More interesting than anything Afif actually said were his facial expressions. I wished Dan had brought a video camera instead of a still camera so he could capture them.
"You must know." I said, "that Americans are sick to death of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Is there any chance we'll see peace in this region any time soon?"
Afif didn't need Abdullah to translate the word "peace." He knew what it meant in English just as almost every Westerner in the Middle east knew how to say it in Arabic. And when he heard me say "peace," when he was relaxed and not thinking about the fact that I was carefully watching his face, he twisted his flat expression into a grimace. The moment was fleeting, and he composed himself almost instantly, but it's impossible for even the most accomplished poker players and liars to control all involuntary facial muscles that reveal their inner thoughts and emotions.
A kind of moral anesthesia settled in, leaving the stability of the Soviet-American relationship to be valued over its fairness because the alternative was too frightening to contemplate. Once it became clear that everybody was in the same lifeboat, hardly anyone wanted to rock it."If you want to change that, the only answer is war" is something I've heard - approvingly from some on the right and disapprovingly from some on the left - in talking about the stuckness of the situation of the people in the Middle East. Everyone is afraid, and not unreasonably - lots and lots can go very very wrong.
The moral ambivalence was not moral equivalence. the United States never found it necessary to violate human rights on the scale that the Soviet Union, its Eastern European allies, and the Chinese under Mao Zedong had done. But Washington officials had long since convinced themselves that the only way they could prevent those violations was to go to war, a prospect that could only make things much worse.
Back in 2004, I wrote "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mubarak?." It was about 2 things, and one of them was acceptance of reality's limits on our options. Within which, I believe American could have done some good in shaping what would eventually come. It ended as follows:
"The bottom line is simple: Egypt has to change. We have to promote effective pathways to liberty, using pressure and/or confrontation on our own timetable, all the while strengthening the real champions of liberty and weakening the poseurs and the malevolent.
It's a tall order. It won't always be satisfying. And it may take time. Fortunately, time is an option we can afford in Egypt. The only thing we can't afford, is failure."
Time was an option we could afford in Egypt. But here's the thing... eventually, it runs out. And like all seemingly stable systems with major foundational cracks (vid. also, and still, global financial system, and debt supportability above key levels like 90% of GDP), it may not take a very big shock to set the endgame in motion.
We're in motion, now, in Egypt. And if America faced limits before, those limits are sharper. The Muslim Brotherhood is still the evil organization it has always been, complete with Nazi origins, and retaining its jihadist core. But Mubarak is toast, and America must now make clear choices... if its President can manage that.
I have nothing to add to Ralph Peters' current advice. I hope my country takes it.
Sadly, the video may be a parody, but the underlying truth of Islamic religious cleansing that it illustrates is no parody at all in many parts of the world. This Christmas, how about a thought for the Christians facing it in the Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Indonesia, Nigeria, etc.
For the last couple of years, there have been growing rumbles of concern about Turkey's internal and external tilt toward Islamist rule, abroad and at home. The changes have not been individually revolutionary, but they have been slow and steady. Taken as a whole, they've been dramatic enough for Michael Rubin to title a major Commentary Magazine essay chronicling this slide "Turkey, from Ally to Enemy." This year the Heritage Foundation published a detailed, multi-leveled analysis called "Countering Turkey's Strategic Drift."
But of course, these kinds of guys are right wing crazies. Or just casual travelers. Don't listen to their arguments. Pay attention to the State Department boffins and "adults in the room" who keep saying everything is fine, and dismissing concerns as alarmism.
Except for the inconvenient truth revealed by Wikileaks documents, which shows us a series of unofficial statements from official sources the that are a lot closer to the analyses put out by guys like Rubin and the Heritage Foundation.
The moral of the story is left as an exercise for the reader.
Interesting report from the Saudi city of Al-Mubarraz. The Saudi religious police are there, too, of course, and work to enforce edicts like the ones that prevent unmarried men and women from socializing. And when I say "enforce," I mean "will whip people in public with canes."
Seems that our not-really-friendly neighbourhood mutaween type found a 20-something couple walking through the park, and took exception. The guy reportedly fainted. Wherepon the girl proceeded to clench fists and kick the mutaween's ass, sending him to hospital with welts and bruises. The mutaween probably wasn't fighting back, but still...
So my gut reaction was 3-fold. One: yay! About time. Two: You have enough girlfriends, girlfriend. If Mr. Vapors isn't narcoleptic or something, his sorry ass should be history. Third: My kind of woman!
If you read only one book about the Middle East this year--aside from mine, of course, after it's finished--read The Strong Horse by my friend and colleague Lee Smith. It is, as far as I am concerned, required reading for everyone who is interested in this topic. If you enjoy my work, you really need to pick up a copy.
Lee and I met in Lebanon in 2005, and have been friends ever since. We've spent I-don't-know-how-many evenings in Beirut and Jerusalem discussing Middle Eastern politics and conflict, sometimes expanding each others' knowledge and other times arguing. We don't argue so much anymore, except around the edges once in a while. I should say he won some of our arguments in the end, partly because he relocated to the Middle East before I did and was farther along on the learning curve, but he also claims I shaped some of the way he came to think about the region in that he believes the issues are largely Arab rather than Islamic per se. Whether he's right about that, or if I am, it's certainly an argument worth thinking about. Sometimes his prognosis is gloomy--the Middle East is the kind of place where it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remain optimistic and hopeful for long--but we both have a lot still invested in the region, including mutual friendships in several Middle Eastern countries on both sides of the front lines.
The Strong Horse is the product of Lee's on-the-ground experience there as a traveler and a resident since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He was drawn to the region for the same principle reason I was--he wanted to figure out what on earth compelled suicidal hijackers to ram airplanes into our buildings. He stayed on for additional reasons, of course, as did I, and his book is about so much more than Osama bin Laden's murderous gang, but that was his starting point as it was mine.
His book is not so easy to summarize, so I invited him to speak for himself and go over some of the main points.
MJT: The title of your book is The Strong Horse. Can you tell us exactly what that concept means?
Lee Smith: It comes from Osama Bin Laden's observation that when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse. I know this idea will be confused with the notion that Arabs understand only force, an idea often, and incorrectly, attributed to the Bush administration. It is useful to recall that throughout history most of mankind has "understood" force. Those lucky few who are fortunate enough to be able to live their political lives free of the fear of violence are largely concentrated in the capitals of contemporary Western Europe and along the east and west coasts of the United States, who not coincidentally happen to make up the primary audience I was writing for, so I wanted to explain that the inhabitants of the Arabic-speaking Middle East are not as fortunate as we are. To say that Lebanon is held at gunpoint by an armed gang, or that Lebanese journalists are assassinated for their work, Syrian intellectuals and Egyptian rights activists are typically thrown in prison and tortured, and regional minorities like the Shia, Druze, Alawi, Christians, Kurds and Jews have often been the target of purges and political violence all in the name of Arab nationalism, a corporatist ideology that seeks to erase communal as well as individual difference, is not to say that Arabs only understand force, but that violence is a central factor in Arab political life and it is impossible to understand the region without taking this into account.
Journalist and author Christopher Hitchens visited my hometown of Portland, Oregon last week, and I interviewed him at Jake's Grill downtown over glasses of Johnny Walker Black Label. My old friend and sometimes traveling companion Sean LaFreniere joined us and contributed a few questions of his own. You can read Part I here.
MJT: The big story in 2010 will be Iran. We have this revolution there--I'm not afraid to call it that.
Hitchens: You're right, I think it is one.
MJT: We have Iran's terrorist proxies in Gaza and Lebanon. And we have the regime's nuclear weapons program.
Hitchens: Also, in each case, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard--the Pasdaran--is the controlling force.
MJT: Hezbollah is the Mediterranean branch of the Revolutionary Guards.
Hitchens: We have the same bunch overseas where they're not wanted, in Lebanon and even among the Palestinians, conducting assassination missions abroad, shooting down young Iranians in the streets of a major city, and controlling an illegal thermonuclear weapons program. We do have a target. All this has been accumulated under one heading.
Hitchens: I thought that was worth pointing out. It's not "the regime" or "the theocracy." It's now very clear that the Revolutionary Guards have committed a coup in all but name--well, I name it, but it hasn't yet been named generally. They didn't rig an election. They didn't even hold one.
MJT: They never counted the votes. There's no "recount" to be done.
Hitchens: The seizure of power by a paramilitary gang that just so happens to be the guardian and the guarantor and the incubator of the internationally illegal weapons program. If that doesn't concentrate one's mind, I don't know what will.
MJT: If the Obama Administration calls you up and says, "Christopher, we need you to come in here, we need your advice." What would you tell them?
Hitchens: I would say, as I did with Saddam Hussein--albeit belatedly, I tried to avoid this conclusion--that any fight you're going to have eventually, have now. Don't wait until they're more equally matched. It doesn't make any sense at all.
The existence of theocratic regimes that have illegally acquired weapons of mass destruction, that are war with their own people, that are exporting their violence to neighboring countries, sending death squads as far away as Argentina to kill other people as well as dissident members of their own nationality--the existence of such regimes is incompatible with us. If there is going to be a confrontation, we should pick the time, not them.
We're saying, "Let's give them time to get ready. Then we'll be more justified in hitting them." That's honestly what they're saying. When we have total proof, when we can see them coming for us, we'll feel okay about resisting.
Der Speigel has spent a lot of time putting the pieces together regarding Israel's September 2007 air strike that destroyed the Syrian-Iranian-North Korean reactor at Al-Kibar. Their report makes for very interesting, even compelling, reading.
"Thirty years of negotiations and sanctions have failed to end the Iranian nuclear program and its war against the West. Why should anyone think they will work now? A change in Iran requires a change in government. Common sense and moral vision suggest we should support the courageous opposition movement, whose leaders have promised to end support for terrorism and provide total transparency regarding the nuclear program."
Anne Applebaum writes the same thing in Salon, saying that "Tehran's worst fear is a well-financed human rights campaign." In other words, talk less to Iran and more to Iranians.
Unfortunately, this also seems to be Obama's worst fear. Applebaum is also dead wrong to say that "he people who care about [the democracy movement] are rarely much interested in [Iran's nuclear program] - and vice versa." In fact, most of the people concerned with the nuclear program see the democracy movement as the best hope for progress, and have for some time. Obama, in contrast, has a consistent record of aversion to promoting or supporting human rights, rule of law, and other niceties abroad. Which is why the drift will continue, until Iran has the bomb.
Egyptian playwright Ali Salem visited Israel in 1994 to "rid himself of hatred," as he put it, and he wrote a slim volume about his experience called A Drive to Israel. His book was a bestseller in Egypt, but Cairo's intellectual class ostracized him. The Egyptian Cinema Association and the Egyptian Writers Association canceled his memberships.
The Middle East Media Research Institute just translated an interview with him in Kuwait's daily An Nahar newspaper that makes for depressing reading. His interlocutor harangues him throughout and comes across only somewhat more reasonable than the intellectual colleagues who shunned him.
"My trip posed a serious challenge to the Egyptian intellectuals and the entire Egyptian society," Salem said. "How are we to treat this small society next to us [i.e., Israeli society]? Reality forced us to embark upon a peace campaign with the society that defeated us ruthlessly in 1967. My generation cannot overcome the hurt of 1967. All the attacks on me were because I forced them to face the truth."
It's difficult to even imagine a Western intellectual getting in this kind of trouble for writing a sympathetic portrait of former enemies decades after peace has been made. When our wars are over, they're over whether we win or lose.
No one in the United States wants to reignite conflicts with Germany, Japan, Vietnam, or any other country we're no longer at war with. While we argue among ourselves about whether it's a good idea to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, no one in the U.S. prefers war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else if peace and normal relations are viable options.
Americans from one end of the political spectrum to the other would be thrilled to see Iraq and Afghanistan as stable, prosperous countries at peace with themselves, their neighbors, and us. We don't even have a marginalized fringe group unhappy with the fact that Germany and Japan emerged as they did from World War II. The U.S. lost the war in Vietnam in the 1970s, as Egypt lost its last war with Israel in the 1970s, but no one among us wants to fight it all over again or wishes that we were still slugging it out.
We Westerners aren't unique in our ability to forgive, forget, and move on. I have never visited Vietnam, but everyone I know who has says even Vietnamese who supported the Communist side seem to hold no grudges against Americans.
My grandfather fought in both Europe and the Pacific as a United States Army officer during World War II. He visited Tokyo many years later and purged some of his demons there just as Ali Salem did in Israel. My mother has a picture of him smiling with his arms around a former Kamikaze pilot. I don't know what these two former enemies said to each other, but my mother who traveled to Japan with him said it was a transformative experience for both of them.
Though my grandfather was not a public intellectual, if he had been, and if he had written about his own personal reconciliation, there is no chance his American colleagues would have shunned him or revoked his memberships from the institutions he worked with. Many Israeli writers, intellectuals, academics, and activists likewise have visited the Palestinian territories and other Arab countries with Ali Salem's spirit. None have been ostracized by their peers. On the contrary, they're usually lauded.
It's easy, for those so inclined, to prefer war to peace with Israel while living in places like Damascus and Cairo. Everyone killed recently in the Arab-Israeli conflict lived in Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon. No one is shooting at Cairenes or the residents of Damascus. Egyptians, Syrians, and most other Arabs can enjoy, if that is the word, the emotional satisfaction of hostility with the hated "Zionist Entity" without suffering any consequences.
"It is strange that some people [still] say, 'What good did the peace [agreement] do us?'" Ali Salem said. "My answer to them is this: 'You refuse to recognize [the value] of peace, [and] therefore you are unable to understand what peace has created. . . . The [mere] fact that you return to your home safely and are not hit by a sniper's bullet or by a missile falling from the sky, that you do not [have to] darken your windows and fortify your door with sandbags, or check the list of the fallen every morning -- all that, or [at least] some of it, is thanks to peace."