NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: March 1

Learning to live with radical Islam

Pakistan’s Swat valley is quiet once again. Often compared to Switzerland for its stunning landscape of mountains and meadows, Swat became a war zone over the past two years as Taliban fighters waged fierce battles against Army troops. No longer, but only because the Pakistani government has agreed to some of the militants’ key demands, chiefly that Islamic courts be established in the region. Fears abound that this means women’s schools will be destroyed, movies will be banned and public beheadings will become a regular occurrence.

The militants are bad people and this is bad news. But the more difficult question is, what should we—the outside world—do about it? That we are utterly opposed to such people, and their ideas and practices, is obvious. But how exactly should we oppose them? In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we have done so in large measure by attacking them—directly with Western troops and Predator strikes, and indirectly in alliance with Pakistani and Afghan forces. Is the answer to pour in more of our troops, train more Afghan soldiers, ask that the Pakistani military deploy more battalions, and expand the Predator program to hit more of the bad guys? Perhaps—in some cases, emphatically yes—but I think it’s also worth stepping back and trying to understand the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Fareed Zacharia provides a nudge towards a necessary foreign policy paradigm shift but he doesn’t go far enough.

Islam — radical or otherwise — is not the issue. Religious fundamentalism is not the issue. Religion is not the issue.

The real issue is, always has been and always will be this: the relationship between people and the land they inhabit.

Every political struggle rests on the same foundation: the desire for the inhabitants of a geographic region to govern their own lives.

Self-governance is the primary form of self-determination. That is the only basis upon which other forms of self-determination (women’s rights, economic freedom, freedom of expression and so forth) can be pursued.

Everyone must fight for their own freedom. It isn’t a gift that can be bestowed by God or anyone or anything else.

Israel PM’s family link to Hamas peace bid

Hamas, the militant Palestinian organisation, attempted to conduct secret talks with the Israeli leadership in the protracted run-up to the recent war in Gaza – with messages being passed from the group at one stage through a member of prime minister Ehud Olmert’s family.

Confirmation of attempts to establish a direct line of communication between Hamas and Israel – and the willingness of senior figures in Hamas to contemplate direct negotiations – fundamentally alters the narrative of the build-up to the war in Gaza which claimed more than 1,300 Palestinian lives and led to about a dozen Israeli deaths.

Most remarkable is the story of the involvement of a member of the prime minister’s family in the passing of messages to Olmert about the case of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. [continued…]

Obama, reaching outside the bubble

Each morning when he arrives at the Oval Office, President Obama asks his staff to deliver him a package containing 10 letters. It is a mere sampling of the 40,000 or so that Americans send to the White House every day — a barrage of advice from students and teachers, small-business owners and the unemployed. In between his daily meetings with senior staff members and Cabinet secretaries, Obama has made a habit of sitting alone behind his desk and reading one letter at a time, friends and advisers said. The exercise is intended to help keep him grounded, but it also provides Obama with a glimpse beyond the White House walls and the Secret Service perimeter into what the president sometimes refers to as “the real world.”

Obama has learned during his first 40 days in the White House that he must fight to preserve such direct connections to the citizens he leads. Obama’s life as president is outsourced to about 25 assistants, 25 deputy assistants and 50 special assistants who act as a massive siphon to control the information that reaches his desk and schedule the meetings and public appearances that shape his days. A correspondence staff sorts through his mail and selects the 10 letters that he reads. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — One of the flaws in the American conception of representative democracy is that it did not seek to completely avoid a monarch’s concentration of power; it merely replaced a system of regal lineage and tenure with a short term monarch who during his term occupying the throne of power enjoys much of the status of his crowned counterpart. Along with that status comes the risk of isolation.

What Obama and every president really needs is a fool — of the Shakespearean variety. Someone who can with impunity speak truth to power. Someone who can pass through any gate, intrude at any moment and tell the president in the bluntest language that he’s messed up, is out of touch, or is about to plunge headfirst into a ditch.

The ecstasy and the agony

The genuine populist rage in the country — aimed at greedy C.E.O.’s, not at the busted homeowners mocked as “losers” by Santelli — cannot be ignored or finessed. Though Obama was crystal clear on Tuesday that there can be “no real recovery unless we clean up the credit crisis,” it was telling that he got fuzzy when he came to what he might do about it. He waited two days to drop that shoe in his budget: a potential $750 billion in banking “asset purchases” on top of the previous $700 billion bailout.

Therein lies the Catch-22 that could bring the recovery down. As Obama said, we can’t move forward without a functioning financial system. But voters of both parties will demand that their congressmen reject another costly rescue of it. Americans still don’t understand why many Wall Street malefactors remain in place or why the administration’s dithering banking policy lacks the boldness and clarity of Obama’s rhetoric.

Nor can a further bailout be easily sold by a Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, whose lax oversight of the guilty banks while at the New York Fed remains a subject of journalistic inquiry. In a damning 5,600-word article from Bloomberg last week, he is portrayed as a second banana, a timid protégé of the old boys who got us into this disaster. Everyone testifies to Geithner’s brilliance, but Jindal, a Rhodes scholar, was similarly hyped. Like the Louisiana governor, the Treasury secretary is a weak public speaker not because he lacks brains or vocal training but because his message doesn’t fly. [continued…]

Faith in Geithner eludes Treasury as market fails to recover

It was 2004 and Tim Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, had a message for the Federal Open Market Committee in Washington. He told his 18 colleagues gathered around the long mahogany table that a clearinghouse was needed to monitor risks in the burgeoning $5 trillion market for credit-default swaps — the over-the-counter derivatives that would later spin out of control and help take down Wall Street.

In a move that may have foreshadowed his role as President Barack Obama’s Treasury secretary, Geithner over the next two years nudged financial firms to voluntarily clear a backlog of swap trades. They stopped short of creating a clearinghouse to bring more transparency to the market.

“Geithner was making noise on reining in derivatives, but he didn’t push hard enough,” says Jane D’Arista, a former economist at the Congressional Budget Office in Washington and a longtime Fed observer. “Maybe he’ll be more forceful now that he’s in a position with real power. But I’m not so sure.”

From his years as a Dartmouth College student and mid-level Treasury official through his stint at the New York Fed, Geithner, 47, has thrived as a backroom negotiator and conciliator. Now, as he struggles to rescue Wall Street from a crisis that happened on his regulatory watch, investors and economists question whether the 75th Treasury secretary can transform himself into a bold leader equal to the challenges ahead. [continued…]

Obama should talk to Syria now

“Opportunity” and “Middle East” are rarely mentioned in the same breath, and for good reason. The Middle East is a part of the world in which history is often defined by conflict. A sense of despair grips the region for other reasons, too: it trails Europe, Asia, Latin America and much of Africa by many measures of social progress, including the quality of education, the presence of democratic institutions and the treatment of girls and women.

All the same, there may be an opportunity now—to make peace between Israel and Syria, two countries that have been in a state of war for more than six decades. The opportunity exists even though Syria has been a principal supporter of both Hamas and Hizbullah, the two groups that have waged recent conflicts with Israel, and despite the fact that only 18 months ago Israel attacked a Syrian site suspected of being part of a fledgling program to produce nuclear fuel. [continued…]

Obama sets timetable for Iraq

President Obama yesterday fulfilled a campaign promise by setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, declaring that while the country they will leave behind will not be perfect, the United States will have reached its “achievable goals” and must move on.

By the August 2010 deadline he set, American troops will have been at war for nearly 7 1/2 years in Iraq, a duration surpassed only by that of the Vietnam War, at more than eight years, and the ongoing Afghanistan conflict, which began in 2001. [continued…]

Iraq withdrawal, logistical nightmare?

Closing U.S. bases is going to be particularly tough, the Government Accountability Office recently told Congress. “As of November 2008, there were 286 U.S. installations in Iraq that will need to be closed or turned over to the Iraqi forces during a U.S. redeployment, depending on its scope.”

According to U.S. Army officials, experience has shown it takes 1 to 2 months to close the smallest platoon- or company-size installations, which contain from 16 to 200 combat soldiers or marines. However, MNF-I [Multi National Forces-Iraq] has never closed large, complex installations—such as Balad Air Force Base, which contains about 24,000 inhabitants and has matured over 5 years—making it difficult to accurately predict the time it will take to close them. U.S. Army officials estimate it could take longer than 18 months to close a base of that size.

In 2006, when “two British bases in southern Iraq left behind when forces pulled out last year: Both were looted. Whatever remained was destroyed,” Wood writes in the best report I’ve found so far on the logistics of withdrawal. [continued…]

About that “combat brigades out of Iraq by August 2010” thing…

Iraq’s Parliamentary elections have not yet been scheduled and don’t even have an electoral law, and according to a number of senior Iraqi politicians probably will not be held until March 2010 (not December 2009). That would then give the U.S. about five months to withdraw the bulk of the dozen combat brigades which would reportedly remain. And then, keep in mind that U.S. officials generally agree (correctly) that the most dangerous period of elections is actually in their aftermath, when disgruntled losers might turn to violence or other destabilizing measures. So the following month will likely not seem a good time either. So that would leave four months to move, what — 9 brigades? Did someone say precipitous? Good luck with that. And that’s assuming, of course, that nothing else risky or destabilizing comes up in April or May 2010 (Kirkuk?) which would make a drawdown at that moment appear risky.

So which is it? “Combat brigades out by August 2010” or “Most combat brigades there until spring 2010 at which point we can have another big debate about how fragile the situation is and how unrealistic it would be to move all those troops in half a year”? Not exactly the same. [continued…]

The black widower

Last fall, during Asif Ali Zardari’s first foreign trip as head of state, the Pakistani president met with Sarah Palin in New York City. The meeting occurred amid Palin’s other campaign cameos with U.S.-friendly world leaders, most of whom could manage little more than an awkward grimace amid the onslaught of flashbulbs. (Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo reportedly flat-out refused to meet her.) But Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto and oft-described playboy, looked delighted as he greeted–and then charmed–the vice-presidential candidate. Zardari, who wore fashionable wire-rimmed glasses and a broad grin, called Palin “gorgeous” and then added, “Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you.” Palin blushed. When a handler asked Zardari and the Alaskan governor to continue shaking hands, Zardari gestured in the photographer’s direction while still staring at Palin and quipped, “If he’s insisting, I might hug.”

Zardari’s comment created a stir back home. Stories about the incident splashed across the front pages of Pakistani newspapers. Pakistani Facebook subscribers formed a group sarcastically titled, “Zardari should marry Sarah Palin for the sake of world peace!!!!!” and railed against their president’s boorishness. The imam of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the site of a pro-Taliban rebellion in the summer of 2007, issued a fatwa against Zardari, claiming that his behavior was un-Islamic and inappropriate for the leader of a Muslim state. One could argue that it was particularly inappropriate for the leader of one of the world’s least stable states. After all, this was Zardari’s maiden presidential tour abroad–a time to shore up Pakistan’s and America’s confidence in him. His flirtation with Palin seemed to cast further doubt on his capacity to rule. [continued…]

The Pakistan army and “the history of the stick”

In his book on the Pakistan Army, South Asia expert Stephen Cohen quotes a senior lieutenant-general as warning the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto against using the military to control political opposition. “If you use a stick too often, the stick will take over,” Cohen quotes the general as saying. “This has always been the history of the stick.”

There’s no sign yet of the Pakistan Army reverting to its usual role of wielding the big stick. But with the police out in force to quell protests in Punjab over a Supreme Court ruling excluding former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from office, the obvious question to ask is whether we are about to see a repeat of the old cycle in which security forces are called out to restore order and end up taking over altogether. Indeed, the Pakistan Army’s first involvement in politics is generally dated to the 1953 imposition of martial law in Lahore – where protests erupted on Thursday over the court ruling. Sharif has blamed President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, for the ruling. [continued…]

Towards a Palestinian accord

… the most important news out of the Middle East today may be the announcement in Cairo that Fatah and Hamas have agreed in principle on the formation of a national unity government by the end of March. That should give Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell much to talk about during the secretary’s upcoming visit.

Such a Palestinian national unity government could offer a viable Palestinian negotiating partner, a way to channel reconstruction aid into Gaza, an end to the endlessly destructive Fatah-Hamas conflict, and even an indirect way for Hamas to honor the Quartet’s conditions. The Palestinian reconciliation enjoys the seemingly enthusiastic backing across those old Arab divides — Syria and Egypt, the Saudis and Qatar.

The details of the proposed “National Accordance” government [al-tawafuq al-watani] remain vague, and everyone expects hard bargaining to come. The proposed reconciliation is to include rebuilding the PLO, holding new Parliamentary and Presidential elections, and reconstructing the Palestinian security forces. They also agreed yesterday to put an end to hostile media campaigns and to work towards reconciliation. But the hard choices seem to have been largely deferred to committees, and there are wide gaps in the expectations of the two sides and a lot of mutual resentment and mistrust. But the Arab governments seem keen on reaching agreement before the Doha Arab Summit scheduled for the end of March. [continued…]

Israel’s death squads: A soldiers story

The Israeli military’s policy of targeted killings has been described from the inside for the first time. In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, and in his testimony to an ex-soldiers’ organisation, Breaking the Silence, a former member of an assassination squad has told of his role in a botched ambush that killed two Palestinian bystanders, as well as the two militants targeted.

The operation, which took place a little over eight years ago, at the start of the present intifada, or uprising, left the former sharpshooter with psychological scars. To this day he has not told his parents of his participation in what he called “the first face-to-face assassination of the intifada”.

As the uprising unfolded, targeted assassinations became a regularly used weapon in the armoury of the Israel military, especially in Gaza, where arrests would later become less easy than in the West Bank. The highest-profile were those of Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi in 2005, and of Said Siyam in the most recent offensive. But the targeting of lower-level militants, like the one killed in the operation described by the former soldier, became sufficiently common to attract little comment. [continued…]

A terrorism test case Obama may not want

Three years ago, when the Bush administration announced that Jose Padilla would be tried in a civilian court after being held as an enemy combatant without charges, civil libertarians derided the move. It was a cynical attempt to end-run the Supreme Court before it could change administration policy, they said.

On Friday, the Obama administration made a similar decision in a similar case: it indicted Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, an accused enemy combatant long in detention limbo in South Carolina, on charges of giving aid to Al Qaeda. The government also asked the Supreme Court to dismiss Mr. Marri’s challenge to his detention.

This time, civil libertarians generally hailed it as an affirmation of the new president’s core principles. “This administration has taken another step forward to restore the rule of law to our national security policies by ending a case of indefinite detention without charge,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

But has it really?

Experts on the Marri case and the constitutional issues involved suggest that it is still too early to tell how the new administration will handle the abundance of civil liberties issues created by the Bush administration. For all the hopes of civil libertarians, President Obama has not wholeheartedly joined their ranks. [continued…]

Court rejects Obama bid to stop wiretapping suit

The Obama administration has lost its argument that a potential threat to national security should stop a lawsuit challenging the government’s warrantless wiretapping program.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Friday rejected the Justice Department’s request for an emergency stay in a case involving a defunct Islamic charity.

Yet government lawyers signaled they would continue fighting to keep the information secret, setting up a new showdown between the courts and the White House over national security. [continued…]

What makes the Arabs a people?

Every time the bombs fall, the same question is asked: where are the Arabs? When it was posed by the Lebanese musician Julia Boutros and the Iraqi singer Rida Al Abdulla in their laments for wars in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, they were voicing a widepread and deep-rooted belief: that the people of the Arab world, from the Atlantic to the Gulf, are intimately related – even that they are in an important sense one people.

But as with peace, so with people: the example is in the action. If the Arabs talk the language of unity, they rarely appear to walk it. As the three-week war in Gaza in 2008-09 progressed, Arab foreign ministers – torn between sympathy for the Palestinians and concerns over Hamas’s galvanising effect on their own Islamist oppositions – were unable to agree a common stance. That indecision seems an apt metaphor for the Arabs themselves, bound by a language but frequently conflicted. The distinction between communication and cooperation lies at the heart of the question of Arab identity. How is it that the Arabic-speaking peoples can share so much and yet co-operate so little? Is there really anything left of the Arab nation?

The subject is knotty and the answers need to be intricate to match. On inspection, the idea of the Arab nation can be split into two separate but related ideas. The first is what might be called Arabness, a more cultural idea of identity, rooted in notions of ethnicity, language and common history, but with less political overtones. It was out of this idea of Arabness that Arab nationalism, the ideas that Arabs have a common political destiny, sprung, but the two have distinct histories. While Arabs have often seen themselves as a related people, it is only in the last two centuries – largely under the pressure of external influences – that they have come to believed that their political destiny lay in coming together. [continued…]

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