Sunday, March 29, 2009

On political writing

AlQuds alArabi prints an op-ed by Egyptian writer Mohammed Diab called "Political writing, and the issue of Liberalism and its relationship to projects for change".

He says political writing has become more like a form of armed combat than of civilized debate. The principles of tolerance, admission that true assertions can contain mistakes and vice versa, that circumstances can change truths into falsehoods--all of this tends to be forgotten in the heat of battle.

Let's distinguish, he says, between evil and error, the one being subject to correction by force, the other not.

Within all of the political currents in the region--state-nationalist, Arab nationalist, Islam-nationalist, Marxist, Liberal--there are parallels and cross-currents, and there is no reason why the proponents cannot live together in peace, provided that those above-mentioned principles continue to be respected. On the other hand, in all of them there is or can be an absolutist strain, for instance Islam-nationalism can degenerate into the intolerance of the takfiiris; Arabism sometimes risks consorting with racism; and so on.

The extreme case of absolutism is contemporary Egypt, where the group that holds power has build built for itself a systematic structure of corruption and self-interest.

Summarized in this way, the piece sounds like a string of liberal cliches. Particularly if you are not Egyptian and not Arab and have the Western homogenized picture of that region. Why would a big, radical paper and a regular columnist waste time with platitudes? I think the answer is that platitudes are in the eye of the beholder. When Diab says: Let's distinguish between those wrong positions that have to be dealt with by force, and those that can be dealt with in other ways, I think he is doing us the favor of burrowing his way back to the source of what we all think we hold in common: And it is that the nature of humans and human society is such that the exercise of force only needs to have a very limited sphere of application, while that of education and discussion ought to have a very wide sphere of application. (Here I snuck in that word "education"...)

This is a principle--minimize the use of force and maximize discussion and education--that has been subverted more than anywhere in America itself, where most political debates now revolve around military or a law-enforcement policy, and where education is seen as something in the service of either technical advancement to keep up with our enemies, or in the case of language-education is something in the service of national security. Moreover, to get back to his point about political writing, the problem isn't just in the Arab world, because in America the polarizing tendency is stronger than anywhere. What doesn't seem to be clear is the fact that this is a symptom of the same root cause--namely the loss of that original insight into what it is that is supposed to make us people and not manipulable objects.


That's not very well said, and it's not his fault, it's my fault. It's because I've run out of the kind of patience you'd need to come to grips with this. Or maybe it's that blogging isn't the right format. In any event, that's it for me, I'm going to be taking up small farming* instead. Warm thanks to those who commented, and those who didn't but still read the things with attention. And good courage to those who are able to still keep at it.

* I hear there's good money in chickens, and very little work involved. No matter how bad things get, people will always need eggs. Think about it. And feathers to stuff all those f*cking suits with, now that you mention it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Washington solipsism

The announcement and interpretations of the Afghanistan/Pakistan "policy" have said nothing about those actual countries, and here is the reason:

The problem--"how to make the US government move"--has now been solved, as the USIP dude says.
“We have never seen this level of political attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is easy to underestimate how much that attention means.” Beyond the additional diplomatic, aid, and military U.S. personnel being committed to the mission, Thier added, “Fundamentally to have such high level support by people such as Richard Holbrooke who really know how to make the U.S. government move – we haven’t seen before.” J. Alex Thier of USIP
So naturally we can now expect smooth sailing, says CAP:
I think the odds of the multi-modal influx of military forces, civilian development and governance experts, and money working are pretty good. MY
In other words, the view is that the debilitating effects of inter-agency sectarianism have been overcome--in Washington. If you want to know what that has got to do with anything in the region, well...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Funny stories in international finance

Paul Krugman has famously complained of a feeling of policy-despair, and now in the Atlantic, a former chief economist at the IMF has a similar complaint.

Without questioning the fact that they have good grounds for despair, I would like to point out that there is something funny here.

Funny issue # 1

Krugman, in the Japan crisis of the 90s, argued that the problem was entirely monetary, and that restructuring was not necessary. In the current US case, he is arguing that restructuring, at least in the form of bank-nationalizations is necessary. Fair enough. Instead of re-arguing the Japanese case, what I would like to point out here is merely the pattern.

What Krugman and others were urging the Bank of Japan to do was to be more aggressive in making interest rates (1) fall to zero; then (2) via "quantitative easing" flood the banks with liquidity reserves in exchange for their bad assets, supposedly in hopes they would eventually have so much liquidity they would start to lend to the real economy and finally (3) commit to keeping interest rates at zero nominal levels until inflation had heated up to a pre-defined level ("inflation targeting"). So it was zero interest rates; then in real inflation-adjusted terms sub-zero interest rates; to continue until inflation reached a pre-defined level. Banks (short-term borrowers) ended up borrowing almost exclusively from the Bank of Japan, making fish-in-a-barrel spreads buying almost exclusively government-issued securities.

Those whose ox was gored in this were obviously Japanese households, whose savings in the domestic market were now earning close to zero-rate yields, absent unfamiliar risk-taking (in a lot of cases this ended up being in foreign currencies), but the household sector was not much heard-from. They were particular losers in this (not to mention the fact that this chilled consumption spending and contributed to lengthening the slump in that way).

That seems to be what is happening now in the US, only this is not seen as aggressive and innovative, but rather as essentially corrupt, with "quantitative easing" now seen to be more appropriately called "cash for trash" (Krugman); and with inflation targeting now apparently a taboo expression. My point here is merely about the pattern. It seems to have become a form of orthodoxy: Rescue the banks first, by cutting nominal rates to zero; then by flooding them with liquidity. Krugman, who opposes this policy in his own back yard, was quite a vigorous proponent of it for the Japanese. So it goes.

Funny story # 2

Japan is a country with foreign currency reserves, and America can sort of create its own, but what about chronic international debtors? Here the pattern was set by the IMF in the debt-restructurings in Latin America starting in the 1970s. And here again I would just like to point up the pattern. The policy was to lend to these governments (via the IMF) but only on condition that the governments switch from supporting their domestic-demand sector, to supporting their export sector. Via things like currency-devaluations, elimination of consumption-goods subsidies, and other means. This was dressed up in different ways, but the people participating in the anti-IMF food riots of that period knew what the the story was: IMF policy was to force a switch to exports in order to earn foreign currency to repay the US and European banks. The threat was often made explicit. If a government defaults, it will never, ever again be able to access international capital markets.

The pattern here--for chronic-debtor countries--was to punish the domestic-demand sector in order to ramp up exports (naturally there was a trickle-down argument to go with this). While for countries like Japan and the US, the new orthodoxy is to punish the household sector via zero (nominal) and sub-zero (real inflation-adusted) interest rates. In both cases the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow has been to resuscitate the banks at the expense of the household sector.

(The former-IMF dude makes a point of IMF efforts in recent years to confront local oligarchies and force them to "take a hit", but one wonders. He skates around the essential structure of these deals with this: "Almost always, countries in crisis need to learn to live within their means after a period of excess—exports must be increased, and imports cut—and the goal is to do this without the most horrible of recessions. Naturally, the fund’s economists spend time figuring out the policies—budget, money supply, and the like—that make sense in this context. Yet the economic solution is seldom very hard to work out.") With the government and the oligarchs at the table with the IMF, and the working people having only the streets, it is a considerable imposition to be asked to believe, just on this man's word, that "what makes sense in this context" is the kind of crusading for social justice that he seems to be suggesting.

In any event, this is what I find funny: Krugman and the former IMF dude were participants and proponents in this process, and now they are against it. I believe the reason is that people where they live--in the USA--are suddenly waking up to what it means. As opposed to where other people live. Not perhaps waking up to what the whole picture is, but certainly enough to understand that there is a class that is being enriched, at the expense of another class that is being impoverished.

Hence this somewhat funny policy about-face. Not that they aren't right about the need for bank-nationalizations, just that I think they could be a little more forthright about how the system has been working.

From the Annals of the Historian


In the first year, in the spring, the court was in decline
the poets were writing satire


is the road [to Sichuan, over the high mountains]
more difficult than climbing the blue heaven...

--Li Bai


Monday, March 23, 2009

News, and a question about JournoList

On March 19, Prime Minister Maliki's office issued a statement clarifying the meaning of his recent statements about an opening to those outside the political process, and in particular the ambiguous point about the Baath party as such, the Baath party under different names, ex-Baathists, guilty Baathists, and so on. And also the relevance or otherwise of talk about constitutional amendments The statement began like this:
There have been calls by Prime Minister Maliki's to effect national reconciliation according to the conditions defined by the Constitution and in accordance with the program for national reconciliation and preparation for a program of political reform, and to eliminate the equivocations that have been published by some of the information media...on the stance with respect to the banned Baath Party, we clarify for this matter for everyone, so that they can deal with it without unnecessary fear or anxiety: The Constitution forbids the discussion or any return to activity of the dissolved Baath party, or any articipation by it in the political process, on account of its having commited horrible crimes against all of the entities of the people of Iraq for a period of 35 years, and on account of its promotion and exercies of sectarian and racial ideas. We therefore urge everyone to respect this principle, and with respect to all the names or the faces of the interred Baath party. This party, which bears all of the responsibility for the suffering of the Iraqi people and for their humanitarian, political, security and economic situation, is not able to be a national party or one that respects the Constitution, and anyone who thinks to have discussions with them, let alone permit them to participate in the political process, is commiting a clear violation of the Constitution...
but you get the picture.

The message appears to have sunk in, and yesterday AlHayat published a piece headed: "The Iraqi government announces its rejection of Baathist participation in the political process under any of its names..." outlining the above-quoted statement, and noting that not only do the proponents of what they thought was a reconciliation process object to this, but the people on the other side (SupremeCouncil affiliates and others) also object to it, because they say the statement didn't go far enough.

Saleh Al-Mutlak of the Nantional Dialog Council said it is now clear that the Maliki government is unable to carry though a reconciliation process, and he blamed this on pressure from Maliki's coalition partners.

On the other side, AlHayat says a group called the Popular Movement for the Dissolution of the Baath,
[which was] founded a couple of weeks ago, and is thought to be close to the Supreme Islamic Council [Hakim's group] rejected the latest statements by Maliki [the one quoted above], and said the government should cut off all communications with the Baathists immediately, and announce that with a statement that doesn't bear any constuctions or require any interpretation. And [the group demanded that the government] dismiss all Baathists who have returned to their jobs and immediately institute court trials of the Baathists who have fled, and issue arrest warrants against them, and hold them accountable for the crimes of the 35 years of Baathist rule.


Sadrist politician Bahaa Al-Araji made extended remarks to the Iraqi Press Agency on the same subject. He said no one needs to worry about any Baathist political resurgence, partly because of the Constitutional ban. But he did say: "It is very clear that there are Baathists or Sadaamists who have already, very unfortunately, entered into various positions in the state, on account of differences between the political blocs". And he continues: "We also need to pay attention to the timing of this reconciliation", referring among other meetings to a tour of Arab capitals almost two years ago by Petraeus and Crocker, demanding the Arab governments open embassies in Baghdad. Al-Araji says the quid pro quo demanded by the Arab governments was the return of Saddamist Baathists to Iraqi political life.
And as a result, very regrettably, there are commitments that were made by the government. These commitments were secret, and they need to be revoked.

Now as to the timing--and this is an important point--the timing as you know is with the requirements of the agreement--which we [Sadrists] do not have confidence in, and it would have been better if the United States had withdrawn--and therefore before withdrawal the United States wants to give a large share of political and govermental permanency (qarrar) to the Baath.
This idea of linkage of re-Baathification to the American withdrawal schedule isn't unique to Al-Araji; for instance Fadhil AlRubaie made the same point recently here. And here, in the Egyptian paper Al-Shorouq. In all cases the linkage is referred to as a matter of more or less common knowledge, in the process of making various arguments about what it means.

This linkage of Maliki's problematic re-Baathification (or non-re-Baathification) initiative to the American withdrawal strategy--and what is now obviously the un-reconciliatory character of it--are obviously important for an understanding of the Obama Mideast policy generally.

The corporate media are silent, but more interestingly the big blogs are silent as well. I will probably be hooted down for asking this, but who is or are the JournoList "experts" on Iraq and what are they saying to the assembled multitude of influential bloggers about this?

Just curious.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fame and war-promotion on the left

For what it's worth, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, 19-year-old up-and-coming blogger Ezra Klein explained why he was a strong supporter a US war against Iraq, despite his dislike of Bush, and the text is here (thanks to an alert commenter on his blog). (You have to scroll one-third of the way down, to March 6, 2003 post called: "Why the Hawks of the Left Must Not Falter"). Saddam, he wrote, is a threat to the region because of his nuclear-arms ambitions, and for that reason alone, American war on Iraq in order to topple him "is a goal very much worth supporting," despite the fact Bush was going at it the wrong way. He wrote that March 6, 2003, and two days later March 8, he expressed his humble thanks to then already-famous Matt Yglesias for a nice recommendation and including him on his blogroll. It could well have been the day that Ezra realized the power of accepting and promulgating conventional wisdom as a basis for popular advancement. (Unfortunately, MY archives for 2003 don't seem to be available).

The discussion about JournoList, which he recently (?) founded has mostly missed the point. The point being that people have a legitimate expectation that journalists and others, to the extent they rely on sources, whether attributable or not, in any event each relies on his own sources. It should be sort of blindingly obvious that each reporter has his own sources, and others have different sources, so there is diversity. And to the extent bloggers rely on sources, there is a natural expectation that there will be the same kind of diversity.

That is the revolutionary point of JournoList (and maybe of Townhouse before it, but very little was ever said about Townhouse): namely that everyone on the list had the same sources. No one outside the list can really say anything more, but the point is you don't have to. And the point isn't that everyone was brought to agree on everything. The point was merely that there was--is--a common fund of so-called "expertise" relied on by all the big-volume "progressive" bloggers, so there was, and is, a common set of assumptions.

And if you want to see a clear outline of what those common assumptions were in March 2003, read the Ezra Klein post linked-to above.

And what are those common assumptions today? We don't know officially, but if you read carefully the JournoList people today, you can get the drift of it: Israeli atrocities are not a big deal; but the Iranian "nuclear issue" is a big deal. Just substitute "Iran" for "Iraq" in the above-linked Ezra Klein post and you will see the logic.

And so it goes, like holding a deck of cards. Iraq was at the top, then Iran, next Pakistan, then what...

Commenter Zephyrus at the American prospect blog put it plainly:

The "Hawks of the Left Must Not Falter" piece is cringe-inducing. And then you realize that that's the kind of stuff that has led to the death of over half a million Iraqis, and you want to puke.

And then you realize that EK and MY and all of those serious thinkers* are the ones who have all the hype about them nowadays, and you despair.


*Here's Matt doing his serious thinking dipsy-doodle about the war on Afghanistan:
I worry that proponents of scaling-up our efforts in Afghanistan are in fact offering too little too late and just don't want to admit that the door has closed on their prescriptions. Even so, it's probably the right bet -- we owe it to the Afghan people to try in good faith to offer security and a start rebuilding their country before we conclude that we need to radically restrict our goals and settle for stand-off airstrikes against high-value terrorist targets. But at the same time, the administration needs to avoid a losing bet that sticks us with a quagmire.
He worries, but in the final analysis he sees that we owe the people of Afghanistan... just as Ezra worried, but at the same time he saw the need for war: It was what we owed the people of Iraq.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chalabi says the CIA was expecting a Baathist coup against Saddam

AlHayat prints the first installment of an extended interview with Ahmed Chalabi--it would be a tough job for some poor soul to translate, if anyone were to bother, let alone annotate with all the necessary caveats given the man's reputation. Meanwhile, the first thing that jumped out at As'ad AbuKhalil was Chalabi's mention of the famous "liberal" Kanaan Makiya as a co-conspirator with Chalabi and others in paving the way for the 2003 American invasion. To the LB of RoadstoIraq, an Iraqi, the first thing that jumped out at her was the mention of a similar role by the Jordanian King Abdullah.

For me, this part cried out for attention:

Following meetings in late 2002 in Iran that Chalabi says included himself, representatives of the Supreme Council, Barzani and Talabani, with senior Iranian military and political officials, there was then a meeting in London in December 2002. Chalabi says the Iraqis had decided to form a provisional government, before the invasion, "to take part in the liberation" and to act as an interim government thereafter. But at the meeting in London, Zalmay Khalilzad, on specific orders from the White House, vetoed the idea, and said there would instead be an interim American or Coalition Provisional Authority. And this veto was repeated by Khalilzad at a meeting with a similar Iraqi group in Salahuddin in February 2003.

The interview asks Chalabi what the reason was, and Chalabi replied as follows:
My explanation is that [the Americans] did not want the opposition [meaning primarily himself, the Supreme Council and the Kurdish parties] to control this [interim] government, and they were convinced--particularly the CIA--that it was within their ability to obtain the support of military leaders in Iraq and members of the Baath party to replace Saddam and rebel against him. And up until the last moment they were expecting these people to play a role in [regime-]change in Iraq. And they were saying that the formation of an interim government would make these people turn away from supporting replacement of Saddam, and would make them stand with him.
I haven't read any of the Americans' memoirs and so on, so I don't know what kind of real corroboration or otherwise there may be from Washington for the report that the CIA was expecting Baathists to carry out a coup. (In the interview Chalabi cites books by Douglas Feith and Bob Woodward). But to the extent that such a thing is plausible, the parallel with current events is striking. Because in the face of Maliki's current "opening", and the shadowy reports of US pressure in that direction, what the Supreme Council is now saying is that they would accept the return of former Baathists, but only those who opposed Saddam, presumably the same group of people that the CIA was looking to back in 2003.

The whole thing dressed up as a drastic new departure for a "post-sectarian" Iraq.

Michael Moore said somewhere in that film: "Maybe it was all a dream".

Friday, March 20, 2009

What is Pakistan? (With a few added links to show what this is about)

Too much has been made about the uniqueness of Jonathan Krohn, the gifted 14-year-old conservative thinker and talk-show radio orator featured in the NYT a few days ago.

Because there's 24-year-old Ezra Klein, too, who writes:
Sometimes I need to know about Pakistan before the ICG issues its report,
explaining the usefulness of the secret-membership e-mail "JournoList" that he created.

The point being that to the extent you are dealing with superficial airheads, to that degree you have less need of actual conspiring-together in order to produce the kind of lock-step of opinion that afflicts us.

I think it is a point that was missed by some of the commenters at places like this.


One of my woodland friends tells me this is pretty much incomprehensible.

By way of explanation I should have included this link to a piece called Inside the echo chamber, that started the current discussion, such as it is.

And a link to this piece about the equally mysterious Townhouse e-mail list, apparently the predecessor of JournoList, including a number of links in the footnotes.

And maybe a link to this Mother Jones article from 2007.

I started complaining about the lockstep-"expertise" problem in Iraq-blogging back in August 2007 with this post called "How the big blogs mislead you" (or try searching "food-chain" in the search box at the upper left on this page), and the problem now is the same as it was then.

It is a bubble. And by now we should understand what happens in any area when influential groups with their tails in the air are persuaded to take complicated "expertise" on faith, and reproduce it in mass-market forms, when they don't really understand what they are talking about.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Today's US/Baath alliance news, the Sadrist-leaning news-site, says this:
In a serious followup to the recent reports that have spoken of an American/British plan to return the Baathists to the scene of power in Iraq, including participation in, or control of, the government, via what the General Secretary of the Arab League has called "the broadening of national reconciliation in Iraq", to include Baathists, the Norwegian newspaper [looks like Liftes Gang, I'm still not sure what this is] publishes an important report about communications between the Baathists, the American intelligence agency CIA, and British officials responsible for the Iraq file.

The report talks about pressure on America from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Gulf countries to curb Shiite influence, and to work for the return of Baathist army and intelligence officers to power in Iraq. And it talks about three special flights, carrying Baathist politicians and officers from Sanaa to Baghdad in the last two weeks.
The above-mentioned link includes as an appendix the whole Norwegian article, it is very convenient, you can go there, run the thing through the Google language-translator Arabic-to-English for the gist of the Nahrainnet piece, then run it through in Norwegian-to-English to get the gist of the Norwegian piece. Very convenient.

In any event, the Norwegian report says most of the meetings in question were in Jordan and Yemen, and it says the American ambassador in Sanaa, Stephen Seche, has played an important role in the talks. It says the Baathists who have gone to Baghad for talks, are relying on security and legal assurances from Maliki, obtained as a result of pressure from the Americans.


Lest you think it is only the Nahrainnet types that are reading Baathist meaning into the above-quoted phrase of Amr Mussa, here is what the perhaps Baath-leaning paper Azzaman has to say this morning in its summary of one or more of Mussa's meeting with Iraqi government leaders:
A source summarized what happened for Azzaman by saying the main concepts Mussa proposed to the group were centered on amending the constitution calling it the final and necessary guarantor of reconciliation. And the source indicated that he went so far as to say that lack of constitutional amendment will mean lack of reconciliation.
And the other point the source mentioned was that Mussa promised to pass along Iraqi government requests to Arab regimes for debt-relief.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Another (skeptical) reference to the idea of "a new political process"

Iraqi writer Fadhil Al-Rubaie, continuing his series in the Qatari paper AlArab on Iraqi national policy, has some interesting observations on what people think the current American position is, and what it means.

He describes discussion among expat Iraqis and others opposed to the occupation and the current political process. The discussions cover all kinds of "national reconciliation" issues, and there are the examples of Somalia, Palestine and Lebanon.

But first he makes some observations about the current peculiarities of the Iraqi case, as follows:
The noteworthy thing is that Washington, which promoted the passage of the Law on Dismantlement of the Iraqi Baath party ["De-Baathification Law"]is now promoting--secretly--a line that urges the abolition of that law, as an initial step on the road to agreement, which would lead, in the final analysis, to the launch of a "new political process", where all of the significant interests could sit at the table of a broad national dialogue.

Information is circulating that President Obama called Prime Minister Maliki and asked him to stop all of the legal measures relating to the prosecution of Tariq Aziz, deputy Prime Minister in the prior regime. And it seems, putting all indications together, that the new American administration is strongly interested in seeing Tariq Aziz released without delay.

In fact to dig into the [concept of the] American withdrawal by August 2010, and/or its delay and its definition, including the question whether it is a real or merely a formal withdrawal, would require linking [the idea of] withdrawal with [the idea of] launch of a new political process that would lead to reconciliation. And in other words, one would have to observe how military withdrawal--as illustrated in the above three instances--can be converted into a motive making Iraqis lay down a "project for agreement among Iraqis".

And for that we need to put the following embarrassing question: namely whether in any of the four cases (including Iraq), national reconciliation has led to any of those countries retaining their geographical identity once they were united politically?
He offers very brief remarks on Somalia, Palestine and Lebanon suggesting that the answer is: "really, no". With respect to Iraq in particular, he says there are already indications of de facto "federalist" measures, for instance: Already the governor of Najaf has instituted a requirement for Ashura visitors to obtain a provincial Visa at the airport; and in Basra the provincial governor has recently decided on construction of a network of roads and bridges linking [Basra] with the Iranian region of Tanuma, and with the Kuwaiti region of Safwan, all without reference to the central government, and this is permitted by the Law on Provincial Councils.

So what about national reconciliation discussed by Iraqis? This will be for the next installment.


(See also this piece by LB at RoadstoIraq. What I have tried to do here is merely spell out what could well be an Iranian view and/or Daawa-party view of what the American administration is currently up to in Iraq.)

AlBayyana AlJadida, an Iraqi paper that supports the Daawa Party and Prime Minister Maliki, printed on its front page the other day a summary of what it describes as a plan
being prepared by the American administration with the cooperation of countries in the region neighboring Iraq including Saudi Arabia, aiming at the destruction and ending of the ideological Shiite government in Iraq.
The plan is described as having "several dimensions and scenarios":
First of all setting off a security crisis by means of a sudden increase in suicide operations, to bring down the Maliki government by portraying it as weak an ineffective in the face of the security challenges, and [by emphasizing the role of] Maliki as commander in chief of the armed forces and the person primarily responsible for the security portfolio, instigating the people against the government as a failure.

Secondly, working on spreading rumors against the Minister of Finance, Eng. Baqr Jabar Al-Zubaidi, laying on him responsibility for the budgetary errors, when in fact the person responsible for that is the Oil Minister, for his failure to increase production and delays in exports...

The third dimension [of this plan] is to emphasize by means of a media campaign that Maliki has in his cabinet ministers whom he cannot fire in spite of their involvement in corruption and the struggle for appointments, and also to work with separatist Kurdish elements to do the following:
And there is a list of five objectives, starting with securing the election of Iyad Al-Samarraie as president or speaker of Parliament in preparation for a non-confidence motion against Maliki; then setting off a major crisis with the Kurds via inflammatory statements by Barzani; and opening up a split between Maliki and Talabani on the question of the position of the Supreme Council, "in spite of the fact that [the Supreme Council] is considered a staunch ally of Maliki"; and then there is this:
(4) Reliance of certain parties including the Kurdish parties, the Islamic Party of Iraq and others, on the use of pressure to draw the Supreme Council into the arena of conflict against Maliki, where Maliki is intent on Constitutional changes to take away certain interests from the region, [even though] everyone knows that that clause of the Constitution was written in extremely delicate and complicated circumstances, and that its revision is absolutely necessary for the outlining of [any] promising new political process.

(5) Suggesting to the Americans and others that [the party of] Prime Minister Maliki and the Supreme Council are both ideological parties, and their agendas are linked to Iran--in spite of the clear nationalist direction of Prime Minister Maliki...and his clear national program since the "knights assault" [military campaign in Basra].
Such is the plan that this Daawa newspaper says the American administration is planning to implement with the cooperation of the Saudis and others: Security crisis (ramping up violence); political crisis (the no-confidence parliamentary route); and erosion of American support (by undermining Maliki's hard-won nationalst image).

It is worth noting that the Iranian Fars News Agency re-publishes this whole piece verbatim (with attribution to AlBayyana Al-Jadida), (suggesting that this might represent some version of an Iranian view of what Americans are planning).

In any case, there is a very clear practical recommendation at the end of this (both in the original and in the Fars News Agency publications), and it goes like this:
Reliable information confirms that the implementation of what is being planned by the Americans and regional countries will have detrimental effects on the internal situation in Iraq, unless the Supreme Council and Maliki and Talabani unite and send a message to everyone that this alliance is still in place, and that small blocs will not be able to have an effect on the political equation in Iraq.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"And then God smiled"

Ignorant of Pakistan, feeling victimized by the corporate media coverage?

Why not read the five comments on this post by Manan Ahmed, alias sepoy, where Pakistanis express their jubilation over the success of the Long March, even in the face of the "no clean hands" argument. Particularly the narrative of Omar Ali.

And I thought: It has been a long time, maybe around 1968(?), since American activists had their last experience of this kind, probably never to return.

Sepoy's commenters know the languages of the place, and you can compare what they say and how they say it with the pasteurized discourse of our media androids with their "Hillary saved the day and prevented nuclear instability!" discourse. And think about where those differences come from.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Iraqi electoral politics and American strategy

AlHayat this morning summarizes statements about the "Maliki to talk to Baathists" story, as follows:
  • A spokesman for the De-Baathification Commission said as far as his agency is concerned, it has received no new instructions from Cabinet in connection with the recent reports about a supposed new attitude of the government to former Baathists, and the spokesman said the issue as far as his commission is concerned "remains obscure".
  • Ali Al-Adeeb, a Maliki henchman, issued a statement stressing that the recent announcements by Maliki, about willingness to talk, refer only to "those who were forced to join the [Baath] Party", adding that "those with the blood of Iraqis on their hands, or who participated in decisions that led to death and destruction, can only be referred to the courts."
  • The Baath Party, Izzat Al-Douri section, issued a statement on its website yesterday dismissing the recent Maliki invitations: These statements, the party said, "and what they included by way of deception and distorsions do not amount to anything, and their aim is to create a clamor respecting what is going on on the ground in Iraq by way of jihadi interaction between the people and their resistance, and the Baathist vanguard".
These are not the honeyed words, or even the words of basic accomodation, you would expect to hear if this was a genuine reconciliation movement.

In fact there is another part of this AlHayat report that suggests that on the Iraqi government side this probably has more to do with electoral politics. There was an earlier report about Adel AbdulMahdi of the Supreme Council being in contact with an individual described as an important Baathist, obviously suggesting the Supreme Council is trying to let some of the "reconciliation" odor rub off on them. The above-mentioned Baath party statement said this:
There is a person called Muhamed Rashad Al-Sheikh Radhi claiming to be a Baath Party leader, and that he met with Adel AbdulMahdi and discussed with him participation by the Party in the current political process in occupied Iraq. We would like to explain to everyone in Iraq and the Arab collective that this is a lie and a fraud, that the person claiming to be a party leader is a liar, and that this play-acting is part of a disgraceful attempt to sow uncertainty and confusion".

Together with what was suggested in the prior post about the American aims and objectives in this, I would like to suggest the following working hypothesis:
  • What is driving this for Maliki and his cohorts is a combination of conciliatory image-making for electoral purposes, combined with pressure from the Americans
  • And for the Americans, the aim is to maximize potentially anti-Iranian, exBaathist participation in the political process in the Green Zone before they leave, in order to create what you could call a balance of sectarian powers within the Iraqi political process itself, or what the AlArabOnline journalist called "dual containment". The opposite, in other words, of reconciliation.
And if, on first blush, you find it difficult to understand how an electoral platform of "reconciliation" can co-exist in this way with a strategy leading to sectarian infighting and weakness, then I recommend studying the election of Obama and the Chas Freeman episode, just as an example.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Maybe this is the correct answer

No one can keep up with LB at RoadstoIraq when it comes to keeping track of interesting stories. She notes that AlArabOnline, following up on the original AlShorouq story, runs an opinion survey on its front page, that asks readers this:
Stories of reconciliation in Iraq with the Baath party coincide with leaks about an American plan to revise their views of leaders in the Saddam government. In your opinion what do these indications mean?
And when I looked on Thursday evening Eastern Time, the results were:
  • American coup: 35.9%
  • Victory for the resistance: 45.9%
  • Desire for reconciliation: 18.7%
Of course, the results could have something to do with the fact the survey is headed with a picture of Izzat Ibrahim, smiling and waving.

Something that looks a lot more like possibly the correct answer is provided in the accompanying article in AlArabOnline. The journalist outlines what was in the original AlShorouq story, noting that there are two opinions about this: Some think it is nothing but a figment of the imagination designed for media purposes. Others, however, think what is outlined is both reasonable and necessary from the American point of view, ahead of the withdrawal of their forces from Iraq, by way of:
Anchoring some kind of a balance of political forces in [Iraq] so that the situation doesn't tend towards an "Iranian victory", and so as to provide the makings of an equal--and therefore a continuing-- struggle between Sunni and Shiite, and between seculars and religious.
And at the end of the article, the journalist adds that those who think there is something to this story see the American strategy as follows:
The strangeness of the supposed plan actually makes it easier to infer, [in the sense that the plan], if it is true, appears to be a hybrid version of the United States' "dual containment" policy of weakening Iran and Iraq both, as exemplified during the war between them of the 90s of the last century.
In other words, not de-Bremerization, but hyper-Bremerization. See how reading can broaden the mind?

Or old wine in old bottles?

AlQuds AlArabi today refers to a planned "new" round of talks between representatives of Maliki and certain Baathists, something the journalist describes as the culmination of two years of communications between the two sides, adding that this round of talks will start with the wing closest to Syria. All of which suggests that this process dates back to the January 2007 split between the loyalist Baathist party led by Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri, and a breakaway group, based in Syria, led by Ahmed Yunis al-Ahmed. At the time, the loyalists said this was part of a prearranged scheme by the renegades to enter into the GreenZone political process eventually, with the agreement of Maliki. This was reported in AlQuds AlArabi on Jan 31 07 (quoted here):
Sources close to the Baath party said a deal between the Maliki government and a number of party-members led to the split that resulted in the recent special council in Damascus under the protection of the Syrian government. They said that the breakaway branch has no actual presence on the ground in Iraq, particularly since all of the tribes in the provinces of Diyala, Salahhadin, Anbar, and elsewhere, pledged allegiance to the party's General Secretary Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri following the execution of former president Saddam Hussein last month.

The sources added that the deal involves the breakaway group entering into talks with the government aimed at an offer of amnesty and other concessions in exchange for the endorsement [of] the legitimacy of the occupation, and of the political process that supports it, thus striking a blow at the resistance.

The sources minimized the importance of the split and said the recent escalation in military operations against the occupation shows that this hasn't had any effect on the resistance. And they said they think the support of Syria for this split in the Baath party aims at obtaining a political card [earning political points] in support of the efforts by Damascus to improve their relationship with the United States.
Putting two and two together, it seems likely that what the AlShorouq reporter was being told about was a dressed-up version of that scenario: Maliki negotiations with a breakaway Baathist branch in Syria, and possibly Syria playing the political card referred to above, by facilitating such talks. Naturally there could be more to it, and this could in fact be on the regional agenda in some form, but the origin of this in the Jan 2007 Baath party split suggests it probably isn't as important in the "Arab nationalism" sense as he was suggesting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

De-Bremerizing Iraq: Can it be done?

It is an idea that seems to be catching on: If America and its "moderate Arab" friends want to create any kind of bulwark against expanded Iranian influence in the region following the US "withdrawal" from Iraq, this would have to involve some kind of fundamental re-structuring of the Iraqi political system. Or re-re-structuring you might say. De-Bremerizing. Or rehabilitating would be another word.

Various thinkers have had various, mostly hare-brained ideas about promoting something short of that--some kind of sectarian re-balancing, going back at least to the famous Hadley memo where Bush was advised to wean Maliki away from Sadr and offer him instead a substitute power base that would include more Sunni-Arab representation, down to the recent nagging calls for Maliki to incorporate more of the Awakenings into the government security services, etcetera etcetera. Obviously all falling short of anything you could call meaningful.

Now, as it happens, having run an election campaign on slogans against the American-imposed sectarian system, Maliki is escalating his own rhetoric in favor of fundamental "change", issuing calls for letting bygones be bygones including with respect to innocent members of the now-outlawed Baath party, suggesting constitutional changes might not be a bad idea, and so on. And as I have often noted, there have been suggestions of American agents or representatives promoting this kind of idea to Iraqi expats and other Iraqis outside the political system. So there is the spectre of American influence in the direction of the aforementioned de-Bremerizing of the Iraqi political system, along with some kind of a typically vague Maliki response. (A response which, in any event, has a clear electoral purpose whether or not it also has the desired "strategic" dimension).

As I have also noted more than once, you have to appreciate why the existing Iraqi political system is unsatisfactory in any number of ways, in order to follow this story any further, and for that you have to understand the meaning of sectarianism, as opposed to nationalism, in the context of a shattered country like Iraq. I have done my best on that score in previous posts, so I won't repeat the points here.

(As for the American version of the Iraq storytelling, it is painfully clear that any discussion of de-Bremerizing is taboo. This is partly reflected in the media boycott of the recent NUPI/Iraqi report, and more immediately it is reflected in the initial reporting of the latest violence, which is uniformly being attributed to resurgent sectarian and ethnic struggles, in effect reprising the stories of the 2003-7 period, in which only the sectarian factors were reported, in effect denying that there was any such thing as principled resistance to the occupation, something supposedly proved by the story of the Awakenings. It stands to reason that a Bremerized, sectarian, Iran-vulnerable system will be resisted just as the actual occupation was, and the American story will be the same: There isn't any principled resistance: it all goes back to sectarian in-fighting).

So my argument is that if there is an underlying requirement--de-Bremerizing or "re-nationalizing" Iraq in order to provide a bulwark against expanded Iranian influence--there is also, in terms of American "news", a countervailing requirement, namely that de-Bremerizing is not and cannot be seen as an issue, otherwise the US would be seen as not exiting from Iraq, but deepening its involvement, and besides, you are not supposed to think that sectarianism is a problem, rather that it is in the nature of Iraq.

Of course, it still remains to be seen in practical terms if or how they would plan on rehabilitating Iraq in the face of Maliki's strong domestic position. As far as I know, no one has suggested how that would conceivably be done. Still, there are starting to be hints, and I think Maliki's suggestion that hinted at re-legalizing the Baath party was one of those hints.

Here is a report from the Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouq* that tells what one Egyptian journalist was told recently by sources he describes as well-placed in Damascus and Riyadh: He says "the first threads" of a grand bargain came into focus recently in Beirut, and it involves an agreement between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria to support a revival of the Baath party--first via re-legalization of the Baath party in Iraq, and then with a merger between the Iraqi and Syrian parties. The reporter says he was told that the Baath party leader Izzat Ibrahim Al-Duri had been instrumental, with support from the intelligence agencies of those three countries, in creating the Iraqi Awakenings and helping them defeat AlQaeda, and this earned him special respect among the US and is Arab allies.

The journalist says the basis for this approach is that any Gulf-regime/American backed "Arabism" would be too weak to perform the roles of standing up to Iran and preventing any Shiite separatism in the Gulf region, whereas a revival of Baath-party Arab nationalism--"or Nassarist", according to an expression he says one Beirut source used--would be a much stronger and more effective thing. So the idea is of a resurgent Arab nationalism, but one quietly and in the background supported by the United States of America and its "moderate Arab allies", with the very important addition to the team of Syria.

A lot of details are missing, obviously, but I think the concept is worth keeping in mind as we start to read about the very wise and meaningful, if subtle, Obama initiatives we are told are already starting to be felt in the region ("talking to Syria", "encouraging Arab unity", etcetera).


* This is a new newspaper, available at, launched last month, by an Egyptian corporate group that includes the venerable publishing house Dar Al-Shorouq (original publisher of the novels of Naguib Mahfouz among other things), so it is not a fly-by-night. Judgments about how its place in the Egyptian establishment might be reflected in its news will have to come later.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

NUPI/Iraqi Report: Read it

If it were possible to reverse six years of sectarian political culture in a single year, the report released on Tuesday by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI, where Reidar Visser works) shows you what steps would have to be taken, and it explains why such steps are necessary. The report is a consensus compilation of the views of a number of Iraqi contributors (who are named in the intro), and although relatively short, it covers the problem in an encyclopedic way: from origins of the problem, development of the problem, why it can be fixed, how to fix it.

But amazingly, following the presentation Tuesday at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington by Visser and the other Norwegian organizers of this (Iraqi contributors planning to come reportedly couldn't get visas), the coverage was as follows:

Corporate media--zero
Major general-politics blogs--zero
Major Mideast-policy blogs--zero

On the analogy of "non-persons" in authoritarian regimes, this was clearly a "non-event" in the Washington environment, so one wonders why.


In order for American institutions to pay attention to the report, they would have to:

(1) Understand that there is a problem

(2) Become convinced that solving that problem would be in the interests of the United States, and

(3) Agree with at least some of the specific recommendations.

(1) The problem is with the 2005 Iraqi Constitution--which doesn't even set out clearly the powers of the central government in the matter of taxation, not to mention the jurisdictional problems with oil, federalism, etcetera--and the various steps taken by Bremer that set in motion the principle that the perks of power are allocated by sect and race. That is not a problem at all if the aim is a splintered Iraq; it is less of a problem if the aim is a weak but territorially united Iraq; and it is only a pressing problem if the aim is a strong and united Iraq (for instance, capable of withstanding undesirable pressure from neighbors including Iran).

So the apparent lack of interest could reflect weak problem-consciousness.

(2) The report goes out of its way to stress that Iran is likely interested in the preservation of a sectarian Iraq, because such a setup would give it more leverage. So the pitch to the Americans is that you should deal with this, otherwise Iran will win.

Here the apparent lack of interest in Washington could reflect something else: It could be that the American administration and its epigones think in their heart of hearts that a weak Iraq, while it might be somewhat in Iran's interests, it would be in their interest too. After all, Saddam was a problem; why should we help create another strong and independent-minded (=trouble-making) regime.

(3) Finally, on the specific proposed measures, the report couches its recommendations in the language of "process", but it seems that at least some of the objections at the USIP presentation were to the effect that recommendations were too intrusive in the sense of pre-ordaining specific political results (for instance a revised constitution with stronger central-government powers) hence undemocratic.

Here I think the objections were more than a little hypocritical, given what has undoubtedly always been going on by way of American political activities in the Green Zone, backed up by what Alyssa Rubin recently told us is the largest CIA station in the world. Rather, I think the lack of interest reflects points (1) and (2). Either the policy people really don't "get" why the Bremer system is such a bad idea from the point of view of stability; or else they think that to the extent it is a problem for Iraq, it is a plus for America as a manipulative power. (Or perhaps being in Washington they have lost any concept of other ways of organizing a political system: who knows?)

In any event, if you read the recommendations, you will see that in order to pull this off, there would have to be a very, very determined effort not only by the US, but it would have to enlist the enthusiastic support of allies as well. In other words, this would not be a course-correction, but a 180-degree turn in a number of different areas, and the motivation would have to be correspondingly strong. So possibly this has little hope.

Still, there is one thing that has me completely baffled. As I have noted in previous posts, there have been a number of indications that Americans close to the administration have been seeking out not only former army officers, but generally Iraqis who are not in the political process (see particularly the two columns of Haroun Mohammed which I have referred to several times), reportedly trying to convince them that the US administration is interested in radical change in the political culture (to put it in the most neutral way). Getting their views, listening to them, and getting ready to put together a policy of some kind in that direction, much in the way that this NUPI/Iraqi project has apparently done.

So if there is some movement in the Obama administration behind this, what is it? It could be leverage, in the sense that Maliki and his ilk should be made to understand that those outside Iraq and/or otherwise disaffected with his sectarian politics are not entirely unorganized, moreover that they have international backing of some kind: They need to be taken seriously.

But I don't know. It's like that line in the Westerns: It's quiet out there--too quiet.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Summing up

I have concluded--very judiciously I think, and only after several years of doing this--that it doesn't matter, in American politics or public opinion, what opinions are expressed or by whom in the Arab world or the Arabic-language media if they do not completely dovetail with one or other of the prevailing opinions in the West.

While you might think that respect and receptivity for alien opinions after the manner of J.S. Mill would be very strong on the liberal Left, that does not seem to be the case at all. Instead, the result of the election of a self-styled center-left elite, as far as "Foreign Policy" is concerned, has produced nothing more than going around and around in the circles of prevailing opinion and the status quo, with the magazine of that name having re-invented itself as a kind of Washington Confidential gossip sheet.

I think a good part of the problem is this: The people at the center of the "center-left", formed as they were in and around the 60s, have internalized a couple of important principles, which however they haven't developed and adapted, but rather merely continued to pass on and apply blindly, with harmful effect:

(a) One of those assumptions is that the key to making progress is solidarity with whatever small progressive group there is around you. This fine principle is from the days of community organizing, but unfortunately it has ossified into a version of the Japanese principle of good citizenship: Take the hand of the person next to you, and let's all cross the street together. It's nice and cozy, locally. But the world has expanded. In foreign-policy America the hypothesis of "any progressive group" no longer has any obvious meaning, and as a result "solidarity" has no meaning without analyzing what the particular group actually stands for. So all you are left with is an empty sticking-together. And what applies to the individual/group relationship also applies to the relationship among groups. I will spare myself the sordid details, but I think it should be evident that the result of this is a powerful centripetal force sucking everything into the gravitational field of the governing "progressive" elite. (And there is another baleful result of this, namely the penchant for hyping interim "victories"--whether meaningful in the long term or not--as an important tool for keeping up the morale of groups; this too seems to be a reflection of 1960's group-solidarity thinking).

(b) There is a reason why that whole assumption of the adequacy of "any progressive group" has become meaningless if not reactionary, and if reflects another principle that used to be useful and has become fossilized. Just as the footnotes in Marx are all in Western languages, so the Cliffs-Notes progressivism that the people at the center of the center-left have internalized is based in one way or another on the foundation of Western post-industrial-revolution society. In this view, solidarity is reserved for those secular movements that oppose or otherwise come to grips with developed financial and industrial capitalism. No solidarity, therefore, with the main resistance movements in the Middle East, which have different starting points, and different driving motivations, for the understanding of which you would have to start by showing respect for the local languages and what is being said in them. And that is another thing that the fossilized heritage of the center-left people has not equipped them to do.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Sacred History

Reluctantly and unwillingly or voluntarily; by agreement and understanding and in the framework of the famous agreement with the Iraqis or without any deep consultation with them; with what they call a "gentleman" agreement with Iran or without one; the time has come for the story of Exodus of America from Iraq.

Because in any event Obama has decided to exit from Iraq and to cross over into Afghanistan, thinking that thereby will come the end of the seven lean years of America and the beginning of the prescribed seven fat years, once he has corrected for the misjudgments of his predecessor Bush Jr.

What the Democrat Obama has forgotten is that the plague of the seven Bush years that has afflicted his army and his people wasn't the just result of some "misjudgment" by his Republican predecessor whether on the battlefield or in the fraud and deception connected with that famous position about weapons of mass destruction, such that it would be possible for the Democratic president, particularly if he is black and brings with him emblems of change, to bring about for his tribe seven fat years merely by going over from Iraq into Afghanistan.

The plague, O Obama, comes from a different place entirely.
After citing a book by Syrian author Munir Al-Akash on the extermination of native people in the creation of the United States called "America's wars of extermination", the writer says:
It is this endless list of documented wars of extermination in the formation of the present United States of America, which we remember at this historic moment, for reference for those who have been observing and following the events in Iraq and Afghanistan during these seven lean years, from the barbaric activities at Abu Ghraib prison, to the massacres of Falluja and holy Najaf and the rape of Abir Al-Janabi and the killing of her whole family, to the many incidents at the hands of the gangs of Blackwater and the other organized American gangs in Iraq, to make it self-evident whether these are in fact the isolated events and individual "bad apples" as George Soros once said.

Or is it rather part of a culture: The right to sacrifice others; the destiny of limitless expansion; the role of liberating savior of the world and of racial and cultural superiority.

Obama needs to answer this question before he transfers from Iraq to Afghanistan, thinking that this move alone is enough to bring about the miracle of the seven fat years.

He should immerse himself in the Book of Genesis of the American occupation, and before that the Book of the Genesis of the American extermination itself, in this historic moment in which he is calling for change, before he inaugurates a new round of suffering and pain for the world to be launched by this devious transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan. Because if he does not do that today, then on the Day of Reckoning for the era of Bush Jr and the trial and punishment of his people for the massacres in Iraq, and at the time of the judgment that will inevitably come, sooner or later, then Obama will not be held innocent of participating in this, no matter what his excuses for keeping silent, and the fact that he is black will not speak for him either.

--Mohammed Sadeq Al-Husseini