Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz, Iran Throws a Soft Gauntlet, and Did Israel Actually Win?

Middle East Comment and Analysis

Naguib Mahfouz:
The last literary giant of the Arab World died today in Cairo. I grew up seeing, smelling, and living the real Cairo through his magical pen. He had a way of taking you through the great city, making you live its hopes, its sins, and its disappointments. Nobody could do it better.

Ahmadinejad's Soft Gauntlet:
The President of Iran challenged President Bush to a televised debate about 'current international affairs' (Aljazeera TV). A good one, an original, although it reminds me of Colonel Qadhafi in his younger wilder days, before he started to resemble all the other old Arab despots and got to be almost as boring. I bet the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il is skulking over his kimche somewhere in his dungeon, wanting to kick his own not insubstantial derriere for not coming up with that one first. After all, this type of stuff is right up his Dear alley.
Ahmadinejd also said that he does not expect the UN Security Council to take action against his country. Maybe he is good at counting votes, but he did not say that nobody will take action against his country.

Th GCC Dilemma:
Iran's potential confrontation with the US has already created a dilemma for the Gulf Cooperation Council. The closest US supply, and command & control centers are right across the Gulf, a bare few hundred kilometers southwest from Tehran, as the crow flies. Only a fool can deny that the external security of the smaller GCC countries depends on American muscle, and not on any goodwill from Iran or the other larger Arab countries. They all remember that Iran was only passively critical of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, while Jordan sided with the invader. The other Arab members of the Desert Storm coalition had to have their spines stiffened and coaxed into doing what was right by the United States. If a confrontation comes, at least two of these GCC countries will have no real choice but to allow the use of the American facilities on their territory. Most people in the region, especially in Kuwait, know that without US intervention in 1990-91, Saddam Hussein would be ruler of the Gulf, and perhaps the actual Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines, today.

All this talk of war is probably academic, because it is highly unlikely that there will be any military action against Iran, certainly nothing beyond a massive one-time raid which may in the end prove futile.

Speaking of Lebanon and Israel:
It is possible that, for all Hezbollah's tenacity, Israel may have achieved one of her goals after all. With 15,000 international forces now almost certain to be deployed, the northern border will be pacified. As long as the international, or is it multi-national, forces remain. That leaves only the Gaza sector questionable, for now. Hamas will likely lose power, with most of her former Persian Gulf bankrollers angry at her acceptance of Iranian money (but not European money). Perhaps Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz are smarter than they look.

This will still leave Hezbollah the strongest military force in Lebanon. What is more important, it will still leave the Party of God as the largest, most efficient and least corrupt charity organization in Lebanon and the Arab World.

What about Syria?
Where will that leave Syria? Perhaps closer to Tehran, perhaps closer to some internal change. The Syrian case is like a vicious circle: as long as the Golan Heights are occupied it will remain defiant, and as long as it remains defiant the Golan will remian occupied. The Baath older old guard is agitating from Paris and other foreign cities, hoping somehow to overthrow the old guard around President Assad.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Whose New Middle East?

Or, Why Arabs Should Stop Worrying and Love their Despots?

Comment and Analysis

A high official of the ruling party in Egypt, Mr Hussam Badran, said yesterday that Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, is one possible candidate to succeed his father in offfice. This contradicts what the President promised during an interview in the Saudi-owned al-arabiya TV, last spring that his son will not succeed him. President Mubarak, who has been in office for 25 years, is at least 78 years old. Remember: Mr. Ayman Nour, the first and only person to run for president against Mubarak, has been in prison for some time. With pressure from Washington for reform now all but lifted, Mr. Nour may remain in prison until he is broken, or until Gamal Mubarak is safely sworn in as president, whichever comes first.

This conforms with an interesting trend in Arab politics: 'hereditary republics'. Assad of Syria handed power to his son, Saddam was planning on handing power to son Qusay, or was it Uday? and Qadhafi of Libya is probably toying with appointing his son Saif al-Islam to succeed him. It is possible now that other leaders will start pushing their sons toward the limelight and allow them to gain experience in running the....family business.
Even in semi-Frenchified Lebanon, parties and their militias are handed down from father to son- sacre bleu!. It looks increasingly that Arab rulers and potentates of all stripes and persuasions now tend to do what Arab rulers have been doing for a few thousand years- keep power in the family, stupid.

The Three New Middle Easts:
Secretary Rice among others, some higher up but most lower down, have called it the New Middle East. This seems to have come to rest now solely on the basis of stability, i.e the status quo ante-Iraq. And perhaps, keep your digits crossed eventually, as Manuel used to repeat, leading to increased democratization in the region. But that golden age also gave us al-Qaida, or did it? Of course, once the Israel-Palestinian issue is settled Arab rulers will have no excuse to keep their peoples...under guardianship. Unless a new beast replaces Israel over the horizon. Which brings us to the next paragraph.
President Ahmadinejad of Iran now also calls it the New Middle East (notice the italics in his case?). Except that his vision is based on rejection of Western influence and ejection of Western (read American) forces. Oh, and perhaps the ejection of Israel as well. It also probably aspires toward a Wilayat-e-Faqih type of Islamic regime, something that most Sunnis and many Shi'as do not understand, but should not be afraid to ask about.

So are we then facing two competing visions of the New Middle East? No, we are not facing only two visions- it turns out there is more.

There is now a third New Middle East. This is the vision, if we can call it that, of most current Arab rulers. It can be summarized like this: Why rock the boat? In Americanese: if it ain't broke, why try to fix it?
With the agonizing months in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 subsiding, and with the euphoria of the easy fall of Baghdad fading, this last vision is now being pushed aggressively, and is finally beginning to have some traction in Washington. It is being pushed mostly by Arab rulers and their controlled media, and their friends in the Western capitals (ok, read Washington). The stick being held over our heads is the new super-enemy, the clerical regime in Iran. Moscow at the foot of Elborz mountains, with its new crescent of evil replacing the hammer and sickle.

So why do I call it a new Middle East if it is an old one? Because it comes in a new package (is it the packaging, stupid?). It relies on clever ways, some of them quite innovative, to show a veneer of democratization covering one-party dictatorships and traditional tribal monarchies. So, if some misguided souls in the American media and in the US Congress see a connection between the twin evils of oppression and corruption and the rise of unsavory and violent groups like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezballah, and the Iraqi militias and homicide bombers, then, why, we will show them some democracy. Enough to assuage their inexplicable and annoying hunger for spreading their values and their way of life.
If the Arab World has taught us anything at all in recent years, it is that you can have your cake and eat it too. You can have a democracy, and a one-man dictatorship (Egypt), and a tribal monarchy (the Persian Gulf) all at the same time.

Now, which New Middle East will win? I would bet on the last one, the latter. With the clashing visions of Washington and Tehran bloodying each other on the battlefield of Arab opinion, and perhaps across the Persian Plateau, who will pick up the pieces but the Old New Middle East of the Kings, Emirs, and benevolent dictators?
For the Arab political system, which had a scare after the Iraqi elections and all the talk of democracy, the actual walk from the West has been quite different. Happy days are here again.


Saturday, August 26, 2006

Same Old in Iraq, Rewriting the Lebanon War, Kuwait Opts for Booze

News and Analysis

Iraq- Financing the War:

Some small and tentative signs of progress in Iraq: a meeting this week among the various major tribal leaders/elders (Shia' and Sunni) has been making positive noises about cooperation and reconciliation. About 600 attended this conference and they have signed a covenant against shedding blood. But I wouldn't hold my breath. The latest Kurdish plan shows Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan, a very touchy subject for other Iraqis. The Sunni insurgents already claim that Israeli intelligence is all over the Kurdish Region.

Mr Abdulaziz Al-Hakeem (from the dominant SCIRI party) again called for an autonomous Southern region within an Iraqi federation. He seems to be gaining support for the idea in Washington as well- Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden last week reiterated his own suppport for a federation of three autunomous regions in Iraq.

Meanwhile, some newspaper in Kuwait has claimed this week that the US is planning a coup to overthrow the elected government of Mr. Al-Malki and install Mr. Iyad Allawi as leader, with a former Saddam-era General as military supremo. Mr. Allawi is probably the only Shi'a whom the rulers of the Gulf states welcome as leader of Iraq, but unfortunately the Gulf state rulers do not vote in Iraq's elections. The newspaper, usually not reliable, did not explain what the plans are for the elected parliament, or for the well-armed militias. Clearly this is a case of wishful thinking, since some of these newspapers nowadays seem to be infested with former Iraqi Baathists along with Baathist political jargon, in addition to the usual home-grown Salafi jihadists. Who was it said that there is no such thing as permanent enemies in politics? Was it Napoleon or some old Mayor of Chicago? Or was it Mitternich?
(Actually a couple of months ago I mentioned in this blog reports of a possible coup in Baghdad, but I was doubtful about the reports, and have since discounted them. Nobody can be THAT stupid about Iraq, not with the whole country armed to the teeth and some of the militias chomping at the bit to start something.)

In some US media, there is now an emerging but still shy debate about the evidence, or lack of such, of direct Iranian involvement in Iraq (www.Time.com, August 25). Even if the clerics in Tehran are financing some of the Shi'a militias, a good probability, this does not explain the source of the huge amounts of money needed to finance the intensive Sunni Salafi campaign of bombings and killings of both Iraqis and US soldiers. The amounts must be in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year. The money must come from Sunni sources, and the oil-producing Persian Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, are the most likely sources. The funds are unlikely to come from these governments directly, but from private sources, perhaps with some officials looking the other way.

The Spin on Lebanon:
The war of words, the spin as it is called in the USA, is intensifying about the Lebanon War. The Arab cold war over who won Lebanon continues. Although Hezbollah's performance has shocked the Israeli defense and political establishment, the jury is still out on the final consequences of the war. It looks like the Party of God will be replaced with Lebanese and Multinational forces on the border. This may provide the Israelis the assurances they need for the safety of their northern towns. It may provide Mr. Olmert with the cover he needs to face his critics on the right. But I would not bet on disarming Hezbollah any time soon. Most likely the arms will find their way into Lebanon.

Realizing suddenly that Hassan Nassrallah is the most popular man on the Arab street, according to polls, the government-controlled media of some Arab states have intensified their attempts to change that. Saudi and Kuwaiti newspapers especially have pulled all stops in order to do just that. Now the stalemate in the war is being called in these papers, on a daily basis, an outright defeat for Hezballah. So far the campaign does not seem to be working on the street. After all, when the dust settles, it is more likely that Mr. Ehud Olmert will lose his job than Mr. Nassrallah over the war. Bibi Netanyahu is eagerly waiting in the wings like an Israeli Pheonix.

Kuwait and Booze:
Reports say the government of Kuwait is to hire Booze, Allen & Hamilton to do yet another study on restructuring the economy and making it more efficient. The problem with Kuwait, and other Gulf countries, is not in the shortage of studies and proposals by international consultants. Kuwait has always been plagued with a failure of the government, that is, a failure of the overall management team, especially the economic team, at both the planning and execution stages. The economy has been dismally unable to play catch-up with successful regional business centers like the United Arab Emirates, or even little Qatar. In fact it has been falling farther behind these places. And to add insult to injury this year, for example, the country has been plagued with continuous water and power failures in the middle of the summer heat (think 130 fahrenheit), something that does not seem to happen in the UAE or Qatar or Oman.

Someone whispered to me recently that what they need in Kuwait is simple, and anything short of that may not work: abolish the cabinet (Council of Ministers), fire the top bureaucrats from among the scions of the oligarchy from their entitlement jobs, pack them to their London mansions, and contract the operation of the whole country to a consortium of foreign managers (not necessarily including Halliburton). That may not lead to an optimal situation (does anything?), but it sure will improve things quickly. I think he/she was only half-joking.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Half-Men Arab Leaders, Reckless Arab Leaders, and Royals Kissing Cheeks

Are Arab Leaders Really Trying to Out-man and Un-man Each Other?

Comment and Analysis

Half-men! Who are these half-men? And which part of them is un-manly? Is it the upper, middle, or lower (ouch) half?? The last one would be grounds for divorce, at the least.
This term has dominated Arab media and private discussions like no other in recent months. The term was used by Syrian President Assad to describe some Arab leaders who he said betrayed the Lebanese resistance (i.e Hezballah) during the Israeli invasion and rooted for Israel to win. This has infuriated some Arab leaders who are seen as those Assad was referring to, mainly the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and their conservative allies. Their media retaliated by calling Assad and Hezballah 'reckless' and accusing them of taking orders from Iran. The Syrians retaliated by saying that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and their allies take orders from the United States and Israel. So there!!
Incidentally, can a leader be a half-man and reckless at the same time? Seems highly unlikely, unless we are talking about a physical....peculiarity.

Now does all this means that if you are an Arab leader these days, you have a choice to be either a half-man or a reckless adventurer? Or is it a choice between being an agent of the United States and Israel and an agent of Iran? It is getting confusing. There is a touch of 1984 to all this, there has always been a touch of 1984 to Arab politics. I mean the OLD 1984, the 1984 of 1948. Are you less confused now?

The Arab foreign ministers met in Beirut last week, ostensibly to discuss solidarity with Lebanon- after the battle was over, of course. The Syrians boycotted the meeting in protest of something or the other. The Arab media in the Persian Gulf region claimed that the ministers secretly gave Syria an ultimatum and a choice: choose between us or Iran. Except that there is no war and no open declared conflict of any kind between the Arab states and Iran! So if there was an ultimatum, it is not clear what it meant.

Promptly after the meeting, the Emir of independent-minded Qatar made clear what he thought of the presumed new Arab position by flying to Damascus and meeting with Assad for a tete-a-tete. Now Qatar too is the target of attacks in the recently not-so-bashful Saudi media, for meeting with another Arab leader. Qatar is also home to Aljazeera TV, the most popular Arab news television which tends to cover controversial political topics that are taboo in conservative Arab states but are loved by Arab audiences bored stiff with seeing their everlasting rulers kiss each others' cheeks (no, no, the other cheeks) on state-controlled Television.

Hezballah has stolen a march, again, on others, including aid donors and the Lebanese government, by promptly providing aid for all Lebanese whose homes were damaged by the Israeli bombings. Some Gulf Arabs sneered that the amount of $ 12,000 is a pittance by their standards. The Hezballah were quick to start clearing roads and repairing bridges. (I think maybe most Arab governments should hire Hezbollah engineers to do their roads and highways...faster and much much cheaper that way, and probably more honest as well).

The anti-Hezballah Arabs hint that the aid money is Iranian, and hence it is somehow tainted. Most others ask: why is it tainted if it is Iranian but not tainted if it is infidel money from the West? Of course the impoverished Lebanese of Southern Lebanon or South Beirut, the main victims of the birth pangs of the New Middle East, don't give a f...ig about the source of the aid. They need it now.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Time for Change in Iraq

Middle East Comment and Analysis

I initially supported the war in Iraq for various reasons, including that, like almost everyone else, I believed that Saddam was developing WMD. Now it is clear to me, and it seems to most people both inside and outside Washington that Iraq cannot be pacified with 130,000 or 150,000 American troops. Increasingly, US troops are caught between warring factions. The best solution is to encourage a federal system to be in place within a given period, then get the troops out. Let the Iraqis sort it out among themselves.

For several years, Sunni insurgents and Jihadists freely attacked both armed US soldiers and unarmed Iraqi Shi'a civilians with impunity. The result was that many thousands of Iraqis died. Now it looks that the Shi'a militias have finally taken the security of their people into their own hands. It also seems that many people trust them over the government to provide some security and, failing that, to exact revenge on the suspected Sunnis. Increasingly, the once-dominant secular Iraqi Sunnis are also vanishing into exile or into fearful silence, and the salafi Jihadists are dominating the region west and north of Baghdad.

This is a low-intensity civil war that can only expand and grow more intense. Already regional states are either playing a role or are getting ready to play a role in trying to affect the outcome. That includes Iran and Syria as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and some of their Persian Gulf allies like Kuwait and Bahrain.

Iran is supoprting some of the Shi'a militias and the Gulf states, flush with oil money, are strongly suspected of financing the Sunni insurgents and Jihadists.

Like the old Spanish Civil War, Iraq may be a test run for a wider regional sectarian confrontation. Except it won't be purely sectarian. Many 'rejectionist' Arabs, most Arabs on the street if polls are to be believed, would side with the 'rejectionist' Shi'as if the Palestinian-Isreali issue is thrown in as well.

The Arab elites are split now. Most in the Gulf region are already openly calling for 'defanging' Iran, something that many around the world would like to see as far as nuclear capabilities are concerned. One conservative Kuwaiti newpaper, AlSeyassah, close to the ruling circles in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, has already called for cutting off the 'head of the snake', a term clearly borrowed from the late Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi who called Shi'as in Iraq snakes. This is taken as an invitation for the United States to attack Iran, since no Arab army seems to be massing anywhere to the east of the Tigris river. The same newspaper also urged Saddam to attack Iran back in 1980.

Perhaps this time there will be a regiment of volunteers from among the children of these Gulf Arab elites who are urging American families to send their sons and daughters to fight their civil and regional wars.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Post-Lebanon Arab Cold War

Middle East News Analysis

A cease fire is now in effect in Lebanon, the guns are silent. Not so the inter-Arab proxy war of words and media. The Arab World is now split into two camps, and not necessarily by clear geographic borders. One camp is strongly suspected by many Arabs, perhaps by most Arabs, of having prior knowledge of the Israeli onslaught, that they were promised a quick wiping out of Hizballah, that this was the price for their acqueiscence and their early statements against Hizballah. This suspect camp is led by the Riyadh-Cairo axis, with Jordan tagging along as a minor partner, and most Gulf states following the Saudi leader- with the exception of independent-minded Qatar and the UAE.

This latter camp has ratcheted up its attacks on Hizballah and its supporters in recent days, since the ceasefire came into effect. These attacks in the media seem to be coordinated and would not happen without official sanction, not in Saudi Arabia or the Persian Gulf states. The Saudi-owned Arab media based in Europe, like Alhayat and Asharq Alawsat newspapers, and Alarabiya TV, have been leading the attack. Much of the domestic Saudi and Kuwaiti press have followed the same line.

While one camp is celebrating its 'victory' over Israel, the other camp tries to dampen the effect by downplaying the military achievement and emphasizing the undeniably high costs of the war for Lebanon.

On the international level, there seems to be a consensus, for the time being, that Hizballah came out in better shape, definitely Hassan Nassrallah came out better off than Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz. Only President Bush and Mr. Olmert himself profess otherwise. Still, Israel may get the Party of God away from the border area and provide some peace for its Northern settlements. It is too early to estimate the cost to Hizballah, to Lebanon, and the political costs to various Arab regimes.

The problem for the message of the anti-Hizballah camp is that many, perhaps most, Arabs on the street see it as subservient to United States and Israeli interests. Hence, the continuous attempts to paint Hizballah as subservient to Iranian interests. The problem with this last argument is that it could work only in the Persian Gulf states, where strong suspicions exist toward Iran and its regional intentions, and where Sunni-Shi'a sectarian tensions have increased in recent years. It does not seem to have much traction among most Arabs, not yet.

So, the Arab peoples are now caught between repressive revolutionary regimes, and repressive, often corrupt, traditional conservative regimes. Not much of a choice there, not on the eve of the birth of the New Middle East.

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