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Archive for July, 2011

Posted by Newshoggers.com on July 31st, 2011

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Steve Hynd

A great piece from Noah over at Danger Room:

Ground the U.S. drone war in Pakistan. Rethink the idea of spending billions of dollars to pursue al-Qaida. Forget chasing terrorists in Yemen and Somalia, unless the local governments are willing to join in the hunt.

Those aren’t the words of some human rights activist, or some far-left Congressman. They’re from retired admiral and former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair — the man who was, until recently, nominally in charge of the entire American effort to find, track, and take out terrorists. Now, he’s calling for that campaign to be reconsidered, and possibly even junked.

Starting with the drone attacks. Yes, they take out some mid-level terrorists, Blair said. But they’re not strategically effective. If the drones stopped flying tomorrow, Blair told the audience at the Aspen Security Forum, “it’s not going to lower the threat to the U.S.” Al-Qaida and its allies have proven “it can sustain its level of resistance to an air-only campaign,” he said.

It’s one of many reasons why it’s a mistake to “have that campaign dominate our overall relations” with countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. “Because we’re alienating the countries concerned, because we’re treating countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us, we are threatening the prospects of long-term reform,” Blair said.

…The reconsideration of our relationship with these countries is only the start of the overhaul Blair has in mind, however. He noted that the U.S. intelligence and homeland security communities are spending about $80 billion a year, outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet al-Qaida and its affiliates only have about 4,000 members worldwide. That’s $20 million per terrorist per year, Blair pointed out.

“You think — woah, $20 million. Is that proportionate?” he asked. “So I think we need to relook at the strategy to get the money in the right places.”

Blair mentioned that 17 Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by terrorists since 9/11 — 14 of them in the Ft. Hood massacre. Meanwhile, auto accidents, murders and rapes combine have killed an estimated 1.5 million people in the past decade. “What is it that justifies this amount of money on this narrow problem?” he asked.

Blair purposely let his own question go unanswered.

Now that's real talk.

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Posted by The Agonist on July 31st, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

July 31

The Independent – Civilians are bearing the brunt of the international forces’ onslaught against the Taliban as the coalition rushes to pacify Afghanistan before pulling out its troops, it was claimed last night.

Human rights groups warned that civilians are paying an increasingly high price for “reckless” coalition attacks, particularly aerial ones. The Ministry of Defence confirmed last week that five Afghan children were injured in an air strike carried out by a British Apache attack helicopter.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) has found that the rate of civilian casualties has reached a record high, with 1,462 killed in January to June this year. But, while the number of civilian victims of “pro-government action” fell, those who died as a result of coalition air attacks were 14 per cent higher than in the same period in 2010 – despite the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) issuing “tactical directives” designed to minimise risk to civilians.

Internal documents from the MoD’s steering group on combat identification, obtained by The Independent on Sunday, show that efforts to limit the death toll have been relegated to a “secondary consideration”, behind work to reduce the number of troops killed by “friendly fire”.

Yup, that will win hearts and minds..

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Posted by The Agonist on July 27th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

. . . the good old days when Marja was considered by everyone to be the key campaign in Afghanistan? What ever happened to that?

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Posted by The Agonist on July 27th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Kabul | July 26

AFP – Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday outlined conditions governing negotiations for a future strategic partnership with the United States as he met defence chiefs at his palace.

The new US ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, has said the US has no interest in permanent military bases in the country and does not want to project its influence in the region by remaining in Afghanistan.

But fears remain among many Afghans over any long-term American presence in the country following the departure of all foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.

Karzai said Afghanistan’s conditions included foreign forces working within Afghan legal rules, US troops not taking prisoners or maintaining jails, and an end to controversial night raids by elite commandos.

He gave no details how the demands would shape negotiations, as he addressed heads of the army, police and intelligence services in a speech marking the end of the first phase of security transitions from foreign to local forces’ control.

“There are many other conditions on the economy and sovereignty and all other aspects… and about respect to the Afghan constitution,” Karzai said.

“They also have their own conditions, but we haven’t agreed on anything yet.”

Seven parts of the country were ceremonially handed over from foreign to Afghan forces last week, although NATO officials say it will be up to two years before each area will assume full control for security and governance.

All Western combat troops are due to leave by the end of 2014.

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Posted by The Agonist on July 23rd, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

July 23

NATO hands control of Mazar-i-Sharif to Afghans

NATO troops on Saturday handed control of Afghanistan’s northern capital Mazar-i-Sharif to local forces amid rising security fears just days after it was hit by a deadly bombing.

Mazar-i-Sharif is the sixth of seven areas to transition to Afghan control, but critics say the timetable is politically motivated and scepticism is running high over Afghan abilities to ward off a trenchant Taliban insurgency.

U.S. looks to European allies for defense help

The Pentagon is looking to save some money, so it wants European allies to pick up a greater share of the defense burden, according to a story of National Public Radio. The question, NPR says, is which way to look.

U.S. Aid Money Funding Afghan Insurgents

It’s bad enough when foreign aid dollars headed for a war zone are siphoned off by government insiders and their wealthy friends before reaching the impoverished people it is meant for. But it’s doubly frustrating when it ends up in the hands of the enemy.

A scathing report issued this week by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction indicated much of the U.S. assistance has been misspent, embezzled or indirectly given to militants, due to weak oversight on the part of the U.S. and corruption at the hands of Afghan officials.

** Vanderbilt study links military service in Middle East with serious lung disorder
** Taliban hang 8-year-old boy in Afghanistan
** Rethink Afghanistan
** Anti-Taliban group kills 13 militants in Pakistan
** Iran Frowns at Strategic Deal between US, Afghanistan
** Old War, New General in Afghanistan

Please check comments for related articles

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Posted by Peace Action West on July 22nd, 2011

From our partners at Peace Action West

We are happy to be cosponsoring an event in August with renowned activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly. If you’re in the Portland area, please come out for an inspiring night.

Kathy Kelly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq: The Costs of War, the Price of Peace
Friday, August 5th 
7:00pm
Moriarty Arts Building Auditorium
Portland Community College Cascade
705 NE Killingsworth (at Albina), Portland, OR
Free of charge

Kelly, the co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, has a wealth of experience that will surely make for an interesting talk:

Kathy traveled to Afghanistan three times in 2010, working closely with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in search of non-military solutions to end the war. In 2009, she lived in Gaza during the Operation Cast Lead bombing; later that year, Voices visited Pakistan, aiming to learn more about the effects of U.S. drone warfare. Kathy and her companions lived in Baghdad throughout the 2003 “Shock and Awe” bombing. From 1996 to 2003, Voices activists formed 70 delegations that openly defied economic sanctions by bringing medicines to children and families in Iraq. Kathy also headed to Gaza on the “Freedom Flotilla II” in June 2011, and was prevented from visiting Palestine both by sea and after flying into Israel.

With increasing calls for the troops to come home from Afghanistan, a looming deadline to withdraw from Iraq in December, and drone attacks reported at a rate of about twice weekly, Kelly’s talk promises to be informative and transformative.

 

You can view a flyer for the event here.

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Posted by alexthurston on July 21st, 2011

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

How Not to Make Friends in the Greater Middle East
Washington’s Singular Accomplishment

By Tom Engelhardt

In the method, there is madness; in the comedy, nightmare; in the tragedy, farce.

And despite everything, there’s still good news when it comes to what Americans can accomplish in the face of the impossible!  No, not a debt-ceiling deal in Washington.  So much better than that.

According to Thom Shanker of the New York Times, the U.S. military has gathered biometric data — “digital scans of eyes, photographs of the face, and fingerprints” — on 2.2 million Iraqis and 1.5 million Afghans, with an emphasis on men of an age to become insurgents, and has saved all of it in the Automated Biometric Information System, a vast computerized database.  Imagine: we’re talking about one of every 14 Iraqis and one of every 20 Afghans.  Who says America’s a can’t-do nation?

The Pentagon is pouring an estimated $3.5 billion into its biometric programs (2007 through 2015).  And though it’s been a couple of rough weeks when it comes to money in Washington, at least no one can claim that taxpayer dollars have been ill-spent on this project.  Give the Pentagon just another five to 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan and the biometric endeavor of a lifetime should be complete.  Then Washington will be able to identify any Iraqi or Afghan on the planet by eye-scan alone.

Be proud, America!

And consider that feat a bright spot of American accomplishment (and not the only one either) in a couple of weeks of can’t-do news from the Greater Middle East.  After all, despite those biometric scans, an assassin managed to gun down Our Man in Kandahar (OMK), Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s half-brother, in his own residence.  He was the warlord the U.S. military buddied up with as U.S. troops were surging south in 2009 and who helped bring American-style “progress” to the Taliban heartland.

Of course, before he was OMK and our great ally in southern Afghanistan, he was OEK (Our Enemy in Kandahar), the down-and-dirty, election-fixing, drug-running evil dude whom one American military official more or less threatened to take out. (“The only way to clean up Chicago is to get rid of Capone” was the way that Major General Michael Flynn, the top U.S. military intelligence officer in the country, put it at the time.)  And before he was OEK, he was CMK (the CIA’s Man in Kandahar), right up there on the Agency’s payroll; and even before that, speaking of Chicago, he was a restaurateur in that city who… but I’m losing track of my point, as Americans have a knack for doing in Afghanistan.

Anyway, as I think I was saying, OMK-OEK-CMK was assassinated by Sardar Mohammad, a man he trusted and saw six days a week, a local “police commander” who, according to the Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow, “spent years as an ally of the United States in the war against the Taliban.”  He was also reputedly a “trusted CIA contact” who had worked closely with U.S. Special Forces.  He had, so associates believe, either been turned by the Taliban in the last few months or was a long-time sleeper agent.

And then when security couldn’t have been tighter, at a service in a Kandahar mosque where hundreds (including top government officials from the region) had gathered to pay their respects to the dead capo, a suicide bomber wearing a turban-bomb somehow slipped inside and blew himself up, killing among others the chief of the Kandahar Province religious council.

In other words, even though the U.S. military tried to flood the zone in southern Afghanistan, its claims of progress and improved security are already giving way to a nowhere-to-hide Taliban world.  These events could certainly be considered the insurgency’s symbolic goodbye to General David Petraeus, the U.S. surge commander there, who was just handing over command and readying himself to return to Washington to become CIA director.  In a further sign of deteriorating security, an advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai was assassinated (along with a member of parliament) in heavily guarded Kabul when a squad of Taliban gunmen stormed his walled compound.

To look on the bright side, though, that turban bomb may prove useful indeed to the Homeland Security lobby and the Transportation Security Administration back in the U.S.  After all, it’s one more thing to strip off in airports along with the usual assortment of wallets, belts, baseball caps, and footwear; and it’s a surefire Homeland Security Department fear-stoker, hence fundraiser, to add to suppository bombs and possibly mythical but well-publicized surgically implanted bombs.  (And bad news for any Sikhs with air travel in mind.)

Franchising a No-Friends Policy

Biometrics aside, there were some other startling numbers out of the Greater Middle East recently. As it happened, some non-military types were also looking into eyes, not for retinal patterns, but patterns of thought.  Pollsters from IBOPE Zogby International checked out 4,000 sets of eyes in six Middle Eastern countries — Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco — at least five of which qualify as U.S. allies, and in none of which has the U.S. bombed, invaded, or carried out a night raid in recent memory.

And still, favorable opinion about the United States had plunged dismally since the early, heady days of the Obama presidency.  In many cases, the numbers are now below those registered in the last year of the Bush era (and you can imagine what they were).  Only 5% of post-Arab-Spring Egyptians, for instance, claimed to have a “favorable view” of the United States, and across the six countries, only 10% of respondents “described themselves as having a favorable view of Obama.”

This spring, Pew pollsters found similarly plunging favorability ratings in the Greater Middle East.  More recently, they asked Pakistanis about the CIA drone strikes in that country’s tribal borderlands and came up with a polling near-impossibility: 97% of Pakistanis looked upon them negatively!

Consider that another remarkable American accomplishment of the Obama era — creating such unity of opinion in an otherwise fractious land!

Once upon a time, of course, American accomplishments involved the building of vast highway systems or massive steel mills or even the winning of a World War, but in tougher times you take your accomplishments where you find them.  And these polls emphasize one thing: that what Washington continues to do in the Greater Middle East with relentless brilliance and on an almost unimaginable scale is to make no friends.

Nor is it just in popularity terms that Washington has been racking up mind-boggling numbers in the no-friends business.  In a study it just released, the “Costs of War” project at Brown University found that Washington’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will, in the end, eat $3.2 trillion to $4 trillion in taxpayer money — and that’s without adding in the air war in Libya (perhaps a chump-change billion dollars), the Global War on Terror (in places like Yemen and Somalia where, as Jeremy Scahill reports in the Nation magazine, the CIA is running quite a covert operation from a walled compound in the confines of Mogadishu’s international airport), our continuing frenzy of base building and ally supporting in the Persian Gulf area, military aid to the region, and so on.

In other words, not making friends in the Greater Middle East turns out to be a spectacularly budget-busting undertaking — and so an accomplishment in its own right.  And rest assured, Washington isn’t likely to settle for 10% or 5% on those favorability figures either, not when absolute perfection in unpopularity is within reach.  Just in the last weeks, in a clear effort to lower those numbers, Washington has launched air attacks in Somalia (at least two wounded), Yemen (50 dead), Pakistan (at least 48 dead), Libya (no count), and Afghanistan (at least 40, including children).  Despite what Washington officials imagine, drones are, in practice, neither precise nor effective weapons.  But they are radicalizing instruments in an American war that, again in practice, is not just on but for terror.

In the same period, ex-CIA director and now Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta landed in Iraq and promptly launched a volley of threats at the Iranians, Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Iraqi government.  Meanwhile, just to make sure Washington doesn’t lose its unique unpopularity franchise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the State Department issued a “stern warning” to and threatened prosecution of those Americans who boarded boats in the blockade-busting Gaza flotilla, almost none of which ever made it out of Greek harbors.

If those favorability numbers haven’t gone lower in the brief period since the Zogby pollsters finished their latest round of polling, one thing can be said: it wasn’t for lack of trying.

A Modern Gordian Knot

Nor should we leave the subject of no-friends franchises without making special mention of the remarkable American one in Pakistan.  Not so long ago, an elite SEAL team set off “SEAL-mania” in the U.S. by launching a strike on Osama bin Laden’s hideout-in-plain-sight in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing the al-Qaeda leader without a warning to the Pakistani government or military.  The response there seems to have been a new round of America-phobia — thus undoubtedly fulfilling bin Laden’s fondest dream: that even in death he would sink Washington deeper into the quagmire of the Greater Middle East.)

A farcical ballet followed between the Pakistani military, its intelligence services, its civilian government and the Obama administration.  The Pakistanis promptly ordered 120 U.S. special operations forces training the paramilitary Frontier Corps in those tribal areas out of the country.  It refused to issue visas for U.S. “equipment technicians” and arrested five men who had aided the CIA in tracking down bin Laden.  Washington responded with the usual “stern warnings,” accused the Pakistanis of tipping off al-Qaeda bomb-makers in those borderlands before they could be caught, and held back equipment meant for the Frontier Corps. Congress began to balk on the Pakistani aid package.

The Pakistanis, in turn, threatened to halt CIA drone flights from the biggest of the three airbases the Agency borrows in that country.  The Obama administration responded that, with or without those bases, its air campaign would go on, and then sent in the drones repeatedly to hammer the point home.  It also held back $800 million in military aid — not enough to truly matter, but just enough to further tick off the Pakistanis.  Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar jabbed back by threatening to withdraw his country’s troops from the Afghan border areas.  “We cannot afford to keep our military out in the mountains for such a long period of time,” he said in a TV interview.  Meanwhile, envoys ferried back and forth with the usual grab bag of threats, bribes, pleas, and meaningless statements of unity between allies.  And so it went.

Think of the Washington-Islamabad relationship, wrapped in the disaster of the Afghan War, as a classic can’t-live-with-‘em-or-without-‘em marriage made in hell.  Or, if you prefer, think of it, now so many decades and two Afghan wars old, as a kind of Gordian knot.

In 333 BC, with a single swift stroke of his sword, Alexander the Great famously solved the problem of a knot on an ox cart in Gordium (in modern Turkey) that no one could untie.  He sliced it open, so the story goes, in what has always been considered an ingenious response to an otherwise insoluble problem.

America’s Gordian knot in Pakistan, as in Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East, is beyond untying. Hold back that $800 million, send in the drones, cajole, plead, threaten, issue stern warnings, train, equip, bribe, kill.  None of it does the trick.  None of it will.  Alexander would have known what to do.  Washington is clueless.

Thought about a certain way, this might be the ultimate American accomplishment of the present moment.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by The Agonist on July 19th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Julius Cavendish | Kabul | July 20

The IndependentShadowy, unaccountable forces accused of human rights abuses

Covert forces of CIA-trained Afghan paramilitaries are being built up to continue the US-led war on the Taliban as thousands of US troops prepare to leave the country.

Members of one shadowy group of some 400 men in southern Kandahar province have given The Independent a unique insight into their training and secret operations against militants as foreign troops prepare to quit Afghanistan by 2014.

Senior figures within one of the forces revealed that they were taught hand-to-hand combat by foreign military advisers, were delivered to targets by US Black Hawk helicopters and have received a letter of thanks from President Hamid Karzai for their work.

Despite their apparent military successes, one of the groups, the Kandahar Strike Force, has been dogged by rights abuse allegations that have raised questions about their role when their foreign handlers leave the country.

[...]

Under a revamped counterterror strategy released on 28 June, the US said it intended to “ensure the rapid degradation of al-Qa’ida’s leadership structure” – and those of its adherents – using covert tactics going “beyond traditional intelligence, military, and law-enforcement functions”.

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Posted by The Agonist on July 18th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Paul Tait | Jun 18

Reuters – General David Petraeus, Washington’s new intelligence chief, handed over command of U.S. and NATO-led troops in Afghanistan Monday, a day after a tentative start was made to a gradual process of transferring security to Afghan forces.
Petraeus, credited with reversing a spiral toward civil war in Iraq, took over in Afghanistan a year ago after his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, was sacked by President Barack Obama for comments made in a magazine story.

He is leaving the military to take over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency as part of a wider shake-up of senior U.S. security officials and takes over from Leon Panetta, the new U.S. defense secretary.

Petraeus, who hands over to U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen, oversaw a “surge” of 30,000 extra U.S. forces which helped stop the momentum of a growing insurgency, especially in the Taliban heartland in the south. He led a similar escalation of forces that helped turn around the Iraq conflict in 2007-08.

However, despite gains in violent southern provinces during Petraeus’ year in charge, the Taliban-led insurgency is still far from quelled.

Violence across Afghanistan in 2010 hit its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led Afghan forces in 2001, with civilian and military casualties hitting record levels, and this year has followed a similar trend.

Stop the momentum? He must have forgot to inform the Taliban.

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Posted by alexthurston on July 18th, 2011

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Here in Washington, everyone, it seems, has an idea about how to solve Washington’s debt drama. Many Democrats, including the White House, want a “balanced” deal, a $4-trillion grab-bag that mixes spending cuts and new revenues achieved through closing tax loopholes or ending tax breaks. Top Republicans in Congress want all cuts and no tax hikes, while the GOP’s Tea Party wing in the House of Representatives opposes raising the nation’s $14.3-trillion debt ceiling at all, seeing default and economic catastrophe as the chosen path to an American reckoning for a profligate government.

There’s one group, however, we’ve heard little from: Republican presidential candidates. When they’ve spoken up at all, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and the rest have largely ducked, hewing to the party line on the policy battle gripping the nation’s capital. Only Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the flame-throwing leader of Congress’s Tea Party caucus, has loudly rejected any debt ceiling increase unless Democrats agree to a Christmas-in-July deal that would slash spending to the bone and repeal President Obama’s health insurance reform bill. Godspeed, Michele.

Presidential candidates live and die by polling data, and so it’s not surprising they’ve been relatively mum on the debt talks. After all, majorities of Americans in multiple polls support a mix of spending cuts and tax increases (and oppose any meddling with the Social Security system, Medicare, or Medicaid). A GOP candidate who stumped for tax increases in a red-hot state like Iowa could count on kissing his White House dreams goodbye, but going too strongly on the record against revenue raising could be unhealthy in a race against President Obama next year.

On the other hand, Muslim-bashing as a campaign tactic is an absolute no-brainer, a surefire way to win over the far right, get attention, and triumph in elections — or is it? Sometimes, common knowledge is so common that no one bothers to check it out, and sometimes it’s wrong.  So prepare yourself for a surprise when, alone among his journalistic peers, TomDispatch regular Stephan Salisbury explores just how effective railing against Islam has actually been in past election campaigns and the role it might play in 2012. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses the changing feelings of Americans regarding Muslims and Islam in the context of the 2012 election, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Andy Kroll

Islam-Baiting Doesn’t Work
It Failed in Campaign 2010 and Will Do Worse in 2012

By Stephan Salisbury

During the 2010 midterm election campaign, virtually every hard-charging candidate on the far right took a moment to trash a Muslim, a mosque, or Islamic pieties. In the wake of those elections, with 85 new Republican House members and a surging Tea Party movement, the political virtues of anti-Muslim rhetoric as a means of rousing voters and alarming the general electorate have gone largely unchallenged. It has become an article of faith that a successful 2010 candidate on the right should treat Islam with revulsion, drawing a line between America the Beautiful and the destructive impurities of Islamic cultists and radicals.

“Americans are learning what Europeans have known for years: Islam-bashing wins votes,” wrote journalist Michael Scott Moore in the wake of the 2010 election. His assumption was shared by many then and is still widely accepted today.

But as the 2012 campaign ramps up along with the anti-Muslim rhetoric machine, a look back at 2010 turns out to offer quite an unexpected story about the American electorate. In fact, with rare exceptions, “Islam-bashing” proved a strikingly poor campaign tactic. In state after state, candidates who focused on illusory Muslim “threats,” tied ordinary American Muslims to terrorists and radicals, or characterized mosques as halls of triumph (and prayer in them as indoctrination) went down to defeat.

Far from winning votes, it could be argued that “Muslim-bashing” alienated large swaths of the electorate — even as it hardened an already hard core on the right.

The fact is that many of the loudest anti-Muslim candidates lost, and for a number of those who won, victory came by the smallest of margins, often driven by forces that went well beyond anti-Muslim rhetoric.  A careful look at 2010 election results indicates that Islamophobic talking points can gain attention for a candidate, but the constituency that can be swayed by them remains limited, although not insignificant.

A Closer Look

It’s worth taking a closer look. In 2010, anti-Muslim rhetoric rode in with the emergence that July of a “mosque” controversy in lower Manhattan. New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, facing indifference to his candidacy in the primary race, took up what right-wing anti-Muslim bloggers had dubbed “the Mosque at Ground Zero,” although the planned cultural center in question would not have been a mosque and was not at Ground Zero. With a handy alternate reality already sketched out for him, Lazio demanded that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, then state attorney general, “investigate” the mosque.  He implied as well that its leaders had ties to Hamas and that the building, when built, would somehow represent a threat to the “personal security and safety” of city residents.

A fog of acrid rhetoric subsequently enshrouded the campaign — from Lazio and his Tea Party-backed opponent, Carl Paladino, a Buffalo businessman. Paladino beat the hapless Lazio in the primary and was then handily dispatched by Cuomo in the general election. Cuomo had not joined the Muslim bashing, but by the end of the race, dozens of major political figures and potential Republican presidential candidates — including Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Rick Perry — had denounced the loathsome Mosque at Ground Zero and sometimes the whole of Islam. What began as a local issue had by then become a national political litmus test and a wormhole to the country’s darkest sentiments.

But the hard reality of election results demonstrated one incontrovertible fact. Both Lazio and Paladino, heavily invested in portraying Muslims as somehow different from everyone else, went down to dismal defeats. Nor could these trouncings simply be passed off as what happens in a relatively liberal northeastern state.  Even in supposed hotbeds of anti-Muslim sentiment, xenophobic rhetoric and fear mongering repeatedly proved weak reeds for candidates.

Take Tennessee, a state in the throes of its own mosque-building controversy (in Murfreesboro) at the height of the 2010 campaign.  There, gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey couldn’t slam Islam often enough. Despite raising $2.7 million, however, he went down to defeat in the Republican primary, attracting only 22% of the vote. During the campaign, Republican victor Bill Haslam, now governor, simply stated that decisions about mosques and religious construction projects should be governed by local zoning ordinances and the Constitution.

In another 2010 Tennessee race, Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tennessee Republican congressional candidate and Tea Party activist, denounced the Murfreesboro mosque plans relentlessly. Zelenik ran her campaign like an unreconstructed Indian fighter, with Muslims standing in as opponents in a frontier war.  As she typically put the matter, “Until the American Muslim community find it in their hearts to separate themselves from their evil, radical counterparts, to condemn those who want to destroy our civilization and will fight against them, we are not obligated to open our society to any of them.”

It didn’t work. Zelenik, too, was defeated, attracting 30% of the vote in a three-way primary race; the winner, state senator Diane Black, edged her out with 31%.  Black declined to denounce the Murfreesboro mosque project and went on to win the general election.

Islamophobic Failures Around the Country

The impotency of anti-Muslim rhetoric was not some isolated local phenomenon. Consider this: in the 2010 election cycle, anti-Muslim Senate candidate Sharron Angle was defeated in Nevada, and the similarly inclined Jeff Greene lost his Senate bid in Florida.  A slew of congressional candidates who engaged in anti-Muslim rants or crassly sought to exploit the Mosque at Ground Zero controversy also went down, including Francis X. Becker, Jr., in New York, Kevin Calvey in Oklahoma, Dan Fanelli and Ronald McNeil in Florida, Ilario Pantano in North Carolina, Spike Maynard in West Virginia, and Dr. Marvin Scott in Indiana.

Not all candidates bad-mouthing Muslims failed, of course. Renee Ellmers, a nurse running in North Carolina’s Second District, won her race by about 1,500 votes after airing an incendiary television spot that likened the lower Manhattan cultural center to a “victory mosque” and conflated Islam with terrorism. But Ellmers’ main campaign talking point was the abomination of health-care reform. That “victory mosque” was only a bauble-like embellishment, a dazzling attention grabber.

Similarly, Republican Rick Scott, running for governor in Florida, featured a deceptive television ad that referred to the New York project as “Obama’s mosque” and, like Ellmers’s ad, seamlessly fused Islam, terrorism, and murder. Tea Party favorite Scott, however, had a slight advantage in gaining a victory margin of about one percentage point over Democrat Alex Sink: he poured a staggering $73 million of his own money into the race in which he largely painted Obama as an anti-business incompetent.  Despite lavishing more personal cash on the race than any candidate in Florida history, Scott won by less than 100,000 votes, falling short of 50% of the total.  He was only the second Florida governor to take office without the backing of a majority of the electorate.

If some virulent political rhetoric was credited with bringing victory to candidates at the time, its effect in retrospect looks more questionable and less impressive.  Take the victorious campaign of Republican Allen West for Florida’s 22nd Congressional District.  A Tea Party favorite quick to exploit anti-Muslim fears, he was also a veteran of the Iraq War and had been fined by the Army for the beating and threatened killing of an Iraqi prisoner.

During the campaign, he made numerous statements linking Islam with terrorism and weighed in loudly on the proposed Manhattan Islamic center more than 1,000 miles away.  In an open letter to his opponent, two-term incumbent Democrat Ron Klein, he noted that “the mosque symbolizes a clear victory in the eyes of those who brought down the twin towers.” Klein then caved and joined West in opposing the cultural center, claiming that Ground Zero should only be “a living memorial where all Americans can honor those who were killed on September 11, 2001.”

In the election, West reversed the results of his 2008 race against Klein and ever since, his victory has been seen as one of the triumphs of anti-Muslim trash talking.  A look at the numbers, however, tells a slightly different story. For one thing, West, too, had a significant financial advantage.  He had already raised more than $4 million as the campaign began, more than four times his total in 2008 and twice as much as Klein. Much of West’s funding came from out-of-state donors and conservative PACs. For all that money, however, West won the election by not “losing” as many votes as Klein did (when compared to 2008). In 2010, West won with about 115,000 votes to Klein’s 97,000; in 2008, when Klein had the funding advantage and a presidential year electorate at his back, he beat West, 169,000 to 140,000.

Off-year elections normally mean lower turnouts, which clearly worked to West’s advantage. His victory total amounted to about a third of the 2008 total vote. And there’s the point. The motivated, far-right base of the Republican Party/Tea Party can, at best, pull in about a quarter to a third of the larger electorate. In addition, West became the Definer: He blocked out the issues, agitated his base, and got people to the polls. Klein ceded the terms of the debate to him and failed to galvanize support. Did anti-Muslim rhetoric help West? Probably. Can it work in a presidential election year when substantial turnout ensures that the base won’t rule? Unlikely.

Nevertheless, candidates on the right are already ramping up the rhetoric for 2012. Herman Cain, the pizza king who would be president, is but one obvious example. He says he may not know much, but one thing he knows for sure: when he’s elected, no Muslims will find their way into his administration.

As he put it in an interview with Christianity Today, “Based upon the little knowledge that I have of the Muslim religion, you know, they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them.”  Cain told the website Think Progress that he’d brook no Muslim cabinet members or judges because “there is this creeping attempt, there’s this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government.”

Before a national television audience at a recent Republican presidential debate, however, Cain proceeded to say that he really hadn’t said what he had, in fact, said. This is called a “clarification.” What he meant, Cain reassured television viewers, was that he would only bar disloyal Muslims, the ones “trying to kill us.”

It almost seems as if candidates defeated in 2010 when using over-the-top anti-Muslim rhetoric are expecting a different outcome in 2012. Lawyer Lynne Torgerson in Minnesota is a fine example of this syndrome. In 2010, she decided to take on Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, pounding him relentlessly for his supposed “ties” to “radical Islamism.”

“And what do I know of Islam?” she wrote on the “issues” page of her 2010 campaign website.  “Well, I know of 911.” Alas for Torgerson, the strategy didn’t work out so well. She was crushed by Ellison, garnering only 3% of the vote. Now, Torgerson is back, her message even more extreme. Ellison is no longer simply tied to “radical Islamism,” whatever that may be; he has apparently used his time in Congress to become a “radical Islamist” pushing, she claims, nothing less than the adoption of  “Islamic Sharia law.”

Sharia is the New Mosque at Ground Zero

Sharia has become 2012’s Mosque at Ground Zero, with about 20 states considering laws that would ban its use and candidates shrilly denouncing it — a convenient way, presumably, to keep harping on nonexistent, yet anxiety-producing, “threats.” Since no one knows what you’re talking about when you decry Sharia, it’s even easier than usual to say anything, no matter how bizarre or duplicitous.

So be prepared to hear a lot about “Sharia” between now and November 2012.

Going forward a few things seem clear. For one, the Islamophobic machinery fueled by large rightwing foundations, PACs, individuals, and business interests will continue to elaborate a virtual reality in which Muslim and Islamic “threats” lurk around every American corner and behind every door. It is important to realize that once you’ve entered this political landscape, taking down anti-Muslim “facts” with reality is a fool’s errand.  This is a realm akin to a video game, where such “facts” are dispatched only to rise again like so many zombies. In the world of Resident Evil, truth hardly matters.

But bear in mind that, as the 2010 election results made clear, that particular virtual reality is embraced by a distinct and limited American minority.  For at least 70% of the electorate, when it comes to anti-Muslim slander, facts do matter. Failure to challenge the bogus rhetoric only allows the loudest, most reckless political gamer to set the agenda, as Ron Klein discovered to his dismay in Florida.

Attacks on the deadly threat of Sharia, the puffing up of Muslim plots against America, and the smearing of candidates who decline to make blanket denunciations of “Islamism” are sure to emerge loudly in the 2012 election season. Such rhetoric, however, may prove even less potent at the polls than the relatively impotent 2010 version, even if this reality has gone largely unnoticed by the national media.

For those who live outside the precincts where right-wing virtual reality reigns supreme, facts are apparently having an impact.  The vast majority of the electorate seems to be viewing anti-Muslim alarms as a distraction from other, far more pressing problems: real problems.

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses the changing feelings of Americans regarding Muslims and Islam in the context of the 2012 election, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Stephan Salisbury

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