After nine months of jumping through hoops, Iraq saw a breakthrough when its elected leaders turned the page on past differences and formed a national unity cabinet with the participation of all parliamentary blocs. Coupled with steady progress in security, Iraq is inching closer to normalcy. And while the country is still far from becoming an ideal democracy, a rough version of George Bush’s dream might still come true.
Nouri Al-Maliki, renamed as Iraq’s prime minister, met a 30-day constitutional deadline when he presented his cabinet lineup before parliament last week for approval. All 226 lawmakers in attendance voted for the new cabinet, which consisted of 38 ministries, 12 of them without portfolios, and nine under interim heads waiting for the appointment of their respective ministers.
The breakthrough came when Iyad Allawi, a Shi’ite secular lawmaker heading a Sunni bloc of 91 MPs, agreed to join Al-Maliki’s cabinet, in addition to the Kurdish bloc and the all-Shi’ite National Iraqi Alliance. Henceforth, Saleh Motlaq, a heavyweight with Allawi’s bloc who had been banned from running for elections allegedly for his affiliation with the outlawed Ba’ath Party, renounced the Ba’ath. In return, parliament voted to reverse his ban. Ending months of controversy and political bickering, Al-Maliki appointed Motlaq to the ceremonial—yet prestigious—post of deputy prime minister.
But the Sunni bloc was not only given symbolic posts. Rafeh Al-Issawi, former deputy prime minister also from Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc, was given the “sovereign” portfolio of finance. The Sunnis are also expected to receive the Defense Ministry. Meanwhile, the term of Kurdish Hoshyar Zibari on top of the Foreign Ministry, another portfolio designated as sovereign, was renewed.
The new Iraqi cabinet showed real power-sharing and cast away allegations that Al-Maliki was turning into a dictator. In the meantime, independent groups such as iCasualties.org reported a drastic drop in violence. In September 2006, civilian casualties were 3,300. This month, the count stood at 62, which makes Iraq safer than many countries around the world.
Getting here might have taken more time than expected. Iraq’s democracy might not be as ideal as it should be. Yet, the substantial improvement in governance, power-sharing and security show that a rough version of the dream of former US President George Bush of a peaceful and democratic Iraq might still stand a chance.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
The Frugal Superpower argues that because of an “entitlement overstretch,” America will not be able to conduct a foreign policy with unlimited funds, like in the past. Instead, the United States will have to become more selective in its overseas operations.
In this easy-to-read entertaining book of political economy, Michael Mandelbaum skillfully sketches the most probable scenario, post-American superpower. Before doing so, he traces the modern history of the American power.
Mandelbaum argues that the Cold War forced America to construct a network with world reach to counter Soviet power. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the US did not scale back its power and rather maintained its expensive and powerful reach.
The author also argues that the globally unmatched American excess power might have lured America’s presidents, Clinton and Bush, and made them commit foreign policy errors. He writes that after the Cold War, America fought more wars than it had during the Cold War. While the last of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq showed America’s unmatched military superiority, these two wars – coupled with incompetent post war planning and occupation – are still taking their toll on the nation’s finances and world standing.
Mandelbaum writes about an inevitable American spending overstretch that will force Washington to make hard choices. To meet the expenses of the entitlements of its aging and retiring population, the United States will most probably cut expenditures in other areas, mainly overseas.
While America’s inevitable economic hardships are a valid point, Mandelbaum’s reasons might not be enough to explain them. True the “entitlement overstretch” will burden the US economy. However, even without these entitlements, America’s economy has been suffering. Numbers in the summer of 2010 showed that the cost of every dollar the federal government borrowed was 46 cents. Servicing the debt is expected to further shoot up if Congress fails to find solutions to reverse the course of the country’s finances.
Servicing the debt, a negative balance of trade, overreliance on imported energy and a shrinking manufacturing base, in addition to the “entitlement overstretch,” have all been contributing to weakening America’s economy. Mandelbaum erroneously leaves out the other economic spoilers and blames the retirement of the baby boomers alone for the expected economic ills and eventual superpower decline.
Mandelbaum rightly believes that the government has four options to collect money, and thus fund its domestic and foreign policies. These options are printing dollars, raising taxes, cutting expenditures and borrowing. Printing dollars causes inflation and might force nations that hold US debt (such as China with $2 trillion) to consider dumping an inflated dollar as the world currency. Raising taxes is politically unpopular in Washington.
Therefore, the US government is left with two choices, borrowing or cutting expenditures. Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the government has been borrowing money to the extent that in 2010, national debt had reached $13 trillion. But Borrowing is unsustainable, and Washington will be forced to stop borrowing and start paying back debt, sooner or later.
With printing money, raising taxes and borrowing unavailable, Uncle Sam will be forced to cut expenditures. Such a step, according to the book, will cause fundamental changes in world affairs and America’s role.
To further support his thesis that America will find herself unable to foot its world bill (protecting sea lines, international trade and energy sources), Mandelbaum writes that America’s closest allies, especially those who benefit from Washington’s role as a “world government,” have never stepped up in the past to pick up the bill.
With American finances strained and allies unable to pay the difference, America’s superpower will stand frugal.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Iraqi Parliament members raising their hands to vote for the new Iraqi cabinet formed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on December 21, 2010 in Baghdad, Iraq. The new government was unanimously approved, ending nine months of deadlock.
News from Washington Exclusive
With the votes of all 226 lawmakers in attendance, Iraqi Parliament approved on Tuesday the new cabinet under Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. The cabinet is composed of 38 ministers, nine of them to be appointed soon, and 12 of them holding no portfolios. Following is the lineup.
o Nouri Al-Maliki, the boss of the 89-MP State of Law bloc, will remain Prime Minister and will hold the positions of Acting Minister of Defense, Interior and National Security until the appointment of respective ministers.
o Roz Nouri Shawees, a Kurdistan Democratic Party veteran (KDP), will serve as Deputy Prime Minister and Acting Minister of Trade.
o Saleh Motlaq, from Ayad Allawi’s 91-MP Iraqiya bloc, will also serve as Deputy Prime Minister. Motlaq’s ban from running for elections on allegations of affiliation with the disbanded Baath Party caused a stir. A compromise was reached a week prior to the formation of the cabinet in which Motlaq renounced Baathist ideology in return for parliament voting to reverse the political ban imposed on him.
o Hussein Shahrastani, a nuclear scientist, confidant of Al-Maliki and former Oil Minister, will serve as Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs. The “for Energy Affairs” suffix was probably inserted because the Iraqi constitution stipulates that the Shiite Prime Minister appoints two deputies, one Kurdish and the other Sunni. Shahrastani is Shiite. Therefore, appointing him as a third deputy required the “for Energy Affairs” suffix.
o Hoshyar Zibari, also a KDP veteran and brother-in-law of Kurdistan Region’s President Massoud Barzani, will continue serving in his capacity as Iraq’s Foreign Minister. Zibari will also occupy the Ministry of State for Women’s Affairs until a minister is appointed.
o Abdul-Karim Al-Luaibi was appointed Minister of Oil. Al-Luaibi is a technocrat who studied oil and spent his life working at the Dora Refinery. Under Shahrastani, he supervised Iraq’s two sets of contracts signed with foreign oil firms.
o Rafeh Al-Issawi, former Sunni Deputy Prime Minister, will now serve as Minister of Finance. Al-Issawi was member of the Iraqi Accord Front, and served as “chief negotiator” for the Iraqiya bloc during talks for the formation of the cabinet.
o Ali Al-Adib, an old time comrade of Al-Maliki at the Islamic Daawa Party, will be serving as the Minister of Higher Education and Research. He will also serve as Acting Minister for Reconciliation.
o Hadi Al-Ameri, the Commander of the Iran-inspired now disarmed Badr Brigade militia, will serve as minister of Transportation. Al-Ameri is member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), under young cleric Ammar Al-Hakim. In parliament, ISCI is part of the all-Shiite National Iraqi Alliance bloc.
o Majid Hamad Amin, member of President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), will serve as Minister of Health.
o Ezzildine Ahmad Hussein is an unknown figure and will be serving as Minister of Agriculture.
o Ahmed Nasser Dalli, from the Sunni bloc Iraqiya, will be Minister of Industry.
o Mohannad Salman Al-Saadi, a newbie, will serve as Minister of Water Resources.
o Mohammad Saheb Al-Darraji is the most senior of three Sadrist Movement ministers in the cabinet and will serve as Minister of Housing and Acting Minister of Municipalities. The Sadrist bloc, also known as the Al-Ahrar (the Free Ones) bloc, is under the leadership of controversial cleric Moqtada Sadr, who currently resides in Qom, Iran. His bloc is part of the all-Shiite National Iraqi Alliance.
o Jassem Mohamed Jaafar, a Shiite-Kurd also known as Faili Kurd, is member of Al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc and will serve as Minister of Youth and Sports.
o Hassan Al-Shummari, of the Fadhilah Party that is also part of the National Iraqi Alliance, will be Minister of Justice.
o Mohamad Tawfiq Allawi, member of the Iraqiya bloc and paternal cousin of Ayad Allawi, will become Minister of Communications.
o Nassar Al-Rubai, a prominent lawmaker from the Sadrist Movement, was appointed Minister of Labor and Social Affairs.
o Abdul-Karim Yassin will serve as Minister of Science and Technology. He is member of the Iraqiya bloc and MP from the Province of Salahiddine.
o Sargo (or Sarkis) Saleyweh, representing Christian minorities, will serve as Minister of Environment.
o Saadoun Al-Duleimi, from the Sunni Centrist Alliance, will serve as Minister of Culture.
o Mohamed Shayyaa Al-Sudani, formerly Governor of Meysan who played an instrumental role in giving Al-Maliki the advantage in defeating his Shiite rivals of the National Iraqi Alliance during the March 2010 parliamentary elections, was rewarded with the Ministry of Human Rights.
o Dayendar Najman, of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, will serve as Minister of Immigration and the Displaced and Acting Minister of State for NGO Affairs.
o Ali Sajri is from the Iraq Unity Alliance, which was formed after the merger of the factions of Shiite former Interior Minister Jawad Bolani and Sunni tribal leader Ahmad Abu Risha. Despite its promising prospects, the alliance performed poorly in elections, but still participated in the governmental coalition.
o Liwa Smeisem will serve as Minister of Tourism and Archaeological Sites. Smeisem is Sadrist.
o Safaa-aldine Al-Safi, an aid of Al-Maliki, will serve as Minister of State for Parliament Affairs.
o Ali Mahdi Al-Dabbagh, the face of the Iraqi cabinet over the past two years and a close aid of Al-Maliki, will remain in his post as the Cabinet’s Spokesperson. For his loyalty and services, Al-Dabbagh will get a seat at the cabinet’s table.
o Torhan Mohsen is the last of the Kurdish bloc, which consists of KDP, KUP, the Goran bloc and the Kurdistan Islamic Union. He will serve as Minister of State for the Affairs of Provinces.
o Hassan Al-Radi will serve as Minister of State. Like Minister of Transportation Hadi Al-Ameri, Al-Radi is member of the Iran-leaning ISCI. Al-Radi is the “Secretary General” of the “Hezbollah Movement in Iraq.” He is also member of the Shiite National Iraqi Alliance bloc.
o Bushra Hussein, also an MP with the National Iraqi Alliance representing the Fadhilah Party, will serve as Minister of State.
o Salah Mozahem Darwish, another one of Al-Maliki’s aides, will be another Minster of State.
o Diyaa Najm, a newbie, will serve as Minister of State.
o Salah Mozahem, another newbie, will also be Minister of State.
UPDATE: On February 13, Iraqi parliament approved the appointment of eight ministers, bringing the total of the portfolios to 43. The new ministers are:
o Raad Shallah Al-Aani, Sunni from the Iraqiya bloc, will serve as Minister of Electricity.
o Khairallah Hassan Babakr is member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and will serve as Minister of Trade.
o Adel Mhodar Al-Maliki will be Minister of Municipalities and Public Works. Despite the name, the new minister is not related to Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. The new minister is rather affiliated with the Sadrist "Free Ones" parliamentary bloc.
o Ibtihal Zeidi, Sunni and close to Iraqiya, will be Minister of Women.
o Also Sunni and affiliated with Iraqiya is Minister of State Jamal Al-Battikh
o Amer Al-Khuzaii, Shia and affiliated with the State of Law bloc, was appointed as Minister of State for National Reconciliation.
o Shia Dakhil Kazem will serve as Minister of State for Civil Society Affairs.
A US Marine from 1st Battalion 8th Marines walks down the main market in Musa Qala in Helmand province on December 14, 2010.
President Barak Obama last week addressed the nation citing progress in America’s war in Afghanistan, but described the gains as fragile and potentially reversible. Obama’s assessment came a year after he deployed 30,000 more troops to join the war, now entering its tenth year, as the American mood turns sour.
The Obama strategy in Afghanistan is a mere replica of Bush’s plan that saved Iraq a few years earlier: A surge in troops and firepower to cleanup violent areas, followed by holding ground while building shattered villages, and last turning security over to domestic forces and withdrawing.
America’s tactic is new to warfare and gives regular armies the opportunity to stump ragtag militias. Before America’s success in uprooting a raging Iraqi insurgency, armies had failed in countering irregular fighters. The victory of Lebanon’s Hezbollah against Israel in 2000 illustrates past inabilities of armies dealing with militias.
In Afghanistan, US troops now count 100,000. NATO allies furnish another 30-40,000 soldiers. David Petraeous, the general who saved face for the world’s super power in Iraq, replaced loose lip General Stanley McChrystal. The new leader’s first order was reinforcements. He then took the war south to Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, and the neighboring province of Helmand. It is in these two provinces where US success is being cited as the cornerstone of a possible victory.
Despite the optimism, Washington remains unsure of what the future hides. Anthony Cordsman, of the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies, told The Economist that it is hard to “judge whether the glass is half empty or half full while it is still being poured.”
Meanwhile, an ABC News/Washington Post poll, on Friday, showed that “60 percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting.” This puts Obama in a precarious position. The US president has promised to start pulling out troops by mid 2011, which gives Petraeous around six months to finish his business and start packing. Petraeous will be further pressured to meet the deadline if the US public sees that America had not turned a corner. However, if the US military could show success, then maybe the withdrawal deadline can become flexible, just like a timetable was extended in Iraq without significant popular objection.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
US President Barack Obama in contemplative mood during a press conference at the White House.
While many analysts assign the huge midterm elections loss as the Democratic Party’s—and Obama’s—point of decline, many others believe that the president’s strength was in shackles long before. Looking increasingly weak, President Obama will need to make a drastic shift in policy in order to remain in the White House after 2012.
For a president whose popularity swept the United States and the world only two years ago, Barack Obama looks all but his former self. Gone are the days of Obamania, as the first African-American president struggles to rescue his political career. Obama is in distress, and his bid for reelection in 2012 is not guaranteed.
While many analysts assign the huge midterm elections loss as the Democratic Party’s—and Obama’s—point of decline, many others believe that the president’s strength was in shackles long before. In January, Scott Brown was elected senator, to become the first Republican from Democratic Massachusetts to serve in Congress since 1997. The Brown election foretold trouble for Obama, whose party was routed in November.
Reasons for Obama’s defeat might be found in the disappointment of America’s leftists, his most ardent supporters, and the displeasure of independent voters. The left believes that Obama has not lived up to his promises. He failed to swiftly close Guantanamo Prison. He conceded to a healthcare law that fell short of fulfilling what Obama had promised. And instead of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US troops will withdraw from the first by the end of 2011, and the second sometime around 2014.
The independents, for their part, are eager to see the US economy improve and are willing to vote out whoever is in office in order to hasten—as they believe—economic recovery. So far, the private sector has been adding jobs increasingly, but not enough to lower the unemployment rate that has been stubbornly stuck at around 10 percent.
Fearing further alienation, Obama perhaps believes that he should follow in the footsteps of former President Bill Clinton, who, after spending two years in the White House trying to implement a leftist agenda, saw his party defeated in midterm elections in 1994. This prompted him to move more to the center in politics, which ultimately prevented his defeat in the 1996 presidential elections.
Therefore, Obama invited his Republican rivals to further compromise and cut with them a tax deal that again alienated Obama’s base and Democratic supporters. Feeling his distress, Obama invited Clinton to a press conference at the White House. Clinton spoke, alone, for 25 minutes, casting an image of a weak Obama who needed to borrow some of the popularity of the legendary Clinton to save face. Obama today is politically shaken, projecting the same weak image that Clinton spoke of. The more weakened he looks, the less chances he has for reelection. For America’s incumbent president to survive, he will need a drastic shift, and no one is sure whether the inexperienced Obama or his team will be able to pull off such a feat, or whether he will merely succumb to pressure and surrender after only one term in office.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
The Huffington Post
There is nothing worse than a shallow columnist pontificating about what should and should not happen in a country he discovered only last week. Roger Cohen, of The New York Times, reported from Beirut to correct what he believes to be America's illusions: The Lebanese need no justice; they better remain under the current status quo, stable and prosperous.
To support his argument, Cohen interviewed -- out of all people -- a Lebanese politician whose mental stability is doubted by his own supporters: Walid Jumblatt the flip-flopper.
Five years ago, a majority of the Lebanese said enough is enough to thirty years of Syrian occupation of their country, and to the unchecked power of the Hezbollah militia.
For standing up for their rights, the Lebanese were slaughtered.
In February, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. In June, journalist Samir Kassir was killed. A few weeks later, the murderers got politician Goerge Hawi, and in December, they killed publisher Gebran Tueni.
Targeted killings continued against lawmakers, ministers and security officers opposed to Syrian influence and Hezbollah's thuggish behavior.
Jumblatt, described as "flip and shrewd" in Cohen's article, stood in one funeral after another, and delivered the most inspiring speeches.
"We're not alone in the world today," Jumblatt told hundreds of thousands rallying for justice. The Lebanese simply hope that justice would stem the cycle of blood revenge and move Lebanon from being a country of ravaging tribes to one where equal citizens live under the rule of law.
Jumblatt promised that the world would come to the rescue of the Lebanese, their sovereignty, their freedom, their independence and most important of all, their justice.
And the poor Lebanese, many of them believed Jumblatt and followed in his footsteps. They lived up to the challenge. Columnists wrote defiantly in newspapers against the Syrian autocrat and the hate mongers of Hezbollah. Politicians stood their grounds in support of an elected government. Security officials stayed the course in pursuing the investigation to unveil murderers. For doing so, all of these Lebanese were killed.
But whenever Jumblattm the pro-independence leadership, and the world, asked the Lebanese for more sacrifice, the Lebanese simply never stopped giving and sacrificing.
More than five years after Hariri and others were killed, a coward Jumblatt dropped his role as the instigator and caved.
In addition to Jumblatt, who led the Lebanese to hell and came back alone, all that Lebanon and the Lebanese needed was a journalist like Cohen with his superficial knowledge of Lebanon and the Middle East.
Cohen wrote: "Lebanese stability is precious and tenuous: It trumps justice delayed, flawed and foreign." Says who?
What are Cohen's stakes in Lebanon's justice, or stability? How many fellow journalists or friends has Cohen lost between 2005 and 2010? If Lebanon goes to civil war, or a tribunal brings murderers to justice, how would Cohen's life be affected either way?
As far as Roger Cohen is concerned, he printed an article in which he sounded, well, different. Smarter different? Not really.
Had Cohen talked to, say, Samir Kassir's widow, Giselle, who every morning passes by the spot-now-turned-shrine, in front of their house where Kassir was parked and bombed, Cohen would have probably heard words different from those of Jumblatt, the sleazy politician.
Perhaps, being the realist that he wants to be, Cohen is saying that the Lebanese should take all factors into consideration. Hezbollah, legally armed or not, is strong and cannot be disarmed. Therefore, justice should be scrapped in Lebanon.
In other words, Cohen was arguing for the rule of force. In Lebanon, might is right, and whoever read Cohen's article, should go buy arms and fend for themselves in a country where the law of the jungle prevails.
Too bad the chances for printing a rebuttal to Cohen's article in The New York Times are close to nil, and thank goodness for The Huffington Post for giving a Lebanese like me the chance to respond.
To Roger Cohen, people read, and they respond. This is one response from one angry Lebanese who has invested a lot in justice as the basis of a new and better Lebanon. No matter the price, the era of impunity in Lebanon should come to an end, whether Cohen and Jumblatt like it or not.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Left to right: Khairallah, Rifka, Abboud and Mustafa.
The Lebano-Syrian network in Lebanon might not yet be back in full swing, but in Washington those loyal to Damascus appear to be back in business. A group of them requested a meeting this week with senior officials at the White House in the hopes of warning the United States of post-indictment violence should it continue to support the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Such a meeting could constitute the beginnings of a comeback after years of being on the outside when it comes to Lebanon policy in Washington.
James Zogby, the long-sitting president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), requested and hoped to chair the briefing. A Catholic of Lebanese descent and a “political organizer,” he has made a lucrative business out of his organization skills. But to accommodate the biggest number of patrons, Zogby has had to wear different hats.
Even though he does not speak Arabic, Zogby most days poses as an Arab-American. When the Quran-burning frenzy hit America and the world, he stood alongside religious leaders who gathered at the National Press Club to denounce the act.
Only when need be, Zogby signs off as Lebanese-American. He did so once to endorse Barack Obama’s presidential bid, knowing that the Lebanese-American community – rather than the Arab-American one – had a decisive role in the swing state of New Hampshire.
During the days of Syrian occupation of Lebanon, a network of Lebanese profiteers and aspiring politicians was formed in Lebanon and the United States. It included the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL), Lebanese members of the American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Lebanese Embassy and a handful of Lebanese-Americans. The network received commands from Beirut as well as from the Syrian Embassy in Washington.
One of the network’s main purposes was to market the Syrian regime as an “indispensible player” in the region as well as vindicate the Syrian occupation of Lebanon as temporary and sanctioned by an elected Lebanese government. Trips of congressional delegations, sponsored by Lebanese-Americans, always made their first stop in Damascus before showing up in Beirut. For more than a decade, these Lebanese-Americans – and Lebanon’s diplomatic corps – worked as an addendum to the Syrian mission in Washington.
Ambassador Fareed Abboud – the protégé of former President Emile Lahoud – was the last Lebanese diplomat to serve Damascus. In September 2004, Lebanon’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Sami Kronfol, was suffering from a chronic illness. Abboud went to New York to lobby world powers, especially the French, against UN Security Council Resolution 1559.
After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005, the administration recalled its Ambassador to Syria Margret Scoby and cut contacts with Abboud, who nevertheless kept visiting New York to convince the Security Council against a series of resolutions that endorsed an international investigation into the Hariri crime.
According to the blog of Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustafa, his three best friends are Abboud, chairperson of ADC Safa Rifka and Daoud Khairallah, professor of International Law who has written several articles bashing the STL. Rifka and Khairallah are both reportedly attending or involved in organizing James Zoghby’s requested briefing.
One of Abboud’s closest friends is Fadi Agha, who once identified himself as Lahoud’s advisor on foreign policy. Agha blogs on Friday Lunch Club, where authors try to conceal their identity. He is also connected to the Beirut branch of the Lebano-Syrian network, headed by former Information Minister Michel Smaha, in partnership with Bouthaina Shaaban, advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since Smaha was banned from traveling to the US in 2007, and has since delegated two disciples who frequent Washington in his stead. One of them is former Lebanese ambassador to the US, Abdullah Bou-Habib, who heads the Issam Fares Center in Beirut. Fares, through his son Nejad – who sits on the ATFL board – has been a generous funder of this network.
Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution forced the network to take a break. Abboud and Mustafa were isolated in Washington. ATFL feared the backlash of Lebanese-Americans and stopped sponsoring Congressional delegations’ trips to Syria. Smaha was banned from entering the US, and Agha restricted his activity to blogging. In fact, it was his blog that mistakenly leaked news of the requested White House briefing, tipping off other Lebanon watchers and complicating Zoghby’s plans.
But 2010 witnessed a Lebano-Syrian comeback. Mustafa was invited and attended the ATFL annual gala for the first time since 2005. Zogby s apparently working to further the network’s activity. Its requested briefing with senior administration officials, to bash the tribunal, is as of now scheduled for Friday.
The administration appears to have been caught off guard, not understanding at first the ulterior motives. In the coming days it has a chance to correct its course. One thing is certain though. The Lebano-Syrian lobbying network in Washington is reviving itself. Effort to undermine the STL looks like the tip of the iceberg.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington correspondent of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai
Friday, December 10, 2010
A supporter of Julian Assange holds a placard outside as another wears a mask outside Westminster Magistrates Court on 7 December 2010 in London, England. Wikileaks wesite founder Julian Assange appeared in court, before a district judge, to fight an extradition after being accused by the Swedish authorities of one count of rape. Mr. Assange was remanded in custody pending a hearing next week.
On 13 June 1971, Alexander Haig, then assistant to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, called President Richard Nixon for the daily brief. Nixon’s initial questions were about the Vietnam casualty figures for the week. Only after the president asked, “Nothing else of interest in the world today?” did “Al” remark on the “Goddamn New York Times expose… devastating uh security breach… greatest magnitude of anything I’ve ever seen.” That day, The New York Times had begun publishing the Pentagon Papers, a documentary history tracing the ultimately doomed involvement of the United States in a grinding war in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam.
The initial Nixon reaction to Al Haig’s words was casual. Nixon even remarked that he had not read the story. It was not until Kissinger personally called Nixon from California that the president got heated up about the Pentagon Papers. Declassified White House tapes show the two men cranked up each other’s righteous indignation. Kissinger was the first to suggest, “it’s actionable, I’m absolutely certain that this violates all sorts of security laws,” and goes on to volunteer to call Attorney General Mitchell on what the prosecution options are. Nixon replied: “People have gotta be put to the torch for this sort of thing …(.)”
The Nixon administration employed a dual track. On the one hand, it censored The New York Times until the Supreme Court overruled the government on 30 June. On the other hand, Nixon formed his infamous team of “plumbers” that went on to investigate the leak, in effect committing a few break-ins, one of which took place at the Watergate building in Washington. The Watergate scandal eventually spelled the end of Nixon’s career. He was the first and only US president to resign (on 8 August 1974).
For America and the world, the 1971 Pentagon Papers announced the advent of the age of governmental transparency. An unfortunate Nixon misread the situation. Instead of surrendering to the leaks, he tried to kill them, and eventually lost.
Almost four decades later, Australian-born Julien Assange appointed himself as the new guardian of America’s transparency. On his website, WikiLeaks, he began the greatest leak in the history of governments as he slowly unveiled more than a quarter of a million US Department of State classified diplomatic cables that include all sorts of useful—and useless—details, from describing Russian President Vladimir Putin as an “alpha dog,” to reporting on Libyan leader Muammar Qadhaffi’s escort nurse. The documents cover everything from meetings to weddings and personal impressions.
The diplomatic gossip gave the press something to feast on, and America a red blushing face. World leaders were quoted speaking frankly. They had dropped their guard, knowing they were in an off-the-record environment. The leaks, therefore, made world leaders skeptical. If every undiplomatic thought they utter in front of American diplomats finds its way to the front page of world newspapers, then these leaders will stop speaking freely when around US officials. From the world’s perspective, America had better get its house in order and stop these leaks, or officials around the globe will start saying in their private meetings with their American counterparts what they tell the media in public.
WikiLeaks promises to release a total of 251,287 cables, comprising more than 261 million words. The cables cover close to half a century of American diplomacy, from 28 December 1966 to 28 February 2010. They originate from 274 American embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions.
Since 29 November the site has been unveiling cables at an average of 60 per day. At the current rate, it will take WikiLeaks 15 years to publish all of them. Whatever scandals these documents promise to uncover, the media hype and public interest in the content of the documents will probably recede in a few weeks. But before attention fades away, the world has been divided between those who support Assange’s efforts to force governmental transparency, and those who feel that his actions are an invasion of government privacy.
In a message on his website, Assange wrote that the goal behind uncovering the cables was to show the “extent of US spying on its allies and the UN; turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in client states; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; lobbying for US corporations; and the measures US diplomats take to advance those who have access to them.”
This, according to WikiLeaks, is a “contradiction between the [US] public persona and what [the US] says behind closed doors—and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scenes.” Not all Americans agree with Assange’s goal.
Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the 1971 Pentagon Papers, told The Majalla that while “Assange insists he did this for transparency's sake... when he got to look inside, he didn't see what was plain: that our diplomats were doing a good job.”
Gelb—a former New York Times columnist and author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy—argued that Assange’s concept of government transparency was blurred. “If a US administration is lying, or distorting the facts, or telling one story to the public and another to itself, then by all means, let's have it out in public,” said Gelb. “If the US government is concocting intelligence in order to justify wars, let's hope an enterprising reporter finds it out for the rest of us,” he added.
Gelb, also president emeritus of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, said: “Indeed, when you turn off his nonsense and stop listening to the strange commentary on cable news and even on the front pages of great newspapers, when you actually read the cables, here's what you see: American leaders and American diplomats trying to solve crucial world problems.”
Other American voices downplayed the importance of the WikiLeaks cables. In an editorial, The Washington Post described the documents as “harmless,” and rather “helpful,” even though “foreign leaders everywhere may consider carefully, at least for a while, before speaking frankly to US diplomats.” The American daily called on the administration to employ new restrictions on access to classified government files.
From an American perspective, the WikiLeaks documents caused minor damage and taught Washington a lesson: End easy access to government files.
From an Arab perspective, WikiLeaks confirmed earlier accounts from anonymous sources, and showed that—in Arab capitals—what is discussed behind closed doors differs little from what is printed in newspapers. This means that with some Arab rulers, what you see is what you get.
In the past, a number of pundits wondered whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was as brutal as his actions suggested, or was merely encircled by advisors who shut him away from reality. The televised sessions of Saddam’s trials, in addition to later written accounts—such as from his FBI interrogator George Pirro or his lawyer Khalil Dulaimi—showed that the late Iraqi leader had been living in a world of illusion. Obsessed with his personal security and hygiene, Saddam lived in a world of conspiracies where mass brutality was simply in the interest of Iraqis and the Arabs. During his days as Iraq’s leader, everyone suspected that Saddam was mentally unstable. Piro and Dulaimi’s inside information came only to verify Saddam’s instability.
Similarly, the WikiLeaks documents prove the paranoia of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. American diplomats report on Qadhafi’s fear of traveling over water or living on a first floor, his threat to go back on surrendering his nuclear program should he be banned from erecting a tent in New York City. The WikiLeaks documents on Qadhafi verify what the public has always suspected, that Libya’s leader has a problem of uncontrollable erratic behavior.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presents his cabinet for a vote of confidence on December 25, it would have taken Iraqis nine months to form a government. Maliki will then focus on a US withdrawal, due by the end of 2011, leaving the sovereign cabinet with two years to govern, before elections, and probably another agonizing exercise of cabinet formation. Amid Iraq’s paralysis, only Iran stands to gain. And Like in Lebanon and Gaza, it is planting the seeds for long-term domination by grooming the Sadrists and being patient.
While many might argue that Iran’s major victory came in the shape of Maliki’s second term, the truth is that Tehran won because it decided that it was not in a hurry to dominate Iraq. That it will come in time.
Maliki has been everything but an Iranian stooge. Benefiting from state resources and America’s trust, he has been regionally independent. When Tehran invited him to join an all-Shia ticket under its auspices, Maliki turned down the offer and formed his own.
Saudi Arabia on the other hand never believed Maliki was a master of his own fate, and treated him as an enemy: Enter Ayad Allawi, whom with Saudi support, could become Maliki’s rival.
Not only did Riyadh believe that Maliki was weak, it miscalculated that Syria would be able to influence events in Iraq and knock the incumbent prime minister in favor of its man.
The Saudis were wrong on both counts. Maliki proved strong, defeating Iran’s allies in most Shia districts, winning the highest number of individual votes, and garnering 89 out of the 325 seats in parliament. Yet, Maliki’s success could not bring him a second term. He was 24 parliamentary seats away from forming a majority coalition. Allawi too stood 22 MPs away from majority.
Even after his electoral showdown with Iran’s allies, Saudi Arabia never trusted Maliki, and insisted that Allawi gets the call to form the cabinet. Maliki was not letting go either. The two arrived at a deadlock that neither could resolve.
But in Tehran, someone was taking note of Maliki’s power. Tehran correctly calculated that confronting Maliki was a losing battle. Therefore, Iran decided to befriend him. It instructed its ally, Moqtada Sadr, to lend Maliki his 40 MPs and enter the cabinet as a junior partner.
For their part, the Kurds preferred Maliki over Sunni-supported Allawi. After all, the Kurds are still locked in a war over oil and demographics with the Sunnis in Kirkuk and Mosul.
With the Sadrists and the Kurds, Maliki was ready to press the button and form a cabinet. But this time the United States held him back.
America realized that a thin coalition led by Maliki and based on Kurdish and Sadrist support would give Iran leverage. Despite their small bloc, the Sadrists could threaten a cabinet collapse at any moment.
Washington rightly calculated that if Allawi enters the coalition, Sadr’s power would be diluted. Over the span of few months, the United States tried hard to convince Allawi – and his Saudi patrons – to join a national-unity cabinet under Maliki.
Allawi repeatedly refused to join a government over which he did not preside, while Riyadh also seemed unwilling to budge. This forced America to shake up its assets inside Allawi’s bloc. Allawi caved, in return for a promise that a council, with executive powers, would be formed and Maliki was named for a second term on November 25. According to the constitution, Maliki has 30 days to form his cabinet. Allawi’s bloc will be represented, with or without Allawi.
In the 2010 elections, Maliki clearly won, first by defeating Iran’s allies, and secondly by outmaneuvering Allawi, thanks to a lending hand from Iran.
But Maliki’s power has peaked. His political movement has no structure. He has no successors. Whenever he loses elections, he will be out, and America will have to look for an independent replacement.
Iran has lost a battle, but not the war. By entering the Maliki cabinet, Tehran has planted the seed for a Sadrist movement that promises to prosper in the future. Like in Lebanon, it took decades before Hezbollah could control the country.
During the March elections, the Sadrist movement showed signs of organization superior to other Iraqi groups. Sadr is currently residing in Qom, probably to burnish his religious credentials. By the time he is done, Iraq will be ready to receive him as a leader with the legitimacy to lead the country.
Like in Lebanon and the rest of the region, Iran is in no hurry to spread its influence. If a couple of decades is what it takes for Iran to dominate Baghdad, then so be it.
Americans are going home soon. Iran, however, is not going anywhere. Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, it misread the situation and bet on the wrong horse in Damascus.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington correspondent of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai