Red Line by Joby Warrick is heartbreaking and inspiring, but mostly heartbreaking

Note: you can listen to an audio version of this post at this link.

Just finished reading Red Line, by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Joby Warrick. It was published in February 2021.

Warrick tells the story of how, since the 1980s, the Assad regime in Syria built a massive chemical weapons production industry and a stockpile of weapons capable of killing tens of millions. Thanks to a highly placed CIA informant within the program, US intelligence services were able to keep relatively informed about it. After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Assad began dropping chemical weapons on rebel-held villages, in civilian centers, and a number of brave Syrian civilians risked their lives to gather evidence and smuggle it out of the country so that the rest of the world would know.

Soon after the civil war began, when Assad’s regime looked ready to collapse, many world leaders, especially in the West, hoped Assad would be forced to flee. On the other hand, while some of the rebel groups seeking to oust Assad were pro-democracy and pro-pluralism, others, like ISIS, were intent on seizing power and imposing their own form of tyranny and brutality. Obama and other world leaders became alarmed at the possibility that Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities might fall into the hands of ISIS or one of the other Islamist rebel groups, and the US defense department began working on a massive effort to prepare for the possibility of needing to act to secure and destroy those weapons if they were about to fall into jihadists’ hands.

Before that scenario had a chance to play out, intelligence reports started arriving in the US and elsewhere indicating that Assad had begun using poison gas against rebel held populations. Then came a press conference, actually about health care, during which Obama was asked a question by a reporter about the possibility that Assad was using chemical weapons in battle. In his response, Obama used the phrase “red line” for the first time to warn Assad that use of chemical weapons would lead to the US taking action against him. He would go on to use the phrase two more times in prepared remarks, including during a speech he gave to university students in Israel.

Obama to young Israelis: 'You are not alone'
Obama speaking to Israeli university students during a visit to Israel in March 2013. Photo from Reuters – Creator: Larry Downing.

The story that Warrick goes on to tell is as depressing as any deep-dive piece of reporting on war crimes and atrocities, and it shines a light on many heroic individuals who tried to save lives and stand firm against inhumanity. Warrick describes a UN team of inspectors who were allowed into the country with a mandate to collect evidence to determine whether or not chemical weapons had been used, though they had to accept Assad’s condition that any report they made would not be allowed to make claims about who was responsible for using the weapons. In this manner, Assad and his Russian backers would be able to maintain their disinformation campaign claiming that if anyone had used chemical weapons it must have been one of the rebel groups.

While the UN team was in Syria, one of Assad’s generals ordered a large scale chemical attack, using sarin gas, on a rebel held Damascus suburb called Ghouta, killing about 1,400 people and injuring thousands. Many children were among the victims. (Here is a link to a Human Rights Watch report on what happened at Ghouta. But before you go there, a warning – the very first thing you see is a photograph of dozens of dead children killed in the attack. I wasn’t prepared for that when I visited the site, and it hit me very hard.)

The UN team decided to do all it could to gather evidence from the Ghouta attack, but meanwhile various intelligence agencies had concluded firmly that Assad had indeed used chemical weapons in the war. Assad had crossed Obama’s red line, and Obama had to decide how to respond. Initially, he wanted to launch airstrikes in Syria, but he didn’t want to imperil the UN inspection team. He tried to get the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to pull the inspection team out ASAP, but Ban wouldn’t do it, arguing that it was against his mandate to remove a diplomatic team seeking to gather evidence about chemical weapons use in order to help another country carry out a military strike.

A few weeks of this stalemate elapsed, and in the meantime different domestic and international leaders sought to influence Obama’s thinking regarding what consequences he might impose on Assad’s regime for crossing this line. There were leaders who were worried that airstrikes might backfire in any number of ways. There were progressives who did not want any president taking military action against a new foe without getting authorization from Congress – something that candidate Obama had stressed was the Constitution’s requirement for waging war. Ultimately, Obama announced that he would seek Congressional authorization of military action – something he thought he would easily get. But he and his advisers misread the political moment in Congress. Republicans were against anything Obama wanted to do and signaled their unwillingness to support him in this effort if for no other reason than simply to hurt him politically. But most Democrats were also opposed, saying they wanted no part of risking the opening up of a new potentially endless war in the Middle East.

Then came a diplomatic breakthrough. Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, had been meeting with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, intensively to look for ways to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons. Thus began the intensive Obama administration diplomacy that led to “the deal,” the September 2013 agreement signed by the US and Russia to oversee the removal of Syria’s entire chemical weapons stockpile and destroy its production facilities. Russia, Syria’s main ally, was able to push Assad to accept the deal, which meant there would definitely be no US-led military attacks against his forces in the coming months and that Russia would be able to continue to grow its influence in the region. For the US and the rest of the world concerned both about Assad’s use of the weapons and the potential for jihadist rebel groups to steal some of the weapons, the deal meant achieving two important goals: 1) imposing a major consequence on the Assad regime for crossing Obama’s “red line,” and 2) removing (hopefully) all of the weapons and Assad’s factories for making more.

Continue reading “Red Line by Joby Warrick is heartbreaking and inspiring, but mostly heartbreaking”

What I learned reading an essay by Andre Henry

Andre Henry is program manager for the Racial Justice Institute at Christians for Social Action.

Stumbled upon this column by Andre Henry on Religion News Service, and I learned a lot: From the Capitol to critical race theory, white Christians grieve declining hegemony. I just am using this space to jot down a couple things I want to remember going forward.

First, I learned an important use of the term “common sense” and about the term “pillars of support” as it is used in non-violence studies. Here’s the paragraph that lit these terms up for me:

“…it’s helpful to understand an essential concept of nonviolent struggle known as “the pillars of support.”

Basically, the idea is that the structure of any social injustice can be imagined as something like an ancient Greek temple, with large columns supporting its roof. The roof represents the injustice — in this case, white supremacy — and the columns represent the social institutions that uphold it. Organized religion, media and the educational system are useful institutions to legitimate a regime by shaping the public’s common sense. White Christianity, more specifically, has always been an essential pillar of support to American white supremacy.”

Henry also writes about racial caste in American society in this essay, and offers a 1967 quote from MLK that absolutely speaks to this moment 53 years later:

“The enterprise of racial caste has in this sense always been at war with democracy. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this when he wrote in 1967 that some white Americans seem to have ‘declared that democracy is not worth having if it involves equality. The segregationist goal is the total reversal of all reforms, with the reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native form of fascism.'”

In the aftermath of the Jan 6 2021 attempted insurrection, I am appreciating Henry’s clarity, and appreciating the chance to learn concepts and language that I wish I had learned years ago.

Why we win

So, I know this may sound presumptuous, but I’ve come to understand why we are going to defeat Trumpism. We are winning and we are going to win.

Even if he steals this election.

Even if he lucks out and ekes out an electoral win again somehow.

It’s because we started winning the day people started organizing in this country with a new level of determination to have an America built on democracy, fairness, pluralism, environmental responsibility, and social justice. There have been, throughout these incredibly painful 3 and a half years, so many people who have organized and taken action like never before in my lifetime.

Black Lives Matter. The Women’s March. Indivisible. HIAS. Run For Something. A zillion more groups. Democrats and progressives running for local, county, state, and federal offices and often winning. Postcardstovoters.org targeting winnable off-year election races and flipping seats at every level of government.

Civil service officials refusing to be corrupted, or to be silenced. Whistle-blowers. Republicans defecting from Trump publicly. Journalists fact-checking his lies and doing investigative reporting. FBI officials and federal prosecutors investigating and indicting and convicting many of his cronies. The House of Representatives under Pelosi and its committees holding hearings, dragging Trump officials in front of investigative panels, and releasing damning information to the public. Even the Senate, with some of its Republican led committees, from time to time contradicting the Administration.

Ordinary citizens tweeting, posting on social media, calling and writing their elected officials, unafraid – continuing to exercise the right to free speech, the right to dissent. Late night talk show hosts ridiculing and exposing Trumpworld for its corruption and authoritarianism, its hatred of true democracy, its lies and absurdities.

When bullies are challenged, they are temporarily stunned at first. Their underlings get worried they might have their careers ruined if power changes hands, or that they might even go to prison. Acts of non-cooperation, of questioning the legality or appropriateness of corrupt directives, whistle-blowing and leaks to the press are all actions that slow down the machinery of fascism and authoritarianism. Lots of mid-level and low-level henchmen stop for a moment, worry that they might in fact get in trouble, and have to re-calibrate their plans in order to deal with multiple layers of non-cooperation and dissent within the parts of a democratic system that still work according to the rule of law.

Yes, we have lots of moments of fear and despair, as we watch Trump and his people repeatedly “flood the zone” with multiple fronts of aggressive abuse of power, big lies, and sneering contempt for the rule of law and democratic sacred norms. But that’s only one kind of power in the overall system. Throughout this vile Administration there has also been a growing, creative, and strengthening counter-force of many faces and forms, organizing to defend the core pillars of democracy and civil rights, and willing to directly challenge Trump and his people without hesitation or intimidated deference.

And so we’ve seen people at every level of government stand up to Trumpism and even sacrifice their careers while saving their honor and giving our democracy yet another chance to right itself. We’ve seen Democratic candidates for president show no fear of speaking the truth and calling Trump a liar and a con-man and a tyrant. This is very, very good for our democracy.

We’ve seen new alliances of different politically active groups focused hard on resisting Trump’s attempt to turn this country into something that at least half of its citizens don’t want it to be — a pathetic, cult-of-personality dictatorship based on white supremacy and rank corruption.

Am I saying I know Biden’s going to win and then take office? No. I don’t know that. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, or if this election will be fair, or if things will be sabotaged by Trump’s people.

But what I am saying is I know we are going to win, because we are already winning. We are winning because we are resisting and standing up to the bullying.

We may not always be able to keep up with the daily barrage of abuses of power and misdirection that Trump and his inner circle of smart guys think is stronger and faster than us – that we’re a bunch of “pussies” who can’t stop them (screw them and their misogyny by the way).

But they are definitely not keeping up with us – not keeping up with the multi-pronged, multi-headed hydra of organizing, activism, protest, and plain old unwillingness-to-yield that has pushed back against them and is working hard every day to build, build, build a progressive, inclusive future for this country. In unprecedented numbers, we’re running for school boards and city alderman seats now. We’re organizing in the Black community, in cities, in suburbs, among veterans, among nurses, and among students. Pro athletes are stepping up. Lots and lots of Democrats are having spines and standing strong. There are so many of us who have been working so hard these past 3 and a half years, and it’s not going to stop.

If Trump somehow manages to get another term, whether legitimately or not, we’re going to keep building on what we’ve done and keep getting stronger. If Biden wins and takes office, we’ll be working hard to take advantage of the changed circumstances and make major structural changes in this country. Either way, we’re not giving up, we’re not bowing down to Trump, we’re not letting the minority of Americans who embrace his cult run our lives, and we’re not finished.

We’re already winning, and we will make this country better than it was before. More progressive, fair, creative, open, compassionate, environmentally sustainable, peaceful, just, and inclusive. And the more we win, the more people who were afraid of this better version of our country will realize that it’s better for them too, that they have a warm and joyful home in this diverse, inclusive, multi-racial, multi-everything free and fair society that is our unstoppable dream.

Yom Hashoah 2020 / 5780

Primo Levi wrote: “Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”

So much of what he described characterizes our time, here in the US, and in so many other parts of the world. It’s in the macho strutting of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the craven racism of Netanyahu and his allies, the smirk Putin wears, the raging tantrums of Trump, the successful con-artistry of Nigel Farage, the entitled murderous manipulations of MBS. Here we are.

Thankfully, there are a zillion people refusing to consent to these authoritarian delusions. Levi also wrote of his time in Auschwitz, “…We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.” There are, all over this country and throughout the world, all kinds of people who are repeatedly refusing their consent. I put my faith in them, and in my own determination to be counted among them.

I see a connection to a very different text – a biblical text from Psalm 146:

אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ עַל־ה’ אֱלֹהָֽיו׃

Happy is the person who has the God of Jacob for help, whose hope is in the ETERNAL ONE,

עֹשֶׂ֤ה שָׁ֘מַ֤יִם וָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּ֥ם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֑ם הַשֹּׁמֵ֖ר אֱמֶ֣ת לְעוֹלָֽם׃

maker of heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who safeguards truth throughout all times and places;

עֹשֶׂ֤ה מִשְׁפָּ֨ט לָעֲשׁוּקִ֗ים נֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לָרְעֵבִ֑ים ה’ מַתִּ֥יר אֲסוּרִֽים׃

who makes justice for those who are oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The ALMIGHTY sets prisoners free;

ה’ פֹּ֘קֵ֤חַ עִוְרִ֗ים ה’ זֹקֵ֣ף כְּפוּפִ֑ים ה’ אֹהֵ֥ב צַדִּיקִֽים׃

The ALL-SEEING ONE restores sight to the blind; the SOURCE OF LIFE makes those who are bent stand straight; the TRUE JUDGE loves the righteous;

ה’ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃

The SOUL OF THE UNIVERSE watches over the stranger; God gives courage to the orphan and widow, but makes the path of the wicked go crooked.

May the power we hold, to refuse our consent to authoritarian rule, and to continue to seek fairness, justice, peace, and empathy, be nourished by the Source of Life and the True Judge. May we strengthen one another’s hands in this effort. May the memory of the 6 million Jews and the millions of other peoples and groups who were murdered by the wicked Nazis and their supporters be a blessing and an inspiration for all of us to continue working for a world redeemed.

PrimoLeviquote

A Serious Injury or a Mortal Wound?

Is this the end of the USA’s democracy? Or does American democracy recover in a few years from Trump and his supporters? I wish I knew. This American dystopian unraveling of democracy that we’re living through, and which may easily last another 5 more Trumpian years (or more), has made me question a lot of things I have taken for granted my whole life about this country. I’m in agony, and I know a lot of other people who are too.

One of the things I didn’t see coming was the way that the times we’re living in have made a newfound literary love of mine feel prescient and relevant in immediate ways I never previously thought possible. I’m talking about sci-fi. And I wish that what I’m about to describe wasn’t the case…

Continue reading “A Serious Injury or a Mortal Wound?”

A Better Deal

Since it seems the current US Administration and the now-forming right-wing government in Israel have both agreed that the “two-state solution has failed,” to quote Jared Kushner, I’ve taken it upon myself to come up with my own “deal of the century.”

Screenshot 2019-04-27 at 10.42.03I propose the establishment of a new federated single state that hearkens back to the original territory that comprised the British Mandate following World War I. The Federation of the Levant will consist of 3 states, which will be independent and interdependent.

The 3 federated states will be:

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

The State of Palestine

The State of Israel

A special status will apply to the Municipality of Jerusalem / Al Quds.

This proposal will address the following issues:

  1. Federal and State Governments and their Powers
  2. State Borders
  3. Citizenship
  4. Rights of Residency
  5. Freedom of Movement
  6. Freedom of Religion and Conscience
  7. Military Defense

Continue reading “A Better Deal”

There are no shortcuts

Like many of my fellow progressives, my first reaction to Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report is disappointment. The daily grind of enduring the Trumpocalypse is so draining that I hoped that the report would be unequivocally damning, revealing smoking guns that no presidency could survive. Instead, we’re watching Trumpists crow and the mainstream media in a position to potentially flub the story and echo RW talking points. Which narrative will win out in the coming days? The Trumpist narrative that the Mueller Report is totally exonerating? Or a fact-centered narrative, pointing out that Barr’s letter to Congress states that Mueller’s report does not exonerate Trump of Obstruction of Justice charges? Or something else entirely?

Will the whole report be made public? Will the Dems go all in on continuing to investigate what happened? If they do, will the public side with them or decide that Trump has been the victim of a witch hunt? Will the congressional Dems cave? Will the 2020 presidential candidates get stymied and lose their mojo? Will they pivot or build on the issues they’ve championed in a way that enables a Dem to win next year? Who knows?Screenshot 2019-03-24 at 6.49.47 PM.png

2016 taught me that the problem is the make-up of the American voters, and the willingness of white Americans in particular to embrace Trumpism. Mueller’s Report needed to be a public revelation of indisputable conspiracy on the part of Trump and those closest to him in order to override the 45% of the American public that is essentially willing to go along with a white supremacist demagogic regime.

Continue reading “There are no shortcuts”

Cracks

This may be misplaced optimism, but I am feeling it in my gut, and I’m going to express it. I’ve been a fool before in trying to read politics and social trends, so if I end up being wrong, welp… it is what it is.

That caveat stated, methinks some chickens may be coming home to roost for the right wing neofascists in both Israel and the U.S.

Let’s start with Israel. Much to my surprise, the two leading centrist parties,

tweetled by former army chief of staff, Benny Gantz, and former TV news journalist, Yair Lapid, have agreed to form a joint bloc in the upcoming, April 9 Israeli election. The two men have agreed to rotate as prime minister, with Gantz taking the first 2 years, and Lapid the second 2 years, should they win the election. This is a massive blow to Netanyahu’s plans for setting up this election in such a way that he is almost guaranteed to win.

Meanwhile, any day now we’re likely to hear the decision of Israel’s Attorney General on whether or not to indict Netanyahu on bribery charges.

neener neener

Now it’s not like a Gantz/Lapid led government would suddenly shift Israel hard to the left, but it would topple the corrupt, arrogant, and toxic order that Netanyahu and his acolytes have created in Israel for a decade now.

Continue reading “Cracks”

#FakeNationalEmergency

Happened to be visiting Eugene, Oregon today, and participated in one of hundreds of protests against Trump’s declaration of a national emergency – an illegal and unconstitutional abuse of power that is grounded in a racist and un-factual set of beliefs. This is a serious 1.jpgconstitutional crisis. I hope impeachment proceedings begin – and I hope the Mueller investigation exposes the collusion and betrayal at the heart of this administration.

It’s vital to keep the phones ringing off the hook in DC. If you’re seeing this, please call (202) 224-3121 and you’ll be able to get directed to the offices of your Senators and your House rep. It’s a chance to demand that Congress act to nullify the declaration of emergency, and to holler and shout about this outrageous abuse of power.