It's springtime and a young man's fancy turns, yet again, toward thoughts of war with Iran.
But the normally reticent boss of the Israel Defense Forces has just poured cold water on this eventuality. Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Israeli newspaper Haaretz in an interview marking that nation's independence day that he doubts Iran is currently seeking a nuclear weapon or that they will eventually decide to pursue one.
To be sure, he insists that a theoretical nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran would be disastrous to Israel and its regional standing, and said he was preparing a credible military option, which he says is crucial for Israel's security.
But he appears to talk the threat of war down from the boiling point, contradicting the rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gantz, who has considerable sway over national policy, proposes that Iran's nuclear program, which the Islamic Republic insists is for peaceful purposes only, is designed to improve the nation's know-how and materials to the point where it could theoretically build a bomb, if it so chooses.
Iran "is going step-by-step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile," he said.
He suggests that won't happen soon, particularly since in his estimation Iran's program remains vulnerable to external attack."The program is too vulnerable, in Iran's view," he told Haaretz. "If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous."
To summarize: Gantz is very worried, the mere possession of an Iranian "break out" capacity is alarming to Israel, and a ruling elite could some day rise in Iran that wouldn't act as rationally as he judges the current leadership core to be. But with an Israeli attack certain to close all diplomatic roads, and with a lack of certainty that such a move would succeed, it appears it wouldn't be wise for Israel to attack any time soon.
Reading the tea leaves, Gantz does not seem as enthusiastic for war as Mr. Netanyahu. "His language is far from the dramatic rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and is usually free of the Holocaust comparisons of which Israeli politicians are so fond," writes Amos Harel, in his writeup of Gantz's comments.
His view of the Iranian regime as "rational" echoes comments by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey this March, in which he likewise described the Iran as a "rational actor," which drew howls of complaint from some American hawks. Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, for instance, said, "I can't imagine why [Dempsey] would say that," framing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "dictator who said he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth."
This statement is frequently attributed to Ahmadinejad in the West, but scholars say it stems from a mistranslation and exaggeration of the president's words.
Gantz also told Haaretz that Israel faces a new array of military threats, as a consequence of regional upheaval:
"I don't know what will happen in Syria, but presumably the Golan Heights won't be as quiet as before. I cannot remove Syria from the military equation, nor Lebanon. I assume that if there are terror threats from the Golan or Lebanon I'll have to take action. I cannot do everything by 'stand-off' [remote]. The enemy's fire capabilities have developed at every distance, four or five times what they were in the Second Lebanon War and four or five times compared to the Gaza Strip before Operation Cast Lead, not to mention the new ground-to-air missile in Syria."
I personally have long been skeptical that Israel will attack Iran unilaterally, mostly because it would be a risky operation at great distance, against an array of widely dispersed targets, that could possibly lead to missile barrages on the home front from the likes of Hezbollah. Others, many with far more military and regional expertise than I, have worried that an attack is more likely, particularly judging by the alarmist rhetoric of Netanyahu and some of those around him.
Gantz's comments are the latest indications that senior Israeli military officers, who wield great sway over national policy, are not as sanguine about war as Netanyahu is. Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli political analyst and author of "The Nuclear Sphynx of Tehran," a biography of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, writes on Twitter that the general's statement that he doubts Iran will seek the bomb "clearly contradicts and undermines" Netanyahu.
Still, some predictors of war soldier on. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in late 2010 that there was a 50 percent chance that Israel would attack Iran by July of 2011. This March, Mr. Goldberg allowed that perhaps all the tough talk from Israel (tough talk he's transmitted as fact, relying on unidentified sources) was a form of posturing by Netanyahu's government. Then a few weeks he ago, he upped the DEFCON level again, suggesting June 2012 is a "possible" time when Israel will unilaterally attack Iran.
Not, it seems, if Benny Gantz has any say in the matter.
This article was edited after first posting to correct the spelling of Gen. Gantz' name.
Instead of a global event highlighting its qualities as rapidly advancing economy, Bahrain received a storm of attention over its use of tear-gas, birdshot, and torture against democracy protesters.
The Sunni monarchy, with a Shiite-majority population, ended the weekend with a fresh black eye. Sure, the event went on, but only after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, the daughter of human rights activist Abdel Hadi al-Khawaja was arrested as she protested against her father's indefinite detention, and motor-sport journalists were forced to to tackle politics and oppression, rather than tactics and technology, in their columns. (Ahead of the race, F1 correspondent Kevin Eason of The Times wrote, "whatever happens in Bahrain this weekend, F1 has underlined its unenviable image as amoral and greedy.)
Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy, had this take on events:
"This week's Formula One-driven media scrutiny has ripped away Bahrain's carefully constructed external facade. It has exposed the failure of Bahrain's regime to take advantage of the breathing space it bought through last year's crackdown or the lifeline thrown to it by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. That failure to engage in serious reform will likely further radicalize its opponents and undermine hopes for its future political stability."
Bahrain has plenty of international supporters. Saudi Arabia dispatched troops to Manama to help in the crackdown against protesters last year. And Bahrain is crucial to the United States's regional-security strategy, playing home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet (a key component in any future military showdown with Iran), which is no doubt a big reason why the Obama administration has treated with kid gloves the country's recent human rights record.
But Bahrain faces an increasingly sectarian opposition at home. So what's the embattled monarchy to do? Apparently, appoint Samira Rajab as its new minister of information to help improve its global image. She has long been opposed to the US agenda in the Middle East and has a track record of stirring up sectarian tensions.
"The Bahrainis spend an enormous amount of energy and money to control their image ... but they're clearly losing the narrative war," says Toby Craig Jones, a Rutgers historian who studies the Gulf. "They're not winning the message and then they do stuff like this. It's very strange."
How strange? The public-image manager for a key US ally is a fan of Saddam Hussein, who was deposed by US troops and executed by the Iraqi government in 2006, and has frequently attacked the US role in the region.
How much of a fan? Ms. Rajab wrote after Hussein's execution that he was a "martyr" and a "freedom fighter" who had defied "Anglo-American arrogance." She characterized the US war in Iraq as the work of "crusaders" and praised Hussein's past efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon.
In May 2007, then US Ambassador to Bahrain William Monroe, wrote in a confidential cable released by Wikileaks that Rajab was the "driving force" behind a three-day conference in the Bahraini capital that had ended up focusing on the grievances of Sunni Arab and Baathist Iraqis.
What was meant to be a pan-Arab nationalist conference ended up focusing on figures then resisting the rise of the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, and the sectarian overtones of the talk created a minor local controversy.
Among the speakers at the conference was Harith al-Dari, a Sunni Iraqi preacher who called for greater coordination between that country's then raging insurgency and Al Qaeda. A film was played that portrayed Iraqi Sunnis as the principal victims of violence in the country (the raging sectarian civil war at the time in fact claimed tens of thousands of both Sunni and Shiite lives).
"These incidents led to a great deal of criticism, including inside the conference itself, and local columnists condemned those using the event to incite sectarianism," the ambassador wrote. "Conference participants told the [deputy chief of the US mission] that Shura [Consultative] Council member and pro-Saddam Baathist columnist Samira Rajab was the driving force behind the event, saying she had put together the list of attendees opposed to the new Iraq - 'mostly rejectionists and pro-Baathists, not Arab nationalists.' Local activists complained about the extremism voiced at the conference and attempts to 'widen our differences.'"
Ambassador Monroe wrote that he raised concerns about "Rajab's role in pushing a sectarian agenda" at the conference with Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, a member of the royal family. "Shaikh Khalid said the event was a 'gathering of relics' and he would not meet with any of the delegates. They should not have allowed a sectarian film to be shown. He noted that the conference opened on Saddam Hussein's birthday, April 28, which he did not think was a coincidence."
Mr. Monroe concluded that "through her speech and decisions about delegates, speakers, and activities, [Rajab] was able to spread her virulent views in favor of the armed insurgency and against the United States, Iraqi government, and those supporting it."
In an interview in 2010, she said the 9/11 attacks on the US were a "fabricated operation" designed to advance political interests inside the US to "create a new ghost to replace the ghost of communism." And in 2005, she attacked Iraq's Shiite Grand Ayatollah Sistani, that country's most revered religious figure, as an American stooge. That column infuriated Bahrain's Shiite community, which complained she was feeding sectarian conflict. Sistani, who wields enormous influence in Iraq, largely stayed aloof of the US occupation.
Rajab, a former journalist and member of Bahrain's consultative council, is a reminder of the strange-bedfellows being made by increasingly fractured regional politics, with countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia calling for the fall of Bashar al-Assad in Syrian (an Iranian ally, after all) while jealously protecting their own positions at home, with the acquiescence of the US.
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Though Egyptian officials and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insist the decision wasn't political, it's hard to see annulling the largest ever contract between the two countries as anything but.
What comes next?
Egypt Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Aboul Naga suggested yesterday that her cash-strapped government has adopted what amounts to a negotiating position. If Israel and the private Egyptian and Israeli investors who served as the middlemen in the original agreement agree to pay more, the gas might flow again, she said.
But the Israeli Finance Ministry has it about right: Egypt's decision could set “a dangerous precedent that casts clouds over ... the atmosphere of peace between Egypt and Israel," the ministry said in a statement.
Egypt in many ways now seems rudderless. It has a government nominally run by a military junta, a frustrated Muslim Brotherhood that has won parliamentary elections but so far been unable to exercise any real power, and a Mubarak-era bureaucracy that is trundling along and largely left to its own devices. But one clear, consistent trend is evident across the country's many competing power centers: Xenophobia is in, the old ways of doing business with Israel and the US are on the way out.
Gas sales to Israel are just an indicator, albeit a serious one, raising questions regarding how long the peace treaty reached between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin in 1979 can hold. The Egyptian population never took to the treaty, and views Israel as a regional menace. While the country is a long way from being a functional democracy, public attitudes will influence Egyptian affairs far more than they have for decades.
The former president's Carter Center was one of eight foreign civil society organizations that the Egyptian government announced yesterday were barred from working in Egypt because they're deemed a threat to Egypt's sovereignty. The Carter Center specializes in election monitoring, and has monitored Egyptian elections in the past.
Among the other targets was Seeds of Peace, a group that sponsors Arab and Israeli youths to attend a summer camp in Maine every year, and a Coptic Christian organization that focuses on helping Egyptian orphans. The Egyptian government said yesterday the group's applications for licenses to operate in Egypt were rejected, though an official at one of the barred groups says that the last time his organization sought approval to run programs in Egypt was nearly a decade ago.
That Egyptian move came on the same day that Interpol refused an Egyptian government request to issue arrest warrants for 15 foreigners – 12 of them Americans – who had worked with NGOs in Egypt. Ms. Naga has been a leading voice in Egypt for shutting down foreign NGOs, and she has been embroiled in ongoing efforts to prosecute a group of democracy NGOs, among them the US government funded International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.
The attempts to prosecute the American groups that focus on democracy promotion, saw a number of their officials, among them the son of Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, hole up in the US embassy to avoid arrest. It almost led to the cancellation of Egypt's $1 billion annual military subsidy from the US (another artifact of Camp David).
While the younger Mr. LaHood and other foreigners were eventually allowed to leave the country, Egypt has insisted in pursuing prosecution of them and former Egyptian co-workers, who now face jail time.
The deal to let them leave was struck in February, saving Egypt's military aid. But now it appears Egypt wants to bring them back for prosecution. Interpol, a coordinating body for international law enforcement, denied the Egyptian request, citing regulations that strictly forbid "the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.’ This prohibition is taken extremely seriously by INTERPOL."
Yes, we're back to politics again. Politics in the case of the prosecutions of the foreign NGOs, politics in the case of the cancelled gas sales contract with Israel, and politics in deeming Jimmy Carter a threat to Israel's sovereignty. When it comes to international relations, it seems the politics of the new Egypt promise stormier seas ahead.
The unraveling of a multibillion-dollar contract to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israel has been a long time in coming. The dissolution was virtually assured at the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
But to judge by some of the reactions today, Egypt's cancellation of a contract to supply natural gas to the private East Mediterranean Gas Co., which in turn delivered to customers in Israel, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a bolt from the blue.
Shaul Mofaz, a legislator and leader of Israel's opposition Kadima party, described Egypt's decision as a "clear violation" of the peace treaty (in this, Mr. Mofaz is mistaken – the treaty makes no mention of this or any other gas deal and only calls for "normal economic relations" between the states).
Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz captions a story on Egypt's decision that it "may also constitute economic suicide." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, sought to paint the matter as divorced from politics. "This is actually a business dispute between the Israeli company and the Egyptian company," he said today.
Mr. Netanyahu is also mistaken. The chaotic politics of post-Mubarak Egypt practically required this step be taken.
Like most Egyptian decisions lately it isn't clear how it was made – on orders of the ruling miltary junta? On the initiative of a senior official at the Energy ministry? But this is a move that has long been supported by practically every political corner of Egypt. The average Egyptian saw the deal as natural-resource theft to the benefit of the Jewish state. As an easy applause line, Egyptian politicians have been attacking the gas deal at campaign stops.
While Egyptian officials, like Netanyahu, have insisted this is simply a business matter, such statements should be taken with metric tons of salt. Politics touch all dealings between the two states, and in this deal even more than usual.
The deal involved cronies close to the deposed Hosni Mubarak. The involvement of Israel was always going to make it an object of scrutiny. And the pipeline that ships the gas to Israel has been attacked by angry locals on the Sinai peninsula at least 10 times since Mubarak fell from power.
The gas deal was imagined by its political architects (the US and Israel had been pushing for a pipeline across Sinai as far back as the early 1990s) as something that would bring Egypt closer to Israel. But in fact its failure now is a reminder that the cold peace forged at Camp David never became anything more. Some business has been done and money made, another war remains unlikely, but the fact remains that the gas deal is a political liability in a changing Egypt where popular sentiment has far more force than it did under Sadat or Mubarak.
Eastern Mediteranean Gas (EMG) is a business partnership that shows the benefits of having friends in high places. Hussein Salem, a wealthy Egyptian who was widely viewed in Cairo circles as a bag man for Mubarak and his family, is one shareholder. Mr. Salem fled his homeland soon after Mubarak fell and has since been fighting extradition attempts on corruption charges connected to the gas deal.
Yossi Meiman, an Israeli businessman with close ties to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is another. Mr. Maiman managed to cash out a direct 12.5 percent stake in EMG in 2008 – by having Ampal American-Israeli Corporation, a company he controls, issue about $230 million in bonds to buy him out. Those bonds are now set to default. Jewish-American billionaire and philanthropist Sam Zell is another partner.
Aside from political risks, EMG had a sweet deal. A guaranteed supply of gas at a fixed price at one hand, with a guaranteed buyer at a 50 percent markup, at the other. The size of that markup, negotiated as it was between a company partially controlled by a close business associate of Hosni Mubarak and the state oil company, had led to whispers of corruption in Egypt from the moment the deal was signed in 2005. With the uprising against Mubarak last year, the whispers have become shouts.
Egypt's leading presidential candidates have all attacked the deal. Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League who was popular regionally for his fiery anti-Israel rhetoric, praised the cancellation, saying the gas deal was obviously tainted with corruption.
Going forward, it's conceivable but not likely that gas sales will resume. Israel, always leery of counting on a neighbor like Egypt, has major gas developments of its own under construction, and the country is confident it will soon be able to replace lost supply. Egypt has substantial demand for subsidized fuel at home, and resource nationalism is a potent issue at a time of economic crisis.
Vodafone. Allianz. Reebok. Microsoft. Tag-Heur. All among the leaders in their respective fields. And these and dozens of other companies have, in effect, put their seal of approval on the actions of the monarchy in Bahrain.
The Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix takes place this weekend amid tens of thousands of protesters in Manama braving tear gas and birdshot as they demand political change in the tiny monarchy. Ferrari, Mercedes, and the other glamour teams are practicing today, will run in the qualifying round tomorrow, and will zoom off in the official race scheduled for Sunday, with an expected global TV audience of at least 100 million.
Some of the globe's best-known brands will have their logos spread across the barriers, the promotional literature, the broadcasts, and the cars themselves. That they're not concerned this amounts to a vote of confidence in a monarchy that has been accused of jailing and torturing peaceful demonstrators, with the aid of its powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia, is an indication that in the realm of international public opinion, the ruling Khalifa family is winning.
IN PICTURES: Formula One Grand Prix
Take this from Allianz, one of the largest insurers in the world, on its involvement with the sport: "The partnership between Allianz and Formula One is a trusted alliance designed to highlight the importance of risk management and road safety as well as build the Allianz brand globally."
Brand building must go on.
Major corporations spend a lot of money worrying about their brands, and their research has told them that there's more money to be made than lost by carrying on with this weekend's event. Consumers either aren't aware of what's been going on in Bahrain, or don't care.
The Business and Human Rights Information Center says it contacted all of the sponsors of F1 teams, the organization, and the race itself. Only about half issued responses. The ones that did were generally bland and non-specific. Microsoft was fairly typical, writing. "We recognize the important responsibilities we have to respect human rights and work every day to meet our responsibilities. We invite dialogue with stakeholders and look forward to engaging in thoughtful discussions.”
Vodafone responded in a similar vein: "We are monitoring developments very closely and are aware of international concerns. However, the decision whether or not to proceed with the event is a matter for the teams and Formula 1."
Reebok, which has a sponsorship agreement with the Sahara Force India team, was a little more direct, writing "we will reach out to this team to understand their position on participation... given the ongoing civil unrest and evidence of human rights violations."
Bernie Ecclestone, whose financial control of F1 has made him a billionaire, struck a defiant tone with reporters today when they asked about the departure of two members of the Sahara Force India team, who flew home after seeing a burning car in Manama.
"You guys want a story and it's a good story and if there isn't a story you make it up like usual, Nothing changes," Mr. Ecclestone said. "The political thing is going in so many countries. These things happen. We are not here to get involved in politics. There are many more countries higher up the priority list that you should be writing about. Go to Syria and write about those things because it is more important there."
Ecclestone can say as much as he likes that F1 isn't involved in politics, but it doesn't make it so.
The claim that "politics and sport should never mix" is often trotted out, as if sport is some pure sacrament untainted by the concerns of the profane work-a-day world. This is absurd. Major global sporting organizations like F1, FIFA, or the International Olympic Committee have confronted scandal after scandal through the decades, usually centered around the nexus of money, power and political influence they represent.
The decision to bring the F1 circus to town, or to award the World Cup to a host nation, is a political one as much as a business one. These events are enormous shop windows for tourism, lend prestige to the governments that host them, and amount to approval of the way they run their affairs.
What is the "political thing" in Bahrain at the moment? Human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja remains in jail and on hunger strike. Human Rights Watch says hundreds of others remain in jail for their political activism. At the end of March, the group wrote, "it seems that no high-ranking officials have been investigated for their roles in rampant torture or unlawful killing."
To be sure, the regime has its supporters. Among the most prominent in the US is Ed Husain, a fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Husain appears to view Bahrain's protesters as largely in league with Iran (Bahrain is a Sunni monarchy, but the majority of its citizens are Shiite), judging by a recent series of tweets from him. "If Bahrain is good enough for the US Fifth Fleet, it's good enough for F1... Back away Iran's molotov hurlers," he wrote today.
IN PICTURES: Formula One Grand Prix
The US, which has close military ties with Manama and runs the Fifth Fleet out of the kingdom, has indeed been muted in its criticism of the country.
Though motor sport journalists have poured into the country, a number of political reporters seeking to cover the protests there this weekend have been denied visas.
The race could still be called off if security deteriorates. It was security concerns, amid the crackdown on protesters, that led to the cancellation of the race last year, and if today's protests devolve into something uglier, it's possible that security could be the reason again.
But for now, it's full steam ahead. And F1 and its sponsors have sent the message that they don't have a problem with how the government is treating its own people.
Julian Assange's new talk show debuted yesterday on the Kremlin satellite channel Russia Today with a whale of a "get:" Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's politically and militarily dominant Hezbollah.
It's been years since Mr. Nasrallah has given an interview to a foreigner. The conversation took place in late February and there should have been plenty to talk about. There's the awkward position that Hezbollah, which styles itself a lion of Arab resistance to Israel, now finds itself in. The group is a client of Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has spent the past year using his army to flatten his domestic political opponents, and of Iran, which has been helping Mr. Assad and recently crushed an opposition movement of its own.
Questions about the UN tribunal which indicted members of Hezbollah last year in connection with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would not have gone amiss. More general and obvious questions could have been about Lebanese politics, and under what conditions Hezbollah might be willing to give up its private army. Perhaps some challenges on whether Hezbollah is a threat to Lebanon's fragile democracy, or the risks of the sectarian fighting in Syria spilling over the border.
But while Mr. Assange touched on Hezbollah's ties to Syria, his highly deferential and general interview of Nasrallah didn't press him very hard (this was no Mike Wallace vs. Ayatollah Khomenei). Six years ago, Hezbollah's image was soaring in the region as a direct opponent of Israel and of the US. Today's environment is far more complex, with a clamoring for democratic change and Hezbollah closely linked to two of its greatest regional opponents. The word "Iran" wasn't mentioned at all. And the choice of questions, the apparent lack of background knowledge, and Assange's typically flat and robotic delivery, were all reminders that he isn't a professional journalist.
He'd be probably respond that he wouldn't have it any other way. After all, he's repeatedly lambasted the traditional press as an aider and abetter of perfidy. For instance last year he said: "The media in general are so bad we have to question we'd be better without them all together. They're so distortive to how the world actually is that the result is that we see wars and corrupt governments continue on... nearly every war that has started in the past 50 years has been the result of media lies."
At the risk of being branded as hypocrite defender of the "mainstream media" to which I (sort of) belong, to lay responsibility for Vietnam, the scores of wars in post-colonial Africa and the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan at the feet of "media lies" may be a bit of simplification.
But his own avowed disdain for propaganda and branding of himself as a tireless seeker of the truth makes the station he's tied up with all the more interesting. RT is a Kremlin propaganda channel, and its reporting on the Middle East (the area of its coverage I'm most familiar with) isn't merely slanted by the interests of the Russian government. It's often outrageously biased to the point of making things up out of whole cloth. For instance, a string of reports by the station from Tripoli, Libya in July and August of last year made obviously false claims about advances for Muammar Qaddafi's army.
Even as Tripoli was falling, and throngs of celebrating rebels filled the capital's main square (with footage carried live around the world) RT, insisted it wasn't happening. The station's main on the ground reporter Lizzie Phelan made her own biases clear as day on her blog: "While the journalists suffering from cabin fever in Tripoli’s Rixos hotel, publish their dreams that imperialism’s lackies (the rebels/rats) have taken Zawiya, Ghuriyan and Sorman, they are ignoring a decisive moment in the crisis. That is the liberation of the hitherto rebel-held area of Misratah." (No, Misurata was never retaken by Qaddafi's forces).
Assange anticipated complaints about his work with RT. "There’s Julian Assange, enemy combatant, traitor, getting into bed with the Kremlin and interviewing terrible radicals from around the world," Assange told RT, describing what he said would be the line of attack against him. "But I think it’s a pretty trivial kind of attack on character. If they actually look at how the show is made: we make it, we have complete editorial control, we believe that all media organizations have an angle, all media organizations have an issue. RT is a voice of Russia, so it looks at things from the Russian agenda. The BBC is a voice of the British government. Voice of America is a voice of the American government. It is the clashing of these voices together that reveals the truth about the world as a whole."
No. The BBC, which has many flaws, has an independent board. The Voice of America, far more directly an arm of the US government than the BBC is for the UK, aint perfect, but has demonstrated far more faithfulness to basic facts over the years than RT. These things are simply not equivalent, nor is the Russian state analogous to the democracies of the UK and US, their warts aside.
Assange should know this. A US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks summarized the comments of Jose "Pepe" Grinda Gonzales, a Spanish prosecutor who concentrates on organized crime, this way: "Grinda stated that he considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual "mafia states" and said that Ukraine is going to be one. For each of those countries, he alleged, one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and (organized crime) groups."
Assange, still under house arrest in England fighting extradition to Sweden where he's wanted for questioning over sexual assault allegations, is clearly hoping his new show will be a hit. His organization is struggling for relevance after its dramatic score of a huge archive of US diplomatic cables. Wikileaks hasn't had a secure "drop box," the heart of its enterprise as initially conceived, since the middle of 2010.
Though its collaboration with Anonymous, an amorphous group of hackers, led to the theft and publishing of internal emails from the private intelligence and security company Stratfor earlier this year, that was a bit of dud from the relevance standpoint. Stratfor, though it likes to hype itself as a major player in international intelligence, mostly repackages open-source information for paying clients. Beyond embarrassment for them, there wasn't much there there.
Assange says he has an advantage over traditional interviewers. He told RT his interviews "revealed sides of very interesting and important people that are not normally revealed because they are not dealing with a standard interviewer, they are dealing with someone who is under house arrest, who has gone through political problems that they can sympathize with."
This advantage wasn't obvious in his discussion with Nasrallah, though there was on bit of news. Asked "why have you supported the Arab spring in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and other countries but not in Syria” Nasrallah responded:
"I personally found that President Assad was willing to carry out radical and important reforms. … we contacted even elements of the opposition, to encourage them and to facilitate the process of dialogue with the regime, but these parties rejected dialogue and right from the beginning we’ve had a regime willing to undergo reforms and on the other side you have an opposition that is not prepared for dialogue… what it wants to do is bring down the regime.”
That was the first time Nasrallah has said in public that he's been in contact with the opposition, and encouraged them (as has Russia) to compromise with Mr. Assad. But the moment slipped away. Which opposition groups? How frequent have the contacts been? What's your view of the level of disunity among Assad's opponents? These obvious follows were not pursued.
Assange, to his credit, referred to civilian casualties in Syria, and asked if Hezbollah has a "red line," a specific number of casualties, at which point it might withdraw support from Assad. Nasrallah responded that Al Qaeda, a Sunni group and ideological opponent of the Shiite Hezbollah, has sent fighters to Syria and complained that while "Certain Arab countries are prepared to have a political dialogue (with Israel) for ten years non-stop, they won't give one or two years or even a few months for a political solution in Syria."
The interviewer then turned to the question of Al Manar, Hezbollah's television network, which has been blocked in the US since 2004 because the group is on the State Department's designated terrorist list. Asks Assange: "The United States is blocking Al Manar from broadcasting ino the US at the same time the United States claims that it is a bastion of free speech. Why do you think the US government is so scared of Al Manar?" Nasrallah answers that "they want to tell people that Hezbollah are terrorists (and) we don’t have the very basic right to defend ourselves.”
Assange follows that up with this hard-hitting question: "As a leader in war, how did you manage to keep your people together in the face of enemy fire?” This generated the predictable and usual generalities.
His final question was, in many ways, the most intriguing -- and certainly not one that a working journalist would ever think to ask a politician whose organization is called "The Party of God." It says a lot about how Assange sees the world.
"You have fought against a hegemony of the United States," says Assange. "Isn’t Allah, or the notion of a god, the ultimate super-power, and shouldn’t you as a freedom fighter also seek to liberate people from the totalitarian concept of a monotheistic god?”
Nasrallah's answer, in summary, is that he believes in a benevolent God, that his struggle against the "hegemony" of the US is a moral one that God would support.
The simple fact was that Kabul was hit by a coordinated attack, probably by the Haqqani Network (though the Taliban were happy to take credit) on Sunday. The attacks in Kabul and in Nangarhar, Paktia, and Logar provinces ended in defeat for the assailants. Of 37 attackers in Kabul, 36 were killed and one captured, at the cost of 11 Afghan soldiers' deaths and four civilians.
What it means is another thing.
On balance, the answer is "not much." Sure, there was overheated handwringing in some quarters. A Reuters report speculated that the day-long attack might have the same effect on US public opinion as the months-long Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968, which saw assaults on dozens of cities and the bloodiest year of the war for US troops, with over 10,000 killed by June (no Americans died in Sunday's attack).
On the other side was Gen. John Allen, commander of international troops in Afghanistan, who spun the attack as evidence of insurgent weakness. "The very fact that the enemy chose these particular targets speaks volumes about where we are in this campaign and the degree to which we have advanced the very things the enemy fears the most – a sovereign Afghanistan responsive to its people and an enduring commitment by the international community. Each attack was meant to send a message: that legitimate governance and Afghan sovereignty are in peril. The ANSF response itself is proof enough of that folly."
The gap between these points of view is a reminder that the war in Afghanistan is a war of perceptions now.
For US officers and supporters of the war, the task is to send a message of steady progress that just a little more commitment can cement. For the Taliban and other insurgent groups, it's to send a message of unhindered ability to strike. On both sides, the arguments over the insurgency's strength or weakness also feeds directly into proposed peace talks with the Taliban. The stronger they are, or can at least make themselves to look, the better their bargaining position (the talks are currently on hold).
But the reality is that we know very little today that we didn't know last week. Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, with President Hamid Karzai, the man installed as Afghanistan's leader by international forces, still a very uncertain call. President Karzai called the Kabul attack an "intelligence failure for us and especially NATO."
Max Boot, a conservative commentator who can be relied on to insist the Afghan war (or any US war, really) is going well, maintained his record with a piece for Commentary magazine in which he portrays the attacks as good news.
"For all the headlines about the capital city being “rocked” by gunfire and explosions, the impact of the insurgent attacks–most likely the work of the Haqqani Network, not the Taliban per se–was negligible," he writes. "I visited the capital two weeks ago and found, as I have previously noted, that the streets are thronged with people: hardly the sign of a city under siege. I remember Baghdad in the dark days of 2006-2007 when entire neighborhoods were ghost towns. There is nothing like that going on in Kabul..... If this is the best the Haqqanis could do for a comeback, their efforts are indicative of the growing weakness of the insurgency and the growing strength of the security forces."
He goes on to caveat his position by saying: "that is not to say that a positive outcome in Afghanistan is inevitable–it is anything but. However, it does indicate that if we lose, it will be because of our ardent desire to pull out–not because the Taliban have the capacity to evict us or to defeat our Afghan allies."
Well, I lived in Baghdad during the "dark days" and while my experience of Afghanistan is far more limited (a one-month visit in 2010) what I can say is that the two should not be compared. Baghdad was then in the grips of a vicious sectarian civil war that burned in the presence of tens of thousands of US troops. The flames eventually cooled, with whole neighborhoods stripped of their Sunni inhabitants, or vice-versa. I remember the frequent statements from the US government and military that individual insurgent attacks were signs of "desperation" on the part of the attackers.
The Afghan conflict is very different, the Afghan people very different from the Iraqis. Kabul has generally been an oasis throughout 10 years of war. One reason the city's population has swelled (it's tripled since 2001, to about 5 million now) is because it's far safer than much of the rest of Afghanistan. So what the attacks demonstrated was that one of the safest places in the country, where billions have been spent on economic development and training of Afghan security forces, can still be touched.
Most analysts of Afghanistan are most worried about the future and whether the center around Karzai will hold in the face of the inevitable drawdown of US forces. Their concerns don't focus on a successful Taliban march on a capital filled with people who recall the Taliban reign with horror, but on the chances that the military could splinter along the ethnic lines that drove the Taliban civil war after the Soviet Union's departure, with warlords running their own enclaves.
The Kabul-based blogger at "It's Always Sunni in Kabul," has an informed take that occupies the sensible middle ground. Yes, Afghan forces performed well (good news). But no, this was not ANSF's success alone: US Blackhawks fired on some of the attackers in the capital, and ISAF advisers were there with Afghan forces almost every step of the way, "advising." This doesn't mean Afghan troops aren't getting better, just that this performance isn't a meaningful data point on how they'd do on their own.
He agrees with Mr. Boot (and most everyone else) that this was not a tactical success for the attackers by any stretch. They were quickly pinned down and surrounded and all eventually killed or captured.
But the Afghan war is one of perceptions. The Taliban (and Haqqani) strategy, such as it is, is to keep reminding everyone that they're still capable of inflicting damage after 10 years of being hunted by the most capable military on the globe. That's heartening to their supporters, and something to frighten Afghans who don't support them about their future. As the blogger writes:
Kabul is supposed to be the most secure city in Afghanistan, and once again, some insurgent group managed to stockpile weapons and supplies in a half-constructed building at the edge of the diplomatic area here in Kabul and light the city up for hours at a time. If the message is: “We can get you anywhere,” message sent. Just, once they get there, they don’t tend to accomplish much. This speaks to increasing levels of proficiency by the ANSF in their response to the situation, but also to the lack of quality intel/planning to make sure these kinds of events do not happen again. If the playbook had changed dramatically from the events of September of 2011, then those things happen, but in this case it’s almost identical. So someone’s making it very clear that the government of Afghanistan really can’t stop them from doing what they want to do.
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Pity the reporters, political activists, and academics trying to keep up with Egypt's transition "plan." Every day, it seems, new moves by the ruling military, the courts, and the quasi-independent electoral commission turn expectations on their head.
It's human to want a see a pattern in all this, find a guiding hand behind all the maneuvering (a Machiavellian or a benevolent one, depending on your inclinations). Analysis is supposed to tease out the broader pattern, identify a narrative that helps make sense of events. But in the daily flow of statements, revelations, and warnings, I can't find anything but an unguided mess.
Writing at Foreign Policy, political scientist Nathan Brown calls "the phrase 'Egyptian transition process'... tragicomically oxymoronic in light of the dizzying series of developments over the past month."
The latest news is the disqualification of 10 Egyptian presidential aspirants a little more than six weeks from the scheduled May 23 vote. Most were no-hopers, but three are heavyweights.
Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a fiery, and to many frightening, salafy leader (he called Osama bin Laden a "martyr" after the Al Qaeda leader was killed in Pakistan) was tossed from the race because his deceased mother was a US citizen (it's Egypt's own birther controversy; Abu Ismail denies the claim).
Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's long-time intelligence chief and confidante, was kicked from the race because the Presidential Elections Commission ruled that his petition to run didn't receive signatures from a wide-enough range of locations (Egyptian rules require 30,000 signatures, with at least 1,000 of those from each of 15 different governorates). And Khairat al-Shater, the top Muslim Brotherhood political strategist, was disqualified because a 2006 security conviction by the Mubarak government hasn't been voided.
Others were disqualified because of political convictions during the Mubarak era, or disputes over the leadership of their political parties, and in the case of Ashraf Zaki Barouma, over allegations of draft-dodging in his youth.
With the election looming, it's unclear what comes next. Some may be reinstated, others not. Shater, Abu Ismail and Suleiman all lodged appeals of the ruling today. The electoral commission has promised a final candidate list on April 26, less than a month before the vote. Street power as a solution can't be ruled out. The Muslim Brotherhood called tens of thousands of its supporters to Tahrir Square last week, and a lawyer for Abu Ismail promised a "major crisis" if his man isn't allowed to run.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party appears best placed, since it nominated another candidate, Muhammed Mursi in case Shater was disqualified. But a recent poll by Egypt's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies indicates it may not do them much good. The disqualifications leave Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa, two long-time servants of Mubarak, as front runners. The poll, conducted before the disqualifications, found Islamist voters had high enthusiasm for both Shater and Abu Ismail, but not for Mr. Mursi.
Mr. Moussa was Mubarak's foreign minister before a falling out, and went on to run the Arab league; Mr. Shafiq served as Mubarak's aviation minister for almost a decade, before being named prime minister by the president in the waning days of his rule last January.
So, yes, in Egypt's first presidential election since Mubarak was deposed in Feb. 2011, two lieutenants of his regime are in line to take power. And because of the now uncertain plan for writing a new constitution, that could give them enormous power relative to the newly seated parliament, dominated by the FJP and its Islamist ally, the salafy Al Nour Party.
On his Twitter feed in the past few days, former presidential hopeful Mohammed ElBaradei has attacked the current schedule for writing a constitution. Earlier this month, an Egyptian court disqualified the 100 member body selected by parliament after about 30 secular members walked out, complaining that the other members were all Islamists. The court said parliament erred in appointing a number of MPs to the body, but it was seen as a slap at the Muslim Brotherhood, which is trying to turn its success at the ballot box into real power. Under the current constitution, the president, not parliament appoints the government. Egypt's current prime minister and cabinet members are serving at the pleasure of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. As things stand now, that will be up to the next president.
Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the officer who heads SCAF, has called for a constitution to be written by the start of the presidential election. That time frame alarms ElBaradei, a secular politician and former head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. He hinted that the presidential elections should be postponed until the constitution – and a new, more equitable division of powers – is sorted out. In English, he wrote "result of bungled transition" and "the travesty continues." Switching to Arabic, he wrote "electing the president under the constitutional declaration is a continuation of electing authorities with incomplete powers. Who will be the commander in chief of the armed forces? Who will be able to declare war?"
The "constitutional declaration" he's referring to was a hasty set of principles drawn up after Mubarak fell, and ratified in a referendum with over 70 percent support.
Where real power will lie in Egypt, and whether its attempted revolution will yield a meaningful change in the way the country is governed in the years ahead is the big question. The military, with its vast business holdings and tradition of holding itself apart from civilian oversight, remains a powerful player with interests to protect. It is clearly maneuvering to massage outcomes to its liking, but some see a process that is beyond the ability of the generals, who have shown themselves frequently incompetent in navigating the new political clime, to control.
Brown writes the current mess is SCAF's fault, but in some ways they have a tiger by the tail.
"The lion's share of responsibility lies with the SCAF's generals who pursued an approach that was politically and legally incoherent. It was not one that has always served their interests very well, but they have been powerless to change it (as was clearly demonstrated by the failure of an apparent – and audacious – attempt to parachute in some "supraconstitutional principles" serving the SCAF's vision last fall). Hope for a transition to a more pluralist and democratic Egypt has certainly not died. Egypt's saving graces – the fact that the gunfire is mostly metamorphic; the continued strength of its political institutions, however deeply corrupted and implicated many are; and the inability of any single political actor to dominate the country –may still carry it through. But the lack of any controlling process or authority may make Egypt's political actors feel a bit like they are not only living in a Chekhov drama or deafened by the volley at the OK Corral but also as if they are trapped in Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author."
In the office the other day, after reading about the coup in Guinea-Bissau, I wondered what two African coups in March and April (the first being Mali) meant. There's been a lot of research and reporting in recent years pointing out that the period of terrible conflict in Africa that followed the end of the cold war was well behind us and that regional states were handling differences far more often at the ballot box, with regional militaries largely back to barracks when it came to domestic politics.
It turns out, there's very little to worry about so far, at least according to Jay Ulfelder, who writes at his fascinating blog "Dart-throwing Chimp." Mr. Ulfelder is a political scientist with a focus on the quantitative side, using statistical analysis to try to forecast trends in everything from famine to conflict. While I'm generally in the camp that sees modern political scientists as far too focused on math, at the expense of considering culture and psychology, I've enjoyed browsing his blog in the days since I discovered it.
In a post last week, he addressed my musing head on: "Has African Gone Coup-Crazy in 2012?" The short answer is a clear "no." In his post, he has a chart that measures the frequency of coups in Africa. The details of the statistical tools are laid out on his blog. The takeway is that Africa has had three distinct coup spikes. "In the mid-1960s, a few years after the start of decolonization; another in the early 1990s, after the end of the cold war; and a third in the late 1990s, when the rate of coups in the region takes a sharp dip. Meanwhile, the pair of events observed so far in 2012 looks perfectly normal, just about average for the past decade and still well below the recent peak of six events in 2008."
To be sure, there could well be more coups this year. It's just that it would take at least a half a dozen to push Africa out of its recent statistical range.
I first came across Ulfelder's blog when someone posted his January article "Assessing Coup Risk in 2012." He made the calculation that runs a algorithm with four "risk factors": infant mortality rate, degree of democracy, recent coup activity, and the stability of a country since the end of the cold war.
Of his top ten most at risk countries (he provides a chart of the 40 most "at risk" countries, in his estimation) eight are in Africa, with Guinea-Bissau at No. 2, and Mali at 10. Niger, which has some similarities with Mali (a restive Tuareg population and a history of entanglement with Muammar Qaddafi's Libya) is number one. Rounding out the list in order are Chad, Guinea, Madagascar, Congo, Mauritania, Bangladesh, and the Central African Republic. Sudan is No. 11, with practically the same score as Mali.
His assessment of risk isn't a prediction that a coup is highly likely in a given country in a given year, just of danger. As he writes: "As usual with all statistical forecasts of rare events, the estimates are mostly close to zero. (On average, only a handful of coup attempts occur worldwide each year, and they’ve become even rarer since the end of the Cold War; see this earlier post for details)."
And remember, "coup" and "uprising" are not the same thing, as is the case of Syria, which didn't crack his top 40.
"To make sense of this forecast, it’s important to note that assigning a low probability to the occurrence of a coup attempt in Syria in 2012 isn’t the same thing as a prediction that President Bashar al-Assad or his regime will survive the year. It might seem like semantic hair-splitting, but the definitions of coups used to construct the data on which these forecasts are based do not include cases where national leaders resign under pressure or are toppled by rebel groups. So the Syria forecast suggests only that Assad is unlikely to be overthrown by his own security forces. As it happens, my analysis of countries most likely to see democratic transitions in 2012 put Syria in the top 10 on that list."
I've really enjoyed poking about in his blog archives and highly recommend giving Dart-Throwing Chimp a look.
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That we are living in a world increasingly connected by the digital revolution is a given. But are the Internet, social media, and the expanding array of technologies that can detect signs of a famine as easily as they can help an authoritarian state track dissidents, a boon or an Orwellian bane?
The answer is, of course, somewhere in the middle. But the positive side of the ledger has generally gotten a lot more attention in the press than the negative. Now, that’s starting to change.
The end of 'cyber-utopia'
Jamie Kirchik has a long essay in The American Interest just out on Evgeny Morozov’s 2011 book “The Net Delusion” (highly recommended by me), and summarizes his central argument this way: “Morozov argues that the Internet is not the unmitigated boon that … assorted “cyber-utopians” make it out to be. It’s a tool that, in addition to serving as a resource for democracy activists and their well-intentioned supporters in the West, is no less useful, and at times more so, for the authoritarians attempting to repress them.”
Take Syria, where Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook have been successfully used by activists to get information and video about the war there to the world, but have also increasingly been penetrated by Syrian intelligence agents, who can find a treasure trove of personal links, movements, and information from data mining.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, David Blair argues that “the 13 months of Syria’s revolt have starkly illustrated the limits of social media as an engine of revolution, and of the claims made for the Internet’s transformative power.”
He writes that linking up on Twitter makes activists today more vulnerable to the regime they’re fighting, than, say the Algerian insurgency was against the French in the late 1950s. The Algerian fighters had tight, person-to-person cells that were difficult to penetrate. “The whole point of these platforms is ease of access and use … they are inherently easy to penetrate. As such, social media is the exact opposite of a useful tool for a revolution. Had Twitter existed in the 1950s, perhaps Algeria would have stayed French for another decade or two.”
And it’s not just regimes like Syria that are interested in using Twitter as an intelligence tool.
Contest: can you find these faces in the crowd?
Oliver Belcher, a PHD candidate in geography at the University of British Columbia, writes at his Darpa Dreaming blog of recent innovations in using crowd-sourcing and social media as a form of intelligence gathering and surveillance. It’s of interest because as much as Twitter and Facebook have gained reputations as leveling tools for revolutionaries, they also can and are being used for spying and tracking the movements of people, at ever greater levels of sophistication.
The “Tag Challenge” sponsored by the US State Department had five people who agreed to serve as “suspects” and to be in public during the day of March 31 in Washington DC, New York, London, Bratislava, and Stockholm. Their pictures were posted on the Internet, with no other identifying information. The challenge? To find them and take a picture of them that day. The individual or team with the most pictures would win a $5,000 prize.
A team from MIT called “Crowdscanner” won the prize with three of the suspects snapped. They did it by recruiting agents for cash on Twitter and other social media sites. They offered $1 for recruiting a new member of the team (up to 2,000 members), $500 for sending in a picture of one of the suspects, and $100 to anyone who recruited someone who captured a picture (leaving them on the hook, in the worst case, for $5,000 – the same amount as the offered prize). They won by tracking down three of the suspects in 12 hours.
Mr. Bechler points out that these efforts are being driven to develop new intelligence and military tools, and that social and computer scientists are increasingly getting in on the act. “I’m writing an article on how this kind of research is integral to contemporary US military operations. And, it should come as no surprise that the computer scientists who are winning these prizes are consultants either for the US military, or are members of scientific advisory boards which contract through the military. “
Finally, new forms of technology are making life difficult for some agents of the state.
At Wired magazine’s Danger Room, Jeff Stein writes on how the expanding use of eye scanners and biometric passports are cramping spies’ style – a boomerang for surveillance advocates.
“The increasing deployment of iris scanners and biometric passports at worldwide airports, hotels and business headquarters, designed to catch terrorists and criminals, are playing havoc with operations that require CIA spies to travel under false identities,” he writes, and goes on quote a former field operative. “’If you go to one of those countries under an alias, you can’t go again under another name,’” explains a career spook, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains an agency consultant. ”So it’s a one-time thing — one and done. The biometric data on your passport, and maybe your iris, too, has been linked forever to whatever name was on your passport the first time.”
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