force whenever necessay to protect America, he stated that the rules of the road governing the use of force should be followed because it is in the interests of national leaders to do so.

There is no moral imperative contained in his formulations, then or now.

Obama’s leadership in verbal formulations is reflected in the adoption by other NATO and EU leaders of this terminology of “additional costs”.

At times it seems like Obama is stating–matter-of-factly–to an armed burglar in his house, who has already killed one of his children and threatens to rape his wife, that the intruder should desist or else he will have to pay “additional costs”. Lest this example sound too extreme, one should recall that some 3,000 people have killed in the fighting in the eastern Ukraine.

The language of imposing “additional costs” on the aggrssor Putin also has a more pervasive impact on how Obama and other decision makers think about what is going on in the Ukraine. It reveals that Obama, and others who adopt this terminology, have fallen victim to the “Rational Actor Fallacy”, which results from thinking within a “Rational Actor” or “Analytic” paradigm in which all government actions are viewed as the product of a rational calculus by a single, unitary rational mind or its equivalent. This paradigm is manifestly inadequare, and leads to making false assumptions about the causes and motivations of state behavior.

The significance of Obama’s focusing on the choice of words and managing the foreign policy narrative of his administration is that it leads to fuzzy and confused thinking, which can mask the presence of very grave threats to the national security of the United States, NATO members, and other states.

Russia has “invaded” the eastern Ukraine by military force in violation of the prohibition of the threat or use of force contained in Article 2 paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter.

It did so in the Crimea. It has done so now in the eastern Ukraine. Its forces remain in the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine in open and flagrant violation of that bedrock principle of the U.N. Charter and international law.

That is the reality we face, and the reality we must clearly understand, without obfuscations with words, if we are to muster the courage to take effective action to reverse the situation, and to reaffirm and reestablish observance of the most fundamental norm in the U.N. Charter and international law.

The words you choose affect the way you think, as George Orwell explained in 1946. Words which are not connected to actions, as Theodore Roosevel explained in 1907 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (delivered in 1912), are meangingless, or worse.

To avoid floundering in a phantasmagoric world of visions that lead to lunging at shadows, or sitting immobile when a bear is coming at your throat, Obama and other leaders need to use real words to describe the realities which they see, and the actual and very real threats to which they must respond.

See

(1) Andrew Higgins, “On Ukraine, the West Sidesteps a Fraught Term,” September 4, 2014.

(2) “Russian “Invasion” or Incursion” in Ukraine? Obama and the primacy of words over actions,” The Trenchant Observer, August 28, 2014.

(3) “ISIS or ISIL? A telling tale of the primacy of words over actions in Obama’s foreign policy,” The Trenchant Observer, June 19, 2014.

(4) “The smartest person in the room, and the Afghanistan policy review,” The Trenchant Observer, October 24, 2010.

(5) The Daily Star: “The “Rational Actor” Fallacy and Stopping Syria’s Atrocities—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #8 (March 9) The Trenchant Observer, March 9, 2012.

The Trenchant Observer

The Vatican calls on Muslim leaders to condemn violence by jihadists in “the Islamic State”

Friday, August 15th, 2014

The Vatical has called on Muslim religious leaders to denounce the crimes committed by the juhaddist so-called “Islamic State” (formerly known as ISIS)

See:

(1 John Hooper (Rome), “Vatican calls on Muslim leaders to condemn Christian persecution in Iraq; Statement suggests dialogue with Islamic representatives may be cut if leaders fail to denounce crimes in name of religion,” The Guardian, August 12, 2014 (09.37 EDT).

(2) Yasmine Hafiz, “Vatican Urges Muslim Leaders To Condemn The Islamic State Formerly Known As ISIS, The Huffington Post, August 12, 2014.

Hafiz points out that a number of Muslim leaders have already spoken out:

Many have already done that. Iyad Ameen Madani, the Secretary General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation called the actions of the Islamic State a “crime that cannot be tolerated” in July. Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders from the UK made a video to condemn the Islamic State in July, and professors from the ancient and influential al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, have also publicly rejected the Caliphate. Most recently, the Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, Egypt’s top Muslim scholar, denounced the Islamic State as an “extremist and bloody group” on Tuesday.

(3) Shafik Mandhai, “Muslim leaders reject Baghdadi’s caliphate; Prominent Muslim leaders rebuke the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, calling it ‘void’ and ‘deviant’,” Al Jazeera, August 7, 2014.

(4) “World’s top Muslim leaders condemn attacks on Iraqi Christians,” Vatican Radio, July 25, 2014.

(5) Reuters, “Egypt’s Top Muslim Leader Condemns Islamic State: Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam Denounces ‘Bloody Group,'” Huntington Post, August 12, 2014 (Updated: 08/13/2014 6:59 am EDT).

The Trenchant Observer

U.S. and other nations must establish a ceasefire in Gaza NOW

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Developing

Hamas has no right to attack Israel with indiscriminate rockets, or with commandos entering through tunnels.

Israel has a right of self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

But that right must still be exercised in accordance with the requirements under international law of immediacy, necessity, and proportionality for any measues of force taken in self-defense.

That right must also be exercised in accordance with the requirements of humanitarian law or “the laws of war”.

That means Israel can’t lawfully target hospitals and schools, and probably means that the targeting of Gaza’s sole electric power generator and storage tanks cannot be justified as an act that is necessary and proportionate to the achievement of a military objective, in the face of an immediacy requirement for action leaving no alternative of action.

The fact that the government of a territory engages in armed attacks against Israel does not give the latter the right to destroy whole swaths of the Gaza Strip, and to reduce that territory to rubble.

Just as it was morally and legally wrong to allow the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 to proceed, because of anger at Iran over the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and the view that the country was a bad actor, it is wrong to allow Israel to proceed further under the illusion that if given a free reign it can physically and materially destroy Hamas, just because the organization is a bad actor.

Instead, the United States and other countries should act immediately, with the greatest urgency, to secure the establishment of a ceasefire in Gaza. Absent consent of the parties, a ceasefire can be imposed by the U.N. Security Council acting under Chapter VII of the U. N. Charter. Regional countries, including Qatar, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, should also play their part.

The United States holds enormous power to influence Israel’s actions, because it is only a veto by the United States that prevents the U. N. Security Council from taking action against Israel.

This is real leverage, and it should be used in order to protect the civilians and civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.

Domestic political lobbies in the U.S. should be managed to allow such leverage to be exercised, for ends which ultimately will benefit Israelis as well as Palestinians. America’s strong alliance with Israel should not serve as an excuse for thowing reason, and considerations of humanity, to the winds.

Israel appears to be engaged in activities in Gaza which constitute an abuse of the right of self-defense.

These activities must be stopped, for reasons of humanity.

After a ceasefire has been established, diplomatic negotiations involving a larger number of parties may take on the task of determining how to stop attacks on Israel by rockets or using tunnels, and how to end the siege of Gaza in order to open up possibilities for its inhabitants to have access to the world.

In the present conflict, there is much evidence of pure hatred on both sides. This is what happens when a hot war is underway, as the reptilian brains of partisans on both sides take control.

Now, however, it is time for cooler heads to prevail. Those cooler minds must come from outside the territories of the warring parties.

And, with whatever means may be required, a ceasefire must be imposed.

It is not too early even to begin thinking of a United Nations peacekeeping force stationed in Gaza.

For the innocent civilians, school children, civilian infrastructure, and well-being of the human beings caught up in the maw of this mindless warfare,

For reasons of humanity, for Israelis as well as Palestinians,

A ceasefire must be imposed now.

The Trenchant Observer

“Krystallnacht” in Mosul and the Islamic Caliphate

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Developing

Just as “Krystallnacht” (Chrystal Night), on November 9-10, 1938, signaled loudly to the World Hitler’s and Nazi Germany’s policy of persecution of the Jews in Germany (already including Austria and the Sudetenland) and the horrors yet to come, the so-called Caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (al-Shams), also known as ISIS or “Da-ish”, has threatened to kill Christians in Mosul who do not covert to Islam or pay a tax imposed on non-Muslims for protection, revealing current horrors underway and heralding those yet to come.

Such action is wholly outside the bounds of international law and modern civilization.

It brings to our consciousness a new dimension of the ISIS jihadists, which is apparent genocide committed against Christians and other non-Muslims.

See “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9 December 1948,” here. Articles II and III of the Convention provide:

Article II

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Article III

The following acts shall be punishable:
(a) Genocide;
(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
(d) Attempt to commit genocide;
(e) Complicity in genocide.

Louisa Loveluck in The Telegraph reports the following:

Christian families streamed out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Saturday after Islamist fighters said they would be killed if they did not pay a protection tax or convert to Islam.

The warning was read out in Mosul’s mosques on Friday afternoon, and broadcast throughout the city on loudspeakers.

“We offer [Christians] three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment… if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword,” the announcement read.

It said Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who the group has now named Caliph Ibrahim, had ordered Christians who did not want to stay and live under those terms to “leave the borders of the Islamic Caliphate”.

In recent days, Islamic State fighters had reportedly been tagging Mosul’s Christian houses with the letter N for “Nassarah”, the term by which the Koran refers to Christians.

Islamic State fighters robbed departing Christians of their belongings, (Fadi, a teacher) said, leaving them to face destitution in grim camps for the displaced. Deprived of their cars and cash, many Christians were forced to walk to safety.

–Louisa Loveluck, “Christians flee Iraq’s Mosul after Islamists tell them: convert, pay or die,” The Telegraph, July 19, 2014 (7:16PM BST).

“Iraqi Christians leave city en masse after Islamist militants threatened to kill them unless they converted to Islam or paid a ‘protection tax”.”

The echo of Krystallnacht (and earlier Biblical events) was stunning, with the ISIS jihadists marking Christians’ houses with the letter N for “Nassarah”.

As international peace and security in many parts of the world breaks down, simultaneously, from the Ukraine to Gaza to Iraq and Syria and Libya, the civilized nations of the world must not forget and must act urgently to prevent acts of genocide against Christians and other non-Muslims in the new Islamic Caliphate of ISIS.

As these disparate events show, and the founders of the United Nations well understood, international peace and security is something that is indivisible.

One cannot allow the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale by Bashar al-Assad in Syria, without opening the gates of hell.

One cannot allow Russia to invade a European state, and annex part of it, without greatly weakening the deterrent force of the U.N. Charter’s prohibition of the threat or use of force across international frontiers.

One cannot look at a single crisis alone, without missing the broader picture of the general weakening of international peace and security that is currently underway.

Civilized nations must now act, on an urgent basis, to halt Russian aggression in the Ukraine, to stop potential genocide within the Islamic Caliphate, to halt the war crimes and crimes against humanity of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to stop the fighting in Gaza, and to ensure that territorial disputes in the East and South China seas are resolved exclusively by peaceful means.

To achieve these goals, it is imperative that the international community uphold and reaffirm the fundamental principles of the U.N. Charter and U.N. conventions prohibiting the threat or use of force or violating the fundamental human rights of all human beings.

This they must do not through endless formulaic repetitions of words, of oft-repeated dilplomatic incantations, but rather through real actions aimed at rapidly changing the situation on the ground in different arenas.

The Trenchant Observer

Obama’s six crises and collapsing foreign policy: Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and China’s actions in the East and South China Seas

Friday, June 20th, 2014

Developing

President Barack Obama now faces six simultaneous crises, amid the collapsing edifice of his foreign policy. They are:

1. Russia and the Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of the eastern Ukraine continues, calling the West’s bluff that it would impose sectoral sanctions.

The fact that Russia is acting through special operations and irregular foces has no bearing on its responsibility under international law for these actions. They amount to an “armed attack” under the terms of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, creating a right self-defense on the part of the Ukraine, and a right of “collective self-defense” on the part of other states, up to and including the use of force, to repel the invasion.

Economic and other sanctions are similarly justifiable as measures of self-defense, and also as “countermeasures” in response to illegal intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine.

But where legal authority for action to stop the Russians is abundant and clear, the political will of the countries in the West to act effectively is almost non-existant. Instead, appeasement and a new form of “hybrid” pacifism have taken hold.

Putin knows his antagonists. As the one-month deadline for stopping support of the “separatists” in eastern Ukraine draws near, the EU and the U.S. are already backing down, talking now of further “targeted” sanctions–not sectoral sanctions. Today Obama added seven individuals to the list.

If there were any doubt in Putin’s mind about Obama’s decisiveness, the latter’s meek and temporizing responses to the advances of ISIS in Iraq should have put those doubts to rest.

Russia continues its invasion of eastern Ukraine, sending additional tanks and other equipment across the border right now.

Having concentrated control of foreign policy in the White House, President Obama does not have the decision making capacity to deal with multiple crises at the same time, or indeed the decisiveness to take timely and effective action in any one of them.

We have devoted great attention to Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimea, and its ongoing invasion of the eastern Ukraine, because these actions and the pacifism and appeasement with which they have been met in the West directly threaten the collapse of the institutions and norms established to uphold the maintenance of international peace and security.

In the hierarchy of grave crises, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine remains the most serious, because it threatens to destroy or eviscerate the necessary tools of international law and institutions which are essential for the resolution of other crises, including those which are presently all raging at the same time.

When the question seems to be where to send the fire brigade, actually the more fundamental question is how can you keep the fire brigade functioning, and operating effectively?

See:

Brett Logiurato, “Ukraine Wants A Ceasefire — Russia Is Sending A Bunch Of Tanks Into Ukraine,” Business Insider, June 20, 2014 (1:16 p.m.).

To be continued…

2. Iraq

The armed forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have captured Mosul, and are driving south toward Baghdad. Kurdish Peshmurga forces have occupied Kirkuk. The tribes in the Sunni triangle are collaborating with ISIS. The newly elected Parliament is to convene and elect a new prime minister.

Iraq has requested the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against ISIS forces. Obama has disatched under 300 soldiers to help protect the U.S, Embassy, and also approximately 300 special forces troops and advisers to help the Iraqi military.

If the ISIS advance is not stopped, particularly toward Shiite shrines in the south, Iran may intervene militarily to defend the shrines and the al-Maliki Shiite government.

Tellingly, one of Obama’s first moves was to go to Congressional leaders to see what actions might be politically acceptable, instead of huddling with all of his top national security officials to decide what actions are required by the exigencies of the present military and political situation in Iraq.

3. Syria

Syria has been reported by the international chemical weapons agency, charged by the Security Council with overseeing Syria’s surrender and destruction of all of its chemical weapons, as having recently used chemical weapons (chlorine gas) against its population on a number of occasions.

Such actions would appear to cross Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons use. What is he going to do about it? His “red line” seems to have been written in the sand.

4. Afghanistan

The Afghan presidential run-off election on June 14 was, according to the leading candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, the subject of massive fraud in the eastern portions of the country, the traditional base of his opponent, Ashraf Ghani.

The actions the U.S. takes in the coming days may have a decisive impact on the transparency and outcome of the election. If a satisfactory way out of the present crisis is not found, the legitimacy of the new government and the prospects for its survival after U.S. forces withdraw in 2015 could be greatly diminished.

In thinking about Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers should keep one image firmly fixed in their minds: that of tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers laying down their arms and fleeing from battle as ISIS forces approached in Mosul, and elsewhere.

A full-blwn crisis has erupted.

5. Iran

A settlement of the nuclear dispute with Iran is far from assured. The six-month interim agreement will expire on July 20. The talks could not bear fruit, raising again the possibility of a military strike by Israel against Iran’s buclear installations.

6. China and territorial claims in the South and East China Seas

In the last week China has begun moving oil rigs into disputed territorial waters. This is highly provocative, and has the potential to generate an arms race with its neighbors in the region, including Vietnam, Japan and Korea.

The U.S. needs to actively intervene in this crisis to ensure it does not lead to military incidents in the region, or an arms race. The ultimate risk is that Tokyo could be driven to deploy nuclear weapons. Few doubt that it has the capability to do so.

Can President Obama and his administration handle all of these crises simultaneously, and successfully?

We shall see, and very soon.

The Trenchant Observer

ISIS or ISIL? A telling tale of the primacy of words over actions in Obama’s foreign policy

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

President Barack Obama has been very careful to enunciate clearly the acronym of the terrorist organization whose forces have taken Mosul and have been rapidly advancing toward Baghdad. ISIL, or “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” is the official U.S. nomenclature for this group.

Others, if not most outside the government, call the group “ISIS”, or “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”.

The actual name of the organization in Arabic is

الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام or داعش (dāʿiš). The pronunciation of the Arabic acronym is something like “Da eesh”.

See Patrick J. lyons and Mona El-Maggar, “What to Call Iraq Fighters? Experts Vary on S’s and L’s; Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? Or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant?” New York Times, June 18, 2014.

The nuances of meaning in the two alternate names, neither of which contains a precise translation of the Arabic word “al-Sham”, is a matter of some intellectual interest.

But when Obama spelled out “eye ess eye ell” for the TV cameras, he was stressing that he knew the correct name for this group, and that we should learn to say it correctly.

Or perhaps it was just so new to him, despite the last year’s events in Syria and Western Iraq, that he was simply trying to get it right himself.

Does it matter? In a theoretical sense, there could be an issue as to whether the goals of the group are to establish a caliphate “in Iraq and Greater Syria (which encompasses Lebanon), or in a much broader but not clearly-defined region, “the Levant”. The term includes parts of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel and the Left Bank. The term was used 100 or 200 years ago by European colonial powers, but has fallen out of usage, in part because of its colonialist overtones.

But is the translation of an acronym really the right place to sort this out?

The Arabic refers to “al-Sham”, which itself has a vague meaning in historical usage, but at least it starts with “S”.

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the military, political and diplomatic aspects of the crisis, rather than the linguistic ones?

Does Obama have any sense of what is salient, at this particular moment, and what must be decided and executed today?

Or is he lost in an academic world where what ultimately counts is a brilliant analysis, articulated in well-crafted words? Or is he, or is he at the same time, lost in a legislator’s sense of time, where all issues seemingly can be visited again?

The president seems far removed from the ominous requirements of decisive action and consequences which Dwight D. Eisenhower faced on the eve of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, or which John F. Kennedy faced as Soviet warships carrying nuclear missiles bore down on Cuba in October, 1962.

In any event, what is salient and requires urgent decision, now, is certainly not to insist on “ISIL” when everyone else is using “ISIS”.

It is actions, and actions taken at the right moment, that will determine the outcome of the current crisis in Iraq and Syria.

Had Obama acted two and a half years ago with even a minimal use of force to halt Bashar al-Assad’s massive war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, we probably wouldn’t even be talking today about Iraq falling apart because of ISIS or ISIL.

You could call the group “The Flying Rocket Men”, for all the difference the name makes.

As for The Observer, I’ll stick with ISIS, or “Da’ish”.

The Trenchant Observer