Friday, June 19, 2009

The Iranian Election and the Western Media Response

From an email:

The Iranian Election and the Western Media Response

There are a number of very interesting responses on Professor Juan Cole's blog in the comments section. I particularly liked the below ones and thought I should copy them here. Not because they are taking one side or another but they are demanding a more objective and rigorous treatment of the issue than what we have been seeing in the mainstream media - before and after the election day. They are also interrogating the underlying politics of the 'Western' media coverage. Professor Cole should be commended for entertaining these comments on his space and responding to (at least, a few of) them in his several posts in the last six days or so, which made this whole exchange quite insightful.

Informed Comments, from June 17, 2009, 7:12pm

We are now six days into this and it is becoming patently clear that our punditry have failed us miserably. Expecting elucidation, we instead receive camouflage and flimflam.
Numerous of your many readers have asked you directly to provide a source of your conviction that:

1. Obvious fraud has occurred in the election.

2. Those agitating and those rabble-rousing are one and the same, both concerned with improving the lot of the ordinary Iranian, who will be the ones paying the price for these ‘freedoms’ they are supposedly fighting for.

You need to explain why it is that Mousavi, Rafsanjani, Karrubi, Mir-Hoseyn, Reza'iand others involved on the ‘reform’ side are not as much part of the ruling elite as Ahmadi Nejad and Ayatollah Khameni.

You also fail repeatedly to make clear that the most powerful politicians in Iran, directly elected by the electorate, is the Assembly of experts – headed by Rafanjani (backer of the ‘reform’ movement), and who directly appoint the Supreme Leader – currently Ayatollah Khameni. He is also Chairman of the Expediency Council that resolves conflicts between the Parliament and the council of Guardians. This is one powerful individual. Clearly there are constitutional safeguards against political coups as you are alleging has taken place here, why aren’t you noting that the opposition refuses to avail themselves to it. It is not as if they are unrepresented on the bodies that decide as you imply with your constant characterizations of people as ‘Hardliner’ and the like.

We are not talking squalid Tiananmen Square type revolution here. The students getting beaten and killed are mere cannon fodder for a ruthless cabal. There is a world of difference between the Agitators and the firebrands.

What is extremely distressing about your coverage is the breathless wild-eyed excitement with which you relish the one sided news you report. You obviously have a dog in this fight, a personal bone to pick. You do nobody a service and have tarnished your reputation as surely as did Christopher Hitchens and his unbridled hatred for Saddam Hussein. Welcome to the mainstream, you did it like the rest of them did; it is a well-worn path.

June 17, 3:02pm

For days now, Western Media and even this web site have become mesmerized showing the protests, the violence, etc. All of this stems from the accusation of voter fraud, on a massive scale. If there was no voter fraud, then the primary excuse for the current crisis disappears.

I would think, therefore, that anyone interested in truth, would be investigating and printing how such a massive fraud could be put together. In my scouring of the news, I have failed to see any attempt at reconstructing the presumed crime. I have read nothing about how many voting stations there are. I have read nothing about how many vote tally locations there are, and what methods are used to tally the vote. I have read nothing about what procedures are used to limit voter fraud. All I have read is the presumption of crime on a massive scale, with no plausible description of how this massive crime could have occurred.

Seems like uninformed comment to me, and I'm truly disappointed.

June 17, 10:10am

The clip from Russia Today, from 0.16 to 0.23 uses footage from a pro-Ahmadinejad rally (obvious from the photos people are holding) and paints that as opposition protest. Have been noticing this slight of hand in a lot of news clips circulating around.

June 16, 11:14am

From Stratfor, By George Friedman, June 15, 2009

"Last Friday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected with about two-thirds of the vote. Supporters of his opponent, both inside and outside Iran, were stunned. A poll revealed that former Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi was beating Ahmadinejad. It is, of course, interesting to meditate on how you could conduct a poll in a country where phones are not universal, and making a call once you have found a phone can be a trial. A poll therefore would probably reach people who had phones and lived in Tehran and other urban areas. Among those, Mousavi probably did win. But outside Tehran, and beyond persons easy to poll, the numbers turned out quite different.

Some still charge that Ahmadinejad cheated. That is certainly a possibility, but it is difficult to see how he could have stolen the election by such a large margin. Doing so would have required the involvement of an incredible number of people, and would have risked creating numbers that quite plainly did not jibe with sentiment in each precinct. Widespread fraud would mean that Ahmadinejad manufactured numbers in Tehran without any regard for the vote. But he has many powerful enemies who would quickly have spotted this and would have called him on it. Mousavi still insists he was robbed, and we must remain open to the possibility that he was, although it is hard to see the mechanics of this."

June 16, 1:24pm

As someone who is supportive of the Iranian reform movement, but wary of U.S. CIA involvement in it as a pretext for a future American/Israeli war against the regime, I was hoping you could answer the charges of Paul Craig Roberts over at Counterpunch, who dismisses recent events as CIA propaganda and who cites Pakistani radio claiming to have evidence of direct U.S. involvement in fomenting the protests. I don't know enough about Iran to have an opinion about his analysis, but you do.

June 15, 3:24pm

It strikes me that this is Ukraine all over again. Compared to 1953, this time they appear to have found internal supporters, voluntary or otherwise, in Rafsanjani and Mousavi to overthrow the government. The mainstream politically entrenched corporate media in the West have collectively waged a relentless propaganda campaign against the Iranian leadership (supported by a majority of common people) and are as much to 'blame' for the current unrest taking place in Tehran as are the dashed hopes of “millions of reformers.”

Even more problematic is what the left (and left leaning liberals) are supporting. Mousavi and his movement to re-define Iran into a toothless nationalist republic that are backed by some of the most corrupt elements of the Iranian establishment? And they are located in the most affluent areas of Tehran. Whereas Ahmadinejad’s support base is located in the heart of most cities, towns, villages, and working class districts. Wittingly (for the most part) and (a few) unwittingly, the “western” left is, in essence, siding with the elite, upper classes, against the working and under-privileged classes!

June 15, 6:58pm

Among my family members, relatives, and friends are supporters of Mousavi and Ahmadinejad. Personally, I support the reformists and voted for them, although I believe they genuinely lost the elections.

What is striking is that before the elections, each side was absolutely certain that over 80% of the population supported its candidate.

This is typical of my experience in the last 30 years. For example, if you ask an Iranian opponent of the Islamic Republic what the Iranian people think, he'll typically say, "Oh, over 90% are against the regime." If you ask a supporter the same question, he'll say, "Over 90% support the system." Each side says that the nation as a whole is on his side.

What is more, people say these things with absolute conviction. When I try to cite evidence that maybe they should not be so certain about such claims, they react with disbelief and outrage. They wonder how I can raise doubts about what "everybody knows" and what is "as plain as daylight."

Mousavi and his supporters are utterly convinced that the vast majority of voters voted for him. They're absolutely sincere in their conviction. They consider the results of the elections utterly absurd and inconceivable.

The only thing that sustains this conviction is the large pro-Mousavi rallies in Tehran. These rallies convinced them that the people supported him. But then Ahmadinejad had his own rallies.

Now, combine this unshakable certitude that your views are the views of "the people" with a propensity for conspiracy theories, and it becomes as "clear as daylight" to you that the elections must have been rigged.

The fact that there is not a shred of evidence (yet) that the elections were stolen is irrelevant.

June 15, 10:18am

June 13, 2009

Western Primer on Elections in Developing Countries

Some Western principles in assessing elections in developing countries:

1) When the favored candidates win, the elections are free and fair. And when they lose, elections are certainly unfree and stolen.

2) Violent protests against elections that produce winners favored by the West, are to be strictly condemned and protesters are to be called terrorists, hooligans and mobs (can you imagine if Lebanese opposition supporters were to engage in violent protests against the election results in Lebanon), while violent protests against enemies of the US when they win elections (like in Moldova) are to be admired (and the protesters in those cases are called "democracy activists".

3) It is not against free elections to have Western governments interfere in elections and in funding candidates through Western groups for the promotion of democracy.

4) Candidates (or even dictators) who serve Western interests are automatically labeled as "reform candidates" (even the Saudi tyrant is referred to as "reform-minded"), while candidates who oppose Western economic and political interests are to be labeled enemies of reform....

6) Western observers of elections are always on hand to declare an election unfair and rigged if the favored candidates lose.

7) The corruption of pro-US candidates (like the March 14 bunch in Lebanon) is preferred to the corruption of, say, Mugabe.

8) The democratic credentials of dictators immediately improve if they change their policies toward the US and if they express willingness to serve US economic and political interests.

9) Countries where dictators do a good job in serving US economic and political interests need not hold elections.

10) If favored candidates can't guarantee electoral victory (like the Palestinian Authority's Abu Mazen, whose term has expired months ago), they don't need to hold elections and will be treated as if they won an election anyway.

11) It is just not logical to assume that people in developing countries can freely ever decide to make choices that are not consistent with political and economic interests of the US....

-- As'ad AbuKhalil

June 14, 9:38am

Interesting post but you're looking at what is happening in a one-sided way. The reformists were defeated ultimately not by what the conservative clerical elite did. They were defeated by their own timidity and their neo-liberalism.

Khatami's privatization of the economy made the lives of the majority of the population worse. And his unwillingness to truly challenge the conservative section of the elite - or even to support movements on the ground when they went beyond being a fan club for him and his policies - undermined his own base. The two policies together - privatization and timidity - left him vulnerable to a counter-attack by the conservatives and they happily pressed their advantage home.

And if you think that the voting sentiments of a population can't swing dramatically in the space of a decade, take a look at Britain. Tony Blair swept to power on a massive landslide in 1997, winning twice more before he retired. The Labour Party is now a ruins, being beaten into third place by the wackos in UKIP in the recent EU elections.

Did Ahmadinejad steal the election? Maybe. But maybe Mousavi doesn't represent as much as he thought. The reality is, at this early stage, nobody - least of all here in the West, has a full grasp on what is exactly going on. The situation is very complex. We should hold off on any pronouncements living, as we do, in countries where significant sections of our own political elite are happy to find one more reason to demonize Iran and try to justify and invasion.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seumas Milne: The Birth Pangs of Obama's New Regional Order

These are the birth pangs of Obama's new regional order
By Seumas Milne, The Guardian, June 18, 2009


" the western media, whose cameras focus so lovingly on Tehran's gilded youth and for whom Ahmadinejad is nothing but a Holocaust-denying fanatic. The other Ahmadinejad, who is seen to stand up for the country's independence, expose elite corruption on TV and use Iran's oil wealth to boost the incomes of the poor majority, is largely invisible abroad.

While Mousavi promised market reforms and privatisation, more personal freedom and better relations with the west, the president increased pensions and public sector wages and handed out cheap loans. So it's hardly surprising that Ahmadinejad should have a solid base among the working class, the religious, small town and rural poor – or that he might have achieved a similar majority to that of his first election in 2005. That's what one of the few genuinely independent polls (the US-based Ballen-Doherty survey) predicted last month, when the Times reported Ahmadinejad was "expected to win".

But such details have got lost as the pressure has built in Tehran for a "green revolution" amid unsubstantiated claims that the election was stolen. The strongest evidence appears to be some surprising regional results and the speed of the official announcement, triggered by Mousavi's declaration that he was the winner before the polls closed. But most official figures don't look so ­implausible – Mousavi won Tehran, for instance, by 2.2m votes to 1.8m – and it's hard to believe that rigging alone could account for the 11 million-vote gap between the main contenders.

If Ahmadinejad was in fact the winner, then there is an attempted coup going on in Tehran right now, and it is being led by Mousavi and his western-backed supporters. But for the demonstrators facing repression in Tehran, the conviction that they have been cheated has created its own momentum in what is now a highly polarised society. That is given more force by the fact that the protests are underpinned by a split in the theocratic regime, of which Mousavi and his allies are a powerful component.

Part of that is about a perceived threat to their own economic interests. But the division also reflects differences within the establishment about how to respond to Barack Obama and the overtures from Washington. All factions uphold Iran's right to continue nuclear reprocessing, but Mousavi's campaign was critical of the level of support given to Hezbollah and Hamas, while Ahmadinejad's supporters argue that only toughness can win western acceptance of Iran's status as a new regional power.

Iran is of course at the centre of an arc of crisis across the greater Middle East, from Palestine to Pakistan: the legacy of the Bush administration's catastrophic failure in Iraq and the wider war on terror. And as the US attempts to reconstitute its hegemony in the region on a new basis – for which Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo was supposed to set the tone – there's reason to believe that the birth pangs of the new order may yet turn out to be as painful as the death throes of the old.

Last Friday, even before the polls had closed in Iran, the US president ­commented that people were ­"looking at new possibilities" in Iran, just as they had in Lebanon's elections the previous weekend. In fact, the unexpected defeat of Hezbollah's opposition coalition (which nevertheless won the largest number of votes) seems to have had more to do with local Lebanese sectarian issues and large-scale vote buying than the Obama effect. But the implications of his remarks were not lost in Iran, where the US is still spending hundreds of millions of dollars in covert destabilisation programmes.

Obama's public engagement over the Israel-Palestine conflict has so far elicited a commitment by Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to the paper ­principle of a Palestinian state – backed by both his predecessors and George Bush and hedged around with so many restrictions it would barely merit Ruritanian status – but no climbdown over illegal settlement expansion. The chances of a negotiated deal in such conditions seem minimal, particularly in the absence of Hamas, and the prospects that a US plan for a settlement might then fail and plunge the region back into conflict relatively high.

Meanwhile, ­resistance and wider violence have been growing again in Iraq, as US occupation troops pull back from the cities. And in Afghanistan, far from ­winding down the occupation, Obama is ­escalating the conflict as promised, with another 21,000 US troops being sent this ­summer to fight the ­unwinnable war, as attacks on Nato forces have reached an all-time peak. At the same time, the spread of the Afghan war into ­neighbouring Pakistan has left thousands of civilians dead, created more than two million refugees and led to a civilian carnage from US drone attacks across the northwest of the country.

In case anyone imagined such wars of western occupation would become a thing of the past in the wake of the ­discredited Bush administration, ­General Dannatt, head of the ­British army, recently set out to disabuse them. Echoing US defence secretary Robert Gates, he insisted: "Iraq and ­Afghanistan are not aberrations – they are signposts for the future".

In such a context, the neutralisation of Iran as an independent regional power would be a huge prize for the US – defanging recalcitrants from Baghdad to Beirut – and a route out of the strategic impasse created by the invasion of Iraq. But so far, the signs from Tehran are still that that's unlikely to be achieved by a colour-coded revolution."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bush's War is now Obama's War

Obama Looses the Manhunters
Charisma and the Imperial Presidency

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch.Com, June 14, 2009


"The new president will preside over a country which now ponies up almost half the world's total military expenditures. His 2010 estimated Pentagon budget will be marginally higher than the last staggering one from the Bush years at $664 billion. (The real figure, once military funds stowed away in places like the Department of Energy are included, is actually significantly larger.)

He now inhabits a Washington in which deep-thinking consists of a pundit like Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution whining that these bloated sums are, in fact, too little to "maintain" U.S. forces (a budgetary increase of 7-8% per year for the next decade would, he claims, be just adequate); in which forward-looking means Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reorienting military spending toward preparations for fighting one, two, many Afghanistans; and in which out-of-the-box, futuristic thinking means letting the blue-skies crew at DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) loose on far-out problems like how to turn "programmable matter" into future Transformer-like weapons of war.

While Obama enthusiasts can take pride in the appointment of some out-of-the-box thinkers in domestic areas, including energy, health, and the science of the environment, in two crucial areas his appointments are pure old-line Washington and have been so from the first post-election transitional moments. His key economic players and advisors are largely a crew of former Clintonistas, or Clintonista wannabes or protégés like Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner. They are distinctly inside-the-boxers, some of them responsible for the thinking that, in the 1990s, led directly to this catastrophic economic moment.

As for foreign policy, had the November election results been reversed, Obama's top team of today could just as easily have been appointed by Senator John McCain. National Security Advisor James Jones was actually a McCain friend, Gates someone he admired, and Hillary Clinton a figure he could well have picked for a top post after a narrow election victory, had he decided to reach out to the Democrats. As a group, Obama's key foreign policy figures and advisors are traditional players in the national security state and pre-Bush-style Washington guardians of American power, thinking globally in familiar ways.

General Manhunter

And let's be careful not to put all of this in the passive voice either when it comes to the new president. In both of these areas, he may have felt somewhat unsure of himself and so slotted in the old guard around him as a kind of political protection. Nonetheless, this hasn't just happened to him. He didn't just inherit the presidency. He went for it. And he isn't just sitting atop it. He's actively using it. He's wielding power. In foreign policy terms, he's settling in -- and despite his Cairo speech and various hints of change on subjects like relations with Iran, in largely predictable ways.

He may, for example, have declared a sunshine policy when it comes to transparency in government, but in his war policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, his imperial avatar is already plunging deep into the dark, distinctly opaque valley of death. He's just appointed a general, Stanley A. McChrystal, as his Afghan commander. From 2003-2008, McChrystal ran a special operations outfit in Iraq (and then Afghanistan) so secret that the Pentagon avoided mention of it. In those years, its operatives were torturing, abusing, and killing Iraqis as part of a systematic targeted assassination program on a large scale. It was, for those who remember the Vietnam era, a mini-Phoenix program in which possibly hundreds of enemies were assassinated: al-Qaeda-in-Iraq types, but also Sunni insurgents, and Sadrists (not to speak of others, since informers always settle scores and turn over their own personal enemies as well).

Although he's now being touted in the press as the man to bring the real deal in counterinsurgency to Afghanistan (and "protect" the Afghan population in the bargain), his actual field is "counter-terrorism." He spoke the right words to Congress during his recent confirmation hearings, but pay no attention.

The team he's now assembling in Washington to lead his operations in Afghanistan (and someday maybe Pakistan) tells you what you really need to know. It's filled with special operations types. The expertise of his chosen key lieutenants is, above all, in special ops work. At the same time, reports Rowan Scarborough at Fox News, an extra 1,000 special operations troops are now being "quietly" dispatched to Afghanistan, bringing the total number there to about 5,000. Keep in mind that it's been the special operations forces, with their kick-down-the-door night raids and air strikes, who have been involved in the most notorious incidents of civilian slaughter, which continue to enrage Afghans.

Note, by the way, that while the president is surging into Afghanistan 21,000 troops and advisors (as well as those special ops forces), ever more civilian diplomats and advisors, and ever larger infusions of money, there is now to be a command surge as well. General McChrystal, according to a recent New York Times article, has "been given carte blanche to handpick a dream team of subordinates, including many Special Operations veterans... [He] is assembling a corps of 400 officers and soldiers who will rotate between the United States and Afghanistan for a minimum of three years. That kind of commitment to one theater of combat is unknown in the military today outside Special Operations, but reflects an approach being imported by General McChrystal, who spent five years in charge of secret commando teams in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Like the new mega-embassy in Pakistan, this figure -- the Spartans, after all, only needed 300 warriors at Thermopylae -- tells us a great deal about the top-heavy manner in which the planet's super-garrison state fights its wars.

So, this is now truly Obama's war, about to be run by his chosen general, a figure from the dark side. Expect, then, from our sunshine president's men an ever bloodier secret campaign of so-called counter-terror (though it's essence is likely to be terror, pure and simple), as befits an imperial power trying to hang on to the Eastern reaches of the Greater Middle East.

The new crew aren't counterinsurgency warriors, but -- a term that has only recently entered our press -- "manhunters." And don't forget, President Obama is now presiding over an expanding war in which "manhunters" engaging in systematic assassination programs will not only be on the ground but, thanks to the CIA's escalating program of targeted assassination by robot aircraft, in the skies over the Pakistani tribal borderlands.

For those who care to remember, it was into counter-terrorism and an orgy of manhunting, abuse, and killing that the Vietnam era version of "counterinsurgency" dissolved as well.

Into the Charnel House of History

A neologism coined for the expanding Afghan war has recently come into widespread use: Af-Pak (for Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater of Operations). But the coining of neologisms shouldn't just be left to those in Washington, so let me suggest one that hints at one possible new world over which our newest president may unexpectedly preside: Ir-Af-Pak. Let it stand, conveniently, for the Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater of Operations -- a neologism that catches the perilously expansionist and devolutionary possibilities of our moment.

Media organizations in increasingly tight financial straits sense the explosive nature of this expansionist moment and, even as they are fleeing Iraq (and former bureaus in so many other places), like the president, they are doubling down and piling into Afghanistan and Pakistan. But don't count Iraq pacified yet. It remains an uneasy, dangerous, explosive place as, in fact, does the Greater Middle East. Worse yet, the Af-Pak War may not itself be done expanding. It could still, for instance, seep into one or more of the Central Asian 'stans, among other places, and already has made it into catastrophic Somalia, while a shaky Yemen could be swept into the grim festivities.

Finally, let's return to that "dream team" being put together by Obama's man in Afghanistan. That team of Spartans, according to the New York Times, is being formed with, minimally, a three-year horizon. This in itself is striking. After all, the Afghan War started in November 2001. So when the shortest possible Afghan tour of duty of the 400 is over, it will have been going on for more than 10½ years -- and no one dares to predict that, three years from now, the war will actually be at an end.

Looked at another way, the figure cited should probably not be one decade, but three. After all, our Afghan adventure began in 1980, when, in the jihad against the Soviets, we were supporting some of the very same fundamentalist figures now allied with the Taliban and fighting us in Afghanistan -- just as, once upon a time, we looked positively upon the Taliban; just as, once, we looked positively upon Saddam Hussein, who was for a while seen as our potential bulwark in the Middle East against the fundamentalist Islamic Republic of Iran. (Remarkably enough, only Iran has, until this moment, retained its position as our regional enemy over these decades.)

What a record, then, of blood and war, of great power politics and imperial hubris, of support for the heinous (including various fundamentalist groups and grim, authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes who remain our allies to this day). What a tale of imperial power frittered away and treasure squandered. Truly, Rudyard Kipling would have been able to do something with this.

As for me, I find myself in awe of these decades of folly. Thirty years in Afghanistan, it staggers the imagination. What tricks does that land play with the minds of imperial Great-Gamers? Maybe it has something to do with those poppies. Who knows? I'm no Kipling, but I am aware that this sorry tale has taken up almost half of my lifetime with no end in sight.

In the meantime, our new president has loosed the manhunters. His manhunters. This is where charisma disappears into the charnel house of history. Watch out."

Monday, June 8, 2009

On Lebanon's Elections

Lebanon's Elections
By Franklin Lamb, Counter Punch, June 8, 2009


"Today’s predawn stillness was shortly and regularly broken by the crowing of Beirut’s eternal chanters, its roosters. Some from as many as 20 stories up in downtown and Hamra apartment building balconies and roofs, others shunted and jammed into small cages or pits inside the Palestinian Refugee Camps. They seemed to speak and pass messages from the posh neighborhoods of East Beirut to the gypsy shacks and tents near Ouzai, as they welcomed the new day.

The votes have been tallied and the election results show pretty much a status quo ante with the Majority picking up a net four seats (a new total of 71 with 57 for the Opposition) at the expense of the Christian Maronite leader and Opposition ally, former General Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement. Sometimes contentious in the heat of campaign, the FPM was gracious this morning in conceding its opponents will remain the Majority, if obviously disappointed.

One FPM supporter was in tears and she explained that having been educated abroad, she returned to Lebanon and hoped an Opposition victory would expose and end rampant corruption and the Ziam graft system and she was depressed because she fears things might remain as they have been. Michel de Chadarevian, a member of Gen. Michel Aoun's FPM political bureau told the media that FPM was disappointed with the election result but would respect the outcome and would now work with all parties to form a government of national unity. "Lebanon can only be governed by a national unity government," he said. "Even if we had won we would have formed a national unity government.”

Hezbollah, which won all 11 districts in which it fielded its 11 candidates, and along with its allies won 21 seats in southern Lebanon succeeded in raising its vote tallies, despite a Saudi-funded rival Shai party, Lebanon Option Movement. Hezbollah’s and its allies also won 10 seats in the eastern Baalbek region.

Hezbollah member, Hasan Fadlallah, an MP in the outgoing parliament, explained: “What matters to us now is that Lebanon turns a new page, one based on partnership, cooperation and understanding," he said. "Lebanon's specificity is in its diversity and there is no majority or minority. No party can claim to have won the majority among all communities." Hezbollah MP Mohamed Raad, the Opposition leader in Parliament, reminded his fellow Lebanese that “the majority must commit not to question our role as a resistance party, the legitimacy of our weapons arsenal and the fact that Israel is an enemy state”.

The US administration is reportedly disappointed that their ‘Team’ did not achieve a stronger victory. Just before the voting, the Obama administration allowed Jeffrey Feltman, Deputy Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, in clear violation of Lebanon voting laws, which required no campaigning after midnight on Friday, to blitz the media through carefully timed interviews with pro-Majority An-Nahar and al-Hayat newspapers, with his personal calls for the Lebanese to have enough intelligence to vote as Feltman saw fit. Many Lebanese resented the additional interference in which Feltman announced: "The election's outcome will naturally affect the world's stance towards the new Lebanese government and the manner in which the United States and Congress deal with Lebanon. I believe the Lebanese are smart enough to understand that there will be an effect.”

Feltman attacked the head of the Free Patriotic Movement MP General Michel Aoun, lecturing Lebanese voters: "one of your politicians is proposing that Christians shouldn't depend on the United States. I hope the Lebanese had accurately listened to the president's [Barack Obama] speech that specifically pointed to the widest Christian religious minority in Lebanon, the Maronites. The president spoke about the need for respecting all peoples in the region including minorities…I hope the Lebanese would ask themselves: do we want to be on the side of the international community and close to the stances that president Obama made? I hope they would say, yes."

The June 7, 2009 election has done little to change the political landscape here. It was never a question of an Islamic Republic if the Opposition had decisively prevailed or whether Hezbollah’s weapons would be decommissioned before Lebanon was able to defend itself. Nor was it in question that a slim majority by either side would not require a renewed commitment to the Taef Accord calls and the full implementation of all the clauses and the need for Parliament to enact a modern electoral law based on proportional representation which a majority in Lebanon desire.

With regard to the noisy issue of the arms of the resistance, there remains insufficient political will in Lebanon to force the issue in Parliament, although Israel has wasted no time insisting on it. The new parliament has important business to conduct, from granting women rights, including the right to confer nationality on their children, to aiding the Palestinian refugees with civil rights until the return to their country and many other pressing social issues..."

Mahmood Mamdani's 'Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror'

The Darfur diversion: "Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror"
By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, The Electronic Intifada, June 8, 2009

In Errol Morris's 2004 film The Fog of War, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recalls General Curtis LeMay, the architect of the fire-bombings of Japan during World War II, saying that "if we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." LeMay was merely articulating an unacknowledged truism of international relations: power bestows, among other things, the right to label. So it is that mass slaughter perpetrated by the big powers, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, is normalized through labels such as "counterinsurgency, " "pacification" and "war on terror," while similar acts carried out by states out of favor result in the severest of charges. It is this politics of naming that is the subject of Mahmood Mamdani's explosive new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror.

Like the Middle East, parts of Africa have been engulfed in conflict for much of the post-colonial period. While the media coverage in both cases is perfunctory, in the case of Africa it is also sporadic. To the extent that there is coverage, the emphasis is on the dramatic or the grotesque. When the subject is not war, it is usually famine, disease or poverty -- or sometimes all three -- and invariably the coverage lacks context. The wars are between "tribes" led by "warlords" that take place in "failed states" ruled by "corrupt dictators." Driven by primal motives, they rarely involve discernible issues. The gallery of rogues gives way only to a tableau of victims, inevitably in need of White saviors. A headline like "Can Bono save Africa?" is as illustrative of Western attitudes towards the continent as the comments of Richard Littlejohn, Britain's highest-paid columnist, who wrote at the peak of the Rwandan genocide, "Does anyone really give a monkey's about what happens in Rwanda? If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them."

Darfur is the conspicuous exception to this trend, though Rwanda did enter Western vocabulary after the 1994 genocide. This, Mamdani argues, is primarily due to the efforts of one organization -- the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC) -- whose advocacy has been central to turning this into the biggest mass movement in the United States since the anti-Vietnam mobilization, bigger than the anti-apartheid movement. While the mobilization did have the salutary effect of raising awareness about an issue otherwise unknown to the majority of US citizens, its privileging of acting over knowing renders this less meaningful. Indeed, the campaign's shunning of complexity, its substituting of moral certainty for knowledge, and its preference for military solutions, precludes the very end that it purports to strive for. Invoking what it claims are lessons of the Nazi Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide, it combines slogans such as "never again" with the battle cries of a new "good war," "boots on the ground" and "out of Iraq and into Darfur," to call for military intervention in Sudan. Mamdani contends that SDC is not a peace movement, it is a war movement. If the signature activity of the anti-Vietnam war movement was the teach-in, for the SDC it is the advertising campaign; the expert has been replaced by the celebrity.

The SDC was established in July 2004 through the combined efforts of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Jewish World Service. It has since been joined by a broad spectrum of political and religious organizations, a gaggle of celebrities and prominent intellectuals. It has spawned student chapters all across the country that range from the high school to university levels. Led by an advertising executive, it is the only organization capable of bringing together such unlikely partners as the Reverend Al Sharpton and author Elie Wiesel, actor George Clooney and former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. However, the apparent diversity of its affiliates obscures the fact that its agenda is driven mostly by Zionists and the Christian Right. However, Mamdani pays scant attention to the composition of the SDC even though he devotes a whole chapter to its politics and methods. As The Jerusalem Post reported ahead of the SDC's rally in Washington on 30 April 2006, it is "[l]ittle known ... that the coalition, which has presented itself as 'an alliance of over 130 diverse faith-based, humanitarian and human rights organizations' was actually begun exclusively as an initiative of the American Jewish community." It noted that even in 2006 that coalition was "heavily weighted" with a "diverse collection of local and national Jewish groups." Many have used Darfur as a strategic distraction from Israeli crimes against the Palestinians, as Ned Goldstein has argued in his investigation of the Zionist interests behind the SDC (most recently at the United Nations Durban II conference against racism). The salient feature of the propaganda is to paint the conflict as war between "Arabs" and "Africans" and to label the violence "genocide."

The genocide debate hinges on two factors: numbers and identity. For mass violence to qualify as genocide the killing has to be on a large enough scale, and the intent to eliminate a discrete ethnic or racial group has to be established. Mamdani argues that in order to sustain its claim of genocide, the SDC has inflated casualty figures and racialized the conflict.

The mortality figure of 400,000 has become a staple of SDC propaganda even though it has been repeatedly discredited. In 2007, the British Advertising Standards Authority chided the SDC (and the Aegis Trust) for breaching "standards of truthfulness" in its use of the figure for its UK advertising campaign. The number had already been challenged when a panel convened by the US Government Accountability Office in collaboration with the National Academy of Sciences concluded that of the six estimates they studied, the figures presented by the SDC were the least reliable. The most reliable estimate was the study carried out by the World Heath Organization- affiliated Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) that had recorded 131,000 excess deaths at the peak of the conflict of which only 30 percent were due to violence. The violence had dropped sharply after January 2005; this, Mamdani avers, was due mainly to the intervention of African Union peacekeepers. By 2008, the total deaths for the whole year had dropped to 1,500. These numbers are far lower than what constitutes an emergency according to the UN, let alone genocide.

The conflict began as a civil war in 1987-89, driven less by race or ethnic rivalries than by a struggle for land and resources -- it pitted the mostly nomadic landless Arabs against the mostly sedentary Fur peasants. Compounded by Khartoum's botched attempt at land reform during the 1990s, turning it into a party to the civil war, the simmering conflict erupted into a full-scale insurgency in 2003. This eventually led to the government's brutal counterinsurgency campaign where it turned to nomadic tribes from Darfur and Chad to serve as proxies.

Mamdani identifies three causes as having contributed to the conflict. First, is the history of colonial rule wherein the British went about a project of retribalizing Darfur through a system of native administration that created tribal homelands and introduced a principle of discrimination that privileged "natives" over "settlers." This led to the dispossession of nomadic tribes, especially the camel nomads of the north. The tribal identities were further solidified through a census that required each registrant to choose a "race;" a written history that presented Arabs as "settlers" from the Middle East; and laws that gave preferential treatment to whoever was deemed a "native." This narrative also allowed the British colonizers to present themselves as merely following the precedent of an earlier Arab colonization.

Drought and desertification was the second contributing factor. The Sahara's southern rim expanded by 100 kilometers, forcing nomadic tribes further south and eventually to encroach on the lands of the sedentary Fur tribes.

Finally, the civil war in neighboring Chad where opposition groups armed by Cold War rivals -- the US, France and Israel on one side, and Libya and the Soviet Union on the other -- had frequently taken refuge in Darfur, leading to a proliferation of weapons and militias. Mamdani explains that the Western powers were involved in the conflict long before the Sudanese government was; and Omar al-Bashir's Islamist regime wasn't even in power at the time.

The Arab-versus- African narrative obscures the fact that since at least the British colonial era, Arabs have been Darfur's most deprived constituency. "If Darfur was marginal in Sudan," writes Mamdani, "the Arabs of Darfur were marginal in Darfur." Contrary to the British historiography -- whose assumptions have since been reproduced in 20th century nationalist writings -- most Arabs arrived in Sudan as refugees fleeing persecution in Mamluk Egypt. Moreover, the diffusion of Arab culture was more a consequence of commerce than of conquest. Mamdani demonstrates that "Arab" is not a racial, ethnic, or cultural identity. It is an assumed political identity that is more a reflection of preference and power than of genealogy. For example, former slaves once freed would become Fur in Darfur, and Arab in Funj, the Sultanate in riverine Sudan where Arabs dominated. To be an Arab in Darfur therefore signifies nothing so much as weakness. The conflict in Darfur today is as much between Arabs (the Abbala camel nomads against the Baggara cattle nomads) as it is against the relatively privileged Fur and Massalit, and the less privileged Zaghawa. The SDC however emphasizes the north-south axis of the conflict that pits Arab against Fur and ignores the south-south axis which pits Arab against Arab.

The Darfuri rebels likewise defy easy classification. When the insurgency began in 2003, there were two major groups -- the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) -- they have now split into 26. JEM, which is the largest rebel organization, has an Islamist orientation and draws its inspiration from Hassan al-Turabi, the influential Sudanese Islamist and onetime ally of Omar al-Bashir. In contrast, the SLA is secular-Africanist with ties to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south (led by the late John Garang). Before the split between the Islamists in Khartoum, the government had employed Darfuri Islamists led by future JEM founder Khalil Ibrahim for its counterinsurgency in the south. (Ibrahim opposed the power-sharing agreement that ended the war in the south.) However, according to Sudan scholar Alex de Waal, both organizations learned "to characterize their plight in the simplified terms that had proved so effective in winning foreign sympathy for the south: they were the 'African' victims of an 'Arab' regime." The government's response to the insurgency was at first a half-hearted attempt at reconciliation, followed by the arming of a proxy force comprising nomadic militias, many of them from Chad, who have come to be known as the Janjawid. The consequences were devastating, with large-scale bloodletting and the displacement of 2.5 million people.

Khartoum's use of proxies to quell an insurgency and the resulting death and displacement parallel US policies in Iraq, where ethnic-sectarian militias have been deployed against the mostly-Sunni insurgency. Yet, unlike Iraq, where in excess of a million have died according to the latest Opinion Research Business poll, and five million displaced, the violence in Darfur has been labeled a genocide. Darfur has also spawned domestic mobilization in the US on a scale for which there is no parallel in the case of Iraq. Mamdani argues that this is due to the fact that Iraq requires Americans to act as citizens, with all the responsibility and complicated political choices it entails, whereas Darfur only requires them to act as humans where they choose to take responsibility out of a sense of philanthropy. He notes that "In Darfur, Americans can feel themselves to be what they know they are not in Iraq: powerful saviors." As the Nigerian writer Uzodinma Iweala observed, "It seems that these days, wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created in the Middle East, the West has turned to Africa for redemption." In adopting the language of good and evil, Mamdani observes, the SDC has acted as "the great depoliticizer" in precluding political reconciliation in favor of a moral (read military) solution.

In Saviors and Survivors, Mamdani emphasizes regional over international solutions. Western modes of conflict resolution in Africa resemble nothing so much as the International Monetary Fund's Structural Adjustment Programs: "Those who made decisions did not have to live with their consequences, nor pay for them." The Western emphasis on the humanitarian crisis in lieu of a political solution merely prolongs the conflict. By contrast, the AU's approach is both humanitarian and political. The African Union's (AU) intervention in Darfur had been largely successful in reducing the violence, yet its operation was undermined by Western powers that failed to deliver the support they had pledged when the AU brokered the N'DJamena ceasefire agreement in April 2004. It was also vilified in SDC propaganda. Mamdani asserts that much of the foot-dragging was to discredit the AU so that the notion of an African solution for an African problem could be discredited. The aim was to "blue hat" the AU forces and bring them under Western command. In a Washington Post op-ed pointedly titled "Stop Trying To 'Save' Africa," Iweala asked, "How is it that a former mid-level US diplomat receives more attention for his cowboy antics in Sudan than do the numerous African Union countries that have sent food and troops and spent countless hours trying to negotiate a settlement among all parties in that crisis?"

The recent International Criminal Court case has further entrenched the Khartoum government in its defiant stance. Criminal prosecutions during an ongoing conflict merely exacerbate matters, Mamdani argues. More so when the adjudicating body has a demonstrable record of bias. The model for justice must be the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than Nuremberg -- survivors' justice rather than victors' justice. The well-being of surviving multitudes must not be subordinated to the imperative of punishing individual perpetrators. Mamdani offers a trenchant critique of what he calls the "New Humanitarian Order," which has supplanted traditional colonialism and turned human rights into the new pretext for intervention. The "international community," which Mamdani argues is nothing more than a "post-Cold War nom de guerre for the Western powers," has created "a bifurcated system whereby state sovereignty obtains in large parts of the world but is suspended in more and more countries in Africa and the Middle East," reducing citizens to wards in "an open-ended international rescue operation."

The Obama Administration already appears to be making a break with its predecessor' s approach and has ordered a review of its Sudan policy. Scott Gration, the new envoy, has already visited Khartoum and Darfur, as has John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the case of the Bush Administration, the SDC was able to mobilize Congress against the State Department that was seeking a political resolution modeled on the power-sharing agreement that ended the longstanding conflict in the south. It remains to be seen how much the Obama Administration is able to resist the formidable lobbying power of the SDC. While Mamdani maintains that the aim of the SDC is to induce the US government to intervene militarily in Sudan, it appears that the real interest of its core organizations is to perpetuate the conflict so as to continue using the image of the Arab as the perpetrator to distract from the regional reality of the Arab as the victim.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the co-founder of PULSE. He can be reached at m.idrees A T gmail D O T com.

Comments on Obama's Cairo speech

How do we read that speech? Is it reaching out to the Muslim world or just a change of tactics for the neo-imperial ambitions?

Above: Dr. Hatem Bazian of UC Berkeley shares his perspective with a crowd of demonstrators at a rally against the 60 year old occupation of Palestine just a few days after Obama's speech in Cairo. Also see Part II and Part III

Robert Fisk: Words that could heal wounds of centuries

The Independent, June 5, 2009

Preacher, historian, economist, moralist, schoolteacher, critic, warrior, imam, emperor. Sometimes you even forgot Barack Obama was the President of the United States of America.

Will his lecture to a carefully chosen audience at Cairo University "re-imagine the world" and heal the wounds of centuries between Muslims and Christians? Will it resolve the Arab-Israeli tragedy after more than 60 years? If words could do the job, perhaps...

It was a clever speech we heard from Obama yesterday, as gentle and as ruthless as any audience could wish for – and we were all his audience. He praised Islam. He loved Islam. He admired Islam. He loved Christianity. And he admired America. Did we know that there were seven million Muslims in America, that there were mosques in every state of the Union, that Morocco was the first nation to recognise the United States and that our duty is to fight against stereotypes of Muslims just as Muslims must fight against stereotypes of America?

But much of the truth was there, albeit softened to avoid hurting feelings in Israel. To deny the facts of the Jewish Holocaust was "baseless, ignorant and hateful", he said, a remark obviously aimed at Iran. And Israel deserved security and "Palestinians must abandon violence..."

The United States demanded a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told the Israelis there had to be a total end to their colonisation in the West Bank. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

The Palestinians had suffered without a homeland. "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," Obama said and the US would not turn its back on the "legitimate Palestinian aspiration for a state of their own". Israel had to take "concrete steps" to give the Palestinians progress in their daily lives as part of a road to peace. Israel needed to acknowledge Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian right to exist. Wow. Not for a generation has Israel had to take this kind of criticism from a US President. It sounded like the end of the Zionist dream. Did George Bush ever exist?

Alas, he did. Indeed, at times, the Obama address sounded like the Bush General Repair Company, visiting the Muslim world to sweep up mountains of broken chandeliers and shredded flesh. The President of the United States – and this was awesome – admitted his country's failures, its over-reaction to 9/11, its creation of Guantanamo which, Obama reminded us all again, he is closing down. Not bad, Obama...

We got to Iran. One state trying to acquire nuclear weapons would lead to a "dangerous path" for all of us, especially in the Middle East. We must prevent a nuclear arms race. But Iran as a nation must be treated with dignity. More extraordinarily, Obama reminded us that the US had connived to overthrow the democratically elected Mossadeq government of Iran in the Fifties. It was "hard to overcome decades of distrust".

There was more; democracy, women's rights, the economy, a few good quotes from the Koran ("Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind".) Governments must respect "all their people" and their minorities. He mentioned the Christian Copts of Egypt; even the Christian Maronites of Lebanon got a look in.

And when Obama said that some governments, "once in power, are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others", there was a roar of applause from the supposedly obedient audience. No wonder the Egyptian government wanted to select which bits of Obama's speech would be suitable for the Egyptian people. They were clearly very, very unhappy with the police-state regime of Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, Obama did not once mention Mubarak's name.

Over and again, one kept saying to oneself: Obama hasn't mentioned Iraq – and then he did ("a war of choice... our combat brigades will be leaving"). But he hasn't mentioned Afghanistan – and then he did ("we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan... we will gladly bring every one of our troops home"). When he started talking about the "coalition of 46 countries" in Afghanistan – a very dodgy statistic – he began to sound like his predecessor. And here, of course, we encountered an inevitable problem. As the Palestinian intellectual Marwan Bishara pointed out yesterday, it is easy to be "dazzled" by presidents. This was a dazzling performance. But if one searched the text, there were things missing.

There was no mention – during or after his kindly excoriation of Iran – of Israel's estimated 264 nuclear warheads. He admonished the Palestinians for their violence – for "shooting rockets at sleeping children or blowing up old women in a bus". But there was no mention of Israel's violence in Gaza, just of the "continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza". Nor was there a mention of Israel's bombing of civilians in Lebanon, of its repeated invasions of Lebanon (17,500 dead in the 1982 invasion alone). Obama told Muslims not to live in the past, but cut the Israelis out of this. The Holocaust loomed out of his speech and he reminded us that he was going to the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp today.

For a man who is sending thousands more US troops into Afghanistan – a certain disaster-to-come in the eyes of Arabs and Westerners – there was something brazen about all this. When he talked about the debt that all Westerners owed to Islam – the "light of learning" in Andalusia, algebra, the magnetic compass, religious tolerance, it was like a cat being gently stroked before a visit to the vet. And the vet, of course, lectured the Muslims on the dangers of extremism, on "cycles of suspicion and discord" – even if America and Islam shared "common principles" which turned out to be "justice, progress and the dignity of all human beings".

There was one merciful omission: a speech of nearly 6,000 words did not include the lethal word "terror". "Terror" or "terrorism" have become punctuation marks for every Israeli government and became part of the obscene grammar of the Bush era.

An intelligent guy, then, Obama. Not exactly Gettysburg. Not exactly Churchill, but not bad. One could only remember Churchill's observations: "Words are easy and many, while great deeds are difficult and rare."

Edit, June 21, 2009: Added Charles Hirschkind's reference and excerpts:

Obama on Palestine: What New Beginning?
By Charles Hirschkind, The Immanent Frame, June 9, 2009


"Obama also made mention of the suffering of the Palestinian people, a point that many have taken as evidence of a more balanced approach to the region. What he actually said, however, points in a contrary direction. It is a masterful formulation, and bears closer scrutiny. “It is undeniable,” he noted, “that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” A “homeland,” of course, is precisely not what the Palestinians have been pursuing. They are on it, and have long been so, except for those now living as refugees and whose return Obama is on the record as opposing. It is rather the Jewish people, not the Palestinians, whose history we recognize in the phrase “pursuit of a homeland,” a people whose moral claim to such a homeland is based in centuries of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, a point Obama began with in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian situation. It is a mistake, however, to see Obama’s use of this expression to characterize the predicament of the Palestinians as evidence of “balance” or “evenhandedness.” What we find instead is that the terms of recognition by which Palestinian suffering can be acknowledged—the need for a homeland—are precisely those whose ultimate moral reference is the foundation of Israel. In other words, the moral force of Palestinian claims is made to rest upon the very example that has produced their dispossession."

"As I am writing from Spain, I cannot resist a few words on this last point. What are we to make of this oddest of historical blunders, in a speech that otherwise shows such careful and meticulous craftsmanship? Here are the two lines: “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.” Muslim tolerance during the Inquisition?! Such a slip in an otherwise seamless speech begs interpretation. What displacement or condensation has occurred such that the celebrated convivencia of al-Andaluz is now made contemporaneous with the forced conversion, slaughter, and exile of Spain’s Muslim and Jewish populations under the Inquisitorial regime? Are we to find in this image a call to the inhabitants of Gaza, or to the villagers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, to practice their celebrated Muslim tolerance in the face of their own devastation by American and Israeli armies and weaponry?"