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Archive for the ‘elections’ Category

Jackson Diehl likes to talk about the futility of a dead Middle East peace process.  Like most opinion leaders in our American media, he blames this squarely on a divided Palestinian leadership and an Arab world rife with corrupt autocracies unwilling to compromise.   Now is not the time to push major initiatives, he argues.  Besides, he says, the plight of 4 million Palestinian civilians with no civic rights, increasingly herded into ghettos by Israeli authorities is just a sideshow in the long war on extremism.  The real problem is Arab corruption and tyranny.

I beg to differ.  Now is exactly the time for a peace push for these very same reasons Diehl highlights.  He and many thought leaders in our system see only obstacles when they should be outlining solutions.  Why is that?

Diehl talks about the corruption and repression of Arab states as the major, almost solitary source fueling the strength and vitality of extremist groups like Al Qaeda.  It is true that the excesses of regimes such as Mubarak’s in Egypt have driven many Muslims to radicalism.  It is no coincidence that Zawahiri was radicalized in an Egyptian prison.  That is only part of the equation of extremism, however.  Perhaps more damaging is something Diehl conveniently forgets to mention but which more and more former and current public officials, like Bill Clinton and General David Petraeus, are speaking up about: heavy handed Israeli policies against Palestinian civilians who are increasingly boxed in and without hope, opportunity, or the basic services that any citizen needs to live a normal life.  This all takes place on ground that the entire world, including the United States, considers occupied land.  There is no more fertile soil for hate and extremism.  And our enemies (and allies) alike have exploited it to the max to further their own agendas against us, deflecting attention from their very real transgressions against their own people at home.

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You wonder what Afghan president Hamid Karzai was thinking over the past several days as he unleashed a fusillade of vitriol against his primary benefactor, the United States.  His comments, such as “foreigners” were responsible for the presidential election fraud that declared him the outright winner, or that he was prepared to join the Taliban if he was continually pressured to reform, have caused even his fellow Afghans to reel in alarm.  Has the president become unhinged?

No, not really.  He is actually acting within the historical tradition rather than on the fringe.  Karzai’s diatribe is part of the sad litany of foreigner bashing that has been a time-honored tactic of Muslim leaders over the last several centuries, since the Western world eclipsed the Islamic in all things important.  When an embattled ruler needs to shore up his failing legitimacy, there is no subject that garners more domestic currency than pointing to the “infidel foreigners in our midst”.

The problem, in Karzai’s case, is that the foreigners are the source of his legitimacy- without their militaries, treasure, and UN imprimatur, Karzai would be another Najibullah, hanging from the rafters with his testicles in his mouth.   Perhaps just before that moment he will lament, as he has in the past, in the most self-serving of ways: “See.  The international community has abandoned us…”  Playing the blame game until the end.

This is the main difficulty with the local proxies we have cut deals with across the globe to prosecute our War on Terror in its various incarnations.  They invariable act more like mercenaries than accountable civil servants.  The Karzai government has systematically raped and pillaged its own people for the last decade- it is this that is the main source of the various local Afghan insurgencies that we group together and conveniently label the Taliban; they fight against bad governance first, infidels, second.

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On a hazy day in Baghdad in late Autumn 2004, a friend caught up to me as I was walking just outside the Republican Palace, back then the U.S. embassy complex.  He was a pretty senior guy on the Governance Team, the outfit that had organized the transfer of sovereignty a few months previous to an all-Iraqi transitional government headed by a caretaker Prime Minister named Ayad Allawi.  His team was currently putting the finishing touches on the plan for Iraq’s first general elections since Saddam’s ouster, slated for January.

We had always had an interesting rapport, this friend and I.  He was the incurable American optimist- forever believing that we were emancipating the Iraqi people, that we were enabling them to mold their own destiny.  (Let’s suspend judgment for a moment on the fact that he had conveniently forgotten that his lofty mission had nothing to do with the original intention for the invasion)  I was always a bit more pessimistic – unsure what forces we were unleashing, forever guarded against the hubris of trying to shape nations in this part of the world, where my father had been violently exiled 30 years ago from his homeland next door in Iran.

It was a time of measured optimism for all us in 2004 as we edged closer to completing the transition (at least, on paper).  This was well before the insurgency began to spiral out of control and Iraq teetered on the brink of civil war.   My friend was animated on that day in Baghdad.  He was in lecture mode, pointing his finger at my chest.  “This is for all those so-called Middle East experts who told us for so many years that the Arabs weren’t ready for democracy.  That it would take hundreds of years of ‘civil society development’.  It was all an excuse for perpetuate dictatorship.  The Iraqis ARE ready, today.”

Six years later, I’m still not sure what Iraqi democracy is going to look like.  I imagine my friend, wherever he is, isn’t sure either.  One painful irony is apparent –  we went to war to remove a Sunni dictator and the fervently nationalist, secular cult of personality he ruled Iraq with.  Now, 4,000 American lives, countless carnage and sunken treasure later, we celebrate the narrow ascendancy (once again) of a secular, nationalist, former Ba’ath party leader who draws his main support from the Sunni population.  This is Pyrrhic to say the least.

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In the latest news from Iraq, that forgotten battlefield where over 100,000 uniformed American men and women (and thousands of others without uniforms) are still stationed, the main Sunni political party has just withdrawn from next month’s national elections.  Their reason: A vetting panel headed by two Shi’ite politicians with close ties to Iran has disqualified over 500 candidates for dubious ties to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party.  The culprits: Ali al Lami, a guy who sends death squads to kill Sunnis and plants bombs targeting US GIs, and, surprise, surprise, our old friend, Ahmad Chalabi.

If you remember, once upon a time, Chalabi was the American darling, the guy who fed us the detailed (and doctored) intelligence on Saddam’s “imminent” threat to America that justified the 2003 invasion.  The guy who promised to spear-head a renewed, democratic Iraq that would stabilize a stagnating region and project freedom and democracy towards, among other countries, extremist Iran.  Now, it seems he is playing for the team he was originally recruited to fight against.  A country that cannot tolerate any dissent within its own borders and has steadily expanded its influence throughout the region since the American war machine removed the mullah’s two most virulent enemies: The Taliban and Saddam.

It wouldn’t have been too difficult to pinpoint the character flaws in a guy like Chalabi long ago- the incessant greed, the consummately feudal outlook to political power as merely a means to enrich oneself and grow more powerful; in essence, everything about Middle East leaders that needs changing.  Born into a family of carpet bagging courtiers to the old Iraqi monarchy (itself an artificial British transplant), Chalabi fled Iraq after the Ba’athist revolution and was the darling of the Jordanians before he was the darling of the Americans.  Then, the Jordanians found out he had defrauded thousands of their citizens through his Petra Bank pyramid scheme.  If it weren’t for the Jordanian royal family’s involvement (you guessed it, again, an artificial British transplant), Chalabi might have been lynched by a mob.  Instead, he went free.

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As Iran’s Summer of Outrage gives way to a sustained Winter of Discontent, those who predicted the protest movement would wither in the face of massive state repression are scrambling to re-evaluate.  Brave Iranians have not backed down, despite rape, murder, torture, and, most recently, indications of targeted killings.  On the contrary,  the bravado of the protest movement has only escalated as we have seen images of crowds taunting and surrounding regime thugs, pulling their helmets off and parading them in the streets.  A more subtle development and considerably more telling- the revolutionary ideology that propelled the mullahs to power in 1979 has been taken from them as increasingly the Green protest movement has appropriated the language and symbolism of political Islam to wage its civil disobedience campaign.  This has divided the ruling elite and turned the guardians of the state against one another.  Hard-liners on both sides of the divide have predictably asserted themselves, reducing any room for compromise.  Are we witnessing the end of the Islamic Republic?

It is certainly clear that things will never be the same between the state and the people in Iran.  As Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi affirms in a recent interview with Foreign Policy Magazine, its nonsense to think of the protest movement as a tiny group of educated elites in Tehran angry about a stolen election.  The discontent has spread from city to hinterland, from students in universities to those studying in religious seminaries.  It is no longer about an electoral debacle- this was only the spark that released pent up dissatisfaction.  Dissatisfaction with  the fundamental nature of the regime itself.

It is no longer a fanciful dream for ordinary Iranians to begin to imagine a different Iran, one where simple freedoms and full acceptance by the global community of nations are a reality.  But what will this new Iran look like?  And how will it act?  The answer is a bit more complicated than one might think.

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The shooting rampage at Fort Hood last week was indeed tragic and unfortunate.  No one should have to lose a family member in such circumstances.  What is equally disturbing, however, is the surprise exhibited by Americans around the country at these events.  Some may find that statement insensitive at a time when the events of last Thursday are still all too raw for many of us, but this is exactly the time and place to discuss a major issue that effects all of us and has been shoved under the rug for far too long.  To do otherwise would be down right irresponsible.

As a nation, we seem to be in perpetual denial about our actions as a country around the world, and then we go into some kind of pre-meditated shock when the consequences of those actions, however sick and twisted, come home to roost.  We are content to live in the bubble of our daily lives instead of contemplating the violence we facilitate thousands of miles away, wrapping ourselves in our ideals of freedom and dignity for all but knowing in the back of our minds that this is not how it works out on the ground.   This kind of behavior, it is sad to say, is the height of irresponsibility in a republic where every citizen needs to be constantly vigilant as to the actions of the representatives that we elect to govern prudently.

Over the last nine years alone, our country has spent over a trillion dollars prosecuting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Many brave young Americans have died.  Even more have been forever maimed, both physically and psychologically.  The “Global War on Terror” has swept up thousands more Arabs, Afghans, Pakistanis, Iranians, Uighurs, Chechens and multiple other nationalities.  Many of these people remain innocent even as they are still being held, without charge or any ability to face their accuser.  Many more have been tortured by America or by the autocratic regimes in the Middle East that America continues to support with billions in taxpayer dollars.  Well over a million innocent civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The overwhelming majority of these innocents have been of the Muslim faith.  That is the carnage of just the past 8 years.  Eight years.  For a good 30 years before this, America was regularly supporting, with unconditional aid and the latest American arms, the collective punishment by Israel of millions of Palestinian civilians.  That is why when Osama Bin Laden says “you kill our children, we will kill yours”, unfortunately, he has an audience.  Dictatorial and violent regimes, specifically in Pakistan and Egypt, were given billions in American dollars to maintain stability and project American power, most notably into Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s.  The actions of these states in support of and against fringe Muslim groups further radicalized a traditional Muslim class who have a great deal of pride in their faith and a long imperial history that they feel they must protect.

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Demonstrations and fisticuffs on the streets of Tehran have been commonplace sound bytes in the international news cycle for some time now since the scandalous June elections in Iran.  Here’s why today’s brawl between protesters and Iranian security forces is different: it comes on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

For 30 years, this day has been an occasion for the Islamic revolution to renew itself.  To recall with all the angry symbolism of stage-managed crowds and burning American flags the injustices of American puppet masters and their former puppet- the late Shah of Iran.  In 1979 revolutionary leaders proved that symbolism was more powerful than guns.  The Shah had all the guns back then.  But they couldn’t save him.  For the second time in the same century, an autocrat was forced to capitulate to a broad cross-section of Iranian society  brought together by a cause.  This in a region that is known for its military coups, not its popular movements.

Today in Iran the protest crowds are smaller.  People have been arrested and tortured.  Opposition newspapers and groups have been shut down.  The streets teem with paid thugs ready to bludgeon any dissent.  But the symbolism against the regime is palpable.   The fiery rhetoric of the Islamic revolution has been inverted and turned against the mullahs.  The night time rooftop chants of “God is Great” and “Death to the Dictator” were once reserved for the Shah and his infidel American patrons.  Now they are leveled at Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

Unfortunately, the carnage will continue.  Innocents will be beaten and killed.  People will disappear in the night.  Those who call for basic freedoms will be muzzled.  But the Iranian people have taken something valuable from the leaders of the Islamic revolution on this day- the day that Iran remembers its rage against the West.  They have taken the engine of that rage, the fundamental Shia Islamic value of fighting injustice, and turned it back against its architects.   An inadequate resource against tanks and machine guns, some would say.   But that has been said before, in fact, twice before, in Iran. History has judged otherwise.  And now, it is only a matter of time.

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Over the weekend, Western news sources didn’t seem much interested in Mir Mousavi’s reaction to Ahmadinejad’s recent nuclear “deal” to ship Iranian uranium overseas, even before it began to unravel.   Why not?  The Green Revolution’s moderate poster boy has been the belle of the ball over the last 5 months any time analysts wanted to point to Iran’s liberal masses, the younger generation clamoring for Western freedoms and peaceful coexistence with the world.  Why ignore him now?  Perhaps it was because Mousavi’s comments about the nuclear deal weren’t so moderate: “The discussions in Geneva were really surprising and if the promises given (to the West) are realised then the hard work of thousands of scientists would be ruined.”

What?  Isn’t this guy supposed to be the friendlier face of Iran, the Great White Hope for an end to the brutality and dictatorship of the mullahs?  He may very well be.  But it turns out that Mousavi, like the millions of Iranians he represents, sees no contradiction in agitating for a free, globally integrated Iran at the same time as he fiercely protects Iran’s right to develop nuclear power and even nuclear weapons.

This Iranian psychology seems too complex for most analysts in the West to understand or illuminate.  That’s strange.  I can think of a few other liberal democracies whose citizens feel the same way- believing in freedom but staunchly protective of their inalienable right to nuclear technology.  (United States, Israel, India, Russia, all of Europe).  Do these countries support bad regimes and do bad things themselves from time to time?  Well, yes, they do.

I am NOT advocating here for an Iranian right to nuclear weapons.  What I am saying is that Mousavi’s comments tell us something critical about the Iranian people and how our own policy towards Iran has been poorly calibrated to harness their aspirations.  Something critical that pundits like Jackson Diehl in today’s Washington Post are either unwilling or unable to comprehend.  Why guys like Diehl ignore the fundamentals of the Iran problem and continue to hammer at one issue obsessively probably tell us more about the nature of our own society, our allies, and what can and cannot be debated freely.

As I have said before, if there is one issue that unites all proud Iranians, it is their right to nuclear technology.  If we want to exploit the deep divisions within the Iranian regime and society that thundered out into the open this summer, we cannot be fixated on the nuclear issue.  What we should be focusing in on is the nature of this regime, its brutality, and inability to provide good governance for its own people.

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I had a chance to sit down with a member of Congress recently to talk informally about foreign policy, the Muslim world, and the challenges that we face in places like  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Israel/Palestine.  I was immediately impressed with this Congressman’s breadth of knowledge and interest level, particularly since he was not serving on any committees devoted specifically to foreign policy or international relations.   You often hear only the crazy statements coming out of Congress these days, taken completely out of context as stand-alone sound bytes, and we tend to forget the brain power that exists within this institution.  I am as guilty as the next guy in criticizing our representatives for some of the decisions they make, motivated by base politics or hidden agendas.  But no governing body, democratic or otherwise, is perfect.

We talked generally about the near term decisions the U.S. needed to focus on across a number of nations and key issues in the Muslim world.  Whatever the topic, I found myself continually circling back to an argument that many, including myself, have made for many years and that has been best articulated in a recent book by Vali Nasr called Forces of Fortune.

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When multiple opinion leaders at one of the most prestigious and widely read American newspapers, emanating from the epicenter of global American power, successively get a major foreign policy topic so wrong and for such obviously nefarious reasons, you have to start worrying about the decrepid state of our civil society.

Side by side on Friday’s Washington Post Op-Ed page were columns by Michael Gerson and Charles Krauthammer that make one wonder if our decaying print media industry has any hope of survival at all.   Not with content like this.  Gerson begins with an allusion to Israel’s unilateral air strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981, painting the tense scene as the pilots are briefed that “the alternative is our destruction.”  Powerful words, crafted to invoke the emotion and high stakes of a moment 30 years ago and apply it willy-nilly to the nuclear threat from Iran today.  Manufacturing existential threats is a good way to justify violence.  We all remember Iraq.  Make it self defense and aggression doesn’t seem all that bad.  Until the day after.

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