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Springtime for the Taliban: Afghanistan Needs a New Model

March 17, 2009 by A. Allan Juell, Writer · Leave a Comment 

Perhaps the biggest disappointment to come out of eight years of American intervention in Afghanistan is the apparent inability of the Afghans themselves to decide what they want to be when they grow up.  Sure, that sounds like an average dose of lip service in this climate unless you consider the UN definition of “a failed state.” Afghanistan currently ranks seventh on the Failed State Index (FSI), a sort of Unfortunate 500 for dysfunctional nations. Somalia and its happy band of pirates is number one. For the purpose of perspective – out of a total of 177 UN recognized countries.

Previous US administrations somehow came upon the idea that the American model of a democratically elected government in a highly secular and tribal chunk of real estate was just the thing “to bring peace and stability to the region.”  Where have we heard this wistful speech before?  Probably somewhere between “winning the hearts and minds,” and if all else fails we’ll carpet bomb the daylights out of them until they come to their senses.  How does a country with a little more than 250 years of civility conclude that one system fits all, that it is the right system, or if it is even that useful of a system?  More importantly, is it exportable?

The US has spent more time in Afghanistan than was invested in all of World War II and Korea combined. To date, the Afghan government has made little progress toward establishing anything close to a stable government.  The country continues along the same path of sectional violence, the US led coalition now morphed into the role of neighborhood cop.  A great unifying tactic if it wasn’t for the body count.  The State Department meanwhile pushes the importance of elections and parliamentary process, which totally ignores the traditional power structures of Afghan society; those that encompass family ties, community obligation, and whichever interpretation of Islam that gets practiced in the neighborhood.   All eyes are told to look to the West.  Perhaps a better answer lies much closer to home:

Today the Turkish nation is called to defend its capacity for civilization, its right to life and independence – its entire future.

–Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, 1920.

Kemal (Ataturk was added later – something like ‘Father of the Turks’) had just made a pretty remarkable set of announcements.  They included:

  • The end of the Ottoman Empire.  Well, it was almost dead before World War I anyway.
  • The abolishment of the Caliphate.  (Political authority under Islam.)
  • The formation of the secular Republic of Turkey.
  • The unacceptable state surrounding British occupation.

And the need for the Armenians in the east and the Greeks in the west to relocate elsewhere. There was no place for Orthodox Christianity in the new Republic.

About the Man

Mustafa Kemal was born in Salonika (now part of Greece) in 1881.  Most of his early history has been revised so often that most versions lack credibility. Raised in the Muslim faith, a product of military schools, he later served with great distinction as a Lt. Colonel and division commander at the battle of Gallipoli, orchestrating one of the greater defeats the allied forces suffered in the First World War.  A great fan of the West and particularly The Enlightenment (having been assigned to Paris and the Balkans at varying points), he also fully embraced the potential power of the media, using newspapers (often his own creations) extensively in his nationalist pursuits.  Above all, he believed that the only way to save Turkey from complete partition by the allied powers was to establish a modern, secular republic.  In his words, “Islam and civilization are a contradiction in terms.”

The Background

Things were going badly on the western front for the British and French in World War I.  Russia was taken out by both the Nationalist and Bolshevik revolutions.  Britain’s attack at Gallipoli, (Australian and New Zealand forces, ANZAC) was aimed at knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war.  Instead it turned into a rout.  Britain then tried to turn the Arabs (with T.E. Lawrence’s deft assistance) against the Turks, promising them an Arab state for their trouble.  Naturally that was a lie, the one apparent constant in British colonial policy.  The Allies won the war, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned by the Treaty of Sevres creating what today are known as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and of course, Iraq.  The Sultan was left in Istanbul as a British puppet and Kemal fled to Ankara with plans to turn Anatolia into his new republic. He was able to deceive the British and the Arab world just long enough to consolidate his forces in Anatolia, a process pushed along by his creation of opposing media outlets.  The Arab world believed he was fighting to preserve the Sultan and the Caliphate, the British assumed that his services were already on the colonial payroll.  By the time the British realized his intentions, they were already outgunned, out-manned and out maneuvered. In 1923, they signed the Treaty of Lausanne ending hostilities.  The Republic of Turkey was born.

Much of the internal struggle dividing Islam and adding fuel to sectarian violence seems to surround the Caliphate, which is best described as both a person and a thing. One of the chief splits in Islam, the chasm separating Sunni and Shi’a communities is based on the interpretation of Muhammad’s successor as sole authority on Islamic law. Each side accuses the other of being usurpers in a centuries long dispute over who has the right to read the mind of a dead prophet.  Many political and social issues in Islam today fail to achieve any real clarity while the two camps continue to hold on to conflicting interpretations of religious doctrine.  This is further complicated (or exasperated) by the very notion of Islamic Law, a shadowy domain where the words of the prophet Mohammad somehow hold credence with something as innocuous as the local traffic code. By all accounts it is an archaic system, one reminiscent of The Inquisition, but accepted in many quarters of the Muslim world.  Judging its validity is not the point, accepting its existence is, for the idea of belief is not validated by the structural framework of a society, though it is that very framework that accelerates the rift.  Kemal argued that Islamic Law was part of the “nomadic Bedouin custom,” totally unsuitable in the development of a complex, modern society.  That is difficult to argue against given the global interaction of nations today.  Countries like Egypt and Israel have both found it necessary to operate parallel courts to accommodate issues of marriage and personal conduct, but not civil law.  Religious law as the fundamental tenet of a nation is little more than locking the door and keeping the key.  All social, educational, and political exchange stops. No common ground is allowed to exist on this dogmatic, unilateral dead-end street.  America was founded on the premise of religious persecution elsewhere, that in turn, sanctioned by the state.  The road to modernity through democratic ideals couldn’t traverse the murky ground of theological interpretation. Noted historians, Will and Ariel Durant once stated that “the Bible is a great book, a great tale, but if you had to live by it, you’d go crazy.” Then again, modernity may be our point, not the point.

Constantinople (Istanbul) had been the official seat of the Caliphate since about 1514.  The last recognized Caliph was Abd al Majid II who with his family was exiled to Paris following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.  Kemal found this action necessary in order to create an Islamic republic based on civil law, not theology.  This was naturally viewed as an extreme form of heresy, particularly in the Sunni Arab world, complicated further by the establishment of language laws that reverted Arabic to second class status in both government and religious proceedings, though some laws were moderated later. In itself, this was an offshoot of his policies on nationalization, but it also played into his desire to create a literate, inclusive society.  Again, in opposition to fundamentalism which he saw as “a way of promoting intellectual stagnation” by authorizing religion to define social progress, including the very function of government itself.  Oddly, the Caliphate seemed to end there.  Saudi Arabia did not attempt to re-establish it at Mecca, undoubtedly since it would threaten their position as an absolute monarchy, and it was only briefly claimed by the Taliban following the Soviet departure from Afghanistan.

Kemal was brilliant in many ways, but he was no saint.  His orchestration of the Armenian exodus was as brutal as any forced deportation.  He stacked the military with believers in his own cause and seemed more than willing to arbitrate disputes at the gallows.  Within Turkey he was seen as both savior and despot; in the fundamentalist world, a Doenmeh (a closet Jew), an alcoholic, a homosexual, a womanizer and a heretic – personal attacks that continue long after his death.  The real truth is as clouded as the newspapers Kemal himself used to create.  Yet today, Turkey remains a somewhat stable republic in the middle of one of the most volatile regions on earth.  Not perfect, but functional.

Lessons for Afghanistan

The opportunity for a more progressive society in Afghanistan was probably lost shortly after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. In the vacuum that followed, the same Mujahedeen we once funded became the Taliban we now hunt.  Instead of rebuilding schools and infrastructure, promoting education and a sense of inclusion, we simply walked away, leaving the task largely to under-funded NGO’s and a lot of wishful thinking. The Taliban, falsely claiming the right to the Caliphate sought to force an Islamic state on the people of Afghanistan as an alternative to both communist autocracy and western indifference – two models of what they saw as a similar dysfunction.  The United States supplied much of the fodder for the Taliban position by reinforcing beliefs that Islam alone would see to the needs of the Afghan people, faith having been the sole unifying factor over ten years of Soviet occupation.  Education should have been the tool of choice to defeat a return to fundamentalism, not merely the establishment of a western leaning central government, manufactured primarily as a base for US influence in the region. No one seemed interested in the greater investment in literacy, the real slayer of despotism, secular or political, and the one indispensable ingredient in democracy. Afghanistan claims a 28% literacy rate among men, women an even more dismal 12%; Turkey, 87% overall.  The Taliban know this and they fear a literate populous far more than anything our armories can ever produce.  But we can’t export a system if nobody can understand the instructions.

Turkey’s example may be a harsh one by American standards, but it allowed the time necessary to go from a shooting war to the process of nation building in a realistic time frame. That element of time is probably what has always hampered American foreign policy, the impatience inherent in the very system we seek to sell.  Any parent will tell you that it takes twenty years or so to educate and develop a child into an adult.  Americans tire of foreign intrigue as quickly as they tire of presidents.  This lack of continuity is not only a result of the fickle nature of American politics in general, but the bad decisions orchestrated by a system in constant flux.  We don’t even bother to apologize since the person that set the policy is never around to finish it anyway.  When Kemal died in 1938 from chronic liver disease, he left behind a far more literate society than he inherited.  Right or wrong in his methodology, he did bequeath them the tools necessary for choice, the one thing the fundamentalist camp can never accept.

The question for Americans is whether we can endure a long-haul assignment, one that begins with security and ends with an informed society, one that just might decide that our model isn’t their model.  That’s the risk of intervention.  If US policy is confined to simply destroying the Taliban, then we’ve already lost this one.  If something else is on the table, this would be a pretty good time for a new President and a revamped State Department to explain just what that might be.

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.

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.

Robert Gates: Beyond Politics

Hacking off the people that got you elected is a dubious way of beginning a presidency. Why on earth then would President-elect Obama draw the ire of some Democrats by keeping Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Bush appointee, in his cabinet?

“Change” has been the mantra of the Obama machine’s public face from day one. It catapulted him from an obscure, yet “articulate and bright and clean” (thanks, Joe) junior U.S. Senator from Illinois to the next President of the United States. As such, the Obama campaign promised a transparent administration that would redress the excesses of power wielded by the unitary executive under Bush’s wicked little coven. We would see an end to the war in Iraq and a realignment of our foreign policy that would lead to open communications with those nations deemed unworthy by the Bush cadre. Good God, don’t let any of THOSE guys stick around for his new “change” administration.

The thing is, Secretary Gates isn’t really one of those guys.

General Petraeus and Secretary Gates

General Petraeus and Secretary Gates

In fact, Robert Gates has served seven presidents, both Republican and Democrat, during his years with the intelligence community. He is notable for being the only director of the CIA to rise in ranks from an entry-level position to director (DCI). He wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth and earned his directorship in 1991 the hard way. In fact, he was up for the job in 1987, but shadows of doubt about his role in the Iran-Contra affair took their toll on his nomination. There were intimations that he may have been complicit in suppressing irregularities that should have been reported to Congress during the affair. However, Gates, unlike many, was completely cleared of any wrongdoing. In fact, during those confirmation hearings, he gained a measure of introspection that the current administration lacks, as noted in his memoirs:

I would go over those points in my mind a thousand times in the months and years to come, but the criticisms still hit home. A thousand times I would go over the ‘might-have-beens’ if I had raised more hell than I did with Casey [former director of the CIA William]  about non-notification of Congress, if I had demanded that the NSC get out of covert action, if I had insisted that CIA not play by NSC rules, if I had been more aggressive with the DO in my first months as DDCI, if I had gone to the Attorney General.

Gates’ political alignment is a little vague, but he most certainly leans conservative. Some sources cite him as an Independent, while others quote him as saying “I consider myself a Republican.” However, his foreign policy ideals were shaped by those conservatives who did not necessarily hold with the current administration’s neoconservative “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” absolutist philosophy. Rather, Gates could be better identified with the more rational “realists” of the first Bush administration. In fact, during his service as deputy national security adviser during the Bush 41 administration, Gates worked closely with then director Brent Scowcroft, some even referring to Gates as his protégé . Scowcroft has been vilified by the neocons for his vocal opposition to the war in Iraq, and his influence on Gates should not be underestimated.

Gates’ work with the Iraq Study Group before his nomination to Secretary of Defense should also be considered closely. This group consisted of a bipartisan team of heavy hitters, including former Secretary of State James Baker, former representative Lee Hamilton, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The group’s recommendations, published in 2006, significantly differed from the course of action taken by the Bush administration. They favored a substantial shift in responsibility for Iraq’s security from U.S. to Iraqi forces and opined that “by the first quarter of 2008…all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.” Instead, we got the surge. The surge, arguably, was effective, but Gates’ presumable role in advising the group in matters of intelligence steered them towards their conclusions that a troop reduction was the wiser course. It is a testament to Gates’ integrity that he listened to his better judgment rather than the rantings of the hawks. Gates maintained a rational voice and was the farthest thing from a sycophant to the neoconservative prevailing interests of the administration.

Gates’ reliance upon his own well-founded deductive ability over hard line party rhetoric became even more evident during his confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense. When asked to describe his motivations for accepting the nomination to the position, Gates stated that he believed “very deeply that one of the fundamental factors in our success in the Cold War was our ability to have a broad, bipartisan agreement on the fundamental strategy on how to deal with the Soviet Union” and that “it is imperative, in this long war on terrorism that we face that could go on for a generation, that there be a bipartisan agreement.” That philosophy of bipartisanship stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration’s politically unilateral attitude.

Even more revealing is his thoughtful, realistic understanding of relations with Iran and Syria. When asked by Sen. Byrd, D-West Virginia, if “an attack on either Iran or Syria would worsen the violence in Iraq and lead to greater American casualties,” Gates paused gravely, and replied, “Yes, sir, I think that’s very likely.”

What one gathers from studying Secretary Gates is that his actions are guided by his assimilation of experience and an exceptional understanding of the geopolitical world around him. He is no slave to demagoguery, and has a history with the more levelheaded elders of his party. His agenda seems one of a true civil servant as opposed to a political ladder-climber. He has used his ascendancy to power to effect cautious, intelligent policies that are much more self-guided than adherence to any particular political dogma. President-elect Obama seems to value these characteristics as virtue enough to override divisive political considerations and has entrusted the defense of the nation to such a man of intelligence, independence, and integrity.

Arab Fiats: Islamicism is the New Communism

December 20, 2008 by Tony Smith, Senior Writer · 2 Comments 

While many in the Western world cower in fear of radical Islamic terrorists and the Arab World in general, many of our fears are completely baseless. The truth is that in radical Islamists do not govern any Arab country with a significant population. That’s right, while many people see the entire Arab World as fanatical Islamists, the fact is they control nowhere.

It is clear that the true holders of power have often encouraged the fanatics in order to provide a distraction from the poverty and lack of development in many of their nations. This is in fact a strategy we also see used very effectively in non-Muslim countries. China continues to fan the people’s disgust for the massacres and tortures carried out by the Japanese during World War II in order that the people do not focus on leaders such as Mao Tse Tung, who was largely responsible for the starvation and genocide of his people. President Mugabe in Zimbabwe inflames the people by blaming the British for the cholera epidemic and malnutrition of the population.

One of the Top 10 movies of all time...

Sir Lawrence made promises he couldn't keep.

In this light, historical lessons of the past century give us some interesting parallels to current realities. In the Arab world of 50 years ago, many countries were embracing communism, not fanatical Islamicism. After World War I, as anyone who has seen Lawrence of Arabia will know, the Ottoman Turks lost their Empire in the Arab World.  Much of it was divided between the British and the French, which caused huge resentment as Lawrence had promised they would have domain in their own nations as payback for their assistance in defeating the Ottomans. The British and the French set up puppet leaders and Monarchs, who assumed full authority when the bombed out European powers deserted most of their empires after World War II. When the European powers left, there was a wide power vacuum in much of the Arab world. The Soviet Union, which had just won the World War II on the eastern front, tried to help fill this vacuum. General Nasser took power in Egypt where Communism was fully embraced for a number of years. The Soviets gave considerable military aid to the Egyptians and built the High Dam in Aswan to control the flooding of the Nile and generate electricity. Communism was embraced by most of North Africa and became very pervasive in Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, communism was only put down violently by the House of Saud when they began to see it as a threat to their power. Socialism was established in Syria and Iraq under the ruling Baath Party. The Baath Party in Iraq had made many improvements for the status of women, education, and medicine before Saddam Hussein became a paranoid tyrant and took up the faith again to try to regain some credibility with his people. Some of these Communists Parties survive in limited forms to this day.

Over the past 50 years, many sons and grandsons of atheist communists have become fanatical Islamists, yet little has really changed in their day to day lives. Their financial situation has not improved, health services have improved minimally, and education has improved little. At the same time, their leaders and monarchs, as they did several generations ago, continue to live lives of uninterrupted luxury, hiding much of their wealth in Swiss bank accounts. They know very well that if they deceive their people to be engaged in rage against the West, whether it be by the Bible of communism or the Koran of Islam, they will maintain their status indefinitely. “The Great Satan of the West has caused their problems, and when he is banished it will be Heaven on Earth for them.”

Hercules versus the Hydra snake.

Hercules versus the Hydra snake.

In this light, it is unfortunate to have political leaders in the Western world who do not see this whole picture. The terrorists can never be beaten by firepower. They are only made martyrs, and like the Hydra, each head that is cut off results only in replication by many more. If we are to win over their minds and souls, tanks and warplanes can never succeed. For the trillions of dollars spent on weapons, how many hospitals could be built, how many wells dug, how many schools built, how many miles of sewers, aquifers, roads. How many farmers’ crops and lifestyles immeasurably improved? How many minds changed in favor of benevolent, trustworthy individuals bringing honest Western help, without questioning the beliefs of the recipients? Mind sets may not change in one generation, but they will in two. If such a fanatical movement can be built in this amount of time, with the power of good will, it can likewise be destroyed.

Complementary to this good will, the Western World must also cut off the leaders of these corrupt nations and city states, banish them from the club until a little more of their wealth, personal enterprise, and interest trickles down to assist their own people. Of course, as long as the Western world relies on their oil for their continued economic growth, this is unlikely. Such is the curse of economic inequality that often accompanies vast national resources in the developing world. Dubai, with relatively few natural resources, has been forced to make that the jump for the good of their people. As other illegitimate Arab monarchs and dictators freeze their Swiss bank accounts and overseas assets, don’t let them ski at our resorts and moor their yachts anywhere in the Mediterranean. Make them unwelcome in our lands. Let them feel the weight of their perfidy to their people. Let’s deal with the illness, not the symptoms.