Friday, March 31, 2006

Middle East Opinion #8

Iraqi Politics...Fast Forward to the Past??
There are reports around that the coalition may have found an 'Arab' solution to one aspect of the situation in Iraq. The reports, and grumblings, are circulating in Baghdad, in some Arab media, and the Internet. This new solution is aimed at assuaging Sunni concerns and meeting some of their political demands. It also might satisfy some of the demands of the rulers of neighboring Arab oil states. This solution allegedly taking shape now would deal with the main concerns of the (Sunni) rulers of Iraq's Arab neighbors, who were always happy with a militarized Iraq where the Sunni elites controlled the officers' corp- so long as its energies and guns were aimed at internal dissent and not toward the southern and western borders.

The reports talk of a new force composed mostly of former members of Saddam's elite security and military forces, what an Iraqi official called a Third Army not responsible to the elected political leadership. Will this new force be along the lines of what is called the National Guard in neighboring Arab states, whereby the goal is to act as a balancing force to the normal military and security services?

Was the battle at the Husainiya in Baghdad last week a trial of this new policy? Will we see more of this in the coming weeks? Will this lead to an explosion and a new insurgency in the Shi'a Central and Southern regions which have been relatively calm so far?

Is the U.S creating a new Iraqi military military, or one along the same lines as the old one, i.e. the military that existed from 1921- 2003? That military was heavily politicized, it was the strongest institution in the country, and it always sought to control the political agenda. It staged coups whenever given the opportunity, and was involved in ethnic massacres (read about the Anfal operations which were completely ignored by the Arab media at the time).

Are we perhaps preparing a shadow junta a la Lon Nol or Thieu and their colleagues to balance the democratically elected body politic of a free Iraq?? Are we repeating the eighty-year old mistakes of the British? The Brits saw the Shi'a majority as the main source of potential trouble, and they thought they would eliminate the political effects of their numerical superiority by bestowing all the advantages on the Ottoman-favored Sunni elites. That policy backfired quickly, as the militarized new ruling elites almost immdeiately sought to get rid of British influence and sided with the Nazis (the April Fools coup of 1941). After a series of coups, the crowning achievemnt of that power structure was the coming to power of the Ba'ath Party (and Saddam) in 1968 and the installation of a regime that was a half-baked third-world tribal version of the Third Reich (of course without the autobahn or the proverbial trains running on time).
The rest is history...Are we about to repeat it? Would that be a good exit strategy? Would it be a good long-term strategy beyond our present election cycle of 2006-2008?

Or are we trying to set up a Turkish-style system whereby the military sets an (opaque) glass ceiling beyond which elected leaders cannot aspire to move?? Do we have our fingers crossed that this new military will not turn around as soon as we disengage and stage the first coup of the new democratic era??

These are all interesting alternatives, and one of them will probably start taking shape in the coming weeks. The next few weeks will tell.


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Middle East Opinion #7

Arab Summit at Khartoum.....Peters Out

The last Arab Summit at Khartoum (City at the Elephant Trunk where the two Niles meet) was downgraded again and cut short to one day (Tuesday). Leaders of the major Arab states like Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia did not attend. The summit called for maintaining the unity of Iraq and verbal solidarity with Syria. It looked truly like a summit of, to use the late Anwar Sadat's term in a similar context, dwarfs. Most attendees did not look like leaders of sovereign nations, rather they looked like messengers sent over to uneasily deliver speeches they did not quite understand. Perhaps when your central obsession is to get power and cling to it for life, rather than to build and serve your nation....perhaps it shows. Anyway, smallnes permeated the place. The late Gamal Abdel-Nasser must be termbling....wherever he is now.

The leaders may have achieved something else as well, they may have manuevered to prevent a speech by Libyan leader Colonel 'Qadhafi, and thus they may have deprived the Arab audiences, and themselves as well, of the last chance at some entertainment. And some bizarre honest talk, at least by 'Qadhafi's standards. Dommage.
In the end, Saudi Arabia, slated to host the next Summit in 2007, declined that dubious honor. Which means that the poor Egyptians will have to put up with it again- no escape for Mubarak next time, eh?


Arab Summit Peters Out at Khartoum

The Summit of Arab Leage members was downgraded and ended after only one day (Tuesday). Clearly this last summit did not achieve anything, even the usual hot air was toned down. The leaders of several major countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia were absent. The leaders present had no, well, presence. Most looked like they were sent by someone else to deliver prepared speeches which they did not understand. The main points of agreement were a call to maintain the unity of Iraq and solidarity with Syria. This was truly a summit of what Anwar Sadat used to call 'dwarves'. Even if all the leaders had been present.
The summiteers deprived the Arab peoples of some interesting verbal entertainment when they maneuvered to minimize the chances of Libyan leader Colonel 'Qadhafi giving his expected speech. That might have been the only interesting speech of the summit, at least for its entertainment value- it might even have included some honest albeit possibly bizarre points.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Middle East Opinion #6

Federalism, Iraq, and Arab Dictators

The history of modern Iraq, from the moment of its forced creation by the British more than eighty years ago when they installed King Faisal on a new throne, has been one of a series of strong central governments. Only a strong state security system, including torture, mass uprooting, internal and external exile of opponents, could keep in power the minority regime that was forced on the population. The British introduced the rudiments of a parliamentary system, but they stacked the deck in favor of the Arab Sunni minority. The Brits did worry about it, but at the time they were told by the Sunni grandees of Baghdad that, “the Shi’as will go along. They are just simple peasants.” That same phrase is most likely being repeated today to U.S leaders and congressional delegations by modern smooth-talking Arab grandees, the Petro-potentates and dictators across the Arab World (I know this for sure now because Joe Klein told me in his latest Time Magazine column.)

The Brits, especially the King-makers Gertrude Bell and Percy Cox, were impressed by those smooth-talking grandees, those former sycophants of the Ottoman Turks, and they did not trust the majority Shi’as. Perhaps because of the strong and independent influence of the Hawza, the Shi’a Academy, perhaps they worried about some connection to Shi’a Iran (sounds familiar??) God only knows what they thought of the Kurds of the northern mountains. So, these smooth-talking, accommodating grandees of the central region were handed power. Of course at some point the Shi’as did have their Great Rebellion, but they were bombed and crushed by the British, along with the restive Kurds who were being set up for decades of ethnic cleansing. The grandees- the designated rulers- waited for the smoke and dust to settle in order to receive their new entitlement. The country lived with strongmen of one kind or another since that time. Still, rebellions broke out occasionally. There was a sort of stability, but it was the kind that no American would wish for his country. It was a stability based on the absence of freedoms, a stability enforced through state terror. Much like the kind of stability the Nazis brought to Germany after the roller coaster years of Weimar (I know, I know- this comparison has been overused, but it is a good one).

Many in the central-western part of Iraq support re-creation of a strong central government. And it is not really because they worry about the oil revenues- that is just the Western interpretation of the deeper tribal-sectarian forces at work. The presumption is that these strong rulers will still come from those regions as in the past. In order to have that outcome, the electoral system will have to be distorted again in favor of those regions, which would mean a new reign of terror.

This idea seems to have support in the Arab countries at large, and that is mainly because centralized authority is a lynchpin of the Arab political systems. For an un-elected leader, delegation of authority is considered dangerous. Most Arab leaders either have no deputies (for example, no vice presidents) or they have more than one deputy (two or three is not unheard of). There are two reasons for that: they do not want one ambitious man breathing down their necks, anxiously waiting his turn, perhaps being tempted to rush things and give fate a hand, and they all seem to think that they will live forever, regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Come to think of it, even some Arab monarchs have come to power through the overthrow of others, mainly relatives- literally palace coups.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Middle East Opinion #5

Iraq Balance of Power, The Raj, and the Arab 'Hood

Peggy Noonan wrote an interesting article in based on the old Lapierre-Collins book about Indian independence, partition and sectarian cleansing (March, 23). Interesting how history could turn on simple, often personal, events. Looking back, the partition of the Subcontinent has not been kind to Pakistan- it has been ruled for most of half a century alternately by military dictatorships or corrupt Islamic fundamentalists. Right now it is effectively split between the two forces, and neither seems to be powerful enough to claim absolute control. That seems to make some sense, since the raison d'etre of Pakistan was its separate Islamic identity. I cannot help thinking that India’s original huge Moslem minority (encompassing current Pakistan, Bangladesh, and those Moslems who were wise enough at the time to choose to remain Indians) would have been better off remaining a very influential part of a democratic India.

Lord Mountbatten, was in a hurry to complete the British pull-out, and he did the job as fast as he could. Louis Mountbatten, War Hero, Great Grandson of Victoria, favorite uncle of Queen Elizabeth, survived the bloody end of the Raj. He was killed three decades later by another conflict, ironically a West European sectarian conflict- one to the west across the Irish Sea.

There is no Mountbatten in Iraq today, nor can there be: neither Khlilzad, Negroponte, or Bremer, for all their talents, have been in that mold- the era of such powerful viceroys as Mountbatten and MacArthur is gone. The Iraq situation does not involve a withdrawal coupled with partition and transfer of sovereignty like India. Its own peculiarity also requires a more subtle approach to domestic politics than the one used in Japan.

One mistake of the Iraq War: it seems that the worst possible outcome envisaged at the time was the use of chemical or biological weapons by the Ba'athists. As it has turned out, the worst likely outcome should have been considered as well: a terrorist insurgency drawing on former regime loyalists, Arab Salafi jihadists, and vast amounts of money flowing freely from outside to finance this violent campaign. The sources of the many millions of dollars needed for this extensive campaign are still officially unknown. The goal is to plunge Iraq into open sectarian conflict and draw in other countries in the region. Once the power struggle in Iraq takes on regional dimensions, then the dynamics of the internal balance of power can be changed, actually it will be changed of necessity. Then it will probably spill over across Iraq's border into what Arab politicians these days like to term al-jewar, i.e the neighborhood- sort of a genteel-sounding Middle Eastern version of the 'hood.

Sectarian and religious conflicts have a way of raising (irrational?) passions that are difficult to control- in that respect the world has not changed much. That is an outcome probably many are not expecting in a region noted for its self-delusions. In this explosive case, even turning a blind eye to the flow of funds, materiel and men across borders is not doing the 'hood any good.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Middle East Opinion #4

Islamic Fundamentalism,. the Iraq War, Chianti, Etc

During the 1970s secular pan-Arab and quasi-socialist movements dominated the political debate in the Arab World. In the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf local branches of the movements were giving the rulers some grief. Annoying questions were being raised about the use of oil revenues, financial corruption, etc. There was even talk about democracy, although it is doubtful what kind of democracy these movements believed in.

The rulers realized there was a huge pool of tribal people not interested in pan-Arab secularism. They learned to exploit the tribal, sectarian and ethnic divisions of their societies. They encouraged and financed new alliances that were a marriage of convenience between tribalism and Islamic fundamentalism. This approach, of course, had worked in Saudi Arabia for many decades, and was perfected by old Ibn Saud (King Abdul-Aziz), who unified much of the Arabian Peninsula early in the 20th century. Whether that was for good or bad depends on one’s perspective, whether one is a Hasawi Shi’a sitting atop the oil fields but nor reaping much benefits from them or a Wahhabi in Najd sitting atop a desolate desert but getting rich from the revenues of the same oil fields. Ibn Saud, whatever one thinks of the absolutely corrupt and schizophrenic system that inherited his domain, was a puritan and had elements of greatness. He is perhaps the closest the Arabs have had to a true warrior-leader in modern times. He was not a patriot like Garibaldi- he was interested in power for himself and his clan. Besides, I understand that Ibn Saud preferred the fresh milk of his Noo’q she-camels to a hearty Chianti with his Mutton a la Parmesana.

Islamic fundamentalists generally do not give a jella, that is a camel chip to most of you, about political freedom, free speech (religious freedom is a no no), or financial corruption. As long as the basic tenets of the faith are enforced, and as long as they control the educational system. As long as men and women are separated to keep at bay the ever-present evil of temptation. Under the prevailing arrangements, the ruling potentates and their supporting oligarchies can do whatever they want with the oil revenues, which they certainly do, as long as they give the Islamo-political societies the freedom of organization, fund-raising, and the control of education (perhaps the UAE is one glaring exception to all this). The fundamentalist Salafis presumably rely on quotes from someone called Abu Huraira (Father of Little Cat), a supposed contemporary of the Prophet Mohammed, to justify their alliance of convenience with the rulers. Quotes attributed by that ancient gentleman to the Prophet, such as “He who sees something despicable in his ruler should bear it, as long as the prayers are held. For he who even slightly disassociates himself from obedience to the sovereign and dies in this condition shall die the death of Jahiliyya (i.e. a heretic).”
Of course the al-Qaida have clearly departed from this philosophy now, perhaps realizing that all those ancient Semitic prophets, whether Arab or Jew, were in fact rebels against the existing order of their day.
But what about their Salafi friends and admirers in the Persian Gulf states?

The end of the Afghan war against the Soviet-backed regime also ended the honeymoon between the rulers and tribal-fundamentalists, although the marriage itself has continued. The young people who went to the war came back toughened, more indoctrinated, and less willing to compromise. They had been out of sight and supervision of their allies, the rulers, and had become independent. A sort of War of the Roses (the Hollywood version) has been going on for a while now. How will it all end? Will the new Salafi-Ba’athist Jihad in Iraq revive the faltering marriage?? Do we have the makings of a new threesome here? A ménage-a-trois in Iraq of Jihadists, Ba’athists, and Petro-money??

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Middle East Opinion #3

Three Years Later: Iraq, Arabia, Chocolate Mocha, and Shoe Polish

Here is a list of what has happened since the invasion of Iraq three years ago:

  • Three elections: for an Interim Parliament, a Constitution, and a Permanent Parliament.
  • Ba’ath Party is banned and former opposition parties are in control.
  • Deterioration of law and order in the Central Region around Baghdad.
  • Increased sectarian tensions and violence, most likely instigated by Salafi/Wahabi infiltration of men, money and materiel from outside.
  • Some loss of security compared to the era of Saddam, but then it is always safer to be locked up in a cell than to be walking the streets freely, isn’t it? Which one is preferable depends on one’s point of view.
  • Rumblings about democracy, and hints of moving toward it in some Arab countries. But don’t wait for a dishdasha-and-ghutra-clad Jefferson-on-the-Persian-Gulf, or on the Red Sea, anytime soon. I am willing to bet a Starbuck’s White Chocolate Mocha (a case of Redhook Blonde might not be appropriate here) that ten years from now the same leaders will control each and every Arab country (perhaps bar two). Unless fate intervenes before then, and in that case some of their children or cronies will be in power. Still, there are some clear positive signs, reluctant first steps.
  • The most unfortunate consequence: the many casualties among the coalition forces and Iraqi civilians.
  • The most pleasant surprise for Iraqis: they do not have to watch younger versions of Saddam’s face all day in their offices, in city squares, on the front pages of their newspapers, and on their television sets. Well, there is that trial going on now… but at least now they see him as he is. He still dyes his hair, but then that is part of being an Arab leader- all Arab presidents, kings, and oil shaikhs dye their hair. Black shoe polish is very popular in the Arab countries.
  • Unfortunate for othe Arab countires: they will still have to go on enduring massive daily doses of photos, images and films of their potentates, sporting the same dyed jet-black hair, for the next generation, at least. (Sounds like a perfect setting for a Jonestown-on-the-Persian-Gulf).
  • The most shocking surprise to most Iraqis (a pleasant surprise): pictures of George W. Bush have not replaced those of Saddam in offices, newspapers, town squares, television…..etc. What is their world coming to??
  • They are haggling, betting, raising, posturing, and bluffing their way into a new kind of government in Baghdad.
  • Talk has intensified about a civil war (in Iraq, not in Washington), but it is mostly aimed at bluffing the United States into pressuring Iraqi officials to give more concessions. They know it is a three year election cycle in the USA between now and November 2008. It is a form of Texas Hold ‘em on the Dijla River- that is the Tigris to most of you.
  • I understand that the southern Marshes, the ones Saddam had drained, are being revived. The Ma’adan (a.k.a Marsh Arabs) shall rise again.


Saturday, March 18, 2006

Middle Eat Opinion #2

Zarqawi, Salafis, Money, and Beaujolais

The lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom. Thus referred Zarqawi to Iraq's Shi'a majority (See Henry Schuster's CNN report dated March 16). He has also recently called them the 'Rafi'dhia', i,e, those who reject (the Sunni orthodoxy).

Yet al-Zarqawi, the alleged former suspect of sexual assault and molestation, among other crimes in his own country, is a Jordanian. This is interesting, because Jordan has practically no Shi'a minority. Usually people develop animosity and hatred toward a minority when it is substantial enough to be perceived as a threat to conformity (very important in some Arab societies), or at least when the ethnic or sectarian differences are noticeable. Yet Jordan has hardly any Shi'as. So where did all this hatred come from?? Traditionally Iraqis have not used this kind of blatant sectarian abuse among themselves, at least not publicly. Why is a Jordanian importing and adopting these terms? The answer, to paraphrase someone who knows his Beaujolais: cherchez l'argent.

These terms, such as the derogatory Rafi'dhia (rejectors of orthodoxy) are often used by some in countries with large Shi'a populations. It is a common Salafi/Wahabi term often used (along with some other choice terms, some of them more subtle than others) to refer to the Shi'as in some of the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms and kingdoms. These terms of hate, along with the Salafi medieval ideology, come from the same source as the vast amounts of money needed to sustain the (extremely expensive) terrorist sectarian campaign against the Iraqi people.

The money itself I guesstimate to run into hunderds of millions of dollars a year- think of all the explosives, equipment, cars, trucks, safe houses, communications, food, the many paid informers and agents, and possible payment to the families of those who blow others up. Several thousands of these terrorists, especially the foreigners, have no other jobs, and the sustenance costs alone must run into several thousand dollars per person. This is not a jungle army surviving on a bowl of rice a day and whatever critters they can catch. So where does it, all these huge sums of money, come from?
Interesting, but more on the this later.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Middle East Opinion #1

Iran, Nukes and IEDs

The Moslem world has one nuclear 'power' so far. Yet the Pakistani experience in nukes has not been encouraging. The country's lead nuclear scientist, one of the ubiquitous Khans, managed a rogue network that sold the technology to other countries, and as a result he was hailed as a 'hero'. Now there is the prospect of another nuclear power in the Moslem World, Iran.
During the last election, the disappointed Iranian people mostly sat out the election because the omnipotent clergy blocked reform candidates. Now they have Mr. AhmadiNejad's fingers edging toward a nuclear button. He believes that the vanished Mahdi is about to reappear, i.e THE END IS NEAR!!! (He reminds me of a man who used to stand at the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft in the old days, although he does not seem to enjoy delivering the message as much as that other man did). The good news (maybe), in this case, is that he is only one man, first among several leaders, some of whom probably have more....earthly interests and are more deliberate. Or maybe they are not- anybody can make a costly miscalculation.
Now about those IEDs in the Iraq news. Is it possible that someone in Shi'a Iran is supplying the Salafi/Wahabi terrorists with explosive devices to kill Iraqi Shi'as? The same Salafis/Wahabis who consider all Shi'as, including Iranians, as heretics, no better than Jews and Christians in their view? The claim sounds almost as absurd as a claim of Nazis arming Jews, or is it the other way around? But then, anything is possible, politics make strange bedfellows. Not just fellows, but bedcouples as well. Still, I have my doubts about this issue.
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