Transcending an imaginary divide

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would convene a conference of Muslim leaders from around the world within his first year in office.

Recently aides have said he may give a speech from a Muslim capital in his first 100 days. His hope, he has said, is to “make clear that we are not at war with Islam,” to describe to Muslims “what our values and our interests are” and to “insist that they need to help us to defeat the terrorist threats that are there.” This idea of trying to reconcile Islam and the West is well-intentioned, of course. But the premise is wrong.

Such an initiative would reinforce the all-too-accepted but false notion that “Islam” and “the West” are distinct entities with utterly different values. Those who want to promote dialogue and peace between “civilizations” or “cultures” concede at least one crucial point to those who, like Osama bin Laden, promote a clash of civilizations: that separate civilizations do exist. They seek to reverse the polarity, replacing hostility with sympathy, but they are still following Osama bin Laden’s narrative.

Instead, Obama, the first “post-racial” president, can do better. He can use his power to transform perceptions to the long-term advantage of the U.S. The page he should try to turn is not that of a supposed war between America and Islam, but the misconception of a monolithic Islam being the source of the main problems on the planet: terrorism, wars, nuclear proliferation, insurgencies and the like. [continued…]

Arabs are looking for deeds, not words

President-elect Barack Obama faces major challenges and opportunities in his foreign policy, and he is getting plenty of unsolicited advice. Here’s my contribution on an issue that he – in an interview with The Chicago Tribune earlier this month – defined as a priority for his administration: improving the US image in the Muslim world.

Obama plans a major speech in an Islamic capital to emphasize that the United States is not waging war against Islam or Muslims. This is a simplistic approach that he should drop quickly, because it reflects the failed strategy of President George W. Bush that treated Muslims as simpletons who could be swayed by nice words, rather than as adults who react to how people and countries actually behave. [continued…]

Afghan and U.S. officials plan to recruit local militias

Taking a page from the successful experiment in Iraq, American commanders and Afghan leaders are preparing to arm local militias to help in the fight against a resurgent Taliban. But along with hope, the move is raising fears here that the new armed groups could push the country into a deeper bloodletting.

The militias will be deployed to help American and Afghan security forces, which are stretched far and wide across this mountainous country. The first of the local defense forces are scheduled to begin operating early next year in Wardak Province, an area just outside the capital where the Taliban have overrun most government authority. [continued…]

Ending chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan

U.S. diplomacy has been paralyzed by the rhetoric of “the war on terror” — a struggle against “evil,” in which other actors are “with us or with the terrorists.” Such rhetoric thwarts sound strategic thinking by assimilating opponents into a homogenous “terrorist” enemy. Only a political and diplomatic initiative that distinguishes political opponents of the United States — including violent ones — from global terrorists such as al Qaeda can reduce the threat faced by the Afghan and Pakistani states and secure the rest of the international community from the international terrorist groups based there. Such an initiative would have two elements. It would seek a political solution with as much of the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies as possible, offering political inclusion, the integration of Pakistan’s indirectly ruled Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the mainstream political and administrative institutions of Pakistan, and an end to hostile action by international troops in return for cooperation against al Qaeda. And it would include a major diplomatic and development initiative addressing the vast array of regional and global issues that have become intertwined with the crisis — and that serve to stimulate, intensify, and prolong conflict in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan has been at war for three decades — a period longer than the one that started with World War I and ended with the Normandy landings on D-day in World War II — and now that war is spreading to Pakistan and beyond. This war and the attendant terrorism could well continue and spread, even to other continents — as on 9/11 — or lead to the collapse of a nuclear-armed state. The regional crisis is of that magnitude, and yet so far there is no international framework to address it other than the underresourced and poorly coordinated operations in Afghanistan and some attacks in the FATA. The next U.S. administration should launch an effort, initially based on a contact group authorized by the UN Security Council, to put an end to the increasingly destructive dynamics of the Great Game in the region. The game has become too deadly and has attracted too many players; it now resembles less a chess match than the Afghan game of buzkashi, with Afghanistan playing the role of the goat carcass fought over by innumerable teams. Washington must seize the opportunity now to replace this Great Game with a new grand bargain for the region. [continued…]

The Mideast’s ‘two-state solution’ is now a three-way stalemate

President Bush had hoped to leave office with Israelis and Palestinians having agreed on a two-state peace solution. Instead, he’ll leave behind a situation more akin to a three-state standoff primed to explode in a new bout of violence. And the embattled Palestinian leader upon whom the Bush administration has been depending in its peace efforts looks likely to see his role diminish even further.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who made a valedictory visit to the White House on Friday, has seen his political authority steadily enfeebled since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections almost three years ago, and then seized military control over Gaza 18 months later. Today, it is with Hamas that Israel has to deal — via Egyptian intermediaries — when it seeks to stop Palestinian rocket fire onto its territory. Abbas may enjoy the good offices of a lame-duck U.S. President, but he has been reduced once again to a powerless spectator as Israel and Hamas tussle over whether the tahdiyah truce, declared dead after six months by the militant group last week, will be revived.

And there may be worse to come for Abbas. Although Hamas has continued to recognize Abbas as the legitimate President of the Palestinian Authority, that may be about to change. Abbas’ presidential term expires on January 9. Although his own Fatah party makes a case that the term could legitimately be extended by another year, Hamas is having none of it. In the second week of 2009, it will no longer recognize Abbas as President, thereby formalizing the political divorce between the two Palestinian entities. Abbas has long since withdrawn recognition of the duly-elected Hamas government in the West Bank, which is controlled by his security forces in concert with the Israelis; now Hamas will formalize its de facto denial of Abbas’ authority in Gaza. [continued…]

Obama Mideast watch: Ross vs. Kurtzer

Middle East watchers are trying to follow a behind the scenes contest for Barack Obama’s ear when it comes to the region. The winner could become the incoming administration’s single most influential advisor on the area–perhaps Obama’s Middle East czar. Obama has properly emphasized that as president he will set the policy, and his subordinates will be tasked with implementing it. Yet his choice of Middle East guru– a special envoy, or whatever the title may be– will be an important signal of his inclinations. And given the complexities of the Middle East, and the complex intersection of those complexities with American politics nowadays, it’s hard to exaggerate the influence such a position could have as the question of war and peace hangs in the balance in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran.

Judging from press reports such as here, here and here, the contest includes among others two Obama campaign advisors with very different perspectives: Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s Arab-Israeli negotiator, and Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. Ross and Kurtzer are both Jewish; during the campaign, they sought to rally American Jewish voters wary of indications that Obama was lukewarm toward Israel. Each has influential supporters in the Beltway’s foreign policy establishment.

My take is that Ross would be a significant disappointment, Kurtzer an excellent choice. The contest, in fact, is more a tussle between two approaches to Middle East policy making than between individuals. [continued…]

Obama’s best pick?

On Friday, December 19, President-Elect Obama made his fifteenth and final appointment to the cabinet. In a move that was cheered by the AFL-CIO and greeted, predictably, with groans and whining from the business community, he chose Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA) to be his Secretary of Labor.

While Obama has taken considerable flak from leftist intellectuals and the progressive wing of the Democratic party for many of his earlier cabinet choices—being accused of everything from “selling out” to Establishment interests to being inordinately “cautious” (after hammering us with his Time for Change campaign theme)—his choice for Labor Secretary has to be seen as a bold and decisive move.

Of course, it’s impossible to say in advance how any political appointee will perform in office. But based on what we know of Ms. Solis’ personal background and what can be ascertained from her voting record and history of social activism, she could very well turn out to be exactly what the doctored ordered—providing the doctor ordered a dramatic shift in how America views its “working class.”

Solis is not only the daughter of poor Latin American immigrants, she could very well be the first Labor Secretary in history who has firsthand knowledge of what it actually means to “work” for a living. Her father, a Mexican, was a shop steward with the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters), in Mexico, and her mother, a Nicaraguan, was a former assembly line worker. [continued…]

What we will remember from 2008

Will the election of Mr Obama as US president or the collapse of Lehman Brothers prove to be the more significant event? That depends partly on whether you believe history is shaped more by the actions of remarkable individuals or by “vast, impersonal forces”. The global financial crisis has left me in a fatalistic mood – so I am opting for the vast, impersonal forces.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15 was the signature moment of the credit crunch. It has already triggered events that seemed unthinkable 12 months ago – massive state-funded bail-outs of some of the world’s leading financial institutions, the disappearance of investment banks, renowned companies such as General Motors on the edge of bankruptcy, interest rates slashed to close to zero. As one gloomy Parisian banker put it to me recently: “This is not just another boom-and-bust cycle. This is the failure of a system. It is the collapse of the Berlin Wall.” A trifle melodramatic perhaps – but the financial crisis is already threatening the economic and political stability of governments all over the world. [continued…]

Light at the end of a dark tunnel

FT: Is there a risk that the capitalist system doesn’t recover from this shock?

NR: We’re going to avoid the Great Depression and a severe recession even if there is a risk of protracted slow economic growth. So I don’t think this is the end of capitalism, of market economies, but it suggests that really there are significant market failures, that markets don’t self-regulate each other.

FT: Are you advising the future Obama administration?

NR: I’m not directly advising the administration. I’m of course in touch with a number of members in the economic team.

FT: What could be the next shoe to drop?

NR: There are many of them. I think the process of deleveraging is going to continue. You could have a thousand if not more hedge funds going bust all at the same time.

Another source of stress is emerging market economies. There are about a dozen of them that are on the verge of a potential financial crisis: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine in emerging Europe…Pakistan, Indonesia or Korea in Asia. Places like Ecuador that just defaulted. Argentina and Venezuela in Latin America. Some of these countries could get in trouble and there could be contagious effects to other financial markets in other emerging markets. [continued…]

(See the video of this interview.)

How Bush can transcend the shoe thrower

As a holiday gesture, President Bush ought to ask the Iraqi government to pardon Muntazer al-Zaidi — the Iraqi journalist who tried to hit him with his shoes.
[Commentary] AP

Sometimes a small outrage affords an opportunity for a grand gesture. The president was not harmed by the stunt. He had the grace to joke immediately afterwards that the missiles were a “size 10.” Video of the shoe-throwing, which went viral on the Internet and has been seen now by just about everyone on the planet, has mostly elicited laughter.

But already the consequences have been no joke for Mr. Zaidi. By most accounts, he has been roughly treated in prison, where he was taken after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s guards were seen beating him after he threw the second shoe. He now faces as many as 15 years in prison, one for every one of his 15 minutes of fame. [continued…]

Conflicting reports on Iran-Russia missile deal

Iran has left little doubt that it wants to buy a sophisticated antiaircraft weapons system from Russia. The confusion in recent days has been over the question: Has Moscow said yes?

Under pressure from Israel, which views Iran as one of its major threats in the Middle East, Russian officials have promised not to sell S-300 mobile long-range defensive weapons to Tehran. But a flurry of recent conflicting reports has muddled the matter.

On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman was cagey. Hassan Qashqavi told reporters that he had not “received any report” regarding the missiles from “relevant” officials.

“You know we have cultural, economic and political as well as defensive cooperation with Russia,” he said. “I cannot confirm or deny the news. You all know that we have several agreements with Russia. Some of the agreements have been implemented, some not.” [continued…]

No war and no peace

While a frenzy of war talk has animated the media on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, Washington has assured Islamabad that its satellite surveillance of the region reveals no evidence that India is preparing for war. But if physical preparations are absent, the rhetorical signs are more ambiguous.

An editorial in Pakistan’s The News International said: “Continued rumblings from the Indian side of the border keep tensions high. Sonia Gandhi, the chief of the Congress Party, has been the latest to warn Pakistan that her country is capable of delivering a ‘befitting reply’ to those who harbour terrorists. She has stressed India’s love for peace is not a weakness. The tone from Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee also remains threatening, demanding action even as Pakistan maintains that it lacks evidence on the basis of which it can take any.

“The tensions have been elevated to their highest level in six years. But the war hype is also being taken forward by hawks in both countries. The media has played its part. Evening papers, even though few people any longer believe their hysterical headlines, warn of Indian invasion. On the Indian side, many of the television channels and publications have been no less high-pitched; indeed in many cases they have gone further than their Pakistani counterparts. In cyber space chat rooms, Indians and Pakistanis banter and bully each other, comparing military readiness. Some of these exchanges are mock-serious; others seem to be in earnest. Tales of patriotic feats by citizens are told in many places, as if a mental preparation for war is taking place. Hawkish elements everywhere seem to be revelling in the current climate.” [continued…]

Cheney’s admissions to the CIA leak prosecutor and FBI

Vice President Dick Cheney, according to a still-highly confidential FBI report, admitted to federal investigators that he rewrote talking points for the press in July 2003 that made it much more likely that the role of then-covert CIA-officer Valerie Plame in sending her husband on a CIA-sponsored mission to Africa would come to light.

Cheney conceded during his interview with federal investigators that in drawing attention to Plame’s role in arranging her husband’s Africa trip reporters might also unmask her role as CIA officer.

Cheney denied to the investigators, however, that he had done anything on purpose that would lead to the outing of Plame as a covert CIA operative. But the investigators came away from their interview with Cheney believing that he had not given them a plausible explanation as to how he could focus attention on Plame’s role in arranging her husband’s trip without her CIA status also possibly publicly exposed. At the time, Plame was a covert CIA officer involved in preventing Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and Cheney’s office played a central role in exposing her and nullifying much of her work. [continued…]

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