Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Black Man's Burden

Being rather new to the blogosphere, I have been going through some of the more interesting posts from the last few years. Then I stumbled on this and the follow up post from M regarding Live 8, both of which elicited a storm of comments. Though it is not my wish to resurrect the controversy, I still feel obliged to put down my thoughts on the subject of Africa's proclaimed poverty.

Our continent's penury has been proclaimed far and wide. Governments, NGOs, the media and celebrities alike have taken to the rooftops to weave their sorry tale of Africa's woe. We've all heard the statistics. To quote just a few: More than 300 million people south of the Sahara have to survive on less than a dollar a day. Two thirds of the poorest countries in the world are in Africa, as are 34 of the 35 states with the lowest life expectancy. However this is at best a mistelling of the true story and at worst a deliberate attempt to mask the real and fundamental cause of the continents underdevelopment.

Africa is possibly the largest producer of raw materials in the world. Our mineral and agricultural resources are what keep the rest of the world churning. Many of the world's largest corporations make their money on the backs of African peasants who see little in return for their labour. For example, according to the Global Policy Forum we (together with our brothers-in-alms in Asia and Latin America) grow the coffee that drives a $70 billion global business and accept only $6 billion for our troubles. African countries harvest about two-thirds of the world's cocoa (the main ingredient for the $75 billion chocolate industry), mine 21 percent of it's gold, and control nearly 17% of its oil reserves. Yet only 1 percent of the world's wealth is created in the region between the Sahara and the Cape of Good Hope. Where does it all go? To the middlemen and marketers, of course. In this way, we effectively subsidise the Western economies to a scale that dwarfs any of the agricultural subsidies paid to its farmers or any amount of aid that they would favour us with. And it doesn't stop there. We spend our money training countless doctors, nurses and other professionals only to freely send them to work in the industrialised world. We receive "aid", promptly return it in payments to the "donor" nation's companies, and then are paradoxically still left with a debt whose interest payments are mind-boggling. Between 1970 and 2002 the countries south of the Sahara received a total of $294 billion in loans. In the same period of time they paid back $268 billion, and accumulated, after interest, a mountain of debt amounting to $210 billion. In spite of the fact that the whole of Africa receives less Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) than Singapore, according to the Washington Post stock markets in Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana and Kenya consistently rank among the world's top growth markets.

Let us diabuse ourselves of this notion that Africa is poor. Africa is not poor. We lack because what we have is freely given away to the developed world. I do not blame the West for this state of affairs. Hey, who says no to free lunch, even in Africa? The truth is that the blame lies squarely with us Africans because we tolerate the situation and accept the rationalisations that support it. We agree to sell our raw materials on the cheap and cough up to buy back the processed stuff. Countries like Kenya allow a veritable windfall (read titanium) to sit in the ground for 10 years and then award the mining contract to Western companies with little mining experience who then proceed to export the raw ore. We accept that the major international commodity exchanges be in the Western capitals that don't produce any commodity. We faithfully obey the dictates of a patently skewed market; we take the aid that is no aid at all but a form of internationally sanctoned loan-sharking; we buy the weapons that slaughter millions in pointless wars while at the same time we are busy sending peacekeepers to police the war zones of Europe. We rip off our brethren then stash their hard-earned money away in foreign banks, boosting foreign economies. This is the real Black Man's Burden - our largess.

So, back to the point M (apologies if I'm putting words in your mouth) was making. The West has no interest in solving our root problem because as we have seen, it benefits a great deal from it. So they foist on us a new agenda, namely Poverty Eradication with more depressing statistics such as a kid dying every 3 seconds. After a lot of soul-searching and wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, they also provide us with the solution. More aid (specifically 0.7% of their GDPs- that's 7 cents out of every $1000). Some debt cancellation. More talk on market access and subsidies. Anything to avoid dealing with the central inconsistency of an entire continent sitting on a mountain of wealth and living off a pittance. In spite of the obvious contradiction, our governments and NGOs fall over themselves to implement the latest proposals, gratefully accepting crumbs as their benefactors in the West continue to feast on bread made from our wheat.

In defining the agenda, the West succeeds in owning the problem. It never ceases to amaze me that any show on Africa by the TV networks always ends up interviewing some white guy from the West. According to the Washington Post aricle quoted earlier, "when the foreign media descend on the latest crisis, the person they look to interview is invariably the foreign savior, an aid worker from the United States or Europe. African saviors are everywhere, delivering aid on the ground. But they don't seem to be in [the West's] cultural belief system." Anti-poverty shows always feature plenty of rich whites bemoaning the open sore that is Africa and a token black (probably an "enlightened" Aids victim or a survivor of some horrible famine) representative of the redemption a donation a few dollars can buy. Bob Geldof's Live 8 provides this telling scene as related by Margo Kingston. "Geldof introduced a young Ethiopian woman whose photo we saw from 20 years earlier when she was ten minutes away from death. But the moment was quickly lost; not even here could the audience be trusted with time for memory and reflection. ‘Live’ overruled Life. The young woman was led onstage to stand by as a prop to Madonna’s Like a Prayer. There was no Miriam Makeba on hand to embrace this African sister. A life ‘saved’ but now ready to aspire to the West’s idealized image."

Like the poor Ethiopian, we have become props to the West's struggle with its conscience. Africa is the stage where they seek absolution for their past misadventures as Parsaselo Kantai amply demonstrates in his insightful article, Death of a Kenyan Dream. They do so, not to relieve our suffering, but theirs. In this drama, the African has been assigned his stock role of "the noble savage" needing to be rescued from himself while the West is cast as the heroic, self-sacrificing (the whole 7 cents) harbinger of civilisation. Having accepted our role and donned the costume of moral and material bankruptcy, we have come to rely on the West for answers to everything. When a parastatal is insolvent, bring in some Westerner and hey presto! Problem solved. Endemic corruption? Why, let’s get some Western “experts” to advice us. Famines and disease? Here come the white messiahs riding on their standard issue luxury 4X4s (and receiving hefty allowances to compensate them for the hardship of exchanging a council house in London for a palatial residence in Muthaiga with several servants thrown in). Faltering economies? Blame the whole thing on slavery and colonialism. Claim repaprations. Sue their imperialist asses. Wait for the handout. Thus Western guilt and greed conspires with African naiveté, incompetence and thievery.

Africa needs to wake up and wrest back the problem. It is our problem, not the West’s. The solutions will come from us, not them. "Fair trade", debt relief, removal of subsidies and "aid" cannot be anything other than a band-aid on a gaping wound. We need to extract ourselves from a global trade system that is bleeding us dry. Africa needs to be run for the benefit of Africans, not modern-day imperialists. The Virginia Center for the Teaching of International Studies whose central purpose is to enhance the teaching of international studies in Virginia's middle and high schools, thinks that Grade 8 kids in the US should be able to "identify minerals in Sub-Sahara Africa, explain how man uses these minerals and how developed nations need these minerals, identify minerals that are strategically important and examine factors that limit Sub-Sahara Africa from becoming more industrialized and using these mineral resources themselves (italics mine). I would recommend the same course to the Grade A idiots who represent us in international fora and their bosses in our governments and NGOs.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The New Constitution -In Bits and Pieces

The recent clamour for minimum changes to the Constitution prior to next year's elections has revived a nagging question. The push for reform in the 90s led by Kivutha Kibwana's NCEC saw calls, not just for specific piecemeal amendments to the constitution, but a wholesale rejection of the document in favour of a new one. This led to the calls for a "people-driven" review process, the Bomas fiasco and ultimately, last year's referendum. Throughout all this, one thing remained a mystery to me. The called for changes could have been achieved far more cheaply and quickly through a series of Constitutional amendments enacted by Parliament without having to start the whole process from scratch. So why did we chose the vastly more expensive, and ultimately unfruitful, option? Does Kenya need a new constitution or can we amend the current one to fit our desires? What's wrong with piecemeal amendments?

The 90s debate over "piecemeal" or wholesale people-driven constitutional reform obscured an important fact. The current constitutional dispensation is as a result of numerous amendments to the Independence constitution (which itself was imposed on us). In fact, in the 30 years between 1963 and 1992, the Kenyan constitution was amended 28 times. In contrast, in the same period the US amended its constitution all of 4 times, and has only done so on 27 occassions throughout its 200 year history. Though the changes to our constitution have been of a piecemeal variety, they have rewritten the power map so dramatically as to have the effect of creating a new constitution. A comparison of the Independence and present constitutions bears this out. This was achieved in a relatively short time and at little expense. There was no collection of views, no referendums required to endorse the outcome. However, no one doubted the validity and legitimacy of the consequent constitution (people-driven or not).

Last year's attempt to replace the current constitution also highlighted another of its strengths which is also a prerequisite for any successful constitution: it has proven resilient inspite of the numerous attacks on it. It survived despite the overwhelming national consensus that we needed a new one. Despite its many failings, it has kept us together as a nation and, I think, we should not be in too much of a hurry to cast it aside.

I was never party to that consensus for a new document. Not because I did not think we needed constitutional change, but because I had become weary of Kenyan politicians who are too fond of (ab)using the constitution to settle their political differences. The fact is the majority of the amendments to the Kenyan Constitution addressed issues that were not of a constitutional nature.

According to the article "Ameding the Constitution -Learning from History" (I forget the author), posted on the now defunct CKRC website, the concept of the constitution and of constitutionalism were, to begin with, completely alien to Kenya. "The colonial order had been one monolithic edifice of power that did not rely on any set of rules for legitimization. When the Independence constitution was put into place it was completely at variance with the authoritarian administrative structures that were still kept in place by the entire corpus of public law. Part of the initial amendments therefore involved an attempt - albeit misguided - to harmonise the operations of a democratic constitution with an undemocratic and authoritarian administrative structure. Unhappily instead of the latter being amended to fit the former, the former was altered to fit the latter with the result that the constitution was effectively downgraded."

Another reason for the amendments, especially the early ones, was to strengthen the executive and through it the provincial administration as a possible panacea for the instability of the KANU Government. The divisions within the party and government were dealt with as if they posed constitutional issues. In the recent past, and particularly in the Bomas discussions, we have seen this reenacted. The debate over the proposed office of the Prime Minister was largely defined by the divisions within the NARC coalition. The infamous MoU, a power-sharing agreement between politicians, was suddenly the centre of a constitutional controversy. In fact, last year's referendum was less about the Constitution, and more about the internecine struggles within NARC.

In the light of the foregoing, it seems obvious that the long-term process of shaping and reinvigorating our constitution has been hijacked by the short term interests of the political classes. Our politicians are not to be relied on when it comes to promises of a new constitution. However (in the service of their stomachs), they have demonstrated that piecemeal changes are the most efficient means to effect change.

The Kenyan people can play the same game. We need to start looking out for ourselves. Over the last 15 years, we have witnessed a number of amendments that have improved the constitutional climate without requiring referendums and view-collecting. We can thus support piecemeal amendments if these are in line with our interests. The calls for amending the provisions dealing with the ECK present another opportunity. We can choose to ring in a few more renovations to our constitutional facade or we can wait and hope that whoever wins the elections will deliver the fabled "new constitution". Frankly, I prefer the former.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The New Middle East is very like the Old

Now that the guns in Lebanon are silent, it is time for the recriminations to commence. In Israel, the knives are already out for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The back-seat tank commanders are already questioning the tactics used in this war, especially the initial reliance on air power to cripple Hizbolla. In the West, particularly in Britain and the US, questions are being raised about the failure to call for an immediate ceasefire at the beginning of the conflict. And the biggest questions of all: Why was the war waged in the first place and what will be the lasting legacy of the four-and-a-half weeks of fighting?

In many ways, this was a strange war. It begun with a fairly routine incursion by Hizbolla into northern Israel and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. In the immediate aftermath, Israel’s efforts at rescuing the two were dealt an embarrassing blow with the loss of a tank and 8 soldiers to the guerillas. This seemingly innocuous challenge to Israel’s military domination of the region set the stage for a war that seemed to target the very people that Israel was proclaiming it was not at war with, the people of Lebanon. It was a war in which more than 30,000 troops were eventually deployed, supported by artillery and preceded by a massive air campaign targeting civilian infrastructure, to fight what Israel had estimated to be at most 5,000 Hizbolla militants concentrated in south Lebanon. In spite of the overwhelming numerical and technological superiority of the Israelis, they were unable to overrun the Hizbolla positions and failed in their attempt to create a buffer zone south of the Litani river. In many cases, fighting was still being reported within a few kilometers of the Israeli border. This is in stark contrast to the invasion of 1982 when it took just 7 days for Israeli troops to make it to the outskirts of Beirut. Finally, it was a war that was ended through negotiations, not between the warring parties, but between the US and France at the UN Security Council.

A closer look, though, reveals that things were not always as they seemed. Seymour Hersh, in an article in the NewYorker magazine, alleges that prior to the start of the war, the Israelis had drawn up, and shared with the US, plans to attack and destroy Hizbolla, who were amassing a huge arsenal of rockets on the Jewish nation’s northern border. The article, which quotes current and former White House officials, alleges that the Bush Administration considered an attack on Hizbolla to be a dry run for a contemplated military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and that the US Air Force was ordered to help polish up the plan which eventually called for “strategic bombing” or air strikes on civilian infrastructure designed to turn the Lebanese population against the militants. Apparently, this was to provide a pattern for the bombing of Iran with the aim of crippling its nuclear programme and to turn the population against the ruling Mullahs. This seems to be what US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meant when she characterised the conflict as “the birth pangs of a New Middle East”.

In an earlier posting I argued that this was a war of choice. It is now clear that the capture of the two soldiers was simply used as a pretext for the implementation of the preconceived military plan. This explains the reluctance of the US and Britain to call for a ceasefire as well as the stalling action of the two during the Rome Conference and the Security Council negotiations. After all, Israel had promised to deliver victory in 35 days. But as the war dragged on, it became increasingly obvious that they had badly miscalculated. Hizbolla were not going with the script and as the war dragged on, many Lebanese and Arabs, even those who initially had no love for Hizbolla, were starting to regard the militants as a legitimate resistance to Israeli aggression. With the rest of the world appalled by TV pictures of dead civilians and bombed out roads and bridges, and the pressure to end the fighting intensifying, Bush relented and pulled the plug.

Who will emerge as the winners in this conflict? Certainly not the Israelis who have not only failed in their declared aims of crippling Hizbolla and rescuing the soldiers but have also had their image of invincibility severely undermined. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has in a speech today described them as the laughing stock of the Middle East. Certainly not the Americans, whose plans for a “new Middle East” have been thwarted. The option of a military strike against Iran is, at least for now, definitely off the table as their generals are forced rethink their strategy.

Hizbolla, Syria and Iran have clearly come out on top. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbolla leader, has claimed a strategic victory and is being hailed as hero in many parts of the Arab world. Indeed, he is now being compared to Egypt’s Gamal Nasser. The Syrians and Iranians have broken out of the diplomatic isolation that Washington sought to impose on them and are now considered crucial to the achievement of a lasting peace in the region. The lack of a clear Israeli military victory has fundamentally altered the strategic balance in the Middle East, sidelined the pro-Western “moderate” regimes of the region and rallied the Arab street, long used to military humiliation at the hands of the Israelis, around Hizbolla, and by implication, Iran and Syria.

So what are we to expect of the coming days? There has been a lot of speculation regarding this. The UN Security Council resolution 1701 provides the framework for a “cessation of hostilities” and not for a long-term ceasefire. Many in the region regard it as temporary postponement of the fight.

Here’s my take. In southern Lebanon, expect an Israeli withdrawal to the Blue Line as the international peace-keeping force and the Lebanese Army deploy as well as an exchange of prisoners. There will be a tenuous peace, with perhaps some localised skirmishes, as both sides regroup and rearm, the international arms embargo against Hizbolla notwithstanding. The politically strengthened militants have indicated that they will not disarm. It is unlikely that the UN troops will have the stomach to forcefully disarm them and the Lebanese government will not risk civil war to do so.

In the short term, Israel’s flirtation with civilian government seems to be over. There is a strong likelihood that the ruling Kadima-Labour coalition will crumble as Israelis take out their frustration on Prime Minister Olmert as well as Defense Minister Amir Peretz (they did the same to Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan after the Yom Kippur War of 1973). This will strengthen the hand of the hardliners in Likud, such as former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who will probably be planning a vote of no-confidence in the government. I expect that there will be early elections and the determination to redeem the country’s tarnished military image will lead to a preference for generals and men of military experience and a more insular Israel, unwilling to make the necessary concessions to achieve peace.

The new military self-confidence of the Arab world, and the dysfunctional peace process (Assad has already declared it a failure), will continue to marginalize the moderates who advocate an accommodation with Israel, and feed more youths into the ranks of the militants whose prestige is at an all-time high. Across the region, many will look to Iran and Syria for leadership. There will be a hardening of positions, and possibly further instigation of conflict with Israel and the West.

The Neo-Conservatives in Washington will be licking their wounds but are unlikely to give up their ambitions of “sorting out” Iran before Bush leaves office. With the UN deadline for Iran to halt its uranium enrichment activities set to expire at the end of August, the stage for the next battle is being set. The Iranians will undoubtedly refuse to comply and the US will push for sanctions (their record with Iraqi WMD may come back to haunt them here). The Russians and Chinese, both veto-wielding Permanent Members of the Security Council and mindful of their economic ties to Iran, are unlikely to go along with anything greater than a slap on the wrist. With this, the UN hating neo-cons will have the excuse they need for a pre-emptive, unilateral (and substantially revised) military strike on Iran. What happens then? Clash of civilizations? Armageddon?

There is however another path. The Israelis may come to accept, as they evidently did following the Yom Kippur War, that their poltical objectives are unlikely to be achieved through military means. The 1973 war laid the ground for the Camp David Accords in which Egypt and Jordan repudiated the "Three No's" of the Khartoum conference ("no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it") that had been the bedrock policy of the Arab world since 1967 and signed peace treaties with the Jewish states. It seems clear that Israel, which had suffered a military shock in the beginning stages of the war, lost its cocky assurance borne of the Six-Day War and acknowledged the resurgent power and morale of the Arabs. They were thus more amenable to a peace process. Similarly, though boosted by a string of early victories, the Arab eventually states lost the war (and more land) and had to finally accept that they would have to come to an accommodation with the Jewish entity. While war still lay in the future, it would be accurate to say (as Fouad Ajami wrote a year after Anwar Sadat's famous trip to Jerusalem to address Israel's parliament) that the Middle East conflict was "no longer about Israel's existence, but about its boundaries."

The aftermath of the present conlict presents a similar opportunity for a full, final and comprehensive peace process which may well lead to a full, final and comprehensive peace. This, however, calls for what Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese PM, described as "historic men". It would mean the abandoning of Washington's current policy, which is heavily biased towards Israel, and negotiations with all parties to the conflict, including the unsavoury regimes of Iran and Syria, during which all issues would be placed on the table. Such an eventuality would not justify the death, suffering and destruction of the last few weeks. but it would surely mean it had not been in vain.

Friday, August 11, 2006

In The Voter We Trust

I was drawn to a comment on Acolyte's post. He asks: What would you rather have? A chaotic nation under democracy or a peaceful but repressed nation under sharia law? This caused me to wonder about the nature of democracy and whether it really is the best form of government.

Winston Churchill once said "democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Paradoxically, he also stated: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." So which is which?

I am of the opinion that democracy is superior to all other forms of government because it alone gives choice to the governed. When you get tired of your current bunch of oppressors, then you can switch to another bunch of opressors. Monarchies, theocracies and dictatorships do not afford you this luxury. You may be lucky to get a great leader, but woe betide you if you end up with the Stalins, Idi Amins or Talibans of this world. Short of coups d'etat or revolution, there is no way to get them out.

Come to think of it, democracy is not even a form of government. It is a way to select a form of government. Which means you can have all the other forms (dictatorships etc.) provided you never allow them to interfere with your freedom to dump them every time an election is due.

I am being terribly facile, of course. Democracy means more than elections. It entails respect for the fundamental rights of all, including minorities. It may be rule of the majority but it is different from mob rule. For example, in a democracy, no majority can vote to deprive you of your right to excercise your vote. It is simply against the rules even though the majority may want to do so. Democracy also implies that the electorate have the necessary tools to make an informed choice, hence the need for a free press. It demands the separation of Church and State and the mutual independence of the three arms of government, the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary.

In the final analysis, to answer Acolyte's question, I would always chose to live under a democracy however chaotic because five years down the line I could always decide that I am tired of the chaos and chose a better life. I think, in a nutshell, that's what Chuchill meant, though he phrased it much more eloquently (and concisely) than I ever could.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

What Price Peace?

The rise of the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia mirrors the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan a decade earlier. Both groups emerged from the ashes of failed states and in two years established themselves as the most potent fighting forces in their respective countries. The Islamic Courts, like the Taliban before them, command great support from a populace traumatized by decades of incessant civil war and willing to accept any group that would bring an end to the fighting. Both groups espouse a radical and intolerant form of Islam and both are sympathetic to Al Qaida. The Courts' chairman, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, considered by some to be a moderate, has sought to assure Somalis and the international community that the Islamic Courts were no threat and only wanted order. However, a leading cleric in Mogadishu, Shykh Muhamed Abdulle, was quoted as saying the Courts will “work hand in hand with Al Qaida to defeat the enemies of Islam in Somalia”. He also referred to Osama bin Laden as a “friend of the oppressed people of Greater Somalia”. Nairobi security consultant Jackson Mbuvi has described the Courts as “extremists hiding in the cloak of Islamic courts”.

Many people, fatigued by the continual chaos that is Somalia, have greeted the rise of Islamic Courts with a cautious enthusiasm. Yahoo! News, after acknowledging fears of an emerging Taliban-style regime and US accusations of harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for the 1998 bombings, declares that the Courts “have brought a remarkable amount of control to a country that has seen little but chaos since 1991.” BBC’s Yusuf Garaad reports that despite protests from human rights bodies, Mogadishu residents were pleased to enjoy law and order. Even veteran journalist Salim Lone writing in the Daily Nation suggests that Kenya needs to “reassess our support for the transitional government of Somalia that has little domestic support” and implies that we should instead be engaging with the Courts which according to Garaard, are the most popular political force in the country.

The Taliban, though, amply demonstrated the folly of a policy of peace at any price. They were initially welcomed by many for eliminating the payments that warlords demanded from business people, reducing factional fighting and poppy production, and establishing relative stability by imposing a set of norms on a chaotic society. Many chose to ignore their extreme theology, their oppression of women and their connection to terrorism. Soon we had the August 7, 1998 “bomb blasts” and 3 years later 9/11.

Kenya, which has suffered two terrorist attacks in the last decade, seems to be oblivious of the threat posed by having such a group on its borders. Kenya needs to adopt a more aggressive policy to counter the rise of the Islamic Courts. Support for the Transitional National Government of President Abdillahi Yusuf is rightly the lynchpin of our present policy. However, two years after it was formed with the help of the UN, the government wields little authority outside the town of Baidoa. It has no military and relies on Yusuf’s personal militia. And now Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Ghedi’s crumbling and ineffectual Cabinet has been dissolved. The ship needs to be steadied. We must provide military and political support for the TNG. Ethiopia has already taken the lead in this. We should back the AU's call for a lifting of the 1992 arms embargo to allow for peacekeepers to be sent to the country and to enable the TNG form an effective national army. We must also convince Eritrea and Saudi Arabia to stop arming the Courts.

We also need to encourage talks with the more moderate elements of the Courts to work out a power-sharing arrangement and isolate the extremists. Finally, Kenya has to do more to focus international attention on this issue and to highlight the need for sorting out and rebuilding Somalia. We must emphasize that its continuing instability, and consequent poverty, is providing fertile ground for Islamic extremism and is a threat to world peace. The fact of the matter is we ignore Somalia at our peril.

Monday, August 07, 2006

You Break It, You Own It

The continuing carnage in Iraq leads me to ask a simple question. If 100 people were being killed daily in any one of the capitals of the West, how would the government there react? Would it perhaps embark on a constitutional review process? Or maybe call new elections? Not likely. The affected country would probably declare martial law, impose curfews, suspend the constitution, and take any and all measures necessary to impose calm. Only then would it pursue a political dialogue to solve the causes of the conflict. Why is this not being done in the case of Iraq?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me first state that I supported the US invasion in 2003. I wasn’t particularly pleased with the way they went about it (ignoring the UN, disbanding the Iraqi army etc.) But I was of the opinion that it was unconscionable for the international community to continue to impoverish and kill Iraqis through a 12 year sanctions regime that at the time seemed to be achieving little in deterring Saddam Hussein from developing the now fictitious WMD. And since the dictator would not, by all accounts, provide a full accounting of his much feared arsenal and spurned numerous opportunities to do so peacefully, it seemed right to take measures to ensure the security of the world and to end the suffering of Iraqis.

However, this mission was hijacked by the neo-cons in Washington and “regime change” became their new mantra. Instead of simply seeking to disarm Saddam and ensure Iraq’s full compliance with Security Council resolutions, the US and her “Coalition of the Willing” sought to impose freedom, prosperity and democracy with the force of arms. They destroyed the structures (and mostly strictures) that were holding the country together and in the process opened a Pandora’s Box of ancient hatreds that had been simmering below the surface during the long years of Saddam’s rule. Now Sunnis and Shiites are busy massacring one another while the West engages in meaningless word games (civil war or not?) reminiscent of the UN debates on the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

So what needs to be done? The first priority has to be to impose order and stop the killings. This will be accomplished, not through a long term political process (though this should be ongoing and will be the ultimate guarantee of future calm) but through a single-minded determination to root out the “insurgents”. The Iraqi army is incapable of doing this and will remain so for the foreseeable future despite the Iraqi Premier’s rosy assertions. The US policy of launching periodic offensives against the militants and then retreating back to the safety of the “Green Zone” has also not worked. The US military presence needs to be beefed up and expanded, not scaled down.

Some might say the presence of US forces in Iraq is fueling the fire and is at the root cause of the conflict but this is misleading. It is true that the foreign fighters represented by the late Jordanian Al Zarqawi are motivated by a desire to defeat the US. However, they are a tiny minority of the militants in Iraq and are universally detested by all Iraqis. Most of the violence is sectarian in nature, is perpetrated by Iraqis and targets other Iraqis. Al Qaida bombs have provided the impetus, and US incompetence the opportunity, for settling long running disputes that have little to do with the West. Withdrawing the troops now would not end the violence. It would multiply it exponentially. The US needs to be fully committed to closing down the window of opportunity for violence it has inadvertently opened up in Iraq and should not be seeking a backdoor excuse to get out. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell famously said, “you break it, you own it”.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Arc of Incredulity

Tony Blair’s "Arc of Extremism" speech in Los Angeles was a reminder to all about why the problems in the Muslim world will continue to fester under the leaderships of Blair and US president George Bush.

He sets out to argue that the West “will not win the battle against this global extremism unless we win it at the level of values as much as force, unless we show we are even-handed, fair and just in our application of those values to the world” and ends up doing nothing of the sort. Instead of dealing with the core issues at the heart of the rise of militant Islam and how they can be ameliorated, he dwells on fighting its manifestation. He seeks to portray the West as innocent victims caught up in a war between the barbaric, cave-dwelling anarchists of “reactionary Islam” whose only desire is the destruction of the civilized world and the decent folks of “moderate, mainstream Islam”. It is a speech peppered with spurious justifications for the invasion of Iraq and Western support for Israel.

I think he is wrong on all counts. Let’s first deal with the obvious. The invasion of Iraq had little to do with militant Islam or "values change". Saddam Hussein was not known for his tolerance of Islamic radicals who would have posed a threat to his dictatorship. In fact, Saddam was himself the beneficiary of Western military and economic aid so he could perpetrate his unjust war of aggression against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iraq was in fact one of the more Westernised societies in the Middle East. It was only when Saddam threatened Western oil interests, not their values, with his invasion of Kuwait that they turned on him.

Terrorism (defined as the deliberate targeting of civilians to achieve political ends), just as war, is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The Islamic “terrorists” are united and identified by their application of this means and by the fact that they are Muslims. Their aims are largely political, not religious. And here the similarity ends. It is plainly ridiculous to suggest, as Blair does, that the Chechen rebels are fighting for the same thing as Hamas, or that Hizbollah and Al Qaida are brothers-in-arms.

Some, such as Al Qaida and the Taleban, wish to establish an Islamic caliphate governed according to their particular interpretation of the Koran. In this sense, they differ little from the radical Christians who would like to impose their particular version of Christianity on the rest of us. With these, there can be no compromise.

Others are fighting to free their lands from domination and occupation by those they consider to be “foreigners”. Hizbollah, Hamas and the Chechens fall under this category. They enjoy widespread support from supposedly moderate communities. In many cases, their goals coincide with those of mainstream, more “moderate” parties. The only difference is in tactics. Hizbollah’s demands are identical to those of the Lebanese government as are Hamas’ to those of Mahmoud Abbas. The question that should thus be asked is why do these Muslims feel that they cannot accomplish their political objectives using exclusively political means? Why do they feel they have to resort to the implements of terror?

The fact is that in most cases, accepted political and diplomatic means have by and large failed to deliver justice to them. The machinations of the West have resulted in a lopsided peace process in the Middle East where Israel gets all she wants (namely security and land) while the Arabs have to settle for what she is willing to give them. A process where the West is outraged by the killing of a handful of Israelis but is blind to the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese. In his whole speech, Tony Blair did not once mention any of the legitimate grievances of the Arab states such as occupied land and prisoners, but still found it necessary to commit himself to the equally legitimate Israeli search for security. He mentions UN Resolution 1559 but neglects to mention the nearly 100 resolutions (but for the US veto they would have been many more) passed against Israel. It is an unwitting negation of his call for the West to “show we are even-handed, fair and just in our application of [our] values to the world.”

While much of the anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world can be explained by such bias, another explanation can be found in the West’s propensity to (in the words of Yitzhak Rabin) “make peace with its friends”. Bush is right to encourage the spread of democracy through out the Middle East. However, he betrays his vision when he refuses to accept the results of their democratic expression. When Hamas came to power, instead of embracing it and moving the conflict from the battlefield to the negotiating table, Israel and the West refused to deal with them. Even after they offered to indefinitely extend their unilateral two-year "hudna" or ceasefire and acknowledged that they could never destroy Israel, the West refused to budge. The response from Israel was continued assassinations, incursions and a policy of withholding taxes from the government. When the results of Iranian and Lebanese democracy (and Syrian autocracy) are similarly not to the West’s liking, then these are isolated and condemned instead of being engaged. The result is a handicapped peace process where delegations talk about all except the issues that matter and a preference for the implements of deterrence namely, nuclear weapons.

Denied use of conventional political means to secure justice, Muslims turn to the only forum that the West has not compromised, Islam, and use it as a weapon to defend their rights. In these societies, Islam has remained the only organising principle around which disparate groups can coalesce and have a voice. As one commentator noted, in many Muslim countries, the mosque remains the only place where one can freely express one’s views. There is thus no Islam (radical or otherwise) vs West conflict, as Blair claims, rather the radicalisation of Islam to pursue legitimate objectives that the West blocks in legitimate political fora. Lacking other means to express their frustrations (as much with their own governments as with the West), these people look to Islam for their ultimate salvation. Religion being the powerful influence it is, others who share their religious beliefs come to believe that they also share a common struggle.

As Blair acknowledged, it is only when the West adopts a greater degree of balance and fairness that it will be able to empower moderate Arab and Muslim opinion. However, this is not accomplished by denying the legitimacy of their grievances and refusing to acknowledge the West's complicity and responsibility for the way things are today. In fact because of Israel's actions (and the West's inaction), today moderates are in retreat throughout the Muslim world.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Greater The Lie...

The greater the lie, the more people will believe it.
Israel maintains and perpetrates several fictions to keep the world blind to its aggressive behaviour.
  • The first fiction is that they are facing an EXISTENTIAL threat from groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas. The reality is clearly very different. While these groups do pose a threat to the lives of Israeli citizens, they lack the capacity to significantly threaten the existence of Israel as a state. Though they may claim that this is their aim, it is a wild exaggeration to suggest that they have the means to achieve it. A Hamas legislator admitted as much in an interview with CNN after the Palestinian elections. Israel maintains this illusion of threat so it can avoid negotiations on a final and comprehensive peace and instead have a free hand to unilaterally impose a solution. This is evident in their proceding with the West Bank wall (which is really a land grab), their initially cool reception of the "Road Map" proposal and their rejection of the Arab offer in 2003 of a full peace in return for Israeli evacuation of occupied Arab land.
  • Another fiction is that this is a war of necessity. After the capture of Gilad Shalit in Gaza, Israel says it had no option other than to bomb the Palestininans and their infrastructure. The same argument is put forward to justify its actions in Lebanon. This is patently untrue. Previous Israeli governments have negotiated prisoner exchanges with Hizbollah. This include the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. However, to quote the Lebanese PM, "historic times call for historic men". Ehud Olmert is definitely not one such. He is encumbered by the fact that he was essentially elected as a stand-in for the ailing Ariel Sharon and he lacks lacks the military credentials of many of his predecessors. This war is a war of choice conducted mainly to secure such credentials. The Hizbollah offered to negotiate a prisoner exchange immediately after capturing the Israeli soldiers. Ironically, Israel holds thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners whom she has herself kidnapped from Lebanese and Palestinian soil.
  • A third fiction is the claim to be defending against numerous indiscriminate Hizbollah rocket attacks over the last six years. But the Washington-based lists no rocket attacks against civillian areas of Israel between 2000 and the beginning of the present conflict. In fact, during that period Hizbollah only fired on Israeli MILITARY positions during the fighting in Nov. 2005. The Hizbollah rockets are deployed as a deterrent against Israeli aggression and the figure of 1000s of rockets fired at Israeli cities is disingenuous as these have been fired in response to Israeli shelling of Lebanese cities. As the same source goes on to say, "in early 2001 it was reported that Hizballah had set up a belt of mobile multi-barreled rocket launchers and truck-mounted missiles along Israel’s northern flank ready to go off the moment Israel launched a large-scale military offensive against Lebanon (my italics)."
  • Finally, the Israelis and the West have until recently refused to acknowledge that the Arabs have genuine and legitimate grievances that need addressing. The issue of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners has been swept under the carpet as have the numerous outstanding UN Security council resolutions against Israel pertaining to its invasion and continuing occupation of Arab land.
As for the way forward, I think the Lebanese proposals provide a framework for a final settlement. They call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, prisoner exchange, Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Shaaba farms, an international force to police the border
with Israel, the deployment of the Lebanese army to the south and the gradual integration of Hizbollah into it.
According to CNN, Israel is open to all these save for the first. It has even stopped calling for the dissolution and disarming of Hizbollah as a precondition to a ceasefire and now admits that it cannot disarm the militants -evidence that its military campaign has failed. So why continue the bombing?