5 reasons to be cheerful — even if you voted Yes for Scottish independence

Alex Andreou writes: Very few political issues have made me vacillate as much as the Scotland independence referendum. I started as an instinctive no, but by the end of the campaign significant strands of my thinking had moved so completely over to yes that I woke up this morning feeling both relieved and disappointed. There are, however, reasons to be universally cheerful, even for people who campaigned for and voted yes.

1. Hope is a vote-winner

Some have concluded that the result means that “fear works”. The truth is quite the opposite. Remember, this was supposed to be a cake-walk for the Better Together campaign. Instead, the government had to cobble together a contingency-plan in a panic two weeks ago. For a message of optimism to have narrowed the gap to that from 20 points a year ago is a tremendous victory. In fact, Better Together only pushed against that momentum when they themselves made positive promises for future devolution. It is a vision for the future, not fear, that ultimately worked.

2. Wider political engagement is possible

The unprecedented turnout of 85% – but also the astonishing sophistication of the debate at every level – means that the voting public are neither congenitally apathetic nor impenetrably thick, as the ruling classes would have us believe. Apathy results from the choices on offer being indistinguishable from each other and an electoral system where individual votes do not matter. [Continue reading...]

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To beat ISIS, the Arab world must promote inclusive politics

Rula Jebreal writes: Last week’s counter-terrorism conference in Jeddah can be summed up in two words: lost opportunity. Why? None of the participants were representative of an independent, democratic or critical voice in the Middle East. Rather, the Muslim scholars who participated were voices of their inept governments, who condemn every dissident voice as a terrorist.

In the backdrop of the conference, President Barack Obama made his case for war against ISIS in Iraq to the American public last week as well. Obama also sent a direct message Muslims around the world that ISIS is not really Islamic and America is not at war with Islam. This message was meant to hit the heart of the Arab Muslim world, but it fell on deaf ears.

Nonetheless, Secretary of State John Kerry is lobbying Arab allies to play a central role to insure the success of the initiative, since ISIS poses a much greater threat to them than it does to the United States. While this is a more responsible strategy on the part of the United States, the truth is that Arab and Muslim states continue to pursue myopic and delusional policies that produce more extremism, rather than countering it. [Continue reading...]

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The case for open borders

Dylan Matthews writes: “What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else?” George Mason economist Bryan Caplan asks. It’s a pretty easy question. Obviously, such a law is discriminatory on its face, serves no rational purpose, and is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. But Caplan continues: “So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?”

This is Caplan’s elevator pitch for open borders, an idea that for years was treated as deeply unserious, as an extreme straw man that nativists could beat up in the course of resisting more modest efforts to help immigrants. It had its defenders — philosopher Joseph Carens primary among them — but they were relatively lonely voices.

But in recent years, a small but devoted group of advocates have succeeded in turning open borders from a dirty word to a real movement with strong arguments backing it up. The team at OpenBorders.info — Vipul Naik, John Lee, Nathan Smith, Paul Crider — has led the charge, as Shaun Raviv wrote in an excellent profile of the group in the Atlantic. The University of Colorado’s Michael Huemer honed Carens’ moral case, while the Center for Global Development’s Michael Clemens has been hugely influential in arguing that we’re leaving trillions in potential economic growth on the table by enforcing border restrictions.

But few have been as prolific and forceful in their advocacy for the idea as Caplan. “The upside of open borders,” he once wrote, “would be the rapid elimination of absolute poverty on earth.” He is relentless at rebutting objections. It would take jobs away from native-born workers? It’d hurt growth in poor countries as more and more people leave? It’d leave us vulnerable to crime? No, no, and no. [Continue reading...]

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Steve Fraser: The return of the titans

Think of this as the year that democracy of, by, and for the billionaires shall not perish from the Earth — not when we’re on a new electoral playing field in a political world in which distinctions are no longer made between unlimited money and unlimited speech.  In other words, these days, if you have billions of dollars, you can shout from the skies and the rest of us have to listen.  If, as Steve Fraser points out today, we’ve been witnessing the return of “family capitalism on steroids,” nowhere has it been bigger than in American politics, aided and abetted by that ultimate family institution, the Supremes (and I’m not, of course, talking about the classic Motown group).

We’re still almost two months from the midterm elections in which the Republicans already have the House of Representatives essentially wrapped up and ads for Senate races are zipping onto TV screens in “battleground states” at a dizzying pace.  To fund those ads and other campaign initiatives, dollars by the millions are pouring into the coffers of “dark money” outfits in a way guaranteed to leave the record for spending on midterm elections in a ditch at the side of the road.  We now have our first estimates of what election 2014 is going to look like as a billionaire’s playground; and count on it, you’re going to hear the words “record,” “billionaire,” and “ads” a lot more until November.

“Outside groups” have already spent $120 million on TV ads alone, more than half that sum coming from those dark-money groups that don’t have to let anyone know who their contributors are.  At the top of that shadowy list are six outfits linked to David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers from Wichita. Together, those groups have already sent a mind-spinning 44,000 ads into the politico-sphere in those battleground states, and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) leads the pack with 27,000 of them. In the end, AFP alone is expected to put $125 million into this year’s midterm elections, a figure that should take your breath away and yet that’s only a start.

Sheldon Adelson, of casino fame, may, for example, put $100 million of his $31.6 billion fortune into this campaign season, shuttling much of it through dark-money outfits, including AFP. On the liberal side of the spectrum, environmentalist and billionaire Tom Steyer has pledged to sink $50 million into campaigns to promote candidates ready to act on global warming (though there is little question that, in the billionaire sweepstakes, the right-wing ones are going to outspend the liberal ones, and Republicans outspend Democrats).

In all of this, you can see the urge of America’s new crop of billionaires to “play god” at our expense and with our lives — to decide for us, ad by ad, dark-money outfit by dark-money outfit, how we should organize ourselves politically. Historian Steve Fraser, TomDispatch regular, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, and co-founder (with me) of the American Empire Project, has rubbed elbows with many a billionaire — on the page, if not in life. From this country’s earliest tycoons to the latest batch of family capitalists, he finds one overwhelming, unifying trait: a deep-seated belief, in a country that worships self- or family-made money, that the more billions you have, the more you should be listened to. In his upcoming book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, he explores how, in our second (even more) gilded age, others with little money also came to believe that, rather than resist it. Tom Engelhardt

Playing God
The rebirth of family capitalism or how the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and other billionaires are undermining America
By Steve Fraser

George Baer was a railroad and coal mining magnate at the turn of the twentieth century.  Amid a violent and protracted strike that shut down much of the country’s anthracite coal industry, Baer defied President Teddy Roosevelt’s appeal to arbitrate the issues at stake, saying, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for… not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.”  To the Anthracite Coal Commission investigating the uproar, Baer insisted, “These men don’t suffer. Why hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

We might call that adopting the imperial position.  Titans of industry and finance back then often assumed that they had the right to supersede the law and tutor the rest of America on how best to order its affairs.  They liked to play God.  It’s a habit that’s returned with a vengeance in our own time.

[Read more...]

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Is translating jihadist texts on the internet a crime?

Mark Joseph Stern writes: In the spring of 2005, Tarek Mehanna began translating radical Arabic books and videos into English for the website At Tibyan. The materials had an undeniable flavor of terrorism, encouraging readers to join al-Qaida and kill American soldiers in Iraq. But even the government acknowledges that Mehanna never translated anything at the direct behest of al-Qaida operatives—which is why it’s rather surprising that the government successfully prosecuted him for providing “material support” to a terrorist organization and sentenced him to 210 months in prison.

Everybody agrees that Mehanna supported al-Qaida’s cause; At Tibyan is a fairly popular terrorist forum, and Mehanna translated its content with the clear intention of swaying opinion toward the jihadist cause. But translating, publishing, and praising ideological texts, no matter how morally vile, is generally considered to be a basic free speech activity. Everyone knows that the First Amendment protects translations of Mein Kampf. Why did Mehanna’s translation of jihadist hosannas land him behind bars?

That’s the question Mehanna is asking the Supreme Court, which will decide whether to take his case later in September. If the justices do agree to review Mehanna’s conviction, it’ll be wading into a constitutional controversy at once timeless and novel. The court has long recognized that cheerleading for terrorism may eventually cross the line from free speech to a criminal act. But the Internet’s ability to spread ideas and connect like-minded people may now force the justices to reconsider that boundary. And if the court lets Mehanna’s conviction stand, it may wind up drawing the line dangerously close to the kind of Internet activity some of us engage in without a second thought.

The Supreme Court has been grappling with the question of dangerous speech for as long as America has been attempting to suppress dissent in the name of national security — that is, pretty much forever. For our first century or so, nobody thought that criminalizing anti-American speech raised a real First Amendment concern. But in a 1919 case called Abrams v. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, joined by Justice Louis Brandeis, cracked the orthodoxy wide open, issuing a stunning dissent from the conviction of a revolutionary anarchist who advocated a violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Holmes described a constitutional command to tolerate anti-government speech, explaining that censorship of “opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death” is unacceptable unless those opinions “imminently threaten” the country’s safety.

Today, Holmes’ view is more or less the law. But that hasn’t kept Congress from passing censorship laws on the theory that a certain group’s speech qualifies as a clear and present danger to the country. [Continue reading...]

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An open letter from Egyptian political activist Alaa Abd El Fattah

On August 18, Alaa Abd El Fattah wrote: At 4 pm today, I celebrated with my colleagues my last meal in prison.

I have decided — when I saw my father fighting against death locked in a body that was no longer subject to his will — I decided to start an open hunger strike until I achieve my freedom. The well-being of my body is of no value while it remains subject to an unjust power in an open-ended imprisonment not controlled by the law or any concept of justice.

Alaa-Abd-El-FattahI’ve had the thought before, but I put it aside. I did not want to place yet another burden on my family — we all know that the Ministry of the Interior does not make life easy for hunger strikers. But now I’ve realized that my family’s hardship increases with every day that I’m in jail. My youngest sister, Sanaa, and the protesters of Ettehadiya were arrested only because they demanded freedom for people already detained. They put my sister in prison because she demanded my freedom! And so our family’s efforts were fragmented between two prisoners, and my father’s heart worn out between two courts — my father, who had postponed a necessary surgery more than once because of this ill-fated Shura Council case.

They tore me from my son, Khaled, while he was still struggling to get over the trauma of my first imprisonment. Then there was the brute performance of the Ministry of the Interior as they carried out their “humane” gesture — my visit to my father in the ICU. The police tried to empty the hospital ward and corridor of patients and doctors and family and nurses before they would allow the visit. They set times and informed us, and then canceled. In the end they snatched me from my prison cell at dawn with the same tenderness shown when they arrested me.

The police general could not decide how to ensure I would not escape. He was completely convinced that this was all a ruse, that nobody was sick and we were conspiring to deprive him of his hours of rest. I arrived at the hospital chained to the iron frame of the police transport vehicle, and, finally, in the ward they snuck in a camera and filmed us against our will.

All this served to prove to me that my being patient would not help my mother, Laila, my sister, Mona, or my wife, Manal. That waiting does not relieve my family of hardship but actually makes them prisoners like me, subject to the dictates and the moods of an organization devoid of humanity and incapable of compassion. [Continue reading...]

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Ferguson and Gaza: The definitive study of how they are and are not similar

David Palumbo-Liu writes: As photographs and videoclips from Ferguson overwhelmed our mediascapes, they created a strange double-optic. They seemed overlaid upon representations of events that had previously dominated our public consciousness: Images of the massive and on-going destruction of Gaza by the Israeli military. This stereoscopic image immediately drew bloggers, pundits and op-ed writers to rush to draw parallels. Indeed, in graphic terms alone the image of tear gas canisters filling the air with toxic smoke and of protesters hurling them back defiantly seemed exactly the same. And when tweets offering advice to demonstrators in Ferguson emerged from Palestinians, and reports of Ferguson police having been trained by Israelis surfaced, all that only seemed to complete the equation: Ferguson is Gaza.

There are many parallels and resonances to be sure, and below I will get to some key ones. But I have delayed responding because, as a comparatist, and also as someone concerned about racism in the U.S. and the racist policies of Israel, it is important to weigh things in as dispassionate a way as possible, to do justice to both sides.

Many years ago, the eminent British Marxist historian Raymond Williams reflected on conversations he was having with Palestinian literary critic and activist Edward Said. Williams was particularly interested in seeing just how much of his work on British working class culture, history, and society could be understood as having to do in any way with Said’s concerns regarding Israel-Palestine, most especially with regard to what was going on then: the brutal Israeli bombing and invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Regarding that catastrophe, Hadas Thier writes, “During the course of Israel’s bombardment of the country, civilians and civilian infrastructure were systematically attacked, refugee camps and Lebanese towns were leveled, Beirut was battered for seventy-five days, and after all military objectives were met, the affair concluded with a grotesque massacre of women, children, and the elderly at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.” Williams’ conclusion is instructive:

The analysis of history is not a subject separate from history, but the representations are part of the history, contribute to the history, are active elements in the way that history continues; in the way forces are distributed; in the way people perceive situations, both from inside their own pressing realities and from outside them; if we are saying this is a real method, then the empirical test it’s being put to here is that comparable methods of analysis are being applied to situations which are very far apart in space, have many differences of texture, and have very different consequences in the contemporary world. There is an obvious distance from what is happening in the English countryside, or in the English inner cities, to the chaos in Lebanon. Yet nevertheless I think it is true that the method, the underlying method, found a congruity.

This discretion, this caution to pay attention to how history is represented and to get the historical record straight despite surface similarities, is found as well in the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel on Biafra, “Half of a Yellow Sun.” At one point she tells of a journalist’s hesitation at making comparisons between Biafra and other historical events: “After he writes this, he mentions the German women who fled Hamburg with the charred bodies of their children stuffed in suitcases, the Rwandan women who pocketed tiny parts of their mauled babies. But he is careful not to draw parallels.”

How then can we strike a balance between on the one hand reacting viscerally to the images from Ferguson, which point to the long and constantly replenished history of police assaults on black bodies, and the images of Israel’s murderous rampage in Gaza, an assault continuous with Israel’s history of oppression and persecution of an entire people, while on the other hand resisting drawing too quickly an immediate, provocative, but inexact parallel?

It is in the median space between declaring an equivalence and withdrawing into discreet silence that we should concentrate our energies. Comparisons may be “odious,” to quote Shakespeare, but they can also be instructive. They help us tease out the specifics while coming to understand basic and important similarities. To do this one needs to employ a “congruent” method.

Here are five ways we can see congruence in what is happening in Ferguson and in Gaza. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. police have become more violent as the public has become less violent

New York magazine reports: The story of Michael Brown’s death has in no small part been a story of police overreaction. The local force evidently killed an unarmed teenager, and then suited up as if going to war to police the generally peaceful protests that followed. And it’s revealed an irony: Over the past generation or so, we’ve militarized our police to protect a public that has broadly become less and less violent.

It all starts back in 1990, a time when the country found itself with less demand for military equipment abroad and new use for it back home. Within our shores, the drug wars were escalating; gang violence was surging; and sociologists were warning of sociopathic child “superpredators.” At the same time, the military was starting to shrink as the Cold War ended. Put two and two together and you get the 1033 program, which transferred assets from the military to the police. (Here’s a capsule history.)

A bigger flush of money and equipment followed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Times reports, when the federal government equipped local police outfits to be the front line of the Global War on Terror:

Department of Homeland Security grant money paid for the $360,000 Bearcat armored truck on patrol in Ferguson, said Nick Gragnani, executive director of St. Louis Area Regional Response System, which administers such grants for the St. Louis area.

Since 2003, the group has spent $9.4 million on equipment for the police in St. Louis County. That includes $3.6 million for two helicopters, plus the Bearcat, other vehicles and night vision equipment. Most of the body armor worn by officers responding to the Ferguson protests was paid for with federal money, Mr. Gragnani said.

“The focus is terrorism, but it’s allowed to do a crossover for other types of responses,” he said. “It’s for any type of civil unrest. We went by the grant guidance. There was no restriction put on that by the federal government.”

But here’s the thing. Since 1990, according to Department of Justice statistics, the United States has become a vastly safer place, at least in terms of violent crime. [Continue reading...]

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Do police need grenade launchers, other military weapons? Officers say yes

Detroit Free Press: Michigan police departments have armed themselves with grenade launchers, armored vehicles, automatic rifles and other equipment — 128,000 items in all, worth an estimated $43 million — under a federal program that allows police to obtain surplus gear free from the U.S. military.

A Free Press review of items transferred from the military since 2006 shows Michigan law enforcement agencies have received 17 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles or MRAPs, built to counter roadside bombs; 1,795 M16 rifles, the U.S. military’s combat weapon of choice; 696 M14 rifles; 530 bayonet and scabbards; 165 utility trucks; 32 12-gauge, riot-type shotguns; nine grenade launchers; and three observation helicopters.

Federal officials won’t say which agencies got equipment, but the Free Press inquiry shows it went not just to large counties with high crime, but some of the state’s smallest counties and towns. [Continue reading...]

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The war photo no one would publish

Torie Rose DeGhett writes: The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.

On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.

Jarecke took the picture just before a ceasefire officially ended Operation Desert Storm — the U.S.-led military action that drove Saddam Hussein and his troops out of Kuwait, which they had annexed and occupied the previous August. The image and its anonymous subject might have come to symbolize the Gulf War. Instead, it went unpublished in the United States, not because of military obstruction but because of editorial choices.

It’s hard to calculate the consequences of a photograph’s absence. But sanitized images of warfare, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argues, make it “easier … to accept bloodless language” such as 1991 references to “surgical strikes” or modern-day terminology like “kinetic warfare.” The Vietnam War, in contrast, was notable for its catalog of chilling and iconic war photography. Some images, like Ron Haeberle’s pictures of the My Lai massacre, were initially kept from the public, but other violent images — Nick Ut’s scene of child napalm victims and Eddie Adams’s photo of a Vietcong man’s execution — won Pulitzer Prizes and had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the war. [Continue reading...]

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Fascism in Israel: ‘The intellectual bankruptcy of the mass media in this war is total’

Haaretz talked to Israel Prize laureate and renowned scholar Zeev Sternhell about his fears for the collapse of Israeli democracy.

Of all the phenomena you’ve encountered here, which do you find ugliest?

“What we’ve seen here in the past few weeks is absolute conformism on the part of most of Israel’s intellectuals. They’ve just followed the herd. By intellectuals I mean professors and journalists. The intellectual bankruptcy of the mass media in this war is total. It’s not easy to go against the herd, you can easily be trampled. But the role of the intellectual and the journalist is not to applaud the government. Democracy crumbles when the intellectuals, the educated classes, toe the line of the thugs or look at them with a smile. People here say, ‘It’s not so terrible, it’s nothing like fascism – we have free elections and parties and a parliament.’ Yet, we reached a crisis in this war, in which, without anyone asking them to do so, all kinds of university bodies are suddenly demanding that the entire academic community roll back its criticism.”

Do you think it’s due to fear?

“Fear of the authorities, fear of possible budgetary sanctions and fear of pressure from the street. The personification of shame and disgrace occurred when the dean of the law faculty of Bar-Ilan University threatened sanctions against one of his colleagues because the latter added a couple of sentences to an announcement about exam dates in which he expressed sorrow at the killing and loss of life on both sides. To grieve for the loss of life on both sides is already a subversive act, treason. We are arriving at a situation of purely formal democracy, which keeps sinking to ever lower levels.”

When will we cross the line in which democracy implodes?

“Democracy rarely falls in a revolution. Not in Italy, not in Germany and not in France with the Vichy regime – which is a crucial thing, because France was a democratic country that fell into the hands of the right wing with the support of the vast majority of the population. It was not the fall of France that generated this ideology. It was the result of a gradual process in which an extreme nationalist ideology took shape, a radical approach that perceives the nation as an organic body. Like a tree on which human individuals are the leaves and the branches – in other words, people exist only thanks to the tree. The nation is a living body.

“In Israel, the religious factor strengthens the national singularity. It’s not a matter of belief, but of identity; religion bolsters your distinctive identity. It’s essential to understand that without this radical nationalism there is no fascism. I also distinguish between fascism and Nazism, because fascism does not necessarily carry a race doctrine. Let me put it in no uncertain terms: Fascism is a war against enlightenment and against universal values; Nazism was a war against the human race.”

Do you see a negation of universal values in Israel and a war against enlightenment in recent years?

“It cries out to heaven. Israel is an extraordinary laboratory in which one sees the gradual erosion of enlightenment values, namely the universal values I mentioned. You see the negation, which always existed on the fringes, slowly impinging, until one day it dominates the center.”

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Mass U.S. surveillance targeting journalists and lawyers seen as threat to American democracy

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Iraq must remain a unified cosmopolitan country, as must all its neighbours

Hamid Dabashi writes: 200 years and more into the aftermath of the post/colonial history, countries like Iraq are blessed (yes blessed not cursed) by multifaceted cultures that includes their various constituents but is not reducible to them. From the Code of Hammurabi to the artwork of Rafa Nasiri, Iraqis are – all of them (Sunni, Shia, Kurds, etc.) – the proud inheritors of the very cradle of world civilisation, the very alphabet of our history. That dictators like Saddam Hussein abused that heritage for an empty and vacuous pomposity, or that the imperial buffooneries of Bush and Blair had not an iota of respect for them, does not discredit that heritage as the bedrock of a proud and confident Iraq.

That pride of place and political dignity is not in the direction of any separatist movement form Iraq or any other country. Iraqi borders may have been decided by colonial designs but Iraqi people are not a colonial product. They are the proud descendants of a magnificent civilisation that belongs to all of them. If they are Sunni, Shia or Kurd, this is a source of inspiration, diversity and pluralism for their future.

Iraqi and Lebanese Shia are blessed that they must determine their political future in conversation with other religious and ethnic groupings. They can and they will provide a model of democratic pluralism for the entire region, including and in particular for Iran where the seemingly unified 95 percent plus majority Shia hides a deeply divided and multifaceted society. Iran should not export its pathological “Islamic Republic” to Iraq or Lebanon or Syria. Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians must offer their future democratic pluralism to Iranians. [Continue reading...]

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The ISIS peril clarifies what Arabs need

Rami G. Khouri writes: The startling developments in northern Iraq, where the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has taken control of Mosul and other cities, highlights several troubling trends that have been evident across much of the Arab World for years.

ISIS moved into Mosul and other cities swiftly and without any real combat because these underlying trends all played their role in this great unfolding drama that speaks to the troubling realities of the Arab world.

This is about much more than any individual issue such as spillover from Syria, lack of Western military assistance to anti-Bashar Assad rebels, growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, or the spread of extremist Islamist militancy. Iraq today has reached a momentous moment of reckoning for the weaknesses of modern Arab statehood and governance. External factors certainly played their roles, such as the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003, decades of Israeli meddling in Arab conditions, and Iran’s growing influence in the region.

These external factors, however, could only impact on conditions in Iraq because of the underlying structural problems whose consequences are now playing out before us every day. These underlying Arab-made structural problems include corrupt and incompetent governance, weak citizenship, brittle statehood, and a severe lack of cohesion among different ethnic and sectarian groups within countries.

The news that many locals have not resisted, and even often welcomed, the arrival of ISIS should clarify the intense problems that existed between the government and mostly Sunni local communities in northwest Iraq. Air attacks by the Iraqi government or military moves by foreign powers such as Iran or the United States will momentarily delay the expansion of ISIS-controlled areas. But military power in the long run remains helpless in the face of determined moves by disgruntled citizens to regain what they see as dignity, freedom and rights.

The best proof of this is the steady expansion in the numbers and capabilities of extremist Salafist-takfiri militant groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Nusra Front and dozens of other groups that have been repeatedly targeted by military strikes by local governments and the American armed forces. So, military attacks against ISIS and its local allies in Iraq would momentarily pause the current trajectory of the group’s expansion, but will not stop it in the long run.

The fact that some Iraqis would consider life under the draconian rules of ISIS preferable to the conditions they had endured under previous elected Iraqi governments shows how severe are the grievances of ordinary citizens under the rule of Arab tyrants. [Continue reading...]

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Will Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, promote democracy?

Reuven Rivlin was elected in the Knesset today as Israel’s 10th president, replacing outgoing President Shimon Peres.

On Sunday, Dimi Reider wrote:

As speaker, Rivlin’s commitment to parliamentary democracy (and democracy in general) saw him turn time and again against his own party and its allies, stalling most of the anti-democratic legislation pushed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Liberman’s Israel Beitenu, while at the same time trying to instruct his fellow right-wing legislators about the dangers of nationalist populism.

As a staunch right-winger, Rivlin is opposed to partition but is emphatically opposed to racism, coupling his opposition to a Palestinian state with support for offering Israeli citizenship to all Palestinians. While this is a stance being taken up by a number of right-wing politicians in recent years, Rivlin, as a democrat, goes one step further. When I interviewed him for Foreign Policy four years ago, for instance, he spoke nostalgically of a rotation-based executive espoused by Revisionist Zionists like Ze’ev Jabotinsky – and held up by Belfast as one possible inspiration for a future of power-sharing. It’s a far cry from nationalist self-determination, or from the one state advocated by Palestinians and the pro-Palestinian Left. But it still offers infinitely more room for maneuver than anything ever plausibly offered or actually given to Palestinians by the centrist two-state Left.

Rivlin is certainly no left-winger – he hasn’t opposed any Israeli military operation and as communication minister in Sharon’s first cabinet, he presided over a major privatization drive. Still, Rivlin’s tenure as Knesset speaker earned him praise in liberal circles (including the soubriquet of “a bulwark” for democracy from The Economist), and the lasting ire of both Netanyahu and Liberman. Netanyahu, in a lamentable display of panic amplified by a petty squabble with Rivlin over some comments the latter made about Netanyahu’s wife, tried preventing Rivlin’s candidacy by canceling the presidential post at a few week’s notice, and trying to recruit American author Eli Weisel (who is not even an Israeli citizen) to stand in Rivlin’s place. Only when Weisel refused did the prime minister yield and offered Rivlin his sour-faced support. Even if Netanyahu is getting behind Rivlin only so he can eventually stab him in the back (to borrow a Yes, Prime Minister line), he apparently failed to warn Liberman of this decision, prompting the latter to denounce and renounce Rivlin and to hint he himself might support Dalia Itzik.

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Beware the return of ‘strongmen’ world leaders

In an editorial, The Observer says: There was something distasteful, and deeply disturbing, about last week’s photograph of Bashar al-Assad casting his vote in a Damascus polling station, watched by his beautifully coiffured wife, Asma, and adoring supporters. Distasteful because even as the Syrian leader brandished his ballot paper, his military forces were dropping a barrel bomb, the regime’s new terror weapon of choice, on the citizens of Aleppo. Disturbing because such a staged photograph is an established trademark of democracy around the world. It is the sort of picture elected politicians everywhere like to pose for. It sends a reassuring message of order, normality and one-person, one-vote humility. You see: the great man is just like you and me.

Except Assad is not an ordinary guy. No man of the people he, Assad is a dictator whose “presidential election”, held only in those urban areas under government control and boycotted by all credible opposition groups, was a travesty and a sham. He rules because his late father, Hafez, and Syria’s Alawite oligarchy handed him the job in 2000. Early on, he fluffed good opportunities to pursue reform. Since the initially peaceful demonstrations against his regime began more than three years ago, he has proved himself, by turns, foolish, craven and vicious. He exacerbated divisions and escalated the war by resorting to ever more extreme, indiscriminate violence. He is not an elected president. He is a killer and a war criminal with the names of 162,000 dead Syrians on his personal electoral roll.

Historically speaking, Assad is something else, too: a political “strongman” in the dismaying tradition of a region that seems pitifully prone to domination by fiercely driven, unscrupulous and often unsavoury individuals with dictatorial tendencies. In recent times, Saddam Hussein in Iraq was one such; Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was another. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, a former general, succeeded Anwar Sadat, himself a political heir to the arch-strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, following Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, Egypt is once again on the receiving end of strongman politics with the rise of another general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. His ascent to the presidency was supposedly legitimised in last month’s national elections. But despite being virtually unopposed, he took only 23m out of 53m potential votes on a turnout well below 50%.

Time will tell whether Sisi is the firm-handed, sure-footed leader Egypt needs, as his backers claim. But one thing is already clear: he is no democrat and most Egyptian voters know it. Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, remains in jail after his ousting last year by Sisi’s armed forces, along with 15,000 of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. An estimated 1,400 people have died. Sisi’s intimidatory shadow hovers over Egypt’s institutions, including the judiciary and media. An official personality cult is in the making. And in an approach that has resonated as far as Bangkok, where Thai military coup leaders seem to have taken a cue from Sisi, Egypt’s new strongman stresses stability over human rights and civic freedoms. How he plans to tackle Egypt’s crushing economic and social problems is less certain. However he does it, he is sure to do it firmly.

Strongman politics is both contagious and increasingly back in fashion across the Middle East, where the democratic promise of the Arab Spring revolts has mostly turned to dust and tears. [Continue reading...]

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Major terrorism trial could be held in secret for first time in UK legal history

The Guardian reports: A major terrorism trial is set to be held entirely in secret for the first time in British legal history in an unprecedented departure from the principles of open justice, the court of appeal has heard.

The identities of the two defendants charged with serious terror offences are being withheld from the public, and the media are banned from being present in court to report the forthcoming trial against the two men, known only as AB and CD.

The unprecedented secrecy has been imposed on the proceedings after the Crown Prosecution Service obtained legal orders to withhold the names of the defendants and allow the trial to take place in private on the grounds, they said, of national security.

At the court of appeal in London, Anthony Hudson, representing the Guardian and several other media organisations, challenged the orders, which will allow a secret criminal trial to take place for the first time in legal history. [Continue reading...]

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Blame the state for sham Arab democracy

Rami G Khouri writes: The recent string of “elections” across the Arab world raises profound questions about the Arab world’s apparent difficulty in adopting institutions and practices of liberal pluralistic democracies.

But is the problem really about the ability of Arab social values to accommodate democracy, or is there a deeper problem related to the clumsy nature of statehood that has emerged in this region during the past century?

The “elections” I refer to include spectacles in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Lebanese presidential election-selection that was not even held on time due to political bickering among the country’s sectarian leaders. The Egyptian, Syrian and Algerian cases repeat the ugly legacy of the modern Arab tradition of family-run security states and dictatorships that put on a show of voting to secure approval ratings of 87 or 93 or 97 percent, complete with adoring crowds of supporters of the “Great Leader.” [Continue reading...]

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