Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 5, 2014

Debating Islam, Radicalism, and Liberty

I’m here in Jordan and, because of Ramadan, I tend to be up all night and then sleep until the early afternoon. While waiting for sundown, there really isn’t much to do except watch the Arabic satellite channels in both Arabic and English to get caught up on world events. How fortunate I was to catch a rebroadcast of a 2013 debate between outspoken Muslim reformer Irshad Manji and Mehdi Hassan, Al Jazeera’s well-prepared and able moderator, who also brought in interventions from a range of audience members. The whole segment is here and well worth watching. Manji handles herself well and presents an impassioned defense of free thought, free interpretation, and individual liberty.

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I’m here in Jordan and, because of Ramadan, I tend to be up all night and then sleep until the early afternoon. While waiting for sundown, there really isn’t much to do except watch the Arabic satellite channels in both Arabic and English to get caught up on world events. How fortunate I was to catch a rebroadcast of a 2013 debate between outspoken Muslim reformer Irshad Manji and Mehdi Hassan, Al Jazeera’s well-prepared and able moderator, who also brought in interventions from a range of audience members. The whole segment is here and well worth watching. Manji handles herself well and presents an impassioned defense of free thought, free interpretation, and individual liberty.

On Independence Day weekend back home, and remembering that the United States was founded in part because of a desire for religious freedom, Manji’s debate, her defense of her writings, and her response to those who make the tired argument about not sharing podiums with those with whom they disagree is well worth watching. How sad it is that the points Manji makes are so often ignored by those in the White House who pride themselves on cross-cultural and religious dialogue, and diplomats who tip-toe around religious radicalism rather than confront it head on.

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On Demonizing Chalabi

Mainstream journalists have now picked up on increasingly noticeable chatter inside Iraq suggesting that Ahmed Chalabi could become a compromise candidate for Iraq’s premiership should incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down or fail to achieve a coalition to support a third term.

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Mainstream journalists have now picked up on increasingly noticeable chatter inside Iraq suggesting that Ahmed Chalabi could become a compromise candidate for Iraq’s premiership should incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down or fail to achieve a coalition to support a third term.

I had written here several years ago about Chalabi’s strengths (although predicting he would win five percent in those parliamentary elections was in hindsight much too optimistic). That said, he is one of the few Iraqi politicians—ailing incumbent president Jalal Talabani was another—who managed to talk to all sides through thick and thin and to whom Iraqis of all beliefs and ethnicities turned for mediation. Even his opponents also acknowledge he is also smart and organized.

He has drawbacks as well. Even his friends acknowledge that he is arrogant. Like many other Iraqi politicians, and frequent American partners as well, he surrounded himself with people who abused positions, power, or engaged in corruption. As one Iraqi put it, “it’s hard to dress in a white suit and clean a cesspool without getting splatted with sh-t.” I haven’t seen evidence of direct Chalabi complicity in corruption, though he can be faulted for turning a blind eye toward those in his organization. The Jordan Petra Bank issue is more political than real. King Hussein of Jordan was between a rock and a hard place and made many compromises to Saddam Hussein, including targeting Iraqi oppositionists in Jordan.

Chalabi has not been consistent when it has come to secularism versus religion in politics, or allegiance to the West versus toward Iran. That said, no politician should be expected to fall on his sword when abandoned by one side or the other, but they adjust to the new reality. Chalabi less abandoned the United States than the United States abandoned Chalabi. Does Chalabi have relations with Iran—and, indeed, people whom the U.S. government considers very bad in Iran? Yes. But, here American officials and journalists should not be selective: Those embraced by Washington—Jalal Talabani, Barham Salih, Qubad Talabani, Nechirvan Barzani, among others—have relations with the same Iranian officials. Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for that matter, sat down across the table from a Qods Force operative (and former Iranian ambassador to Iraq) to discuss security in Iraq.

Aspersions with regard to false intelligence are exaggerated, because many journalists confused Chalabi and his inner circle with the broader opposition coalition under the Iraqi National Congress (INC) umbrella. Much of the controversial intelligence came through the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Here, for example, is then-New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg talking about al-Qaeda-affiliated prisoners to whom he was introduced by the PUK testifying to the Iraq-al-Qaeda links. And here is the New York Times correcting almost a decade ago the calumny that Chalabi was responsible for the false “Curveball” intelligence. And here is Jonathan Landay, an unabashedly partisan journalist now at McClatchy, burying a correction for his past mistakes in a Knight-Ridder story. Landay and his colleague do note “the INC did provide U.S. intelligence services with defectors whose claims about Iraq’s banned arms programs and links to terrorism were exaggerated or fabricated.” That’s true. But the INC was well known by Iraqis and exiles alike as an umbrella. When Iraqis claimed to have information—and, admittedly, they often exaggerated what they knew to inflate their own importance and their attractiveness to the West—then by law the only organizations that can debrief and process them are the CIA and DIA. The INC without apology referred them to the CIA and DIA in order to determine if these individuals were sincere or showed deception. In few cases is the answer 100 percent of either, but rather that defectors fall on a spectrum. To complain that any group should not direct defectors to the proper persons to screen them is a bit ridiculous.

Could Chalabi do the job? Only Iraqis know and could tell, and ultimately it is their choice. I still doubt that Chalabi will make the cut because I believe the Iranians find him too secular and too unwilling to accept Iranian dictates.

That said, it was always counterproductive for the United States to demonize mainstream politicians it does not like who operate in allied countries. It did something very similar with newly elected Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, to whom the United States refused visas and sought to marginalize for very different reasons and, for that matter, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who became the subject of harsh critiques and outright slanders in self-serving books penned by former Clinton administration officials who, 15 years later, discovered awkwardly that they would have to interact with the target of their open animosity once they were brought into the Obama administration. Have Chalabi, Modi, and Netanyahu made mistakes? Yes. Is there much to their personalities and policies to resent or oppose? Certainly. Too often, however, American journalists and officials exaggerate faults and flaws which then become false conventional wisdom. Few officials serve in the same position long enough to have depth of knowledge in any particular subject, and few have time or the desire to challenge the conventional wisdom which they inherit.

Chalabi may become prime minister, or he may not. Should he rise to the premiership, it will not be because anyone in the United States helped him get there, which perhaps is testament to his political skill. But whatever happens, perhaps it’s time for the United States to sit back and look forward, rather than leap forward and think only of the past.

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Is There an Antidote to Iran’s Regional Strategy?

Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

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Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

That said, the threat from Iran is real. The ideal of the export of revolution is written into both the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the founding statutes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2008, Ayatollah Shahroudi, responding to the notion put forward by former President Muhammad Khatami that export of revolution was about soft power, made clear the supreme leader’s understanding that revolutionary export was military in nature. Those who say that Iran hasn’t invaded any other country in more than 200 years and suggest that the Islamic Republic is somehow pacific or simply acting defensively do not understand the notion that not all warfare is direct.

Indeed, a former member of the Iraqi intelligence service who spent years working on the Iran file put it best when he observed that the failure of Iran’s counterattack in the wake of Iraq’s 1980 invasion led it to recognize that it could not defeat regional states through traditional military tactics, and so it developed a concerted strategy to undermine states from within by co-opting politicians, sponsoring militias, and provoking internal conflicts. In Lebanon, Hezbollah creates political stalemate (thanks to its empowerment by the 2008 Doha Agreement) and then uses the paralyzed government to further its influence in society. In Syria, Hezbollah seeks not only to defend the Assad regime, but to actively target any person or group on either side of the conflict that presents a more moderate alternative to the extremists on both sides. For Iran, it is better to have chaos in Syria, see hundreds of thousands of Syrians die, and twenty times that number flee as refugees than it would be to have any stability not in a system not under Iran’s thumb.

Iraqi Shi‘ites often distrust Iran, but the voice of Iraqi Shi‘ites is ill-served by sectarian parties, some of which voluntarily subordinate themselves to Iranian aims, and others of which were forced into that situation by the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iranian efforts to co-opt Shi‘ite sectarian parties and, for that matter, Kurdish parties as well serves to promote stalemate and prevent compromise. This undercuts any chance for stability, creating a situation which Iran or its proxy militias can further exploit.

The question for U.S. policymakers is whether, if Iran’s strategy is simply to paralyze and undercut the stability of regional states from within, U.S. policymakers have any strategy to counteract it. If Iran’s way of warfare is duplicitous and if it seeks to undermine states from within rather than confronting them head-on, then it behooves American policymakers not only to recognize it, but learn how to play the reverse game in order to buttress internal stability and maintain relations solid enough to provide balance and prevent the Qods Force from having free rein.

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Celebrating American Governance

It is an odd experience to be abroad on the Fourth of July–especially in a place as remote as Nepal. No fireworks, no barbecues (except at the U.S. embassy, presumably), in fact no notice at all of what is to Americans one of the most important holidays on our calendar. It does, however, offer a good chance for some perspective on America, and in particular on the great mystery of American history: How did thirteen tiny colonies on the eastern seaboard expand in less than two centuries to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world?

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It is an odd experience to be abroad on the Fourth of July–especially in a place as remote as Nepal. No fireworks, no barbecues (except at the U.S. embassy, presumably), in fact no notice at all of what is to Americans one of the most important holidays on our calendar. It does, however, offer a good chance for some perspective on America, and in particular on the great mystery of American history: How did thirteen tiny colonies on the eastern seaboard expand in less than two centuries to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world?

There is, it must be admitted, an element of serendipity involved: the (primarily) British immigrants who created the United States of America had the good fortune to arrive in a land of abundant natural resources and little in the way of organized military opposition from other nation-states. As Indian tribes were defeated, the road to the West was opened and America could stretch from sea to shining sea. 

But geography is not destiny. Russia, after all, experienced a similar expansion, in its case to the Wild Wild East, taking control of Central Asia and Siberia. Today Russia has more land and arguably greater natural resources than the U.S., yet it is a nation in inexorable decline, its anemic economy propped up by oil prices, its population in long-term decline.

What made the difference in America’s case? Quite simply, good government. The relatively minimalist government created by the Founders unleashed the animal energies of newly arrived immigrants and set them free to build a mighty economic behemoth in ways that no central planner could possibly have envisioned much less brought into being. The reason other large countries have not enjoyed similar good fortune comes down to governance.

This was a point that was brought home to me during a week of travel in India prior to my arrival in Nepal. India is blessed with a large land area and a massive population of 1.2 billion. Its people are in no way intrinsically inferior to those of the United States–in fact Indian immigrants are some of the most successful people in America. 

And during a journey from Mumbai to New Delhi, most of it overland, I was constantly impressed by how hard Indians work for meager wages. Whether it was newspaper vendors getting up at the crack of dawn in Mumbai or a friendly taxi driver shuttling me all day in his beaten-up Ambassador sedan, the industriousness and intelligence of Indians was never in dispute. So why is it that India’s GDP per capita is $1,500 and America’s is $53,000?

Indians are free to blame the legacy of British colonial rule, yet the United States too was a progeny of the British Empire. Granted, Americans were able to rebel much earlier but that is in large part because of the American colonists’ greater unity as opposed to the divisions of India when the British arrived. Indeed British imperialists created the very concept of “India” which had never existed before, and left it with many valuable legacies from railroads to a civil service and a functioning democracy. You can still see the British legacy in cities such as Mumbai in crumbling buildings built in the early 20th century.

In any case India has been free of British rule for nearly 67 years—long enough for other once-impoverished nations such as South Korea to catapult into the ranks of the world’s wealthiest democracies. It is no secret why India has lagged behind: It has been the victim of terrible governance. For decades it adhered to fashionable socialist nostrums. More recently a succession of governments has tried to implement free-market reforms, only to be stymied by the inexorable bureaucracy. 

Not long ago, the Hong Kong-based Political and Risk Consultancy came out with a survey of bureaucracies in Asia. India ranked as by far the worst of the bunch. Worse than Vietnam. Worse than China. Worse than Indonesia. To say nothing of the top performers, Singapore and Hong Kong—both, coincidentally, also former British colonies. As the Wall Street Journal noted: “The report, which was based on over 2,000 surveys of employed residents and expatriates across Asia, blamed India’s poor infrastructure, widespread corruption and ‘fickle’ regulations for making business a ‘frustrating and expensive’ affair.”

I got a small taste for myself of what Indians have to endure when I applied for a visa at the Indian consulate in New York. The visa officer promised to have everything ready in four or five business days but those days came and went with no way to find out where matters stood—and my flight time drawing near. Only by talking to someone who knew someone was I able to get the visa in time. This is, I imagine, a universal experience in India where the bureaucracy functions so poorly that many people find themselves resorting to favoritism or corruption to get what they are legally entitled to get.

Goodness knows, American government bureaucracy is far from ideal. I get pretty frustrated when I deal with the Post Office. I can only imagine what people are going through trying to enroll in ObamaCare. But for all of the U.S. government’s myriad faults, it is considerably more responsive and accountable and less corrupt and inefficient than most other governments around the world.

So ultimately the story of America’s success comes down to the very thing we celebrate on July 4 but should more properly celebrate on September 17 (September 17, 1787, was the date the Constitution was signed): the genius of our Founding Fathers. They created a government which has made it possible for the people of the United States to prosper. Other countries around the world are starting to figure out our formula and in some case to better it, but no other nation has been as well ruled for so long. That is why the United States is still perched, however precariously, as the No. 1 power in the world.

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