Category Archives: middle east

New dirt, same shovel – the unsustainable, status quo


“If Netanyahu thinks that 1967 lines are an illusion, then peace for him is an illusion.” – PLO Executive Committee member Saeb Erekat, reacting to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s principles for peace set forth in Washington, DC, over the past few days

Turning the earth to sow seeds is a good beginning. Certain people, when they show up in Washington, we hand them a shovel because we want them to grow a garden. Michelle Obama took it literally, and as her garden grows, so does her cause celeb – healthy eating, healthy habits. President Obama plants policy seeds that sprout, but because it takes an act of Congress to keep those plants growing, most end up stunted and malnourished.

Then there are the world leaders, those with an agenda. We hand them a shovel, too, because, as Americans, we expect results. The past five days, we put a spade in the hands of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, asking him to turn the ground, so we could see how our “best of friends” was growing his garden of peace. Today, in a rare address to both houses of Congress, Bibi took the shovel firmly in his hand and said, “Peace would herald a new day for both peoples.” Then, he pushed into the ground, turned over a rock and said, “But, oh, see? Dirt,” and then he thanked us for the faith in his being able to grow a garden, thanked us for the shovel, and left.

Were Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to come to DC, we would hand him a shovel too. He may even tear into that same bit of ground as Netnayahu, turn it over, and say, “Look, a rock.” Then he too would thank us for the shovel and leave.

When President Obama pointed out last Thursday that the garden shed was open and the quartermaster was ready to hand out tools to those willing to do the work for peace, there were many who said, “He’s handing them a tool, and then he points to a rocky outcropping and says dig there? He knows that if Bibi plows there, the blade will shatter into spear points and hurt Israel’s security! I told you he doesn’t support Israel’s pursuit of peace.”

When Bibi dug and the spade did not splinter, they wanted Obama to dig next, sure that it would splinter for him. So certain are they that this administration is against the Jewish state, they discount the evidence, right in front of them, that the earth can, in fact, be safely turned. Indeed, they even ignore the drying, decades old lumps of clay turned before, by Republicans and Democrats, right along the same lines.

But this exercise was a failure to begin with, because even if they dig a long trench, there’s no fresh seed to plant, no fertilizer to nourish it, no gardener who can tend to it unhindered by political and “demographic realities.” There is no prospect right now. There is only the status quo, the one President Obama calls “unsustainable.”

If to avoid talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have been a mistake in last Thursday’s speech at the Department of State, then talking so much about it may also have been an uncalculated error. Bibi seized on it as a PR opportunity, an extra boost from AIPAC and other supporters, the same way the RNC or DNC jumps on statements from elected officials affiliated with their respective opponents to rile their respective bases to shake their respective money trees.

Was that the plan all along? Was it a trial balloon? If so, Netanyahu deflated it at his speech to the joint Congressional session, acknowledging the president’s clarification at his speech, Sunday, to AIPAC. “[A]s President Obama said,” the prime minister declared, offering cover to the president’s misunderstood statements, “the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967. “

With that diplomatic language, Netanyahu picked up his shovel and walked away. He left behind little doubt where this Likud coalition government in Israel stands: a demilitarized Palestinian state; Israeli troops within it, along the Jordan River; no right of return for Palestinian refugees inside whatever the final line between Israel and Palestine ends up being; and “Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.” All this, only if Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.

In his speech, Netanyahu promised any possible Israeli concessions in a peace deal with the Palestinians would be “painful” and “generous” to the Jewish State. The Palestinian Authority reportedly disagrees, with Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas, telling the Jerusalem Post, “What Netanyahu proposed in his speech won’t lead to peace, but would instead place more obstacles in front of the peace process.”

This is the “unsustainable” status quo which President Obama spoke about, Thursday, the impediments to peace from just one of the sides in the conflict. There will be no peace talks. As Netanyahu said in the Oval Office on Friday, “It’s not going to happen.”

Unsustainable or not, all that is left behind from this visit is the status quo – more turned earth, left to dry in the summer sun. If the status quo is maintained, the UN will vote to recognize a Palestinian state in the fall. That’s why, as Bibi said, it must be dealt with “tomorrow. And when I say tomorrow, I don’t mean some distant time in the future.  I mean — tomorrow.”

-PBG

Full text of Netanyahu’s speech to the Joint Session of Congress

Putting peace in the crosshairs


Obama’s peace sign has become a target. Republicans and Democrats have latched on to his statement about peace in the region “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” as if it were a call for Israel to retreat to the pre-1967 border between  the Jewish state and a new nation for the Palestinians.

Most echo what Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said today during the White House photo-op with President Obama. “It’s not gonna happen,” he said from his position in the comfy chair.

As Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman (NJ) explained in his reaction to the president’s Thursday speech, “a full return to the 1967 borders will be indefensible for Israel and that talking with terrorists who want to destroy Israel is a non-starter.”

Even Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who usually uses his famous wit and passion for the president’s critics, and whose wife works as an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, tweeted yesterday, “Remind me again, why did the ‘67 borders change? #IsraelAttacked,” Poltico reported, Friday.

Still, President Obama insists, the “swaps” must begin from somewhere, and 1967 is it. “Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language — and that’s going to happen between friends,” he told reporters after meeting with the Israeli leader, Friday, according to the Washington Post, “but what we are in complete accord about is that a true peace can only occur if the ultimate resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats. And that Israel’s security will remain paramount in any U.S. evaluation of a peace deal.”

The question now is, why did Obama even offer that solution for Israel’s peace with the Palestinians, in his speech yesterday? Maybe it would have been better if he would have said something like, “With the changes going on in the region, the passion in the streets of dictatorial regimes, it is time for the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and address a peace that will be mutually beneficial, and stay the wolf of rebellion at Jerusalem’s door.”

-PBG

The Obama Doctrine – making Hope global


“The United States supports a set of universal rights.  And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders.” – President Barack Obama affirming what he intends the country to represent, in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere, during a policy speech at the US State Department, May 19, 2011.

Pay attention to that word “support.” It’s important.

Obama speech on middle east and north africa

President Obama delivers speech on the Middle East and North Africa, at the State Department, May 19, 2011 (White House photo)

With that line, President Obama declared how his administration is poised to react to the phenomenon of the clamoring hoards in the Middle East and North Africa who have taken to the streets of cities and villages, demanding respect for their individual and collective rights, in what he called a “season of hope,” but will forever be known as the Arab Spring.

The statement is already being called the Obama Doctrine. As budding global policy analyst Jacob Breach describes it:

“President Obama’s announced doctrine has been to support freedom and universal rights for all people throughout the region and focus on each crisis through individual lenses, rather than a universal approach calling for every dictator in the region to step down. “

So the doctrine has its limits, based on what is politic and diplomatic. We may not call on the royal Saudi family to step down, outright, but we will “support” dissent. As the President said, “Our message is simple:  If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.”

Support. There it is again. In fact, the president’s speech mentioned “support” no less than 15 times, in the context of helping those who are protesting for their rights and working toward democracy. Let’s take a look at some of them:

“Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest.  Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.”

Then comes the list:

” First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”

Here, he explains, he means places like Egypt and Tunisia where they have expressed a desire to adopt a free and open democracy, but they are just examples. Obama is implying that if any country’s citizens clamor for democracy, it will be supported;

“…the second way that we must support positive change in the region is through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that are transitioning to democracy…

“America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability, promoting reform, and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy.”

He acknowledges that deteriorating economic conditions have played a role in the global unrest as well. He calls on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to come up with a plan to offer financial “support,” especially to Tunisia and Egypt. He also announced that the US will be forgiving “up to” $1 billion in debt owed by Egypt, and said that he wants to establish “Enterprise Funds,” that Congress will pay, to help entrepreneurs get businesses going in the fledgling democracies.

Obama’s “support,” then, is moral, verbal and financial. He vowed to “promote reform,” not democracy, as NBC’s Chuck Todd pointed out in a tweet, during the speech. It’s hope. It is not military, not a “War on Terror,” not the Bush Doctrine of making the Arab countries go democratic by causing upheaval either by direct invasion or in a very Cold War/CIA kind of way. If Bush was the stick, Obama’s the carrot; it’s butter – not guns.

Arab reaction to the president’s speech has been a shrug, probably because, despite the soaring rhetoric about supporting democracy and human rights in the world, he said something the region is tired of hearing. “Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable.  And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.”

That was enough to prompt several tweets with a common sentiment, from @remroum’s “Obama always gives a nice speech to the US, then goes & kisses AIPAC’s ass,” to @ssserene’s, “Could you BE any more of an ASS-LICKER?? [caps on original].”   Comments like those mean that the entirety of his promise of support and hope went out the window. They feel their cause is not supported, the future for the Palestinians, hopeless. It also means they ignored what the president said immediately after that.

“But precisely because of our friendship,” he said, referring to the ties between the US and Israel, “it’s important that we tell the truth:  The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.”

That begs the question, if Palestinians start peaceful demonstrations, for “the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people,” and the Israelis react violently against them, will the US use stronger terms with our Israeli friends? My guess is, not for now, but I expect Netanyahu is going to have an earnest conversation at the White House, Friday, and that even Israel will not be off limits from the Obama Doctrine – after the 2012 election, of course.

-PBG

Leaning on dictators


We say democracy is the guiding light of humanity’s potential, as a society. Take a look at humanity – not the man in the mirror, but the one at the door, on the sidewalk, in the car beside you, at the store. Take a look at the people in Midan Tahrir, the children, the women, the soldiers. If democracy is the most necessary tool of a liberated people, to give them some real sense of being in charge of their own destiny, then should not every free country jump to support what has been going on in Egypt the last two weeks?

This is a human movement, despite the promises of hope and change, and without the overt support of the US. Though the Obama administration reached out to the Muslim world with a 2009 speech in Cairo, it came to nothing. The administration’s failures to move peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians forward, its failure to cease extraordinary renditions to countries like Egypt, and take a stand against “friendly” regimes for human rights violations, have tainted the region’s view of America as the “shining city on the hill.”

Our policy, historically, in the region has been less of a knee on the chest of democracy and more of a thumb on the scale, favoring dictatorship. Our leaders came to the decision, that Mubarak must go, too late – not by a day or two, or a year or two – but by at least a decade. It should not come as a surprise, then, that to many of the people participating in the protests in the Arab world, “there’s a negative attitude to America, a disappointment,” as one Jordanian activist told the Washington Post.

It is not that obvious, though, how this strikes our country, when there are no “Death to America” chants in Tahrir. But as Liz Sly, in her Post article, points out, “just as burning [American] flags are not part of the current repertoire, neither are demonstrators carrying around models of the Statue of Liberty, as Chinese activists brought to Tiananmen Square in 1989.”

Iran, of course, views these events as a fatal wound for our historic foreign policy in the Middle East. “If [protesters in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen] are able to push this through then what will happen to the U.S. policies in the region will be an irreparable defeat for America,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told worshipers in Tehran on Friday.

But it is just as much a defeat for Islamist regimes, like Iran’s, because, “The current uprising in Egypt is largely secular and nationalistic,” admits Yamin Zakaria, in a column on the activist-journalism site, Media Monitors Network.  “Everyone is waving the Egyptian flag instead of the black and white Shahadah (there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger) flag in Arabic,” he added.

The good news might be, that if this is the beginning of a global, vocal human rights movement, then it could “mark a turning point” in how the US deals with “non-violent, political Islam,” Robert Malley, of the independent International Crisis Group, told USA Today.

The reciprocal way we leaned on Hosni Mubarak – keeping him in power out of fear of what the alternative might do to our regional interests – has left our Middle East policy on a very narrow pedestal. It may be that the only thing keeping us on top of the foreign policy game – besides our infamous American bravado – is the legacy of what a strong, wealthy world partner ought to be able to bring to the table.

-PBG

When, in the course of Egyptian events…


“The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments; this is one of those times.”
- President Barack Obama, February 1, 2011

It’s never a good time for a revolution, but it is the time to which we’ve come. It’s not a clash of religions, or classes, or wealth or power. These demonstrations are an expression of the Egyptian people being called to “determine your own destiny,” as President Obama advised when he appeared briefly to read a statement, Tuesday evening.

At the morning’s cabinet meeting, Secretary of State Clinton affirmed the administration’s call for “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”

That transition, Obama added, “must begin now.” It seems almost Orwellian, this foreign policy in which yesterday’s friend becomes today’s, um, un-friend.

Obama on Egypt 2-1-2011

Click to watch President Obama's February 1, 2011, statement on the situation in Egypt.

Suspend your American reality, if you can, for the moment, and realize that the choice is not always between friends and enemies, Christ and the Devil, Indians and cowboys, white and black (or vice-versa), and the alternative to a US backed dictator is not necessarily a communist or an Islamic revolutionary. (The world understands, though, that if you want to make a sales pitch for foreign policy to the United States, it helps to simplify it as a choice between halos and horns. Plenty of US politicians understand that too.)

With that dichotomous outlook, it is inevitable that we don’t always back the right horse; we back the right horse for now, and with that we can be very wrong. When Anwar Sadat‘s bravery in signing a peace treaty with Israel was rewarded with assassination, Hosni Mubarak was the horse of the moment. But “now” moments, as every college sophomore understands, are a moving target, especially when contrasted with “then” moments. Accordingly, the brave horse we backed then, is the stuck statue destiny is closing in on now.

Egypt is more powerful than one long serving, old man, and the stern system he represents. “All of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people,” Obama said, Tuesday. If the continuing protests have taught us anything, it’s that every nation is a nation of people, and no matter how heavy the government’s hand, there are those who long to give a voice to dissent, and remarkably many more who are brave enough to do it.

Mubarak likes to hold his difficult role as fighter of radicalism and helm-holder of peace with Israel as the most compelling reason for unflinching US support. Most Egyptians, however, are young and secular, and they understand what’s at stake in the cool peace they have with Israel, and what being in a permanent state of war with your neighbor costs in lives and materials.

Mubarak’s insistence that stability depends on him leaving on his own terms ignores two main things. First, that the alternative to his “stability” is not necessarily chaos; in fact, by unleashing his supporters to clash with demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, Wednesday, he is saying that he is depending on chaos to maintain stability. Secondly, the people will not allow him to stay.

Obama’s “orderly transition” differs from the beleaguered Egyptian president’s “stability” in that what “must begin now,” from the American’s point of view can wait until September, according to Mubarak. Meanwhile, he is willing to threaten, imprison and retaliate violently against his opposition. He has stopped listening to the people; when do we stop listening to what he wants, and show that we listen to the people of Egypt?

When people are dying in the streets of Cairo, it’s time to let go of the fence, Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton, and coalesce around the Egyptian opposition. The ally is Egypt, not the man Mubarak, who was good for us until he wasn’t anymore.

-PBG

No patriotism in isolationism – not then, not now


Arachnoid behavior manifests when the web twitches in a connected world. A disturbance somewhere is felt everywhere. Gone is the luxury of isolationism that was argued as a matter of principle during the European upheavals less than a century ago. As Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out in a 1938 letter to a journalist :

“[T]he trouble is that most people in this country think that we can stay out of wars in other parts of the world. Even if we stay out of it and save our own skins, we cannot escape the conditions which will undoubtedly exist in other parts of the world and which will react against us…. We are all of us selfish … and if we can save our own skins, the rest of the world can go.

“The best we can do is to realize nobody can save his own skin alone. We must all hang together.”

Still, there are people who argue that American pride is enough for us to not worry about what goes in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt. Freshman Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) presented an argument to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last Wednesday, for cutting all foreign aid, because, he said, “when we’re short of money, where we can’t do the things we need to do in our country, we certainly shouldn’t be shipping the money overseas,” including aid to Egypt and Israel.

It’s classic Tea Party rhetoric – full of simplistic “kitchen table” sensibilities that ignore the realities of a connected, interdependent world. As Eleanor’s husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, put it back in 1920(!) when he was running for Vice President:

“We must open our eyes and see that modern civilization has become so complex and the lives of civilized men so interwoven with the lives of other men in other countries as to make it impossible to be in this world and out of it.”

This is before television, in the nascent days of radio – no super highways, not more than one telephone in a household, if they had any at all, and of course, no internet. The entire planet had less than 2 billion people. Even with all that, we could not stand alone, because the problems of the world will find your doorstep. As FDR said, “we cannot build walls around ourselves and hide our heads in the sand.”

President Barack Obama listens as he is updated on the latest events in Egypt during the Presidential Daily Briefing in the Oval Office, Jan. 31, 2011. From left are: Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Chief of Staff Bill Daley. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

I’ve no doubt President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have their necks up and are paying attention. But they’re in a tough spot. This is a tender diplomacy, that even Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority leader McConnell (R-KY) appreciate,  and for now, they “are backing Obama’s cautious approach” Politico reported, Monday.

Still, the U.S. administration risks being too cautious. Saying, “‘Bottom line, Egypt’s destiny is Egypt’s to decide,'” as Politico’s Mike Allen reported one administration official told him, may be true, but it hides how speedy and seemingly unequivocal we must be to race in with our continued support. That will be the point at which we can move to the other side of this history.

Egyptians are counting on us.

“When they know that America is behind the people and behind the military against Mubarak,” Tawfik Hamid, from the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, told VOA, “this can make America the most beloved nation in the eyes of Egyptians. But if America lets them down with Mubarak, I don’t think the problem will end, and the country will be lost.”

-PBG

Carrying goats in Egypt


Behind a shed of an office building, on a dirt lot in Cairo,  a dark and road weary bus idles noisily, as a hog-tied, bleating goat is carried down the aisle to the back, where others sit with caged chickens. But a stranger walking by wouldn’t hear any of it. Like most third world capitals, the volume in that city is as over-amped as their lights. You cannot find the stars, nor the quiet, until you find the desert.

Image Credit: NASA/MODIS Rapid Response Team - Public domain image

This is all from a twenty year old memory, but the soul of the old Arab Republic is as endless as its souk. Forget about the dust, the pyramids and the antiquities. What is going on in Egypt now, is the people who carry goats on buses are tired of being the goat, and they’re tired of not being heard.

They have an awareness of their history, and inasmuch as that informs their spirituality and patience, it also informs their pride. On the trip from Israel down the eastern side of the Sinai Peninsula, from Eilat to Sharm-el-Shaikh, one Egyptian, when informed that the last time one of the travelers was in this place, it was under Israeli control, quipped, “Yes. But now it’s better, because it’s ours.”

Personal frustrations become political ones. Hunger and poverty become elements of disenfranchisement, and carefully controlled elections become a political prison.

Like most rebellions, though, it’s not that simple, especially in that part of the world. As the rioting continues, it becomes less important who has taken to the streets and why, and what becomes more important is who fills the poltical void, when it becomes obvious that the government will not stand.

“The regime in Egypt is quite an authoritarian regime,” Farideh Naghash, editor of a Cairo newspaper, told Radio Free Europe in an interview, Saturday, “and that’s why people still now ask for the resignation of President Mubarak.”

He added that steps the embattled president has taken are not sufficient because, “What we need now sharply is a political solution…a political approach, which must be based on real and radical changes.”

But with Hosni Mubarak being unwilling to step down, and with his forced departure causing what Naghash believes would be a “vacuum in the political sphere,” the solution challenges not only Egypt, but US interests as well.

On the practical side, if there is a practical side, the US State Department today called for “a meaningful process to foster real reform,” according to a statement from State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley.

But, as Politico‘s Ben Smith and Laura Rozen point out:

“Obama’s pressure on Mubarak, and the fact that defenses of Mubarak and the ‘stability’ he brings the region from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden earlier in the week haven’t been repeated, have led many observers to conclude that the administration is readying for the end of the Mubarak era.”

That’s not to say stability is no longer important. It means that the US administration no longer believes Mubarak is the one to provide it, and remain in power. “Of course, the demonstrators support a transition government that can change the constitution and arrange new elections if he leaves,” says Naghash, “but he didn’t leave, and he will not leave.”

If he were to leave, though, he would fly over the desert, where even Egypt’s proudest legacies lie buried, quietly, beneath the blowing sands.

-PBG

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