From the Middle East

I decided to separate out my coverage of events in the Middle East from the usual stuff I find on the internet and repost here in Amateur Diplomat. After all, the primary focus of this blog is supposed to be on America’s foreign affairs, and not random items of amusement, however interesting they may be. I actually haven’t been doing my job very well (ironically, I’m actually writing this at my professional job) but, what I mean, is that analysis of foreign affairs is not just the reposting of articles others have written, however brilliant or insightful they may be. I should really be providing some sort of coherent critique here.

First off, there’s been a lot of discussion in the national media regarding the Obama Administration’s response to the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and now Libya. President Obama didn’t even mention Egypt in his State of the Union and three days after Mubarak was taken out of power. Obviously, the issue inside of the administration right now is attempting to reconcile the interests of the United States, especially when it comes to maintaining regional relationships regarding resources and defense, with our principles, which dictate that we support human rights, democracy, liberty, and the rule of law. Regardless of how this balancing act has played out recently, it occurred to me recently, that I honestly don’t think the Obama Administration, nor perhaps any institution that has a hand in U.S. foreign policy making, had contingency plans in place to answer the fundamental questions of “what do we do if…. regimes are toppled by popular unrest – and the Middle East is swept by a wave of democratic uprisings”. I think our foreign policy establishment was entirely unprepared to answer that question. It’s pretty clear that was the case given the sporadic and inconsistent response by the American government to each of the revolutions in the Middle East. It’s somewhat startling as well. Think about how much time and effort the Bush Administration devoted to its “Freedom Agenda” – two wars and billions of dollars later and where did we stand? Worse off than where we began. The Obama Administration began its tenure in office by initiating a 6-month review of the Afghan War. I mean, was there really no preparation done to answer the question of what the U.S. should do if revolution started of its own accord in the Middle East? It’s slightly mind-boggling, and makes me wonder if there was some sort of mis-guided perception that’s dominated the American perspective of world affairs that essentially causes us to view outside events through the prism of American/Western action – basically – that major events such as these don’t take place without some sort of catalyst on our part.

I don’t know.

Anyway, here is some of the latest and most interest coverage of events in the Middle East…
In Cradle of Libya’s Uprising, the Rebels Learn to Govern Themselves

On Thursday, the fruits of that effort were beginning to take a rough shape. A judge, still wearing his robes, wandered through traffic, ordering drivers to put on their seat belts. At another intersection, three young men helped an elderly police officer direct a traffic jam.

In Benghazi’s new order, the court building overlooking the Mediterranean has become both a seat of rebel power and the town hall.

U.S. Trying to Pick Winners in New Middle East

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was unable to reach the foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, Mr. Crowley said, citing a technical glitch.

That’s also my cat’s name.

The administration has urged Saudi Arabia not to impede King Hamad’s attempt to undertake reforms in Bahrain, an island connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway and dependent on the Saudis for political and economic support.

I also wonder if that does not include military support as well. It’s not just the military support Saudi Arabia receives from the United States, in terms of weapons and other defensive equipment, but also the reliance of Bahrain’s ruling family on an internal security service composed primarily of foreigners. I recently heard a suggestion that perhaps Saudi was sending some of its notorious religious police into Bahrain, over the bridge connecting the two countries.

An incredible video from CNN’s only correspondent in Libya, Ben Wedeman…
Gawker: The Incredible First News Footage from Liberated Benghazi, Libya
Look at all those people hallucinating on Nescafe.

WSJ: Our Bargain With The New Gadhafi

Gadhafi’s vicious regime has left Libya far worse than he found it on the day of his coup in 1969. King Idriss was at least a unifying figure for a country that had not long been unified and had been independent only since 1951. Gadhafi has established no national institutions, not even allowing a fake parliament of the Mubarak or Ben Ali variety that could perhaps be turned into something real.

Nor is there an army such as in Egypt, with the prestige and unity to intervene, restore calm and (we all hope) set the country on a better path. Gadhafi, who took power in a military coup, was too clever to allow a well-organized army that might do the same to him. Many units are organized along tribal lines, which has kept Gadhafi safe but may be his undoing now. If the tribes are central to defeating him, the next government will have to balance them carefully, using Libya’s oil wealth to buy support and time to address its many crises.

Like Idi Amin and Emperor Bokassa, Gadhafi will soon join the pantheon of grotesque dictators who leave their countries in ruins. Given the last years—when quiet disapproval replaced forceful denunciation as U.S. policy—we can only hope that Libyans remember the decades when we were Gadhafi’s worst enemy.

Roger Cohen’s latest Op-Ed in the Times…
NYT: From Oklahoma to Tobruk

I could only think of the long journey traveled by the United States from its “original sin” of slavery, through the civil war and Jim Crow, on through the long civil rights campaign and the King assassination, to the once unthinkable thing: the election of an African American to the nation’s highest office.

It takes a long time — centuries — to establish that all men really are created equal; and that “certain unalienable rights” belong to all citizens rather than to all citizens except those of a certain color.

The Arab world has embarked on a very long road to enfranchisement. It will be tempestuous but the direction taken is irreversible.


 

The Friday Find

I heard this classical percussion piece on the way to work this morning on Boston’s classical radio station… it’s pretty fantastic.

Urban city planning is always cool…

British reporters are always exuberantly enthusiastic and fun to watch… I love the way he says “industrial” at the end. So British.
Courtesy Gizmodo: Helsinki’s Underground Shadow City

U.S. News

Clearly following Obama’s State of the Union focus on importance of education and the role of teachers in our society, the school board in Providence, Rhode Island votes to terminate all of its 1,926 teachers. Hmmm yes.
The Providence Journal: Board votes to dismiss all Providence teachers

The Big Story coming out of Rollingstone…
Another Runaway General Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators

Money Quotes:

The incident offers an indication of just how desperate the U.S. command in Afghanistan is to spin American civilian leaders into supporting an increasingly unpopular war. According to the Defense Department’s own definition, psy-ops – the use of propaganda and psychological tactics to influence emotions and behaviors – are supposed to be used exclusively on “hostile foreign groups.” Federal law forbids the military from practicing psy-ops on Americans, and each defense authorization bill comes with a “propaganda rider” that also prohibits such manipulation. “Everyone in the psy-ops, intel, and IO community knows you’re not supposed to target Americans,” says a veteran member of another psy-ops team who has run operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s what you learn on day one.”

“Propaganda and psychological tactics to influence emotions and behaviors”… could also describe the media blitz over WMD in the run-up to the Iraq War. But, I think it’s a valid point. Propaganda and tactics of persuasion have usually been required to push a democratic population toward the prospect of war. If the military can do it to our elected leaders, they can certainly do it to us.

And finally – a sweet new ad from Mercedes-Benz…

Found

Salon.com has an insightful article on Obama’s Justice Department’s decision to no longer stand by the Constitutionality of certain statutes of the Defense of Marriage Act…
Obama Sets Marriage Trap… for Republicans

Money Quotes:

In the end, the opponents of same sex marriage were reduced to a perfectly circular argument that would not survive a freshman philosophy class, much less law school. They asserted that the meaning of marriage was a union between opposite sexes, then concluded that allowing any other union would destroy the meaning of marriage as they had just defined it. They were forced to employ such twisted logic because there is no empirical evidence to support the exclusion of gays from marriage; the prohibition is the last vestige of the religious belief that homosexuality is sinful, a rare application of the language of the Old Testament to otherwise victimless behavior in a secular society. (One of the hardest things about talking to God is finding an expert to give a proper deposition.)

From the Middle East:

Gawker covers Muammar Gaddafi’s many fashion statements throughout the years…
Muammar Gaddafi’s Most Memorable Fashion Moments

I think this one is my favorite…

For anyone interested in the comparison between the revolutions of 1848 in Europe and those happening today in the Middle East here’s some essential background… from Wikipedia
Revolutions of 1848

An interesting twist from Yahoo India on the case of a CIA Agent? being tried in Pakistan…
“CIA Spy” Davis was giving nuclear bomb material to Al-Qaeda, says report

Money Quotes:

Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) is warning that the situation on the sub-continent has turned “grave” as it appears that open warfare is about to break out between Pakistan and the United States, The European Union Times reports.

The most ominous point in this SVR report is “Pakistan’s ISI stating that top-secret CIA documents found in Davis’s possession point to his, and/or TF373, providing to al Qaeda terrorists “nuclear fissile material” and “biological agents”, which they claim are to be used against the United States itself in order to ignite an all-out war in order to re-establish the West’s hegemony over a Global economy that is warned is just months away from collapse,” the paper added.

I have yet to read this article… but Robert Fisk has written his first dispatch from Libya, probably just as extraordinarily insightful as most of his work is… will probably break down with comments at a later point.

The Independent: Robert Fisk with the first dispatch from Tripoli – a city in the shadow of death

 

The Cool Stuff…

Mark Zuckerberg now stars as the hero of a comic…
The Mark Zuckerberg Comic Has Arrived

*A side note – “Gurl, that boy is one hot mess, and not just because of his billions in cash”

I wish I could play violin as good as this Toyota robot…

And finally, this is probably the coolest video I’ve seen all day… I’m definitely going to grow a beard like that when a) I begin writing a dissertation or b) am deployed to a remote village with the Peace Corps. He’s pretty hot to boot – I have a thing for guys with beards and nice lips… mmm… yeah I could marry him in a heartbeat

Here’s the reading list for the past few weeks…

This will probably be so dense with articles I’ve read and demarcated (blam! great word) for re-posting from the past couple weeks that nobody will have any use for it other than myself, someday. But I’ll take a stab at at it…

Gizmodo: Tremendous Time-Lapses

Eisenhower Warns of the Military Industrial Complex

Niall Ferguson in Newsweek on Obama’s response to Egypt

These viral NASA spots are getting ridiculously cool, inspiring the same awe of space, the universe, and our place in it as Star Trek and Planet Earth.

Here’s a novel, and new idea…
Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish writes about the most recent gay trend… Gay Retirement Oases

Another site for Mid-East watchers and Arabic enthusiasts…
The Arabist

This is the kind of article TIME Magazine is ultimately known for… TIME explores the Singularity Movement… the point at which artificial intelligence will surpass mankind and become aware of itself and perpetuating of its evolution and knowledge. The ultimate question is… do will really want to share a planet with a species of our own intention that are smarter than us and that might vie for the same resources. Yep, we’re heading for a scenario like the Matrix here. I’ll try to sparse quote it at a later point.

2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal

The UK’s Guardian takes us behind the tactics of the Egyptian internal security force before the downfall of Mubarak…

28 hours inside the dark heart of Egypt’s torture machine

Ever wonder what was going on inside those tents in the middle of Tahrir…
NYT Video: Cairo’s Facebook Flat

Gawker takes a look at the latest drug fad… poisonous snake bites

Relapse

I think I’m suffering from writer’s bloc… I just haven’t been able to sit down recently and compose a coherent sentence where I don’t get completely lost in the middle. My mind has been a bit scattered as of late. Perhaps I’m too busy.

I was contacted by a ghost recently. Almost, actually. Someone I had almost, but not entirely consigned to the dustbin of history and dissolved hopes. It’s just odd when they reappear. I don’t know how to feel about it or what to say. In a way becoming used to the silence is sad, but it just seems like the easiest thing to do. Well I’ve never been particularly skilled at expressing my feelings in words – so I’ll just let Adele do it for me… her finest work yet.

God what a song. I found myself listening to that more than Gaga’s “Born This Way.” I mean its good, but eh… I got more excited about Bad Romance and Alejandro. It still amuses me seeing how many gays on the iPhone app Grindr now have their profiles set to display the words “Born This Way.” Gurrrrrllllll!! Yeah, no. I mean, how much gayer can you get?

Alright, so I’ll get around here to posting this ridiculous backlog of links I’ve accumulated in my ‘saved drafts’ folder. But just a word first – the situation in the Middle East… now being described as the Arab World’s 1848. I’ll investigate that later.

Actually here is the main problem, which I’ll divert briefly to address. I was talking to my Mom the other day before I left for Colorado/Arizona and she asked me if I’d made some appointment or talked to some person about something I had to do, and I responded with an “I’ll interface with them tomorrow.” “Interface?!?! I mean, where the fuck did that come from. My fear of being reduced to a soulless walking corporate automaton has apparently already manifested, and I haven’t even worked a full year.

I can feel the stagnation coming on. I dread that sedentary feeling. Where the use of the computer and internet become so overwhelming, consuming so many hours of the day that the constant switching back and forth between applications manifests in an acute temporary attention deficit disorder. It’s no wonder I can’t concentrate anymore, even though I’ve been exercising heavily. Still though, this is precisely why I need to get out of this country. Whether its for academic study of Hezbollah or volunteering with the Peace Corps somewhere, I have a strong feeling that’s the only thing that will shake me out of this stupor – and this streak of the American disorder that manifested in my personality.

The Middle East: An Update

I know… once again this blog has failed to keep up with the rather current events taking place in the Middle East… though I have been reading much about what is currently unfolding in Cairo, Yemen, and now Syria and Jordan. Poor Lebanon’s almost been squeezed out of the news. Nobody cares anymore about Hezbollah’s “coup”, if you will. The events in Cairo have greatly overshadowed the news coming out of the Middle East. Just a couple of quick notes before I get down to business here. First off, I don’t think anybody ever expected or thought that 2011 would be the year where such fundamental changes would take place in the Middle East. What we are witnessing is truly having a profound impact on the way in which Arab citizens in countries around the region interact with their leaders. For me, it was best put by an Egyptian street protester interviewed by CNN, he spoke in broken English and said to the camera, that what we are witnessing is a rebirth of the Arabic mind. And this is precisely what is happening. It is truly historic. And I am profoundly jealous and bitter that I am not there to witness it myself, though as I write this, events in Egypt have taken a sudden, violent turn. But still, it is funny to reflect how the last year I spent in Beirut was oddly peaceful and pretty much functioned under the existing status quo, which has now been completely upended. We are truly witnessing a historic change in the Middle East.

Here’s what I’ve found to be of some interest in tracking these events…

This is probably the most ironic image I’ve seen recently :

Courtesy The Daily Dish: Democracy in The Middle East – A Visual Argument

Here is a rather fascinating insight into the events in Cairo written by a Google Blogspot blogger by the name of The Bionic Arabist who writes the blog The Colorless Revolution.
I’ll repost the entry entitled The Anti-Lawrence here, in its entirety.

I wrote this late at night/early in the morning, when I had decided to go. I’m not sure it’s the most flattering portrait of my thought-processes, but it’s honest:

I’m not exactly living through a revolution so much as living next to one. Most of the foreigners I know in Cairo, except the journalists and would-be journalists, are having a similar experience. Ultimately, this is why I’m going to leave Cairo. I don’t think I’m in danger, but this isn’t my revolution, my family and friends are worrying, and I don’t really know what to do with myself here.

The thing that I don’t know how to explain over the phone is the mixture of boredom and excitement. In one sense, it’s really boring. I spend most of my time glued to al-Jazeera, or cooking to distract myself. Occasionally, I can hear gunfire coming from the Interior Ministry, a couple blocks away, but that’s as scary as it gets (pro-tip: when searching for an apartment, consider whether you want to live next to the most hated ministry in the country. Location, location, location). Needless to say, I’m not getting dissertation research done. Libraries aren’t open, and for some reason nobody wants to talk about houses…

But there’s another sense in which it’s really exciting. This feels vain, but it’s true. It’s intoxicating. All around me, people are coming together with remarkable discipline to bring down a regime whose combination of thuggishness and banality was making me depressed, to say nothing of the people it was actually hurting. It’s exciting. I feel like I’m in the realest place in the world.

But it’s not actually my revolution. I haven’t been protesting or covering it like a journalist, or doing anything else to bask in the reflected glory of Egypt’s uprising, to feel like I’m a part of it. It’s tempting to join in the protests, but it would feel to me like a case of Lawrence of Arabia syndrome. I’m a nerdy little scholar who often finds life back home boring. Planting myself in someone else’s protest to feel like I’m involved in Something would be, I don’t know how else to put it, deeply self-indulgent. It’s not my country, and if I don’t like the new or the old regime, I can leave; the stakes for me are not the same as for Egyptians here.

The Bionic Arabist raises a fair point here. Having spent a year in Beirut, I can definitely say that it is quite easy to get carried away with the ideas and passions running not only around one’s host country, but around the region. It’s easy to get caught up in them, and to want to espouse them, or participate in their formation and evolution in a society. But at the end of the day, its simply not the same for us. We have to put ourselves at a distance from those we come to love and care about there. As much as I hate to say it, we live different lives. We can always return home. But its simply not the same for them. They have nothing else but to cope with the reality they face in their own countries. Wherever the problems come from – the political, social, or economic situation. It’s not our problem to fix, its theirs. Though we cannot deny some culpability, perhaps, in the reality they currently face. But it is not up to us to determine the outcome of their situation. Of course, this does not mean that we cannot help. Personally, I would stay, as I would have in Lebanon if some potentially terrible situation would have evolved that placed foreigners living in the country at a risk. The one thing we can do is to document what is going on, to make our own citizens and leaders aware so that they might make informed decisions in our policy. If I had a choice between braving a revolution that was not my own, or suffering through an epic New England snowstorm, well, I’d choose the former.

I don’t think I’m the only one, either in Cairo or at a keyboard back in America, who feels the urge to be a part of someone else’s revolution because of that thrill. Even if I’m not participating, just being here is exciting. I won’t lie and pretend there’s no vicarious thrill to this. Bumming around Cairo, hunting for fresh vegetables, hanging out with neighborhood watch guys, speculating about when Mubarak will give up and go away, passing the time with other nervous expats while the streets take on a carnival atmosphere – ok, a carnival with tanks, but still, it’s an adventure. I have front row seats for history.

But there are people back home who are worried about me, and the excitement isn’t worth the possibility that the phones could go down again and they’d have no way to contact me. I’m a selfish only child, but not that selfish. So I’m going. I hope I can come back soon, under a new and better regime.

Yeah, regrettably he’s right.

Other Links of Interest:

A rare Wall Street Journal interview with Syria’s President – Bashar al-Assad