A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Government-Bedouin Tensions in Egyptian Sinai

Since last weekend or earlier there have been a number of reports about troubles between Egyptian security forces and bedouin in the Sinai. Now Interior Ministry officials have met with bedouin leaders to defuse the tensions, but it's apparently not enough to satisfy the bedouin, who object to government crackdowns on what the government sees as smuggling and the tribes see as a heavy government hand.

I've held off on discussing this because the government-bedouin clashes occurred at the same time as (and perhaps related to) reports of an attempt to attack a gas pipeline to Israel, or perhaps a pipeline carrying gas to Jordan and Syria. The official version seems to be that someone set fire to vehicles near the pipeline, though other reports suggested it was actually blown up.

Relations with the Sinai bedouin have been rendered even touchier by the heavy Egyptian security effort to prevent terrorist infiltration aimed at attacking Israeli tourists visiting Egypt's "Sinai riviera."

Netanyahu Had Ben-Eliezer Meet Turks Behind Lieberman's Back?

There is friction in the Israeli coalition over reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu had Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Zurich without informing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Nosw Liberman, who has had difficult relations with Netanyahu for some time (and with Turkey as well, of course) is blasting Netanyahu.

The Turkish strategic relationship, which used to be a keystone of Israeli policy, is pretty much a thing of the past, and most Israelis have blamed Turkish PM Erdogan, not themselves. But it looks as if Netanyahu, via Labor Party veteran "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer, is trying to keep a channel open.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Gulf Blog: PR and the Ras al-Khaimah Succession

UPDATE: For a different take on this issue, see the comment below by David Mack, a former US Ambassador to the UAE (and former VP of MEI).

My Gosh. A year and a half of blogging without a post about Ras al-Khaimah, and now here's my second link in a week.

This time it's a post by David Roberts of the Gulf Blog, which also ran in Daily News Egypt, called "A Rentier Coup in a Rentier State." The Ruler, Sheikh Saqr Al Qasimi (above, left), who took power in 1948 and is 92 and dying, exiled his original crown prince a few years back and replaced him with his brother, Sheikh Sa‘ud (right) who is also Deputy Ruler. Now the exiled ex, Sheikh Khalid (below, left), is lobbying for the succession. How? PR: PR apparently aimed at the Americans. Among other things, he has this slick English-language website, and is promoting himself in the West. An interesting piece about an emirate that most people (emphatically including myself) know little about.

Blue Smoke and Mirrors: The "Israel Will Strike from the Caucasus" Rumors

Trying very hard to get our summer issue caught up despite being sidelined by my hip replacement, I have so far neglected to comment on one of the more bizarre stories that ran around the region starting over the weekend: that Israel (and/or the US) is preparing to strike Iran from air bases in Georgia and Azerbaijan, and that Israeli aircraft in the Caucasus managed to get there by deceiving Turkey.

At first glance, it seems like a wild and crazy idea. At second glance, it seems even crazier. Despite some superficial arguments in favor (Israeli aircraft would have a shorter strike range; Iran's air defense system is presumably not as concentrated on the Caucasus front as in the Gulf), neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan is in a position to throw themselves into a confrontation with Iran. (Of course, two summers ago, Georgia provoked a fight with Russia and got invaded, so perhaps self-interest only goes so far as an argument.) Azerbaijanis and Iranian Azeris are one people speaking a common language. The ex-Soviet air bases in the Transcaucasus would need some work to service Israeli aircraft. So what is the source of this strange story?

The story seems to originate with an American radio/web commentator of sensational bent named Gordon Duff, who was talking about this a week or so before it broke in the region. The story in its present form broke in the region over the weekend with the Bahrain Arabic daily Akhbar al-Khaleej, citing "Western political and military sources" (article is in Arabic). A short version appeared in the newspaper's English-language partner Gulf Daily News, thus gaining more traction outside the Arab world. It has been commented upon by Stratfor, with appropriate skepticism, though the full article is available only to subscribers.

I'm betting this is disinformation, but then the question becomes: whose? Just a bit over a week ago we had the kerfuffle over the Harry S Truman strike group transiting the Suez Canal, and we are indeed in a moment when the Truman and Eisenhower strike groups are both on station in the Gulf before the Eisenhower comes home. The US and Israel may both have motives for keeping Iran off balance (and Iran did back off its "Gaza flotilla" effort citing the risk of Israeli attack). It could also be an attempt to foreclose any cooperation, even logistical support, that the Transcaucasus countries might provide Israel or the US by making allegations now. It could also just be conspiracy theorizing at its most fervid, or of course, some elements might even be true. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not plotting against you. Other countries (including Russia) might have some reason to spread a story like this, though: undermine Georgia and Azerbaijan, hurt their relations with Turkey and Iran, perhaps?

But do I think Israel, with or without the US, is about to launch a strike against Iran from the Caucasus? No, I don't.

Of course, they wouldn't tell me if they were.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Robert C, Byrd and Iraq

Senator Robert C Byrd (D-WV), who died today at age 92, after a record-holding tenure in Congress, will be remembered with, at best, mixed feelings by many. A supporter of segregation in his younger days, he was known more recently for moving huge numbers of government projects to his home state. But he was also the Senate's unofficial historian, a self-made constitutional scholar. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him at the time (or since), his statement opposing the Iraq war was concise, forceful, and uncompromising, and seems a suitable way to remember him:

Fallout from McChrystal: Burger King, Pizza Hut in Kandahar May Reopen

In case you were worried, Stars and Stripes is reporting that incoming Afghan Commander Gen. David Petraeus might reopen the Burger King, Pizza Hut, and other American fast food franchises closed recently in Kandahar by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, before his Rolling Stone implosion. It's not a done deal, though.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Roedenbeck on Lewis and Donner

If you haven't already seen it, check out Max Roedenbeck's review of new books by Bernard Lewis and Fred Donner in The New York Times.

It's a good review, and since the early centuries of Islam were my original scholarly turf I definitely must read the Donner book.

But I was struck by a reflection that spins off a bit from something Roedenbeck said in the review of Lewis' latest. He noted Lewis' views might in part stem from his being born in 1916, when the British Empire was still a going concern. If Lewis is a classic orientalist of the old school, Fred Donner of Chicago is one of the best early Islamic historians of my generation: his The Early Islamic Conquests (1981) remains a landmark work, and it sounds as if the new work will be another example of modern historical scholarship.

But I was also struck by the choice of reviewer: Max Roedenbeck, chief Middle East Correspondent for The Economist. Roedenbeck is not just an old Middle East hand: he has spent virtually his whole life in Cairo (and wrote a wonderful book about it), son of parents who taught at AUC and ran AUC press; for him the Middle East is not something merely for study, whether in orientalist or more contemporary form, but where he lives.

Three generations of Middle East expertise, and three very different approaches. Probably not what the editors had in mind in assigning the review, but what struck me on reading it.

Personal note: I'm still struggling to catch up from my injury and will be pushing hard over the next couple of days on the summer issue, so blogging may be light: that's why I'm posting on a weekend.

Yediot: Obama to Demand full Lifting of Gaza Blockade?

I can't speak to the accuracy, but Yediot Aharanot, Israel's largest circulation daily, is reporting that Obama will demand a full lifting of the Gaza blockade when he meets with Netanyahu. I'm a little skeptical to be sure. Hat Tip to The Arabist for the pointer.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Demonstration for Khaled Sa‘id

UPDATE: More at the #khaledsaid hashtag on Twitter. Aida ElBaradei is the name of ElBaradei's wife, and shows up as one of those tweeting.

There was a demonstration today in Alexandria for Khaled Sa‘id, the young Egyptian reportedly taken from an Internet cafe and beaten to death by police. (My earlier post on the subject here: since then, the government has reportedly "investigated," and despite the photos that clearly show severe beating, they continue to attribute his death to drug consunption.) The demonstration, at the Sidi Gaber mosque (a small mosque to discourage large crowds), was visited by Mohamed ElBaradei, Ayman Nour, and other opposition figures. There is clearly real public anger about this, but if anyone was expecting a march on the Bastille, it didn't happen.

Some YouTube video:

"Beers on the Table" and the Hastings-McChrystal Flap

Andrew Exum offers a roundup of opinion and his own take on the Michael Hastings/General McChrystal issue in "Beers on the Table: Journalists and the Public Figures they Cover." Be sure to read the comments thread.

My own two cents: Twenty years or more ago I spent time as a journalist covering the military. Ground rules are important, but no one is suggesting Hastings violated any explicit ground rules. Did the McChrystal folks think that sitting around having a few after hours rendered the conversation off the record? You'd be surprised how easy it is to preface even a somewhat well-lubricated conversation with "Don't use this, but . . ." or "You didn't hear this from me." Rolling Stone is not Army Times; you may not assume any ground rules you don't spell out beforehand. If anybody feels betrayed by all this, it's worrisome for what it says about their security sense.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"When Sharjah Ruled the Skies"

For other history buffs: with a huge new airport about to open at Jebel Ali in the UAE (Al Maktoum International Airport), The National remembers the origin of aviation in what is now the UAE in "When Sharjah Ruled the Skies."

Sharjah may not have exactly "ruled the skies," but it was an important fueling stop on Imperial Airways' route from Great Britain to India, the stopover between Basra and Karachi. In pre-oil days, Sharja was actually the most prominent of what became the UAE.

How Hastings Got the Story

Newsweek has an interview with Michael Hastings on how-he-got-the-McChrystal-Story. This may tell more than anything:
One of the most vivid scenes in the stories comes when you are out with the general, his wife, and his team for a night on the town in Paris. His team is entirely forthright with you, did that surprise you?

Well, they were getting hammered, I don’t know at that moment if they were being the most forthright. Of course it was surprising. A lot of the reporting that is getting most of the attention happened right away in the first few days in Paris. So I was surprised—because they didn’t know me.
They were also stuck in Europe for a while due to the volcano, and the whole visit turned into something much longer than expected.

Okay, I can see it: military men who've been stuck in Kabul and Kandahar are in Paris with wives and the wine is flowing and there's some reporter along but who cares . . .? It makes more sense that this was a case of loose tongues on a European liberty rather than a conscious decision to go on record about these things. Either way, of course, it was a stupid move, but this makes it a little more humanly comprehensible. Also:
It was always clear that you were a reporter and you were, in essence, on the record? And more, the entire article was thoroughly fact-checked, yes?

Yes. It was crystal clear to me, and I was walking around with a tape recorder and a notepad in my hand three-quarters of the time. I didn’t have the Matt Drudge press hat on, but everything short of that it was pretty obvious I was a reporter writing a profile of the general for Rolling Stone. It was always very clear.
Even if some of those present didn't know he was a reporter, anything said in front of a civilian could come back to haunt. Loose lips still sink ships, even if there aren't many ships in Afghanistan.

American University of RAK Drastically Cutting Staff

UPDATE: In more positive news, a reader directs me to this NYT piece on NYU's program in Abu Dhabi.

In recent years there has been a huge boom in Western-curriculum universities in the Gulf; some are satellite campuses of US or European universities; others local foundations with US or European curricula and (usually) English medium of instruction. As with the overall Gulf boom, however, economic reality may be overtaking some of the newer efforts.

The American University of Ras al-Khaimah, in the UAE, is cutting much of its administrative staff and seeking to restructure. making huge cuts in administrative staff, faced with the fact that the university has a large administration but fewer than a hundred students.

The boom in Western-curricula schools in the Gulf has surely benefited both Gulf students hoping to gain Western credentials and also Western academics seeking English-medium opportunities in the region. It may well be that Ras al-Khaimah doesn't have the drawing power of Doha or Sharja, or it may be that the school simply moved too fast at a time of economic contraction.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hey, Maybe Americans Can Play This Game After All

With all the McChrystal news today (is the adjective McChrystalline?), I haven't said anything about USA 1, Algeria 0. As the paper at left shows, the loss got bigger headlines in Algiers than the win did in the US, not to mention a bigger picture than President Bouteflika's. But then Algeria takes soccer seriously: remember the great Algeria-Egypt soccer wars of last fall? (here here, here, here, here, and of course, the apotheosis here.) And as the one Arab team to make it to this year's world cup, I'm sure the game was closely watched across the Middle East (except for those jihadis who followed this fatwa, which says the World Cup is forbidden: sorry, guys, you're limited to horse races, camel races, and archery, according to this).

I'll admit to not being much of a sports jock at best, and I'm also of a generation for whom soccer was a "foreign" game. But in our region, it often is more than just a game. Obviously, sports in developing countries are a major nation-building, nationalism-reinforcing element, not just a pastime. Can you imagine the US having a Ministry of Sports? Can you imagine a Middle Eastern country without one?

Petraeus in for McChrystal

McChrystal is out; Petraeus himself will take over in Afghanistan.

I'm sure there will be a lot of analysis. Off the top of my head, I think it may represent the best of a bad set of choices. To leave McChrystal in place on the grounds that his value outweighed his insubordination would undercut civilian control of the military; a rebuke without removal would weaken McChrystal without strengthening the President.

By naming the one man who is as thoroughly identified with counterinsurgency as McChrystal was, the commitment to the doctrine is clear. It's unfortunate that Petraeus recently had a fainting spell in front of Congress, but his stamina is legendary.

Petraeus also salutes and takes what is really a demotion, from CENTCOM to a theater within CENTCOM, but also assumes a combat command at a difficult time. If he doesn't burn out, he'll be either Chief of Staff of the Army or JCS Chairman someday.

McChrystal, who could well have eventually been Army Chief of Staff, won't be. The mystery remains: what was he thinking?

Israel Launches Ofeq 9

Israel has launched its latest reconaissance satellite, Ofeq 9, from the Palmachim space launch/missile test base. It will be Israel's third currently active spy satellite. Shimon Peres is reported to have told Israel Aerospace Industries that "The launch of the satellite represents a most impressive entrance for Israel into a new realm, that provides a significant and qualitative advantage to Israel in obtaining information from far away areas in the world." Official statements, however, have not suggested it contains any major technological breakthroughs over earlier satellites in the series. Video:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Illinois Lawyer-President and the General

In November of 1861, Abraham Lincoln and his young Secretary, John Hay (who became his biographer, told this story, and later was Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of State) ventured across Lafayette Square to the quarters of General George B. McClellan, Commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was no admirer of Lincoln ("baboon" was one his descriptives), but this would be a particularly memorable evening, as Hay told it. The general was out, but the President agreed to wait in the parlor for his return. As they sat there, they heard the general arrive home, the servant speak to him, and then the general ascend the stairs. A half hour or so later, the servant informed them that he was sorry, but the general had gone to bed.

Certainly General McChrystal's confrontation with another lawyer-President from Illinois tomorrow is not going to be as hostile as that one. Lincoln swallowed it at the time — McClellan was popular and as yet, barely tested — and only sacked him a year later after more provocations. But Lincoln faced an issue Obama faces as well: when someone (Horace Greeley, maybe?) told Lincoln he should replace McClellan with just about anyone, Lincoln quipped that while his critics had the luxury of replacing McClellan with anyone, the Commander-in-Chief must replace him with someone. It's the summer campaigning season in Afghanistan, and there's no time for a rudderless ship.

That said, all sides need to remember that Obama has supported counterinsurgency — he replaced Gen. McKiernan with McChrystal last year for that reason — and this isn't a difference over policy.

Mattis in for McChrystal?

While everyone is speculating: With McChrystal in the hot seat (see previous post) some military and political bloggers are noting that, perhaps fortuitously, USMC four-star Gen. James N. Mattis, currently head of Joint Forces Command and a former MARCENT Commander (CENTCOM's Marine units), was just passed over for Commandant yesterday, and was therefore expected to retire. Afghanistan would be a step down since it would put him under Petraeus, but the Marines were doing counterinsurgency before the Army knew it existed, and his alternative would be retirement.

McChrystal on the Carpet

What to say about General Stanley McChrystal's encounter with Rolling Stone? The article is here. Assuming the article quotes McChrystal accurately and no ground rules were violated, it's hard to understand what led McChrystal and his handlers to agree to such a wide-ranging interview with a reporter who opposes counter-insurgency doctrine. Abu Muqawama, an admirer of McChrystal's, looks at the pros and cons of firing him.

For my singularly non-expert take on this matter, it would go something like this I think: given the recent wave of expressions of concern about the direction of US policy in Afghanistan, a debate is in order and quite appropriate. That includes the suitability of debating counter-insurgency doctrine and its appropriateness as a response in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, McChrystal is so identified personally with COIN doctrine that the doctrine itself is likely to be confused with his individual personality, and this sort of story has personalized the matter. It's no longer a question of how to approach Afghanistan, but an issue over the personal liks among McChrystal, Ambassador Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, etc. McChrystal clearly ovrstepped proper bounds in this article, but if he's relieved, does that also doom COIN in Afghanistan? And if so, is that a good thing, or sacrificing a key US interest over a personality conflict?

This doesn't look like the classic military/civilian conflicts in US history — Lincoln/McClellan, Truman/MacArthur — but more like a case of really bad media judgment at a delicate time. Did the reporter, Michael Hastings, set up McChrystal? I don't know, but a skilled combat general ought to have been watching his flank more carefully. Is the aim of the article to bring down COIN, and not merely its prophet?

McChrystal has rubbed Washington the wrong way before — here are my comments on his IISS speech last fall, which raised hackles though he was really restating his previously released Strategic Assesment — and it's clear that there are still some rough spots. Now the Rolling Stone article raises all sorts of questions. If McChrystal was trying to send a signal, he chose an odd medium, and a reporter who questions his on counterinsurgency beliefs. Maybe this whole thing will become clearer soon; in the meantime, let's at least hope that long-term decisions about Afghanistan, which need to be made with due deliberation, not be confused with the controversies of the moment.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Good News for Gaza, or a Brief Reprieve?

After all the publicity and furor of the past couple of weeks, is Gaza better off with the "relaxed" siege? Marc Lynch sees the emerging resolution, if such it is, as a "Good Deal for Gaza," which he characterizes as "the Israeli government will significantly ease the blockade of Gaza in exchange for American support for a whitewash of the investigation of the flotilla incident." Assuming that is indeed what transpires — assuming Israel doesn't backpedal — he's no doubt right, since a lot of investigative commissions can lead to lots of self-righteous denunciations but no improvement in the situation on the ground, while this might help everyday people trying to live in Gaza.

Meanwhile, The Arabist has some thoughts on a somewhat similar line, in "Did the Freedom Flotilla Work?"

It says something about the state of the peace process that we grasp at straws where we can to find good news.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Journalisrtic Hubbub Over Suez Passage

I don't usually post on weekends, reserving that as family time, but with a new hip still not fully broken in, I'm not very mobile, and something has come to my attention that may need a comment.

The Middle Eastern press is full of reportage about the transit of the Suez Canal by 11 American warships and one Israeli warship. The London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds al-‘Arabi started the furor with a report on how the Egyptian opposition were protesting the Egyptian military's provision of unusual security for the ships transiting the canal. (Link is in Arabic.) Ha'aretz picked up the story, pretty much verbatim from al-Quds, but guaranteeing Israeli attention as well. Google turns up plenty of other regional reports of this alleged huge group of vessels presumably on some sinister mission to threaten Iran.

Now first of all, as the Egyptian opposition knows very well, the Suez Canal is an international waterway open to international shipping in peacetime, and though for security reasons Israel only occasionally sends naval vessels through the canal (rarely enough that its sending of a sub through last year was news), it is entitled to do so under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Now, though these days the nonce word for any group of ships seems to be "flotilla" in those waters, it's pretty clear what the 11 American ships are: they're a carrier strike group (the current name for what used to be a carrier battle group). I'm not sure what the Israeli vessel was or whether it is cooperating with the 11 US ships, but they aren't much of a mystery: the Harry S Truman (CVN 75)-led Carrier Strike Group 10 left Norfolk in May for a six-month deployment to the Sixth Fleet (Med) and Fifth Fleet (Gulf) operational area. It consists of the carrier, a guided missile cruiser, three US guided missile destroyers, and a German frigate; that's six ships of the 11, and there will be logistical ships, oilers, and probably submarine escorts as well.

And if you look at the earlier link, you'll see that the Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group began a six-month deployment in the same areas in January. Um: January . . . June . . . six month deployment . . . Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the US Navy, currently involved in two wars in Southwest Asia, is routinely rotating carrier battle groups.

Now, I don't doubt that the US wanted some publicity as it adds to the pressure on Iran, but this is no escalation, though the Israeli vessel, if attached to the group, is interesting. (Unless, of course, more is going on than is visible here.) But given the amount of open-source evidence this was going to happen, it strikes me as a tempest in a teacup. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep moving.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Marcel Bigeard, 1916-2010

I was alerted to this via Andrew Exum, since it relates to a major figure in counter-insurgency: One of the last of the military leaders on either side in the post-World War II wars of decolonization has died at age 94. Marcel Bigeard rose from enlisted rank to Lieutenant General in a career that began with being taken prisoner in the Fall of France. Escaping to North Africa to join the Free French, he was parachuted into France to work with the resistance. His call sign "Bruno" stuck with him throughout his career. Bigeard later fought throughout the Indochina War and was at Dien Bien Phu, but in our part of the world he will be remembered as the Commander for the Casbah of Algiers during General Massu's 1957 "Battle of Algiers." He is not, shall we say, particularly well remembered in independent Algeria.

More recently, he was drawn into the renewed debate over the use of torture during the war in Algeria, claiming not to have used it himself but defending its use under certain circumstances. (Sound familiar?) Wikipedia here. If you read French, the somewhat differing perspectives of Le Monde and Le Figaro ("la mort du centurion").

He will not be well remembered in Algiers, I fear.

George Orwell, Call Your Office

Binyamin Netanyahu's office issued two press releases yesterday after Cabinet meetings Wednesday and Thursday. Ha'aretz:

Two official statements came out of the Prime Minister's Office in regard to the security cabinet meeting – one in Hebrew for the Israeli media and another in English for the foreign media and foreign diplomats. The English version said that "It was agreed to liberalize the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza [and] expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision." The Hebrew version addressed mainly remarks made by Netanyahu, but failed to mention any decision or agreement.

The Hebrew version also failed to mention whether the prime minister's position was formally approved. "Israel will alter the system in order to allow more civilian goods into Gaza," the Hebrew statement read.

In addition to the English statement, word was sent to foreign consulates and embassies indicating that the decision made by the security cabinet will be implemented immediately. However, according to the officials charged with the actual monitoring of the transfer of goods into Gaza, they have not been notified of any change in policy as a result of the cabinet meeting.

Ha'aretz, of course, is no fan of Netanyahu's, but this Israeli government has already seemed to be giving assurances to the West (when they're not outright insulting Joe Biden) whilre winking and smiling at their domestic hardline constituency, but this seems to verge on the Orwellian.

Does anyone remember how Israelis used to complain that Yasir ‘Arafat said one thing in his English speeches to the West and another in Arabic to Palestinian audiences?:

Do you suppose that's where they got the idea?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ethnicity and Identity in Kyrgyzstan and Elsewhere

The Registan blog, a good go-to for Central Asia, has this post on how the ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan is being reported. Taking off from a NYT article that seems to say that it isn't an ethnic conflict but a class one, it finds that too simplistic an explanation.

The author shows quite a bit of reportage seeking to downplay the ethnic factor, and argues that it is off target if well-meaning. So what if Kyrgyz and Uzbek are mutually comprehensible Turkic languages? The Middle East has plenty of examples of ethnic groups who are hostile despite speaking exactly the same language, and I suspect Central Asia does too. I'll let you read the post for Kyrgyzstan, which I know almost nothing about, but wanted to reflect a bit on how awkward talk about ethnicity can be.

Of course, ethnicity is always a slippery subject. We've thankfully come a long way from the old days of categorizing "races" by measuring skulls and noses; but what is ethnicity exactly? I'll let the anthropologists answer, but in practical terms it usually means the language one speaks. In terms of body type etc., most North Africans appear to be of Berber descent, but only those who speak Tamazight or other Berber languages consider themselves Amazighen. It gets more complicated when we speak, as in Iraq, of "Kurds, Sunnis and Shi‘ites" as if they were three ethnic groups. In the first place, the phrase is shorthand for "Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shi‘ite Arabs," and there are both Sunni and Shi‘ite Kurds as well (not to mention Yazidis . . .). Sunni and Shi‘ite Arabs are indistinguishable ethnically and linguistically (for the most part, excluding a minority of Persian-speakers), so it really is a religious or communal rather than an ethnic distinction. Are the Druze and ethnic or a religious group?

I guess the main issue, really, is how one identifies oneself. There are plenty of mixed marriages across communal, ethnic, and religious boundaries, yet in most Middle Eastern countries one's communal identity is important (and in Lebanon, has official resonance), and to some extent, may involve choices.

I don't know if the Kyrgyz attacking Uzbeks in Osh are doing so because of ethnicity, class, economic role in society, or what, and I'm not sure in the heat of the moment, they are sure themselves. What's fairly clear is there is an "us" versus "them" at work here. And clearly, things have been bad in Kyrgyzstan lately, whatever label we may put on it.

Questioning Afghanistan

Whenever pessimism builds on Afghanistan, such as back when George Will advocated getting out last fall, I figure its time to resurrect once again Lady Butler's painting, Remnants of an Army, showing Dr. Brydon arriving at Jalalabad. It's a reminder of the dangers of imperial hubris. (In January 1842, during the First Afghan War, 4,500 British troops and another 12,ooo camp followers began withdrawing the 90 miles from Kabul to Jalalabad. Only Dr. Brydon made it, the rest being killed or captured. The print was very popular in the Victorian era.)

Two rather well-informed folks are expressing serious doubts about the Afghan war. Anthony Cordesman at CSIS weighed in yesterday with "Realism in Afghanistan: Rethinking an Uncertain Case for the War," and Andrew Exum at CNAS urges humility in "Afghanistan: Graveyard of Assumptions."

These are not dovish advocates for bugging out; they've been among the think tankers advising the Administration and McChrystal's command, and in the preparation of the McChrystal Report. They're not saying the war is lost; they are saying it may need some serious rethinking. I'm not going to try to summarize their points; read what they have to say.

Exum, in true blogger style, also links to rebuttals by Michael Cohen, Max Boot, and Spencer Ackerman.

When the military experts start to question assumptions, though, it's a sign that we are likely to see much more debate. We're a long way from Dr. Brydon, but it's still a reminder that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Is Egypt Encouraging Royal Nostalgia?

Amira Nowaira in The Guardian on what she describes as "Egypt's Royal Nostalgia", namely the proliferation of books, drama, TV series etc. on the monarchical period. I've previously noted the attention paid to the death of Princess Ferial, and the attendance at her funeral of her half-brother King Ahmad Fuad II (who reigned only a year and that from exile). She suggests:
At this sensitive juncture in Egypt's political life when the vexed question of political succession hangs ominously in the air, the royal family – once demonised and denigrated – has now been given a new lease of public life. It is possible that their presence is used to promote the hereditary model and make it seem attractive and viable. If such a system once gave Egypt stability and the foundations of a democratic life, as well as a great deal of charm to boot, it could do it once again.
She does not mean restoring the Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty, of course. She doesn't mention it, but I have before: Gamal Mubarak named his first child Farida. That was the name of Farouq's first queen (and Egypt's last popular one).

Mecca's New Metro Will Be Open for Hajj

Mecca's new 18 kilometer-long Metro, now nearing completion, will be partially operational in time for this year's Hajj. Here's a summary about the project. It's clearly designed to facilitate pilgrims making hajj and &lsquolumra, and is an elevated line.

Swisher on Kyrgyzstan

Clayton Swisher, a former colleague at MEI who's now a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, writing on the Kyrgyzstan bloodshed at Al-Jazeera's Asia blog.

And while I'm at it, here's one of his reports from Bishkek:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War

Following up on my recent posts on the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, here's a useful piece by an IDF vet in Ha'aretz on rehabilitating the reputation of Levi Eshkol in connection with the preparedness of the IDF for the war.

If you saw any presentations on the anniversary of the war, I'll wager you saw pictures of Moshe Dayan, with his rakish eyepatch, striding in combat gear through St. Stephen's Gate (Lion's Gate) into the Old City. Most likely you saw pictures of Yitzhak Rabin here and there too, but Levi Eshkol?

If you're old enough or have read the more detailed studies of the war from the Israeli side (Michael Oren for the political/military, Tom Segev for the social context), you'll certainly be aware that Eshkol was Prime Minister during the war. But he certainly doesn't play a major role in most people's mental imagery of the narrative of the war. Since by now my regular readers eill be aware that I need to let the latent history professor loose on the blog now and then, this is one of those times.

The writer in Ha'aretz, Eliyahu Sacharov, wants to rectify that, and he's not alone. Many people thought Eshkol received poor treatment from his countrymen at the time, and since. Segev's book 1967 (2005 in Hebrew, 2007 in English) pays attention to Eshkol, and Segev credits long conversations with Miriam Eshkol, the Prime Minister's widow, among his sources.

Eshkol was Israel's third Prime Minister, but like Moshe Sharett before him, he rose to power in the shadow of David Ben-Gurion, and that was a very large shadow indeed. When Ben-Gurion split with Mapai (the core of Labor) and former Rafi in 1965, Eshkol led the new Labor Alignment to victory over Rafi in 1965 elections. Eshkol became Prime Minister; Ben-Gurion his critic from the wings.

As was frequently the case at the time, Eshkol held the Defense portfolio as well as that of Prime Minister. Over several years he presided over the development and professionalization of the IDF, helping to create the instrument that would win the Six-Day War.

As tensions with the Arab world built up in early 1967, Eshkol worked hard to secure Israel's position internationally within the context of the post-Suez settlement, also building a relationship with US President Lyndon Johnson. Although Ben-Gurion criticized Eshkol for weakness and indecisiveness, today his efforts are seen as having strengthened Israel's hand internationally.

Under pressure to create a Government of National Unity, with Rafi and many others calling for the naming of Moshe Dayan as Defense Minister, Eshkol fought to keep the portfolio.) (Dayan, a Rafi ally of Ben-Gurion, had won fame as Chief of Operations in the 1956 Sinai Campaign.) When King Hussein of Jordan flew to Cairo to sign an alliance with Nasser and put Jordanian troops under an Egyptian general, Eshkol ran out of political capital. Eshkol was confronted with a loss of support within his own Cabinet, within the Army, and in public opinion. On the afternoon of June 1, he named Moshe Dayan Defense Minister.

Note: On the afternoon of June 1. Four and a half days later, at a little after 7:00 am on June 5, Israeli aircraft took off for their first wave of strikes against Arab air forces. (Assuming Arab air forces would patrol at dawn expecting an attack, then land to refuel and breakfast, Israel sought to strike in that window.)

Major military operations are not planned in four and a half days; pilots are not trained in four and a half days. Yet in the wake of the victory, Dayan won the accolades and his eleventh-hour appointment was seen as the salvation of the state, though he had been a politician in opposition during the planning stages of the war.

Eshkol had no choice but to name Dayan, and certainly Dayan performed ably, though Chief of Staff Rabin and the IDF Command had their war plan mostly in place already. Dayan took the honors, and Eshkol's role was largely neglected.

Eshkol remained in office, dying of a heart attack in February 1969, less than two years after the war, and thus never wrote a memoir to defend his position, as everyone else did. Eshkol was not forgotten — a national park and the suburb of Ramat Eshkol, the first built over the Green Line, are named for him; he has appeared on both paper notes and coins. But until fairly recently, only his partisans have sought to give him due credit for the war. That does seem to be changing.

The Coptic Clash With the State Over Divorce

Although this blog has, given some of my own personal interests and past research, paid pretty close attention to Coptic issues in Egypt, one the biggest rifts between church and state since Anwar Sadat's day has been playing out without any comment from me, since it more or less coincided with my broken hip and subsequent surgery.

Like most Middle Eastern countries, Egypt's laws of personal status follow the religious law of the individual community. Egypt is actually better than many of its neighbors in that both civil marriage and divorce do exist (they do not, for example, in Israel), but they may not be accepted by one's religious community when it comes to the right to remarry.

Like most Eastern Churches, the Copts are rather restrictive on grounds for divorce. Divorce (with right to remarry) is only granted if one spouse is guilty of adultery or bigamy; the innocent spouse may be allowed to remarry, but only with approval of the bishops. But in recent years there has been pressure from the laity for change, since Copts granted a civil divorce cannot remarry in the eyes of the church, and are often confronted with the option of converting to Islam if they wish to remarry.

On May 29, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court ruled in a case that was already on appeal, in which two Coptic men who had been granted civil divorces sued for the right to remarry in the Church. A lower court had ruled against the Church. The Court this time ruled that since the Egyptian Constitution granted citizens the right to remarriage and a family, the Church must comply. So a classic Church-state conflict was inevitable.

The Church and its bishops opposed the ruling and Pope Shenouda carefully rejected it, noting that the Church respects the Constitution and laws of Egypt but that marriage is a sacrament instituted by the gospels and the Church could not compromise.

An emergency meeting of the Holy Synod (which normally meets only once a year) was called;

Pope Shenouda was soon, reportedly, promised a Presidential decree to rectify the situation. Then it was announced that a draft law would be prepared to fix the issue within 30 days, though the commission to do so is already under fire for not inviting the Catholics and Anglicans.

The government is very sensitive about international criticism of the rights of Christians in Egypt; it got lots of negative press during the Nag Hammadi killings in January. So the court has created an issue the government wishes very much would go away, as the promises first of a Presidential decree and then of a draft law demonstrate.

More as appropriate as this makes its way through legislation.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Kyrgyzstan again: the Ferghana as a Border Nightmare

During the earlier round of Kyrgyzstan violence, I noted that the map of the country explains why ethnic explosions are so common — including the anti-Uzbek riots of the present outbreak and the outflow of Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan. The Ferghana Valley, once the heartland of Muslim Central Asia, is divided among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and if that weren;t awkward enough, the Uzbek and Tajik parts cut so deeply into Kyrgyzstan as to make it look like a snapping turtle with its mouth open, the northern and southern parts so separated as to require a considerable detour to go from one to the other when international borders are closed:

It's like an invitation to ethnic cleansing: minorities have fellow ethnics just over the border in one direction or another, and everyone blames everyone else. (And Kazakhstan barely missed out on the fun.)

This article pretty much blames it all on Joe Stalin. I think that's fairly accurate, but doesn't do much about rectifying the problem.

Beating Death in Alexandria Sparks Protests

Over the past few days tension has been building over the beating death, in Alexandria, of a young man reportedly hauled from a cyber cafe and beaten by police. Amid some reports that he may have been killed over an Internet video exposing the police, there has been a rallying round on social media sites. The Arabist has a good round-up of the main elements of the story. The juxtaposition of photos of the young man in life and his shattered face in death have added to the outrage, but before clicking through let me note that they're pretty grisly.

I'll let you click through to the accounts. It's fairly typical. At first the police say the young man consumed a large bag of drugs. When investigation shows that's not what happened, and if there were any drugs they were in the hands of the police, the police say things are still under investigation.

Since I'm not in Egypt, it's hard to judge the mood. Facebook groups can be evanescent, and it's a lot safer joining a group than a demonstration. Khaled Saad is not the first, nor is he likely to be the last, to die as a result of a police that considers itself above the law.

On the other hand, it's the latest outrage in a growing list of complaints: labor union protests, strikes, the ElBaradei phenomenon, harassment of the opposition, and so on, which, coming at a moment when the succession question is very much on people's minds, could conceivably lead to some sort of critical mass which could provoke change. But so far, that critical mass has not been reached.

This is, however, precisely the sort of incident that particularly outrages people: Khaled Said was not some high profile opposition figure, but an unknown. If he can be pulled from a cafe and beaten to death by police, anyone can. The sheer pettiness of the scale in which a human life was ended adds to the fury.

Each time some new protest occurs, the opposition seems confident that the Egyptian public's patience is at a breaking point; each time it turns out to be, not yet. But in the social networking age, it's not just the family and neighbors or a human rights group that hears of it. And even if nothing changes, a lot more people know how Khaled Said died.

Friday, June 11, 2010

New MEI Bulletin

The June 2010 MEI Bulletin is now available, focusing on various aspects of nuclear development in the Middle East. The full issue is available here (PDF).

Geneive Abdo Updates Iran's War on Tech

Remember all the enthusiasm last summer during Iran's abortive "Twitter revolution?" Over at Foreign Policy's Mideast Channel, Geneive Abdo brings us up to date on Iran's opposition's disillusionment with events and the regime's increasing tendency to blame the US for cyber-warfare. It's a good update from someone who knows Iran well.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Starbucks Protest in Egypt

In a city where coffeehouses were already the male-bonding hangout centuries before the city of Seattle was founded, it's hard for me to understand why Cairo needs Starbucks at all (your coals to Newcastle, refrigerators to Eskimos sort of thing). Though perhaps it's not a "need" thing at all, but another case of Cairo elites wanting to spend a lot more for their coffee in order to avoid having to rub elbows with galabiyya-clad, shisha-smoking, tawla-playing abna' al-balad.

But to my point here: there has been a Starbucks protest in Cairo. Zeinobia here. Sarah Carr has a Flickr Stream here.

There have long been claims that the founder of Starbucks supports Israel, and that is clearly in play here from the protest signs, though that story is a hoax originating in failed satire, and as Zeinobia notes, Starbucks no longer even operates in Israel (though it closed its six stores for business reasons, not politics.)

I suspect for many of the protestors the facts don't matter. I'm sure they believe the rumors, but I suspect that Starbucks has also now become what McDonalds has long been, a symbol of America and of Globalization.

And an interesting side point: note the Turkish flags at the demonstration. Israel may have done more for Turkish-Arab friendship than anyone since the fall of the Ottomans.

And on the Sixth Day . . .

There was a ceasefire. And on the seventh, the Armies rested. The 1967 war and the occupation lines resulting from it are so central to today's peace process that it is tempting (given the time frame) to evoke the Biblical creation narrative.

June 10, the sixth day of the Six-Day War, gets considerably less attention than some of the others. It's the day of mopping up and wrapping things in a package, played out as much in the United Nations as on the battlefield, which by day six meant only the Golan.

The war had begun on the Egyptian front, and though on day one Israel attacked both the Jordanian and Syrian air forces, they did not move on those fronts on the first day. Once Jordanian artillery opened fire, it gave Israel the opportunity to move against East Jerusalem and to unite the city, a profound religious and nationalist goal. Syria engaged in artillery duels but until the Sinai and West Bank were secure, Israel did not feel free to begin ground operations in the Golan, and there was some concern that a ceasefire would be imposed before it had the opportunity.

At 3 am on June 9, Syria accepted a ceasefire, trying to block an Israeli attack, but it was too late and Israel attacked the Golan. June 9 was the day to ascend the plateau; June 10 the day to occupy. Syria, dug in here more than the other Arab states, gave considerable resistance.

But pressure from the Arab side for a ceasefire was intense. The Arab Armies were beaten and their East Bloc allies were trying to block an even greater disaster. Trying to speed a ceasefire, Radio Damascus announced the fall of the provincial city of Quneitra — which the Israelis knew they had not yet taken. Determined to get Quneitra before a ceasefire kicked in, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol gave the Northern Command four hours to take it, knowing it would take considerable diplomatic skill to prevent an imposed ceasefire before that time.

(The ceasefire as one dimension of battle tactics goes back to the original War of Independence when Israel established the precedent that if a ceasefire is to be "in place" in a certain number of hours, forces should move the front as far and as fast as they can so that the ceasefire solidifies the gains before the enemy can make a countermove.)

Eshkol's deadline was two pm. Quneitra fell at 12:30 pm. A ceasefire was in place on all fronts for 6 pm.

The Six-Day War was over. All that remained was figuring out how to deal with Israel's large newly-occupied territories, and the Arab populations living there. I'll have to get back to you on that: that's what the last 43 years have been about.

There've been other wars; there've been peace treaties; we've gone from Labor Prime Ministers saying "There's no such thing as a Palestinian," to Likud governments negotiating with a Palestinian Authority. There has been progress, particularly in the 90s, but there's little doubt that those six days 43 years ago really are a key to the peace process today, such as it is.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The USS Liberty Incident: Still Starting Fights After All These Years

I'm a day late on this one; that may happen during the convalescence period; but 43 years ago yesterday, the USS Liberty, collecting intelligence signals in the eastern Mediterranean, was attacked by Israeli aircraft, leaving 34 Americans dead. Forty-three years later, you can get a good argument going among Mideast watchers (or in the "Communcations" section of The Middle East Journal) by producing a new book or article on the subject of whether Israel knew it was attacking an American ship (fervently believed by the US intelligence community and the Liberty survivors, as well as critics of Israel), or a tragic mistake (Israel's explanation, and that of most of its defenders). It doesn't divide easily on pro-Israeli/anti-Israeli lines; many who were in the State Department or NSA at the time were pro-Israeli but convinced it was deliberate. (And as an aside, a Liberty survivor was on board the Gaza aid flotilla.)

For background, the Wikipedia article offers an introduction. For a sampling of the "deliberate" argument, there are the USS Liberty Veterans' Association website, survivor Jim Ennes' USS Liberty Memorial; and NSA watcher James Bamford has argued the "deliberate" side forcefully, though I can't locate a website by him. On the "accident" side, the most fully researched and argued case is in A. Jay Cristol's 2002 book The Liberty Incident, which either decides the issue once and for all (if you assume it was an accident), or, to be fair, at least dispels some myths that have lingered about the case (if, like me, you still have doubts). Cristol maintains a website with documents and links.

Given the huge number of trees and, more recently, bandwidth that have given their all to fuel this debate over four decades, I'm not going to shed any major new light here, but do have a few comments. Due to a couple of coincidental factors, I've had to deal with the Liberty a few times at MEJ, mostly in flame wars related to the publication of new books such as Cristol's. Now, as it happens, my distinguished predecessor as Editor of MEJ, Richard Parker (former Ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon, and Morocco), was Political Officer at the US Embassy in Cairo in June 1967. He has written a lot about 1967, in his book The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East and elsewhere, hosted an anniversary conference and edited the proceedings (The Six-Day War: A Retrospective), and has retained an avid interest in the subject.

Ambassador Parker lived through the Liberty incident at first hand, and has sometimes described himself as "the only Gentile in the US government who believes it was an accident." That against-the-grain condition, Dick's natural tendency to welcome a good argument, and his links to The Middle East Journal, all mean we have often been the venue for the debate, most recently when Parker reviewed Cristol favorably.

My own take: unlike Dick Parker, I wasn't there. I was finishing my sophomore year of college. I don't know what happened. I've read the major books on both sides and I still don't know for sure. Cristol has knocked down some of the arguments for it being deliberate, but not all of them. I do have a nagging feeling that something's missing. Neither the "Israel knew it was American and attacked it deliberately" nor the "It was a tragic mistake" explanation accounts for all the data. If it was deliberate, the why is a problem: to cover up the planned attack on the Golan? It was in the wrong place, and the timing is wrong. To cover up a war crime in the Sinai? Nobody's successfully substantiated that. For some other reason? If it was an accident, it was an incredibly stupid one, as the Liberty had a large US flag, was broadcasting its identity, etc.

There may be a clue out there. In 2007, Israeli scholars/journalists Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez published Foxbats over Dimona, a revisionist look at 1967 based on interviews with veterans of the ex-Soviet Union and memoirs published in obscure ex-Soviet veterans' publications, not to mention Soviet-era documents. It was a controversial book, welcomed by those who want to portray 1967 as a Soviet-Arab plot against Israel, but despite the many favorable reviews it received from folks like Daniel Pipes, it also received powerful reviews from Foreign Affairs and from Professor Mark Katz in (ahem) The Middle East Journal. (That, in turn, sparked a spirited exchange between Ginor and Remez and Ambassador Parker in MEJ.) Here's their Amazon page. Personally — and I've discussed this with Ginor and Remez so I hope they won't mind me mentioning it here — I think they may overstate what the Soviets were prepared to risk, but that they do bring new evidence to the table.

The Liberty does get a chapter in their book, and when I read it I was struck by the fact that while nothing they reveal answers all the questions, it could provide a missing link: a Soviet role, or even just both the US and the Israelis treading cautiously to to avoid engaging the Soviets, could have been a factor. There's always been a question about why the US recalled aircraft dispatched from the carrier Saratoga; one explanation has been they may have been armed with nuclear weapons. Of course they weren't going to nuke the Israelis; but could they have pulled back from providing air cover for Liberty out of concern Russian ships in the area would think they were the target? Ginor and Remez find hints of two or three Soviet ships and perhaps submarines operating in the general area of the Liberty. They don't draw firm conclusions, but could his be the missing link in the Liberty debate?

I don't know. I do suspect that either nuclear issues or issues of Soviet involvement would be the sensitive issues that would still not have been declassified, and it does seem as if somebody somewhere is covering up something, even if you accept Israel made a mistake.

Will we ever know for sure? Lots of people on each side are confident they already know. I admit that I don't. Heck, we still don't know for sure who ordered the killing of Admiral Darlan in 1942. (Before the comments start, note I didn't say there were no obvious suspects. There are too many.)

Removal of a Post and an Apology

For the first time since I've been doing this I've deleted one of my own posts, the one on Helen Thomas. The tone I had intended was one of sadness at the way a great career ended; I singularly failed to achieve that. The comments show that it came across as ageist (and at my age I've sometimes been the victim myself) and rather arrogant. (At least one reader took my meaning, but clearly most did not.) On rereading it, I feel I failed to convey the message I was looking for, and conveyed one I never intended instead. One commentator suggested I would try to blame the painkillers. They may have played some part in poor judgment on my part, but I'm responsible for my judgments, and I still wrote it wrong, and posted it, and I regret that. I apologize to offended readers and to Ms. Thomas.

Blogging is, by definition, personal and subjective, and I'm not likely to take down posts because people disagree with me: I'm here to express my opinion. You don't have to read the blog. But on the other hand, when I find on rereading that I disagree with myself, or at least my tone, I'll do the right thing.

Shahrzad Survives for a 1,002nd Night

King Shahriyar has relented once again. Or at least the Egyptian courts have shown some sense, throwing out the stupid case to ban the 1,001 Nights.

You can find my earlier rant about censorship, literature, and this case here.

It was ridiculous, but in the Middle East today that didn't guarantee that it wouldn't go through. I guess the Egyptian courts realize it would make the country look silly.

It's as if some American jurisdiction were to try to ban Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye. Oh, wait . . .

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

ElBaradei Bandwagon: Slowing Down?

Many of Mohamed ElBaradei's reformist supporters in Egypt are growing disillusioned with their hero's record to date. We've touched on some of these complaints before, but The National gives a good summing up.

They're catching on that a man who's spent decades outside Egypt, has no campaigning experience (outside of international organizations, anyway), no well-organized infrastructure, and is up against a pro-government official media and an opposition press which agrees only that Mubarak must go, may not be a recipe for victory in an entrenched, dominant party and a widely-questioned electoral system, may not be able to walk on water after all.

You'll hear more from me as my recovery proceeds.

Monday, June 7, 2010

June 7: The Day The Central Symbol Changed Hands

Today marks the 43rd anniversary of a day that, if not in fact the central focus of modern Middle Eastern history, then is at least the symbolic focus. It was on June 7, 1967, the third day of the six day war, that the Israel Defense Forces captured Judaism's most famous pilgrimage site, the Western Wall (once, but not since, known as the Wailing Wall), but also, with it, Islam's third holiest sanctuary, the Masjid al-Aqsa, and the adjacent Dome of the Rock, which themselves seit on the great platform where the First and Second Jewish Temples once stood. The site Muslims call al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and Jews know as Har Ha-Bayit (The Temple Mount) has become a symbol of the problem: Of the making of peace plans for Jerusalem there is no end, and many of them deal creatively with the Haram, but the sheer direct-claims to the same holy site aspect of the place, the zero-sum, one side must lose when the other gains, makes it such a potent symbol. We've talked about the potency of religious sites before, but this is the one where it all comes together.

This YouTube video captures the triumphal mood of the Israeli side on that day,with stills of the events and recorded broadcasts:

But, of course, it was a tragedy for the Muslim world, and in that conundrum lies the central symbol of the problem.

Positive Thoughts for a Monday Morning

Not just a Monday morning, but the Monday morning after major surgery.

Since a good part of blogging is done in a seated position, I'm now well equipped to be Super-Blogger: not just another old guy with a hip replacement, but the Bionic Blogger with the Titanium Butt!

Serious blogging resumes here later today.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

June 5, After 43 Years

It's June 5, the date of the outbreak of the six-day war of 1967, the event from which so much of the modern Middle East stems. There's much that can be said, but given the obstacles of blogging from a hospital bed on drugs, it's difficult to be profound.

Fortunately, I reflected at some length last year, and can simply refer you there. Now that I've been at this more than a year, I can resort to reruns when I have to.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Egypt's Shura Council Elections

While most Middle East media and bloggers were focused on the Gaza flotilla and yours truly was flat on his back or in surgery, there was little coverage of Egypt's Shura Council elections. A predictable exception was Issandr El Amrani (The Arabist), who wrote a good one for Middle East International, which he reproduces at his website, along with some good links.

The Shura Council, Egypt's Upper House, generally is considered less relevant than the People's Assembly (the Lower House), but as The Arabist notes, there are points worth making.

Since he does a good job of it, I'm typing in bed with the laptop at an awkward and, as my orthopedic surgeon reminded me today, I'm typing on drugs (which, before the obvious comments appear, I have not done before). So I'll let you read his post, and maybe try again when the dosage is decreased.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Recycling Bin . . .

In case you've been wondering where I've been: on Tuesday night while taking out the recycling, I fell and hit my driveway. Hard. An ambulance ride later I learn I have a broken hip. Yep, the thighbone was no longer connected to the hipbone. After two immobilized days, l had a hip replacement yesterday. So I'll be having even more fun at airport security from here on out.

I'm still in the hospital, and my first priority is the summer issue of the Journal, but on the other hand, I'm going to be immobilized for a while, so when I can I'll resume regular posting, perhaps later today.

Sorry if there are typos. Blame the painkillers.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Twitter and the Flotilla

The Arabist has some interesting and perhaps suggestive data about Twitter, its "Trending" feature, and the word "flotilla," raising questions about whether "flotilla" posts aren't being counted towards trending, or some technical glitch is at work.

Now, part of me quibbles that six ships do not a flotilla make, but since the media has decided that's how we refer to the aid convoy (it's much more a convoy than a flotilla, and the word is less military to boot) I'll use it here.

Frankly, this is probably one of those cases where the axiom that you should "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity" kicks in. But it does raise questions.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Exum: Fast-Roping 101

Amid all the critiques of the botched raid and all the words written by others (including me), Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama) reduces it to one visual:

Further Thoughts: Turkey and Israel . . . and Article 5

More boats are reportedly planning to try to run the Israeli blockade and send aid to Gaza, and there are reports that Turkey might be planning to provide a naval escort. The Turks (who lost four nationals in the Israeli raid) are spitting mad at the moment. But this raises the possibility of a formal military confrontation between Israel and Turkey. And that in turn reminds us of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
One may argue that the Eastern Mediterranean is not "Europe or North America" for the purposes of the NATO Treaty, though Turkey and Greece would disagree. (The provision is there so NATO allies didn't have to help fight British and French colonial wars.) But yes, an armed confrontation with Turkey could see Israel confronting NATO. I don't expect that to happen, but it's a sign of the ramifications of this botched raid.

And that, I think, underscores why I think this was a major mistake. It calls to mind the famous comment (usually attributed to Talleyrand) concerning Napoleon's execution of the Duc d'Enghien: "It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder." (I was planning to make that allusion at some point, but now I see several editorialists around the world have already done so. I'm not plagiarizing; I'm just late getting around to making it.)

It's a blunder because the results of the botched raid are far more severe for Israel internationally than any damage that might have been done if the flotilla had been allowed to pass through, or had simply been turned back with shots across the bow. Israel's defense that the commandos were attacked first as they were boarding and thus the first blow was from the other side misses a point: the boat was in international waters and flying a friendly flag, and those aboard had a perfect right to attempt to repel boarders.Those denouncing Israel with terms like "piracy" miss the point: this was an act of state policy and arguably constitutes an act of war.

It is, in fact, a classic case of overreaction to a provocation. I have no illusions that there were "activists" aboard who wanted a confrontation like this, in order to embarrass Israel. What I don't comprehend is why the IDF so willingly obliged them.

I'll let others decide whether the raid can be justified under international maritime law. The question is whether anything was accomplished that makes the negative impact on Israel's image worth the price? Now that the IDF says it is delivering the humanitarian aid to Gaza, what exactly was accomplished by the operation? I can think of several answers:
  1. Israel has driven another nail in the coffin of Israeli-Turkish relations, in the wake of Danny Ayalon's calculated insult to the Turkish Ambassador last year;
  2. It's a black eye for Israel internationally;
  3. It postponed a Netanyahu-Obama summit and makes its rescheduling awkward;
  4. It opens up the possibility of a confrontation with NATO (see above);
  5. It has led even right-wing Israelis to criticize their Navy's handling of the matter;
  6. It has divided the Israeli government, and strengthened a Turkish government which Israel is uncomfortable with; and
  7. It has led Egypt to end, at least temporarily, its blockade of Gaza.
It has, therefore, produced quite a few results. I just fail to see that any of them were policy objectives of those who approved the raid.

Lawyers say you should never ask a question of a witness if you don't know what the answer will be. Similarly, you should never resort to military force unless you've gamed out the worst-case scenarios.

Aftermath: What Went Wrong?

While Israeli spokesmen are defending the flotilla raid in public fora, it's clear that the whole thing was a major botch, and the major question is: why did it go so wrong? BBC asks the question here, but members of Israel's inner security cabinet are asking the same thing. Instead of being approved by the security cabinet, which is supposed to approve such sensitive operations, it was approved by a seven-minister "forum" consisting of Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Avigdor Lieberman, Dan Meridor, Moshe Ya'alon, Eli Yishai and Benny Begin. Most of those guys are to the right of Netanyahu, with the exception of Barak. [And before somebody quibbles, maybe Meridor.]

Israel has arranged to deliver the humanitarian supplies to Gaza, trying to recover some of its rather tarnished image, but it's clear that diplomatically this was a disaster. More to the point, it was a mess militarily as well. Just days before the anniversary of the June 5, 1967 strike that disabled Arab air forces at a single blow and began Israel's most successful war, it's clear that the IDF is no longer the finely-honed instrument it once was, or at least appeared to be. Even the rightist Jerusalem Post recognizes how botched the operation was (though admittedly, their analyst complains because the commandos were under-armed and didn't take firm enough action). Not being a Wall Street Journal subscriber, I can't access the full text of neocon Max Boot's op-ed, but based on this post by Andrew Exum, I gather he ultimately concludes that Israel's over-reliance on military operations in what are sometimes complex propaganda exercises was part of the problem. (See also Exum here.) Indeed. When you have a hammer, they say every problem starts to look like a nail; when you have a strong military, it can be tempting to use military action even when it is counter-indicated. (And the US is often susceptible to the same temptation.)

Egypt Lifts its Blockade of Gaza

The international outcry over the raid on the aid flotilla has provoked at least one reaction that, in effect, could effectively undercut the purpose of the raid: Egypt has lifted its blockade of the Rafah Crossing in order to allow aid to pass from Sinai into Gaza. It's variously described as being lifted "for several days" or "indefinitely," but it's no doubt due to commentary like this, referring to the "medieval Israeli and Egyptian siege of Gaza." Egypt suddenly finds itself perceived as an enabler. (I'll let the slur on the Middle Ages pass for now.)