Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Al-takfir (التكفير)

Ta-Nehisi Coates was away in Chicago for a while, so he had some friends guest blog in his absence. Adam Serwer was one, and his post, "American Takfiris," is as good a piece as any blogger could hope for from a guest.

The theological justification for al Qaeda's wholesale slaughter of civilians was provided by Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl, one of the founding fathers of al Qaeda. Because the murder of innocents is forbidden in Islam and the murder of Muslims in particular, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden required some sort of theological framework for justifying terrorism. This was provided by al-Sharif, who essentially argued in his book, "The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge," that apostates could be murdered, and that approach, takfir (which has come to be known as takfirism) allowed al Qaeda to, for all intents and purposes, kill anyone they wanted without violating the laws of Islam by declaring them to be apostates. In other words, Dr. Fadl helped provided a theological justification for something that everyone involved knew was wrong.

The legal memos justifying torture aren't very different in terms of reasoning--it's clear that John Yoo and his cohorts in the Office of Legal Counsel saw their job not as binding the president to the rule of law, but to declare legal any tactic that the executive branch believed necessary to fight terrorism. They worked backwards from this conclusion, and ethics officials at the Department of Justice, we now know, decided that they they had violated professional standards in doing so. Whereas al-Zawahiri and bin Laden turned to al-Sharif for a method to circumvent the plain language of the Koran, Bush and Cheney went to Yoo and Jay Bybee to circumvent the plain language of the law. Most Islamic scholars, just like most legal experts, reject their respective reasoning as unsound.

It's worth reading the rest. I don't subscribe to the more or less optimistic conclusion Serwer comes to, but I'm very inherently cynical about this sort of thing. It would certainly be nice if he were proved right.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Christopher Street boys

The only way this video could be improved is if his cat had made an appearance.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Israel-Hizballah conflict on the horizon?

"Everybody and their brother thinks that 2010 will witness a second round between Hezbollah and Israel," says Qifa Nabki; like him, I hope that's not the case and don't see it as inevitable (at least for the next few months, barring a game-changing event--which, in today's Middle East, is not too unlikely). The post is worth reading--it features a few different takes on what might be the catalyst for a conflict between Israel and Hizballah and how Hizballah and/or Israel (depending on the scenario) might try to spin it.

The short version of my opinion: you never know, it doesn't take much for these two, but it would be stupid on Israel's part. The long version is below.

Nabki's reason for thinking conflict doesn't have to happen too too soon is that the current situation is mutually beneficial: "Israel gets a quiet northern front and Hezbollah gets to re-group, re-arm, and weigh their options while certain relevant regional powers weigh theirs." (Cough cough Iran.) I think there's one more reason: the current Israeli leadership doesn't have any hawk cred to prove or warlike, manly flexing to do. They're still pretty fresh off Operation Cast Lead and they're not due for elections anytime soon.

In addition, Operation Cast Lead didn't exactly go well for Israel in global public or diplomatic opinion--I mean, who outside of Israel was happy about that? Anyone? Not even the U.S. was on board (okay, maybe Charles Krauthammer)--and another war, even one provoked by Hizballah, would not help Israel in that department. The Goldstone Report is still being investigated by both sides, and the U.N. will probably send it to the Hague--a reasonably ominous development for Israel and its ongoing investigation, since according to The Majlis "Richard Goldstone recommended the UN send the report to the International Criminal Court only if both sides aren't willing to conduct legitimate investigations." Human rights groups are still on the scent. Israel doesn't need to give them new material.

I think the half-life on Goldstone will have a lot to do with whether we see a full-scale conflict in Southern Lebanon, even if Hizballah provokes--Israel has a choice to escalate, and right now there are few upsides and lots of downsides to taking it. (Indeed, that choice is a large part of what won Ehud Olmert such opprobrium in the aftermath of 2006's July War, and has won him the privilege of being referred to as "stupid," "idiotic," etc. forever after whenever that war is discussed.)

Of course, that hasn't always stopped them before. Nabki says, "Israeli strategists are talking about the Dahiyah doctrine and the concept of punishment, not dissimilar to Ops Accountability and Grapes of Wrath in 1993 and 1996. Next time, they say, we won’t bother try to defeat Hezbollah, instead we’ll smash Lebanon to demonstrate to the Lebanese the folly of tolerating them."

On the one hand, not trying to crush Hizballah is probably wise. It didn't go well last time and will just add fuel to a number of fires. On the other, punishing the people for a group's politics and actions hasn't been working too well in Gaza, nor, as Larison keeps hammering away (here too--there are too many good ones), does it generally in the case of sanctions (against Burma, Iran, Gaza, ad nauseam) or in principle.

What's more, while I have no doubt in Israel's ability to lay waste to Lebanon no matter what Hizballah does (unless Nasrallah is hiding a large air force very well), they still have to deal with the risk of Hizballah's managing to make them look bad tactically. Israel doesn't just have to win to avoid that; they have to embarrass Hizballah. Otherwise, in the context of asymmetrical expectations, the specter of 2006 combined with an impressive or even decent showing from Hizballah will not help the nyah nyah narrative one bit.

Finally, I fail to see how this plan works out well for Israel in the strategic long run. Even if it goes brilliantly, they'll then border an impoverished, destabilized Lebanon full of a lot of very mad, very suddenly poor people for whom employment with Hizballah could start looking very good (especially if Iran is smart and sends a bunch of cash Hizballah's way to pay recruits--Hizballah was offering $100-$200 a week back in the mid-eighties, thanks to their Shi'i parent). Hizballah, in this scenario (only the one-sentence version, to be fair), will be left more or less intact, and it will be ready, willing, and able to make Israel's northern border very unhappy (especially given their stated intention, per Nabki, to go on the offensive "next time" rather than fighting "defensively and reactively" as they did in 2006). (Though Syria has a role to play here, too, which I think could go either way in terms of giving the green light.) The Israeli government will probably have a reasonably doubtful chunk of the electorate on its hands, especially if the government is seen to have started or disproportionately escalated the conflict that created this situation.

This particular plan of attack would really, really not help Israel on the human rights front, either--Hizballah is their best target from the point of view of avoiding civilians and hitting an internationally unpopular enemy, despite recent softening from Britain and international observers toward the group in response to their new platform.

All of this said, I wouldn't be shocked if it happened: Hizballah is maybe due to remind everyone of its war-waging chops (it's coming up on four years now)--they did just redeploy their rockets deeper into Lebanon, raising the stakes of a conflict--and Israel has been known to get in deeper than necessary when the IDF feels it has something to prove (cf. Israeli-Lebanese war, 1982-2000), which it probably does with regard to Hizballah. On that front, it's at least promising that Ariel Sharon isn't Defense Minister, even if Netanyahu isn't a huge improvement on Menachem Begin.

Plus, well, in this arena, it doesn't take much. But if there's a good option for Israel that includes conflict, I don't see it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Once again, there's just nothing to say

On Wednesday morning, a suicide car bomber slammed into a Frontier Corps convoy of vehicles heading to inaugurate a girls school in the village of Kad, in the Lower Dir district of northwest Pakistan, killing 7 and wounding at least 130. Among the dead were 3 US troops in Pakistani dress and a Frontier Corpsman. The others were schoolgirls. The attack occurred as the convoy was reaching two girls' schools, one an elementary school and one a high school rebuilt with US funds. The force of the blast collapsed the high school's walls, but it was empty. Most of the wounded were schoolgirls in the elementary school, hit by flying glass and debris; ironically, given that the Taliban claim to be Muslims, some were having their class on Islam when the shrapnel hit them.

H/t Juan Cole.

New steps by Hizballah

A recent article from the Washington Post says that Hizballah has redeployed its long-range rockets "deep into northern Lebanon and the Bekaa valley"--that is, away from the southern border with Israel--which would mean conflicts between Hizballah and Israel would now involve a much broader territorial swath of Lebanon, probably forcing a conflict between the two states (or a crackdown by the Lebanese government on Hizballah, which seems unlikely, though I would be fascinated to see how that would play out--it would be very tricky PR for the government and a very interesting test of the rebuilt Lebanese army).

This is an interesting development for its own sake, but particularly so coming fairly quickly after Hizballah's announcement of its new political platform, which has been received by most observers as a sign of moderation and a swing away from militiadom and toward full-fledged political party status. Qifa Nabki agrees.

Nabki in particular is not necessarily saying that this represents a moderation or a path toward full political engagement and military quiescence, but that is a sense I get from much of the commentary. I didn't quite buy this notion at the time and I still don't. Hizballah is and has been a political movement for a few years now; they are also, at the same time, a guerrilla fighting force. I don't think they have any plans to give up either end of the operation, because what they are is, in fact, something different from either of these characterizations. I'll wait to talk more about what that is after I've actually written my thesis, but this is what it's about.

In addition, I find this bit from the WaPo article interesting:

Hezbollah "learned their lesson" in 2006, when vital intelligence enabled the Israel Defense Forces to destroy the group's long-range launch sites in the first days of the conflict, said reserve Gen. Aharon Zeevi Farkash, a former head of IDF intelligence. In effect, he said, "the 'border' is now the Litani River," with Hezbollah's rocket sites possibly extending north of Beirut.

It's an interesting statement because the original objective of Israel's 1978 intervention into Lebanon was to make the Litani river the actual border (see Benny Morris's Righteous Victims). The notion of annexing Lebanon south of the Litani and leaving the rest for a Christian Maronite state that would enter an alliance of religious minorities with Israel in a sea of Arab Muslims goes back to David Ben Gurion.

I have no way of knowing if it was Gen. Farkash's intention to reference this particular tradition. If it was, it's an unfortunate reference to make on the public record (or at all, one would like to think). Either way, his statement seems to interpret Hizballah's move as a defensive one, a form of retreat. This is inaccurate. It represents, as most other observers have concluded, Hizballah's confidence in its penetration of greater areas of Lebanon and its aim to strategically invest more of Lebanon in its endeavors, rather than remaining limited to the South. (Of course, the Bekaa is and has been a Hizballah stronghold for years, but as far as I know this represents a new level of military investment.)

I'm interested to see what Hizballah's next move is.

Postgame analysis

Larison has some interesting public opinion numbers from Iran.

I don't know nearly enough about Iran, so I won't comment, but I figured I'd pass them along.

Monday, February 1, 2010

O rly?

It is with much dis-gusto that I present to you the Make Me Skinny Jacket by Rebecca Taylor.

Listen. Blazers and fitted jackets can indeed produce the illusion of a small waist, hourglass figure, and other features that translate to "flattering" by today's dominant beauty standards. This is one of the many, many things I love about them. (In the "black blazer" category alone I have three. This should tell you something.)

However. I must point out that they do not actually change one's body composition, and that while it is not this or any one company's fault that we have a national obsession with thinness, marketing products on the basis of future or illusory thinness (usually both) is really unhelpful to everyone (except the ones counting the cash, I suppose). This is just such a pathetically transparent and tasteless example of it that I actually couldn't quite believe it when I saw it.

That's all, really. Carry on.