Malley and Harding on "Obamanichaeism"

It's not all black or white, you know

I will probably continue to be a terrible correspondent for another week, when I will be done traveling. In the meantime do take a look at Rob Malley and Peter Harling's piece in Foreign Affairs (subscription-only I'm afraid): Beyond Moderates and Militants: How to chart a new course in the Middle East. Much of it is, as the title suggests, a critique of a holdover of binary ideas about Middle East politics derived from the Cold War as well as Bush-like manicheaism. But they also make a good point about timing:

The Obama administration has shown some signs of adjustment. Conscious of the United States' declining credibility in the Middle East and of its inability to resolve crises independently of one another, Obama has sought to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reach out to Iran and Syria, and forsake the simplistic "war on terror" mentality inherited from the Bush administration. It has redefined U.S. national security doctrine to make room for a more multipolar world.
Indeed, Obama is pursuing policies that, had Bush implemented them during his administration, may well have worked. But the region has not stood still, and at the current pace of change, the United States risks making vital policy adjustments only after it is too late.
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Black man mistaken for Muslim...

I'm traveling at the moment so posting will be light for a couple of days, but do watch this jaw-dropping video in which a black man is "mistaken for Muslim" at an anti-mosque rally in New York. From the video's description:

A man walks through the crowd at the Ground Zero protest and is mistaken as a Muslim. The crowd turns on him and confronts him. The man in the blue hard hat calls him a coward and tries to fight him. The tall man who I think was one of the organizers tried to get between the two men. Later I caught up with the man who's name is Kenny. He is a Union carpenter who works at Ground Zero. We discussed what a scary moment that was for him. I told him that I hoped it did not ruin his day.

Links for August 17-20 2010

  • Timothy Winter: Britain's most influential Muslim - and it was all down to a peach - Profiles, People - The Independent

    "In a Christian context, sexuality is traditionally seen as a consequence of the Fall, but for Muslims, it is an anticipation of paradise. So I can say, I think, that I was validly converted to Islam by a teenage French Jewish nudist." (You just have to read it.)

  • Saudi Arabian judge asks hospitals to paralyse man | The Guardian

    Let's hope the doctors are not as barbaric as the judges.

  • Mauritania Floods | The Moor Next Door

    On the recent flooding.

  • Controversy over extension of presidential power in Tunisia | Al-Masry Al-Youm: Today's News from Egypt

    Tajdid and Tawreeth in Tunisia.

  • Egypt reform campaign says nearing million backers

    770,000 signatures and counting for ElBaradei movement.

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    How the lobby works, then and now

    Grant Smith writes in the excellent Israel/Palestine blog Pulse:

    A huge trove of newly declassified documents subpoenaed during a 1962-1964 Senate investigation reveals how Israel’s lobby pitched, promoted, and paid to have content placed in America’s top news magazines with overseas funding. The Atlantic (and many others)received hefty rewards for trumpeting Israel’s most vital – but damaging – PR initiatives across America.

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    ADL reaches new low

    One of the unexpected outcomes of the Cordoba House / Park51 affair is that it has shown the true colors of many people in American life, from the predictable pandering (or is it honest bigotry?) of Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich and many Republicans (with the notable and honorable exception of Mayor Bloomberg) to the lamentable moral cowardice of some Democrats.

    But if there's been any upside to this sorry story, it's to see the mask pulled down on Abraham Foxman and the ADL.

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    On Cordoba House

    My new column at Masri al-Youm, on Obama's communication problem, is out. It argues that despite the recent polls showing disappointment with Obama in the Arab world, the real communication problem with regards to Islam that the administration has is with the American people. I've been following with horrified fascination the development of the "controversy" over Cordoba House, which has been cathartic in that it had revealed the strong unease — far beyond the lunatic fringes, the professionals manipulators and the populist opportunists — have with the project. This is America's Danish cartoon crisis.
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    Hulagu does Baghdad

    I highly recommend you take the time this fascinating New Yorker piece on the Mongols and the sacking of Baghdad. An excerpt:

    On January 29, 1258, Hulagu’s forces took up a position on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad and began a bombardment. Soon they had breached the outer wall. The caliph, who had been advised against escaping by his vizier, offered to negotiate. Hulagu, with the city practically in his hands, refused. The upshot was that the caliph and his retinue came out of the city, the remainder of his army followed, they laid down their arms, and the Mongols killed almost everybody. Hulagu told Baghdad’s Christians to stay in a church, which he put off-limits to his soldiers. Then, for a period of seven days, the Mongols sacked the city, killing (depending on the source) two hundred thousand, or eight hundred thousand, or more than a million. The Mongols’ Georgian Christian allies were said to have particularly distinguished themselves in slaughter. Plunderers threw away their swords and filled their scabbards with gold. Silver and jewels and gold piled up in great heaps around Hulagu’s tent. Fire consumed the caliph’s palace, and the smoke from its beams of aloe wood, sandalwood, and ebony filled the air with fragrance for a distance of a hundred li. (A li equalled five hundred bow lengths—a hundred li was maybe thirty miles.) So many books from Baghdad’s libraries were flung into the Tigris that a horse could walk across on them. The river ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of martyrs.

    The stories of what Hulagu did to the caliph vary. One says that Hulagu toyed with him a while, dining with him and discussing theology and pretending to be his guest. A famous account describes how Hulagu imprisoned the caliph in a roomful of treasure and brought him gold on a tray instead of food. The caliph protested that he could not eat gold, and Hulagu asked him why he hadn’t used his money to strengthen his army and defend against the Mongols. The caliph said, “That was the will of God.” Hulagu replied, “What will happen to you is the will of God, also,” leaving him among the treasure to starve.

    Hulagu takes the Caliph

    Reassessing al-Jazeera

    This is an important piece on al-Jazeera. Olivier Da Lage starts off noting the commonplaces about al-Jazeera's pioneering role in Arab satellite TV and the political impact of its hard-hitting reporting and interviews. And then he makes this crucial point:

    But Al Jazeera was launched in 1996 and this is 2010, 14 years later. We cannot be satisfied repeating the same clichés, however true they may be, about the pioneering role of Al Jazeera. In the course of these 14 years the media and political landscapes around Al Jazeera have profoundly changed, largely due to the role it played in disrupting the traditional media system in the Arab world. But these changes, in turn, affected Al Jazeera for two main reasons. The most obvious reason is that, in 1996, Al Jazeera's style of reporting was unchallenged in the Arab world. This is no longer true. By setting the standard, Al Jazeera created the conditions and the framework for real competition and pluralism, and everyone had to more or less adapt to the Al Jazeera model. As a result, Al Jazeera is still a figurehead and a major actor, but it no longer has a monopoly on professional and independent reporting in Arabic. The second reason might be less obvious but it is linked to the reason for which Al Jazeera was originally created. Irrespective of the sincerity of the new Qatari Emir regarding freedom of the press, Sheikh Hamad had set himself a major objective: put Qatar on the geopolitical map well beyond the size of its territory and population. Al Jazeera was instrumental in achieving this goal, as the subsequent years have proven.

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    Links August 10-12 2010

    Ramadan late-night schedule now in operation...

    Rattling the saber on Iran

    The Atlantic magazine is one of the slightly subtler stalwart supporters of Zionism in the American media, taking a gentler approach than, say, the New Republic or its conservative doppelganger Commentary or The Weekly Standard. (It's also, in terms of editorial quality speaking, a far superior magazine.)
    Which is why it is far more deadly when it pushes out a piece of propaganda like James Fallows' odious 2002 piece Who Shot Muhammad al-Dura, which tried to impute blame on Palestinians without talking to a single one of them, or the currently much-talked about Jeffrey Goldberg article on why Israel is almost certainly to bomb Iran. The aim of the piece is pretty clear from the get-go: it tries, not always directly but always implicitly, to argue that since Israel is about to strike Iran, the US may as well back it in the endeavor or carry the deed itself. This may very well be the beginning of the campaign for a US attack on Iran, not just an apology for an Israeli attack.
    I won't discuss the article at length here because others have done a pretty good job. But I urge others to read it, and perhaps marvel with me how much of it is suffused with talk of the Holocaust and how much sympathetic justification it contains for what would be, after all, an unprovoked attack on a UN member by a nation that already has a considerable nuclear arsenal outside of the international non-proliferation framework. The case for Israel putting a stop to Iran's nuclear program is quite dubious, as most experts and Goldberg concede. The US is both much better able to carry out such a strike, and deal with the long-term conflict that might ensue. Hence the need for this article and a campaign to manipulate US public opinion into thinking that striking Iran is unavoidable. And why would it be unavoidable? Because Iran is being sold as a potential Nazi Germany,  even though Iran — as Stephen Walt argues — is not much of a threat to the US. (See also Walt's thoughts on Goldberg mainstreaming the idea of war with Iran in the US.)
    You must do what we can’t, because if you don’t, we will, is the gist of what Goldberg is doing, argues Paul Woodward.

    Worried about an Israeli attack on Iran? That’s the idea.

    You must do what we can’t, because if you don’t, we will.

    This is how some Israelis are trying to twist Washington’s arm to get the US to attack Iran.

    A more honest way of making the argument would be to say this: If the US won’t attack Iran, then Israel will — even though it won’t accomplish its military objectives and it will open Pandora’s box. Desperate nations sometimes do desperate things. You have been warned.

    Another name for this: blackmail.

    It’s hard to counter an irrational argument when the irrationality is intentional. Such are the means by which someone like erstwhile Israeli army corporal and current Atlantic commentator, Jeffrey Goldberg, attempts to persuade his readers — not through cogent reasoning based on clear evidence, but by an insidious form of argument that has the clarity of slime.

    Consider the way he tries to close his case for an attack on Iran — even while avoiding saying straight out that he supports such a course of action.

    The United States must not take the risk of letting Israel attack Iran because if President Obama orders US forces to attack instead, this would be the most patriotic thing to do. Obama would not be serving Israel’s interests; he would be defending Western civilization.

    Goldberg, of course, operates with the conceit common to many access journalists, who assume that what they’re hearing from their sources is the unvarnished truth, told to the journalist because they presumably trust him as a confidante and recognize the value of his opinions and insights. Let’s just say that such is the conceit that makes it so easy for those in power in Washington to seduce marquee name journalists to carry water for them by anointing them as “special”, cultivating in the illusion that they’re insiders privy to the inner thoughts of the key power players.

    In your dreams, Jeff: The Israelis talk to you because they want to convey a particular message in Washington; and the White House talks to you because they want you to convey a particular message to the Israelis and, more importantly, to some of their most powerful backers in America.

    Making Aggression Respectable | The National Interest: Here Paul Pillar makes an important point:

    Perhaps one reason a prospective launching of a war against Iran has not gotten the condemnation it deserves is that the one big recent exception to the American tradition of non-aggression—the Bush administration’s war in Iraq—has shifted the terms of reference and the definition of the mainstream so much that even an offensive war has come to be considered a policy option worthy of consideration. And this has happened despite the mess in Iraq that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein and despite George W. Bush’s restraining (to his credit, as mentioned in Goldberg’s article) of hotheads in his administration who were itching to attack Iran.

    Yes you can dispute America's tradition of non-aggression, at least in the postwar era, but the fundamental point that Iran shouldn't be attacked simply because it's against international law is crucial. We have yet to deal with the illegality of Iraq's war.

    Other reactions worth reading:

    Did top Obama donor carry Israeli message to W.H.? Here Justin Elliott picks up on a side revelation in Goldberg's article, that a senior Israeli military official traveled to Chicago to urge one of the most important early Obama backers in the Jewish community to have a word with him.

    How propagandists function: Exhibit A Gleen Greenwald.

    The Leveretts, whom I don't like on Iran's internal politics, catch the same thing: THE CAMPAIGN TO TURN IRAN INTO AN “EXISTENTIAL THREAT”

    Steve Clemons points out the interesting stuff about Bush being against an Iran attack late in his presidency in Jeffrey Goldberg Probes Israel's Iran Strike Option: Is Netanyahu a "Bomber Boy"?

    And finally, coming back to The Atlantic, it's worth highlighting this bizarre line in this Robert Kaplan article about how to deal with a nuclear Iran:

    Indeed, I would argue that because Sunni Arabs from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt perpetrated the attacks of September 11, 2001, and because Sunni hostility to American and Israeli interests remains a conspicuous problem, the United States should theoretically welcome a strengthened Shiite role in the Middle East, were Iran to go through an even partial political transformation.

    Because, of course, all Shias and all Sunnis think alike. And this article's main argument is that the US should be more willing to consider a limited nuclear war with Iran, and limited wars in general. Chilling.

    Reading Tony Judt in Cairo

    My new column at al-Masri al-Youm is up. It's about the late Tony Judt, whose book Ill Fares The Land I was reading when I heard the news of his death, and how the crisis of Western democracy he writes about has parallels in the Arab world. A crisis of Eastern autocracy, if you will.

    The phenomena that Judt describes are, for many, only beginning to be recognized in the West, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis and the threat of permanently high unemployment. Political apathy among the young is one phenomenon that has been perceptible for some time--despite the short-lived enthusiasm generated by the candidacy of a quite conventional (aside from his race) American politician, Barack Obama. Another is the striking irrelevance (and just as often, connivance) of weak parliaments in the face of strong executives.

    Is this starting to sound familiar?

    The trends Judt describes appear to have an all-too-familiar trajectory for those living in the Middle East. After decolonization, Arab states--particularly the “revolutionary” ones--underwent a period of undemocratic rule with considerable social progress, with regimes benefiting from mass support by improving the lot of the majority of the population. Yet today, perhaps in Egypt more than other Arab states, any semblance of a social contract appears to have evaporated and these once partly progressive autocracies have foundered. With this, a deep individual mistrust of both state and society has settled in.

    I can highly recommend Ill Fares The Land and Judt's more recent NYRB writings.

    It's what's going on inside Iran that matters

    Interesting piece by Gary Sick on Iran:

    The key question about Iran today is not whether it will be attacked or collapse under sanctions. It is whether Iran is capable under its present leadership to take a sober decision about how to deal with the outside world. The Revolutionary Guards have established a dominant position in Iran’s military, its economy, and its politics. Iran increasingly comes to resemble the corporatist states of southern and eastern Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s that we call fascist. Iran is conducting an interior battle with its own demons, from the millenarians on the far right who choose to believe that Khamene`i  is the personal representative of God on earth, to the pragmatic conservatives who simply want a more responsible leadership, to the reformists of the Green movement whose objective is to put the “republic” back into the Islamic Republic by giving the people a greater voice.

    This is a yeasty and unpredictable mix. No one knows what is going to happen next.

    And this is the reality that the Obama administration must deal with. The danger is not that the administration will back the wrong horse in Iran. The real danger is that the Obama administration will be so preoccupied with domestic American politics and its constant demand to look tough when dealing with Iran that it will inadvertently rescue this cruel but hapless regime from its own ineptitude by providing a convenient scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in Iran.

    I would still be cautious about a strike on Iran happening — Israel and its allies in America are as irrational as Ahmedinejad — but good to remember the dramatic internal shifts that have taken place in Iran in the last decade, empowering a new breed of plutocrats from the RGs.

    The shorter Elliott Abrams

    If you read Elliott Abrams' long, meandering article where he talks about the the Iranian regime as "the Shias in Iran" and "the clever Persians" and how much they scare Arab leaders, you'll get to this final paragraph:

    Perhaps the enemy of my enemy is not my friend, if he is an Israeli pilot. In that case, all gestures of friendship will be forsaken or carefully hidden; there will be denunciations and UN resolutions, petitions and boycotts, Arab League summits and hurried trips to Washington. But none of that changes an essential fact of life well understood in many Arab capitals this summer: that there is a clear coincidence of interests between the Arab states and Israel today, in the face of the Iranian threat. Given the 60 years of war and cold peace between Israel and the Arabs, this is one of the signal achievements of the regime in Tehran—and could prove to be its undoing.

    Let me give you the shorter version of that long article: "the Arab autocrats I denounced when I was in office want Israel to bomb Iran, and I like it."

    Books on Egypt

    Max Robenbeck, in an interview with the excellent new Economist literary blog Prospero, notes the relative dearth of books on contemporary Egypt — especially non-academic ones. (There are quite a good range of highly focused academic books, however.

    I'd like to mention my friend Sanna Negus newly released Hold on to your veil, Fatima! as a quite good general introduction to many issues, particularly on women. Sanna lived in Cairo for years, and her books was quite successful in her native Finland. This is an updated translation. If you don't know much about Egypt and want a broad look at some of the most salient political and social issues the country has to face, it seems like a good bet. More on the book when I finish it...

    Links August 4-6 2010

    I am thinking of visiting Mauritania in the next few weeks. If anyone has tips or insight about the place, please let me know. Now for the links...

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    Hillary Clinton represents her people

    The ravages of BB addiction.

    I was initially surprised to see this story:

    The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will hold talks with the UAE over the ongoing BlackBerry dispute.

    The United Arab Emirates has said it intends to prevent the phones sending e-mails, accessing the internet, and delivering instant messages.

    Authorities are unhappy that they are unable to monitor such encrypted communications via the handsets.

    Mrs Clinton said authorities had to balance "legitimate security concerns" with "right of free use and access".

    "We are taking time to consult and analyse the full the range of interests and issues at stake, because we know that there is a legitimate security concern," Mrs Clinton said.

    "But there is also a legitimate right of free use and access.

    "So I think we will be pursuing both technical and expert discussions as we go forward," she added.

    Why on earth would the Secretary of State of the United States of America, who surely has a busy agenda, spend her time talking to the UAE about their Blackberry ban? RIM, the makers of Blackberry, are Canadian, so it's not like she's representing American business interests (indeed, she should be pushing American iPhones on Emiratis instead.) It's not really a freedom of speech issue, since Emiratis can have access to other brands of phones that provide similar technology.

    Then it hit me: Clinton is representing her real tribe, that secret cabal that runs the government, Washington Crackberry addicts. And the State Dept., which issues Blackberries (why aren't they buying American?!) to its employees partly because they come with all sorts of security options, also must have its thumb-typing protected. Anyone who's been to DC can relate that people there have the unnerving ability to pretend to be having a conversation with you while never taking their eyes off their tiny BB screens. It is one of the many charms of that wondrous city.