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My Christmas present to you is no newsletters until 2022. But first, here’s what Biden makes of his first year of Middle East policy and what I make of three great books/comics.
Edited by Sam Thielman
DO YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENED the last time I worked on Christmas?
I figured the Tribespeople at The Daily Beast ought to allow our Christian brethren a day to celebrate the birth of their savior, and so I volunteered to take the reporting shift, which thanks to our union contract entitled me to an extra vacation day that I surely did not use before I quit. Noah Shachtman, the similarly inclined editor-in-chief who is now editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone, was handling edits. I’m not saying that was why that guy bombed Nashville last Christmas, but the Danger Room vibes probably tempted fate. [Ed.: As a Christian, I blame Spencer and Noah.—ST]
No one likes working the week of Christmas and the week of New Year’s. So I’m not going to. Make sure you read Azmat Khan’s typically superb expose of the realities of years of airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan instead. Its second installment is here. This is unforgettable reporting, some of the absolute most important of the entire War on Terror. Khan has documented the implementation at scale of a military version of the CIA’s signature strikes, and pairs it with harrowing reporting where survivors of the airstrikes, particularly in Mosul, recount the days when the U.S. changed their lives forever. For more of my thoughts, see the Dec. 20 edition of Discontents.
For now, I give you the FOREVER WARS promise: If news breaks, you will not read about it here.
But a couple things before we sign off until 2022.
ON FRIDAY, a “senior Biden administration official” gave reporters an overview summary of the Middle East and how the administration sees the U.S.’ place in it after about a year in office.
The broad themes were that the U.S. is going to not do too much—no more “maximalist and quite grandiose goals” like “regional transformation, democratization through nation-building, regime changes”—but will instead take what the official described as a “back-to-basics” approach. That most certainly does not mean pullback in the region, something the official considered impossible, as the Middle East is “tied up with vital interests for the United States.”
Technocratic management and regional partnerships, centered around core security and economic interests, is how the Biden administration interprets going Back To Basics. The themes the senior administration official emphasized were “deterrence, de-escalation [and] integration” to guide an approach that focuses “the interests that impact Americans and our national security, and the national security of our friends.”
The senior official provided a few examples of what this approach means in practice. The administration is “committed to maintaining our military presence in Syria,” the official said, owing to the prospect of a resurgence of ISIS, an entity that the official did not otherwise focus on during an hour-long call. In Iraq, it’s been clear since the summer that the U.S. military presence will remain, now entirely sheep-dipped as a training mission. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the official said, “we have helped the Saudis quite a bit,” leaving unsaid that helping the Saudis means over $1 billion in weapons sales.
Yemen wasn’t part of the official’s overview. When (I think) Vivian Salama from the Wall Street Journal asked, the senior official described no ambitions at all to end the war, which was a prominent foreign-policy position of Candidate Biden. “We’re very realistic” about the conflict, the official assured, and then proceeded to define that conflict as “focused on one northern Yemen town, Marib; the Houthis are determined to take it.” That perspective is typical of the Biden administration on Yemen: narrowing the aperture to ensure that the problem is the Houthis, rather than including the Saudi-and-allies blockade of the port of Hodeidah and Saana airport that has made the war a pitiless nightmare for Yemenis forced to endure it.
So the U.S. policy in Yemen is not to end the Yemen war, but to manage the Saudi prosecution of it. The official praised the diplomatic efforts of Tim Lenderking, which have achieved absolutely nothing to advance peace in Yemen but much in terms of laundering Saudi Arabia’s positions into U.S. policy. In the briefing, the official mentioned all the “help” the U.S. is providing—weapons sales—to protect the Saudis from Houthi drone attacks. The official did not mention that the only reason those attacks occur is the war in Yemen.
All this is indicative of how the Biden understands its aspirant-restorationist vision of the U.S. in the Middle East. The U.S.’ alleged interests in the region—extracting and bringing to market cheap hydrocarbons; security markets for U.S. defense companies; local alignment with U.S. regional political and economic objectives; the maintenance of the region as a platform to project U.S. military power—prevent real extrication from the region. “We need to remain deeply committed,” as the official put it. “The Middle East remains just a central focus of ours, just given how it’s so wrapped up with the U.S.’ interests.”
On Israel-Palestine, the official credited Biden with quiet diplomacy to contain Israel’s devastation of Gaza to 11 days, without delving into the obscene death toll Israel inflicted upon Palestinian civilians. In Libya, they’re committed to elections, but the elections “might slip a little bit.” The Assad regime in Syria remains under sanction but Biden is notably not articulating a goal of removing it. Iran’s nuclear breakout time is back to being “unacceptably short.” Conversations about human rights are “central” to the administration’s conversations with Gulf allies, the official said, adding that “many of them [are] quiet conversations.”
On one issue, the one crosswise with that aspirant restoration of stable U.S. hegemony, they’re very loud. The Biden administration has a kind of bootleg Belt and Road called Build Back Better World. They intend to use it to “compete” with China for extracting and exploiting rare-earth minerals and other resources the empires mutually covet. The official spoke about the U.S.’ regional comparative advantage in alliances as an asset. Earlier this month came a concrete example of that “competition”: the U.S. got the Emiratis to stop or at least pause construction on a port it was providing to the Chinese. The official wouldn’t elaborate on what the U.S. threatened the Emiratis with, but said: “There are certain areas of Chinese activities that would impinge on our ability to continue particular activities in these countries and longstanding partnerships.” Biden’s team with the Mideast portfolio are working closely with Kurt Campbell’s China-competition officials. These are the Basics the Biden administration is going Back To: the Middle East as a field of imperial competition.
NOW FOR THREE THINGS I actually enjoy that you might as well.
WONDER WOMAN HISTORIA: THE AMAZONS: BOOK ONE by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Phil Jimenez. This is one of the most breathtaking, visually stunning, narratively ambitious, mythologically textured, unsparingly righteous comic books, I believe, ever created. You do not need to know or care about Wonder Woman to enjoy it. I’m going to spoil one thing and one thing only. One of the greatest pieces of artwork, storytelling and political messaging in comics history is a big picture of a lot of urns. It’s every bit the equal of the Kirby New Gods rocket page.
PALMARES BY GAYL JONES. I would want to read this unforgettable novel a second time before writing about it properly, but just holy shit you guys. This is my first Gayl Jones novel, but now I have to read Corregidora. Palmares is the story of Almeyda, a Brazilian woman born in the 17th century into slavery who liberates herself and finds Palmares, one of the most storied quilombos, which are sanctuary communities for people evading slavery—evading, as opposed to escaping. The tenuousness of their freedom is the context for every beautiful, harrowing and confusing choice the characters make. I’m not selling this book nearly well enough, so instead, read Robert Jones Jr., whose novel The Prophets was the other best novel I read in 2021. (Apologies to Orhan Pamuk.)
GANGSTERS OF CAPITALISM BY JONATHAN M. KATZ. I said in our last book-review edition that I’m trying to resist the temptation to write about books before I finish them. But last night I got to the first Haiti chapter of the forthcoming Gangsters of Capitalism by Jonathan Katz and that’s going out the window. Can you really question someone’s dedication to their project when they climb Fort Rivere in northern Haiti to trace the imperial footsteps of Smedley “War Is A Racket” Butler? In the coming weeks, you’ll hear a lot of very deserved praise of this excellent book that explores, through Butler’s career as a Marine officer, the moment in history when America parlayed manifest destiny into global policing. But Haiti holds a special place in the heart of everyone inspired by liberation, so the story of America’s second longest foreign war is where Katz’s blood really gets up.
The forgotten U.S. occupation of Haiti really deserves its place among the most infamous acts in all—all—of American history. Haiti, never forgiven by France and America for turning an extractive sugar-and-coffee colony into a self-liberated Black republic, became the victim of a literal bank robbery by Marines on behalf of what is now Citibank. Its proud resistance prompted the first U.S. counterinsurgency-as-such, a war of atrocity that pioneered barrel bombing. Katz doesn’t quite say it this way, but it was also a religious war: “As commander, Butler tried to put the final nail in the resistance’s coffin by wiping out the practice of Vodou. This was not a new idea: in 1912, three years before the U.S. invasion, the Haitian Catholic Church had launched an ‘anti-superstition campaign’ to suppress the rival peasant religion.” When Butler speaks of the virtue of Haitians uninvolved with what he ignorantly called “voodoo” and the inhuman perfidy of those who practice it, it is impossible not to hear the generals of the Iraq war over attribute attacks to Islamist terrorists as a way of minimizing the resistance prompted by the U.S. occupation.
While the first Haiti chapter—flipping ahead, I can see that, lucky me, I have another awaiting me—is a high point of this bracing, expertly crafted history, the narrative peaks are so numerous as to resemble Haiti itself. Katz also takes us through the Marines’ time cutting down those who opposed American capital’s extractive demands, in the Philippines, in what would become Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, China, the Dominican Republic and, of course, Cuba. Almost as an aside, he appears to have unearthed a forgotten war crime committed by the British during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion: a “chlorine gas cannon” that may represent a beta test for European chemical warfare fully 14 years before World War One.
In the next couple weeks, I’ll be a guest on Katz’s Gangsters-related podcast. We’ll be watching a movie about Guantanamo Bay and putting our books in conversation. Those of you who’ve read to the end of REIGN OF TERROR know that in my acknowledgments I say that my fondest ambition for the book is “that it be one work among many to confront and destroy both the War on Terror and the conditions that created it.” Gangsters is such a work. GANGSTERS OF CAPITALISM // JANUARY 2022 // ST. MARTINS PRESS
I HOPE EVERYONE HAS a safe and healthy holiday and a 2022 filled with prosperity and solidarity. If you wanted to get me a present, please subscribe to FOREVER WARS—especially if you’ve been reading for free—buy subscriptions for your friends and family, and purchase REIGN OF TERROR, one of the New York Times’ critics picks for best nonfiction of 2021. And if you’re thinking about buying REIGN, please do not buy it from Amazon, or—until they recognize their union—Politics & Prose.