Help Haiti

January 13, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

cross-posted from Left Outside:

A huge 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti last night. This is one of the worst crises to crisis ridden Haiti.

The extent of the devastation is still unclear but it is likely thousands have died and many many more are trapped in the rubble. The early signs are not good, with communications down across the country Haiti’s large expatriate population are still unclear what has happened to their relatives and friends.

There is very little any of us can do but look on aghast but there are organisation which are helping.

  • Oxfam has long experience in Haiti, and they are rushing in teams from around the region to respond where they’re needed most. They already have a team in Port-au-Prince and their response will include providing clean water, shelter and sanitation. This is where my donation has been directed.
  • UNICEF have issued a statement that “Children are always the most vulnerable population in any natural disaster, and UNICEF is there for them.” UNICEF requests donations for relief for children in Haiti via their Haiti Earthquake Fund.
  • Medicins sand Frontieres are responding to the Earthquake in Haiti with their usual speed and efficiency and any donations would be of a great help.
  • Mercy Corps are also seeking donations so they can expand their aid efforts in Haiti.

More organisations seeking donations are available here. Please help in whatever way you can.

Listening to Afghanistan

January 11, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

The observant among you will note that, in the aftermath of its quite calamitous election, I became increasingly sceptical about the efficacy of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan:

So Karzai’s stolen re-election cuts at the very heart of what the Obama administration is trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Any action it takes from this point on will be seen to reinforce a rotten, corrupt, powerless and fraudulent government which has not brought anywhere near enough safety, security or prosperity to a war-ravaged people. Under these conditions, I can’t see how our presence there will be anything but counter-productive.

At the time, I thought the rationale behind that post was sound: the Obama administration were seeking to practice some form of Counter-Insurgency strategy to stabilise the country. COIN only works when military operations are accompanied by civilian outreach, aid & some measure of state-building. That’s hard enough to do under normal conditions, but Karzai’s election meant that we’d now be seen to be propping up a corrupt leader. Crucially, however, I was disturbed by the prospect of equipping this corrupt & fradulent leader with his own shiny new army.

So how to square that position with this poll by the BBC which shows the people of Afghanistan feeling quite chipper about their prospects for the year? Support for the occupying forces is reasonably high, support for either the Taliban or whatever remains of Al Qaeda is low, people have noted improvements to most areas of their lives and, tellingly, economic concerns are beginning to overtake security fears as Afghanistan’s #1 political issue. Even Karzai seems to enjoy favourable approval ratings.

I suppose the small sample size and the massive jump in figures from last year could raise questions about how representative this poll is, but let’s assume for a moment that its conclusions are sound. What to make of it? Well, it’s nice to see that some people are happy, but it doesn’t mean the Afghan mission is succeeding (indeed, most commentors conclude it is not), nor that those seemingly intractable problems have gone away. However, nor can this optimism be swiftly dismissed; many of us look to the year ahead of us in the context of the year just passed, and if the public really is positive about 2010, then it suggests they had a reasonable 2009.

But it does pose us an interesting question: how much weighting should we give to opinion polls as a measure of the success or validity of a military campaign? Should these numbers strengthen the argument for remaining in Afghanistan? Would damning numbers strengthen the argument for leaving? Critics of the Iraq invasion (myself included) frequently pointed to poll numbers which said Iraqis wanted us to leave, but if those numbers had said something different, would that have changed our minds? Probably not, which unfortunately means that we tend to use public opinion only when it suits our position. In something as serious as war and peace, that’s not really satisfactory.

Iran: The Weaker Argument Defeats The Stronger?

December 27, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

On Christmas Eve, a time ostensibly meant for peace & goodwill, the New York Times ran an epic op-ed arguing for military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear technology. Should you have the stomach to endure Alan Kuperman’s belch of war-baiting, you can go here; it’s some real ‘Deck The Halls’shit.

Because I’m not particularly interested in the substance of Kuperman’s argument (there are already some excellent rebuttals by the likes of Marc Lynch & Matt Duss), I’m instead going to note Stephen Walt’s reaction. For Walt, this is but the opening salvo of a concerted campaign to pressure President Obama into taking military action. He warns that opponents of this action should start refining their arguments now because the march for war may soon become a deafening din.

Now, Walt does occasionally overstate things, but it’s still true that for as long as the diplomatic wrangling continues, the media will continue to give space to those who’re keen to tell us what to bomb when (not if) it all fails. So I think it’s worth reflecting on what kind of shape our side of the debate is in, and to be honest, I think we could use some work.

There’s definitely a tendency to blithely assume that advocates for military action are just raving mad Bush-era leftovers who never stopped to acknowledge how their rabid war-mongering has diminished both America’s economic prosperity and its effectiveness as an international actor. Whilst that’s true in many cases, although the pro-bombing crowd has the weaker argument, it could still have the winning argument.

First, opponents of military action should acknowledge that the negotiations/sanctions tactic might fail & that Iran might succeed in developing a nuclear deterrent. When people like Kuperman accuse us of ‘appeasement’, it’s partly because we write as though negotiations will end the diplomatic stand-off. That could happen, but I’m not betting any money on it.

So we should write with the assumption that Iran could one day have a nuclear deterrent, and that even if that day came, bombing would remain a bad idea. To do this, there are four arguments: that a strike would have negative consequences for the US & its allies, that it would stoke massive instability in the region, and deal a damaging blow to whatever remains of the green revolution. The fourth argument is that Iran is a rational player in international politics, and that building a bomb doesn’t mean they will use it. That last one’s going to be the toughest for folks to accept.

If a country like Switzerland was in the process of building a bomb, there’d be few people flinching with fear. Sure, that’s partly because the Swiss are friendly, democratic & secular, but also because we assume they would adhere to the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction. In contrast, one of the consequences of 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror is that it’s left the impression that Muslim states, societies & citizens have such a reflex for martyrdom that the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction has no weight. If this were true, then being hit with a retaliatory nuke would be a glorious event for it would further the jihad and bring the Iranian dead closer to Allah.

If people believe that the Iranians are prepared to use a nuclear weapon against Israel – or anyone else – then they’ll be much more amenable to the idea of making the first strike. The way we win the public debate is by demonstrating that whilst Iran may have a vile regime, it’s not being led by suicidal lunatics. Sadly, I fear that might not be an easy argument to win.

New trouble in Guinea

December 22, 2009 at 8:20 pm | Posted in International | 1 Comment


I apologise for going all Geldof on you this Christmas, but I think it’s worth noting the anniversary of an event that’s led to some grim consequences in The Republic of Guinea.

Last year, Guinean President Lansana Conté died after a long illness. He’d held power since 1984, and whilst there wasn’t much of a democracy during that time, there was at least a procedure to ensure a succession and swift elections.

Moussa Dadis Camara had other ideas. Just hours after Conté’s death, army captain Camara went on state TV and announced a coup d’état. Fresh elections, he warned, would not be for at least two years, rather than the constitutionally-mandated 60 days.

On 28th September – the anniversary of the referendum which won Guinea its independence – supporters of the opposition filled a football stadium to demand Camara’s resignation. And all hell broke loose.

Security forces stormed into the stadium and fired on the crowd, leaving 157 dead and over a thousand injured. Now the UN’s report into the events seems to confirm many of the horror stories which were reported: Camara’s men went on the rampage, committing murder, rape and torture against people inside the stadium and nearby villages. The accounts [pdf] of these acts are heinous and gruesome, and the descriptions of sexual violence could turn even the strongest stomach.

The UN claims there is clear evidence of crimes against humanity, and has referred the case to the ICC. The report names three men as directly responsible for the violence: President Camara himself, his chief aide, Lt. Aboubacar Chérif Diakité, and a third officer who is in charge of the special services.

What complicated matters is that two of these suspects are rather indisposed: Camara is currently recovering from an assassination attempt after Diakité worried that he was being set up as the fall guy. All of this has led to yet more instability & violence, as observers warn that a power struggle between rival commanders could lead to a civil war which would destabilise the entire region. West African regional group ECOWAS – which suspended Guinea’s membership after Camara’s coup – is so concerned that it’s already called for foreign troops to prevent violence from escalating further.

Now, Guinea isn’t yet on the brink of civil war – it’s suffered instability even during President Conté’s reign and managed to recover – but the current power vacuum, the army’s rank indiscipline & the country’s parlous financial state all add up to the perfect conditions for conflict. Given this, the international community should be vigilant of the dangers in Guinea and take as many diplomatic steps as possible to encourage some measure of stability for its people.

They had also better move quickly – as last year’s events showed, they don’t stop to partake in much festive cheer.

Update: This video illustrates some of the violence that the UN went to investigate. I know that feminist blogs have a trigger warning when it comes to this sort of stuff, so I thought I’d better put that in there.

Just what is ‘getting tough’ on Iran?

December 14, 2009 at 8:58 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

If you ever come across a problem that you can’t ‘get tough’ on, I’m afraid you’re probably not cut out for politics. If one thing has been drearily consistent in this breakneck decade, it’s the sense that the root of all our problems can be found in someone, somewhere being too ‘soft’ on something. If we really are in danger from all this softness, then the only possible solution is to replace it with something ‘tough’, and so our politicians have ‘got tough’ on crime, drugs, immigration, asylum seekers, benefit claimants and even bankers. Well, almost.

But whenever someone calls for politicians to ‘get tough’ on something, it’s usually followed by a doing word. For example, were I to run as an MP, I might promise to “get tough” on dumbing down in schools by making all 8-year-olds recite the Iliad in its original language. Or if I wanted to ‘get tough’ on drugs I might wish to punish offenders by making them spend an entire month in the company of someone who’s high on cocaine.

So ‘getting tough’ usually means a person has an idea of how it might be achieved. Unless you’re Luke Bozier, who spends over 400 words on LabourList positively shitting himself about the “new Iran N-bomb evidence” and worriedly asking when the West will wake up and – yes, you guessed it – ‘get tough’.

I highlight this not out of antipathy towards Bozier’s rather innocuous piece, but to demonstrate that Iran is one of those strange policy areas where people can get away with demanding action without offering any proposals for how our apparently ‘soft’ policy can be made tougher. In fact, because Bozier doesn’t demonstrate any evidence that he’s even considered the alternatives, I’ll have a go on his behalf.

There are, as far as I can see, three ways the West can deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The first is to negotiate a peaceful settlement wherein Iran is only able to ‘go nuclear’ for the purpose of heating the stoves in Tehran. This has been the policy since President Obama was inaugurated; it has seen its share of successes & setbacks and it may well end with Iran having a nuclear weapon.

The second possibility is to impose sanctions with the hope of either materially crippling Iran’s weapon-making capability or hoping that internal dissent would eventually topple the government. The problem with this is that you’ve got to get China and Russia to play along, and whilst the Kremlin’s stance on sanctions has softened, I wouldn’t expect them to agree to any sanctions regime which would satisfy the ‘get tough’ brigade. There’s also no guarantee that it’ll stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon anyway.

And so the third possibility is military action. This could conceivably stop Tehran’s ambitions once and for all, but would also serve to rally a previously disgusted public around its government. What’s more, we simply do not have the resources, will or public support for anything other than a few finger-crossing bombing raids based on the available intelligence. And how good was our intelligence in the last war of choice?

Critics of the current policy towards Iran are entirely free to characterise the Obama administration’s position as being one of quivering vacillation if that’s what they truly perceive. But by trying to frame this as an argument about what is ‘soft’ or ‘tough’ you give the impression that there are simple solutions and any repercussions of our new ‘toughness’ will only be felt by the Iranians. This is simply a fiction.

The truth is that there are no guaranteed ways of persuading a paranoid & cantankerous crank state that it has no need a nuclear deterrent, especially when it has spent most of the past decade feeling threated by countries with nukes of their own. ‘Getting tough’ isn’t a policy; it’s a slogan, and one wielded enthusiastically by those who’re either too timorous or entrenched to consider all points of view. That’s something we can do without.

‘Withdrawal timetables = defeat’?

December 2, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Posted in International | 3 Comments

You can tell that everyone’s getting pretty sick of war when even its proponents start regurgitating old arguments. This, from ConHome’s Alex Deane, might as well have been copied & pasted from some blogpost about withdrawal from Iraq:

As I’ve pointed out on this site before, once you set a timetable for withdrawal, you have doomed yourself to defeat. The enemy knows that he must merely wait you out – and, perhaps, force you to bring forward your timetable by escalating his efforts.

First, does that mean we’ve already been defeated in Iraq? Or are we just due for a defeat at some point in the not-too-distant future?

The next thing I’m confused about is the enemy’s apparently miraculous ability to ‘wait us out’ and ‘escalate his efforts’ against us. I’d always thought that to ‘wait someone out’ in combat meant reserving & consolidating your limited resources until it becomes opportune to strike again. To escalate suggests the opposite: that more resources (lives, money, weaponry, infrastructure) will be put at stake in order to inflict immediate losses on your foe. Is Deane really telling us that the Taliban are capable of doing both? If so, then we must be fighting insurgents who’re more advanced than any in the western world.

Deane’s next argument is basically that the Obama adminstration is making soldiers sad:

You demoralise your troops, who wonder why on earth they’re giving their all to an apparently important campaign that’s about to cease at some arbitrary near-future date; and you demoralise your allies in the country concerned, who now have a date on the calendar on which to focus their dread of your impending abandonment.

This is a classic case of tom-ay-toh vs tom-ah-toh. Where Deane sees demoralised troops and allies who’ve abandoned all hope in NATO’s mission, I’d expect that after 8 years of setbacks, under-resourcing, poorly-conceived objectives and thousands of deaths, the military might find that being given a set amount of time to achieve specific goals is a rather refreshing change. As for furrowing the brows of our Afghan allies, I’d argue that the timetable for Iraq withdrawal did achieve some progress in what was a collapsed & stagnant political process. Maybe the same trick won’t work in Afghanistan, but it’ll at least concentrate some minds in the Karzai administration that they’d better find ways of getting the state to function. Their jobs – and possibly even their lives – will depend upon it.

Beyond these two unconvincing arguments, I don’t think it’d hurt to note what President Obama actually said last night:

But taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We’ll continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

So the Afghan forces will begin to assume respsonsibility in July 2011, meaning America can begin to move some forces out of the country. How quickly that will happen was never stated, and it was stressed that conditions on the ground would need to be met. If a missing batallion of batshit jihadists suddenly stir from their cave in August there will still be a large American military presence, and when these forces have left, there will be a shiny new Afghan army to defend the peace (or so we’re told).

For what it’s worth, it’s always possible that Deane is right and this policy won’t succeed; Obama’s speech didn’t manage to convince me that it’s possible to hand over security to the Afghan people within that time, nor whether it’s even a good idea to give a corrupt & fraudulent government its own working military. But where Deane somehow sees withdrawal dates as an invitation to the enemy, I’d like to bet that if we do fail – after 10 years, two presidents, several different generals, tens of thousands of soldiers and billions of dollars – setting a date for withdrawal will be pretty low down the list of reasons why we lost.

Other people’s kids

December 1, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International | Leave a comment

As President Obama prepares to explain why an extra 30,000 American service personnel are needed in Afghanistan, it’s probably wise to reacquaint ourselves with some of the young men he’s ordering to save the country from ruin. David Wood has met a few of them in his time:

They are tough, boisterous and mostly likable. They are offered enormous responsibility, which most of them seize with an eagerness that would catch the attention of anyone who has raised teenagers. I forget sometimes just how young they are. A few years ago, I was lazing in the dust with a bunch of Marines during a break in training. Already combat veterans, they were about to deploy back to Iraq. They’d been practicing getting ambushed and killing the ambushers, and now they were chatting about computer games.

“Hey, did’ja ever get ‘Gears of War?’ ” asked Louis Duran, 19

“Nah, I was gonna,” said his buddy, Steven Aspling, 20, “but my Mom wouldn’t let me.”

I’m sure the President’s speech this evening will be a sombre occasion, filled with poetic flourishes about freedom, American bravery and foreboding about the costs of failure. I’m sure we’ll hear the requisite warnings about what might happen if terrorism flourishes in Afghanistan, but little mention about the terrorism which already flourishes in countries we don’t occupy, like Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen & Indonesia. I’m sure we’ll be reminded that the battle will be hard, that success isn’t inevitable, and that the cost will include yet more ‘tough, boisterous and likable’ young American lives.

What we probably won’t hear is why we should continue to lend legitimacy to an illegitimate government, or how stability can be achieved throughout the country when the cancer of corruption has spread throughout its capital. The calamity which was Afghanistan’s recent election still hasn’t been properly addressed by the Obama administration, its impact on security still hasn’t been properly considered, and its effect on NATO’s mission has never been fully absorbed.

None of this means the President’s policy is doomed to failure, but it does demonstrate that the obstacles to success in Afghanistan are quite luminously clear, and any attempt to articulate a strategy without recognising this does a grave injustice to the young men & women this President commands.

They don’t need hope, Mr President. They need truth.

Hannan on minarets

November 30, 2009 at 9:01 pm | Posted in International | 4 Comments

Is it still committing heresy to link favourably to Daniel Hannan? Ah well, I was never going to be invited to the Cool Kids’ table anyway:

The decision by Swiss voters to outlaw the construction of minarets strikes me as regrettable on three grounds.

First, it is at odds with that other guiding Swiss principle, localism: issues of this kind ought surely to be settled town by town, or at least canton by canton, not by a national ban.

Second, it is disproportionate. There may be arguments against the erection of a particular minaret by a particular mosque – but to drag a constitutional amendment into the field of planning law is using a pneumatic drill to crack a nut.

Third, it suggests that Western democracies have a problem, not with jihadi fruitcakes, but with Muslims per se – which is, of course, precisely the argument of the jihadi fruitcakes.

Hannan’s last point is surely the most important. Whilst there may have been a few Swiss voters who voted for the ban solely out of aesthetic antipathy, I suspect they were somewhat outnumbered by people who voted because they are suspicious, wary or even scared of their Muslim countrymen.

If a number of amateur bloggers can speculate that fear of Muslims led to this vote, you can be pretty sure that Swiss Muslims have gotten the message, too. And therein lies the problem; othering often leads to more marginalisation, segregation, exclusion, distrust and bitterness than existed before. Those are pretty ripe conditions for political and religious extremism to fester, and so the proponents of the ban are actually succeeding in compounding a problem they supposedly wish to reduce. So they’re either dishonest or deeply daft.

I’m not going to claim that there’s some silver bullet for achieving greater social & cultural integration, and I’m not going to pass myself off as any kind of expert about extinguishing militant theism. But I do know that neither of those aims are going to be achieved by winning small-minded & petty restrictions on what religious buildings look like.

EDIT: Yeah, I somehow managed to spell ‘minarets’ wrong. I either need a proof reader or another coffee.

Beating around the Bush

November 6, 2009 at 10:36 am | Posted in International | 3 Comments

Despite all the quadrennial talk of ‘change’ and the blitzkrieg ferocity of political debate, there’s always far more that stays the same in American politics than really changes. Lobbyists are still writing cheques, politicians still act out of calculation as much as conviction, and there’s always someone, somewhere, who wants to seccede from the Union.

Similarly, Presidents inherit most of the sins or virtues of their predecessors without seeking or succeeding to change them. Sometimes they are constrained by the Constitution, Congress or political expediency, sometimes they are too timid to attempt change and sometimes the policies they inherited just happen to work.

The continuity which underlies the frenzied war games of Washington D.C. is – or should be – a fairly basic observation for anyone acquainted with American politics. However, such is the level of discourse at the New Statesman, this fact that some Presidents can inherit the misdeeds of their predecessors has been treated as some profound front page revelation.

Just last month they published a piece by Mehdi Hasan comparing President Obama to George W. Bush and noting the areas in which the Democrat had failed to roll back some of the most egregious misuses of executive power: Guantanamo is still open, rendition still occurs, state secrecy is still forcefully invoked and those suspected of authorising the use of torture have not been prosecuted.

Hasan is at it again on his blog, fisking a ‘silly’ and ‘pointless’ rebuttal by Ken Gude of the Centre for American Progress and speculating about why some people didn’t like his original piece.

The Obamaniacs didn’t like my take. They don’t want to hear about assassinations in Pakistan, renditions in the Middle East, torture in Gitmo — that all stopped when Bush left for Dallas, right? Wrong. In several areas but, in particular, in national security policy, Obama has picked up Bush’s baton and run with it.

Possibly. Alternatively, maybe being the kind of writer who’ll describe supporters of this President as ‘Obamaniacs’ means you’ll just irritate a whole bunch of people without knowing it. By throwing around this crude little put-down, Hasan is implying that support for the President can only come from ignorance or irrationality; we are either blind to the black marks against his Presidency or, drunk on hope juice, we blithely slur that we’ll love him whatever he does. This is really just thinly-disguised political misanthrope; it’s crass when Melanie Phillips uses it , and it doesn’t come across as any more sophisticated when it’s used by someone on the left.

Of course President Obama has made some mistakes and bad decisions. He’s been too timorous in restoring transparency & human rights to the field of national security, has heavily-diluted some of the more progressive planks of his election platform, has been lamentably slow in pushing for gay rights and America’s foreign policy is guided more by naked self-interest than at any time since Bush 41. But he’s also being blamed for a bunch of things that aren’t entirely his fault, and critics should remember that the President cannot get much through Congress (including healthcare & a climate change bill) without 60 votes in the Senate. If you don’t recognise how difficult that is, then your expectations at the start really were too high.

Furthermore, it’s completely possible to accept the existence of all those mistakes and still feel that the President has made a reasonably good start to his first term.

In less than a year, he’s ordered an end to the use of torture, passed a $787 billion stimulus package, voided most of the petty ‘signing statements’ of his predecessor, expanded health care to around 4 million children, begun moves towards reducing America’s nuclear arsenal, instructed the EPA to start regulating carbon emissions, worked to repair relations around the world, announced plans for high-speed rail networks, reversed the previous administration’s prosecutorial stance on medical marijuana, ended the travel ban on people with HIV, overturned the global gag rule, pledged $900 million in aid to Gaza and $300 million to flood-ravaged Haiti, signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, supported a UN statement calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, encouraged tougher financial regulation, proposed a decent budget and appointed a progressive to the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, America is in a better place than this time a year ago, and there is still scope for major achievements in the future. If none of this is enough to rid him of the comparisons to ‘Dubya’, my guess is you’re giving Bush far more credit than he deserves.

No Distance Left To Run

November 3, 2009 at 9:19 pm | Posted in International | 5 Comments

Although President Obama has yet to announce whether he’ll commit more troops to Afghanistan, I think we can be certain of one thing: that what is being agonised-over in Washington’s defence & foreign policy establishments isn’t a choice between war and peace, but rather what type of war they’d rather wage.

For a long time, the clear favourite seemed to be a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy. COIN advocates have argued that military operations must be accompanied by civilian outreach, aid & some measure of state-building. For a counter-insurgency to work, the institutions upon which the civilian population relies have to be restored and defended, thereby thwarting an insurgent’s ability to erode the state’s legitimacy & authority. If you believe that this strategy can work in Afghanistan, then it is self-evident that General McChrystal should have all the troops he needs.

However, you should only defend the legitimacy of a state when you’re working with a legitimate government. With Afghanistan’s calamitous, bloody and fraudulent election, the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai’s competitor and the subsequent declaration that this ineffective crook was the ‘victor’, it is wishful thinking to regard this government as being in any way legitimate.

This matters because one of the favoured options for going forward in Afghanistan relies on protecting and strengthening the major population centres; trying to restore the link between the state and the people and providing greater safety & prosperity. However, as one military intelligence official recently told the NYT, “if we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves.”

So Karzai’s stolen re-election cuts at the very heart of what the Obama administration is trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Any action it takes from this point on will be seen to reinforce a rotten, corrupt, powerless and fraudulent government which has not brought anywhere near enough safety, security or prosperity to a war-ravaged people. Under these conditions, I can’t see how our presence there will be anything but counter-productive. Maybe the conversation they should be having in the White House is about devising an exit strategy.

Jordan king expected ‘more, sooner’ on Mideast peace.

October 19, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

Someone’s Hope Juice is running low:

In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica, King Abdullah II said the region’s hopes for peace were huge at the start of the Obama administration, but now sees the goal getting farther away.

“I’ve heard people in Washington talking about Iran, again Iran, always Iran,” Abdullah was quoted as saying.

“But I insist on, and keep insisting on the Palestinian question: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most serious threat to the stability of the region and the Mediterranean,” he added.

There are some things King Abdullah gets right in this interview. He’s correct, for instance, that Israel-Palestine is still the greatest threat to regional instabilty, and that whilst Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons might cause a frightening arms race, those seeking confrontation with Ahmadinejad really do elevate him to a status he doesn’t deserve. More importantly, whilst things have improved on the West Bank, the situation in the Gaza Strip remains a humanitarian emergency in a way that the Iran problem isn’t.

Abdullah’s warning that there is a ‘window of opportunity’ in the region which is threatening to close also happens to be an argument Marc Lynch & Brian Katulis made in a report for the Centre for American Progress, which calls on the Obama administration to build on its initial positive steps in the region by helping strengthen Palestinian civic institutions, take immediate steps to help in Gaza and conduct better public outreach to explain its objectives to the Palestinian and Israeli public.

I’m surprised, however, by the King’s disappointment at diplomatic developments (or lack of them); surely he’s lived long enough & seen enough American Presidents fail this challenge not to set his hopes too high. Personally, I think Obama’s initial moves were encouraging: his appointments of Clinton & Mitchell showed seriousness of purpose, his Cairo speech was a part of a necessary rebranding, and his repeated calls for a settlement freeze showed understanding of how serious an impediment that was to progress.

I guess the question of America’s effectiveness ultimately boils down to this: has the administration dealt with Israeli instransigence over settlements in the right way? Alas, that’s a pretty difficult thing to answer. The Obama administration could have been more forceful over settlements, and could even – as George H. W. Bush did in ’91 – have made a settlement freeze a condition of Israel’s aid package. But it’s Congress, not the White House, which controls the aid Israel receives, and as Bush 41 found out when he tried to toughen America’s stance, Congress does not react well. As Stephen Zunes reminds us, in ’91, Bush was excoriated for the proposal by Congressmen insistent that aid should come with no conditions. Some of the most prominent people attacking him were Democrats.

So if the Obama administration doesn’t feel there’s anything it can do at its end to force Israel into a settlement freeze, perhaps it can do something at the other end. There is evidence to suggest that Israelis are turning away from these settlements and regarding them more as an expensive liability than a necessity, and that Netanyahu’s government has a far tougher line than its own, frustrated population. Maybe the Obama administration could exploit this by practicing the kind of public outreach proposed by Lynch & Katulis.

Maybe what the administration needed in addition to the Cairo speech was an address in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Perhaps by restating his own commitment to Israel’s security & explaining why he believes the settlements put that security at risk, the U.S. could find a way of dislodging some of the stubbornness which is rife in that country’s political class.

This is all theoretical, of course, and there may be very good reasons why it’s a very bad idea. But I do think that more could be achieved if the administration sought to reach out to the Israeli public in the same way as they’ve reached out to people in the ‘Arab world’.

Islam, misogyny and the limits of feminism

September 5, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Feminisms, International | 9 Comments

Should anyone wonder why Heresy Corner is held in such high regard, this response to my recent post on Islam & western feminism should prove instructive. When something is this well written & persuasively argued , you wonder whether it’s even possible to make a critique, even if you do have disagreements.

Expanding on what I thought were misguided generalisations about feminism’s ‘betrayal’ of Muslim women, The Heresiarch accepts that there are plenty of feminist writers & organisations who do take an interest in the misogyny practiced in the name of Islam. Nonetheless, Heresiarch contends, there remains a feminist mainstream; a “largely middle-class, whitish, left-leaning, “progressive”, Guardian-reading type of feminism” which can be accused of barely paying lip service to what happens beyond their borders.

Instead, these ‘mainstream’ feminists obsess over provincial issues – female representation in positions of power, equality in the workplace, pornography, prostitution & sexual harassment – which appear minor when compared to acts like genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour killings & banning women from working or learning. After quoting my (by no means comprehensive) compilation of blogs & organisations who do show vigilance, Heresiarch responds. “It’s not that feminists never talk about these issues. It’s just that I seriously wonder why they ever talk about anything else.”

My first problem is this: if we are to accept that the relatively minor challenges at home bring the injustices abroad into sharp relief, and conclude from this that feminist activism on domestic issues is at best frivolous, and at worst ‘limitless self-regard’, then the same charge could be made of most of us. What on earth are we doing whinging about incandescent light bulbs when there are villages in Africa without electricity or sanitation? Why do we indulge in panics about our social services when around 1 in 4 Zimbabwean children is an orphan? Sure, the expenses scandal might be an affront to our democracy, but why not take a trip to Burma and see if we prefer how they do things over there?

We may be considerably more healthy, better educated, more materially well-off and more free than billions of people across the planet, but that does not stop us from being restless; demanding that we improve further; imagining a better future for our country. Whilst our problems may be minor in a global context, and though we might sometimes overstate their importance, to campaign on domestic issues need not signal apathy for problems elsewhere, regardless of the movement or ideology you subscribe to.

But aside from feeling a sense that Heresiarch’s response expects more of feminists than would be expected of other political movements, I think his snipes at relativism & his expectations of what western feminists could achieve for Muslims are misjudged.

In June 2007, the Carnegie Endowment published a report which noted the growth of some kind of feminist movement in countries like Egypt & Lebanon. Sure enough, the report was ignored by all & sundry – no feminists publicised their cause and no neo-cons clucked about ‘freedom on the march’. Why was this encouraging development not heavily publicised? Because the trend being observed was happening within Islamist organisations, and the women the authors interviewed were members of Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood.

The report found that these groups began appealing to women purely as a means of expanding their political power. However, as time went on they became dissatisfied with being relegated to ‘women’s branches’, and started agitating for greater representation, the right to work and the right to study. Whilst western feminists have always been able to frame these issues in secular rhetoric, for the ‘Islamist feminists’, their arguments have remained rooted in their faith:

Rather they believe that the cause of women’s rights needs to be pursued by reviving Islamic thought and promoting a new interpretation of the Quran and Sunna. They dismiss the idea that by advocating such interpretation they are rejecting an established body of Islamic law and thought, claiming instead that they are building on the contributions of previous generations using the same tools of interpretation.

Indeed, many of the women campaigning for equality do not consider themselves ‘feminist’ at all, and regard western feminism with a great deal of scepticism, charging that it is excessively individualistic, anti-family, and obsessed with the ‘irrelevant’ issue of gay rights:

By contrast, Islamic activists are concerned with the entire community, which they want to be just and egalitarian within an Islamic framework, recognizing not only the intrinsic equality between men and women but also the different roles they play.

Obviously, there is much about Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood which we find repulsive, regardless of whether we identify as secularists, feminists or none of the above. It is also true that this incipient ‘feminism’ is starting from a very low base, and that there are far more appealing groups who advocate secularisation as a means of achieving equality. Some, such as Wafa Sultan, even argue that it is Islam itself, and not just the interpretation of it, which is fundamental to sustaining women’s inequality. But whilst Sultan may be feted in the west, she is widely-rejected by Muslim scholars who view her as implacably opposed to their faith.

But given how badly secular voices are marginalised in this area, what seems apparent is that if there is to be a move towards better rights for Muslim women, it will have to demonstrate how those rights can be compatible with Islam. To that end, the Carnegie report speculates that ‘Islamist feminism’ actually stands a greater chance of achieving its goals than some secular, western-influenced version:

It is premature at this point to conclude that a full-fledged Islamist paradigm for addressing women’s issues and concerns has emerged, but there is certainly an attempt to develop one. And if such a paradigm were to become widely accepted, it could be enormously influential in the Arab world and more broadly in the Muslim world, much more so than the efforts to promote women’s rights by Western and Western supported feminist organizations.

For me, these developments demonstrate that rather than simply peddling cultural relativism, the consensus among feminists that change should come from within Muslim societies actually seems like pragmatic politics. If feminists embraced the ‘Islamist feminism’ that women are trying to spread through groups like Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood, feminism’s critics wouldn’t be asking ‘where are the western feminists?’ but rather ‘why do feminists hate the west?’ Equally, if they stood squarely behind the kind of secular feminism which more closely resembles their own, they would only succeed in further toxifying an ideology which is already looked-upon with great suspicion.

Heresiarch’s contention that feminists could bring great pressure to bear on their governments to demand the end to misogynistic practices also strikes me as a little optimistic. At present, the ability of western (particularly British & American) governments to use their power to influence foreign governments is more restricted than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In nine months alone, the Obama administration has pondered a deal with the murderous regime in Uzbekistan, has broken a promise to officially recognise the Armenian genocide, and made a speech in Cairo with barely a mention of women’s rights. Each of these decisions were morally questionable, yet all could be rationalised as acting in the self-interest of the United States.

These are not good times to be an internationalist. With staggering deficits, two wars & a massively depleted political capital, human rights advocates, secularists & feminists all face quite insurmountable hurdles towards getting our governments to intervene in cases of rank injustice. As dreadful as it might be, I suspect that even if feminists did all band together to demand that their government get tough on the abysmal Karzai government, the Obama administration wouldn’t possess either the will or the means to follow that through.

Ultimately, I suspect the differences between myself and Heresiarch are relatively minor. Whilst we might differ on matters of strategy or whether feminists should be doing more, we can both agree that secular governance is just objectively better than any superstition-fuelled alternative, and that secularism is the surest way of abandoning centuries of misogyny. Lastly, we both know who the real culprits are for allowing this misogyny to continue, and that certainly it isn’t other women.

Better the devil you know?

August 17, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

When Israel launched its military offensive against Hamas last year, critics of the operation made a number of important points. First, we argued that it was a fantasy to believe these raids would do anything more than briefly reduce its ability to toss rockets into Israel, and that there would be no prospect of either destroying the group, or fatally weakening its grip over the Gaza Strip. But more importantly than that, we also insisted that it was a mistake to think Hamas’ defeat would end Israel’s security problems.

Whilst there’s always a (very slight) possibility that Hamas could implode or that the people of Gaza will eventually turn to the more moderate & cuddly Fatah, given the amount of poverty & raw despair in the territories, it’s far more likely that whatever did replace the militant group would be even more extreme, more reactionary and more likely to render peace between Israel & Palestine as impossible.

We’ve seen some evidence of that in recent days, as a deadly shootout between members of Hamas and a militant splinter group demonstrates that some of the alternatives to Hamas are even uglier. Jund Ansar Allah, the group at the centre of the violence, has become increasingly critical of Hamas in recent months, has demanded the imposition of Sharia law and has even – and somewhat presumptuously – declared Gaza an ‘Islamic emirate’.

Whilst both these groups share the same self-defeating hatred of Israel, their ultimate aims are very different. For Hamas, the primary goal is the creation of an independent Palestinian state. For Jund Ansar Allah, it is the violent imposition of Taliban-style stone age religious subserviance. If there’s one thing the Gaza Strip doesn’t need right now, it’s a group which attacks Hamas for being too liberal.

One of the naive hopes people had about isolating Hamas was that when Palestinians were able to see how little the group was able to achieve, they would soon return their support to a group like Fatah, who Israel and the international community felt they could do business with.

Instead, the dissatisfaction with Hamas seems to be leading some Palestinians towards the more extreme factions. Jund Ansar Allah was only started in November and now claims to have over 500 soldiers. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to give both Israel & Hamas significant security concerns.

I can understand, of course, the reluctance people feel about negotiating with a group which doesn’t recognise the state of Israel, but if it seems that Hamas is currently the best of an extraordinarily bad bunch, it may be better to talk to them than one day confront a much fouler beast. After all, Israel, Hamas and the United States do all have one thing in common: nobody wants to see Gaza become a stomping ground for Al Qaeda-inspired lunatics. As grounds for peace go, it’s not much, but it’s a start.

Webb’s mission to Burma

August 15, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

aung san suu kyi jim webb 1

You’re not exactly spoilt for choice, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more interesting member of the U.S. Congress than Jim Webb. A decorated Vietnam veteran who still defends the decision to go to war; an outspoken opponent of the invasion of Iraq; a journalist & author; a former Secretary of the Navy; a former Republican and now the Senior Democratic Senator from the traditionally conservative state of Virginia.

But it’s not just Webb’s rich life story which makes him interesting; he’s also won admirers for the kinds of issues he works on. Whilst widely-regarded as conservative, Webb is one of the few politicians to speak out about the vast inequalities of wealth in the United States, even going so far as to speak of ‘class struggle‘. He’s also started trying to raise awareness about America’s broken prisons, and is proposing reforms to the criminal justice system and drug laws which might lead to fewer people rotting away in jails.

But it’s Webb’s mission to Burma which will stand as the most significant moment in the Senator’s short legislative career. As the highest ranking American to visit this vile dictatorship in 10 years, there’ll be much comment in the next few days over what might have been achieved, what could be achieved in the future and what this reveals about the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

The first superficial signs seem positive. The release of Alan Yettaw, the man arrested for trying to meet imprisoned democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, was described by his own lawyer as ‘impossible’ prior to the meeting, and yet he will soon be back on American soil and subject to the barrage of media offers which will follow. Additionally, in meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, Webb achieved what even the U.N. Secretary General has not yet been able to.

But the longer-term consequences are much harder to predict. Just as President Clinton was criticised for having his picture taken with Kim Jong-il, so critics of the Obama administration will claim that this trip threatens to legitimise one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. Exiled Burmese democrats have already warned that the meeting will be manipulated by the military junta for propaganda purposes, and I’m sure they’re right. Furthermore, there does seem to be little ground for compromise with a regime for which brutal suppression of human rights is the primary means of self-preservation.

Yet it’s not entirely clear to me that there was any realistic alternative: successive sanctions regimes have failed, the state remains able to trade with its neighbours and, crucially, the dictatorship retains the quiet support of the Chinese. Also, in the context of President Clinton’s trip to North Korea, a similar outreach to the junta was perhaps inevitable. Given the rumours about Burma’s collusion with the Koreans to obtain a nuclear weapon, it seems sensible for Washington to have at least established some form of diplomatic contact. In the event that Burma did join the nuclear club, the voices for dialogue would suddenly become much louder and more numerous.

At the moment, we can’t see Webb’s visit to Burma as anything other than an experiment which has yielded one small success. It remains to be seen how much further the United States is willing to go to engage with either Burma or North Korea, and whether either of those states will be able to make the kinds of concessions that American diplomacy demands. What is clear, though, is the extent to which the Obama administration is committed to trying the kinds of diplomatic overtures which haven’t been considered by the foreign policy establishment in a very, very long time. With so few alternatives, our only recourse may be to hope that they’re right.

This is your war on drugs

August 13, 2009 at 3:48 pm | Posted in Drugs, International | 1 Comment

death saint

On 16th February 2002, Valentina Rosendo Cantú was washing her clothes in a stream near her home in Caxitepec, Mexico, when six soldiers approached. Seemingly too busy for pleasantries, the men started barking questions at her: Who was she? Where was she from? Had she seen the people they were looking for? Did she recognise the names on the list they thrust in front of her?

Her answers weren’t good enough, so one soldier pulled a gun and threatened to shoot. Another punched her so hard that she passed out. When she came to, two men tore off her underwear and raped her, one after the other. She was sixteen years old.

It took several months for Valentina to find a doctor willing to treat her; her nearest hospital turned her away because they didn’t want any trouble from the military. The next nearest, which she walked for eight hours to reach, examined her but offered no medicine. Only after legal action was threatened did she finally receive the gynecological care she needed.

At the time of writing, no criminal prosecution has ever been brought against these men and no one has been formally disciplined by a military which has perpetually dragged its feet over investigations. Some 7 years later, she still hasn’t found justice.

This case is just one of many allegations of human rights abuses levelled at the Mexican military in pursuit of an expensive, bloody and failed war on drugs. As well as rape, the allegations include enforced disappearance, torture, arbitrary detention and unlawful killing. And it’s all being bankrolled by the United States of America.

Last year, Congress approved the Mérida Initiative , a 3 year aid deal worth $1.4 billion which was designed to equip and train the Mexican security forces against drug cartels & organised crime – one of countless handouts the country’s received in the past few decades. One of the conditions of the deal was that the country should receive a routine certification by the State Department that it was adhering to human rights obligations. That report was ready for publication, and the money was waiting to be released. And then someone threw a fork in the road.

Last week, Democrat Patrick Leahy blocked the report’s publication, insisting that Mexico had not met its obligations, and reflecting rising concern that American money was subsidising a security service which appears corrupt, unaccountable and sometimes barbaric. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for this aid to be frozen until the military is made more accountable for the crimes committed by its officers.

But the real question should be how much longer we can tolerate this grossly expensive, brutal & fruitless war on drugs. For decades the United States has lavished money on Central/Latin America and beyond for the purpose of fighting narco-trafficking; it’s sent these countries arms and trained their military, and all it’s ever achieved are momentary, short-lived price rises. Cartels have risen & fallen, gangsters have come & gone, Presidents have been elected & defeated. Yet for all the money it spends in its own country and throughout the region, it has never once looked like it was winning.

Instead, we just keep piling up the victims. If the ‘war on drugs’ really was a proper war, then the rape of Valentina Rosendo Cantu, and many other cases cited this Human Rights Watch report, might well have constituted a war crime . If that doesn’t bring into sharp focus the kinds of acts we’re subsidising in order to fight a drugs trade which will never end, then I’m not sure anything will.

(Image: A man with a tattoo of the “Santa Muerte,” or “Death Saint,” attends a protest by the folk saint’s followers against the destruction of their shrines in Mexico City, Sunday, April 5, 2009. Mexico’s government is targeting the folk saint, destroying “Santa Muerte” shrines in its all-out war on the cartels, saying the unofficial religion is usually a sign of something more sinister: Crime, drugs, even brutal killings.)

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