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Monday, May 19, 2003

Orgy of killing as Congo teeters on brink of genocide

Wielding machetes and rocket-launchers, hordes of tribal warriors and drug-crazed children marauded through the Congolese town of Bunia yesterday, unleashing an orgy of killing and forcing tens of thousands of terrified refugees across the Ugandan border.

United Nations officials warned the Security Council that the crisis was potentially a genocide in the making, drawing parallels with Rwanda, where between 500,000 and one million people, mainly Tutsis, were killed by Hutus in 1994.

"Bunia is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said.

There were no details about casualties, although two UN soldiers were said to be wounded. With only 600 troops in Bunia, a town of about 350,000 in the east of the war-ravaged country, the UN has been unable to control the rapidly deteriorating situation.

"We can't do anything," a peacekeeper said by telephone from the UN compound. "We do not have enough manpower. We do not have a mandate. We have sent repeated warnings that this was going to happen. We have asked for reinforcements. Every request was ignored."

South African President Thabo Mbeki is expected to ask Mr Annan this week to extend the peacekeepers' mandate to allow them to return fire if civilians come under attack.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Reverse Course: Bush Didn't Squander the World's Sympathy. He Spent It.

In short, the United States has been on the wrong side of Arab history for almost five decades, and it is not doing much better than the Soviets. The old policy had no future, only a past. It was a dead policy walking. September 11 was merely the death certificate.

Bush is no sophisticate, but he has the great virtue— not shared by most sophisticates—of knowing a dead policy when he sees one. So he gathered up the world's goodwill and his own political capital, spent the whole bundle on dynamite, and blew the old policy to bits. However things come out in Iraq, the war's larger importance is to leave little choice, going forward, but to put America on the side of Arab reform.

Reform will take years, decades even, and it will mean different things in different countries. In Iraq, it meant force. In Syria, it means hostile prodding; in Saudi Arabia, friendly prodding. It means setting a subversive example for Iran, creating the region's second democracy in Palestine, building on change in Qatar and Kuwait, leading Egypt gently toward multiparty politics. Progress will be fitful, at best. But the direction will be right, for a change.

This is a breathtakingly bold undertaking. The difficulties are staggering. Everything might go wrong. But the crucial point to remember is that everything had already gone wrong. No available policy could justify optimism in the Arab world, but the new policy at least offers hope. It offers a path ahead, a future where there had been only a past. It is not dead. It puts America on the right side of history and on the right side of America.

Much of Europe is alarmed by the change, but then, it would be. American troops in Saudi Arabia guaranteed the flow of oil while turning the United States (along with Israel) into the scapegoat of choice for millions of angry Muslims, some of whom live in Europe. From Paris's or Amsterdam's or Bremen's point of view, what's not to like about that deal? Why must Washington go and stir everything up?

Weblogs in Iran

In neighboring Iran, weblogs have flourished among the young. In fact, they have had such a strong impact on Iranian society that, unfortunately, the ruling mullahs have taken notice.

On April 20 Iranian authorities arrested a weblogger, Sina Motallebi. His sin, according to the BBC, was using his weblog to defend a journalist and former colleague who published a cartoon that offended the regime. Motallebi’s weblog is now blank. After three weeks, he was released on bail, but the mullahs' message is clear: They will crack down on the Internet and on webloggers. But webloggers now have a court of appeal online.

Fellow Iranian webloggers in and out of the country rallied to Motallebi’s defense and started a petition campaign to free him (at As I read their weblogs – those in English – I discovered a vibrant online culture in Iran. An Iranian weblogger living in Toronto, Hossein Derakshan, is credited with starting the Persian weblog explosion almost single-handedly by simply posting instructions on his site at

In less than two years, more than 10,000 Persian weblogs have emerged (some using pseudonyms and many using the free American service Derakshan says these weblogs serve many purposes: Political bloggers express opinions that have no outlet. Witnesses have reported on student demonstrations. Another weblogger says that women used weblogs to start an online organization to track women’s rights violations. But they are not all political. Young people use weblogs to find dates. Some write poetry. Arrested weblogger Motallebi’s wife writes a weblog about raising their infant son.

Too Much Dust to Go Under the Carpet

Who are we trying to fool? Ourselves or the international community? Neither can be fooled.

It’s about time we got our act together. The time of pretending that radicalism does not exist in Saudi Arabia is long past. The time for pretending that we are above errors and could not possibly commit terrorist attacks is no longer with us. It has got to stop. Change must come now. We as a nation cannot afford to leave it to its own slow pace. It’s either now or never. It also must cover all aspects of our life — the school, the mosque, the home, the street, the media.

How can we tell the rest of the world that we are tolerant of other religions and faiths when some of us are not even tolerant of other schools of Islamic thought?

How can we expect others to believe that a majority of us are a peace-loving people who denounce extremism and terrorism when some preachers continue to call for the destruction of Jews and Christians, blaming them for all the misery in the Islamic world?

. . .

We needed to hear three questions that are never asked. Like dust, they are swept under the carpet: Why are more and more Saudi young men being fed with radical ideas? Who are the people brainwashing them? How are they being radicalized?

And so it happens that so much dust is swept underneath the carpet that it finally bursts out in full view of everybody. At last, the truth that was hidden has come out.

The Postwar Arab Blues: How the Mideast's cultural politics have fallen into disarray

Earlier this month, an Arabic dance track called "Longing Brought You to Me" hit Number 1 for the sixth consecutive week on one of the region's leading music countdowns, the Beirut-based Top 20. The song is a slickly produced disco throwback, a kind of track that often does well in the region's music market. What makes its continued success noteworthy, however, is that the woman who performs it, a Kuwaiti singer named Nawal, had recently taken an interesting political risk.

Even as nearly every other popular Arab singer was still bewailing U.S. "aggression"—the inevitable term—against the Iraqi people, Nawal had publicly congratulated Iraqis on getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime. She was able to break with the Pan-Arabist line on the war —that the whole Arab world had been under attack by Western imperialism— which had totally subsumed the region's pop culture, while not paying any price in popularity.

Does that have any meaning? Thanks to the manner in which the Iraq war ended, the Pan-Arabist paradigm is in apparent disarray at the top of the cultural ladder among journalists, essayists, and political reformers who are offering alternative narratives. If the same thing is true at the cultural bottom as well, it might actually matter more.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

A tale of two nations

Who has not been impressed by the American military personnel we have been seeing over these past two months? Calm, terse, determined, brave, confident--above all, competent, able to vanquish the enemy and spare the innocent with astonishingly low casualties. And yet a few years ago most of these young men and women were typical American 18-year-olds, most of whom don't seem competent at much of anything.

One of the peculiar features of our country is that we produce incompetent 18-year-olds and remarkably competent 30-year-olds. Americans at 18 typically score lower on standardized tests than 18-year-olds from other advanced countries. Watch them on their first few days working at McDonald's or behind the counter in chain drugstores, and it's obvious that they don't really know how to make change or keep the line moving. But by the time Americans are 30, they are the most competent people in the world. They produce a stronger and more vibrant private-sector economy; they produce scientific and technical advances that lead the world; they provide the world's best medical care; they create the strongest and most agile military the world has ever seen. And it's not just a few meritocrats at the top: American talent runs wide and deep.

Why? Because from the age of 6 to 18, our kids live mostly in what I call Soft America--the part of our society where there is little competition and accountability. In contrast, most Americans in the 12 years between ages 18 and 30 live mostly in Hard America--the part of American life subject to competition and accountability; the military trains under live fire. Soft America seeks to instill self-esteem. Hard America plays for keeps.

Saturday, May 10, 2003

Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT): Answering All Questions Incorrectly

It is my opinion that the questions, in general, involve subjective factors and implicit assumptions that often make them impossible to answer in a rational manner.

It is possible that people with the same subjective influences and implicit assumptions do well in college, because college faculty belong to the same dominant species of irrationality. So, the value of the verbal section of the SAT as a predictor of performance in college might be quite high. However, the side-effect of optimizing a test to better predict success in college is that truly objective minds might be punished for not keeping up with the latest delusions.

Friday, May 9, 2003

Do Unto Others: The vices of Bill Bennett.

Bennett is more than a moralist; he is a prohibitionist. And he is more than a prohibition advocate, he was the drug-czar almighty. For years he defended the current policy of ruining the lives of drug users — regardless of whether their actions were harming others. Many of us still recall his condescending reply to Milton Friedman's open letter to him in the pages of the Wall Street Journal where he chided the Nobel Prize winner to be serious. From editorial page to podium, Bennett loudly and righteously defended the policy of wrecking havoc on his fellow citizens who indulged in different vices than he did — whether or not their vices happened to interfere with their abilities to perform their jobs or be good parents. It did not matter whether or not they had "spent the milk money." All that mattered was whether they were caught by the cops. Then off to the clink with them.

Kurtz says that Bennett is entitled to run a different cost-benefit calculation for gambling than for drugs. Then why has he now said he is setting a bad example to others and quitting? Either he has just changed his cost-benefit analysis this week, or he was a hypocrite last week. Kurtz and Bennett cannot have it both ways. Frankly, I do not care much for charges of hypocrisy which seem to be easy attempts to hoist one's opponents by their own petard without taking a stand oneself. Bennett's problem is not so much hypocrisy, as it is refusing to do unto others as he would do unto itself. His own personal vicious behavior — and vicious he has now admitted it to be — undercuts his claim to righteously persecute by law the vices of others. And do not forget that gambling is quite illegal in many places.


In the current situation, the main threat to the US comes from movements and regimes that are both right-wing and illiberal. That ought to be a political gift to the Democrats. The phrase "Taliban wing of the Republican party," which had a brief vogue as a description of Pat Robertson and his buddies, was grossly unfair, but it reflected quite genuine commonalities between American and Islamic fundamentalists who were lovers of hierarchy and traditional values and opponents of social democracy and of more equal social, political, and economic roles for women. (I recall Jesse Helms expressing admiration for the Saudi law prescribing stoning for adulterous wives.)

So on what theory is criticizing the subservience of the House of Bush to the House of Saud "attacking Bush from the right"? Unless it has become the "left" position that American power per se is excessive and should be reduced, this is a moment when the left ought, both because it's good politics and because it's consistent with both leftist and liberal values, to be demanding that the US get tough on the Saudi monarchy, which combines reactionary theocratic tyranny at home with support for terrorism abroad.

We should also be demanding enormous increases in expenditure for true homeland defense, and in particular a rebuilding of our hollowed-out public health infrastructure. Cracking down on the offshore banking centers that serve the interests of tax evaders, organized criminals, and terrorists alike is another obviously progressive idea, and the fact that the pro-tax evasion folks at Heritage talked Bush into backing off from offshore banking enforcement early in the administration ought to be a Democratic campaign theme for 2004. And if we're at war, then what is the President doing cutting taxes? Doesn't he know that armies cost money?

There's plenty of room for progressives to criticize Bushite unilaterialism and cowboyism. But that's not the same as opposing vigorous action against those who hate this country and what it represents, and who hate us precisely because of the elements of our society that are most progressive.

If freeing the Haitians from the tyranny of the Tontons Macoutes, or the East Timorese from the tyranny of the Indonesian army, were progressive things to do, why isn't freeing the black Sudanese from the tyranny (amounting in some cases to actual slaveholding) of the Arab Sudanese an equally progressive goal? The overthrow of the Shah seemed like a good idea at the time, to those of us on the left who didn't know enough to guess what would replace him. Why shouldn't the overthrow of the Iranian theocrats and of the Saudi royal family be desired, on the left -- precisely on the left -- with equal fervency?

Saturday, May 3, 2003

Shia clergy push for Islamist state

Preaching to tens of thousands worshippers at the Qadhimaya mosque in northern Baghdad, Sheikh Mohammed al-Tabatabi said: "The west calls for freedom and liberty. Islam is not calling for this. Islam rejects such liberty. True liberty is obedience to God and to be liberated from desires. The dangers we should anticipate in coming days is the danger to our religion from the west trying to spread pornographic magazines and channels."

Under Saddam, Iraq was a secular society. Women had equal rights with men and freedom to dress in western clothes. It was more lax than many of its neighbours about alcohol. But Sheikh Tabatabi said: "We will not allow shops to sell alcohol and we ask for the closure of all such places and we ask you to use every available means to bring this about."

He added that women should not be allowed to wander unveiled around Qadhimaya City.

The Shiite Shockwave

Many people wrongly imagine that Iran is the center of Shiism. The mistake is only encouraged by chauvinistic Iranians, who tend to view Tehran as the intellectual and cultural capital of the Middle East. But Iran became a bastion of Shiism only as a refuge from the merciless persecution of Iraq’s Shiite majority under the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. No shrine in Iran can equal the sanctity of Najaf and Karbala, and to this day Najaf remains the capital of Shiite learning—the bulwark of scholarship that defines and interprets Islamic law. Najaf is the place where Ruhollah Khomeini became an ayatollah. It’s the Shiite answer to Yale or Harvard, while Iran’s vaunted holy city of Qom is not in the same league—and Iranians know it. Even before Saddam was toppled, Tehran’s theocracy was facing unprecedented criticism from within; now it’s facing a crisis from without.

Iranian blogger in prison

In other important developments, Iranian judiciary spokesperson (who is a radical Islamist and has just appointed to his new job) has said that there is no journalist in Iranian prisions! He said that a few people who call themselves journalists, are not arrested because of their writings.

This is their newest tactic. They arrest journalists and activists and throw them in jail, because of possesing alcoholic drinks, or "illegal" video or music tapes, etc. So this way they don'r pay any political price for these actions and make the charges more reasonable for the outside world. They have done the same thing for Alireza Jabbari, a writer and translator recently.

So I think they would announce that Sina's charges are not political at all and he is not there because he is a journalist. beware of their new tricks.

BBC News has finally spoken out about his arrest and wide-spread protests against it in English and Persian language blogopsheres. the first piece, "Bloggers unite to fight", is about how Iranians are using Internet to protest. other piece is "Gagging the bloggers" by Bill Thompson, a regular columnist for the BBC, who looks at the political impacts of weblogs.

Cease-fiire with the MKO

U.S. troops occupying Iraq recently signed a cease-fire agreement with the exiled Iranian organization People’s Mojahedin (MKO). The agreement reportedly allows MKO to maintain their bases inside Iraq and keep their artillery and other weapons to continue their campaign against the Iranian government. MKO is on U.S. department’s list of terrorist organizations. EU also classifies the group as “terrorist”.

This is not a commentary to argue for or against that position or MKO’s legitimacy, ideology or integrity. I have addressed those points extensively in the past and will continue to do so in it’s proper place in the future.

However, what this IS about is the legitimacy and credibility of those in charge of the world’s only superpower. If you believe and have classified this or any other organization as a “terrorist organization” and are deeply involved in what you have labeled the “war on terror”, what message does allowing MKO to operate under your control send to the rest of the world? To me the message is clear; there’s an obvious double-standard. Terror as an act is not condemned or is fought against. Terror and terrorists are evil only if they are aimed at us and our citizens. As long as there are terrorist acts around the world but they are fighting one another or better yet our foes, it is perfectly fine.

In my opinion, the U.S, government can not continue this campaign of two-facedness. They should either remove MKO from their list of terrorist organizations and acknowledge them as a proper resistance movement battling to free their homeland or don’t allow terrorists to operate and carry out terror operations in their territory or territories currently under their control.

One can not have it both ways. That’s what hypocrisy is all about.

Bad Reporting in Baghdad

It's endlessly fascinating to watch the interactions between U.S. patrols and the residents of Baghdad. It's not just the love bombing the troops continue to receive from all classes of Baghdadi--though the intensity of the population's pro-American enthusiasm is astonishing, even to an early believer in the liberation of Iraq, and continues unabated despite delays in restoring power and water to the city. It's things like the reaction of the locals to black troops. They seem to be amazed by their presence in the American army. One group of kids in a poor neighborhood shouted "Mike Tyson, Mike Tyson" at Staff Sergeant Darren Swain; the daughter of a diplomat on the other hand informed him, "One of my maids has the same skin as you."

But you won't see much of this on TV or read about it in the papers. To an amazing degree, the Baghdad-based press corps avoids writing about or filming the friendly dealings between U.S. forces here and the local population--most likely because to do so would require them to report the extravagant expressions of gratitude that accompany every such encounter. Instead you read story after story about the supposed fury of Baghdadis at the Americans for allowing the breakdown of law and order in their city.

Well, I've met hundreds of Iraqis as I accompanied army patrols all over the city during the past two weeks and I've never encountered any such fury (even in areas that were formerly controlled by the Marines, who as the premier warrior force were never expected to carry out peacekeeping or policing functions). There is understandable frustration about the continuing failure of the Americans to get the water supply and the electricity turned back on, though the ubiquity of generators indicates that the latter was always a problem. And there are appeals for more protection (difficult to provide with only 12,000 troops in a city of 6 million that has not been placed under strick martial law). But there is no fury.

Given that a large proportion of the city's poorest residents have taken part in looting the Baathist elite's ministries, homes, and institutions, that should tell you something about the sources preferred by the denizens of the Palestine Hotel (the preferred home of the press corps). Indeed it's striking that while many of the troops I've accompanied find themselves feeling some sympathy for the inhabitants of "Typhoid Alley" and other destitute neighborhoods and their attempts to obtain fans, furniture, TVs, etc., the press corps often seems solidly on the side of those who grew fat under the Saddam regime. (That said, imagine the press hysteria that would have greeted a decision by U.S. troops to use deadly force against the looters and defend the property of the city's elite.) Even in the wealthiest neighborhoods--places like the Mansoor district, where you still see intact pictures of Saddam Hussein--people seem to be a lot more pro-American than you could ever imagine from reading the wires.

Thursday, May 1, 2003

The United Nations: Unfit to govern

Got that? Last month, the Russians were opposed to war on the grounds that there was no proof Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This month, the Russians are opposed to lifting sanctions on the grounds that there's no proof Iraq doesn't have weapons of mass destruction.

You don't have to be a genius to see that, since September 11th, we have entered a transitional phase in world affairs. But reasonable people are prone to reasonableness and, as I mentioned the other day, they're especially vulnerable to the seductive power of inertia in human affairs. The wish not to have to update one's Rolodex burns fiercely in the political breast. Brent Scowcroft, George Bush Sr.'s National Security Advisor, wanted to stick with the Soviet Union even after the Politburo had given up on it. The European Union was committed to the preservation of Yugoslavia even when there had ceased to be a Yugoslavia to preserve. In the Middle East, clinging to the status quo even as it's melting and dripping on to your shoes is one reason why the region is now a problem.

Now another Middle Eastern war has come and gone, and the bien-pensants are anxious that once again an obsolescent institution be glued back together and propped in position. This time it's the UN. The editors of Britain's Spectator concede it has more than its share of "irritating do-gooders," but surely even that's a euphemism: The do-gooders are, in fact, do-badders. The "oil-for-palaces" program (as Tommy Franks calls it) is a grotesque boondoggle even by UN standards: It was good for bureaucrats, good for Saddam's European bankers, good for his British stooge George Galloway, but bad for the Iraqi people. A humanitarian operation meant to help a dictator's beleagured subjects has instead enriched the UN by over $1-billion (officially) in "administrative" costs. There's no oversight, no auditing, nothing most businesses would recognize as a legitimate invoice, and, although non-essential items can only be approved by the Secretary-General himself, Kofi Annan (Mister Legitimacy) has personally signed off on practically anything Saddam requested, including "boats," from France.

But if you want to turn a long-shot into a surefire failure, there's no better way than handing post-war Iraq from the Americans to the UN -- the successors to the Belgian school of nation-building. At best, you'll end up with Cambodia, where the UN has colluded in the nullification of democracy, or the Balkans, where once-functioning jurisdictions are reduced to the level of geopolitical tenements with the UN as slum landlord in perpetuity. At worst, you'll wind up with the West Bank "refugee" "camps,"the most extreme reminder of how the UN has little interest in solving problems, only in establishing bureaucracies to manage them. Washington should ignore the French, dare the Russians to veto, let the Iraqis turn on the spigots, and pay no attention to "do-gooders."

  © 2000, 2001 Ryan Boren
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