October 6, 2016

The Cyber

Can a secret still be a secret if everybody knows about it? Top brass US intelligence officials, including former NSA director General Michael Hayden, seem to think so. “Stuxnet, no comment!” echoes like a mantra ...

Can a secret still be a secret if everybody knows about it?

Top brass US intelligence officials, including former NSA director General Michael Hayden, seem to think so. “Stuxnet, no comment!” echoes like a mantra throughout the beginning of Zero Days, Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, airing on Showtime November 19th. Unfortunately for the higher-ups at NSA, the secret’s out and pandora’s cyber box has been thrown wide open.

NSA

Trevor Paglen, National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, Maryland, 2013 . 

Co-designed by NSA and Mossad to wreak havoc on Iranian centrifuges back in the mid 2000’s, the Stuxnet virus, “the Stradivarius of malware,” has ushered in a whole new world, one in which physical objects in the real world can be turned into targets for sophisticated cyber weapons.

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From Alex Gibney’s Zero Days

Nations around the world have rules of war IRL—treaties and red lines for nuclear and chemical weapons—but what are the rules of engagement online? Al-Qaeda whistleblower and all-around intelligence guru, Richard Clarke, tells us about the critical need for a new Geneva Convention for cyber warfare.

The Internet began with beautiful dreams of free-flowing information, of unfettered access to all the world’s information, of technology making the world a better place. But behind all the promises and wonders lay hidden vulnerabilities. Now with each hack, each breach, each leak—all spawning thousands of news stories around the world—we’re all being forced to confront the other side of paradise.

This hour, it’s digitally assured destruction, with Walter Isaacson, Richard Clarke, Alex Gibney, Jeremy Allaire, Sara M. Watson and Jonathan Zittrain.

Timeline: Weaponizing the Web

  • 1952: The National Security Administration (NSA) is founded secretly by the Truman administration to surveil communications and provide intelligence to governments.
  • 1952: Israel’s intelligence corps Unit 8200 founded.
  • 1989: Tim Berners-Lee conceives of the internet at CERN.
  • 2007-10: The US and Israel sabotage Iran’s uranium enrinchment facilities at Natanz with Stuxnet, malware coded by the NSA in conjunction with Unit 8200. It’s the first time a cyber attack affects real-world infrastructure. (Reuters)
  • 2009: United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) created under the Obama administration as the “offensive” outgrowth of the “defensive” NSA. (Washington Post)
  • 2010 Iran creates their own cyber command organization, قرارگاه دفاع سایبری‎‎ (The Cyber Defense Command).
  • 2012: Iran’s Cyber Defense Command releases a virus that erases three-quarters of the files at Aramco, Saudi’s national oil company. (New York Times)
  • 2013: Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald leak NSA documents, revealing the scope of the U.S. executive branch’s global surveillance powers. (The Guardian)
  • 2015: Obama administration releases official cyber policy. (The White House)
  • 2016: Justice Department indicts seven Iranian hackers for breaking into major US banks and attempting to shut down a dam in NY. (Bloomberg)
  • 2016: Alex Gibney documentary reveals large-scale offensive cyber program, Nitro Zeus. (New York Times)

Extended interviews



Main photo: U.S. Air Force/Capt. Carrie Kessler

Podcast • February 16, 2015

Roger Cohen: this “strange amalgam of identities”

Roger Cohen’s memoir of his Lithuanian-Jewish-South African-English mother’s suicidal depression is an inquest into the damage of displacement that seeps into genes: the longing for home, the need to belong – “right up there with ...

Roger Cohen’s memoir of his Lithuanian-Jewish-South African-English mother’s suicidal depression is an inquest into the damage of displacement that seeps into genes: the longing for home, the need to belong – “right up there with love and other fundamental human instincts.” Contrarily, his own prevailing instinct has been to get out, escape – not least from “this not quite belonging” of an Oxford-educated cosmopolitan Jew in the best London circles 30 years ago. “I was drawn to otherness, to observer-dom,” he is telling me in conversation. He took up the high office of Foreign Editor at the New York Times at the age of 46, before he was an American citizen, on the dreaded day: 9.11.2001. Nowadays he is the level-headed Times columnist from everyplace ominous: Iran, Gaza, Egypt, Israel, the breadth of Europe.

In our conversation he is tracking his uneasy path from searching the “strange amalgam of identities” in the hiding places of his family history, to the strain on his considered loyalty to Israel. At the end of 2014, wrote a cautionary piece called ‘Zionism and its Discontents.’ It was classic Roger Cohen for the eloquent long-view liberalism that draws fire from major Jewish institutions in the US for criticizing Israel, and from Europeans for his essential Zionism.

Where is this going? A 9-year-old child in Gaza has seen three wars. What kind of grown-up is that child going to grow into? Is this in Israel’s interest – to have a place that is sealed off with 1.8-million human beings inside it? Can we think again about this?

Roger Cohen, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 13, 2015

This Week's Show • September 11, 2014

What’s Left of Liberal Zionism?

We're looking at liberal Zionism, enduring a crisis after a brutal summer in Gaza. It's prompted handwringing for American Jews and Israelis who are still looking for a way to peace, and still worried about the clash of democratic and Jewish ideals in the political culture of Israel.

We’re looking at liberal Zionism, enduring a crisis after a brutal summer in Gaza. It’s prompted handwringing for American Jews and Israelis who are still looking for a way to peace, and still worried about the clash of democratic and Jewish ideals in the political culture of Israel.

It’s a testing time for a moderate ideology in an age of extremes. In his new and controversial book, My Promised Land, the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit — perhaps the most prominent of the liberal Zionists writing today — begins his history in Lydda. The Palestinian town was evacuated of its 50,000 residents by Israeli force in 1948. Shavit concludes that this is where the problem of Zionism lies:

The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be. In retrospect it’s all too clear.

Where does this leave us in 2014? Two peoples, two claims to territory, two distinct histories — and no agreement. Is something like a liberal Zionism possible?

July 17, 2014

Lines In The Sand

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today's Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don't those political maps?
SykesPicot

Guest List

Juan Cole, academic, blogger and tireless watcher of the Middle East — his new book is called The New Arabs: How The Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East.

Seyla Benhabib, the Yale political scientist and a philosopher of borders and cosmopolitanism.

Labib Nasir, a Palestinian reporter for Reuters who covered the Arab Spring from North Africa.

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today’s Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don’t those political maps?

 

Read More

• Our friend Stephen Kinzer launched the conversation this week in The Boston Globe, writing on the flexibility of human borders and the news from Iraq and Syria;

• Juan Cole says the Arab Spring dream, apparently lost in fighting across borders and crackdowns within them, isn’t dead yet in The Los Angeles Times;

• John Judis and Nick Danforth have already playing out one side of the debate this week.

In The New Republic, Judis makes an argument we’ve seen many times since 2003: that the Middle East as a colonial creation, is coming undone. Danforth’s response, in the Atlantic, sees that line of thought as dangerously out-of-focus. The real disaster, he writes, was “the truly pernicious policy of divide-and-rule that the French and British used to sustain their power… The militarization of these ethnic and religious identities, rather than the failure of perfectly placed state borders to alleviate tension between them, explains much of violence in the Middle East today.

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• There’s another geo-controversy brewing around our guest Juan Cole’s mapping of shrinking Palestinian territory since 1948. Cole sees the maps as proof that the hardcore Israeli leadership has no plans to stop settling the West Bank or to accept anything short of a unified Israel. The Netanyahu government confirmed some of those fears this week, with a snub to Biden and a declaration of intent, off the radar of the American media.

• Frank Jacobs, geographer of the odd, took on the borders separating Israel and Palestine and India and Pakistan in his fine Times blog, “Borderlines”.

• Finally, glimpses of hope on the horizon: the president of Iraqi Kurdistan visits Ankara this week, seeking to ease some of his nation’s tense history with the Turks. And Haaretz asks for a revolution in Israeli culture as a step toward attacking the crisis at its roots in hearts and minds.

Podcast • November 16, 2011

David Grossman: looking for an end of “the situation”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Grossman (52 min, 26 meg) David Grossman is considering my question: why the “good guy” solutions have availed so little in the Middle East, over such an ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Grossman (52 min, 26 meg)

David Grossman is considering my question: why the “good guy” solutions have availed so little in the Middle East, over such an ominously long time.

Patriot and peacenik, critical-thinker and oppositionist, Zionist and humanist, David Grossman is a good guy, and then some. I feel grace, something like nobility, in his presence as in his prose. One knows that his son Uri was killed, age 20, at war in Lebanon in 2006, when David Grossman was in the thick of writing To the End of the Land, his epic novel of 21st Century Israel. But the nobility of suffering is not what I’m looking for or feeling as much as the steady brave honesty of the inquiries that David Grossman undertook even before Uri was born — of the unrelenting question “What happened to us?” as he put it almost a quarter century ago. The Yellow Wind, translated into English in 1988, was his non-fiction examination of the brutal, brutalizing occupation of the West Bank. “I could not understand,” he wrote, “how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched… The history of the world proves that the situation we preserve here cannot last for long. And if it lasts, it will exact a deadly price.”

David Grossman has seen more deeply into the Middle East nightmare, and been seared by it more than most of us could bear. And still I’m unclear after our long conversation here whether his brilliant penetration of the madness has equipped him and us to find a way out.

The basic Grossman diagnosis in The Yellow Wind was that by the 1980s, Palestinians and Israelis were living under a curse “placed on both peoples — the curse of self-destruction, the curse of the fear of peace.” Both parties are much worse off today, he tells me: programmed to hate and now paralyzed to help themselves — deeply damaged, disabled people, desperate for outside intervention. This is the strong case for putting the Middle East into locked-up receivership. But don’t we also keep seeing the power that paralyzed people develop to fend of their best friends?

Can we imagine a peace “contract” fair enough, and political leaders dedicated enough, to create a ten-year interval of stability that would begin to change hearts? Or must changes of heart come first? How many more “wars for peace” can we rationalize, like the Second Lebanon War? And how should we apply the curious strategy that David Grossman has contrived in To the End of the Land for his heroine Ora, as a means of distancing herself from the madness, “the general almost eternal conflict” that has engulfed her for 40 years? With the help of her Palestinian driver, Ora dutifully, grudgingly delivers her son to his Army unit for an extended tour of duty. “Don’t hurt anyone… and don’t get hurt,” she admonishes the boy, and then she deliberately disappears in a long hiking tour of the Galilee. Her thought is that no bad news about her son can be delivered if she cannot be found to receive it.

It’s important to David Grossman that President Obama is reported to have read To the End of the Land on vacation last summer, but I am still figuring how the book might instruct him. Barack Obama remains for David Grossman the one figure on the political landscape with the “contradictory capacities” to present a transformative vision of peace to the Middle East and at the same time rescue two damaged peoples from a trap of their own making.

Podcast • May 10, 2011

Juan Cole: Through the Fog of the Arab Spring

Juan Cole‘s Informed Comment on the Iraq war made him, in my view, the Thucydides of our time — and one of the marvels of the age. That a Michigan historian of the Middle East ...

Juan Cole‘s Informed Comment on the Iraq war made him, in my view, the Thucydides of our time — and one of the marvels of the age. That a Michigan historian of the Middle East could become an inescapable, provocatively independent daily commentator and critic of the war policy owes a lot to the freedom and ubiquity of the Web. It reflects still more Cole’s own classical standard and relentless drive to give us, as Thucydides did in The History of the Peloponnesian War, a gritty black-and-white account of events, drawn from a great variety of sources, not “to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

I’m asking him in conversation to take the killing of Osama bin Laden and this mid-Spring in the Arab revolt as a fresh starting point: are we looking at the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, as Churchill said; or an intermission in a permanent war?

It surprises me that Professor Cole approves the drone war (and says it’s popular) in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, even while he believes the US counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan is doomed. He sounds troubled that the democratic wave (which he anticipated in Egypt) could be broken, maybe stopped in Syria. He is certain — having advocated the Western intervention and defended even the drones in Lybia — that the Qaddafi family will be brought down, even if it takes a while.

I am wondering how many double standards we Americans can juggle in our heads when the US is too-prudently late to the people’s party in Tunisia and Egypt; uncritical of nasty repression by Saudis, Bahreinis and Israelis; cautiously displeased with variations on the crackdown theme in Yemen and Syria; and committed militarily to the rebels in Libya. Juan Cole is saying it’s allright to admit feeling dizzy in the circumstances; but we should be noticing that Barack Obama has risen to the occasion as a Realist of the traditional foreign-policy school; and that Cole has confirmed his own best instincts as those of a “progressive internationalist,” not simply an anti-imperialist liberal.

I would argue that the Obama administration harkens back to Bush senior’s foreign policy ideals, which were those of the Realist school. I think Obama is not a classical Realist: he does have a sense of morality in a way that I think Henry Kissinger does not. But the Realist school posits that great powers act according to their interests, not according to namby-pamby ideals, and that, moreover, they ought to act according to their interests; if they don’t, it messes up the world. In every instance, the Obama administration stance has been what would be in the interest of the United States. It hasn’t been an idealistic or moralistic stance. I think it’s a reaction against the muscular Wilsonianism of the George W. Bush administration, which was very gung-ho to democratize the Middle East at the point of a gun…

I’m a progressive internationalist. I think one of the things that’s wrong with the world is that we have laws inside nations, but when it comes to international affairs, we have a jungle: the strong kill the weak and eat them. What the United Nations was about, from 1945 forward, was supposed to be the attempt to craft an international order that was founded on law. Qaddafi is not allowed to roll up forty tanks and fire live shells into the midst of a peaceful demonstration. That’s a crime against humanity and there ought to be sanctions for it. When the Arab League asked for a UN resolution, and when the UN Security Council asked that there be an international intervention, I thought that was a great good thing. It is in exact contrast to the Iraq war.

“One sympathizes with the Israelis” in this whirlwind, Professor Cole added. They’re “a floating fortress on the fringes of the Middle East.” Their natural instinct in the storm is to avoid any compromise in a changing neighborhood, but the “it will serve them poorly with the new Middle East democracies.” Juan Cole’s more urgent sympathy is with the Palestinians. “At the moment Israeli settlements on the West Bank are being expanded, and there’s no prospect that the Egyptians will be able to stop that process. I think the new Egypt will support the Palestinians’ bid for recognition as a state at the U.N. General Assembly in September. And once the Palestinians are widely recognized as a state — by the Europeans and Latin America — they’ll begin to have standing to sue” against the usurpation of property and human rights.

So I think over time international law and order which, again, is my hope for the future, will be deployed in the interest of the Palestinians. The real problem with the Palestinians is that, contrary to the intent of the League of Nations, have been denied statehood — have been denied in many cases citizenship. So they’re Flying Dutchmen. They have no citizenship rights, and a person in the modern world without citizenship in a state is vulnerable, open to predatory practices, and if their property is usurped they have no law court to seek justice in. So the whole Palestinian nation is stateless, therefore without basic rights or basic human dignity. It’s a crime. It’s a blot on humanity for the situation to go on like this.

Juan Cole in Ann Arbor, with Chris Lydon in Providence, May 9, 2011.

Podcast • February 23, 2011

Philip Weiss: A Jewish Argument around the Arab Revolt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3) Photo from bigthink.com Philip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3)

Photo from bigthink.com

Philip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The 55-year-old meta-journalist dedicates his website MondoWeiss to “the war of ideas in the Middle East.” His project is more daring and difficult than that sounds. Really it’s to start something between a moral argument and a civil war over the big book of Jewish tradition and “spiritual wholeness” — over US national interests, the Palestinian condition, Israel and the whole modern idea of Zionism, by which he means the judgment from 19th and 20th Century European experience that Jews cannot be safe as a tiny minority in non-Jewish countries.

On the page and in conversation Philip Weiss is celebrating the revolution in Egypt for the bold non-violent genius of the Arab street. It moves him to tears that youngsters are using the social Web — Western technologies of gossip and hooking up — to liberate a great people. He also writes bitingly that the revolution is a gift for us Americans, too, to help us purge decades of disinformation and denial about what our policies have accomplished.

Not the least of many ironies in the story is Philip Weiss’s acknowledgment of “another feature writer,” the Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl (1860 – 1904), usually cited as the father of Zionism. Herzl grew up, as Weiss did, a “Christmas tree Jew,” but he was alert to the reality of his day in Vienna and Paris in the late 19th Century — personal threats to Herzl and shouts of “Death to Jews” on the streets of Europe’s capitals. “Anti-Semitism made me Jewish again,” was Herzl’s line. Philip Weiss’s analog is “Neo-conservatism made me Jewish again.” The reality of Philip Weiss’s day in America is that “I went to Harvard-fucking-College. I lead a really privileged life. I’ve never had an obstacle placed in my way, career wise, that I didn’t put there myself. And that is true of my whole generation, and the next generation… So what does that say — what does that real experience say — about the central tenet of Zionism which is that a minority is unsafe in a Western country? It’s bullshit — that’s what it says. And the type of society that we treasure in which a minority is safe and free is one that we as a community are destroying in the Middle East! destroying that idea! … The denial of the real conditions of Palestinian life by Jews is shocking to me… that my people would be so blind to the suffering.”

We are sitting in Philip Weiss’ living room in a snow-bound house high above the Hudson River, an hour north of Manhattan. Iraq was “a war of ideas,” he’s arguing — many of them out of the Jewish-American right wing. It’s not enough to hate “that bastard Bush,” as his mother does, because George Bush wouldn’t know an idea if one bit him. The Best and the Brightest, Phil Weiss reminds you, was not about JFK but about his brains-trust. Iraq “came out of a Jewish neo-con fantasy… We haven’t dealt with it, but we’re starting. In five years it will be debated at centers for Jewish history. It will take a while.”

I want a civil war in Jewish life. My dream is to have a Jewish family on stage, arguing about this in front of everyone. Remember what it did for gay rights that Lance Loud was coming out on television in the early 70s. That family — whatever price they paid in their privacy, and certainly they entertained us — also helped liberate a lot of suffering homosexuals… I want the Jewish family on stage to be having that reality show around this issue. So that people get to see my surrogate in that family — there are many of them out there, the young Jews. I want to see the tears. I want to see the rage. I want to see the charges of betrayal. I want this all out on the stage. I want “you’re a traitor,” “you’re a self-hating Jew,” I want the whole fuckin’ thing. I want everybody to watch, because it’s vital. It’s just like the gay people. In the Jewish family, these people have been closeted. You know, I never thought about this before: they are just like the gay people, when they were closeted. A lot of them are afraid to come out, and a lot of people who help me on the website are not public. A lot of the Arabs aren’t, and a lot of the academic and government officials aren’t because their careers would suffer. One guy says: “you can’t use my name because my father will have a heart attack.” But this should be done publicly. Right now I want to tap into reality, and I’m actually trying to find a Jewish family that will do it. Because the Neo Cons believe what they believe. But I think as soon as they start offering their bullshit on stage, and start talking about Anti-Semitism on stage, I want Americans to understand what price we’re paying for the belief that Anti-Semitism is a persistent factor in Western society, and that Jews need a refuge. Americans have a right to judge the reality of that statement.

Philip Weiss in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cold Spring, New York, February 16, 2011.

Podcast • February 1, 2011

Shiva Balaghi: Egypt in the Spotlight; the US on the Spot

Shiva Balaghi is relaying cellphone news from her friends in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Between calls, so to speak, she is weighing the warnings, heard in Israel and the States, that it could be Iran ...
Shiva Barghouti Watson Institute Photo

Shiva Barghouti
Watson Institute Photo

Shiva Balaghi is relaying cellphone news from her friends in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Between calls, so to speak, she is weighing the warnings, heard in Israel and the States, that it could be Iran all over again, Egypt on a road to mullocracy. It’s the sort of suspicion, she’s saying, that could create the scenario that it fears the most. An Iranian-American, born in Nashville, grown up in Tehran, Shiva Balaghi trained as a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan. She’s now a post-doc fellow at Brown, and was one of several stars at the Egypt teach-in on the Brown campus last night.

Except that the people have risen as one against another cruel US-blessed autocracy, there’s very little we’re seeing in Cairo today to remind Shiva Balaghi of Iran in the Seventies. Islamist slogans, and religious leaders of any stripe are conspicuous by their absense in all the news and pictures from Egypt. Strikingly articulate are the longing for constitutional political freedoms and the economic despair of a young, half-starved majority of Egypt’s population. It is as easy to see Egypt and Iran as contradictions and opposites: Iran a half-modern, substantially secular society under a fanatical government; Egypt a palpably reverent and prayerful Muslim society long accustomed to secular government, going back to Nasser and before.

Let’s take them at their word: they’re saying we want a constitutional, fair, elected, democratic government, like the United States has… If the United States doesn’t support this freedom movement in Egypt, it might actually help create that scenario which it fears the most. If the United States is seen as privileging Israel’s security over the free-will of the Egyptian people, then all those people on the streets of Egypt are going to be mad at Israel, and are going to be mad at the United States. Today, they’re not chanting anti-Israel slogans… they’re not burning American flags. But if we stand in their way, what do you thing is going to happen? I think it’s okay for us as Americans to take a leap of faith and bring to life that promise that President Obama gave in June 2009, that if the Arab people would rise up and act like good responsible, democratic citizens, the United States would help them. 

Shiva Balaghi in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, February 1, 2011.

See also, among the many educated guesses about Islamism (and the non-threat of it) in Egypt, Slavoj Zizek in The Guardian and Rob Eshman in JewishJournal.com.

Podcast • January 6, 2011

Nir Rosen: the Iraq and Af-Pak Wars, at the Receiving End

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nir Rosen (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3) Ghaith Abdul Ahad photo NR: If I was going to name a company that sort of stood for the so-called American ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nir Rosen (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Ghaith Abdul Ahad photo

NR: If I was going to name a company that sort of stood for the so-called American success [in Iraq] it would be Black and Decker, maker of power drills. Power-drill marks in a corpse became a signature of Shia militiamen. If you found a corpse and its head was cut off, you knew a Sunni militiaman killed him. If you found a corpse with power-drill marks on the body, you knew he was tortured to death by Shia militiamen. And this became so routine and widespread (along with other civilian abuses and casualties, murders and kidnappings conducted by both Shia militiamen and the Shia-dominated Iraqi police and Iraqi Army) that it crushed the Sunni opposition. And they were finally forced to realize that they were a small, vulnerable, weak minority staring into the abyss of extermination. And that forced them to change their calculus and ally with the Americans which led to the Awakening phenomenon (the ‘Sons of Iraq’). And that changed everything.

CL: So the short form is: the Black and Decker guys won.

NR: Terror won. So, yes. We took sides in a civil war that we helped create. One side emerged dominant and crushed the other side. We called that success and we moved on to Afghanistan.

Nir Rosen is the rare war reporter (not unlike Anthony Shadid) who covers Iraq and Afghanistan as if there are articulate people in pain on the ground — in families and villages caught between the wrecking ball of American military force and the junk-yard dogs of warlords who end up owning so much of the wreckage. Aftermath is Nir Rosen’s door-stop of a new book, nearly 600 pages of person-to-person reporting “following the bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.” Reading it all, Nir Rosen, I keep thinking: on some great Judgment Day, Americans are going to have to account for what they knew of this horror show, and if not, why not?

Nir Rosen is strikingly cast for this job of telling us. He is an American born in New York, with a bouncer’s build and a Jewish name, but with Iranian blood, too, deep olive skin and a huge Middle Eastern mustache that let him go native. Back in 2003, he writes, an American soldier saw him and exclaimed: “That’s the biggest fuckin’ Iraqi [pronounced ‘eye-raki’] I ever saw.” He’s also had the mettle to hit the street in Iraq and Lebanon and Egypt and Afghanistan — always a freelance and a solo act, not embedded and not with a New York Times or CNN credential — to report what you or I might see.

I am wondering how “fixed” Baghdad would look to us in 2011.

NR: … There has been a relative decline in violence since the peak of the civil war period, 2005 to 2007 or 08. You no longer see militias controlling the streets and checkpoints in neighborhoods. You no longer see Americans conducting patrols or arrests. But Iraq is destroyed and broken and dirty and decaying and sick. Thomas Friedman talked about “a million acts of kindness” [as the US contribution]. I think for any Iraqi that would be outrageous, and they would remember a million explosions, a million assassinations and killings and deaths and displacements and arrests. And they would blame the US for this, because all this followed the American occupation and the chaos we created and the sectarian structures we imposed on the country. So a million acts of occupation and brutality may be more correct from an Iraqi point of view.

Over the course of a long war, Nir Rosen is observing, we Americans have learned to euphemize our own brutalities, at the same time we have adopted and embellished the enemy’s bluster about the stakes.

NR: It’s ironic that we’ve adopted Al-Qaeda view of the world. Al-Qaeda believes there’s some kind of global battlefield, a global war against Jews and Crusaders and infidels, that countries don’t matter. And Obama has continued all the pathologies of the Bush administration: it’s a global war against a sort of undefined enemy, an idea, a movement, a symbol, not a nation-state — Al-Qaeda or Islamic extremism. But ironically, as a result of our wars, Al-Qaeda has gone from being a marginal, insignificant phenomenon to a much more important one throughout the Muslim world. You had 200 guys who belonged to Al-Qaeda, more or less, at the time of 9-11. And they got lucky in 9-11 and were able to murder 3,000 people. But as a result of that we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we bombed Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and conducted operations in other countries as well, and we spent trillions of dollars on this war without end. All for a couple hundred relatively unsophisticated extremists who, in the grand scheme of things, were able to conduct only a pinprick on the great American empire, which didn’t cause that much damage. The damage was caused by our overreaction to September 11, internally and externally.

CL: … You remind me of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations notion. I said to Sam Huntington once on the radio: ‘it seems to me that you’ve developed methadone for Cold War addicts, that you’ve invented a clash of cultural significance and worldwide scope that could go on forever, partly out of nostalgia for this enormous, long Cold War confrontation with Russian Communism.’

NR: Yes, it was as if we got rid of one enemy [in Russian Communism] and now we need to find another one to justify our massive military expenditure and our militaristic approach to dominating the world. For now, Muslims are a good candidate. But Al-Qaeda is such a marginal phenomenon in the Middle East, in the Muslim world, it just doesn’t make any sense. … They’ve become more important thanks to us, thanks to our approach, but it’s not a threat. It’s a nuisance really. And we treat them as if Al-Qaeda threatens to take over and dominate the Muslim world, when it’s just a joke. There’s no war of ideas here, and no threat militarily. If you visit the Arab world nobody cares about them.

Nir Rosen of Aftermath in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 5, 2011

Podcast • October 1, 2010

John Mearsheimer: Why does a smart country act so stupid?

When Barack Obama delivered his defining “dumb war” denunciation of war against Iraq in October, 2002, he was a state senator standing in at Chicago’s first big anti-war rally for the invited keynoter, John Mearsheimer, ...

When Barack Obama delivered his defining “dumb war” denunciation of war against Iraq in October, 2002, he was a state senator standing in at Chicago’s first big anti-war rally for the invited keynoter, John Mearsheimer, who’d been booked elsewhere.

It was John Mearsheimer, the foreign policy scholar at the University of Chicago, who’d drafted the ad — op-ed in the New York Times on September 26, 2002 — that I keep pinned over my desk 8 years later. “WAR WITH IRAQ IS NOT IN AMERICA’S NATIONAL INTEREST,” was the headline. Signed by 33 university-based analysts, the ad was a marker then of rare vision, independence and mettle in the “expert” ranks. (My interviews with these uncelebrated heroes are here). Their ad came to stand also for the sorry truth that hitting the target smack-on in these surreal times is not often a good career move. All of that was before Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt at Harvard wrote the book that made them famous, The Israel Lobby.

In conversation here at Brown this week, Mearsheimer is reviewing a course that’s been “all down hill” for nearly a decade. We face four big unfixable fiascos abroad, in the Mearsheimer brief — all legacies of the “radical, reckless” George W. Bush. Afghanistan is being driven by demography and war back into Taliban control. Iraq, centrifugal by nature, continues to tear itself apart. Iran is not about to foreswear nuclear sophistication. And Israel, hell-bent on extending settlements, will defy the world’s pressure for a two-state deal with Palestinians; a Greater Israel, with apartheid rules, will be “a festering sore” on the American imperium for decades to come.

For President Obama, Mearsheimer sees no ways out, no “clever strategies” at hand. Obama might better have told the country in the Spring of 2009 that, on sober review, our problems were beyond solving any time soon — that we had to lower expectations and be prepared to shift directions. But Obama has mostly stayed the Bush course with softer rhetoric; and lots of people are angry at him because none of the problems are getting fixed.

Mearsheimer makes (to me) the intriguing argument that the great snare and delusion on the way to these quagmires was the first brief “successful” war on Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001. What felt like a quick and easy toppling of the Taliban so soon after 9.11 persuaded the Bush warriors that the combination of air power and special forces could wreck regimes and install puppets almost overnight. This was the premise for the invasion of Iraq — with dreams of turning over Syria and Iran after that, on the way to transforming the Arab and Muslim worlds. In time, that Afghan victory proved a “mirage” and a trap. The Taliban hid out, then resurged. Hamid Karzai proved both incompetent and corrupt. Iraq proved to be a bottomless quagmire, and nine years later we are still bleeding in Afghanistan.

The confounding riddle for Mearsheimer in all this is why the upper reaches of the American establishment have been so slow about examining the damage, so stubbornly set in doctrines that don’t work. He underlines the correspondence between the Iraq disaster and the money meltdown that Michael Lewis memorably set out in our conversation about The Big Short last spring:

The big question in the United States is how is it that a country with so much intellectual capital could have screwed up not just foreign policy so badly, but the economy as well. … Virtually all the economists and all the key business people thought that the American economy was in terrific shape, and hardly any of them foresaw the tsunami that hit us in 2008. Something is fundamentally wrong here.

Let’s go back to the discourse about the Iraq war. The fact that so few prominent people in the national security establishment foresaw a problem here is really quite remarkable. I don’t think you had to be very smart to understand that invading Iraq was likely to lead to disaster. …

So this leads us to the question: what is wrong in the United States? How is it that a country with all this intellectual capital could have been simultaneously wrong about two such fundamentally important issues, the economy and foreign policy?

Truth be told, I don’t have a good answer.

John Mearsheimer with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown University, September 27, 2010.