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Archive for the ‘Hamas’ Category

“Barack Obama has now fired more cruise missiles than all other Nobel Peace Prize winners combined.”

It’s good for a laugh.  A cheap laugh.  The blogger who wrote this clearly doesn’t have any appreciation for the reality that confronts American presidents on a daily basis.  No doubt he or she also did not have any family in Benghazi last week, when a desert breeze stood between Qaddafi’s tank columns and the certain massacre of the city’s population.  Can anyone- Arab, European, American- honestly compare our intervention in Libya in 2011 to Iraq in 2003 or Afghanistan in 2001?  Really?  Have we become that morally unhinged?  Iraq and Afghanistan were all about an insecure, fearful United States lashing out at nations because it didn’t have the means to locate and punish the trans-national movement responsible for 9/11.  Libya is about a coalition of mainly Western powers reluctantly resorting to force to protect ordinary people from their own self-appointed leader.  Do NATO countries have their own, selfish reasons for bombing Libya?  Of course.  No nation in the history of nations acts out of pure altruism.  France and Italy are concerned about North African refugees overwhelming their shores.  Britain and America worry about Al Qaeda stepping into a vacuum.  Everyone worries about the free flow of oil and upward pressure on its price.  Interestingly, all these risks have the potential to grow exponentially if you go down the path of using force.  So, are we really being selfish and sinister by bombing Libya, protecting only our own interests, or are we, instead, ignoring them for a greater cause?  Hmmm.  It’s infinitely more complex and larger than this question alone.

There is something bigger here.  Say whatever you want about mission creep in Libya, international spinelessness in Bahrain, or heavy-handed government brutality in Syria, the paradigm has forever changed, and unambiguously for the better.  Since the 9/11 attacks, conflict between the “West” and the “Muslim world” had been framed, indeed defined, by two primary actors- one state and one non-state.  On one side, Western governments and their partner regimes (Israel and our Muslim allies) declared their war on terror.  They faced off largely against trans-national groups- Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hizbullah, Hamas- entities who by their very nature and ideology challenged the notion of the modern nation-state itself.  Conspicuously absent on either side of the battle lines was the most important actor of all: Muslim civil society, the entity who alone has the power to reinvigorate stagnating communities and provide a viable long-term solution to violent extremism.

No longer.  The Arab Street has emerged.  Unruly, leaderless, fickle- and yet, it has forced both sides to contend with it and can no longer be discounted derisively as “not ready for democracy” or “too chaotic and unknowable to be trusted”.   Both primary actors in the conflict have had to reconfigure their strategies to account for this new and potentially pivotal player, and the upshot so far is encouraging.  Western governments have for the most part aligned their policies more with the aspirations of the Street while trans-national actors seem too dumbfounded even to react.

Indeed, the hidden story in all of this, the elephant in the room that no one has talked about seriously: where is Al Qaeda?  Why the strange silence  during the region’s most volatile hour in decades?  Numerous self-styled experts have claimed that instability and chaos were this organization’s preferred milieu, creating the space for its operatives to challenge the legitimacy of national governments.  What better opportunity than the upheavals in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, where secular strongmen tied to American patronage have come under immense pressure.  Is it perhaps because Al Qaeda has nothing to say to the largely young, secular groups and moderate Islamists who have tipped the scales of the system?  What would they offer them?  Brutal caliphates like those that are going swimmingly well in Saudi Arabia and Iran?  Perhaps more important, these popular awakenings have relegated a key plank in the Al Qaeda public relations machine to history’s dustbin: the string of corrupt secular regimes controled by Western puppetmasters and dismissive of their own people.  The edifice of this once potent recruiting tool is now crumbling, and Al Qaeda does not know what to do.

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Gone are those halcyon days in the late 1970s, when Israeli intelligence carefully nurtured to life a fledgling political group that became the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.  “What?!”, you say?Yes.  This is the sad historical context conveniently omitted from any recent news article or analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Back in the ’70s, the radical Islamic movement now synonymous with terrorism and violence was the perfect creature for Israeli policy makers: it was an organic counter-weight to Israel’s main threat at the time- the secular Palestinian nationalism of the PLO; it divided and weakened Palestinian resistance, turning it inward upon itself; it promoted the uncompromising anti-Western, anti-modern, anti-peace ideology of Islamic fundamentalism, ensuring the status quo of Israeli occupation and expanding settlements.  In short, Hamas was a boon to Israeli efforts to dilute and derail Palestinian self-determination, estranging it from any global sympathy and support.  That is why in the 1970s thru to the 1980s and beyond, Israeli resources and cooperation secretly flowed to Hamas.

Today Hamas is a fierce enemy of the state of Israel.  But it is still very useful.  With the Palestinian leadership divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, there is little prospect of a serious push for peace and normalization.  The Israeli side can always fall back on the argument that no peace deal will be honored in practice anyway as long as Hamas rules even part of the Palestinian territories.  Hence, in the absence of any final agreement, the status quo of growing Israeli settlements and creeping Israeli sovereignty in the Palestine proper prevails.  This is largely the reason why Palestinian elections were allowed to take place in 2006, bringing Hamas to power.  And why the Bush administration collaborated with Israel in 2007, both urging Fatah to try and seize Gaza from Hamas by force.  The Israelis knew the attack would fail, resulting in a further divided and weakened Palestine in no position to negotiate final status.

In light of this background, the brutal Israeli commando raid on the international flotilla attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza last week makes Machiavellian sense.  A few innocents dead and injured pale in comparison to the long-term costs to Israel if the activists had gotten thru the Israeli blockade. They would have instantly internationalized the plight of the 1.5 million Gazans whose deprivation and suffering have become a cause celebre for many a jihadist interested in killing civilians (preferably Americans).  The homicidal reasoning goes something like this: if America is enabling Israel to slowly squeeze the life out of Palestinian children, well then, how is that different from an underwear bomber on a plane or a car bomb in Times Square?

The Gaza blockade is too important for Israel, not because it weakens Hamas, but because it strengthens it.  Increasingly desperate, isolated and angry Palestinians gravitate towards the radical cause that Hamas espouses.  This self-fulfilling, vicious cycle is one that Israeli leaders have been only too happy to sit back idly and watch take its bloody course for years.  After all, a destitute Gaza and a strong Hamas means a real chance for peace is far off.  And that gives a right-wing Israeli government time to continue the unilateral colonization that will make multiple areas of the West Bank untenable as parts of a future Palestinian state.  It seems Israel’s Hamas policy has not changed much since those heady days in the 1970s, when Israel helped create one of the world’s most potent terrorist organizations.

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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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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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“This Soil is Ours” reads the caption below the cartoon above, displayed during the annual Quds (Jerusalem) Day demonstrations in Iran, when the clerical regime likes to whip up support against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, diverting attention from very real problems at home.  This year, however, the Iranian people did not toe the government line, God bless them (it does not matter which God.  Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, Bah’ai.  Iran has worshipped all of them for longer than most and will continue to do so far into the future).  Notice there are two unveiled women above, side by side, one wearing the signature checkered Palestinian Kafiya shawl, the other draped in the green scarf of the Iranian opposition movement.  When the mullahs talk about unjust occupation these days, Iranians turn the rhetoric and vitriol inward, referring to their own country as a prime example.

As President Obama announces his escalation of the Afghan war, it is important for Americans to remember this simple truth.   You don’t need foreigners for a people to feel occupied, especially in a region littered with regimes that don’t derive their power from their own people.  Occupation is more than just a physical reality, it is a perception, and above all, a mindset.  In Afghanistan, the occupation will continue long after the last U.S soldier leaves.  This is because large swaths of Afghans do not consider the Karzai government their own.  There are a variety of reasons for this- ethnic cleavages, the complete absence of a functioning government for much of its recent history, the  wholesale corruption and rapacity of its officials who view election victory as license to prey upon their constituents.  We should set our expectations: this is not something that the U.S. experiment in Afghanistan will fix.  Afghans will need to solve this for themselves and it will take a lot longer than the typical Western fiscal or news cycle can provide for.

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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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