A presidency rotten at its core

What’s the good of calling yourself a Democrat if you don’t practice democracy? President Obama’s first allegiance has proved not to be the upholding of democracy, but instead the preservation and expansion of secrecy.

It is revealing that a man who in so many other domains often appears like a pushover, unable to find any principle too high to be compromised, when it comes to the issue of secrecy, is utterly uncompromising.

There is only one other practice in which Obama shows equal resolve: assassination.

In response to the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16 year-old American son of Anwar Awlaki, Glenn Greenwald writes:

It is unknown whether the U.S. targeted the teenager or whether he was merely “collateral damage.” The reason that’s unknown is because the Obama administration refuses to tell us. Said the Post: “The officials would not discuss the attack in any detail, including who the target was.” So here we have yet again one of the most consequential acts a government can take — killing one of its own citizens, in this case a teenage boy — and the government refuses even to talk about what it did, why it did it, what its justification is, what evidence it possesses, or what principles it has embraced in general for such actions. Indeed, it refuses even to admit it did this, since it refuses even to admit that it has a drone program at all and that it is engaged in military action in Yemen. It’s just all shrouded in secrecy.

Of course, the same thing happened with the killing of Awlaki himself. The Executive Branch decided it has the authority to target U.S. citizens for death without due process, but told nobody (until it was leaked) and refuses to identify the principles that guide these decisions. It then concluded in a secret legal memo that Awlaki specifically could be killed, but refuses to disclose what it ruled or in which principles this ruling was grounded. And although the Obama administration repeatedly accused Awlaki of having an “operational role” in Terrorist plots, it has — as Davidson put it — “so far kept the evidence for that to itself.”

This is all part and parcel with the Obama administration’s extreme — at times unprecedentedfixation on secrecy. Even with Senators in the President’s own party warning that the administration’s secret interpretation of its domestic surveillance powers under the Patriot Act is so warped and radical that it would shock the public if they knew, Obama officials simply refuse even to release its legal memos setting forth how it is applying those powers. As EFF’s Trevor Timm told The Daily Beast today: “The government classified a staggering 77 million documents last year, a 40 percent increase on the year before.”


American teenager killed in drone strike

An American teenager gets blown up in a US drone strike and the only explanation provided for why he was killed is that his father was alleged to be a terrorist. And given the small amount of reporting on yesterday’s killings it appears that having covered the Obama-kills-an-American story last month, Obama-kills-another-American is a story of no great interest. But this isn’t just a story about the abuse of executive power. It would now appear that individuals can be snuffed out just because the US government objects to what they are saying.

The New York Times reports: Airstrikes, believed to have been carried out by American drones, killed at least nine people in southern Yemen, including a senior official of the regional branch of Al Qaeda and an American, the 17-year-old son of a Qaeda official killed by the United States last month, according to the government and local reports on Saturday.

Fighting also escalated in the capital, Sana, where at least 12 antigovernment protesters were killed by security forces near the Foreign Ministry and at least four civilians were killed in a battle near the airport, opposition officials said.

The fighting in Sana was the deadliest since President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to the country last month, and coincided with rising political tensions as all sides await a statement by the United Nations Security Council expected in weeks.

Yemen has been in turmoil for months, as protesters demanding the ouster of Mr. Saleh, who has ruled for 33 years, have filled the streets, and rival political factions have fought for power. Despite tremendous domestic opposition, international pressure and an assassination attempt that severely wounded him in June, Mr. Saleh has refused to step down.

Islamic militant groups, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of the terrorist organization, have exploited the chaos, taking over large regions in Shabwa and Abyan Provinces in the south.

The American drone strike last month that killed the Qaeda official, Anwar al-Awlaki, has been particularly controversial in the United States. Despite being an American citizen, Mr. Awlaki, a Qaeda propagandist, was killed without a trial. The United States has argued that he had taken on an operational role in the organization, plotting attacks against Americans, which made him a legitimate target.

The killing of his son in a drone attack on Friday night, if confirmed, would be the third time an American was killed by such a United States attack in Yemen, although it was not clear if the son was an intended target. A second American, Samir Khan, the editor of Al Qaeda’s online magazine, was killed in the attack on Mr. Awlaki, which was launched from a new secret C.I.A. base on the Arabian Peninsula.


American and Israeli exceptionalism

Foreign Policy‘s latest issue looks at American exceptionalism and Stephen Walt writes:

Over the last two centuries, prominent Americans have described the United States as an “empire of liberty,” a “shining city on a hill,” the “last best hope of Earth,” the “leader of the free world,” and the “indispensable nation.” These enduring tropes explain why all presidential candidates feel compelled to offer ritualistic paeans to America’s greatness and why President Barack Obama landed in hot water — most recently, from Mitt Romney — for saying that while he believed in “American exceptionalism,” it was no different from “British exceptionalism,” “Greek exceptionalism,” or any other country’s brand of patriotic chest-thumping.

Most statements of “American exceptionalism” presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America’s global role is that it is mostly a myth. Although the United States possesses certain unique qualities — from high levels of religiosity to a political culture that privileges individual freedom — the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has been determined primarily by its relative power and by the inherently competitive nature of international politics. By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.

No doubt it behooves Americans to recognize the things that tie this country to the rest of the world, but there is an aspect of exceptionalism Walt does not touch upon — one that sets apart American and Israeli exceptionalism from most others: the exceptionalism of colonizers.

Nations that come into existence by dispossessing, imprisoning and slaughtering the indigenous population have two problems with history:

1. Its ugliness makes it hard to glorify.
2. Its shortness exposes the tenuousness of any claim that this is “our land”.

Others look back at their national history and can trace a rich tapestry of events, places, and people in which the contours of their nation have over the preceding centuries been carved by culture and inscribed in geography. All around are stepping stones that lead into the near, middling, distant, and sometimes ancient past. The punctuations of history rest on a continuum.

If without sentiment we look back into our ancestry as Americans or Israelis, we see migrants and murderers fast preceded by a void. Our actual roots in abandoned lands take us far away from the very thing that supposedly makes us exceptional.

With histories much harder to glorify, we find the need to make our pasts less linear and more mythically grandiose. We ignore the catastrophes that we imposed on others. We didn’t steal the land; it was a gift from God.


White House clarifies when it’s OK for Obama to kill Americans

A week after the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki — “a great day for America,” as one senior Obama administration official put it — and then a flurry of headlines about Obama killing US citizens, the White House clearly sees the need to change the narrative. Although it had already been stated that the president was exerting powers in accordance with legal advice, the administration wants to assure everyone that this was sound advice — the kind that would require the thoroughness of a 50-page memo drafted by a team of lawyers.

In other words, to those who are concerned about the suspension of the rule of law, the consolation is rule by procedure. It’s not due process, but it involved meetings, legal opinions, documentation, signatures — all the essential ingredients to ensure that those involved can later point to the ways in which they diligently followed procedures and ultimately no one can be held responsible. The buck stops nowhere.

Even so, since this is a presidency where secrecy often appears to be cherished more than anything else, we don’t get to actually read the Justice Department’s memorandum describing the circumstances in which Obama has the discretion to suspend the constitution. Instead, the contents of the memo get selectively revealed to a reporter.

It’s not exactly a leak — more like a drip.

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration’s secret legal memorandum that opened the door to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen, found that it would be lawful only if it were not feasible to take him alive, according to people who have read the document.

The memo, written last year, followed months of extensive interagency deliberations and offers a glimpse into the legal debate that led to one of the most significant decisions made by President Obama — to move ahead with the killing of an American citizen without a trial.

The secret document provided the justification for acting despite an executive order banning assassinations, a federal law against murder, protections in the Bill of Rights and various strictures of the international laws of war, according to people familiar with the analysis. The memo, however, was narrowly drawn to the specifics of Mr. Awlaki’s case and did not establish a broad new legal doctrine to permit the targeted killing of any Americans believed to pose a terrorist threat.

The Obama administration has refused to acknowledge or discuss its role in the drone strike that killed Mr. Awlaki last month and that technically remains a covert operation. The government has also resisted growing calls that it provide a detailed public explanation of why officials deemed it lawful to kill an American citizen, setting a precedent that scholars, rights activists and others say has raised concerns about the rule of law and civil liberties.

But the document that laid out the administration’s justification — a roughly 50-page memorandum by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, completed around June 2010 — was described on the condition of anonymity by people who have read it.

The legal analysis, in essence, concluded that Mr. Awlaki could be legally killed, if it was not feasible to capture him, because intelligence agencies said he was taking part in the war between the United States and Al Qaeda and posed a significant threat to Americans, as well as because Yemeni authorities were unable or unwilling to stop him.

The memorandum, which was written more than a year before Mr. Awlaki was killed, does not independently analyze the quality of the evidence against him.

The administration did not respond to requests for comment on this article.


The muted impact of the Arab Awakening on Israel

Daniel Levy writes:

After decades of near-hegemonic Israeli strategic supremacy in the Middle East, the ground is shifting. For Israel’s leaders, the Arab Awakening and the removal of Mubarak represents the collapse of a key support structure in the edifice that maintains Israel’s regional posture. That edifice had been fraying for some time. Yet with Israel unwilling or unable to relinquish its control over and occupation of Palestine, it was a system of conflict management that had proven to be remarkably resilient. Undemocratic Egypt was that system’s linchpin. In fact, only an undemocratic Egypt could play this role, indifferent and dismissive as the regime was toward public opinion and able to pursue policies, both at home and abroad, widely perceived as being an affront to Egyptian dignity.

Every country needs a strategy for managing its external relations, especially in the near abroad. Israel’s predicament in this respect is especially challenging. Born as an unusual movement combining religious and historical claims to land with modern aspirations of state-building and communal preservation, Zionism was initially branded by most in the region as a colonial project, a sense that Israel has fed with its expansionist and expulsionist approach to the indigenous population. Unfortunately for Israel, that indigenous population has ethnic and religious ties to a large population throughout the surrounding region. Nevertheless, Israel managed to adapt, pursuing whatever great power or regional alliances were available, making itself useful to the United States as a cold war ally.

Long after it became clear that the Oslo peace process would not deliver Palestinian freedom, rights or sovereignty, the structures established by it and the opportunities they have forged for Israel have endured. They were kept afloat by donor assistance, by the difficulties entailed in dismantling the Palestinian Authority and, crucially, by the stamp of legitimacy that only Egypt could confer. The impact of the Arab Awakening on Israel’s leaders must be understood first and foremost against this backdrop.

But here’s the key statement Levy makes which defined Israel’s view of the region well before the Arab Awakening erupted:

Israel has erected a separation barrier between itself and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, is proceeding to do the same on the Egyptian border and has long had closed and militarily fortified borders with Lebanon and Syria. Trade with all of its Middle East neighbors, in fact, amounts to less than 5 percent of its total. Israelis rarely visit even those Arab countries it is possible to enter, and the Arab community inside Israel is treated as a fifth column rather than as a bridge to regional relations. Of course, this is a two-way street. Yet when the physical barriers are combined with what is often a striking lack of intellectual, cultural and social curiosity, Israel is in danger of being fundamentally incapable of interpreting developments in its immediate surroundings.

This incapacity is not just an impediment — it actually defines the core of Zionism.

Israel defines itself as a state by its desire to underline the otherness of the non-Jew and emphasize the necessity for Jewish solidarity and self-reliance. On this basis, how would it be possible to foster dynamic and creative relations between Jews and Arabs when the prevailing attitude among Israeli Jews is that they have little or no interest in having any relations with Arabs?


On Norway’s emotional maturity

As Norway has demonstrated this week, anger is often nothing more than the inability to experience grief and acknowledge loss.

Knut Olav Amas writes:

Exactly a week has passed since the twin terror attacks on Norway. As of this writing, the death toll stands at seventy-seven, and more than thirty people, mostly young, are still in the hospital, many of them seriously wounded by the dum-dum bullets used by Anders Behring Breivik. I walked Oslo’s streets again last night, from my newspaper’s office to the Parliament, the government offices, and the cathedral, to observe and understand the grief following the tragedy.

I’ve lived in Oslo for fifteen years, and I’ve never seen my city like this. An ocean of roses is now covering the streets of Oslo and the shores close to Utoya, thirty minutes away, to honor the dead and wounded. These hundreds of thousands of flowers have been brought by a never-ending flow of silent people, young and old. Never before has Norway seen so many people muted for such a long time.

They are also carrying Norwegian flags. We don’t wave our flag all the time the way Americans do, except on May 17th, our national holiday, celebrating the anniversary of the signing our constitution in 1814. In fact, carrying the national flag the rest of the year has been seen as a sign of overwrought patriotism.

Not any longer. Now the flag is again a source of pride, a silent celebration of the joy of being alive and of living in a privileged society. A society where it has long been a virtue to keep a cool head, but not necessarily a warm heart, as the Norwegian author Jo Nesbo noted in the New York Times this week.

In several ways Oslo today reminds me of New York City in the year or so after 9/11: the flags, the flowers, the improvised memorials on street corners and walls. But, more than this, I remember the new and kinder ways people treated each other, transforming the city into a warm, inclusive space. The countless small acts of solidarity in Oslo this week demonstrate that there are other ways to respond to severe threats to a nation than black-and-white thinking. A week later, it’s clear that Norway is working perfectly well even after a traumatic terror attack from within.

The most striking feature of Norway the past seven days is the captivating blend of public emotion and clearheaded, principled liberalism. Leading politicians, including Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Mayor Fabian Stang, have been talking about love, compassion, and consideration. Their words have touched so many of us because they are neither cynical nor calculating—nor are they superficial.


Norway believes democracy is the best way of challenging terrorism

Just imagine if these words had come out of George Bush’s mouth after 9/11: “The American response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.”

The Guardian reports:

The Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, says his country will “not be intimidated or threatened” by Friday’s terror attacks, which left 76 people dead.

The country would “stand firm in defending our values” and the “open, tolerant and inclusive society”, he said. “The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.”

The “horrific and brutal” attacks were an assault on Norway’s “fundamental values”, added Stoltenberg. “We have to be very clear to distinguish between extreme views, opinions that it’s completely legal, legitimate to have. What is not legitimate is to try to implement those extreme views by using violence,” he said.

Earlier, police detonated a cache of explosives at a farm rented by Anders Behring Breivik. Detectives believe the 32-year-old made the bomb that killed eight people in Oslo on Friday using fertiliser he purchased under the guise of being a farmer.

The controlled explosion came after police named four of the victims, including three caught up in the city centre bombing and a 23-year-old shot dead on Utøya island. Police would not reveal the quantity of explosives found at the farm in Rena, about 100 miles north of the capital, Oslo.

As the investigation continues, security officials have cast doubt on Breivik’s claims that he has accomplices who are still at large. At his first court appearance in Oslo on Monday, he told a closed courtroom he had links to “two other terror cells”.

But Norway’s domestic intelligence chief, Janne Kristiansen, said no proof has yet been found to link Breivik to rightwing extremists in the UK or elsewhere. She told the BBC: “I can tell you, at this moment in time, we don’t have evidence or we don’t have indications that he has been part of a broader movement or that he has been in connection with other cells or that there are other cells.”

Kristiansen added that she did not believe the killer was insane, but was calculating and evil, and someone who sought the limelight.


News updates

I’ll be off-line for the next few days and so there won’t be regular news updates until late Friday. But in the meantime I have scheduled a lot of interesting feature articles which will appear here over this period. — PW


News updates

I’ll be off-line for the next few days and so there won’t be regular news updates until late Friday. But in the meantime I have scheduled a lot of interesting feature articles which will appear here over this period. — PW


News updates

I’ll be off-line for the next few days and so there won’t be regular news updates until late Friday. But in the meantime I have scheduled a lot of interesting feature articles which will appear here over this period. — PW


Libya’s armed protest movement at the edge of an abyss

The coffin of Emad al-Giryani, a former petroleum engineer who fought for the opposition in Ras Lanuf. Some Obama administration officials have said privately that the level of violence in Libya would have to approach the scale of that in Rwanda or Bosnia in the 1990s before the United States would engage militarily. (New York Times)

As some commentators solemnly warn about the dangers of a backlash if the Arab democratic revolution was to become poisoned by American involvement in a no-fly zone over Libya, they fail to note a rising chorus inside Libya: anger towards the United States because of its reluctance to become involved.

There’s stunning paradox here. Three decades ago, America’s support of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan sowed the seeds for a jihad against America. And now, America’s lack of support for a revolution in Libya may eventually have the same effect.

There are those who would on this basis jump to the conclusion that this demonstrates a visceral hatred of America across the Muslim world, but I would argue the exact opposite: that it demonstrates that attitudes towards America in a region in which it exerts so much influence are predominantly pragmatic and rooted in the present tense: they are a response to whatever the United States is doing or is not doing at any particular time.

Anthony Shadid in one of the finest pieces of reporting to come out of Libya since the fighting started, writes from Ras Lanuf:

Everyone here seems to have a gun these days, in a lawlessness tempered only by revolutionary ebullience. Young men at the front parade with the swagger that a rocket-propelled grenade launcher grants but hint privately that they will try to emigrate if they fail. Anti-American sentiments build, as rebels complain of Western inaction. And the hint of radicalization — religious or something more nihilist — gathers as the momentum in the three-week conflict clearly shifts to the forces of one of the world’s most bizarre leaders.

“This better not go on any longer,” said Dr. Salem Langhi, a surgeon who was working around the clock at a hospital that was abandoned as Colonel Qaddafi’s forces rushed in. “It will only bring misery and hard feelings among people. Losing lives and limbs doesn’t make anyone optimistic.”

No one seems to know what to call this conflict — a revolution, a civil war or, in a translation of what some call it in Arabic, “the events,” a shorthand for confusing violence. It certainly looks like a war — the thud of shelling in the distance offers a cadence to occasional airstrikes, their targets smoking like oil fires that turn afternoon to dusk. The dead and dismembered are ferried in ambulances driven by medical students.

But especially for the rebels, there is an amateurishness to the fighting that began as a protest and became an armed uprising.

“We’re here because we want to be,” said one of the fighters, Mohammed Fawzi.

His sense of a spontaneous gathering offers a prism through which to understand the war: the front at Ras Lanuf is the most militarized version of Tahrir Square in Cairo, where hundreds of thousands wrote a script of opposition and street theater that brought down a strongman everyone thought would die in office. The fighting here feels less like combat in the conventional sense and more like another form of frustrated protest.

Some vehicles bear the inscription Joint Security Committee, but nothing is all that coordinated across a landscape that seems anarchic and lacking in leadership. Fighters don leather jackets from Turkey, Desert Fox-style goggles, ski masks, cowboy hats and World War II-era British waistcoats.

Slogans are scrawled in the street just miles from the fighting. “Muammar is a dog,” one reads. A man who bicycled for three days from Darnah, far to the east, became a local celebrity at the front. Free food is offered, as it was in the canteens in Tahrir, and fighters rummaged through donated clothes. “These are American jeans!” one shouted.

Young men revel in the novelty of having no one to tell them not to play with guns. “God is great!” rings out whenever a volley of bullets is fired into the air.

“Some guys consider this a lot of fun, and they’re hoping the war lasts a lot longer,” said Marwan Buhidma, a 21-year-old computer student who credited video games with helping him figure out how to operate a 14.5-millimeter antiaircraft battery.

An hour or so before Friday’s headlong retreat, a gaggle of young men in aviator sunglasses and knit caps danced on military hardware, thrusting weapons into the air.

“Where is the house of the guy with really bad hair?” they chanted, referring to Colonel Qaddafi, jumping on spent cartridges and empty milk cartons. “Let’s go down the road and see it!”

The protests across the Arab world have disparate demands — from power-sharing in Bahrain to the dismantling of the regime in Egypt. But the demographic shift they represent as a generation comes of age is their constant. It is no different in Libya, where the young look at their parents’ lives in disgust and vow that they will not live without dignity, a say in their future and a constitution — a catchall term for the rule of law.

Nearly 70 percent of Libya’s population is under the age of 34, virtually identical to Egypt’s, and a refrain at the front or faraway in the mountain town of Bayda is that a country blessed with the largest oil reserves in Africa should have better schools, hospitals, roads and housing across a land dominated by Soviet-era monotony.

“People here didn’t revolt because they were hungry, because they wanted power or for religious reasons or something,” said Abdel-Rahman al-Dihami, a young man from Benghazi who had spent days at the front. “They revolted because they deserve better.”

The seeming justice of that revolt has prompted moments of naïveté — time and again, young people express amazement that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces would deploy tanks and warplanes against them — with an incipient and unpredictable frustration over demands unmet.

The revolt remains amorphous, but already, religion has emerged as an axis around which to focus opposition to Colonel Qaddafi’s government, especially across a terrain where little unites it otherwise. The sermon at the front on Friday framed the revolt as a crusade against an infidel leader. “This guy is not a Muslim,” said Jawdeh al-Fakri, the prayer leader. “He has no faith.”

Deserting officers have offered what leadership there is, along with some men who call themselves veterans of fighting in Afghanistan or an Islamist insurgency in eastern Libya in the 1990s. The shift remains tentative — and far short of the accusations made by Colonel Qaddafi that he faces an insurgency led by Al Qaeda — but even the opposition acknowledges the threat of radicalization in a drawn-out conflict.

Dr. Langhi, the surgeon, said he scolded rebels who called themselves mujahedeen — a religious term for pious fighters. “This isn’t our situation,” he pleaded. “This is a revolution.”

Sitting on ammunition boxes, four young men from Benghazi debated the war, as they watched occasional volleys of antiaircraft guns fired at nothing. They promised victory but echoed the anger heard often these days at the United States and the West for failing to impose a no-flight zone, swelling a sense of abandonment.


Anti-government protests continue in Bahrain

The Washington Post reports:

Saudi Arabia said Sunday that it stands ready “with all its capabilities” to shore up Bahrain’s ruling royal family if a standoff with the Shiite-led opposition is not resolved soon, underscoring the kingdom’s deep concern about its neighbor’s ongoing political crisis.

Sunni-led Saudi Arabia props up Bahrain’s al-Khalifa family with cash and has long sought to prevent the tiny Persian Gulf state – with its majority Shiite population – from falling into Iran’s orbit. With dwindling oil resources, Bahrain relies heavily on Saudi Arabia for money and security.

It was unclear whether the Saudi comments indicated that the country was contemplating possible action in Bahrain or were merely meant to express growing anxiety among Saudi leaders. But some regional experts have long warned that a concerted Shiite challenge to the monarchy in Bahrain might prompt intervention from Saudi Arabia, which has its own restive Shiite minority population. The two countries are connected by a causeway.

And let’s suppose that in the coming days or weeks, Saudi forces (which they would no doubt describe with some anodyne phrase such as “peacekeeping forces” or “military assistance”) invade Bahrain.

Hand-wringing in Washington and other Western capitals will surely become frenzied in a decisive moment when Obama and his allies will be forced to show the world whether they truly stand for or against democracy.

Last week, AFP reported:

Gulf states could go as far as using military intervention to prevent a regime change in Bahrain to block the tide of protests there from reaching their countries, analysts say.

A spread of the Shi’ite protests in Bahrain into the rest of the energy-rich Gulf states would be a major strategic victory for neighbouring Shi’ite Iran, they said on Thursday.

Foreign ministers of the six-nation alliance of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Bahrain is a member, affirmed at a meeting in Manama on Thursday their political, economic, security and defence support for Bahrain.

“Gulf states cannot accept a fundamental and radical change in Bahrain. The demand for constitutional monarchy cannot be imposed without [natural] political development that takes its due course,” Saudi political analyst Dakheel al-Dakheel said.

“This will create a state of political and security confusion in Bahrain that opens the door for Iranian and non-Iranian interference, which will not be acceptable to Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia,” said Dakheel.


US-Israeli interdependence?

Associated Press reports:

The top U.S. military officer says the relationship between the American and Israeli militaries is especially relevant while Mideast nations are steeped in unrest.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the instability in Egypt with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Monday. He said the American-Israeli alliance is “something we both depend on.”

As the recipient of $3 billion in military aid annually, it’s clear how Israel is dependent on the United States, but much less clear how the dependence is mutual. Perhaps Mullen had personal dependence in mind, given that his principal adviser, Dr Lani Kass, grew up in Israel and was a major in the IDF.


America, welcome to the era of Arab democracy

Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy write:

The stark realization slowly dawning on Washington is that the United States cannot be on the right side of Arab democracy if it is on the wrong side of Palestinian freedom. Israel’s security and peace treaties are certainly compatible with a recalibrated American policy in the region, but not the continuation of occupation and inequality for Palestinians. This shouldn’t pose such a conundrum: the status quo has constrained the prospects for both the Arab and Jewish-Israeli publics. For all of its qualitative military edge and American backing, Israel does not feel secure, accepted or calm about its future.

Things get messy though when America fails to apply its own values to the Middle East. Some are advocating for precisely that values-free option, apparently believing that the adage of Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East is not so much a lament as an aspiration. That translates into continued support for Arab autocracies or insisting on what might be called democracy minus for Arab countries in which the balance between military and civilian rule still rests primarily with the former, and by denying democratic Islamist parties the right to participate in peaceful politics.

Representative government in the Arab world will inevitably include a role for Islamists, something seized on by democracy’s opponents as a scare tactic to plead for the continued rule of the authoritarian devil we know. Those warning of a Khomeinist takeover are either desperately ignorant of Arab reality or intentionally misleading. Iran’s system of theocratic republicanism carries no attraction for the Arab pro-democracy movements. If anything, it is Turkey’s system of parliamentary citizen-state democracy, which is held up as a model.

There is another way to look at this region in transition and to plan for the future. The best option for getting this right and being credible is in allowing American policy to reflect American political values.

Imagine that: American foreign policy that isn’t riddled with hypocrisy!

George Bush — with a less than democratic spirit — used to say, you’re either for us or against us. The same can be said about democracy: you’re either for democracy or against it.

We no longer live in an era where something called democracy can be reserved for a privileged minority. Those who now claim that democratic rights should only be selectively recognized are, quite simply, opponents of democracy.


Time for the United States to stop poisoning the Middle East

To assert that the United States has been poisoning the Middle East for decades might sound like too strong language to the ears of many Americans. Yet what kind of effect can we expect from the long-standing practice of supporting rulers who habitually torture their own people, other than a poisonous effect?

Much as we can celebrate the Egyptian revolution as an expression of the universal human desire for freedom, it is also the beginning of a process through which Egypt must detoxify itself.

The Obama administration still clings to the phrase orderly transition as though the process of change on which Egypt is just embarking might be as seamless as the changeless change which saw George W Bush’s departure from and Barack Obama’s arrival into the White House.

Real change is more disruptive. It can’t be stage-managed by Hosni Mubarak or his deputies.

Graham Fuller writes:

It had to come. Where, when, and how exactly one of many smoldering sparks in this agonized region might actually burst forth into the present conflagration was unknowable, but tension and anger was palpably rising over a long period.

Where all these uprisings across the region will go is still unknowable, but one thing is clear – the imperative to break the long and ugly pattern of harsh, incompetent, and corrupt rule that sucks optimism, hope, and creativity out of these societies and made them breeding grounds for radicalism.

What the people of the region demand is to be able to take control of their own lives and destinies. But that in turn depends on an end to the constant external intervention of the United States in the region.

In the near term, the prescription is stark – Washington must back off and leave these societies alone, ending the long political infantilization of Middle Eastern populations. We must end our incessant and obsessive efforts to intervene and micromanage the political life of foreign states based on a myopic vision of “American interests.”

Today the Middle East is the last redoubt in the world of regimes bought, maintained, and guided by Washington. Is it any wonder that this region is now the cauldron of numerous rebellions and anti-American expression?

And just why are we maintaining this damaging, hated quasi-imperial role in the Middle East? Is it for the oil? Yet what tin-pot dictator has ever refused us oil? Furthermore, we don’t even rely that much on Middle East oil – Saudi Arabia ranks only number three among our top five providers: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria.

Or is it perhaps all about Israel? Yet why should that state constitute the seeming touchstone of everything that we do in the region? After all, Israel is overwhelmingly the most powerful military state in the Middle East, acts at will in the Middle East under the protection of American veto, manipulates our own domestic politics in its favor, and is now run by the most inflexible and ultra-right-wing government in Israeli history, while soaking up more American foreign aid per capita than any other state. The US still backs Israel against the Palestinians in an Israeli occupation now into its fifth decade.


America’s feudal friends

As the saying goes, a man is known by the company he keeps. President Obama’s choice of Frank Wisner as his special envoy to Cairo shows that corruption has become so deeply institutionalized in Washington that it cannot be exposed — it is so commonplace, so much regarded as an inherent dimension of politics that politics and corruption are indivisible. The fact that bundles of unmarked bills in brown paper bags are rarely exchanged for political services is not evidence of a clean political system. On the contrary: it is evidence that corruption has been legalized.

Robert Fisk writes:

Frank Wisner, President Barack Obama’s envoy to Cairo who infuriated the White House this weekend by urging Hosni Mubarak to remain President of Egypt, works for a New York and Washington law firm which works for the dictator’s own Egyptian government.

Mr Wisner’s astonishing remarks – “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical: it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy” – shocked the democratic opposition in Egypt and called into question Mr Obama’s judgement, as well as that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The US State Department and Mr Wisner himself have now both claimed that his remarks were made in a “personal capacity”. But there is nothing “personal” about Mr Wisner’s connections with the litigation firm Patton Boggs, which openly boasts that it advises “the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and has handled arbitrations and litigation on the [Mubarak] government’s behalf in Europe and the US”. Oddly, not a single journalist raised this extraordinary connection with US government officials – nor the blatant conflict of interest it appears to represent.

Mr Wisner is a retired State Department 36-year career diplomat – he served as US ambassador to Egypt, Zambia, the Philippines and India under eight American presidents. In other words, he was not a political appointee. But it is inconceivable Hillary Clinton did not know of his employment by a company that works for the very dictator which Mr Wisner now defends in the face of a massive democratic opposition in Egypt.

So why on earth was he sent to talk to Mubarak, who is in effect a client of Mr Wisner’s current employers?

Patton Boggs states that its attorneys “represent some of the leading Egyptian commercial families and their companies” and “have been involved in oil and gas and telecommunications infrastructure projects on their behalf”. One of its partners served as chairman of the US-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce promoting foreign investment in the Egyptian economy. The company has also managed contractor disputes in military-sales agreements arising under the US Foreign Military Sales Act. Washington gives around $1.3bn (£800m) a year to the Egyptian military.

Mr Wisner joined Patton Boggs almost two years ago – more than enough time for both the White House and the State Department to learn of his company’s intimate connections with the Mubarak regime. The New York Times ran a glowing profile of Mr Wisner in its pages two weeks ago – but mysteriously did not mention his ties to Egypt.

Nicholas Noe, an American political researcher now based in Beirut, has spent weeks investigating Mr Wisner’s links to Patton Boggs. Mr Noe is also a former researcher for Hillary Clinton and questions the implications of his discoveries.

“The key problem with Wisner being sent to Cairo at the behest of Hillary,” he says, “is the conflict-of-interest aspect… More than this, the idea that the US is now subcontracting or ‘privatising’ crisis management is another problem. Do the US lack diplomats?

“Even in past examples where presidents have sent someone ‘respected’ or ‘close’ to a foreign leader in order to lubricate an exit,” Mr Noe adds, “the envoys in question were not actually paid by the leader they were supposed to squeeze out!”

While the rationalization provided by so-called political realism ascribes US support for Mubarak to the need for “stability” in an unstable region, he also belongs to the class of leaders America has always preferred to support: those unburdened by ideological affiliations whose insatiable greed makes them dependable US allies. In other words, the US government likes rulers who are so rotten they can be trusted — which is to say, trusted to serve US interests.

What does this tell us about American values and the American view of the world?

That every man can be bought — it’s just a matter of finding the right price.

It’s not a mentality one would hope to find in the cradle of modern democracy but hardly surprising to be seen prevailing in a nation built on slavery.

There is of course nothing uniquely American in this mentality — it’s the way imperial powers have always extended their reach, but as Barack Obama said on the day of his inauguration, “the world has changed and we must change with it.”

Indeed. But, if his response to the Egyptian revolution provides a reliable measure, we have yet more evidence this president lacks the will to become the agent of such change.

Salwa Ismail writes:

There is a lot more behind Hosni Mubarak digging in his heels and setting his thugs on the peaceful protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square than pure politics. This is also about money. Mubarak and the clique surrounding him have long treated Egypt as their fiefdom and its resources as spoils to be divided among them.

Under sweeping privatisation policies, they appropriated profitable public enterprises and vast areas of state-owned lands. A small group of businessmen seized public assets and acquired monopoly positions in strategic commodity markets such as iron and steel, cement and wood. While crony capitalism flourished, local industries that were once the backbone of the economy were left to decline. At the same time, private sector industries making environmentally hazardous products like ceramics, marble and fertilisers have expanded without effective regulation at a great cost to the health of the population.

A tiny economic elite controlling consumption-geared production and imports has accumulated great wealth. This elite includes representatives of foreign companies with exclusive import rights in electronics, electric cables and automobiles. It also includes real estate developers who created a construction boom in gated communities and resorts for the super-rich. Much of this development is on public land acquired at very low prices, with no proper tendering or bidding.


Slavoj Zizek and Tariq Ramadan on the future of Egyptian politics

Many American academics and pundits from thinktankland should study the way Slavoj Žižek expresses himself. Passionate, emphatic, uninhibited, eccentric, and humorous — above all, a man who knows what it means to speak your mind. This is a display that shows that deep analysis does not need the protection of cover-your-ass-caveats or manicured sobriety. It can be an act of genuine self-expression.

The pre-condition though is that to speak your mind, you must know your mind and that is a dangerous enterprise.

In relation to Žižek’s central point — that the loss of the Left has come at a hefty price — it’s worth considering the pernicious influence of the sporting metaphor as it shapes American political thinking. Which is to say: the effect of the assumption that that which is defeated must by its nature be inferior; that those who lose are lesser. Guided by such thinking, we would have no reason to be concerned about the loss of species or the loss of cultures. As though the perfect condition would be one of victorious homogeneity.

And note: if democracy was by its nature something truly Western, would we now witness so much Western ambivalence about the birth of Egyptian democracy? On the contrary, the West’s ambivalence exposes the degree to which universal and socialist values have been marginalized in the West. As though we should have reason to doubt that human solidarity is a good thing.


Palestine Papers can’t slow down a stationary peace process

Jerusalem Post:

The US State Department acknowledged Monday that the “Palestine Papers,” released by Al-Jazeera, complicated American efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But it said it wouldn’t slow the Obama administration’s work toward that goal.

George Mitchell can be as busy as a hamster in a treadmill without actually getting anywhere. Still, the key rhetorical marker that the administration’s efforts have reached their termination point will be transparent when State Department spokesman PJ Crowley starts responding to questions about Israel with what has become Obama’s signature expression: “We’re monitoring the situation.”