Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Iran is getting more confusing by the day. It has never been easy to figure out the power structure in Tehran, mainly because there is no one power center- there are several. Now the dormant reformists are stirring again, perhaps because elections are near, the economy is stagnant, and the dangers of war are closer. The Iranian reformists are not particularly liked by the fading neocons in Washington: Bush included in his infamous 2002 axis of evil sound-bite a reformist-led Iran that had just helped the US in Afghanistan.

Oddly, the Bush administration, which detests Ahmadinejad, may be giving him a new lifeline. Each statement about Iran by the President or Darth Vader pushes petroleum prices higher, giving the regime a safety net- more money to appease the voters for the next year, just in time for the Iranian elections. (It has also pushed Halliburton share prices up to over $40 in recent weeks, but I am sure that is irrelevant). The Bush administration may be giving the Ahmadinejad administration a new lease on life, a chance to get re-elected, even as Bush leaves office in 2009.

Two weeks ago Hillary Clinton went against her natural instinct, against her obvious beliefs, against all that her generous donors stand for, and she did it again (she hasn't said ooops yet, but that may come after the bombs drop and the missiles fire across the Persian Gulf)!

Hillary wanted to look macho short of growing a moustache, so she showed up at the Capitol in figurative drag (can one say that women dress in drag? Je ne sais pas! I know that Rudy Guiliani did it, literally, at least once, and I am sure it'll make great campaign ad footage come Fall 2008). She voted to give the Bush administration what it wanted, a crack in the door that can be pushed open onto a new war in the Middle East, this time against Iran.
The Democrats, who almost universally detest the war in Iraq, have largely chosen to ignore the vote. They can almost taste victory in '08, and apparently they think she is their last best white hope. (Secretly, many Democrats I know like Obama much better, but do not think he can win. It is the fear factor Michlle Obama talked about).

The Dems record with electability has not been good. In 2002 their hearts were with Bill Bradley, but they chose Al Gore because of the electability issue (he almost lost to Bush). In 2004, their hearts were surely with Howard Dean, but their votes went for Kerry, because he was considered electable. Will Hillary's electability illusion make it three strikes for the Dems?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Speaking Loudly, But What About the Stick?In Beirut, US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman is at it again, opining on internal matters. He published an article in the Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat, owned by Prince Salman al-Saud. The audience would be mainly Saudis and Gulf Arabs, who form the readership of that newspaper. Very few Lebanese read it- the goal is not clear, unless it is preaching to the converted.

Feltman is not doing the March 14 bloc, the Hariri-Jumblatt-Saniora bloc, any good with his periodic statements about internal Lebanese politics. Even Bashar Assad and Ahmadinejad, the designated and real American foes in Lebanon do not meddle so openly- at least they do not meddle so ineffectually. Feltman's public statements only reinforce the widespread notion, probably erroneous, that he is the real leader of the March 14 movement, the real el jefe of the rump cabinet that is clearly paralyzed. Someone ought to tell him to shut up already and do his job quietly- tone down the high profile.

An earlier statement by a Pentagon underecretary created a firestorm in Lebanon when it was interpreted in the Arab world, probably wrongly, as calling for American military bases in Lebanon.

Lebanese Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah, a leading Shi'a authority, has contributed his own two cents in an article in a Bahraini newspaper. Fadlallah blames the Bush administration for "opening new files' in the Middle East and failing to close them. He means administration neander-cons are stirring up hornets nests all over the region without apparently giving any thought to how to settle matters. Most intelligent people now agree with this last assessment.

Fadlallah also blames the administration for stirring up sectarian and ethnic tensions in the region, citing the Kurdish, Armenian and Shi'a-Sunni issues raised by US leaders. He claims the Bush administration is giving the Lebanese people the option of agreeing to the country becoming a US base or facing sectarian divisions. He cites statements by US leaders about the Lebanese national army and the need to change its 'ideology'. (FYI: the Lebanese army can have no ideology. If it did, it would disintegrate as a unified force).

Fadlallah was kidnapped during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, and he was also target of several assassination attempts. He survived all, but one car bomb killed tens of people- some Arab sources claimed at the time that the CIA planned the attempt and that a rich Arab oil state financed it. (Maybe, or maybe not- our region is also known as Paranoiastan).

Profile in Power: Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia holds the folllowing titles, at least: Crown Prince- Deputy Prime Minister (the King is PM)- Minister of Defense- Minister of Aviation- Inspector General (remember the old Danny Kaye film?).

The Prince is visiting some Gulf nations this week accompanied by a delegation consisting of, among others:

Prince Khaled bin Fahad bin Khaled.....(remember the Fibonicci series in math?)
Prince Khaled bin Saad bin Fahad
Prince Sattam bin Saud bin Abdulaziz
Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Mohammed
Prince Faisal bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz
Secretary General of the Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud Charitable Institution (I don't think he is named unless he is the same last gentleman up there, presumably because he is just a flunky, not a royal prince)
Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz
Prince Ahmad bin Fahad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz
Prince Turkey bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (happy thanksgiving)
Prince Nayef bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Trop de 'bins', but not to worry, there are more, many more, bins where these came from.

Friday, October 19, 2007

What Did Israel Bomb?
Everyone agrees that someone, most likely Israel, bombed something somewhere deep inside Syria a couple of weeks ago. That is the only point of agreement.

Let's analyze the known facts and offered theories:
The Israelis refuse to discuss the reported bombing, something quite different from their usual attitude which depends to some extent on deterrence. Why?:
It is possible that they bombed the worng target.
It is also possible that they do not know, are not sure, what they have bombed.
Only Syria knows for sure what they have bombed, and they ain't talking.
The United States most likely knows something about it, perhaps whatever Israel knows. But that may not be that much.

So, Israel is not talking because they are not sure what they have bombed. It is unlikely that they are protecting some human asset on the ground, but it is possible.
The Syrian regime is not talking, except to acknowledge that something was bombed, because the Syrians are not that stupid and they want the Israelis and the United States to keep guessing. Why give them valuable intelligence for free?

So, both sides are playing chicken, but it is highly unlikely that Syria was working on nuclear weapons. Even Assad's advisers are not stupid enough to think that they can hide a nuclear program right in Israel's backyard, right within view of the US Sixth Fleet. And where the hell would they get the money from? The US media went too far in its paranoia, hyping up the 'nukular' angle in this episode. Or maybe it was fooled once agian.
It is not likely that this was merely a message to Iran: beating on the bully's little buddy never deters the bully- it merely shows that you fear him.

And if Israel is refusing to confirm 'what' it has bombed, how does the UN Security Council justify this unexplained raid deep into another country? What if Syrian planes bombed inside Israel (this is highly unlikely given the quality of Syrian C & C, planes and pilots)? How can a raid be justified if it is unexplained? This is definitely against the 'cogito, ergo sum' philosophy.
So, the plot thickens. More on this later, after I meditate some more.

Hill & Bill:
Hillary Clinton looks headed for the Democratic nomination, unless Iowa pulls a surprise during the caucus in January. It is possible. Her likely running mate? Well, her pillowmate, Bill Clinton. That would be the Republican's worst nightmare come true. With the Democratic majority in the House and Senate almost certain to increase, with a Democrat president, and then Clinton roaming the halls of th White House at will- and attending cabinet meetings. SNL will get a new lease on life, for the next eight years.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Libya's Colonel Qaddafi has done it again, perhaps because it worked the first time. He said yesterday that the identity and culture of North Africa is Shi'a (Shi'ite), and that it comes from the Fatimid dynasty that ruled the region from Egypt. Qaddai had called some time back for the re-establishment of the Fatimid Empire as a solution to the sectarian divide in Islam.

Qaddafi exaggerates the point about the "Shi'a identity' of North Africa, although he is right in that many Fatimid Shi'a influences have remained in Egypt and other countries of the region. One notable remaining legacy is the al-Azhar University in Cairo, which was founded by the Fatimids who establised Cairo as their capital but is now a center of (Sunni) Islamic Studies.

Last time the Colonel made such remarks he drew sharp attacks from some Arab media, especially from the vast Saudi-owned media. Some speculated that he was trying to irritate the Saudi ruling family, which he evidently did. The Saudis, in turn, were angry about reports that tied him to a plot against King Abdullah.

It is these outbursts and quirky ideas that make Qaddafi the most interesting, the only interesting, Arab leader around. His knowledge of history is not too wide off the mark either, although his intrepretation of it is quite unusual.

In Jordan a State Security court has sentenced a former legislator to one year in prison for 'insulting the state' and accusing high officials of corruption on his web site.

Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar claims today that the Shaikh of Al Azhar in Egypt has issued a fatwa that anyone who publishes rumors about the president of the country should be punished with 80 lashes. That's not so bad, at least he did not propose un-manning as a punishment for journalists. No report on what a shaikh should get for kissing up to the leader who appointed him. BTW: does a sheikh have to be a US citizen to be nominated for AG?

Iranian Schindler or Wallenberg? Iranian Television is showing a local serial in which a young Iranian diplomat posted to Europe during World War II falls in love with a Jewish girl and saves her from the Holocaust. Titled 'Journey to Nowhere', it depicts the persecution of Jews in Nazi Europe and shows them wearing mandatory the large yellow Stars of David. Media reports indicate that the serial is extremely successful in Iran. (Helloo Ahmadinejad, did you read? That spells h-o-l-o-c-a-u-s-t.) This doesn't bode well for Mahmoud's chances in his last election in 2009.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The US Senate vote in favor of a federal Iraq was met with howls of anger and dismay in the Arab world. Most of it was knee-jerk reaction to a concept that is novel in the Arab states: reduction of centralized power in favor of local autonomy! Sounds lik something Bush would espouse, not in Iraq but perhaps in, say, the USA!
Actually a federal system would be ideal for most Arab states that are tribally and ethnically heterogeneous, with the exception of Egypt, which is homogeneous (no, the two funny foreign terms have got nothing to do with eros- that would be the naked little guy with bow and arrow). It is especially appropriate for Iraq, given how much water has flown under the bridge already. The Senate vote merely recognized obvious facts on the Iraqi ground (cliches ARE useful).

Hypocrisy check: Arab governments and media commentators howled, as expected, before they had read the full text of the measure, which is based on the original Biden-Gelb proposals. Actually Arab governments don't howl, they just sniffle and titter. Perhaps they will mumble if they feel bold enough to face anyone other than their own helpless peoples- a rare occurrence these days because all bold Arab leaders have been dead for some time.

Most of the comments in the Arab media, and by Arab potentates, have railed against the vote 'to divide' Iraq. In Arabia, it is either one extreme (oppressive central rule, which is the norm) or another extreme (division and breakup). There is only black and white, with no gray area in between: something that might resonate on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The same governments that opened their airbases, naval facilities, and lands for the operation that overthrew the Ba'ath dictatorship want another strong central regime in Iraq, preferably with a Sunni honcho on top, sort of like the system the British installed in the 1920s. Some are openly lamenting the demise of the gas-and-chemical-loving old Iraqi army, and the old security services that kept people safe- safe until the midnight knock at the door came. But the Americans, strongly attached to the electoral process and the one-man one-vote ideals of the Republic, are not likely to oblige, even if they could engineer it, which is extremely doubtful fifty some years after Operation Ajax.

BTW: what the hell does the US Senate have to do with Iraq's internal governing structure? Can Iraq's parliament vote to support statehood for the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico?

Now for Lebanon: the election of a president was postponed until late October because the warlords and their factions could not agree. The March 14 group, inherited by Mr Hariri and cemented with a lot of local and foreign (Saudi, Western) money, sent its leader to Washington this weekend for consultation. Apparently Mr. Bush gave Hariri an Iftar meal and stiffened his backbone during halftime, because he came out for the third quarter roaring, insisting that the next president must be from his (March 14) group. This is not likely to happen because the opposition, also cemented with a lot of local and foreign (Iranian in this case) money, will do what oppositions are wont to do: oppose the non-opposition. Overall things look worse for Lebanese accord than they did before Mr. Hariri's visit to Washington.

The plot thickens: Mr. Bush said after his meeting with Hariri that foreign powers should not dictate who Lebanon's president should be. I assume that includes Iran, Syria, USA, France and Saudi Arabia, among others. Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Lebanese Hezbollah, claimed in a speech that Israel was the culprit behind the political assassination in Lebanon during the past year. He said that both Israel and the United States want a 'certain' kind of president for Lebanon, and insisted that both sides must agree on who the president will be. He said that a populat election may be the last resort: that would be a tricky business in the precariously balanced Lebanese population mix.

When I read Arab media recently talking of Saudi Arabia mediating among Somali factions, I did a loud 'OH, OH'. I tried a Reaganesque 'there they go again' but my wife said that it did not sound right with my accent. Saudi attempts at mediation are admirable, but they have consistently failed from the Gulf to Lebanon to Palestine. They remind me of one of my favorite books: Don Quixote, written by a Catholic infidel long ago.

BTW: It is awfully quiet along the Nile these days- not even a 'booo'. Is the old man in some sort of coma? Is his designated Dauphin already pulling the strings? Or are the military and security services, the real rulers, pulling his strings? In any case, the whole country is quiet, which is a very un-Egyptian stance.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

President Bush just vetoed SCHIP, the bill expanding children's (not childrens' as Harvard MBA's apparently are taught) health insurance by $35 billion over five years. That averages to a paltry $7 billion each year, about what the Iraq war costs in a few days. He said that it was a "step toward socialized medicine". Goody, now parents of sick children will sleep better knowing that their children will not be treated through a system that looks suspiciously like socialized medicine. Better dead than red, eh?

BTW: isn't Walter Reed operated through what is a socialized public health system? The House apparently lacks the votes to overturn the veto. Oh well, maybe after 2008 there will be enough votes to overturn such a veto...if needed.

The biggest news headline yesterday, after Britney and her brood, was that Hillary had raised $80 million to Obama’s $79 million in the first three quarters of ’07. That was taken that she was more popular, and polls indicated that she was. It was also interpreted that she was somehow more qualified to be US president. Large money feeds the candidate’s popularity, and perhaps vice versa. Perhaps: Mother Teresa could not have raised $80 million in three quarters, nor can Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt combined.

The best example of bully politics was the Columbia University-Ahmadinejad fiasco. As most of the world saw it: the president of the elite university sounded like the demagogue, albeit a nervous demagogue, while the real demagogue sounded and even looked more like a president of Columbia. People in the Middle East were reminded by local media how Columbia University officials had gushed over other guests, such paragons of democracy as General Musharraf and the late Shah of Iran- and perhaps Arab potentates who also have the habit of throwing dissidents in jail, muzzle freedoms, and behead, or hang- depending on your killing preferences- people for their sexual preferences. The sort of things the Iranian regime does.

The use of the Hitler comparison is also another type of bully politics. What is this silly habit of dusting off old Adolph every time a disagreeable Middle Eastern leader causes some trouble? It has been used for sixty years to describe Middle Eastern and Arab leaders, mainly by US politicians and almost never by Europeans who know what Hitler really did. Surely all these slick politicians can string together a few terms to make their points without having to rely on someone's ghost. Besides, the Austrian pervert was much smarter than any recent Muslim leader: he did, after all, conquer almost all of Europe, except for one pesky desolate rain-soaked island.

I was reading some data on military service online. It is shocking how almost all the neocons who are eager to play war with other people's children as canon fodder had never served. Many of them, ranging from V.P Dick Cheney down to airwave mouth-meister Rush Limbaugh got deferments of one kind or another during war, including Vietnam. But they do their share of national service during times of national crisis and peril: they go shopping in order to defeat the terrorists.
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