Good News! Obama Centrist, Realist

Get it?

It can be really depressing studying foreign policy and international conflicts. It’s mostly bad news. Especially when, in addition to the death, destruction, terrorism and war reporting on mainstream media, you must also study the conspiracy sites. Blogs like The Ugly Truth, which I found off a link on a great foreign policy roundup of blogs. I signed up for the newsletter and the next day received 10 emails of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. propaganda (not necessarily all untrue). Though there are worthwhile alternative media perspectives among the posts, 10 highly subjective posts in a day is both lazy and desperate. And gratuitous: Commenting on the link to a story about how U.S. sanctions are compromising the safety of Iranian airlines, The Ugly Truth editors noted

ed note–which means that if (when) there is some crash of an Iranian airliner, resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians, more likely than not it will be due to the American (Israeli) sanctions put in place. 

Just in case we didn’t see what this post had to do with Israel. Thanks for making your bias so blatant, The Ugly Truth. Another Ugly bias example is the tying of Israel to the Syrian opposition. From what I’ve read, Israel is at worst ambivalent about the somewhat one-sided Syrian Civil War. And I read a lot of different sources. For instance with Syria, Aljazeera English’s website is predictably anti-Assad, Russia Today is mildly anti-U.S. so they support Russia’s position even while they criticize the Kremlin and report on protests. The Economist is capitalist, imperialist and interventionist and The New York Times is, well, getting better.

They no longer just trumpet that “Massacre in Syria blamed on Assad, says everyone”, and try to use vague terms when they don’t know something (like “bloody clash”) instead of just repeating what the Syrian opposition claims (like “civilian massacre”). The Times got a bit of a beatdown, and rightly so, for its reporting on Iran’s nuclear program because it kept substituting “weapon” with what should have been “capability.” As in, it’s been proven Iranians want a “weapon” as opposed to just the capability to build one. Foreign correspondent David Sanger wrote the most egregious substitutions.

And this brings me to the good news. David Sanger’s new book about the Obama foreign policy, Conceal and Confront, came out recently. Guess who was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this week. The Times writer was getting his book reviewed in the Times about what he wrote about for the Times. This must be a totally objective review, right? No, of course not. But to tell the truth, I didn’t care. I was just so happy that Sanger’s book was not a hatchet job of the President’s record. There are plenty of complaints to level at Obama from both the left—legit concerns like drone strike legality—and the right—mostly bullshit, like Obama’s no friend of Israel—but, like Sanger, I believe that President Obama, aside from the Af/Pak surge, has a strangely decent, pragmatic and limited so-called doctrine.

First of all, to address the Israel criticism, the main reason there was tension between Washington and Jerusalem, was Obama wanted to avoid dragging us into war with Iran. We definitely don’t want to go to war with Iran, because if there were any case at all for it, Mitt Romney would be howling. Republicans don’t want to go into Syria, even John McCain has shut up about it. Hell, we told Turkey not to go to war with Syria.

No politician in the U.S. can sell any more American war. Republicans shut up about the lack of soldiers left in Iraq, even while Iraq teeters on the edge (you’d think Romney would attack with that). With soldiers in Afghanistan being blown up or murdered by their allies almost weekly, Obama’s strategically ridiculous decision to surge with 30,000 troops and announce a short-ass withdrawal date at the same time has worked to his political advantage pre-election. Accelerating the withdrawal was cynical yet shrewd.

The other Republican criticism, correct if not utterly hypocritical, has Obama running an imperial presidency. Notice how no one in Congress actually bitched about Obama’s decision to help NATO topple Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, just how he didn’t check with Capitol Hill first. Every president gets this “overreach” criticism at some point.

Obama is certainly impenetrable to the charge of softie, ordering countless more drone strikes than W. and virtually assassinating quantities of al-Qaeda and Taliban officers. He refused to apologize for a chopper strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, even though Pakistan is a client-ally we need. He ordered the Afghanistan surge and the killing of Osama bin Laden. He hit Iran with the toughest sanctions yet and unleashed a cyberwar on their nuclear program (detailed in Sanger’s book).

Our defense department’s pivot toward East Asia strategy has led to an arms race with China, the budding superpower. And this all in one term. By the way, we are sending warships to the Persian Gulf right now.

Where Obama’s foreign policy sought restraint was in the Arab Awakening. Bravo! The left attacks him for not acting in some inspirational role with the Egyptian masses and the right attacks for betraying Hosni Mubarak, whom they claim was an ally. He was just another corrupt client and a greedy dictator who started killing his own people. That’s why we “betrayed” him, Monica Crowley. Crowley is a racist fear-monger who preaches that Obama would rather see America destroyed than win a second term and that Sharia law is strangling America.

State and Defense had to walk a tightrope through the Mideast revolts, often following a healthy dose of rhetoric with, well, nothing. It was the sanest thing to do in such a complex situation. Hillary Clinton is meeting with new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, as well as the leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The rightist Islamophobia critique again fails because Egypt’s Islamists—a comparatible Third Reich for Republicans and Fox News—are still off-set by the military, whom the U.S. supported to help keep things status quo. Clinton is asking the SCAF to give power to the President Morsi, but only in public. Both cynical and shrewd again.

As a realist who understands how low our country can sink (from Rumsfeld/Cheney’s Iraq and Iran-Contra to Pinochet), I have such confidence in current best practices, with regard to this epoch of unstable nations, religious extremism and runaway deficits, that should Mitt Romney become president, I predict little will change. It can’t get that much worse, can it? Never mind.

As the Times review of Sanger’s book reads: “But in truth [Obama] has positioned himself nicely within a political sweetspot, one where Americans are loathe to see their country relinquish its premier global position but wary of unnecessary wars undertaken on wispy rationales.”

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Agreement on Syria Reached Without Syrians

Sergei Lavrov may not be invited to Bashar’s house for dinner anymore

The June 30 round of United Nations–led chats about the Syrian conflict, once again starring envoy Kofi Annan—but not including Iran or Syria—has led to an “agreement” that would “support” a new “transitional body in Syria that would lead a United Nations-backed political transition…that could potential strip the president of his executive authority” as the Wall Street Journal attempts to put it. The reason anyone should take this seriously is that Russia has pledged its support for this creation. However, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton still verbally jousted over whether this means President Bashar al-Assad actually has to give up power.

I doubt that those in villages besieged by mortar shells or militiamen, as well as those security forces routinely ambushed by the rebels, will be sleeping any more soundly in coming months. No doubt commentators will be skeptical of the agreement’s efficacy in stemming the almost 40-killings-a-day average in the near future.

In all fairness to those trying to stop the bloodshed, it’s hard to imagine a more frustrating situation than the Syrian conflict. For the world to bear YouTube and AlJazeera English witness to the mass murder of innocent men, women and children in the 21st century is both a human tragedy and a tragedy of the nation-state system. (On the bright side, at least the United States didn’t directly cause this one.) But it is clear from the year-plus of international hand-wringing, including this latest quarter-measure, that there is little will or call to stop it by military means.

It’s not only the U.N., whose observers are manipulated by both sides on the ground, that’s having little luck coming up with solutions. Op-ed writers and think-tankers are having a hard time coming up with new angles on this stalemate of death and destruction. Knowledgable realists can no longer get away with advocating intervention as editors at The New Republic and John McCain once did. Even as recent events, such as the Houla massacre of women and children and the downing of a Turkish jet by Syrian guns, have exacerbated tension with the U.N. and NATO, the echo chamber of condemnation against the Syrian government continues to ring hollow. And debates over whether or not to call it a “civil war,” while ostensibly altering international legal actions, are exercises in semantics.

While speculation about the nature of the opposition and CIA involvement mounts, little has changed in Syria in the last six months aside from the rising death toll and heated rhetoric between Russia and the U.S. There are three main reasons intervention is currently untenable: the fragmented and Islamic nature of the opposition, the Syrian regime’s backers (Iran, Russia and to a lesser extent China), and the war-weary, insolvent West. Without intervention, there is little hope this bloody revolt will not end without at least another 10,000 slaughtered.

It never seems to fail that after the regime gains the upperhand by retaking a rebel stronghold, more high-level military officers defect to the Free Syria Army in Turkey and the insurgents are re-supplied by their regional Sunni benefactors, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The consistent back and forth portends an endlessly even match, piling high civilian atrocities and refugees.

But there is some good news: U.N. observers and Human Rights Council still can’t piece together whether government forces or rebel groups were behind the massacres in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir. Why is this good? When reports of the Houla massacre first surfaced, media outlets blamed the al-Assad government without question based on a very early report of some U.N. folks—remember all that “tipping point” talk? Eventually stories with eyewitness accounts trickled in from Europe that at least gave the Syrian regime spokesman’s denials some weight. When both the Syrian opposition and the powers-that-be in Damascus have every reason to belch propaganda, the media has a responsibility to admit to itself and its subscribers that the fog of war has descended and that it’s OK to say “We don’t know.”

A BRIEF GLIMPSE AT SYRIA SIX MONTHS AGO

In mid-December 2011 James Harkin’s report from Homs, the foremost symbol of the decimation wrought by the regime against its own cities, was published in Newsweek.

Homs, where [Mohammed] lives, is home to just over a million people, right in the heartland of Syria. It’s where Syrians go to flee the bustle of Damascus and relax in its cafés and restaurants and to watch soccer (Homs boasts two popular soccer teams, Al-Karamah and Al-Wathba). Not anymore; since March, when its people rose up to complain against economic injustice and demand more political freedom, and its armed forces replied with guns and repression, the city has been under a fierce siege. Most of the city is under total military lockdown, Mohammed tells me. No one can go out; everyone stays at home. “There are tanks in the streets where I live. You can’t really walk around; it’s dangerous.”

Bombs started detonating on the streets of Damascus, which previously had not seen much violence, with increased frequency. On January 6, an explosion killed 26 just two weeks after a bomb targeting security installations killed 44, which had officials believing al-Qaeda had stepped in. The nonstop fighting persuaded Arab League monitors to flee Syria, saying their mission to forestall bloodshed was a failure.

Syrian opposition groups say the monitors, who deployed on December 26 to check whether Syria was respecting an Arab peace plan, have only bought Assad more time to crush protests…

On January 11, 2012, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the public for the first time in six months. Cheering thousands show that his support among the people can still be wielded as a countermeasure to the reams of negative press his regime has received worldwide. He said:

“We do not close the door for solutions or suggestions, and we do not close any door for any Arab initiative, as they respect Syrian sovereignty and the freedom of our decision and care about the unity of our nation.”

“There is no order at any level within the levels of our country to shoot at any civilian.”

The fact that al-Assad needed to come out and say that has its own inferences. In the January 6 Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami, author of a book that came out in June 2012, The Syrian Rebellion, gave a sharp critique of Bashar al-Assad’s regime—overstating his case by comparing Syria to a “North Korea on the Mediterranean”— and the do-nothing West. He bemoaned the fact that the Syrian people are on their own, as they very much are six months later.

The U.S. response has been similarly shameful. From the outset of the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration has shown remarkable timidity. After all, the Assad dictatorship was a regime that President Obama had set out to “engage” (the theocracy in Tehran being the other). The American response to the struggle for Syria was glacial.

Another voice pushing forceful regime change, according to the Washington Times,Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Council’s executive board.

Mr. Nashar noted why U.S. officials might be “very hesitant to pursue this particular policy,” citing the recent U.S. military exit from Iraq and upcoming elections. He also suggested they might be “waiting for a certain international coalition spearheaded, not by the U.S., but perhaps more so by Turkey.” “And it’s quite unfortunate because, after all, the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world,” he said, nonetheless adding that a Turkish-led NATO operation with “cover” from Arab states would enjoy the greatest support among Syrians. Mr. Nashar said the U.S. has a “historic opportunity” to improve its image in Syria. “The vast majority of the Syrians I know were completely supportive of what NATO did [in Libya],” he said.

The Syrian opposition and their divided institutions-in-exile were ambivalent about foreign intervention.

The National Coordination Committee had disagreed with the Syrian National Council’s calls for foreign intervention – one of several disputes that had prevented opposition groups agreeing on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.

Under their pact, the two sides “reject any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign.”

Paul Mutter at Salon.com summed up the myriad intervention considerations and comparisons to Libya at the time.

Other prominent voices in the insular but influential world of neoconservative thought include a team of defense specialists at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently issued a report concluding, “Intervention in Syria would be a demanding mission carrying significant risks,” while also asserting that “intervention also presents policy opportunities.”

Media Strikes Iran’s Nuclear Facilities As Talks Fail

The recently wrapped up Moscow talks between the P5+1 (the five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, the second round after those held Baghdad in late May, have failed to bear fruit. To play the blame game and castigate just one side would be an exercise in schoolyard oversimplification.

In the end, it seems Iranian negotiators could not entertain a strict demand to “stop, shut and ship”—stop enriching, shut down the Fordow site and ship out their load of 19.75 percent uranium. Not a shock that they balked: this is basically telling a proud nation it has no right to an independent nuclear program, that it should dismantle years of hard, complicated work and toss hundreds of millions of rials into the Gulf. Meanwhile Iranian promises of a fatwa against nuclear weapons, of full cooperation with the IAEA, and of low-grade enrichment limits—should sanctions be relaxed—did little to assuage the U.S. and its cohorts. Rightly so: Why would the Western nations trust an antagonistic, power-hungry regime who will say or do anything to improve its chances at regional hegemony? Indeed, much has been written about how both sides have overplayed their hands, feeling they have the leverage to walk away from the negotiating table.

This breakdown means we must prepare for the return of an endless onslaught of articles baldly assuming an imminent military strike on Iran’s enrichment facilities, similar to those we saw on cover stories through January and February. We will see not only straight-up calls for a pre-emptive attack but articles like those in The New York Times that correctly caught flak for their subtle allusions to Iran’s nuclear arsenal, which doesn’t exist. Back then, the eager calls by warhawks in the U.S. and Israel to bomb Iran backfired, even as scare tactic, by prompting numerous Israeli military and Mossad vets to denounce the plan as nothing short of stupid.

Fast forward to June: Even before the negotiations officially ended, the calls for strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities were coming in loud as well as insidious.

Jumping the gun and surprising no one was The Weekly Standard’s Jamie Fly and Will Kristol. Though the bulk of their advice amounted to “isn’t it time for the president to ask Congress for Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran’s nuclear program,” the buildup to this gem was meant to manipulate the uninformed. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion but using a 1936 Winston Churchill speech to make the implicit/explicit connection of Iran to Nazi Germany is tired, cliched and wrong. Points awarded for not referencing the classic warmonger Chamberlain-Munich-1938 catch-all (which was probably considered) though I predict this will be regurgitated ad nauseam soon.

The merits of this Authorizarion to threaten Iran with ordnance are debatable but Kristol et al come at it from the specious, hackneyed litany of complaints of Iran’s “record of murder and mayhem,” including all its foiled assassinations and of course the plot to “kill the Saudi ambassador (and American bystanders)” in Washington. According to the U.N.’s take on the matter, “the resolution, which was introduced by Saudi Arabia, doesn’t directly accuse Iran of involvement but calls on the country ‘to comply with all of its obligations under international law’ and to cooperate in ‘seeking to bring to justice’ the people who allegedly plotted to kill the envoy.” Not to mention the two-way street comparison in this scenario: The cyber-attacks, sabotage and murders by U.S. and Israeli intelligence aimed at stalling Tehran’s nuclear progress actually worked. I won’t get into the slew of arguments (e.g. Iran has never attacked another country) against Fly and Kristol’s junior high analysis of supervillain Iran.

An example of the less straightforward “imminent war” insinuation came Thursday from Reuters in Jerusalem: “Israel Says Clock Ticking After Iran Talks Fail.” Can you feel the doomsday chill yet? How about:

“Israel has responded to the failure of the latest nuclear talks between world powers and Iran with a familiar refrain: sanctions must be ramped up while the clock ticks down toward possible military action.”

This provocative lede, upon further reading, is misleading, as the third paragraph relays: “Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck closely to his stated line, without offering any new sense of urgency, when asked by the Washington Post how much more time Israel can allow for diplomacy to work.” (Emphasis added)

Note the journos habit of asking questions designed to get juiced-up headlines about when we can expect the war to start. No one has brought up military action except the reporter/writer/editor of the story. Read till the end and the piece balances out somewhat but, unfortunately, Reuters is picked up by tons of blurb driven news sites like Yahoo! where the audience isn’t expected to read on. Headlines and ledes are all we have time for these days.

The Washington Post stoked its own fears with the headline “Faltering Iran talks stoke fears of new conflict.” Even with a day of talks left, the questionable lede was concocted to spook us:

The near-collapse of nuclear talks with Iran has ushered in what experts on Wednesday described as a dangerous new phase in the decade-long standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.

What experts end up describing are potential actions resulting from the sanctions due to hit Iran on July 1, taking us down the slippery hypothetical path of what Iran could do if these sanctions have a particularly nasty effect: “Worsening economic hardship could drive Iran’s leaders to adopt more aggressive and confrontational policies.” Not quite as scary as the dangerous new phase we’ve already entered into.

The third sentence in the piece also particularly troublesome: “At the same time, prominent Israeli and U.S. politicians are renewing calls for preparations for a military strike to halt Iran’s nuclear progress.”

While a specific example is provided of a U.S. Republican senator calling for the Pentagon to prepare bunker-busting bombs, not one Israeli politician is mentioned, even off the record and anonymous. And of course, reserved for the very last line in the piece, apparently offered as a token to balance the story, is a Democratic Congressman calling on his right-of-the-aisle brothers to take a deep breath and calm down.

Nitpicky you say? Try this lede from the June 21 Wall Street Journal:

“Tel Aviv – Israel is unlikely to launch a strike on Iran as long as sanctions on Tehran intensify and diplomatic efforts continue, despite the failure of international talk… Israeli officials and security experts say.”

Given all the pre-emptive strike hullabaloo we’ve heard for the last two years, isn’t this the real story? That Israel is not shouting about how their window to attack is closing. Instead of America and Israel gearing up for a jet-fighter strike, the Journal piece talks about the breakdown in talks as the impetus that has “fueled talk of military options.” Illustrating how a story can be written to show the realistic thinking of those in power, it goes on to quote officials on the record and describe high-level discussions on how the U.S. could better use the threat of attack as a bargaining chip. Note: In no way could this be taken to mean an attack is imminent or unavoidable.

Alas, the Wall Street headline still reads: “Strike on Iran Stays on Hold, FOR NOW.” (Emphasis added)

And this is only the beginning.

Islamic Democracy, Oxymoron?

The Supreme Leader

 “Everybody in the Arab world remembers 2009.”

– Marc Lynch, author of The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolution of the New Middle East, on NPR’s ‘Brian Lehrer Show,’ Monday March 26, 2012

THE REAL POWER IN IRAN

It’s hard to remember a time when Iran wasn’t associated with its current president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. With his provocative anti-Zionist declarations to the world and his U.N. Assembly appearances decrying the evils of the U.S., he has become a Western media pariah. His photo adorns most articles about Iran and its defiant nuclear program. I am guilty of this as well.

But more and more Ahmadinejad, both inside and outside of Iran, should be seen as a nuisance who is fading from the scene. The parliamentary elections of March 1, 2012, weakened him. The majles immediately called him out for reckless economic policies and other questionable actions. Now there is gossip about impeachment in Tehran.

Would the Islamic Consultative Assembly, as the legislature is known, go after a president without the consent of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei? Unlikely. Since Ahmadinejad’s latest perceived insubordination—sacking an intelligence chief close to the Supreme Leader—Khamenei has made a public statement about eliminating the office of the president in 2013. Apparently he hasn’t been a big fan of the last few chief executives.

While President Ahmadinejad is no paean to justice and liberty for all, Ayatollah Khamenei, who took over from revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini upon his death in 1989, and the conservative clerics of the Islamic Republic are the true enemy of any Islamic democracy. This was made clear by the rigged presidential election of June 2009 and confirmed by the brutal and immediate reaction to the Arab-inspired Green Movement surge in February 2011.

These Mideast revolts for an Islamic democracy are linked. After the uprisings began in late January, Iran’s 2009 reform candidate Mir Houssein Mousavi claimed on his website: “What we are witnessing in the streets of Tunis, Sana, Cairo, Alexandria and Suez take their origins from the millions-strong protests in Tehran in 2009.” In those mass Arab demonstrations aided by laptop and cellphone, Facebook and Twitter, Iran’s student activist Daneshjoo News saw what they had started, adding a high-tech angle to civil disobedience. The Internet guru of the Egyptian revolution, Wael Ghonim, gave a speech calling for Iranian support of the Arab uprising. He told the people of the Islamic Republic “We learned from you.”

Heeding these calls for solidarity, a reinvigorated Green Movement planned giant rallies in mid-February 2011. But they would be shutdown.

“On the streets of Tehran, a new slogan is being sprayed: ‘Seyed Ali go be with Ben Ali'” says the Wall Street Journal. A sentiment that Khamenei should go the way of ousted Tunisian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali. This would not stand.

Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad found a strategy they agreed upon: Co-opt the Arab uprisings as pro-Islamic, anti-Western phenomena and crush any revitalized movement before it starts at home. The crackdown on protests was comprehensive and included cutting Internet and cellphone reception. Opposition candidates, such as Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi, were placed under house arrest. Revolutionary Guards and police used tear gas, live rounds and beatings—but were careful not to be caught on video killing protestors this time.

As the Arab Awakening continues in different forms in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries—with everything from massacres to progress—one can argue that the liberal movement in Iran is neutralized. One might conclude that the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and their armed forces are solely concerned with the preservation of their regime.

FLIRTING WITH DEMOCRACY

It wasn’t always this way in Iran, but how would Westerners know? Back in the late nineties, the American media wasn’t covering President Khatami encouraging a free press to flourish in Iran. The U.S. focus during the liberal Seyed Hussein Khatami’s eight years as president was first Saddam Hussein, then al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then Saddam again.

Khatami allied with the centrist political parties and tried to implement democratic changes at home, while curbing the Islamic Republic’s practice of sponsoring terrorism abroad. When he started reaching a hand toward America, Ayatollah Khamenei slapped it back, re-emphasizing that the U.S. is always a virulent foe. Led by the Supreme Leader, conservatives in the Guardian Council, the body that passes bills from parliament, blocked attempts at legal reforms. Sometimes the Revolutionary Guards went further:

“In July 1999 [the Guards] closed a popular reformist newspaper, triggering six days of severe rioting that shook the foundations of the Islamic regime.”

Indeed, Iranians are no strangers to protest. But they were still under the impression they could speak with their votes, and maybe a movement wasn’t deemed necessary yet. The reform parties continued to win seats in parliament in mid-term elections and Khatami easily became a two-termer in 2001.

THE MOVEMENT’S ROOTS

Having effectively shut down Khatami’s liberal agenda, the conservatives took full control in 2005. The Guardian Council disqualified serious liberal contenders, so after Khatami’s two-term limit, the reformers were forced to run a somewhat weak platform of unknowns. The women and younger voters who turned out in 1997 and 2001 became disillusioned and didn’t vote en masse. The Bush Administration gave the conservatives a boost by including Iran in the Axis of Evil, therefore reinforcing right-wing aggressive stances. Voting results point to the long-time centrist and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani splitting the liberals. But skeptical Iranians would say the Supreme Leader and the conservatives helped hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a surprising victory in a low-turnout affair.

Often seen as an uneducated religious zealot, whether for real or as a tactic, Ahmadinejad awakened the opposition. His nepotism, brashness and ego, which put off even Ayatollah Khamenei, gave disparate liberal groups something to galvanize them. Protests against Ahmadinejad during the December 2006 parliamentary elections helped reformists secure a partnership with Rafsanjani’s centrists. By 2008, according to Iranian journalist Hooman Majd, even conservatives were split over the unpopular president.

For Iranian dissenters, as for the Arab revolutionaries, frustration was like seeping gas filling a room for years. And as the cliché goes, it just needed the spark to spread like wildfire.

JUNE 2009

Was there any way the embattled, unpopular president could have been re-elected with 64 percent of the vote? In his book The Ayatollah’s Democracy, Hooman Majd notes:

“While it would have been impossible to prove that Mousavi was more popular than the president, it is also a virtual impossibility that Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Parliament and liberal cleric, could have received only one-twentieth the votes he did four years ago, and less votes than there were card-carrying members of his own political party.”

Clearly supporters of Mousavi didn’t accept it. According to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper:

“As the official results were announced, baton-wielding riot police clashed with angry Mousavi supporters in some of the most serious unrest Tehran has seen in years.”

“Riot police on motorbikes used batons to disperse Mousavi supporters who staged a sit-in near the interior ministry, where the results were announced. Up to 2,000 Mousavi supporters erected barricades of burning tyres and chanted “Mousavi take back our vote! What happened to our vote?”

The results according to Wikipedia’s ‘Iranian Presidential Election, 2009’:

“On the night of 14 June the pro-Ahmadinejad Basij paramilitary group raided Tehran University, injuring many.”

“On 15 June millions of protesters marched on Azadi street and Mousavi made his first post-election appearance.”

The mass demonstrations were met with violence by the Basij (security forces) and Revolutionary Guards, just as Khamenei had promised in a speech warning protesters. It took a viral video of a young, attractive woman named Neda shot dead in the street to drive home what was happening. With the help of instant, mobile technology, cyber witnesses around the world experienced a movement creating itself with more immediacy and truth than ever before.

That a web-connected Arab generation wouldn’t be paying very close attention to the 2009 protests in Iran is unlikely. The Heritage Foundation in their “Index of Economic Freedom 2012” cited a correlation between Iran mid-2009 and North Africa in early 2011:

“Facebook and Twitter feeds during Iran’s Green Movement include messages from young Egyptians blaming themselves for not following the Iranian lead.”

“Both the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Movement were organized by groups of youngsters frustrated with their gloomy economic prospects. Importantly, they had no ties to extremist fundamentalism; they were “non-ideological,” and their solidarity and integrity were unprecedented.”

“The Iranian government’s violent and deadly response to protests … sparked outrage and antagonism against the regime and sowed seeds of discontent against dictatorship and repression that spilled throughout the region, inflaming aspirations for economic and political freedom.

In twenty years, historians and writers will tie the Green Movement to the Arab Awakening (they are only eighteen months apart) as they analyze how technology gave a new era of revolutionaries instant global exposure.

THE FUTURE

Though the liberal movement in Iran has gone underground, the Greens always had a serious disadvantage when compared to the Arab countries with more secular rulers, as the Heritage study observes:

“Iranian protesters faced a regime with strong fundamentalist ideology, wielding a weapon—“religious authenticity”—that other authoritarian regimes in the region lacked, observes Nader Hashemi, a teacher of Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.”

Messianic righteousness has historically been used to justify brutal repression, and it has been used to do this in Iran since the 1979 revolution, even though much of Iran’s privileged class is secular. In contrast, the Arab uprisings, awash in speeches of freedom and democratic reform, has resulted in a turn away from secularism and given Islamic parties more power. Thus a fundamental question is brought to the forefront again for Muslims societies in the Middle East: Is Islam compatible with democracy?

There was certainly a pretense of “one person, one vote” and other civil liberties before 2005 in Iran. As Majd writes:

“Years ago, President Seyed Mohammad Khatami had told me elections in Iran were generally fair—fair, that is, if the winner of any election won by more than three or four hundred thousand votes.”

While detailing the conservative conspiracy to rig the election in June 2009, Majd also cites revolutionary leader Knomeini’s promise of an “Islamic democracy” and the seeds it planted in those hopeful of its truth:

“But there are still many believers in the possibility of an Islamic democracy, including leaders of the opposition, backed by some of the senior Ayatollahs, such as Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei.

Sanei and his fellow reform-minded partners, ex-president Khatami and Green Party candidate Mehdi Karroubi, seem to believe a theocracy and a democracy can coexist. But Turkey, the supposed model, still jails those critical of the regime and refuses to recognize the Kurdish minority. But perhaps if the will of the people can bring about open, peaceful transfers of Islamic leadership, the Western powers and Israel can stop inadvertently radicalizing Muslim populations.

Mao Zedong was a World-class Mofo: a review of Mao’s Great Famine

Mao Zedong wrote the book on guerilla warfare, literally, and was the godfather of Communist China. But thanks to scholarship like Frank Dikotter’s 2010 book, based on the latest archives out of Beijing, there’s more hope that Chairman Mao will be solely remembered as an asshole of the first order—even before he unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Why isn’t Mao, responsible for the deaths of at least 25 million people within four years, a supervillain in the vain of Stalin or even Pol Pot? (Ho Chi Minh is more of a household bad-guy name.) A couple big factors inform Mao’s lack of mainstream infamy. Most notably, the slow death of neglected peasants isn’t compelling Middle-American entertainment. It lacks cinematic drama. Unlike WWII, there’s no happy ending and there are no heroes. Another notoriety tamer: Mao didn’t specifically order Stalin-style show trials, executions and massacres. Nor did his henchmen dress in stylish black leather or shoot people, like the Nazis. Cable channels, like National Geographic and History, have never given Mao’s China its due.

The title Mao’s Great Famine puts the blame squarely on the Chairman. This specific ‘Fuck You’ is necessary to drive home his complicity because Mao is rather far from the actual carnage. As such, he is conspicuously absent from the second half of the book, especially in the long section called ‘Ways of Dying.’ It almost seems as though he has plausible deniability. He does not. The subtle evil of the Chairman is that he caused a famine then neglected to save his subjects. And it would have been so easy. Mao’s advisers, his planners and his enemies in the party whole-heartedly—yet silently—welcomed an end to his counterproductive policies.

The author takes care not to romanticize Mao and his cult of personality. Mao comes off as a flat character: impetuous, spoiled and often moronic, he seems to lack any skepticism. He’s described thusly:

“Mao spewed disdain”  “Mao now demanded full allegiance” “left Mao seething with resentment”

But Mao had seen his share of hardship, leading his communist guerillas on the Long March of retreat in the  Chinese Civil War. That Mao was desensitized to the suffering of others is not explored in the book—and it’s to his credit that Dikotter won’t allow Mao to escape responsibility via diagnosis.

The word ‘Great’ in the title is a reference to Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1958-1962. Irony doesn’t come much more blatant than this name: The Leap was one of the most insane self-inflicted steps backward in world history.

SOME CONTEXT

After WWII, Joseph Stalin was world communist No. 1—the most powerful soul in the eastern hemisphere. He bankrolled Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War against General Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists in 1947-48. But Stalin treated Mao like an illegitimate child.

“For thirty years Mao had suffered humiliation at the hands of Stalin, willingly subordinating himself to Moscow out of sheer strategic necessity.”

Mao’s accomplishments were nothing to sneer at. He was a pioneer of guerilla warfare and fought off Imperial Japan before driving the Nationalist army to the sea. As a fierce-willed proproganda-spewing prophet, he then cemented Communist China.

Mao had once respected Stalin’s vision but by the early ’50s he was plotting China’s course to match Soviet power. When Stalin died in 1953 of a brain hemorrhage, the Chairman saw no reason he couldn’t become the one true god of communism. Soviet successor Nikita Khrushchev, a loyal Stalinist thug, was not particularly respected inside or outside Moscow—which is why he survived Stalin’s frequent purges.

In 1957, the Sputnik satellite orbited the earth and earned the Soviets the superpower championship belt. Khrushchev boasted loudly about the advances of the industrial wonderland communism built. He proclaimed the USSR would overtake America in everything from color TVs to steel production. Mao began to echo these boasts and assured the world that China would soon outproduce Britain in steel. Soviet communism flourished, so surely China could achieve a Great Leap Forward to industrialization, a la Stalin’s Five-Year Plans.

THE LEAP IS ON

Mao solidified top-level party support through fear and sold the Great Leap Forward as a way to both cure poverty and industrialize the countryside. But the phrase was first used “in the context of a water-conservancy drive” for which 30 million people had been recruited in 1957.

The Leap was China’s second get-power-quick scheme—Mao’s mid-50s Socialist High Tide faltered and drew heavy criticism. But Mao soon purged non-believers and continued collectivizing the vast rural population—seizing its property and forcing it into hard labor—as the People’s Republic sought an edge in prestige, goods and geopolitics. Ideology was a key method of oppression as Mao and his central committee instituted a military-based society: ‘villagers were “footsoldiers” who had to “fight battles” on the “front line” … while “shock brigades” might “stage a march.”‘ Beijing corralled peasants into the continuous revolution, the People’s communes.

Dikotter quotes Mao: “If we can provide food without cost, that would be a great transformation. I guess that in about ten years time commodities will be abundant, moral standards will be high. We can start communism with food, clothes and housing. Collective canteens, free food, that’s communism!”

Like five-star generals, Beijing’s economic planners gave orders that ran down the totem pole of party officials, from province to region to county to brigade and finally to individual cadre. Wielding authority and clubs, cadres stripped millions of poor villagers of their land, herded them into communes or collective farms, and put them to backbreaking work.

Not that the cadres were necessarily evil, they were simply under a lot of pressure to produce tons of steel and grain and other commodities. Cadres were responsible for getting giant damns built, irrigation systems dug and iron ore mined. To motivate workers, they threatened to withhold food.

County chiefs—who wanted to gain favor with the province boss, who wanted to gain favor with Mao—demanded production targets be met and projects be completed quickly. From cadres on up, everyone had to stay on the party’s good side.

Competition was fierce among counties to earn a coveted Red Flag, like a gold star, from Beijing. The state assigned ill-conceived projects and demanded high yields of crops, then provided no oversight, no quality control and no incentive to work effectively. Cutting corners became policy down the line. Tried and true farming methods were scrapped, so attempts to develop more foodstuffs directly resulted in serious food shortages. Entire villages were razed for steel and fertilizer in probably the most prolific residential destruction of all time. Quickie dams collapsed and reservoirs leaked dry. Irrigation schemes salinized—or salted—millions of hectares of soil, making it less fertile. Half-assed industrialization was rampant.

“One chemical workshop in Nanjing, put together in a residential dwelling, had a bamboo roof and paint peeling from mud walls…. Radioactive waste permeated nooks and crannies…. Some of the women had the cartilage separating their nostrils eaten away by constant inhalation of chemicals.”

Indeed, no examples were spared in Dikotter’s comprehensive exposé of dangerously shoddy Great Leap Forward campaigns. Brigades worked the malnourished villagers longer hours but it only wore them out or made them lazy with spite.

As pieces of the sky fell, local leaders buried them, hiding the horrors.

Though the last two-thirds of the book isn’t much fun to read, a relatively enjoyable part of Mao’s Great Famine comes in the ‘Survival’ section. In chapters such as ‘On the Sly’ and ‘Wheeling and Dealing,’ Dikotter concentrates on how regular people defied the party and managed to squeak out an existence. In a society where the lowliest bureaucratic functionaries held life and death in their hands —in the form of ration cards—smart folks learned fast to barter, bribe and network. Savvy businessmen found ways to outwit the state, bypassing the ‘planned economy’ with creative accounting and developing a ‘shadow economy,’ a vast black market.

“Li Ke, a cadre from Jianguomen commune to the east of Beijing, wrote himself a certificate for sick leave for nine months and started trading in sewing machines, bicycles and radios, investing the profit in a bulk acquisition of electric bulbs and cables. These he sold in Tianjin, purchsing in turn furniture which he unloaded in the suburbs precisely when the market contracted…”

Dikotter’s unromantic anecdotes, when they finally arrive, feel like tall tales of capitalist cowboys sticking it to the communist empire.

Cadres and county officials regularly stole from the state, smuggled goods and ran under-the-radar factories and even complex trading operations. What might be considered unconscionable corruption in a socialist democracy became survival in a totalitarian kleptocracy.

Other sections of the book, such as ‘Destruction’ and ‘The Vulnerable,’ detail the wide range of awfulness. The chapters therein, while fascinating in scope, offer up repetitive, depressing statistics for scholarship. One titled “Nature” reveals how Mao’s vainglorious delusions led him to declare war on the physical land.

THE FAMINE

The famine mentioned in the title is presented mostly as a sequence of brief images or as reams of statistics.

“In a hamlet once humming with activity, two children with drumbstick limbs and skeletal heads, lying by their cadaverous grandmother, were the only survivors. One in four people in a local population of half a million had perished in Guangshan.”

Though he’s wise to avoid drawn-out scenes of family’s cannibalizing one another, Dikotter could have found more room for peasants with names and character traits. Instead the reader sometimes sees the rural Chinese as Mao saw them: numbers.

The most sympathetic character, whose story would make fine historical fiction, is Liu Shaoqi’s, Mao’s head of state. He finally returns to his hometown in Huaminglou, Hunan, after 40 years, to investigate the results of 18 months of the Great Leap Forward.

One passage from Liu’s journey sums up how the Leap begat the famine.

‘He [Liu Shaoqi] tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959. Duan Sucheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a Red Flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions [taken by the state], villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.’

In short, Beijing took more and more food from the counties as they produced less and less.

Those who criticized the Leap were labeled ‘rightist’—like ‘commie’ during 1950s America’s Red Scare, a derogatory term that meant you could be blacklisted or worse. The scrutiny by cadres tasked with finding rightists led to the discovery that farmers had been hiding grain.

After a report was issued to Beijing, a furious Mao sent the orders that translated into brigades rampaging through small towns and villages, beating, looting and terrorizing peasants. As tons of hidden grain were violently confiscated, starvation increased exponentially.

When Liu Shaoqi returned home it was April 1961, after several rounds of rightist purges and grain confiscation, and the results of a famine, which had been severe since 1959, were hard to hide. Liu saw with his own eyes the obvious destitution and ‘clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer [Liu’s] team from speaking with villagers.’ Liu called the provincial Bureau of Security ‘completely rotten’ and immediately shut down the wretched canteen in his native village of Tanzichong.

Liu, clearly shocked with the conditions on the ground, was also disturbed that he had stopped getting mail. Dikotter quotes Liu: ‘My home town is such a mess but nobody has sent me a report…. I am afraid they were simply not allowed to write, or they did write and their letters were inspected and confiscated.”

Liu Shaoqi spoke truth to power a month later at a gathering of leaders and called on the party to accept blame for their errors, revealing: ‘in Hunan the peasants have a saying, “30 percent is due to natural calamities, 70 percent to man-made disasters.”‘

For his challenges to Mao and criticism of the Great Leap Forward, Liu’s stock tumbled until he was officially purged in the Cultural Revolution of 1966.

THE END

As early as 1959, Mao had to admit that mistakes were made, but he didn’t change the policies of the Great Leap Forward. A phrase he often used to explain it away was, ‘Out of ten fingers, only one fails, where nine succeed.’ And Zhou Enlai, the senior economic planner, routinely insisted on taking the heat for Mao.

When it was to his advantage, Mao did pretend to care about the rural population. By October 1960, as reports of mass starvation finally made it to Beijing, ‘Mao was visibly shaken’ and party leaders (such as Liu Shaoqi) were finally dispatched to the countryside on fact-finding missions into 1961. The state rounded up, imprisoned and/or purged the most abusive and neglectful county leaders and cadres. Mao called those offenders ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘rightists’ who were taking revenge against the communist vision. But “at no point did the Chairman acknowledge that the regime of terror he modeled at the top was being mirrored at every level down the party hierarchy.”

By the end of 1960, Zhou Enlai and members of the central committee made subtle adjustments in economic policy to slowly reverse the catastrophic death and destruction. A year later, they even convinced Mao that imports of grain were needed to heal the countryside. Most of the famine-fueling elements had been rooted out, and conditions, which had nowhere to go but up, improved considerably by late 1962.

As Dikotter continually points out, a final damage assessment is hard to verify, given all the fraudulent information passed up and down the chain of command. An estimate of 25 million avoidable deaths is the low end of the spectrum—45 million the high. And he argues convincingly that Mao, who expelled experts overseeing an irrigation project for reporting that hundreds had died, knew what was up from the getgo.

Positive Spin on the U.S. Wars (my cynical id)

The Taliban and their friends in Pakistan safe havens have gotten a rude awakening. It’s about time we took the battle to its true center, North Waziristan and over the Pakistan border in general.

Helicopter attacks and increased drone strikes on insurgents who fire on coalition forces in Afghanistan and then retreat over the border to Pakistan are finally being accepted (with limits) by the Pakistani powers that be. In September alone there were 20 drone bombings and a copter raid killed at least 40 retreating Taliban. The CIA has a network of Pashtun informants and spies that allow these attacks to be accurate. And the Haqqani Network and the Taliban are murdering their own people in numbers over who might be informants.

It’s just about the coolest thing I’ve heard with regard to the Afghanistan(/Pakistan) war since the CIA, with the Northern Alliance, ousted the Taliban back in 2001 (without the U.S. military).

We have to put it to Pakistan or we have to go home. We’ve given them billions so they can play both sides and enough is enough.

THE TAKEAWAY FROM IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN

Sure we went to war with countries that posed little or no threat to us, compared to Iran and Pakistan. (The Iranian leadership hates America and Israel and is desperate to acquire nukes. Pakistan has nukes and both countries have and support various terrorist/extremist groups that could snag those nukes.) Sure, instead of just toppling oppressive regimes we saw as hostile, we decided we had to stick around and pretend we could make those nations democracies. Sure, we played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands and spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to make the world think we’re brutal imperialists and to turn a new generation of potential terrorists against us.

But what have we learned? And more importantly, what have we relearned that has been stripped of ambiguity going forward?

1. There will always be war. The sooner we accept this, the better.

a) Fighting has been humankind’s defining trait since the dawn of time and the century that brought the world the most progress also brought by far the most devastating war and destruction.

b) 9/11 and our response to 9/11 have assured perpetual war. Now not just the hawks and the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about know this, the public knows it. That knowledge has been stripped of all ambiguity.

c) The invasion and occupation  of Iraq and Afghanistan will be seen as U.S. failures. But instead of promoting caution in further overseas adventures, it will only fuel our need to not be perceived as weak. Already prognosticators see no other option but military action if Iran continues to strive for nuclear weapons.

d) But even if the status quo remains with Iran for years, non-state actors will provoke the U.S. to attack other countries at some point. The sooner we accept this, the better.

2. We’ve relearned our allies are our enemies.

a) We can assassinate our enemies from the sky, and this is acceptable in Pakistan, a country we’re not at war with (it’s acceptable to the American people as well!). Pakistan works with the U.S. and against U.S. interests at the same time. We used the threat of a massive terrorist attack in Europe to finally go into Pakistan, where it was said to be planned. This has blowback potential.

b) We once supported Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

3. We’ve learned that politics makes bad military strategy.

a) Bush and Rumsfeld’s light-footprint strategy to limit U.S. casualties was a disaster.

b) Obama should have either pulled out or sent in more troops for the long haul. Instead he split the difference and prolonged our withdrawal for a year, actually doing himself no favors politically and learning nothing from the light-footprint Iraq fiasco. Obama will pull out before the 2012 elections.

c) The U.S. obtained its immediate objectives (removal of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban) easily. Did we really believe we could start a stable, democratic government (Bush’s political goal) in Iraq or keep amorphous, splintered groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban out of power forever (Obama’s stated goal in the campaign)?

4. We learned that the more we fight the better at fighting we get.

a) The military learned a new kind of war: counterinsurgency (COIN) for the 21st century. Our military is much smarter than it was 6 or 7 years ago, and has adapted impressively. (Too bad COIN is the most costly of all war strategies.)

5. We’ve relearned that our adventures and interference in the world can backfire and that, as the most powerful nation, we have serious limits. However, we’ve learned that we can still protect the American public (especially our non-Muslim citizens) by destabilizing other nations. Iraq self-destructed because its citizens lived in sectarian fear and had to join violent extremists to survive a civil war (spurred on by U.S. de-Baathification and the like). They spend so much time and energy killing one another that they do not pose a threat to the U.S. in the near future. Even al-Qaeda spent most of its resources inciting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 instead of focusing on the U.S.

6. We have relearned that the United States is not concerned with civilian casualties in developing and Muslim countries, or in countries that commit mass sectarian violence within themselves.

The United States of America became (by WWII) and remains the most powerful nation in the world by engaging in often ridiculous and counterproductive wars and coups. History, the present and the foreseeable future all prove there will be war.

Be glad you’re on the winning team (because even the innocent losers are massacred).