EDITORIAL: Talking to Hamas

Talking to Hamas

Exchange from a Sky News interview, Davos, Switzerland, January 2006, soon after Hamas had won free and fair democratic elections in the West Bank and Gaza:

James Rubin: Do you think that American diplomats should be operating the way they have in the past, working with the Palestinian government if Hamas is now in charge?

Sen. John McCain: They’re the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another, and I understand why this administration and previous administrations had such antipathy towards Hamas because of their dedication to violence and the things that they not only espouse but practice, so . . . but it’s a new reality in the Middle East. I think the lesson is people want security and a decent life and decent future, that they want democracy. Fatah was not giving them that.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

Churchill, unlike George Bush, was eminently well equipped to employ the power of language. Churchill understood that negotiation is not the same as appeasement.

If we were able to drill down into the psychological roots of the pathology of the Bush presidency, is it possible that the core fear embedded in so many of Bush’s postures is his awareness that whenever he opens his mouth he risks looking like a fool?

It would hardly be surprising that a president who is so intimidated by words would have a strong preference for violence.

But that’s his failing – it doesn’t have to be everyone else’s.

In 2006 John McCain — perhaps slightly intoxicated by the rarefied atmosphere of Davos — uttered a heretical yet utterly common sense view. In free and fair elections, the Palestinian people had expressed their democratic will. They had chosen Hamas. “Sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them,” McCain said.

The proponents of democracy – and this of course included the Bush administration which in the face of Fatah’s objections had called for Hamas’ inclusion in the election – faced a challenge: they could honor the democratic process and find out whether Hamas was ready to live up to the challenge of governing, or, they could perpetuate a political narrative that precluded the very possibility of a Hamas government.

By choosing to do the latter, Bush sent a clear message across the Middle East: In the eyes of America, terrorism matters more than democracy.

Naturally, under George Bush’s watch, terrorism has flourished much more than democracy.

If an American president isn’t willing and capable of negotiating with adversaries, he or she isn’t fit for office. Bush would have us believe that he has taken a bold stand on principle. In truth he has merely tried to conceal his incompetence.


EDITORIAL: Bush’s bullshit

Bush’s bullshit

In his eighth year as president, George Bush still lacks the courage to address anyone but an overly sympathetic audience. Indicative of his plummeting approval rating, he now has to travel six thousand miles to find such company. Should we be surprised that in front of the Knesset he would come out with a crowd pleaser like this?

Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

That so many would be now be trotting out a prissy line like, “…beneath the dignity of the office of the president…,” is probably comforting to both Bush and McCain. It shows the GOP how easily Democrats will rise to the bait. That said, at least Joe Biden gave a straight response: “This is bullshit.”

Meanwhile, Bush said something else that is sure to be ignored: his prediction about when a Palestinian state will come into existence.

In 2002, Bush supposedly boldly crossed a political frontier by becoming the first president to express his commitment to seeing the creation of a Palestinian state. Bush was so full of it at that time that he suggested it could come into being by 2005.

By 2004 he started hedging, saying 2005 was unlikely. He pushed back, but still said, “I’d like to see it done in four years. I think it’s possible.”

So now it’s 2008 and what does Bush see in his crystal ball? A Palestinian state some time in the next sixty years! This is Bush’s bold vision: By the time Israel celebrates it 120th anniversary there will be a Palestinian state.

Were it not for global warming, I’d say that the pace Bush has set for advancing the peace process is glacial in its speed. Unfortunately in this era, glaciers actually move faster – but like the peace process, they move in the wrong direction.


Going back to Bush’s appeasement line, it does articulate something worth noting. That is, the Bush communications model.

Here’s how Bush defines “negotiate”:
1. Use words to force the other party to think the way you do, or if that doesn’t work,
2. Use the threat of violence to bend your opponent’s will, or if that doesn’t work,
3. Use violence to force your opponent into submission, or if that doesn’t work,
4. Use violence to annihilate your opponent.

What the Bush communications model precludes is the possibility that Bush can or ever will change the way he thinks. What this suggests is that the Bush brain is impervious to any influence whatsoever from experience. In other words, the Bush brain is a closed circuit that can neither process nor be modified by new information.

Essentially, the president is brain dead.

Let’s not get too agitated about what comes out of his mouth.


GUEST CONTRIBUTOR – John Robertson: Mr Bush and his “legacy”

Mr Bush and his “legacy”
By John Robertson, War in Context, April 6, 2008

According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph our war-hero “Decider” president has decided that he will pull no more troops out of Iraq. According to the report, which cites Pentagon sources, he feels that showing such “resolve” will cement his legacy – which, he obviously assumes, is going to be an honorable one that will burn his glorious presidency indelibly into the pages of our national memory. A major contributor to his decision, moreover, seems to have been a report from another of our war-hero stalwarts, Fred Kagan, American Enterprise Institute all-star and an “intellectual” godfather of the “Surge.” Kagan is also a frequent contributor to William Kristol’s Weekly Standard (required reading for the – one would have hoped by now – discredited neocon faithful), where right up to the recent Basra humiliation he was serving up self-congratulatory pieces about the success of the Surge and declaring Iraq’s civil war to be “over.” Sorry, Fred, but most of the real experts (people like Juan Cole, Nir Rosen, and Patrick Cockburn – that is, people who know the country intimately, have lived there, and can read its newspapers) who’ve been reading the tea leaves suggest that, in the inimitable words of an American showman whose name I can’t recall, we “ain’t see nuthin yet.”

Please forgive me if I sound callous or flip by putting it that way, but by now it ought to be clear that the unfortunate people of Iraq have a long road to travel – and probably many years of suffering ahead – before they will be able to enjoy an existence graced by any consistency of peace, prosperity, and security. Surge notwithstanding, the Sunni Arabs of Anbar and elsewhere are no closer to being included in the governing of the Iraqi state than they were during the proconsulship of L. Paul Bremer, who marginalized them from the outset of the American occupation. The much-touted Sunni sahwa (“Sunni Awakening”) – to which the Bush-Petraeus “Surge” owed so much of its putative success – now seems, at best, to be hitting its collective snooze alarm while the US tries to keep these new militias, which are completely outside the control of the central government, paid off. Despite its ongoing entreaties, the Bush administration has been unable to convince the Shia-dominated Maliki government to incorporate them into the Iraqi army. Nor is that government making any appreciable effort to find them jobs to divert their attention and secure them some livelihood, and paychecks. It is likely only a matter of time before they bug out altogether and turn their newly obtained arms, equipment, and training on the people against whom so many of them were originally most intent on fighting in the first place: the US occupation forces and their Shia Badr Force allies.

Meanwhile, the sun seems to be setting on the hope-filled halcyon days of the Kurds’ autonomy in Iraq’s northeast, in which they were able to bask only because (after years of being sheltered and nurtured under a US-enforced no-fly zone) they supported the US invasion right down the line, while the US could point to them as Iraq’s model of stability and potential. But now the US has shown itself all too willing to sell them out when a stronger, more potentially useful ally, Turkey, put its marker down in this new “great game.” Notwithstanding the protests of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Turkish forces only recently completed major incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan to go after the PKK; only days ago, for the umpteenth time, Turkish warplanes flew bombing sorties into the region; and the Turkish republic’s leaders have reserved the right to violate the sovereignty of the KRG (and, by the standards of anybody’s interpretation of international law, the sovereignty of the state of Iraq) when and if they deem it necessary (which, given the current turmoil in the Turkish government, also translates to “politically expedient”). And as if the threat from Turkey weren’t enough, the future stability of Kurdistan faces what is perhaps an even direr threat: the possibility of civil war among Kurds, Arabs, and Turks over the ultimate control of the city and region of Kirkuk.

And speaking of civil war, it’s pretty safe to say that the violence of late March in Basra and Baghdad was only a taste of what might be in store for Iraq’s largely Shia south and center, where the scions of the powerful and prestigious al-Hakim and al-Sadr clerical lineages (along with smaller groups like the Fadhila party in Basra) are vying for political control (and in Basra, control of Iraq’s vital oil exports) as provincial elections, scheduled for October, approach. Their respective leaders – Abdulaziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr – control well-armed and inspired militias (respectively, the Badr Forces and the Jaish al-Mahdi, or “Mahdi Army”) that fought each other viciously in the holy city of Karbala only a few months ago, and in Basra and Baghdad only recently. Thanks largely to the intervention of Iran (which was spearheaded by a “terrorist” Revolutionary Guard general), Muqtada agreed to a truce, not to be mistaken for a peace treaty. Simply put, the two militias hate each other. Add then to this very combustible mix that Muqtada is the leader of a huge popular political movement that claims the support of hundreds of thousands of the poor Shia of teeming slums like Sadr City in Baghdad, and of hundreds of thousands more in Iraq’s second largest city, Basra. He has called upon his followers – and other Iraqis who want the US occupation out of Iraq – to come together next week for a million-man march. That march was originally set for the holy city of Najaf, a stronghold of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Shia political movement led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim. Now, however, Muqtada has decided to stage the march in Baghdad.

Keeping a lid on the tensions that will be bubbling in Baghdad next week will be the job of the Maliki “government.” This is, of course, the same Maliki government that was recently humbled by its failure in Basra and that appears ever more dysfunctional, hunkered down in the “Green Zone” (beyond which it exercises little real control) and confronted with a divided, often absentee parliament. The army Maliki commands has proved itself largely unreliable and ineffective, often including members of the Badr militia whose loyalties to the state are suspect or forced to rely on Kurdish peshmerga who are loath to be involved in inter-Arab conflicts. But it’s this army with which Maliki is entrusted with keeping a damper on the situation as Muqtada’s march approaches. Can we really believe they’re up to it?

No. Which is why US troops, air power, and special forces will be on the scene aplenty next week – and why, Mr. Bush has now decided, and why Gen. Petraeus will insist next week, they will need to be there for the foreseeable future. And it’s also why Mr. Bush will feel it justifiable and necessary to hand off the Iraq tinderbox to his successor. Given the current mood of US citizenry (of whom, a new poll indicates, more than 80 percent believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction), that successor will likely not be a member of Mr. Bush’s political party. But with a level of military effort no longer sustainable (as almost all of the top brass have insisted), and with the national economy swirling the bowl, that successor will most certainly have to begin to disengage the US from Iraq – and be left to hold the bag for the hubris, incompetence, and catastrophe of his predecessor.

Because, as US forces pull out, Iraq will most certainly fall apart even more, its misery and violence ratcheting up by several notches. With much more justification than Mr. Bush did last week, many across the world will proclaim it a “defining moment.” Some will proclaim that the American behemoth has been vanquished once and for all. Others, perhaps more reflectively, and dishearteningly, may surmise that whatever fires America might have lit for insisting on goodness and justice on the planet lie in cinders, if not altogether doused.

But Mr. Bush’s glorious page in our national memory will be completely up in smoke, wisps on the wind of history.

John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.


FEATURE: Why Bush should reflect on Pinochet

The green light

The abuse, rising to the level of torture, of those captured and detained in the war on terror is a defining feature of the presidency of George W. Bush. Its military beginnings, however, lie not in Abu Ghraib, as is commonly thought, or in the “rendition” of prisoners to other countries for questioning, but in the treatment of the very first prisoners at Guantanamo. Starting in late 2002 a detainee bearing the number 063 was tortured over a period of more than seven weeks. In his story lies the answer to a crucial question: How was the decision made to let the U.S. military start using coercive interrogations at Guantanamo?

The Bush administration has always taken refuge behind a “trickle up” explanation: that is, the decision was generated by military commanders and interrogators on the ground. This explanation is false. The origins lie in actions taken at the very highest levels of the administration—by some of the most senior personal advisers to the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense. At the heart of the matter stand several political appointees—lawyers—who, it can be argued, broke their ethical codes of conduct and took themselves into a zone of international criminality, where formal investigation is now a very real option. This is the story of how the torture at Guantanamo began, and how it spread. [complete article]


OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Prankster president

Soft shoe in hard times

Everyone here is flummoxed about why the president is in such a fine mood.

The dollar’s crumpling, the recession’s thundering, the Dow’s bungee-jumping and the world’s disapproving, yet George Bush has turned into Gene Kelly, tap dancing and singing in a one-man review called “The Most Happy Fella.”

“I’m coming to you as an optimistic fellow,” he told the Economic Club of New York on Friday. His manner — chortling and joshing — was in odd juxtaposition to the Fed’s bailing out the imploding Bear Stearns and his own acknowledgment that “our economy obviously is going through a tough time,” that gas prices are spiking, and that folks “are concerned about making their bills.”

He began by laughingly calling the latest news on the economic meltdown “a interesting moment” and ended by saying that “our energy policy has not been very wise” and that there was “no quick fix” on gasp-inducing gas prices.

“You know, I guess the best way to describe government policy is like a person trying to drive a car in a rough patch,” he said. “If you ever get stuck in a situation like that, you know full well it’s important not to overcorrect, because when you overcorrect you end up in the ditch.”

Dude, you’re already in the ditch.

Boy George crashed the family station wagon into the globe and now the global economy. Yet the more terrified Americans get, the more bizarrely carefree he seems. The former oilman reacted with cocky ignorance a couple of weeks ago when a reporter informed him that gas was barreling toward $4 a gallon. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — I imagine Bush learned his happy-go-lucky trick some time in his adolescence. It’s a familiar ruse everyone remembers from the classroom. There’s a kid who’s mediocre but proud and he thinks he can avoid being embarrassed by his poor performance. He parades his lack of seriousness as though to say, “You know I could really excel if I wanted to, but none of this matters to me so I can’t be bothered. You can study and I’ll party.” This is Bush’s exit strategy from the White House. He wants to tell us he fooled us; that when we thought he was doing badly because we thought he was incompetent, in truth he wasn’t even trying.


OPINION: Terrorism, Iraq, and the facts on the ground

Normalizing air war from Guernica to Arab Jabour

For those who know something about the history of air power, which, since World War II, has been lodged at the heart of the American Way of War, that 100,000 figure [– the quantity of explosives dropped on Arab Jabour south of Baghdad last week –] might have rung a small bell.

On April 27, 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War (a prelude to World War II), the planes of the German Condor Legion attacked the ancient Basque town of Guernica. They came in waves, first carpet bombing, then dropping thermite incendiaries. It was a market day and there may have been as many as 7,000-10,000 people, including refugees, in the town which was largely destroyed in the ensuing fire storm. More than 1,600 people may have died there (though some estimates are lower). The Germans reputedly dropped about 50 tons or 100,000 pounds of explosives on the town. In the seven decades between those two 100,000 figures lies a sad history of our age. [complete article]

The state of the (Iraqi) union

The George W Bush-sponsored Iraqi “surge” is now one year old. The US$11 billion-a-month (and counting) Iraqi/Afghan joint quagmire keeps adding to the US government’s staggering over $9 trillion debt (it was “only” $5.6 trillion when Bush took power in early 2001).

On the ground in Iraq, the state of the union – Bush’s legacy – translates into a completely shattered nation with up to 70% unemployment, a 70% inflation rate, less than six hours of electricity a day and virtually no reconstruction, although White House-connected multinationals have bagged more than $50 billion in competition-free contracts so far. The gleaming reconstruction success stories of course are the Vatican-sized US Embassy in Baghdad – the largest in the world – and the scores of US military bases.

Facts on the ground also attest the “surge” achieved no “political reconciliation” whatsoever in Iraq – regardless of a relentless US corporate media propaganda drive, fed by the Pentagon, to proclaim it a success. The new law to reverse de-Ba’athification – approved by a half-empty Parliament and immediately condemned by Sunni and secular parties as well as former Ba’athists themselves – will only exacerbate sectarian hatred. [complete article]

Al Qaeda loves Bush: Thanks for the free advertising

It shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point that the president uses al Qaeda as code. Last night, in his State of the Union address, he mentioned al Qaeda 10 times, terrorism 23, extremism eight, Osama bin Laden once. Sure we are fighting a war against terrorism, and al Qaeda is always a ready reminder of Sept. 11. But the president uses this code as much to describe our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, in that, he purveys a brand of confusion and surrender.

First, confusion: Al Qaeda in Iraq, whatever it is, is just one of many organized groups fighting the United States and its military coalition, fighting the Iraqi government, and seeking to create enough chaos and insecurity to defeat both. Since the very beginning of the Iraq war, when Donald Rumsfeld dismissed those attacking U.S. troops as “dead enders” and Baathists, the American description of the enemy in Iraq has contained an element of self-deception: if the enemy were just Saddam recalcitrants, then we could convince ourselves that everyone else welcomed us and was on our side.

Since Iraq started going downhill, we have described those fighting against U.S. forces as Shia and Sunni extremists, Iranian-backed militias, foreign fighters, even criminals and opportunists. By the time Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged as an identifiable leader, al Qaeda had stuck as the most useful label. It didn’t always apply, and it unfortunately connoted command and control of the Iraqi insurgency against U.S. occupation from some mountain headquarters in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but U.S. spokesmen have become extremely careful never to say Iraqis attacked U.S. forces. [complete article]


NEWS & OPINION: Signing statements

The fine print

With President Bush, you always have to read the footnotes.

Just before Monday night’s State of the Union speech, in which Mr. Bush extolled bipartisanship, railed against government excesses and promised to bring the troops home as soon as it’s safe to withdraw, the White House undermined all of those sentiments with the latest of the president’s infamous signing statements.

The signing statements are documents that earlier presidents generally used to trumpet their pleasure at signing a law, or to explain how it would be enforced. More than any of his predecessors, the current chief executive has used the pronouncements in a passive-aggressive way to undermine the power of Congress.

Over the last seven years, Mr. Bush has issued hundreds of these insidious documents declaring that he had no intention of obeying a law that he had just signed. This is not just constitutional theory. Remember the detainee treatment act, which Mr. Bush signed and then proceeded to ignore, as he told C.I.A. interrogators that they could go on mistreating detainees? [complete article]

Bush issues signing statement on defense act, waiving ban on permanent bases In Iraq

P President Bush yesterday signed the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act after initially rejecting Congress’s first version because it would have allegedly opened the Iraqi government to “expensive lawsuits.”

Even though he forced Congress to change its original bill, Bush’s signature yesterday came with a little-noticed signing statement, claiming that provisions in the law “could inhibit the President’s ability to carry out his constitutional obligations.” CQ reports on the provisions Bush plans to disregard:

One such provision sets up a commission to probe contracting fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another expands protections for whistleblowers who work for government contractors. A third requires that U.S. intelligence agencies promptly respond to congressional requests for documents. And a fourth bars funding for permanent bases in Iraq and for any action that exercises U.S. control over Iraq’s oil money. [complete article]


NEWS, ANALYSIS & OPINION: A deadbeat’s peace process

Gaza City plunged into darkness

The only power plant in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip has shut down because of a lack of fuel, Palestinian officials say, blaming Israeli restrictions.

Gaza City was plunged into darkness after the plant’s turbines stopped.

Israel’s closure of border crossings amid continued rocket fire from Gaza has brought the delivery of almost all supplies, including fuel, to a halt. [complete article]

Senior Saudi prince offers Israel peace vision

A senior Saudi royal has offered Israel a vision of broad cooperation with the Arab world and people-to-people contacts if it signs a peace treaty and withdraws from all occupied Arab territories.

In an interview with Reuters, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to the United States and Britain and adviser to King Abdullah, said Israel and the Arabs could cooperate in many areas including water, agriculture, science and education.

Asked what message he wanted to send to the Israeli public, he said:

“The Arab world, by the Arab peace initiative, has crossed the Rubicon from hostility towards Israel to peace with Israel and has extended the hand of peace to Israel, and we await the Israelis picking up our hand and joining us in what inevitably will be beneficial for Israel and for the Arab world.” [complete article]

The march of cynics

The prize for the most sharply cynical remark goes to President George W. Bush, who said in Ramallah of the Israel Defense Forces crossing points: “You’ll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped.” No doubt, he was speaking ironically, but even if he added that he wasn’t “so exactly sure that’s what happens to the average person,” he should be reminded of the saying that one doesn’t mention rope in a hanged man’s home. Okay, so there’s a lack of political and human understanding here, but isn’t there even a drop of sensitivity and empathy?

This cynical remark made only the slightest impression on those who heard it. After all, the people who met with Bush are not the ones who are exposed to the humiliations that thousands go through at the barriers every day, and they even receive VIP treatment. Why should they express dissatisfaction with a spontaneous bit of nonsense when they feel no need to react to a stupid thing that someone in Bush’s retinue formulated for the president? “Swiss cheese isn’t going to work when it comes to the outline of a state. And I mean that,” declared Bush. Right after that he said the drawing up of the future border will reflect the current reality. But it is the reality of the settlement blocs that has created the “Swiss cheese.” [complete article]

Middle East triangle

Nervous about being left out, all three parties are laboring mightily to avert an understanding between the other two. Hamas threatens the nascent Israeli-Palestinian political process, challenging its legitimacy and intimating that it could resort to more violence. Israel warns that renewed Palestinian unity will bring that process to an abrupt halt. Abbas actively discourages any third-party contact with Hamas. The end result is collective checkmate, a political standstill that hurts all and serves none.

The truth is, none of these two-way deals is likely to succeed. In tandem, no two parties are capable enough to deliver; any one party is potent enough to be a spoiler. There can be neither Israeli-Palestinian stability nor a peace accord without Hamas’s acquiescence. Intra-Palestinian reconciliation will not last without Israel’s unspoken assent and willingness to lift its siege. Any agreement between Hamas and Israel over Abbas’s strong objection is hard to imagine.

For any of these dances to go forward, all will have to go forward. Synchronicity is key. Fatah and Hamas will need to reach a new political arrangement, this time not one vigorously opposed by Israel. Hamas and Israel will need to achieve a cease-fire and prisoner exchange, albeit mediated by Abbas. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will need to negotiate a political deal with Abbas, who will have to receive a mandate to do so from Hamas. The current mind-set, in which each side considers dealmaking by the other two to be a mortal threat, could be replaced by one in which all three couplings are viewed as mutually reinforcing. For that, the parties’ allies ought to cast aside their dysfunctional, destructive, ideologically driven policies. Instead, they should encourage a choreography that minimizes violence and promotes a serious diplomatic process. Otherwise, no matter how many times President Bush travels to the region, there is no reason to believe that 2008 will offer anything other than the macabre pattern of years past. [complete article]

Not on the itinerary

Take a president who rarely travels overseas and certainly not for extended periods of time. Add the region of the world most associated with this administration and most in turmoil. Throw in the president’s first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories after seven years in office. What do you get? Remarkably little, as it turns out.

President Bush’s eight-day tour of the Middle East registered barely an above-the-fold headline in the major American and international newspapers. Perhaps the subject of greatest speculation was how a president, famous for maintaining a schoolboy’s bedtime curfew, would cope with the late Arabian nights. But Bush’s Middle East trip was of some importance – as much for what didn’t happen, as for what did. Paradoxically, an administration guided by a transformational vision of the application of American power was now displaying the limitations of its role – limitations partially created by its own failures. [complete article]


NEWS: Bush coddles tyrants

Bush lauds Egypt leader, avoiding record on dissent

President Bush lavished praise on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt on Wednesday, emphasizing the country’s role in regional security and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while publicly avoiding mention of the government’s actions in jailing or exiling opposition leaders and its severe restrictions on opposition political activities.

Ending an eight-day trip through the Middle East in which he highlighted democratic change as the foundation for peace and security throughout the region, Mr. Bush strikingly avoided direct criticism of Mr. Mubarak, an autocratic leader in power since late 1981. In the past, Mr. Bush criticized Egypt for arresting political dissidents.

“I appreciate very much the long and proud tradition that you’ve had for a vibrant civil society,” said Mr. Bush, whose appearance with Mr. Mubarak was unannounced and, according to the White House, had been uncertain until the last minute.

Mr. Bush’s remarks reflected some of the contradictions evident in the issues he addressed on his trip.

He spoke passionately at times about the birth of liberty and justice in countries that restrict them and the role of women in societies that still largely sequester them.

And yet he avoided public disputes with monarchical leaders widely accused of limiting freedoms as he sought Arab support for the peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, the war in Iraq, diplomatic efforts to isolate Iran and easing the strain on the American economy caused by high oil prices. [complete article]


NEWS & OPINION: Bush’s effort to undermine the NIE

Artificial intelligence

President George W. Bush hasn’t accomplished much on his voyage to the Middle East, but he did take the time to inflict another wound on the entire U.S. intelligence community—and on the credibility of anything he might ever again say about the world.

In the latest Newsweek, Michael Hirsh reports that, during a private conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush “all but disowned” the agencies’ Dec. 3 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. A “senior administration official who accompanied Bush” on the trip confided to Hirsh that Bush “told the Israelis that he can’t control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE’s] conclusions don’t reflect his own views.” [complete article]

In Iran reversal, bureaucrats
triumphed over Cheney team

Senior officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the umbrella organization that coordinates the U.S.’s 16 spy agencies and that oversaw the report, say payback wasn’t a factor. They defend the report as a righting of the ship after the Iraq intelligence failures.

Hundreds of officials were involved and thousands of documents were drawn upon in this report, according to the DNI, making it impossible for any official to overly sway it. Intelligence sources were vetted and questioned in ways they weren’t ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Thomas Fingar, 62 years old, is one of the lead architects of the Iran report. A veteran State Department official, Mr. Fingar helped lead the office that argued in 2002 that evidence of Iraq’s nuclear program was faulty. He is now a senior official at the DNI.

Of the backlash against the report, Mr. Fingar says, “A lot of it is just nonsense. The idea that this thing was written by a bunch of nonprofessional renegades or refugees is just silly.” [complete article]


NEWS: Lebanon

Beirut bomb hits U.S. embassy car

A car bomb damaged a U.S. diplomatic car in Beirut on Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding 16, and the U.S. State Department said no Americans died in the blast.

The bomb sent a column of smoke into the sky, tore masonry from buildings and destroyed at least six cars in a Christian suburb north of Beirut, as well as damaging the armored four-wheel-drive embassy car. [complete article]

Prez pick postponed again in Lebanon

To the surprise of no one, Lebanon’s political mess continues on and on. Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri on Friday afternoon delayed Saturday’s session for choosing of a president until Jan. 21. It’s the 12th time the session has been postponed.

A jumble of foreign diplomats have tried and utterly failed to resolve a crisis that has left the country without a president for nearly two months. The latest would-be hero: the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. He’s held tens of meetings with feuding political parties, in Beirut and around.

His three-point plan: elect army chief General Michel Suleiman as a compromise president; form a national unity government with no one wielding veto power; start writing up some new election laws so there’s no repeat of the current stalemate. [complete article]


NEWS ROUNDUP: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, Syria

Bush prods Saudi Arabia on high oil prices

President Bush urged the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on Tuesday to take into account the toll that high oil prices are having on the American economy, gingerly touching on an issue that has begun to color the last year of his presidency and dominate the presidential election campaign. [complete article]

U.S. offers Saudis ‘smart’ arms technology

The most controversial element of the sales is the offer to the Saudis of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, technology that allows standard weapons to be converted into precision-guided bombs. The deal envisions the transfer to Saudi forces of 900 upgrade kits worth about $120 million. [complete article]

Minister sees need for U.S. help in Iraq until 2018

The Iraqi defense minister said Monday that his nation would not be able to take full responsibility for its internal security until 2012, nor be able on its own to defend Iraq’s borders from external threat until at least 2018. [complete article]

U.S. shifts Sunni strategy in Iraq

More than 70,000 members of mostly Sunni Arab groups now work for American forces in neighborhood security programs. Transferring them to the control of the Shiite Muslim-dominated government, as policemen and members of public works crews, has taken on a new urgency as American troops begin to withdraw, officials indicated in recent interviews, meetings and briefings. [complete article]

Ex-Baathists get a break. Or do they?

A day after the Iraqi Parliament passed legislation billed as the first significant political step forward in Iraq after months of deadlock, there were troubling questions — and troubling silences — about the measure’s actual effects. [complete article]

Bush trip revives Israeli push for pardon of spy

A balding, bearded visage loomed over President Bush’s visit here last week, peering down from banners and from posters on buses barreling along quiet streets. The face was that of Jonathan Pollard, an American who pleaded guilty in 1986 to passing top-secret information to Israel. [complete article]

Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim takes Palestinian citizenship

Daniel Barenboim, the world renowned Israeli pianist and conductor, has taken Palestinian citizenship and said he believed his rare new status could serve a model for peace between the two peoples. [complete article]

Olmert faces right-wing rebellion

With Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the most right-wing party in Mr Olmert’s government already threatening to walk out, Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud, urged both him and the religious party Shas to do so “to stop this process”. [complete article]

Haaretz probe: Shin Bet count of Gaza civilian deaths is too low

Israeli security forces killed 810 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in 2006 and 2007, Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin reported Sunday at the weekly cabinet briefing in Jerusalem. He estimated that some 200 of those killed were not clearly linked to terrorist organizations. [complete article]

Syria rebuilds on site destroyed by Israeli bombs

The puzzling site in Syria that Israeli jets bombed in September grew more curious on Friday with the release of a satellite photograph showing new construction there that [vaguely] resembles the site’s former main building. [complete article]


EDITORIAL: It’s not the end of times – just the end of Bush

It’s too late, baby

Yesterday, in an address to government and business leaders in Abu Dhabi, President Bush said, “Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. So the United States is strengthening our longstanding security commitments with our friends in the Gulf — and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late.”

Bush may take comfort in the knowledge that, according to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev and as the Jerusalem Post reports, “Israel and the US are ‘on the same page‘ regarding the gravity of the Iranian nuclear threat and their commitment to thwart it.” Even so, when Bush says “before its too late” to his Arab friends, most of them are probably taking comfort in completing that line with, “before its too late… for Bush to do anything about it.” He frets about only twelve months left on the clock — the rest of the world can’t wait for his term to end.

Witness the spectacle of an international “incident” that after a few days has devolved into a debate about a Filipino Monkey. The only comfort the White House can take from this drama is that the press never even noticed when the stage upon which it was set, came into question.

Iranian speedboats threatened US warships in international waters in the Straits of Hormuz. So far only one analyst — Kaveh L Afrasiabi, writing in Asia Times — has pointed out the most basic factual error in this account: there are no international waters in the Straits of Hormuz.

Let’s repeat that: there are no international waters in the Straits of Hormuz. The U.S. ships were in Iranian territorial waters exercising the “right of transit passage” afforded to them in international law by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which the United States has signed but which Congress has yet to ratify. This is why in the video of the incident, a U.S. naval officer can be heard saying, “I am engaged in transit passage in accordance with international law.”

However provocatively the Iranian speedboats might have been behaving, if from the outset, this incident had been reported as occurring inside Iranian territorial waters, the Pentagon’s first task would have been to educate the press and the public about some of the technicalities of international law as it applies to the Straits of Hormuz. That lesson would have sucked the air out of the story and Bush would have landed in Tel Aviv deprived of what he was clearly eager to employ in his latest round of fear-mongering rhetoric. Absent this rallying cry, there might have been a tiny possibility that he pay a bit of attention to the real concerns that resonate across the region.


OPINION: It’s not about Iran

It’s not about Iran

As President Bush travels through the Middle East, the prevailing assumption is that Arab states are primarily focused on the rising Iranian threat and that their attendance at the Annapolis conference with Israel in November was motivated by this threat. This assumption, reflected in the president’s speech in the United Arab Emirates yesterday, could be a costly mistake.

Israel and the Bush administration place great emphasis on confronting Iran’s nuclear potential and are prepared to engage in a peace process partly to build an anti-Iran coalition. Arabs see it differently. They use the Iran issue to lure Israel and the United States into serious Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking, having concluded that the perceived Iranian threats sell better in Washington and Tel Aviv than the pursuit of peace itself.

Many Arab governments are of course concerned about Iran and its role in Iraq, but not for the same reasons as Israel and the United States. Israel sees Iran’s nuclear potential as a direct threat to its security, and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas as a military challenge.

Arab governments are less worried about the military power of Hamas and Hezbollah than they are about support for them among their publics. They are less worried about a military confrontation with Iran than about Iran’s growing influence in the Arab world. In other words, what Arab governments truly fear is militancy and the public support for it that undermines their own popularity and stability.

In all this, they see Iran as a detrimental force but not as the primary cause of militant sentiment. Most Arab governments believe instead that the militancy is driven primarily by the absence of Arab-Israeli peace.

This argument has been a loser in Washington, rejected by many and not taken seriously by others. The issue of Iran gets more traction inside the Beltway. [complete article]


NEWS: Bush promotes hypocrisy

“Nobody believes anymore what Mr. Bush is saying”

Shortly before President Bush showed up in the region last week, human rights activist Abduljalil Alsingace tried to deliver a petition to the U.S. Embassy complaining about the lack of democracy in his native Bahrain. He thought he might have some hope, given the strong language coming from the White House on the need for political reform in the Middle East.

But as he tells it, the U.S. Embassy was cool to his plans to deliver a petition, accepting his document only grudgingly after several days of negotiations. Then he was astounded to hear Bush’s description of Bahrain as an example of positive democratic reform. “All the wealth and power are with the royal family,” Alsingace said in an interview.

Adam Ereli, the U.S. ambassador in Bahrain, disputed Alsingace’s account, saying the embassy was happy to accept the petition and sees its job as listening to “all sides of the political spectrum.”

Still, the episode underscores the sharp disappointment with Bush among democracy advocates and dissidents in the region, who were buoyed by Bush’s clarion call in 2005 for freedom and democracy in the Middle East. They say the White House has backtracked because of a need to cultivate an alliance against Iran with the region’s autocratic leaders and, perhaps, because elections in the Palestinian territories did not go the way it had wanted. [complete article]

Bush talks the talk on free speech. Now he must walk the walk

President George Bush is under pressure from human rights groups to use his visit to Saudi Arabia today to seek the release of the pioneering blogger Fouad al-Farhan, who has been jailed without charge for more than a month.

The human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, are urging the president to raise Mr Farhan’s case with King Abdullah today. They also want him to appeal for the release of an Egyptian blogger, Abdel Karim Suleiman, the first to be jailed in Egypt, when he meets President Hosni Mubarak at Sharm-el-She-ikh on Wednesday. The Egyptian blogger is serving a four-year sentence for insulting President Mubarak. [complete article]


ANALYSIS: Bush will hand his successor a fait accompli on Iraq

Bush shakes up ’08 Iraq debate

Camp Arifjan in the desert kingdom of Kuwait, America’s depot to the Iraq war, feels about as far away as you can get from South Carolina, Super Tuesday and the election-year squabbles back home. And George W. Bush, who is currently midway through his six-nation tour of the Mideast, is doing a good job of distancing himself from the politics of 2008. But as Bush rallied U.S. troops at the base here on Saturday with a “Hoo-ah” and conferred with his Iraq dream team, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, he indicated that he was setting in motion policies that could dramatically affect the presidential race–and any decisions the next president makes in 2009.

In remarks to the traveling press, delivered from the Third Army operation command center here, Bush said that negotiations were about to begin on a long-term strategic partnership with the Iraqi government modeled on the accords the United States has with Kuwait and many other countries. Crocker, who flew in from Baghdad with Petraeus to meet with the president, elaborated: “We’re putting our team together now, making preparations in Washington,” he told reporters. “The Iraqis are doing the same. And in the few weeks ahead, we would expect to get together to start this negotiating process.” The target date for concluding the agreement is July, says Gen. Doug Lute, Bush’s Iraq coordinator in the White House–in other words, just in time for the Democratic and Republican national conventions. [complete article]

Vanishing act

What if the United States were at war during a presidential election — and none of the candidates wanted to talk about it? Iraq has become the great disappearing issue of the early primary season, and if nothing fundamental changes on the ground there — a probable result of current policy — the war may disappear even more completely in the new year.

The reasons for Iraq’s political eclipse begin with the unfortunate fact that candidates strive to create feel-good associations, and the war is a certain downer. The film studios could barely get a Middle East movie to break even in the past 12 months (“In the Valley of Elah,” anyone?), and the political image makers have apparently taken note. [complete article]


NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Bush — tough as Bambi in challenging Israel

Differing opinions fail to dent Israel’s love affair with Bush

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, declared last night that Israel reserved the right to expand existing Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem and in parts of the West Bank that it hopes to retain in any final peace deal.

bush-olmert.jpgIn terms which appeared to defy earlier sharp criticism by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, Mr Olmert made it clear in front of President George Bush that he regarded such expansion as outside the “moratorium” he has promised on new settlement building. His declaration came as the US President, on his first visit in office to Israel, used some of his strongest language yet in demanding the dismantling of separate settlement outposts which are illegal even under Israeli law. Mr Bush said at a joint news conference last night: “We have been talking about it for four years – illegal outposts. They ought to go.”

Mr Olmert did not demur from that and repeatedly emphasised that Israel was very serious about advancing a negotiating process over the coming year. Mr Bush said the resumption of formal negotiations between Mr Olmert and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, presented a historic moment, a historic opportunity. [complete article]

Gaffe overshadows Bush visit

“You’ll be happy to know, my whole motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped,” Bush said after being asked about the 30-minute journey from Jerusalem and Ramallah.

“I’m not so exactly sure that’s what happens to the average person.”

Bush was forced to travel by car to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in the West Bank after his helicopter was grounded by bad weather.

The journey took him through an Israeli security checkpoint and within sight of the separation barrier.

Bush said that he could understand why Palestinians were “frustrated” by the checkpoints, but they were necessary to “create a sense of security for Israel”. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — If Americans had to live under the same kind of stranglehold as do Palestinians in the West Bank, there would be more than 800,000 roadblocks across this country. To speak of “frustration” wouldn’t even hint at the level of anger ordinary people would feel at this extraordinary curtailment of freedom.

For Bush to joke about not getting stopped at an Israeli checkpoint shows a staggering degree of insensitivity — though it will hardly surprise or shock the average Palestinian.

Ramallah demo brands Bush ‘war criminal’

Angry demonstrators in the West Bank town of Ramallah branded US President George W. Bush a “war criminal” on Thursday as locals said he would do nothing for the plight of the Palestinians.

Security forces, out in force to ensure the security of the American leader on his first trip to the occupied Palestinian territory, used batons and tear gas as they charged around 200 demonstrators who were chanting “Bush, war criminal!” and “Bush out!”.

While their leader Mahmud Abbas gave Bush a red carpet welcome on the second day of his Middle East tour, ordinary Palestinians were dismisssive. [complete article]

Bush predicts Mideast peace treaty before he leaves White House

President Bush today predicted that a Mideast peace treaty would be completed by the time he leaves office, but undercut that optimism with harsh criticism of Hamas militants who control part of the land that could form an eventual independent Palestine.

Bush said he’s convinced that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders understand “the importance of democratic states living side by side” in peace, and noted that he has a one-year deadline for progress on his watch. He named Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to monitor steps that both sides are making on the peace process, a U.S. official told The Associated Press. [complete article]

See also, From Palestinians, harsh view of Bush (NYT).



Bush’s last throw against Iran

The leitmotif of Bush’s high-profile tour of the Middle East is unmistakably Iran. But Washington’s Iran policy lies in tatters and it has no choice but to ratchet up anti-Iran rhetoric, though it realizes there are no takers in the Middle East for such rhetoric of fire and brimstone. The danger now is that Tehran may choose to hunker down and prefer to deal with the next US administration.

Tehran once heeded back-channel pleas from Ronald Reagan’s campaign managers not to negotiate the hostage crisis with the Carter administration in its final months in the White House so that Reagan could claim the credit for the denouement. Bush is certainly better placed than Carter insofar as presidential hopefuls such as Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee would never do such a Reaganite thing on him.

Actually, the danger to the Bush legacy comes from faraway places. Continued delay in constructively engaging Iran will only open the gateway wider for the international community to encroach into a region that until four years ago used to be the exclusive strategic preserve of the US. China is already wading deep into the region, and Russia too. The S-300 missiles from Russia are a sign that US dominance of the Middle East is in serious jeopardy. [complete article]

See also, Bush calls Iran ‘threat to world peace’ (CNN).

Israeli leaders greet Bush with warning for Iran

President Bush began an eight-day Middle East peace mission Wednesday as Israeli leaders warned him and the world not to forget about the regional threat that Iran poses.

Standing on the airport tarmac with Bush looking on shortly after his arrival, Israeli President Shimon Peres relegated peace talks with the Palestinians to secondary status and issued a warning to Iran.

“We take your advice not to underestimate the Iranian threat,” Peres said.

“Iran should not underestimate our resolve for self-defense.” [complete article]

Talking to Iran?

Shortly before Christmas, over dinner in his palace, one of the ruling sheiks of the United Arab Emirates told this reporter he had not been at all surprised by the release of the National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program back in 2003.

“We were warned by Rafsanjani to expect a very big, very surprising announcement out of Washington,” the sheik said. “He knew it was coming.”

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran and chairman of the country’s Assembly of Experts, also chairs the special council that mediates between the ayatollahs and the Parliament whenever there is a dispute. Derisively nicknamed “Akbar Shah” by his enemies, he is also the head of what is widely reckoned to be Iran’s richest family. Born into a prosperous family of pistachio farmers, he is the link between the ayatollahs, politics and the business community.

Seen as something of a moderate by Iranian standards, Rafsanjani is believed in the Gulf states to have long maintained his own back channels to Washington — hence his supposed advance knowledge of the NIE. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — As an indication of the importance of President Bush’s trip to the Middle East, his press secretary, Dana Perino, is blogging the trip — though being too diffident to use the actual term “blog”, the White House is modestly calling her record, Trip Notes. Since she’s only two days into this bold new communications venture, I should perhaps refrain from passing judgment, but I was hoping to be able to find at least one — just one — memorable line. The best I could find was this: “As we descended into Tel Aviv, many of us looked out the window to see a country that some of us have only seen in pictures.” Perino was one of the many, but was she also one of the some? I guess divulging whether she’s been to Israel before or how many of her trip mates are on a return trip would be way too personal.

In light of the focus of the current trip, Perino might want embellish her “notes” a bit and see if she can make them at least as interesting as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s blog. Here’s a recent entry of his:

To read or to write, that is the question!‎ 2007/11/18
In the Name of Almighty God-the All-Knowing, the Most Lovingly ‎Compassionate

Since my last post on the blog, a few months have passed. But this doesn’t ‎mean that I have not been keeping my promise of spending fifteen minutes per week ‎on it. As a matter of fact, I have spent more than the allocated time on the blog. The ‎magnitude of the reception and acclamation from the viewers was beyond ‎expectations. So I had to decide how to spend the limited time that I have allocated ‎for the blog; should I write new notes or respect those viewers who kindly and ‎generously have shared their thoughts and opinions with me and sent messages and read ‎their numerous received messages. ‎


As you know, the purpose of running this blog is to have a direct and mutual ‎contact and communication with the viewers and even though I have received many ‎messages from the viewers to update the blog and write new notes, I preferred to write ‎less and spend more time on reading the viewers’ messages – and not let this ‎communication tool become just a one-way medium.‎


I personally have read those messages that are considered to be short. I even ‎have read those messages that have started with a sentence like “I know that the ‎president is not going to read this message, but….” ‎

Also some of my trusted students have shortened the long messages for me ‎and have prepared a statistical report regarding all of the messages which I have read ‎and studied those too. God willing, a portion of the overall analysis of the messages ‎and its interesting results will be posted on the blog in the future.‎


I am apologetic to those who have been waiting for my new posts, but ‎fortunately overall, the analysis of the messages has got to a point that I can start ‎writing here again. ‎

I would like to use this opportunity and ask those of you who intend to send ‎me messages through blog, to make it as brief as you can. Thank you.
Written by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at 23:24

Now if the White House really wants to push the envelope and follow Ahmadinejad’s lead, the Trip Notes from the Middle East should include at least one entry from the president and also be open to comments. On Ahmadinejad’s blog, comments are not as strictly moderated as one might expect, such as the comment from one “John Jacobs” from the United States: “I hate you. you are retarted. that simple mentally retarted.” The remarks of an irate pastry chef?