Is it time to invade Burma?
The disaster in Burma presents the world with perhaps its most serious humanitarian crisis since the 2004 Asian tsunami. By most reliable estimates, close to 100,000 people are dead. Delays in delivering relief to the victims, the inaccessibility of the stricken areas and the poor state of Burma’s infrastructure and health systems mean that number is sure to rise. With as many as 1 million people still at risk, it is conceivable that the death toll will, within days, approach that of the entire number of civilians killed in the genocide in Darfur.
So what is the world doing about it? Not much. The military regime that runs Burma initially signaled it would accept outside relief, but has imposed so many conditions on those who would actually deliver it that barely a trickle has made it through. Aid workers have been held at airports. UN food shipments have been seized. US naval ships packed with food and medicine idle in the Gulf of Thailand, waiting for an all-clear that may never come.
Hizbollah rules west Beirut in Iran’s proxy war with US
Another American humiliation. The Shia gunmen who drove past my apartment in west Beirut yesterday afternoon were hooting their horns, making V-signs, leaning out of the windows of SUVs with their rifles in the air, proving to the Muslims of the capital that the elected government of Lebanon has lost.
And it has. The national army still patrols the streets, but solely to prevent sectarian killings or massacres. Far from dismantling the pro-Iranian Hizbollah’s secret telecommunications system – and disarming the Hizbollah itself – the cabinet of Fouad Siniora sits in the old Turkish serail in Beirut, denouncing violence with the same authority as the Iraqi government in Baghdad’s green zone.
An anxious morning amid Beirut gunfire
Hizbullah and its allies decided on Wednesday and Thursday to make a show of force by quickly taking control of and closing Beirut’s airport and seaport, and then shutting down all the Hariri-owned media (television, radio and newspaper). The message was clear: Hizbullah could take over all Beirut at any moment it desired.
This was probably an inevitable moment, when Hizbullah felt it had to show the government the real balance of power between them. The fighting Thursday morning saw Hizbullah, Amal and smaller Lebanese parties quickly take over Hariri-owned facilities, and then just as quickly turn them over to the Lebanese Army, which is still seen as a national institution working for the unity and security of the country.
Hizbullah may have been making the point that it did not want to conquer Beirut or run all of Lebanon, but rather that it wanted to push the government into making a negotiated deal that would recognize and institutionalize the real political and military power of Hizbullah and its allies. Thursday evening, both Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and Saad Hariri had made television statements in which they criticized each other, but also offered proposals to end the clashes and reach political agreement.
Fighting in Beirut threatens a top Bush administration priority
The Bush administration has been scrambling to mobilize international support for the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Rice spoke to Siniora as well as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the French and Saudi foreign ministers. The Arab League announced an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss the crisis, with the State Department calling on the regional body to show its displeasure with Hezbollah and its sponsors.
The Bush administration has spent $1.3 billion over the past two years to prop up Siniora’s government, with about $400 million dedicated to boosting Lebanon’s security forces. But Washington’s assistance has been put in check by Hezbollah — the Shiite militia trained, armed and financed by Iran and Syria — which has the Siniora government under virtual siege.
Along with Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Lebanon has been central to the administration’s Middle East agenda, especially in promoting democracy. Bush had been scheduled to meet with Siniora in Cairo at the end of his Middle East tour, but it is now unclear whether Siniora will be able to leave Beirut. The airport and port are closed.
“Clearly, Bush has a two-header now. He’ll have to explain away the lack of progress on the peace process, and a crisis in Lebanon that could see the collapse of the Siniora government. It comes at a time when the news from Iraq is as gloomy as ever and oil prices have reached $126 a barrel,” said Geoffrey Kemp, a Reagan administration National Security Council staffer who worked on Lebanon during the Shiite takeover of West Beirut in 1984.
State Department officials said Friday that the international coalition supporting the Lebanese state against Hezbollah, which has failed to comply with two U.N. resolutions to disarm, has never been stronger. But in each of the three Middle East crises where it plays a major role, the United States finds itself pitted against increasingly powerful forces loyal to Iran and Syria.
“The U.S. has put a lot of capital into Lebanon to support the weaker side politically and militarily. The U.S. approach is based on [the idea that] one side can prevail, and that’s not how things work. This is a country where consensual politics is the name of the game and the way things are done,” said Augustus Richard Norton, who served with the United Nations in Lebanon and is the author of “Hezbollah: A Short History.” “If there’s going to be a solution, it will involve some compromise with the opposition, which will include Hezbollah.”
Mideast change is coming, and may not be pretty
A huge difference between the 1970s and today is that angry or frightened citizens seem now to have many more outlets for their political activism, not all of them orderly. The Islamist political movements that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s were not successful in changing government policies or equitably redistributing limited state financial assets. Political liberalization and democratic reform have proved illusory in most countries in the region, leading to recent situations (for example, Morocco and Egypt) in which most citizens ignored local and parliamentary elections.
Not surprisingly, growing frustration and weakening central government authority in some cases has prompted new forms of political organization and expression throughout the Arab world. These have included local gangs, militias, criminal networks, tribal groups, family associations, terrorist organizations, and highly efficient Islamist political parties. In contrast, democracy and human rights groups have floundered.
A fresh round of economic and social pressures, combined with even more limited outlets for political expression and orderly policy change, portend a new stage of political action in many Arab countries. This time, however, greater urgency and even some existential desperation – families that cannot feed themselves or heat their homes in winter – will lead to more extreme forms of action. We should not be surprised when this happens – the biggest test that Arab governance systems will have faced in a generation.
War with Iran might be closer than you think
There is considerable speculation and buzz in Washington today suggesting that the National Security Council has agreed in principle to proceed with plans to attack an Iranian al-Qods-run camp that is believed to be training Iraqi militants. The camp that will be targeted is one of several located near Tehran. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was the only senior official urging delay in taking any offensive action. The decision to go ahead with plans to attack Iran is the direct result of concerns being expressed over the deteriorating situation in Lebanon, where Iranian ally Hezbollah appears to have gained the upper hand against government forces and might be able to dominate the fractious political situation.
The elusive Iranian weapons
There was something interesting missing from Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner’s introductory remarks to journalists at his regular news briefing in Baghdad on Wednesday: the word “Iran,” or any form of it. It was especially striking as Bergner, the U.S. military spokesman here, announced the extraordinary list of weapons and munitions that have been uncovered in recent weeks since fighting erupted between Iraqi and U.S. security forces and Shiite militiamen.
In big concession, militia agrees to let Iraqi troops into Sadr City
Followers of rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr agreed late Friday to allow Iraqi security forces to enter all of Baghdad’s Sadr City and to arrest anyone found with heavy weapons in a surprising capitulation that seemed likely to be hailed as a major victory for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
In return, Sadr’s Mahdi Army supporters won the Iraqi government’s agreement not to arrest Mahdi Army members without warrants, unless they were in possession of “medium and heavy weaponry.”
The agreement would end six weeks of fighting in the vast Shiite Muslim area that’s home to more than 2 million residents and would mark the first time that the area would be under government control since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. On Friday, 15 people were killed and 112 were injured in fighting, officials at the neighborhoods two major hospitals said.
US tightens its grip on Pakistan
Alphonse Karr, the 19th-century French novelist and pamphleteer, is principally remembered for the epigram, “The more it changes, the more it is the same thing.” That could be the thought that comes to mind at first glance of speech made by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte at the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) Pakistan forum in Washington on Monday. Yet, the speech merits attention.
In all practical terms, the speech is a final summing up but at the same time it sets outs the tone of the US policy towards Pakistan in the remaining months of the George W Bush administration. Pakistan is indeed a transformed home. New applications of new principles must be quickly forthcoming.
It is extraordinary that a seasoned diplomat like Negroponte has chosen the NED forum to make such a major speech on Pakistan. But then, “promoting democracy” – the motto of NED – also happens to be a stated objective of US policy towards Pakistan. Over the past quarter century, the US government-funded NED has specialized as a handmaiden of American regional policies.
The loathsome smearing of Israel’s critics
In the US and Britain, there is a campaign to smear anybody who tries to describe the plight of the Palestinian people. It is an attempt to intimidate and silence – and to a large degree, it works. There is nobody these self-appointed spokesmen for Israel will not attack as anti-Jewish: liberal Jews, rabbis, even Holocaust survivors.
My own case isn’t especially important, but it illustrates how the wider process of intimidation works. I have worked undercover at both the Finsbury Park mosque and among neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers to expose the Jew-hatred there; when I went on the Islam Channel to challenge the anti-Semitism of Islamists, I received a rash of death threats calling me “a Jew-lover”, “a Zionist-homo pig” and more.
Ah, but wait. I have also reported from Gaza and the West Bank. Last week, I wrote an article that described how untreated sewage was being pumped from illegal Israeli settlements on to Palestinian land, contaminating their reservoirs. This isn’t controversial. It has been documented by Friends of the Earth, and I have seen it with my own eyes.
The response? There was little attempt to dispute the facts I offered. Instead, some of the most high profile “pro-Israel” writers and media monitoring groups – including Honest Reporting and Camera – said I an anti-Jewish bigot akin to Joseph Goebbels and Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh, while Melanie Phillips even linked the stabbing of two Jewish people in North London to articles like mine. Vast numbers of e-mails came flooding in calling for me to be sacked.