Tag Archives: Terrorism

Monday’s Mtg: Is it time to rethink U.S.-Saudi relations?

American discomfort with its relationship with Saudi Arabia has been growing for many years. It’s not just a result of 9/11. Human rights, democracy promotion, and gender equality play larger roles in U.S. foreign policy than they used to do. The Arab Spring, which the Saudi regime fiercely opposed, spurred at least a faint hope that the Middle East could one day get long without a brutal theocracy and exporter of radical ideology at its center.

Yet, the same obstacles to downgrading our de facto Saudi alliance that have led every president since FDR to rely on it. Saudi Arabia is the only big oil producer with enough reserves and spare refining capacity to maintain supplies to the West and keep prices from fluctuating wildly. The House of Saud has been a pro-American (in its policies, if not in rhetoric or support for radicals) anchor of stability in a troubled Middle East. This has been especially true since 1979 when the revolutionaries toppled our only big secular Arab ally, the Shah of Iran; and it’s been reinforced recently as Bush/Cheney’s hope to install a stable pro-Western regime in Iraq turned to ashes. Also, despite its long-time support for radicalism, the Saudi government has been relatively tolerant of Israel in recent years, hostile to Iran, and since 9/11 willing to help us fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Now comes President Donald Trump.  As they say in the Middle East, oy, vey.

It is very hard to know where Trump stands on most any foreign policy issue or how long he will stand there. But, so far Trump appears to be doubling down on Saudi Arabia. As the articles below explain, Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. They lavished Trump with praise, awards, and gifts, and as a result he appears to have green lit the Kingdom’s blockade of one neighbor (Qatar) and continued savage war against another (Yemen). Trump also reportedly really, really wants to abrogate the nuclear treaty with Iran, which the Saudi government absolutely would love since it is locked in a virtual Cold War with Tehran and desires our support.

I think all of this leaves us with a few basic questions and partial answers, such as…


  1. What major interests do we have in common and not in common with the Saudi government?
  2. Has that changed recently? What is Saudi govt trying to accomplish domestically and abroad? Is it achievable? Risky? Good for us?
  3. What is Trump doing? It is a coherent policy shift or more of a whim?
  4. Will these changes hold; i.e., can a president fundamentally change the U.S.-Saudi relationship, or do its roots run deeper?
  5. How, specifically, could we downgrade the U.S.-Saudi relationship? Range of possible consequences, including Riyadh’s and others’ responses.


Pre-Trump –

Trump –

After Trump –

  • U.S.-Saudi relationship will survive Trump because for better or worse we’re stuck with each other.

NEXT WEEK: Does Big Money really control U.S. politics?


Monday’s Mtg: Are We Paying Too High a Price to Combat Terrorism?

What better way to start the New Year than by debating an impossibly complicated question? How in the world could we judge the benefits and costs of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? I still call it the GWOT because, even though President Obama mercifully retired the clunky phrase in 2013, it remains an apt description of the sheer scope and scale of our anti-terrorism efforts.

The easiest measure of anything government does is its budgetary costs. For the GWOT, even that is hard to gauge. That’s partly because some spending is secret but mainly because anti-terrorism is an embedded function throughout government at all levels now and it’s hard to separate out the anti-terrorism spending. Almost 1,300 government organizations and 2,000 private companies work on anti-terrorism. One estimate puts total GWOT spending since 9/11 at around $1.7 trillion and others put the long-term costs (inc. caring for the disabled vets) at more than $4T. Critics often express such monetary costs in terms of the opportunities foregone to have spent the money solving America’s other problems or leaving it in taxpayers’ hands.

There have been many, many other costs to fighting Islamist terrorism, of course. 5,000+ American dead and 50,000-100,000 wounded (excluding 9/11 casualties and the, ahem, 1 million or so foreign civilians.). Weakened civil liberties and creation of a vast surveillance state. Accrual of unilateral presidential power. A fearful electorate. Loss of respect for American leadership.  There are many more, some serious, others perhaps not.

Yet, we cannot ignore the benefits of anti-terrorism efforts. Al Qaeda has been decimated over 15 years and (for the moment) largely is reduced to rooting for lone wolf attacks by extremist social media junkies. ISIS, AQ’s rival and wannabe successor is slowly being rolled back, although at great cost. Our government has prevented all but a handful of Islamist terrorist attacks planned on U.S. soil since 9/11. Anti-terror efforts also have yielded other benefits that are less visible, like a revamping of public health and emergency response/disaster relief infrastructure and greatly improved international intelligence-sharing and money laundering enforcement.

What’s the bottom line?  Well, that is for us to discuss. But, a few points  I will come back to during our discussion:

  1. There is a reason they call it “asymmetrical warfare.” The costs of defending against terrorist attacks are inevitably huge compared to the damage of any single attack.
  2. The damage attacks do goes far beyond their immediate casualties. The public grows fearful and vengeful.  Politicians panic.  Democracies get brittle and fragile. How much crazier would our politics be if other 9/11-scale attacks had succeeded or if we had Europe’s ISIS problem?  In comparing costs to benefits of anti-terrorism, we have to look at the dogs that haven’t barked, too.
  3. The GWOT is far larger than the catastrophic Iraq war.  How would you judge counter-terrorism had we not invade Iraq?
  4. President Trump will soon control our vast surveillance and counter-terrorism apparatus.

I’m still pondering ways to structure our meeting to accomplish more than just let us serially vent about our biggest war on terror pet peeves (Iraq, torture, NSA, not preventing ISIS’s rise, drones, etc.)  Later this weekend I will try to do some discussion questions that might help us. Have a good New Year!

(AND, start thinking about topic ideas for 2017!)


  1. TBD


NEXT WEEK:  The coming tidal wave of elderly prisoners.

Monday’s Mtg: The Sources of Islamist Radicalism.

In a new century of dizzying changes, the Middle East remains the world’s most unstable and destabilizing region. More than a dozen large and strategically important countries were frozen in time for half a century by their cruel, post-colonial autocrats and the corrupt, hypertrophic states they created to cling to power. A great thaw is inevitable and can only be welcomed. Despite the violence and disappointments of the aborted Arab Spring five years ago, the Ancien Régimes’ days are all numbered. The urgent question we will consider on Monday is what will replace them?

The consensus I read is that, at least for a while, the heirs to power in many of these nations will be “Islamist” political parties.  Islamism, or political Islam, refers to the philosophy that the legal and political systems in a Muslim country must be based on Islamic principles. Obviously, since no society ever agrees on exact religious principles, there is no single Islamist set of beliefs or unified movement (despite the dreams of Al Qaeda and ISIS). Each country has multiple, competing Islamist parties and/or social movements that represent different philosophies, sects, ethnic groups, and societal interests.

Are any of them compatible with democracy and a peaceful foreign policy? Well, so far the most radical and even revolutionary and terroristic Islamist movements have gained the strongest positions. These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and – most hideously – ISIS and other Al Qaeda offshoots in Syria and parts of Sunni Iraq. And let’s not forget the crusty old radical Shiite regime in Iran and the new one we created in Iraq, or the radicalized messes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But, there is hope. More moderate Islamist political parties are sprinkled throughout the Middle East. Most notably, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has won elections in Turkey for a decade, mostly in a democratic manner. Still, I’m not sure any one is confident that Islamist political parties can become or remain democratic – especially in the traumatized, divided, and chaotic nations they will inherit all over the Middle East.

So, I thought we could start with the most basic and probably most important question: What are the sources – the causes – of radical Islamism?  I’ll open with some brief remarks on (1) the main strains of radical Islam, and (2) conventional wisdom on the main drivers of that radicalism. I hope we can discuss the role religion plays in spurring Muslim radicalism without getting stuck in the stupid gear that our political system is stuck in, “Is the Islam religion itself the sole cause of radicalism and terrorism, Y/N?” Islam plays a big role, sure. But, what role, why, and what else contributes?


Next Week:   The Supreme Court and the 2016 election. 

Monday’s Mtg: Will the U.S. Government Ever Torture Again?

On his first day in office, President Obama banned torture via an executive order. This past summer the Senate voted to outlaw torture for good a part of a routine Defense Department funding bill. It’s not law yet since the House is hostage-taking per usual. But, it will become law.

So, a mere 15 years after the Bush White House ordered torture on a large scale in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and around the world. (If you doubt it read the links below.), is that it?  Was our one-presidential administration experiment with torture as a deliberate national policy just a one-off affair and a fading memory? Or, could it happen all over again?  After all:

  • Torture was illegal in 2001, too, and that didn’t stop them;
  • No senior U.S. government officials were ever prosecuted for ordering torture and only a few low-level people were convicted of performing it;
  • The public approved of using torture or, at best, was easily persuaded either it wasn’t really torture or torture was necessary to protect the country;
  • The torture regime’s main architects are openly boastful of how limited and necessary it was; and
  • Republican politicians – including some presidential candidates – say openly they would torture again if “necessary.”

On the other hand, reviving a torture regime might be hard to do in the future, no matter who wins which elections. A lot of thoughtful people in our political system understand what a mess the Bush torture regime was and that our country paid a high price for fairy limited (but NOT zero) benefits. All of those investigations of torture – by the Senate Intelligence committee, Amnesty international and other outside organizations, and the news media – have been pretty damning. It’s not at all clear to me that we would adjure torture if the circumstances were favorable to it (climate of fear, despised enemies, panicked leaders, etc.).  I predict a good discussion..

I’m also hoping that we will focus more on the future conditions that might lead to a repeat of torture, rather than on stale debates over its efficacy  Of course, focusing on the future requires understanding why we tortured in the first place, So, I will open the meeting with a brief retrospective on what the torture regime consisted of and why it was done.

A new topic list will be available, too.

Discussion Questions –

  1. WHY: What led the USG to adopt torture on a large scale after 9/11? Which individuals and institutions failed?
  2. WHAT: How widespread was the torture and was it really administered in a careful and controlled manner, as torture’s advocates insist?
  3. WORKED? Why do some say torture “worked?” How has this argument been refuted?
  4. FUTURE: Under what conditions would pressure build to do it all over again? Which individuals and institutions would have to fail again?
  5. YOU & ME: What role will public opinion play if we face this choice again? Will memories of the post-9/11 torture help or hurt?

Suggested Background Readings –

Next Week: Democratic Presidential Debate Wrap-Up (New Schedule Begins)

Monday’s Mtg: Which Natural or Human-Made Catastrophes Should Most Worry Us?

This one is a fun albeit a bit dark topic idea from Bruce. Our meeting Monday is three days after 9/11, and a mass casualty terrorist attack is a real possibility. (ISIS is using chemical weapons as we speak.). Preventing another 9/11 or worse has been a necessary obsession of the national establishment every hour of every day for many years now.

But, what about other natural or human-caused catastrophes, Bruce asks? Which one(s) of them should also concern us a lot and which ones really just belong on overwrought History Network episodes or in Zombie Apocalypse movies? Obviously, climate change should be high up on the list. Many people think it IS the list. Others are long-standing fears, like nuclear war, pandemics, and mega-earthquakes. Still others are more cutting edge and speculative, like a disaster stemming from nanotechnology or out-of-control artificial intelligence.  We could all end up being Sarah Connor.

For Monday, I would like us to do better than a History channel episode by focusing on something more tangible than scary speculation: Disaster risk assessment and planning. Disaster preparation is a vast field, and was high priority long before 9/11. (Visit FEMA’s website to get a hint of the scale and scope of it.)  The first article I link to below summarizes a study that, I think, analyzes the risks of different big cats in a systematic way. I will read it and other basic stuff on disaster planning and try to open our meeting with some information on how the pros worry about these things.

We are discussing climate change on October 5, but the focus will be on ongoing international negotiations, not projected impacts. So, the links on climate this week are brief and concern the risks of not acting (which are often ignored, BTW).

Discussion Questions –

  1. Which ones: What are the worst natural or human-made catastrophes that experts fear could occur? What is the conventional wisdom on their probability and impacts?
  2. Assessing Risk: Whose job (in govt and the private and non-profit sectors) is it to assess these risks? How do they do it?
  3. Prevention I: Who is doing what? How do we know it’s enough?
  4. Prevention II: How willing are Americans to pay for disaster prevention and have their lives inconvenienced to prepare for them?
  5. Responses: How do you think Americans would react if a big catastrophe struck us? How would it change our politics?


Next Week: Natural rights’ existence and implications.

Monday’s Mtg: Who Is To Blame for Iraq and Syria?

Our group has been debating the Middle East’s problems since we formed more than a decade ago (!). Most recently, we discussed the failures of the Arab Spring (2/14) and the rise of ISIS (9/14). (I thought these posts had some good links, BTW.) In those meetings, I steered us away from blaming individual actors (like Iraqi leadership, U.S. presidents, Iran and other regional meddlers) in favor of structural and historical factors. This made our discussions a bit incomplete, since there is plenty of blame to pass around, obviously. But, the blame game is not very conducive to civilized conversation.

Now, the luxury of avoiding assigning blame is ending. Who “lost” Iraq and Syria (not to mention Libya, Egypt, etc.) is going to move to front and center as the 2016 presidential election gets closer. With the economy recovering and Obamacare and marriage equality now settled law, the Republican Party is widely expected to try to make 2016 a foreign policy election. Why? Much of the Middle East – especially Iraq and Syria – is a genuine catastrophe. Plus national security is the one issue area where the public consistently trusts the GOP more than the Democrats. So, they are going to try to hang ISIS and the whole of the Middle East’s problems around Hillary Clinton’s, ex-Secretary of State neck.

There is a certain nationalistic narcissism to these arguments. The United States does not control the fate of the Middle East and it’s pretty arrogant to think we ever could unilaterally summon some pre-fabricated peaceful future for the region.

Still, it should go without saying that we are high up on the list of culprits, at least concerning Iraq. Bush’s invasion and our decade-long occupation unleased that nation’s Pandora’s Box of horrors and barred the country’s throat to outside subversion. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians died and millions fled. Al Qaeda infiltrated and is still there, as are Iranian- and Saudi-backed armed groups. Sunnis and Shiites fought one bloody civil war in 2004-06 and basically started fighting another one the moment we left. ISIS is the hideous result of that decade of war and infighting. Syria is different. No one can say the United States caused the civil war, and maybe no one could have stopped the 6-years of slaughter or prevented ISIS’s rise. But, if anyone could have, it was us and we did not really try.

So, I think a backwards-looking meeting assigning blame for Iraq and Syria is important and not just because of campaign politics. It’s the only way to hold our leaders accountable for their actions (or inactions) and learn from our mistakes.

On Monday, you don’t need me to rehash the last 15 years of U.S. Middle East policy. But, I will try to open with something useful to frame our discussion. Probably I’ll just bring us up to speed on recent events and then list the main candidates for culprit-hood in Iraq and Syria. You all can let me know if you want us to focus mainly on the U.S. role in Iraq and Syria’s problems or more on actors inside Iraq and Syria and regional meddlers like Iran and Saudi Arabia.


  1. Who do the American people blame for Iraq and Syria? Why do you think they assign blame in this way?
  2. Iraq:
    1. Why couldn’t Iraqis reconcile in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq? Who besides Iraqis is to blame for that? What specifically did Bush do or not do to screw things up and what should he have done?
    2. Could action by Obama have prevented ISIS’ rise? How so?
  3. Syria:
    1. What caused the long, bloody stalemate?
    2. What specifically were U.S. options for intervening?
    3. Is it realistic to think we would have made a difference?
  4. To what extent are other outsiders (Iran, Arab governments) to blame for Iraq and Syria? Could the United States have kept them from meddling?
  5. What are the big lessons here for future U.S. foreign policy?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READINGS –  Lots of them! Pick and choose. 

NEXT WEEK:  Is there a looming Retirement Crisis?

Monday’s Mtg: The Causes of Modern Wars

People have debated the causes of war for as long as they have been fighting them. Since Middle East madness is on the front news burner, I thought it might be useful for us to discuss some of the basic thinking on what causes political violence and warfare and whether they are waxing or waning, and whether those factors might be joined by new ones in the 21st century.

In modern times, most attention has been paid to the causes and dynamics of inter-state wars, wars between nations. I am not very familiar with this body of work. Much of it either is in in books or gated at academic sites or the major national security-oriented journals. But, it’s not hard to guess the basic culprits they identify, like nationalism, imperialism, religion, resource acquisition, etc. Other factors they debate are more subtle, especially those that have to do with the dynamics of international alliances, globalization’s effects, and aggressor states’ internal political struggles. As the links this week indicate, new factors could come into play, notably climate stress and reactions against globalization’s further disruptions, and more failed states.

I will open the meeting with…very little this week. You all know your history and I don’t know this field of scholarship. So, I guess I’ll just introduce the topic and highlight a few of the “new” factors that might be added to the classic causes of war we all can list. In discussion, we can either stay abstract or debate particular hot spots where we all expect trouble to brew in the coming decades.

It was very hard to find good links this week, due to the books and pay walls problem. Try the recommended ones or the harder, optional ones.


Next Week: Big Agriculture in the USA.

Monday’s Mtg: Wahhabism and Its Influence On Islam

Carl suggested we talk about Wahhabism. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist and highly puritanical strain of Islam that became anchored in Saudi Arabia two centuries ago. Throughout the 20th century, the Saudi royal family used its vast oil wealth and political influence derived from their control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to spread this once-obscure theology around the Middle East and beyond. Wahhabism’s theology and world-view are a potent influence behind a lot of the political extremism that plagues Islam today. Since 9/11, Saudi Arabia’s exporting of Wahhabism has been fingered as one of the Middle East’s biggest problems. To top it off, the sudden rise of ISIS last year and the death of Saudi Arabia’s king just last week makes Wahhabism an even timelier topic for us.

The different strains of Islamic radicalism and their many, varied causes is not a strong area of knowledge for me. So, I’ll open the meeting by just giving the briefest thumbnail of “what is Wahhabism,” and then we can right to the discussion. My main goal for the meeting is for us to develop a better understanding of the many different shades of radical Islamism. Americans tend to lump them all together into one giant, undifferentiated, monolithic menace. IMO, this type of thinking is not helpful in understanding how to distinguish and combat the true threats. I hope the background readings as well as our sharing of knowledge at the table will help us to do better. I hope we also will get into the geopolitical questions surrounding the future of Saudi Arabia and our support of it.


  1. What is Wahhabism? How in general does it differ from other Islamic theologies?
  2. Why and how (both!) did the Saudi monarchy export Wahhabism around the Middle East? Why was it so appealing to do many people?
  3. How responsible (as opposed to other factors) is the spread of Wahhabism for the region’s political extremism? If Wahhabism had never existed, how different might things be?
  4. So, now what? Can the Saudis reign in the monster they created? Do they want to? Can we influence them to do so?
  5. What is the future of Saudi Arabia – the main counterrevolutionary and counter-reformatory force in the Islamic world? Do we really still need the Saudi royal family so much?


Next Week: Who Runs the Republican Party?   (Hint: If you find out let me know.)

Monday’s Mtg: Finding Iraq’s Future

As the world decides how to handle the latest disaster in Iraq, it’s our turn to discuss the future of that tortured nation.  It’s hard to know how permanent a problem the Islamic State (IS) is.  The group has been around in some form for a few years, and was formally allied with and subordinate to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) until February of this year.  It’s run by some guy who thinks he’s destined to be the Sultan of a new Islamic caliphate that will encompass the entire region.  IS is crueler and crazier than many of its peers, but radical Islamist groups are common these days, especially in the wild west that is central Iraq.

Yet, as everybody knows, in the last couple of months (and to the shock of Western intelligence agencies) IS has become a significant threat to Iraq and, probably, to the West.  IS has gone on a bloody conquest spree.  The group now controls about 1/3 of Iraq and gleefully slaughters its enemies and innocent civilians.  After IS overran Fallujah and Mosul the West woke up.  The United States began airstrikes and emergency humanitarian aid, and may have succeeded in stopping the group’s advance.  Obama and world leaders are trying furiously to come up with a plan to stop IS and eventually roll it back.  NATO met this week to decide on a course of action.

Making the stopping of IS even harder is that IS has become a major force in Syria’s ghastly, never-ending civil war.   As President Obama has admitted, no one really knows what to do to stop IS in Syria.  We have very little influence inside Syria and can have little confidence we even know who’s who exactly, plus there is no friendly government to work with.

So, IS, IS, IS.  Yet, the Islamic State is just one more manifestation of  the same basic problem that we have been staring at since we toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003: Iraq has not achieved national reconciliation between its major factions: Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and assorted other religious and ethnic minorities.  That is our real subject for Monday, IMO, along with U.S. strategy.  As Obama said, Iraq’s disunity fundamentally is a POLITICAL problem and can only be solved by Iraqis.  Obama did just engineer the ousting of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, who was part of the problem.  But, the road will be long.

I’ll explain recent events in a little more detail to open Monday’s meeting.  Then, I’ll open it up.  I hope we can speak realistically about what we can and cannot accomplish in Iraq.


  1. IS:  Who are these monsters?  What caused IS rise?  How does the IS situation both arise from Iraq’s longstanding problems and make them worse?
  2. Stopping IS:  How can the group be stopped?  Can it be rolled back or just contained?  Who should do what specifically?
    Syria:  What are our options?  Any good ones?  Would attacking IS in Syria mean we’d be supporting Assad?  Should we do it anyway?
  3. Iraq:  What are its basic political divisions and problems?  How – ideally only, let’s say – can the country find peace?
  4. U.S. culpability:  Is all of this just the fallout from Bush’s war?  Does Obama deserve any blame here?
  5. U.S. Limits:  How much influence does the United States really have over Iraq’s long-term future?  Over Syria’s?
  6. U.S. Policy:  What should the United States do?  What should be our (1) goal and (2) the means?


The Islamic State (IS) –

Healing Iraq, more broadly – 

Healing the Middle east, more broadly –

Next Week:  Does the Constitution Need Updating?

Monday’s Mtg: Racial Profiling and Stop and Frisk.

Racial profiling is one of those issues that most members of our discussion group probably have very little feel for. Most of us, I’ll bet, have never lived in a neighborhood where young people are routinely stopped and scrutinized by the police, or in one with the crime levels that are used to justify the practice. Racial profiling has been illegal since 1968, when SCOTUS ruled that police cannot legally search someone solely on the grounds that their race or ethnicity makes them “suspicious.” But, the police still have enormous discretion in who they can stop and search and how, and young men/women in many poor communities of color are subject to interrogation and search by law enforcement whenever they leave the house.

Allegations of racial profiling and debates about its effectiveness have been in the news a lot the past few years. In 2013, a court struck down NYC’s controversial “stop and frisk” program, wherein law enforcement made it a deliberate practice to stop lots and lots of people on the street and search them for weapons and contraband. Mayor Giuliani and others argued that it lowered crime in the city and that the inconvenience to law-abiding citizens was worth it. Opponents said stop and frisk violated the rights of tens of thousands of innocent people, did not cause NYC’s drop in crime, and amounted to a kind of tax on poor people of color. Racial profiling also has been a huge issue in immigration, via Arizona’s A.B. 1070 “papers please” law, and in the anti- terrorism realm since 9/11.

We have a special guest Monday night, via Carl, who will talk about another topic and answer questions for the first 20 minutes. Then, I’ll give a very brief issue intro on our main topic and open it up. Let’s all stretch ourselves a little on this one and try to imagine how other people’s experiences might lead them to see the world differently than we do.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is “racial profiling?” Why is it outlawed and what discretion do the police still have to search someone based partially on their appearance?
  2. Stop and frisk: Does it work? How high are the costs to poor communities of color and how do they compare to the benefits of falling crime (if it does that)? Also, who should get to decide what to do?
  3. Read the articles below on what it feels like to be racially profiled. Does this move you to think differently about our topic?
  4. Immigration: Any unique issues that make racial profiling more or less permissible?
  5. Terrorism: Same question.

Links —

Next Week:  How to handle territorial disputes in the 21st century.  (Iraq and Israel/Palestinians, anybody?)