Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Take me back to . . . . when I could talk about the Soviets"

Edward Luttwack has an interesting piece in Foreign Policy this month . . . interesting given his Cold War-era publication record. A quick summary so that you don't have to read his collected works yourself: "We're not spending enough money to arm against the Soviets - close all the schools; close all the hospitals; conscript all the males over age 15 and melt down the statue of liberty - we could use the extra copper for munitions."

Luttwack's new article (ironically) argues that the U.S. should adopt a more restrained form of empire - one fashioned on the Byzantine model. He chooses Byzantium over Rome, characterizing the latter as a system based on "ruthless expansion, domination and total war," which he insists bears no resemblance to the U.S. All this without batting a rhetorical eyelash. Does he lack the imagination to picture what "expansion, domination and total war" would resemble in the post-Enlightenment period? Are Alexander's adventures in India really so different from those of Kermit Roosevelt in Iran? Maybe Bush didn't play the fiddle during Hurricane Katrina but the comparisons I've read of Rome and the US have been relatively convincing . . .

Luttwack's 1982 article "Why we need more waste, fraud and mismanagement in the Pentagon" basically bemoaned the 'micro-managers' in the defense community who were arguing that current levels of defense spending might become unsustainable and eventually pose a security risk (which of course is exactly what brought down the Soviets). One might argue (very convincingly) that the over-production of defense materiel by the superpowers contributed to many of the security challenges in the world today. These include the obvious - the black market weapons trade, nuclear proliferation, civil conflicts in the developing world, etc.

But I would argue this over-production also created private industry defense giants, whose mad scramble for self-preservation in the post-Cold War environment of budgetary restraint drove them to offload deadly weapons on oppressive regimes like a drug dealer handing out crack samples. These unscrupulous practices have created a globe of militarized states with regimes so paranoid they threaten to drag their neighbors into major conflict on a fairly regular basis. Had Luttwack gotten his way in 1982 Lichtenstein would probably have invaded Belgium and perusing Orwell's classics would be like curling up with a Jane Austen novel.

Long story short - Luttwack now seems to be arguing for restraint (the sort of traditional realist kind: carry a big stick - preferably one with a nuclear warhead attached to it).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Top Ten Ways to Convince Muslims the US is on a Crusade

An unbelievable piece from Chris Rodda at the Huffington Post. Below is just #9 - read the whole post here:

9. Have top U.S. military officers appear in a video showing just how Christian the Pentagon is

In addition to inadvertently providing propaganda material to our enemies, public endorsements of Christianity by U.S. military leaders can also cause concern among our Muslim allies.

When Air Force Maj. Gen. Pete Sutton decided in 2004 to appear in uniform at the Pentagon in the Campus Crusade for Christ Christian Embassy promotional video, a video full of government officials and high ranking military officers saying things like "we're the aroma of Jesus Christ," he probably didn't give any thought to the potential ramifications of publicly endorsing this fundamentalist religious organization. But, not long after appearing in this video, Sutton was assigned to the U.S. European Command, Ankara, Turkey, as Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation. Here's what happened, according to the Department of Defense Inspector General's report on the Christian Embassy video investigation.

"Maj Gen Sutton testified that while in Turkey in his current duty position, his Turkish driver approached him with an article in the Turkish newspaper 'Sabah.' That article featured a photograph of Maj Gen Sutton in uniform and described him as a member of a radical fundamentalist sect. The article in the online edition of Sabah also included still photographs taken from the Christian Embassy video. Maj Gen Sutton's duties in Ankara included establishing good relations with his counterparts on the Turkish General Staff. Maj Gen Sutton testified that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim nation, with religious matters being kept strictly separate from matters of state. He said that when the article was published in Sabah, it caused his Turkish counterparts concern and a number of Turkish general officers asked him to explain his participation in the video."

In addition to the Christian Embassy video, MRFF has uncovered a slew of other videos of uniformed military personnel endorsing fundamentalist Christian organizations and military ministries, many of which have missions that include proselytizing Muslims. These videos are easily found on the internet, providing plenty of potential propaganda material for recruiting by extremists.

Read more at:

Saudi Businessmen and Global Warming . . .

The FT has been really great at covering this long-running Saudi billionaire's feud. Today's article points out just how ridiculous these families really are. In addition to being generally despicable they're also clearly a major source of global warming - is someone saving them a seat at the UN Climate Change Summit?

Here's an excerpt.

"The High Court eased the order to allow the embattled billionaire $4m spending money a year after a colourful hearing in which Mr Sanea rejected fraud allegations and outlined living expenses including a private zoo and utility bills of $800,000 a month."

"He spends $800,000 on electricity, gas, telephone, water and satellite bills every month," Mr Beazley told the judge."

How about not ordering so much pay-per-view porn? There's a start . . .
Here's the whole article.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My article on negotiations with Israel

Beyond Muscle: Using Financial Leverage for Middle East Peace

In late August, the U.S. and Israeli governments appeared to have settled on a grand strategy to advance Middle East peace, one that traded a tougher U.S. stance on Iran for freezing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. But subsequent reports on plans for additional Israeli settlement construction and announcements by Tehran outlining its terms for talks at a September 9th, meeting of the P5+1 (that's the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) working group, indicate that the specific details of a bargain are still far from settled.

As negotiations on Israeli settlements commence in this environment of uncertainty, the Obama administration will need all the bargaining chips it can marshal. The key is to find a form of leverage that is costly enough to impact Israeli behavior without threatening their security and is also relatively cheap for the administration to apply. Defense "offsets" — incentives granted by private companies to facilitate the purchase of military goods — satisfy all these conditions, and may be especially effective in the struggle for Middle East peace.

Like most industrialized nations, U.S. defense manufacturers routinely grant offsets to purchasing governments, usually in the form of agreements to co-produce specific weapons or invest in commercial enterprises. It has long been U.S. practice not to allow offsets on products and services purchased with U.S. military assistance funds — except when it comes to Egypt and Israel. The billions of dollars in additional defense assistance that Israel has secured through this legislative loophole may prove to be a significant source of leverage in the Middle East peace process.

For example, Israel is hoping to pen a deal for $20 billion worth of U.S.-built F-35s that could include offsets of nearly $10 billion — that's in accordance with Israeli policy requiring offsets of 48% of the overall contract value. These offsets would accrue mostly to the Israeli defense department, possibly via agreements that Lockheed Martin would purchase Israeli-built computer components for the assembled planes. Israeli press reports suggest the offset provisions are holding up the deal, signaling Israel's continued pursuit of offsets even in its most strategic procurement decisions. These funds represent a significant tool the Obama administration should use to press Israel on the settlement issue.

There is precedent for trying security assistance to Israeli settlement policy. In the 1990s Congress frequently reduced multi-billion dollar loan guarantee programs by the amount the Israeli government spent on settlements in the occupied territories. This logic applies to offsets as well, since they may indirectly finance projects that support settlements by providing Israel with financial flexibility to commit additional resources to build more settlements or by funneling the profits from offsets into acquiring controversial crowd-control devices and other materials that many countries (including the United States) refuse to export to Israel.

Egypt's offset history may also represent a bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel. Although official Egyptian policy is not to request offsets from the U.S., partly due to major cost overruns and inefficiencies in previous offset agreements, industry trade groups such as Epicos report that Egyptian authorities regularly demand "discounts" and "concessions." If Israeli offsets are threatened, officials may demand that similar reforms be implemented with regard to Egyptian procurement processes, hoping to make the process too politically costly for the United States to implement.

This presents the administration with a win-win situation. Slashing offsets does not restrict the principle funds promised to Israel after Camp David, and it represents a reform to the defense procurement process that would prevent the controversial transfer of U.S. defense jobs to the Israeli defense sector. If the Israelis express willingness to move on the settlement issue rather than forego offset benefits, a more viable peace strategy will result. If, on the other hand, the Israelis will not revise their settlement policy, the United States can simply end these subsidies to their defense industry. Under this latter scenario the U.S. would also restrain "concessions" granted to the Egyptian defense establishment, in keeping with the equilibrium established under Camp David. The Egyptian military is a powerful political player implicated in a wide spectrum of abuses — weakening their institutional power would hardly be a difficult sell.

The U.S. has important and legally binding relationships with both Israel and Egypt. Offsets, however, are neither mandated by treaties nor are they justifiable on security or economic grounds. Israel's acute desire to obtain the F-35 and its refusal to accept settlement restrictions gives the U.S. significant space for negotiation that might not emerge again in the foreseeable future. In the normally labyrinthine world of Middle East politics, obscure contract details may in fact provide a clear source of leverage in the struggle to secure progress toward peace.

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

Monday, July 27, 2009

Taliban issue little blue book "Code of Conduct"

"The Taliban in Afghanistan has issued a book laying down a code of conduct for its fighters.

Al Jazeera has obtained a copy of the book which further indicates that Mullah Omar, the movement's leader, wants to centralise its operations.

The book, with 13 chapters and 67 articles, lays out what one of the most secretive organisations in the world today, can and cannot do.

It talks of limiting suicide attacks, avoiding civilian casualties and winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the local civilian population."

It doesn't outline Mao's three levels of warfare - but aside from that it's essentially the same "hearts and minds" content that we see in the COIN manuals of most Western countries.

Al Jazeera has the whole story here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Italy, wedding bouquet throw crashes plane

A Western cultural corollary to the gun fire that usually follows similar ceremonies in 'traditional' societies. Maybe brides should just start firing pistols instead. Article here.

New Info on (no longer) secret CIA program

NYTimes has story, "CIA had plan to assassinate Al-Qaeda leaders."

Monday, July 13, 2009

How to be tough on Egypt AND Israel

The JPost has an opinion article from last week that suggests the Obama Administration is being too easy on Egypt (I won't even address the author's suggestion that the Administration is being tough on Israel, which is patently false and a ludicrous suggestion). But, the idea that the US should be tougher on Egypt is a valid one, and since the only way to do this is by withholding military assistance funds, this would necessitate cutting back assistance to Israel as well. The Camp David Accords locked in US military aid to Israel and Egypt at a ratio of 3:2, and if we could legitimate changing one, it would take us a long way in legitimating a change in the other as well.

The JPost author suggests this ratio may not reflect actual aid to both countries, indicating that the amount Egypt receives may be larger and what Israel receives may be less. Although he is probably correct in magnitude he is incorrect in direction. Israel probably receives about twice as much in actual dollars as the ratio suggests. This is because (in contrast to other countries that receive FMF - foreign military financing funds) Israel is allowed to demand 'offsets' of its spending on military procurement - offsets that frequently exceed 100% of the actual contract value. The US Bureau of Industry and Security sites more than $2 billion in offsets from US contractors alone between 1993 and 2006 (although their information comes from reports submitted by the contractors - not exactly what I would consider an objective source of reliable information). I'd estimate it at about twice that much - since the 7 or so prime contractors that provide about 80% of US offsets have an interest in minimizing the appearance of their overall impact, both on the domestic US defense supplier base and on upsetting political equilibria in conflict zones. Much of these offsets are fed into Israel's domestic defense capability either through coproduction, licensing agreements or technology transfers.

If we started adding this into the Camp David ratio we could probably withold some FMF from both Israel AND Egypt - now that's being tough.

Britain halts some arms exports to Israel in response to Gaza conflict

. . . . . yeah, like 5 out of almost 200 contracts: not exactly a penalty. Times Online has the story here.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Apparently the shelf-life of American Exceptionalism is . . . . really long

In the interest of full disclosure, I never read Gelb's "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy". From the reviews/excerpts such as this one in the NY Review of Books, it's the standard dose of ahistorical American Exceptionalism pumped up with some pro-intervention 'cooperative security' niceties. The proposals reflect the fact that Gelb once had access to official military and intelligence information (the sort that imbues its readers with the false sense of supremacy that has led so many policy-makers to intervene in conflicts they think can be easily won - roughly the idea that all the world's problems not only resemble nails but that we have stockpiles of such technologically advanced hammers that we cannot possibly fail).

The author picks out some good phrases, such as:

"Gelb thinks that Obama is situated to deliver an impressive display of war that adds heft to diplomacy, and of diplomacy that reconciles us to war. The reason Obama can do this is that "to Arabs and Iranians, America is still number one."

One assumes of course, that Gelb wrote this when the wars (both in Afghanistan and Iraq) were both going well - although I can never remember a time when conditions in both were concurrently improving. Although the Iraq War (by most accounts) seems to be improving, the situation in Afghanistan certainly has not. If anything, Obama is in a position to deliver the rather hopeless message that most observers already understand, mainly that US diplomacy has suffered significantly b/c its war-fighting ability has been proven ineffective in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus there's nothing with which to back-up that diplomacy.

Not to mention Gelb's rather baseless observation that "to Arabs and Iranians, America is still number one." We may indeed still act as if we're number one, which will fool most of the people most of the time, but other players are stepping into the small vacuums that are popping up throughout the globe (most notably the efforts of countries like Qatar (in Lebanon), Syria (between Turkey and Armenia) and others in presenting themselves as alternatives to US-allied peace brokers Egypt and Saudi Arabia).

Gelb's book is Ikenberry-esque in that he too cautions against the US tendency for isolationism (esp. after periods of such spectacular foreign policy failures). But the review follows up its examination of the book with some excerpts from Gelb's previous rhetoric on US foreign policy, which make his claims to 'common sense' incredibly suspect:

"In a discussion moderated by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan some twenty-five years ago, Leslie Gelb said with a genial irony that covert wars brought no real impairment of democracy: "The fact of the matter is that almost any covert operation that might be considered controversial is going to be debated publicly." This was said when the US was supplying arms to the contra rebels in Nicaragua, and mining the harbors of that country; the facts had lately come to public view, but the facts were not discussed until discovered by accident. The same held true with the American policy on torture under Bush and Cheney, which spread from Guantánamo to prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gelb, in 1984, was challenged by Morton Halperin:

The critical moment for debating a military intervention is before it begins. Clearly, once you help people start a war there are weighty arguments in favor of continuing to support them.

Senator Moynihan also disagreed with Gelb:

I suggest that in the United States we openly discuss a very limited number of such operations, that the far greater portion are not discussed, but are hermetically sealed.

Moynihan plainly thought this a bad thing for constitutional democracy.

Gelb had the last word, in a way; but it was a puzzling last word: "I disagree," he said, with

the proposition that we ought not to interfere in the internal politics of other societies. I believe that is exactly what foreign policy is. All foreign policy is the extension of one's internal policies into the internal politics of another nation.

The subject was, to repeat, the arming of the contras in Nicaragua, but it was also the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. The comment sheds considerable light as well on Gelb's eagerness to continue pressure in the Middle East in the form of military and covert operations."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Shock and Audit" MJ Report on Defense Budget

The Defense Dept. never ceases to amaze. After roughly 7 hours of tense discussion on defense budgetary priorities (tense b/c I had the gall to question whether the actual goal of defense spending was to preserve human life, in which case it has on most counts been a miserable failure) I come across this Mother Jones gem. Even after an afternoon spent delving into future budget predictions that basically have us burning excess defense articles for fuel after the entire country goes bankrupt and we've descended into anarchy, this stuff is still shocking.

Like that the cost overruns in our defense budget exceed China's total defense budget by a factor of three - that's right, all the myriad discrepancies between what Lockheed tells us that plane will cost and what it actually ends up charging us all amounts to three times China's total defense budget!! And yes, nice try, but that is an accurate figure - China analysts believe this to be a reliable indicator of their activity - not that I could say the same for our auditors, since the "black budget" and the VA budget and lots of other little budgetary pieces never make it into our official defense budget anyway. Our defense spending, on the other hand, comes in at around $850 billion. That's about the size of four medium-sized country GDPs (like Israel+Norway+Denmark+Chile).

And, official projections for the F-35 (those are the projections that usually understate actual costs by about 20% or so) put those program costs at over $1 trillion - about the size of the national deficit. So, I hope we can dismantle some of these planes and distill some of their constituent elements for basics like food and fuel . . . . cause if we keep letting pathological organizations and defense contractors make all the budget decisions we're halfway to hell in an aircraft carrier.

MEP article on Syria and Financial Crisis

Better link to MEP article . . .

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Workshop Intriques: Weapons Espionage

Saw Issandr Al-Amrani's recent post about the JPost article on Egyptian military's purchase of Russian air defense systems. Since the Russians are unlikely to accept anything less than hard currency from the Egyptians for payment it begs the question of where Egypt would get the money for such a purchase, the price of which would undoutedly be very high since the S-400 is presumed to be the best air defense system available.

Well, the logical answer is that they would use US military aid (the Foreign Military Financing Funds that the Egyptians still get every year as an incentive for signing the Camp David Accords in 1979). But, would the US sign on to Egyptian purchases of Russian weaponry, given that there is some built in expectation that the Egyptians would use that money to purchase US defense material and at the very least would not buy material from the Russians?

A possibility I never considered (although now it seems entirely logical) is that the Americans would actually support such an Egyptian-Russian transaction on the premise that the Egyptians would give the Americans a few of the SAMs so they could use them in field tests (as opposed to having to resort to simulations and other computer generated tests. This would be especially beneficial to the US given that many of the countries that have bought these Russian weapons are those likely to be engaged in confrontation with the US in the future.

A former air force guy told me this is pretty common practice, but still something I didn't consider before, and introduces interesting motivations and mechanisms to questions/discussions of patterns of arms sales and military assistance.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Syrian reaction to success of Hariri/Future Party

This response sounds pretty reasonable to me (basically the Syrians concede that even if the pro-Syrian opposition would have won much of the world would have isolated the new Lebanese regime - a fact driven home even more by the fallout after the re-election of Ahmadinijad and Biden's statements during his earlier visit to Lebanon).

Nonetheless, the fact that the elections were peaceful and there were no (to my knowledge) accusations of Syrian interference, this might be a good time to step us talks between the US and Syria. Granted, not interfering was probably in the interests of the Syrian regime, which is embroiled in it's own domestic problems ranging from managing Iraqi refugees to riding out the economic downturn. But it's still another step by Damascus in a long series (not reacting to either the Israeli bombing of a supposed nuclear facility last year or the US cross-border bombing raid, intelligence sharing in the wake of 9-11 (yes, snubbed by the Bush Administration), etc.)

These steps seem to me to garner (at the absolute least) the end of US economic sanctions, which are completely meaningless and only serve to symbolically isolate the regime, in addition to the end of US efforts to bock Syria's ascension to the WTO.

I would say that even the most reserved regime would be losing patience with US efforts to isolate the country, and that Syria may be looking for an opportunity to demonstrate it's regional importance (and opportunities abound: Iran, Iraq, Palestine, etc.). This would be a sad reversal of the current trajectory. One can only hope that Mitchell et al are cooking up something to take to Damascus in the near future . . . .

Dubai reigns in real estate oligarchs

An FT article on the merger of several partially state-owned real estate development firms in Dubai says the move is a "decision to merge the real estate entities . . . to break down the business empires of his [Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum] lieutenants." One can only hope that Sheikh Issa [real estate developer and part-time torture connoisseur] gets his comeuppance as part of this deal. It's a distant second to the jail term he should be serving, but it's probably all that one could hope for in a country run by a monarchy.

50 Individuals in India control 20% of country's GDP

I think this is probably the highest concentration of wealth on the globe; FT has the story here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

US Ambassador to Syria

US will appoint ambassador to Syria soon - about time! Story from AFP here.

NPR: Syria and Iraq Revive Business Ties

Great info from Syria experts Landis and Harling from ICG . . .

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

US-UAE Nuclear Deal

The US-UAE Nuclear Deal: Turning the Straight of Hormuz into a Nuclear Tijuana?

Somehow government bureaucracies manage to suck all the intrigue out of their reports, turning would-be political thrillers into sterile dossiers full of euphemisms and obscure acronyms. The US Bureau of Industry and Security, for example, produces a monthly “Major Case” list that with a little spicing up might draw in some readers from the ranks of the government foreign policy elite. This would be a great advantage since the Bush Administration officials who signed a deal to build a nuclear reactor in the UAE seem to have missed the fact that the small Gulf nation is a major transshipment point for illicit trade with Iran, the international community’s current non-proliferation cause célèbre. The Emirates is mentioned in ten of the department’s pending cases for May 2009: nine of these for acting as a way station for shipments of sensitive technologies and dual-use items to Iran (destination number ten is Iraq, not exactly a comforting anomaly). The agreement may be a good way of rewarding the UAE for not joining its neighbors Oman and Qatar in seeking a unilateral rapprochement with Iran and bypassing the US in regional peace initiatives (moves that not only brought the two gulf nations closer to Syria but also weakened the credibility of former regional heavyweights and US-allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia). But is nuclear technology an appropriate carrot in a region that IAEA Chief Muhammad El-Baradei last week called a “ticking bomb”? The problem, El-Baradei insists, is with the current NPT regime, which has allowed upwards of 20 countries to develop civilian nuclear programs that could be weaponized in relatively short order. One part of re-dressing this failure, he told the UK Guardian, is to “ensure that the gaps that might exist for misuse of that technology is plugged.” It seems this 11th hour Bush deal has the potential to make the UAE one of the biggest “gaps,” turning the Straight of Hormuz into a nuclear smuggling thoroughfare.
There is no hard evidence that the governing royals are implicated in these BIS smuggling cases, but there is no real evidence to the contrary either. Oman and Qatar, both of whom have strong political and economic ties with Iran, do not appear in the case log at all, challenging the supposition that the UAE’s proximity to Iran makes it prone to abuse by privateers. And the UAE has long been criticized for its de facto policy of allowing cheap imports from Asia to be relabeled in the UAE to take advantage of the Arab Free Trade Area, a policy that the regime’s allies no doubt benefit from quite handsomely. The institutions that have grown up to accommodate and facilitate these smuggling rings will be difficult to dismantle, and may only be driven further underground by government efforts to do so. This may press many smugglers and traffickers of the more mundane variety to seek out opportunities to work in higher-value markets such as those for nuclear technologies. The UAE surely has legitimate security concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, but if used within the legal bounds of the US deal, the civilian technology involved in this transfer would not magically make them impervious to an attack. They would have to use this technology transfer as a starting point to engage in their own clandestine nuclear weapons program, a policy contradiction made all the more ludicrous by the fact that the UAE is not exactly strapped for energy resources as it sits on nearly 100 billion barrels of oil.
Although the deal was concluded by the Bush Administration, it must still be approved by Congress, which requires the Obama Administration to submit the deal for consideration. Under different circumstances the UAE case might be strong: it contributed to establishing an IAEA administered nuclear fuel bank, an important step in removing state-control of nuclear fuel; it is a strong US-ally and it has invested heavily in alternative energies. However, recent events caution against the deal. Particularly notable is the gruesome 45-minute tape that shows Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, brother of the UAE Crown Prince, torturing a grain merchant accused of pilfering $5,000 worth of product. Although disturbing, the real smoking gun of the tape is the presence of a uniformed Emirati police officer who actually takes part in the torture. If the legal arms of the state are under such complete tutelage of the royal family, is it not reasonable to assume that many of the smugglers are as well? The Wall Street Journal reported that both Westinghouse and General Electric are vying for the reactor contract. GE for one has substantial financial interests tied up with the UAE Royals, including a recently launched partnership with Mubadala Development Company, a venture capital group backed by the Crown Prince and his full-brothers including, you guessed it, Sheikh Issa from the torture tapes. For these and a host of other reasons, the US deal is unlikely to garner the Obama Administration much respect from the Arab world outside the Emirates, which is to say about 99% of the region’s population.
Regional realities and the lessons of history also advise against the deal. Many states have expressed plans to establish civilian nuclear programs, including Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. If the US aids the UAE in their program, what is to stop the rest of the region from demanding similar concessions in exchange for cooperation on regional peace deals and other joint efforts? The fact that these states may not be openly pursuing weaponized versions of these programs is of little comfort, especially given the tendency for regional political realities to shift. And by “shift” I do not mean peaceful leadership changeover so much as the US tendency to supply a given strongman with sufficient means to exterminate millions of people only to discover some years down the road that the individual has become politically unpalatable. Implementing such policy reversals once the region has been nuclearized will make disarming Saddam Hussein look like a leisurely stroll in the dessert. Crude continental balance-of-power politics once compelled France to supply sensitive nuclear assistance to Israel, Pakistan and Egypt and led Italy and Germany to assist Iraq with its program while the British supplied dual-use items; unconfirmed cases include German assistance to the apartheid government in South Africa, and Italian assistance to Argentina. This menace of regional tensions is again implicated in the case of the UAE, partly due to Bush-era tactics that divided the region into those who were “with us” or “with the terrorists.” However this time the balancing takes place in a global environment made infinitely more complex by previous generations of proliferation. Sandwiched between Iran and Saudi Arabia, will the Emiratis prove more reliable non-proliferators than the states of Western Europe? I give it roughly a snowball’s chance in Dubai.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Reading Beyond the Lines

Political Science, and in particular international relations, can be a dodgy subject because practitioners often deal in documents or sources that are less than reliable. These then get picked up by other sources and after a few references are so lost in the chain of evidence that few people think to question their legitimacy.

For example, just reading a story on Syria from the JPost that includes the following "citations":

"Syria's actions are evidence of the reality of a Middle East Cold War"

Anytime someone uses the word "reality" in close proximity to some incredibly complex historical phenomenon like "Cold War" that's being transferred to a different regional and temporal context it makes me a little skeptical

The rest of the article contains the following appeals to evidence, without citation or significant elaboration. All these are meant as condemnations of the Obama Administration's recent efforts to engage with Syria, but when compared to the policies/practices of other countries in the region (esp. US allies like Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) they just read like hypocritical exercises in shaping the opinions of policy-makers and issue publics.

"it is well known" (regarding the domiciling of Hamas and IJ leaders in Damascus, which is true, but to suggest that allowing Khalid Meshaal to reside in Damascus somehow makes Syria unfit for engagement is ridiculous)

"reports have surfaced" (on Syrian construction of a biological weapons facility)

"It is known" (about Syrian stockpiles of the nerve agent sarin)

"It is thought by Western governments" (about a biological warfare program)

"the latest news is that" (about Damascus 'recommencing' its practice of facilitating the entry of 'Sunni jihadi fighters into Iraq' - which I'm guessing is coming from the NYTimes article a few weeks ago, except that the intel sources cited in the article didn't suggest that the Syrian authorities were facilitating the movement, just that it was increasing)

If this is what passes for hard evidence we are all in a lot of trouble.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How many times can you answer a question about Palestine with "Well, Iran . . . "

Unfortunately, if you're Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic, pretty much every time. He was one of three guests on the Dian Rehm Show this morning (along with Daniel Levy and David Makovsky) in a segment on Mideast Peace. The transcript isn't available yet, but it was something to this effect: In response to a question about Isreali public support for a two-state solution Goldberg responded:

It's unclear whether Iran will even allow there to be a solution to the conflict, it controls Hezbollah . . . . . [the rest was hard to get since I was nearly stricken deaf by the first part]

Two issues: first, responding to a question about the issue of a two-state solution with a reference to Iran is counterproductive. The I/P conflict has gone on for nearly half a century, long before Iran started a nuclear weapons program. So blaming this issue for stalling the peace process is disingenuous to say the least.

Second, Hezbollah has outgrown its Iranian "suppliers" to become a participant in a unity government in Lebanon where it commands significant support from the Lebanese population. To treat it as a surrogate for Iranian interests in the region is misleading and ignores the last 15 years or so of political change in Lebanese domestic politics.

Goldberg also responded to questions about the "Arab Public" (distinct from Arab leaders, who reflect the opinions of their publics just about as much as Glenn Beck reflects mine) with stories about personal meetings with (probably Egyptian) intelligence officers who told him how concerned they were about the Iranian threat!

First, someone who specializes in torturing members of the public probably isn't going to give you a unbiased account of their sentiment. And,

Second, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are losing major ground in the region to Qatar and Oman (and to a lesser extent Syria). The two gulf nations have made significant inroads in regional peace initiatives (Lebanon comes to mind immediately) and Syria is getting some positive signals from the White House (exempting the continuation of the sanctions, which was unfortunate and probably unnecessary, since they are largely symbolic and make little difference in trade between the two countries anyway). Qatar and Oman have better relations with Iran than the other Gulf States and Syria is gaining legitimacy as an important player in lots of regional initiatives. This suggests that Saudi Arabia and Egypt may be losing influence with their US ally, especially given Egypt's democratic backsliding in recent years. Of course the Egyptian and Saudi regimes are going to play up fears of the Iranian threat - this would help them prevent a rapprochement between the US and Syria and prevent closer ties from developing between the US and other gulf nations.

Monday, May 18, 2009

New Crackdown on Shiites in Morocco

NPR has a story on recent Moroccan police activity in Tangier and across the country, targeting individuals suspected of being Shiite. Seems that the authorities were trying to get an idea of the number of Shiites in the major city centers, since sources say that most of the high profile Shiite leaders were not questioned. Fits well into the "Shiite Crescent" narrative currently plaguing all the states in the region (the suspected Hezbollah cells in Egypt, the disgruntled Shiia minorities (sometimes majorities) in the Gulf, etc.) Unfortunately, it also adds fuel to the "Iranian-Israeli confrontation" perspective currently making the rounds in Washington. And as history shows, Arab leaders have no qualms about killing tens-of-thousands of their own people to get a handle on social unrest. It is also true that Israeli intelligence cooperates with the Moroccan authorities. When I was in Tangier there were stories circulating of a pending attack by Islamic militants on American sites in the city, reports which local and mainstream international news sources indicated were provided by Israeli intelligence. I hope this isn't an Israeli effort to beef up the argument for a military confrontation with Iran, or that if it is, I hope someone with enough authority also possesses enough judgment to see through it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sure, those nukes will be just fine . . . .

Perhaps I'm alone in enjoying a leisurely perusal of the Bureau of Industry and Security's monthly "Major Cases" list available at It's got all sorts of delicious little morsels of corporate wrong-doing, like for instance Chiquita Banana's financing of terrorism in Columbia for which they've been convicted in the US Department of Justice. But, that's really another post. What I love most about the Major Case report is the number of times "UAE" and "Iran" appear in the same case log. Essentially, every sensitive technology or piece of dual-use equipment that makes its way into Iran does so via the UAE. And it's probably with pretty high-level approval as well. Oman, the UAE neighbor, appears in a NYTimes article today on just such charges. That's why the Bush Administration's decision to sign a deal with the UAE on nuclear technology is so . . . well, stupid. FP has a story to this effect here. This comes (again, ironically) just as El Baradei points out in this Guardian article that the ME region is a nuclear powder keg just waiting for some short-sighted policy to ignite the . . . . oh wait, this UAE deal must be it.

The Middle East Comes to Town: The New America Foundation

My dissertation advisor, Professor Shibley Telhami, is first to speak on this panel. The consummate diplomat, he still feels it necessary to point out the danger in allowing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be overshadowed by concerns over Iran's nuclear program. This is certainly a tactic employed by not only those who want to delay a solution to Israel/Palestine (which would enhance Israel's position, since it can continue to build settlements in the meantime) but also those who want a military solution to the issue of Iran. This is a powerful confluence of interests - and it will take the voices of all those in favor of a rational, diplomatic solution to both issues (separately) to drown them out. When I was at the Israeli Embassy one year ago, I was fed this same issue linkage that's now being trotted out by every hawk and Netanyahu apologist in town. The Palestinian conflict was referred to as "secondary" and dismissed as a topic of legitimate concern in the face of obvious Iranian designs to nuke Israel. Iran, and its anti-Israeli rhetoric, would be seriously ostracized in the region if there were a real solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Again, we see a radical minority in all three polities (Israel, Palestine and the US) stonewalling a real solution. Most Israelis want a two-state solution, and they want the settlements stopped. Most Palestinians and Americans want the same. Someone in the administration needs to stand up and say "Enough!" No more hiding behind the Iranian threat - institute the changes embodied in previous peace accords (even unilaterally) and weaken Iran's political legitimacy in the region. This is the first step - unfortunately it's not one that any elected leader seems brave enough to take (until of course he's out of office, aka Olmert).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Can Hearts and Minds Be Bought? The Economics of Counterinsurgency in Iraq

A really interesting and convincing effort to analyze the question using quantitative data by Eli Berman from UC San Diego, Jacob N. Shapiro from Princeton University and Joseph H. Felter from Stanford. Details Iraqi responses to different types of violence (coalition/insurgent/sectarian) and tries to tease out trends and statistical relationships. No doubt involved countless hours of scrutinizing data and coding techniques, but the result seems to have been worth it. The pdf is available here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Financial Times: An Assured Assad

You can read the article here.

WaPo: Iraq Militant Group's Pipeline Through Syria Revives After Long Gap

WaPo: "What we think right now is that we just don't know how much their senior leaders know about the foreign fighter network," said the senior U.S. military official, who discussed intelligence matters last week on the condition of anonymity. "As you can imagine . . . if they knew, it's not something they would be talking about."

"But we do think that the knowledge of these networks exists at least within the Syrian intelligence community," he said. "What level, if it's low or high up, we just don't have a good gauge on."

Me: This is interesting, given the conventional wisdom on the split within the Syrian regime between the "old guard/hard-liners" (who made their political and economic fortunes under Bashar's father and were reluctant to support the new President because his economic policies shifted the patronage pipeline to a new group of elites), and those closer to the President himself, (composed jointly of modernizing government elites, many family members with significant capital assets and a healthy dose of traditional opportunists). It might be this "old guard" who have the personal contacts and institutional experience to track cross-border movements like this, and they might not be too eager to lend support to Bashar's regime (especially in support of Damascus' efforts to engage in a political dialogue with the US). If such a dialogue did take place and tangible benefits resulted, this would seriously compromise the resistance/nationalist/socialist rhetoric that this "old guard" relies on for public support.

The US bombing last fall on the Syria/Iraq border was allegedly targeting this very traffic, but in Syria the rumor was that there were Syrian intelligence officials at the sight that evening and they had some knowledge of the raid beforehand. It's hard to believe that US planes could cross into Syrian airspace completely undetected. It may be that they were aware of the raid, and that the Syrian security apparatus estimated that such an attack would weaken Bashar's public support (since a similar attack during his father's tenure would no doubt have triggered a stern response, a model that the security officials correctly estimated Bashar would not follow). However, it seems to have back-fired. The Syrian people took to the streets in protest and the American School was closed (and lots of Americans and Europeans who taught there were forced to leave the country). But instead of demanding action, most political elites used the raid as an example of Syrian restraint and the illegality of US military actions.

Despite the apparent "subversive Syrian intel" angle, I think the most interesting thing to come from the article is this:

WaPo: The flow of foreign fighters through Syria reached a high of 80 to 100 a month in mid-2007, the senior military official said, most of them would-be suicide "martyrs" increasingly recruited from extremist communities in North Africa by jihadist Web sites and networks abroad.

Me: So, although most of them passed through Syria, few if any of them are actually Syrian. I think this says a lot about the influence that domestic politics and economics can have on the creation or 'production' of terrorists. There are two possibilities: (1) the Syrian regime has been sufficiently cruel and barbarous to its indigenous religious opposition, preventing the rise of a uniquely Syrian terrorist network operating in Iraq or (2) the US allied regimes of North Africa (including Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia, although perhaps not Algeria) are for whatever reason not as effective at preventing the spread of extremism. This could be for a number of reasons, not all of them having to do with torturing religious opposition. For all its faults, Syria has significantly less income disparity and overall poverty than the countries of North Africa, and its government's refusal to adhere to US imperatives provides for a certain release valve. If Syrians cannot object to their own political system at least they can object to the US (and by extension Israel). Such talk is not tolerated in North Africa, and far from preventing the rise of extremism, it seems to channel it into concrete expressions of political violence.

You can read the article here.

Another Cabinet Shuffle in Syria

Conspiracy Theorists Rejoice! The release of four pro-Syria Lebanese Generals implicated in the Hariri assassination has been followed by the replacement of the Syrian Minister of the Interior. The position is usually reserved for what analysts would characterize as a member of the "old guard," that is the more hard-line politicians that make us the security-intelligence apparatus. The Justice Minister was also replaced (by Ahmad Younis, I think a former head of the Syrian Military Academy). According to this IWPR article, the shuffle was disappointing as most had hoped for more substantive change.

Fatah's Abbas to Visit Damascus Today

At least this means Khaled Meshaal (Chairman of Hamas Political Bureau) and Abbas will be in the same country. Not getting much news coverage, perhaps everyone is waiting for the post-meeting roundup. This is another reason why Damascus might have been a better locale for Obama's address than Cairo, since actually getting Fatah and Hamas leaders in geographic proximity is undoubtedly a first step toward a unity government and eventual peace with Israel. Also a direct challenge to Egypt's continued insistence that it is the best partner for catalyzing regional peace. Syria News Wire has a link here.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Sheikh Issa Torture Tapes

Grain merchant in the UAE tortured almost to death by Crown Prince's brother (Sheikh Issa) over equivalent of $5,000. Because the grain merchant doesn't actually die in these tapes, I'm sure this classifies as mere "enhanced interrogation methods." Really disturbing.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Crime in Syria - on the rise in face of economic downturn

Syria is well-known for its safety, and its citizens are quick to tell you that crime (even in Damascus) is relatively unknown. The occasional reports of assaults on women using public transportation probably belies a larger problem that goes unreported or gets downplayed by local authorities. But now it seems that crime is increasing in earnest in the country's northern industrial center: Aleppo. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting has an article here that links the rise in violence to the economic downturn, particularly damaging in Aleppo where many industries have been shuttered because of the government's dismantling of trade protection in recent years. This has probably been exacerbated by the rise in consumerism brought on by the blossoming of the luxury goods market serving the country's upper class. The simultaneous decay in industrial production unique to the northern region and the rise in conspicuous consumption that has spread from Damascus will most likely continue to spark an increase in crime in a country that prides itself on personal safety.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Syrian Opposition: not a lot of political credibility

Want to know what an "implantable device for treating impotence by delivering a vasodilator agent to the erectile bodies of the penis" has to do with Syrian politics? Just visit: Watch out Khaddam and move over Ahmad Chalabi - this guys got real credentials . . . .

Lieberman: Syria is no peace partner

This comes as no surprise, but is certainly disappointing. It would be an interesting project to track the number of times peace deals/negotiations have been derailed by electoral cycles as compared to authoritarian overturn . . .

Syria no peace partner: Israel FM
Sat Apr 25, 8:20 am ET

BERLIN (AFP) – Syria's support of Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups make it no partner for peace, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview published on Saturday.

"We need to look at the reality. Until today, Syria is hosting the headquarters of terror organisations such as Hamas and the (Islamic) Jihad," he told the Berliner Zeitung daily, referring to two radical Palestinian organisations.

"Syria supports Hezbollah and its arms trafficking into southern Lebanon. Syria supports Iran's nuclear programme. That is why I cannot see in Syria a real partner for any type of agreement," Lieberman said.

Syria and Israel engaged in indirect peace talks in May last year following an eight-year hiatus, but the talks were suspended after Israel launched a deadly offensive against the Gaza Strip in December.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said earlier this month that Syria was ready to resume the indirect talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new right-leaning government on the basis of a total pullout from the Golan Heights which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Lieberman raised a wave of international criticism when he last month announced that Israel would not continue the latest round of US-sponsored peace talks launched in 2007.

Monday, April 20, 2009

'UAE arrests suspect in Hariri probe'

Apr. 19, 2009
Associated Press

One of the suspects in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister has been arrested in Dubai, an Arab diplomat said.

Purported Syrian intelligence officer Mohammed Zuhair Siddiq was named a suspect by a UN commission investigating the 2005 assassination.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a truck bombing that many Lebanese believe was carried out by the country's long dominant neighbor Syria. Syria denies involvement.

Initially Siddiq was a witness who gave evidence to UN investigators. His information, however, was later discredited, and at the UN commission's recommendation, he was arrested in France in October 2005 as a suspect in the murder.

He disappeared from house arrest in France in March 2008, according to French authorities.

The United Arab Emirates' Foreign Ministry could not confirm he was living in the country and did not know if he was arrested.

The Arab diplomat said he was arrested Friday in Dubai and that Syria has requested his extradition. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

Syrian media reports have said Siddiq is wanted there for allegedly giving false testimony implicating Syria in the assassination.

Only four other suspects in the killing are in custody. They are pro-Syria generals who led Lebanon's police, intelligence service and an elite army unit at the time of the assassination. They have not been formally charged.

An international tribunal in the Netherlands took up the case in February.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Condition of Syrian Workers in Lebanon

IRIN has a good piece on Syrian workers in Lebanon, although it doesn't point out anything that wasn't already common knowledge it does show that thawing relations in the upper echelons of government doesn't necessarily trickle down to the population. Although there are probably more Syrian workers in Lebanon than Asian workers (of which there are many who work as domestic help) I don't know of any organizations that focus on Syrian labor rights, although there are quite a few working on the conditions of Asian workers who are often abused and held hostage by their Lebanese employers.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Syrian NSF issues statement on Break with Brotherhood

"The Council discussed the decision of the Muslim Brotherhood to cease their opposition activities to the repressive regime and their subsequent withdrawal from the NSF, and stressed the continuation of the NSF on its path and the strength in its composition of various national groups that represent all segments of the Syrian people, including the Islamic trend which belongs to the Syrian people and is not representative in the monopoly of one faction or another. The NSF is committed to the implementation of its project for change and retirement or withdrawal or fatigue or disability or repentance of this or that party will not stop its progress. The current state of the Syrian people under the oppressive regime is a clear and obvious signs as to the where Syria is heading in the regional and international political equations, and Bashar al-Asads' misleading terms and slogans begging for better relations with Israel and America on the basis of mutual interests in "comprehensive peace" can not fool everyone!

The Council stressed the NSF's objectives and commitment to its national goals, and vowed not to stray away from its main national battle with the tyranny of the regime and refused to be involved in side battles that will only waste energy and create divisions and confusion among the ranks. The battle of the NSF with despotism is not a temporary slogan as much as a goal and a final effort that will need all national forces of the Syrian people to unite for freedom, security, and stability."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Syrian Overseas Opposition Further Divided

The overseas Syrian opposition has never been very credible, for the usual reasons (out of touch with everyday Syrian politics; the Chalabi-factor; no basis for legitimacy, etc.) But now it has been weakened even further. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, which has never been very influential inside Syria after its followers were massacred in Hama in 1982 by the late President, has broken ranks with exiled (secularist) VP Khaddam, whose opposition to Bashar's presidency made him a liability in the early post-succession period. It seems that Syria's continued status as a "resistance" state really has paid off, since the MB is now standing behind the regime in its opposition to the Israeli incursion in Gaza and its support for MB co-religionists Hamas. Josh Landis has links and analysis here.

Josh Landis on Syria for the Arab Reform Bulletin

Syria: The Nexus of Economy, Diplomacy, and Reform

Joshua Landis April, 2009

The winds of change coming out of Washington have rekindled talk of liberalization and reform in Damascus. The Obama administration’s abandonment of a regime change approach to Syria has emboldened officials in Damascus to speak out about economic vulnerabilities—and the impact of U.S. sanctions—with refreshing candor. Long delayed economic reforms, particularly the launching of Damascus’s stock exchange, have been pushed through. President Assad has also promised to put political liberalization back on his agenda because he no longer believes Western powers seek to destabilize Syria.
Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, who coordinates economic planning in Syria, broke with the government’s party line on the economy in a recent interview with Reuters. Rather than repeating bromides about how Syria’s economy would not be affected by the world downturn, he warned Syrians that they would indeed face tough times. He explained that “Syria’s foreign trade makes up 70 per cent of GDP and this means that the country’s dependence on external factors is very large.” Mohammed al-Hussein, Syria’s finance minister, took Dardari’s warnings one step further, saying that 2009 would be a “difficult” year. The country’s banks were secure, but the industrial, transport and tourism sectors would suffer, he predicted.

Projections of an economic downturn are loaded with political significance in Syria. During the Bush administration, Syrian officials kept up a brave front in order to counter thinking in Washington that economic pressures would enable Israel and the United States to drive a better bargain on the Golan. U.S. sanctions were unimportant and ineffective, Syrian officials scoffed. Abdullah Dardari began to promise in 2005 that by 2010 he would have Syria’s economy purring along at 7 percent growth, the magic rate at which most economists believe Syria will begin to dry up its growing pool of unemployed laborers and youth. Damascus could afford to wait out Washington without abandoning its precious regional assets or “cards” that, if played wisely, it believed would win back the Golan and allow Syria to project its influence in the larger Middle Eastern arena.

So when Dardari admitted that Syria would fall far short of 7 percent growth, foreign analysts took note. More importantly, Dardari as much as confessed that U.S. sanctions were taking a toll on Syria. In a shot across the bow of Syria’s foreign ministry, he demanded that “the U.S. should lift its economic sanctions on Syria before relations improve between the two sides.” “The lifting of sanctions will likely have a positive effect on increased foreign investment,” he explained and would “remove a psychological barrier” to companies that now hesitate to put money in Syria. Only $700 million in foreign direct investment came to Syria last year; 2009 is likely to see even less.

According to Dardari, Syria’s infrastructure must undergo massive improvements on the order of $50 billion over the next ten years in order to grease the wheels of commerce and keep its main industries (textiles, cotton spinning, plastics, cement and canning) from being done in by cheap imports. Syria’s manufacturing sector has been battling on a number of fronts for the past few years, well before the current global crisis. For decades, it avoided competition from imports thanks to a program called “national protection.” High tariffs on imports gave local producers a false sense of security as they sold inferior products at high prices. But recent economic reforms have opened Syria’s doors to a wide array of new imports; tariffs between Arab states have been eradicated altogether, forcing Syrian manufacturers to compete with inexpensive imports for the first time.

Among notable recent developments was the launching of Syria’s stock exchange, which opened on March 10 after years of delays. Six companies were listed but only one traded a total of 15 shares on the first day. Volume was disappointing throughout the first weeks because fewer than 100 accounts have been registered with the five approved financial brokers. More importantly, cumbersome restrictions have been placed on the exchange to prevent “speculation” and promote “investment.” Securities cannot be sold on the same day of purchase and a 2 percent daily price movement limit has been imposed on stocks in an overzealous attempt to protect investors. These are some of the kinks that must be worked out, but Syrians were enthusiastic about having a working bourse after fifty years of socialism.

President Bashar al-Assad assured Syrians in March that the pace of reform would pick up now that Syria is “less affected by difficult international circumstances.” What is more, he suggested that reforms would not only be economic, but also political. When asked to elaborate, Assad responded: “For example by expanding political participation, creating another chamber in addition to the parliament, such as a freely elected senate with a legislative role to give more space to the opposition, by further liberalizing the political media and the Internet to promote dialogue, and finally by enacting a law regulating political parties. But all that will come about gradually, at our own pace.” Most Syrians may not hold their breath for political change, but they are gratified by the new climate of engagement with the United States, hoping that it will have important economic repercussions and perhaps bring some relaxation of the political atmosphere.

Joshua Landis is co-director of the Center for Middle East Studies and assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Gates Proposes Cuts in Big-Budget Defense Items

I hope this is an example of a perfect storm: global economic crisis + US bogged down in assymetric wars in Iraq and Afghanistan = common sense in defense priorities. My guess is that the big contractors will start screaming about job-loss (even though it's a well-documented reality that maintaining one defense job costs much more than a non-defense job of equal pay). These huge contractors get vast sums of government money for R&D and use government facilities free-of-charge. If companies did this in other industries they would be nationalized (and the argument that this would make them less efficient is ridiculous, since they already complete everything late and over-budget anyway). I hope Congress finally stands up to these huge defense interests (even though these companies were smart enough to place production of defense components in nearly each of their districts so as to make cutting projects nearly impossible). Can't believe I'm rooting for a Bush-appointee, but I'll say it, "Go Gates!"

You can read the WSJ story here.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Tunrout in Egypt's General Strike: Apathetic or Afraid?

Analysts disagree as to whether the protest's dismal turnout was due to apathy (of which Americans are probably the most guilty, since unlike in the Egyptian case mass protests in the US could bring about some response other than police massacres) or fears of reprisals. AFP is reporting small demonstrations and a few arrests, but nothing substantial.

Iran's reformist presidential candidate?

I would be interested to know if Mousavi's comment on returning to the principles of the revolution included the adjective Islamic? If he characterizes the principles of the revolution as Islamic then he's playing to the Council of Guardians who could probably just have him tarred and feathered if they decided his beard was too short. On the other hand, if he just said "principles of the revolution" this means something entirely different, since most of the principles of the revolutionaries (feminists, leftists and intellectuals) had little to do with Islam.

The Daily Star has an article here on Mousavi, which seems to suggest that he is playing to religious sentiments. The Middle East Report devoted its most recent issue to looking back at the revolution, and confirms the strong participation of decidedly non-religious elements. One can only hope it's these principles on which Mousavi is waxing nostalgic . . . .

Obama replaces war games with diplomacy: what a novel idea

POMED's wire service reports:

"On Thursday (4/2), H.Con.Res.94, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), a bill which would encourage the negotiation of an "Incidents at Sea Agreement" between the United States and Iran, was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The bill calls for negotiations on not interfering with ship formations, maintaining safe distances, not permitting simulated attacks, as well as other measures. Such an agreement would mark formal engagement between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and decrease the likelihood of an accidental military incident between the two in the Persian Gulf."

Agreements like this should exist between all countries, which would have prevented the incident between Iran and the UK last year. If military ships are going to be operating very near the territorial waters of a country with which you don't have good relations some sort of legal framework for acceptable behavior always helps to avoid possible hostilities.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I hope this song doesn't launch a generation of portly rappers from Dubai releasing records called "Bedouin Bling" . . . .

NPR's Marketplace has the story here:

Rapper feels 'Arab Money' isn't funny

Iraqi expat and hip-hop artist Yassin Alsalman used to be a big fan of Busta Rhymes. That was until the rap star released a controversial song called "Arab Money." Sean Cole reports.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why do Arab leaders feel compelled to use stupid casual sex analogies to questions that would clearly be better answered using standard prose? Thankfully they replaced Shara with Mouallem before anyone was able to get a tape recorder in his immediate vicinity.

"Farouk al-Shara, the Vice-President of Syria, was, as Foreign Minister, his nation’s chief negotiator at Shepherdstown. When he was asked whether Syria’s relationship with Iran would change if the Golan Heights issue was resolved, he said, “Do you think a man only goes to bed with a woman he deeply loves?” Shara laughed, and added, “That’s my answer to your question about Iran.”

Syria Making Serious Efforts at Peace with Israel

The excerpts from Assad's exchange with Hersh offer yet more evidence that the regime is trying to engage seriously with Israeli peace and contribute productively to issues in the region. Assad has become famous for his ability to speak the language of Western ideals (which is why grouping together Assad and Ahmadinijad is like comparing Chavez to Kim Jong Il - just because Assad and Chavez don't worship at the altar of American imperialism doesn't make them raving lunatics. Ahmadinijad and Kim Jong Il on the other hand are fairly scary characters). So far Netanyahu's rhetoric is not very promising and neither is Lieberman's, but when responding to criticism Obama made about Syria in the run up to the Presidential election Assad said, “We do not bet on speeches during the campaign.” Hopefully that goes for Israeli campaigns too . . .

Monday, March 30, 2009

Winning the War on War?

Professor Joshua Goldstein recently presented his newest research project, "Winning the War on War," as part of the Middle East Seminar Series at the University of Maryland.

His talk is advertised with the following blurb:

"The number and size of wars is near an all-time low. From the killing of tens of millions in the World Wars, to millions in the Cold War, hundreds of thousands in the 1990s and tens of thousands today, war appears to be waning. Is this a stable trend or merely an interlude, and what explains the decline in war over recent decades?"

The most interesting part of the talk was Goldstein's point that the oft-quoted statistic that the majority of deaths in the 19th century were military but that the majority of deaths today are civilian is the result of a measurement error and in fact civilians have always been the source of most casualties. He frames the research project as a response to reports that emphasize the increasing incidences of civil conflict and generally increasing global levels of violence that are assumed to characterize contemporary society.

There were of course a lot of critiques of Goldstein's thesis, among them that levels of indirect deaths from conflict did not reflect this general downturn in battle deaths; that large conflicts are being replaced by smaller ones that are more diffuse and more difficult to track; and that although wars may be less lethal they are not less disruptive to society. I would agree with all of these, although Goldstein does point out an interesting quantitative trend.

I would argue the source of the trend is the increasing sophistication of technology that allows militaries to avoid civilian casualties - but which may also make war more likely (Iraq would certainly be evidence of this). And that this increasingly sophisticated technology probably isn't driven by international norms regarding the sanctity of civilian life so much as the increasing participation of communications and IT companies in the production of defense material. They can't exactly get new contracts for weapons that are less-precise and involve less engineering and technological implements. . . .

Perhaps as weapons get increasingly accurate incidences of attacks will increase. Casualties may also decrease, but living with the imminent threat of being a target won't, and therefore neither will the indirect effects of war like psychological trauma and low levels of economic investment.

Pink Taxis in Beirut: Women-Only!

I think there should be more businesses that cater to women and are operated by women. If male religious leaders and chauvinist politicians are going to continue to dictate the terms of life for women then we should just create our own society and shut them out as much as possible. Besides, women are in charge of something like 80% of family budgets so any business catering to them is bound to do better. Although this might put a lot of Syrian secret police out of a job now that demand for male-driven taxis in Beirut will go down . . . . .

Article here:

Write some new legislation already! If Congress can give the President unlimited power in waging war, why not in canceling contracts?

If the Administration can get GM's CEO to step down why can't they get the AIG financial services division employees to give up their bonuses?

Can't they just have a shareholder meeting and vote on these contracts? And isn't the government now the single largest shareholder?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Ending Diplomacy Before It's Begun?

The Times reports that:

"At a Gaza donors’ conference in Egypt on Monday, Mrs. Clinton told the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates that she did not believe that Iran would respond positively to the Obama administration’s offer of direct talks."

Everyone knows (presumably including Secretary Clinton) that the UAE is embroiled in a conflict with Iran over ownership of a small chain of islands, and that the UAE would be interested in de-railing any US rapprochement with Iran. So why make a comment like this? Was it calculated? - to signal to Israel and other allied states (Egypt and Saudi Arabia) that their interests were still more important than healing the rift between Iran and the US? True, Iran has made far fewer "good faith" demonstrations than has Assad's regime in Syria (which has lost significant domestic capital each time it did so). Either way, comments like these damage diplomatic efforts - even before they've begun . . . .

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Does proliferation of private security/military contractors play a role in official troop mutinies?

The mutiny of Bangladeshi border guards may be related to discontent fueled by an increase in the global use of private security and military contractors (many of which have come from Bangladesh). As of December 2008, there were an estimated 1,000 Bangladeshis serving under private contracts in Iraq. And, back in 2000 China's official state news agency, Xinhua News, reported that the Bangladeshi government was considering handing-over some policing jobs to private security companies. The same story reports that, as of 2000, there were over one hundred security companies operating within the country.

The AP reports that: "Among the guards' demands are more food rations and a chance to participate in lucrative, high-paying U.N. peacekeeping missions." The ability to vie for participation in these missions may be the nearest thing border guards have to the lucrative private contracts being snapped up by their co-nationals. Although air transport and similar support services as well as security guards supplied for UN missions have come from the private sector, the UN has so far been loathe to employ private forces for combat purposes.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

High-Level US politicians visit Syria

Finally more than whispers and rumors - confirmed visits of US officials to Syria:

"Kerry has long been an advocate for engaging with the Syrian regime," Jones added. "He believes that the Bush administration policy of not speaking to the Syrian regime was counterproductive. Yes we have many differences. But he believes it's important to impress on the Syrians how they can play a constructive role in the region if they change their behavior." Kerry believes the Untied States should return a U.S. ambassador to Damascus, Jones added. Kerry, who has previously visited Syria in 2005 and 2006, is accompanied on the trip by two staff foreign-policy advisors, Frank Lowenstein and Perry Camack, who holds the Middle East and North Africa portfolio for the committee.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is currently on a trip to Syria*. He is accompanied by Alan Makovsky, the senior Middle East advisor to the committee, a former advisor to the late former chairman Tom Lantos, and a former special advisor to then U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross. Asked about the trip, a committee spokeswoman said the committee doesn't discuss the travel of any member of Congress.

Read the whole post here at FP

First Indiana goes blue, then this? I think it might be safe for me to move back . . . .

February 24, 2009
Lugar Report Calls for New Cuba Policy
by Jim Lobe

Monday's call by Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar for a major reassessment of Washington's nearly half-century effort to isolate Cuba increases the likelihood that U.S. President Barack Obama will make substantial changes in policy toward Havana beyond those he promised during his election campaign, according to experts.

"What's significant is that this is the senior statesman for foreign policy in the Republican Party, someone who doesn't have a long track record of advocating for changes in Cuba policy, who has decided to come out and really put his stamp on this issue by saying that the U.S. embargo doesn't favor our national interest," said Daniel Erikson, a Cuba specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank.

"The fact is that Lugar has preempted Obama with his own proposals for changing the policy and in so doing creates a context that is much more favorable to changing the policy beyond the narrow of issue of lifting restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances" to the island, added Erikson, author of The Cuba Wars, a recently published book on U.S.-Cuban relations.

"What you are seeing is momentum-building," agreed Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights group that has long opposed the trade embargo. "With the policy already under review by the administration, Lugar is creating political space for Obama to take stronger action than he otherwise might."

In an introduction to a staff report he released Monday, Lugar, the ranking Republican and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Washington "must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests."

"After 47 years … the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people,'" Lugar wrote, "while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population," he noted, adding that the report, entitled "Changing Cuba Policy – In the United States' National Interest," "provides significant insight and a number of important recommendations to advance U.S. interests with Cuba."

The report itself, published on the first anniversary of the transfer of power from former President Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul, and based in part on four-day trip to Cuba by a staff delegation last month, called for the resumption of bilateral talks on drug interdiction and migration, enhanced cooperation on alternative energy development, and easing restrictions on travel and trade.

It also urged Havana's reintegration into western-dominated international institutions, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, among other steps Washington could take as part of process of "sequenced engagement" designed to "develop trust" between the two nations.

Lugar's statement and the report's release come amid growing speculation among Cuba specialists regarding the new administration's intentions. During the presidential campaign, Obama had promised to lift restrictions imposed by former President George W. Bush in 2004 on the freedom of Cuban Americans to travel to the island and to send money to their families there. He also indicated, however that he would retain the trade embargo as leverage to encourage political and democratic reform.

During her confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had taken a harder line on the embargo during her primary campaign against Obama, said the administration would conduct a review of Cuba policy, but, one month after his inauguration, key officials who would be expected to oversee such a process – including the likely assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Georgetown University professor Arturo Valenzuela, and his counterparts on the National Security Council – are not yet in place.

Nonetheless, Obama is expected to formally lift the Cuban-American-related curbs before the scheduled Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in mid-April, and possibly by mid-March.

Some observers believe he will combine that move with lifting other curbs on travel, including educational and cultural exchanges that brought thousands of U.S. citizens to the island in the late 1990s, and trade, notably requirements that Cuba pay in cash in advance for agricultural imports from the U.S., imposed by Bush.

"I think he will go beyond the Cuban-American curbs and at least go back to the circumstances [that prevailed] at least at the end of the [Bill] Clinton administration," said William LeoGrande, a Cuba specialist and dean of the School of Government at American University. "Remember, it was a Republican-controlled Senate that approved the sale of food and medicine to Cuba back in 2000, so I don't think there is significant political risk."

In the last several weeks, lawmakers, including Lugar in the Senate, have quietly introduced bills that, if passed, would lift all travel restrictions on trips to Cuba by U.S. citizens, a step that could inflict a decisive blow against the embargo.

Such legislation passed in both the House of Representatives and Senate in 2003 and 2004 but was dropped when Bush threatened to veto the bills. Most congressional observers believe they are likely to pass again, over the strong objections of the hard-line anti-Castro lobby centered in south Florida and New Jersey, provided that Obama clearly signals his support.

"Much depends on the Obama's attitude," said LeoGrande, who noted that the hard-liners had gained some influence with new Democratic, as well as right-wing Republican, lawmakers in recent years who have accepted campaign funding from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.

"If he were to say, 'It's time for a change; I support efforts by Congress to end the travel ban,' that will give political cover to some who might be a little worried about their vote. But if he says, 'I'm just lifting restrictions for Cuban Americans and I'm not in favor of going much further,' then nothing's going to happen."

Obama is likely to get more encouragement from the business community, according to Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), an association of several hundred of the large U.S. multi-national companies, which called after Obama's election for the "complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba."

Lugar's statement, he said, would be "very positive" for his constituency. "He's been very helpful on unilateral-sanctions reform, but he's never been out front on Cuba. This shows there's increasing interest on the part of new and important actors in the Congress."

The staff report argued that U.S. interests have been harmed by efforts to isolate Cuba in several ways. Not only has it failed to contribute to the island's democratization, but it has also created tensions with both Latin America and Europe, which have chosen a policy of engaging Havana. The report recommended that Washington consider establishing a bipartisan commission to forge a new, multilateral strategy on Cuba with Latin America and the European Union.

Indeed, unless Obama moves to relax the embargo before the Trinidad summit, he could suffer political damage in Latin America, according to Erikson. "Latin Americans are not going to view Obama as a change agent if he still has in place the Bush-imposed sanctions on Cuba by the summit," he said.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Le Monde: Dubai's Broken Dreams

The Gulf countries are poster children for the 'contradictions of capitalism.' The financial crisis that laid bare the system's inadequacies for all to see have hit these countries especially hard:

Few experts warned this wealth was not real but virtual´; Dubai’s broken dreams

Samir Aita

January 2009

The Gulf States were expecting a “correction” in the housing market (1); what surprised them was its scale. Local stock markets fell by 50% in six months – and 70% in Dubai, the new wonder of neoliberal capitalism (2). On 20 November, as a huge display of fireworks and Hollywood A-listers heralded the opening of the lavish new Atlantis Hotel, thousands of Asian workers were being bussed off Dubai’s construction sites and out of town.

A legal judgment in a case brought by small savers led to the closure of the Kuwait stock exchange from 14-17 November. In Dubai, property sales collapsed (3). Companies like Nakheel, Emaar, Damac and Omniyat, which have been developing massive skyscrapers and ecological islands, announced lay-offs and suspended new projects.

The director of global banking at the influential British bank HSBC wondered if the landing would be soft or hard, even in ultra-rich Qatar, and speculated that now might be the time to introduce more market regulation and more rigorous risk-management (4).

The US financial services company Citigroup was more forthright. Its expert Mushtaq Khan recently announced that the Dubai dream might be over (5). He said: “Dubai’s two specific concerns are its real-estate sector and how it will refinance the debt it has built up in recent years.” The emirate has borrowed to fund housing projects and foreign acquisitions. The subject is so sensitive that Citigroup’s chairman, Winfried Bischoff, recently met the emir of Dubai, Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktum (6). Off the record, one banker said: “We haven’t reached the bottom. My holidays in December were cancelled, even though it’s a matter of only seven working days. As far as we’re concerned now, ‘long term’ means three months. We’re desperate for liquidity and have repossessed properties, but the authorities won’t let us put them on the market.”

Although the workings of the Gulf bubble differ from the United States, all the ingredients are there. Supply constriction has caused dizzying inflation (more than 400% in five years). Most mortgages were issued directly by property development companies (rather than through banks), without proper assessment of client risk. Investment was highly leveraged; developers, constructors, managers and sovereign wealth funds all took out huge loans; and risks were spread across derivative products, both conventional and Islamic. In anticipation of a frenzy of future projects, the sector paid inflated prices for construction materials and even – in an attempt to circumvent administrative delays – for manpower.

The whole edifice was predicated upon a continuing rise in the prices of property, raw materials and oil. But everything collapsed, leaving uncertainties about the losses suffered by the sovereign wealth funds and about how much they have borrowed against future receipts.

Meanwhile, Gulf Bank of Kuwait, the country’s second largest, collapsed after massive losses on the foreign exchange market. At a public debate in Qatar, televised by the BBC, the motion that “Gulf Arabs value profit over people” was supported by 75% to 25%, and Mansoor al-Jamri, the editor of Bahrain’s daily Alwasat newspaper, was loudly applauded when he accused the Gulf states of buying their people’s silence through state hand-outs. “I am always hearing in the media and from officials how this is not the right time for the participation of the people. They say, ‘we will give you free education and free housing, but just shut up and don’t criticise.’ The governments have a philosophy based on oil wealth, but instead of letting it trickle down to the people, they use it to silence the elite or bypass their citizens” (7).

Samir Aita is an economist and chairman of A Concept mafhoum

(1) Soren Billing, “Dubai real estate correction ‘very close’”, 28 September 2008.

(2) See Akram Belkaïd, “Fantasy cities for a future that might not come”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, August 2008.

(3) Dylan Bowman, “Half of Dubai agents sold no homes in last month”, 17 November 2008.

(4) At the Financial Leaders Forum, Doha, 16-17 November 2008.

(5) Camilla Hall, “‘Dubai dream’ May Be Over on Lower Oil Price, Citigroup Says”, 18 November 2008.

(6) Gulf News, Dubai, 19 November 2008.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I hope Abul Ghayt gets some beachfront property in Martha's Vineyard for this since he just crucified himself and his government on behalf of the US

Egypt attacks Iran and allies in Arab world

Reuters North American News Service

Jan 28, 2009 10:06 EST

CAIRO, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Egypt aired its grievances against Iran, the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, saying they worked together in the fighting over Gaza to provoke conflict in the Middle East.

"(They tried) to turn the region to confrontation in the interest of Iran, which is trying to use its cards to escape Western pressure ... on the nuclear file," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in an interview with Orbit satellite channel broadcast on Wednesday.

Aboul Gheit also said that Egypt undermined Qatar's attempts to arrange a formal Arab summit on Gaza earlier this month, arguing that it would have damaged "joint Arab action".

"Egypt made the summit fail... This summit, if it had taken place as an Arab summit with a proper quorum, would have damaged joint Arab action. We can see what others do not see," he said.

The interview was broadcast on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning and the state news agency MENA carried excerpts.

The comments are the first acknowledgement by Egypt that it actively sought to prevent the Doha summit on Jan. 16, which was the subject of a bitter tug-of-war between rival Arab states.

It also indicated that a reconciliation meeting in Kuwait last week between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on one hand, and Qatar and Syria on the other, had only a short-term effect.

Qatar failed to win enough support to hold a formal Arab League summit on Gaza but it went ahead anyway with an informal consultative meeting of Arab leaders.

The wrangling reflected deep divisions between Arab governments. On one side Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wary of the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza, favoured discussing Gaza at a separate economic summit in Kuwait a few days later.

Diplomats say Egypt resents the Qatari challenge to its traditional role as leading Arab mediator and dislikes the influence of the satellite television channel Al Jazeera, which is based in Doha and owned by the Qatari government.

"Some people imagined that a satellite channel could bring down the Egyptian state, without realising that Egypt is much stronger than that," Aboul Gheit said.

"Egypt is very big and has extensive influence despite attempts to influence this stance and role, whether in the Al Jazeera channel or other channels," he added.

The Egyptian minister also criticised Hamas for what he called its coup against the forces of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip in 2007. (Writing by Jonathan Wright; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

The Rationalization of the Syrian Firewall?

Sasa from Syria News Wire reports:

Blogging unblocked in Syria
21 January 2009

One step forward, one step backwards. It looks like Blogger has been unblocked but WordPress has been blocked in Syria.

But the picture is very confusing. It doesn’t seem to be a national ban. Different ISPs are doing different things. SCS is currently providing free access to Blogger. But some WordPress blogs are blocked, and other WordPress blogs are free.

The revolving door of blocking and unblocking has happened before.

It makes a mockery of the ‘ban’. Why have a ban for some subscribers and not others? And anyway, the ways around the restrictions are easy even for the technophobe.

And if different ISPs are doing different things, it does raise the question - is this ‘ban’ coming from officials, or is this the companies making the decision? It’s a bit like self-censorship among journalists - there is no official list of banned subjects, just the list made up by every writer.

A few years ago Syria went through access bans on Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. It was a similar revolving door. One would be banned, another would be freed. But in the end, someone realised the restrictions were based more on paranoia than policy, and everything was un-blocked.

Let’s just hope this is the beginning of the same thing for Syria’s blogs.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Has the dialogue already begun?

The Jerusalem Post reports that President Assad of Syria, in an interview with Al-Manar, stated that indeed some sort of dialogue has been initiated between the US and the Syrian regime:

"I believe that the dialogue began seriously weeks ago through officials close to the administration. They were sent by the administration for dialogue with Syria."

Read the rest of the article here.

BBC: Syria and the new Arab 'Cold War'

Another sign that the vacuum created by the contraction of US legitimacy in the Middle East is being replaced by those Arab states NOT allied with the US. The Gaza offensive has done more to legitimize the Syrian regime than decades of "land and sovereignty" speeches. This may be the best time for the US to approach the Syrian regime, when the latter no longer feels isolated and reactionary. Although the US is unlikely to get everything it asks for in a negotiation, the Syrian regime has been relatively cooperative even without carrots (taking in Iraqi refugees, cooperation in the aftermath of 9-11, reacting peacefully to the Israeli strike last September and the more recent US attack near the Iraqi border with Syria). Damascus is again becoming a center for Pan-Arab sentiment, weakening the 'moderate' Arab states allied with the US. But this isn't necessarily bad news for the US, which might benefit from a more domestically legitimate partner in the Middle East peace process.

Syria and the new Arab 'cold war'

By Catherine Miller
BBC News, Damascus

It was standing room only at Damascus Opera House this week. Middle class Syrians packed the hall for a concert called We Shall Endure - a message from Damascus to Palestine.

Many had come for the star attraction, Marcel Khalife, one of the most famous musicians in the Arab world.

But they were also there to express their grief and anger about the war in Gaza.

"We have the same blood as the Palestinians," said one young woman. "Any drop of blood they shed, we feel it too."

That sentiment has prompted an overwhelming response from Syrians.

The opera house audience paid five times the normal price for a ticket with all proceeds going to Gaza.

And the Syrian Red Crescent has gathered more donations than any other Arab country.

Regimes out-of-step

The Syrian Government is authoritarian, and critics say it has little regard for the opinions of its citizens.

But during the war in Gaza it spoke for people here and many across the Arab world when it threw its weight behind the militant group Hamas and denounced Israel as a terrorist state.

That put it at odds with so-called moderate Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Some say the bitter dispute between Arab governments made it easier for Israel to pursue its own agenda.

"The Arab people are more developed than the Arab governments and regimes," said Khalife after the performance.

"There is no problem with any Arab from the Gulf to Morocco. The problem is with the regimes not with the people."

On their knees

Syria is home to about 500,000 Palestinian refugees, who were displaced in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.

In Palestine Camp, the neighbourhood where the majority live, the green banners of Hamas flutter over the market place and the walls are plastered with posters of Palestinian gunmen brandishing their weapons.

"The Europeans and the other Arab states hate Syria because it stands with the resistance," said one man, seething with anger.

"They want Syria to be on its knees like those other Arab countries who eat and drink with the money of the West."

A crowd gathers and everyone agrees.

"If the rest of the Arab world was like President Assad," said another, "the Palestinians would have won long ago."

Proven wrong

Egypt is seen as the villain here. It is condemned for failing to open its border to Gaza and relieve the besieged people there.

"They cannot understand why Egypt has no leadership in the region and is choosing to go against the wave," says Tarek, an Egyptian working in Damascus.

He says he tries not to give away his accent to avoid discussions about Egypt's perceived betrayal.

The political elite is in tune with the street.

Samir al-Taqi, director of Orient Centre for International Studies, a think tank close to the Syrian government, says Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries who put their faith in the good intentions of Israel and the US have been proven wrong.

He believes Syria's role in the region has been strengthened.

"The Israelis and the Americans have weakened the arguments of their allies and empowered those of their enemies.

"There is disappointment from those regimes who had followed them and there's a certain hope about the resistance."

Whipped up

But others say it is too early to say who has won what has been described as an Arab Cold War.

"This struggle is far from over. It's a vicious and bitter struggle being played out," says Peter Harling, an analyst in Damascus for the International Crisis Group.

In recent months, Syria has been working hard to come in from the diplomatic cold and had opened indirect negotiations with Israel. After the war in Gaza, it suspended those talks.

"It's very difficult having whipped up the Arab street and Syria's population in particular to move back towards any kind of dialogue with Israel."

Arab governments have now made some attempts to patch up their relationships. But the mood in Damascus is uncompromising.

For people here, the ruins of Gaza are proof that the Syrians and their militant allies who kept their weapons and their distrust of Israel were right.

Sooner or later, they feel, the rest of the Arab world will have have to join them.