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Seymour Hersh, the Knights of Malta, and me

Since my write-up of Seymour Hersh's talk is getting some coverage today, and many commenters have written in to dispute my post, I thought I should provide a little more context.

More than a few readers, including Salon's Glenn Greenwald, complained that I hadn't rebutted Hersh's arguments. That wasn't my intention -- I was relaying what Hersh said. I did make two editorial comments: that his speech was a "rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe" and that it "quickly went downhill" after its opening line. But I imagine that when most reasonable people read the transcript -- I don't have a video, unfortunately -- they will see what I'm talking about. As far as I know, nobody, including Hersh, is disputing my quotes.

I thought it was self-evident that several points Hersh made were off-base and conspiratorial, but perhaps it's worth spelling things out for everyone.

1. The idea that "we're gonna change mosques into cathedrals" is "an attitude that pervades … a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command." This is essentially unverifiable unless you do a survey of JSOC personnel. Good luck with that. For now, the weight of evidence suggests that JSOC is on the whole a highly competent and professional organization that has no intention of converting Muslims to Christianity around the world. If it were otherwise, I'm sure we'd be hearing about it from others besides Seymour Hersh.

2. Retired General Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.… Many of them are members of Opus Dei." McChrystal has already denied being a member of Knights of Malta; McRaven and JSOC have thus far declined to comment. But so what if they were? Everything I've seen tells me that the Knights of Malta are a public service organization, not some kind of Catholic extremist group. And Opus Dei is hardly the secretive cabal of ruthless assassins depicted in The Da Vinci Code. It has a Facebook page.

3. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function." I have no doubt that many in the U.S. military are religious, and yes, I've heard about Jerry Boykin, Erik Prince, and those rifle scopes. But the plural of anecdote is not data -- and acknowledging there are devout Christians in the military and implying that top military leaders are embarking on a "crusade" against Muslims are two very different things. "Zealotry is viewed as being unprofessional [in the SF community]," former Special Forces officer Kalev Sepp told Stars and Stripes. "Anyone who professes religion in an open way like that is suspect to where their real loyalties lie." (Do I really need to explain this?)

4. "They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins.… They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war." I believe Hersh is referring here to challenge coins, a common sight across the U.S. military. They seem pretty innocuous to me.

There's a lot more, but you get the idea. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and just say it: Odds are good that JSOC is not being overrun by Catholic fanatics.

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Ivory Coast: Speaking loudly, with a big stick

Across the board, the rhetoric on the Ivory Coast is escalating. The West African economic community, ECOWAS, says it is set to intervene militarily to unseat should-be-outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo. African Union mediator and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga left Abidjan without making progress earlier this week, saying that mediation was failing. On Jan. 19, the United Nations' Security Council unanimously approved boosting the number of peacekeepers in the country up by 2,000. And on the same day, U.N. officials expressed concern about possible "genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing in Cote d'Ivoire." 

Wait, so if all this is to be believed, are West Africa and the United Nations about to intervene militarily to prevent a genocide?

No. Start with the fears of "genocide" -- which is a very specific word that means very specific things, all of which would be a stretch to say about Ivory Coast right now. Genocide is defined as the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." And the conflict in Ivory Coast is so far a very political -- and two-sided -- one. Fighting has been primarily between the two military forces loyal to the two presidential claimants, Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. The U.N. has reported nighttime raids by pro-Gbagbo forces (i.e., the national military) against the pro-Ouattara camp, as well as the presence of at least one mass grave.

Alarming as these reports are, all evidence points to their being roundups of suspected or real opposition supporters -- not just anyone who happens to belong to a certain "group." Elsewhere in the countryside, refugees are fleeing from both political sides and from all ethnicities. "If they are in the stronghold of Ouattara, then [the people who are fleeing] are pro-Gbagbo, and vice versa," UNHCR's Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba told me by phone. In other words, there are abuses going on on both political sides. This is much closer to war than extermination.

To be sure, the violence is horrible no matter what we call it. But how to deal with it changes entirely if we start calling this genocide. If the "g" word is evoked, this becomes primarily a humanitarian, rather than a political, crisis. And it means there is only one side to blame. In fact, it's both. And the soft touch of diplomacy is needed here to finesse a way out of this situation. As I've written before, Ivory Coast really is split down the middle between Gbagbo and Ouattara. So if we hit this situation with a blunt instrument, at least half of all Ivorians are going to feel cheated. As a congressional analyst watching Ivory Coast told me today, "If Gbagbo is forced to step down, his hard-core supporters -- which is a good number of people -- will have grievances."

Speaking of blunt instruments, what are the chances of a military intervention? Despite tough words, I'm not convinced that West Africa is really very likely to send in its heavy guns. Were it to do so, it would likely require a nod of approval from the African Union, and not everyone there is on board. South Africa's President Jacob Zuma expressed concern today, for example, that the election results might not be as clear-cut in Ouattara's favor as everyone believes.

If there's one thing everyone does agree on, however, it's that things are going to get worse before they get better. UNHCR is concerned enough about conflict to have contingency plans in place for Ivory Coast as well as every country that it borders. Refugees who have fled to Liberia already are eager to be settled in camps -- meaning they are in no hurry to return to Ivory Coast.

What's the answer here? It's looking increasingly like the only way to get Gbagbo out will be to slowly bleed him of financial resources. Nearly everyone has already cut him off -- the European Union, the United States, the World Bank, and the IMF. Though even here, there's a catch: Some spoilers in the West African central bank are rumored to be feeding him cash.

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