Monday, January 16, 2012

How Newt Gingrich Sabotaged the Closing of Guantanamo


January 2012 marks the 10th melancholy anniversary of the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay; if polling is correct, it will also mark the end of Newt Gingrich’s presidential ambitions, as the immense, gas-filled Hindenburg of his ego approaches its Lakehurst in South Carolina.
The two intersect in remarkable fashion.

Gingrich was key to igniting the firestorm of criticism that prevented the public release of 17 Uighur captives from Guantanamo to Germany and the United States in early 2009.

Uighurs were considered to be the cutest and cuddliest of detainees, largely because of a rather bizarre finding that, though they might be terrorists, if they were terrorists they would be anti-China terrorists, not anti-US terrorists.  

The term of art was “non-enemy combatants”.

The Uighur detainees were championed by politicians across the board, from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans…until clearing out Guantanamo became a signature Obama issue, and releasing the Uighurs was advertised as the first victory of President Obama’s humane post-Bush post-terror policy.

Obstruction became the name of the game, Newt Gingrich jumped in, the Democrats stampeded, and the Republicans--including Republican Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, who advertised himself as the champion of the Uighur cause--faded into the woodwork.

The high profile Uighur release fell apart.

Subsequently, the Obama administration followed the precedent of the Bush administration, and quietly dribbled the detainees out to remote, low profile jurisdictions sufficiently insulated from the wrath of the PRC: four to Bermuda in June 2009 and six to Palau (an atoll off the east coast of the Philippines which relies on US aid for a third of its budget; it was reported they agreed to accept the six Uighurs in return for a $200 million payday).  Two are apparently destined for Switzerland.  The last five have refused resettlement to whatever exotic locale the US has arranged for them, and are fighting in the courts to try to resettle in the US.

Meanwhile, Guantanamo remains open and an embarrassing symbol, both of US reliance on extrajudicial detention and harsh interrogation (which will continue on US military bases and in black offshore prison no matter what happens to the flagship enterprise in Guantanamo) and American political gridlock.

Here’s a piece I wrote on the issue in May 2009:

Uyghurs sold out in the US

Republican leaders in the United States appear eager to hand President Barack Obama a political defeat and diminish his prestige and domestic and international clout - at the cost of the continued detention of 17 Uyghur prisoners at Guantanamo in Cuba.

By accident or design, the US Republicans were able to forestall the imminent release of the Uyghurs from Guantanamo to the US and Europe - detainees that the US had long ago determined posed no threat to the US and has been attempting to release for years.

The Uyghur cause had been a favorite of anti-communist Republicans. Uyghurs are an ethnic group from Central Asia and

Description: province in western China. The ones in Guantanamo were captured in Afghanistan in late 2001.

The Uyghur's high-profile champion in Congress, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, wrote Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in June of 2008 requesting that the 17 Uyghur detainees be released from Guantanamo into parole into the US.

Rohrabacher also called on the US government to provide an apology and perhaps compensation for any abuse the detainees had endured.

The Uyghurs - and the Republicans' principled position on the issue - fell victim to the conviction of top Republicans that it was of vital importance that the Obama administration suffer a conspicuous setback on an issue that the GOP still sees as political gold: terrorism.

In a recent newspaper column, Newt Gingrich, a key Republican strategist, burned the Republicans' bridges to the Uyghur cause with an inflammatory and misleading attack on the 17 Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo.

Gingrich insisted that the Uyghurs were too dangerous to be released into the Uyghur community in Virginia and accused them of being "trained mass killers instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001", who "were trained, most likely in the weapons, explosives and ideology of mass killing, by Abdul Haq, a member of al-Qaeda's shura, or top advisory council."

Gingrich claimed the Uyghurs also committed perhaps the ultimate sacrilege against American values:

At Guantanamo Bay, the Uyghurs are known for picking up television sets on which women with bared arms appear and hurling them across the room.

Contrary to Gingrich's accusations, the Uyghurs indignantly riposted that they are not promiscuously flinging television sets around the camp.

In fact, only one TV was kicked, not tossed, several years ago and the culprit was considered to be so harmless to the US that he has already been released to Albania.

The New York Times, in an excellent report on the plight of the detainees by Tom Golden, had the TV story in June 2008:

They described their imprisonment as bewildering and traumatic, punctuated by moments of the absurd. After they were cleared for release, they were able to watch cartoons and Harry Potter movies, until Mr Mamet smashed the television because of what he said was the guards' refusal to take him to a doctor. The set was replaced with one made in China, the men said dismissively; it broke after a week.

Even if the canard of Islamicist rage against infidel appliances is debunked, the Uyghurs will find it difficult to deal with the political realities driving the abrupt sea change in Republican attitudes.

Republican Lindsey Graham explained how noble causes can be discarded in a heartbeat when the greater good of political advantage dictates:

Asked whether any lawmakers were arguing on behalf of releasing the Uyghurs in the US, he said: "The Uyghur caucus is pretty small."

The caucus of Republican lawmakers anxious to achieve political traction against Obama at any cost is, on the other hand, rather large. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

What That Dead Iranian Scientist Has to do With China

I titled my most recent article for Asia Times “Desperate Days: The Obama Administration Struggles to Disengage from the Middle East and Escape to Asia”.  The crack editors at AT instead opted for Obama Drags Middle East Baggage to Asia, which perhaps doesn’t convey the bloody Great Game element as well.

My point is, the logic of economics, diplomacy, and security theater tells the Obama administration that the US will find its future and, equally importantly, welcoming arms in Asia.  A meticulous, multi-stage campaign has been crafted to sell the “strategic pivot to Asia” to the key stakeholders: policy wonks and insiders, politicos, US moneybags, military brass, and the nations in Asia that are worried about China but also dubious about American staying power.

Part of the shift in resources involves putting the complications, compromises, and expenses of the Middle East in America’s rearview mirror. 

Goodbye Iraq, goodbye Afghanistan, and maybe, just maybe, the United States can work out a modus vivendi with Iran.  Iran, without exaggeration, has been desperate for normalization of relations with the US for probably the last decade.  The only dispute within Iran seems to be on the terms of engagement and who gets to take credit for reintegrating Iran into the global system.

Our 21st century partners in Asia, it is safe to say, would also love to see the United States shed its Iran incubus, and lose the fear that their energy imports, banking systems, and futures are hostage to whatever mischief we decide to cook up in the Middle East.

However, whenever it looks like the Obama administration is going to translate its carefully-choreographed campaign of international pressure against Iran into negotiations with Iran, something happens.

I imagine President Obama pounding his desk in frustration and bellowing a la Michael Corleone, “Every time I try to get out, they…pull… me…back…in.”


That’s where the murder of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan comes in. 

Jim Lobe, bless him, makes a similar point in a thoughtful piece up at his blog, flagging the murder as an attempt to disrupt the efforts to restart the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, possibly conducted  by factions inside Iran but more probably by Israel.

Looking at it from the Asian angle, I think it also had something to do with forcing the United States to reaffirm and continue its expensive and destructive engagement with the Middle East.

The US political dynamics also support continued Middle East involvement.  Beyond the undoubtedly sincere Israel-love of the American Right, Republicans are no doubt happy to see President Obama continuing to flounder in the bloody bog of the Middle East instead of capering off to peaceful and prosperous Asia.

By the way, there has been an interesting discussion as to whether Ahmad Roshan’s murder should be termed “terrorism”.  Slapping the “terrorism” tag on Western policy toward Iran is a useful rhetorical point, but to me the term “terrorism” was always a canard, something meant to discredit the asymmetric warfare of opponents who couldn’t advance their objectives with conventional military forces. Best just to call Ahmad Roshan’s death “murder”.  Or, if you prefer, “state-ordered extrajudicial murder”.

To me, Israeli fingerprints are on the operation not because of its precision, but because of the somewhat creepy efforts to avoid collateral casualties with the sophisticated shaped charge (as the media was suspiciously quick to point out).  Israel has no qualms about blowing up streetfulls of people in its operations, so I am not inclined to give them a lot of brownie points for massaging the optics of the murder (and making sure that international outrage will not inhibit further murders in the future).

Here’s the takeaway paragraphs from my Asia Times piece:

The signature event in United States-Chinese relations last week was not the anti-climactic release of the US Defense Strategic Review, which re-emphasized the Barack Obama administration's widely touted ambitions to perform a strategic pirouette from the Middle East to East Asia. It was the murder of another Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran.

The assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan by forces unknown serves as a message that the Obama administration will find it difficult to reinvent itself as the savior of Asian peace and prosperity; instead, the United States will find itself reprising its dreary and detested role in the Middle East soap opera as defender of the pro-Israel/anti-Iranian status quo.

Every time Obama tries to position the US as the guarantor of peace and prosperity in Asia, something or somebody yanks his chain back to the Middle East, war, and the prospect of global economic ruin.

The murder of Ahmadi Roshan came on the one-year anniversary of the murder of two other Iranian nuclear scientists by similar methods (motorcyclist + bomb + car). It also came at a time of heightened tensions (anyway, tensions higher than the usual heightened tensions), inviting the inference that somebody, probably somebody in the region, wants to goad the Iranian government into a response that could start the military action ball rolling.

It is a safe bet that Obama, disengaging from two futile, polarizing, and massively expensive land wars, does not want war with Iran. It is also plausible that Saudi Arabia does not relish the opportunity to prove that it really does have the excess capacity to replace Iranian energy shipments to China, Japan, and South Korea.

And it is certain that Obama does not want the corpse of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan to serve as the poster child for US foreign policy, or that he wishes to ingratiate himself to America's East Asian friends and allies by bearing the gift of $200/barrel oil (while Beijing exploits its relationship with Iran to buy energy at a discount).

But Iran won't go away: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their US supporters in both parties won't let it.

Because these powerful stakeholders want to make sure that plans to widen the US diplomatic and military footprint in East Asia don't come at the expense of their perceived existential interests in the Middle East.

So Obama has to drag his Middle Eastern baggage to Asia and make the case that Asia-Pacific should help America work through its Iran obsession.

Instead of exporting American solutions to Asia, the US seems to be exporting American problems.

It does not appear that the Obama administration has figured out how to make lemonade from this sackful of citrus.

One can imagine that the Obama message to Asia is "Believe the policy, not the politics", ie, the United States knows where its interests and future lie, and is not going to drive the world off a cliff because election year politics demand appeasement of the anti-Iran cranks.

However, Asia has zero votes in US politics. On the other hand, the people who are caught up in the rhetoric of war with Iran do have the votes, interest, and money to make their influence felt…

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Turkey Hoisted on Syrian Cleft Stick of its Own Devise; Arab League Shafted by Anwar Malek

There is an emerging picture of an embarrassing dilemma for Turkey on Syria.

Eager for regional leader cred and anxious to establish itself as an equal partner with the Western powers in the ongoing Middle East make over, Turkey got out in front in supporting the Syrian rebellion.

Maybe too far in front.

Western military intervention appears genuinely off the table, perhaps because of Russia’s unambiguous opposition.

And Bashar Assad doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for now.

If Turkey wants to finish him off, it will have to take the lead in sending in troops—and in cleaning up the gigantic and destabilizing sectarian mess foreign intervention would probably provoke.

That is beyond Turkey’s ability.

So the rebellion staggers on, and Turkey must brace for the possibility that civil war and all hell break loose anyway, and Ankara will find itself confronting a mess very much similar to the one an invasion might bring.

No guarantee that the West is anxious to step in and end the bloody stalemate, anyway.

I would speculate that Bashar Assad is unable to funnel significant aid to Hezbullah now, and has become a cost center instead of a profit center for Iran, which is struggling to prop up the regime and finds itself inhibited in its full enjoyment of its alliance with the Maliki government in Iraq.

If the regime falls to largely Sunni internal forces, good.  If Bashar Assad staggers on, and Syria remains an open, running sore for Iran, well that’s good too.  At least for the West and the Gulf States.  Maybe not for the Syrian people.

Meanwhile, all that’s necessary to keep the pot bubbling and further pre-empt (increasingly unlikely) national reconciliation is continued sanctions, covert military support to the opposition, and ostentatious outrage at continued government atrocities and the futility of the Arab League mission.

Speaking of the Arab League, much media hay has been made of the resignation of Algerian author Anwar Malek from the Arab League observer mission in Syria.

Malek’s statements buttress the suspicions of many sympathizers of the Syrian uprising, who consider Syrian regime’s acceptance of the mission as nothing more than a temporizing ruse.

Malek told Al Jazeera:

“They didn’t withdraw their tanks from the streets, they just hid them and redeployed them after we left,” Anwar Malek told Al Jazeera English television at its headquarters in Qatar, still wearing one of the orange vests used by the monitors.  

“The snipers are everywhere shooting at civilians. People are being kidnapped. Prisoners are being tortured and no one has been released,” the Algerian former observer said. “Those who are supposedly freed and shown on TV are actually people who had been randomly grabbed off the streets.”

Malek’s statements will undoubtedly provide fodder for those advocating escalating confrontation with the Assad regime, but in truth he is something of a grandstander and dingbat.

The vest is a telling detail since, by Malek’s own admission, he quit the mission and ensconced himself in his hotel room for the last four days of the mission, presumably removing the need to wear that fancy orange attire except when dining out at Homs' finer eating establishments.

Al Jazeera’s Anwar Malek liveblog reported on the contretemp:

The head of the Arab League's monitors mission to Syria, Lieutenant-General Mohammed Al Dabi, issued a statement deriding the remarks made by Algerian monitor, Anwar Malek.

Al Dabi said Malek's statement "had nothing to do with reality."

"Since he was assigned to the Homs team, Malek didn't leave his hotel for six days and wasn't been part of the field visits with the team, citing illness," Al Dabi said.

Al Dabi added that Malek had requested leaving to Paris for treatment and had in fact traveled ahead of schedule on his personal expense and without turning in work property first.

Al Dabi said Malek broke the oath that he took and that his remarks are strictly personal.
Al Dabi concluded by urging the media to be accurate and objective.

Malek responded to the remarks in this statement in an interview with Al Jazeera, saying:

"This is all lies and a kind of tactic because in fact I appeared quite a lot in videos that appeared on the internet and were broadcast by satellite channels even Syrian TV aired about 20 packages that had me in them when I was visiting hospitals, prisons, schools and out on the streets talking to people. I am clearly shown meeting and talking to people in these videos.

So these allegations are all baseless. However what they say about me not leaving my rooms for 4 days is true. I only left to eat but it was at the end of my mission when I decided to quit but this was after I’d spent about 15 days on the field but then I decided to stop work so I stayed in my room for 4 days then I left Homs for Damascus.

I did not send any letter to the head of the mission saying I was unwell and was going to stay in my room. If this is true let them produce the letter. In fact I went to see him to talk to him about my reasons to stop work but he refused to listen to me and gave me only 2 minutes to leave without even listening to me."

Malek’s accomplishments in Arabic literature are beyond me.  Listening to him, on the other hand, is demonstrably a chore, as a bizarre and contentious 2009 appearance on Al Jazeera demonstrates.

Youtube has it

Highlights of his remarks were translated by MEMRI, the Israel-affiliated open source intelligence outfit, and lovingly cited on a multitude of right wing Jewish and Christian fundamentalist websites.

It’s easy to see why.

The theme of his discourse is, in his own words, “The Arabs are backward and not fit for civilization at all.”

Some of his high-speed rant is, in light of current events, rather ironic:

[Arab rulers] emerged from among the people and share the same beliefs.  If you placed any Arab citizen in power, I challenge any Arab citizen who may become a ruler to do anything beyond what the current Arab leaders are doing.  There is no difference between the Arab rulers and the Arab people.

When the moderator makes the case for contemporary Arab worth as demonstrated by heroic resistance against overwhelming odds, Malek retorts:

What resistance are you talking about? If you are talking about the resistance of Hizbullah, Hizbullah has destroyed Lebanon, in the framework of a Persian conspiracy.  I say this point blank.

The picture emerges of a Rush Limbaugh-style cultural provocateur and Arab chauvinist nostalgic for the glory days of the Arab empires—and a reflexive Iranophobe.

And, perhaps, a self-selected plant eager to discredit the observer mission from within.

Interesting choice for an observer group trying to mediate between an Iran-backed Shi’ite-esque regime and a Sunni/Muslim Brotherhood rebellion.

Of course, the issue of how that observer group—headed by Sudan’s strongman for Darfur—got put together in the first place would make an interesting story.  Too bad Al Jazeera isn’t interested in telling it.