Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Years 2009

Good health and strength to everyone for the new year, and let's remember:

The times they are a'changin' !

and let it be in a good way, if you can possibly imagine that.

For everyone, everywhere in our collapsing empire, for instance, Ashura is just around the corner (first week in January this year, I believe), and let this be a better year for the Mahdists of southern Iraq, and for all the people of Iraq, than it was last year.

Not to mention the Palestinians, may they be as prosperous one day as they are oppressed today.


Hosni Mubarak went on television yesterday for the first time since the Israeli attack on Gaza started five days ago, and here is part of what he said (according to a summary in AlMesryoon):
He implicitly laid on Hamas the responsibility for the human and material losses that have resulted from the Israeli attacks, and he said: "The right to resist occupation is an established and a legal right, but the resistance still retains the responsibility with respect to the people that it controls or in some way earns it (the right to resistance) by advancing their interests and keeping them from ruin and from destruction and from the shedding of the blood of martyrs."
The responsibility Mubarak is talking about is the kind of responsibility a government would have for the protection of its citizens from any foreseeable natural disaster, an earthquake or a hurricane for example. The errors of Hamas in this view (their "responsibility") as Mubarak presents them, have nothing to do with moral or legal issues with respect to the Israeli regime. Nor is he suggesting that the Israeli attack is particularly foused on Hamas: rather it is against "their people". An Israeli bombardment was a foreseeable disaster, and Hamas, Mubarak says, bears the responsibility for not protecting their people from that.

Another proponent of this point of view is of this view Abdul Rahman al Rashed, writing in AlSharq alAwsat.
We would be compelled to respect Hamas [he writes] if it had planned for war, and if it had been capable of inflicting defeat, even partially, or been able to compel Israel to make difficult political concessions. Instead Hamas has come out in the role of a punching bag, for Israel to pound it--and the people of Gaza with it--with savagery.
Our major puppets, in other words, are blaming Hamas for what they see as tactical errors that have exposed the people of Gaza generally to these attacks. This is obviously not the same as "framing" this story as an Israeli attack on specifically on Hamas that could be justified in any moral or legal way.

So this seems more than a little peculiar:

Marc Lynch says there is a struggle in the region between those who define the Israeli attack either as an attack on Gaza, or as an attack on Hamas, the latter in retaliation among other things for "breaking the truce" ("Gaza" or "Hamas"). He says the "official Arab order" people--Mubarak, al Rashid and the others--are trying to "frame" this in the latter way. And he says in this they are allying themselves with the Israeli and American storytellers.

No Marc. Not Mubarak, not al Rashed, and I don't think anyone in the region you have cited with the possible exception of Abbas, is describing this either as punishment specifically of Hamas for "breaking the truce", or as an attack directed at anything or anyone but the Gazan people generally. They are describing this as a brutal attack on the people and assets of Gaza, and what they blame Hamas for is the tactical error, as they see it, of having let happen to their people this foreseeable catastrophe of an Israeli attack on Gaza.

The attenuating story of retribution for moral or legal guilt is indeed part of the Israeli/American repertoire for Western consumption, and some American policy-groupies surely wish the Egyptian and Saudi puppets would take it up too, but wishing won't make it so. The political damage to the Israeli regime and its Washington supporters is there for all to see, any amount of "framing" notwithstanding.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Getting in their last licks ?

An AlHayat journalist pays a lot of attention to this reported remark in the WaPo by a Bush administration official on the timing of Israeli attack on Gaza:

One senior Bush administration official said he thinks the Israelis acted in Gaza "because they want it to be over before the next administration comes in." Although Bush has largely been supportive of almost any Israeli action taken in the name of self-defense, the official pointed out: "They can't predict how the next administration will handle it. And this is not the way they want to start with the new administration."
It was buried in the middle of a story on page 20 on Sunday, without any particular attention being paid to it. But for the AlHayat journalist, this ties in with the recent remarks coming from the Obama camp which are all in the direction of trying to reassure the Israelis of continuing support. The Obama camp's remarks make little sense on the surface--why outrage his domestic base and cheer on the perpetrator of this slaughter--but they do make sense if they thought there was a need to calm Israeli nerves in the face of possible "change they can, if not exactly 'believe' in", at least fear.

If you were doing a forensic examination of Obama initial foreign policy moves, there is one piece of evidence that really it would be the utmost incompetence to overlook, and it is the reports (now plural) by AlQuds alArabi op-ed columnist Haroun Mohammed of what a number of prominent but non-government and non-resistance Iraqis have told him twice now about a series of discussions with emissaries of the Obama camp. The first report was on p.19 on Thursday November 6 on meetings that were held before the signing of the security agreement; and second was Sunday December 28, on meetings that have been held more recently, after the signing of the security agreement.

The main point of both reports is the same, namely that the Obama people let it be known that the incoming administration will be open to the idea of what you could call a reset of the entire political process, on the admission that the sectarian allocation system has been responsible in large part for the violence and other abuses during the period of the occupation, and the system cannot be fixed or patched up. There was talk about the dissolution of the US-administration alliances with the Islamist parties, and the quest for new alliances with non-partisan Sunnis and Shiites alike. In the earlier report there was even a reference to alleged talks about the incompetence of the Iraqi military, and the need to set up an entirely new military organization. In the more recent report, the approach seems to have been a little more tentative, the idea being that while there is this need for a new start, there is also concern about a coup, and the emissaries were in effect asking their interlocutors--described as leading non-government, non-resistance figures in the academic, economic, military and social spheres--to please come up with some ideas, so that this can be an Iraqi project, and not an American one.

HM's first column on this was headed "Iraq: Dissolution of the alliances with the Islamist and Kurdish parties". The second: "Obama's options, between theory and implementation".

I don't think it is outside the realm of possibility that the recent affair of the Iraqi Interior Ministry arrests was at least in part a preemptive move by the Maliki administration to remove from power any officers thought to be less than Maliki-loyalists, in the face of this prospect of American support for some kind of a reset of the whole political process under the Obama administration. Or by the same token that the Israeli attack on Gaza represents at least in part a similarly-motivated move by another dubious and militarist regime feeling its Washington support-system likewise possibly at risk. And wanting to shore up its position militarily.

Not realizing, as AbdulBari Atwan points out this morning, that the air attacks, and the coming ground incursion, represent, on the contrary, a political and strategic gift to Arabists and resistance groups everywhere, ending, he predicts, the divisive charade of an illusory truce and a corrupt "peace-process." Livni was right, says Atwan, to say that these operations will produce "change on the ground," only not the kind she and her colleagues had in mind.

Marc Lynch, stifling, we may imagine, a yawn, says "We've seen all this before," suggesting the Arab outrage will die down again as it has in the past. He also says--for what it is worth--that he has no idea who the Obama emisarries are that are mentioned in the two HM columns, or "what to make of the discussions he claims they had." The latest two emissaries, HM says, were both Democratic party activists, one of them a former Senator, and the other leading expert at one of the think-tanks associated with the Democratic Party.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Our mis-perceptions

Growing up in the era of the Cold War, I remember realizing at some point that ridiculous-sounding expressions like "capitalist roaders", "running dogs" and the rest of it sounded particularly idiotic in those English translations, but that this was a matter of ridicule-by-translation, and didn't tell you anything about what the what was being said and understood in the other language.

Later on it came to me that where you need to take a system of ideas and feelings and so on, that isn't necessarily your own, understand and deal with it--that's where you need a degree of intellectual and emotional effort, and the whole ridicule-by-translation thing is a way of short-circuiting that. One way among many, to be sure, but still, an important way.

Take Iraqi nationalism, in the face of the American-established sectarian system. That's where you get the "insurgents", the "Sunni terrorists", the "anti-American firebrand cleric" and the rest of it. So if you ask: "Whats behind all that," the answer is ready-made, for the newspaper-reading, TV-watching man on the street, it's right in the language, it's an absurd drive for violence for its own sake.

Weirdly, this is where a lot of social and political "science" gets its footing. For instance, once you accept the fact that Maliki and his shabby group constitute the Iraqi "state", then you're ready for the learned (and mathematical!) game-theoretical studies of competition among the "powers that aren't" for their shares of the spoils, and off you go! But first you need to sideline those aims and aspirations that don't fit, which as it happens are the decisive ones for the people in question.

Or take the Hamas administration of Gaza. Here is where I think Helena Cobban hits the nail on the head this morning with her post: "What does Hamas want?" She says the main Hamas focus isn't on the so-called two-state solution (although they would go along with that under the right conditions) or on an illusory "truce" for which they don't think the political conditions exist. Rather:
Until now they have not seen the political dynamics in the region as conducive to the achievement of any acceptable form of hudna, so they have not spent much time trying to explore this option or guide their people toward it. Instead, they have placed their highest priority on the defensive aim of preserving the Islamic and Palestinian presence within the land of Mandate Palestine as strongly as possible. That includes the Islamic/Palestinian presence inside Israel as well as in Gaza and the West Bank.

3. Because of the movement's historic roots and continuing strong presence in Gaza, they have been very concerned indeed with trying to preserve and strengthen the Islamic and Palestinian presence and institutions in that tiny Strip, which is densely packed with a population, 80% of whom are refugees from lands and properties that are now within Israel . The Hamas leaders saw Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Strip in 2005 and their own win in the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006 as significant victories for their path of armed steadfastness, as opposed to Fateh's path of relying only on negotiations.

4. To help preserve their gains in Gaza--as well as to win some non-trivial strategic-political depth for the Palestinian movement everywhere--they have placed a high priority on opening the border between Gaza and Egypt for the passage of people and goods, thereby ending Israel's effectively total encirclement of Gaza, part of which Israel has sub-contracted to Egypt.
Compared to the defensive aim of preserving and strengthening the Islamic and Palestinian presence and institutions in Palestine, these other possible objectives--those that are the bread and butter of our "political scientists" among others--are secondary.

So there you go. You can criticize Hamas for failing to prioritize the truce for its own sake, or for not paying a lot of attention to a theoretical "two-state solution", but only if you overlook their main reason for being, which is the defense, first and foremost, of the Islamic and Palestinian presence in Palestine, and secondarily the opening of the Gaza-Egypt border by way of strengthening that.

I believe this is where the issue of American mis-perceptions comes together with respect to Iraq and Gaza both. The English-language media drive is to (1) sanctify in an unthinking way the concepts of traditional political science; and by the same token (2) denigrate and ridicule the proponents of national aspirations that don't fit into that scheme. One result--and one that Helena has pointed to more than once--is that the natural result is to think in terms of military action as if the only enemy was a defined military organization, something that only makes matters worse. Unless the aim really is genocide.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Where the carrot and stick policy leads

If you ask what could be the makeup or the cover story that would bring with it American official approval for the current butchery in Gaza, it might help us to recall the so-called Action Plan of around March 2007. In that document, leaked to a Jordanian newspaper, the outlines were set for a two-pronged policy: Degradation and harassment of the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip, and international cooperation for the economic and political flourishing of the West Bank. (Links and so on are available if you search "Action Plan" in the search-box at the upper left of this page).

There was a piece a few days ago--it was in the New York Times so no one paid much attention to it--in which Condi paid her last visit to Jenin in the West Bank, and there was a celebration of the West-Bank rebirth story:
Today, though, Jenin is a showcase of success for the Palestinian Authority, following a law and order campaign this spring by specially trained Palestinian security forces, and an example of how a particularly thorny situation can be turned around.
The current Israeli savagery in Gaza is best seen as part of the other arm of that two-pronged policy, namely the degradation and harassment of Gaza so long as it is controlled by Hamas. It was to be particularly in the area of the security forces that this degradation was to take place, and specifically the funding of a new Abbas-loyal, Fatah-loyal, security agency, under the wise supervision of the American General Keith Dayton, whose work is celebrated in the above-mentioned NYT piece as follows:
About 600 Palestinian security personnel members were deployed in Jenin in May, some of whom were trained in Jordan under an American-sponsored program to back up the forces already there. Most have since been redeployed to other parts of the West Bank, including Hebron.

Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, the United States security coordinator, told reporters that the exercise had been a “great success,” and that the Israelis said they had reduced their incursions into Jenin by about 40 percent.
Obviously, "great success" in the Gaza part of this two-pronged strategy has been harder to come by, hence the Israeli decision, supported by the United States, to resort to what we are now seeing.

Just as the American bombing of Sadr City during the Maliki security campaigns arose out of a divide and conquer strategy for Iraq (the new airport in Najaf was opened at around the same time, amid the same kind of NYT "economic rebirth" celebrations that we saw in relation to Jenin), so the bombing of Gaza in the context of the overall American strategy for Palestine. Our friends are supposed to flourish, and the resistance wither.

The blind arrogance of this was maybe less obvious then than it is now, because as the policy fails again and again, the means become more violent and barbaric. More and more clearly, it is America that is out of control, not the resistance.

It would be well, at the same time, to remember where this destructive potential comes from in terms of the overall strategic picture that the American establishment has been trained and nursed on. For instance, to begin with, the politically-inspired nature of the WB/IMF "economic development" philosophy is part of it.

By the way, what happened to this whole idea of "public diplomacy" that we've been hearing so much about in the last little while?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy

AlQuds alArabi says the reason Hamas had not evacuated its police and security locations on Saturday when the bombings occured--killing over 200 including cadets at a graduation ceremony at the Gaza police headquarters--was a specific piece of misinformation that was transmitted to the Hamas leadership by the Egyptian authorities, who assured Hamas on Friday evening that Israel was not going to launch an attack immediately.
Sources in the Hamas movement close to Dr Mahmoud Zahar told AlQuds alArabi that Egypt informed Hamas on Friday night that Israel was in agreement on opening negotiations toward a new truce, and that it would not launch an attack on the Gaza Strip until Cairo had exhausted all of its efforts toward a [new truce] agreement between Tel Aviv and the resistance factions. And the sources said it was this assurance from Cairo that prevented the [Hamas authorities] from evacuating these Palestinian security locations. The sources said the Hamas ministry of the interior had evacuated the security locations on the occasion of every Israeli threat, but in this case it had not done so, based on the assurances last night [Friday night] that Israel would not launch an attack during the coming 48 hours, particularly considering that Saturday is a public and religious holiday, and it would not begin an attack on the Gaza Strip on that day.
Pictures on AlJazeera and elsewhere show the slaughter that resulted.

(The AlQuds alArabi report also quotes diplomatic sources to the effect that Egypt security chief Omar Suleiman had been in touch with other Arab regimes to inform them of the Israeli plans for an attack, a further indication of official Arab-regime collusion with Israel in this).

The dissolution of a sect-based "alliance" that has served its purpose

Mashriq Abbas writes in AlHayat:
[The Mashhadani/Alyan declaration of the end of the so-called Iraqi Accord Front (IAF)] is the latest scene in the struggle over Sunni representation in the political process, something that the approaching provincial elections are also contributing to, and this represents a major stage in getting over the system of "parliamentary alliances"--this system of alliances that was supported by the security-difficulties, by encouragement from the Americans, and by the need on the part of the Shiite and Kurdish parties for a Sunni representative to fill out the scheme of a three-part sectarian-allocation system. And this was felt first and foremost in the matter of drafting and adopting the Constitution, where sole "Sunni" representation by a party attached to the Muslim Brotherhood was considered too narrow.

The Accord Front was founded in 2005 to fill the gap of Sunni representation in the political process...
first and foremost, Abbas notes, in the matter or drafting and adopting the Constitution, where sole "Sunni" representation by a party attached to the Muslim Brotherhood was considered too narrow.

The Islamic Party of Iraq, already a participant in the political process, had been in existence since before 2003, but there was this need to make the Sunni representation in the political process broader, and this resulted in the inclusion of the Dialog Front (Khalaf Al-Alyan); the People's Assembly (Adnan Dulaimi) and others, from Salafists to secularists, all under the banner of "Sunni" for these political-process purposes. This was not originally at all "homogeneous", the writer notes, and this became evident in the troubles that ensued following the formation of the parliamentary government in 2006. What held the thing together for a time was a combination of factors including American support for a Sunni representation, and the more general desire on the part of the founders of this sectarian- and ethnic-based system to make it work on the level of the political process.
A top Sunni politician says there were feelings of pressure from the security situation, and a desire to exploit the American support, which seemed limitless, for a Sunni representation, accompanied always by a vast desire on the part of the parties that had set up the principle of sectarian- and ethnic-based alliances in the political process, to overcome the crisis of the Sunni boycott of the government and of parliament. The politician, who is a member of the IAF, says the Accord Front, ever since its founding, had major support both from within Iraq and from outside, and this support helped prevent the surfacing of internal Accord Front differences [until recently].
From the very beginning, says Abbas, it was clear that the governing coalition wanted to form an umbrella agreement with Sunnis via the Ismalic Party alone, to the exclusion of the other members of the IAF, and this is what came to fruition with the so-called "five-party charter"of 2007 (joining the Islamic Party with the four governing parties, two Kurdish and two Shiite). (He adds that there are other agreements joining these same parties, some of them dating to pre-2003, but he doesn't elaborate).

And the events of 2008 confirmed the monopoly of the Islamic Party over the IAF, while on the other side:
Al-Alyan got closer to the secular parties under the leadership of former Prime Minister Allawi, who had been developing, during his years away from power, various methods for bringing together opposition groups and opening channels of communication with them. He founded what is now called the "coordinating group" which brings together Shiite Islamic groups including Fadhila and the Sadrist trend, along with secularists like the group of Salah al-Mutlak, and tribal groups such as those of Khalaf al-Alyan--and what they are all demanding is an end to the project of allocations, and the tearing-down of the authority of the traditional parties.
Abbas goes on to mention some of the possible implications of this or the coming elections. But the most important point for Western readers--inundated with years and years of rhetoric suggesting the sectarian-allocation system was built into the very order of things in Iraq--is this thumbnail history of the IAF: It was an artificial creation supported by the Americans and fueled also by the security-troubles, bringing together disparate parts whose common feature was only that they were "Sunni", first in order to provide a nice three-part Shiite/Kurdish/Sunni structure to the "political process" during and after the adoption of the Constitution, and more recently in order to provide the same stand-in "Sunni" representation in the matter of approval of the security agreement.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Winter solstice

Remarks by Khalaf al-Alyan (or al-Ulayyan) head of the National Dialog Council (of which former speaker Mashhadani is a member), and by Mashhadani himself, reflect the recent history of GreenZone political maneuvering, by way of background to the recent events.

Alyan said the pressure to get rid of Mashhadani as speaker goes back to his support for the so-called "July 22" or "coordinating council" success in passing section 24 of the law relating to provincial elections, a section that called for interim power-sharing in Mosul, something that was bitterly opposed by the Kurdish parties. Alyan said the five-party coalition (two Kurdish parties, SupremeCouncil, Dawa, and the Islamic Party of Iraq) was punishing Mashhadani for his support of the July 22 movement in that (AlHayat). This epitomizes, Alyan said, he failure of the Iraqi Accord Front coalition to carry out the principles of its founding statement, adding it is time for the front to be disbanded.

Mashhadani himself has spoken more bluntly about the Islamic Party conspiring with the other four parties in various matters, without consulting the other parties that are members of the Iraqi Accord Front, notably his own, the National Dialog Council. In one of his statements, Mashhadani went so far as to accuse the five parties of planning to replace Maliki as Prime Minister, on the basis that his defence of the national interest in the Kurdistan-region border disputes was not to their liking. In any event, the two of them announced the withdrawal of the National Dialog Council from the IAF, and said this was the end of the IAF. (But a spokesman for the IAF says they will be meeting soon to pick a successor to Mashhadani as parliamentary speaker, this being their right under the sectarian-allocation system).

Naturally there are other motives at work.

For instance: (1) Alyan and others in the GreenZone Sunni parties have been named by some of the Sunni armed factions for their collaboration in voting for the security agreement. So they are in a hard place, accused by the Shiite parties of collaborating with the resistance, and accused by the resistance of being traitors, and no doubt that makes for strong motivation to try and burnish their nationalist credentials.

(2) There is the general issue of one-party domination of the IAF coalition. The AlHayat reporter makes the point that this defection of the National Dialog Council from the IAF resembles the earlier defection of the Sadrists and Fadhila from the United Iraqi Accord (UIA, the big Shiite-party coalition), so in some ways the common feature would be the marginalization of minority parties in a large coalition.

And it is worth remembering that the proponents of the PTB/PTA, or sectarian, or small-group narrative will tell you that the last point is the key one. The other issues are 99% rhetoric, they will say. All that is happening here is "further fragmentation". This is in the nature of the situation.

But that's just the point. In a sectarian-allocation system (with a little help from a "strong-man" Prime Minister supported by, and collaborating with, a newly-legitimized occupation army) it is to be expected that the lines between the "sects" will harden and not soften, as the system-winners (the "powers that be", namely the five coalition parties) attempt to solidify their gains, in the face of new challenges and new opportunities.

It doesn't follow, however, that the outsiders have nothing in common except their resentment at the prospect of being left off the gravy-train. That might be a good way of explaining, say, the disintegration of the jerrybuilt Bush-era Republican Party. But surely applying a model like that to other countries and cultures we know little about is more an expression of the cultural bottoming-out of America, than of anything to do with any other country, let alone Iraq.

(Santa has informed me that just for today it will not be necessary to provide the usual level of links for all of the above. Meanwhile, best wishes to all of the thoughtful readers in these parts...)

Monday, December 22, 2008

A bit of history

Mashraq Abbas writes in AlHayat about the Interior Ministry affair, where the system continues to throw up contradictory information, and he explains a bit of the history of this system, from the establishment of the sectarian-allocation system in the earliest days of the American occupation, through the resurrection of the Saddam-era concept of citizen-informants by the Americans and their partners in 2006.
Security and political leaks indicate the existence of fighting within the Interior Ministry on the one hand, and between it and other agencies on the other [as background to] the current outbreak of election-related fighting. While releases of Interior Ministry people have been quick and decisive on the intervention of the minister Bolani, there are questions about the scope of this kind of "malicious" charges, which have been made against innocent people over the course of recent years. Security officials themselves say these include charges of belonging to Baathist groups or militias--and these are mostly made against officials and citizens that are Shiites--and also charges of "cooperating with terrorist organizations", and these are mostly made against officials and citizens that are Sunni. In addition to charges of administrative and financial corruption [many of which are justified, but there are also] some that put innocent people behind bars.

And in addition to these struggles that flare up in the highest sanctum of the government and in the various security authorities, even before that the organization of malicious slander was converted into a tool for the liquidation of rivals within the lower administrative institutions, and this spread into commercial competition and the settling of personal accounts.

The Council of Ministers issued a couple of months ago a private law [private members bill?] whose main purpose, according to its proponents was to encourage people to cooperate with the security authorities, and to provide information terrorism and militias...

But "informants" in the Iraqi experience is something connected with the prior regime on the "citizens/security people" concept, and this continued in the 80s and 90s and developed a broad section of citizen spies and informants...

What happened was that this sector of informants, which was targeted after the fall of the old regime and the return of the parties opposed to it [the exile Shiite parties]--this sector was returned to service in a broad area starting in 2006 in the context of the new American strategy in Iraq, and the emergence of a need for them, to compensate for the lack of intelligence which was pointed to early on as a major cause of the collapse of security.

This wager by the government and the Americans on strengthening intelligence by supporting an organization that was lacking in any actual intelligence activity, early on facilitated the interaction with a greater number of informants and protecting them, even from charges of malicious slander that were later shown to be the case. And this system included the intelligence [sections] of the Ministry of National Security, of the Interior, of the Army, of the Baghdad Security Program and other security programs.
Bolani has alleged this kind of malicious slander-mongering, and although he hasn't named names, the journalist says electoral rivalry owing to his formation of the Constitution Party was "one of the immediate motivations" for this.
Iraqi law calls for the independence of the ministries and the military, and bans politicization. But this is in spite of the fact that their whole experience from the beginning has been on the model of sectarian allocation (Defence to the Sunnis; Interior and National Security to the Shiites; Chief of Staff of the Army to the Kurds). But the rivalry continues... and breaks out from time to time [as in this case].


The journalist adds a subsidiary point. He says
High level sources say that within the Interior Ministry, in addition to the active officers that have been appointed by Bolani since his appointment [as Minister of the Interior] in 2006, there are also senior officers that were named during prior ministries. Some of these have been transferred by Bolani to other ministries and agencies, bringing with them their personal enmities. But there are also some that remain [in the Interior Ministry] under the designation "function suspended", having been stripped of their privileges".

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A closer look at a US ally's "political process"

Munathir al-Zaydi's brother Uday met with him in prison on Sunday, and relayed to the press his brother's account of the torture and attempted extraction of a confession from him, following the shoe-throwing incident on Thursday.

The purpose of the torture was to extract a videotaped confession from him to the effect some political group or militia was behind this, attempting in other words to somehow generate sectarian hatred as a result of this. This was not successful, and al-Zaydi, through his brother, repeated that his act was on behalf of all Iraqis. Maliki himself, pushing ahead with the sectarian story, issued a statement to the effect some killer of Iraqis was behind this, and anyone supporting al-Zaydi is an opponent of "the political process in Iraq".

Al-Zaydi told his brother he was kicked and punched in the hall where the incident took place, including by Maliki's guards and by a Kurdish journalist who joined in, then the beating continued in an ante-room, before he was taken to an unused building elsewhere in the Green Zone, where the torture included: Kicking and punching; beating all over the body with chains; cigarettes extinguisned behind his ears; stripped of his clothes and doused in cold water; subjected to electric shocks. The torture lasted for 30 hours. Uday said he say the evidence of that in the form of bruises, swellings and cuts all over his brother's body. As for the purpose of all this:
Uday reported that his brother said one of the purposes of this torture was to extract from him a confession that he had been motivated to do this by one of the parties or one of the militias. They brought a video camera to record his confession of this. Under pressure of the torture, his brother asked them to [have him] sign a black piece of paper, and they could then write on it what they liked. But Maliki's guards, who were supervising the torture, rejected that, and insisted on a videotaped confession!"
Meanwhile, Aswal alIraq reported that:
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday said that investigations [!] have revealed that a man involved in the “slaughter” of several Iraqis was behind the shoe-throwing incident,
but he didn't say who or from what group. (The Iraqi government site quotes Maliki's remarks to journalists extensively. He said Zaydi had expressed his regret to him [Maliki] in a letter, and had named the person who instigated him to do this, a person Maliki said "is known to us as a cutter of throats..." Maliki talked about the Iraqi tradition of respect for honored visitors, independence of the judiciary, the need to avoid stirring up fitna, and so on and so forth).

That isn't all. Maliki went on to say (according to the Aswat alIraq summary) that whoever encouraged or asked al-Zaydi to do this is "either an opponent of the political process in Iraq, or they are opposed to the new political situation entirely."

Uday said one of the messages his brother asked him to convey to everyone following their meeting is that no one is trying to direct [or politicize] him in his stance--rather his guidance is all of the Iraqi people who have paid a heavy price for the crimes of the occupation.

He has not apologized, and says he would do the same thing again if Bush were to appear again. The letter he wrote to Maliki was to explain he was targeting only Bush, not Maliki.

Raed Jarrar quotes the description of the torture from Uday's statement to AlBaghdadiya, and he summarizes Maliki's remarks. Along with a copy of his letter to the International Committee of the Red Cross requesting a site visit, and the e-mail of the contact person at the IIRC if you want to write too.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Maliki: This was a tempest in a teapot. All aboard my freedom train

Prime Minister Maliki made a speech Saturday at a ceremony honoring the Iraqi soccer team, and it includes good examples of the nationalist rhetoric that will no doubt be part of his election- and referendum-campaigning. He promised the government would protect the athletes and all Iraqi youth from terrorism, that all Iraqis are equal, and so on.

Then, having become airborne, here is where he sails into the issue of the Interior Ministry affair:
"The feelings of strong nationalism have returned, and it is owing to these feelings that there have been successes in security. Following [a period in which] everyone had to operate in secret, today they operate in complete freedom".

He added: "The political process is strong, and we are in need of the efforts of the people in order that they may have strong support. Certainly we need to reform the national and legal institutions, so that they may be equal to the aspirations of the people. We must fight weakness and nonchalance, and we must do away with the obstacles that have been left by the prior regime".

And he said: "Those who talk of coups in this country are delusional, because there is no coup in this country and there is no one who even contemplates such a thing". He added: "I praise with great praise those in the armed forces and the police and those who lead in the security victory. They are all guided by the principles of reason, and not by the narrow ideas. What the media are spreading are the imaginings of an ignorant minority that are already dead and gone.

What you hear about the goings-on in certain of the national and security institutions--these are the result of differences and practices that are not in keeping with their tasks or with the law. These are subject to an investigation in accordance with the juridical principles that are part of our administration and our institutions. So there is no concern about coups as long as this freedom persists, and as long as people are free to express their opinions at the ballot box...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Coup calendar

(This is from a report that predates the announcement by Bolani that all of the arrested persons have been released because none of the allegations were proved. The question remains why this all happened in the first place, and what this says about the American occupation/withdrawal issue).

The Kuwaiti paper Awan, in today's story by its Baghdad reporter, has some comments on the Interior Ministry/alleged coup affair that I think are enlightening.

First, the reporter remarks that "In the recent period there have been a growing number of stories about the possibility of a military coup against the Maliki government, but the signing of the withdrawal agreement with the United States led to a diminution of expectations concerning the veracity of this idea."

In other words, coup-talk was strongest when it seemed uncertain the Americans would be placated with the signing of an agreement; and once that crisis passed, the coup-possibilities were considered much diminished. The clear implication being that the Americans were using this as a bargaining chip or a boogie-man in negotiations with Maliki: sign something or be booted out in a coup. The recent events would be to some degree blow-back from that.

The journalist then quotes a member of parliament for the Iraqi Accord Front, the big Sunni GreenZone coalition, who mentions another aspect of this relationship.
A leader of the Accord Front in parliament, Omar al-Karbuli, said the possibility of executing a coup against the Maliki government at the present time are remote, and that is because of the presence of the American forces. Commenting on the story about the foiling of a coup-attempt, he explained that the Maliki government and the political process as a whole enjoy American protection until the year 2011, "and I cannot imagine the execution of a coup for that reason. However, perhaps a military coup carried out after the withdrawal of the Americans could be successful."
That, it seems, is the position American policy (namely support for the sectarian parties in the current ruling coalition) has put the Iraqi government in: Joint venture with us, forever, or face the prospect of a coup from a group of people with whom we also have good relations.

(More links at RoadstoIraq)

A familiar phrase

The spokesman for the Baghdad military leadership General Qasem Atta set out the new government spin on the arrests, in a statement released Thursday evening, correcting the initial NYT-inspired stories about a coup-attempt from within the Interior Ministry. First, he corrected the idea that this was one ministry against others. He said those arrested included people not only in the Interior Ministry, but also in the Defense Ministry; moreover, the director of operations in the Interior Ministry was not one of those arrested, as had been reported, but rather is the official in charge of the program of arrests. That part of his remarks was to erase the idea that this was part of some kind of an institutional struggle.

But the more interesting part of his remarks had to do with what sort of people were being arrested. He said there was no attempt at a coup. Rather this was an assortment of different kinds of bad people. He put it this way, in a statement released Thursday evening, (according to AlHayat):
"The general directorate of the armed forces announces the arrest of 24 officers in the Ministries of the Interior and Defence, having no relationship to any attempted coup". Rather, the statement said, the arrests were "based on intelligence about some of the officers' facilitating activities of terrorism, and assistance to outlaws and to the remnants of the former regime."
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it is because that trio of "terror, outlaws and the remnants of the former regime," is the centerpiece of the new security agreement, which in Article 4 "Missions", section 1 (official White House version, pdf) says this: "The government of Iraq requests the temporary assistance of the United States for the purposes of supporting Iraq in its efforts to maintain security and stability in Iraq, including cooperation in the conduct of operations against AlQaeda and other terrorist groups, outlaw groups, and the remnants of the former regime."

And sources on all sides of this ( the "coup" and the "no-coup" interpretations) are reporting that the American forces are cooperating in this program of arrests. AlHayat, which reports from the no-coup angle, says
High-level sources in the Iraqi army said yesterday that the American side has joined in the program of investigation", explaining that "American officers met [Thursday] with senior security officials and studied with them the latest developments in the investigation."
Sadrist news-site Nahrainnet, which dismisses the no-coup theory, says:
News circulated in the Interior Ministry that two of the arrested officers had been among those who worked with the American officers during an earlier stage, and carried out joint operations with the American officers in security operations in Baghdad and other cities. But the existence of the current role of the Americans in supporting this organization [the coup-plotters] has not yet been confirmed.
The question posed here is the role of the Americans, who until the signing of the agreement were keen proponents of incorporating Sunni groups into the government (Sons of Iraq openly, and according to some, ex-Baathist officers less openly) and are now, having achieved the signing of the agreement, seen to be cooperating in a program, not of reconciliation, but of arrests aimed at "terrorists, outlaws and the remnants of the former regime"--political enemies, as it seems to many.

Which just goes to show that in order to promote the tearing up of the country politically as well as militarily, it isn't necessary to always carry around a sign that says "I support the Biden plan".

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why now?

If it isn't too much trouble, let's go back three months to September, when there was a round of coup-warnings coming from the government-coalition side ("let's hold our horses on this one," said Sam Parker, remember?), and try and see in hindsight what the Maliki gang's coup-phobia was, and is, all about, and in the process try and understand the timing for this week's wave of supposedly preventive arrests.

First, let's remember what a Supreme Council writer said last September by way of explanation of Adel AbdulMahdi's ruminations about a potential coup.
The warning that he issued is owing to his familiarity with the structure of the Iraqi army, which is assumed to be new and different from the [prior] army which carried out more than one coup--and [the warning is owing to] his knowledge that foreign advisers have convinced the Iraqi leadership to make use of the expertise of prior officers who had served under the government of the Baath party, not in operational leadership but in the areas of training and preparation, and thus persons suspected of Baathist thought are able to penetrate to important positions. And they have participated importantly in building up the military structure according to Baathist theory, and they trained them in the same ways, to have set loyalty to the army leadership, and this facilitates obedience and motivation to fight against the masses of the people on the orders of those leaders. And that is what happened in Khaniqin, where the attack brigade wreaked terror and chaos on a city that had been stable, with their attacks and insults against the people and the notables, pointing their machine-guns at the chest
In short: The reason for his anxiety was that "foreign advisers" have inserted ex-Baathists into the armed forces in influential positions."

Later in September, Haroun Mohammed wrote in his AlQuds alArabi op-ed of a particular case where the Americans had recruited an important former-regime officer, not to work directly with the Maliki government, but to act as a senior "adviser" to the Americans in the GreenZone. This naturally upset the man's former-regime colleagues who were holding out from any form of cooperation with the Americans, but it upset even more the Maliki government, intensifying the type of coup-phobia referred to above. And keeping that coup-phobia on the boil seems to have been part of the Americans' aim. Haroun Mohammed wrote:
The officer's return to Baghdad and his employment as an adviser to the American forces aroused an angry reaction from many of the officer's former colleagues, who said this damaged the reputation of the former Army, and said he was being used as a cats-paw by the Americans to frighten the authorities and hint at a direct threat against them.
This happened around June 2008, and within a short time of his arrival, the former officer had made progress arranging pension-payments to be made in neighboring countries for some former officers whose cases had been held up until then, and he also--writes Haroun Mohammed
drew up, according to what those close to him and those who sympathize with him say, a study that sets out the basic principles for the Iraqi army in the period immediately following the withdrawal of the American forces or part of them. And [they said] the study had the agreement of General Petraeus and Secretary Gates, and that work on it was proceeding.
LB at RoadstoIraq identified the former-regime officer as Raad alHamdani, a former Iraqi Republican Guard Commander. And she dug up what appears to be his study (which says among other things that the Iraqi army lacks unity of purpose, and even unity of command, being mainly a collection of sectarian militias), and links to it here. The conclusion reads like this:
Summary: Do the "current Iraqi armed forces" represent, or are they suitable, to be the basis and/or a replacement as a national Iraqi army to take the place of the occupation forces, maintaining domestic and external security for Iraq? Everything mentioned above in this study by way of information and analysis says, in answer to this question, no, not in the current political situation in Iraq and under the occupation. For this reason, the "reconstitution of a national Iraqi Army" is a pressing need.
The Haroun Mohammed piece referred to above was written in September 2008 and there have been publications since then that support this idea of Americans were threatening to work with the other side to "reconstitute" the Iraqi armed forces, given the failure of the Maliki-administration army to fulfill the functions of a national army, "under the current political situation in Iraq..." For instance, here, and here.

Needless to say, the recent wave of arrests, on this hypothesis, would seem to have been the result of another zag in the zig-zag American policy, this time by expressing their satisfaction with the signing of the joint-venture security agreement by perhaps withdrawing their support from the former-regime officers and their allies, whom they had been using as a threat.

Another fine piece of reporting

A UAE paper reported earlier this month that Maliki was getting ready to ban Iraqi officers from visiting Syria, because of his concern that they might link up with, or be influenced by, former-regime officers living in Syria--and more generally because of his anxiety about political activity under the banner of the Awda party. So there seems to be no question that Maliki was becoming concerned about the Awda, for whatever specific reason. And this was no doubt part of the motivation for the recent arrests, as the reporting suggests. But the connection with Syria has gotten lost in the shuffle.

Similarly, the reporting hints in general at Maliki doing another of his pre-election purges to make sure his party does well and competitors are disabled in various ways. But the NYT and other English-language reporting doesn't say anything about what electoral challenges were involved here. The report yesterday in AlMashriq spoke about a rivalry between Dawa party member Shirwan Waili who is the Minister of National Security--and who was described as behind the purge--and "independent" UIA member Jawad Bolani, who is Minister of the Interior. The reporting merely says Bolani is "out of the country" without saying where. (AlQawat alThalitha says he is in Dubai looking after his holdings and his real estate). But the point is that Bolani is working to expand his secular Constitutional Party, and when AlMashriq referred to the arrests as being a reflection of election-related struggle between Waili and Bolani, this is probably what they were referring to.

While AlMashriq stressed the election-planning aspect of this (thinking Waili was probably behind it), AlQuwat alThalitha stresses the Syria connection (and says the instigator of this was Mowaffaq alRubaie, with a lot of help from Saudia Arabia, aiming to break up Syrian influence in Iraq and poison the Iraqi-Syrian relationship).

So whether this reflects competitive election-planning by members of Maliki's cabinet, or regional Saudi/Syrian rivalry, the point is that Maliki's dictatorial inclinations are being played out against a political background that the NYT and other reporting leaves out of the picture.

Not to mention the fact that the entire NYT coup-plot story was based on accounts by anonymous sources, with not a single attribution, and of course nothing says "we are being manipulated" like the lack of any attribution. Needless to say, the no-background character of this goes hand-in-hand with the no-attribution technique, all-in-all a fine example of the kind of reporting that got us into these situations in the first place.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Off-topic, but I will be posting occasional comments on US financial policy from a Japanese point of view at Today's post is about the Fed zero-rate targeting in imitation of the Japanese 2001 policy move, called "Lessons [not] learned".

Alleged coup-plot: Saudi-American anti-Syrian scheme, or something else?

Further to the first item in the previous post about the reported arrest of 34 alleged neo-Baath officers in the Interior Ministry:

An Iraqi newspaper called AlQawat alThalitha (the third power) says today that the wave of arrests has not stopped, and has now included Sunni, Shiite and independent Arabist officers not only in the Interior Ministry, but also in the Ministry of Defence and police forces, the arrests now numbering a total of 66. The paper cites what it calls very highly-placed officials in the government and in the Green Zone, who say there is a ongoing investigation that is top-secret, based on the idea of a planned coup relating to the Awda party, which is a Baath offshoot.

The paper says it knows of two specific people arrested in this, and they are [military title] Jaafar, who is general director of the police directorate, and with him the person who is director of policing for the Rusafa district in Baghdad. Then starting a new paragraph:
And the Minister [of the Interior] Jawad Bolani..and from Dubai where he is looking after his holdings and his real estate, said "Maliki is a victim of a scheme launched by Mowaffaq al-Rubaie and Shirwan al-Waili", and he refuses to participate in these investigations, demanding instead a clean and neutral council, and otherwise he will resign and disclose all of the files and matters that have been covered up.

[Meanwhile] the investigation is expanding to include charges against these officers respecting their connections with certain Arab organizations, and certain Sunni groups that are participants in the government, with the aim of organizing a coup against the current government.
The paper reminds readers of remarks made to it by a professor Samir Ubeid, an expert in Iraqi affairs, on Monday, when the arrest-total was still only 32, to the effect that this appears to be based on a scheme hatched by the Saudi authorities with Mowaffaq alRubaie, to heat up animosity toward Syria and damage Iraq-Syrian relations, considering that the Awda Party connection has to do mainly with ex-Baathists residing in Syria whom Rubaie accused, starting in the last few days, of being instigated by the Syrian authorities. On this theory, they are trying to draw Maliki into this scheme, but fundamentally it is Saudi inspired and directed against the Iraq-Syria relationship. Ubeid is skeptical about the coup-plot idea, noting that the number (32 at that time) seems highly exaggerated and not at all a number that the alleged Baathists would be able to mobilize within the Interior Ministry. He adds: "And it appears that these [aims of hurting Iraq Syrian relations via this wave of arrests] are American aims..." but he doesn't elaborate on that point.

(With the inevitable h/t to LB of RoadstoIraq).

Cabinet shakeup

The Iraqi paper AlMashriq quotes sources saying 34 high-ranking officers in the Interior Ministry were arrested on allegations of belonging to the Awda Party (neo-Baath), but the the sources said the arrests were "malicious" and were carried out on the orders of the Minister of National Security, for electoral purposes, in order to thwart the plans of the Minister of the Interior, who is currently out of the country. (This isn't explained). The source said the arrested officers are of a high degree of competence and integrity. The Interior Minister is Jawad Bulani, described as a member of the United Iraqi Alliance but an independent; the Minister of National Security is Shirwan Waili, also of the UIA, but a member of the Dawa Party and possibly a Maliki loyalist--I don't know.

The paper doesn't elaborate, but follows this up with a report of a car-bomb attack on the convoy of the Minister of Science and Technology in Baghdad, adding it isn't known whether the Minister was in the convoy or not. The Science Minister is Raed Fahmy Jahid, a member of Allawi's Iraqi List, and a member of the Communist Party of Iraq.

Democracy in the new Iraq: Broken ribs and limbs, and seven to 15 years, for offending Nuri al-Maliki

Family members say Muntathar al-Zaydi is suffering from broken rib(s) and legs, and from serious injuries to his face and eyes, and they fear for his life if he says in custody, according to AlQuds alArabi. Azzaman cites an AFP report that quotes his brother Dargham who said what they broke were ribs and an arm. AlQuds leads with this item; Azzaman buries it beneath a quote from Bush spokesperson Dana Perino who said "the president thinks Iraq is a sovereign and democratic nation..." so the matter will be left to them.

The director of operations for the Interior Ministry said he is unaware of any torture undergone by the journalist. He said the arrest warrant issued by a judge yesterday is on a charge of "affront to the head of state Nuri al-Maliki", under the provisions of Iraqi criminal law dating from 1969, which is still in force. The judge that issued the warrant said the charge carries a sentence of from seven to 15 years of imprisonment. He said al-Zaydi has already admitted to the charge in question. (AlQuds alArabi, Wednesday Dec 17, p.1)

Meanwhile, on a planet far, far away, America's "public diplomacy" community is chuckling over a recommendation this morning by center-left public diplomacy scholar Marc Lynch of a piece one of his friends called "For many of us, the fun is just beginning: Who will be the next UnderSecretary [of State, for Public Diplomacy]".


And there is this: Alsabaah cites AFP which cites the American forces in Iraq to the effect they have turned over to the Iraqi judicial authorities (at the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad) 39 figures in the former regime that have been held up to now in Camp Cropper. They have either been charged or will be charged under Iraqi criminal law, the Americans said. This is the first prisoner turnover from the Americans to the Iraqis under the terms of new security agreement. A recent report by Human Rights Watch said the Central Criminal Court allows prolonged detention without charges, allows prisoners to be mistreated and tortured, and conducts kangaroo courts in which a proper defence is not allowed. By contrast, the statement by the American forces (via AFP/AlSabaah) said: "This turnover operation demonstrates that the Iraqi criminal authorities and the Iraqi prison system are capable of what is required for the assurance of the protection and the prosecution of these individuals."

Quite apart from showing that the Americans are deliberately ignoring the HRW report and the issues of torture, coerced confessions and railroading, what this says is that the first batch to be turned over to the Iraqi authorities under the terms of the security agreement are alleged Sadaamists, clearly not a step in the direction of political accomodation (not that this needs to be repeated, but the question is: Where are the Democrats on this, given that they are treating the security agreement as a bona fide agreement between two sovereign democratic states).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

And a suitable televised debut for "the new Iraq" (with an Update)

AlQuds alArabi begins its lead editorial this morning by noting that Bush's habit of visiting Iraq since the invasion just goes to prove the old adage that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. More to the point, the editorialist adds:
The Green Zone was the only place in the entire world where he could be sure that a festive welcome awaited him, unlike the other capitals of the world...
and this of course contributed to the drama. Moreover, following the incident, the Iraqi authorities completed the lesson for TV viewers by going ahead and showing the whole world
that their concept of democracy is no different from that of the other Arab and third-world dictatorships, with the security men beating him and dragging him away in a manner that indicated an abundance of cruelty and desire for revenge.
This was to have been a major event in the PR for "the new Iraq", as was the swallowing of the agreement itself as some kind of a bona fide, assertion of Iraqi sovereignty and membership in the community of nations. The editorialist goes on:
We do not know what will be the fate of the Iraqi journalist, or the nature of the torture he could undergo behind bars, or the length of his imprisonment, but we do know that when Tony Blair was hit with a rotten egg [the court ordered a fine equal to the cleaning bill for his shirt, and the thrower was released after an investigation]

The huge outpouring of sympathy for the Iraqi journalist, and his attainment of the status of a hero in the eyes of tens of millions of people, illustrates the huge size of the deception that has been perpetrated by the official American PR [or propaganda] and the Iraqi authorities and their PR people, against the Iraqi people, by inverting the truth, and painting a false picture of conditions in this "new Iraq".
And let's not forget the bizarre enthusiasm on the "center left" for affirming the bona fides of the "withdrawal agreement"--complete with ruminations on a multilateral role for this Maliki gang in international relations (IR). Or this from center-left intellectual Rick Perlstein yesterday:
Liberals should not make light of or license the physical assault on the leader of a sovereign state, no matter how much he's deservedly hated. This is not how we do politics, unless we're in favor something tending toward anarchy, or fascism.

This seems open and shut to me: the Iraqi journalist should go to jail for a rather long time.
He's right that that's not how we do politics. We do politics with military force and "human-terrain" technology, manipulation of public opinion ("public diplomacy"), and the other tools of modern social science.

UPDATE: For instance, here's "how we do politics" (from the Egyptian paper alMesryoun this morning, h/t RoadstoIraq) :
It was learned that the American embassy in Cairo asked the Egyptian Minister of Information to close the office of the satellite channel AlBaghdadiya [in Cairo]... and to make them halt the broadcast of clips of Bush being attacked with the shoe on the TV screens of Egypt and in other places where they broadcast from Egypt. And they justified the request on the basis that the repeated broadcast of the clip triggers hatred for the United States on the Egyptian and Arab street, and encourages Arab youths to imitate this with their own heads [of state] and their own rulers...
There is a risk of anarchy from this type of behavior, in other words. Sounds like they have Rick Perlstein writing stuff for the US embassy in Cairo.

The paper adds that the Egyptian Information Ministry did not (immediately) reply to the request.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The image: Maliki protecting his joint-venture partner

Reform and Jihad Front (Islamic Army in Iraq and other groups), after praising the journalist for his courageous act, "which will be written in gold in the pages of history", goes on to warn "the government of the Green Zone and the occupation" against laying hands on him or torturing him, "as is your custom in dealing with those who disagree with you." The statement addresses the occupiers, and also "those who aided the occupiers, conspiring with them in the signing of this agreement of shame and dependency:"
Here is the referendum that you were asking for, you have seen it with your own eyes. And the response of the men of the resistance will be of the kind that you are familiar with.
The referendum has been touted as a demand of the Sunni GreenZone parties, so the threat no doubt has a special meaning for them.

LB at RoadstoIraq brings together excerpts from newspapers in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, all in basic agreement with the heading on Atwan's AlQuds alArabi piece: "A suitable farewell to a war-criminal".

Lest people tend to dismiss this as a piece of fun theater, it should be noted that the defining image from this will probably be that of Maliki extending his hand to protect another human being. Not another Iraqi, but his joint-venture partner Bush. Recall that the agreement was supposed to have given Maliki hero status for forcing out the American occupier--a strategy that seems not to have worked out too well. And I think that is part of the reason for the welling-up of praise for this act throughout the Arab world as a courageous act of truth-telling.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Angry Arabs (Updated)

The journalist who threw his shoes at Bush is Muntadhir al-Zeidi and he works for Baghdadiya TV. Translational Broadcasting Studies describes this is as a "moderate Sunni channel", and a glance at their current front page will show you that there isn't anything particularly sectarian about them. For instance today their story on the response to Odierno's latest statement (US forces to remain in Iraqi cities past June 2009) features a Sadrist spokesman.

Angry Arab says AlJazeera has already reported that almost 100 Arab lawyers have offered to defend the man. AlBaghdadiya has already broadcast a statement demanding his immediate release pursuant to the principles of liberty and free expression that the government and the Americans say they champion.

Juan Cole is not amused. He says, without citing any evidence, that the channel "supports the Sunni Arab insurgents fighting the Americans and the Maliki government". I thought he had switched to "Kutbist fundamentalists" for his main sectarian slur, but there you are. As it happens, Azzaman says the man works for several different TV stations, and hails from Sadr City.

Cole is pitching in with the sectarian narrative the best he can, but what about James Glassman US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, isn't he responsible for this happening in the first place? Dude by the name of Laurence Jarvic thinks so. Under the headline: "Time for US Public Diplomacy heads to roll" writes: "Can't afford to wait for the Obama inaguration. Whoever set this up, made up the guest list, and allowed the reporter to throw shoes at President Bush needs to be publicly humiliated him-and/or herself--everyone involved from top to bottom, and that includes JAMES GLASSMAN, author of Dow 36,000 and America's Top Propagandist." I did not know that this same person who is America's top propagandist is also the author of that famous book of a few years ago. I guess it makes sense. The things you learn.

By the way, the NYT reporter on their blog, and Bloomberg in a news report says al-Zeidi in addition to the reported remarks, also said this: "This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq..." Obviously, as Cole says, a supporter of the "Sunni Arab insurgents".

But wait, AlSafir newspaper describes the man as a leftist, according to Angry Arab. I haven't seen that, but I have no doubt that is the type of person Cole would call a supporter of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

Raed Jarrar has an online petition for the immediate release of the journalist. You can sign it here.

Prisoners of science

Possibly it's only me, but isn't there some kind of a family resemblance between the creative-catastrophe people you hear from on the economics blogs, and the withdrawal-agreement-victory people people you hear from elsewhere?

The creative-catastrophe picture involves eventual impairment of US government credit, dollar-devaluation to close to zero, eventual hyper-inflation, and necessary restructuring of all social and economic relationships. The Iraq-victory picture shows the US government humiliated militarily and diplomatically, with untold consequences everywhere else in the world too.

The most obvious common feature is a desire to see an end to the ambiguity and the bullshit that characterize the mainstream picture-painting: Things like calling infinite propping-up of banks "injection of liquidity into the system" when in fact the point is that nothing is being injected "into the system", only into the banks. Things like continuing the GWOT when in fact this is nothing but a war on anyone who shoots at US soldiers anywhere in the world they choose to go. That's the main common feature: Both groups are fed up with the bullshit, and they deserve a lot of credit for highlighting that.

Unfortunately, there is another common feature as well, and that is the tacit adoption or re-importing of crucial elements of the mainstream mindset. For instance, the creative-catastrophe people assume that at some point the orthodox laws from general-equilibrium theory about excess supply leading to plummeting prices (applied to US government debt first, and then to the dollar itself) will eventually make themselves felt. While rejecting bailouts, they are more catholic than the pope when it comes to the application of free-market, general equilibrium theory as an inexorable law that has the final word. So while there is an appearance of having overcome mainstream thinking, that's all it is: appearance.

Similarly, the Iraq-withdrawal-turningpoint people seem to have an almost childlike faith that a piece of paper, just because it has ambassador Crocker's name on it, represents an unambiguous commitment to a humiliating withdrawal by a date certain. There are an amazing number of factors that have to be passed over in silence to make this point, but that only reflects the intensity of the desire to arrive at the longed-for result: Defeat of the empire is not at some time in the future, it is NOW. The appearance of non-mainstream thinking is weaker here than in the case of the creative-catastrophe people, and the emotional "victory and change now" component is more clearly the driving one.

In my opinion it would be better to focus first on what is fundamentally wrong with the mainstream mindset, and then think about solutions.

It is clear to everyone that there are multiple scams buried in the current economic system, and the first question should be: How are these justified and papered over? The answer is that this is the function of economics and the other social sciences. You can only think of the current Bernanke schemes as "pumping liquidity into the system" if you assume that the handful of bank CEOs and their retainers are not actual people, but are ciphers or "actors" in a system that assumes uniform behavior. Jamie Dimon and the guy selling newspapers on the corner are each actors responding, in basically uniform ways, to "price-signals" in the economy. So you overlook, for explanatory purposes, the fact that excess liquidity in the banks' reserve accounts with the central bank are enormous because of decisions by this specific, small group of people not to lend or buy anything with it. In your religion, these are not specific people, but rather "economic actors", and you cannot go behind their actions and ask who they are. This is the function of science. And obviously it only works for economics if you tacitly assign to a particular handful of people the function of representing "the system", and then apply your science to them.

(The only way the current system has of overcoming this situation is to have the judicial authorities arrest people and charge them with crimes. For instance, Bernard Madoff was a NASDAQ market-maker, so what he was doing was part of the system of price-formation in the securities markets. His arrest converted him from the role of agent in a sophisticated price-setting system, into an individual person. It is the only way our system has of extricating itself even for a moment from the bonds of economic science.)

Same with the military-diplomatic story. In this case we have an interesting if inadvertent confession from one of the practitioners, in the branch of political science they call International Relations (IR). At the recent annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Washington, there was a panel on IR, and one of our top scientists in that line of work wanted to know why it is that so few people with an actual grasp of the affairs of Mideast countries contribute to the science (via articles in various IR journalist). The obvious answer was that the science of IR is bullshit if the majority of the practitioners have no grasp of the countries whose relations they are studying, so naturally contributing to IR journalist is also bullshit. And believe it of not, the IR proponent said that isn't good enough. The person with an actual grasp in reality of the country in question (for instance by having a facility with the language spoken by the people who inhabit that country, and so on) has an obligation to show specifically and in detail what it is that the IR bullshitter is missing in his "scientific" analyses. And not the other way around.

Weirdly enough, the preachers of US decisive humiliation in Iraq actually have to reach back into the science of IR in order to make their case. The signed agreement is an internationally binding document (except it isn't); Iraq (in the person of Ali Dabbagh!) is now able to engage in multilateral diplomacy (except they aren't); and so on. This is all very thin stuff, but the point is that in order to make the case that this is something epoch-making in the international order of things, you apparently have to fall back on the cliches of the "science" of International Relations.

So in both cases what you have is a self-styled "radical" view that in fact relies on nothing so much as conventional "scientific" thinking.

If you were to scrape away the sham of conventional economics from the crisis, obviously the solution would be to jail the money-center bank CEOs for fraud, and rev up the economy with some combination of well-run regional banks and direct federal-government lending. Similarly in the case of Iraq, scraping away the sham of IR science would highlight the question who these actual people are that constitute the "government of Iraq" and why is the US continuing to support them. Even Maliki himself is campaigning of the theme that the "political process" was rotten from the beginning because it was founded on the idea of sect- and ethnic-based allocations. And yet on the basis of this shabby history, and with a leg-up from political science, the shenanigans of this group of people and their sham victory over America are touted as a victory for the left.

(Links available on request)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Let's pretend we're special

The $14 billion emergency Detroit bailout bill was killed in the Senate last night by southern Republican senators, representing states hosting non-union, foreign-capital auto plants, and the strike issue for these southern Senators was their demand for the UAW to agree to a speedy cut in wages and benefits that would bring the Big-3 down to the level of the non-union southern auto-plants. That was the issue. Whether you want to think of this as southern nostalgia for the era of sharecropping, or as a looking-forward to the promised age of universal unfettered global capital, the point is the same: This was a regional, sectarian issue, and the regional, sectarian demands took precedence over any national considerations.

I won't belabor the issue, but if this was Iraq, the affair would have been touted as a clear illustration of the weakness and superficiality of (Iraqi) "nationalism", and proof positive that real-world issues are treated merely within the framework of narrow competing interest-groups, with no true reflection of the national interest. Recall the whole celebration of the idea that "the powers that be" versus "the powers that aren't" explains everything. What we need now is someone like Sam Parker from the United States Institute of Peace to delve deep into American history and show how yesterday's historic fiasco was the inevitable reflection of the sectarian battle between the rust-belt Democrats in Detroit and the confederate creationist free-marketeers of the Old South. Because that, mutatis mutandis as we say, is what the suits and the corporate media have made of Iraq. Takes one to know one, I guess.

Meanwhile you have to listen very carefully to catch any reflection of this among the "center-left". Here's the strongest thing I could find: Matt Yglesias quotes someone by the name of Sara Binder who writes:
...The geographic concentration of the domestic auto industry in the Rustbelt radically limits the industry’s voting power in the Senate. Nor has the spread of foreign automakers in search of lower labor costs into the South helped the Big Three’s cause, as southern senators—already ideologically predisposed to shun direct government support for the auto industry—seem unswayed by the potential for a heavily-unionized domestic industry in the Midwest to go bankrupt. And unfortunate for the Big Three, few of the remaining Senate GOP moderates yet appear to be on board for the bailout package.
That's one way to put it. And lest anyone make too much of this, Matt adds:
Not earth-shattering revelations — this is about what you’d expect.
The only explanation I can think of is this: Since they assume American political culture is inherently superior to Iraqi political culture or any other political culture for that matter--in fact that American political culture is immune to the kind of break-up they trumpet in other countries--it follows that the political spectacle of the Confederates bringing down Detroit is "not earth-shattering". Let's pretend, is what they're saying.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Let me tell you about my dreams

Azzaman tells us the purpose of Maliki sidekick Ali Dabbagh's current visit to Washington is to work out with US officials implementation priorities for the security agreement, adding "Dabbagh said Wednesday he has had discussions with a number of officials in the new administration, aimed at arranging priorities for the coming period of time, following the signing of the agreement for th withdrawal of forces and the strategic agreement between Washington and Baghdad..." and that the round of talks started with Mark Kimmett, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs. So it appears he is having talks with a mix of people from the permanent bureaucracy and the incoming administration. However, the Azzaman reporter wasn't able to tell us anything about the content of these talks.

Meanwhile, the "progressive" watchdogs in Washington focus on a speech Dabbagh made to the United States Institute of Peace, in which he talked about an entirely different project, namely the dream of an alliance of Iraq with its neighbors something like the European Union. This met with the approval in principle of Cobban and Lynch because in theory it presupposes some kind of regional structure for dialogue including Iran and some of the Arab states. But they didn't show any curiosity about the more practical questions, including the relationship of this to the main purpose of Dabbagh's visit, namely working out details of the US-Iraq security agreement, or about the relationship of this proposal to Iraqi domestic politics. While the former might have taken some digging, the latter connection seems quite clear. To wit:

Reportedly, Dabbagh included in his remarks a hint about the domestic purport of his EU-imitation proposal. He described his proposal as a manifestation of a "self-initiated democracy", which is something "much better than an imposed formula, and we noticed for the last five years there is an objection...against that imposed formula." Dabbagh to USIP: See, we are snubbing you America, with your imposed formulas." As a rhetorical or election-oriented talking point, this is entirely in keeping with recent remarks by Maliki indicating that to some extent he intends to run in the coming provincial elections on a platform opposing the 2003 sectarian-allocation system that he himself symbolizes and heads. For instance, according to IraqAlaan a couple of days ago:
Speaking to a group of tribal Sheikhs in Karbala on Wednesday at the start of Eid al Adha on the Shiite calendar, Maliki criticized the political system because of its "failure to distribute jobs and appointments on the basis of qualifications". He said "qualifications are not valued, as long as this reality persists," adding: "We have been forced to adopt this system, and I will not say any more than that."
Naturally, in the mouth of Maliki and Dabbagh this is entirely rhetorical, but it is worth remembering that in recent years, this kind of radical talk about the evil that was introduced as a "political process" in 2003, and the need for a fresh start, was something of a trademark of the armed resistance. Of course the Maliki/Dabbagh rhetoric doesn't mean anything in practice, and certainly nobody knows how successful Maliki's bizarre adoption of this theme will be for him in the coming elections, but at least you'd think it is something the "progressive" folk would want to be paying as much attention as they are paying to his "dreams".

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What they're afraid of

Faisal alRubiae, writing in the Qatari paper AlArab, explains what is behind this unprecedented wave of anti-sectarian rhetoric from Maliki, Hashemi and other big names in the "political process". He says you need to put this in the context of the provincial-council elections planned for end-January, and more importantly pay attention to an important shift in the whole tenor of popular opinion about politics.
Because opinion polls and other efforts to take the pulse of Iraqi public opinion demonstrate very clearly today the fact that there is an amazing change going on in the popular political climate: simply stated, what has become dominant is the rejection of parties that are religious and "sectarian", Shia and Sunni alike, and this has triggered concern in influential circles [in the ruling parties] who no longer doubt that the Iraqi elector will vote in the coming elections for secular parties in defiance [or at the expense] of the religious and sectarian parties.
So that is his first point, namely that there has been a sea-change in Iraqi attitudes to the sect-dominated "political process", and the big governing parties themselves have become aware of the threat.

And he says this is what explains a number of recent political dramas. For instance:
Moreover, the continuing latent struggle between the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council over the tribal "support councils" that have been formed by the government is merely one expression of the degree of panic about ascendency of the "secularists in the regions of the South", and as part of that, the fear that the Dawa Party--without the Supreme Council--could get a majority [in local councils] in the event that votes are cast in favor of the secularists and the liberals. [He seems to be saying either that a secular/liberal trend would hurt the Supreme Council more than it would hurt the Dawa, or else that it might actually help the Dawa, via the "support councils".]
The same thing is happening among the Sunni parties:
This is the same fear that has driven Sunni entities to declare the "crisis of the quota system". [These are the Sunni parties that] called themselves "representatives of the Sunni people" and agreed to the establishment of this system on a sectarian basis, in fact they insisted on its being necessary and vital, for instance when they passed the constitution in exchange for a promise that some of its clauses would be altered in a matter of months....
The Islamic Party, and the Accord Front generally, are facing not only the problems of the Shiite religious parties in the face of this resurgence of secularism, but also an additional problem: To the extent they preach the "crisis of the sectarian allocation system" and nothing is done, supposing they do poorly in the proincial elections, they risk losing what little influence they do have in the ruling setup. And they don't know what secular movements in the Sunni community could arise to take their place.

The politicians in the ruling parties realize this is no passing or secondary problem, but rather a threat to their control of regions (the author uses the expression "federaliat"--federal regions) on the part of "powers they had not paid any attention to". But while they realize the problem is a serious one for them, still their proposals are not going to go beyond what you could call a rhetorical "out-bidding" of one another, rather than any serious suggestions for radical change.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Maliki (and Hashemi) planning to run as anti-sectarian liberals !

Tareq alHashemi, vice president of the republic and head of the Islamic Party of Iraq, said recently he would be prepared to relinquish his post in the government and urge other party members to do the same, if the other parties would agree to a thorough restructuring of the government along non-sectarian lines. This election-oriented and completely impractical idea of renouncing--at this late date--the sectarian-allocation system that brought his party to power, is now being imitated by none other than Prime Minister Maliki himself. In a speech to tribal supporters at a football stadium near Karbala, Maliki congratulated himself on the "miraculous" improvements in security during his tenure, but at the same time criticized the narrow and sectarian political system that has been in place since 2003. IraqAlaan summarizes the talk this way:
[Maliki] described the accomplishments of the last two years in the security area as "miraculous", but he criticized the current political system for its lack of a just allocation of posts on the basis of real qualifications. Speaking to a group of tribal Sheikhs in Karbala on Wednesday at the start of Eid al Adha on the Shiite calendar, Maliki criticized the political system because of its "failure to distribute jobs and appointments on the basis of qualifications". He said "qualifications are not valued, as long as this reality persists," adding: "We have been forced to adopt this system, and I will not say any more than that."
In other words, Maliki is indicating he will be running against the system of sectarian and ethnic quotas that was introduced by Bremer following the American invasion.

The journalist notes this isn't the first time Maliki has taken that line. He writes:
It will be recalled that Prime Minister Maliki has recently started directing criticism that some have called provocative, against the political system that has been in place since 2003, and some of these statements have caused tension with other important participants in the political process including the Kurds and the Supreme Council...
Ladybird of RoadstoIraq calls attention to an enlightening essay by Iraqi journalist Faisal alRubaie explaining what is behind this apparently strange turn of events. She cites the gist of it. I would like to say a little more about in in the next post.

Another inconvenient view

A Kurdish Iraqi, writing in the Jordanian paper AlGhad, says the Turkish government is looking for a way to balance the expected diminution in American military cooperation against the PKK (an expected result of the "withdrawal" agreement with Baghdad). And he says in order to do this, the Turkish strategy will likely be to try and strike a deal directly with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq (with its American leanings), rather than with the Iranian-oriented government in Baghdad. This is so, even though the Kurdistan regional government has been demanding "recognition" as its price for that kind of cooperation against the PKK.

The writer, Sami Shroush (apparently a former minister in the Kurdish regional government), stresses how helpful the Americans have been to the Turks in recent months, for instance with intelligence about PKK guerilla movements and tacit okays for bombing raids. He notes that after January 1, approval for these raids would have to come from Baghdad, an unlikely event. More promising would be some kind of agreement between Turkey and the Kurdistan regional government. Hence the appeal of the latter kind of agreement, even if it means "recognition".

He concludes his essay:
The fact is that Ankara is looking to ease these fears (about the PKK continuing to use Iraqi Kurdistan as a base) by moving in the direction of normalization of its relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, and entering in to a period of discussion and cooperation with the Kurdistan regional government. It is true that the Kurds are demanding as their price the official recognition of their regional government, in return for protecting the border areas from the illegal activities of the PKK. But according to a number of journalistic, political and academic reports in Turkey, it would be best to balance the absence of American military forces with a political and military alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan.

And it seems probable that Washington has advised Ankara to move in this direction. Even so, in spite of this conviction that the best option available will be to prioritize improving cooperation with the Kurds (American) in order to stabilize the situation on their southern border, over cooperation with Iraqi government (Iranian)--[over and above this conviction] there are still big concerns in Turkish political circles about the implications of the post-agreement situation.
This writer's basic idea is that post-"withdrawal", Turkey will probably prioritize direct negotiations with the Kurdistan regional government, over negotiations with Baghdad, and morever, it seems likely that is what the Americans have advised them to do. This would be an important feather in the Kurdistan regional government's cap, and it would seem to be consistent with the Biden plan, something the Washington suits seem to have banned from polite conversation; just as it is inconsistent with their preaching about American exercise of "strategic leverage" in the service of pan-Iraqi political reconciliation in Baghdad. But of course the polite thing right now seems to be: keep your mouth shut, the Iraq story is over.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The best and the brightest--basic theme

Quem vocet divum populus ruentis
imperi rebus? Prece qua fatigent
virgines sanctae minus audientem
carmina Vestam?

Whom will the people call on in the collapse of the empire?
With what prayer can the holy virgins call out the Vesta
if she doesn't listen to their song?

Cui dabit partis scelus expiandi
Iuppiter? Tandem venias, precamur,
nube candentis umeros amictus,
augur Apollo.

To whom will Juppiter assign the part of expiating our crime?
Come at length, we pray, Apollo,
your shoulders wrapped in a bright cloud

[Or perhaps you, Mercury should come, disguised as the emperor Augustus]

And then he addresses Augustus:

Serus in caelum redeas, diuque
laetus intersis populo Quirini
neve te nostris vitiis iniquum
ocior aura

Return only late to heaven,
and instead be pleased to be for a long time among us.
And let not the air earlier
[you] offended by our vices

Tollat. Hic magnos potius triumphos,
hic ames dici pater atque princeps,
neu sinas Medos equitare inultos,
te duce, Cesar.

Take you. Rather be pleased with triumphs here
Be pleased to be called father and prince.
Nor permit the Persians unpunished to ride against us,
You our leader, Caesar!

--Horace writing in the first century BC.
Carminum Lib I, ii

(The meter goes like this, using italics for the long syllables):

Quem vo cet di vum po pu lus ru en tis

there ya go