Archive for the ‘Yemen’ Category

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

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Introduction to the REPRISE (May 7, 2013)

So, Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria turns out to be a red line that leads directly to the Kremlin.

What American diplomacy has failed to achieve, spectacularly, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry now think they can achieve by talking to Putin and Lavrov.

Well, maybe. But hardly likely. Lavrov and Putin now achieve their goal of holding the conference Kofi Annan conjured up as one of his last “castles in the sky” at the conference held at Geneva on June 30, 2012.

How this will stop the killing in Syria is anyone’s guess.

It is just words, words to get Obama off the hook for his “red line” comment, which have come back to haunt him now that al-Assad has used chemical weapons in Syria.

Now that Obama is once again seeking a solution by going to the Russians, who have steadfastly supported al-Assad in his commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. See the following Reprise from the Trenchant Observer to understand just how pitiful this last move by Obama and “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight” is.

Sadly, our hopes in John Kerry seem to have been misplaced.  He appears now to have joined “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight”.  His role will be to do Obama’s bidding.  Obama will continue to control foreign policy from the White House, guided by assistants such as Ben Rhodes.

If this course is not corrected, the disasters of Obama’s first term are likely to be repeated, on a much grander scale with much graver consequences.

REPRISE: “Looney Toons” at the White House: New York  Times article details Obama’s thinking on Syria—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #45 (May 27)

Originally published May 27, 2012

[after Looney Tunes, trademark for a series of animated cartoons] [Slang] crazy; demented: also loon’ y-tunes

loon’i-er, looní-est [LUNATIC] crazy; demented
pl. loon’-ies a loony person Also loon” ey, pl. -eys

–Webster’s New Worl Dictionary


In a front-page article in today’s New York Times, Helen Cooper and Mark Landler describe the thinking behind President Obama’s policy towards Syria. They report,

WASHINGTON — In a new effort to halt more than a year of bloodshed in Syria, President Obama will push for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad under a proposal modeled on the transition in another strife-torn Arab country, Yemen.

The plan calls for a negotiated political settlement that would satisfy Syrian opposition groups but that could leave remnants of Mr. Assad’s government in place. Its goal is the kind of transition under way in Yemen, where after months of violent unrest, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down and hand control to his vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in a deal arranged by Yemen’s Arab neighbors. Mr. Hadi, though later elected in an uncontested vote, is viewed as a transitional leader.

The success of the plan hinges on Russia, one of Mr. Assad’s staunchest allies, which has strongly opposed his removal.

–Helen Cooper and Mark Landler, “U.S. Hopes Assad Can Be Eased Out With Russia’s Aid,” New York Times, May 27, 2012.

President Obama, administration officials said,

will press the proposal with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia next month at their first meeting since Mr. Putin returned to his old post on May 7. Thomas E. Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, raised the plan with Mr. Putin in Moscow three weeks ago.

Donilon, who is not a seasoned diplomat, apparently did not impress Putin, judging by the latter’s cancellation of his participation in the G-8 summit at Camp David on May 18-19.

The biggest problem with the Yemen model, several experts said, is that Yemen and Syria are starkly different countries. In Yemen, Mr. Saleh kept his grip on power for three decades by reconciling competing interests through a complex system of patronage. When his authority collapsed, there was a vice president, Mr. Hadi, who was able to assert enough control over Yemen’s splintered security forces to make him a credible transitional leader.

In Syria, by contrast, Mr. Assad oversees a security state in which his minority Alawite sect fears that if his family is ousted, it will face annihilation at the hands of the Sunni majority. That has kept the government remarkably cohesive, cut down on military defections and left Mr. Assad in a less vulnerable position than Mr. Saleh. Even if he leaves, American officials conceded, there is no obvious candidate to replace him.

The sheer incompetence of this White House on foreign policy matters is stunning.

Paradoxically, among a number of news commentators within the Washington bubble, Obama is viewed as doing pretty well on foreign policy, particularly since taking out Osama Bin Laden. None of these commentators are foreign policy experts with any experience, however. Further, Democratic foreign policy experts have largely held their silence, probably out of concern that criticism could help the Republicans in the November elections. Moreover, Obama has since his first days in office charmed the press, and many reporters and commentators are simply unwilling to criticize the administration on foreign policy issues in any fundamental way.

Significantly, the Washington Post, which is the one newspaper read by most government officials in Washington, has simply failed to cover Syria with a reporter, usually being content to just run the AP wire story. What contributions they do make are limited in the main to stories providing information by administration officials, named and unnamed.

The Editorial Board, on the other hand, has written some clear-minded editorials on Syria. The disconnect betwee the Editorial Board and the reporting side of the newspaper is hard to understand, especially in view of the Post’s illustrious history.

Despite the reputed “successfulness” of the administration’s foreign policy leadership–which analytically does not stretch beyond the fact that it has not become an issue which hurts the Obama in the presidential race, the utter lack of serousness of Preident Obama and the White House on Syria is exposed for all to see in today’s New York Times article by Cooper and Landler.

Washington’s response to Moscow’s callous support of al-Assad as he killed thousands of people through war crimes and crimes against humanity is on a par with Éduoard Daladier’s and Neville Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia in October, 1938, when they signed “the Munich Pact”.

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.

The reader is invited to read the Observer’s recent articles on Syria, and to draw his or her own conclusions as to whether Obama, Donilon, Clinton and the rest of the administration’s foreign policy team are conducting a competent foreign policy, first of all in Syria, but also everywhere else.

In the Observer’s opinion, this team is “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight”. For example, the Sixth Summit of the Americas, held in Cartagena, Colombia on April 14-15, was totally overshadowed by the prostitution scandal involving members of the Secret Serivce and the U.S. military. Little press attention was given to the substance of the meeting, the most important of the year with the leaders of the Latin American countries.

See Brian Ellsworth (Cartagena, Colombia), “Despite Obama charm, Americas summit boosts U.S. isolation,” April 16, 1012.

Now, on the Syrian question, by following a path of “working through the Russians”, the Obama administration has given up its last shred of moral legitimacy in the Middle East. Between al-Assad, Russia, China, and Iran, on the one hand, and the people of Syria, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, on the other, and in the face of immense human suffering and the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the al-Assad regime, the United States is pursuing a strategy of “working through the Russians.”

Obama is incompetent as a foreign policy leader. Former Ambassador Marc Ginsberg is to be congratulated for his moral courage in speaking out on the question of Syria, in a clear voice.

What the United States needs, desperately, is for other foreign policy experts–and national leaders–to speak out with equal clarity, be they aligned with the Democratic Party in the United States, with the Republicans, or from other countries that are friends of the United States.

In the meantime, the international community would do well to look elsewhere than to the United States for leadership on the Syrian question.

See The Trenchant Observer, “At least 70 killed nationwide; massacre of 50 in Houla; U.N. International Commission on Syria Update—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update # 43 (May 25),” May 25, 2012.

The Trenchant Observer, “Chief of UN Observers confirms massacre at Houla; NGOs report 35 children and total of 110 killed—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #44 (May 26),” May 26, 2012.

The Trenchant Observer

UPDATE (MARCH 6) WITH LINKS TO SENATOR RAND PAUL FILIBUSTER; REPRISE: Secret Laws, the John Brennan vote, and the rule of law

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013


At 12:39 a.m. EST, Senator Rand Paul concluded a filibuster on the floor of the U.S. Senate that lasted more than 12 hours, conducting a rare “speaking” filibuster of the confirmation vote for John Brennan to be CIA Director. Brennan was approved by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence earlier by a vote of 12-3.

The filibuster was carried live on C-Span II.

See C-SPAN for the archived debate up to the present, here.

Brennan is expected to be confirmed shortly.

But historians will look back at this dark period in which America abandoned the rule of law, and ask, “Who Spoke Up? Who opposed such actions?” Rand Paul will have a privileged place in the history they write. At least one Senator took this set of issues beyond the comfort zone. Others will stand up in voting against the Brennan nomination, some for the reasons set forth by Paul and in the article reproduced below.


REPRISE: Secret Laws, the John Brennan vote, and the rule of law

We must bear witness to the truth and fight to uphold the rule of law.

Originally published February 24, 2013

Let  us step back for a moment from the details of what John Brennan is saying now in order to get confirmed by the Senate as CIA Director.

The Senate Select Intelligence Committee vote on his confirmation, like the full Senate vote that may follow, poses fundamental moral and political questions for the Senators who will be voting.  Because the Brennan confirmation itself raises key questions regarding the struggle against terrorism and the rule of law, they will in effect be voting for a definition of American democracy as it exists today, in 2013.

Moreover, because the U.S. has been been viewed over the centuries as a beacon of liberty, their votes will have far-reaching impacts throughout the world, where the nature of democracy is also at issue.

Most importantly, perhaps, their votes will engage their own individual moral responsibilty for government actions which they, whether by acquiescence or affirmation, in effect approve of by their votes on the Brennan nomination.

These questions go to the heart of what it means to say America is a democratic nation governed by the rule of law.

In a democracy, can the government rule by secret laws?

In a democracy, can secret decrees or interpretations of legal authority be used to authorize or condone acts of torture, extraordinary renditions, or targeted killings?

What is the difference between secret star chamber proceedings in a dictatorship and secret proceedings in the U.S. Executive Branch by which it is decided that the right to life of a U.S. citizen, or a foreign citizen for that matter, is to be extinguished and that individual is then killed?

What does it say about American democracy today, in 2013, if Executive branch claims of legal authority to act extra-judicially to kill citizens of the U.S. or other countries are tacitly accepted, when the legal justifications for such actions are held in secret from the public and the Congress as a whole?

What does it say about American democracy when the constitutionality and legality of such actions, purportedly authorized by secret legal memoranda, are not subject to judicial review as a result of the Executive’s’ invocation of the “state secrets privilege”, whose broad interpretation by the Bush and Obama administrations the courts have not yet had the courage to strike down?

Can the American Democracy be said to be based on the rule of law, in 2013, under these circumstances?

Mr. Brennan is by all accounts the chief architect under Mr. Obama of the targeted killings programs of the Obama administration. In all likelihood, he is the single person who has done the most to persuade Mr. Obama, a former President of the Harvard Law Reviw and a former adjunct professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School, to go over to “the dark side”.

He did so in part by offering Obama moral justifications based on so-called “just war theory” going back to St. Thomas Aquinas, while ignoring the last century of developments in international law and the historical lessons they embodied.

In addition, Mr. Brennan has a deep association with the torture and extraordinary renditions programs of the Bush administration. He was unable, at his February 7, 2013 confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, to state clearly that “waterboarding” constitutes torture. Throughout his testimony he referred to acts of torture as “enhanced interrogation technicques” or, in even more Orwellian shorthand, as “EITs”.

Further, if one examines carefully the transcript of the Frebruary 7 confirmation hearing, one finds that he is a master of circumlocution and verbal legerdemain, and of telling political superiors what they want to hear.

Will he be able to enforce U.S. and international legal obligations prohibiting torture within the Central Intelligence Agency?  This appears hardly likely in view of his past, and his unwillingness to admit that even waterboarding is torture.

He has also said that the Bush torture program of enhanced interrogation techniques “saved lives”.  If he believes that to be the case, and the efficacy of torture is the standard to be applied, it is hard to see how he might avoid giving others in the CIA the impression he would give a wink and a nod to any aberrant behavior they felt they had to do.

Nor is Brennan likely to reestablish the human intelligence capabilities of the CIA, with his history of being the chief architect of the “killing lists” and the Obama policy of “targeted killings”–which is merely a euphemism for the words “extrajudicial executions” or “targeted assassinations” whenever they are conducted in violation of international law (which may be much more often than Obama claims.)

The fact that he is extraordinarily skilled at telling political authorities exactly what they want to hear, and has other Obama officials willing to assert (on background, to be sure) that he is a voice of moral restraint within the White House, or is determined to improve the Agency’s human intelligence capabilities, should not be taken at face value. He is, after all, a spook, a trained expert in deception.  We should look at his history, his actions, and not just what he says today, in reaching any judgment about whether he should be confirmed.

Do we know yet today, for example, what role if any he played in the strange evolution of the Benghazi talking points?  His colleague, acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, could not even get his version of testimony to Congress on the talking points straight in a single day.

Can a democracy kill people on the basis of secret legal memoranda purporting to find legal authority for the Executive for such actions?

Can a democracy conduct extrajudicial killings in other countires without publishing its interpretation of international law that would authorize such killings, without subjecting its legal arguments to evaluation and responses by impartial experts from other countries, other states, and eventually the judges of international tribunals?

Can the Executive in a democracy kill individuals on the basis of secret legal justifications which are are shielded from judicial review and from the public?

That is the question. It is time that Senators take a stand on these issues, and there is no better opportunity or place to take such a stand than on the vote to confirm John Brennan.

By their votes, each Senator will incur individual moral responsibility for the actions he or she condones or rejects, and responsibility before history for the answers each gives regarding the nature of democracy in America, in 2013.

The Trenchant Observer

Imagine: The Collapse of International Order, Syria, and Berlin in 1945

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

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 over 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.

The Trenchant Observer

REPRISE: The U.N. Charter, International Law, and Legal Justifications for Military Intervention in Syria—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #90 (December 12, 2012)

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

This article was first published on September 1, 2012

The situation in Syria (is) unfolding “in front of our eyes”, with the regime deploying fighter jets against the people, in addition to heavy artillery and tanks, (Ahmet DAVUTOĞLU, the Foreign Minister of Turkey, told the Security Council on August 30). “How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” he asked. “If we do not act against such a crime against humanity happening in front of our eyes, we become accomplice to the crime,” he warned.

As we wrote following the August 30 meeting of the Security Council,

Everyone wants a ceasefire and an end to the killing. Few seem to have come to grips with the fact that the use of force will be required, outside the framework of the Security Council. There can be little doubt that, within the Security Council itself, there is not going to be any agreement to use force (or even to adopt strong economic sanctions) to bring al-Assad’s barbarism to a halt.

This will have to be done outside the framework of the Security Council. What is needed is for one or more countries, preferably but not necessarily acting as a coalition, to just act to set up the safe zones, and one or more accompanying no-fly zones if that is required as a result of al-Assad’s response.

–U.N. Security Council Meets: More “blah, blah, blah”, and no action—Obama’s debacle in Syria — Update #82 (August 30), August 31, 2012.

Such action should be accompanied by a justification under international law.

That justification should stress that the purpose of the action is to protect the population of Syria against the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The stated purpose of the operation should not be to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad, which is impermissible under international law. On the other hand, it would be permissible if an operation which protected the population against the commission of such crimes also facilitated a process that would bring to account those in Syria who are responsible for the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

While such fine distinctions may seem of little significance to those not versed in international law, they are in fact quite important in terms of limiting the precedent that would be set and obtaining support from other countries for such action, if not immediately at least over time.

For further discussion of legal justifications for intervention in Syria, see the following articles by The Trenchant Observer and the sources cited therein:

Continuing massacres in Syria, at Daraya and elsewhere; legal justification for military intervention — Obama’s Debacle in Syria —Update #78 (August 26), August 26, 2012

REPRISE: Humanitarian Intervention in Syria Without Security Council Authorization—Obama’s Debacle in Syria— Update #68 (July 25), July 25, 2012

Military Intervention to establish “no-kill zones” and humanitarian corridors—Syria Update #9 (February 25), February 24, 2012

The critical issue with respect to legal justifications for establishing and defending “safe zones” or “no-kill zones” in Syria, and the establishment of no-fly zones if required, is whether such action would violate Article 2 paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter. Article 2(4) provides:

Article 2

The Organization and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles.

(4) All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

On the face of it, the use of force to enforce a no-fly zone, or to defend a “safe zone” from assaults by Syria’s army, would involve an action against the “territorial integrity” of Syria. This is the horn of the dilemma.

Read literally, any permanent member of the Security Council could, through the use of its veto, block any military action by any state within the territory of another state, except in the case of an “armed attack”, no matter what the circumstances. In principle, such a veto could block any action by the civilized nations of the world to bring to a halt a war crimes and crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing such as occurred in Kosovo, or even genocide such as that conducted by Adolph Hitler during World War II.

Various interpretations of the Charter have proposed ways out of this logical box. One is the so-called “teleological” interpretation, by which Article 2(4) must be interpreted not literally, but rather in the light of the general purposes of the U.N. Charter and its other principles. Using this approach, one might justify the establishment of “no-kill zones” and “no-fly zones” in Syria.

The problem is that such “teleological” interpretations might open Pandora’s box, allowing multiple interpretations and opportunities for abuse by states intervening for their own purposes, e.g., to overthrow the al-Assad regime, while putting a humanitarian argument forward to justify their actions. Or, to cite another example, Israel and the United States might attempt to justify an attack on Iran to take out or greatly degrade its nuclear enrichment capabilities and what they believe is a secret program aimed at developing nuclear weapons, on the rationale that it is necessary to maintain international peace and security.

Alternatively, Israel and the United States could in principle attempt to justify an attack on Iran as an exercise of the right of individual and collective self-defense, an exception to the prohibition in Article 2(4) contained in Article 51 of the Charter, which provides:

Article 51

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

The key words in Article 51 are “if an armed attack occurs”, which has been interpreted as embodying the requirements that the armed attack have occurred or be imminent, immediate and leave no time for other actions. Exercise of the right of self-defense has traditionally been subject to the requirements “immediacy, necessity and proportionality”.

See Flavio Paioletti, “The 21st Century Challenges to Article 51,” e-International Relations, June 30, 2011.

The United States and other nations have not always acted within this tight legal framework. In 1999, for example, the United States and NATO conducted a unilateral bombing campaign against Serbia in a successful effort to get the government to stop its policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Despite its humanitarian purpose, no legal justification was advanced by the U.S. Department of State for the action.

In Iraq, the United States sought to justify its 2003 invasion of that country both on the basis of previous Security Council resolutions and on the basis of the “right” advanced by the Bush administration to “pre-emptive self defense”.

The concern of states and legal scholars from around the world is that by allowing “teleological” interpretations of Article 2(4) or expansive interpretations of what constitutes “an armed attack” creating a right of individual and collective self-defense, such interpretations would open the door to increasingly expansive assertions of the right to use force across international frontiers. It is significant that in the case of Kosovo, no legal justification was offered.

So, we are left with the legal regime brilliantly defined by the founders of the United Nations to establish rules and mechanisms to effectively regulate the international use of force, on the one hand, and the fact that as the populations of more and more countries seek to demand respect for their fundamental human rights, and the right to participate in government, existing dictorships may resort to the appalling use of terror and crimes against humanity and war crimes in defending their hold on power, as has happened recently in Libya and Syria.

Unlike domestic laws and the constitution in the U.S., the United Nations Charter and other international agreements are subject to rules of strict interpretation, as established in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. This makes sense, as nations are generally extremely wary of ceding authority to international institutions, and rules of strict interpretation are necessary in order to secure participation in international treaties. While the United Nations Charter is something of a special case, since very few countries would consider withdrawal from the organization, acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice remains voluntary, a fact which underlines the continuing importance of rules of strict interpretation.

Caught in this logical box, are we to stand idly by as tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of human beings are slaughtered, whenever a permanent member of the Security Council exercises a veto?

The United Nations Charter is 67 years old. It has survived the Korean war, the war in Vietnam, the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan (1980), the Balkan wars, genocide in Rwanda and the Sudan, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The fundamental question is whether states should: (1) simply act outside the charter when they feel compelled to do so for humanitarian reasons (e.g., Kosovo); (2) justify their actions on legal grounds, preferably as taken with the support of regional organizations (e.g., NATO) or a broad coalition of nations; or (3) do nothing in the face of acts of barbarism such as those being committed in Syria.

In the case of Kosovo, Russia brought a resolution to a vote in the Security Council which condemned the bombing of Serbia, but the resolution was defeated 12-3.

Perhaps that is as close to 100% compliance with the Charter norms as we can get in the world today.

The ultimate choice is between undertaking effective action that will halt the atrocities in Syria, or sticking with our current policies.

In the case of the U.S., the current policy is carefully calibrated to comply with the requirements on the use of force laid down by the International Court of Justice in 1986 in the Nicaragua case. In that case, the Court held that direction and control of rebel groups was required in order for assistance to rebel groups to constitute an armed attack, thereby triggering a right of individual or collective self defense.

If the decision is made to establish safe zones and associated no-fly zones (if necessary), a final choice is whether to provide some legal justification for such action, or to follow the example of the United States in the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, and offer none.

While the choice here is not entirely clear, a strong argument can be made for advancing a highly restrictive legal justification, narrowly tailored to the circumstances in the Syrian case, together with the support of a regional body such as NATO, and undertaken only as a provisional measure of protection until such time as the Security Council can act effectively to protect the population of Syria from the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Russia may bring a resolution condemning such action in the Security Council. Assuming the resolution is defeated by a healthy margin, as occurred in the case of Kosovo, this may be the closest to compliance with the Charter as is possible today.

The Trenchant Observer

On eve of testimony to Congress on Benghazi, CIA Director David Petraeus forced out over an affair

Friday, November 9th, 2012

Updated November 10, 2012

David Petraeus, the nation’s most-celebrated military commander, has been forced to resign, ostensibly over an affair which came to light in an FBI investigation of unauthorized access to his computers and personal e-mail. Petraeus had been scheduled to testify in Congress next week on the attack on the Benghazi consulate and CIA “annex”, and the U.S. response.

According to the New York Times account, Petraeus was encouraged by others to resign.

Senior members of Congress were alerted to Mr. Petraeus’s impending resignation by intelligence officials about six hours before the C.I.A. announced it. One Congressional official who was briefed on the matter said that Mr. Petraeus had been encouraged “to get out in front of the issue” and resign, and that he agreed.

–Michael D. Shear, “Petraeus Quits; Evidence of Affair Was Found by F.B.I.,” New York Times, November 9, 2012.

Whether there is anything more to the coincidence of timing than meets the eye remains to be seen.

With the CIA and the Obama administration, however, it is always prudent to look beyond what meets the eye.

Robert Baer, a celebrated former CIA agent, stated the following in an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN on Friday:

CNN contributor and former CIA operative Robert Baer spoke to Piers Morgan Friday and gave his perspective on the resignation of General David Petraeus. The now former CIA director resigned from his post earlier Friday citing an extramarital affair.

“The idea that the FBI is investigating the CIA director for a marital, extramarital affair is just extraordinary,” said Baer in response to the news that the FBI was investigating the general and the alleged individual involved with the affair, Petraeus’ biographer Paula Broadwell.

“There are 4 or 5 CIA directors that I know who were carrying on extramarital affairs while they were director. The FBI was never brought in,” said Baer. “So this is absolutely extraordinary. I’m telling you there’s more to do than with sex. There’s something going on here which I can’t explain and I think we’re going to find out very soon.”

–Piers Morgan Tonight, November 9, 2012 (with video clip)

See also

Philip Sherwell, “Spy chief Gen David Petraeus, his ’embedded’ biographer and the FBI email trawl that exposed their affair.” The Telegraph, November 10, 2012.

Petraeus is the second current or former U.S. commander in Afghanistan to be replaced or forced to resign for “errors in judgment”.  Stanly McChrystal was the first. He was replaced by David Petraeus in June, 2010, following the publication in Rolling Stone of scurrilous comments by McChrystal and his staff about other leaders and officials.

One common denominator in these two cases was that both men, priding themselves on their extraordinary physical fitness, operated on the basis of severe sleep deprivation.

There are many more wrinkles to this story, but one lesson seems clear: If we want our commanders to make good judgments, we should insist that they get enough sleep. That applies to the Commander-in-Chief as well, and represents at least one positive lesson President Obama can take away from this episode.

Among the many questions raised by Petraeus’ resignation are the following:

1. Why did the FBI refrain from acting on the Petraeus case until after the elections on November 6?

2. According to reports, Obama and Petraeus did not have a warm relationship.  Was Obama involved in the timing of the FBI investigation being brought to Petraeus’ attention?

3. If not the president, who was behind the timing of the confrontation with Petraeus?

4. What is the relationship, if any, between the timing of the forced resignation, and Petraeus’ testimony before Congress on the Benghazi affair, which was scheduled for next week?

5. What is the relationship, if any, between the CIA’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, and a long-overdue National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan, and the timing of Petraeus’ departure?

In the end, in seeking to understand Petraeus’ wreckless behavior, one has to wonder to what extent he was deeply unhappy with his situation at the CIA, with the “withdrawal” policy being followed in Afganistan, and with his own cool relationship with the president.   

Most telling, perhaps, is the fact that the affair reportedly took place not under the extreme stress of wartime conditions in Afghanistan, but after he returned to Washington.

Surely he knew that his personal e-mails would be read.  Ultimately, we may need to inquire into the subconscious roots of his self-destructive behavior. 

Here, we have the makings of a great novel, and a great movie. The general may, if fact, be the emblematic man of our times. 

What Petraeus thinks about our policy in Afghanistan is something we may have to wait a while to hear, at least until after he has found his way to emerge from the sea of shame that has inundated him in the last few days. 

When he is ready to speak, many will be eager to hear what he has to say, about President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

The Trenchant Observer

No time for cowboys: U.S. preparation for reprisals against Libyan targets

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

News report

WASHINGTON — The United States is laying the groundwork for operations to kill or capture militants implicated in the deadly attack on a diplomatic mission in Libya, senior military and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday, as the weak Libyan government appears unable to arrest or even question fighters involved in the assault.

The top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is compiling so-called target packages of detailed information about the suspects, the officials said. Working with the Pentagon and the C.I.A., the command is preparing the dossiers as the first step in anticipation of possible orders from President Obama to take action against those determined to have played a role in the attack on a diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues three weeks ago.

–Eric Schmitt and David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. Is Tracking Killers in Attack on Libya Mission,” New York Times, October 2, 2012 (October 3, 2012 print edition).

Several facts have now become clear regarding the attacks on the U.S. consulate and other buildings in Benghazi on September 11-12, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.  They include:

1.  The Ambassador, and the consulate in Benghazi, were woefully unprotected in terms of security.  The State Department had refused numerous requests for more robust security arrangements in view of the changing risk environment in eastern Libya.

2.  The CIA and/or other U.S. government agencies were conducting a major “black” or secret  operation in Benghazi, without the knowledge of ranking Libyan officials.

3.   The lack of any warning of the imminence or possibility of the attacks on September 11-12 against the consulate, and a second compound at some remove from the consulate (often referred to as a “safe house”), constituted an enormous intelligence failure on the part of the Obama administration.

4.  The failure of the “black ops” group to anticipate the attacks reveals a stunning lack of effectiveness of intelligence operatives whose precise task was to track activities among anti-American and extremist groups.

5.  As one official told the New York Times, the attacks in Benghazi and the withdrawal of the U.S. intelligence operatives meant that the U.S. had had its “eyes poked out”  in Libya, or at least in eastern Libya.

Among the more than two dozen American personnel evacuated from the city after the assault on the American mission and a nearby annex were about a dozen C.I.A. operatives and contractors, who played a crucial role in conducting surveillance and collecting information on an array of armed militant groups in and around the city.

“It’s a catastrophic intelligence loss,” said one American official who has served in Libya and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the F.B.I. is still investigating the attack. “We got our eyes poked out.”

The C.I.A.’s surveillance targets in Benghazi and eastern Libya include Ansar al-Sharia, a militia that some have blamed for the attack, as well as suspected members of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

–Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper and Michael S. Schmidt, “Deadly Attack in Libya Was Major Blow to C.I.A. Efforts,” New York Times, September 23, 2012.

6.  Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, provided misleading information about who was responsible for the attack on the consulate, in a series of constantly-changing stories over a period of weeks.  In particular, these officials pushed a narrative that the attacks were the result of demonstrations in front of the consulate that were a reaction to the movie trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims,” which gave rise to demonstrations throughout a number of Muslim countries, when the known facts strongly suggested this was not the case.

7.  Obama administration officials have apparently leaked information regarding the preparation of target options or “packages”, to be executed against those responsible for the attacks in Benghazi, if President Obama gives the go-ahead. 

8.  The last two points continue a pattern in which leaks by government officials seek to portray President Obama as a “macho” president who is extremely tough on national defense and national security.

Two extremely dangerous factors seem to be converging that could lead the president to undertake disastrous actions against targets in Libya.

The first is the dominance within Obama’s national security councils of CIA and military advocates of using force against targets in other countries without regard for their sovereignty, including a special attachment to drone stikes and special operations attacks conducted outside the framework of international law.

International law establishes with great clarity that the conduct of ireprisals within the territory of another state is a violation of bedrock principles of international law prohibiting the use of force (e.g., Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter), and are not permissible under international law as lawful exercises of the right to self-defense under Article 51 of the Charter.

The second factor is the presidential election to be held on November 6, and the ongoing campaign including the first debate between  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to be held tonight, October 3, 2012.  Romney has criticized Obama sharply for some of the failures mentioned in the points above.

Obama’s argument throughout the campaign has been that he has effectively reduced the threat of Al Queda and terrorists against the United States.  The Libyan failures do not fit well within this narrative.

Washington’s misleading statements about what happened in Benghazi suggest, to this observer at least, that the CIA and other intelligence agencies have been very keen to distract attention from what the black operations group was doing in Libya, without the permission of the Libyan government.  The administration’s objectives in making these misleading statements seem to have been to avoid discussion of this sensitive issue, and to keep the whole Libyan mess out of the presidential campaign.

This tactic of issuing misleading statements has now backfired.

The great risk at the moment is that President Obama, in order to shift the conversation away from his administration’s failures in Libya, will resort to the direct use of force against those believed to be responsible for the death of Ambassador Stevens and the other Americans in Benghazi, without the consent and cooperation of the Libyan authorities.

The electoral logic is powerful, but the risk is that such actions could inflict enourmous damage on U.S. foreign policy and public attitudes toward the United States not only in Libya, but also throughout the Middle East and in other Muslim countries.

The United States should not react to the attacks in Benghazi like a tribe which demands immediate blood vengeance for the killing of one of its members. Rather, it should act as a great democracy and example to the world, dedicated to the rule of law, and proceed to identify those responsible for the attacks, and then over time seek to bring them to justice through cooperation with the governments of the countries in which they may be found. This is the example which will have a real and lasting impact in the Middle East, and beyond.

The cowboys who have grown accustomed to conducting drone attacks in other countries without regard for international law, or for the reactions of the peoples and governments in the territories where they direct their strikes, should be sent back to the corral.

They should not be allowed to call the shots on this one.  Nor should the Obama campaign operation be allowed to undermine U.S. foreign policy in the region for the sake of electoral politics.

Above all, if President Obama is wearing a cowboy hat, he should take it off.

The Trenchant Observer

Words and Deeds: President Obama delivers eloquent defense of free speech and democracy at U.N. General Assembly (with text and video links)

Saturday, September 29th, 2012


On September 25, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, delivering a nuanced and eloquent defense of the right to freedom of speech, liberty, and democracy.

See Remarks by the President to the UN General Assembly, United Nations Headquarters, September 25, 2012. The text of the speech is found here. A video of the speech is found here.

The speech was one of the most significant President Obama has delivered during his presidency. Unlike his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which was carefully framed with deliberate ambiguity regarding compliance with international law, the September 25 address to the General Assembly constitutes a straightforward and powerful defense of democracy and the values of liberty which it expresses.

In particular, President Obama addressed directly the issue of freedom of speech and violent reactions to protected speech that offends Muslims or members of other religions, including the violent actions that led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chirstopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on the night of September 11-12, 2012.

On Syria, however, the president did not say anything significant or new.

If this speech were to embody the real and guiding principles of a second-term Obama foreign policy, its content would be highly significant.

But as we and others have remarked, there is often a gap between the president’s eloquent speeches and the actions of his administration in the real world. As The Daily Star noted in its editorial following the speech,

A rough translation to English of lyrics to a popular Arabic song goes something like this: “When I hear your words I am fascinated, When I see your actions I am flabbergasted.”

These are the sentiments of many people in this part of the world on the occasion of Tuesday’s speech by President Barack Obama before the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

They might also apply to past addresses there by Obama’s predecessors George Bush, Bill Clinton, and other presidents over the past several decades.

The verbal prowess might differ, but the content is usually the same. People often hear positive, upbeat and principled rhetoric, the kind that used to give hope to the Palestinian people, or the wider Arab world.

While people in this region might have been genuinely impressed with the content of some of these speeches in the past, the audience these days has become considerably more cynical, and with good reason.

In order to realize any of the lofty goals laid out in such addresses, several things are required: political will, the tools to succeed and a feasible time frame.

When a politician who enjoys the stature and resources that Obama does makes a decision to talk about the burning issues of the day, he should be prepared to make an effort to put out the fire. Otherwise, the difference between words and actions will lose him more and more of the audience.

–Editorial, “Deeds, not words,” The Daily Star (Beirut), September 26, 2012.

If the speech does represent President Obama’s vision of his foreign policy for a second term, if re-elected, he will have his work cut out for him. For starters, he will have to deal much more effectively with the civil war in Syria, and address the human rights violations that were the subject of President Jimmy Carter’s op-ed piece in the New York Times on June 24, 2012.

See The Trenchant Observer, “’A time to break silence’: Dr. King on the Vietnam war, and President Carter on America’s human rights violations,” June 27, 2012 (revised June 28, 2012).

This would seem to be a tall order for any president. Yet however skeptical if not cynical we may become, we should always hold out some hope that the President, freed from the perceived imperatives of a re-election campaign, might in his search for a place in history find a higher path that leads away from his vision of perrenial warfare, and towards a vision of peace.

If Obama were to focus on visions of peace and how to achieve them, instead of inevitable grinding war and warfare, he might well find in his 2012 address to the General Assembly a skeletal framework for a foreign policy which though deeds could help place him among the great presidents of the United States.

To achieve that goal, as David Ignatius has pointed out, he will need to emerge from the shadows and into the light where the world can see his and America’s actions.  For only from there, in the light of day, can he lead the international community in pursuit of a reinvigorated vision of international peace, and a strategy of concrete actions through which that vision might be achieved.

Without such a shift in approach, President Obama’s place in history will forever be diminished by his foreign policy failures, his violations of human rights and international law, and the failure of his strategic vision for America’s actions in the world.

The Trenchant Observer

Muslim rage and the West: The expression of regret for the protected speech of others

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

“Muslim Rage”, Riots, and Criminal Attacks in Response to the Film Entitled “The Innocence of Muslims”

The publication on the Internet of a  “trailer” for a film entitled “The Innocence of Muslims” has given rise to demonstrations in a number of Muslim countries, including Egypt where the government did not prevent demonstrators from scaling the walls of the U.S. embassy and entering the courtyard on the first day, September 11, and Libya where a murderous assault was mounted later that evening by organized paramilitary forces against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The hesitation of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in ordering additional police and in condemning the assault on the the U.S. Embassy on the first day of the protests, before President Barack Obama telephoned him, was particularly chilling and raised questions about future U.S. collaboration with the government of the Muslim Brotherhood led by Morsi.

What we are witnessing is a kind of cultural battle in which the main protagonists are the forces of Modernity, represented by the West in the popular imagination of the Arab Street, but also and importantly by broad sectors of the populations in Islamic countries which are educated and want to join the modern world, on the one hand, and extremist Muslim groups which oppose Modernity and the West, and seek to return 21st century societies to the conditions presumed to have existed in a distant imagined past, including a theocratic form of government in which a harsh form of Shari’a or Muslim religious law and social codes from that era are imposed on the population as God’s law and God’s social order.

Advocates and defenders of Modernity, including those in the West, are operating on an uneven playing field in a cultural conflict between these two approaches to government and society.  In the West, the tolerance and democratic values of Modernity protect the views of Islamic extremists who reject those very values, while in practice in Muslim countries the reverse is often not the case.

Historical Perspective

The West has benefited from centuries of developments that have led to the existence of the modern, tolerant democratic state.

In England, limitations on the powers of the King vis-à-vis the aristocracy were established in the Magna Carta of 1215.  Religious independence from Rome was achieved in the 16th century.  Further restrictions on government resulted from the English Revolution of 1688 and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

On the Continent of Europe, religious pluralism was achieved as the result of a long struggle, including the Protestant Reformation beginning in 1517 with Martin Luther and, in the 17th century, the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648) culminating in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, establishing the right of rulers to choose the religion of their followers.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment charted the philosophical basis for a firm separation between Church and State, which was achieved in the American and the French Revolutions.  Both revolutions also gave rise to declarations of rights of citizens as against their governments, limiting the authority of the latter in important realms such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, trial by due process of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.  In France, during the French Revolution and afterwards, ridicule of and attacks upon the Catholic Church were merciless. For example, at a time when it was forbidden for Catholics to eat meat on Friday, the Freemasons, to make their point, held luncheons at which they feasted to excess on pork, beef and every other kind of meat.

In the Islamic world, while there have been periods of remarkable tolerance, in the end these approaches have not yet prevailed in many countries of  the Middle East and South Asia, and as a result the culture and political realities of many of these countries have been characterized by a pattern of not infrequently settling differences of opinion, particularly as to religious matters, either through repression by the state or by assassination of those who disagree with religious extremists who are willing and able to kill them.

As a result, many advocates of Modernity within many Islamic societies are cowed by fear, the very real fear that Muslim extremists will kill them for expressing views which the assassins consider to be blasphemous or heretical.

To be sure, the West has passed through historical stages such as the Inquisition in which heresy from Rome was punished by execution, and societies were ruled by terror, often under religious pretexts.

What is different is that in the West the Reformation did occur, successfully, and the diversity of religions in Europe was established as a result of the Reformation, the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648), and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  In the 18th century, the Enlightenment did take place in France and America, and elsewhere, and political liberties including the right to individual religious freedom were established in the constitutions of France and America, and beyond.  Through Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, the principles of the French constitution were enacted throughout Europe, and later Latin America.

Eventually, the ideas enshrined in the the American and French declarations of rights and constitutions of 1787, 1789 and 1791, and even earlier, triumphed not only on paper but also in reality, even if in Europe it took a war against Germany and the Axis Powers including Italy and Japan to consolidate that result through the victory of the Allied Powers in 1945.  The exceptions, of course, were the Soviet Union  and the societies subjugated by the Red Army during and after World War II.

Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, and under the American occupation that followed, these ideas also took root in Japan, and spread to other countries in the region.  When the Berlin wall came down in 1989, the military grip of the Soviet Union over the countries of Eastern Europe was broken, and these societies too joined the community of democratic states in Europe and North America, and in Asia and Latin America, where democracies had also taken hold.

Importantly, at the international level the ideas of the American and French Revolutions, and the earlier English Revolution of 1688, also triumphed.  These ideas were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 with the affirmative and overwhelming vote of almost all countries.

Significantly, however, Saudi Arabia did not vote for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and religious opposition to the ideas expressed in the Declaration, and subsequently codified in the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966, in force since 1976), did not disappear in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and South Asia.

The core of the cultural battle we now see being played out in “Muslim outrage” over depictions of Muslims or even Mohamed published in the West, the seat of Modernity, under the protection of the right of free speech, epitomizes the fundamental incompatibility of the bedrock values of individual liberties, freedom of religion, and the separation of Church and State which have triumphed in the West, and now much of the world, and the values of fundamentalist and extreme religious groups in Muslim societies today which are in essence opposed to the Enlightenment, the separation of religion and the state, and the protection of fundamental human rights including the equality of women, freedom of religion, and the right to free speech and freedom of the press.

On religious issues, not only fundamentalist and extreme religious groups but also broader portions of Islamic populations oppose freedom of expression, and are susceptible to being persuaded that critics are guilty of blasphemy.

What is different between the West and the societies still struggling in the battle between Modernity and Islamic fundamentalism, is that the West in accordance with its values of tolerance and protection of citizens in the exercise of their fundamental rights grants a zone of freedom to Muslims, including those with extremist views, which Muslims do not always grant to advocates of Modernity–even fellow Muslims–within the borders of Islamic states.

While freedom of expression may be guaranteed in Islamic countries under their constitutions and laws (often modeled in the Middle East, ironically, on those of France), such freedom does not extend to questioning Islam or the Prophet Mohamed, or even to engaging in historical studies of the origins of the religion as is common practice in the West regarding Christianity or Judaism or any other religion.  Even where freedom exists on paper, governments and individual leaders are often cowed by the threat of assassination that always lurks in the shadows when it comes to defending the right of critics of Islam, or even within Islam, to express their views.

That is one reason why even advocates of Modernity within Islamic societies are reluctant to take strong positions against the extremist views of those who, if not placated, may be willing to kill them. We see, for example, that even as Muslim voices are raised in outrage over an amateurish and polemical film made in the West, a “foundation” in Iran has raised the bounty on the head of Salmon Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses (published in England in 1988), with little or no outcry from within the Muslim world.

How can this cultural battle be engaged in a constructive manner?

Framing a Respectful Dialogue

How can these strong cultural and religious differences in values be framed and transformed into a respectful dialogue between two great civilizations?

For those in the West, the most important point is that it is essential that they see and understand clearly that this unlevel playing field exists.

Instead of simply apologizing to Muslim extremists for offending their sensibilities, those in the West should insist on such extremists respecting their sensibilities and activities, and ceasing their insults and crimes against advocates and defenders of Modernity, whether these be from the West or from within their own countries.

An apology may be offered and do relatively little harm within the ambit of the tolerant societies of the West.  But it is often taken as a sign of weakness by extremists who are fundamentally at war with the values of the West and Modernity and, instead of having a calming effect, may in fact goad them on to further hostile actions and attacks.

Moreover, government officials in the West need to think carefully before they “apologize” for the protected speech of others which may be offensive to Muslims, or to other religious groups.  They must be very careful indeed not to give the impression that they are apologizing for the “weakness” of their constitutional guarantees of free speech, for such apologies undermine those guarantees in their own societies and may unintentionally weaken the position of advocates of Modernity within the very societies to which their “apologies” are addressed.

The option of simply not responding should always be considered, as there is no requirement that the governmnet respond to those who are upset by the exercise of free speech within its jurisdiction. Nonetheless, on occasion it may be appropriate for government officials to express “regret” that constitutionally protected free speech has given offense to the followers of this or that religion, and particularly Islam, but even this is a slippery slope and extreme care should be exercised.

How might an “expression of regret” be properly framed by a government official when the exercise of protected free speech by others gives offense to some, or many, Muslims?

In every case where Muslim extremist groups express outrage at an insensitive or deliberately insulting cultural expression disparaging Islam and Muslims, advocates of Modernity should frame the discourse by pointing out similar acts of insensitivity committed by Muslims against Christians and Jews and others, and the lack of public criticisms in Muslim societies of the authors of such actions, even when violent crimes are involved or encouraged.

At the same time, if crimes are being threatened by offended Muslims, advocates of Modernity should forcefully and unequivocally demand that public order be maintained and that all diplomats and foreigners and their property be fully protected by the governments of the countries in which such crimes are threatened or appear likely–or even possible. Only then should an explanation be offered that the offensive acts do not represent the policy of the government or in the official’s opinion the views of the people of his or her country, but that such activity is firmly protected by that country’s constitution and in the constitutions of other countries that embrace the values of the West and Modernity.  Within this framework of explanation, an expression of sincere regret that the sensibilities of Muslims have been offended may be quite appropriate.

An “apology” from the state for the protected speech of others, on the other hand, is not appropriate, because the state is not the author of the action deemed by Muslims to be offensive, and because the state should never apologize for its constitutional protection of free speech and freedom of expression.

To show weakness, to apologize for the protected speech of others without at the same time reaffirming the fundamental liberties which permitted such expression to take place, only plays to the advantage of the extremist groups.  Rather, the moment should be seized not only to express regret over some action deemed “offensive” to Muslims and exploited by extremists in their own war against Modernity and the West, but also to simultaneously assert and defend the fundamental values of the civilization of Modernity and the West which protect expressions which may be offensive to Muslims, or to Christians, or to Jews, or to any other religious sect or group.

Such principled responses will help place the “offense” within the proper context in the struggle over values between Islamic extremists and advocates of Modernity, and ultimately help to reinforce the positions of advocates and defenders of Modernity, both within and outside of Islamic countries.

Whether offensive speech should be treated as consitutionally-protected free speech, or blaphemy, is a question which sums up the essential clash of values.  The societies of the West underwent tremendous upheavals, including the 30 Years’ War and the French Revolution, in sorting out where they stood on these issues.  Where the debates within Islamic societies will come out is uncertain, but the trend has been an evolution toward outcomes similar to those in countries in the rest of the world that have accepted Modernity and embraced the international law of human rights.

In the meantime, when speech or actions offensive to Muslim religious sensibilities lead to unrest and demonstrations, journalists should avoid fanning the flames of controversy by predicting massive reactions, and should in all cases make every effort to accurately report what is happening within the context that gives it meaning. If a thousand people in a Muslim country demonstrate against some speech or act in a country that protects free speech, they should not miss the story that the other 89,999,000 people in the country did not demonstrate.

Tolerance and pluralism are the crowning values of the civilization of Modernity and the West.  Large sectors of the populations in many Muslim countries appreciate these values and are striving to implement them within their own societies.  In responding to the “Muslim outrage” of sincere Muslims who are offended by a particular action (and of extremist groups which whip up such sentiments for their own purposes), or the outrage of any religious or other group, the reaffirmation of these values should hold center place.

The Trenchant Observer

Further reading

Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (Oxford University Press, 1993)

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

Giles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Harvard University Press, 2004)

Khaled Abou el Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (Harper Collins, 2005)

President Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood express condolences for American losses in Benghazi, offer reassurances concerning defense of U.S. embassy in Cairo; Vienna Conventions require effective defense in all cases

Friday, September 14th, 2012

In response to what was reported as a less than robust defense of the U.S. embassay in Cairo by Egyptian security forces on Wednesday, September 12, President Obama called President Mohamed Morsi and demanded effective defense of the embassy and clear statements and efforts  aimed at defusing the situation.


David D. Kirkpatrick, Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, “Egypt, Hearing From Obama, Moves to Heal Rift From Protests,”

Catherine Poe, “An angry President Obama warns Morsi and Egypt to protect American Embassy or else,” The Washington Times, September 14, 2012.

Morsi and the Egyptian government, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, got the message. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, dated September 13, Khairat El-Shater, the Deputy President of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote the following:

To the Editor:

Today’s world is a global village; nations are closer than ever before. In such a world, respect for values and figures — religious or otherwise — that nations hold dear is a necessary requirement to build sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships.

Despite our resentment of the continued appearance of productions like the anti-Muslim film that led to the current violence, we do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.

In a new democratic Egypt, Egyptians earned the right to voice their anger over such issues, and they expect their government to uphold and protect their right to do so. However, they should do so peacefully and within the bounds of the law.

The breach of the United States Embassy premises by Egyptian protesters is illegal under international law. The failure of the protecting police force has to be investigated.

We are relieved that no embassy staff in Cairo were harmed. Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity, and public anger needs to be dealt with responsibly and with caution. Our condolences to the American people for the loss of their ambassador and three members of the embassy staff in Libya.

We hope that the relationships that both Americans and Egyptians worked to build in the past couple of months can sustain the turbulence of this week’s events. Our nations have much to learn from each other as we embark on building the new Egypt.

Deputy President, Muslim Brotherhood
Cairo, Sept. 13, 2012

–‘Our Condolences,’ the Muslim Brotherhood Says, Letter to the Editor, New York Times, September 13, 2012.

It may be that Morsi feels he has to consult with other Muslim Brotherhood leaders on critically important issues. That does not justify bad decisions. Still, his reassurances through various channels, though tardy, are welcome.

There can be no excuse for the failure of Egyptian security forces to effectively defend the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Wednesday, September 12. Egypt, and virtually all other countries are obligated to defend and protect foreign diplomatic and consular missions under customary international law and under the specific terms of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

Article 22 of the Vienna Concention on Diplomatic Relations provides, for example,

Article 22

1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
2. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity (emphasis added).
3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.

Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations contains similar language.

There are no reasons whatsoever that would justify the host country (or “the receiving state”, in the language of the treaties) to fail to comply fully with these provisions.

The Trenchant Observer

By publicly naming person behind anti-Muslim film, federal officials commit appalling abuse of power

Friday, September 14th, 2012

On dit quelquefois: “Le sens commun est fort rare.”
People sometimes say: “Common sense is quite rare.”
–Voltaire, “Common Sense” (1765)

U.S. federal officials have reportedly identified by name the person behind the making of the film entitled “The Innocence of Muslims”, which has caused outrage in various Muslim countries.

By doing so, they have in effect condemned the individual involved to a high risk of being killed by Muslim extremists. This they have done with no due process of law. They were not required to make the individual’s name public.

While the film has been condemned as abominable and highly inflammatory by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, as far as we know it was produced under the protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which protects freedom of speech.

It is clear that the film should never have been made. It seems to have been deliberately inflammatory.

Nonetheless, even if it is conceivable that the person behind the film is not protected by the First Amendment, certainly he was entitled to his day in court, and just as certainly it was wrong, morally and perhaps also legally, to name him publicly without bringing any charges, thereby exposing him to a very high risk of assassination.

Moreover, there is the question of what law, if any, officials may have thought he violated in making the movie, which could have given rise to federal officials conducting an investigation and making his identity public.

We live in an age where, as Mitt Romney has just proved in his incredibly inappropriate criticism of statements from Benghazi by State Department officials, people don’t always think before they open their mouths.

But federal officials should think before they put a man’s life in danger for actions that appear to be protected by the First Amendment.

There is a need for greater understanding and acceptance on both sides of this debate.

There may be an argument to be made for some form of very limited legislation in the United States that would prohibit actions intentionally undertaken, not to provoke debate and discussion, but rather to inflame religous sentiments and engender religious violence. Something like this exists in Europe. This would be the equivalent to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous dictum that freedom of speech does not give someone a right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. This is a tricky area, however, and a slippery slope in terms of curtailing freedom of speech. Any statute would have to withstand a challenge before the Supreme Court.

On the other side, returning to Voltaire, those outraged by the film would do well to read Voltaire, the Encyclopedists, and the other authors of the 18th century Enlightenment, in order to understand better the differences between Church and State in Western countries, the right to free speech which was forged through the French and the American revolutions of the 18th century, and the right to freedom of religion which received a great boost through the 16th century Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century.

These values are important to Western Civilization, and are now enshrined in the international law of human rights.  They also deserve respect. 

Understanding is a two-way street.

Again, the publication of the name of the person behind the film by federal officials represented an appalling abuse of power, by individuals seemingly oblivious to the consequences of what they were doing, in a case which would appear to involve the exercise of First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The Trenchant Observer