One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

Freedom in the Middle East or bust

Beyond such stomach-churning lines like this (and we all know Michael Gerson’s 5th grade-level aptitude for similes) — “Democracy is not inevitable like communism was said to be; it is inevitable like hope.” — Gerson’s op-ed today is unsurprisingly political hackery. His broad brush paints an admittedly jagged swath across the Middle East, but this trajectory still inevitably leads — this is Bush’s former speechwriter, remember — where else but to freedom.

Inevitable democracy

Inevitable democracy

But while the development of democracy in the Middle East is not linear, it is also not random. It moves in steps, but upward. Taken together — a constitutional Iraqi democracy, a powerful reform movement in Iran, democratic achievements from the Gulf sheikdoms to Lebanon — this is the greatest period of democratic progress in the history of the region. Given consistent outbreaks, it seems clear that the broader Middle East is not immune to the democratic infection.

This reminds me of nothing so much as Condoleezza Rice’s cringe-worthy utterance that death and violence simply represented the natural “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” The reflexive habit of neoconservatives to any spate of elections as a triumph of this abstract notion of “freedom” — even, remarkably, when they acknowledge, as Gerson does, the tendency to “overinterpret events to confirm preexisting views” — is simply an indication of how politically fraught this term has become. Gerson does not need to analyze the specific politics and social dynamics of each Middle Eastern society; he sees what he wants to see (in Iran, that means a “powerful reform movement” and “martyrs” of democracy, who will no doubt eventually succeed), and uses these out-of-context planks to reconstruct his political project: vindicating his old boss’s “freedom agenda.”

Such a baldly partisan op-ed contributes less than nothing to informed discourse; its only effect is in reminding readers that Republican talking points, whatever the facts on the ground, will prevail. The ark of the political universe is long, one might surmise, but it bends inevitably toward freedom democracy the GOP.

(image from flickr user carcollectorz under a Creative Commons license)

June 26, 2009 Posted by | Conservatives, Foreign politics, Middle East | , , , , | Leave a comment

“There is no such place” where Israel can’t bomb

I guess I never really appreciated the extent to which Marty Peretz’s maxim, “Don’t fuck with Israel,” is espoused equally bluntly by Israeli leaders themselves.  Apropos the very bizarre — and under-appreciatedly bizarre — Israeli bombing of a weapons-smuggling convoy in Sudan last month, Ehud Olmert had this to say:

“We operate everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure — in close places, in places further away. Everywhere where we can hit terror infrastructure, we hit them, and we hit them in a way that increases deterrence,” he said at an academic conference.

“It was true in the north in a series of incidents, and it was true in the south in a series of incidents,” he added. “There is no point in going into detail, and everybody can use their imagination. Those who need to know, know. And those who need to know, know that there is no place where Israel cannot operate. There is no such place.”

Am I allowed to use my imagination to envision such a place?

March 30, 2009 Posted by | Foreign politics, Middle East | , , , | Leave a comment

A must-read on Iran

Roger Cohen, on some Revolutionary Guards real Iranians that he spoke with. A snippet:

The Great Satan is great also in his power to exert fascination. “Death to America” has become background noise, as interesting as piped elevator music.

The revolution freed Iranians from the brutality of the shah’s secret police, Savak, and delivered a home-grown society modeled on the tenets of Islam in place of one pliant to America’s whim. But like all revolutions, it has also disappointed. Freedom has ebbed and flowed since 1979. Of late, it has ebbed.

Beneath the hijab, that is to say beneath the surface of things, frustrations multiply. Women sometimes raise their hands to their necks to express a feeling of suffocation. Hard-pressed men, working 12-hour days to make enough to get by, are prone to hysterical laughter with its hint of desperation.

It’s always worth remembering that there are 70 million people in Iran, only one of whom is named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many are young, curious, cosmopolitan, and none too happy with the economic tailspin that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s nonsensical financial policies has brought about. Iranians will play a far greater part in shaping their own future than American bluster, strategies, or policies ever will. Its elections, it needs no reminding, will be very interesting.

February 13, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , | Leave a comment

Satellite God

Iran launched its first homemade satellite into space.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reasoning?

Mr Ahmadinejad said the satellite was launched to spread “monotheism, peace and justice” in the world.

Because people will see the satellite and think it is the one true God?

February 3, 2009 Posted by | Humor, Middle East | , , | 3 Comments

“Even-handed” is not a word to be uttered in polite U.S. foreign policy discussions

Over the past couple days, the president of the Anti-Irony Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, has sent liberal bloggers everywhere a-mocking, having rejected out of hand Obama’s pick as Middle East Envoy, the ‘roids-reportin’ George Mitchell, because of his (gasp!) “fairness” and “even-handedness.”  And while Foxman’s blunt assessment presents this kind of logic in its most starkly ridiculous garb, the sentiment is actually a de rigueur aspect of American foreign policy.

Jon Chait comes close to identifying the problem, but his sober explanation of why Foxman’s indignant sputtering should not come as a surprise veers — unsurprisingly, given his only marginal deviation from the Peretz orbit — too far to accepting this exasperating logic.

My point isn’t so much to defend this point as view as to explain that it isn’t inherently ridiculous to oppose an “even-handed” posture in the Middle East. You can look at the facts in a fair and even-handed way and arrive at a pro-Israel position — which, again, does not necessarily require support for everything the Israeli government does.

Now, opponents of the pro-Israel posture argue that the United States can’t broker peace unless it takes an even-handed posture. But that’s only true if you assume that both sides are equally at fault.

Chait seems to be making a dubious distinction between an even-handed approach — which could result, in his eyes legitimately, in a “pro-Israel” stance — and the generic “even-handedness” with which Foxman so awkwardly smeers Mitchell.  This amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy, though, as it assumes that Mitchell’s “even-handedness” stems not from an “even-handed” assessment of the facts (which, as Chait and Foxman see them, invariably weigh the scale in a conspicuously “pro-Israel” direction), or an “even-handed” outlook as an envoy, but from an “even-handedness” that is suspiciously, and automatically, “anti-Israel.”  By skewing the balance in this manner as a matter of course, Foxman’s instinctive antipathy to even the word “even-handed” demonstrates quite clearly how it has become a shibboleth of American foreign policy discussions.

“Even-handedness,” furthermore, does not amount to an excavation of blame, as Chait seems to imply with the importance he sets on establishing moral inequivalency to justify a “pro-Israel” conclusion.  The point of an envoy, and, it seems to me, particularly in this case, should be to look forward, to open up dialogue and find mutually acceptable solutions.  If s/he is to find one side’s claims more acceptable, one side’s points more worthy of defense than the other’s, then s/he relinquishes her/his “even-handedness,” and with it, her/his credibility as a negotiator.

I remember, as a young undergraduate, writing angry letters to my Senator after seeing Howard Dean pounced upon at a Democratic debate in 2004 for proposing an “even-handed” approach toward Israel and Palestine.  It’s interesting to see Foxman mocked from the other direction, though I doubt the extent to which it will make the word more palatable in discussions re: Israel-Palestine.

January 23, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , , | Leave a comment

An Isratine elixir

qaddafiHaving already so successfully brought peace to Sudan tacitly supported various rebel groups in Darfur, Muammar Qaddafi, Libyan “leader” and historic regional manipulator, has now set his sights on that grand-daddy of conflicts: “the so-called Middle East crisis.”

He surmises that there are many problems in Israel-Palestine, that both sides have legitimate grievances and territorial claims, and that a two-state solution will be very difficult to achieve.  But, everybody used to live in the area with one name — Palestine — so now maybe what it needs is just a different name.

In absolute terms, the two movements must remain in perpetual war or a compromise must be reached. The compromise is one state for all, an “Isratine” that would allow the people in each party to feel that they live in all of the disputed land and they are not deprived of any one part of it.

Forgive my insouciance, but doesn’t “Isratine” sound more like a creepy artificially flavored beverage than a cure-all for the problems of the Middle East?

(image from flickr user dan.. under a Creative Commons license)

January 22, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Needless Nazi comparison of the day

liberalfascismAllow me to parrot the furiously circular logic of Jonah Goldberg: Liberals are fascists.  Israel-haters are fascists.  Liberals are Israel-haters.  Liberals are fascists.

To Goldberg, the fact that there are a plethora of crank extremists out there — and even more on the Googlesphere! — is proof positive that the masses of the Islamic world, and, gasp, the West, are all card-carrying members of a vast plot to adorn Zionists with swastikas.  It’d be harmless enough, I suppose, if Goldberg were simply treading water alone in the cesspool of this paranoia, but he actually engages the disgusting arguments of theis lunatic fringe:

First, let us note that if supposedly all-powerful Israel is dedicated to exterminating the Palestinian people, it is doing a very bad job. The Palestinian population has only grown since 1948. There are more Arab citizens living in Israel proper today than there were in all of Palestine the year Israel was founded.

By caricaturing the history of Israeli-Palestinian interaction — it’s not failed genocide, see, no big deal — Goldberg both skirts the actual issue of Israeli aggression and trivializes the concept of genocide itself.  The fact that there are more Palestinian refugees in Gaza and in “Israel proper” right now does not exactly reassure me that their human rights are being taken care of.

(image from flickr user arellis49 under a Creative Commons license)

January 6, 2009 Posted by | Conservatives, Middle East | , , , , | Leave a comment

Who’s to blame for the war in Gaza? Palestinian children, of course

Natan Sharansky demonstrates an exercise in sickening oversimplification.

gaza-german-mapIsrael’s assault on Hamas is just the latest in a long chain of military clashes, the scripts of which are always the same. On one side, there is the Israeli army. Technologically and militarily superior, its soldiers are motivated by a powerful commitment to their country’s security. On the other, there are Palestinian terrorists whose aim is to kill as many innocent Israelis as possible by unleashing missiles and suicide bombers on civilian centers. Then, when Israel retaliates, they appeal to the world with gruesome images of Palestinian suffering as part of a global campaign to prevent Israel from defending itself.

Yep, and it’s not at all this kind of black-and-white moral depiction that accelerates this cycle that Sharansky supposedly deplores.  But it gets worse: not only is every Palestinian an insidious guerrilla exploiting the suffering of civilians, but Palestinian children are not as deserving of protection as other innocent civilians.

Inevitably, some of these protests come from Israelis. Last week, before the tanks had begun rolling into Gaza, the journalist Tom Segev put it bluntly in a column he wrote in Ha’aretz. “A child in Sderot is the same as a child in Gaza,” he wrote, “and anyone who harms either is evil.”

Mr. Segev is correct when he says that the suffering of children on either side is intolerable — this is why the pictures from Gaza make us shudder. But he is wrong to draw a moral equivalence between the two sides. In this, he lends a hand to the Palestinians’ most shameful military tactic: pimping the suffering of their civilians as a weapon of war.

And — yes, there’s more — the UN refugee agency charged with caring for the over one million refugees in Gaza is actually making their lives worse by not forcing them back to homes that they don’t have.

Why is it that the tempers raised by the Israel-Palestine issues give rise to the most shockingly inhumane moral pronouncements, on both sides?  The question tempts one to pledge, as Kevin Jon Heller has, simply not to write about the area at all.

(map from Wikimedia Commons)

January 6, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , | Leave a comment

Bend it like Nir Rosen

This blistering Guardian piece — on the relativity of terrorism as it applies to Israel-Palestine — by intrepid journalist Nir Rosen goes just a bit too far.  He rightly condemns Israel’s assault on Gaza, but, perversely, sees it as not just a humanitarian and political travesty, but as a symptom of the cruel and blackened heart of every Israeli politician, writing, without a sense of the moral weightiness of the claim, that “[y]ou cannot be prime minister of Israel without enough Arab blood on your hands.”

There may be metaphorical Arab blood on Mr. Olmert’s hands, but to imply that Olmert’s action — and every Israeli polician’s desire — is motivated by the singular racist goal of spilling this blood is morally and intellectually irresponsible, to say the least.  To imply, further, that each successive Israeli government will simply try to out-slaughter its predecessor is a tired non-starter for any sort of peace process.

Terrorists aplenty in Gaza

Terrorists aplenty in Gaza

Channeling Noam Chomsky, Rosen makes the legitimate point that “[t]errorism is a normative term and not a descriptive concept.”  This is anathema — and downright treachery — to conservatives, of course, but the truth behind it is why, to choose an example that the right doggedly derides, the UN has not been able to come up with a “definition” of terrorism.  The United States’ definition, as Chomsky would not hesitate to interject, would, applied honestly, very easily bring many of its own policies under a very uncomfortable umbrella.

But the breadth of even a Potter Stewart-esque “I know it when I see it” definition of terrorism should not allow the pendulum of subjectivity to lodge too far in the other direction.  To wit, in a neat inversion of conservatives’ t-word-baiting, Rosen’s mock incredulity at the description of someone who throws acid at someone’s face as a terrorist.

Haaretz reported that a Palestinian woman blinded an Israeli soldier in one eye when she threw acid n [sic] his face. “The terrorist was arrested by security forces,” the paper said. An occupied citizen attacks an occupying soldier, and she is the terrorist?.

Terrorism is not, as it were, mutually exclusive.   The real takeaway here, though, should be the utter uselessness of calling either the civilian or the soldier a “terrorist.”  Throwing acid in anyone’s face is, by any measure, a recourse to criminality.  The complications of power dynamics, of course, make explicating the situation of the Israeli soldier much, much more complicated.  But calling him a terrorist is, again, not an effective way to end his — and more accurately, his government’s — policy.

But one more exaggeration from Rosen:

Do not be deceived: the persistence of the Palestine problem is the main motive for every anti-American militant in the Arab world and beyond. But now the Bush administration has added Iraq and Afghanistan as additional grievances.

This is infantilizing reductivism conducted on the part of anti-American militants everywhere.  Suggesting these factors as relevant “grievances” is one thing; boiling away all other motivations to get to this rock of an issue is another.

(image of an Israeli patrol in Gaza in 1988, from flickr user cromacom under a Creative Commons license)

December 30, 2008 Posted by | Conservatives, Middle East | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bush administration: we officially failed in the Middle East

From the “No Shit, Sherlock” Department:

The White House made it official yesterday: There will be no Middle East peace pact on President Bush’s watch.

Wait seven years to even try, then, with two months left, declare — officially — that it just isn’t possible.  The suspense was killing me.

November 10, 2008 Posted by | Middle East | | 1 Comment

Foreign policy? Nah, no need.

Newsweek‘s John Barry surveys the landscape of foreign policy issues that President Obama will be looking at through his Oval Office window, and concludes, rather pathetically, that there’s not much a new president can do anyway.  Sure, rashness could beget undesirable results, but there’s nothing endemic about foreign policy that makes it any more radioactive (no pun intended) than any other policy priority.

More disturbing than this instinctive advocacy of a hands-off foreign policy, though, is the reasoning Barry uses to justify it.  On the Israeli-Palestinean conflict, for example:

Obama is off the hook for months—time enough to decide if he really wants to embroil the U.S. in this quagmire yet again.

Taking the initiative to achieve peace in the Middle East is here reduced to the foolhardy decision of whether or not to stick one’s hand into a bees’ nest.  If Obama is “off the hook” — if his degree of participation in the process replicates Bush’s half-hearted, late-in-the-game, shot-in-the-Annapolis-dark — then his policy will have been misguided from its conception.  The U.S. should not play a lead role in the Israel-Palestine peace process because other countries have it “on the hook” to do so; it should invest its energies in bringing about a two-state solution because this is in the United States’  own interests.  Israel-Palestine is not inherently an irresolvable “quagmire,” and Obama will only “embroil” the United States if he enters into the process without a coherent plan…or sits and does nothing while the problem continues to fester.

November 10, 2008 Posted by | Middle East, U.S. politics | , , | 1 Comment