Monthly Archives: February 2011

What we should do in the Middle East, or not

There have been suggestions that we take an “active” role.

William Kristol in yesterday’s Washington Post, seems to think that our President isn’t doing enough to support the democratic upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya.  What’s happening in Libya in particular with Qaddafi setting his troops, mercenaries and thugs to shoot down his own people, is particularly nasty and bloody.  Kristol apparently thinks that we should provide overt and covert help to the democratic movement there, maybe even resort to force.

This means more than speeches – though speaking out would be a start. It means aggressive efforts, covert and overt, direct and indirect, to help the liberals – in the old sense of the word – in the Middle East. It means considering the use of force when force is used to kill innocent civilians. It means a full-scale engagement of the U.S. government, an across-the-board effort with allies and international organizations, a real focus on the challenge these times present.

He wants Obama to seize the moment and turn it to our advantage. He makes no suggestion that as we’re in the middle of 2 other wars and a deep recession, where and how we might find the resources for such a project, but he is convinced that it is in our interest to do so. I believe he is dead wrong.  If the people of the Middle Eastern countries that want a more democratic rule want it badly enough to rise up against their rulers, it is time for the US to give moral support but allow those people to finally take ownership of their own destinies on their own terms.  Adding another quagmire in Libya on top of the trillions we’re already spending in Iraq and Afghanistan would probably be the financial ruin of us.  For just 10% of the world’s oil, it just isn’t worth it.  Moral support and advice when asked will be enough.  Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis, and Libyans have a right to determine their own destinies without our meddling.  Interventionists should sit on their hands and shut their mouths.

Even Dana Millbank goes on about the White House being “Passive” in the face of the changes taking place, but he says little about what the President ought to be doing.  Active, aggressive American action in the rest of the world has always brought us nothing but trouble, both here and in the countries involved.  It is time for all the commentators to understand that we have no “right” to interfere in the affairs of other nations.  At best we can work around the edges with persuasion and other non-military resources.  We’ve been doing our best to push the arabs and others around for years with an “active, aggressive” interventionist policy, and where has it gotten us?  The result has been terrorism and ordinary people who hate the way we behave towards them.  It’s long past the time to try something else.

Obama’s seeming passivity may be just the right approach at the moment, giving the people of those countries time to figure things out for themselves.  They are much more likely to end up with enduring, stable, democratic societies, if we stay out of the manipulative role that western governments have practiced for centuries.  The promoters of “active” engagement should go and read Washington’s farewell address again, and learn it by heart.  While the French helped us with our Revolution, they did so for reasons other than promoting a democratic government on this side of the Atlantic.  Their own rivalries with others in Europe made them attempt to seek a balance of power.

US Failure?

Obama is getting it from all sides.

It’s so easy to criticize, and it seems that the overturning of Mubarak has made it the perfect week for all the assembled pundits to call it Obama’s fault and his failure.  Writing in Newsweek, Niall Ferguson puts most of the blame on white House national Security advisor James Jones, who comes off badly in Ferguson’s comparison with Kissinger because Jones developed no “grand Strategic Design”.  That kind of design belongs to the Imperial past, and it seems to me that Ferguson doesn’t seem to understand that the world had already changed even before the failure of the Bush era policies.

He’s pretty harsh:

Grand strategy is all about the necessity of choice. Today, it means choosing between a daunting list of objectives: to resist the spread of radical Islam, to limit Iran’s ambition to become dominant in the Middle East, to contain the rise of China as an economic rival, to guard against a Russian “reconquista” of Eastern Europe—and so on. The defining characteristic of Obama’s foreign policy has been not just a failure to prioritize, but also a failure to recognize the need to do so. A succession of speeches saying, in essence, “I am not George W. Bush” is no substitute for a strategy.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it doesn’t recognize that what got us into trouble in the Middle East and radical Islam is exactly the “grand strategy” that Ferguson is so keen to bring back.  The  Age of Empire is over, at least the way that Bismark and Kissinger, so admired by Ferguson and others, envisioned it.  Since the end of the Second World War, America has tried hard to replace all the controllers of colonial empires with itself driving a devil’s bargain between our promises to ourselves and our ways of behaving in the world beyond our shores.  In the name of “safety” we have propped up too many unsavory dictators to count.  We made fearful boogie men out of communists or any other leftists who just might want to threaten us, whether they did in reality or not.  We overturned democratically elected governments all over the world in the name of safety from the “boogieman”.  It made us as hated by the oppressed as the rulers of the former colonies and showed us to be hypocritical seekers of world domination.  Now we have substituted al-Qaeda, Hamas, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood as the bogiemen of the 21st century.  We are no more correct now in our estimation of so-called threats than we were about the “Communist Menace”.  Our politicians have played on our fears for so long that the paranoia has become deeply ingrained even in places like the State Department as seen by Clinton’s instinct to follow the same old line with Israel and the other Middle Eastern autocrats by sending Frank Wisner as a special representative, and hiring thugs like Raymond A.  Davis to play deadly off-the-books contractor spy games in Pakistan and elsewhere.

When liberals like Juan Cole see Obama’s reaction to events in Egypt as weak and indecisive, there’s something wrong with American perceptions of reality.  What could Obama have done about a popular revolt against a brutal autocrat?  What would a Grand Strategy have done but resort once more to force making the situation worse.  It’s time for the elites of the world to begin listening to what their people are really saying, and what they are saying all over the Arab-speaking parts of the world is that they want freedoms long denied them by their leaders and by us.  It’s long past the time for the “yankee” to “go home”.  We can deal and trade with the rest of the world, but we need to do so fairly and without the implicit condescension that has been so apparent.  Israel may have to learn to survive on its own, or not.  They are no longer victims of anyone’s oppression, but oppressors themselves of those who do not belong to their exclusive religious club.  They too, will stand or fall by their respect (or lack of it) for the humanity of others.


Will the Generals Steal the Revolution?

What do you think?

There is discouraging news about Egypt in the Guardian today:

The ruling military council said it intends to retain power for six months or longer while elections are scheduled and will rule by decree. It suspended the constitution and said a committee will draw up amendments that will be put to a referendum. It also dissolved the widely discredited parliament, elected in a tainted ballot last year.In a sign that the army will only tolerate a limited challenge to its power, it is expected to issue a communique on Monday saying that it will crack down on those creating “chaos and disorder” as well as effectively banning strikes.

That definitely sounds like the begining of martial law.  The protesters may be in worse trouble than they think, as what could easily come next is a military dictator who could well be worse than Mubarak ever was.  Those who celebrate the “victory” of the protesters had better watch and wait.  People power had best be ready to return to protest.  The army has not invited any to become part of its new “government” and many of the former corrupt and dictatorial members of Mubarak’s regime are still in place.  Also watch how the influence of wealthy is deployed behind the scenes to the disadvantage of the people.

Choosing sides

Do we have to?

The US seems to be under a good deal of pressure these days to stick with Mubarak in Egypt, no matter how illegitimate his rule in the eyes of his own people.  People like John Bolton, our former ultra conservative ambassador to the UN, seem to think that there are only 2 choices.  They are the same ones Mubarak himself is proclaiming:  it’s either me or the Muslim Brotherhood, and we should be very afraid of that possibility.  A lot of conservatives seem to have convinced themselves that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the equivalent of the extremist al-Qaeda, which could not be further from the truth.  Bolton thinks our stance should be to support our national interests in the region and, of course, our support for Israel.  He doesn’t care a bit about the Egyptian people, and he and others like him just can’t get over their “Great Power” addiction which gives the the West (particularly the United States) the right to dictate to the rest of the world.

Of course, the Suez canal is important to us.  Of course, we have business and oil interests in the region that are important.  But are these interests so important that we should forget what it is our nation stands for in terms of democracy and respect for human rights and dignity?  How truthful is it (and fair) to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood?  What terrorism have they encouraged?  Why is Bolton so sure they they will come to power if Mubarak steps down?  Just raising the issue brings on our Islamophobia whether we know what we’re talking about or not.

I think Robert Fisk speaks to the hopes and fears of the fair-minded when he says:

All revolutions have their “martyrs”, and the faces of Ahmed Bassiouni and young Sally Zahrani and Moahmoud Mohamed Hassan float on billboards around the square, along with pictures of dreadfully mutilated heads with the one word “unidentified” printed beside them with appalling finality. If the crowds abandon Tahrir now, these dead will also have been betrayed. And if we really believe the regime-or-chaos theory which still grips Washington and London and Paris, the secular, democratic, civilized nature of this great protest will also be betrayed. The deadly Stalinism of the massive Mugamma government offices, the tattered green flag of the pathetic Arab League headquarters, the military-guarded pile of the Egyptian Museum with the golden death mask of Tutankhamen – a symbol of Egypt’s mighty past – buried deep into its halls; these are the stage props of the Republic of Tahrir.Week three – day sixteen – lacks the romance and the promise of the Day of Rage and the great battles against the Egyptian Ministry of Interior goons and the moment, just over a week ago, when the army refused Mubarak’s orders to crush, quite literally, the people in the square. Will there be a week six or a day 32? Will the cameras still be there? Will the people? Will we? Yesterday proved our predictions wrong again. But they will have to remember that the iron fingernails of this regime have long ago grown into the sand, deeper than the pyramids, more powerful than ideology. We have not seen the last of this particular creature. Nor of its vengeance.

There really is nothing left to do but wait, watch, and hope.  People like John Bolton and Bill O’Reilley should do themselves a favor by reading the article at Informed Comment by Christopher Anzalone on the Muslim Brotherhood Myth.  They might not be persuaded, since they live on their fears, but it might have a chance of being added to the dialogue of others who are  more open-minded.

Unrest in the Middle East (Egypt)

Protests, demands for change, and a general feeling of discontent and instability.

It seems as if Americans and Israelis will have to get used to changes in the Middle Eastern political landscape over which they have little or no control.  This may be a good thing for meddling has gotten us all into so much trouble in the past.  Great power “games” that ignore the rights and lives of local populations have succeeded in bringing us closer to a chaotic world than ever, and the use of force is no longer a viable option, as Mubarak is finding out, and as we, to our sorrow, found out in Iraq.

The knee-jerk American reaction will be to support Israel with more arms and money, but these will not change the fundamental impulse toward freer and fairer governments.  Israel which has been heading toward more and more authoritarian behavior finds itself facing the results of past uses of force exerted for its selfish aims.

Update: February 3, 2011.  It looks as though the Arab world is in turmoil.  There seem to be protests everywhere, according to Aljazeera.  Some rulers are changing their tunes in hope of stalling off the kinds of riotous protests the Egyptian government has caused.  There’s a great picture of 3 men on horseback, 2 with whips (knouts) and the 3rd with what looks like a bamboo club, riding past the anti-Mubarak protestors.  I wonder how many in the US will take the trouble to look at it, though I hear through NPR (I think) that many in our government are watching because it has become their only reliable source of information.  What a joke! Especially after Bush did his best to squash it.  It tells of protests in Beirut, a planned protest by Palestinians on the West Bank, protests in Yemen, and the Algerian President’s lifting of Emergence Powers that have been in place for 10 years in attempt to stave off violent protests in his country.

So the Arab street has finally come alive.  There’s no telling how this will all come out, and although people on both the right and the left complain about Obama’s response, I really don’t see that there is much that he or the US government can do.  After Iraq and Afghanistan, we don’t have the credibility as a leader for human rights and democracy that we once may have had.  As Juan Cole puts it, we let Netanhayu get away with humiliating defiance over the settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, so Mubarak, who made the deal with Israel to contain the Palestinians in Gaza, is defying Obama so he, Mubarak, can stay in power.  There was a threat about revisiting aid to Egypt, but it has not been repeated, and, tragically, was never even suggested for Israel.  In order to maintain the status quo, the flow of oil, we will tolerate brutal authoritarian regimes whose behavior toward their own people belie everything that the US is supposed to believe in.  The government machinery serves neither the President, nor the country’s best interest. ( See Noam Chomsky’s piece at TruthOut)

Think back to all the words that have come from the State Department over the years in support of Israel, regardless of its actions against its neighbors or its own Arab or other minority populations.  It has become as much a far right theocracy as Iran, with rulers as brutal as Mubarak, Qaddafi, or any other Arab despot you can name.

Update:  Friday, February 4

Pepe Escobar has some wise things to say over at the Asia Times, where lots of very good analysis of all sides can be found.

The NYT says that the Obama administration is in talks with Egyptian officials about a transition.  Watch out, Egypt! They will do their very best to snatch your chance for democracy away from you – all for the sake of “stability”.  The Times seems to be all about raising fears in America.  Fears of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Fears of a leaderless mob in control of the state.  We have to have something “manageable” there or the world will end in chaos.  It’s sickening.

Update:  Saturday, February 5.  Al Jazeera is reporting Frank Wisner’s statement the Mubarak should stay in office to steer the“process of gathering national consensus around the preconditions for the way forward.  This is not exactly what the Obama administration is saying in public, nor will it satisfy those in Tahrir Square who just want Mubarak gone.  It begins to look as though American meddling will be paving the way for the next dictator (Suleiman?) or military rule all in the name of “stability”.  That kind of meddling will surely be counter-productive both for our own interests and for those of the Egyptians.  We will be seen as meddling on behalf of the Israelis (which may well be true) earning us nothing but further hatred from the Arab street.  For their part, the Egyptians may truly revolt against the imposition of another arbitrary rule, thus making the situation worse, not better.  The truth is that we really do not know how to resolve this crisis, and haven’t learned from out experiences in Iraq and elsewhere to respect the abilities of people to make up their own minds about what they want and how they want to achieve it.  At bottom, it is not up to us to decide anything, and we would do well to back off, letting Egyptians come to their own solution.

I’d suggest reading the entire article on Aljazeera.  It sounds to me as though the Egyptian government is totally unrepentant and doing its best to round up those spreading the word of its activities and abuses such as journalists and human rights advocates.  The ugly continues in the background and unfortunately, few Americans are willing or able to see or find the truth.

One of our biggest problems in the West is our superiority complex.  Far too many of our elites are too willing to accept the view that peoples outside the exclusive club of the “democratic” west are really and truly capable of self-government unless its a top down military or tribal autocracy.  It’s a condescending, unreconstructed colonialist attitude that has been invented to maintain a feeling of superiority, and to avoid accepting that ways of doing things other than ours are possibly just as good.  The “natives” must always be less human than “us”.  Otherwise we could not tolerate the destruction and atrocities we bring on them.  The attitude of racial superiority is behind most of the tragedies in the world.  What we are doing and saying about what is happening in Egypt is part of the same syndrome.  “Everybody knows the Arabs (or Africans, or Native Americans, or Latin Americans, or Filipinos, or Vietnamese or whoever, especially of a different color) are incapable of ruling themselves”

Sunday, February 6:  The West has chosen continued repression in the person of the security chief Suleiman.  It is a sad day for Egypt and for Western diplomacy.  We are betraying what we call our “core beliefs” in the name of stability. Stability equals harsh dictatorship, and once again the tail of Israel is wagging the dog of the United States.  The only hope now is that the demonstrators outlast the defiance of the Dictator and Western “policy”.  We are all being exceedingly stupid and will pay dearly in the blowback that is sure to come.  No matter what Hillary may say about Wisner not speaking for the US, our government is just spinning and shows a ghastly lack of imagination.

Frank Rich in today’s NYT:

The consequence of a decade’s worth of indiscriminate demonization of Arabs in America — and of the low quotient of comprehensive adult news coverage that might have helped counter it — is the steady rise in Islamophobia. The “Ground Zero” mosque melee has given way to battles over mosques as far removed from Lower Manhattan as California. Soon to come is a national witch hunt — Congressional hearings called by Representative Peter King of New York — into the “radicalization of the American Muslim community.” Given the disconnect between America and the Arab world, it’s no wonder that Americans are invested in the fights for freedom in Egypt and its neighboring dictatorships only up to a point. We’ve been inculcated to assume that whoever comes out on top is ipso facto a jihadist.

Gee thanks, George. What a terrific legacy you have left us of hate and intolerance and irrational fear. That was the product you sold us in the US because you wanted “your” war. How shameful! No wonder European protestors won’t have you give speeches in Switzerland. No wonder you and your cohorts are targets of the legal systems of honest people.

Listen to and watch El Baradai’s conversation with Roger Cohen.

Here’s a bit from Roger Cohen’s column in the NYT from February 5.  Read and learn:

All of this raises a question: In the name of what exactly has the United States been ready to back and fund an ally whose contempt for the law, fake democracy and gross theft flout everything for which America stands?

There are several answers. To stop the jihadists, who threaten American lives; to ensure the security of another ally, Israel; to spread free markets, however distorted, from which U.S. corporations benefit; to secure stability in the most dangerous of regions. Hey, the world’s an imperfect place. Sometimes the best strategic choice is just avoidance of the worst. It wasn’t only during the Cold War that our thugs had their place.

I understand all these arguments. As our thugs go, Mubarak’s been solid. But such views have endured through a persistent blindness: The unwillingness to see that the Middle East has evolved; that American hypocrisy is transparent to everyone; that Islamic parties can run thriving economies and democracies like Turkey’s; that popular rage over cronies’ green gardens feeds the jihadist cause; and that the most effective support of Israel is not one that leaves Israel locked in a defensive crouch but one that encourages it to reach out to the modernizing forces in the Middle East, not least in the West Bank.

Democracies can coexist with politically-organized religious extremists, as Israel itself demonstrates. That is one of their strengths.

In Tahrir Square, the mini-republic that is the Egyptian uprising’s ground zero, I ran into Seif Salmawy, the managing director of a publishing company. He was smiling; I asked why. “Suddenly we are human beings,” he said. “We think we can decide and that what we decide has worth and that we have some value as humans. Before there was the president, the police, the army and their money: We the people were just there to serve them.”

“We the people.” Isn’t that how good things like “the general welfare” begin?

Too bad too many at places like Fox News, MSNBC, and other network tv news outlets don’t get the message.