A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 29, 2009

Weekend Reading

As I do each Friday, a quick roundup to hold you over the weekend.
  • Ayman Nour, the Egyptian opposition figure last heard from when his wife announced she was divorcing him at the time of the 6 April fizzled protest movement, is the center of a new controversy. He claimed he was attacked by an assailant on a motorbike who lit the spray of an aerosol can, giving him first degree burns on the forehead. Then yesterday Al-Masry al-Youm published a story quoting a "Professor of Dermatology" as saying that Nour told her that he had been burned by a hair dryer and that he wanted to have plastic surgery and a hair transplant to repair the damage. Nour has now fired back that this is nonsense, that no one he saw at the hospital was old enough to be a professor, and has repeated his original claims. Whether this is self-dramatization by Nour or disinformation planted by the regime or some combination of the two is unclear at this point. Nour may really have been the victim of an attack, but if the hair dryer/hair transplant version is government disinformation, it is likely to be what people remember, and it makes him seem vain and a bit ridiculous. Which, of course, is the point of good disinformation, if such it is.
  • I've been irreverent from time to time about Egypt's massive overreaction to Swine Flu, particularly its mass slaughter of pigs, and have regularly pointed out that not a single case of swine flu had been confirmed in the Arab world (though Egypt has persistent problems with bird flu, yet doesn't slaughter its chickens). Well, I can no longer make my observation, because the World Health Organization has confirmed swine flu in the Arab world: 18 cases in Kuwait. But there's a punchline: all the infected are US soldiers, presumably infected elsewhere before arriving in Kuwait.

Blogging in Morocco: An Introductory Guide

A site I wasn't familiar with, Global Voices, basically an aggregator site on worldwide blogging, has a useful introduction to blogging in Morocco. I have to thank Maghreb Politics Review for the link, and for their additional recommendation of Obiter Dicta, a French language Moroccan blog.

North African blogging is sometimes hard to fully monitor for those of us whose main focus is farther east: there are French language blogs, Arabic language blogs, even a handful of Tamazight (Berber) language blogs. Eventually I'd like to put together a really comprehensive blogroll of Middle Eastern blogs, but then, eventually I'd like to solve world poverty and hunger, too, and bring a just and lasting peace to the Middle East, but I'm a little busy with my day job, so don't hold your breath. Meanwhile, when I do find useful introductions, aggregations, or guides, I'll post them here.

India Takes Possession of its First Israeli Phalcon

Some may recall a major spat between Israel and the United States back in 1997-2000 over the Israeli agreement to sell its Phalcon airborne warning and control system — essentially the functional equivalent of the US AWACS — to China. It became a major issue and ultimately Israel cancelled the deal. The US strongly objected to Israel transferring this capability to China.

Well, virtually the same defense package — Israel's Phalcon system mounted in a Russian Il-76 — has just been delivered to India.

Indian purchases of Israeli defense exports are increasing, and the Indian and Israeli space programs are increasingly cooperating: in 2008 Israel launched a satellite using an Indian launch vehicle capable of polar orbit from India's launch site, and last month India launched its own spy satellite using Israeli technology, reportedly as a means of improving its space-based surveillance following the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

One doesn't need an advanced degree in geopolitics to see the growing Israeli-Indian cooperation as a response to Pakistan's missile programs, nuclear programs, and the growing concerns about Pakistan's stability. The fact that the Phalcon sale to India, while delivered a bit later than anticipated, did not encounter the strong American opposition that the proposed sale to China had, is also of interest.

Bombing in Zahedan: Jundallah Again?

UPDATE: There's been an armed attack on Ahmadinejad's campaign office in Zahedan, as well.

The bombing of a mosque in Zahedan, in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan, has reportedly killed 15 people and wounded another 50. Worshippers were gathered at the Amir al-Mohini Mosque for the observance of a Shi‘ite holiday marking the death of the Prophet's daughter Fatima. This is being blamed on Jundallah ("Army of God"), a shadowy Sunni movement active in southeastern Iran, where there is a fairly substantial Sunni minority in the majority Shi‘ite country. It is perhaps best known for a series of attacks in February 2007, but has been a persistent if low-level nuisance for some time. (For some background on Jundallah here's a Wikipedia entry; Pakistan has on occasion handed over arrested guerrillas to Iran, and Iran has charged that the US and Saudi Arabia support Jundallah, though the latter seems a bit more likely than the former.

So far as I am aware anyway, Jundallah's operations have been limited to Sistan and Baluchistan (one province despite two names), and particularly Zahedan, areas close enough to allow infiltration through the largely empty border areas with Pakistan and Afghanistan. It would be a mistake to see this as either a major indicator of Sunni dissidence in Iran generally or as a genuine threat to the regime. It is a regionally-based problem, but the bombing of a mosque is likely to lead to an intensified crackdown.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


In keeping with my practice of marking holidays celebrated in the region, let me wish my Israeli readers as well as Jewish readers everywhere greetings on the feast of Shavuot, or Weeks, which begins tonight.

The Saudi Visit

I haven't blogged yet about the decision by President Obama to add a visit to Saudi Arabia to his forthcoming trip. The last-minute addition has provoked a lot of regional commentary, and Marc Lynch has a good roundup of the commentary plus his own take. I'm not sure I can add much to his judicious assessment, but here are some thoughts:
  • I'm not sure why the trip was added at the last minute, but as Marc Lynch and many Arab editorialists have noted, it may not sit well with the Egyptians, who have been making a lot of the fact that Obama's choice of Cairo shows the centrality of Egypt in the Arab world. The fact that he is going to Riyadh first probably exacerbates any perceived offense.
  • Those who have criticized the choice of Egypt for the speech to the Islamic world have claimed that it shows the US is still clinging to authoritarian regimes rather than advocating reform. Needless to say those who feel that way will feel the same way about a visit to Riyadh.
  • Republicans made a lot of comments when Obama seemed to bow to King ‘Abdullah during the G-20 summit in London. I imagine they'll be quick to criticize the Riyadh visit as well.
  • On the other hand, if the purpose of the visit is to revive/endorse the Arab Peace Initiative, as some have suggested, it could be a major element in a shifting policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

New MEI Viewpoints Publication: The Arts in the Middle East

Here's the house ad of the day: MEI has just published a new Viewpoints Special Edition on The State of the Arts in the Middle East. It contains 17 short essays on a wide range of subjects. The link goes to the introductory web page; to read or download the whole 2.6 megabyte Acrobat file, go here.

Michael Young on Der Spiegel

Debate and argument about the Der Spiegel article claiming that Hizbullah was behind the Rafiq Hariri assassination continues. Michael Young in the Daily Star offers what seems to me a pretty reasoned analysis that does not rule out Hizbullah involvement but still sees Syria as the major player. It's worth reading.

Amnesty International's 2009 Reports

Amnesty International's 2009 human rights report has been released. The home page for the Middle East and North Africa is here, and it leads with the war in Gaza. Links to the individual country reports can be found on that page.

Those I've read so far seem to be good summaries. I'll let my readers explore for themselves.

Gary Sick Takes Up Blogging

Gary Sick, long one of the better Iran-watchers out there, has long run the Gulf 2000 Listserv, but that is a members-only list, so now he's experimenting with public blogging. His initial postings are at Gary's Choices, and I suspect it will be worth visiting regularly.

UPDATE: In a private communication Gary tells me this is an experiment and if it consumes too much time it may not survive. I've blogrolled it anyway.

"Let the First Blogger to Die in Prison Be the Last"

It's hard to argue with that sentiment, speaking as a blogger. A new website from the March 18 Movement, named for the date Iranian blogger Omid Reza Mir Sayafi died in Evin Prison.

I'm curious though: the website offers homepages in English, French, and Arabic. Why not Farsi?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

France's New UAE Base

The formal dedication of France's new military base in the United Arab Emirates has been attacked by some in the Arab world as a revival of colonialism. In fact, of course, France is just gaining a small military support base in the Gulf, its first. While certainly the Gulf depends on Western naval power for its defense, that task is primarily provided by the US, which has a far larger presence than France is going to have. The French foothold is nothing compared to the US Fifth Fleet presence in Bahrain, the heavy US presence in Kuwait, or the big and growing US airbase at al-‘Udayd in Qatar.

The fact that France is a former colonial power in the region may spark some sensitivities, but France never had a presence in the Gulf, and its forward presence in the region is still much heavier in Djibouti than it will be in Abu Dhabi. This clearly is not a return to the days of colonialism, when France could try to hold on to its base at Bizerte against the will of the Tunisian government, or when the British resisted withdrawal from the Canal Zone. There are no more "old style" colonial presences in the region (with the notable exception of the British Sovereign Bases on Cyprus, but Cyprus is a special case). These base facilities represent a mutual interest of the host country and the basing country, and are always subject to the continued consent of the host country. When Saudi Arabia wanted US forces out of the Prince Sultan Air Base, they left. Some US facilities in the region are not publicized, because of host sensitivities, but none are present without the consent of the host country.

The real news here, I think, is that France is assertively projecting its presence into the Gulf region, refusing to see the Gulf as an American, and formerly a British, lake. The French military industry is dependent on foreign sales to survive (foreign sales help finance production for the French military), and the UAE is one of its biggest customers, perhaps the biggest.

Iran Flips on Facebook; Microsoft Blocks Messenger in Syria, Iran

Governments continue to prove that they have only the slightest clue about how the Internet and especially Web 2.0 works. But the news also includes a rather mystifying (at least to me) move by Microsoft.

Last Saturday, while I was out of town, Iran banned access to Facebook. The Iranian reformists supporting Mir-Hossein Musavi for President quickly said this was aimed at them and was a ploy by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to prevent the oppositionm from mobilizing the young. Ahmadinejad, asked the question — it's worth remembering that there is questioning of candidates going on, given the demonization of Iran in the West — reportedly said that websites need not be blocked, and now Facebook access has been restored.

It's easy enough to see this as another instance of a clumsy authoritarian government not understanding the technology, or of a blunder on the part of the incumbent regime to block an opposition candidate (who is, of course, also a longtime player in the regime). In that sense it may seem like the sort of thing we see all the time, such as a recent Egyptian court decision ordering the blockage of "obscene" websites. It may work, up to a point, but in the end it is very hard to completely control the Internet unless the government is the sole Internet provider (as it is in many Arab countries), and then the blockages are often more political than moral.

A bit harder to figure out is the announcement that Microsoft has decided to block Microsoft Messenger access to Cuba, Syria, Iran, Sudan, and North Korea. Another report here. I haven't found Microsoft's official announcement yet but all the reports so far indicate that the reason is that all these countries are under US sanctions of one sort or another. A couple of quick points come to mind:
  • Huh? The United States imposed sanctions on trade with Cuba in 1962. Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft in 1975. This is 2009. What just changed? If some lawyer decided that US embargoes made providing Messenger to these countries illegal, why now, 47 years after sanctions were placed on Cuba?
  • I rather doubt that anyone outside of the government elite in North Korea is using Microsoft Messenger, or for that matter modern plumbing. It's probably got a limited audience at best in Cuba and Sudan. But Syria and Iran are a bit different: both have Internet cultures of a sort. And as noted above, Facebook has become something of a campaign issue in Iran.
  • Wait a minute here! Isn't the purpose of our embargoes to encourage democracy in the countries we impose sanctions on? If so, wouldn't an Instant Messaging service — assuming the country does not itself ban access to it — facilitate that? If I were the US government's I'd airdrop instant messaging software in every hostile country on earth, and if some sort of government pressure is behind Microsoft's decision, that's stupid. As Mr. Bumble put it in Dickens' Oliver Twist: "If the law supposes that… the law is a ass—a idiot."
  • Those of us who have fond memories of Word Perfect and Netscape and still use Firefox have long suspected that Microsoft is evil. This tends to be further evidence in support, but I suspect there's some sort of government lawyer behind this decision, and that suggests that the government doesn't have a clue. I have little concern about North Korea here, which doesn't want outside information anyway (and given the fact that it appears as a black hole in night photos from space, I rather doubt there are many computers unless powered by hamsters), and I don't think there's a huge Internet culture in Sudan, but Iran and Syria are genuinely in play in the era of Web 2.0, and blocking Microsoft Messenger there is somewhere between silly and downright self-defeating.
  • And the timing question plagues me. We're trying to open up our dealings with Syria and hoping to improve things with Iran, after all. As for Cuba, not only has this Administration eased the embargo a bit, but we recognize, I think, that it's an anachronism. So why, 47 years after sanctions were imposed, 34 years after Microsoft was founded and well into the Instant Messaging age, do Microsoft or its lawyers decide that the embargo requires blocking Instant Messaging in Cuba? Why now? Anybody have any ideas that don't involve incredibly dense lawyers?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Amos Elon

I see by today's paper that the noted Israeli journalist and writer Amos Elon has died in Italy. His old employer, Haaretz, has a write-up here. The Washington Post says he was 82 and Haaretz 84, for some reason.

I first encountered Elon through his 1971 book, Israelis: Founders and Sons, an intriguing portrait of Israeli society from the foundations of the state through the 1967 war. At a time when the entire Arab world rejected Israel's very existence and Israelis were flush with the confidence of their 1967 victory, he was a warning voice that the occupation would be a negative factor not just for Palestinians but for Israelis as well. It was a rare voice in those days, and reading the book long before I ever visited Israel, it was something of a revelation. He spent his last years in virtual self-exile in Tuscany, telling an interviewer (quoted in the Haaretz obit):
"Nothing has changed here [in Israel] for the past 40 years," he told Ari Shavit in an interview five years ago, expressing his frustration with the country. "The solutions were known already back then. I realized I was saying the same things again and again. I began to bore myself."
If everyone were so self-aware, there'd be a lot less repetitive rhetoric out there. But then, Elon's voice was one Israel and all of us needed to hear. And now silenced.

Cairo University Gets a Facelift

It hasn't been offiicially confirmed but the indications that President Obama's speech to the Islamic world will be made from Cairo University are increasing, including the apparent massive cleanup and facelift of the university and its assembly hall. While I was one of those who thought al-Azhar would be more appropriate, Cairo University is still much preferable to speaking in a government building, or at some military parade ground or protected zone like Sharm al-Sheikh. It is a state institution but speaking there does not directly seem to endorse the regime's more controversial aspects. Rather it emphasizes the importance of education in the Arab and Muslim world.

Founded in 1908 as the Egyptian University, it was later known as Fuad I University until the fall of the monarchy, when it became Cairo University.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim Sentence Overturned

An Egyptian court has dismissed a two-year prison sentence against prominent Egyptian dissident and sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Professor Ibrahim, well known to most in the academic community in this country, has been living in exile in the West to avoid imprisonment on the charges of damaging Egypt's reputation. Saad Eddin Ibrahim is no rabble-rousing revolutionary, but a strong advocate for democracy and reform in his home country. Some of his critics say he is actually better known in the West than he is in Egypt, but that is also why the government tends to seek to silence him: he is respected and listened to in the US. I've known him since the late 1970s, and am hardly unusual in that respect. For anyone favoring freedom of expression the court ruling is good news. Congratulations to Saad and Barbara Ibrahim, although as the article notes, the ordeal is not quite over as there are still some outstanding charges.

UPDATE: I didn't mention it, but as David Mack has noted in a comment below, voiding Saad's conviction is also well timed, given Obama's imminent visit. The civilian Egyptian courts are among the last really independent institutions in the country, but they are neither immune to nor deaf to political convenience.

Catching Up: The Der Spiegel Story

The three-day Memorial Day holiday here in the US means I haven't been posting since Friday — in fact, I've been showing my daughter New York City for the first time — and short of war breaking out I don't post on weekends, even long ones.

War didn't break out, and as I look around the news the most fuss and fury seems to surround a story that the German newsweekly Der Spiegel ran recently claiming that it was not Syria, but Hizbullah, that was behind the Rafiq Hariri assassination. Allegedly this is the conclusion of Daniel Bellemare, the third investigator (Detlev Mehlis and Serge Brammertz preceded him) in the Hariri investiagation.

This is, of course, a sensational allegation. And it comes two weeks before the Lebanese elections, and it could have momentous consequences. It's also a rather sensational unsourced story, available here in English. Der Spiegel is the grand old newsweekly of Germany (originally of course of West Germany), so clearly modeled on Time that in its early days it always had both a red border on its cover and similar typefaces within. But newsmagazines the world over are trying to figure out how to survive in the digital age, and this is a strange story indeed. Not only is it explosive, but it's the first alleged leak from an investigative team that hasn't leaked an iota since Detlev Mehlis left it. Bellemare has been totally silent to date. From Erich Follath's lead:
It was an act of virtually Shakespearean dimensions, a family tragedy involving murder and suicide, contrived and real tears -- and a good deal of big-time politics.
Melodramatic? Read it all at the link, but note that there is a great deal of circumstanital detail for an unsourced story:
Imad Mughniyah, one of the world's most wanted terrorists, ran the unit until Feb. 12, 2008, when he was killed in an attack in Damascus, presumably by Israeli intelligence. Since then, Salim has largely assumed the duties of his notorious predecessor, with Mughniyah's brother-in-law, Mustafa Badr al-Din, serving as his deputy. The two men report only to their superior, and to General Kassim Sulaimani, their contact in Tehran. The Iranians, the principal financiers of the military Lebanese "Party of God," have repressed the Syrians' influence.

The deeper the investigators in Beirut penetrated into the case, the clearer the picture became, according to the SPIEGEL source. They have apparently discovered which Hezbollah member obtained the small Mitsubishi truck used in the attack. They have also been able to trace the origins of the explosives, more than 1,000 kilograms of TNT, C4 and hexogen.

The Lebanese chief investigator and true hero of the story didn't live to witness many of the recent successes in the investigation. Captain Eid, 31, was killed in a terrorist attack in the Beirut suburb of Hasmiyah on Jan. 25, 2008. The attack, in which three other people were also killed, was apparently intended to slow down the investigation. And, once again, there was evidence of involvement by the Hezbollah commando unit, just as there has been in each of more than a dozen attacks against prominent Lebanese in the last four years.

It's certainly a sensational story. But the first German investigator for the UN, Detlev Mehlis, thought all the fingerprints were Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese security forces; still, as noted previously, the four detained Lebanese generals were released for lack of evidence. Even those who want to believe Hizbullah is capable of the worst (and given its history that's not an outrageous position to take) are a bit cautious on this one. The rather conservative Middle East blogger Michael Totten posted that "I’m no fan of Hezbollah, but I need more evidence before I’m willing to say 'Hezbollah did it.'” He later updated to suggest that since the UN didn't deny it outright, it might be true. Andrew Exum, the counterinsurgency guru who blogs at Abu Muqawama, also finds it fishy. I need hardly emphasize that these folks are not Hizbullah apologists. Josh Landis, who is our best blog observer of Syria, suggests it's a plant and offers several reasons and good links. Another skeptic here.

The astute blogger on Lebanese politics Qifa Nabki gives us a Clue. Some nationalities or generations may not get this, but those who do should see it.

And Abu Muqawama has asked "Oh, and who the hell is Erich Follath?" and one of his commenters has responded:
UJ said...

Erich has previously written a book on Mossad using inside sources. That should jump start the conspiracy theories


Neither my blog nor my comment, but suggestive perhaps. In these shadowy circles it is always wise to ask the cui bono? question: who benefits from this story? Two weeks before the elections? A Mossad plant is a cliché, but it does happen; somebody in the March 14/Hariri movement would make sense too, so would many Western intelligence services. Those who really subscribe to Middle Eastern Byzantine conspiracy theories could even blame Syria: it shifts the blame from them and distances them from Hizbullah.

If this is a real finding, it's a dramatic one, but if it proves to be a disinformation plant, it could have unforeseen repercussions, especially if revealed before the elections. Plenty of people in Lebanon, the US, and other Western countries (not to mention many Arab countries) would love it if Hariri had been a Hizbullah operation. But why would they have done it, from their own internal standpoint?

Everybody is expressing caution, even those who very much want the story to be true. That should tell you something. Tread very warily on this one until the UN investigative team makes their report to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Until then, assume this is an electoral ploy.

Friday, May 22, 2009

For Your Weekend Reading

It's a three-day holiday weekend here in the US, and I'll be traveling on Monday so posts will resume Tuesday; so some weekend reading as usual:

  • First, a couple of house plugs for MEI events: on June 1, in an event held at the Carnegie Endowment, a panel on "After the Visits: What Next for Middle East Peace?" with M.J. Rosenberg of Israel Policy Forum, Ghaith al-Omari of the American Task Force for Palestine, and Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Then on June 10, following the Lebanese elections, a discussion of The 2009 Lebanon Elections: Outcomes and Implications with Graeme Bannerman of MEI and Bilal Saab of Brookings (a former MEI intern, by the way). RSVP for either at the link. Podcasts and/or transcripts usually go up soon after the events.
  • Al-Masry Al-Youm continues to be your key source for all swine flu, all the time, with a piece (English here and Arabic here) Killer quote: "The US Health Department announced for the second time that the number of infected people with the virus may be 100,000 people." But WHO only says 10,000 worldwide, and even this sentence in the article doesn't justify the headline "US Health Department Expects 100,000 to be infected with swine flu." I wish they'd link to that: I'm still not seeing any "Bring out your dead!" carts around here.
  • For continuing English-language coverage of the Lebanese elections (besides, of course, The Daily Star and other papers), the blog Qifa Nabki continues to provide good, solid commentary with enough background for the non-Lebanese to follow.

Iran: The Final Four

This is actually a couple of days old now, but in case you missed it somehow: 475 people registered to run for President of Iran. (Admittedly a lot of these were crank candidates, from underaged kids to total unknowns.) Only four got the approval of the Council of Guardians, and they're the only four who had a chance anyway, namely the incumbent, Ahmadinejad; Mir-Hossein Musavi; Mehdi Karrubi, and Mohsen Reza'i. Two reformists (Karrubi definitely and Musavi rather ambiguously) and two more hardline types (the incumbent and Reza'i). I would remind everyone that Iran is not a Western-style democracy (ask the 471 people who weren't allowed to run), but that neither Mohammad Khatami nor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were the "favored" candidates in the years they won election. (On the other hand, Iranian Presidents don't lose their runs for a second term.) While I'd put my money if I were a betting man on Ahmadinejad, I still think there's a chance of a surprise here. Unlike, say, the Tunisian or Mauritanian Presidential elections coming up, we aren't absolutely certain who will win in Iran.

Still, don't bet your kid's college fund on Ahmadinejad losing. I would love to see Karrubi bow out, and Reza'i split the hardline vote, but I don't think it will happen. And Musavi is somebody most young Iranians don't even really know: his heyday was the 1980s, before most of today's voters were politically aware, or even born.

The Israeli Spy Network in South Lebanon

The fact that a couple of suspects in the alleged Israeli spy network operating in South Lebanon and now being rolled up by Lebanese security have fled to Israel suggests that this is indeed more than a propaganda matter, and in fact the Israeli press is reporting on it as if the network is indeed theirs. One of the reports from Lebanese media picked up by The Jerusalem Post suggests that a Lebanese Deputy Mayor was to arrange a meeting with Hasan Nasrallah and notify Mossad of the time and place: that sounds like a setup for a targeted assassination, and the fact that the Israeli media is repeating it may lend it some credibility.

The aforementioned Jerusalem Post story adds:

According to a Hizbullah source quoted on the NOW Lebanon news site, Israeli intelligence officials committed "a terrible mistake" that has been exploited by Hizbullah's security apparatus to unravel the spy network.

"It does not appear until now that the Israelis are able to determine" the error, the source said.

Interesting indeed. The NOW Lebanon website quoted in the article is a March 14 (Hariri/liberal pro-Western) site, though I couldn't locate the specific article being cited.

Elsewhere it's being reported that the network is being rolled up because the Internal Security Forces have discovered a "technical secret" that allowed them to be identified. Here's a report at Hizbullah's Al-Manar English site. It says that the "technical secret" will some day be revealed and also quotes a report in Al-Safir as saying the Israelis have, in fact, learned of the discovery of the "technical secret."

Not clear what the "technical secret" may be since the story explicitly says that the cells did not know each other's identity.

Lebanon has complained to the UN about the escape of suspects into Israel. Given the sensitivity of that border, I suspect they had some help.

Biden in Beirut Today

US Vice President Joe Biden is spending a few hours in Beirut today. Apparently the idea is to support the March 14 movement and other pro-Western forces in the runup to the elections.

Oh my. I voted for Obama-Biden, but I recognize that Joe has that Vice Presidential syndrome that Spiro Agnew pioneered and Dan Quayle made famous, of sometimes saying unfortunate things that don't come out quite right. I hope it goes well. By this afternoon I'll be on the road for the Memorial Day holiday, so I may not be able to comment directly. Personally, I think the best way to help March 14 is to show no favoritism at all: the opposition is determined to portray them as tools of the US, Israel, and the reactionary Arab regimes (everyone except Syria, basically, and its non-Arab ally Iran). Good luck, Mr. Vice President. Let's let the Lebanese vote, and not try to endorse, since it could very well backfire.

Talaat Mustafa Group: Investors Needn't Worry Though its Founder is Under Death Sentence

I haven't been posting on the soap opera of the trial for the murder of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim on the orders of an Egyptian billionaire; the billionaire, Talaat Mustafa, and the hit man he paid to kill Tamim (said to have been an ex-lover) were sentenced to death in Egypt yesterday.

It's been big news in Lebanon, (where Tamim came from), in Dubai (where the killing occurred in her luxury apartment), and in Egypt (where the trial was held). The combination of sex, celebrity, money and murder made it a sort of Middle Eastern O.J. Simpson trial, only with the defendant found guilty.

The Talaat Mustafa Group (TMG), a huge real estate conglomerate through which Mustafa made his billions, doesn't want any stockholders to worry just because the company's founder and namesake is under a death sentence. A TMG official reassures investors:
Sawaftah said that TMG’s corporate structure prevents “the absence of one individual” from affecting its activity.
They might think about using the acronym more and the full name less.

One note you may detect in this Daily Star report from Beirut that isn't emphasized in the Egyptian covrage is that Mustafa is very active in the (ruling) National Democratic Party and is said to be close to Gamal Mubarak. Probably not anymore.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Plus ça change . . .

Why is this man smiling? He's Sheikh Nasir Muhammad al-Ahmad Al Sabah, and his uncle the Amir has just reappointed him as Prime Minister of Kuwait. (That's not why he's smiling, actually: it's a file photo. But I wanted to use the line.)

Now, for an analysis of Kuwait's elections, I've already referred you to Greg Gause's analysis of the vote from Kuwait, but if there is anything that reinforces his headline — "Kuwait's elections don't solve its political crisis" — it should be the fact that the outgoing Prime Minister is the incoming Prime Minister. The fact that the real conflict between government and Parliament is over the right to question (and hold confidence votes on) certain Cabinet ministers who also happen to be named Al Sabah, is unresolved. (The Cabinet need not be drawn from the members of Parliament; they have ex officio votes in Parliament anyway.) The fact that Kuwait elected four women Parliamentarians and the Shi‘ites increased their representation are important, to be sure, but so long as the Prime Minister and several other key ministers come from the Royal Family, the fundamental issue is going to remain.

In three years, there've been three Parliamentary elections. In the past year alone, two. The Prime Minister, however, is the same one who led the outgoing Cabinet. Kuwait has one of the most vigorous and genuinely competitive Parliaments in the Arab world, but there is still a fundamental structural flaw, and it doesn't seem to have been addressed here.

Mubarak Postpones Trip Due to Grandson's Death

Husni Mubarak's May 26-27 trip to the US will be postponed because of the sudden death of his 12-year-old grandson, which I mentioned briefly in an earlier post. Another account here. It's certainly easy enough, when commenting on Middle Eastern rulers and their policies, to forget that they are also human beings, with families. (Okay, Saddam Hussein had a tendency to kill his own relatives, including both sons-in-law, but that's rare indeed.) I believe Mubarak had only two grandchildren, both through his elder son, ‘Ala', who chose to get rich as a businessman rather than enter politics. It's the younger son, Gamal, who's the anointed heir — and he only married a year or two ago, I believe.

The postponement of the trip will take a bit away from the sense of accellerated diplomacy on Arab-Israeli issues with the King ‘Abdullah II/Binyamin Netanyahu/Mubarak/Mahmud ‘Abbas parade now disrupted a bit. But Egypt and the US have plenty of channels for communication, and Mubarak's visits are more symbolic than anything else.

I've criticized Mubarak from time to time and made fun of his jet black hair (at age 81), but there's no proper response other than empathy when a man loses a young grandson. It's still not totally clear what the cause was: I've seen reports of food poisoning and others of some pre-existing condition. In any event, anyone who is a parent cannot help but offer condolence.

Illegal Outposts to Be Evacuated?

In a saner world than this one, the news that Israel may evacuate the illegal settlement outposts that even the Israeli government acknowledges to be illegal would not be something to celebrate, but if Israeli press reports are right, Netanyahu will begin dismantling the illegal (under Israeli law: many people think all the settlements are illegal under the Geneva Conventions) settlement outposts in the West Bank. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has reportedly told the Yesha (settlers' council) that the outposts will come down.

On the American side, The Jerusalem Post is reporting that Secretary of State Clinton has demanded that all types of settlement construction must cease. Assuming both reports are true, we may be seeing some serious movement on enforcing the "road map" for the first time in years.

And here is a rather subtle, but interesting, shift in the Palestinian position on the Haram al-Sharif/Har ha-bayit issue.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Iran Tests Sejil 2 Missile

Iran has tested, reportedly successfully, a version of the Sejil 2 (or Sijil, Sijjil) intermediate range imssile. Speaking in Semnan Province on his re-election campaign, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted that the launch, like Iran's earlier satellite launch, had taken place from Iran's launch site in Semnan.

As the NYT article notes, the real significance of this test is that the Sejil 2 is a solid-fueled two-stage missile with a range of some 1,200 miles. Probably 80% of the posts so far on the Internet refer to that as having sufficient range to hit Israel, but of course it also has the range to hit US forces in the Gulf region.

What's really worth noting, though, is that it is solid-fueled. It's in the same intermediate range as Iran's Shahab 3, which is generally considered to be a clone of North Korea's Nodong. But the Shahab-3 is liquid fueled, requiring considerable lead time for fuelling before launch, and the fueling process can easily be detected by satellite. (Think of all those satellite photos of North Korea's recent test while it was still on the pad being readied.) A solid fueled missile can be launched more quickly and stelthily, and can be adapted for a mobile launcher, allowing it to be moved around. It is thus harder for an adversary to take out before launch.

The timing of the launch probably has more to do with the Presidential election in Iran than with anything else, but it will surely raise new alarms among those who are seeking to end Iran's nuclear ambitions militarily.

Fayyad's New Government

I haven't said anything yet about the new Palestinian Authority Government, once again headed by Salam Fayyad. Mostly that's because I don't have much to say, and see no reason to record verbiage just to be on the record. My main reaction is to note that pretty much everyone in the region has responded with yawns, except for those like Hamas who have been actively denouncing Fayyad's new Cabinet. Even some elements of Fatah have announced they will boycott it.

Hamas has suggested that the creation of the new Cabinet shows that Fatah is not serious about creating a unity government with Hamas, and that therefore returning to the Cairo talks may be futile. If the Cairo talks do not resume, then it's hard to see what the next step will be for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

I am generally annoyed when someone quotes the late Abba Eban's line that "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," mostly because I don't think it's usually fair, and also because this is not exactly a moment when Binyamin Netanyahu is reaching out with genuine concessions on settlements or borders. But at the same time, it's ironic that at a moment when Washington actually is showing signs of taking the Israeli-Palestinian track seriously for the first time in years, Israel has the hardest-line government in memory, and the Palestinians have two separate governments, one of which most of the world refuses to talk with, and the other which seems impotent. There is a real chance, I fear, that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

None of this is a reflection on Fayyad himself: he's a technocrat and one respected by the West, but this new government is too thinly supported to be able to make any hard decisions, or perhaps even to govern, not to mention the fact that Israeli roadblocks and the loss of Gaza to Hamas give it little chance of serious governance in any event.

It's Not Al-Azhar, or, Wait, Maybe it Is . . .

Speculation continues about where in Egypt President Obama will speak. Al-Masry Al-Youm reported yesterday that Obama will speak at Cairo University, not at Al-Azhar. Today, the US Embassy is saying no decision has been made, and an AP report suggests Cairo University has been ruled out, and Al-Azhar is still in the running.

The Egyptian media is distracted today by the sudden death of a 12-year-old grandson of President Mubarak, a tragic loss. Speculation about the venue for the Obama speech will no doubt resume soon, however.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Let's Not Do This: Khalilzad to Work with Karzai?

If you read this story in The New York Times, which says that former Ambassador to Afghanistan (and Iraq) Zalmay Khalilzad has been negotiating with Hamid Karzai to be a sort of "Chief Executive Officer" in helping run Afghanistan, I wonder if you were struck, as I was, with just how many negatives the idea would have. No offense to Khalilzad, who certainly knows his native land, but I have to agree with the quote by Teresita Schaffer at CSIS that "This has the makings of a really bad movie." She also says, “The idea of having an American as a major senior official of Afghanistan is a very risky one both for the Afghan government and the person in question.” Exactly.

Look, let's be clear: even if Khalilzad is the answer to all of Afghanistan's problems, putting an American citizen of Afghan origin at the right hand of Karzai is a bad idea. The fact that as Ambassador, Khalilzad, himself born in Afghanistan, exerted a great deal of influence as America's man in Kabul means that to many Afghans, and I certainly would think this includes the Taliban and other opponents of Karzai, he will always be seen as America's man. In my recent discussion of Eric Davis' list of "sins" in Middle East analysis, I noted how often we fail to see how our actions may be perceived as classic imperialism by Middle Easterners even when we think of ourselves as pure of heart. But an American éminence grise at Karzai's right hand? Please, no.

The article quoted an Administration official as saying he would be “a prime minister, except not prime minister because he wouldn’t be responsible to a parliamentary system.”

I think the word the official is groping for is viceroy.

That's why it's a bad idea.

Criticism of Pig Cull Growing After Video

After Al-Misry Al-Youm posted a video showing the more unpleasant aspects of Egypt's attempt to eliminate pigs, the international and domestic uproar has intensified. Pigs were shown with quicklime being thrown atop them to cause a slow death, rather than the humane slaughtering normally required by Islam. I'm not going to embed the video here, as it's pretty strong stuff, but those with strong stomachs can find the version posted by Al-Masry Al-Youm here. An AFP clip covering the story is here.

Now Prime Minister Nazif has ordered that the cull be carried out humanely, And, almost predictably, the Governor of Qalyubiyya (the Governorate where the video was filmed) has blamed the messenger by criticizing Al-Masry Al-Youm for posting it. (Though as I've noted previously, Al-Masry Al-Youm has offered some pretty sensationalist stories on swine flu, including the one proposiing that President Obama be quarantined, so it's not entirely innocent in fanning the hysteria that it is now documenting.) And one official allegedly said the pigs weren't slaughtered by the Islamic method of slitting their throats because pigs don't have necks. (Believe me, pigs have throats. This kind of rationale does no one proud.)

What at first seemed an amusing overreaction now seems increasingly like one of the worst public relations disasters in recent years. Humane societies and animal rights organizations are up in arms, and increasingly there are efforts to portray the pig cull as a deliberate attack on the Coptic population, since the pigs are raised only by Christians. The fact that the government's own rationale for the cull has shifted (once it had to acknowledge that swine flu is not spread by pigs, it started to claim that unsanitary conditions created by raising pigs in the garbage dumps of Cairo was the motive) also tends to encourage such interpretations. From a PR point of view the logical thing to do would be to put an end to the massacre, but a combination of bureaucratic inertia and public hysteria over swine flu (which has still not been found in Egypt) seem to be keeping it going, as world outcry intensifies.

Meanwhile the total number of swine flu cases in the Middle East now stands at seven in Israel (no new cases there) and two in Turkey. Not one in an Arab country. WHO map here.

Here Come the Leaks: The Obama/Netanyahu Meeting

Well, the summit has occurred and the leaks are starting. First, if you haven't seen it yet, here's the White House transcript of the Obama/Netanyahu press conference after the meeting.

Let's start with Aluf Benn at Haaretz. The headline is "Israel Gives Obama Till End of Year on Iran." Okay, the client state is giving ultimatums to the superpower?

Barack Obama's first innovation in the White House is visible even before one enters the Oval Office: a large wooden slide on the lawn for the president's daughters. In the office, Obama put two statues, of former president Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. This is his message - a commitment to liberty, human rights, equality and opportunity. But also to the use of power, when there is no other choice.
Pardon me if I lapse into a "huh?" here. Lincoln certainly used power, but what does MLK have to do with it? Or is he just the liberty and human rights part. And when Benn says "statues" what does he mean? I suspect maybe busts, but perhaps they're small statues.
Obama speaks much more than his predecessor, George W. Bush. He smiles less. When Benjamin Netanyahu spoke, Obama watched him closely. They both prepared note cards before the meeting. Obama's contained long, typed lines; Netanyahu's had short lines in felt-tip pen.
You lost me on that one. Is a felt-tip pen better or worse than typed lines? I tend to use a ballpoint because that's what MEI usually has in the supply cabinet. What does that tell posterity? Or is this just color, and an attempt to show your sources gave you minuscule details? I'd rather know what was on the notecards, frankly, than how they were inscribed.

The rest of the article, actually, pretty much says that the two men said what everyone expected them to say. So I guess the news is the felt tip pens?

The interesting point is that while Haaretz, the left of center paper, emphasizes Netanyahu's "deadline" in its headline, the right of center Jerusalem Post has a different take: "Obama Insists Palestinians Must Have State, Rejects Iran Deadline."

I think what is clear is that Israel and the United States, led by two very different men, are exploring where they go from here. Obama believes that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem, difficult as it may be, undercuts the threat from Iran: if Syria and Israel find a peaceful solution (and they have come pretty close) then Hizbullah could find itself left high and dry. A real opportunity for a genuine Palestinian state might undercut Hamas' dominance in Gaza, but only if such a deal is clearly on offer.

Israel is overwhelmingly focused on the Iranian threat. It is true that Ahmadinejad (who probably knows less about the actual nuclear program than a dozen other Iranian figures) has indeed made some outlandish statements distracts from the fact that many senior Iranian clerics are a lot more nuanced in what they are saying. And don't forget that even Ahmadinejad haqs said that if the Palestinians choose to make peace with Israel, it's really none of Iran's business. The "existential threats" have been both vague (it's not Iran that's threatening, unless Israel attacks Iran; Iran is saying that there is a historical inevitability that will doom political Zionism) and definitely not directly nuclear, since Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. You don't have to believe any of that (and a healthy skepticism is in order), but the threat is not as explicit or as sinister as some are making it.

Again, I recognize the power of the metaphor Juan Cole raised yesterday, of the 1961 Kennedy-Khrushchev Summit in Vienna, while thinking the parallels don't hold up very well., Israel is not a rival superpower. It is in fact a client state of ours dependent on our biggest aid package. But I also take the positive side of the image: Khrushchev was testing Kennedy's experience and spine, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs. The weakness he thought he saw helped lure him into the adventure of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was a miscalculation of potentially apocalyptic force. Obama and Netanyahu are not going to enjoy the personal relations that George W. Bush apparently was developing with Ariel Sharon before Sharon was stricken.

Juan Cole's piece today sees the meeting as producing few results and as a setback for Likud.

Meanwhile, Marc Lynch offers a tour d'horizon of the Arab press reactions. Generally positive and naturally emphasizing the gap between Obama and Netanyahu.

Netanyahu visits the Hill and the Pentagon today. There will no doubt be a great deal of editorial analysis over the next few days: Obama's position on Israeli-Palestinian peace does represent a new direction and the re-emergence of Netanyahu as Prime Minister sets up a potential tension that makes for dramatic news stories.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama-Netanyahu: Why I Haven't Posted Yet

Some may wonder why I haveN't yet posted about the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, which had already generated reams of commentary even before it began. That's basically why. Until we know a bit more about how it went (as both sides leak their own spin), I think most of what there is to say has already been said by so many analysts that I hardly need to add my two cents. But a couple of points to keep in mind until we know a bit more about what was said:
  • It's clear that the two men have very different visions of each country's priorities, and each will be trying to control the narrative. Juan Cole worries about a repeat of the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in Vienna in 1961; that seems to me to be going a bit far: Israel is not the Soviet Union, but rather (as the single biggest recipient of US aid) a country where we can exert influence if we choose to. Unlike the US and the Soviet Union, the US and Israel are not comparable powers, whatever Netanyahu may think.
  • There is a widespread notion both in the Israeli and the Western media that Israel has the capability to strike Iran's nuclear sites unilaterally without US approval. It's true that they struck the Iraqi Osirak reactor unilaterally in 1981, but that involved violating both Saudi and Iraqi airpace. Iran is much farther, the key sites are inland, and a mission would have to overfly either Turkish, Jordanian and Iraqi, or Saudi airspace. The United States currently controls Iraqi airspace, so that could not be done if we did not choose to allow it. I've previouslly linked to the piece done by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman at CSIS on the military obstacles Israel would face, and I think that Israel's acting alone would be a lot more difficult than many imagine.
And an aside: briefly today the BBC news website had a headline saying "Obama insists on a two-day solution to Israeli Palestinian peace." Before I could think fast enough to do a screen capture, they'd changed it, naturally, to "a two-state solution." Insisting on a two day solution would certainly speed up the peace process, though.

So I'll defer a longer post until the leaks begin.

Iraq Elections Set for January

Iraq's general elections will be held on January 30, subject to approval by Parliament. This follows weeks of speculation that the date would shift from the fall into early 2010, and now it has.

Greg Gause on Kuwait's Elections

F. Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont is one of the best-informed Gulf watchers out there, and he has an analysis up of the Kuwaiti election results, written from Kuwait where he is at the moment, that seems to touch all the bases, over at Marc Lynch's Foreign Policy blog. It saves me from having to write a far-less-informed analysis of the same, and who wants to do that on a Monday morning? I humbly refer you to his analysis.

I will note that, like everyone else, I'm delighted that four women will, for the first time, be among the 50 deputies. Especially since women only got the vote four years ago, and that after the Amir insisted: Parliament itself was not so enthusiastic. Too many countries in the Arab world still have to ensure women's presence in Parliament by having Presidential appointments of a few women; I'm glad Kuwaiti women can make it on their own. For the more complex issues, Greg Gause's analysis is excellent, I think, and he knows the country far better than I.

The Pakistani Taliban as The Borg

A tip of the hat to Juan Cole for pointing to this piece on the website of the Pakistani newspaper The Dawn, which dares to make a comparison that would make most Western analysts fear they'd seem way too nerdy: Irfan Hussein, spinning off from the Space Shuttle launch, manages to compare the Pakistani Taliban to the Borg in the Star Trek franchise. He argues:

Watching a re-run featuring the fearsome Borg, I was struck by how similar they are to the Taliban. Anonymous and terrifying, these bearded holy warriors could easily be an army of clones. Motivated only by ideas put in their unformed minds by the Taliban collective, they kill all who differ with them. Those who fall into line then become foot soldiers. Other recruits to the Taliban cause are drawn from the thousands of madressahs that have proliferated across Pakistan. Here, young men are brainwashed into hating all ideas and influences not sanctioned by their narrow belief system.

Just like the Borg, the Taliban are an implacable foe in their unreasoning drive to assimilate or annihilate all in their path. So certain are they of their monopoly on the one truth that they are not willing to contemplate the possibility of different approaches, different beliefs. And just like the Borg, it is impossible to reason or negotiate with the Taliban. It’s all or nothing for these stone-age warriors.

I really don't want to reveal my own nerdiness by extending the metaphor and discussing it in detail, but I thought it was worth calling this article to your attention. On the "resistance is futile" theme, Hussein says this:

Given the nature of the foe, it is hard to see how the Taliban and their many offshoots and affiliates can be tamed and contained. It would certainly be a mistake to confuse nationalist struggles waged by Muslims with Islamic groups fighting to impose their benighted views on the rest of the world. The former can negotiate meaningfully as their goals are to do with territory. But the Islamic jihadis want to dominate the world, and force the rest of us to live according to their primitive code.

As mankind explores the stars, and seeks to leave the confines of earth’s gravity, it is hard to believe that we are still locked in an existential battle against a foe that wants to drag us back to the seventh century. For the Taliban, there are no half-measures. As we saw in Swat, they are not content with simply running a territory ceded to them by a weak state. Having grabbed one piece of land, they sense weakness, and want it all.

While I won't be drawn into extending the metaphor, the Borg are supposed to be a technologically superior civilization in every way, who have "assimilated" world after world. The Taliban are, in contrast, while equally expansionist and intent on transforming their subjects, profoundly lacking in modern means of coercion. They can take over towns and even provinces if the central government is weak, but they can hardly defeat modern armor and air power. And as seems rather evident now that the Pakistani Armed Forces are actually engaging the Taliban: Resistance is not futile.

This will, I hope, be the only Taliban/Borg post for a while.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

We Interrupt this Weekend to Gloat Briefly.

I have no idea if this story is true with its claim that Egypt wants Obama to speak from Al-Azhar (I'd be a lot more comfortable if the source was an Egyptian paper) and that the Secret Service is vetting it as a possible site, but I will interrupt my weekend to gloat that back on May 11 I suggested Al-Azhar as an ideal venue. It's my blog and I'll gloat if I want to. I know many other bloggers have raised the subject since then, perhaps independently. Thank you, We now return to the weekend.

Friday, May 15, 2009

For your weekend reading

If you've been reading for a while you know the drill: on Friday afternoons I sign off for the weekend with a number of links for your weekend edification, enjoyment, or you can just spend time with your families like I plan to. For what it's worth:
  • An interesting post at Qifa Nabki on rival Druze leaders' use of YouTube and camera phone video to wage an ancient feud (and the Arslans and Jumblatts have been feuding for a very long time). A contribution to the growing literature of carrying on old conflicts in the era of Web 2.0. And the photoshopped (I presume) graphic "DruzeTube: Broadcast Your Za‘im" struck me as brilliant, if you have an appreciation of Lebanese politics and/or Lebanese humor.
  • While we're on the subject of the Lebanese election campaign, there's a brouhaha brewing among the Maronites over the campaign platform of General Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, the manifesto of which is called "Towards the Third Republic" (.pdf in Arabic). The basic idea is that the Lebanese "First Republic" was the post-indendence republic based on the National Pact, which was unstable, led to the conflict of 1958 and the civil war of 1975-91, while the "Second Republic" was the reconfigured system set up by the Ta'if accords and in place from 1990-91 onward. The Free Patriotic Mofvement is pushing for a stronger, more stable system. It's a neat catchphrase, and as some others have noted, may be influenced by the longevity of the Third French Republic. Lebanese (and Maronites in particular) tend to think in French terms, and for that matter does anybody else count the number of republics? The French are on their fifth, after all. But Aoun is anathema to some of his onetime allies, and supporters of the March 14 Movement (the pro-Hariri side) are saying that the slogan itself is a dangerous thing, a type of "coup d'etat that threatens state institutions including the presidency, the judiciary, media and the Constitution" Former President Amin Gemayel has also used the "coup d'etat" image. Its probably a tempest in a teapot, but it's raised hackles in the Maronite community. And it's just an electoral slogan.

Nakba Day

Today is the day Palestinians traditionally observe as a day of mourning — the yawm al-nakba or "Day of the Catastrophe" — marking the creation of Israel in 1948. Because Israel celebrates its Independence Day (yom ha-atzma'ut) according to the Jewish calendar, the two dates do not normally coincide (Israel has already celebrated its independence day on April 29), but both mark the same events of May 15, 1948. In the Palestinian Authority, the ceremonies held in Ramallah were held yesterday so as not to interfere with Friday prayers.

This year Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which has said some provocative things about Israeli Arabs (who make up about a fifth of the population of Israel proper), now wants to make marking the nakba illegal, threatening a penalty of three years in prison. This has little chance of being adopted (how do you ban mourning?) but it is a reminder of the two very different ways Israelis and Palestinians perceive the events of 1948, and of the quandary of Israeli Arabs who are citizens of Israel but who also see those events as a disaster for their own community. It is probably just as well that Israeli Independence Day and Nakba Day are celebrated according to differing calendars and rarely coincide; a common date might exacerbate the conflicting narratives of 1948.

One delicate issue this year has been the fact that May 15 coincides with the last day of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land. The Pope has already addressed Palestinian aspirations by meeting with Abu Mazin and speaking at the Palestinian Refugee Canp at Aida near Bethlehem, in sight of the separation barrier. He has also said Mass in Nazareth, the biggest Arab city in Israel proper (though the fact that it was Jesus' home town was the controlling factor of course). But on Nakba Day itself he is scheduled to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, which does not carry a lot of Palestinian-Israeli baggage (though the church is a traditional scene for intra-Christian denominational turf battles).

Kuwait Votes Tomorrow

Tomorrow (Saturday, May 16) is the date of the Kuwaiti Parliamentary Elections. I realize I haven't said much about Kuwait since the dissolution of Parliament and my early analyses, the latest of which was dated March 20.

In part, I haven't commented again because I think the earlier posts pretty much depict the problem: the stalemate between Parliament and the Goverment was not alleviated by earlier dissolutions and new elections; and now we will have the second vote in a year and the third in three. The stalemate doesn't seem likely to be broken. (In fact, the authorities in April arrested one former MP — I think Parliamentary immunity ended with dissolution — for criticizing a royal.)

Kuwait does not have political parties as such, though there are factions that function rather like parties representing Arab nationalists, Islamists (separate Sunni and Shi‘i factions), etc. and the big tribes tend to elect their own to form tribal blocs. As a result there will be no easy "who won and who lost" analysis available until the various factions start forming alliances. This is the third round of elections in three years; will third time be a charm? I'm still skeptical, but I'm no expert on Kuwait.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stealth Diplomacy? Lieberman Goes to London; British Barely Notice

Avigdor Lieberman visited London yesterday for his first official visit, meeting with Foreign Secretary David Miliband and leaders of the British Jewish community. If you didn't hear about it, you aren't alone. For whatever reason, the visit received little coverage, and there was no press availability for the British media. The Jerusalem Post headline that the visit was "shrouded in secrecy" may be a bit much, since the Israeli media covered it, but the British media seems to have been unusually (and uncharacteristically) silent.

Certainly Lieberman is a controversial figure, and presumably neither the British nor the Israelis wanted to attract demonstrations and protests, though apparently there were some of those anyway, at least as covered by Iran's Press TV. I haven't done a comprehensive search but it doesn't appear in the headlines of the BBC's Middle East website, despite their reporting on Netanyahu visiting King ‘Abdullah II in Aqaba, and other diplomatic journeys.

A search of Google news also doesn't show much from the British media: something called The Palestine Telegraph covered it; otherwise it's mostly Israeli media and some Arab media that are paying attention to it. Right now the only British coverage I can find is on the Foreign Office's website, and even then the meeting between Lieberman and Foreign Secretary Miliband was, at this writing, fourth on the FO's list of news of the day, though admittedly I accessed it today and the visit occurred yesterday. (In the Foreign Office photo Lieberman is smiling broadly; Miliband is not. I'd post the photo but unlike US Government photos, which are public domain, the Brits claim Crown Copyright, so I'll refer you to the FO site instead.)

The first meeting of a new Foreign Minister with the British Foreign Secretary is not, usually, "shrouded in secrecy." It does suggest that Lieberman is indeed going to be something of an issue with many Western governments, who may seek to keep him at arm's length even while doing the diplomatic necessities.

More Swine Flu Overreaction

I really take no pleasure in noting the ongoing hysteria in the Middle East, and especially in Egypt, over swine flu, but now Al-Masry al-Youm has found some experts to quote as saying that President Obama and his entire entourage must be quarantined and endure medical checks to make sure they don't introduce swine flu into Egypt. At this point I think Al-Masry al-Youm is one of the main agents of this hysteria. The Egyptian government has seemed pleased that Obama chose to make his address to the Islamic world from Egypt, and I doubt that they'll be eager to see calls for quarantining the President.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More Spying Arrests in Lebanon

Lebanon continues to announce arrests of alleged spies for Israel. Lebanese police have displayed equipment reportedly used by a spy network or networks allegedly working for Israel and including Lebanese and Palestinians. These arrests may somehow be linked to the earlier arrest of a Lebanese security officer for spying; if the various allegations are true, it sounds a bit like a network is being rolled up.

Supposedly these individuals in southern Lebanon were involved in identifying targets for Israel during the 2006 war with Hizbullah; the arrests would seem to be a sign of Hizbullah's political strength in the runup to the elections.

A Good Roundup on McChrystal/McKiernan

I've already pretty much had my say on the McChrystal/McKiernan issue, but for those looking for more, Andrew Exum at Abu Muqawama has a post on "Building the Team" that assembles a variety of media reactions and assesses them.

Ghajar Off the Table Until Lebanese Elections?

Israel is reportedly postponing further talks about withdrawing from the divided Lebanese/Golan Heights village of Ghajar (earlier articles here and here); the rationale is said to be that it wants to wait until after the June 7 elections to guarantee that Hizbullah does not take over the Lebanese half of the town.

My first reaction is that Hizbullah just got a big electoral boost. An Israeli withdrawal would have been a win for the current Lebanese government, but now it looks as if Israel is holding Ghajar hostage to make sure southern Lebanese vote right. That is unlikely to work very well. And as I've said before, talk of Hizbullah "winning" the elections ignores the coalition building that is a normal part of any Lebanese Parliament.

UPDATED: My second reaction was to say to myself, hey, I don't imagine Hizbullah is going to let this one go by without a comment, and sure enough, here's Al-Manar, citing the Haaretz report:
The "gift" the Zionist entity wanted to provide to the Lebanese Prime Minister ahead of the parliamentary elections is no longer under discussion… and the reason is too simply that the Zionist entity is scared of a possible Hezbollah victory in the elections!
Indeed. They recognize it as a boost to their own prestige.

Postpone Hajj Due to Swine Flu?

This is getting stranger and stranger. The Grand Mufti of Egypt is suggesting Muslim scholars issue a collective fatwa to postpone the hajj due to swine flu. Arabic version is here. Keep in mind — I know I keep repeating it — there have been no cases in Egypt. In fact, according to WHO's rundown as of yesterday, the only cases confirmed in the entire Middle East are in Israel (seven cases). And WHO says, "WHO is not recommending travel restrictions related to the outbreak of the influenza A(H1N1) virus." Oh, yes, and another thing: the hajj isn't until November. Am I missing something here? Has the hajj ever been postponed for health reasons, in all of Islamic history? I don't know, but I expect you'd need at least one infected person to justify it. (Not only are there no cases in the Middle East, except Israel, but none in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan — well, anywhere Muslim.)

And a group of Egyptian Sufi sheikhs have declined to go to a Sufi conference in the US because of fear of swine flu. (I don't know about other parts of the country, but if there are carts in the streets and someone shouting "Bring out your dead!" it's not around here.)

Elsewhere it's reported that 44 suspected cases in Egypt have all tested negative, while the pig kill goes on.

For a country with no cases, the level of hysteria seems high, fanned by the press and irresponsible public statements. I know I've spent a lot of time on Egypt's swine flu overreaction, but I'm mirroring the local media.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Baghdadi Says He Wasn't Captured

I noted previously, to a comment about why I hadn't posted about the capture of the head of Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq, Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, that there were a lot of questions about whether he had really been captured. Now The Islamic State in Iraq, as it is officially known, has not only denied he's been captured but says the photo being circulated is not of him, and an audio tape has been released as well. So my hesitancy about calling attention to an unproven claim seems to have been prudent.

The COIN Lobby Takes Afghanistan: More Thoughts on McChrystal and McKiernan

I can't resist, when blogging about Afghanistan and asymmetric warfare, posting Lady Butler's once-famous Victorian era painting of Dr. William Brydon riding alone into Jalalabad, entitled Remnants of an Army. It is a reminder that we aren't the first to try to solve the puzzle of winning a war in Afghanistan. (That was during the First Afghan War in 1842. If you don't know the story, a column of some 16,000 people — mostly camp followers, but about 4,500 military, mostly Indian Army but also British Army — left Kabul for Jalalabad. Doctor Brydon arrived alone. Here's Wikipedia on the First Afghan War. It's happened other times as well: you could ask the Soviet Union, if it still existed.) And, while I know I've quoted Kipling already this month and will start to look like some sort of nostalgic imperialist if I'm not careful, his lines from The Young British Soldier are hard not to quote:
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!
I certainly don't mean to imply that this (or Doctor Brydon's) will be our fate in Afghanistan, but it's increasingly clear that yesterday's virtual firing of General McKiernan amounts to an attempt to innovate and avoid conventional warfare.

Instead of updating the two previous posts (yesterday afternoon and last night) I'm going to offer a new one. As the military blogging community and other analysts have weighed in, it seems I'm not the only one to see this virtual firing of General McKiernan as highly unusual and also as a sign that General Petraeus is going to put his mark on Afghanistan through General McChrystal. My two earlier postings introduce the basic biographies of McKiernan and McChrystal. On the assumption that not everyone in the Middle East analysis community follows the military debates on counterinsurgency, let me share some links and some opinions.

First off, the blog Abu Muqawama is always a good resource for the COIN (counterinsurgency) field; among other comments they link to is this one on McChrystal's "dark side;" this one on his "scary smart" side (though I note that unlike Petraeus, who has a PhD. from Princeton, McChrystal has two masters' degrees in different fields). They also link to the post by Fred Kaplan at Slate, also worth a read.

I've been wracking my brain for the last time that a general was essentially fired in the middle of a war. Lincoln did it constantly in the Civil War, but has it happened since Truman fired MacArthur? Not that McKiernan was fired so summarily or that he was so senior, but I can't recall any major replacements of a theater commander in the midst of a campaign. Ricardo Sanchez stepped aside at the height of the Abu Ghraib controversy in Iraq, but continued as Commander of V Corps in Germany. George Casey succeeded him in Iraq, but served a full tour, and then was made Army Chief of Staff. (Which was also William Westmoreland's reward after Vietnam.)

Gen. David Rodriguez will be the new Deputy Commander in Afghanistan. He and McChrystal both are apparently West Point Class of '76 (Petraeus is Class of '74). Do those dates ring any bells among those of us who are old enough to remember those days? Those are the West Point classes that just missed Vietnam and witnessed, as junior officers or underclassmen, the lost war. The young officers who actually fought in Vietnam — Colin Powell, Norman Schwartzkopf — took one lesson to heart: don't go to war unless you have popular support, and then commit overwhelming force (the so-called Powell Doctrine). The generation that missed Vietnam took counterinsurgency theory more seriously.

The more I look at this the more I see a real coup on the part of the counterinsurgency wing of the Army. McChrystal is a Special Operator, who as head of Joint Special Operations Command went after Saddam Hussein and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi. Petraeus is cashing in the political and military capital he gained in the surge, and applying it to Afghanistan. General McKiernan, by all accounts a solid conventional warrior — tanker, Seventh Army commander in Europe, ground forces commander in Iraq in the initial invasion — is the loser; the COIN community is in the ascendant for now. Whether that is a harbinger of success or disaster will, of course, be proven on the battlefield, not on blogs. If it works, Petraeus will be Chief of Staff of the Army and maybe Chairman of the JCS. It's a big if, however. Afghanistan is not Iraq.

There are aspects of Afghanistan — a history of weak central governments and fierce warrior cultures typical of mountain redoubts like the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Kurdistan; the Pushtun code of hospitality in which tribal loyalties transcend much else, of isolated mountain valleys which are ideal for defense and hard to subdue, and so on — that may prove hard to reconcile with classic COIN theory. But it is an alternative to Dr. Brydon riding alone into Jalalabad.

One of the oddities of Vietnam was that the Kennedy Administration started out as a very pro-counterinsurgency-theory adminstration: Maxwell Taylor, the Chairman of JCS was, of course, an old paratrooper; the Green Berets were a favorite project of JFK, and so on. But when Vietnam came along, despite some intriguing initial counterinsurgency efforts on the part of the Green Berets and Marines, ultimately the old conventional warriors (of whom William Westmoreland was the classic model) took over and fought a conventional war, mostly. And, of course, lost it.

Of course, we have always had a counterinsurgency lobby in the US military: it's just that it was called the Marine Corps. They wrote the book (the Small Wars Manual of 1940) that was pretty much the book on counterinsurgency until General Petraeus' Army Field Manual of 2006. But there were always prophets among the Marine Corps. At the very end of last year, at the age of 95, retired Marine Corps General Victor H. Krulak died. Would that he had lived to see this day when the COIN folks seem triumphant. Krulak argued for a counterinsurgency approach in Vietnam, and lost. As a result, he never became Commandant of the Corps despite being one of the most innovative Marines of his generation. He did, however, live to see his son, Gen. Charles Krulak, become Commandant. Now the Army is preaching the Marine Corps doctrines of small wars and counterinsurgency (Petraeus co-wrote the Counterinsurgency Field Manual with a Marine general; it's a joint field manual, and the Bible of the COIN folks in the Army today. But it's something new in the Army, old hat to the Marines.)

I have no idea how things will play out in Afghanistan, or the increasingly linked issue of Pakistan. But I am certain that Gates — and President Obama, who clearly signed on to this — just changed the game in Afghanistan by changing the doctrine. I'm not the first person to say it, but Afghanistan just became Obama's war, since he's now committed to a dramatically changed strategy, and fired a general to do it.

What Does Roxana Saberi's Freeing Mean?

I didn't post yesterday about the release of Roxana Saberi mostly because I didn't have an immediate reaction other than, of course, relief that a journalist had been freed by a repressive regime. The New York Times has asked a number of experts for their opinions and since they seem to cover the spectrum pretty well, I'm going to refer you to them instead of simply parroting something others are saying. I do recognize, of course, that in the midst of an Iranian electoral campaign, every move means something. What precisely it means, and which factions were responsible for what (remember, Ahmadinejad signaled a while back that he thought she should be freed, so stereotyping who's behind what isn't wise) may take some time to discern.

Monday, May 11, 2009

More on the Change of Command

I've been thinking a bit more about the replacement of General McKiernan with General McChrystal (see immediately prior post). I'm struck by the fact that this comes within days of the visit of Presidents Karzai and Zardari to Washington, and that Karzai has often complained about Afghan civilian casualties. (The US seems to have bombed a surprisingly large number of weddings, for example.) I'm wondering if Karzai had complaints about the command of ISAF.

On the other hand, I think it's clear that David Petraeus, since arriving at CENTCOM, has begun spreading the counterinsurgency gospel to Afghanistan as well. Since McChrystal has a Special Forces background, while McKiernan spent a lot of time in armored units and commanded ground forces in the invasion of Iraq, a more conventional-warfare oriented career track, this could really be Petraeus putting his own stamp on things.

Still, it's unusual to change commanders with this suddenness in wartime; strictly speaking McKiernan wasn't relieved of command so much as asked to step aside; he will retain command until McChrystal is ready to assume command. It still carries the appearance of a professional rebuke.

Changing Horses in Midstream

The announcement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal will replace Gen. David McKiernan as Commander in Afghanistan cited the need for "fresh leadership" in that conflict.

I'll probably have more to say later or tomorrow, but this seems like the sort of professional slap in the face that is rather rare in modern US wars: relieving the commander of a major war zone in the midst of the war. McChrystal's background may be more appropriate to the conflict — he former headed Joint Special Operations Command — but McKiernan has only commanded ISAF (NATO's International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan since last year. It clearly seems to be a rebuke.

Egypt as Venue for Obama's Speech: Two Modest Proposals

Since it was announced on Friday that President Obama would make his long-promised address to the Muslim world from Egypt, there has been a fair amount of commentary on the wisdom of the choice of venue. Marc Lynch's piece yesterday is probably a good condensation of the arguments. It seems to me that the real question is not just speaking in Egypt, but where he chooses to give the speech.

I suspect, with Lynch and other analysts, that the White House wanted a friendly Arab country: his previous speech in Turkey received much attention in some quarters, but in the Arab world a non-Arab Muslim country is not as impressive as an Arab one, and I'm sure an Arab country was desired. Thus Obama's former home of Indonesia is out. Iraq doesn't work since it reminds everyone of the US occupation; Jordan's too small; Saudi Arabia would bring up the controversy over the "bowing" again, and so on. Egypt is friendly and can provide intense security.

The downside is it seems to be an endorsement of the Mubarak regime and its human rights record. And there will be those in the Arab world who dismiss a speech in Egypt as simply using a reliable, bought-and-paid-for ally to make the gesture. I think this perception could be alleviated somewhat, however, if a suitable venue were chosen, with symbolic force that transcends the prestige of the regime in power. Speaking in an auditorium, a soccer stadium, or Parliament would be predictable venues, and that may be what they have in mind, but something more creative might make a greater impact.

I have two thoughts to throw out here. First, the White House announcement said that Obama would speak in Egypt: it did not specifically say that he would speak in Cairo. That could leave open the option of the new Library of Alexandria, a symbol of learning and literature in the Muslim world and an evocation of the great tradition of ancient Egypt. It would serve to emphasize that learning retains a prominent role in the Islamic world and emphasize the humane letters and their preservation in a world beset by fanaticism and rage.

The Library of Alexandria might not be specifically Muslim enough as a venue for a speech addressed to the entire Islamic world, of course. In that case, how about this: Obama speaks at Al-Azhar.

The ancient mosque/University of Al-Azhar, founded over 1000 years ago, is perhaps the most prestigious center of religious learning in the Sunni Muslim world. It is also a powerful symbol of traditional, but non-radical, Islamic doctrine. Yet Al-Azhar is also a modern university, a reminder that education plays an important role in the region and in Islam as a whole.

I'm sure there would be those who would seize upon a few of the rulings of Azhari sheikhs on controversial issues to argue that it is a hotbed of extremism, but that is not really the case. And those crazies who believe Obama is a secret Muslim would no doubt find their heads exploding at the very thought of a speech at Al-Azhar. But they aren't going to vote for him anyway, and they aren't his intended audience. Muslims are.

So those would be my suggestions: don't ask for an address to Parliament or a speech in a soccer stadium or (worse) a military parade ground, or some tourist isolation booth like Sharm al-Sheikh, where too many summits are held; speak at either the Library of Alexandria or Al-Azhar.