Monday, 31 May 2010

Eternal Madness of the Spotless Mind

I am not sure when the current government of Israel entered its state of entrapped madness. It may have been in March, when embarrassingly the Interior Ministry (under the direction of Eli Yishai) announced 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem exclusively for its Jewish population. Perhaps it was just two weeks later when Israeli PM Netanyahu visited the White House amid even more illegal settlement expansion plans. It might have even been way back in 1975, as newly released documents from South Africa show how the Israeli Defense Minister (now Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres) offered nuclear weapons to an apartheid South Africa.

Today, however, marks a new level in utter madness when Deputy FM Danny Ayalon called an international aid flotilla - organized by the Free Gaza Movement - an "Armada of hate and violence" that perpetrated a "pre-mediated, outrageous provocation." This of course after the brutal commando-style raid on the seaborne convoy which has led to the death of nearly 20 activists with dozens of more wounded. The convoy at the time was attacked was 60-65 km off the coast of Gaza -- i.e. in international waters. Both Israel and Egypt have been complicit in maintaining a siege of Gaza that has prevented its residents from rebuilding, one that UN Secretary-General called "unacceptable." It is a blockade that prevents any importation beyond basic humanitarian goods. You can view some UN reports for a sample of the devastation to the territory's infrastructure, agriculture, and health systems.

Amidst all the minutiae, the accusations in both directions, the statements of misdirection, we lose sight of some very simple and important facts. The Palestinian territories are still occupied and have been so for over 43 years. There is no such thing as a Palestinian state. That means millions of Palestinians are being denied self-determination. A resident of Ramallah in fact has no country. It is very likely that his father has no country. It is even more likely that his son has no country. Yet, each day there is new settlement activity encroaching on the possibility of a two state solution. Simply click here to look at this interactive map on the Wall Street Journal. 

None of this absolves Hamas of complicity in the murders of civilians through the 1990s. It does not excuse the obstinacy of Arab leaders in the 1950s. It does not alleviate blame from Egypt for continuing a blockade against the Strip. It does not acquit Arafat for his foibles at Camp David in 2000. It does not ignore the very real threat of terrorism that does and will continue to exist against the Israeli state.

Nevertheless, all of that does not change the fact that it is inconsistent for any modern democracy to hold dominion over 3m people without affording them rights and protections. Marc Regev, Israel's premier spokesperson, and other spin-masters can attempt to superimpose a false truth in public discourse, whether it's that aid activists are Al Qaeda affiliates or that Jerusalem offers equitable housing options to its Arab residents. In fact, Lieberman and his ilk may yet stave off any UN Security Council action for this latest incident, delay Mitchell's mission further, and continue the colonization of the West Bank. However, it is only a matter of time before there is a solution. The Israeli government would be mad to wait until such a solution is imposed either from outside -- like in East Timor -- or from inside, like in South Africa which led to a unitary state. What Israel needs to realize is that in these scenarios there will be no quibbling over settlement construction in a West Bank outpost: there will be much more to lose at stake. As always, time is ticking.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The shifting focus of U.S. National Security (in words)

Today the Obama administration released its new National Security Strategy (May 2010), with John Brennan - the President's top counter-terrorism advisor, noting:
"The president’s strategy is absolutely clear about the threat we face. Our enemy is not terrorism because terrorism is but a tactic. Our enemy is not terror because terror is a state of mind and, as Americans, we refuse to live in fear. Nor do we describe our enemy as jihadists or Islamists because jihad is holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam meaning to purify oneself or [sic] one’s community."
Republican Congressman (R-NY) Peter King points out: "The Obama Administration refuses to even identify head-on the threat our nation faces." You can decide what you think by comparing Obama's NSS strategy (2010) to that of Bush (2006). Here is the word-count of some of the buzz words:

(analysis is not exact as word counts/page numbers differ; also based on word & derivations.)

          NSS 2010           NSS 2006

International 194 69
Partner 120 48
Nuclear 74 50
Terror 57 124
Democracy 55 124
Law 38 22
Health 35 5
Iraq 33 57
Human rights 32 9
Education 31 3
Climate 28 1
Al Qa'ida 27 12
Africa 24 25
Cyber 23 1
Israel 21 10
Afghanistan 20 15
Pakistan 15 9
Russia 14 17
Iran 14 16
NATO 13 9
Civil society 13 4
China 10 28
United Nations 10 4
Palestinian 9 11
Deficit 8 1
Poverty 8 9
Corruption 7 14
Regime 7 33
Religion 5 8
Islam 4 7
Muslim 4 7
Hamas 0 4

Monday, 24 May 2010

Coming to America (without Eddie Murphy)...and finding?

As I arrived in the U.S., the border agent at JFK inquired, "Why do you travel to these places?" It was a legitimate question given that my passport pages look like they were used for 'worst-case' scenario training at homeland security. Yet, it was the incredulity with which he asked the question and subsequent ones that took me aback: "Why would you choose to be in Dubai?" As I went for secondary baggage screening -- where a toy abacus for my niece's one year birthday was studied intently -- I was not really troubled by any of the vigilant security: expected and understood. However, it crystallized a growing dilemma that I see for America's future direction. In an increasingly globalized world, with emerging markets set to become economic powerhouses, and an East likely to best the West, what will be the role of the 20th century superpower? What will the journey be from Henry Luce's American Century, to what is assuredly a Global Century?

I flew into JFK on Emirates Airlines, who just turned a profit of $1bn in the struggling aviation industry. Now Emirates is no perfect company, yet the difference in flying that airline, and Delta, which was my connection into DC, was akin to the difference between an Apple and a PC (okay that comparison may not work for you depending on which line of the divide you fall, but you get the point). Each time our flight time would approach, the airline would delay it by another half an hour. 6pm became 630pm. 630 became 7 and so on. The problem? They were trying to assemble a crew. First they had the captain. Then they lost the captain. Then another captain had arrived from Cleveland, but then nobody could find him. Stuck with old systems, union-driven regulations, and a spectacular lack of operational inefficiency, American airline operators could sadly represent the next generation of American companies.

It is quite harsh to treat the American private sector by the performance of US Airways, Delta and their ilk. Why not Google? Or Apple for that matter? Are they not industry leaders? If you look at the top ten companies by patent applications, you do not find a single American corporation: leading the pack is Huawei Technologies. There is no doubt that dynamic companies from Tata in India to LG in South Korea are and will be dominant innovation leaders. Global talent will not continue to flock to the US for education, and even when they do, they will often look to return for jobs in their countries of origin.

It is more than just the dynamism of a private sector, but the dynamism of a country that is the throes of a recession. On one hand you do have a political outlook that sees that the landscape of the future will not mirror that in the past, which embraces globalization, understands that international institutions and a framework of globally accepted norms will become more important, especially when the U.S. will no longer be able to bully others into submission or simply inertly follow its own direction. Yet on the other, represented by Glenn Beck, John Bolton, Sarah Palin and others, there is a shocking insularity that goes beyond "Buy American."

This is the philosophy that there is not much of value beyond our borders and our own core culture. English is singularly valuable, and other languages are simply a bridge to nowhere. Humility and respect in exercising power are signs of weakness. Building cross-national and cross-cultural bridges are un-American. Institutions such as the United Nations are there to thwart American might.

In a Global Century, the world will not be defined by a singular American presence. An inward-looking philosophy that obstructs an international consciousness and entrenches both the private and public sectors in a bygone past  is the biggest threat to America's future. Beyond terrorism. Beyond some strange Russian revival. Beyond cyber-threats. A U.S. that is isolated, declining economically, and culturally unaware will create damage beyond any Al Qaeda operation.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The woman who might cause an earthquake...and other stories

Several weeks back an Iranian cleric unveiled a secret that only he was privy to:
Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes
At the time we could have ignored such a mindless statement. Assuredly, other Ithna'ashiri (Twelver) Shiite scholars such as the Grand Marja Ayatollah Sistani would cast such an assertion aside with ease. Yet, then one of their coreligionists Rima Fakih from a village just outside Tyre in South Lebanon, but now from what the right-wingers call Dearbornistan, caused a few tremors by becoming Miss USA. In fact, in some circles her victory set off vibrations high on the Ridiculous Scale. Debbie Schlussel - a highly disrespected blogger - managed to find the real story in Rima's accomplishment:
The Hezbollah-supporting Shi’ite Muslim, Miss Michigan Rima Fakihwhose bid for the pageant was financed by an Islamic terrorist and immigration fraud perpetrator–won the Miss USA contest.
What did Hezbollah actually have to say about the win. Well MP Hassan Fadlallah remarked that "We have different standards than the West by which we evaluate women." I think if I put MP Hassan in a room with Rima, he may recant his statement. Yet, that itself may cause it's own earthquake so to speak. Is Rima Fakih the future of what the world expects a Muslim woman to be? Well, France had it's first case of Burqa Rage when a 60-year old man ripped the veil off a Muslim woman in a clothing store. Maybe he expected to find Rima Fakih underneath -- again, another sign of an earthquake.

The world today is inordinately complex and hard to read. We believe stereotypes that are readily undermined. Take Syria, which is colored by a conservative religious tone in its society, yet colorful lingerie shops are ubiquitous in the Old Souq or Shari'a Hamra in Damascus. Laura Bush could be associated with the right-wing xenophobia by some, yet she shows tremendous cultural sensitivity towards Muslim cultures (see the Youtube clip).

The truth is that as our cultures, countries, and communities increasingly collide, the creative cacophony will give way to surprises. Who is the face of Islam? Is it Al-Qaeda sympathizer Anwar al-Awlaki? Or is it Mary Jane sympathizer Dave Chappelle? There are no monolithic answers, and many preconceptions we have are fit for throwing out the window. Let the earthquakes keep coming.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Oh the Nakba of it all...

May 15, 1948 represented the Nakba for the Palestinian people and a humiliation for the Arab governments of the day. Whatever the political view on the creation of Israel, that fateful date 62 years ago marked the dispossession and continued statelessness of the Palestinian people. Not too long ago it could be said that what tugged at the Arab heart was a hopeful return to Jerusalem and the end of an occupation of the Palestinians. It is true that there is a sense of fatigue when it comes to recounting yet again the despair facing a broken people, who themselves are internally fractious. I mean, you can almost sense the exasperation in governments in the region -- "The Palestinians again? Yeah, yeah, yalla, free Palestine." Sure every now and then a dignitary will raise the issue, like Turki al-Faisal. Yet, in many ways the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is a forgotten afterthought, to be raised sporadically when convenient, or forced like during the Gaza War.

So what did I do on the Nakba weekend in Dubai? I of course popped into the city's newest creation: the Armani Hotel. I felt like I belonged given that I have used Armani cologne for a number of years now. I was attending the birthday party of one of friends at Armani Prive, the new nightspot.

What the video doesn't capture is the Belorussian escort I happened to chat up and then chat down, nor a mix of West-East pseudo-cool who have too much money and not enough self-direction. That probably is a bit harsh, as everyone needs to have fun. Yet, I often wonder, what drives the individuals I meet at Armani or the Atlantis for that matter? If I asked them about the Nakba would they a) know what it is, and b) would they care beyond a passing thought? There are definitely some people sitting in AIPAC's headquarters relishing the thought of an emerging apathy towards the "Palestine issue" as it is called in these parts. You definitely cannot simplify the Arab world to what you see in Dubai, and you certainly cannot extrapolate the views of the heterodox & international crowd here to that of the Arab world.

And Dubai itself is not without charitable activities or organizing. A fundraising series for diabetes relief in Palestine (called the Masquer-aid) was quite successful a few months ago. However, I feel like "caring" -- truly and passionately -- is a dying phenomenon, as a self-involved materialism that is driven by narcissistic exploits starts to take over here, and perhaps in much of the Arab and Muslim world. Then again -- maybe I'm wrong. And for your pleasure, enjoy Dubai's version of the Bellagio Fountain:

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Two Muslim countries diverged...which one is less travelled by?

New article is out on Huffington Post: A Tale of Muslim Divergence

"Reaching independence is easier than building a nation. While we can blame time bombs left by the colonists, we cannot [and should not] blame them forever." Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad spoke these words last week to an enthused collection of policymakers, researchers, and businessmen at the Dubai School of Government. He continued in his remarks castigating Muslims for "falling back" since the 15th century, and ignoring science and mathematics in education programs. When asked by a student (via webcam) from the American University in Cairo why he as a popular leader stepped down, he mentioned that it was only natural - obviously not for the audience he was speaking to - and that his mother had taught him "never overstay your welcome."

Check it out, and comment and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

It ain't so easy no more...

There was a time not so long ago when many Arabs would wring their hands in the air and exclaim - "It's Palestine stupid." Of course, there were naysayers such as former Bush Administration official MS Doran who contested this thesis in his piece years ago in Foreign Affairs. Yet, there was an element of truth heading into the late 1990s that the Palestinian issue was a central driver of the hostility towards the United States. Unfortunately, U.S. policy towards the Palestinian issue became a seed that has given way to an inordinately complex tree that now constitutes the Islamized anti-American movement that exists within many Muslim countries. Today, as proximity talks are ongoing between Palestinians and Israelis, even the utmost optimism cannot account for the fact that even a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not solve the myriad of other issues: instability in Pakistan, an insurgency in Afghanistan, fractious destabilization in Iraq, autocracy in the Middle East, a failed state in Somalia, a cultish worldwide jihadi movement and so on.

Yet, that should not mean that progress on the Palestinian issue will not serve as a tremendous boon to efforts to re-balance the violent global equation that has come to define U.S.-"Islam" relations. It will be one less -- and a significant one at that -- lever to be exploited by autocratic leaders, jihadi figures, and general contrarians. Most importantly, it will finally undermine the hypocrisy of fighting for freedom on one hand, and suppressing the self-determination of the last stateless people on Earth.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Don't go loco -- welcome The Geopolitico

This opening salvo represents a veritable vocal return to the world of geopolitics (and its companions) and writing. For the past seven years I have been working, studying, and traveling in and between the West and the proverbial Greater Middle East. During that time, I have seen the world through the lens of civil leaders in Qana, sarpanches in Gujarat, youth in Dushanbe, bankers in Libya, educators in Riyadh, taxi drivers in Dubai, and the list goes on. The strange twists and turns have led me to study counter-insurgency with active military officers, to advise on industrialization in the Gulf. One moment I am in a Harvard classroom teaching undergraduates about the world of political Islam, and the next I am interfacing with some of the movements under discussion while working with the UN.

This page represents a chance to share some of my experiences - as they happen - as well as reflections on some of the most pertinent issues and challenges facing us as a global society. You will find postings of recent articles I have written interspersed between daily comments. Most of the focus will be on the East-West dynamic, and issues facing the Muslim world. Please always feel free to comment - and welcome to the world of The Geopolitico.