Obama reaffirms the importance of supporting democracy movements around the world. This type of rhetoric had been toned down during his administration, and so it’s nice to hear him say it so firmly tonight: “And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”
President Obama cites our support for the struggle for democracy in Tunisia. But not that in any country where it has not already succeeded in ousting a dictatorship. In other words, human-rights activists around the globe are on their own as Obama’s indifference to this issue has illustrated over the past two years.
During her Senate confirmation hearing in January of 2009, Hillary Clinton described smart power — her preferred approach to American foreign policy — as “picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” Two years later, we’re finally getting a sense of what this means. Recent events and statements have been clarifying.
When the situation is a conference on democracy, the right tool is a pro-democracy statement. Thus Clinton said to the attendees at this year’s Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar, “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. . . . The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”
But when the situation is an actual and potentially democratic Arab revolt, the right tool is fence-sitting. When Clinton was asked for her thoughts on the popular uprising against the corrupt regime in Tunisia, she said, “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.”
When the situation is the announcement of planned elections after said uprising, the right tool is, once again, a pro-democracy statement. Today, after Clinton spoke with Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane and interim Tunisian leader Mohammed Ghannouchi, she told the press, “I’m encouraged by the direction that they are setting towards inclusive elections that will be held as soon as practicable.”
But when the situation is once again a potentially democratic Arab uprising, the right tool is urging restraint and giving cover to the repressive Arab regime being opposed. Today thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to protest the Mubarak government, and Reuters reports the following: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged all sides in Egypt to exercise restraint following street protests and said she believed the Egyptian government was stable and looking for ways to respond to its people’s aspirations.”
For those playing along at home, that’s defending democracy and Hosni Mubarak in the same day. Imagine how difficult it would be to practice smart power if you actually believed in something.
Anyone taking seriously the Palestinians’ current diplomatic offensive against Israel — by way of a UN resolution on settlements and international recognition of Palestine as an independent state — should think again. In a must-read piece in the New York Review of Books, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha offer a unique insight into Palestinian thinking. Their bottom line:
“In the hope of alarming Israelis, some Palestinians toy with options they haven’t seriously considered, don’t believe in, or cannot implement. … It’s a curious list: unilaterally declaring statehood, obtaining UN recognition, dissolving the PA, or walking away from the idea of negotiated partition altogether and calling for a single, binational state. Not one of these ideas has been well thought out, debated, or genuinely considered as a strategic choice, which, of course, is not their point. They are essentially attempts to show that Palestinians have alternatives to negotiation with Israel even as the proposals’ lack of seriousness demonstrably establishes that they currently have none.”
Palestinian diplomats quietly explain that even if the PA eventually declares independence unilaterally, it does not aspire to go beyond the rhetoric of the declaration and the whirlwind of diplomatic recognition they anticipate will follow. They think such a step might put them in a better position to negotiate with Israel on the outstanding issues that remain unsolved without realizing that such a dramatic step — taken from Ramallah by the PA rather than from Algiers by the PLO as happened 23 years ago — may trigger far worse consequences this time.
Israel might take unilateral actions to respond, which would expose the inadequacy of Palestinian proclamations and further reduce for the future the space available for a Palestinian sovereign entity. Israel could easily show the hollowness of such a declaration by challenging the PA to establish sovereignty for real — and Palestinians have no intentions, let alone a plan, to even begin doing so at border crossings, checkpoints, on the airwaves, in their airspace, on their shores, and in many other areas where independence may be affirmed (controversially, one may add, in the absence of agreement with Israel) by the exercise of sovereign attributes. Read More
Christian Ortner, a commentator for the Austrian dailies Wiener Zeitung and Die Presse, picked up a golden journalistic nugget about Leila Trabelsi, the wife of Tunisia’s former authoritarian president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Ortner cites a 2002 French radio interview with Trabelsi in which she discussed the economic malaise of Tunisia and her revolutionary austerity program to help the Palestinians.
“She acknowledged certain difficulties,” Ortner writes (and I translate), “but attributed them not to the corruption, patronage and monumental kleptocracy of her husband’s regime, but to the ‘necessary sacrifices ‘ that had to be made for the Palestinian cause. That is — the Jews are responsible for Tunisia’s misery. Who would imagine …”
With his bitter irony, Ortner captures the fundamental madness of turning Israel into a punching bag and thereby cleverly sidetracking critical examinations about the real causes of dysfunctional regimes in the Muslim world.
The former hair stylist Trabelsi — who appears to have had a kind of Eliza Doolittle rise to the top echelon of Tunisian society — reportedly fled Tunisia to Saudi Arabia with 1.5 tons of gold. Perhaps she will convert her gold bars into hard currency and fund some of the anti-Israeli and excessively pro-Palestinian NGOs like Human Rights Watch, notorious for its fundraising in Saudi Arabia. Given her avarice, however, one should not hold one’s breath.
All this means is that Tunisian civil society showed the same utter bankruptcy of the explanatory model employed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Arab world, namely, that the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict is the be-all and end-all of Arab and Muslim economic and political misery. It should be added that the EU endorses a water-downed version of this very model with its bizarre fixation on apartment-complex construction in East Jerusalem and the disputed territories at the expense of confronting the Iranian nuclear-weapons threat.
As Amir Taheri highlighted in yesterday’s New York Post, Tunisia “has cast aside tired ideologies such as pan-Arabism, Islamism and Baathism. Instead, it is calling for democracy, human rights and economic development. ” In short, the protesters reorganized politics by turning inward, rejecting the external nonsense that despots invoke to solidify their regimes.
While I believe Taheri is excessively optimistic about the rock-bottom nature of change in the Tunisian social order, his line of reasoning shows that Leila Trabelsi’s “necessary sacrifices ” for the PLO is a perverse adaptation of Pygmalion that hoodwinked many EU countries, particularly France.
The Washington Post has a typically excellent editorial on the situation in Tunisia. The Post, with deputy editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl in the lead, has long been a courageous voice in the wilderness championing the embattled cause of Arab democracy. Now the Post editors write that the Jasmine Revolution presents a “historic opportunity”:
Though the revolution has no clear leaders and organized opposition parties are weak, the country is in other respects ready for a democratic transition. Its population is relatively well educated and its middle class substantial, and its women are emancipated by regional standards; Islamic fundamentalist forces are not as strong as they are in Algeria or Egypt. The constitution calls for fresh presidential elections in 60 days, and the country’s interim president indicated that calendar would be respected. The United States can join with France and the European Union in supporting and even helping to organize truly fair elections and in pushing back against those in Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, who will seek a quick restoration of autocracy.
The Obama administration came into office disdainful of President Bush’s pursuit of democracy in the Middle East. Now some senior officials may be having a change of heart, as witnessed by Secretary of State Clinton’s recent speech taking Arab states to task for not doing more to reform themselves. We shouldn’t get our hopes up — an awful lot can still go wrong in Tunisia. Certainly in the past we have seen hopes of democracy in the region dashed (Lebanon) or delayed (Iraq). But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and Tunisia offers a great opportunity for the United States to show that it will stand with the Arab people, not just with their corrupt, unelected rulers.
I’m going to guess that, for President Obama, getting praised by Dick Cheney is a whole lot worse than being criticized by him. During an interview that aired on the Today show this morning, the former vice president noted that Obama has continued many of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies (“I think he’s learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate”). Cheney also spoke about how he was perceived by the public during his last few years in office (“I was there to do a job. And if it meant I had to break some china to get the job done, I did it”).
Does Hillary Clinton’s speech on Tunisia last Thursday indicate a return of the freedom agenda? Lee Smith wonders whether her tough talk on human rights helped bring down Ben Ali: “Over the last two years the Obama administration has rightly been excoriated for ignoring human rights issues throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East. … But Thursday afternoon in Doha Secretary Clinton fired a shot across the bow of the Arab political order.”
Ahead of Saturday’s nuclear talks between P5+1 and Tehran, Iran’s nuclear negotiator has accused the U.S. of launching a “cyberattack” against the country’s facilities and claims to have documentation of U.S. involvement in Stuxnet (where would he have gotten that impression?): “‘Those who have done that could see now that they were not successful in that and we are following our success,’ he said. He added that Iran is not the only country vulnerable to cyberattacks, as evidenced by the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables. ‘They are also weak and vulnerable,’ he said of the United States.”
In an interview with Just Journalism, Dr. Avner Cohen took a swipe at Jeffrey Goldberg’s Iran article from last summer, which estimated that Israel had more than a 50 percent chance of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities by next July: “I never believed the alarmist story by Jeffrey Goldberg in July — I thought that he was speculating (or led by others to advance a highly speculative view) about issues that were not decided then, and surely much less so today.” Cohen also criticized the recent suggestion that Iran won’t be capable of building a bomb until 2015: “I think that anybody who suggests a concrete timetable is a fool. I do not take seriously any timetable.”
National Review’s Katrina Trinko explains why you should take those two new ObamaCare polls with a grain of salt: “Take the AP poll, which shows that 40 percent of adults support Obamacare and 41 percent oppose it. In November, the last time the AP polled this question, 38 percent supported Obamacare and 47 percent opposed it. But the sample in November was very different: 38 percent Republican and 39 percent Democrat. The sample in January wasn’t so balanced, with 42 percent of the responders Democrat and 36 percent Republican.”
The street riots in Tunisia could lead to a democratic revolution, but they could also lead to the rise of an extremist government, like the 1979 Islamic revolution did in Iran. In the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum writes about the potential outcomes of Tunisia’s political transition: “A month ago, they turned to street protests. So far, this is not an Islamic revolution — but it isn’t a democratic revolution yet, either. Instead, we are witnessing a demographic revolution: the revolt of the frustrated young against their corrupt elders. Anyone who looked at the population numbers and job data could have guessed it might happen, and, as I say, many did.”
Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, Alan Dershowitz, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and other Jewish leaders spoke out against the anti-Israel delegitimization movement at a south Florida summit on Sunday. While the boycott and divestment campaign hasn’t entered the mainstream in the U.S., it has been increasingly problematic in Europe: “‘When there is a boycott of Israeli products — buy them. When trade unions and universities want companies to divest of their holdings in Israeli companies — invest in them. When there is a speaker from Israel — attend the speech and make sure the speaker can be heard,’ Oren said. Most of all, ‘We must educate our community about BDS. We must unite actively to combat it,’ he said.”
Claudia Rosett wonders when Saudi Arabia is going to send Israel a thank-you note for Stuxnet. After all, if WikiLeaks has shown us anything, it’s that the Saudis fear a nuclear Iran almost as much as Israel and the U.S. do: “But if the broad picture painted by the Times is accurate (and there are gaps in the trail described), then surely there is another group of countries which for more wholesome reasons owe a profound thank you to Israel. Prominent among this crowd are the Middle East potentates, from the king of Saudi Arabia to the king of Bahrain to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, whose private pleadings — as made to U.S. officials and exposed by Wikileaks — were to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
Stuxnet may be the first instance of cyberwarfare, writes Spencer Ackerman. But how far can these types of attacks go in helping us attain our national-security goals? “That also points to the downside. Just as strategic bombing doesn’t have a good track record of success, Stuxnet hasn’t taken down the Iranian nuclear program. Doctrine-writers may be tempted to view cyberwar as an alternative to a shooting war, but the evidence to date doesn’t suggest anything of the sort. Stuxnet just indicates that high-level cyberwarfare really is possible; it doesn’t indicate that it’s sufficient for achieving national objectives.”
Happy MLK Day. Foreign Policy’s Will Inboden asks President Obama to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for human rights and justice when he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao this week: “As my Shadow Government colleague Mike Green pointed out in his excellent preview of the Hu visit, China’s imprisonment of democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo means that the White House meeting this week will be ‘our first summit (indeed, our first state visit) between a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a world leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate.’ Martin Luther King Jr. also won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1964.”
Every once in a while, someone high up in the Obama administration says something halfway meaningful about human rights. Immediately afterward, pundits celebrate the statement, regardless of its having no connection to anything the administration actually does. In this way, America’s foundational defense of liberty is morphing into a series of symbolic nods to bygone superstition. Soon parents will explain to puzzled kids, “You see, in olden days, Americans believed they could impact freedom around the world if they did certain things, and so it’s tradition for leaders to praise ‘human rights’ when talking about oppressed people.”
Only such an explanation could make sense of the ambivalence toward human freedom displayed by Hillary Clinton this week. “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, adopting a tone reminiscent of the Bush administration, blasted Arab governments for stalled political change, warning that extremists were exploiting a lack of democracy to promote radical agendas across the Middle East,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon on Friday.
Here’s the “blast”: “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”
Well and good. But here’s the secretary of state’s less-celebrated remark, made in an interview with Al Arabiya, regarding actual American policy and the revolt in Tunisia: “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.” Look who’s sinking in the sand now.
It’s one thing to note that the revolution in Tunisia, like all infant revolutions, could lead to better or worse conditions. It’s quite another not to take the side of the oppressed at the outset — especially after delivering a “blast” to corrupt Arab governments. And especially after leaked diplomatic cables show American officials describing the regime of ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali as corrupt and “sclerotic,” with “no checks in the system.”
The Obama administration feels that the U.S. has no dog in the fight between freedom and autocracy. As a country, we’ve been there before — pre-9/11, to be exact. Look how peacefully those days came to a resolution. Still, one must pay lip service to tradition. So every now and then, the secretary of state or the president talk of reforming stagnant political orders and we all applaud. It’s kind of like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. It’s a question of manners, mostly. No one really believes, as they used to, that your soul escapes through your nose. We now know it evaporates through the process of American smart power.
Lee Smith writes on the plight of Christians in Middle Eastern countries and notes that unless Christians are somehow able to establish representation in government and receive protection from Middle Eastern leaders (an unlikely possibility at this point), their existence will remain in jeopardy: “Both recent converts and ancient congregations—the Assyrians in Iraq, the Copts in Egypt, Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics, and more, long antedating Islam—are under fire. The land where Christianity began is being cleansed of Jesus’ followers. It is possible that we will soon see an event without precedent: the end of a living Christian witness in this region after more than 2,000 years.”
Is the Western response to the recent events in Tunisia evidence that the Freedom Agenda is back on the rise? At Pajamas Media, Richard Fernandez writes, “After years of laughing at the idea that spreading democracy was America’s most useful foreign policy weapon and touting grand bargains with the worst regimes in world, even the New York Times sees in the departure of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali the startling idea that Arabs will not necessarily tolerate tyranny forever.”
Reince Priebus was a largely unknown name until the Wisconsin GOP chair defeated Michael Steele last Friday in the race for Republican National Committee chair. On the surface, Priebus appears to be about as different from Steele as you can get; he’s likely to be more of a fundraising-focused, behind-the-scenes leader than a TV personality. Politico has more on his background: “Anti-abortion leaders see him as unwavering on the life issue. He talks often about his faith. Support from famous fiscal conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan, who represents Priebus’s district, gives him credibility with that wing of the party.”
Ron Reagan Jr.’s controversial new book — which claims that his father was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease while in office — has understandably ruffled the feathers of some conservatives. But now it looks like some of Ron’s evidence is falling apart under scrutiny.
Jesse Jackson Jr. clearly has no idea what “homegrown terrorism” means: “However, from the shooting of Lincoln to the events in Tucson, there is a thread that liberals and conservatives have ignored. Each event traumatized our government and disrupted its business — and was carried out by anti-government activists. And that’s terror.”
As Max Boot implies, riot-torn Tunisia is not predestined for any particular future. The U.S. response will matter to the outcome. The sclerotic Ben Ali regime has been under rhetorical fire from dissidents for years due to its corrupt, repressive character, but there is no evidence of an organized opposition bent on armed revolution. No ideological red flags are waving over Tunisia; there may be groups encouraging the outbreak of unrest, but there has been no accelerating drumbeat from a well-defined radical organization like the plotters of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The riots in Tunisia mirror the fears in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Jordan over a common set of economic woes: rising food and gas prices and high unemployment.
But while Tunisia may not be experiencing a centrally directed ideological revolt, the political conditions are not quiescent there. If pluralism and consensual government are to take hold, the U.S. will have to interest itself in the process. The usual suspects — the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda — have stakes in Tunisia already. The principal opposition group, al-Nadha (“Renaissance”), is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi (not to be confused with the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who took power on Friday), is an exile in Britain, a biographical detail that echoes the history of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But Ghannouchi’s profile as a Sunni Islamist leader is more similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi; Ghannouchi endorses terrorist groups like Hamas but spends most of his time writing, lecturing, and attending conferences.
Rachid Ghannouchi has been largely silent during the past week’s unrest, giving no indication that he has specific political intentions. But he would be a natural focus of interest for regional governments — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Italy, France — that are on the alert to influence developments in Tunisia. Attempts at influence by Tehran are a given as well: Ghannouchi was an early supporter of the 1979 revolution and has maintained his ties to Iranian clerics. Tunisia severed relations with Iran in the 1980s over the Islamic Republic’s penchant for fomenting unrest, but diplomatic and economic ties have been restored over the past decade. These ties include an Iranian cultural center in Tunis (referenced here and here), an entity that in other regional nations has been a means of introducing paramilitary operatives and Islamist recruiters. Read More
For all its reputation as the world’s most unstable region, the Middle East has actually been extremely stable in one respect — almost all of its states are ruled by dictators who tend to rule for decades. That’s why it’s very big news that a revolution has swept Tunisia, with reports that President Ben Ali has fled the country. Based on the (scant) reporting so far, it is not clear whether any political movement is behind these events. Most of the accounts describe fairly spontaneous protests and riots after a vegetable vendor set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his cart — his sole means of support — by the authorities.
Tunisians have long been fed up with the corrupt, illegitimate rule of Ben Ali and his hated wife, an Eva Peron figure. They and their family members have grown absurdly rich even as the rest of the country has stagnated. Many other peoples across the Arab world — in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other states — are fed up too. But they have scant chance to express their displeasure except covertly, because if there is one area in which Arab rulers excel, it is in building efficient police states. Now the police state in Tunisia has crumbled.
That is either good news or bad news. It all depends on what comes next. If Tunisia makes the transition to democratic rule, that would be an epochal development that could influence neighboring states in a positive way. If another dictator comes to the fore, that would not be so good. Even worse would be if that dictator emerges from the Islamist fringe. Stay tuned. It’s still early days, but certainly the end of Ben Ali’s long-lived and heavy-handed rule is not to be mourned, even if he was a reliable American ally.
China, Russia, and the EU have reportedly snubbed Iran’s invitation to visit its nuclear facilities. The trip was intended to undermine the upcoming P5+1 talks with Tehran. However, Egypt, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria are still planning to take the Iranian government up on the offer.
The nominations for RNC chair start today, and Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus still appears to be the front-runner, with approximately 44 committee members expected to support him. In comparison, incumbent RNC chair Michael Steele can currently count on support from around 24 members, according to Politico: “On a tactical level, the race has come down to two questions: How quickly can Steele’s challengers leave him in the dust? And can anyone get a decisive edge if the chairman falters early?”
For the fifth consecutive year, Freedom House has reported a worldwide decline in freedom. The number of “free” countries dropped from 89 to 87 last year, and the overall number of electoral democracies has dropped from 123 to 115 since 2005. From the Washington Post editorial board: “When the United States does not advocate strongly for freedom, other democracies tend to retreat and autocracies feel emboldened. If the disturbing trend documented by Freedom House is to be reversed, Mr. Obama will need to make freedom a higher foreign policy priority.”
The riots in Tunisia and Algeria could make the youth populations of both countries susceptible to the forces of Islamic extremism: “This tide of furious young people, willing to die if need be, is undoubtedly a social modernization movement; due to the regimes’ self-interest, however, the Islamist dogma could overwhelm their thirst for justice and seize the upper hand over the riots.”
Americans paid little attention in September 2009 when the Obama administration relinquished the traditional U.S. role in supervising policy for the global Internet. The eyes glaze over, after all, at the profusion of acronyms and the allusions to obscure functions in uninteresting federal agencies. When the U.S. Department of Commerce terminated its exclusive policy relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the tech world was aflutter, but the event seemed to have no impact on the average American’s interactions with the Web.
That is going to change. ICANN is now supervised by an international body, the Government Advisory Council, in which the U.S. has no veto or even any institutionalized leadership role. We have voting representation in the body today, and some unique legacy influence, but there is no guarantee we will always have that. In the planned restructuring of ICANN’s governing board, the U.S. faces being relegated to a defined region of the globe in which we will be one of dozens of European and North American nations vying for the region’s five voting slots. Meanwhile, another newly defined “Arab States” region will bestow five voting slots on a bloc whose membership is, in effect, the Arab League.
The Arab League has already achieved policy triumphs in ICANN deliberations, as summarized in December at the Lawfare Project website. The record is unpromising: if Western governments can’t hang tough on some of the very basic concepts they have waffled on, there is reason to doubt their performance in other matters. We can have no doubts, however, about the likelihood of the Arab states arguing for censorship and illiberality in Internet policy.
Their region contains a number of the nations perennially identified by watchdog groups as the most hostile to Internet freedom, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Algeria, and Tunisia. (Reporters without Borders and the Global Integrity Report issue regular assessments.) One concern is the ongoing project of the Islamic nations to criminalize criticism of Islam, a key element of the bloc’s agenda in the Durban conference series sponsored by the UN. But blogger Daniel Greenfield also points out that domain names like JihadWatch.org and TheReligionofPeace.com could well be prohibited under Arab-state rules, along with their website content. Indeed, Israel’s national “top level domain” — .il — could be eliminated entirely by a voting bloc on the ICANN board. Read More
Rami G. Khouri, writing in the Daily Star in Lebanon, offers a tour d’horizon of the “modern Arab state” — the 22 members of the Arab League:
We also have broken states (Somalia), states that disappeared and/or returned (Kuwait, South Yemen), security-dominated states (Tunisia, Syria, Baathist Iraq under Saddam Hussein), erratic states (Libya), pirate states (Somalia), vulnerable states (Lebanon, Palestine), privatized states in the hands of small ruling elites (most Arab states), states that carry a specific family’s name (Saudi Arabia, Jordan), tribal states (Yemen, Oman), mini-states (Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain), occupied states (Palestine, Iraq to an extent), and various degrees of client and proxy states, rogue states, gangster states, and others that defy description.
Khouri has a succinct description of what is missing from the above list:
Not a single Arab country can say with any certainty that the configuration of the state, the policies and values of the government, or the perpetuation of the incumbent ruling elite have been validated by the citizenry through any kind of credible, transparent, and accountable political process.
Well, there’s one — Iraq, which since 2005 has had successive elections whose outcomes were not preordained, involving a citizenry willing to risk their lives each time to go to the polls. A representative government replacing the most horrific Arab dictator in the region is a historic achievement — even if a fragile one, all the more remarkable in light of Khouri’s description of the other Arab states.
The “state” of “Palestine,” on the other hand, has been a failed one even before it was formed. It has rejected three formal offers of a state in the last decade. Half the putative state is occupied by an Iranian proxy pledged to destroy its neighbor. The other half lacks even the pretense of an elected government: its “president” is currently in the sixth year of his four-year term; its “prime minister” is an unelected appointee chosen by the holdover president; its funding comes primarily from the U.S., the EU, and Japan, not the 21 Arab states that supposedly consider it an urgent priority.
The Obama administration believes our strategic objectives should be to (1) withdraw from Iraq next year, and (2) form a Palestinian state as soon as possible. The first goal puts at risk the one Arab state on Khouri’s list with a representative government; the second seeks to add a 22nd Arab state on the unsupported assumption that it will live in peace with itself and its neighbors, but Khouri’s list suggests that the likely outcome would be otherwise.
Andrew Roberts, Britain’s distinguished historian, has an important front-page article in the Jewish Press, entitled “Israel’s Fair-Weather British Friends” – a survey of the history of British diplomatic betrayals and genteel anti-Semitism that should be read in its entirety.
Here’s a remarkable fact about the Queen’s travels, which are controlled by the British Foreign Office:
Though the queen has made over 250 official overseas visits to 129 different countries during her reign, neither she nor any other member of the British royal family has ever been to Israel on an official visit. …
But the Foreign Office has somehow managed to find the time over the years to send the queen on state visits to Libya, Iran, Sudan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey. So it can’t have been that she wasn’t in the area.
Perhaps Her Majesty hasn’t been on the throne long enough, at 57 years, for the Foreign Office to get around to allowing her to visit one of the only democracies in the Middle East.
Barack Obama has been in office for 56 fewer years than the Queen, but he did a remarkable amount of traveling last year – including three trips to Scandinavia alone (to make a pitch, receive a prize, and negotiate a non-binding agreement) — without visiting Israel. He went to Egypt to give a speech and to Saudi Arabia to make a bow, and to Turkey on another trip, so it couldn’t have been that he wasn’t in the area.
The absence of a trip to Israel was one of many signals he gave over the past year that he wanted to put daylight between the U.S. and Israel – something that did not go unnoticed across the political spectrum in Israel. Haaretz’s Yoel Marcus, one of the most liberal columnists in the country, argued that Obama should “come to Israel and declare here courageously, before the entire world, that our connection to this land began long before the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Holocaust; and that 4,000 years ago, Jews already stood on the ground where he is standing.” Aluf Benn, another prominent Haaretz columnist, used the op-ed page of the New York Times to urge Obama to come to Israel to talk directly to its citizens. Those pleas, made six months ago, produced no response.
Roberts observes that if Israel “decides preemptively to strike against [the Iranian] threat – as Nelson preemptively sank the Danish Fleet at Copenhagen and Churchill preemptively sank the Vichy Fleet at Oran – then it can expect nothing but condemnation from the British Foreign Office.” He advises Israel to ignore it — “because Britain has only ever really been at best a fair weather friend to Israel.”
Britain’s disregard for Israel is an historical embarrassment. The disregard by the American president is a matter of current importance. Israel struck preemptively the incipient nuclear program of Iraq in 1981 and that of Syria in 2007; it found itself required to strike preemptively against Egypt in 1967. If it finds itself in a position of having to strike preemptively again, it will be because of an American failure to deal with a problem that casts its shadow beyond Israel, aggravated by the signals of the president’s uncertain support of one of the very rare democracies in the Middle East.
The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reports that two organizations at Tehran University will host a May 26th conference on “Israel’s End” in order to coincide with “the sad 60th anniversary of Palestine’s occupation by the Zionists.”
Here’s the IRNA:
The guests of the conference that would be attended by Iranian and foreign students of universities in Tehran will be intellectuals and university professors from Egypt, Venezuela, Morocco, Lebanon, Indonesia, the United States, Pakistan, Argentina, India, Iraq, Syria, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, France, Tunisia, and a number of other countries.
In March, the Justice-Seeking Student Movement, one of groups organizing the upcoming confab, offered a bounty of more than $1 million for the assassination of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Mossad director Meir Dagan, and military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.
What kind of student activist group has a cool million laying around in a mercenary fund? The kind under the guidance of the “Council for Spreading Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Thoughts.” Yes, that is a real, government-organized council. And yes, the Justice-Seeking Student Movement is under their direct influence. So, the May 26th international conference on the liquidation of Israel is, in its turn, an Ahmadinejad-sponsored event. It’s hard to say whether or not IRNA’s claim of U.S. attendees is genuine–but there’s little reason to doubt that some American academics would jump at this golden opportunity.
My CONTENTIONS colleague Abe Greenwald takes a gloomy view of a new Gallup survey that shows 93 percent of the world’s Muslims are moderates. “We need to find out from one billion rational human beings why they largely refuse to stand up for humanity and dignity instead of cowering in the face of fascist thugs,” he wrote.
First of all, I’d like to agree with Abe’s point that even this sunny survey suggests we still have a serious problem. If seven percent of the world’s Muslims are radical, we’re talking about 91 million people. That’s 65 times the population of Gaza, and three and a half times the size of Iraq. One Gaza is headache enough, and it only took 19 individuals to destroy the World Trade Center, punch a hole in the Pentagon, and kill 3,000 people.
Some of the 93 percent supermajority support militia parties such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the West Bank’s Fatah. So while they may be religious moderates, they certainly aren’t politically moderate.
I’m less inclined than Abe to give the remaining Muslims — aside from secular terror-supporters — too hard a time. I work in the Middle East, and I used to live there. I meet moderate Muslims every day who detest al Qaeda and their non-violent Wahhabi counterparts. I know they’re the overwhelming majority, and a significant number are hardly inert in the face of fascists.
More than one fourth of the population of Lebanon demonstrated in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on March 14, 2005, and stood against the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis that has been sabotaging their country for decades. When I lived in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Beirut, the overwhelming majority of my neighbors belonged to that movement. The international media gave them lots of exposure, but moderate, liberal, secular, and mainstream conservative Muslims elsewhere rarely get any coverage. They are almost invisible from a distance, but it isn’t their fault.
Journalists tend to ignore moderate Muslims, not because of liberal bias or racism, but because sensationalism sells. At least they think that’s what sells.
And reporters often assume extremists are mainstream and “authentic” when they are not. Somehow, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been designated the voice of American Muslims. But CAIR is, frankly, an Islamic wingnut organization with a minuscule membership that has declined 90 percent since September 11, 2001. (More people read my medium-sized blog every day than are members of CAIR.)
The coalition of Islamist parties in Pakistan got three percent of the vote in the recent election. Pakistan’s radicals have made a real mess of the place, but they can’t get any more traction at the polls than Ralph Nader can manage in the United States.
Riots in the wake of the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad was one of the most pathetic “activist” spectacles I’ve ever seen, but the press coverage blew the whole thing way out of proportion. The same gaggle of the perpetually outraged have been photographed over and over again, like the bussed-in and coerced Saddam Hussein “supporters” at rallies in the old Iraq who vanished the instant television cameras stopped rolling. Take a look at the excellent 2003 film Live from Baghdad, written by CNN producer Robert Weiner, and you will see a dramatization of this stunt for yourself.
Last July in Slate Christopher Hitchens busted his colleagues. “I have actually seen some of these demonstrations,” he wrote, “most recently in Islamabad, and all I would do if I were a news editor is ask my camera team to take several steps back from the shot. We could then see a few dozen gesticulating men (very few women for some reason), their mustaches writhing as they scatter lighter fluid on a book or a flag or a hastily made effigy. Around them, a two-deep encirclement of camera crews. When the lights are turned off, the little gang disperses. And you may have noticed that the camera is always steady and in close-up on the flames, which it wouldn’t be if there was a big, surging mob involved.”
Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has been quoted in tens of thousands of articles, but hardly any journalists have ever mentioned, let alone profiled, Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini, the liberal Lebanese cleric who outranks Nasrallah in the Shia religious hierarchy and is an implacable foe of both Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Every suicide and car bomber in Iraq gets at least a passing mention in newspapers all over the world while far fewer reporters have ever told their readers about the extraordinary anti-jihadist convulsion that swept the entire populations of Fallujah and Ramadi last year.
Almost no mention is given to the Kurds of Iraq who are just as Islamic as the Arabs in that country, and who purged Islamists root and branch from every inch of their autonomous region. “We will shoot them or break their bones on sight,” one Kurdish government official told me. More people have been murdered by Islamists in Spain than in their region of Iraq in the last five years. Such people can hardly be thought of as passive.
Let us also not forget the mass demonstrations and street battles with government thugs that have been ongoing all over Iran for several years now.
There is, I suppose, a dim awareness that the world’s newest country – Kosovo – has a Muslim majority. But who knows that the Kosovar Albanians are perhaps the most staunchly pro-American people in all of Europe, that they chose the Catholic Mother Theresa as their national symbol, that there was a cultural-wide protection of Jews during the Holocaust? Their leaders told Wahhabi officials from Saudi Arabia to get stuffed when help was offered during their war with the genocidal Milosovic regime in Belgrade.
Radical Islamists are more densely found in parts of the Arab world than most other places, but Arab countries as diverse as Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates are nearly Islamist-free. “Nothing Exploded in Tunis or Dubai Today” isn’t a headline, but I think it’s safe to infer from the utter dearth of sensationalist stories from such places that radical Islamism there isn’t much of a problem. It isn’t exactly clear to me what more the people in those countries ought to be doing. I have met hundreds of brave Iraqis who joined the police force and the army so they can pick up rifles and face the Islamists, but the moderate Muslims of countries such as Turkey, Kazakhstan, Mali, and Oman have few resident radicals to stand up against.
There certainly were radicals in Algeria. 150,000 people were killed there during the Salafist insurgency during the 1990s, and the government, military, police, and civilian watch groups have since all but annihilated the jihadists.
The world could use more moderate Muslims who push back hard against the Islamists, but huge numbers already do wherever it is necessary and possible. So far with the exception of Gaza, mainstream Muslims everywhere in the world risk arrest, torture, and death while resisting Islamist governments and insurgencies whenever they arise.
At one level Max is perfectly right: every war is sui generis and comparisons between them are bound to distort or ignore important differences. Iraq in 2007 is not Algeria in 1957, or even Vietnam in 1967. Yet the sequence of shifts in tactics in combating a terrorist insurgency, and the interplay between the military and political fronts, seem to me strikingly similar. Hence my article, and hence the lessons to be learned from how the French managed to win on the battlefield but lose at home.
All the same, I think Max may be over-stressing some of the differences between Iraq and Algeria. For starters, I’m not sure whether describing the FLN guerrillas of the 1950′s as “nationalists” or “secularists” in contrast to today’s al Qaeda makes sense. In fact, our recent experience with al Qaeda figures like Zarqawi sheds a lot of light on what made men like Ben Bella and Boumedienne and Belkacem Krim really tick. Essentially, they were power-hungry nihilists willing to use any ideological excuse in order to pull down the existing order and grab power for themselves and their followers. In the 1940′s, they looked to Jerusalem’s Mufti and the Nazis for inspiration; in the 50′s, they mouthed pan-Arabist slogans in order to get support from Egypt and Tunisia. Yet once in power, the different factions within the FLN turned on each other; and the ultimate winner, Boumedienne, proceeded to declare Algeria an Islamic state and to punish women for not wearing the veil!
Nor was the FLN any less inchoate or disorganized than today’s Iraqi insurgency, especially in Algeria’s rural areas, where Galula had to develop his tactics. It certainly followed the same pattern, with the murder of moderates and with a handful of committed terrorists using family and clan connections to intimidate an entire village or neighborhood into supporting (or at least acquiescing to) their attacks on government forces.