Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Where Iraq May Be Headed

As this analysis from Reuters makes clear, the Shi'a-led government of Nuri al-Maliki is under immense pressure. To the north of Baghdad, the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil is defying his demands that it quit making its own deals with foreign oil companies.  Erbil and Baghdad could also easily come to blows over the oil-rich, Kurd-coveted Kirkuk region, where the two sides' forces are already arrayed against each other.
But it's the recent Sunni protests in Anbar governate - combined with what is likely the death spiral of the Assad regime in Damascus - that may be grabbing most of Baghdad's attention now.   Sunnis in Falluja and Ramadi have been angry with the Maliki regime for years - and for good reason - but the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria is feeding the Sunnis of Anbar the ambrosia of empowerment.

As Reuters notes,

Increasingly, though, for the Shi'ite leadership, Syria's crisis is a key factor in Iraq's own stability.
Should Assad fall it would weaken the sway of Shi'ite Iran, Syria's main regional ally and a key supporter of Shi'ite Islamist parties in Maliki's coalition. Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have backed Assad's foes.
After any Syrian collapse, Iraqi Shi'ite officials see Islamist fighters turning their weapons back on Baghdad. Their worst case scenario is a Sunni population in revolt against Baghdad and becoming a magnet for jihadists.
"Everyone is asking where are we heading, no one knows," said one influential Shi'ite leader. "Our biggest fear is that the regime in Syria collapses, then an Iraqi Sunni region will be announced next day, and fighting will erupt."

It's going to take all the political savvy and statesmanship that Maliki can muster if Iraq is to remain a unitary state.  In decades past, Saddam Hussein was able to apply oil monies as a band-aid to try to keep restive elements of Iraq's population in line.  In the end, though, that wasn't enough when the 1991 war weakened his hold.  Now, the Kurds have their own oil money, as well as a burgeoning partnership with Turkey in developing an oil pipeline to convey oil out of Kurdistan and fuel Erbil's further empowerment - and defiance of Baghdad.  It's difficult to see, down the road, anything short of war that might enable Baghdad to re-establish its sway in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As for the Sunnis of Anbar, Maliki has consistently treated them as threats more than compatriots.  And given Maliki's longtime ties to the Shi'i Islamist Dawa party, it's difficult to imagine a government led by him doing anything to empower Iraq's Sunni minority, which until 2003 dominated  (and under Saddam, brutalized) the majority Shi'a.  That Syria's rebellion is being led by Sunnis - many of whom have kinship/tribal ties with Iraqi Sunnis - obviously worries Baghdad.  That the Syrian rebellion is being spearheaded by Sunni Islamists - especially Jabhat al-Nusra, which has ties to al-Qaeda - may have many Iraqi Shi'a petrified.
And you can bet that all of this is knotting some stomachs in Foggy Bottom as well.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

What Lies Ahead in Syria?

Taking into account most reckonings and analysis I've seen, it seems pretty safe to bet that whether or not Syria remains a unitary state, there will be a long-term struggle for power between hard-core Sunni Islamists and other groups in this predominantly Sunni Muslim country who prefer a future political system (a) infused with, but not dominated by, principles enshrined in sharia and (b) incorporating elements of liberal-secular nationalism.  Whatever one's take on Baathism specifically, the fact of the matter is that late 19th-  and early 20th-century Syria was one of the hearths of secular Arab nationalism.

A report in today's NY Times limns the shape and dynamic of local political tensions that may dominate Syria's political life: hard-core jihadists (specifically, members of the Jabhat al-Nusrah) asserting their preference for strict adherence to what they view as properly Muslim conducr, versus local community members intent on determining the shape of local governance without jihadist interference.  The report makes very clear the potential for violent confrontation.

Some of this puts me in mind of the situation in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003.  Al-Qaeda-type jihadists entered Sunni areas and were able to dominate local communties because they were well equipped and well organized.  But in enforcing their strict moral and legal codes  they also resorted to such brutality that the locals turned against them, with many of the locals later joining the Sunni sahwa ("awakening") militias that played such a huge part in ousting al-Qaeda (at least temporarily) and dampening down the general level of violence.  (That's the same dampening of violence that John McCain and his ilk insisted on crediting to the Petraeus "Surge" - which is the basis on which McCain speaks of Iraq as a US "victory.")

Of course, the Iraq situation was very different from that in Syria because the catalyst for so much of the violence there was the invasion and occupation by the US.  To be sure, the Nusra jihadists and others are serving as proxies for the Saudis and other hyper-Sunni regional players.  But my real point here is that as the writ of the Assad government in Damascus continues to shrink, and the rebel groups continue to be unable to come together to fashion a more centralized political solution, Syrian communities will be having to take matters into their own hands, on the micro-level.  The potential for conflict is obvious.

And what kind of "Syria" emerges from all of this is anybody's guess

Monday, January 21, 2013

As Syria's Civil War Drags On . . .

Among the more ominous reports from or about Syria today is one from the LA Times that middle-class, educated Syrians are becoming ambivalent about the anti-Assad rebels, especially given the increased evidence of jihadists among them.  

Hassan Hassan in The National also comments at length on the jihadis' presence among the rebels.  Although, he says, their presence is sometimes overhyped in the Western media, their ability to provide social services to people has enhanced their appeal.  But perhaps his most foreboding comment comes at the end:

The bottom line is this: the longer this crisis goes on, the more time radical forces from all sides will have to dig in.


Meanwhile, reports the NYT, the main opposition group in exile, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, met Saturday but was unable to fashion a transitional government.  The disconnect between this bunch and the rebels doing the actual fighting remains too broad.

Meanwhile, displacement and exile has rendered hundreds of thousands of Syrians miserable.  Hungry, wet, cold, impoverished, children and the elderly at risk of death by illness or exposure.  They have no prospects, can see absolutely no light on the horizon.  Hence, frustration, anger.

That's a perfect breeding ground for people preaching extreme solutions.  It's also lousy raw material with which to fashion a new political and social contract when the time for that comes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bringing Down the Ivory Tower

The suicide of the young RSS pioneer and social visionary Aaron Swartz has spawned a great deal of commentary about the vision and passion of this truly remarkable man.  (See, most recently, the essay by Columbia U. prof Timothy Wu at The New Yorker.)  While no one can truly know why Swartz decided to take his own life, it stands to reason that he was impelled by the stress of the legal prosecution against him for his "criminal" act of stealthily downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR that he then intended to make freely available to the general public.  His overzealous prosecutor (some might characterize her as a persecutor) was threatening a sentence of 30 years imprisonment.  Wu makes the point that the proposed punishment surely exceeded the actual gravity of the "crime."

But Wu's essay also begs the question: Why not make published academic and scientific research available, legally and for free, to the general public?  Many major think-tanks already make reports by their experts available to the public via free download from their websites.  And as a scholar of ancient Middle Eastern history and cultures, I am increasingly grateful to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which has not only made all of its scholarly publications of the last almost 100 years available for free download, but also does the same for scholarly articles emanating from special symposia and workshops it hosts on various topics.   

Let's bear in mind that, in most instances, scholarly and scientific research - and ultimately the articles and books it engenders - is to some extent funded by federal and state tax dollars paid in by Americans who ought to feel that they have some right to be able to access that research - which, again, they helped pay for.

This issue also has some bearing on a question that has been receiving (in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example) lots of attention in recent years: How much should academics involve themselves in contributing to debates on political and social issues and policy?  There seems to be a growing feeling that such highly trained and often exceptionally well-informed members of the body politic ought to be willing - and encouraged - to engage in those debates.  One of the most encouraging developments that I've seen (and profited from, immensely) in recent years in this regard has been the increasing involvement of scholars from elite institutions in publishing commentary and analysis at websites that focus on international relations.  The contributions of eminent scholars like Juan Cole (University of Michigan), Stephen Walt (Harvard), Fouad Ajami (Johns Hopkins), and Nathan J. Brown and Marc Lynch (George Washington University) - to name only a few - in various on-line outlets (especially at Foreign Policy and The National Interest; and in the instance of Cole, at his much celebrated blog, Informed Comment), have made accessible to a wide public the fruits of sober, well-informed expertise concerning the Middle East -- something so badly needed in this era when Fox News "experts" and hate-mongers like Rush Limbaugh and Pamela Geller have lodged themselves so deeply in the public's media consciousness.

And there's an upside here for academics as well.  For decades the general public has tended to mock them as coddled elitist pointy-heads sequestered from the "real world" within their ivory towers.  To some extent that's understandable.  Many of them (full disclosure; mea culpa) publish so much seemingly arcane stuff in often obscure journals made even more obscure by their inaccessiblity to a broader public.  And as has been noted, for example, at the recent American Historical Association convention, academics hurt their own image among the general public by too often writing theory-laden, jargon-heavy stuff that's inaccessible - and dreadfully boring - for even the better-educated members of our society.  But this isn't always the case. . . .

. . . .  Which leads me to my final point: Making scholarly academic and scientific articles available for free to the general public might well help knock down those ivory towers, or at least lower the drawbridge across the moat that has so long separated academics from the general public. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Obama's Drones vs Lanza's Newtown Massacre

IMHO, Michael Kinsley's essay in the LA Times deserves wide readership and sustained discussion.  He concludes:

Why is it not only OK but praiseworthy for the U.S. government to aim at Anwar Awlaki and kill him because he is an Al Qaeda "operative" who may not actually have killed anyone directly (though no doubt he'd have liked to), while Adam Lanza, who shot and killed 20 schoolchildren and seven adults, including his own mother, before killing himself, could have had, if he'd lived, a trial that lasted weeks and cost millions of taxpayer dollars? What about the person riding in Awlaki's car who was killed with him? What about Awlaki's 16-year-old son, who died in a drone attack two weeks later? Awlaki was a U.S. citizen and his child was born in Colorado, if that makes any difference.


The Obama administration's position is that it has looked at this carefully and there's no legal problem with drone assassinations for reasons that regrettably must remain secret. U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon's wonderfully acerbic decision, issued last week, reluctantly acknowledges the administration's right to maintain this absurd position: A "thicket of laws and precedents," she writes, "effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusions a secret."


As is so often the case, Stalin may have said it best (if, indeed, he really said it): "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." The deaths of Awlaki and Lanza may not be tragedies, but the differences in how we think about them deserve better than a "because we said so" — especially from a liberal Democratic administration led by a former president of the Harvard Law Review.


I wonder especially about the teenage son killed in a separate drone attack, and the two killed just before New Year's, according to Reuters, because they were "suspected of being insurgents linked to Al Qaeda."


Is that good enough for you?


For me? No.  But I fear that our recently re-elected president lost his way on the moral and legal issues surrounding drones a long time ago.  And as one pundit has commented recently, Obama seems imore ntent on being a steward of US interests abroad than the leader of a charge (a la Bush) to install American values across the world.  Bush's catastrophic failure in Iraq demonstrated the costliness and ultimate futility of the latter approach.  Obama - as well as John Kerry and Chuck Hagel - are wise to that.   Indeed, Obama seems to recognize that his most important responsibility is to protect, rescue, and rebuild the Republic in the homeland.  

But over the long haul, Obama's hyper-reliance on drones to protect the Homeland may well be creating thousands more enemies and haters of America abroad.  That may very well come back to take a monstrous bite out of the safety of the Republic that he's sworn to protect - especially as other entities, both state and non-state, inevitably gain access to drone technology.

Sorry to employ that trite, time-worn adage - but payback is indeed a bitch.  And I can't help fearing that some kind of payback is indeed coming.  Obama can only pray that it won't come on his watch.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Syrians' Misery Gets Worse, with No End in Sight

Julian Lindley-French of the Atlantic Council with a dire prognosis for Syria's civil war:

Moscow’s admission last month that Assad may fall from power allied to Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa assertion that no-one can win the Syrian civil war and that a transitional government is now the only way forward suggests the war is indeed at a tipping point. Sadly, no-one can expect peace soon. An enduring Syrian peace would only be possible with the consistent support of a unified international community and that simply does not exist. Even if it did would any state be prepared to commit land forces under UN mandate to secure the peace? Who would be prepared to offer the huge resources vital to re-settle peaceably displaced populations, promote peaceful transition and re-build a smashed Syria?

If peace miraculously came tomorrow with the fall of Assad Syrians would face a vacuum created by a hopelessly split international community. Saving Syria from Assad is but the first step. The Syrian civil war is not simply about the transfer of power from a national minority to a majority it is about the future geopolitical shape of the Middle East. Without real support from us all Syria will continue to be a danger to itself and its neighbors in a very dangerous region.


Meanwhile, thousands of Syrian DPs face a horrific humanitarian situation.  The recent winter storm that blew away tents and left people shivering and unsheltered has compounded the misery of ever-spreading and deepening hungry that aid organizations lack the wherewithal to alleviate.

Nonetheless, some of Syria's neighbors continue to accept and shelter refugees.  Israel, meanwhile, is building a fence.

Elliott Abrams' Slander of Chuck Hagel

Truly, Abrams has outdone himself, by insisting that Obama SecDef nominee former senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is an anti-Semite.  Ali Gharib at The Daily Beast takes apart Abrams' argument, and notes that the Council on Foreign Relations, of which Abrams is a member and which hosts Abrams' often ridiculously biased blog "Pressure Points," is taking some heat over the baselessness of Abrams' accusations.

That the CFR, perhaps the most "Establishment" of the US foreign policy thinktanks, shelters an "expert" of Abrams' ilk beggars understanding.  It's indeed high time that he be called to account for the damage he has done to US interests ever since his Bush-era 'rehabilitation" following his conviction of lying to Congress during the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal.  Essentially, he's little better than a shill for Bibi Netanyahu, the Likud (one of whose party posters once adorned the wall of his government office), and the cover-up of the continuing (and by now almost complete) Israeli colonization of the West Bank.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Roman Empire's vs US's Decline

People have been debating for years the possible parallels between the decline of the Roman empire and the signs of US "imperial" decline.  Huffington Post publishes Barton Kunstler's musings on this theme.  One of the six parallels he highlights especially caught my attention:

4. Spread of escapist cults. Christianity was only the most successful example of the "exotic" cults that offered Romans solace when their own society, and thus its prevailing religion, began to fail them. Today, the U.S. is held hostage by those for whom carrying any weapon, anywhere, is a sanctified religious belief. We have members of Congress who don't believe in evolution, who are as literalist and intolerant about their religion as any ignorant 10th century rural priest. The entire globe suffers from the ravages of extreme, often violent, fundamentalism. Fundamentalist thought relies on pre-processed sound-bites that obstruct any considered address of real-world problems. It makes negotiation impossible. Part of the paralysis of our national government lies in the fanatical religiosity that many of our representatives bring to the political process.


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