BLACK WAVE: SAUDI ARABIA, IRAN, AND THE FORTY YEAR RIVALRY THAT UNRAVELED CULTURE, RELIGION, AND COLLECTIVE MEMORY by Kim Ghattas

The original.
(Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini)

Four years ago, I read Kim Ghattas’ account of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom.  The book was personal, clear, concise and analytical.  Her latest book, BLACK WAVE: SAUDI ARABIA, IRAN, AND THE FORTY-YEAR RIVALRY THAT UNRAVELED CULTURE, RELIGION, AND COLLECTIVE MEMORY piqued my interest in light of recent events.  Iran’s attack on Saudi oil fields, the proxy war in Yemen between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s machinations dealing with shipping in the Persian Gulf, and President Trump’s recent order resulting in the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the head of its Quds force makes the book extremely timely, but also very important as we seek to understand events in the most explosive region in the world trying to discern how the competition between the world’s leading Sunni and Shi’a countries will unfold.

Ghattas’ task is a difficult one, but she has met the challenge by presenting the relevant facts, personalities, theological ideologies, and major power interests in the area. She is able to break down  the apparent and hidden complexities involved in the Saudi-Iran relationship and provides numerous insights.

KSA Iran map

In 2001, David W. Lesch wrote a short volume, 1979: THE YEAR THAT SHAPED THE MIDDLE EAST arguing that events that year; the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran; the seizure of American hostages; the occupation of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by radical students and Islamists; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan all created a watershed for the Middle East and the world balance of power.  Ghattas builds upon Lesch’s hypothesis and argues that 1979 began a process that transformed societies and altered cultural and religious currents in the region fostering an evolution that bears little resemblance to what existed before.  For Ghattas, the year 1979 and the forty years that followed witnessed “the Saudi-Iran rivalry that went beyond geopolitics, descending into an ever-greater competition for Islamic legitimacy through religious and cultural domination, changing societies from within – not only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but throughout the region.”  The influence of this rivalry spread to Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, and Afghanistan and unleashed sectarian identities and killings that had never defined these countries in the past.

Ghattas’ approach is to present her material in a clear and concise manner that is easily understood by the laymen as well as scholars.  She begins in 1974 focusing on events in Iran under the Shah and the plight of the Palestinians and the emergence of Ayatollah Khomeini and his vision for an Islamic state.  She explains the developing opposition to the Shah and the revolution that seemed to begin in 1977 with the death of Ali Shariati, a leftist Muslim revolutionary.  The blame for the death fell on SAVAK, the Shah’s internal security service exacerbating the public outcry.  In exile in Paris, Khomeini prepared cassette tapes of his ideas and promises which were smuggled into Iran provided a vehicle to chip away at the Shah’s popularity and reach the masses to foster revolution.

In this Nov. 15, 1977 photo, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran visits Washington. (AP)

(The Shah of Iran, Rheza Pahlavi)

Once Khomeini replaced the Shah, Ghattas details how his movement consolidated power; founded the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corporation; dealt with foreign movements like the Moslem Brotherhood, the creation of Hezbollah or “Party of Guard;” Khomeini’s uncompromising approach to government and gaining the approval of the Iranian people; and of course the many important personalities involved.  In creating the Islamic Republic, a tightly organized authoritarian regime, more repressive and murderous than the Shah’s emerges.  Mass shootings resulted, students and clerics disappeared, newspapers shut down, and emissaries were sent throughout the Middle East to foster a regional movement led by the Shi’a.

Ghattas does a wonderful job unearthing information that was not generally known before as well as refocus on concepts and arguments that now appear acceptable with hindsight.  First, the role of Yasir Arafat and how he developed a relationship with Khomeini from the outset hoping to gain support for his war against Israel.  Khomeini would use Arafat for his own ends and never really earned the support he craved as only weapons and training were provided.  Another example involves Saddam Hussein who wanted to kill Khomeini but would not act without agreement of the Shah.  The Shah would refuse, and one could only imagine how history would have unfolded had he agreed.  Ghattas also argues that though Khomeini did not order the seizure of the American Embassy in Teheran, feeling pressure from nationalists, Marxist students, and others who hated the United States dating to the assassination of Mohamad Mosaddeq in 1953 he would manipulate the situation for his benefit by publicizing his radical credentials.

(Seizure of American hostages at US Embassy in Iran, 1979)

Ghattas employs a number of individuals to create her narrative about important events.  The seizure and occupation of the Holy Mosque in Mecca is told through the eyes of Sami Angawi, an architect and lover of history who describes the changes in Saudi Arabia after the 1973 Oil embargo and the massive wealth that flowed to the Saudi royal family.  The zealots who took the mosque wanted the country to cut ties to the west, expel all foreigners, redistribute the oil wealth to the poor, and remove the House of Saud and their clerics who failed to uphold the purity of Islam.  For the Saudi royal family this reflected weakness and they needed to counter the move to place the holy sites in Medina and Mecca under the trusteeship of the Moslem world.

The author does a nice job comparing the cultural changes in Saudi Arabia and Iran.  In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was a case of arrested development, in Iran it felt like whiplash as a violent and dramatic undoing of decades of social, political, and cultural advancement that took place under the Shah was gutted.  Khomeini created a cultural revolution accompanied by a reign of terror.  Ghattas correctly points out that “these revolutions were amplified by the bitter rivalry that emerged that same year between two countries that had once been allies, a rivalry born out of Khomeini’s desire to upstage the Saudis as the leaders of the Moslem world.

All the events of 1979 seemed to be linked.  After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 the Saudi government fresh from the embarrassment of the Holy Mosque seizure, its recapture and its high death toll saw an opportunity to recoup its lost image by supporting and championing a move against “godless communists,” in addition it provided a vehicle to send radicals outside the country to fight against the infidels.

(Seizure of the Holy Mosque in Mecca, November 20, 1979)

Ghattas describes the relationship between Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian strongman and Khomeini which portends a great deal for the future destruction of Syria that we are witnessing today.  In 1982 when Assad crushed the Moslem Brotherhood and killed over 15,000 people in Hama, Khomeini just stood by.  Though Khomeini was an Islamist, he was also a pragmatist and with Assad, an Alawite (a sect of Islam that made up about 15% of the Syrian population) an alliance with Shi’a Iran was formed that continues to this day.

Saddam Hussein witnessed the instability in Iran and began to expel Iraqi Shi’a, placed clerics under house arrest, brutalized the Kurds, leftists, and anyone who opposed his regime.  After Saddam executed Ayatollah Mohammad Bager al-Sadr, the “Iraqi Khomeini,” Khomeini called for Saddam’s overthrow.  On September 22, 1980, Saddam declared war on Iran as the Iraqi military deemed Iran weak, isolated and unable to defend itself. Saddam believed he could win a quick war cutting Khomeini’s ambitions down to size.  As we know the war would continue for most of the decade causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.

(Soviet Mig-17s at airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan after the invasion)

Events in Egypt also would come to a head in 1979 as President Anwar Sadat took the gamble of recognizing Israel and agreeing to the Camp David Accords as a means of gaining US aid with his economy disintegrating and the poor ready to take to the streets.  Ghattas describes her narrative through Nageh Ibrahim, a medieval studies student who helped create Gama ‘a, a radical Moslem organization that was gaining strength believed that Sadat’s negotiations went too far, particularly as it left out the Palestinians. By 1981 opposition to Sadat had increased especially with the purge of 3000 Islamists, leftists, and socialists including journalists, feminists and others.  Sadat had managed to unite disparate groups to assassinate him.  The killing was carried out by Gama’a who believed conservative Egyptian society was ready for a revolution.  It was not as the military under Hosni Mubarak would retain power.  Interestingly Ghattas argues the killing of Sadat had less to do with religion because he was a pious Moslem, he called himself the “believer president,” and more to do with the attempt to seize power by radical Islamists.  What is increasingly clear as one digests Ghattas’ narrative, if 1979 was a turning point, 1980 was the point of no return.

Ghattas offers clear explanations as she discusses the disparate relationships among the leading characters she explores; in addition to their policies, beliefs, actions, governments they led and movements they represented.  Whether analyzing the strategies of Khomeini, Saddam, Assad, Arafat, or Saudi princes she is able to link their narrative to each other reflecting the powder keg the Iranian Revolution sparked in the Middle East.  Events in Lebanon and Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s fit well into her narrative.  Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, “Operation Peace for Galilee” would contribute to the fracturing of Lebanese society.  Iran would take a major role as they ensconced themselves in the Beqaa Valley with the Syrian army and Hezbollah would ramp up its participation in Lebanese society into the poor areas of Beirut.  In Pakistan the 1980s witnessed a proxy war between followers of Iran and Saudi Arabia which would result in Shi’a-Sunni sectarian violence as the ideological war spread.  Ghattas tells the story of their differences through the eyes of Allama Ehson Elahu Zaheer who attended an Islamic University in Medina and Allama Arif Hussaini who studied in Najaf and was a follower of Khomeini.

Women drivers are set to transform the auto market in Saudi Arabia

(Saudi woman driving for the first time unaccompanied by a man!)

Saudi Arabia had a great deal of influence in Pakistan with longstanding ties to Pakistani clerics like Maarout Dawalibi who became a pseudo advisor to the Saudi leaderships well as Jamatt-eIslami a radical Pakistani Moslem organization.  In February 1979, General Zia-ul-Haq, who overthrew Prime Minister Zulfikar ali Bhutto imposed Shari’a law on Pakistan and Daealibi wrote the new legal code.  Pakistan experienced a cultural revolution similar to what occurred in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but Zia would become an ally of the US against the Soviets in Afghanistan as he needed American and Saudi support for his survival.  Pakistan had a tradition of using religion as a balm to soften defeat, i.e.; the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, the overthrow of Bhutto in July 1977, and its overall relationship with India.  Pakistan’s radicalization is linked to Peshawar, a city near the Afghanistan border which became a center for radical mujahedeen fighting the Soviet Union.  It was also the location for Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who was implicated and jailed for his role in Sadat’s assassination who later would become number two to Osama Bin-Laden in the al-Qaeda hierarchy who would move his family to Peshawar in the mid-1980s.  Peshawar would become the nerve center for Arab jihad.  As Ghattas astutely remarks, if Beirut was the supermarket of the left in the 1970s for Palestinians, Iraqis, Egyptians and Marxists, then Peshawar was the supermarket of the Islamists in the 1980s where “Islamic law, fatwas, the war of the believers, the unity of the Muslim nation, and the humanitarian needs of Afghan refugees” was discussed and acted upon.

As Saudi money poured into Peshawar, Zia allowed Saudi charities to build hundreds of madrassas, religious seminaries along the border with Afghanistan that taught the exclusionary teachings of fundamentalist schools of Saudi puritanism.  Many of the graduates of these schools became the core of the Taliban in the 1990s.  Ghattas writes that “the Saudis were helping to create an environment in which ideas and actions could be taken to the extreme, and they were blinded to the consequences of their creation because they could not recognize the intolerance of their own ideology,” a problem that haunts us in 2020.

Ghattas comes to a number of important conclusions with the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan which the Saudis took a great deal of credit.  Teheran wanted a say in the post war period but when they were not able to impose their will Khomeini unleashed a culture war by calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for his depiction of Mohammad in his book SATANIC VERSES.  Another major point was the removal of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait.  President Bush made a grave error by allowing the Syrians to dominate the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon along with their Hezbollah ally in return for Damascus’ support against Saddam.  The American presence in Saudi Arabia because of the war was part of the impetus for Osama Bin-Laden and the creation of al-Qaeda as “the infidels” seemed all over the kingdom.  The Saudis had their own culture war with women and radical clerics continued to rail against the royal family.  Ghattas is dead  pointing out that “until 1979, the kings had bent that product and the clerics to their will, keeping them in check.  After 1979, the Wahhabi religious establishment had become king.”

The bomb damaged building which housed U.S. military personnel and served as the headquarters for the U.S. Air Force's 4404th Wing (Provisional), Southwest Asia is in the foreground of this aerial photograph taken of the Khobar Towers complex near King Abdul Aziz Air Base, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on June 29, 1996. The explosion of a fuel truck set off by terrorists at 2:55 p.m. EDT, Tuesday, June 25, 1996, outside the northern fence of the facility killed 19 and injured over 260. U.S. and Saudi law enforcement and military personnel are combing through the blast area searching for clues to the identity of the terrorists.

(Khobar Towers, Dhaharan, Saudi Arabia before bombing of June 29, 1996)

It is fascinating to explore the rapprochement that was reached between the Saudis and Iran following the death of Khomeini.  They did share a common interest that trumped their ideological differences as Teheran wanted to lessen the Sunni-Shi’a rift to allow greater access to the holy places in Mecca.  Even the Al-Khobar Towers bombing by Hezbollah elements did not cause a renewed rift.  But dark forces existed on both sides that hampered a continuation of any honeymoon.   For Iran supporters of Khomeini’s revolution remained in power – the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and radical clerics.  On the Saudi side money was used to pursue an anti-western ideology in the madrassas and they continued to fund radical clerics throughout the region as well as the remaining mujahedeen from the Afghan War.

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry continued unabated after their brief lessening of tension in the 1990s.  It was rekindled after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq and it resurfaced with a vengeance during the Arab Spring.  With the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, elections brought about the rise to the presidency of Mohammad Morsi, a member of the Moslem Brotherhood.  Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei compared the overthrow of Mubarak to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and called for an Arab awakening in the region.  The Saudis were not amused, and they feared their own people would rise up and worked behind the scenes with the Egyptian army to get rid of Morsi which occurred on July 3, 2013.   The result was Field Marshall Abdel Fattah Sissi assuming the presidency.  Sissi was a friend of the Saudis who was officially elected President in May 2014 and maintains his hold on power in Egypt today.

In the last pages of her narrative Ghattas discusses the tragedies that are Syria and Yemen, with the spotlight on the roles Saudi Arabia and Iran in the carnage.  In Iran domestic opposition and demonstrations against Teheran’s expansionist policies were met with violence and repression.  In Saudi Arabia, the new king and his Defense Minister son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) proceeded to use its American military toys to wreak havoc in Yemen and kill Saudi citizens at home and abroad.  Ghattas recounts the murder of Washington Post reporter and Saudi citizen, Jamal Khashoggi by MbS and his minions  providing the reader a taste of what the new Saudi regime was like and who President Trump’s latest “buddy” really is.

There are many themes in Ghattas’ presentation.  The exploitation of Islam by dictators stands out.  Further, the chaos that has convulsed the region over the last four decades; the Iran-Iraq War, the upheavals in Afghanistan, the assassinations in Pakistan and civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are all in some ways fallout from the fierce competition between two parallel “Islamic revolutions” in 1979.  Ghattas also reminds us that the region was not always this intolerant as before 1979 as modern art, abstract sculptures, and literature was allowed to proliferate in certain areas of the Middle East.  What makes Ghattas’ book special is that she tells many of her stories through the eyes of numerous men and women who spoke out against the repression that emerged after 1979 making the history relatable to the reader and an important contribution to the literature that tries to explain events that are at times incomprehensible, but continue to plague us.

 

ASSAD OR WE BURN THE COUNTRY: HOW ONE FAMILIES LUST FOR POWER DESTROYED SYRIA by Sam Dagher

(Hafez al-Assad and son Bashar al-Assad)

In the last few years a number of important books dealing with the Syrian tragedy have appeared.  They all reflect the gruesome nature of how Bashar al-Assad and his family have clung to power as they have slowly destroyed their country by killing over 500,000 people and creating millions of refugees.  Many of these books are journalistic accounts of Assad’s murderous policies or personal memoirs as their authors scream on the written page for the world to listen and act.  Sam Dagher, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal new contribution to this ever-growing list  is his ASSAD OR WE BURN THE COUNTRY: HOW ONE FAMILIES LUST FOR POWER DESTROYED SYRIA which focuses on the generational saga of the Assad and Tlass families, once deeply intertwined and now estranged by Assad’s bloody quest to retain the country that his father seemingly bequeathed to him.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring Syria has emerged from hopes of democracy and some type of governmental reform that was the calling card for the Middle East as the west which could not make up its mind as to what should be done to stop the ongoing slaughter.  President Barrack Obama’s feckless approach fearing American involvement in another Middle Eastern country as he tried to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan or President Donald Trump’s callous and amoral abandonment of the Kurds last month leaving Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia with a further foothold in the region reflects the bankruptcy of US policy in the area and raises the question of what might have been done differently.

A scene from Hama after the 1982 massacre.

Dagher the last western journalist to be kicked out of Syria in 2014 relies on interviews with Assad’s former army commander, Manaf Tlass, now a defector, numerous other witnesses and participants in the events described, and his own extensive first-hand experience reporting from Damascus to take the reader behind the scenes to explore a ruthless family that is responsible for the destruction of Syria and the resulting chaos that still haunts the region. Dagher puts forth a number of important themes that dominate the narrative.

First,  Bashar al-Assad inner struggle to live up to his father to justify his own reign which led him to replicate the violence that had been used in the past.  Second, the role of the Tlass family particularly Manaf’s evolution from childhood friend of Bashar, a key cog in implementing his violent strategy, and finally breaking with him and achieving asylum in France.  Third, how the Assad family, including Bashar’s brother Maher, cousins like the Makhloufs, a number of which led different segments of the Mukhabarat ruled the country.  Fourth, Bashar’s inability to manipulate the west as successfully as his father.  Fifth, how the Assad family helped arm Hezbollah and its militias and allowing their patrons, Iran to protect him.  Sixth, the evolution of Bashar from a young western oriented individual who many Syrians and foreign governments saw as the hope for reform in Syria to one who quickly learned that to preserve power he had to crush the aspirations for general political reform and all challenges to the system.  For Bashar continued to repeat the comment; “you can only rule these people with the shoe” which became a nasty reality for the Syrian people.

The al-Assad Family and the Syrian Government

Dagher provides exceptional coverage of the Arab Spring and its impact on Syria.  He follows the developments of the protests and opposition and the Assad regime’s response.  There is special focus on cities of Hama that feared a replication of the slaughter and destruction that resulted in the death of 10-20,000 Syrians at the hands of Hafez al-Assad in 1982; Homs, Daraa, Aleppo, and Damascus itself.  As the violence spread in 2011 and 2012 different factions within the Assad government, the army, even inside the Mukhabarat began to appear.  This fracturing was also evident on the part of the opposition as they tried to figure out a plan to deal with the regime’s violence.  As the foreign media and You Tube began to show the truth of what was occurring Bashar resorted to describing events as “fake news,” all part of a western conspiracy to overthrow him.  “Like his father before him, it was absolutely vital for Bashar to shift the narrative from one about a brutal clan and regime killing protesters and political activists to that of a state battling armed insurgents and gangs linked to a foreign conspiracy.”

Dagher is correct that once the west with its UN mandate overthrew Muhammar Gaddafi in Libya, Bashar close minded approach to the opposition became even more recalcitrant to the point that he would destroy his country instead of stepping down.  The Russians felt the US had lied about its approach to Gaddafi, and Putin vowed he would not let that happen to the Assad’s.  For the Bashar his vision was clear, and he would do anything to remain in power as he seemed to purposely lose territory to ISIS as a means of scaring the world even if it meant sacrificing a few thousand of his own militiamen and conscripts.  Bashar was willing to pull out from peripheral areas deemed unimportant and allow ISIS to seize them and carry out their version of atrocities.  This would fit Putin’s realpolitik, also as now Assad and the Russian President could argue that they were saving the world from Islamic terrorism.

Russian president is also set to meet leaders of Iran, Turkey to discuss a postconflict settlement in Syria

The Assad regime’s duplicity whether under Hafez or Bashar is evident throughout the narrative.  Dagher stresses how neither could be trusted but the west needed Syria as a means of controlling terrorism, its Middle East peace plans, events in Lebanon, and Israel.  Washington at times was naïve in dealing with the Assad family and when it was obvious that something needed to be done they could not act, i.e.; Obama’s “red line” with chemical weapons which he did not enforce, refusal to provide weapons to certain opposition groups etc.  Bashar craved rewards for engaging the West at the same time he fully embraced Iran, Hezbollah, and “the so-called axis of resistance against the West.”  The corruption of the Assad regime is on full display as they practiced the tactics of a typical mob family.  Dagher focuses on a number of interesting characters like Rami Makhlouf, another cousin who developed business partnerships with the regime and by 2010 his companies controlled almost 65% of the Syrian economy; Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah; Hafez Makhlouf, who was deeply involved as head of the Mukhabarat when Hama was destroyed; Atief Najib, head of the Mukhabarat during the Arab Spring who implemented Bashar’s violent approach to demonstrators among many others.

Dagher performs an important service explaining what really transpired in Syria during the Arab Spring.  He concentrates on a number of important personages  including Bashar, Maher, his younger brother, Manaf, a host of cousins and protestors like Khlaed al-Khani, an artist who survived the Hama debacle in 1982 as a little boy in which his father was killed, Darwish Mazen, a human rights lawyer who was imprisoned and repeatedly tortured by the regime before he was released and went into exile in Germany, and Sarah Masalmeh, who survived the destruction of Daraa to join the opposition eventually fleeing the country with her brother to create an easy to understand narrative that the general reader can absorb.  As the protests and violence spread Dagher has an uncanny knack of zeroing in on Bashar’s thinking, the impact of foreign interference in events, and the devastation that the Syrian people as a whole had to deal with.

The author delves out a great deal of criticism for the Obama administration, much of which is on point.  When Bashar’s regime used barrel bombs on civilians, delivered chlorine bombs on opposition cities targeting civilians, among the atrocities delivered by air either by Syrian or Russian forces in 2014, Obama refused to consider a no-fly-zone.  Obama did authorize non-lethal aid to rebels and hundreds of millions of dollars to assist refugees but in the end when confronted whether to deal with the Assad regime and its massacres or the Islamic State, Washington chose ISIS.  However, once Donald Trump was elected any pressure on the Assad regime ended.  Trump’s bromance with Putin and his own authoritarian tendencies shut the door on any assistance to the Syrian opposition that was being decimated.  Trump as Dagher points out probably secretly admired Assad as he had the type of power in his country that Trump craved.

2013MENA_Syria_ChemicalWeapons

(A mother and father weep over the body of their child, who was killed in an alleged chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, Syria, on August 21, 2013)

In the end the winner of the Syrian civil war was Russia as Putin was now the arbiter of the Middle East, a renewed great power, and used the war as a means of testing over 200 new weapons.  Turkey also is a victor as President Erdogan made his peace with Bashar and Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds a few months ago allowed the Turkish military to root out the Kurds and set up the buffer zone Ankara had always wanted.  Iran and its puppet Hezbollah remain a bulwark in maintaining the Assad regime’s rule and provides Teheran with cudgel to hammer its enemies and threaten its arch foe Saudi Arabia.  Lastly, of course is the Assad regime.  No matter how many crimes against humanity they engaged in, they remain in power as France and Germany have given up trying to remove him from power, and the United States is seen as unreliable as Trump continues to kowtow to Putin in all areas.

Dagher’s monograph is part memoir and part a history of the Assad family that explains how we have gotten to where we are in Syria.  His easy prose and analysis is important because he has created the most comprehensive history of what has transpired which is an important service for those who seek to understand American policy in addition to why Bashar al-Assad and his cronies still remain in power and continue to inflict countless deaths on the Syrian people.

Giant images of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez al-Assad at the Damascus hotel. Photo by Getty Images.

(Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad)

THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES by Paul Richter

Image result for photo of robert ford and ryan crocker(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Steven)

The past two weeks the American people witnessed the professionalism and commitment to American national security on the part of diplomatic personnel before the House Intelligence Committee.  Career diplomats like acting Ambassador to the Ukraine, William B. Taylor, Jr., Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, Fiona Hill, a former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs, and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch who was fired as ambassador to the Ukraine by President Trump, along with a number of others displayed their honesty and integrity as they were confronted by conspiracy theories and lies developed to defend administration attempts to coerce and bribe Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to encourage him to launch investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.  The preciseness of their presentations left no doubt as to their credibility and points to the importance of having experienced professionals advising and carrying out American foreign policy.

In our current political climate it is very difficult to conduct foreign policy in a more traditional manner when you have a president who makes decisions from his “gut,” or spur of the moment as he did when he recently allowed Turkey to expand into Syria and crush the Kurds.  It is interesting to compare how “normal” foreign policy should be conducted and how important these diplomats are.  The publication of Paul Richter’s new book, THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES  is important because it supports the kind of work that was performed by the witnesses before the House Impeachment Inquiry and reflects the antithesis of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy.

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(American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford)

Richter has chosen to explore the careers of four American ambassadors who since 9/11 contributed to what insiders’ term “expeditionary diplomats” who have served in battle zones in the Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, and Libya.  Because of the nature of these conflicts these career professionals have been involved with traditional diplomacy in addition to helping generals and spy chiefs decide how to wage war, as well as try to end them.  When Washington found itself with a country on the edge with no real plan it was these diplomats who helped improvise and make policy decisions.

Ryan Crocker emerges as America’s most knowledgeable source on Iraq throughout his career having served there when Saddam Hussein came to power in 1980 and in 1998, yet he was left out of planning sessions dealing with the run up to the invasion of Iraq.  Richter reviews Bush administration ignorance and agendas that are all too familiar, but Crocker’s warnings about an invasion all came to fruition; sectarian warfare, violence and looting, and the emergence of Iran as the region’s dominant player.  Crocker left Iraq in August 2003 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for almost three years.  He would return to Iraq and worked well with General David Petraeus replacing Robert Ford as ambassador as they oversaw the somewhat successful surge between 2007 and 2009.    Ford another exceptional diplomat, whose experiences reinforce the arrogance and outright stupidity of Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and numerous others in the Bush administration.  The reduced role of Colin Powell and the State Department is plain to see, and Crocker and Ford did their best to overcome America’s mistakes.

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(American Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker)

Richter successfully highlights the importance of the diplomats as they tried to keep a lid on the violence in Iraq and nudge the government toward democracy.  Their contact within the Iraqi government, outside militias, and other groups is evident, and their role was extremely important  when compared to personnel in Washington who at times seemed to have no clue.  Crocker’s success rested on the respect that the Iraqis including President Maliki had for him.  He thought nothing of traveling to meet all elements in the Iraqi ethnic puzzle as a means of trying to keep the fractured country together. According to Emma Sky, a British Middle East expert, Crocker “had provided the strategic direction and guidance the military so craved from civilian leaders, and so rarely received.”  It is not surprising that once Crocker left Iraq in February 2009 the situation deteriorated according to Richter because of the changes in approach implemented by his replacement, Christopher Hill, and the overall policy pursued by the Obama administration.

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(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

By 2011, Crocker shifted his focus to Afghanistan and returned to government service after being chosen by President Obama to try and work out agreements for a strategic partnership. Obama’s goal was to reduce US troop levels from 150,000 to 15,000 and turn the fighting over to Afghan troops as much as possible.  Crocker’s relationship with Karzai was tested as the Afghanistan president reaffirmed old grudges against Washington as he tried to maneuver among militias, the Taliban and his administration’s corruption.  Once again Crocker did give it his best under extremely trying conditions.

Perhaps America’s most important ally in the war on terror was Pakistan, a country that could never be relied upon with its own agenda visa vie the Taliban, al-Qaeda, India, and numerous militias.  Richter is correct when he describes the Pakistani-American relationship as a bad marriage with both partners cheating but had no choice but to stay together.  Anne Patterson entered this quagmire in 2007 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for three years.  Her main goal was preventative.  She needed to help keep the country’s politics from becoming so chaotic or dangerous that the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, would feel the need to install new leaders to restore order.  During her term as ambassador she successfully played the role of political counselor, military advisor, banker, and sometimes psychotherapist.  Richter takes the reader through all the crisis attendant to the United States-Pakistani relationship dealing with the duplicitous Parvez Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and her husband’s attempts to succeed her as President, the Mumbai attacks and numerous others.  She did her best to keep the lid on and for the most part did an admirable job.  For the latest work that deals with the topic in full see Steven Coll’s THE DIRECTORATE: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S SECRET WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN.

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(American Ambassador to Pakistan and Egypt Anne Patterson)

Patterson would be sent to Egypt with the onset of the Arab Spring.  Once the country politically imploded and Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, she moved from the conflagration in Islamabad and found herself amidst another crisis situation.  Egypt was the cornerstone of US security strategy for the Middle East by maintaining peace with Israel, fighting counterterrorism, and keeping sea lanes open for the transport of oil.  The fall of Mubarak caught the Obama administration by surprise.  After the revolution, Washington continued to be blindsided by developments in Egypt.  Patterson would arrive when the Egyptian military and civilians were furious at the Obama administration whom they felt had abandoned their country.  She was plain speaking and knowledgeable and with a reputation in the State Department that one colleague described as “bad ass” and she was eventually able to earn respect from Egyptian military and intelligence leaders.  Further she had to diffuse the Egyptian belief that the US was involved in a conspiracy to push democratic reform.  Further she was confronted with the harassment and intimidation by Egyptian authorities against American backed reform NGOs and Embassy staff which she worked to deflate so she could try and influence Egyptian government actions even as Washington seemed to dither.

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(Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi)

Following the Moslem Brotherhood victory with the election of Mohamed Morsi as President, Patterson met with the new Egyptian leader and tried to pin him down as to his views on Israel, human rights, etc.  She did her best to work with Morsi and even gave him a certain leeway, all for naught as Morsi had an overstated view of his own importance.  His major error was to appoint the ruthless General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Defense Minister.  As Morsi became more authoritarian, she tried to curb his lack of political skill and quest for more and more power to no vail.  With the Arab Emirates and Saudis working with the Egyptian military Morsi was arrested and a coup brought Sisi to power.  The entire episode was not the Obama administrations finest hour.  Granted they had little leeway with Morsi, but they did not do enough to try and steer him toward a more democratic approach.  The problem as Patterson pointed out was not that Morsi was an Islamist extremist, “but that he simply didn’t know what he was doing.”  Patterson was vilified by reform groups, foreign leaders and certain members of Congress as having assisted in bringing Morsi to power, criticism that is unwarranted but reflected that Patterson was damned no matter what course she chose.

Image result for photo of obama with anne patterson(Egyptian demonstrations against American Ambassador Anne Patterson)

Perhaps the most unsolvable problem facing American diplomats discussed in Richter’s narrative is Syria.  Robert Ford was placed in the breach as the Arab Spring left its mark on the country and civil war ensued due to the forty-year repressive and murderous reign of the Assad family.  Obama came to the presidency naively hoping to engage the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Ford was the first American ambassador to Damascus since 2006.  Ford had a working relationship with the Syrian opposition, and he advised them to focus on reform not regime change.  In his heart of hearts, Ford realized that Assad would never give up power.  Ford’s secondary role was to educate Washington concerning events in Syria, but the Obama administration policy was faulty as it called for Assad to resign, publicized a “red line” as a response to the use of chemical weapons, and opening the door for Russia.  Ford did his best, risking his life repeatedly confronting Assad and developing relationships with the opposition, but by December 2011 he would return to Washington where he worked to try and merge the different opposition groups.  This task was impossible because at the same time jihadist opposition began to infiltrate into eastern Syria enabling them to seize control of the uprising from more moderate Syrians. Ford argued to no avail that Obama administration needed to arm more moderate elements or Jihadists in eastern Syria would join those in western Iraq.  Obama refused to supply weapons for more moderate elements and with Iranian and Russian aid the moderates had nowhere to turn to but Islamists for help.  For Ford, the lack of weapons aid made a radical take over a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When Obama did little about Assad chemical attacks it further fueled opposition by moderates and members of Congress.  Richter describes Ford as a pinata as he was bashed by everyone for the lack of US aid including Senate Foreign Relations Committee members.   Finally, in total frustration he left the Foreign Service in 2014.

 

The diplomat most familiar to the American people was J. Christopher Stevens who was killed in a jihadist raid in Benghazi in 2012 fostering a partisan uproar in Washington as Republicans used his death as a political vehicle against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  According to Richter the details of how Stevens died and who is responsible remains open to conjecture, but one thing is certain, there is plenty of blame to go around.  When Stevens accepted the assignment, he knew what he was getting into, but his career long love of the Libyan people clouded his vision.  Stevens had to start from scratch to carve out his own rules for working with the Libyan opposition who he met with frequently earning their trust even though they did not always follow his advice.  The problem was the inability of the opposition to control the varied militias who had access to weaponry left over from the Qaddafi regime.  At the time, according to Jake Sullivan, a Clinton foreign policy advisor; “post-conflict stabilization in Libya, while clearly a worthy undertaking at the right level of investment, cannot be counted on as one of our highest priorities.”  Stevens concern that the administration wasn’t paying enough attention to what was going on in Benghazi in the eastern region around it would result in his death.  In discussing Stevens, as with Crocker, Ford, and Patterson, Richter provides a nice balance of historical detail, Washington policy and his own insights and analysis which are dead on.

If one wants to gain an understanding of the problems the United States faced in the Middle East and Afghanistan after 9/11 in a succinct and compact approach, then Richter’s monograph should be consulted.  At a time when American decision makers made what proved to be disastrous decisions that we are still confronting today, it is refreshing to explore the careers and work of four individuals who devoted their lives to unravel and try and rectify these mistakes, and one who gave his life believing in the importance of his work and having the ability to the tell truth to power.

The late U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, left, shakes hands with a Libyan man in Tripoli, Libya, in a photo posted on the U.S. Embassy Tripoli Facebook page on Aug. 27. | AP Photo
(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and a Libyan citizen)

 

A STATE AT ANY COST: THE LIFE OF DAVID BEN-GURION by Tom Segev

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(David Ben-Gurion)

A STATE AT ANY COST: THE LIFE OF DAVID BEN-GURION is an apt title for Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev’s new biography of Israel’s first Prime Minister.  Segev is a prolific writer who is the author of seven books ranging from a biography of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal; THE SEVENTH MILLION; 1967: ISRAEL, THE WAR AND THE YEAR THAT TRANSFORMED THE MIDDLE EAST; and  ONE PALESTINE, COMPLETE.  Segev’s books reflect impeccable research that includes archival work, interviews, and a strong command of secondary materials in addition to examining previously unavailable materials.  This approach dominates all of his previous books as well as his newest effort.  For those familiar  with Ben-Gurion’s life  and decision making it is clear that the creation of an Israeli state was paramount, even to the point of sacrificing refugees from Europe during and after the Holocaust or turning against other leaders and organizations who would not accept his leadership.  He was a man who did not change and from the outset Segev points out he “exhibited ideological devotion that awed those around him.  The Zionist dream was the quintessence of his identity and the core of his personality, and its fulfillment his greatest desire.”

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(the “young” David Ben-Gurion)

Ben-Gurion wanted to be a leader and aspired to a specific place in history – the man who facilitated the creation of a Jewish state. He often referred to the Bible and Jewish destiny but realized that achieving his dream required “exhausting labor, and tiny, often exasperating steps forward.”  Segev is correct that many shared his vision, but few of his contemporaries were as obsessed with politics.  Few of his colleagues were as diligent and addicted to detail and these characteristics made him “an indispensable leader, though not an omnipotent one.”  If he had to use people, lie about them, manipulate situations for his benefit he had no compunction that it might be wrong, as long as it contributed to his overall goals.

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(Albert Einstein and David Ben-Gurion)

Segev does a very good job explaining the different organizations associated with Palestine.  Be it Zionist groups in Poland before World War II, groups in America or London, groups in Russia, or those in Palestine, Segev dissects their ideologies as well as the important personalities involved.  For supporters of Zionism they were required to reconsider their traditional identities and position themselves between the values of Jewish tradition and a new Jewish nationalism.  Most Jewish immigrants who came to Palestine before World War I arrived with the belief that they came to a land that belonged to them, land that God had promised Abraham.  For Ben-Gurion taking control of the labor market which, these immigrants reinforced was the key in turning Jews who had run from pogroms back into normal people.

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(Ben-Gurion and Israeli Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister Golda Meir)

Segev’s biography puts forth a number of important themes.  First, his subject is a deeply flawed individual who suffered from bouts of anxiety, depression, and at times manic behavior.  Segev is at his best when probing the human side of this complex leader.  His integration of excerpts from his diaries and letters show a lonely man despite his iron will and outwardly self-assured manner.  His personality at times touched levels of megalomania that fostered a series of internal and external conflicts.  But one must realize that the price of creating a Jewish state was steep and it took a personal toll on Ben-Gurion as thousands would die and he had to cope with that fact and so many other details.

These characteristics are present in Segev’s second theme as Ben-Gurion worked his way up the Zionist leadership ladder, he would also engage in nonstop, often rivalrous and sometimes divisive power struggles with just about everyone.  Among those he competed with include the likes of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of an uncompromising Revisionist Zionist Movement, Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun and future Prime Minister of Israel, and fellow Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann whom he argued with over strategy and who would be the dominant voice in Zionist leadership.  Despite his strident behavior and beliefs Ben-Gurion did have the ability to compromise if he perceived that he could adopt a position that would further the goal of a Jewish state.  This strategy manifested itself with his attitude toward Holocaust survivors, compromises with the British during World War II, and support for partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs.  Ben-Gurion could be pragmatic when necessary particularly when it came to partition.  For example, the 1936 Peel Commission allotted Jews a small territory which elated Ben-Gurion as he argued the fact that having a state was more important than borders; besides, “borders are not forever.” In every instance Ben-Gurion always believed in the righteousness of his approach.

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A third theme that drives the entire narrative focuses on Ben-Gurion’s ideology and belief system which he used to try and encourage people to immigrate to Palestine and win over political allies as he traveled to the United States, London, and throughout Europe rarely staying at home for more than a few months at a time.  Ben Gurion’s world view contributed to the factionalism that existed within the Zionist and non-Zionist movements be it the Zionist Congress, Hapo’el Hatzair, Ahdut Ha’avodah and others.  This factionalism is evident as Segev does a marvelous job describing the rhetorical and personal hatred that existed between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky; Ben-Gurion and Weizmann; the creation of a Jewish army; disagreements with the likes of Israel Galili, the Chief of the National Command a few weeks before the Arab attack in May 1948; and the final creation of the Mapai party among many examples.

A fourth theme encompasses Ben-Gurion’s personal life as he chose power politics over family.  His marriage to Pauline Moonweis seemed at times cold, but at times loving.  Ben-Gurion’s travel presented many opportunities for at least four mistresses and other affairs which he engaged in repeatedly despite his wife’s knowledge of them.  Ben-Gurion had three children, but he was a poor father at best and his relationship with his son and daughters was quite distant.

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Segev points out a number of interesting aspects of Ben-Gurion’s political development.  He would visit Moscow in 1923 and stay for four months and he came to admire Lenin’s ability to reshape his people’s destiny apart from his ideology.  He would learn the structure of authoritarian leadership and use it systematically to achieve his life’s goals.  According to Segev “Ben-Gurion intended to be a Zionist Lenin.”  This approach to leadership was exhibited in his reaction to Arab Revolts of 1921 and 1936, the issuance of British White Papers throughout the 1930s, and the rise of Nazi Germany.  Ben-Gurion’s principle occupation as a leader was to respond to events, he had no control over and do the best he could in manipulating them for his future goals.

Segev is very clear in his view of Ben-Gurion’s callousness in response to the Holocaust.  The European Jews who escaped extermination were those who immigrated to the United States or elsewhere before the killings began.  Ben-Gurion blamed the Holocaust on those Jews who remained.  Segev points out that “Zionist ideological negation of the Exile presented the Jews of the Diaspora as passive and weak and thus contemptible.  It was a common claim—instead of coming to Palestine, the Jews of Europe let the Nazis murder them, and thus undermined the Zionist project.”  Ben-Gurion stated, “they refused to listen to us.”  This attitude contributed to Ben-Gurion’s approach toward the Holocaust as he realized that was little that could be done. Segev speculates that Ben-Gurion’s guilt over his inability to help Holocaust victims was responsible for distancing himself from their suffering when he visited them in Displaced Persons camps in Germany after the war.  For Ben-Gurion, any plan or strategy should focus on bringing “able” survivors of the Nazi death camps to Palestine after the war as labor would be crucial to achieving the Zionist state.  The only way Ben-Gurion could deal with his helplessness during the Holocaust was to place it behind him emotionally and focus on the future.  Ben-Gurion’s fear was that the annihilation of European Jewry would obliterate Zionism, it was a crime against the future State of Israel as he feared there would be no one left to build the country.

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(Ben-Gurion finally meets Winston Churchill who is 87 years old!)

According to Segev, who has often been associated with revisionist historians who have challenged Israel’s founding narrative, one of the most controversial aspects of Ben-Gurion’s  role in Israel’s founding was Plan Dalet.  A formal written order seems to have been written in May 1948 expelling Arabs from entire villages solving the problem of depopulating areas of Arabs and supposedly clogging the roads with Arab refugees hindering the progress of Arab armies. A further goal was to prevent Arab settlements from being used as bases for enemy forces resulting in the destruction of entire villages and forcing the Arabs to flee.  Other plans were employed using propaganda, “whispering campaigns,” shutting off water and electricity to encourage people to leave their homes.  In the end according to historian Ilan Pappe in his ETHNIC CLEANSING OF PALESTINE at least four to six hundred thousand Arabs if not more fled or were uprooted.   Ben-Gurion’s role according to other historians like Benny Morris in THE BIRTH OF THE PALESTINIAN REFUGEE PROBLEM, 1947-1949, is that the Israeli leader was present on May 10, 1948 at a meeting in Tel Aviv where the decision to depopulate certain Arab population centers and the forcible depopulation and destruction of villages was made.

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(Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan)

Segev spends a great deal of time on the development of the United Nations Partition Plan once the British decide to leave Palestine as the cost of keeping the peace and dealing with terrorism and the bankruptcy of their empire was too much.  The reparations negotiations with West Germany receive fair coverage as does the 1956 Suez War, which provides a great deal of new information about the Israeli security mindset leading up to the war.  All in all, Segev’s comprehensive monograph will probably leave Ben-Gurion admirers and critics equally unhappy but it cannot be in doubt that Israel’s first Prime Minister was the most important figure in Israel’s founding and eventual survival.

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IN EXTREMIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF WAR CORRESPONDENT MARIE COLVIN by Lindsey Hilsum

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(Marie Colvin in the Chechen Mountains, 1999)

“Why do I cover wars…. It is a difficult question to answer.  I did not set out to become a war correspondent.  It has always seemed to me what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in war—declared and undeclared.” (Marie Colvin, The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, April 22, 2001)

 

Lindsey Hilsum’s new biography of Marie Colvin is a stark reminder of the plight of journalists in our ever-dangerous world.  According to the Washington Post at least 43 journalists were killed in 2018 with another 12 deaths whose causes are not totally clear.  The role of a journalist is to report the news as accurately as possible so citizens can make intelligent judgements about world events.  The life of Colvin presented in IN EXTREMIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE WAR CORRESPONDENT MARIE COLVIN reflects that dedication and commitment to that truth.  Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 News in England is the perfect candidate to write about Colvin’s life as she herself covered wars and conflicts in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and Africa.  The recent murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi Arabian government reflects the danger journalists face.  The evidence points to the murder being ordered by the Saudi Royal Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman because of Khashoggi’s negative reporting of Saudi policies.  In this case a journalist was not killed on the battlefield, though in a sense he was.  In Colvin’s case she would give her life reporting from Homs, Syria district of Baba Amir, killed by an artillery attack in 2012 during the civil war that continues to this day.

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(Colvin in Cairo during the Arab Spring, 2011)

Colvin was raised in a comfortable middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, a lifestyle she would totally reject after studying with legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale and move on to a dangerous yet rewarding career as a war correspondent.   Hersey was one of the first individuals who impacted Colvin’s life and work.  Another, her role model, Martha Gellhorn whose work during World War II was exemplary.  Hilsum meticulously chronicles Colvin’s relationships and how they affected her love life and career.  Perhaps the most important being Sunday Times correspondent, David Blundy.  This bond was less sexual and more of a lifetime friendship as they shared the same approach to their work, humor, and the way they approached the world.  Hilsum details other important relationships pointing out their importance to Colvin’s life and work which both seemed conceived as a war zone.  Colvin was married twice to husbands who repeatedly lied to her, had her own series of affairs and one-night stands, suffered miscarriages, and would resort to alcohol to deal with her pain.

Colvin’s big break came in 1985 as a UPI reporter she was sent to Morocco with other journalists to witness the celebration of King Hassan’s twenty-five-year reign.  This morphed into an assignment in Libya as its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the self-declared revolutionary and supporter of terrorism decided to engage the United States in a manner that could only bring President Reagan to respond with overwhelming force.  During their relationship Colvin was able to score several interviews with the Libyan strong man, and while avoiding his sexual advances enabling her to explore his rogue ideology and what he might do next.  Hilsum delves into how Colvin conducted interviews and developed her approach to revolutionaries, terrorists, or as they described themselves, freedom fighters.   For Colvin, her reporting was designed to focus on “the role and feelings of the individual in the collective violence of war.” (56)

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Hilsum’s approach reflects Colvin’s dedication to her craft and the dangers she faced on a regular basis.  Be it confronting Muammar Gaddafi, her special relationship with Yasir Arafat, or interviewing other individuals who rebelled against existing power structures.  The reader is presented with an inside look at the pitfalls and obstacles journalists like Colvin faced each day in Libya, Iraq, Israel, Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor, Afghanistan, and finally in Syria over the last three decades.  Hilsum relies on over three hundred journals maintained by Colvin, interviews with her peers, and impeccable research to construct a fascinating picture of Colvin’s private life and career which she had difficulty keeping separate.

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Hilsum does a nice job presenting the background history of each conflict area Colvin explores.  The author tries to explain the myriad factions in Lebanon as Beirut is divided at a green line with Maronite Christians, Amal,  Palestinian groups, bourgeoning Hezbollah all backed by different powers be it Iran, Russia or Syria.  In dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hilsum bores down deep to explain its origins, the constant explosion into violence be it the Intifadas, the wars against Hamas, and the attempts at peace.  Hilsum describes Colvin’s approach to reporting as other journalists would file from the relative safety of Paris and Cyprus when covering Middle East tension, Colvin would get up close and want to experience events before she reported.  Danger be damned, as her journalism was distinguished  by her personal experience and she would become part of the nomadic group of journalists who wandered the landscape of the Middle East.

For Colvin the Middle East held a tremendous fascination which explains many of her stories.  She was able to develop a trusting relationship with the elusive Yasir Arafat and interviewed him over twenty times.  Hilsum describes the arcane nature of Palestinian politics and the reclusive nature of the Palestinian Chairman.  Arafat is the perfect example to study as Colvin had the uncanny ability to get people to speak to her.  Colvin’s reputation was secured as she was able to sneak into Basra in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war, Beirut during the 163-day siege of the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in 1987, and her reporting helped create world pressure to get the Syrians to force their surrogates to stop the fighting.  The following year her stories describing the first Intifada against Israel reaffirmed her status as a war correspondent.  Colvin was not known for her stylistic approach to writing, but she got the facts and the human-interest component, at times leaving it to her editors in London to fit the puzzle of her reporting together in a more coherent whole.

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(Homs, Syria where Colvin was targeted and killed by Syrian intelligence in 2012

The years 1998 through 2001 found Colvin moving from what area of conflict to another with seemingly no time in between.  1998 saw her in Kosovo reporting on the devastation caused by Serbian nationalists. 1999 revolved around Indonesia as rebels in East Timor declared their independence.  Later that same year Colvin moved on to Chechnya as the new President of Russia, Vladimir Putin decided to crush Chechen rebels who had broken away from Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Finally, becoming involved in the Sri Lankan Civil War where she was shot trying to leave a Tamil rebel held area, resulting in a loss of her eye, and a deep depression as she tried to recover physically as well as emotionally.

Hilsum chronicles Colvin’s eventual psychological spiral as she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder for which she received treatment.  But her developing alcoholism was never treated.  As Hilsum vividly explains, “She could not unseen what she had seen, and he [a colleague] feared she was losing her ability to distance herself from horror.”  (Washington Post, December 21, 2018)  As Colvin describes herself in a November 12, 2010 piece it was difficult to distinguish between bravery and bravado. (294)

Colvin was a remarkable woman who had many irreconcilables demons within, but she found herself to a large extent as a war correspondent that made life, at times tolerable.  She witnessed and personally suffered a great deal of sadness and joy in her life, but her work is a testament for what journalism can accomplish, and the hope that those in power will care when reporting reaches the newspapers, websites, or television.  Hilsum has done an excellent job capturing the essence of who Colvin was and how she made her life meaningful.

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(Marie Colvin on assignment)

POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY by Steven Zipperstein

(Victims of the Kishinev pogrom, 1903)

At a time when American society is confronted with pictures of immigrants incarcerated at the US border with Mexico it is a good time to step back and try and understand why people choose to flee their homelands and come to America.  In the case of people arriving on our southern borders their motivations are diverse from economic hardship to fear of death.  These reasons are in a sense universal when examined from a historical perspective.  Earlier in American history we witnessed a flood of Jewish immigrants, roughly two million from Eastern Europe and Russia between 1890 and 1914.  This has had a tremendous impact on our history and growth as a nation.  This mass migration was due in large part because of the anti-Semitic policies of the Tsarist government that resulted in years of persecution, and violent acts against Jews.  Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century these acts, labeled “pogroms” seemed to occur on a regular basis fostering the need for Jewish families to begin a chain of migration to America and other areas of the world.  Perhaps the most famous pogrom occurred in 1903 in the provincial city of Kishinev located at the edge of the Russian Empire which is the subject of Steven J. Zipperstein’s fascinating and informative new book POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY.

The term “pogrom” enters the western lexicon toward the end of the 19th century in Russia as violence and scapegoating of Jews proliferates.  It would be invoked in numerous towns and villages reaching a crescendo between 1918 and 1920 as 100,000 Jews may have been victimized as they were thought to be Bolsheviks.  Jews were supposed to be wealthy, but the vast majority lived in poverty.  They were thought to be well educated and involved in commerce, but what the Russians resented the most was their secrecy and refusal to be absorbed into the larger society.

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The accusation against Jews that seems to have been the foundation of many pogroms was that of the “ritual killing of Christian children” during the Passover holiday under government sanction.  For an interesting novel that highlights this topic see Bernard Malamud’s THE FIXER which presents the major issues that Zipperstein discusses in a fictional format.

The Kishinev pogrom was seen as shorthand for barbarism, “for the behavior akin to the worst medieval atrocities.”  It would become the only “significant event embraced by all sectors of the severely fractured Russian Jewish scene.”  However, as the author argues throughout the narrative, though agreement was reached concerning the horrors that took place, it became an agreement wrought with myths, half-truths, and outright distortions.  The strength of Zipperstein’s presentation is the dissection of the myths and other components by explaining what occurred in the spring of 1903 in the Kishinev district.  The author carefully examines all aspects of the tragedy from its causes, the persons responsible, the victims and survivors, and the implication for Jewish history in the future.  Kishinev would become the epitome of evil in the west, a jarring glimpse of what the 20th century would hold in store.

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The theme of book rests on how “history is made and remade, what is retained and elided, and why.”  The author examines how “one particular moment managed to chisel onto contemporary Jewish history and beyond that it held meaning even for those who never heard of the town, know nothing of its details, and nonetheless draw lessons from it.”

Forgeries and myths surround the history of the pogrom that greatly impacted how people who participated and survived viewed what they experienced, what had actually transpired, as well as how it was perceived years later.  For example; there was supposedly a letter from the Russian Minister of the Interior, V.K. Plehve instructing the local authorities not to intercede once the massacre began.  This is untrue, no letter existed, though a forgery may have appeared.  Another example revolves around who wrote and was responsible for the dissemination of the PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION which accused Jews of a worldwide conspiracy to dominate all people and their lives.  It was said to have been a creation of the Russian secret police, the Okhrana in 1897, when in fact it was most likely the work of Pavel Krushevan, a publisher, novelist and owner of the newspaper Bessarabets which made the scurrilous lies of the PROTOCOLS available to the public.

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Zipperstein’s sources have been mined thoroughly ranging from the literary works of Alexander Pushkin to Serge S. Urussov, the Governor-General of Bessarabia’s diaries.  The two most important sources are Hayyam Nahman Bialik, the Jewish national poet who wrote, “In the City of Killing,” describing the massacre; and Michael Davitt, an Irish revolutionary and a reporter for Randolph Hearst’s New York American, who would go on to write WITHIN THE PALE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE ANTI-SEMETIC PERSECUTIONS IN RUSSIA, published in 1903.  Zipperstein examines the lives of these two important figures, how they went about their research and who they interviewed.  Excerpts of their work dot the narrative as Zipperstein dissects what occurred hour by hour and both men reach a controversial conclusion that Jewish men were weak and cowards.

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Bialik’s poem, “In the City of Killing” has impacted Jewish history up until today and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has referred to it in his speeches.  Zipperstein argues that Bialik conflated his entire life experience, particularly his childhood with the plight of Jews – one of helplessness.  His “rage leads him to construct the Jews of Kishinev as abject, and in the process to reshape and reconstruct his own identity.”  The poem recreates the violence, rape, and plunder perpetrated against the Jews, but the core of the poem is a devastating conclusion concerning Jewish male cowardice.  The appearance of the poem would overshadow what had transpired as it focused on the moral failings of Kishinev’s men and soon it became “shorthand for the utter vulnerability of the Jewish people, their devastation of soul and body alike.” Zipperstein examines the poem line by line and concludes that Bialik’s approach is literary poetry, while Davitt ‘s account is accurate as a whole and is first rate journalism, in addition to being reliable history.

Zipperstein asks why did the pogrom occur in Kishinev, a town that was on the outskirts of the Russian empire.  He concludes that a number of events, thought processes, and socio-economic relationships are responsible.  First, though day to day relations among the population seemed amiable, the peasants felt exploited by Jews engaging in a significant amount of commerce.  Second, in the spring of 1903 agricultural prices were on the decline reducing the supply of money.  Third, right wing elements were obsessed with Jewish visibility in the town.  Four, the supposed “ritual killings” in Dubossary, a town near Kishinev a few months before the pogrom.  Five, the fanning of anti-Semitic flames by Pavel Krusheran and his newspaper.  Lastly, Pogroms were seen as a reasonable response to a pariah people as rumors of ritual killing swirled.  Keeping in mind that in 1897 the population of the Kishinev district was 280,000 of which 54.910 were Jewish; and of the city’s 39 factories, 29 were owned by Jews could help explain people’s exacerbated feelings reactions once the violence spread.

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Zipperstein also dissects the political implications of the pogrom.  He explores how it was used by different political factions for their own ends be they Zionists, socialists, Labor, Bundists etc. Many saw the pogrom as an opportunity to foster immigration to Palestine, others were resigned to trying to survive in Russia as they hoped the violence was spent.  The pogrom also touched off a nasty debate in American politics as the pogrom was compared to the lynchings of blacks in the south.  The American left used Kishinev as vehicle to make Americans aware of the treatment of blacks.  This also created a schism within the black communities because of its response to Kishinev and dealing with their own issues.  Interestingly, as Zipperstein describes at the end of the book, the uproar in the United States and its link to lynching’s helped push for the creation of the NAACP in 1909.

Overall the book is quite comprehensive and incorporates a great deal of information that is knew, i.e., Zipperstein’s acquisition of Krusheran’s teenage diaries among other sources.  If you would like to try and understand what occurred in Kishinev, with its historical implications, POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY is an excellent resource.

Chișinău  ~  Кишинев  ~  Kishinev

  Kehilalink Search

List of Victims of Kishinev Pogrom of 1903

The list below is the result of merging information contained in 2 published documents:

Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia, Michael Davitt, London, 1903

Davitt was an Irish journalist who visited Kishinev after the pogrom, and reported on it for two New York newspapers. The list there is an early one and is incomplete, but does have the genealogical benefit of often including the patronymic names.

Ha-Pogrom Be-Kishineff – Pesach 1903-Pesach 1963, Tel Aviv, 1963

This book, published on the 60th anniversary of the pogrom includes a copy of an original incomplete list (in Hebrew, awkwardly translated by a colleague and I).

Some of the other details here are either from Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom, and excellent book written by Edward H. Judge (New York University Press, 1992; recently published in paperback as well) or from personal correspondence with Judge.


There were apparently 49 Jewish victim who died during or as a result of the pogrom (38 male, 11 females, including several children). According to the chief surgeon of the Kishinev Jewish Hospital, 37 were dead when they were brought to the hospital during the pogrom, 4 died at home following the pogrom, and 8 died in the hospital as a result of injuries received during the pogrom.

My list has only 46 people (including 6 females and one child of unknown gender). It is possible that I have listed someone as dead who was only injured, or that I have listed a single person twice due to a confusion of names. Clearly, not all those who lost their lives due to the pogrom are mentioned in the two lists I have located. Nevertheless it is a start.

I hope to get additional information from Prof. Judge and a colleague of his in Kishinev (now Chisinau, Moldova) who has done extensive pogrom research. If I ultimately have additional information, I will integrate it.

In some cases, the sources have additional information about how the person died (often a very ugly story).

Where the different sources yielded several names for the same person, I have included both (as in “Mordechai/Mottel”).

Alan Greenberg: alan.greenberg@mcgill.ca


I have added the 47th victim based on the article provided by Rosemarie Cohen (see article Morris Cohen Keeps a Promise)Ariel Parkansky


Kishinev 1903 Pogrom Victims

First Name(s) Surname Gender
1 Benja/Benjamin Shimenov Baranovitz M
2 Isaac/Yitschok Belitzkah/Byeletsky M
3 Itlia/Itel Berger F
4 Hosea/Joshua Abramovitz Berladsky M
5 Hirsch/Tsvi Chaimov Bolgar M
6 Aaron Isaacov Brachman M
7 David Abrahamov Charidon M
8 (sister – age 12) Chatzkalovitz/Chaskelevitz F
9 David Nissleov Chatzkalovitz/Chaskelevitz M
10 Abraham Router Cohen/Kogan M
11 David Drachman M
12 Chaia Sarah Abramovna Fanarzei/Fanarnei M
13 Eiss/Zusya Davidovitz Fanarzei/Fanarnei M
14 Simeon/Shimon Fishman M
15 Ben-Zion Leibov Galantor/Salapter M
16 (child) Golder ?
17 Chaim Leib/Leibov Goldiss M
18 Joseph Hirsch/Tsvi Danilov Greenberg M
19 Mordecai/Mottel Greenspoon M
20 Kopel Davidovitz Kainarsky M
21 Joseph Abramovitz Kantor M
22 Rose/Raiza Falikovna Katzap M
23 Kaela Kaza/Konza M
24 (husband) Keigelman M
25 Chaia Leah Keigelman F
26 Moshe Samuel/Tsvi Kiegel M
27 Beila Leiserovna Kodja? F
28 Idel/Jehudah Krupnik M
29 Isaac/Yitschok Krupnik M
30 Shmuel/Michel Shaev Lashkoff M
31 Hirsch/Tsvi Yankelev Liss M
32 Moses/Moshe Chaskelov Makhlin M
33 Mottel/Mordechai Davidovitz Menduk M
34 (man) Newman M
35 Chaim Nissinov Nissenson M
36 Isaac/Yitzshok Yankelov Rosenfeld M
37 Israel Leiserovitz Selstein/Shalistal M
38 Michel/Yachael Josiphov Seltzer M
39 Pinya Isaacov Spivak F
40 Jacob Elchunov Tounik M
41 Israel Yacoblewitz Ulmer M
42 Samuel/Shmuel Baruch Urrman M
43 Feiga Voulyar/Wouller F
44 Leinha/Simcha Voulyar/Wouller M
45 Abraham Yitschok/Router Weinstein M
46 Kalman Wolowitz/Volovitz M
47 (Rabbi) Mordecai Alpert M
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(Damaged Torahs used at funerals for Kishinev pogrom)

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RISE AND KILL FIRST: SECRET HISTORY OF ISRAEL’S TARGET ASSASSINATIONS by Ronen Bergman

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(David Ben-Gurion, creator of Israeli intelligence services)

When the state of Israel achieved nationhood in 1948 it was seen as an ethical and moral experiment because of the role the Holocaust played in its creation, along with its dominant Jewish culture.  Residing in a geographical region that had nothing but hatred for the new state it would be difficult to expect Israel to maintain the high standards that were expected of it.  The difficulty would morph into a nation that had to protect itself from invasion, and once that was beaten back it had to deal with constant attacks across its borders.  As a result Israel would take on the character of other countries and adopt measures that ran counter to expectations.  The evolution of Israel into an intelligence and military power to meet the needs of its citizens is explored in detail in Ronen Bergman’s new book, RISE AND KILL FIRST: SECRET HISTORY OF ISRAEL’S TARGET ASSASSINATIONS.  Bergmann is an Israeli journalist who writes for Yedioth Ahronoth and has received the highest prize offered for journalism in Israel.  Bergman’s monograph begins with the end of the Second World War and continues through today. It is based on over 1,000 interviews, thousands of documents, and runs to about 650 pages.

What is clear from the outset is that Israeli leaders were firm believers in the Hammurabi Code of “an eye for an eye.”  This can be seen from the outset as Israel wanted to ethnically cleanse as many Palestinians as possible (Plan Dalet)), from towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Bergman traces the creation of a “machine” which came about through the “marriage of guerrilla warfare and the military might of a technological powerhouse.”  Bergman explores the political leaders, operatives, methodology, and deliberations that resulted in many successes, but a number of important failures also.  One of the major themes of the book rests on the moral cost of this policy and how two separate legal systems developed in Israel; one for ordinary citizens, and one for the intelligence community and military establishment.  The template became a model for other countries, particularly the United States after 9/11 which mirrored Israeli intelligence gathering and assassination techniques.

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(Ariel Sharon, circa 1967)

Bergman does an excellent job explaining the Israeli rationalization for targeted killing.  He explores in depth the history that preceded its implementation, its legal justification, and the resulting bifurcation in Israeli society.  Since Israel suffers from a deficit of men and equipment when compared to its enemies, early on they decided to rely on internal security and intelligence gathering services for their survival.   The program began under Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion who effectively set up the extrajudicial system to carry out assassinations.  By 1949 Ben-Gurion created the Mossad (covert activities beyond the country’s borders)), along with AMAN (the military intelligence arm that supplies information to the IDF); and Shin Bet (responsible for internal intelligence, counterterror, and counterespionage).  These three services still remain the core of Israeli intelligence activities to this day.

There are a number of key events and individuals that are responsible for the evolution of Israeli tactics.  Israel faced “Fedayeen,” Arab terrorists led by an Egyptian, Mustafa Hafez, who crossed into Israel in great numbers after the War of Independence and killed numerous Israelis.  By 1956, the Suez War broke out and after the Gaza Strip was conquered Israeli intelligence came across Hafez’s list of operatives who had terrorized Israel for years.  Ben-Gurion ordered that everyone on the list should be killed and one by one operations were carried out.  This section of the book reads like a Daniel Silva novel.  From 1956-1967 attacks were drastically reduced as the Arabs realized the price they would pay from Israeli retribution.  However, the Egyptians began to employ German scientists to develop long range missiles.  Bergman provides a detailed chapter on the episode and one realizes that once a threat is perceived, Israel reacts.  In this case the assassination of German scientists, kidnappings, and recruiting certain scientists to be used against Egypt, i.e., Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s Operational Commander.

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(Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad)

The book encompasses more than a retelling of numerous targeted killings.  Bergman discusses a series of operations whose focal point was not assassination.  For example, the high jacking of an Iraq MIG-21 fighter by getting the pilot to defect, or allying with King Hassan II to spy on Arab leaders providing intelligence leading up to the Six Day War.  Further, throughout the 1950s and 60s Israel was preoccupied by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser and as a result Israeli intelligence missed the creation in 1964 of the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasir Arafat and Abu Jihad.  After the 1967 War, the PLO launched numerous attacks against Israel.  As Israel attempted to assassinate Arafat, his popularity among Palestinians increased, and enlistments in the PLO rose dramatically as the Palestinian leader was seen as the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism.

Perhaps one of Bergman’s most interesting chapters, “Meir Dagan and His Expertise” the author describes how Israel dealt with this increasing threat.  It is here that we see assassination and killing implemented as standard policy.  The Israeli government unleashed Ariel Sharon who commanded Israel’s southern frontier.  By the end of 1969, Sharon created a new unit under Meir Dagan, and using intelligence gathered by the Shin Bet went into Gaza to murder Palestinian operatives and leaders.  After the PLO responded by slaughtering an Israeli family driving along the Gaza road, Shin Bet and IDF Special Forces wiped out terrorism in the Gaza Strip through 1972 by employing methods that went beyond Israeli domestic law.  This was effective until the Jordanian Civil War produced a new Palestinian terrorist group, Black September.

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(Results of of an Israeli missile target killing)

Bergman’s command of his material is superb, as his analysis down to the last detail.  He takes the reader into areas that no previous author has done.  Numerous operations are described including their conception and implementation.  Among the many that are discussed include the “Spring of Youth” operation that resulted in the death of three top PLO officials and 35 PFLP terrorists in Beirut in October, 1972, which netted documents that would lead to the destruction of the Fatah network in the West Bank, and the killing of all the assailants related to the 1972 Olympic Munich massacre by elements of Black September.  However as successful as the operation was it created tremendous hubris on the part of Israeli leaders leading them to believe the Arabs would not attack further.  This feeling of superiority resulted in rejection of Anwar Sadat’s peace overtures which led to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

The Salameh operation is described in detail and produced a number of surprising pieces of information.  For example, Salameh had been recruited by the CIA and was America’s back channel to Arafat.  Both parties agreed that the PLO would not launch attacks in the United States, and Salameh would be protected.  However, Israel viewed Salameh as the man who engineered the Olympic massacre and waited until January, 1979 to kill him with a car bomb in Beirut.  Another example was the Israeli raid on Entebbe that resulted in the rescue of most of the Israeli hostages that were imprisoned after an airliner high jacking that was flown to Kenya.  Bergman presents the planning of the raid, and once again the outcome was marked by Israeli hubris.

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(the assassination of an Iranian operative)

Abu Nidal presented a different problem for Israel after his terror group killed Israel’s ambassador to England, Shlomo Argov.  This was used as an excuse to invade Lebanon, when Israeli attacks led by Meir Dagan failed to provoke a PLO response, a move that Middle East expert, Robin Wright led to “Israel’s Vietnam.”  Bergman highlights the most important aspects of the war, especially the role played by Sharon.  The Israeli general had his own agenda in launching the attack; first, to redraw the map of the region with a Christian Lebanon and the movement of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan, second, his obsession with killing Arafat.  Both goals were not achieved, but what was achieved was raising Arafat’s profile in the Arab world as the Palestinians were forced to leave Lebanon in August, 1982, the emergence of a new terrorist group backed by Iran, Hezbollah, and the beginning of an eighteen year quagmire in Lebanon.  Sharon acted like a monarch, a law unto himself making him a detriment to Israel.  Sharon overshadowed Prime Minister Menachem Begin who receded into an emotional depression as the war continued, and was replaced as Prime Minister by Yitzchak Shamir.  Israel would continue its policy of targeted killing as the carnage of Munich, Maalot, Nahariya, and many others became Israel’s justification for murder and summary executions.  Lebanon made the situation even worse as there were no laws to restrain the Shin Bet from torturing prisoners and on many occasions killing them.

There are numerous other highlights in Bergman’s detailed narrative.  The Intifada that broke out in December, 1987 that caught the Palestinian leadership, Israeli government and intelligence officials totally flatfooted is a case in point as it eventually morphed into the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993.  The Intifada saw Israel double down on targeted killings as it sought to control the images being flashed each day in the media.  Israel’s main target was Abu Jihad, Arafat’s number two man and Bergman describes how he was hunted down, and at the same time missing an opportunity to also kill Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the Palestinian Authority.  Bergman makes the important point that Abu Jihad, who was not as intransigent as many others in Gaza had been alive perhaps there might have been some movement towards ending the Intifada and perhaps “Hamas might not have been able to consolidate its position to dominate large parts of the Palestinian public.” (323)

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(Yasir Arafat)

As the Intifada continued the Shin Bet became very flexible in its approach to killings; employing disguise to trap suspects, demolished terrorist’s homes, and turning Palestinians into spies for Israel.  The most important of which was Adnan Yassin, a mid-level activist who dealt with numerous projects in PLO headquarters in Tunis.  Once Yassin was turned, he provided valuable information for over four years that helped prevent numerous attacks and contributed to a number of important targeted killings.  By 1992, Yassin was discovered and executed.

As Bergman develops his narrative he integrates the history of the region and the most important historical figures into his text.  None is more important than Saddam Hussein and his quest to acquire nuclear weapons.  Bergman digs deep and points out that the United States and France were currying Saddam’s favor because of his ongoing war with Iran in the 1980s.  It is surprising to note that the French built a nuclear reactor in Iraq and supplied him with the necessary technology to try and reach his goals.  This was due to the ego of Charles de Gaulle who resented Israel’s ignoring his advice in 1967 and from that time, France, a traditional ally  turned against the Jewish state.  The Mossad pursued the same approach it had used against Egyptian scientists and began killing those associated with Iraq’s program.  Bergman follows Israel’s military and intelligence planning that finally led to the Israeli destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.

Another important individual that Israeli intelligence had to cope with was Ayatollah Khomeini whose movement overthrew Israel’s ally, Reza Pahlavi, the Iranian monarch in 1979.  Khomeini was seen as an existential threat to Israel and eventually fomented trouble throughout the region and helped create and support Hezbollah, “the Party of God” during the fighting in Lebanon.  This produced another cycle of violence with rockets and raids into northern Israel and Israeli target killings against Hezbollah leaders, particularly Hussein Abbas al-Mussawi who was responsible for many attacks against Israel.  He would be replaced by Hassan Nasrallah as Hezbollah’s leader in Lebanon.  Bergman points out that killing Mussawi may have been a mistake for Israel because he was much more liberal when it came to relations with Israel than Nasrallah who was more of a radical Shi’ite.

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(President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu-no love lost between these two!)

This process continued in dealing with Palestinian terrorism throughout the 1990s despite the Oslo Peace Accords.  Once again Bergman effectively deals with another cycle of violence.  In Gaza, Hamas was a major problem and was responsible for numerous suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.  Israel responded once again with an increase in targeted killings.  Despite the Oslo Accords, Arafat refused to cooperate with trying to control Hamas.  It would cost Prime Minister Shimon Peres his office and he would be replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu effectively ending the peace process.  Bergman points out that Hamas suicide attacks were designed to end the peace process, and with the arrival of Netanyahu as Prime Minister, they achieved their goal.

In the large number of operations that Bergman recounts he is careful to balance successes with failures, i.e., the attempt to kill Khaled Mashal, a Hamas leader in Amman totally backfired and cost Israel dearly.  Another would be the attempt to kill Hezbollah operative, Haldoun Haidar that resulted in a deadly ambush for the IDF.  These failures along with the ongoing threats from an enemy that used tactics that Israel had never grappled with before led to the reorganization of intelligence agencies under new leadership, a key of which was Ami Ayalon to head the Shin Bet and the introduction of new technology.  New surveillance techniques, integration of computer systems, a new approach to network analysis, the use of real-time intelligence, hardware and software designed to integrate different services and operational bodies led to a series of success of which the killing of the Adwallah brothers and capturing the Hamas military archive stands out.  The advances made by Shin-Bet was replicated throughout the entire country.  Bergman correctly argues if these changes had not been implemented it would have been even more difficult for Israel to deal with the Second Intifada that broke out in 2000.

Bergman discusses the changes in Israeli governments and its impact on “killing strategies.”  Netanyahu’s government was plagued by charges of corruption and an increase in suicide bombings, and by May 1999 was replaced by the Labor Party under Ehud Barak, who as a soldier had been a master of special operations.  Barak’s military lessons did not carry over to the world of politics and diplomacy.  He was able to withdraw the IDF from Lebanon, but failed in his approach to Arafat at Camp David in 2000.  This failure in conjunction with Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount helped touch off a second Intifada.  The increase in suicide bombings toppled Barak’s government and brought to power Sharon as Prime Minister leading to an all-out offensive against suicide bombers.  With no real strategy to confront events Israel turned its usual approach, increased assassinations.  When this failed Israel altered this strategy by going after much more low level targets employing advanced drones retrofitted with special targeting technology and missiles.  In addition, they began to acknowledge their responsibility for attacks and provided explanations for each.  Once the 9/11 attacks took place the Israeli leadership used the new climate in the world to legitimize its assassination policy to break the back of the Intifada.

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(Iranian diplomat Reza Najafi complaining about Israeli policy at the UN)

To his credit the author delves into discord within the intelligence community over certain actions.  Reflecting his objectivity Bergman discusses certain planned operations that brought about refusals on the part of certain participants to carry out orders when they believed there would be too much collateral damage.  The debates between higher ups in this process are also presented and it was rare that there was unanimity over a given plan.  The possible assassination of Sheik Yassin is a case in point because Israel’s legal justification for targeting anyone rests on the principle that a direct link between that person and a future terrorist attack was at hand.  Finally, in March, 2004 Yassin was killed, as was his successor Abd al-Aziz-Rantisi one month later.  Israel had instituted a new policy that political targets, in addition to operational targets were fair game because of the increase in suicide attacks that also included the use of women for the first time.  The suicide attacks finally ended with the death of Arafat and the coming to power of Mahmoud Abbas who finally cracked down on Hamas.

Bergman pays careful attention to the shifting balance of power in the Middle East as it pertains to Israeli targeting policies.  Yassin’s assassination was a turning point as he opposed any links with Iran, however once he was dead Hamas’ leadership agreed to work with Iran and the Teheran regime gained a strong foothold in Gaza.  At the same time new Syrian President Bashir Assad decided to ally with Iran producing a radical front of Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.  Israel’s response was twofold.  First, Sharon appointed Meir Dagan to totally rework Mossad which Bergman describes in detail, and secondly, have Israel’s intelligence services network with those of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco reflecting the Iranian common enemy.  The result was a string of targeted killings on the part of Israel.

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(Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin)

Israel has faced a number of threats throughout its history and no matter the obstacle it seems to land on its feet.  Over the last decade it has dealt with abducted soldiers that led to war in 2006 with Hezbollah, the creation of a Hamas state in Gaza after the split in the Palestinian community, the destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor at Deir al-Zor in 2007, and the targeted assassination of Hezbollah leaders and Iranian nuclear scientists.  But these successes have created further hubris by reasoning that it did not have to engage diplomatically, just rely on its intelligence community and technology.  As in the past this hubris could lead to tragedy.  As Bergman concludes Israel has produced a “long string of tactical successes, but also strategic failures.”

Bergman’s presentation of intricate details and analysis of all aspects of Israel’s targeted killing policy has produced a special book.  His access to the major personalities involved, his documentation of numerous operations and their repercussions, and how his subject matter fits into the regional balance of power is beyond anything previously written and should be considered the standard work on the history of the Israeli intelligence community.

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(David Ben-Gurion)

FILM AND GENOCIDE: READINGS

FILM AND GENOCIDE:

Armenian Genocide:

Akcam, Tanker  A SHAMEFUL ACT: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND THE QUESTION
OF TURKISH RESPONSIBILITY.

Balakian, Gregoris  ARMENIAN GOLOTHA: A MEMOIR OF THE ARENIAN GENOCIDE,

1915-1918

Balakian, Peter  THE BURNING TIGRIS: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND AMERICA’S
RESPONSE.

Bloxham, Donald  THE GREAT GAME OF GENOCIDE

de Bellaigue, Christopher  REBEL LAND: UNRAVELING THE RIDDLE OF HISTORY IN A
TURKISH TOWN.

Kiernan, Ben  BLOOD AND SOIL: A WORLD HISTORY OF GENOCIDE AND EXTERMINATION
FROM SPARTA TO DARFUR.

Lowy, Guenther  THE ARMENIAN MASSACRE IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE:  A DISPUTED
GENOCIDE.

Molson, Robert F.  REVOLUTION AND GENOCIDE: ON THE ORIGINS OF THE ARMENIAN
GEOCIDE AND THE HOLOAUST.

Power, Samantha  A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA IN THE AGE OF GENOCIDE.

The Holocaust:

Anderson, Alan, Ed. THE DIARY OF DAWID SIERAKOWIAK: FIVE NOTEBOOKS FROM THE
LODZ GHETTO.

…………………………….  LODZ GHETTO: INSIDE A COMMUNITY UNDER SIEGE.

Burleigh, Michael THE THIRD REICH: A NEW HISTORY.

Cesarean, David  FINAL SOLUTION: THE FATE OF THE JEWS 1933-1949.

Crowe, David M. OSKAR SCHINDLER

Dawidowicz, Lucy  THE WAR AGAINST THE JEWS: 1933-1945.

Dobroszycki, Lucian  THE CHRONICLE OF THE LOD GHETTO 1941-1944.

Evans, Richard  THE THIRD REICH AT WAR

Friedlander, Saul  NAZI GERMANY AND THE JEWS 1939-1945, THE YEARS OF EXTERMINATION.

Hackett, David A.  THE BUCHENWALD REPORT.

Hilberg, Raul, Ed. THE DIARY OF ADAM CERNIAKOW: PRELUDE TO DOOM.

Ihrig, Stefan  ATATURK IN THE NAZI IAGINATION.

Kath, Abraham Ed. THE WARSAW DIARY OF CHAIM A. KAPLAN.

Kielar, Westlaw  ANUS MUNDI 1500 DAYS IN AUSCHWITZ AND BIRKENAU.

Lanzmann, Claude  SHOAH: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST.

Mark, Ben  UPRISING IN THE WARSAW GHETTO.

Rotem, Simha  MEMOIRS OF A WARSAW GHETTO FIGHTER.

Sloan, Jacob Ed.  NOTES FROM THE WARSAW GHETTO: THE JOURNAL OF EMANUEL
RINGELBLUM.

Tory, Avraham  SURVIVING THE HOLOCAUST: THE KOVNO GHETTO DIARY.

Wachsmann, Nicokolaus  KL: A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRTION CAMPS.

Wentz, Eric D.  A CENTURY OF GENOCIDE: UTOPIAS OF RACE AND NATION.

The Killing Fields:

Brinkley, Joel  CAMBODIA’S CURSE: THE HISTORY OF A TROUBLED LAND.

Karnow, Stanley  VIETNAM: A HISTORY.

Kiernan, Ben  THE POL POT REGIME: RACE, POWER AND GENOCIDE IN CAMBODIA UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE, 1975-1979

Logevall, Fredrik  EMBERS OF WAR: THE FALL OF AN EMPIRE AND THE MAKINGS OF
AMERICA’S VIETNAM.

Ngor, Haing  SURVIVAL IN THE KILLING FIELDS.

Pran, Dith  CHILDREN OF CAMBODIA’S KILLING FIELDS.

Schanberg, Sydney H. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF DITH PRAN.

Shawcross, William  SIDESHOW: KISSINGER, NIXON, AND THE DESTRUCTION OF
CAMBODIA.

Short, Philip  POL POT: ANATOMY OF A NIGHTMARE.

Ung, Loung  FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER: A DAUGHTER OF CAMBODIA REMEMBERS.

Rwanda:

Dallaire, Romeo  SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: THE FAILURE OF HUMANITY IN RWANDA.

Editor, Gail THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE.

Gourevitch, Philip  WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES: STORIES FROM RWANDA.

Hatzfeld, Joseph  MACHETE SEASON: THE KILLERS IN RWANDA SPEAK.

Kinzer, Stephen  A THOUSAND HILLS: RWANDA’S REBIRTH AND THE MAN WHO DREAMED IT.

Prunier, Gerard  AFRICA’S WORLD WAR: THE CONGO, THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE AND THE MAKING OF A CONTINENTAL CATASTROPHE.

RESCUED FROM ISIS: THE GRIPING TRUE STORY OF HOW A FATHER SAVED HIS SON by Dimitri Bontnick

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(the author)

As parents we worry about many things.  Over the last decade parents in western countries be they Muslim or Christian have a new source for concern – The Islamic State or ISIS. It seems many of their children have become vulnerable to ISIS’ slick online propaganda or the radicalization that is preached at a number of Mosques.  In Dimitri Bontnick’s new memoir the nightmare of losing a child to the “Caliphate” is real and destructive. In his book, RESCUED FROM ISIS: THE GRIPING TRUE STORY OF HOW A FATHER SAVED HIS SON he details the recruitment of his son, his physical return, and the temporary loss of his mind.  In addition, Bontnick is able to convey the stories of numerous other families who try and gain the freedom of their sons and daughters.

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(father and son, Jejoen)

After beginning the book with his own life story and how he raised his son Jejoen or Jay,  Bontnick seems confounded by what led up to his son joining ISIS.  He was raised in a bi-racial liberal Belgium family with few restrictions.  The author points out a number of factors that he thinks contributed to Jay’s recruitment.  First, he was forced to change schools; second, the breakup with his girlfriend of three years; and third, their home was on the edge of a neighborhood that was a hotbed of jihadism.  Throughout the book Bontnick tries to wrap his head around why his son and so many others have given up their families and lives to join what they hoped to be the Caliphate.  The author takes us through his son’s recruitment as well as many others as they make the decision to travel to Turkey and cross the border into Syria.  From there we learn of their training, brain washing, and existence as part of radical Islamists.

Bontnick describes in detail how he went about trying to save his son, who ostensibly had turned his back on him.  Jay’s actions destroyed his family and resulted in his parent’s divorce.  We travel with Bontnick on numerous occasions into Syria and the minefield of Aleppo and Raqqa in search of his son, and after finally gaining Jay’s freedom, the sons of many parents pleaded to him for help.  Bontnick conveys what he was up against, first Sharia4Belgium, an organization designed to bring Belgium under Sharia law and a member of the Caliphate; then he had to deal with a series of characters in Syria, many of which were very dangerous as he was captured, beaten, and released.  During his odyssey he did come across a number of journalists, Islamists, rebel fighters, and Syrian citizens who did their best to locate Jay and allow his father to bring him home.

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(Some of the contacts Bontnick made in Al-Hamraa, Syria that helped him locate his son)

The first question a parent asks is why did I not see this coming?  In retrospect the answer is they did, but did not want to admit that their child, as in the case of Jay was becoming a stranger.  Bontnick explores his parental errors and warns parents how not to behave if they want to protect their children.  The author points out the difficulties in navigating Syria due to the many factions, armies, and ideological groups.  Bontnick traveled to Kafr Hama, a very dangerous enclave where Belgium jihadis were located.  He did and said a number of things that he feels guilty about, but justifies his actions in trying to save his son.

As Bontnick tells his story he does briefly integrate the political and military history of the Syrian Civil War.  Once he is able to free his son he will return often to Syria to bring medical supplies and assist other distraught parents in trying to free their children.  These endeavors were rarely successful, but Bontnick should be praised for all of his efforts.  The greatest fears of the sons in returning home was being prosecuted and going to prison.  Bontnick’s attitude is based on the belief that they were brainwashed as teenagers by a predatory organization that recruited westerners in “the hope of rewriting the software in the heads of children” should be taken into account.  His argument that Belgium authorities have no programs or policies in place to deal with individuals who have given up on radicalization and want to return home is very sound.  His suggestion to use their experiences as intelligence or allow them to provide information from within the Islamic State is something authorities should consider.

Once Jay returns we learn of his trial, conviction, and suspended sentence.  But despite his freedom he informs an interviewer from New Yorker magazine that his recanting of his radicalization was a sham, breaking his father’s heart.  Later their relationship would improve and the author’s experience changed his outlook on life to that of helping others rather than chasing money and a career.  The book is a heart rendering journey of a father who is attempting to keep what remains of his family together, and a successful dismantling of a major terrorist network in Belgium.  It is also a handbook for parents who must confront the issues laid out in the narrative.  Bontnick offers a great deal of advice, some of which is naive, but overall it is a chilling tale that is part of the larger war being fought against terrorism by the west.

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(the author)

The Desert Queen – A Film by Werner Herzog

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(The Real Gertrude Bell)

Just watched Werner Herzog’s 2014 film, the “Desert Queen” staring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell whose impact over British policy in the Middle East during and after World War I was quite impactful.  Hers was a rich life that reflected her work as a historian, archeologist, and later as a politician or pseudo diplomat.  The film is rather slow moving and dull in spots, however the cinematography is nicely portrayed.  The scenes with Churchill and T.E. Lawrence were poorly done, though we do get a sense of their egos.  Devoting over half the film to Bell’s love life as opposed to her research and work with the Bedouin and her influence over British policy is a misuse of time and “the Desert Queen’s” gifts.  Nicole Kidman masks a strong effort to accurately portray Bell, but overall the film could have learned a lesson from David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” though Herzog’s musical score does measure up.

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(Picture is replicated in film, with Churchill, Bell and company)

One watches the film, and follows Bell/Kidman travel the desert and after two hours, she finally meets with the Sharif of Mecca’s son’s Faisal and Abdullah and she sees them as future kings.  Though true, this could have been presented in a bit more greater depth, though their pet falcons were a nice touch.  If one is looking to learn about Gertrude Bell and I would steer toward two books, GERTRUDE BELL: QUEEN OF THE DESERT, SHAPER OF NATIONS by Georgina Bell, and DESERT QUEEN: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF GERTRUDE BELL: ADVENTURER, ADVISOR TO KINGS, AND ALLY OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA by Janet Wallach.

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(Gertrude Bell)