Sarkozy’s France: The Boomerang Effect

CounterPunch

Toulouse, Europe’s aerospace hub in the southwest of France, has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. A twenty-three-year-old French citizen of Algerian origin, Mohamed Merah, went on a shooting spree last month, killing seven people and terrorizing a million residents for ten days before a police sniper’s bullet ended his life. Among his victims were three unarmed soldiers, a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school. According to prosecutors privy to negotiations with Merah during the thirty-hour siege where he met his end, his only regret was “not having claimed more victims.” He reportedly said that he was proud of having “brought France to its knees.”

Mohamed Merah had many more years to live had it not been for his final act. Life was, however, not important to him. He claimed to have been motivated by the Palestinians’ plight, the presence of French troops in Afghanistan and the law banning the full veil in France.  These issues challenge the conscience of many people. But a young man depriving fellow citizens of life, and throwing away his own, cannot constitute a solution.

What is known about Merah’s short life does not suggest that he was particularly religious. He frequented bars and nightclubs in his home town. He had displayed other imperfections of a disturbed youth––petty crime, driving without license and fistfights. In this light, Merah’s assertion of belonging to al Qaeda is more likely to have been an exaggeration or empty boast than a serious claim to infamy. It has prompted some sections of the media to run with speculation, without much evidence, that Merah was affiliated to al Qaeda and the Taliban. French police are investigating whether he visited Afghanistan, but indications of any ideological twist are thin. For Mohamed Merah was not a devout Muslim.

We must mourn Merah’s victims and express sympathy for their relatives and friends whose lives have been shattered. It was a needless act of revenge on people whose only fault was to belong to the French armed forces, or to the Jewish community. Worse, his victims included children. Thus if it is right to condemn the recent massacre of innocent Afghans in Kandahar, then it is also right to condemn the killings in Toulouse. That children were among the victims in both places is particularly distressing and requires reflection on our part.

Like the context of Kandahar, there is a context of Toulouse. Kandahar is one of Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated provinces, the stronghold of Taliban-led resistance to foreign military forces, who regularly launch night raids in local residents’ homes to hunt for men described as Taliban, their militant supporters and sympathizers. The American soldier, St. Sgt. Robert Bales, charged with seventeen murders after the Kandahar massacre, was flown out to the United States for possible military trial that could take years. Mohamed Merah, born and raised in deprived immigrant neighborhoods in France, was condemned as the guilty killer, his life ended by a sniper’s bullet.

A country of just under sixty-five million people, France has a twenty percent immigrant population. Many came from French-speaking Africa, or were born and raised in France. Unemployment among them is high. Living conditions in immigrant neighborhoods are harsh. There are areas where petty crime is rampant, reinforced by economic failure. Merah’s crime cannot be condoned by these factors. But he was one of the many to have become disconnected from French society, where the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments are virulent. With one in seven French voters projected to support the far-right Front National in the first round of the coming presidential election, politicians have not hesitated to make an issue of the race.

Even President Nicholas Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian immigrant family, says there are too many foreigners in the country, and that he would reduce their numbers if he wins a second term. The September 11, 2001 attacks were compared to the Japanese air assault on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War. For Western politicians dressed up with ambition and agenda,  9/11 has become the benchmark for discussion on any militant act by a non-state group or individual.  Sarkozy is the latest to jump on the 9/11 bandwagon.

In the midst of deep economic and social problems, Sarkozy faces an uphill election battle against the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande. With support for the far-right running around fifteen percent, the real battle is for that vote in the second round after the Front National candidate, Marine Le Pen, has been eliminated in the first. In a frantic bid for that vote, Sarkozy’s campaign has been moving to the right, steadily and dangerously.

The immigrant population of France feels targeted by a series of new laws. A combination of coercive measures to force people of non-European origins to conform to the “French way of life,” socio-economic problems, lack of opportunities and perceived loss of identity is causing a boomerang effect in French society. And it is forcing young individuals from vulnerable communities to go on a luckless search for identity and causes which they do not fully comprehend. Mohamed Merah, too, was a victim of this phenomenon.

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On Power and Delusions of Grandeur

First the video of United States Marines urinating on bodies of Afghans who had been killed. Then the revelation that copies of the Quran had been burned at Bagram Air Base, which also serves as an American prison camp in Afghanistan. Nearly thirty Afghans and several NATO troops died in the violent reaction. And as I mentioned in my column of March 4, the BBC Kabul correspondent described these events, and the violent public reaction to them, as the tipping point for NATO in the Afghan War.

Just as the U.S. commander Gen. John Allen and President Obama hoped that apologies from them would help calm the situation comes another disaster. If official accounts are to be believed, an American soldier left his base in the middle of the night, entered villagers’ homes, woke up Afghan families from sleep and shot his victims in cold blood. After the killings, the soldier was reported to have turned himself up to U.S. commanders, and was flown out of the country. The accused has since been named as St. Sgt. Robert Bales.

CBS News later quoted Bales’ lawyer as saying that Bales “has an early memory of that evening and has a later of that, but he doesn’t have memory in between.”

Other reports tell a different story, indicating that a group of soldiers was involved. Looking drunk and laughing, they engaged in an orgy of violence, while helicopters hovered above.

The massacre was committed in Kandahar, a province where NATO forces regularly carry out night raids on Afghan homes. They capture and kill men sweepingly described as Taliban, their supporters or sympathizers. Male family members therefore leave their homes at night to escape foreign forces. This explains why 9 of the 16 murdered were children. The rest included at least four women, and five Afghans were wounded. Several bodies were burned.

The massacre of Kandahar has echoes of My Lai––a village in South Vietnam where American troops massacred unarmed civilians including women, children and old people almost exactly 44 years ago, on March 16, 1968. The full horror of the My Lai massacre took time to surface, for many attempts were made to downplay it. Soldiers who had tried to stop the killings were denounced by U.S. Congressmen and received hate mail and death threats. It took thirty years before they were honored. Only one American soldier, Lieutenant William Calley, was punished. He spent just three years under house arrest, despite being given a life sentence.

The conduct of the U.S. authorities following the massacre of Afghans will be under critical scrutiny. Those who must bear ultimate responsibility will have to live with the guilt for years to come. And the carnage will continue to haunt the conscience of many people in America and elsewhere. The general sentiment in Afghanistan had already been turning dangerously hostile to foreign troops. Now, reports from Kabul say that Afghans “have run out of patience.”

In the midst of these events (U.S. Marines urinating on dead bodies in January, Quran burning in February, massacre in March), President Obama decided to invoke a comparison between himself and two of history’s legendary figures, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. To me, the latest events in Afghanistan are dismaying, and the timing of the president’s attempt to invoke parallels with Gandhi and Mandela is sickening. It goes to show what power does to its holder.

Much has been written about the New York fund-raiser, where President Obama gave his address as he sought support for a second term. I repeat the obvious to say that the country he leads has been engaged in a number of wars resulting in deaths and destruction on a vast scale. Their legacies will continue to take a heavy toll. Even when U.S. forces have withdrawn from occupied lands, or high-altitude bombing without deploying American troops on the ground has ceased, we will not know how long and in how many places Obama’s secret wars are waged. In the November 2008 election, he had offered a hope of change for good. It remains as illusive as it was under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama and NATO have moved and expanded the war theater––in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Kenya, Somalia and possibly places we are not aware of. His tactics have steadily become more threatening with foes and friends alike, linking ever more war and routine matters of international relations, trade and so forth.

Despite the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq and the Afghan project heading toward an end, there exists a more explosive situation from South Asia to North Africa. The scenario of a major war in the region haunts many. Obama may appear reluctant to attack Iran or Syria. But that clandestine warfare by major powers and their proxies continues is hardly in doubt. The Obama administration’s aggressive, interventionist instinct is on open display. And to draw parallels between himself and great souls such as Gandhi and Mandela is a grotesque parody of their historic struggles.

At the New York fund-raising event, Obama said that “the change we fought for in 2008 hasn’t always happened as fast as we would have liked … real change, big change, is always hard.” Next, making a leap into history, he continued, “Gandhi, Nelson Mandela––what they did was hard. It takes time. It takes more than a single term …”

Corruption infects our world in many forms: material and moral, visible and invisible, direct and indirect. But the underlying motive behind all things corrupt is a strong opportunistic instinct to benefit oneself at the cost of others by allurement or deception. No wonder politics has fallen so much into disrepute. The aphorism of the nineteenth-century English historian Lord Acton that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” has acquired a special meaning today.

Employing his political mantra of “change” and attempting to show likeness with Gandhi’s and Mandela’s life and achievements is one thing. Truth is a different matter. Gandhi never aspired for any political office, never held one, and did not fight any election. After his incarceration in prison for 27 years, Mandela was a reluctant president of South Africa. And he made clear that he would serve only one term while a new generation of successors was groomed.

Above all, Mandela used his presidency to avoid a bloodbath and stabilize the country as apartheid collapsed. Precisely for these reasons, both Gandhi and Mandela were such formidable opponents of the unequal and unjust systems which they fought.

Non-violence was Gandhi’s tool. When violence erupted, Gandhi withdrew his movement against the British. He thought of others, Muslims and Untouchables he called Harijans (Children of God). He paid the ultimate price when a Hindu fundamentalist assassinated him in 1948. Neither Gandhi nor Mandela considered attacking another country, signing assassination orders, exaggerating or inventing facts about people they saw as adversaries.

Mandela’s African National Congress was inspired by Gandhi. But once the organization had realized that South Africa’s vast black majority was up against an apartheid regime whose brutality was exceptional, the ANC did engage in a low-intensity war. And the United States and Britain listed Mandela as a “terrorist.”

President Obama recently justified his drone attacks inside Pakistan by saying that they “have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.” It is impossible not to interpret this as an admission that drones do kill and wound civilians. But it is a minor matter in the president’s eyes. Only a few days ago, the German news magazine Der SPEIGAL said that while under the Bush presidency there was a drone attack every 47 days, the interval now under President Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, is just four days. The Americans have “already executed 2,300 people in this manner.” Nobody has a chance today if this president decides that their time is up.

Gandhi’s agitation for boycott of British goods in favor of home-made products and his advocacy for an austere life were fundamental elements of the anti-globalization movement of his time. His ethos was “to consume less for the uplift of others from poverty and deprivation.” He lived the life he preached, for which Winston Churchill, then leader of the Empire, disparagingly called him the “naked fakir.”

In the world ruled by President Obama today, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were he not in his nineties and so frail, would be his greatest enemies. And they could well have been on Obama’s list for drone attacks. Mercifully that is not the case, and this president can indulge in comfort.

Great people like Gandhi and Mandela use power to curb power. Barack Obama stands among those who use power to accumulate more of it. Therein lies the moral of any comparison in this debate.

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P.S. I have introduced the word killings (instead of murders) in the second paragraph in view of ongoing developments in the case (March 20). CBS News update (May 19 5:53 PM) follows.

Book Review: Breeding Ground

David Hillstrom (Foreign Policy Journal, March 4, 2011)

The conflict in Afghanistan is now into its fourth decade, with no end in sight.  In spite of the fact that Afghanistan is a poor and landlocked country in Central Asia, the violence there has echoed across the world.  Camps in Afghanistan that trained Islamic fighters during the initial phase of the conflict later produced Islamist radicals who organized terrorist attacks on the US, Madrid and London. These same groups have radicalized public opinion and brought increasing violence to Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Indonesia.  And the wave of violence has most assuredly impacted Pakistan, one of the front line players in the initial conflict, and India, its neighbour and adversary.

The broad outline of the conflict is familiar to anyone who keeps abreast of politics and world affairs. The Soviet Union engineered a coup in Afghanistan to install a friendly government there and later invaded and occupied the country in order to prop up a failing regime. The Mujahidin then began a guerrilla war against the occupation with support from the US, Pakistan, and numerous Arab countries.  Subsequently, when the Cold War ended, the world lost interest in Afghanistan, and it was abandoned in a state of civil war until the Taliban took control. The Taliban offered safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who planned terrorist attacks on the West.  While this is the broad outline of recent history, we appreciate that a more comprehensive understanding requires a much deeper analysis of events.  Deepak Tripathi, the author of The Bush Legacy, has produced a new book, Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism, which provides exactly such an analysis. In his concise yet powerful book he details the interlocking decisions and strategies that inflamed the conflict and produced a new and dangerous historical context.

Tripathi has relied on a broad array of sources, many of them unavailable until recently, including archives of both the US and Soviet governments.  Hence there is ample material in the book to supply a source for further historical study.  As he promises in the acknowledgments, Tripathi’s “analysis goes where the archives take it”, and he pulls no punches. As the story unfolds, Tripathi examines the thinking behind the fateful decisions of the players involved, which resulted in the spiral of violence. But this story unveils a still deeper tragedy.  The US government, in its effort to contain the expansion of communism, was drawn into the ‘Great Game’ that Tsarist Russia and the British empires participated in during the 19th century.  More tragic still, the evidence demonstrates that all the players developed their simplistic strategic goals with only a shallow understanding of Afghanistan’s history and with little regard for the human cost to the Afghan population.

In addition to relating the history of the conflict, Tripathi presents a thesis on the causes underlying the growth of Islamic terrorism. In brief, he says that the phenomenon arose as a consequence of a prolonged period during which a culture of violence prevailed in Afghanistan.  The US, through Pakistan, provided a vast amount of weaponry to the Mujahidin.  Foreign fighters were attracted from the Middle East to participate in the jihad against the communist occupation. And the violence antagonized long silent religious, ethnic, and tribal differences within Afghanistan itself.  These antagonisms created a virtual vortex of descending violence that has nurtured the growth of global Islamic radicalism.  One could argue, of course, as Zbeigniew Brzezinski did in 1998 (p. 64) that the collapse of the Soviet empire was far more important to world history than the rise of the Taliban. But such a view is not only cynical, but now quite obviously short sighted.  And Pakistan, in its attempt to ensure a pacified northern neighbour, has inflamed Pashtun nationalism and Islamic radicalism within its own borders in the so called Federally Administered Tribal Area.

One wonders after reading Tripathi’s rich and insightful book whether the damage can ever be undone, whether Afghanistan might become a peaceful country and Islamic radicalism be tamed.  For his part, Tripathi proposes a shift in US policy toward the use of soft as opposed to hard power.  That is a sensible approach, if one analyzes events from a realpolitik perspective.  As the sole remaining superpower, the US will inevitably exercise its influence in world affairs.  But the line between the use of soft and hard power is fuzzy.  The Soviets initially supported a nearly bloodless coup in Afghanistan, only later to become drawn into a full scale invasion and bloody occupation in order to preserve their gains.  Given the multi-ethnic and tribal structure of Afghan society and the culture of violence that Tripathi has so vividly described, what are the chances that the US will be able to succeed in nation building there?  Whether through the use of soft power or counterinsurgency, the effort would appear doomed.  It seems to me that the real tragedy of history lies precisely in the meddling of world powers in foreign lands, be it through clandestine activities or direct military intervention.  Tripathi sums this up beautifully in his closing quote from Tolstoy, “In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious, even when successful.”

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