Monday, September 24, 2007

Ahmadinejad's performance today at Columbia University was true to form. A former professor, he also acted the politician and made several evasive answers, especially about the holocaust. He avoided most potentially embarrassing issues. He did make one clearly truthful answer: when Saddam Hussein used chemical and biological weapons against his country's troops, the West, especially the United States under Reagan was at best silent.
I did learn something new from him: that they have a don't ask, don't tell, (and don't tap?) policy regarding sexual preference in theocratic Iran, which is in line with the rest of the region. I suspect that one was a whopper.

What gave Ahmadinejad his advantage was the poor performance o Mr. Bollinger of Columbia. His introduction was ungracious and longer the the speech itself, a sure mark of a boor. He was so eager to pander to his vocal critics that he made a mockery of the notion that Columbia was a neutral academic venue where the little Iranian can answer, and occasionally evade, members of academia. Normally you give the man a chance to speak before dumping on him: and you dont call a president who was elected, can run for one more term only, and may lose the next election a petty dictator.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The situation in Iraq can be summarized in one word: Blackwater.

Blackwater symbolizes the failure of both the US and the Iraqi government to secure the center of the country- effectively the only region in Iraq that is still contested by various ethnic and sectarian groups. The center is the only contested region in what is effectively a confederacy of regions and provinces.
In this, Blackwater's case resembles something out of a dark futuristic film, where private companies oversee security, law and order and the central authority is a vague concept. It is what might happen to security and law enforcement if they are handed over to private profit-making companies run by MBAs (not necessarily out of Harvard). Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against MBAs, I may be worse in running law and order: I have a PhD in Monetary Economics, and we are known to solve problems by making convenient assumptions. In one of my former jobs I even had people with high school degrees as colleagues on policy committees. One potentate was a Junior High (Middle School) graduate, and they are probably less qualified than MBAs to advise on economic policy- but perhaps not on security matters.

Blackwater symbolizes to Arabs the helplessnes and impotence of Iraq's elected government (both legislative and excutive) vis-a-vis the United States. It also symbolizes the failure of all Iraqis to provide and respect law and order.

Blackwater is basically, at least in the eyes of most Iraqis and other Arabs, another extra-legal militia, although, unlike the others, its armed men are professional and are not cutthroats. And they only kill in self defense, or try to.

Iraqi officials declared Blackwater persona non grata in the aftermath of 11 civilian deaths in Baghdad, and I noted that this may not stand. Today its spokesman backtracked, saying the company will stay but must respect Iraqi laws, whatever that means nowadays.

Homework Time: Wikipedia calls Blackwater a "private military company and security firm". It is a group of nine specialized companies with speciallties ranging from security aviation to training canines (as in dawgs). Like most of us, it has been called many names by different people- it has been called the largest private army in the world, and a major war profiteer. Earlier this year, a book about the company made the NYT Besr Sellers list, whatever that signifies besides a lot of money for the author. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005), when the government failed to provide security in New Orleans, Blackwater soldiers were reported patroling some of the streets. It has also been reported to operate in other places such as Afghanistan and Central Asia.

So, Blackwater succinctly summarizes the four-year mission in Iraq. The mission started with high hopes and some misgivings, on both the Amrican and Iraqi sides, and it ended up thus: hired armed men to provide security where 150,000 American troops and double that number in Iraqis cannot. That tells me it is time to start getting out.

In Lebanon, another legislator, again a member of the pro-government March 14 Movement, was killed. He was blown up along with nine others by means of a favorite Lebanese invention of the 1980s: the car bomb. It looks suspicious, but then most car bombings tend to look suspicious to most of us, no?


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

It looks like the current French government is departing from the trend of the past years. It is abandoning Old Europe, and returning to the future of an even older Europe- in terms of relations with America. No longer will French paratroopers be used solely to land in African capitals and shore up friendly dictators or keep order, nor will they watch mass genocide from across the border a la Rwanda. The French aspire to replace Les Anglais as America’s staunchest allies, in the Middle East anyway, at least for now. That should last until the fall/Christmas season flood of popular American films are unleashed in Europe….then it’ll be Sacrebleue! le nouveau defi Americain, l’invasion culturelle!

The Iran-West rift has shifted toward France now. France’s new Foreign Minister Bernie Kushner is almost as tactful as Iran’s Ahmadinejd. He went to Baghdad, predicted the fall of the Iraqi cabinet, and hinted at the desirability of that outcome. A week later he hinted at a war against Iran that may be inevitable, and all but claimed that France, at least he and Sarko, was getting ready for that war. So far it looks like he was wrong about Iraq. The jury is still out about the Iran war.

Meanwhile, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has criticized all the talk about an Iran war. Elbradei stated that all the noise about Iran reminds him of the noise before the invasion of Iraq. It is possible that El Bradei wants to succeed where Hans Blix failed in 2003 to stop the Bush administration from invading Iraq. Blix was demonized by conservatives and by others in the United States because he publicly doubted claims of Iraqi WMD. I was one of those who suspected Blix at the time- but it is not always true what the old song says, that ‘a fool never learns’. Fools outside Washington anyway.

Perhaps the next war will come in the Fall of 2008, either before of just after the elections, although Fox News has not hinted at a date. It may come just in time to saddle the next administration with three wars in the periphery of the Persian Gulf, some messy unfinished business in Lebanon and Palestine, besides the wider and now largly defensive war on terror.

Speaking of Iran, it is almost UN General Assembly time, and it looks like the Hugo & Mahmoud show will be on again- notwithstanding the bombastic and self-serving demands of Mitt Romney to deny the Iranian president access to NYC. It would be interesting if Libya's Qadhafi (Gaddafi) also shows up; then the meetings will be much more entertaining. Maybe all three will show up on Jay Leno or Letterman, although the staid Jon Stewart is a more likely venue.

The Iraqi government may have put itself in a corner by publicly announcing that it “will revoke the license of” Blackwater Corporation to operate in Iraq. That was after a battle in which the company’s agents killed some 11 Iraqis and wounded many more. US organizations, including the Embassy, have depended on the firm for security and protection in the wild streets of Baghdad.

By mutual agreement, Blackwater staff are not subject to Iraqi laws: this was fine as long as there were no large-scale fights and large numbers of publicized killings. Over time, with more news like this, the special position of Blackwater will be exploited in Iraq and around the Middle East to fan the flames of anti-Americanism. There was a similar legal-status agreement in Iran under the Shah which was publicly derided by Ayatollah Khomeini and others.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Are we misunderestimating Baghdad?
Saudi media is already exploiting the assassination of Iraqi tribal Shaikh Abu Reesha in al-Anbar for its own political ends. Asharq Alawsat, owned by a Saudi prince, contains two editorials by its top editors, no less, hinting that perhaps the govenment in Baghdad, or the Shi'a militias, or some 'foreign' party was responsible. They do not absolve al Qaeda outright, after all it did announce responsibility- but they do try to muddy things up. (Isn't al Qaeda a 'foreign' party as well, since most its terrorists are from other Arab states?) Now, if the hapless Baghdad government can get inside and strike this deep inside a Sunni bastion like al-Anbar, then it is being grossly 'misunderestimated', even by the man who coined this term.

A column in the same newspaper takes an interesting position on the jailing of four Egyptian journalists for not being nice enough to President Mubarak and his Dauphin. S. Attallah suggests that jailing them is harsh and perhaps they should get lesser sentences, perhaps fined, even prevented from practicing their profession. Now that is being for free speech in the New New Middle East.

A US State Dept report today notes the decline of religious freedom in the Middle East: it especially notes Iraq, Iran, and Egypt. In Iran the Baha'is are still persecuted, although Christain and Jewish faiths are recognized, probably barely tolerated by the mullahs. (Still, this is not a legit casus belli).The report does not record any decline in religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, since there is none to start with.

In fact the report notes 'some' improvement in Saudi Arabia and Sudan: these relate to promises of improvement and revising some educational texts. The odd thing is that Sudan has citizens of various religions, like Christians and animists and has had a Christian vice president, while Saudi Arabia has only Moslem citizens and does not allow other houses of worship (like churches) or celebration of other religious ceremonies; nor does it allow other religious books like the Bible, the Torah, The Teachings of Don Juan, Journey To Ixtlan or the Road Books of Jack Kerouac (in fairness the last three items are almost certainly not allowed in most other Muslim countries, especially in theocratic Iran).
The report notes that Saudi sanctions were waived due to reforms "to ensure that the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims are protected"- this last one must be news to everyone except the people at State; does that mean they are about to allow churches, temples and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in Riyadh?
Yet Cuba is castigated in the report about not easily allowing new churches. Hypocricy is not a four-letter word.

Congressman James Moron (D-Va) opined the other day on MSNBC that we should have learned from history and did as the British did in the 1920's-i.e. appointed a 'moderate' Sunni regime. What the Brits did was bomb Shi'a and Kurdish villages into submission and chose a minority regime (Sunni) to rule Iraq. The minority elite tried to join Nazi Germany as allies in 1941. After a series of bloody coups they dragged the country into three major wars. Is that what Congressman Moron has learned from history?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Foreplay in Cairo: an Egyptian state court has sentenced the sditors of four (4) independent newspapers to one year in jail for 'insulting' President Mubarak and 'his son'. I did not realize it was possible to insult an Arab leader, let alone his son. The editors were also accused of spreading rumors and lies about leaders and 'symbols' of the ruling party ( i.e Mubarak et fils). Reports claim there is now some anger in the Egyptian Journalists Union: but don't hold your breath, it was never known for its defense of the freedom of speech- they just want to show that they can think independently of the ruler.

Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Reesha (a.k.a al-Reeshawi) was shown recently on TV basking in the presence of President Bush, eating qoozi (roast stuffed lamb to you infidels), and doing a good PR spin for a desert tribal thane. Today the young leader of the ad hoc Anbar Revival Counci was blown up along with some bodyguards at the entrance to his home. Clearly al Qaeda is not completely finished in al-Anbar, unless it was an inter-tribal rivalry.

In the meantime, a slow case for a nasty war with the ruling mullahs of Iran is being prepared through almost daily media leaks that Iranian-made weapons were found in Iraq. It is almost certain that British, American, German, Russian, and Chinese weapons are also found on a daily basis in Iraq (and Afghanistan). Many countries are the sources of 'normal' weapons that are to be found in Iraq, except Arab countries: Arabs haven't yet learned how to make weapons. However, the IED's and cutom-designed weapons like armor piercing missiles are another thing: no other country is known to make them.

A Sheik Khalil, member of the royal-appointed Council in Saudi Arabia was pissed yesterday while talking on CNN. He was foaming at the mouth that "Iran must get out, be forced out of Iraq, completely out". Fine and dandy, many people inside and outside Iraq agree with the noble sentiment. But the worthy thane did not offer his country's blood and treasure to that end: he was implicitly demanding that American boys AND GIRLS do his bidding, do the fighting for him. But let's not lose faith, his country is 'considering' opening an embassy in Baghdad: now all they need is to find someone who is brave enough to reside in the Iraqi capital. That is what influential countries, like the USA and Iran, have done for the past four years.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In Egypt: Ayman Rifa'i, the man who was a witness in the 'trial' of jailed opposition leader Ayman Nour, was found hanged last week in his jail cell. Authorities attributed his death to suicide. Originally he was called as witness against Mr. Nour, but later he recanted, saying that he was 'pressured'. Suicide is rare in the Middle East, unless you are a Salafi with a truckload of explosives among unwary civilians. It is especially rare in Egypt.
Mr. Nour is the only man ever to run against Mr. Mubarak, or against any other Egyptian leader, in a rigged election and live to tell about it- so far, knock on wood. PS: Mr. Nour is still in jail, pending accession of Gamal (Jamal) Mubarak to the throne of Egypt whenever his father realizes that he is in fact brain dead and needs to move on.
Note to the State Department Spokesmen/women: Aymn Nour is definitely not suicidal- not yet.

Meanwhile, speculation has intensified about the health of Mr. Mubarak pere, who already looks quite mummified, thank you. His Prime Minister stated that Mr. Mubarak will be re-elected as leader of the ruling party in November, which was a surprise in this day and age of the New New Middle East. He also said that Mubarak's health is good, but that there is an 'organized'scenario' for accession in Egypt- WTF that means, perhaps that the security services will insure that the Dauphin will sit on the throne.

Syria: last week an Israeli warplane flew over Syria and dropped 'something'. Some claim that it was bombs and Syria crypticallt talked of reserving the right to retaliate. The latest speculation is that Israeli planes have bombed a Hezbollah supply convoy along the Ho Chi Assad Trail. The oddest claim: a Kuwaiti tabloid, Alseyassah, claimed that it was an American warplane that did the bombing and cheered the impending moment of 'Operation Syrian Freedom'. Typically, the newspaper attributed its information to 'reliable sources', almost certainly meaning its own editor's imagination.

In Saudi Arabia many thousands of camels have died over the past few weeks of a mysterious ailment. Some have attributed the cause to food poisoning and blame the substitute feed used recently to nourish the numerous dromedaries that are deeply intertwined with the history and culture of Arabia. Many attribute the cause to a switch in the animal feed, away from barley whose price has been rising. Yet the phenomenon is widespread around the country and has been called in the media a 'national tragedy', and many fortunes have been lost. If it continues, and pending discovering the real cause, this could expand into a regional tragedy beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia. It is not clear yet if international specialists and organizations have been approached for help.
The authorities, in typical fashion, claim to have opened an investigation-which is what authorities are good at doing.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

(Mis)Quote of the Day: UBL to Bush (whipping out his tax proposal): My Tax Cut Is Bigger Than Yours.

Osama Bin Laden's latest tape today should infuriate Mr. Bush for more than one reason. Not only does it remind the American public, next year's electorate, that OBL (UBL if you will) is alive and well- the wayward Saudi also outdoes W in a couple of points that he thought were his own points of strength.

Take taxes: OBL offers the American taxpayer conversion to Islam and the automatic kind of cuts that not even Bush, Limbough, and Bob Nardelli, combined, dare advocate. Imagine the flatest of the flat taxes: the Moslem 2.5% Zakat tithe will be all you're required to pay- no progressive rates, no worries about taxes on dividends and capital gains, and no estate taxes. And no need for expensive shelters and attorneys. And to think that Osama never went near the University of Chicago nor studied under Milton Friedman- probably never even heard of him, let alone understood the difference between positive and normative economics. Besides, Friedman was Jewish and definitely a no no for any publicly self-denying shaggy Salafi- besides he was not even an orthodox Jew, a la Wahhabis. He did, however, surprise me by mentioning Noam Chomsky- but Arabs of all political. ethnic, and sectarian stripes seem to love to refer to Chomsky these days.

(Disclaimer: Moslem taxes are a little more complex than that, and there is the alms, Sadaqa, which is more voluntary. Nevertheless, they are much much much simpler and cheaper than the IRS Code- that is why H&R Block will never thrive in the Middle East. Besides, most Arab countries do not really need income taxes: extensive public expenditures are financed directly by state oil revenues in the oil states and by foreign aid in the non-oil states. Voila! Simple, n'est-ce pas?).

Osama also tried , unsuccessfully I think, to wrest the mantle of "Uniter Not Divider" away from Bush. He rambled on about Democrats and others and did not do a good job. It is not likely that his appeal to the American people will resonate anywhere- not even on a post-post-housing debacle-Labor-Day Friday, likely the bluest of blue Fridays this year. Not with the NFL season just starting and the Colts convincingly beating the Saints, and the MLB World Series on the line.

Still, the telling blow, the one that I think drew blood, was the taunt of "my tax cuts are bigger than yours". And it was all in Arabic!

The leader of the terrorist al Qaeda also managed to get one below the belt at Arab dictators, kings, and princes. He did that a la Clinton. Remember how Clinton was rumored to steal Republican ideas as his own? Well, Osama stole the regulation jet-black hair-dye from ruling Arab potentates. As they all do, so did he, for the first time, dye his beard jet black. By imitating the potentates, is he having pretensions at "potency"? Perhaps not, it is most likely that he has only dyed his beard. The others, the rulers, are more consistent: they dye everything.....all over. Or so their peoples say- in private gatherings, of course.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Terrorism and Kicking AssA Sydney newspaper quotes President Bush telling Australian VP "we're kicking ass". It is also likely right now that, in some cave or lair in the Pashtun areas of Northwest Pakistan, a tall bearded Saudi and his Egyptian sidekick (he jokingly calls him abu arb'a 'ayoon, four-eyes), are saying very much the same thing, but in Arabic. Of course the one who kicks ass last is usually considered the eventual winner, but the situation is complex, with many players. In the short and medium term anyone can claim that they are kicking ass. At the moment al Qaeda in Mesopotamia seems to be at the receiving end (not necessarily a pun here) of the boot. But then again, it looks like the Coalition is firmly at the receiving end in Afghanistan.

Mr. Bush, however, seems to be winning some friends and influencing people in the heart of 'old' Europe- right in that most American-sceptic place, the Elysee Palace. Not only did France's Sarkozy make the right noises about US policy, he also spent his vacation in Maine, not exactly a playground for French politicos. It was a fortuitous choice of destination, because he happened to run into W.
Sarko even seems to be picking up some of Bush'e vernacular- he came close to calling for 'kicking ass' somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps in Lebanon or Iran. Of course the French do not use that vulgar but succinct American term, especially in their own language. And their boots seem to be big enough only for unruly West African derrieres.
It would sound funny for Sarko to claim that he is doing 'ruer le posterieur', or to use a more extensive version, 'le fait de donner un coup de pied au cul'- I'm sure most of you got the very last word. Some may take his use of the term as another example of the famously suspected French prurience.

Arab Military Industry
When it rains it pours: Sudan's defense minister has claimed that his country is producing what he calls pilotless airplanes, i.e drones. Of course they could be just kites. He said that Sudan will become self-sufficient in weaponry and that it is the third African country in terms of military industries. He was too polite to claim that the country was also the top Arab producer of muzzle-loading carbines. Now the Arab world can rightly boast the greatest military-industrial complex south of Israel, west of Iran, and north of Zimbabwe. Of course the really smart Arab rulers, well the 'relatively' smart Arab rulers, have access to the best international weapons that money can buy. But then again, it has nothing to do with cerebral prowess, does it?

We were self sufficient in weapons once. Some years ago, when we were childern along the warm northwestern Arab shores of the Gulf (Persique, pas du Mexique), we used to be self-sufficient. We made our own slingshots, the weapon of choice which we called nabba'ta (plural: nababee't), for use against innocent birds and evil human foes. Nowadays, even the slingshots are foreign-made, mainly in East Asia- but they are still cheaper and, tellingly, they are used much more effectively than the high-tech weapons are used by our military. Besides, the prices of the slingshots do not include exorbitant commissions, kickbacks, or bribes to princes and potentates.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A New Turkey in Baghdad
Probably no embassy has been written and talked about for the past 27 years as much as the new American embassy in Baghdad. And for good reasons, that is, for all the wrong reasons. Media comments about it have ranged from "mysterious', "shrouded in mystery" (sort of like Bram Stoker's description of Dracula's castle), "monstrous", "fortress on a hill", to "as cloaked in mystery as a ministate in Rome" (a good one, with Ambassador Ryan Crocker as the Pontifex Maximus?). It has also been plagued by accusations of using slave labor or forced labor through a Kuwaiti sub-contractor: the contractor was accused in congressional hearings of having tricked Asian workers to fly to Baghdad on the pretext of flying them into Dubai and forcing them to disembark at gunpoint- and frankly that doesn't sound far-fetched. The sub-contracting was done through a subsidiary of Halliburton (HAL: the share price has been stuck in the low 30's).

One British newspaper even absurdly claimed that the location of the embassy was a secret, even with 21 buildings over 104 acres of land, and a budget that is estimated at over $ 1 billion (Congress has appropriated about $ 600 million so far).

John Brown, a former diplomate writing in, quotes a former US ambassador recalling a Cold War era joke: the Soviets were proud to have the biggest microchip in the world. He hopes the same will not be said about the new embassy- unflattering media descriptions make it sound quite Stalinesque but with an Arab twist: a lot of palm trees.

Ironically and sadly this new embassy will be known as the only major project in Iraq to be completed on time, with its own reliable power and water systems- but it was not built to benefit Iraqis. It may prove to be a public relations and media nightmare for U.S policy in Iraq, and perhaps in the Arab region as a whole. It stands out like the proverbial sore thumb, reminiscent of a Saddam palace only much bigger, telling Iraqis everyday, 24/7, where the real power lies in their country. From the point of view of many detractors of constitutional change in Iraq it makes a mockery of the idea of sovereignty and self-rule.
Who and where are the geniuses who think up such projects? How the hell do they come up with these turkeys?
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