Monday, December 10, 2007

Wait, Wait . . . . Dana Perrino's An Idiot!

Everyone knows the Bush administration's entrance exam for service doesn't require experience, knowledge or competence. The now notorious litmus test for Coalition Provisional Authority hires was about their service to the GOP and their stand on Roe V. Wade - not whether they could point out Iraq on a map.

All this is disgusting - in my opinion it merits impeachment. But when the White House Press Secretary doesn't know what the Cuban Missile Crisis is - that's just priceless. Here's Dana Perrino on NPR's gameshow, "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me:"

"I had a situation the other day when they said President Putin said that our missile defense program was like the Cuban Missile Crisis. And so I got asked about the Cuban Missile Crisis and I was panicked a little bit because I really know nothing about the Cuban Missile Crisis...I came home and I asked my husband...wasn't that like, the Bay Of Pigs thing? And he said, "Oh, Dana.""

You can't make that shit up. This administration has went so far beyond the realm of imagination - it makes Orwell read like the tedious parts of a Jane Austen novel. I think anyone employed by the White House should be familiar with the COLD WAR NUCLEAR STANDOFF. If she doesn't know that John Adams had a peanut allergy I think we could all identify with her - but this is beyond the pale.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis really put the "ASS" in ASMEA (The Association for the Study of the Middle East and North Africa)

As I sit here in a low-budget hostel in Montreal waiting for the cleaning staff to pick up the condoms and empty beer bottles most likely strewn across my would-be accommodations for the next week, I was surfing the blogosphere, when I saw that Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis had founded their own association for the study of the Middle East to 'counter' MESA, the Middle East Studies Association, which I'm sure they view as apologist and, dare I say it - progressive. Wasn't Campus Watch enough? Since when can the people who make up the 'establishment' claim the mantle of rebellious, revisionist luminaries? Please - don't make me choke on my kashi.

On his blog Nibras Khazimi claims that influence peddlers like Ajami and Lewis have the ear of the administration because they "know what they are talking about." More like they just regurgitate the 'smoke 'em out of their holes' foreign policy that the Bush Administration wants to hear. Last time I checked this administration wasn't a clearing house for dissenting opinions. And I GUARANTEE that the members of MESA, per capita, have spent twice as much time living and studying in the Middle East as whatever membership ASMEA will actually draw. I'm sure the non-resident scholars at AEI and the Hudson Institute need some more institutional memberships - so ASMEA will be great for them. As for the rest of us, we'll keep our academic rigor, our opposition to the war in Iraq, our SOULS and our MESA memberships.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Engaging Syria?: We'd be crazy not to

Here's my new op-ed in Foreign Policy in Focus. The text is below:

Some world leaders are not exactly negotiating material. The recently deceased leader of Turkmenistan renamed the months and days of the week after himself and his family and tried to build a palace constructed entirely of ice. No one really tried to negotiate with him--he placed a ban on lip-syncing.

Syria's President Bashar Al Assad is negotiating material. In fact, he has shown moderation and restraint in recent months beyond what could be expected from many of his regional counterparts. First--the recent Israeli air strike inside Syrian territory is almost a carte blanche for violent retaliation--yet there has been none. Instead--Syria has lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations--not exactly the behavior we would expect from a leadership knee-deep in a nuclear program. Second, Syria has welcomed nearly one million Iraqi refugees with access to free education and medical care. The United States refuses even to admit Iraqis who have collaborated with coalition forces. Third, despite U.S. economic sanctions, an International Monetary Fund report released in August shows Syria continues to make real strides in reforming its economy. The United States has much to gain from negotiating with the young President, such as cooperation on Iraq, peace settlement between Syria and Israel, at least some leverage over Hizbullah and Hamas, yet it continues its almost unconditional policy of isolation.

Efforts by the U.S. Congress to ban flights through Syria's Damascus Airport is only the most recent manifestation of this political myopia. Congressional reports suggest that Damascus Airport is a "conduit for al-Qaeda." It takes only a moment to draw the comparison with our own failures in transportation security. If the richest, most powerful nation in the world cannot secure its aircraft how can a middle-income country with an aging transportation infrastructure be expected to do so? Senator Lieberman's references to Syria's "sprawling domestic intelligence and security services" that should be equipped to deal with such security breaches prompts a rejoinder about the controversy over warrantless-wiretapping in the United States. A ban on flights would be a major blow to Syria's tourism industry--an industry the new Syrian President has targeted for privatization and economic liberalization. If Damascus Airport is indeed a rest stop on the al-Qaeda superhighway, the answer should not be to ban flights but to coordinate with the Syrian regime to better monitor passengers and cargo. After all, the Syrian regime is a secular one that has its own bone to pick with radical Sunni groups.

Despite the necessity of improving relations with Damascus some hardliners in the Bush administration continue to insist on a policy that neither pushes the Syrian regime toward political reform nor benefits the United States strategically. Continued attempts to label Syria a "rogue state" while referring to Saudi Arabia as a "moderate Arab ally" and increasing military aid to the Egyptian state as the human rights situation there deteriorates, is impossible to square with stated U.S. objectives. Moreover it reinforces the already pervasive sense in the Arab world that U.S. policy in the region has nothing to do with democracy--and everything to do with propping up U.S.-allied autocrats.

The vast majority of accounts describe the Syrian President as a reformer who often loses out in policy contests to the hardline conservative elements in the Syrian Ba'ath party establishment. The Administration's hostile policy toward Syria only emboldens these repressive forces, helping them make their case that the United States is out for "regime change" and that engagement is a losing policy. Without a doubt the United States will not find an ally in Bashar Al Assad like it has found in the Saudi Royal family. But why would it want to? Formal, friendly ties are worth little when they tarnish the reputations of both parties. The Saudis are condemned as "apostates" for collaborating with the United States while the United States is viewed as hypocritical for dealing with an undemocratic regime.

In hindsight many U.S. foreign policy decisions appear clearly disastrous; it is rare that we can see a policy as erroneous in real-time. The United States should seize the opportunity afforded by the young President's restraint in responding to Israel by genuinely engaging with the Syrian regime. Recognizing this restraint as responsible, sensible policy also sends a message that negotiation, not aggression, is the law of the land. This may be a difficult message to relay to some leaders, especially President Bush who recently warned about a possible "World War III " with Iran. Some suggest we'd be crazy to negotiate with people like Ahmadinejad and Assad. But with the specter of WWW III on the horizon, we'd be crazy not to.

Shana Marshall is a PhD. student at the University of Maryland and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ari Fleischer's pro-War conservative group attacks

I'm not going to mention the name of former White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer's conservative group, since they shouldn't get any free publicity, but suffice to say it contains one of the ubiquitous terms all conservative groups tack onto their overfunded righteousness fests (freedom, liberty, patriot(ism), victory, etc.) Leaving aside their lack of creativity, can we focus on Ari Fleischer's description of from an interview with NPR's "On the Media?" He said was a

"vestige, left-over of the whole peace movement of the 60's and 70's and favor deep military cuts and oppose funding of intelligence budgets. immediately after the attack on our country urged that no military force be used to respond to the attack on our nation, they instead said we should work through international judicial organizations."

The fact that "peace movement" and "international judicial organizations" are used as pejoratives shows just how archaic and ignorant far-right groups like Fleischer's are. Last I checked, peace and international law were two concepts humankind has been struggling to obtain over several centuries - not something to be dismissed as utopian and unreachable. In fact there is a substantial network of international judicial institutions designed specifically for instances like 9-11. Yes, 3,000 people died. But compare this to Sudan, the Southeast Asian tsunami or even heatwaves in Europe and the deathtoll is small. Yes, this was a deliberate attack. But it was an attack by individuals, not another state. If we had taken the case before the ICC, all the resources of the international community would have been mustered to track down the network of criminals responsible for the attacks. The reputation of the US as the backbone of international order and as a country which abides by its own laws and values would have been upheld. (indeed, we created most of the international institutions in operation today after WWII).

What we would not see is a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and a disaster in Iraq both the result of our country trying to invade "on the cheap," with a fraction of the troops and resources necessary to occupy and rebuild two nations, without central governments, simultaneously. What we have now to leave to history is Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, two failed states where we have taken up partnership with the very same individuals who engage in the mindless violence we supposedly stand against, an international community that is no longer willing to cooperate with our government, ruined families and a national debt that will take away from education, health care, environmental projects and infrastructure improvements for generations to come. Perhaps Ari Fleischer thinks peace and international cooperation are not worthwhile goals. But the members of think they are, and we should all support them in trying to bring reason and responsibility back to our foreign policy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Israel okays US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia

Okay - this is a little late, but I'm recovering from jet-lag and trying to get back into academic-semester mode.

On July 21 I posted my views of the current weapons-buying craze among the Gulf countries and how I believe this is linked to US efforts to foment fears about Iranian imperial ambitions in the region. Of course, the majority of these weapons are manufactured by US companies, and thus are a major source of employment and income. The pieces of the puzzle fit so perfectly - the Gulf countries get lots of high tech weaponry that their armed forces don't even know how to operate (but of course for a price we'll send over US experts to train them); the Iranian threat becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (historically arms races have led to conflict, not prevented it); US weapons manufacturers get loads of money (it's so much sweeter when you can keep the research and development expertise for yourself while pawning the costly product off on some country with more money than they know what to do with). Everyone's happy.

Well, everyone except Israel. Although I'm loathe to agree with the Israeli government I think they have reason to be wary of US arms sales to the Gulf States. Although the US constantly classifies Saudi Arabia as a "moderate Arab ally" (the most egregiously erroneous use of the term 'moderate' I've ever seen) Israel rightly points out that it's only a matter of overthrowing an already illegitimate Saudi royal family, and we have a fully weaponized 'rogue state.' The solution to Israel's opposition to the transaction: more money. So yes, now Israel gets more money (in military and economic aid) from the US, which of course is a major source of contention in the Arab world and a major criticism lodged against Arab governments allied to the US. Noticing the pattern yet? The question is who is getting used here? Unfortunately, such transactions don't make Israel any more secure, don't increase US standing among Arab publics, and don't increase the legitimacy of tenuous Gulf regimes. The only group that benefits from such activities are the major arms producers - so who's running the show here?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Ideology of Development

I just read William Easterly's article "The Ideology of Development" in this month's Foreign Policy, where he likens the development goals of the international financial institutions (IMF, WB, UN etc) to previous ideologies like Fascism, Nazism, Communism, and to previous economic growth paradigms (aid-financed investment, market reforms, institutional reform, etc). But Easterly seems to be talking more about modernization theory than the complex, multifaceted and tailored programs for development many organizations promote. As much as it pains me to side with the IMF, Easterly's 'hands off' model does a great disservice to history. He doesn't once mention colonialism in his entire article.

Modernization theory is certainly defunct (and should be relegated to what Easterly calls the "Museum of Dead Ideologies"). To suggest that there is a model for development that can be emulated in the less developed countries - and that this model can be derived from the development history of the advanced democracies is certainly not a dominant theory any longer. It ignores the drastically different context of the modern global economy in which the less-developed countries are currently trying to develop. Easterly also ignores the 'less than altruistic' design of many foreign aid programs. Easterly sites the abysmal record of foreign aid in helping countries climb out of poverty. However he fails to point out that much of this money (he cites $154 billion given to the Middle East from 1980 to 2001) is earmarked by donor governments for certain programs - cheif among them buying advanced weapons systems from the donor governments themselves (a convoluted way of keeping domestic industry in the advanced democracies thriving). By one way or another - much of the foreign aid that goes to developing countries comes back to donor governments.

There is a middle road between the straw man Easterly calls "Development Ideology" (which is really modernization theory, and doesn't accurately describe many of the development programs now in place in poor countries) and the hands-off; let them find their own way approach he is promoting. But it involves changes in the advanced democracies just as much as it entails any change on behalf of the governments of poor countries. Maybe the agricultural base in Africa would provide a source of surplus income if they could export more of their produce to the US or Europe (but they can't because huge agribusiness firms have lobbied to secure protections for themselves under the guise of 'save the family farm' campaigns). Maybe the textile industry in Africa (the next phase of industrialization after agriculture) could get a fair start if China didn't dump cheap goods at their door and if well-meaning philanthropists from the US didn't ship truckloads of used clothes into Africa.

True - as Easterly says, every country must find its own path to development, and the paths are as varied as the countries themselves. But no country can find its own way if the advanced democracies keep laying economic land mines along every possible route.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fomenting fears of Shiite Crescent?

There are many shady forces signaling the rise of an ‘Iranian-led Shiite crescent’ - but a surprising number don’t come from the Middle East. Many extra-regional actors are fanning the flames out of their own self-interest. Aside from the Bush administration’s thinly veiled propaganda there are other more pervasive forces difficult to pin down. Chief among them are the ‘regional experts’ eager to provide the Bush administration with justification to intervene in Iran and other hot spots, either because of shared ideological commitments or personal aggrandizement. Then there’s the global defense industry targeting the Gulf market, which is conveniently made up of precarious Sunni monarchies awash in petrodollars.

As usual, there is no shortage of experts ready to peddle their advice on confronting this “looming danger.” One such menacing assessment comes from Gulf Research Council Chairman Abdulaziz Sager, "The Gulf region, which has not enjoyed security and stability for decades, is currently passing through a danger-laden historical turning-point." A columnist in the state-sponsored Saudi daily wrote “Iran is invading the Arab world and burning everything in its path.” In July Reuters reported a Western diplomat in Riyadh as saying, “Who in the long term is their main strategic threat? They see it as Iran.”

If that’s true the Arab public seems to have missed it. A November 2006 University of Maryland/Zogby poll of six Arab countries (including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) indicates that more than ¾ of respondents see Israel and the US as their greatest existential threats, only 11% name Iran. Although they overwhelmingly support Shiite Hizbullah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as well as Iranian President Ahmadinijad, it isn’t because of their sectarian identity – but because they refuse to bow to US and Israeli pressure. This reflects the vast divide between Arab governments’ policies and the views of their citizens. One U.S.-based Saudi analyst speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters last year summed it up: "It seems that the Saudis will likely continue to spend on the most modern weaponry, regardless of whether this Iranian-led Shi'ite crescent is real or not.”

Predictably, fears of a “Shiite crescent” have driven defense spending to unprecedented heights in the region. Overall measures for 2005 show that the largest relative spending increase in the world was in the Middle East, and that’s without Iraq and Qatar, excluded because of inconsistent data (SIPRI). But, if Iran is planning any major military action in the region, it’s doing so on the cheap: its 2005 per capita military spending was less than half the average of the other Middle East and North African states (IISS).

A critical inspection suggests that rising sectarianianism may reflect a well-orchestrated campaign to foment division as much as any primordial divisions. Rumors of mass conversions of Sunnis to Shiism following Hizbullah’s impressive performance in the summer war with Israel, the circulation of proselytizing literature among Sunnis in Egypt, videos of anti-Sunni rallies in Jordan and other places all have dubious origins and are dismissed by many well-placed analysts and religious leaders as fabricated. The drive to confront Iran, and the US plan to establish permanent bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE and at least 12 equipment ‘sets’ from which to launch operations from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, would both be served by trumping up fears of Shiite ascendancy.

Divide and Conquer has always been a tool of control – the question is whether Arab governments are willing to play up sectarian divisions and the Iranian threat just to further US policy goals. If the Sunni-Shiite outreach on Al Jazeera and the recent high profile meetings between Ahmadinijad and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah signal anything, it is that Middle East leaders are realizing the importance of building bridges as US power diminishes. This development may prove the most constructive in the region’s history.

Modes of Transport and Socioeconomic Status in Morocco

Based on my extensive social science skills, I have developed this easy rule of thumb for socio-economic classification based on Moroccan modes of Transport as a proxy:

If your main mode of transport is:

Luxury SUV: you work for the government

Luxury SUV with minor body damage and expired plates: you work for the
government but your wages haven't kept pace with inflation

Foreign Sedan: your brother/uncle/father works for the government

Dirtbike or Moped: You'd love to work for the government . . . . why?
Did you hear they were hiring . . . .

Donkey Cart: you work for the government, you just don't know it

By Foot: What government?

Friday, July 20, 2007

God, Country and King (without the noblesse oblige)

It may sound like a Monty Python sketch - but it's a phrase that appears frequently throughout Morocco: "God, Country and King." I'm not sure of the origins of the phrase, (or if it's officially endorsed) but to a new-comer it seems a less-than-creative medieval throwback attempting to justify and legitimize the 'divine right of kings' and the dominant characteristic of feudalism (a massive and permanent underclass). Most of my sightings of the 'motto' seem to be non-government sponsored (or, at least made to look so) - like when you see "God Bless America" spelled with paper cups shoved into a chain-link fence on an overpass. But like anyone who's seen a 'spontaneous' rally erupt where everyone has matching armbands and coordinated slogans on their signs - I'm always a little suspicious of the motivations and agents behind pro-government displays.

Public Fountains in Morocco

Public Fountains are a major institution in Morocco (and throughout a lot of the Middle East). In a land where water is scarce, religion and custom urges philanthropists and other wealthy patrons to build these small public water facilities. Some cities have hundreds of fountains - from the simple and purely functional to the large and ornate. The people of the city can come here and gather water for drinking and household chores.

Summer Study in the Maghrib (Morocco)

I'm currently in Morocco for the summer, studying Arabic at the American School in Tangier. This is my first time in Morocco, so my posts will be mainly 'stream-of-consciousness' observations detailing my time here. Some of it will include comparisons to Lebanon and Yemen, which are the other two Middle East countries I've spent time in.

What's the first thing I notice when I visit a foreign country? - the
political situation (no); the economic system (wrong again); hegemonic
structures pulsing with power beneath a thin veneer of societal
stability (of course not). I'm too busy looking at: Women's Fashion!!!

Most Moroccan women wear the hijab (a colorful scarf to cover their
hair) but quite a few don't. Lots of them wear colorful jalabas (long
robes) with lots of embroidery and sometimes with hoods. Many of them
wear jalabas without the headscarf – which makes it seem like more of
an issue of convenience than a symbol of religious identity (sort of
like a fashionable housecoat/robe that's suitable for wear outside the house). The fashion is much more European than American (lots of skinny jeans, tunics, leggings, wide belts,
ballet-style slippers). Some women even wear those "I dream of Jeannie" pants (tight around
the bottom and baggy) with little slippers and tank tops. A higher
concentration of sequins than is generally advisable, but much
preferable to the "shiny = pretty" problem plaguing fashion in the developing world.

The men on the other hand are often not as tasteful. Memo #1 to the shabab
(young men): bangs are for girls. Memo #2: The jerry curl is for
Little Richard, and it doesn't even work that well for him. Memo #3:
The ability to objectify and insult a female passerby in English,
Spanish, French and Arabic does not increase your chances four-fold of
getting a date. Memo #4: If it hurts to sit down because your jeans
are too tight, it's probably not too good for your sperm count either.

Many farmers come to the cities to sell their own produce, so there's lots of donkeys/mules/horses sharing the road with cars (although the former seem to have the right-of-way regardless of the traffic). There's lots of traffic circles, but they don't use
them like we do. In theory – you move toward the outside of the
traffic circle when you want to exit. But here – they make a beeline right from the inside, at a 90 degree angle, when they want to exit. Maybe that's why traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in Morocco.

Diabetes is also a major problem in Morocco – and five minutes
in-country shows you why. Every other store is a patisserie selling a
mind-boggling array of pastries and candy, and that's washed down with
mint tea with enough sugar to send a kid with ADD into lunar orbit.
When my favorite café was closed early in the morning I ventured
(alone) into one of the 'sausage-fest' (read: men only) cafes near the
school to get my morning dose of caffeine. When the waiter brought my
sugar and I told him I take my coffee without sugar he looked at me
like I'd just sprouted a second head that then cursed his newly
deceased mother. He insisted again that he had brought me sugar for
my coffee (indicating thusly by miming the spooning of the sugar into
my coffee). When I insisted that I liked the taste of coffee without
the sugar he compromised by leaving the sugar at the table for me
"just in case." The standard serving of sugar that comes with tea and
coffee in restaurants is somewhere between 2 and 10 tablespoons. In
spite of this the men remain inexplicably thin (life is so unfair).
The patisseries are also a central location for beggars –
circumstances). There's lots of traffic circles, but once you've entered the circle there's no clear guidelines for operating your vehicle. In theory – you move toward the outside of the
traffic circle when you want to exit. But here – they make a beeline
right from the inside, at a 90 degree angle, when they want to exit.
Maybe that's why traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in
Morocco (a close second to asphyxiation from tight pants).

Unfortunately, unemployment is an enormous problem in Morocco, and a lot of highly educated
people end up working menial jobs (waiters, taxi drivers,
cashiers, etc). Often those serving you food and selling you movie tickets are astute observers of politics and society and make for great conversation partners. Plus, like anywhere in the world, people love to talk about their own country and its customs to foreigners so it's always a pleasant experience to talk global politics with the clerk at the grocery down the street.


Diabetes is also a major problem in Morocco – and five minutes
in-country shows you why. Every other store is a patisserie selling a
mind-boggling array of pastries and candy, and that's washed down with
mint tea with enough sugar to send a kid with ADD into lunar orbit.

When my favorite café was closed early in the morning I ventured
(alone) into one of the 'sausage-fest' (read: men only) cafes near the
school to get my morning dose of caffeine. When the waiter brought my
sugar and I told him I take my coffee without sugar he looked at me
like I'd just sprouted a second head that then cursed his newly
deceased mother. He insisted again that he had brought me sugar for
my coffee (indicating thusly by miming the spooning of the sugar into
my coffee). When I insisted that I liked the taste of coffee without
the sugar he compromised by leaving the sugar at the table for me
"just in case." The standard serving of sugar that comes with tea and
coffee in restaurants is somewhere between 2 and 10 tablespoons. In
spite of this the men remain inexplicably thin (life is so unfair).
The patisseries are also a central location for beggars – which is
clever, since if you have enough money to indulge in sweets you must also have enough money to spare some for your fellow Moroccan.

There are lots of stray cats in Morocco (just like other Middle East
countries) but the people seem to genuinely love them here (in
contrast to Yemen, and from what I saw in Beirut). They are regularly
fed and petted by shop-keepers and passersby. I even found a man
feeding a small kitten goat's milk because the mother had died.
Needless to say – this has really earned Moroccans a place in my

Why do they like us so much?!

In addition to being kind to animals the Moroccans are also very kind
to foreigners (especially those who speak enough Arabic to understand
and laugh at their jokes). Which is surprising, because in some
cities (Fez and Marrakesh especially) there are almost as many
tourists as Moroccans, which would seem to decrease their marginal value . Bargaining in the souq (with tourists) is choreographed almost as tightly as a Japanese No drama.

Another common feature of Moroccan life is the offer of livestock to
foreign women in exchange for the promise of marriage. Since I've heard this is fairly common and I've yet to hear about the transaction actually taking place I think this is a joke meant for our benefit. When I was in Fez a man offered 2,000 camels for me and my female friend. Well, I shouldn't say he offered them to us – so much as for us. I asked him
if that was all up front or if he would be paying in installments.
Turns out his dromedary stash was significantly less than he

Food: The food is really amazing, tagine (named for the terra cotta
pot with conical lid the food is cooked in) and couscous are standards, but
they also have pigeon pies - yes, pigeon in a sweet pastry with
powdered sugar (again with the sugar). The cooks here at the
American School are amazing, and fix us a wonderful huge lunch
everyday. A nice change from the 'beans with bread, bread with beans,
bean-based bread, bread-infused beans and breaded beans' diet I had in
Yemen last summer.

They also have avocado smoothies for sale at the juice bars (which I guess does make sense, since avocado has a pit that makes it a member of the fruit family?). And they're surprisingly tasty (although eat a few of those a day and you'll max out your life-time caloric intake).