This is what good statecraft looks like

Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store has a terrific piece titled “Why We Must Talk” in a recent issue of the NY Review of Books. In it, he makes a strong argument why “we”– in this case, I think, western advocates of democracy– need to start talking seriously to, among other, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Here is the core of his argument:

    Many of those who most strongly oppose dialogue in international relations prefer to live in a world they wish existed. Some of them believe that imposing a particular political system in other countries by the use of force is worth large expenditures of wealth and of life. Others take the view that a “clash of civilizations” requires us to build walls to protect our society from an inevitable global threat. Some maintain that the willingness to negotiate and compromise will be interpreted as a sign of moral and military weakness. None of these approaches points to a plausible way forward. And the cost of pursuing any of them is high.
    In contrast, defending and employing dialogue is neither a naive nor utopian strategy. It shows strength to be willing to talk to the adversary. It is not weakness. And it is not cowardice to debate your opponent and try to persuade the world to follow you by speaking your values. It may take some courage.
    In this sense, the defense of dialogue springs from a perspective best described as principled realism—an approach that attempts to find solutions that both improve the world and recognize the constraints of the current global order. As defenders of dialogue, we always keep open the option of walking away rather than talking. But we also believe that we shouldn’t be so quick to do so. The fact that there may be some positions and conflicts that cannot be resolved does not mean that the possibilities of dialogue shouldn’t be actively explored. Dialogue is more important to our globalized world than it ever has been. We must therefore defend it all the more strongly. At a time that seemed far more dangerous than our own, John F. Kennedy formulated the principle that has since been too often disregarded: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.
The essence of democracy, after all, is the proposition that political differences must be resolved through discussion and deliberation based on mutual respect and the key notion of the equality of all human persons, rather than through the application of brute force or the application of superior power. And this is not just the case at the domestic level: It also applies between nations.
I am so glad Store made this case– which is very similar to the case made by Turkey’s current leaders, too, as well as by many Swiss officials. If these important actors in the community of democratic nations are making this case, why is it so very hard for politicians in the self-proclaimed “leader of the free world” to see the value of these arguments?

Interview with R. Visser at 8th anniversary of invasion of Iraq

    (I first became acquainted with (and came to admire) Reidar Visser’s work when he started posting comments here on JWN during and after Iraq’s December 2005 election… Last fall, he was one of the four authors in Just World Books’s inaugural list. So now, as the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches, I’m cross-posting here the piece about about the interview I conducted with him on Saturday, for the JWB podcast series. ~HC.)

As the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches, Just World Books author Reidar Visser has recorded a new podcast for our series. In it, he updates his assessment of Washington’s post-invasion democratization project in Iraq, coming once again– as he did in his book A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010— to the somber conclusion that the project has been a failure. Visser also roundly refutes the claim made by some Americans that the U.S. democratization project in Iraq was somehow an “inspiration” for the many activists behind the current wave of pro-democracy movements in the Arab world.

This latest podcast was recorded by Just World Books owner Helena Cobban from a phone interview she conducted with him on March 12. It is an informative complement to this other short podcast we have of Visser, which was recorded at his book launch in Washington DC back in December.

Check out our growing library of author podcasts here!

Egyptian activist Hossam on inspiration from Palestine

Key Egyptian democracy activist Hossam (3arabawy) el-Hamalawy had an important piece in the Guardian Unlimited yesterday, underlining the degree to which the Palestinian intifada of 2000– which, lest we forget, started out with many days of unarmed peaceful protest until the death toll rose so high that people’s patience wore out; check the B’tselem figures on this– served as an inspiration for his generation of Egyptian activists.
El-Hamalawy wrote:

    Only after the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000 did tens of thousands of Egyptians take to the streets in protest – probably for the first time since 1977. Although those demonstrations were in solidarity with the Palestinians, they soon gained an anti-regime dimension, and police showed up to quell the peaceful protests. The president, however, remained a taboo subject, and I rarely heard anti-Mubarak chants.
    I recall the first time I heard protesters en masse chanting against the president in April 2002, during the pro-Palestinian riots around Cairo University. Battling the notorious central security forces, protesters were chanting in Arabic: “Hosni Mubarak is just like [Ariel] Sharon.”
    The anger was to explode on an even larger scale with the outbreak of the war on Iraq in March 2003. More than 30,000 Egyptians fought the police in downtown Cairo, briefly taking over Tahrir Square, and burning down Mubarak’s billboard.
    The scenes aired by al-Jazeera and other satellite networks of the Palestinian revolt or the US-led onslaught on Iraq inspired activists across Egypt to pull down the wall of fear brick by brick. It was in 2004 that pro-Palestinian and anti-war campaigners launched the Kefaya movement, which took on the president and his family…

So many western commentators have been sounding off to the effect that these current wave of massive democracy protests in the Arab world somehow “prove” that Arabs don’t care about Palestine. This is palpably untrue. Yes, the democracy activists have a lot to do in their own countries, and that is without a doubt their highest priority. But if the pro-Israeli-power crowd thinks that means they don’t care about Palestine… Well, that shows either that they’re hopelessly out of touch or that they’re wilfully lying. Maybe both…

Humor hour with “Tzipi” Livni

That well-known democrat (irony alert), the head of Israel’s Kadima Party “Tzipi” Livni, afforded me a good chuckle over my corn flakes this morning with this proposal for how democratization efforts should be run at the global level:

    Current events in the Middle East highlight the urgency of adopting… a universal code for participation in democratic elections. This would include requiring every party running for office to embrace, in word and deed, a set of core democratic principles: the renunciation of violence and the acceptance of state monopoly over the use of force, the pursuit of aims by peaceful means, commitment to the rule of law and to equality before the law, and adherence to international agreements to which their country is bound.

Ms. Livni, you will remember, was Israel’s foreign minister 2006-2009, that is during the time Israel launched its gratuitous, vicious– and yes, extremely violent– assault against Gaza’s population in 2008. Prior to that, 2004-2005, she was Israel’s Minister of Housing and Construction, and therefore largely responsible for implementation of Israel’s completely illegal settlement project in the occupied West Bank (including Occupied East Jerusalem).
Let’s take her proposed “conditions” one at a time again:

    the renunciation of violence…
    the pursuit of aims by peaceful means…
    commitment to the rule of law and to equality before the law…
    adherence to international agreements…

Question: Why does the Washington Post publish such evidently dishonest nonsense?

Quick notes for a quickly changing world

Just 30 days ago, on January 14, I was making the 3.5-hour drive down from Charlottesville, VA to Greensboro, NC, for the Quaker conference held to mark the 50th anniversary of Pres. Eisenhower’s prescient 1961 warning about the dangers of a ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ arising in the U.S.
As I drove, I was listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the day’s events in Tunis. That was the day the growing but determinedly peaceful anti-government demonstrations there were (amazingly!) able to ‘persuade’ Pres. Zein el-Abideen Ben Ali to leave the country.
The conference was really good. I got to speak after lunch on Saturday, with my designated topic being the MIC in the Middle East. I reminded the audience that for the past 15-20 years, the MIC’s project in the Middle East has been far and away its biggest (and costliest) overseas project; and that the situation there has been used by the bosses of the MIC back here at home to continue to justify the obscene amounts of spending they get from U.S. taxpayers.
But I was also able to share with them the good news that (1) In the Middle East more than anywhere else, the actual utility of military force had been shown to be either nil or negative. What did the US achieve, of lasting geopolitical value, with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? What did Israel achieve of lasting geopolitical value with its obscene assaults against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008?… and also that (2) The events then unfolding in Tunis were demonstrating for all to see that the MIC’s vast, sprawling project in the Middle East was beginning to crumble– and the crumbling would doubtless continue.
I told them that the two key places to watch for further crumbling of the U.S. MIC’s Middle East project– “within either a shorter or longer time frame; but almost certainly within the coming months”– were Egypt and Jordan.
And then, the heroic pro-democracy activists and organizers in Egypt achieved what they achieved last Friday. Far faster than I had dared to hope.
Of course the democracy movement has a lot further to go– in those two countries, and elsewhere around the globe. (Including here at home in the United States, folks. Wake up!)
But today I am just feeling so joyous to be able to witness this.
Honestly, I never thought I would live to see this day. Throughout all of the 35-year-plus professional life that I have devoted to a study of foreign affairs, and principally Middle East affairs, the situation in the Middle East has been gloomy and getting gloomier. Autocracy was becoming ever deeper and deeper embedded in many countries, including in Egypt which is truly for that whole region “Um al-Dunya” (The mother of the world.) Periodic wars wracked the region, culminating in George W. Bush’s obscene invasion of Iraq.
… Which, remember, had come after a period of 13 years in which the U.S. and Britain forced the U.N to maintain a punishing sanctions regime against Iraq which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 500,000 of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. And no other government in the Arab world wanted to (or was able to) prevent those atrocities from happening.
Egypt’s Pres. Mubarak was at the heart of Washington’s imperial planning for the region. As were the two successive kings of Jordan and the monarchs of Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s Pres. Ben Ali was also a small-scale, but loyal, supporter of it.
Plus, throughout all these years, successive governments in Israel– Labour as well as Likud and Kadima– continued their longterm project of implanting their illegal settlers into the heart of Arab land in Palestine, including in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem.
Since 1993, Washington has taken not one single effective step to rein in Israel’s settlement-construction program. Indeed, in the way it implemented the Oslo Accords, by insisting on building (and even having the US taxpayer pay for) big new highway systems for the settlers, they gave the settlement-building project a massive new shot in the arm.
And Washington covered the vast, multi-pronged support it gave to Israel in every field during these years with this thin fig leaf of a myth that there was some kind of a meaningful “peace process” underway. (That myth was also cited as a justification for stamping down on Palestinian democracy when it dared to raise its head in January 2006: We can’t allow anything to damage the peace process,” they said, as they armed Mohamed Dahlan’s coup plotters and helped him in his ugly coup attempt against the Palestinians’ elected leadership, in 2007… )
Pres. Mubarak and his intelligence sidekick Omar Suleiman were big players in every single one of those imperial schemes.
Now they are out. And Washington’s policy in the Middle East is going to have to change. A lot. And rapidly.
Hallelujah! What a day of joy!
As I’ve noted here many times before, it turns out we’re no longer living in the 19th century! We’re not even living in the 20th century. The crucial change in world affairs, as the 21st century progresses, is that the global information environment has become so transparent and so inter-connected that any more major wars or invasions (such as what we saw the Bush administration launching against Iraq in 2003) are becoming increasingly unthinkable.
Already, during those fateful days in March 2003 when the invasion was launched, we were having real-time blogging from within Baghdad, in searingly beautiful English, telling us of the horrors of how it was to cower under that bombardment and live through the terrors of the civil collapse that followed.
(And what did the U.S. “achieve” for all those expensive bombs dropped, and all those expensive soldier deployed?? Nothing of any lasting value except the destruction of an entire society there in Iraq… An “achievement” that surely will continue to haunt us for many years into the future.)
Yes, I was part of the emerging global blogosphere back then: Reading, sharing, and interacting with the work of fabulous Iraqi writers like Riverbend, Faiza, or Salam/Pax. That already felt heady enough.
Then, this past Thursday and Friday, I was spending most of my time on Twitter (@justworldbooks). It was amazing. There, we were having a strange form of free-form “conversation” about what was happening, in real time with fellow tweeps who were on the ground in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, and with people around the world who were also glued to the situation.
In Twitter, in case you don’t know about this, there’s a simple content-aggregating tool called a hashtag. They always start with what Europeans call a hash-mark. So there has been #Tunisia, #egypt, #jan25, #tahrir, etc. If you put that hashtag into your tweet, the tweet then shows up in the relevant aggregator. And if you want to see what everyone else has been saying about that same subject, you just search for the hashtag.
On Thursday evening (U.S. Eastern time), everyone around the world was waiting and waiting for the speech that, several hours earlier, Mubarak had promised he would be making. As we were all waiting, someone came up with the idea of launching the hashtag #reasonsmubarakislate. And it took off like wildfire!
All the contributions to it were jokes, including some that were very childish. (“#reasonsmubarakislate The situation in his pants is very fluid”, etc.) Others were very clever– but always within the 140-character limit.
So for an hour or two there, as we were waiting, we were sharing these jokes– with people from all around the world, most of whom were unknown to each other.
And then, finally, Mubarak came onto the screen and gave his terrible speech. People immediately stopped feeling jokey and excited, and the hashtag died almost immediately. If you have a Twitter account– and you should! follow me there @justworldbooks! –go and read the RMIL hashtag. You’ll see the most recent entry there is from Feb. 10.
This amazing ability of the internet to help create a single, inter-connected international public is one part of this story.
The other is what happened in Egypt when the government “turned off” the internet and all cellphone coverage for a couple of days there: The large “modern” portion of the economy got stuck in its tracks! Routine banking or commercial transactions all, with the flick of a switch, became impossible. Tourists, travelers, and millions of Egyptian family members all lost the connections with each other and the outside world that they had come to rely on.
Of course, regime apologists immediately tried to lay the blame on the protesters: “These protests are costing our economy billions of dollars a day and causing chaos and uncertainty in our lives!” But everyone in Egypt knew who had turned off the internet and the cell-phones. It was not the protesters. (And the behavior of the protesters– non-violent, orderly, well organized, dignified– was not seen by any observers as having sowed any chaos.)
After two days, the government decided to turn the intertubes and cell-phone service back on again.
Autocrats everywhere, beware.
Everything is changing with dizzying speed. It turns out the long-feared Israel is now “just a small, slightly troublesome country off the northeast tip of Egypt”, not some massive and all-powerful global behemoth.
True, it still has something of an iron grip on the “thinking” (or more to the point, the campaign financing) of most members of the U.S. Congress. But in the American public sphere, there have been remarkably few voices echoing the strong advice from Netanyahu and Co. that “all of us in the west should support Mubarak and Suleiman because they are ‘our guys’.”
Of course, many people in the United States have a lot of questions about the role the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists might have in the next Egyptian government.
Of course, voices have been raised warning that the democratic euphoria that followed Mubarak’s departure on Feb. 11, 2011 might soon turn to dust if “the mullahs” come into power in Egypt as they did in the years that followed the Shah’s departure from power on Feb. 11, 1979.
This is natural. Most westerners don’t know anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or with other Islamist organizations. We have all been subjected in recent years to repeated barrages of anti-Muslim, anti-Islamist hate speech. Many of us (self included) do have some very deep and genuine concerns about the practices of the current Iranian government– as, of course, those of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
There has been, in the general discourse here in the U.S., remarkably little ability to discern the differences among these different forms of Islamist organizations. In my life and career, I have had the good fortune to meet and interview representatives of many different kinds of Islamist organizations; and I have tried to do what I can to explain the differences to my readers and the general public. One distinction I always try to make is between organizations that are deeply rooted in the societies in which they operate and are willing to participate in fully democratic, one-person-one-vote elections, and those (like Al-Qaeda) who share neither of those attributes.
And we are all very lucky today that there is, in the Middle East today, one democracy in which a moderately Islamist government has held sway for nearly a decade now– and has performed very well in that role, in both the technocratic sense of delivering good services on a sound basis, and the civil-liberties sense of respecting and strengthening the rule of law and the democratic basis of society.
This is the AK (‘Justice and Development’) Party in Turkey. So it is not the case today that the only possible “model” one could point to of a republic dominated by an avowedly Islamist party would be Iran under the mullahs, or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Hello! Go to Turkey, people! See how things are proceeding in the politics and society of that vital NATO member!
Also, neither I nor anyone else can tell you what the political favor of a freely elected parliament in Egypt will be. The MB have said they won’t run for the presidency, but they will likely run for parliament.
All I’m saying here is that even if they end up with a strong showing in the next government, this is not the end of the world. (And to understand more of my reasons for reaching that conclusion, go read the piece I had on ForPol’s Middle East Channel about them, back on January 31.)
Egypt’s economy and society have some way to go before its 83 million people can catch up with the living and economic standards of Turkey’s 75 million. In Turkey, businesses and industrial conglomerates from throughout the country have been building up huge operations throughout the whole of the former Soviet space, as well as in the Arab world and have pulled the country’s per-capita GDP up to about twice the level in Egypt. But if Egypt’s businesswomen and -men can be freed from the terrible yoke of corruption under which they’ve labored so long, they’ll be able to compete soon enough.
Many of my Egyptian friends are saying that if westerners really want to support Egypt’s democracy, the best thing we can do is go and take vacations there. Well, I guess I can support that (and yes, I am really eager to come back!)
But I think maybe the very best thing we can do is to stop using our taxpayer dollars to provide completely illegal subsidies to the U.S. Big Cotton cartel. Here are some resources I quickly gathered on this issue: 1, 2, 3. The last one notes that,

    According to the Environmental Working Group, American cotton growers are among the largest recipients of U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies. They receive a total of more than $3 billion a year in payments each year.

And the vast majority of that money goes to just 2,000 Big Cotton companies, not to family farmers…
The first source I link to (the FT, from summer 2009), has this:

    In Egypt, the area to be cultivated with cotton this season has shrunk by 10 per cent to 300,000 acres, its lowest ever, says Mefreh El Beltagui, a cotton exporter and an official of Alcotexa, the Alexandria-based association of cotton exporters.
    “If the US were to remove its cotton subsidy, they would not be able to compete with us,” he says. “Here there are no subsidies for cotton exports. The state needs to intervene, because here we have mostly small farmers who cannot deal with price fluctuations. Also because we need to preserve our [international] customers for Egyptian cotton. Once you lose a customer it is hard to get them back.”

Of course, the other thing we need to do to help the Egyptian democrats is scale back our aid to the Egyptian military considerably, and divert it instead to an Egyptan-controlled fund to support the social reconstruction the country so badly needs after the deformation it has suffered as a result of 35 years of being integrated into the U.S. military-industrial complex.
A fund to support the rehabilitation of the thousands of Egyptians (and others) tortured in the U.S.-supported prisons in Egypt run by U.S. (and Israeli) ally Omar Suleiman would be a fine place to start that project.
Democracy and national self-determination in Tunisia and Egypt: What a beautiful idea!
I have such a lot of confidence in all my friends in both countries that they can do this: That they can rewrite their constitutions to the degree that they all agree on; that they can figure out the rules they want for free and fair elections; that they can fashion new and fairer rules for their economy; that they can define and pursue a role in the world that is both dignified and consonant with their values.
Some people here in the U.S. have been worried, regarding Egypt, about things like “What will become of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel? What will become of the ‘peace process’?” I think those are so far from being the first concerns of Egypt’s democrats today. (The very first one, of course, is to preserve their revolution from the machinations that anyone else– including the Mossad— might be planning to undertake against it.)
The army has said they will stick by the bilateral peace treaty. And there is no current ‘peace process’ in existence. So what’s the bother?
As Egypt does generate its new, much more transparent and accountable system of governance, we can all be certain, I think, that it will be one that is much less willing to see Cairo act as a cat’s-paw of Israel and of the AIPAC-dominated U.S. Congress, and much more determined to stand up for Palestinian and Arab rights.
Deal with it, Israel.
And if democracy and national self-determination are such a beautiful idea in Egypt, are they not equally beautiful in Palestine, as well?
The whole region– and the whole world– is changing. That region-spanning Apartheid system that Israel and its friends in the U.S. Congress have been running for so long– the one in which “Egypt” and “Jordan” and to some extent “Saudi Arabia” were all just treated like little subservient homelands within Apartheid South Africa– is starting to slit apart at the seams.
The era of human equality and an end to war has been brought 100 times closer by the stupendous events of the past month.
Thank you, thank you, the Tunisian and Egyptian people.

U.S. diplomacy in tatters– and not from Wikileaks

Our country’s ability to influence events around the world is in tatters– and this was already the case before the latest round of Wikileaks started to dribble out to the public. Yesterday there were “elections” in Egypt and Haiti, two countries deep within the U.S. sphere of influence. Both elections were deeply flawed in terms of the most basic norms of democratic accountability and fairness. And both did much more to reveal and exacerbate the deep social and political crises in the countries in which they were held, than they did to resolve differences peacefully and to establish governments capable of providing real public security and other essential services to their citizens– outcomes which are, to be sure, among the basic benefits of a well-run democratic system.
After the end of the Cold War, remember, there was considerable crowing from many in the United States to the effect that the “victory” the U.S. had won in the Cold War was due to the superiority of the democratic American way of governing. The end of the Cold War would, we were told, inaugurate a new “Third Wave” of democratization all around the world. (And thus, the only sometimes spoken sub-theme had it, American power would be bolstered all around the world. For surely the citizens of all these new “democracies” would hanker only after the American way of life and American way of business?)
In Central and Eastern Europe, the countries of the former Warsaw Pact followed more or less that script. But in 2004-06, when Condoleezza Rice tried to extend the model to Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine, she got a rude shock. Citizens in those countries, given anything resembling a free vote, tended to support strongly anti-American candidates. After the relative victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliamentary election of 2005 and the outright victory that Hamas won in the Palestinian parliamentary election of early 2006, Washington’s support for the export of formal democracy to most of the Arab world stopped in its tracks and was, indeed, abruptly reversed. In Egypt, the presidential election of 2006 was held under restrictive rules that met no protest from Washington– as were the parliamentary elections held yesterday, which were a mockery of any idea of fairness. In Palestine, after the 2006 election, Washington abruptly joined with Israel and a faction from the losing Fateh party to combat and plot the overthrow of the democratically elected government.
In this context, it was interesting that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. and the rest of the (U.S.-led) “international community” persisted with the idea that some form of formal democracy should continue to be pursued. In Iraq, Washington’s motivation seemed to be mainly to establishing something– anything!– that could be said to be a positive fruit of the decision to invade the country in 2003. In Afghanistan, Washington evidently felt it needed to conform to the pro-democracy philosophy of the NATO alliance whose military help it so sorely needed. Thus, anyway, we had the November 2009 presidential election in Afghanistan, which was a deeply flawed process. And then in March this year we had the parliamentary election in Iraq, which was procedurally far less flawed than the Afghan election– but which resulted in a tough political impasse that has left the country effectively without a government ever since.
Then yesterday, there were parliamentary elections in Egypt and presidential elections in Haiti. Both are countries in which U.S. influence has been both longlasting and deep. Haiti is a country now mired in multiple, extreme social and humanitarian crises– to which the wide spread of cholera has now been added. Former President Bill Clinton has been the UN’s “special envoy” for Haitian reconstruction ever since the earthquakes of January. But what has he achieved? What has the diplomacy of his wife, Hillary Clinton, and her boss, Pres. Obama, achieved for the people of Haiti?
Yes, there is a deep (and chronic) crisis of governance in Haiti. But it is not one that can be solved simply through holding an election. It is a crisis that most certainly was exacerbated by the policies Bill Clinton himself pursued toward the country back in 1994…
In Egypt, there is also a deep crisis of governance– though thankfully, until now, not one that has had the same dire human consequences as the crisis in Haiti.
But in both countries, the deep flaws in the way the elections have been conducted are a clear mark of the failure of U.S. diplomacy.
When elections held in countries where the U.S. is influential go “well” procedurally, Washington is the first to take the credit. On this occasion, in both Egypt and Haiti, Washington must bear considerable responsibility both for the flaws in these elections and for the deeper crises of governance that underlie them.
(The above short essay does not, of course, even start to note other areas– like Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy, international financial governance, Korea, etc– in which U.S. diplomacy also currently lies in tatters.)

Afghanistan’s election: Some reflections

Back in 2004-05, Pres. Bush and his people were trying to ‘re-brand’ America’s overseas military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as being part of a campaign to bring the wonderful fruits of democracy to various peoples around the world. At the tip of a cruise missile, no less… Oh my goodness how tragic and wrongheaded every single step along this way has been…
Thus we had the sudden emergence of the phenomenon of the ‘purple finger’. Images of those people emerging from voting booths with their purple-stained digits were flashed around the world. (And one purple digiteer even got to attend Bush’s State of the Union Address in January 2006, I seem to recall. ‘Our’ achievement there…)
Today, the people of Afghanistan went to the polls for their second nationwide election since the U.S.-led invasion of their country in 2001. I’ve been following the reporting from there via Twitter’s #Afghan10 hashtag. Canadian journo Naheed Mustafa tweeted “I’m not convinced it’s all worth it for 40% turnout and little legitimacy.” She linked to this piece of serious-looking reporting from the ever-professional folks at McClatchy.
Mustafa is quite right to take seriously the legitimacy angle, since that above all is what the U.S. government seeks to gain from a ‘successful’ holding of the election. Of course, Afghanistan’s 30 million people probably have different meta-goals… which quite likely would include there– as in other war-torn countries– the goal that election result in the formation of a stable and accountable national government that can lead a successful process of internal reconciliation while rapidly building up its ability to deliver basic services to the Afghan people.
Right. I imagine many Afghan citizens have had the opportunity to see what has happened in Iraq since the (technically more or less ‘successful’) holding of the nationwide election there back in early March.
In Iraq, the four large political blocs have still not been able to come to agreement on forming their new government, more than six months later. And in the absence of any new governing authority having emerged, the caretaker government of PM Nouri al-Maliki is still limping along. The security situation continues to be terrible, with large-scale suicide bombings still happening every couple of weeks. And the delivery of other basic services like clean water, electricity, banking services, etc etc, continues to be performed at levels considerably worse than what Iraq’s people enjoyed back in the 1970s.
A technically ‘successful’ election guarantees nothing in terms of quality of governance; and therefore nothing in terms of people actually being able to enjoy the basic rights of citizenship.
… Ah, but here in the U.S., Pres. Obama has been continuing to trumpet the arguments that what has been happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan somehow represent the “progress” that he promised and that he still hopes to embody. regarding Iraq, he has been careful not to engage in the kind of jejune “Mission Accomplished” triumphalism that Pres. Bush used to revel in. But still, as the August 31 deadline for the “end of U.S. combat operations” in Iraq went by, Obama did his best to describe that milestone– which was not actually such a real milestone at all– as marking something that the U.S. had indeed ‘accomplished.’ Um, well, the timetable leading toward a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq is one that was agreed between the Bush administration and PM Maliki’s government in Iraq back in November 2008. So if Obama is saying that he has been trying to stick to the U.S.’s promises in that regard (well, more or less), than is that really anything to trumpet as an “accomplishment”? Shouldn’t nations and governments be expected as a matter of course to live up their international commitments?
I believe Obama could and should have done a lot more to remind people in the U.S. and overseas that it was a national (and Republican-initiated) commitment he was living up to in Iraq. And he still could and should be doing a lot more to engage all the international community– including, of course, all six of Iraq’s neighbors– in a joint effort to underline the value of Iraq’s territorial unity and independence, and to offer all support for the speedy formation of a stable and empowered national government there.
And then there is Afghanistan, which is currently much more “Obama’s war” than Iraq is or ever has been. After all, Obama supported the original U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (as he did not, of Iraq); and he was also, last winter, the president who made the solemn decision to undertake a new surge of American forces there.
Today, the WaPo had a very significant piece of reporting by Karen DeYoung, in which she just about confirmed what I have been arguing for 10 months now, namely that the whole “strategy” according to which Obama had decided to undertake the Afghan surge was one directed much more at U.S. domestic audiences than at making any actual, definable strategic gains on the ground in Afghanistan.
DeYoung wrote:

    Despite discouraging news from Afghanistan and growing doubts in Congress and among the American public, the Obama administration has concluded that its war strategy is sound and that a December review, once seen as a pivotal moment, is unlikely to yield any major changes.
    This resolve arises amid a flurry of reports from outside experts and former officials who are convinced that the administration’s path in Afghanistan is unsustainable and its objectives are unclear. Lawmakers from both parties are insisting that they be given a bigger say in assessing the war’s trajectory.
    The White House calculus is that the strategy retains enough public and political support to weather any near-term objections. Officials do not expect real pressure for progress and a more precise definition of goals to build until next year, with the approach of a July deadline President Obama has set for decisions on troop withdrawals and the beginning of the 2012 electoral season…

Well, the way I read that, the only “strategy” the people in the White House are really concerned about is the one that has to do with domestic considerations… They just want things in Afghanistan to not look too bad until they are able– as per the announced timetable next year– to start pulling the American forces home… with that part of the timetable tied tightly to the beginning of the U.S. electoral season…
How solipsistic can a country and a (democratically elected) government become? There seems to be literally no limit.
Finally, of course, I cannot leave this short reflection on U.S. policies and the push toward purple fingerism in distant countries under the sway of the U.S. without some quick reference to what happened in Egypt and Palestine after the U.S. had successfully lobbied– back in 2005 and early 2006– for the holding of ‘democratic’ elections in both countries. In Egypt, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood did considerably better than the U.S. had expected, and Pres. Mubarak thereafter moved back into his traditionally repressive mode with no further U.S. intervention in the matter… And after Hamas won the free and fair elections in Palestine in January 2006… Well, I guess I don’t have to remind many JWN readers about what happened there.

Iraq returning to post-election tensions?

Iraq’s Independent Higher Election Commission (IHEC) has taken much longer than expected to publish the results of the general election conducted five days ago, on Sunday. Their English-language website is here. I leave it to my esteemed friend Reidar Visser to interpret the details of what the IHEC has been releasing– e.g. here, yesterday evening. I will note only that the “latest news” posted here on the IHEC website tells us that they have (very) preliminary results only from five of Iraq’s 18 provinces– and of those, in the province in which the vote-counting was most complete, Najaf, the proportion of votes counted was still only 34.11%!
So it is still far too early to “call” the election even there. It looks as though the process of counting all the votes throughout the country will be a long one indeed.
Which need not be a problem in itself. There are plenty of countries in which vote-counting takes one or two weeks, due to to poor infrastructure of various kinds. And in this election, it’s true that the ballot sheets are enormous and complex, thus very difficult to handle in bulk and to tally.
However, the slowness of the IHEC in completing its work is bound to raise fears and tensions throughout the country, especially fears and accusations of ballot-rigging– just as happened in Afghanistan after last August’s election.
In Afghanistan, the sharp inter-party tensions that arose after the election were only finally reduced, after a number of weeks, when the main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew his challenge to the announced results. To the huge relief of the U.S. authorities in the country, that meant they, NATO, and the U.N. would not have to go through the enormous bother of organizing a run-off election. And Hamid Karzai was rapidly reinaugurated as president.
I’ve seen no reports on what inducements Abdullah was offered to withdraw, but I’m assuming there must have been some big ones, supplied by someone.
In Iraq, the post-election controversies could, but may not, become equally polarizing. There, it looks so far (but still with only very preliminary numbers) as if PM Maliki’s State of Law will emerge as the bloc with the largest number of seats, but well short of a simple majority, and even further short of the two-thirds majority required for many significant steps in governing the country. Therefore– as in Israel!– even if there is no controversy over the counting of the votes, there may still be a lengthy period of post-results coalition-forming haggling.
That was kind of what happened in Iraq in 2006. And then, of course, those post-election tensions immediately became tied up with the eruption of brutally intense sectarianism that followed the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.
This time around, I am fairly strongly convinced– unlike some others in the antiwar movement here in the U.S.– that the U.S. authorities really do want to try to get the bulk of the military out of Iraq in accordance with the Withdrawal Agreement of November 2008. And to do this without the whole process being a debacle that would certainly destabilize the whole region, they need some form of “legitimate enough” government to emerge and start governing in Baghdad.
Just as, for slightly different reasons, they needed some form of “legitimate enough” government to emerge in Afghanistan last summer…
In the present global-political context, in which the U.S. has tied itself and much of the U.N. bureaucracy to the idea that western-style elections are an essential component (or source) of political legitimacy, having a “legitimate enough” government in a country under direct U.S. sway means that that government must emerge from elections that are also judged to be “legitimate enough”.
I earlier explored a few of the challenges involved in plucking “legitimacy” out of a severely challenged election with regard to the Afghan elections of 2004, here, and 2009, here.
It is not clear whether– or how– this may happen in Iraq. We need to stay attuned to the fall-out that can be expected throughout the whole region if the post-election political challenges there cannot be speedily and satisfactorily resolved.

That ‘democratic justification’ for invading Iraq, Part LXIII

It’s Tom Friedman, at it once again in today’s NYT!
Here we are now, almost exactly fourteen Friedman Units (F.U.’s) after George W. Bush’s (heavily Friedman-supported) invasion of Iraq, and the arrogant and over-rated “Sage of Bethesda” is now telling us that the decidedly mixed, and violence-plagued picture of what happened on Sunday’s election day in Iraq was unequivocally “a very good day for Iraq.”
Friedman completely omits to mention the big role that his own writings (and those of many NYT colleagues) played in 2002, in building up the nationwide constituency for the war. Instead, he just notes archly that,

    Some argue that nothing that happens in Iraq will ever justify the costs. Historians will sort that out.

That is, of course, also GWB’s own, famously self-exculpating line about the war.
And the Sage of Bethesda (SOB) doesn’t fail to give us one of his frequent little, faux-intimate verbal sparring matches with a world leader… In this case, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, to whom Tom addresses the following:

    How are you feeling today? Yes, I am sure you have your proxies in Iraq. But I am also sure you know what some of your people are quietly saying: “How come we Iranian-Persian-Shiites — who always viewed ourselves as superior to Iraqi-Arab-Shiites — can only vote for a handful of pre-chewed, pre-digested, ‘approved’ candidates from the supreme leader, while those lowly Iraqi Shiites, who have been hanging around with America for seven years, get to vote for whomever they want?” Unlike in Tehran, Iraqis actually count the votes. This will subtly fuel the discontent in Iran…

Oh my goodness. Do you think the SOB ever actually reads the news from Iraq where, as we know, Ahmed Chalabi’s extremely anti-democratic “Justice and Accountability Commission” intervened on Saturday to suddenly, on the eve of the election, disqualify 55 candidates– additional to the hundreds it had already disqualified, earlier on during the election campaign?
Chalabi is far from being a neutral figure in the election, since he’s running as a member of the Iraqi National Alliance, the Iran-backed list of mainly Shiite politicians.
So those 55 suddenly banned candidates– all of whom were affiliated with other blocs, mainly the Iraqiyya bloc headed by Ayad Allawi– still had their names on the ballots on Sunday; and thus not only were they subjected to last-minute banning, but in addition everyone who voted for them suddenly had their votes rendered essentially meaningless.
As the WaPo’s Ernesto London and Leila Fadel report from Baghdad today,

    If the votes for the newly barred candidates are annulled, it could give the Iraqiya coalition powerful ammunition to allege vote-rigging by rival politicians, including some in the Shiite-led camp of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
    “It will be a very violent reaction,” Allawi said in an interview Tuesday. “A lot of violence will take place, and God knows how this will end. I will tell you there is already an existing feeling that there was widespread rigging and widespread intimidation.”

And it’s not just those 55 suddenly-banned candidates and those who voted for them who’re at risk of having their political rights suddenly stripped from them. Londono and Fadel report that,

    Faraj al-Haidary, chairman of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, said Tuesday night that … under Iraqi law, the Justice and Accountability Commission could theoretically bar more candidates in the days ahead if it submits paperwork before the electoral board certifies them as lawmakers.

Ah, but my friend Tom, sitting in Bethesda, can assure us that Iraqis “get to vote for whomever they want”?
The WaPo journos also write about our friend the Iraq specialist Reidar Visser that he,

    said the last-minute disqualification of candidates poses significant challenges for the electoral commission. Because Iraqis were able to choose individual candidates in the elections — as opposed to voting for slates that distribute the seats — disqualifying elected candidates could enrage voters.
    “This could create a major problem for the whole process,” Visser said. “We have seen that there is no legal framework to deal with these eventualities, so they’re creating the framework as they proceed.”

So the post-election period in Iraq this time might well be– just as it was after the last national election, in December 2005– very messy, long-drawn-out and quite possibly even, as Allawi warned, violent.
So please let’s not sing any paens to the triumph of “democracy” in Iraq yet. (As Newsweek did last week, and as far too many other stalwarts of the US MSM seem to have been doing this week, too.)
George Bush’s hastily cobbled-together, back-up main “justification” for invading Iraq in 2003, remember, was– once he finally realized the “WMD justification” was a crock of nonsense– that the US occupation liberation of Iraq would usher in a new era of democratic, accountable, and successful government that would immediately become a model for the striving peoples of the whole of the rest of the region…
(Kind of like what the SOB was still arguing in his mendacious piece today.)
But in the aftermath of Iraq’s December 2005 election, the country was plunged into deeper sectarianism and social collapse than it had ever before experienced, and for roughly 18 months thereafter the violence and heartbreak continued unabated, sending streams of extremely distressed Iraqis fleeing for their lives.
Electoral “democracy”, it turned out, was not a “model” that anyone anywhere else in the region wanted to emulate, at all. (In the OPTs, interestingly, all the major political forces did continue with their plans to hold an OPTs-wide parliamentary election just six weeks after that Iraqi election, in January 2006. Washington’s ferocious response to the results of that election gave the lie to any lingering idea anyone might have had that George W. Bush really did have any gut sympathy for the norms and principles of democratic self-governance… )
And, contra to what the SOB is now telling us, I certainly don’t think anyone in the Middle East, whether Iranians, Arabs, Turks, Israelis, or anyone else, is sitting on the edge of their chairs thinking that the 2010 election in Iraq is going to usher in a fabulous period of successful, democratic self-governance in Iraq. The most that anyone is able to hope for, really, is that despite the machinations of Ahmed Chalabi and his gang– the ones who got us into the war and occupation in the first place, remember, along with Bush and Cheney– Iraq’s conflict-battered people may somehow find a governance system that works for them and allows them to rebuild a society that has been torn apart by two decades, now, of extremely vindictive, lethal, politicidal, and arrogant western policy toward their country.
How Iraq’s citizenry decide to govern themselves is completely up to them. For Tom Friedman or anyone else to claim they know what should happen is imperialist arrogance of the most outdated and destructive kind.

When election results are disputed: Afghanistan, etc

When election results are strongly disputed from within the community they were held in, this represents–obviously– a deep crisis of power and legitimacy within that community.
That’s the case in Iran today, more than three months after their disputed election. It was also the case in the US in November-December 2004, lest anyone forget…
That post-election dispute was brought to an end by a fiat from the US Supreme Court; and the Supremes’ notably undemocratic ruling then met with surprisingly rapid acceptance from the vast majority of voters, even Democrats. (How different would the history of our country and the world be if Al Gore had been inaugurated in 2001? Who can know?)
But whether you liked what the Supremes did in December 2000 or not, at least in our country there are mature institutions of national governance that were able to withstand, contain, and end the deep internal division over who won the November 2000 election.
And then, there’s Afghanistan.
Mature institutions of national governance? Um, no.
That’s why I think Brian Katulis and Hardin Lang have things rather wrong in the post they have on the Af-Pak blog today, in which they seem to be assuming that somehow (they don’t say how), a new and somewhat capable president will emerge there in the relatively near future, and will be able to get on relatively easily with the tasks of ending the country’s very, very serious insurgency and its urgent tasks of governance reform.
Not so fast, guys! Why are you assuming that, from that very flawed and now deeply contested election anyone can easily emerge as a winner and start to get on with such tasks?
(I guess Katulis and Hardin have some personal/professional investment in the August 20 elections being generally seen as having been “successful”, since they went to the country as part of one of the internatinal election-monitoring teams? On the other hand, if you think that the real mission of an international election-monitoring team is to monitor and uphold the idea that elections must be, and be seen to be, free and fair, then maybe they should not be so quick in assuming that this one was well-run enough to generate a legitimate winner.)
Those most at risk, if the dispute over the election results turns into all-out fighting between Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, are of course Afghanistan’s long war-battered people, who would have to put up with that new conflict tearing up that society along with all the other conflicts that are already wracking it.
But the US-NATO position in Afghanistan is also at risk if the US doesn’t have an Afghan ruling “partner” who has at least some semblance of internal and international legitimacy.
And right now, NATO itself is coming under huge strains from the Afghan war.
Who was it who first said “NATO must go out-of-area or go out of business?” (F. Stephen Larrabee, 1993.)
“Out of business” is now a much more live possibility than it was back then.