Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Existential Crisis

Isn't hyperbole fun?

It is especially fun when you talk about Israel because it takes about four seconds of online debate before Godwin's Law roots itself permanently in the conversation. (Godwin's Law: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.")

Gaza is the Warsaw Ghetto; Israelis are Nazis; Hamas is Hitler... To quote George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" for the n'th time: "[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts... If one gets rid of [this] habit one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration."

That would be a good first step, indeed. The more discussion of Israeli-Palestinian grievances and goals remains steeped in the hollowed out terminology of World War II-era genocide jargon, the stupider everyone in proximity to those comments becomes.

So how's Israel's war going? I think we will realize in the end that Israel is winning their Gaza War the same way the United States won the Vietnam War; in casualty comparisons only. 950 or so dead Gazans to 13 Israelis. A kill ratio of 73-1. Israel may diminish the capacity of Hamas to launch rockets for a time, but it cannot expect to obliterate it. Israel cannot decapitate Hamas, because its leadership is tucked safely away in Damascus where it issues delirious, apocalyptic threats on the Israeli army/people that it has yet to personally raise a weapon against in this war.

On the New York Times Debate Blog, David Newman, a professor of politics at Ben Gurion University wonders aloud, "The question remains, will the residents of Gaza realize just how futile the armed struggle against Israel is or will the present war simply create a new generation of potential fighters ready to bear arms against Israel?"

Well, if Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas is to be believed, and is able to influence those who follow him, then the latter seems more likely. Said Meshal after Mossad agents tried to assassinate him ten years ago, "Israeli threats have one of two effects: some people are intimidated, but others become more defiant and determined. I am one of the latter."

But whether Hamas' leadership, whose survival is already assured, retains its power and wins more power in the upcoming (aka, now perpetually postponed) elections for the people of Gaza is probably irrelevant. Israel is soon to have much larger problems than Gaza.

The Israeli invasion of Gaza has reinvigorated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection prospects in Iran. Until the Gaza War, Ahmadinejad looked like a moribund candidate in control of a slumping economy thanks to oil's price collapse and the success of sanctions on his country. Now, he can run on the anti-Israel ticket and, just like Osama Bin Laden's reverse-psychology endorsement of George W. Bush the weekend before the 2004 election helped Bush to victory, Ahmadinejad can thank his arch-rival for electoral success, if he achieves it.

Of course, Israeli hawks may actually want this scenario to unfold. If Ahmadinejad were to lose in June to a reform candidate like Khatami, it would give the Obama administration a much more willing leader to negotiate with on the Iranian nuclear issue. Israeli hard-liners don't want negotiation and engagement, they want Ahmadinejad in power and Iran close to a nuclear weapon that will, in their view, legitimize an Israeli military response. There are apocalyptics on both sides of this...

Closer to home, Egypt and Jordan have Arab populations unhappy with their government's tepid response to the Israeli invasion. The Egyptian and Jordanian governments are glad to see Israel counter Hamas - an organization affiliated with rise of Iranian power in the region - and, by extension, Iran. But the governments in both countries are in precarious postions. Egypt is a democracy in name only; its president, Hosni Mubarak, has ruled since 1981, is 84 years old, and is grooming his son, Gamal, to replace him when he dies. Though it is formally at peace with Israel now, and even moreso as it tries to counter the rise of Iran, the country is likely to be a political disaster when Mubarak dies.
In the longer term, Israel has this fact to face up to, as written in an Op-Ed piece in the Times at the end of 2008 by another Ben Gurion professor, Benny Morris:

"The fourth immediate threat to Israel’s existence is internal. It is posed by the country’s Arab minority. Over the past two decades, Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens have been radicalized, with many openly avowing a Palestinian identity and embracing Palestinian national aims. Their spokesmen say that their loyalty lies with their people rather than with their state, Israel. Many of the community’s leaders, who benefit from Israeli democracy, more or less publicly supported Hezbollah in 2006 and continue to call for “autonomy” (of one sort or another) and for the dissolution of the Jewish state. Demography, if not Arab victory in battle, offers the recipe for such a dissolution. The birth rates for Israeli Arabs are among the highest in the world, with 4 or 5 children per family (as opposed to the 2 or 3 children per family among Israeli Jews)."

Israel's war in Gaza can only acclerate the process of Arab-Israeli disassociation from the Jewish state and sympathy towards groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Christopher Hitchens, in a recent Slate column, concluded that Israel is probably "bombing for votes" as the incumbent government tries to fend off the pending challenge from the hawk Netanyahu. This may work well for some Israeli politicians in the short term, but the wave of anti-Israeli fervor these weekend wars arouse in places like Iran - where non-messianic politicians had hopes to make real-world progress that doesn't include the return of the 12th imam or armaggedon - only exacerbates the threat to Israel's teetering existence.
Israel is winning the PR war in the United States - an all important aspect of any Israeli military operation - by taking advantage of the perfect storm of the American holiday season, change of presidents, and Obama inauguration. But the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the radicalizing portions of the Egyptian Arab population; Hezbollah and its 40,000 qassams; Iranians and their votes tipping back toward Ahmadinejad, are not as distracted. Unleashing the region's most powerful military force on the most densely populated area on earth, Gaza, is something only an even more powerful and militaristic nation would be blase about. Israel drops pamphlets warning Gazans to evacuate their neighborhood due to "imminent Israeli military action" and cites it as an example of their humanitarian efforts. But as one father noted in an NY Times article the other day, the borders are all sealed, and "I have nine children, where will I go? I would rather die at home."

In response to her controversial New Yorker article on the Eichmann trial in Israel, Gershom Scholem criticized Hannah Arendt - who in that article coined the term the "banality of evil" describing Eichmann - for not having "a love for the Jews." Arendt responded, in a letter that ended her frienship with Gershom, "The greatness of this people was once that it believed in God, and believed in Him in such a way that its trust and love toward him was greater than its fear... And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come out of that?"

The more fiercely Israel clings to its nationalism and its borders, the more they slip away.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Suck On This

An oldie but a goodie from The Congenitally Unoriginal Buffoon Tom Friedman. Enjoy!

Seize the Moment

A terrific interview on American foreign policy in South Asia after the Mumbai attacks. Fareed Zakaria from Newsweek, Steve Coll from The New Yorker, and former Under Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, discuss responsibility for the attacks in Mumbai, how to get Pakistan and India reconciled, options for Iran, and how Obama can remake the world through these crises. Zakaria, near the end of the interview, offers a vision for how Obama can approach his foreign policy vision and warns him against being too reactive and forgetting to plot out what he wants to make the world look like. A lack of foresight has never been an issue for our President Elect, but it's a good insight into the man's mind. From Zakaria, below:

"The great danger in foreign policy is everything is so urgent that you have to respond to it, and you forget what is really important. You become entirely reactive. It's entirely understandable. And I think what Obama should do, he should sit back and ask himself 'what do I want the world to look like two years from now four years from now six years from now?' and try to sketch out an architecture that he wants to get to and then use these crises - you know, never let a crisis go to waste - to push forward toward that vision rather than just episodically putting out fires."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More on Lashkar

Steve Coll at The New Yorker has a brief piece on LeT on The New Yorker website. He spent time with them in 2005 after the earthquake and describes a group "similar to Hezbollah" that has a militant wing but also uses its affiliated "charity" Jamat ud Dawa for humanitarian aid and relief and has raised quite a bit of money for what Coll suggests are good, helpful purposes:

"In Muzuffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, Jamat had brought in a mobile surgical unit staffed by long-bearded doctors from Karachi and Lahore—very impressive young men, fluent in English, who offered a reminder that unlike, say, the Taliban, Lashkar draws some very talented people from urban professions. (With its hospitals, universities, and social-service wings, Lashkar is akin to Hezbollah or Hamas; it is a three-dimensional political and social movement with an armed wing, not merely a terrorist or paramilitary outfit.) As part of its earthquake relief work, Lashkar ferried supplies to remote villages isolated on the far side of the churning Neelum River, one of the two snow-fed canyon rivers that traverse the area. I asked to take a ride with its volunteers, and their media officer (yes, they have media officers) agreed."

Clearly, these ends would be imperiled if LeT is found out to be behind the Mumbai attacks and Coll raises the possibility that higher-ups who have benefitted from Jamat's charity work may not have known, or approved, of this attack on India if LeT executed it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Council on Foreign Relations...

...stole my last post. But click through anyway. Some good information is linked to, even if they did steal all the main points from me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Mumbai Attacks

"I think it's possible Pakistan's government - meaning the Zardari contingent - would be happy to have Kashmir, and thus India, off their mind. But convincing the ISI is another matter. The ISI have collaborated openly with the Taliban and actually prefer that they are in control in Afghanistan as a guard against India... The real heart of this matter is the relationship between, and ability to project force by, the ISI and the Pakistani government... if the ISI is able to undermine Zardari at every step, collaborate with [terrorist organizations] when helpful, and stand in a position to scoop up power if Zardari falls, then we'll never make any progress." - From "Afghanistan and Friends" Obama White House Chronicle, November 13, 2008

My earlier assessment of the Pakistani government's untenable position - squeezed by pressures from Washington, New Delhi, Waziristan, and the Pakistani population - seems quaint as the fallout from the Mumbai attacks develops. In the post quoted above, I think I overstated the position of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a sort of "renegade" portion of Pakistan's political/military structure. It is likely, instead, that either portions of the ISI are functioning off the reservation, or that the agency has wholly lost control of the "non-state" (read, "terrorist") actors they'd cultivated in the early 1990's to aid in an asymmetric war against India focused in the disputed Kashmir territory.

There is no definitive assessment as to who was responsible for the Mumbai attacks, yet. The only group to have claimed responsibility is called "Deccan Mujahideen," a previously unknown group named for the Deccan Plateau in India. Deccan Mujahideen may be a new terrorist group, or just an invented name intended to accentuate a religious fault-line in Indian society. As Robert Kaplan wrote of the name's symbolism in The Atlantic the other day:

"The Deccan is a rugged plateau region in south-central India that Aurangzeb, the fierce Sunni emperor of the Mughals (India’s most historically significant Muslim dynasty) could never subdue and in fact died trying in 1707. The Islamic Mughals vanquished all of northern India, Pakistan, and a good part of Afghanistan, but they could never consolidate the Deccan against the Hindu Maratha warriors. This Mughal history has taken on heightened symbolism in India in recent years precisely as a result of globalization and the expansion of electronic communications and education, all of which have sharpened the country’s religious divide."

At the moment, most accusing fingers are pointed at the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Formed in 1991 in Afghanistan, LeT likely received training and equipment from the ISI as it functioned in Kashmir against India. LeT was banned in Pakistan in 2002 by then-President Musharraf after US pressure and, supposedly, the ISI severed ties with the organization. There are accusations in newspapers and blogs and public statements by Indian officials that the ISI was complicit in the Mumbai attacks. But it's probably more complicated than that.

If the ISI is innocent in this instance, it didn't do itself any favors by helping an Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group in Afghanistan bomb the Indian Embassy in Kabul on July 7 of this year. After that attack, American officials concerned about the ISI's relationship with terrorist organizations began to pressure Pakistan to replace then ISI-Director Nadeem Taj who they suspected of collaborating, when convenient to Pakistani interests, with terrorist groups. Shortly thereafter, the new Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, engaged in a power-struggle for civilian control of the ISI with Chief of the Army, General Kayani. Kayani won and appointed Lt. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Director of the ISI. Pasha is seen as a staunchly anti-Taliban pick that allayed US concerns of ISI dealings with terrorist organizations.

But the fact that ISI leadership may be moving away from unsteady alliances with terrorist groups might be irrelevant. As an article from November 27, 2008 published on the Council on Foreign Relations' website states; "Shuja Nawaz, author of the book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within, says the ISI 'has certainly lost control' of Kashmiri militant groups. According to Nawaz, some of the groups trained by the ISI to fuel insurgency in Kashmir have been implicated in bombings and attacks within Pakistan, therefore making them army targets."

The heart of this is who stands to gain the most from a soured relationship between Pakistan and India? Pakistani President Zardari truly does want a better relationship with India as he knows it will be hard enough to defeat his enemies in-country, nevermind a nation of 1.5 billion people that is also nuclear-armed. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has been criticized for being too soft towards Pakistan while terrorist attacks in India rise. So the leadership of both nations seem more interested in reconciliation than retaliation. The ISI would have something to gain if the leadership does in fact have aspirations to execute a coup d'etat and unseat the civilian elected government. More likely, if the ISI was involved in the Mumbai attacks, with a roster of 10,000+ members, there could easily be ISI agents sympathetic to LeT or whatever group carried out the attack, and willing to provide logistics, training, and equipment. A group like LeT would also promote its ends with such an attack, especially by claiming an in-house Indian group was responsible, by hoping to foment tension and aggression between the Hindu population in India and its 150 million Muslim citizens.

Another aspect of this attack, which may well be coincidental as most indications are this included a year of planning, is its timing after Barack Obama's election. Obama, as this blog has previously mentioned, recently expressed a desire to bring India and Pakistan together to resolve the Kashmir issue and ease some international pressure off Pakistan in the process. Both governments responded hotly to this suggestion, and the attack on Mumbai may make that reconciliation unlikely. Obama will simply have to hope that calmer heads prevail until he takes office. Any explicit aggression from one country to the other could push them both beyond a point of no return.
(Ed. Note: As a part of my informal and probably never-ending series, "The Awfulness of CNN," I'd just like to congratulate the worst news organization in the world for endangering the lives of a British couple who called the network while trapped in one of the Mumbai hotels to report on the situation. The clever folk at CNN promptly reported the location of the couple and gunmen in the hotel, watching the news, saw the report of their location and began searching for them. Fortunately, the couple got away. To reiterate: CNN, you're utter garbage. Please shut up and go away.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008


My senior year of college, Dinesh D'souza, resident of the loony-bin Hoover Institution at Stanford University, spoke about Iran at a lecture funded by the Young Republicans Club. He presented a torqued image of the nation in which a fascistic president led squadrons of young Iranians into gainful employment as suicide bombers and future executioners of The Great Satan. I worry that is still how many Americans see Iran, too. I want to talk about Iran in a fashion similar to how I addressed Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The 1950's

How Iran got to where it is today would also require 6,000 years of history that I'm not going to go into. But I do want to go back to 1951. In 1951, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister of Iran. Mossadegh was a Western educated leader; he'd attended the Sorbonne and a graduate university in Switzerland. In Iran, he became Prime Minister on a platform of democratic reform and, most significantly, nationalization of Iranian oil and revenues.
Since the discovery of large oil fields in Iran in 1908, the British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company controlled Iranian oil. As the British were want to do, they worked the Iranian's who tended their drilling/processing infrastructure hard, paid them little, and shared few of the profits. In an address shortly after his election, Mossadegh stuck this bit in the collective British eye:

"Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries… have yielded no results this far. With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence. The Iranian state prefers to take over the production of petroleum itself."

Foolish Mossadegh. He thought his country was entitled to the profits from a natural resource located within its borders. But, as the relentless pursuit of profit is the White Man's Burden, the British felt obliged to end Mossadegh's experiment with democracy. So the British enlisted the aid of the United States and its new Republican administration (Eisenhower) by "convincing" us that Iran was drifting towards communism and the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower handed the thing off to the CIA and eventually a confluence of events including; a defacto oil embargo that shut down Iranian oil sales; a CIA propaganda campaign against Mossadegh in Iran; a statement by the Shah of Iran that declared his support of a coup against Mossadegh; and the inability of Mossadegh to enact any reforms due to a dearth of oil revenue, resulted in a succesful coup that left the Shah in power and oil money in British/American pockets. Close one.

Of course all this ended with far more downside than upside for the West as, 25 years later, Iranians nonplussed by the rule of the puppet-Shah carried out that whole 1979 Iranian Revolution and taking of hostages at the US Embassy thing leaving us with the Ayatollah-led leadership we have today.

So if you want to trace the roots of our standoff with Iran back to a seminal turning point, I would say the American-British coup that deposed Mossadegh is that point. In 1951, Iran was led by a secular, progressive prime minister with a Western education who hoped to enact democratic reforms. What are we hoping for in Iran today? I forget...


Demographically speaking, we have every reason to engage Iran diplomatically and not militarily. From Wikipedia: "More than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30, and the literacy rate is 82%. Women today compose more than half of the incoming classes for universities around the country." This is a country with a young population that we have the ability to work with or fight against. We can win them over.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a nut, yes. But when we call him a new Hitler, or some such bullshit, we prop up his standing internationally to an extent he does not enjoy in his own country. Ahmadinejad is powerless in Iran. He enjoys the support of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but if that support wanes, then so does Ahmadinejad. All indications are, Ahmadinejad is in rough shape in-country.

The Economist published a piece on Ahmadinejad's tenuous political situation yesterday. They wrote: "Iranian economists have taken to bombarding the president with letters excoriating his policies. In the most recent, 60 academics accuse his administration of 'excessive idealism, haste in action… and tension-creating interaction with the outside world'. Iran has underperformed its neighbours in growth, lost competitiveness and failed to tackle high unemployment, the letter says."

Iran's economy is pegged to oil trading at $80/barrel and, just like Russia, their economic outlook has gone from "Solid" to "Screwed" now that oil is below $50/barrel. Iran holds presidential elections in June of 2009. If oil prices stay low, and Ahmadinejad is unable to turn the economy around (he's never seemed to have much economic prowess, just luck with high oil prices) then Ayatollah Khamenei may see the incumbent as a liability and throw his support behind someone else (or no one). One of the possible candidates is reformist Seyyed Mohammad Khātamī who served as president from 1997 - 2005 and is far more moderate than Ahmadinejad.

American Options

Barring any significant developments in the geopolitical climate in/around Iran, I don't see any reason why Obama should rush a sit-down with Ahmadinejad - or whoever is the president - until after the June elections. It will be more difficult for Ahmadinejad with, presumably, a far less bellicose administration in the United States, to prop up his popularity with anti-American rhetoric. The less we give him to grab onto, the less he is able to make us the boogeyman, inflate his own ratings, and distract Iranians from their weak economy and high unemployment. Bluster works against us.

With Obama, a military strike led by the US seems less likely barring some fanatical move by Ahmadinejad in which he forces the military to do something on his orders and not Khamenei's (not likely). Obama will not be able to sway Iranian opinion, I wouldn't think, but if he tacitly advances a sentiment that he's not meeting with the Iranian leader until after the election, it might help to get the world and Iranians anticipating that Ahmadinejad won't be around much longer. Then again, if Ahmadinejad wins, that plan might backfire.

The real threat to a good future with Iran is Israel. Israel does not want another country in the region to hold the ace card of a nuclear weapon. I think Israel will wait until the elections in Iran are over before making any big decisions, but it was only a couple months ago that Israel was at the brink of war with Iran. Ehud Olmert was in the midst of his scandal and went to Bush for the green light to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities (wag the dog-like - distract from your impeachment proceedings with a good ol' bombing run or 200) but Bush said no-go, thankfully.

As for the absurd, I'm-on-acid-and-hallucinating-this-shit scenario advanced by Tim Russert in the video in my previous post - a scenario that he was/is not alone in thinking possible - in which Iran invades Israel... It's total bunk. Forget it, throw it out, don't acknowledge it, smack anyone who takes it seriously in the face until they talk sense. As Ron Paul said, Israel has 300 nuclear weapons. No one is going to touch them. The best Iran could hope for is a nuclear weapon that they could smuggle into Israel and detonate. Even so, all fingers would immediately point to Iran and they'd wind up wiped off the map. If they launched a weapon, they'd be wiped off the map. If you think that Iran is run by apocalyptic muslims trying to hasten the return of the Twelfth Imam, then run wild with that theory. But Ahmadinejad is not apocalyptic. He just wants money, power, and to stand up to the bully Americans.

An attack on Iran by us or the Israelis would be a tragedy. Iran is a country of 70 million people that we can deal with through diplomacy. There is absolutely no reason that every ounce of our effort towards Iran should not go into convincing the 40+ million people under 30 years of age that a working relationship with the Western world is both a real possibility and a valuable one for both of us. Of course, we have history against us - thank you very much Dulles brothers, Eisenhower, and 1950's British Petroleum incarnation - but fortunately we have the most ahistorical American president we've ever seen.