Heading Back Into the Field

I planned on going to Libya this month, but the government hasn’t approved my visa yet and I can’t get in without it. The process is supposed to take a week, give or take, and I applied six weeks ago. Libya doesn’t seem to have much of a government at the moment, so I’m heading to Morocco while I wait for something to finally happen in Tripoli.

I have some meetings lined up the Moroccan capital, I’m heading to the disputed Western Sahara region down the west coast of Africa, and I’ve been invited to the next Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech later this month. So I’m going. And I’m leaving this week.

Israel's Overreaction?

Is Israel planning suicide? I ask this because in the wake of the United Nations’ decision on the status of Palestine (an overwhelming level of support by an overwhelming number of nations that no one needed psychic powers to predict), Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister, decided to retaliate.

Excuse me: Netanyahu’s plans for retaliation were likely formed before the vote occurred, and announced only after. Specifically, the prime minister plans to build 3,000 new homes between Jerusalem and a West Bank settlement in order to prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.

Ghosts from Rwanda and the Congo

Susan Rice is still facing a storm of criticism about her preposterous comments following the terrorist attack in Benghazi a few months ago, and now she’s coming under fire for her performance in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Clinton administration.

Few Americans pay much attention to Sub-Saharan Africa, and Rice’s record there is old news at this point, but Jason Stearns’ new piece in Foreign Policy magazine is bound to incluence some decision-makers in Washington about whether or not she replaces Hillary Clinton as our secretary of state.

Televised comments made by Amb. Susan Rice shortly after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi have dominated the debate over her probable nomination for secretary of state. This is a bit surprising, since it's clear that she played only a marginal role in the affair and appears to have just been reading from the briefing notes provided. It's also unfortunate that the "scandal" has crowded out a healthy discussion of her two-decade record as U.S. diplomat and policymaker prior to Sept. 2012 -- and drawn attention away from actions for which she bears far greater responsibility than Benghazi.

Her role in shaping U.S. policy toward Central Africa should feature high on this list. Between 1993 and 2001, she helped form U.S. responses to the Rwandan genocide, events in post-genocide Rwanda, mass violence in Burundi, and two ruinous wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

She did not get off to an auspicious start. During her first year in government, there was a vigorous debate within the Clinton administration over whether to describe the killing in Rwanda as a "genocide," a designation that would necessitate an international response under the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. In a now infamous incident from that April, which was reported in her now State Department colleague Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell, Rice -- at the time still a junior official at the National Security Council -- stunned her colleagues by asking during a meeting, "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional midterm] election?" She later regretted this language, telling Power, "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." And she has indeed emerged as one of the more forceful advocates for humanitarian intervention in U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, she has also often seemed to overcompensate for her earlier misstep on Rwanda with an uncritical embrace of the the country's new leaders.
Read the whole thing. And take what Stearns says seriously. I’m hardly an expert on Sub-Saharan Africa and I’ve never even been there, but Stearns’ recent book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa is one of the best I’ve ever read about that part of the world.

Hope Fades as Self-Immolations Rise in Tibet

From the outside it would appear that China pulled off a seamless transition of power. On November 15th China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, strode confidently out onto the world stage. In his first public remarks as the anointed head of China’s Communist Party, he denounced corruption and vowed to work for the people. Behind him the six new members of the Standing Committee, the governing body that essentially rules the country, stood at attention wearing dark suits and dull, thin smiles.

But on the inside, and far off the front pages, turmoil is intensifying in Tibet. Self-immolations in protest of Chinese rule now constitute, as Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “one of the largest such phenomena anywhere in the world in recent memory.” 

A Principled Bid in the Upcoming Israeli Election

“A woman’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” With those words, Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, made her return to politics this week. She stands at the head of a new party—Hatnuah be’rashut Tzipi Livni, or the Movement headed by Tzipi Livni—promising to fight for “democratic Israel.” Livni has been looking on aghast at a world turned upside down and she wants to right it: “The government enters dialogue with those who support terror, and avoids the camp that has prevented terror, that fights for two states.”

Can there be a Prime Minister Livni in January? Probably not. The first poll taken after she got in the race shows the center-right bloc led by Netanyahu winning 69 seats to the center-left’s 51. And in Israel, when it comes to turning electoral performance into political power, “It’s the blocs stupid.”

So what is Livni’s bid about? “Ego,” says Yair Lapid, the TV anchor who created a political party and placed himself at its head. No, it’s not. At the risk of being accused of naïveté, I think it is all about principle.

Yanukovych and Stalin’s Genocide

Every November Ukraine commemorates the Holodomor, the famine and genocide of 1932 and 1933. Since 2010, President Viktor Yanukovych has marked the occasion with a formal address to the people. Read in isolation, none of them is terribly interesting. A comparative look at all three speeches, however, reveals some interesting shifts in tone and content that may illuminate Yanukovych’s own evolving thinking about the genocide and his regime.

But first a striking continuity. Yanukovych has never called the Holodomor a genocide. He’s called it a crime, a tragedy, and an Armageddon, but not genocide. Ironically, he does use the term Holodomor, which means “killing by means of hunger” and, in that sense, is virtually a synonym for genocide. There are indications that this reluctance to call a spade a spade may change.

Back in 2010, during his first encounter with Holodomor remembrance day, Yanukovych stated (this and subsequent citations are the translations provided on his website):

I bow to the memory of those innocently killed by the Holodomor.

Now in More Stores

My new book, Where the West Ends, is now available at the Kobo store for those of you with a Kobo e-book reader. It’s also available on iTunes for those of you who buy your books there.

It’s also available from Barnes and Noble, of course, and you can get a trade paperback copy or an e-book for your Kindle from Amazon.com.

Aging Asia's Demographic Dilemma

By 2050, half of Japan's population will be over 52 and, according to the Economist, that country will be “the oldest society the world has ever known.” By the end of this century, the Japanese are expected to number 47 million, down from today’s 127.7 million. If there is any reason to be pessimistic about the future of the Land of the Rising Sun, it is its collapsing demography.

Japan’s total fertility rate—generally speaking, the average number of births per female over her lifetime—is now estimated to be 1.39. That is well below the 2.10 TFR needed for a population to replace itself.

Apart from instances of war, famine, and pestilence, Japan’s demographic decline will be unprecedented. Yet the country will not be unique for long. Other East Asian nations are sure to follow the Japanese trajectory.

England's Anti-Democratic Libel Laws

Many years ago, a diplomat from an African nation famous for its cruelty and barbarism toward dissenters approached me at a dinner party to discuss his least favorite topic: the foreign press. His country of origin, said the diplomat, had been reviled in the media—not the media people of his own nation of course, they’d been taken care of, but those who toiled for the vicious foreign media. In fact certain members of his country’s leadership had been smeared so consistently and unfairly, added the diplomat, that there was little left for them to do but salve their shredded egos with lawsuits. Which would also, he assured me, take place abroad.

And these leaders knew exactly where to go.

“What do you think of England?” asked the diplomat before hastily answering his own question. “It’s a democracy with a free press! And yet, this is a nation that is very fair towards those who have been insulted.”

New Media & the Israel-Gaza Information War

Confused about what happened in Gaza last week? There’s a reason for that—and it’s not necessarily the fault of warring Twitter feeds. 

At the time, only one thing seemed to be clear: the threat of war. You could blame the Palestinians for that. Or you could say it’s Israel’s fault. It all depends on what (and where) you were reading. 

The fact is, journalism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to be more charged than that of other territorial divisions (heady Nagorno-Karabakh coverage, anyone?). This is partly because problems there go beyond mere border disputes, but more importantly, it is because political interests have long encouraged stark divisions among the reading public. The press falls prey too—at this point, many reporters have covered this story for years and understand all too well which facts play better than others. 

Egypt's Morsi Proclaims Himself Pharaoh

Almost two years after Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was removed from power, Cairo’s Tahrir Square is still an epicenter of protest and violence. It’s an epicenter of protest and violence because Egypt is again ruled by a man who has declared himself dictator. The country’s new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, announced that “constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal.”

He’s already being called the new Pharaoh. It makes no difference that he was elected. Democracy isn’t just about getting elected. A democratic election is not a one-time plebiscite on who the next tyrant is going to be. Democracy requires individual and minority rights and the separation of powers. Winners cannot oppress losers, nor do losers get to wage war on the winners.

Some of us are more surprised than others by this development, but the Muslim Brotherhood was never a democratic political movement. It's not even a close call. You don't have to be a cheerleader for Hosni Mubarak to recognize its inherent authoritarianism.

Egypt expert Eric Trager explains in The New Republic how the organization weeds out moderates by design.

It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”  

Throughout this process, rising Muslim Brothers are continually vetted for their embrace of the Brotherhood’s ideology, commitment to its cause, and—most importantly—willingness to follow orders from the Brotherhood’s senior leadership. As a result, Muslim Brothers come to see themselves as foot soldiers in service of the organization’s theocratic credo: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” Meanwhile, those dissenting with the organization’s aims or tactics are eliminated at various stages during the five-to-eight-year vetting period.

Last year in Cairo I met a couple of young activist recruits who washed out. They weren’t fired, exactly. One just up and quit because he could no longer stand the paranoid and authoritarian politics of its leaders, and the other was pressured out by what Americans call a hostile work environment.

“Hamas is more liberal,” Mohamed Adel told me, “and more willing to cooperate with other movements than the Muslim Brotherhood is.” He had left just weeks before I met him at the journalist syndicate. “The Brotherhood thinks dealing with anyone who is a former member . . . or someone from other movements and parties, is like dealing with an infidel.”

Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby, another young activist, was an editor at the Brotherhood’s Web site. Party officials treated him horribly and it became obvious, from his insider’s view, that the leaders would lord it over Egypt with a military regime or a police state if given the chance. “The Brotherhood as it exists now,” he told me, “wants to come to power and rule the way Hosni Mubarak did.”

Egypt’s political culture is authoritarian and always has been. The Muslim Brotherhood is a logical and perhaps inevitable product of a pre-existing problem bigger than itself and older than its religion.

I’ve met Egyptian liberals. They exist, but they’re a minority. Moderates are a larger minority, but genuine liberals belong to an even smaller minority and they know it. They feel it keenly, and are therefore far gloomier about Egypt’s prospects than Westerners were when the so-called Arab Spring started almost two years ago.

“The Western worldview is not very popular in Egypt,” Egyptian journalist Mohamed Ahmed Raouf told me. “They watch American movies, they drive American cars, but they don't accept Western culture or values of democracy, pluralism, and enlightenment. They don't accept it. People have to be open-minded, and that's not the case here.”

Hala Mustafa, a liberal intellectual at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told me the Muslim Brothers grotesquely distort the words “freedom” and “democracy.” “I heard one of them just the other day referring to individual rights,” she said, “but in a very backward way. He thinks Islam already has all rights for everybody and that we have to respect that. He thinks this is freedom, but it’s completely different from any liberal concept of freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood is against individual freedom not just for women and Christians, but also for Muslims and men.”

Egypt’s deeply embedded illiberalism isn’t exactly a secret. It’s the country’s most obvious political characteristic, one that imposes itself on the observant almost at once. Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh explained it to me this way the first time I visited Cairo seven years ago: “Most of the armed terrorist groups we see now were born out of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood…My biggest fear is that if the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt we will get Islamism-lite, that they won’t be quite bad enough that people will revolt against them. Most Egyptians don’t drink, so they won’t mind if alcohol is illegal. The same goes for banning books. Most Egyptians don’t read. So why should they care if books are banned? Most women wear a veil or a headscarf already, so if it becomes the law hardly anyone will resist.”

But sure, the Brothers threw the word “democracy” around when they were on their way up, especially when gullible foreign journalists were in town. They got a big kick out of portraying themselves as religiously conservative democrats, as though they were the Egyptian equivalents of Germany’s Christian Democrats or the Republicans in the United States. But their slogan is and always has been “Islam is the solution.” They’re only moderate compared with the totalitarian Salafists.

Morsi promises that his dictatorial powers are temporary. Feel free to believe that if you find it credible. Hey, it might even be true. Weird things happen in the Middle East all the time. The army could remove him tomorrow. Other regime components might tell him to get stuffed, making him more Hugo Chavez than Fidel Castro. The “street” might throw the country into ungovernable chaos. Morsi might even feel enough pressure from abroad that he dials it down. But whatever happens later, he just proclaimed himself dictator. If he isn’t stopped, that’s exactly what he will be.


Photo Credit: Aladlwlmosawah

My Kickstarter Project Has Funded

I can’t do field work abroad without finding ways to cover travel and operating expenses, so last month I launched a Kickstarter project to pay for a trip to Libya. And I’m happy to report that it has successfully funded. I even managed to raise more money than I asked for. Thanks very much to everyone who is helping me out here.

And I want to publicly thank the terrific folks at Basis Technology who pledged such a generous donation that they are now the official sponsors of my trip.

I also want to publicly thank the following people who donated fifty dollars or more to the project.

Joanne Gerber

Michael Ravine

Lee Benham

Bruce F Webster

John Mulder

Stan Tillinghast

Eric Rosenberg

Meir Kohn

Matthew Judd

William Terris

Dee Grant

Rob Hafernik

David Barzai

John Storr

Mike Robinson

Carlton Wickstrom

Henry H Bradley

Yancey Strickler

JM Hanes

Deb Steinshouer

J.M. Heinrichs

Tim Hulsey

Basil Mangra

Adam Harrison

Dan Hendrickson

Joseph Blankier


Jeff Kirk

Herbert Jacobi

Debbie McMillan

Andres Gentry

Tom Frymire


Corie Schweitzer

Chris Hancock

David Herr

Yair Alan Griver

Russell David Snow

Kat Wilton

Maged Ibrahim

Michael Hussey

Steve Feldman

Joanne Kessler

Gene Mitchell

Eric McErlain

Rick Woolard

Eric Soskin

Terri Goon

Eric Schell

Claudia Brown

Michael Krene

Michael Taylor

Sean O'Connor

Steve Drown

Milton W. Ferrell

Perry Branson

Barbara Berman

Francine Hardaway

Ira Lukens

Emily Robertson

J Alan Bennett

Leslie Watkins

Steve Ornstein

Christopher Frautschi

Mike McGinn

Barbara Skolaut

Philo Juang

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

Old School Terrorism Returns to Israel

A bus just exploded in Tel Aviv. Various Palestinian terrorist organization praised the attacks, as did the mosques in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Egypt brokered a cease-fire between between Israel and Hamas that should go into effect today. We'll see if it holds.

Morsi's Egypt, Out of Control

So tell me exactly how it’s possible for the nation of Mohamed Morsi, an Egyptian president who has pledged unparalleled affection for Hamas, to help broker a peace between Israel and Hamas? On Tuesday, the same day this is being written, Morsi promised “positive results,” while predicting “Israeli aggression” would soon end.

On that same day a Palestinian rocket landed on the outskirts of Jerusalem—then 140 more rockets hit Israel. From Gaza there’s a daily barrage of missiles fired at southern Israel—a fair indication of just how swiftly Hamas’s once primitive weaponry has evolved.

Morsi may want to grab the mediator role once flaunted by his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, but as an Islamic Brotherhood puppet who received just 51 percent of the Egyptian vote in the last election, he does not quite have the cachet to pull it off. He is—for all his posturing, his dreams of leadership—essentially a weakling.


Subscribe to RSS - blogs