Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Some of you might have arrived at BC through this link. If not, here is my weekly International Papers offering for Slate, on the Middle Eastern issues of the day from (mostly) regional newspapers. In this column, the Dead Sea summit, Bahrain and Israel warm to each other, and Abdel Karim Qassem makes a comeback in Iraq ... next to Khomeini.
Alive and still dying
Sunday's issue of The Observer had a story suggesting that Saddam Hussein and at least one of his sons were transformed into soup somewhere near the Syrian border by an American Hellfire missile. The story cited "military sources". The damage was such, the story reported, that U.S. forces had to conduct DNA tests to determine if those killed were indeed the Hussein Al Takritis.

One passage read: "Despite previously unfounded US claims that Saddam had been killed during the bombing of Baghdad before the invasion by America and Britain, the sources indicated that they were cautiously optimistic that they had finally killed the target they described as 'the top man'."

Now the New York Times and the Washington Post are saying the whole thing was crap, with the Times reporting: "American officials said they had no reason yet to believe that Saddam Hussein or his sons were among the Iraqis killed in the strike. Several senior American officials said today the possibility that Mr. Hussein or his sons, Uday and Qusay, were among the Iraqis traveling in he convoy had been seen as small from the outset."

More importantly, the Times reveals that in the attack against what is now much more vaguely termed "a convoy suspected of carrying fugitive Iraqi officials", missiles may have hit their targets on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Iraqi border, injuring several Syrian border guards. The Post reports: "A Bush administration official said last night, however, that U.S. forces followed the convoy into Syrian territory and attacked it there. The Americans, the official said on condition of anonymity, were 'in hot pursuit and wound up crossing the Syrian border.'"

This leads one to wonder whether The Observer wasn't fed hogwash to cover for what was surely a more serious matter, namely a U.S. military attack against a sovereign country. Confusing the issue is the fact that, allegedly, according to Saddam's henchman, Abed Hammoud, the Syrians might have sheltered Saddam and his brood for a time, before expelling them.

That the Saddam story might have been a cover-up for the Syria attack is a big jump, but it will teach newspapers to fall for anonymous "military sources" hook, line and sinker.

Friday, June 20, 2003

Laborious party
The line of the month from Israeli Labor Party Knesset member Matan Vilnai: "I'm convinced that after the Titanic hit the iceberg and began to sink, some people in the dining rooms were discussing elections for temporary chairman of the Labor Party ... What is taking place here today is a farce, the complete opposite of rebuilding and rehabilitating the party."

This followed a vote in the party for temporary chairman, after the resignation weeks ago of the former party leader, Amram Mitzna. Vilnai had sought a vote on a permanent chairman now, instead of delaying the process for a year. In his typical way, Shimon Peres won the vote by almost losing ... receiving 49.2% of the votes cast, after he had hoped to be acclaimed by a majority of the party.

The question is whether Peres will take Labor into a coalition government with Sharon. What a dumb question: for an answer realize that Peres' entire psychological makeup is directed at ensuring he remains in office so he can ward off old age. That was the strategy he adopted as minister in the previous Sharon government, where he couldn't have cared less about really advancing a peace agenda, as long as he could keep jetting around as a VIP.

Labor will form a coalition with Likud, it will sort of back the "road map", but it doesn't have a strong enough "peace core" in the party to hold Sharon too closely to the details of the Quartet plan, which will give the Israeli prime minister the cover he needs to make piecemeal concessions, but little more.

At every stage of the post-Madrid peace negotiations, Peres was never the high-priest of peace he liked to pretend to be; he was an often pedestrian elongation of the PM of the moment: he only looked good until 1995 because Yitzhak Rabin took the tough decisions and the risks; he looked mediocre after 2001 because Sharon gave him nothing, nor did Peres ask for anything; and under Barak he was unmemorable, because the PM wanted to hog the limelight. And when he became PM after Rabin was killed, Peres unleashed the sordid, bloody Grapes of Wrath operation on Lebanon, hoping it would win him an election. Instead he lost by a hair to Netanyahu because outraged Arab-Israelis boycotted him.

Peres is a sinister hypocrite and the fact that Labor should put its fate in his hands is a sign of how low the party has fallen. The result? Vilnai could be right: this could be a senseless final round before Labor sinks into the North Atlantic.

And who does one blame? That odious cretin Ehud Barak, who proved you could have a high IQ, murder people efficiently, and still be a basket case. Rarely has someone been able to do so much, and yet done so little.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Apologies to readers for the delay in posting material. It's been one of those nightmare work weeks. Here are a few links, though, to fill the empty spaces. I edited this piece by historian Niall Ferguson for the Daily Star. It's a robust defense of the American empire. The Star's website has inverted the link, however, with that to another article by George Irani. (PS -- The link problem has since been resolved)

Readers might also want to look at this necessarily oblique article on the rocket attack Sunday morning against the Future Television station of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Not oblique enough, however, so you can't see who I (and virtually everybody else in Beirut) believe is responsible. If it's not direct enough, though, here is my Monday International Papers column for Slate that might beat a bit less around the bush.

Friday, June 13, 2003

Not called soccer here
Will take a rest from politics today and propose a subject of far greater magnitude this summer off-season: football (or, if you prefer, "soccer"). Here is a link to a mildewed web article I wrote for Reason on football and the new world order just around the time of the 2002 World Cup--a competition I remember with great bitterness as one great team after another was knocked out by small fry. Particularly painful was Italy's elimination at the hands of South Korea, thanks to the refereeing of a certified Ecuadorian crook. I am utterly elitist when it comes to the sport and would regard a World Cup final between, let's say, Ghana and the Cook Islands as Armageddon.

I propose a short reading list of books on football, not all of which I have read, in anticipation of the coming season (at least in the northern hemisphere). Because of the damned small text boxes, this will roll over into another box below:

*** Alex Bellos' Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, a rousing account of Brazilian football, and the sociology and stories surrounding it. Visit Alex's fine website for more on the subject. Incidentally, he's the Guardian's man in Rio.

*** Tim Parks' magnificent A Season with Verona, on his following the Verona football team around Italy when it was still playing in Serie A. Alas, Parks would spit on me as a Juventus supporter, but his book is the funniest thing I've read in years.

*** Eduardo Galeano's Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Haven't read it but my lefty friends swear by it.

*** Bill Buford's Among the Thugs, on his hanging around with football hooligans. Haven't read it yet, but it comes highly praised by Jonathan Raban and Martin Amis, who don't really strike me as football aficionados.
*** Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. Another one as yet unread, but describes Hornby's obsession with Arsenal I believe (and then promptly disbelieve). Again, highly rated with an idiotic Roddy Doyle blurb describing it as "funny, wise and true."

*** Joe McGinniss' The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro is also apparently worthwhile, though the team was not amused when McGinniss wrote about their less memorable private habits. Evidently several players were scoundrels, which surely explains why they could handle a ball.

*** And finally Hunter Davies' The Glory Game, published in 1972 and now considered a classic. It's subject: Tottenham Hotspur FC, which I only really bothered to follow when Argentina's Oswaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa played for the team.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

My thoughts on the "road map" and the recent poll conducted by Israel's Jaffee Center for Staregic Studies (see below), for the Daily Star.
Blix fires away
Hans Blix uses the "B" word in a Guardian interview, noting:

"I have my detractors in Washington. There are bastards who spread things around, of course, who planted nasty things in the media. Not that I cared very much."

Looks to me like he did. And what of those WMDs? Blix said: "He 'remains agnostic'. Only time will tell -- although that is passing by "quite fast and instead of talking about [finding] WMD they're talking about the programmes.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Debka on Syria
Debka File, which usually doubles as a fount for Israeli disinformation is reporting the following:

DEBKAfile Reveals in Exclusive Syrian Report: Opposition leaders arrested ahead of June 21-22 municipal elections to stem defections from ruling Baath.

Assad plans major government shakeup. To be sacked: PM Miro, defense and foreign ministers Mustafa Tlas and Farouk Shara. Dr. Buthaina Shaban candidate for foreign minister

Firas Tlas son of Mustafa revealed as organizer of Saddam-Assad clandestine smuggling operations and holder of WMD’s secret locations after their clandestine removal from Baghdad, Tikrit and al Qaim.

This paragraph was especially entertaining: The hard-line Farouk Shara, a carryover from the president’s father’s administration, is fighting a rearguard action on his way out as foreign minister - mainly against the ministry’s head of information, Dr. Buthaina Shaban. High profile in the aftermath of the Iraq War, she is the favorite to replace him. Last week, Shara committed the unthinkable solecism of shouting at Dr. Shaban in the presence of British visitors, “I don’t need your help!”

Will Shaaban succeed Sharaa? With all due respect to a self-made lady, she has none of the diplomatic memory or experience that he does, nor does she have the same credibility with Sunnis that makes him so useful to the regime. Moreover, Shaaban is Assad's instrument to help partially control the foreign ministry, fulfilling an old rule of the late Hafez Assad, namely that it is always best to install parallel lines of communication downwards so as to better control subordinates. Isn't using Shaaban against Sharaa (and vice versa) better than giving her more power at his expense? One never knows, though, maybe it is Sharaa's time after all

As for Miro's and Tlass' sacking, really no news there: Miro has long been considered ripe for the chopping block and Tlass is, frankly, nearing that time when he should be dusting off an office at the great defense ministry in the sky.

Bush on Rantisi
The White House has reacted this way to the assassination attempt against Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, according to Ha'aretz:

U.S. President George W. Bush was "deeply troubled" by an Israeli assassination attempt on a leader of the militant group Hamas and he fears this could undermine Palestinian anti-terror efforts, a White House spokesman said on Tuesday.

"The president is concerned that the strike will undermine efforts by Palestinian authorities and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks and does not contribute to the security of Israel," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.

Two thoughts come to mind: (1) Why didn't the Bush administration apply this logic during the past year and more, after Israel began its systematic campaign of assassinations? After all, virtually everyone recognized that such strikes undermined efforts by the Palestinian authorities to bring about an end to terrorist attacks (and Hamas, according to Israeli chief-of-staff Moshe Yaalon, almost agreed to a ceasefire in 2002, demanding only that the assassinations cease) ; and (2) Bush's reaction seems to confirm the gist of the previous posting that the U.S. may well take a sterner tone with Israel and play down its anti-terrorism rhetoric in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to get the "road map" off the ground.

On another note, if the news is confirmed that Rantisi's son Ahmad was killed in the attack, it would be another case of an Islamist militant losing his son to the Israelis: Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah lost his son, Hadi, in an anti-Israeli operation in southern Lebanon; Abbas Musawi, Nasrallah's predecessor, was killed with his son by an Israeli helicopter in 1992; and now Rantisi ...

Needless to say, other than Musawi of course, a son's "martyrdom" means political capital down the road for the father. Nasrallah famously declared that he was "happy" to have lost his son in an anti-Israeli operation, prompting someone to comment: "What's he like when he's sad?"

PS -- Ahmad al-Rantisi was injured in the attack against his father, so you can ignore part of the previous.
Bush's problem with Sharon
An interesting article in Ha'aretz on the irritable exchanges between U.S. president George W. Bush and Israeli officials in Aqaba. It also creates a context for the previous posting.

Here are some passages: "At the advance request of Israel, Bush's aides put security problems at the top of the agenda for discussion. 'The first thing that Bush was required to talk about was security,' says the participant, adding, 'It was a request of the Israelis. So [Bush] asked Dahlan to give a briefing.'

"According to the source, Dahlan gave an excellent five-minute synopsis of the situation, and concluded by saying to Bush: 'There are some things we can do and some things we cannot. We will do our best. But we will need help.'

"Mofaz burst in at the end of Dahlan's presentation and said: 'Well, they won't be getting any help from us; they have their own security service.'

"You could see that Bush was irritated, says the participant, and he turned on Mofaz angrily: 'Their own security service? But you have destroyed their security service.'

"Mofaz shook his head and said: 'I do not think that we can help them, Mr. President,' -- to which Bush said: 'Oh, but I think that you can. And I think that you will.'

"Then Bush turned to Abbas - again according to a script insisted on by the Israelis - and said: 'Mr. Prime Minister, perhaps you could give an overview of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza.' Abbas outlined the increasingly dire situation of the territories, saying that the humanitarian crisis was deepening, and that while recent actions of the finance minister had eased the problems, the insertion of new funding was necessary.

"Sharon then interrupted and said: 'The insertion of new funding must be dependent on your good behavior.'

"Bush was again visibly irritated: 'You should release their money as soon as possible. This will help the situation.'

"Sharon shook his head: 'We have to deal with security first, and we will condition the release of their monies on this alone.'

"Bush peered at Sharon: 'But it is their money ...'

"Sharon said: 'Nevertheless, Mr. President ...' and Bush interrupted him: 'It is their money, give it to them.' "

Then: "After that meeting, Bush turned to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and said, "We have a problem with Sharon I can see, but I like that young man [Dahlan] and I think their prime minister is incapable of lying. I hope that they will be successful. We can work with them."

Targeting Rantisi
Israel today tried to assassinate a senior Hamas official, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, but succeeded only in injuring him. Whatever else one might say about the assassination attempt (or about the Hamas attacks against Israeli troops on Sunday), it is another harsh blow against the luckless "road map." It will probably lead to the interruption of all contact between Hamas and the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas, when Hamas had been showing signs of reconsidering its refusal to discuss a ceasefire.

Maybe what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won't admit is that a majority of Israelis are far more willing to give up occupied land in exchange for peace with the Palestinians than he is. In yesterday's issue of Ha'aretz, there was a report on an opinion poll conducted by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. It showed that 59 percent of Israelis accepted the removal of all settlements located outside major settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, compared to 50 percent last year. Remarkably, 56 percent (compared to 48 percent last year) supported “a unilateral withdrawal from the territories in the context of a peace accord, even if that meant ceding all settlements.”

Sharon and his ministers consider this tantamount to surrender. The effort to kill Rantisi, and Hamas' certain retaliation, will surely ensure that a land-for-peace compromise is further delayed. Now we'll see how committed Bush really is.

Saturday, June 07, 2003

No "road map' for Lebanon
Here is an op-ed I wrote in today's Daily Star arguing that Lebanon does not need a "road map" to peace as Lebanese officials are demanding. Alas some slight ambiguities were overlooked when I sent on the piece.

For example, in a passage I write: "A separate Lebanese-Israeli track is unrealistic today. But the principle of self-contained Lebanese-Israeli negotiations while Syria negotiates too is not."

Readers may not see the distinction between a "separate Lebanese-Israeli track" and a "self-contained Lebanese-Israeli track." All that means is that Lebanon and Syria can coordinate, but Lebanese-Israeli issues should be solely dealt with by the Lebanese and Israelis, not integrated into the Syrian-Israeli track. A separate track implies complete autonomy; a self-contained track implies coordination with Syria but autonomy on those bilateral Israeli-Lebanese issues in which Syria need not involve itself.

Miller's crossing?
After being one of the leading disseminators of the theory that U.S. weapons teams had found evidence of an Iraqi WMD program, Judith Miller of the New York Times today publishes a story that goes some way to casting doubt on that theory.

A group of American and British intelligence experts are challenging the administration's view that the trailers found by American soldiers (and cited by George W. Bush as proof of an Iraqi WMD program) were, in fact, mobile WMD production plants. The doubters have cited technical problems with the government's theory (which was outlined in this administration white paper on the CIA website):

The skeptical experts said the mobile plants lacked gear for steam sterilization, normally a prerequisite for any kind of biological production, peaceful or otherwise. Its lack of availability between production runs would threaten to let in germ contaminants, resulting in failed weapons.

For further reading, this report from the Fourth Freedom Forum examines evidence the U.S. and British governments chose to ignore when making their case for war in Iraq--information that would have weakened their case.

No evidence yet that King Fahd has died, so the previous posting may have to be discounted. One clarification, though: because of their differences, the king's brothers and Abdullah essentially agreed to maintain him on his throne, though they could very well have deposed him, as was done when King Saud was replaced by King Faysal. In not doing so, they were preserving the status quo, much like the Chinese leadership did when Deng Tsio Ping was senile but was still referred to as a paramount leader.

Friday, June 06, 2003

Is King Fahd dead?
There is no evidence that he is, but I belong to a specialized mailing list where the question has been posed by one of the participants, citing "converging information" and alleged reports that the Al Saud princes have been asked to return home. If the story is true (and again there is no evidence that it is), it would be a key moment in Saudi Arabia, since, though he was physically and mentally disabled, the king, by his mere presence, was the ingredient maintaining unity in the family. With him dead, Fahd's brothers, particularly Prince Sultan and Prince Nayef (all children of a Sudairi mother), and his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, must agree a successor. It is known that there are strong rivalries between the Sudairis and Abdullah.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Chuck Freund, who charitably contributes to this blog, has just written a fascinating piece for the June 2003 issue of Reason on the "revolutionary implications of Arab music videos." As he has argued here on several occasions, the great value of such videos, which feature singers in a variety of situations ("Arab football players; Arab lovers driving a pickup truck through the American desert; Arab heroes of Gothic vampire melodramas being stalked by beautiful ghouls; veiled Arab women of the Islamic golden age; Arab couples searching for each other in a chromed, retro 1950s universe; Arabs haunted by mysterious desert symbols that hold the key to forgotten identities; medieval Arab countesses in their Spanish castles; and even science fiction Arabs confronted by mustachioed alien children from outer space") is that they have the "power to stretch the boundaries of their viewers’ imagined selves."

Her argues further: "If the audience for these videos uses them to foment a long-term cultural revolution, it would hardly be the first time that 'vulgar' forms were at the center of significant social change. In fact, 'low' culture has almost certainly done more to transform the modern world than has 'high' culture." This theme Chuck developed at greater length in this story from the March 2002 issue of Reason.

A number of readers probably linked to this site through either version of this (one) article I wrote on Salam Pax for the Daily Star in Beirut and for Reason. They restate what I had written in the earlier posting below, but expand somewhat on it. For those who did link through them, sorry for the runaround.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Young on ... that other blogger
Here is Chuck raising the standards of this website by displaying his habitual erudition, even when it comes to--of all the forlorn topics--Abdel Karim Qassim. And all I have as a backhand is a comment on the person many Westerners regard (perhaps to their peril) as the true face of Iraq: Salam Pax.

Tomorrow, Salam will begin a bi-weekly stint at the Guardian newspaper. No doubt some of his immediacy will be lost as he shifts from an unmediated blog to the combat zone of a daily newspaper, with its archipelagoes of interests to navigate through. However, wistfulness aside, Salam will also become more relevant, since it means a person widely recognized as an Arab liberal (regardless of whether he really is one) is being given a pulpit in a major international newspaper.

I must confess the Salam Pax craze left me cold for a long time. I read many a Dear_Raed entry over several weeks and I really wouldn’t be displaying sour grapes if I said that there was something about the blog that initially disturbed me, aside from its bumpy style. What bothered me was the sheer oddity of reading what sounded like a precocious American teenager writing on the very antithesis of such an archetype: Saddam and his system.

Then the fog lifted and it occurred to me that that was precisely what made Salam pertinent. In the end, one does not go to him to have insights into how the poorer Iraqi Shiites felt when they recently converged on Najaf to commemorate Ashoura. Nor would I necessarily ask him to tell me how the Sunni tribes around central Iraq are faring, as they see the country's sectarian balance shift. What Westerners do see in Salam is (a) a new Arab pop icon who speaks a language they can understand; and (b) someone who bucked a stifling and murderous Ba’athist system thanks to a simple form of information technology they use daily.

In effect, they see someone who has sought (along the lines of what Chuck was proposing a few weeks ago) to impose his individuality in a region that discourages this. Is Salam Pax the hope of Iraq? Probably not since he’s unknown in his own country (and has had to maintain anonymity, largely, it seems, because he’s gay). However, he is valuable because he has no qualms about addressing his Western readers on their own terms, mainly to better affirm the fact that that he’s an Iraqi.

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Freund on Abdel Karim Qassim
On Tuesday, May 27th, Michael cited signs of "a resurgence of sympathy" for Abdel Karim Qassim, the nationalist leader of Iraq who was overthrown by the Ba'thists in 1963. Rehabilitating Qassim, wrote Michael, allows Iraqis to discredit Saddam's regime as well as the Americans. Michael added that because Qassim was a secular nationalist, "support for him could be one way people have of showing their rejection of an Islamic Iraq."

But those now reexamining Qassim include Americans, too. Eric Davis, for example, is the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. He has been rummaging through Iraq's modern history, seeking evidence of Iraqi civil society that might serve as the foundation of a liberal future. As Davis argued in a recent paper distributed by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, "Qasim's fate offers many lessons for the current situation in Iraq."

Davis credits Qasim with being "the only ruler of modern Iraq who eschewed sectarian criteria in ruling the country. His refusal to exploit sectarian divisions for political ends, his focus on social justice, such as the need for land reform, and his own ascetic lifestyle made Qasim the only truly popular leader since the founding of the modern state." On the other hand, "his authoritarian rule, however non-violent, gradually isolated him from the citizenry, facilitating his overthrow in 1963."

Davis is obviously not interested in rehabilitating Qassim. Both in his paper and his recent book, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, he seeks to disprove what he calls "two misperceptions of Iraqi politics and society": that ethnic conflict is endemic to Iraqi, and that Iraqis lack a tradition of civil society, cultural tolerance, and political participation. Qassim is for him a moment in modern Iraqi history, to be understood in the context of anti-British efforts, mixed feelings about Pan-Arabism, the post-Ottoman rise of professions, contending political parties, even the Free Verse movement of the 1950s.

At best, a renewed Iraqi interest in Qassim may support Davis' general argument, since it suggests the vitality of the civil-society tradition he is defending. At worst, it may be whitewashing a prior authoritarianism. At a minimum, it suggests that Iraqi history is now a factor in that nation's immediate future, and that ever more people -- Iraqis and others -- are vying to assign that history meaning.