The Military Version Of Roulette

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

If you want a number, try 194. That’s how many countries there are on planet Earth (give or take one or two). Today, Nick Turse reports a related number that should boggle your mind: at least 137 of those countries, or 70 percent of them, already have something in common for 2017 and the year’s not even half over. They share the experience of having American Special Operations forces deployed to their territory. Assumedly, those numbers don’t include Russia, China, Iran, Andorra, or Monaco (unless guarding global casinos is a new national priority for our casino capitalist president). Still, they’re evidence of the great bet American casino militarism has made in these years ― that elite special ops troops could do what the rest of the U.S. military couldn’t: actually achieve victory in a conflict or two. 

Think of the Special Operations Command (or SOCOM) as having won the lottery in these years. From thousands of elite troops in the 1980s, their numbers have ballooned to about 70,000 at present ― a force larger, that is, than the armies of many nations, with at least 8,000 of them raiding, training, and advising abroad at any given moment.  In fact, these days it’s a reasonable bet that if American war is intensifying anywhere, they’re front and center. A year ago in Syria, for instance, there were perhaps 50 special operators helping anti-ISIS forces of various sorts.  Now, as the battle for the Islamic State’s “capital,” Raqqa, intensifies, that number has soared to 500 and is evidently still rising.  (Something similar is true for Iraq and undoubtedly, after the Pentagon dispatches its latest mini-surge of personnel to Afghanistan in the coming months, that country, too.)

As for money, SOCOM has certainly won the Pentagon’s version of roulette. (Of course, in that version, everybody wins, even if some are more triumphant than others.)  Between 2001 and 2014, the special ops budget increased by a not-so-modest 213 percent, and its budget has continued to grow since.

There’s only one category in which the special ops bet has turned out to be anything but a winning hand and that’s the subject of Nick Turse’s latest report on the operations of SOCOM globally, “A Wide World of Winless War.”  I’m talking about actual victories, not exactly a winner of a category for the U.S. military in the twenty-first century.  And by the way, given the astronomical growth and uses of America’s Special Operations Forces and their centrality to the U.S. military story over the last nearly 16 years, aren’t you just a little surprised that the best reportage on the phenomenon can’t be found in the mainstream media, but in Turse’s reports at TomDispatch?

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A Wide World Of Winless War

Cross-posted from TomDispatch.com

The tabs on their shoulders read “Special Forces,” “Ranger,” “Airborne.” And soon their guidon ― the “colors” of Company B, 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group ― would be adorned with the “Bandera de Guerra,” a Colombian combat decoration.

“Today we commemorate sixteen years of a permanent fight against drugs in a ceremony where all Colombians can recognize the special counternarcotic brigade’s hard work against drug trafficking,” said Army Colonel Walther Jimenez, the commander of the Colombian military’s Special Anti-Drug Brigade, last December.  America’s most elite troops, the Special Operations forces (SOF), have worked with that Colombian unit since its creation in December 2000. Since 2014, four teams of Special Forces soldiers have intensely monitored the brigade. Now, they were being honored for it.

Part of a $10 billion counter-narcotics and counterterrorism program, conceived in the 1990s, special ops efforts in Colombia are a much ballyhooed American success story.  A 2015 RAND Corporation study found that the program “represents an enduring SOF partnership effort that managed to help foster a relatively professional and capable special operations force.”  And for a time, coca production in that country plummeted.  Indeed, this was the ultimate promise of America’s “Plan Colombia” and efforts that followed from it.  “Over the longer haul, we can expect to see more effective drug eradication and increased interdiction of illicit drug shipments,” President Bill Clinton predicted in January 2000.

Today, however, more than 460,000 acres of the Colombian countryside are blanketed with coca plants, more than during the 1980s heyday of the infamous cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.  U.S. cocaine overdose deaths are also at a 10-year high and first-time cocaine use among young adults has spiked 61% since 2013.  “Recent findings suggest that cocaine use may be reemerging as a public health concern in the United States,” wrote researchers from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in a study published in December 2016 ― just after the Green Berets attended that ceremony in Colombia. Cocaine, the study’s authors write, “may be making a comeback.”

Colombia is hardly an anomaly when it comes to U.S. special ops deployments ― or the results that flow from them.  For all their abilities, tactical skills, training prowess, and battlefield accomplishments, the capacity of U.S. Special Operations forces to achieve decisive and enduring successes ― strategic victories that serve U.S. national interests ― have proved to be exceptionally limited, a reality laid bare from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to the Philippines. 

The fault for this lies not with the troops themselves, but with a political and military establishment that often appears bereft of strategic vision and hasn’t won a major war since the 1940s. Into this breach, elite U.S. forces are deployed again and again. While special ops commanders may raise concerns about the tempo of operations and strains on the force, they have failed to grapple with larger questions about the raison d’être of SOF, while Washington’s oversight establishment, notably the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, have consistently failed to so much as ask hard questions about the strategic utility of America’s Special Operations forces.

Special Ops at War

“We operate and fight in every corner of the world,” boasts General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM).  “On a daily basis, we sustain a deployed or forward stationed force of approximately 8,000 across 80-plus countries.  They are conducting the entire range of SOF missions in both combat and non-combat situations.”  Those numbers, however, only hint at the true size and scope of this global special ops effort.  Last year, America’s most elite forces conducted missions in 138 countries ― roughly 70% of the nations on the planet, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command.  Halfway through 2017, U.S. commandos have already been deployed to an astonishing 137 countries, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. 

Special Operations Command is tasked with carrying out 12 core missions, ranging from counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare to hostage rescue and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  Counterterrorism ― fighting what the command calls violent extremist organizations (VEOs) ― may, however, be what America’s elite forces have become best known for in the post-9/11 era.  “The threat posed by VEOs remains the highest priority for USSOCOM in both focus and effort,” says Thomas.

“Special Operations Forces are the main effort, or major supporting effort for U.S. VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America ― essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found…”

More special operators are deployed to the Middle East than to any other region.  Significant numbers of them are advising Iraqi government forces and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers as well as Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Unit) fighters and various ethnic Arab forces in Syria, according to Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst with the RAND Corporation who spent seven weeks in Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries earlier this year. 

During a visit to Qayyarah, Iraq ― a staging area for the campaign to free Mosul, formerly Iraq’s second largest city, from the control of Islamic State fighters ― Robinson “saw a recently installed U.S. military medical unit and its ICU set up in tents on the base.”  In a type of mission seldom reported on, special ops surgeons, nurses, and other specialists put their skills to work on far-flung battlefields not only to save American lives, but to prop up allied proxy forces that have limited medical capabilities.  For example, an Air Force Special Operations Surgical Team recently spent eight weeks deployed at an undisclosed location in the Iraq-Syria theater, treating 750 war-injured patients.  Operating out of an abandoned one-story home within earshot of a battlefield, the specially trained airmen worked through a total of 19 mass casualty incidents and more than 400 individual gunshot or blast injuries.

When not saving lives in Iraq and Syria, elite U.S. forces are frequently involved in efforts to take them.  “U.S. SOF are… being thrust into a new role of coordinating fire support,” wrote Robinson. “This fire support is even more important to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a far more lightly armed irregular force which constitutes the major ground force fighting ISIS in Syria.”  In fact, a video shot earlier this year, analyzed by the Washington Post, shows special operators “acting as an observation element for what appears to be U.S. airstrikes carried out by A-10 ground attack aircraft” to support Syrian Democratic Forces fighting for the town of Shadadi.

Africa now ranks second when it comes to the deployment of special operators thanks to the exponential growth in missions there in recent years.  Just 3% of U.S. commandos deployed overseas were sent to Africa in 2010.  Now that number stands at more than 17%, according to SOCOM data.  Last year, U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed to 32 African nations, about 60% of the countries on the continent.  As I recently reported at VICE News, at any given time, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and other special operators are now conducting nearly 100 missions across 20 African countries.

In May, for instance, Navy SEALs were engaged in an “advise and assist operation” alongside members of Somalia’s army and came under attack.  SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two other U.S. personnel were injured during a firefight that also, according to AFRICOM spokesperson Robyn Mack, left three al-Shabaab militants dead.  U.S. forces are also deployed in Libya to gather intelligence in order to carry out strikes of opportunity against Islamic State forces there.  While operations in Central Africa against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal militia that has terrorized the region for decades, wound down recently, a U.S. commando reportedly killed a member of the LRA as recently as April. 

Spring Training

What General Thomas calls “building partner nations’ capacity” forms the backbone of the global activities of his command.  Day in, day out, America’s most elite troops carry out such training missions to sharpen their skills and those of their allies and of proxy forces across the planet. 

This January, for example, Green Berets and Japanese paratroopers carried out airborne training near Chiba, Japan.  February saw Green Berets at Sanaa Training Center in northwest Syria advising recruits for the Manbij Military Council, a female fighting force of Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidis.  In March, snowmobiling Green Berets joined local forces for cold-weather military drills in Lapland, Finland.  That same month, special operators and more than 3,000 troops from Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom took part in tactical training in Germany.

In the waters off Kuwait, special operators joined elite forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council nations in conducting drills simulating a rapid response to the hijacking of an oil tanker.  In April, special ops troops traveled to Serbia to train alongside a local special anti-terrorist unit.  In May, members of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Iraq carried out training exercises with Iraqi special operations forces near Baghdad. That same month, 7,200 military personnel, including U.S. Air Force Special Tactics airmen, Italian special operations forces, members of host nation Jordan’s Special Task Force, and troops from more than a dozen other nations took part in Exercise Eager Lion, practicing everything from assaulting compounds to cyber-defense.  For their part, a group of SEALs conducted dive training alongside Greek special operations forces in Souda Bay, Greece, while others joined NATO troops in Germany as part of Exercise Saber Junction 17 for training in land operations, including mock “behind enemy lines missions” in a “simulated European village.” 

#Winning

“We have been at the forefront of national security operations for the past three decades, to include continuous combat over the past 15-and-a-half years,” SOCOM’s Thomas told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities last month.  “This historic period has been the backdrop for some of our greatest successes, as well as the source of our greatest challenge, which is the sustained readiness of this magnificent force.”  Yet, for all their magnificence and all those successes, for all the celebratory ceremonies they’ve attended, the wars, interventions, and other actions for which they’ve served as the tip of the American spear have largely foundered, floundered, or failed. 

After their initial tactical successes in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, America’s elite operators became victims of Washington’s failure to declare victory and go home.  As a result, for the last 15 years, U.S. commandos have been raiding homes, calling in air strikes, training local forces, and waging a relentless battle against a growing list of terror groups in that country.  For all their efforts, as well as those of their conventional military brethren and local Afghan allies, the war is now, according to the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, a “stalemate.”  That’s a polite way of saying what a recent report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found: districts that are contested or under “insurgent control or influence” have risen from an already remarkable 28% in 2015 to 40%.

The war in Afghanistan began with efforts to capture or kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.  Having failed in this post-9/11 mission, America’s elite forces spun their wheels for the next decade when it came to his fate.  Finally, in 2011, Navy SEALs cornered him in his long-time home in Pakistan and gunned him down.  Ever since, special operators who carried out the mission and Washingtonpower-players (not to mentionHollywood) have been touting this single tactical success.

In an Esquire interview, Robert O’Neill, the SEAL who put two bullets in bin Laden’s head, confessed that he joined the Navy due to frustration over an early crush, a puppy-love pique.  “That’s the reason al-Qaeda has been decimated,” he joked, “because she broke my fucking heart.”  But al-Qaeda was not decimated ― far from it according to Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. special agent and the author of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State.  As he recently observed, “Whereas on 9/11 al-Qaeda had a few hundred members, almost all of them based in a single country, today it enjoys multiple safe havens across the world.”  In fact, he points out, the terror group has gained strength since bin Laden’s death.

Year after year, U.S. special operators find themselves fighting new waves of militants across multiple continents, including entire terror groups that didn’t exist on 9/11.  All U.S. forces killed in Afghanistan in 2017 have reportedly died battling an Islamic State franchise, which began operations there just two years ago. 

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, to take another example, led to the meteoric rise of an al-Qaeda affiliate which, in turn, led the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) ― the elite of America’s special ops elite ― to create a veritable manhunting machine designed to kill its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and take down the organization.  As with bin Laden, special operators finally did find and eliminate Zarqawi, battering his organization in the process, but it was never wiped out.  Left behind were battle-hardened elements that later formed the Islamic State and did what al-Qaeda never could: take and hold huge swaths of territory in two nations.  Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch grew into a separate force of more than 20,000. 

In Yemen, after more than a decade of low-profile special ops engagement, that country teeters on the brink of collapse in the face of a U.S.-backed Saudi war there.  Continued U.S. special ops missions in that country, recently on the rise, have seemingly done nothing to alter the situation.  Similarly, in Somalia in the Horn of Africa, America’s elite forces remain embroiled in an endless war against militants. 

In 2011, President Obama launched Operation Observant Compass, sending Special Operations forces to aid Central African proxies in an effort to capture or kill Joseph Kony and decimate his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), then estimated to number 150 to 300 armed fighters.  After the better part of a decade and nearly $800 million spent, 150 U.S. commandos were withdrawn this spring and U.S. officials attended a ceremony to commemorate the end of the mission.  Kony was, however, never captured or killed and the LRA is now estimated to number about 150 to 250 fighters, essentially the same size as when the operation began.

This string of futility extends to Asia as well.  “U.S. Special Forces have been providing support and assistance in the southern Philippines for many years, at the request of several different Filipino administrations,” Emma Nagy, a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Manilla, pointed out earlier this month.  Indeed, a decade-plus-long special ops effort there has been hailed as a major success.  Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, wrote RAND analyst Linda Robinson late last year in the Pentagon journal Prism, “was aimed at enabling the Philippine security forces to combat transnational terrorist groups in the restive southern region of Mindanao.” 

A 2016 RAND report co-authored by Robinson concluded that “the activities of the U.S. SOF enabled the Philippine government to substantially reduce the transnational terrorist threat in the southern Philippines.” This May, however, Islamist militants overran Marawi City, a major urban center on Mindanao.  They have been holding on to parts of it for weeks despite a determined assault by Filipino troops backed by U.S. Special Operations forces.  In the process, large swaths of the city have been reduced to rubble.

Running on Empty

America’s elite forces, General Thomas told members of Congress last month, “are fully committed to winning the current and future fights.”  In reality, though, from war to war, intervention to intervention, from the Anti-Drug Brigade ceremony in Florencia, Colombia, to the end-of-the-Kony-hunt observance in Obo in the Central African Republic, there is remarkably little evidence that even enduring efforts by Special Operations forces result in strategic victories or improved national security outcomes.  And yet, despite such boots-on-the-ground realities, America’s special ops forces and their missions only grow.

“We are… grateful for the support of Congress for the required resourcing that, in turn, has produced a SOCOM which is relevant to all the current and enduring threats facing the nation,” Thomas told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May.  Resourcing has, indeed, been readily available.  SOCOM’s annual budget has jumped from $3 billion in 2001 to more than $10 billion today.  Oversight, however, has been seriously lacking.  Not a single member of the House or Senate Armed Services Committees has questioned why, after more than 15 years of constant warfare, winning the “current fight” has proven so elusive.  None of them has suggested that “support” from Congress ought to be reconsidered in the face of setbacks from Afghanistan to Iraq, Colombia to Central Africa, Yemen to the southern Philippines.  

In the waning days of George W. Bush’s administration, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to about 60 nations around the world.  By 2011, under President Barack Obama, that number had swelled to 120.  During this first half-year of the Trump administration, U.S. commandos have already been sent to 137 countries, with elite troops now enmeshed in conflicts from Africa to Asia.  “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit,” Thomas told members of the House Armed Services Committee last month.  In fact, current and former members of the command have, for some time, been sounding the alarm about the level of strain on the force. 

These deployment levels and a lack of meaningful strategic results from them have not, however, led Washington to raise fundamental questions about the ways the U.S. employs its elite forces, much less about SOCOM’s raison d’être.  “We are a command at war and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” SOCOM’s Thomas explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Not one member asked why or to what end. 

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch, a fellow at the Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for the Intercept. His book Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa received an American Book Award in 2016. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. His website is NickTurse.com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

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Cheer Up, Democrats

How discouraged should Democrats be after failing to win any of the four recent House special elections to fill vacancies? The losses, most recently of Jon Ossoff, in Georgia’s 6th district, triggered a blame game, directed against House leader Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic National Committee, the tacticians of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and candidate Ossoff himself.

For starters, consider the numbers. Every one of these races was a long shot, and in every case the Democrat did notably better than his counterpart in 2014 or 2016.

Ossoff lost by 3.7 points. In 2016, the Democrat lost the seat by 16.2 points. In other words, Ossoff improved the Democratic performance by more than 12 points.

Likewise in the Kansas 4th district election of April 11, Democrat James Thompson lost by 6.8 points. But in the 2016 election, the Democrat lost by a massive 24.6 percent. The swing was 17.8 points to the Democrat.

In South Carolina’s 5th district election June 20, a sleeper race which did not compete seriously for national funding, Democrat Archie Parnell lost by just 3.2 points—less than 3,000 votes―and benefited from a swing of over 10 points compared to 2016. Even in the May contest for Montana’s at large seat, Democrat Rob Quist gained 2.7 points relative to the 2016 House race, and did almost 11 points better than Trump.

The average Democratic gain in these four long-shot races was about ten points. If that average were to hold nationwide in 2018, Democrats would comfortably take back the House.

But what about the charge that House leader Nancy Pelosi, at 77 and representing liberal San Francisco, presents the wrong image for the national party? Republican Karen Handel, who won the Georgia seat, made Pelosi her target. Her first ad declared:

Nancy Pelosi’s hand-picked candidate, Jon Ossoff, who doesn’t even live in the district, is not one of us and cannot be trusted to stand up for Georgia’s 6th District. It is clear by the overwhelming support from D.C. liberals, Ossoff would be nothing more than another Pelosi lackey in Congress falling in line with House Democrats and out of touch with Georgia values.

In the wake of Ossoff’s defeat, Ohio’s Congressman Tim Ryan, who challenged Pelosi for the leadership last November (and was trounced in the House Democratic Caucus, 134-63), resumed his drumbeat of criticism of the leadership, saying that the Democratic brand was “toxic” in much of the country where Democrats were seen as “not being able to connect with the issues they care about.”

“Our brand is worse than Trump,” he said flatly.

It’s certainly true that Hillary Clinton in 2016 failed to connect to working class voters on the issue of economic distress. But it’s a bit much to pin that on Pelosi.

Throughout the Obama years, Pelosi was much more of an economic progressive than either Obama or Clinton, opposing trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership, and pushing hard for increased stimulus spending. She has also been superb at holding the House Democratic caucus together.

Ryan, for his part, is trying to carve out a role as more conservative on social issues but populist on economic issues like reviving manufacturing. He opposed abortion, but then flipped in 2015 and announced his support for reproductive choice. He also has interesting views for a social conservative, being a big supporter of the local food revolution and an active practitioner of meditation.

Ryan may well have a future as a national Democratic leader, but Nancy Pelosi is the wrong scapegoat. And if you listen to the adjectives tossed around, there is whiff of sexism in the air. Search the words: Pelosi, shrill, woman of a certain age, and hectoring, and you’ll get the drift. 

Republicans have been running against Nancy Pelosi and the “San Francisco Democrats” since at least 1988. That didn’t stop Barack Obama from being elected—twice—on a message of hope. And if Hillary Clinton paid too little attention to the working class in between picking up checks from Goldman Sachs, that was hardly Nancy Pelosi’s fault.

Ossoff himself did not run a great campaign, but in an affluent suburban district of Atlanta, it’s not clear that he would have done better as an economic populist. (He might have done better had he lived in the district.)

What is clear is that the campaign professionals at the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were asleep at the switch, with the obsessive focus on the Ossoff race. The races in Kansas and South Carolina, it turned out, were more winnable, but got almost no attention or resources.

Bottom line: Even though there were no gains of seats, there was an impressive swing to the Democrats in these four races that portends major pickups in 2018. Georgia’s 6th district was number 71 on the list of likely Democratic gains based on its recent voting history. The Democrats need only 24 to take back the House. That said, the Democrats do need to pick up their game and become a lot more strategic about their campaigns.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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Trump Is Undermining The Fight Against Terrorism

Who is a terrorist? Is there a credible entity that brands terrorists? Answers to these questions matter. Qatar, a sovereign country, has been embargoed and threatened with invasion because it is accused of funding “terrorists.”

The United States is the leading country that unilaterally brands entities around the world as terrorist and sanctions anyone who supports or has normal relations with these named groups. In effect, the United States uses, in part, its unilateral branding of terrorists as an instrument of foreign policy to isolate, coerce and sanction countries that fail to do its bidding. This cavalier, off-the-cuff branding of entities as terrorists, who don’t follow U.S. dictates, has serious consequences and is currently not only undermining the fight against terrorism but also may be promoting terrorism.

There is general agreement that Al-Qaeda (and all its offshoots), ISIS, Boko Haram and a number of other such entities are terrorist organizations. They have attacked innocent civilians the world over and have claimed responsibility for their heinous acts. Today, the U.S. State Department has a long list of organizations it classifies as terrorist and a much shorter list of de-listed entities. Two entities on the list, one not on the list and one de-listed help make our point.

While the U.S. classifies Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations, to most of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, these are two legitimate political organizations. Hezbollah has defended Lebanon against Israeli incursions; it has helped elevate the voice of Lebanese Shia Muslims; and it has provided many benefits to the most deprived segment of the Lebanese population. Yes, it is heavily influenced by Iran. Yes, Hezbollah is supporting the oppressor Assad in Syria. But if these activities merit a terrorist designation, then there are governments that oppress the people of other countries and should be on the top of such a list, for example, Saudi Arabia in Bahrain. Interestingly, Muslims in the Middle East have consistently voted the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nassrallah, as one of the two or three most popular Arab leaders.

Hamas is the de facto government of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Yes, it has been at war with Israel. While Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is in violation of international law, something that nations of the world (except the United States and fewer than a handful of other countries) have confirmed again and again at the United Nations, the United States brands Hamas as a terrorist organization. In the branding of Hezbollah and Hamas, the United States seems to be following Israeli wishes. But no matter, America’s process of terrorist designation is woefully inconsistent and compromised.

To America’s credit, although it has had on-and-off relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood is not on its terrorist list. This is an organization developed nearly a century ago devoted to political and social activism in an Islamic context and has disavowed violence. But it is seen as a threat by a number of Arab dictators who view the Brotherhood as a popular movement that could undermine their autocratic or military (and we would add un-Islamic) rule. Six countries reportedly classify the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Syria and Russia).

The People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) has been on and off the list and is today delisted. It is a movement that opposes the regime in Tehran; it was based in Iraq and fought alongside Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq War; and it has carried out terrorist acts inside Iran. A number of high-profile U.S. politicians, reportedly including former House Speakers Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, former Senator Joe Lieberman, former governors Howard Dean and Ed Rendell, former mayor Rudi Giuliani, retired generals Anthony Zinni and Wesley Clark, former United Nations Ambassadors Bill Richardson and John Bolton and many more have been paid speakers, a.k.a lobbyists, for the People’s Mujahadin of Iran. Yes, the MEK has high-profile support. But on the basis of what sort of logic could the MEK be exempted from the U.S. terrorist list and Hezbollah and Hamas be on the list?

The U.S. can have whatever list of terrorists it wants but given the arbitrary basis of its list, it should not be used to sanction countries that have relations with those on the list or to support countries (Saudi Arabia and its allies) who threaten countries (Qatar) who have relations with those on the list. Today, the U.S. has encouraged and supported Saudi aggression on Qatar because Qatar has dealings with Hezbollah and Hamas. Saudi Arabia (the creator of Al-Qaeda, the financial backer of radical Islamic teachings around the world and reportedly the heaviest financier of ISIS) has taken further advantage to create its own list to include the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and others. All in the name of fighting terrorism!

Washington’s arbitrary branding of organizations as terrorist has serious consequences; it compromises the fight against terrorism and makes a mockery of America’s proclaimed support for human rights and democratic values:

– The vast majority of Muslims, whose support the world needs to fight terrorism successfully, do not support the U.S. designations.

– U.S. support for repressive regimes such as those of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt in the name of fighting terrorism rings hollow and exposes U.S. duplicity when it comes to fighting terrorism and supporting human rights.

– To many Muslims, the terrorist list and its application to support oppressive rulers is an indirect method of oppression in support of client dictators.

-All this provides more recruits for ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

In the current standoff between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Saudi Arabia is using the U.S. list as the basis to embargo and issue an ultimatum on a sovereign country. This is in essence an attempt at a ‘soft’ takeover of a sovereign nation with President Trump’s backing. Qatar has been asked to shut down Al-Jazeera, arguably the most independent news network in the Arab world; to sever relations with countries and entities found objectionable to Saudi Arabia; to act in ways acceptable to the Gulf Cooperation Council (i.e., Saudi Arabia); and to pay unspecified compensation as dictated by Saudi Arabia.

Is this attempt at a soft annexation of Qatar (with U.S. encouragement and support) that much different from Russia’s takeover of the Crimea? How will this help the legitimate fight against terrorism?

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The Coming War With Iran?

The Saudi war in Yemen is really directed at…Iran. Donald Trump’s first overseas visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel was specifically targeted at… Iran. The Saudi-led isolation of Qatar is actually about… Iran.

The escalation of U.S. military actions against the Syria government is… well, do I really need to spell this out any further?

Donald Trump has identified several number-one enemies to target. Throughout the campaign, he emphasized the importance of throwing the full weight of the Pentagon against the Islamic State. More recently, his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, identified North Korea as “the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security.”

Other threats that have appeared at one time or another in the administration’s rotation include China, Cuba, the mainstream media, former FBI director James Comey, and Shakespeare (for writing Julius Caesar and then somehow, from the grave, persuading the Public Theater to run a scandalous version of it).

Through it all, however, Iran has loomed as the primary bogeyman of the Trump crowd. Fear of Iranian influence has prompted the administration to all but cancel the 2015 nuclear deal, intensify a number of proxy wars, consider pushing for regime change in Tehran, and even intervene in the mother of all battles between the Shia and Sunni variants of Islam.

You’re worried about Trump and the nuclear football? The prospect of blowback from an all-out U.S. assault on the Islamic State keeps you up at night? A preemptive strike against North Korea, which Mattis acknowledges would be disastrous, has you rethinking that upcoming trip to Seoul?

Sure, those are all dystopian possibilities. But if I had to choose a more likely catastrophe, it would be a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran. After all, everything seems to be pointing in that direction.

The Fate of the Deal

The nuclear deal that Iran signed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union is hanging by a thread. Trump made no bones about his distaste for this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He promised to tear it up.

He hasn’t done so. It’s not just that he’s gotten pushback from the usual suspects in Washington (diplomats, foreign policy mavens, talking heads, journalists). Even members of his inner circle seem to see value in the agreement. Mattis, who is otherwise hawkish on Iran, has stood by the JCPOA and diplomacy more generally. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has, albeit reluctantly, acknowledged that Iran has lived up to its side of the agreement. Then there are all the American jobs on the line from the Iranian purchase of Boeing jets.

Even though Trump hasn’t torn up the agreement, he has certainly attempted to give it a good crumple. He has directed the Treasury Department to apply additional sanctions on Iran’s missile program. He’s considering the option of declaring the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Congress, meanwhile, is pursuing its own complementary set of sanctions against Iran (though, because it’s bundled with sanctions against Russia, the legislation may not meet Trump’s approval).

None of this violates the terms of the JCPOA. But it challenges the spirit of the accord.

Adding insult to injury, Trump damned Iran with faint condolences after the recent terrorist attacks in Tehran. “We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times,” Trump wrote. “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

Talk about bad taste. After September 11, Iranians gathered for candlelight vigils to mourn the mostly American victims of the attacks. The Iranian government didn’t say anything about chickens coming home to roost after U.S. military interventions in the Middle East, for that would have been inappropriate (though accurate).

But Iran might yet have to make a statement that echoes Trump’s tone-deaf remark: States that tear up international agreements risk falling victim to the evil they promote.

Proxy Wars

The conflict is escalating in Syria, where Iran backs the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the United States supports a shifting set of anti-regime groups.

Both countries could decide to team up against the Islamic State. And indeed, Iran launched a missile attack against ISIS in Syria this last weekend in retaliation for the terrorist attacks in Tehran. As after September 11, when Tehran and Washington briefly worked together, cooperation against Sunni extremists would seem a no-brainer.

But the would-be caliphate, having lost most of Mosul and now teetering on the verge of conceding its capital in Raqqa, is shrinking at a rapid clip. Which may well explain why the United States has been wading deeper into the Syrian conflict. For the first time since the war in Syria began, U.S. forces shot down a Syrian government plane this last weekend. It’s only the latest in a series of attacks on Assad’s forces, according to The Atlantic:

Three times in the last month, the U.S. military has come into direct conflict with the combined forces of the Assad regime, Iran-supported Shiite militias, Hezbollah, and possibly even Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The clashes have reportedly resulted in the deaths of a small number of pro-regime forces, and are much more strategically important than the much-ballyhooed U.S. air strike on the al-Shayrat airfield back in April in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Several administration figures, notably Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Derek Harvey in the National Security Council, are eager to confront Assad and his Iranian backers more aggressively. Mattis, however, has reportedly opposed several of their risky propositions. Regardless of the Pentagon chief’s somewhat more risk-averse behavior, both Iran and the United States are maneuvering to control as much territory as possible in the vacuum created by the collapse of ISIS.

Even The Washington Post, which generally supports the JCPOA, is enthusiastic about the U.S. intervening more forcefully in the new great game in Syria. “The United States doesn’t have a strategic reason to control southern and eastern Syria,” The Post editorial board opines, “but it does have a vital interest in preventing Iran from establishing a dominion from Tehran to the Mediterranean with Russia’s support.”

How soon the Post forgets. The Iraq War against Saddam Hussein begat the war against the anti-occupation forces, which in turn generated a war against the Islamic State, which now promises to escalate into a war against the axis of Russia, Iran, and Syria. Thus have so-called national interests morphed into endless war.

Meanwhile, over in Yemen, the Saudis are bogged down in a war of their own that’s going nowhere (except in producing a severe humanitarian crisis). The Trump administration has been mulling for several months a boost in U.S. participation in that war. At the least, this would mean lifting certain restrictions on the assistance Washington is already providing the Saudi-led coalition — surveillance, refueling, and the like. Then there are the additional arms that Trump wants to provide Riyadh.

Now that the Navy SEALS have conducted two raids in Yemen under Trump — the most recent taking place last month — the prospect of more permanent boots on the ground may not be far off. Recall how the United States became involved in Vietnam to help out the failing French in order to prevent presumed Soviet expansion.

Yemen, where we may yet send troops to help the failing Saudis prevent presumed Iranian expansion, is the very definition of quagmire.

Regime Change?

Last week, Rex Tillerson was testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In response to a query from Ted Poe (R-TX), a big fan of the Iranian radical group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and its efforts to destabilize Iran, Tillerson said,

Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony, contain their ability to develop obviously nuclear weapons, and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government. 

It was the first public indication of regime-change sentiment from the administration.

But it’s not the only sign. Cohen-Watnick, the liaison on the NSC to the intelligence community, has reportedly confessed to other administration officials of his desire to oust the Iranian regime through espionage. And the fellow that’s now leading the Iran operation at CIA is Michael D’Andrea, otherwise known as the “dark prince,” a long-time operative who is fully capable of pursuing the harder line that Cohen-Watnick wants to see.

But wait, didn’t Iranians just overwhelmingly back the reformist Hassan Rouhani in elections last month? This popular government has engaged in domestic reforms and external engagement of the “Great Satan.” In other words, Iranians have changed their own regime — peacefully — since the days of the more confrontational Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Of course, Washington has overturned the wishes of Iranian voters in the past, helping to overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953.

Whenever oil interests (Tillerson) intersect with chickenhawk ambitions (Bannon), talk of regime change is sure to follow.

Clash of Civilizations

When Donald Trump said a few nice things about Islam on his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, liberals back home breathed a sigh of relief. At least the new president wouldn’t follow senior advisor Steve Bannon’s more extreme narrative of a new crusade against the infidels.

“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” Trump said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”

But even as he rejected the larger religious frame, Trump has embraced a different kind of war: a clash within a civilization. The battle lines between Sunni and Shia have hardened throughout the Middle East, and Trump is wading into this mess firmly on the side of the Sunni. And not just any Sunnis, but the most extreme Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam as represented by the ruling sheikhs of Saudi Arabia.

Let’s be clear: Trump is not making a doctrinal statement by siding with extremist Sunnis. He knows nothing about Islam and is not interested in learning. This is about power — who will control the Middle East.

In the past, however, the United States in its infinite naiveté thought that it could control outcomes on the ground in the region. Today, that naiveté has developed into a kind of aggressive ignorance as the Trump administration simply follows the Saudi lead, with Israel pushing from behind. In this way, the United States will be propelled toward war with Iran.

But wait, actually, Donald Trump himself anticipated this outcome.

Back in 2013, Trump said,

We will end up going to war with Iran because we have people who don’t know what the hell they are doing. Every single thing that this administration and our president does is a failure.

Who knew that Donald Trump could be so prescient? The president has proven himself high-performing in at least this one regard: self-fulfilling prophecies.

Crossposted with Foreign Policy In Focus.

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America’s Incarceration Crisis: Are We ‘Doomed To Repeat The Same Failed Policies’?

In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence” for KCRW, Robert Scheer speaks with James Forman Jr. The Yale Law School professor once clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and is a former public defender. His new book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” delves into the issue of systemic incarceration of black men in the United States.

“We rarely have good alternatives to offer to prison—that’s our default,” Forman says. “And until we fix that, until we move from a mindset that says, ‘People addicted on the street are a criminal justice problem,’ and move to thinking of them as a public health problem, until we make that transition as a society, we’re doomed to repeat the same failed policies generation after generation.”

Forman begins the conversation by sharing an anecdote from his time as a public defender when he was representing a 15-year-old black male in front of a black judge in Washington, D.C. He goes on to explain how this case represented the nationwide attitude toward race and incarceration in the 1990s.

He and Scheer then discuss another of Forman’s cases, in which a prosecutor wouldn’t offer drug rehabilitation to a heroin addict with two previous convictions.

“How come we never use prison, the failure of prison, as a reason not to give more prison? There’s never a moment where we say, ‘OK, well, prison hasn’t worked, so we’re not going to try that again,’ ” Forman says. “But we do that with drug programs all the time.”

The two also discuss the war on drugs and the issue of decriminalization, specifically decriminalization of marijuana and the racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests. The conversation concludes with a broader look at the historical trauma of slavery and why an open, in-depth discussion of slavery is a crucial step in fixing America’s incarceration crisis.

Listen to the full conversation and to past editions of “Scheer Intelligence”at KCRW.com.

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The Secret Republican Plan To Unravel Medicaid

Bad enough that the Republican Senate bill would repeal much of the Affordable Care Act.

Even worse, it unravels the Medicaid Act of 1965 – which, even before Obamacare, provided health insurance to millions of poor households and elderly.

It’s done with a sleight-of-hand intended to elude not only the public but also the Congressional Budget Office. 

Here’s how the Senate Republican bill does it. The bill sets a per-person cap on Medicaid spending in each state. That cap looks innocent enough because it rises every year with inflation. 

But there’s a catch. Starting eight years from now, in 2025, the Senate bill switches its measure of inflation – from how rapidly medical costs are rising, to how rapidly overall costs in the economy are rising.

Yet medical costs are rising faster than overall costs. They’ll almost surely continue to do so – as America’s elderly population grows, and as new medical devices, technologies, and drugs prolong life.

Which means that after 2025, Medicaid will cover less and less of the costs of health care for the poor and elderly. 

Over time, that gap becomes huge. The nonpartisan Urban Institute estimates that just between 2025 and 2035, about $467 billion less will be spent on Medicaid than would be spent than if Medicaid funding were to keep up with the expected rise in medical costs.

So millions of Americans will lose the Medicaid coverage they would have received under the 1965 Medicaid act. Over the long term, Medicaid will unravel. 

Will anyone in future years know Medicaid’s unraveling began with this Senate Republican bill ostensibly designed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act? Probably not. The unraveling will occur gradually. 

Will future voters hold Republicans responsible? Again, unlikely. The effects of the unraveling won’t become noticeable until most current Republican senators are long past reelection. 

Does anyone now know this time bomb is buried in this bill? 

It doesn’t seem so. McConnell won’t even hold hearings on it. 

Next week the Congressional Budget Office will publish its analysis of the bill. CBO reports on major bills like this are widely disseminated in the media. The CBO’s belated conclusion that the House’s bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would cause 23 million Americans to lose their health care prompted even Donald Trump to call it “mean, mean, mean.”

But because the CBO’s estimates of the consequences of bills are typically limited to 10 years (in this case, 2018 to 2028), the CBO’s analysis of the Senate Republican bill will dramatically underestimate how many people will be knocked off Medicaid over the long term.

Which is exactly what Mitch McConnell has planned. This way, the public won’t be tipped off to the Medicaid unraveling hidden inside the bill. 

For years, Republicans have been looking for ways to undermine America’s three core social insurance programs – Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. The three constitute the major legacies of the Democrats, of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. All continue to be immensely popular. 

Now, McConnell and his Senate Republican colleagues think they’ve found a way to unravel Medicaid without anyone noticing.

Don’t be fooled. Spread the word.

Originally published on RobertReich.org.

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This Former MTV Icon Found Inner Peace Through Islam

BERLIN/LONDON ― In her early 20s, Kristiane Baker was having the time of her life. She was living her dream as a presenter for MTV Europe, brushing shoulders with celebrities like Mick Jagger and Bono on a regular basis ― and getting paid to do it. From the outside, it was everything she had ever hoped for. But on the inside, she sometimes felt a crushing sense of depression and anxiety that she couldn’t shake.

And then she met Imran Khan, the famous Pakistani cricketer who through music would lead her to Islam and a new sense of inner peace.  

“He was my introduction to Islam,” she said of Khan. “I like to say I wasn’t looking, I was found.”

As a German growing up in Hamburg, Backer had always been passionate about the arts, so when she heard a qawwali, the devotional form of music often associated with Sufi Islam, during a trip to Pakistan to visit Khan, it was no surprise that she was intrigued and moved by its beauty. What was different this time though, was the depth she experienced with every note. Each lyric seemed connected to a higher form of love that could not be felt between humans.

Beyond the music, Backer said she was “very much touched by the humanity of the people, by the hospitality, by the warmth,” in Pakistan. Everyone she came across, no matter what their financial situation, was willing to donate funds to Khan’s charity project, a cancer hospital in Lahore.

“We met people who were very poor in the mountains, in the northern areas of Pakistan, who welcomed us with generosity,” she said. “Men in rags with teeth missing dropped a few rupees into Imran’s hands ― for the hospital. Women took off their jewelry and donated it for the hospital.”

‘I like to say I wasn’t looking, I was found.’

Backer was in awe. She was taken aback by the stark difference between the attitudes she experienced in the entertainment industry life, especially the superficiality of Western pop music, and the spirituality she witnessed in Pakistan.

It would be three years before she finally converted to Islam, but the trip had struck a chord.

Backer began researching about Islam, spending many days with Khan constantly exposed to his religion and way of life. This, she would later admit, helped her to spiritually awaken and discover a way of life that she could truly identify with.

“I read a lot of books, and what I discovered was mind-blowing,” she said. “It was like a whole new universe. I was intrigued from the first book I read, and I wanted to know more. I realized … there is one God … and that we’re self-responsible for our own deeds and [that] babies are born pure, not as sinners. … I also learned how verses from the Quran can help me in my daily life.”

Backer was inspired by it all.

“I was convinced,” she continued. “I converted because I wanted to bring God into my life, and I wanted to purify myself to taste the spiritual fruits I was reading about.”

But just as Backer’s interest in Islam was growing, something in her life shifted again. Khan, the man she had hoped to marry, abruptly ended their relationship and married another woman.

At that point, Backer no longer had a direct reason to understand Islam. If she had recoiled against Khan and his religion, it would have been understandable. Instead, she embraced the faith without skipping a beat and converted.

Islam provided Backer with the solace and strength to remain dignified throughout Khan’s instant and very public marriage to another woman. What began as a journey of discovery prompted by love for a man became a discovery of eternal love for someone else: God.

It was her newly adopted faith that helped Backer reconcile life in a glitzy pop icon world ― where she had previously felt unsure of her place ― and find meaning in European culture. There were no more clouds in her life; the confusion and inner conflict had lifted.

A Rocky Conversion

Backer, now 51, is one of the most well-known German converts to Islam. But sadly, her conversion was not well-received by everyone at home. 

“When it became known that I am a Muslim, a very negative press campaign followed,” Backer said. “I was an award-winning TV presenter, a popular icon over there for over seven years, and suddenly I was accused of being a supporter of terrorism. The papers suggested I had lost the plot. … Soon after, I was sacked from all my TV programs and practically lost my entertainment career in Germany.”

‘It’s fine if you … have a piercing in your tummy and wear miniskirts, but it’s not fine to wear long clothes and a headscarf? That’s wrong.’

This reaction had surprised Backer, because while she did enjoy an increased sense of modesty in her Muslim life, she had never associated Islam with the compulsion to wear burqas or found the stereotype of repression of women in the religion to ring true in her personal experience.

“The first thing I changed was my sense of dress a little bit,” she said. “I ditched the miniskirts … I felt more feminine … Who needs those whistles on the streets?”

“I was working in this industry where the motto was: ‘If you’ve got it flaunt it,'” she continued. “And now [I was] suddenly learning about the concept of modesty. You know, how it’s actually more dignified for a woman to cover her assets and not show them to everybody.”

But others didn’t seem to understand her abrupt identity change. She found the double standard towards Muslim women confusing.

“It’s fine if you … show your tummy and have a piercing in your tummy and wear miniskirts, but it’s not fine to wear long clothes and a headscarf? That’s wrong.”

Her parents also held these unfair perceptions of Islam, and though they loved her in spite of her conversion, they struggled to move beyond them. 

“They had some serious prejudices against Islam and especially Muslim men ― prejudices that Imran’s way of ending our relationship had only confirmed,” Backer recalled. “I tried to explain to them that I had discovered the religion for myself and had made it my own. Imran had merely opened the door for me … My father even mentioned the word ‘pantheism’ ― in his view, Muslims wanted to take over the whole world. He eventually asked me to stop talking about Islam and from then on, the topic became taboo in the house.”

The reactions frustrate her to this day. In Backer’s experience, German identity is not all that different from Islamic identity, so why should she have to choose between the two?

“Being German,” she said, “doesn’t mean drinking beer and being nationalistic. I wholeheartedly believe and know that Islamic values are compatible not only with German values, [but] with European values generally. Islam is a religion for all times and all worlds ― and therefore also for Europeans in our day and age. I’m living proof.”

And the Germans before her were proof as well, Backer said. In embracing Islam and Eastern culture, she was merely following in the footsteps of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Martin Heidegger and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller ― German thinkers who were influenced by Eastern and Islamic texts, including those by Persian poets Jalaluddin Rumi and Hafez.

But Backer’s own convictions couldn’t change the perceptions at home, and she found many German doors closed on her. She decided to relocate permanently to London, where she had converted, and continued working as a broadcaster.

In England, Backer found a much different reception to her adopted religious identity. Despite continued Islamophobia across Europe, the United Kingdom had a more established group of Muslims working across the country. This was largely due to the fact that a number of Muslims in England had often come to the country for educational and intellectual pursuits, whereas those entering Germany historically came as guest workers, she said.

‘I wholeheartedly believe and know that Islamic values are compatible not only with German values, [but] with European values generally.’

But life as a Muslim here isn’t entirely easy, especially as a convert. There is a sense of community among Muslims in general, Backer said, which makes the climate for converts in particular quite lonely.

“We are a minority within the minority. Where do we pray? Which mosque do we go to, the Pakistani, the Persian or the Turkish mosque?”

Instead of feeling included in one of those ethnic groups, converts sometimes find themselves pushed aside for not being Muslim enough, or regarded as trophies that other Muslims flaunt around at parties and events, with little regard for the person themselves, she said.

For Backer, the lack of acceptance from her family, as well as the sense of rejection from within the Muslim community, is one of the reasons she is determined to maintain her role as a prominent Muslim TV presenter in England ― a career path that she thinks will help change perceptions of Islam in the West.  

“Do your job ― whatever you do ― really well so people admire you,” is the advice she gives Muslims struggling to assimilate in Western society today. “Remember [that] whatever you do, … you are not only a servant of God, but also an ambassador of Islam,” she said.

But Backer knows that Muslims doing good in their own communities can only go so far, so as a member of the media, she constantly advocates for stronger and more accurate representations of Muslims in pop culture.

“Nowadays,” she said in light of the disproportional and often Islamophobic coverage of terrorist acts, Muslims need “to compensate for the news coverage in other sections of the media, to make documentaries on Muslim culture and have Muslims characters featured on soap operas.”

This need for a more accurate representation of Islam and Muslims is why she published a book about her journey to the faith. With From MTV to Mecca: How Islam Inspired My Life, Backer aspires to show Europeans that outside of the terror and suppression they see on the news, the majority of Muslims are in fact normal, wholesome and productive members of their society.

And she has already seen results. In her newfound role as a spokesperson for Islam in Europe, she’s noticed some attitudes in Germany toward her greatly improving.

Yet the future of Islam rests on the youth in the community, not her, Backer said. Young Muslims, she stressed, must teach the world that Islam is a modern religion and show people that it’s not something backward or incompatible with the West.

“Islam here in Europe is a little fossilized, and it is up to the young people to take this forward and to really look into the sources of Islam, study the religion thoroughly through contemporary and classical scholars. And then educate not only the mainstream society, but even their own parents, because I tell you, I’m always so shocked when I hear young Muslims here are losing their faith.”

‘It’s befriending other people; it’s reaching out. That is how I became a Muslim. Because I was touched by the generosity and friendship of the Muslims I met.’

Ultimately, Backer said, it’s about making others understand the faith and closing the empathy gap, like Imran Khan did with her all those years ago in Pakistan.

“It’s befriending other people; it’s reaching out,” she said. “That is how I became a Muslim. Because I was touched by the generosity and friendship and the wonderful manners of the Muslims who I met.”

Her parting advice to Western Muslims, convert and otherwise?: “Never retreat just in your own Muslim bubble … Mix with mainstream society.”

If professional Muslims in the West “suddenly roll up their prayer mat in their offices and step away to pray or fast on Ramadan,” colleagues will be exposed to Islam, she said. “And [this is how they] will understand it better. ”

After all, Backer said: “The beautiful values of Islam and the teaching[s] of our noble Prophet [Muhammad] are [some] of the best-kept secrets in the West. … [It’s] time we lift that veil.”

* * *

This Ramadan has been an especially trying month for Muslims. Long summer days without food or water have been made all the more challenging given such tragedies as the attack on a mosque in London, the heartbreaking story of young Nabra in Virginia, who was on her way to the mosque to start her fast when she was bashed to death with a baseball bat, and the numerous attacks on innocent civilians in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries in the Muslim world. The only antidote to the despair brought on by such suffering and violence is the message of Ramadan ― a message of compassion, of unity and of spiritual connection to our fellow human beings and to God.

I hope that the stories in this series of Western Muslim converts reveal how every individual is constantly seeking spiritual fulfillment. In our case, these individuals have found their spiritual home and solace. I pray that the readers of this series, in their own way, through their own traditions, also find the spiritual solace they are seeking.

Although the month of fasting has come to an end, we need more than ever to keep the message of Ramadan alive. Muslims across the world are marking the end of this holy month this weekend with the festival of Eid al-Fitr and a message of “Eid Mubarak.” So to all of you, Muslim and non-Muslim, I wish to extend these greetings of compassion and unity to you as we end our series. Eid Mubarak!

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The Overlooked Trumpcare Threat: A Medicare Time Bomb

Just over two years ago, Donald Trump gave a speech announcing his run for the presidency. In that speech, he promised that he would not cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. That promise became a centerpiece of his campaign. It was a key way for Trump to differentiate himself, as a matter of policy, from his Republican primary opponents – a distinction he happily and frequently pointed out. In the general election, the promise helped him appeal to voters who don’t traditionally support the GOP.

But six months into his presidency, Trump has already betrayed those voters by breaking his promise. Indeed, rather than protecting those programs, he has already, in his short tenure, gone after all three!

When it comes to Social Security and Medicaid, that betrayal is highly visible and clear: His budget slashes billions from Social Security and Medicaid. Trump also champions the Republican health care repeal bill (also known as Trumpcare), which includes yet more massive cuts to Medicaid.

Indeed, Trumpcare is bait-and-switch: It claims to repeal and replace Obamacare, which it modifies, but doesn’t completely undo. What it does do, without broadcasting the fact, is repeal and replace Medicaid.

Trumpcare repeals Medicaid as we know it. It replaces it, transforming it from a guarantee to individuals into an inadequate lump of money to states. When the Medicaid changes are completely phased in, the clock will be turned back to before the enactment of Medicaid in 1965, when millions of seniors, people with disabilities and others were unable to afford life-saving health care, home health care, and nursing home care.

The destruction of Medicaid and the cutback to Social Security have gotten media attention. The broken promise on Medicare is in danger of slipping by beneath the radar, though.

Only days after the election, Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he saw an opportunity to realize his decades-long dream of destroying Medicare. He said that he planned to enact legislation as soon as possible that would end Medicare’s guaranteed benefit and replace it with voucher coupons.

Ryan justified this horrible plan — destined to leave the nation’s seniors without medical care after a lifetime of work — by claiming “because of Obamacare, Medicare is going broke.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The Affordable Care Act improved Medicare’s long-term finances, by requiring the wealthiest Americans to pay somewhat more. Trumpcare repeals that increased funding.

Ryan, Trump and their fellow Republicans are like the proverbial murderer who kills his parents and pleads for leniency because he is an orphan. In this case, they are raiding Medicare of necessary revenue, only down the road to argue that they must cut Medicare because it has insufficient funding! Indeed, Trumpcare accomplishes two goals: It gives a giant tax break to the wealthy at the expense of Medicare and it sets up the destruction of Medicare by raiding it. It is completely predictable that, if Trumpcare becomes law, Republicans will, as a next step, go after Medicare, claiming its funding shortfall as the supposed reason.

Trump ran on a promise to protect Medicare and Medicaid. But he now champions a bill that would destroy Medicaid and tees up the destruction of Medicare. This terrible bill is a betrayal of the American people, and it can still be stopped. To become law, the bill must first pass the Senate and then be voted on a second time in the House. I urge everyone who cares about the future of Medicare, Medicaid, and all health care in this country to take the following steps:

  1. If you have a Republican Senator or Representative, protest outside their state or district offices, and at any events they hold. If they are marching in a parade or participating in a ribbon cutting, it’s the perfect opportunity to demand that they keep their hands off the American people’s Medicare and Medicaid.

  2. Call your Senators at 202-224-3121. Tell them why cuts to Medicare and Medicaid would be a disaster for your family.

  3. Share this blog post, and all other information about how terrible Trumpcare is, with your friends and family. The media, especially TV news, likes to focus on “process” (e.g. how will this Senator vote?) at the expense of covering what’s actually in the bill. We need to make sure that everyone hears the truth about what Trump and the GOP are trying to impose on America.

It is not a stretch to say that the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid required the landslide victory of President Lyndon Johnson, one of the nation’s truly masterful legislators. We cannot let them be repealed. It is, bluntly, a matter of life and death.

Nancy J. Altman is President and Linda Benesch is Communications Director of Social Security Works. Email your Senators today and tell them to vote NO on Trumpcare!

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Health Care Must Remain A Right

This post is not so much why the current senate (draft?) bill, “Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017” (“Better Care Act”), represents one of the most destructive pieces of legislation to come out of the halls of Congress in decades that rips at the fabric of our democracy (“Everything You Need to Know About the GOP Senate Health Care Bill”; and [Kaiser Family Foundation’s] “Compare Proposals to Replace The Affordable Care Act”), but the underpinning of why our nation is facing a crisis and real and present danger.

In capsule form, do we wish to see health care remain a RIGHT for all Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status, or only a privilege for the wealthy, i.e., for those that can afford to access it? Do we, as a nation, want our citizens to be able to access and afford health care in order to maintain our health, regain our health, or acquire our health―-like all industrialized nations want to see for their citizens―- or do we want to give the (greedy) wealthy segment of our society the monies in the form of tax write-offs to be taken from Obamacare (otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act) that assist the less fortunate and disadvantaged with accessing and affording health care? The Republican senate bill attempts to rob blindly those that can’t afford and access health care like those Republicans are able to do as members of Congress and that otherwise have no voice in Congress that will be heard by those legislators. It is our job as Americans to be their voice.

But let’s go back to this notion of whether or not health care should, or continue to, be a right. Two articles dating back nine years among scores are instructive, “Is Health Care a Right and Should It Be?”; and “The Moral Imperative: Health Care as an American Right”. Health care is certainly not a constitutional right for nothing in the Constitution sets this forth. We do know we have inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness guaranteed by the Bill of Rights (but nothing about affording and accessing health care since no doubt that was not on the minds of the drafters), and that without health care, none of us can do much of anything for ourselves, our families, our employment, even our country. We also know the Supreme Court has interpreted the 8th Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause to require prisoners be guaranteed the right to health care. And even the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 declares, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care” (“Health Care Reform: It is Now or Never”).

What we see happening is only Republicans wanting to steal a “win” vs. incurring a “loss”; achieving “victory” over “defeat”. But what should be foremost is country over politics and political party.

So what must happen next since the Senate is supposed to vote on its health bill no later than next Friday? Members of Congress serve as public servants and at the pleasure of all voters. If we all believe that our health is a fundamental commodity that is equally important to each one of us as it is to the next regardless of status, wealth, position or power (and this includes all Senate Republicans!), then we must not only inform ourselves over this weekend and the early part of the upcoming week (see links to the two articles atop this post) about the disaster facing us with the Senate’s Better Care Act , but we must tell our (Republican) public servants there that what they want to do must be voted down. Democracy and the fabric and very underpinning of our society demand no less!

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