Across the Bay

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Syrian Mugshots in Iraq

Michael Young put up a very interesting post on the photos found in Fallujah of fighters posing with a high-ranking Syrian official.

What's most interesting to me is this section from Michael's post:

"[L]ast year, when Gen. David Petraeus was still commander in Mosul, he negotiated oil sales to Syria from the city in order to finance projects there, and he did it with the approval of Paul Bremer. More significantly, this was negotiated not with the Syrian government, but specifically with Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam, according to several sources. Khaddam, a Sunni, is one of those who has well-developed networks in Iraq, which apparently includes maintaining contacts with Iraqi tribes.

In that context, one might argue that while the left hand in Syria might not know what the right hand is doing, with all these parallel tracks being run in and out of Iraq, where considerable amounts of money are switching hands and through which the Syrian elite has set up lucrative business contacts, the left hand may not want to know what the right hand is doing.
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The enigma of the Syrian power structure since Bashar inherited the presidency continues to be tantalizing. It's still not clear what exactly is going on. How much is Bashar in charge and, if he's not totally in charge, who else is? The suggestion that Khaddam might have something to do with the Syrian schizophrenia is interesting on many levels, one of which is the fact that he is a Sunni. Josh Landis says he's pro-Iran (I'm not sure he's alone on this, considering how Bashar continues to further bind, and thus limit, himself with Iran and Hizbullah -- something that his father would never have done.) I wonder where Farouq Shara' fits here. Is he in the Khaddam line? As for Ghazi Kenaan, Michael has a couple of lines on him as well:

"Joshua Landis ... ends his entry with this tantalizing passage: "It is a problem that seems to be recognized by the Syrian government. Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan is reportedly trying to reform the intelligence services and bring them under a centralized command."

Indeed, but two thoughts come to mind: The Syria security system is run on the principle of allowing multiple security services that can balance each other out, so Kenaan's efforts will almost surely be in vain (otherwise, one might just as well hand the keys of the palace to him); secondly, one of Kenaan's main rivals is Military Intelligence, which has been repeatedly cited for running networks into Iraq and sending weapons there. So a unification of the security services would, if it were to take place, remove the deniability that the hydra-like structure of the Syrian regime allows today. Again, not likely.
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This ambiguity played itself out in Lebanon after the attempt on Marwan Hamade's life. Did Bashar authorize the hit to send a message to Jumblatt? Or did he not know about it? Or, did he not want to know about it? All this provokes more questions on the current nature of the Syrian house. I'm leaning more and more towards the theory of multiple power centers (see Joshua's post linked above) and perhaps Michael's remark on the "hydra-like structure" of the Syrian regime might support it. Also, the accumulation of recent blunders (since the Iraq war at least) by the Syrians, might also indicate polyarchy in Damascus.

For more on the story, see Josh's most recent post.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Reform Blues

Just wanted to let you know that Greg Djerejian and Charles Paul Freund have picked up and commented on my post "The Forum for Future Stalemate" which was on the Arab reform forum in Morocco, which seems to be a total failure.

Greg has promised more comments to come, and he linked (and copied) a piece by Ray Takeyh that shared my pessimism. Charles links a piece by Tom Friedman that I'll briefly touch on when I get back to regular blogging.

Update: The always interesting Michael Young shares his thoughts on the Morocco forum. Young's position seems to mirror what Lee Smith (and Joshua Landis and myself) have said about a multifaceted approach to the ME that goes beyond the now boring Neocon vs. Realist debate (see my "Kiss me, I'm a ME Liberal!" post):

"[T]here are places where domestically generated reform is not an option. It was never an option in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, it is just an inch short of whimsical in Bashar Assad's Syria, and it has proven to be a catalogue of failures in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. One can, of course, go on: Combine the word "reform" with the names Al-Saud and Moammar Qadhafi and you can entertain a schoolyard. There comes a moment when indigenous reform is, quite simply, impossible ...

So, what are the alternatives? Neocons have scoffed at the prudence and optimism of the gradualist reformist agenda, and to that extent they are right. However, they are wrong in assuming that its alternative, a muscular willingness to mainly use force, is sufficient. The lingering message that has emerged from the Iraq war is that the U.S. has yet to find a proper equilibrium in the good- and bad-cop facets of its personality. There is also the matter of what is do-able, and the peculiarities of each state in the region. Invading Iraq was do-able in a way that invading Iran today is not, even as Iranian civil society offers many more opportunities for change stimulated from the outside than did prewar Iraq.
...
On its own, the reformist agenda that emerged from the G-8 summit last June will probably fail. But it shouldn't be discarded; rather it should be somehow linked to a parallel policy that accepts that force and other forms of pressure, political and economic, might have to be used, too, to ensure that the absence of reform in the Arab world won't come back to haunt the U.S., as it did on 9/11. To prepare for that, however, the second Bush administration will have to be unified in a way the first one was not.
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Holiday Blogging (or lack thereof!)

I am currently abroad with family, so the blogging will be light if not at a complete halt till after the new year. I mean, seriously, I have no interest in getting a divorce for blowing the break on blogging! I'm sure you'll understand!

However, don't touch that dial! I will be back with responses to some questions and remarks in the comments. Also, I will be back with my two advertised posts on William Dalrymple's NYRB review essay "The Truth about Muslims" (which will include a review of his book "From the Holy Mountain" as well as a lengthy discussion of the role of Eastern Christians and their relations with Islam) and another post on Phoenicianism, which will be based around an old piece by Peter Speetjens in the DS, which I will use as a lauching base for some remarks on this issue. My remarks will include a discussion of Asher Kaufmann's excellent new book "Phoenicianism." Someone left a note about Franck Salameh's Brandeis dissertation on the subject, but unfortunately, I don't have access to it, though I hope to read it sometime soon.

I know I've been advertising those for a while, but I never got the chance to finish them. I do work you know!

So, I ask all the newcomers to please be back, and for now, happy holidays, and I'll see you around!

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Weasel Central

Please see the various updates to my "Kommissar Cole" post below. The latest responds to the most recent attempt by the Kommissar to weasel out of his statements with his usual snottiness.

Update: I just came across the post by interesting blogger Chrenkoff on the Cole/Martini Republic fiasco, and as far as I can tell (but please correct me if I'm wrong) he and IraqPundit (see the updates to my "Kommissar Cole" post) are the only ones who shared my point about how what Cole wrote is a good example of what's referred to in Chrenkoff's post as "liberal racism." I relate it also to Edward Said's nonsense, and the condescending Thrid-Worldism (and the influence of Arab nationalism) of many in the ME studies field. But the point is the same. Chrenkoff wrote:

"[N]ow we have the same template applied on the Arabs: all Arabs are anti-American, and strongly opposed to our imperialism and the reckless invasion and occupation of Iraq. Therefore, those Arabs who aren't are not "real Arabs" - God forbid anyone in the Middle East would actually want a Western style democracy and some freedom! (it's a common perception among the Western lefties, something I have observed in the context of my own experiences: they loathe their own society so much that they can't understand how other people around the world might actually like it). Worse still, those "unreal Arabs" must also be a part of a sinister disinformation psy-ops campaign by the US government and intelligence services - somebody is paying them to spread their ugly pro-American propaganda!"

Exactly. That, by the way, is precisely how the totalitarian Arab nationalist and Islamist regimes of the region deal with dissent from the party line. It's basically a form religious ostracism, to paraphrase Sadiq Jalal al-Azm. That's the substance of Said's redefinition of the word "Orientalist."

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Lebanese Opposition to Syrian Policy

Michael Young sheds light on some significant recent developments in the shape of Lebanese opposition to Syria.

"Yesterday, a broad multi-religious opposition front was formally established in Beirut, its main purposes being to demand a return of Lebanese sovereignty in the face of Syrian hegemony over the country; but also to challenge the leadership of the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, whose mandate was extended under Syrian pressure three months ago. Lahoud is heavily reliant on intelligence goons for his authority."

And much like what Putin has been trying to do with the Ukraine (and the poisoning of Yushchenko), Syria has been doing for decades in Lebanon, only with less subtle methods than poisoning:

"A leading light of the opposition front is the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who was once a close Syrian ally, but who has since become highly critical of Syria's ways in Lebanon (partly, no doubt, because a close friend and politician was almost killed in a car-bomb attack in which Syrian officials are widely believed to have played a role--an attack that was really a warning to Jumblatt). In recent days, before the front was established, Jumblatt was contacted by Syria's powerful intelligence chief in Lebanon to persuade him to pull out of the effort. He persisted, however, and yesterday said: "I won't have a dialogue with Syria through a security officer."

Last weekend, the authorities, as a warning, removed Jumblatt's state-provided security detail from his Beirut home (he's entitled to one as a former minister), and yesterday someone threw a stick of dynamite at one of the offices of his political party. Amusingly, a Jumblatt rival tried to pretend the dynamite was aimed at him. Subtle.
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The establishment of a cross-sectarian opposition is crucial (and while it's not the first attempt, this one is more significant because it includes a traditional ally of Syria, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt), which is why the Syrians tried to botch it. It signals more than just a Christian opposition, and that's not the image Syria wants spread to the world. That's why they recently arranged a sham of a pro-Syrian, anti-UN resolution 1559, march (they couldn't amass many people -- the march was supposed to be called the "million man march" -- so they had to rely on Hizbullah to provide the bulk of the people. The total was estimated around 22,000 demonstrators, all of them from Syrian puppet parties, including the Baath, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, etc.!).

This has also been the traditional view about Lebanon, that in the end only the Christians will oppose the Syrians. For arguments on this point, see Joshua Landis' excellent Syria Comment blog. There, Joshua, Michael Young, myself and others have debated this and other points dealing with Lebanon and Syria. (Most recently, Michael Young and Landis had a back and forth on the Lebanese (and Iraqi) electoral systems.)

So there's a lot of hope being placed on this and other good signs coming from the region (all a direct result of American pressure, and in the case of 1559, joint US-French pressure, that produced the UN resolution). Let's hope they amount to something, and that there is movement on the peace talks between Israel and Syria and Lebanon.

Update: Jumblatt has ordered his parliamentary bloc to sign a petition to release Samir Geagea the imprisoned leader of the anti-Syrian Christian party, the Lebanese Forces. The two parties are historical enemies, so the move is all the more symbolic. Jumblatt has been steadily reinforcing his alliance with the Christian opposition. Even former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has made overtures to the Christian opposition, and moved to cement his stance with Jumblatt. He even hinted at the possibility of his parliamentary bloc signing the petition to release Geagea (which would give it close to 50 parliamentary votes). If this amounts to something, you would have a formidable Maronite, Druze, and Sunni opposition to Syria that can easily counter any pro-Syrian movement in the country.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Forum for Future Stalemate

That's pretty much the summary of the "reform meeting" in Morocco: the victory of Arab pathology and stalemate. This explains the reaction of Lebanese Human Rights activist Chibli Mallat who called the meeting a failure: "Nothing has changed. The indices of democracy have fallen behind." But that was all predictable since, as this NYT story from a week ago shows, The "Powellites" had decided to basically dump any serious demands on democratic reform and opted to focus on economic reform. Needless to say, this is precisely what the Arab regimes wanted all along, and what the Europeans wanted as well.

Indeed, the victory of Arab pathology was resounding, as the regimes not only managed to fend off any threat to their power and status quo, but they also managed to score points tying any reform efforts to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and asserting that all reform comes only "from within." In a nutshell, that's Powell's legacy at its finest. You achieve nothing but preserve the status quo, and you get slapped around and people score points off your back! Even the Saudis threw jabs at Powell. Saud al-Faysal lent his advice to Powell that the US could do so much better at winning the hearts and minds of Muslims by reversing its "bias toward Israel." Faysal even dismissed any clash of civilizations "or competing value systems" adding "the real bone of contention isthe longest conflict in modern history." Amr Mousa, the secretary general of the Arab League, went even further by saying that no partnership can go forward if one of its parties is accused of terrorism (i.e. the Arabs) and called for pulling all accusations against Islam as a religion and culture. Ahmad Abul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, took the cake when he said in an interview that he resisted the notion that "reform" was necessary in the Arab world. "I prefer the word 'modernity,' " he said, on grounds that reform means something is wrong and need to be fixed. Yes of course, nothing is wrong with the Arab world!

Predictably, Powell called the meeting "historic" and "a success" (Arabic) according to the Lebanese An-Nahar. A NYT story quotes Powell on why he thinks it was a success:

"[W]e have progressed to the point where this rather disparate group of nations can come around and say we will talk about these issues. That makes it a success"

Please, contain your excitement! Again, Powell in a nutshell. Can you lower the standards any more?

Needless to say, the French jumped on the occasion completely on the Arab regimes' side, also tying this to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and praised the economy-first approach that the EU started in Barcelona. French Minister Michel Barnier referred to the "unique and old" relationship between the Euros and the Arabs (i.e., we told you that economic deals are the only way to go you stupid Americans, and we take the lead on this), and refused that the Morocco meeting should replace the Barcelona framework. What - ever! Neither one does anything about the more important issues of liberalization of education (including religious education), the press, women's rights, human rights, political pluralism, religious pluralism (even Turkey has a horrible record on this point), minority rights, etc. In fact, if you read what Barnier said, he practically echoed the Arab despots word for word including supporting the Arab position on no reforms from the outside and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well, you can't expect more from the frogs anyway. They have no interest in democracy promotion in the region.

So what does all this mean? Absolutely nothing. Complete stalemate and, as Mallat said, failure.

Lee Smith and Ammar Abdulhamid shared their reactions to a comment by Greg Djerejian (Belgravia Dispatch) on how "Middle East democratization efforts through the broader Middle East might best be spearheaded via economic reforms preceding political ones, ie. more of a China model."

In a private email, Lee wrote:

" I think many people, including myself when I wrote on Dubai, have overstated the case for economic liberalization. It's useful and important, but it's also one of the messages of the regimes: first economic liberalization, and then social and political reforms. Well, of course the regimes will be comfortable with economic reforms since no one stands to benefit from such movement as much as they do--look at Gamal Mubarak. Economic liberalization without social and political reforms, in the PA oranywhere, is a potential disaster: there are no political reforms in the offing in places like Dubai. I think it's time we started hitting hard at both Arab and Western officials who think economic liberalization is a panacea; rather, it will just further consolidate the elites' hold on power.
...
Reforms in the educational system and press are fundamental. Does anyone believe the US would be "liberal" if we had free-markets and yet systematically taught in schools, churches etc. that non-whites were inferior?
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Ammar followed with another email:

"The paradigm of economic reforms coming before and paving the way to political reforms have been tried in Egypt, Jordan, and even Syria over the last few years, and did not work. Lack of public accountability and the corruption of the ruling elite made sure of that. The Morocco Forum is going to be a big failure because more emphasis is going to be put on economic reforms. Seeing that the Bush Administration is now adopting the economic approach, the Europeans can feel quite justified now with their approach to their Medditerranean partners which always emphasized economic reforms over everything else.

If the political will to change is not there, nothing will work. Period.
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Michael Young (and Chibli Mallat) have made similar points as well. Joshua Landis still holds on to the "China model" to a certain degree, although not without simultaneous reforms in education. He once wrote:

"[E]conomics are fundamental, but helping people get richer goes hand in hand with improving education and increasing literacy rates. Education is at the heart of the reform process. Furthering the enlightenment project and strengthening notions of skepticism and "secular" truth is essential. It means getting away from memorization and the worship of authority, whether it be of the president, or "texts," or revealed truth. Free debate is at the heart of this project. Only by reinforcing the notion that there are many sides to an argument and many ways to view truth will citizens begin to relinquish notions of a transcendent morality and value compromise over conflict, cooperation over confessionalism, and tolerance over tribalism."

Make sure to also read his excellent paper on Islamic Education in Syria.

So in the end someone in the cabinet decided to roll with the Euros on this one with no leverage whatsoever (the US can't even get the lead on this, as evident from Barnier's remarks). The result is a double failure, both on the European front and the Arab front. The whole thing smells of Powell's style. Stalemate, Powell's middle name, is once again victorious. The pathological Arab narrative survives unscathed, with European backing.

Joshua Landis sees it slightly differently. In an email message, he set a balance between pragmatism and hope:

"I agree with your forward looking agenda of deep political reform for the Middle East. There is a reality check however. The US is in no position right now to carry through with it. That is why Powell is being given the freedom to smooth over relations with the Arab World and mimic the Europeans, who do not believe in bringing democracy to the Middle East, but confine their objectives to encouraging baby steps of liberalization thorough engagement and deal making. The long and short of it is that the US must get Iraq right before it can peddle its transformation package to hostile neighbors. Everyone is watching Iraq. The US needs the support of the surrounding countries. It cannot take on the world and must concentrate on goal number one - putting Iraq back together again. To do this Washington must bring along Europe and Iraq's neighbors. The price will be the President's Forward Strategy for Democracy in the Greater Middle East. If Iraq works, it will be its own tonic."

Let's just hope that the M.E. liberals, and their hopes of a US commitment to democratic reform, have not been left out in the cold.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Kommissar Cole

It's very rare for a day to pass without Cole making a complete idiot of himself, again. Read this cheap, vindictive, and conspiratorial post he put up today:

"The MR posting brings up questions about the Iraqi brothers who run the IraqTheModel site. It points out that the views of the brothers are celebrated in the right-leaning weblogging world of the US, even though opinion polling shows that their views are far out of the mainstream of Iraqi opinion. It notes that their choice of internet service provider, in Abilene, Texas, is rather suspicious, and wonders whether they are getting some extra support from certain quarters."

This might just be the cheapest, sleaziest, most vindictive thing Cole has ever said (and that's saying a lot). And here's why he did it. Iraq the Model and IraqPundit are two bloggers who have critiqued, refuted, and made fun of Cole's excesses, conspiracy theories, romanticism and misinformation (and those of his likes, like Rashid Khalidi). For instance, Iraq the Model has written about him and his "expertise" in the same breath as Michael Moore and al-Jazeera: "I guess if instead I shifted to parroting Al Jazeerah or people like Michael Moore or Juan Cole, I’d be having an independent voice?"" IraqPundit called Cole "dependably misinformed" and poked fun at him and his insane conspiracy theories, mentioning how some Iraqis refer to Cole's site as "Misinformed Comment." Needless to say, I've taken great pleasure deflating Pope Juan Cole myself.

So what does Cole do? What he does best. Weave conspiracy theories that of course involve the Neocons (see that second link to IraqPundit for another one of those) on how Iraq The Model is "suspicious" and how "far out of the mainstream of Iraqi opinion" the posters are. Yes you heard right. An Iraqi site, whose authors have formed a pro-democracy liberal Iraqi party, based in Iraq, living through the war and its dangers (esp. when Cole's favorite, Sadr, was bullying other Iraqis and when Jihadists are killing anyone pro-American, while Cole is sitting pontificating from his Michigan office) is not reflective of Iraqi opinion, which Juan Cole is supposedly an expert on! The pretentious self-importance is nauseating. But there's more. This amounts to the worst "Orientalism" (in the Saidian sense) there is. It presumes that Iraqi opinion must not only be monolithic, but it must also conform to an anti-US, pro-Arabist party line (because Arabism is the "authentic" voice of the East)! Or, it must be what Juan Cole says it is! If not, it's an attempt "to spread disinformation ... It is a technique made for the well-funded Neoconservatives." I.e., not only must "Arabs" have one opinion, but if they are dissenters then they are passive agents of manipulation by outside (Jewish) forces! (Iraq the Model was quoted by Wolfowitz a while ago in a WSJ op-ed. Well that "proves" they're Neocons!)

But wait, the InterCole warns us that he has "suspicions about one or two sites out there already." Gee I wonder if that includes IraqPundit as he's an "Arab" who dared to critique and make fun of Pope Cole! That seals it, he must be a Likudnik or Neocon!

I've said before that Cole's site often mirrors the worst of the Arabist propaganda found in some papers in the ME. Now Cole has taken this a step further. He's now mirroring the worst of the totalitarian regimes of the region and their secret services. If you dissent from their line, you must be working for outside (Jewish) agents.

This is not the first time that Cole has made stereotypical or reductionist comments about Arabs (see Martin Kramer's recent Sandbox entry on Cole and Hassoun. Scroll to bottom.) or Jews for that matter (he once wrote how Larry Franklin had "a Brooklyn accent" even though -- imagine that -- "he himself was not Jewish." Nevertheless he was close to Wolfowitz and "the predominantly Jewish Neoconservatives" and thus he was part of "a clever scheme." He also cast suspicions on Sephardic Jews for possibly being infiltrated by the Mossad.)

Cole owes an apology to a lot of people, but considering that he postures as a defender of Iraqi rights, he owes the guys at Iraq the Model and any other sites he's "suspicious about" a rather big one, given that these people put their lives on the line every day, while Cole is gaining status here as the oracle on Iraq (and busying himself smearing his Iraqi competition which contests his views). After that, it'll do him good to 1- avoid this Baathi-style Stalinism, and 2- keep his conspiracy theories to himself, that is, if he wants these sites to stop making fun of him and his insane views which he tries to sell as "expertise." Oh, and grow thicker skin and stop whining like a prima donna.

Update: Ali of Iraq the Model responds.

Update 2: IraqPundit also has his say on Cole's "appalling web of innuendo." I think this passage by IraqPundit, which is similar to what I've said above, makes the most important point:

"What disgusts me most is Cole's implication that Iraqis are unable to think and reason for themselves. If Iraqi blogs are supportive of liberalization (and most are), then Cole apparently believes that we must suspect a hidden hand somewhere. Enlightenment and independence of mind are to be defined by whether or not you agree with Juan Cole. If you don't, you lack integrity and honesty, and you may even be a hoax, a fraud, or an agent provocateur."

Update 3: In yet another stupid post (trying to whitewash a previous stupid post that was caught by Andrew Sullivan who called it "a new low") Juan Cole writes the following self-important passage:

"These are the Orientalist premises of the Zionist Right and its American fellow travelers. The reason my comment was so challenging is that it didn't partake of these premises. The premise is that there is an "eternal Arab" or "eternal Muslim" that is defined as essentially fanatical and intolerant and full of hatred toward Jews. These are universal characteristics of this race, and unvarying over time."

Professor Cole, that's precisely what you did in the attack against ITM. IraqPundit and I called you on it. The essence of what Cole wrote (which both I and IraqPundit saw very clearly) is that if the "Arab" doesn't hold a specific opinion (which follows a Third-Worldist, Arab nationalist or anti-Western line, then that "Arab" is 1- either not "Arab" or 2- a passive tool in the hands of malevolent (Jewish) agents. I.e., the "Arab" is not capable of independent creative thinking that might be liberal or pro-American etc. (or, God help us, disagree with US Arabists like Cole!). This, by the way, is a double stereotype, against Arabs and Jews! Well done Professor! Two birds with one stone! And you've earned, by your definition, the title of "Orientalist" in the negative, racist sense!

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the neo-Left and their abohrrent attitude in addressing the problem of Islamic fundamentalism today. This is what Berman and Hitchens have been pointing out over and over again.

Update 4: Liberal blogger Jeff Jarvis calls Cole "pond scum" and accuses him of libel.

Update 5: The always articulate and sober Michael Young (who once called Cole's blog "overrated") puts the professor's saga in perspective:

"Cole did well to turn his Informed Comment blog into a "must read" platform during the Iraq war, but somehow one gets a sense that somewhere in there it all went to his head, and that he feels, like many of us hacks, that a sharp and shallow opinion can substitute for a deep and considered one. That's not always the case, but Cole's blog appears to have manufactured a public edition of Cole, that of the harassed but defiant activist, that Cole the academic often feels he has to live up to.

It would be shame to see Cole shrivel up entirely into self-parody. But worse, here was someone who made the Iraqi situation more understandable to many Americans at one time. He preferred to become shrill, though, losing an opportunity to bridge the knowledge gap. Such is the power, and curse, of being transposed from the classroom to the studio.
"

Update 6: Cole tries to weasel out of what he said about Iraq the Model with a classic snotty "I'm the expert, you're the illiterate dittoheads" routine. He writes:

"My allegation that the IraqTheModel website is far outside the norm of Iraqi public opinion as measured by polling has caused a stir in the weblogging world among, apparently, dittoheads who can't read polls."

No, sweet pea, that's not your only allegation. This is the smart ass allegation that can divert the conversation to a debate about polls. Meanwhile, that's not the main problem and never was. It's as cute a trick as this statement:

"I drew attention to Martini Republic's questions about the independence of IraqTheModel without actually expressing any opinion myself one way or another, except to say that they are out of the Iraqi mainstream."

Nice try, tinkerbell, but your sleaziness was so obvious that virtually every "dittohead" on the planet got it. Michael Young (no dittohead there) got it, IraqPundit got it, and dittohead-central yours truly got it. You tried to hide behind MR's post, but as usual, your shrillness got the best of you and you did express your opinion, which had nothing to do with polls or Iraqi opinion. Michael Young nailed it:

"Cole doesn't actually come out and say that he thinks the blog is a sham; he merely hides behind what Martini Republic says. But he does add, revealingly, in a clear endorsement of the accusation:

'The phenomenon of blog trolling, and frankly of blog agents provocateurs secretly working for a particular group or goal and deliberately attempting to spread disinformation, is likely to grow in importance. It is a technique made for the well-funded Neoconservatives, for instance, and I have my suspicions about one or two sites out there already.'
"

And there you have it. Another attempt at weaseling out of a statement with snotty condescension. Maybe next time Colito. Oh, your pants are still on fire.

Iraqi Identity vs. Arab Nationalism

Jim Hoagland has an excellent piece in the WaPo on the post-Saddam Iraqi identity and Arab nationalism. Hoagland quotes Iraqi interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, who makes a series of very encouraging statements:

"Even if we are Arabs, we cannot have any identity but an Iraqi identity."

There is no overstating the importance of this statement. This is what Kanan Makiya meant that Iraq can no longer be an "Arab" country. Iraq's national identity can only be Iraqi, and a complete divorce from the disastrous ideology of Arab nationalism is imperative for the well-being of the emergent, pluralist Iraqi state.

Hoagland goes on to raise some truly crucial points:

"Winning also means dismantling a deeply ingrained stereotype of Arab nationalism that was formed early in the 20th century, when colonial powers swept into the region and that still holds sway."

It's a terrific point that Hoagland makes here, equating Arab nationalism with a romanticized stereotype. I have made that point several times on this blog when critiquing Cole, Khalidi, Watenpaugh, and LeVine (see my posts "Arabist Revisionism", "pressed for Reality" and "On Romanticism and Fascism (lite)!"). Hoagland details what the stereotype is:

"An instinctual love of revolt and fighting, inflexible clan loyalties and an unquestioning rejection of Western influence were traits emphasized by "Orientalists" (in Edward Said's term) such as T.E. Lawrence and others who sketched the Arabs as ignoble savages who would not and could not adapt to international norms -- and were therefore perversely admirable." (Emphasis added.)

The problem is that the luminaries mentioned above, have helped perpetuate that stereotype attributed to T. E. Lawrence, even as they critiqued the Orientalists! The perverse sense of admiration for the "insurgents" in Fallujah and its long "history" of revolt, and the supposed historical parallels drawn between 1920 Fallujah and today (Khalidi), or the Kaylani revolt (seemingly Watenpaugh's interest), the romanticizing of the Sadr "insurgency" (Cole), the disappointment at the lack of a broader Arab revolt instead of a mere Sunni one (LeVine), and the Third-Worldist element of "resistance" to the West are all ever-present in the writings of these "experts."

The so-called historical parallels drawn by these "experts" (like Khalidi's ill-informed history of Fallujah) seem to fit rather well with this following passage from Hoagland's piece:

"[T]o suggest that Arab character is immutable from one century to the next or that it is somehow impervious to global trends is to engage in a reverse romanticism that denigrates an entire people. It is to adopt a view of human nature that is rooted as deeply in racism as in history. In this view, Arab countries will never be more than "tribes with flags.""

That's precisely what we're being asked to believe by the Khalidis of the world. Only of course they don't label it "tribes with flags." Rather it's "anti-colonialism," "anti-imperialism," "transcendent nationalism," and the like.

Hoagland also makes a point on how all this was used by Saddam in his propaganda:

"Saddam Hussein lived on the other side of the same coin. He placed the brutal imperatives of tribal life at the center of his malignant redefinition of nationalism. "The Arabs" were simply one large tribe that needed to avenge past defeats by destroying Israel and Iran and lining Saddam's pockets in the process. Iraq today is a giant crucible of forces that battle to perpetuate or change this concept."

I already linked to what Ali of "Iraq the Model" and IraqPundit wrote in response to Khalidi's piece on Fallujah. They both pointed out that the image drawn by Khalidi was a Baathist revisionism used by Baathist propaganda! (Cole and LeVine are guilty of the same romanticized revisionism.) I would add that from the very beginning, Arab nationalism conceived of the "Arab umma" as a "super-tribe." Saddam didn't invent this, he was a product of it.

The romanticism and apologetics for the worst kinds of fascism of the Thrid-Worldist, Arabist professors aside, this is an incredibly important matter. Hoagland wrote:

"An Iraqi identity that is not bound up with perpetuating the long progression of wars that Saddam Hussein started, supported or invited will change the face of the region. It will also contribute decisively to redefining the nature of Arab nationalism, which is under enormous historical pressure to adapt or die."

I would add that hopefully Arab nationalism won't "adapt" and just simply die. Fascist Arab nationalism and a liberal, pluralist, democratic Iraq (indeed, M.E.) are incompatible. It would be a death long overdue. The only people to mourn it would be the brilliant luminaries mentioned above.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream

The Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, that beacon of integrity, has published a spectacularly stupid piece by luminary (and aspiring heir apparent to high priest Edward Said) Joseph Massad. I'm not interested in discussing Massad's moronic intent on redefining anti-semitism as I've got better things to do with my time. But I will take some time to point out some hilarious stupidities uttered by him along the way. Take these passages for instance:

"The term "Semite" was invented by European philologists in the 18th century to distinguish languages from one another by grouping them into "families" descended from one "mother" tongue to which they are all related. In this context, languages came to be organised into "Indo-European" and "Semitic", etc. The philologists claimed that Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, etc., were "Semitic" languages, even though philologists could never find a parent Semitic language from which they all derived.
...
In keeping with the Protestant Reformation's abduction of the Hebrew bible into its new religion and its positing of modern European Jews as direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews, post- Enlightenment haters of Jews began to identify Jews as "Semites" on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew. In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the language in which the Talmud was written, as well as parts of the bible. Based on this new philological taxonomy and its correlate racial classifications in the biological sciences, Jews were endowed with this linguistic category that was soon transformed into a racial category.
"

You see, the term was "invented" by philologists! No, it was appropriated from the Bible. Genesis 10 lists a "table of nations," in the form of genealogies, which function as lists of the peoples known to the Ancient Israelites. It also relates all the various peoples of the earth back to the sons of Noah, for Noah's family, according to the Israelite myth of the Flood (itself common in the Ancient Near East), were the only humans to survive a flood that destroyed all the earth. As such, they were responsible for all of humanity that came after the flood. These sons were called Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Each one had his descendants, and each one of these descendants had a land, clans, and a language. Here's a formulaic verse to clarify: "These are the descendants of Shem according to their clans and languages, by their lands, according to their nations." (v. 31.) This is different from what's related in the following chapter (Genesis 11), where it's said that all humans shared the same language after the Flood, and it wasn't until the episode of the tower of Babel that God "confounded the speech of the whole earth." (v. 8).

The line of Shem includes Terah, the father of Abram, who is the grandfather of Jacob, who's the eponymous ancestor of Israel. I.e., this is how, in genealogical language (common in tribal societies, including the Arabs), Israel located itself in the world. These lists that explain the multitude of nations and languages are by no means confined to Israel, but are rather found in various mythologies and theogonies.

So, since Israel was traced back to Shem, whence the term "Semitic," the Hebrew language was (and continues to be) classified as a Semitic language. So, the term was by no means "invented"! It was simply a heuristic term based on the Bible which was at the heart of Christian European culture. It's just that in the post-Said universe, everything the "orientalists" did was an "invention" and had nothing to do with the "reality" of the "East" which they "imagined" in order to dominate.

Today, different terms are used beside Semitic (also Hamitic, which was used to classify ancient Egyptian, for instance, because Mitsraim -- the Hebrew word for Egypt, cf. Arabic misr -- is listed as a descendant of Ham in Genesis 10). Today one finds categories like "Afro-Asiatic" which depart from the earlier, Bible-based terminology, although the older terminology is still very much in use. Also, philologists didn't completely and uncritically rely on the the biblical list outlined in Genesis 10. For instance, "Canaan" is listed as a descendant of Ham (and he begets Sidon), but philologists rightly categorized the Canaanite dialects (including Phoenician, the language of Sidon) as Semitic, because it was clearly closely related to Hebrew. So, as the field gained more sophistication, and as more texts were discovered and deciphered by those goddamned orientalists, modifications were made. The categories were kept for heuristic and organizational purposes.

It is true that 19th c. philologists were interested in "language family trees," and it was another way of trying to understand the inter-relatedness of language groups, and to classify them. For instance, it's undeniable that the Romance languages are all related, and they're all in turn related to (or descendent from) Latin, etc. On the other hand, it's clear that Indian and Arabic, for example, are not from the same "family" of languages, etc. So, Massad's derision shows nothing more than his ignorance. What does Massad mean when he writes that philologists "claimed" that Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic are related? Is he implying that this was another Orientalist act of "imagination?" It's clear that the above languages are related. Anyone who actually knows Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic (Massad doesn't know the first two), would immediately notice the similarities and affinities. So the notion of a posited "common ancestor" of these languages, what's referred to as "Proto-Semitic," is not a crazy "claim." (I found this tree on the web, and it's fine for the purpose of giving an example. You'll see that Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew are listed under "Central Semitic" with Aramaic and Hebrew categorized as Northwest Semitic, while Arabic is South-Central.) It's a way for scholars, namely historical linguistis, to explain developments and similarities and inter-relations. Besides, this kind of comparative linguistics is by no means restricted to 19th c. European philologists! For example, Saadiah Gaon, the 9th-10th c. Jewish scholar (born in Egypt, lived in Tiberias and Babylon) who translated the Hebrew Bible into Arabic, was already making grammatical comparisons between Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic, and using them to illuminate each other.

Historical linguistics have been refined and much of the 19th c. philologists' premises (and data) have naturally been updated. You have more sophisticated study now in, e.g., language contact and sociolinguistic, that factor in language change. (See Sarah Thomason and Terrence Kaufman, Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991, and Peter Trudgill, Sociolinguistics [4th ed., London: Penguin Books, 2000].) But it should be mentioned that Proto-Semitic was always understood as a hypothetical category! There were attempts to equate it with Akkadian (the oldest Semitic language known to us today) or Arabic (with the Pan-Arab wave), but both attempts failed. As for the issue of scholars attempting to find and reconstruct a mother of all languages (Monogenetic Hypothesis), it predates the 19th c. philologists, and has more theological roots. For more on this, see Umberto Eco's book The Search for the Perfect Language (Tr. James Fentress. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) in the series edited by Jacques Le Goff, "The Making of Europe."

The point is, Massad is out of his league and it shows. When in doubt, always fall back on Orientalist "invention" and "imagination" to account for your ignorance.

But there is something else here that's mixed with ignorance. Massad outdoes himself with the following idiotic statement:

"In keeping with the Protestant Reformation's abduction of the Hebrew bible into its new religion and its positing of modern European Jews as direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews, post- Enlightenment haters of Jews began to identify Jews as "Semites" on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew. In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the language in which the Talmud was written, as well as parts of the bible."

I'm not sure what the hell he means by the Protestant Reformation's "abduction" of the Hebrew Bible, and I frankly am not sure I want to know! (Does he perhaps mean in the same way that Islam "abducted" Chrsitianity and Judaism?!) I'm also not sure what the underlying premise of the comment on the Jews' "alleged ancestors" is. Only someone who's operating on racialist premises would include "alleged" in there because he's thinking about "ancestry" in genetic terms. This is the emphasis of anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian historian Keith Whitelam, whose book is translated into Arabic and circulated in the ME as "scientific proof" against "the claims of Jews to the land," etc... See, if you must, his article "The Identity of Early Israel" in Social-Scientific Old Testament Criticism (ed. D. J. Chalcraft. The Biblical Seminar 47. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997) pp. 172-203, for his views on ethnicity and common ancestry. The modern ethnicity studies have long departed from the biological and genetic models. It's now accepted that ancestral claims that bind ethnic groups together are often either fully cognitive or at least partially so. In many cases, the groups making these claims are aware of their fictive nature. They function very well, and in a very real manner nonetheless. I'll leave it to you to figure out why Massad would be interested in inserting "alleged" in there.

But here's the dumbest part of the statement: "In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the language in which the Talmud was written."

Take a couple of minutes to finish laughing... OK, let's get back to this crock of horse manure. Yes, Aramaic was used by Jews, and for quite a while too, and so was Arabic. But Hebrew, in various forms and at various historical stages, continued to be used, even alongside other languages. It was sometimes used for writing purposes (religious texts, poetry, etc.) but it was also used for speech. Even after the introduction of Aramaic, and its influence on Late Biblical Hebrew, Hebrew continued to develop. Hence Mishnaic/Rabbinic Hebrew and Medieval Hebrew etc. For an accessible history of the Hebrew language, see Angel Sáenz-Badillos' book, A History of the Hebrew Language (Tr. John Elwolde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). The whole idea here is to dissociate Jews from the Biblical heritage (and thus, from Jewish ties to and history in the land laid out in the Bible) through two ways (both of which are common myths in the ME, propagated by various anti-Semitic TV shows on Hizbullah's channel, Al-Manar TV, which might soon be banned from France for its anti-Semitism): 1- that Judaism is not related to the Biblical Israelite heritage, but rather to the later Talmud. 2- Jews didn't speak Hebrew, they spoke Aramaic (or other European languages or Russian. Thus, if you're influenced by Arabism -- a language-based ethnic identity -- the Jews can no longer claim to be "a people"), and modern Israeli Hebrew is unrelated to its ancient predecessor. (Modern Israeli Hebrew is a matter of continued debate among scholars. See the work of Prof. Shlomo Izre'el of Tel Aviv University and the project of a corpus of spoken Israeli Hebrew. Some Ultra-Orthodox Jews also dissociate modern Hebrew from the "Holy Tongue" of Biblical Hebrew. Needless to say, they're often used and quoted by Arabs wishing to use this for political propaganda.)

So, Massad is in the business of "resemanticizing" and redefining terms and concepts and history to fit his ideology. He wants to redefine "anti-Semitism" and to redefine Jewish identity and heritage. All this without knowning a word of Hebrew (see Martin Kramer's entry "Zion Envy" Thu, Oct 28 2004 11:44 am. Scroll to bottom.) But this goes beyond Massad. Edward Said's assault on the enterprise of Oriental philology is the real culprit. Look at the result! A ME studies professor who thinks the Ancient Israelites always spoke Aramaic! We've gone from philology to "misology!" How many Islam scholars in the US today take time to learn Syriac/Aramaic, Hebrew, and even Greek, and employ them critically in their work? Older scholars like the late giant Franz Rosenthal or Siegmund Fränkel or Theodor Nöldeke or Carl Brockelmann et al. (down to Joseph Schacht and John Wansbrough and Werner Diem) knew the crucial importance of Aramaic in the study of early Islam. (Christoph Luxenberg's recent attempt was overzealous and methodologically flawed, but this shouldn't dissuade scholars from pursuing the significant path of Arabic-Aramaic Sprachbeziehungen [language relations and language contact] in early Islam and the Quran [cf. Fränkel's classic work on "foreign words" in Arabic]. See the more cautious article by François de Blois in the Bulletin of the Schools of Oriental and African Studies [Volume 65, Issue 1, pp. 1 - 30].)

But all this is gibberish to Massad. It's all an Orientalist colonial "invention." Another expert hath spoken.

Heard it Through Le Grape Vine

I simply had to link to this hilarious entry in Martin Kramer's Sandbox ("LeVine d'Irvine," Fri, Dec 10, 2004 3:30 pm). It's a response to a claim made by Mark Le-"capitalize that V"-Vine in a bizarre guest editorial (yes, another one) on Juan Cole's site (is he supposed to be like Cole's protégé, or will no self-respecting publication publish his nonsense?!) that "most practitioners" of the field of ME studies "predicted exactly the terrorism that happened with 9/11 ... and rightly predicted what would happen when the US invaded Iraq."

Kramer's inspired barb is worth quoting in full:

"Mark LeVine, hip Middle East studies artist at U.C. Irvine, tells us all about "the field of Middle Eastern studies, most of whose practitioners predicted exactly the terrorism that happened with 9/11 when our Government and spy agencies were busy elsewhere, and who rightly predicted exactly what would happen when the U.S. invaded Iraq." So man, you know I'm lookin' for these exact predictions, man, and like I've read all this stuff by big professors, and maybe I'm not the brightest bulb, but, shit, I ain't turnin' up squat. Just a lot a profs sayin' terrorism is overblown, and Iraq jacks who thought the war was a good idea, like that dude Juanito Cole. So like maybe LeVine d'Irvine could come up with some... what's it called, man? Yeah, that's it, e-vi-dence! Peace, man."

LeVine... le pew.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Favorite Sport: Neocon Hunting

Emile el-Hokayem, a researcher on ME security issues at the Stimson Center (and, I'm proud to say, a reader of this weblog!), has written an excellent, and highly gratifying piece for the Daily Star on the uses and abuses of the term "Neocon" (or as the title has it: "the myriad cons about the neocons").

All I can say is this article makes fools of several pundits in the US like our dear friend Juan Cole and the MESA guild. Cole has made an art of the abuse of the term Neocon, reserving his worst seizures and conspiracy theories and ivectives to this (imagined) group. He fits perfectly this description outlined by Emile:

"[V]ilification of the neocons is a sport. Branding someone a neoconservative has become a favorite insult in the Arab lexicon and a convenient way of discrediting an opinion. The strophes are familiar: Neocons have it all wrong; they know nothing about the world's realities, and they are driven by contempt and hatred for the rest of the world, especially Muslims.

This simplification of neocon thinking reflects a limited understanding of the school of thought, as well as a desire to dismiss its relevance. Neoconservatism has been amalgamated with Zionism, caricaturized and stripped of all nuance by numerous pundits.
"

The only problem is that this is supposed to be a description of the Arab world! Which once again brings up the problem raised on this blog (and by IraqPundit and Iraq the Model) that people like Juan Cole actually mirror the worst Arabist propaganda and pathologies (and its weakness before the seductions of conspiracy theories) with a complete lack of any critical sense.

Emile attempts to briefly define the "neocon philosophy":

"But the blending of the two concepts of an "end of history" and a "clash of civilizations" illustrates poor comprehension of the neoconservative philosophy. Far from being racist, the philosophy is universalistic. It contends that all humans share the same aspirations: individual freedom and affluence. It magnifies the traits common to human beings and reduces the importance of cultural features distinguishing societies one from another. This is actually the most contentious element of neocon thought: it assumes that individualist pursuits supersede identity. In traditional societies, this is anathema. For neoconservatives, the U.S., as the world's most advanced state, has a mission to spread universal values. This explains why they so often promote interventionist policies and are sometimes labeled democratic imperialists."

Or, as Martin Kramer once put it, properly differentiating the politicized merging of Neocons with Orientalists: neocon philosophy is about sameness, while Orientalism was about difference. For some, like our other friend (for real this time!) Josh Landis, this is seen as not necessarily always an asset, but also a potential danger in the neocon worldview (if we allow ourselves to use such terminology. After all, as Emile points out, disagreements exist among neocons!). It's not the issue of using power to help the rise of democracies (so here I disagree with Emile's reservations on this point). It's the danger of a universalism that can morph into an absolutism of sorts. After all, I'm not sure there's another way to describe Fukuyama's thesis except as deterministic. (For more on "the end of history", and Fukuyama's reaction to his thesis post 9/11, see this piece in the WaPo last month.) I'm not sure I'm sold on the "danger" part. Yes, cultures are different, but there are rights that are universal. For instance, I cannot in the name of multiculturalism accept the kind of behavior that was outlined in Whitaker's piece in the Guardian (see below). Once again, education emerges as the most important issue when dealing with the ME.

One of the greatest ironies of this is that if we return to Kramer's useful distinction for a minute, the MESAns would be on the side of the Orientalists (holy aberration Batman!). Emile also touches on Huntington's book (and the other shoe drops! Still missing is Bernard Lewis!), and remarks that Huntington "recommends ... to some extent disengagement from the world to avoid offending and alienating other "civilizations" with imported values." This sounds a bit like something Rashid Khalidi would try to say! So in one instant, the MESAns are on the side of Orientalists and Huntington! Egad! (More specifically on the issue of education in the ME and MESAns, Keith "Watenthehell" Watenpaugh once wrote: "More problematic for the future of higher education in Iraq ... is that ... the CPA was intent on peopling its bureaucracy with politically loyal agents, rather than those most objectively qualified to assist Iraq." What Keith left out was this damning account of the attitude of people in the ME studies field towards helping Iraqi students and schools: "Ahmed al-Rahim, a teacher of Arabic language and literature at Harvard University, said he tried to organize members from several different academic departments at Harvard to help the Iraqis rebuild their educational system. However, al-Rahim found resistance, especially from individuals in the Middle Eastern studies department, because of their hatred for the Bush administration.")

Emile also sets the record straight on Wolfowitz, something that I've tried to do a few times on this blog, trying to dispel some of the venomous myths woven around this man. Nevertheless, Emile has his reservations about the neocon ideology:

"However, what is most controversial is the neocons' policy recommendations that flow from this basic assumption, as well as their dismissal of other sources of anger directed against the U.S., including the Arab-Israeli conflict. For them, America has the power to shape or determine the face of the world. This belief explains why neocons were so convinced that democracy could flourish quickly in Iraq. They also believe in the morality of force, and see military action as a viable means of inducing reform. To neocons, morality of intention supplants other considerations linked to the use of force."

Michael Scott Doran in a piece in the WSJ today ("The Iraq Effect?" December 7, 2004; Page A14) deals with the issue of US popularity in the ME. Doran states bluntly: "Any serious evaluation of the war on terror must gauge the balance of power between the U.S. and its enemies, not the level of American popularity with the Arab public." He goes on to show some of the direct effects of US force in Saudi Arabia for instance. Also, Josh Landis admits in his post today that US force and pressure have led Bashar Asad to the negotiation table: "That is exactly why Washington placed sanctions on Damascus in the first place, so Asad would respond. Now he is responding." I therefore agree with Lee Smith's latest piece in Slate (see below under "Kiss me, I'm a ME Liberal!") that a more complex approach is needed that uses much more than force, but one that does use force also in order to create other options and leverages. You simply cannot eliminate that option in certain instances or else you'd eliminate a pitch, to use a baseball analogy. You've got to be able to establish the "high heat up and in" in some cases. I think Landis' remark rather supports that!

Therefore I think that Emile is taken a bit by the very argument he set out to dispel. He had just described the philosophical origins of the democratization argument, but then attributes that exclusively to a blind belief in US might and its ability to change the world! There may be that impulse among neocons, but my question has always been, why not use your power to both secure your interests and provide better options for others? The apprehension that this proves a discomforting US unipolarism, instead of a more agreeable multipolarism, is once again addressed by Doran, who writes: "What it [the US] cannot tolerate is a global balance of power that favors al Qaeda, kindred groups, and rogue regimes..." This point brings back to mind Niall Ferguson's essay in Foreign Policy that I referred to in my "Frog Prince vs. Wolfowitz" post. Ferguson says that a very possible replacement of unipolarism is not multipolarism, but rather apolarism. Doran seems to say that multipolarism could also be a conduit for apolarism (chaos where groups like Al-Qaeda can really thrive), which is an interesting twist on Ferguson's view.

Finally, as Wolfowitz put it (again see my "Frog Prince" post), it's not that US force induces democracy or reform. US force, in particularly egregious cases (like the perfect example of Saddam's Iraq), can create the proper context, or remove certain hurdles, to allow for a society to evolve towards democracy. It's precisely this point that led even someone like Juan Cole to support the war (before he denied it!). Here, the Huntington model of specific cultures and identities can be brought in to debate whether a place like Germany or Japan after their defeat in WWII can be compared to a place like Iraq which has never known democracy (I'm not familiar with Japan's history, but I don't think there's much in its history before then either). Again, I think an introduction of a system and proper education are a first step to planting a seed, a habit, that hopefully can draw on certain positives in the culture (tribal culture, despite its negatives, can actually be a good element in a pluralist society, at least for a while and to a certain extent), and survive and even flourish, especially if the society is integrated into the world community with proper interaction with it and its ideas (not to mention the impact of the information and communication techonology).

Emile's piece also shows what I've pointed out a couple of time how the neoliberals (let alone the New Left) sound more like old time Realists than anything else! This is something that Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman have pursued in their writings. On Realists, see Michael Young's recent piece in Reason (see below, under "The Revenge of the Realists!").

Overall, Emile has done the readers in the ME a great service with this article. Now if only the pundits and "ME experts" here in the US would take heed, rather than sound like the worst propagandists of the Arab world.

Update: Blogger Chrenkoff discusses the role of culture, and the role of Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder in Iraq.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

New Email Address

For some reason, my across_the_bay account is no longer opening. So I started a new account: bayblogger@hotmail.com. Please take note if you wish to contact me. Also, if you wrote an email in the last couple of days to the old address, please resend to the new one. Thanks and sorry for the inconvenience.

PS: naturally, the email link in the Profile has been updated.

"Expertise" and "Arab Public Opinion"

A little while ago, before the election was over, Lee Smith endorsed G. W. Bush for re-election in a post in Slate where he said that "many ordinary Arabs actually like George W. Bush." This endorsement drew venomous attacks against Smith personally, questioning his "expertise" on the ME.

This "problem" was raised by Matt Yglesias, who threw a bunch of stupid condescending remarks against Smith, and was then picked up by Abu Aardvark, who quotes some of Yglesias punchlines:

"[W]hat planet is Smith living on where he thinks ... "that many ordinary Arabs actually like George W. Bush."
...
We're hated, hated, hated. Since Smith is supposed to be Slate's "Arab stuff" writer, you would think he would know about this.
"

AbuAardvark -- an American assistant professor ("ME specialist," click on the About link) somewhere, who despite repeating the main clichés and orthodoxies of the ME Studies field, decided to write under a pseudonym -- approves:

"Matt is correct. Lee Smith is factually and analytically wrong. Vast majorities of Arabs do not like Bush, nor his foreign policy."

Then, he really threw his punches with the typical condescending tone of the ME studies types, and a discourse mastered and perfected by the late Edward Said:

"Lee Smith was, of course, the referent for my remark the other day about the remarkable obtuseness and consistent wrong-headedness of Slate's commentary on Arab affairs. It's just amazing - he's the Dick Morris of Middle East politics commentary: whatever he says, pretty much the opposite is likely to be correct. Sometimes it's a question of judgement, or analytical differences, or political preferences. In this case, he's just factually wrong.

UPDATE: as one wit suggests, is it at all surprising that Lee Smith is not part of the reality based community?
"

It gets even better in the comments section. One Tom Scudder jumps on Smith with the conventional wisdom:

"The best I can say for it is that he must be taking a handful of people (mainly Lebanese maronites) he met at AEI events and extrapolating."

Of course, the Lebanese get it first (wait till you see my post on Dalrymple)! Worse still is the comment made by Issandr El Amrani, who predictably brings in Patai's book (pour on those clichés!):

"I was pretty disappointed by his articles and somewhat irked by the little bio tag that says he's "working on a book on Arab culture" which sounds incredibly vague and possibly quite offensive if he means it as in Patai's "Arab Mind".

Yes, it's true that there are those people who support Bush -- my former boss at the Cairo Times, Hisham Kassem, did. But people like that are the exception, not the rule. There are also some Christians who support Bush because of his Christianity and the perception that he's putting the Muslims in their place -- but that really has more to do with parochial politics than anything else.

Aside from having spent some time in Cairo and learned a bit of Arabic, I'm not sure where his expertise on the Arab world comes from, really. Is Slate really presenting him as their Arab world expert?
"

AbuAardvark seals the deal with his final thought:

"Slate does publish him regularly. And those pieces really do seem to be astonishingly consistent in being rehashed right-leaning conventional wisdom, wrong, or both. Just in my opinion, of course."

Here endeth the "conference" and everbody's happy reasserting their beliefs. The amount of disgusting clichés thrown around is astonishing. The repetition of the "party line" and the takfir (proclaiming as heretical) of those who dissent from that line is mind-blowing. It's like a reincarnation of Arab nationalist and/or Islamist Truth in the American academe. Said was an example of this, and the entire ME studies guild is a manifestation of it. Dissent from it and you're either a "Likudnik" or a "sell-out to the Zionists" (both these labels were leveled by Said against his main nemeses, Kanan Makiya and Fouad Ajami), or you're an "Orientalist" (a word that, as Martin Kramer points out, Said "resemanticized" to mean "anti-Arab/Muslim racist") which was reserved for Bernard Lewis (and that was pretty much the extent of his response to Lewis!), because, as Said would say, "anyone who knows anything" would affirm these "truths" which they hold as "self-evident."

One could waste one's time asking when the hell Matt Yglesias became a ME specialist, but who the hell cares? Keep pontificating based on polls, Matt.

More interesting is this op-ed in today's Daily Star by Tyler Golson, an English teacher in Damascus (Issandr might have a problem with how "English teacher" is used here in the short bio tag, especially if it's meant in terms of Western hegemony -- the West as "teacher" and the East as the perpetual "dumb student" -- and a nostaliga for the British empire, etc. You never know...).

Golson first discredits the idea that only some ME Christians support Bush, and shows that many Damascene Muslims do.

Golson continues:

"And thus I came to realize something that the Democrats could never admit: that there exists a support base for both the Republicans' domestic and foreign agenda among the very people we thought most opposed current U.S. policy." (Emphasis added.)

He then concludes with a point of view that Lee Smith would easily share (just see his latest piece in Slate linked below in my "Kiss me, I'm a ME Liberal!"), to the "horror" of the Aardvarks of this world:

"Though Democrats are often quick to criticize their opponents for seeing the issues in stark black and white, "us and them" terms, perhaps they ought to step back from their own obsession with "red" and "blue" dichotomies and recognize this nuance of Middle Eastern reality. Having a truly even-handed and practical approach to peace in the Arab world means realizing that not everyone, and certainly not all of the elites in Arab society, sympathize with the anti-American movements taking place within their own ranks, and that these heartland Arabs could prove a valuable ally in future U.S.-Arab relations."

NOOOO! Impossible! Can't be! The polls say it clearly: America is "hated, hated, hated" and American "foreign policy" is to blame! My advice to the boys (Yglesias and Aardvark) is to read precisely Smith's latest piece in Slate and learn how to assess properly the very complex public opinions in the ME, instead of reducing it to the (quasi-racist and very concescending) cliché "Arab street" or "Arab public opinion," thus regurgitating the views of the homogenizing ideologies of Arab nationalism (one nation, one party, one opinion, no dissent) and Islamism (for which the Aardvark has a soft spot). AbuAardvark is someone who also said that the complexity of the inter-Arab debate can be witnessed on Al-Jazeera. So that's complexity because it's a variety of the same anti-Americanism! That "complextiy" is "authentic" but a claim of a pro-Bush or pro-American stance reflects a (treacherous) minority and the stupidity and "lack of expertise" of the person who wrote about it!

Golson is more concerned with social issues, as this passage makes clear:

"The cultural background and value systems which inform many of these young Arabs' outlook on the world mean they will always favor men like Bush over men like Kerry. The tenets of faith, family and, yes, "moral issues" determine the overall political leanings of a considerable number of the Middle East's future leaders, in rejection of Democratic stump issues like increased liberalism, internationalism and scientific progress."

In doing so he blinds himself to an equally pro-American liberal current in the ME. So the picture is even more complex. You have both conservatives and liberals who are pro-American in the ME. No offense to the "expertise" of the Aardvark.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Guardian of the True Faith

Brian Whitaker wrote a revealing piece on the abuse of married women in Egypt, and how the legal system actually serves to protect the (male) abusers, leaving women totally helpless.

In his investigation, Whitaker touches on the role of Shari'a (Islamic law) in the workings of the Egyptian legal system:

"Violent husbands can generally avoid prosecution on religious grounds, because the Egyptian penal code excludes acts committed "in good faith, pursuant to a right determined by virtue of the Shari'a" (Islamic law).
...
"The question of settling divorce should be in the hands of the wiser party, and that is men," Ayman Amin Shash, of the National Centre for Judicial Studies, told a Human Rights Watch interviewer. "Men are wise, which is why they do not have to go to court. Islamic law would consider the wise wife an exception."
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Whitaker rightly notes that "[a]ll this places Egypt on dodgy ground in relation to international law." Again, the use of Islamic law comes into play:

"In ratifying CEDAW and ICCPR, Egypt added reservations that said it would not accept parts of the treaties that it deemed to conflict with Islamic law. These reservations amount to rejection rather than ratification of the treaties and cast doubt on Egypt's commitment to women's rights, Human Rights Watch suggests.

Yet somehow Whitaker comes to this bizarre conclusion (fit for a Leftist publication, I suppose):

"In reality, though, this has very little to do with religion. It's simply another case of invoking religion, supposed cultural traditions, or whatever, to justify abuses that cannot be justified by rational means. The real problem is antediluvian attitudes that permeate all sections of society and regard women as irrational, child-like, impulsive, indecisive, fanciful, unreliable, stupid and inferior creatures."

How can you dismiss religion when you just noted the role of religious law in Egypt's legal system!?

There are two dominant trends in the West today when dealing with the issue of religion. One is the (quasi-)materialist outlook, on display here, that somehow religion is best understood in Marxist terms as "ideology." The other is apologetics (often mixed with facile relativism) of the "this is not the true religion" type. The first is inadequate and the second is (deliberately) deceptive.

This is a prime example of why the Enlightenment was crucial for Christianity and why Islam is in dire need for its equivalent today. I don't understand how we can easily (and rightly) criticize certain fundamentalist Christian attitudes towards modernity and the Enlightenment (just count the number of op-eds about evangelical Christianity and "the rise of the anti-Enlightenment current in the US" in the aftermath of President Bush's re-election) and write this kind of dismissive apologetic when it comes to Islamic anti-modernism.

Critical-historical thought is a must for Islam and Islamic societies, and for us who are in contact with them. The status quo is untenable.

The Revenge of the Realists!

Michael Young wrote a terrific piece for Reason on realists, Wilsonialists, and neoconservatives. Young notes that he's a recent convert away from Realism, and offers some of his thoughts as to why:

"Yes, there is much experience there [among realists], but in a world where national sovereignty is gradually eroding (even if it won't disappear), where liberty and democracy are increasingly perceived as inalienable, and where American supremacy has demanded a fresh consideration of interstate relations that far surpasses a traditional mechanistic approach to balance of power theory, aren't the realists in danger of becoming a trifle anachronistic—in fact downright old hat?


A second question has to do with the details. Realist reasoning is often circular, where the assumptions prop up a superstructure propping up these assumptions. Scowcroft's phrase caught this well. Here's what he really said: We don't believe that democracy beats in everyone's breast, and because of that we continue to support autocratic regimes, even though such support is sure to suffocate liberal voices and help deny us any proof that democracy beats in everybody's breast.
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Young is also more fair when it comes to neoconservatives, which is hardly the fashion these days, and properly places them in the historical context of political thought in a changing world:

"A product of a pre-20th century state system, where social hierarchies were more rigid and mass politics at their beginning, authentic realism is inadequate in our age. Wilsonianism (and, today, neoconservatism) are its contradictions, but also its stepchildren, as they seek to move beyond the management of power to ponder how foreign affairs can also disseminate humanistic values.

Realists (no less than liberals and libertarians one hastens to add) have yet to resolve the question of how to simultaneously advance national interests and liberty. These aims always seem to crash into one other, and perhaps no magic formula exists to avoid this. But such recognition means we can look at the overvalued realists and tell them: "You're just as lost as the rest of us; stop being so conceited."
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I would've liked to hear more about Michael's point on national sovereignty, which he said was eroding even when it won't disappear. It would be interesting to see if Thomas Friedman's fascination with globalization is part of what led him to endorse for a while a version of the neocon alternative (before he and Fareed Zakaria ran back to the arms of Realism).

The piece, typically rich with brilliant lines ("as dim as a Soviet light bulb"), is simply a pleasure to read.

Arabist Revisionism

IraqPundit has joined in on Iraq the Model's critical post of Rashid Khalidi's romanticized revision of Iraqi history. I had linked to it in an update to an earlier post. IraqPundit is in agreement that Khalidi's reading of history remarkably echoes that propagated by Saddam and the Baath:

"Actually, Khalidi's essay is worse than wrong: As Ali points out, it's consistent with Baathist revisionism. Saddam's regime rewrote the history of post-Ottoman Iraq along self-serving sectarian lines, erasing the role of Shiites and falsely romanticizing the role played by regions of the country allied with his rule. Thus Khalidi, in his zeal to criticize U.S. policy, has ended up offering a history of Iraq consistent with Baathist propaganda (to the applause of Juan Cole)."

IraqPundit's concluding paragraph rings particularly true to me:

"Arabism cost the Arab world the latter half of the 20th century; now some Arabist intellectuals of the West are doing what they can to derail the hope of a liberalized Iraq, including the distortion of Iraqi history."

Actually, I'd say Arabism, in one way or another, cost the region almost the entire 20th century (and counting). The tragido-comical part is that those "Arabist intellectuals of the West" constitute supposedly the "pro-Arab" faction as Bernard Lewis once put it!