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InCity Book Review

But first …

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Unholy Alliance: The Agenda Iran, Russia and Jihadists Share for Conquering the World

By Jay Sekulow, (2016, First Howard Books, 310 Pages)

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

If you dislike Muslims, you’ll love this book. If you were looking for an even-handed description of the Middle East turmoil, reading Unholy Alliance: The Agenda Iran, Russia and Jihadists Share for Conquering the World, will be a severe disappointment. That was this writer’s opinion after reading Jay Sekulow’s Unholy Alliance. In this book, Sekulow postulates the unlikely theory that “Muslim jihadists” such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS are conspiring with Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia to take over the world.

Sekulow wants the reader to believe that Sunni terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS are, or could be, allied with Iranian Shiites to seize the planet. That the Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting each other for 1,400 years argues against this.As support for his belief in a pan-Muslim terrorist conspiracy, Sekulow says Shiite Iran is the major backer of the Sunni Hamas movement in the West Bank. That is an exceptional case, as Hamas is in the belly of Israel, and Israel is a major target of Islamic extremists today.

Sekulow ardmits that Iran is fighting Al-Qaeda in Syria, and asserts later that Al-Qaeda directs its overseas operations from Iranian sanctuaries. The idea that Iran is knowingly allowing Al-Qaeda to direct its Syrian followers from Iranian territory to kill Iranian Revolutionary Guards supporting Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, is absurd.

Chief Counsel of ACLJ

Sekulow is the Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, the conservative version of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The ACLJ was founded in 1990 by law school graduate and evangelical minister Pat Robertson to protect constitutional and human rights worldwide,” says Wikipedia. “ACLJ generally pursues constitutional issues and conservative Christian ideals in courts of law.”

This book reads like a law review article. Sekulow sources his book with Teutonic thoroughness, citing 1,460 endnotes in the186 pages in the body of the book. There are 119 pages – or 38% of the total – devoted to acknowledgments, notes, appendixes, and the index.

“Unholy Alliance” is like another tome reviewed here, “Trouble in the Tribe”. (See http://incitytimesworcester.org/steve-parked-%F0%9F%9A%99-in-roses-space-incity-times-book-review/.) In “Trouble in the Tribe”, we noted how the author dumped a great deal of specific information into endnotes, “which should have been better served in the main text, or attached as footnotes on the pages where they are cited.” In Unholy Alliance, there is a whole page for one endnote, and a large mass in commentary in the others that would better serve the reader being attached as footnotes. Unlike “Trouble in the Tribe”, “Unholy Alliance” makes little pretense at being an evenhanded analysis.

Sekulow analyzes the Muslim faith. He provides examples of how British Islamic groups prefer Islamic tribunals using Sharia law to British courts, and the terrible injustices which take place in those tribunals, particularly against women. He implies that America’s Muslim population has the same plan for the U.S. This book was published in September 2016, before Donald Trump’s surprising upset. Trump’s election makes the possibility of American courts adopting Sharia law remote.

He quotes sections of the Koran which, taken out of context and the times in which they were written, make the Muslim faith look absurd and blood thirsty. Sekulow acknowledges that critics of Judaism have done the same type of misrepresentation of the Jewish bible. He excuses this by saying essentially that the Koran was intended as a “universal and timeless” document, while the Jewish bible is a history book.

Dubious Sources

Some of the sources cited by Sekulow are at best dubious. This is another reason the author may have avoided footnotes. To find who the references are for some of these, you must turn several hundred pages forward to look up the endnote. On the other hand, if there were footnotes naming these sources, the questionable nature of some of Sekulow’s sources would become immediately known to the reader.

To illustrate this, we did a computer analysis of Chapter Nine “Iran and Al Qaeda”. The last time America launched a preemptive invasion in the Middle East, George W. Bush and the neocons linked Al-Qaeda to Iraq.

We plugged into an Excel spreadsheet the 141 sources cited by the author in 132 endnotes in Chapter 9. We then sorted the data by two sequences: by the source cited in the endnote; and by the year in which the source originated. We found:
• 51% of the sources were dated 2009 or prior. For some reason, Sekulow relied on older historical information. There were only four sources from 2012, two cites from one source dated 2014, and three from 2016.

• One out of five endnotes (28 in total) cited Ronen Bergman’s book “The Secret War with Iran.” One PBS broadcast was cited seven times. The 2004 9/11 Commission Report was cited 17 times. The 13 sources dated 2013 included four marked “opinion” in its web locations, and seven endnotes were from three sources.

• Most disturbing of all was Sekulow’s frequent cites to the Weekly Standard, the neoconservative magazine that clamored for the disastrous 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. One such article, cited in five endnotes, was co-authored by William Kristol, America’s foremost neoconservative. There were 23 sources dated 2015; sixteen of these, or 70%, derived from the Weekly Standard. The same people who bought us the war in Iraq are now ginning up for a war in Iran.

Severe Disappointment

As we said at the beginning of this book review, if you dislike Muslims, you’ll like this book. If you were looking for an even-handed description of the Middle East turmoil, reading “Unholy Alliance” will be a severe disappointment.

Steve parked in Rose’s space … InCity Book Review

But first:

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The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World

By Derek Chollet, (2016, Perseus Books, 262 Pages)

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

Journalism has often been called the first draft of history. With that in mind, former Obama administration official Derek Chollet has evaluated President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Chollett covers an enormous number of issues, personalities, and events in a short 262 pages, a concisely written book and that will be a valuable resource for future historians.

Unexpected foreign events often arise during a Presidency. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II, and changing the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, leading to the missile crisis and John F. Kennedy’s finest hour. 9/11 pushed George W. Bush into being a different President than the one he campaigned as. While Bush’s unexpected event was in his first year in office, two of Obama’s problems came late in his second term: the catastrophic insurgency of ISIS, and the ominous resurgence of Putin’s Russia.

Disasters inherited

Barack Obama inherited an America facing the abyss. As Wikipedia put it: “The bursting of the US housing bubble, which peaked at the end of 2006, caused the values of securities tied to US real estate pricing to plummet, damaging financial institutions globally. The financial crisis was triggered by a complex interplay of policies that encouraged home ownership, providing easier access to loans for subprime borrowers, overvaluation of bundled subprime mortgages based on the theory that housing prices would continue to escalate, questionable trading practices on behalf of both buyers and sellers, compensation structures that prioritize short-term deal flow over long-term value creation, and a lack of adequate capital holdings from banks and insurance companies to back the financial commitments they were making.”

America hovered on the edge of another Great Depression:

• By January 2009 the economy was shedding 800,000 jobs a month.

• American families were losing 100,000 homes a week as home values plummeted and entire neighborhoods, particularly in the inner cities, were devastated.

• The banking system seemed ready to implode, with major financial institutions like the Lehman brothers going bankrupt. Hard core conservatives urged the U.S. government to stay out.

• The automotive industry ran out of money. Cash burn was so bad that General Motors told the White House it had on hand only two weeks of money left to operate. The potential loss of jobs from this one problem alone could be counted in the millions.

Mitt Romney wrote a tome in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”, saying the U.S. should not save the auto industry. That the “supply chain” – the subcontractors and factories manufacturing components for the auto industry, located mainly in the “Rust Belt” states that voted in 2016 for Donald Trump – would die and could not be revived, did not worry Romney.

The Long Game

It should be borne in mind that these were just the domestic issues Obama faced. It says nothing about the foreign affairs calamities facing the U.S., including ongoing wars tying up 175,000 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is hard to think of a president who entered office facing more challenges of historic magnitude,” commented Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Obama set out to play the “Long Game.”

“The defining element of Obama’s grand strategy is that it reflects the totality of American interests – foreign and domestic – to project global leadership in an era of seemingly infinite demands and finite resources,” writes Chollet. “This is playing the ‘Long Game.’”

Chollet describes Obama as a political version of Warren Buffett, who became a billionaire by buying up companies with a strong market base but which were financially weak. When the economy got better, the values of these investments skyrocketed. Buffett made his billions by looking not at these companies’ value at the time he bought them, but what he expected these entities to be worth over time.

“Games are won by players who focus on the playing field – not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard,” observed Buffett.

Obama believed the U.S. overextended itself by pouring so much manpower, equipment, and money into Iraq, instead of hunting down Al-Qaeda and its leaders. Obama thought the U.S. should shift America’s focus from the Middle East to the Pacific Basin; rebalance America’s projection of power, putting as much emphasis on diplomacy and economic sanctions/assistance as Bush did on the use of military force; and reset America’s alliances with NATO and Russia.

To go into every topic Obama’s administration dealt with would fill up this entire newspaper. We’re going to look at some of Obama’s foreign policy successes, his failures, and draw some conclusions.

Disarming Iran

Historians are likely to regard the Iran nuclear treaty as a hallmark of Obama’s administration. When Bush left office, Iran was moving full speed ahead on its
nuclear program. Obama convinced the Russians, Chinese, British, and French to impose sanctions that devastated the Iranian economy. Since the July 2015 signing of the treaty, Iran has removed weapons grade uranium, reduced the number of centrifuges by two thirds, and removed the heavy water reactor at Arak and filled it with concrete. For the moment, Iran has been disarmed. That is no small achievement, and may be one a bellicose Trump could build upon.

Disarming Syria

In August 2013 Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad used chemical weapons against opposition held territory, killing 1,400 civilians, including women and children. Obama had warned Assad in 2012 that doing this would be crossing a red line. The only nation willing to back the U.S. in using military force was France (derided as the seller of “freedom fries” during the Bush era). Britain’s parliament voted against participation, and the American people overwhelmingly opposed involvement in a third Middle East conflict. Congress refused to authorize military action by Obama. The Republican Congressional war dogs made macho denunciations of Assad, but wouldn’t vote to authorize U.S. military action against the Syrian tyrant.

Chollet cited other problems related to using military force to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons. There were 50 sites containing 1,300 pounds of chemical weapons, dispersed around Syria. Neutralizing these would require heavy air and naval attacks along with 75,000 ground troops. There was a danger Assad’s military would collapse under such an assault, and hundreds of tons of chemical weapons fall into the hands of ISIS/Al-Qaeda. After U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry remarked that the matter could be resolved by Assad giving up his weapons, the crisis was resolved diplomatically.

Chollet writes: “Without a bomb being dropped, Syria admitted to having a massive chemical weapons program it had never before acknowledged, agreed to give it up, and submitted to a multinational coalition that removed the weapons and destroyed them in a way that had never been tried before.”

Obama lost face because he drew the red line and didn’t take military action against Syria. But he achieved the maximalist objective of disarming Syria. Reagan faced a similar situation when 250 Marines were massacred in Lebanon by terrorists in 1982. Instead of doubling down, Reagan prevented America from getting dragged into a quagmire by “redeploying” the surviving Marines to ships offshore. Both Presidents did what was best for their country, even if it meant a personal loss of face.

Bin Laden and the drones

Obama’s Presidency reached its pinnacle in May 2011 when Seal Team Six descended upon Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed the Al-Qaeda leader. Few Americans knew that Obama had played a key role in planning the mission. The plan originally call for the Seals to go in without helicopter backups. Obama insisted that backup helicopters be situated in reserve not far from Abbottabad. These proved crucial when one of the Seal helicopters crashed while landing.

Obama used the same strategic approach to get America out of Iraq and Afghanistan that Richard Nixon used to get the U.S. out of Vietnam: advance the air power while withdrawing the troops. Nixon used B-52s and laser guided ordinance to bomb North Vietnam into signing a peace treaty. Obama sent American drones on hundreds of missions to kill Al-Qaeda and associated terrorist leaders. Some criticized this because of the civilians killed in the drone strikes. However, by and large, it did disrupt Al-Qaeda’s ability to launch mass casualty attacks on the U.S. homeland.

The Russian Reset, Part I

With all the noise being generated over Trump and Vladimir Putin, Obama’s “reset” with Russia has been widely viewed as a failure. However, when the policy was first implemented in 2009, it did lead to some successes. This was due to the fact that Putin was not the Russian President; Dimitri Medvedev was, and he wanted to work with the United States. With Medvedev’s help, the U.S. organized the sanctions against Iran; agreed to destroy one third of Russia’s nuclear arsenal; supported setting up supply lines to Afghanistan that avoided a volatile Pakistan; and voted with the U.S. during the U.N. debate authorizing the use of military force against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Now, let’s look at some of shortcomings of Obama’s Presidency.

Syria

According to the mainstream media, upwards of 500,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war and millions have fled to Europe. Obama appears to have done what he could diplomatically to stop the carnage. But faced with the obduracy of Syrian President Assad, the lack of allies who supported intervening in Syria, the U.S. had no good choices. If it supported Assad, the U.S. would be siding with a blood thirsty dictator. If Obama opposed Assad, ISIS and Al Qaeda might take control of the country. His critics charged that he could have supported moderate Syrians earlier, but there was a problem with vetting these groups.

What Obama should have done is establish no fly zones in Syria where Syrians fleeing the conflict could be protected. This would also have stopped large masses of Syrians from fleeing to Europe.

Iraq

When America troops left in 2011, Iraq by and large was peaceful. The emergence of ISIS could not have been foreseen by any American President. It was with a few thousand guerillas that ISIS attacked and conquered huge swaths of Syria and Iraq. In Mosul, with its million residents, stated Wikipedia, “the Iraqi army had 30,000 soldiers stationed in the city, facing a 1,500-member attacking force.” With such favorable odds, the ISIS force should have been smashed. Instead, the 30,000 Iraqi soldiers abandoned their U.S. equipment and fled.

Few were clairvoyant enough to anticipate the total ineffectiveness of Iraq’s armed forces, equipped with billions of dollars in U.S. military equipment. From a few thousand fighters, ISIS grew to an armed force of 30,000 men as wannabe Jihadists from Europe and the Middle East swelled their ranks. They were armed with the American weapons left behind by the fleeing Iraqi army.

Libya

In 2011 there was yet another U.S. intervention on “humanitarian” grounds in Libya that turned into a mission to overthrow Gaddafi. After Gaddafi was killed, Libya descended into anarchy as warring factions fought each other. The U.S. was prodded into action on Libya by its European allies; Obama should have insisted on a post-war NATO occupation force from these allies to assist Libyans in setting up a stable government.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposed intervening in Libya, saying: “Can I just finish the two wars we’re already in before you go looking for new ones?”

The Russian Reset, Part II

In 2012 Vladimir Putin took back his old job of Russian President. Putin’s animus against Hillary Clinton stems from this episode; Putin apparently believes that Clinton ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to clandestinely block his return to the Russian Presidency. In any event, Obama’s measures to persuade Putin to stay out of Syria and the Ukraine were unsuccessful, and this must be regarded as another Obama shortcoming.

Closing thoughts

History will give a much fuller judgment on Obama when the facts become available. Since Obama’s foreign policy was set up with the intention of yielding long term benefits, a historical perspective will be necessary to evaluate Obama. The failures he had, particularly in the Middle East, rose from his fervent desire to keep the U.S. out of another war.

Obama may well be remembered by historians for two things that didn’t happen on his watch. First, he kept the economy from imploding. The car industry was saved, the banking system made solvent, and a slow but painful process of economic revival took place. Second, he didn’t get sucked into another quagmire like Iraq. The 175,000 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been reduced to 15,000. Yes, it wasn’t a perfect Presidency. But considering the near collapse of the economy in 2008, Obama did well in keeping America from falling into the abyss of a second Great Depression, and from being drawn into another grinding war. History is likely to view Barack Obama very kindly.

InCity Times Book Review

The Iran Wars

By Jay Solomon, (2016, Random House, 336 Pages)

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

Two of the biggest issues that will bedevil the incoming Trump administration will be the rogue state of Iran and the nuclear deal signed by the Obama Administration in July 2015. This timely book by Jay Solomon entitled “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East” is a well written and easy to read account of how we got to this point.

“The Iran Wars” reviews the history of how the United States first sent nuclear technology to Iran during the reign of the Shah, then a U.S. ally. The technology was inherited by the Mullahs after they overthrew the Shah in 1979.

Assassination and Stuxnet

Neither the United States nor Israel wanted to see Iran build nuclear weapons. They resorted to two state tools which have become unfortunately commonplace in today’s world: Assassination and Espionage.

Richard Nixon once said the Israeli Mossad is the best intelligence agency in the world. The shadow war with Iran gave them the opportunity to prove it. With orders to stop the Iranian nuclear program by any means, Mossad infiltrated its agents into the Iranian capital, Tehran, and assassinated several Iranian scientists working on the project.

Enraged, Iran tried to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States in retaliation. In the convoluted world of Middle Eastern politics, the Iranians did this on the theory that the United States was an ally of Israel, and Saudi Arabia was an ally of the U.S.

There was no direct link between Saudi Arabia and the assassinations in Tehran. This incident is worth noting, if for no other reason, as demonstrating the paranoid mindset of those ruling Iran today.

Next the U.S. and Israel launched a cyber-attack on Iran using a malware program named “Stuxnet.” This program was written in a fashion so it would only infect centrifuges in Iran’s atomic plants. It succeeded in delaying Iran’s processing of sufficient uranium to construct an atomic bomb by causing the centrifuges to spin at high speeds and break. This is believed to be the first cyber-attack in history by one nation state against another.

The Rial War

Connoisseurs of spy novels or movies will find the chapter entitled “The Rial War” fascinating. The “Rial” is the Iranian currency. The US launched a financial war against the Iranians. It was the most successful effort against the Iranian regime since 1979.

The international oil market is conducted entirely in American dollars. Treasury Under-Secretary Stuart Levey figured out financial institutions doing business with Iran could be damaged if they were denied access to the U.S. currency. As Solomon put it: “Treasury knew that major businesses simply couldn’t function without access to U.S. dollars, the world’s default currency. Treasury could force foreign firms to choose between doing business with the United States or conducting it with rogue states and criminal enterprises. To most, the decision was a no-brainer.”

Solomon thereafter takes readers through a labyrinth of disreputable banks in the Caymans and Luxembourg, straw fronts, paper corporations, and the other denizens of the financial netherworld. The Iranians used accounts within accounts, false charitable shells, and other subterfuges to hide their illicitly obtained dollars.

Treasury started out by choking off the banks and corporations suppling Iran material and technology to further their nuclear program.

Next, they cracked down on the banks which assisted Iran’s sale of oil on the black market.

Finally, they froze billions of Iranian dollars in U.S. banks on American territory. The value of the Rial went down 30% in one day.

Some 70% of the Iranians’ budget came from oil revenues. When the oil market cratered, Iran’s economy began to collapse, tens of thousands of Iranians were laid off, and Iran came to the nuclear talks in 2013 as an economic basket case.

Nuclear Treaty

In July 2015 Iran, the U.S. and the other P-5 powers signed the nuclear deal with Iran. Solomon believes the treaty has given the U.S. a 10-year breathing space to further disarm Iran. President-elect Donald Trump has said he intends to strictly enforce the agreement in lieu of canceling it. Americans must wait and see what Trump does before finding out how this story will conclude.

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Steve parked in YY … Iranian treaty to be a campaign issue

By Steven R. Maher

One of the biggest issues in the upcoming Presidential election will be the July 11, 2015, Iranian nuclear treaty between Iran and the “P5+1” countries (the United States, China, Russia, France, Great Britain and Germany.) While this accord has several controversial aspects to it, the alternatives offered by the pact’s opponents verge from the impractical (reinstituting stricter sanctions in the hope of a better deal, would be blocked by the other P5 nations), to the disastrous (bombing the Iranian nuclear plants would involve America in another war that would further destabilize the Middle East.)

What the U.S. got

Here is what the P-5 countries got out of the compact:

• Iran agreed, for fifteen years, to reduce its weapons grade enriched uranium from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms with a 3.67% enriched purity, a drop of 97%. Iran will not have the enriched uranium to build even one bomb.

• Iran’s centrifuges, necessary to process raw fissile material into weapons grade substance, will be reduced by two thirds. “All of the pipework that connects these centrifuges and allows them to enrich uranium will be dismantled, removed, and kept under continuous surveillance by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency),” says the White House website.

• The core of Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak was removed and filled with concrete. The plant will be redesigned to so that it will not produce weapons grade plutonium. Arak was a producer of “heavy water”, a key component to manufacture plutonium, an ingredient fueling nuclear bombs. These protocols forbid Iran from building new heavy water plants, accumulating excess heavy water, and conducting reprocessing.

• There will be a 24/7 monitoring of the key nuclear facilities of Natanz, Fordow, and Arak. Iran’s nuclear supply chain, from the receipt of raw materials from uranium mines to the storage of finished goods, will be inspected for the next 25 years.

• The pact specifies that with a maximum twenty four day notice, the P-5 nations can access any sites suspected of violating the nuclear agreement. Opponents point to this as one of the treaty’s greatest flaws. Maintains the White House: “No country in the world today permits ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections – this is a false standard that the IDEA does not employ in any country.

• “With this deal, Iran’s so-called ‘break out timeline’ – the time it would take Iran to acquire enough fissile material to for one nuclear weapon if Iran breaks its commitments – will be extended from roughly the current 2-3 months to one year during the first decade.” Presumably, the one year period would allow the P5 nations to use diplomacy or military force to prevent Iran from actually manufacturing a bomb.

• “Under this deal as well as the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran is never allowed to develop nuclear weapons,” maintains the White House. If the U.N. Security Council determines that Iran has violated the treaty, they can “snapback” the sanctions into place.

What Iran got

This is what Iran received in return:

• All economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted in four to twelve months.

• The European Union will remove all energy and banking sanctions.

• The United States will remove sanctions against foreign and domestic companies doing business with Iran.

• All U.N. resolutions sanctioning or otherwise punishing Iran will be annulled. The main benefit to Iran from this will be in the diplomatic sphere.

• Iranian assets totaling $125 billion will be unfrozen. It should be noted that this us money that belongs to Iran, but were in P-5 bank accounts frozen after American diplomats were taken hostage during the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The lifting of sanctions has benefitted American consumers as well as Iran. Low priced Iranian oil is flooding the energy market, keeping gasoline prices depressed.

Clinton and Trump

It appears that, in one form or another, this treaty is here to stay. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton negotiated with the P-5 powers to impose the sanctions that led to the treaty, which Clinton has publicly endorsed.

Donald Trump has said the U.S. could have gotten a better deal. But unlike other Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz, Trump won’t tear the treaty up. Trump’s current position is that he will rigorously enforce the agreement. Whatever Trump’s many other character flaws and policy shortcomings, at least Trump is not a bloodthirsty neocon anxious to plunge the U.S. into yet another calamitous Middle Eastern war.

The big Wikileak (Or: “Don’t play that song for me – it brings back memories”)

By Jack Hoffman

What do Angela Bennett, The New York Times, Julian Assange, Dan Ellsberg and Bradley E. Manning have in common?

Recently, while reading the latest news on the theft of 91,000 pages of TOP SECRET memos on the Afghanistan War, published in part by the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, and simultaneously watching the 1995 movie, “The NET,” I began to get that Deja vu moment once again about the Viet Nam War.

That period of time never seems to go away – especially the part about the truth being withheld from American citizens by our own government. And the media joined in on this conspiracy of lies! Continue reading The big Wikileak (Or: “Don’t play that song for me – it brings back memories”)