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Posts Tagged ‘Americans’

A pair of instances recently reminded me how both sides- the “West” (more specifically, the United States) and the Muslim World- have engaged in so little self-reflection since the events of 9/11.  It is much easier to project outward than to take a hard look at your own society.  Problems are no longer yours when you can successfully argue that they come from some outside force.  For politicians and pundits, the temptation is too great.

This kind of gamesmanship has approached the truly absurd in the Muslim world.  On Friday a Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan was ripped apart by a triple suicide bombing.  As I have written before, Sufism is the lighter side of Islam- a moderate force whose greater tolerance for things like other faiths and female emancipation has angered Muslim extremists.  It’s long standing traditions and practices across the Muslim world are the most direct, organic challenge to those who would spread the lie- that early Islam’s core strength was its angry, unforgiving unity and purity.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Islam’s original spread in the 7th and 8th centuries was indeed aided by the sword, but more important in its ascendancy was its acceptance of other cultures, faiths and its rational discourse on everything from trade to science.  The Christian world, caught in an orgy of religious violence, greed and superstition, could not compete.

How far has Muslim civilization fallen?  How completely have the two sides exchanged places, like a pair of reflections in the same mirror?  After the Lahore attack, demonstrations blaming the United States for the carnage raged across Pakistan.  Normally sane people reasoned that extremists wouldn’t have attacked the shrine if the Pakistani government wasn’t in bed with America.  In the rush to anger, the sick individuals who actually planned and executed the operation seemed to have been all but forgotten.

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Rumors were rife last week of a back room bargain between Iran and the United States for the release of the three Americans who “strayed” into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan last July.  Here’s a few reasons why its a bad idea:

  1. We Cant Betray Iran’s Great Hope: Deal-making with the mullahs sends the wrong message to the most hopeful force for organic, positive change in Iran in 30 years: the Iranian reform movement.   Since the fraudulent elections of last summer, brave Iranians have been rounded up, beaten, murdered, raped, and tortured- far worse than the mullahs would dare against any American in Iranian custody.  Now, we want release agents of this same repressive regime that we have captured in Iraq in exchange for the release of the three Americans?  So they can go back to Iran and join the feeding frenzy against innocents agitating for basic rights?  This would be a serious slap in the face to the region’s most dynamic freedom movement.  The subtext of the message would read: Our citizens, even the ones stupid enough to enter your country illegally, are more important than your freedoms.
  2. Don’t Reward Stupidity, Even When Its American Made: It’s tough to feel sorry for the three Americans who are now in Iranian custody after a “hiking trip gone bad”.  Most people, when they have a craving for mountain air, go to Colorado or Nepal.  Few think of the volatile, mine-laced region between Kurdistan and Iran.  What were these three thinking undertaking such an irresponsible act?  No one goes to Iraq these days for fresh air.  One can only assume they were trying to get into Iran for their own reasons back at the height of the protests in July: to witness the events first-hand and write a book about it.  There can be no other logical conclusion.  If that is the case, some more time in Evin prison might do some good.  They will certainly think twice before reckless adventure again.

It’s hard not to empathize with any fellow Americans held against their will anywhere in the world.  I think particularly of their mothers- recently allowed to visit them in Iran- and how much anguish this is causing them.  But what about Iranian mothers?  Don’t they deserve our compassion as well? Many have not seen their sons or daughters in years, some still do not even know if they are alive or dead.  They didn’t stupidly and irresponsibly cross a volatile border into a hostile country with no rule of law in search of blind adventure.  All they want are things that we take for granted every day- the right to wear what they want, say what they want, vote for who they want.

The future of Iran and its people is more important than a few rash kids seeking their 15 minutes of fame.  When they knowingly enter a post-conflict area between volatile nations, attempt to cross an international border illegally, then they cannot expect a deal for their return.

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One wonders what would have happened if the Times Square car bomb attempt had occurred in Phoenix instead of the teeming, diverse neighborhoods of NYC.  What if the street vendors who tipped off police with vital information that eventually led to Faisal Shahzad’s capture (by his shoe laces) were Latino instead of African-American?  Given Arizona’s new draconian anti-immigrant law, would they have hesitated to come forward?  Would Faisal Shahzad be melting into the no-man’s land of North Waziristan as I write this, reuniting with his patrons to try and kill Americans again?

Our enemies exploit the relative openness of our society to infiltrate and attack us.  They target the loop holes in our legal system to wriggle out of our grasp when they are captured.  They know that unlike their own societies, we are a nation of laws, and that there will inevitably be cracks in the system.  Should we change?  Should we become less open, less welcoming to the immigrant tapestry that has been the life blood of this country since its birth?  Should we take away the fundamental rights of certain individuals because of their ideology or intent?  Is public safety more important than the principles that echo to the world how our vision differs from the extremist one?   Finding the right balance is a tricky tightrope.

Some of those who come to these shores from somewhere else have an adverse reaction to the society we have built here.  Caught between their native culture and a new land, they begin to unravel.  It began with Sayyid Qutub, perhaps the grandfather of the modern jihadist, in 1948.  His two years here convinced him that American society clearly lacked the moral fiber of his native Egypt, and upon his return he began to preach violence.  But these people are the infinitesimal exception compared to the vast multitudes who have replenished the vibrancy of America over the centuries.  Anyone can be a crackpot and find a group or an ideology to justify their neurosis.  There are apple pie Americans in Michigan who justify bloody murder and call it justice.  Belief in Jesus (or Muhammad) does not absolve them.

We will need our immigrants more than ever now, legal and otherwise.  They are young and hard working compared to those who complain about them while at the same time jealously guarding the entitlements that have begun to bankrupt us.  Our Muslim minorities in particular are perhaps the key to victory in the long war against extremism.  The war that won’t be won with smart bombs and military tribunals.  They are the bridge between Western civilization and the Islamic world.  Those who have found a balance between their traditions and a new life and see no contradictions between embracing both.  This realization- not by leaders or generals, but by everyday people- will indeed save lives.  It cools the cauldron where extremism simmers.  It is not time to retreat behind barricades but rather to keep the gateways to our communities as wide open as ever.

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Obama’s nuclear dream seems nice and perhaps in another dimension of reality (paradoxically called Fantasy Land), achievable.  Down here on earth, nations will never give up nuclear capability once they have it because they will never know if their adversaries will develop it today or some time in the future.  (They don’t even know who their adversaries will be sometime in the future).  It is hard to believe that even the occasional anomaly that has publicly disavowed its nuclear weapons program, such as South Africa, has not privately retained the capability just in case.  This is the reality of our international system- beyond the niceties of diplomatic photo-ops, consensus and “free” trade, we still operate in a state of nature where threats must be confronted or deterred.

So lets talk about what this Nuclear Summit, with all of its accompanying motorcades and DC traffic jams, is really about.  Iran is developing the bomb.  Sanctions against the mullahs haven’t worked since their inception 30 years ago.  Negotiations are a maze of prevarication, delay, and hearsay.  Did we expect anything different?  Iran looks at North Korea and learns a valuable lesson: “even if we get that bad (and we wont), as long as we have the bomb they will take us seriously, they will hesitate to take us on because they will always stand to lose more.”  Again, nations don’t willingly give up the instruments of power.  They must be compelled to give them up, by realizing that it is more costly not to.

Hence, Obama’s Nuclear Summit, geared entirely towards increasing the costs to Iran of continuing its nuclear program.  How?  By showing the world, and in particular the two great powers most reluctant to join the embargo against Iran- China and Russia- that America is serious about nuclear proliferation and is taking concrete steps, both domestically and globally, to combat it.   Hence the intensely publicized timeline leading up to and during the Summit: the Nuclear Posture Review concluding that America would not invest in a new generation of warheads and would not use nukes against a non-nuclear threat, the new START reductions agreed with Russia, Ukraine’s unilateral relinquishment of its nuclear stock, a strongly worded suggestion to Benyamin Netanyahu to stay home in Israel and not attend the Summit.

A strongly worded suggestion to Benyamin Netanyahu to stay home in Israel and not attend the Summit?  Is this part of the non-nuclear campaign against Iran?  Well, yes.  America cannot command world public opinion against a nuclear Iran when its closest ally- a nation that has for 30 years thumbed its nose at every international convention against nuclear proliferation and does not even admit that it has them- is the all too visible elephant in the room.

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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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That most rare and unusual of incidents in our political system has recently occurred: the U.S. military has publicly entered the fray on the political calculus of a foreign policy issue.  General David Petraeus, CENTCOM commander, the mastermind of the Iraq surge and the most celebrated soldier of America’s recent history, has spoken: our relationship with Israel is hurting us; it makes us look weak and beholden to a foreign government; it allows our enemies to whip up anti-Americanism and erodes popular support, alliances and our overall military posture.  What he didn’t say explicitly was inferred: Israeli leaders, their intransigence on the peace process, their treatment of the Palestinians, is costing American lives.

Having met the soft-spoken, thoughtful general in Iraq, I don’t think David Petraeus is anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, although I’m sure that accusation has already been leveled against him by those who would protect Israeli interests at all costs.  Like any military man, I think he cares first and foremost about anything that would inhibit him from doing his duty: protecting American lives and American security.  Most military men are risk averse and do not wade lightly into the uncertain ground of politics. They demand of themselves what they demand from their soldiers: to remain within a clearly defined chain of command and do their jobs.  That Petraeus has made the calculation to break with this tradition tells us that the problem is a serious one.

But we’ve known this for some time, haven’t we, if we had bothered to look closely at the entire issue dispassionately.  We’ve known that inside Israel (and indeed around the world) there are people who truly believe that the entire “Holy Land”- both Israel proper and the Palestinian Territories- has been bequeathed by God to the Jewish people.  Every country has its own extremists, that is nothing new or different.  (Let’s call them what they are; we don’t mince words when we talk about Islamic or Christian or Hindu extremists.)  The distinction here is that these extremists are part of the governing coalition headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu that runs Israel. Their efforts to block reconciliation and peace at all costs in nothing new.  This constituency has been actively nurtured for decades with funding, support and preferential treatment by the Israeli government itself (as well as numerous charity groups, many of them based in the United States).  As Roger Cohen of the New York Times notes in his excellent essay, in 1990 there were 78,000 Israeli settlers on land that the UN recognized as Palestinian in 1948 when TWO nations, Israel and Palestine, were created.  Today there are 300,000 settlers.

Given this context, rarely talked about in the American media, is it surprising that the Israeli government is not serious about peace?  Is it so hard to imagine that they do not want to talk about the final contours of a Palestinian state at the same time that they are building homes and settling people within its (eventual) borders?  Is it surprising when the Bin Ladens of the world highlight settler paramilitary groups (backed by the Israeli army and their American-made weapons) and their violence and humiliation of Palestinians in their broadcasted tirades?  This turns the rational behind the American War on Terror on its head for most moderate Muslims: they are smart enough to see a glaring hypocrisy between America’s call to resist religiously inspired violence of the Islamic variety while America itself blindly supports that same violence by another religion.

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Iran’s cunning leadership has effectively divided the major powers of the world between those willing to engage with it and others who seek to contain or even obliterate it.  Without unity and leadership among these various nations, the idea of outside actors influencing real change in Iranian behavior is dead on arrival.  Iranians themselves are no more united on how they view Iran and its government.  Even within families sitting down for a meal or a cup of amber Persian tea, casual banter often turns emotional and contentious.  This is understandable.  There are few nations in the world, let alone the stagnant Middle East, that have experienced not one, but two popular revolutions in the span of a century (1905 and 1979).  Upheaval on this scale uproots lives and shatters families.  With a proud people such as the Persians and their long history of empire and high culture, the fallout from loss becomes even more acute.

While most Iranians have no love for the current regime, they have widely varying opinions on how to change the system and what should replace it.  Many Iranians, particularly the well-off of a certain age, embellish the old days under the Shah as a golden era when Iran was a model of sophistication and at peace with the world.  Other Iranians are more critical of the past or see sinister players such as America or Israel sabotaging Iranian self-determination at every pivotal point. Getting Iranians, particularly Iranians living outside Iran, to come together is no easy task.  But it could be the key to meaningful change in Iran.

You might be surprised at some of the numbers when it comes to the Iranian diaspora.  Estimated at 3 million strong worldwide, the largest concentration is in the United States, with over a million.  Other large communities exist in the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Germany, the UK and Sweden, to name a few.  Even a sizable community of 48,000 Persian Jews live in Israel.  The Iranian diaspora is one of the most educated, professionally successful groups in the world, worth an astounding $1.3 trillion by one estimate.  This is what happens when violent revolution forces the business elite and professional classes of a large, resource rich economy into exile.  In America and Europe in particular, Iranians have penetrated their adopted societies at every level of industry, academics and government.  While they are content to remain and contribute to their new homes, most Iranians continue to have a strong emotional and cultural connection to their homeland.

This begs the question- why aren’t we doing more to harness this group to agitate for positive change within Iran?  They have the resources, the connections, and the motivation to make an impact.  They want to see their country restored, to see it prosper again and become an integral member of the international community.  They want the same freedoms for Iranians inside Iran that they themselves have enjoyed in the societies they have become a part of.

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$1.05 trillion already appropriated by Congress.  Billions more on the way to support the surge in Afghanistan and the drawdown in Iraq.  Over 5,300 American women and men dead.  Over 30,000 wounded, in Iraq alone.  Hundreds of thousands of others who will rely on government health care for the rest of their lives to cope with the mental issues and post traumatic stress of fighting a guerrilla war with a largely conventional military.  This does not include the millions of Iraqi and Afghan dead and displaced, the billions in damage to infrastructure and communities in both countries, the global shock to oil prices that precipitated and continued through the invasions and wreaked havoc on economies across the globe.

Here we have the costs of the shooting War on Terror over the last 9 years.  Of course, it does not include the billions of secret dollars spent on an array of intelligence agencies and the behemoth bureaucracy of homeland security.  Now, lets look at the other side of the ledger: what have we gained?  Neither Iraq or Afghanistan have emerged as the beacon of liberal democracy that our leaders have promised.  But let’s put that aside for a moment and be a bit more realistic, more calculating.  After all, no rational American can honestly believe that we invaded either of these countries to liberate their people and bestow freedom.  If that were true we would have liberated the Congo or Burma or Sudan long ago.  If that were true we wouldn’t have supported brutal dictators in places like Egypt, Pakistan, and until 1990, Iraq itself.

Let’s have an honest, wholly Machiavellian conversation devoid of patriotic rhetoric for once.  We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan because it was decided by our policy makers to be in our national interest to do so.  That’s what nation-states do- they act in their national interest.  The question is, after all the blood and treasure, has our national interest been furthered?  Nine years later, are Iraq and Afghanistan secure bastions of American influence or, at least, less under the influence of our adversaries?  Or, have our adversaries, particularly one adversary, capitalized more than we have on these changes we have wrought with precious lives and steel?

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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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