The Truth About American Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s new film, American Sniper, is a blisteringly accurate portrayal of the American war in Iraq. Unlike most films in the genre, it sidesteps the politics and focuses on an individual: the late, small-town Texan, Chris Kyle, who joined the Navy SEALs after 9/11 and did four tours of duty in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. He is formally recognized as the deadliest sniper in American history, and the film, based on his bestselling memoir, dramatizes the war he felt duty-bound to fight and his emotionally wrenching return home, with post-traumatic stress.

The movie has become a flashpoint for liberal critics. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore dismissed the film out-of-hand because snipers, he says, are “cowards.” “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds,” comic actor Seth Rogen tweeted, referring to a fake Hitler propaganda film about a Nazi sniper, though he backtracked and said he actually liked the film, that it only reminded him of Nazi propaganda. Writing for the Guardian, Lindy West is fair to Eastwood and the film but cruel to its subject. Kyle, she says, was “a hate-filled killer” and “a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.”

The Navy confirms that Kyle shot and killed 160 combatants, most of whom indeed had brown skin. While he was alive, he said that he enjoyed his job. In one scene in the movie, Kyle, played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, refers to “savages,” and it’s not clear if he means Iraqis in general or just the enemies he’s fighting.

But let’s take a step back and leave the politics of aside. All psychologically normal people feel at least some hatred for the enemy in a war zone. This is true whether they’re on the “right” side or the “wrong” side. It’s not humanly possible to like or feel neutral toward people who are trying to kill you. Race hasn’t the faintest thing to do with it. Does anyone seriously believe Kyle would have felt differently if white Russians or Serbs, rather than “brown” Arabs, were shooting at him? How many residents of New York’s Upper West Side had a sympathetic or nuanced view of al-Qaida on September 11, 2001? Some did—inappropriately, in my view—but how many would have been able to keep it up if bombs exploded in New York City every day, year after year?

Kyle had other reasons to hate his enemies, aside from their desire to kill him. In American Sniper, we see him in Fallujah and Ramadi fighting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, the bloody precursor to ISIS. His immediate nemesis is “the Butcher,” a fictional character whose favorite weapon is a power drill. The Butcher confronts an Iraqi family who spoke to Americans and says “if you talk to them, you die with them.” He tortures their child to death with his drill.

Kyle kills a kid, too, but in a radically different context. The boy is running toward Americans with a live grenade in his hand. “They’ll fry you if you’re wrong,” his spotter tells him. “They’ll send you to Leavenworth.” He’s right. Kyle would have been fried, at least figuratively, if he shot an innocent, unarmed civilian—regardless of age—with premeditation. In a later scene, he has another child in his sights: the child picks up a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and aims it at an American Humvee. “Drop it,” Kyle says under his breath from far away. He doesn’t want to pull that trigger. He’ll shoot if he must to protect the lives of his fellow Americans, but the kid drops the RPG and Kyle slumps in relief. How different he is from the Butcher, who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing children to death—not even children of the American invaders, but Iraqi children.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Disinvited by Moscow

The embarrassment of being disinvited: many of us have experienced it upon learning that we’re no longer welcome to an event. But earlier this month a more public disinvitation, one of vastly larger consequence, took place in Brussels. A European Parliament delegation led by Gabrielius Landsbergis, a young member from Lithuania, learned that it would no longer be welcome to Moscow. As the Parliament’s rapporteur for Russia, Landsbergis essentially functions as the legislative body’s point person in relations with Moscow. The revocation followed a cordial invitation by Russia’s ambassador to the EU last November; back in those somewhat happier days, Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov had promised Landbergis’s group all the assistance they required and had offered to set up meeting with Russian officials.

Putin's War on Civilians Defines Terrorism

Russian President Vladimir Putin is rapidly cementing his reputation as a sponsor of terrorism in Ukraine. One could, with some stretch of the imagination, have qualified the earlier violence perpetrated by his proxies in eastern Ukraine as mere “separatism.” In a blog post on April 14, 2014, however, I suggested that it qualified as terrorism, and that Putin’s Russia was therefore a state sponsor of terrorism. I then provided the definition of terrorism found in Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 of the United States Code:

(1) the term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country;

(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents; and

(3) the term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or which has significant subgroups which practice, international terrorism.

Kissinger’s ‘Favorite Communist,’ President Napolitano of Italy, Resigns

There’s hardly an Italian who doesn’t sympathize with President Giorgio Napolitano’s decision to resign despite the fact that he has another five years left in his unprecedented second presidential term. Italy’s highly respected head of state is 89; if he served out his full time he would be 94 when he left office. And Napolitano has already left a legacy that includes distancing the presidency from the bedlam of Italian politics and earning the esteem of foreign leaders.  

It was a political deadlock that led to Napolitano agreeing to serve for a second six-year term in 2013 when the Italian Senate and lower house that elect the Italian president failed to agree on a successor, but Napolitano won’t be there to bail out the politicians again on January 29th, when voting starts for a new president. In the first three ballots a two-thirds majority is required to elect a candidate, after that a simple majority will suffice, and presidential elections tend to spill over to a fourth or fifth ballot, or even more.

Improving India-US Relations Unnerves Beijing

Chinese state media both denigrated President Obama’s historic trip to New Delhi this week and excoriated American policy in what appears to be a concerted effort to undermine US-Indian ties. 

On Monday, an American leader attended Republic Day celebrations in the Indian capital for the first time ever, and Obama became the first US president to visit India twice while in office. 

Free Speech vs. Hate Speech in France: A Guide for the Perplexed

In response to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, millions of French took to the streets on January 11th to defend the right to “blaspheme” or insult religion. But a few days later, French authorities cracked down on the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for writing on his Facebook page, “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” in a sign of solidarity with Amedy Coulibaly, the man who killed four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris as the manhunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers was under way. Dieudonné is now facing charges for “apology of terrorism.”

Too Little Too Late in Syria

The US military is gearing up to train moderate Syrian rebels this spring, but there’s virtually no chance this is going to work by itself.

The US spent years training the Iraqi Army, and for what? Baghdad’s forces turned out to be no more effective in the face of the ISIS onslaught than the French were when Hitler invaded.

Had ISIS been nipped in the bud at the beginning this might not have happened, but they’ve had years to build themselves up and grow stronger while an isolationist White House did nothing and let everything fester.

President Obama’s advisors warned him that the Syrian civil war could explode well beyond its borders and even wash up in Europe and the United States if it dragged out long enough, and that’s exactly what happened.

The Iranian-Hezbollah-Assad axis is still entrenched in its part of the country, and ISIS—one of the most formidable terrorist armies in history—controls the other half of the country, along with an enormous swath of Iraq. There is virtually no chance that a ragtag band of lightly trained “moderate” rebels can compete with the Assad regime and ISIS at the same time if the much-better trained and equipped Iraqis can’t handle ISIS alone. 

But this might work if the air campaign against ISIS is expanded dramatically.

So far the air strikes are barely containing ISIS, let alone degrading it, but that’s partly because it’s so half-assed. Occasional pinprick strikes won’t finish off ISIS any more than occasional terrorist attacks in the US would cause Washington DC to implode.

Fighting a terrorist organization or an insurgency with air strikes is a fool’s game, but ISIS is much more than that. It’s not hiding in alleys and shadows and safe houses. It controls a chunk of territory the size of Syria. Its “state” isn’t formally recognized by any real nation, nor does it appear on any atlases, but it has most of the attributes of a state in the making and can be weakened and degraded and destroyed from the skies just like Moammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya was weakened and degraded and eventually destroyed from the skies.

The US-led coalition might be able to do this. It wouldn’t mean the end of ISIS any more than destroying the Taliban regime in Afghanistan spelled the end of the Taliban, but it would end ISIS as a “state” and force it to revert to its previous status as a shadowy terrorist organization.

Then it just might be possible for a US-backed force to move into the vacuum. Fighting would continue indefinitely, and the US might have to remain involved to an extent, but at least the Islamic State could be downgraded into a wannabe state that has a much more difficult time recruiting new members. Though I wouldn’t expect a tidy resolution any time in the next decade—it’s far too late for that now—it would be better than watching ISIS expand.

But if we’re just going to train a few thousand people and hope for the best while sending them into a meat grinder without any serious backup, we’re better off staying home and they’re better off being refugees.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Free Nadia Savchenko!

Vladimir Putin’s star political prisoner—Nadia Savchenko—is a 34-year-old Ukrainian helicopter pilot who served with a volunteer battalion in eastern Ukraine this summer and was taken prisoner by Putin’s proxies. She was subsequently charged with abetting the deaths of two Russian journalists who died in an artillery exchange between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Currently imprisoned in Moscow, Savchenko has been on a hunger strike since December 13, 2014. Needless to say, her life is in danger.

On January 9th, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called for Savchenko’s “immediate release”: “We’re deeply concerned by reports that Russia has moved Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko to solitary confinement.”

At a December 18th news conference, Putin made the following comments about Savchenko

Egypt's Sisi: Impersonating a Democrat

In the wake of the Paris murders of cartoonists, police, and Jews by gunmen claiming to act in the name of Islam, remarks by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi have drawn praise and suggestions he be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On January 2nd, a few days before the attacks, Sisi called on Muslim scholars at Al Azhar University to lead a “religious revolution,” saying it was “inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing, and destruction for the rest of the world.”

It’s entirely possible, of course, for Sisi to have a point and still not be an appropriate figure for deference on matters linked to tolerance, pluralism, and civil liberties. Indeed, there is a broader context for his remarks that his admirers should not ignore.

Conductor Gergiev, Geopolitical Casualty

Once upon a time there was a man, a master in his field, famous, respected by his peers. He had a friend who was also a household name, thanks to the nature of his work. He, too, enjoyed respect and was a welcome guest around the world. But then our protagonist’s friend started misbehaving, or to put it more accurately: behaving in a way that displeased many of his friends and fans. He became persona non grata.

Our protagonist was still the same man. He kept going about his work the way he always had. All of a sudden, however, he was getting the cold shoulder. People started criticizing his political views, forgetting that in the past, they’d ignored those views. His employers started getting nervous, and when he turned up for work, protesters would await him.

Shifting Relations in North Asia

Discussions this week in Singapore between North Korean officials, led by chief nuclear negotiator Ri Yong Ho, and former special envoy Stephen Bosworth and other American figures ended in calls for the resumption of formal nuclear talks, which have been on hold since 2008. The two-day “Track Two” consultations did not result in any breakthroughs, but the lack of progress in the informal consultations comes amid a flurry of unusual diplomatic activity involving the peninsula.

There was hope in recent days that the Track Two participants might come up with a new blueprint to restart the six-party talks to “denuclearize” North Korea. Instead, Ri used the occasion to lambast Washington and Seoul for their annual joint military exercises, which he termed the “root cause” of problems on the peninsula.

The Iranian Regime and Charlie Hebdo

As Washington continues its vain quest for a good faith nuclear deal with Tehran, the Iranian regime continues behaving like the gunmen who massacred French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo earlier this month in Paris.

Here’s Mojtaba Safari in The Daily Beast:

Many in the West talk of the “moderation” of Iran’s regime. Foreign Minister Mohamed Zarif flies around the world claiming that Iran is committed to peace, justice and human rights. That would come as news to the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Iranian jail for nothing more than advocating freedom and democracy.  

Soheil Arabi is one of those activists whose Facebook posts landed him on death row. What was Arabi's great "crime"? He is charged with "spreading corruption on Earth," (mofsed-e-filarz), punishable by death in Iran. 

Soheil was first arrested and sentenced to death in November 2013 on the charge of "insulting the Prophet" (sabb-e-nabi). Article 262 of the Islamic Penal Code of Iran explains:

Anyone who swears at or commits qazf  [false accusation of sexual offenses] against the Great Prophet [of Islam] (peace be upon him) or any of the Great Prophets, shall be considered as sāb ul-nabi [a person who swears at the Prophet], and shall be sentenced to the death penalty.

Safari is an Iranian blogger. The only reason he’s alive and free is because he’s living in Canada.

The fact that the Iranian regime behaves this way at home does not by itself make a deal with Iran impossible. The United States has a transactional alliance with Saudi Arabia despite its government being no less grotesque. But the geopolitical interests of Washington and Riyadh overlap while the geopolitical interests of Washington and Tehran are entirely at odds with each other.

At some point this is all going to change. Iran will eventually get a new and more civilized government that more accurately represents the political views of its citizens who are far less anti-American and anti-Israel than the regime. Then our two countries will be able to have decent relations.

Iranians are not the natural enemies of the West, nor are they the natural enemies of Jews and of Israel. There is little history of hostility between Persians and Jews. There is, however, a long history of unbroken hostility between Persians and Arabs. A democratic Iranian government will be friendlier to the West, but its relations with the countries on the other side of the Persian Gulf will be just as fractious as they right now.

When that day finally comes, our transactional alliance with Saudi Arabia will likely be slowly phased out in favor of a genuine alliance with Iran. In the meantime, both nations will continue using the instruments of the state to commit crimes against humanity that only terrorists are willing and able to carry out in the West.

Is Obama Serious About Fighting ISIS?

The president’s State of the Union address only briefly touched on the growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, commonly know as ISIS or ISIL. Obama showed solidarity with terrorism victims whether they are in a “school in Pakistan or France.” Curiously he didn’t mention the recent atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, where at least 2,000 people were slaughtered. This is an atrocity and at least acknowledging it would show that he “stands united” with victims of terrorism. The best way to stand united with terrorism victims is to take the lead and fight terrorists. Obama was big on campaign-friendly phrases such as “hunting down terrorists” but short on actual concrete proposals to combat violent extremists.

Not The Time For New Iran Sanctions

Both President Obama and Congress are determined to prevent Iran, a historic adversary of the United States, from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Where their strategies differ, however, was on full display in last night’s State of the Union address.

Congress, rightly suspicious of Iran, seeks to pass new legislation that would trigger additional sanctions if a long-term deal is not reached by the June 30th deadline or if the Iranian regime breaches any agreement reached. The Obama administration believes such legislation could disrupt the negotiations, fracture the international coalition united against Iran, and give Iran a convenient excuse to abandon diplomacy.

While the passage of additional sanctions legislation is well intentioned, premature action would derail diplomacy, unfreeze Iran’s nuclear program, and undo the progress from the last year. To be sure, Congress has an important role to play, but just as Congress gives military commanders flexibility in fighting wars, they must not micromanage our diplomats as they fight for an effective agreement.

Eradication of Extreme Poverty is a US Security Interest

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama discussed foreign policy issues that pose a clear and present danger to the United States, such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), Russia’s aggression, and the Ebola pandemic. But he also addressed a much less obvious issue, but one that is perhaps even more challenging and requires just as much strong American leadership: the need to eradicate extreme poverty. He has mentioned it in the past, but this year the president pointed out that the global community needs to “build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.”


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