Saturday, August 16, 2014

Islamic State, the New Problem From Hell

Many progressives oppose President Obama’s ordering of air strikes or engaging in any military involvement in Iraq, whether to rescue imperiled civilians or to defeat the rising threat from the Islamic State. Indeed, some of their arguments against intervention are not wrong. After the morass that George Bush and his neo con allies led us into in Iraq in the first place, we should have learned our lesson about nation building and trying to police the world. We should stay out of regional conflicts where the combatants are not a threat to our nation. I agree with them in their arguments against an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. But retreating into isolationism and ignoring those who pose real threats is dangerous too.

In that respect, confusing the Islamic State with other Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, or even Boko Haram is a dangerous misreading of the situation we face. The former groups engage in land disputes, religious and political struggles, and combat within a limited region. Moreover, regardless of how miserable they make their own people, they don’t pose a larger threat to the United States or Europe. While it breaks my heart to be unable to help the civilians they terrorize, it is true that we cannot be the world’s cop.

The Islamic State, however, is different. They are a dangerous threat to the West. Indeed, they are a threat from hell, as Samantha Powers aptly termed it in her book by that name. In fact, the Islamic State is making a rapid descent into the most terrifyingly sulphurous depth of hell. 

They are murderously extreme, known for executing women and children, crucifying civilians, threatening grisly deaths to those who won’t convert to their brand of strict Islam, and often executing those who do convert anyway. They bring terror to civilian populations wherever they go.

And they have international ambitions to go far. According to a security briefing for journalists, as reported in the Washington Post, the Islamic State poses the greatest threat to the U.S. since al Qaeda right before it struck us on September 11, 2001.

 “We have seen an expansion of its external terrorism ambitions” that parallel its aggressive moves in the Middle East, a senior U.S. intelligence official said at a briefing for reporters on the threat posed by the Islamic State ...
. . . The official said the organization has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including Western passport holders who now rank among its forces in Iraq. Some of its recruits from Europe are leaving with orders to go home and start cells, the official said ...
...U.S. intelligence officials said the group has grown rapidly in numbers and strength since taking control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June and noted that it is in position to bolster its substantial cash holdings with sales of oil. 
The officials said that U.S. intelligence analysts are revising estimates of the group’s size and that it has grown substantially beyond the 10,000 or so fighters it had just several months ago
To be sure, the Islamic State does not have al Qaeda’s capability and technical expertise to launch an elaborate plot in the West yet.  But the Islamic State is better funded and, more ominously, has attracted a steady stream of newly radicalized recruits from Western Europe and the U.S. who have western passports.  Many of these new recruits have been instructed to set up cells when they return home. 

It is also part of their philosophy and goal to expand their reach and spread Islam by the sword.  So is expanding the caliphate, which the Islamic State’s leader, Abu al Bakr Baghdadi has already declared in Syria and Iraq. 

 This is a group to ignore at our own peril

 The question is how to fight them successfully without our becoming mired in another full-scale conflict in Iraq, with the cost of more human life and treasure?

 The answer lies in the realpolitik of the 1990s that both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton practiced. It was a pragmatic and strategic intervention where necessary, with short-term military operations that had clear goals and a clear exit strategy.

Here’s an example. Back in the early 90s, when Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny nation of Kuwait in a conflict that ultimately threatened to spill over into Saudi Arabia and other OPEC member nations, George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops into a limited operation to contain Hussein. Operation Desert Storm was a successful mission that gave Bush soaring approval ratings at home.

But a few disgruntled neo-cons within his own party grumbled that he did not finish the job. I actually disputed that at the time, asking the critics who they would have proposed leaving in power.  The Shiites, with their Iranian allies?  Or did they want to see the U.S. embroiled in a long, bloody occupation?  Back then, most of Bush’s would-be critics remembered how dangerous the Shiite faction was and still remembered the lesson of Vietnam about avoiding nation building in places where we don’t understand the local culture.

This strategy served Bush well in Desert Storm and later on was successful for Clinton in Kosovo. We went in, fixed what was fixable, and got out. When regional enemies could not be stopped from battling among themselves, we left them to do so as long their conflict did not threaten either our allies or our nation. And as long as their human rights violations were not too egregious to ignore.

Many people don't like realpolitik. It falls far short of their grand ambitions to see Western-style democracy bloom all over the world.  Its aims are much more modest. It is pragmatic about what can and should be accomplished, which is to limit regional conflicts and to stay out of them when possible. And to limit their spread when they become a larger threat especially to our national interests.

We need our military to be involved in far fewer places. Not everybody’s battle is our battle. But if aggressive interventionism is dangerous, so is isolationism. The world is a smaller place than it used to be, more easily accessible by modern transportation. Moreover, the only way to stop the problem from hell from coming to our borders is to stop it at the Middle East’s borders.  That is why we need to stop the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant before their extremists export their caliphate ambitions and their terrorist threats from reaching us.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Dearth of Diversity in Hollywood Film

American films lack diverse characters and actors who portray them. Further, fixing it could come down to me. This is not as crazy as it sounds, but I will get to that in a minute. First, as Sgt. Joe Friday – that quintessential white male character – would say, “Just the facts.”

The Washington Post last Sunday reported on a study conducted by the University of Southern California Annenberg School of the top grossing 100 films of 2013.The numbers do not look good.

Whites comprise 74 percent of actors cast in all films but only make up 63 percent of the population, which makes them overrepresented. On the other hand, blacks are 14 percent of the characters in film while making up 13 percent of the population, which makes their representation appear just about right. Except most of the black actors are cast in a few blockbuster productions like Fruitvale, The Butler, and Twelve Years a Slave. So they appear to be doing better than they actually are.

However, Hispanics are the most underrepresented group, with only 4.9 percent of film roles, though they comprise 17 percent of the population. Moreover, the minority actors often play stereotypes, especially portraying them all as sex objects. This is something that Rita Moreno has spoken and written about for years. Indeed, after winning an Oscar for her breakout role of Anita in West Side Story, she did not work again in Hollywood for seven years because she turned down roles she considered demeaning to Latinas. That was in the 60s and 70s. The problem has not gone away.

Seventeen percent of Hispanic actors wear tight fitting, revealing outfits in film roles. Thirty-eight percent of Hispanic actresses appear nude or partially nude. Only 32 percent of white actresses do and only 8 percent of white actors appear in sexy costumes. Of course, that begs the question: are white male actors inherently less sexy so nobody cares to see them in tight jeans?

Even more telling is the shortage of diversity behind the camera. Lack of diversity begins there. It could end there. Only 6 percent of directors are black. Black directors have a greater tendency to choose diverse casts for their films. This includes casting for secondary characters such as neighbors, lawyers, doctors, and other minor roles that could be race neutral.

As an aspiring novelist, I confess I could be part of the problem. I am not sure how much I have considered racially diverse characters for the novels I hope to write.

Oh, wait. I do have a racially diverse cast of characters on paper and in outline. In fact, race is a major theme in my future novels.

For a mystery/thriller series, my two main characters are a Jewish-Southern reporter, who comes from one of the original Jewish Confederate families in Richmond, and an African-American police lieutenant. In fact, the Jewish reporter is a direct descendant of Judah Benjamin, one of Jefferson Davis’ closest confidants and the Secretary of State for the Confederate States (yes, he is a legitimate historical character – one who actually had no descendants, which I’ll mention in a prologue so readers will know I’m taking poetic license). 

David Benjamin’s father and grandfather are prominent civil rights attorneys, and the family wrestles with their personal history as Jews who served the Confederacy. Lots of guilt there to explore.

David’s best friend is the black police lieutenant, Isaiah Grace, who is married and religious. Isaiah is fond of quoting the Bible. The two of them play together in a jazz band in their spare time. Isaiah is also one of David’s confidential news sources. Further, Isaiah, who is older than David is by about a decade, is a mentor to David, and keeps him grounded.

My second in the series of novels I have planned involves the murder of a Hispanic high-ranking politician from Miami who aspires to become Florida’s first female Hispanic governor.  The suspects will include her Latino husband, a successful import-export businessman, and several other Hispanic characters, as well as whites and blacks. Miami is a multi-cultural city and it would not be realistic to portray only white characters there.

Finally, there is the mystery many people have urged me not to write. Some background.

When I first began slugging, that unique hitchhiking tradition practiced among Northern Virginia professionals who commute to work in DC, I had the brilliant idea that it would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery. Who is killing off all the slugs (for my non-Virginia friends, those are the passengers)?  That cast would include an Asian-American scientist, several black professionals, Hispanics, and whites. Probably also some Middle Easterners. After all, this is NOVA and DC. How realistic would it be not to have diversity here? Besides, the clash of cultures is interesting to explore in books.

When I enthusiastically shared my idea with some of my more literary fellow slugs and those who picked us up, a few turned pale, got sick looks on their faces, and asked me not write it.  I quickly saw their point. Why give anybody any ideas while we all had to get in strangers’ cars every morning?

So the verdict is out on that last book. Of course, also, I have no idea if I have the talent to bring this to fruition. After all, many would be writers have great ideas. It is all in the execution.  There is a reason there are not more bestsellers, let alone more published novelists. It takes hard work, discipline, skill, and talent. 

But if ever I had an incentive, it’s now. This has become a social justice issue. If the world of fiction and maybe even major film is to become diverse, perhaps, I’d better get cracking. Furthermore, when I sell the film rights, I will insist upon an African American director who will be perceptive enough to choose a racially diverse cast that looks like America. And then again, I may just have delusions of grandeur.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Could Europe's Rising Anti-Semitism Defeat a Palestinian Homeland?

To answer my question straight away, yes, I think it could.  The strong uptick in Europe's anti-Semitism is lending legitimacy to Israel's hard-liners and giving credence to those who argue that without a strong Jewish state with secure borders and lots of land to accept immigrants fleeing deadly attacks, Jews everywhere are imperiled.  Rising anti-Semitism throughout Europe is making the case for Benjamin Netanyahu's intransigence and hindering efforts to forge a compromise peace deal in the Middle East.  And that unquestionably hurts Palestinians as well as Israelis in the long run.  But first let's look at what is actually going on across the European continent.

To put it bluntly, over the past several years, anti-Semitism has been making a spirited comeback and since the recent conflict in Gaza, it's increased even more.

As Newsweek reports, the rise in anti-Semitism is coming not only from young, disaffected Muslim youth, but also from some of Europe's fringe parties of the far left and right. Far right groups like Greece's Golden Dawn, Hungary's Jobbik, and the French National Front have made some of the most disconcerting statements and perpetrated ugly incidents against Jews.  To be fair, these parties are also strongly anti-immigrant in general, oppose the European Union and are home grown nativists and fascists.  They are happy to foment conflict among Jews and Muslims in the same way that American racist groups dream of instigating a race war in the U.S.

Meanwhile, on the British far left, anti-Semitism masquerades as disagreement with Israeli policy and sympathy for Palestinians, but as Newsweek also points out, many of Europe's Jews themselves are sympathetic to Palestinians and opposed to Israel's hard-liners.  Here's the quote:
It is not anti-Semitic to criticise the Israeli government or its policies towards the Palestinians, say Jewish leaders. A reasoned, open debate on the conflict is always welcome – especially now, when passions are running so high over Gaza. But the morbid obsession with the only democracy in the Middle East, they say, its relentless demonisation and the calls for its destruction are indicative of anti-Semitism.
Nowhere is this more true than in France, where groups of young Muslims have launched vicious attacks against Jews. According to NPR, three children and their teacher were killed in Toulouse, France in 2012, and more recently in Belgium four people were gunned down in front of The Jewish Museum this May.  In addition, some of the most virulent anti-Semitic sentiment has ocurred at so-called pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Paris and Berlin that have been led by Muslims, where slogans such as "Death to the Jews" and "Jews to the gas chambers" can be heard being chanted by demonstrators.
The new wave of anti-Semitism is coming from a young generation of Muslims of African and North African descent who are spurred on by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Martine Cohen, a religious expert at France's National Center for Scientific Research. 
"Jews know that French authorities are behind them and want to defend them," she says. "This is not a state anti-Semitism. It's an anti-Semitism coming from society."
In fact, because they no longer feel safe in France, many educated French Jews are planning to emigrate to Israel.  So are Jews from other parts of Europe, such as Malmo, Sweden, where the Jewish community of 700 people experienced 60 anti-Semitic incidents, including a bomb exploding in a Jewish community center and it's former mayor criticized Zionism but not these attacks.
A survey published in November 2013 by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union found that 29% had considered emigrating as they did not feel safe. Jews across Europe, the survey noted, “face insults, discrimination and physical violence, which despite concerted efforts by both the EU and its member states, shows no signs of fading into the past”.
Two-thirds considered anti-Semitism to be a problem across the countries surveyed. Overall, 76% said that anti-Semitism had worsened over the past five years in their home countries, with the most marked deteriorations in France, Hungary and Belgium. The European Jewish Congress has now set up a website,, to give advice and contacts in the events of an attack.

And that presents a problem for those who actually want peace in the Middle East. Threatening Europe's Jews with the specter of renewed anti-Semitism confirms the worst suspicions in Israel and America. It strengthen the hand of hard-liners in both places. Worse still, it gives Netanyahu's refusal to negotiate with Palestinians in Gaza a legitimacy it wouldn't and shouldn't have. It gives credence to arguments that without Israel, Jews are not safe anywhere in the world.

So if people who truly care about the Palestinians want fewer Jewish settlers grabbing land that could be used for a Palestinian state, it would behoove them to not create conditions outside of Israel - especially in Europe - that encourage more Jews to flee to Israel.  Look at it this way, how much harder do you think all those French Jews are going to fight against a Palestinian state once they've arrived in Israel rather than if they had remained back in Paris feeling safe there?

To the far right it won't matter since they would happily see both Jews and Muslims destroy each other.  But for principled moderates of the center left and center right, as well as for Muslim groups in Europe, it should matter a great deal. Enough for them to work to dial back the worst of the anti-Semitic rhetoric and deeds in Europe while working for just solutions in the Middle East.