Hillary Clinton, Boko Haram, and the Meaningless Politics of the US Terrorist List

A political sideshow to the escalating focus on the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram is what it means for Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects. Boko Haram was not officially designated a terrorist group until Clinton stepped down and John Kerry became Secretary of State. This, Republicans tell us, reveals she is weak on terrorism and doesn’t have the leadership or foresight to keep the country safe as president.

To try and make a substantive political point on the basis of the farcical and arbitrary State Department terrorist list is laughable. The “official list” is so fickle and ludricous as to be useless in any serious political discussion except to demonstrate how illegitimate it is.

As I wrote last month:

The government puts individuals or groups on and takes them off according to its interests at the time: Nelson Mandela was on it before he became admired by the world as a man of peace, Saddam Hussein was on it until the U.S. decided it wanted to support him militarily against Iran in the 1980s, the Iranian group MEK was on it until 2012 when the U.S. decided having an Iranian dissident group off the terrorist list could be in its benefit, etc.

And of course, any militant groups that the U.S. wants to aid with money and weapons can’t be on the terrorist list, even if they conduct terrorist operations.

More than that, there was some internal logic to holding off on designating Boko Haram. New York Times:

Such a step would have made it illegal for any individual in the United States to provide “material or resources” to the group and, proponents say, would also have focused international attention on the danger the group posed.

But Johnnie Carson, who was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2009 to 2013, said in an interview on Thursday that he had opposed making the designation “for six or seven different reasons.”

Mr. Carson said he was concerned that the move would generate publicity for the group and help it attract support from other extremists. He said he was also worried that the designation might legitimize a heavy-handed crackdown by Nigeria’s security forces at a time when American officials were urging them to avoid human rights abuses.

“It would have aligned us with a flawed Nigerian security strategy,” Mr. Carson said.

There was concern that the designation might prompt the group to attack American interests in the region. The Nigerian government also strongly opposed the move, fearing it would raise Boko Haram’s standing.

There are two important points to make on the basis of this reporting. First, this U.S. official implicitly reveals what I’ve already said about Boko Haram: that it is a localized militant group that could be antagonized to more ambitious goals in response to U.S. meddling.

Secondly, it has been confirmed in congressional testimony that the U.S. government has a secret list of groups and individuals it considers officially designated terrorists. That list is classified, meaning that the American people can’t even know who their own government considers enemies. But further, it means that the State Department’s designation is largely moot, because the U.S. government already was taking action against Boko Haram in a covert way going back several years and so probably already had the group on its secret list.

Pull Out of South Korea

US Air Force conducting military exercises in South Korea. Credit: DoD
US Air Force conducting military exercises in South Korea. Credit: DoD

The Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow argues for the U.S. to pull out of South Korea:

Washington needs to reflect first on why the North is such a problem for America.  A small, impoverished, and distant state, even with a handful of nuclear weapons (but no delivery capacity), obviously is no match for the globe’s superpower.  Ordinarily the former wouldn’t be interested in the latter.

But the U.S. maintains a defense treaty with and garrison in the ROK, routinely deploys naval and air units around the DPRK, regularly conducts military exercises in the South, and constantly threatens war against the North.  Pyongyang can’t very well ignore America.

Thus, going home should be the foundation of U.S. policy toward the Koreas.

…Washington should loosen military ties with South Korea and extricate itself from a potential Korean conflict.  The U.S. should terminate the “mutual” defense treaty, withdraw the permanent garrison, and end the periodic threats.

Chances are slim to nil that the U.S. will actually pull out of South Korea and stop subsidizing its security from the North. Primarily, this is because, as I wrote at Al Jazeera America earlier this year, “the U.S. military presence in South Korea is not about deterring North Korea. More accurately, it is about maintaining U.S. military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.”

In other words, containing China:

Ironically, the U.S.’s continued military presence and defense treaty with South Korea does nothing to weaken Pyongyang. Instead, it engenders geopolitical calculations on the part of regional great powers like China to prop up the North Korean regime.

…To Beijing, Pyongyang is something of a nuisance — a perpetually erratic regime with a hellish human rights record that is a constant source of aggravation to China, which is trying to avoid such negative attention from the international community.

China nevertheless endures this embarrassment and continues to safeguard the survival of the North Korean regime because it “is important to Beijing as a bulwark against U.S. military dominance of the region,” according [a 2013 Council on Foreign Relations report].

China’s reluctant support of the DPRK has allowed the latter to maintain its survival and slowly increase its nuclear capabilities. But China, like other nuclear weapons states, despises proliferation, even among its allies, because it diminishes the power and freedom of movement enjoyed by the exclusive club of nuclear powers. In all likelihood, China would halt its lenient backing of the DPRK if the risk of U.S. troops right on China’s border wasn’t in the cards.

As Bandow puts it, “Withdrawal also would reduce Beijing’s perception that the U.S. is seeking to contain China in cooperation with the ROK.”

As per usual, U.S. interventionism makes things less stable, in addition to serving as a dangerously wasteful sink-hole for U.S. resources.

Everything Is A Threat: The Fear-Mongering and Hysteria Over Boko Haram


The hysteria that has erupted over the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram over the last few days has been remarkable. The terrorist group abducted hundreds of girls and, thanks to a viral awareness campaign and threats from Washington to intervene, Boko Haram suddenly became America’s new Great Menace that presents an existential threat to the United States.

CNN’s Erin Burnett was particularly unhinged in the show that aired last night. “Boko Haram’s brutal violence includes burning people alive in mosques and churches and slitting the throats of students,” she warned her audience of people who surely have never heard of the group before. “Even among extremist groups, their tactics are vile.”

“You could describe them as the Taliban that have taken it to the next level,” retired U.S. Gen. James Marks said, “maybe a Taliban on steroids.” Boko Haram “is an absolutely horrible, beyond definition horrible organization that clearly needs to go away completely and we have to facilitate their departure.”

Burnett and her U.S. military guests were sure to bring the threat of Boko Haram back to America, cognizant of the risk of giving the impression that this is a Nigerian problem that’s none of our business. Gen. Carter Ham, former Second in Command at the Pentagon’s Africa Command warned, “They certainly present a very, very significant risk in Nigeria, more broadly across the region, and the leaders of Boko Haram have been very clear for the past couple of years that they aspire to attacking Westerners and specifically the United States, its people, and its interests.”

Burnett followed up with the terrifying reminder that nowadays “there are all these direct flights between Nigeria and the United States.”

And then, the alley-oop, Burnett asks Ham, “Do you think they need to be stopped now, that the United States needs to somehow become involved more actively to stop them from striking?”

They’ve set it up for the frightened, ignorant audience. This group is violent, evil, comparable to our undisputed enemies the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and they aspire to attack America. The next logical step is U.S. military intervention, right!? Ham obviously responded in the affirmative. Forget that nobody said Boko Haram was on the verge of striking the United States, or any Western country for that matter.

Continue reading “Everything Is A Threat: The Fear-Mongering and Hysteria Over Boko Haram”

Former Head of Israeli Nuclear Commission: Iran Is At Least 10 Years Away From a Nuke

The former head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission believes Iran is more than a decade away from a nuclear weapon and that the Islamic Republic may not even want “the bomb,” according to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth (Ynet news).

An insider in Israel’s nuclear program believes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is employing needless fearmongering when it comes to Iran’s atomic aspirations, in order to further his own political aims.

Brigadier General (res.) Uzi Eilam, who for a decade headed the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, does not believe that Tehran is even close to having a bomb, if that is even what it really aspires to.

“The Iranian nuclear program will only be operational in another 10 years,” declares Eilam, a senior official in Israel’s atomic program. “Even so, I am not sure that Iran wants the bomb.”

As far as Eilam’s credibility on the issue, Ynet explains that he “comes from the heart of Israel’s secret security mechanisms, having served in senior roles in the defense establishment that culminated in a decade as the head of the atomic agencyBefore his decade heading the Atomic Energy Commission, he was head of the IDF’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure…”

This is not only a rebuke of Netanyahu’s hardline rhetoric on Iran and its nuclear program, but a corrective to the nearly sacrosanct political dogma in the U.S. that Iran is on the verge of deployable nukes. It’s hard to find anyone – from talking-point-reciting politicians to cable news talking heads and supposedly respectable journalists – that fails to refer to the “Iranian nuclear weapons weapons program” or Iran’s “unrelenting pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

This, despite Iran’s cooperation and compliance in unprecedented negotiations with world powers that aim to partially retard and comprehensively limit their civilian nuclear program. Eilam’s heresy isn’t the first Israeli official of prominence to push back on the Netanyahu government’s Iran policy, which at this point amounts to denying Iran’s right under the NPT to develop any nuclear power for civilian use.

Eilam’s comments also coincide with the current consensus in the U.S. intelligence community on Iran’s nuclear program, that it is not intended to develop weapons.

So why does virtually every politician and commentator, left and right, continue to propagate this falsehood?

A War Crime Is A War Crime Is A War Crime…Right?

According to an exclusive report from Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy, the United States agreed to let France “distribute the text of a draft Security Council resolution authorizing an ICC investigation into alleged Syrian atrocities.”

The U.S. has officially opposed this route until now on the grounds that it was “wholly inadequate in confronting mass atrocities in Syria.” But now, the U.S. is supporting the plan to investigate and prosecute war crimes in Syria. 

With one catch. Lynch reports:

The United States indicated that it could support the text after seeking assurances that the ICC prosecutor, based in The Hague, would have no authority to investigate any possible war crimes by Israel, which has occupied the Golan Heights since the Six-Day War in 1967…

Gee, you’d think the U.S. would want alleged war crimes to be investigated, regardless of who commits them. A war crime is a war crime is a war crime…right?

For more on the U.S.’s effort to prevent any investigation into Israeli war crimes, see here.

A Larger Conflict in Ukraine Is Not Inevitable

Anatol Lieven’s latest piece in the New York Review of Books is a sober analysis of the shaky situation in Ukraine that contrasts sharply with the overwrought commentary in the U.S. that can’t seem to avoid references to pre-WWII European land grabs.

Lieven says the perception that increasing instability in eastern Ukraine puts Russia and the West on an inevitable course to direct confrontation “is a terrible mistake.” A larger conflict, he argues, is not inevitable; in order to stave off conflict, the U.S. should resist calls to “help the government in Kiev to win with military force in the east.”

The rebel forces that have taken control of cities of the Donbas, the Russian-speaking industrial and mining region in the east, appear well organized, have much local popular support, and are implicitly backed by the 45,000 Russian troops deployed to the Ukrainian border. It would take many months—more probably, many years—for Ukrainian forces to reach sufficient strength to retake the Donbas swiftly and relatively bloodlessly, or to defeat a Russian invasion of the east and south of the country. Moves to raise Ukrainian nationalist volunteer forces should be strongly discouraged by the West. The intervention of such groups would risk repeating what has just happened in Odessa, where dozens of people were killed in street battles on May 2. It would make a Russian invasion a certainty.

And the West itself will not fight for Ukraine. All the blowhard posturing of US and European government officials cannot hide this essential fact. In these circumstances, to give the unelected interim government in Kiev the idea that we are giving it military backing is irresponsible, immoral, and contemptible.

Instead of continuing to cultivate the sense of alarm and indignation at Russia’s moves in Ukraine, Leiven argues, the West ought to be realistic about what a reasonable resolution to the immediate crisis looks like: not war, not Russian annexation of all of Ukraine, but autonomy for the east under a federalized system.

What is truly strange and terrible about this looming disaster is that all the leading players already know and agree about what the only solution can be, even if they disagree on the details and the timing: a federal Ukraine with elected regional governments and robust protection for regional interests. This, not further separation, is what Moscow is proposing; and this is what the Ukrainian interim president, Olexander Turchynov, has publicly hinted at for the Donbas. Although the rebels in Donetsk and other eastern cities have declared the Donetsk Republic and are now planning an independence referendum on May 11, many easterners, too, have indicated that they want some kind of federalization and not independence or annexation to Russia. As interviews published in Sunday’s New York Times make clear, even some rebel commanders themselves hope to keep Ukraine united.

What Ukraine is going through right now is the result of a self-interested tug of war between rival global powers in the East and West. As Leiven says, “Ukraine contains different identities, and cannot be ruled unilaterally by one of them alone, or pulled in a single geopolitical direction, without risking the breakup of the country itself.” Even if a recognition of this only happens on one side of the geopolitical divide, it will be a far more peaceful process.