Friday, October 22, 2010

Strange Bedfellows

Within the last week, the US administration has proposed large military aid packages to our “allies” in the terminal “war on terror.” Saudi Arabia will receive $60 billion worth of military aircraft, while Pakistan will receive $2 billion dollars in general military aid.

If anyone still thinks that our military adventure in Iraq, and our persistent efforts to assist in the creation of a stable Afghan state are motivated from a desire to spread democracy, our relationship with Saudi Arabia should shatter that illusion.

Several years ago, I wrote on this blog that the biggest terror threats in the world were to be found in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Pakistan. This was despite the fact that the media focus at that time echoed the US government line; that the greatest threats emanated from Iran and Iraq. The case of Yemen is a special one, and I will not examine that here. Saudi Arabia, however, remains the ideological and financial homeland of Al-Qaeda and its associated worldview. After oil, Saudi Arabia’s next most significant export is Wahhabi Islam. Its internal human rights record is abysmal, and democracy is virtually non-existent. This is a country where you can be executed – by public beheading – for the crime of “sorcery.” Of course, rather than the US supporting a genuine democratic movement in the Peninsula, it continues to support the Royal family, and thus secures preferential treatment with regards to access to oil. Furthermore, despite the US State Department trying to play down the assertion, it is clear that $60 billion worth of aircraft to the Saudis satisfies the desire of both the Kingdom and the US to contain Iran.

This represents a deep and dangerous cynicism. The US is upping the ante in a regional proxy war and simultaneously arming a country where political stability has thus far relied on heavy handed opposition to reform and an extensive police state apparatus.

Political stability in Saudi Arabia depends to a great extent on economic stability; in order for the relatively high per capita income of the Kingdom to be maintained, oil revenues must remain high, and the regime must fulfill its role as a basic instrument of income redistribution. Political reform has progressed at a snail’s pace, and internal security threats from Islamic fundamentalist groups continue to present a challenge to the regime. Providing such a large arms transfer to Saudi Arabia increases the long term threat of both regional and sovereign stability, as the Saudis are likely to use international conflict as an excuse for delaying crucial reforms at home.

Meanwhile, the military aid package for Pakistan similarly can only serve to escalate conflict in South and Central Asia, rather than contain it. The Pakistani regime, and indeed, the fate of Pakistan as a state in general, are at a crossroads. As I have recently written in this blog, the confluence of forces at play in Pakistan at the moment presents an existential crisis. It would seem that the US position is to throw more arms into the fray, and hope that the limping civilian administration in Pakistan can get a hold of things before the center collapses. The war in Afghanistan has become a war in Pakistan, and once again the US position suggests that the only way out is for the Pakistanis to completely eliminate the Taliban and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, and return to some kind of imagined stability. However, the true crisis in Pakistan isn’t simply Islamic militancy, it is an institutional crisis. I don’t believe that an outright military victory over the Taliban and associated groups can actually be achieved. The fact that elements within Afghanistan’s government are continuously attempting to court the Taliban leadership into some kind of reconciliation process proves that the forces of Fundamental Islam will be part of both countries for the foreseeable forces. Rather than encouraging a de-facto arms race in South Asia, the US should be investing in a future civilian government that can encourage democratic reform and stable civilian governance, with the hope of creating an atmosphere conducive to economic development.

This is the only hope of long term stability. However, cynicism and the belief that military force can achieve positive future outcomes rule the day.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Specter of the Enemy

An unnamed NATO source, one believed to be involved in day to day operations in Afghanistan, has recently claimed, apparently with some certainty, that Osama Bin Laden is alive and well in Pakistan. Rather than living in a cave, as some have come to believe, the Al-Qaeda number one is resting comfortably somewhere in the northern areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan, possibly in or near the Kurram Valley.
Great, so we got him, right?
I imagine anyone who has followed the war in Afghanistan – and the war on terror generally – would not be at all surprised by the idea that Bin Laden and Zawahiri are in Pakistan. There have been numerous statements over the past several years to suggest it, and in fact it is one of the few possible scenarios that make any sense. If the rumors concerning Bin Laden’s need for a kidney dialysis machine are true, the “hiding out in a cave” scenario loses credibility.
Richard Holbrooke was quoted in The Guardian as saying that “we hardly have a day go by” without someone claiming to know Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The thing that’s interestingly absent from Holbrooke’s statement is where the US thinks he is. When the news of the NATO official came out, the Washington Post claimed the “mystery” may finally be solved. Mystery? There are only so many places he could be, right?
Clearly, Holbrooke is right about the fact that this isn’t the first time someone has claimed to know where the world’s most wanted man is hiding. In 2003, Indian General KPS Gill claimed that he had firsthand information that the Pakistani ISI knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. In 2006, Ahmad Rashid stated unequivocally that Bin Laden was in Pakistan. Yet each one of these claims was met by the same reaction, the latest iteration being Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik stating in Dawn that there is no truth to the NATO official’s claim, and such statements are being used to “malign Pakistan.”
I am not privy to classified information; I am not an intelligence specialist. However, I have been following these events in some detail for years. But I don’t suspect it takes much of an expert to come to the conclusion that Bin Laden and indeed, the leadership of Al Qaeda, is hiding in either the FATA or North or South Waziristan. If anything, the “maligning” of Pakistan is a simple indictment of the fact that these vast Pashtun areas along the Afghani border are completely beyond Pakistani control. Furthermore, knowing where Bin Laden is (even generally) does not mean that the US can simply “go in and get him.” It sounds ironic, considering we just “went in” and got Saddam, and just “went in” and went after the Taliban. However, with Pakistan we are dealing with a very precarious and difficult case. Pakistani sovereignty, the future stability of the state and nuclear weapons all conspire to make any US intervention deep into Pakistani territory a very dangerous tightrope act.
And it is this situation that makes a direct assault on Al Qaeda by US forces impossible at this current moment. However, there may be one other possible perspective here. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy nut of some kind, but I think it is distinctly possible to view Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the context of their propaganda value. There is no question that the American, and indeed global, public were subject to many exaggerations and sometimes outright lies regarding both Al-Qaeda and Iraq in the last several years. Remember the initial descriptions of the caves of Tora Bora by Donald Rumsfeld? It read like something out of an Ian Fleming novel. And let’s not forget the string of dishonesties regarding Iraq. The bottom line, governments have always understood the power of nightmares. Sometimes the threat is in fact real, but the details are blown out of proportion, or simplified to make the image of the enemy stark and easy to understand. This latter dimension is precisely why Bin Laden represents such an effective propaganda tool. Like Orwell’s Goldstein, Bin Laden becomes the repository of all of our projected, collective fears, an agent of chaos, with obscure religious views (though no religious credentials!), a single minded focus on destruction, a deep seated hatred of “civilization” at large. Even his physical appearance in many ways typifies the feared image of the dangerous oriental, dark, swarthy, with a hooked nose and a discordant effeminate quality. And most importantly, he is uncomplicated. Compare Bin Laden to Hassan Nasrallah. The Hezbollah leader has repeated numerous times that his movement is involved in a local struggle. Nasrallah condemned the events of 9/11, he is a savvy, public, and charismatic figure. Indeed, Nasrallah is polarizing, but he is not surrounded by the aura of myth, he is multi-dimensional and arguments can be made that will sympathize with his positions (albeit with great contentiousness). Even the most ardent anti-war leftists risk total ridicule if they attempt to justify Bin Laden’s position. Al Qaeda and its leadership represent the perfect Manichean Devil, an emotionally potent oversimplification that stirs the imagination as much, if not more than, the intellect and thus, has a certain value to the fear machine if he remains elusive and alive.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chess Anyone?

The recent elections in Iraq have left the country with a dangerous political deadlock. With neither Iyad Allawi’s Iraqqiya bloc nor Maliki’s State of Law bloc pulling a majority in the Parliament, the game of coalition building is in full swing. However, a parallel game is being played out, and it is about regional influence and may well shape the future of Iraq’s role in the Middle East for decades to come.

Since the 2003 invasion, Moqtada al-Sadr has emerged as a major x-factor in Iraqi politics. Commanding the dispossessed, poor, urban Shia population, the young scion emerged as an international figure by openly declaring resistance against the U.S. and coalition presence in Iraq. The Mahdi Army became a force to be reckoned with, and Sadr himself quickly became a figure of national prominence and influence. Perhaps more importantly, he became the most visible conduit of Iranian influence in Iraq. There is little doubt that the Mahdi Army received funding, as well as material and logistical support from Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements. This intimate relationship between the Sadrists and Iran was the natural outcome of co-religiosity, political opportunism, and international gamesmanship. And now, with the election leaving a leadership vacuum, Sadr and Iran again have entered the fray in a significant way.

Maliki has travelled to Tehran, and plans to go to Qom as well. It is clear that in going to Tehran, Maliki is hoping to not only show that he has an open door to both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, but that he can convince the Iranians to use their influence on Sadr as well. Part of the reason that Sadr has been so quiet the last few years is that he realized that his future success in both Iraq and the region depends on his attaining his religious credentials. Thus, the young mullah has returned to the academies of Qom while his party plots its future political strategy.

Maliki is going to lean on Sadr and hope that he can get the Sadrist seats into a ruling coalition. This will mean a strongly pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. To be sure, the American’s are playing their cards at the moment as well. Statements from Allawi read almost like State Department press releases. Everyone has a horse in this race, and once again, the self-determination of ordinary Iraqis is being sacrificed for political machination and regional gamesmanship.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Gutenberg 2.0, and the Death of the object

Today I want to take a short break from our usual fare and begin a short series on the state of professional media in the age of Web 2.0. So let's jump in.

What is Web 2.0? As Andrew Keen has pointed out, the term itself is not so much an intentional nomenclature that indicates a new set of inventions or practices, but was rather a term developed by media observers to describe a sort of historical moment characterized by the post 2000 NASDAQ crash and the explosion of what we now call "social media," i.e Facebook, Youtube, Digg etc. In general, the idea of Web 2.0centers around the idea of user-generated content, and the potential to liberate media from the "Gatekeepers" of traditional mainstream media.

The above description is loaded with points of interest and potential contention. However, I don't want to engage all of those issues at the outset. I would like to begin (as may be appropriate in Web 2.0) with a personal story.

The two industries seemingly most affected by the rise of digital technology and the information economy are the music industry and journalism. When I was in high school, the Internet was still very, very nascent in its development. I used to mail order vinyl records from a small punk rock outfit in Goleta, California. When the sides arrived from Ebullition records, there were always goodies; sometimes free zines, band stickers, mail order catalogs from other indie labels. Pulling those packages out of the mail and locking myself in my room was a gleeful ritual. I would put the records on, hold the covers in my hands, look at the lyrics and artwork inserts, and while away the hours in angst ridden bliss (I did mention these were punk rock records, right?). Now, before you accuse me of romanticizing the "physical object," keep in mind that from a young age I was a collector. For awhile it was hockey and baseball cards, then comic books, and eventually music. Perhaps there is a pathology associated with "collecting," but for me and my friends, the association with these small, mail order record labels, the bands that they promoted and the scene in which everyone was involved constituted a community. Furthermore, these objects played the role of our communal artifacts.

To be sure, digital technology has killed the physical artifact. Some may point to isolated situations in which a hardcore minority insist on purchasing CD's or vinyl, but in 2010, these are the real New Romantics. I myself have succumbed and surrendered to iTunes, because I want my music with me everywhere I go. And I doubt anyone in the moribund music industry will tell you that there is hope on the horizon. Web 2.0 has destroyed the old business model of the recording industry, that is beyond debate. The question which remains, is whether or not this is a good thing.

It's a complicated question and cannot be answered in a short blog entry, so my goal here is to present a series of interlocking themes to widen the discussion. On the one hand, there are those who argue that with the dinosaur record industry out of the way, the artist can be in complete control of all aspects of the creation and marketing of their music, and can do so at relatively low cost. This is the "democratization" of media that the champions of Web 2.0 espouse as their central ideology. This raises for me two central questions. First, has this leveling of the technological playing field made it any easier for musicians to make a living from their music? Certainly, they have more control, and are not beholden to the infamous "exploitation" of the labels, but they now must operate in an ever widening field of competition, and since digital music can just as often be pirated rather than purchased, does this reduce the resources available for bands to harness their craft and raise their level of ability against an increase of competitors in the field? The second question is related to this, and involves the role that the labels played as "Gatekeepers." Part of the investment in the production of the physical object was an investment in bands that were deemed to have sufficient talent, which was then harnessed and polished by A&R people, professional marketers and the taste makers at the labels. These are all very naughty concepts in Web 2.0, yet is something lost when no one is willing to invest in individuals whose sole purpose is to separate the wheat from the chaff? The flattened media proponents will say that "the people" will decide. In other words, the logic of the free market must operate unhindered by the "regulation" of old media authority.

I don't want to propose a final verdict on any of these questions as much as I want to begin the discussion. Suffice it to say that it seems to me that we are at a point where it cannot be regarded as a zero-sum game, and there will be a place for both taste makers and authority, as well as direct democratic content generation. The issue of authority and the gatekeepers will be extended in the next post, as I think this is a particularly vital issue in the discussion about the future of journalism.

Stay tuned, and leave comments!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Morality of Occupation

A recent video posted to youtube shows an IDF soldier "belly dancing" and gyrating mockingly while a Palestinian woman stands bound and blindfolded against a wall. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, the darkest and most cynical dehumanization. The ensuing dialogue about the incident will no doubt follow a familiar formula. The Army will declare the offending soldiers "bad apples," why critics and human rights groups will insist that occupation brings out the worst tendencies in otherwise ordinary people.

I suspect that the reality of such incidents isn't explained by one or the other argument alone, but some combination of both. And ultimately, trying to parse out whether the offending soldiers began as "bad apples" or were somehow induced to aberrant behavior by the brutal reality of geopolitics would be futile. However, what this incident reminds us is that often what gets the most attention and generates the most debate are incidents where the crimes involve some level of deviance or salaciousness.

"If it bleeds it leads," so the old saying goes. However, in the U.S. press, the bleeding of some is more news worthy than the bleeding of others. It was clear during the Abu Ghraib incident that this moment of strange and deviant dehumanization emerged as a focal point for opposition to the occupation of Iraq, and a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment in the Islamic World. There is no doubt that such events damage the moral standing of nations that insist that their interventions are either purely defensive or even benevolent, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. To be sure, these are important stories which focus a bright light on occupation and its effects. However, I contend that perhaps these things are just aberrations, and obscure the daily crimes of occupying armies.

As far the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I doubt most Americans know the price paid in the blood of the "natives." In fact, the case of Iraq has been so mired in misinformation that there is significant variation in Iraqi death toll estimates among informed observers. Similarly, the figures for civilian deaths in Afghanistan are difficult to verify. Good records were simply not kept during the opening years of the war, and the reporting of civilian casualties in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand were compromised by the dire security situation. During the decades of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, numerous human rights groups have kept records of Palestinian civilian deaths at the hands of the IDF (links to Al Mezan and B'Tselem can be found in the links section to the right). The deaths of course are not all attributable to American or Israeli military action. What is not accounted for in the statistical data is the daily abuse, the checkpoints, house searches, demolitions, curfews and random arrests and detentions.

So incidents like the belly dancing IDF soldier and Abu Ghraib perhaps ultimately are aberrations. The background events of occupation are more directly and obviously brutal, they lack the color of psychological deviance, and rather embody the logic of empire. If such incidents bring focus to the conditions of occupation, all the better. However, our outrage - and attention - must remain focused on the daily crimes committed in these seemingly endless conflicts.