Thursday, May 31, 2007

Haleh Esfandiari and U.S.-Iran relations

Haleh Esfandiari has been charged with espionage by the Iranian government. Dr. Efandiari is an Iranian-American and is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is a scholar with expertise on various subjects related to the Middle East. She has a 93-year-old mother in Iran whom she visits on a regular basis.

While visiting her mother in December she was robbed. Both her U.S. and Iranian passports were stolen and she was not permitted to leave the country. She was placed under house arrest and interrogated a number of times. Then, she was taken into custody a few weeks ago and detained at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison where she remains today. She has now been charged with espionage.

(Jeff Weintraub reprints an article by her husband, Shaul Bakhash, about her predicament. A “Free Haleh” website can be found here. A statement by Middle East scholars protesting her arrest and imprisonment can be found here.)

Her harassment and detention is part of a pattern others with dual Iranian-American citizenship are facing. Human Rights Watch and other organizations are calling for an end to the harassment of dual-nationals in Iran.

What is the United States to do?

The unfortunate plight of a few American citizens in Iran must seem like small potatoes in American-Iranian relations compared to the other two big issues: Iranian influence in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear program. The problem is the United States is operating from a position of weakness. Our military is stretched very thin and cannot pose much of a threat to Iran. We have not had diplomatic relations since seizure of the American Embassy in the 1979 and holding of American hostages for 444 days so nation-to-nation talks are rare and usually through third parties. Sanctions are already in place but the American appetite for oil has helped keep the price high and Iran wealthy.

Obviously, Ms. Efandiari and the others are pawns in some larger game played by those who are afraid of closer U.S. - Iranian relationships. These actions represent a real insecurity by the rightwing Ahmadinejad regime because they are not that popular at home and need an external enemy. This could provide an opening if U.S. officials are smart enough to take advantage of it.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has these thoughts (via the International Herald Tribune):
… President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - the man who shows us how tough he is by declaring the Holocaust a myth - had his goons arrest Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar and dual Iranian-U.S. citizen, while she was visiting her 93-year-old mother in Tehran. Do you know how paranoid you have to be to think that a 67-year-old grandmother visiting her 93-year-old mother can bring down your regime? Now that is insecure.

It's also shameful. Haleh directs the Middle East program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. She went to Iran in December to visit her aging mother - a trip she's made regularly for the past decade. According to her husband, Shaul Bakhash, himself a renowned Iran expert in the United States, while Haleh was traveling to the Tehran airport on Dec. 30, to return home, she was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men - Iran's Intelligence Ministry always needs three men and three knives when confronting a grandmother - and they stole her belongings and her U.S. and Iranian passports.

This was followed by six weeks of intermittent questioning by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence. Then, on May 7, Haleh was arrested. She has been formally charged with "endangering national security through propaganda against the system and espionage for foreigners," an Iranian spokesman said - apparently because of her work organizing academic conferences of Iranian and U.S. experts.

Why does Iran's leadership do such a thing? Because its hard-liners fear relations with the United States and want to scuttle the Iran-U.S. dialogue that began this week in Baghdad. Just like Castro's Cuba, Iran's mullah dictators thrive on their clash with America. The conflict gives them status among anti-American countries, our sanctions allow them to explain away their poor economic performance, and U.S. "threats," both real and imagined, allow them to crush all legitimate dissent by labeling it part of a U.S. conspiracy.

What to do? Obviously, one option is a military strike combined with fomenting revolution. But that could easily leave us with another unstable, failing state in the Middle East. I don't want to create another boiling Iraq. A second option would be more economic sanctions to change the regime's behavior. The third option is engagement aimed at restoring relations.

Alas, the Bush Iran policy has dabbled in all three, but never committed itself to one, and, as a result, Iran's hard-liners have been strengthened. The only way out of our corner now is to get some leverage. And leverage can come only from stepped-up economic sanctions - particularly doing something to bring down the price of oil, Iran's lifeblood - combined with aggressive engagement, like declaring that we don't seek the toppling of the regime and that we are ready, if Iran curbs its nuclear program, to restore full diplomatic and economic ties the next day.

In other words, our only hope of either changing this Iranian regime or its behavior, without fracturing the country, is through a stronger Iranian middle class that demands a freer press, consensual politics and rule of law. That is our China strategy - and it could work even faster with Iran. The greatest periods of political change in modern Iran happened when the country was most intensely engaged with the West, beginning with the constitutional revolution in 1906.

Unfortunately, the Bush strategy - diplomatic/economic isolation plus high oil prices - has only frozen the regime in power and transformed it from mildly repressive to a KGB state with a nuclear program. So now we face an Iranian regime that is both powerful and paranoid.

It has the resources to snub the world and its own people's aspirations. Yet, no matter how much this regime tries to buy off its people with oil money, it knows that many despise it. It's actually afraid of its own people more than anyone - so afraid it even criminalizes scholarly exchanges between Iranians and Americans that the regime can't control.

That's why a 67-year-old grandmother - whose only crime is getting people together in public to talk about building a better Iran - is such a threat.
What needs to be done is a radical national energy conservation program targeting oil consumption -- something that should have been done September 12th 2001 – to help force down the demand (and price) of oil. That would give the U.S. plenty of leverage with the Iranian regime. The U.S. should encourage the types of education and cultural exchange programs that Ms. Esfandiari represented and halt the counter-productive covert operations this administration is fond of. The United States should restore diplomatic relations with Iran. An embassy in Tehran would be far more useful than embassies in London or Paris – after all, the whole point of diplomacy isn’t to chat with your friends but to have a constant line of communication open with your enemies. And right now, we have a lot we need to talk about.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Promising movement in public opinion for gay rights

The Gallup Poll has just published results that look very promising for a more tolerant American society in regards to gays and lesbians. Of particular interest is the issue of same-sex marriage that shows an approval rate moving from 27% in 1996 to currently 46% (or disapproval moving from 68% to 53% in the same decade).

This from Gallup:
…. after several years of lower support for gay rights, support is now springing back to the relatively high levels seen in 2003, just before the Supreme Court's June 26, 2003, decision striking down a Texas sodomy law. (According to Gallup trends, that ruling appeared to produce a backlash of public opposition to gay rights.)

The clearest example of the recent renewal in pro-gay rights attitudes comes from a question asking Americans whether they believe homosexual relations should be legal. Public tolerance for this aspect of gay rights expanded from 43% at the inception of the question in 1977 to 60% in May 2003. Then in July 2003, it fell to 50% and remained at about that level through 2005. Last year, it jumped to 56% and this year it reached 59%, similar to the 2003 high point.

A similar pattern is seen with attitudes about whether homosexuality should be sanctioned as an acceptable alternative lifestyle. Only 34% in 1982 believed it should be considered acceptable. This expanded to 54% in May 2003, only to drop to 46% two months later. Today's 57% is the highest on record for this measure.

The trend in public support for gay marriage also shows a long-term increase in pro-gay rights attitudes, with the current result being the most affirming on record for gays, though still the minority view.

More generally, Americans' tolerance for gay rights currently ranges from 89% believing gays should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, down to 46% saying marriages between same-sex couples should be as legally valid as traditional marriages.
Of note is the generational breakdown on the question as to whether homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle or not. For those 55 and older, 45% felt it was acceptable and 51% felt it was not. The 35-to-54 age group broke down 58% as acceptable and 39% unacceptable. Significantly, for the 18-to-34 age group, 75% found it acceptable and 23% unacceptable.

According to Andrew Sullivan, “at the rate we're going, we should have a clear national majority for marriage rights in the next decade. When you look at the 18 - 35 year olds, we now have 75 percent saying that being gay is 'an acceptable alternative lifestyle.' Forget the vile phrase and look at the data. The debate is basically over."

Darfur genocide: talk, talk, talk

Yesterday, President Bush announced a ratcheting up of sanctions against Sudan for its role in the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. The Sudanese actions have been directed not only at rebel groups but the civilian population at large.

Following the rebellion by Darfur's ethnic African tribes against what they considered decades of neglect by the Arab-dominated Khartoum government, Sudanese leaders retaliated by unleashing the janjaweed militia to put down the rebels using a campaign of murder, rape, mutilation and plunder. The result has been at least 200,000 killed, approximately 2.5 million displaced and the possibility of millions dying from starvation and war-related causes.

There has been an international outcry against the actions directed against Darfur’s population for years including from the United States. However, the timeliness and likely effectiveness of the President’s proposals yesterday call into question how seriously committed this administration is to stopping this crime against humanity.

This is an analysis by Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press:
It has taken President Bush nearly three years to match his impassioned rhetoric about what he decries as genocide in Darfur with tougher U.S. action against some of those blamed for the suffering.

When Bush announced sanctions on Tuesday, advocacy groups and lawmakers wished the president had been harsher and wondered whether it was a case of too little, too late for Darfur. The violence has killed 200,000 people and forced 2.5 million more from their homes since it began in February 2003.

The sanctions target three people with suspected links to the violence as well as about 30 companies in Sudan.

"Three people? After four years? And not one of them the real ringleader of the policy to divide and destroy Darfur?" asked John Prendergast, policy adviser to ENOUGH Project, an advocacy group to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. "This will not build multilateral pressure, and this will not end the crisis in Darfur."

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also faulted Bush. "They could have sent a stronger message months ago and saved many lives from being disrupted or lost," he said.

It's not as if the Bush administration has been unaware of the bloodshed in Darfur.

The United States has been working on the issue at the U.N. Security Council and Bush has appointed special envoys to the region. The U.S. is the world's largest single donor to the people of Darfur, providing more than $1.7 billion in humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance. Still, the administration's steps have not been sufficient to halt the violence in Darfur, an arid region in eastern Africa about the size of Texas.

Bush sees a possible opening on the diplomatic front. The president is headed to Europe next week where Darfur will be on the agenda of the annual summit of industrialized nations. And at the United Nations, China, which has veto power on the Security Council, may no longer be in the mood to block U.N. sanctions against the Sudanese government.

China, the biggest buyer of Sudanese oil and a major investor in Sudan's economy, has been pilloried for not doing enough to pressure Khartoum to end the violence. Worried that Darfur activist groups will call for boycotts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China recently appointed a new envoy to the region.

It's unclear whether the new U.S. sanctions will help or hinder efforts to pass a U.N. resolution.

When the U.S. and Britain threatened sanctions against Sudan in mid-April, three Security Council members - China, Russia and South Africa - said it was the wrong time.

The time's up for Sudan's hardline President Omar al-Bashir, said Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

"President Bashir has failed on all counts," Negroponte said, reeling off a list of unfulfilled commitments by the government, including ongoing support for the janjaweed, air raids and ground attacks and the obstruction of relief supplies.

"The Bashir government must see that its actions will choke off international investments that are very important to Sudan," he said. "There is no good argument for giving the Sudanese more time."

The Bush administration has said this before.

After signing an accord to end a long-running civil war in Sudan's south in January 2005, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said the atrocities in Darfur must end immediately "not next month ... but right away, starting today."

That was nearly 2 1/2 years ago.
China is the key to dealing with Sudan and unless (or until) the international community is willing to put troops in Darfur, pressure must be put on the Chinese.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The slow strangulation of a free press in Venezuela

The government of Hugo Chavez has shut down RCTV – the oldest privately owned television station in Venezuela. The station, popular with Venezuelans for its soap operas and game shows, was one of a number of media outlets that has opposed the Chavez government.

Yesterday in Caracas, thousands protested the decision by Chavez to force the station off the air for being critical of his leadership. Huffington Post reports, “Police fired toward the crowd of up to 5,000 protesters from a raised highway, and protesters fled amid clouds of tear gas. They later regrouped in Caracas’ Plaza Brion chanting “freedom!” Some tossed rocks and bottles at police, prompting authorities to scatter demonstrators by firing more gas.”

According to José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, “President Hugo Chávez is misusing the state’s regulatory authority to punish a media outlet for its criticism of the government. The move to shut down RCTV is a serious blow to freedom of expression in Venezuela.”

Marc Cooper addresses the issue of the apologists for Chavez’s actions:
… RCTV is no doubt a conservative, anti-Chavez, pro-oligarchic network chock full of mind-numbing and frankly stupid entertainment programs. But you know what? Millions of Venezuelans watch them, want to watch them, and much more importantly -- like it or not-- RCTV has become the major media outlet for the political opposition. And excuse me for being old-fashioned but without a strong opposition voice there is no such thing as democracy-- of the revolutionary sort or otherwise.

The question from the apologists is always: Well, would the U.S. allow a TV station that encouraged the overthrow of the government. I suspect not. But we would sure be protesting someone's right to encourage that? Wouldn't we? And at least there'd be some damn FCC hearing with a right to appeal before the troops were sent in to seize the equipment.

What really galls me -- no, what absolutely disgusts me-- are the so-called "media reformers" in the U.S. who just think it's grand when Chavez engages in this sort of muzzling. They want to stand with an authoritarian who, among other things, has said he's closing RCTV because its soap operas encourage immoral behavior? Roll over, Reverend Falwell and make room for your new lefty friends.

The most obvious lesson that anyone with an IQ above room temperature can draw from these events is that the closure of RCTV is but a direct threat to any other opposition voice in Venezuela. The two other private TV networks in Venezuela behaved exactly the same way that RCTV did during the 2002 failed coup against Chavez (they supported it). But in the past few years they have modified their political positions to supporting Hugo, so their billionaire owners continue with no restriction.

Here in the U.S. we journalists get understandably upset when as much as one reporter gets dragged before a grand jury. We rightfully consider that a chilling of press freedom. But how is that the phony media reformers -- like FAIR-- can't raise their voices when a major opposition network is yanked off the air and it supporters are fired on with rubber bullets? This all gives a new meaning to the word hypocrisy.
And now it is reported that the Chavez government is now ratcheting up criticism of another television station, Globovision, it considers part of the opposition. It claims the station implicitly called for Chavez’s assassination when it aired footage of the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II with the song "This Does Not Stop Here" sung by Ruben Blades, now Panama's tourism minister.

What we are witnessing is the step-by-step shut down of dissent against the government by intimidation and regulatory control of the media.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Day and the dealth of a son

This Memorial Day speeches will be given honoring our nation’s war dead – the soldiers and sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of democracy. This Memorial Day it may be worth considering not only how these brave men and women served their country but how their government served them.

Andrew J. Bacevich graduated from West Point in 1969 and served in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971. He continued in the military retiring as a Colonel in the early 1990’s. He earned his Ph.D from Princeton University in the history of American Diplomacy and has taught at West Point, John Hopkins University and Boston University. Bacevich has been a conservative critic of Bush foreign policy particularly as it pertains to Iraq.

His son, by the same name, followed his father’s career path into the military. He was stationed in Iraq. The family was notified on Mother’s Day that First Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich, 27, had been killed by a bomb while on patrol in Balad, Iraq

Here are Mr. Bacevich’s reflections following the death of his son:
What exactly is a father's duty when his son is sent into harm's way?

Among the many ways to answer that question, mine was this one: As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen.

As a citizen, I have tried since Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a critical understanding of U.S. foreign policy. I know that even now, people of good will find much to admire in Bush's response to that awful day. They applaud his doctrine of preventive war. They endorse his crusade to spread democracy across the Muslim world and to eliminate tyranny from the face of the Earth. They insist not only that his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was correct but that the war there can still be won. Some -- the members of the "the-surge-is-already-working" school of thought -- even profess to see victory just over the horizon.

I believe that such notions are dead wrong and doomed to fail. In books, articles and op-ed pieces, in talks to audiences large and small, I have said as much. "The long war is an unwinnable one," I wrote in this section of The Washington Post in August 2005. "The United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement. We've done all that we can do."

Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others -- teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks -- to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond.

This, I can now see, was an illusion.

The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as "the will of the people."


Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.'s life is priceless. Don't believe it. I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier's life: I've been handed the check. It's roughly what the Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning once he starts pitching next month.

Money maintains the Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics. It confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels. It preserves intact the cliches of 1933-45 about isolationism, appeasement and the nation's call to "global leadership." It inhibits any serious accounting of exactly how much our misadventure in Iraq is costing. It ignores completely the question of who actually pays. It negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.

This is not some great conspiracy. It's the way our system works.

In joining the Army, my son was following in his father's footsteps: Before he was born, I had served in Vietnam. As military officers, we shared an ironic kinship of sorts, each of us demonstrating a peculiar knack for picking the wrong war at the wrong time. Yet he was the better soldier -- brave and steadfast and irrepressible.

I know that my son did his best to serve our country. Through my own opposition to a profoundly misguided war, I thought I was doing the same. In fact, while was he was giving all, I was doing nothing. In this way, I failed him.
You can read the entire piece here.

Young Bacevich died from a suicide bomber from one of the many groups of enemies we are facing in Iraq – we’ll probably never know which one is responsible for that particular bomber on that particular road because Iraq has become a multitude of different conflicts fought between different parties. Yet, at different level we do know who is also responsible for his death and others – it is the national leadership of this country and a system of government that has become stagnant.

The system is structured so that two parties have a monopoly on power – third parties just don’t make sense under this system. And it’s not that there is no difference between the parties – there is – but there isn’t enough of a difference to make significant changes in the lives of Americans when they vote for one over the other. It is of little wonder that our elections focus on the race rather than what lies beyond the finish line. And it is also of little wonder that the turnout of registered voters is so embarrassing low.

The separation of the legislative and executive branches of government (unlike a parliamentary system) can result in a gridlock with the executive branch always holding the upper hand because the sitting President is only accountable to the Electoral College once at the end of the first four-year term and essentially has tenure. When a sitting President is less than competent and is surrounded by ideologues the result is something like we are facing now in Iraq.

The current policy for Iraq is a failure. The tyrant was toppled only to be replaced by chaos and civil war. It is not clear what exactly the proper thing to do in Iraq is given the growing humanitarian crisis and the country quite possibly on the verge of collapse. We hear little about these important issues. There are long term U.S. strategic interests in the region particularly as it pertains to the very real threat from Al Qaeda but that discussion has become as muddled in clichés as to be almost meaningless. Debates seem to lack substance and weave in and out of non-arguments as to whether we are supporting the troops or not as if the war is being fought for the benefit of the troops or the troops are helpless children in need of protection.

It’s an old saying that armies don’t fight wars, nations do. But look around and you don’t see a nation at war. Democracy provides legitimacy for government actions and buy-in by the public. It also helps clarify policy. But the American public has either not bought into this war or, if they did, they now want out. Yet, nothing changes. The system that is supposed to be democracy is failing. It is failing because it has become just a façade of a democracy. It seems that more and more of what we do is just going through the motions of voting that produce only marginal changes.

First Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich and the other allied service people as well as the countless Iraqi citizens who have died deserved better. That’s what we should remember this Memorial Day.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Friday Fun: Vintage Smothers Brothers

Boil That Cabbage Down

Creation Museum to open

The world’s first museum devoted to showing the biblical creation myth as fact will be opening on Memorial Day in Northern Kentucky near Cincinnati. It includes displays of those pesky dinosaurs bones that keep showing up all over the world. In fact, there are dinosaurs shown along humans in the world’s 6000-year existence. And, of course, Adam and Eve are positioned in such ways as to maintain their modesty – just the way God intended. They also have computer animation of how all those animals actually fitted in Noah’s Arc.

The Creation Museum, a project of the Answers in Genesis Ministry, $27 million project designed to promote as fact an odd jumble of biblical myths intermixed dinosaurs and fossils. According to the New York Times:
It … serves as a vivid introduction to the sheer weirdness and daring of this museum created by the Answers in Genesis ministry that combines displays of extraordinary nautilus shell fossils and biblical tableaus, celebrations of natural wonders and allusions to human sin. Evolution gets its continual comeuppance, while biblical revelations are treated as gospel.

Outside the museum scientists may assert that the universe is billions of years old, that fossils are the remains of animals living hundreds of millions of years ago, and that life’s diversity is the result of evolution by natural selection. But inside the museum the Earth is barely 6,000 years old, dinosaurs were created on the sixth day, and Jesus is the savior who will one day repair the trauma of man’s fall.

It is a measure of the museum’s daring that dinosaurs and fossils — once considered major challenges to belief in the Bible’s creation story — are here so central, appearing not as tests of faith, as one religious authority once surmised, but as creatures no different from the giraffes and cats that still walk the earth. Fossils, the museum teaches, are no older than Noah’s flood; in fact dinosaurs were on the ark.
The backers of the museum and Answers in Genesis are people who do not read the Bible for the truths it may tell but as factual evidence of real events – in other words, all biblical stories are literally true. At the same time these people are products of their time and are enamored with scientific methods and the illusion of science. They have merged the two to come up with something on the level of the Flintstones – the 1960’s cartoon series about prehistoric people living in prehistoric suburbs along side dinosaurs. That there are people who will undoubtedly take this sham of a museum serious is rather sad, if not frightening.

This is how the L.A. Times sees it:
The Creation Museum, a $27-million tourist attraction promoting earth science theories that were popular when Columbus set sail, opens near Cincinnati on Memorial Day. So before the first visitor risks succumbing to the museum's animatronic balderdash — dinosaurs and humans actually coexisted! the Grand Canyon was carved by the great flood described in Genesis! — we'd like to clear up a few things: "The Flintstones" is a cartoon, not a documentary. Fred and Wilma? Those woolly mammoth vacuum cleaners? All make-believe.

Science is under assault, and that calls for bold truths. Here's another: The Earth is round.

The museum, a 60,000-square-foot menace to 21st century scientific advancement, is the handiwork of Answers in Genesis, a leader in the "young Earth" movement. Young Earthers believe the world is about 6,000 years old, as opposed to the 4.5 billion years estimated by the world's credible scientific community. This would be risible if anti-evolution forces were confined to a lunatic fringe, but they are not. Witness the recent revelation that three of the Republican candidates for president do not believe in evolution. Three men seeking to lead the last superpower on Earth reject the scientific consensus on cosmology, thermonuclear dynamics, geology and biology, believing instead that Bamm-Bamm and Dino played together.

Religion and science can coexist. That the Earth is billions of years old is a fact. How the universe came into being and whether it operates by design are matters of faith. The problem is that people who deny science in one realm are unlikely to embrace it in another. Those who cannot accept that climate change may have caused the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago probably don't put much stock in the fact that today it poses grave peril to the Earth as we know it.

Last year, the White House attempted to muzzle NASA's top climatologist after he called for urgent action on global warming, and a presidential appointee in the agency's press office chastised a contractor for mentioning the Big Bang without including the word "theory." The press liaison reportedly wrote in an e-mail: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA."

With the opening of the Creation Museum, young people will be getting another side of the story. Too bad it starts with "Yabba-dabba-doo!"
If local Virginia readers have an interest, Ken Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis and prime mover behind the museum, is doing a conference for the Home Educators Association of Virginia in Richmond on June 8th. (This says a lot about the quality of education home educators are providing to the children of Virginia. Perhaps they should try Chesterfield County schools.)

And in case you have any doubts or questions pertaining to scientific analysis of evolution versus the malarkey promoted by the so-called creationists, Scientific American has just published “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.” (Thanks to Waldo for the tip.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Humanitarian intervention in Iraq?

According to a Chatham House report the conflict in Iraq is no longer a single war but multiple wars fought between different parties throughout the country. The level of violence varies throughout the country with the worse in the center and the greatest stability in the Kurdish north. Nevertheless, the country as a whole has deteriorated into varying degrees of chaos and the state cannot protect its citizens. Crime is rampant, parts of the south are being ruled by theocrats and Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents are rebelling, the open borders and chaos in the country have allowed Al Qaeda to become established, and the country is pulling itself apart in three different directions as ethnic and regional differences become more pronounced.

Approximately 100,000 Iraqis have died from war related causes and an estimated two million have fled the country. A humanitarian crisis exists.

The assessment is easy. What to do about it is not. The debate about the reasons for the war and the wisdom of current strategy and policy seem to overlook the humanitarian crisis. Norman Geras calls our attention to a piece by David Bosco, senior editor for Foreign Policy, published in the Boston Globe last week:
FEW ASPECTS of the evolving crisis in Iraq are beyond controversy, but on one point there is now little dispute: The conflict there has produced a humanitarian disaster. The United Nations estimates that at least 30,000 Iraqis died in 2006, and more than 100,000 have died since the invasion. The bloodshed, and the question of what might staunch it, has now become a critical part of the debate on Iraq policy.

Yet one group of voices has been mute: the West's leading human rights organizations. These organizations have no public position on whether US troops should stay or go and on whether the "surge" of troops can help restrain the escalating bloodshed.

… Part of the explanation is genuine puzzlement: human rights professionals are as confused as everyone else about how to stop the spiraling sectarian violence. When speaking privately, experts offer widely different predictions about what would happen if US troops were to withdraw quickly and whether the surge of US forces can work. Some argue that an American withdrawal might force the major Iraqi factions to reach a power-sharing deal. Others say withdrawal would unleash a far worse bloodbath.

The groups' uncertainty meshes with a deep distrust of the Bush administration -- distrust it has done much to earn; consider Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

What's more, most human rights activists opposed the war from the beginning, and they are now loath to endorse it in any way. Human-rights groups did groundbreaking work exposing Saddam Hussein's atrocities. But however much they despised his regime, most activists believed that American and British politicians abused humanitarian rationales for political aims. Human Rights Watch even released a brief in January 2004 explaining why the war did not meet its strict criteria for humanitarian intervention.

However valid those concerns were then, the situation now is different. Many of the war's early rationales have fallen away, and the US-led force is now struggling to impose basic security and restrain sectarian violence. The occupation also has a legal mandate: Although the UN Security Council did not endorse the invasion, it did authorize the occupation and gave the US-led force the responsibility to help provide security and bolster the elected government.

So the Iraq war now is arguably the functional equivalent of a humanitarian intervention. Human Rights Watch's Roth concedes that the killing in Iraq has now reached crisis proportions. But he also believes that other methods -- including the threat of international war crimes trials for militia leaders on all sides -- must be tried before attempting to stop the violence with expanded American military force.

But there is an air of unreality to some of these proposals. No morally pure cavalry stands ready to pull Iraq back from the brink. However worthwhile international prosecutions might be, they are unlikely to snap the cycle of violence, just as they have failed to do so in Darfur.

As the United States careens toward a new Iraq policy, human rights experts must bring their insight to bear. The debate on whether to stay or go should not happen without the input of those Westerners who are most concerned with the fate of the Iraqi people.
You read the entire piece here.

The United States is in a lose-lose situation in that maintaining the current strategy means a continuation of the unchecked violence we read about in the newspapers every day while withdrawal is likely to lead to further destabilization and possibly greater violence in the Iraqi civil war(s). The United States is further handicapped by its leadership at a time when leadership is needed. The Bush administration lacks credibility with both the American people and allies abroad. They have consistently compromised themselves with bad decisions and dishonesty. And even if they could be trusted to be truthful they are still incompetent. The situation in Iraq did not happen overnight – it has deteriorated steadily under the noses of the occupation over a period of years before reaching the current level of sectarian fighting and uncontrolled crime. On top of all that is a war-weary American public who have been constantly told we are winning but need more time to defeat the terrorists.

Another problem with keeping American troops in Iraq is that they are not seen as neutral participants but fighting on behalf of the Shiite controlled government. The Shiite community sees the government as weak and the Sunni community sees the government as being in the back pocket of the Shiite militias who have engaged in ethnic cleansing of parts of Baghdad. The Iraqi military poses the same issue for Sunnis – they see it as controlled by Shiite militias. Ideally, an international peacekeeping force could come in to keep the warring parties apart long enough for negotiations between the multiple factions to work out their differences if not a complete renegotiation of the distribution of power. There was a story in the Guardian yesterday about the Bush administration is considering approaching the United Nations but that is yet to happen.

So, what to do?

It is important to not be overwhelmed with disillusionment with the current mess. However, justifiably angry we may be with what has happened over the past few years it is important to take into consideration the what is happening on the ground today and what is happening today is a humanitarian crisis. A foreign policy focusing on protecting civilians and challenging human rights abuses around the world is still needed. How to apply this to Iraq is the question before us now.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mary Cheney has her baby

Mary Cheney gave birth to an 8-pound, 6-ounce boy today. Her pregnancy caused a stir when it was announced last December because Ms. Cheney is a lesbian living in a committed same sex partnership. As a daughter of one of the most conservative Vice Presidents in this country’s history the circumstances of her pregnancy raised more than a few eyebrows. Christianist elements active in the Republican Party, who are opposed to any and all gay and lesbian relationships let alone relationships involving the raising of children, were not happy at all.

Mary Cheney and her partner moved a little over a year ago to Northern Virginia where she works as an executive for AOL. Virginians were embroiled in a fight over a state constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to different sex couples. (Coincidently, there was a proposal before the Virginia General Assembly at the same time to prohibit unmarried women from having children through medically assisted means.) Ms. Cheney chose not to speak out publicly in opposition to the amendment that would discriminate against her, her partner and future child. Sadly, the amendment passed.

Andrew Sullivan quotes the Christianist World Net Daily,
According to reports, Mary's homosexual partner of 15 years, Heather Poe, "will have no legal relationship with her child. She can't adopt as a second parent. She won't have her name on the birth certificate."
He adds, “It's such an important Christian value to keep a child vulnerable, isn't it? And to stigmatize and discriminate against one of his moms.”

We wish the family well because in Virginia being a loving family isn’t enough.

Iraq: The “post-surge” strategy

Senate Democrats are backing down on their demand for deadlines as part of the Iraq war-spending package. In the meantime, David Ignatius reports in the Washington Post that the Bush administration may be backing off the “surge” strategy as not workable in the near future with the resources at hand and are devising a “post-surge” strategy:
President Bush and his senior military and oreign policy advisers are beginning to discuss a "post-surge" strategy for Iraq that they hope could gain bipartisan political support. The new policy would focus on training and advising Iraqi troops rather than the broader goal of achieving a political reconciliation in Iraq, which senior officials recognize may be unachievable within the time available.
According to Fred Kaplan in Slate this sounds a lot like what the Democrats had in mind:
This sounds a lot like the pre-surge strategy. The main elements of the plan, according to the Post: train Iraqi security forces to be self-sustaining; continue Special Forces operations against al-Qaida and other terrorists; maintain Iraq's territorial integrity; keep supporting efforts at reconciliation among the ethnic-political factions.

That sounds like not only the pre-surge strategy but the congressional Democrats' withdrawal proposal (which never envisioned a complete U.S. pullout).

It's unclear how real this development is. Ignatius notes that Bush's advisers are "beginning to discuss" these ideas, not that they've reached a conclusion, much less made a decision. The exercise, he further writes, may be "a trial balloon" aimed at testing the bipartisan support for the proposals of the Baker-Hamilton report, which Bush once dismissed but which "senior administration officials" say he "now supports."

Either way, it appears that at least some high-level factions within this desperate, fractured administration are scrambling to piece together the long-elusive "Plan B," in case the surge comes to naught.

And how is the surge doing? Critics say not so well; supporters say it's too soon to tell; both claims amount to pretty much the same thing.

The surge got under way in February. Data compiled by the U.S.-led military command in Iraq (summarized in a chart here) indicate that the number of attacks went up slightly in March, then down slightly in April. There is yet no clear pattern.

Of the five combat brigades ordered to surge into Baghdad, only three are on the ground now (owing to the low readiness rates of the war-worn Army); all five will be on the ground by July. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has said that he and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will assess the situation—and report on the likelihood of the surge's success—in early September.
You can read the entire Kaplan article here and the Ignatius piece here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Intelligent Design in Virginia schools

The Chesterfield County, Virginia School Board is looking for a way through the back door to allow the promotion of Intelligent Design as a science.

WWBT reports this afternoon:
The stage is set for a big debate over students’ textbooks in Chesterfield. The controversy centers on new science books and whether they should teach Intelligent Design.

The debate started back in April when parents reviewed the textbooks. At least 50 parents expressed concern that the books only included evolution and not Intelligent Design.

The school board got involved in the discussion, which led to another discovery. The board concluded that there are no textbooks or supplements available that include Intelligent Design.

One, the law doesn’t allow teachers to teach it. Two, it cannot always be neutral religious topic. What to do? The school board thinks it may have the answer.

“We’re not driving what students can do based on curriculum,” said Thomas Doland, chairman of the school board. “A student can individually explore, research and report on things that are important to them that may be controversial, but they are doing it on their own interest.”

To make sure students can do just that with no issue, the board is working on writing and adopting that policy.

Before all of that happens, board members will want to hear from you. The school board will hear about the issue in a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the public meeting room in Chesterfield.

The school board hopes to have a plan in place before students go back to school in the fall.
While it may be a step forward for Chesterfield County if the school board adopts a policy that students “can individually explore, research and report on things that are important to them” the reality is the board is caving in to those who want to use the public school system to promote their particular religion. Maybe they will take the kids on field trips to the Creationist Museum.

Intelligent Design (a.k.a. ID) is the notion that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not an undirected process such as natural selection.” The “intelligence” of course is supernatural and not provable but by promoting it as a scientific theory and alternative to evolution and the theory of natural selection a segment of Christians is using ID to try and sneak their religion into the public schools. The ID movement is also referred to as “Neo-Creationism” and is distinguished from Creationism in that it generally does not rely on scripture as proof. Regardless, it is widely viewed as a pseudo-science promoted by Christian conservatives who have attempted to impose their idea of the supernatural on school children.

This comes at a time when a proponent of teaching children intelligent design as science is running unopposed for president-elect of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

The road to peace in Northern Ireland

The Ulster province of Ireland consisted of nine counties in the northern part of Ireland and has been the scene of ongoing ethno-religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants since at least the 17th century. That conflict was linked to Irish resistance to English rule. Under the Irish partition in 1921, six of the nine counties in the Ulster province formed Northern Ireland and remained under the control of the United Kingdom while the remainder of the country formed the Irish Free State (which later became a republic in 1949). Protestants formed a minority in Ireland as a whole but were a majority in Northern Ireland.

Catholics faced discrimination by the Protestant majority. A civil rights movement, modeled after the U.S. civil rights movement, arose in the late 1960’s but was met with fierce, and sometimes violent, resistance from the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force. Violence erupted and the Provisional IRA – a breakaway from the older IRA – formed as Catholics because distrustful of officials to protect them. Segregation promoted polarization. Violence begat violence.

Yet after decades of violence and distrust the different sides to the conflict have come together to work for peace. A few weeks ago they formed a Protestant-Catholic coalition to govern the region.

It was not that long ago that such a scenario would have been unthinkable. What happened? James Carroll in the International Herald Tribune has these thoughts on the different elements that came together to produce peace:
The road to this peace has been twisted and long, stretching back through centuries of Irish resentment of British colonizers, Europe's longest-lasting wars of the Reformation, and deep hatreds bred of 20th-century violence that flared in 1916 and again in 1969. When 14 unarmed Irish Catholics were massacred in Derry by British soldiers in 1972, and when the soldiers were then exonerated by London, the contemporary conflagration was ignited. It was then that IRA recruitment took off in Ireland, IRA fund-raising took off in America (Noraid), and people on both sides began to treat the conflict as intractable. But it was not.

How was peace achieved in Northern Ireland? Among the most important elements were these:

Irish self-criticism.

The hyper-nationalism of Catholics began to be criticized even by Catholics, including the writer Conor Cruise O'Brien, who identified the poisonous mix of redemptive suffering, ready violence, and the myths of 1916 as "the green fog." Garret Fitzgerald (the Republic of Ireland prime minister from 1982-1987) renounced the sacred Catholic ideal of a "free and united Ireland" with the simple recognition that Northern Ireland should never be forced into the republic against the will of its majority. The Catholic Northern Ireland leader John Hume was an unrelenting critic of Catholic violence.

A broader context.

The narrow sectarian strife that wracked villages and urban neighborhoods changed when the Northern Irish world grew bigger, first through the coming of the European Union ( Hume was elected to the European parliament in 1979); then when London and Dublin began to play constructive roles (the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985); and when Irish-Americans replaced support for the IRA with support for peace (Tip O'Neill and Ted Kennedy established the Congressional Friends of Ireland in 1981).

An involved U.S. president.

In 1994, Bill Clinton granted a visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, despite opposition from London and the State Department. Adams began turning the IRA itself away from violence. The high point of Clinton's 1995 visit to Northern Ireland was the day he began and ended with private meetings, first with Adams, then with Paisley. Each man felt understood by Clinton. At the White House, across subsequent years, Clinton transformed St. Patrick's Day from a celebration of green beer to a political time-out, the only place on earth where the ancient enemies would mingle freely. Clinton was key to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Improved economics.

When the economy of the Republic of Ireland took off in the 1990s, the entire island benefited. Northern Ireland went from being an economic backwater to a center of development, with improvements in employment levels and growth that surpassed the rest of the United Kingdom. Joblessness among young men, Catholic and Protestant both, declined dramatically. Today's Belfast is rife with construction cranes and property values are soaring. Investment has been slower in coming to the northwest, centered on Derry, but there, too, hope for a better life is replacing the economic despair that fueled the Troubles.

Peace is realism.

The dream of peace, having transformed Europe and ended the Cold War nonviolently, has taken hold in Ireland. Some might say "even" in Ireland. Religious and class warfare had imprisoned the imaginations of both communities, but now the joined future is unfettered. The prospect of a pope-hating Ulsterman in partnership with a "hard man" of the IRA was beyond conceiving not long ago, yet it has come to pass. The Irish themselves have done this, but they could not have done it alone.

The world is a different place, and, though one lately thinks of social and political change as mostly for the worse, Ireland shows the reverse to be true. A great, historic current is running toward peace. If only certain others would take note.
If this centuries-old conflict can be resolved maybe there is hope for other trouble spots around the world.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Gays in the military: If it’s a nonissue for the British, why not us?

This is from today’s New York Times:
Since the British military began allowing homosexuals to serve in the armed forces in 2000, none of its fears — about harassment, discord, blackmail, bullying or an erosion of unit cohesion or military effectiveness — have come to pass, according to the Ministry of Defense, current and former members of the services and academics specializing in the military. The biggest news about the policy, they say, is that there is no news. It has for the most part become a nonissue.
If it is a nonissue for the Brits, why isn’t it a nonissue for the U.S.? Most of our allies permit gay and lesbian citizens to serve their country in the military. The United States is in company with the likes of North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Cuba in its homosexual ban on openly serving in the military. Isn’t it time we got on the right side of this issue?

Immigration reform

A comprehensive immigration bill has come together with bipartisan support in the Senate. Marc Cooper says there is plenty to dislike about the piece of legislation but it is probably the best that can be done at this time. It is at least a first step in the right direction by recognizing two realities:

What's good about this bill is that, for the first time and 20 years too late, it recognizes two key pieces of reality that are currently objects of collective denial. First, that our economic growth and prosperity absolutely requires an in-migration of both skilled and unskilled workers and, second, there are already 12 million undocumented human beings in this country who deserve at least some sort of legal recognition. It's imperative that that these two principles be established. And then we can spend another 20-30 years, unfortunately, improving their implementation.

The fate of the bill is unknown. A lot will depend on President Bush’s ability to deliver Republican votes, which will be no easy task. Fellow Republicans in South Carolina booed Republican Senator Lindsey Graham this weekend for his work on the legislation.

So where is the party of Ronald Reagan going with this issue. Fareed Zakaria has these thoughts in Newsweek
In 1989, Ronald Reagan made his farewell address to the American people and summed up his view of the United States. "I've spoken of the shining city all my political life," he said, "but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. [I]n my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here." Today, all the Republican Party can talk about are walls, fences, border guards and attack dogs.

"But that was about legal immigration," Republicans today will claim. "Our complaints are about illegal aliens." Actually Reagan addressed the issue of illegals directly and with surprising candor. In a radio address in 1977, he observed that apples were rotting on trees in New England because no Americans were willing to pick them. "It makes one wonder about the illegal-alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal-alien invasion or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won't do?" Reagan asked. "One thing is certain in this hungry world: no regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters."

The facts incidentally confirm Reagan's view. The six states that get the largest inflow of illegal immigrants—New York, California, Illinois, Texas, Florida and Arizona—have unusually low unemployment rates. With the exception of California and Illinois, they are all lower than the already-low national average of 4.5 percent (last month). As for the argument that immigrants depress the wages of native-born Americans, the best new research on this topic—by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber—demonstrates that unskilled immigrants complement rather than replace native Americans in the labor force, doing jobs that native Americans will not.

The compromise immigration bill worked out in the Senate by Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kyl is imperfect. But in broad terms it solves many of the problems with the current immigration system and, in Kennedy's words, "brings millions of people out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America." It does what legislation in a large and diverse country should do—makes trade-offs, compromises and accommodations to actually get something done. The requirements for illegal immigrants are so arduous that many might stay hidden and the guest-worker program is so complicated that it might be unworkable. But these features could be fixed and the proposal does move this important issue forward.

And yet, it faces a barrage of criticism on the right from those who seem to reject any solution to immigration that does not deport 12 million people. Anything else they call amnesty. The term amnesty comes from the 1986 immigration bill, supported and signed by Ronald Reagan, which gave many illegal immigrants in the United States immediate permanent residency—green cards—with few requirements, a tiny fee and a fast-tracked application process. The current proposal would allow illegal immigrants to apply for a green card after a minimum of eight years, the payment of large fines and fees and proof of clean records and good employment history. To call this amnesty is to reveal that no compromise will ever be acceptable.

More startling than the transformation of the Republican Party has been the cowardice of its presidential candidates. Four of the men running for the Republican nomination—John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Sam Brownback—had sensible views on immigration. All supported the original Kennedy-McCain bill, which was a much more intelligent and also more liberal piece of legislation than the current proposal. Apart from McCain, all have now backtracked in various ways. It isn't just the politicians who are AWOL. The Weekly Standard had been a lone voice for immigration reform on the right. But it has been strangely silent of late, not having run an editorial on the topic for one year, a year during which immigration has been a burning issue. The Republican Party today is filled with what Winston Churchill called "boneless wonders."
Attempting to deport an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants – roughly the population of Ohio –is simply crazy. This sort of spitefulness does not speak well of the American people. This is simply turning immigration into a pest control problem.

Then there is a common refrain heard by those upset by the presence in this country of undocumented workers from Mexico that don’t play by the rules. That’s a fair argument but overlooks the fact that the rules, as they pertain to immigration, have always been very arbitrary. As just one example, look at the treatment of immigrants stepping on our shores from Hati versus immigrants who arrive on these shores from Cuba. They are treated very differently. The rules already vary (and always have) so the special relationship between Mexico and the United States should be taken into consideration when reviewing and rewriting laws.

Part of the problem with attempts at closing the border is that it makes the problem worse. It forces immigrants from the south to attempt ever more dangerous entry into the United States over unfriendly terrain and it forces those who are here to never leave out of fear they will never be able to return. A common sense immigration policy requires regulation but needs to easy enough for people to come here to work and return home without fear not being able to return. If you make it hard to comply with the law you are only going to recreate the situation we have now.

Of course every nation requires secure border for purposes of national security but why then the concern about only the border with Mexico when the Canadian border is much longer and just as porous. Is it because most Canadians are white and speak English? Let’s be honest with ourselves about that.

The worse thing Americans can do is panic. There are issues to be resolved but we need to keep in mind that while there are cultural and language differences with our brothers and sisters from Mexico we also have cultural similarities and a great many Americans speak Spanish as a second language. Issues of integration in the United States pale in comparison to the issues of integration of Arab and Turkish immigrants in Europe.

Finally, the current debate is taking a unilateral approach to immigration from Mexico. There may be many who are convinced there is only one side to this issue but no one can deny there are two sides to the border. How many National Guard troops are we willing to place on the border and how high are we willing to build fences with razor wire and walls of steel and concrete before there is a dialogue with Mexico. Because we share a border with Mexico we have a special relationship that country. It is in the interests of both Mexico and the United States that Mexico prospers. This should involve not only the American government but also American businesses and American labor unions.

Given the tenor of the debate, doing the right thing will take some political courage. However, doing the right thing will pay off in the long run for both our countries.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Hugo Chavez strikes back at opposition media

Tens of thousands of demonstrators in Caracas yesterday denounced President Hugo Chavez’s vow to shut down RCTV by not renewing its license which expires at the end of May. RCTV, along with other major newspapers and television stations in the country have supported opposition to Chavez, particularly during an attempted coup in 2002 and the general strike between December 2002 and April 2003.

According to Rueters:
During the 2002 coup against Chavez, which was led by business and military leaders, opposition channels showed cartoons and films while massive crowds of Chavez's supporters mobilized for a counterattack.

Since then, Chavez has accused private television channels of manipulating the news.

But on Saturday, while opposition channel Globovision showed tens of thousands of protesters swelling the streets, Venezuelan state television showed empty roads and groups of five or 10 protesters walking to the march.
Despite the tit-for-tat selective coverage by the private media versus the state run television many see the move by Chavez as an attempt to tighten the grip on information available to the public. Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said, "The RCTV case is clearly a case of censorship and the most grave step back in the region since Fujimori”, referring to widespread manipulation of the media by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s. "Chavez is not renewing the concession to punish a medium for its opposition to the government."

This from the BBC:
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have rallied in the streets of Caracas to protest against President Hugo Chavez's plans to close a private TV station.

The head of the RCTV station addressed the marchers, urging them to defend freedom and "free independent media".

President Chavez has said he will not renew a licence for the RCTV network which is due to expire on 27 May.

He accuses the opposition-allied TV station of supporting a failed coup against him in 2002.

He has referred to opposition television stations in general as "horsemen of the apocalypse" and has blamed RCTV in particular for spreading immorality with its steamy soap operas.

Mr Chavez plans to replace RCTV with a government-funded TV station.

Marcel Garnier, RCTV's managing director, told a crowd of cheering protesters in Caracas that Mr Chavez was trying to "topple the country over the precipice of totalitarianism where not even his own supporters can express their opinions".

He said the president should pay more attention to the words of Simon Bolivar, a hero of Mr Chavez famed for leading South Americans in the fight against colonialism.

"He who rules must listen, the people are speaking," Mr Garnier said, quoting Bolivar.

President Chavez was re-elected by a landslide last year.

His welfare spending programme has won him massive support among the poor but his opponents accuse him of turning the country into an increasingly authoritarian socialist state, modelled on Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Chavez is a career military officer who attempted to overthrow the Venezuelan government in 1992. After serving two years in prison for his role in the attempted coup he ran for President and was elected in 1998. He was re-elected in 2000 and 2006 and survived a recall vote in 2004. He is something of a populist caudillo reminiscent of Juan Peron.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Friday Fun: Cows With Guns

Beware of heifers packing heat.

Chatham House: Iraq on verge of “collapse and fragmentation”

The British foreign policy think tank, Chatham House, has issued a report stating Iraq is on the verge of becoming a failed state. It argues that the conflict is not a single insurgency or civil war but multiple wars going on at the same time between different communities and groups. Its assessment of the Iraqi government is that it has lost control of large sections of the country. It argues that the “surge” is not succeeding and the influence of Al Qaeda is spreading despite challenges by local groups.

The report states that Iraq’s three major neighbors – Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – all have their own reasons in favor of the continuing instability in Iraq and use different methods to influence developments there. It makes a case that the government must be expanded to include greater representation of Sunni Arabs and recognize Muqtada al-Sadr as a legitimate political partner rather than an enemy. While it urges U.S. diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors be intensified it argues Iraqi solutions must be found to Iraqi problems and the imposition of U.S. or regional solutions will only destabilize the situation further.

This from Der Spiegel:
Iraq is a long way away from stabilization.

It hardly qualifies as breaking news anymore when a think tank comes out with a report saying that Iraq is in trouble. But rarely has a study been as scathing as that released on Thursday by the widely respected British foreign policy organization Chatham House. Iraq, the report says bluntly, is on the verge of "collapse and fragmentation."

The report argues that it is time to take a sober look at the realities in the country four years after the US-led invasion and to model future policy on a true understanding of the challenges presented. And according to the study, those challenges are many: the existence of multiple civil wars in the country between many different actors; a fracturing of the country into regional power bases; control of oil; a ripping apart of the social fabric; and the lack of authority in the hands of the Iraqi government among other, equally vexing problems.

"It is time for a full appraisal of the realities in Iraq," author Gareth Stansfield writes. "On current evidence, these realities are very disturbing and it can no longer be assumed that Iraq will ultimately survive as a united entity.... Iraq's attempted transition from dictatorship to democracy has been harrowing and multi-faceted violence appears likely to continue and intensify. It can be argued that Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation."

Chatham House's assessment of Iraq comes on the same day that the US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, offered up his own, much more optimistic viewpoint. While he admitted that the country was consumed by violence, he said that he was encouraged that Iraq seems to be moving away from the widespread sectarian violence of a year ago.

"If I had to evaluate today, and looking purely at the security situation, as devastating as the al-Qaida-led chain of suicide vehicle attacks is, that does not in my mind suggest the failing of the state or of society," Crocker told reporters in Baghdad. US military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told the BBC that he also thought that the US troop surge in Baghdad was making progress toward bringing violence levels down in the Iraqi capital.

The report from Chatham House, however, bluntly states that "the surge is not curbing the high level of violence." It also warns that the security situation cannot be drastically improved in the short term and that it should instead "be considered within a timeframe of many years."

A primary reason for the intractability of the security situation, the report argues, is the myriad different conflicts that are being played out on the streets of Baghdad each day. Among the numerous "civil wars" the report identifies are:
  • the struggle for state control between the Sunnis and the Shiites
  • the struggle for control over the design of the state pitting Kurds against Sunnis and against Shiite supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr
  • the conflict between Kurds and non-Kurds in Kirkuk
  • the Sunni versus US conflict in central and northern Iraq
  • the Shiite versus US/UK conflict in central and southern Iraq
  • the Sunni versus Sunni conflict in some Iraqi provinces
  • the conflict between al-Qaida and home-grown Iraqi radical groups
  • a Shiite versus Shiite conflict in Najaf and Basra
  • and "rampant criminality across the entire country."
The report also recommends that the US intensify diplomacy with neighboring states -- on the same day that Iran announced that the Iranians and Americans have agreed to a meeting on the Iraqi security situation on May 28. During a visit to Pakistan, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that the talks would focus exclusively on Iraq.
Your can read the report (a .pdf file) here.

This is an important assessment of the situation. Unless there is a sincere appreciation for the complexity of the situation on the ground – in particular the recognition there is not a single insurgency or war going on but multiple mini-wars that sometimes overlap – there cannot be any realistic movement towards lasting stability.

Der Spiegel also published an interview with Stephen Biddle, a Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and currently a Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, who has recently returned from Iraq. He states that the strategy the United States is using in Iraq is for a classical insurgency. The problem is what is happening in Iraq is not a classical insurgency – usually a battle over ideas – but a complex communal civil war fought for survival in which Al Qaeda is a symptom, not a cause.

He says there needs to be negotiation between warring parties in Iraq and there needs to be a policing of the conflict by a neutral force. The problem with the Iraqi military forces is that they are seen as one side in the conflict that will lash out against the Sunni community once the Americans leave. Biddle argues that the “we’ll stand down when the Iraqi army stands up” rhetoric is a prescription for failure – the National Iraqi Army is simply not trusted and seen by the Sunni community as an extension of the Shiite militias. There needs to be a neutral enforcer of any ceasefire achieved and, according to Biddle, there is no good candidate available other than the United States. He sees a U.S. presence in Iraq for years.

Who is going to tell this to the American people? In order to sell the "surge" to the American people the Bush administration indicated it would show positive and lasting results within months.

Aside from the initial success of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, U.S. strategy (or lack of it) since the overthrow has been a failure. The deterioration of the Iraqi state, at best, happened unnoticed under the noses of U.S. authorities and, at worse, was at least partly a result of U.S. strategy. The problem with the “surge” aside from being too little too late is it is an attempt to undo years of deterioration of the Iraqi state. The damage is done and that reality must be recognized. Aggressive diplomacy with all of Iraq’s neighbors and negotiations between warring parties must begin immediately. Yet, little is happening.

The policy and strategy must change The American people have made it quite clear they do not support the current failed policy. However, there is little discussion about any alternatives to either the status quo or withdrawing.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Free Haleh Esfandiari!

Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is a scholar with expertise on various subjects related to the Middle East. She holds dual American-Iranian citizenship having lived in the United States since 1980. She left Iran at the time of the Iranian Revolution.

Dr. Esfandiari has a 93-year-old mother in Tehran whom she visits regularly. In December she was robbed while in Iran. Both her U.S. and Iranian passports were stolen and she was not permitted to leave the country. She was placed under house arrest and interrogated a number of times. Then, she was taken into custody last week and detained at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison where she remains today. A report by the BBC states she has been accused of spying for the United States and Israel and trying to incite a democratic revolution in the country.

According to Jeff Weintraub, “The Iranian government's treatment of Esfandiari is, indeed, unpleasantly reminiscent of its imprisonment of Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran's most prominent scholars and democratic intellectuals, in 2006. However, since Esfandiari is an American citizen (according to the BBC News report, she holds both US and Iranian citizenship), this action looks deliberately provocative as well as repressive.” Deliberate provocation appears the likely explanation. As the United States and Iran prepare for talks at the end of the month regarding the security situation in Iraq, there are politicians in both countries that thrive on crisis. Many nations are quite concerned about drive by the Ahmadinejad government for a nuclear program and some in Bush administration have engaged in saber rattling.

Unfortunately, Dr. Esfandiari has become a pawn who, ironically, has been an advocate of dialogue between the two countries. Of course, maybe it’s not a coincidence.

The paranoia of the conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming out as the government is cracking down on activists throughout the country. Human Rights Watch has pointed out, “Iran’s decision to increase its pressure on Esfandiari by detaining her comes at a time when the authorities have also escalated repressive campaigns against Iranian women’s right activists and student leaders.”

A FREE HALEH web site has been set up to follow developments in her case.

Here is commentary on the subject by Trudy Rubin in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Last week, Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, was thrown in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. She had gone to Iran late last year to visit her 93-year-old mother, but was prevented from leaving Iran in December and interrogated for weeks by intelligence officials before her arrest. Yesterday, Iran's judiciary announced she was under investigation for "security" crimes.

Anyone familiar with this soft-spoken, 67-year-old academic can only scoff at such charges. The highly respected Esfandiari is well-known for efforts to bring Iranian scholars of all outlooks to the center, including supporters of the Tehran government. Her unjustified arrest serves the interests of no one - except those opposed to better relations between America and Iran.

Some believe Esfandiari has been caught up in Iran's reaction to the Bush administration's $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran. Fearful that the United States is trying to stir up a "velvet revolution," Iranian officials have been cracking down on groups promoting the rights of women, students and workers.

Esfandiari was interrogated repeatedly about the Wilson Center's programs on Iran. Far from promoting regime change, however, she encouraged exchanges to help scholars of both societies understand one another better. Her program receives none of the Iran democracy program monies. Moreover, as Lee Hamilton, the president of the Wilson Center, wrote to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Feb. 20, the Wilson Center doesn't take political positions.

Ahmadinejad hasn't bothered to answer the letter. How ironic, since Hamilton is coauthor of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, which advocates broader U.S. engagement with Iran. President Bush rebuffed the report; now Ahmadinejad has rebuffed its coauthor.

Indeed, Esfandiari may have become a pawn in Iran's internal political struggle between those who want more normal relations with the West and those who want to maintain an atmosphere of revolutionary struggle. Ahmadinejad, an advocate of the latter position, controls the interior ministry and intelligence services, and has appointed hard-liners to key positions. Perhaps that explains why Esfandiari is still being held.

But her arrest and imprisonment fly in the face of the Iranian president's professed willingness for dialogue. Even if he isn't serious, her plight undercuts the interests of other powerful Iranian factions who want to open the country and its economy wider to the world.

"By detaining her," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "the Iranian government only eliminates an advocate for diplomacy and strengthens the voices of those in Washington who say the regime is too cruel to be engaged."

Her arrest comes at a critical moment for the prospects of increased dialogue and exchanges between the two countries. Despite the recent saber-rattling by Vice President Cheney and Ahmadinejad, bilateral talks on Iraq are set to start in Baghdad this month between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart. This could be an important development.

A series of artistic and cultural exchanges with Iran has recently begun. At least 10 Iranian deputies just signed a document proposing an Iranian-U.S. friendship committee in their parliament. This might lead to exchanges between Iranian legislators and the U.S. Congress, something that has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

So this is a strange time to be holding Esfandiari in Evin (and turning back her mother's gutsy attempts to see her). Unless, of course, the aim is to undermine any potential U.S.-Iranian thaw.

"The notion that Haleh is a threat to Iranian national security is beyond preposterous," says Sadjadpour. "The regime feels it's sending a message to the U.S. government that there are repercussions for its democracy-promotion efforts in Iran. But [by holding Haleh] they've increased the ranks of those in Washington who argue that the Iranian government is made up of radicals and that engaging them would be a mistake."

Is this the message Iranian officials really want to send?