Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Darfur war criminals named

Prosecutors of the International Criminal Court are now pursuing suspects of war crimes in Darfur. It should be noted here that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is not the same as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that cleared Serbia yesterday of genocide in Bosnia during the 1990’s. The ICC handles crimes against humanity and the ICJ handles disputes between sovereign states. The ICJ is known to move at a “glacial pace” – Bosnia had filed the formal complaint against Serbia in 1993 that was finally ruled upon yesterday. Let’s hope the ICC will move a little faster.

With that clarification, this report is from the BBC:
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court have named a minister and a militia leader who they suspect of war crimes in Sudan's Darfur region.

Ahmed Haroun, state humanitarian affairs minister, and Janjaweed militia leader Ali Muhammad Ali Abd al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, were named.

Some 200,000 people have died and more than two million people have fled their homes during the four-year conflict.

Sudan rejects the ICC's authority, saying its own courts can try suspects.

Mr Haroun, who was state interior minister in charge of Darfur at the height of the conflict, is accused of helping to recruit militias responsible for murders, rape and torture.

Alongside Ali Kushayb, a leader of the Arab Janjaweed militia, Mr Haroun is accused of crimes committed during attacks on villages near Kodoom, Bindisi, Mukjar and Arawala in West Darfur.

ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked pre-trial judges to issue summonses for the two, saying there was reason to believe they: "Bear criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Darfur in 2003 and 2004".

He said that together the men were suspected of 51 counts of war crimes.

Mr Moreno-Ocampo is expected to reveal more evidence in a news conference at 1300 GMT.

One former rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement, said it would co-operate with the ICC process if it was fair and

"Any individual in the movement who is accused must hand themselves over and prove their innocence in front of the judiciary, whether this is inside or outside Sudan," deputy leader Dr Al-Rayah Mahmud told Sudan's Al-Watan newspaper.

Numerous international reports and experts have directly linked the brutal activities of the Janjaweed to the central Sudanese government in Khartoum.

The BBC's Jonah Fisher, in the Sudanese capital, says joint attacks on villages have been well-documented and there is little doubt the militia have been given weapons and vehicles to fight rebels.

But Sudan's President, Omar al-Bashir, denies involvement and says the level of conflict in the region has been greatly exaggerated by the US and the West.

Mr Moreno-Ocampo has spent two years examining evidence gathered by a UN investigative team after the Security Council voted to forward him a list of 51 names suspected of crimes against humanity.

He said the crimes investigated included killings, tortures, rapes, looting, forced displacement and persecution.

"We hope that the work of the entire court will help to ensure the end of impunity for the crimes committed in Darfur," Mr Moreno-Ocampo told the BBC's Arabic Service.

"We also hope to contribute to the prevention of future crimes in the region."

After Mr Moreno-Ocampo has filed the evidence of alleged war crimes with the court, its judges will have to decide whether to open an inquiry against the suspects with the aim of issuing international arrest warrants.

The BBC's Fergal Keane, reporting from The Hague, says the presentation of evidence will be a highly significant momentn the Darfur crisis.

But the announcement is likely to infuriate the government of Sudan which refuses to co-operate with the court.
Human rights groups have also been critical of the investigation, which was conducted mostly outside Sudan due to security concerns.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Surging in Iraq

It was the Baker-Hamilton Commission that finally shook loose the Bush administration’s denial that the situation in Iraq was deteriorating and had been in a downward spiral for years. It was only then that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield was shown the door – a move long overdue. However, rather than use the opportunity presented by the commission to open a dialogue about the future role of the United States in the Middle East in general and the Iraq situation in particular, the administration circled the wagons and came up with an attempt to quell the civil war by introducing a “surge” of 21,000 American troops mostly in the Bagdad area. Unfortunately, the strategy is fraught with problems.

Peter Galbraith’s writings about Iraq are always “must-reads” and have been cited in this blog before (here, here and here). Former Ambassador Galbraith has been an advocate for the Kurds of Iraq for many years and authored the book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. Below are excerpts from his most recent piece on Iraq, published in the New York Review of Books. It is his assessment of the Bush surge strategy.
Bush's strategy is the polar opposite of that proposed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton in their Iraq Study Group report. Where they recommended the withdrawal of combat troops, Bush announced an escalation. Where they urged a diplomatic opening to Iran and Syria, Bush issued threats.

Bush's plan is laden with ironies. Four years ago, military and diplomatic professionals warned that the US was embarking on a war with insufficient troops and inadequate planning. President Bush never listened to this advice, choosing to rely on the neoconservative appointees who assured him that victory in Iraq would be easy.

In devising his new strategy, Bush again turned to the neoconservatives. The so-called surge strategy is the brainchild of Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute who has never been to Iraq. And once again, President Bush dismissed the views of his military advisers. General George Casey and General John Abizaid, the commanders in the field, doubted that additional troops would make any difference in Iraq. They were replaced by surge advocates, including Lieutenant General David Petraeus, now the top commander in Iraq.

Petraeus, on whom so much now rests, served two previous tours in Iraq. As the American commander in Mosul in 2003 and 2004, he earned adulatory press coverage—including a Newsweek cover story captioned "Can This Man Save Iraq?"—for taming the Sunni-majority city. Petraeus ignored warnings from America's Kurdish allies that he was appointing the wrong people to key positions in Mosul's local government and police. A few months after he left the city, the Petraeus-appointed local police commander defected to the insurgency while the Sunni Arab police handed their weapons and uniforms over en masse to the insurgents. Neither this episode nor the evident failure of the training programs for the Iraqi army and police which he ran in his next assignment seemed to have damaged the general's reputation.

President Bush's plan has no chance of actually working. At this late stage, 21,500 additional troops cannot make a difference. US troops are ill prepared to do the policing that is needed to secure Baghdad. They lack police training, knowledge of the city, and requisite Arabic skills. The Iraqi troops meant to assist the effort are primarily Kurdish peshmerga from two brigades nominally part of the Iraqi army. These troops will have the same problems as the Americans, including an inability to communicate in Arabic.

Bush's strategy assumes that Iraq's Shiite-led government can become a force for national unity and that Iraqi security forces can, once trained, be neutral guarantors of public safety. There is no convincing basis for either proposition. The Bush administration's inability to grasp the realities of Iraq is, in no small measure, owing to its unwillingness to acknowledge that Iraq is in the middle of a civil war.

At the core of the Iraq fiasco has been Bush's unwillingness to send forces adequate to accomplish the mission. Now the President proposes a military strategy to confront twice as many foes with just 15 percent more troops. The Mahdi Army may choose to wait out the Americans by taking a low profile for the duration of the surge. If so, this will be helpful to US troops, but, of course, it will have done nothing to break the power of the Shiite militias. President Bush's public statements indicate no awareness of the risks of escalating America's mission in Iraq. Democrats have concentrated almost exclusively on the escalation in troop numbers, giving the President a free ride on the far more dangerous escalation of the mission itself.

Iraq's government is a partnership between a coalition of Shiite religious parties and the two main Kurdish nationalist parties. The Shiite coalition is itself evenly split between a faction led by SCIRI and a faction heavily influenced by supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr. The Kurdish parties have a close relationship with SCIRI that goes back decades in the struggle against Saddam and is built around a shared commitment to a highly decentralized Iraqi state. By contrast, Moqtada al-Sadr, with his political support coming heavily from Shiite east Baghdad, opposes federalism and Kurdish claims to Kirkuk. Like the Sunni Arabs, he objects to the constitutional mandate for a referendum to determine Kirkuk's status and has sent the Mahdi Army there to fight the peshmerga on behalf of Kirkuk's Shiite Arabs. (Kirkuk's indigenous Arab population is Sunni and Kirkuk is adjacent to Iraq's Sunni Arab govenorates. As part of his plan to make Kirkuk more Arab and less Kurdish and Turcoman, Saddam settled Shiites from the south in the homes of Kurds and Turcomans who were killed or expelled. Many of these Shiite settlers want to return south but those who wish to stay are a fertile pool for Mahdi Army

A battle for Baghdad between the Mahdi Army and Kurdish troops could spill over to Kirkuk. If the Shiite coalition stays together, it could fracture the Kurdish–Shiite alliance. Or the Shiite coalition could itself fracture, making Iraq's civil war a three-way affair among Sunni Arab insurgents, the Mahdi Army and its allies, and a SCIRI–Kurdish alliance. Neither outcome will make resolving Iraq's problems any simpler. The Kurds, of course, are aware of the risks. Their decision to send troops at America's behest reflects their deep commitment to their American ally in spite of a history that would suggest they are more likely to be double-crossed than to have their support reciprocated.

Scholars who study civil wars observe that they generally last a long time—a decade is the mean since 1945—and they end, in 85 percent of the cases, with one side winning a military victory. If Iraq's civil war is fought to the end, there can be little doubt that the Shiites will prevail. They are three times as numerous as the Sunnis, are in control of the armed apparatus of the Iraqi state, and have a powerful ally in neighboring Iran. While Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, talk about supporting the Sunni Arabs, those that border Iraq are relatively small, militarily weak, and separated from Iraq's population centers by vast tracts of desert.

The three-state solution I have outlined in my book would protect the Sunni Arabs from military annihilation —and its attendant humanitarian consequences—by giving them their own self-governing region with defined borders. The alternative to promoting this kind of power-sharing arrangement is to let the civil war take its course. In late 2006, Vice President Cheney floated a trial balloon dubbed the "80 percent solution." In starkest terms, the 80 percent solution would write off reconciliation with the Sunni Arabs on the grounds that they are intractable and focus on supporting the 80 percent of Iraqis who are Shiite or Kurdish. In essence, the United States would take the Shiite side in the Sunni–Shiite civil war.

This is a plausible, if cruel, strategy. But it would not result in a democratic, unified, or stable Iraq. The common ground between Shiites and Kurds is their shared commitment to the partition plan embodied in the Iraqi constitution. An 80 percent solution is, in effect, a two-state solution with Kurdistan and a Shiite-dominated Arab Iraq. It becomes all the more difficult to achieve if Bush administration efforts to involve the Kurds in the civil war shatter the Shiite coalition or break up the Kurdish–Shiite alliance.

George W. Bush has said he will leave the problem of Iraq to the president elected in 2008. Rather than acknowledge failure in Iraq—and by extension a failed presidency—Bush has chosen to postpone the day of reckoning. It is a decision that will cost many American and Iraqi lives, will leave the United States weaker, and will prolong the decline in American prestige abroad caused by the mismanaged Iraq war. And it will not change the truth that the President so desperately wishes to escape: George W. Bush launched and lost America's Iraq war.
You can read his entire article here.

Al Qaeda’s comeback

While the Bush administration is intent on pouring more and more resources into the Iraqi civil war, Al Qaeda is staging a comeback with established bases in Pakistan while their ally, the Taliban, is making inroads in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda still poses a threat to the American people and to the people of our allies around the world. Yet, on this issue like others the White House has been asleep at the wheel.

This is the lead editorial from today’s New York Times:
Almost five and a half years ago, America — united by the shock of 9/11 — understood exactly what it needed to do. It had to find, thwart and take down the command structure of Al Qaeda, which was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 innocent people on American soil. Despite years of costly warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, America today is not significantly closer to that essential goal.

At a crucial moment, the Bush administration diverted America’s military strength, political attention and foreign aid dollars from a necessary, winnable war in Afghanistan to an unnecessary, and by now unwinnable, war in Iraq. Al Qaeda took full advantage of these blunders to survive and rebuild. Now it seems to be back in business.

As our colleagues Mark Mazzetti and David Rohde reported last week, American intelligence and counterterrorism officials believe that Al Qaeda has rebuilt its notorious training camps, this time in Pakistan’s loosely governed tribal regions near the Afghan border. Camp graduates are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq — and may well be plotting new terrorist strikes in the West.

The same officials point to more frequent and more current videos as evidence that Al Qaeda’s top leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri — once on the run for their lives and unable to maintain timely communications with their followers — now feel more secure. Al Qaeda is not as strong as it was when its Taliban allies ruled Afghanistan. But, the officials warn, it is getting there.

Al Qaeda’s comeback didn’t have to happen. And it must not be allowed to continue. The new Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan do not operate with the blessing of the Pakistani government. But Pakistan’s military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has not tried very hard to drive them out. In recent months he has virtually conceded the tribal areas to local leaders sympathetic to Al Qaeda. President Bush needs to warn him that continued American backing depends on his doing more to rid his country of people being trained to kill Americans.

Washington also has to enlist more support on the Afghan side of the border. NATO allies need to drop restrictions that hobble their troops’ ability to fight a resurgent Taliban. Afghan leaders need to wage a more aggressive campaign against corruption and drug trafficking. And Washington needs to pour significantly more money into rural development, to give Afghan farmers alternatives to drug cultivation. One reason General Musharraf has been hedging his bets with the Taliban and Al Qaeda is his growing doubt that Washington is determined to succeed in Afghanistan.

Having failed to finish off Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Washington now finds itself fighting Qaeda-affiliated groups on multiple fronts, most recently in Somalia. Al Qaeda’s comeback in Pakistan is a devastating indictment of Mr. Bush’s grievously flawed strategies and misplaced Iraq obsession. Unless the president changes course, the dangers to America and its friends will continue to multiply.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bloggers without borders: Free Kareem

Kareem Amer (the online pseudonym of Egyptian blogger and former law student Abdul Kareem Suleiman Amer or sometimes Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman or AbdelKareem Nabil Soliman depending upon the translation) has been arrested, convicted and imprisoned for insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak on his blog. This blog previously reported on this outrage.

This is an issue all bloggers, regardless of politics or religion, should rally behind. Bloggers should publicize this event and demand his freedom. Blogging nowhere in the world should be restricted by government or religious authorities. The content of blogs should be judged by readers and fellow bloggers. The content of blogs should stand or fall based upon their quality and not whether they cast those in power in a favorable light or not.

This is from David Tate (a blogger at Harry’s Place) in today’s Guardian:
The blogger, Abdel Kareem Soliman, who is an Egyptian Muslim, has been sentenced to four years imprisonment: three years for insulting Islam and inciting sedition, and one year for insulting President Hosni Mubarak.

He had described his university, al-Azhar, as "the university of terrorism", the Egyptian president as a "dictator" and - having witnessed riots in which the property of Egyptian Copts was stolen and destroyed by Muslim rioters - argued that Islam itself was the fundamental cause of the sectarian riot.

The prosecutor, Mohammed Dawoud, denounced Kareem as an "apostate" and declared: "I want him to get the toughest punishment ... I am on a jihad here ... If we leave the likes of him without punishment, it will be like a fire that consumes everything."

His wish has come true.

Kareem's father has called for his son to be killed if he does not "announce his repentence". He has described groups campaigning for his son's freedom as "monkey rights organisations" and his son as "the monkey who has imitated the atheists of the west in their intellectual thinking." Kareem's parents propose to "disown" their son in public.
Tate reproduces an extract of one of the pieces by Kareem upon which the prosecution was based. It reads:
They have indicated that Islam is a religion of peace and forgiveness, but their true face has been uncovered to show barbarism and thievery and fanaticism and not acknowledging others, and attempting to remove them from existence.

Some may think that the actions of the Moslems does not represent Islam and has no relationship with the teachings of Islam that was brought by Mohamed 14 centuries ago, but the truth is that their actions is not different from the Islamic teachings in its original form when it has urged people to deny others and hate them and kill them and take their property, things that they know well but they try to deceive people by falsely defending the teachings of Islam by extremists and they are hiding from the truth and they prefer living a lie.

I have seen with my own eyes the thugs as they break into our Christian brothers' stores after the whole area of Maharram Beh was completely out of control of the government authorities, and I saw them as they ransack the contents of the store right and left, amidst cheering and shouting extremist Islamic slogans, and I saw them stealing the money from inside the drawers of the cash registers and splitting it among themselves as if it is justified by being owned by what they call the infidels and the worshippers of the cross ...

The Islamic teachings that was brought by Mohammed 14 centuries ago should be faced with courage and boldness, we should expose and show its faults and warn humanity of its dangers. We should, even though we are different -look with reason to these teachings that urges people, human beings, to become monsters that don't know anything in life except killing and looting and plundering and raping and pillaging.

We should stand courageously and boldly against these teachings that became a plague on humanity and is not supported except by extremists like bin Laden and al Zarqawi and al Zawaheeri and the thugs that assaulted our Coptic brothers and burned their homes and stole their properties, and tried to assault their religious men and destroy their churches.

We should take off the religious and sectarian gown and look at matters in a more humane way. We should hold trials to all the acts of terrorism and extremism, that our Islamic history have kept their names and their criminal actions starting with Mohamed ibn Abdullah and his company of murderers like Khalid ibn el Waled and Omar ibn el Khattab and Saad ibn Abbi Waqqas and Moiizah Bin Shaabah and Samra bin Gandab and the kings of Beni Ummaya and Beni al Abbass and al Osman, and ending with the Moslem criminals of the modern day that became more famous than movie stars and singers.

We should show the world the truth of these criminals that unfortunately have become role models for our youth and our children and our women. We should expose their false teachings and show the world that they are a big danger that should be exterminated and removed from its roots.

Friday, February 23, 2007

When kidnapping and torture are no longer news

Germany and Italy have issued warrants for the arrest of a total of 39 U.S. intelligence operatives for charges related to kidnapping and torture. Yet the fact that U.S. allies are pursuing U.S. government agents seems to be of little concern to either the American public or the American government. The fact that this hardly registers as news does not bode well for us. Of course, the notorious short attention span of Americans may be a factor but more likely and significantly Americans have become used to the rather seamy behavior of some of those who are acting on our behalf. It is a sad state of affairs that not only does this behavior occur but that it no longer seems to outrage.

Rosa Brooks has these thoughts in today’s L.A. Times:
… Thanks to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, "extraordinary renditions" and "black sites," many people now take for granted the image of the American as torturer. At least 100 prisoners have been killed while in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many more have been beaten, humiliated and abused. Still others have been secretly handed over to our even less-scrupulous friends in various Middle Eastern intelligence services. And though the vast majority of our troops and officials abide by both the spirit and the letter of U.S. and international laws, such abusive tactics have been authorized by officials at the highest level of the U.S. government.

In November 2001, 66% of Americans said they "could not support government-sanctioned torture of suspects" as part of the war on terrorism. And when photos of abuses at Abu Ghraib surfaced in the spring of 2004, the U.S. news media treated it — rightly — as a major scandal. In October 2005, the U.S. Senate voted 90-9 in support of legislation prohibiting the inhumane treatment of prisoners, sponsored by Arizona Sen. John McCain.

But over the last year, we seem to have lost our former sense of outrage, though prisoner abuse has hardly ended. A handful of low-ranking people have been convicted for their roles in abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, but the bigger fish carry on as usual. In September, President Bush gave a speech defending the use of "alternative" interrogation methods; a poll shortly after that found public opposition to torture was down to 56%. In October, Congress obligingly passed the Military Commissions Act, which permits the use of coerced testimony in trials of suspected enemy combatants and restricts the ability of U.S. courts to examine allegations of abuse.

Lately, news relating to torture has been greeted by a collective yawn. On Jan. 31, German prosecutors issued a warrant for the arrest of 13 CIA operatives involved in the illegal abduction of Khaled Masri, a German citizen who was taken to Afghanistan for a little "alternative" interrogation — and then unceremoniously abandoned in Albania when the CIA realized that it had grabbed the wrong guy. On Feb. 16, an Italian court indicted 26 U.S. intelligence operatives and contractors accused of kidnapping an Islamic cleric and taking him to Egypt, where, he says, he was tortured.

It should be huge news when two of our European allies demand the arrest of U.S. government agents — but these stories were rapidly superseded on the front pages by news of Anna Nicole Smith's embalming and matters of similarly pressing national interest. (This newspaper learned the names of several of the indicted officials but declined to print them "because they have been charged only under their aliases.")

If you need any more evidence that the American public has gotten blasé about torture, consider the hit Fox action drama "24." The show featured 67 torture scenes during its first five seasons, and most of those depicted torture being used by "heroic" U.S. counter-terror agents.

In this week's New Yorker, Jane Mayer reported on the efforts of human rights groups, interrogation experts and military leaders to persuade the show's producers to stop glamorizing torture. A few days after her story was posted on the New Yorker's website, executive producer Howard Gordon announced that "24" will indeed have fewer torture scenes in the future — but not because of the complaints. The reason for the shift? Torture "is starting to feel a little trite," Gordon explained. "The idea of physical coercion or torture is no longer a novelty or surprise."

We've come a long way since 1630, when John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, told the settlers on the Arabella that "we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." If we failed to live up to the high standards we set for ourselves, warned Winthrop, "we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Free Kareem!

Abdel Kareem Nabil was convicted by an Egyptian court and sentenced to prison for insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak on his blog. This is the first time a blogger has been convicted in Egypt for expressing himself on a blog. Kareem had been a frequent critic of conservative Muslims and the authoritarian regime ruling Egypt.

Kareem’s blog can be found here and an English version found here. Harry’s Place has an excellent summary of the case and a variety of links pertaining to the case. A website advocating freedom for Kareem can be found here.

This from the Washington Post:
An Egyptian blogger was convicted Thursday and sentenced to four years in prison for insulting Islam and Egypt's president, sending a chill through fellow Internet writers who fear a government crackdown.

Abdel Kareem Nabil, a 22-year-old former student at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, had been a vocal secularist and sharp critic of conservative Muslims in his blog. He often lashed out at Al-Azhar _ the most prominent religious center in Sunni Islam _ calling it "the university of terrorism" and accusing it of encouraging extremism.

Nabil's lawyer, Ahmed Seif el-Islam, said he would appeal the verdict, adding it will "terrify other bloggers and have a negative impact on freedom of expression in Egypt." Nabil had faced a possible maximum sentence of nine years in prison.

His conviction brought a flood of condemnations from international and Egyptian human rights groups, as well as fellow government critics on the Internet.

"I am shocked," said Wael Abbas, a blogger who writes frequently about police abuses and other human rights violations in Egypt. "This is a terrible message to anyone who intends to express his opinion and to bloggers in particular."

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media rights group, said Internet writers and editors are the fastest growing segment of imprisoned journalists, with 49 behind bars as of December.

"With this verdict, Egypt has opened up a new front in its efforts to stifle media freedoms," said Joel Campagna, the group's senior Middle East program coordinator.

In Washington, Deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he had no specific comment on Nabil's case, adding the U.S. is always concerned when freedom of expression is infringed.

Judge Ayman al-Akazi sentenced Nabil to three years in prison for insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and inciting sectarian strife and another year for insulting President Hosni Mubarak.

Nabil, sitting in the defendant's pen, did not react as the verdict was read and made no comments as he was led to a prison truck outside. Seconds after the door was closed, an Associated Press reporter heard a slap from inside the truck and a scream.

Egypt, a top U.S. ally in the Mideast, arrested a number of bloggers last year, most of them for connections to the pro-democracy reform movement. Nabil was put on trial while other bloggers were freed _ a sign of the sensitivity of his writings on religion.

Nabil, who used the blogger name Kareem Amer, was an unusually scathing critic of conservative Muslims. His frequent attacks on Al-Azhar, where he was a law student, led the university to expel him in March, then push prosecutors to bring him to trial.

The judge said Nabil insulted the Prophet Muhammad with a piece he wrote in 2005 after riots in which angry Muslim worshippers attacked a Coptic Christian church over a play deemed offensive to Islam.

"Muslims revealed their true ugly face and appeared to all the world that they are full of brutality, barbarism and inhumanity," Nabil wrote in his blog. He called Muhammad and his 7th century followers, the Sahaba, "spillers of blood" for their teachings on warfare _ a comment cited by the judge.

In a later essay not cited by the court, Nabil clarified his comments, saying Muhammad was "great" but that his teachings on warfare and other issues should be viewed as a product of their times.

In other writings, he called Al-Azhar the "other face of the coin of al-Qaida" and called for the university to be dissolved or turned into a secular institution. He also criticized Mubarak, calling him "the symbol of tyranny."

Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a pro-reform blogger who was detained for six weeks last year, said Nabil's conviction will "have a chilling effect on the rest of the bloggers."

"We (the Egyptian people) are enduring oppression, poverty and torture, so the least we can do is insult the president," he said.

Will capitalism destroy itself?

Although you wouldn’t know it from right-wing commentators capitalism now has no serious challenge in the world from alternative systems. It is true there are a handful of non-capitalist economies here and there around the world and it is true there are a number of variations of how capitalism is practiced but there is no alternative system challenging capitalism.

Does this mean capitalism is solidly established for the future? No. Capitalism still faces many of the same challenges it did before the widespread abandonment of Marxism. There are the internal contradictions of capitalism -- e.g., on the one hand capitalism values savings and the long-term accumulation of wealth but on the other hand needs consumerism and unrestrained spending to survive, there is the issue inequality, there is the issue of the depletion of the world’s limited natural resources, and there is the issue of poisoning the environment with pollution. This is not to say the latter three examples of the above did not or do not exist as problems under alternative economic systems but that capitalism specifically resists public control to mitigate these problems. It holds an almost religious faith that the invisible hand will guide us safely through these difficulties.

Timothy Garton Ash has an assessment in today’s Guardian:
What is the elephant in all our rooms? It is the global triumph of capitalism. Democracy is fiercely disputed. Freedom is under threat even in old-established democracies such as Britain. Western supremacy is on the skids. But everyone does capitalism. Americans and Europeans do it. Indians do it. Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes do it. Even Chinese communists do it. And now the members of Israel's oldest kibbutz, that last best hope of egalitarian socialism, have voted to introduce variable salaries based on individual performance. Karl Marx would be turning in his grave. Or perhaps not, since some of his writings eerily foreshadowed our era of globalised capitalism. His prescription failed but his description was prescient.

What are the big ideological alternatives being proposed today? Hugo Chávez's "21st century socialism" still looks like a local or at most a regional phenomenon, best practised in oil-rich states. Islamism, sometimes billed as democratic capitalism's great competitor in a new ideological struggle, does not offer an alternative economic system (aside from the peculiarities of Islamic finance) and anyway does not appeal beyond the Muslim umma. Most anti-globalists, altermondialistes and, indeed, green activists, are much better at pointing out the failings of global capitalism than they are at suggesting systemic alternatives. "Capitalism should be replaced by something nicer," read a placard at a May Day demonstration in London a few years back.

Of course there's a problem of definition here. Is what Russian or Chinese state-owned companies do really capitalism? Isn't private ownership the essence of capitalism? One of America's leading academic experts on capitalism, Edmund Phelps of Columbia University, has an even more restrictive definition. For him, what we have in much of continental Europe, with multiple stakeholders, is not capitalism but corporatism. Capitalism, he says, is "an economic system in which private capital is relatively free to innovate and invest without permission from the state, green lights from communities and regions, from workers, and other so-called social partners". In which case most of the world is not capitalist. I find this much too restrictive. Surely what we have across Europe are multiple varieties of capitalism, from more liberal market economies like Britain and Ireland to more coordinated stakeholder economies like Germany and Austria.

In Russia and China, there's a spectrum from state to private ownership. Other considerations than maximising profit play a large part in the decision-making of state-controlled companies, but they too operate as players in national and international markets and increasingly they also speak the language of global capitalism. At this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, I heard Gazprom's Alexander Medvedev defend the company's record by saying that it is one of the world's top five in market capitalisation and constantly looking for value for its shareholders - who happen to include the Russian state. At the very least, this suggests a hegemony of the discourse of global capitalism. China's "Leninist capitalism" is a very big borderline case, but the crab-like movement of its companies towards what we would recognise as more rather than less capitalist behaviour is far clearer than any movement of its state towards democracy.

Does this lack of any clear ideological alternative mean that capitalism is secure for years to come? Far from it. With the unprecedented triumph of globalised capitalism over the last two decades come new threats to its own future. They are not precisely the famous "contradictions" that Marx identified, but they may be even bigger. For a start, the history of capitalism over the last hundred years hardly supports the view that it is an automatically self-correcting system. As George Soros (who should know) points out, global markets are now more than ever constantly out of equilibrium - and teetering on the edge of a larger disequilibrium. Again and again, it has needed the visible hands of political, fiscal and legal correction to complement the invisible hand of the market. The bigger it gets, the harder it can fall.

Then there is inequality. One feature of globalised capitalism seems to be that it rewards its high performers disproportionately, not just in the City of London but also in Shanghai, Moscow and Mumbai. What will be the political effects of having a small group of super-rich people in countries where the majority are still super-poor? In more developed economies, such as Britain and America, a reasonably well-off middle-class with a slowly improving personal standard of living may be less bothered by a small group of the super-rich - whose antics also provide them with a regular diet of tabloid-style entertainment. But if a lot of middle-class people begin to feel they are personally losing out to the same process of globalisation that is making those few fund managers stinking rich, while at the same time outsourcing their own middle-class jobs to India, then you may have a backlash. Watch Lou Dobbs on CNN for a taste of the populist and protectionist rhetoric to come.

Above all, though, there is the inescapable dilemma that this planet cannot sustain six-and-a-half billion people living like today's middle-class consumers in its rich north. In just a few decades, we would use up the fossil fuels that took some 400 million years to accrete - and change the earth's climate as a result. Sustainability may be a grey and boring word, but it is the biggest single challenge to global capitalism today. However ingenious modern capitalists are at finding alternative technologies - and they will be very ingenious - somewhere down the line this is going to mean richer consumers settling for less rather than more.

Marx thought capitalism would have a problem finding consumers for the goods that improving techniques of production enabled it to churn out. Instead, it has become expert in a new branch of manufacturing: the manufacture of desires. The genius of contemporary capitalism is not simply that it gives consumers what they want but that it makes them want what it has to give. It's that core logic of ever-expanding desires that is unsustainable on a global scale. But are we prepared to abandon it? We may be happy to insulate our lofts, recycle our newspapers and cycle to work, but are we ready to settle for less so others can have more? Am I? Are you?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Underestimating Al Qaeda again

The war in Afghanistan, against the people responsible for the 9/11 attacks, has been put on the back burner. While the Bush administration is focusing on trying to undo four years of bungling in Iraq that helped push that country into civil war, Al Qaeda has been regrouping in Pakistan and expanding their influence in North Africa.

It is perilous to fail to address these developments.

Bruce Hoffman has this assessment in the L.A. Times:
'AL QAEDA," President Bush declared confidently in October, "is on the run." The extremists, he said, had "played their hand." The masterminds of the organization had been "brought to justice."

But just as we underestimated Al Qaeda before 9/11, we risk making the same mistake now. Although Al Qaeda is often spoken of as if it is in retreat — a broken and beaten organization incapable of mounting attacks, its leadership cut off, living in caves somewhere in remotest Waziristan — the truth is that the organization is not on the run but on the march. It has regrouped and reorganized from the setbacks it suffered during the initial phases of the global war on terrorism and is marshaling its forces to continue the epic struggle begun more than 10 years ago.

Rather than being degraded to the point that it can threaten only softer, more accessible targets like hotels and mass transit, Al Qaeda is very much sticking with its classic playbook of simultaneous, spectacular strikes against even hardened objectives. In other words, we have more to fear from this resilient organization, not less.

Rather than "Al Qaeda R.I.P.," we face an Al Qaeda that has risen from the grave. It has been able to adapt and adjust to the changes imposed on its operations by the U.S.-led war on terrorism and reestablish its command and control over international terrorism from the sanctuary it has established in Pakistan's North Waziristan.

Just last month, this alarming development produced a dramatic reversal in the Bush administration's public assessment of the Al Qaeda threat. In contrast to long-standing White House claims, the annual threat assessment presented by outgoing National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence painted a disquieting picture of a highly resilient terrorist movement that, he said, is cultivating stronger operational connections to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

Al Qaeda's stunning resurrection, before the very eyes of American military forces stationed across the border in southern Afghanistan, begs the question of how the most powerful country in the world can launch a six-year, no-holds-barred, global war on terrorism — at great cost to its pocketbook and international standing — only to find the main target of these Herculean efforts still alive and kicking.

In retrospect, it appears that Iraq blinded us to the possibility of an Al Qaeda renaissance. The United States' entanglement there has consumed the attention and resources of our country's military and intelligence communities — at precisely the time that Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda commanders were in their most desperate straits and stood to benefit most from this distraction. What's more, even as we took solace in the president's argument that we were "fighting terrorists over there, so that we don't have to fight them here," Al Qaeda was regrouping.

Pakistan is both the problem and the solution to the most salient terrorist threat still directed against us. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies could not function without the passive connivance of Pakistani authorities. Moreover, agreements concluded over the past two years between President Pervez Musharraf and the restive tribes along the Afghan border have assured Al Qaeda the noninterference with its activities that enables it to thrive. At the same time, the pivotal role played by Pakistan in the disruption of major attacks and the arrests of low-level plotters shows how dependent the U.S. remains on even this partial cooperation.

Defeating Al Qaeda requires, foremost, that our assessments and analyses be anchored firmly to sound, empirical judgment and not blinded by conjecture and wishful thinking. Second, we need to refocus our attention and efforts on Pakistan and Afghanistan, where, in the months after 9/11, Al Qaeda was indeed on the run. Third, Al Qaeda cannot be defeated by military means alone because it relies on propaganda and radicalization.

Accordingly, the U.S. needs a strategy that better combines the tactical elements of systematically destroying and weakening Al Qaeda's capabilities alongside the equally critical imperatives of countering the resonance of that movement's message and breaking the cycle of terrorist recruitment and replenishment that has both sustained and replenished Al Qaeda.

Monday, February 19, 2007

U.S. contingency plans on attacking Iran

It is no secret that the Bush administration has been itching for a war with Iran. Now, according to the BBC, the United States has established two triggers for an attack on Iran: the development of a nuclear weapon or an attack on U.S. forces in Iraq producing significant casualties that can be traced back to Tehran. U.S. air strikes would go beyond nuclear facilities and include a wide range of military sites.

This form the BBC:
US contingency plans for air strikes on Iran extend beyond nuclear sites and include most of the country's military infrastructure, the BBC has learned.

It is understood that any such attack - if ordered - would target Iranian air bases, naval bases, missile facilities and command-and-control centres.

The US insists it is not planning to attack, and is trying to persuade Tehran to stop uranium enrichment.

The UN has urged Iran to stop the programme or face economic sanctions.

But diplomatic sources have told the BBC that as a fallback plan, senior officials at Central Command in Florida have already selected their target sets inside Iran.

That list includes Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. Facilities at Isfahan, Arak and Bushehr are also on the target list, the sources say.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says the trigger for such an attack reportedly includes any confirmation that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon - which it denies.

Alternatively, our correspondent adds, a high-casualty attack on US forces in neighbouring Iraq could also trigger a bombing campaign if it were traced directly back to Tehran.

Long range B2 stealth bombers would drop so-called "bunker-busting" bombs in an effort to penetrate the Natanz site, which is buried some 25m (27 yards) underground.

The BBC's Tehran correspondent France Harrison says the news that there are now two possible triggers for an attack is a concern to Iranians.

Authorities insist there is no cause for alarm but ordinary people are now becoming a little worried, she says.
You can read the entire article here.

Inside Iraq raises the question (via American Footprints) as to which side we can expect the Iraqi government to take if war breaks out between the U.S. and Iran. As the blog points out, a significant number of the members of the ruling government in Iraq spent many years in exile in Iran and prefer Persian over Arabic. However, as pointed out here before, there is a strong streak of Iraqi nationalism that will resist Iranian influence. So which way would they go? Given the volatile situation in Iraq right now it might be wise not to force the issue if that can be avoided.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Causal links between lack of democracy and terrorism: Tunisia

The bungling around in the Middle East by the Bush administration has given democracy promotion a bad name. Yet, despite Bush there is still reason to temper foreign policy realism with a pro-democratic bias. In fact, as argued below, these two approaches are not necessarily contradictory.

Shadi Hamid, at Democracy Arsenal, believes there it is in U.S. interest to promote democracy abroad. He states,
… when people go on and on about how unrealistic it is to make democracy promotion the organizing principle of US foreign policy, they forget that the existence of autocracy abroad is not just a profound threat to our founding ideals, but also to our vital national security interests (so, yes, you can be both a realist and a believer in democracy promotion). It’s actually a very simple concept: autocracy breeds radicalism and terror, and there's a vast literature which makes precisely this point.
He cites a piece by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post a few days ago about the growing appeal of extremist Islam under the authoritarian regime ruling Tunisia. As she points out the French government is quite willing to tolerate the human rights abuses of the Tunisian regime in the belief it prevents immigration to their country. She asks the same questions raised by Mokhtar Trifi, president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, about the West ignoring the generally pro-Western Arab population.
The Tunisians have also become masters of a kind of recognizable, Putinesque, postmodern political charade, supporting a whole panoply of phony political parties, phony human rights groups, phony elections. They talk of "democracy" and "reform" and of course "anti-terrorism." But break the mold in Tunisia -- engage in genuine opposition politics -- and you might find you've lost your state health care or even your private-sector job. The tentacles of the party reach deep, though actual violence is rare. Says Trifi, "It causes too much trouble." After all, violence could damage the benevolent image that draws so many European tourists to Tunisia's beaches.
In the short term, this system has suited lots of people, not merely the president's friends and relations. Most notably, it has suited France, Tunisia's closest business partner and former colonial power. In 2003, French President Jacques Chirac proclaimed that since "the most important human rights are the rights to be fed, to have health, to be educated and to be housed," Tunisia's human rights record is "very advanced." More to the point, the French believe that the authoritarian Tunisian government is the only thing preventing a massive wave of illegal immigration to their country.
Unfortunately, the authoritarian government is also producing the potential émigrés, too: For the most notable product of the Tunisian "economic miracle" is, at the moment, a lot of well-educated but unemployed young people. Once upon a time, the educated and the frustrated might have formed the backbone of a democratic revolution, just as they once did in South America and Eastern Europe. Now, Tunisians look at Iraq and see that "freedom" brings chaos and violence. Which leaves them with two options: emigration -- or radical Islam. Or perhaps both.
No one knows the true extent of radicalism in Tunisia because it is in the government's interests to exaggerate the threat. Nor does anyone know the true extent of Tunisian radicalism in the suburbs of Paris. But there have been bombs, arrests and reports of al-Qaeda copycat groups. Thus has an apparently benign authoritarianism produced in liberal Tunisia, as everywhere else in the Arab world, precisely the sort of terrorist inclinations it was supposed to prevent.
So why didn't the West interest itself in Tunisian democracy 15 years ago, back before "democracy" became a negative term, back before the not-quite-free economy went sour, back before radical Islam became chic among the blue-jeaned teenagers? The answers, as Trifi knows well, are clear: Because democracy promotion was an afterthought, never an important American goal in the Middle East. Because France, which has far more influence in Tunisia than we do, has never been remotely interested. And because no one in the West has ever been very good at thinking through what the longer-term results of the authoritarian status quo might really be.
You can read her entire piece here.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Looking the other way as Guinea deteriorates

The situation in Guinea is deteriorating as the population is rising up against miserable living conditions and the almost quarter-century dictatorship of Lasana Conté. Conté has ruled the West African country since seizing power in 1984 and is seen as largely responsible for corruption and the widespread poverty in this country otherwise rich in natural resources.

Unions have called for a general strike and Conté has given the army wide powers to crush the rebellion. In the meantime, the world community does nothing.

This from Eric A. Witte and Kurt Bassuener in the International Herald Tribune:
As Western leaders sit on their hands, Guinea's authoritian president, Lansana Conté, is going in for the kill, crushing street protests as he tries to stifle his country's brave voices for democracy. Since he declared martial law on Monday, scores of people have been killed in violent clashes between protesters and security forces.

The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and the African Union must act quickly to prevent more bloodshed and keep the unrest from spreading to Guinea's fragile neighbors, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

Since seizing power in a coup 23 years ago, Conté has sought a veneer of legitimacy through successive fraudulent elections. He runs perhaps one of the more efficient police states in sub-Saharan Africa, financed by the export of bauxite — much of it to North America. Now the aging Conté is ailing, and one way or another, his tenure will soon end.

Fed up with corruption and cronyism, and hoping to present an alternative succession scenario to the widely expected military takeover, Guinea's labor unions took to the streets in January. Tens of thousands marched to demand Conté's resignation and a voice in their government. Conté's troops opened fire, killing around 90. The dictator took to the airwaves, explaining: "Those who want power must wait their turn. It is God who gives power and when he gives it to someone, everyone must stand behind him."

Yet as protests continue, Conté has offered concessions. The unions wanted greater strides for democracy, but, without foreign support, they accepted a deal in which Conté would appoint a consensus prime minister to take over as head of government.

As bad as this agreement was — it left Conté in control of the military and police — the United States and European Union offered only formulaic, low-level expressions of hope that the political crisis could be overcome. Contrast that reticence with their reactions to other "people power" movements, such as those in Ukraine and Lebanon.

Last week Conté reneged on the deal by appointing one of his cronies as prime minister, then unleashed his security forces on protesters. The death toll could climb much higher as rioting youths lose patience and martial law gives the military a green light for repression.

Western governments have long expected the military to step in once Conté steps down. If military leaders perceive that Conté can no longer maintain control, they may take over sooner. But a military regime would be unlikely to bring stability; its leadership and other Guinean elites are riven along ethnic and clan divides that could deepen precipitously in a post-Conté power struggle.

At stake is not just the stability of Guinea, but that of its fragile neighbors, whose recent wars were intertwined with events in Guinea. The last thing needed by Liberia's new democratic president is instability to her north. Sierra Leone is also struggling to overcome the legacy of its civil war, and ethnic tension has been on the rise ahead of July elections. Washington, London, and Brussels have invested heavily in the reconstruction of both. Their passivity in the face of Guinea's destabilization is difficult to fathom.

What would support for democracy in Guinea look like? The European Union, which resumed aid to Guinea in December, would suspend assistance until Conté agrees to step down. Western democracies would back efforts by the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union to mediate his departure. To prevent the rise of a new military regime, Western democracies would announce that such a government would gain neither recognition nor aid. They would channel new funds to Guinea's unions and rights organizations.

Fear of judicial accountability helped ensure the peacefulness of Ukraine's Orange Revolution two years ago. To deter more violence by security forces, the world's democracies would begin contingency planning for a tribunal to hold accountable those responsible for violence.

The United States forged military links with Conté in the late 1990s against threats from the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, in Sierra Leone and Liberia; Washington has a special responsibility to send these messages to Guinea's military.

A provisional government with international assistance could develop a free and fair election process. At that point, Guineans could finally control their own destiny.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Genocide in Chad

The genocide of Darfur is spilling over the border into Chad as the Janjaweed pursue refugees. Without an international force to protect the refugees there is no one to stop from the Janjaweed. According to the BBC report below, Chad has the same ethnic make-up of nomadic Arab groups and black African farmers and may be prone to the same ethnic warfare.

This from the BBC:
The violence in Chad could turn into a genocide similar to that in Rwanda in 1994, the UN refugee agency has warned.

The UNHCR says the killing tactics from neighbouring Darfur in Sudan have been transported to eastern Chad in full.

More than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5m displaced since war broke out in Darfur four years ago.

Concern is now growing for the 200,000 refugees who sought shelter in eastern Chad.

The conflict in Darfur has followed them across the border with attacks by Janjaweed Arab militia on camels and horseback leaving hundreds dead and 110,000 people homeless.

The BBC's Orla Guerin in eastern Chad says at first, the Janjaweed came from Sudan; later, locals joined in - neighbour killing neighbour.

"We are seeing elements that closely resemble what we saw in Rwanda in the genocide in 1994 and I think we have an opportunity here to avoid such a tragedy from occurring again," UNHCR's Matthew Conway said.

Eastern Chad and Darfur have a similar ethnic make-up, with nomadic Arab groups and black African farmers both seeking access to land and scarce water points.

Our reporter says the violence in Chad follows the same pattern as in Darfur - mostly Arabs on camels and horseback attacking non-Arab villages.

Without an international protection force, there is no-one to stop the Janjaweed, she says. In recent days, our reporter followed the trail of the Janjaweed through the ghost villages of eastern Chad, finding torched huts and smashed pots.

She met some of their victims, including a young man stabbed in both eyes and a frail old woman, badly beaten when she dared to look for food.

The UN Security Council is preparing to discuss proposals to send a peacekeeping force to Chad but a decision is not expected immediately.
In the meantime, the world community snoozes. Read the entire BBC piece here.

Making the case for war by innuendo

The Bush administration’s saber-rattling on the subject of Iran has an eerie familiar sound to it: Significant conclusions with potentially dire consequences drawn from scraps of evidence originating from unknown sources and provided to the American media via off-the-record background briefings. In other words, taking the first steps towards war by the use of innuendo. It was five years ago that stories in the media were popping linking the then government of Iraq with al-Qaeda to stoke the pro-war sentiments in the United States and the international community. Of course, the links turned out to be fabrications and the opportunies for al-Qaeda in Iraq came later in the chaos resulting from the bungled war and reconstruction by U.S. forces.

Administration officials have been making a big deal of explosive devices found in Iraq that allegedly originated in Iran. The insinuation is these are somehow provided on orders of the highest levels of the Iranian government with the exclusive purpose of targeting American troops. Despite this administration’s very poor record in successfully fighting wars, it is no secret that many in this administration are itching for a third war in the Middle East -- this time against Iran.

Spencer Ackerman explains in today’s Guardian:
… three facts emerged: Iranian-made weaponry had been discovered in Iraq; this weaponry had been used in attacks on US troops there; and operatives of Iran's Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, had smuggled the weapons in.

Beyond those three facts lies the real question: whether or not the Iranian regime had approved the smuggling to deliberately attack US forces in Iraq. And, to that question, the administration didn't present a direct answer. One of the briefers said that the Quds smuggling occurred with the support of the "highest levels of the Iranian government." But within days, intelligence officials frantically attempted to walk back on the statement, explaining that the briefer misspoke. The official Iranian policy remains completely unclear - as does US intelligence's actual assessment of it.

That's understandable, since, in the absence of actual evidence, competing interpretations are available. Most attacks that US officials describe have occurred at the hands of the Sunni insurgency. Yet officials at the briefing asserted that the weapons were going to Shia militias - raising the prospect that Iran is seeking instead to arm its Shia Iraqi allies, and some of its weaponry has found its way into the hands of Sunni insurgents through Iraq's thriving blackmarket arms trade. I asked officials at US Central Command to explain where in Iraq attacks on US forces featuring Iranian-made weapons has occurred - Sunni, Shia or mixed areas, in other words - in order to get some sense of who was carrying out the attacks, or a clue as to whether Iran's allies or enemies are using Iranian weapons. It probably won't come as a surprise that the military hasn't responded to my question.

None of this uncertainty has stopped the Bush administration from suggesting... well, something. Speaking on Wednesday, Nicholas Burns, the number three official at the State Department, generically declared that the Quds Force "is a major part of the Iranian government. Therefore, the actions of that force are the responsibility of that government." White House spokesman Tony Snow angrily chastised the press for not focusing on the "central fact" that weapons from Iran are being used on US troops. For his part, President Bush said he was agnostic as to whether or not the Iranian government meant to attack US troops - "which is worse?" he asked rhetorically in a press conference - but as far as he's concerned, the Iranians are doing... something bad.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Before the Iraq war, administration officials spoke in generic terms about how they knew members of al-Qaeda were "in Baghdad." By this artful formulation, they accomplished two important goals: first, they let the American public to draw the conclusion that Saddam Hussein and bin Laden were actively allied; and second, they did so without making an explicit and disprovable claim. During the build-up to the war, CIA Director George Tenet occasionally warned the White House to remove elements of specificity in its statements, in order to insulate President Bush from becoming a "fact witness." Innuendo was far more valuable. It allowed the White House to portray its critics as shortsighted and irresponsibly cautious - obsessed with one complexity or another when the broader picture was so clear and so dire.

Only it wasn't clear at all - and, it turned out, also wasn't so dire Now, with Iran, the administration is reshaping the picture. Yet it can't seem to learn its lesson. Bush won't solve his credibility problem by restricting the specificity of the facts at hand. He'll solve it by jettisoning his innuendo and making statements that actually comport with those facts. That, however, would mean abandoning a strategy that's worked for him very well in the past.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy birthday, Charles Darwin

Today is the 198th birthday of Charles Darwin. Mr. Darwin’s theory of natural selection not only helped explain the phenomena of evolution but also popularized the concept in the public imagination.

However, certain Christians have never felt comfortable with explanations of the creation of life than seem to contradict the Book of Genesis. They have devised so-called alternative theories such as Intelligent Design (a.k.a., I.D.) that explains evolution as a series of changes controlled by a supernatural being. They have pushed hard to have this taught in public schools as a legitimate scientific theory. The proponents of the I.D. scheme have been challenged in school boards and in the courts.

While I.D. seems to be fading it is only likely there will be another effort to dismiss evolution and prohibit or inhibit its teaching.

Edward Hume visited the trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania during 2005 in the case of whether or not the teaching of Intelligent Design in public school science classes overstepped the constitutional boundaries prohibiting the state indoctrination of religion. He shares these thoughts of his realization there are two interpretations of Darwin’s writings:
… There are really two theories of evolution. There is the genuine scientific theory, and there is the talk-radio pretend version, designed not to enlighten but to deceive and enrage.

The talk-radio version had a packed town hall up in arms at the "Why Evolution Is Stupid" lecture. In this version of the theory, scientists supposedly believe that all life is accidental, a random crash of molecules that magically produced flowers, horses and humans — a scenario as unlikely as a tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747. Humans come from monkeys in this theory, just popping into existence one day. The evidence against Darwin is overwhelming, the purveyors of talk-radio evolution rail, yet scientists embrace his ideas because they want to promote atheism.

These are just a few highlights of the awful and pervasive straw-man image of evolution that pundits harp about in books and editorials and, yes, on talk radio, and this cartoon version really is stupid. No wonder most Americans reject evolution in poll after poll.

But then there is the real theory of evolution, the one that was on display in that Harrisburg courtroom, for which there is overwhelming evidence in labs, fossils, computer simulations and DNA studies. Most Americans have not heard of it. Teachers give it short shrift in schools because the subject upsets too many parents who only know the talk-radio version. But real evolution isn't random; it doesn't say man came from monkeys. Those claims are made up by critics to get people riled up — paving the way for pleasing alternatives like intelligent design.

Real evolutionary theory explains how life forms change across generations by passing on helpful traits to their offspring; a process that, after millions of years, gradually transforms one species into another. This does not happen randomly but through nature's tendency to reward the most successful organisms and to kill the rest. This is why germs grow resistant to antibiotics and why some turtles are sea animals and others survive quite nicely in the desert, and why dinosaurs — and more than 99% of all other species that have ever lived on Earth — are extinct.

The environment changes. The recipe for survival changes with it. And life changes to keep up — or it dies. Darwin's signature insight is both brilliant and elegantly, brutally simple.

The real theory of evolution does not try to explain how life originated — that remains a mystery. The truth is that many scientists accept evolution and believe in God — and in a natural world so complete that it strives toward perfection all on its own, without need of a supernatural designer to keep it going.

The judge in Pennsylvania eventually found that real evolution was not stupid; that intelligent design was religion, not science, and that the school board in Dover, Pa., whose actions had precipitated this replay of Scopes, was out of line. Judge John E. Jones III was rewarded for his sensible and well-documented ruling with death threats. Such is the power of talk-radio evolution.

Meanwhile, a creationist history of the Grand Canyon is on sale in national park shops. A major American museum expressed interest in having me speak about my new book but decided the subject of evolution was too "political" right now to risk it. And teachers across the nation tell me they feel compelled to downplay or skip evolution lessons to avoid controversy; one L.A.-area high school instructor said she is the only one of five science teachers on her faculty to even mention evolution in class, notwithstanding a clear state mandate to teach it.
Happy birthday, Charles Darwin.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Supporting the troops…whatever that means

Does “supporting the troops,” mean endorsing President Bush’s Iraq policy? Or, does it mean keeping them out of harm’s way?

The answer to both is NO. Both are non-arguments. The duty of our professional armed forces is to pursue objectives, frequently in conflict and dangerous, of policies determined by an elected civilian government. Whether or not the policy is wise is a different question. Nor are our troops children in need of protection – this is a professional army of men and women who have volunteered for service that is potentially dangerous.

Rosa Brooks has these sensible comments in today’s L.A. Times:
…To some on the left, "supporting the troops" has come to mean "protecting the troops": keeping them out of harm's way, ensuring that they have the support services they need and generally avoiding sending them to places where they might get hurt — such as, well, Iraq.

But the military isn't a social welfare program, and the troops aren't children. Americans in uniform chose to join the military. Money and educational opportunities may have been added incentives, but it's patronizing to assume that the troops somehow got tricked into their dangerous jobs. If we support the troops, we need to respect their willingness to risk their lives on our behalf.

This means that "protecting" the troops should not be our top goal. We should never needlessly send them into harm's way, and we should give them the resources they need. But when force is necessary — and sometimes it is — we shouldn't shrink from calling on the troops to do the dangerous work they volunteered to do.

Meanwhile, for many on the right, "supporting" the troops has become synonymous with supporting the Bush administration's Iraq policies. It should go without saying that there is no necessary connection between supporting the troops and supporting the war, but let's say it anyway. Plenty of serious and patriotic people — some of whom are in the military — believe that the administration's Iraq policies undermine our national security interests. Sending U.S. troops to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of foolish policies isn't "supporting" them, and shifting course doesn't make lives already lost "wasted."

For the many Americans who simply don't know what to think about Iraq, "supporting the troops" often ends up meaning, by default, that we should just do "whatever the troops think we should do." But that's also silly. For one thing, "the troops" and their viewpoints are pretty diverse. For another, wearing a uniform doesn't magically transform a young American into an expert on geopolitics or national security.

But regardless of our views on Iraq, those of us in civilian life do have unique obligations to those who serve in the military. The troops aren't the only people who take risks in the public service, but police officers or firefighters who can't take the heat — or who disagree with their department's strategic priorities — can quit, while members of the military face prison if they exercise that option. U.S. troops aren't just "serving" their country; they're indentured servants to their country. And in a democracy, our votes sustain the system of laws that bind members of the military.

That's why civilians have a duty to support the troops in the most important way of all: by refusing to let them become pawns in a cynical political game.

Financing our enemies at the gas pump

Given the links between the events of September 11th and Saudi oil you would have thought part of the so-call “war on terrorism” would have been a program of drastic energy conservation and the promotion of non-oil fuels. However, given the influence of big oil in general and with the Bush administration in particular it should come as no surprise this obvious reaction was somehow overlooked. Oh, to be sure, there is the usual empty rhetoric concerning dependence on foreign oil but nothing of significance has been done. (Did you ever notice it is always foreign oil they refer to and never just oil?)

Think about it – if President Bush were sincerely worried about the power of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and Osama Bin Laden then he could have undercut their resources by putting the U.S. on an energy diet and reducing the amount of oil we use. Every time an American fills up a gas tank these gentlemen are a little more powerful. To be sure this would have costs but compared to the expense (and often futile) military adventures we have engaged in energy conservation and the use of non-oil products for fuel looks like a bargain. And, of course, there is that little matter of global warming.

The bottom line is we are funding many of our international political problems with our lifestyles. Johann Hari has this take on the Saudi oil wealth promotion of Wahhabism:
In his eighteenth-century oasis, Mohammed abd-al Wahhab had a dream. He dreamed of an Islam stripped down to a cold list of mechanical rules, strictly enforced, severely upheld. He ordered whippings and beheadings of Muslims to "purify" the faith. He smashed up and burned down the worship-places of the softer, more mystical Muslims all around him. And - his smartest move - he cut a deal. He met with the chief of the desert bandits who lived in the nearby long stretch of sand called Najd - a man named Mohammed Saud - and offered him his allegiance, in return for enforcing his severe new brand of Islam. The Saud ruling family and the Wahhabi doctrine have been locked in a stiff waltz ever since.

More than two centuries later, oil was discovered under the territory of this bandit-king, and billions of dollars began to soak into the Kingdom. True to their ancestor's deal, the House of Saud used this black gold to promote the ideas of Wahhab - no longer merely on their own sands, but across the world. By paying for thousands of schools, mosques and trained imams, they dispersed the ideas of one reactionary little preacher to every continent. It has been a corporate strategy that leaves Ronald McDonald looking like a puffing, obese slouch. Slowly, steadily, they are succeeding in eroding other, gentler forms of Islam. They are globalising Wahhabism - and your petrol purchases are paying for it.

Our governments are not stopping this Wahabbi-Saudi hate machine for a simple reason: as the New York Times writer Thomas Friedman puts it, junkies don't talk back to their dealers. We are addicted to the Saudi oil supply - it lubricates our cars, our planes, our food supply routes. In the face of this hunger, talk of national security or democratic ideals soon sinks into an oily gloop. Until we have built up clean, green alternatives to Middle Eastern oil (and isn't global warming reason enough?), you and I will keep on paying at the petrol pump for this propaganda against us.
You can read his entire article here.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Is the “surge” strategy setting Iraq up for a Shiite “Day of Death”?

Iraq’s two main Shiite militias, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, have successfully infiltrated the intelligence services, the police and the army. Their strategy is to lay low and allow the Americans to do their work combating Sunni militias while the Americans feed, train and arm their supporters. This raises very real concerns about the “surge” strategy promoted by the White House. Is this strategy laying the groundwork for Shiite ethnic cleansing of the Sunni population?

Here is Tom Lasseter’s report in the Mercury News:
The U.S. military drive to train and equip Iraq's security forces has unwittingly strengthened anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which has been battling to take over much of the capital city as American forces are trying to secure it.

U.S. Army commanders and enlisted men who are patrolling east Baghdad, which is home to more than half the city's population and the front line of al-Sadr's campaign to drive rival Sunni Muslims from their homes and neighborhoods, said al-Sadr's militias had heavily infiltrated the Iraqi police and army units that they've trained and armed.

"Half of them are JAM. They'll wave at us during the day and shoot at us during the night," said 1st Lt. Dan Quinn, a platoon leader in the Army's 1st Infantry Division, using the initials of the militia's Arabic name, Jaish al Mahdi. "People (in America) think it's bad, but that we control the city. That's not the way it is. They control it, and they let us drive around. It's hostile territory."

The Bush administration's plan to secure Baghdad rests on a "surge" of some 17,000 more U.S. troops to the city, many of whom will operate from small bases throughout Baghdad. Those soldiers will work to improve Iraqi security units so that American forces can hand over control of the area and withdraw to the outskirts of the city.

The problem, many soldiers said, is that the approach has been tried before and resulted only in strengthening al-Sadr and his militia.

Amid recurring reports that al-Sadr is telling his militia leaders to stash their arms and, in some cases, leave their neighborhoods during the American push, U.S. soldiers worry that the latest plan could end up handing over those areas to units that are close to al-Sadr's militant Shiite group.

"All the Shiites have to do is tell everyone to lay low, wait for the Americans to leave, then when they leave you have a target list and within a day they'll kill every Sunni leader in the country. It'll be called the `Day of Death' or something like that," said 1st Lt. Alain Etienne, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y. "They say, `Wait, and we will be victorious.' That's what they preach. And it will be their victory."

Quinn agreed.

"Honestly, within six months of us leaving, the way Iranian clerics run the country behind the scenes, it'll be the same way here with Sadr," said Quinn, 25, of Cleveland. "He already runs our side of the river."

Four senior American military representatives in Baghdad declined requests for comment.

Al-Sadr's success in infiltrating Iraqi security forces says much about the continued inability of American commanders in Iraq to counter the classic insurgent tactic of using popular support to trump superior military firepower. Lacking attack helicopters and other sophisticated weapons, al-Sadr's men have expanded their empire with borrowed trucks and free lunches for militiamen.

After U.S. units pounded al-Sadr's men in August 2004, the cleric apparently decided that instead of facing American tanks, he'd use the Americans' plans to build Iraqi security forces to rebuild his own militia.

So while Iraq's other main Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade, concentrated in 2005 on packing Iraqi intelligence bureaus with high-level officers who could coordinate sectarian assassinations, al-Sadr went after the rank and file.

His recruits began flooding into the Iraqi army and police, receiving training, uniforms and equipment either directly from the U.S. military or from the American-backed Iraqi Defense Ministry.

The infiltration by al-Sadr's men, coupled with his strength in Iraq's parliament after U.S.-backed elections, gave him leeway to operate death squads throughout the capital, according to more than a week of interviews with American soldiers patrolling Baghdad. Some U.S.-trained units carried out sectarian killings themselves, while others, manning checkpoints, allowed militiamen to pass.
You can read the rest of the article here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

American troops and the Iraqi civil war

The anti-war forces, including many Democratic candidates for President, keep harping on the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found and that the country was misled as to the reasons for the war in Iraq. They are certainly right on the first issue and more right than not on the second (there were reasons to at least be suspicious of WMD’s at the time) but the points here have little to do with trying to decide what we need to do in Iraq now.

And if the anti-war side is stuck on the issues of the past the Bush administration has been in complete denial of the reality that the victory in toppling Sadaam Hussein has been completely squandered and the window of opportunity to help establish a democratic and stable Iraq slammed shut quite some time ago. If it had not been the publicity of the rather gloomy conclusions from the bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton Commission it is quite likely this administration would still be carrying on as if nothing has changed. As it is, they have finally acknowledged things are not going well but seem to believe that a few changes in personnel and a few additional troops in Baghdad will turn the situation around in a few months that has been unraveling for the past four years.

It is becoming clearer each day that American troops in Iraq are less and less fighting an insurgency by Baathists trying to topple a democratic government than they are participating in a civil war being fought along ethnic lines. We are training and arming an army and police of which significant segments are loyal to interests other than the democratic state of Iraq. There are voices in our country advocating taking sides with the Shiite forces. This ignores the fact we have a national interest in being able to sit down with both Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region as well as the moral issue of taking sides mean American troops inadvertently become accessories to ethnic cleansing by helping crush the Sunni militias.

There is nothing that was inevitable about this state of affairs. As Peter Beinart pointed out the New Republic a few weeks ago Shiite and Sunni have cooperated for decades but the collapse of the Iraqi state due to the failure to provide basic security has left the population with no choice but to seek protection from the various militias responsible for most of the current fighting and ethnic cleansing. As Beinart points out despite all the lofty rhetoric about democracy if there is no state then there is no republic.

So what should we do? Is it possible to mitigate the effects of the civil war? How does the United States pursue legitimate national interests in a region in which we have become discredited?

Edward Luttwak has these recommendations in the New York Times:
…. The total number of American troops in Iraq — even including any surge — is so small, and their linguistic skills so limited, that they have little effect on day-to-day security. Nor have they really protected Iraqis from one another. At most, the presence of American soldiers in any one place merely diverts attacks elsewhere (unless they themselves are attacked, which is a sad way indeed of reducing Iraqi casualties).

Intelligence is to counterinsurgency what firepower is to conventional warfare, and we just do not have it or the capacity to gather information on our own. Thus the sacrifices of our troops on the ground are mostly futile.

Politically, on the other hand, disengagement should actually reduce the violence. American power has been interposed between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shiites. That has relieved the Shiite majority of responsibility to such an extent that many, notably the leaders of the Mahdi Army, feel free to attack the American and British troops who are busy protecting their co-religionist civilians from Sunni insurgents. For many Arab Sunnis, on the other hand, the United States must be the enemy simply because it upholds the majority of the heretical Shiites.

Were the United States to disengage, both Arab Sunnis and Shiites would have to take responsibility for their own security (as the Kurds have doing been all along). Where these three groups are not naturally separated by geography, they would be forced to find ways to stabilize relations with each other. That would most likely involve violence as well as talks, and some forcing of civilians from their homes. But all this is happening already, and there is no saying which ethno-religious group would be most favored by a reduction of the United States footprint. One reason for optimism on that score is that the violence itself has been separating previously mixed populations, reducing motives and opportunities for further attacks. That is how civil wars can burn themselves out.

In any case, it is time for the Iraqis to make their own history.
And Andrew Sullivan follows up on his blog:
Once the decision was made to foment anarchy in Iraq - a decision made with clear foresight by Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney - the chance of Americans to influence events in a country they don't begin to understand was thrown away. The great delusion of the pathetic rearranging of deck-chairs called "the surge" is that we are somehow supposed to believe that four years after we abandoned control of Iraq, we can regain it with a handful of new troops. We can't. A civil war is underway in Iraq to test the real power of the various factions and sects in the country. There will be no peace until such a rebalancing of power is finished. That will mean, alas, ethnic cleansing, more violence, hideous atrocities and the risk of regional war. So be it. It's already under way under American occupation; the only problem is that young Americans are - ludicrously - supposed to police it.

… the less the U.S. is directly involved in one side or another, the more options we retain for the future. Disengagement, in other words, is defeat. But it is defeat in a war we have already lost. It could mean a gain in a war that is only just beginning. Which could mean victory in the end, whatever victory at this point can be understood to mean.