Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lebanon: Mideast Tipping Point

The many countries that feel that Lebanon is their playground are behaving with particular irresponsibility at this moment of historic importance for the Lebanese. It would come as no surprise if some of these countries were actually planning to start a war, should their favored factions fail to emerge victorious in the June 7 election, but even if this is not the case, the aggressive interference in Lebanon's internal affairs by so many rich and powerful outsiders risks yet another disaster for the long-mistreated Lebanese.

This election is a historic moment for Lebanon. Given a little outside encouragement for Lebanese democracy and stability, there is good reason to hope that Lebanese political actors can emerge from this election with a consensus to put the civil war firmly into the past by creating a political system in which all Lebanese factions can meaningfully participate and which will offer benefit to all Lebanese groups. One can make the argument that Hezbollah is evolving into a reformist democratic party and the other "parties," in reality feudal factions, are doing the same. One can make a much stronger argument that such an evolution would now be likely if the international political context were to be supportive. As a recent UN report described Lebanon's domestic situation:

Over the past six months, the domestic political and security situation in Lebanon has continued to improve markedly. The commitments made at Doha have been either fully implemented or meaningfully acted upon. Political divisions between the majority March 14th and opposition March 8th have not led to paralysis, although there have been occasional tensions. The President, Michel Sleiman, has worked tirelessly to forge national unity.

Even this rosy scenario contains the seeds of its own destruction because it still leaves the 400,000 Palestinian guests marginalized, mistreated, and hopeless. That enormous cancer on Lebanese society must be cured either by a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that would enable the Lebanese guests to return home or by their inclusion in Lebanese society.

Palestinian refugees aside, Lebanon now has a real opportunity, if it can pull national consensus on both power-sharing and resource-sharing out of a very corrupt (thanks to the foreign influence) electoral hat. Given the apparent moderation of all Lebanese parties at the moment, this rosy scenario seems conceivable.

Unfortunately, the international context is obstructing the democratic evolution that most Lebanese now seem to agree is Lebanon's only hope of avoiding a return to civil war. The behavior of outsiders is making the rosy scenario fade with each passing day. Cairo's vitriolic anti-Hezbollah campaign may be designed primarily to crush democratic sentiments at home and to warn off Iran, but it must surely be raising tensions in Lebanon as well. On top of that, we have nastily-timed anti-Hezbollah rumors in Der Spiegel (which Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak rushed to accept, without providing any evidence to support the allegations) and the rapidly emerging but still confusing Israeli spy scandal.

Then, there's the ineptness of Biden's threat to punish Lebanon if it does not vote according to Washington's preferences: diplomatic incompetence worthy of Rush Limbaugh or Dick Cheney.

So would the US cut off and turn its back on strategically important Lebanon if Hizballah wins? Its tough to say. It didn’t go so well when the US did it to Hamas, when they were democratically elected in Palestine. Doing so with Lebanon would be a major debacle, showing the world once again that the United States only supports democracy when its suits their interests.--source

In addition, Lebanon's best international friends seem to be conducting all sorts of vote-rigging, intent to the man on doing their best to crush every green shoot of democracy the instant it emerges from Lebanese political soil. And all this comes against the background of the highly provocative Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, acts any country on earth would consider acts of war, and suspiciously-timed Israeli military maneuvers the week before the election. According to the above-cited U.N. report, "Intrusions into Lebanese airspace by Israeli aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles continued in high numbers in violation of Lebanese sovereignty and Security Council resolutions." These illegal provocations are particularly ominous in light of Israeli claims that it, in effect, has the right to control Lebanon's ability to defend itself.

Lebanese army sources said on Saturday that the country's military had been placed 'on full alert,' ahead of large- scale Israeli army maneuvers expected to begin on Sunday.-- source

All this adds up to a post-election situation that will most likely be extremely tense and prone to misunderstanding and over-reaction. Indeed, a repeat of Israel's vicious summer 2006 invasion seems more likely than the rosy scenario of the broadening of Lebanon's fledging democracy to incorporate the poor Shi'a represented by Hezbollah and the evolution of all leading Lebanese political parties into trustworthy democratic forces. If Hezbollah emerges victorious in the face of such blatant foreign manipulation, its leaders will have difficulty restraining themselves. If Hezbollah loses, it will have difficulty controlling its anger at outside forces. Lebanon would be fully justified in shooting down Israeli jets violating its border; Israel might strike to prevent Lebanon from gaining such a capability, even if it did not want to start another war. Given the efforts of outsiders to villify whichever Lebanese factions they dislike, it would take a miracle to avoid an incident, but the reality is much worse.

The likelihood is high that Israel is planning to attack Lebanon should Hezbollah win:

  • the pessimists in Israel, and they are firmly in control of power, will surely see an opposition victory not as a sign of the evolution of Lebanon toward inclusion of the Shi'a poor in the political system and a step toward the "Lebanonization" of Hezbollah but as a victory for Iran requiring an Israel military response even though Hezbollah is only running a small number of candidates and is in a coalition with Christians;
  • Netanyahu needs some foreign adventure to fend off Washington and distract world attention to facilitate his continuing effort to absorb the West Bank;
  • after Israel's embarrassing failure to defeat Hezbollah in 2006 and failure to destroy Hamas in December 2008, Israeli militarists must surely be looking for an opportunity to send to Tehran a clear message of Israeli power and determination;
  • Netanyahu's determination to prevent U.S.-Iranian accommodation would be perfectly served by the outbreak of a convenient little war that Israel could then portray as evidence of "the Iranian threat" in order to radicalize politics in Washington and return Washington to a position of subservience to Israeli extremists.

Obama has an opportunity, should he be looking for it, to return the Mideast firmly into the era of subversion of democracy, proclivity of all sides to settle disputes through violence, and a general rise in radicalism. The situation that is developing in Lebanon would make such an outcome quite easy to achieve.

If, on the other hand, Obama happens to want a Mideast under the control of moderates, moving toward democracy, and resolving underlying conflicts, then he will need to think through much more carefully than he appears to have done so far the long-range implications of the behavior of the U.S. and its allies. Washington could treat a Hezbollah victory as the healthy incorporation of Lebanon's Shi'a into the political system and reward Hezbollah for its "democratic" behavior. Such a reaction by Washington would facilitate the victory the next week in Iran's presidential election of someone other than Ahmadinejad and, more importantly, would facilitate compromise with the U.S. by Iran's next administration. Such a reaction by Washington would also instantly lower tensions in the Levant and send a clear signal to Netanyahu that invading Lebanon will not be supported by Washington this time around.

Lebanon today is the Mideast's tipping point, and Obama has a clear choice to make: work for war or work for peace.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Israeli Illegal Settlement Facts

Amid all the propaganda about "unauthorized settlements" and "natural growth" coming from an expansionist Israeli regime determined (apparently) to subvert any move toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is worth noting the facts:

More than 280,000 Israelis live in the settlements, in addition to more than 2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. An additional 180,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital.

That's 460,000 illegal intruders who have stolen land from Palestinians, forced those Palestinians from their homes, and squatted on land to which they have no right: 460,000 people who need to return to their own country.

U.S. Economy: "A Narrow Window"

Care about whether or not Washington is facing up to the recession? Then you need to read Brooksley Born's assessment:

When I spoke out a decade ago about the dangers posed by the rapidly growing and unregulated over-the-counter derivatives market, I did not do so in expectation of award or praise. On the contrary, I was aware that powerful interests in the financial community were opposed to any examination of that market. Yet I spoke out because I felt a duty to let the public, the Congress and the other financial regulators know that that market endangered our financial stability and to make every effort I could to address that problem.

My voice was not popular. The financial markets had been expanding, innovation was thriving, and the country was prosperous. The financial services industry argued that markets had proven themselves to be self-regulating and that the role of government in market oversight and regulation should be reduced or eliminated.

All of us have now paid a large price for that fallacious argument. We are in the midst of the most significant financial crisis since the Great Depression, and regulatory gaps including the failure to regulate over-the-counter derivatives have played an important role in the crisis.

It is now critically important to identify and eliminate these regulatory gaps and to strengthen our financial regulatory structure. Without significant regulatory reform, our financial system will be exposed to continuing dangers and repeated crises.

No federal or state regulator has market oversight responsibilities or regulatory powers governing the over-the-counter derivatives market or indeed has even sufficient information to understand the market’s operations. The market is totally opaque and is now popularly referred to as “the dark market.” It is enormous -- the reported size of the market as of last June exceeded $680 trillion dollars of notional value, more than ten times the amount of the gross national product of all the countries in the world.

While over-the-counter derivatives have been justified as vehicles to manage financial risk, they have in practice spread and multiplied risk throughout the economy and caused great financial harm. They include the credit default swaps disastrously sold by AIG and many of the toxic assets held by our biggest banks. Warren Buffett has dubbed them “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

We now have a unique opportunity -- a narrow window of time -- to fashion and implement a comprehensive regulatory scheme for these instruments. Existing U.S. laws governing the futures and options markets provide a model for regulating the closely related instruments traded in the over-the-counter derivatives market. The new regulatory scheme should provide that the instruments must be traded on regulated derivatives exchanges and cleared by regulated derivatives clearing houses to the extent feasible. This would allow government oversight and enforcement efforts, insure price discovery, openness and transparency, reduce leverage and speculation, and limit counterparty risk. If any residual over-the-counter market is to be permitted, it must also be subject to robust federal regulation.

These measures would go far toward bringing this enormous and dangerous market under control. They must be adopted and implemented if we hope to avoid future financial crises caused by this market. Special interests in the financial services industry are beginning to advocate a return to business as usual and to argue against any need for serious reform. We have to muster the political will to overcome these special interests. If we fail now to take the remedial steps needed to close the regulatory gap, we will be haunted by our failure for years to come.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Extremists Feeding Off Each Other

Essay by former Israeli politician Yossi Sarid in Haartez:

"And the Holy One Blessed Be He rescues us from their hands," cited the president once again at the memorial service."

From their hands" - but also from our own hands, he rescues us from ourselves, from our disgraceful behavior. After all, without Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - a wicked and confused putz - and disgusting types like him, the international community, including our friends and allies, would have long since evicted us from the stolen lands on the other side of the Green Line. The world is tired of the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Were it not for the fact that Ahmadinejad opens his big, ugly mouth at every opportunity, he would not have forced the best-governed nations to unite around a gluttonous country that refuses to release its prey; had he not ridiculed the United Nations and its Human Rights Conference in Geneva, he would not have provided the speeches of Jerusalem and Birkenau with such a wealth of lofty cliches.

It's not at all bad to live in a world of evil. Evil purifies and excuses other evil, and sometimes evil is good for the Jews.

Israel & Iran: Peaceful or Warmongering Regimes?

Global debate rages over the true nature of the regimes in control of Israel and Iran: are these essentially peaceful but insecure regimes or are they extremist regimes looking for an opportunity to launch a war? Rhetoric and tactics on both sides can easily be interpreted as evidence of the latter. Each accuses the other of being evil incarnate, threatening the safety of the whole world.

To judge the issue, rather than starting from thoughtless assumptions about mad mullahs, Zionist conspiracies, or opponents who are 10 feet tall, one should take the following default position: all societies share certain concerns. Regimes--sometimes being composed of fairly small, regimented groups—may well vary considerably more than the societies they lead. Nevertheless, start with the assumption that regimes share the concerns of their societies. Then, and only then, look for unique features to explain behavior that cannot be explained on the basis of the default assumptions.

Much of the behavior of societies and the regimes that lead (or control) them is explicable in terms of the following rather obvious model: humans want security, independence, and influence. To what extent do these three general factors motivating human suffice to explain the foreign policy positions of the Israeli and Iranian regimes?

Ex. 1 Israeli Efforts to Undercut U.S.-Iranian Accommodation

Israel’s prime protector, the U.S., is trying to escape from the limitations of its former policy of intimidation and work out a much needed accommodation with Iran. Iran, meanwhile, is days away from a presidential election that could open the doors to an historic deal. On the other hand, Iran remains years away from gaining possession of the military means to pose an actual threat to Israel. Implemented with care, the accommodation Obama seeks would offer the hope of ending the threat of Iranian-Israeli conflict, exactly what Israel claims to want. So why does Israel’s regime choose this delicate moment, pregnant with possibilities, to sabotage U.S. policy?

Such an accommodation would enhance Israeli security and preserve its independence. Indeed, by minimizing the threat to Israel, accommodation with Iran could actually increase its independence: in a less confrontational Mideast, Israel would no longer be so dependent on U.S. military and economic subsidies. One could argue that any likely accommodation would somewhat reduce Israeli influence, since it would surely make Iran an accepted and significant player in Mideast affairs, ending Israeli hopes of having military control of the region. But Israel would still remain the regional superpower and would gain influence diplomatically because it would itself become more of an accepted player in regional affairs.

Something is missing. The model is useful in disconfirming the idea that all Israel wants is security, but clearly a factor omitted from the model needs to be identified: for some reason, it seems that the Netanyahu regime would find very distasteful a Mideast characterized by mutual accommodation, lowered tensions, declining utility of military force, and relative equality among leading countries competing through diplomatic and economic means. Why? Is not this the ideal situation for a small, ethnically distinct country?

The reason seems to be that the Iranian challenge to Israel is intimately linked to the nature of Israel. As long as Israel is a colonial power promoting the Zionist dream of an ethnically cleansed and much enlarged Jewish state, the region will be radicalized by the irresistible magnet of Palestinian frustration. That frustration both enrages sympathetic people everywhere and offers an excuse for any troublemaker who happens by. There will always be a leader of the anti-Greater Israel movement, be it nationalist Nasser, secular power politician Saddam, jihadi bin Laden, or a Shi’ite Iran puffing up its chest. The way to remove such a challenge is for Israel to remove the target on its own chest by reaching accommodation with the Palestinians.

A real U.S.-Iranian accommodation will cover many issues. Even on the nuclear issue, the obvious way forward is to establish a set of standards to be applied to all regional countries. Washington would undoubtedly find reassuring an Iranian willingness to allow unannounced IAEA inspections of any site without delay. If this were a regional standard applied to Israel as well so that it was not seen as discriminatory behavior toward Iran, it is quite possible that Iran would accept. One could list endless examples. The bottom line is that U.S.-Iranian accommodation will inevitably involve modifications of Israel’s behavior as well.

To the degree that any Israeli regime is committed to the expansionist vision of a religiously-pure Greater Israel, it will foment enmity. The explanation for Netanyahu’s efforts to sabotage U.S. efforts to reach accommodation with Iran the additional factor of ideology (omitted from the basic model outlined above): namely, his commitment to the Zionist dream of a Greater Israel.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Iranian Election: L'Etat, C'est Moi

The Iranian media today provided a fascinating window onto the Iranian presidential election campaign, noting:

With only weeks left to the June 12 polls, President Ahmadinejad said that his election rivals have resorted to lies, insults and exaggerations in their presidential campaigns to smear his image ahead of the elections.

"The baseless claims that some of the candidates make against the government are an insult to the people's intelligence," said Ahmadinejad.

He warned that he is running out of patience and is considering to take necessary action against their accusations. "If the insults to the nation continue, the government will reconsider its approach," he said.

President Ahmadinejad came under harsh criticism after a National Audit Office report, issued in February, revealed that more than one billion dollar of surplus oil revenues in the 2006-2007 budget had not been returned to the treasury.

So, from Iran's official media, we learn:

1) Ahmadinejad is under criticism;
2) Ahmadinejad is threatening to use his power as incumbent to interfere in his own country's campaign, in which he is a candidate;
3) the government has already officially criticized Ahmadinejad for a cool $1 billion in missing funds.

"M. Ahmadinejad, l'etat, ce n'est pas toi."

If Ahmadinejad plans to turn to dictatorship to preserve his hold on power, perhaps he should start by getting control of his own media, so when his own audit office criticizes him for corruption, the world won't find out. More seriously, while this Iranian media report may make Ahmadinejad look pretty bad, it makes the state of Iranian democracy look, in comparison with that in "advanced" countries, pretty good. I wonder if the other candidates will pick up on this media hint about Ahmadinejad's potential vulnerability.

Israel Sabotaging U.S. Policy on Iran, Palestine

Media reports, if read with care, expose Israeli tactics to sabotage U.S. policy on both Iran and Palestine-Israeli conflict:

An Israeli government delegation left for London for discussions with US officials on settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank and Iran's nuclear programme, officials said.

The move came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted that Israel would have to tear down unauthorised settlements in the West Bank in order to win US backing for its stance on arch-foe Iran.

What is happening beneath this innocent report?

Peace With Iran Does Not Justify Israeli Colonization of the West Bank.
First is the way in which the Iran issue and the Palestinian independence issue are being linked.
Yes, the two are in reality linked and must in practice be linked by Washington...but not like this. The correct linkage is that Israel's repression of Palestinians opens the door to Iranian interference in the region, creating needless tensions that may result in a regional nuclear war. At the moment this would be started by Israel, but one could imagine all sorts of future alternatives (e.g., some actor gets a Pakistani or North Korean bomb). Repression of Palestinians radicalizes regional politics and empowers regional extremists. Indeed, one might say it "justifies" regional extremism. How else but with extreme defensive measures should one respond to endless Israeli collective punishment of the whole Palestinian population? The way to move toward a more stable region in which Israelis (and others!) can live in peace and security is for Israel, the local superpower, to clean up its act. A does not guarantee B, but B guarantees the absence of A.

Israel, however, is working with great success (judging from the proliferation of media reports reflecting its distortions and judging from Washington's apparent inability to resist being trapped) to turn this linkage on its head and make it appear that Israel will make the concession (!) of sacrificing a handful of settlements in return for a U.S. promise to bully Iran. The point of progress on Palestine (even if this were progress, which it is not) is not to open the door for a war against Iran.

All Israeli Presence in the West Bank Is Illegal.
Second is the distortion of the settlements issue. An utterly spurious distinction is being slipped into the report between "unauthorized" and "authorized" settlements in the West Bank. The West Bank is part of what the U.N. in 1947 gave to the Palestinians. No Israeli habitation of or control over the West Bank is "authorized." All Israeli settlements in the West Bank are on land stolen from Palestinians and are illegal. The Greater Israel campaign of the Zionists (as distinct from other Jews who simply desired to live in Palestine or even in an Israeli state within its legal 1967 borders) is run as follows: Israelis are encouraged to move into Palestinian territory with their guns, form vigilante committees, and establish a presence. Eventually the Israeli government follows with its bulldozers and army (just as the British flag in the good old days of imperialism used to follow British traders and missionaries) and makes it all "authorized," forcing the Palestinian inhabitants to move into one of the local ghettos Israel reserves for them on the least attractive portions of West Bank land.

This distortion of the settlements issue is Netanyahu's way of saying, "We'll make a show of giving Palestinians a couple of villages in return for being allowed permanently to colonize all the best land on the West Bank, keep the Bantustan system, and keep the apartheid system of Israeli-only highways." This distortion of the settlements issue by Netanyahu of course makes inconceivable any real Palestinian liberty, and thus makes a mockery of Obama's public position.

The third issue of concern is the fact that the U.S. and Israel are meeting at all to discuss, at the same venue, Palestine and Iran. The mere existence of such an agenda combining the Palestinian and Iranian issues in a bilateral U.S.-Israeli meeting constitutes a huge Israeli victory that undermines U.S. freedom of action and makes all Obama's positive signals toward Iran appear insincere.

The Iraqi conflict is heating up. The Western position in Afghanistan is slipping. The new 2 million refugees in Pakistan in just the last month represent a huge defeat for the U.S. and victory for all extremists in the region. The last thing the U.S. needs is conflict with Iran. Someone needs to tell Obama that he is being manipulated.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Getting Serious about Nuclear Talks with Iran

Comments by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei on negotiating with Iran:

Q: Had the Bush administration been more flexible, do you think it could have had a deal to freeze the Iranian enrichment program in its experimental phases?

There is no way you are able to deny them the knowledge. But if they do not have the industrial capacity, they do not have weapons. It is as simple as that. I have seen the Iranians ready to accept putting a cap on their enrichment [program] in terms of tens of centrifuges, and then in terms of hundreds of centrifuges. But nobody even tried to engage them on these offers. Now Iran has 5,000 centrifuges. The line was, "Iran will buckle under pressure." But this issue has become so ingrained in the Iranian soul as a matter of national pride. They talk about their nuclear program as if they had gone to the moon. And they also understood—unfortunately, not wrongly—that if you have the know-how, you're still kosher within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And yet you are sending a message: I can do this; I have bought myself an insurance policy, and you don't want to mess with me.

Q: Tell me a little more about the Iranians' bargaining style.

The Iranians have always been extremely well briefed on the details. They know what they want. They are excellent on the strategic goals, excellent on waiting for the right price. I don't want to make them sound like superhumans; you do see a lot of infighting among them. And part of it is about who is going to get credit for finally breaking out of this 30 years of fighting and confrontation with the United States. Everybody is positioning himself to be the national hero who would finally put Iran back onto the world map as part of the mainstream. They are not like the stereotyped fanatics bent on destroying everybody around them. They are not.

I suspect that, as in other countries one could name, "everyone" is not trying to put Iran back in the mainstream, but that is not a point worth debating. The point is that many Iranian officials have this attitude, so perhaps we should encourage it. To say, "I promise to stop hitting you if you give me what I want," is not an effective negotiating stance unless, perhaps, you have total control over your victim. If Washington wants to make progress, its message should be, "What would you like in return for giving us what we want?"

Ahmadinejad is of course absolutely correct in saying that this should be negotiated within the IAEA and after Iran's election. Washington should have had the sense to insist on both those points itself.

That said, let's imagine how Washington might be able to approach Iran. "We deeply appreciate the statement of your leader that nuclear arms are immoral. We also agree that all signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty have the right to pursue nuclear knowledge and nuclear power. We nevertheless have certain concerns that we would like to put to rest. Perhaps you may have some concerns about U.S. intentions as well. Could you please describe to us both how you might alleviate our concerns about your nuclear intentions and how we might alleviate any concerns you may have about our intentions?"

In case the Iranians toss the ball back in the laps of the U.S. negotiators, Washington might, for starters, offer to set up a bilateral commission to discuss the issue of Israel.

Regional Emergence of Iran

Anyone who thinks that Israel's efforts to isolate Iran are working should take a look at this picture of Ahmadinejad and his two new best friends. Note that these two gentlemen whose hands he is so warmly holding are not "radicals" or "extremists" or "populists"...but U.S. lackeys...uh...allies!

Iranian Foreign Policy: A (Very) Short Course

We all have models of other countries. Even the professionals can't know everything; they must simplify.

What's your model of Iranian foreign policy?

Does your model help you to understand reality or just convince you that your initial prejudices are correct?

If you are a politician, you no doubt have at least two models of many things. For example, Netanyahu's publicly articulated model of Iran is: "Iran is the new Hitler!" Does he actually believe that? I seriously doubt it. Rather, he finds it a superb cover for continuing to absorb Palestine and a great way to keep the flow of U.S. military aid going strong. His real model of Iran is probably something like: "Thank God for Ahmadinejad and his big mouth; if he did not exist, I would have to invent him." Ahmadinejad's model of Netanyahu is about the same.

In an earlier post, I offered a model of Iranian foreign policy. Many readers may have found the article too wordy, but the model was pretty simple (that's the point of models). Here it is: Iranian foreign policy is explained by a desire for security, independence, and influence. Sounds like the model of most young people starting out on their careers, when you think about it. So, perhaps it is a reasonable model, but Iranian leaders obviously have other traits that the average American youth does not have (e.g., possibly a belief in their version of the "end of days"--the return of the Mahdi). So my model does not explain everything. If it did, it would no longer be simple and therefore would no longer be a very good model. In fact, the only model that can explain everything in the universe is...the universe itself.

Models have purposes: perhaps to illuminate, perhaps to trick. Think about the models people try to pawn off on you.

Monday, May 25, 2009

My Right to Deny Your Right

I reserve the right to attack my neighbor, who glared at me yesterday while I was oiling the barrel of my machine gun, which I only keep for self-defense. Anyway, it's not my machine gun; it was a gift from a superpower friend of my Aunt Nellie. I also reserve the right to accept any further gifts Aunt Nellie's superpower friend cares to offer me. And given the fact that my neighbor glared at me, it is obvious that my neighbor is unbalanced and might try to punch me at any moment, so I reserve the right to demand more machine guns from my superpower friend.

Come to think of it, my neighbor is bigger than me, so I reserve the right to demand that my superpower friend go kick down my neighbor's door and punch him in the nose before he gets the idea of jumping over the fence and punching me. Everyone has the right to defend themselves; everyone has the right to get their friends to defend them. Only an idiot waits for trouble. The fact that my neighbor glared at me proves his evil intent. As my wise old grandfather used to say, "Boy, take care of yourself. Folks will be out to get you. Don't let them. You are the salt of the earth, the apple of my eye. Take care of Number One: you are the chosen one."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Jordanian Option

Two-state solution unfeasible? Zionist expansion the road to endless war? What about the Jordanian option?

It may well be that the two-state solution has been overtaken by Israel's apartheid scheme for the West Bank and simply will not work. On the other hand, continuation of the Zionist plan for ethnic cleansing of Palestine and constant expansion of Israel may well be the road to insecurity for both Israelis and their neighbors, endless war, and the transformation of Israeli democracy (for Jews) into a garrison state dictatorship. An idealist might counter that a secular, multi-ethnic democracy in which Jews and Palestinians relearn the art of living together (something that actually occurred before WWII) is the solution. If you don't believe that the extremists of Hamas and the Zionist movement can be persuaded to accept such a compromise, there is still...the Jordanian option.

The problem with the two-state solution is the difficulty of finding room in the small land area available to construct a viable Palestinian state. Admittedly, there are also several additional problems. The whole nation-building process sounds a lot more feasible if Jordan, already half Palestinian, merges with the West Bank - not under its current leadership but as a genuine Arab democracy. Instead of two poor countries (Jordan and the new Palestine), there would be one country - and one that already has structure, armed forces, etc. Ambitious? Yes. But unlike the first three options, the Jordanian option sounds feasible. At least, it is worth a look.

A few people have actually begun to consider this idea. Richard Chesnoff has written a persuasive argument but omitted what to me is a critical point: only via union with Jordan are the Palestinians likely to have any immediate hope of being able to defend themselves against an Israeli state addicted to war. Perhaps settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute will transform Israel; after all, that would be one of its primary purposes. But "perhaps" will seem on day one of Palestinian independence, slim consolation. It is critically important to grant a new Palestinian state sufficient defensive capacity to reassure them. A demilitarized Palestinian state facing the Israeli superpower, which will no doubt contain many very angry extremist ex-settlers and many politicians very willing to exploit their anger, will be desperate for support. There is only one practical place from which a new Palestinian state might get such support: Iran.

Surely it must be obvious to everyone that setting up a Palestinian state bereft of friends and the ability to defend itself will only open the door to further Iranian-Israeli tensions and thus accomplish exactly the opposite of what Israel, the U.S., or the Palestinians would want. The first two obviously won't want to make Iran an even greater champion of Palestinian rights. But relying on militant Shi'ite power Iran would hardly be an appetizing road for religiously moderate, Sunni Palestinians either.

Israeli historian Michael Bar-Zohar has also advocated this idea and makes the important point that the kind of defenseless and impoverished rump state that seems to be on the minds of short-sighted (my word) politicians in Israel and Washington is highly likely to induce Palestinians to turn with a vengence on Jordan, since taking over Jordan will be the drop-dead obvious solution to everyone in Palestine. Much better to figure out a way to pull off such a deal by agreement and peacefully right up front.

How on earth might this be accomplished? Well, there are half a million Israelis to be moved out. That will take time. Simultaneously, with the wheels well greased by U.S. and Saudi taxpayers, one could imagine a slow process of offering Palestinians new homes in open Jordanian land. Perhaps some deal could even be achieved that would persuade Palestinians to sell certain territories to Israel in return for a generous quid pro quo. The point is simple: once you accept the concept of transforming the situation, detailed steps toward that transformation suddenly become visible...

There is a larger point here: the whole enterprise of creating a Palestinian state must not be just for show. It must be a real state, able to stand on its own outside of Israel's orbit, or the exercise will become a disaster, not just for Palestinians but for Israel as well.

Marc Lynch presents a dissenting view. I concur that the Jordanian option will mean the end of the kingdom. But this is not about whether or not a particular individual gets to be king. What does Lynch mean by "Jordan is bitterly opposed?" The pertinent question is not what certain politicians currently in office think. I suspect no poll of the whole Jordanian population on this subject exists. I suspect he is referring to the political crowd currently in charge. This is not about the politicians: they always prefer to be big frogs in a small pond. This is not about the king. That king has the option of making the most inspired decision of his life: giving up his kingship for the opportunity to create something new. All this definitely requires opening one's mind...

And then, there's the "Jordan option." Everyone I spoke to seemed highly agitated about and adamantly opposed to any suggestion of Jordan returning to the West Bank. Almost everyone thinks that the Israelis want Jordan to do this, and almost everyone says that Jordan is bitterly opposed. One of the officials went on at some length explaining that the idea was not being considered by Jordan, was not acceptable, was rejected, was a non-starter, was not on the table, would be refused if put on the table (and so on).

But nevertheless, talk of the Alternative Homeland (al-Watan al-Badil, "Jordan is Palestine") was everywhere - fueled by Gaza, Netanyahu, and fears for the future of the two-state solution. Most journalists and political commentators brought this up at the top of their list of concerns, that even though everybody in Jordan (sic) opposed the idea, the government might be forced into it by Israel and the U.S. and that would mean the end of the Kingdom. They really do mean this – this is deeply rooted in Jordanian political identity and has been for many years dating back to the 1988 severing of ties with the West Bank. I was told one anecdote (which I can’t verify) that late last year a leading Jordanian politician infuriated the King by telling him that going to the West Bank could cost him his throne. I heard lots of identity talk: one journalist, for example, explained that the problem with democracy was that Palestinians represent a majority in the Kingdom and thus democracy would lead inevitably to the Alternative Homeland… a retrograde view which I associate with a much earlier period in Jordanian politics.

I think everyone in the U.S. would do Jordan and the Palestinians alike a serious favor if they would stop talking about the Jordanian option.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pakistani Nuclear Offer: A Model?

Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Haqqani just told the media that "Pakistan is willing to engage with our neighbor for a comprehensive settlement in which the nuclear weapons can be phased out by both countries."

Leaving aside the question of how New Delhi might react and the question of how the Pakistani Army might react should New Delhi be so cool as to call Haqqani's bluff, I would like to know if Israel and Iran might possibly be interested in taking this approach under consideration.

Just thought I'd ask...

Juvenile and Stupid Opinions About Mideast Justice

According to the Israeli media, a member of Netanyahu's delegation to Washington described the alleged Washington perspective that the two-state solution will solve all the Mideast's problems as "juvenile and stupid." I suppose said delegate considers the 60-year-long Zionist campaign of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland and Israel's generation-long policy of security through (vastly superior) strength proudly displayed via the semi-starvation of Gaza civilians, the enforcement of apartheid in the West Bank, the scattering of cluster bomblets across southern Lebanon, and threats of aggression repeated ad nauseum against Iran to be "mature and intelligent."

Ironically, I have finally found an example of an opinion from the militarist Zionist right wing with which I can actually agree. Yes! If there is someone so naive as to imagine that "all" the problems in the troubled Mideast flow from Israeli repression and aggression, that would indeed be "juvenile and stupid." But in a Mideast ripped apart by Western pressure, Sunni-Shi'ite competition, conservative dictatorships vs frustrated populations, traditional and rising powers, the one thing that almost everyone can agree on is that the egregious, in-your-face viciousness of Israeli repression of Palestinian aspirations is just pouring gasoline on the flames of regional hostility.

Even assuming that a "two-state solution" means true justice for Palestinians (a very big assumption), it still will not solve all the Mideast's problems, but it will open the door to addressing all those problems by enabling the world to get past this enormous roadblock to progress. The poison of Palestinian repression blinds enflames everyone's passions, blinding all to reason and making it impossible to conceive of positive-sum solutions to all the region's other problems.

In fact, it is very difficult to imagine how Israel's extremist settlers can be herded back into Israel, Jerusalem peacefully divided, competent Palestinian governance invented, scarce water resources equitably reapportioned, the devastated Palestinian economy rebuilt, and a Palestinian military sufficient to protect a new state from Israeli aggression but securely under civilian control be created. Israeli Zionists have been allowed to carry their expansionist campaign so far that the two-state solution may well prove to be an impossible dream. It may be that one multi-ethnic state based on religious freedom and equality will ultimately be necessary. But for the moment, the two-state solution symbolizes the desire to give both societies a place to live - not a concentration camp but a home. There is a difference between the two; not to recognize that difference is juvenile and stupid.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Clinton Makes Matters Worse on Iran

Clinton's warning that nuclear arms would only endanger Iranian security will make it more difficult to persuade Iran that it can safely compromise with Washington. If the Obama Administration is sincerely searching for a deal with Iran, it should instruct everyone to keep their mouths shut until the Iranian election...and then clearly articulate what Iran might have to gain from risking a deal.

According to Secretary of State Clinton, Iran “will actually be less secure if they proceed with their nuclear-weapons program” because "a nuclear-armed Iran with a deliverable weapons system is going to spark an arms race in the Middle East and the greater region."

One could read these remarks optimistically as evidence that the Obama Administration is at long last edging toward the breakthrough concept of disentangling nuclear weapons from security. Given the fact that the superpowers spent half a century clearly believing the opposite and the obvious attention-getting nature of any effort by a poor country to acquire nuclear arms, this will be a difficult argument to make. The argument, if effective, would be a vital contribution to American and global security, but it must be done carefully.

To couch the argument in the context of an accusation that Iran (decades behind Israel and Pakistan in terms of nuclear capability) would, by becoming the third nuclear power in the region (assuming one arbitrarily excludes U.S. Mideast forces), somehow be the cause of an arms race is an appallingly biased remark and one hardly likely to induce Iran to take Washington’s call for U.S.-Iranian talks seriously.

The Mideast security situation could hardly be graver. Extremist remarks implying or flatly stating the hope for the eradication of the opponent regime and even calling for a war of aggression to realize that goal pour out of Israel and Iran. In response to Israel’s massive military buildup of offensive weapons and its repeated use of those weapons against its neighbors, Iran is at a minimum clearly running as hard as it can to acquire an answering defensive capability, most obviously via the importation of defensive Russian ground-to-air missiles. Perhaps it also has the intention of acquiring some sort of nuclear offensive capability as well. Certainly, Washington’s public position is that such is suspected.

If the Obama Administration in fact wishes to avoid such an outcome, its officials need to be much more thoughtful about their public remarks. The Mideast arms race has been under way for a long time, and the Islamic Republic of Iran did not start it. To persuade Iran to drop out, a rational and believable argument needs to be made.

Clinton is certainly correct, given the ravings of militarist circles in Israel, that for Iran to acquire or even hint at acquiring a preliminary offensive nuclear capability would endanger Iran’s security…because it would increase the risk of Israeli aggression without giving Iran the slightest hope of being able to defend itself. But that is a pretty thin argument to make to Iran. Indeed, to any open-minded observer (much less to any educated Iranian, fully aware of the modern history of anti-Iranian aggression and threats by a very long list of countries), such an argument sounds like nothing more than a blunt demand for Iranian surrender.

Perhaps that is exactly what it is. Perhaps the Obama Administration in fact has decided to continue the neo-con policy of expansion, and Clinton’s remarks were carefully calculated to pave the way for the failure of Iranian talks as the precondition for a U.S. or Israeli act of aggression to achieve regime change and control over Iranian hydrocarbon resources.

If, on the other hand, the Obama Administration desires to achieve a compromise with Iran, then it must offer some truly significant set of inducements to make up for Iran volunteering to renounce nuclear weapons capability (e.g., a regional nuclear umbrella). Iran already has renounced nuclear arms; what it evidently wants is the ability to change that policy quickly, as a deterrent or perhaps because it may indeed plan a secret “breakout.” Whatever Iran’s intentions, Washington is, not very politely, asking it to make a concession that neither the U.S., nor Russia, nor Pakistan, nor India has done anything but treat with derision. Iran is not North Korea or Libya. The former Soviet republics might be a more relevant analogy.

Like Iran, Ukraine is a significant global player. Like Iran, Ukraine was at least under some potential threat of aggression (from Russia), though almost certainly far less serious or imminent than the Israeli threat to Iran. Ukraine nevertheless saw the wisdom in the argument that nuclear arms may decrease rather than increase security. But Ukraine reached that historic position in the context of U.S. support for both its physical and economic security.

The eve of the Iranian election is no time for new U.S. initiatives toward Iran, so until the election ends, keeping quiet about Iran would be far wiser than making provocative and biased remarks. Once the Iranian election is over, it will be high time for Obama Administration officials to start articulating how giving up nuclear weapons capability would benefit Iran.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Recession: Opportunity for Reform

In an important assessment of what it will take to recover from the global recession, Horace “Woody” Brock, head of Strategic Economic Decisions, says:

In our 2008 research programme, we focused on three issues. First, what exactly caused the worst credit crunch the nation has arguably experienced since the depression of the 1930s? Second, how did the downturn in the US morph into a collapse in Planet Earth's GDP rate from nearly 5% in June 2008 to -0.5% in winter 2009? Third, can traditional macroeconomic policy suffice to turn around the economy? More specifically, will a killer application of classical fiscal and monetary policy truly restore the economy to a stable growth trajectory? Or is there an internal contradiction within macroeconomic policy that could prevent it from succeeding this time around?

To explain the "perfect storm" in the credit market, we drew extensively on the new Stanford theory of endogenous risk to demonstrate that there are three jointly necessary and sufficient conditions to predict and explain the perfect storm we have experienced: (i) A mistaken market forecast of some exogenous event that impacts security prices (in this case, a vastly higher than expected default rate on mortgages); (ii) A high level of Pricing Model Uncertainty bedeviling bank assets (the true cause of the "toxicity" of those complex securities that have clogged the arteries of the banking sector); and (iii) An unprecedentedly high degree of leverage in the financial sector (money center banks had off-and-on balance sheet leverage of about 40:1 in contrast to the socially optimal leverage of 10:1). The reader can tack "greed" and "incompetence" onto this triad, although doing so diverts attention from the real causes of today's crisis.

To explain the collapse of economic growth worldwide in an astonishingly short period, we utilized a game theory model that explained how the cessation of inter-bank lending amongst the principal money center banks of the world precipitated the first known case of global credit market emphysema: The availability of credit dried up almost everywhere in the course of six months, from Auckland to Iceland. We stressed that this credit contraction had little to do with "globalization" as properly understood, and had no counter-part in history.-- Horace Brock, "The End Game Draws High--The Future Evolution of the Debt-to-GDP Ratio"

These points are both valuable and just the beginning of Dr. Brock's argument. For the moment, I would simply like to point out that it seems to me, in simple terms, that global growth collapsed so suddenly because it was not real growth. Growth was not simply the normal, healthy, “real” growth of economic production but to a significant degree the paper growth in wealth of a bubble. Houses were not suddenly getting better; they were simply priced higher, and the rise in prices was not a function of real demand of legitimate paying customers who could afford more expensive homes. Rather, the new owners were behaving as speculators – knowing it was too good to be true and gambling that they could grab a profit and escape before the obviously coming crash. The same pattern was seen on Wall Street – investors knowingly gambling in highly leveraged securities in an obviously speculative “get-rich-quick” scheme. Someone should do the numbers. When they do, I suspect they will find that the 5% of global economic value that disappeared in the last six months was mostly just bubble.

Brock has written a highly valuable article with its suggestions for solving the problem, but the bottom line explanation of the cause is very simple. As every five-year-old with a bottle of soap learns, bubbles burst.

This means that it is not a matter of figuring out how to get back where we were a year ago. That should not be the goal. We should not aspire to another irresponsible situation in which criminally irresponsible financial behavior is rewarded while honest labor is penalized. By now all should be aware that since the “Reagan Revolution” reversed the New Deal’s democratic trend, wealth has become increasingly concentrated. The rich loved “trickle down” precisely because they understood that most of the wealth would not trickle down (that’s why they call it “trickle”).

We need to restore New Deal goals of rising together with a guaranteed minimum for all and wealth redistribution to ensure that everyone is not only comfortable but able to consume. In addition, rises in GDP should reflect growth in economic value. Our goal should be to create a different global economy, one based not on speculation but genuine productivity. The recession should not be seen as a tragedy but an opportunity…an opportunity to make a better country. Instead of socialism for the rich and laissez-faire capitalism for the poor, we should take this opportunity to aspire to a degree of socialist protection for the needy (be they poor, old, or sick) plus government-regulated, humane capitalist opportunity for all.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Making Sense of War vs. Extremists

Making sense of events in a confusing war against fundamentalists who are using extreme tactics to achieve their ends is the core challenge because of the danger of responding in ways that make matters worse. It is exceedingly difficult for moderates to understand fundamentalist perspectives, to perceive who non-ideological allies of the fundamentalists are, and to devise a strategy that undercuts rather than empowering the fundamentalists (and their non-ideological allies).

In a word, extremists, i.e., those who prefer to use force to achieve their goals, benefit from chaos. A worldly extremist, e.g., a politician fomenting international tensions to justify his accumulation of dictatorial power, will claim only he can “save society.” (The Roman Republic, in some ways more sophisticated than contemporary democracies, created the concept of a temporary, elected dictator, who was given a year to “save society,” after which not only did the dictator have to resign but his emergency powers evaporated. They did not serve as precedents to enhance the power of the next [non-dictatorial] leader. Parliamentarians should read Livy.) An ideological extremist, e.g., the leader of a religious movement or a non-religious ideology such as communism, will use chaos as a cover for compelling society to bow to his ideology. A fundamentalist extremist will use chaos as the opportunity to bring about a goal, e.g., a restructuring of society or a “final solution.” Extremist groups are typically small minorities with no hope of persuading society to accept their goals except in times of emergency and chaos, when the average person ironically lays reason aside and throws himself blindly into the arms…of his real enemy.

It is time for suspicion, not trust, when a politician paints an opponent as a giant and an implacable enemy, especially if the opponent is not actually doing anything but just allegedly “planning” all manner of evil. It is time for suspicion, not trust, when a politician refuses to negotiate without getting his adversary to surrender in advance (e.g., “we will only talk to Hamas after they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which implies accepting Israel’s ethnic cleansing campaign in 1948 and the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs today but conveniently sidesteps the issue of recognizing Palestine, thus achieving key Israeli goals while leaving all Palestinian goals for “later”).

But the initial clue about what is going on during a struggle against extremism (fundamentalist or not) is even simpler: if chaos is spreading, extremism is winning. Body counts, precision bombing photo ops, deaths of insurgent leaders, and battlefield victories are of limited significance and, indeed, may steel the determination of insurgents rather than weakening them.

Measuring Progress:

Measure progress by refugee flows. If the number of refugees is increasing, the extremists are winning; if refugees are accumulating in camps faster than they can be relocated to, employed in, and absorbed by normal communities, insurgents are winning.

Measure progress by treatment of social groups. If religious or racial or ethnic groups are being condemned, even by your own leaders, the extremists are winning. If an ethnic group is being held in bondage, walled in, surrounded by hostile military forces, then the extremists are winning. In the first place, the hostile military forces manning the prison walls are under the control of extremists – jailing an ethnic group is extreme. In the second place, extremism among the jailed population is surely growing, whether visible or not.

Measure progress by the nature of new laws being passed in the moderate societies under attack. Are democratic societies so terrified that they burn down their own political village in order to save it? Are people being jailed and tortured without legal procedures to determine their guilt? Is everyone being watched/searched/restricted? Are internal passports not only being required but being used for political gain? To the degree that democratic society gets down in the gutter with extremists in order to compete with them, the extremists are winning.

Measure progress by the nature of new forms of behavior being tolerated in moderate societies. Are vigilante groups carrying weapons on the streets? Are union leaders, teachers, social organizers being assassinated in the name of “order”? Are rich institutions, e.g., large cattle ranches in Colombia or large banks in more developed countries, accumulating resources in the midst of chaos that is impoverishing everyone else?

Measure progress by the intensity of political taboos. Is dissent being equated with treason? Are certain government policies considered by politicians and the media “beyond discussion”? Are those courageous enough to question such policies insulted rather than being met with thoughtful counterarguments? Taboos are the first defense of the guilty.

Those are some clues to figuring out an inherently messy situation. Of course, it’s not really that simple: once you have figured out that extremists are winning, you still have to figure out whether you are truly facing a fundamentalist revolution or whether the fundamentalists are being duped by worldly extremists just out for personal gain. But that is another story.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Strategy for the War on Extremism

A war between two opposing camps of fundamentalist extremists for mastery over the international political system is now being fought. Those who reject extremist, faith-based ideologies and, even more, the moral right to impose such philosophies by force, are left out of this battle, except to the degree that they are of course the innocent victims or the naïve supporters. In either case, the war is being fought not on their behalf but for the purpose of forcing one faith or another down their throats, so, to them, it matters little which group of extremists wins. Hence, ultimately, it follows that the “real” war, i.e., the ultimate conflict, lies between “rational” (in the sense of calculating on the basis of analysis rather than faith), conciliatory people and extremists. The enemy of peace and progress is extremism. The particular strain of extremism is a secondary issue.

If that thesis be accepted, then the question arises:

what should be the strategy of those who reject extremism?

The challenge for moderates is to determine a way of simultaneously defending themselves against a very real physical threat to both their way of life and their very existence while avoiding the trap of allowing themselves to be sucked into either of the extremist camps. Moderates need to keep foremost in their minds at all times that being pulled into one of the extremist camps—either camp(!)—is the extremists’ fondest desire: when an extremist gains the allegiance of a moderate, he has strengthened his ranks and wins; when an extremist sees a moderate join the enemy extremist camp, he uses that to justify his own extremist behavior and again wins. Radicalization of society helps the extremists (and the worldly fellow travelers exploiting extremism). Two critical components of any moderate policy to undermine extremist influence are 1) denying extremists the nationalist flag and 2) supporting, not victimizing, the population.

Denying Extremists the Nationalist Flag

A profound danger in this situation is the ease with which the emotions of war can suck moderates into supporting “our” extremists (who naturally pose as superpatriots) against “their” extremists.

Pashtun Nationalism & the Taliban. Westerners should, for example, consider the case of Pakistan, where Islamic extremists pose with ever-increasing success as the champions of Pashtun nationalism and even as the champions of overall Pakistani nationalism. Their argument is easy to make at present: every Predator attack and every Pakistani army jet bomber that kills an innocent civilian demonstrates that al Qua’ida and the Taliban are defenders rather than aggressors. That obviously serves their purpose nicely.

It follows that moderates in the West who hope to live in a peaceful world should support policies that make it as difficult as possible for Islamic extremists to make such an argument. The more Islamic extremists can point to the deaths of innocents at Western hands, the more power accrues to them. Avoiding civilian casualties will not directly address the extremist threat. Some other method must be devised for dealing with that. But avoiding civilian casualties will minimize moderate Pakistani support for Islamic extremism. An implacable enemy may exist in any case; still, a weak enemy is better than a strong one.

Israeli Nationalism & Zionist Expansion. Although Washington understood in 1948 the distinction between supporting Israeli independence and supporting the specific policies of the Zionist movement, this distinction has in recent decades become so blurred in the minds of almost all Americans that the Zionist ambition for an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel has been equated by many with Israeli security. Unfortunately for Israelis, this only provokes greater hatred because Israel’s victims also equate the two, and those who seek to exploit Israeli-Palestinian tensions find equating the two highly convenient. In addition, Israeli moderates become marginalized to the (great) degree that the Zionist movement gains control of all major Israeli political parties. This has reached the point that despite the visibility of Israeli moderates in the Israeli media—which is more open than the self-censored U.S. media, today they have no major political party presence and are effectively removed from Israeli politics. That, in turn, undermines Israeli security by making Israeli foreign policy unnecessarily rigid since there is no major party in Israel presenting a genuine policy option that offers Israel’s neighbors the option of living in peace with an Israeli democracy that rejects the policy of security through force.

Persian Nationalism & Iranian Democracy. “Containment” of Iran that denies Iran its natural place as a major regional power both by discriminating against it in terms of nuclear issues and trying to exclude it from regional diplomacy nicely serves the purposes of both Iranian Shi’ite zealots and advocates of a “Greater Persia.” Moderate Iranians hoping for economic development, regional peace, and improved civil rights are marginalized to the degree that the Shi’ite clergy and their anti-Saddam war generation allies in the military can seize the nationalist flag and claim only they can protect the nation against the threat of foreign aggression. It is in the interests of American, Israeli, and Iranian moderates to take this nationalist flag from the hands of Iranian extremists by offering Iran a genuine option of participation in the international political system.

Supporting, Not Victimizing, the Population

Extremists win by tricking regimes into victimizing society. If the regime under attack happens to have an agenda of its own that it desires to implement at the expense of the society it is supposed to be protecting, then the extremists will of course have little trouble achieving their goal. Whatever one may think of Hamas, Israel’s collective punishment policy plays into Hamas’ hands, making them the defender of the people. Israel has this policy because it is ruled by a Zionist clique whose legitimacy rests on continued denial of its ethnic cleansing policy and which cares more for expansion than the security of the Israeli people. A moderate Israeli regime with its eye on the quality of Israeli democracy rather than the fulfillment of Zionist goals could easily undercut Hamas, but that would require recognizing and apologizing for the Nakba, returning to Israel’s internationally recognized 1967 borders or creating a multi-ethnic, non-religious, integrated society and is thus hardly conceivable without the fall from power of the Zionist group that has controlled Israel since ben Gurion’s rise even before independence.

In Pakistan, the recent widespread fighting has made care of refugees the critical test of the Pakistani regime. Success for Islamabad must surely depend ultimately upon its ability to govern Pakistani society, but at the moment nothing defines Islamabad’s challenge more clearly than the enormous flow of refugees fleeing both the Taliban’s oppression and Islamabad’s retaliatory bombing. Refugees from last summer’s fighting in Bajaur remain in camps even as the new wave out of Swat arrives to join them. The longer these refugees remain in tents, denied permanent homes, lives ruined, the closer will come Taliban victory. A government that cannot house its citizens is a failed government.


An internationalist coalition of moderates will be a difficult policy to implement because those desiring to exploit the conflict for personal profit will always be quick to charge moderates with lack of patriotism. Indeed, if patriotism is an unjustifiable bias in favor of one’s own country even if wrong, then replacing patriotism with a concern for mankind is precisely what is needed to help one’s own country. Patriotism has these past three centuries been an excellent organization motive, but it is becoming a bit dated in this shrinking world of globalization (whether the Western kind or the global jihad kind). The fact is that patriotism in our tightly interconnected world is a pointlessly zero-sum perspective: my country gains at your country’s expense and mankind ends up right where it started (unless one pushes the conflict to war, which one of course tends to do, in which case mankind ends up worse off than before). Mankind may end up worse off because war leads to recession or refugee flows or collateral damage. Regardless, in the type of world we now have, patriotism can easily be an extremely expensive luxury…and one ready-made for exploitation by the power-hungry.

The nationality of the actor killing innocent civilians is not the issue: the issue is the killing of innocent bystanders. Extremists are a tiny minority. They achieve power by making their bid for control appear to be an attempt to defend society against an external enemy. The strategy of moderates should be to expose and thereby isolate the extremist minority as the enemy of democratic society (without reference to ethnicity or nationality). It is highly unlikely that the moderates of any single society can succeed in such a policy on their own. Just as extremists of one society depend on extremism by their opponents, so must moderates in one society coordinate their policies with moderates in other societies, rejecting the calls of extremists to pit societies against each other.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Real War: Zealots vs. Democrats

The real war in the world today is between fundamentalist zealots and those who believe in individual liberty. The fundamentalist zealots—Christian, Muslim, Jewish—know exactly what they are fighting for: an unforgiving dictatorship by their favored ideology. Most of the rest of the world’s population, many already dying, still do not even know what is happening.

Eight years after 9/11, it is high time Americans realized that the real threat to world peace--the real war that is now being fought--is, confusingly, “against extremism” (as the politicians have been telling us) except that the two sides are not exactly those claimed. Yes, of course, Islamic extremism stands on the global political battlefield against Western opponents but those Western “opponents” are its mirror image. Both take the literal interpretation of ancient texts as their basic guide to expectations about the future. Both base their behavior not on logic but on faith. Both therefore take positions immune to rational debate and find it self-evident that violence in defense of their preferences is justifiable.

In their own words:

the United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God's plan for both Israel and the West... a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.
fundamentalist Protestant pastor John Hagee


The rest of us--the vast majority of the populations of Islamic and Western societies, the folks who spend most of their time living their lives, believe in working out differences peacefully, and feel no need to control the whole world in order to live satisfying lives—are caught in the middle. On 9/11, it was Americans who suffered. In July 2006, it was the people of southern Lebanon and Beirut who suffered. In August 2008 it was Pakistanis in Bajaur. In December 2008 as well as for two years before and ever since, it has been the people of Gaza. But more and more, it will be all of us.

Indeed, it already is “all of us” in many ways, some subtle and slow-moving but nonetheless costly. In Pakistan, for example, for the whole past generation since military dictator Zia ul-Haq decided to exploit Islamic radicalism to shore up his power back in the days of the campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Army-Islamic radical alliance both weakened democracy and exacerbated tensions with India. In an analogous manner, the people of Israel have seen the rise of the Israeli garrison state led by Zionists determined to pursue ethnic cleansing and a Greater Israel policy both undermine Israeli democracy and endanger their security. In both cases, the result has been to come dangerously close to the nuclear abyss.

It is important to realize that the above mentioned characteristics shared by extremists in both camps are not details but the essence of the danger that fundamentalist extremists pose to global peace. Fundamentalists need not be extremist nor need extremists be fundamentalist, but when a mythological past is taken literally by those who also are eager to employ extreme methods to achieve their goals, one has a self-feeding danger of a particularly virulent kind. Faith rather than reason as the basis for belief inclines one to discount disconfirmatory evidence and to focus on confirmatory evidence, leading to ever stronger evidence regardless of what the evidence actually shows.

It is precisely the existence of these two fundamentalist extremist camps at the same historical moment that creates the danger and a struggle severe enough to merit the term “war” because each side feeds off the other in a double cycle very difficult to control. First, as mentioned above, each side independently filters evidence through its lens of faith, misinterpreting everything as proof of its own infallibility. Second, each side radicalizes the other. With Side A asserting that Side B represents “the devil,” any hostile act is seen as proof of the opponent’s evil intent and any conciliatory act is seen as a trick. Opinion based on faith rather than analysis twists reality. The cycles interact, every action inflaming passions all around.

The Christian-Muslim-Jewish fundamentalist battle today is even further enflamed by cynical politicians who exploit the naïve attitudes of the true believers to achieve their own entirely worldly goals: the Israeli expansionist using the threat of war with Iran to cement Israel’s 60-year-long campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine; the American neo-conservative exploiting the fear of terrorism to pursue dreams of an “American century” powered by U.S. military control over global hydrocarbon resources; the Arab dictator exploiting the Salafis to retain power; the Iranian neo-con IRGC officer colluding with Shi’ite Twelvers waiting for the Mahdi to return and bring the “end of days” but dreaming of Cyrus the Great. The longer the battle of fundamentalisms continues, the more it gets wrapped up in nationalism, totally confusing most moderates on both sides, almost none of whom have knowledge about either side to understand what war is really being fought.

The real war is certainly not the West against Islam. It is not the West against Islamic extremism. It is not even Western fundamentalist extremism against Islamic fundamentalist extremism. The real war is those who want peace and progress against the forces of fundamentalist extremism who seek a final solution, be it a global caliphate, the return of the Mahdi, or the “end of days.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The American Threat: A Pakistani Perspective

Given the difficulty of sitting in the U.S. and figuring out anything about Pakistan, taking the “agnostic” perspective is perhaps the wisest. Therefore, without personally adopting any position on “the truth,” let me consider some possibilities. It is possible that a global jihad posing an existential threat to the Western world is emerging out of the remote “Pushtun mountains” along the ill-advised Pakistani-Afghan border dreamed up long ago by the self-important British. It is also possible that the whole thing is essentially a plot dreamed up by power-hungry Westerners. It is more likely a combination of the two seasoned by a strong dose of incompetence on the part of American decision-makers who now have quite a post-Cold War record of insisting on adopting policies that visibly undermine global peace and American security.

Wherever one may place one’s bets on the three above alternative explanations of what is really going on in South Asia, no one can deny the following: to the extent that the “truth” is close to the “existential jihadi threat” interpretation, it is important for Americans to realize that some Pakistanis believe the opposite – that this is all an American plot. And, again, without judging the issue, one must admit that the propensity of Washington decisionmakers to harp constantly in public on the need for Pakistan to defeat “the Taliban” because of the danger of nuclear weapons falling into their hands only makes it easier to sympathize with this “American plot” scenario.

So Americans should read the comments below by a Pakistani writer with their emotions held in check and with a willingness to try to understand how the world may look from the perspective of people who, like Americans, are confused about “the truth” but do know that American bombs are falling on their heads and driving them by the hundreds of thousands into refugee hell from which no exit route is visible.

According to Ahmed Quraishi:

In less than two years, the United States has successfully managed to drop from news headlines its failure to pacify Afghanistan. The focus of the Anglo-American media – American and British – has been locked on Pakistan. In order to justify this shift, multiple insurgencies and endless supply of money and weapons has trickled from U.S.-occupied Afghanistan into Pakistan to sustain a number of warlords inside Pakistan whom the American media calls ‘Taliban’ but they are actually nothing but hired mercenaries with sophisticated weapons who mostly did not even exist as recently as the year 2005.

No other nation in the world would have tolerated half the arrogance that the Americans are showing Pakistan. But thanks to a mistake by former President Musharraf – sometime in late 2006 when he consented to allow the U.S. to manipulate domestic politics through direct engagement with Benazir Bhutto and other players – Washington was given a free hand to deal directly with individual players inside Pakistan and recruit supporters and proxies.

Today, there are many parties inside Pakistan that are pushing the U.S. agenda and very few of those who would come out and condemn how the U.S. media and officials are single-handedly tarnishing Pakistan’s image worldwide to justify a military intervention.

This is precisely why senior Pakistani military officers are gradually coming out of their self-imposed ban on public activity to counter this nasty American psy-ops. Pakistanis need to watch this carefully.

After an unsettling argument that Washington is preparing either for invasion or the sponsoring of another coup—as if the bitter lessons of Vietnam leadership musical chairs and the pathetic Pakistani history of Pakistani military exploitation of the Pakistani people were not enough evidence that more military dictatorship is no answer--Quraishi asserts the following specific recommendations that will surely grate on American ears:

1.American Anti-Pakistanism: The most spectacular, anti-Pakistan media campaign ever against our country has been launched by the U.S. media and continues unabated, with the purpose of softening the international opinion for a possible military action against Pakistan. And there is no question that this campaign has some backing from official U.S. quarters as was the case in the propaganda that preceded the invasion of Iraq.

2. Stop Grooming & Training Separatists Inside Pakistan: With prodding from CIA, academic programs are being launched in the U.S. that advocate the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of smaller entities. This has to stop.

3. Terrorism Inside Pakistan Is Not The Main Story. The real story is America’s failure to bring peace to Afghanistan despite the passage of seven years on its direct occupation of the country. Terrorism in Pakistan is a result of the American failure in Afghanistan. We trusted the Americans. And what did they do? They let Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora, and then the Americans refused to listen to our advice and filled the puppet government in Kabul with the same people who helped Osama escape.

4. Don’t Lecture Us On India: The United States and its sidekick, Britain, have decided that India will be their slave-soldier in Asia in the 21st century. They want India to fight China and stabilize Afghanistan. They now want Pakistan to accept Indian military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan, forget about Kashmir and the water disputes, and turn the Pakistani military into a little more than a local police force tasked with killing anyone who doesn’t like America’s occupation of Afghanistan.

5. India IS Pakistan’s enemy until proven otherwise through actions and not words: Someone has to teach Mrs. Clinton, President Obama and their other team members some lessons in strategy. India continues to prove by actions that it is an enemy of Pakistan. This does not apply to the people of India but it certainly applies to their government and their intelligence services, their media, and their ‘non-state actors’. The world should know that India in 1972 launched a unilateral invasion of Pakistan exploiting a domestic political crisis and helped break up Pakistan. We have never done anything similar to India before that year. This naked aggression by India was never condemned by the so-called leaders of the free world and continues to be overlooked. India is portrayed as a responsible country despite having committed aggression against a smaller neighbor without provocation. Can the Americans guarantee India will not do this again?

6. The Afghan Taliban Are Not A Threat To America: The Afghan Taliban have never operated outside their country and are attacking American and other occupation forces inside Afghanistan as a result of the occupation. Washington should stop deliberately confusing the world about the difference between the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda. The al Qaeda is a terrorist organization that should be eliminated, and has considerably been eliminated.

7. Eliminating Afghan Taliban Is Not Pakistan’s Responsibility: It is America’s responsibility to bring the Pashtun in Afghanistan into the power structure and defuse tensions.

8. So-called Pakistani Taliban Are No Threat To America: Although money and weapons for these militants are coming from U.S-controlled Afghanistan, many of the recruits and fighters are Pakistanis and we will deal with them any way we deem fit. It is not for Washington to decide how we do this.

All these recommendations by this Pakistani writer can be debated; none can legitimately be dismissed.

  • Concerning Recommendation #5, for example, that India really is Pakistan’s enemy, this perception results primarily from the use of the Indian threat to Pakistani military dictatorships desiring to solidify their control and from Indian backstabbing of Kashmiris. All should recall the two critical facts of Pakistani history: first, it was the repressive behavior of West Pakistani civilian/military elites toward East Pakistan, which won a democratic electoral victory 40 years ago, that resulted in the transformation of East Pakistan into Bangladesh. Second, it was Nehru’s decision to break his own promise of self-determination for the Kashmiri people that led down the slippery slope to create the Kashmiri conflict that has endangered Pakistani-Indian relations ever since. Islamabad needs to recognize the first fact. New Delhi needs to 'fess up' to the second.

  • Concerning Recommendation #8, for example, the assertion that the insurgents are no threat to the U.S. is probably largely true, but it is also probably the case that every American bomb that kills innocent Pakistanis pushes not just the Taliban but all other Pakistanis further down the road to becoming enemies of the U.S.

  • And most of all, concerning Recommendation #4 that America should not lecture Pakistan, the fact is that all parties to this developing disaster deserve to be lectured to and, frankly, slapped around. There is more than enough mythmaking, official distorting of history, and exploitation of others to go around. I challenge anyone to identify a single significant actor that is innocent.

Americans who want to avoid the collapse of Pakistan…either into another exploitative military dictatorship that will manipulate the U.S. for its own benefit or into an anti-American radical religious state…need to consider these recommendations very carefully.