Archive for April, 2013

Syria using chemical weapons: will the US act?

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013
Germans develop chemical weapons

In 1936, Gerhard Schrader, a German chemist working on the development of insecticides for IG Farben, developed a highly toxic organophosphate (OP) compound which he named ‘‘tabun’’. Between 1934 and 1944, Schrader’s team synthesized approximately 2,000 different OPs including two well-known OP compounds: parathion and paraoxon. As early as in 1935, the Nazi government insisted that Schrader focus on OP insecticides as a potential CWAs. Schrader cooperated in manufacturing a series of nerve – paralyzing gas compounds like sarin, tabun, soman. (courtesy

News item:

The Syrian regime has used lethal chemical weapons, mostly sarin gas, against armed rebels several times in the past few weeks, and is continuing to do so, the head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Research Branch, Brig. Gen. ltay Baron, said on Monday.

Baron said that photographs showing victims with foam coming out of their mouths and contracted pupils were signs that deadly gas had been used.

Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Baron confirmed that “to the best of its [the IDF’s] knowledge,” weapons of mass destruction had definitely been used by the Syrian regime, a development which the United States and others say they are still trying to determine.

In his briefing, Baron said the lack of an “appropriate international response” to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons was “very worrying” and was leading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his forces to believe that there were no consequences to their use of WMDs.

This follows on a report that appeared last week:

Britain and France have informed the United Nations that there is credible evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons on more than one occasion since December, according to senior diplomats and officials briefed on the accounts.

In letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the two European powers said soil samples, witness interviews and opposition sources support charges that nerve agents were used in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs and possibly Damascus, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, expressed serious concern over evidence of chemical weapon use, but left open the possibility that it was the rebels that had used them. But there is no evidence that the rebels have control of such weapons, while there is plenty that the regime does and has been preparing to use them.

Chemical weapons are difficult to use effectively, and so far have not lived up to their destructive potential. Huge quantities of poison gases like chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas were used during WWI, leading to perhaps 1,000,000 casualties and less than 100,000 fatalities — a horrendous number in absolute terms, but not when compared to the overall carnage. Iraq used mustard gas and nerve agents against Iran during their war in the 1980’s, causing perhaps 100,000 casualties and 20,000 immediate deaths.

There is something deeply terrifying about these weapons, even more so than the far more potent and dangerous nuclear bombs, which have the potential to kill millions in a single attack. It has been reported that Israel informed its enemies that it would consider nuclear retaliation in response to a chemical attack, and Egypt, Syria and Iraq — all of which had developed chemical warfare capability and had used it in other conflicts — apparently believed it, and did not employ them against Israel in several wars. Such is the power of deterrence.

Last August, President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil war would cross a “red line” that would bring about some form of active intervention by the US and its allies:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” Obama said. “That would change my equation. . . . We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”

The president’s remarks represented his strongest language to date on how the United States might respond to contain Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. In July, he warned that Assad would be “held accountable by the international community” if he made the “tragic mistake” of deploying chemical munitions.

Immediately afterwards, an anonymous official softened the statement a bit:

On Monday, an administration official said that Obama did not intend to flag any change in policy in his latest remarks and that the appetite for military intervention remains low.

But “there’s a deterrent effect in making clear how seriously we take the use of chemical weapons or giving them to some proxy force,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. [my emphasis]

As I’ve written before, deterrence requires a credible threat. It isn’t enough to issue ominous-sounding ultimata unless they are believed. So when you draw ‘red lines’, you better be prepared to take action when they are crossed. Otherwise future threats will be ignored, and your opponents will push even harder. If you can’t back up a threat, don’t make it. This is one of those lessons we learn early on in the schoolyard.

So you would think that, given the overwhelming evidence, the US would take action. So far, that hasn’t happened and the administration is pushing back against the reports:

“We support an investigation. We are monitoring this,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “We have not come to the conclusion that there has been that use. But it is something that is of great concern to us, to our partners, and obviously unacceptable, as the president made clear.” …

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who is in Brussels for NATO meetings on Syria, said that he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone Tuesday morning and that Netanyahu “was not in a position to confirm” the assessment by Israel’s military. Kerry said further investigation is necessary.

There is no doubt in my mind that Israel and the UK have presented hard evidence to US agencies. The fact that they have now gone public is an indication that the response was less than what they had hoped for, and they are now attempting to push the administration into living up to its commitments.

Israel fully understands the dangers inherent in intervention in the conflict, especially if it involves providing more aid to the rebels, some of which are associated with dangerous Sunni Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. But there is a worse danger, which is that these groups will get their hands on the weapons. So I assume that what Israel wants is action to secure them.

Just like the Iranian nuclear program, these weapons are a much more immediate danger to Israel than to America, although it is certainly possible that an al-Qaeda type group could smuggle chemical agents into the  US. But as in the Iranian question, there is a difference in the perception of the urgency of the situation.

The administration should understand, though, that its credibility and deterrence are at stake. If it chooses to pretend that nothing is going on, then both the Syrian regime and Iran will understand that threats from the US are not to be taken seriously.

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Multiculturalism vs. the Melting Pot

Friday, April 19th, 2013

From the NPR website:

NPR this week is introducing a new team that will cover race, ethnicity and culture. Code Switch is the name of the new blog. Code-switching is the practice of shifting between different languages or different ways of expressing yourself in conversations.

Honestly folks, do we need more “race, ethnicity and culture?”

Do we need more ethnic politics, based on the proposition that, for example, only a ‘Hispanic’ person — whatever that is — can understand the concerns of other ‘Hispanics’?

Do we need more emphasis on ethnic and gender studies in our schools? Especially when such courses are often presented from a separatist point of view, one which emphasizes the victimhood of a particular group and its need for reparations of various kinds?

Do we need to encourage particular groups to see themselves as separate from other groups and in competition with them?

Do we need to create even more hypersensitivity to the slightest instances of ethnic stereotyping? Do we need for these issues to be uppermost in our consciousnesses at all times? Do we need more restrictions on speech due to political correctness?

Tribalism is a normal human characteristic, which evolved as a response to pressures created when disparate groups encountered each other. Like many aspects of human nature, tribalism can be constructive or it can be destructive. Tribalism is the root of patriotism and nationalism, which I see as generally good things (many will disagree, but that’s part of my point). But tribalism can also lead to conflict, and when multiple groups within a nation give their primary loyalty to their group rather than to the nation, such conflict is unavoidable.

In much of the world this kind of conflict is the rule rather than the exception. Lebanon has been racked by ethnic and religious conflicts for generations; Iraq and Syria can only be held together by totalitarian regimes. The most stable countries in the world are ethnically homogeneous, and when this homogeneity is disturbed by an influx of immigrants the result is internal conflict, such as we are seeing now in Europe. Israel faces a tremendously difficult task of finding a modus vivendi among its Jewish and Arab citizens (one could consider the Haredim a separate culture as well).

The US chose a different, but still practical, path. It was intended to be different from ethnically-based nations, following the now-unpopular path of the ‘melting pot’ in which a new, American, culture would be created from people of different cultures who, while retaining some distinctive characteristics, would primarily see themselves as ‘Americans’, loyal to the nation as a whole.

The melting pot was criticized by those who said that it didn’t exist: in fact, they argued, the majority white Anglo-saxon culture simply erased the others, sometimes brutally. Disadvantaged status was inherited and didn’t ‘melt’ away, they said. Individuals lost essential parts of their heritage in the process of ‘assimilation’. They proposed to replace it with a policy of ‘multiculturalism‘:

Multiculturalism is closely associated with “identity politics,” “the politics of difference,” and “the politics of recognition,” all of which share a commitment to revaluing disrespected identities and changing dominant patterns of representation and communication that marginalize certain groups (Young 1990, Taylor 1992, Gutmann 2003). Multiculturalism is also a matter of economic interests and political power; it demands remedies to economic and political disadvantages that people suffer as a result of their minority status.

Multiculturalists take for granted that it is “culture” and “cultural groups” that are to be recognized and accommodated. Yet multicultural claims include a wide range of claims involving religion, language, ethnicity, nationality, and race. Culture is a notoriously overbroad concept, and all of these categories have been subsumed by or equated with the concept of culture (Song 2008). Language and religion are at the heart of many claims for cultural accommodation by immigrants. The key claim made by minority nations is for self-government rights. Race has a more limited role in multicultural discourse. Antiracism and multiculturalism are distinct but related ideas: the former highlights “victimization and resistance” whereas the latter highlights “cultural life, cultural expression, achievements, and the like” (Blum 1992, 14). Claims for recognition in the context of multicultural education are demands not just for recognition of aspects of a group’s actual culture (e.g. African American art and literature) but also for the history of group subordination and its concomitant experience (Gooding-Williams 1998).

Multiculturalism is associated with the academic Left and postcolonialism. An academic fashion, it is a dangerous one. Europe has taken this path, and we can see the results. Much of the criticism of Israel comes from the standpoint of multiculturalism. But Israel’s success is based on the primacy of one culture, the Jewish, Zionist one. It will continue to exist only if it can maintain this. There is no room there for multiculturalism.

NPR, naturally, is squarely in the multiculturalist camp. And multiculturalism is non-trivially different from the melting pot: it rejects equality of opportunity and calls for special privileges for groups deemed historically disadvantaged; it emphasizes accommodation of linguistic differences rather than encouraging a common language; and it even permits some degree of legal or governmental autonomy for special groups.

While there is no doubt that the melting pot had its downside, multiculturalism is a lot more than annoying political correctness. It has the potential to tear a society apart, as it is doing today in Europe. The melting pot, as long as there is also a commitment to equal justice and civil rights, can succeed here and should be given a chance.

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Not easy to guess who bombed the Marathon

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013
Al- Qaeda's Inspire magazine, which tells how to "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom"

Al- Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, which tells how to “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom”

Someone tweeted yesterday that “the race to be wrong first has begun in earnest.” And that is so — we’ve seen wild media reports that there were 12 people killed (so far there are 3, with about 150 injured), that two Saudi nationals were in custody (the police talked to a Saudi student who was injured in the bombing), and more. But there are some things that are known and can serve as a basis for speculation.

First, the bombs were in backpacks placed against buildings behind the spectators on the sidewalk, and most of the victims were on the sidewalk. So the intent was to kill and injure as many people as possible, at random.

Second, the bombs were homemade using non-military explosives, built into pressure cookers. They contained ball bearings and possibly other items in order to increase their effectiveness as anti-personnel weapons. They were detonated by either a timer or a remote control device, which could have been a cellphone or other radio receiver.

The authorities will pick up every fragment they can, examine explosive residue to determine how it was made, look for parts of the control device, etc. Then they will deploy the huge amount of manpower at their disposal to try to determine where the pressure cookers and backpacks were purchased, as well as the control devices and the chemicals used to make the explosives.

They will look at the massive quantity of security camera video, photos and videos made by spectators, news footage, etc. to try to spot whoever placed the bombs. They will check hundreds, maybe thousands of leads that they will be given by witnesses.

They will consider Islamic terrorism, right- and left-wing anti-government terrorism, and terrorism by mentally disturbed individuals. They will consider terrorist organizations here and abroad, and they will consider “lone-wolf” operations.

Rather than too little evidence, there will be too much. It will take time, but I think they will be successful.

So what do I think they will discover?

Does the viciously random nature of the bombing give a clue to the motive? It was directed at people, including children, who would be expected to be among the spectators. Most terrorists pick targets that embody or symbolize their enemies, as Timothy McVeigh chose the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Anti-government terrorists often see themselves as champions of ‘the people’, and would be unlikely to want to randomly kill ordinary citizens (McVeigh claimed that he was not aware of the day care center in the Murrah building).

Ted Kacyznski, the Unabomber, targeted universities, airlines, etc., symbols of the technology that he hated. Even George Metesky, the Mad Bomber of Manhattan, placed devices in public places only after his attempts to draw attention to his grievance against Consolidated Edison by bombing its installations was ignored.

On the other, hand, anti-government terrorist Eric Rudolph, who bombed the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics, did so to protest abortion and the “homosexual agenda.” Rudolph also bombed abortion clinics and a lesbian bar, but it would have been difficult to deduce his motives from the Olympics bombing alone.

Islamic terrorists often (but not always) perpetrate acts of terrorism aimed at the US in general and its people. Examples include the Times Square bombing attempt, the two World Trade Center bombings, attempted bombings of the Sears Tower, airports, etc. In Israel, of course, mass murder attempts are frequent. The common factor is that the Islamic terrorist sees his enemy as the nation as a whole, and public institutions or citizens as legitimate targets.

What about the bombs? The pressure cooker bomb was described in a DHS bulletin as “A technique commonly taught in Afghan terrorist training camps.” A description of such a bomb also appeared in al-Qaeda’s English-language “Inspire” magazine. The use of pressure cookers for bombs dates back at least to 2001, so it is certainly possible that the technique is widely known.

It is also true that while no organization has yet taken credit for the bombing as far as I know, radical Islamic web forums have applauded it.

The fact that the explosive is low-grade, non-military material means that a lone-wolf or very small group of terrorists could have carried it out.

In short, based on the information that’s public at this point, it’s not possible to deduce the motive or the likely class of perpetrator. But if I were a betting man, my first guess would be a single Muslim terrorist or a very small group of same.

Update [1816 PDT]: Here’s a picture of what’s left of a pressure cooker that held a bomb. You can be sure the FBI will be checking the stores — everywhere.

Remains of pressure cooker. Courtesy FBI.

Remains of pressure cooker. Courtesy FBI.

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Poor impulse control or deadly ideology?

Monday, April 15th, 2013
The Island of Peace

The Island of Peace

News item:

An overwhelming 110 members [out of 120] of the Jordanian House of Representatives signed a petition demanding a pardon for a Jordanian soldier who shot and killed seven Israeli schoolgirls in 1997.

Ahmad Musa Mustafa Daqamseh shot the girls during a school fieldtrip [to the Island of Peace] in Naharayim, near the Israel-Jordan border, and is currently serving a life sentence.

Here’s a description of the island:

The Island of Peace is an Israeli-Jordanian park at the confluence of the Jordan River and Yarmouk River, on the border between Israel and Jordan. …

Land along the Jordan River’s alluvial slopes and floor bed was under Jewish ownership before the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1927, Pinchas Rutenberg, founder of the Palestine Electric Company, signed an agreement with King Abdullah I of Jordan to build a hydroelectric power station. The canals and dams built for this purpose created a man-made island. …

In 1994, Israel ceded the area to Jordan as part of the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace. Jordan agreed to lease it back so the Israeli farmers from Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’acov could continue to cultivate the land. Farming continues under a 25-year, automatically renewable lease. A gate was established to enable Israeli tourists to visit the park without a visa or passport, on presentation of their identity cards to the Jordanian guards at the border crossing.

It is a remarkably beautiful place, and represented one of the rare instances of anything approaching normal relations between Israel and any of its Arab neighbors. In 1994, King Hussein of Jordan told PM Itzhak Rabin that “no place better illustrates the fact that we are at peace.”

The 1997 murders were horrific. Daqamseh said that the picnicking girls had ridiculed him while praying, so he opened fire on them from a guard tower with his M16. Then he climbed down and chased them, continuing to fire until his weapon jammed.

In a gesture of a kind not seen from an Arab leader before or since, King Hussein came to Israel and visited the the shiva houses of the victims, sat on the floor with mourners, and ordered that the families be compensated. “Your pain is my pain,” he said.

Daqamseh was sentenced to life in prison by a Jordanian court, which normally equates to 25 years.  His defense was a form of insanity plea: he could have received the death penalty, but the court was lenient because of his “antisocial personality disorder.”  And by Western standards — even by King Hussein’s — anyone who would shoot down 13 and 14-year old girls because he believed they had made fun of him would have to be crazy.

In 2001, his mother called an al-Jazeera TV program and made this statement:

I am proud of my son, and I hold my head high. My son did a heroic deed and has pleased Allah and his own conscience. My son lifts my head and the head of the entire Arab and Islamic nation. I am proud of any Muslim who does what Ahmad did. I hope that I am not saying something wrong. When my son went to prison, they asked him: ‘Ahmad, do you regret it?’ He answered: ‘I have no regrets.’ He treated everyone to coffee, honored all the other prisoners, and said: The only thing that I am angry about is the gun, which did not work properly. Otherwise I would have killed all of the passengers on the bus.

In court, he claimed to have “lost control and acted.” But in a 2004 interview by a Jordanian weekly [in French, my tr.], Daqamseh equivocated about his motive:

If I could go back to that moment, I would behave in exactly the same way. Each passing day strengthens my belief and what I did was my duty. …

Daqamseh said that Israeli girls interrupted his prayer, whistling and applauding. He said he tried to ignore the behavior of the girls, but their persistence was an insult and made him angry: “I ​​felt my blood boil, so I stopped my prayer and asked my friend to leave the area. After his departure, I started shooting,” he said.

Daqamseh said that the massacre could have been avoided if adolescents had been more polite. Despite this, it was later revealed that the M-16 was jammed, which had prevented the killing of other innocent Israeli children.

His ‘blood boiled’, but he also ‘did his duty’. Which is it?

In 2011, Daqamseh said that he had not committed any crime, but rather “fulfilled his national and religious duty.” He was supported by Jordan’s Justice Minister (and his former attorney) Hussein Mjali, who called him a ‘hero’.

There’s no doubt that Daqamseh suffered from poor impulse control. But his self-justification as ‘doing his duty’ and the statements of others calling him a ‘hero’ are troubling. I think the source of this is the concept of Muslim superiority inherent in shari’a, in which the rights of non-Muslims are strictly limited. So we find the Turkish PM furious that Muslim Turks were killed by Jews, who are not permitted to raise their hands against Muslims, even in defense.

Interestingly, even secular Arab nationalists think this way. For example, the first victim of the Coastal Road Massacre of 1978 was an American nature photographer, Gail Rubin, killed by the terrorists when they landed on the beach north of Tel Aviv. She was shot by another Arab ‘hero’, female terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, supposedly after the following dialogue:

…Sister Dalal Al-Maghrabi had a conversation with the American journalist [Gail Rubin]. Before killing her, Dalal asked: “How did you enter Palestine?” [Rubin] answered: “They gave me a visa.” Dalal said: “Did you get your visa from me, or from Israel? I have the right to this land. Why didn’t you come to me?” Then Dalal opened fire on her.

A non-subservient Jew — in the case of Mughrabi, just the presence of any Jew on ‘her’ land without ‘permission’ — infuriates the Islamist or Arab nationalist, and apparently justifies a violent response.

And this is why the Jordanian Parliament seeks to free Ahmad Musa Mustafa Daqamseh. It is why the Turkish PM’s response to Israel’s stupid ‘apology’ was to make further demands. It is why Mahmoud Abbas places impossible conditions on a return to negotiations, and it is why Yasser Arafat rejected the Camp David and Taba proposals in 2000. It is why the Saudis and the Arab League insist that the “Arab Peace Initiative” can only be accepted as is and is not a starting point for negotiations, and — above all — it is why the PLO vehemently refuses to agree, no matter what they are offered, that Israel is the state of the Jewish people.

The need for dominance is built-in to Muslim cultures. What they want is subservience, complete submission to their will, as expressed in the traditional Islamic concept of the dhimmi. And this is precisely what they will not get from today’s Jews.

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Honor and deterrence

Friday, April 12th, 2013
Nadia Matar

Nadia Matar

Nadia Matar is co-chairperson of the Women In Green organization, which affirms the “central role of Eretz Israel for the future of the Jewish People.” The group calls for the application of Jewish sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, and often takes direct but non-violent action against Arab encroachment on Jewish land in the territories. Need I add that she is considered by some to be a dangerous extremist?

But there are things that she understands much more clearly than they do. For example, here is a recent news item. Note the part that I emphasized:

Dozens of Efrat residents, along with activists from the Women in Green group, demonstrated Wednesday afternoon at the northern entrance to Efrat in Gush Etzion. The protest, part of the effort by Judea and Samaria residents to “take back the roads” and make them safe from terrorist rock-throwers and gunmen, was attended by dozens of people who have had enough of the ongoing attacks on drivers, a spokesperson for the protesters said. …

Speaking at the event, Women in Green head Nadia Matar said “Arab rock-throwing is not just a physical danger, but also damages the honor of the Jewish and Israeli people. The Arabs’ purpose is not just to kill the driver they are throwing rocks at, but also to sow fear into the hearts of Jews and prevent us from using the roads of the Land of Israel altogether. The IDF must respond in a way that is going to make it clear that Israel will not accept these attacks.”

More generally, the ongoing struggle to keep the Jewish state is not only a physical struggle, but a struggle for the honor of the Jewish people. If you find that way of speaking off-putting, consider Richard Landes’ concept of ‘cognitive warfare’:

All asymmetrical wars take place primarily in the cognitive arena, with the major theater of war the enemy’s public sphere. The goal is to convince your far more powerful enemy not to fight. In defensive cases, from the Maccabees to the Vietnamese, this has meant getting imperial powers to “go home.” But Islamists who want to spread Dar al Islam [and Palestinian Arabs who want to replace Israel — ed.] conduct an offensive campaign: how to get your targets to surrender on their own home ground? In this seemingly absurd venture, they have had remarkable success.

Honor is a concept that is paramount in non-Western cultures. Sometimes it seems that the West has no clue about that. It applies both to oneself and to one’s enemies: if you lose your honor in your own eyes, you lose your will to fight; and if you lose it in your enemy’s eyes, he is not afraid of you. In the latter sense, honor is closely related to deterrence.

A powerful military capability is not sufficient to deter an enemy if he does not believe that you have the will to use it properly. A nation without honor, no matter how powerful it appears to be, makes itself a target. This is what Nadia Matar understands — and Barack Obama doesn’t.

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