Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Art of 12 Bars

When I first read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" I became acutely aware of the fact that American history teems with alternative narratives, the narratives of struggles and movements that get shuffled underfoot by the sanctity of a mainstream mythology that provides the defining values of our society and civilization. Zinn's work to remains vital, and perhaps is most significant, not because it supplants the mainstream American meta-narrative, but because it compliments it, problamtizing our collective assumptions and reintegrating into the mythology the conflicts and contradictions that comprise the essential American experience.

I reflect on this while listening to BB King's "Lucille," the song named after the guitar that delivered King from the plantation. Watch an old performance of any of the greats - BB, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters - and you will see in the style, the dress, the attitude, the sound and the setting, something that is a quintessentially American art form. The myth of the blues begins in the deep south. It emerges as reflection both of the reality of sharecropping and Jim Crow, and the yearning to create an actualized alternative narrative to the minstrel show. The progress of the blues, from the Delta to the industrial north, its electrification and increasing sophistication, is the history of African American migration, displacement and perpetual marginalization. And to the degree that the Black experience as expressed in 12 bars reflects a deep contradiction within American Civilization - the myth of all persons being created equal - the blues itself is rife with telling internal conflicts. On the one hand, blues owes much to the spiritual and work song, expressions of a communal ritual reflecting an a religious configuration used to express life of exile. On the other hand, we find the blues man as the essential outsider: Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads, bargaining with the Devil himself in exchange for preternatural musical abilities.

In reckoning with Rock and Roll and all its iterative forms and dispersions, we always return to the blues, gospel, and audacity of the outsider.The form and context remains based in tension and opposition. This remains true through the main sequence life Rock and Roll from Little Richard through Hendrix and indeed to Chuck D and Ice Cube. This tension urges us to face the American experience through the lens of the 12 bar progression, the constitution that provides the basic outline for improvisation and individual expression and innovation.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Next in Line

With the fall of Tripoli imminent and another Arab state pressing forth into the anxious experiment of self-rule, it is important to turn our focus again to one of the states that represents the fulcrum upon which events in the region turn. As has been discussed and developed on this site, much of our understanding of the dynamics of the Middle East emerge from a structural paradigm which posits Saudi Arabia and Iran as bipolar powers in conflict for regional hegemony – what I have called in the past the “Arab Cold War” (The Iranians aren’t Arabs, but this is being played out in the Arab world, and to an extent, South Asia).

The House Al Saud built

The Saudi royal family, styled the “House of Al-Saud,” uses what is called agnatic seniority to determine ascendancy to the thrown of the kingdom. This means that the throne is passed to the oldest brother of the current king. This differs of course from what most in the west are familiar with, the system found in most European monarchies whereby the crown is passed from father to eldest child(typically, though not necessarily, a son), the technical term being agnatic primogeniture. Thus, Abdullah is currently the eldest son of the original king, Abdul-Aziz. Of his other sons, Sultan would be next in line, however, he will likely step aside due to health reasons. This leaves the probably heir to the Saudi throne as Crown Prince Nayef, former Minister of the Interior and current Second Deputy Prime Minister. Nayef is considered to be among the most conservative members of Al-Saud. As Reuters reported in 2010, most diplomats say Nayef is unlikely to pursue meaningful social reform. In fact, the crown prince was once quoted as saying that the Kingdom has “no need for elections or women in government.” Others argue that reform is inevitable and that continued foreign investment depends on Nayef being able to portray some sense of social and political progress in the Kingdom.

The future of the House of Al Saud may depend on it. With a huge majority of Saudis under the age of thirty watching Tunisia/Egypt/Libya/Syria on Al Jazeera with the rest of us, Nayef will have to chart a careful course if Al Saud expects to remain the dominant institution in the country. And if the notion of a monarchy maintaining control of its populace in midst of democratic revolutions sounds a bit medieval, well, that’s because it is. The Saudi Monarchy, as well as those of other Gulf Emirates, is a throwback to some political-evolutionary past, an atavistic transitional form in the flesh. The regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya represent a much more recent form - that of the post-colonial dictatorship – and indeed that has been proven to have outlived its usefulness. The Saudis, the Gulf Emirs and Nayef understand this full well. That’s why they participate in counterrevolution through its primary institutional instrument, the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Council of Kings

The GCC consists of six states, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. All of these states can be described as Absolute Monarchies, excepting the UAE which is a federal monarchy. Jordan requested membership, and Morocco has been invited. The GCC operates on many levels, fostering economic, social and political cooperation through the creation of consensus based objectives for advancing interests of the monarchies in the gulf. One of the critical pieces of the GCC is the Peninsula Shield Force. This is effectively the military wing of the GCC and is intended to respond to military aggression against GCC states. It was deployed in both Gulf Wars, both times against Iraq. However, the most recent deployment of the Peninsula shield is perhaps the most crucial, and disturbing. In March of this year, the Peninsula Shield moved across the causeway that connects Saudi Arabia to Bahrain and, at the request of the Bahraini government, attempted to quell popular demonstrations for reform on the island. This set a precedent of the GCC using its military wing to oppose an internal threat against a GCC regime. This is important, because it shows us that not only is Saudi Arabia not moving towards reform within its own borders, but it is acting with increasing urgency and risk-taking with regards its GCC compatriots. One senses that the Saudi Monarchy views its co-royalists as dominoes in a game of survival against both democratic minded revolutionaries and Iranian-backed Shi’a insurgents. For Nayef and the other leaders of the GCC, history is at the doorstep, and only active counterrevolution can turn back the tide.

Going forward

This all, of course, has major implications for the United States, with our particularly special relationship to the Kingdom. What side of history will our leaders stand on when the yearning for democracy grips the streets of Riyadh? It is difficult to speculate at this point how far America will go to support the Saudi monarchy, but we must assume at the very least that if the US abandons Nayef and his coterie, it will only be on the guarantee that a deal exists between the US and the presumptive future leaders of the Saudi Arabia. There is too much at stake in the earth beneath the sands of the desert.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The State of Iraq

Iraq re-emerged in the news recently, as terror attacks left scores dead in Baghdad, Kut and other areas of the country. Though the sudden spark of violence certainly presents reason for concern, all indications seem to suggest a that the country has turned a corner, and that while the security situation may not return to pre-invasion status for some time, there is reason to be optimistic. It is vital to get a grip on the overall picture in Iraq as we approach the December 2011 deadline for the final wihdrawal of US forces from the country.

Business, and business as usual

Recently, Hassan Hadifh of the Wall Street Journal reported that Royal Dutch Shell reached an agreement with the Iraqi Oil Minitry that would yield 2 billion cubic feet/day of natural gas. Some of this quantity would be used for export in a liquified form, while some would be piped for local and regional use. The Ministry estimates that the project expects to generate 31 billion dollars in government revenues over the 25 year lifespan of the project. This is just one of many large scale foreign investment projects taking hold throughout Iraq at the moment. According to an article on "The National" website, total foreign investment is expected to reach around 90 billion dollars this year, with Turkish interests leading the way, and with investment taking place not only in the energy sector, but also in housing and urban infrastructure development.

Of course, oil and natural gas still dominate. As Josie Esnor reports in the Telegraph, "Look outside the oil sector, however, and high operational risk continues to discourage all but the most daring investor." Moreover, a greater proportion of investment inquiries remain focused on the areas in and around the Kurdish regions, like Arbil, where the security situation differs dramatically from both the Sunni heartland and the Shi'a dominated south.

Investors remain optimistic about Iraq, at least for the moment. With this in mind, it is difficult to dismiss the sense that cries of collusion weren't entirely correct; that one positive outcome in invading a country and laying waste to a great many parts of it, is the opportunity to go back in and rebuild it and thus reap the spoils of destruction. However, let's lay the most cynical readings aside for the moment. Instead, let's try and examine how the current state of things affects the average Iraqi.

Keep the Lights on

Acording the most recent "Iraq Index" produced by the Saban Institute/Brookings Institution, by virtually any measure, life in Iraq is improving. In regards the economic and investment activity discussed above, The Saban report indicates an estimated 2011 GDP growth of above 9%, with an IMF estimate that 2012 may show as much as 12.5%. From about 2008 until now, there has been steady increases in electrical kilowatt hours generated and delivered. Cellphone subscriptions are up, internet access is on the climb, and while the overall unemployment picture remains discouraging, jobs are being created in certain sectors and in certain municipalities.


Furthermore, despite the most recent spate of attacks, Iraqi civilian deaths are at an all time low per annum. through July '11, the total amounted to around 800, less than one-half from 2010, and less than one-third from 2009. In addition, US military fatalities also attain to significantly lower levels than at any time during the invasion and occupation. Despite small spikes in the period from March to June of this year, US fatalities are on track to be equal or less than last years total of 60, which remains to date the lowest per annum of the war. The number of wounded will likely end up at less than half of last years total number of 389.

While the issue of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons remains significant, most of the indicators in the Saban report Index paint the piture of a ountry on the right track.

So why is Seymour Hersh so worried?

During a June 11th interview on Democracy Now, Investigative Journalist Seymour Hersh said the following:

Whatever you are hearing, Iraq is going bad. Sunnis killing Shi'as, it's sectarian war.

Hersh goes on to state that certain Baathist Sunni groups, with potential operators in the UK, are planning on declaring a provisional government, perhaps something like a shadow government, with the aim of casting the Shi'a dominated government of overtly tied to Iran. Hersh doesn't get any further into it, but there are definitely hints of the ongoing structure of support by Saudi Arabia for Sunni groups to be propped up as proxies against "Iranian Influence." Furthermore, Hersh's claim that the situation in Iraq may be used to put more pressure on the Iranians seems to correspond with recent comments made by Adm. Mike Mullen. As quoted in the Telegraph on 7/7/11, Mullen indicates that "Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shi'a groups which are killing our troops." The Admiral goes on to say that any final decision on US troops remaining in country past the December deadline "has to be done with control of Iran in that regard." Mullen doesn't provide any evidence for the claim of Iranian support, and the most recent attacks suggest that the most active groups are in fact Sunni extremists, not Shi'a groups. However, in general, this seems to point to a coming moment that will decide the immediate future stability of the country.

Hersh believes that Iraq will prove a thorn in Obama's side next year. Human Rights Watch, in its most recent report on Iraq details continued human rights abuses, including targeting Women's rights advocates and female politicians, forced female genital mutilation in the Kurdish regions, torture and severe disruptions of due process for prisoners, and severe curbs to freedom of expression. Clearly, things aren't better for everyone.

Time will tell.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Some thoughts on terror and violent resistance

Last night I spent some time talking with some friends about the subject of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli Occupation. Inevitably, despite the absence of such actions in the recent past, we came to the concept of the suicide bomber and more specifically, the attack on innocent civilian targets. In asking whether or not this stood as a legitimate weapon of resistance, it occurred to me that we may suffer from asking the wrong question. Now let me be clear, explaining the psycho-social mechanism from whence the suicide bomber arises - as opposed to condoning his activity – remains a common and well-worn strategy for those sympathetic to the Palestinian Resistance. I don’t know that I will be proposing anything different than the usual “explication” thesis. However, I like to think that my position is one step beyond explication, yet still one step short of justification.

Israel comprises an area of land approximately equivalent to the state of New Jersey. Yet, by most credible accounts possesses the 4th most powerful military on the planet, including unknown nuclear assets. To suggest that the Palestinians stand at the vanguard of some vast Islamic horde poised to push the Israelis into the Mediterranean is to abandon reality. What support the Palestinian resistance does receive from its coreligionists is nominal at best and negligible at worst. Meanwhile, the Palestinians themselves battle AH^$ Apache gunships (made in the USA) and the second largest fleet of F-16 jet fighters with homemade rockets and Kalashnikov rifles. To even suggest that the conflict is a war between two armies fails to account for the most basic facts. David and Goliath fails as an accurate analogy; rather it is as if an army of ants, is confronting a stamped of elephants. And no one is coming to the aid of the Palestinians. They are all but abandoned, save for facile “diplomatic” solidarity from governments, and plenty of rhetorical support from Arab demagogues. So what are these people to do?

There will never be a time, if the current conditions persist, when a Palestinian resistance could take on the IDF with any hope of achieving success. The best analogy for the situation can be found in American history. The Native Americans never stood a chance, mainly because the United States never regarded them as anything but a people to be conquered, and that bringing to bear the full might of the United States army provided the best means of success. The suicide bombing of innocent bus riders or cafĂ© goers in Tel-Aviv, or attacks on homes in Sderot by means of katyusha rockets are desperate acts of a desperate people. And in fact, if they were able to persist, it is likely that large portions of the Israel population would encourage their government to end the occupation. Thus it is necessary for the Israeli establishment to relegate this tactic to the category of the morally reprehensible, the terroristic. The Palestinians aren’t playing by the rules, and it is evidence of their barbarism. In fact, what it reveals is the complete moral failing of the Zionist project, which regards the Palestinians, not as negotiating partners for peace, but as a conquered people with whom the details of the final capitulation (the shape and size of their reservations) must be hammered out for public consumption.

The irony is of course that Israel celebrates its own “terrorists” of the past. In July of 1946, The Irgun – Zionist nationalist militant group – bombed the King David hotel Jerusalem, killing 91 people, most of them hotel staff and British clerical workers. The group, led by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, killed innocent civilians in order to achieve the political end of forcing the British to quit mandate Palestine and declare independence for Israel. Today, the episode would be unequivocally characterized as a terrorist attack. Today, the Irgun and the men who perpetrated the attack are regarded as national heroes in the liberation struggle for Israel.

More later . . .

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chaos in Kandahar

An old friend asked me whether or not I might share a few lines on the recent assassination of Wali Karzai. I hesitated to remark on the event until I got a chance to have brunch with a new friend, someone who has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, and Kandahar specifically. In fact, he should be arriving there as I write this. In the interim, another key Kandahar official, Jan Mohammad Khan, also fell to assassins. The sudden power vacuum in the south generates far more questions than answers, and there is no doubt that they way forward remains intensely opaque.

My question to my friend was simple: "What happened to Wali?" Of course, I didn't expect him to point out the guilty party, but his response made me question his otherwise optimistic outlook on the overall stability in Kandahar and Helmand. The fact that the assassin was one of Karzai's own - his bodyguard, Sardar Mohammad - meant that the likelihood of discovering the true motive and intent of the assassination remains low. The Taliban taking responsibility means little, and it is unlikely that the Taliban would have much motivation for killing Karzai. As the most powerful official in Kandahar, there is no doubt that Karzai's sudden wealth stems from his play in the poppy trade, and this could only happen with coordination, and probably a direct buy in from the Talibs. More likely, the killing of Karzai, and subsequently Jan Mohammad, is the result of internecine conflict, which may well have been festering for some time.

It is tempting of course to perceive the moment as a Taliban takeover, an opportunistic venture to create a power vacuum in the south ahead of deeper US and ISAF troop withdrawal. However, it would seem a strategic blunder on the part of the Taliban to play their hand this early, when they have shown so much patience before. I suspect rather, that someone within the establishment - the corrupt and compromised establishment - felt slighted and is making there move to assert their own presence. It may even be from within the Popalzai tribe itself. An excellent Asia Times article provides some crucial background to this, and I highly recommend a read.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Turkey’s way forward

It has become a global mantra, and perhaps the most telling gauge of national elections on the planet: It’s the economy, stupid. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his AKP have presided over the most successful economic boom in the history of the Turkish Republic, and the electorate has rewarded them accordingly. The total growth of the Turkish economy reached 8.9% for 2010, and the ruling AKP and Erdogan received the credit for raising the living standards of many of Turkey’s rural poor as well as improving the profile of Turkey in the eyes of the global investment community.

Significant challenges remain for the Turkish people, and for its status as a truly democratic state. A recently released report from Reporters without Borders states that “It is worrying to note that all journalists are under threat, no longer just those who cover the army or Kurdish issues as was the case 15 years ago.” According to a New York Times article from March of this year, 61 journalists are currently imprisoned in Turkish. Hopefully, the improvements in the economy have resulted in improved prison conditions, lest these journalists suffer in scenes from Midnight Express. The recent case of Ahmet Sik reveals the attitude of Turkish government to critical journalists, and may even implicate the AKP in state repression on behalf of its own interests. Sik was arrested and imprisoned as part of an investigation of a group called Ergoneken, which the Turkish government and the AKP in particular accuse of attempting an overthrow of the ruling party and the government. Sik, as well as others journalists and writers arrested in this supposed action against Ergoneken, denies any affiliation with any such group, suggesting rather that the AKP led government’s attempts to silence him stem from implications Sik has made regarding the AKP’s connection to various fringe Islamist groups. Sik has produced a book called “Army of the Imam,” in which he allegedly suggests that Fethullah Gulen, a leading Conservative Islamic Cleric, exerts significant - if not total - control over the Turkish Police. Presumably this is being done with the consent of the central government. In any event, copies of the book were seized and subsequently burned by the government. Conjecture still rules the day in regards to the reliable facts in this case. However, burning books – whether they contain legitimate criticisms or unfounded conspiracy theories – is not the hallmark of a democratic state. Neither is jailing journalists.

Allowing press freedom is a necessary condition if Turkey aspires to the kind of democratic institutions that would allow it to continue its ascent on the world stage. And in some sense, it’s a simple fix: Stop arresting journalists, stupid. Secure and transparent institutions can withstand criticism and respond best to the will of the people. However, it is difficult to be secure when more complex problems loom at the door.

No problems with neighbors, except the problematic ones.

Syrian security forces, under the direction of President’s Assad’s cousin, arrested 15 children – aged 10 to 13 - in city of Deraa. When the fathers attempted to confront the security forces over the fate of the detained children, they were met with an inhuman response:

Forget them, go back to your women and make some more.
If you can’t, we will do it for you.

Erdogan and his Foreign Minister have stated clearly that Assad must make changes and accommodate the revolutionary spirit that has taken over much of Syria. Indeed, if Turkey wishes to perpetuate its momentum towards increased regional soft-power, it must stand squarely with its Arab neighbors now seeking justice and participatory governance, and facing brutal repression in the streets. Again, this may be a relatively simple thing; the AKP up to this point has welcomed the change in the region and actively presents itself as a viable Moderate Islamist party working within the framework of democratic institutions. The greater challenge - Turkey’s jihad al asghar – is with its internal neighbors.

To Kurd, or not to Kurd . . .

For Turkey, the Kurdish question often feels like an existential question. The modern nation state that Kemal Ataturk crafted from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire depended on “Turkishness” as its foundation. This notion required that anyone residing within Turkey, regardless of their actual ethnic origin declared themselves a Turk. This was not meant to suggest that someone gave up there identity, but rather identified first with the state. In some sense, the idea is similar to Americans who believe that the first allegiance of the citizen is to the United States, and only after to any nation of ethnic origin.

However, this notion of Turkishness has proved problematic for the Kurds, who have for various reasons maintained a distinct cultural identity and a yearning for a continuity of that cultural experience within either their own home land, or through a more integral experience within Turkey itself. With this in mind, it is vital that Erdogan and the Turkish establishment in general make a clear distinction between the PKK and the extreme wing of Kurdish nationalism, and the mainstream Kurdish aspirations and reflect this in national policy. The PKK must be combated, but not at the expense of Kurdish civil rights. The current debate concerning the teaching of Kurdish to Kurdish school children in the southeast provides an excellent place for Turkey to move towards practical pluralism that would integrate Kurds into the national framework. The Kurdish language instruction should accompany, and not replace, Turkish instruction, as it is vital that Kurdish school children be able to participate in the economic and civic life of the country. However, if the government allows and sponsors Kurdish language instruction, it signals to the Kurds a willingness to accept into the polity Turkish Citizens of Kurdish origin.

If becoming part of the EU remains a priority, this move towards progressive pluralism must emerge. Furthermore, the increased regional soft power now exhibited by Turkey will require that it is viewed as a state that embodies the democratic spirit that its Arab neighbors are now fighting to gain themselves.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Arab Cold War

As complex events unfold within a complex region, it may prove instructive to view the Middle East of the moment through a wide angle lens. Libya remains a critical site, as the NATO response to Gaddafi increasingly runs the risk of rapid scope creep. Indeed, Tunisia and Egypt loom a great distance from "resolution," and the question of "what next" burns hot on all onlookers lips. In this state of liminal transiton, accompanied by myriad speculations and occasional paranoias, focusing our sights on Saudi Arabia and Iran may reveal some future trends that will aid in the making-sense process.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran represent opposite poles in a regional struggle. One major question enlivened by the Arab spring asks how much influence either nation exerts in the moment to moment development of events in the countries involved, and indeed the future of the Middle East at large. Though the analogy is far from perfect, what we are witnessing is an effective "cold war" between two states that extend influence through confessional affiliation, arms, money, and regional proxies.

King Abdullah is rather well regarded among the Saudi People. Generally, the King is viewed as a reformer, and though many aspects of his agenda fail to satisfy many constituents - particularly his reluctance to extend civil rights to women - there remains in Saudi Arabia a sense that Abdullah is bringing the country along in the right direction. This includes the ever crucial question of the economy; Saudis generally enjoy a rather high standard of living and efforts on the part of Abdullah to diversify the economy have been met with welcome arms. However, the decision to assist the regime in Bahrain with cracking down on popular protests put him square in the sights of an emerging generation that rightly demands the end of the old order from Gibraltar to the Hindu Kush. Abdullah expressed great disappointment with the US decision to let Mubarak (as if they had a choice) fall. Increasingly obvious is Abdullah's two pronged agenda; on the one hand, insulate the Kingdom from internal strife by working - however tentatively - towards reform, while also pursuing a pro-active engagement in places like Bahrain and Yemen on the basis of ensuring security. On the other hand, intervention in Bahrain and the continued stability in the Kingdom are vital to keep in check the influence of Shi'a proxies, and ultimately the only true regional rival, Iran.

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah, is known as being a savvy and widely loved leader in the Arab world. That is why his recent support for Assad looms as a rather large miscalculation. Despite the brutal repression conducted by Assad's regime - including the horrific torture and murder of a 13 year old boy - Nasrullah urged the Syrians to give Assad a chance to make meaningful reforms. The call fell flat, and exposed the Hezbollah chief's nervousness and lack of foresight. It also reveals that Nasrullah and Hezbollah clearly envision a "resistance front" that runs from Tehran, through Damascus and Beirut. The stability of the Syrian regime constitutes a vital strategic component for the continued emergence of Iran as regional hegemon and beacon of the Shi'a revival. In the end, however, whatever emerges in post-Assad Syria will likely be so weak that Hezbollah's influence may even increase.

The proxies are clearly lining up, however, and at this point the future of the Iranian regime remains uncertain. Conflict between Ahmadinejad and Khamanei may not in itself signal a revolutionary moment, but the situation begs the question of how long the young people of Iran will suffer under the mullahs. What is most likely is that Khamenei will emerge triumphant from his skirmish with his suddenly rebellious president and will steer the country to the right in order to protect the Islamic Revolution while continuing to provide regional leadership to the regions Shi'a multitudes. However, as in Saudi Arabia, their exists among the youth - the exceeding majority demographic in both countries - a burning desire to bring their respective nations fully into the light of Democratic modernity. Iran's regime rushes headlong to a crucial moment, one in which its rise to greater prominence in the wake of the Iraq invasion approaches a confluence of forces that threaten its momentum. As long as both Iran and Saudi Arabia are left to deal with their external interests, the bi-polar structure of the regional power distribution allows for a relatively well organized trajectory of events.

When these two nations face their own "spring" revolutionary moments, all bets are off.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The head of the serpent

The emir of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, is dead. The crowds in Washington and New York City celebrate with good reason. The raid that eventually located and killed the murderous jihadi leader represents a major success, and indeed an incredibly bright light in an otherwise dim decade of war. At the time of this writing, the infinity loop of media omnipresence rehearses and rehashes the debate about the ultimate meaning of Bin Laden’s death. To be sure, this is a major victory. While Bin Laden long ago ceased to be a major tactical target, his death looms large on the symbolic front. Al Qaeda suffered a massive blow with this raid, even if Bin Laden no longer “runs” this thing called “the Base.” In some sense, this may well be the death blow for the organization that Bin Laden and Zawahiri started during the Afghan resistance in the 80’s.

Of course, that view must stand in the light of the wider context, specifically of the world in 2011 rather than the world of 2001. Reflecting on the Islamic world, and particularly the Arab world, the contemporary scene presents very interesting shifts and frantic dynamism. At the beginning of the millennium, Reza Aslan suggested that the Islamic world found itself in a moment of vital transition which he compared to the Christian Protestant Reformation. In Aslan’s estimation, the “soul” and future of Islam stood in the balance, tugged between the forces of secularism, moderation and extremism. The seismic shifts that Aslan presciently presented now emerge more starkly than ever. In some sense, the Al Qaeda project failed, Not simply because of the death of its Emir, but because its virulent violence mostly fell upon the heads of Muslims. In the meantime ordinary Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemeni’s and Syrians continue to struggle for freedom and rule of law. Not a Bin Laden to be found among them. Indeed, even the legalist and largely mainstream Muslim Brotherhood was late to the revolutionary show. The Arab world moved on from the extreme Salafi-Wahhabi violence of Bin Laden, and the young people of the aforementioned countries are embracing a vision that aspires towards greater integration with the rest of the globe, rather than some obscurantist vision of a global Wahabbi Khalifate.

Of course, the “beardy-weirdies,” (to quote one of my favorite recent films) are not simply going to disappear. In fact, it is safe to assume that the various local franchises of The Base will carry on, and continue to spread mayhem and violence. And mayhem is perhaps the key here. One suspects the strong possibility of local groups – in Yemen, the Caucasus, and South Asia in particular - devolving into tactics and strategies which emphasize the “love of death” over the love of life. Some noted that the Joker in the Dark Knight represented contemporary terrorism. However, Bin Laden and Zawahiri never suffered a lack of ideological vision. The Joker was simply an agent of chaos, an actor for whom mayhem was an end in itself. He is not Bin Laden, but he is Zarqawi, the figure who embodies chaos as a physical and brute force. This is perhaps the immediate future of the global jihad. With the visionary Emir buried at sea, the mujahedeen will be pushed to the fringes of the wilderness.

The moment is indeed historic. One can say that we are entering the second phase of the Islamic reformation, a version 2.0. And while secularists have achieved much in the street while the barbarians have been pushed further from the gate, hybrid and culturally promiscuous strategies such as those of Tariq Ramadan and other liberal Muslims further add depth to the field. With critical questions regarding Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Arab Spring remaining unanswered, the death of Al Qaeda’s emir signals a beginning as much as an end.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Some Cursory Thoughts

When I was a freshman at UCLA, I took a class on International Relations with one Dr. Steven Spiegel. At the outset of the course, Professor Spiegel told us that one of the overarching themes in contemporary international politics was the existence of the twin forces of fragmentation and integration. I was perhaps too young to understand whether the good professor was suggesting something about the world beyond international politics, and if he was perhaps suggesting something of a metaphor for the general trajectory of civilization or the species. Nonetheless, his words ring particularly prescient to me at this particular historical moment.

Fragmentation, as Spiegel described it, could be understood as the breakup of previous constructs. Examples abound, but in the late 90’s, the experience of the war in the Balkans and the subsequent disintegration of Yugoslavia loomed foremost on the topical horizon. In Africa, Eritrea declared itself an independent state, breaking away from Ethiopia. And in Asia, East Timor broke from Indonesia. Peoples in Chechnya, Kurdistan, and in the Indian Punjab sought independent homelands in the midst of a major reorganizing of the global structure.

The opposing force, as Spiegel described, is integration. In this context, integration refers to the process of creating increasing interdependence's between states, and thus creating institutions and instruments that reinforce stability within these interdependent relationships. This process has come to be generally termed “globalization.” This process integrates states into larger systems, be they political, economic or geostrategic. The creation of market “blocs,” such as the European Union and the North American free trade zone, trend towards bringing the functions of individual state political-economies into uniformity, inasmuch as that uniformity and the instruments by which it is created increase political cooperation and produce efficiencies in trade and economies of scale. The dramatic decrease in transportation and communication costs at the end of the 20th and into the beginning of the 21st centuries accelerated this process of integration, which perhaps represents the greatest re-organizing of human affairs in our species history.

If integration and fragmentation describe general global processes present in the post-cold war period, then another buzz word of the 21st century may well describe the looming multi-polar moment, and the diminished global hegemony of The United States. This word is sustainability. Of course, we typically think of sustainability as a way of describing the relationship between economic growth and environmental concerns. However, increasingly, sustainability can be turned to understand the process by which the post-colonial world was generally ordered and maintained during the cold-war period. There is very little debate about the role that the United States and the Soviet Union played in supporting non-democratically elected leaders throughout the world. These dictators and juntas were justified as being necessary to hold back the oncoming “red-wave” (or the powers of the capitalist imperialists). In many cases, these dictators were also supported in their efforts to control artificially constructed nation states, countries carved from post-colonial concerns with little or no thought given to existing demographic realities.

In the emerging multi polar moment, we increasingly see the word “sustainability” used to describe foreign policy. Since the revolutionary spirit first took hold in the streets of Cairo, the question of Israel emerged at the forefront of many minds. While Israeli fears of a Muslim Brotherhood dominated government in Cairo warrant consideration, the real question is one of sustainability. What does it say about the position of both Israel and the United States in the Middle East if the Israeli status quo can only be maintained by having a ring of dictatorships surround it? Clearly, this is not sustainable, and is in fact a relic of an older, diminishing world order.
This is particularly true in light of the other global forces described earlier. In a very real sense, we are seeing a potentially new moment of fragmentation; the breaking up of the unsustainable power structures that defined the geo-strategies of the cold-war and subsequent American global hegemony. While it may be soon to declare the twilight of the empire, it is clear that the international standing of the US has diminished and we are moving into a multipolar world. Furthermore, integration very much plays a role I defining the new sustainability. Those very same forces that drive globalization – cheap transportation and cheap communication – are connecting people all over the world in new venues of exchange, new communities that can share experiences of freedom, experiences of repression, yearnings and hopes. In a simple way, it means that young people in the Arab world can see what life is like in North America and Europe and say “We want that.” There are fewer blind spots, and while propaganda and information wars are still very much real, the truth is out there, and its available in a highly integrated and fast moving global culture.

This Arab Spring may well signal a historic moment, not just for Egypt, but for an emerging global order.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Coming Storm

As events continue to unfold in Egypt, the million dollar question remains, "What's next?" The future shape of Egypt, and indeed the entire region is receiving a proper going over by the information machine. One topic in particular - the role of the Muslim Brotherhood - highlights the vast range of opinion and analysis and the inability to forecast when so much remains uncertain.

One thing is clear: there exists a momentum for change that does not appear to be abating anytime soon. Given Egypt's proximity to Gaza and its historical relationship to Israel, there is a strong sense that the outcome of the events in Tahrir Square will have cascading effects beyond the Rafah Crossing.

A confluence of forces, a perfect storm of sorts, may be bringing the plight of the Palestinian people to another significant historical moment. I had written on this very blog about the futility of the Obama administration's desire to jump start the peace process when it did. There were simply too many obstacles, and the momentum was towards a deepening divide between the sides, rather than rapprochement. As was to be expected, the peace talks fell flat. In December of the past year, Mahmoud Abbas threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, placing the responsibility for administering the territories in Israel's hands. While this was seen by many as a bluff or an act of desperation, it did indeed signal the continued futility with which the PA attempted to steward the Palestinian cause.

At that time, many observers believed that dissolving the PA represented the best outcome for the Palestinians, as it may allow the resistance to enter a new phase, and press the UN directly for state recognition, or else move towards the One-State solution as both a practical and ideological matter. The recent release and dissemination of the "Palestinian Papers" put the final nail in the coffin of the PA. As Abdul Hadi, Palestinian rights advocate in Israel recently said, the papers revealed what the Palestinians had long feared: that the occupation was nothing more than imprisonment, and that the "PA Leaders are there only to negotiate the terms of imprisonment."

The idea of a rudderless resistance, without the PA, and with Fatah and Hamas still locked in seemingly intractable conflict would have potentially deadly consequences for the Palestinian cause. However, with the "Arab Spring" apparently upon us, it is possible that progressive and leftists elements in Palestine seize the moment to usher forth a third Intifada. Indeed, it may happen spontaneously and in populist fashion, as did the first Intifada. The PA leadership in general and Fatah in particular are suffering a deep crisis of perception, and it is likely that Hamas will align with the Muslim Brotherhood, from whence it was originally spawned. The MB may not be the winning horse in this race towards a free Egypt, and it is clear that groups like the PFLP, which had up till now operated largely in the shadow of Fatah, are siding with the "people of Egypt" and their democratic aspirations above all else.

A momentous shift in Palestinian affairs is likely for a lot of obvious reasons, and the protests in Egypt and Tunisia (Yemen, Jordan, Libya?) simply add to the probability of the Palestinians seizing the moment. It may not pretty. The Palestinians are among the most repressed and harassed people on Earth, and Israel may well use the opportunity of a shifting balance to pre-emptively punish the Palestinians to prevent the mobilization of their aspirations. Indeed, the schism between Hamas and Fatah may flair into a conflagration of dire proportion if a spontaneous rebellion emerges with no clear leadership.

Its clear change is upon us, and this change will undoubtedly change the face of the region for some time to come.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Shape of Things to Come

Are we witnessing an "Arab Spring?" Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories are capturing the world's attention, as it seems that many people of the region are turning a corner. The sudden outbreak of democratic sentiment in the region is at once inspiring and disquieting. So many questions remain unanswered, and undoubtedly, only time will reveal the final form that these events will take.

Already, in Tunisia, we are witnessing the infant stages of post-revolutionary schism. While some of those involved in the movement to oust Ben Ali are prepared to proceed with an interim unity government, others demand that all remnants of the former regime be cleared from the government before any diminution of the revolutionary spirit begins. Whatever the final outcome, it seems - at least for the moment - that the Tunisian people are determining their destiny themselves.

With the fall of the March 14th led government in Beirut, Walid Jumblatt and Hezbollah have installed a new president and are in the process of forming a new government. Hezbollah appears to have significant popular support, and the Druze leader Jumblatt seems to have finally sided with the pan-Arabist aspirations of his forefathers. These recent events seem to repudiate March 14th's Pro-Western orientation. What remains to be seen is how Hariri will react; is this a time for entrenchment or engagement?

Events in Egypt continue to unfold. Even if Mubarak does not step down, his son possesses neither the support nor savvy to actually retain dynastic succession. Again, it is too early to know what will become of the protests currently erupting in the Egyptian street. However, there will no doubt be a fear-mongering campaign sponsored by Mubarak's regime suggesting that the fall of the government will automatically result in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. This is a false dichotomy to be sure. While the Ikhwan has significant support, the Kefaya movement is by and large a secular movement that would likely throw significant support behind someone like Mohammad el Baradei. However, whatever the choice of Egyptian people in a post Mubarak age, for the first time in a long time it will be their choice alone.

The leaking of the now infamous "Palestinian Papers" is a significant, and perhaps historic event. I want to take a separate post to talk about them, as they contain much information, with still more being revealed everyday. However, one point must be made. Abu Mazen had very recently suggested that if Israeli concessions could not be made during the most recent round of negotiations, that the PA would dissolve and Israel would be made responsible for the administration of the territories. The release of these papers will hasten this reality, as popular support for the PA, and probably for Fatah, will wane to next to nothing.

More later . . .

Monday, January 10, 2011

Making Sense of the Senseless

So, the question now is how did this happen? In the wake of the tragic and senseless shooting in Arizona, the urge to make sense of, and create meaning out of the events rises to the surface and quite frankly, troubles the collective consciousness. Within minutes of the shooting, facebook was littered with links reminding me of Palin’s now infamous “targeted districts” map. Coming close on the heels of the words of the Pima county Sheriff, media pundits immediately pointed to the “vitriol” present in contemporary political discourse as - if not a direct motivation of violence – a strong background factor in pushing someone over the edge.

And this is where it gets complicated. The fact of the matter is, I believe, that an incident like this defies an easy explanation. The fear, and sense of unease that the shooting in Arizona evokes is directly proportionate to our inability to integrate the spectacularly disruptive nature of the crime into our collective psyche. Furthermore, I think this explains the immediate desire to attempt to frame the incident in terms of binary oppositional structures. Now, before I lose you to theoretical jargon, let me try and explain.

It’s clear to everyone paying attention that the American political scene has recently suffered from a deterioration of civility. I’m immediately reminded of the outburst during Obama’s State of the Union address. The State of the Union is not meant to be a debate; it is not Prime Minister’s Questions. Of course, besides the halls of Washington themselves, the major site of “vitriol” is the mainstream media, which seems to magnify difference and divisiveness at every turn. While O’Reilly, Beck, Palin and Fox News trade on attacks, bullying and fear-mongering, the so called “liberal” side of the medium is often no better. In fact, the only real call for calm in the media storm came from comedians.

Believe me, I am no fan of Beck, Palin and their conservative/tea party cohorts. I think that putting gun sight crosshairs on a map of embattled districts is in seriously poor taste. However, this is not Palin’s fault. As john McCain rightly pointed out while reacting to the Arizona shooting, the rhetoric of violence and military metaphors is nothing new in politics. Both sides use terms like “targeted districts” and “battleground states.” Beck and Palin, among others, barely veil their extreme ideology, and their blatant appeals to popular fears coupled with an “us versus them” worldview and pro-gun advocacy certainly don’t help their case. However, they are not responsible for Congresswoman Giffords’ shooting. Jared Loughner alone is responsible for that.

And maybe no one is trying to force culpability on the Republican right. What we are trying to do is figure out why this happened. It reminds me in some ways of Columbine and Virginia Tech. The most troubling thing about those incidents is not that they don’t make sense; there is no convenient and easily understood structure by which we can integrate those events into our worldview. Blame Marilyn Manson, blame our gun culture, our violent history. Even in sum, the apparent forces at play do not account for a complete and rational vision. The troubling notion is that the conditions that lead to the tragedy in Arizona precede Palin and Beck. At this point is not clear that Loughner had any particular political sympathy. It is more likely that he exists, like the perpetrators of Columbine, and the gun man at Virginia Tech, in a fringe parameter of our contemporary society that does not conform to any 20th century notion of motivated violence. Gang bangers and drug dealers make sense, Islamic terrorism makes sense, and far right wing militia violence makes sense. As cynical as it may sound these are phenomena that still function along traditional, modern concepts of structural violence. This is not to accept or excuse these things; it is to point to the relative ease with which we integrate such spectacles into our understanding of the world.

Ultimately, I must confess that I write this because I myself cannot understand incidents like what took place in Arizona. It is too easy to point to nebulous factors like the influence of vitriolic rhetoric from the right, or guns or whatever else we can dredge up. It is ultimately more dangerous to lay blame for the sake of comfort and then attempt to regulate speech or behavior that cannot be proved to be causal. For it is imminently apparent that doing so would not reduce the amount of vitriol in our public discourse, but in fact increase it by holding to account those who are not ultimately responsible.

The trouble is that we have to do the hard thing, which is look at ourselves. We have to ask deeper questions, the kind where the answers may threaten cherished opinions and our comfortable intellectual refuges. Why is it that the right is winning so many to its cause? Why is it that the left cannot win over people who will ultimately benefit from the general ideological bent of the Democratic Party and its progressive adherents? There is a tendency to dismiss the followers of the Tea Party as ignorant or narrow minded, even plain old stupid. And this may well be why they continue to vote for those who manipulate their fears and insecurities. This self-reflection and criticality is, I believe the only thing we have to gain from this tragedy, and the only means to reducing the rhetoric of violence in our public debate.

And of course, I have strayed from the cause of explaining the shooting of Giffords. It is because in the end, there may be no explanation other than it is the act of a sick, and deeply troubled young man, living in a society that does not offer easy solutions to despair, to confusion or to desperation.

The great fear that accompanies incidents like this is that we have turned a corner, that we have entered a new and potentially grisly era of violent cynicism. In the end, we may have nothing left but to point to the actions of a troubled and deeply misguided young man that we can punish and hold solely responsible for the crime. This does not, however, mean that we should not remain vigilant in our attempts to maintain civility in our social and political discourse. It is too easy to take for granted the openness and accessibility of our civil society. We must remember that our democracy depends on education, access to information, and the ability to debate –without fear – the challenges that face us, and we must remember furthermore, that this system is not a given, and is not present in much of the world. We must fight to maintain this, even when that means reflecting critically on ourselves rather than just our political enemies, while resisting the urge to hunker down and prepare for some coming dark age of an ever-deteriorating social and political landscape.