Modern Day Guernica

Below is the WaPo worldview newsletter for today, April 26, 2017. I think this is only available to subscribers which is why I provide it in its entirety.

Sober reminder of the horrors of war, both past and present.

 

The Nazi aircraft appeared above Guernica in the late afternoon of April 26, 1937. It was market day in the historic Basque town, with hundreds of residents congregated in the central square. They couldn’t have imagined what was about to happen: Over the next three hours, the planes dropped 100,000 pounds of high-explosive and incendiary bombs, reducing Guernica to a smoldering ruin.

It was one of the first crimes against humanity to grip the global imagination. The atrocity, carried out by the German air force in league with Spain’s fascist Gen. Francisco Franco, is considered the first deliberate attack on a civilian target from the air — years before CoventryDresden and Hiroshima, and decades before Aleppo. Guernica contained nothing of real military value. It was, and remains, a Basque cultural center and home to a sacred tree that symbolized the traditional freedoms of the Basque people — privileges Franco had little interest in defending.

To this day, the scenes of catastrophic suffering recorded in Guernica are a black mark on Spanish history.

“I was the first correspondent to reach Guernica, and was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over,” wrote Noel Monks of the London Daily Express“Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nauseating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.”

The Manchester Guardian reported that “even flocks of sheep were machine-gunned” and that “the fires have been so extensive that many bodies will never be recovered.” Estimates placed the death toll around 1,600 people, though later studies have reduced the number significantly.

Buildings in the ancient Basque village of Guernica are laid waste after an unprovoked aerial attack by the German Luftwaffe on April 27, 1937. (Associated Press)

“The raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history,” wrote George Steer in the Times of Londontwo days after the bombing. “Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.”

Indeed, as it later emerged, the bombing of Guernica was part of a trial run for the Nazi war machine. The Condor Legion, a Luftwaffe unit created to fight alongside Franco’s Nationalists, carried out the assault in coordination with Franco’s troops and with support from the air force of fascist Italy. According to one historian’s account, “the destruction of Guernica was planned as a belated birthday present from [Hermann] Göring to [Adolf] Hitler, orchestrated like a Wagnerian Ring of Fire.”

“Guernica, city with 5,000 residents has been literally razed to the ground,” wrote Wolfram von Richthofen, the Condor Legion’s commander, in his diary. “Bomb craters can be seen in the streets. Simply wonderful.”

Such sentiment is chilling and shocking, but it’s no relic of the past. To this day, American politiciansbluster with alarming glee about the prospect of carpet-bombing other parts of the world.

If Guernica’s ordeal still echoes powerfully in the present, it’s in large part thanks to the efforts of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who debuted his now-famous mural of the slaughter at an international arts exhibition in Paris in July 1937.

A “cubist apocalypse,” as British art critic Jonathan Jones recently put it, the painting received mixed reviews from Picasso’s initial audience. But of all the works at the exhibition — lavishly sponsored pieces of propaganda by governments including Germany’s — it is Picasso’s colorless tableau of grotesque forms, broken and brutalized, that is remembered to this day.

“Picasso knew exactly what he was doing when he painted Guernica,” wrote Jones. “He was trying to show the truth so viscerally and permanently that it could outstare the daily lies of the age of dictators.”

Both Franco’s Nationalists and the Nazis initially denied any culpability in the attack, blaming it instead on retreating Republican troops. Their callousness — and the international community’s mute shock — wasinvoked by observers last year as they watched the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies relentlessly bomb rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

“When it comes to incendiary weapons and munitions such as bunker buster bombs and cluster bombs, the U.N. makes it clear that the systematic use of such indiscriminate weapons in densely populated areas amounts to a war crime,” said British politician Andrew Mitchell to parliament last October. “We are witnessing events that match the behavior of the Nazi regime in Guernica in Spain.”

A Portuguese cartoonist updated Picasso’s work to show Assad’s face and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin:


It also took a while for Guernica.
 Franco’s dictatorship suppressed Basque rights until his death in 1975. Picasso’s mural, after a peripatetic life around the world, only made its way home in 1981. Eight decades on, Spain is still coming to grips with how to reckon with its bloody, divided past. In Guernica, there is nowa dedicated peace museum, as well as a verdant “peace park” in the foothills surrounding the town.The rebels have been mostly driven out of Aleppo — and so, too, hundreds of thousands of residents. It will take a long time for the devastated city to be made whole again.

And there are survivors.

Earlier this year, Luis Iriondo Aurtenetxea, who was 14 at the time of the bombing and saw Guernica burn to ash around him, spoke to the Guardian of what endures.

“We survivors will disappear. We want people to carry on our message. We want every town hall to have a peace committee to talk to their governments,” he said. “When the German ambassador came here to apologize in 1997, I was asked to speak for the town. I said to him: ‘A flag of peace should be raised from the ruins of what our town once was. This must never happen again.’ ”

 

American Versus Russian Intervention

Excellent WaPo piece about American intervention by Simon Waxman.

The point of the article is to lend understanding about why Putin supported a Trump presidency, but what I found most insightful was his point about Putin and Syria.

Of course, Putin does not oppose militant humanitarianism for idealistic reasons. He, too, claims to be a militant humanitarian. In justifying Russian policies toward Syria and Ukraine, Putin and his supporters have explicitly relied on arguments the Clinton administration used in Kosovo. If NATO can stumble into Yugoslavia’s civil war, why can’t Russia do the same in Syria? Indeed, Russia is Syria’s ally, sworn by treaty to protect its government. And if Saddam Hussein’s genocide against Kurds was a reason to violently unseat him from power, then why shouldn’t Russia protect persecuted ethnic Russians, as it has claimed to do in Georgia and Ukraine? If there is a principled difference between the Clinton and Putin approaches to militant humanitarianism, it is that the latter is essentially conservative, seeking to preserve the status quo or restore the status quo ante, and the former is transformative, attempting to build new states along lines preferred by U.S. politicians and strategists.

The rest can be read here.

His homepage is here.

 

What Trump Calls Strength, China Calls Stupidity

That is the title of James Palmer’s recent FP piece.

Here is one bit

Trump might have thought he was signaling a bold willingness to use force to his visitor, but China regards U.S. military might as early U.S. statesman Elbridge Gerry once did the prospect of standing army: “Like a standing member; an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.” China’s happy to gradually extend power elsewhere, especially in its own neighborhood. But it hasn’t gone to war for 38 years, since the last spasms of the Maoist era produced a blundering invasion of Vietnam in 1979. (In that time frame, the United States has gone to war in well over a dozen countries, and Russia in close to a dozen.) Beijing views Washington’s scatter-shot, flip-flop approach to foreign policy — especially in the post-Cold War era — as destabilizing, foolish … and useful.

 

As with all of American blundering in the Middle East, China is the biggest beneficiary of the recent airstrikes in Syria. Not only does it divert attention away from the “region of the future,” it also heightens the suspicions of potential regional rivals, Russia and China. If you want to know why geopolitics has returned, the American use of force in nonstrategic areas is a start.

You can read the rest here.

 

 

Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

 

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

 

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

 

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

 

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

 

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

 

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

 

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

 

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.

 

Brian Clark is a foreign policy researcher living in Beijing, China. He blogs about international politics at www.managinghistory.com

America should think long and hard about escalating the war on ISIS

Here is a snippet from Quitting ISIS: Why Syrians are Abandoning the Group. 

Tarek, a former ISIS fighter from Deir Ezzor, estimated that when he deserted his unit in Deir Ezzor, 60 percent of his fellow combatants were under the age of 18. One former ISIS child soldier from al-Hasakah, Sami, was 14 years old when he first joined in 2014. He initially kept his enlistment a secret from his family and abruptly disappeared for three months. His mother became alarmed when he returned home one day with new clothes and a Kalashnikov. Realizing that her son had been brainwashed, she asked Sami’s older brother to take him to Turkey. They have been there for a few months, working in a factory; they’re among the lucky few who have been able to find civilian jobs after leaving ISIS. Sami cried as he recounted the deaths of several of his oldest childhood friends who had joined ISIS with him and were recently killed in a battle against the regime in Deir Ezzor. ISIS had been using these children as cannon fodder on the frontlines because they lacked the training and experience to be useful in other roles.

America needs to ask itself if this is the sort of fight we want to be involved in. Do we seriously want to drop bombs on battalions made up of children?

I honestly can’t think of any better propaganda for ISIS than being able to point to dead Muslim children resulting from American airstrikes.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

The authors are  and .

Paul Pillar on America in the Middle East

National Interest has a wonderful article penned by Paul Pillar titled “How Donald Trump Should Transform America’s Middle East Policy.”

He states the quite obvious that

An immense share of the blood and treasure the United States has lost overseas in the past couple of decades has been in the Middle East, an expenditure that has not brought proportionate benefits.

You can rattle off the failures easily, from the Iraq invasion to the dithering in Syria. Obama’s Pivot to Asia, which was based on an interpretation of America being over-involved in the Middle East, was a good start in addressing our poorly formulated regional policy. Yet, a significant chunk of his foreign policy legacy will be defined by his inability to disentangle America from Middle Eastern politics. This includes Libya, Yemen, Syria, ISIL, Iran, the Arab Awakening, Peace Process, etc..

What is to be done? The US still has interests in the Middle East, but they should be better defined and more limited. Moving forward, his recommendations include

…the initial principle that the new administration should observe in making policy toward the region is the Hippocratic one of first doing no harm. A second principle is to keep costs and risks commensurate with prospective gains to U.S. interests. A third is to recognize that not all problems, even heart-rending ones, are solvable, and that if they are, the United States is not always best suited to solve them. Often the interests and objectives of other players in the region are better engaged, and this sometimes means taking advantage of the balancing of conflicting interests.

Highly recommended that you read the entire thing (quickly as it will soon be gated).

 

Putin and Erdogan’s Marriage of Convenience

Excellent read at the Wilson Center on the evolving and odd relationships between the United States, Turkey, and Russia. In late 2015 Turkey was shooting down Russian fighter jets. In August of 2016, Erdogan was praising his dear friend Putin. This turnabout was largely a result of America’s intervention into Syria.

Here is one bit from the article.

Overnight, America had transformed the Syrian Kurds into a legitimate actor, enabling them to consolidate territorial gains adjoining Turkey. For Ankara, however, this was nothing short of a victory for the hated Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which had been instrumental in the creation of the YPG and waged a decades-long guerrilla war against the Turkish state

Yet, like most American allies, Erdogan is more than happy to free ride on American security treaties.

Still, it would be foolhardy to suggest that Erdogan would contemplate abandoning NATO. Turkey lives under the shadow of the Russian giant — its anger at the United States and its Western allies notwithstanding, it needs the protection the alliance offers. Without it, the Russians would be able to intimidate Ankara at will. Erdogan correctly calculates that he can be a free rider in the alliance, cozying up to Moscow and antagonizing Washington, all the while knowing that the U.S.-Turkish relationship is deeply embedded in NATO.

Do read the entire thing.

The author is Henri Barkey.

President Obama’s biggest failures.

At the National Interest, Daniel R. DePetris has a piece where he discusses “…the five biggest failures that will at least partially color President Obama’s two terms..”

The list includes

  1. Guantanamo Remains Open
  2. No Mideast Peace Deal
  3. The Syria Red Line
  4. Partisanship Got Worse
  5. A Nation that Remains At War

It is a curious list as you hear very little about Guantanamo, all Presidents fail at the peace process, Republicans decided on day 1 to oppose every aspect of his agenda, and most civilians don’t feel as if they are at war (I’m not convinced that the average voter is aware or even cares about Obama’s light footprint strategy).

Syria is expected, as during the Obama administration over 11 percent of their population were killed and the refugee problem was the biggest threat to the EU project of the past 20 years. But I think his association with Syria will be the tragedy of what happened there and not the “red line” as argued by Daniel. I think the future way we frame Syria will be that Obama was callous and allowed it to happen which is not fair to him but that isn’t the point of Daniel’s list.

Oddly left off the list is the return to geopolitics in Ukraine and the South China Sea, ISIL, the failure of TPP, and what I consider his biggest foreign policy blunder, Libya.

In Libya, it was one policy mistake after another. If 9/11 meant domestic institutions replaced power distributions as America’s biggest security concern, why create a failed state? Why overturn a regime which actually cooperated with the United States on its various weapons program, complicating our credibility with nuclear powers or aspiring nuclear powers. It seems obvious to me that Libya damaged our credibility more than the “red line” ever did. Lastly, if the list is to correctly identify what failures will color the legacy of the Obama administration once he leaves office, Benghazi will also play a role in cementing “all things Libya” as his biggest policy debacle aboard.

 

The forever war expands to the Horn of Africa.

At least legally. The NYT has a report detailing the Obama administration inclusion of Somalia’s Al Shabab as falling under the scope of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) which was the congressional response to 9/11. It gave the President a very broad and liberal mandate to use force in the War on Terror.

The summary of the bill, found here, states:

Authorization for Use of Military Force – Authorizes the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

So on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda, with the support of the Taliban, carried out a terrorist attack that killed roughly 3,000 people. Congress responded by allowing the President to use force against those who orchestrated this attack. 15 years later we are bombing a tangentially related group nearly 2,500 miles away from where those who planned 9/11 were located.

This is obviously mission creep and is the unfortunate consequence of the “forever war,” or the state of affairs in which covert operations and curtailed civil liberties are the new normal.

The biggest issue I have with the pursuit of Al-Shabab is how easily the executive branch relaxes and constricts the scope of the 2001 authorization to suit its own short-term interests. Determining who is an enemy of the state is all done with no transparency nor checks outside of the administration.

As Micah Zenko state in the NYT, “It’s crazy that a piece of legislation that was grounded specifically in the experience of 9/11 is now being repurposed for close air support for regional security forces in Somalia,” said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.”

This isn’t new territory for the Obama administration. As noted in the same article, a similar style of interpretation of the 2001 AUMF was used to authorize the use of force in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and in June of 2016, to reenter Afghanistan.

Two consequences could result from this military engineering in far off lands.

1) As well documented by its critics, the victories of the war on terror have a tendency of producing new enemies. We may kill the leadership of Al Shabab but there is no way to be certain that the United States doesn’t produce more terrorist in its wake.

But 2) we have someone about to assume office who many expect to not impose any constraints on his use of power. Despite being relatively measured (at times anyway) in how he exercised the use of force abroad, President Obama has continued the behavior of the previous administration of setting very dangerous precedents of eroding legislative and judicial constraints on how he pursued the War on Terror. Precedents are especially important for a democracy as leadership changes on a regular basis. Donald Trump is inheriting a series of executive overreaches which would allow him a very liberal interpretation of who our enemies are and the precedents he sets building off of the Obama administration behavior could be very damaging for the institutional quality of American democracy.

 

“Iraq has never seen this kind of fighting in its battles with ISIS”

That is the headline of a WaPo story.

Here is one bit.

“It is a bitter fight: street to street, house to house, with the presence of civilians slowing the advancing forces. Car bombs — the militants’ main weapon — speed out of garages and straight into advancing military convoys.”

The reports of ISIL tactics are alarming. Not to pander but I’ve been stunned and, frankly, sickened reading how horrific ISIL is as an organization. From rape to using chemical weapons on children, ISIL is one disgustingly barbaric group.  Most worrying is that, as many have cautioned, the bigger challenge will come once ISIL is pushed out of their strongholds of Mosul and Aleppo and they start to look more like a  traditional islamic terrorist organization.

For those advocating a bigger role the US in Syria and Iraq, it’s important to note that ISIS has it’s roots in foreign interventions. First the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and then the American lead conflict in Iraq. This isn’t to blame Russia or the USA but to warn against proposals that don’t take into consideration unintended consequences.

Vox has a very nice video explaining the rise of ISIL here.