Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Listen, I'm a no-name blogger of no importance.  I'm okay with that.  I do this because it gives me an outlet for my thoughts on the region, and it allows me to write as often as possible.

That being said, I like it when I'm right, and I like it when famous people say the same things that I say.  Call it intellectual vanity if you will.  I call it "being on the right track".

Read Thomas Friedman's recent op-ed in the New York Times:
 Yes, the various Muslim Brotherhoods have exploited the opening created by these uprisings because they were the most organized parties. But if the Islamists don’t respond to the real drivers of this revolution — that yearning for education and jobs and the dignity they bring — they, too, will eventually face a rebellion.
And from me:
Egypt's next elections will prove my point.  If the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists do not satisfy the Egyptians expectations by the time of the next election, they will be voted out of office.  It was no surprise when they were recently elected: they were well organized (thanks to their semi-underground status) and presented an alternative vision for Egypt.  Logistically and organizationally, nobody else was in a position to be voted into power.  That won't, however, be the case in the next round of elections: other parties will have had the chance to organize, form a strategy, and present a case to the Egyptian people.  This upcoming presidential election is another story.  Stay tuned for developments to come-- as dictated by the ruling military council.
So how about we stop being stupid? How about we stop sending planes and tanks to a country where half the women and a quarter of the men can’t read, and start sending scholarships instead?
Concerning Pakistan, my thoughts are that the US has to stop dangling the military assistance carrot and instead focus on civilian development.  Brandishing the stick won't help either.  In essence, the US has to fundamentally change the way it has been dealing with Pakistan for the past 30 years (since Zia, at least).  No more guns and bombs.  Pakistan has got plenty of those (and just tested a nuclear-capable missile last week).  What Pakistan lacks, and what the US wants, is the desire to stop militants from attacking the Afghani and Pakistani government and people.  That's the issue.  Listen, Pakistan isn't going to change overnight, and the US can't simply abandon it either.  Therefore, pick a strategy and a goal and go for it.  Giving guns isn't the right strategy, and it isn't going to attain the desired goal either.
If anything, I need to be less verbose.  Otherwise, in a funny kind of way, I feel validated.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Summary of the Situation

Let's take a step back.  It is important to periodically emerge from immersion in the pool of politics and intrigue, shake off the excess propaganda and barb-slinging, and dry oneself off in the warm embrace of self-reflection and thought.

Let's outline what's happening in the region:
  • Ongoing conflict in Syria; more violence; seemingly failed ceasefire; frustrations from inaction.
  • Islamists in Egypt, with disqualified candidates aplenty; Mandated secularism in politics in Libya; and more-of-the-same in Tunisia.  All relatively quiet in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.
  • Continued, often bloody, protests in Bahrain.
  • Fruitful talks between the US and Iran.  Less chance that World War III will break out.  Less vitriolic shouts from extremists in the US and Israel.
  • Continued soured relations between the US and Pakistan.  Pakistan says "no more drones", and the US responds with more drones.
  • Afghanistan is in limbo, with a recent high-profile Taliban attack in Kabul, and a US president looking for an honorable exit.
From the outlook of US policy, what common themes can we identify?  Well, not many.  The US approach is on a case-by-case basis.  Example: support the Syrian opposition, don't support the Bahraini opposition.  Both wish for more rights, less oppression, etc.  However, the US doesn't have a fleet stationed in Syria-- it does have one in Bahrain.

The US/Pakistan relationship is much like my relationship with my last girlfriend: we're just on different levels.  We don't want the same things, and those things that we do want we want to acquire in different ways.  Can the US breakup with Pakistan, but still be friends?  Friends with benefits, maybe?  It can happen.  But-- and this is no reflection on my ex-- Pakistan has "issues" that it needs to resolve before it can develop meaningful relationships.  Namely, the courts and the executive have to play nice with each other, and the ISI needs to learn how to share, and there's high-level corruption, and... never mind.

Concerning Pakistan, my thoughts are that the US has to stop dangling the military assistance carrot and instead focus on civilian development.  Brandishing the stick won't help either.  In essence, the US has to fundamentally change the way it has been dealing with Pakistan for the past 30 years (since Zia, at least).  No more guns and bombs.  Pakistan has got plenty of those (and just tested a nuclear-capable missile last week).  What Pakistan lacks, and what the US wants, is the desire to stop militants from attacking the Afghani and Pakistani government and people.  That's the issue.  Listen, Pakistan isn't going to change overnight, and the US can't simply abandon it either.  Therefore, pick a strategy and a goal and go for it.  Giving guns isn't the right strategy, and it isn't going to attain the desired goal either.

Before this turns into a dissertation, let's conclude with a broad summary: Multilateralism and regional groups are playing the leading role in ongoing developments.  The US has, and should continue, to pay attention to that information.  Overall, less is more.  Overexposure and over deployment is expensive, dangerous, and harmful to all.  The US needs to pick its battles carefully-- and I use "battles" figuratively.  Hopefully it stays that way.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Have Stick, Will Shout

This paragraph from CNN made me laugh out loud and is worth quoting in full:

Diskin's blunt commentary follows controversial remarks by Israel's top general, who said Iran is led by "very rational people" and doesn't appear poised to build a nuclear bomb that would threaten his nation.

We have left all rational discourse behind when calling people "very rational" is considered a controversial statement.  To be fair, the public dialogue concerning Iran/Israel is not really rational nor discourse.  It is more akin to "speak loudly and threaten with a big stick".

The above paragraph is a great example of how the media can quite effortlessly manipulate perception.  Taking the general's statement and putting it within the context of "controversial remarks" automatically makes the sterile, sexy.  The bland, bombastic.  Suddenly, we've got a story on our hands!  

I don't think that CNN or the author willingly intended to deceive.  In all likelihood, the author wished to inform the reader that the comments of Israel's top general caused an uproar in Israel.  One could call that uproar "controversial".  However, using that word without an explanation taints the content and allows a sense of disbelief or cynicism to creep throughout the paragraph.  One must read a controversial author's comments with a skeptical eye.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

No Islamists Allowed. The Underground is This Way...

Libya's National Transitional Council issued a law today banning political parties based on "religious, regional, or tribal platforms, and outlaws foreign funding."

Rightfully, Islamist groups think that this measure was specifically targeted against them.

My feelings are that these types of measures are counter-productive and harmful in the long term.  It might be satisfying, from a Western perspective, to know that in the upcoming elections there will be no Islamist or Salafist parties running for office (as happened in Egypt).  But, that doesn't mean that Islamists don't exist.  In fact, by denying Islamist parties a voice in parliament, they are forced instead to go underground and search for alternative means to get their message across.  And there you have it: conflict.  The short term satisfaction of no Islamists in government leads to the long term consequences of an underground, suppressed, and probably anti-government Islamist movement-- because if they weren't anti-government before, they surely are now.

Egypt's next elections will prove my point.  If the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists do not satisfy the Egyptians expectations by the time of the next election, they will be voted out of office.  It was no surprise when they were recently elected: they were well organized (thanks to their semi-underground status) and presented an alternative vision for Egypt.  Logistically and organizationally, nobody else was in a position to be voted into power.  That won't, however, be the case in the next round of elections: other parties will have had the chance to organize, form a strategy, and present a case to the Egyptian people.  This upcoming presidential election is another story.  Stay tuned for developments to come-- as dictated by the ruling military council.

The ban in Libya is not only on Islamist parties, though.  It also bans parties based on region or tribe.  Basically, this is to prevent the decentralized, federalist structure that some Benghazis want.  Again, by suppressing that voice, the NTC is sowing the seeds of future conflict.

One cannot have a functioning democracy with an un-democratic structure.  An oligarchy in democratic clothing might be in fashion, but I'm hoping that, much like bell-bottoms, we'll look back on this as just a silly fad.

Assad vs Annan

Can a man who has been ruler of a police state for the past 13 years, and whose father ruled before that for nearly 30 years, draw logical conclusions as to the current state of his rule?  No, and Bashar al-Assad's conception of his regime's stability will ultimately lead to his downfall.

News sources report that the killings are continuing in Syria, despite the presence of UN observers.  In fact, it appears that the Assad regime is targeting those who are cooperating with the UN observers, something UN peace envoy Kofi Annan calls "unacceptable and reprehensible".

Given the violations of the Annan peace plan, one has to wonder what al-Assad is thinking.  What is he ultimately planning for?  What are his goals at this stage?

The most obvious answer would be that he wants to stay in power.  In order to achieve that end, he will battle the opposition factions in whatever way he can.  However, given the international attention that the conflict in Syria is receiving, could he honestly hope to remain in power if the wanton violence finally came to an end?  Does he hope to move on from this?

I am leaning towards a "yes".  It would take a feat of unimaginable hubris to believe that Assad could emerge from this conflict with his rule intact, but a man who has been sheltered from reality for his entire life might fall prey to such delusions of grandeur.  Alternative plans are limited:

  1. Comfortable exile?  Saudi Arabia certainly wouldn't offer haven to Assad (as it offered to Ben Ali of Tunisia).  Iran is a possibility, but I don't think the Iranians need to instigate further international scorn.
  2. Chosen successor?  Handing power over to a chosen successor seems unlikely as well, especially if the successor was an Alawite, and one can't imagine Assad handing power over to anything but an Alawite.
  3. Adherence to the Annan peace plan?  Nope.  Not gonna happen.  Even if we ignored the current violence and watch as somehow the additional UN observers due to arrive in the region somehow put a stop to the killings, what next?  Amicably go along with a "political transition" in Syria?  In essence, agree to be ousted from power, politically rather than militarily?  I doubt it.  Amnesty would not be a likely scenario in a post-Assad Syria -- arrest (and probable execution) are much more likely.
Given the lack of effective alternatives, I believe that Assad will stick it out and continue to fight for the survival of his regime.  He will continue to use the Annan peace plan to stall for time, target active opposition members, and bait the international community into thinking that it has actually achieved progress.  The only way that the international community can break that cycle is with overt military action -- something that seems unlikely at this time, but increasingly necessary.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Meeting a Syrian

A few days ago I met a Syrian guy. Like, a real Syrian. For all my talk and thoughts, I've never met a Syrian person before. You can imagine, dear reader, how interested I became when he told me that he still has family there -- and that a cousin of his had been killed by a government sniper.

What is there to say in a situation like this? As he told his story and expressed his opinions, I found myself continuously repeating "I understand, I understand", trying to show some degree of sympathy and compassion, while simultaneously not trying to sound like a fake. I do understand, to a certain degree, but how can I ever begin to imagine what his family is going through?

Awkwardly, I asked whether he is Sunni, Shite, or Alawite. He's a Sunni.

That led into an uncomfortable part of the conversation. My friend mentioned what is happening in Bahrain, and how it is incomparable to what is happening in Syria. Quantitatively, yes, that is true. Far fewer people were killed (and are being killed) in Bahrain. But, I tell him, comparing the two makes me feel uncomfortable. It is tacitly implying that what is happening in Bahrain isn't as important, which I think is an unnecessary and harmful distinction to draw. Mercifully, we move on to the next topic.

What would he like the international community to do? Give the opposition guns. Taking the role of "common Western opinion", I say that it would be difficult because there are so many factions out there and little structure to the opposition. In effect, we'd just be handing out guns to anybody who asked. He understood, but countered that organization is impossible because of the lack of effective communication between groups. They are in a war, after all.

Good point. My friend also is in favor of buffer-zones. Again, I put on my State Department hat and give a brief rundown about what happened in Srebrenica. "But that was in the middle of the Balkans. We have Turkey." Another good point. A buffer zone with Turkey as the backstop would allow opposition forces to gather, organize, and present a united front. (Senator John McCain has called for much the same thing)

But recent developments might make this all moot. The UN is sending "peace observers", "military observers", "truce observers" or whatever you want to call it to Syria today in order to monitor the Annan peace plan. Didn't the Arab League do that a few months ago? Didn't they leave in disgust at the indiscriminate continued killings of civilians by the Assad regime? Alas, if the UN mission can halt the killings, then I guess we have to call that "progress".

Friday, April 6, 2012

Having Fun With the News!

I enjoy "reading between the lines" in news stories and consequently turning passive reading into active reading.

Take this article from Al Jazeera about Anonymous hacking Chinese government websites.

Examine the language used by the hacker. Quoting from the article:
"Dear Chinese government, you are not infallible, today websites are hacked, tomorrow it will be your vile regime that will fall," the message read. "So expect us because we do not forgive, never. What you are doing today to your Great People, tomorrow will be inflicted to you,"

That's where we can start. Then, take into account the context: "smaller sites for government bureaus and minor cities." Also, the posting was in English.

The motivation for the attacks was to show Chinese citizens how to circumvent government internet controls.

And finally, the perpetrator was Anonymous, a group of hacktivists, lacking (as far as we know) a unified structure. In essence, anybody can claim to be in Anonymous. That's the point. It's more of an idea than an organization. By lacking a hierarchical structure, the group can avoid collapse from the arrest of high-ranking members because there are no "high-ranking" members. (Note: Al Qaeda uses the same strategy. Hey, it works.). At least, that's my understanding of it.

Now the fun part. Let's put it all together. The first clue in our treasure hunt is the language used. To put it bluntly, the writing is awful. "So expect us because we do not forgive, never."?? That sentence alone tells me that the writer -- and by logical extension, the hacker -- is not a native English speaker. Most native English speakers would not use "never" to put the punch at the end of that sentence. They would use "ever" instead. Otherwise, the sentence would have been written, poorly, as: "So expect us because we will never forgive, never." Or something like that. However, using a word like "infallible" correctly means that this is no dummy.

Let's ignore the use of punctuation, because that's a problem with most non-writers. The use of "Great People" is interesting. Capitalizing "Great People" makes me think that this isn't a child or 16 year old kid pulling off this hack. Going out of the way to capitalize that phrase means that this person probably has some idea of the richness of Chinese history and civilization, and has a corresponding appreciation for it. Sophisticated thoughts, indeed.

Lastly, we must consider that only minor government websites were targeted, and one might assume that these are "easier" targets than the Chinese National Bank, for example.

Conclusions, thus far: non-native, but quite competent, English speaker, probably 18-25 years old, non-veteran hacker.

Why post in English on a Chinese government site for a Chinese audience? Remember that the purpose of the hack was to show ways to circumvent Chinese government censorship, so the argument that this was a publicity stunt for a non-Chinese audience is rather weak, but still possible.

My feeling is that the hackers are probably non-Chinese, or at least they don't speak Mandarin (the possibility that the hacker/s are non-Mandarin speaking Chinese expats striking back at the government is very probable). The Al Jazeera article spoke about an Anonymous China twitter account, making me think that these attacks were conducted from outside the country, as Twitter is blocked in China. (Check out a list of blocked websites in China).

Further Conclusion: Not a Chinese resident, non-Mandarin speaker.

Progress, dear friends! Unfortunately, I think that's about all the detective work we can accomplish on this case. We have a non-Mandarin and non-native English speaking, non-Chinese resident, 18-25 year old, non-veteran hacker on the loose! Check under your sofas in Western Europe and the United States!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hoping for an Adlai Stevenson Moment

It looks like Mr. Annan's effort to halt the killings in Syria has failed. Assad has not recognized a ceasefire and continues with the relentless and brutal murder of fellow Syrians.

What now?

The Syrian National Council (a new entity, for me. I don't remember hearing that phrase before. I wouldn't be surprised if it was just created, but cited in passing, giving the group an air of legitimacy) is asking for money, guns, and material. Secretary Clinton has confirmed that the US is sending communications equipment to the rebels, including night vision goggles. For the moment, guns are not being supplied by the international community.

But what next?

My feeling is that tomorrow, when Kofi Annan briefs the Security Council on the next steps for Syria, he should summon the spirit of Adlai Stevenson (a personal hero) and really stick it to Assad. Mr. Annan has to call it like it is and expose the Assad regime for what they really are -- murderers. Only then will China and Russia have the incentive to support a resolution aimed at stopping the violence and ousting Assad. If Mr. Annan, a well respected and decidedly docile diplomat, shows some vigor in his assessment of the situation, it could very well be the turning point in this sad story. Without his strong support for international action, China and Russia will continue to veto any resolution that the Security Council puts forth.

Mr. Annan, the Syrians cannot wait until hell freezes over. The world needs to act. Now.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spain and Syria: Interventions Not Allowed

In brief: During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Republicans were fighting the Nationalists. The "Republicans" were the ones being overthrown, and were made up of mostly socialists, communists, republicans, anarchists, and left-wing militias (you can already understand how the factions turned against each other later). They received some arms from the Soviet Union. The "Nationalists" were the rebels, in that they were trying to overthrow the Republican government. Led by Francisco Franco, they were comprised mostly of Army officers, fascists, monarchists, and followers of the Church. They received many arms from both Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany.

In 1936, at the outbreak of actual fighting, the Western Europeans stopped supplying the Republic and instead formed the "Non-Intervention Committee". The NIC was supposed to ensure that there was no outside intervention in the civil war. Needless to say, the NIC was a complete failure, as Italy and Germany continued to pour men and material into Nationalist Spain, eventually helping them to overthrow the government and win the war.

Syria, anybody? Kofi Annan's diplomatic efforts?

I see a few important similarities and differences.

First, there is no nation that is overtly pouring resources into the Assad regime's war effort like Italy/Germany was into Spain. Iran is a possible contender though it's not to the same degree and the reports concerning the extent of Iranian intervention are mixed. However, the similarity is disconcerting.

Second, while much of democratic Europe was staunchly against intervention in Spain, there is the feeling that a search for acceptable and productive intervention in Syria is ongoing. A note of caution: that desire for "progress", and the willingness to cheer any move -- however small -- towards an eventual end to the killings, can hide the actual lack of anything being accomplished, outside of a continuation of mass murder.

Lastly, the NIC was never successful in establishing a blockade around Spain to prevent the influx of guns and material. Actually, it never really tried. It was merely a diplomatic association. In fact, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Italy were members of the NIC! In Syria, it's basically the same thing. Has the Syrian-Iranian border been secured? What about the Turkish-Syrian border? Nope. Then again, there is no call for a blockade of Syria, though that seems to be implied. What I mean is that if there has been no agreed-upon way for multilateral intervention in Syria, one would expect that there is no intervention happening in Syria -- which is probably not true. Saying "we will not arm the rebels" doesn't mean that there isn't somebody else arming the rebels (or the regime). Also, "we will not arm the rebels" doesn't mean "we will prevent any effort to arm the rebels."

My hope is that in Syria, those who have died will not be forgotten, Assad will not be let off the hook, and the international community will facilitate/impose a political transition. The Non Intervention Committee never had similar goals in Spain, which gives me hope.

In closing, consider this quote, which was issued by the XXXII Peace Congress after the civil war ended (Wikipedia article):
"Congress considers that a policy of non-intervention, or of abstention, is shown to be insufficient in principle and in practice dangerous, for it paralyses those states which obey it and becomes advantageous to those which violate it."

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Questions Are Qool

With respect to foreign policy, all too often we are searching for concrete answers when we should be searching instead for the right questions. Asking the right questions, and many of them, will lead to a more balanced, sober, and measured answer.

Recently I stumbled on the Daily Star, a Lebanese English newspaper, and in an article written a few days ago columnist Rami G. Khouri asks some important questions about US foreign policy:

It is worth quoting his opening paragraphs in full:

I am impressed by the continuing trend toward common sense and rationality among a growing number of public figures in the U.S. who look at Syria and Iran and remember the lessons and legacy of the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In spite of the warriors among the Republican presidential candidates who are roaring for war, more frequently these days we are hearing words of caution and restraint from Americans who actually take the time to study realities in the Middle East and ask some hard questions. This did not happen to any serious extent when in 2003 the U.S. led the Iraq invasion, the consequences of which continue to plague the region, the U.S. itself and the world.

Khouri goes on to ask some important questions that aren't getting enough attention.

  • Does the U.S. have the moral authority or credible political mandate to initiate wars such as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, and and still may do in Syria and Iran?
  • By what authority does the U.S. decide to go to war in the Middle East?
My last post concerned the legitimacy of the actions of the United States in the Middle East. In response to Khouri's questions, I would say that the United States has no legal authority whatsoever in the region. There is nothing written down that says that the U.S. can impose its will or intervene unilaterally in any country of its choosing.

However, and here is where Dr. Shadi Hamdi comes into play again, I do believe that the U.S. has the leverage (read: power) to positively influence events in the region -- and the world. That is based on the assumption that the U.S. will pursue goals that are in alignment with its ideals; something that often isn't the case.

Why and how that leverage is used and debating whether its usage is justified, however, is never raised in the "public debate". Apparently, using the enigmatic phrase "national security interests" is all the justification necessary to launch a war. What is unspoken is that raw "power" is accepted as enough of a justification for action as well.


If the United States were to fundamentally restructure how it interacts with other nations, I think that the US could win back its global respect and standing as the center of the free world. That restructuring would include: dealing with countries as equals (not as major/minor powers), respect for cultural differences, and placing diplomacy at the top of our foreign policy agenda. Let's fact it: diplomacy isn't sexy. It should be. And we should be proud of it. (If Kofi Annan pulls off a peace deal in Syria, he should be put on the cover of GQ.)

In order for the United States to rid itself of the "imperialist" label, and in order for the US to regain the "moral highground", it has to ask some important questions. Luckily, the Arabs are asking the questions for us. Washington, for the first time, has to listen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Practice What You Preach

I attended a fantastic panel discussion last night at the Council on Foreign Relations. The topic was "After the Arab Spring: Syria and Beyond", with guest speakers Shadi Hamid (Brookings Doha Center) and Robert Malley (International Crisis Group). I tended to agree with Robert Malley on most points, so I am going to focus here on Shadi Hamid.

The overarching theme that I saw that encompassed the night's discussion was: what is the proper role of the United States in the Middle East at this time? Should Washington let events in the region play themselves out, with minimal intervention, or should the US be more assertive in demonstrating its hopes and values?

Hamid advocates a more assertive US role in the region. He argued that since the US has essentially been on the wrong side of history in the region for the past 50 years, supporting autocrats and favoring stability over democratic processes, Washington should now actively support the Arab people by pressuring emerging democratic-leaning governments with the leverage (basically, money and guns) that we have in the region; something the Obama administration has failed to do, argued Hamid.

Initially, I disagreed with Dr. Hamid. Where do we draw the line between demonstrating our atonement on the one hand, and outright (and unwanted) interventionism on the other?

During the talk, I was daydreaming about a speech, preferably by an American official, titled "What the Americans Learned From the Arabs". In my daydream-speech, the official would say something like, "It is true, the Arab Spring caught most of us by surprise. We weren't expecting it. We were comfortable in the enforced and artificial stability of autocratic regimes. But then, we woke up. The Arab people threw off their chains and asserted their natural human right for freedom and dignity, proving that the US had it wrong. We've had it wrong for 30 years. But the Arabs have given us the opportunity to reassess our values, and align the values that we project with the values that we practice in our foreign policy. And we have the Arabs to thank for that. Shukran. We won't make the same mistake again."

My daydream is more in the realm of introspective public atonement, rather than assertive extroverted intervention. However, and this is where I started to sway in Hamid's direction, I realized that actions indeed speak louder than words. My daydream, idealist and semi-eloquent that it is, would have been a double double-standard, because there is no chance that the US would suddenly change course and start supporting the Shiite majority in Bahrain, for example. It just won't happen. A daydream speech like mine would be distasteful at best, insulting and manipulative at worst. Like it or not, the US is not in the position to project an ironclad set of values and insist on the same values in others. That's the reality.

However, I think that Hamid's message was lost in the context of the talk, for the audience and me, as he also spent time during the conversation justifying military intervention in Syria in addition to speaking about American assertiveness in the region in general. Separating the two was difficult, especially while I was getting worked up over how much I disagree with outright military intervention in Syria (at least for now). But, looking back, I see his point about an assertive American voice in favor of democracy in the region. There is a difference between outright intervention and applying political pressure. The subtlety is in the details -- something that time didn't permit Dr. Hamid to expand upon.

That being said, it is a slippery slope. Actively pressuring the emerging governments can quickly lead to backlash. If the US pushes too far, we can expect increasing anti-American rhetoric from those governments, and a possible outright rejection of a working relationship. With anti-Americanism being popular in the Arab street (refer to my previous post here), those governments now have leverage against American interventionism. Take the recent house-arrest of NGO workers in Egypt for example. It demonstrated that the Egyptian government has power, and Washington has to now realize that its opinion is not the Alpha and Omega.

I think that Washington needs to be careful not to frame the relationship between the US and other countries as hierarchical -- meaning, the Poppa Bear US giving advice and making demands on other Baby Bear governments. Given the fragility of emerging democracies (and basic respect), the US needs to know when to push, how hard to push, and when not to push at all. Balancing that delicate relationship while respecting the self-determination and values of the countries in question will be a key feature to future US-Arab relations -- and the first step in atonement for past mistakes.

In the end, I agree with Dr. Hamid that the US must not turn its back on the Arab people. It must advocate and actively pressure governments to embrace democratic change. In essence, it will be practicing what it preaches. And we have the Arabs to thank for that.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What Was I Doing Here Again?

I've been reading Juan Cole's "Engaging With The Muslim World". It's funny; I would never had heard of Juan Cole if it wasn't for that scandal a few years ago when, during the Bush Jr. administration, the CIA was instructed to gather information on Cole (the officer assigned to gather the info refused, rightfully, on legal grounds). It's similar to how the most popular books in the Middle Ages were the ones that were banned.

Anyway, reading Professor Cole's book, I am reminded of the question "Why did the U.S. invade Iraq?" Before you roll your eyes, let's really think back: the purported WMD connection has long since been squashed, as had the touted links between Saddam and Al Qaeda. I don't know -- I feel like there should have been some other reason given to justify the continued U.S. presence. It wasn't discussed in the media, nor was there a dialogue about it. After the formerly mentioned reasons were exposed as fluff, there was nothing else. It seems like the U.S. was embarrassed about the situation and spent almost 10 years looking for the opportunity to get out -- always hoping that it didn't have to give a real reason for its presence. Basically, I think the U.S. could have done a much better job in outlining its goals once the original justifications were exposed as fraudulent.

Let's go back to the beginning. Cole lists five reasons (like, real reasons) as to why the U.S. invaded Iraq. They are:
  • Ensure flow of petroleum from the Persian Gulf.
  • Obtain U.S. access to Iraqi oil fields, rather than boycotting them.
  • Prevent regional powers (China, India, etc.) from locking in long term contracts in Iraq.
  • Prevent Iraq from "emerging as a regional dominant power".
  • Preserve the leading position of Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region.
Now, these are reasons that are often cited, but in my opinion, they are considered one step away from "conspiracy theory" material. However, they all seem plausible. The shocking bit is that a war could actually be started with these goals in mind. Let's explore that.

Cole writes of the two situations that Bush/Cheney faced before 9/11: Sanctions on Iraq and Iran ensured that the U.S. oil companies would not have an opportunity to explore and develop the oil fields in these countries. Effectively, sanctions locked the U.S. out of the game. AIPAC ensured that the sanctions continued, which was counter to U.S. business interests. What to do?
Cole argues that Cheney had the revelation that embracing all-out regime change instead of mere sanctions would ensure U.S. access to these natural resources (as long as the new governments were friendly/sponsored by the U.S.). What's convenient about this option is that AIPAC would also support regime change in both Iraq and Iran. Therefore, AIPAC is satisfied, U.S. oil companies are satisfied, and everybody (except the Iraqis and Iranians) wins!

Again, whenever "oil" and "AIPAC" are mentioned in regards to the Iraq War, there is a slight stain on the argument, in my opinion. Those concepts are not a part of the media's vocabulary and consequently the public is not inundated with those justifications. Therefore, Joe Q. Public doesn't necessarily trust the ideas. I admit: I roll my eyes whenever somebody says "we went there because of the oil!" It just seems like a cop-out. Oil? Really? Start a war, kill thousands, displace millions, over oil?

Well... when you consider the people who were making these decisions, the possibility of starting a war over oil (read: money) is more plausible. In fact, considering the tacitly acknowledged culture of Wall Street for example, where greed and money are more important than humanity, the oil justification takes on an unsettling degree of probability. (Also, going to war over money is not without precedent. Consider the U.S. entry into World War I: I think it is not controversial to say that the U.S. declared war in 1917 and sent troops to Europe in 1918 in order to protect its investments with the Allies, who were struggling at the time. If the Allies lost, the U.S. would have lost a lot of money.)

The problem is that since the argument over justifications has been ignored for the past few years and has received barely any mention in public discourse, people are left to draw their own conclusions, usually based on conjecture, rumor, and imagined expertise.

But perhaps Occam's Razor is in full effect here. In that case, Cole is right. Quite unsettling, that.

Shocking News!

Oh Really?

As opposed to, oh, "Pentagon Finds Everything Will be Peachy for U.S. if Israel Were to Strike Iran"?


In other news, in case you forgot, the United States is the world's top exporter of arms, accounting for 30% of global arms exports. Top importers, in order, are: India, South Korea, Pakistan, China, and Singapore.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Closing Time

As I previously mentioned, village elders distributed blood money to families of the victims of the massacre perpetrated by an American soldier earlier this week. However, read what one of the victim's relatives said to Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "I don't want any compensation. I don't want money, I don't want a trip to Hajj [pilgrimage], I don't want a house. I want nothing but the punishment of the Americans. This is my demand, my demand, my demand and my demand."*

What does this demonstrate? We can dismiss the relative's comment as atypical of "the people" of Afghanistan, but that would be disingenuous. My feeling is that Afghanis have, as Karzai puts it, "reached the end of the rope". Soldiers urinating on dead bodies, a massacre of civilians, and most importantly to the Afghanis, the Quran burning, shows that it is time to leave Afghanistan.

(Read Juan Cole's post about Afghanistan Senate Chanting Against the US.)

I support an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, as Karzai calls for. The sooner the better.

What is there left to do?

1. Continue propping up Karzai? Can't happen. He needs to rule on his own, or (preferably) the Afghani Constitution has to change.

2. Talks with the Taliban? Collapsed. At least for now.

3. Keep an eye on Pakistan? The US doesn't need soldiers in Afghanistan to do that.

4. Oil? No oil here!

5. Fight Al-Qaeda? All signs point to very few Al-Qaeda fighters are actually in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda has no allegiance to the country (outside of, probably, some nostalgia). They're probably in Yemen or Somalia instead. Those two are much more accommodating failed states at the moment. Pakistan is also a comfy haven.

The best option now is to withdraw combat troops and encourage a national dialogue -- covertly, if necessary. The US should set Karzai up to talk to the Taliban without a US presence at the meeting. If the US can get Karzai and the Taliban to come to an agreement, it would be in the interest of all involved. After that, focus on development.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

With Friends Like These...

The "Iran Debate" is no longer just a debate about Iran. It is now the "Iran-Israel Debate", as the two are now inextricably linked. Due to Netanyahu's chest thumping, the Obama administration must now address the problem of Iran while hushing and simultaneously supporting a belligerent Israel. That's not to say that Obama is without options.

Take that, Bibi! Though the relationship between the US and Israel is strong, it might not be as strong as that "special relationship" between the US and the UK. For starters, we've fought two world wars alongside the UK. But most importantly, the US and the UK don't always agree on the issues, but we respect our differences of opinion. The US cannot, on the other hand, publicly disagree with Israel without significant political backlash (there is no American-British Public Affairs Committee). It's like that couple who can bicker and move on, versus that other couple who disagree on major issues but let their true feelings fester for years on end (and probably don't have much sex [don't read into that too much]).

Having David Cameron come out and support the US position is a good tactical move. It demonstrates distance between the US and the Israeli position, without actually saying it. Furthermore, Cameron is allowed to say things that Obama could never get away with. For example, "We've been very clear; If there was an Israeli strike, we wouldn't support them."

Score one for reading between the lines.

Chariots of Fire? No. Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire? Yep.

This would be funny if it wasn't true: A man drove a stolen vehicle on to the landing strip where Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was scheduled to land. The man in the vehicle was on fire.

You read that correctly. The man was on fire. Read it here.

My favorite part of the article is the correction at the bottom:

Correction: March 14, 2012

A news alert and a headline on an earlier version of this article mischaracterized the initial reports of the incident at the base in Afghanistan. The Pentagon officials did not refer to the stolen car igniting; they described a flaming man emerging from the stolen car.

Monday, March 12, 2012


What is there to write about when a U.S. soldier kills 16 civilians, and mostly children? We can blame the tour-based system, inquire as to how he was allowed to leave the base alone at 3am, and we can blame the war for pushing him to the breaking point. But when it comes down to it, we should be ashamed. And we should show it.

Read the story here.

I do have some thoughts on the fallout and what should be done.

  • I am certain that this sergeant will get a much quicker trial than Private Manning. That makes me uncomfortable.
  • The sergeant should be tried in Afghanistan. No, he should not be tried by an Afghan court under Afghan laws. He should be tried by an American military court, but it should be held in Afghanistan. It seems only appropriate. And the trial should be transparent. If he is secreted away to an undisclosed location and never heard of again, it would be a grave injustice and an insult to the families of those killed.
  • An insanity plea would be insane. The man killed children. He cannot be acquitted based on a plea.
  • The U.S. should consult Afghan elders as to the next appropriate actions. If the Quran burning incident has taught us anything, I hope it is that the U.S. military should be sensitive to the cultural setting in which they are operating. If "blood money" is appropriate (I don't know Afghan custom), then that's how it should be handled.
Expanding on that last thought a little further: I remember a scene in the documentary "Restrepo" where the American captain is negotiating with Afghan tribal elders. In the scene, he repeatedly uses words like "fuck" and commands his translator to "fucking tell them" etc. It was painfully obvious that this guy is a soldier -- not a diplomat. That's not a judgment against him. I don't think he should have to be in that position, acting as a kind of military governor. He's a soldier and that's what he should concentrate on.

Keeping that in mind, I think that there should be "field diplomats" to fulfill this role instead. They would be tied to the military, but acting in a non-combat role. Versed in local history and customs (and hopefully some linguistics), field diplomats would be the ones to negotiate with locals, liaison with the "host" government, and tend to the general administration of, eh, "liberated" areas.

Just a thought.

Concerning the sergeant, I cannot say what his fate should be. He has to have a trial. Leon Panetta says that the death penalty "could be a consideration". Whatever. All I know is that this whole process must be public, appropriate, and genuine.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Palestinian Patience, part 2

My assertion made in yesterday's post is true! The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is important to most Arabs (84%), says a new poll by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, as cited in an Al Jazeera article. The poll also highlights that the US and Israel are seen as the most threatening countries (what I phrased as "general anti-Americanism" is basically the same thing).

Copying and pasting from the article, here are the highlights of the poll. I'll add bold to those points I think are worth highlighting:

  • A majority describe themselves as religious, but they mostly don't support the interference of religious authorities in citizens' political choices.
  • 71 per cent say they don't distinguish between religious and non-religious people in their economic and social relations.
  • 77 per cent trust their military, half trust their police, 47 per cent trust their governments and 36 per cent trust their local councils before the revolutions.
  • A high 83 per cent believe corruption is widespread in their countries.
  • Only 19 per cent see their states implement the law equally among its citizens.
  • Three quarters of those polled believe that Arab states should take measures to bring their nations closer. An equal percentage believes that states should lift restrictions on free travel and 67 per cent are not satisfied with Arab-Arab co-operation.
  • Contrary to mainstream global media coverage, 73 per cent of those polled see Israel and the US as the two most threatening countries. Five per cent see Iran as the most threatening, a percentage that varies between countries and regions.
  • A high 84 per cent believe the Palestinian question is the cause of all Arabs and not the Palestinians only.
  • A high 84 per cent reject the notion of their state's recognition of Israel and only 21 per cent support, to a certain degree, the peace agreement signed between Egypt, Jordan and the PLO with Israel. Less than a third agree with their government's foreign policy.
  • When it comes to WMD, 55 per cent support a region free of nuclear weapons and 55 per cent see Israel's possession of nuclear weapons as justifying there possession by other countries in the region.

  • There you have it (with awful formatting -- my bad). Nothing in this poll should really come as a surprise. Israel and the US as the most threatening countries? Well, yeah, that makes sense from an Arab perspective. Let's be frank: Iran hasn't invaded anybody within the past 50 years, at least. During that time, Israel has invaded Lebanon a half dozen times, the US invaded Iraq twice, Afghanistan once, has a heavy presence in Yemen, had an unwelcome presence in Saudi Arabia, and was buddy-buddy with Mubarak (and I'm leaving stuff out because I'm not too familiar with the 1967 war, for example). I get it. Are the ayatollahs crazy and do they suppress the Iranian population and commit crimes against their people? Yes! But are they an existential threat to Moroccans or Jordanians? Directly, no. Can the US directly harm people in these countries? Well, yeah (see my post about drone strikes in the Philippines here). There would be no reason for that to happen, but the capability exists and the missiles have been fired in Yemen, Somalia, Sudan (Clinton's strike on the "pharmaceutical" factory in Sudan pre-9/11), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya (sorta)... I get it. The US is seen as a threat. Check.

    Widespread corruption? Yup. I would have added "unemployment" to the list. It seems that every time I read or see interviews about drug smuggling, kidnapping, or other illegal and harmful activity, the participants always cite the fact that they don't have a job as the primary reason that they got involved in these crimes in the first place. I get it.

    Eighty four percent think that the Palestinian question is the cause of all Arabs, not the Palestinians only? Initially, I'm very uncomfortable with the way that is phrased. The sentence seems to imply that the Palestinian question is not within the jurisdiction of Palestinians to handle, i.e. the other Arabs have a say in what happens, not solely the Palestinians. Personally, I have wondered if this conflict has dragged on long enough to indeed warrant an international solution -- meaning, that since the Israelis and Palestinians can't come to an agreement, one must be imposed. I haven't come to a conclusion (I'm willing to hear arguments!). Therefore, is the Palestinian question the cause of all Arabs (I'll substitute "all involved")? Yeah. I guess. But it still makes me squirm to phrase it that way.

    Let me think about that one.

    Thursday, March 8, 2012

    Palestinian Patience

    I was thinking about just this the other day: The Palestinians have not been in the news for a while. Last I remember, some time in late January there was the announcement that Meshal was stepping down as leader-in-exile of Hamas (*), and that there were serious negotiations about reconciling Hamas and Fatah. Since then, nothing.

    With media attention focused on other Middle Eastern protest movements and revolutions, the Palestinians feel marginalized.

    That makes perfect sense, however, I think this is a short-term problem for them. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is a rallying cry for most in the Middle East, and is one of the few issues that has widespread support in the Arab streets and in the Arab governments (the only other I can think of is a general anti-Americanism; and the two are most definitely related).

    Once things settle down and functioning governments emerge in Egypt and Libya and Syria, expect the Palestinian cause to be taken up again with more fervor than ever before. In short, the Palestinians need patience. If the Arab Spring lives up to its potential and installs governments that actually represent their respective people's opinions, then Palestine will not be forgotten. It will just take time.

    Wednesday, March 7, 2012

    Moros The Same

    The title for my dissertation at LSE was "Islam and the Philippines: Effects of the United States Occupation on the Muslims in the Southern Philippines, 1899-1934". In it, I argued that through disarmament of the population, education, and political empowerment, the Americans effectively gave the "Moros" -- Muslim Philippinos -- the opportunity to influence their own path. For the first time in 400 years, Moros were ready to decide for themselves what was best and what was next. That was in 1934.

    This article (here) sums up nicely how the story unfolds: Basically, after Philippine independence, the Northern (Christian, Manila-based) Philippinos dominated and suppressed the Muslims, leading to bloodshed, retaliatory killings, and civil war. Groups dedicated to defending the Moros way of life and to battling against the Manila-based administration exist to this day, some (notably Abu Sayyaf) with purported ties to Al Qaeda. The conflict is not simple, and it is not one-sided.

    The above cited article makes the case for mediation between the two groups, semi-autonomous status for the Moros, and development of the southern islands -- not military campaigns and cycles of retaliation.

    Re-enter the United States, and this time it's not General Pershing and American doughboys in the jungle. That is so 1911. This time, it's combat advisers and drone strikes. Make no mistake about it: drone strikes are good at assassinating specific targets (read: killing people). They are not, however, good at solving a 400 year old political, social, economic and religious problem.

    If the past ten years has taught us anything, it should be that we cannot kill our way out of a complicated situation.

    Sunday, March 4, 2012

    Get Organized

    As I've mentioned in a previous post (here), the most important factor that has to be in place before any outside intervention is seriously considered in Syria is that there has to be a unified and organized opposition, and that organization must call for outside intervention. Without a call for help from the international community, any intervention of note will not be interpreted as a humanitarian gesture -- it will be seen as imperialist opportunism.

    With the need for organization being so important in order to move forward, what can be done to bring about some kind of unity in the Syrian opposition movement? With multiple competing factions, what actions can the Syrians take and what can the international community do to encourage some degree of unification?

    1. Elections: Logistically, this would be impossible. Carrying out any kind of vote for an opposition leader is unthinkable when shells are falling and snipers are perched on rooftops. Remember, organizing an election requires a level of organization in and of itself.

    2. Exile community leader: The next Syrian Mohamed El Baradai is not likely to pop up, and if he did (it would most certainly be a "he"), the chances of him having any degree of legitimacy within the Syrian opposition are minute-- just like Mohamed El Baradai.

    3. Designated partner: The international community -- most likely the UN -- could choose a representative who they feel would make the best leader of the Syrian opposition and the best negotiating partner. This could go two ways: Syrians rally round the Chosen, or Syrians shun the Chosen. The latter is more likely, especially given that there are no front runners for the title. Anybody chosen today would be plucked from somewhat obscurity and be interpreted as a Western stooge. It is possible that should certain leaders begin to make more of a name for themselves, a possible partner could be "preferred" by the UN. Until that time, choosing a person would condemn them to irrelevance.

    4. Covert aid: A trickier option than Option 3, covertly aiding one leader is a viable alternative. In this scenario, some party (probably unilaterally) sends aid exclusively to one leader in Syria with the hope that that leader's subsequent rise would be viewed as an exclusively Syrian affair. The outside interference would never be seen. To the unknowing, a Syrian leader legitimately gained power in Syria through Syrian actions.

    A problem with this approach is that international organizations rarely if ever agree to mutually support covert activities. It sort of runs counter to everything that is sacred to multilateralism. The exception would be a US/UK joint operation, or a US/Pakistan operation. But I don't think we'll ever see a UN sponsored covert aid program. That's not to say that the "Friends of Syria" couldn't turn a blind eye to some back room dealing, however, I don't think it is likely.

    5. Civil war: The least desirable option, but also one of the more likely. In this scenario, there is no outside intervention. Instead, different Syrian groups will fight Assad and each other in a battle of attrition until one group emerges "victorious". With the strength of the Assad military, one can imagine an Afghanistan circa 1979-style situation, where the priority amongst the mujahideen was to fight the Soviets first, and only once the Soviets were gone, fight each other. Any backing by the international community for one of the factions will help with the downfall of the regime in the short term, but in the long term, that faction now has an advantage in the subsequent civil war -- which is probably a consequence that was never considered by its international benefactors.

    6. Combination: These options are not mutually exclusive. One can imagine Option 5, with one faction publicly preferred (Option 3) and covertly supported (option 4), leading to a national election (Option 1).

    My gut tells me the preferred sequence in Washington is Option 4-> the downfall of Assad ->Option 1, without any witnesses or fingerprints.

    Friday, March 2, 2012

    No Recess for Iran

    Look at Obama's logic--
    The Threat: Iran cannot get a bomb. We will not allow Iran to get a bomb.
    The Warning: Israel should not attack Iran.
    The Implication: Israel might attack Iran.
    The Development: Containment is not an option.
    The Plan: ???

    Obama mercifully commented that, "I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are..." Senator Mc Cain, take note (see previous post).

    In this respect, I totally agree with the administration. Don't tell everybody what you plan on doing. It ruins the surprise. However, the mysterious "take no options off the table" plan that has been repeated so often in the media seems like a cop out to me. What is left to do? If we won't send a missile into a uranium enrichment lab, and we won't stop killing scientists (two things I'm very against), what is left? Cyber war? The Israelis did a pretty good job with that (see Stuxnet). Commando raid? Drones? Wimpy diplomacy?

    I lean towards the wimpy diplomacy option. Obama mentions that both Libya and South Africa gave up their nuclear ambitions without a war. Quite right. I think that Iran could follow the same path, given certain conditions. (After all, for what it's worth, Ayatollah Khamenei thinks that nuclear weapons are "haram" or "forbidden". Check out his website! No, really. Ayatollah Khamenei has an English website. I'm not joking. Go ahead, nobody will care if you look at it. Here, I'll make it easy for you (Khamenei English) See? This is all very entertaining for me.) The most important condition should be that we actually talk to Iran, not shout at it through various media outlets. Check out this quote from a report by the International Crisis Group:

    "Among countries uneasy with this approach, Turkey notably has stood for something different. It is highly sceptical about sanctions and rules out any military action. It believes in direct, energetic diplomatic engagement with a variety of Iranian officials. It is of the view that Tehran’s right to enrich on its soil ought to be acknowledged outright – a nod to its sense of dignity. And it is convinced that small steps that even marginally move the ball forward, even if far from the finish line, are better than nothing.Among countries uneasy with this approach, Turkey notably has stood for something different. It is highly sceptical about sanctions and rules out any military action. It believes in direct, energetic diplomatic engagement with a variety of Iranian officials. It is of the view that Tehran’s right to enrich on its soil ought to be acknowledged outright – a nod to its sense of dignity. And it is convinced that small steps that even marginally move the ball forward, even if far from the finish line, are better than nothing."

    Let me put it this way: We can either take Iran and put it in "time-out", or we can sit down and talk to it. Put it in the corner, take away its lunch money, and place a brightly colored "Dunce" cap on its head -- or step into the hallway, sit down, and have a chat about its behavior and where we want to go from here. Maybe we'll go out to lunch and continue the conversation there.

    Portraying Iran as a naughty child in my metaphor is frankly insulting to the country, but then again, that's exactly how the United States and Israel treat it. Keeping that in mind, what other options do the Iranians have, besides heating up the rhetoric and continuing the antagonism? Detention never worked in school, why would it work in international diplomacy? Beating children doesn't correct behavior, it encourages rebellion.

    Imagine a burly Uncle Sam, stripped to the waist, snapping his belt over and over again, staring wild-eyed at the angry Iranian boy playing with his chemistry set. That is the extent of our communication.

    If Washington wants to address the issue and reach some kind of understanding, they can start by treating the Iranians as a negotiating partner, not as a naughty schoolchild. My hope is that that is Obama's "take no options off the table" plan. I doubt it is.