Sending Weapons to Syria Is a Tried and True Mistake

On November 29, 1981, an ordinary day in the bustling Damascus neighborhood of Azbakiyah, droves of Syrian pedestrians on Baghdad Street moved in and out of their apartments and offices.   Some were children visiting their friends.  Many were high-ranking intelligence functionaries working to foil subversive plots against the state.

It was a tense time. The Muslim Brotherhood was at war with the Syrian government and had been detonating car bombs all over Damascus.  In August, Brotherhood agents leveled an attack near the Prime Minister’s office and, in September, leveled another one near a government agency. Indoctrinated in Islamist dogma and trained at camps in the region, these terrorist bandits were slick, ruthless, and determined to wreak havoc.   At the time, their jihad was against the non-believers of Hafez Al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party and its military cronies spread throughout the country.

Suddenly, all at once, the city shook, and a bomb left Baghdad Street in bloody shambles. With this attack, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood murdered and injured hundreds of civilians, causing more casualties than ever before.  If there was any reason left for the world to ignore this appalling threat to civilized society, it was now gone.

But the United States remained unconcerned.  Hardly any of us knew where the Muslim Brothers were, let alone who they were serving and who was financing their jihad.  American news outlets provided scant coverage of the attacks, and our national security apparatus said little about it in public.

American indifference to Islamist terror, even if not justifiable, would have been more understandable had it not been for the fact that, in very important ways, our government bolstered Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s.  Although it is not clear whether the US government directly funded Syrian terrorists, it certainly handed off weapons and billions of dollars to Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue their agendas through various  proxies, including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.  At the end of the Cold War, as one CIA analyst put it, we were “playing with fire,” and our blasé government knew it, even if our people did not.

Today, as we again consider sending weapons to “vetted” Syrian rebels in the current civil war, our costly recent involvements in the Mideast should remind us that it is risky to cast our lot with foreign factions intent on using our aid for murder and warfare.  Because our patron states in the region have themselves thrown around funds willy-nilly for a long time, it will be necessary not only to withhold aid from violent insurgencies but also to take a more critical look at the aid that we so readily wire into other states’ bank accounts.

Although the tale of Islamism is over a hundred years old, this chapter began when Muslim Brotherhood agents fled to Syria in the 1950s after Egypt’s Nasser amped up his attacks on the Brotherhood.  As the largely secular Syrian Ba’ath assumed power the following decade, the Brothers were forced to fight for the heart of their new home, declaring outright war against the Syrian government during the Arabs’ 1967 war with Israel.

Meanwhile, in Jordan, the Muslim Brothers were fending off similar threats from anti-Islamist nationalists and Palestinians.  Though it seemed that Syria would intervene on the Palestinians’ behalf during their 1970 uprising against the Jordanian monarchy, Assad backed down when Israel “threatened action if the Syrian army moved to help the PLO.”  Still, Jordan and Israel were concerned about Syrian-endorsed nationalism and socialism and thus supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s reinvigorated jihad against Assad in the mid-1970s.

To complicate matters even further, the Lebanese Civil War erupted in 1975 and eventually provoked the involvement of both Israel and Syria.  Still pitted against the PLO, Israel funded the predominantly Christian Free Lebanon Forces and Lebanese Front, both of which supported the Muslim Brotherhood.  In fact, one of Israel’s main allies in the Free Lebanon Forces, Sa’d Haddad, operated multiple Muslim Brotherhood training camps, including some in northern Jordan with the go-ahead of King Hussein.

Pause for a moment.  Suppose that, after a long day’s work in the 1970s or 1980s, you returned home to find King Hussein pulled up in a limousine to ask you to support his latest onslaught against the Syrian government and the PLO.  Before you were able to respond, Israel’s Menachem Begin popped in asking for a big donation as well.  The two leaders’ countries were technically enemies, yes, but they both needed your help in training a group of useful Islamist rebels.  Right as you tried to answer again, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia came by and asked to buy weapons from you for the same purpose.  They all admitted that they would kill innocent people with your aid but that it was ultimately “for a good cause.”  What would you have said?

Sadly, it doesn’t even matter.  In real life, you effectively said yes to all of them.  Islamist “terrorist acts” at the time were widespread, “centered around urban centers such as Damascus, Hamah, Homs, and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus.”  The US was implicated in this violence by its financial support for JordanSaudi ArabiaIsrael, and, by extension, the Free Lebanon Forces and the Lebanese Front.

Recently, we have again been asked to fund a bunch of fighters amidst Syrian mayhem—this time, by taking money directly from our pockets and putting it into theirs.  As crucial as it is for the international community to support humanitarian aid to Syria’s civilians being slaughtered by the brutal Assad on one side and Islamists on the other, it is risky for us to throw any more weaponry and military support into the volatile madness unfolding in the country.

The lesson from next door in Iraq– where ISIS is on a murderous rampage with stolen weapons that the US originally gave to Iraq’s Shi’ite government– is that our arms transfers can come back to haunt us and may be redirected by almost anybody to pursue a nefarious agenda.   Boasting a recent history of such counterproductive results, the “more weapons” strategy deserves much greater scrutiny and, in the case of Syria, should probably be discarded entirely.

 

In Holocaust Education, Re-Emphasize Allied Apathy

When teaching children about racism and genocide, educators often focus on individual biases as the source of systematic racism and anti-Semitism.  For example, at my synagogue, teachers often ask their students to put themselves in the shoes of Christian German civilians during the Holocaust and consider whether they, as non-Jews, would have simply shrugged off anti-Semitic slurs and the sight of innocent people in yarmulkes being attacked by policemen.  Questions like this spark a discussion of bullying and anti-bullying in American schools today.  In the process, “racism” becomes a dysfunctional interpersonal phenomenon, and the Holocaust, as a result, becomes a simple amalgamation of millions of acts by individual racists who allowed their prejudices to get out of hand.  By the end of a course on the subject, many students assume that the only way to save Hitler’s victims would have been to speak out against incidental anti-Semitism before it escalated into genocide.  As the Anti-Defamation League notes, “challenging belittling jokes” and not “accepting stereotypes” are good ways to prevent a society from escalating into acts of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and then genocide.

Combatting individual prejudices certainly can help stop mass atrocities, but, in an educational context, this truism is incomplete because it ignores the systematic mobilization of hatred and violence by governmental authority.  Even though many German schoolchildren were too reticent in the face of schoolyard anti-Semitism and could have spoken up, we must not overstate the practical impact that several more German dissidents could have had once the genocide was actually underway, nor should we pretend that the world was helpless to stop the Holocaust once Germans’ prejudices had spiraled so murderously out of control.

In our case, American students today must know that our government, even without changing the hearts of individual anti-Semitic Germans, could have saved many more of Hitler’s victims and that fighting prejudice, though immeasurably valuable, would not have been enough to compensate for the Allies’ failure to intervene on the victims’ behalf.

The US government’s shameful policy of proroguing on the Holocaust was underway by December of 1942 when President Roosevelt met with a Jewish delegation imploring him to stop the genocide. Although Roosevelt intimated at the meeting that his administration “shall do all in our power to be of service to your people in this tragic moment,” the proceeding few months panned out much differently.

In February of 1943, the Rumanian government suggested that it would transport 70,000 Jews into Allied territory in exchange for roughly 130 dollars per refugee. Though such a proposal probably would have required further examination and negotiation, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles simply dismissed it out of hand, lambasting it as a hoax of “the German propaganda machine” to “create confusion and doubt within the United Nations.” The Nuremberg trials elucidated, however, that the offer was sincere and that, with only a little bit of extra research, the State Department would have known to capitalize on the offer.

With that in mind, perhaps we should be asking students what their forbears in the United States could have done to pressure their government to act on the Rumanian proposal.  When organizations pushing the United States to accept Rumania’s offer were denigrated as inflammatory and overdramatic, how could our forbears have normalized the struggle for genocide victims and defended the efforts of those who were advocating positive action?

It is no exaggeration to say that the Allies’ “efforts” at saving Hitler’s victims were laced with unconcern and faux-outrage at most key turns thereafter.  To the world, our leaders were “devastated” by what was happening to European Jewry, but, in private, they were much more insouciant about the matter. In fact, to absolutely no objection, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden once said outright in a 1943 meeting with President Roosevelt that “we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria.  If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany.”  When Eden expressed concern that “Hitler might take us up on any such offer” and that the Allied Powers would have to find new homes for Jewish refugees, he was greeted with nonchalance and tacit agreement.

Today, students of the Holocaust or any other systemic atrocity should not ask themselves only how more people could have acted individually to condemn incidental bigotry, as important as that question is; they should ask how thousands upon thousands of people could have acted in tandem to pressure their governments to save thousands upon thousands of victims.  We should remember that the Holocaust was not only an exercise of individual prejudice but also an exercise of systemic governmental apathy and an exhibition of societies’ unfortunate tendency to shrug their proverbial shoulders amidst large-scale suffering.

 

Neoconservatives Use Moral Relativism to Blame Progressives for Genital Mutilation

This article was originally published for Foreign Policy in Focus and at tommyraskin.org.  

The neoconservative camp, always eager to wrestle with imaginary positions of their opponents, is now bravely challenging another belief that no one holds, which is that “all cultures are equal.” George Mason University Professor Walter Williams has jumped aboard the “Western values are superior to all others” bandwagon and asks, “Is forcible female genital mutilation, as practiced in nearly 30 sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Eastern countries, a morally equivalent cultural value?” The neoconservative Clarion Project’s Douglas Murray takes the campaign directly to progressives by asking, “How many young girls’ clitorises had to bemutilated while they busily curated their left-wing credentials?”

This arrogant cultural trope is nothing new. The neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay have promoted the “inequality of cultures” idea throughout the War on Terror to justify militarism, invasion, torture, and systematic violation of international law. Sliding from “culture” to politics to statecraft, their ideological conceit is that “we,” the West, have an enduring tradition of protecting women, while “they,” the Middle Easterners, are so barbaric that they cut the clitorises off of women, and therefore our “culture” should govern their “culture.” But their sudden passion for Middle Eastern women’s rights—indeed, any women’s rights—must be taken with a shaker of salt.

Obviously, not all cultural values are equal in a moral sense. For example, a political culture of militarism and war, the kind that produced hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Iraq War, is inferior to a culture that prefers non-violence, diplomacy and peace, the kind that you might find in, say, Canada. Furthermore, where it occurs, in both Islamic and non-Islamic communities, female genital mutilation is indeed barbaric, savage, and backward and should be condemned as such.

But neoconservative fake-feminists only play the “pro-woman” game when it comes time to bash fanatical Islamists who happen not to be on our side in whatever war the neoconservatives are pushing. Thus, when our side made deals with Afghan tribal warlords who were none-averse to female genital mutilation, the neoconservatives fell silent, for their militarist “realism” always prevails over their rhetorical feminism.

Moreover, the neoconservatives are distinctly anti-woman when it comes time to allow grassroots democracy to flourish in the Mideast. I’ll show you what I mean.

They argue that “they,” the Middle Easterners, mutilate girls’ genitals and that “we,” the Westerners, don’t. What inanity. The West’s insipid, criminal Iraq War mutilated the genitals— not to mention the faces, necks, arms, and legs— of thousands of Iraqi women and girls, all after years of sanctions that killed thousands of Iraqi girls every month. Some may insist that these were necessary means to a righteous, democratic end, but the only meaningful “ends” thus far produced by the Western aggression in Iraq have been unyielding sectarian violence, car bombings and refugee camps. Please forgive me for not jumping up to high-five the feminist “liberators” who created this violent mess.

Ever since the Iranian Revolution, and especially since the induction of pre-Iran War hysteria, neoconservatives have also been fond of bashing Twelver Shiite misogyny as a decidedly backward, anti-Western phenomenon. Yet their beloved CIA, a beacon of Western “democracy building,” helped oust the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and enthrone the Shah, a far-from-enlightened dictator whose secret police force, the SAVAK, “tortured and murdered thousands” of political dissidents. Where were their sympathies for brutalized, displaced, and widowed Iranian women when that was happening?

Oh, and while they do the newly fashionable thing of bashing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s very real chauvinism, it might be worth mentioning that the West has been siding with anti-female Egyptian tyranny ever since 1919 when, amid an anti-colonial struggle which eventually killed 800 Egyptians, Woodrow Wilson backed the British rule in Egypt even as native women “testified that British troops ‘leveled their weapons at us’” and violently suppressed the protests. Fast-forward to less than a decade ago when the United States decided to purchase Egyptian “stability” by propping up Hosni Mubarak’s government during its “systematic arrestand harassment of peaceful political activists” and “lethal” crackdown on both male and female asylum seekers. As we see, the long-standing tradition of Western devotion to democracy and feminism isn’t so pure.

Yes, we should condemn FGM and misogyny whenever it occurs at anyone’s hands in any culture. That’s not the dispute here. The dispute is whether or not the military interventions championed by the neoconservatives have proven more conducive to women’s empowerment than feminist and human rights struggles. Though it may be noise to pseudo-feminist militarists’ ears, the answer, resoundingly, is no.

The Myth of the Able-Bodied Man as Man

This article was originally published at goodmenproject.com and tommyraskin.org.

We need to fix the game of manhood.

Our society’s exclusive image of the ‘real man’ leaves us with a disgruntled majority of boys who view the coveted prizes of masculinity as out of reach. Although most boys are bound to feel painfully inferior at one point or another, our game is particularly skewed against certain boys, like those with physical, developmental, and mental disabilities.

Young disabled men often begin to feel distanced from manhood when the social emphasis on gender kicks in during adolescence. Boys are frequently taught that athleticism belongs to the able-bodied and that sexual attractiveness, portrayed in everything from clothing catalogues to violent, misogynistic pornography, too belongs to aggressive, physically dominant, able-bodied men. “Charm” also tends to follow able-bodied guys without psychological abnormalities, those whose looks, interests and proclivities are considered “normal.”

And we double down on this arrangement, first, by blindly prizing assimilation, and then “integration,” as the antidotes to disabled boys’ hardships. Even when our boys don’t like sports and suck at them, we urge them to go out for the baseball team. We tell them to change their cinematic, musical, and literary interests simply to fit in.  When that doesn’t work, educators try forcing friendships between able-bodied and disabled students, which ultimately doesn’t work either.

That’s only half of our failed approach though. Without offering our boys long-term opportunities to cultivate the interests and talents that can give them real self-confidence as young men, we simply send them off to counselors and therapists to be told that they “don’t have to be like other boys.” It’s a valuable message but an incomplete one nonetheless.

For years, as both a student and co-teacher, I cringed at many disabled (and otherwise excluded) boys’ affected efforts to fit in socially. Indignant about their inability to measure up to their ingrained conceptions of manhood, these boys would, for example, act like chauvinistic players. On one occasion, a camp friend of mine put on his ‘man face’ and broadcasted to a large group of guys that he likes to “use and lose” women, even though, in reality, he had never kissed a girl. Clearly, after numerous rejections, he was searing with resentment and, in a last-ditch effort to prove his manliness to himself and other boys, veiled his insecurity with ugly chauvinism.

Such affectations of masculinity were not always girl-oriented though. I remember one of my middle school students, a so-called “nerd” with a developmental disability, striking up a conversation about the NFL with some peers during recess. After five minutes, the other boys laughed him off when it became clear that this young man had no idea what he was discussing.

Alas, when other outcast boys pulled this kind of stunt, by acting up in class or pretending to love typical ‘boy things,’ they were usually called out for “trying too hard” or “being annoying.” Sometimes, their parents—usually their fathers—would push them to participate in stereotypical “male” activities, like videogames and roughhousing. But no matter how persistently these boys tried to be “real” guys, they usually couldn’t rid themselves of that fundamental differentness, that less-than-boyishness, that disabled-ness in the eyes of the boys who they were trying to impress.

Conscientious teachers would pick up on this social ostracism and, with the best of intentions, try to integrate ostracized students into groups of able-bodied, gleeful, popular kids. They would concoct project workgroups and assign class seats with the obvious purpose of bringing together students from different social circles. In grade school, they would encourage popular kids to hang out with unpopular kids during recess. Content with simply having done something, the teachers would then wash their hands of this unsettling business and declare: “Job well done!”

Sadly, they missed the mark entirely.

John Calmore’s critical understanding of racially integrative housing reforms in recent decades provides the necessary framework for understanding ability-based integration in school: “the ‘integration imperative’ legitimates the emphasis on desegregation rather than on simple nonsegregation and free choice as to where to live,” and, in this case, where and with whom to play and study. As a co-teacher, I wanted students of all abilities to be in the same classes, but I didn’t think that kids of different social groups should be forced to sit near each other, work together or play together, especially when these integrative arrangements left disabled students feeling even more isolated than before.

When teachers entirely re-configured classes in this way, disabled students were often separated from the couple friends they had and were forced to work with peers who detested these teacher-imposed social structures as much as they did. Usually, the less popular students were less confident, and their dissatisfaction was only made worse when they were forced into intimate situations with other students who seemed unenthusiastic about working with them. As a result, students in different social circles constantly complained that yearlong workgroups took them away from their friends.

At the end of it all, many disabled boys were, and still are, directed to a counselor or teacher to talk through their social difficulties. Having that adult backup is certainly helpful, but it isn’t enough for most boys. Right after putting them in social situations in which they are forced to worry about what others think of them, we, in a bizarre reversal of course, tell our boys with physical and psychological abnormalities that they actually shouldn’t worry about what others think of them, that the kids who don’t give them the time of day “aren’t worth it anyway,” and that if they simply maintain a positive attitude, everything will be OK.

Unfortunately, after all of the mixed messages, feel-good therapy sessions and naive integrative measures, many boys with disabilities aren’t OK. In fact, a lot of them are hurting pretty badly. The physically disabled are often troubled by the fear of their physical limitations in an able-bodied society, children with learning disabilities are still “more likely to have negative perceptions of the self, their environment and the future,” young men with intellectual disabilities are at an increased risk of depression, and children with severe disabilities are prone to display “irritability, anger or screaming, self-injurious and aggressive behavior.”

Young men with disabilities neither are nor should be convinced that they can be happy without social lives and fulfilling hobbies. I have found that if there is anything in the flawed model of masculinity that we ought to keep—and are anyway forced to keep—it’s the natural human longing for confidence, love, and enjoyable work (as Freud taught us). Guys don’t need to play COD, hang out with the cool kids, look like movie stars, have vision, be neurotypical, or be able to walk in order to be “real men,” but we all need passions, for passions give us the productive energies that make us attractive to ourselves and others.

Our emphasis, then, has to move away from the broken assimilation-integration paradigm. No boy has actually ever boosted his self-esteem by taking on false interests and false credentials in order to fit the “man” mold, and the top-down friendship model has rarely worked. If we are serious about giving disabled students equally gratifying social lives, then we should stop forcing them into uncomfortable situations and instead focus on giving them opportunities to self-actualize among those with similar interests.

Educators can spur this process by establishing in-school outlets for isolated children to pursue their goals. For example, when a teacher discovers that a shy, excluded student is a budding musician, the teacher should give him music-oriented assignments that can help cultivate his abilities. If no such opportunity exists in the classroom, the teacher should refer him to an extracurricular musical band. Ideally, the boy would eventually gain enough confidence to present his work to the class and discuss it with his peers openly and confidently.  The social integration would thus come after the boy has achieved the self-esteem associated with meeting a personal goal.

Guardians should also resist the temptation to force their boys to participate in activities simply because the activities are typically male. Eventually, the dissonance between the boys’ true interests and his parents’ interests will surface, and the boys will only be further destabilized. Guardians, like teachers, should instead encourage boys to pursue their true passions.

As for the rest of us, let’s remember that a man need not look or think a certain way to retain his masculinity, that if he finds purpose and esteem in a less-than-expected lifestyle for a guy in the 21st century, he nonetheless deserves our support and validation as an ever-elusive ‘real man.’