Monday, January 31, 2011

Personal account of a Cairo demonstrator

In today's NY Times, a moving account from an Egyptian novelist, Mansoura Ez-Eldin, that reflects the breadth of support for the demonstrators.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt's Next Strongman?

The good people at the Foreign Policy website are spotlighting a 2009 piece about "Egypt's Next Strongman."  Of the two men discussed, one - Gamal Mubarak, son of Pres. Hosni Mubarak - is no longer viable.  The current mass protests demand dad step down; they're not going to accept his son in his place.  But the other man, Omar Suleiman, the head of Egypt's General Intelligence Service (GIS), known as the Mukhabarat, was this morning appointed by Mubarak as his new vice-president.  The 2009 essay reveals that a number of respected figures in Egypt endorsed him as a possible successor, at least then:

 Publicly, Suleiman has started to gain endorsements for the job from Egyptians across the political spectrum as the increasingly public discussion plays out of who will follow Mubarak. A leftist leader of the Kefaya movement, Abdel Halim Qandil, has urged the military to save the country from a Mubarak dynasty. The liberal intellectual Osama Ghazali Harb -- a former Gamal acolyte who turned to the opposition and founded the National Democratic Front party -- has openly advocated a military takeover followed by a period of "democratic transition." Hisham Kassem, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, also has stated that a Suleiman presidency would be vastly preferable to another Mubarak one. On Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, partisans of a Suleiman presidency make the same argument, often seemingly driven as much by animosity toward the Mubaraks as admiration for the military man.  On the other hand, as the essay notes, Neither offers the new social contract that so many of Egypt's 80 million citizens are demanding in strikes and protests. . . . .The prevalence of the Gamal vs. Omar debate, more than anything, highlights the low expectations ordinary Egyptians have for a democratic succession to Hosni Mubarak's 28-year reign. Those low expectations come with their own quiet tyranny, too.

 Suleiman does have strong links with US military and intelligence figures, so his ascension would likely be welcomed in those quarters - and by Israel.  But it seems likely at this point that Egypt's protesters will see Mr. Suleiman as an unacceptable continuation of the corrupt regime that has bedeviled them for almost 30 years.  On the other hand, if Mubarak somehow weathers this storm a few days more and the protesters grow weary of trying to budge him, he just might try to soothe things by trying to hand off the reins to Suleiman.  Whether that will fly with the Egyptian public is one thing; but Obama/Clinton just might try to pitch it as evidence of Mubarak's responsiveness to his people and do what they can to help ease him in.

US demands release of diplomat in Pakistan

A member of US diplomatic corps in Pakistan shot and killed 2 Pakistanis he said were trying to rob him.  An already very anti-US public in Pakistan wants justice done for their slain countrymen; the US demands the diplomat be extradited because of his diplomatic immunity.  The Pakistani civilian leadership, already with little popular respect, is trapped between the demands of an "ally" and the demands of its people.  But if they don't let the American go, you can bet that US congressmen and the Fox News crowd will be screaming for Obama to get tough, and if that doesn't work, then direct intervention by US military to rescue the diplomat.

This could become really, really ugly.  

What Should US Do as Egypt Struggles?

To appear in tomorrow's WaPo is a piece in which several experts of various political stripes weigh in on how the US ought to deal with Egypt's current turmoil - whom to support, how quickly and definitively to react.  Some (including Danielle Pletka) insist on siding with the demonstrators, on the side of democracy and human rights (and Pletka - IMO, surprisingly - says not to fear an Islamist takeover; I hope John Bolton's listening); others (including Hussein Agha and Robert Malley) counsel, go slowly, consider the consequences, be mindful of who your friends have beenDecades of U.S. policy in the Middle East are coming back to haunt Washington. The United States backed Arab regimes that supported U.S. objectives irrespective of whether they legitimately represented popular aspirations. It propped up "moderate" rulers whose moderation consisted almost exclusively of cooperating with American policies. The more they aligned themselves with Washington, the more generous America's support and the greater the erosion of their domestic credibility. As a result, the United States now faces a battle it cannot win.

To continue supporting unpopular rulers would further alienate those who are most likely to assume power in the future. Openly siding with the street would strain ties with regimes that might survive the unrest and whose help the United States still needs; signal to America's remaining friends that its support is fickle; precipitate the rise of forces hostile to U.S. interests; and do little to persuade demonstrators who will see in America's midnight conversion hypocrisy and opportunism.

Washington can cut its losses and begin turning the page in its relations with the Arab world. That will have to wait. For now, it means assuming a low profile and resisting the temptation to become part of the story. That hardly is an exciting agenda, but the United States could do far worse than do very little.

As we watch today, among the most crucial unanswered questions:

How will the respected and powerful Egyptian military respond?  Will the commanding officers line up with Pres. Mubarak (himself a former commanding officer, as were Nasser and Sadat before him)?  Or might the largely conscript members of the rank-and-file refuse to fire on their fellow citizens?

Will a single leader emerge among the rebels as a spokesman and focus?  As of now, there are a number of possibles, but no obvious front-runner.

Finally, in thinking about what sparked the uprising, the man who immolated himself in Tunisia a few weeks ago may emerge as the most sacred iconic figure of this episode, but it's also important to remember that Egypt only weeks ago had a parliamentary election that was perhaps unsurpassedly rigged by Mubarak's NDP operatives to ensure no opposition (one pol described it as "rigging with a hint of elections"), but that a number of those would-be (or former) members who were defeated established a kind of "parallel parliament" as both a protest and an expression of the popular will to establish a truly democratic system.  All of which says that the protesters are hardly engaging in all this protest without some idea of where they might be taking it if Mubarak falls.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The US Has Lost Lebanon. Now What?

Nicholas Noe's essay in yesterday's NYT is a must-read for understanding how badly the Bush administration and its neocon fantasies blew it with Syria and Lebanon.  So much for the once-lionized Cedar Revolution.

Noe's suggestion for Obama?  Pressure Israel to return the Golan to Syria, in return for which Syria will have to cut off Hezbollah's weapons supply from Iran - which will leave Hezbollah weakened, diminish its threat to Israel, and create more political space for a re-emergence of pro-West forces.

As far as it goes, not a bad approach; but besides being the chief force of militant resistance to Israel's military threat, Hezbollah has also become the chief political representative of Lebanon's Shia, who have quickly risen to become the single largest religious confessional community in a country where politics is tied umbilically to confessional divisions.  It's not going away; it's not about to be forced out of Lebanese political and religious society.  Can Israel live with that, long-term?  Or, perhaps the more appropriate question: will Israel live with that?

My guess is, no. I fear that isolating Hezbollah by mollifying Syria with the Golan will set up the Lebanese people for another IDF strike a la Ariel Sharon's 1982 brainchild of invading Lebanon and devastating Beirut in order to eliminate the PLO and Yasser Arafat as an existential threat.  But Hezbollah has a much more powerful military punch (including rockets that can targer Tel Aviv) than did the PLO.  The devastation on both sides might verge on the catastrophic.

However, the Golan does indeed justly belong to Syria.  Israel's post-1967 colonization of it flies in the face of all modern international law.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

As Egypt and Yemen Erupt, and Tunisia Reorganizes, Baghdad Explodes . . . and Israel Worries

It is, of course, much too early to claim that a new era has begun among the "Arab moderate" autocracies, but a look at today's happenings suggests that a lot of people in a lot of Foreign Ministries (and the US DoS) are doing a lot of re-thinking.  Protests are continuing into a third day in Egypt, where young people who'd seemingly been content to talk the revolution talk over the internet are now organizing and coming onto the streets.  Thousands are marching on the streets of Sana in Yemen, demanding that the repressive regime of gerontocrat President Saleh step down.  Meanwhile, in Tunisia, violence on the streets has subsided (which likely explains why the major newspapers report little from there today), but the government is engaged in a reshuffling that will likely entail major consequences for the future of democracy there - and the extent to which Islamist parties there will be enbraced or excluded.

But Egypt is getting a huge percentage of the attention, for good reason.  It is the most populous of the Arab countries; it has been (with Iraq) one of the two traditional political and cultural capitals of the Middle East; it has been widely regarded as perhaps the most important of the US's "moderate" Arab allies, for which it has received billions of US $$; and it is one of only two Arab countries (along with Jordan, another "moderate" autocracy) to have concluded a peace treaty with Israel - something to which both Israel and the US have pointed with pride for more than 30 years.

But the great fear now is that that may be in jeopardy.  Though officially at peace, Israel-Egypt relations have been mostly cold.  The treaty Sadat signed 30+ years ago has never been warmly embraced by most of Egypt's people (although it did get the Sinai back for Egypt), in part because it has helped give political cover to the Mubarak regime's collusion with Israel to keep undermine Hamas in Gaza. (Hamas, remember, is a Palestinian affiliate of the Egyptian-founded Muslim Brotherhood, the single most popular organized - and outlawed - opposition group that threatens Mubarak's regime.)  If Mubarak tumbles (which is the oft-expressed wish and intention of the protesters), the treaty with Israel may be put back on the table by a new government.  As the NYT reported a couple of days ago, Israel is worried, but can't do much about it except look on from the sidelines, and hope that Mubarak crushes the protesters and restores (here's that word again) "stability."  The US wants that stability restored at least as much as the Israelis do.  The WaPo today is slapping Obama and Clinton on the back for, in their spin, coming out in favor of the protesters.  But what Hillary wants is more engagement between Mubarak's regime and the pro-democracy forces; the pro-democracy forces want Mubarak and his cronies - and his hyper-repressive security forces - out.  There's a real disconnect there.  As Egyptian democracy advocate Muhammad el-Baradei noted yesterday, Obama-Clinton seem more concerned about "stability" than anything else:
 “ ‘Stability’ is a very pernicious word . . . . Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law, rigged elections?” He added, “If they come later and say, as they did in Tunis, ‘We respect the will of the Tunisian people,’ it will be a little late in the day.”
And don't look now, but it may be getting very much later in the day for Mr. al-Maliki in Iraq.  Another car bomb went off at a Shiite funeral in Baghdad today, with at least 48 killed and 120+ wounded.  Even more ominously for al-Maliki's fledgling new regime government, the massacre occurred in an area of Baghdad that is a stronghold of popular support for Muqtada al-Sadr, who only days ago - in his triumphal, though abbreviated, return to Iraq - publicly proclaimed what amounted to very conditional support for Maliki.  (He declared, "We're watching.")  As the WaPO report also notes, the area also happens to have recently fallen under the influence of a radical and violent breakaway Shiite group, Asaib al-Haq.  The AP (via NPR) reported:
 Associated Press Television News footage showed broken plastic chairs overturned inside the tent, while broken tea cups and other debris covered the patterned rugs on the floor. A mourner held up a torn, blood-soaked dishdasha, traditional dress worn by Iraqi men. . . .
Young men furious over the lack of security began pelting Iraqi security forces at the scene with stones. Anger was still high three hours later, and Iraqi troops fired in the air to disperse a crowd of residents gathering elsewhere in the neighborhood for a demonstration against the failure to prevent the bombings. Police said some in the crowd fired back as Iraqi helicopters buzzed overhead.
A witness who identified himself as Abu Ahmed al-Saiedi said mourners had been allowed to park near the funeral tent because most people in the neighborhood knew each other.  "I blame the neighborhood security officials for letting this car bomb enter the area without being checked," said al-Saiedi, who was hit in the arm with shrapnel. "When I saw people hurling stones at security men, I said to myself, 'They deserve that.'"
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Egypt's Pro-Democracy Leader on Hillary Clinton

The NYT spotlights the role of Egypt's young people in the wave of protests there following the success of Tunisia's revolution. Front and center is Muhammad al-Baradei, perhaps the most prominent leader of the democracy movement (and the former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)), who applauds how young people have gotten out in front of the movement, and then expresses his surprise at Hillary Clinton's very tepid acknowledgement of their struggle:

He was stunned, he said, by the reaction of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Egyptian protests. In a statement after Tuesday’s clashes, she urged restraint but described the Egyptian government as “stable” and “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

“ ‘Stability’ is a very pernicious word,” he said. “Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law, rigged elections?” He added, “If they come later and say, as they did in Tunis, ‘We respect the will of the Tunisian people,’ it will be a little late in the day.”

That "stability" word again.  Keeps coming back to bite the US in the butt.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Egypt's Protests. What's Next?

Today's NYT report indicates that today's (Wednesday's) protests were smaller, but were occurring throughout much of the country - including Cairo, Alexandria, even as far south as Asyut.  The AP reported a total of 860 protesters arrested.  Also, at least four have been killed, including 3 protesters, and undoubtedly, many more protesters have been hurt, as security forces are going after with them with batons and bamboo sticks, as well as tear gas and rubber bullets - but, so far, have not resorted to firearms.

The NYT also reports that the government is laying blame on its bete noire, the Muslim Brotherhood.  But, actually,

The reality that emerged from interviews with protesters — many of whom said they were independents — was more complicated and reflected one of the government’s deepest fears: that opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s rule spreads across ideological lines and includes average people angered by corruption and economic hardship as well as secular and Islamist opponents. That broad support could make it harder for the government to co-opt or crush those demanding change.

“The big, grand ideological narratives were not seen today,” said Amr Hamzawy, research director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “This was not about ‘Islam is the solution’ or anything else.”

Instead, the protests seemed to reflect a spreading unease with Mr. Mubarak on issues from extension of an emergency law that allows arrests without charge, to his presiding over a stagnant bureaucracy that citizens say is incapable of handling even basic responsibilities.

Their size seemed to represent a breakthrough for opposition groups harassed by the government as they struggle to break Mr. Mubarak’s monopoly on political life. . . .

The marchers came from all social classes and included young men recording tense moments on cellphone cameras, and middle-age women carrying flags of the Wafd Party, one of Egypt’s opposition groups. A doctor, Wesam Abdulaziz, 29, said she had traveled two hours to join the protest. She had been to one demonstration before, concerning the treatment of Mr. Said.

“I came to change the government,” she said. “I came to change the entire regime.”

That evidently is the last thing, of course, that the US wants.  Hillary Clinton has responded by encouraging the Egyptian government to embrace the moment.  The Guardian reports:
Hillary Clinton did not criticise Egypt's government – a key American ally in the Middle East – saying only that the country was stable and Egyptians have the right to protest while urging all parties to avoid violence.

"We believe strongly that the Egypt government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms that respond to legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," she said at a news conference with visiting Jordanian foreign minister Nasser Judeh.

And the WaPo likewise reports Hillary's insistence that Egypt is "stable" (as well as Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs' comment that "Egypt is a strong ally." Also from Mrs. Clinton:
"We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence . . . . But our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.''

Meanwhile, "Freedom, oh freedom; Mubarak's regime is standing between us and you," the demonstrators chanted in downtown Cairo.

Again, Mubarak has a large security force to do his bidding - and there's no evidence of any cracks in their support for their 82-year-old dictator president.  It's likely a safe bet that the regime will remain; a few more protesters will die; Hillary will publicly bemoan the loss of life; Hillary - and Barack - will be silently pleased that "stability" will be preserved.

For now.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

US Middle East Policy is Stuck

Excellent analysis posted at The Atlantic by the Brookings Institution's Shadi Hamid today, about "Obama's Impossible Dilemma in Egypt" in the wake of Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" (a kind of romanticized orientalist name, by the way, that - as Human Rights Watch's Eric Goldstein noted in the WaPo - does great disservice to the sacrifices that the revolutionaries made, in blood).  Pro-democracy reformists in Egypt have designated today a day of protest, and reports of thousands demonstrating in Cairo are rolling in (e.g., AlJazeera's report). As Hamid notes, Egypt's military is larger and more tightly welded to the political leadership, so the Mubarak regime is not likely to be brought down - at least, not quickly - - which puts the US, actually, in an even worse predicament. 
This raises a thorny question for the U.S.: If tens of thousands take to the streets - and stay on the streets - what will it do? The U.S. is the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, which, in turn, has reliably supported American regional priorities. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, including $1.3 billion in annual military aid. In other words, if the army ever decides to shoot into a crowd of unarmed protestors, it will be shooting with hardware provided by the United States. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the Egyptian military is "not there to project power, but to protect the regime."

The U.S. can opt for relative silence, as it did in Tunisia. In Egypt, however, deep support of the Mubarak regime means that silence will be interpreted as complicity. On the other hand, if the U.S. offers moral support to embattled protestors, it will be actively undermining a government it considers critical to its security interests. Tunisia, as far as U.S. interests are concerned, was expendable. The revolt was spontaneous and leaderless. Islamists - mostly in prison or in London - were nowhere to be seen on the streets of Tunis or Sidi Bouzid. But if Egypt is lost, it will be lost to an uprising that includes some of the most anti-American opposition groups in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood - by far the largest opposition force in the country. . . .

the problem the U.S. faces currently is the same it faced during the short-lived "Arab spring" of 2005: For now, it is difficult, if not impossible to have both a democratic Middle East and a pro-American one. Because anti-Americanism is so widespread (in part because the U.S. supports reviled autocrats), and because Islamist groups represent the largest oppositions, any freely elected government will want to distance itself from U.S policies. Unable to resolve this "Islamist dilemma," attempts to promote Arab democracy - including the Bush "freedom agenda" - were either diluted or postponed indefinitely.

But autocracies don't last forever. This is what decades of democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin American, and Sub-Saharan Africa - and perhaps now Tunisia - have shown us. The U.S., then, finds itself in the unenviable position of being a status quo power in a region where so many detest the status quo, wish to fight it, and may - or perhaps inevitably will - one day bring it crashing down.

Fortunately for American policymakers, the Egyptian regime will not fall tomorrow. The U.S. has a limited amount of time to, first, re-assess its Middle East policy and, then, re-orient it to ride with, rather than against, the tide of Arab popular rule. It can begin distancing itself from Mubarak by stepping up public criticism of regime repression and deepening contacts with the full range of Egyptian opposition - liberals, leftists, and, yes, Islamists alike. It is better to have leverage with opposition groups before they come to power than afterward.

This by itself would likely change the Mubarak regime's behavior only slightly, if at all, but that's not necessarily the most significant objective for us. Far more important is to send a clear message to the Egyptian people that we support their democratic aspirations and that we will no longer offer unqualified support to a regime that systematically represses those aspirations.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Futility of the US Military Effort in Afghanistan

This post at The Atlantic website from Joshua Foust (a well-informed observer/analyst who posts regularly at spotlights much of what is oh-so-wrong with the US "surge" in Afghanistan, and the futility of fighting (as Foust terms it) a "tactical war" when the overall goals are so nebulous and the time-frame so problematic.  Especially distressing is Petraeus' insistence that commanders show "progress" and build "momentum" - both of which come too often at the expense of local villagers and their villages, which US forces level, leaving the villagers homeless - and angry.  The US forces provide them funds for rebuilding - but how are they supposed to do that in a war zone?  Again, it's the old Vietnam tactic reborn - destroying a village in order to save it.  Didn't work there; won't work now.  Meanwhile, as Foust notes, some US commanders are working hand-in-hand with local governors who are themselves corrupt and hated by the local people - or those commanders are providing weapons to young men to set themselves up as local militia, except they then use those guns to abuse their power. 

I must take some exception with Foust's statement that the demolition of villages is done "without malice."  Having watched the acclaimed TV presentation Restrepo, which details the lives of US soldiers at a forward operating base in Afghanistan, and having read (over the weekend) David Finkel's excellent The Good Soldiers, which details the experiences of one US Army outfit patrolling east Baghdad during the Petraeus Surge; and having heard all too often (and seen in Facebook posts and elsewhere) the exhortation to US troops to "get some," it's painfully obvious to me that all too many US soldiers, especially as they get well into their deployments and see buddies get killed, come to despise the locals.  I can't imagine that demolishing an Afghan village in the manner that Foust describes didn't come with thoughts and exclamations of "Get some!" or "Fuck 'em" from the grunts.

Petraeus needs to hearken back to his rhetorical request of several years ago: "Tell me how this ends."  It's not going well; and it's not going to end well, especially for all those villagers made homeless so that US soldiers can continue to "protect our freedoms." (That, by the way, is a phrase I'm sick and tired of having our propagandists try to pound into me.  Our freedoms were NEVER in jeopardy, either on 9-11, or from al-Qaeda,or  from Saddam, or from the Taliban.  Bush's domestic policies to "secure the Homeland" endangered them more than any of the aforementioned.)  Nor will this end well for all those soldiers who've lost their lives, limbs, eyesight, marriages, and futures in a cause that by now has lost any semblance of nobility.

Update: From Wired comes a report that according to one of the reporters Foust quotes in his post (and who is also writing a biography of Petraeus himself), the locals are happy that the US forces blew up their village.  (A before-and-after photo is pasted below.)   Wired's take:

Perhaps rebuilding a village can offset its residents’ anger at its destruction. But it’s worth remembering that Insurgency 101 is about provoking violent overreactions from counterinsurgents. Petraeus’ spokesman, Col. Erik Gunhus, told Danger Room last week that U.S. troops waging a difficult fight in southern Afghanistan were encountering compounds and even whole villages “saturated” with homemade explosives, ready to kill American forces.

That suggests the Taliban may be trying to force the U.S. into knocking down the buildings, spreading the message that the U.S. don’t actually care about Afghan lives or property. “Given that the strategy — that EVERYONE here knows — is to win the hearts and minds of villagers, razing villages is not high on the priority list,” Broadwell emails Afghanistan analyst Josh Foust, who’s been sharply critical of the Tarok Kolache operation. “It is not common.”

Perhaps. But in November, the New York Times reported that during a two-month period in Kandahar, NATO tallied 174 “deliberate demolitions… including homes and other structures.”

To say the least, U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan don’t have a good track record. Hopefully Broadwell’s right and Tarok Kolache will prove to be an exception. But the more the U.S. relies on demolitions like that, the smaller its margin of error for keeping the Afghan people on its side will become.In July, a military official wrote that the Taliban “want” U.S. troops to “kill civilians or damage their property in the course of our operations,” thereby creating “more enemies than our operations eliminate.” His name is Gen. David Petraeus. Years ago, he learned some hard lessons about how heavy-handed tactics can inadvertently set back an entire U.S. war effort.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

WaPo Editors Call for US Democracy Support in Tunisia . . . Really?

An editorial in this morning's WaPo calls upon  the US to support elections and democracy in Tunisia, and in the process mentions that Sec of State Hillary Clinton expressed that support in her message to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, but then nails her (and, by extension, of course, Pres. Barack Obama) for not insisting  that Mubarak open up his own country's political process.

This, to my mind, qualifies as disingenuous and a bit of a cheap shot (even though it would have been more than appropriate, given what the US supposedly stands for, if Ms. Clinton had indeed made that point to Mubarak).

In Tunisia, although the Islamist opposition to the now deposed Ben Ali regime has begun to make its presence felt, at this point it's but one of several dissident groups with a dog in the upcoming elections fight there.  As of yet, I've seen very few pro-West commentators talk about Tunisia's Islamists as some kind of imminent "threat."

But anyone who's been paying attention knows that in Egypt, the popular, long-established, but politically outlawed Muslim Brotherhood would likely rise very quickly to the political forefront if Mubarak were to open up the system, or be overthrown. The NYT's Michael Slackman has an interesting analysis today of how, in his view, Islamist ideology is in decline as a prime political motivator in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab Middle East, as people instead are focused more on surviving and resisting  autocrats' corruption and repression.  And it's entirely possible (though perhaps not entirely likely, if I've read the accounts of Marc Lynch's interactions with MB leaders correctly) that a politically empowered Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would adopt a secularist democratic style akin to what Mr. Erdogan and the Islamist AKP have practiced in a resurgent Turkey.  But anyone paying attention will also have noticed that Turkey's relations with Israel are on the skids, mostly because Turkey's Muslims are angry with Israel's treatment of fellow Muslims in the West Bank and, especially, Gaza in the wake of the devastation the IDF wreaked there two years ago, its ongoing blockade of Gaza, and its killing of eight Turkish citizens in the Mavi Marmara incident )  The US touts Egypt as one of the good guys in the Arab Middle East because of its peace treaty with Israel (brokered by Jimmy Carter more than 30 years ago), but it's been a very cold peace, one in many ways not in tune with the Egyptian "street," where the MB is very influential.

And finally, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is the political-spiritual godfather of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist party that was indeed brought to power in what were almost universally acclaimed as free and fair elections in 2006 - elections that the Bush administration insisted upon, only to reject the results, boycott the newly elected legislature, and turn aside as Israel began to round up and detain newly elected Hamas legislators.

And Hamas remains one of the betes noires for Israel, the US, and . . . the Washington Post editorial board, not to mention for its columnists like Charles Krauthammer and Richard Cohen.  By extension, also a principal bete noire for the aforesaid is the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party that, as we said, stands to benefit the most from the kind of democratizing of Egyptian politics that the WaPo demands that Hillary Clinton demand from Hosni Mubarak.  Hillary Clinton knows that; the WaPo should know that; and Hillary knows for sure that the WaPo will be raising hell with her - and her boss - as lily-livered defenders of the West and its values - and of Israel - if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power on their watch.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Robert Kaplan: Autocrats, not Democracy, Suit America's Interests - and That's OK

Robert Kaplan (in the NY Times) weighs in on Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution," and cautions us not to expect it to lead to much across the Arab world.  And besides, he says, more Arab democracies are bad for US "interests":
Another thing to keep in mind: in terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy. It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than can a weak, elected leader — just witness the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank government. And it was democracy that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in Gaza. In fact, do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations? We should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East.
By all means then, the US needs to back the autocrats.  To hell with elections!  To hell with democracy!  That's not what America's about!

Pro-Israeli Group Offers Maps for Palestinian State

The NYT floats a proposal - and map - from David Makovsky, one of the stalwarts at WINEP (essentially Israel's think-tank in DC), that would allow Israel to retain major West Bank settlements but only keep about 5 percent of the West Bank territory its settlers now occupy - with land swaps included to compensate the Palestinian Authority.  On the face it, it's lovely, and it certainly projects an image of WINEP as fair-minded and committed to a two-state solution.

But . . . .

As Makovsky admits, his plan leaves the religiously significant city of Hebron - and the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba, which is populated by some of the most viciously anti-Arab settlers in the West Bank - outside the area to be annexed by Israel.  One might suspect Makovsky of being just a bit disingenuous in stating that
 “It’s up to the parties to decide what to do with these settlers,” he said, conceding that when only 9,000 settlers were uprooted from Gaza after Israel withdrew in 2005, it caused years of political upheaval.
According to him, though, “I’m in the think-tank world to solve problems, not be polemical . . . . The idea here is to bring the two-state solution down to earth.”  Well, David, your map is very nice, but you (and everyone at WINEP) know that there  is no way in hell that the Kiryat Arba people are going to agree to leave their little colony.

Thanks for nothing.

Bad News for US "interests" in Iraq - and the Middle East

Actually, it's been a bad few months across the region, as far as the US is concerned:
  • In Iran, the UN + US sanctions have had some effect, but the Iranian government seems to be making do; and as the price of oil rises, Iran is raking in more money with which to offset those effects.  Today, it's reported that the latest talks between the "six world powers"  Iran in Istanbul have broken down.  No surprise there: the "world powers" had set a precondition that Iran stop enriching uranium - something that Iran knows that, according to international law, it has every right to do.  Iran demanded that sanctions be ended; no chance that that would happen.  Iran also knows that a military attack against its nuclear facilities is probably off the table.
  • The government in Lebanon, which had been led by a pro-West Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, has been brought down by Hezbollah, because Hariri has refused to turn his back on the indictments just issued (but not yet unsealed) by the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was constituted to investigate the assassination of Hariri's father, Rafik Hariri, a former PM and industrialist, several years ago.  Although the Bush administration tried initially to pin the blame on Syria, it's now believed that Hezbollah agents were responsible.  So, Lebanon now has a powerless government, with a disempowered prime minister.  And matters have become even dicier with the news that the leader of Lebanon's Druze community, Walid Jumblatt, supports Hezbollah.  As the NYT notes, this could well mean thatHezbollah has the support it needs in Lebanon's parliament to nominate the next prime minister and formally end the rule of a Western-backed government here."  This could potentially tip off a new civil war in Lebanon.  The horrific war of 1975-1991 pitted Muslims vs. Christians, with Israel intervening on behalf of the Christians (and, frankly, on behalf of Israel); but this one, if it indeed develops, would pit Hezbollah-led Shia (now Lebanon's single largest religious community) vs. Sunni Muslims (who used to rival Christians for domination there), with strong possibilities of such a war pulling in Israel and Iran.  (And in a potentially even more complicating twist - one recent poll indicates that Lebanon's Christians are siding increasingly with Hezbollah in the matter of the STL tribunal.) So much for a stable Middle East, which is what the US needs most of all if it is to ensure access to the region's oil.
  • The dictatorship of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, a reliable US ally and friendly force for "stability" (even if he did imprison political opponents) has fallen to a popular pro-democracy revolt. (I highly recommend Time mag's Tony Karon's analysis of the implications.)  Waiting in the wings is the group that Ben Ali repressed most harshly, and that is the last bunch that the US (and its so-called "moderate" Arab allies: Mubarak in Egypt, Abdullah in Jordan) wants to see emerge: Tunisia's Islamists.
  • The recent assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province in Pakistan, by an Islamist member of his security detail (evidently because Taseer was opposed to Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law) has been followed by a huge outpouring of support for his assassin. This surely reflects the strength of Islamist hard-liners in Pakistan - and concomitantly, opposition to US influence in the affairs of a nuclear-armed putative ally without whose help the US can expect no "success" next door in Afghanistan.

And then, there's that country that has fallen off our radar screens, because, after all, we've already won there, right?  Iraq is now on the way to a stable democracy, friendly to the US - just like Mr. Bush wanted . . . right?  Well, think again:
  • In the last few weeks, suicide and car bombings (three of them on consecutive days this week) have killed more than 120 people (many of them police recruits) and wounded hundreds - in Baquba (western Iraq), Mosul (in the north; a police chief was killed), Tikrit (Saddam's hometown, north of Baghdad), and  Karbala (one of the famed shrine cities of the Shiite south).  Any reports of these in the US MSM are always qualified, of course, with the don't-worry-about-it note that violence overall is down from two years ago.  (Gosh, that's swell.  Thanks, General Petraeus!)
  • As these bombings take their toll, the newly re-installed prime minister Nuri al-Maliki presides over a new government that grossly stretches the definition of cobbled-together - and the cobbling isn't even complete; he has  yet to appoint his Cabinet's national security, defense and interior police ministers, because, he says,  he wants more time to select leaders who are apolitical; so,  he controls all security forces until those Cabinet posts are filled.  He controls all security forces.  Saddam must be chuckling somewhere.
  • A major force in Maliki's new government is Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shii mullah who recently returned to Iraq in triumph, a political star who promptly gave a speech in which he declared that Iraqis must resist the US presence, that all American soldiers must leave Iraq by the agreed date of 31 December 2011 (a demand that Maliki himself has reaffirmed), and that he will support the new Maliki government as long as it defends and serves the Iraqi people.  Muqtada is Maliki's only serious rival for political popularity on the "Arab street" in Iraq, and with a doubt the single political/military leader in Iraq most hated by the US political/military establishment. Why? Between 2004 and 2009, his Mahdi Army was responsible for the killing and wounding of hundreds of US soldiers;  and  although he styles himself an Iraqi nationalist, he (and his famed ayatollah father before him) has strong ties to the Islamist regime in Iran (where, it's been reported today, he seems to have returned).

A last irony here: This week's bombing that killed more than 50 Shii pilgrims in Karbala may have been orchestrated by a leader of  the Sunni Awakening, the Sunni Arab locals who turned on Sunni al-Qaeda jihadists and teamed with US troops during the Petraeus "surge" that brought the US "victory" in Iraq.  As the AP reports,
If the Awakening Council leader is found guilty of the charges, it would affirm widespread government doubts about integrating the Sunni fighters into the nation's security forces — despite their alliance with the U.S. against al-Qaida. It could also signal that the militia's frustration about being sidelined by Iraq's Shiite-dominated government may have finally reached a boiling point.
For Iraq's - and Iraqis' - sake, let's hope that's not the case.  But if so, it raises the specter of renewed sectarian fighting, perhaps with Muqtada calling to arms his militia (now renamed the Promised Day brigades) to defend southern Shia if Maliki's security forces are unable to stem the violence.

Any such development would also finally put paid to any remaining claim that the US invasion somehow "fixed" Iraq, and that the expenditures in lives and treasure that Boy George's Iraqi Adventure cost the US - and the Iraqi people - were somehow worth it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Upsides to Ms. Palin's Post-Loughner Video?

In his LA Times essay of a couple of days ago, Doyle McManus asserts that Sarah Palin's post-Loughner video pretty much ended her chance of being elected president (not that they were promising before) because it revealed her as unable to rise to a significant challenge. She came across as defensive, even petty - in stark contrast to Pres. Obama's uplifting eloquence in Tucson in a speech that even John McCain, Obama's 2008 opponent and the Dr. Frankenstein who created Palin, acknowledged in an essay in yesterday's WaPo.  Of course, the woman who was nicknamed the "barracuda" as a high-school cager is hardly about to exit the stage.  She has created around her message - and her person - the aura of a cult of ultra-Americanism and hyper-White-Christianism that has already attracted thousands of like-minded people.  Any more mainstream Republicans who were counting on their support will be faced with the difficult task of easing her off the pedestal before which her followers adore her.  She won't be moved easily, and to the extent that she can cast herself as the martyr-victim of a largely white-male Republican establishment, she will be able to rally her followers to her defense.  I'm only afraid that some of them will literally reload (as she has called upon them to do) and start packing heat in public places and to public events as a show of support.

As a professor of history, however, I'm also grateful to Ms. Palin (in a smirking sort of way) for her careless invocation of the "blood libel."  It's obvious that (in contrast to any of the hundreds of students who have taken my HST 237 course) she was clueless as to the origin of the term, its historical significance, and the way its misuse will resonate against her among some pro-Israel groups on whose support she has relied.  But her miscue has led many commentators (including McManus) to explain to readers what the "blood libel" was actually about, which only serves to better educate an American electorate whose historical ignorance is difficult to under-estimate.

Thank you, Sarah.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Yes, Words Do Matter

I find very convincing Stephen Walt's post today at his Foreign Policy blog, where he takes on David Brooks' recent NYT op-ed defending Sarah Palin et al. from accusations that their spiteful rhetoric (and her famous cross-hairs) may have influenced Jared Loughner's warped decision to take his gun to a political event and shoot a Democratic congresswoman.  He concludes:
 If you believe that Palestinian "incitement" is a powerful impediment to peace in the Middle East, then you think words matter in that context and you ought to acknowledge that they probably matter back here too. If you're worried about the dangers of nationalist rhetoric in the Chinese media, then you recognize that what elites and major media figures say can affect what masses perceive and what some individuals do. If you are one of those people who think that what madrasas in Pakistan teach is a source of terrorist violence, then you understand that violence sometimes arises because of what other people have written or said (sometimes over and over and over). If you believe that Mein Kampf had something to do with convincing Germans to commit genocide, then you've acknowledged that words do matter and sometimes they pave the way to unspeakable acts. So why deny it in this most recent case?
And here's the central point to remember: Violent language and hateful political rhetoric don't make most of the people who hear it run out and kill. Rather, the problem is that it makes it more likely that a handful of more fervent, less stable, more susceptible, less socially connected individuals will hear the message and take it to heart. And in a world where guns are cheap and plentiful, all it takes is one.
The solution, needless to say, is not censorship. The solution is to view those who favor violence as a way of dealing with one's political opponents with contempt, and to treat entertainers who use such language and tropes as moneymaking devices as beneath even that. I don't want the government telling Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, or any other xenophobic whack job what not to say; I just want sensible Americans to switch the channel and confine them to the obscurity that they deserve.
 Palin fans, of course, will reject vehemently the implied linking of their heroine to salafist imams and Nazi ideologues; but that misses the larger point.  When "leaders" speak to "followers," they want followers to take their words seriously, and to act upon them.  When Palin/Beck et al. employ the rhetoric ("Don't retreat; reload") and imagery (gun crosshairs) of violence (or a Sharon Angle proposes recourse to "Second Amendment" solutions) to whip up what amounts to "crusader" fury against "liberal" Democrats (who, in Palin's words, have pitted themselves against the "sacred document" of the U.S. Constitution), they have to expect that some devotees (a term which, BTW, describes many of them quite accurately) will feel compelled to resort to violent measures.
Speaking of which . . . That Congress might not finally see its way to legislating some kind of control that will keep the Jared Loughners of the country from packing heat staggers me.  When the Founding Fathers penned the Second Amendment, they lived in a world where ordinary farmer-citizens kept a musket for hunting and self-defense.  They could not have envisioned as part of "our freedoms" the ability of basically any American to walk into a Walmart and come out with multiple semi-automatic weapons, any one of which could take out dozens of fellow citizens.  

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Palin: Journalists' "Blood Libel"?!

Almost fell off my chair when I read this.  Palin is hopeless, absolutely hopeless - a huge, terrible joke played by John McCain on the American people.  And it's even scarier that she evidently has no advisors educated enough to steer her away from using the term "blood libel" so casually.  She better not be planning any trips to Israel soon . . .

Baghdad's Bustling "New" Economy

As reported in the NYT, and brought to Baghdadis courtesy of Boy George's curious Iraq adventure . . . people, dislocated from their homes, and forced to sift through garbage in order to make ends meet . . .

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Muqtada's Return to Iraq

Michael Boyle sums it up nicely in The Guardian:
That Sadr's return holds out the prospect of a return to violence or increasingly illiberal government in Iraq is clear. But it is also now clear that events in Iraq have slipped out of the hands of the US, turning America into a bystander in the aftermath of a war of its own making. Whether Iraq will continue to consolidate its fragile gains, or slip back into violence or authoritarian government, is a matter that the Obama administration may find very hard to influence.
Likewise, Robert Grenier in al-Jazeera:
It is tempting, and perhaps accurate, to ascribe the peaceful return of Iraq's prodigal son to a healthy evolution in Iraq away from violence and toward electoral and factional politics as a means of reconciling the country's deep divisions.

The trepidation which attended al-Sadr's first post-return speech this past Saturday, however, suggested that this transformation remains both tenuous and reversible.

Iraqis do not fear Muqtada's control over 12 percent of the seats in the Council of Representatives. What they fear is the cult-like following which he still commands among the poor, urban Shiite proletariat, perhaps the most potent, least sophisticated, and most manipulable force in Iraqi politics.

Muqtada's standing among this element of the populace would be enough by itself to make him a political force to be reckoned with.

But the real base of Muqtada's power, now as before, is the potential for mob violence posed by his most passionate supporters, as well as the more directed and disciplined threat posed by the Promised Day Brigade, al-Sadr's post-Mahdi Army militia.

Despite its leader's supposed new-found political respectability, an aura of violent illegitimacy still clings to the al-Sadr Trend:  Indeed, at least two Iraqi laws bar organisations affiliated with a militia from political participation. The clear lesson for everyone concerned is that accountability under the law still does not apply to Muqtada al-Sadr. . . .

his reiterated opposition to foreign occupation and his insistence on strict adherence to the agreed timetable for US military withdrawal contained, depending upon one's interpretation, either a clear threat, or a familiar and characteristic ambiguousness on the potential for a return to violence.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hillary Clinton on a Nuke-Free Middle East

The WaPo  reports on Hillary's appearance on a UAE talk-show:

The hosts and questioners from the audience asked polite but pointed questions about the possibility of war in the Middle East and why the United States tolerated nuclear weapons for Israel but not for Iran. On the latter question, Clinton said the Obama administration supports the idea of a nuclear-free Middle East, eventually.

"We are committed to that, but in order to get there we have to resolve the Palestinian dispute and the Iran issue," she said.

Splendid!  So, does this mean that if the Israelis were to help fashion a truly viable, independent Palestinian state, and if Iran was to abjure definitively any quest for nuclear weapons, then the US would insist that Israel dismantle its nuclear arsenal?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Pakistan's Future after the Assassination of Salman Taseer

Christian Caryl has posted an eloquent, insightful essay at the NYRB blog, in which he claims that Pakistan has perhaps reached a fateful tipping point, of no going back.  He concludes:

I am not a Pakistani. But I can’t help feeling that the killing of Salman Taseer is a calamity for everyone who lives in the country—including the people who are now strewing flowers at the feet of the man who allegedly pulled the trigger. Those who support the takfiri worldview don’t seem to understand that this is an ideology that cedes the definition of “true Islam” to the self-declared defenders of religion—and that these definitions shift according to the political wind, to selfish agendas and narrow factional interests, rather than to the uncorrupted dictates of faith. And that means that those who consider themselves right-minded believers today can easily find themselves on the wrong end of a Kalashnikov tomorrow.

The West, and especially the United States, should also take notice. It is time for policymakers in Washington to understand that Pakistan is not simply a vexing sideshow to the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan—populous, chaotic, and nuclear-armed—needs to be taken seriously in its own right. An imploding Pakistan promises immense pain and turmoil to itself and the world at large. Let’s hope that this realization doesn’t come too late.

Muqtada serves notice to Maliki

It might fairly be said that Iraq's post-invasion history has turned a new page with the return of Muqtada al-Sadr to Iraq.  As Tony Shadid and others have noted, he is perhaps the only Iraqi political leader with as much grassroots support as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which means that if Maliki's government doesn't perform, Muqtada - even though his party is an important piece in Maliki's coalition - could be the focus of a powerful opposition movement.  And in his speech today, Muqtada indeed served notice that he and his followers will stand with Maliki's government if it comes through:"The Iraqi government has been formed," he said. "If it serves the Iraqi people, and provides services, we will stand by it, not against it.

Of course, Muqtada's statement potentially leaves it largely in Muqtada's hands to be the "decider" (to channel W's terminology) about how well the government is indeed serving the people.  That entails several items high on Muqtada's list:

getting basic services like water, sewage, and electrical systems up and running, especially to the urban poor of Baghdad and the south who are Muqtada's base of popular support

getting the Americans out by the agreed-upon end-of-2011 deadline.  Maliki's return was not good news for the US, which dearly wants to maintain a significant military presence there for the sake of "stability" (=American-speak for blocking any increase in Iran's influence, and for preserving Petraeus' "victory" there).  Expect Muqtada to be adamant about this.  If Maliki waffles, Muqtada and his followers could bolt, and Muqtada's Promised Day brigades could make life miserable for US forces and for the Iraqi army (many of whose members, let's remember, are former members of the Shia sectarian militias associated with Maliki's al-Da'wa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, with whom Sadrist forces have done battle in the past).

Muqtada styles himself as an Iraqi religious nationalist, but some believe that Maliki sweetened his appeal to Muqtada by assuring his party the governorship of four of Iraq's southern directorates, thus providing him a territorial base where he is already very popular, and where presumably his dictates will have immense authority.  To the extent that Maliki might interfere with Muqtada's authority there (and remember, in 2008 Maliki sent Iraqi forces against the Sadrists in Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City), Muqtada might declare that a failure by Maliki to serve the Iraqi people.

Finally, another major attack by Sunni jihadists ("al-Qaeda") against Iraq Shia, especially if they occur in Sadr City, will give Muqtada yet another pretext for declaring that Maliki's government has failed the Iraqi people.

The weeks ahead are going to be critical for the stability of Maliki's government.

And if the security surrounding Muqtada somehow breaks down or is infiltrated, and Muqtada himself is attacked (or worse) . . . .

Thursday, January 6, 2011

McCain calls out Tom Friedman

. . . as reported in The Daily Caller.  McCain continues to push the idea that the US "won" in Iraq, even as Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the most powerful and anti-American political leaders in that country, just returned there - rather triumphantly - from Iran.

No, senator.  The "winners" in Iraq are Iran, and (as Tony Shadid's recent piece makes abundantly clear) Turkey.

And, by the way, why should anyone take seriously the expertise and "wisdom" of a man foolish and thoughtless enough to risk placing Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency of the U.S.?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Netanyahu Wants Obama to Release Israeli Spy Jonathan Pollard

As reported by the WaPo.  The request has been widely expected, with the understanding that Obama might grant it in return for some significant "concessions" on Israel's illegal settlement-building in the West Bank.

Netanyahu won't - and can't, from a domestic political standpoint or his own "Greater Israel" principles - make any meaningful concessions.  Nonetheless, as he notes explicitly in his request, he's playing his US Congress card, especially with all those new Republicans now seated.  But if Obama caves on this - and especially, if he does so with no meaningful give-back from Netanyahu - he will be reviled in the CIA.

My sense is that a majority of Americans will not support the release of a man who was, after all, sent to prison for life because he was a traitor whose actions did huge damage to the US intelligence establishment.  And if Obama does relent, he will be seen, not as magnanimous, but as even more pusillanimous than so many have already pegged him.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Lindsey Graham's Colossally Bad Idea

Graham told NBC's "Meet the Press" that, in his opinion, the US ought to establish permanent bases in Afghanistan. (I'll be looking forward to input from Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain, the other members of a troika that seldom fails to speak as one.)

This is a colossally stupid idea.
  • Maintaining such bases  would be hugely expensive.
  • They would be a needless irritant to US relations with China, Russia, and Iran.
  • They would be targets for local resistance across the region.

Graham must be thinking that Afghanistan can be set up as an American protectorate a la Japan and Germany after World War II.  No chance.


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