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GOP Demands to see Nobel Committee’s Birth Certificate

October 14, 2009 by Michael Hayne, Writer · Leave a Comment 

When the news broke earlier that sitting American (or is it Kenyan or Indonesian?) President Barack Obama was bequeathed with the Nobel Peace Prize, I naturally assumed that the Rush Limbaugh’s head would explode and the Republican Party would be stuck with a gargantuan body instead of a party head. Moreover, I instinctively knew that the blogosphere would be buzzing with more Republican and Conservative invective than Democrat or Liberal encomium.

Am I really that prescient or do Republicans really hate Barack Obama that much that many would put breathing oxygen in abeyance in order to vituperatively criticize President Obama?

“This fully exposes the illusion that is Barack Obama,” said conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Rush continued: “And with this ‘award’ the elites of the world are urging Obama, THE MAN OF PEACE, to not do the surge in Afghanistan, not (sic) take action against Iran and its nuclear program and to basically continue his intentions to emasculate the United States…. They love a weakened, neutered U.S and this is their way of promoting that concept. I think God has a great sense of humor, too.”

Oh Rush, did you run out of Oxycontin refills again? While we rational Americans have grown accustomed to the bile invective spewed daily from Mr. Limbaugh more effortlessly than potato chip crumbs, some Republicans decided that Rush Limbaugh is just too understanding and flirted with invective of their own.

Eric Erickson of the ever-so enlightening Red State.com had these encouraging words to say:

I did not realize the Nobel Peace Prize had an affirmative action quota.

Knee-jerk vitriol and racist commentary notwithstanding, the award is baffling some on the left as well.

Michael Moore, for example, offered his congratulations but boldly declared action as well.

Congratulations President Obama on the Nobel Peace Prize–Now earn it! Freedom can not be delivered from the front seat of someone else’s Humvee. You have to end our involvement in Afghanistan now. If you don’t, you’ll have no choice but to return the prize to Oslo.

Indeed, Obama may have made such lofty pronouncements such as closing Guantanamo, bringing the troops home from Iraq, wanting a nuclear weapon-free world, admitting to the Iranians that we overthrew their democratically-elected president in 1953, etc. But he has yet to follow through any of his pronouncements with concrete action and, worse yet, is risking escalating a lost cause in Afghanistan by extending our outstretched and vitiated troops in a purposeless battle.

Don’t believe me, just click here to read about the growing numbers of troops suffering from PTSD.

I realize that President Obama is looking to make up for the fact that Afghanistan and the “just war” was abandoned by the ruthless Bush Administration to pursue a petty vendetta in Iraq and make billions of dollars in no-bid contracts for their cronies. However, 6 years have passed since troops were shifted away from the Afghanistan conflict, and the situation has grown increasingly dire for our supposed mission. After all, the primary objective for going into Afghanistan was to kill and capture Osama bin Laden and his key associates, disrupt the vast Afghan terror network, and prevent Afghanistan from becoming another hotbed for terrorism.

Has blowback and the situation in Iraq taught us anything? The U.S. is  not in Afghanistan to police a nation beset by tribalism and internal conflicts. We cannot naively expect to train a miserably incompetent army at the aegis of a corrupt government,  an army that may ultimately joins the Taliban anyway.

Barack Obama winning the Noble peace prize–something that not even he expected–is certainly momentous and naturally is being lauded by the sane world. But it is imperative that we do not allow ourselves to get stuck in the warm and fuzzy clouds of this achievement as many did immediately following the election of Barack Obama. Intelligent critics must ensure that President Obama does in fact earn this prestigious prize.

History Matters: Understanding Current Iranian Relations

August 11, 2009 by Tony Smith, Senior Writer · Leave a Comment 

In light of the recent unrest in Iran and heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, it is important to understand the historical path that has led us to this point.

In this light, I recently had the honor of reading Tim Werner’s book, Legacy of Ashes, the history of the CIA, an immaculately researched work based on the years the writer has written on Intelligence for the New York Times. Even I who suspect incompetence, exaggeration, and pure lying at every level am stunned. According to Werner, almost every action taken by the CIA since World War II has been illegal, dishonest, deceptive, and not successful in the long run. In the worst incidents, one of which I will attempt to outline, the results have been catastrophic for vast numbers of people. Millions have paid with their lives, torture and brutality have been let loose on the country, and certainly the results have been contrary to the best interests of the United States and the World in general. In this piece, I will deal with the situation in Iran and how it has been almost entirely created by the CIA, with some assistance from British Intelligence. It is entirely because of the CIA’s past meddling in Iran that Barack Obama must be very careful in his criticisms of recent events.

Imperial Past

It is incumbent on all observers of the Middle East to be aware of Persia’s ancient history. [ Iran was at that time known as Persia; I will use both names interchangeably.] Unlike most of the surrounding Arab states, which were all established by the Treaty of Versailles in 1918 at the end of World War I after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Persian History stretches back Millennium, and Persians are intensely proud of that history. Shortly before World War II, Britain purchased a controlling share of the Anglo- Persian oil company. At the time, these oil reserves were the largest known to the world.  For most of the next two decades Iran was run by a Cossack, Reza Khan, who seized power, proclaimed himself Shah of Persia, and held onto it through electoral fraud. During his reign, the British took the vast majority of the oil revenue. British oil executives enjoyed private clubs, while Iranian oil workers lived in deplorable conditions without electricity or running water. Iran asked for a 50/50 split of revenues with Britain, which was rejected outright.

Mohammed Mosaddeq

Mohammed Mosaddeq

In April 1951, the “Majlis,” a major group in the Iranian Parliament, voted to nationalize Iran’s oil production. Mohammed Mosaddeq who was voted as Iran’s prime minister a few days after the Majlis vote to nationalize the oilfields supported the issue and took it to the United Nations. The British immediately undertook an effort to try to depose Mosaddeq, and even drew up plans to invade and seize the oilfields.

The United States, while opposing any invasion, agreed to attempt a coup to depose the legitimate government that had been lawfully elected in a fully functioning democratic process. The CIA plot was code named, “Operation Ajax.” The plan was approved by President Eisenhower and the British Prime Minister. The CIA had previously stashed away sufficient funds and guns to support 10,000 tribal warriors for 6 months for another venture which had been shelved, and that money was now available for this effort.

The Coup

The CIA bribed Iranian Senators, Military Officers, and Publishers. They paid for and recruited Goon Squads to beat those opposed to the Coup. The coup was accomplished by a 3-pronged attack. First, the press denounced Mosaddeq as anti-Islamic, a Communist, and a Jew. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were also printed up and distributed, particularly around the capital of Tehran. The Shah was recruited and his forces were used to attack the heavily defended home of Mosaddeq. The coup was accomplished on August 19, 1953. It started with a demonstration in a gym by weightlifters and circus strongmen recruited by the CIA for the day. They shouted anti-Mosaddeq statements, and chanted, “Long live the Shah” while marching through the streets. The crowd joined them along with two major religious leaders, one being Ayatollah Khomeini, the future leader of Iran, after being exiled by the Shah. By the afternoon the CIA agents had seized control of Radio Iran. At least 100 people died that day, and at least 200 more perished when Mosaddeq’s house was invaded. The Prime Minister escaped, but later surrendered. He was imprisoned and later held under house arrest until his death.

The Shah was given 1 million dollars in cash and pronounced prime minister. He became the centerpiece of American Policy in the Middle East for years to come. The Shah maintained his position through a new intelligence service, the Savak, who were CIA trained. The Savak were to become reviled throughout Iran. Their powers allowed them to censor the press, arrest, and detain without any lawful process. Torture, starvation, and sleep deprivation were only some of the techniques for which they were to become reviled.

The Revolution

Revulsion against the Shah built up in Iran and among those exiled abroad. Finally by January 1979, demonstrations against the Shah could not be resisted, the Shah was toppled from his throne, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been exiled in France, was bought back to lead a new Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, as in most revolutions, the initial leaders often tend toward fanaticism and move to seizing all power in their own hands. It usually takes many years until the moderates ultimately gain enough support to overthrow them. The French Revolution and the Soviet Revolution are two good examples. The Ayatollah was true to historical form, crushing all opposition groups and centralizing power for himself and a few other radical clerics.

By November 1979, much of the population were enraged by the policies of the USA as described by the controlled press. Students who had been demonstrating outside the US embassy seized the embassy and all its employees. In total 52 diplomats were seized and imprisoned inside the embassy for a total of 444 days. Initially there had been calls by the students to execute the hostages, but eventually views softened, and diplomatic endeavors ultimately led to their release.

The War with Iraq

Less than a year after the hostages were released, Iraq invaded Iran. Many believe that the US was implicit in that invasion. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein felt emboldened to invade by US animosity toward Iran. The US did provide helicopters to Iraq and satellite intelligence to pinpoint bombing targets. The war was viscously fought by both sides, with estimates of casualties going as high as 2 million. To give some idea of the intensity I will cite 2 examples. First, when low on armaments, the Iranians sent children armed only with wooden rifles to overwhelm Iraqi lines. The children had been convinced that they were impermeable to bullets. These children were in turn mowed down by reluctant Iraqi forces. Similarly horrific was the use of human bodies in the marshes to the South. The Iraqis used Iranian bodies to fill ditches for their tanks to pass over. Saddam Hussein first tried his chemical weapons on Iranian troops in this war.

Finally in 1988 after 8 years of the terrible conflict, a ceasefire was effected, the border remained unchanged, 2 million were dead, and there was massive damage to the infrastructure of both countries. Just prior to the ceasefire, there was another incident by the US that made the Iranian view of the US even worse. A US warship, the USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner resulting in 290 deaths. While the official investigation concluded that it was done in error, that was largely disbelieved by the Iranian public.

If we view the present turmoil in Iran through the eyes of those who have lived through these events, it is terribly obvious why Barack Obama must be very careful with his words about the present turmoil. If not for interventions by the CIA and British Intelligence, Iran might be a very different country today.

Recent Days

With this proper context, let’s now take a brief look at more recent events. Iran’s Supreme ruler is currently Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini after his death. The Supreme ruler controls the Armed Forces, Radio and TV, Security, the Chief Judge, and the Guardian Council. There is an elected council and president, who mainly deal with day-to-day governing matters and economics. Anyone who wishes to run for those positions must first be approved by a body loyal to the Supreme Leader. The rejection rate however is close to 80%. From 1997-2005, there was a moderately progressive President Sayed Mohammed Khatemi. However, he failed to deliver on any serious reformist policies.

It should be noted that directly after 9/11, there was a street demonstration of over 1 million in support of the US. All of this was support was lost by continuing US sanctions on Iran, the disastrous War in Iraq, and the Bush White House’s grouping of Iran in the “Axis of Evil.” In 2005, Sayed Mohammed Khatemi lost the presidential election to the ill informed, firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This swing to the right was probably largely a result of the three factors mentioned above.

Of course, during the recent election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected, likely by fraud. It is my opinion that the Supreme Leader did not wish to have a reformist President to deal with now that there was no longer George Bush in the White House, but rather the new more popular US President, Barack Obama. A moderate President was OK when the White House could be counted on to alienate the average Iranian, but could not be risked with Barack Hussein Obama in the White House.

What Does This All Mean?

How it will all play out is anyone’s guess. Effective change is unlikely as the Military and Security services are protected from the poverty and poor economy suffered by the average Iranian. It is encouraging that the Obama administration has chosen a policy of engagement, rather than strict neoconservative rigidity. However, engagement alone will not be the magic bullet needed to fully reverse a century of bad blood, imperialism, and CIA sponsored coups. When dealing with Iran in this light, incremental progress on any front will be a huge step forward.

Prisoner of the State, and Why It’s Relevant Today

I hate to follow up my last article about the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre with yet another Tiananmen Square-related article. I realize that there is more to China than Tiananmen Square (and human rights atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities–no upcoming articles on Tibet or the Uighurs, I promise). I am also wary of writing from dissidents within Communist countries. Not that their stories aren’t compelling, but because I always suspect that these stories are being crassly exploited by good, commie-hating, free-market-loving American publishers with an ideological axe to grind. But the newly published secret diary of former Communist Party General Secretary and moderate reformer Zhao Ziyang was described to me as a rare and fascinating look into the secretive world of Chinese politics, and so I thought it would be worth my time.

As it turns out, the partially read copy I checked out from the library is now long overdue and since I can’t renew it, my intended “book review” must be much more limited than I hoped. More complete reviews and information about the book can be found here, here, and here. I will provide a limited review, but what is even more interesting to me is that much of what played out in China in 1989 looks in certain ways similar to what has been happening in Iran since last month’s disputed presidential elections. Consequently, Zhao words take on a gravity and relevance beyond the events he discusses in his book.

Prisoner of the State

Prisoner of the State

Prisoner of the State is the journal of former Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Zhao was General Secretary at the time of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square and was placed under house arrest for his determined opposition to the violent, repressive action ordered by the Party’s hardliners. While in seclusion, Zhao secretly recorded his journal onto tapes smuggled out of the country after his death in 2005. These tapes were then complied and published as Prisoner of the State.

Zhao’s journal begins with a vivid description of the weeks leading up to the June 4 massacre in Tiananmen Square. He details the political back and forth between himself and other Communist Party leaders as they struggled over how to deal with the unprecedented protests which gained strength daily. The demonstrations began as a chance to mourn the death of a popular reformer within the Communist Party. They quickly became a chance for students, and later all segments of urban Chinese society, to vent their frustration with political corruption and to demand democratizing reforms. Zhao’s position was that by empathizing with the students’ demands, making limited reforms, and treating protesters with a soft touch, the protests were sure to die down and that they did not pose a serious threat to the Chinese state or the Communist Party. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was swayed by the party hawks, who saw a show of force as the best way to end the protests, reassert the Party’s power, and strengthen Deng’s standing.

The tragic events of June 4, 1989 resulted in the deaths of hundreds of protesters and the end of Zhao Ziyang’s life as a respected politician. While Zhao endured nearly two decades of confinement, China advanced along the liberalized economic path he had championed. Unfortunately, Zhao’s silencing after Tiananmen Square also meant the silencing of those politicians who had advocated political reforms and the continuing rule of a small political elite within the Communist Party who resolved to remain in power no matter how ruthless the means. By the end of his life, after years under house arrest, Zhao had come to support political ideas far more radical than those he held in 1989. In Prisoner of the State, Zhao argues that China must have a free press, an independent judiciary, additional political parties, and ultimately parliamentary democracy.

Reading Zhao’s words against the backdrop of the popular political unrest roiling Iran made them even more relevant, shedding light on what might currently be going on in Iran. The two situations are similar and quite revealing, though probably not in the ways most Americans think. Most Western media accounts of the recent Iranian protests have interpreted events extremely sympathetically, and as a grassroots uprising against reviled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the religious conservatism of Iran’s Shiite clergy, and the repressive security forces of the Iranian state. The truth is quite a bit more complicated however. Serious political analysis of the crisis has been eschewed for glowing personal narratives and the drama of violent clashes between students and government militias. I would even go so far as to say that the picture painted by the Western media is one that it desperately wants to believe – that wants its own fantasies of a secular, non-threatening, US-friendly Iran sans loud-mouth anti-American leader to be validated by the opinions of the Iranian people.

Another   ?

Another Zhao?

However, what has been happening in Iran, and what happened in China in 1989, is not a full-scale popular revolt aiming to overthrow an existing government. In Iran and China, domestic protesters have had different goals and motivations for opposing their political leadership than outsiders have. Both sets of protests were possible only because there was an existing political split within the ruling powers over how to govern their respective countries. In both cases, the protests began as a show of support for political factions that showed more tolerance for dissent and change within the existing political framework. In China, Zhao represented a moderate, reformist political group of the ruling Communist Party. In Iran, presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi claims to represent a similar reformist, moderate wing of the political elite. However, what is happening in Iran may just be factional fighting with little real ideological change at stake. Mousavi – who appears more interested in fighting for his own political advancement – doesn’t appear to be the reformer Zhao was, and Western hopes that Mousavi would magically give up Iranian nuclear ambitions and live in peace with Israel and the US appear completely misplaced. Mousavi has been strongly supported by certain members of Iran’s ruling Shia clergy (particularly Ayatollah Rafsanjani) who detest Ahmadinejad for his attacks on their corruption and privilege. And though foreign media sources depicted Iran’s protests as massive public outpourings of discontent, it is fairly obvious that the protests were limited to educated upper-class students in Tehran and a handful of larger cities. Their demands are certainly not insignificant, but their point of view doesn’t seem to represent a majority of Iranians. The rural poor seem to have again backed Ahmadinejad at the polls. And, despite Western desires, demonstrators are hardly calling for a toppling of Iran’s religious leadership or an overthrow if the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Indeed, Mousavi’s strongest backers are certain members of the clergy themselves.

In any case, Prisoner of the State illuminates the hidden political complexities that can exist in any country at any time – be it China, Iran, or the US. It also provides a powerful lesson for those who wish to create simple, moralizing narratives out of events that are vastly more complex than most people know at the time they are occurring. We live in a mediated world, but the story the media tells us is rarely the whole story. Zhao has done us all a great service by smuggling his words out of China. They remain relevant as a challenge to repressive regimes that deny their citizens basic human rights, and as a reminder to each of us to think more critically about the world around us.

What’s at Stake in Cairo: A Conversation with Former Presidential Speechwriter, Troy Senik

On June 4, a very popular President Obama will deliver a much-anticipated speech to the Arab world in one of Islam’s most culturally and historically rich epicenters — Cairo — a location that is at the same time symbolic and strategic. Symbolic in that, despite its less than perfect record on human rights protection, Egypt has long been seen by American diplomats as a potential bellwether reform state in the Middle East. Whether through Anwar El Sadat’s bold overtures toward peace with Israel in the 1980s (that led to his brutal assassination) or Hosni Mubarak’s early 21st century assurances of democratization — however hollow — Egypt has expressed at least passing interest in leading the Arab world into modernity. This fact has not been lost on those who believe a lasting Middle Eastern peace will only result from a systemic and attitudinal sea change that is sparked by open-minded Arab leaders. Strategically, setting the stage for Obama’s speech in Egypt’s capital city also serves the purpose of inviting the least vitriol from our friends and enemies; though it goes without saying, of course, that the diplomatic anthill of Arab politics would’ve burdened any choice with at least some scrutiny.

As complicated as the mere choice of venue can be for a politically- and emotionally-charged speech, consider also the debate raging on our own soil currently over the administration’s near-total embrace (astutely noted by Charles Krauthammer) of Bush-era detainee and citizen surveillance policies. Despite Obama’s euphoric relationship with large swaths of the American public throughout the campaign and into his first 100 days as Commander-in-Chief, the cold, hard facts of a post-9/11 security reality have put the administration at odds with the very people who regarded the man as saint and savior less than six months ago. Throw in a growing concern with our Israeli allies over the Likud party’s unwillingness to move toward a two-state solution and one can undoubtedly bet that our domestic and diplomatic tensions are being taken in and poured over with deliberant intent by the Arab audience Obama means to engage, and influence, in early June.

With so much at stake for the administration and U.S. foreign policy, generally, the task of penning the Cairo speech is most certainly a daunting one. And, though no one doubts the speech will be given with the president’s usual degree of bold eloquence, the process of defining the message and the words that will carry it is often one that involves an incalculable mixture of research, meditation and sheer epiphany.

Former Bush speechwriter, Tony Senik

Former Bush speechwriter, Troy Senik

Troy Senik, former presidential speechwriter for George W. Bush and current contributor to Real Clear Politics and the Center for Individual Freedom, knows this dynamic very well. Following is a conversation between Mr. Senik and myself, where he discusses presidential speechwriting, what’s at stake in Cairo, and how – while most of us were sliding comfortably into bed for the evening, during his tenure in the Bush administration – he was just hitting his stride, pouring himself another steaming cup of coffee as he walked the hallowed halls of the White House with a legal pad.

RB: Ben Rhodes, foreign policy speechwriter for President Obama, has outlined the upcoming speech in Cairo as a next step in the process of building positive relationships and dialogue with the Muslim World. He has referred to Obama’s overture to Iran in January as the start of that process. However, many of Obama’s critics are wary of missing an opportunity not to meet the frequent human rights missteps and looming security threats of most Arab governments head-on. Do you see his upcoming speech as a chance to facilitate more engagement with the Arab world, or to deliver a tough message on nuclear non-proliferation and human rights protection?

TS: It will probably be a little bit of both. One of the dangers of White House speechwriting is that every speech goes through what’s called the “staffing process.” That means that all of the relevant folks in the Executive Office of the President and the bureaucracy get their hands on the speech and try to insert their own points of view and their own policy agendas. I’m sure there will be talk about non-proliferation, but it will probably be just that: talk. President Obama has waved his finger at regimes like North Korea and Iran already, and they’ve cheerfully ignored him because they’re confident that there’s no penalty for ignoring him.

As for human rights and democracy promotion, it will be interesting to see if he takes that message abroad. Those were both big parts of the Bush Administration: the “Freedom Agenda” and the Bush Doctrine, respectively. But, Obama has basically kept quiet on both of those issues thus far in his presidency.

I think the upshot is that the Administration desperately wants to convey the message that America is not at war with the entire Arab world. That’s a noble goal, but it’s also something that we’ve been trying since 9/11. I don’t think it necessarily makes the president look weak, but I think it does make him look like he doesn’t have much of an idea of how to deal with the Arab street beyond giving a speech.

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo, Egypt

RB: The choice of Cairo has been panned by some in the West because of Mubarak’s backsliding on human rights protection in recent years, and by the Arab world, due to Cairo’s pseudo-alliance with Israel, in which Egyptian police have safeguarded the tunnels into Gaza, among other reasons. How important is choosing the location in giving a speech of this magnitude?

TS: It’s important. Egypt may not be an ideal choice, but it’s the Obama Administration’s least worst option. Obama promised a speech in the Muslim world. He can’t do Saudi Arabia, because it’s a cradle of radicalism, a state that we support primarily because of our need for its petroleum, and a totally atavistic society. He could go to Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, but it looks incoherent to give a speech in Southeast Asia when everyone knows your real audience is the Middle East. Jordan is not an option because their relationship with the U.S. has historically been close enough that it would look like Obama was looking for a sycophantic venue. Turkey has been too politically aligned with Israel and would lead to the speech being rejected out of hand by Arabs. So, Egypt certainly has stains, but if you’re looking to reach out to the Arab world, all of your options are states with pretty pockmarked records.

RB:And, obviously, Israel would have been a security nightmare, in addition to presenting a situation closely paralleling the Jordanian dynamic you mentioned.

TS: Right. And going to Israel to talk about the Islamic world would be suicidal. It would be the best possible way for Obama to simultaneously alienate the world’s Jewish and Muslim populations.

RB: Which brings up the issue of how far Obama is willing to go to obtain the first fruits of a peace accord with the Muslim world. The build-up to Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington was primed with shots across the bow from Obama and the Israeli PM, both seemingly frustrated with the other’s perceived next steps in the realm of Arab diplomacy. Obama, and Bush before him, in addition to countless scholars and former diplomats, have advocated a two-state solution. Does Obama have enough political leverage, at home and abroad, to alienate (even if slightly) Israel to achieve better relationships in the Arab world?

TS: Well, that question really gets to the heart of one of the biggest fallacies in the world of diplomacy, which I know for a fact is embraced by a huge swath of the people working in the State Department. The idea is that you make the Arab world like us more by sticking it to Israel. And I think that’s absolutely untrue.

Can Obama put some sunlight between himself and Israel? Sure. But will the Arab states like us as a result? No. They’ll be happy that they’ll have marginally less difficulty in trying to eradicate Israel, but they won’t be carrying American flags through the street anytime soon — at least not unlit ones. The reality is that all the Arab governments really want from us is to keep buying their oil, stop defending Israel, and stay out of their part of the world. So, the only way you can make them happy is by being a supplicant for their cartel, turning your back on the only long-standing democracy in the region, and pretending that Islamic extremism, terrorism, and their routine violations of human rights aren’t a problem. And by any rational standard, that is way too high of a price to pay.

RB: Does the debate over Guantanamo, in which Obama swears to reengage American detainee policy with jurisprudence and constitutional reverence, contribute to how Obama’s speech will be received in Cairo?

TS: Probably more on the domestic side than the international side. The foreign audience might be mindful of the fact that he’s ending up much closer to the Bush Administration’s policies on some war measures than was initially expected, but they know that Obama is a different kind of guy at his core than President Bush was.

On the domestic side, however, it may actually be a problem. With Guantanamo, the interrogation memos, the Pentagon photos, etc., Obama has reached his first real impasse with the public. This week, people started realizing that the administration has no plan for how to close Guantanamo and what to do with the people being detained there. And when you talk about putting these people on American soil, and you learn that 1 out of every 7 we’ve released in the past have gone back on the battlefield, you realize that this isn’t the law school hypothetical that everyone’s been treating it as for the past few years. So I think the public’s had their first widespread dose of skepticism towards Obama, and if he goes to Egypt and gives a speech that looks overly deferential to people who don’t like us, it’s going to compound that concern, especially since that’s starting to look like a pattern for him.

An inflection point in Obama's foreign policy agenda?

An inflection point in President Obama's foreign policy agenda?

RB: Right. And, this comes at a time when he’s enjoying 64% approval ratings on national security – an undoubtedly pleasing fact to Democrats who’ve struggled against Republicans in this area for years, though just as likely a campaign-resilient and unsustainable number.

Your point also brings to mind a recent piece by Jacob Weisburg at Slate, “What we’ve learned so far about President Obama,” in which the author “continues to suspect him of harboring deeper convictions.” He references reversals on torture and “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” In light of this possibility, that Obama hasn’t quite found his footing in the Oval Office with regards to where political philosophy and the real-world meet, is this speech pre-mature, or is it absolutely necessary given Iran and North Korea’s recent belligerency, in addition to the constant tension elsewhere in the Arab World with Western ideals?

TS: I suspect that in the long view it’s simply irrelevant. Obama is fond of talking about “game changers.” This isn’t one. He’ll go and give the speech and capture the media cycle for a day or two, but that will be it. Unless he has some unanticipated “Let them come to Berlin” or “tear down this wall” moment, it will probably be forgettable. And I see no indication that there’s anything that bold brewing in the White House. So in the end, this probably gets him nowhere.

RB: Referencing his overture to the Iranian people, again, who were celebrating Nowruz — the Persian New Year — during his address in January (a fact he used to link our shared humanity with the Iranian people), would the impact of the Cairo speech be any more or less significant by speaking to the citizens of Arab nations versus the leaders?

TS: It would be much more significant if Obama chose to speak to the Arab people instead of their governments. There is a long tradition of American presidents speaking directly to the populations of nations with whom we have strong disagreements because the American view has traditionally — and rightly — been that we oppose governments, not peoples. That being said, I don’t think Obama will do that for two reasons. One, something that dramatic would indicate that we think of the entire Arab world as essentially hostile dictatorships. Two, you have to be very careful about stirring up the populations in those countries, because in some cases, mass movements would actually yield even worse regimes than the current one (that’s certainly the case with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt).

Also, an important note about the New Year message to the Iranians. While it was addressed directly to the people, it made clear reference to the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” That is Obama’s way of legitimizing the current government there and telegraphing that the U.S. is not seeking regime change. And that’s about as dispiriting a sign as you can get if you’re an Iranian citizen who hopes to live in a freer society.

RB: Do you think he missed an opportunity in the January address?

TS: Yes, but that error was fathered by the policy. The mistake was saying you’re going to basically endorse a dictatorship. Sometimes, reasonable constraints may force you to tolerate a dictatorship, but you never endorse one.

RB: Earlier, you mentioned the complex nature of vetting a presidential speech, especially when it comes to speeches of this magnitude – the “staffing process.” Before a speech gets to this point, though, what were the first steps you took when preparing a speech for President Bush?

TS: You would get a description of the speech and the goals a few weeks in advance, then have the research team gather background material. Depending on the magnitude of the speech, you’d then usually get some guidance from senior staff or the president himself. From there, you’d try to hammer out an outline and/or a rough draft, which for me often consisted of walking the halls of the White House at 11 PM with a cup of coffee and a legal pad. In the Bush White House, the writers would then edit the first draft and send it into the staffing process.

RB: Was Bush the kind of president that poured over every word and turn of phrase, or was he concerned less with specifics and more that his central thesis be present?

TS: President Bush was relentlessly focused on the logic of his remarks. Sometimes that would translate into a focus on minutiae, sometimes it wouldn’t. But often times how much he dove into the details of a speech would be determined by how passionate he was about the topic. The most important thing was that he could see a coherent structure and feel like every point logically flowed into the next one. Like his father, I think he was a little distrustful of high-flying rhetoric. He certainly wouldn’t have attempted a lot of the fireworks that Obama does.

RB: It isn’t surprising that Bush differs in this respect from Obama. David Axelrod, senior advisor to the president, was quoted in a recent Politico piece as saying, “Everyone here sort of lives with the reality that the president is the best speechwriter in the group,” a sentiment also captured in Weisburg’s piece, noting Obama’s penchant for wanting to run the business of the Oval with a high degree of personal oversight.

TS: Yes, and that has to be intimidating. Given Obama’s talents as a writer and a speaker, I’m sure he’s much more intimately involved with the process than most presidents.

RB: What’s the most that Obama, and his speechwriting team, should expect out of a speech to the Muslim world that comes while the U.S. wages two wars in the Middle East? What would you like to see him say?

TS: They are probably expecting some softening in the Arab world’s attitude towards the U.S., but I’m deeply skeptical of that. Speeches can change the hearts of the people, but they almost never change the interests of governments.

I’d like to see him come out strong in favor of universal values instead of doing a multicultural soft-shoe. I’d like to hear him say that peaceful and benevolent religion is an incalculable gift in every corner of the world that it inhabits, just as radicalism is a scourge that must be defeated no matter where and why it takes root. If the nations of the Middle East really crave the international legitimacy they always talk about, they have to be willing to play by the rules of civilized nations and stop using their past and their real and imagined grievances as excuses for violence and tyranny.

Hillary’s Trip to Asia: A Foreign Policy Reality Check

President Obama ran his election campaign on a slogan we all now know – “Change We Can Believe In.” However,  I have always been skeptical of Obama’s ability or commitment to bring fundamental change in US foreign policy. Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s February trip to Asia, as well received and heavily covered as it was, has only confirmed my skepticism. Here’s why.

First, while Clinton’s words in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China were a departure from Bush’s simplistic might-makes-right foreign policy, they weren’t too different from the foreign policy followed by her own husband, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan (you get the idea). Obama’s foreign policy “change” appears to be a return to how the US has conducted foreign policy since World War II. That is, we work cooperatively within the UN, NATO, and other alliances; we engage other countries diplomatically; we don’t declare preemptive wars; we promote a certain type of economic model; we support nuclear non-proliferation; etc.  While this is undoubtedly better than George W. Bush’s foreign policy, it doesn’t look like a fundamental foreign policy shift. Nor does it bode well for those optimistic that President Obama will base his foreign policy on human rights, as many had hoped for during the campaign.

Admittedly, I did start out happy with how Clinton was conducting herself during this trip. She discussed relevant issues in the countries she visited and met with officials, students, and  activists. People seemed to be generally impressed with and charmed by her performance.  However, after following her trip for a while, I began to feel like it was just that–a performance. She was saying what she needed to say (and not saying what she needed to not say) depending on where she was, and her priority was selling the US, President Obama, and herself to officials and the public. This was sorely needed after eight years of George Bush, and while she showed her serious professional side as well as a softer personal side, Clinton is a seasoned, hard-nosed politician who surely understands the realities of being the only global superpower’s top diplomat. Realpolitik rules. Mushy sentimental support for human rights does not guide international relations or foreign policy. Clinton did after all vote against a Congressional bill to ban the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas because it would make her look weak on terrorism (her new boss supported the ban). 

Nothing idealist here.

Nothing idealist here.

The dissonance of her message was most jarring when comparing her speeches in Indonesia to those in China. She wooed and flattered her Indonesian hosts by talking up their democratic government, their thriving and diverse civil society, and the inclusive positive example they show to the Muslim world. China was another matter. Before she even arrived, Clinton emphasized that human rights concerns would not interfere with major issues like the economic crisis and global warming. She curbed her earlier harsh criticism of China’s human rights record in favor of other topics (which, to be fair, were not much easier to confront). While implying human rights are a marginal issue was not music to the ears of human rights advocates, it is consistent with US foreign policy historically. Human rights have had their place when they support US policy, but are always easily swept aside when they don’t. So far, the Obama administration doesn’t seem to offer a change from this realist worldview.

This is not to say that changes are not likely on the horizon. Obama is certainly charting a different course than George Bush did. His early choices about China, Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria indicate a new tack, and he is making a concerted effort to clean up the US image in the world’s eyes. Human rights may be more important to President Obama than many previous US presidents, but Clinton’s stance in China makes it clear that they will not be the guiding principal of his foreign policy. The US participation as a mere observer at the recent UN Human Rights Commission and its boycott of the UN Conference on Racism also show that Obama’s administration is wary of treading new ground in the defense of human rights.

So then what is Obama’s guiding principle for his foreign policy? Not surprisingly, it appears to be essentially the same as every other US president–to protect and promote American interests abroad. This definition clearly leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Obama has pledged deeper and more sustained diplomatic engagement with allies as well as enemies–even Iran! Cuba! Venezuela!–in an effort to forge constructive relationships across the globe. As a caveat to this policy, Obama has explicitly said he will act in such a way only if it is in America’s self-interest.

Fair enough. This is the president’s job, and the reality is that US foreign policy probably will never be guided by any principle other than American self-interest. I understand this, and though it sounds amoral and opportunistic to my ears, I understand the necessity, and benefit, to advance a flexible foreign policy in an effort to engage with as many other countries as possible. And, in reality, should it be any other way? Maybe what Obama is offering is the best we can hope for when it comes to US foreign policy. George Bush’s presidency clearly demonstrated the pitfalls of having a foreign policy that stubbornly brooks no opposition to its moral certainty. Any moral justification can be abused by those in power–even a commitment to human rights or democracy or freedom. (Such a commitment to worldwide democracy is in fact one of the guiding principles of both idealist foreign policy, put in practice historically by those such as Woodrow Wilson, and modern neoconservatism under President Bush.) Promoting and protecting American interests abroad can be abused too, but at least it is an honest selfish justification for how our government behaves overseas. Protecting American interests is perhaps all the president should commit to, and if he (or one day she) is willing to keep as many channels of communication open with friend and foe, this may be the best long-term strategy. To expect anything more just may be naive, unrealistic, and unfair.

Blowback: The Economy or the Military?

February 25, 2009 by Tony Smith, Senior Writer · 1 Comment 

During the long years of the Cold War, not many dared to question the US military budget. Since then, however, the budget has continued to expand, often sending troops overseas to situations that were created by previous diplomatic blunders. Some of those blunders have directly created the morasses that we attempt to extricate ourselves from today. As such, let’s take a look at some of the history of what the CIA refers to as blowback for the U.S.

Brief Blowback History

In 1953, Iran, or Persia as it was then called, had a functioning democratic system. A successful coup by the CIA and British Intelligence overthrew the democratically elected government and replaced them with the hereditary Shah of Persia. His abuses and misrule led directly to the Islamic Revolution and the problems we have encountered with their Islamic government ever since. In the early 1980s, Iraq thus was encouraged to invade Iran, by the US in a fit of pique, and was supplied with arms in the resulting war. This assistance helped solidify Saddam Hussein’s military ambitions and indirectly encouraged his invasion of Kuwait in 1991, all of which led to the mess in Iraq today.

Meanwhile during the 1980s, the military assistance given to the tribes opposing the Russian occupation of Afghanistan led to the Taliban taking over the country. These people, who were responsible for 9/11 (despite what the Bush administration’s claims to the contrary), are whom we continue to fight today in Afghanistan. In addition, they also have brought the war on terror to the nuclear-power country of Pakistan.

Bill Clinton didn’t help matters, when he, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky affair, launched Tomahawk missiles against suspected Al Qaeda munitions facilities at a site in Sudan and the Bora Bora site in Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden was thought to be. This was in retaliation after US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had been previously bombed. One of Tomahawks destroyed a human and veterinary manufacturing plant in Sudan, killing at least 20 Sudanese and putting many out of work. The Sudanese government immediately cut off all ties with the U.S. and released an important Al Qaeda suspect they had been about to hand over to the U.S. The Tomahawks in Afghanistan missed Bin Laden totally–he was in Kabul at the time. He in turn sold an unexploded Tomahawk to the Chinese for 10 million dollars. Worse, almost all of Africa, who had been outraged over the Embassy bombings by Al Qaeda, swung against the US policy after the bombings. Sound familiar?

In addition, it is clear to most of the world, though rarely reported in the US, that huge military assistance to Israel keeps them so dominant that they often disdain from entering into meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians or other nations in the region. Without meaningful legitimate political channels, arguably, that may have in turn indirectly led to the cult of the indefensible and grotesque suicide bomber.

Similar situations of blowback have occurred on all continents. It is alleged that the policy of supporting vain, immoral megalomaniacs as leaders in the more unstable areas of the world could be summed up as, “We don’t care if he’s a bastard so long as he’s our bastard”.

In too many situations today, previous meddling in the internal affairs or politics of other countries has led directly or indirectly to these messes that we may now face. If intervention leads to revolution or serious instability in the country involved, it is often inevitable that the beneficiaries of the situation will be the worst possible choices. It takes many generations for the situation to settle down and for the voices of reason make headway over the radicals who are always the initial power base. The French Revolution, The Russian Revolution, and the Persian [Iranian] Revolution are all cases in point

To return to the end of the Cold War, there was at that time, along with a feeling of relief that we were all suddenly safe, a hope that the troops could come home, and be discharged. That of course never happened. Why not?

The Military Industrial Complex

Today the US spends 46% of the total world’s military budget. The next 4 nations, the UK, France, Japan and China spend between 4-5% each. The US military budget has risen from 250 billion dollars in 2001 to over 700 billion in 2008. Thus, the sensible solution to help our failing economy would logically have to be to cut the military budget and bring everyone home. Wouldn’t that give us iron clad security at home? Maybe we could even make our inner cities safe and bring down the horrendous murder rate from the 17,000 yearly victims it is today.

Of course that is about as realistic as overall world peace. But why?

The answer to why that apparently sensible solution is currently a pipe dream was first given by President Eisenhower in 1961. Eisenhower was the first President, as a former General, to recognize the power of the Military Industrial Complex.

That term refers to an over friendly relationship between the government, the military, munitions manufacturers, and defense contractors. All in this relationship benefit financially, and unfortunately peace can get in the way. Eisenhower as a military man saw what could occur when future Presidents without military experience tried to go up against this Complex. They would be easily maneuvered by the military to react where no reaction was necessary, and to keep the US military equipped with constantly updated equipment and every new technology. Today, there is a defense contractor in every State of the Union. If there are cutbacks, you can be sure these workers will be out in force rallying senators and representatives at every level. The President will be lambasted across the nation and the Republicans will make hay. Any President to take on this issue will be lauded by history, but unlikely to win a second term.

Will Barack Obama be able to break this endless cycle to prevent the never ending cycle of blowback? If recent history is a good predictor, it certainly won’t be easy. For the sake of the rest of the world, let’s hope for the best.

Mahmoud Make My Heart Beat

February 16, 2009 by Jeff Swenson, Art Editor · Leave a Comment 

Valentine's in Iran

Valentine's in Iran

I watched a video on CNN.com about Valentine’s Day in Iran. It is becoming increasingly popular, despite being frowned upon by the government and the clerics.  I’m sure that it drives The Iranian Clerics -who are similar to Fundamentalists of the first order – crazy because they have no control over this celebration of “free love.” Young people are deciding for themselves which relationships they want to be in, and that doesn’t necessarily lead to marriage.

In addition, the people who are really benefiting from the holiday are the merchants selling the same sentimental crap, er, memorable “I love you” items that we sell in the US. I say good for them. The Clerics know they can’t compete with “fun” and secretly I’m betting they want in on it. After all, even tyrants need love:

The Hidden Sides of the Israel-Gaza Conflict

January 19, 2009 by James Mutti, Contributing Editor · 1 Comment 

Since December 27, the Israeli military has been attacking the Gaza Strip in a large scale fashion, determined to break Hamas and end the showering of rockets into southern Israel. Thirteen Israelis have died and over 1,300 Palestinians have been killed. Observers have accused Israel of creating a humanitarian crisis out of the already precarious living environment in Gaza. Hopefully,the recent cease-fires will bring the violence to an end.

While the narrative may have some basic facts right, the mainstream media in the US has largely reduced the conflict to too simple a narrative – “Israel’s attack into Gaza is one of self-defense against a Hamas government bent on its destruction. Regrettably, many civilians have died.” Even conceding the excessive scale of its attack on Gaza, Israel is ultimately presented as a victim of terrorism with a right to self-defense. Hamas is presented as an illegitimate government (though democratically elected, “who still refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist’ we are always reminded) and an irrationally violent terrorist organization.

While there may be some elements of truth in this narrative, it is far from the complete picture.  Some observers have noted that not much attention has been paid to anything besides this simplistic narrative. But the simple Israel-victim-Hamas-terrorist narrative ultimately fails to answer many broader political questions about the conflict in a satisfying way. Why would Hamas been firing rockets at Israel now? Why would Israel respond with the large-scale force that it did? Why would the US step back and allow the violence to proceed? Why would other actors – Egypt, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon – behave the way they have?

Gaza is equivalent in size to this strip of NYC. 1.5 million people live within its borders

Gaza is equivalent in size to this strip of NYC. 1.5 million people live within its borders

While there are clearly legitimate and clear-cut concerns over sovereignty and security on both sides of this conflict, the motivations and actions of all actors are muddied by the conflict’s political context. The political motivations and factors that may be playing a significant part in driving the conflict have been largely overlooked. Here I begin to explore how certain political concerns may be influencing what has been happening in Gaza.

Israel–Yes, Israel– justifiably wanted to defend itself by stopping Hamas rocket fire. But, with Israel’s apparent victory in this conflict, it has become clear that a significant reason for its excessive assault was to exorcize the failure of 2006’s war with Hezbollah. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – stepping down as PM this year – may have wanted to depart with a success under his belt after 2006’s debacle. His Kadima Party, facing a February election, had to show its toughness against attacks on Israel and its ability to protect Israel and take the battle to its enemies. It was also Kadima’s Ariel Sharon that unilaterally withdrew Israeli forces from Gaza in 2005. Perhaps Kadima felt responsible for curbing Hamas’ current aggression. It remains to be seen if the Israeli public’s overwhelming support for Olmert’s attack on Hamas will translate into success at the polls for Kadima’s Tzipi Livni. During the conflict, there was considerable debate within the Israeli government about how to pursue the war on Hamas, and Kadima would not be the only party to gain by pushing the war. Labor Party head and Defense Minister Ehud Barack is a contender for PM in the upcoming election as is Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. The main political debate in Israel surrounding the conflict has been how hawkish is hawkish enough. The effect of the war on the election looms large.

Hamas – One part of the reason for Hamas’ improper rocket attacks that we hear little about is the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The blockade has effectively amounted to a siege, intended to make life for residents in Gaza extremely hard. By all accounts, this crowded sliver of land has been on the verge of a humanitarian crisis for some time. With the end of a six-month ceasefire in November, Israel began attacks on tunnels in Gaza and denied Hamas’ demand that the blockade be lifted.  While none of this justifies rocket attacks, this series of events helps to explain what led Hamas to begin sending rockets into Israel again. In addition, the on-going fight for Palestine between Hamas and Fatah offers a possible political motivation for Hamas’ attacks. Palestinians have rallied behind Hamas during the conflict, threatening Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah government in the West Bank. This was likely an intentional move by Hamas, to undermine Fatah, often seen as too accommodating to Israel and the US. During the conflict, Fatah has not allowed open protests against Israel for example. The sympathy and pride Palestinians have felt for Hamas during this conflict could tip the scales in Hamas’ favor in the next West Bank election. One also wonders if the timing of the conflict might be an early test of President Obama by both Israel and Hamas. With hostilities barely over when Obama takes office, his pushing a lasting US-sponsored peace deal is highly unlikely. Perhaps this was a calculation by Hamas – who appears unwilling to agree to any two-state solution – and Israel too – who may see current circumstances unfavorable to its interests.

Barack Obama and Ehud Olmert during Obama's world tour last July.

Barack Obama and Ehud Olmert during Obama's world tour last July.

United States – George W. Bush’s lame-duck administration has had little reason to stick its neck out for either side in Gaza. Its support for Israel has been implicit, though not unconditional while it has also, surprisingly, supported UN demands for a ceasefire. What concerns me more is the silence from president-elect Obama. He has shied away from making statements about the situation in Gaza, arguing that there is only one President at a time. But, that same argument has not stopped him from speaking at length about the country’s economic woes. If Obama is avoiding making statements about Gaza, it suggests two things to me. First, he probably does not see a US role in solving the problem in Gaza as a priority for his administration at this time. This is understandable – there are numerous, bigger problems facing the US, and the UN and countries like Egypt have been ably handling the negotiating of the recent ceasefire. I sense that Obama has made the political calculation that the US need not be heavily invested in the Gaza solution for now. The more troubling implication of his silence is that he would not act much differently than Bush has. By his silence, Obama seems to be painting himself into a corner and agreeing with Bush’s policy – essentially ratifying what will be all but a done deal by the time he takes office. As a candidate, Obama courted AIPAC and returned from a trip to Israel with a great deal of sympathy for its situation. He has vowed to continue the “special relationship” between the two countries and probably doesn’t want to make Israel – or the rest of the world – nervous about his intentions toward the region during his administration.

And this is just the beginning. There are undoubtedly other political calculations that have been influencing the conflict, and other players are significant here too – the EU, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and especially Iran and Egypt. They will be crucial to securing any lasting peace and resolution to this specific conflict and to the Israel-Palestine conflict in general. Yet, all parties bring their own agendas and complexities to the table. We can all hope that peace will one day reign in Israel and Palestine, but it will not be simple, and it will not be possible by looking at the situation simplistically. We will need to see and understand the hidden facets to the region’s challenges and act accordingly.

Assessing the Gaza Situation

January 7, 2009 by Mark Wilson, Editor · 3 Comments 

So who started all of this? To watch CNN, ABC News, or NBC News, you might say to yourself, “Well, there go those Palestinians again, always blowing stuff up!” Many in the so-called mainstream media talk about how Hamas broke the cease-fire with Israel by launching rocket attacks. The area had been relatively quiet for six months. Then what happened?

In the theatre, they talk about an actor’s “motivation.” You see, theatre is an attempt to emulate reality, with the paradox that, while reality is spontaneous, everything that happens in the theatre is meticulously planned. And so, when an actor needs to walk to the door in order to open it and see another character on the other side, that actor needs a reason to go over there. That reason needs to be more compelling than “The other character needs to be introduced” or “The actor needs to be over on that side of the stage in order for the blocking to work.” Sure, that’s fine, but within the world of the play, the character needs a reason to be over there, or perform that action. This is what is meant by motivation: Why is that character doing that thing? Oh, the doorbell rang; I’d better go answer it. Door opened. Character introduced. “Hi, how are you?” Now the blocking works. Bingo!

And yet  many TV anchors and print journalists assume that, when it comes to terrorism, actions always happen spontaneously, with no provocation. Why is Hamas firing rockets into Israel? Oh, you know those terrorists: they just love to destroy things! That’s just the way they are!

Thankfully, there is a rational explanation one step beyond “just because” for most any behavior.  Since humans — unless they’re mentally impaired in some way — do things for reasons, the logical question should be, “Why is Hamas firing rockets into Israel?” (So maybe I’m being facetious — just a little — but seriously, no one in the U.S. press is asking why the cease-fire broke down after six months. Hardly anyone in the U.S. press is asking why Hamas started launching rockets.) An investigation that delves just a few inches below the surface of this issue would yield a veritable gold mine of understanding. Too bad many in the media want, instead, to stick to simple, Manichaean narratives involving Israel struggling to defend itself against evil Palestinians stopping at nothing to destroy Israel, simply because it is in their nature to destroy things.

Some investigation reveals a lot. Hamas, for example, did not begin lobbing rockets into Israel without at least some provocation. For one, Israel has spent the last year laying siege to the Gaza Strip, a narrow territory carved out of the southwest corner of Israel, bordering the Mediterranean Sea on the west and Egypt on the south. (I use “siege” in the traditional sense.)

For over a year, Israel has been allowing access for Gaza to “only the minimum amount of goods required to avert a hunger or health crisis among its 1.5 million people, and prohibiting most exports,” according to The New York Times. When the blockade began last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned Israel’s actions, the fifteenth time in two years it had done so, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Israel is often accused of having a “disproportionate” response to Palestinian attacks. Total number of people killed by Hamas rockets prior to Israel’s assault: “about two dozen over the past four years” (emphasis mine), according to The Australian. Total number of Gazans killed by Israelis: 550 in the past week. Yes, that is the definition of “disproportionate.” What percentage of those killed are civilians? It seems that Israel is possibly doing more than is necessary to defend itself. For example, Israel is refusing to let foreign journalists enter Gaza despite an Israeli Supreme Court order to do so!

And lest you may think that Israel is undertaking their military action purely for wholesome and upstanding reasons, keep in mind that the Likud party sees the Gaza conflict as a fantastic electoral opportunity:

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not be a candidate in the elections and may be indicted on corruption charges. But the Gaza offensive could be his last chance to rehabilitate a legacy badly tarnished by Israel’s failure to achieve a clear-cut victory against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in 2006.

[...]

For the moment, however, the offensive in Gaza is proving popular with Israelis, and [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak are reaping the benefits. Recent polls show them closing the gap with Likud party leader [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who had opened up a wide lead based on his promise to take a hard line against Israel’s main adversaries — Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

One mainstream news outlet is even suggesting that Hamas was completely in the wrong because Fatah, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, said it was. Such a conclusion based on that premise seems strikingly superficial and easily explainable: of course Fatah would have nothing but nasty things to say about Hamas; Hamas beat Fatah in Palestinian elections in 2006! They’re competitors for power in Palestine! Just because Pepsi says that their product is better than Coke’s, it doesn’t follow that we should necessarily believe them or take them as a credible source.

Let me be clear that none of this discussion should be read as a justification for launching rocket attacks into Israel. That certainly isn’t justified. In my opinion, nothing would ever justify such abhorrent terrorist actions. However, neither is it justified to obliterate towns (with bombs largely provided by the United States).  Neither side is in the right. But in much the same way that Ron Paul tried to explain “blowback” to Rudy Giuliani, the U.S. media are loathe to talk about the current situation as a result of the choices made by both Hamas and the Israeli government. They would, instead, prefer to talk only about Israel defending itself, as though Israel can do no wrong. Never is the question asked, “Should Israel be doing this? Isn’t this a little excessive? And why is the United States supporting this without question?” But why the United States considers Israel’s foreign policy goals to be 100% congruent with its own is another article for another day.

Glenn Greenwald has written extensively on the issue of the unilateral opinion of Israel within the U.S. government. Is there any issue that both Democrats and Republican politicians seem to agree on, 100% of the time? And, as Greenwald notes, polls suggest that 70% of American people do not want the United States to take sides, and yet 100% of our leaders — President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barack Obama — they all give the impression that they think that not only should the United States be involved, but it should support whatever Israel does, no questions asked.

The justification given for the United States’ unprecedented support for Israel (our “special relationship” with Israel seems to be much more dear to our hearts than our “special relationship” with even the United Kingdom for instance) is that Israel is the only democracy in the region, and to let it fall would be disastrous. Not only is this not true factually (Turkey, Egypt — and now Iraq! — technically “Middle East,” are also technically democracies), but even that argument doesn’t fully account for our government’s almost complete, unyielding support for anything Israel does. And to even dare to suggest that Israel may not be completely in the right is to be subjected to, at the least, howls by many of “anti-semitism” and the debate shuts down.

The international community routinely tries to sanction Israel for such disproportionate responses, but U.N. Security Council resolutions always get vetoed by — guess who?! It was only recently that Israel relaxed its blockade to allow medical supplies into Gaza. Is preventing medical supplies from entering the area for a week really necessary to stopping Hamas? Especially with 500 deaths and thousands of casualties? Furthermore, the platforms from which the rockets into Israel were launched are mobile.

The Middle East problem — which is to say, the problem with Israel and all its neighbors alike — is far more complicated than it is being portrayed. Just once, I would like to see something other than complete condemnation of Hamas and complete veneration of Israel.  Is anyone in the mainstream media capable of talking thoughtfully about the subject and its many nuances? Hamas is a terrorist group, to be sure, but the question is: why is it resorting to terrorism? It’s not just anti-semitism; there are plenty of anti-semitic people in the world who don’t launch rockets into synagogues. With terrorism, religious explanations often mask political ones. Maybe we should be investigating that, instead. I bet if we examined the long-term causes, implications, and solutions in the Middle East, there’s the possibility of lasting peace. Begetting violence with violence is no solution. It only ensures that we will most likely re-visit this problem again.

Mumbai Misperceptions: War is Not Imminent

Following the November 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, we repeatedly heard two messages. One, these attacks were India’s 9/11, and two, war between India and Pakistan was just around the corner.

Writer Amitav Ghosh divined a crucial connection between the two messages. “When commentators repeat the metaphor of 9/11, they are in effect pushing the Indian government to mount a comparable response.” Indeed, India’s opposition Hindu nationalist BJP has blustered, “Our response must be close to what the American response was.” Fearful of imminent war, the media has indulged in frantic hand wringing about Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals and renewed fears about the Indian subcontinent being “the most dangerous place on earth.”

As an observer of the subcontinent for over a decade, I am optimistic that war will not be the end result of this event. As horrifying as the Mumbai attacks were, they are not likely to drive India and Pakistan into an armed international conflict. The media frenzy over an imminent nuclear war seems the result of the media being superficially knowledgeable about the history of Indian-Pakistani relations, of feeling compelled to follow the most sensationalistic story, and being recently brainwashed into thinking that the only way to respond to a major terrorist attack was the American way – a war.

Here are four reasons why the Mumbai attacks will not result in a war:

1. For both countries, a war would be a disaster. India has been successfully building stronger relations with the rest of the world over the last decade. It has occasionally engaged in military muscle-flexing (abetted by a Bush administration eager to promote India as a counterweight to China and Pakistan), but it has much more aggressively promoted itself as an emerging economic powerhouse and a moral, democratic alternative to less savory authoritarian regimes. Attacking a fledgling democratic Pakistan would not improve India’s reputation in anybody’s eyes.

Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Singh, speaks to the Indian Leadership Forum

Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, speaks to the Indian Leadership Forum

The restraint Manmohan Singh’s government has exercised following the attacks indicates a desire to avoid rash and potentially regrettable actions. It is also perhaps a recognition that military attacks will never end terrorism. Pakistan, on the other hand, couldn’t possibly win a war against India, and Pakistan’s military defeat would surely lead to the downfall of the new democratic government. The military would regain control, and Islamic militants would surely make a grab for power – an outcome neither India nor Pakistan want. Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari has shown that this is not the path he wants his country to go down. He has forcefully spoken out against terrorist groups operating in Pakistan and has ordered military attacks against LeT camps. Key members of LeT and other terrorist groups have been arrested. One can hope that this is only the beginning, despite the unenviable military and political difficulties in doing so.

2. Since the last major India-Pakistan clash in 1999, both countries have made concrete efforts to create people-to-people connections and to improve economic relations. Bus and train services between the countries have resumed for the first time in decades along with an easing of the issuing of visas to cross the border. India-Pakistan cricket matches have resumed, and India has granted Pakistan “most favored nation” trading status. The Mumbai attacks will undoubtedly strain relations, yet it is hard to believe that both sides would throw away this recent progress. With the removal of Pervez Musharraf and the election of a democratic government (though a shaky, relatively weak one), both the Indian government and the Pakistani government have political motivations to ease tensions and to proceed with efforts to improve relations. There are also growing efforts to recognize and build upon the many cultural ties between the populations of India and Pakistan and a decreasing sense of animosity between the countries.

3. Both countries also face difficult internal problems that present more of a threat to their stability and security than does the opposite country. If they are wise, the governments of both countries will work more towards addressing these internal threats than the less dangerous external ones. The most significant problems facing Pakistan today do not revolve around the unresolved situation in Kashmir or a military threat posed by India. The more significant threat to Pakistan comes from within. While LeT has focused its firepower on India instead of the Pakistani state, other militant Islamic outfits have not.

Slain ex-Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto

Slain ex-Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto

Groups based in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan have orchestrated frequent deadly suicide bombings and clashes with the Pakistani military, including the attack that killed ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. The battle that the Pakistani government faces now is not against its traditional enemy India, but against militants bent on destroying the Pakistani state and creating a Taliban-style regime in Pakistan. In order to deal with this threat, it must strengthen the structures of a democratic, inclusive political system that can also address domestic problems and inequalities. On the other hand, the threat of Pakistani based terrorists to India is significant. However, suicide bombings and attacks are also carried out by Indian Islamic militants, and vast swaths of rural India are under the de facto control of the Maoist guerrillas known as the Naxalites. Hindu fundamentalists pose a serious threat to the safety of many Muslim and Christian Indians and to the idea of India as a diverse, secular, democratic society. Separatist insurgencies in Kashmir and in parts of the northeast have dragged on for years. And like Pakistan, India faces significant challenges in addressing sharp social and economic inequalities. Additionally, Indian political parties, especially the ruling Congress Party and others that rely on the support of India’s massive Muslim population to win elections, are certainly wary about inflaming public opinion against Pakistan (and Muslims). This fear could lead the investigation into the Mumbai attacks to fizzle out with no resolution, as many other such inquiries have.

4. The international attention to this attack – somewhat difficult to explain in my opinion given the general complacency and utter apathy in much of the western world about previous terrorist attacks in places like India, Pakistan, and Indonesia – is a final obstacle to an armed conflict. Not only does it put both countries under a microscope in terms of how they respond to the terrible events, it also means that they will feel international pressure to resolve the situation without resorting to war. India and Pakistan have been warned by the US, Russia, and others not to let the situation end in war. India has been actively recruiting Pakistan’s closest allies – China and Saudi Arabia – to pressure Pakistan to act against militants, and the US has been in the forefront of pressing Pakistan for action. Iran too has expressed solidarity with India in the face of the attacks and is using its regional influence to bring more diplomatic pressure on Pakistan.

A scene from a peace march and vigil in Mumbai a week after the attacks

A scene from a peace march and vigil in Mumbai

Still, however unlikely, it must be said that an unforeseen constellation of unfortunate events and colossally stupid decisions could result in war. Just before Christmas, Pakistan began moving military forces from the west where they had been engaging the Taliban to its eastern border with India as tensions between the two countries rose, despite recent conciliatory gestures on both sides.  However, because of the reasons outlined above, one can hope that both India and Pakistan will continue to aggressively engage in diplomacy, intelligence sharing, and military cooperation to cripple the types of organizations that have carried out the heinous attacks in Mumbai, and who threaten both countries.  If these efforts are fruitful, peace is indeed possible. War is not imminent.

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