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Ben Ali runs again!

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

and no changeBut will he do better or worse than last time?

TUNIS — Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has led the North African country for 22 years, handed in his candidacy Wednesday for a fifth five-year term.

“I have just, by the grace of God, and in line with the provisions of the constitution, handed in my candidacy, in response to the call of duty and to renew the commitment I have taken with you,” Ben Ali said.

My knowledge of Tunisian politics being nearly nil, I can only make two confident predictions:

1. It will be a hard-fought, close presidential race, given the libertarian pluralism of the Tunisian political landscape, and the outspoken nature of the country’s free press.

2. The United States, France, the EU, and every last little fucker on Twitter will react with horror, shock and outrage should these elections not be fully democratic and transparent.

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Fayyad, Maliki, the Americans

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

Over the weekend I finished reading the 37-page program that Salam Fayyad, the PM in the Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority (PA) produced for the new, and still western-funded ‘government’ that he heads in Ramallah.

Readers can find the text of the program here. (HT: John Knight.)

It is a typical technocrat’s document– lengthy, larded with Jargon-of-the-Month formulations, and resembling nothing so much as the overly wordy “workplans” that people applying for grants from western funding organizations are required to submit to them. (Wonder why?) Much of it even sounds very admirable: lots of emphasis on things like “accountability” and “good governance” and other equally worthy goals.

But to note only that is to completely miss the point of this document, I think. Despite the strong emphasis on technocracy, this is an intensely political document. Indeed, the skirting of the most evident political issues facing the Palestinian people is, in a sense, the main point of this document. It embodies the politics of “anti-politics”; that is, it aims to provide an alternative to the division between Fateh and Hamas that currently– along with, of course, Israel’s continued massive campaign against all manifestations of Palestinian rights or interests– plagues the Palestinian people.

That is what we should expect, perhaps, of Fayyad, a personally decent man who made the choice to be parachuted into Ramallah as, essentially, the tool of the Americans back in 2005.

He’s been playing a complicated game ever since. He is not a man with a history in any branch of the extremely lengthy and hard-fought campaign of resistance to Israeli occupation. He comes without his own political network, and has to rely almost completely on the US-mobilized funding that comes to him as PM of the PA in order to try to build support from Palestinians.

In the 2006 parliamentary elections, he and Hanan Ashrawi were the only two people elected to the parliament from the list that they’d formed. Hamas won those elections handily, of course. Fayyad and all other non-Hamas people were warned strongly away from participating in the Hamas-backed government. However, in the National Unity Government formed in March 2007, he was named Finance Minister– indicating, presumably, that he had the confidence of both Fateh and Hamas at that time.

But in June 2007, when the US-backed forces of Fateh/Contra leader Dahlan launched the disastrous coup that broke up the NUG, Fayyad was the US-backed figure who was thereafter installed in Ramallah as ‘Prime Minister’, in a completely unconstitutional way.

So for him now to speak of “accountability” and “good governance”, etc is inherently non-credible.

He has, however, been trying to pull off what we might call the “Nuri al-Maliki move”. Over in Iraq, Maliki was installed as Prime Minister as a result of elections administered by the occupying US military and according to constitutional “rules” that had been largely dictated by the US occupation. Nonetheless, Maliki has tried to carve out a space for independent Iraqi decisionmaking that is not totally dominated by Washington; and he has had some success in that, I think.

Most notably, during the tough negotiations of last fall over the SOFA agreement long demanded by the Americans, Maliki succeeded in transforming the SOFA into a Withdrawal Agreement; and he got written into it a date certain for the complete withdrawal of all US forces from the country, which the Bushites had never wanted.

So the first question has to be: Is Maliki’s success in that regard replicable by Fayyad (or anyone else) in Palestine?

There are structural differences, to be sure. The US, when it intervenes in Palestinian politics, does so not as the direct occupying power– as it has done in Iraq– but as a sort of proxy for the Israeli occupying power. The consequence of this is that regardless of what Keith Dayton or other Americans who work very closely with Fayyad might want to do, actually the IOF is a far bigger presence. And though the Americans might want to see Fayyad “succeed” as a PM, there’s a large chunk of opinion in the Israeli political elite that really does not want to see any Palestinian administration “succeed” anywhere west of the River Jordan, whether in Ramallah or Gaza City.

That’s one big difference.

Another difference that stems from the fact that in Palestine the US is really a proxy for the real occupier whereas in Iraq it was the real occupier is that in Iraq, the dynamics of the situation got around to the place where even the people in the Bush administration ultimately judged that it was in the US’s interest to withdraw from the damaging and expensive confrontation in Iraq, and therefore from Iraq itself. So they had, if you like, an increasingly strong incentive to see Maliki (or someone!) succeed in building something of a sustainable indigenous governing capacity there.

In Palestine, however, the US is taking no losses in blood or even, in any direct way, treasure, from the continuation of the occupation. Hey, they and the Israelis even got the Europeans to pick up most of the tab for running the apparently endless occupation! (And the occupying army’s own forces, meanwhile, are suffering almost no casualties there.)

But this indicates that the US has correspondingly less strong of an interest in “withdrawing” from its role in Palestine, and therefore less of a motivation for seeing a sustainable indigenous government “succeed”. It becomes more optional for them, if you like.

Though in the broader regional and international context, I would say that the American people’s interest in seeing a fair and sustainable resolution of the Palestine Question is quite compelling. But that’s a broader argument; and maybe it doesn’t hit the decisionmakers in the Obama White House with quite the same urgency as the need to stanch the erosion of US blood and treasure in Iraq but getting the heck out of the country has done to them, and even before them, the Bushies.

So, can Fayyad pull off the “Nuri al-Maliki move”?

Other factors, I think, intervene as well. Maliki had two distinct advantages when it came to arm-wrestling with the Americans who’d installed him. (And we should remember that he wasn’t even their first choice. He was imposed on them back in early 2006 by a situation in which the Americans already demonstrated their inability to control all the key levers of political power inside Iraq.)

The first of his advantages has been the parliament there. despite all the evident problems in the electotal system, nonetheless the parliamentarians developed some real capability as a force overseeing some of the key actions and initiatives of the Maliki government. As I understand it, it was largely the very nationalist-minded pressure from the parliamentarians that stiffened Maliki’s spine on the SOFA issue and resulted in him winning the Withdrawal Agreement.

Fayyad, for obvious reasons, looks unlikely to be able to rely on allies in parliament to act as a counter-weight to US pressure.

And the second of Maliki’s “advantages” in his relationship with his country’s occupiers– I put that word in scare-quotes, advisedly– has been the strong influence that Iran won inside the Iraqi political system from the very moment that the Americans toppled Saddam Hussein. I am not privy to the extent to which Maliki (like most other figures inside the current Iraqi political firmament) has become reliant on Iranian help in, often, even the most basic aspects of personal and political survival. But the fact that the Iranians have been able to sustain webs of significant influence throughout just about all the different parts of the reconstituted Iraqi forces means that most Iraqi pols today are not completely reliant on the Americans for their physical survival. Which of course, has made it easier for them to “stand up to” the Americans on key issues like the WA.

Iran’s influence deep within Iraq’s security structures is, however, a very mixed “blessing” for many Iraqis: one that will most likely cause deep problems within the country for many years to come.

Fayyad, for his part, has no such “counter” to any pressures the Americans and Israelis might put on him…

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Turkish FM mediating between Iraq and Syria

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

As long-time JWN readers are aware, I have always been worried about the prospect that as the US military decreases its presence in Iraq, many of the country’s neighbors would rush in to fill the resulting security vacuum and the contest between them could escalate in many unpredictable ways. That was why I strongly urged– from long before the Iraq Study Group endorsed this necessary recommendation– that as the US withdraws either Washington or, preferably, the UN should convene a high-level meeting of Iraq, the US, and all Iraq’s neighbors to work out a code of conduct for the behaviors of all parties with regard to Iraq; and preferably also establish a UN-based monitoring and incident-resolution mechanism to follow up on compliance with those agreements.

The US government hasn’t done that, though the troop withdrawal is already well underway and some serious tensions have already been emerging. And neither has the UN done much to put into place such a plan.

I guess for both the US and the UN, the ‘sensitivity’ of including Iran in any such arrangement seems like a real obstacle. (I wish, obviously that the UN had a lot more independence from US tutelage at this point.)

But now, Turkey seems to be stepping into the conflict-reduction role in a significant way. Today, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu is scheduled to pay consecutive visits to Iraq and Syria to try to resolve the conflict that’s erupted since the Iraqi government accused Syria of harboring the opposition leaders who, Baghdad alleges, orchestrated the bombings of various Iraqi ministries on August 19 that killed 95 and wounded more than 600, many of them ministry employees.

Davuto?lu became foreign minister only a couple of months ago. But before that, as a much respected foreign-policy intellectual, he was a special adviser to Turkish PM Rejep Tayyip Erdo?an. In that role, he spearheaded a fascinating– though ultimately unsuccessful– series of “proximity talks” between Syria and Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel.

The idea that Turkey may be in a position to help Iraq and its six neighbors keep tensions among them to a minimum as US power recedes may seem counter-intuitive, since for a couple of generations many Iraqis, Syrians, and other Arabs retained a degree of remembered resentment against Turkey over the oppressive role the Ottoman Empire played against ethnic-Arab nationalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, I was surprised during my last few visits to Syria to discover the degree to which Syrians in and close to government– and Syrians in general– seem to have “gotten over” those sensitivities.

Indeed, many Syrians I’ve spoken to in the past couple of years speak of Turkey as something of a current role model for them. Many Syrians look at the success that Turkey has had in dealing with challenges like economic development, finding an internal balance between the forces of secularism and Islamism, finding an external balance between ‘east’ and ‘west’, the challenges posed by Kurds and other national minorities– and they wish they could emulate them.

The same is true, I think, of many other Arabs.

This doesn’t mean that, among Iraq and all of its neighbors, there are NO remaining sensitivities regarding Turkey’s role in the region. But it does mean there is considerably more scope for a leading Turkish role in reducing the kinds of tensions I’m worried about in the whole peri-Iraq theater than many people (self included) would have thought possible even five or ten years ago.

By the way, the watchword of the academic work Davuto?lu has done on Turkey’s foreign policy is that it should be aimed not just at “zero problems with the neighbors”, but also at intense engagement with the neighbors. (And yes, that includes Armenia, where the Erdogan government has taken some notable steps towards reducing earlier tensions.)

You can read two of my recent evaluations of Turkey’s new regional role here and here.

Turkey now has good relations with Iraq and all of its neighbors– including Iran– as well as with the US, which will continue to be a power in the region even as it departs. Turkey is, of course, a full member of NATO and retains numerous other very good links with the west.

I do wish, though, the Ban Ki-Moon and the weight of UN legitimacy was also a lot more involved in this peri-Iraq tension reduction effort.

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Is this colonial Feminism or Trash Feminism?

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

“Why would a Western woman forgo the security and freedom of her home country and relocate with a Muslim husband to an Islamic nation? For an answer, I phoned the feminist author Phyllis Chesler, who has written on the subject. “There is a self-destructiveness in this attraction, a temptation on the part of some women to go to a place where they have servants; or maybe a large extended family that might be wealthier than the one you were born into, or the idea that you yourself might go there and bring change and evolution to a backward country,” says Chesler. “You might say there are horrible things that happen to Muslim women in Muslim countries, and that’s true. But the Muslim woman expects it, she’s used to it—it’s terrible but it is something she already knows about. That is not the case with the foreign or Western wife in a Muslim country.”” (thanks Dylan)

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Enhanced civilization: neither a gun nor a drill

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

“said Mr. Cheney, who noted that neither a gun nor a drill had actually been used on detainees.” Is this not a sign of a humane culture?

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Saudi Fatwawawas

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

“Q- There is an employee who says he has slept more than once on the job and did not do his work. Has he invalidated his fast in doing so?
A – His fast is not invalidated, because there is no relationship between not doing work and the fast. However, it is obligatory on the person who is assigned a job to perform the job that he has been entrusted with. This is because he takes pay and a salary for this work. It is obligatory that his work be done in a manner that will free him of any liability, just as he expects his entire salary. However, the reward for his fast is lessened due to his doing something forbidden, which is his sleeping on the job that has been entrusted to him.”

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Mullen’s Strategic Communication

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

 Admiral Michael Mullen’s "From the Chairman" essay in the new issue of Joint Forces Quarterly has received some attention in public diplomacy and military ciricles.  Mullen throws a bucket of ice water on the strategic communications "cottage industry", stating bluntly that "I don’t care for the term."   There’s a lot to like in his essay, but also several blind spots which are worth thinking about a bit.  

 Mullen’s essay received early attention for his clear statement that "we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate."  Actions, not words, should be the primary concern he recognizes — with particular attention to gaps between what we say and what we do.   While this is stated bluntly and refreshingly, it’s far from novel. Almost every report on public diplomacy over the last decade — and there have been dozens — have said the same thing.  Deeds matter more than words, beware the "say-do" gap, credibility matters, it’s the policy stupid — these are cliches of the public diplomacy/strategic communications field, not new insights, no matter how many times they are forgotten to be repeated anew.  

 One of Mullen’s most important positive claims is his repudiation of a "strategic" (in the Habermasian sense) approach to communications, where messages are crafted to manipulate targets seen as objects rather than subjects:

"We’ve come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect.  They are not. Good communication runs both ways. It’s not about telling our story. We must also be better listeners… We can not capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them." 

 Again, the message here is crucial but the novelty is limited.  Many essays and reports on public diplomacy over the last decade have made similar points about conceiving of strategic communications as a "conversation".  His intervention only makes sense in the context of a bureaucratic military culture which has grown up around the strategic communications industry.  And here, I see exactly where he’s coming from. I’ve seen enough of these power point presentations, flow charts, and jargon-ridden policy documents to  last me several lifetimes.  Its one of the reasons why so many people have worried about the – likely unintended – consequences of the vast imbalance of resources between the Pentagon and the State Department.   (For a first response from that community, see this guest post over at Matt Armstrong’s place.)

 But where I fear he may go wrong — or perhaps be misinterpreted — is in his assertion that the essence of good communication is "having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for ourselves."  Because nothing speaks for itself — certainly not in the kinds of hotly contested political zones where the Pentagon should be involved.  Everything is subject to spin, framing, and interpretation. Mullen is right to critique those who focus exclusively on the messaging and ignore the policy. But it doesn’t follow that just getting the policy right will succeed without an effective communications strategy.  There is going to be an information war, a struggle over framing and interpretation, no matter what policy is pursued. This is why strategic communications can’t be ignored in the formation and execution of policy in today’s international system.  

 Policy and strategic communications need to be deeply integrated, with feedback mechanisms, anticipation of the likely response of both partners and adversaries, and deep understanding of the relevant others.  Mullen, to his credit, recognizes that "we must know the context within which our actions will be received and understood" — which should point to more, rather than less, investment in cultural understanding, linguistic expertise, and deep engagement with other societies. I suspect that Mullen would agree, but his essay could be read by others to challenge the value of such investments. 

  Finally, even as Mullen attacks the "certain arrogance to our ‘strat comm’ efforts," he reproduces a typically American "certain arrogance" of assuming that American policy is in fact based on "the right intent."  But "having the right intent up front" is a deeply political question, not simply a matter of being good, righteous people.   Was the invasion of Iraq based on the "right intent up front"?  That obviously can’t be answered from on high — it’s a political judgement.  Is America’s role in Afghanistan now based on "the right intent up front"?  Lots of Afghans and Pakistanis don’t seem to think so. Who is to judge when the intent is "right"?  Us?  Them?  Not as easy as it sounds.  

 Kudos to Admiral Mullen to opening up this debate — people in the new administration have been thinking about all of these issues, and it will be very interesting to see what emerges.   

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Attacker Identified; My Post Gets Some Attention

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

The assailant of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef has been officially identified by the Saudis, after he had been named by an Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula posting.

While there are still some unclear aspects to the whole story, let me emphasize that my posting of yesterday was not intended to be some kind of accusation or revelation, merely an attempt to clarify some of the ambiguities still remaining. Perhaps because nobody else is crazy enough to post to a blog on the last Sunday in August, yesterday’s post has gotten more attention than I anticipated (or it deserved): Marc Lynch, fresh from vacation, bookmarked it, and Gary Sick posted the whole thing to the Gulf 2000 list, which has a lot of readers all over the Gulf region. Thanks, guys, for the attention; I really didn’t think the post was all that substantive, and I’m not on some kind of campaign to question the official account. I was trying to summarize some of the comments to my earlier posts.

Anyway, one response on the Gulf 2000 list (which I’m not allowed to quote directly because it’s an invitation-only listserv) pointed out that explosives can behave strangely, reminding me of the time the US almost bombed Hamid Karzai into oblivion just as he was coming to power. I’m no ballistics expert and indeed, explosives can behave strangely.

Anyway, the story is gradually emerging.


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Peace talks should be open-ended -Israeli FM

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

Hardliner Lieberman vows to ‘respond’ if Palestinians make good on plans to create de facto state.
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2,000 strike, bring parts of Dubai to halt

August 31st, 2009 Comments off

UPDATE 2: Construction workers block roads, disrupt traffic in Deira and Jebel Ali in protest for better pay.
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